Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
The Soul and the Spiritual System.
MAN, after having gratuitously supposed himself composed of two distinct independent substances, that have no common properties, relatively with each other; has pretended, as we have seen, that that which actuated him interiorly, that motion which is invisible, that impulse which is placed within himself, is essentially different from those which act exteriorly. The first he designated, as we have already said, by the name of a SPIRIT or a SOUL. If however it be asked, what is a spirit? The moderns will reply, that the whole fruit of their metaphysical researches is limited to learning that this motive-power, which they state to be the spring of man's action, is a substance of an unknown nature; so simple, so indivisible, so deprived of extent, so invisible, so impossible to be discovered by the senses, that its parts cannot be separated, even by abstraction or thought. The question then arises, how can we conceive such a substance, which is only the negation of every thing of which we have a knowledge? How form to ourselves an idea of a substance, void of extent, yet acting on our senses; that is to say, on those organs which are material, which have extent? How can a being without extent be moveable; how put matter in action? How can a substance devoid of parts, correspond successively with different parts of space? But a very cogent question presents itself on this occasion: if this distinct substance that is said to form one of the component parts of man, be really what it is reported, and if it be not, it is not what it is described; if it be unknown, if it be not pervious to the senses; if it be invisible, by what means did the metaphysicians themselves become acquainted with it? How did they form ideas of a substance, that taking their own account of it, is not, under any of its circumstances, either directly or by analogy, cognizable to the mind of man? If they could positively achieve this, there would no longer be any mystery in Nature: it would be as easy to conceive the time when all was nothing, when all shall have passed away, to account for the production of every thing we behold, as to dig in a garden or read a lecture.--Doubt would vanish from the human species; there could no longer be any difference of opinion, since all must necessarily be of one mind on a subject so accessible to every enquirer.
But it will be replied, the materialist himself admits, the natural philosophers of all ages have admitted, elements and atoms, beings simple and indivisible, of which bodies are composed:--granted; they have no more: they have also admitted that many of these atoms, many of these elements, if not all, are unknown to them: nevertheless, these simple beings, these atoms of the materialist, are not the same thing with the spirit, or the soul of the metaphysician. When the natural philosopher talks of atoms--when he describes them as simple beings, he indicates nothing more than that they are homogeneous, pure, without mixture: but then he allows that they have extent, consequently parts, are separable by thought, although no other natural agent with which he is acquainted is capable of dividing them: that the simple beings of this genus are susceptible of motion--can impart action--receive impulse--are material--are placed in Nature--are indestructible;--that consequently, if he cannot know them from themselves, he can form some idea of them by analogy: thus he has done that intelligibly, which the metaphysician would do unintelligibly: the latter, with a view to render man immortal, finding difficulties to his wish, from seeing that the body decayed--that it has submitted to the great, the universal law--has, to solve the difficulty, to remove the impediment, given him a soul, distinct from the body, which he says is exempted from the action of the general law: to account for this, he has called it a spiritual being, whose properties are the negation of all known properties, consequently inconceivable: had he, however, had recourse to the atoms of the former--had he made this substance the last possible term of the division of matter--it would at least have been intelligible; it would also have been immortal, since, according to the reasonings of all men, whether metaphysicians, theologians, or natural philosophers, an atom is an indestructible element, that must exist to all eternity.
All men are agreed in this position, that motion is the successive change of the relations of one body with other bodies, or with the different parts of space. If that which is called spirit be susceptible of communicating or receiving motion--if it acts--if it gives play to the organs of body--to produce these effects, it necessarily follows that this being changes successively its relation, its tendency, its correspondence, the position of its parts, either relatively to the different points of space, or to the different organs of the body which it puts in action: but to change its relation with space, with the organs to which it gives impulse, it follows of necessity that this spirit most have extent, solidity, consequently distinct parts: whenever a substance possesses these qualities, it is what we call MATTER, it can no longer be regarded as a simple pure being, in the sense attached to it by the moderns, or by theologians.
Thus it will be seen, that those who, to conquer insurmountable difficulties, have supposed in man an immaterial substance, distinguished from his body, have not thoroughly understood themselves; indeed they have done nothing more than imagined a negative quality, of which they cannot have any correct idea: matter alone is capable of acting on our senses; without this action nothing would be capable of making itself known to us. They have not seen that a being without extent is neither in a capacity to move itself, nor has the capability of communicating motion to the body; since such a being, having no parts, has not the faculty of changing its relation, or its distance, relatively to other bodies, nor of exciting motion in the human body, which is itself material. That which is called our soul moves itself with us; now motion is a property of matter--this soul gives impulse to the arm; the arm, moved by it, makes an impression, a blow, that follows the general law of motion: in this case, the force remaining the same, if the mass was two-fold, the blow should be double. This soul again evinces its materiality in the invincible obstacles it encounters on the part of the body. If the arm be moved by its impulse when nothing opposes it, yet this arm can no longer move, when it is charged with a weight beyond its strength. Here then is a mass of matter that annihilates the impulse given by a spiritual cause, which spiritual cause having no analogy with matter, ought not to find more difficulty in moving the whole world, than in moving a single atom, nor an atom, than the universe. From this, it is fair to conclude, such a substance is a chimera--a being of the imagination. That it required a being differently endowed, differently constituted, to set matter in motion--to create all the phenomena we behold: nevertheless, it is a being the metaphysicians have made the contriver, the Author of Nature. As man, in all his speculations, takes himself for the model, he no sooner imagined a spirit within himself, than giving it extent, he made it universal; then ascribed to it all those causes with which his ignorance prevents him from becoming acquainted, thus he identified himself with the Author of Nature--then availed himself of the supposition to explain the connection of the soul with the body: his self-complacency prevented his perceiving that he was only enlarging the circle of his errors, by pretending to understand that which it is more than possible he will never be permitted to know; his self-love prevented him from feeling, that whenever he punished another for not thinking as he did, that he committed the greatest injustice, unless he was satisfactorily able to prove that other wrong, and himself right: that if he himself was obliged to have recourse to hypothesis--to gratuitous suppositions, whereon to found his doctrine, that from the very fallibility of his nature, these might be erroneous: thus GALLILEO was persecuted, because the metaphysicians, the theologians of his day, chose to make others believe what it was evident they did not themselves understand.
As soon as I feel an impulse, or experience motion, I am under the necessity to acknowledge extent, solidity, density, impenetrability in the substance I see move, or from which I receive impulse: thus, when action is attributed to any cause whatever, I am obliged to consider it MATERIAL. I may be ignorant of its individual nature, of its mode of action, or of its generic properties; but I cannot deceive myself in general properties, which are common to all matter: this ignorance will only be increased, when I shall take that for granted of a being, of which from that moment I am precluded by what I admit from forming any idea, which moreover deprives it completely either of the faculty of moving itself, giving an impulse, or acting. Thus, according to the received idea of the term, a spiritual substance that moves itself, that gives motion to matter, and that acts, implies a contradiction, that necessarily infers a total impossibility.
The partizans of spirituality believe they answer the difficulties they have accumulated, by asserting that "the soul is entire--is whole under each point of its extent." If an absurd answer will solve difficulties, they certainly have done it. But let us examine this reply:--it will be found that this indivisible part which is called soul, however insensible or however minute, must yet remain something: then an infinity of unextended substances, or the same substance having no dimensions, repeated an infinity of times, would constitute a substance that has extent: this cannot be what they mean, because according to this principle, the human soul would then be as infinite as the Author of Nature; seeing that they have stated this to be a being without extent, who is an infinity of times whole in each part of the universe. But when there shall appear as much solidity in the answer as there is a want of it, it must be acknowledged that in whatever manner the spirit or the soul finds itself in its extent, when the body moves forward the soul does not remain behind; if so, it has a quality in common with the body, peculiar to matter; since it is conveyed from place to place jointly with the body. Thus, when even the soul should be admitted to be immaterial, what conclusion must be drawn? Entirely submitted to the motion of the body, without this body it would remain dead and inert. This soul would only be part of a two-fold machine, necessarily impelled forward by a concatenation, or connection with the whole. It would resemble a bird, which a child conducts at its pleasure, by the string with which it is bound.
Thus, it is for want of consulting experience, by not attending to reason, that man has darkened his ideas upon the concealed principle of his motion. If, disentangled from prejudice--if, destitute of gratuitous suppositions--if, throwing aside error, he would contemplate his soul, or the moving principle that acts within him, he would be convinced that it forms a part of its body, that it cannot be distinguished from it, but by abstraction; that it is only the body itself, considered relatively with some of its functions, or with those faculties of which its nature, or its peculiar organization, renders it susceptible:--he will perceive that this soul is obliged to undergo the same changes as the body; that it is born with it; that it expands itself with it; that like the body, it passes through a state of infancy, a period of weakness, a season of inexperience; that it enlarges itself, that it strengthens itself, in the same progression; that like the body, it arrives at an adult age or reaches maturity; that it is then, and not till then, it obtains the faculty of fulfilling certain functions; that it is in this stage, and in no other, that it enjoys reason; that it displays more or less wit, judgment, and manly activity; that like the body, it is subject to those vicissitudes which exterior causes obliges it to undergo by their influence; that, conjointly with the body, it suffers, enjoys, partakes of its pleasures, shares its pains, is sound when the body is healthy, and diseased when the body is oppressed with sickness; that like the body, it is continually modified by the different degrees of density in the atmosphere; by the variety of the seasons, and by the various properties of the aliments received into the stomach: in short, he would be obliged to acknowledge that at some periods it manifests visible signs of torpor, stupefaction, decrepitude, and death.
In despite of this analogy, or rather this continual identity, of the soul with the body, man has been desirous of distinguishing their essence; he has therefore made the soul an inconceivable being: but in order that he might form to himself some idea of it, he was, notwithstanding, obliged to have recourse to material beings, and to their manner of acting. The word spirit, therefore, presents to the mind no other ideas than those of breathing, of respiration, of wind. Thus, when it is said the soul is a spirit, it really means nothing more than that its mode of action is like that of breathing: which though invisible in itself, or acting without being seen, nevertheless produces very visible effects. But breath, it is acknowledged, is a material cause; it is allowed to be air modified; it is not, therefore, a simple or pure substance, such as the moderns designate under the name of SPIRIT.
It is rather singular that in the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin, the synonymy, or corresponding term for spirit should signify breath. The metaphysicians themselves can best say why they have adopted such a word, to designate the substance they have distinguished from matter: some of them, fearful they should not have distinct beings enough, have gone farther, and compounded man of three substances, BODY, SOUL, and INTELLECT.
Although the word spirit is so very ancient among men, the sense attached to it by the moderns is quite new: the idea of spirituality, as admitted at this day, is a recent production of the imagination. Neither PYTHAGORAS nor PLATO, however heated their brain, however decided their taste for the marvellous, appear to have understood by spirit an immaterial substance, or one without extent, devoid of parts; such as that of which the moderns have formed the human soul, the concealed author of motion. The ancients, by the word spirit, were desirous to define matter of an extreme subtilty, of a purer quality than that which acted grossly on our senses. In consequence, some have regarded the soul as an ethereal substance; others as igneous matter; others again have compared it to light. DEMOCRITUS made it consist in motion, consequently gave it a manner of existence. ARISTOXENES, who was himself a musician, made it harmony. ARISTOTLE regarded the soul as the moving faculty, upon which depended the motion of living bodies.
The earliest doctors of Christianity had no other idea of the soul, than that it was material. TERTULLIAN, ARNOBIUS, CLEMENT of ALEXANDRIA, ORIGEN, SAINT JUSTIN, IRENAEUS, have all of them discoursed upon it; but have never spoken of it other than as a corporeal substance--as matter. It was reserved for their successors at a great distance of time, to make the human soul and the soul of the world pure spirits; that is to say, immaterial substances, of which it is impossible they could form any accurate idea: by degrees this incomprehensible doctrine of spirituality, conformable without doubt to the views of those who make it a principle to annihilate reason, prevailed over the others: But it might be fairly asked, if the pretended proofs of this doctrine owe themselves to a man, who on a much more comprehensible point has been proved in error; if, on that which time has shown was accessible to man's reason, the great champion in support of this dogma was deceived; are we not bound to examine, with the most rigorous investigation, the reasonings, the evidence, of one who was the decided, the proven child of enthusiasm and error? Yet DESCARTES, to whose sublime errors the world is indebted for the Newtonian system, although before him the soul had been considered spiritual, was the first who established that, "that which thinks ought to be distinguished from matter;" from whence he concludes rather hastily, that the soul, or that which thinks in man, is a spirit; or a simple indivisible substance. Perhaps it would have been more logical, more consistent with reason, to have said, since man, who is matter, who has no idea but of matter, enjoys the faculty of thought, matter can think; that is, it is susceptible of that particular modification called thought.
However this may be, this doctrine was believed divine, supernatural, because it was inconceivable to man. Those who dared believe even that which was believed before; namely, that the soul was material, were held as rash inconsiderate madmen, or else treated as enemies to the welfare and happiness of the human race. When man had once renounced experience; when he had abjured his reason; when he had joined the banner of this enthusiastic novelty; he did nothing more, day after day, than subtilize the delirium, the ravings of his imagination: he pleased himself by continually sinking deeper into the most unfathomable depths of error: he felicitated himself on his discoveries; on his pretended knowledge; in an exact ratio as his understanding became enveloped in the mists of darkness, environed with the clouds of ignorance. Thus, in consequence of man's reasoning upon false principles; of having relinquished the evidence of his senses; the moving principle within him, the concealed author of motion, has been made a mere chimera, a mere being of the imagination, because he has divested it of all known properties; because he has attached to it nothing but properties which, from the very nature of his existence, he is incapacitated to comprehend.
The doctrine of spirituality, such as it now exists, offers nothing but vague ideas; or rather is the absence of all ideas. What does it present to the mind, but a substance which possesses nothing of which our senses enable us to have a knowledge? Can it be truth that a man is able to figure to himself a being not material, having neither extent nor parts, which, nevertheless, acts upon matter without having any point of contact, any kind of analogy with it; and which itself receives the impulse of matter by means of material organs, which announce to it the presence of other beings? Is it possible to conceive the union of the soul with the body; to comprehend how this material body can bind, enclose, constrain, determine a fugitive being which escapes all our senses? Is it honest, is it plain dealing, to solve these difficulties, by saying there is a mystery in them; that they are the effects of a power, more inconceivable than the human soul; than its mode of acting, however concealed from our view? When to resolve these problems, man is obliged to have recourse to miracles or to make the Divinity interfere, does he not avow his own ignorance? When, notwithstanding the ignorance he is thus obliged to avow by availing himself of the divine agency, he tells us, this immaterial substance, this soul, shall experience the action of the element of fire, which he allows to be material; when he confidently says this soul shall be burnt; shall suffer in purgatory; have we not a right to believe, that either he has a design to deceive us, or else that he does not himself understand that which he is so anxious we should take upon his word?
Let us not then be surprised at those subtile hypotheses, as ingenious as they are unsatisfactory, to which theological prejudice has obliged the most profound modern speculators to recur; when they have undertaken to reconcile the spirituality of the soul, with the physical action of material beings, on this incorporeal substance; its re-action upon these beings; its union with the body. When the human mind permits itself to be guided by authority without proof, to be led forward by enthusiasm; when it renounces the evidence of its senses; what can it do more than sink into error? Let those who doubt this, read the metaphysical romances of LEIBINTZ, DESCARTES, MALEBRANCHE, CUDWORTH, and many others: let them coolly examine the ingenious, but fanciful systems entitled the pre-established harmony of occasional causes; physical pre-motion, &c.
If man wishes to form to himself clear, perspicuous ideas of his soul, let him throw himself back on his experience--let him renounce his prejudices--let him avoid theological conjecture--let him tear the bandages which he has been taught to think necessary, but with which he has been blind-folded, only to confound his reason. If it be wished to draw man to virtue, let the natural philosopher, let the anatomist, let the physician, unite their experience; let them compare their observations, in order to show what ought to be thought of a substance, so disguised, so hidden by absurdities, as not easily to be known. Their discoveries may perhaps teach moralists the true motive-power that ought to influence the actions of man--legislators, the true motives that should actuate him, that should excite him to labour to the welfare of society--sovereigns, the means of rendering their subjects truly happy; of giving solidity to the power of the nations committed to their charge. Physical souls have physical wants, and demand physical happiness. These are real, are preferable objects, to that variety of fanciful chimeras, each in its turn giving place to the other, with which the mind of man has been fed during so many ages. Let us, then, labour to perfect the morality of man; let us make it agreeable to him; let us excite in him an ardent thirst for its purity: we shall presently see his morals become better, himself become happier; his soul become calm and serene; his will determined to virtue, by the natural, by the palpable motives held out to him. By the diligence, by the care which legislators shall bestow on natural philosophy, they will form citizens of sound understandings; robust and well constituted; who, finding themselves happy, will be themselves accessary to that useful impulse so necessary for their soul. When the body is suffering, when nations are unhappy, the soul cannot be in a proper state. Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, will be always able to make a good citizen.
The more man reflects, the more he will be convinced that the soul, very far from being distinguished from the body, is only the body itself, considered relatively to some of its functions, or to some of the modes of existing or acting, of which it is susceptible whilst it enjoys life. Thus, the soul is man, considered relatively to the faculty he has of feeling, of thinking, of acting in a mode resulting from his peculiar nature; that is to say, from his properties, from his particular organization: from the modifications, whether durable or transitory, which the beings who act upon him cause his machine to undergo.
Those who have distinguished the soul from the body, appear only to have distinguished their brain from themselves. Indeed, the brain is the common center, where all the nerves, distributed through every part of the body, meet and blend themselves: it is by the aid of this interior organ that all those operations are performed which are attributed to the soul: it is the impulse, or the motion, communicated to the nerve, which modifies the brain: in consequence, it re-acts, or gives play to the bodily organs; or rather it acts upon itself, and becomes capable of producing within itself a great variety of motion, which has been designated intellectual faculties.
From this it may be seen that some philosophers have been desirous to make a spiritual substance of the brain. It is evidently nothing but ignorance that has given birth to and accredited this system, which embraces so little, either of the natural or the rational. It is from not having studied himself, that man has supposed he was compounded with an agent, essentially different from his body: in examining this body, he will find that it is quite useless to recur to hypothesis for the explanation of the various phenomena it presents to his contemplation; that hypothesis can do nothing more than lead him out of the right road to the information after which he seeks. What obscures this question, arises from this, that man cannot see himself: indeed, for this purpose, that would be requisite which is impossible; namely, that he could he at one and the same moment both within and without himself: he may be compared to an Eolian harp, that issues sounds of itself, and should demand what it is that causes it to give them forth? It does not perceive that the sensitive quality of its chords causes the air to brace them; that being so braced, it is rendered sonorous by every gust of wind with which it happens to come in contact.
When a theologian, obstinately bent on admitting into man two substances essentially different, is asked why he multiplies beings without necessity? he will reply, because "thought cannot be a property of matter." If, then, it be enquired of him, cannot God give to matter the faculty of thought? he will answer, "no! seeing that God cannot do impossible things!" According to his principles, it is as impossible that spirit or thought can produce matter, as it is impossible that matter can produce spirit or thought: it might, therefore, be concluded against him, that the world was not made by a spirit, any more than a spirit was made by the world. But in this case, does not the theologian, according to his own assertion, acknowledge himself to be the true atheist? Does he not, in fact, circumscribe the attributes of the Deity, and deny his power, to suit his own purpose? Yet these men demand implicit belief in doctrines, which they are obliged to maintain by the most contradictory assertions.
The more experience we collect, the more we shall be convinced
that the word spirit, in its present received usage, conveys
no one sense that is tangible, either to ourselves or to those that
invented it; consequently cannot be of the least use, either in
physics or morals. What modern metaphysicians believe and understand by the word, is nothing more than an
occult power, imagined to explain occult qualities
and actions, but which, in fact, explains nothing. Savage nations
admit of spirits, to account to themselves for those effects, which
to them appear marvellous, as long as their ignorance knows not the
cause to which they ought to be attributed. In attributing to
spirits the phenomena of Nature, as well as those of the human
body, do we, in fact, do any thing more than reason like savages?
Man has filled Nature with spirits, because he has almost always
been ignorant of the true causes of those effects by which he was
astonished. Not being acquainted with the powers of Nature, he has
supposed her to be animated by a great spirit: not
understanding the energy of the human frame, he has in like manner
conjectured it to be animated by a minor spirit: from this
it would appear, that whenever he wished to indicate the unknown
cause of a phenomena, he knew not how to explain in a natural
manner, he had recourse to the word spirit. In short,
spirit was a term by which he solved all his doubts, and
cleared up his ignorance to himself. It was according to these
principles that when the AMERICANS first beheld the
terrible effects of gunpowder, they ascribed the cause to wrathful
spirits, to their enraged divinities: it was by adopting these
principles, that our ancestors believed in a plurality of gods, in
ghosts, in genii, &c. Pursuing the same track, we ought to
attribute to spirits gravitation, electricity, magnetism, &c.
&c. It is somewhat singular, that priests have in all ages so
strenuously upheld those systems which time has exploded; that they
have appeared to be either the most crafty or
the most ignorant of men. Where are now the priests of Apollo, of
Juno, of the Sun, and a thousand others? Yet these are the men, who
in all times have persecuted those who have been the first to give
natural explanations of the phenomena of Nature, as witness
GALLILEO, DESCARTES, &c. &c.
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