Of the Immortality of the Soul, and of The Dogma of another Life.
We, have now, Madam, come to the examination of the dogma of a future life, in which it is supposed that the Divinity, after causing men to pass through the temptations, the trials, and the difficulties of this life, for the purpose of satisfying himself whether they are worthy of his love or his hatred, will bestow the recompenses or inflict the chastisements which they deserved. This dogma, which is one of the capital points of the Christian religion, is founded on a great many hypotheses or suppositions, which we have already glanced at, and which we have shown to be absurd and incompatible with the notions which the same religion gives us of the Deity. In effect, it supposes us capable of offending or pleasing the Author of Nature, of influencing his humor, or exciting his passions; afflicting, tormenting, resisting, and thwarting the plans of Deity. It supposes, moreover, the free-will of man—a system which we have seen incompatible with the goodness, justice, and omnipotence of the Deity. It supposes, further, that God has occasion of proving his creatures, and making them, if I may so speak, pass a novitiate to know what they are worth when he shall square accounts with them. It supposes in God, who has created men for happiness only, the inability to put, by one grand effort, all men in the road, whence they may infallibly arrive at permanent felicity. It supposes that man will survive himself, or that the same being, after death, will continue to think, to feel, and act as he did in this life. In a word, it supposes the immortality of the soul—an opinion unknown to the Jewish lawgiver, who is totally silent on this topic to the people to whom God had manifested himself; an opinion which even in the time of Jesus Christ one sect at Jerusalem admitted, while another sect rejected; an opinion about which the Messiah, who came to instruct them, deigned to fix the ideas of those who might deceive themselves in this respect; an opinion which appears to have been engendered in Egypt, or in India, anterior to the Jewish religion, but which was unknown among the Hebrews till they took occasion to instruct themselves in the Pagan philosophy of the Greeks, and doctrines of Plato.
Whatever might be the origin of this doctrine, it was eagerly adopted by the Christians, who judged it very convenient to their system of religion, all the parts of which are founded on the marvellous, and which made it a crime to admit any truths agreeable to reason and common sense. Thus, without going back to the inventors of this inconceivable dogma, let us examine dispassionately what this opinion really is; let us endeavor to penetrate to the principles on which it is supported; let us adopt it, if we shall find it an idea conformable to reason; let us reject it, if it shall appear destitute of proof, and at variance with common sense, even though it had been received as an established truth in all antiquity, though it may have been adopted by many millions of mankind.
Those who maintain the opinion of the soul's immortality, regard it—that is, the soul—as a being distinct from the body, as a substance, or essence, totally different from the corporeal frame, and they designate it by the name of spirit. If we ask them what a spirit is, they tell us it is not matter; and if we ask them what they understand by that which is not matter, which is the only thing of which we cannot form an idea, they tell us it is a spirit. In general, it is easy to see that men the most savage, as well as the most subtle thinkers, make use of the word spirit to designate all the causes of which they cannot form clear notions; hence the word spirit hath been used to designate a being of which none can form any idea.
Notwithstanding, the divines pretend that this unknown being, entirely different from the body, of a substance which has nothing conformable with itself, is, nevertheless, capable of setting the body in motion; and this, doubtless, is a mystery very inconceivable. We have noticed the alliance between this spiritual substance and the material body, whose functions it regulates. As the divines have supposed that matter could neither think, nor will, nor perceive, they have believed that it might conceive much better those operations attributed to a being of which they had ideas less clear than they can form of matter. In consequence, they have imagined many gratuitous suppositions to explain the union of the soul with the body. In fine, in the impossibility of overcoming the insurmountable barriers which oppose them, the priests have made man twofold, by supposing that he contains something distinct from himself; they have cut through all difficulties by saying that this union is a great mystery, which man cannot understand; and they have everlasting recourse to the omnipotence of God, to his supreme will, to the miracles which he has always wrought; and those last are never-failing, final resources, which the theologians reserve for every case wherein they can find no other mode of escaping gracefully from the argument of their adversaries.
You see, then, to what we reduce all the jargon of the metaphysicians, all the profound reveries which for so many ages have been so industriously hawked about in defence of the soul of man; an immaterial substance, of which no living being can form an idea; a spirit, that is to say, a being totally different from any thing we know. All the theological verbiage ends here, by telling us, in a round of pompous terms,—fooleries that impose on the ignorant,—that we do not know what essence the soul is of; but we call it a spirit because of its nature, and because we feel ourselves agitated by some unknown agent; we cannot comprehend the mechanism of the soul; yet can we feel ourselves moved, as it were, by an effect of the power of God, whose essence is far removed from ours, and more concealed from us than the human soul itself. By the aid of this language, from which you cannot possibly learn any thing, you will be as wise, Madam, as all the theologians in the world.
If you would desire to form ideas the most precise of yourself, banish from you the prejudices of a vain theology, which only consists in repeating words without attaching any new ideas to them, and which are insufficient to distinguish the soul from the body, which appear only capable of multiplying beings without reason, of rendering more incomprehensible and more obscure, notions less distinct than we already have of ourselves. These notions should be at least the most simple and the most exact, if we consult our nature, experience, and reason. They prove that man knows nothing but by his material sensible organs, that he sees only by his eyes, that he feels by his touch, that he hears by his ears; and that when either of these organs is actually deranged, or has been previously wanting, or imperfect, man can have none of the ideas that organ is capable of furnishing him with,—neither thoughts, memory, reflection, judgment, desire, nor will. Experience shows us that corporeal and material beings are alone capable of being moved and acted upon, and that without those organs we have enumerated the soul thinks not, feels not, wills not, nor is moved. Every thing shows us that the soul undergoes always the same vicissitudes as the body; it grows to maturity, gains strength, becomes weak, and puts on old age, like the body; in fine, every thing we can understand of it goes to prove that it perishes with the body. It is indeed folly to pretend that man will feel when he has no organs appropriate for that sentiment; that he will see and hear without eyes or ears; that he will have ideas without having senses to receive impressions from physical objects, or to give rise to perceptions in his understanding; in fine, that he will enjoy or suffer when he has no longer either nerves or sensibility.
Thus every thing conspires to prove that the soul is the same thing as the body, viewed relatively to some of its functions, which are more obscure than others. Every thing serves to convince us that without the body the soul is nothing, and that all the operations which are attributed to the soul cannot be exercised any longer when the body is destroyed. Our body is a machine, which, so long as we live, is susceptible of producing the effects which have been designated under different names, one from another; sentiment is one of these effects, thought is another, reflection a third. This last passes sometimes by other names, and our brain appears to be the seat of all our organs; it is that which is the most susceptible. This organic machine once destroyed or deranged, is no longer capable of producing the same effects, or of exercising the same functions. It is with our body as it is with a watch which indicates the hours, and which goes not if the spring or a pinion be broken.
Cease, Eugenia, cease to torment yourself about the fate which shall attend you when death will have separated you from all that is dear on earth. After the dissolution of this life, the soul shall cease to exist; those devouring flames with which you have been threatened by the priests will have no effect upon the soul, which can neither be susceptible then of pleasures nor pains, of agreeable or sorrowful ideas, of lively or doleful reflections.
It is only by means of the bodily organs that we feel, think, and are merry or sad, happy or miserable; this body once reduced to dust, we will have neither perceptions nor sensations, and, by consequence, neither memory nor ideas; the dispersed particles will no longer have the same qualities they possessed when united; nor will they any longer conspire to produce the same effects. In a word, the body being destroyed, the soul, which is merely a result of all the parts of the body in action, will cease to be what it is; it will be reduced to nothing with the life's breath.
Our teachers pretend to understand the soul well; they profess to be able to distinguish it from the body; in short, they can do nothing without it; and therefore, to keep up the farce, they have been compelled to admit the ridiculous dogma of the Persians, known by the name of the resurrection. This system supposes that the particles of the body which have been scattered at death will be collected at the last day, to be replaced in their primitive condition. But that this strange phenomenon may take place, it is necessary that the particles of our destroyed bodies, of which some, have been converted into earth, others have passed into plants, others into animals, some of one species, others of another, even of our own; it is requisite, I say, that these particles, of which some have been mixed with the waters of the deep, others have been carried on the wings of the wind, and which have successively belonged to many different men, should be reunited to reproduce the individual to whom they formerly belonged. If you cannot get over this impossibility, the theologians will explain it to you by saying, very briefly, "Ah! it is a profound mystery, which we cannot comprehend." They will inform you that the resurrection is a miracle, a supernatural effect, which is to result from the divine power. It is thus they overcome all the difficulties which the good sense of a few opposes to their rhapsodies.
If, perchance, Madam, you do not wish to remain content with these sublime reasons, against which your good sense will naturally revolt, the clergy will endeavor to seduce your imagination by vague pictures of the ineffable delights which will be enjoyed in Paradise by the souls and bodies of those who have adopted their reveries; they will aver that you cannot refuse to believe them upon their mere word without encountering the eternal indignation of a God of pity; and they will attempt to alarm your fancy by frightful delineations of the cruel torments which a God of goodness has prepared for the greater number of his creatures.
But if you consider the thing coolly, you will perceive the futility of their flattering promises and of their puny threatenings, which are uttered merely to catch the unwary. You may easily discover that if it could be true that man shall survive himself, God, in recompensing him, would only recompense himself for the grace which he had granted; and when he punished him, he punished him for not receiving the grace which he had hardened him against receiving. This line of conduct, so cruel and barbarous, appears equally unworthy of a wise God as it is of a being perfectly good.
If your mind, proof against the terrors with which the Christian religion penetrates its sectaries, is capable of contemplating these frightful circumstances, which it is imagined will accompany the carefully-invented punishments which God has destined for the victims of his vengeance, you will find that they are impossible, and totally incompatible with the ideas which they themselves have put forth of the Divinity. In a word, you will perceive that the chastisements of another life are but a crowd of chimeras, invented to disturb human reason, to subjugate it beneath the feet of imposture, to annihilate forever the repose of slaves whom the priesthood would inthrall and retain under its yoke.
In short, Eugenia, the priests would make you believe that these torments will be horrible,—a thing which accords not with our ideas of God's goodness; they tell you they will be eternal,—a thing which accords not with our ideas of the justice of God, who, one would very naturally suppose, will proportion chastisements to faults, and who, by consequence, will not punish without end the beings whose actions are bounded by time. They tell us that the offences against God are infinite, and, by consequence, that the Divinity, without doing violence to his justice, may avenge himself as God, that is to say, avenge himself to infinity. In this case I shall say that this God is not good; that he is vindictive, a character which always announces fear and weakness. In fine, I shall say that among the imperfect beings who compose the human species, there is not, perhaps, a single one who, without some advantage to himself, without personal fear, in a word, without folly, would consent to punish everlastingly the wretch who might have the misfortune to offend him, but who no longer had either the ability or the inclination to commit another offence. Caligula found, at least, some little amusement to forsake for a time the cares of government, and enjoy the spectacle of punishment which he inflicted on those unfortunate men whom he had an interest in destroying. But what advantage can it be to God to heap on the damned everlasting torments? Will this amuse him? Will their frightful punishments correct their faults? Can these examples of the divine severity be of any service to those on earth, who witness not their friends in hell? Will it not be the most astonishing of all the miracles of Deity to make the bodies of the damned invulnerable, to resist, through the ceaseless ages of eternity, the frightful torments destined for them?
You see, then, Madam, that the ideas which the priests give us of hell make of God a being infinitely more insensible, more wicked and cruel than the most barbarous of men. They add to all this that it will be the Devil and the apostate angels, that is to say, the enemies of God, whom he will employ as the ministers of his implacable vengeance. These wicked spirits, then, will execute the commands which this severe judge will pronounce against men at the last judgment. For you must know, Madam, that a God who knows all will at some future time take an account of what he already knows. So, then, not content with judging men at death, he will assemble the whole human race with great pomp at the last or general judgment, in which he will confirm his sentence in the view of the whole human race, assembled to receive their doom. Thus on the wreck of the world will he pronounce a definitive judgment, from which there will be no appeal. But, in attending this memorable judgment, what will become of the souls of men, separated from their bodies, which have not yet been resuscitated? The souls of the just will go directly to enjoy the blessings of Paradise; but what is to become of the immense crowd of souls imbued with faults or crimes, and on whom the infallible parsons, who are so well instructed in what is passing in another world, cannot speak with certainty as to their fate? According to some of these wiseacres, God will place the souls of such as are not wholly displeasing to him in a place of punishment, where, by rigorous torments, they shall have the merit of expiating the faults with which they may stand chargeable at death. According to this fine system, so profitable to our spiritual guides, God has found it the most simple method to build a fiery furnace for the special purpose of tormenting a certain proportion of souls who have not been sufficiently purified at death to enter Paradise, but who, after leaving them some years united with the body, and giving them time necessary to arrive at that amendment of life by which they may become partakers of the supreme felicity of heaven, ordains that they shall expiate their offences in torment. It is on this ridiculous notion that our priests have bottomed the doctrine of purgatory, which every good Catholic is obliged to believe for the benefit of the priests, who reserve to themselves, as is very reasonable, the power of compelling by their prayers a just and immutable God to relax in his sternness, and liberate the captive souls, which he had only condemned to undergo this purgation in order that they might be made meet for the joys of Paradise.
With respect to the Protestants, who are, as every one knows, heretics and impious, you will observe that they pretend not to those lucrative views of the Roman doctors. On the contrary, they think that, at the instant of death, every man is irrevocably judged; that he goes directly to glory or into a place of punishment, to suffer the award of evil by the enduring of punishments for which God had eternally prepared both the sufferer and his torments! Even before the reunion of soul and body at the final judgment, they fancy that the soul of the wicked (which, on the principle of all souls being spirits, must be the same in essence as the soul of the elect,) will, though deprived of those organs by which it felt, and thought, and acted, be capable of undergoing the agency or action of a fire! It is true that some Protestant theologians tell us that the fire of hell is a spiritual fire, and, by consequence, very different from the material fire vomited out of Vesuvius, and Ætna, and Hecla. Nor ought we to doubt that these informed doctors of the Protestant faith know very well what they say, and that they have as precise and clear ideas of a spiritual fire as they have of the ineffable joys of Paradise, which may be as spiritual as the punishment of the damned in hell.
Such are, Madam, in a few words, the absurdities, not less revolting than ridiculous, which the dogmas of a future life and of the immortality of the soul have engendered in the minds of men. Such are the phantoms which have been invented and propagated, to seduce and alarm mortals, to excite their hopes and their fears; such the illusions that so powerfully operate on weak and feeling beings. But as melancholy ideas have more effect upon the imagination than those which are agreeable, the priests have always insisted more forcibly on what men have to fear on the part of a terrible God than on what they have to hope from the mercy of a forgiving Deity, full of goodness. Princes the most wicked are infinitely more respected than those who are famed for indulgence and humanity. The priests have had the art to throw us into uncertainty and mistrust by the twofold character which they have given the Divinity. If they promise us salvation, they tell us that we must work it out for ourselves, "with fear and trembling." It is thus that they have contrived to inspire the minds of the most honest men with dismay and doubt, repeating without ceasing that time only must disclose who are worthy of the divine love, or who are to be the objects of the divine wrath. Terror has been and always will be the most certain means of corrupting and enslaving the mind of man.
They will tell us, doubtless, that the terrors which religion inspires are salutary terrors; that the dogma of another life is a bridle sufficiently powerful to prevent the commission of crimes and restrain men within the path of duty. To undeceive one's self of this maxim, so often thundered in our ears, and so generally adopted on the authority of the priests, we have only to open our eyes. Nevertheless, we see some Christians thoroughly persuaded of another life, who, notwithstanding, conduct themselves as if they had nothing to fear on the part of a God of vengeance, nor any thing to hope from a God of mercy. When any of these are engaged in some great project, at all times they are tempted by some strong passion or by some bad habit, they shut their eyes on another life, they see not the enraged judge, they suffer themselves to sin, and when it is committed, they comfort themselves by saying, that God is good. Besides, they console themselves by the same contradictory religion which shows them also this same God, whom it represents so susceptible of wrath, as full of mercy, bestowing his grace on all those who are sensible of their evils and repent. In a word, I see none whom the fears of hell will restrain when passion or interest solicit obedience. The very priests who make so many efforts to convince us of their dogmas too often evince more wickedness of conduct than we find in those who have never heard one word about another life. Those who from infancy have been taught these terrifying lessons are neither less debauched, nor less proud, nor less passionate, nor less unjust, nor less avaricious than others who have lived and died ignorant of Christian purgatory and Paradise. In fine, the dogma of another life has little or no influence on them; it annihilates none of their passions; it is a bridle merely with some few timid souls, who, without its knowledge, would never have the hardihood to be guilty of any great excesses. This dogma is very fit to disturb the quiet of some honest, timorous persons, and the credulous, whose imagination it inflames, without ever staying the hand of great rogues, without imposing on them more than the decency of civilization and a specious morality of life, restrained chiefly by the coercion of public laws.
In short, to sum all up in one thought, I behold a religion gloomy and formidable to make impressions very lively, very deep, and very dangerous on a mind such as yours, although it makes but very momentary impressions on the minds of such as are hardened in crime, or whose dissipation destroys constantly the effects of its threats. More lively affected than others by your principles, you have been but too often and too seriously occupied for your happiness by gloomy and harassing objects, which have powerfully affected your sensible imagination, though the same phantoms that have pursued you have been altogether banished from the mind of those who have had neither your virtues, your understanding, nor your sensibility.
According to his principles, a Christian must always live in fear; he can never know with certainty whether he pleases or displeases God; the least movement of pride or of covetousness, the least desire, will suffice to merit the divine anger, and lose in one moment the fruits of years of devotion. It is not surprising that, with these frightful principles before them, many Christians should endeavor to find in solitude employment for their lugubrious reflections, where they may avoid the occasions that solicit them to do wrong, and embrace such means as are most likely, according to their notions of the likelihood of the thing, to expiate the faults which they fancy might incur the eternal vengeance of God.
Thus the dark notions of a future life leave those only in peace who think slightly upon it; and they are very disconsolate to all those whose temperament determines them to contemplate it. They are but the atrocious ideas, however, which the priests study to give us of the Deity, and by which they have compelled so many worthy people to throw themselves into the arms of incredulity. If some libertines, incapable of reasoning, abjure a religion troublesome to their passions, or which abridges their pleasures, there are very many who have maturely examined it, that have been disgusted with it, because they could not consent to live in the fears it engendered, nor to nourish the despair it created. They have then abjured this religion, fit only to fill the soul with inquietudes, that they might find in the bosom of reason the repose which it insures to good sense.
Times of the greatest crimes are always times of the greatest ignorance. It is in these times, or usually so, that the greatest noise is made about religion. Men then follow mechanically, and without examination, the tenets which their priests impose on them, without ever diving to the bottom of their doctrines. In proportion as mankind become enlightened, great crimes become more rare, the manners of men are more polished, the sciences are cultivated, and the religion which they have coolly and carefully examined loses sensibly its credit. It is thus that we see so many incredulous people in the bosom of society become more agreeable and complacent now than formerly, when it depended on the caprice of a priest to involve them in troubles, and to invite the people to crimes in the hope of thereby meriting heaven.
Religion is consoling only to those who have no embarrassment about it; the indefinite and vague recompense which it promises, without giving ideas of it, is made to deceive those who make no reflections on the impatient, variable, false, and cruel character which this religion gives of its God. But how can it make any promises on the part of a God whom it represents as a tempter, a seducer—who appears, moreover, to take pleasure in laying the most dangerous snares for his weak creatures? How can it reckon on the favors of a God full of caprice, who it alternately informs us is replete with tenderness or with hatred? By what right does it hold out to us the rewards of a despotic and tyrannical God, who does or does not choose men for happiness, and who consults only his own fantasy to destine some of his creatures to bliss and others to perdition? Nothing, doubtless, but the blindest enthusiasm could induce mortals to place confidence in such a God as the priests have feigned; it is to folly alone we must attribute the love some well-meaning people profess to the God of the parsons; it is matchless extravagance alone that could prevail on men to reckon on the unknown rewards which are promised them by this religion, at the same time that it assures us that God is the author of grace, but that we have no right to expect any thing from him.
In a word, Madam, the notions of another life, far from consoling, are fit only to imbitter all the sweets of the present life. After the sad and gloomy ideas which Christianity, always at variance with itself, presents us with of its God, it then affirms, that we are much more likely to incur his terrible chastisements, than possessed of power by which we may merit ineffable rewards; and it proceeds to inform us, that God will give grace to whomsoever he pleases, yet it remains with themselves whether they escape damnation; and a life the most spotless cannot warrant them to presume that they are worthy of his favor. In good truth, would not total annihilation be preferable to such beings, rather than falling into the hands of a Deity so hard-hearted? Would not every man of sense prefer the idea of complete annihilation to that of a future existence, in order to be the sport of the eternal caprice of a Deity, so cruel as to damn and torment, without end, the unfortunate beings whom he created so weak, that he might punish them for faults inseparable from their nature? If God is good, as we are assured, notwithstanding the cruelties of which the priests suppose him capable, is it not more consonant to all our ideas of a being perfectly good, to believe that he did not create them to sport with them in a state of eternal damnation, which they had not the power of choosing, or of rejecting and shunning? Has not God treated the beasts of the field more favorably than he has treated man, since he has exempted them from sin, and by consequence has not exposed them to suffer an eternal unhappiness?
The dogma of the immortality of the soul, or of a future life, presents nothing consoling in the Christian religion. On the contrary, it is calculated expressly to fill the heart of the Christian, following out his principles, with bitterness and continual alarm. I appeal to yourself, Madam, whether these sublime notions have any thing consoling in them? Whenever this uncertain idea has presented itself to your mind, has it not filled you with a cold and secret horror? Has the consciousness of a life so virtuous and so spotless as yours, secured you against those fears which are inspired by the idea of a being jealous, severe, capricious, whose eternal disgrace the least fault is sure of incurring, and in whose eyes the smallest weakness, or freedom the most involuntary, is sufficient to cancel years of strict observance of all the rules of religion?
I know very well what you will advance to support yourself in your prejudices. The ministers of religion possess the secret of tempering the alarms which they have the art to excite. They strive to inspire confidence in those minds which they discover accessible to fear. They balance, thus, one passion against another. They hold in suspense the minds of their slaves, in the apprehension that too much confidence would only render them less pliable, or that despair would force them to throw off the yoke. To persons terribly frightened about their state after death, they speak only of the hopes which we may entertain of the goodness of God. To those who have too much confidence, they preach up the terrors of the Lord, and the judgments of a severe God. By this chicanery they contrive to subject or retain under their yoke all those who are weak enough to be led by the contradictory doctrines of these blind guides.
They tell you, besides, that the sentiment of the immortality of the soul is inherent in man; that the soul is consumed by boundless desires, and that since there is nothing on this earth capable of satisfying it, these are indubitable proofs that it is destined to subsist eternally. In a word, that as we naturally desire to exist always, we may naturally conclude that we shall always exist. But what think you, Madam, of such reasonings? To what do they lead? Do we desire the continuation of this existence, because it may be blessed and happy, or because we know not what may become of us? But we cannot desire a miserable existence, or, at least, one in which it is more than probable we may be miserable rather than happy. If, as the Christian religion so often repeats, the number of the elect is very small, and salvation very difficult, the number of the reprobate very great, and damnation very easily obtained, who is he who would desire to exist always with so evident a risk of being eternally damned? Would it not have been better for us not to have been born, than to have been compelled against our nature to play a game so fraught with peril? Does not annihilation itself present to us an idea preferable to that of an existence which may very easily lead us to eternal tortures? Suffer me, Madam, to appeal to yourself. If, before you had come into this world, you had had your choice of being born, or of not seeing the light of this fair sun, and you could have been made to comprehend, but for one moment, the hundred thousandth part of the risks you run to be eternally unhappy, would you not have determined never to enjoy life?
It is an easy matter, then, to perceive the proofs on which the priests pretend to found this dogma of the immortality of the soul and a future life. The desire which we might have of it could only be founded on the hope of enjoying eternal happiness. But does religion give us this assurance? Yes, say the clergy, if you submit faithfully to the rules it prescribes. But to conform one's self to these rules, is it not necessary to have grace from Heaven? And, are we then sure we shall obtain that grace, or if we do, merit Heaven? Do the priests not repeat to us, without ceasing, that God is the author of grace, and that he only gives it to a small number of the elect? Do they not daily tell us that, except one man, who rendered himself worthy of this eternal happiness, there are millions going the high road to damnation? This being admitted, every Christian, who reasons, would be a fool to desire a future existence which he has so many motives to fear, or to reckon on a happiness which every thing conspires to show him is as uncertain, as difficult to be obtained, as it is unequivocally dependent on the fantasies of a capricious Deity, who sports with the misfortunes of his creatures.
Under every point of view in which we regard the dogma of the soul's immortality, we are compelled to consider it as a chimera invented by men who have realized their wishes, or who have not been able to justify Providence from the transitory injustices of this world. This dogma was received with avidity, because it flattered the desires, and especially the vanity of man, who arrogated to himself a superiority above all the beings that enjoy existence, and which he would pass by and reduce to mere clay; who believed himself the favorite of God, without ever taxing his attention with this other fact—that God makes him every instant experience vicissitudes, calamities, and trials, as all sentient natures experience; that God made him, in fine, to undergo death, or dissolution, which is an invariable law that all that exists must find verified. This haughty creature, who fancies himself a privileged being, alone agreeable to his Maker, does not perceive that there are stages in his life when his existence is more uncertain and much more weak than that of the other animals, or even of some inanimate things. Man is unwilling to admit that he possesses not the strength of the lion, nor the swiftness of the stag, nor the durability of an oak, nor the solidity of marble or metal. He believes himself the greatest favorite, the most sublime, the most noble; he believes himself superior to all other animals because he possesses the faculties of thinking, judging, and reasoning. But his thoughts only render him more wretched than all the animals whom he supposes deprived of this faculty, or who, at least, he believes, do not enjoy it in the same degree with himself. Do not the faculties of thinking, of remembering, of foresight, too often render him unhappy by the very idea of the past, the present, and the future? Do not his passions drive him to excesses unknown to the other animals? Are his judgments always reasonable and wise? Is reason so largely developed in the great mass of men that the priests should interdict its use as dangerous? Are mankind sufficiently advanced in knowledge to be able to overcome the prejudices and chimeras which render them unhappy during the greatest part of their lives? In fine, have the beasts some species of religious impressions, which inspire continual terrors in their breast, making them look upon some awful event, which imbitters their softest pleasures, which enjoins them to torment themselves, and which threatens them with eternal damnation? No!
In truth, Madam, if you weigh in an equitable balance the pretended advantages of man above the other animals, you will soon see how evanescent is this fictitious superiority which he has arrogated to himself. We find that all the productions of nature are submitted to the same laws; that all beings are only born to die; they produce their like to destroy themselves; that all sentient beings are compelled to undergo pleasures and pains; they appear and they disappear; they are and they cease to be; they evince under one form that they will quit it to produce another. Such are the continual vicissitudes to which every thing that exists is evidently subjected, and from which man is not exempt, any more than the other beings and productions that he appropriates to his use as lord of the creation. Even our globe itself undergoes change; the seas change their place; the mountains are gathered in heaps or levelled into plains; every thing that breathes is destroyed at last, and man alone pretends to an eternal duration.
It is unnecessary to tell me that we degrade man when we compare him with the beasts, deprived of souls and intelligence; this is no levelling doctrine, but one which places him exactly where nature places him, but from which his puerile vanity has unfortunately driven him. All beings are equals; under various and different forms they act differently; they are governed in their appetites and passions by laws which are invariably the same for all of the same species; every thing which is composed of parts will be dissolved; every thing which has life must part with it at death; all men are equally compelled to submit to this fate; they are equal at death, although during life their power, their talents, and especially their virtues, establish a marked difference, which, though real, is only momentary. What will they be after death? They will be exactly what they were ten years before they were born.
Banish, then, Eugenia, from your mind forever the terrors which death has hitherto filled you with. It is for the wretched a safe haven against the misfortunes of this life. If it appears a cruel alternative to those who enjoy the good things of this world, why do they not console themselves with the idea of what they do actually enjoy? Let them call reason to their aid; it will calm the inquietudes of their imagination, but too greatly alarmed; it will disperse the clouds which religion spreads over their minds; it will teach them that this death, so terrible in apprehension, is really nothing, and that it will neither be accompanied with remembrance of past pleasures nor of sorrow now no more.
Live, then, happy and tranquil, amiable Eugenia! Preserve carefully an existence so interesting and so necessary to all those with whom you live. Allow not your health to be injured, nor trouble your quiet with melancholy ideas. Without being teased by the prospect of an event which has no right to disturb your repose, cultivate virtue, which has always been your favorite, so necessary to your internal peace, and which has rendered you so dear to all those who have the happiness of being your friends. Let your rank, your credit, your riches, your talents be employed to make others happy, to support the oppressed, to succor the unfortunate, to dry up the tears of those whom you may have an opportunity of comforting! Let your mind be occupied about such agreeable and profitable employments as are likely to please you! Call in the aid of your reason to dissipate the phantoms which alarm you, to efface the prejudices which you have imbibed in early life! In a word, comfort yourself, and remember that in practising virtue, as you do, you cannot become an object of hatred to God, who, if he has reserved in eternity rigorous punishments for the social virtues, will be the strangest, the most cruel, and the most insensible of beings!
You demand of me, perhaps, "In destroying the idea of another world, what is to become of the remorse, those chastisements so useful to mankind, and so well calculated to restrain them within the bounds of propriety?" I reply, that remorse will always subsist as long as we shall be capable of feeling its pangs, even when we cease to fear the distant and uncertain vengeance of the Divinity. In the commission of crimes, in allowing one's self to be the sport of passion, in injuring our species, in refusing to do them good, in stifling pity, every man whose reason is not totally deranged perceives clearly that he will render himself odious to others, that he ought to fear their enmity. He will blush, then, if he thinks he has rendered himself hateful and detestable in their eyes. He knows the continual need he has of their esteem and assistance. Experience proves to him that vices the most concealed are injurious to himself. He lives in perpetual fear lest some mishap should unfold his weaknesses and secret faults. It is from all these ideas that we are to look for regret and remorse, even in those who do not believe in the chimeras of another world. With regard to those whose reason is deranged, those who are enervated by their passions, or perhaps linked to vice by the chains of habit, even with the prospect of hell open before them, they will neither live less vicious nor less wicked. An avenging God will never inflict on any man such a total want of reason as may make him regardless of public opinion, trample decency under foot, brave the laws, and expose himself to derision and human chastisements. Every man of sense easily understands that in this world the esteem and affection of others are necessary for his happiness, and that life is but a burden to those who by their vices injure themselves, and render themselves reprehensible in the eyes of society.
The true means, Madam, of living happy in this world is to do good to your fellow-creatures; to labor for the happiness of your species is to have virtue, and with virtue we can peaceably and without remorse approach the term which nature has fixed equally for all beings—a term that your youth causes you now to see only at a distance—a term that you ought not to accelerate by your fears—a term, in fine, that the cares and desires of all those who know you will seek to put off till, full of days and contented with the part you have played in the scene of the world, you shall yourself desire to gently reënter the bosom of nature.
I am, &c.