Michel de Montaigne

“Of Cripples”

 1580

Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute: we speak of all things by precepts and decisions. The style at Rome was that even that which a witness deposed to having seen with his own eyes, and what a judge determined with his most certain knowledge, was couched in this form of speaking: “It seems to me.” I love these words which mollify and moderate the temerity of our propositions! “Peradventure; in some sort; some; ’tis said, I think,” and the like. 

The witches of my neighborhood run the hazard of their lives upon the report of every new author who seeks to give body to their dreams. To accommodate the examples that Holy Writ gives us of such things, most certain and irrefragable examples, and to tie them to our modern events, being that we neither see the causes nor the means, will require another sort of wit than ours. It, peradventure, only appertains to that sole all-potent testimony to tell us, “This is, and that is, and not that other.” God ought to be believed, and certainly with very good reason, but not one among us for all that who is astonished at his own narration (and he must of necessity be astonished, if he is not out of his wits), whether he employs it about other men’s affairs or against himself. I stick to the solid and the probable, avoiding those ancient reproaches: “Men are most apt to believe what they least understand, and from the acquisitiveness of the human intellect, obscure things are more easily credited.”

James G. Frazer

The Golden Bough

 1890

The history of thought should warn us against concluding that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final. We must remember that at bottom the generalizations of science or, in common parlance, the laws of nature, are merely hypotheses devised to explain that ever-shifting phantasmagoria of thought which we dignify with the high-sounding names of the world and the universe. In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena—of registering the shadows on the screen—of which we in this generation can form no idea. The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression toward a goal that forever recedes. Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. In the ages to come, man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun.

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