Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
The Errors of Man,--Upon what constitutes
The true Source of his Evil.--Remedies that may be applied.
REASON by no means forbids man from forming capacious desires; ambition is a passion useful to his species when it has for, its object the happiness of his race. Great minds, elevated souls, are desirous of acting on an extended sphere; geniuses who are powerful, beings who are enlightened, men who are beneficent, distribute very widely their benign influence; they must necessarily, in order to promote their own peculiar felicity, render great numbers happy. So many princes fail to enjoy true happiness only, because their feeble, narrow souls, are obliged to act in a sphere too extensive for their energies: it is thus that by the supineness, the indolence, the incapacity of their chiefs, nations frequently pine in misery; are often submitted to masters, whose exility of mind is as little calculated to promote their own immediate happiness, as it is to further that of their miserable subjects. On the other hand, souls too vehement, too much inflamed, too active, are themselves tormented by the narrow sphere that confines them; their ardour misplaced, becomes the scourge of the human race. Alexander was a monarch who was equally injurious to the earth, equally discontented with his condition, as the indolent despot whom he dethroned. The souls of neither were by any means commensurate with their sphere of action.
The happiness of man will never be more than the result of the harmony that subsists between his desires and his circumstances. The sovereign power to him who knows not how to apply it to the advantage of his citizens, is as nothing; it cannot even conduce to his own peculiar happiness. If it renders him miserable, it is a real evil; if it produces the misfortune of a portion of the human race, it is a detestable abuse. The most powerful princes are ordinarily such strangers to happiness, their subjects are commonly so unfortunate, only because the first possess all the means of rendering themselves happy without ever giving them activity; or because the only knowledge they have of them, is their abuse. A wise man seated on a throne, would be the most happy of mortals. A monarch is a man for whom his power, let it be of whatever extent, cannot procure other organs, other modes of feeling, than the meanest of his subjects; if he has an advantage over them, it is by the grandeur, the variety, the multiplicity of the objects with which he can occupy himself; which by giving perpetual activity to his mind, can prevent it from decay; from falling into sloth. If his soul is virtuous, if his mind is expansive, his ambition finds continual food in the contemplation of the power he possesses, to unite by gentleness, to consolidate by kindness, the will of his subjects with his own; to interest them in his own conservation, to merit their affections,--to draw forth the respect of strangers,--to render luminous the page of history--to elicit the eulogies of all nations--to clothe the orphan,--to dry the widow's tears. Such are the conquests that reason proposes to all those whose destiny it is to govern the fate of empires; they are sufficiently grand to satisfy the most ardent imagination, of a sublimity to gratify the most capacious ambition: for a monarch they are paramount duties.--KINGS are the most happy of men, only because they have the power of making others happy; because they possess the means of multiplying the causes of legitimate content with themselves.
The advantages of the sovereign power are participated by all those who contribute to the government of states. Thus grandeur, rank, reputation, are desirable, are legitimate objects for all who are acquainted with the means of rendering them subservient to their own peculiar felicity; they are useless, they are illegitimate to those ordinary men who have neither the energy nor the capacity to employ them in a mode advantageous to themselves; they are detestable whenever to obtain them man compromises his own happiness, when he implicates the welfare of society: this society itself is in an error every time it respects men who only employ to its destruction, a power, the exercise of which it ought never to approve but when it reaps from it substantial benefits.
Riches, useless to the miser, who is no more than their miserable gaoler; prejudicial to the debauchee, for whom they only procure infirmities; injurious to the voluptuary, to whom they only bring disgust--whom they oppress with satiety; can in the hands of the honest man produce unnumbered means of augmenting the sum of his happiness; but before man covets wealth it is proper he should know how to employ it; money is only a token, a representative of happiness; to enjoy it is so to use it as to make others happy: this is the great secret, this is the talisman, this is the reality. Money, according to the compact of man, procures for him all those benefits he can desire; there is only one, which it will not procure, that is, the knowledge how to apply it properly. For man to have money, without the true secret how to enjoy it, is to possess the key of a commodious palace to which he is interdicted entrance; to lavish it, prodigally, is to throw the key into the river; to make a bad use of it, is only to make it the means of wounding himself. Give the most ample treasures to the enlightened man, he will not be overwhelmed with them; if he has a capacious mind, if he has a noble soul, he will only extend more widely his benevolence; he will deserve the affection of a greater number of his fellow men; he will attract the love, he will secure the homage, of all those who surround him; he will restrain himself in his pleasures, in order that he may be enabled truly to enjoy them; he will know that money cannot re-establish a soul worn out with enjoyment; cannot give fresh elasticity to organs enfeebled by excess; cannot give fresh tension to nerves grown flaccid by abuse; cannot invigorate a body enervated by debauchery; cannot corroborate a machine, from thenceforth become incapable of sustaining him, except by the necessity of privations; he will know that the licentiousness of the voluptuary stifles pleasure in its source; that all the treasure in the world cannot renew his senses.
From this, it will be obvious, that nothing is more frivolous than the declamations of a gloomy philosophy against the desire of power; nothing more absurd than the rant of superstition against the pursuit of grandeur; nothing more inconsistent than homilies against the acquisition of riches; nothing more unreasonable than dogmas that forbid the enjoyment of pleasure. These objects are desirable for man, whenever his situation allows him to make pretensions to them; they are useful to society, conducive to public happiness, whenever he has acquired the knowledge of making them turn to his own real advantage; reason cannot censure him, virtue cannot despise him, when in order to obtain them, he never travels out of the road of truth; when in their acquisition, he wounds no one's interest; when he pursues only legitimate means: his associates will applaud him; his contemporaries will esteem him: he will respect himself, when he only employs their agency to secure his own happiness, and that of his fellows. Pleasure is a benefit, it is of the essence of man to love, it is even rational when it renders his existence really valuable to himself--when it does not injure him in his own esteem; when its consequences are not grievous to others. Riches are the symbols of the great majority of the benefits of this life; they become a reality in the hands of the man who has the clew to their just application. Power is the most sterling of all benefits, when he who is its depositary has received from nature a soul sufficiently noble, a mind sufficiently elevated, a heart sufficiently benevolent, faculties sufficiently energetic, above all, when he has derived from education a true regard for virtue, that sacred love for truth which enables him to extend his happy influence over whole nations; which by this means he places in, a state of legitimate dependence on his will; man only acquires the right of commanding men, when he renders them happy.
The right of man over his fellow man can only be founded either upon the actual happiness he secures to him, or that which he gives him reason to hope he will procure for him; without this, the power he exercises would be violence, usurpation, manifest tyranny; it is only upon the faculty of rendering him happy, that legitimate authority builds its structure; without this it is the "baseless fabric of a vision." No man derives from nature the right of commanding another; but it is voluntarily accorded to those, from whom he expects his welfare. Government is the right of commanding, conferred on the sovereign only for the advantage of those who are governed. Sovereigns are the defenders of the persons, the guardians of the property, the protectors of the liberty of their subjects: this is the price of their obedience; it is only on this condition these consent to obey; government would not be better than a robbery whenever it availed itself of the powers confided to it, to render society unhappy. The empire of religion is founded on the opinion man entertains of its having power to render nations happy; government and religion are reasonable institutions; but only so, inasmuch as they equally contribute to the felicity of man: it would be folly in him to submit himself to a yoke from which there resulted nothing but evil. It would be folly to expect that man should bind himself to misery; it would be rank injustice to oblige him to renounce his rights without some corresponding advantage!
The authority which a father exercises over his family is only founded on the advantages which he is supposed to procure for it. Rank, in political society, has only for its basis the real or imaginary utility of some citizens for which the others are willing to distinguish them--agree to respect them--consent to obey them. The rich acquire rights over the indigent, the wealthy claim the homage of the needy, only by virtue of the welfare they are conditioned to procure them. Genius, talents, science, arts, have rights over man, only in consequence of their utility; of the delight they confer; of the advantages they procure for society. In a word, it is happiness, it is the expectation of happiness, it is its image that man cherishes--that he esteems--that he unceasingly adores. Monarchs, the rich, the great, may easily impose on him, may dazzle him, may intimidate him, but they will never be able to obtain the voluntary submission of his heart, which alone can confer upon them legitimate rights, without they make him experience real benefits--without they display virtue. Utility is nothing more than true happiness; to be useful is to be virtuous; to be virtuous is to make others happy.
The happiness which man derives from them is the invariable, the necessary standard of his sentiments, for the beings of his species; for the objects he desires; for the opinions he embraces; for those actions on which he decides. He is the dupe of his prejudices every time he ceases to avail himself of this standard to regulate his judgment. He will never run the risk of deceiving himself, when he shall examine strictly what is the real utility resulting to his species from the religion, from the superstition, from the laws, from the institutions, from the inventions, from the various actions of all mankind.
A superficial view may sometimes seduce him; but experience, aided by reflection, will reconduct him to reason, which is incapable of deceiving him. This teaches him that pleasure is a momentary happiness, which frequently becomes an evil; that evil is a fleeting trouble that frequently becomes a good: it makes him understand the true nature of objects, enables him to foresee the effects he may expect; it makes him distinguish those desires to which his welfare permits him to lend himself, from those to whose seduction he ought to make resistance. In short, it will always convince him that the true interest of intelligent beings, who love happiness, who desire to render their own existence felicitous, demands that they should root out all those phantoms, abolish all those chimerical ideas, destroy all those prejudices, which by traducing virtue, obstruct their felicity in this world.
If he consults experience, he will perceive that it is in illusions, in false opinions, rendered sacred by time, that he ought to search out the source of that multitude of evils which almost every where overwhelms mankind. From ignorance of natural causes, man has created imaginary causes; not knowing to what cause to attribute thunder, he ascribed it to an imaginary being whom he called JUPITER; imposture availing itself of this disposition, rendered these causes terrible to him; these fatal ideas haunted him without rendering him better; made him tremble without either benefit to himself or to others; filled his mind with chimeras that opposed themselves to the progress of his reason; that prevented him from really seeking after his happiness. His vain fears rendered him the slave of those who deceived him, under pretence of consulting his welfare; he committed evil, because they persuaded him his gods demanded sacrifices; he lived in misfortune, because they made him believe these gods condemned him to he miserable; the slave of beings, to which his own imagination had given birth, he never dared to disentangle himself from his chains; the artful ministers of these divinities gave him to understand that stupidity, the renunciation of reason, sloth of mind, abjection of soul, were the sure means of obtaining eternal felicity.
Prejudices, not less dangerous, have blinded man upon the true nature of government. Nations in general are ignorant of the true foundations of authority; they dare not demand happiness from those kings who are charged with the care of procuring it for them: some have believed their sovereigns were gods disguised, who received with their birth the right of commanding the rest of mankind; that they could at their pleasure dispose of the felicity of the people; that they were not accountable for the misery they engendered. By a necessary consequence of these erroneous opinions, politics have almost every where degenerated into the fatal art of sacrificing the interests of the many, either to the caprice of an individual, or to some few privileged irrational beings. In despite of the evils which assailed them, nations fell down in adoration before the idols they themselves had made: foolishly respected the instruments of their misery; had a stupid veneration for those who possessed the sovereign power of injuring them; obeyed their unjust will; lavished their blood; exhausted their treasure; sacrificed their lives, to glut the ambition, to feed the cupidity to minister to the regenerated phantasms, to gratify the never-ending caprices of these men; they bend the knee to established opinion, bowed to rank, yielded to title, to opulence, to pageantry, to ostentation: at length victims to their prejudices, they in vain expected their welfare at the hands of men who were themselves unhappy from their own vices; whose neglect of virtue, had rendered them incapable of enjoying true felicity; who are but little disposed to occupy themselves with their prosperity: under such chiefs their physical and moral happiness were equally neglected or even annihilated.
The same blindness may be perceived in the science of morals. Superstition, which never had any thing but ignorance for its basis, which never had more than a disordered imagination for its guide, did not found ethics upon man's nature; upon his relations with his fellows; upon those duties which necessarily flow from these relations; it preferred, as more in unison with itself, founding them upon imaginary relations which it pretended subsisted between him and those invisible powers it had so gratuitously imagined; that were delivered by oracles which their priests had the address to make him believe spoke the will of the Divinity: thus, TROPHONIUS, from his cave made affrightened mortals tremble; shook the stoutest nerves; made them turn pale with fear; his miserable, deluded supplicants, who were obliged to sacrifice to him, anointed their bodies with oil, bathed in certain rivers, and after they had offered their cake of honey and received their destiny, became so dejected, so wretchedly forlorn, that to this day their descendants, when they behold a melancholy man, exclaim, "He has consulted the oracle of Trophonius." It was these invisible gods, which superstition always paints as furious tyrants, who were declared the arbiters of man's destiny; the models of his conduct: when he was willing to imitate them, when he was willing to conform himself to the lessons of their interpreters, he became wicked, was an unsociable creature, an useless being or else a turbulent maniac--a zealous fanatic. It was these alone who profited by superstition, who advantaged themselves by the darkness in which they contrived to involve the human mind; nations were ignorant of nature; they knew nothing of reason; they understood not truth; they had only a gloomy superstition, without one certain idea of either morals or virtue. When man committed evil against his fellow creature, he believed he had offended these gods; but he also believed himself forgiven, as soon as he had prostrated himself before them; as soon as he had by costly presents gained over the priest to his interest. Thus superstition, far from giving a sure, far from affording a natural, far from introducing a known basis to morals, only rested it on an unsteady foundation; made it consist in ideal duties impossible to be accurately understood. What did I say? It first corrupted him, and his expiations finished by ruining him. Thus when superstition was desirous to combat the unruly passions of man it attempted it in vain; always enthusiastic, ever deprived of experience, it knew nothing of the true remedies: those which it applied were disgusting, only suitable to make the sick revolt against them; it made them pass for divine, because they were not made of man; they were inefficacious, because chimeras could effectuate nothing against those substantive passions to which motives more real, impulsions more powerful, concurred to give birth, which every thing conspired, to flourish in his heart. The voice of superstition or of the gods, could not make itself heard amidst the tumult of society--where all was in confusion--where the priest cried out to man, that he could not render himself happy without injuring his fellow creatures, who happened to differ from him in opinion: these vain clamours only made virtue hateful to him, because they always represented it as the enemy to his happiness; as the bane of human pleasures: he consequently failed in the observation of his duties, because real motives were never held forth to induce him to make the requisite sacrifice; the present prevailed over the future; the visible over the invisible; the known over the unknown: man became wicked because every thing informed him he must be so, in order to obtain the happiness after which he sighed.
Thus the sum of human misery was never diminished; on the contrary, it was accumulating either by his superstition, by his government, by his education, by his opinions or by the institutions he adopted under the idea of rendering his condition more pleasant: it not unfrequently happened that the whole of these acted upon him simultaneously; he was then completely wretched. It cannot be too often repeated, it is in error that man will find the true spring of those evils with which the human race is afflicted; it is not nature that renders him miserable; it is not nature that makes him unhappy; it is not an irritated Divinity who is desirous he should live in tears; it is not hereditary depravation that has caused him to be wicked; it is to error, to long cherished, consecrated error, to error identified with his very existence, that these deplorable effects are to be ascribed.
The sovereign good, so much sought after by some philosophers, announced with so much emphasis by others, may be considered as a chimera, like unto that marvellous panacea which some adepts have been willing to pass upon mankind for an universal remedy. All men are diseased; the moment of their birth delivers them over to the contagion of error; but individuals are variously affected by it by a consequence of their natural organization; of their peculiar circumstances. If there is a sovereign remedy, which can be indiscriminately applied to the diseases of man, there is without doubt only ONE, this catholic balsam is TRUTH, Which he must draw from nature.
At the afflicting sight of those errors which blind the greater number of mortals--of those delusions which man is doomed to suck in with his mother's milk; viewing with painful sensations those irregular desires, those disgusting propensities, by which he is perpetually agitated; seeing the terrible effect of those licentious passions which torment him; of those lasting inquietudes which gnaw his repose; of those stupendous evils, as well physical as moral, which assail him on every side: the contemplator of humanity would be tempted to believe that happiness was not made for this world; that any effort to cure those minds which every thing unites to poison, would be a vain enterprize; that it was an Augean stable, requiring the strength of another Hercules. When he considers those numerous superstitions by which man is kept in a continual state of alarm--that divide him from his fellow--that render him vindictive, persecuting, and irrational; when he beholds the many despotic governments that oppress him; when he examines those multitudinous, unintelligible, contradictory laws that torture him; the manifold injustice under which he groans; when he turns his mind to the barbarous ignorance in which he is steeped, almost over the whole surface of the earth; when he witnesses those enormous crimes that debase society; when he unmasks those rooted vices that render it so hateful to almost every individual; he has great difficulty to prevent his mind from embracing the idea that misfortune is the only appendage of the human species; that this world is made solely to assemble the unhappy; that human felicity is a chimera, or at least a point so fugitive, that it is impossible it can be fixed.
Thus superstitious mortals, atrabilious men, beings nourished in melancholy, unceasingly see either nature or its author exasperated against the human race; they suppose that man is the constant object of heaven's wrath; that he irritates it even by his desires: that he renders himself criminal by seeking a felicity which is not made for him: struck with beholding that those objects which he covets in the most lively manner, are never competent to content his heart, they have decried them as abominations, as things prejudicial to his interest, as odious to his gods; they prescribe him abstinence from all search after them; that he should entirely shun them; they have endeavoured to put to the rout all his passions, without any distinction even of those which are the most useful to himself, the most beneficial to those beings with whom he lives: they have been willing that man should render himself insensible; should become his own enemy; that he should separate himself from his fellow creatures; that he should renounce all pleasure; that he should refuse happiness; in short, that he should cease to be a man, that he should become unnatural. "Mortals!" have they said, "ye were born to be unhappy; the author of your existence has destined ye for misfortune; enter then into his views, and render yourselves miserable. Combat those rebellious desires which have felicity for their object; renounce those pleasures which it is your essence to love; attach yourselves to nothing in this world; by a society that only serves to inflame your imagination, to make you sigh after benefits you ought not to enjoy; break up the spring of your souls; repress that activity that seeks to put a period to your sufferings; suffer, afflict yourselves, groan, be wretched; such is for you the true road to happiness."
Blind physicians! who have mistaken for a disease the natural state of man! they have not seen that his desires were necessary; that his passions were essential to him; that to defend him from loving legitimate pleasures; to interdict him from desiring them, is to deprive him of that activity which is the vital principle of society; that to tell him to hate, to desire him to despise himself, is to take from him the most substantive motive, that can conduct him to virtue. It is thus, by its supernatural remedies, by its wretched panacea, superstition, far from curing those evils which render man decrepid, which bend him almost to the earth, has only increased them; made them more desperate; in the room of calming his passions, it gives them inveteracy; makes them more dangerous; renders them more venomous; turns that into a curse which nature has given him for his preservation; to be the means of his own happiness. It is not by extinguishing the passions of man that he is to be rendered happier; it is by turning them into proper channels, by directing them towards useful objects, which by being truly advantageous to himself, must of necessity be beneficial to others.
In despite of the errors which blind the human race, in despite of the extravagance of man's superstition, maugre the imbecility of his political institutions, notwithstanding the complaints, in defiance of the murmurs he is continually breathing forth against his destiny, there are yet happy individuals on the earth. Man has sometimes the felicity to behold sovereigns animated by the noble passion to render nations flourishing; full of the laudable ambition to make their people happy; now and then he encounters an ANTONINUS, a TRAJAN, a JULIAN, an ALFRED, a WASHINGTON; he meets with elevated minds who place their glory in encouraging merit--who rest their happiness in succouring indigence--who think it honourable to lend a helping hand to oppressed virtue: he sees genius occupied with the desire of meriting the eulogies of posterity; of eliciting the admiration of his fellow-citizens by serving them usefully, satisfied with enjoying that happiness he procures for others.
Let it not be believed that the man of poverty himself is excluded from happiness: mediocrity and indigence frequently procure for him advantages that opulence and grandeur are obliged to acknowledge; which title and wealth are constrained to envy: the soul of the needy man, always in action, never ceases to form desires which his activity places within his reach; whilst the rich, the powerful, are frequently in the afflicting embarrassment, of either not knowing what to wish for, or else of desiring those objects which their listlessness renders it impossible for them to obtain. The poor man's body, habituated to labour, knows the sweets of repose; this repose of the body, is the most troublesome fatigue to him who is wearied with his idleness; exercise, and frugality, procure for the one vigour, health, and contentment; the intemperance and sloth of the other, furnish him only with disgust--load him with infirmities. Indigence sets all the springs of the soul to work; it is the mother of industry; from its bosom arises genius; it is the parent of talents, the hot-bed of that merit to which opulence is obliged to pay tribute; to which grandeur bows its homage. In short the blows of fate find in the poor man a flexible reed, who bends without breaking, whilst the storms of adversity tear the rich man like the sturdy oak in the forest, up by the very roots.
Thus Nature is not a step-mother to the greater number of her children. He whom fortune has placed in an obscure station is ignorant of that ambition which devours the courtier; knows nothing of the inquietude which deprives the intriguer of his rest; is a stranger to the remorse, an alien to the disgust, is unconscious of the weariness of the man, who, enriched with the spoils of a nation, does not know how to turn them to his profit. The more the body labours, the more the imagination reposes itself; it is the diversity of the objects man runs over that kindles it; it is the satiety of those objects that causes him disgust; the imagination of the indigent is circumscribed by necessity: he receives but few ideas: he is acquainted with but few objects: in consequence, he has but little to desire; he contents himself with that little: whilst the entire of nature with difficulty suffices to satisfy the insatiable desires, to gratify the imaginary wants of the man, plunged in luxury, who has run over and exhausted all common objects. Those, whom prejudice contemplates; as the most unhappy of men, frequently enjoy advantages more real, happiness much greater, than those who oppress them--who despise them--but who are nevertheless often reduced to the misery of envying them. Limited desires are a real benefit: the man of meaner condition, in his humble fortune, desires only bread: he obtains it by the sweat of his brow; he would eat it with pleasure if injustice did not sometimes render it bitter to him. By the delirium of some governments, those who roll in abundance, without for that reason being more happy, dispute with the cultivator even the fruits which the earth yields to the labour of his hands. Princes sometimes sacrifice their true happiness, as well as that of their states, to these passions--to those caprices which discourage the people; which plunge their provinces in misery: which make millions unhappy, without any advantage to themselves. Tyrants oblige the subjects to curse their existence; to abandon labour; take from them the courage of propagating a progeny who would be as unhappy as their fathers: the excess of oppression sometimes obliges them to revolt; makes them avenge themselves by wicked outrages of the injustice it has heaped on their devoted heads: injustice, by reducing indigence to despair, obliges it to seek in crime, resources, against its misery. An unjust government, produces discouragement in the soul: its vexations depopulate a country; under its influence, the earth remains without culture; from thence is bred frightful famine, which gives birth to contagion and plague. The misery of a people produce revolutions; soured by misfortunes, their minds get into a state of fermentation; the overthrow of an empire, is the necessary effect. It is thus that physics and morals are always connected, or rather are the same thing.
If the bad morals of chiefs do not always produce such marked effects, at least they generate slothfulness, of which their effect is to fill society with mendicants; to crowd it with malefactors; whose vicious course neither superstition nor the terror of the laws can arrest; which nothing can induce to remain the unhappy spectators of a welfare they are not permitted to participate. They seek a fleeting happiness at the expence even of their lives, when injustice has shut up to them the road of labour, those paths of industry which would have rendered them both useful and honest.
Let it not then be said that no government can render all its subjects happy; without doubt it cannot flatter itself with contenting the capricious humours of some idle citizens who are obliged to rack their imagination, to appease the disgust arising from lassitude: but it can, and it ought to occupy itself with ministering to the real wants of the multitude, with giving a useful activity to the whole body politic. A society enjoys all the happiness of which it is susceptible whenever the greater number of its members are wholesomely fed, decently cloathed, comfortably lodged--in short when they can without an excess of toil beyond their strength, procure wherewith to satisfy those wants which nature has made necessary to their existence. Their mind rests contented as soon as they are convinced no power can ravish from them the fruits of their industry; that they labour for themselves; that the sweat of their brow is for the immediate comfort of their own families. By a consequence of human folly in some regions, whole nations are obliged to toil incessantly, to waste their strength, to sweat under their burdens to undulate the air with their sighs, to drench the earth with their tears, in order to maintain the luxury, to gratify the whims, to support the corruption of a small number of irrational beings; of some few useless men to whom happiness has become impossible, because their bewildered imaginations no longer know any bounds. It is thus that superstitious, thus that political errors have changed the fair face of nature into a valley of tears.
For want of consulting reason, for want of knowing the value of virtue, for want of being instructed in their true interest, for want of being acquainted with what constitutes solid happiness, in what consists real felicity, the prince and the, people, the rich and the poor, the great and the little, are unquestionably, frequently very far removed from content; nevertheless if an impartial eye be glanced over the human race, it will be found to comprise a greater number of benefits than of evils. No man is entirely happy, but he is so in detail; those who make the most bitter complaints of the rigour of their fate, are however, held in existence by threads frequently imperceptible; are prevented from the desire of quitting it by circumstances of which they are not aware. In short, habit lightens to man the burden of his troubles; grief suspended becomes true enjoyment; every want is a pleasure in the moment when it is satisfied; freedom from chagrin, the absence of disease, is a happy state which he enjoys secretly, without even perceiving it; hope, which rarely abandons him entirely, helps him to support the most cruel disasters. The PRISONER laughs in his irons. The wearied VILLAGER returns singing to his cottage. In short, the man who calls himself the most unfortunate, never sees death approach without dismay, at least, if despair has not totally disfigured nature in his eyes.
As long as man desires the continuation of his being, he has no right to call himself completely unhappy; whilst hope sustains him, he still enjoys a great benefit. If man was more just, in rendering to himself an account of his pleasures, in estimating his pains, he would acknowledge that the sum of the first exceeds by much the amount of the last; he would perceive that he keeps a very exact ledger of the evil, but a very unfaithful journal of the good: indeed he would avow, that there are but few days entirely unhappy during the whole course of his existence. His periodical wants procure for him the pleasure of satisfying them; his soul is perpetually moved by a thousand objects, of which, the variety, the multiplicity, the novelty, rejoices him, suspends his sorrows, diverts his chagrin. His physical evils, are they violent? They are not of long duration; they conduct him quickly to his end: the sorrows of his mind, when too powerful, conduct him to it equally. At the same time nature refuses him every happiness, she opens to him a door by which he quits life; does he refuse to enter it? It is that he yet finds pleasure in existence. Are nations reduced to despair? Are they completely miserable? They have recourse to arms; at the risque of perishing, they make the most violent efforts to terminate there sufferings.
Thus because he sees so many of his fellows cling to life, man
ought to conclude they are not so unhappy as he thinks. Then let
him not exaggerate the evils of the human race, but let him impose
silence on that gloomy humour that persuades him these evils are
without remedy; let him only diminish by degrees the number of his
errors, his calamities will vanish in the same proportion; he is
not to conclude himself infelicitous because his heart never ceases
to form new desires, which he finds it difficult, sometimes
impossible to gratify. Since his body daily requires nourishment,
let him infer that it is sound, that it fulfils its functions. As
long as he has desires, the proper deduction ought to be, that his
mind is kept in the necessary activity; he should gather from all
this that passions are essential to him, that they constitute the happiness of a being who feels; are
indispensable to a man who thinks; are requisite to furnish him
with ideas; that they are a vital principle with a creature who
must necessarily love that which procures him comfort, who must
equally desire that which promises him a mode of existence
analogous to his natural energies. As long as he exists, as long as
the spring of his soul maintains its elasticity, this soul desires;
as long as it desires, he experiences the activity which is
necessary to him; as long as he acts, so long he lives. Human life
may be compared to a river, of which the waters succeed each other,
drive each other forward, and flow on without interruption; these
waters, obliged to roll over an unequal bed, encounter at intervals
those obstacles which prevent their stagnation; they never cease to
undulate; sometimes they recoil, then again rush forward, thus
continuing to run with more or less velocity, until they are
restored to the ocean of nature.
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