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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsA Tale Of A Tub - The Tale of a Tub - Section VII - A Digression In Praise Of Digressions
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A Tale Of A Tub - The Tale of a Tub - Section VII - A Digression In Praise Of Digressions Post by :pcnana Category :Nonfictions Author :Jonathan Swift Date :July 2011 Read :764

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A Tale Of A Tub - The Tale of a Tub - Section VII - A Digression In Praise Of Digressions

Section VII - A Digression In Praise Of Digressions

I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nut-shell, but it has been
my fortune to have much oftener seen a nut-shell in an Iliad. There
is no doubt that human life has received most wonderful advantages
from both; but to which of the two the world is chiefly indebted, I
shall leave among the curious as a problem worthy of their utmost
inquiry. For the invention of the latter, I think the commonwealth
of learning is chiefly obliged to the great modern improvement of
digressions. The late refinements in knowledge, running parallel to
those of diet in our nation, which among men of a judicious taste
are dressed up in various compounds, consisting in soups and olios,
fricassees and ragouts.

It is true there is a sort of morose, detracting, ill-bred people
who pretend utterly to disrelish these polite innovations. And as
to the similitude from diet, they allow the parallel, but are so
bold as to pronounce the example itself a corruption and degeneracy
of taste. They tell us that the fashion of jumbling fifty things
together in a dish was at first introduced in compliance to a
depraved and debauched appetite, as well as to a crazy constitution,
and to see a man hunting through an olio after the head and brains
of a goose, a widgeon, or a woodcock, is a sign he wants a stomach
and digestion for more substantial victuals. Further, they affirm
that digressions in a book are like foreign troops in a state, which
argue the nation to want a heart and hands of its own, and often
either subdue the natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful

But after all that can be objected by these supercilious censors, it
is manifest the society of writers would quickly be reduced to a
very inconsiderable number if men were put upon making books with
the fatal confinement of delivering nothing beyond what is to the
purpose. It is acknowledged that were the case the same among us as
with the Greeks and Romans, when learning was in its cradle, to be
reared and fed and clothed by invention, it would be an easy task to
fill up volumes upon particular occasions without further
expatiating from the subject than by moderate excursions, helping to
advance or clear the main design. But with knowledge it has fared
as with a numerous army encamped in a fruitful country, which for a
few days maintains itself by the product of the soil it is on, till
provisions being spent, they send to forage many a mile among
friends or enemies, it matters not. Meanwhile the neighbouring
fields, trampled and beaten down, become barren and dry, affording
no sustenance but clouds of dust.

The whole course of things being thus entirely changed between us
and the ancients, and the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this
age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method to become
scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.
The most accomplished way of using books at present is twofold:
either first to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles
exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or, secondly, which is
indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a
thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed
and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of
learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms,
therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get
in by the back-door. For the arts are all in a flying march, and
therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus
physicians discover the state of the whole body by consulting only
what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge by throwing their
wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows with flinging
salt upon their tails. Thus human life is best understood by the
wise man's rule of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found,
like Hercules' oxen, by tracing them backwards. Thus are old
sciences unravelled like old stockings, by beginning at the foot.

Besides all this, the army of the sciences hath been of late with a
world of martial discipline drawn into its close order, so that a
view or a muster may be taken of it with abundance of expedition.
For this great blessing we are wholly indebted to systems and
abstracts, in which the modern fathers of learning, like prudent
usurers, spent their sweat for the ease of us their children. For
labour is the seed of idleness, and it is the peculiar happiness of
our noble age to gather the fruit.

Now the method of growing wise, learned, and sublime having become
so regular an affair, and so established in all its forms, the
number of writers must needs have increased accordingly, and to a
pitch that has made it of absolute necessity for them to interfere
continually with each other. Besides, it is reckoned that there is
not at this present a sufficient quantity of new matter left in
Nature to furnish and adorn any one particular subject to the extent
of a volume. This I am told by a very skilful computer, who hath
given a full demonstration of it from rules of arithmetic.

This perhaps may be objected against by those who maintain the
infinity of matter, and therefore will not allow that any species of
it can be exhausted. For answer to which, let us examine the
noblest branch of modern wit or invention planted and cultivated by
the present age, and which of all others hath borne the most and the
fairest fruit. For though some remains of it were left us by the
ancients, yet have not any of those, as I remember, been translated
or compiled into systems for modern use. Therefore we may affirm,
to our own honour, that it has in some sort been both invented and
brought to a perfection by the same hands. What I mean is, that
highly celebrated talent among the modern wits of deducing
similitudes, allusions, and applications, very surprising,
agreeable, and apposite, from the signs of either sex, together with
their proper uses. And truly, having observed how little invention
bears any vogue besides what is derived into these channels, I have
sometimes had a thought that the happy genius of our age and country
was prophetically held forth by that ancient typical description of
the Indian pigmies whose stature did not exceed above two feet, sed
quorum pudenda crassa, et ad talos usque pertingentia. Now I have
been very curious to inspect the late productions, wherein the
beauties of this kind have most prominently appeared. And although
this vein hath bled so freely, and all endeavours have been used in
the power of human breath to dilate, extend, and keep it open, like
the Scythians {116}, who had a custom and an instrument to blow up
those parts of their mares, that they might yield the more milk; yet
I am under an apprehension it is near growing dry and past all
recovery, and that either some new fonde of wit should, if possible,
be provided, or else that we must e'en be content with repetition
here as well as upon all other occasions.

This will stand as an uncontestable argument that our modern wits
are not to reckon upon the infinity of matter for a constant supply.
What remains, therefore, but that our last recourse must be had to
large indexes and little compendiums? Quotations must be
plentifully gathered and booked in alphabet. To this end, though
authors need be little consulted, yet critics, and commentators, and
lexicons carefully must. But above all, those judicious collectors
of bright parts, and flowers, and observandas are to be nicely dwelt
on by some called the sieves and boulters of learning, though it is
left undetermined whether they dealt in pearls or meal, and
consequently whether we are more to value that which passed through
or what stayed behind.

By these methods, in a few weeks there starts up many a writer
capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects.
For what though his head be empty, provided his commonplace book be
full? And if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and
style, and grammar, and invention; allow him but the common
privileges of transcribing from others, and digressing from himself
as often as he shall see occasion, he will desire no more
ingredients towards fitting up a treatise that shall make a very
comely figure on a bookseller's shelf, there to be preserved neat
and clean for a long eternity, adorned with the heraldry of its
title fairly inscribed on a label, never to be thumbed or greased by
students, nor bound to everlasting chains of darkness in a library,
but when the fulness of time is come shall happily undergo the trial
of purgatory in order to ascend the sky.

Without these allowances how is it possible we modern wits should
ever have an opportunity to introduce our collections listed under
so many thousand heads of a different nature, for want of which the
learned world would be deprived of infinite delight as well as
instruction, and we ourselves buried beyond redress in an inglorious
and undistinguished oblivion?

From such elements as these I am alive to behold the day wherein the
corporation of authors can outvie all its brethren in the field--a
happiness derived to us, with a great many others, from our Scythian
ancestors, among whom the number of pens was so infinite that the
Grecian eloquence had no other way of expressing it than by saying
that in the regions far to the north it was hardly possible for a
man to travel, the very air was so replete with feathers.

The necessity of this digression will easily excuse the length, and
I have chosen for it as proper a place as I could readily find. If
the judicious reader can assign a fitter, I do here empower him to
remove it into any other corner he please. And so I return with
great alacrity to pursue a more important concern.

Content of Section VII - A Digression In Praise Of Digressions (Jonathan Swift's ebook: A Tale of a Tub)

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