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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

V. Arbuthnot and Lesser Prose Writers

§ 5. His pamphlets after the crisis

Of the minor pieces connected with the Scriblerus scheme, the chief is An Essay concerning the Origin of Sciences (1732), in which Pope claimed some share. In this humorous piece, the inhabitants of India, Greece and Italy are said to have derived their knowledge from men-monkeys, the descendants of the original Ethiopians, with whom the gods conversed. The design, wrote Pope, was “to ridicule such as build general assertions upon two or three loose quotations from the ancients.” Virgilius Restauratus contains some amusing emendations in ridicule of Bentley, probably contributed by various members of the club, but chiefly by Arbuthnot. A Brief Account of Mr. John Ginglicutt’s Treatise concerning the Altercation or Scolding of the Ancients (1731), as Pope said, is of little value; its object was to satirise the practice of political opponents in applying to each other the language of Billingsgate, by showing that this sort of altercation is ancient and classical, while what is commonly considered polite is barbarous.

Arbuthnot’s principal medical works are An Essay concerning the nature of Aliments (1731) and An Essay concerning the effect of Air on Human Bodies (1733). In the first of these books, both of which may be read with interest by laymen, he argued that all that is done by medicine might be done equally well by diet. Sir Benjamin Richardson, who has called the second work “one of the most remarkable books in the literature of medicine,” says that Arbuthnot was far in advance of his age in medical science, and made some remarkable discoveries. An Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning (1701) is an admirable and well reasoned paper, with some good suggestions respecting the study of mathematics.

Two other serious writings may be mentioned briefly. A Sermon preached to the People at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh (1706) was in defence of the union with England, then under discussion. The text was “Better is he that laboureth and aboundeth in all things, than he that boasteth himself and wanteth bread.” Arbuthnot’s countrymen were urged, in this wise and moderate paper, to pocket their pride, and take the benefits that the union offered to them. “I have set before you to-day, on one hand, industry and riches; on the other, pride and poverty”; it was the interest of all classes in Scotland to accept the offer of a partnership in the great blessings which England could bestow. The other piece, [char] Know Yourself (1734), is Arbuthnot’s sole poem. In this earnest study, probably his last work, he described the principles of his own life. Divine truth made clear his way, encouraging him with the revelation of his high descent.

  • 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,
  • Borne 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.