Page images

sequence of our bringing to view the less obvious relations among our ideas, we frequently divert the current of our thoughts into a new channel. If, for example, when I am indolent and inactive, the name of Sir Isaac Newton accidentally occur to me, it will perhaps suggest, one after another, the names of some other eminent mathematicians and aftronomers, or of some of his illustrious contemporaries and friends : and a number of them may pass in review before me, without engaging my curiosity in any considerable degree. In a different state of mind, the name of Newton will lead my thoughts to the principal incidents of his life, and the more striking features of his character : or, if my mind be ardent and vigorous, will lead my attention to the fublime discoveries he made ; and gradually engage me in some philosophical investigation. To every object, there are others which bear obvious and striking re. lations; and others, also, whose relation to it does not readily occur to us, unless we dwell upon it for some time, and place it before us in different points of view.

But the principal power we poffefs over the train of our ideas, is founded on the influence which our habits of thinking have on the laws of Association ; an influence which is so great, that we may often form a pretty shrewd judgment concerning a man's prevailing turn of thought, from the transitions he makes in conversation or in writing. It is well known, too, that by means of habit, a particular associating principle may be strengthened to such a degree, as to give us a command of all the different ideas in our mind, which have a certain relation to each other; so that when any one of the class occurs to us we have almost a certainty that it will suggest the reft. What confidence in his own powers must a speaker poffefs, when he rises without premeditation, in a popular afsembly, to amuse his audience with a

lively or an humorous speech ! Such a confidence, it is evident, can only arise from a long experience of the strength of particular afsociating principles.

To how great a degree this part of our conftitu. tion may be influenced by habit, appears from facts which are familiar to every one. A man who has an ambition to become a punfter, feldom or never fails in the attainment of his object, that is, he feldom or never fails in acquiring a power which other men have not, of summoning up, on a particular occafion, a number of words different from each other in meaning, & resembling each other, more or lefs, in found. I am inclined to think that even genuine wit is a habit acquired in a similar way; and that, although some individuals may, from natural constitution, be more fitted than others to acquire this habit ; it is found. ed in every cafe on a peculiarly strong association among certain claffes of our ideas, which gives the person who pofleffes it, a command over those ideas which is denied to ordinary men. But there is no inftance in which the effect of habits of association is more remarkable, than in those men who possess a facility of rhyming. That a man should be able to express his thoughts perspicuously and elegantly, un. der the restraints which rhyme imposes, would appear to be incredible, if we did not know it to be fact. Such a power implies a wonderful command both of ideas and of expreffons; and yet daily experience shews, that it may be gained with very little practice. Pope tells us with respect to himself, that he could express himself not only more concisely, but more easily, in rhyme than in profe.

* “ When habit is once gained, nothing so easy as practice. “ Cicero writes, that , Antipater the Sidonian could pour forth “ hexameters extempore; and that, whenever he chose to versify, “ words followed him of course. We may add to Antipater, the " antient rhapsodists of the Greeks, and the modern improvisatori of the Italians."

Harris's Phil. Inq. 109, 110.

Nor is it only in these trifling accomplishments that we may trace the influence of habits of affociation. In every inftance of invention, either in the fine arts, in the mechanical arts, or in the sciences, there is some new idea, or some new combination of ideas, brought to light by the inventor. This, undoubtedly, may often happen in a way which he is unable to explain; that is, his invention may be fuggested to him by some lucky thought, the origin of which he is unable to trace. But when a man poffeffes an habitual fertility of invention in any particular art or science, and can rely, with confidence, on his inventive powers, whenever he is called upon to exert them, he must have acquired, by previous habits of study, a command .over certain classes of his ideas; which enables him, at pleasure, to bring them under his review. The illustration of these fubjects may throw light on some processes of the mind, which are not in general well understood : and I shall, accordingly, in the following Section, of. fer a few hints with respect to those habits of association which are the foundation of wit"; of the power of rhyming; of poetical fancy; and of invention in matters of science.


Illustrations of the Doctrine ftated in the preceding Section,

I. Of Wit.

ACCORDING to Locke, Wit consists 6 in the

affemblage of ideas ; and putting those together « with quickness and variety, wherein can be found

any refemblance or congruity."* I would add to

*Essay on Human Understanding, book ii. chap. 11.


this definition, (rather by way of explanation than amendment,) that Wit implies a power of calling up at pleasure the ideas which it combines : and I am inclined to believe, that the entertainment which it gives to the hearer, is founded, in a considerable degree, on his surprise, at the command which the man of wit has acquired over a part of the conftitution, which is fo little subject to the will.

That the effect of wit depends partly, at least, on the circumstance now mentioned, appears evidently from this, that we are more pleased with a bon mot, which occurs in conversation, than with one in print; and that we never fail to receive disgust from wit, when we suspect it to be premeditated. The pleàsure, too, we receive from wit, is heightened, when the original idea is started by one person, and the related idea by another, Dr. Campbell has remarked, that “a witty repartee is infinitely more pleasing. “ than a witty attack; and that an allusion will ap

pear excellent when thrown out extempore in con6 versation, which would be deemed execrable in “

print.” In all these cases, the wit considered absolutely is the fame. The relations which are discov. ered between the compared ideas are equally new : and yet, as soon as we suspect that the wit was premeditated, the pleasure we receive from it is infinitely diminished. Instances indeed may be mentioned, in which we are pleased with contemplating an unexpected relation between ideas, without any reference to the habits of affociation in the mind of the person who discovered it. A bon mot produced at the game of cross-purposes, would not fail to create amusement ; but in such cases, our pleasure seems chiefly to arise from the surprise we feel at fo extraordinary a coincidence between a question and an answer coming from perfons who had no direct communication with each other.

Of the effect added to wit by the promptitude with which its combinations are formed, Fuller appears to have had a very just idea, from what he has recorded of the social hours of our two great English Dramatists. “ Johnson's parts were not so rea

dy to run of themselves, as able to answer the fpur; “ so that it may be truly said of him, that he had an * elaborate wit, wrought out by his own industry. " Many were the wit-combats between him and « Shakespeare, which two I behold like a Spanish

great galleon, and an English man of war. "John« son (like the foriner) was built far higher in learn

ing , solid, but flow in his performances. Shake “ speare, with the English man of war, lefser in bulk, « but lighter in failing, could turn with all tides, tack « about and take advantage of all winds, by the “ quickness of his wit and invention."*

I before observed, that the pleasure we receive • from wit is increased, when the two ideas between which the relation is discovered, are suggusted by different persons. In the case of a bon mot occur. ring in conversation, the reason of this is abundantly obvious ; because, when the related ideas are suggested by different persons, we have a proof that the wit was not premeditated. But even in a written composition, we are much more delighted when the subject was furnished to the author by another person, than when he chuses the topic on which he is to display his wit. How much would the pleasure we receive from the Key to the Lock be diminish. ed, if we fufpected that the author had the key in view when he wrote that poem; and that he introduced some expressions, in order to furnish a subject for the wit of the commentator ? How totally would it destroy the pleasure we receive from a parody on a poem, if we suspected that both were productions of the same author ? The truth seems to be, that

History of the Worthies of England. London, 1662.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »