Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.

Of Freethinkers


(1.)DO freethinkers know that it is only ironically they are called strong-minded? What greater proof of their weakness of mind can they give than their uncertainty about the very principles of their existence, life, senses, knowledge, and what will be their end? What can be more discouraging to a man than to doubt if his soul be material, like a stone or a reptile, and subject to corruption like the vilest creatures? And does it not prove much more strength of mind and grandeur to be able to conceive the idea of a Being superior to all other beings, by whom and for whom all things were made; of a Being absolutely perfect and pure, without beginning or end, of whom our soul is the image, and of whom, if I may say so, it is a part, because it is spiritual and immortal?

(2.)The docile and the weak are susceptible of receiving impressions; the first receive good ones, for they are convinced and faithful, whilst the second receive bad ones, as they are stubborn and corrupted. A docile mind admits thus true religion, and a feeble mind either admits none or a false one. Now a freethinker either has no religion at all, or creates one for himself; therefore a strong-minded freethinker is in reality feeble-minded.

(3.)I call those men worldly, earthly, or coarse, whose hearts and minds are wholly fixed on this earth, that small part of the universe they are placed in; who value and love nothing beyond it; whose minds are as cramped as that narrow spot of ground they call their estate, of which the extent is measured, the acres are numbered, and the limits well known. I am not astonished that men who lean, as it were, on an atom, should stumble at the smallest efforts they make for discovering the truth; that, being so short-sighted, they do not reach beyond the heavens and the stars, to contemplate God Himself; that, not being able to perceive the excellency of what is spiritual, or the dignity of the soul, they should be still less sensible of the difficulty of satisfying it; how very inferior the entire world is in comparison to it; how necessary is to it an all-perfect Being, which is God; and how absolutely it needs a religion to find out that God, and to be assured of His reality. I can easily understand that incredulity or indifference are but natural to such men, that they make use of God and religion only as a piece of policy, as far as they may be conducive to the order and decorum of this world, the only thing in their opinion worth thinking of.

(4.)Some men give the finishing-stroke to the spoiling of their judgment by their long travels, and thus lose the little religion which remained to them. They meet daily new forms of worship, different manners and morals, and various ceremonies; they are not unlike those people who wander from shop to shop, and have not quite made up their mind what they are going to buy; the variety puzzles them, and as each thing pleases their fancy more or less, they are unable to come to a decision, and leave without buying anything.

(5.)There are some men who delay becoming religious and pious till the time everybody openly avows himself irreligious and a freethinker, for, as this has then become vulgar, they will be distinguished from the crowd. In so serious and important a matter singularity pleases them; only in trifling things, of no consequence, they follow the fashion and do what others do; for all I know, they may consider it somewhat courageous and daring to run the risk of what may happen to them in the next world. Moreover, when men are of a certain rank, possess a certain freedom of thought, and have certain views, they should not dream of believing what learned men and the common people believe.

(6.)A man in health questions whether there is a God, and he also doubts whether it be a sin to have intercourse with a woman, who is at liberty to refuse; but when he falls ill, or when his mistress is with child, she is discarded, and he believes in God.

(7.)People should examine themselves thoroughly before openly declaring themselves freethinkers, so that, according to their own principles, they at least may die as they have lived; or if they find they are not strong-minded enough to proceed so far, to resolve to live as they would wish to die.

(8.)Jesting in a dying man is out of place; and if it is on certain subjects, it is dreadful. To please our survivors with a jest at the expense of our own eternal happiness, is a very miserable business.

Whatever a man may think about a future state, dying is a very serious affair, and firmness is then more becoming than jesting.

(9.)In all ages there have been people with a certain amount of cleverness, and well read, who, servilely following men of high rank, embraced their loose principles, and all their lifetime groaned under their yoke, against their own knowledge and conscience. Some men only live for other men, and seem to consider themselves created for this purpose; they are ashamed to be seen bestowing a thought on their own salvation, and to appear outwardly such as they are perhaps in their hearts, and thus they ruin themselves out of deference or complacency. Are there then on this earth men of such high rank and so very powerful as to deserve that we should shape our beliefs and our lives according to their taste and fancy; nay, that we should carry our submission so far as at our death to leave this world not in the safest way for ourselves, but in the way most pleasing to them?

(10.)Men who run counter to all the world, and act against principles universally received, should know more than other men, be clear in their reasons and convincing in their arguments.

(11.)A sober-minded, cool-headed, chaste, and honourable man, who affirms there is no God, at least is dispassionate, but such a man is not to be found.

(12.)I admit I should very much like to see a man really persuaded there was no God; for then I should at least hear on what unanswerable arguments his unbelief is founded.

(13.)The impossibility I find myself under of proving there is no God, is to me a convincing argument for His existence.

(14.)God condemns and punishes those who offend Him, and He is the only judge in His own cause, which would shock all our ideas if He Himself were not Justice and Truth—that is, if He were not God.

(15.)I feel there is a God, and I do not feel there is none; this is sufficient for me, and all other arguments seem to me superfluous; I therefore conclude that He exists, and this conclusion is inherent to my nature. I acquired these principles readily in my childhood, and have kept them since too naturally in my riper years ever to suspect them of falsehood.—But there are some men who get rid of these principles.—I question whether there are any, but if there be, it only proves that monsters exist in this world.

(16.)There is no such thing as an atheist; the great men who are more or less suspected of being inclined that way, are too lazy to fatigue their minds with discussions whether there is a God or no; their indolence renders them careless and indifferent about such an important matter as well as about the nature of their own souls and the consequences of true religion; they neither deny nor grant any of these things; they never think of them.

(17.)All our health, all our strength, and our entire intellect are not more than sufficient in thinking of mankind or of our smallest interest; yet propriety and custom seem to require of us only to think of God when we are so situated that we have barely so much reason left as to enable us to say we are not totally without any.

(18.)A great man falls in a swoon, as it was thought, but is discovered to be dead, another great man wastes away gradually, and daily loses something of himself before he expires; such lessons are dreadful, but useless. These circumstances, though so remarkable and so different from each other, are not noticed, affect nobody, and are no more heeded than the fall of a leaf, or the fading of a flower; people only want their posts vacant through their deaths, or they inquire if they have been filled up, and who are their successors.

(19.)Is there so much goodness, fidelity, and justice among men, that we should place unlimited confidence in them, and not, at least, wish for a God to exist to whom we might appeal from their injustice, and who might protect us against their persecutions and treacheries.

(20.)If freethinkers are dazzled and confounded by the grandeur and sublimity of religion, they are no longer freethinkers, but shallow geniuses and little minds; if, on the contrary, they are repelled by its humbleness and simplicity, we must allow them to be real freethinkers, far stronger-minded than so many great men, enlightened and highly cultivated, who nevertheless were confirmed believers, such as the Leos, the Basils, the Jeromes, the Augustines.

(21.)Certain people who have never read the fathers or doctors of the Church are frightened at their very names, and declare their writings dull, dry, pious, cold, and perhaps pedantic. But how astonished would all these people be who have formed such an untrue idea of the Fathers, if they found in their writings a better style, more delicacy, polish, and intelligence, a greater warmth of expression and strength of reasoning, sharper traits and more natural charms than are to be met with in most of the modern books read by connoisseurs, which increase the reputation and conceit of their authors. What a satisfaction to love religion and to see men of great talent and solid learning believe in it, assert its truth, and explain it! And whether you consider extent of knowledge, depth and penetration, the principles of pure philosophy, their application and development, the correctness of the conclusions arrived at, nobleness of expression, beauty of morals and sentiments, no profane author can be compared to Saint Augustine, except Plato and Cicero.

(22.)Man who is born a liar cannot relish the plainness and simplicity of truth; he is altogether hankering after appearance and ornament. He has not made truth, for it comes from Heaven ready-made, as it were, in all its perfection, and man loves nothing but his own productions, Fable and Fiction. Observe the common people; they will invent a tale, add to it, and exaggerate it through coarseness or folly; ask even the most honest man if he always speaks the truth, if he does not sometimes discover that, either through vanity or levity, he has disguised the truth; and if to embellish a story he does not often add some circumstance to set it off? An accident happened to-day, and almost, as it were, under our eyes; a hundred people have seen it, and all relate it in as many different ways; and yet another person may come, and if you will only listen to him, he shall tell it in a way in which it has not yet been told. How then can I believe facts which are so old and took place several centuries ago? What reliance can I place on the gravest historians, and what becomes of history itself. Was Cæsar ever murdered in the midst of the senate? and has there ever been such a person as Cæsar? “Why do you draw such an inference?” you’ll say; “why express such doubts and ask such questions?” You laugh, you do not think my question worthy of an answer, and I imagine you are quite right. But suppose the book which gives us an account of Cæsar was not a profane history, written by men who are liars, and had not been discovered by chance among certain manuscripts, some true, and others suspicious; but that, on the contrary, it had been inspired, and bore all the evidence of being holy and divine; that for nearly two thousand years it had been kept by a large society of men, who all this while would not allow the least alteration to be made in it, and held it as part of their creed to preserve it in all its purity; that these men, by their own principles, were indispensably compelled to believe religiously all the transactions related in this volume, whenever mention was made of Cæsar and his dictatorship; own it, Lucilius, would you then question whether there ever was such a man as Cæsar?

(23.)All kinds of music are not suited to praise God and to be heard in the sanctuary; all methods of philosophy are not fit for discoursing worthily of God, His power, the principles of His operations, and His mysteries. The more abstracted and ideal this philosophy is, the more vain and useless is it in explaining these things, which merely require common sense to be understood up to a certain point, and which cannot be explained farther. To pretend to give an account of the very essence of God, of His perfections, and, if I dare say so, of His actions, is indeed going beyond the ancient philosophers, beyond the apostles themselves, and the first teachers of the Gospel, but it is not arguing so much to the point as they did; for people may dig for a long time, and deeply, without discovering the sources of truth. If once people set aside such words as goodness, mercy, justice, and omnipotence, which are apt to form in their minds such lovely and majestic ideas of the divinity, let them afterwards strain their imagination as much as possible, they will find nothing but dry, barren, and senseless expressions; they must admit wild and empty thoughts, contrary to all ordinary ideas, or, at least, subtle and ingenious thoughts, by which their religion will be weakened according as they improve in the knowledge of these new metaphysics.

(24.)What excesses will a man not commit through his zeal for a religion, of the truth of which he is not entirely convinced, and which he practises so badly?

(25.)That same religion which men will defend so zealously and with so much warmth against those of a different persuasion, they themselves corrupt, by joining to it their own peculiar ideas; they add or take from it numberless things, which are often very material, according as it best suits their convenience, and remain steadfastly and firmly attached to the form they have given it themselves. So that, though it may be commonly said of a nation that it has but one manner of worship and one religion, it truly and really has many religions, for almost every individual has one of his own.

(26.)Two sorts of men flourish in courts and reign there by turns, freethinkers and hypocrites; the first gaily, openly, without art or disguise, the second cunningly and by intrigue. These latter are a hundred times more enamoured of fortune than the first, and are excessively jealous of it; they wish to sway it, to be the sole possessors of it, share it among themselves, and exclude everybody else. Dignities, posts, offices, benefices, pensions, honours, everything belongs to them and to none but them; the rest of mankind are unworthy of these things, and they wonder how others, who are not their creatures, can be so impudent as to expect them. A company of persons in masks enter a ball-room; when it is their turn they dance, they dance with each other, dance again and continue to dance, but only among themselves and with no other person, however worthy of their regard; people grow annoyed and tired with looking on whilst these masked persons dance because they are not dancing themselves; some among them murmur, but the wisest make up their mind and go home.

(27.)There are two sorts of freethinkers; those who are really so, or at least believe themselves so, and the hypocrites or pretended pious people, who are unwilling to be thought freethinkers; the latter are the best.

A man who pretends to be pious either does not believe there is a God, or makes a jest of Him; let us say of him politely, that he does not believe there is a God.

(28.)If every religion stands in respectful fear of God, what shall we think of those persons who dare affront Him in His representative on earth, the Prince?

(29.)Were we assured that the secret intention of the ambassadors who came lately from Siam was to persuade the most Christian king to renounce Christianity, and admit their Talapoins into his kingdom to creep into our houses to convert to their religion our wives, our children, and ourselves, by their books as well as by their conversations, to allow them to erect pagodas in the midst of our towns to worship their brazen images, with what derision, what strange scorn, should we hear such an absurd story told? And yet we sail six thousand leagues to bring over to Christianity the Indies, the kingdoms of Siam, China, and Japan, and seriously to make to all these nations certain proposals, which, in their eyes, must appear as foolish and ridiculous. Yet they tolerate our friars and priests, and sometimes listen to them, allow them to build churches, and perform all their missionary duties. From whence proceeds such a behaviour, so different in them and us? May it not be caused by the force of truth?

(30.)It is not proper for all men to profess to give alms and to have the common beggars of the parish daily crowding at their doors, and not allow one to go home empty-handed. Who is not aware that there is a more concealed wretchedness, which may be relieved, either immediately and out of a man’s own pocket, or at least by the intercession of others? In the same manner all persons are not qualified for the pulpit, nor fit to expound the Word of God in public, either as missionaries, or teachers; but what man does not, some time or other, meet a freethinker, whom he might attempt to reclaim and bring back to the fold by gentle and insinuating converse about the submission due to the teachings of the church? Should a man make but one convert in the whole course of his life, he cannot be said to have lived in vain, or to have been a useless burden on this earth.

(31.)There are two worlds: one we dwell in but a short time, and which we must leave never to return; another, to which we must shortly go, there to abide for ever. Interest, authority, friends, a great reputation, and riches are most useful in the first; an indifference to all these things is most useful for the next. It is a mere question of choice.

(32.)A man who lives a day lives an age; always the same sun, the same earth, the same world, the same sensations; to-day will precisely be like to-morrow; we ought to feel some curiosity to die, for then we are no longer a body, but only a spirit. However, man, though so impatiently hunting after novelties, is not anxious to die; restless and tired of everything, he is not tired of life, and would, perhaps, be satisfied to live for ever. What he sees of death makes a deeper impression on him than what he knows of it; sickness, pain, and the grave, make him dislike the knowledge of another world; and the strongest religious motives are needed to convert him.

(33.)If Providence had left it to our choice to die or to live for ever, we should carefully consider how dismal it is for a man to see no end to his poverty, servitude, annoyance, or sickness; or, at best to enjoy riches, grandeur, pleasures, and health, only in time to behold them invariably change to their opposite conditions; and thus to be tossed to and fro between happiness and misery, and, therefore, we should be greatly perplexed; but Nature has settled it for us, and saves us the trouble of making a choice, as it has imposed on us the necessity of dying, which is, moreover, alleviated by religion.

(34.)If my religion be false, it is a snare which I must own is as well laid as can be imagined, so that it is impossible not to run into it and be caught. What dignity! what splendour in its mysteries! what a sequence and connection in all the several parts of its doctrine! how superb are its reasonings! how pure and innocent is its morality! how irresistible and overwhelming is the testimony of so many millions of the wisest and most thoughtful men then in existence, who during three centuries came one after another, and whom a feeling of the same truth so constantly supported in exiles, dungeons, torture, and even in death itself. Take any history, open it, and commence with the beginning of the world, with its creation; was there ever anything like it? Could the whole power of God Himself contrive anything better to deceive me? How can I avoid it? Whither should I run, or throw myself? I do not say to find anything better, but anything to be compared to it? If I must perish, it is in this way I will perish! I should feel more inclined to deny the existence of a God than to connect Him with such a plausible and complete deceit. But I have examined it thoroughly, and yet feel I cannot be an atheist; I am, therefore, forced back and irresistibly drawn to my religion, and this is my final resolution.

(35.)Religion is either true or false; if a fiction, a religious man, a Carthusian friar or a hermit, only lose three-score years, but run no other risk. But if based on truth itself, then a vicious man must feel most wretched; and I tremble at the very thought of the evils he prepares for himself; my mind cannot conceive them, and words fail me to express my feelings. Even if the truth of religion could be proved with less certainty than it can, man could not do better than be virtuous.

(36.)Those persons who dare deny the existence of a Supreme Being hardly deserve that a man should try and prove it to them; or, at least, that he should argue more seriously with them than I have done hitherto; they are so ignorant that they are unable to understand the clearest principles, and the truest and most natural inferences; yet I am willing to offer for their perusal the following lines, provided they do not imagine that it is all that can be said upon a subject of which the truth is so obvious.

Forty years ago I did not exist, neither was it in my power ever to exist, any more than it is in my power to cease from existing, though I exist at present. My existence, therefore, had its beginning, and is now continued through the influence of something which exists without me, will subsist after me, and is better and more powerful than I am. Now, if that something is not God, I should like to know what it is.

I exist; but perhaps this existence of mine proceeds from the power of a universal nature, which has been ever the same, such as we behold it, from all eternity. But this nature is either only spiritual, and then it is God, or it is material, and, consequently, could not create that part of my being which is spiritual; or else it is composed of spirit and matter; and then, that part of nature which people say is spirit, is what I call God.

Again, perhaps you will add that what I call my spiritual being is nothing but a part of matter, subsisting through the force of a universal nature, which also is matter, which always was and ever will be such as we see it now, and which is not God. But, at least, you must grant that what I call my spiritual being, let it be what it will, is something which thinks, and that if it is matter, it is cogitative matter; for no one will persuade me that, whilst I am thus arguing, there is not something within me which thinks. Now if this something owes its being and its preservation to a universal nature which always was and ever will be, and which it acknowledges as its primary cause, it necessarily follows that this universal nature either thinks, or is more noble and perfect than that which thinks; and if such a nature is matter, then we must come to the conclusion that it is a universal thinking matter, or one which is nobler and more perfect than that which does think.

I proceed further, and say, that such a supposed matter, if it be not chimerical but real, may be perceived by some of our senses, and that, if it cannot be discovered in itself, it may be known, at least, in the multiple arrangement of its different parts, through which all bodies are constituted, or differ. Therefore matter is itself all these different bodies; now since, according to our supposition, matter is a being which thinks, or is better than that which thinks, it follows that it is such in some of these bodies at least, and, consequently, that it thinks in stones, in minerals, in the earth, in the sea, in myself, who am but a body, as well as in all its other component parts; I am then beholden for this something, which thinks within me, and which I call my spiritual being, to all these gross, earthly, and corporeal parts, which all together make up this universal matter, or this visible world, which is an absurdity.

If, on the contrary, this universal nature, let it be what it will, is not all these bodies, nor any of these bodies, it follows that it is not matter, and cannot be perceived by any of our senses; and if, notwithstanding this, it possesses the faculty of thinking, or is more perfect than that which does think, I still conclude it is spiritual, or something better and more perfect than spiritual. Now if that which thinks within me, and which I call my spiritual being, not finding its principle within itself, and much less in matter, as has been just now demonstrated, is forced to acknowledge this universal nature to be the first cause, the only origin of its existence, then I will not dispute about words; but this first cause, the origin of all spiritual beings, which is itself spiritual, or better than spiritual, is what I call God.

In a word, I think, therefore, there is a God, for that which thinks within me is not derived from myself, since it was no more in my power to bestow it on myself at first as it is now to keep it for one single moment. I did not receive it from a material being superior to me, since it is impossible for matter to be superior to that which thinks; I must, therefore, have received it from a being superior to me, and consequently not material; and that superior being is God.

(37.)From the inconsistency of a cogitative universal nature with anything that is material, must necessarily be inferred, that any particular thinking being cannot admit within itself anything material; for though a universal thinking being does in its idea include infinitely more grandeur, power, independence, and capacity than a particular thinking being, yet it does not imply a greater inconsistency with matter, it being impossible for this inconsistency to be greater in the one case than in the other, because it is, as it were, infinite in both; and it is as impossible for the thinking principle within me to be matter, as it is to conceive that God should be matter; as God, therefore, is a spirit, so my soul is also a spirit.

(38.)I am not aware whether a dog has the faculties of selection, memory, love, fear, imagination, and thought. When, therefore, I am told that those actions in a dog are not the effect of either passion or sentiment, but proceed naturally and necessarily from a mechanical disposition caused by the multiple organization of the material parts of his body, I may, perhaps, acquiesce in this doctrine. But as for me, I think, and certainly know that I think. Now, if we consider any organisation of material parts, namely, any space with all its dimensions, length, breadth, and depth, and which can be divided in all these directions, what proportion is there between such a space and cogitation?

(39.)If all things are matter, and if thought within me, as well as in other men, be no more than an effect of the arrangement of matter, how came any other idea, but that of material things into this world? Is matter able to produce so pure, so simple, so immaterial an idea as we have of spirit? How can matter be the origin of that which rejects and excludes such an idea from its very being? How can it be the cogitative principle in man, that is, that principle which convinces man he is not merely matter?

(40.)There are beings of short duration, because they are made up of things varying much in their nature, and destructive to one another; there are others more lasting, because they are simpler, but they perish at last, being made up of several parts, into which they are divisible. That which thinks within me must naturally be permanent, as it is a pure being, free from all mixture and composition; there is no reason why it should perish; for what can corrupt or divide a simple being, in which are no parts?

(41.)The soul sees colour through the organ of the eye, and hears sounds through the organ of the ear; but it may cease either from seeing or hearing when those senses or those objects are absent, and yet not cease from existing, because it is not exactly the soul that sees or hears; it is only that which thinks. Now, how can it cease from being such? Not for want of organs, since it has been proved it is not matter; nor for want of objects, whilst there is a God and eternal truths; it is therefore incorruptible.

(42.)I cannot conceive the annihilation of a soul which God has filled with the idea of His infinite and all-perfect being.

(43.)Observe, Lucilius, this spot of ground, which for neatness and ornament exceeds all other neighbouring estates; here are plots with the finest lakes and fountains, and endless hedge-rows of trees which shelter you against the north winds; on this side is a thick grove where the sun cannot penetrate; on the other side you have a beautiful view; a little lower, the Yvette or the Lignon, which were running modestly between willows and poplars, have now become a canal quite bricked in; elsewhere long and cool avenues lead to the country, and foreshadow what the mansion will be, which is surrounded by water. Will you say, “This is an effect of chance,” and suppose that all these admirable things met together accidentally? No, certainly; on the contrary, you observe that everything is well planned and arranged, and displays good taste and much intelligence. I agree with you, and take the liberty to add that I suppose it to be the residence of one of those men, who from the very minute they get into office, send for a Le Nôtre to draw plans and take measurements. Yet what is this piece of ground so exquisitely laid out, on which a most skilful artist has employed all his science in order to embellish it, if the whole earth is but an atom suspended in the air, and if you will but listen to what I am going to say?

You are placed, Lucilius, on some part of this atom; you must needs be very little, since you take up so little room on it; yet you have eyes, like two imperceptible points; open them, however, and look up to the heavens; what do you sometimes perceive there? Is it the moon in its full? It is beautiful and very radiant at the time, though all its light be but the reflection of the light of the sun; it appears as large as the sun itself, larger than the other planets, than any of the stars, but do not be deceived by outward appearances. Nothing in the heavens is so small as the moon; its superficies exceeds not the thirteenth part, and its volume not the eight and fortieth part of the earth, whilst its diameter, which is two thousand two hundred and fifty miles, is but a fourth of the diameter of the earth. What makes it really appear so great is its proximity only; for its distance from us is no more than thirty times the diameter of the earth, or three hundred thousand miles. Its motion is small in comparison to the prodigious long career of the sun through the spacious firmament; for it is certain the moon does not move at the rate of above sixteen hundred and twenty thousand miles a day, which is not above sixty-seven thousand five hundred miles per hour, or one thousand one hundred and twenty-five in a minute. And yet, to complete this course it must move five thousand six hundred times faster than a race-horse running twelve miles an hour; it must be eighty times swifter than sound—than the report, for example, of a gun or of thunder, which moves at the rate of eight hundred and thirty-one miles an hour.

But if you will oppose the moon to the sun with respect to its size, its distance, and its course, you will find there is no comparison to be made between them. Remember that the diameter of the earth is nine thousand miles, that of the sun a hundred times more, which gives nine hundred thousand miles; now, if this be its width in every direction, judge what its superficies and volume must be. Can you comprehend the vastness of this extent, and that a million of such globes as the earth, all together, would not exceed the sun in size? You will ask, then, how far is the sun from the earth, if one can judge of it by its apparent small size? You are quite right, the distance can hardly be conceived; for it is proved that the sun’s distance from the earth can be no less than ten thousand times the diameter of the earth, or, in other words, than ninety millions of miles; it may be four times, perhaps six times, perhaps ten times as much, for ought we know; there is no method discovered to determine this distance.

Now, to assist you in understanding this, let us suppose a millstone falling from the sun upon the earth; let it come down with all swiftness imaginable, and even swifter than the heaviest bodies descend, falling from a very great height; let us also suppose that it always preserves the same swiftness, without increase or diminution; that it advances thirty yards every second, which is half the height of the highest steeple, and consequently, eighteen hundred yards in a minute; but to facilitate our computation, let us allow it two thousand six hundred and forty yards a minute, which is a mile and a half; its fall will then be three miles in two minutes, ninety miles in an hour, and two thousand one hundred and sixty miles in a day; now, it must fall ninety millions of miles before it comes down to the earth; so that it cannot be less than forty-one thousand six hundred and sixty-six days, which is more than one hundred and fourteen years before it can perform this journey. Let all this not frighten you, Lucilius; I will tell you more. The distance of Saturn from the earth is at least ten times as great as the sun’s is; that is, no less than nine hundred millions of miles, and the stone would be above eleven hundred and forty years in falling down from Saturn to the earth.1

Now, by this altitude of Saturn, exert your imagination, if you can, and conceive the immensity of its daily course; the circle which Saturn describes is above eighteen hundred millions of miles diameter, and consequently above fifty-four hundred millions of miles in circumference; so that a race-horse, if supposed to run thirty miles an hour, must be twenty thousand five hundred and forty-eight years in going this round.

Lucilius, I have not said all that can be said on the miracles of this visible world; or, to use the expression you sometimes use, on the wonders of chance, which alone you affirm to be the primary cause of all things, and which is still more wonderful in its operations than you imagine. Learn what chance is, and allow yourself to become acquainted with all the power of your God. Do you know that the distance of the sun from the earth, which is ninety millions of miles, and that of Saturn, which is nine hundred millions of miles, if compared to that of the other stars, is so inconsiderable, that comparison is an improper term when mentioning such distances; for, indeed, what proportion is there between anything that can be measured, whatever its extent may be, and that which is beyond all mensuration? The height of a star cannot be known; it is, if I may say so, immensurable; all angles, sines, and paralaxes are of no use for this problem. Should a man observe a fixed star at Paris, and another in Japan, the two lines which would reach from their eyes to that star, would make no angle at all, but be confounded together, and converge into one and the same line, so inconsiderable is the space of the whole earth in comparison to that distance; but the stars have this in common with Saturn and the sun; therefore I shall say something more. If two astronomers should stand, the one on the earth and the other on the sun, and from thence should observe a star at the same time, the two visual rays of these two astronomers would not form a sensible angle; but in order that you may conceive the same thing another way, imagine a man to be placed on one of these stars, and then this sun, this earth, and the ninety millions of miles that are between them would seem to him but as a dot. This has been proved.

Nor is the distance known between any two stars, however close they appear to one another. You would think, if you judge by mere ocular demonstration, that the Pleiades almost touch one another. There is a star which seems to rest on one of the stars forming the tail of the Great Bear; you can hardly, with the mere eye, discern that part of the heavens which divides them; they make together, as it were, but one double star; yet, if the most skilful astronomers cannot, with all their art, find out the distance between these stars, how far asunder must two stars be which appear remote from each other, and how much farther yet the two polar stars. How prodigiously long must be that line which reaches from one to another! How immense the circle of which this line is the diameter! And how can we fathom what cannot be fathomed, and represent to ourselves the volume of the globe, of which this circle is but a section? Shall we still wonder that these stars, of such immensurable size, seem no larger to us than so many sparks? Shall we not rather admire that from such a height the least appearance of them should reach our eye, and that they can be discerned at all? And, indeed, the quantity of stars which escape our vision is countless. It is true, we limit the number of the stars, but that is only of stars visible to us, for how should we number those we cannot see; those, for example, which constitute the Milky Way,—that luminous tract, which, on a clear night, can be observed in the sky from north to south,—and which, by their immensurable height, cannot be distinguished individually by our optics, and at most produce but a white mark in that part of the heavens where they are placed?

Behold, then, the earth on which we tread, suspended like a grain of sand in the air; an almost infinite number of fiery globes, the vastness of whose bulk confounds my imagination, and whose height exceeds the reach of my conceptions, all perpetually revolving round this grain of sand, have been for above six thousand years, and are still, daily crossing the wide, the immense space of the heavens. Do you desire another system no less amazing? The earth itself is carried round the sun, which is the centre of the universe, with inconceivable velocity. Methinks I see the motion of all these globes, the orderly march of these prodigious bodies; no disorder, no deflection, no collision, ever happens; should but the smallest of them happen to deviate and meet the earth, what would become of this earth? But, on the contrary, all keep their respective positions, remain in the order prescribed for them; and this, with respect to us, is performed so silently, that no one’s hearing is acute enough to hear them move, and that ordinary people know not that there are such bodies. How wonderfully are the works of chance! Could intelligence itself have surpassed this? Only one thing, Lucilius, troubles me. These vast bodies are all so constant and exact in their various courses and revolutions, and in their relations to each other, that a little animal, confined to a corner of that wide space which is called the world, from his observations on them, has contrived an exact and infallible method of foretelling in what degree of their respective courses every one of these stars will be two thousand, four thousand, nay, twenty thousand years hence. This is my scruple, Lucilius. If these stars by chance follow such invariable rules, what is order, what are rules?

Nay, I will ask you what is chance? Is it a body? Is it a spirit? Is it a being distinguished from all other beings, having a peculiar existence or dwelling in any place; or, rather, is it not a mode or fashion of being? When a ball rolls against a stone, we are apt to say it is a chance; but is it anything more than an accidental hitting of these bodies one against another? If, by this chance, or this knock, the ball changes its straight course into an oblique one; if its motion from direct becomes reflected; if it ceases to roll on its axis, but winds and whirls about like a top, shall I from thence infer that motion in general proceeds in this ball from this same chance? Shall I not rather apprehend that the ball owes it to itself, or to the impulse of the arm which delivered it? Or, because the circular motions of the wheels of a clock are determined one by the other, in their degrees of swiftness, shall I be less anxious to find out what may be the cause of these several motions; whether it lies in the wheels themselves, or is derived from the moving force of a weight which sets them in motion? But neither these wheels nor this ball could produce this motion in themselves, nor do they owe it to their own nature, if they can be deprived of it, without changing this very nature; it is, therefore, likely they are moved extraneously and by some power not inherent to them. And as for the celestial bodies, if they should be deprived of their motion, would their nature then be altered, and would they cease being bodies? I cannot believe they would. Yet they move, and as they move not of themselves, nor by their own nature, it behoves us, Lucilius, to examine whether there is not some principle, not inherent to them, which causes this motion. Whatever you may find it, I call it God.

If we should suppose these great bodies to be without motion, we should not then ask who moves them, but still the question would be pertinent as to who made these bodies, as I may ask who made these wheels or that ball? And though each of these bodies were supposed to be but a mass of atoms, fortuitously knit together through the shape and conformation of their parts, I should take one of these atoms, and ask: “Who created this atom: is it matter; is it spirit; and has it any idea of itself?” If so, then it existed a minute before it did exist; it was, and it was not at the same time; and if it be the author of its own being, and of its manner of being, why did it make itself a body rather than a spirit? Moreover, has this atom had a beginning, or is it eternal, infinite, and will you make a God of this atom?

(44.)A mite has eyes; it turns aside if it meets objects that can hurt it; place it on a flat piece of ebony, so that people may see it better, and if, while it is walking, but the smallest piece of straw is put in its way, it will alter its course immediately. Do you think its crystalline fluid, its retina, and its optic nerve are the products of chance?

Let pepper lie in water a little time, and be well steeped in it; then view a single drop of it with a microscope, and an almost countless number of animalculæ will be perceived, moving about with incredible agility, like so many monsters in the vast ocean; each of these animalculæ is a thousand times smaller than a mite, and yet it is a living body, receiving nourishment, growing, having muscles, and even vessels performing the functions of veins, nerves, and arteries, and a brain for the distribution of its animal spirits.

A speck of mould, though no bigger than a grain of sand, appears through a microscope like a collection of many distinct plants, of which some are plainly seen to bear flowers and other fruits; some have buds only, partly opened, and others are withered. How extremely small must be the roots and fibres through which these little plants receive their nourishment! And if a person considers that these little plants bear their own seed as well as oaks or pines, or that the animalculæ I was speaking of are multiplied by generation as well as elephants or whales, whither will not such observations lead? Who can have made things so fine and so exceedingly small as to be imperceptible to the naked eye, and which, like the heavens, border upon the infinite, though in the other extreme? Is it not the same Being who has created, and moves with so much facility, the heavens and the stars, those vast bodies so terrible in their dimensions, their altitude, celerity, and revolutions?

(45.)Man enjoys the sun, the stars, the heavens and their influences, as much as he does the air he breathes, and the earth on which he treads and by which he is supported. This is a matter of fact; and if every fact were to be illustrated by fitness and verisimilitude, they could be deduced from them, as the heavens and all they contain are not to be compared for grandeur and dignity to one of the meanest men on earth, there being the same proportion between them and him as there is between matter destitute of sensation, a mere space having three dimensions, and a spiritual, reasonable, and intelligent being. If people argue that less would have served for the preservation of man, I reply that it is not too much to display the power, the goodness, and the magnificence of God, as He could do infinitely more than He has done, whatever we perceive He has done.

If the whole world were made for man, it is literally the smallest thing God has done for man, and this may be proved by religion. Man is therefore neither presumptuous nor vain, when he submits to the evidences of truth, and owns the advantages he has received; he might be accused of blindness and stupidity, did he refuse to yield to the multitude of proofs which religion lays before him, to show him the privileges he enjoys, his resources, his expectations, and to teach him what he is and what he may be.—But the moon is inhabited, at least we do not know but it may be.—Why do you mention the moon, Lucilius, and for what purpose? If you own there is a God, nothing, indeed, is impossible. But do you mean to ask whether in the entire universe it is on us alone that God has bestowed such great blessings; whether there are not other men or other creatures in the moon, who have received such favours? What a vain curiosity and what a frivolous question, Lucilius! The earth is inhabited, we dwell there and we know we do; we have proofs, demonstrations, and convictions for everything we believe of God and of ourselves; let the nations who inhabit the celestial globes, whatever those nations may be, attend to their concerns; they have their troubles, and we have ours. You have observed the moon, Lucilius; you have seen its spots, depth, inequalities, altitude, extent, course, and its eclipses; and no astronomer has yet done more; now contrive some new instruments; observe it again, and see whether it is inhabited, and by what species of inhabitants, whether they are like men, or are really men. When you have done this, let me look, that we both may be convinced that there are men who inhabit the moon; and then, Lucilius, we will consider whether these men are Christians or no; and whether God has bestowed on them the same favours He has granted us.

(46.)Everything is great and wonderful in nature; there is nothing which does not bear the stamp of the artist; the irregular and imperfect things we sometimes observe imply regularity and perfection. Vain and presumptuous man: make a worm which you trample under foot and despise; you are afraid of a toad; make a toad, if you can. What an excellent artist is He who makes those things which men not only admire but fear! I do not require you to go into your studio to create a man of sense, a well-shaped man, a handsome woman, for such an undertaking would be too hard and too difficult for you; only attempt to create a hunchback, a madman, a monster, and I will be satisfied.

Ye kings, monarchs, potentates, anointed majesties, have I given you all your pompous titles? Ye great men of this earth, high and mighty, and perhaps shortly almighty lords, we ordinary men, for the ripening of our harvests, stand in need of a little rain, or what is less, of a little dew; make some dew, or send down upon the surface of the earth one drop of water.

The order, the picturesqueness, and the effects of nature are commonly known, but its causes and principles are not so. Ask a woman what is the cause the eye sees as soon as it is opened, and ask a learned man the same question.

(47.)Many millions of years, nay, many thousand millions of years, in a word, as many as can be comprehended within the limits of time, are but an instant compared to the duration of God, who is eternal; the extent of the whole universe is but a point, an atom, compared to His immensity. If this be so, as I affirm it is, for what proportion can there be between the finite and infinite, I ask what is the length of man’s life, or what the extent of that speck of dust which is called the earth, nay, of the small part of that earth man owns and inhabits?—The wicked prosper whilst they live.—Yes, some of them, I admit. Virtue is oppressed and vice remains unpunished on this earth.—This happens sometimes, I acknowledge it.—This is unjust.—No, not at all. You should have proved, to warrant this inference, that the wicked are absolutely happy, that virtue is absolutely miserable, and that vice always remains unpunished; that the short time in which the good are oppressed and the wicked prosper is of some duration, and that what we call prosperity and good fortune is something more than a false appearance, a fleeting shadow; and that this atom, the earth, in which virtue and vice so seldom meet with their deserts, is the only spot of the world’s stage where people receive rewards and punishments.

I cannot more clearly infer that because I am thinking I am a spirit, than conclude from what I do or do not, according as I please, that I am free. Now freedom implies the power of choosing, or, in other words, a voluntary determination for good or evil, so that virtue or vice consists in the doing a good or a bad action. If vice were to remain absolutely unpunished, it would be a real injustice, but for vice to remain unpunished on earth is merely a mystery. However, let us suppose, with the atheist, that it is an injustice; all injustice is a negation or privation of justice, and therefore every injustice presupposes justice. All justice is in conformity to a sovereign reason, and thus I ask, when was it against reason for crime to remain unpunished? At the time, I suppose, when a triangle had not three angles. Now, all conformity to reason is truth; this conformity, as I said just now, always subsisted, and is of the number of those truths we call eternal. But this truth either is not and cannot be, or else it is the object of an intelligence; this intelligence is therefore eternal, and is God.

The most secret crimes are discovered so simply and easily, notwithstanding the great care which the guilty take to prevent their being brought to light, that it seems God alone could have detected them. These discoveries are so frequent, that those who are pleased to attribute them to chance, must acknowledge, at least, that in all ages, chance seems to have been very regular in its operations.

(48.)If you suppose every man on earth, without exception, to be rich and to want nothing, I infer that every man on earth is extremely poor, and in want of everything. There are but two sorts of riches which comprehend all the rest, money and land; if all people were rich, who would cultivate land or toil in mines? Those who live away from any mines could not toil in them, and those who dwell on barren lands, where only minerals are found, could hardly gather any fruits from them. Trade is the expedient people would have recourse to, I suppose. But if riches should be abundant, and no man under the necessity of living by labour, who will transport your ingots, or anything that is bought and sold, from one place to another? Who will fit out your ships and sail them? Who would travel in caravans? Everything that is necessary and useful would then be wanting. If necessity no longer existed on this earth, we would need no longer arts, sciences, inventions, handicrafts. Besides, such an equality of riches and possessions would establish the same equality in all ranks and conditions of men; would banish all subordination, and reduce men to be their own servants and to receive no help nor succour from one another; it would make the laws idle and useless, bring in a universal anarchy, and produce violence, outrages, murders, and impunity.

If, on the other hand, you suppose all men to be poor and indigent, then the sun in vain rises on the horizon; in vain it warms and fructifies the earth; in vain the heavens shed their benign influence on it; in vain rivers water it with their streams; in vain the fields abound with fruits; in vain seas, rocks, and mountains are ransacked and rifled of their treasures. If you grant that, of all men who are scattered throughout the world, some have to be rich and others poor, then necessity must naturally unite and bind them together and reconcile them; some will have to serve and obey, invent, labour, cultivate the earth, and make improvements; others enjoy life, live well, assist, protect, and govern the masses. Order is restored, and Providence appears.

(49.)Suppose authority, pleasure, and idleness to be the share of some men, and subjection, care, and misery the lot of the rest, then either the malignity of men must have thrown things into this disorder, or else God is not God.

A certain inequality in the condition of men is conducive to the order and welfare of the whole, is the work of God, or presupposes a divine law; but too great a disproportion, and such as is generally seen amongst men, is their own work, or caused by the law of the strongest.