The Necessity of Atheism
Percy Bysshe Shelley
FOREWORD BY HENRY S. SALT
As a brief summary of Shelley's
attitude toward the Christian religion, I may be allowed to quote from what
I have written elsewhere. [Percy Bysshe shelley, Poet and Pioneer (Watts &
"I regard Shelley's
early 'atheism' and later Pantheism, as simply the negative and the affirmative
side of the same progressive but harmonious life-creed. In his earlier years
his disposition was towards a vehement denial of a theology which he never ceased
to detest; in his maturer years he made more frequent reference to the great
World Spirit in whom he had from the first believed. He grew wiser in the exercise
of his religious faith, but the faith was the same throughout; there, was progression,
but no essential change."
The sequence of his thought on the Subject may be clearly traced
in several of his essays. In "The Necessity of Atheism," the tract
which led to his expulsion from Oxford University, we see Shelley in his youthful
mood of open denial and defiance. It has been suggested that the pamphlet was
originally intended by its author to be a hoax; but such an explanation entirely
misapprehends not only the facts of the case, but the character of Shelley himself.
This was long ago pointed out by De guincey: "He affronted the armies of
Christendom. Had it been possible for him to be jesting, it would not have been
noble; but here, even in the most monstrous of his undertakings -- here, as
always, he was perfectly sincere and single-minded." That this is true
may be seen not only from the internal evidence of "The Necessity"
itself, but from the fact that the conclusion which, Shelley meant to be drawn,
from the dialogue "A Refutation of Deism," published in 1814, was
that there is no middle course between accepting revealed religion and disbelieving
in the existence of a deity -- another way of stating the necessity of atheism.
Shelley resembled Blake in the contrast of feeling with which
he regarded the Christian religion and its founder. For the human character
of Christ he could feel the deepest veneration, as may be seen not only from
the "Essay on Christianity," but from the "Letter to Lord Ellenborough"
(1812), and also from the notes to "Hellas" and passages in that poem
and in "Prometheus Unbound"; but he held that the spirit of established
Christianity was wholly out of harmony with that of Christ, and that a similarity
to Christ was one of the qualities most detested by the modern Christian. The
dogmas of the Christian faith were always repudiated by him, and there is no
warrant whatever in his writings for the strange pretension that, had he lived
longer, his objections to Christianity might in some way have been overcome.
In conclusion, it may be said that Shelley's prose, if, not
great in itself, is the prose of a great poet, for which reason it possesses
an interest that is not likely to fail. It is the key to the right understanding
of his. intellect, as his poetry is the highest expression of his genius.
The Necessity Of Atheism
[NOTE -- The Necessity of
Atheism was published by Shelley in 1811. In 1813 he printed a revised and expanded
version of it as one of the notes to his poem Queen Mab. The revised and expanded
version is the one here reprinted.]
There Is No God
This negation must be understood
solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal
with the universe remains unshaken.
A close examination of the
validity of the proofs adduced to support any proposition is the only secure
way of attaining truth, on the advantages of which it is unnecessary to descant:
our knowledge of the existence, of a Deity is a subject of such importance that
it cannot be too minutely investigated; in consequence of this conviction we
proceed briefly and impartially to examine the proofs which have been adduced.
It is necessary first to consider the nature of belief.
When a proposition is offered
to the mind, It perceives the agreement or disagreement of the ideas of which
it is composed. A perception of their agreement is termed belief. Many obstacles
frequently prevent this perception from being immediate; these the mind attempts
to remove in order that the perception may be distinct. The mind is active in
the investigation in order to perfect the state of perception of the relation
which the component ideas of the proposition bear to each, which is passive;
the investigation being confused with the perception has induced many falsely
to imagine that the mind is active in belief. -- that belief is an act of volition,
-- in consequence of which it may be regulated by the mind. Pursuing, continuing
this mistake, they have attached a degree of criminality to disbelief; of which,
in its nature, it is incapable: it is equally incapable of merit.
Belief, then, is a passion,
the strength of which, like every other passion, is in precise proportion to
the degrees of excitement.
The degrees of excitement
The senses are the sources
of all knowledge to the mind; consequently their evidence claims the strongest
The decision of the mind,
founded upon our own experience, derived from these sources, claims the next
The experience of others,
which addresses itself to the former one, occupies the lowest degree.
(A graduated scale, on which
should be marked the capabilities of propositions to approach to the test of
the senses, would be a just barometer of the belief which ought to be attached
Consequently no testimony
can be admitted which is contrary to reason; reason is founded on the evidence
of our senses.
Every proof may be referred
to one of these three divisions: it is to be considered what arguments we receive
from each of them, which should convince us of the existence of a Deity.
1st, The evidence of the
senses. If the Deity should appear to us, if he should convince our senses of
his existence, this revelation would necessarily command belief. Those to whom
the Deity has thus appeared have the strongest possible conviction of his existence.
But the God of Theologians is incapable of local visibility.
2d, Reason. It is urged
that man knows that whatever is must either have had a beginning, or have existed
from all eternity, he also knows that whatever is not eternal must have had
a cause. When this reasoning is applied to the universe, it is necessary to
prove that it was created: until that is clearly demonstrated we may reasonably
suppose that it has endured from all eternity. We must prove design before we
can infer a designer. The only idea which we can form of causation is derivable
from the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of one
from the other. In a base where two propositions are diametrically opposite,
the mind believes that which is least incomprehensible; -- it is easier to suppose
that the universe has existed from all eternity than to conceive a being beyond
its limits capable of creating it: if the mind sinks beneath the weight of one,
is it an alleviation to increase the intolerability of the burthen?
The other argument, which
is founded on a Man's knowledge of his own existence, stands thus. A man knows
not only that he now is, but that once he was not; consequently there must have
been a cause. But our idea of causation is alone derivable from the constant
conjunction of objects and the consequent Inference of one from the other; and,
reasoning experimentally, we can only infer from effects caused adequate to
those effects. But there certainly is a generative power which is effected by
certain instruments: we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments"
nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration: we admit that the generative
power is incomprehensible; but to suppose that the same effect is produced by
an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being leaves the cause in the same obscurity,
but renders it more incomprehensible.
3d, Testimony. It is required
that testimony should not be contrary to reason. The testimony that the Deity
convinces the senses of men of his existence can only be admitted by us, if
our mind considers it less probable, that these men should have been deceived
than that the Deity should have appeared to them. Our reason can never admit
the testimony of men, who not only declare that they were eye-witnesses of miracles,
but that the Deity was irrational; for he commanded that he should be believed,
he proposed the highest rewards for, faith, eternal punishments for disbelief.
We can only command voluntary actions; belief is not an act of volition; the
mind is ever passive, or involuntarily active; from this it is evident that
we have no sufficient testimony, or rather that testimony is insufficient to
prove the being of a God. It has been before shown that it cannot be deduced
from reason. They alone, then, who have been convinced by the evidence of the
senses can believe it.
Hence it is evident that,
having no proofs from either of the three sources of conviction, the mind cannot
believe the existence of a creative God: it is also evident that, as belief
is a passion of the mind, no degree of criminality is attachable to disbelief;
and that they only are reprehensible who neglect to remove the false medium
through which their mind views any subject of discussion. Every reflecting mind
must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.
God is an hypothesis, and,
as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist. Sir
Isaac Newton says: Hypotheses non fingo, quicquid enim ex phaenomenis non deducitur
hypothesis, vocanda est, et hypothesis vel metaphysicae, vel physicae, vel qualitatum
occultarum, seu mechanicae, in philosophia locum non habent. To all proofs of
the existence of a creative God apply this valuable rule. We see a variety of
bodies possessing a variety of powers: we merely know their effects; we are
in a estate of ignorance with respect to their essences and causes. These Newton
calls the phenomena of things; but the pride of philosophy is unwilling to admit
its ignorance of their causes. From the phenomena, which are the objects of
our attempt to infer a cause, which we call God, and gratuitously endow it with
all negative and contradictory qualities. From this hypothesis we invent this
general name, to conceal our ignorance of causes and essences. The being called
God by no means answers with the conditions prescribed by Newton; it bears every
mark of a veil woven by philosophical conceit, to hide the ignorance of philosophers
even from themselves. They borrow the threads of its texture from the anthropomorphism
of the vulgar. Words have been used by sophists for the same purposes, from
the occult qualities of the peripatetics to the effuvium of Boyle and the crinities
or nebulae of Herschel. God is represented as infinite, eternal, incomprehensible;
he is contained under every predicate in non that the logic of ignorance could
fabricate. Even his worshippers allow that it is impossible to form any idea
of him: they exclaim with the French poet,
Pour dire ce qu'il
est, il faut etre lui-meme.
Lord Bacon says that atheism
leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything
that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these,
and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism
never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear- sighted, since he
sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life. -- Bacon's Moral Essays.
The [Beginning here, and
to the paragraph ending with Systeme de la Nature," Shelley wrote in French.
A free translation has been substituted.] first theology of man made him first
fear and adore the elements themselves, the gross and material objects of nature;
he next paid homage to the agents controlling the elements, lower genies, heroes
or men gifted with great qualities. By force of reflection he sought to simplify
things by submitting all nature to a single agent, spirit, or universal soul,
which, gave movement to nature and all its branches. Mounting from cause to
cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that
he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination
has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him
until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.
If we wish to explain our
ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man
has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the
most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word
only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him;
as soon as he lost the thread of these causes, or when his mind could no longer
follow the chain, he cut the difficulty and ended his researches by calling
God the last of the causes, that is to say, that which is beyond all causes
that he knew; thus he but assigned a vague denomination to an unknown cause,
at which his laziness or the limits of his knowledge forced him to stop. Every
time we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we
are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was able to operate by the aid of forces
or causes that we know in nature. It is thus that the generality of mankind,
whose lot is ignorance, attributes to the Divinity, not only the unusual effects
which strike them, but moreover the most simple events, of which the causes
are the most simple to understand by whomever is able to study them. In a word,
man has always respected unknown causes, surprising effects that his ignorance
kept him from unraveling. It was on this debris of nature that man raised the
imaginary colossus of the Divinity.
If ignorance of nature gave
birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction. In proportion
as man taught himself, his strength and his resources augmented with his knowledge;
science, the arts, industry, furnished him assistance; experience reassured
him or procured for him means of resistance to the efforts of many causes which
ceased to alarm as soon as they became understood. In a word, his terrors dissipated
in the same proportion as his mind became enlightened. The educated man ceases
to be superstitious.
It is only by hearsay (by
word of mouth passed down from generation to generation) that whole peoples
adore the God of their fathers and of their priests: authority, confidence,
submission and custom with them take the place of conviction or of proofs: they
prostrate themselves and pray, because their fathers taught them to prostrate
themselves and pray: but why did their fathers fall on their knees? That is
because, in primitive times, their legislators and their guides made it their
duty. "Adore and believe," they said, "the gods whom you cannot
understand; have confidence in our profound wisdom; we know more than you about
Divinity." But why should I come to you? It is because God willed it thus;
it is because God will punish you if you dare resist. But this God, is not he,
then, the thing in question? However, man has always traveled in this vicious
circle; his slothful mind has always made him find it easier to accept the judgment
of others. All religious nations are founded solely on authority; all the religions
of the world forbid examination and do not want one to reason; authority wants
one to believe in God; this God is himself founded only on the authority of
a few men who pretend to know him, and to come in his name and announce him
on earth. A God made by man undoubtedly has need of man to make himself known
Should it not, then, be
for the priests, the inspired, the metaphysicians that should be reserved the
conviction of the existence of a God, which they, nevertheless, say is so necessary
for all mankind? But Can you find any harmony in the theological opinions of
the different inspired ones or thinkers scattered over the earth? They themselves,
who make a profession of adoring the same God, are they in Agreement? Are they
content with the proofs that their colleagues bring of his existence? Do they
subscribe unanimously to the ideas they present on nature, on his conduct, on
the manner of understanding his pretended oracles? Is there a country on earth
where the science of God is really perfect? Has this science anywhere taken
the consistency and uniformity that we the see the science of man assume, even
in the most futile crafts, the most despised trades. These words mind immateriality,
creation, predestination and grace; this mass of subtle distinctions with which
theology to everywhere filled; these so ingenious inventions, imagined by thinkers
who have succeeded one another for so many centuries, have only, alas! confused
things all the more, and never has man's most necessary science, up to this
time acquired the slightest fixity. For thousands of years the lazy dreamers
have perpetually relieved one another to meditate on the Divinity, to divine
his secret will, to invent the proper hypothesis to develop this important enigma.
Their slight success has not discouraged the theological vanity: one always
speaks of God: one has his throat cut for God: and this sublime being still
remains the most unknown and the most discussed.
Man would have been too
happy, if, limiting himself to the visible objects which interested him, he
had employed, to perfect his real sciences, his laws, his morals, his education,
one-half the efforts he has put into his researches on the Divinity. He would
have been still wiser and still more fortunate if he had been satisfied to let
his jobless guides quarrel among themselves, sounding depths capable of rendering
them dizzy, without himself mixing in their senseless disputes. But it is the
essence of ignorance to attach importance to that which it does not understand.
Human vanity is so constituted that it stiffens before difficulties. The more
an object conceals itself from our eyes, the greater the effort we make to seize
it, because it pricks our pride, it excites our curiosity and it appears interesting.
In fighting for his God everyone, in fact, fights only for the interests of
his own vanity, which, of all the passions produced by the mal-organization
of society, is the quickest to take offense, and the most capable of committing
the greatest follies.
If, leaving for a moment
the annoying idea that theology gives of a capricious God, whose partial and
despotic decrees decide the fate of mankind, we wish to fix our eyes only on
the pretended goodness, which all men, even trembling before this God, agree
is ascribing to him, if we allow him the purpose that is lent him of having
worked only for his own glory, of exacting the homage of intelligent beings;
of seeking only in his works the well-being of mankind; how reconcile these
views and these dispositions with the ignorance truly invincible in which this
God, so glorious and so good, leaves the majority of mankind in regard to God
himself? If God wishes to be known, cherished, thanked, why does he not show
himself under his favorable features to all these intelligent beings by whom
he wishes to be loved and adored? Why not manifest himself to the whole earth
in an unequivocal manner, much more capable of convincing us than these private
revelations which seem to accuse the Divinity of an annoying partiality for
some of his creatures? The all-powerful, should he not heave more convincing
means by which to show man than these ridiculous metamorphoses, these pretended
incarnations, which are attested by writers so little in agreement among themselves?
In place of so many miracles, invented to prove the divine mission of so many
legislators revered by the different people of the world, the Sovereign of these
spirits, could he not convince the human mind in an instant of the things he
wished to make known to it? Instead of hanging the sun in the vault of the firmament,
instead of scattering stars without order, and the constellations which fill
space, would it not have been more in conformity with the views of a God so
jealous of his glory and so well-intentioned for mankind, to write, in a manner
not subject to dispute, his name, his attributes, his permanent wishes in ineffaceable
characters, equally understandable to all the inhabitants of the earth? No one
would then be able to doubt the existence of God, of his clear will, of his
visible intentions. Under the eyes of this so terrible God no one would have
the audacity to violate his commands, no mortal would dare risk attracting his
anger: finally, no man would have the effrontery to impose on his name or to
interpret his will according to his own fancy.
In fact, even while admitting
the existence of the theological God, and the reality of his so discordant attributes
which they impute to him, one can conclude nothing to authorize the conduct
or the cult which one is prescribed to render him. Theology is truly the sieve
of the Danaides. By dint of contradictory qualities and hazarded assertions
it has, that is to say, so handicapped its God that it has made it impossible
for him to act. If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear
him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future?
If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers?
If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that
he will punish the creatures that he has, filled with weaknesses? If grace does
everything for them, what reason would he have for recompensing them? If he
is all-powerful, how offend him, how resist him? If he is reasonable, how can
he be angry at the blind, to whom he has given the liberty of being unreasonable?
If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees?
If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him? IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY
IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED? If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary,
why is it not the most evident and the clearest. -- Systame de la Nature. London,
The enlightened and benevolent
Pliny thus Publicly professes himself an atheist, -- Quapropter effigiem Del
formamque quaerere imbecillitatis humanae reor. Quisquis est Deus (si modo est
alius) et quacunque in parte, totus est gensus, totus est visus, totus auditus,
totus animae, totus animi, totus sul. ... Imperfectae vero in homine naturae
praecipua solatia, ne deum quidem omnia. Namque nec sibi protest mortem consciscere,
si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitae poenis; nee mortales aeternitate
donare, aut revocare defunctos; nec facere ut qui vixit non vixerit, qui honores
gessit non gesserit, nullumque habere In praeteritum ius praeterquam oblivionts,
atque (ut. facetis quoque argumentis societas haec cum, deo compuletur) ut bis
dena viginti non sint, et multa similiter efficere non posse. -- Per quaedeclaratur
haud dubie naturae potentiam id quoque ease quod Deum vocamus. -- Plin. Nat.
Hist. cap. de Deo.
The consistent Newtonian
is necessarily an atheist. See Sir W. Drummond's Academical Questions, chap.
iii. -- Sir W. seems to consider the atheism to which it leads as a sufficient
presumption of the falsehood of the system of gravitation; but surely it is
more consistent with the good faith of philosophy to admit a deduction from
facts than an hypothesis incapable of proof, although it might militate, with
the obstinate preconceptions of the mob. Had this author, instead of inveighing
against the guilt and absurdity of atheism, demonstrated its falsehood, his
conduct would have, been more suited to the modesty of the skeptic and the toleration
of the philosopher.
Omnia enim per Dei potentiam
facta aunt: imo quia naturae potentia nulla est nisi ipsa Dei potentia. Certum
est nos eatenus Dei potentiam non intelligere, quatenus causas naturales ignoramus;
adeoque stulte ad eandem Dei potentism recurritur, quando rei alicuius causam
naturalem, sive est, ipsam Dei potentiam ignoramusd -- Spinoza, Tract. Theologico-Pol.
chap 1. P. 14.
Life and the world, or whatever
we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity
obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some
of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are
changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which support
them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems,
to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations
of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe
of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions,
and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not
because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity
of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which
would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.
If any artist, I do not
say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun,
and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words,
or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and
illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or
had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the
rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses
of the leaves of the woods, and the colors which attend the setting and the
rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not
before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have
been a vain boast to have said of such a man, "Non merita nome di creatore,
se non Iddio ed il Poeta." But how these things are looked on with little
wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the
distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of
men care not for them. It is thus with Life -- that which includes all.
What is life? Thoughts and
feelings arise, with or without, our will, and we employ words to express them.
We are born, and our birth is unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in
fragments; we live on, and in living we lose the apprehension of life. How vain
is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly used
they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves; and this is much. For what
are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement,
is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?
The most refined abstractions
of logic conduct to a view of life, which, though startling to the apprehension,
is, in fact, that which the habitual sense of its repeated combinations has
extinguished in us. It strips, as it were, the painted curtain from this scene
of things. I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent
to the conclusion of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as
it is perceived.
It is a decision against
which all our persuasions struggle, and we must be long convicted before we
can be convinced that the solid universe of external things is "such stuff
as dreams are made of." The shocking absurdities of the popular philosophy
of mind and matter, its fatal consequences in morals, and their violent dogmatism
concerning the source of all things, had early conducted me to materialism.
This materialism is a seducing system to young and superficial minds. It allows
its disciples to talk, and dispenses them from thinking. But I was discontented
with such a view of things as it afforded; man is a being of high aspirations,
"looking both before and after," whose "thoughts wander through
eternity," disclaiming alliance with transience and decay: incapable of
imagining to himself annihilation; existing but in the future and the past;
being, not what he is, but what he has been and all be. Whatever may be his
true and final destination, there is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness
and dissolution. This is the character of all life and being. Each is at once
the center and the circumference; the point to which all things are referred,
and the line in which all things are contained. Such contemplations as these,
materialism and the popular philosophy of mind and matter alike they are only
consistent with the intellectual system.
It is absurd to enter into
a long recapitulation of arguments sufficiently familiar to those inquiring
minds, whom alone a writer on abstruse subjects can be conceived to address.
Perhaps the most clear and vigorous statement of the intellectual system is
to be found in Sir William Drummond's Academical Questions. After such an exposition,
it would be idle to translate into other words what could only lose its energy
and fitness by the change. Examined point by point, and word by word, the most
discriminating intellects have been able to discern no train of thoughts in
the process of reasoning, which does not conduct inevitably to the conclusion
which has been stated.
What follows from the admission?
It establishes no new truth, it gives us no additional insight into our hidden
nature, neither its action nor itself: Philosophy, impatient as it may be to
build, has much work yet remaining as pioneer for the overgrowth of ages. it
makes one step towards this object; it destroys error, and the roots of error.
It leaves, what it is too often the duty of the reformer in political and ethical
questions to leave, a vacancy. it reduces the mind to that freedom in which
it would have acted, but for the misuse of words and signs, the instruments
of its own creation. By signs, I would be understood in a wide sense, including
what is properly meant by that term, and what I peculiarly mean. In this latter
sense, almost all familiar objects are signs, standing, not for themselves,
but for others, in their capacity of suggesting one thought which shall lead
to a train of thoughts. Our whole life is thus an education of error.
Let us recollect our sensations
as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and
of ourselves! Many of the Circumstances of social life were then important to
us which are now no longer so. But that is not the point of comparison on which
I mean to insist. We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt,
from ourselves. They seemed, as it were, to constitute one mass. There are some
persons who, in this respect, are always children. Those who are subject to
the state called reverie, feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding
universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being.
They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede, or
accompany, or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. As
men grow up this power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and habitual
agents. Thus feelings and then reasoning are the combined result of a multitude
of entangled thoughts, and of a series of what are called impressions, planted
The view of life presented
by the most refined deductions of the intellectual philosophy, to that of unity.
Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between
those two classes of thought which are distinguished by the names of ideas and
of external objects. Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of
distinct individual minds, similar to that which is employed in now questioning
its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words, I, you, they,
are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of
thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different
modifications of the one mind.
Let it not be supposed that
this doctrine conducts the monstrous presumption that I, the person who now
write and think, am that one mind. I am but a portion of it. The words I, and
you, and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement, and totally
devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to them. It is difficult
to find terms adequate to express so subtle a conception as that to which the
Intellectual Philosophy has conducted us. We are on that verge where words abandon
us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of how little
The relations of things
remain unchanged, by whatever system. By the word things is to be understood
any object of thought, that is, any thought upon which any other thought is
employed, with an apprehension of distinction. The relations of these remain
unchanged; and such is the material of our knowledge.
What is the cause of life?
That is, how was it produced, or what agencies distinct from life have acted
or act upon life? All recorded generations of mankind have wearily busied themselves
in inventing answers to this question; and the result has been -- Religion.
Yet that the basis of all things cannot be, as the popular philosophy alleges,
mind, is sufficiently evident. Mind, as far as we have any experience of its
properties -- and beyond that experience how vain is argument! -- cannot create,
it can only perceive. It is said also to be the cause. But cause is only a word
expressing a certain state of the human mind with regard to the manner in which
two thoughts are apprehended to be related to each other. If anyone desires
to know how unsatisfactorily the popular philosophy employs itself upon this
great question, they need only impartially reflect upon the manner in which
thoughts develop themselves in their minds. It is infinitely improbable that
the cause of mind, that is, of existence, is similar to mind.
On A Future State
It has been the persuasion
of an immense majority of human beings in all ages and nations that we continue
to live after death -- that apparent termination of all the functions of sensitive
and intellectual existence. Nor has mankind been contented with supposing that
species of existence which some philosophers have asserted; namely, the resolution
of the component parts of the mechanism of a living being into its elements,
and the impossibility of the minutest particle of these sustaining the smallest
diminution. They have clung to the idea that sensibility and thought, which
they have distinguished from the objects of it, under the several names of spirit
and matter, is, in its own nature, less susceptible of division and decay, and
that, when the body is resolved into its elements, the principle which animated
it will remain perpetual and unchanged. Some philosophers -- and those to whom
we are indebted for the most stupendous discoveries in physical science -- suppose,
on the other hand, that intelligence is the mere result of certain combinations
among the particles of its objects; and those among them who believe that we
live after death, recur to the interposition of a supernatural power, which
shall overcome the tendency inherent in all material combinations, to dissipate
and be absorbed into other forms.
Let us trace the reasoning
which in one and the other have conducted to these two opinions, and endeavor
to discover what we ought to think on a question of such momentous interest.
Let us analyze the ideas and feelings which constitute the contending beliefs,
and watchfully establish a discrimination between words and thoughts. Let us
bring the question to the test of experience and fact; and ask ourselves, considering
our nature in its entire extent, what light we derive from a sustained and comprehensive
view of its component parts, which may enable us to assert, with certainty,,
that we do or do not live after death.
The examination of this
subject requires that it should be stripped of all those accessory topics which
adhere to it in the common opinion of men. The existence of a God, and a future
state of rewards and punishments are totally foreign to the subject. If it be
proved that the world is ruled by a Divine Power, no inference necessarily can
be drawn from that circumstance in favor of a future state. It has been asserted,
indeed, that as goodness and justice are to be numbered among the attributes
of the Deity, he will undoubtedly compensate the virtuous who suffer during
life, and that he will make every sensitive being, who does not deserve punishment,
happy forever. But this view of the subject, which it would be tedious as well
as superfluous to develop and expose, satisfies no person, and cuts the knot
which we now seek to untie. Moreover, should it be proved, on the other hand,
that the mysterious principle which regulates the proceedings of the universe,
to neither intelligent nor sensitive, yet it is not an inconsistency to suppose
at the same time, that the animating power survives the body which it has animated,
by laws as independent of any supernatural agent as those through which it first
became united with it. Nor, if a future state be clearly proved, does it follow
that it will be a state of punishment or reward.
By the word death, we express
that condition in which natures resembling ourselves apparently cease to be
that which they are. We no longer hear them speak, nor see them move. If they
have sensations and apprehensions, we no longer participate in them. We know
no more than that those external organs, and all that fine texture of material
frame, without which we have no experience that life or thought can subsist,
are dissolved and scattered abroad. The body is placed under the earth, and
after a certain period there remains no vestige even of its form. This is that
contemplation of inexhaustible melancholy, whose shadow eclipses the brightness
of the world. The common observer is struck with dejection of the spectacle.
He contends in vain against the persuasion of the grave, that the dead indeed
cease to be. The corpse at his feet is prophetic of his own destiny. Those who
have preceded him, and whose voice was delightful to his ear; whose touch met
his like sweet and subtle fire: whose aspect spread a visionary light upon his
path -- these he cannot meet again. The organs of sense are destroyed, and the
intellectual operations dependent on them have perished with their sources.
How can a corpse see or feel? its eyes are eaten out, and its heart is black
and without motion. What intercourse can two heaps of putrid Clay and crumbling
bones hold together? When you can discover where the fresh colors of the faded
flower abide, or the music of the broken lyre seek life among the dead. Such
are the anxious and fearful contemplations of the common observer, though the
popular religion often prevents him from confessing them even to himself.
The natural philosopher,
in addition to the sensations common to all men inspired by the event of death,
believes that he sees with more certainty that it is attended with the annihilation
of sentiment and thought. He observes the mental powers increase and fade with
those of the body, and even accommodate themselves to the most transitory changes
of our physical nature. Sleep suspends many of the faculties of the vital and
intellectual principle; drunkenness and disease will either temporarily or permanently
derange them. Madness or idiocy may utterly extinguish the most excellent and
delicate of those powers. In old age the mind gradually withers; and as it grew
and was strengthened with the body, so does it together with the body sink into
decrepitude. Assuredly these are convincing evidences that so soon as the organs
of the body are subjected to the laws of inanimate matter, sensation, and perception,
and apprehension, are at an end. It is probable that what we call thought is
not an actual being, but no more than the relation between certain parts of
that infinitely varied mass, of which the rest of the universe is composed,
and which ceases to exist so soon as those parts change their position with
regard to each other. Thus color, and sound, and taste, and odor exist only
relatively. But let thought be considered only as some peculiar substance, which
permeates, and is the cause of, the animation of living beings. Why should that
substance be assumed to be something essentially distinct from all others, and
exempt from subjection to those laws from which no other substance is exempt?
It differs, indeed, from all other substances, as electricity, and light, and
magnetism, and the constituent parts of air and earth, severally differ from
all others. Each of these is subject to change and decay, and to conversion
into other forms. Yet the difference between light and earth is scarcely greater
than that which exists between life, or thought, and fire. The difference between
the two former was never alleged as an argument for eternal permanence of either,
in that form under which they first might offer themselves to our notice. Why
should the difference between the two latter substances be an argument for the
prolongation of the existence of one and not the other, when the existence of
both has arrived at their apparent termination? To say that fire exists without
manifesting any of the properties of fire, such as light, heat, etc., or that
the Principle of life exists without consciousness, or memory, or desire, or
motive, is to resign, by an awkward distortion of language, the affirmative
of the dispute. To say that the principle of life may exist in distribution
among various forms, is to assert what cannot be proved to be either true or
false, but which, were it true, annihilates all hope of existence after death,
in any sense in which that event can belong to the hopes and fears of men. Suppose,
however, that the intellectual and vital principle differs in the most marked
and essential manner from all other known substances; that they have all some
resemblance between themselves which it in no degree participates. In what manner
can this concession be made an argument for its imperishabillity? All that we
see or know perishes and is changed. Life and thought differ indeed from everything
else. But that it survives that period, beyond which we have no experience of
its existence, such distinction and dissimilarity affords no shadow of proof,
and nothing but our own desires could have led us to conjecture or imagine.
Have we existed before birth?
It is difficult to conceive the possibility of this. There is, in the generative
principle of each animal and plant, a power which converts the substances homogeneous
with itself. That is, the relations between certain elementary particles of
matter undergo a change, and submit to new combinations. For when we use words:
principle, power, cause, etc., we mean to express no real being, but only to
class under those terms a certain series of coexisting phenomena; but let it
be supposed that this principle is a certain substance which escapes the observation
of the chemist and anatomist. It certainly may be; thought it is sufficiently
unphilosophical to allege the possibility of an opinion as a proof of its truth.
Does it see, hear, feel, before its combination with those organs on which sensation
depends? Does it reason, imagine, apprehend, without those ideas which sensation
alone can communicate? If we have not existed before birth; If, at the period
when the parts of our nature on which thought and life depend, seem to be woven
together; If there are no reasons to suppose that we have existed before that
period at which our existence apparently commences, then there are no grounds
for supposing that we shall continue to exist after our existence has apparently
ceased. So far as thought and life is concerned, the same will take place with
regard to us, individually considered, after death, as had taken place before
It is said that it is possible
that we should continue to exist in some mode totally inconceivable to us at
present. This is a most unreasonable presumption. It casts on the adherents
of annihilation the burden of proving the negative of a question, the affirmative
of which is not supported by a single argument, and which, by its very nature,
lies beyond the experience of the human understanding. It is sufficiently easy.
indeed, to form any proposition, concerning which we are ignorant, just not
so absurd as not to be contradictory in itself, and defy refutation. The possibility
of whatever enters into the wildest imagination to conceive is thus triumphantly
vindicated. But it is enough that such assertions should be either contradictory
to the known laws of nature, or exceed the limits of our experience, that their
fallacy or irrelevancy to our consideration should be demonstrated. They persuade,
indeed, only those who desire to be persuaded.
This desire to be forever
as we are; the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change, which is common
to all the animated and inanimate combinations of the universe, is, indeed,
the secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions of a future state.Browse all articles.