Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
THE source of man's unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error. He resembles a child destitute of experience, full of ideal notions: a dangerous leaven mixes itself with all his knowledge: it is of necessity obscure, it is vacillating and false:--He takes the tone of his ideas on the authority of others, who are themselves in error, or else have an interest in deceiving him. To remove this Cimmerian darkness, these barriers to the improvement of his condition; to disentangle him from the clouds of error that envelope him; to guide him out of this Cretan labyrinth, requires the clue of Ariadne, with all the love she could bestow on Theseus. It exacts more than common exertion; it needs a most determined, a most undaunted courage--it is never effected but by a persevering resolution to act, to think for himself; to examine with rigour and impartiality the opinions he has adopted. He will find that the most noxious weeds have sprung up beside beautiful flowers; entwined themselves around their stems, overshadowed them with an exuberance of foliage, choaked the ground, enfeebled their growth, diminished their petals; dimmed the brilliancy of their colours; that deceived by their apparent freshness of their verdure, by the rapidity of their exfoliation, he has given them cultivation, watered them, nurtured them, when he ought to have plucked out their very roots.
Man seeks to range out of his sphere: notwithstanding the reiterated checks his ambitious folly experiences, he still attempts the impossible; strives to carry his researches beyond the visible world; and hunts out misery in imaginary regions. He would be a metaphysician before he has become a practical philosopher. He quits the contemplation of realities to meditate on chimeras. He neglects experience to feed on conjecture, to indulge in hypothesis. He dares not cultivate his reason, because from his earliest days he has been taught to consider it criminal. He pretends to know his date in the indistinct abodes of another life, before he has considered of the means by which he is to render himself happy in the world he inhabits: in short, man disdains the study of Nature, except it be partially: he pursues phantoms that resemble an ignis-fatuus, which at once dazzle, bewilder, and affright: like the benighted traveller led astray by these deceptive exhalations of a swampy soil, he frequently quits the plain, the simple road of truth, by pursuing of which, he can alone ever reasonably hope to reach the goal of happiness.
The most important of our duties, then, is to seek means by which we may destroy delusions that can never do more than mislead us. The remedies for these evils must be sought for in Nature herself; it is only in the abundance of her resources, that we can rationally expect to find antidotes to the mischiefs brought upon us by an ill directed, by an overpowering enthusiasm. It is time these remedies were sought; it is time to look the evil boldly in the face, to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure: reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices, to which the human race has but too long been the victim. For this purpose reason must be restored to its proper rank,--it must be rescued from the evil company with which it is associated. It has been too long degraded--too long neglected--cowardice has rendered it subservient to delirium, the slave to falsehood. It must no longer be held down by the massive claims of ignorant prejudice.
Truth is invariable--it is requisite to man--it can never harm him--his very necessities, sooner or later, make him sensible of this; oblige him to acknowledge it. Let us then discover it to mortals--let us exhibit its charms--let us shed it effulgence over the darkened road; it is the only mode by which man can become disgusted with that disgraceful superstition which leads him into error, and which but too often usurps his homage by treacherously covering itself with the mask of truth--its lustre can wound none but those enemies to the human race whose power is bottomed solely on the ignorance, on the darkness in which they have in almost every claimed contrived to involve the mind of man.
Truth speaks not to those perverse beings:--her voice can only be heard by generous souls accustomed to reflection, whose sensibilities make them lament the numberless calamities showered on the earth by political and religious tyranny--whose enlightened minds contemplate with horror the immensity, the ponderosity of that series of misfortunes which error has in all ages overwhelmed mankind. To error must be attributed those insupportable chains which tyrants, which priests have forged for most nations. To error must be equally attributed that abject slavery into which the people of almost every country have fallen. Nature designed they should pursue their happiness by the most perfect freedom.--To error must be attributed those religious terrors which, in almost every climate, have either petrified man with fear, or caused him to destroy himself for coarse or fanciful beings.
To error must be attributed those inveterate hatreds, those barbarous persecutions, those numerous massacres, those dreadful tragedies, of which, under pretext of serving the interests of heaven, the earth has been but too frequently made the theatre. It is error consecrated by religious enthusiasm, which produces that ignorance, that uncertainty in which man ever finds himself with regard to his most evident duties, his clearest rights, the most demonstrable truths. In short, man is almost everywhere a poor degraded captive, devoid of greatness of soul, of reason, or of virtue, whom his inhuman gaolers have never permitted to see the light of day.
Let us then endeavour to disperse those clouds of ignorance, those mists of darkness which impede man on his journey, which obscure his progress, which prevent his marching through life with a firm, with a steady grip. Let us try to inspire him with courage--with respect for his reason--with an inextinguishable love for truth--with a remembrance of Gallileo--to the end that he may learn to know himself--to know his legitimate rights--that he may learn to consult his experience, and no longer be the dupe of an imagination led astray by authority--that he may renounce the prejudices of his childhood--that he may learn to found his morals on his nature, on his wants, on the real advantage of society--that he may dare to love himself--that he may learn to pursue his true happiness by promoting that of others--in short, that he may no longer occupy himself with reveries either useless or dangerous--that he may become a virtuous, a rational being, in which case he cannot fail to become happy. If he must have his chimeras, let him at least learn to permit others to form theirs after their own fashion; since nothing can be more immaterial than the manner of men's thinking on subjects not accessible to reason, provided those thoughts be not suffered to embody themselves into actions injurious to others: above all, let him be fully persuaded that it is of the utmost importance to the inhabitants of this world to be just, kind, and peaceable. Far from injuring the cause of virtue, an impartial examination of the principles of this work will show that its object is to restore truth to its proper temple, to build up an altar whose foundations shall be consolidated by morality, reason, and justice: from this sacred pane, virtue guarded by truth, clothed with experience, shall shed forth her radiance on delighted mortals; whose homage flowing consecutively shall open to the world a new era, by rendering general the belief that happiness, the true end of man's existence, can never be attained but by promoting that of his fellow creature.
In short, man should learn to know, that happiness is simply an
emanative quality formed by reflection; that each individual ought
to be the sun of his own system, continually shedding around him
his genial rays; that these, reacting, will keep his own existence
constantly supplied with the requisite heat to enable him to put
forth kindly fruit.