Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

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It is the modest, not the presumptuous, inquirer who makes a real and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths.
Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (September 16, 1678December 12, 1751) was an English statesman and philosopher.


  • You may observe yourself...what a difference there is between the true strength of this nation and the fictitious one of the Whigs. How much time, how many lucky incidents, how many strains of power, how much money must go to create a majority of the latter; on the other hand, take but off the opinion that the Crown is another way inclined, the church interest rises with redoubled force, and by its natural genuine strength.
    • Letter to Mr. Drummond (10 November 1710), quoted in Gilbert Parke, Letters and Correspondence, Public and Private, of The Right Honourable Henry St. John, Lord Visc. Bolingbroke; during the Time he was Secretary of State to Queen Anne; with State Papers, Explanatory Notes, and a Translation of the Foreign Letters, &c.: Vol. I (1798), pp. 16–17
  • Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.
    • Reflections upon Exile (1716)
  • We are born too late to see the beginning, and we did too soon to see the end of many things.
    • On the Study and Use of History
  • I have read somewhere or other, — in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, I think, — that history is philosophy teaching by examples.
    • On the Study and Use of History, letter 2; in fact this relates to a third-century CE treatise on rhetoric, wrongly attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which says (xi. 2): "The contact with manners then is education; and this Thucydides appears to assert when he says history is philosophy learned from examples". The line is not found in Thucydides.
  • Nations, like men, have their infancy.
    • On the Study and Use of History, letter 4 (1752)
  • The landed men are the true owners of our political vessel, the moneyed men are no more than passengers in it.
    • Some Reflections on the Present State of the Nation (1753)
  • The second proposition admits and encourages the very practice we censure so justly, for which the saint [ Augustine of Hippo ] was so famous, and by which he contributed so much to promote contentions in his own days, and to perpetuate them to ours. The practice of deducing doctrines from the scriptures that are not evidently contained in them... Who does not see that the direct tendency of this practice is exactly the same as the event has proved it to be? It composes and propagates a religion, seemingly under the authority of God, but really under that of man. The principles of revelation are lost in theology, or disfigured by it: and whilst some men are impudent enough to pretend, others are silly enough to believe, that they adhere to the gospel, and maintain the cause of God against infidels and heretics, when they do nothing better, nor more, than espouse the conceits of men, whom enthusiasm, or the ambition of forming sects, or of making a great figure in them, has inspired. If you ask now what the practice of the christian fathers, and of other divines, should have been, in order to preserve the purity of faith, and to promote peace and charity, the answer is obvious... They should have adhered to the word of God: they should have paid no regard to heathen philosophy, jewish cabala, the sallies of enthusiasm, or the refinements of human ingenuity: they should have embraced, and held fast the articles of faith and doctrine, that were delivered in plain terms, or in unequivocal figures: they should not have been dogmatical where the sense was doubtful, nor have presumed even to guess where the Holy Ghost left the veil of mystery undrawn.
  • It is the modest, not the presumptuous, inquirer who makes a real and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows Nature and Nature's God; that is, he follows God in his works and in his word.
    • Letter to Alexander Pope; compare: "Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, But looks through Nature up to Nature’s God", Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, epistle iv. line 331.
  • The shortest and surest way of arriving at real knowledge is to unlearn the lessons we have been taught, to mount the first principles, and take nobody's word about them.
    • As quoted in Treasury of Wisdom, Wit and Humor, Odd Comparisons and Proverbs (1891) by Adam Woolever

Quotes about Bolingbroke[edit]

  • Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through? ... I do not often quote Bolingbroke, nor have his works in general, left any permanent impression on my mind. He is a presumptuousness and a superficial writer. But he has one observation, which in my opinion, is not without depth and solidity. He says, that he prefers a monarchy to other governments; because you can better ingraft any description of republic on a monarchy than any thing of monarchy upon the republican forms. I think him perfectly in the right.
  • He engaged young, and distinguished himself in business; and his penetration was almost intuition. I am old enough to have heard him speak in parliament. And I remember that, though prejudiced against him by party, I felt all the force and charms of his eloquence. Like Belial in Milton, “he made the worse appear the better cause.” All the internal and external advantages and talents of an orator are undoubtedly his. Figure, voice, elocution, knowledge, and, above all, the purest and most florid diction, with the justest metaphors and happiest images, had raised him to the post of Secretary at War, at four-and-twenty years old, an age at which others are hardly thought fit for the smallest employments.
    • Earl of Chesterfield to his son (12 December 1749) quoted in Letters Written By The Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl Of Chesterfield, To His Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq. Late Envoy-Extraordinary At The Court Of Dresden: Together with Several Other Pieces On Various Subjects: In Four Volumes, Volume II (1792), p. 292
  • Lord Bolingbroke, one of the ablest men who ever lived, was a firm and uncompromising Tory, and he advocated triennial Parliaments. He said that without this there was no security for the people, no integrity for the constitution.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in High Wycombe (27 November 1832), quoted in Selected Speeches of the late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield: Volume II, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), p. 7
  • He was called indeed a tory; but his writings prove him a stronger advocate for liberty than any of his countrymen, the whigs of the present day. Irritated by his exile, he committed one act unworthy of him, in connecting himself momentarily with a prince rejected by his country. But he redeemed that single act by his establishment of the principles which proved it to be wrong. ... Lord Bolingbroke's...is a style of the highest order. The lofty, rhythmical, full-flowing eloquence of Cicero. Periods of just measure, their members proportioned, their close full and round. His conceptions, too, are bold and strong, his diction copious, polished and commanding as his subject. His writings are certainly the finest samples in the English language, of the eloquence proper for the Senate. His political tracts are safe reading for the most timid religionist, his philosophical, for those who are not afraid to trust their reason with discussions of right and wrong.
    • Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes (19 January 1821), quoted in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (1984), p. 1451
  • I think Mr. secretary St. John the greatest young man I ever knew: wit, capacity, beauty, quickness of apprehension, good learning, and an excellent taste; the best orator in the house of commons, admirable conversation, good nature, and good manners; generous, and a despiser of money. His only fault is, talking to his friends in way of complaint of too great load of business, which looks a little like affectation; and he endeavours too much to mix the fine gentleman, and the man of pleasure, with the man of business. What truth and sincerity he may have, I know not.
    • Jonathan Swift, Letter XXXIII (23 October 1711), A Journal to Stella, quoted in The Works of Jonathan Swift, containing additional letters, tracts, and poems, with notes, and a life of the author, by W. Scott, Volume II (1824), pp. 405–406
  • [T]he accomplishments of his mind, which was adorned with the choicest gifts that God has yet thought fit to bestow upon the children of men; a strong memory, a clear judgment, a vast range of wit and fancy, a thorough comprehension, an invincible eloquence, with a most agreeable elocution.
    • Jonathan Swift, An Inquiry into the Behaviour of the Queen's last Ministry, &c. (June 1715), quoted The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, Volume 4, ed. Thomas Sheridan (1801), in p. 310

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