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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Henry Fielding (1707–1754)

Essay on Nothing

THE GREAT antiquity of Nothing is apparent from its being so visible in the accounts we have of the beginning of every nation. This is very plainly to be discovered in the first pages, and sometimes books, of all general historians; and, indeed, the study of this important subject fills up the whole life of an antiquary, it being always at the bottom of his inquiry, and is commonly at last discovered by him with infinite labour and pains.

As it is extremely hard to define Nothing in positive terms, I shall therefore do it in negative. Nothing, then, is not Something. And here I must object to a third error concerning it, which is, that it is in no place—which is an indirect way of depriving it of its existence; whereas, indeed, it possesses the greatest and noblest place upon this earth, viz., the human brain. But, indeed, this mistake has been sufficiently refuted by many very wise men, who, having spent their whole lives in the contemplation and pursuit of Nothing, have at last gravely concluded that there is Nothing in this world.

Farther, as Nothing is not Something, so everything which is not Something is Nothing; and wherever Something is not, Nothing is—a very large allowance in its favour, as must appear to persons well skilled in human affairs.

For instance, when a bladder is full of wind, it is full of Something; but when that is let out we aptly say that there is Nothing in it. The same may be as justly asserted of a man as of a bladder. However well he may be bedaubed with lace or with title, yet if he have not Something in him we may predicate the same of him as of an empty bladder….

Nothing may be seen, as is plain from the relation of persons who have recovered from high fevers, and perhaps may be suspected from some, at least, of those who have seen apparitions, both on earth and in the clouds. Nay, I have often heard it confessed by men, when asked what they saw at such a place and time, that they saw Nothing….

Nothing may be heard, of which the same proofs may be given as of the foregoing. That Nothing may be tasted and smelt, is not only known to persons of delicate palates and nostrils. How commonly do we hear that such a thing smells or tastes of Nothing! The latter I have heard asserted of a dish composed of five or six savoury ingredients….

Some have felt the motions of the spirit, and others have felt very bitterly the misfortunes of their friends, without endeavouring to relieve them. Now, there seem two plain instances that Nothing is an object of this sense. Nay, I have heard a surgeon declare, while he was cutting off a patient’s leg, that he was sure he felt Nothing.

Nothing is as well the object of our passions as our senses. Thus, there are many who love Nothing, some who hate Nothing, and some who fear Nothing, etc. Some have imagined that Knowledge, with the adjective human placed before it, is another word for Nothing. And one of the wisest men in the world declared that he knew Nothing. But, without carrying it so far, this, I believe, may be allowed, that it is at least possible for a man to know Nothing. And whoever hath read over many works of our ingenious moderns, with proper attention and emolument, will, I believe, confess that, if he understands them right, he understands Nothing….

I remember once, at the table of a person of great eminence, and one no less distinguished by superiority of wit than fortune, when a very dark passage was read out of a poet famous for being so sublime that he is often out of the sight of his reader, some persons present declared that they did not understand the meaning. The gentleman himself, casting his eye over the performance, testified a surprise at the dulness of his company, seeing Nothing could, he said, possibly be plainer than the meaning of the passage which they stuck at. This set all of us to puzzling again, but with like success; we frankly owned we could not find it out, and desired he would explain it. “Explain it?” said the gentleman. “Why, he means Nothing.”

In fact, this mistake arises from a too vulgar error among persons unacquainted with the mystery of writing, who imagine it impossible that a man should sit down to write without any meaning at all. Whereas, in reality, nothing is more common; for, not to instance myself, who have confessedly set down to write this essay with Nothing in my head, or, which is much the same thing, to write about Nothing, it may be incontestably proved, ab effectu, that Nothing is commoner among the moderns. The inimitable author of a preface to the “Posthumous Eclogues” of a late ingenious young gentleman says: “There are men who sit down to write what they think, and others to think what they shall write. But, indeed, there is a third and much more numerous sort, who never think either before they sit down or afterward, and who, when they produce on paper what was before in their heads, are sure to produce Nothing.”…

Nothing contains so much dignity as Nothing. Ask an infamous, worthless nobleman (if any such be) in what his dignity consists. It may not, perhaps, be consistent with his dignity to give you an answer; but suppose he should be willing to condescend so far, what could he in effect say? Should he say he had it from his ancestors, I apprehend a lawyer would oblige him to prove that the virtues to which this dignity was annexed descended to him. If he claims it is inherent in the title, might he not be told that a title originally implied dignity, as it implied the presence of those virtues to which dignity is inseparably annexed—but that no implication will fly in the face of downright positive proof to the contrary? In short, to examine no farther, since his endeavour to derive it from any other fountain would be equally impotent, his dignity arises from Nothing, and in reality is Nothing.

A man must have very little discernment who can live long in courts or populous cities without being convinced of the great dignity of Nothing; and though he should, through corruption or necessity, comply with the vulgar worship and adulation, he will know to what it is paid—namely, to Nothing.

The most astonishing instance of this respect so frequently paid to Nothing is when it is paid (if I may so express myself) to something less than Nothing; when the person who receives it is not only void of the quality for which he is respected, but is in reality notoriously guilty of the vices directly opposite to the virtues whose applause he receives. This is, indeed, the highest degree of Nothing, or (if I may be allowed the word) the Nothingest of all Nothings….

As Nothing is the end of the world, so it is of everything in the world. Ambition, the greatest, highest, noblest, finest, most heroic and Godlike of all passions, what doth it end in? Nothing. What did Alexander, Cæsar, and all the rest of that heroic band who have plundered and massacred so many millions, obtain by all their care, labour, pain, fatigue, and danger? Could they speak for themselves, must they not own that the end of all their pursuit was Nothing? Nor is this the end of private ambition alone. What is become of that proud mistress of the world—caput triumphati orbis—that Rome of which her own flatterers so liberally prophesied the immortality? In what has all her glory ended? Surely in Nothing….

Seeing that such is its dignity and importance, and that it is really the end of all those things which are supported with so much pomp and solemnity and looked on with such respect and esteem, surely it becomes a wise man to regard Nothing with the utmost awe and adoration; to pursue it with all his parts and pains; and to sacrifice to it his ease, his innocence, and his present happiness. To which noble pursuit we have this great incitement, that we may rest assured of never being cheated or deceived in the end proposed. The virtuous, wise, and learned may then be unconcerned at all the changes of ministries and of government; since they may be well satisfied that, while ministers of State are rogues themselves, and have inferior knavish tools to bribe and reward, true virtue, wisdom, learning, wit, and integrity will most certainly bring their possessors—Nothing.