Page images
PDF
EPUB

original philosophical genius. I confess, I think, they could not have been less profitably occupied. To represent La Mettrie as either a man of much moral worth or of much talent is to falsify history.

He does not absolutely deny that there is a God. It shows the mental calibre of the man that he should, in one sentence, say that it is very probable there may be a God, and then, in those which immediately follow, that there are no grounds for believing in the existence of God—that even if there be a God, there is no need for us to have any religion—and that it is foolish to trouble ourselves as to whether there is a God or not. In one page he affirms that it is perfectly indifferent to our happiness whether God does or does not exist, and a few pages further on he is pleased to inform us that the world will never be happy till atheism is universal. It did not occur to him that although both of these assertions might very well be false, they certainly could not both be true. The reason which he gave for the opinion that the world could not be happy until atheism was universal was, that only then would religious wars and strifes cease. Well, of course, if there were no religion people could not fight about it. But, obviously, they might still fight about other things, and even fight about them more frequently and ignobly than they do at present, just because of the absence of religion. Dogs have no religion, but they quarrel over a bone. Take away from man all interests and motives higher than those of a beast, and you do not thereby secure that he will be peaceable; on the contrary, you insure that he will quarrel as a beast and not as a man.

La Mettrie denies that there is much difference between man and beast. He thought the higher apes more closely related to human beings than most Darwinians even would admit them to be. He was anxious that they should be learned the use of language by Amman's method of instructing the deaf and dumb, and hoped that mankind would thus receive a numerous and valuable addition to their ranks. Any superiority which he admitted man to have over them — it was very little—he attributed wholly to the better organisation of his brain and to the education which he received. The brain, he held, was the soul—the part of the body which thinks—a part endowed with fibres of thinking, just as the legs have muscles of motion. Of course, death, which destroys the rest of the body, destroys the brain— the so-called soul. When death comes the farce of human life is played out. In consistency with these views he represented pleasure — sensuous pleasure—as the chief end of life. He excused vices on the ground that they are organic diseases, and that man cannot control himself. He jeers at modesty and chastity, at love and friendship. He is often coarse and cynical. This is the man who, the recent writers I have mentioned complain, has hitherto not had justice done to him. It would have been a wiser and truer charity in them if they had left his memory in the obscurity which befits it.1

Von Holbach was a German baron settled in Paris—rich, kind-hearted, and generous; well read, especially in physical science; with considerable intellect of a heavy kind ;—the very centre, however, of the infidelity collected in the French capital, as he kept open house, and gave the philosophers excellent entertainment, with perfect freedom to ventilate at his table the wildest and profanest of their theories. He was undoubtedly the chief author of that notorious work which has been called the Bible of atheistical materialism— the 'System of Nature.' It appeared in 1770, and bore two falsehoods on its title-page: it professed to be written by a M. de Mirabaud, a deceased secretary of the Academy, who had had nothing to do with its composition; and it professed to be published at London, whereas it was really published at Amsterdam. Its style is at once declamatory and dreary; but it has qualities which render it a favourite instrument of atheistical propagandism. It is inspired by an honest fan1 See Appendix XII.

. >'

aticism. Its author is always terribly in earnest —sometimes, it must be confessed, ludicrously so. He never betrays any signs of want of confidence in his own conclusions. His generalisations are frequently imposing. His argumentation is often not wanting in acuteness, subtilty, or plausibility. The book which perplexed for a time the mind of Chalmers, has, doubtless, fatally perverted the judgment of many an average intellect.

A distinctive feature of the work is the explicitness with which the idea of God is assailed—with which His existence is denied. Epicurus and Lucretius, even, in spite of their anxiety to throw off the yoke of religion, did not refuse to believe that there were gods, but only that they acted on the world or were interested in human affairs. All the materialists of England stopped short of a denial of the Divine Existence. La Mettrie himself affirmed the probability of the Divine Existence, although he proceeded forthwith to show its non - probability. In the 'System of Nature' there is no compromise or indecision on this point. The denial of the Divine Existence is open and absolute. The belief in His existence is directly, vehemently, elaborately attacked. The origin of religion is traced to fear, ignorance, and the experience of misery, and described as irrational and mischievous in all its forms. The only notion of God which is not absurd is held to be that which identifies Him with the moving power in nature. Deism is rejected as untenable in itself, and as leading to superstition. Atheism is maintained to be the truth, the true system, the true philosophy, which must be accepted wherever nature is rightly understood.

This truth, Von Holbach seriously assures us, is not calculated for the vulgar, not suitable to the great mass of mankind. "Atheism," he writes, "supposes reflection; requires intense study; demands extensive knowledge; exacts a long series of experiences; includes the habit of contemplating nature; the faculty of observing her laws, which, in short, embraces the comprehensive study of the causes producing her various phenomena —her multiplied combinations, together with the diversified actions of the beings she contains, as well as their numerous properties. In order to be an atheist, or to be assured of the capabilities of nature, it is imperative to have meditated on her profoundly: a superficial glance of the eye will not bring man acquainted with her resources; optics but little practised on her powers will be unceasingly deceived; the ignorance of actual causes will always induce the supposition of those which are imaginary; credulity will thus reconduct the natural philosopher himself to the feet of superstitious phantoms, in which either his limited vision or his habitual sloth will make him believe he shall find

« PreviousContinue »