Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
An examination of the Opinion which pretends that the System of Fatalism is dangerous.
FOR a being whose essence obliges him to have a constant tendency to his own conservation, to continually seek to render himself happy, experience is indispensible: without it he cannot discover truth, which is nothing more, as has been already said, than a knowledge of the constant relations which subsist between man, and those objects that act upon him; according to his experience he denominates those that contribute to his permanent welfare useful and salutary; those that procure him pleasure, more or less durable, he calls agreeable. Truth itself becomes the object of his desires, only when he believes it is useful; he dreads it, whenever he presumes it will injure him. But has truth the power to injure him? Is it possible that evil can result to man from a correct understanding of the relations he has with other beings? Can it be true, that he can be harmed by becoming acquainted with those things, of which, for his own happiness, he is interested in having a knowledge? No: unquestionably not. It is upon its utility that truth founds its worth; upon this that it builds its rights; sometimes it may be disagreeable to individuals--it may even appear contrary to their interests--but it will ever be beneficial to them in the end; it will always be useful to the whole human species; it will eternally benefit the great bulk of mankind; whose interests must for ever remain distinct from those of men, who, duped by their own peculiar passions, believe their advantage consists in plunging others into error.
Utility, then, is the touchstone of his systems, the test of his opinions, the criterion of the actions of man; it is the standard of the esteem, the measure of the love he owes to truth itself: the most useful truths are the most estimable: those truths which are most interesting for his species, he styles eminent; those of which the utility limits itself to the amusement of some individuals who have not correspondent ideas, similar modes of feeling, wants analogous to his own, he either disdains, or else calls them barren.
It is according to this standard, that the principles laid down in this work, ought to be judged. Those who are acquainted with the immense chain of mischief produced on the earth by erroneous systems of superstition, will acknowledge the importance of opposing to them systems more accordant with truth, schemes drawn from Nature, sciences founded on experience. Those who are, or believe they are, interested in maintaining the established errors, will contemplate, with horror, the truths here presented to them: in short, those infatuated mortals, who do not feel, or who only feel very faintly, the enormous load of misery brought upon mankind by metaphysical speculation; the heavy yoke of slavery under which prejudice makes him groan, will regard all our principles as useless; or, at most, as sterile truths, calculated to amuse the idle hours of a few speculators.
No astonishment, therefore, need be excited at the various judgments formed by man: his interests never being the same, any more than his notions of utility, he condemns or disdains every thing that does not accord with his own peculiar ideas. This granted, let us examine, if in the eyes of the disinterested man, who is not entangled by prejudice-- who is sensible to the happiness of his species--who delights in truth--the doctrine of fatalism be useful or dangerous? Let us see if it is a barren speculation, that his not any influence upon the felicity of the human race? At has been already shown, that it will furnish morals with efficacious arguments, with real motives to determine the will, supply politics with the true lever to raise the proper activity in the mind of man. It will also be seen that it serves to explain in a simple manner the mechanism of man's actions; to develop in an easy way the arcana of the most striking phenomena of the human heart: on the other hand, if his ideas are only the result of unfruitful speculations, they cannot interest the happiness of the human species. Whether he believes himself a free agent, or whether he acknowledges the necessity of things, he always equally follows the desires imprinted on his soul; which are to preserve his existence and render himself happy. A rational education, honest habits, wise systems, equitable laws, rewards uprightly distributed, punishments justly inflicted, will conduct man to happiness by making him virtuous; while thorny speculations, filled with difficulties, can at most only have an influence over persons unaccustomed to think.
After these reflections, it will be very easy to remove the difficulties that are unceasingly opposed to the system of fatalism, which so many persons, blinded by their superstitious prejudices, are desirous to have considered as dangerous--as deserving of punishment--as calculated to disturb public tranquility--as tending to unchain the passions--to undermine the opinions man ought to have; and to confound his ideas of vice and of virtue.
The opposers of necessity, say, that if all the actions of man are necessary, no right whatever exists to punish bad ones, or even to be angry with those who commit them: that nothing ought to be imputed to them; that the laws would he unjust if they should decree punishment for necessary actions; in short, that under this system man could neither have merit nor demerit. In reply, it may he argued, that, to impute an action to any one, is to attribute that action to him; to acknowledge him for the author: thus, when even an action was supposed to be the effect of an agent, and that agent necessity, the imputation would lie: the merit or demerit, that is ascribed to an action are ideas originating in the effects, whether favourable or pernicious, that result to those who experience its operation; when, therefore, it should be conceded, that the agent was necessity, it is not less certain, that the action would be either good or bad; estimable or contemptible, to those who must feel its influence; in short that it would be capable of either eliciting their love, or exciting their anger. Love and anger are modes of existence, suitable to modify, beings of the human species: when, therefore, man irritates himself against his fellow, he intends to excite his fear, or even to punish him, in order to deter him from committing that which is displeasing to him. Moreover his anger is necessary; it is the result of his Nature; the consequence of his temperament. The painful sensation produced by a stone that falls on the arm, does not displease the less, because it comes from a cause deprived of will; which acts by the necessity of its Nature. In contemplating man as acting necessarily, it is impossible to avoid distinguishing that mode of action or being which is agreeable, which elicits approbation, from that which is afflicting, which irritates, which Nature obliges him to blame and to prevent. From this it will he seen, that the system of fatalism, does not in any manner change the actual state of things, and is by no means calculated to confound man's ideas of virtue and vice.
Man's Nature always revolts against that which opposes it: there are men so choleric, that they infuriate themselves even against insensible and inanimate objects; reflection on their own impotence to modify these objects ought to conduct them back to reason. Parents are frequently very much to be blamed for correcting their children with anger: they should be contemplated as beings who are not yet modified; or who have, perhaps, been very badly modified by themselves: nothing is more common in life, than to see men punish faults of which they are themselves the cause.
Laws are made with a view to maintain society; to uphold its existence; to prevent man associated, from injuring his neighbour; they are therefore competent to punish those who disturb its harmony, or those who commit actions that are injurious to their fellows; whether these associates may be the agents of necessity, or whether they are free agents, it suffices to know they are susceptible of modification, and are therefore submitted to the operation of the law. Penal laws are, or ought to be, those motives which experience has shown capable of restraining the inordinate passions of man, or of annihilating the impulse these passions give to his will; from whatever necessary cause man may derive these passions, the legislator proposes to arrest their effect. when he takes suitable means, when he adopts proper methods, he is certain of success. The Judge, in decreeing to crime, gibbets, tortures, or any other chastisement whatever, does nothing more than is done by the architect, who in building a house, places gutters to carry off the rain, and prevent it from sapping the foundation.
Whatever may be the cause that obliges man to act, society possesses the right to crush the effects, as much as the man whose land would be ruined by a river, has to restrain its waters by a bank: or even, if he is able, to turn its course. It is by virtue of this right that society has the power to intimidate, the faculty to punish, with a view to its own conservation, those who may be tempted to injure it; or those who commit actions which are acknowledged really to interrupt its repose; to be inimical to its security; repugnant to its happiness.
It will, perhaps, he argued, that society does not, usually, punish those faults in which the will has no share; that, in fact, it punishes the will alone; that this it is which decides the nature of the crime, and the degree of its atrocity; that if this will be not free, it ought not to be punished. I reply, that society is an assemblage of sensible beings, susceptible of reason, who desire their own welfare; who fear evil, and seek after good. These dispositions enable their will to be so modified or determined, that they are capable of holding such a conduct as will conduce to the end they have in view. Education, the laws, public opinion, example, habit, fear, are the causes that must modify associated man, influence his will, regulate his passions, restrain the actions of him who is capable of injuring the end of his association, and thereby make him concur to the general happiness. These causes are of a nature to make impressions on every man, whose organization, whose essence, whose sanity, places him in a capacity to contract the habits, to imbibe the modes of thinking, to adopt the manner of acting, with which society is willing to inspire him. All the individuals of the human species are susceptible of fear, from whence it flows as a natural consequence, that the fear of punishment, or the privation of the happiness he desires, are motives that must necessarily more or less influence his will, and regulate his actions. If the man is to be found who is so badly constituted as to resist, whose organization is so vicious as to be insensible to those motives which operate upon all his fellows, he is not fit to live in society; he would contradict the very end of his association: he would he its enemy; he would place obstacles to its natural tendency; his rebellious disposition, his unsociable will, not being susceptible of that modification which is convenient to his own true interests and to the interests of his fellow-citizens; these would unite themselves against such an enemy; and the law which is, or ought to be the expression of the general will, would visit with condign punishment that refractory individual upon whom the motives presented to him by society, had not the effect which it had been induced to expect: in consequence, such an unsociable man would be chastised; he would be rendered miserable, and according to the nature of his crime he would be excluded from society as a being but little calculated to concur in its views.
If society has the right to conserve itself, it has also the right to take the means: these means are the laws which present or ought to present to the will of man those motives which are most suitable to deter him from committing injurious actions. If these motives fail of the proper effect, if they are unable to influence him, society, for its own peculiar good, is obliged to wrest from him the power of doing it further injury. From whatever source his actions may arise, therefore, whether they are the result of free-agency, or whether they are the offspring of necessity, society coerces him if, after having furnished him with motives, sufficiently powerful to act upon reasonable beings, it perceives that these motives have not been competent to vanquish his depraved nature. It punishes him with justice, when the actions from which it dissuades him are truly injurious to society; it has an unquestionable right to punish, when it only commands those things that are conformable to the end proposed by man in his association; or defends the commission of those acts, which are contrary to this end; which are hostile to the nature of beings associated for their reciprocal advantage. But, on the other hand, the law has not acquired the right to punish him: if it has failed to present to him the motives necessary to have an influence over his will, it has not the right to coerce him if the negligence of society has deprived him of the means of subsisting; of exercising his talents; of exerting his industry; of labouring for its welfare. It is unjust, when it punishes those to whom it has, neither given an education, nor honest principles; whom it has not enabled to contract habits necessary to the maintenance of society: it is unjust when it punishes them for faults which the wants of their nature, or the constitution of society has rendered necessary to them: it is unjust, it is irrational, whenever it chastises them for having followed those propensities, which example, which public opinion, which the institutions, which society itself conspires to give them. In short, the law is defective when it does not proportion the punishment to the real evil which society has sustained. The last degree of injustice, the acme of folly is, when society is so blinded as to inflict punishment on those citizens who have served it usefully.
The penal laws, in exhibiting terrifying objects to man, who must be supposed susceptible of fear, presents him with motives calculated to have an influence over his will. The idea of pain, the privation of liberty, the fear of death, are, to a being well constituted, in the full enjoyment of his faculties, very puissant obstacles, that strongly oppose themselves to the impulse of his unruly desires: when these do not coerce his will, when they fail to arrest his progress, he is an irrational being; a madman; a being badly organized; against whom society has the right to guarantee itself; against whom it has a right to take measures for its own security. Madness is, without doubt, an involuntary, a necessary state; nevertheless, no one feels it unjust to deprive the insane of their liberty, although their actions can only be imputed to the derangement of their brain. The wicked are men whose brain is either constantly or transitorily disturbed; still they must he punished by reason of the evil they commit; they must always be placed in the impossibility of injuring society: if no hope remains of bringing them back to a reasonable conduct--if every prospect of recalling them to their duty has vanished--if they cannot be made to adopt a mode of action conformable to the great end of association--they must be for ever excluded its benefits.
It will not be requisite to examine here, how far the punishments which society inflicts upon those who offend against it, may be reasonably carried. Reason should seem to indicate that the law ought to show to the necessary crimes of man, all the indulgence that is compatible with the conservation of society. The system of fatalism, as we have seen, does not leave crime unpunished; but it is, at least, calculated to moderate the barbarity with which a number of nations punish the victims to their anger. This cruelty becomes still more absurd, when experience has shown its inutility: the habit of witnessing ferocious punishments familiarizes criminals with the idea. If it be true that society possesses the right of taking away the life of its members--if it be really a fact, that the death of a criminal, thenceforth useless, can be advantageous for society, which it will be necessary to examine, humanity, at least, exacts that this death should not be accompanied with useless tortures; with which laws, perhaps in this instance too rigorous, frequently seem to delight in overwhelming their victim. This cruelty seems to defeat its own end, it only serves to make the culprit, who is immolated to the public vengeance, suffer without any advantage to society; it moves the compassion of the spectator, interests him in favor of the miserable offender who groans under its weight; it impresses nothing upon the wicked, but the sight of those cruelties destined for himself; which but too frequently renders him more ferocious, more cruel, more the enemy of his associates: if the example of death was less frequent, even without being accompanied with tortures, it would be more efficacious. If experience was consulted, it would be found that the greater number of criminals only look upon death as a bad quarter of an hour. It is an unquestionable fact, that a thief seeing one of his comrades, display a want of firmness under the punishment, said to him: "Is not this what I have often told you, that in our business, we have one evil more than the rest of mankind?" Robberies are daily committed, even at the foot of the scaffolds where criminals are punished. In those nations, where the penalty of death is so lightly inflicted, has sufficient attention been paid to the fact, that society is yearly deprived of a great number of individuals who would be able to render it very useful service, if made to work, and thus indemnify the community for the injuries they have committed? The facility with which the lives of men are taken away, proves the incapacity of counsellors; is an evidence of the negligence of legislators: they find it a much shorter road, that it gives them less trouble to destroy the citizens than to seek after the means to render them better.
What shall be said for the unjust cruelty of some nations, in which the law, that ought to have for its object the advantage of the whole, appears to be made only for the security of the most powerful? How shall we account for the inhumanity of those societies, in which punishments the most disproportionate to the crime, unmercifully take away the lives of men, whom the most urgent necessity, the dreadful alternative of famishing in a land of plenty, has obliged to become criminal? It is thus that in a great number of civilized nations, the life of the citizen is placed in the same scales with money; that the unhappy wretch who is perishing from hunger, who is writhing under the most abject misery, is put to death for having taken a pitiful portion of the superfluity of another whom he beholds rolling in abundance! It is this that, in many otherwise very enlightened societies, is called justice, or making the punishment commensurate with the crime.
Let the man of humanity, whose tender feelings are alive to the welfare of his species--let the moralist, who preaches virtue, who holds out forbearance to man--let the philosopher, who dives into the secrets of Nature--let the theologian himself say, if this dreadful iniquity, this heinous sin, does not become yet more crying, when the laws decree the most cruel tortures for crimes to which the most irrational customs gave birth--which bad institutions engender--which evil examples multiply? Is not this something like building a sorry, inconvenient hovel, and then punishing the inhabitant, because he does not find all the conveniences of the most complete mansion, of the most finished structure? Man, as at cannot be too frequently repeated, is so prone to evil, only because every thing appears to urge him on to the commission of it, by too frequently showing him vice triumphant: his education is void in a great number of states, perhaps defective in nearly all; in many places he receives from society no other principles, save those of an unintelligible superstition; which make but a feeble barrier against those propensities that are excited by dissolute manners; which are encouraged by corrupt examples: in vain the law cries out to him: "abstain from the goods of thy neighbour;" his wants, more powerful, loudly declare to him that he must live: unaccustomed to reason, having never been submitted to a wholesome discipline, he conceives he must do it at the expence of a society who has done nothing for him: who condemns him to groan in misery, to languish in indigence: frequently deprived of the common necessaries requisite to support his existence, which his essence, of which he is not the master, compels him to conserve. He compensates himself by theft, he revenges himself by assassination, he becomes a plunderer by profession, a murderer by trade; he plunges into crime, and seeks at the risque of his life, to satisfy those wants, whether real or imaginary, to which every thing around him conspires to give birth. Deprived of education, he has not been taught to restrain the fury of his temperament--to guide his passions with discretion--to curb his inclinations. Without ideas of decency, destitute of the true principles of honour, he engages in criminal pursuits that injure his country: which at the same time has been to him nothing more than a step-mother. In the paroxysm of his rage, in the exacerbation of his mind, he loses sight of his neighbour's rights, he overlooks the gibbet, he forgets the torture; his unruly desires have become too potent--they have completely absorbed his mind; by a criminal indulgence they have given an inveteracy to his habits which preclude him from changing them; laziness has made him torpid: remorse has gnawed his peace; despair has rendered him blind; he rushes on to death; and society is compelled to punish him rigorously, for those fatal, those necessary dispositions, which it has perhaps itself engendered in his heart by evil example: or which at least, it has not taken the pains seasonably to root out; which it has neglected to oppose by suitable motives--by those calculated to give him honest principles--to excite him to industrious habits, to imbue him with virtuous inclinations. Thus, society frequently punishes those propensities of which it is itself the author, or which its negligence has suffered to spring up in the mind of man: it acts like those unjust fathers, who chastise their children for vices which they have themselves made them contract.
However unjust, however unreasonable this conduct may be, or appear to be, it is not the less necessary: society, such as it is, whatever may be its corruption, whatever vices may pervade its institutions, like every thing else in Nature, is willing to subsist; tends to conserve itself: in consequence, it is obliged to punish those excesses which its own vicious constitution has produced: in despite of its peculiar prejudices, notwithstanding its vices, it feels cogently that its own immediate security demands that it should destroy the conspiracies of those who make war against its tranquillity: if these, hurried on by the foul current of their necessary propensities, disturb its repose--if, borne on the stream of their ill-directed desires, they injure its interests, this following the natural law, which obliges it to labour to its own peculiar conservation, removes them out of its road; punishes them with more or less rigor, according to the objects to which it attaches the greatest importance, or which it supposes best suited to further its own peculiar welfare: without doubt, it deceives itself frequently, both upon these objects and the means; but it deceives itself necessarily, for want of the knowledge calculated to enlighten it, with regard to its true interests; for want of those, who regulate its movements possessing proper vigilance-- suitable talents--the requisite virtue. From this it will appear, that the injustice of a society badly constituted, and blinded by its prejudices, is as necessary, as the crimes of those by whom it is hostilely attacked--by whose vices it is distracted. The body politic, when in a state of insanity, cannot act more consistently with reason, than one of its members whose brain is disturbed by madness.
It will still be said that these maxims, by submitting every thing to necessity, must confound, or even destroy the notions man forms of justice and injustice; of good and evil; of merit and demerit: I deny it. Although man, in every thing he does, acts necessarily, his actions are good, they are just, they are meritorious, every time they tend to the real utility of his fellows; of the society of which he makes a part: they are, of necessity, distinguished from those which are really prejudicial to the welfare of his associates. Society is just, it is good, it is worthy our reverence, when it procures for all its members, their physical wants, when it affords them protection, when it secures their liberty, when it puts them in possession of their natural rights. It is ill this that consists all the happiness of which the social compact is susceptible: society is unjust, it is bad, it is unworthy our esteem, when it is partial to a few, when it is cruel to the greater number: it is then that it multiplies its enemies, obliges them to revenge themselves by criminal actions which it is under the necessity to punish. It is not upon the caprices of political society that depend the true notions of justice and injustice--the right ideas of moral good and evil--a just appreciation of merit and demerit; it is upon utility, upon the necessity of things, which always forces man to feel that there exists a mode of acting on which he implicitly relies, which he is obliged to venerate, which he cannot help approving either in his fellows, in himself, or in society: whilst there is another mode to which he cannot lend his confidence, which his nature makes him to hate, which his feelings compel him to condemn. It is upon his own peculiar essence that man founds his ideas of pleasure and of pain--of right and of wrong--of vice and of virtue: the only difference between these is, that pleasure and pain make them instantaneously felt in his brain; he becomes conscious of their existence upon the spot; in the place of which, the advantages that accrue to him from justice, the benefit that he derives from virtue, frequently do not display themselves but after a long train of reflections-- after multiplied experience and complicated attention; which many, either from a defect in their conformation, or from the peculiarity of the circumstances under which they are placed, are prevented from making, or at least from making correctly.
By a necessary consequence of this truism, the system of fatalism, although it has frequently been so accused, does not tend to encourage man in crime, to make remorse vanish from his mind. His propensities are to be ascribed to his nature; the use he makes of his passions depends upon his habits, upon his opinions, upon the ideas he has received in his education; upon the examples held forth by the society in which he lives. These things are what necessarily decide his conduct. Thus, when his temperament renders him susceptible of strong passions, he is violent in his desires, whatever may be his speculations.
Remorse is the painful sentiment excited in him by grief, caused either by the immediate or probable future effect of his indulged passions: if these effects were always useful to him, he would not experience remorse; but, as soon as he is assured that his actions render him hateful, that his passions make him contemptible; or, as soon as he fears he shall be punished in some mode or other, he becomes restless, discontented with himself--he reproaches himself with his own conduct--he feels ashamed--he fears the judgement of those beings whose affection he has learned to esteem--in whose good-will he finds his own comfort deeply interested. His experience proves to him that the wicked man is odious to all those upon whom his actions have any influence: if these actions are concealed at the moment of commission, he knows it very rarely happens they remain so for ever. The smallest reflection convinces him that there is no wicked man who is not ashamed of his own conduct--who is truly contented with himself--who does not envy the condition of the good man--who is not obliged to acknowledge that he has paid very dearly for those advantages he is never able to enjoy, without experiencing the most troublesome sensations, without making the most bitter reproaches against himself; then he feels ashamed, despises himself, hates himself, his conscience becomes alarmed, remorse follows in it train. To be convinced of the truth of this principle it is only requisite to cast our eyes on the extreme precautions that tyrants and villains, who are otherwise sufficiently powerful not to dread the punishment of man, take to prevent exposure;--to what lengths they push their cruelties against some, to what meannesses they stoop to others of those who are able to hold them up to public scorn. Have they not, then, a consciousness of their own iniquities? Do they not know that they are hateful and contemptible? Have they not remorse? Is their condition happy? Persons well brought up acquire these sentiments in their education; which are either strengthened or enfeebled by public opinion, by habit, or by the examples set before them. In a depraved society, remorse either does not exist, or presently disappears; because, in all his actions, it is ever the judgment of his fellow-man that man is obliged necessarily to regard. He never feels either shame or remorse for actions he sees approved, that are practised by the world. Under corrupt governments, venal souls, avaricious being, mercenary individuals, do not blush either at meanness, robbery, or rapine, when it is authorized by example; in licentious nations, no one blushes at adultery except the husband, at whose expence it is committed; in superstitious countries, man does not blush to assassinate his fellow for his opinions. It will be obvious, therefore, that his remorse, as well as the ideas, whether right or wrong, which man has of decency, virtue, justice, &c. are the necessary consequence of his temperament, modified by the society in which he lives: assassins and thieves, when they live only among themselves, have neither shame nor remorse.
Thus, I repeat, all the actions of man are necessary those which are always useful, which constantly contribute to the real, tend to the permanent happiness of his species, are called virtues, and are necessarily pleasing to all who experience their influence; at least, if their passions or false opinions do not oblige them to judge in that manner which is but little accordant with the nature of things: each man acts, each individual judges, necessarily, according to his own peculiar mode of existence--after the ideas, whether true or false, which he has formed with regard to his happiness. There are necessary actions which man is obliged to approve; there are others, that, in despite of himself, he is compelled to censure; of which the idea generates shame when his reflection permits him to contemplate them under the same point of view that they are regarded by his associates. The virtuous man and the wicked man act from motives equally necessary: they differ simply in their organization--in the ideas they form to themselves of happiness: we love the one necessarily-- we detest the other from the same necessity. The law of his nature, which wills that a sensible being shall constantly labour to preserve himself, has not left to man the power to choose, or the free-agency to prefer pain to pleasure--vice to utility--crime to virtue. It is, then, the essence of man himself that obliges him to discriminate those actions which are advantageous to him, form those which are prejudicial to his interest, from those which are baneful to his felicity.
This distinction subsists even in the most corrupt societies, in which the ideas of virtue, although completely effaced from their conduct, remain the same in their mind. Let us suppose a matt, who had decidedly determined for villainy, who should say to himself--"It is folly to be virtuous in a society that is depraved, in a community that is debauched." Let us suppose also, that he has sufficient address, the unlooked-for good fortune to escape censure or punishment, during a long series of years; I say, that in despite of all these circumstances, apparently so advantageous for himself, such a man has neither been happy nor contented with his own conduct, He has been in continual agonies--ever at war with his own actions--in a state of constant agitation. How much pain, how much anxiety, has he not endured in this perpetual conflict with himself? How many precautions, what excessive labour, what endless solicitude, has he not been compelled to employ. in this continued struggle; how many embarrassments, how many cares, has he not experienced in this eternal wrestling with his associates, whose penetration he dreads, whose scorn he fears will follow a true knowledge of his pursuits. Demand of him what he thinks of himself, he will shrink from the question. Approach the bedside of this villain at the moment he is dying; ask him if he would be willing to recommence, at the same price, a life of similar agitation? If he is ingenuous, he will avow that he has tasted neither repose nor happiness; that each crime filled him with inquietude--that reflection prevented him from sleeping--that the world has been to him only one continued scene of alarm-- an uninterrupted concatenation of terror--an everlasting, anxiety of mind;--that to live peaceably upon bread and water, appears to him to be a much happier, a more easy condition, than to possess riches, credit, reputation, honours, on the same terms that he has himself acquired them. If this villain, notwithstanding all his success, finds his condition so deplorable, what must be thought of the feelings of those who have neither the same resources nor the same advantages to succeed in their criminal projects.
Thus, the system of necessity is a truth not only founded upon certain experience, but, again, it establishes morals upon an immoveable basis. Far from sapping the foundations of virtue, it points out its necessity; it clearly shows the invariable sentiments it must excite--sentiments so necessary, so strong, so congenial to his existence, that all the prejudices of man--all the vices of his institutions--all the effect of evil example, have never been able entirely to eradicate them from his mind. When he mistakes the advantages of virtue, it ought to be ascribed to the errors that are infused into him--to the irrationality of his institutions: all his wanderings are the fatal consequences of error,--the necessary result of prejudices which have identified themselves with his existence. Let it not, therefore, any longer be imputed to his nature that he has become wicked, but to those baneful opinions which he has imbibed with his mother's milk,--that have rendered him ambitious, avaricious, envious, haughty, arrogant, debauched, intolerant, obstinate, prejudiced, incommodious to his fellows, mischievous to himself. It is education that carries into his system the germ of those vices which necessarily torment him during the whole course of his life.
Fatalism is reproached with discouraging man-- with damping the ardour of his soul--with plunging him into apathy--with destroying the bonds that should connect him with society. Its opponents say, "If every thing is necessary, we must let things go on, and not be disturbed by any thing." But does it depend on man to be sensible or not? Is he master of feeling or not feeling pain? If Nature has endowed him with a humane, with a tender soul, is it possible he should not interest himself in a very lively manner, in the welfare of beings whom he knows are necessary to his own peculiar happiness? His feelings are necessary: they depend on his own peculiar nature, cultivated by education. His imagination, prompt to concern itself with the felicity of his race, causes his heart to be oppressed at the sight of those evils his fellow-creature is obliged to endure,--makes his soul tremble in the contemplation of the misery arising from the despotism that crushes him--from the superstition that leads him astray--from the passions that distract him in a state of warfare against his neighbour. Although he knows that death is the fatal, the necessary period to the form of all beings, his soul is not affected in a less lively manner at the loss of a beloved wife,--at the demise of a child calculated to console his old age,--at the final separation from an esteemed friend who had become dear to his heart. Although he is not ignorant that it is the essence of fire to burn, he does not believe he is dispensed from using his utmost efforts to arrest the progress of a conflagration. Although he is intimately convinced that the evils to which he is a witness, are the necessary consequence of primitive errors with which his fellow-citizens are imbued, he feels he ought to display truth to them, if Nature has given him the necessary courage; under the conviction, that if they listen to it, it will, by degrees, become a certain remedy for their sufferings, that it will produce those necessary effects which it is of its essence to operate.
If the speculations of man modify his conduct, if they change his temperament, he ought not to doubt that the system of necessity would have the most advantageous influence over him; not only is it suitable to calm the greater part of his inquietude, but it will also contribute to inspire him with a useful submission, a rational resignation, to the decrees of a destiny with which his too great sensibility frequently causes him to be overwhelmed. This happy apathy, without doubt, would be, desirable to those whose souls, too tender to brook the inequalities of life, frequently render them the deplorable sport of their fate; or whose organs, too weak to make resistance to the buffettings of fortune, incessantly expose them to be dashed in pieces under the rude blows of adversity.
But, of all the important advantages the human race would be enabled to derive from the doctrine of fatalism, if man was to apply it to his conduct, none would be of greater magnitude, none of more happy consequence, none that would more efficaciously corroborate his happiness, than that general indulgence, that universal toleration, that must necessarily spring from the opinion, that all is necessary. In consequence, of the adoption of this principle, the fatalist, if he had a sensible soul, would commisserate the prejudices of his fellow-man--would lament over his wanderings--would seek to undeceive him--would try by gentleness to lead him into the right path, without ever irritating himself against his weakness, without ever insulting his misery. Indeed, what right have we to hate or despise man for his opinions? His ignorance, his prejudices, his imbecility, his vices, his passions, his weakness, are they not the inevitable consequence of vicious institutions? Is he not sufficiently punished by the multitude of evils that afflict him on every side? Those despots who crush him with an iron sceptre, are they not continual victims to their own peculiar restlessness--mancipated to their perpetual diffidence--eternal slaves to their suspicions? Is there one wicked individual who enjoys a pure, an unmixed, a real happiness? Do not nations unceasingly suffer from their follies? Are they not the incessant dupes to their prejudices? Is not the ignorance of chiefs, the ill-will they bear to reason, the hatred they have for truth, punished by the imbecility of their citizens, by the ruin of the states they govern? In short, the fatalist would grieve to witness necessity each moment exercising its severe decrees upon mortals who are ignorant of its power, or who feel its castigation, without being willing to acknowledge the hand from whence it proceeds; he will perceive that ignorance is necessary, that credulity is the necessary result of ignorance--that slavery and bondage are necessary consequences of ignorant credulity--that corruption of manners springs necessarily from slavery--that the miseries of society, the unhappiness of its members, are the necessary offspring of this corruption. The fatalist, in consequence, of these ideas, will neither he a gloomy misanthrope, nor a dangerous citizen; he will pardon in his brethren those wanderings, he will forgive them those errors--which their vitiated nature, by a thousand causes, has rendered necessary--he will offer them consolation--he will endeavour to inspire them with courage--he will be sedulous to undeceive them in their idle notions, in their chimerical ideas; but he will never display against them bitterness of soul--he will never show them that rancorous animosity which is more suitable, to make them revolt from his doctrines, than to attract them to reason;--he will not disturb the repose of society--he will not raise the people to insurrection against the sovereign authority; on the contrary, he will feel that the miserable blindness of the great, and the wretched perverseness, the fatal obstinacy of so many conductors of the people, are the necessary consequence of that flattery that is administered to them in their infancy--that feeds their hopes with allusive falsehoods--of the depraved malice of those who surround them--who wickedly corrupt them, that they may profit by their folly-- that they may take advantage of their weakness: in short, that these things are the inevitable effect of that profound ignorance of their true interest, in which every thing strives to keep them.
The fatalist has no right to be vain of his peculiar talents; no privilege to be proud of his virtues; he knows that these qualities are only the consequence of his natural organization, modified by circumstances that have in no wise depended upon himself. He will neither have hatred nor feel contempt for those whom Nature and circumstances have not favoured in a similar manner. It is the fatalist who ought to be humble, who should be modest from principle: is he not obliged to acknowledge, that he possesses nothing that he has not previously received?
In fact, will not every thing conduct to indulgence the fatalist whom experience has convinced of the necessity of things? Will he not see with pain, that it is the essence of a society badly constituted, unwisely governed, enslaved to prejudice, attached to unreasonable customs, submitted to irrational laws, degraded under despotism, corrupted by luxury, inebriated by false opinions, to be filled with trifling members; to be composed of vicious citizens; to be made up of cringing slaves, who are proud of their chains; of ambitious men, without idea of true glory; of misers and prodigals; of fanatics and libertines! Convinced of the necessary connection of things, he will not be surprised to see that the supineness of their chiefs carries discouragement into their country, or that the influence of their governors stirs up bloody wars by which it is depopulated, and causes useless expenditures that impoverish it; that all these excesses united, is the reason why so many nations contain only men wanting happiness, without understanding to attain it; who are devoid of morals, destitute of virtue. In all this he will contemplate nothing more than the necessary action and re-action of physics upon morals, of morals upon physics. In short, all who acknowledge fatality, will remain persuaded that a nation badly governed is a soil very fruitful in venomous reptiles--very abundant in poisonous plants; that these have such a plentiful growth as to crowd each other and choak themselves. It is in a country cultivated by the hands of a Lycurgus, that he will witness the production of intrepid citizens, of noble-minded individuals, of disinterested men, who are strangers to irregular pleasures. In a country cultivated by a Tiberius, he will find nothing but villains with depraved hearts, men with mean contemptible souls, despicable informers, execrable traitors. It is the soil, it is the circumstances in which man finds himself placed, that renders him either a useful object or a prejudicial being: the wise man avoids the one, as he would those dangerous reptiles whose nature it is to sting and communicate their deadly venom; he attaches himself to the other, esteems him, loves him, as he does those delicious fruits with whose rich maturity his palate is pleasantly gratified, with whose cooling juices he finds himself agreeably refreshed: he sees the wicked without anger--he cherishes the good with pleasure--he delights in the bountiful: he knows full well that the tree which is languishing without culture in the arid, sandy desert, that is stunted for want of attention, leafless for want of moisture, that has grown crooked from neglect, become barren from want of loam, whose tender bark is gnawed by rapacious beasts of prey, pierced by innumerable insects, would perhaps have expanded far and wide its verdant boughs from a straight and stately stem, have brought forth delectable fruit, have afforded from its luxuriant foliage under its lambent leaves an umbrageous refreshing retreat from the scorching rays of a meridian sun, have offered beneath its swelling branches, under its matted tufts a shelter from the pitiless storm, it its seed had been fortunately sown in a more fertile soil, placed in a more congenial climate, had experienced the fostering cares of a skilful cultivator.
Let it not then be said, that it is degrading man reduce his functions to a pure mechanism;, that it is shamefully to undervalue him, scandalously to abuse him, to compare him to a tree; to an abject vegetation. The philosopher devoid of prejudice does not understand this language, invented by those who are ignorant of what constitutes the true dignity of man. A tree is an object which, in its station, joins the useful with the agreeable; it merits our approbation when it produces sweet and pleasant fruit; when it affords a favourable shade. All machines are precious, when they are truly useful, when they faithfully perform the functions for which they are designed. Yes, I speak it with courage, reiterate it with pleasure, the honest man, when he has talents, when he possesses virtue, is, for the beings of his species, a tree that furnishes them with delicious fruit, that affords them refreshing shelter: the honest man is a machine of which the springs are adapted to fulfil its functions in a manner that must gratify the expectation of all his fellows. No, I should not blush, I should not feel degraded, to be a machine of this sort; and my heart would leap with joy, if I could foresee that the fruit of my reflections would one day be useful to my race, consoling to my fellow-man.
Is not Nature herself a vast machine, of which the human species is but a very feeble spring? I see nothing contemptible either in her or her productions; all the beings who come out of her hands are good, are noble, are sublime, whenever they co-operate to the production of another, to the maintenance of harmony in the sphere where they must act. Of whatever nature the soul may be, whether it is made mortal, or whether it be supposed immortal; whether it is regarded as a spirit, or whether it be looked upon as a portion of the body; it will be found noble, it will be estimated great, it will be ranked good, it will be considered sublime, in a Socrates, in an Aristides, in a Cato: it will be thought abject, it will be viewed as despicable, it will be called corrupt, in a Claudius, in a Sejanus, in a Nero: its energies will be admired, we shall be delighted with its manner, fascinated with its efforts, in a Shakespeare, in a Corneille, in a Newton, in a Montesquieu: its baseness will be lamented, when we behold mean, contemptible men, who flatter tyranny, or who servilely cringe at the foot of superstition.
All that has been said in the course of this work, proves clearly that every thing is necessary; that every thing is always in order, relatively to Nature; where all beings do nothing more than follow the laws that are imposed on their respective classes. It is part of her plan, that certain portions of the earth shall bring forth delicious fruits, shall blossom beauteous flowers; whilst others shall only furnish brambles, shall yield nothing but noxious vegetables: she has been willing that some societies should produce wise men, great heroes; that others should only give birth to abject souls, contemptible men, without energy, destitute of virtue. Passions, winds, tempests, hurricanes, volcanoes, wars, plagues, famines, diseases, death, are as necessary to her eternal march as the beneficent heat of the sun, the serenity of the atmosphere, the gentle showers of spring, plentiful years, peace, health, harmony, life: vice and virtue, darkness and light, and science are equally necessary; the one are not benefits, the other are not evils, except for those beings whose happiness they influence by either favouring or deranging their peculiar mode of existence. The whole cannot be miserable, but it may contain unhappy individuals.
Nature, then, distributes with the same hand that which is called order, and that which is called disorder; that which is called pleasure, and that which is called pain: in short, she diffuses by the necessity of her existence, good and evil in the world we inhabit. Let not man, therefore, either arraign her bounty, or tax her with malice; let him not imagine that his feeble cries, his weak supplications, can never arrest her colossal power, always acting after immutable laws; let him submit silently to his condition; and when he suffers, let him not seek a remedy by recurring to chimeras that his own distempered imagination has created; let him draw from the stores of Nature herself, the remedies which she offers for the evil she brings upon him: if she sends him diseases, let him search in her bosom for those salutary productions to which she has given birth, which will cure them: if she gives him errors, she also furnishes him with experience to counteract them; in truth, she supplies him with an antidote suitable to destroy their fatal effects. If she permits man to groan under the pressure of his vices, beneath the load of his follies, she also shows him in virtue, a sure remedy for his infirmities: if the evils that some societies experience are necessary, when they shall have become too incommodious they will be irresistibly obliged to search for those remedies which Nature will always point out to them. If this Nature has rendered existence insupportable, to some unfortunate beings, whom she appears to have selected for her victims, still death, is a door that will surely be opened to them--that will deliver them from their misfortunes, although in their puny, imbecile, wayward judgment, they may be deemed impossible of cure.
Let not man, then, accuse Nature with being inexorable to him, since there does not exist in her whole circle an evil for which she has not furnished the remedy, to those who have the courage to seek it, who have the fortitude to apply it. Nature follows general and necessary laws in all her operations; physical calamity and moral evil are not to be ascribed to her want of kindness, but to the necessity of things. Physical calamity is the derangement produced in man's organs by physical causes which he sees act: moral evil is the derangement produced in him by physical causes of which the action is to him a secret. These causes always terminate by producing sensible effects, which are capable of striking his senses; neither the thoughts nor the will of man ever show themselves, but by the marked effects they produce either in himself or upon those beings whom Nature has rendered susceptible of feeling their impulse. He suffers, because it is of the essence of some beings to derange the economy of his machine; he enjoys, because the properties of some beings are analogous to his own mode of existence; he is born, because it is of the nature of some matter to combine itself under a determinate form; he lives, he acts, he thinks, because it is of the essence of certain combinations to maintain themselves in existence by given means for a season; at length he dies, because a necessary law prescribes that all the combinations which are formed, shall either be destroyed or dissolve themselves. From all this it results, that Nature is impartial to all its productions; she submits man, like all other beings, to those eternal laws from which she has not even exempted herself; if she was to suspend these laws, even for an instant, from that moment disorder would reign in her, system; her harmony would be disturbed.
Those who wish to study Nature, must take experience for their guide; this, and this only, can enable them to dive into her secrets, to unravel by degrees, the frequently imperceptible woof of those slender causes, of which she avails herself to operate the greatest phenomena: by the aid of experience, man often discovers in her properties, perceives modes of action entirely unknown to the ages which have preceded him; those effects which his grandfathers contemplated as marvellous, which they regarded as supernatural efforts, looked upon as miracles, have become familiar to him in the present day, and are at this moment contemplated as simple and natural consequences, of which he comprehends the mechanism--of which he understands the cause--of which he can unfold the manner of action. Man, in fathoming Nature, has arrived at discovering the true causes of earthquakes; of the periodical motion of the sea; of subterraneous conflagrations; of meteors; of the electrical fluid, the whole of which were considered by his ancestors, and are still so by the ignorant, by the uninformed, as indubitable signs of heaven's wrath. His posterity, in following up, in rectifying the experience already made, will perhaps go further, and discover those causes which are totally veiled from present eyes. The united efforts of the human species will one day perhaps penetrate even into the sanctuary of Nature, and throw into light many of those mysteries which up to the present time she seems to have refused to all his researches.
In contemplating man under his true aspect; in quitting authority to follow experience; in laying aside error to consult reason; in submitting every thing to physical laws, from which his imagination has vainly exerted its utmost power to withdraw them; it will be found that the phenomena of the moral world follow exactly the same general rules as those of the physical; that the greater part of those astonishing effects, which ignorance, aided by his prejudices, make him consider as inexplicable, and regard as wonderful, are natural consequences flowing from simple causes. He will find that the eruption of a volcano and the birth of a Tamerlane are to Nature the same thing; in recurring to the primitive causes of those striking events which he beholds with consternation, which he contemplates with fearful alarm, in falling back to the sources of those terrible revolutions, those frightful convulsions, those dreadful explosions that distract mankind, lay waste the fairest works of Nature, ravage nations, and tear up society by the roots; he will find the wills that compassed the most surprising changes, that operated the most extensive alterations in the state of things, that brought about the most unlooked-for events, were moved by physical causes, whose exility made him treat them as contemptible; whose want of consequence in his own purblind eyes led him to believe them utterly incapable to give birth to the phenomena whose magnitude strikes him with such awe, whose stupendous range fills him with such amazement.
If man was to judge of causes by their effects, there would be no small causes in the universe. In a Nature where every thing is connected, where every thing acts and re-acts, moves and changes, composes and decomposes, forms and destroys, there is not an atom which does not play an important part--that does not occupy a necessary station; there is not an imperceptible particle, however minute, which, placed in convenient circumstances, does not operate the most prodigious effects. If man was in a capacity to follow the eternal chain, to pursue the concatenated links, that connect with their causes all the effects he witnesses, without losing sight of any one of its rings,--if he could unravel the ends of those insensible threads that give impulse to the thoughts, decision to the will, direction to the passions of those men who are called mighty, according to their actions, he would find, they are true atoms which Nature employs to move the moral world; that it is the unexpected but necessary function of these indiscernible particles of matter, it is their aggregation, their combination, their proportion, their fermentation, which modifying the individual by degrees, in despite of himself, frequently without his own knowledge, make him think, will, and act, in a determinate, but necessary mode. If, then, the will and the actions of this individual have an influence over a great number of other men, here is the moral world in a state of the greatest combustion, and those consequences ensue which man contemplates with fearful wonder. Too much acrimony in the bile of a fanatic--blood too much inflamed in the heart of a conqueror--a painful indigestion in the stomach of a monarch--a whim that passes in the mind of a woman--are sometimes causes sufficient to bring on war--to send millions of men to the slaughter--to root out an entire people--to overthrow walls--to reduce cities into ashes--to plunge nations into slavery--to put a whole people into mourning--to breed famine in a land--to engender pestilence--to propagate calamity--to extend misery--to spread desolation far and wide upon the surface of our globe, through a long series of ages.
The dominant passion of an individual of the human species, when it disposes of the passions of many others, arrives at combining their will, at uniting their efforts, and thus decides the condition of man. It is after this manner that an ambitious, crafty, and voluptuous Arab, gave to his countrymen an impulse of which the effect was the subjugation and desolation of vast countries in Asia, in Africa, and in Europe; whose consequences were sufficiently potential to erect a new, extensive, but slavish empire; to give a novel system of religion to millions of human beings; to overturn the altars of their former gods; in short, to alter the opinions, to change the customs of a considerable portion of the population of the earth. But in examining the primitive sources of this strange revolution, what were the concealed causes that had an influence over this man--that excited his peculiar passions, and modified his temperament? What was the matter from the combination of which resulted a crafty, ambitious, enthusiastic, and eloquent man; in short, a personage competent to impose on his fellow-creatures--capable of making them concur in his most extravagant views. They were, undoubtedly, the insensible particles of his blood; the imperceptible texture of his fibres; the salts, more or less acrid, that stimulated his nerves; the proportion of igneous fluid that circulated in his system. From whence came these elements? It was from the womb of his mother; from the aliments which nourished him; from the climate in which he had his birth; from the ideas he received; from the air which he respired; without reckoning a thousand inappreciable, a thousand transitory causes, that in the instance given had modified, had determined the passions of this importent being, who had thereby acquired the capacity to change the face of this mundane sphere.
To causes so weak in their principles, if in the origin the slightest obstacle had been opposed, these wonderful events, which have astounded man, would never have been produced. The fit of an ague, the consequence of bile a little too much inflamed, had sufficed, perhaps, to have rendered abortive all the vast projects, of the legislator of the Mussulmen. Spare diet, a glass of water, a sanguinary evacuation, would sometimes have been sufficient to have saved kingdoms.
It will be seen, then, that the condition of the human species, as well as that of each of its individuals, every instant depends on insensible causes, to which circumstances, frequently fugitive, give birth; that opportunity develops, that convenience puts in action: man attributes their effects to chance, whilst these causes operate necessarily, act according to fixed rules:, he has frequently neither the sagacity nor the honesty to recur to their true principles; he regards such feeble motives with contempt, because he has been taught to consider them as incapable of producing such stupendous events. They are, however, these motives, weak as they may appear to be, these springs, so pitiful in his eyes, is which according to her necessary laws, suffice in the hands of Nature to move the universe. The conquests of a Gengis-Khan have nothing in them that is more strange to the eye of a philosopher than the explosion of a mine, caused in its principle by a feeble spark, which commences with setting fire to a single grain of powder; this presently communicates itself to many millions of other contiguous grains, of which the united force, the multiplied powers, terminate by blowing up mountains, overthrowing fortifications, or converting populous, well-built cities, into heaps of ruins.
Thus, imperceptible causes, concealed in the bosom of Nature, until the moment their action is displayed, frequently decide the fate of man. The happiness or the wretchedness, the prosperity or the misery of each individual, as well as that of whole nations, are attached to powers which it is impossible for him to foresee, which he cannot appreciate, of which he is incapable to arrest the action. Perhaps at this moment atoms are amassing, insensible particles are combining, of which the assemblage shall form a sovereign, who will be either the scourge or the saviour of a mighty empire. Man cannot answer for his own destiny one single instant; he has no cognizance of what is passing within himself; he is ignorant of the causes which act in the interior of his machine; he knows nothing of the circumstances that will give them activity: he is unacquainted with what may develop their energy; it is, nevertheless, on these causes, impossible to be unravelled by him, that depends his condition in life. Frequently, an unforeseen rencontre gives birth to a passion in his soul, of which the consequences shall, necessarily, have an influence over his felicity. It is thus that the most virtuous man, by a whimsical combination of unlooked-for circumstances, may become in an instant the most criminal of his species.
This truth, without doubt, will be found frightful--this fact will unquestionably appear terrible: but at bottom, what has it more revolting than that which teaches him that an infinity of accidents, as irremediable as they are unforeseen, may every instant wrest from him that life to which he is so strongly attached? Fatalism reconciles the good man easily to death: it makes him contemplate it as a certain means of withdrawing himself from wickedness; this system shows death, even to the happy man himself, as a medium between him and those misfortunes which frequently terminate by poisoning his happiness; that end with embittering the most fortunate existence.
Let man, then, submit to necessity: in despite of himself it will always hurry him forward: let him resign himself to Nature, let him accept the good with which she presents him: let him oppose to the necessary evil which she makes him experience, those necessary remedies which she consents to afford him; let him not disturb his mind with useless inquietude; let him enjoy with moderation, because he will find that pain is the necessary companion of excess: let him follow the paths of virtue, because every thing will prove to him, even in this world of perverseness, that it is absolutely necessary to render him estimable in the eyes of others, to make him contented with himself.
Feeble, vain mortal, thou pretendest to be a free agent. Alas!
dost thou not see all the threads which enchain thee? Dost thou not
perceive that they are atoms which form thee; that they are atoms
which move thee; that they are circumstances independent of
thyself, that modify thy being; that they are circumstances over
which thou hast not any controul, that rule thy destiny? In the
puissant Nature that environs thee, shalt thou pretend to be the
only being who is able to resist her power? Dost thou really
believe that thy weak prayers will induce her to stop in her
eternal march; that thy sickly desires can oblige her to change her
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