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physical science (la physique) and experience that man ought to consult in religion, morals, legislature, as well as in knowledge and the arts. It is by our senses that we are bound to universal nature; it is by our senses that we discover her secrets. The moment we first experience them, we fall into a void where our imagination leads us endlessly astray.
Movement is what establishes relations between our organs and external objects. Every object has laws of movement that are peculiar to itself. Everything in the universe is in movement; no part of nature is really at rest."
Whence does nature receive this movement? From herself, since she is the great whole, outside of which consequently nothing can exist. Motion is a fashion of being which flowe necessarily from the essence of matter; matter moves by its own energy; its motion is due to forces inherent in it; the variety of its movements and of the phenomena resulting from them comes from variation of the properties, the qualities, the combinations, originally found in the different primitive matters of which nature is the assemblage.
Whence came matter? Matter has existed from all eternity, and as motion is one of the inherent and constitutive qualities of matter, motion also has existed from eternity.
The abstract idea of matter must be decomposed. Instead of regarding matter as a unique existence, rude, passive, incapable of moving itself, of combining itself, of producing anything by itself, we ought to look upon it as a Kind of existence, of which the various individual members comprising the kind, in spite of their having some common properties, such as extension, divisibility, figure, &c., still ought not to be ranged in a single class, nor comprised in a single denomination.
What is Nature's process ? Continual movement. From the stone which is formed in the bowels of the earth by the intimate combination, as they approach one another, of analogous and similar molecules, up to the sun, that vast reservoir of heated particles that gives light to the firmament; from the numb oyster up to man,—we observe an uninterrupted progression, a perpetual chain of combination and movements, from which there result-beings that only differ among one another, by the variety of their elementary matters, and of the combination and proportion of these elements. From this variety springs an infinite diversity of ways of existing and acting. In generation, nutrition, preservation, we can see nothing but different sorts of matter differently combined, each of them endowed with its own movements, each of them regulated by fixed laws that cause them to undergo the necessary changes.
Let us notice here three of the author's definitions. (1.) Motion (1) Holbach confesses his obligation on this head to Toland's Letters to Serena (1704).
is an effort by which a body changes or tends to change its place. (2.) Of the ultimate composition of Matter, Holbach says nothing definite, though he assumes molecular movement as its first law. He contents himself, properly enough perhaps in view of the destination of his treatise, with a definition “relatively to us.”
” Relatively to us, then Matter in general is all that affects our senses in any fashion whatever; and the qualities that we attribute to different kinds of matter are founded on the different impressions that they produce in us. (3.) “When I say that Nature produces an effect, I do not mean to personify this Nature, which is an abstraction; I mean that the effect of which I am speaking is the necessary result of the properties of some one of those beings that compose the great whole under our eyes. Thus, when I say that nature intends man to work for his own happiness, I mean by this that it is of the essence of a being who feels, thinks, wills, and acts, to work for his own happiness. By Essence I mean that which constitutes a being what it is, the sum of its properties, or the qualities according to which it exists and acts as it does."
All phenomena are necessary. No creature in the universe, in its circumstances and according to its given property, can act otherwise than as it does act. Fire necessarily burns whatever combustible matter comes within the sphere of its action. Man necessarily desires what either is, or seems to be, conducive to his comfort and well-being. There is no independent energy, no isolated cause, no detached activity, in a universe where all beings are incessantly acting on another, and which is itself only one eternal round of movement, imparted and undergone, according to necessary laws. In a storm of dust raised by a whirlwind, in the most violent tempest that agitates the ocean, not a single molecule of dust or of water finds its place by chance; or is without an adequate cause for occupying the precise point where it is found. So, again, in the terrible convulsions that sometimes overthrow empires, there is not a single action, word, thought, volition, or passion in a single agent of such a revolution, whether he be a destroyer or a victim, which is not necessary, which does not act precisely as it must act, and which does not infallibly produce the effects that it is bound to produce conformably to the place occupied by the given agent in the moral whirlwind.
Order and disorder are abstract terms, and can hare no existence in a nature, where all is necessary and follous constant laws. Order is nothing more than necessity viewed relatively to the succession of actions. Disorder in the case of any being is nothing more than its passage to a new order; to a succession of movements and actions of a different sort from those of which the given being was previously susceptible. Hence there can never be either monsters or prodigies, either marvels or miracles, in nature. By the same reasoning, we have no right to divide the workings of nature into those of Intelligence and those of Chance. Where all is necessary, Chance can mean nothing save the limitation of man's knowledge.
The writer next has a group of chapters (vi.—x.) on Man, his composition, relations, and destiny. The chief propositions are in rigorous accord with the general conceptions that have already been set forth. All that man does and all that passes in him are effects of the energy that is common to him with the other beings known to us. But, before a true and comprehensive idea of the unity of nature was possible to him, he was so seized by the variety and complication of his organism and its movements, that it never came into his mind to realise that they existed in a chain of material necessity, binding him fast to all other forces and modes of being. Men think that they remedy their ignorance of things by inventing words; so they explained the working of matter, in man's case, by associating with matter a hypothetical substance, which is in truth much less intelligible than matter itself. So they regarded themselves as double; a compound of matter and something else miraculously united with it, to which they gave the name of mind, or soul, and then they proudly looked on themselves as beings apart from the rest of creation. In plain truth, Mind is only an occult force, invented to explain occult qualities and actions, and really explaining nothing. By Mind they mean no more than the unknown cause of phenomena that they cannot explain naturally, just as the Red Indians believed that it was Spirits who produced the terrible effects of gunpowder, and just as the ignorant of our own day believe in angels and demons. How can we figure to ourselves a form of being, which, though not matter, still acts on matter, without having points of contact or analogy with it; and on the other hand itself receives the impulsions of matter, through the material organs that warn it of the presence of external objects? How can we conceive the union of body and soul, and how can this material body enclose, bind, constrain, determine a fugitive form of being that escapes every sense? To resolve these difficulties by calling them mysteries, and to set them down as the effects of the omnipotence of a Being still more inconceivable than the human Soul itself, is merely a confession of absolute ignorance.
It is worth noticing that with the characteristic readiness of the French materialist school to turn metaphysical and psychological discussion to practical uses, Holbach discerned the immense new field which the materialist account of mind opened to the physician. “If people consulted experience instead of prejudice, medicine would furnish morality with the key of the human heart; and in curing the body, it would be often assured of curing the mind too.
... The dogma of the spirituality of the soul has turned morality into a conjectural science, which does not in the least help us to understand the true way of acting on men's motives. . . . Man will always be a mystery for those who insist on regarding him with the prejudiced eyes of theology, and on attributing his actions to a principle of which they can never have any clear ideas.” –(Ch. ix.) It is certainly true as a historical fact that the rational treatment of insane persons, and the rational view of certain kinds of crime, were due to men like Pinel, trained in the materialistic school of the eighteenth century. And it was clearly impossible that the great and humane reforms in this field could have taken place before the decisive decay of theology. Theology assumes perversity as the natural condition of the human heart, and could only regard insanity as an intolerable exaggeration of this perversity; and secondly, the absolute independence of mind and body which theology brought into such overwhelming relief, naturally excluded the notion that by dealing with the body you might be doing something to heal the mind. Perhaps we are now in some danger of overlooking the potency of the converse illustration of what Holbach says : namely, the efficacy of mental remedies or preventives in the case of bodily disease.
you complain—to resume our exposition—that the mechanism is not sufficient to explain the principle of the movements and faculties of the soul, the answer is, that it is in the same case with all the bodies in nature. In them the simplest movements, the most ordinary phenomena, the commonest actions are inexplicable mysteries, whose first principles are for ever sealed to us. How shall we flatter ourselves that we know the first principle of gravity, by virtue of which a stone falls? What do we know of the mechanism that produces the attraction of some substances and the repulsion of others ?
But surely the incomprehensibility of natural effects is no reason for assigning to them a cause, that is still more incomprehensible than any of those within our cognisance.
It is not given to man to know everything; it is not given to him to know his own origin, nor to penetrate into the essence of things, nor to mount up to the first principle of things. What is given to him is to have reason, to have good faith, to concede frankly that he is ignorant of what he cannot know, and not to supplement his incertitudes by words that are unintelligible and suppositions that are absurd. Suns go out and planets perish ; new suns are kindled, and new
1 planets revolve in new paths; and man-infinitely small portion of a globe, that is itself only a small point in immensity-dreams that it is for him that the universe has been made, imagines that he must be the confidant of nature, and proudly flatters himself that he must be eternal! O man, wilt thou never conceive that thou art but the insect of a day? All changes in the universe ; nature contains not a form that is constant; and yet thou wouldst claim that thy species can never disappear, and must be excepted from the great universal law of incessant change!
We may pause for a moment to notice how in their deliberate humiliation of the alleged pride of man, the orthodox theologian and the atheistic Holbach use precisely the same language. But the rebuke of the latter was sincere; it was indispensable, in order to prepare men's minds for the conception of the universe as a whole. With the theologian the rebuke has now become little more than a hollow shift, in order to insinuate the miracle of Grace. The preacher of Naturalism replaces a futile vanity in being the end and object of creation, by a fruitful reverence for the supremacy of human reason and a right sense of the value of its discreet and disciplined use. The theologian restores this absurd and misleading egoism of the race, by representing the Creator as above all else concerned to work miracles for the salvation of a creature whose understanding is at once pitifully weak and odiously perverse, and whose heart is from the very beginning wicked, corrupt, and given over to reprobation. This difference is plainly enormous. The theologian discourages men; they are to wait for the miracle of conversion, inert or desperate. The naturalist arouses them; he supplies them with the most powerful of motives for the energetic use of the most powerful of their endowments. “Men would always have Grace,” says Holbach, with excellent sense, “ if they were well educated and well governed.” And he exclaims on the strange morality of those who attribute all moral evil to Original Sin, and all the good we do to Grace. “No wonder,” he says, “that a morality founded on hypotheses so ridiculous should prove to be of no efficacy.”
This brings us to Holbach's treatment of Morals. The moment had come to France, which was reached at an earlier period in English speculation, when the negative course of thought in metaphysics drove men to consider the basis of ethics. How were right and wrong to hold their own against the new mechanical conception of the Universe ? The same question is again urgent in men's minds, because the Darwinian hypothesis and the mass of evidence for it have again given a tremendous shake to theological conceptions, and startled men into a sense of the precariousness of the official foundations of virtue and duty.
Holbach begins by a most unflinching exposure of the inconsistency with all that we know of nature, of the mysterious theory of Free Will. This remains one of the most effective parts of the book, and perhaps the work has never been done with a firmer hand. The
(1) Ch. xi.