Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.
It has been said by a great mind, that confusion is worse than error.1 Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.
But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility…
How little do they see what is, who frame their hasty judgments upon which seems.
Truth is as much the first want as it is the first good of mankind: yes, truth in religion, which by giving us high and pure ideas of the Divinity, teaches us that our homage ought to be worthy of it; truth in morality, which without rigour, as without weak indulgence, traces out to men in all situations their respective duties; truth in policy, which by rendering authority more just, and subjects more submissive, protects governments from the passions of the multitude, and the multitude from the tyranny of governments; truth in our tribunals, which makes vice afraid, reassures and comforts the innocent, and conduces to the triumph of justice; truth in education, which by rendering conduct accordant with doctrine, makes teachers to be the models, as well as the masters of infancy and youth; truth in literature and in the arts, which preserves them from the contagion of bad taste, from false ornaments, and from false thoughts; truth in the commerce of life, which by banishing fraud and imposture, warrants the common safety; truth in every thing, truth before every thing, this is that which the whole human race from its inmost soul is ever seeking, so thoroughly convinced are all men that truth is useful and falsehood hurtful.
We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirt cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men especially, is apt to be wanting — a slowness to condemn. A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth…
Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. … You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, ¶ The proper study of mankind is Man. ¶ Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, ¶ A being darkly wise, and rudely great: ¶ With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, ¶ With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; ¶ In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; ¶ In doubt his mind or body to prefer; ¶ Born but to die; and reas’ning but to err: ¶ Alike in ignorance, his reason such, ¶ Whether he thinks too little or too much; ¶ Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; ¶ Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d; ¶ Created half to rise and half to fall; ¶ Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; ¶ Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; ¶ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The dogma of the redemption is the fable of priest-craft invented since the time the New Testament was compiled, and the agreeable delusion of it suited with the depravity of immoral livers. When men are taught to ascribe all their crimes and vices to the temptations of the Devil, and to believe that Jesus by his death rubs all off, and pays their passage to heaven gratis, they become as careless in morals as a spendthrift would be of money, were he told that his father had engaged to pay off all his scores. It is a doctrine not only dangerous to morals in this world, but to our happiness in the next world, because it holds out such a cheap, easy, and lazy way of getting to heaven, as has a tendency to induce men to hug the delusion of it to their own injury. ¶ But there are times when men have serious thoughts, and it is at such times, when they begin to think, that they begin to doubt the truth of the Christian Religion; and well they may, for it is too fanciful and too full of conjecture, inconsistency, improbability, and irrationality, to afford consolation to the thoughtful man. His reason revolts against his creed. He sees that none of its articles are proved, or can be proved. He may believe that such a person as is called Jesus (for Christ was not his name) was born and grew to be a man, because it is no more than a natural and probable case. But who is to prove he is the son of God, that he was begotten by the Holy Ghost? Of these things there can be no proof; and that which admits not of proof, and is against the laws of probability and the order of nature, which God himself has established, is not an object for belief. God has not given man reason to embarrass him, but to prevent his being imposed upon.
There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.
Shake off all fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are severely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible then as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example in the Book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you will be a vast additional incitement: if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.
Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question — Be it so.
Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind, than to be thus selected from all other parts of the creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator. But consult this image, as it appears in the popular religions of the world. How is the deity disfigured in our representations of him! What caprice, absurdity, and immorality are attributed to him! How much is he degraded even below the character, which we should naturally, in common life, ascribe to a man of sense and virtue!
We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Though the chain of arguments … were ever so logical, there must arise a strong suspicion, if not an absolute assurance, that it has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land, long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory; and there we have no reason to trust our common methods of argument, or to think that our usual analogies and probabilities have any authority. Our line is too short to fathom such abysses.
Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.
No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions. To this principle we ought to ascribe the great uniformity we may observe in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation; and ’tis much more probable, that this resemblance arises from sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate, which, tho’ they continue invariably the same, are not able to preserve the character of a nation the same for a century together. A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintance. A chearful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden dump upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition. So remarkable a phaenomenon merits our attention, and must be trac’d up to its first principles.
This deficiency in our ideas is not, indeed, perceived in common life, nor are we sensible, that in the most usual conjunctions of cause and effect we are as ignorant of the ultimate principle, which binds them together, as in the most unusual and extraordinary. But this proceeds merely from an illusion of the imagination; and the question is, how far we ought to yield to these illusions. This question is very difficult, and reduces us to a very dangerous dilemma, whichever way we answer it. For if we assent to every trivial suggestion of the fancy; beside that these suggestions are often contrary to each other; they lead us into such errors, absurdities, and obscurities, that we must at last become asham’d of our credulity. Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers. Men of bright fancies may in this respect be compar’d to those angels, whom the scripture represents as covering their eyes with their wings. This has already appear’d in so many instances, that we may spare ourselves the trouble of enlarging upon it any farther.
There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning, that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.