The Heavenly Father - Lectures on Modern Atheism
by Ernest Naville
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History does not offer to our view an uninterrupted progress, as certain optimists suppose; still less does it present the spectacle of an ever-increasing deterioration, as misanthropes affirm; and lastly, it is not true, as we hear it said sometimes, that all epochs are alike, as good one as another. There are times better than those which follow them; and there are epochs less degraded than those which precede them. Human societies fall and rise again; their march exhibits windings and retrograde steps, because that march is under the influence of created liberty; but when their destinies are regarded at one view, it is clearly seen that they are advancing to a determined end, because while man is in restless agitation, God is leading him on. The conquests of modern civilization are great and sacred realities. What are these conquests? Let us not stay at the surface of things, but go to the foundation. Societies fallen into a condition of barbarism have for their motto the famous saying of a Gallic chief: Woe to the vanquished! In institutions, as in manners, the triumph of force characterizes barbarous times. The right of the strongest is the twofold negation of justice and of love; and what characterizes civilization, issuing from the barbarous condition, the fragments of which it so long trails after it, is the establishment of that justice which founds States, and, upon the basis of justice, the development of the benevolence which renders communities happy. These are the two essential conditions of social progress. These conditions are necessary even to the progress of industry and of material welfare.

Modern civilization,—that, namely, which we so designate, while we relegate, so to speak, into the past the contemporaneous societies of the vast East,—modern civilization possesses a power unknown to antiquity. Justice has a foundation in the conscience, benevolence has natural roots in the heart; but a moment has been when justice and love appeared in the world with new brightness, like rays disengaged from clouds. Modern civilization was then deposited on the earth in a powerful germ, of which nothing was any more to arrest the growth. That moment was when the idea of God appeared in its fulness: modern civilization was born of the Gospel. The knowledge of God strengthens justice, and the thought of the common Father develops benevolence. These theses are well known; let us confine ourselves to a few rapid illustrations.

There exists an institution in which has been embodied the negation of social justice—Slavery. Slavery is at length disappearing before our eyes from the bosom of Christendom; and its final retreat is doing honor to Russia, and bathing America in blood. This is perhaps the greatest of the events which the annals of history will inscribe on the page of the nineteenth century. Now slavery was, in the past, an almost universal institution. The finest intellects of Greece devoted a portion of their labors to its justification. Rome, at the most brilliant period of its civilization, caused slaves to kill one another, in savage spectacles intended to delight the populace, or during sumptuous banquets for the amusement of wealthy debauchees![30] How has slavery disappeared little by little! How has man been rediscovered beneath that living thing of which was made, one while an instrument of labor, and another while the sport of execrable passions? Inquire into this history. You will find the reason and the heart making their protests heard in antiquity, but without becoming efficacious. One day all is changed, and the foundations of slavery begin to shake. At that memorable epoch you will meet with a written document, the first in which is shown in its germ the great social fact which was about to have birth. It is not an emperor's decree, it is not the vote of a body politic, it is a letter a few lines long written by a prisoner to one of his friends. The substance of this letter was: "I send thee back thy slave; but in the name of God I beg of thee to receive him as thy brother; think of the common Master who is in heaven." This letter was addressed—"To Philemon;" the name of the writer was Paul. It is the first charter of slave emancipation. Ponder this fact, Gentlemen: contemplate the ancient institution of slavery shaken to its foundations, without being the object of any direct attack, by the breath of a new spirit. You will then understand how historians can tell us that the relations of states, belligerent rights, civil laws, political institutions, all these things of which the Gospel has never spoken, have been, and are being still, every day transformed by the slow action of the Gospel. God has appeared; justice is marching in His train.

Justice is the foundation of society; but without the spirit of love, justice remains crippled, and never reaches its perfection. Justice maintains the rights of each; love seeks to realize the communication of advantages among all. Justice overthrows the artificial barriers raised between men by force and guile; love softens natural inequalities and causes them to turn to the general good. Need I tell you that the knowledge of God is a light of which the brightest ray is love to men? Benevolence, that feeling natural to our hearts, is strengthened, extended, transfigured, by becoming charity;—charity, that union of the soul with the Heavenly Father, which descends again to earth in loving communion between all His children. The soul separated from God may be conscious of strong affections: but study well the character of a virtue which is nourished from purely human sources; you will see that it may for the most part be expressed in these terms—"To love one's friends heartily, and to hate one's enemies with a generous hatred; to esteem the honest and to despise the vicious." But that virtue which loves the vicious while it hates the vice, that virtue which will avenge itself only by overcoming evil with good, that virtue which, while it draws closer the bonds of private affections, makes a friend of every man, that virtue which we call divine, by a natural impulse of our heart—what is the source from which it flows? The following fact will sufficiently answer the question. On the facade of one the hospitals of the Christian world, are read these Latin words, the brief energy of which our language cannot render: Deo in pauperibus, "This edifice is consecrated to God in the person of the poor." Here is the secret of charity: it discerns the Divine image deposited in every human soul. But do not mistake here: we cannot love, with a love natural and direct, the rags of squalid poverty, the brands of vice, the languors and sores of sickness; but let God manifest Himself, and our eyes are opened. The beauty of souls breaks forth to our view beneath the wasting of the haggard frame, and from under the filth of vice. We love those immortal creatures fallen and degraded; a sacred desire possesses us to restore them to their true destination. Has an artist discovered in a mass of rubbish, under vulgar appearances, a product of the marvellous chisel of the Greeks? He sets himself, with a zeal full of respect, to free the noble statue from the impurities which defile it. Every soul of man is the work of art Divine, and every charitable heart is an artist who desires to labor at its restoration. Henceforward we can understand that love of suffering and of poverty, that passion for the galleys and the hospital, which have at times thrown Christians into extravagances which our age has no reason to dread. God in the poor man, God in the sick man, God in the vicious man and the criminal; this, I repeat, is the grand secret of charity. Charity passes from the heart of men and from individual practice into social customs and institutions. Charity it is which, by degrees, takes from law its needless rigors, and from justice its useless tortures; which substitutes the prison in which it is sought to reform the guilty for the galley, which completes the corruption of the criminal; it is charity that opens public asylums for all forms of suffering; and that will realize, up to the limits of what is possible, all the hopes of philanthropy. If God ceases to be present to the mind and conscience of men, justice and love lose their power. Without the powerful action of justice and of love, society would descend again, by the ways of corruption, towards the struggles of barbarism. Observe, study well, all that is going on around us. Does our civilization appear to you sufficiently solid to give you the idea that it can henceforth dispense with the foundations on which it has reposed hitherto?

The sentiments of justice and of benevolence which form the double basis of the progress of society, suppose a more general sentiment which is their common support—the sentiment of humanity. The idea that man has a value in himself, that he is, in virtue of his quality as man, independently of the places which he inhabits and of the position which he occupies in the world, an object of justice and of love;—this idea includes in itself all the moral part of civilization. Social progress is only the recognition, ever more and more explicit, of the value of one soul, of the rights of one conscience. Now, the idea of humanity has the closest possible connection with the knowledge of God, considered as the Father of the human race. Ancient wisdom, superior to the worship of idols, had gained a glimpse of the fact that the philosopher is a citizen of the universe; and that famous line of Terence: "I am a man, and I reckon nothing human foreign to me," excited, it is said, the applause of the Roman spectators. But these were mere gleams, extinguished soon by the general current of thought. It was the pale dawn of the idea of humanity. Whence came the day?

I will limit the question by defining it. The idea of humanity is the idea of the worth and consequently of the rights of each individual man. It is the idea of liberty; not of liberty interpreted by passion and selfishness as the inauguration of the license which violates right, but of liberty interpreted by reason and conscience as the limit which the action of each man encounters in the right of his neighbor. We are not speaking here of the equality of political rights, which is not always a guarantee of veritable liberty. We are speaking of a social condition such that man, in the exercise of his faculties, in the manifestation of his thoughts, in his efforts for the causes which he loves, so long as he does not violate the rights of others, does not meet with an arbitrary power to arrest him. Still farther to limit our subject, we shall speak of the most important manifestation of that liberty—liberty of conscience, of which religious liberty is the most ordinary and most complete manifestation. This is only one of the points of the subject, but it is a point which in reality supposes and includes all the rest. This liberty—whence does it come?

It does not come from paganism. Paganism, with its national religions, could only produce fanaticism or doubt. Each people having its own particular religion, to exterminate the foreigner was to serve the cause of the gods of the country. A war-cry descended from the Olympus of each several nation—that Olympus which the gods quitted, in case of need, to take part in the quarrels of men. Did reason perceive the nothingness of these national divinities? Then scepticism appeared. The idea of the supreme God being unsettled with all, and wholly obscured for the crowd, when men ceased to believe in the gods of the nation, they lost all belief whatsoever. For this cause doubt prevailed so widely at the decline of the ancient world. Those pantheons in which all religions were received, welcomed, protected, are the ever-memorable temples of scepticism. Now you know what voice made itself heard, when the ancient civilization was enfeebled by the spirit of doubt: "Henceforth there is neither Greek nor barbarian, bond nor free. Ye are all brethren, and for all there is one God, and one truth:" here behold the root of scepticism severed. And the same voice added: "This only God is the lawful Owner of His creatures; and when you presume to do violence to the consciences which belong to Him, you know not by what spirit you are animated:" here behold the fountain of fanaticism dried up. God is acknowledged; He is the Master of souls: faith founds liberty.

The Witness to universal truth appears before Rome as represented by a deputy of Caesar. He is a fanatic, says the Roman; then he goes his way, and leaves Him to be put to death. But ere long, a dull hoarse murmur of the nations, extending through all the length and breadth of the mighty empire, gives token that He who was dead is alive again, and is speaking to the general conscience. Then Rome starts from her sleep; Rome; the politic tolerant Rome, sheds rivers of blood. Her tolerance allowed men to believe everything, but on condition that they believed seriously in nothing. Rome was directed by the sure instinct of despotism. She did not fear the gods of the Pantheon, because she could always place above them the statue of the Emperor: whereas what was now in question was, while leaving to Caesar the things which were Caesar's, to place a Sovereign above the Emperor, and to raise a legislation above the legislation of the empire. Therefore the Roman city determined to give a death-blow to Christianity,—to the idea of universal truth, because if that idea gained entrance into the understanding, the cause of the liberty of souls was gained. So it was that indifference became ferocious, and that doubt led back to fanaticism.

I have told you whence liberty does not come; but whence comes it? Whence comes liberty? Ask any scholar of the Lyceums of France; he will answer you, without hesitation: Liberty comes from the French revolution!—No doubt, whispers an older comrade in his ear; but do not forget the philosophy of the eighteenth century which developed the principles which the revolution put in practice.—That is all very well, a Protestant will say; but let us consider the grand fact of the Reformation: it is from the sixteenth century that liberty has its date.—Well and good, adds an historian; but do you not know that the Germans were they who poured a generous and free blood into the impoverished blood of the men who had been fashioned by the slavery of the empire? I contest nothing, and I am not sufficiently well-informed to pronounce with confidence upon the action of all these historic causes. But this I venture to affirm,—that if any one thinks to fix definitely the hour when liberty was born in history, he is mistaken: for it has no other date than that of the human conscience, and I will say with M. Lamartine:

Give me the freedom which that hour had birth, With the free soul, when first in conscious worth The just man braved the stronger![31]

Liberty had birth the first time that, urged by his fellow men to acts which wounded his conscience, a man, relying upon God, felt himself stronger than the world. That Socrates had not studied, I fancy, in the school of the Encyclopedists, and was no German either, that I know of, who said to the judges of Athens, with death in prospect: "It is better to obey God than men." And when those words were repeated by the Apostles of the universal truth, the death of Socrates, that noble death which has justly gained for him the admiration of the universe, was reproduced in thousands and thousands of instances. Children, women, young girls, old men, perished in tortures to attest the rights of conscience; and the blood of martyrs, that seed of Christians, as a father of the Church called it,[32] was not less a seed of liberty. Liberty was not born in history; but if you wish to fix a date to its grandest outburst, you have it here; there is no other which can be compared with it.

Some of you are thinking perhaps, without saying so, that I am maintaining a hard paradox. To look for the source of liberty of conscience in religion, is not this to forget that the Christian Church has often marked its passage in history by a long track of blood rendered visible by the funereal light of the stake? I forget nothing, Sirs, and I beg of you not to forget anything either. There are three remarks which I commend to your attention.

It must not be forgotten that the Gospel first obtained extensive success when Roman society was in the lowest state of corruption, and that its representatives were but too much affected by the evils which it was their mission to combat.

It must not be forgotten that there came afterwards hordes of barbarians who in a certain sense renovated the worn-out society, but who poured over the new leaven a coarse paste hard to penetrate.

It must not be forgotten, lastly, that if a cause might legitimately be condemned for the faults of its defenders, there are none, no, not a single one, which could remain erect before the tribunal which so should give judgment. Every cause in this world is more or less compromised by its representatives; but there are bad principles, which produce evil by their own development, and there are good principles which man abuses, but which by their very nature always end by raising a protest against the abuse. It is in the light of this indisputable truth that we are about to enter upon a discussion of which you will appreciate the full importance.

Sceptical writers affirm that toleration has its origin in the weakening of faith; and, drawing the consequence of their affirmation, they recommend the diffusion of the spirit of doubt as the best means of promoting liberty of conscience. We have here the old argument which would suppress the use to get rid of the abuse. Persecutions are made in the name of religion; let us get rid of faith, and we shall have peace. Prisons have been built and the stake has been set up in the name of God: let us get rid of God, and we shall have toleration. Observe well the bearing of this mode of argument. Let us get rid of fire, and we shall have no more conflagrations; let us get rid of water, and no more people will be drowned. No doubt,—but humanity will perish of drought and of cold.

Let us examine this subject seriously: it is well worth our while. If toleration proceeds from the enfeebling of religious belief, we ought among various nations to meet with toleration in an inverse proportion to the degree of their faith. This is a question then of history. Let us study facts. Recollecting first of all that ancient Rome did not draw forth a germ of liberty from its scepticism, let us throw a glance over existing communities.

Sweden is far behind England in regard to liberty of conscience. Is it that religious convictions are weaker in England than in Sweden? Has the religious liberty which Great Britain practises sprung from indifference? Is it not rather that that land produces an energetic race, and that it has been so often drenched with the blood of the followers of different forms of worship, that that blood cried at length to heaven, and that the conscience of the people heard it? There is more religious liberty in France than in Spain. Is it the case that the true cause of the intolerance of the Spanish people is a more lively and more general faith than that of the French? That is not so certain.

Switzerland is one of the countries in which is enjoyed the greatest liberty of opinion. Is Switzerland a land of indifference? Was not the comparative firmness of its citizens' convictions remarked during the conflicts of the last century? Do not the United States bear in large characters upon their banner this inscription: LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE? America is not distinguished as a country without religion; on the contrary, it is blamed for the excursiveness of its faith, for the multiplicity and sometimes for the extravagance of its sects. Was it a sceptic that taught the inhabitants of the New World to respect religious convictions? Assuredly not! William Penn was shut up in the Tower of London for the crime of free thought. Set free from prison, he crossed the ocean. While intolerance was reigning still on both shores of the Atlantic, he founded in Pennsylvania a place of refuge for all proscribed opinions; and the germ has been fruitful. In vain I pass from old Europe to young America; I look, I observe, and I do not see that liberty is developed in proportion to the scepticism and the incredulity of nations. I seem, on the contrary, to see that there is perhaps most liberty where there is most real faith.

Some may dispute the validity of these conclusions by remarking that the condition of communities is a complex phenomenon depending upon divers causes. Let us simplify the question. Is it not, it will be said, the literary representatives of the spirit of doubt who have demanded and founded toleration? Is it not.... But it is not necessary for my supposed questioner to go on. If he is a Frenchman, he will name Voltaire. No doubt, freedom of opinion has been claimed by sceptics. They have served a good cause; let us know how to rejoice in the fact, and not to be unmindful of what there may have been in their work of noble impulses and generous inspirations. Let us remark however that every proscribed opinion puts forth a natural claim to the liberty of which it is deprived. But it is one thing to claim for one's-self a liberty one would gladly make use of to oppress others, and it is another thing to demand liberty seriously and for all. There was, as I am glad to believe, a certain natural generosity in the motives which led Voltaire to consecrate to noble causes a pen so often sold to evil. Still it is impossible not to suspect that if that apostle of toleration had had a principality under his own sway, the fact of thinking differently from the master would very soon have figured among the number of delinquencies.

The patriarch of Ferney wrote in favor of toleration; some friends of religious indifference have pleaded the cause of liberty of conscience: the fact is certain. But other writers, animated by a living faith, have also demanded liberty for all: the fact is not less certain. Some years ago, at nearly the same epoch, the Pere Lacordaire and our own Alexander Vinet consecrated to this noble cause, the former the attractive brilliancy of his eloquence, the latter all the fineness of his delicate analyses. The friends of Lacordaire are gathering up the vibrations of that striking utterance which proclaimed: "Liberty slays not God."[33] Let us gather up also the good words, which, uttered on the borders of our lake, have gained entrance far and near into many hearts. I should like to take such and such a Parisian journalist, bring him into our midst, and get him to acquaint himself thoroughly with the results of our experience; I should like to conduct him to the cemetery of Clarens, place him by the tomb of Vinet, and tell him what that man was.—If, as he returned to his home, my journalist did not leave behind him at the French frontier, as contraband merchandise, all that he would have seen and learnt in our country, he would perhaps understand that the surest road by which to arrive at respect for the consciences of others is not indifference, but firmness of faith, in humility of heart, and largeness of thought. All the writers who have devoted their pen to the defence of the rights of the human soul have not therefore been sceptics. Without continuing this discussion of proper names, let us settle what is here the true place of writers. Before there are men who demand liberty and digest the theory of it, there must be other men who take it, and who suffer for having taken it. If liberty is consolidated with speech and pen, it is founded with tears and blood; and the sceptical apostles of toleration conveniently usurp the place of the martyrs of conviction. "What we want," rightly observes a revolutionary writer, "is free men, rather than liberators of humanity."[34]

In fact, liberty comes to us above all from those who have suffered for it. Its living springs are in the spirit of faith, and not, as they teach us, in the spirit of indifference. It is easy to understand, that where no one believes, the liberty to believe would not be claimed by any one.

Let us now endeavor to penetrate below facts, in order to bring back the discussion to sure principles. Let us ask what, in regard to liberty of conscience, are the natural consequences of faith, and the natural consequences of scepticism.

Faith does appear, at first sight, a source of intolerance. The man who believes, reckons himself in possession of the right in regard to truth, and to God; he has nothing to respect in error. Thus it is that belief naturally engenders persecution. This reasoning is specious, all the more as it is supported by numerous and terrible examples; but let us look at things more closely. Place yourselves face to face with any one of your convictions, no matter which; I hope there is no one of you so unfortunate as not to have any. Suppose that it were desired to impose upon you by force even the conviction which you have. Suppose that an officer of police came to say to you, pronouncing at the same time the words which best expressed your own thoughts: "you are commanded so to believe." What would happen? If you had never had a doubt of your faith, you would be tempted to doubt it, the moment any human power presumed to impose it upon you. The feeling of oppression would produce in your conscience a strong inclination to revolt. Let us analyze this feeling. You feel that it is words, not convictions, which are imposed by force; you feel that declarations extorted by fear from lying lips are an outrage to truth. You feel, in a word, that your belief is the right of God over you, and not the right of your neighbor. Men respect God's right over the souls of their fellow-men, in proportion as they are intelligent in their own faith. The fanaticism which would impose words by force is not an ardent but a blind faith. In order to bring it back into the paths of liberty, it is enough to restore to it its sight.

The establishment of the Christian religion furnishes a great example in support of our thesis. The Christians, when persecuted by the empire, had never allowed themselves to reply to the violence of power by the violence of rebellion. There came, however, and soon enough, a time when they were sufficiently numerous to defend themselves, and had withal the consciousness of their strength; but they had no will to conquer the world, except by the arms of martyrdom, and heroism, and obedience. This was not the case during a few years only, it is the history of three centuries, an ever-memorable page of human annals, in which all ages will be able to learn what are the true weapons of truth. Christendom, too often forgetful of its origin, has in later times allowed the fury of persecution to cloak itself under a pretended regard for sacred interests; but the remedy has proceeded from the very evil. The Christian conscience has protested, in the name of the Gospel, against the crimes of which the Gospel was the pretext, and the passions of men the cause. "We must bewail the misery and error of our time," already St. Hilary was exclaiming, in the fourth century. "Men are thinking that God has need of the protection of men.... The Church is uttering threats of banishment and imprisonment, and desiring to compel belief by force,—the Church, which itself acquired strength in exile and in prisons!"

True faith, then, possesses a principle by which it protests against abuses which it is sought to cloak under its name, and this protest comes at last to make itself heard. Faith suppressed, the passions will remain, for in order to be a saint, it is not enough to be a sceptic. The passions will look for other pretexts. Will not the spirit of doubt offer them such pretexts?

It seems at first sight that doubt must promote toleration, since it does not allow any importance to be attached to opinions. This is a specious conclusion, similar to that which placed in belief the source of intolerant passions. Let us once more reflect a little. The first effect of doubt is certainly to dispose the mind to leave a free course to all opinions; but disdain is not the way to respect, and only respect can give solid bases to the spirit of liberty. Believers are in the eyes of the sceptic weak-minded persons, whom he treats at first with a gentle and patronizing compassion. But these weak minds grow obstinate; the sceptic perceives that they do not bend before his superiority, and dare perhaps to consider themselves as his equals. Then irritation arises, and, beneath the velvet paw, one feels the piercing of the claw. The sceptic has in fact a dogma; he has but one, but one he has after all—the negation of truth. The faith of others is a protest against that single dogma on which he has concentrated all the powers of his conviction. He is passionately in earnest for this negation; he feels himself the representative of an idea, of which he must secure the triumph. Now come such surmisings as these: "Here are men who think themselves the depositaries of truth! These pretended believers—may they not be hypocrites?" Place men so disposed in positions of power; let them be the masters of society; what will follow? Beliefs are a cause of disturbances: what seemed at first an innocent weakness, takes then the character of a dangerous madness. For the politician, the temptation to extirpate this madness is not far off. "What if we were to get rid of this troublesome source of agitation! If we declared that the conscience of individuals belongs to the sovereign, what repose we should have in the State! If we proclaimed the true modern dogma, namely, that there is no dogma; if silencing, in short, fanatics who are behind their age, we decreed that every belief is a crime and every manifestation of faith a revolt, what quiet in society!" The incline is slippery, and what shall hold back the sceptic who is descending it?

Faith carries with it the remedy for fanaticism, but where shall be found the remedy for the fanaticism of doubt? In the claims of God? God is but a word, or a worthless hypothesis. In respect for the convictions of others? All conviction is but weakness and folly. All this, be well assured, gives much matter for reflection. When I hear some men who call themselves liberal, tracing the ideal of the society which they desire, the bare imagination of their triumph frightens me, for I can understand that that society would enjoy the liberty of the Roman empire, and the toleration of the Caesars.

Such are the consequences of scepticism for the leaders of a people. What will those consequences be for the people themselves? The spirit of indifference paralyzes the sources of generous sentiments, and ends in the same results as the spirit of cowardice. And do you not know the part which cowardice has played in history? If I may venture to call up here the most mournful recollections of modern times, do you not know that during the Reign of Terror, two or three hundred scoundrels instituted public massacres in the Capital of France, in the midst of a population shuddering with fright, but who let things go? Now the characteristic of indifference is the letting things go. If fanaticism has something to do with persecution, indifference has a great deal to do with it. The crimes which minds paralyzed by doubt allow to be perpetrated have besides a sadder character than those which are perpetrated by passions, which, wild and erring though they be, have a certain nobleness in their origin. If I must be bound to the stake, I had rather burn with the blind assent of a fanatical crowd, than in the presence of an indifferent populace who came to look on. For just as sceptics find all doctrines equally good, so they find all spectacles equally instructive and curious.[35]

I have felt it necessary to insist on these considerations. Direct attacks upon religious truth are perhaps less dangerous than the efforts by which modern infidelity endeavors to estrange us from God, by persuading us that doubt is the guarantee of liberty, and that belief rivets the chains of bondage. Many consciences are disturbed by these affirmations. It concerns us therefore to know that God is the great Liberator of souls, and that forgetfulness of God is the road to slavery. The faith which seeks to propagate itself by force inflicts upon itself the harshest of contradictions. The spirit of doubt, in order to become the spirit of violence, has only to transform itself according to the laws of its proper nature.

And now to sum up. One of the noblest spectacles that earth can show, is that of a community animated with a true and profound faith, in which each man, using his best efforts to communicate his convictions to his brethren, respects the while that which belongs to God in the inviolable asylum of the conscience of others. But woe to the society formed by sophists, in which opinion, benumbed by doubt and indifference, arouses itself only to devote to hatred or to contempt every firm and noble conviction!

To unsettle the idea of God, is to dry up its source the stream of the veritable progress of modern society; it is to attack the foundations of liberty, justice, and love. The material conquests of civilization would serve thenceforward only to hasten the decomposition of the social body. The pure idea of God is the true cause of the great progress of the modern era; religion, in its generality, is, as Plutarch has told us, the necessary condition to the very existence of society. This is what remains for us to prove.

"How sacred is the society of citizens," said Cicero, "when the immortal gods are interposed between them as judges and as witnesses."[36] Let us raise still higher this lofty thought, and say: "How sacred is human society, when, beneath the eye of the common Father, the inequalities of life are accepted with patience and softened by love; when the poor and the rich, as they meet together, remember that the Lord is the Maker of them both; when a hope of immortality alleviates present evils, and when the consciousness of a common dignity reduces to their true value the passing differences of life!" Take away from human society God as mediator, and the hopes founded in God as a source of consolation, and what would you have remaining? The struggle of the poor against the rich, the envy of the ignorant directed against the man who has knowledge, the dullard's low jealousy of superior intelligence, hatred of all superiority, and, by an almost inevitable reaction, the obstinate defence of all abuses,—in one word, war—war admitting neither of remedy nor truce. Such is the most apparent danger which now threatens society.

When I consider these facts with attention, I am astonished every day that society subsists at all, that the burning lava of unruly passions does not oftener make large fissures in the social soil, and overflow in devastating torrents, bearing away at once palace and cottage, field and workshop. This standing danger is drawing anxious attention, and we hear the old adage repeated: "There must be a religion for the people." There are men who wish to give the people a religion which they themselves do not possess, acting like a man who, at once poor and ostentatious, should give alms with counterfeit money. And what result do they attain? We must have a religion for the people, say the politicians, that they may secure the ends they have in view, and conduct at their own pleasure the herds at their disposal. We must have a religion for the people, say the rich, in order to keep peaceably their property and their incomes. We must have a religion for the people, say the savants, in order to remain quiet in their studies, or in their academic chairs. What are they doing—these men without God, who wish to preserve a faith for the use of the people? These savants,—they say, and print it, that religion is an error necessary for the multitudes who are incapable of rising to philosophy. Where is it that they say it, and print it? Is it in drawing-rooms with closed doors? Is it within the walls of Universities, or in scientific publications which are out of the reach of the masses? No. They say it in political journals, in reviews read by all the world; they print it at full in books which are sold by thousands of copies. Their words are spreading like a deleterious miasma through all classes of society. Thoughtless men! (I am unwilling to suppose a cool calculation on their part of money or of fame which should oblige me to say—heartless men), thoughtless men! they do not see the inevitable consequences of their own proceeding. The people hear and understand. The intellectual barriers between the different classes of society are gradually becoming lower: this is one of the clearest of the ways of Providence in our time. Do you believe that the people will long consent to hear it said that they only live on errors, but that those errors are necessary for them? Do you not see that they are about to rise, and answer, in the sentiment of their own dignity, that they will no longer be deceived, and that they intend to deliver themselves also from superstition? Then, all restraining barriers removed, passions will have free course; and believe me, the rising floods will not respect those quiet haunts of study in which they will have had one of their springs. The proof of this has been seen before. Some men of the last century wished to destroy religion amongst decent folk, but not for the rabble: they are Voltaire's words, who had too much good sense to be an atheist, but whose pale deism is sometimes scarcely distinguishable from the negation of God. "Your Majesty," thus he wrote to his friend the King of Prussia, in January, 1757, "will render an eternal service to the human race, by destroying that infamous superstition, I do not say amongst the rabble, which is not worthy to be enlightened, and to which all yokes are suitable, but amongst honest people." A religion was necessary for the people; but Voltaire and the King of Prussia, the German barons, the French marquises, and the ladies who received their homage, could do without it.

Voltaire died before eating of the fruit of his works; and Alfred de Musset could only address to him his vengeful apostrophe at his tomb:

Sleep'st thou content, and does thy hideous smile Still flit, Voltaire, above thy fleshless bones?[37]

Voltaire was dead; but many of his friends and disciples were able to meditate, in the prisons of the Terror and as they mounted the steps of the scaffold, on the nature of the terrible game which they had played—and lost.

So it fares with men of letters who have no God, but who would have a religion for the people. Other men there are who would have a religion for the people, being themselves the while without restraint, because they are without religious convictions. They abandon themselves to the ardent pursuit of riches, excitements, worldly pleasures. These are they who have made a fortune by disgraceful means, perhaps the public sale of their consciences, and who by their luxurious extravagance overwhelm the honest and economical working-man. These are the courtesans who parade in broad daylight the splendid rewards of their own infamy. Let not such deceive themselves! The people see these things; they form their judgment of them, and if they give way to the bad instincts which are in us all, where God is not in the heart to restrain them, to their hatred is added contempt. If they are forcibly kept back from realizing their cherished hopes, they adjourn them, but without renouncing them.

Put away all belief in God, and you will see the action and reaction of human passions forming, as it were, a mass of opposite electricities, and preparing the thunder-peal and the furies of the tempest. Then appear those disorganized societies which are terrified at their own dissolution, until a strong man comes, and, taking advantage of this very terror, takes and chastises these societies, as one chastises an unruly child. It is a story at once old and new, because, in proportion as God withdraws from human society, in that same proportion the power of the sword replaces the empire of the conscience. There must be a religion for the people! Yes, Sirs, but for that people, wide as humanity, which includes us all.

If the existence of God is denied, man falls into despair, and society into dissolution. What then is my inference? That atheism is false. Such a mode of arguing produces an outcry. "A matter of sentiment!" men exclaim. "You would build up a doctrine according to your own fancy! You do not discuss the question calmly, but appeal to interests and prejudices: you quit the domain of science, which takes cognizance only of facts and reasoning." Such expressions are common enough to make it worth while to study their value. Of course, science must not be an instrument of our caprice. We are bound to search for truth; and we are unfaithful to our obligations if we try to establish doctrines which serve our passions, or favor our interests, or flatter our tastes and our prejudices. But the conscience, the heart, the conditions of the existence of human society, are neither prejudices nor personal interests; they are eternal and living realities. We speak of the conscience, of the heart, of society, and they answer us: "We do not believe that there are true sciences in that domain; we only wish for facts." Occasionally we hear naturalists speak in this way. We only wish for facts! Then our thoughts, our feelings, our conscience are not facts! The man who will give the closest observation to the steps of a fly, or to a caterpillar's method of crawling, has not a moment's attention to give to the impulses of the heart, to the rules of duty, to the struggles of the will; and when addressed on the subject of these realities of the soul, the most certain of all realities, he will reply: "That is no business of mine, I want nothing but facts." Let us pass from this aberration, and listen for a moment to other objectors.

We do not deny, it is often said, the reality of our feelings. Man desires happiness, and seeks it in religious belief; but this is an order of things which science cannot take account of. Science has only truth for its object, and owes its own existence wholly to the reason. If it happens to science to give pain to the heart or to the conscience, no conclusion can thence be drawn against the certainty of its results. "There is no commoner, and at the same time faultier, way of reasoning, than that of objecting to a philosophical hypothesis the injury it may do to morals and to religion. When an opinion leads to absurdity, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that it is false because it entails dangerous consequences."[38] So wrote the patriarch of modern sceptics, the Scotchman Hume. The lesson has been well learnt; it is repeated to us, without end, in the columns of the leading journals of France, and in the pages of the Revue des deux Mondes. The adversaries of spiritual beliefs have changed their tactics. In the last century, they replied to minds alarmed for the consequences of their work: "Truth can never do harm."—"Truth can never do harm," retorted J.J. Rousseau: "I believe it as you do, and this it is that proves to me that your doctrines are not truth." The argument is conclusive. So the adversary has taken up another position; and he says at this day:—"Our doctrines do perhaps pain the heart, and wound the conscience, but this is no reason why they should be false: moral goodness, utility, happiness, are not signs by which we may know what is true."

Philosophy, Gentlemen, has always assumed to be the universal explanation of things, and you will agree that it is on her part a humiliating avowal, that she is enclosed, namely, in a circle of pure reason, and leaves out of view, as being unable to give any account of them, the great realities which are called moral goodness and happiness. One might ask what are the bases of that science which disavows, without emotion, the most active powers of human nature. One might ask whether those who so speak, understand well the meaning of their own words; and inquire also what is the method which they employ, and the result at which they aim. One might ask whether these philosophers are not like astronomers who should say: "Here are our calculations. It matters nothing to us whether the stars in their observed course do or do not agree with them. Science is sovereign; it is amenable only to its own laws, and visible realities cannot be objections in the way of its calculations." Let us leave these preliminary remarks, and let us come to the core of the controversy.

They set the reason on one side, the conscience and heart upon the other, as an anatomist separates the organic portions of a corpse, and they say: Truth belongs only to the reason; the conscience and the heart have no admission into science. Listen to the following express declaration of the weightiest, perhaps, of French contemporary philosophers: "The God of the pure reason is the only true God; the God of the imagination, the God of the feelings, the God of the conscience, are only idols!"[39] It is impossible to accept this arbitrary division of the divine attributes. There is but one and the same God, the Substance of truth, the inexhaustible Source of beauty, the supreme Law of the wills created to accomplish the designs of His mercy. The conscience, the heart, the reason rise equally towards Him, following the triple ray which descends from His eternity upon our transitory existence. We cannot therefore seriously admit that God of the pure reason, separated from the God of the conscience and of the heart. Still let us endeavor to make this concession, for argument's sake, to our philosopher. Let us suppose that the reason has a God to itself, a God for the metaphysicians who is not the God of the vulgar. Before we immolate upon His altar the conscience and the heart, it is worth our while to examine whether the statue of the God of the reason rests upon a solid pedestal. Here are the theses which are proposed to us: "It is impossible for our feelings to supply any light for science. Truth may be gloomy, and despair may gain its cause. Virtue may be wrong, and immorality may be the true. Reason alone judges of that which is." I answer: Human nature has always eagerly followed after happiness. Human nature has always acknowledged, even while violating it, a rule of duty. The heart is not an accident, the conscience is not a prejudice: they are, and by the same right as the reason, constituent elements of our spiritual existence. If there exist an irreconcilable antagonism between science and life; if the heart, in its fundamental and universal aspirations, is the victim of an illusion, if the conscience in its clearest admonitions is only a teacher of error, what is our position? In what I am now saying, Gentlemen, I am not appealing to your feelings; the business is to follow, with calm attention, a piece of exact reasoning. If the heart deceives us, if the voice of duty leads us astray, the disorder is at the very core of our being; our nature is ill constructed. If our nature is ill constructed, what warrants to us our reason? Nothing. What assures us that our axioms are good, and that our reasonings have any value? Nothing. The life of the soul cannot be arbitrarily cloven in twain; it must be held for good in all its constituent elements, or enveloped wholly and entirely in the shades of doubt. If the heart and conscience deceive us, then reason may lead us astray, and the very idea of truth disappears. God is the light of the spiritual world. We prove His existence by showing that without Him all returns to darkness. This demonstration is as good as another.


[26] Christian States have given the force of law to institutions, such, for instance, as monogamy, which date their origin from the Gospel records. Here we have the normal development of civilization: religious faith enlightens the general conscience, and reveals to it the true conditions of social progress. In this order of things, it is not a question of beliefs, but of acts imposed in the name of the interests of society. The state may take account of the religious beliefs of its subjects, and enter into such relations as may seem to it convenient with the ecclesiastical authorities: this is the basis of the system of concordats, a system which has nothing in it contrary to first principles, so long as liberty is maintained. But the establishment of national religions, decreed by the temporal power and varying in different states, manifestly supposes a foundation of scepticism. For the idea of truth, one and universal in itself, is substituted the idea of decisions obligatory for those only who are under the jurisdiction of a definite political body. If the State, without pretending to decree dogma, receives it from the hands of the Church, and imposes it upon its subjects, it seems at first that the temporal power has placed itself at the service of the Church, but that the idea of truth is preserved. But when the question is studied more closely, it is seen that this is not the case, and that the state usurps in fact, in this combination, the attributes of the spiritual power. In fact, before protecting the true religion, it is necessary to ascertain which it is; and in order to ascertain the true religion, the political power must constitute itself judge of religious truth. So we come back, by a detour, to the conception of national religions. The Emperor of Russia and the Emperor of Austria will inquire respectively which is the only true religion, to the exclusive maintenance of which they are to consecrate their temporal power. To the same question they will give two different replies; and each nation will have its own form of worship, just as each nation has its own ruler.

[27] Etudes orientales, 1861.

[28] Unite morale des peuples modernes,—a lecture delivered at Lyons, 10 April, 1839. This lecture is inserted after the Genie des Religions in the complete works of the author.

[29] Franck, Philosophie du droit ecclesiastique, pages 117 and 118.

[30] Schmidt, Essai historique sur la Societe civile dans le monde romain. Bk. 1. ch. 3.


La liberte que j'aime est nee avec notre ame Le jour ou le plus juste a brave le plus fort.

[32] Tertullian.

[33] Le Pere Lacordaire, by the Comte de Montalembert, p. 25.

[34] De l'autre rive, by Iscander (in Russian). Iscander is the pseudonyme of M. Herzen.

[35] "The man of thought knows that the world only belongs to him as a subject of study, and, even if he could reform it, perhaps he would find it so curious as it is that he would not have the courage to do so."—Ernest Renan, preface to Etudes d'histoire religieuse, 1857. The author has manifested better sentiments in 1859, in the preface to his Essais de morale et de critique.

[36] De Legibus, ii. 7.


Dors-tu content, Voltaire, et ton hideux sourire Voltige-t-il encor sur tes os decharnes?

[38] Hume, Essay VIII. On liberty and necessity. [Not having access to the original, I re-translate the French translation.—TR.]

[39] Vacherot, La metaphysique et la science. Preface, p. xxix.



(At Geneva, 24th Nov. 1863.—At Lausanne, 18th Jan. 1864.)


The subject of the present Lecture will be—The revival of Atheism. And I do not employ the word 'atheism'—a term which has been so greatly abused—without mature reflection. When Socrates opposed the idea of the holy God to the impure idols of paganism; when he dethroned Jupiter and his train in order to celebrate "the supreme God, who made and who guides the world, who maintains the works of creation in the flower of youth, and in a vigor always new,"[40] they accused Socrates of being an atheist. Descartes, the great geometrician who proclaimed the existence of God more certain than any theorem of geometry, has been denounced as an atheist. When men began to forsake the temples of idols in order to worship the unknown God who had just manifested Himself to the world, the Christians were accused of atheism because they refused to bow down to wood and stone. Such abuses might dispose one to renounce the use of the word. Besides, when a word has been for a long time the signal of persecution and the forerunner of death, one hesitates to employ it. In an age when atheists were burned, generous minds would use their best efforts to prove that men suspected of atheism had not denied God, because they would not have been understood had they attempted to say—"They have denied God perhaps, but that is no reason for killing them." Thence arose the sophistical apologies for certain doctrines, apologies made with a good intention, but which trouble the sincerity of history. These are the brands of servitude, which must disappear where liberty prevails. We are able now to call things by their proper names, for there exist no longer for atheism either stakes or prisons. In affirming that certain writers, some of whom are just now the favorites of fame, are shaking the foundations of all religion, one exposes no one to severities which have disappeared from our manners, one only exposes oneself to the being taxed with intolerance and fanaticism. But candor is here a duty. If this duty were not fulfilled, liberty of thought would no longer be anything else than liberty of negation; and, while truth was oppressed, error alone would be set free.

Let us settle clearly the terms of this discussion. It is often asserted that an atheist does not exist. Does this mean that the lips which deny God, always in some way contradict themselves? Does it mean that every soul bears witness to God, perhaps unconsciously to itself, either by a secret hope, or by a secret dread? This is true, as I think; but we are speaking here of doctrines and not of men. It is true again that the negation of the Creator allows of the existence, in certain philosophies, of generous ideas and elevated conceptions. Such men, while they put God out of existence, desire to keep the true, the beautiful, the good; they hope to preserve the rays, while they extinguish the luminous centre from which they proceed. Such systems always tend to produce the deadly fruits pointed out in my last lecture; but men devoted to the severe labors of the intellect often escape, by a noble inconsistency, the natural results of their theories. Therefore, in the inquiry on which we are about to enter, the term 'atheism' implies, with regard to persons, neither reproach nor contempt. It simply indicates a doctrine, the doctrine which denies God. This denial takes place in two ways: It is affirmed that nature, that is to say matter, force devoid of intelligence and of will, is the sole origin of things; or, the reality is acknowledged of those marks which raise mind above nature, but it is affirmed that humanity is the highest point of the universe, and that above it there is nothing. Such are the two forms of atheism.

Perhaps you expect here the explanation of a doctrine which is often described as holding a sort of middle place between the negation and the affirmation of God, namely, pantheism. Pantheism, in the true sense of that word, is a system according to which God is all, and the universe nothing. This extraordinary thesis is met with in India. A Greek, Parmenides, has vigorously sustained it. We have in it a kind of sublime infatuation. In presence of the one and eternal Being thought collapses in bewilderment; and thenceforward it experiences for all that is manifold and transitory a disdain which passes into negation. In the domain of experience, all is limited, temporary, imperfect; and reason seeks the perfect, the eternal, the infinite. The doctrine of creation alone explains how the universe subsists in presence of its first cause. In ignorance of this doctrine, some bold thinkers have cut the knot which they could not untie. They have declared that reason alone is right, and that experience is wrong: the world does not exist, it is but an illusion of the mind. Whence proceeds this illusion? If perfection alone exists, how comes that imperfect mind to exist which deceives itself in believing in the reality of the world? To this question the system has no answer. Such is true pantheism; but it is not to dangers so noble that most minds run the risk of succumbing. What is commonly understood by pantheism is the deification of the universe. The idea of God is not directly denied, but it undergoes a transformation which destroys it. God is no longer the eternal and Almighty Spirit, the Creator; but the unconscious principle, the substance of things, the whole. The universe alone exists; above it there is nothing; but the universe is infinite, eternal, divine. The higher wants of the reason, mingling with the data derived from experience, form an imposing and confused image, which, while it beguiles the imagination, perverts the understanding, deceives the heart, and places the conscience in peril. In a philosophical point of view, it is a contradiction of thought, which seeks the Infinite Being, and, being unable to discover Him, gives the character of infinity to realities bounded by experience. In a religious point of view, it is an aberration of the heart, which preserves the sentiment of adoration, but perverts it by dispersing it over the universe. "Pantheism," says M. Jules Simon, "is only the learned form of atheism; the universe deified is a universe without God."[41] From the moment that the reason endeavors to see distinctly, pantheism vanishes like a deceitful glare. Atheism disengages itself from the cloak which was concealing its true nature, and the mind remains in presence of nature only, or of humanity only. We will proceed to take a rapid glance at some few of the countries of Europe, in order to discover and point out in them the traces of this melancholy doctrine. Let us begin with France.

In the year 1844, just twenty years ago, some French writers, representing the philosophy, in some measure official, of the time, united to publish a Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques. M. Franck, the director of this useful and laborious enterprise, said in the preface to the work: "Atheism has well nigh completely disappeared from philosophy; the progress of a sound psychology will render its return for ever impossible." In speaking thus, he expressed the thoughts and hopes of the school of which he remains one of the most estimable representatives. A generous impulse was animating a group of intelligent and learned young men. Their hope was to translate Christianity into a purely rational doctrine, to purify religious notions without destroying them, and, while endowing humanity with a vigorous scientific culture, to leave to it its lofty hopes. The object in view was to establish a philosophy founded upon a serious faith in God; and to this philosophy was promised the progressive and pacific conquest of the human race.[42] Twenty years have passed, and things bear quite another aspect. To language expressive of security have succeeded the accents of anxiety and words of alarm. The cause which was proclaimed victorious is defended at this day like a besieged city. You will remark however,—that I may not leave you beyond measure discouraged by the facts of which I have to tell you,—you will remark, I say, that it is the efforts attempted in the cause of good which have helped to set me on the track of evil; it has often been the defence which has fixed my attention upon the attack.

The materialism of the last century seems to have maintained a strong hold upon one part of the Paris school of medicine. We do find in France a good many physicians who, like Boerhave, render homage to religion, and a good many physiologists who, like the great Haller, are ready to defend beliefs of the spiritual order;[43] but, among men specially devoted to the study of matter, many succumb to the temptation of refusing to recognize anything as real which does not come under the experience of the senses. This however is not one of the points which offer themselves most strikingly for our examination. The atheistic manifestations of the socialist schools have more novelty, and perhaps more importance.

Man is naturally a social being. Good and evil have their primitive seat in the heart of individuals, but good and evil are transferred into institutions of which the influence is morally beneficial or pernicious. If socialism consists in recognizing the importance of social institutions, in cherishing ideas of progress and hopes of reform, I trust that we are all socialists. Do we desire progress by the ever wider diffusion of justice and love? From the moment that, across the conscience whereon divine rays are falling, we have descried the eternal centre of light, we understand that God is the most implacable enemy of abuses. How is it then that atheism sometimes manifests itself in attempts at social reform? We may explain it, without so much as pointing out the influence, but too real, of the faults committed by the representatives of religion. Faith is a principle of action; it is, as history testifies, the grand source of the progress of human society; but faith is also a principle of patience. The brow of every believer is more or less illumined by the rays of His peace who is patient because He is eternal. Eager to effect good to the utmost extent of his ability, he accomplishes his work with that calm activity to which are reserved durable victories. In the impossible (for if the word impossible is not French, it is human) the believer recognizes one of the manifestations of the supreme Will, and immortal hope enables him to support the evils which he does not succeed in destroying. But this is not enough for impatient reformers. Ignorant of the profound sources of evil, they think that institutions can do everything, and that a change of laws would suffice to reform men's hearts; they believe that the organization of society alone hinders the realization of good and of happiness. The resignation of believers appears to them a stupid lethargy, and in their patient expectation of a judgment to come they see only an obstacle to the immediate triumph of justice on the earth. What if the nations were persuaded that there is nothing to be looked for beyond the present life, so that all that is to be done is to make to ourselves a paradise as soon as may be here below! If they were persuaded that all appeal to the Judge in heaven is a chimerical hope, with what ardor would they throw themselves into schemes of revolution! Thus it is that certain political innovators are led to seek in the negation of God one of their means of action.

Two views, therefore, essentially diverse, govern the labors of the renovators of society. The one class desire to realize, in an ever larger measure, justice and love; religious convictions are the strongest support of their work. The other class would uproot from men's minds every principle of faith, in order the more readily to obtain the realization of their theories. These two classes of men seem at times to be fighting all together in the melee of opinions. They meet, as, in the doubtful glimmer of the dawn, might meet together laborious workmen who are anticipating the daylight, and evil-doers who are fleeing from the sun.

In order to form a just estimate of the labors of the socialist schools, it would be necessary to make a bold and straightforward inquiry into the object of their studies, and to discern, in the midst of mad-brained and guilty dreams, whatever flashes of light might disclose some prophetic vision of the future. This is no task of ours. It is enough for us to remark that in France, as also in the other countries of Europe, the negation of God discovers itself in this order of ideas. It discovers itself at one time by an idolatry of humanity, at another by a materialistic enthusiasm for corporeal indulgences. Disregarding the sensual imaginations which disgrace the works of Fourrier, let us turn our attention elsewhere.

M. Vacherot, a sober philosopher, of high intellectual power and elevated sentiment, has lately published, unhappily, twelve hundred pages destined to maintain the thesis that God does not exist.[44] Man conceives the idea of perfection, and not finding that perfection realized either in the world or in himself, he rises to the conception of a real and perfect being: such is the usual process of metaphysical reasoning. For M. Vacherot, reality and perfection mutually exclude one another; this is one of his fundamental theses. This thesis does but interpret the result of our experience, by refusing us the right to raise ourselves higher. The world with which we are acquainted is imperfect; therefore—say Plato, Saint Augustine, and Descartes—the perfection of which we have the idea is realized in a Being superior to the world. The world with which we are acquainted is imperfect, therefore there is a contradiction between the ideal and the real, says M. Vacherot, who makes thus of the general result of experience the absolute rule of truth. To say therefore of God that He is perfect, is to affirm that He does not exist, inasmuch as the ideal is never realized. Thought thus finds itself placed in a situation at once odd and violent. If God is perfect, He does not exist. If God exists, He is not perfect. The respect which we owe to the Being of beings forbids us to believe in Him; to affirm His existence would be to do outrage to His perfection. The author of this theory renders a worship to that ideal which does not exist, and towards which he affirms nevertheless that the world is gravitating by the law of progress. This worship is of too abstract a nature to secure many adherents; it can only become popular by taking another shape, and it does so in this way: We conceive of that perfection which in itself does not exist; it exists therefore in our thought. Since the world, by the law of progress, is tending towards perfection, the world has for its end and law a thought of the human mind. The human mind therefore is the summit of the universe, and it is it that we must adore. We are here out of the region of pure abstraction, and arrive at the doctrines of the Positivist school.

The Positive philosophy, so called because it wishes to have done with chimeras, was founded in France, a few years ago, by Auguste Comte. M. Littre is at present one of its principal representatives. This writer, says M. Sainte-Beuve, is one of those who are endeavoring "to set humanity free from illusions, from vague disputes, from vain solutions, from deceitful idols and powers."[45] Let us say the same thing in simpler terms: M. Littre professes the doctrines of a school which ignores the Creator in nature, and Providence in history. To ascertain phenomena, and acquaint ourselves with the law which governs them, such, say the positivists, is the limit of all our knowledge. As for the origin of things and their destination, that is an affair of individual fancy. "Each one may be allowed to represent such matters to himself as he likes; there is nothing to hinder the man who finds a pleasure in doing so from dreaming upon that past and that future."[46]

"In spite of some appearances to the contrary," says M. Littre, "the positive philosophy does not accept atheism."[47] Why? Because atheism pretends to give an explanation of the universe, and that after a fashion is still theology. Minds "veritably emancipated" profess to know nothing whatever on questions which go beyond actual experience. They do not deny God, they eliminate Him from the thoughts. The attempt is a bold one, but it fails; men do not succeed in emancipating themselves from the laws of reason. The very writer whom I have just quoted is himself a proof of this, for he absolutely proscribes every statement of a metaphysical nature, and then, three pages farther on, in the very treatise in which he makes this proscription, he speaks of the "eternal motive powers of a boundless universe."[48] Boundless! eternal! What thoughts are these? Behold the instincts of the reason coming to light! behold all the divine attributes appearing! Adoration is withdrawn from God, and it is given to the universe at large. What is it which, in the universe regarded as a whole, will become the direct object of worship? Another positivist, M. de Lombrail, will tell us, in a work reviewed by Auguste Comte: "Man," he says, "has always adored humanity." Here, we learn, is the true foundation of all religions, and the brief summary of their history. This humanity-god has been long adored under a veil which disguised it from the eyes of its worshippers; but the time is come when the sage ought to recognize the object of his worship and give it its true name.[49]

The positivist school, then, professes a complete scepticism with regard to whatever is not included in the domain of experience. But its foot slips, and it falls into the negation of God, from which it rises again by means of a humanitarian atheism. All these marks are met with again in the works of the critical school.

The critics group themselves about M. Renan. The praises which they lavished a while ago on a bad book by that author seem at least to allow us to point him out as their chief. They derive their name from studies in history and archaeology, with which we here have nothing to do. They are regarded as forming a philosophical and religious school, and it is in that connection that they claim our attention. Their influence is incontestable, and still, notwithstanding, their doctrinal value is nothing. They form merely a literary branch of the positivist school engrafted upon the eclecticism of M. Cousin. We find in their writings the pretension to limit science to the experimental study of nature and to humanity. We afterwards find there the pretension to understand and to accept all doctrines alike. Beyond this, nothing. The critics bestow particular attention on the phenomena of religion, of art, and of philosophy; but this interest is purely historical. Nothing is more curious than the successive forms of human beliefs; but the period of beliefs is over. Religious faith no longer subsists except in minds which are behind the age; and philosophy, upheld in a final swoon by Hegel and Hamilton, has just yielded its last breath in the arms of M. Cousin: so M. Renan informs us.[50] To choose a side between the defenders of the idea of God and its opponents; to choose between Plato and Epicurus, between Origen and Celsus, between Descartes and Hobbes, between Leibnitz and Spinoza, would be to make one's self the Don Quixote of thought. An honest man may find amusement in reading the Amadis of Gaul; the Knight of la Manche went mad through putting faith in the adventures of that hero. A like fate befalls those minds which are simple enough to believe still, in the midst of the nineteenth century, in the brave chimeras of former days. Let us study history, let us study nature; beyond that we do not know, and we never shall know, anything. Our fashionable men of letters develop their thesis with so much assurance; they lavish upon believers so many expressions of amiable disdain; they appear so sure of being the interpreters of the mind of the age, that they seem ready to repeat to young people dazzled by their success, the lesson which Gilbert had expressed in these terms:

Between ourselves—you own a God, I fear! Beware lest in your verse the fact appear: Dread the wits' laughter, friend, and know your betters: Our grandsires might have worn those old-world fetters; But in our days! Come, you must learn respect,— Content your age to follow, not direct.[51]

To believe in God would be vulgar; to deny the existence of God would be a want of taste; the divine world must remain as a subject for poetry. So our critics speak. Their direct affirmation is scepticism. But they follow the destinies of the positivist school; they do not succeed in maintaining their balance between the affirmation and negation of God. Alfred de Musset has described this position of the soul, and its inevitable issue. Must I hope in God? Must I reject all faith and all hope?

Between these paths how difficult the choice! Ah! might I find some smoother, easier way. "None such exists," whispers a secret voice, "God is, or is not—own, or slight, His sway." In sooth, I think so: troubled souls in turn By each extreme are tossed and harassed sore: They are but atheists, who feel no concern; If once they doubted they would sleep no more.[52]

The indifference of the critical philosophers is in fact only a transparent veil to atheistical doctrines. Faith in God the Creator is in their eyes a superstition; this is their only settled dogma. In other respects they indulge in theses the most contradictory. Most generally they deify man, declaring that there is no other God than the idea of humanity, no other infinite than the indefinite character of the aspirations of our own soul. At other times they proclaim an undisguised materialism, and look for the explanation of all things in atoms and in the law which governs them. They make to themselves a two-faced idol, one of these faces being called nature, and the other humanity. What strangely increases the confusion is that all the terms of language change meaning as employed by their pen. They speak of God, of duty, of religion, of immortality; their pages seem sometimes to be extracted from mystical writings; but these sacred words have for them a totally different meaning than for the ordinary run of their readers. Their God is not a Being, their religion is not a worship, their duty is not a law, their immortality is not the hope of a world to come. Amidst these equivocations and contradictions thought is blunted, and the sinews of the intellect are unstrung. The public, bewitched by talent and captivated by success, is deluged with writings which have the same effect as the talk of a frivolous man, or the showy tattle of a woman of the world. They give an agreeable exercise to the mind, without ever allowing it to form either a precise idea or a settled judgment.

Many are the clouds then on the intellectual horizon of France. Glance over the recent productions of French philosophy, and you will have no difficulty in recognizing the gravity of the situation. Works are multiplying with the object of defending the existence of God, Providence, the immortality of the soul: dams are being raised against the rising flood of atheism.[53] And here is a fact still more significant, namely, that the historians of ideas, whether they are recurring to the most remote antiquity, or are passing in review the worst errors of modern days, cannot meet with the negation of God, without having their eyes thus turned to Paris, and their attention directed to contemporary productions.[54]

I hence infer, that atheism is raising its head in France, and there presenting itself under two forms. Materialism is appearing principally as an heritage from the last century. The new, or rather renewed, doctrine is the adoration of man by man. We are now going to cross the Rhine.

A powerful thinker, Hegel, had supreme sway in the last movement of speculative thought in Germany. Hegel's system of doctrine is enveloped in clouds. It is so ambiguous in regard to the questions which most directly concern the conscience and human interests, that it has been pretended to deduce from it, on the one hand a Christian theology, and on the other a sheer atheism. There is a story, whether a true one or not I cannot say, that this philosopher when near his end uttered the following words: "I have only had one disciple who has understood me—and he has misunderstood me." A man distinguished in metaphysical research by taste, genius, and science, and who has, in that respect, devoted particular attention to Germany, M. Charles Secretan, writes with reference to the fundamental principle of the entire Hegelian system: "If you ask me how I understand the matter, I will give you no answer; I do not understand it at all, and I do not believe that any one has ever understood it."[55] You will excuse me, Gentlemen, from here undertaking the scientific study of so difficult a system. It will be enough for us to render the darkness visible, that is to say, to understand well what it is which the doctrine of the Berlin Professor, in a certain sense, renders incomprehensible.

The foundation of his theory is that the universe is explained by an eternal idea, an idea which exists by itself, without appertaining to any mind. The Hegelians say that the existence of an infinite Mind is an inadmissible conception. They reject this mystery, and prefer to it the palpable absurdity of an idea which exists in itself, without being the act of an intelligence. This idea-God we have already encountered in the writings of M. Vacherot. We shall find it again more than once as we go on. In Germany, as in France, the theory only becomes popular by undergoing a transformation. The eternal idea manifests itself in the mind of man, and exists nowhere else. Above this idea there is nothing. Man is therefore the summit of things; it is he who must be adored. And thus it is in fact that Hegel has been understood. In the spring of 1850, Henri Heine wrote as follows in the Gazette d'Augsbourg: "I begin to feel that I am not precisely a biped deity, as Professor Hegel declared to me that I was twenty-five years ago." The deification of man: such is the popular translation of the philosophy of the idea. Would you have a further proof of this? The following anecdote was current in my youth, when German idealism was at the height of its popularity. A student going to call on one of his fellow-students, found him stretched on his bed, or his sofa, and exhibiting all the signs of an ecstatic contemplation. "Why, what are you doing there?" inquired the visitor. "I am adoring myself," replied the young adept in philosophy.

I am not examining the doctrines of Hegel with reference to the history of metaphysics, and within the precincts of the school in which it occupies a large place and demands the most serious attention; I am tracing the influence of those doctrines on the public mind at large. This influence is visible in the most disastrous consequences of atheism. "It certainly is not the Hegelian school alone," says M. Saint-Rene Taillandier, "which has produced all the moral miseries of the nineteenth century, all those unbridled desires, all those revolts of matter in a fury;[56] but it sums them all up in its formulae, it gives them, by its scientific way of representing them, a pernicious authority, it multiplies them by an execrable propaganda."[57]

It was through Feuerbach principally that the evolution was to be brought about which has led the Hegelian system, severely idealistic in its commencement, to favor at length the revolts of matter run mad. And this evolution is only natural after all. If the universe is the development of an idea, and not the work of an intelligent Will, all is necessary in the world, for the development of an idea is a matter of destiny. Where all is necessary, all is legitimate: the desires of the flesh as well as the laws of thought and of conscience. But, from the moment that the flesh is emancipated, it aims at absolute empire, and ends by obtaining it: this is matter of fact. Feuerbach has put atheism into a definite shape, and disengaged it from all obscurity. There exists no other infinite than the infinite in our thoughts; above us there exists nothing; no law which binds us, no power which governs us: the work of modern science is to set man free from God, for God is an idol. But man thus set free from all bonds and from all duty is not, for Feuerbach, the individual, but humanity. The individual owes himself to his species; "the true sage will make no more silly and fantastic sacrifices, but he will never refuse sacrifices which are really serviceable to humanity."[58]

Here then is still a bond, a religion, and sacrifices; the emancipation is incomplete. What is this humanity to which man owes himself? An abstraction, an idol still, an idol to be overthrown if he would obtain perfect independence. Listen to the German Stirmer, deducing from the doctrine its extreme consequences: "Perish the people," he exclaims, "perish Germany, perish all the nations of Europe; and let man, rid of all bonds, delivered from the last phantoms of religion, recover at length his full independence!"[59] All the mists of abstraction have now disappeared: here we are on ground which is hideously clear. Humanity is no longer in question, but the worship of self; it is the complete enfranchisement of selfishness.

While the proud idealism of the Germans was thus, by its own weight, descending into the level flats of thought, a political movement was agitating Germany. Simple-minded poets were celebrating atheism with an enthusiasm which seemed sincere; and, at the same time, men who are not simple-minded, journalists and demagogues, were laying hold of the irreligion as a lever with which to make a breach in the social edifice. In the year 1845, the attention of the Swiss authorities was drawn to certain secret societies, composed of Germans, and having for their object a revolution in Germany, but which had established their basis of operations on the Swiss territory. The inquiries of the police issued in the discovery of twenty-seven clubs bound together by secret correspondence. Working-men were induced on various pretexts to attend meetings, of which the real object was only gradually disclosed to them. If they were reckoned worthy, they were initiated into the plan of a social reform, the basis of which was atheism.[60] One of the principal agents in this work of proselytism, Guillaume Marr, exclaimed: "Faith in a personal and living God is the origin and the fundamental cause of our miserable social condition." And he deduced as follows the practical consequence of his theory: "The idea of God is the key-stone of the arch of a tottering civilization; let us destroy it. The true road to liberty, to equality, and to happiness, is atheism. No safety on earth, so long as man holds on by a thread to heaven.—Let nothing henceforward shackle the spontaneity of the human mind. Let us teach man that there is no other God than himself, that he is the Alpha and the Omega of all things, the superior being, and the most real reality." We have still to explain the nature of this spontaneity, free from every shackle. One of the editors of the journal conducted by Marr discloses it by quoting some verses in which Henri Heine expresses the wish to see great vices, bloody and colossal crimes, provided he may be delivered from a worthy-citizen virtue, and an honest-merchant morality![61] A little later, a journal of German Switzerland asserted, that in order to set free man's natural instincts and propensities, it is indispensable to destroy the idea of God.[62]

These, I am well aware, are the screams of a savage madness. But after all, and be this as it may, Marr was publishing his journal at Lausanne in 1845, and in 1848 he was named representative of the people, by a considerable majority, in one of the largest cities of Germany. And this was by no means an isolated fact. Atheism showed itself in the ephemeral parliament of Frankfort as a sort of party, of which M. Vogt, says the Revue des Deux Mondes, was the great orator.[63]

The German revolution was put down by the bayonet, but the doctrines of which it had revealed the existence, left vestiges for a long time in the country of the terror which they had inspired. Alarm was felt for the various interests threatened, and noble souls were stirred with compassion by the conviction forced upon them of the spiritual miseries of their brethren. A powerful reaction took place, as well in the religious as the philosophical world. This reaction has produced salutary results; but the object is not fully attained. Open the journals and the reviews, and you will learn that Germany is, in these days, the principal centre of materialism. It is unhappily so rich in this respect, that it can afford to engage in exportation, and to furnish professors of the school to other countries of Europe.

Doctor Buechner has published, under the title of Force and Matter, a small volume which has rapidly reached a seventh edition, and has lately been translated into French.[64] Materialism is there set forth with perfect arrogance, or, to speak more moderately, with perfect audacity. The author pretends to confine himself strictly within the domain of experience, and it is wonderful with what haughtiness he proscribes the researches of philosophy. It would seem therefore that the question of the nature of things ought to remain outside the circle of his studies. Nevertheless, he declares matter to be eternal and the universe infinite. I ask you how long it would be necessary to have lived in order to pronounce matter eternal in the name of experience; and what journeys it would have been necessary to make, before ascertaining by means of observation that the universe is infinite. We shall have occasion to recur to this subject. Meanwhile we may be very sure that experience supplies no system of metaphysics, and that materialism is a metaphysical system as strongly marked as any. When its adepts cry out, Away with philosophy! they mean by that simply: We will have no good philosophy, that we may be free to make bad philosophy of our own without rivalry. A proceeding which reminds one of certain demagogues who cry with all their might, Down with tyrants! and who thus succeed in making out of the fear of the tyranny of others the solid foundation of their own despotism.

We find then in Germany, first of all the doctrine of the idea set forth with eclat by Hegel, then atheism mixed up with political notions and projects, and lastly materialism. The elements are the same as in France, but exhibit themselves in a different order. This diversity suggests some observations worth your attention.

France, setting out with the materialism of the eighteenth century, rose to that adoration of man which characterizes at the present day the greater part of its atheistical manifestations. German atheism, having as its starting-point an abstract idealism of which the adoration of man was the result, has descended to the levels of materialism.[65] We may inquire into the theory of these facts, and say why materialism rises to the adoration of man by a natural movement; and why, also by a natural movement, the adoration of man descends again to materialism.

Materialism infers from its principles the denial of any future to man, and not only any future, but any true value, any real existence. We are nothing but an agglomeration of molecules, ready to separate without leaving any trace of ever having been together. Is not this a thing to be said sadly, as the saddest thing in the world? Why then are the apostles of matter nearly always assuming the loftiest tone, and uttering shouts of triumph? It is that they feel themselves free, emancipated from that terror which has made the gods,

... that brood of idle fear Fine nothings worshipped,—why, doth not appear; The gods—whom man made, and who made not man.[66]

Emancipation! Such is the watchword of materialism. Listen, for example, to the conclusion of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature: "Break the chains," says he, "which are binding men. Send back those gods who are afflicting them to those imaginary regions from whence fear first drew them forth. Inspire with courage the intelligent being; give him energy; let him dare at length to love himself, to esteem himself, to feel his own dignity; let him dare to emancipate himself, let him be happy and free." Strange accents these, at the close of a large philosophical treatise intended to prove that there is nothing in the universe but matter. Whence proceeds the dignity of that fragment of matter which calls itself man? Understand well what passes in the mind of these philosophers. In proportion as man lowers his own origin, in the same proportion,—if he does not wish to make himself a brute, in order to live as do the animals,—he exalts himself in an inevitable sentiment of pride. In vain does he give out that the material frame is everything; he feels that thought is more than the material frame; and he accords to himself the first place in the universe. The materialist ignores the Eternal Mind in order to emancipate himself; and whatever he may say, his real deity is not the atom, but himself. The encyclopedists, sons of an age which yielded at once to noble influences and to guilty seductions, united the worship of progress to a degrading philosophy. Consider with what a feeling of pride they lowered man, and you will understand why eternal nature gave place to sacred humanity. When France had fallen into the delirium of irreligion, it was not a little dust in an earthen vase which was offered for public adoration, but they led in procession through the streets of Paris a woman who was called the goddess Reason.

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