D'Holbach: The System of Nature, Vol. I, Chapter XVII { Philosophy Index }

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Baron D’Holbach

The System of Nature

Chapter XVII: Those Ideas which are true, or founded upon Nature, are the only Remedies for the Evils of Man.—Recapitulation.

Whenever man ceases to take experience for his guide, he falls into error. His errors become yet more dangerous, assume a more determined inveteracy, when they are clothed with the sanction of superstition; it is then that he hardly ever consents to return into the paths of truth; he believes himself deeply interested in no longer seeing clearly that which lies before him; he fancies he has an essential advantage in no longer understanding himself; he supposes his happiness exacts that he should shut his eyes to truth. If the majority of moral philosophers have mistaken the human heart—if they have deceived themselves upon its diseases—if they have miscalculated the remedies that are suitable—if the remedies they have administered have been inefficacious or even dangerous—it is because they have abandoned nature—because they have resisted experience—because they have not had sufficient steadiness to consult their reason—because they have renounced the evidence of their senses—because they have only followed the caprices of an imagination either dazzled by enthusiasm or disturbed by fear; because they have preferred the illusions it has held forth to the realities of nature, who never deceives.

It is for want of having felt that an intelligent being cannot for an instant lose sight of his own peculiar conservation—of his particular interests, either real or fictitious—of his own welfare, whether permanent or transitory; in short, of his happiness, either true or false. It is for want of having considered that desires are natural, that passions are essential, that both the one and the other are motions necessary to the soul of man,—that the physicians of the, human mind have supposed supernatural causes for his wanderings; have only applied to his evils topical remedies, either useless or dangerous. Indeed, in desiring him to stifle his desires, to combat his propensities, to annihilate his passions, they have done no more than give him sterile precepts, at once vague and impracticable; these vain lessons have influenced no one; they have at most restrained some few mortals whom a quiet imagination but feebly solicited to evil; the terrors with which they have accompanied them have disturbed the tranquillity of those persons who were moderate by their nature, without ever arresting the ungovernable temperament of those who were inebriated by their passions, or hurried along; by the torrent of habit. In short, the promises of superstition, as well as the menaces it holds forth, have only formed fanatics, given birth to enthusiasts, who are either dangerous or useless to society, without ever making man truly virtuous; that is to say, useful to his fellow creatures.

These, empirics guided by a blind routine have, not seen that man as long as he exists, is obliged to feel, to desire, to have passions, to satisfy them in proportion to the energy which his organization has given him; they have not perceived that education planted these desires in his heart—that habit rooted them—that his government, frequently vicious, corroborated their growth—that public opinion stamped them with its approbation—that—experience render them necessary—that to tell men thus constituted to destroy their passions, was either to plunge them into despair or else to order them remedies too revolting for their temperament. In the actual state of opulent societies, to say to a man who knows by experience that riches procure every pleasure, that he must not desire them; that he must not make any efforts to obtain them; that he ought to detach himself from them: is to persuade him to render himself miserable. To tell an ambitious man not to desire grandeur, not to covet power, which every thing conspires to point out to him as the height of felicity, is to order him to overturn at one blow the habitual system of his ideas; it is to speak, to a deaf man. To tell a lover of an impetuous temperament to stifle his passions for the object that enchants him, is to make him understand, that he ought to renounce his happiness. To oppose superstition to such substantive, such puissant interests is to combat realities by chimerical speculations.

Indeed, if things were examined without prepossession, it would be found that the greater part of the precepts inculcated by superstition, which fanatical dogmas hold forth, which, supernatural mortals give to man, are as ridiculous as they are impossible to be put into practice. To interdict passion to man, is to desire of him not to be a human creature; to counsel an individual of a violent imagination to moderate his desires, is to advise him to change his temperament—is to request his blood to flow more sluggishly. To tell a man to renounce his habits, is to be willing that a citizen, accustomed to clothe himself, should consent to walk quite naked; it would avail as much, to desire him to change the lineament of his face, to destroy his configuration, to extinguish his imagination, to alter the course of his fluids, as to command him not to have passions which excite an activity analogous with his natural energy; or to lay aside those which confirmed habit has made him contract; which his circumstances, by a long succession of causes and effects, have converted into wants. Such are, however, the so much boasted remedies which the greater number of moral philosophers apply to human depravity. Is it, then surprising they do not produce the desired effect, or that they only reduce man to a state of despair by the effervescence that results from the continual conflict which they excite between the passions of his heart and these fanciful doctrines; between his vices and his virtues; between his habits and those chimerical fears with which superstition is at all times ready to overwhelm him? The vices of society, aided by the objects of which it avails itself to what the desires of man, the pleasures, the riches, the grandeur which his government holds forth to him as so many seductive magnets, the advantage which education, the benefits which example, the interests which public opinion render dear to him, attract him on one side; whilst a gloomy morality, founded upon superstitious illusions, vainly solicit him on the other; thus, superstition plunges him into misery; holds a violent struggle with his heart, without scarcely ever gaining the victory; when by accident it does prevail against so many united forces, it renders him unhappy; it completely destroys the spring of his soul.

Passions are the true counterpoise to passions; then let him not seek to destroy them; but let him endeavour to direct them; let him balance those which are prejudicial, by those which are useful to society. Reason, the fruit of experience, is only the art of choosing those passions to which for his own peculiar happiness he ought to listen. Education is the true art of disseminating the proper method of cultivating advantageous passions in the heart of man. Legislation is the art of restraining dangerous passions; of exciting those which may be conducive to the public welfare. Superstition is only the miserable art of planting the unproductive labour—of nourishing in the soul of man those chimeras, those illusions, those impostures, those incertitudes from whence spring passions fatal to himself as well as to others: it is only by bearing up with fortitude against these that he can securely place himself on the road to happiness. True religion is the art of advocating truth—of renouncing error—of contemplating reality—of drawing wisdom from experience—of cultivating man's nature to his own felicity, by teaching him to contribute to that of his associates; in short it is reason, education, and legislation, united to further the great end of human existence, by causing the passions of man to flow in a current genial to his own happiness.

Reason and morals cannot effect any thing on mankind if they do not point out to each individual that his true interest is attached to a conduct that is either useful to others or beneficial to himself; this conduct to be useful must conciliate for him the benevolence, gain for him the favor of these beings who are necessary to his happiness: it is then for the interest of mankind, for the happiness of the human race, it is for the esteem of himself, for the love of his fellows, for the advantages which ensue, that education in early life should kindle the imagination of the citizen; this is the true means of obtaining those happy results with which habit should familiarize him; which public opinion should render dear to his heart; for which example ought continually to rouse his faculties; after which he should be taught to search with unceasing attention. Government by the aid of recompences, ought to encourage him to follow this plan; by visiting crime with punishment it ought to deter those who are willing to interrupt it. Thus the hope of a true welfare, the fear of real evil, will be passions suitable to countervail those which by their impetuosity would injure society; these last will at least become very rare, if instead of feeding man's mind with unintelligible speculations, in lieu of vibrating on his ears words void of sense, he is only spoken to of realities, only shewn those interests which are in unison with truth.

Man is frequently so wicked, only, because he almost always feels himself interested in being so; let him be more enlightened, more familiarized with truth, more accustomed to virtue, he will be made more happy; he will necessarily become better. An equitable government, a vigilant administration, will presently fill the state with honest citizens; it will hold forth to them present reasons for benevolence; real advantages in truth; palpable motives to be virtuous; it will instruct them in their duties; it will foster them with its cares; it will allure them by the assurance of their own peculiar happiness; its promises faithfully fulfilled—its menaces regularly executed, will unquestionably have much more weight than those of a gloomy superstition, which never exhibits to their view other than illusory benefits, fallacious punishments, which the man hardened in wickedness will doubt every time he finds an interest in questioning them: present motives will tell more home to his heart than those which are distant and at best uncertain. The vicious and the wicked are so common upon the earth, so pertinacious in their evil courses, so attached to their irregularities, only because there are but few governments that make man feel the advantage of being just, the pleasure of being honest, the happiness of being benevolent on the contrary, there is hardly any place where the most powerful interests do not solicit him to crime, by favouring the propensities of a vicious organization; by countenancing those appetencies which nothing has attempted to rectify or lead towards virtue. A savage, who in his horde knows not the value of money, certainly would not commit a crime, if when transplanted into civilized society, he should presently learn to desire it, should make efforts to obtain it, and if he could without danger finish by stealing it; above all, if he had not been taught to respect the property of the beings who environ him. The savages and the child are precisely in the same state; it is the negligence of society, of those entrusted with their education, that renders both the one and the other wicked. The son of a noble, from his infancy learns to desire power, at a riper age he becomes ambitious; if he has the address to insinuate himself into favor, he perhaps becomes wicked, because in some societies he has been taught to know he may be so with impunity when he can command the ear of his sovereign. It is not therefore nature that makes man wicked, they are his institutions which determine him to vice. The infant brought up amongst robbers, can generally become nothing but a malefactor; if he had been reared with honest people, the chance is he would have been a virtuous man.

If the source be traced of that profound ignorance in which man is with respect to his morals, to the motives that can give volition to his will, it will be found in those false ideas which the greater number of speculators have formed to themselves, of human nature. The science of morals has become an enigma which it is impossible to unrevel; because man has made himself double; has distinguished his soul from his body; supposed it of a nature different from all known beings, with modes of action, with properties distinct from all other bodies, because he has emancipated this soul from physical laws, in order to submit it to capricious laws emanating from men who have pretended they are derived from imaginary regions, placed at very remote distances: metaphysicians seized upon these gratuitous suppositions, and by dint of subtilizing them, have rendered them completely unintelligible. These moralists have not perceived that motion is essential to the soul as well as to the living body; that both the one and the other are never moved but by material, by physical objects; that the want of each regenerate themselves unceasingly; that the wants of the soul, as well as those of the body are purely physical; that the most intimate, the most constant connection subsists between the soul and the body; or rather they have been unwilling to allow that they ate only the same thing considered under different points of view. Obstinate in their supernatural, unintelligible opinions, they have refused to open their eyes, which would have convinced them that the body in suffering rendered the soul miserable; that the soul afflicted undermined the body and brought it to decay; that both the pleasures and agonies of the mind have an influence over the body, either plunge it into sloth or give it activity: they have rather chosen to believe, that the soul draws its thoughts, whether pleasant or gloomy, from its own peculiar sources, while the fact is, that it derives its ideas only from material objects that strike on the physical organs; that it is neither determined to gaiety nor led on to sorrow, but by the actual state, whether permanent or transitory, in which the fluids and solids of the body are found. In short, they have been loath to acknowledge that the soul, purely passive, undergoes the same changes which the body experiences; is only moved by its intervention; acts only by its assistance, receives its sensations, its perceptions, forms its ideas, derives either its happiness or its misery from physical objects, through the medium of the organs of which the body is composed; frequently without its own cognizance, often in despite of itself.

By a consequence of these opinions, connected with marvellous systems, or systems invented to justify them, they have supposed the human soul to be a free agent; that is to say, that it has the faculty of moving itself; that it enjoys the privilege of acting independent of the impulse received from exterior objects, through the organs of the body; that regardless of these impulsions it can even resist them, and follow its own directions by its own energies; that it is not only different in its nature from all other beings, but has a separate mode of action; in other words, that it is an insolated point which is, not submitted to that uninterrupted chain of motion which bodies communicate to each other in a nature, whose parts are always in action. Smitten with their sublime notions, these speculators were not aware that in thus distinguishing the soul from the body and from all known beings, they rendered it an impossibility to form any true ideas of it, either to themselves or to others: they were unwilling to perceive the perfect analogy which is found between the manner of the soul's action and that by which the body is afflicted; they shut their eyes to the necessary and continual correspondence which is found between the soul and the body; they perhaps did not perceive that like the body it is subjected to the motion of attraction and repulsion; has an aptitude to be attracted, a disposition to repel, which is ascribable to qualities inherent in those physical subsistances, which give play to the organs of the body; that the volition of its will, the activity of its passions, the continual regeneration of its desires, are never more than consequences of that activity which is produced in the body by material objects which are not under its controul; that these objects render it either happy or miserable, active or languishing, contented or discontented, in despite of itself,—in defiance of all the efforts it is capable of making to render it otherwise; they have rather chosen to seek in the heavens for unknown powers to set it in motion; they have held forth to man distant, imaginary interests: under the pretext of procuring for him future happiness, he has been prevented from labouring to his present felicity, which has been studiously withheld from his knowledge: his regards have been fixed upon the heavens, that he might lose sight of the earth: truth has been concealed from him; and it has been pretended he would be rendered happy by dint of terrors, always at an immense distance; by means of shadows, with whose substances he could never come in contact; of chimeras formed by his own bewildered imagination, which changed nearly as often as the governments to which he was submitted. In short, hoodwinked by his fears, blinded by his own credulity, he was only guided through the flexuous paths of life, by men blind as himself, where both the one and the other were frequently lost in the maze.

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The System of Nature by Baron D’Holbach