PRODUCTION NOTES: First published in French in 1770 under the pseudonym of Mirabaud. This e-book based on a facsimile reprint of an English translation originally published 1820-21. This e-text covers the first of the original two volumes.
THE SYSTEM OF NATURE Volume I
Paul Henri Thiery, Baron d'Holbach
Introduction by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
Paul Henri Thiery, Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), was the center of the radical wing of the philosophes. He was friend, host, and patron to a wide circle that included Diderot, D'Alembert, Helvetius, and Hume. Holbach wrote, translated, edited, and issued a stream of books and pamphlets, often under other names, that has made him the despair of bibliographers but has connected his name, by innuendo, gossip, and association, with most of what was written in defense of atheistic materialism in late eighteenth-century France.
Holbach is best known for The System of Nature (1770) and deservedly, since it is a clear and reasonably systematic exposition of his main ideas. His initial position determines all the rest of his argument. "There is not, there can be nothing out of that Nature which includes all beings." Conceiving of nature as strictly limited to matter and motion, both of which have always existed, he flatly denies that there is any such thing as spirit or a supernatural. Mythology began, Holbach claims, when men were still in a state of nature and at the point when wise, strong, and for the most part benign men were arising as leaders and lawgivers. These leaders "formed discourses by which they spoke to the imaginations of their willing auditors," using the medium of poetry, because it "seem[ed] best adapted to strike the mind." Through poetry, then, and by means of "its images, its fictions, its numbers, its rhyme, its harmony... the entire of nature, as well as all its parts, was personified, by its beautiful allegories." Thus mythology is given an essentially political origin. These early poets are literally legislators of mankind. "The first institutors of nations, and their immediate successors in authority, only spoke to the people by fables, allegories, enigmas, of which they reserved to themselves the right of giving an explanation." Holbach is rather condescending about the process, but since mythology is a representation of nature itself, he is far more tolerant of mythology than he is of the next step. "Natural philosophers and poets were transformed by leisure into metaphysicians and theologians," and at this point a fatal error was introduced: the theologians made a distinction between the power of nature and nature itself, separated the two, made the power of nature prior to nature, and called it God. Thus man was left with an abstract and chimerical being on one side and a despoiled inert nature, destitute of power, on the other. In Holbach's critique the point at which theology split off from mythology marks the moment of nature's alienation from itself and paves the way for man's alienation from nature.
Holbach is thus significant for Romantic interest in myth in two ways. First, he provides a clear statement of what can be loosely called the antimythic position, that rationalist condescension and derogation of all myth and all religion that was never far from the surface during the Romantic era. Holbach was and is a reminder that the Romantic affirmation of myth was never easy, uncritical, or unopposed. Any new endorsement of myth had to be made in the teeth of Holbach and the other skeptics. The very vigor of the Holbachian critique of myth impelled the Romantics to think more deeply and defend more carefully any new claim for myth. Secondly, although Holbach's argument generally drove against myth and religion both, he did make an important, indeed a saving distinction between mythology and theology. Mythology is the more or less harmless personification of the power in and of nature; theology concerns itself with what for Holbach was the nonexistent power beyond or behind nature. By exploiting this distinction it would become possible for a Shelley, for example, to take a strong antitheological— even an anti-Christian—position without having to abandon myth.
Holbach was one of William Godwin's major sources for his ideas about political justice, and Shelley, who discussed Holbach with Godwin, quotes extensively from The System of Nature in Queen Mab. Furthermore, Volney's Ruins, another important book for Shelley, is directly descended from The System of Nature. On the other side, Holbach was a standing challenge to such writers as Coleridge and Goethe and was reprinted and retranslated extensively in America, where his work was well known to the rationalist circle around Jefferson and Barlow.
Issued in 1770 as though by Jean Baptiste de Mirabaud (a former perpetual secretary to the Academie francaise who had died ten years before), La Systeme de la nature was translated and reprinted frequently. The Samuel Wilkinson translation we have chosen to reprint was the most often reprinted or pirated version in English. A useful starting point for Holbach's work is Jerome Vercruysse, Bibliographie descriptive des ecrits du baron d'Holbach (Paris, 1971). The difficult subject of the essentially clandestine evolution of biblical criticism as an anti-Christian and antimyth critique in the early part of the eighteenth century, before the well-documented era of the biblical critic Eichhorn in Germany, is illuminated in Ira Wade, The Clandestine Organization and Diffusion of Philosophic Ideas in France from 1700- 1750 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1938).
Robert D. Richardson, Jr. University of Denver
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[Illustration: Parke sculp't M. DE MIRABAUD
THE SYSTEM OF NATURE; OR, THE LAWS OF THE MORAL AND PHYSICAL WORLD.
TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL FRENCH OF M. DE MIRABAUD
PART I—Laws of Nature.—Of man.—The faculties of the soul. —Doctrine of immortality.—On happiness.
CHAP. I. Nature and her laws.
CHAP. II. Of motion and its origin.
CHAP. III. Of matter—of its various combinations—of its diversified motion—or of the course of Nature.
CHAP. IV. Laws of motion common to every being of Nature— attraction and repulsion—inert force-necessity.
CHAP. V. Order and confusion—intelligence—chance.
CHAP. VI. Moral and physical distinctions of man—his origin.
CHAP. VII. The soul and the spiritual system.
CHAP. VII. The soul and the spiritual system.
CHAP. VIII. The intellectual faculties derived from the faculty of feeling.
CHAP. IX. The diversity of the intellectual faculties; they depend on physical causes, as do their moral qualities.—The natural principles of society—morals—politics.
CHAP. X. The soul does not derive its ideas from itself—it has no innate ideas.
CHAP. XI. Of the system of man's free-agency.
CHAP. XII. An examination of the opinion which pretends that the system of fatalism is dangerous.
CHAP. XIII. Of the immortality of the soul—of the doctrine of a future state—of the fear of death.
CHAP. XIV. Education, morals, and the laws suffice to restrain man—of the desire of immortality—of suicide.
CHAP. XV. Of man's true interest, or of the ideas he forms to himself of happiness.—Man cannot be happy without virtue.
CHAP. XVI. The errors of man.—Upon what constitutes happiness.— The true source of his evils.—Remedies that may be applied.
CHAP. XVII. Those ideas which are true, or founded upon Nature, are the only remedies for the evil of man.—Recapitulation.— Conclusions of the First Part.
_The source of man's unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error. He resembles a child destitute of experience, full of ideal notions: a dangerous leaven mixes itself with all his knowledge: it is of necessity obscure, it is vacillating and false:—He takes the tone of his ideas on the authority of others, who are themselves in error, or else have an interest in deceiving him. To remove this Cimmerian darkness, these barriers to the improvement of his condition; to disentangle him from the clouds of error that envelope him; to guide him out of this Cretan labyrinth, requires the clue of Ariadne, with all the love she could bestow on Theseus. It exacts more than common exertion; it needs a most determined, a most undaunted courage—it is never effected but by a persevering resolution to act, to think for himself; to examine with rigour and impartiality the opinions he has adopted. He will find that the most noxious weeds have sprung up beside beautiful flowers; entwined themselves around their stems, overshadowed them with an exuberance of foliage, choaked the ground, enfeebled their growth, diminished their petals; dimmed the brilliancy of their colours; that deceived by their apparent freshness of their verdure, by the rapidity of their exfoliation, he has given them cultivation, watered them, nurtured them, when he ought to have plucked out their very roots.
Man seeks to range out of his sphere: notwithstanding the reiterated checks his ambitious folly experiences, he still attempts the impossible; strives to carry his researches beyond the visible world; and hunts out misery in imaginary regions. He would be a metaphysician before he has become a practical philosopher. He quits the contemplation of realities to meditate on chimeras. He neglects experience to feed on conjecture, to indulge in hypothesis. He dares not cultivate his reason, because from his earliest days he has been taught to consider it criminal. He pretends to know his date in the indistinct abodes of another life, before he has considered of the means by which he is to render himself happy in the world he inhabits: in short, man disdains the study of Nature, except it be partially: he pursues phantoms that resemble an ignis-fatuus, which at once dazzle, bewilders, and affright: like the benighted traveller led astray by these deceptive exhalations of a swampy soil, he frequently quits the plain, the simple road of truth, by pursuing of which, he can alone ever reasonably hope to reach the goal of happiness.
The most important of our duties, then, is to seek means by which we may destroy delusions that can never do more than mislead us. The remedies for these evils must be sought for in Nature herself; it is only in the abundance of her resources, that we can rationally expect to find antidotes to the mischiefs brought upon us by an ill directed, by an overpowering enthusiasm. It is time these remedies were sought; it is time to look the evil boldly in the face, to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure: reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices, to which the human race has but too long been the victim. For this purpose reason must be restored to its proper rank,—it must be rescued from the evil company with which it is associated. It has been too long degraded —too long neglected—cowardice has rendered it subservient to delirium, the slave to falsehood. It must no longer be held down by the massive claims of ignorant prejudice.
Truth is invariable—it is requisite to man—it can never harm him—his very necessities, sooner or later, make him sensible of this; oblige him to acknowledge it. Let us then discover it to mortals—let us exhibit its charms—let us shed it effulgence over the darkened road; it is the only mode by which man can become disgusted with that disgraceful superstition which leads him into error, and which but too often usurps his homage by treacherously covering itself with the mask of truth—its lustre can wound none but those enemies to the human race whose power is bottomed solely on the ignorance, on the darkness in which they have in almost every claimed contrived to involve the mind of man.
Truth speaks not to those perverse beings:—her voice can only be heard by generous souls accustomed to reflection, whose sensibilities make them lament the numberless calamities showered on the earth by political and religious tyranny—whose enlightened minds contemplate with horror the immensity, the ponderosity of that series of misfortunes which error has in all ages overwhelmed mankind.
To error must be attributed those insupportable chains which tyrants, which priests have forged for most nations. To error must be equally attributed that abject slavery into which the people of almost every country have fallen. Nature designed they should pursue their happiness by the most perfect freedom.—To error must be attributed those religious terrors which, in almost every climate, have either petrified man with fear, or caused him to destroy himself for coarse or fanciful beings. To error must be attributed those inveterate hatreds, those barbarous persecutions, those numerous massacres, those dreadful tragedies, of which, under pretext of serving the interests of heaven, the earth has been but too frequently made the theatre. It is error consecrated by religious enthusiasm, which produces that ignorance, that uncertainty in which man ever finds himself with regard to his most evident duties, his clearest rights, the most demonstrable truths. In short, man is almost everywhere a poor degraded captive, devoid of greatness of soul, of reason, or of virtue, whom his inhuman gaolers have never permitted to see the light of day.
Let us then endeavour to disperse those clouds of ignorance, those mists of darkness, which impede man on his journey, which obscure his progress, which prevent his marching through life with a firm, with a steady grip. Let us try to inspire him with courage—with respect for his reason—with an inextinguishable love for truth—with a remembrance of Gallileo—to the end that he may learn to know himself—to know his legitimate rights—that he may learn to consult his experience, and no longer be the dupe of an imagination led astray by authority—that he may renounce the prejudices of his childhood—that he may learn to found his morals on his nature, on his wants, on the real advantage of society—that he may dare to love himself—that he may learn to pursue his true happiness by promoting that of others—in short, that he may no longer occupy himself with reveries either useless or dangerous—that he may become a virtuous, a rational being, in which case he cannot fail to become happy.
If he must have his chimeras, let him at least learn to permit others to form theirs after their own fashion; since nothing can be more immaterial than the manner of men's thinking on subjects not accessible to reason, provided those thoughts be not suffered to embody themselves into actions injurious to others: above all, let him be fully persuaded that it is of the utmost importance to the inhabitants of this world to be JUST, KIND, and PEACEABLE.
Far from injuring the cause of virtue, an impartial examination of the principles of this work will shew that its object is to restore truth to its proper temple, to build up an altar whose foundations shall be consolidated by morality, reason, and justice: from this sacred pane, virtue guarded by truth, clothed with experience, shall shed forth her radiance on delighted mortals; whose homage flowing consecutively shall open to the world a new aera, by rendering general the belief that happiness, the true end of man's existence, can never be attained but BY PROMOTING THAT OF HIS FELLOW CREATURE.
In short, man should learn to know, that happiness is simply an emanative quality formed by reflection; that each individual ought to be the sun of his own system, continually shedding around him his genial rays; that these, re-acting, will keep his own existence constantly supplied with the requisite heat to enable him to put forth kindly fruit._
SYSTEM OF NATURE
Translated from the Original,
BY SAMUEL WILKINSON.
LAWS OF NATURE—OF MAN—THE FACULTIES OF THE SOUL—DOCTRINE OF IMMORTALITY—ON HAPPINESS.
Nature and her Laws.
Man has always deceived himself when he abandoned experience to follow imaginary systems.—He is the work of nature.—He exists in Nature.—He is submitted to the laws of Nature.—He cannot deliver himself from them:—cannot step beyond them even in thought. It is in vain his mind would spring forward beyond the visible world: direful and imperious necessity ever compels his return—being formed by Nature, he is circumscribed by her laws; there exists nothing beyond the great whole of which he forms a part, of which he experiences the influence. The beings his fancy pictures as above nature, or distinguished from her, are always chimeras formed after that which he has already seen, but of which it is utterly impossible he should ever form any finished idea, either as to the place they occupy, or their manner of acting—for him there is not, there can be nothing out of that Nature which includes all beings.
Therefore, instead of seeking out of the world he inhabits for beings who can procure him a happiness denied to him by Nature, let him study this Nature, learn her laws, contemplate her energies, observe the immutable rules by which she acts.—Let him apply these discoveries to his own felicity, and submit in silence to her precepts, which nothing can alter.—Let him cheerfully consent to be ignorant of causes hid from him under the most impenetrable veil.—Let him yield to the decrees of a universal power, which can never be brought within his comprehension, nor ever emancipate him from those laws imposed on him by his essence.
The distinction which has been so often made between the physical and the moral being, is evidently an abuse of terms. Man is a being purely physical: the moral man is nothing more than this physical being considered under a certain point of view; that is to say, with relation to some of his modes of action, arising out of his individual organization. But is not this organization itself the work of Nature? The motion or impulse to action, of which he is susceptible, is that not physical? His visible actions, as well as the invisible motion interiorly excited by his will or his thoughts, are equally the natural effects, the necessary consequences, of his peculiar construction, and the impulse he receives from those beings by whom he is always surrounded. All that the human mind has successively invented, with a view to change or perfect his being, to render himself happy, was never more than the necessary consequence of man's peculiar essence, and that of the beings who act upon him. The object of all his institutions, all his reflections, all his knowledge, is only to procure that happiness toward which he is continually impelled by the peculiarity of his nature. All that he does, all that he thinks, all that he is, all that he will be, is nothing more than what Universal Nature has made him. His ideas, his actions, his will, are the necessary effects of those properties infused into him by Nature, and of those circumstances in which she has placed him. In short, art is nothing but Nature acting with the tools she has furnished.
Nature sends man naked and destitute into this world which is to be his abode: he quickly learns to cover his nakedness—to shelter himself from the inclemencies of the weather, first with artlessly constructed huts, and the skins of the beasts of the forest; by degrees he mends their appearance, renders them more convenient: he establishes manufactories to supply his immediate wants; he digs clay, gold, and other fossils from the bowels of the earth; converts them into bricks for his house, into vessels for his use, gradually improves their shape, and augments their beauty. To a being exalted above our terrestrial globe, man would not appear less subjected to the laws of Nature when naked in the forest painfully seeking his sustenance, than when living in civilized society surrounded with ease, or enriched with greater experience, plunged in luxury, where he every day invents a thousand new wants and discovers a thousand new modes of supplying them. All the steps taken by man to regulate his existence, ought only to be considered as a long succession of causes and effects, which are nothing more than the development of the first impulse given him by nature.
The same animal, by virtue of his organization, passes successively from the most simple to the most complicated wants; it is nevertheless the consequence of his nature. The butterfly whose beauty we admire, whose colours are so rich, whose appearance is so brilliant, commences as an inanimate unattractive egg; from this, heat produces a worm, this becomes a chrysalis, then changes into that beautiful insect adorned with the most vivid tints: arrived at this stage he reproduces, he generates; at last despoiled of his ornaments, he is obliged to disappear, having fulfilled the task imposed on him by Nature, having performed the circle of transformation marked out for beings of his order.
The same course, the same change takes place in the vegetable world. It is by a series of combinations originally interwoven with the energies of the aloe, that this plant is insensibly regulated, gradually expanded, and at the end of a number of years produces those flowers which announce its dissolution.
It is equally so with man, who in all his motion, all the changes he undergoes, never acts but according to the laws peculiar to his organization, and to the matter of which he is composed.
The physical man, is he who acts by the causes our faculties make us understand.
The moral man, is he who acts by physical causes, with which our prejudices preclude us from becoming perfectly acquainted.
The wild man is a child destitute of experience, incapable of proceeding in his happiness, because he has not learnt how to oppose resistance to the impulses he receives from those beings by whom he is surrounded.
The civilized man, is he whom experience and sociality have enabled to draw from nature the means of his own happiness, because he has learned to oppose resistance to those impulses he receives from exterior beings, when experience has taught him they would be destructive to his welfare.
The enlightened man is man in his maturity, in his perfection; who is capable of advancing his own felicity, because he has learned to examine, to think for himself, and not to take that for truth upon the authority of others, which experience has taught him a critical disquisition will frequently prove erroneous.
The happy man is he who knows how to enjoy the benefits bestowed upon him by nature: in other words, he who thinks for himself; who is thankful for the good he possesses; who does not envy the welfare of others, nor sigh after imaginary benefits always beyond his grasp.
The unhappy man is he who is incapacitated to enjoy the benefits of nature; that is, he who suffers others to think for him; who neglects the absolute good he possesses, in a fruitless search after ideal benefits; who vainly sighs after that which ever eludes his pursuit.
It necessarily results, that man in his enquiry ought always to contemplate experience, and natural philosophy: These are what he should consult in his religion,—in his morals,—in his legislation,—in his political government,—in the arts,—in the sciences,—in his pleasures,—above all, in his misfortunes. Experience teaches that Nature acts by simple, regular, and invariable laws. It is by his senses, man is bound to this universal Nature; it is by his perception he must penetrate her secrets; it is from his senses he must draw experience of her laws. Therefore, whenever he neglects to acquire experience or quits its path, he stumbles into an abyss; his imagination leads him astray.
All the errors of man are physical: he never deceives himself but when he neglects to return back to nature, to consult her laws, to call practical knowledge to his aid. It is for want of practical knowledge he forms such imperfect ideas of matter, of its properties, of its combinations, of its power, of its mode of action, and of the energies which spring from its essence. Wanting this experience, the whole universe, to him, is but one vast scene of error. The most ordinary results appear to him the most astonishing phenomena; he wonders at every thing, understands nothing, and yields the guidance of his actions to those interested in betraying his interests. He is ignorant of Nature, and he has mistaken her laws; he has not contemplated the necessary routine which she has marked out for every thing she holds. Mistaken the laws of Nature, did I say? He has mistaken himself: the consequence is, that all his systems, all his conjectures, all his reasonings, from which he has banished experience, are nothing more than a tissue of errors, a long chain of inconsistencies.
Error is always prejudicial to man: it is by deceiving himself, the human race is plunged into misery. He neglected Nature; he did not comprehend her laws; he formed gods of the most preposterous and ridiculous kinds: these became the sole objects of his hope, and the creatures of his fear: he was unhappy, he trembled under these visionary deities; under the supposed influence of visionary beings created by himself; under the terror inspired by blocks of stone; by logs of wood; by flying fish; or the frowns of men, mortal as himself, whom his disturbed fancy had elevated above that Nature of which alone he is capable of forming any idea. His very posterity laughs at his folly, because experience has convinced them of the absurdity of his groundless fears—of his misplaced worship. Thus has passed away the ancient mythology, with all the trifling and nonsensical attributes attached to it by ignorance.
Not understanding that Nature, equal in her distributions, entirely destitute of malice, follows only necessary and immutable laws, when she either produces beings or destroys them, when she causes those to suffer, whose construction creates sensibility; when she scatters among them good and evil; when she subjects them to incessant change—he did not perceive it was in the breast of Nature herself, that it was in her exuberance he ought to seek to satisfy his deficiencies; for remedies against his pains; for the means of rendering himself happy: he expected to derive these benefits from fantastic beings, whom he supposed to be above Nature; whom he mistakingly imagined to be the authors of his pleasures, and the cause of his misfortunes. From hence it appears that to his ignorance of Nature, man owes the creation of those illusive powers; under which he has so long trembled with fear; that superstitious worship, which has been the source of all his misery, and the evils entailed upon posterity.
For want of clearly comprehending his own peculiar nature, his proper course, his wants, and his rights, man has fallen in society, from FREEDOM into SLAVERY. He had forgotten the purpose of his existence, or else he believed himself obliged to suppress the natural desires of his heart, to sacrifice his welfare to the caprice of chiefs, either elected by himself, or submitted to without examination. He was ignorant of the true policy of association—of the object of government; he disdained to listen to the voice of Nature, which loudly proclaimed the price of all submission to be protection and happiness: the end of all government is the benefit of the governed, not the exclusive advantage of the governors. He gave himself up without enquiry to men like himself, whom his prejudices induced him to contemplate as beings of a superior order, as Gods upon earth, they profited by his ignorance, took advantage of his prejudices, corrupted him, rendered him vicious, enslaved him, and made him miserable. Thus man, intended by Nature for the full enjoyment of liberty, to patiently search out her laws, to investigate her secrets, to cling to his experience; has, from a neglect of her salutary admonitions, from an inexcusable ignorance of his own peculiar essence, fallen into servility: has been wickedly governed.
Having mistaken himself, he has remained ignorant of the indispensable affinity that subsists between him, and the beings of his own species: having mistaken his duty to himself, it consequently follows, he has mistaken his duty to others. He made a calculation in error of what his happiness required; he did not perceive, what he owed to himself, the excesses he ought to avoid, the desires he ought to resist, the impulses he ought to follow, in order to consolidate his felicity, to promote his comfort, and to further his advantage. In short, he was ignorant of his true interests; hence his irregularities, his excesses, his shameful extravagance, with that long train of vices, to which he has abandoned himself, at the expense of his preservation, at the hazard of his permanent prosperity.
It is, therefore, ignorance of himself that has hindered man from enlightening his morals. The corrupt authorities to which he had submitted, felt an interest in obstructing the practice of his duties, even when he knew them. Time, with the influence of ignorance, aided by his corruption, gave them a strength not to be resisted by his enfeebled voice. His duties continued unperformed, and he fell into contempt both with himself and with others.
The ignorance of Man has endured so long, he has taken such slow, such irresolute steps to ameliorate his condition, only because he has neglected to study Nature, to scrutinize her laws, to search out her expedients, to discover her properties, that his sluggishness finds its account, in permitting himself to be guided by example, rather than to follow experience, which demands activity; to be led by routine, rather than by his reason, which enjoins reflection; to take that for truth upon the authority of others, which would require a diligent and patient investigation. From hence may be traced the hatred man betrays for every thing that deviates from those rules to which he has been accustomed; hence his stupid, his scrupulous respect for antiquity, for the most silly, the most absurd and ridiculous institutions of his fathers: hence those fears that seize him, when the most beneficial changes are proposed to him, or the most likely attempts are made to better his condition. He dreads to examine, because he has been taught to hold it irreverent of something immediately connected with his welfare; his credulity suffers him to believe the interested advice, and spurns at those who wish to show him the danger of the road he is travelling.
This is the reason why nations linger on in the most shameful lethargy, suffering under abuses handed down from century to century, trembling at the very idea of that which alone can repair their calamities.
It is for want of energy, for want of consulting experience, that medicine, natural philosophy, agriculture, painting, in fact, all the useful sciences, have so long remained under the fetters of authority, have progressed so little: those who profess these sciences, prefer treading the beaten paths, however imperfect, rather than strike out new ones,—they prefer the phrensy of their imagination, their voluntary conjectures, to that laboured experience which alone can extract her secrets from Nature.
Man, in short, whether from sloth or from terror, having abnegated the evidence of his senses, has been guided in all his actions, in all his enterprizes, by imagination, by enthusiasm, by habit, by preconceived opinions, but above all, by the influence of authority, which knew well how to deceive him, to turn his ignorance to esteem, his sloth to advantage. Thus imaginary, unsubstantial systems, have supplied the place of experience—of mature reflection—of reason. Man, petrified with his fears, intoxicated with the marvellous, stupified with sloth, surrendered his experience: guided by his credulity, he was unable to fall back upon it; he became consequently inexperienced; from thence he gave birth to the most ridiculous opinions, or else adopted all those vague chimeras, all those idle notions offered to him by men whose interest it was to continue him in that lamentable state of ignorance.
Thus the human race has continued so long in a state of infancy, because man has been inattentive to Nature; has neglected her ways, because he has disdained experience—because he has thrown by his reason—because he has been enraptured with the marvellous and the supernatural,— because he has unnecessarily TREMBLED. These are the reasons there is so much trouble in conducting him from this state of childhood to that of manhood. He has had nothing but the most trifling hypotheses, of which he has never dared to examine either the principles or the proofs, because he has been accustomed to hold them sacred, to consider them as the most perfect truths, and which he is not permitted to doubt, even for an instant. His ignorance made him credulous; his curiosity made him swallow the wonderful: time confirmed him in his opinions, and he passed his conjectures from race to race for realities; a tyrannical power maintained him in his notions, because by those alone could society be enslaved. It was in vain that some faint glimmerings of Nature occasionally attempted the recall of his reason—that slight corruscations of experience sometimes threw his darkness into light, the interest of the few was founded on his enthusiasm; their pre-eminence depended on his love of the marvellous; their very existence rested on the firmness of his ignorance; they consequently suffered no opportunity to escape, of smothering even the transient flame of intelligence. The many were thus first deceived into credulity, then forced into submission. At length the whole science of man became a confused mass of darkness, falsehood, and contradictions, with here and there a feeble ray of truth, furnished by that Nature, of which he can never entirely divest himself; because, without his perception, his necessities are continually bringing him back to her resources.
Let us then, if possible, raise ourselves above these clouds of prepossession! Let us quit the heavy atmosphere in which we are enucleated; let us in a more unsullied medium—in a more elastic current, contemplate the opinions of men, and observe their various systems. Let us learn to distrust a disordered conception; let us take that faithful monitor, experience, for our guide; let us consult Nature, examine her laws, dive into her stores; let us draw from herself, our ideas of the beings she contains; let us recover our senses, which interested error has taught us to suspect; let us consult that reason, which, for the vilest purposes has been so infamously calumniated, so cruelly dishonoured; let us examine with attention the visible world; let us try, if it will not enable us to form a supportable judgment of the invisible territory of the intellectual world: perhaps it may be found there has been no sufficient reason for distinguishing them—that it is not without motives, well worthy our enquiry, that two empires have been separated, which are equally the inheritance of nature.
The universe, that vast assemblage of every thing that exists, presents only matter and motion: the whole offers to our contemplation, nothing but an immense, an uninterrupted succession of causes and effects; some of these causes are known to us, because they either strike immediately on our senses, or have been brought under their cognizance, by the examination of long experience; others are unknown to us, because they act upon us by effects, frequently very remote from their primary cause. An immense variety of matter, combined under an infinity of forms, incessantly communicates, unceasingly receives a diversity of impulses. The different qualities of this matter, its innumerable combinations, its various methods of action, which are the necessary consequence of these associations, constitute for man what he calls the ESSENCE of beings: it is from these varied essences that spring the orders, the classes, or the systems, which these beings respectively possess, of which the sum total makes up that which is known by the term nature.
Nature, therefore, in its most significant meaning, is the great whole that results from the collection of matter, under its various combinations, with that contrariety of motion, which the universe presents to our view. Nature, in a less extended sense, or considered in each individual, is the whole that results from its essence; that is to say, the peculiar qualities, the combination, the impulse, and the various modes of action, by which it is discriminated from other beings. It is thus that MAN is, as a whole, or in his nature, the result of a certain combination of matter, endowed with peculiar properties, competent to give, capable of receiving, certain impulses, the arrangement of which is called organization; of which the essence is, to feel, to think, to act, to move, after a manner distinguished from other beings, with which he can be compared. Man, therefore, ranks in an order, in a system, in a class by himself, which differs from that of other animals, in whom we do not perceive those properties of which he is possessed. The different systems of beings, or if they will, their particular natures, depend on the general system of the great whole, or that Universal Nature, of which they form a part; to which every thing that exists is necessarily submitted and attached.
Having described the proper definition that should be applied to the word NATURE, I must advise the reader, once for all, that whenever in the course of this work the expression occurs, that "Nature produces such or such an effect," there is no intention of personifying that nature which is purely an abstract being; it merely indicates that the effect spoken of necessarily springs from the peculiar properties of those beings which compose the mighty macrocosm. When, therefore, it is said, Nature demands that man should pursue his own happiness, it is to prevent circumlocution—to avoid tautology; it is to be understood, that it is the property of a being that feels, that thinks, that acts, to labour to its own happiness; in short, that is called natural, which is conformable to the essence of things, or to the laws, which Nature prescribes to the beings she contains, in the different orders they occupy, under the various circumstances through which they are obliged to pass. Thus health is natural to man in a certain state; disease is natural to him under other circumstances; dissolution, or if they will, death, is a natural state for a body, deprived of some of those things, necessary to maintain the existence of the animal, &c. By ESSENCE is to be understood, that which constitutes a being, such as it is; the whole of the properties or qualities by which it acts as it does. Thus, when it is said, it is the essence of a stone to fall, it is the same as saying that its descent is the necessary effect of its gravity—of its density—of the cohesion of its parts—of the elements of which it is composed. In short, the essence of a being is its particular, its individual nature.
Of Motion, and its Origin.
Motion is an effect by which a body either changes, or has a tendency to change, its position: that is to say, by which it successively corresponds with different parts of space, or changes its relative distance to other bodies. It is motion alone that establishes the relation between our senses and exterior or interior beings: it is only by motion that these beings are impressed upon us—that we know their existence—that we judge of their properties—that we distinguish the one from the other—that we distribute them into classes.
The beings, the substances, or the various bodies of which Nature is the assemblage, are themselves effects of certain combinations or causes which become causes in their turn. A CAUSE is a being which puts another in motion, or which produces some change in it. The EFFECT is the change produced in one body, by the motion or presence of another.
Each being, by its essence, by its peculiar nature, has the faculty of producing, is capable of receiving, has the power of communicating, a variety of motion. Thus some beings are proper to strike our organs; these organs are competent to receiving the impression, are adequate to undergoing changes by their presence. Those which cannot act on any of our organs, either immediately and by themselves, or immediately by the intervention of other bodies, exist not for us; since they can neither move us, nor consequently furnish us with ideas: they can neither be known to us, nor of course be judged of by us. To know an object, is to have felt it; to feel it, it is requisite to have been moved by it. To see, is to have been moved, by something acting on the visual organs; to hear, is to have been struck, by something on our auditory nerves. In short, in whatever mode a body may act upon us, whatever impulse we may receive from it, we can have no other knowledge of it than by the change it produces in us.
Nature, as we have already said, is the assemblage of all the beings, consequently of all the motion of which we have a knowledge, as well as of many others of which we know nothing, because they have not yet become accessible to our senses. From the continual action and re-action of these beings, result a series of causes and effects; or a chain of motion guided by the constant and invariable laws peculiar to each being; which are necessary or inherent to its particular nature—which make it always act or move after a determinate manner. The different principles of this motion are unknown to us, because we are in many instances, if not in all, ignorant of what constitutes the essence of beings. The elements of bodies escape our senses; we know them only in the mass: we are neither acquainted with their intimate combination, nor the proportion of these combinations; from whence must necessarily result their mode of action, their impulse, or their different effects.
Our senses bring us generally acquainted with two sorts of motion in the beings that surround us: the one is the motion of the mass, by which an entire body is transferred from one place to another. Of the motion of this genus we are perfectly sensible.—Thus, we see a stone fall, a ball roll, an arm move, or change its position. The other is an internal or concealed motion, which always depends on the peculiar energies of a body: that is to say, on its essence, or the combination, the action, and re-action of the minute—of the insensible particles of matter, of which that body is composed. This motion we do not see; we know it only by the alteration or change, which after some time we discover in these bodies or mixtures. Of this genus is that concealed motion which fermentation produces in the particles that compose flour, which, however scattered, however separated, unite, and form that mass which we call BREAD. Such also is the imperceptible motion by which we see a plant or animal enlarge, strengthen, undergo changes, and acquire new qualities, without our eyes being competent to follow its progression, or to perceive the causes which have produced these effects. Such also is the internal motion that takes place in man, which is called his INTELLECTUAL FACULTIES, his THOUGHTS, his PASSIONS, his will. Of these we have no other mode of judging, than by their action; that is, by those sensible effects which either accompany or follow them. Thus, when we see a man run away, we judge him to be interiorly actuated by the passion of fear.
Motion, whether visible or concealed, is styled ACQUIRED, when it is impressed on one body by another; either by a cause to which we are a stranger, or by an exterior agent which our senses enable us to discover. Thus we call that acquired motion, which the wind gives to the sails of a ship. That motion which is excited in a body, that contains within itself the causes of those changes we see it undergo, is called SPONTANEOUS. Then it is said, this body acts or moves by its own peculiar energies. Of this kind is the motion of the man who walks, who talks, who thinks. Nevertheless, if we examine the matter a little closer, we shall be convinced, that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as spontaneous motion in any of the various bodies of Nature; seeing they are perpetually acting one upon the other; that all their changes are to be attributed to the causes, either visible or concealed, by which they are moved. The will of man is secretly moved or determined by some exterior cause that produces a change in him: we believe he moves of himself, because we neither see the cause that determined him, the mode in which it acted, nor the organ that it put in motion.
That is called SIMPLE MOTION, which is excited in a body by a single cause. COMPOUND MOTION, that which is produced by two or more different causes; whether these causes are equal or unequal, conspiring differently, acting together or in succession, known or unknown.
Let the motion of beings be of whatsoever nature it may, it is always the necessary consequence of their essence, or of the properties which compose them, and of those causes of which they experience the action. Each being can only move and act after a particular manner; that is to say, conformably to those laws which result from its peculiar essence, its particular combination, its individual nature: in short, from its specific energies, and those of the bodies from which it receives an impulse. It is this that constitutes the invariable laws of motion: I say invariable, because they can never change, without producing confusion in the essence of things. It is thus that a heavy body must necessarily fall, if it meets with no obstacle sufficient to arrest its descent; that a sensible body must naturally seek pleasure, and avoid pain; that fire must necessarily burn, and diffuse light.
Each being, then, has laws of motion, that are adapted to itself, and constantly acts or moves according to these laws; at least when no superior cause interrupts its action. Thus, fire ceases to burn combustible matter, as soon as sufficient water is thrown into it, to arrest its progress. Thus, a sensible being ceases to seek pleasure, as soon as he fears that pain will be the result.
The communication of motion, or the medium of action, from one body to another, also follows certain and necessary laws; one being can only communicate motion to another, by the affinity, by the resemblance, by the conformity, by the analogy, or by the point of contact, which it has with that other being. Fire can only propagate when it finds matter analogous to itself: it extinguishes when it encounters bodies which it cannot embrace; that is to say, that do not bear towards it a certain degree of relation or affinity.
Every thing in the universe is in motion: the essence of matter is to act: if we consider its parts, attentively, we shall discover there is not a particle that enjoys absolute repose. Those which appear to us to be without motion, are, in fact, only in relative or apparent rest; they experience such an imperceptible motion, and expose it so little on their surfaces, that we cannot perceive the changes they undergo. All that appears to us to be at rest, does not, however, remain one instant in the same state. All beings are continually breeding, increasing, decreasing, or dispersing, with more or less dullness or rapidity. The insect called EPHEMERON, is produced and perishes in the same day; of consequence, it experiences the greatest changes of its being very rapidly, in our eyes. Those combinations which form the most solid bodies, which appear to enjoy the most perfect repose, are nevertheless decomposed, and dissolved in the course of time. The hardest stones, by degrees, give way to the contact of air. A mass of iron, which time, and the action of the atmosphere, has gnawed into rust, must have been in motion, from the moment of its formation, in the bowels of the earth, until the instant we behold it in this state of dissolution.
Natural philosophers, for the most part, seem not to have sufficiently reflected on what they call the nisus; that is to say, the incessant efforts one body is making on another, but which, notwithstanding appear, to our superficial observation, to enjoy the most perfect repose. A stone of five hundred weight seems to rest quiet on the earth, nevertheless, it never ceases for an instant, to press with force upon the earth, which resists or repulses it in its turn. Will the assertion be ventured, that the stone and earth do not act? Do they wish to be undeceived? They have nothing to do but interpose their hand betwixt the earth and the stone; it will then be discovered, that notwithstanding its seeming repose, the stone has power adequate to bruise it; because the hand has not energies sufficient, within itself, to resist effectually both the stone and earth.—Action cannot exist in bodies without re-action. A body that experiences an impulse, an attraction, or a pressure of any kind, if it resists, clearly demonstrates by such resistance that it re-acts; from whence it follows, there is a concealed force, called by these philosophers vis inertia, that displays itself against another force; and this clearly demonstrates, that this inert force is capable of both acting and re-acting. In short, it will be found, on close investigation, that those powers which are called dead, and those which are termed live or moving, are powers of the same kind; which only display themselves after a different manner. Permit us to go a greater distance yet. May we not say, that in those bodies, or masses, of which their whole become evident from appearances to us to be at rest, there is notwithstanding, a continual action, and counter-action, constant efforts, uninterrupted or communicated force, and continued opposition? In short, a nisus, by which the constituting portions of these bodies press one upon another, mutually resisting each other, acting and re-acting incessantly? that this reciprocity of action, this simultaneous re-action, keeps them united, causes their particles to form a mass, a body, and a combination, which, viewed in its whole, has the appearance of complete rest, notwithstanding no one of its particles really ceases to be in motion for a single instant? These collective masses appear to be at rest, simply by the equality of the motion—by the responsory impulse of the powers acting in them.
Thus it appears that bodies enjoying perfect repose, really receive, whether upon their surface, or in their interior, a continual communicated force, from those bodies by which they are either surrounded or penetrated, dilated or contracted, rarified or condensed: in fact, from those which compose them; whereby their particles are incessantly acting and re-acting, or in continual motion, the effects of which are displayed by extraordinary changes. Thus heat rarifies and dilates metals, which is evidence deducible that a bar of iron, from the change of the atmosphere alone, must be in continual motion; that there is not a single particle in it that can be said to enjoy rest even for a single moment. In those hard bodies, indeed, the particles of which are in actual contact, and which are closely united, how is it possible to conceive, that air, cold, or heat, can act upon one of these particles, even exteriorly, without the motion being communicated to those which are most intimate and minute in their union? Without motion, how should we be able to comprehend the manner in which our sense of smelling is affected, by emanations escaping from the most solid bodies, of which all the particles appear to be at perfect rest? How could we, even by the assistance of a telescope, see the most distant stars, if there was not a progressive motion of light from these stars to the retina of our eye?
Observation and reflection ought to convince us, that every thing in Nature is in continual motion—that there is not a single part, however small, that enjoys repose—that Nature acts in all—that she would cease to be Nature if she did not act. Practical knowledge teaches us, that without unceasing motion, nothing could be preserved—nothing could be produced—nothing could act in this Nature. Thus the idea of Nature necessarily includes that of motion. But it will be asked, and not a little triumphantly, from whence did she derive her motion? Our reply is, we know not, neither do they—that we never shall, that they never will. It is a secret hidden from us, concealed from them, by the most impenetrable veil. We also reply, that it is fair to infer, unless they can logically prove to the contrary, that it is in herself, since she is the great whole, out of which nothing can exist. We say this motion is a manner of existence, that flows, necessarily, out of the nature of matter; that matter moves by its own peculiar energies; that its motion is to be attributed to the force which is inherent in itself; that the variety of motion, and the phenomena which result, proceed from the diversity of the properties—of the qualities—of the combinations, which are originally found in the primitive matter, of which Nature is the assemblage.
Natural philosophers, for the most part, have regarded as inanimate, or as deprived of the faculty of motion, those bodies which are only moved by the intervention of some agent or exterior cause; they have considered themselves justified in concluding, that the matter which forms these bodies is perfectly inert in its nature. They have not forsaken this error, although they must have observed, that whenever a body is left to itself, or disengaged from those obstructions which oppose themselves to its descent, it has a tendency to fall or to approach the centre of the earth, by a motion uniformly accelerated; they have rather chosen to suppose a visionary exterior cause, of which they themselves had but an imperfect idea, than admit that these bodies held their motion from their own peculiar nature.
These philosophers, also, notwithstanding they saw above them an infinite number of globes that moved with great rapidity round a common centre, still adhered to their favourite opinions; and never ceased to suppose some whimsical causes for these movements, until the immortal NEWTON clearly demonstrated that it was the effect of the gravitation of these celestial bodies towards each other. Experimental philosophers, however, and amongst them the great Newton himself, have held the cause of gravitation as inexplicable. Notwithstanding the great weight of this authority, it appears manifest that it may be deduced from the motion of matter, by which bodies are diversely determined. Gravitation is nothing more than a mode of moving—a tendency towards a centre: to speak strictly, all motion is relative gravitation; since that which falls relatively to us, rises, with relation to other bodies. From this it follows, that every motion in our microcosm is the effect of gravitation; seeing that there is not in the universe either top or bottom, nor any absolute centre. It should appear, that the weight of bodies depends on their configuration, as well external as internal, which gives them that form of action which is called gravitation. Thus, for instance, a piece of lead, spherically formed, falls quickly and direct: reduce this ball into very thin plates, it will be sustained in the air for a much longer time: apply to it the action of fire, this lead will rise in the atmosphere: here, then, the same metal, variously modified, has very different modes of action.
A very simple observation would have sufficed to make the philosophers, antecedent to Newton, feel the inadequateness of the causes they admitted to operate with such powerful effect. They had a sufficiency to convince themselves, in the collision of two bodies, which they could contemplate, and in the known laws of that motion, which these always communicate by reason of their greater or less compactness; from whence they ought to have inferred, that the density of subtle or ethereal matter, being considerably less than that of the planets, it could only communicate to them a very feeble motion, quite insufficient to produce that velocity of action, of which they could not possibly avoid being the witnesses.
If Nature had been viewed uninfluenced by prejudice, they must have been long since convinced that matter acts by its own peculiar activity; that it needs no exterior communicative force to set it in motion. They might have perceived that whenever mixed bodies were placed in a situation to act on each other, motion was instantly excited; and that these mixtures acted with a force capable of producing the most surprising results.
If particles of iron, sulphur, and water be mixed together, these bodies thus capacitated to act on each other, are heated by degrees, and ultimately produce a violent combustion. If flour be wetted with water, and the mixture closed up, it will be found, after some lapse of time, (by the aid of a microscope) to have produced organized beings that enjoy life, of which the water and the flour were believed incapable: it is thus that inanimate matter can pass into life, or animate matter, which is in itself only an assemblage of motion.
Reasoning from analogy, which the philosophers of the present day do not hold incompatible, the production of a man, independent of the ordinary means, would not be more astonishing than that of an insect with flour and water. Fermentation and putrid substances, evidently produce living animals. We have here the principle; with proper materials, principles can always be brought into action. That generation which is styled uncertain is only so for those who do not reflect, or who do not permit themselves, attentively, to observe the operations of Nature.
The generative of motion, and its developement, as well as the energy of matter, may be seen everywhere; more particularly in those unitions in which fire, air, and water, find themselves combined. These elements, or rather these mixed bodies, are the most volatile, the most fugitive of beings; nevertheless in the hands of Nature, they are the essential agents employed to produce the most striking phenomena. To these we must ascribe the effects of thunder, the eruption of volcanoes, earthquakes, &c. Science offers to our consideration an agent of astonishing force, in gunpowder, the instant it comes in contact with fire. In short, the most terrible effects result from the combination of matter, which is generally believed to be dead and inert.
These facts prove, beyond a doubt, that motion is produced, is augmented, is accelerated in matter, without the help of any exterior agent: therefore it is reasonable to conclude that motion is the necessary consequence of immutable laws, resulting from the essence, from the properties existing in the different elements, and the various combinations of these elements. Are we not justified, then, in concluding, from these precedents, that there may be an infinity of other combinations, with which we are unacquainted, competent to produce a great variety of motion in matter, without being under the necessity of having recourse, for the explanation, to agents who are more difficult to comprehend than even the effects which are attributed to them?
Had man but paid proper attention to what passed under his review, he would not have sought out of Nature, a power distinguished from herself, to set her in action, and without which he believes she cannot move. If, indeed, by Nature is meant a heap of dead matter, destitute of peculiar qualities purely passive, we must unquestionably seek out of this Nature the principle of her motion. But if by Nature be understood, what it really is, a whole, of which the numerous parts are endowed with various properties, which oblige them to act according to these properties; which are in a perpetual ternateness of action and reaction; which press, which gravitate towards a common center, whilst others depart from and fly off towards the periphery, or circumference; which attract and repel; which by continual approximation and constant collision, produce and decompose all the bodies we behold; then, I say, there is no necessity to have recourse to supernatural powers, to account for the formation of things, and those extraordinary appearances which are the result of motion.
Those who admit a cause exterior to matter, are obliged to believe that this cause produced all the motion by which matter is agitated in giving it existence. This belief rests on another, namely, that matter could begin to exist; an hypothesis that, until this moment, has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. To produce from nothing, or the CREATION, is a term that cannot give us the least idea of the formation of the universe; it presents no sense, upon which the mind can rely. In fact, the human mind is not adequate to conceive a moment of non-existence, or when all shall have passed away; even admitting this to be a truth, it is no truth for us, because by the very nature of our organization, we cannot admit positions as facts, of which no evidence can be adduced that has relation to our senses; we may, indeed, consent to believe it, because others say it; but will any rational being be satisfied with such an admission? Can any moral good spring from such blind assurance? Is it consistent with sound doctrine, with philosophy, or with reason? Do we, in fact, pay any respect to the intellectual powers of another, when we say to him, "I will believe this, because in all the attempts you have ventured, for the purpose of proving what you say, you have entirely failed; and have been at last obliged to acknowledge you know nothing about the matter?" What moral reliance ought we to have on such people? Hypothesis may succeed hypothesis; system may destroy system: a new set of ideas may overturn the ideas of a former day. Other Gallileos may be condemned to death—other Newtons may arise—we may reason— argue—dispute—quarrel—punish and destroy: nay, we may even exterminate those who differ from us in opinion; but when we have done all this, we shall be obliged to fall back upon our original darkness— to confess, that that which has no relation with our senses, that which cannot manifest itself to us by some of the ordinary modes by which other things are manifested, has no existence for us—is not comprehensible by us—can never entirely remove our doubt—can never seize on our stedfast belief; seeing it is that of which we cannot form even a notion; in short, that it is that, which as long as we remain what we are, must be hidden from us by a veil, which no power, no faculty, no energy we possess, is able to remove. All who are not enslaved by prejudice agree to the truth of the position, that nothing can be made of nothing. Many theologians have acknowledged Nature to be an active whole. Almost all the ancient philosophers were agreed to regard the world as eternal. OCELLUS LUCANUS, speaking of the universe, says, "it has always been, and it always will be." VATABLE and GROTIUS assure us, that to render the Hebrew phrase in the first chapter of GENESIS correctly, we must say, "when God made heaven and earth, matter was without form." If this be true, and every Hebraist can judge for himself, then the word which has been rendered created, means only to fashion, form, arrange. We know that the Greek words create and form, have always indicated the same thing. According to ST. JEROME, creare has the same meaning as condere, to found, to build. The Bible does not anywhere say in a clear manner, that the world was made of nothing. TERTULLIAN and the father PETAU both admit, that "this is a truth established more by reason than by authority." ST. JUSTIN seems to have contemplated matter as eternal, since he commends PLATO for having said, that "God, in the creation of the world, only gave impulse to matter, and fashioned it." BURNET and PYTHAGORAS were entirely of this opinion, and even our Church Service may be adduced in support; for although it admits by implication a beginning, it expressly denies an end: "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." It is easy to perceive that that which cannot cease to exist, must have always been.
Motion becomes still more obscure, when creation, or the formation of matter, is attributed to a SPIRITUAL being; that is to say, to a being which has no analogy, no point of contact, with it—to a being which has neither extent or parts, and cannot, therefore, be susceptible of motion, as we understand the term; this being only the change of one body, relatively to another body, in which the body moved presents successively different parts to different points of space. Moreover, as all the world are nearly agreed that matter can never be totally annihilated, or cease to exist; by what reasoning, I would ask, do they comprehend—how understand—that that which cannot cease to be, could ever have had a beginning?
If, therefore, it be asked, whence came matter? it is very reasonable to say it has always existed. If it be inquired, whence proceeds the motion that agitates matter? the same reasoning furnishes the answer; namely, that as motion is coeval with matter, it must have existed from all eternity, seeing that motion is the necessary consequence of its existence—of its essence—of its primitive properties, such as its extent, its gravity, its impenetrability, its figure, &c. By virtue of these essential constituent properties, inherent in all matter, and without which it is impossible to form an idea of it, the various matter of which the universe is composed must from all eternity have pressed against, each other—have gravitated towards a center—have clashed— have come in contact—have been attracted—have been repelled—have been combined—have been separated: in short, must have acted and moved according to the essence and energy peculiar to each genus, and to each of its combinations.
Existence supposes properties in the thing that exists: whenever it has properties, its mode of action must necessarily flow from those properties which constitute, its mode of being. Thus, when a body is ponderous, it must fall; when it falls, it must come in collision with the bodies it meets in its descent; when it is dense, when it is solid, it must, by reason of this density, communicate motion to the bodies with which it clashes; when it has analogy, when it has affinity with these bodies, it must be attracted, must be united with them; when it has no point of analogy with them, it must be repulsed.
From which it may be fairly inferred, that in supposing, as we are under the necessity of doing, the existence of matter, we must suppose it to have some kind of properties; from which its motion, or modes of action, must necessarily flow. To form the universe, DESCARTES asked but matter and motion: a diversity of matter sufficed for him; variety of motion was the consequence of its existence, of its essence, of its properties: its different modes of action would be the necessary consequence of its different modes of being. Matter without properties would be a mere nothing; therefore, as soon as matter exists, it must act; as soon as it is various, it must act variously; if it cannot commence to exist, it must have existed from all eternity; if it has always existed, it can never cease to be: if it can never cease to be, it can never cease to act by its own energy. Motion is a manner of being, which matter derives from its peculiar existence.
The existence, then, of matter is a fact: the existence of motion is another fact. Our visual organs point out to us matter with different essences, forming a variety of combinations, endowed with various properties that discriminate them. Indeed, it is a palpable error to believe that matter is a homogeneous body, of which the parts differ from each other only by their various modifications. Among the individuals of the same species that come under our notice, no two resemble exactly; and it is therefore evident that the difference of situation alone will, necessarily, carry a diversity more or less sensible, not only in the modifications, but also in the essence, in the properties, in the entire system of beings. This truth was well understood by the profound and subtle LEIBNITZ.
If this principle be properly digested, and experience seems always to produce evidence of its truth, we must be convinced that the matter or primitive elements which enter into the composition of bodies, are not of the same nature, and consequently, can neither have the same properties, nor the same modifications; and if so, they cannot have the same mode of moving and acting. Their activity or motion, already different, can be diversified to infinity, augmented or diminished, accelerated or retarded, according to the combinations, the proportions, the pressure, the density, the volume of the matter, that enters their composition. The endless variety to be produced, will need no further illustration than the commonest book of arithmetic furnishes us, where it will be found, that to ring all the changes that can be produced on twelve bells only, would occupy a space of more than ninety-one years. The element of fire is visibly more active and more inconstant than that of earth. This is more solid and ponderous than fire, air, or water. According to the quantity of these elements, which enter the composition of bodies, these must act diversely, and their motion must in some measure partake the motion peculiar to each of their constituent parts. Elementary fire appears to be in Nature the principle of activity; it may be compared to a fruitful leaven, that puts the mass into fermentation and gives it life. Earth appears to be the principle of solidity in bodies, from its impenetrability, and by the firm coherence of its parts. Water is a medium, to facilitate the combination of bodies, into which it enters itself, as a constituent part. Air is a fluid whose business it seems to be, to furnish the other elements with the space requisite to expand, to exercise their motion, and which is, moreover, found proper to combine with them. These elements, which our senses never discover in a pure state—which are continually and reciprocally set in motion by each other—which are always acting and re-acting, combining and separating, attracting and repelling—are sufficient to explain to us the formation of all the beings we behold. Their motion is uninterruptedly and reciprocally produced from each other; they are alternately causes and effects. Thus, they form a vast circle of generation and destruction—of combination and decomposition, which, it is quite reasonable to suppose, could never have had a beginning, and which, consequently can never have an end. In short, Nature is but an immense chain of causes and effects, which unceasingly flow from each other. The motion of particular beings depends on the general motion, which is itself maintained by individual motion. This is strengthened or weakened, accelerated or retarded, simplified or complicated, procreated or destroyed, by a variety of combinations and circumstances, which every moment change the directions, the tendency, the modes of existing, and of acting, of the different beings that receive its impulse.
If it were true, as has been asserted by some philosophers, that every thing has a tendency to form one unique or single mass, and in that unique mass the instant should arrive when all was in nisus, all would eternally remain in this state; to all eternity there would be no more than one Being and one effort: this would be eternal and universal death.
If we desire to go beyond this, to find the principle of action in matter, to trace the origin of things, it is for ever to fall back upon difficulties; it is absolutely to abridge the evidence of our senses; by which only we can understand, by which alone we can judge of the causes acting upon them, or the impulse by which they are set in action.
Let us, therefore, content ourselves with saying WHAT is supported by our experience, and by all the evidence we are capable of understanding; against the truth of which not a shadow of proof, such as our reason can admit, has ever been adduced—which has been maintained by philosophers in every age—which theologians themselves have not denied, but which many of them have upheld; namely, that matter always existed; that it moves by virtue of its essence; that all the phenomena of Nature is ascribable to the diversified motion of the variety of matter she contains; and which, like the phoenix, is continually regenerating out of its own ashes.
Of Matter.—Of its various Combinations.—Of its diversified Motion, or of the Course of Nature.
We know nothing of the elements of bodies, but we know some of their properties or qualities; and we distinguish their various matter by the effect or change produced on our senses; that is to say, by the variety of motion their presence excites in us. In consequence, we discover in them, extent, mobility, divisibility, solidity, gravity, and inert force. From these general and primitive properties flow a number of others, such as density, figure, colour, ponderosity, &c. Thus, relatively to us, matter is all that affects our senses in any manner whatever; the various properties we attribute to matter, by which we discriminate its diversity, are founded on the different impressions we receive on the changes they produce in us.
A satisfactory definition of matter has not yet been given. Man, deceived and led astray by his prejudices, formed but vague, superficial, and imperfect notions concerning it. He looked upon it as an unique being, gross and passive, incapable of either moving by itself, of forming combinations, or of producing any thing by its own energies. Instead of this unintelligible jargon, he ought to have contemplated it as a genus of beings, of which the individuals, although they might possess some common properties, such as extent, divisibility, figure, &c. should not, however, be all ranked in the same class, nor comprised under the same general denomination.
An example will serve more fully to explain what we have asserted, throw its correctness into light, and facilitate the application. The properties common to all matter, are extent, divisibility, impenetrability, figure, mobility, or the property of being moved in mass. FIRE, beside these general properties, common to all matter, enjoys also the peculiar property of being put into activity by a motion that produces on our organs of feeling the sensation of heat; and by another, that communicates to our visual organs the sensation of light. Iron, in common with matter in general, has extent and figure; is divisible, and moveable in mass: if fire be combined with it in a certain proportion, the iron acquires two new properties; namely, those of exciting in us similar sensations of heat and light, which were excited by the element of fire, but which the iron had not, before its combination with the igneous matter. These distinguishing properties are inseparable from matter, and the phenomena that result, may, in the strictest sense of the word, be said to result necessarily.
If we contemplate a little the paths of Nature—if, for a time, we trace the beings in this Nature, under the different states through which, by reason of their properties, they are compelled to pass; we shall discover, that it is to motion, and motion only, that is to be ascribed all the changes, all the combinations, all the forms, in short, all the various modifications of matter. That it is by motion every thing that exists is produced, experiences change, expands, and is destroyed. It is motion that alters the aspect of beings; that adds to, or takes away from their properties; which obliges each of them, by a consequence of its nature, after having occupied a certain rank or order, to quit it, to occupy another, and to contribute to the generation, maintenance, and decomposition of other beings, totally different in their bulk, rank, and essence.
In what experimental philosophers have styled the THREE ORDERS OF NATURE, that is to say, the mineral, the vegetable, and animal worlds, they have established, by the aid of motion, a transmigration, an exchange, a continual circulation in the particles of matter. Nature has occasion in one place, for those particles which, for a time, she has placed in another. These particles, after having, by particular combinations, constituted beings endued with peculiar essences, with specific properties, with determinate modes of action, dissolve and separate with more or less facility; and combining in a new manner, they form new beings. The attentive observer sees this law execute itself, in a manner more or less prominent, through all the beings by which he is surrounded. He sees nature full of erratic germe, some of which expand themselves, whilst others wait until motion has placed them in their proper situation, in suitable wombs or matrices, in the necessary circumstances, to unfold, to increase, to render them more perceptible by the addition of other substances of matter analogous to their primitive being. In all this we see nothing but the effect of motion, necessarily guided, modified, accelerated or slackened, strengthened or weakened, by reason of the various properties that beings successively acquire and lose; which, every moment, infallibly produces alterations in bodies more or less marked. Indeed, these bodies cannot be, strictly speaking, the same in any two successive moments of their existence; they must, every instant, either acquire or lose: in short, they are obliged to undergo continual variations in their essences, in their properties, in their energies, in their masses, in their qualities, in their mode of existence.
Animals, after they have been expanded in, and brought out of, the wombs that are suitable to the elements of their machine, enlarge, strengthen, acquire new properties, new energies, new faculties; either by deriving nourishment from plants analogous to their being, or by devouring other animals whose substance is suitable to their preservation; that is to say, to repair the continual deperdition or loss of some portion of their own substance, that is disengaging itself every instant. These same animals are nourished, preserved, strengthened, and enlarged, by the aid of air, water, earth, and fire. Deprived of air, or of the fluid that surrounds them, that presses on them, that penetrates them, that gives them their elasticity, they presently cease to live. Water, combined with this air, enters into their whole mechanism of which it facilitates the motion. Earth serves them for a basis, by giving solidity to their texture: it is conveyed by air and water, which carry it to those parts of the body with which it can combine. Fire itself, disguised and enveloped under an infinity of forms, continually received into the animal, procures him heat, continues him in life, renders him capable of exercising his functions. The aliments, charged with these various principles, entering into the stomach, re-establish the nervous system, and restore, by their activity, and the elements which compose them, the machine which begins to languish, to be depressed, by the loss it has sustained. Forthwith the animal experiences a change in his whole system; he has more energy, more activity; he feels more courage; displays more gaiety; he acts, he moves, he thinks, after a different manner; all his faculties are exercised with more ease. This igneous matter, so congenial to generation—so restorative in its effect—so necessary to life, was the JUPITER of the ancients: from all that has preceded, it is clear, that what are called the elements, or primitive parts of matter, variously combined, are, by the agency of motion, continually united to, and assimilated with, the substance of animals— that they visibly modify their being—have an evident influence over their actions, that is to say, upon the motion they undergo, whether visible or concealed.
The same elements, which under certain circumstances serve to nourish, to strengthen, to maintain the animal, become, under others, the principles of his weakness, the instruments of his dissolution—of his death: they work his destruction, whenever they are not in that just proportion which renders them proper to maintain his existence: thus, when water becomes too abundant in the body of the animal, it enervates him, it relaxes the fibres, and impedes the necessary action of the other elements: thus, fire admitted in excess, excites in him disorderly motion destructive of his machine: thus, air, charged with principles not analogous to his mechanism, brings upon him dangerous diseases and contagion. In fine, the aliments modified after certain modes, in the room of nourishing, destroy the animal, and conduce to his ruin: the animal is preserved no longer than these substances are analogous to his system. They ruin him when they want that just equilibrium that renders them suitable to maintain his existence.
Plants that serve to nourish and restore animals are themselves nourished by earth; they expand on its bosom, enlarge and strengthen at its expense, continually receiving into their texture, by their roots and their pores, water, air, and igneous matter: water visibly reanimates them whenever their vegetation or genus of life languishes; it conveys to them those analogous principles by which they are enabled to reach perfection: air is requisite to their expansion, and furnishes them with water, earth, and the igneous matter with which it is charged. By these means they receive more or less of the inflammable matter; the different proportions of these principles, their numerous combinations, from whence result an infinity of properties, a variety of forms, constitute the various families and classes into which botanists have distributed plants: it is thus we see the cedar and the hyssop develop their growth; the one rises to the clouds, the other creep humbly on the earth. Thus, by degrees, from an acorn springs the majestic oak, accumulating, with time, its numerous branches, and overshadowing us with its foliage. Thus, a grain of corn, after having drawn its own nourishment from the juices of the earth, serves, in its turn, for the nourishment of man, into whose system it conveys the elements or principles by which it has been itself expanded, combined, and modified in such a manner, as to render this vegetable proper to assimilate and unite with the human frame; that is to say, with the fluids and solids of which it is composed.
The same elements, the same principles, are found in the formation of minerals, as well as in their decomposition, whether natural or artificial. We find that earth, diversely modified, wrought, and combined, serves to increase their bulk, and give them more or less density and gravity. Air and water contribute to make their particles cohere; the igneous matter, or inflammable principle, tinges them with colour, and sometimes plainly indicates its presence, by the brilliant scintillation which motion elicits from them. These stones and metals, these bodies, so compact and solid, are disunited, are destroyed, by the agency of air, water, and fire; which the most ordinary analysis is sufficient to prove, as well as a multitude of experience, to which our eyes are the daily evidence.
Animals, plants, and minerals, after a lapse of time, give back to Nature; that is to say, to the general mass of things, to the universal magazine, the elements, or principles, which they have borrowed: The earth retakes that portion of the body of which it formed the basis and the solidity; the air charges itself with these parts, that are, analogous to it, and with those particles which are light and subtle; water carries off that which is suitable to liquescency; fire, bursting its chains, disengages itself, and rushes into new combinations with other bodies.
The elementary particles of the animal, being thus dissolved, disunited, and dispersed; assume new activity, and form new combinations: thus, they serve to nourish, to preserve, or destroy new beings; among others, plants, which arrived at their maturity, nourish and preserve new animals; these in their turn yielding to the same fate as the first.
Such is the constant, the invariable course, of Nature; such is the eternal circle of mutation, which all that exists is obliged to describe. It is thus motion generates, preserves for a time, and successively, destroys, one part of the universe by the other; whilst the sum of existence remains eternally the same. Nature, by its combinations, produces suns, which place themselves in the centre of so many systems: she forms planets, which, by their peculiar essence, gravitate and describe their revolutions round these suns: by degrees the motion is changed altogether, and becomes eccentric: perhaps the day may arrive when these wondrous masses will disperse, of which man, in the short space of his existence, can only have a faint and transient glimpse.
It is clear, then, that the continual motion inherent in matter, changes and destroys all beings; every instant depriving them of some of their properties, to substitute others: it is motion, which, in thus changing their actual essence, changes also their order, their direction, their tendency, and the laws which regulate their mode of acting and being: from the stone formed in the bowels of the earth, by the intimate combination and close coherence of similar and analogous particles, to the sun, that vast reservoir of igneous particles, which sheds torrents of light over the firmament; from the benumbed oyster, to the thoughtful and active man; we see an uninterrupted progression, a perpetual chain of motion and combination; from which is produced, beings that only differ from each other by the variety of their elementary matter—by the numerous combinations of these elements, from whence springs modes of action and existence, diversified to infinity. In generation, in nutrition, in preservation, we see nothing more than matter, variously combined, of which each has its peculiar motion, regulated by fixed and determinate laws, which oblige them to submit to necessary changes. We shall find, in the formation, in the growth, in the instantaneous life, of animals, vegetables, and minerals, nothing but matter; which combining, accumulating, aggregating, and expanding by degrees, forms beings, who are either feeling, living, vegetating, or else destitute of these faculties; which, having existed some time under one particular form, are obliged to contribute by their ruin to the production of other forms.
Thus, to speak strictly, nothing in Nature is either born, or dies, according to the common acceptation of those terms. This truth was felt by many of the ancient philosophers. PLATO says, that according to tradition, "the living were born of the dead, the same as the dead did come of the living; and that this is the constant routine of Nature." He adds from himself, "who knows, if to live, be not to die; and if to die, be not to live?" This was the doctrine of PYTHAGORAS, a man of great talent and no less note. EMPEDOCLES asserts, "there is neither birth nor death, for any mortal; but only a combination, and a separation of that which was combined, and that this is what amongst men they call birth, and death." Again he remarks, "those are infants, or short-sighted persons, with very contracted understandings, who imagine any thing is born, which did not exist before, or that any thing can die or perish totally."
Laws of Motion, common to every Being of Nature.—Attraction and Repulsion.—Inert Force.—Necessity.
Man is never surprised at those effects, of which he thinks he knows the cause; he believes he does know the cause, as soon as he sees them act in an uniform and determinate manner, or when the motion excited is simple: the descent of a stone, that falls by its own peculiar weight, is an object of contemplation to the philosopher only; to whom the mode by which the most immediate causes act, and the most simple motion, are no less impenetrable mysteries than the most complex motion, and the manner by which the most complicated causes give impulse. The uninformed are seldom tempted either to examine the effects which are familiar to them, or to recur to first principles. They think they see nothing in the descent of a stone, which ought to elicit their surprise, or become the object of their research: it requires a NEWTON to feel that the descent of heavy bodies is a phenomenon, worthy his whole, his most serious attention; it requires the sagacity of a profound experimental philosopher, to discover the laws by which heavy bodies fall, by which they communicate to others their peculiar motion. In short, the mind that is most practised in philosophical observation, has frequently the chagrin to find, that the most simple and most common effects escape all his researches, and remain inexplicable to him.
When any extraordinary, any unusual, effect is produced, to which our eyes have not been accustomed; or when we are ignorant of the energies of the cause, the action of which so forcibly strikes our senses, we are tempted to meditate upon it, and take it into our consideration. The European, accustomed to the use of GUNPOWDER, passes it by, without thinking much of its extraordinary energies; the workman, who labours to manufacture it, finds nothing marvellous in its properties, because he daily handles the matter that forms its composition. The American, to whom this powder was a stranger, who had never beheld its operation, looked upon it as a divine power, and its energies as supernatural. The uninformed, who are ignorant of the true cause of THUNDER, contemplate it as the instrument of divine vengeance. The experimental philosopher considers it as the effect of the electric matter, which, nevertheless, is itself a cause which he is very far from perfectly understanding.—It required the keen, the penetrating mind of a FRANKLIN, to throw light on the nature of this subtle fluid—to develop the means by which its effects might be rendered harmless—to turn to useful purposes, a phenomenon that made the ignorant tremble—that filled their minds with terror, their hearts with dismay, as indicating the anger of the gods: impressed with this idea, they prostrated themselves, they sacrificed to JUPITER, to deprecate his wrath.
Be this as it may, whenever we see a cause act, we look upon its effect as natural: when this cause becomes familiar to the sight, when we are accustomed to it, we think we understand it, and its effects surprise us no longer. Whenever any unusual effect is perceived, without our discovering the cause, the mind sets to work, becomes uneasy; this uneasiness increases in proportion to its extent: as soon as it is believed to threaten our preservation, we become completely agitated; we seek after the cause with an earnestness proportioned to our alarm; our perplexity augments in a ratio equivalent to the persuasion we are under: how essentially requisite it is, we should become acquainted with the cause that has affected us in so lively a manner. As it frequently happens that our senses can teach us nothing respecting this cause which so deeply interests us—which we seek with so much ardour, we have recourse to our imagination; this, disturbed with alarm, enervated by fear, becomes a suspicious, a fallacious guide: we create chimeras, fictitious causes, to whom we give the credit, to whom we ascribe the honour of those phenomena by which we have been so much alarmed. It is to this disposition of the human mind that must be attributed, as will be seen in the sequel, the religious errors of man, who, despairing of the capacity to trace the natural causes of those perplexing phenomena to which he was the witness, and sometimes the victim, created in his brain (heated with terror) imaginary causes, which have become to him a source of the most extravagant folly.
In Nature, however, there can be only natural causes and effects; all motion excited in this Nature, follows constant and necessary laws: the natural operations, to the knowledge of which we are competent, of which we are in a capacity to judge, are of themselves sufficient to enable us to discover those which elude our sight; we can at least judge of them by analogy. If we study Nature with attention, the modes of action which she displays to our senses will teach us not to be disconcerted by those which she refuses to discover. Those causes which are the most remote from their effects, unquestionably act by intermediate causes; by the aid of these, we can frequently trace out the first. If in the chain of these causes we sometimes meet with obstacles that oppose themselves to our research, we ought to endeavour by patience and diligence to overcome them; when it so happens we cannot surmount the difficulties that occur, we still are never justified in concluding the chain to be broken, or that the cause which acts is SUPER-NATURAL. Let us, then, be content with an honest avowal, that Nature contains resources of which we are ignorant; but never let us substitute phantoms, fictions, or imaginary causes, senseless terms, for those causes which escape our research; because, by such means we only confirm ourselves in ignorance, impede our enquiries, and obstinately remain in error.
In spite of our ignorance with respect to the meanderings of Nature, (for of the essence of being, of their properties, their elements, their combinations, their proportions, we yet know the simple and general laws, according to which bodies move;) we see clearly, that some of these laws, common to all beings, never contradict themselves; although, on some occasions, they appear to vary, we are frequently competent to discover that the cause becoming complex, from combination with other causes, either impedes or prevents its mode of action being such as in its primitive state we had a right to expect. We know that active, igneous matter, applied to gunpowder, must necessarily cause it to explode: whenever this effect does not follow the combination of the igneous matter with the gunpowder—whenever our senses do not give us evidence of the fact, we are justified in concluding, either that the powder is damp, or that it is united with some other substance that counteracts its explosion. We know that all the actions of man have a tendency to render him happy: whenever, therefore, we see him labouring to injure or destroy himself, it is just to infer that he is moved by some cause opposed to his natural tendency; that he is deceived by some prejudice; that, for want of experience, he is blind to consequences: that he does not see whither his actions will lead him.
If the motion excited in beings was always simple; if their actions did not blend and combine with each other, it would be easy to know, and we should be assured, in the first instance, of the effect a cause would produce. I know that a stone, when descending, ought to describe a perpendicular: I also know, that if it encounters any other body which changes its course, it is obliged to take an oblique direction, but if its fall be interrupted by several contrary powers, which act upon it alternately, I am no longer competent to determine what line it will describe. It may be a parabola, an ellipsis, spiral, circular, &c. this will depend on the impulse, it receives, and the powers by which it is impelled.
The most complex motion, however, is never more than the result of simple motion combined: therefore as soon as we know the general laws of beings and their action, we have only to decompose, to analyse them, in order to discover those of which they are combined; experience teaches us the effects we are to expect. Thus it is clear, the simplest motion causes that necessary junction of different matter, of which all bodies are composed: that matter, varied in its essence, in its properties, in its combinations, has each its several modes of action or motion, peculiar to itself; the whole motion of a body is consequently the sum total of each particular motion that is combined.