“There is nothing more common,” says the lively Voltaire, “than to read and to converse to no purpose. In history, in morals, in law, in physic, and in divinity, be careful of equivocal terms.” One of the ancients wrote a book to prove that there was no word which did not convey an ambiguous and uncertain meaning. If we possessed this lost book, our ingenious dictionaries of “synonyms” would not probably prove its uselessness. Whenever the same word is associated by the parties with different ideas, they may converse, or controverse, till “the crack of doom!” This with a little obstinacy and some agility in shifting his ground, makes the fortune of an opponent. While one party is worried in disentangling a meaning, and the other is winding and unwinding about him with another, a word of the kind we have mentioned, carelessly or perversely slipped into an argument, may prolong it for a century or two — as it has happened! Vaugelas, who passed his whole life in the study of words, would not allow that the sense was to determine the meaning of words; for, says he, it is the business of words to explain the sense. Kant for a long while discovered in this way a facility of arguing without end, as at this moment do our political economists. “I beseech you,” exclaims a poetical critic, in the agony of a confusion of words, on the Pope controversy, “not to ask whether I mean this or that!” Our critic, positive that he has made himself understood, has shown how a few vague terms may admit of volumes of vindication. Throw out a word, capable of fifty senses, and you raise fifty parties! Should some friend of peace enable the fifty to repose on one sense, that innocent word, no longer ringing the tocsin of a party, would lie in forgetfulness in the Dictionary. Still more provoking when an identity of meaning is only disguised by different modes of expression, and when the term has been closely sifted, to their mutual astonishment both parties discover the same thing lying under the bran and chaff after this heated operation. Plato and Aristotle probably agreed much better than the opposite parties they raised up imagined; their difference was in the manner of expression, rather than in the points discussed. The Nominalists and the Realists, who once filled the world with their brawls, and who from irregular words came to regular blows, could never comprehend their alternate nonsense; “whether in employing general terms we use words or names only, or whether there is in nature anything corresponding to what we mean by a general idea?” The Nominalists only denied what no one in his senses would affirm; and the Realists only contended for what no one in his senses would deny; a hair’s breadth might have joined what the spirit of party had sundered!
Do we flatter ourselves that the Logomachies of the Nominalists and the Realists terminated with these scolding schoolmen? Modern nonsense, weighed against the obsolete, may make the scales tremble for awhile, but it will lose its agreeable quality of freshness, and subside into an equipoise. We find their spirit still lurking among our own metaphysicians! “Lo! the Nominalists and the Realists again!” exclaimed my learned friend, Sharon Turner, alluding to our modern doctrines on abstract ideas, on which there is still a doubt whether they are anything more than generalising terms.1 Leibnitz confused his philosophy by the term sufficient reason: for every existence, for every event, and for every truth there must be a sufficient reason. This vagueness of language produced a perpetual misconception, and Leibnitz was proud of his equivocal triumphs in always affording a new interpretation! It is conjectured that he only employed his term of sufficient reason for the plain simple word of cause. Even Locke, who has himself so admirably noticed the “abuse of words,” has been charged with using vague and indefinite ones; he has sometimes employed the words reflection, mind, and spirit in so indefinite a way, that they have confused his philosophy: thus by some ambiguous expressions, our great metaphysician has been made to establish doctrines fatal to the immutability of moral distinctions. Even the eagle-eye of the intellectual Newton grew dim in the obscurity of the language of Locke. We are astonished to discover that two such intellects should not comprehend the same ideas; for Newton wrote to Locke, “I beg your pardon for representing that you struck at the root of morality in a principle laid down in your book of Ideas — and that I took you for a Hobbist!”2 The difference of opinion between Locke and Reid is in consequence of an ambiguity in the word principle, as employed by Reid. The removal of a solitary word may cast a luminous ray over a whole body of philosophy: “If we had called the infinite the indefinite,” says Condillac, in his Traité des Sensations, “by this small change of a word we should have avoided the error of imagining that we have a positive idea of infinity, from whence so many false reasonings have been carried on, not only by metaphysicians, but even by geometricians.” The word reason has been used with different meanings by different writers; reasoning and reason have been often confounded; a man may have an endless capacity for reasoning, without being much influenced by reason, and to be reasonable, perhaps differs from both! So Moliere tells us,
Raisonner est l’emploi de toute ma maison;
Et le raisonnement en bannit la raison!
In this research on “confusion of words,” might enter the voluminous history of the founders of sects, who have usually employed terms which had no meaning attached to them, or were so ambiguous that their real notions have never been comprehended; hence the most chimerical opinions have been imputed to founders of sects. We may instance that of the Antinomians, whose remarkable denomination explains their doctrine, expressing that they were “against law!” Their founder was John Agricola, a follower of Luther, who, while he lived, had kept Agricola’s follies from exploding, which they did when he asserted that there was no such thing as sin, our salvation depending on faith, and not on works; and when he declaimed against the Law of God. To what length some of his sect pushed this verbal doctrine is known; but the real notions of this Agricola probably never will be! Bayle considered him as a harmless dreamer in theology, who had confused his head by Paul’s controversies with the Jews; but Mosheim, who bestows on this early reformer the epithets of ventosus and versipellis, windy and crafty! or, as his translator has it, charges him with “vanity, presumption, and artifice,” tells us by the term “law,” Agricola only meant the ten commandments of Moses, which he considered were abrogated by the Gospel, being designed for the Jews and not for the Christians. Agricola then, by the words the “Law of God,” and “that there was no such thing as sin,” must have said one thing and meant another! This appears to have been the case with most of the divines of the sixteenth century; for even Mosheim complains of “their want of precision and consistency in expressing their sentiments, hence their real sentiments have been misunderstood.” There evidently prevailed a great “confusion of words” among them! The grace suffisante and the grace efficace of the Jansenists and the Jesuits show the shifts and stratagems by which nonsense may be dignified. “Whether all men received from God sufficient grace for their conversion!” was an inquiry some unhappy metaphysical theologist set afloat: the Jesuits, according to their worldly system of making men’s consciences easy, affirmed it; but the Jansenists insisted, that this sufficient grace would never be efficacious, unless accompanied by special grace. “Then the sufficient grace, which is not efficacious, is a contradiction in terms, and worse, a heresy!” triumphantly cried the Jesuits, exulting over their adversaries. This “confusion of words” thickened, till the Jesuits introduced in this logomachy with the Jansenists papal bulls, royal edicts, and a regiment of dragoons! The Jansenists, in despair, appealed to miracles and prodigies, which they got up for public representation; but, above all, to their Pascal, whose immortal satire the Jesuits really felt was at once “sufficient and efficacious,” though the dragoons, in settling a “confusion of words,” did not boast of inferior success to Pascal’s. Former ages had, indeed, witnessed even a more melancholy logomachy, in the Homoousion and the Homoiousion! An event which Boileau has immortalised by some fine verses, which, in his famous satire on L’Equivoque, for reasons best known to the Sorbonne, were struck out of the text.
D’une syllabe impie un saint mot augmenté
Remplit tous les esprits d’aigreurs si meurtrières —
Tu fis, dans une guerre et si triste et si longue,
Périr tant de Chrétiens, martyrs d’une diphthongue!
Whether the Son was similar to the substance of the Father, or of the same substance, depended on the diphthong oi, which was alternately rejected and received. Had they earlier discovered, what at length they agreed on, that the words denoted what was incomprehensible, it would have saved thousands, as a witness describes, “from tearing one another to pieces.” The great controversy between Abelard and St. Bernard, when the saint accused the scholastic of maintaining heretical notions of the Trinity, long agitated the world; yet, now that these confusers of words can no longer inflame our passions, we wonder how these parties could themselves differ about words to which we can attach no meaning whatever. There have been few councils or synods where the omission or addition of a word or a phrase might not have terminated an interminable logomachy! At the council of Basle, for the convenience of the disputants, John de Secubia drew up a treatise of undeclined words, chiefly to determine the signification of the particles from, by, but, and except, which it seems were perpetually occasioning fresh disputes among the Hussites and the Bohemians. Had Jerome of Prague known, like our Shakspeare, the virtue of an if, or agreed with Hobbes, that he should not have been so positive in the use of the verb is, he might have been spared from the flames. The philosopher of Malmsbury has declared that “Perhaps Judgment was nothing else but the composition or joining of two names of things, or modes, by the verb is.” In modern times the popes have more skilfully freed the church from this “confusion of words.” His holiness, on one occasion, standing in equal terror of the court of France, who protected the Jesuits, and of the court of Spain, who maintained the cause of the Dominicans, contrived a phrase, where a comma or a full stop, placed at the beginning or the end, purported that his holiness tolerated the opinions which he condemned; and when the rival parties despatched deputations to the court of Rome to plead for the period, or advocate the comma, his holiness, in this “confusion of words,” flung an unpunctuated copy to the parties; nor was it his fault, but that of the spirit of party, if the rage of the one could not subside into a comma, nor that of the other close by a full period!
In jurisprudence much confusion has occurred in the uses of the term rights; yet the social union and human happiness are involved in the precision of the expression. When Montesquieu laid down, as the active principle of a republic, virtue, it seemed to infer that a republic was the best of governments. In the defence of his great work he was obliged to define the term; and it seems that by virtue he only meant political virtue, the love of the country.
In politics, what evils have resulted from abstract terms to which no ideas are affixed — such as, “The Equality of Man — the Sovereignty or the Majesty of the People — Loyalty — Reform — even Liberty herself! — Public Opinion — Public Interest;” and other abstract notions, which have excited the hatred or the ridicule of the vulgar. Abstract ideas, as sounds, have been used as watchwords. The combatants will usually be found willing to fight for words to which, perhaps, not one of them has attached any settled signification. This is admirably touched on by Locke, in his chapter of “Abuse of Words.” “Wisdom, Glory, Grace, &c., are words frequent enough in every man’s mouth; but if a great many of those who use them should be asked what they mean by them, they would be at a stand, and know not what to answer — a plain proof that though they have learned those sounds, and have them ready at their tongue’s end, yet there are no determined ideas laid up in their minds which are to be expressed to others by them.”
When the American exclaimed that he was not represented in the House of Commons, because he was not an elector, he was told that a very small part of the people of England were electors. As they could not call this an actual representation, they invented a new name for it, and called it a virtual one. It imposed on the English nation, who could not object that others should be taxed rather than themselves; but with the Americans it was a sophism! and this virtual representation, instead of an actual one, terminated in our separation; “which,” says Mr. Flood, “at the time appeared to have swept away most of our glory and our territory; forty thousand lives, and one hundred millions of treasure!”
That fatal expression which Rousseau had introduced, l’Egalité des Hommes, which finally involved the happiness of a whole people, had he lived he had probably shown how ill his country had understood. He could only have referred in his mind to political equality, but not an equality of possessions, of property, of authority, destructive of social order and of moral duties, which must exist among every people. “Liberty,” “Equality,” and “Reform” (innocent words!) sadly ferment the brains of those who cannot affix any definite notions to them; they are like those chimerical fictions in law, which declare the “sovereign immortal, proclaim his ubiquity in various places,” and irritate the feelings of the populace, by assuming that “the king can never do wrong!” In the time of James the Second “it is curious,” says Lord Russell, “to read the conference between the Houses on the meaning of the words ‘deserted’ and ‘abdicated,’ and the debates in the Lords whether or no there is an original contract between king and people.” The people would necessarily decide that “kings derived their power from them;” but kings were once maintained by a “right divine,” a “confusion of words,” derived from two opposite theories, and both only relatively true. When we listen so frequently to such abstract terms as “the majesty of the people,” “the sovereignty of the people,” whence the inference that “all power is derived from the people,” we can form no definite notions: it is “a confusion of words,” contradicting all the political experience which our studies or our observations furnish; for sovereignty is established to rule, to conduct, and to settle the vacillations and quick passions of the multitude. Public opinion expresses too often the ideas of one party in place; and public interest those of another party out! Political axioms, from the circumstance of having the notions attached to them unsettled, are applied to the most opposite ends! “In the time of the French Directory,” observes an Italian philosopher of profound views, “in the revolution of Naples, the democratic faction pronounced that ‘Every act of a tyrannical government is in its origin illegal;’ a proposition which at first sight seems self-evident, but which went to render all existing laws impracticable.” The doctrine of the illegality of the acts of a tyrant was proclaimed by Brutus and Cicero, in the name of the senate, against the populace, who had favoured Cæsar’s perpetual dictatorship; and the populace of Paris availed themselves of it, against the National Assembly.
This “confusion of words,” in time-serving politics, has too often confounded right and wrong; and artful men, driven into a corner, and intent only on its possession, have found no difficulty in solving doubts, and reconciling contradictions. Our own history in revolutionary times abounds with dangerous examples from all parties; of specious hypotheses for compliance with the government of the day or the passions of parliament. Here is an instance in which the subtle confuser of words pretended to substitute two consciences, by utterly depriving a man of any! When the unhappy Charles the First pleaded that to pass the bill of attainder against the Earl of Strafford was against his conscience, that remarkable character of “boldness and impiety,” as Clarendon characterizes Williams, Archbishop of York, on this argument of conscience (a simple word enough), demonstrated “that there were two sorts of conscience, public and private; that his public conscience as a king might dispense with his private conscience as a man!” Such was the ignominious argument which decided the fate of that great victim of State! It was an impudent “confusion of words” when Prynne (in order to quiet the consciences of those who were uneasy at warring with the king) observed that the statute of twenty-fifth Edward the Third ran in the singular number —“If a man shall levy war against the king, and therefore could not be extended to the houses, who are many and public persons.” Later, we find Sherlock blest with the spirit of Williams, the Archbishop of York, whom we have just left. When some did not know how to charge and to discharge themselves of the oaths to James the Second and to William the Third, this confounder of words discovered that there were two rights, as the other had that there were two consciences; one was a providential right, and the other a legal right; one person might very righteously claim and take a thing, and another as righteously hold and keep it; but that whoever got the better had the providential right by possession; and since all authority comes from God, the people were obliged to transfer their allegiance to him as a king of God’s making; so that he who had the providential right necessarily had the legal one! a very simple discovery, which must, however, have cost him some pains; for this confounder of words was himself confounded by twelve answers by non-jurors! A French politician of this stamp recently was suspended from his lectureship for asserting that the possession of the soil was a right; by which principle, any king reigning over a country, whether by treachery, crime, and usurpation, was a legitimate sovereign. For this convenient principle the lecturer was tried, and declared not guilty — by persons who have lately found their advantage in a confusion of words. In treaties between nations, a “confusion of words” has been more particularly studied; and that negotiator has conceived himself most dexterous who, by this abuse of words, has retained an arrière-pensée which may fasten or loosen the ambiguous expression he had so cautiously and so finely inlaid in his mosaic of treachery. A scene of this nature I draw out of “Mesnager’s Negociation with the Court of England.” When that secret agent of Louis the Fourteenth was negotiating a peace, an insuperable difficulty arose respecting the acknowledgment of the Hanoverian succession. It was absolutely necessary, on this delicate point, to quiet the anxiety of the English public and our allies; but though the French king was willing to recognise Anne’s title to the throne, yet the settlement in the house of Hanover was incompatible with French interests and French honour. Mesnager told Lord Bolingbroke that “the king, his master, would consent to any such article, looking the other way, as might disengage him from the obligation of that agreement, as the occasion should present.” This ambiguous language was probably understood by Lord Bolingbroke: at the next conference his lordship informed the secret agent “that the queen could not admit of any explanations, whatever her intentions might be; that the succession was settled by act of parliament; that as to the private sentiments of the queen, or of any about her, he could say nothing.” “All this was said with such an air, as to let me understand that he gave a secret assent to what I had proposed, &c.; but he desired me to drop the discourse.” Thus two great negotiators, both equally urgent to conclude the treaty, found an insuperable obstacle occur, which neither could control. Two honest men would have parted; but the “skilful confounder of words,” the French diplomatist, hit on an expedient; he wrote the words which afterwards appeared in the preliminaries, “That Louis the Fourteenth will acknowledge the Queen of Great Britain in that quality, as also the succession of the crown according to the present settlement.” “The English agent,” adds the Frenchman, “would have had me add — on the house of Hanover, but this I entreated him not to desire of me.” The term present settlement, then, was that article which was looking the other way, to disengage his master from the obligation of that agreement, as occasion should present! that is, that Louis the Fourteenth chose to understand by the present settlement the old one, by which the British crown was to be restored to the Pretender! Anne and the English nation were to understand it in their own sense — as the new one, which transferred it to the house of Hanover!
When politicians cannot rely upon each other’s interpretation of one of the commonest words in our language, how can they possibly act together? The Bishop of Winchester has proved this observation, by the remarkable anecdote of the Duke of Portland and Mr. Pitt, who, with a view to unite parties, were to hold a conference on fair and equal terms. His grace did not object to the word fair, but the word equal was more specific and limited; and for a necessary preliminary, he requested Mr. Pitt to inform him what he understood by the word equal? Whether Pitt was puzzled by the question, or would not deliver up an arrière-pensée, he put off the explanation to the conference. But the duke would not meet Mr. Pitt till the word was explained; and this important negotiation was broken off by not explaining a simple word which appeared to require no explanation.
There is nothing more fatal in language than to wander from the popular acceptation of words; and yet this popular sense cannot always accord with precision of ideas, for it is itself subject to great changes.
Another source, therefore, of the abuse of words, is that mutability to which, in the course of time, the verbal edifice, as well as more substantial ones, is doomed. A familiar instance presents itself in the titles of tyrant, parasite, and sophist, originally honourable distinctions. The abuses of dominion made the appropriate title of kings odious; the title of a magistrate, who had the care of the public granaries of corn, at length was applied to a wretched flatterer for a dinner; and absurd philosophers occasioned a mere denomination to become a by-name. To employ such terms in their primitive sense would now confuse all ideas; yet there is an affectation of erudition which has frequently revived terms sanctioned by antiquity. Bishop Watson entitled his vindication of the Bible “an apology:” this word, in its primitive sense, had long been lost for the multitude, whom he particularly addressed in this work, and who could only understand it in the sense they are accustomed to. Unquestionably, many of its readers have imagined that the bishop was offering an excuse for a belief in the Bible, instead of a vindication of its truth. The word impertinent, by the ancient jurisconsults, or law-counsellors, who gave their opinion on cases, was used merely in opposition to pertinent — ratio pertinens is a pertinent reason, that is, a reason pertaining to the cause in question, and a ratio impertinens, an impertinent reason, is an argument not pertaining to the subject.3 Impertinent then originally meant neither absurdity nor rude intrusion, as it does in our present popular sense. The learned Arnauld having characterised a reply of one of his adversaries by the epithet impertinent, when blamed for the freedom of his language, explained his meaning by giving this history of the word, which applies to our own language. Thus also with us the word indifferent has entirely changed: an historian, whose work was indifferently written, would formerly have claimed our attention. In the Liturgy it is prayed that “magistrates may indifferently minister justice.” Indifferently originally meant impartially. The word extravagant, in its primitive signification, only signified to digress from the subject. The Decretals, or those letters from the popes deciding on points of ecclesiastical discipline, were at length incorporated with the canon law, and were called extravagant by wandering out of the body of the canon law, being confusedly dispersed through that collection. When Luther had the Decretals publicly burnt at Wittemberg, the insult was designed for the pope, rather than as a condemnation of the canon law itself. Suppose, in the present case, two persons of opposite opinions. The catholic, who had said that the decretals were extravagant, might not have intended to depreciate them, or make any concession to the Lutheran. What confusion of words has the common sense of the Scotch metaphysicians introduced into philosophy! There are no words, perhaps, in the language which may be so differently interpreted; and Professor Dugald Stewart has collected, in a curious note in the second volume of his “Philosophy of the Human Mind,” a singular variety of its opposite significations. The Latin phrase, sensus communis, may, in various passages of Cicero, be translated by our phrase common sense; but, on other occasions, it means something different; the sensus communis of the schoolmen is quite another thing, and is synonymous with conception, and referred to the seat of intellect; with Sir John Davies, in his curious metaphysical poem, common sense is used as imagination. It created a controversy with Beattie and Reid; and Reid, who introduced this vague ambiguous phrase in philosophical language, often understood the term in its ordinary acceptation. This change of the meaning of words, which is constantly recurring in metaphysical disputes, has made that curious but obscure science liable to this objection of Hobbes, “with many words making nothing understood!”
Controversies have been keenly agitated about the principles of morals, which resolve entirely into verbal disputes, or at most into questions of arrangement and classification, of little comparative moment to the points at issue. This observation of Mr. Dugald Stewart’s might be illustrated by the fate of the numerous inventors of systems of thinking or morals, who have only employed very different and even opposite terms in appearance to express the same thing. Some, by their mode of philosophising, have strangely unsettled the words self-interest and self-love; and their misconceptions have sadly misled the votaries of these systems of morals; as others also by such vague terms as “utility, fitness,” &c.
When Epicurus asserted that the sovereign good consisted in pleasure, opposing the unfeeling austerity of the Stoics by the softness of pleasurable emotions, his principle was soon disregarded; while his word, perhaps chosen in the spirit of paradox, was warmly adopted by the sensualist. Epicurus, of whom Seneca has drawn so beautiful a domestic scene, in whose garden a loaf, a Cytheridean cheese, and a draught which did not inflame thirst,4 was the sole banquet, would have started indignantly at
The fattest hog in Epicurus’ sty!
Such are the facts which illustrate that principle in “the abuse of words,” which Locke calls “an affected obscurity arising from applying old words to new, or unusual significations.”
It was the same “confusion of words” which gave rise to the famous sect of the Sadducees. The master of its founder Sadoc, in his moral purity, was desirous of a disinterested worship of the Deity; he would not have men like slaves, obedient from the hope of reward or the fear of punishment. Sadoc drew a quite contrary inference from the intention of his master, concluding that there were neither rewards nor punishments in a future state. The result is a parallel to the fate of Epicurus. The morality of the master of Sadoc was of the most pure and elevated kind, but in the “confusion of words,” the libertines adopted them for their own purposes — and having once assumed that neither rewards nor punishments existed in the after-state, they proceeded to the erroneous consequence that man perished with his own dust!
The plainest words, by accidental associations, may suggest the most erroneous conceptions, and have been productive of the grossest errors. In the famous Bangorian controversy, one of the writers excites a smile by a complaint, arising from his views of the signification of a plain word, whose meaning he thinks had been changed by the contending parties. He says, “the word country, like a great many others, such as church and kingdom, is, by the Bishop of Bangor’s leave, become to signify a collection of ideas very different from its original meaning; with some it implies party, with others private opinion, and with most interest, and perhaps, in time, may signify some other country. When this good innocent word has been tossed backwards and forwards a little longer, some new reformer of language may arise to reduce it to its primitive signification — the real interest of Great Britain!” The antagonist of this controversialist probably retorted on him his own term of the real interest, which might be a very opposite one, according to their notions! It has been said, with what truth I know not, that it was by a mere confusion of words that Burke was enabled to alarm the great Whig families, by showing them their fate in that of the French noblesse; they were misled by the similitude of names. The French noblesse had as little resemblance to our nobility as they have to the Mandarins of China. However it may be in this case, certain it is that the same terms misapplied have often raised those delusive notions termed false analogies. It was long imagined in this country, that the parliaments of France were somewhat akin to our own; but these assemblies were very differently constituted, consisting only of lawyers in courts of law. A misnomer confuses all argument. There is a trick which consists in bestowing good names on bad things. Vices, thus veiled, are introduced to us as virtues, according to an old poet,
As drunkenness, good-fellowship we call?
Sir Thomas Wiat.
Or the reverse, when loyalty may be ridiculed, as
The right divine of kings — to govern wrong!
The most innocent recreations, such as the drama, dancing, dress, have been anathematised by puritans, while philosophers have written elaborate treatises in their defence — the enigma is solved, when we discover that these words suggested a set of opposite notions to each.
But the nominalists and the realists, and the doctores fundatissimi, resolutissimi, refulgentes, profundi, and extatici, have left this heirloom of logomachy to a race as subtle and irrefragable! An extraordinary scene has recently been performed by a new company of actors, in the modern comedy of Political Economy; and the whole dialogue has been carried on in an inimitable “confusion of words!” This reasoning and unreasoning fraternity never use a term as a term, but for an explanation, and which employed by them all, signifies opposite things, but never the plainest! Is it not, therefore, strange that they cannot yet tell us what are riches? what is rent? what is value? Monsieur Say, the most sparkling of them all, assures us that the English writers are obscure, by their confounding, like Smith, the denomination of labour. The vivacious Gaul cries out to the grave Briton, Mr. Malthus, “If I consent to employ your word labour, you must understand me,” so and so! Mr. Malthus says, “Commodities are not exchanged for commodities only; they are also exchanged for labour;” and when the hypochondriac Englishman, with dismay, foresees “the glut of markets,” and concludes that we may produce more than we can consume, the paradoxical Monsieur Say discovers that “commodities” is a wrong word, for it gives a wrong idea; it should be “productions;” for his axiom is, that “productions can only be purchased with productions.” Money, it seems, according to dictionary ideas, has no existence in his vocabulary; for Monsieur Say has formed a sort of Berkleian conception of wealth being immaterial, while we confine our views to its materiality. Hence ensues from this “confusion of words,” this most brilliant paradox — that “a glutted market is not a proof that we produce too much but that we produce too little! for in that case there is not enough produced to exchange with what is produced!” As Frenchmen excel in politeness and impudence, Monsieur Say adds, “I revere Adam Smith; he is my master; but this first of political economists did not understand all the phenomena of production and consumption.” We, who remain uninitiated in this mystery of explaining the operations of trade by metaphysical ideas, and raising up theories to conduct those who never theorise, can only start at the “confusion of words,” and leave this blessed inheritance to our sons, if ever the science survive the logomachy.
Caramuel, a famous Spanish bishop, was a grand architect of words. Ingenious in theory, his errors were confined to his practice: he said a great deal and meant nothing; and by an exact dimension of his intellect, taken at the time, it appeared that “he had genius in the eighth degree, eloquence in the fifth, but judgment only in the second!” This great man would not read the ancients; for he had a notion that the moderns must have acquired all they possessed, with a good deal of their own “into the bargain.” Two hundred and sixty-two works, differing in breadth and length, besides his manuscripts, attest, that if the world would read his writings, they could need no other; for which purpose his last work always referred to the preceding ones, and could never be comprehended till his readers possessed those which were to follow. As he had the good sense to perceive that metaphysicians abound in obscure and equivocal terms, to avoid this “confusion of words,” he invented a jargon of his own; and to make “confusion worse confounded,” projected grammars and vocabularies by which we were to learn it; but it is supposed that he was the only man who understood himself. He put every author in despair by the works which he announced. This famous architect of words, however, built more labyrinths than he could always get out of, notwithstanding his “cabalistical grammar,” and his “audacious grammar.”5 Yet this great Caramuel, the critics have agreed, was nothing but a puffy giant, with legs too weak for his bulk, and only to be accounted as a hero amidst a “confusion of words.”
Let us dread the fate of Caramuel! and before we enter into discussion with the metaphysician, first settle what he means by the nature of ideas; with the politician, his notion of liberty and equality; with the divine, what he deems orthodox; with the political economist, what he considers to be value and rent! By this means we may avoid, what is perpetually recurring, that extreme laxity or vagueness of words, which makes every writer, or speaker, complain of his predecessor, and attempt sometimes, not in the best temper, to define and to settle the signification of what the witty South calls “those rabble-charming words, which carry so much wildfire wrapt up in them.”
1 Turner’s “History of England,” i. 514
2 We owe this curious unpublished letter to the zeal and care of Professor Dugald Stewart, in his excellent “Dissertations.”
3 It is still a Chancery word. An answer in Chancery, &c., is referred for impertinence, reported impertinent — and the impertinence ordered to be struck out, meaning only what is immaterial or superfluous, tending to unnecessary expense. I am indebted for this explanation to my friend, Mr. Merivale; and to another learned friend, formerly in that court, who describes its meaning as “an excess of words or matter in the pleadings,” and who has received many an official fee for “expunging impertinence,” leaving, however, he acknowledges, a sufficient quantity to make the lawyers ashamed of their verbosity.
4 Sen. Epist. 21.
5 Baillet gives the dates and plans of these grammars. The cabalistic was published in Bruxelles, 1642, in 12mo. The audacious was in folio, printed at Frankfort, 1654. — Jugemens des Savans. Tome ii. 3me partie.
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