Chapter 6

There was, in a certain great city, a society who called themselves Philosophers. They had published books, under the title of Transactions. These contained dissertations on the nature and causes of things, from the stars of the heaven to the fire-flies of the earth; and from the sea-crab, to the woodland buffaloe. Such disquisitions, are doubtless useful and entertaining to an inquisitive mind.

There is no question, but there were in this body some very great men; whose investigations of the arcana of nature, deserve attention. But so it was, there had been introduced, by some means, many individuals, who were no philosophers at all. This is no unusual thing with institutions of this nature; though, by the bye, it is a very great fault. For it lessens the incentives of honour, to have the access made so easy, that every one may obtain admission. It has been a reproach to some colleges, that a diploma could be purchased for half a crown. This society were still more moderate; for the bare scratching the posteriors of a member has been known to procure a fellowship. At least, there have been those admitted, who appeared capable of nothing else.

Nevertheless, it was necessary, even in these cases, for the candidates to procure some token of a philosophic turn of mind; such as the skin of a dead cat, or some odd kind of a mouse-trap; or have phrases in their mouths, about minerals and petrifactions; so as just to support some idea of natural knowledge, and pass muster. There was one who got in, by finding, accidentally, the tail of a rabbit, which had been taken off in a boy’s trap. Another by means of a squirrel’s scalp, which he had taken care to stretch and dry on a bit of osier, bended in the form of a hoop. The beard of an old fox, taken off and dried in the sun, was the means of introducing one whom I knew very well: or rather, as I have already hinted, it was beforehand intended he should be introduced; and these exuviae, or spoils of the animal kingdom, were but the tokens and apologies for admission.

It happened as the Captain was riding this day, and Teague trotting after him, he saw a large owl, that had been shot by some body, and was placed in the crutch of a tree, about the height of a man’s head from the ground, for those that passed by to look at. The Captain being struck with it, as somewhat larger than such birds usually are, desired Teague to reach it to him; and tying it to the hinder part of his saddle, rode along.

Passing by the house of one who belonged to the society, the bird was noticed at the saddle-skirts, and the philosopher coming out, made enquiry with regard to the genus and nature of the fowl. Said the Captain, I know nothing more about it, than that it is nearly as large as a turkey buzzard. It is doubtless, said the other, the great Canada owl, that comes from the Lakes; and if your honour will give me leave, I will take it and submit it to the society, and have yourself made a member. As to the first, the Captain consented; but as to the last, the being a member, he chose rather to decline it; conceiving himself unqualified for a place in such a body. The other assured him that he was under a very great mistake; for there were persons there who scarcely knew a B from a bull’s foot. That may be, said the Captain: but if others chuse to degrade themselves, by suffering their names to be used in so preposterous a way as that, it was no reason that he should.

The other gave him to understand, that the society would certainly wish to express their sense of his merit, and show themselves not inattentive to a virtuoso; that as he declined the honour himself, he probably might not be averse to let his servant take a seat among them.

He is but a simple Irishman, said the Captain, and of a low education; his language being that spoken by the aborigines of his country. And if he speaks a little English, it is with the brogue on his tongue; which would be unbecoming in a member of your body. It would seem to me that a philosopher ought to know how to write, or at leas to read; but Teague can neither write nor read. He can sing a song or whistle an Irish tune; but is totally illiterate in all things else. I question much if he could tell you how many new moons there are in the year; or any the most common thing that you could ask him. He is a long-legged fellow, it is true; and might be of service in clambering over rocks, or going to the shores of rivers to gather curiosities. But could you not get persons to do this, without making them members? I have more respect for science, than to suffer this bog trotter to be so advanced at its expense.

In these American states, there is a wide field for philosophic research; and these researches may be of great use in agriculture, mechanics, and astronomy. There is but little immediate profit attending these pursuits; but if there can be inducements of honour, these may supply the place. What more alluring to a young man, than the prospect of being, one day, received into the society of men truly learned; the admission being a test and a proof of distinguished knowledge. But the fountain of honour, thus contaminated by a sediment foreign from its nature, who would wish to drink of it?

Said the philosopher, at the first institution of the society by Dr. Franklin and others, it was put upon a narrow basis, and only men of science were considered proper to compose it; and this might be a necessary policy at that time, when the institution was in its infancy, and could not bear much drawback of ignorance. But it has not been judged so necessary of late years. The matter stands now on a broad and catholic bottom; and like the gospel itself, it is our orders, "to go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in." There are hundreds, whose names you may see on our list, who are not more instructed than this lad of yours.

They must be a sad set indeed then, said the Captain.

Sad or no sad, said the other, it is the case; and if you will let Teague go, I will engage him a membership.

I take it very ill of you, Mr. Philosopher, said the Captain, to put this nonsense in his head. If you knew what trouble I have lately had with a parcel of people that were for sending him to Congress, you would be unwilling to draw him from me for the purpose of making him a philosopher. It is not an easy matter to get hirelings now-a-days; and when you do get one, it is a mere chance, whether he is faithful, and will suit your purpose. It would be a very great loss to me, to have him taken off at this time, when I have equipped myself for a journey.

Teague was a good deal incensed at this refusal of his master, and insisted that he would be a philosopher. You are an ignoramus, said the Captain. It is not the being among philosophers, will make you one.

Teague insisted that he had a right to make the best of his fortune: and as there was a door open to his advancement he did not see why he might not make use of it.

The Captain finding that it answered no end to dispute the matter with him, by words of sense and reason, took a contrary way to manage him.

Teague, said he, I have a regard for you, and would wish to see you do well. But before you take this step, I would wish to speak a word or two in private. If you will go, I may perhaps suggest some things that may be of service to you, for your future conduct in that body.

Teague consenting, they stepped aside; and the Captain addressed him in the following manner:

Teague, said he, do you know what you are about? It is a fine thing at first sight, to be a philosopher, and get into this body. And indeed, if you were a real philosopher, it might be some honour, and also safe, to take that leap. But do you think it is to make a philosopher of you that they want you? Far from it. It is their great study to find curiosities; and because this man saw you coming after me, with a red head, trotting like an Esquimaux Indian, it has struck his mind to pick you up, and pass you for one. Nay, it is possible, they may intend worse; and when they have examined you awhile, take the skin off you, and pass you for an overgrown otter, or a musk-rat; or some outlandish animal, for which they will themselves, invent a name. If you were at the museum of one of these societies, to observe the quantity of skins and skeletons they have, you might be well assured they did not come by them honestly. I know so much of these people, that I am well persuaded they would think no more of throwing you into a kettle of boiling water, than they would a terrapin; and having scraped you out to a shell, present you as the relics of an animal they had procured at an immense price, from some Guinea merchant. Or if they should not at once turn you to this use, how, in the mean time, will they dispose of you? They will have you away through the bogs and marshes, catching flies and mire-snipes; or send you to the woods to bring a pole-cat; or oblige you to descend into draw-wells for fog, and phlogistic air, and the Lord knows what. You must go into wolves' dens, and catch bears by the tail: run over mountains like an oppossum, and dig the earth like a ground-hog. You will have to climb over trees, and be bit by flying squirrels. There will be no end to the musketoes you will have to dissect. What is all this to diving into mill-dams and rivers, to catch craw-fish? Or if you go to the ocean, there are alligators to devour you like a cat-fish. Who knows but it may come your turn, in a windy night, to go aloft to the heavens, to rub down the stars, and give the goats and rams that are there, fodder. The keeping the stars clean, is a laborious work: a great deal worse than scouring andirons, or brass kettles. There is a bull there, would think no more of tossing you on his horns than he would a puppy dog. If the crab should get you in his claws, he would squeeze you like a lobster. But what is all that to your having no place to stand on? How would you like to be up at the moon, and to fall down when you had missed your hold, like a boy from the topmast of a ship, and have your brains beat out upon the top of some great mountain; where the devil might take your skeleton and give it to the turkey buzzards?

Or if they should, in the mean time, excuse you from such out of door services, they will rack and torture you with hard questions. You must tell them how long the rays of light are coming from the sun, how many drops of rain fall in a thunder-gust; what makes the grasshopper chirp when the sun is hot; how muscle-shells get up to the top of the mountains; how the Indians got over to America. You will have to prove that the negroes were once white; and that their flat noses came by some cause in the compass of human means to produce. These are puzzling questions; and yet you must solve them all. Take my advice, and stay where you are. Many men have ruined themselves by their ambition, and made bad worse. There is another kind of philosophy, which lies more within your sphere; that is moral philosophy. Every hostler or hireling can study this, and you have the most excellent opportunity of acquiring this knowledge in our traverses through the country, or communications at the different taverns or villages, where we may happen to sojourn.

Teague had long ago given up, in his mind, all thoughts of the society, and would not for the world have any more to do with it; therefore, without bidding the philosopher adieu, they pursued their route as usual.