Archive for June 12th, 2018

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Gnōthi Seaton: Know Yourself by John Arbuthnot

What am I? how produced? and for what end?
Whence drew I being? to what period tend?
Am I the abandoned orphan of blind chance,
Dropt by wild atoms in disordered dance?
Or from an endless chain of causes wrought?
And of unthinking substance, born with thought?
By motion which began without a cause,
Supremely wise, without design or laws.
Am I but what I seem, mere flesh and blood;
A branching channel, with a mazy flood?
The purple stream that through my vessels glides,
Dull and unconscious flows like common tides:
The pipes through which the circling juices stray,
Are not that thinking I, no more than they:
This frame, compacted, with transcendent skill,
Of moving joints obedient to my will;
Nursed from the fruitful glebe, like yonder tree,
Waxes and wastes; I call it mine, not me:
New matter still the mouldering mass sustains,
The mansion changed, the tenant still remains:
And from the fleeting stream repaired by food,
Distinct, as is the swimmer from the flood.
What am I then? sure, of a nobler birth,
Thy parents right, I own a mother, earth;
But claim superior lineage by my Sire,
Who warmed the unthinking clod with heavenly fire:
Essence divine, with lifeless clay allayed,
By double nature, double instinct swayed,
With look erect, I dart my longing eye,
Seem winged to part, and gain my native sky;
I strive to mount, but strive, alas! in vain,
Tied to this massy globe with magic chain.
Now with swift thought I range from pole to pole,
View worlds around their flaming centres roll:
What steady powers their endless motions guide,
Through the same trackless paths of boundless void!
I trace the blazing comet’s fiery trail,
And weigh the whirling planets in a scale;
Those godlike thoughts, while eager I pursue,
Some glittering trifle offered to my view,
A gnat, an insect, of the meanest kind,
Erase the new born image from my mind;
Some beastly want, craving, importunate,
Vile as the grinning mastiffs at my gate,
Calls off from heavenly truth this reasoning me,
And tells me I’m a brute as much as he.
If on sublimer wings of love and praise
My soul above the starry vault I raise,
Lured by some vain conceit, or shameful lust,
I flag, I drop, and flutter in the dust.
The towering lark thus from her lofty strain
Stoops to an emmet, or a barley grain.
By adverse gusts of jarring instincts tossed,
I rove to one, now to the other coast;
To bliss unknown my lofty soul aspires,
My lot unequal to my vast desires.
As ‘mongst the hinds a child of royal birth
Finds his high pedigree by conscious worth,
So man, amongst his fellow brutes exposed,
Sees he’s a king, but ’tis a king deposed.
Pity him, beasts! you by no law confined,
Are barred from devious paths by being blind;
Whilst man, through opening views of various ways,
Confounded, by the aid of knowledge strays;
Too weak to choose, yet choosing still in haste,
One moment gives the pleasure and distaste;
Bilked by past minutes, while the present cloy,
The flattering future still must give the joy.
Not happy, but amused upon the road,
And like you thoughtless of his last abode,
Whether next sun his being shall restrain
To endless nothing, happiness, or pain.

Around me, lo, the thinking thoughtless crew,
(Bewildered each) their different paths pursue;
Of them I ask the way ; the first replies,
Thou art a god; and sends me to the skies.
Down on this turf (the next) thou two-legged beast,
There fix thy lot, thy bliss, and endless rest;
Between those wide extremes the length is such,
I find I know too little or too much.

‘Almighty power, by whose most wise command,
Helpless, forlorn, uncertain here I stand;
Take this faint glimmering of thyself away,
Or break into my soul with perfect day!’
This said, expanded lay the sacred text,
The balm, the light, the guide of souls perplexed:
Thus the benighted traveller that strays
Through doubtful paths, enjoys the morning rays;
The nightly mist, and thick descending dew,
Parting, unfold the fields, and vaulted blue.
‘O truth divine! enlightened by thy ray,
I grope and guess no more, but see my way;
Thou clear’dst the secret of my high descent,
And told me what those mystic tokens meant;
Marks of my birth, which I had worn in vain,
Too hard for worldly sages to explain;
Zeno’s were vain, vain Epicurus’ schemes,
Their systems false, delusive were their dreams;
Unskilled my twofold nature to divide,
One nursed by pleasure, and one nursed by pride;
Those jarring truths which human art beguile,
Thy sacred page thus bid me reconcile.’
Ofspring of God, no less thy pedigree,
What thou once wert, art now, and still may be,
Thy God alone can tell, alone decree;
Faultless thou dropped from His unerring skill,
With the bare power to sin, since free of will;
Yet charge not with thy guilt His bounteous love;
For who has power to walk, has power to rove,
Who acts by force impelled, can nought deserve;
And wisdom short of infinite, may swerve.
Bom on thy new-imped wings, thou took’st thy flight,
Left thy Creator, and the realms of light;
Disdained His gentle precept to fulfil;
And thought to grow a god by doing ill:
Though by foul guilt thy heavenly form defaced,
In nature changed, from happy mansions chased,
Thou still retain’st some sparks of heavenly fire,
Too faint to mount, yet restless to aspire;
Angel enough to seek thy bliss again,
And brute enough to make thy search in vain.
The creatures now withdraw their kindly use,
Some fly thee, some torment, and some seduce;
Repast ill-suited to such diiferent guests,
For what thy sense desires, thy soul distastes;
Thy lust, thy curiosity, thy pride,
Curbed, or deferred, or balked, or gratified,
Rage on, and make thee equally unblessed
In what thou want’st, and what thou hast possessed;
In vain thou hop’st for bliss on this poor clod,
Return, and seek thy father, and thy God:
Yet think not to regain thy native sky,
Born on the wings of vain philosophy;
Mysterious passage! hid from human eyes;
Soaring you’ll sink, and sinking you will rise:
Let humble thoughts thy wary footsteps guide.
Regain by meekness what you lost by pride.

From: Arbuthnot, John and Aitken, George A. (ed.), The Life and Works of John Arbuthnot, M.D., Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, 1892, Clarendon Press: Oxford, pp. 436-439.

Date: 1734

By: John Arbuthnot (1667-1735)