Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature



Of the Immortality of the Soul;--of the Doctrine of a future State;--of the Fear of Death.

THE reflections presented to the reader in this work, tend to show what ought to be thought of the human soul, as well as of its operations and faculties: every thing proves, in the most convincing manner, that it acts, that it moves according to laws similar to those prescribed to the other beings of Nature; that it cannot be distinguished from the body; that it is born with it; that it grows up with it; that it is modified in the same progression; in short, every thing ought to make man conclude that it perishes with it. This soul, as well as the body, passes through a state of weakness and infancy; it is in this stage of its existence, that it is assailed by a multitude of modifications; that it is stored with an infinity of ideas, which it receives from exterior objects through the medium of the organs; that it amasses facts, that it collects experience, whether true or false, that it forms to itself a system of conduct, according to which it thinks, in conformity with which it acts, from whence results either its happiness or its misery. its reason or its delirium, its virtues or its vices; arrived with the body at its full powers, having in conjunction with it reached maturity, it does not cease for a single instant to partake in common of its sensations, whether these are agreeable or disagreeable; it participates in all its pleasures; it shares in all its pains; in consequence it conjointly approves or disapproves its state; like it, it is either sound or diseased; active or languishing; awake or asleep. In old age man extinguishes entirely, his fibres become rigid, his nerves loose their elasticity, his senses are obtunded, his sight grows dim, his ears lose their quickness, his ideas become unconnected, his memory fails, his imagination cools: what then becomes of his soul? Alas! it sinks down with the body; it gets benumbed as this loses its feeling; becomes sluggish as this decays in activity; like it, when enfeebled by years it fulfils its functions with pain; this substance, which is deemed spiritual, which is considered immaterial, which it is endeavoured to distinguish from matter, undergoes the same revolutions, experiences the same vicissitudes, submits to the same modifications, as does the body itself.

In despite of this proof of the materiality of the soul, of its identity with the body, so convincing to the unprejudiced, some thinkers have supposed, that although the latter is perishable, the former does not perish: that this portion of man enjoys the especial privilege of immortality; that it is exempt from dissolution: free from those changes of form all the beings in Nature undergo: in consequence of this, man has persuaded himself, that this privileged soul does not die: its immortality, above all, appears indubitable to those who suppose it spiritual: after having made it a simple being., without extent, devoid of parts, totally different from any thing of which he has a knowledge, he pretended that it was not subjected to the laws of decomposition common to all beings, of which experience shows him the continual operation.

Man, feeling within himself a concealed force, that insensibly produced action, that imperceptibly gave direction to the motion of his machine, believed that the entire of Nature, of whose energies he is ignorant, with whose modes of acting he is unacquainted, owed its motion to an agent analogous to his own soul; who acted upon the great macrocosm, in the same manner that this soul acted upon his body. Man, having supposed himself double, made Nature double also: he distinguished her from her own peculiar energy; he separated her from her mover, which by degrees he made spiritual. Thus Nature, distinguished from herself, was regarded as the soul of the world; and the soul of man was considered as opinions emanating from this universal soul. This notion upon the origin of the soul is of very remote antiquity. It was that of the Egyptians, of the Chaldeans, of the Hebrews, of the greater number of the wise men of the east. It should appear that Moses believed with the Egyptians the divine emanation of souls: according to him, "God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul:" nevertheless, the Catholic, at this day, rejects this system of divine emanation, seeing that it supposes the Divinity divisible: which would have, been inconvenient to the Romish idea of purgatory, or to the system of everlasting punishment. Although Moses, in the above quotation, seems to indicate that the soul was a portion of the Divinity, it does not appear that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was established in any one of the books attributed to him. It was during the Babylonish captivity, that the Jews learned the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, taught by Zoroaster to the Persians, but which the Hebrew legislator did not understand, or, at least, he left his people ignorant on the subject. It was in those schools, that Pherecydes, Pythagoras, and Plato, drew up a doctrine so flattering to the vanity of human nature--so gratifying to the imagination of mortals. Man thus believed himself a portion of the Divinity; immortal, like the Godhead, in one part of himself: nevertheless, subsequent religions have renounced these advantages, which they judged incompatible with the other parts of their systems; they held forth that the Sovereign of Nature, or her contriver was not the soul of man, but, that, in virtue of his omnipotence, he created human souls, in proportion as he produced the bodies which they must animate; and they taught, that these souls once produced, by an effect of the same omnipotence, enjoyed immortality.

However it may be with these variations upon the origin of souls, those who supposed them emanating from the Divinity, believed that after the death of the body, which served them for an envelope, they returned, by refunding to their first source. Those who, without adopting the opinion of divine emanation, admired the spirituality, believed the immortality of the soul, were under the necessity to suppose a region, to find out an abode for these souls, which their imagination painted to them, each according to his fears, his hopes, his desires, and his prejudices.

Nothing is more popular than the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; nothing is more universally diffused than the expectation of another life. Nature having inspired man with the most ardent love for his existence, the desire of preserving himself for ever was a necessary consequence; this desire was presently converted into certainty: from that desire of existing eternally which Nature has implanted in him, he made an argument, to prove that man would never cease to exist. Abady says, "our soul has no useless desires, it naturally desires an eternal life;" and by a very strange logic, he concludes that this desire could not fail to be fulfilled. Cicero, before Abady, had declared the immortality of the soul to be an innate idea in man; yet, strange to tell, in another part of his works he considers Pherecydes as the inventor of the doctrine. However this may be, man, thus disposed, listened with avidity to those who announced to him systems so conformable to his wishes. Nevertheless, he ought not to regard as supernatural the desire of existing, which always was, and always will be, of the essence man; it ought not to excite surprise, if he received with eagerness an hypothesis that flattered his hopes, by promising that his desire would one day be gratified; but let him beware how he concludes that this desire itself is an indubitable proof of the reality of this future life, with which at present he seems to be so much occupied. The passion for existence is in man only a natural consequence of the tendency of a sensible being, whose essence it is to be willing to conserve himself: in the human being it follows the energy of his soul--keeps pace with the force of his imagination--always ready to realize that which he strongly desires. He desires the life of the body, nevertheless this desire is frustrated; wherefore should not the desire for the life of the soul be frustrated like the other? The partizans of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul reason thus: "All men desire to live for ever, therefore they will live for ever." Suppose the argument retorted on them; would it be believed? If it was asserted, "All men naturally desire to be rich; therefore all men will one day be rich," how many partizans would this doctrine find?

The most simple reflection upon the nature of his soul, ought to convince man that the idea of its immortality is only an illusion of the brain. Indeed what is his soul, save the principle of sensibility? What is it, to think, to enjoy, to suffer; is it not to feel? What is life, except it be the assemblage of modifications, the congregation of motion, peculiar to an organized being? Thus, as soon as the body ceases to live, its sensibility can no longer exercise itself; when its sensibility is no more, it can no longer have ideas, nor in consequence thoughts. Ideas, as we have proved, can only reach man through his senses; now, how will they have it, that once deprived of his senses, he is yet capable of receiving sensations, of having perceptions, of forming ideas? As they have made the soul of man a being separated from the animated body, wherefore have they not made life a being distinguished from the living body? Life in a body is the totality of this motion; feeling and thought make a part of this motion: thus it is reasonable to suppose, that in the dead man these motions will cease, like all the others.

Indeed, by what reasoning will it be proved, that this soul, which cannot feel, think, will, or act, but by aid of man's organs, can suffer pain, be susceptible of pleasure, or even have a consciousness of its own existence, when the organs which should warn it of their presence are decomposed or destroyed? Is it not evident, that the soul depends on the arrangement of the various parts of the body; on the order with which these parts conspire to perform their functions; on the combined motion of the whole? Thus the organic structure once destroyed, can it be reasonably doubted the soul will be destroyed also? Is it not seen, that during the whole course of human life this soul is stimulated, changed, deranged, disturbed, by all the changes man's organs experience? And yet it will be insisted, that this soul acts, thinks, subsists, when these same organs have entirely disappeared!

An organized being may be compared to a clock, which once broken, is no longer suitable to the use for which it was designed. To say, that the soul shall feel, shall think, shall enjoy, shall suffer after the death of the body; is to pretend that a clock, shivered into a thousand pieces, will continue to strike the hour; shall yet have the faculty of marking the progress of time. Those who say, that the soul of man is able to subsist, notwithstanding the destruction of the body, evidently support the position, that the modification of a body will be enabled to conserve itself after the subject is destroyed: this on any other occasion would be considered as completely absurd.

It will be said that the conservation of the soul after the death of the body, is an effect of the Divine Omnipotence: but this is supporting an absurdity by a gratuitous hypothesis. It surely is not meant by Divine Omnipotence, of whatever nature it may be supposed, that a thing shall exist and not exist at the same time: unless this be granted, it will be rather difficult to prove, that a soul shall feel and think without the intermediates necessary to thought.

Let them then, at least, forbear asserting, that reason is not wounded by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; or by the expectation of a future life. These notions, formed to flatter man, to disturb the imagination of the uninformed, who do not reason, cannot appear either convincing or probable to enlightened minds. Reason, exempted from the illusions of prejudice, is, without doubt, wounded by the supposition of a soul, that feels, that thinks, that is afflicted, that rejoices, that has ideas, without having organs; that is to say, destitute of the only known medium, wanting all the natural means, by which, according to what we can understand, it is possible for it to feel sensations, have perceptions, or form ideas. If it he replied, other means are able to exist, which are supernatural or unknown, it may be answered, that these means of transmitting ideas to the soul, separated from the body, are not better known to, or more within the reach of, those who suppose it, that they are of other men. It is, at least, very certain, it cannot admit even of a controversy, that all those who reject the system of innate ideas, cannot, without contradicting their own principles, admit the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

In defiance of the consolation that so many persons pretend to find in the notion of an eternal existence; in despite of that firm persuasion which such numbers of men assure us they have, that their souls will survive their bodies, they seem so very much alarmed at the dissolution of this body, that they do not contemplate their end, which they ought to desire as the period of so many miseries, but with the greatest inquietude; so true it is, that the real, the present, even accompanied with pain, has much more influence over mankind, than the most beautiful chimeras of the future; which he never views but through the clouds of uncertainty. Indeed the most religious men, notwithstanding the conviction they express of a blessed eternity, do not find these flattering hopes sufficiently consoling to repress their fears; to prevent their trembling, when they think on the necessary dissolution of their bodies. Death was always, for mortals, the most frightful point of view; they regard it as a strange phenomenon, contrary to the order of things, opposed to Nature; in a word, as an effect of the celestial vengeance, as the wages of sin. Although every thing proves to man that death is inevitable, he is never able to familiarize himself with its idea; he never thinks on it without shuddering; the assurance of possessing an immortal soul but feebly indemnifies him for the grief he feels in the deprivation of his perishable body. Two causes contribute to strengthen his fears, to nourish his alarm; the one is, that this death, commonly accompanied with pain, wrests from him an existence that pleases him--with which he is acquainted--to which he is accustomed; the other is the uncertainty of the state that must succeed his actual existence.

The illustrious Bacon has said, that "men fear death for the same reason that children dread being alone in darkness." Man naturally challenges every thing with which he is unacquainted; he is desirous to see clearly to the end, that he may guarantee himself against those objects which may menace his safety; that he may also be enabled to procure for himself those which may be useful to him; the man who exists cannot form to himself any idea of non-existence; as this circumstance disturbs him, for want of experience, his imagination sets to work; this points out to him, either well or ill, this uncertain state: accustomed to think, to feel, to be stimulated into activity, to enjoy society, he contemplates as the greatest misfortune, a dissolution that will strip him of these objects, that will deprive him of those sensations which his present nature has rendered necessary to him; he views with dismay a situation that will prevent his being warned of his own existence--that shall bereave him of his pleasures--to plunge him into nothing. In supposing it even exempt from pain, he always looks upon this nothing as an afflicting solitude--as an heap of profound darkness; he sees himself in a state of general desolation; destitute of all assistance; and he feels keenly all the rigour of this frightful situation. But does not a profound sleep help to give him a true idea of this nothing? Does not that deprive him of every thing? Does it not appear to annihilate the universe to him, and him to the universe? Is death any thing more than a profound, a permanent steep? It is for want of being able to form an idea of death that man dreads it; if he could figure to himself a true image of this state of annihilation, he would from thence cease to fear it; but he is not able to conceive a state in which there is no feeling; he therefore believes, that when he shall no longer exist, he will have the same feelings, the same consciousness of things, which, during his existence, appear so sad to his mind; which his fancy paints in such gloomy colours. Imagination pictures to him his funeral pomp--the grave they are digging for him--the lamentations that will accompany him to his last abode-the epicedium that surviving friendship may dictate; he persuades himself that these melancholy objects will affect him as painfully even after his decease, as they do in his present condition, in which he is in full possession of his senses.

Mortal, led astray by fear! after thy death thine eyes will see no more; thine ears will hear no longer; in the depth of thy grave thou wilt no more be witness to this scene, which thine imagination, at present, represents to thee under such dismal colours; thou wilt no longer take part in what shall he done in the world; thou wilt no more be occupied with what may befal thine inanimate remains, than thou wast able to be the day previous to that which ranked thee among the beings of thy species. To die is to cease to think; to lack feeling; no longer to enjoy; to find a period to suffering; thine ideas will perish with thee; thy sorrows will not follow thee to the silent tomb. Think of death, not to feed thy fears--not to nourish thy melancholy--but to accustom thyself to look upon it with a peaceable eye; to cheer thee up against those false terrors with which the enemies to thy repose labour to inspire thee!

The fears of death are vain illusions, that must disappear as soon as we learn to contemplate this necessary event under its true point of view. A great man has defined philosophy to be a meditation on death; he is not desirous by that to have it understood that man ought to occupy himself sorrowfully with his end, with a view to nourish his fears; on the contrary, he wishes to invite him to familiarize himself with an object that Nature has rendered necessary to him; to accustom himself to expect it with a serene countenance. If life is a benefit, if it be necessary to love it, it is no less necessary to quit it; reason ought to teach him a calm resignation to the decrees of fate: his welfare exacts that he should contract the habit of contemplating with placidity, of viewing without alarm, an event that his essence has rendered inevitable: his interest demands that he should not brood gloomily over his misfortune; that he should not, by continual dread, embitter his life; the charms of which he must inevitably destroy, if he can never view its termination but with trepidation. Reason and his interest then, concur to assure him against those vague terrors with which his imagination inspires him, in this respect. If he was to call them to his assistance, they would reconcile him to an object that only startles him, because he has no knowledge of it; because it is only shown to him with those hideous accompaniments with which it is clothed by superstition. Let him then, endeavour to despoil death of these vain illusions, and he will perceive that it is only the sleep of life; that this sleep will not be disturbed with disagreeable dreams; that an unpleasant awakening is never likely to follow it. To die is to sleep; it is to enter into that state of insensibility in which he was previous to his birth; before he had senses; before he was conscious of his actual existence. Laws, as necessary as those which gave him birth, will make him return into the bosom of Nature, from whence he was drawn, in order to reproduce him afterwards under some new form, which it would he useless for him to know: without consulting him, Nature places him for a season in the order of organized beings; without his consent, she will oblige him to quit it, to occupy some other order.

Let him not complain then, that Nature is callous; she only makes him undergo a law from which she does not exempt any one being she contains. Man complains of the short duration of life--of the rapidity with which time flies away; yet the greater number of men do not know how to employ either time or life. If all are born and perish--if every thing is changed and destroyed--if the birth of a being is never more than the first step towards its end; how is it possible to expect that man, whose machine is so frail, of which the parts are so complicated, the whole of which possesses such extreme mobility, should be exempted from the common law; which decrees, that even the solid earth he inhabits shall experience change--shall undergo alteration--perhaps be destroyed! Feeble, frail mortal! Thou pretendest to exist for ever; whit thou, then, that for thee alone eternal Nature shall change her undeviating course? Dost thou not behold in those eccentric comets with which thine eyes are sometimes astonished, that the planets themselves are subject to death? Live then in peace for the season that Nature permits thee; if thy mind be enlightened by reason thou wilt die without terror!

Notwithstanding the simplicity of these reflections; nothing is more rare than the sight of men truly fortified against the fears of death: the wise man himself turns pale at its approach; he has occasion to collect the whole force of his mind, to expect it with serenity. It cannot then, furnish matter for surprise, if the idea of death is so revolting to the generality of mortals; it terrifies the young--it redoubles the chagrin of the middle-aged--it even augments the sorrow of the old, who are worn down with infirmity: indeed the aged, although enfeebled by time, dread it much more than the young, who are in the full vigour of life; the man of many lustres is more accustomed to live years as they roll over his head, confirm his attachment to existence; nevertheless, long unwearied exertions weaken the powers of his mind; labour, sickness, and pain, waste his animal strength; he has less energy; his volition becomes faint, superstitious terrors easily appal him; at length disease consumes him; sometimes with excruciating tortures: the unhappy wretch, thus plunged into misfortune, has, notwithstanding, scarcely ever dared to contemplate death; which he ought to consider as the period to all his anguish.

If the source of this pusillanimity be sought, it will be found in his nature, which attaches him to life; in that deficiency of energy in his soul, which hardly any thing tends to corroborate, but which every thing strives to enfeeble: which superstition, instead of strengthening, contributes to bruise. Almost all human institutions, nearly all the opinions of man, conspire to augment his fears; to render his ideas of death more terrible; to make them more revolting to his feelings. Indeed, superstition pleases itself with exhibiting death under the most frightful traits: it represents it to man under the most disgusting colours; as a dreadful moment, which not only puts an end to his pleasures, but gives him up without defence to the strange rigour of a pitiless decree, which nothing can soften. According to this superstition, the most virtuous man has reason to tremble for the severity of his fate; is never certain of being happy; the most dreadful torments, endless punishments, await the victim to involuntary weakness; to the necessary faults of a short-lived existence; his infirmities, his momentary offences, the propensities that have been planted in his heart, the errors of his mind, the opinions he has imbibed, even in the society in which he was born without his own consent, the ideas he has formed, the passions he has indulged above all, his not being able to comprehend all the extravagant dogmas offered to his acceptance, are to be implacably avenged with the most severe and never-ending penalties. Ixion is for ever fastened to his wheel; Sisyphus must to all eternity roll his stone without ever being able to reach the apex of his mountain; the vulture must perpetually prey on the liver of the unfortunate Prometheus: those who dare to think for themselves--those who have refused to listen to their enthusiastic guides--those who have not reverenced the oracles-- those who have had the audacity to consult their reason--those who have boldly ventured to detect impostors--those who have doubted the divine mission of the Phythonissa--those who believe that Jupiter violated decency in his visit to Danae--those who look upon Apollo as no better than a strolling musician--those who think that Mahomet was an arch knave--are to smart everlastingly in flaming oceans of burning sulpher; are to float to all eternity in the most excruciating agonies on seas of liquid brimstone, wailing and gnashing their teeth: what wonder, then, if man dreads to be cast into these hideous gulfs; if his mind loathes the horrific picture; if he wishes to defer for a season these dreadful punishments; if he clings to an existence, painful as it may be, rather than encounter such revolting cruelties.

Such, then, are the afflicting objects with which superstition occupies its unhappy, its credulous disciples; such are the fears which the tyrant of human thoughts points out to them as salutary. In defiance Of the exility of the effect which these notions produce oil the greater number, even of those who say they are, or who believe themselves persuaded, they are held forth as the most powerful rampart that can be opposed to the irregularities of man. Nevertheless, as will be seen presently, it will be found that these systems, or rather these chimeras, so terrible to behold, operate little or nothing on the larger portion of mankind, who dream of them but seldom, never in the moment that passion, interest, pleasure, or example, hurries them along. If these fears act, it is commonly on those, who have but little occasion to abstain from evil; they make honest hearts tremble, but fail of effect on the perverse. They torment sensible souls, but leave those that are hardened in repose; they disturb tractable, gentle minds, but cause no trouble to rebellious spirits: thus they alarm none but those who are already sufficiently alarmed; they coerce only those who are already restrained.

These notions, then, impress nothing on the wicked; when by accident they do act on them, it is only to redouble the wickedness of their natural character--to justify them in their own eyes--to furnish them with pretexts to exercise it without fear--to follow it without scruple. Indeed, the experience of a great number of ages has shown to what excess of wickedness, to what lengths, the passions of man have carried him, when they have been authorized by the priesthood--when they have been unchained by superstition--or, at least, when he has been enabled to cover himself with its mantle. Man has never been more ambitious, never more covetous, never more crafty, never more cruel, never more seditious, than when he has persuaded himself that superstition permitted or commanded him to be so: thus, superstition did nothing more than lend an invincible force to his natural passions, which under its sacred auspices he could exercise with impunity, indulge without remorse; still more, the greatest villains, in giving free vent to the detestable propensities of their natural wickedness, have under its influence believed, that, by displaying an over-heated zeal, they merited well of heaven; that they exempted themselves by new crimes, from that chastisement which they thought their anterior conduct had richly merited.

These, then, are the effects which what are called the salutary notions of superstition, produce on mortals. These reflections will furnish an answer to those who say that, "If heaven was promised equally to the wicked as to the righteous, there would be found none incredulous of another life." We reply, that, in point of fact, superstition does accord heaven to the wicked, since it frequently places in this happy abode the most useless, the most depraved of men. Is not Mahomet himself enthroned in the empyrean by this superstition? If the calendar of the Romish saints was examined, would it be found to contain none but righteous, none but good men? Does not Mahometanism cut off from all chance of future existence, consequently from all hope of reaching heaven, the female part of mankind? Have the Jews exalted no one to the celestial regions, save the virtuous? When the Jew is condemned to the devouring flames, do not the men who thus torture an unhappy wretch, whose only crime is adherence to the religion of his forefathers, expect to be rewarded for the deed with everlasting happiness? Are they not promised eternal salvation for their orthodoxy? Was Constantine, was St. Cyril, was St. Athanasius, was St. Dominic, worthy beatification? Were Jupiter, Thor, Mercury, Woden, and a thousand others, deserving of celestial diadems? Is erring, feeble man, with all his imbecilities, competent to form a judgment of the heavenly deserts of his fellows? Can be, with his dim optics, with his limited vision, fathom the human heart? Can he sound its depths, trace its meanderings, dive into its recesses, with sufficient precision, to determine who amongst his race is or is not possessed of the requisite merit to enjoy a blessed eternity? Thus wicked men are held up as models by superstition, which as we shall see, sharpens the passions of evil-disposed men, by legitimating those crimes, at which, without this sanction, they would shudder; which they would fear to commit; or for which, at least, they would feel shame; for which they would experience remorse. In short, the ministers of superstition furnish to the most profligate men the power of indulging their inflamed passions, and then hold forth to them means of diverting from their own heads the thunderbolt that should strike their crimes, by spreading before them fresh incentives to intolerant persecution, with the promise of a never-fading happiness.

With respect to the incredulous, without doubt, there may be amongst them wicked men, as well as amongst the most credulous; but incredulity no more supposes wickedness, than credulity supposes righteousness. On the contrary, the man who thinks, who meditates, knows far better the true motives to goodness, than he who suffers himself to be blindly guided by uncertain motives, or by the interest of others. Sensible men have the greatest advantage in examining opinions, which it is pretended must have an influence over their eternal happiness: if these are found false, if they appear injurious to their present life, they will not therefore conclude, that they have not another life either to fear or to hope; that they are permitted to deliver themselves up with impunity to vice, which would do an injury to themselves, that would draw upon them the contempt of their neighbour, which would subject them to the anger of society: the man who does not expect another life, is only more interested in prolonging his existence in this; in rendering himself dear to his fellows, by cultivating virtue; by performing all his duties with more strictness, in the only life of which be has any knowledge: he has made a great stride towards felicity, in disengaging himself from those terrors which afflict others, which frequently prevent their acting. Such a man has nothing to fear, but every thing to hope; if, contrary to what he is able to judge, there should be an hereafter existence, will not his actions have been so regulated by virtue, will he not have so comported himself in his present existence, as to stand a fair chance of enjoying in their fullest extent those felicities prepared for his species?

Superstition, in fact, takes a pride in rendering man slothful, in moulding him to credulity, in making him pusillanimous. It is its principle to afflict him without intermission; to redouble in him the horrors of death: ever ingenious in tormenting him, it has extended his inquietudes beyond even his own existence; its ministers, the more securely to dispose of him in this world, invented, in future regions, a variety of rewards and punishments, reserving to themselves the privilege of awarding these heavenly recompences to those who yielded most implicitly to their arbitrary laws; of decreeing punishment to those refractory beings who rebelled against their power: thus, according to them, Tantalus for divulging their secrets, must eternally fear, engulphed in burning sulphur, the stone ready to fall on his devoted head; whilst Romulus was beatified and worshipped as a god under the name of Quirinus. The same system of superstition caused the philosopher Callisthenes to be put to death, for opposing the worship of Alexander; and elevated the monk Athanasius to be a saint in heaven. Far from holding forth consolation to mortals, far from cultivating man's reason, far from teaching him to yield under the hands of necessity, superstition, in a great many countries, strives to render death still more bitter to him; to make its yoke sit heavy; to fill up its retinue with a multitude of hideous phantoms; to paint it in the most frightful colours; to render its approach terrible: by this means it has crowded the world with enthusiasts, whom it seduces by vague promises; with contemptible slaves, whom it coerces with the fear of imaginary evils: it has at length persuaded man, that his actual existence is only a journey, by which he will arrive at a more important life: this doctrine, whether it be rational or irrational, prevents him from occupying himself with his true happiness; from even dreaming of ameliorating his institutions, of improving his laws, of advancing the progress of science, of perfectioning his morals. Vain and gloomy ideas have absorbed his attention: he consents to groan under fanatical tyranny--to writhe under political inflictions--to live in error--to languish in misfortune--in the hope, when he shall be no more, of being one day happier; in the firm confidence, that after he has disappeared, his calamities, his patience, will conduct him to a never-ending felicity: he has believed himself submitted to cruel priests, who are willing to make him purchase his future welfare at the expence of every thing most dear to his peace, most valuable to his existence here below: they have pictured heaven as irritated against him, as disposed to appease itself by punishing him eternally, for any efforts he should make to withdraw himself from, their power. It is thus the doctrine of a future life has been made fatal to the human species: it plunged whole nations into sloth, made them languid, filled them with indifference to their present welfare, or else precipitated them, into the most furious enthusiasm, which hurried them on to such lengths that they tore each other in pieces in order to merit the promised heaven.

It will be asked, perhaps, by what road has man been conducted to form to himself these gratuitous ideas of another world? I reply, that it is a truth man has no idea of a future life, they are the ideas of the past and the present that furnish his imagination with the materials of which he constructs the edifice of the regions of futurity. Hobbes says, "We believe that, that which is will always be, and that the same causes will have the same effects." Man in his actual state, has two modes of feeling, one that he approves, another that he disapproves: thus, persuaded that these two modes of feeling must accompany him, even beyond his present existence, he placed in the regions of eternity two distinguished abodes, one destined to felicity, the other to misery: the one must contain those who obey the calls of superstition, who believe in its dogmas; the other is a prison, destined to avenge the cause of heaven, on all those who shall not faithfully believe the doctrines promulgated by the ministers of a vast variety of superstitions. Has sufficient attention been paid to the fact that results as a necessary consequence from this reasoning; which on examination will be found to have rendered the first place entirely useless, seeing, that by the number and contradiction of these various systems, let man believe which ever he may, let him follow it in the most faithful manner, still he must he ranked as an infidel, as a rebel to the Divinity, because he cannot believe in all; and those from which he dissents, by a consequence of their own creed, condemn him to the prison-house?

Such is the origin of the ideas upon a future life, so diffused among mankind. Every where may be seen an Elysium and a Tartarus; a Paradise and a Hell; in a word, two distinguished abodes, constructed according to the imagination of the enthusiasts who have invented them, who have accommodated them to their own peculiar prejudices, to the hopes, to the fears, of the people who believe in them. The Indian figures the first of these abodes as one of in-action, of permanent repose, because, being the inhabitant of a hot climate, he has learned to contemplate rest as the extreme of felicity: the Mussulman promises himself corporeal pleasures, similar to those that actually constitute the object of his research in this life: each figures to himself, that on which he has learned to set the greatest value.

Of whatever nature these pleasures may be, man apprehended that a body was needful, in order that his soul might be enabled to enjoy the pleasures, or to experience the pains in reserve for him: from hence the doctrine of the resurrection; but as he beheld this body putrify, as he saw it dissolve, as he witnessed its decomposition, after death, he was at a loss how to form anew what he conceived so necessary to his system he therefore had recourse to the Divine Omnipotence, by whose interposition he now believes it will he effected. This opinion, so incomprehensible, is said to have originated in Persia, among the Magi, and finds a great number of adherents, who have never given it a serious examination: but the doctrine of the resurrection appears perfectly useless to all those, who believe in the existence of a soul that feels, thinks, suffers, and enjoys, after a separation from the body: indeed, there are already sects who begin to maintain, that the body is not necessary; that therefore it will not be resurrected. Like Berkeley, they conceive that "the soul has need neither of body nor any exterior being, either to experience sensations, or to have ideas:" the Malebranchists, in particular, must suppose that the rejected souls will see every thing in the Divinity; will feel themselves burn, without having occasion for bodies for that purpose. Others, incapable of elevating themselves to these sublime notions, believed, that under divers forms, man animated successively different animals of various species; that he never ceased to be an inhabitant of the earth; such was the opinion of those who adopted the doctrine of Metempsychosis.

As for the miserable abode of souls, the imagination of fanatics, who were desirous of governing the people, strove to assemble the most frightful images, to render it still more terrible: fire is of all beings that which produces in man the most pungent sensation; not finding any thing more cruel, the enemies to the several dogmas were to be everlastingly punished with this torturing element: fire, therefore, was the point at which their imagination was obliged to stop. The ministers of the various systems agreed pretty generally, that fire would one day avenge their offended divinities: thus they painted the victims to the anger of the gods, or rather those who questioned their own creeds, as confined in fiery dungeons, as perpetually rolling in a vortex of bituminous flames, as plunged in unfathomable gulphs of liquid sulphur, making the infernal caverns resound with their useless groanings, with their unavailing gnashing of teeth.

But it will, perhaps, be enquired, how could man reconcile himself to the belief of an existence accompanied with eternal torments; above all, as many according to their own superstitions had reason to fear it for themselves? Many causes have concurred to make him adopt so revolting an opinion: in the first place, very few thinking men have ever believed such an absurdity, when they have deigned to make use of their reason; or, when they have accredited it, this notion was always counterbalanced by the idea of the goodness, by a reliance on the mercy, which they attributed to their respective divinities: in the second place, those who were blinded by their fears, never rendered to themselves any account of these strange doctrines, which they either received with awe from their legislators, or which were transmitted to them by their fathers: in the third place, each sees the object of his terrors only at a favourable distance: moreover, superstition promises him the means of escaping the tortures he believes he has merited. At length, like those sick people whom we see cling with fondness, even to the most painful life, man preferred the idea of an unhappy, though unknown existence, to that of non-existence, which he looked upon as the most frightful evil that could befal him; either because he could form no idea of it, or because his imagination painted to him this non-existence this nothing, as the confused assemblage of all evils. A known evil, of whatever magnitude, alarmed him less (above all, when there remained the hope of being able to avoid it), than an evil of which he knew nothing, upon which, consequently, his imagination was painfully employed, but to which he knew not how to oppose a remedy.

It will be seen, then, that superstition, far from consoling man upon the necessity of death, only redoubles his terrors, by the evils with which it pretends his decease will be followed; these terrors are so strong, that the miserable wretches who believe strictly in these formidable doctrines, pass their days in affliction, bathed in the most bitter tears. What shall be said of an opinion so destructive to society, yet adopted by so many nations, which announces to them, that a severe fate may at each instant take them unprovided; that at each moment they are liable to pass under the most rigorous judgment? What idea can be better suited to terrify man--what more likely to discourage him--what more calculated to damp the desire of ameliorating his condition--than the afflicting prospect of a world always on the brink of dissolution; of a Divinity seated upon the ruins of Nature, ready to pass judgment on the human species? Such are, nevertheless, the fatal opinions with which the mind of nations has been fed for thousands of years: they are so dangerous, that if by a happy want of just inference, he did not derogate in his conduct from these afflicting ideas, he would fall into the most abject stupidity. How could man occupy himself with a perishable world, ready every moment to crumble into atoms? How dream of rendering himself happy on earth, when it is only the porch to an eternal kingdom? Is it then, surprising, that the superstitions to which similar doctrines serve for a basis, have prescribed to their disciples a total detachment from things below--an entire renunciation of the most innocent pleasures; have given birth to a sluggishness, to a pusillanimity, to an abjection of soul, to an insociability, that renders him useless to himself, dangerous to others? If necessity did not oblige man to depart in his practice from these irrational systems--if his wants did not bring him back to reason, in despite of these superstitious doctrines--the whole world would presently become a vast desert, inhabited by some few isolated savages, who would not even have courage to multiply themselves. What are these, but notions which he must necessarily put aside, in order that human association may subsist?

Nevertheless, the doctrine of a future life, accompanied with rewards and punishments, has been regarded for a great number of ages as the most powerful, or even as the only motive capable of coercing the passions of man; as the sole means that can oblige him to be virtuous: by degrees, this doctrine has become the basis of almost all religions and political systems, so much so, that at this day it is said, this prejudice cannot be attacked without absolutely rending asunder the bonds of society. The founders of superstition have made use of it to attach their credulous disciples; legislators have looked upon it as the curb best calculated to keep mankind under discipline; religion considers it necessary to his happiness; many philosophers themselves have believed with sincerity, that this doctrine was requisite to terrify man, was the only means to divert him from crime: notwithstanding, when the doctrine of the immortality of the soul first came out of the school of Plato; when it first diffused itself among the Greeks, it caused the greatest ravages; it determined a multitude of men, who were discontented with their condition, to terminate their existence: Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, seeing the effect this doctrine, which at the present day is looked upon as so salutary, produced on the brains of his subjects, prohibited the teaching of it under the penalty of death.

It must, indeed, be allowed that this doctrine has been of the greatest utility to those who have given superstitions to nations, who at the same time made themselves its ministers; it was the foundation of their power, the source of their wealth, the permanent cause of that blindness, the solid basis of those terrors, which it was their interest to nourish in the human race. It was by this doctrine the priest became first the rival, then the master of kings: it is by this dogma that nations are filled with enthusiasts inebriated with superstition, always more disposed to listen to its menaces, than to the counsels of reasons, to the orders of the sovereign, to the cries of Nature, or to the laws of society. Politics itself was enslaved to the caprice of the priest; the temporal monarch was obliged to bend under the yoke of the monarch of superstition; the one only disposed of this perishable world, the other extended his power into the world to come; much more important for man than the earth, on which he is only a pilgrim, a mere passenger. Thus the doctrine of another life placed the government itself in a state of dependance upon the priest; the monarch was nothing more than his first subject; he was never obeyed, but when the two were in accord. Nature in vain cried out to man, to be careful of his present happiness; the priest ordered him to be unhappy, in the expectation of future felicity; reason in vain exhorted him to be peaceable; the priest breathed forth fanaticism, fulminated fury, obliged him to disturb the public tranquillity, every time there was a question of the supposed interests of the invisible monarch of another life, and the real interests of his ministers in this.

Such is the fruit that politics has gathered from the doctrine of a future life; the regions of the world to come have enabled the priesthood to conquer the present world. The expectation of celestial happiness, and the dread of future tortures, only served to prevent man from seeking after the means to render himself happy here below. Thus error, under whatever aspect it is considered, will never be more than a source of evil for mankind. The doctrine of another life, in presenting to mortals an ideal happiness, will render them enthusiasts; in overwhelming them with fears, it will make useless beings; generate cowards; form atrabilarious or furious men; who will lose sight of their present abode, to occupy themselves with the pictured regions of a world to come, with those dreadful evils which they must fear after their death.

If it be insisted that the doctrine of future rewards and punishments is the most powerful curb to restrain the passions of man, we shall reply by calling in daily experience. If we only cast our eyes around, if for a moment we examine what passes in review before us, we shall see this assertion contradicted; we shall find that these marvellous speculations do not in any manner diminish the number of the wicked, because they are incapable of changing the temperament of man, of annihilating those passions which the vices of society engender in his heart. In those nations who appear the most thoroughly convinced of this future punishment, may be seen assassins, thieves, crafty knaves, oppressors, adulterers, voluptuaries; all these pretend they are firmly persuaded of the reality of an hereafter; yet in the whirlwind of dissipation, in the vortex of pleasure, in the fury of their passions, they no longer behold this formidable future existence, which in those moments has no kind of influence over their earthly conduct.

In short, in many of those countries where the doctrine of another life is so firmly established, that each individual irritates himself against whoever may have the temerity to combat the opinion, or even to doubt it, we see that it is utterly incapable of impressing any thing on rulers who are unjust, who are negligent of the welfare of their people, who are, debauched, on courtezans who are lewd in their habits, on covetous misers, on flinty extortioners who fatten on the substance of a nation, on women without modesty, on a vast multitude of drunken, intemperate, vicious men, on great numbers even amongst those priests, whose function it is to preach this future state, who are paid to announce the vengeance of heaven, against vices which they themselves encourage by their example. If it be enquired of them, how they dare to give themselves up to such scandalous actions, which they ought to know are certain to draw upon them eternal punishment? They will reply, that the madness of their passions, the force of their habits, the contagion of example, or even the power of circumstances, have hurried them along; have made them forget the dreadful consequences in which their conduct is likely to involve them; besides, they will say, that the treasures of the divine mercy are infinite; that repentance suffices to efface the foulest transgressions; to cleanse the blackest guilt; to blot out the most enormous crimes: in this multitude of wretched beings, who each after his own manner desolates society with his criminal pursuits, you will find only a small number who are sufficiently intimidated by the fears of the miserable hereafter, to resist their evil propensities. What did I say? These propensities are in themselves too weak to carry them forward without the aid of the doctrine of another life; without this, the law and the fear of censure would have been motives sufficient to prevent them from rendering themselves criminal.

It is indeed, fearful, timorous souls, upon whom the terrors of another life make a profound impression; human beings of this sort come into the world with moderate passions, are of a weakly organization, possess a cool imagination; it is not therefore surprising, that in such men, who are already restrained by their nature, the fear of future punishment counterbalances the weak efforts of their feeble passions; but it is by no means the same with those determined sinners, with those hardened criminals, with those men who are habitually vicious, whose unseemly excesses nothing can arrest, who in their violence shut their eyes to the fear of the laws of this world, despising still more those of the other.

Nevertheless, how many persons say they are, and even believe themselves, restrained by the fears of the life to come? But, either they deceive us, or they impose upon themselves, by attributing to these fears, that which is only the effect of motives much nearer at hand; such as the feebleness of their machine, the mildness of their temperament, the slender energy of their souls, their natural timidity, the ideas imbibed in their education, the fear of consequences immediately resulting from criminal actions, the physical evils attendant on unbridled irregularities: these are the true motives that restrain them; not the notions of a future life: which men, who say they are most firmly persuaded of its existence, forget whenever a powerful interest solicits them to sin. If for a time man would pay attention to what passes before his eyes, he would perceive that he ascribes to the fear of the gods that which is in reality only the effect of peculiar weakness, of pusillanimity, of the small interest found to commit evil: these men would not act otherwise than they do, if they had not this fear before them; if, therefore he reflected, he would feel that it is always necessity that makes men act as they do.

Man cannot be restrained, when he does not find within himself motives sufficiently powerful to conduct him back to reason. There is nothing, either in this world or in the other, that can render him virtuous, when an untoward organization--a mind badly cultivated--a violent imagination--inveterate habits--fatal examples--powerful interests--invite him from every quarter to the commission of crime. No speculations are capable of restraining the man who braves public opinion, who despises the law, who is careless of its censure, who turns a deaf ear to the cries of conscience, whose power in this world places him out of the reach of punishment; in the violence of his transports, he will fear still less a distant futurity, of which the idea always recedes before that which he believes necessary to his immediate interests, consistent with his present happiness. All lively passions blind man to every thing that is not its immediate object; the terrors of a future life, of which his passions always possess the secret to diminish to him the probability, can effect nothing upon the wicked man, who does not fear even the much nearer punishment of the law; who sets at nought the assured hatred of those by whom he is surrounded. Man, when he delivers himself up to crime, sees nothing certain except the supposed advantage which attends it; the rest always appear to him either false or problematical.

If man would but open his eyes, even for a moment, he would clearly perceive, that to effect any thing upon hearts hardened by crime, he must not reckon upon the chastisement of an avenging Divinity, which the self-love natural to man always shows him as pacified in the long run. He who has arrived at persuading himself he cannot be happy without crime, will always readily deliver himself up to it, notwithstanding the menaces of religion. Whoever is sufficiently blind not to read his infamy in his own heart, to see his own vileness in the countenances of his associates, his own condemnation in the anger of his fellow-men, his own unworthiness in the indignation of the judges established to punish the offences he may commit: such a man, I say, will never feel the impression his crimes shall make on the features of a judge, that is either hidden from his view, or that he only contemplates at a distance. The tyrant who with dry eyes can hear the cries of the distressed, who with callous heart can behold the tears of a whole people, of whose misery he is the cause, will not see the angry countenance of a more powerful master: like another Menippus, he may indeed destroy himself from desperation, to avoid reiterated reproach; which only proves, that when a haughty, arrogant despot pretends to be accountable for his actions to the Divinity alone, it is because he fears his nation more than he does his God.

On the other hand, does not superstition itself, does not even religion, annihilate the effects of those fears which it announces as salutary? Does it not furnish its disciples with the means of extricating themselves from the punishments with which it has so frequently menaced them? Does it not tell them, that a steril repentance will, even at the moment of death, disarm the celestial wrath; that it will purify the filthy souls of sinners? Do not even the priests, in some superstitions, arrogate to themselves the right of remitting to the dying the punishment due to the crimes committed during the course of a disorderly life? In short, do not the most perverse men, encouraged in iniquity, countenanced in debauchery, upheld in crime, reckon, even to the last moment, either upon the assistance of superstition, or upon the aid of religion, that promises them the infallible means of reconciling themselves to the Divinity, whom they have irritated; of avoiding the rigorous punishments pronounced against their enormities?

In consequence of these notions, so favourable to the wicked, so suitable to tranquillize their fears, we see that the hope of an easy expiation, far from correcting man, engages him to persist, until death, in the most crying disorders. Indeed, in despite of the numberless advantages which he is assured flows from the doctrine of a life to come, in defiance of its pretended efficacy to repress the passions of men, do not the priests themselves, although so interested in the maintenance of this system, every day complain of its insufficiency? They acknowledge, that mortals, who from their infancy they have imbued with these ideas, are not less hurried forward by their evil propensities--less sunk in the vortex of dissipation--less the slaves to their pleasures--less captivated by bad habits--less driven along by the torrent of the world--less seduced by their present interest--which make them forget equally the recompense and the chastisement of a future existence. In a word, the interpreters of superstition, the ministers of religion themselves, allow that their disciples, for the greater part, conduct themselves in this world as if they had nothing either to hope or fear in another.

In short, let it be supposed for a moment, that the doctrine of eternal punishments was of some utility; that it really restrained a small number of individuals; what are these feeble advantages compared to the numberless evils that flow from it? Against one timid man whom this idea restrains, there are thousands upon whom it operates nothing; there are thousands whom it makes irrational; whom it renders savage persecutors; whom it converts into fanatics; there are thousands whose mind it disturbs; whom it diverts from their duties towards society; there are an infinity whom it grievously afflicts, whom it troubles without producing any real good for their associates.

Notwithstanding so many are inclined to consider those who do not fall in with this doctrine as the enemies of society; it will be found on examination that the wisest the most enlightened men of antiquity, as well as many of the moderns, have believed not only that the soul is material and perishes with the body, but also that they have attacked without subterfuge the opinion of future everlasting punishments; it will also be found that many of the systems, set up to establish the immortality of the soul, are in themselves the best evidence that can be adduced of the futility of this doctrine; if for a moment we only follow up the natural the just inferences that are to be drawn from them. This sentiment was far from being, as some have supposed, peculiar to the Epicureans, it has been adopted by philosophers of all sects, by Pythagoreans, by Stoics, by Peripatetics, by Academics; in short by the most godly the most virtuous men of Greece and of Rome.

Pythagoras, according to Ovid, speaks strongly to the fact. Timaeus of Locris, who was a Pythagorean, admits that the doctrine of future punishments was fabulous, solely destined for the imbecility of the uninformed; but little calculated for those who cultivate their reason.

Aristotle expressly says, that "man has neither good to hope nor evil to fear after death."

Zeno, according to Cicero, supposed the soul to be an igneous substance, from whence he concluded it destroyed itself.

Cicero, the philosophical orator, who was of the sect of Academics, although he is not on all occasions, in accord with himself, treats openly as fables the torments of Hell; and looks upon death as the end of every thing for man.

Seneca, the philosopher, is filled with passages which contemplate death as a state of total annihilation, particularly in speaking of it to his brother: and nothing can be more decisive of his holding this opinion, than what he writes to Marcia, to console him.

Seneca, the tragedian, explains himself in the same manner as the philosopher.

The Platonists, who made the soul immortal, could not have an idea of future punishments, because the soul according to them was a portion of the divinity which after the dissolution of the body it returned to rejoin.

Epictetus has the same idea. In a passage reported by Arrian, he says, "but where are you going? It cannot be to a place of suffering: you will only return to the place from whence you came; you are about to be again peaceably associated with the elements from which you are derived. That which in your composition, is of the nature of fire, will return to the element of fire; that which is of the nature of earth, will rejoin itself to the earth; that which is air, will re-unite itself with air; that which is water, will resolve itself into water; there is no Hell, no Acheron, no Cocytus, no Phlegethon."

In another place he says, "the hour of death approaches; but do not aggravate your evil, nor render things worse than they are: represent them to yourself under their true point of view. The time is come when the materials of which you are composed, go to resolve themselves into the elements from whence they were originally borrowed. What is there that is terrible or grievous in that? Is there any thing in the world that perishes totally?"

The sage and pious Antoninus says, "he who fears death, either fears to be deprived of all feeling, or dreads to experience different sensations. If you lose all feeling, you will no longer be subject either to pain or to misery. If you are provided with other senses of a different nature, you will become a creature of a different species." This great emperor further says, "that we must expect death with tranquillity, seeing, that it is only a dissolution of the elements of which each animal is composed."

To the evidence of so many great men of Pagan antiquity, may be joined, that of the author of Ecclesiastes, who speaks of death, and of the condition of the human soul, like an epicurean; he says, "for that which befalleth the sons of men, befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath: so that a man bath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." And further, "wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him."

In short, how can the utility or the necessity of this doctrine be reconciled with the fact, that the great legislator of the Jews; who is supposed to have been inspired by the Divinity, should have remained silent on a subject, that is said to be of so much importance? In the third chapter of Genesis it, is said, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

< Previous Section


Next Section >