William Jones (philologist)

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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones (September 28, 1746April 27, 1794) was an English philologist and student of ancient India, particularly known for his proposition of the existence of a relationship among Indo-European languages. He was also the founder of the Asiatic Society.


  • The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
    • Jones' third annual discourse before the Asiatic Society on the history and culture of the Hindus (delivered on 2 February 1786 and published in 1788)
  • I have carefully and regularly perused the Holy Scriptures, and am of opinion that the volume contains more sublimity, purer morality, more important history, and finer strains of eloquence, than can be collected from all other books, in whatever language they may have been written.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 31.
  • Voices of the glorified urge us onward. They who have passed from the semblances of time to the realities of eternity call upon us to advance. The rest that awaits us invites us forward. We do not pine for our rest before God wills it. We long for no inglorious rest. We are thankful rather for the invaluable training of difficulty, the loving discipline of danger and strife. Yet in the midst of it all the prospect of rest invites us heavenward. Through all, and above all, God cries, " Go forward!" " Come up higher!"
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 564.
  • Than all Bocara's vaunted gold,
    Than all the gems of Samarcand.
    • A Persian Song of Hafiz, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Go boldly forth, my simple lay,
    Whose accents flow with artless ease,
    Like orient pearls at random strung.
    • A Persian Song of Hafiz, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). Compare: "'T was he that ranged the words at random flung, Pierced the fair pearls and them together strung", Eastwick: Anvari Suhaili. (Translated from Firdousi).
  • On parent knees, a naked new-born child,
    Weeping thou sat'st while all around thee smiled;
    So live, that sinking in thy last long sleep,
    Calm thou mayst smile, while all around thee weep.
    • From the Persian, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • What constitutes a state?
    Men who their duties know,
    But know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain.
    And sovereign law, that state's collected will,
    O'er thrones and globes elate,
    Sits empress, crowning good, repressing ill.
    • Ode in Imitation of Alcæus, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). Compare: "Neither walls, theatres, porches, nor senseless equipage, make states, but men who are able to rely upon themselves", Aristides, Orations (Jebb's edition), vol. i. (trans. by A. W. Austin); By Themistocles alone, or with very few others, does this saying appear to be approved, which, though Alcæus formerly had produced, many afterwards claimed: "Not stones, nor wood, nor the art of artisans, make a state; but where men are who know how to take care of themselves, these are cities and walls."—Ibid. vol. ii.
  • Seven hours to law, to soothing slumber seven,
    Ten to the world allot, and all to heaven.
    • Reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919) Compare: "Six hours in sleep, in law's grave study six, Four spend in prayer, the rest on Nature fix", Translation of lines quoted by Edward Coke.

"On the Philosophy of the Asiatics" (1794)[edit]

Discourse the Eleventh. Delivered 20 February, 1794. By the President. The works of Sir William Jones (1807) Vol. 3, pp. 229-252.
  • By science I mean an assemblage of transcendental propositions discoverable by human reason, and reducible to first principles, axioms, or maxims, from which they may all be derived in a regular succession; and there are consequently as many sciences as there are general objects of our intellectual powers: when man first exerts those powers, his objects are himself and the rest of nature; himself he perceives to be composed of body and mind... and in the leisure... his intellect is directed to nature at large, to the substance of natural bodies, to their several properties, and to their quantity... and... arrives at the demonstration of a first intelligent cause; whence his collected wisdom, being arranged in the form of science, chiefly consists of physiology and medicine, metaphysicks and logick, ethicks and jurisprudence, natural philosophy and mathematicks; from which the religion of nature (since revealed religion must be referred to history, as alone affording evidence of it) has in all ages and in all nations been the sublime and consoling result.
  • [T]he mytaphysicks and logick of the Bráhmens, comprised in their six philosophical Sástras... have never yet been accessible to Europeans; and, by the help of the Sanscrit language, we now may read the works of the Saugatas, Bauddhas, A'rhatas, Jainas, and other heterodox philosophers, whence we may gather the metaphysical tenets prevalent in China and Japan, in the eastern peninsula of India, and in many considerable nations of Tartary: there are also some valuable tracts on these branches of science in Persian and Arabick, partly copied from the Greeks, and partly comprising the doctrines of the Súfís which anciently prevailed, and still prevail in great measure over this oriental world, and which the Greeks themselves condescended to borrow from eastern sages.
  • The fundamental tenet of the Védántí school, to which in a more modern age the incomparable Sancara was a firm and illustrious adherent, consisted, not in denying the existence of matter, that is, of solidity, impenetrability, and extended figure (to deny which would be lunacy), but, in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending, that it has no essence independent of mental perception, that existence and perceptibility are convertible terms, that external appearances and sensations are illusory, and would vanish into nothing if the divine energy, which alone sustains them, were suspended but for a moment; an opinion which Epicharmus and Plato seem to have adopted, and which has been maintained in the present century with great elegance, but with little publick applause; partly because it has been misunderstood, and partly because it has been misapplied by the false reasoning of some unpopular writers, who are said to have disbelieved in the moral attributes of God, whose omnipresence, wisdom, and goodness are the basis of the Indian philosophy... [N]othing can be farther removed from impiety than a system wholly built on the purest devotion; and the inexpressible difficulty, which any man, who shall make the attempt, will assuredly find in giving a satisfactory definition of material substance, must induce us to deliberate with coolness, before we censure the learned and pious restorer of the ancient Véda; though we cannot but admit, that, if the common opinions of mankind be the criterion of philosophical truth, we must adhere to the system of Gotama, which the Bráhmens of this province almost universally follow.
  • I have already had occasion to touch on the Indian metaphysicks of natural bodies according to the most celebrated of the Asiatick schools, from which the Pythagoreans are supposed to have borrowed many of their opinions; and as we learn from Cicero, that the old sages of Europe had an idea of centripetal force and a principle of universal gravitation... so I can venture to affirm, without meaning to pluck a leaf from the neverfading laurels of our immortal Newton, that the whole of his theology and part of his philosophy may be found in the Védas and even in the works of the Sufis: that most subtil spirit, which he suspected to pervade natural bodies, and, lying concealed in them, to cause attraction and repulsion, the emission, reflection, and refraction of light, electricity, calefaction, sensation, and muscular motion, is described by the Hindus as a fifth element endued with those very powers; and the Védas abound with allusions to a force universally attractive, which they chiefly ascribe to the Sun, thence called Aditya, or the Attractor; a name designed by the mythologists to mean the child of the Goddess Aditi; but the most wonderful passage on the theory of attraction occurs in the charming allegorical poem of Shi'ri'n and Ferha'd, or the Divine Spirit and a human Soul disinterestedly pious; a work which from the first verse to the last, is a blaze of religious and poetical fire. The whole passage appears to me so curious that I make no apology for giving you a faithful translation of it: "There is a strong propensity, which dances through every atom, and attracts the minutest particle to some peculiar object; search this universe from its base to its summit, from fire to air, from water to earth, from all below the Moon to all above the celestial spheres, and thou wilt not find a corpuscle destitute of that natural attractibility; the very point of the first thread, in this apparently tangled skein, is no other than such a principle of attraction, and all principles beside are void of a real basis; from such a propensity arises every motion perceived in heavenly or in terrestrial bodies; it is a disposition to be attracted, which taught hard steel to rush from its place and rivet itself on the magnet; it is the same disposition, which impels the light straw to attach itself firmly on amber; it is this quality which gives every substance in nature a tendency toward another, and an inclination forcibly directed to a determinate point." These notions are vague, indeed, and unsatisfactory; but permit me to ask, whether the last paragraph of Newton's incomparable work goes much farther, and whether any subsequent experiments have thrown light on a subject so abstruse and obscure: that the sublime astronomy and exquisitely beautiful geometry, with which that work is illumined, should in any degree be approached by the Mathematicians of Asia... but we must suspend our opinion of Indian astronomical knowledge, till the Súrya siddhánta shall appear in our own language, and even then... our greedy and capacious ears will by no means be satisfied; for in order to complete an historical account of genuine Hindu astronomy, we require... translations of at least three other Sanscrit books; of the treatise by Parasara, for the first age of Indian science, of that by Vara'ha [Mihira] with the copious comment of his very learned son [Prithuyasas], for the middle age, and of those written by Bhascara for times comparatively modern...
  • From all the properties of man and of nature, from all the various branches of science, from all the deductions of human reason, the general corollary, admitted by Hindus, Arabs, and Tartars, by Persians, and by Chinese, is the supremacy of an all-creating and all-preserving spirit, infinitely wise, good, and powerful, but infinitely removed from the comprehension of his most exalted creatures; nor are there in any language (the ancient Hebrew always excepted) more pious and sublime addresses to the being of beings, more splendid enumerations of his attributes, or more beautiful descriptions of his visible works, than in Arabick, Persian, and Sanscrit, especially in the Koran, the introductions to the poems of Sadi', Niza'm'i and Firdaus'i, the four Védas, and many parts of the numerous Puránas: but supplication and praise would not satisfy the boundless imagination of the Vedánti and Sufi theologists, who blending uncertain metaphysicks with undoubted principles of religion, have presumed to reason confidently on the very nature and essence of the divine spirit, and asserted in a very remote age, what multitudes of Hindus and Muselmans assert... that all spirit is homogeneous, that the spirit of God is in kind the same with that of man, though differing from it infinitely in degree, and that, as material substance is mere illusion, there exists in this universe only one generick spiritual substance, the sole primary cause, efficient, substantial and formal of all secondary causes and of all appearances whatever, but endued in its highest degree, with a sublime providential wisdom, and proceeding by ways incomprehensible to the spirits which emane from it; an opinion which Gotama never taught, and which we have no authority to believe, but which, as it is grounded on the doctrine of an immaterial creator supremely wise, and a constant preserver supremely benevolent, differs as widely from the pantheism of Spinoza and Toland, as the affirmation of a proposition differs from the negation of it; though the last named professor of that insane philosophy had the baseness to conceal his meaning under the very words of Saint Paul, which are cited by Newton for a purpose totally different, and has even used a phrase, which occurs, indeed, in the Véda, but in a sense diametrically opposite to that, which he would have given it. The passage to which I allude is in a speech of Varuna to his son, where he says, "That spirit, from which these created beings proceed; through which having proceeded from it, they live; toward which they tend and in which they are ultimately absorbed, that spirit study to know; that spirit is the Great One."

Quotes about Jones[edit]

  • The world is idea.
    This truth is by no means new. It was implicitly involved in the sceptical reflections from which Descartes started. Berkeley, however, was the first who distinctly enunciated it, and by this he has rendered a permanent service to philosophy, even though the rest of his teaching should not endure. Kant's primary mistake was the neglect of this principle... How early again this truth was recognised by the wise men of India, appearing indeed as the fundamental tenet of the Vedânta philosophy ascribed to Vyasa, is pointed out by Sir William Jones in the last of his essays: "On the philosophy of the Asiatics"...

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