On the Causes of Our ErrorsDenis Frayssinous, trans. by John Benjamin Jones, Chapter Two in A Defence of Christianity (Gilbert & Rivington: December 1835), pp. 63-88.
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.
When the doctrines of truth are universally inculcated, when they have penetrated into all hearts, and when they animate all classes of society, if they should not succeed in applying a remedy to all disorders, they would certainly have the happy effect of arresting the progress of very many; they would become the fruitful sources of generous sentiment and virtuous action; and they would make us feel that truth is the principle of all life to the social body. But if, on the other hand, error should obtain an ascendancy over the minds of men, and more particularly over the minds of those who are called upon to serve as guides and as examples, it will, by corrupting thought,sentiment, and action, become a principle of dissolution and of death.
Throughout the last century particularly, what a shock of conflicting opinions have we witnessed, what systems overthrown by other systems!what revolting paradoxes! for what is the religious, political, and literary history of France, for the last hundred years, but the history of a perpetual conflict of all errors against all truth, a conflict sustained at first with the pen, but latterly with the sword, and the issue of which was the apparent destruction of our religion and our monarchy. It is worthy of remark too, that all the combatants,sectarian and orthodox, the sophist and the philosopher, infidel andChristian, the demagogue and the defender of the throne, all, without exception, professed to be marching under the banners of truth; and those very men who were armed against her, would have regarded themselves as conquered, had they been conscious of being enrolled under the standard of falsehood.
But how does it happen that, with this secret love of truth existing in the hearts of all men, error should be so widely diffused among them, that it should so often misguide the learned as fatally as the ignorant? Is it impossible for us to ascertain the causes of our errors; and by making ourselves thoroughly acquainted with them, may we not divest them of their influence? In marking out the rocks against which human reason is apt to strike, we certainly shall not be able to guard against all shipwreck, but may perhaps succeed in averting the horrors of some; and it is in this thought, and in this hope, that I have conceived the design of discussing with you to-day the usual causes of our errors.
These causes are — the weakness of reason, ignorance, partial knowledge, knowledge itself, the false application of different principles of truth, prejudication, excessive curiosity, and the passions.
Yes;let us suppose, united in the same individual, the most penetrating mind, the most upright heart, and the most extensive knowledge, you would still have but a man, a being whose faculties are limited; he has, to the avoidance of error in judgment, the power of approximating objects, of comparing and of appreciating them, but this power, which constitutes his noblest prerogative, at the same time betrays his weakness. If you except certain primary truths, which in their own proper light shine on the mind, as the sun in the brilliancy of its rays shines on the eye, man sees not objects in a simple and full view;in the greater part of his acquirements it is but by a variety of approximations, by painful efforts, and by long and circuitous reasonings, that he at last arrives at truth, and in this operation any little inattention, any momentary forgetfulness or slumber of reason,would be sufficient to allow error imperceptibly to insinuate itself into his results. No; genius and honesty are not always sufficient safeguards against illusion; it is no more permitted to man, to place himself beyond the reach of all error, than to live exempt from all sin. Where is the learned critic, however persevering, and however acute he may be, who is not sometimes deceived in the details of historical narrative? Where is the magistrate, however enlightened and however conscientious, who on arriving at the termination of an honourable career, can lay his band on his heart and say, that all his decisions have accorded with the dictates of the most rigorous equity?In every thing man is condemned to pay tribute to the weakness of his nature, it is an evil which we cannot entirely cure; the only remedy that we can apply to it is, to labour hard to enlighten ourselves daily more and more, in regard to those things which we are obliged to know;to fortify reason by reflection and experience, and put ourselves completely on our guard against all illusion; and then let us hope,for the consolation of frail humanity, that in the eye of Sovereign justice, errors really involuntary will not be accounted criminal. Not only is the mind limited in those things which it knows, and liable to form inaccurate, incomplete, or false notions even of these, but how much is there in existence of which it is entirely ignorant? Knowledge is like a vast field which heaven gives up to human care and labour,some parts of it yielding fruit spontaneously, but the greater portion of it requiring to be made productive by the sweat of man’s brow; afield too, which no single individual was ever permitted wholly and exclusively to cultivate. Moreover, how can we form a just judgment respecting that which we do not know? Look at the multitude; the greater portion of mankind is ignorant of the secret resources of nature, of those physical laws which preserve the harmony of the world,of the causes of those celestial phenomena upon which it is constantly looking; it has never studied to enlighten itself on these subjects, it may therefore easily be deceived by the senses, or by the imagination,and it may invent the most fanciful causes for these sights, from which ridiculous or even superstitious notions may arise; and how many men of genius are there, who in their method of judging and deciding are but as the multitude! Men of universal talents are not common, — a great poet may be ignorant of the secrets of the sciences, — a geometrician may live and die without being acquainted with the human heart; and if we will rashly venture beyond the sphere of our attainments, is it wonderful that we should go astray? If men then would decide on those things only with which they are well acquainted, if they would be wise enough to suspend their judgment with regard to other matters, on which they may be in doubt, very many false notions would disappear. This leads me to the third cause of our errors, which is partial knowledge.
Nothing is more common than to meet with men who content themselves with the most superficial and vague observations, who skim over every thing, but penetrate nothing; and who, instead of being more reserved and modest,are more affirmative and dictatorial. One of the most incurable manias of those who pride themselves upon their knowledge and wit, is the rage to be considered universally learned, and to exalt themselves into authorities even upon those very matters with which they are but partially acquainted. Hence, for the last century, has arisen that deluge of systems referring to morality, to polity, and to education,which, unless checked, will ultimately subvert the whole world; these are the men to whom Pascal alludes, when he says, “They have some tincture of knowledge, but are conceited; mystify and confound all things, and form harsher and more erroneous opinions than any other men. “Rational ignorance is better than vain knowledge: the man who relies on reason and common sense only, knows his weakness, and consequently distrusts himself; the half-learned man, already very vain of that which he knows, arrogates to himself the credit of knowing that which he does not, and has neither the wise reserve which good sense inspires, nor the enlightenment attendant upon profound learning; he follows the empty glimmerings of his own mind, and is lost. No, the most ignorant man, is not he who knows not, but he who fancies that he knows, and hence arise the most ridiculous as well as the most fatal pretensions. What! can I, but superficially read in history, consider myself as capable of judging between the ancients and the moderns as the most profound scholar might be? Can I, scarcely initiated into the study of the laws, believe myself to be as able a lawyer as Domat or as Aguesseau? Where is good sense here? I resemble the man, who placed at the foot of a mountain, fancies that he can command as extensive a view as he who occupies its summit. You may now judge of the estimation in which we ought to hold those rash men, who, knowing religion but through false representations, and who, vain of certain old worn-out arguments which they fancy to be discoveries of their own, venture to attack and calumniate Christianity. How, with but a slight knowledge of religion, of its proofs, of its doctrine, and of its history, can a man dare to decide against it in favour of infidelity? Would men act with such pitiable levity in other affairs, in those affecting their lives,their honours, or their fortunes?
This brings me to the fourth cause of our errors, and this often arises from knowledge itself. Happy for the most part are they, whose memories, enriched by long study,have become as an inexhaustible mine, from which they may at pleasure draw treasures always new. When erudition is engrafted on sound judgment, by a mind of superior mould and temper, a production of great value will be the result, but to feeble minds learning may be but an overwhelming load. Of little worth is a mass of knowledge, if the mind is not strong enough to bear it, or if it is incapable of penetrating and appreciating objects; the materials are there, but the architect fails in their application. Knowledge without judgment will only serve to bewilder him who possesses it; stupefied and dazzled by a thousand different glimmerings, he knows not how to discern the true light. So have we seen very skilful grammarians become but indifferent writers,so have we seen men of the greatest erudition become but shallow critics, and give way to the most puerile errors; the soundness of their judgment is not correspondent with the strength of their memories; involved in the intricacies of an endless labyrinth, they possess not the thread which alone can guide them. This explains to us the reason why the famous Father Hardonin, one of the most erudite scholars that ever existed, should have fallen into errors, which can excite but laughter and pity; he has, however, been imitated and even surpassed by the literati of our days, who, on the subject of theDivine Founder of Christianity, have fallen into errors still more ridiculous, and unhappily far more mischievous.
I come now to the fifth cause of our errors, which is the false application of the principle of truth. The human mind exercises itself in pursuit of divers kinds of knowledge: the intellectual and the physical world is its domain: it seeks after truth throughout, and until it feels itself enlightened by the clearest and most convincing elucidation, the influence of which it cannot elude, it never believes itself to be in possession of this truth. It is in this intimate and profound conviction of the mind, that certitude consists. But we must observe,that every kind of knowledge possesses its own peculiar kind of proof.I will explain myself. That a child ought to love its mother, that there exists in Italy a city called Rome, that in a circle the circumference is three times the diameter, are three things which we hold as equally certain. To say that it is certain, that the circumference is equal to three times the diameter, but that it is only likely that Rome exists, and probable that a son ought to love his mother, would be a revolting proposition, shocking to all common sense. On these three points our conviction is the same; the certainty is one and the same, but the processes by which we render the soul sensible of that certainty, are different. We do not prove the duty of filial piety by calculation, or the existence of the city of Rome by sentiment, or the relationship of the diameter to the circumference by human testimony. Let us take care not to transfer to any one description of attainment, a species of proof which is inapplicable to it; do not let us seek to prove by geometrical demonstration, propositions which are not susceptible of it. All the world believes the existence of HenryIV, of Charlemagne, and of Caesar, as firmly as it can believe in a proposition of Euclid; still it is not by geometrical processes that men acquire their conviction of the truth of historical facts. Pascal has remarked, that geometry is founded on principles of palpable evidence, and that there are certain finer and more delicate truths,which are rather felt than seen, and which it would be ridiculous to treat geometrically. Whenever an algebraist attempts to apply his own science to affairs of sentiment, of taste, of authority, of morality,or of history, the scholar, the true critic laughs at his empty theories; so the algebraist would himself have a right to laugh at the scholar, who should attempt to resolve the problems of algebra by the rules of morality. We may here observe, that all human sciences refer to one primary science — that of principles, or in other words, to metaphysics. It is by means of certain anterior truths, the sentiment of which exists in all minds, that we arrive at even geometrical truths: the certainty of the latter, supposes the certainty of the former; and hence arises the mistake of those who say, that there is nothing certain but mathematics.
We have now reached the sixth cause of our errors, which is prejudication. There are persons so swayed by certain peculiar ideas of their own, which they fancy to be discoveries, that they become inaccessible to any other kind of thought; their faculties are so absorbed by these ideas, that with reference to every thing else, they have neither intelligence nor faculties; it is a sort of mental fascination. Should it so happen that they are required to study other subjects than those which are the exclusive objects of their affection, they become absent and inattentive, are incapable of discovering those nicer affinities, those lighter shades, which it might sometimes be important to bring to light; hence results the formation of imperfect notions, that fruitful source of false judgments. To this prepossession may be also attributed that rage for system, which has so fatally bewildered the reason of man. In his research after those secondary causes, which govern the physical and moral world, the learned man delights in the formation of certain general theories; he may happen to create one of these theories before he has combined a sufficient number of well verified observations; he nevertheless becomes attached to it, glories in it,and is infatuated by it; in this disposition of mind, he sees only that which favours, and counts for nothing that which contradicts it; he accommodates facts to his own system, and not his system to facts.Experience, monuments, reasoning, every thing must bend before his cherished system: hence those political dreams which it was fondly thought, would at once restore the world to happiness, but which have proved its curses and its scourges; and hence those visionary tales,which have been palmed upon us as the history of nature.
I must here remark, that the objects which most attract our regard,frequently present themselves under various aspects, and one of the greatest faults that a man can commit, is that of not examining them in all their bearings, with the most serious attention; it is from their combined and constant effects, that he ought to form his judgment.
In all human affairs, in every thing relating to forms of government,institutions, laws, and civil life, there exists nothing which does not possess its advantages, nothing without its disadvantages: he who looks at the advantages only, runs the risk of adopting the most fatal measure; he who sees only the disadvantages may, perhaps, abandon that which would be most useful. What then should a wise man do, in order to make a proper choice? He should weigh in the balance of equity, both advantages and disadvantages, without allowing himself to be either dazzled by the one or intimidated by the other, and thus only can he decide with safety.
Let me give you some examples of these various mental prejudications. A publicist may have remarked the influence of climate on the temperament, on the organs, on the physical habits, and hence even on the characters, the morals, and the laws of men; struck with this idea, he endeavours to investigate it more deeply, and eventually constructs a system. In his prejudication, he does not, or will not see, to what an extent religion, education, policy, commerce, or conquest, may modify, alter, or efface these primary dispositions; he wishes still to explain every thing, the virtues as well as the vices of the people, by climate; — we perceive that he has now gone too far;and an opinion which confined within proper limits would have been a truth, when pushed too far, becomes a paradox.
Look at the stern moralist again; he regards but the letter and the rigour of the law, sees things theoretically rather than practically,has no feeling for the frailty of human nature, takes not into account any circumstances of age, of temperament, of surprise, which might palliate the application of his rule: he here adopts a system of severity which by discouraging the guilty, may perhaps become even more fatal than indulgence.
Whence arise so many strange opinions concerning the reign of LouisXIV., which certainly was the most splendid of the monarchy, and which equals if it does not surpass the brightest eras of human intellect and genius? Ever from the same cause. After the troubles of a stormy minority, Louis is at last king, and ceases to be so only in the tomb.What a succession of wonders does this reign present! Having the good of his people at heart, he protects religion, perfects the laws,conducts the principal branches of the administration by ordinances admired to this very day, makes the sciences, literature, and the arts to nourish, extends commerce, and maintains order, peace, and justice,throughout the nation. France enumerates under this reign her most illustrious orators, poets, scholars, philosophers, magistrates,generals, and pontiffs. Louis adds six provinces to his kingdom, covers his frontiers with fortified places, establishes his grandson on the throne of Spain, sustains in his old age, with wonderful magnanimity,the efforts of all Europe combined against him. Through this prince the glory of the French name is borne to the extremities of the world, and France exercises over Europe a species of supremacy in wit, and talent, which, after the lapse of a century, and after so many disasters, is felt even now. What a reign was this! How many claims to public admiration does it present to us! These claims have not been denied by men whose homage is beyond suspicion, and who themselves possessed too much talent to insult the age of genius, I mean, by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Frederic. But to-day, what do men, prepossessed by our modern ideas, say? They attribute it as a crime to Louis XIV., not to have reigned according to certain forms and views, which were not those of the age in which he lived; some few political mistakes, some few errors of ambition, some few personal faults, which he had the candour to confess, and the courage to reproach himself with; these alone have been taken into consideration, and given rise to the most violent declamations. When there is not one human individual, who in the conduct of his domestic affairs, does not commit some fault, can we expect, that a sixty years’ reign of glory and prosperity should be free from the reproach of all error? Where is justice here? And to what extent, after all, can the clamours of the envious prevail against his memory? These empty detractors will sink into oblivion, but the glory of this reign will remain. Louis has given his name to his age, and posterity will talk of the age of Louis XIV., as, after two thousand years, we yet talk of the age of Augustus.
In the seventh place, I would warn you against the spirit of curiosity. One grand defect in all reasoning is the pushing it too far. To know when to stop, and how to put a rein upon that prying curiosity, which is ever overstepping its proper limits, is an indication of a sound understanding. The mind greedy of knowledge is irritated by the obstacles opposed to its weakness, it endeavours to overcome them, and although its boldness may be sometimes successful, yet it is frequently precipitated into the regions of falsehood. It is not given to man on earth, to enjoy the perfect light, our knowledge is ever mixed up with some degree of obscurity. When the mind is struck by clear and convincing proofs, it ought to be contented, and when it cannot see all truths with the same clearness, still it should not disown them. One fundamental rule of reasoning is, that we should never abandon a well-established proposition, on account of some few difficulties which we do not see clearly how to remove. Our heart, like our reason, has its intemperance, and the wise man holds himself equally on his guard against this double excess. Some few examples will render you more sensible of the justice of this opinion. That there exists as part of matter, a corporeal world, external to us, is the universal acclamation of sound sense, and the belief of the whole human race; we are induced to believe this, by a sensation which is irresistible; and to say that this world may be nothing more than a perpetual phantasmagoria, is an absurdity against which a sentiment more powerful than all sophism will always prevail. What has happened however? Malebranche appears, and says, that God had the power of affecting our souls with the sensation of possessing bodies, although in reality they might not possess them, and that He could make us experience those sensations without them, which we experience by them; and he has hence concluded that the existence of matter was not demonstrated by reason alone. Berkley again, going farther still, has observed, that the most essential qualities of matter had nothing determinate; that the superficial expanse of the same body appeared sometimes greater, sometimes smaller; that consequently it is a quality existent only in our minds, like the visions of a dream, and he has hence decided, that matter was impossible. But whence arise these learned follies? From the extravagant attention which these two metaphysicians have paid to the subtilty of minds fruitful in argument; from their having deviated from common sense, and from their quitting the land of truth, to wander in the vacuities of error.
To give you another example. Reason, sentiment, the belief of the human race, the whole universe, all announce to us a Supreme Intelligence. But what sort of existence has this intelligence? What is its nature? How can its divine perfections accord together? Here men, by wishing to penetrate the impenetrable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, end in subtilising and stifling common sense, and in affecting not to believe in God at all. I am tranquilly enjoying the light of the sun, am blessing its benign influence, when, all at once, I obstinately persist in looking steadfastly upon its blazing disk; my eyes are too weak to bear its brilliancy; it dazzles, stupefies, and blinds me with its rays; then, in my powerless fury, I insult and mock its light: this is the picture of the atheist who blasphemes the lofty majesty of heaven, whose mighty weight overpowers his weakness.
But here a consideration presents itself, a perfect comprehension of which is absolutely indispensable. In vain am I advised to put myself upon my guard against the illusions of sense and of imagination, against the abuse of words, and ambiguity of language; in vain should I have studied all the processes of analysis and synthesis; have become skilful in applying order and consecutiveness to my thoughts, in connecting consequences with their principles, and in purifying reasoning from the vices which have crept into it; in vain should I have meditated on the philosophy of Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and Condillac; all this would be nothing, if, led astray by my passions, I should substitute them for reason; they possess an insidious persuasive power which renders all the rules of ordinary logic perfectly useless. The last century was the epoch of analysis, nor was it less the epoch of the most monstrous errors, so that truth, to be felt, requires soundness of heart, as well as enlightenment of understanding. But of what use is light unaccompanied by honesty? It has been said, that an orator is a good man who possesses the talent of eloquence; and one might also say, that the logician is a good man who possesses the talent of sound reasoning. Yes, the passions are like a mist which obscures the understanding, and which places itself between reason and truth; they trouble and agitate the soul, and render it incapable of that sustained attention, that rigid impartiality, that inflexible rectitude, which dissipates illusion and detects error. Cupidity, pride, and voluptuousness, is the triple source of the miseries of men, and of the false judgments which they form on the most important concerns of life.
I mention first, cupidity. Of all the passions this is the most blind, and the most fruitful of erroneous opinions, as of unjust actions. In proof of this assertion, I appeal to experience. Suppose that we should be questioned and consulted in an affair to which we were perfect strangers, and which in no way affected our own interests, we should see things in their true light, without prejudice, and without passion; and the advice we should give, if not infallible, would, at all events, be suggested by the sincere love of truth. But, suppose that the affair affected our own interests, we are then naturally induced to incline the balance in our own favour; we become ingenious in inventing pretexts, which imagination presents to us as reasons: hence arises the now popular maxim, that no one ought to be the judge in his own cause. In this matter we should convert appearances into realities, and finish by resting satisfied with illusions, which might have been at all events honest, had they sprung from a purer source than personal interest.
And whence all those disputes with which our tribunals are constantly resounding? Whence so many processes commenced or sustained through breach of faith? I am well aware that there are certain nice questions, on which the most learned and the most upright may be at issue; but, if cupidity did not blind the eyes of the parties interested, by far the greater number of those differences, which are frequently so fatal to the worldly prosperity of families, would be amicably accommodated. In vain, by a correct, solid, and luminous speech, will you have established the just right; every body, except the person whose cause you oppose, will be convinced: in his eyes, evidence has lost its clearness. Self-interest is like a deceptive mirror, which magnifies our own rights, but diminishes those of others. Man, in a manner, identifies himself with all his possessions; he believes that he exists in the goods which he enjoys, and it is only by a sort of forcible avulsion that he can disunite himself from them; he invents a thousand pretexts to retain them, and thus it is that self-interest falsifies those rules of equity and of truth which we derive from nature.
Another very dangerous enemy to truth is pride: Man naturally loves himself; this is a lawful or rather a necessary sentiment, but a sentiment which easily degenerates into excess: hence that blind indulgence and devotion to his own opinions and mental productions; hence those illusions which make him see beauties where all others see defects, and convert reflections of the best intended and most reasonable criticism into traits of envy and hatred. By pride, we wish to domineer over men’s minds, and command their thoughts; by pride, we despise the light of others, the authority of wise men, and experience itself, and had rather go astray in walking independently alone, than follow in the paths traced out by wisdom; by pride, we wish, above every thing, to gain a name, and to be distinguished from the crowd, and are less influenced by the love of truth, than by that of renown; and by pride, falsehood becomes dear to us, as soon as we perceive that it can conduct us to celebrity. It is pride which invents, propagates, and defends all paradoxes with indomitable obstinacy; and hence springs that spirit of sectarianism and party, which has filled the world with such blood-stained quarrels, and such irreconcilable dissensions. In its origin, it may have been nothing more than a rashly hazarded opinion, a bold deviation from the common track of thought: if truth is not vindicated, the innovator triumphs, and his boldness increases with his success. But does truth find defenders? Boldness is irritated by obstacles; men fear to admit that they are in the wrong; obstinacy is the result: this weakness is mistaken for strength of mind; one error leads on to another, and that, which at first was but a dark speck in the sky, now becomes a black and dense cloud pregnant with thunders and tempests. Do not hope to retrieve these bold minds by the maxims of a sound and well-ordered reason, do not hope to make them bend under the yoke of authority, or to restrain them, by representing to them the danger of subverting all religious and political institutions; you will find that you can make no impression on their intractable pride. Yes, there are men possessed of such a satanic pride of mind, that to render their opinions prevalent, they would wrap the whole world in flames. Leibnitz tells us somewhere, that he has known men of this character; and the truth of his observation we, alas! have experienced.
I must now lay before you the last source of the errors of the heart, and consequently of the mind. This arises from a passion apparently sweet, but in reality deadly; a passion, which insinuates itself into the soul by the avenues of all the senses, and flatters, but to tyrannize; a passion, which without satisfying, intoxicates its votaries, and makes them pay for the transient pleasures it bestows, by long and bitter regrets; a passion, which is honoured on our stage, and glorified in our romances, which has been mixed up with our most serious as with our lightest poems; a passion, which the marble and the canvass incessantly reproduce; and which, for the purposes of seduction, assumes all forms, sometimes displaying the most shameless effrontery, at other times borrowing the veil of modesty herself. I mean, in a word, that strong inclination to corporeal gratification, that love of sensual pleasures, expressed by the word voluptuousness. Such is the empire of this passion, that the subversion of its altars is one of the grandest triumphs of the Gospel; yet idolatry still so far defiles our morals, that men would perhaps consent to see all their other idols broken, were they but allowed to burn incense on this alone.
The Pagans themselves have deplored its melancholy consequences, — witness Cicero, who, in answer to the reproach brought against old age of being incapable of pleasures, exclaims, “Oh, happy privilege of our age, to be set free from that which is most vicious in youth! Listen then, O good young people, to an old saying of Architas of Tarentum, one of the best and greatest characters of his age. There is not, says he, one passion in nature more fatal to man than voluptuousness; there is no one pleasure towards which man rushes with such impetuosity and such frenzy; hence proceed treasons, the overthrow of states, criminal communications with the enemy; there is no crime towards which this fatal passion does not incite; an enemy to reason, it corrupts the judgment, darkens the eye of the mind, and can form no alliance with virtue.”
And how can a passion, which thus infuses disorder into all the faculties of the soul, fail to become a mighty obstacle in our search after truth; how can it fail to prevent our relishing, and professing its rigid maxims? In the intoxication, in the tumult of the senses, the voice of prudence will hardly be heard; the imagination of the voluptuary colours and embellishes the vilest crimes; these soon change their nature and their names; libertinism is called gaiety, licentious conversation, wit; the perseverance in a foolish passion is dignified into heroic constancy; all that the heart delights in, the mind justifies, legitimates, and sanctifies, and, as St. Augustin says, “Quodcumque placet, sanctum est.”
Of the many points which have been touched upon in this discussion, each of you may apply to himself that which suits him; there may be, perhaps, more than one among you, who will go forth hence with an inclination to reconsider those doctrines of commodious independence, whose secret source he has not hitherto investigated, and disposed henceforth to be more attentive in his researches and less precipitate in his judgments. Providence, whose mysterious intents are concealed under the veil of human means, may perhaps render this very discourse effectual in saving some one young man, whose soul may have been debating between the truth that enlightens and the pleasure that attracts. Augustin was only nineteen years old, when he read, for the first time, a work of Cicero, which is now extinct, entitled “Hortentius: “it was an exhortation to wisdom. He tells us, that this lecture changed his affections, — inspired him with other thoughts, — infused within him the ardent desire of learning this immortal wisdom, the germ of which, already deposited in his upright heart, would (the Divinity assisting its development), one day, yield such precious and abundant fruit. Why should not truth acquire a like empire over you? She is ancient, without having grown old; she is eternal as God her source. If she shines before you, turn not from her; if she seeks you, fly her not, it is for your own happiness that she wishes to triumph over you; the shame is to resist the glory to be vanquished by her. Able masters may direct you in the career of literature and of science, and in these pursuits your ardour to learn the truth will not relax; but on moral and religious subjects, which are the true foundations of all virtue, will your ardour be the same? It is easy to love the truth which flatters or instructs, without at the same time imposing duties upon us. But let us learn to love it even when it condemns us, and even when our desires are at variance with its dictates. Come, then, and listen to me, with a sincere love of truth, with a desire of abandoning yourselves to its impressions, with courage to follow it, and to bear its yoke even when it appears to press hardest against nature; come, here, with these happy dispositions of heart and of mind, and you will become more enlightened and better men, and I shall have the consolation of feeling that this chair is not vainly called The Chair of Truth.