"Yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason."

— Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745)

Work Title
Place of Publication
Printed for John Nutt
May 10, 1704
"Yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason."
Metaphor in Context
Let us next examine the great introducers of new schemes in philosophy, and search till we can find from what faculty of the soul the disposition arises in mortal man of taking it into his head to advance new systems with such an eager zeal in things agreed on all hands impossible to be known; from what seeds this disposition springs, and to what quality of human nature these grand innovators have been indebted for their number of disciples, because it is plain that several of the chief among them, both ancient and modern, were usually mistaken by their adversaries, and, indeed, by all, except their own followers, to have been persons crazed or out of their wits, having generally proceeded in the common course of their words and actions by a method very different from the vulgar dictates of unrefined reason, agreeing for the most part in their several models with their present undoubted successors in the academy of modern Bedlam, whose merits and principles I shall further examine in due place. Of this kind were Epicurus, Diogenes, Apollonius, Lucretius, Paracelsus, Des Cartes, and others, who, if they were now in the world, tied fast and separate from their followers, would in this our undistinguishing age incur manifest danger of phlebotomy, and whips, and chains, and dark chambers, and straw. For what man in the natural state or course of thinking did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own? Yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason. Epicurus modestly hoped that one time or other a certain fortuitous concourse of all men’s opinions, after perpetual jostlings, the sharp with the smooth, the light and the heavy, the round and the square, would, by certain clinamina, unite in the notions of atoms and void, as these did in the originals of all things. Cartesius reckoned to see before he died the sentiments of all philosophers, like so many lesser stars in his romantic system, rapt and drawn within his own vortex. Now I would gladly be informed how it is possible to account for such imaginations as these in particular men, without recourse to my phenomenon of vapours ascending from the lower faculties to overshadow the brain, and there distilling into conceptions, for which the narrowness of our mother-tongue has not yet assigned any other name beside that of madness or frenzy. Let us therefore now conjecture how it comes to pass that none of these great prescribers do ever fail providing themselves and their notions with a number of implicit disciples, and I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning. This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time. And in this one circumstance lies all the skill or luck of the matter; for, if you chance to jar the string among those who are either above or below your own height, instead of subscribing to your doctrine, they will tie you fast, call you mad, and feed you with bread and water. It is therefore a point of the nicest conduct to distinguish and adapt this noble talent with respect to the differences of persons and of times. Cicero understood this very well, when, writing to a friend in England, with a caution, among other matters, to beware of being cheated by our hackney-coachmen (who, it seems, in those days were as arrant rascals as they are now), has these remarkable words, Est quod gaudeas te in ista loca venisse, ubi aliquid sapere viderere. For, to speak a bold truth, it is a fatal miscarriage so ill to order affairs as to pass for a fool in one company, when in another you might be treated as a philosopher; which I desire some certain gentlemen of my acquaintance to lay up in their hearts as a very seasonable innuendo.
(pp. 80-1 in OUP ed.)
43 entries in the ESTC (1704, 1705, 1710, 1711, 1724, 1726, 1727, 1733, 1734, 1739, 1741, 1742, 1743, 1747, 1750, 1751, 1752, 1753, 1754, 1756, 1760, 1762, 1766, 1768, 1769, 1771, 1772, 1776, 1781, 1784, 1798).

Reading Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub and Other Works, eds. Angus Ross and David Woolley. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Some text drawn from ebooks@Adelaide.

Note, the textual history is complicated. First published May 10, 1704. The second edition of 1704 and the fifth of 1710 include new material. Ross and Woolley's text is an eclectic one, based on the three authoritative editions.

See A Tale of a Tub. Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind. To Which Is Added, an Account of a Battel Between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James's Library, 2nd edition, corrected (London: Printed for John Nutt, 1704). <Link to ESTC><Link to ECCO>
Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.