William Temple

On thoughts

Selection from essays “Written in his Youth at Brussels”

I find so little ease and satisfaction by giving my thoughts full scope and liberty of rambling, that I must e’en recall them; but they are passed it already, no sooner out of hand but out of sight: besides, they take such airy paths, and are so light themselves, leaving neither impression nor scent behind them, that it is impossible to follow them by the track of either. Well, let them go, they are not worth an hue and cry. Should my memory overtake them, I question whether she would know them at a good interview; though indeed they have all my marks of folly and lightness upon them, but that is so common in one, that if I did I should be ashamed to own them. All they have robbed me of is but a little idle time, and to one that has so great comings in as I, that loss may be easily endured. I know not what it is makes me so prone to this posture of musing, which is between melancholy fits and those doting visions that use to rock men asleep whose souls or bodies are distempered with disease or passion; ’t is properly what the French call reverie, and we, in my opinion, more properly thinking I know not what. Whether it be a faintness in my mind complying with the weather, which may render it like my body disabled or unfit for any vigorous action (as indeed I find it hath most hold of me in this season), or whether it be rather a discomposure caused by a mêlée of several passions, whereof none is strong enough entirely to gain the field, and none so weak as to quit it; for if that were, the current being turned one way would confine itself to some continued channel; but this I speak of is a crowd of restless, capering, antique fancies, bounding here and there, fixing nowhere; building one half hour castles in Ireland, monasteries in France, and palaces in Virginia; dancing at a wedding, weeping at a burial; enthroned like a king, enragged like a beggar; a lover, a friend, an indifferent person; and sometimes things of as little relation one to another as the Great Turk and a red herring: to say the most, it is at least a painless posture of mind, if not something more, and why not? The misery of a bitter passion is sweet, if it be suddenly calmed, as a light touch of a thorn is but a tickling; ’t is handling and groping makes the wound. These thoughts are all by snatches; as one begins to rear, another staves it off; the reign of each is so short as it hath not time to play the tyrant. The best of it is, if they please not my fancy, neither do they burden my memory; they ride post through one, but fly through the other. Of all I ever had, I remember no more than I do of my last year’s dreams; yet I have been at it an hour this afternoon, and I believe these go as many to the hour as there are feathers to the pound: the lightness of each makes the comparison proper enough; though they differ in this, that a pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of gold, but millions of these can never balance one serious thought. I put myself upon this task of writing, not out of a desire to preserve my fancies, but to destroy them; weeds wither as soon as they are gathered, though corn lasts the longer by it. My reveries dread paper as another element, knowing they have nothing to do in a place which is intended only for the best of thoughts; life is their death, order and continuance dissolve their being; their independency will suffer nothing of law or constraint. It were happy if by this or any other invention I could reduce or refine my thoughts in such measure as I might remember them myself without regret, and without shame expose them to another’s eye; but as it would be vanity in me to hope it, so perhaps it would be impertinent in any one to desire it; for to think nothing is to be a beast or something equivalent, nothing but good is to be an angel; I may add, to think nothing but ill is to be a devil, and that to be a man is to have something of all three. It is not the worst soil that brings forth weeds, the best does it if not manured; barren ground is only that which bears no price; art wants in the other, but nature in this; and as art is the perfection of nature, so is nature the foundation of art; they run well hand in hand, for, being asunder, the one can hardly end his career and the other hardly begin. . . . But all this would not acquit me from the guilt of these empty luxurious reveries, if I were before any judge but myself; as it is, I am like to be quit for being undiscovered; yet this is e’en the right train of this world’s justice. Darkness makes innocence; theft or murder is no crime to those that can conceal it; so that it is not want of honesty, but want of wit or fortune, that is punished. Let this pass; for if I ever should begin to be angry with the world, God knows when I should end; for my part, I believe never, unless the passion should end before the cause.

I observe all these thoughts (which none could be so idle as to talk on besides he that is idle enough to think them), though they have no substance, I mean material, yet they have a form, and needs must they be thus imperfect, produced like meteors, without any influence from the sun of understanding; their form is Like and Dislike. Neither is there one individual among them, not the smallest insect, but has this stamp; they are children of the brain; none that are born alive come forth with a settled countenance, all laughing or crying, and the most with the last; some die in the birth, and they cost the most pain: it is such a perplexity as a man finds himself in who longs to call something to mind which is not above half an inch out of his memory; ’t is at his tongue’s end, and yet he cannot spit it out. These two suckling passions of Like and Dislike first drench them and then drown them; for those that are not destroyed by their brothers, ordinarily die, stifled with swallowing down so much of those which come in upon my mind like a tide; not only overflow it, but leave it wet for a good while after it is ebbed away. Many times, having had these waking dreams before my sleep, at my waking next day either a pleasing or a sad disposition of mind gives me good morrow; whilst at first I cannot imagine any cause of either, and at last can find out no other but that the night before such a fancy tickled me, or such an one pinched me. ’T is strange to consider how all men’s thoughts are inseparable from these two shadows of inclination or aversion; for my part, my very senses are so. I never saw any sight, heard any sound that was purely indifferent, but I could say I would rather have it continue or rather have it cease; perhaps it is that being satisfied there is so little positive pleasure, I take all for pleasure that is not pain; and no marvel this is so often in the senses, when it is so often in the mind without reason: not only I cannot see two pins or two feathers (always meant there be a difference), but I shall more like one; nor read of two persons in a known fiction, without giving one my better wishes. But let me hear two men only named and no more, presently my fancy must give one the place; e’en with the same reason, and perhaps no more right, than place is disposed of amongst us, that is, only by the sound of empty titles. I speak this in the first person, because I can hardly believe others so foolish as rather than lay hold of nothing to catch at the wind. I know not whether any body else have their ears placed so forward, that is, so near their fancies, as I have.


MLA Citation

Temple, William. “On thoughts.” 1652. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 6 Oct 2007. 04 Dec 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/temple/thoughts/>.

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