Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

conclusion is expressed with a decisiveness that almost seems crude. There is declared to be no difference between a man who throws himself out of the window, and the man whom I throw out, except this, that the impulse acting on the second comes from without, and that the impulse determining the fall of the first comes from within his own mechanism. You have only to get down to the motive, and you will invariably find that the motive is beyond the actor's own power or reach. The inexorable logic with which the author presses the Free-Willer from one retreat to another, and from shift to shift, leaves his adversary at last exactly as naked and defenceless before Holbach's vigorous and thoroughly realised Naturalism, as the same adversary must always be before Jonathan Edwards' vigorous theism. The system of man's liberty,” Holbach says (II. ii.), with some pungency," seems only to have been invented in order to put him in a position to offend his God, and to justify God in all the evil that he inflicted on man for having used the freedom which was so disastrously conferred upon him.”

If man be not free, what right have we to punish those who cannot help committing bad actions, or to reward others who cannot help committing good actions ? Holbach gives to this, and the various other ways of describing fatalism as dangerous to society, the proper and perfectly adequate answer. He turns to the quality of the action, and connects with that the social attitude of praise and blame. Merit and demerit are associated with conduct, according as it is thought to affect the common welfare advantageously or the reverse. My indignation and my approval are as necessary as the acts that excite these sentiments. My feelings are neither more nor less spontaneous than the deciding motives of the actor. Whatever be the necessitating cause of our actions, I have a right to do my best by praise and blame, by reward and punishment, to strengthen or weaken, to prolong or to divert, the motives that are the antecedents of the action ; exactly as I have a right to dam in a stream, or to divert its course, or otherwise deal with it to suit my own convenience. Penal laws, for instance, are ways of offering to men strong motives to weigh in the scale against the temptation of an immediate personal gratification. Holbach does not make it quite distinct that the object of penal legislation is in some cases to give the offender, as well as other people, a strong reason for thinking twice before he repeats the offence; but in other cases, where the punishment is capital, the legislation does not aim at influencing the mind of the offender at all, but the minds of other people only. This is only a side illustration of a common weakness in most arguments on this subject. A thorough vindication of the penal laws on the principles of a systematic fatalism can only be successful, if we think less of the wrongdoer in any given case, than of affecting

a

a

general motives, and building up a right habit of avoiding or accepting certain classes of action.

The writer then justly connects his scientific necessarianism in philosophy with humanity in punishment. He protests against excessive cruelty in the infliction of legal penalties, and especially against the use of torture, on two grounds; first, that experience demonstrates the uselessness of these superfluous rigours; and second, that the habit of witnessing atrocious punishments familiarises both criminals and others with the idea of cruelty. The acquiescence of Paris for a few months in the cruelties of the Terror was no doubt due, on Holbach's perfectly sound principle, to the far worse cruelties with which the laws had daily made Paris familiar down to the last years of the monarchy. And Holbach was justified in expecting a greater degree of charitable and considerate judgment from the establishment in men’s minds of a Necessarian theory. We are no longer vindictive against the individual doer; we wax energetic against the defective training in the institutions which allowed wrong motives to weigh more heavily with him than right ones. Punishment, on the theory of necessity, ought always to go with prevention, and is valued just because it is a force in prevention, and not merely an element in retribution.

Holbach answers effectively enough the common objection that his fatalism would plunge men's souls into apathy. If all is necessary, why shall I not let things go, and myself remain quiet? As if we could stay our hands from action, if our feelings were trained to proper sensibility and sympathy. As if it were possible for a man of tender disposition not to interest himself keenly in all that concerns the lot of his fellow-creatures. How does our knowledge that death is necessary, prevent us from deploring the loss of a beloved one ? How does my consciousness that it is the inevitable property of fire to burn, prevent me from using all my efforts to avert a conflagration ?

Finally, when people urge that the doctrine of necessity degrades man by reducing him to a machine, and likening him to some growth of abject vegetation, they are merely using a kind of language that was invented by ignorance of what constitutes the true dignity of

What is nature itself but one vast machine, in which our human species is no more than one weak spring? The good man is a machine whose springs are adapted so to fulfil their functions as to produce beneficent results for his fellows. How could such an instrument not be an object of respect and affection and gratitude ?

In closing this part of Holbach's book, while not dissenting from his.conclusions, we will only remark how little conscious he seems of the degree to which he empties the notions of praise and blame of the very essence of their old contents. It is not a modification, but the substitution of a new meaning under the old names. Praise in its

man.

a

new sense of admiration for useful and pleasure-giving conduct or motive, is as powerful a force and as adequate an incentive to good conduct and good motives, as praise in the old sense of admiration for a deliberate and voluntary exercise of a free-acting will. But the two senses are different: the old ethical association is transformed into something which usage and the requirements of social selfpreservation must make equally potent, but which is not the same. If Holbach and others who hold necessarian opinions were to perceive this more frankly, and to work it out fully, they would prevent a confusion that is very unfavourable to them in the minds of most of those whom they wish to persuade. It is easy to see that the work next to be done in the region of morals is the readjustment of the ethical phraseology of the volitional stage to fit the ideas proper

to the stage in which man has become as definitely the object of science as any of the other phenomena of the universe.

The chapter (xiii.) on the Immortality of the Soul examines this memorable growth of human belief with great vigour and a most destructive penetration. As we have seen, the author repudiates the theory of a double energy in man, one material and the other spiritual, just as he afterwards repudiates the analogous hypothesis of a double energy in nature, one of two being due to a spiritual mover outside of the external phenomena of the universe. Consistently with this renunciation of a separate spiritual energy in man, Holbach will listen to no talk of a spiritual energy surviving the destruction of the mechanical framework. To say that the soul will feel, think, enjoy, suffer, after the death of the body, is to pretend that a clock broken into a thousand pieces can continue to strike or to mark the hours. And having emphatically proclaimed his own refusal to share the common belief, he proceeds with good success to carry the war into the country of those who profess the belief, and defend it as the safeguard of society. We need not go through his positions. They are substantially those which are familiar to everybody who has read the Third Book of Lucretius's poem, and remembers those magnificent passages which are not more admirable in their philosophy, than they are noble and moving in their poetic expression :

“Nam veluti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis

In tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
Interdum, nilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
Quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
Non radii solis neque lucida tela diei

Discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.”
And so forth down to the exquisite lines :-

“. Jam jam non donus accipiet te laeta, neque uxor

Optima nec dulces occurrent oscula nati
Praeripere et tacita pectus dulcedine tangent.
Non poteris factis florentibus esse, tuisque
Praesidium. Misero misere' aiunt omnia ademit
Una dies infesta tibi tot praemia vitae.'
Illud in his rebus non addunt, nec tibi earum
Jam desiderium rerum super insidet una.'
Quod bene si videant animo dictisque sequantur,
Dissoluant animi magno se angore metuque.
* Tu quidem ut es leto sopitus, sic oris aevi
Quod superest cunctis privatu' doloribus aegris;
At nos horrifico cinefactum te prope busto
Insatiabiliter deslevimus, aeternumque
Nulla dies nobis maerorem e pectore demet.'
Illud ab hoc igitur quaerendum est, quid sit amari
Tanto opere, ad somnum si res redit atque quietem,

Cur quisquam aeterno possit tabescere luctu.” We may regret that Holbach, in dealing with these solemn and touching things, should have been so devoid of historic spirit as to buffet David, Mahomet, Chrysostom, and other holy personages as superstitious brigands. And we may believe that he has certainly been too sweeping in denying any deterrent efficacy whatever to the fires of hell. But where Holbach found one person in 1770, he would find a thousand in 1877, to agree with him that it is possible to think of commendations and inducements to virtue that shall be at least as efficacious as the fiction of eternal torment, without being as cruel, as wicked, as infamous to the gods, and as degrading to men.

From his attack on Immortality, Holbach naturally turns with new energy, as do all who have passed beyond that belief, to the improvement of the education, the laws, the institutions, which are to strengthen and implant the true motives for turning men away from wrong and inspiring them to right. He draws a stern and prolonged indictment against the kings of the earth, unjust, incapable, enervated by luxury, corrupted by flattery, depraved by licence and impunity, destitute alike of talent and virtue. One passage in this chapter is the scripture of a terrible prophecy, the very handwriting on the wall which was to be so accurately fulfilled almost in the life of the writer :-“The state of society is now a state of war of the Sovereign against all, and of cach of its members against the other. Man is bad, not because he was born bad, but because he is made so; the great and the powerful crush with impunity the needy and the unfortunate, and these in turn seek to repay all the ill that has been done to them. They openly or privily attack a native land that is a cruel step-mother to them, who gives all to some of her children, while others she strips of all. Sorely they punish her for her partiality; they show her that the motives borrowed from another life are powerless against the passions and

a

the bitter wrath engendered by a corrupt administration in the life here; and that all the terror of the punishments of this world is impotent against necessity, against criminal habits, against a dangerous organization that no education has ever been applied to correct.” (Ch. xiv.) In another place :-"A society enjoys all the happiness of which it is susceptible, so soon as the greater number of its members are fed, clothed, housed; are able, in a word, without an excessive toil, to satisfy the wants that nature has made necessities to them. Their imagination is content, so soon as they have the assurance that no force can ravish from them the fruits of their industry, and that they labour for themselves. By a succession of human madness, whole nations are forced to labour, to sweat, to water the earth with their tears, merely to keep up the luxury, the fancies, the corruption, of a handful of insensates, a few useless creatures. So have religious and political errors changed the universe into a valley of tears.” This is an incessant refrain that sounds with hoarse ground-tone under all the ethics and the metaphysics of the book. There are scores of pages in which the same idea is worked out with a sombre vehemence, that makes us feel as if Robespierre were already haranguing in the National Assembly, Camille Desmoulins declaiming in the gardens of the Palais Royal, and Danton thundering at the Club of the Cordeliers. We already watch the smoke of the flaming châteaux going up like a savoury and righteous sacrifice to the heavens.

From this point to the end of the first part of the book, it is not so much philosophy, as the literature of a political revolution. There is a curious parenthesis in vindication not only of a contempt for death, but even of suicide; the writer pointing out with some malice that Samson, Eleazar, and other worthies caused their own death, and that Jesus Christ himself, if really the Son of God, dying of his own free grace, was a suicide, to say nothing of the various ascetic penitents who have killed themselves by inches. “ The fear of death, after all,” he says, summing up his case, “will only make cowards; the fear of its alleged consequences will only make fanatics or melancholy pietists, as useless to themselves as to others. Death is a resource that we do ill to take away from oppressed virtue, reduced as many a time it is, by the injustice of men to desperation.” This was the doctrine in which the revolutionary generation were brought up, and the readiness with which men in those days inflicted death on themselves

(1) This is not original in Holbach. Diderot's article on Suicide in the Encyclopædia (@uv. xvii. 235) contains the usual arguments of the Church against suicide, with some casuistic illustrations, but it also contains an account of Dr. Donne's vindication of suicide, called Bia-thanatos (1651), in which these remarks of Holbach occur verbatim. Hallam found Donne's book so dull and pedantic, that he declares no one would be induced to kill himself by reading such a book, unless he were threatened with another volume.

« EelmineJätka »