No. XII.

 

                                         To Amasia.


You appeared shocked, my friend, when in the course of conversation a few days ago, I professed myself a convert to the doctrines of materialism and necessity; and listened to me with too much emotion, to attend to the force of my [160] reasoning. Be not alarmed! I am not about to give you a tedious and formal dissertation on these subjects, nor do I conceive myself adequate to such an attempt; permit me only to state a few arguments, which have made a deep impression on my mind.

Like you, I started when it was first proposed to me, and with some degree of vanity, repeated with Sterne,— “I am positive I have a soul, nor shall all the Materialists in the world convince me to the contrary.” Yet, on more mature consideration, I knew not how to separate my ideas of a spirit, from the organs upon which it acts. In infancy we perceive no traces of intellect: in ideotism it is deranged: in infancy suspended: in old age impaired: and in a second childhood extinguished. Where then is its independence? Or how is it to exist itself? Do not suffer yourself to suppose that, like some ancient philosophers, I believe motion to be eternally inherent in matter, or that the [161] mind is a combination of fiery particles met in fortuitous intercourse. Cheered by the purer light of Christianity, from whence has originated a sounder philosophy, we justly consider as ridiculous, and puerile, such erroneous fancies; and where we perceive a wise plan, and benevolent design, properly trace them back to wisdom, goodness, and power. Very far then am I from affirming, that matter in itself is capable of consciousness and reasoning; but only that rational faculties are the result of a nice organization of its parts, or of powers impressed on it by a superior, and intelligent Artist.

Compare your ideas with mine, and you will perhaps find that we have been differing all this time merely about words. My notions do not at all interfere with our hopes of a future existence, which depend on the credibility of the New Testament, and not on suppositious theories of the immortality of the soul. What had once no existence, may again cease to be; and I believe you will not contend for the doctrine [162] of pre-existent spirits; for as consciousness alone can constitute identity, if we have no remembrance of having lived in a state prior to this, it can to us have no reality. 

The Scriptures speak decidedly of a future resurrection and judgement, as in the fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, where the subject is most fully and admirably discussed: but make no mention of an intermediate state. Much stress has indeed been laid on our Saviour’s promise to the dying thief, but a small altercation in the punctuation makes a material difference in the sense,— “For I say unto thee, this day! thou shalt be with me in paradise.” The reply of Jesus to the Saducees, has also been objected, — “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live unto him.” “That is,” (justly observed Dr. Priestly in his sermon occasioned by the death of Dr. Price,) “since though they are dead, they are to live again; God who sees into futurity, regards them as if they were already raised from the dead, and speaks of them [163] as if they then stood in the same relation to him, that they ever did, or should do.” And surely, it is not more difficult for the Supreme Being to renovate us again, and restore to the mind its consciousness, and to the body its form and vigour, than to preserve the spirit from becoming extinct. This fancy of a naked, unembodied mind, appears to me uncomfortable and cheerless; or rather is it not a mere sound, that cannot possibly convey any idea? 

            To your objection to the long inactivity of death, I can allow no weight: for the hour of sleep, where there is no sensation between, is joined to that of restoration; and after all, I again repeat — our expectation of future rewards, and punishments, must be founded on the moral attributes of the Deity, which afford to natural religion a basis or foundation for the expectation of future retribution; and on the evidences for the truth of the gospel, and for the resurrection of Jesus Christ; which are not in the least affected by the materiality, or immateriality of the soul. Nothing seems [164] to me a stronger proof of the mechanism of the human understanding, than the various degrees of capability of improvement which we observe in different minds. Materialists appear (at least in the works I have read on the subject) not to have the adverted sufficiently to this, but lay too much stress on external and adventitious circumstances; whereas, every observation which I have had an opportunity of making, confirms me in opinion, that we may say with more propriety of the intellect, than of the proud waves of the sea, — “Hitherto thou shalt go, and no further.” Genius, notwithstanding all local disadvantages, will (as Democritus among the stupid Abderites) educate itself; nor can dulness be roused to excellence, by any methods which ingenuity can devise, or perseverance put in practice. The same studies, the same course of tuition, frequently send into the world the wit, and the blockhead: and in families, as well as academics, you are struck with the varieties of character, arising out of capacities more or less limited, which no uniform tuition, or treatment could possibly assimilate. What [165] skill can draw out tones of equal melody, from instruments of a similar construction? Hence impressions from physiognomy seem to me to have some weight: there is something in external appearances, (without reference to what is commonly called beauty) to which every heart is sensible. The greater part of mankind have what is termed by the poet, “No character at all;” that is, no marked individuality of character: therefore the greater part of mankind have faces such as Lavater places among his vulgar groups,1 and are beheld without emotion; but where energy and ardent passion have delineated strong expression, in proportion as our own feelings are excited by sympathy, we are, as vice or virtue prevails, affected with love or aversion.* Yes, I firmly believe this science originates in truth, however imperfectly conceived, or liable to hazard and mistake; not do I recollect an instance, where my first impressions [166] were unfavourable, that however they may have been suspended for a time, I have not at length returned to them again. It is well observed, that our first and third thoughts generally coincide.

 

*Perhaps I am here confusing pathognomy, or the play of the passions, with physiognomy, or the original  formation of the bones; yet surely, the former is in great measure an effect, of which the latter is the cause. 

 

I recollect on my hinting some of these ideas, you objected that as from a certain mechanical force, only certain effects can be produced, a confusion of morals necessarily arose out of my system. I allow there are some difficulties attending this system, as well as every other: I only contend that the difficulties are less: but from the laws of association (to which this doctrine is by no means repugnant) moral principles may in great measure be formed, and natural propensities corrected, and meliorated by early and repeated habits, and the absence of temptation. You cannot give the children whom Providence has placed under your care a fine imagination, or strong mental powers, because these depend on a delicate and curious adjustment of their organs; (we are all imitative beings,) by well proportioned [167] rewards and chastisements, by preserving them from the contagion of viciouscompany, and inuring them to temperance, regularity and self-denial, excite them to virtue, and refrain them from vice. When once reiterated associations are thoroughly and deeply impressed on the brain, they are almost as difficult to be eradicated or changed, as the spots of the leopard, or the skin of the Ethiopian; and the notion of mechanism affords a surer basis for the success of our endeavours in what respects moral qualities than any other.

            The objections also against the doctrine of necessity, which naturally arises out of materialism (though sometimes entertained independent of it,) have not, in my opinion, any better foundation. Do you reproach me with ascribing evil to God? I answer, that is seeming evil, which will ultimately terminate in the greatest possible good; and in return ask, from what source do you deduce this partial disorder? Is there any power capable of counteracting the benevolent [168] designs of the Deity? In the delicate situation in which you place yourself, be cautious how you proceed, lest by robbing the Supreme Bring of his attributes, by which alone we can form any idea of his nature, you incur the suspicion of the Atheist. Infinite power, and infinite prescience imply all I mean to assert, and there is no getting rid of this argument, without admitting still greater incongruities. This is exemplified in the discourses on the character of Judas, by the learned and excellent Mr. Walker, of Nottingham. His candid mind would not permit him to evade the consequences of his principles, and notwithstanding your just admiration of this truly admirable writer, you confessed yourself displeased with the result. 

            But to return: I allow, we are not impelled from a blind fatality without us; for the sources of our actions originate in the frame of out nature, and in the force of motives, But between two motives (say you) surely I have the power of suspending an action? Yes, by a third motive occasioning [169] that suspension. Suppose then (you may perhaps reply) two motives equally powerful, may I not choose between them? Does this ever happen? Indeed I believe it is impossible: the very decision proves a determinate bias. Are we then (horrible thought!) to attribute the final destruction of the impenitent to God? Such a final destruction is no part of my creed; from the infinite goodness of the Parent of the universe, I expect the ultimate restoration of all his intelligent offspring, when purified and refined by sufferings. “Our light afflictions which are but for a moment, work for us a far more exceeding and external weight of glory.” And momentary will be all limited affliction, though extending thousands of years beyond the duration of this earth, in comparison of eternity. 

            Let us then press forward, convinced that as we advance in purity and virtue, we are proportionably nearer to happiness; and carefully avoid vice and error, not only because we feel with the poet, that virtue is ever accompanied with — 

                        “Her chaste, her fair attendant pleasure;” 

but that we may have less of the backward paths of repentance to tread, and arrive sooner at the desired haven, whither all our wishes tend; where hope shall be lost in vision, and the sublime faculties, rectified and spiritualized, find their proper gratification.

            I expect, my friend, from your excellent understanding, that though on revolving these cursory remarks, you should not become a proselyte to my opinions; you will not deem them entirely unworthy of your candid attention. Our horror of those who differ from us, I believe, is often occasioned by a want of information. Few adhere so obstinately to their own tenets, as those who have taken them upon trust, without a proper examination. Let us have the courage to trace our ideas, as far as we have the ability through their whole train of consequences; this can afford the only test of truth. Thus shall we bear with patience the opposition of others, remembering the just remark of the learned Erasmus, [171] “That his most virulent enemies were among those, who had the least acquaintance either with him, or his writings.” 

            With sincere esteem I remain, &c. 



1 groupes] 1793 text

2 vitious] 1793 text