Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
The Soul does not derive its ideas from itself--It has no innate Ideas.
WHAT has preceded suffices to prove, that the interior organ of man, which is called his soul, is purely material. He will be enabled to convince himself of this truth, by the manner in which he acquires his ideas,--from those impressions which material objects successively make on his organs, which are themselves acknowledged to be material. It has been seen, that the faculties which are called intellectual, are to be ascribed to that of feeling; the different qualities of those faculties which are called moral, have been explained after the necessary laws of a very simple mechanism: it now remains, to reply to those who still obstinately persist in making the soul a substance distinguished from the body, or who insist on giving it an essence totally distinct. They seem to found their distinction upon this, that this interior organ has the faculty of drawing its ideas from within itself; they will have it, that man, at his birth, brings with him ideas into the world, which, according to this wonderful notion, they have called innate. The Jews have a similar doctrine which they borrowed from the Chaldeans: their rabbins taught, that each soul, before it was united to the seed that must form an infant in the womb of a woman, is confided to the care of an angel, which causes him to behold heaven, earth, and hell: this, they pretend, is done by the assistance of a lamp, which extinguishes itself as soon as the infant comes into the world. Some ancient philosophers have held, that the soul originally contains the principles of several notions or doctrines: the Stoics designated this by the term PROLEPSIS, anticipated opinions; the Greek mathematicians, KOINAS ENNOIAS, universal ideas. They have believed that the soul, by a special privilege, in a nature where every thing is connected, enjoyed the faculty of moving itself without receiving any impulse; of creating to itself ideas, of thinking on a subject, without being determined to such action, by any exterior object; which by moving its organs should furnish it with an image of the subject of its thoughts. In consequence of these gratuitous suppositions, of these extraordinary pretensions, which it is only requisite to expose, in order to confute some very able speculators, who were prepossessed by their superstitious prejudices; have ventured the length to assert, that without model, without prototype to act on the senses, the soul is competent to delineate to itself, the whole universe with all the beings it contains. DESCARTES and his disciples have assured us, that the body went absolutely for nothing, in the sensations, in the perceptions, in the ideas of the soul; that it can feel, that it can perceive, that it can understand, that it can taste, that it can touch, even when there should exist nothing that is corporeal or material exterior to ourselves.
But what shall be said of a BERKELEY, who has endeavoured, who has laboured to prove to man, that every thing in this world is nothing more than a chimerical illusion; that the universe exists nowhere but in himself; that it has no identity but in his imagination; who has. rendered the existence of all things problematical by the aid of sophisms, insolvable even to those who maintain the doctrine of the spirituality of the soul.
Extravagant as this doctrine of the BISHOP OF CLOYNE may appear, it cannot well be more so than that of MALEBRANCHE, the champion of innate ideas; who makes the divinity the common bond between the soul and the body: or than that of those metaphysicians, who maintain that the soul is a substance heterogeneous to the body; who by ascribing to this soul the thoughts of man, have in fact rendered the body superfluous. They have not perceived they were liable to one solid objection, which is, that if the ideas of man are innate, if he derives them from a superior being, independent of exterior causes, if he sees every thing in God; how comes it that so many false ideas are afloat, that so many errors prevail, with which the human mind is saturated? From whence comes these opinions, which according to the theologians are so displeasing to God? Might it not be a question to the Malebranchists, was it in the Divinity that SPINOZA beheld his system?
Nevertheless, to justify such monstrous opinions, they assert that ideas are only the objects of thought. But according to the last analysis, these ideas can only reach man from exterior objects, which in giving impulse to his senses modify his brain; or from the material beings contained within the interior of his machine, who make some parts of his body experience those sensations which he perceives, which furnish him with ideas, which he relates, faithfully or otherwise, to the cause that moves him. Each idea is an effect, but however difficult it may be to recur to the cause, can we possibly suppose it is not ascribable to a cause? If we can only form ideas of material substances, how can we suppose the cause of our ideas can possibly be immaterial? To pretend that man without the aid of exterior objects, without the intervention of his senses, is competent to form ideas of the universe, is to assert, that a blind man is in a capacity to form a true idea of a picture, that represents some fact of which he has never heard any one speak.
It is very easy to perceive the source of those errors, into which men, otherwise extremely profound and very enlightened have fallen, when they have been desirous to speak of the soul: to describe its operations. Obliged either by their own prejudices, or by the fear of combatting the opinions of some imperious theologian, they have become the advocates of the principle, that the soul was a pure spirit: an immaterial substance; of an essence directly different from that of the body; from every thing we behold: this granted, they have been incompetent to conceive how material objects could operate, in what manner gross and corporeal organs were enabled to act on a substance, that had no kind of analogy with them; how they were in a capacity to modify it by conveying its ideas; in the impossibility of explaining this phenomenon, at the same time perceiving that the soul had ideas, they concluded that it must draw them from itself, and not from those beings, which according to their own hypothesis, were incapable of acting on it, or rather, of which they could not conceive the manner of action; they therefore imagined that all the modifications, all the actions of this soul, sprung from its own peculiar energy, were imprinted on it from its first formation, by the Author of Nature: that these did not in any manner depend upon the beings of which we have a knowledge, or which act upon it, by the gross means of our senses.
There are, however, some phenomena, which, considered superficially, appear to support the opinion of these philosophers; to announce a faculty in the human soul of producing ideas within itself, without any exterior aid; these are dreams, in which the interior organ of man, deprived of objects that move it visibly, does not, however, cease to have ideas--to be set in activity--to be modified in a manner that is sufficiently sensible--to have an influence upon his body. But if a little reflection be called in, the solution to this difficulty will be found: it will be perceived that, even during sleep, his brain is supplied with a multitude of ideas, with which the eye or time before has stocked it; these ideas were communicated to it by exterior or corporeal objects, by which they have been modified: it will be found that these modifications renew themselves, not by any spontaneous, not by any voluntary motion on its part, but by a chain of involuntary movements which take place in his machine, which determine, which excite those that give play to the brain; these modifications renew themselves with more or less fidelity, with a greater or lesser degree of conformity to those which it has anteriorly experienced. Sometimes in dreaming, he has memory, then he retraces to himself the objects which have struck him faithfully;--at other times, these modifications renew themselves without order, and without connection, very differently from those, which real objects have before excited in his interior organ. If in a dream he believes he sees a friend, his brain renews in itself the modifications or the ideas which this friend had formerly excited--in the same order that they arranged themselves when his eyes really beheld him--this is nothing more than an effect of memory. If in his dream he fancies he sees a monster which has no model in nature, his brain is then modified in the same manner that it was by the particular, by the detached ideas, with which it then does nothing more than compose an ideal whole; by assembling, and associating, in a ridiculous manner, the scattered ideas that were consigned to its keeping; it is then, that in dreaming he has imagination.
Those dreams that are troublesome, extravagant, whimsical, or unconnected, are commonly the effect of some confusion in his machine; such as painful indigestion--an overheated blood--a prejudicial fermentation, &c.--these material causes excite in his body a disorderly motion, which precludes the brain from being modified in the same manner it was on the day before; in consequence of this irregular motion the brain is disturbed, it only represents to itself confused ideas that want connection. When in a dream, he believes he sees a Sphinx, a being supposed by the poets to have a head and face like a woman, a body like a dog, wings like a bird, and claws like a lion, who put forth riddles and killed those who could not expound them; either, he has seen the representation of one when he was awake, or else the disorderly motion of the brain is such that it causes it to combine ideas, to connect parts, from which there results a whole without model, of which the parts were not formed to be united. It is thus, that his brain combines the head of a woman, of which it already has the idea, with the body of a lioness, of which it also has the image. In this his head acts in the same manner, as when by any defect in the interior organ, his disordered imagination paints to him some objects, notwithstanding he is awake. He frequently dreams, without being asleep: his dreams never produce any thing so strange but that they have some resemblance, with the objects which have anteriorly acted on his senses; which have already communicated ideas to his brain. The watchful theologians have composed, at their leisure, in their waking hours, those phantoms, of which they avail themselves, to terrify or frighten man; they have done nothing more than assemble the scattered traits which they have found in the most terrible beings of their own species; by exaggerating the powers, by enlarging the rights claimed by tyrants, they have formed ideal beings, before whom man trembles, and is afraid.
Thus, it is seen, that dreams, far from proving that the soul acts by its own peculiar energy, that it draws its ideas from its own recesses; prove, on the contrary, that in sleep it is entirely passive, that it does not even renew its modifications, but according to the involuntary confusion, which physical causes produce in the body, of which every thing tends to show the identity, the consubstantiality with the soul. What appears to have led those into a mistake, who maintained that the soul drew its ideas from itself, is this, they have contemplated these ideas, as if they were real beings, when, in point of fact, they are nothing more than the modifications produced in the brain of man, by objects to which this brain is a stranger; they are these objects, who are the true models, who are the real archetypes to which it is necessary to recur: here is the source of all their errors.
In the individual who dreams, the soul does not act more from itself, than it does in the man who is drunk, that is to say, who is modified by some spirituous liquor: or than it does in the sick man, when he is delirious, that is to say, when he is modified by those physical causes which disturb his machine, which obstruct it in the performance of its functions; or than it, does in him, whose brain is disordered: dreams, like these various states, announce nothing more than a physical confusion in the human machine, under the influence of which the brain ceases to act, after a precise and regular manner: this disorder may be traced to physical causes, such as the aliments--the humours--the combinations--the fermentations, which are but little analogous to the salutary state of man; from hence it will appear, that his brain is necessarily confused, whenever his body is agitated in an extraordinary manner.
Do not let him, therefore, believe that his soul acts by itself, or without a cause, in any one moment of his existence; it is, conjointly with the body, submitted to the impulse of beings, who act on him necessarily, according to their various properties. Wine taken in too great a quantity, necessarily disturbs his ideas, causes confusion in his corporeal functions, occasions disorder in his mental faculties.
If there really existed a being in Nature, with the capability of moving itself by its own peculiar energies, that is to say, able to produce motion, independent of all other causes, such a being would have the power of arresting itself, or of suspending the motion of the universe; which is nothing more than an immense chain of causes linked one to another, acting and re-acting by necessary immutable laws, and which cannot be changed, which are incapable of being suspended, unless the essences of every thing in it were changed, without the properties of every thing were annihilated. In the general system of the world, nothing more can be perceived than a long series of motion, received and communicated in succession, by beings capacitated to give impulse to each other: it is thus, that each body is moved by the collision of some other body. The invisible motion of some soul is to be attributed to causes concealed within himself; he believes that it is moved by itself, because he does not see the springs which put it in motion, or because he conceives those powers are incapable of producing the effects he so much admires: but, does he more clearly conceive, how a spark in exploding gunpowder, is capable of producing the terrible effects he witnesses? The source of his errors arise from this, that he regards his body as gross and inert, whilst this body is a sensible machine, which has necessarily an instantaneous conscience the moment it receives an impression; which is conscious of its own existence by the recollection of impressions successively experienced; memory by resuscitating an impression anteriorly received, by detaining it, or by causing an impression which it receives to remain, whilst it associates it with another, then with a third, gives all the mechanism of reasoning.
An idea, which is only an imperceptible modification of the brain, gives play to the organ of speech, which displays itself by the motion it excites in the tongue: this, in its turn, breeds ideas, thoughts, and passions, in those beings who are provided with organs susceptible of receiving analagous motion; in consequence of which, the wills of a great number of men are influenced, who, combining their efforts, produce a revolution in a state, or even have an influence over the entire globe. It is thus, that an ALEXANDER decided the fate of Asia, it is thus, that a MAHOMET changed the face of the earth; it is thus, that imperceptible causes produce the most terrible, the most extended effects, by a series of necessary motion imprinted on the brain of man.
The difficulty of comprehending the effects produced on the soul of man, has made him attribute to it those incomprehensible qualities which have been examined. By the aid of imagination, by the power of thought, this soul appears to quit his body, to carry itself with the greatest ease, to transport itself with the utmost facility towards the most distant objects; to run over, to approximate in the twinkling of an eye, all the points of the universe: he has therefore believed, that a being who is susceptible of such rapid motion, must be of a nature very distinguished from all others; he has persuaded himself that this soul in reality does travel, that it actually springs over the immense space necessary to meet these various objects; he did not perceive, that to do it in an instant, it had only to run over itself to approximate the ideas consigned to its keeping, by means of the senses.
Indeed, it is never by any other means than by his senses, that beings become known to man, or furnish him with ideas; it is only in consequence of the impulse given to his body, that his brain is modified, or that his soul thinks, wills, and acts. If, as ARISTOTLE asserted more than two thousand years ago,--"nothing enters the mind of man but through the medium of his senses,"--it follows as a consequence, that every thing that issues from it must find some sensible object to which it can attach its ideas, whether immediately, as a man, a tree, a bird, &c. or in the last analysis or decomposition, such as pleasure, happiness, vice, virtue, &c. This principle, so true, so luminous, so important in its consequence, has been set forth in all its lustre, by a great number of philosophers; among the rest, by the great LOCKE. Whenever, therefore, a word or its idea does not connect itself with some sensible object to which it can be related, this word or this idea is unmeaning, and void of sense; it were better for man that the idea was banished from his mind, struck out of his language: this principle is only the converse of the axiom of ARISTOTLE,--"if the direct be evident, the inverse must be so likewise."
How has it happened, that the profound LOCKE, who, to the great mortification of the metaphysicians, has placed this principle of ARISTOTLE in the clearest point of view? how is it, that all those who, like him, have recognized the absurdity of the system of innate ideas, have not drawn the immediate, the necessary consequences? How has it come to pass, that they have not had sufficient courage to apply so clear a principle to all those fanciful chimeras with which the human mind has for such a length of time been so vainly occupied? did they not perceive that their principle sapped the very foundations of those metaphysical speculations, which never occupy man but with those objects of which, as they are inaccessible to his senses, he consequently can never form to himself any accurate idea? But prejudice, when it is generally held sacred, prevents him from seeing the most simple application of the most self-evident principles. In metaphysical researches, the greatest men are frequently nothing more than children, who are incapable of either foreseeing or deducing the consequence of their own data.
Locke, as well as all those who have adopted his system, which is so demonstrable,--or to the axiom of ARISTOTLE, which is so clear, ought to have concluded from it that all those wonderful things with which metaphysicians have amused themselves, are mere chimeras; mere wanderings of the imagination; that an immaterial spirit or substance, without extent, without parts, is, in fact, nothing more than an absence of ideas; in short, they ought to have felt that the ineffable intelligence which they have supposed to preside at the helm of the world, is after all nothing more than a being of their own imagination, on which man has never been in accord, whom he has pictured under all the variety of forms, to which he has at different periods, in different climes, ascribed every kind of attribute, good or bad; but of which it is impossible his senses can ever prove either the existence or the qualities.
For the same reason, moral philosophers ought to have concluded, that what is called moral sentiment, moral instinct, that is, innate ideas of virtue, anterior to all experience of the good or bad effects resulting from its practice, are mere chimerical notions, which, like a great many others, have for their guarantee and base only metaphysical speculation. Before man can judge, he must feel; before he can distinguish good from evil, he must compare. Morals, is a science of facts: to found them, therefore, on an hypothesis inaccessible to his senses, of which he has no means of proving the reality, is to render them uncertain; it is to cast the log of discord into his lap, to cause him unceasingly to dispute upon that which he can never understand. To assert that the ideas of morals are innate, or the effect of instinct, is to pretend that man knows how to read before he has learned the letters of the alphabet; that he is acquainted with the laws of society before they are either made or promulgated.
To undeceive him, with respect to innate ideas or modifications, imprinted on his soul, at the moment of his birth, it is simply requisite to recur to their source; he will then see that those with which he is familiar, which have, as it were, identified themselves with his existence, have all come to him through the medium of some of his senses; that they are sometimes engraven on his brain with great difficulty,--that they have never been permanent,--that they have perpetually varied in him: he will see that these pretended inherent ideas of his soul, are the effect of education, of example, above all, of habit, which by reiterated motion has taught his brain to associate his ideas either in a confused or a perspicuous manner; to familiarize itself with systems either rational or absurd. In short, he takes those for innate ideas of which he has forgotten the origin; he no longer recalls to himself, either the precise epoch, or the successive circumstances when these ideas were first consigned to his brain: arrived at a certain age he believes he has always had the same notions; his memory, crowded with experience, loaded with a multitude of facts, is no longer able to distinguish the particular circumstances which have contributed to give his brain its present modifications; its instantaneous mode of thinking; its actual opinions. For example, not one of his race, perhaps, recollects the first time the word God struck his ears--the first ideas that it formed in him--the first thoughts that it produced in him; nevertheless, it is certain that from thence he has searched for some being with whom to connect the idea which he has either formed to himself, or which has been suggested to him: accustomed to hear God continually spoken of, he has, when in other respects, the most enlightened, regarded this idea as if it were infused into him by Nature; whilst it is visibly to he attributed to those delineations of it, which his parents or his instructors have made to him; which he has, in consequence, modified according to his own particular organization, and the circumstances in which he has been placed; it is thus, that each individual forms to himself a God, of which he is himself the model, or which he modifies after his own fashion.
His ideas of morals, although more real than those of metaphysics, are not however innate: the moral sentiments he forms on the will, or the judgment he passes on the actions of man, are founded on experience; which alone can enable him to discriminate those which are either useful or prejudicial, virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, worthy his esteem, or deserving his censure. His moral sentiments are the fruit of a multitude of experience that is frequently very long and very complicated. He gathers it with time; it is more or less faithful, by reason of his particular organization and the causes by which he is modified; he ultimately applies this experience with greater or less facility; to this is to he attributed his habit of judging. The celerity with which he applies his experience when he judges of the moral actions of his fellow man, is what has been termed moral instinct.
That which in natural philosophy is called instinct, is only the effect of some want of the body, the consequence of some attraction or some repulsion in man or animals. The child that is newly born, sucks for the first time; the nipple of the breast is put into his mouth: by the natural analogy, that is found between the conglomerate glands, filled with nerves; which line his mouth, and the milk which flows from the bosom of the nurse, through the medium of the nipple, causes the child to press it with his mouth, in order to express the fluid appropriate to nourish his tender age; from all this the infant gathers experience; by degrees the idea of a nipple, of milk, of pleasure, associate themselves in his brain: every time he sees the nipple, he seizes it, promptly conveys it to his mouth, and applies it to the use for which it is designed.
What has been said, will enable us to judge of those prompt and sudden sentiments, which have been designated the force of blood. Those sentiments of love, which fathers and mothers have for their children-- those feelings of affection, which children, with good inclinations, bear towards their parents, are by no means innate sentiments; they are nothing more, than the effect of experience, of reflection, of habit, in souls of sensibility. These sentiments do not even exist in a great number of human beings. We but too often witness tyrannical parents, occupied with making enemies of their children, who appear to have been formed, only to be the victims of their irrational caprices or their unreasonable desires.
From the instant in which man commences, until that in which he ceases to exist, he feels--he is moved either agreeably or unpleasantly--he collects facts--he gathers experience; these produce ideas in his brain, that are either cheerful or gloomy. Not one individual has all this experience present to his memory at the same time, it does not ever represent to him the whole clew at once: it is, however, this experience that mechanically directs him, without his knowledge, in all his actions; it was to designate the rapidity with, which he applied this experience, of which he so frequently loses the connection--of which he is so often at a loss to render himself an account, that he imagined the word instinct: it appears to be the effect of magic, the operation of a supernatural power, to the greater number of individuals: it is a word devoid of sense to many others; but to the philosopher it is the effect of a very lively feeling to him it consists in the faculty of combining, promptly, a multitude of experience--of arranging with facility--of comparing with quickness, a long and numerous train of extremely complicated ideas. It is want that causes the inexplicable instinct we behold in animals which have been denied souls without reason, whilst they are susceptible of an infinity of actions that prove they think--judge--have memory--are capable of experience--can combine ideas--can apply them with more or less facility to satisfy the wants engendered by their particular organization; in short, that prove they have passions that are capable of being modified. Nothing but the height of folly can refuse intellectual faculties to animals; they feel, choose, deliberate, express love, show hatred; in many instances their senses are much keener than those of man. Fish will return periodically to the spot where it is the custom to throw them bread.
It is well known the embarrassments which animals have thrown in the way of the partizans of the doctrine of spirituality; they have been fearful, if they allowed them to have a spiritual soul, of elevating them to the condition of human creatures; on the other hand, in not allowing them to have a soul, they have furnished their adversaries with authority to deny it in like manner to man, who thus finds himself debased to the condition of the animal. Metaphysicians have never known how to extricate themselves from this difficulty. Descartes fancied he solved it by saying that beasts have no souls, but are mere machines. Nothing can be nearer the surface, than the absurdity of this principle. Whoever contemplates Nature without prejudice, will readily acknowledge that there is no other difference between the man and the beast, than that which is to be attributed to the diversity of his organization.
In some beings of the human species, who appear to be endowed with a greater sensibility of organs than others, may be seen an instinct, by the assistance of which they very promptly judge of the concealed dispositions of their fellows, simply by inspecting the lineaments of their face. Those who are denominated physiognomists, are only men of very acute feelings; who have gathered an experience of which others, whether from the coarseness of their organs, from the little attention they have paid, or from some defect in their senses, are totally incapable: these last do not believe in the science of physiognomy, which appears to them perfectly ideal. Nevertheless, it is certain, that the action of this soul, which has been made spiritual, makes impressions that are extremely marked upon the exterior of the body; these impressions, continually reiterated, their image remains: thus the habitual passions of man paint themselves on his countenance; by which the attentive observer, who is endowed with acute feeling, is enabled to judge with great rapidity of his mode of existence, and even to foresee his actions, his inclinations, his desires, his predominant passions, &c. Although the science of physiognomy appears chimerical to a great number of persons, yet there are few who have not a clear idea of a tender regard--of a cruel eye--of an austere aspect--of a false, dissimulating look--of an open countenance, &c. Keen practised optics acquire without doubt the faculty of penetrating the concealed motion of the soul, by the visible traces it leaves upon features that it has continually modified. Above all, the eyes of man very quickly undergo changes according to the motion which is excited in him: these delicate organs are visibly altered by the smallest shock communicated to his brain. Serene eyes announce a tranquil soul; wild eyes indicate a restless mind; fiery eyes portray a choleric, sanguine temperament; fickle or inconstant eyes give room to suspect a soul either alarmed or dissimulating. It is the study of this variety of shades that renders man practised and acute: upon the spot he combines a multitude of acquired experience, in order to form his judgment of the person he beholds. His judgment, thus rapidly formed, partakes in nothing of the supernatural, in nothing of the wonderful: such a man is only distinguished by the fineness of his organs, and by the celerity with which his brain performs its functions.
It is the same with some beings of the human species, in whom may be discovered an extraordinary sagacity, which, to the uninformed, appears miraculous. The most skilful practitioners in medicine, are, no doubt, men endowed with very acute feelings, similar to that of the physiognomists, by the assistance of which they judge with great facility of diseases, and very promptly draw their prognostics. Indeed, we see men who are capable of appreciating in the twinkling of an eye a multitude of circumstances, who have sometimes the faculty of foreseeing the most distant events; yet, this species of prophetic talent has nothing in it of the supernatural; it indicates nothing more than great experience, with an extremely delicate organization, from which they derive the faculty of judging with extreme faculty of causes, of foreseeing their very remote effects. This faculty, however, is also found in animals, who foresee much better than man, the variations of the atmosphere. with the various changes of the weather. Birds have long been the prophets, and even the guides of several nations who pretend to be extremely enlightened.
It is, then, to their organization, exercised after a particular manner, that must be attributed those wonderous faculties which distinguish some beings, that astonish others. To have instinct, only signifies to judge quickly, without requiring to make a long, reasoning on the subject. Man's ideas upon vice and upon virtue, are by no means innate; they are, like all others, acquired: the judgment he forms, is founded upon experience, whether true or false,--this depends upon his conformation, and upon the habits that have modified him. The infant has no ideas either of the Divinity or of virtue; it is from those who instruct him that he receives these ideas; he makes more or less use of them, according to his natural organization, or as his dispositions have been more or less exercised. Nature gives man legs, the nurse teaches him their use, his agility depends upon their natural conformation, and the manner in which he exercises them.
What is called taste, in the fine arts, is to be attributed, in the same manner, only to the acuteness of man's organs, practised by the habit of seeing, of comparing, of judging certain objects; from whence results, to some of his species, the faculty of judging with great rapidity, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole with its various relations. It is by the force of seeing, of feeling, of experiencing objects, that he attains to a knowledge of them; it is in consequence of reiterating this experience, that he acquires the power, that he gains the habit of judging with celerity. But this experience is by no means innate, he did not possess it before he was born; he is neither able to think, to judge, nor to have ideas, before he has feeling; he is neither in a capacity to love, nor to hate; to approve, nor to blame, before he has been moved, either agreeably or disagreeably. Nevertheless, this is precisely what must be supposed by those who are desirous to make man admit of innate ideas, of opinions; infused by Nature, whether in morals, metaphysics, or any other science. That his mind should have the faculty of thought, that it should occupy itself with an object, it is requisite it should be acquainted with its qualities; that it may have a knowledge of these qualities, it is necessary some of his senses should have been struck by them: those objects, therefore, of which he does not know any of the qualities, are nullities; or at least they do not exist for him.
It will be asserted, perhaps, that the universal consent of man, upon certain propositions, such as the whole is greater than its part, upon all geometrical demonstrations, appear to warrant the supposition of certain primary notions that are innate, not acquired. It may be replied, that these notions are always acquired; that they are the fruit of an experience more or less prompt; that it is requisite to have compared the whole with its part, before conviction can ensue, that the whole is the greater of the two. Man when he is born, does not bring with him the idea that two and two make four; but he is, nevertheless, speedily convinced of its truth. Before forming any judgment whatever, it is absolutely necessary to have compared facts.
It is evident, that those who have gratuitously supposed innate ideas, or notions inherent in man, have confounded his organization, or his natural dispositions, with the habit by which he is modified; with the greater or less aptitude he has of making experience, and of applying it in his judgment. A man who has taste in painting, has, without doubt, brought with him into the world eyes more acute, more penetrating than another; but these eyes would by no means enable him to judge with promptitude, if he had never had occasion to exercise them; much less, in some respects, can those dispositions which are called natural, be regarded as innate. Man is not, at twenty years of age, the same as he was when he came into the world; the physical causes that are continually acting upon him, necessarily have an influence upon his organization, and so modify it, that his natural dispositions themselves are not at one period what they are at another. La Motte Le Vayer says, "We think quite otherwise of things at one time than at another; when young than when old--when hungry than when our appetite is satisfied--in the night than in the day--when peevish than when cheerful. Thus, varying every hour, by a thousand other circumstances, which keep us in a state of perpetual inconstancy and instability." Every day may be seen children, who, to a certain age--display a great deal of ingenuity, a strong aptitude for the sciences, who finish by falling into stupidity. Others may be observed, who, during their infancy, have shown dispositions but little favourable to improvement, yet develop themselves in the end, and astonish us by an exhibition of those qualities of which we hardly thought them susceptible: there arrives a moment in which the mind takes a spring, makes use of a multitude of experience which it has amassed, without its having been perceived; and, if I may be allowed the expression, without their own knowledge.
Thus, it cannot be too often repeated, all the ideas, all the notions, all the modes of existence, and all the thoughts of man, are acquired. His mind cannot act, cannot exercise itself, but upon that of which it has knowledge; it can understand either well or ill, only those things which it has previously felt. Such of his ideas that do not suppose some exterior material object for their model, or one to which he is able to relate them, which are therefore called abstract ideas, are only modes in which his interior organ considers its own peculiar modifications, of which it chooses some without respect to others. The words which he uses to designate these ideas, such as bounty, beauty, order, intelligence, virtue, &c. do not offer any one sense, if he does not relate them to, or if he does not explain them by, those objects which his senses have shown him to be susceptible of those qualities, or of those modes of existence, of that manner of acting, which is known to him. What is it that points out to him the vague idea of beauty, if he does not attach it to some object that has struck his senses in a peculiar manner, to which, in consequence, he attributes this quality? What is it that represents the word intelligence, if he does not connect it with a certain mode of being and of acting? Does the word order signify any thing, if he does not relate it to a series of actions, to a chain of motion, by which he is affected in a certain manner? Is not the word virtue void of sense, if he does not apply it to those dispositions of his fellows which produce known effects, different from those which result from contrary inclinations? What do the words pain and pleasure offer to his mind in the moment when his organs neither suffer nor enjoy, if it be not the modes in which he has been affected, of which his brain conserves the remembrance, of those impressions, which experience has shown him to be either useful or prejudicial? But when he bears the words spirituality, immateriality, incorporeality, &c. pronounced, neither his senses nor his memory afford him any assistance; they do not furnish him with any means by which he can form an idea of their qualities, or of the objects to which he ought to apply them; in that which is not matter he can only see vacuum and emptiness, which as long as he remains what he is, cannot, to his mind, be susceptible of any one quality.
All the errors, all the disputes of men, have their foundation in this, that they have renounced experience, have surrendered the evidence of their senses, to give themselves up to the guidance of notions which they have believed infused or innate; although in reality they are no more than the effect of a distempered imagination, of prejudices, in which they have been instructed from their infancy, with which habit has familiarized them, which authority has obliged them to conserve. Languages are filled with abstract words, to which are attached confused and vague ideas; of which, when they come to be examined, no model can be found in Nature; no object to which they can be related. When man gives himself the trouble to analyze things, he is quite surprised to find, that those words which are continually in the mouths of men, never present any fixed or determinate idea: he hears them unceasingly speaking of spirits--of the soul and its faculties--of duration--of space--of immensity--of infinity--of perfection--of virtue--of reason--of sentiment--of instinct--of taste, &c. without his being able to tell precisely, what they themselves understand by these words. Nevertheless, they do not appear to have been invented, but for the purpose of representing the images of things; or to paint, by the assistance of the senses, those known objects on which the mind is able to meditate, which it is competent to appreciate, to compare, and to judge.
For man to think of that which has not acted on any of his senses, is to think on words; it is for his senses to dream; it is to seek in his own imagination for objects to which he can attach his wandering ideas: to assign qualities to these objects is, unquestionably, to redouble his extravagance, to set no limits to his folly. If a word be destined to represent to him an object that has not the capacity to act on any one of his organs; of which, it is impossible for him to prove either the existence or the qualities; his imagination, by dint of racking itself, will nevertheless, in some measure, supply him with the ideas he wants; he composes some kind of a picture, with the images or colours he is always obliged to borrow, from the objects of which he has a knowledge: thus the Divinity has been represented by some under the character of a venerable old man; by others, under that of a puissant monarch; by others, as an exasperated, irritated being, &c. It is evident, however, that man, with some of his qualities, has served for the model of these pictures: but if he be informed of objects that are represented as pure spirits--that have neither body nor extent--that are not contained in space--that are beyond nature,--here then he is plunged into emptiness; his mind no longer has any ideas--it no longer knows upon what it meditates. This, as will be seen in the sequel, no doubt, is the source of those unformed notions which some men have formed of the Divinity; they themselves frequently annihilate him, by assembling incompatible and contradictory attributes. In giving him morals--in composing him of known qualities,--they make him a man;--in assigning him the negative attributes of every thing they know, they render him inaccessible to their senses--they destroy all antecedent ideas--they make him a mere nothing. From this it will appear, that those sublime sciences which are called Theology, Psychology, Metaphysics, have been mere sciences of words: morals and politics, with which they very frequently mix, have, in consequence, become inexplicable enigmas, which there is nothing short of the study of Nature can enable us to expound.
Man has occasion for truth; it consists in a knowledge of the true relations he has with those beings competent to have an influence on his welfare; these relations are to he known only by experience: without experience there can be no reason; without reason man is only a blind creature, who conducts himself by chance. But, how is he to acquire experience upon ideal objects, which his senses neither enable him to know nor to examine? How is he to assure himself of the existence, how ascertain the qualities of beings he is not able to feel? How can he judge whether there objects be favorable or prejudicial to him? How is he to know, without the evidence of his senses, what he ought to love, what he should hate, what to seek after, what to shun, what to do, what to leave undone? It is, however, upon this knowledge that his condition in this world rests; it is upon this knowledge that morals is founded. From whence it may be seen, that, by causing him to blend vague metaphysical notions with morals, or the science of the certain and invariable relations which subsist between mankind; or by weakly establishing them upon chimerical ideas, which have no existence but in his imagination; these morals, upon which the welfare of society so much depends, are rendered uncertain, are made arbitrary, are abandoned to the caprices of fancy, are not fixed upon any solid basis.
Beings essentially different by their natural organization, by the modifications they experience, by the habits they contract, by the opinions they acquire, must of necessity think differently. His temperament, as we have seen, decides the mental qualities of man: this temperament itself is diversely modified in him: from whence it consecutively follows, his imagination cannot possibly be the same; neither can it create to him the same images. Each individual is a connected whole, of which all the parts have a necessary correspondence. Different eyes must see differently, must give extremely varied ideas of the objects they contemplate, even when these objects are real. What, then, must be the diversity of these ideas, if the objects meditated upon do not act upon the senses? Mankind have pretty nearly the same ideas, in the gross, of those substances that act upon his organs with vivacity; he is sufficiently in unison upon some qualities which he contemplates very nearly in the same manner; I say, very nearly, because the intelligence, the notion, the conviction of any one proposition, however simple, however evident, however clear it may be supposed, is not, nor cannot be, strictly the same, in any two men. Indeed, one man not being another man, the first cannot, for example, have rigorously and mathematically the same notion of unity as the second; seeing that an identical effect cannot be the result of two different causes. Thus, when men are in accord in their ideas, in their modes of thinking, in their judgment, in their passions, in their desires, in, their tastes, their consent does not arise from their seeing or feeling the same objects precisely in the same manner, but pretty nearly; language is not, nor cannot be, sufficiently copious to designate the vast variety of shades, the multiplicity of imperceptible differences, which is to be found in their modes of seeing and thinking. Each man, then, has, to say thus, a language which is peculiar to himself alone, and this language is incommunicable to others. What harmony, what unison, then, can possibly exist between them, when they discourse with each other, upon objects only known to their imagination? Can this imagination in one individual ever be the same as in another? How can they possibly understand each other, when they assign to those objects qualities that can only be attributed to the particular manner in which their brain is affected.
For one man to exact from another that he shall think like himself, is to insist that he shall be organized precisely in the same manner--that he shall have been modified exactly the same in every moment of his existence: that he shall have received the same temperament, the same nourishment, the same education: in a word, that he shall require that other to be himself. Wherefore is it not exacted that all men shall have the same features? Is man more the master of his opinions? Are not his opinions the necessary consequence of his Nature, and of those peculiar circumstances which, from his infancy, have necessarily had an influence upon his mode of thinking, and his manner of acting? If man be a connected whole, whenever a single feature differs from his own, ought he not to conclude that it is not possible his brain can either think, associate ideas, imagine, or dream precisely in the same manner with that other.
The diversity in the temperament of man, is the natural, the necessary source of the diversity of his passions, of his taste, of his ideas of happiness, of his opinions of every kind. Thus, this same diversity will be the fatal source of his disputes, of his hatreds, of his injustice, every time he shall reason upon unknown objects, but to which he shall attach the greatest importance. He will never understand either himself or others, in speaking of a spiritual soul, or of immaterial substances distinguished from Nature; he will, from that moment, cease to speak the same language, and he will never attach the same ideas to the same words. What, then, shall be, the common standard that shall decide which is the man that thinks with the greatest justice? What the scale by which to measure who has the best regulated imagination? What balance shall be found sufficiently exact to determine whose knowledge is most certain, when he agitates subjects, which experience cannot enable him to examine, that escape all his senses, that have no model, that are above reason? Each individual, each legislator, each speculator, each nation, has ever formed to himself different ideas of these things; each believes, that his own peculiar reveries ought to be preferred to those of his neighbours; which always appear to him an absurd, ridiculous, and false as his own can possibly have appeared to his fellow; each clings to his own opinion, because each retains his own peculiar mode of existence; each believes his happiness depends upon his attachment to his prejudices, which he never adopts but because he believes them beneficial to his welfare. Propose to a man to change his religion for yours, he will believe you a madman; you will only excite his indignation, elicit his contempt; he will propose to you, in his turn, to adopt his own peculiar opinions; after much reasoning, you will treat each other as absurd beings, ridiculously opiniated, pertinaciously stubborn: and he will display the least folly, who shall first yield. But if the adversaries become heated in the dispute, which always happens, when they suppose the matter important, or when they would defend the cause of their own self-love; from thence their passions sharpen, they grow angry, quarrels are provoked, they hate each other, and end by reciprocal injury. It is thus, that for opinions, which no man can demonstrate, we see the Brahmin despised; the Mahommedan hated; the Pagan held in contempt; that they oppress and disdain each with the most rancorous animosity: the Christian burns the Jew at what is called an auto-de-fe, because he clings to the faith of his fathers: the Roman Catholic condemns the Protestant to the flames, and makes a conscience of massacring him in cold blood: this re-acts in his turn; sometimes the various sects of Christians league together against the incredulous Turk, and for a moment suspend their own bloody disputes that they may chastise the enemies to the true faith: then, having glutted their revenge, return with redoubled fury, to wreak over again their infuriated vengeance on each other.
If the imaginations of men were the same, the chimeras which they bring forth would be every where the same; there would be no disputes among them on this subject, if they all dreamt in the same manner; great numbers of human beings would be spared, if man occupied his mind with objects capable of being known, of which the existence was proved, of which he was competent to discover the true qualities, by sure, by reiterated experience. Systems of Philosophy are not subject to dispute but when their principles are not sufficiently proved; by degrees experience, in pointing out the truth and detecting their errors, terminates these quarrels. There is no variance among geometricians upon the principles of their science; it is only raised, when their suppositions are false, or their objects too much complicated. Theologians find so much difficulty in agreeing among themselves, simply, because, in their contests, they divide without ceasing, not known and examined propositions, but prejudices with which they have been imbued in their youth--in the schools --by each other's books, &c. They are perpetually reasoning, not upon real objects, of which the existence is demonstrated, but upon imaginary systems of which they have never examined the reality; they found these disputes, not upon averred experience, or constant facts, but upon gratuitious suppositions, which each endeavours to convince the other are without solidity. Finding these ideas of long standing, that few people, refuse to admit them, they take them for incontestible truths, that ought to be received merely upon being announced; whenever they attach great importance to them, they irritate themselves against the temerity of those who have the audacity to doubt, or even to examine them.
If prejudice had been laid aside, it would perhaps have been discovered that many of those objects, which have given birth to the most shocking, the most sanguinary disputes among men, were mere phantoms; which a little examination would have shown to be unworthy their notice: the priests of Apollo would have been harmless, if man had examined for himself, without prejudice, the tenets they held forth: he would have found, that he was fighting, that he was cutting his neighbour's throat, for words void of sense; or, at the least, he would have learned to doubt his right to act in the manner he did; he would have renounced that dogmatical, that imperious tone he assumed, by which he would oblige his fellow to unite with him in opinion. The most trifling reflection would have shown him the necessity of this diversity in his notions, of this contrariety in his imagination, which depends upon his Natural conformation diversely modified: which necessarily has an influence over his thoughts, over his will, and over his actions. In short, if he had consulted morals, if he had fallen back upon reason, every thing would have conspired to prove to him, that beings who call themselves rational, were made to think variously; on that account were designed to live peaceable with each other, to love each other, to lend each other mutual succours whatever may be their opinions upon subjects, either impossible to be known, or to be contemplated under the same point of view: every thing would have joined in evidence to convince him of the unreasonable tyranny, of the unjust violence, of the useless cruelty of those men of blood, who persecute, who destroy mankind, in order that they may mould him to their own peculiar opinions; every thing would have conducted mortals to mildness, to indulgence, to toleration; virtues, unquestionably of more real importance, much more necessary to the welfare of society, than the marvellous speculations by which it is divided, by which it is frequently hurried on to sacrifice to a maniacal fury, the pretended enemies to these revered flights of the imagination.
From this it must be evident, of what importance it is to
morals to examine the ideas, to which it has been agreed to
attach so much worth; to which man is continually sacrificing his
own peculiar happiness; to which he is immolating the tranquillity
of nations, at the irrational command of fanatical cruel guides.
Let him fall back on his experience; let him return to Nature; let
him occupy himself with reason; let him consult those objects that
are real, which are useful to his permanent felicity; let him study
Nature's laws; let him study himself; let him consult the bonds
which unite him to his fellow mortals; let him examine the
fictitious bonds that enchain him to the most baneful prejudices.
If his imagination must always feed itself with illusions, if he
remains steadfast in his own opinions, if his prejudices are dear
to him, let him at least permit others to ramble in their own
manner, or seek after truth as best suits their inclination; but
let him always recollect, that all the opinions--all the ideas--all
the systems--all the wills--all the actions of man, are the
necessary consequence of his nature, of his temperament, of his organization, and of those causes, either
transitory or constant, which modify hint: in short, that man is
not more a free agent to think than to act: a truth that will
be again proved in the following chapter.
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