Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia - Letter XI.

Letter XI.

Of Human or Natural Morality.

By this time, Madam, you will have reflected on what I had the honor to address to you, and perceived how impossible it is to found a certain and invariable morality on a religion enthusiastic, ambiguous, mysterious, and contradictory, and which never agreed with itself. You know that the God who appears to have taken pleasure in rendering himself unintelligible, that the God who is partial and changeable, that the God whose precepts are at variance one with another, can never serve as the base on which to rear a morality that shall become practicable among the inhabitants of the earth. In short, how can we found justice and goodness on attributes that are unjust and evil; yet attributes of a Being who tempts man, whom he created, for the purpose of punishing him when tempted? How can we know when we do the will of a God who has said, Thou shalt not kill, and who yet allows his people to exterminate whole nations? What idea can we form of the morality of that God who declares himself pleased with the sanguinary conduct of Moses, of the rebel, the assassin, the adulterer, David? Is it possible to found the holy duties of humanity on a God whose favorites have been inhuman persecutors and cruel monsters? How can we deduce our duties from the lessons of the priests of a God of peace, who, nevertheless, breathes only sedition, vengeance, and carnage? How can we take as models for our conduct saints, who were useless enthusiasts, or turbulent fanatics, or seditious apostates; who, under the pretext of defending the cause of God, have stirred up the greatest ravages on the earth? What wholesome morality can we reap from the adoption of impracticable virtues, from their being supernatural, which are visibly useless to ourselves, to those among whom we live, and in their consequences often dangerous? How can we take as guides in our conduct priests, whose lessons are a tissue of unintelligible opinions, (for all religion is but opinion,) puerile and frivolous practices, which these gentlemen prefer to real virtues? In fine, how can we be taught the truth, conducted in an unerring path, by men of a changeable morality, calculated upon and actuated by their present interests, and who, although they pretend to preach good-will to men, humanity, and peace, have, as their text-book, a volume stained with the records of injustice, inhumanity, sedition, and perfidy?

You know, Madam, that it is impossible to found morality on notions that are so unfixed and so contrary to all our natural ideas of virtue. By virtue, we ought to understand the habitual dispositions to do whatever will procure us the happiness of ourselves and our species. By virtue, religion understands only that which may contribute to render us favorable to a hidden God, who attaches his favor to practices and opinions that are too often hurtful to ourselves, and little beneficial to others. The morality of the Christians is a mystic morality, which resembles the dogmas of their religion; it is obscure, unintelligible, uncertain, and subject to the interpretation of frail creatures. This morality is never fixed, because it is subordinate to a religion which varies incessantly its principles, and which is regulated according to the pleasure of a despotic divinity, and, more especially, according to the pleasure of priests, whose interests are changing daily, whose caprices are as variable as the hours of their existence, and who are, consequently, not always in agreement with one another. The writings which are the sources whence the Christians have drawn their morality, are not only an abyss of obscurity, but demand continual explications from their masters, the priests, who, in explaining, make them still more obscure, still more contradictory. If these oracles of heaven prescribe to us in one place the virtues truly useful, in another part they approve, or prescribe, actions entirely opposed to all the ideas that we have of virtue. The same God who orders us to be good, equitable, and beneficent, who forbids the revenging of injuries, who declares himself to be the God of clemency and of goodness, shows himself to be implacable in his rage; announces himself as bringing the sword, and not peace; tells us that he is come to set mankind at variance; and, finally, in order to revenge his wrongs, orders rapine, treason, usurpation, and carnage. In a word, it is impossible to find in the Scriptures any certain principles or sure rules of morality. You there see, in one part, a small number of precepts, useful and intelligible, and in another part maxims the most extravagant, and the most destructive to the good and happiness of all society.

It is in punctuality to fulfil the superstitious and frivolous duties, that the morality of the Jews in the Old Testament writings is chiefly conspicuous; legal observances, rites, ceremonies, are all that occupied the people of Israel. In recompense for their scrupulous exactness to fulfil these duties, they were permitted to commit the most frightful of crimes. The virtues recommended by the Son of God, in the New Testament, are not in reality the same as those which God the Father had made observable in the former case. The New Testament contradicts the Old. It announces that God is not pacified by sacrifices, nor by offerings, nor by frivolous rites. It substitutes in place of these, supernatural virtues, of which I believe I have sufficiently proved the inutility, the impossibility, and the incompatibility with the well-being of man living in society. The Son of God, by the writers of the New Testament, is set at variance with himself; for he destroys in one place what he establishes in another; and, moreover, the priests have appropriated to themselves all the principles of his mission. They are in unison only with God when the precepts of the Deity accord with their present interest. Is it their interest to persecute? They find that God ordains persecution. Are they themselves persecuted? They find that this pacific God forbids persecution, and views with abhorrence the persecution of his servants. Do they find that superstitious practices are lucrative to themselves? Notwithstanding the aversion of Jesus Christ from offerings, rites, and ceremonies, they impose them on the people, they surcharge them with mysterious rites: they respect these more than those duties which are of essential benefit to society. If Jesus has not wished that they should avenge themselves, they find that his Father has delighted in vengeance. If Jesus has declared that his kingdom is not of this world, and if he has shown contempt of riches, they nevertheless find in the Old Testament sufficient reasons for establishing a hierarchy for the governing of the world in a spiritual sense, as kings do in a political one,—for the disputing with kings about their power,—for exercising in this world an authority the most unlimited, a license the most terrific. In a word, if they have found in the Bible some precepts of a moral tendency and practical utility, they have also found others to justify crimes the most atrocious.

Thus, in the Christian religion, morality uniformly depends on the fanaticism of priests, their passions, their interests: its principles are never fixed; they vary according to circumstances: the God of whom they are the organs, and the interpreters, has not said any thing but what agrees best with their views, and what never contravenes their interest. Following their caprices, he changes his advice continually; he approves, and disapproves, of the same actions: he loves, or detests, the same conduct; he changes crime into virtue, and virtue into crime.

What is the result from all this? It is that the Christians have not sure principles in morality: it varies with the policy of the priests, who are in a situation to command the credulity of mankind, and who, by force of menaces and terrors, oblige men to shut their eyes on their contradictions, and minds the most honest to commit faults the greatest which can be committed against religion. It is thus that under a God who recommends the love of our neighbor, the Christians accustom themselves from infancy to detest an heretical neighbor, and are almost always in a disposition to overwhelm him by a crowd of arguments received from their priests. It is thus that, under a God who ordains we should love our enemies and forgive their offences, the Christians hate and destroy the enemies of their priests, and take vengeance, without measure, for injuries which they pretend to have received. It is thus, that under a just God, a God who never ceases to boast of his goodness, the Christians, at the signal of their spiritual guides, become unjust and cruel, and make a merit of having stifled the cries of nature, the voice of humanity, the counsels of wisdom, and of public interest.

In a word, all the ideas of justice and of injustice, of good and evil, of happiness and of misfortune, are necessarily confounded in the head of a Christian. His despotic priest commands him, in the name of God, to put no reliance on his reason, and the man who is compelled to abandon it for the guidance of a troubled imagination will be far more likely to consult and admit the most stupid fanaticism as the inspiration of the Most High. In his blindness, he casts at his feet duties the most sacred, and he believes himself virtuous in outraging every virtue. Has he remorse? his priest appeases it speedily, and points out some easy practices by which he may soon recommend himself to God. Has he committed injustice, violence, and rapine? he may repair all by giving to the church the goods of which he has despoiled worthy citizens; or by repaying by largesses, which will procure him the prayers of the priests and the favor of heaven. For the priests never reproach men, who give them of this world's goods, with the injustice, the cruelties, and the crimes they have been guilty, to support the church and befriend her ministers; the faults which have almost always been found the most unpardonable, have always been those of most disservice to the clergy. To question the faith and reject the authority of the priesthood, have always been the most frightful crimes; they are truly the sin against the Holy Ghost, which can never be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come. To despise these objects which the priests have an interest in making to be respected, is sufficient to qualify one for the appellation of a blasphemer and an impious man. These vague words, void of sense, suffice to excite horror in the mind of the weak vulgar. The terrible word sacrilege designates an attempt on the person, the goods, and the rights of the clergy. The omission of some useless practice is exaggerated and represented as a crime more detestable than actions which injure society. In favor of fidelity to fulfil the duties of religion, the priest easily pardons his slave submitting to vices, criminal debaucheries, and excesses the most horrible. You perceive, then, Madam, that the Christian morality has really in view but the utility of the priests. Why, then, should you be surprised that they endeavor to make themselves arbitrary and sovereign; that they deem as faults, and as criminal, all the virtues which agree not with their marvellous systems? The Christian morality appears only to have been proposed to blind men, to disturb their reason, to render them abject and timid, to plunge them into vassalage, to make them lose sight of the earth which they inhabit, for visions of bliss in heaven. By the aid of this morality, the priests have become the true masters here below; they have imagined virtues and practices useful only to themselves; they have proscribed and interdicted those which were truly useful to society; they have made slaves of their disciples, who make virtue to consist in blind submission to their caprices.

To lay the foundations of a good morality, it is absolutely necessary to destroy the prejudices which the priests have inspired in us; it is necessary to begin by rendering the mind of man energetic, and freeing it from those vain terrors which have enthralled it; it is necessary to renounce those supernatural notions which have, till now, hindered men from consulting the volume of nature, which have subjected reason to the yoke of authority; it is necessary to encourage man, to undeceive him as to those prejudices which have enslaved him; to annihilate in his bosom those false theories which corrupt his nature, and which are, in fact, infidel guides, destructive of the real happiness of the species. It is necessary to undeceive him as to the idea of his loathing himself, and especially that other idea, that some of his fellow-creatures are not to labor with their hands for their support, but in spiritual matters for his happiness. In fine, it is necessary to influence him with self-love, that he may merit the esteem of the world, the benevolence and consideration of those with whom he is associated by the ties of nature or public economy.

The morality of religion appears calculated to confound society and replunge its members into the savage state. The Christian virtues tend evidently to isolate man, to detach him from those to whom nature has united him, and to unite him to the priests—to make him lose sight of a happiness the most solid, to occupy himself only with dangerous chimeras. We only live in society to procure the more easily those kindnesses, succors, and pleasures, which we could not obtain living by ourselves. If it had been destined that we should live miserably in this world, that we should detest ourselves, fly the esteem of others, voluntarily afflict ourselves, have no attachment for any one, society would have been one heap of confusion, the human kind savages and strangers to one another.

However, if it is true that God is the author of man, it is God who renders man sociable; it is God who wishes man to live in society where he can obtain the greatest good. If God is good, he cannot approve that men should leave society to become miserable; if God is the author of reason, he can only wish that men who are possessed of reason should employ this distinguishing gift to procure for themselves all the happiness its exercise can bring them. If God has revealed himself, it is not in some obscure way, but in a revelation the most evident and clear of all those supposed revelations, which are visibly contrary to all the notions we can form of the Divinity. We are not, however, obliged to dive into the marvellous to establish the duties man owes to man, since God has very plainly shown them in the wants of one and the good offices of another person. But it is only by consulting our reason that we can arrive at the means of contributing to the felicity of our species. It is then evident that in regarding man as the creature of God, God must have designed that man should consult his reason, that it might procure him the most solid happiness, and those principles of virtue which nature approves.

What, then, might not our opinions be were we to substitute the morality of reason for the morality of religion? In place of a partial and reserved morality for a small number of men, let us substitute a universal morality, intelligible to all the inhabitants of the earth, and of which all can find the principles in nature. Let us study this nature, its wants, and its desires; let us examine the means of satisfying it; let us consider what is the end of our existence in society; we shall see that all those who are thus associated are compelled by their natures to practise affection one to another, benevolence, esteem, and relief, if desired; we shall see what is that line of conduct which necessarily excites hatred, ill-will, and all those misfortunes which experience makes familiar to mankind; our reason will tell us what actions are the most calculated to excite real happiness and good will the most solid and extensive; let us weigh these with those that are founded on visionary theories; their difference will at once be perceptible; the advantages which are permanent we will not sacrifice for those that are momentary; we will employ all our faculties to augment the happiness of our species; we will labor with perseverance and courage to extirpate evil from the earth; we will assist as much as we can those who are without friends; we will seek to alleviate their distresses and their pains; we will merit their regard, and thus fulfil the end of our being on earth.

In conducting ourselves in this manner, our reason prescribes a morality agreeable to nature, reasonable to all, constant in its operation, effective in its exercise in benefiting all, in contributing to the happiness of society, collectively and individually, in distinction to the mysticism preached up by priests. We shall find in our reason and in our nature the surest guides, superior to the clergy, who only teach us to benefit themselves. We shall thus enjoy a morality as durable as the race of man. We shall have precepts founded on the necessity of things, that will punish those transgressing them, and rewarding those who obey them. Every man who shall prove himself to be just, useful, beneficent, will be an object of love to his fellow-citizens; every man who shall prove himself unjust, useless, and wicked will become an object of hatred to himself as well as to others; he will be forced to tremble at the violation of the laws; he will be compelled to do that which is good to gain the good will of mankind and preserve the regard of those who have the power of obliging him to be a useful member of the state.

Thus, Madam, if it should be demanded of you what you would substitute for the benefit of society, in place of visionary reveries, I reply, a sensible morality, a good education, profitable habits, self-evident principles of duty, wise laws, which even the wicked cannot misunderstand, but which may correct their evil purposes, and recompenses that may tend to the promotion of virtue. The education of the present day tends only to make youth the slaves of superstition; the virtues which it inculcates on them are only those of fanaticism, to render the mind subject to the priests for the remainder of life; the motives to duty are only fictitious and imaginary; the rewards and punishments which it exhibits in an obscure glimmering, produce no other effect than to make useless enthusiasts and dangerous fanatics. The principles on which enthusiasm establishes morality are changing and ruinous; those on which the morality of reason is established are fixed, and cannot be overturned. Seeing, then, that man, a reasonable being, should be chiefly occupied about his preservation and happiness—that he should love virtue—that he should be sensible of its advantages—that he should fear the consequences of crime—is it to be wondered I should insist so much on the practice of virtue as his chief good? Men ought to hate crime because it leads to misery. Society, to exist, must receive the united virtue of its members, obedience to good laws, the activity and intelligence of citizens to defend its privileges and its rights. Laws are good when they invite the members of society to labor for reciprocal good offices. Laws are just when they recompense or punish in proportion to the good or evil which is done to society. Laws supported by a visible authority should be founded on present motives; and thus they would have more force than those of religion, which are founded on uncertain motives, imaginary and removed from this world, and which experience proves cannot suffice to curb the passions of bad men, nor show them their duty by the fear of punishments after death.

If in place of stifling human reason, as is too much done, its perfectibility were studied; if in place of deluging the world with visionary notions, truth were inculcated; if in place of pleading a supernatural morality, a morality agreeable to humanity and resulting from experience were preached, we should no longer be the dupes of imaginary theories, nor of terrifying fables as the bases of virtue. Every one would then perceive that it is to the practice of virtue, to the faithful observation of the duties of morality, that the happiness of individuals and of society is to be traced. Is he a husband? He will perceive that his essential happiness is to show kindness, attachment, and tenderness to the companion of his life, destined by his own choice to share his pleasures and endure his misfortunes. And, on the other hand, she, by consulting her true interests, will perceive that they consist in rendering homage to her husband, in interdicting every thought that could alienate her affections, diminish her esteem and confidence in him. Fathers and mothers will perceive that their children are destined to be one day their consolation and support in old age, and that by consequence they have the greatest interest in inspiring them in early life with sentiments of which they may themselves reap the benefit when age or misfortune may require the fruits of those advantages that result from a good education. Their children early taught to reflect on these things, will find their interest to lie in meriting the kindness of their parents, and in giving them proofs that the virtues they are taught will be communicated to their posterity. The master will perceive that, to be served with affection, he owes good will, kindness, and indulgence to those at whose hands he would reap advantages, and by whose labor he would increase his prosperity; and servants will discover how much their happiness depends on fidelity, industry, and good temper in their situations. Friends will find the advantages of a kindred heart for friendship, and the reciprocity of good offices. The members of the same family will perceive the necessity of preserving that union which nature has established among them, to render mutual benefits in prosperity or in adversity. Societies, if they reflect on the end of their association, will perceive that to secure it they must observe good faith and punctuality in their engagements. The citizen, when he consults his reason, will perceive how much it is necessary, for the good of the nation to which he belongs, that he should exert himself to advance its prosperity, or, in its misfortunes, to retrieve its glory. By consequence every one in his sphere, and using his faculties for this great end, will find his own advantage in restraining the bad as dangerous, and opposing enemies to the state as enemies to himself.

In a word, every man who will reflect for himself will be compelled to acknowledge the necessity of virtue for the happiness of the world. It is so obvious that justice is the basis of all society; that good will and good offices necessarily procure for men affection and respect; that every man who respects himself ought to seek the esteem of others; that it is necessary to merit the good opinion of society; that he ought to be jealous of his reputation; that a weak being, who is every instant exposed to misfortunes, ought to know what are his duties, and how he should practise them for the benefit of himself and the assembly of which he is a member.

If we reflect for one moment on the effects of the passions, we shall perceive the necessity of repressing them, if we would spare ourselves vain regrets and useless sorrows, which certainly always afflict those who obey not the laws. Thus, a single reflection will suffice to show the impropriety of anger, the dreadful consequences of revenge, calumny, and backbiting. Every one must perceive that in giving a free course to unbridled desires, he becomes the enemy of society, and then it is the part of the laws to restrain him who renounces his reason and despises the motives that ought to guide him.

If it is objected that man is not a free agent, and therefore is unable to restrain his passions, and that consequently the law ought not to punish him, I reply that the community are impelled by the same necessity to hate what is injurious, and for their own conservation and happiness have the right to restrain an unhappily organized individual who is impelled to injure himself and others. The inevitable faults of men necessarily excite the hatred of those who suffer from them.

If the man who consults his reason has real and powerful motives for doing good to others and abstaining from injuring them, he has present motives equally urgent to restrain him from the commission of vice. Experience may suffice to show him that if he becomes sooner or later the victim of his excesses, he ceases to be the friend of virtue, and exists only to serve vice, which will infallibly punish him. This being allowed, prudence, or the desire of preserving one's self free from the contamination of evil, ought to inculcate to every man his path of duty; and, unless blinded by his passions, he must perceive how much moderation in his pleasures, temperance, chastity, contribute to happiness; that those who transgress in these respects are necessarily the victims of ill health, and too often pass a life both infirm and unfortunate, which terminates soon in death.

How is it possible, then, Madam, from visionary theories to arrive at these conclusions, and establish from supernatural phantasms the principles of private and public virtue? Shall we launch into unknown regions to ascertain our duty and to keep our station in society? Is it not sufficient if we wish to be happy that we should endeavor to preserve ourselves in those maxims which reason approves, and on which virtue is founded? Every man who would perish, who would render his existence miserable, whoever would sacrifice permanent happiness for present pleasure, is a fool, who reflects not on the interests that are dearest to him.

If there are any principles so clear as the morality of humanity has been and is still proved to be, they are such as men ought to observe. They are not obscure notions, mysticism, contradictions, which have made of a science the most obvious and best demonstrated, an unintelligible science, mysterious and uncertain to those for whom it is designed. In the hands of the priests, morality has become an enigma; they have founded our duties on the attributes of a Deity whom the mind of man cannot comprehend, in place of founding them on the character of man himself. They have thrown in among them the foundations of an edifice which is made for this earth. They have desired to regulate our manners agreeably to equivocal oracles which every instant contradict themselves, and which too often render their devotees useless to society and to themselves. They have pretended to render their morality more sacred by inviting us to look for recompenses and punishments removed beyond this life, but which they announce in the name of the Divinity. In fine, they have made man a being who may not even strive at perfection, by a preordination of some to bliss, and consequent damnation of others, whose insensibility is the result of this selection.

Need we not, then, wonder that this supernatural morality should be so contrary to the nature and the mind of man? It is in vain that it aims at the annihilation of human nature, which is so much stronger, so much more powerful, than imagination. In despite of all the subtile and marvellous speculations of the priests, man continues always to love himself, to desire his well being, and to flee misfortune and sorrow. He has then always been actuated by the same passions. When these passions have been moderate, and have tended to the public good, they are legitimate, and we approve those actions which are their effects. When these passions have been disordered, hurtful to society, or to the individual, he condemns them; they punish him; he is dissatisfied with his conduct which others cannot approve. Man always loves his pleasures, because in their enjoyment he fulfils the end of his existence; if he exceeds their just bounds he renders himself miserable.

The morality of the clergy, on the other hand, appears calculated to keep nature always at variance with herself, for it is almost always without effect even on the priesthood. Their chimeras serve but to torture weak minds, and to set the passions at war with nature and their dogmas. When this morality professes to restrain the wicked, to curb the passions of men, it operates in opposition to the established laws of natural religion; for by preserving all its rigor, it becomes impracticable; and it meets with real devotees only in some few fanatics who have renounced nature, and who would be singular, even if their oddities were injurious to society. This morality, adopted for the most part by devotees, without eradicating their habits or their natural defects, keeps them always in a state of opposition even with themselves. Their life is a round of faults and of scruples, of sins and remorse, of crimes and expiations, of pleasures which they enjoy, but for which they again reproach themselves for having tasted. In a word, the morality of superstition necessarily carries with it into the heart and the family of its devotees inward distress and affliction; it makes of enthusiasts and fanatics scrupulous devotees; it makes a great many insensible and miserable; it renders none perfect, few good; and those only tolerable whom nature, education, and habit had moulded for happiness.

It is our temperament which decides our condition; the acquisition of moderate passions, of honest habits, sensible opinions, laudable examples, and practical virtues, is a difficult task, but not impossible when undertaken with reason for one's guide. It is difficult to be virtuous and happy with a temperament so ardent as to sway the passions to its will. One must in calmness consult reason as to his duty. Nature, in giving us lively passions and a susceptible imagination, has made us capable of suffering the instant we transgress her bounds. She then renders us necessary to ourselves, and we cannot proceed to consult our real interest if we continue in indulgence that she forbids. The passions which reason cannot restrain are not to be bridled by religion. It is in vain that we hope to derive succors from religion if we despise and refuse what nature offers us. Religion leaves men just such as nature and habit have made them; and if it produce any changes on some few, I believe I have proved that those changes are not always for the better.

Congratulate yourself, then, Madam, on being born with good dispositions, of having received honest principles, which shall carry you through life in the practice of virtue, and in the love of a fine and exalted taste for the rational pleasures of our nature. Continue to be the happiness of your family, which esteems and honors you. Continue to diffuse around you the blessings you enjoy; continue to perform only those actions which are esteemed by all the world, and all men will respect you. Respect yourself, and others will respect you. These are the legitimate sentiments of virtue and of happiness. Labor for your own happiness, and you will promote that of your family, who will love you in proportion to the good you do it. Allow me to congratulate myself if, in all I have said, I have in any measure swept from your mind those clouds of fanaticism which obscure the reason; and to felicitate you on your having escaped from vague theories of imagination. Abjure superstition, which is calculated only to make you miserable; let the morality of humanity be your uniform religion; that your happiness may be constant, let reason be your guide; that virtue may be the idol of your soul, cultivate and love only what is virtuous and good in the world; and if there be a God who is interested in the happiness of his creatures, if there be a God full of justice and goodness, he will not be angry with you for having consulted your reason; if there be another life, your happiness in it cannot be doubtful, if God rewards every one according to the good done here.

I am, with respect, &c.

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