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on the other hand, viewed the dispute as a matter of disinterested speculation. “As for the existence of a supreme intelligence," he wrote to Frederick the Great, “I think that those who deny it, advance far more than they can prove, and scepticism is the only reasonable course." He goes on to say, however, that experience invincibly proves the materiality of the soul, and a material deitylike that which Mr. Mill did not repudiate-of limited powers and dependent on fixed conditions."
Let us now turn to the book itself. And first, as to its author. The reader of the New Heloïsa will remember that the heroine, after her repentance and her marriage, has only one chagrin in the world; that is the blank disbelief of her husband in the two great mysteries of a Supreme Being and another world. Wolmar, the husband, has always been supposed to stand for Rousseau's version of Holbach, and Holbach would hardly have complained of the portrait. The Wolmar of the novel is benevolent, active, patient, tranquil, friendly and trustful. The nicely combined conjunction of the play of circumstance with the action of men pleases him, just as the fine symmetry of a statue or the skilful contrivance of dramatic effects would please him. If he has any dominant passion, it is a passion for observation; he delights in reading the hearts of men.2
All this seems to have been as true of the real Holbach as of the imaginary Wolmar. He was one of the best-informed men of his time (1723—1789). He had an excellent library, a collection of pictures, and a valuable cabinet of natural history; and his poorer friends were as freely welcome to the use of all of them as the richest. His manners were cheerful, courteous, and easy; he was a model of simplicity, and kindliness was written on every feature. His hospitality won him the well-known nickname of the maître d'hôtel of philosophy, and his house was jestingly called the Café de l'Europe. On Sundays and Thursdays, without prejudice to other days, from ten to a score of men of letters and eminent foreign visitors, including Hume, Wilkes, Shelburne, Garrick, Franklin, Priestley, used to gather round his good dishes and excellent wine. It was noted as a mark of the attractiveness of the company that the guests, who came at two in the afternoon, constantly remained until as late as seven and eight in the evening. To one of those guests, who afterwards became the powerful enemy of the Encyclopædic group, the gaiety, the irreverence, the hardihood of speculation and audacity of discourse, were all as gall and wormwood. Rousseau found their atheistic sallies offensive beyond endurance.3 Their hard rationalism was odious to
(1) @uv. v. 296, 303, &c. (2) Nouvelle Héloise, IV. xii. (3) In a book about Goethe, published the other day, containing the substance of
the great emotional dreamer, and after he had quarrelled with them all, he transformed his own impressions of the dreariness of atheism into the passionate complaint of Julie. “ Conceive the torment of living in retirement with the man who shares our existence, and yet cannot share the hope that makes existence dear; of never being able with him either to bless the works of God, or to speak of the happy future that is promised us by the goodness of God; of seeing him, while doing good on every side, still insensible to everything that makes the delight of doing good; of watching him, by the most bizarre of contradictions, think with the impious, and yet live like a Christian. Think of Julie walking with her husband; the one admiring in the rich and splendid robe that the earth displays, the handiwork and the bounteous gifts of the author of the universe; the other seeing in it all nothing but a fortuitous coinbination, the product of blind force! Alas! she cries, the great spectacle of nature, for us so glorious, so animated, is dead in the eyes of the unhappy Wolmar, and in that great harmony of being where all speaks of God in accents so mild and so persuasive, he only perceives eternal silence.” 1
Yet it is fair to the author of this most eloquent Ignoratio Elenchi to notice that he honestly fulfilled the object with which he professed to set out-namely, to show both the religious and philosophical parties that their adversaries were capable of leading upright, useful, and magnanimous lives. Whether he would have painted the imaginary Wolmar so favourably, if he could have foreseen what kind of book the real Holbach had in his desk, is perhaps doubtful. For Holbach's opinions looked more formidable and sombre in the cold deliberateness of print, than they had sounded amid the interruptions of lively discourse.
It is needless to say, to begin with, that the writer has the most marked of the philosophic defects of the school of the century. Perhaps we might put it more broadly, and call the disregard of historic opinion the natural defect of all materialistic speculation from Epicurus downwards. Like all others of his school, Holbach has no perception nor sense of the necessity of an explanation how the mental world came to be what it is, nor how men came to think and believe what they do think and believe. He gives them what he deems unanswerable reasons for changing their convictions, but he never dreams of asking himself in what elements of human character the older convictions had their root, and from what fitness for the conduct of life they drew the current of their sap. Yet lectures delivered before the University of Berlin, Dr. Grimm speaks of Rousseau as an “ atheist," —Rousseau of all people in the world! Dr. Grimm might as well call Moses and Isaiah atheists. (1) Nouv. Hél. V. v.
(2) See Lange, i. 85.
unless this aspect of things had been well considered, his unanswerable reasons were sure to fall wide of the mark. Opinions, as men began to remember after social movement had thrown the logical century into discredit, have a history as well as a logic. They are bound
up with a hundred transmitted prepossessions, and they have become identified with a hundred social customs that are the most dearly cherished parts of men's lives. Nature had as much to do with the darkness of yesterday as with the light of to-day; she is as much the accomplice of superstition as she is the oracle of reason. It was because they forgot all this, that Holbach's school now seem so shallow and superficial. The whole past was one long working of the mystery of iniquity. “The sum of the woes of the human race
“ was not diminished—on the contrary, it was increased by its religions, by its governments, by its opinions, in a word, by all the institutions that it was led to adopt on the plea of ameliorating its lot."1 On lui fit adopter ! But who were the on, and how did they work? With what instruments and what fulcrum ? Never was the convenience of this famous abstract substantive more fatally abused. And if religion, government, and opinion had all aggravated the miseries of the human race, what had lessened them ? For the Encyclopædic school never attempted, as Rousseau did, to deny that the world had, as a matter of fact, advanced towards happiness. It was because the Holbachians looked on mankind as slaves held in an unaccountable bondage, which they must necessarily be eager to throw off, that their movement, after doing at the Revolution a certain amount of good in a bad way, led at last to a mischievous reaction in favour of Catholicism.
Far more immediately significant than the philosophy of the System of Nature were the violence, directness, and pertinacity of its assault upon political government. Voltaire, as has so often been noticed, had always abstained from meddling with either the theory or the practical abuses of the national administration. All his shafts had been levelled at ecclesiastical superstition. Rousseau, indeed, had begun the most famous of his political speculations by crying that man who was born free is now everywhere in chains. But Rousseau was vague, abstract, and sentimental. In the System of Nature we have a clear presage of the trenchant and inperious invective which, twenty years after its publication, rang in all men's ears from the gardens of the Palais Royal and the benches of the Jacobins' Hall. The writer has plainly made up his mind that the time has at last come for dropping all the discreet machinery of apologue and parable, and giving to his words the edg; of a sharpened sword. The vague disguises of political speculation, and the mannered reservations of a Utopia or New Atlantis, are exchanged
(1) Syst. de la Nat. pt. I. c. xvi.
for a passionate, biting, and loudly practical indictment. All over the world men are under the yoke of masters who neglect the instruction of the people, or only seek to cheat and deceive them. The sovereigns in every part of the globe are unjust, incapable, made effeminate by luxury, corrupted by flattery, depraved by licence and impunity, destitute of talent, manners, or virtue. Indifferent to their duties, which they usually know nothing about, they are scarcely concerned for a single moment of the day with the well-being of their people; their whole attention is absorbed by useless wars, or by the desire to find at each instant new means of gratifying their insatiable rapacity. The state of society is a state of war between the sovereign and all the rest of its members. In every country alike the morality of the people is wholly neglected, and the one care of the government is to render them timorous and wretched.
The common man desires no more than bread ; he wins it by the sweat of his brow; joyfully would he eat it, if the injustice of the government did not make it bitter in his mouth. By the insanity of governments, those who are swimming in plenty, without being any the happier for it, yet snatch from the tiller of the soil the very fruits that his arms have extracted. Injustice, by reducing indigence to despair, drives it to seek in crime resources against the woes of life. An iniquitous government breeds despair in men's souls ; its vexations depopulate the land, the fields remain untilled, famine, contagion, and pestilence stalk over the earth. Then, embittered by misery, men's minds begin to ferment and effervesce, and what inevitably follows is the overthrow of a realm.
If France had been prosperous, all this would have passed for the empty declamation of an excited man of letters. As it was, such declamation only described, in language as accurate as it was violent and stinging, the real position of the country. In the urgency of a present material distress, men were not over-careful that the basis of the indictment should be laid in the principles of a sound historical philosophy of society. We can hardly wonder at it. What is interesting, and what we do not notice earlier in the century, is that in the System of Nature the revolt against the impotence of society, and the revolt against the omnipotence of God, made a firm coalition. That coalition came to a bloody end for the time, four and twenty years after Holbach's book proclaimed it, when the Committee of Public Safety dispatched Hébert and better men than Hébert to the guillotine for being atheists,--atheism, as Robespierre said, being aristocratic.
Holbach's work may be said to spring from the doctrine that the social deliverance of man depends on his intellectual deliverance, and that the key to his intellectual deliverance is only to be found in
(1) I. xiv. xvi. etc. etc.
the substitution of Naturalism for Theism. What he means by Naturalism we shall proceed shortly to explain. The style, we may remark, notwithstanding the energy and coherence of the thought, is often diffuse and declamatory. Some one said of the System of Nature that it contained at least four times too many words. Yet Voltaire, while professing extreme dislike of its doctrine, admitted that the writer had somehow caught the ear of the learned, of the ignorant, and of women. “He is often clear,” said Voltaire, “and sometimes eloquent, yet he may justly be reproached with declamation, with repeating himself, and with contradicting himself, like all the rest of them.” 1 Galiani made an over-subtle criticism on it, when he complained of the want of coolness and self-possession in the style, and then said that it looked as if the writer were pressed less to persuade other people than to persuade himself. This was a crude impression. Nobody can have any doubt of the writer's profound sincerity, or of his earnest desire to make proselytes. He knows his own mind, and hammers his doctrines out with a hard and iterative stroke that hits its mark. Yet his literary tone, in spite of its declamatory pitch, not seldom sinks into a drone. Holbach's contemporaries were in too fierce contact with the tusks and hooked claws of the Church, to have any mind for the rhythm of a champion's sentences or the turn of his periods. But now that the efforts of the heterodox have taught the Churches to be better Christians than they were a hundred years ago, we can afford to admit that Holbach is hardly more captivating in style, and not always more edifying in temper, than some of the Christian Fathers themselves.
What then is the system of Nature, and what is that Naturalism which is to replace the current faith in the deities outside of observable nature ? The writer makes no pretence of feeling a tentative
towards an answer. From the very outset his spirit is that of dogmatic confidence. He is less a seeker than an expounder; less a philosopher than a preacher; and he boldly dismisses proof in favour of exhortation.
“Let man cease to search outside the world in which he dwells, for beings who may procure him a happiness that nature refuses to grant; let him study that nature, let him learn her laws, and contemplate the energy and unchanging fixity with which she acts ; let him apply his discoveries to his own felicity, and submit in silence to laws from which nothing can withdraw him; let him consent to ignore the causes, surrounded as they are for him by an impenetrable veil; let him undergo without a murmur the decrees of universal force." Science derived from experience is the source of all rise action. It is
(1) Dict. Phil. s. v. Dieu, ş iv.