No. XIII. 

 

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;

All chance direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord harmony, not understood;

All partial evil, universal good. 

                                                                           Pope.

 

To Mr. ———

 

        May I venture to tell you, that your theory of dreams appears to me by no means satisfactory; because animals dream, do you imagine that they also have an ethereal and immortal spirit? Nor can I admit that fancy presents us, while we sleep, with any new scenes really new. That our ideas are differently and whimsically combined, from the absence of external objects, I [172] readily allow; but they are always the result of prior impressions made on the brain, however wildly they may be associated; our consciousness is in a measure interrupted, by that rest to our faculties, which nature has kindly ordained to refresh and renovate us for action, and to relieve us from the dangerous pressure to the same ideas. It is also certain that the sounder and more undisturbed our repose is, the less we dream. The first part of the night, (particularly if our spirits have been hurried in the day) and towards walking in the morning, fancy is most active and vivid; and agreeable, or terrifying visions, depend entirely on the state of health, the position of the body, or temper of mind, in which we laid down to sleep. But if, on the contrary, the soul acted independently, while the body slumbered, its perceptions would be clearer; and its powers more acute and perfect than when waking, which I think you must allow is not the case.

            How can you, who profess to be an immaterialist, when speaking of understanding, [173] talk of “extension and limits?”* Spirit surely can have neither extent not boundary. That Almighty Being, who impressed on us these glorious rational powers, by no means prohibits us from exercising them in the highest possible degree, but on the contrary denounces a woe against those who “wrap their talent in a napkin.”

 

    “Spirits are not finely touch’d, but to fine

            Issues; nor nature ever lends the 

            Smallest scruple of her excellence,

            But like a thrifty goddess she demands

            Herself the glory of a creditor,

            Both thanks, and use.” 

 

“I consider the human understanding capable of a certain extension or degree, to which it is limited; and therefore to attempt passing the barrier (which it has pleased Almighty power to prescribe to human reason) is sinful and presumptuous, and must end in our own confusion, &c.”

              

You have purposely (you tell me) avoided consulting any author, as you account it plagiarism to adopt the opinions of others: pardon me, if I presume again to differ! How slow would be the attainments [174] of the most ingenious and acute unassisted mind! Did we not avail ourselves of (though not servily copy) the wisdom and labour of past ages, arts and sciences would be ever in their infancy, and we should scarce ever rise above savage life. Every thing is progressive: it is not in nature to produce perfection at once; and all that dignifies, adorns, and elevates life, has been the result of successive improvements. Indeed, it is not possible to live among a refined and civilized people, without receiving some instruction, and polish from them. 

            You think the theory of materialism incapable of being demonstrated; I am not convinced of this, but intend growing wiser on the subject; and if it was, we should, you say, be unprofitably employed in ascertaining it, and with equal propriety might dispute whether the inhabitants of Jupiter wore spectacles or not. “Ridicule is not the test of truth.” Can that employment be profitable (when it does not interfere with, or supercede any active duties,) which [175] tends to the enlargement and improvement of the highest powers of our nature? Such a tendency has the search after truth; and the mind like the body is strengthened by exertion; besides from this doctrine of a separate spirit many mistakes in morals have arisen, — such as the torturing of the body by various shocking austerities, for the good of the soul. Ecclesiastical history abounds with stories of these cruel absurdities. Hence some have lived on the tops of high pillars, exposed to all the inclemency of the weather, others were clothed with, and slept on iron, multitudes have been devoted to strict silence, to inactivity and dirt; hence persecutions. Hence flagellations, abstinence, pilgrimages, crusades, conventual and monastic institutions; hence some have lived on the tops of high pillars, exposed to all the inclemency of the weather, others were clothed with, and slept on iron, multitudes have been devoted to strict silence, to inactivity and dirt; hence persecutions. Hence the forsaking society and social virtue, in the hope by mortifying and lacerating the body to purify the soul, and recommend themselves to that amiable Being, who like a kind parent has made our happiness to consist in our duties; who requires us only to be temperate that we may enjoy our health; moderate, that our satisfactions may be lasting; pure, that [176] we may escape the destructive consequences of vice; to practice benevolence and kindness that we may be respected and beloved; to do justice to others, that our own rights may be secured; and instead of paying idolatrous worship to canonize human spirits, to adore the beneficent Parent of the universe, — who 


            “Dimly seen, in these his lower works;

            Yet these declare his goodness beyond bounds,

            And power divine.”


        There is one consequence attending the doctrine of materialism, which you seem not to have been not aware of, though it involves it in far greater difficulties than any you have mentioned: I allude to philosophical necessity, for if the powers of the human mind are produced by mechanism (however delicate and curious the machine,) they must be subject to fixed and invariable laws. Let us trace our actions to their source; perception depends upon the circumstances in which we are placed: for we cannot perceive what exists not within the sphere of our observation; our judgment is [177] an effect of our perception, and will constantly be determined by the strongest motive; that determination produces a volition, that volition action. It is in vain to alledge against this, that we frequently act in a manner, which (speaking in popular dialect) we can neither approve nor justify; still the action must be the result of the more powerful motive, whether it has for its end present enjoyment, or future good; nor is there any part of your former conduct, (however you may at present review it with disapprobation) which you would not do over again, were it possible for you to be placed in the same circumstances, and consequently in the same disposition of mind; but as the experience you have gained, alters those circumstances, this is impossible. 

            And all this is in harmony with the perfections of the Supreme Being; for what idea can you form of the Deity without prescience? What is contingent cannot be a subject of foreknowledge: to foresee and to ordain are the same things with [178] omniscient power. It seems to me more worthy of Infinite Wisdom, to order and provide for all possible events, by a series of (what we term) mechanical causes and effects so constructed, as to be ultimately productive of the greatest general and individual good, than by allowing philosophical free-will to man,— which is indeed binding the Deity by a kind of necessity, and robbing him of one of his most distinguished and essential attributes, to suppose there is an occasion for a continual interposition of divine and supernatural power. As we should have a higher opinion of the skill of an artist (I speak with reverence) who constructed a machine at once equal to all the evolutions required of it, than if it stood in need of constant regulation and emendation. Nor do these ideas set aside the duty of prayer; for as we see every thing effected by means, prayer is a mean appointed by God in revelation, and analogous to nature and reason, of bringing upon us blessings; and indeed such devout affections by elevating the mind to the source of all excellence and goodness, generate [179] pure and benevolent associations, and enlarge and refine the understanding. 

            Whence then (you will say) the introduction of moral evil? I confess the subject has difficulties, yet surely not greater than the contrary hypothesis; but these difficulties in all probability arise from our short-sightedness. We may judge from analogy that there is an infinite variety in creation; it is true we are not angels! Yet if upon the whole of our existence (of which perhaps the present life is but the infancy) happiness predominates, we have reason to be thankful for the gift; and “verily God is good, is the language of reason and of nature;” and besides, had there been no disorder, there could scarcely have been any virtue, the whole rational creation would have been asleep; “relative evil produces general good;” misery calls forth benevolence, suffering fortitude, tyranny patriotism, necessity exertion, &c. Progressive purity and happiness are most suitable to our frame and nature; nor is it inconsistent with the benevolence of a perfect [180] Being, to train us up to ultimate felicity, by discipline and gradation; this life is perhaps the first step of an infinite series. Let us cherish this sublime and elevating idea!

            The doctrine of mechanism inspires also charity and forbearance. A Necessarian may pity, but he cannot hate; he will likewise be active (in this he differs from a Predestinarian) as he knows the end strictly to depend on the means: his ideas by no means open a door to licentiousness: for should he have an enlightened understanding, he sees happiness to be the result of order, and that vice and folly are synonymousterms. If he be a Christian, and Christianity alone affords any stability to our hopes of a future resurrection, he must believe (it should seem to me) in the final restitution of all things, though for a period, both here and hereafter the wicked will suffer the consequences of their guilt, till refined and rectified by sufferings, they are fitted for a system of perfect purity and order; for a Being infinitely good, can bring nothing into existence but for purposes [181] of wisdom and kindness; nor can the introduction of moral (or to speak more properly, natural evil, for traced to its source moral and natural evil are the same) be so well reconciled to our ideas of the perfections of the Deity on any other hypothesis. 

            It has been objected that the doctrine of final restitution, is contrary to the express declarations of Scripture, and that could it be demonstrated, it might be mitigating the fear of an eternal duration of future punishment. In reply to the first objection,— I grant that many particular passages in the New Testament, speak of the misery of the wicked in a future state, as endless and unlimited. But at the same time, the general tendency of the scriptures militate against this idea, by representing the Deity as a kind Parent willing that all should come to repentance, and having no pleasure in the death of a sinner, inflicting punishment only with a view to correct and amend. It may also be observed, that the language of Scripture is always plain and [182] popular, adapted not merely to the discerning few, but to the understandings of the bulk of mankind; nor could it have been so generally useful, had not this been the case. It may speak of future punishment in an unlimited and unconditional manner, in order to produce a stronger effect; as God by Jonah threatened the destruction of the people of Ninevah, without giving them room to hope that their repentance might avert the impending judgment. It is also thought by commentators, — that the words translated everlasting and eternal, are not always to be understood as strictly meaning infinite, or without end; though certainly intended to convey an idea of duration so long, as to appear to us inconceivable, and almost indefinite. Many detached passages of Scripture when taken abstractedly, seem to contradict each other; which is unavoidable from the necessity of its being written in a style appealing to the senses, the only style which could have been generally understood: for instance — the Supreme being is sometimes represented [183] with the passions and parts of a man, as being angry, grieved, appeased, repenting, &c. as having hands, arms, eyes, and eats; at others — as a spirit, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways. Reason is to judge, and reconcile these apparent contrarieties. The safest, and properest method of forming just opinions on these subjects, is to lay little comparative stress on mere words, often symbolical, and highly figurative or accommodated to local circumstances; but to rise into ideas that harmonize best with the general tenure of revelation, and are analogous to nature and right reason. And these teach us ( as I before observed) that a Being of infinite power and boundless benevolence could not have created intelligent creatures, without intending their ultimate benefit; and though on account of their limited capacities in this first stage of their existence, they are liable to much evil and woe, yet these very sufferings may have a rectifying tendency, and may be links in a chain of causes and effects, that will eventually terminate in the highest [184] felicity;* and this arises out of our frame and nature, and could not have been otherwise, unless God had at once formed us perfect, that is to say, had multiplied himself. 

 

“When that wise Being who created us and places us here, saw the fair idea, he willed, by allowing it to be so, and that passions should unfold our reason, because he could not see that present evil would produce future good.” 

                                                                                    Rights of Woman. 

 

Nor will this hypothesis, if thoroughly entered into, in the least relax our morals, by abating our terrors of futurity. He who is sensible only to the slavish motive of fear, if he be not deterred by the apprehension of a punishment severe, and long beyond what he can conceive, will be no more roused should you add the word eternal to it, a word of which he can form no idea. 

And those who thirst after happiness and purity, will be rendered more scrupulous and guarded by the belief of any exact retribution, as every advancement in virtue and piety they will consider as a step taken [185] towards the state in which centre all their hopes, and every decision into vice as proportionably throwing them back; the stronger their conviction of the end thus depending on the means, ( to speak in the necessarian dialect,) the more earnestly will they endeavor to make their calling and election sure. Such a manner of thinking will also yield support in sorrow and distress, as what we suffer here, in consequence of our follies and crimes, will lessen the sum for which we are to account hereafter. A necessarian therefore (unless deranged in his faculties) will never be a suicide, not can his remorse and repentance — which are occasioned by the retraction of his judgement from a change of circumstances, consequently of motives — and will be severe in proportion as the consequences of his errors are threatening — ever terminate in absolute despair.*

 

Should the reader wish to enter more fully into the sentiments here imperfectly sketched, I would refer him to Hartley’s Theory of Man, with notes and additions by Andrew Herman Pistorius. [186] 

 

These ideas then do not in the least invalidate the evidences of Christianity, evidences which require only an examination to be approved, as affording the most powerful incitements to virtue. The precepts of the gospel, if attended to sufficiently to give them their effect, could not fail of making man wise, virtuous, and happy. The mercy and goodness of God in revelation are analogous to what we see in nature; but this analogy we must look for in the pure gospel, uncorrupted by priestcraft, or the vain philosophy of human creeds and systems; for so much has Christianity been obscured and mixed with dross, as to use the words of an excellent writer, — “The world wants almost to be re-christianized.” Its great outline is, — “That the Universal Parent of mankind commissioned Jesus Christ to incite men to the practice of virtue, by the assurance of his mercy to the penitent, and of his purpose to raise to immortal life all the virtuous and the good; but to inflict an adequate punishment on the wicked. In proof of this he wrought many miracles, and after a public execution [187] rose again from the dead;” as an example of the promised resurrection. And the evidences for the truth of this religion, both external and internal, are worthy of your most serious investigation: for though it cannot admit of a proper mathematical demonstration, it carries with it the strongest testimonies by which an historical fact can be ascertained; and surely its doctrines are most important. 

I should not have ventured thus far, had I not had a confidence in your candor and good sense; that confidence makes me think it unnecessary to apologize for my prolixity; and indeed you have drawn it upon yourself and must take all the consequences. I do not pretend to intuitive genius, or knowledge my inspiration; my ideas are the result of having had leisure for reading and inquiry, and where I have (knowingly) quoted the worlds of any author, I have marked the passage with inverted commas. 

                        I am, Sir, with esteem, &c. [188]

 

      ————————————

            An excellent and highly valued friend, to whom the preceding letters on materialism and necessity were communicated when in manuscript, made some objections to their insertion in a work of this nature; as conceiving the doctrines they inculcated were of the esoteric kind, calculated only for the speculative and the learned; and to the minds of common readers, who had not maturely weighed and considered the subjects, dangerous in their tendency. 

            I cannot help differing from this opinion, (though with the utmost respect and deference:) in the present universal diffusion of literature, there are but very few of my readers whom I can possibly suppose entirely unacquainted with the numerous discussions to which these subjects have given rise: and those few will in all probability pass over considerations on topics to which consequently will appear to them dry and uninteresting. To others, (particularly the [189] youth of both sexes) who though not unacquainted with the doctrines, have yet given them but a slight and superficial attention, I have endeavoured, without pretending to enter very deeply into questions properly philosophical, with all the perspicuity in my power to obviate those alarming apprehensions which originate in my idea merely from a terror of names, and which a little attention to thingswould scarcely fail of dissipating. May I not also plead the example of the apostle Paul? who forbore not to treat of “things hard to be understood,” lest the unlearned and unstable should wrest them to their own destruction; and further what appears to us to be truth, it cannot be right to suppress, though we should undoubtedly try to guard against any misconception: for truth ultimately, cam never be useless of pernicious. Solicitous to prevent any possible misconstruction, I cannot forbear adding as a supplement to the foregoing papers, a quotation of some length from Dr. Priestley’s admirable preface to Collins’s equally excellent inquiry concerning human liberty. [190] 

“The only seeming advantage of those who oppose the doctrine of necessity, arises from the consideration of the introduction of moral evil, and the connection that it has with suffering. But if the doctrine of prescience be allowed, (which every believer in revelation must do, and without which there could be no proper government of the world at all:) whatever be the consequence of appointment, will also be the consequence of permission. If good would not ultimately arise from any kind or degree of evil, natural or moral, a good Being would not permit it: and if good would necessarily arise from it, he would be justified in appointing it; being the proper and necessary means to a valuable end. 

It is also said, and with great plausibility, that there is no foundation for praise or blame, merit or demerit, upon the doctrine of necessity: but if the proper definition of philosophical liberty be attended to, even the common idea of praise or blame, will be perceived to be as incompatible with it, as with the doctrine [191] of necessity; for what reason would any person be praised or blamed for action which arose from no proper motive, but an arbitrary determination of the will independent of motive, and consequently of fixed principle? And, if without attending to the popular idea of praise or blame, merit or demerit, we only consider the effect of annexing pleasing consequences to what we call virtue, and unpleasing ones to what we term vice, we shall see that such a system of government with respect to beings influenced by motives, will actually tend to produce virtue, by supplying sufficient motives to the practice of it: and what else is the object of any wise and righteous government? the virtue of intelligent and social creatures being necessarily connected with their happiness.” 

Likewise to the same purpose from Collins’s Treatise, Page 86. “It is objected, if men are necessary agents, it is of no use to represent reasons to them, or to entreat them, or to admonish them, or to blame them, or to praise them. [192]

To which I answer, that all these, according to me, are necessary causes to determine certain men’s wills to do what we desire of them; and are therefore useful, as acting on such necessary agents, to whom they are necessary causes of action: but would be of no use if men had free will, or their wills were not moved by them. So that they who make this objection, must run into the absurdities of saying — that cause is useful which is no cause of action, and serves not to change the will — and that cause is useless which necessitates the effect.” 

 

1 synonimous] 1793 text