Chapter XLIII. The Astronomer Leaves Imlac His Directions

” Disorders of intellect, answered Imlac, happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command. No man will befound in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond [124] the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity ; but while this power is such as we can controul and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as any depravation of the mental faculties : it is not pronounced madness but when it comes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or action.

” To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation. When we are alone we are not always busy ; the labour of excogitation is too violent to last long ; the ardour of enquiry will sometimes give way to idleness or satiety. He who has nothing external that can divert him, must find pleasure in his [125] own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not ; for who is pleased with what he is ? He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire, amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his pride unattainable dominion. The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty cannot bestow.

” In time some particular train or ideas fixes the attention, all other intellectual gratifications are rejected, the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood whenever she [126] is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed ; the grows first imperious, and in time despotick. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.

” This, Sir, is one of the dangers of solitude, which the hermit has confessed not always to promote goodness, and the astronomer’s misery has proved to be not always propitious to wisdom.” I will no more, said the favourite, imagine myself the queen of Abissinia. I have often spent the hours, which the princess gave to my own disposal, in adjusting ceremonies and regulating the court ; 1 have repressed the pride of the [127] powerful, and granted the petitions of the poor ; I have built new palaces in more happy situations, planted groves upon the tops of mountains, and have exulted in the beneficence of royalty, till, when the princess entered, I had almost forgotten to bow down before her.”

“And I, said the princess, will not allow myself any more to play the shepherdess in my waking dreams. I have often soothed my thoughts with the quiet and innocence of pastoral employments, till I have in my chamber heard the winds whistle, and the sheep bleat ; Sometimes freed the lamb entangled in the thicket, and sometimes with my crook encountered the wolf. I have a dress like that of the village maids, which I put on to help my imagination, and a pipe on which [128] I play softly, and suppose myself followed by my flocks.”

” I will confess, said the prince, an indulgence of fantastick delight more dangerous than yours. I have frequently endeavoured to image the possibility of a perfect government, by which all wrong should be restrained, all vice reformed, and all the subects preserved in tranquility and innocence. This thought produced innumerable schemes of reformation, and dictated many useful regulations and falutary edicts. This has been the sport and sometimes the labour of my solitude ; and I start, when I think with how little anguish I once supposed the death of my father and my brothers.” [129]

” Such, says Imlac, are the effects of visionary schemes : when we first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”

         

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A Digital Anthology of Writing in English, 1660-1783