If we would for a moment penetrate within the recesses of our own hearts, and there unravel the inmost sensations and desires of our nature, we should soon discover, that we are made for Truth, and should be brought, in spite of ourselves, to regard that universal Pyrrhonism which recognises nothing as being either true or false, and which affects to see but incertitude throughout, as the most absurd extravagance. Yes! I feel that in my inmost soul I am attracted towards Truth, as towards the centre of my desires and affections; that the spirit has no life but through her; and it is only by borrowing her colours, and her features, that falsehood can please, or in any way affect us. Yes! my mind thirsts for Truth, as my heart thirsts for happiness. It is as impossible for me to divest myself of the love of what is true, as of the love of myself. By intelligence, which is the attribute of my being, am I intended, and enabled, to see, to know, to distinguish objects; to discern that which is, from that which is not — truth from error; it is by that, and by that only, that I am reasonable: I feel within me a vague sort of inquietude, which is only calmed at last by the possession of Truth, or what I take for Truth.
See how the love of truth manifests itself in all ages, and in all countries. Why do we see in infants, that curiosity which is so natural to them, that avidity to know, that lively and ardent desire of learning that of which they are ignorant? Why do men carry their horror of false characters and double hearts, to such a length, that the cheats of hypocrisy and falsehood, are, of all vices, accounted the most vile and contemptible? Why those efforts of a mind, struggling against the darkness of ignorance, labouring to dissipate it, and to enjoy the full light? What seeks the sage in his wearisome night watchings, the traveller in his distant wanderings, the naturalist in his researches, the politician in his meditations, the magistrate in his reconcilement of the discussion of facts to laws? They all seek the knowledge of that which really is, for the purpose of announcing, and teaching the same to their fellow creatures, — they seek truth. Some few bold sophists are not the only persons who call themselves the friends of truth; Atheists even give themselves out as propagators of the true light: they know well that they would be casting discredit on their systems, if they called them what they really are, the dreams of passion and falsehood.
We are, then, made for truth; but should we be made for her if we had no means of ascertaining what she is? In creating us for a certain end, would nature have left us without the means of accomplishing that end? Would she have marked out a boundary line, which it is my duty to reach, merely for the purpose of interposing insurmountable barriers between me and it? Should it be so, her productions would be monstrous. Were all the human race born blind; could one for a moment suppose it was ever intended to see the light? Were it all born dumb; could one believe that it was ever intended to communicate its ideas by the organ of speech? And how then can it be made for truth, if it is destitute of the means of ascertaining what truth is?
One single observation would suffice to persuade me, that the mind of man (at least in many things) is not condemned to wander from conjecture to conjecture, or to float in a vacuity of probabilities and uncertainties; and I much suspect that the arguments of the sceptic upon the absolute impotence of the human reason, are nothing more than the declamations of the rhetorician, and subtleties of the sophist.
I know not, my friends, whether you have ever put this question to yourselves, What is truth? Or whether you have endeavoured to answer it. Truth in general, considered abstractedly, is that which is, as falsehood is that which is not. Every thing which possesses an existence, actual or possible, is true; that which has no existence, or possibility of existence, is false. Considered in us, in so far as she is present with us, in so far as she is perceptible to our minds, truth consists in the knowledge of that which is; if I affirm that which actually is, if I deny that which is not, I am in truth: in the contrary case, I am in error. Truth is something, — falsehood is a chimera, is nothing. Light and darkness, life and death, existence and annihilation, are not more opposed than truth and falsehood.
But are there not different kinds of truths? Do all shine with equal brightness, and if some exist which are less accessible to us than others, what track will lead us to the attainment of these also? Must we admit that there are certain first truths? What then are their characters? Must we admit that there are certain truths of deduction, what means have we of acquiring them? These are the two questions which we shall discuss in this conference. I shall endeavour to banish from my language every thing that may weary without enlightening. Obscurity is good for nothing, and more particularly inappropriate to a public discourse. In this discussion, which is intended to be purely philosophical, I shall endeavour to avoid all scientific terms, which do not constitute science, and which but too often are sheer empiricism.
Since man commenced philosophising, that is to say, rendering an account of himself to himself, there have arisen minds, which have occupied themselves in constructing a complete theory of the soul, of its faculties, of the origin of our ideas, and of the most secret principles of reasoning: they have, as it were, descended into the very depths of intelligence, for the purpose of surprising her in her inmost operations, and of arriving at the very root of our knowledge; as we see naturalists dig into the bowels of earth, with a new to discover how metals are composed, or how she contrives to support the various vegetables which deck her surface. But the intelligent, as the material nature, has mysteries covered with an impenetrable veil, a veil which the hand of man can never remove. Unhappily, if human intelligence has limits, its curiosity has none; hence arise innumerable attempts to pass barriers insurmountable to our weakness: and boldness here is but too often marked by more conspicuous failure. The history of philosophy presents to us one succession of various systems, or rather systems opposed the one to the other, and which have reigned by turns through the schools. Man has run through the whole chain of errors, a chain, one end of which merges in materialism, the other in idealism. The former reduces the soul to nonentity, sees in man nothing but his organs, and makes him but an additional machine in the vast mechanism of the universe; the latter, allowing nothing but soul to exist, reduces to non-entity the material world, and makes it but one imaginary picture of phenomena, and successive shadows. Between these two extremes are found systems more or less plausible.
I sit not in this chair either to adopt or refute these systems; I believe I shall be more usefully employed in elucidating those doctrines which all minds ought to avow, and which, if they wish not to lose themselves amidst chimeras, all schools ought to profess. These doctrines are the following:
In this universe, each being which composes it has its proper nature, its constituent attributes, by which it exists, and without which it is impossible to form a conception of it.
Universal existence is not more real than universal virtue; existence has no reality but in the individual who exists, as virtue has no reality, but in the man who is virtuous. There is no existence but that of individuals, and their existence results from a combination of their essential parts. Yes, there is some power which ordains, that existing matter is what it is, — that a man is a man, that a plant is a plant, that a piece of marble is a piece of marble. If you take but the body of man, you have nothing more or less than an animal; if you take but the soul of man, you will have a pure spirit, an angel: to constitute the man, you must suppose a reasonable creature, composed of a body and a soul, united by bonds which are mysterious, inexplicable, but real.
It would be unprofitable for us to contemplate ourselves in a state of existence, which may never be ours; in an order of things differing from that in which we are placed; or to inquire how we should be affected, if we had a sixth sense, or had been born endued with an extraordinary degree of perfection in our intelligence, or our organs: being men, we could not feel, see, or reason, as if we were not men: the distinctive characters of our nature do not depend upon us; man has no more created his intelligence than his body: he may render his mind more perfect by study, by reflection, or by experience, as he may strengthen his body by exercise, and wholesome diet; but at last it is not he who has constructed his intelligence: he has not traced or executed its plan, as he would that of an edifice, the work of his own hands; he has no more the power of adding one faculty to his mind, than he has the power of adding a third eye to his head. In considering man then, in his actual condition of man, what do we see?
We see that he unconsciously brings with him into the world tastes, desires, faculties, which are analogous to his intellectual nature, as he does faculties which are analogous to his corporeal nature; that he has within himself, an inclination towards truth, an aptitude for ascertaining and laying hold of that truth; dispositions which manifest, develope, and perfect themselves, by means which, for the most part, will always be imperceptible to the most skilful observer. Yes! the mind is made to see the truth, as the eye is made to see the light; such is its nature. Do not let us imagine that we can be masters of our own intelligence, as we may be masters of a piece of mechanism of our own construction; that we can bend the former to our fancies, as we can arrange or disarrange the springs of the latter: no, intelligence has its principles, its laws, which constitute and govern it, and which we cannot violate without destroying, as the body has a certain organization, without which it could not exist.
It has been well said, that habit is second nature, that the child is like a piece of wax, susceptible of all impressions and formations. But in this comparison, let us take care that we do not go beyond that which is strictly true. This soft piece of wax is indifferent to the forms which are given to it; it does not appeal against, or repulse any, but, always passive, preserves the last it has received. It is not so with the soul; it is very far from being indifferent to truth and error, it attracts the former, repels the latter; it is endowed with an internal activity, which rises infinitely above every thing merely passive, — the sanctions, education, experience, may excite its activity, may put its faculties into play, and bring it materials for erecting the edifice of its acquirements; but the soul is always the architect who composes, appreciates, judges, selects, and arranges those materials, after certain primitive ideas of order and proportion unattainable from any other source.
Take a tablet of marble; you may engrave the most ridiculous propositions upon it with impunity, such as these for instance: “A circle is a square figure — two and two make five.” The marble possesses nothing within itself which can render it conscious of these absurdities, nothing which can repel them, and it will continue to represent the characters which express them, until they are effaced by time; but in vain would a sophist endeavour to impress these propositions on the tablets of the human intellect, or make them prevalent through the human race; an internal sentiment, not to be overcome, will always tell us that a circle is round, and that two and two make four.
The soul is rich and mighty in its own resources; she conceals within herself a treasure of sentiments, of notions, of hidden truths, which in due season make themselves manifest, which become the principle of her affections and aversions, and enlighten and govern her judgments. I will not pretend to say what their origin may be, at what moment of time they may first peep forth into light, or when they may be fully developed, and from confused sensations slowly ripen into clear principles: I will not say that they are innate, in the sense that an infant just born has an actual perception of them; but I say that they exist in the human soul, that they await but an opportunity to show themselves, as the spark hidden in the veins of a flint awaits but a slight shock for its emission; or as objects enclosed in a dark room, have no existence for us, until the admission of light makes us sensible of their presence. In what manner then are these primary sentiments, dormant, as it were, in the inmost recesses of the soul, awakened and called into life? Impenetrable mystery!
Amongst these primary sentiments, more or less confused, more or less developed, and which are so mixed up with our nature, that we find them wherever men are found, I shall place man’s sentiment of his own individual existence, of the existence of something exterior to himself, his sentiment of self-love, of filial piety, of order, of cause and effect, his notions of a divinity, of a future life, of good and evil, of appearance and reality, of time and space.
Throughout the world men have believed in a God, have hoped for a future life; throughout the world men have felt that a son ought to love his mother, have measured time and divided space; and in the language of all nations, we find terms correspondent to, and expressive of these ideas. Suppose a sophist should attempt to prove to us, that we do not exist, that nothing exists, that motion is impossible, that a house is built of itself, that ingratitude is a virtue, this sophist might succeed in embarrassing us by his subtilties, but human nature would in a body rise indignant against such empty arguments, and would still be retained within the bounds of truth, by the force of those primary ideas which master its intelligence, and chain it down to that which is real.
Another of these primary sentiments is that of infinity. Although the human species seldom attempts to analyze this feeling, still it is prevalent through it, — it exists in the savage, as in the civilized man, and is betrayed under various circumstances. Place any man before one of nature’s grandest scenes, when he contemplates the vast expanse of the starry heavens, the immense ocean, and the cloud-capped mountains, he is seized with a sort of awe mingled with tenderness; his emotion will perhaps be more lively, as he is less minutely acquainted with the causes of those phenomena which strike his view; his ravished soul bounds forth beyond the sphere of all he looks upon, and plunges into an indescribable vacuity of space, which is indeterminate, which has neither bounds nor limits, — in a word, into infinity.
Let us not confound these fundamental ideas, which are the same in all men, with those accessory ideas which may be the portion but of a few; and let us distinguish between the instruments which nature gives us, and the perfection superadded to them by men. Aristotle and Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, Malebranche, Locke, and Leibnitz, have well traced the rules of reasoning, have succeeded in referring men to experience, in placing them in a methodical kind of doubt, in order to induce them to account to themselves for every thing, to ascend to the origin of ideas, and to discuss their manner of seeing objects; they have thus been enabled, by their methods, their classifications, their well-defined systems of human acquirements, to aid and guide us in the search after truth: but the principles existed without them, and before them. By reasoning, we endeavour to ascertain if any fixed principles exist, and what those principles are; but to reason, we must have means of reasoning; and to seek those means, is to suppose that they exist. We must observe, that in all systems, in ascending from idea to idea, from reasoning to reasoning, we are obliged to set out from one fixed principle, from one incontestible fact. We must arrive at one primary truth, which is rather felt and seen, than susceptible of demonstration; and there will ever be an absolute impossibility of proving any thing, unless we can base our argument upon one certain principle or fact, which itself requires no proof. If we should be called upon to give a precise explanation of the characters of those ideas which we call primary, I should assign them four; namely, perspicuity, antiquity, universality, and immutability.
Perspicuous, inasmuch as they shine in their own proper brightness, their brilliancy striking the mind as the rays of the sun strike the eye. Where is the man that can resist the sentiment of his own individual existence, and not believe that he exists? These truths refuse subjection to any sort of proof; we expose, but do not demonstrate them, from our inability to appeal to any principle more clear than themselves. We can no more refute than we can prove them, and to them the imperious will of nature incessantly reconducts us. This made Pascal exclaim in those energetic words, “There is a force of truth which scepticism finds invincible, as there is an impracticability of demonstration invincible to all dogmatism.” One of the characteristics of primary truths, that of our own individual existence for instance, is, their being of a nature so evident that they cannot be proved by any principle still more evident, and it is precisely because these are the ground-works of all reasoning, that they themselves are not susceptible of argumentative discussion.
They are old, for they are born with the human race, and high as you ascend you will find them diffused throughout it. How could we enter into communication or society with antiquity, if these primary ideas were not in common with us and her? Man has not invented them, they are in him at the very moment of his birth; they are either actually perceived, or they await but an opportunity to reveal themselves. We may say that all truth is old; it is only its manifestation that may be new; its germ has ever existed within us. The cause of our relishing any truth is, that we find it conformable to certain pre-conceived ideas; the mind no more invents truth than Christopher Columbus invented America; it discovers it, it is in harmony with it, as the eye is organized for the reception of light; and when truth presents herself, it sees and holds it as its own. Intelligence contains within herself the principle of every thing which she afterwards acquires by experience; and Fontenelle has remarked with much justice, that “men believe they can recognize a truth, the first time that it is announced to them.”
They are universal; the truths of which I speak belong to all people and to all countries. Into whatsoever lands a man may wander, he finds, on many subjects, that he is in possession of ideas and sentiments in common with his fellow men, by which they are enabled mutually to communicate that which passes in their souls. That people should be divided or even opposed in laws, morals, or customs, affects not our argument; on certain points they understand each other from one end of the world to the other. How is it that the man of learning can converse with the boor? why, to the very extremities of the east are the elements of geometry the same as in our Europe? It is because men throughout the world, and in all conditions, are men, — they all draw certain common sentiments from one common nature. All reasoning supposes one principle, and if that principle was not in common, men could not understand each other on any thing. Here, my friends, is common sense, so called, because it is composed of universal ideas.
Lastly, they are immutable; man can no more destroy than he can create them; they are the life of intelligence; they are proof against the corrosion of time: they resist ignorance, prejudice, and passion. The human species could not exist without them. It is no more in its power to appoint that for the future there should be effects without causes, than to appoint that for the future men should live without food.
Such are the characteristic traits of those sentiments which are inherent in human nature; they may lie dormant, but they are not extinct; on the contrary, they will answer to the first appeal, will awake, and serve us as guides and torches. The soul holds them in reserve, as it were, to call them into use in time of need; it is by them that she sees, judges, reasons. Such then is this essence of our nature, which possesses the consciousness of itself, of its sentiments, of its ideas, of its operations, which possesses also fixed principles of reasoning, with which it proceeds to the discovery of truths as yet concealed from it; which modifies itself in a thousand different manners, but which always remaining the same in the midst of the perpetual flux and reflux of these rapid and transient changes, recals the past and compares it with the present. Immoveable mirror! in which moveable objects successively present themselves; but animated mirror! which sees the objects it produces, dismisses them, recals them, judges them, and sees them at the same time itself; — wonder of wonders, always old but always new, which we observe not, but which is present with us every moment! Yes! when a man reflects even for a moment on the operations of his own mind, on its faculties, its memory, he must exclaim, as he on the high mysteries of Christianity, “Oh the height and the depth of the wisdom of God!”
There are, then, primary truths which govern the intellectual and moral world, as there are general rules of motion which govern the material world; they constitute laws for our minds which they cannot disobey. As in corporeal nature the confusion of the elements seems sometimes to threaten the universe with an eternal chaos, so it sometimes happens that disorder, vice, and error seem to overwhelm and destroy the intellectual world. But the fundamental principles yet survive, they predominate, and re-establish order; they are the cardinal points on which the moral world revolves. Let us say with the foreign writer,1 “That the last effort of reason is to see that it ought firmly to attach itself to primary truths, which serve it as resting places, and which require not to be proved by argument, but which men seize upon by a kind of instinct, and which, in some sort, constitute intelligence.”
It has not been attempted here to explain these primary notions; it was enough for our purpose, to establish their actual existence, and to mark out their characters; and this, we believe, has been done. We wish only to make one remark upon their origin.
God exists; he sees himself, and sees all that is possible; at our creation, God communicated to us some portion of the treasures of his own infinite knowledge: our reason, the light of our spirit, is, like a reflection of that uncreated light. The notions of truth and order, which exist in us, are found to exist from all eternity, but in a manner infinitely more perfect, in Him who is the Very Truth. Through their means are we enabled to comprehend the immortal ideas of Plato as of Fenelon. This is that which the Bible has revealed to us in saying, that “God created man after his own image;” a sentence which explains our nature better than all the learned disquisitions of ancient or modern times. Let us here devote one moment to the admiration of that religion, whose doctrines respond so well to all of elevation possessed by metaphysics, as its morality responds to all of purity possessed by sentiment; which caused a German moralist to observe, that “he had no other philosophy than the Christian religion.”
But in addition to these primary or self-evident truths, are there not truths of argument, of deduction, of consequence, as we may choose to call them? What are our means of ascertaining these? This point remains to be discussed.
I have just established, my friends, that we are compelled to admit the existence of primary truths, felt and perceived as soon as announced, incapable of proof, because they themselves are the proof of every thing, primary in their existence, they precede the experienced use of reason, as the seed precedes the plant. Primary in their importance, they serve as foundations on which the mind may rest all her labours, all her researches, all her discoveries; primary in the ascendancy of their empire, for they are as old as they are widely diffused, and are as durable as the human race is durable. To attach ourselves to them is wisdom, to deviate from them is folly. These primary principles are an anchor of safety to the human understanding, which, without them, would be ever tossing about upon an ocean of uncertainty and tumult.
But, we must admit, that if we could reduce every thing to these primitive notions, our mental attainments would be confined within very narrow limits, for since these notions are common to all, there would be an universal equality of knowledge, and the human race would remain in everlasting infancy. Primary truths are like the roots of a tree which are improved by culture, and from which a number of branches destined to bear flowers and fruit shoot forth. In the vast domain of the human mind, in the natural sciences, in geometry, in polity, even in morality and religion, how many truths are there, which do not spontaneously present themselves to our minds, whose simple announcement does not render them at once evident and command conviction, but at which we can only arrive by reflection and meditation. But before we go farther and point out the means of discovering these, we must make one important remark with respect to all mental attainments; which is, that all and every truth considered in our souls, so far as that truth is perceived and known by us, reduces itself to an instinctive sentiment which warns us of its presence. Truth is as independent of the perception of my mind, as the light of the sun is independent of the organs of vision; but as light exists to me only through the impression which it makes upon my eyes, so truth exists only through the sentiment of herself which she awakens within my mind. Yes! the philosopher may treat to me of God and His attributes, of the soul and its faculties, of morality and its precepts, of religion and its foundations: — the sage may explain to me the laws of nature, the phenomena she presents, and the discoveries which have resulted from his own observations; — the geometrician may develop his theorems with their corollaries; — the man of letters may trace out to me the rules of elegant expression, and the method of persuading others of the truth of those things of which I am persuaded myself; — the critic may place under my eyes the monuments of the facts which he relates to me, and endeavour to make me sensible of their force; — I lend an attentive ear to them all, I endeavour to follow the chain of their arguments; on each subject, thoughts and reflections arise within my mind; I experience a sentiment of resistance or attraction; and, if finally I give my full assent to their respective theories, it is because I am determined so to do, by an internal sentiment, which forces me to say, “that is true.”
We seek an infallible rule of judgment, an immutable principle of certainty, which we call the criterion of truth, — where shall we place it? Is it in the perfect conformity of the consequence to the primary truth which contained it, or in other words, in identity? Is it in experience? Is it in authority? Make your choice. Any principle that may be presented to me must be known, and appreciated by my mind; I must, by an internal sentiment, be previously convinced of the aptitude of that rule of truth, and of the justice of its applications. Should you endeavour to subjugate my mind by a divine revelation, or by the universal belief of the human race? This revelation and this belief, must be known to me; I must feel their weight and irrefragable authority; something must whisper me internally and say, “that revelation comes from God;” “such is the belief of the whole human race, and it is folly not to think as it does.” Would you make me ascend even unto God, the source of truth? I must then know God, and must feel an intimate conviction of His existence; how could I be certain of the existence of God, if I was not certain of my own personal existence? And I am only certain of my own individual existence by feeling that I exist; here then we see ourselves always brought back to an internal sentiment. I must exist in order to feel and know; non-entity feels nothing, knows nothing. Doubtless if God existed not, I should not exist, and I can only explain my own existence by that of the Being of Beings, who has given it to me. We do not refer here to priority of existence, but to priority of knowledge. Before I can know that God exists, I must know that I myself exist; the very doubt of my own existence would be a proof of it, for doubt cannot exist but in a being which exists, a non-entity could not doubt.
Yes, my friends, when we disengage ourselves from the illusions of systems, sometimes raised with much labour to little purpose, we find, that every thing refers to the internal sentiment of self, of myself, and of that which passes within me; after having exhausted all reflection, and all argument, the conclusive reason for believing in any proposition is, the internal sentiment of its truth. It is not necessary that I should know how these sentiments and ideas are awakened within my soul; select, for the moment, any system you may please, let it be that all within us originates either from sentiment or speech, or from any other source; it matters not; it is impossible that any one idea, any one truth, or any one thing whatsoever, can exist in reference to me, otherwise than by the sentiment which I have of it. In this sense it is manifest that the principle of my belief is within me, is internal. All that is presented to me from without, should be felt and appreciated by me, and when I experience a very clear, deep, and irresistible impression of its truth, when I feel that I must yield to its influence, I have then arrived at conviction, at certainty, which is nothing more than the imperturbable adhesion of the mind to the object presented to it.
But have we any means of transferring this internal sentiment of light, which primary truths make us experience, to truths themselves less clear? Yes! my friends. Should we treat on intellectual subjects based on invariable affinities, such as geometry; the mind can discover their first principles, and by the force of reasoning, deduce their consequences. Should we treat on material or sensible objects, such as the phenomena of corporeal nature; they are made known to us by the instrumentality of the senses. Should we treat of matters of fact, such as the existence and the death of Caesar; these we know by testimony. Let us then consider whether reasoning, the senses and testimony, would, in the points just mentioned, really be sure and faithful guides to the discovery of truth.
I am well aware that reasoning is abused, by being applied against reason itself, that there are false reasonings, as there are false weights and measures, that the human mind is liable to err, and to be precipitate in judgment, that it sometimes takes a luminous vapour for pure light. (Under this impression, I shall devote a particular discourse to an attempt at the discovery of the most ordinary causes of our errors.) But false coin does not after all destroy the good, nor can it deprive it of those peculiar marks, by which it is always recognized and distinguished. Just so it is with many things which reason seeks to penetrate. In most cases we can ascend to certain fixed and incontestible principles, to which all the rest are firmly attached, in other words, we can reach those primary and clear notions already mentioned; and whether I contemplate those principles in their own light, or whether I consider the consequences which receive a light reflected from them, I am equally struck by the perspicuity which subdues and enthrals my mind. The consequence is nothing more than the development of the principle. Yes! I see that the essence of a circle is to be round, that the diameter divides it into two equal parts, that the radius is the half of the diameter, that all the parts of its circumference are equidistant from the centre; and if from these self-evident notions, geometricians can deduce properties which are their inevitable results, I should believe the one and the other to be equally certain. Men may multiply sophisms, may try to shake my belief, I should yet always believe that a circle is round. I should, on this subject, feel an impression of truth of which it would be impossible to divest me; I should, even in spite of myself, be penetrated by the deepest and most intimate conviction, not only on the essential qualities of the circle, which, without any effort of reflection, I see before me, but also on those qualities contained within it, which are now made manifest to me. If then the chain of our reasonings are suspended on any one of these primary and immutable principles; if they are united together like the links of that chain, the last held by the one preceding, until they reach the fixed point which sustains the whole, then will the very last consequence be inseparably united to its principle.
There doubtless is a vast interval between the primary notions of algebra, and the highest problems of analysis; between the propositions, “I exist, I feel, I think,” and the sublimest speculations of the human intellect. What a host of intermediate propositions and arguments! It is like being obliged to commence a journey upon an unknown road in a dark night; but if I find lighted lamps placed at certain distances, the first will lead me to the second, the second to the third, so that I at last reach that which shews me the termination of my journey. So it is with a well connected series of reasonings, each proposition impresses upon the mind its own track of light, and I thence proceed through an unbroken succession of interior sentiments of truth, which conduct me at last to the truth, which I am seeking.
I come now to the instrumentality of the senses. I maintain that the senses, the eye, the ear, may become to rash and unreflecting minds an occasion of prejudice. How often has it happened that new discoveries have caused us to see objects in a totally different light! How often have certain experiments on which we have too confidently relied, at last turned out to be faulty! What ought we to collect from these facts? That we should be on our guard against forming judgments precipitately; that, in fact, we should never pronounce them but after the most rigid examination. But when the instrumentality of the senses is constant and uniform, when proofs a thousand times repeated, continue to present the same results, when after being examined under every possible form, the same phenomenon continues to present itself, and when objects are so palpable, so sensible, that all we require is to have eyes to see, and ears to hear, can we then refuse to believe in the testimony of the senses? How can we, after all our experience, refuse our assent to the facts, that water is heavier than air, that air is more elastic than water, that fluids are ever seeking their level, that astronomy knows the secret of calculating with the nicest precision the return of the eclipses, that the arts have certain processes admirably adapted to the ends which they have in view? How can we refuse to believe, that the day is not the night, that there is motion in nature? Here it is impossible for me to doubt. I should be ashamed, were I to surprise myself even hesitating; and although ancient and modern Zenos might, in their arguments against motion, embarrass me by subtleties, which at the moment I may not be able to refute, still I should account myself a madman, were I to disbelieve it. I should walk, and then say “motion is possible.”
Let us now consider testimony: we know that suspicious testimony has sometimes passed for incontrovertible, that with regard to facts of history, imposture on one side, and credulity on the other, have attached credit to false recitals, but we know also that there are rules of sound criticism adapted to the discussion of testimony, which are frequently so authoritative as to command our obedience. Without dwelling upon the development of these rules (which require a separate discourse), I here for a moment appeal to your consciences, and ask you, should a sophist be pleased to announce that Alexander the Great was a fabulous hero, that Charlemagne never lived, but in the imaginations of our romancers, or that the city of Rome exists no where, but upon geographical charts, would this ridiculous personage find one partizan through all Europe? Would he succeed in shaking the universal belief of those facts, or would he not rather pass for a madman? Yet the testimony of men is the only source by which we know these things. Yes, I believe in the existence of Rome, which I have never seen, as firmly as I believe in the equality of the four sides which compose a square. Let any one adduce this proposition, “There is in Italy, a city which is called Rome;” and then this, “In a square the four sides are equal;” would you not, on both, experience the same irresistible impression of truth? Would any doubt on the subject arise in your minds? If you should even hesitate, do you believe you could resist the evidence of the fact, or the imperious voice of conscience within you, although you may not have seen Rome with your own eyes? Here is a matter of fact, which is not submitted to geometrical processes or calculations. What I say of Rome I might say of Constantinople, of Philadelphia, of Pekin; I might say of the existence of Francis I., of Clovis, of Theodosius, of Marcus Aurelius, of Caesar; I might say it of facts, still more particular, of the battles of Fontenoy, of Ivry, of Pavia, of Pharsalia, of Actium. Would not the men who refused to credit these facts, be thought destitute of all common sense? Listen to the sentiments of the finest genius that ever adorned the French magistracy: “I feel,” says Aguesseau, in his Meditations Metaphysiques,
“that there are facts which are only known to me by the testimony of men; and yet it is as impossible for me to doubt these, as it would be to doubt the most evident truth of geometry. Can I doubt, for example, the existence of Rome, where I have never been? Can I suppose that the historian deceives me, or is himself deceived, when he tells me, that Augustus was the first of the Roman emperors, that Christopher Columbus made the discovery of what is called the New World? If the truths of geometry are clearer because I can discover their principles, these have the advantage of being more suited to the general apprehension of mankind, and of making a deeper and more lasting impression on their minds. Men are constantly disputing on geometrical processes, and on their evidences, but no one has ever thought of arguing on the existence of Rome; and if men have occasionally been found, who endeavour to cast doubts on facts like these, they have been regarded as fools, or at most as contemptible sophists, who abuse the ingenuity of their minds.”
Thus then, reasoning, the senses, and testimony, either apart or united, may be the groundworks of much of our acquired knowledge. They will not make man infallible any more than they will make him impeccable; the attainment of truth in every thing is no more intended for this world than perfection in virtue. If man is intelligent, he is also free; and in his search after truth, as in his conduct, may make a good or a bad use of his free will. He would hold in his hand sure instruments of truth in vain, should he neglect to avail himself of them, or should passion or pride direct their employ. It would be a great and fatal error to believe that all things are made for the triumph of truth, because the mind has become enlightened on some; we must understand that the greatest enemies of truth are our passions; there will be errors and there will be vices, as long as there are men. But after all, do men know nothing because they know not every thing? Because there are many errors, are there no truths? It is as if one should say, that there is no virtue, because the earth is sullied by so many vices; or that light is nothing, because we are often in the dark. Do we wish to attain that happy medium where wisdom reigns? Let us say with one of our ancient apologists, the brightest genius of his age, let us say with Lactantius,
“Among philosophers some have pretended that man might know every thing, — these are madmen; others that he could know nothing, — these men were not more wise: the former have given too much to man, the latter too little; both the one and the other have rushed into excess. Where then is wisdom? She consists in not believing that you know every thing — that is the attribute of God alone; in not pretending that you know nothing — that is the property of brutes: between these two extremes there is a medium which is appropriated for man — it is knowledge mixed up with darkness and tempered with ignorance.”
1 Ancillon: Melanges de Philosophic et de Literature.