Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with Some Particulars Respecting the Author, by William Godwin

ESSAY XXII.

OF THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE.

In the preceding Essay I have referred to the theory of Berkeley, whose opinion is that there is no such thing as matter in the sense in which it is understood by the writers on natural philosophy, and that the whole of our experience in that respect is the result of a system of accidents without an intelligible subject, by means of which antecedents and consequents flow on for ever in a train, the past succession of which man is able to record, and the future in many cases he is qualified to predict and to act upon.

An argument more palpable and popular than that of Berkeley in favour of the same hypothesis, might be deduced from the points recapitulated in that Essay as delivered by Locke and Newton. If what are vulgarly denominated the secondary qualities of matter are in reality nothing but sensations existing in the human mind, then at any rate matter is a very different thing from what it is ordinarily apprehended to be. To which I add, in the second place, that, if matter, as is stated by Newton, consists in so much greater a degree of pores than solid parts, that the absolute particles contained in the solar system might, for aught we know, he contained in a nutshell77, and that no two ever touched each other, or approached so near that they might not be brought nearer, provided a sufficient force could be applied for that purpose — and if, as Priestley teaches, all that we observe is the result of successive spheres of attraction and repulsion, the centre of which is a mathematical point only, we then certainly come very near to a conclusion, which should banish matter out of the theatre of real existences78.

77 See above, Essay XXI.

78 See above, Essay XXI.

But the extreme subtleties of human intellect are perhaps of little further use, than to afford an amusement to persons of curious speculation, and whose condition in human society procures them leisure for such enquiries. The same thing happens here, as in the subject of my Twelfth Essay, on the Liberty of Human Actions. The speculator in his closet is one man: the same person, when he comes out of his retirement, and mixes in intercourse with his fellow-creatures, is another man. The necessarian, when he reasons on the everlasting concatenation of antecedents and consequents, proves to his own apprehension irrefragably, that he is a passive instrument, acted upon, and acting upon other things, in turn, and that he can never disengage himself from the operation of the omnipotent laws of physical nature, and the impulses of other men with whom he is united in the ties of society. But no sooner does this acute and ingenious reasoner come into active life and the intercourse of his fellowmen, than all these fine-drawn speculations vanish from his recollection. He regards himself and other men as beings endowed with a liberty of action, as possessed of a proper initiative power, and free to do a thing or not to do it, without being subject to the absolute and irresistible constraint of motives. It is from this internal and indefeasible sense of liberty, that we draw all our moral energies and enthusiasm, that we persevere heroically in defiance of obstacles and discouragements, that we praise or blame the actions of others, and admire the elevated virtues of the best of our contemporaries, and of those whose achievements adorn the page of history.

It is in a manner of precisely the same sort as that which prevails in the philosophical doctrines of liberty and necessity, that we find ourselves impelled to feel on the question of the existence of the material universe. Berkeley, and as many persons as are persuaded by his or similar reasonings, feel satisfied in speculation that there is no such thing as matter in the sense in which it is understood by the writers on natural philosophy, and that all our notions of the external and actual existence of the table, the chair, and the other material substances with which we conceive ourselves to be surrounded, of woods, and mountains, and rivers, and seas, are mere prejudice and misconception. All this is very well in the closet, and as long as we are involved in meditation, and remain abstracted from action, business, and the exertion of our limbs and corporal faculties. But it is too fine for the realities of life. Berkeley, and the most strenuous and spiritualised of his followers, no sooner descend from the high tower of their speculations, submit to the necessities of their nature, and mix in the business of the world, than they become impelled, as strongly as the necessarian in the question of the liberty of human actions, not only to act like other men, but even to feel just in the same manner as if they had never been acquainted with these abstractions. A table then becomes absolutely a table, and a chair a chair: they are “fed with the same food, hurt by the same weapons, and warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter,” as other men: and they make use of the refreshments which nature requires, with as true an orthodoxy, and as credulous a temper, as he who was never assailed with such refinements. Nature is too strong, to be prevailed on to retire, and give way to the authority of definitions and syllogistical deduction.

But, when we have granted all this, it is however a mistake to say, that these “subtleties of human intellect are of little further use, than to afford an amusement to persons of curious speculation79.” We have seen, in the case of the doctrine of philosophical necessity80, that, though it can never form a rule for the intercourse between man and man, it may nevertheless be turned to no mean advantage. It is calculated to inspire us with temperance and toleration. It tends impressively to evince to us, that this scene of things is but like the shadows which pass before us in a magic lanthorn, and that, after all, men are but the tools, not the masters, of their fate. It corrects the illusions of life, much after the same manner as the spectator of a puppet-shew is enlightened, who should be taken within the curtain, and shewn how the wires are pulled by the master, which produce all the turmoil and strife that before riveted our attention. It is good for him who would arrive at all the improvement of which our nature is capable, at one time to take his place among the literal beholders of the drama, and at another to go behind the scenes, and remark the deceptions in their original elements, and the actors in their proper and natural costume.

79 See above, Essay XXII.

80 See above, Essay XII.

And, as in the question of the liberty of human actions, so in that of the reality of the material universe, it is a privilege not to be despised, that we are so formed as to be able to dissect the subject that is submitted to our examination, and to strip the elements of which this sublunary scene is composed, of the disguise in which they present themselves to the vulgar spectator. It is little, after all, that we are capable to know; and the man of heroic mind and generous enterprise, will not refuse the discoveries that are placed within his reach. The subtleties of grammar are as the porch, which leads from the knowledge of words to the knowledge of things. The subtleties of mathematics defecate the grossness of our apprehension, and supply the elements of a sounder and severer logic. And in the same manner the faculty which removes the illusions of external appearance, and enables us to “look into the seeds of time,” is one which we are bound to estimate at its genuine value. The more we refine our faculties, other things equal, the wiser we grow: we are the more raised above the thickness of the atmosphere that envelops our fellow-mortals, and are made partakers of a nature superhuman and divine.

There is a curious question that has risen out of this proposition of Berkeley, of the supposed illusion we suffer in our conceptions of the material universe. It has been said, “Well then, I am satisfied that the chairs, the tables, and the other material substances with which I conceive myself to be surrounded, are not what they appear to be, but are merely an eternal chain of antecedents and consequents, going on according to what Leibnitz calls a ‘preestablished harmony,’ and thus furnishing the ground of the speculations which mortals cherish, and the motives of their proceeding. But, if thus, in the ordinary process of human affairs, we believe in matter, when in reality there is no such thing as matter, how shall we pronounce of mind, and the things which happen to us in our seeming intercourse with our fellow-men, and in the complexities of love and hatred, of kindred and friendship, of benevolence and misanthropy, of robbery and murder, and of the wholesale massacre of thousands of human beings which are recorded in the page of history? We absolutely know nothing of the lives and actions of others but through the medium of material impulse. And, if you take away matter, the bodies of our fellow-men, does it not follow by irresistible consequence that all knowledge of their minds is taken away also? Am not I therefore (the person engaged in reading the present Essay) the only being in existence, an entire universe to myself?”

Certainly this is a very different conclusion from any that Berkeley ever contemplated. In the very title of the Treatise in which his notions on this subject are unfolded, he professes his purpose to be to remove “the grounds of scepticism, atheism and irreligion.” Berkeley was a sincere Christian, and a man of the most ingenuous dispositions. Pope, in the Epilogue to his Satires, does not hesitate to ascribe to him “every virtue under heaven.” He was for twenty years a prelate of the Protestant church. And, though his personal sentiments were in the highest degree philanthropical and amiable, yet, in his most diffusive production, entitled The Minute Philosopher, he treats “those who are called Free Thinkers” with a scorn and disdain, scarcely to be reconciled with the spirit of Christian meekness.

There are examples however, especially in the fields of controversy, where an adventurous speculatist has been known to lay down premises and principles, from which inferences might be fairly deduced, incompatible with the opinions entertained by him who delivered them. It may therefore be no unprofitable research to enquire how far the creed of the non-existence of matter is to be regarded as in truth and reality countenancing the inference which has just been recited.

The persons then, who refine with Berkeley upon the system of things so far, as to deny that there is any such thing as matter in the sense in which it is understood by the writers on natural philosophy, proceed on the ground of affirming that we have no reason to believe that the causes of our sensations have an express resemblance to the sensations themselves81. That which gives us a sensation of colour is not itself coloured: and the same may be affirmed of the sensations of hot and cold, of sweet and bitter, and of odours offensive or otherwise. The immaterialist proceeds to say, that what we call matter has been strewn to be so exceedingly porous, that, for any thing we know, all the solid particles in the universe might be contained in a nutshell, that there is no such thing in the external world as actual contact, and that no two particles of matter were ever so near to each other, but that they might be brought nearer, if a sufficient force could be applied for that purpose. From these premises it seems to follow with sufficient evidence, that the causes of our sensations, so far as the material universe is concerned, bear no express resemblance to the sensations themselves.

81 See above, Essay XXI.

How then does the question stand with relation to mind? Are those persons who deny the existence of matter, reduced, if they would be consistent in their reasonings, to deny, each man for himself, that he has any proper evidence of the existence of other minds than his own?

He denies, while he has the sensation of colour, that there exists colour out of himself, unless in thinking and percipient beings constituted in a manner similar to that in which he is constituted. And the same of the sensations of hot and cold, sweet and bitter, and odours offensive or otherwise. He affirms, while he has the sensation of length, breadth and thickness, that there is no continuous substance out of himself, possessing the attributes of length, breadth and thickness in any way similar to the sensation of which he is conscious. He professes therefore that he has no evidence, arising from his observation of what we call matter, of the actual existence of a material world. He looks into himself, and all he finds is sensation; but sensation cannot be a property of inert matter. There is therefore no assignable analogy between the causes of his sensations, whatever they may be, and the sensations themselves; and the material world, such as we apprehend it, is the mere creature of his own mind.

Let us next consider how this question stands as to the conceptions he entertains respecting the minds of other men. That which gives him the sensation of colour, is not any thing coloured out of himself; and that which gives him the sensation of length, breadth and thickness, is not any thing long, broad and thick in a manner corresponding with the impression he receives. There is nothing in the nature of a parallel, a type and its archetype, between that which is without him and that which is within, the impresser and the impression. This is the point supposed to be established by Locke and Newton, and by those who have followed the reasonings of these philosophers into their remotest consequences.

But the case is far otherwise in the impressions we receive respecting the minds of other men. In colour it has been proved by these authors that there is no express correspondence and analogy between the cause of the sensation and the sensation. They are not part and counterpart. But in mind there is a precise resemblance and analogy between the conceptions we are led to entertain respecting other men, and what we know of ourselves. I and my associate, or fellow-man, are like two instruments of music constructed upon the same model. We have each of us, so to speak, the three great divisions of sound, base, tenor and treble. We have each the same number of keys, capable of being struck, consecutively or with alternations, at the will of the master. We can utter the same sound or series of sounds, or sounds of a different character, but which respond to each other. My neighbour therefore being of the same nature as myself, what passes within me may be regarded as amounting to a commanding evidence that he is a real being, having a proper and independent existence.

There is further something still more impressive and irresistible in the notices I receive respecting the minds of other men. The sceptics whose reasonings I am here taking into consideration, admit, each man for himself, the reality of his own existence. There is such a thing therefore as human nature; for he is a specimen of it. Now the idea of human nature, or of man, is a very complex thing. He is in the first place the subject of sensible impressions, however these impressions are communicated to him. He has the faculties of thinking and feeling. He is subject to the law of the association of ideas, or, in other words, any one idea existing in his mind has a tendency to call up the ideas of other things which have been connected with it in his first experience. He has, be it delusive or otherwise, the sense of liberty of action.

But we will go still further into detail as to the nature of man.

Our lives are carried forward by the intervention of what we call meat, drink and sleep. We are liable to the accidents of health and sickness. We are alternately the recipients of joy and sorrow, of cheerfulness and melancholy. Our passions are excited by similar means, whether of love or hatred, complacency or indignation, sympathy or resentment. I could fill many pages with a description of the properties or accidents, which belong to man as such, or to which he is liable.

Now with all these each man is acquainted in the sphere of his inward experience, whether he is a single being standing by himself, or is an individual belonging to a numerous species.

Observe then the difference between my acquaintance with the phenomena of the material universe, and with the individuals of my own species. The former say nothing to me; they are a series of events and no more; I cannot penetrate into their causes; that which gives rise to my sensations, may or may not be similar to the sensations themselves. The follower of Berkeley or Newton has satisfied himself in the negative.

But the case is very different in my intercourse with my fellow-men. Agreeably to the statement already made I know the reality of human nature; for I feel the particulars that constitute it within myself. The impressions I receive from that intercourse say something to me; for they talk to me of beings like myself. My own existence becomes multiplied in infinitum. Of the possibility of matter I know nothing; but with the possibility of mind I am acquainted; for I am myself an example. I am amazed at the consistency and systematic succession of the phenomena of the material universe; though I cannot penetrate the veil which presents itself to my grosser sense, nor see effects in their causes. But I can see, in other words, I have the most cogent reasons to believe in, the causes of the phenomena that occur in my apparent intercourse with my fellow-men. What solution so natural, as that they are produced by beings like myself, the duplicates, with certain variations, of what I feel within me?

The belief in the reality of matter explains nothing. Supposing it to exist, if Newton is right, no particle of extraneous matter ever touched the matter of my body; and therefore it is not just to regard it as the cause of my sensations. It would amount to no more than two systems going on at the same time by a preestablished harmony, but totally independent of and disjointed from each other.

But the belief in the existence of our fellow-men explains much. It makes level before us the wonder of the method of their proceedings, and affords an obvious reason why they should be in so many respects like our own. If I dismiss from my creed the existence of inert matter, I lose nothing. The phenomena, the train of antecedents and consequents, remain as before; and this is all that I am truly concerned with. But take away the existence of my fellow-men; and you reduce all that is, and all that I experience, to a senseless mummery. “You take my life, taking the thing whereon I live.”

Human nature, and the nature of mind, are to us a theme of endless investigation. “The proper study of mankind is man.” All the subtlety of metaphysics, or (if there be men captious and prejudiced enough to dislike that term) the science of ourselves, depends upon it. The science of morals hangs upon the actions of men, and the effects they produce upon our brother-men, in a narrower or a wider circle. The endless, and inexpressibly interesting, roll of history relies for its meaning and its spirit upon the reality and substance of the subjects of which it treats. Poetry, and all the wonders and endless varieties that imagination creates, have this for their solution and their soul.

Sympathy is the only reality of which we are susceptible; it is our heart of hearts: and, if the world had been “one entire and perfect chrysolite,” without this it would have been no more than one heap of rubbish.

Observe the difference between what we know of the material world, and what of the intellectual. The material goes on for ever according to certain laws that admit of no discrimination. They proceed upon a first principle, an impulse given them from the beginning of things. Their effects are regulated by something that we call their nature: fire burns; water suffocates; the substances around us that we call solid, depend for their effects, when put in motion, upon momentum and gravity.

The principle that regulates the dead universe, “acts by general, not by partial laws.”

When the loose mountain trembles from on high,
Shall gravitation cease, if you go by?

No: the chain of antecedents and consequents proceeds in this respect for ever the same. The laws of what we call the material world continue unvaried. And, when the vast system of things was first set in motion, every thing, so far as depends on inert matter, was determined to the minutest particle, even to the end of time.

The material world, or that train of antecedents and consequents which we understand by that term, goes on for ever in a train agreeably to the impulse previously given. It is deaf and inexorable. It is unmoved by the consideration of any accidents and miseries that may result, and unalterable. But man is a source of events of a very different nature. He looks to results, and is governed by views growing out of the contemplation of them. He acts in a way diametrically opposite to the action of inert matter, and “turns, and turns, and turns again,” at the impulse of the thought that strikes him, the appetite that prompts, the passions that move, and the effects that he anticipates. It is therefore in a high degree unreasonable, to make that train of inferences which may satisfy us on the subject of material phenomena, a standard of what we ought to think respecting the phenomena of mind.

It is further worthy of our notice to recollect, that the same reasonings which apply to our brethren of mankind, apply also to the brute creation. They, like ourselves, act from motives; that is, the elections they form are adopted by them for the sake of certain consequences they expect to see result from them. Whatever becomes therefore of the phenomena of what we call dead matter, we are here presented with tribes of being, susceptible of pleasure and pain, of hope and fear, of regard and resentment.

How beautifully does this conviction vary the scene of things! What a source to us is the animal creation, of amusement, of curious observations upon the impulses of inferior intellect, of the exhaustless varieties of what we call instinct, of the care we can exercise for their accommodation and welfare, and of the attachment and affection we win from them in return! If I travel alone through pathless deserts, if I journey from the rising to the setting sun, with no object around me but nature’s desolation, or the sublime, the magnificent and the exuberant scenery she occasionally presents, still I have that noble animal, the horse, and my faithful dog, the companions of my toil, and with whom, when my solitude would otherwise become insufferable, I can hold communion, and engage in dumb dialogues of sentiment and affection.

I have heard of a man, who, talking to his friend on the subject of these speculations, said, “What then, are you so poor and pusillanimous a creature, that you could not preserve your serenity, be perfectly composed and content, and hold on your way unvaried, though you were convinced that you were the only real being in existence, and all the rest were mere phantasies and shadows?”

If I had been the person to whom this speech was addressed, I should have frankly acknowledged, “I am the poor and pusillanimous creature you are disposed to regard with so much scorn.”

To adopt the sententious language of the Bible, “It is not good for man to be alone.” All our faculties and attributes bear relation to, and talk to us of, other beings like ourselves. We might indeed eat, drink and sleep, that is, submit to those necessities which we so denominate, without thinking of any thing beyond ourselves; for these are the demands of our nature, and we know that we cannot subsist without them. We might make use of the alternate conditions of exercise and repose.

But the life of our lives would be gone. As far as we bore in mind the creed we had adopted, of our single existence, we could neither love nor hate. Sympathy would be a solemn mockery. We could not communicate; for the being to whom our communication was addressed we were satisfied was a non-entity. We could not anticipate the pleasure or pain, the joy or sorrow, of another; for that other had no existence. We should be in a worse condition than Robinson Crusoe in the desolate island; for he believed in the existence of other men, and hoped and trusted that he should one day again enter into human society. We should be in a worse condition than Robinson Crusoe; for he at least was unannoyed in his solitude; while we are perpetually and per force intruded on, like a delirious man, by visions which we know to be unreal, but which we are denied the power to deliver ourselves from. We have no motive to any of the great and cardinal functions of human life; for there is no one in being, that we can benefit, or that we can affect. Study is nothing to us; for we have no use for it. Even science is unsatisfactory; unless we can communicate it by word or writing, can converse upon it, and compare notes with our neighbour. History is nothing; for there were no Greeks and no Romans; no freemen and no slaves; no kings and no subjects; no despots, nor victims of their tyranny; no republics, nor states immerged in brutal and ignominious servitude. Life must be inevitably a burthen to us, a dreary, unvaried, motiveless existence; and death must be welcomed, as the most desirable blessing that can visit us. It is impossible indeed that we should always recollect this our, by supposition, real situation; but, as often as we did, it would come over us like a blight, withering all the prospects of our industry, or like a scirocco, unbracing the nerves of our frame, and consigning us to the most pitiable depression.

Thus far I have allowed myself to follow the refinements of those who profess to deny the existence of the material universe. But it is satisfactory to come back to that persuasion, which, from whatever cause it is derived, is incorporated with our very existence, and can never be shaken off by us. Our senses are too powerful in their operation, for it to be possible for us to discard them, and to take as their substitute, in active life, and in the earnestness of pursuit, the deductions of our logical faculty, however well knit and irresistible we may apprehend them to be. Speculation and common sense are at war on this point; and however we may “think with the learned,” and follow the abstrusenesses of the philosopher, in the sequestered hour of our meditation, we must always act, and even feel, “with the vulgar,” when we come abroad into the world.

It is however no small gratification to the man of sober mind, that, from what has here been alleged, it seems to follow, that untutored mind, and the severest deductions of philosophy, agree in that most interesting of our concerns, our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. The inexorable reasoner, refining on the reports of sense, may dispose, as he pleases, of the chair, the table, and the so called material substances around him. He may include the whole solid matter of the universe in a nutshell, or less than a nutshell. But he cannot deprive me of that greatest of all consolations, the sustaining pillar of my existence, “the cordial drop Heaven in our cup has thrown,”— the intercourse of my fellow-creatures. When we read history, the subjects of which we read are realities; they do not “come like shadows, so depart;” they loved and acted in sober earnest; they sometimes perpetrated crimes; but they sometimes also achieved illustrious deeds, which angels might look down from their exalted abodes and admire. We are not deluded with mockeries. The woman I love, and the man to whom I swear eternal friendship, are as much realities as myself. If I relieve the poor, and assist the progress of genius and virtuous designs struggling with fearful discouragements, I do something upon the success of which I may safely congratulate myself. If I devote my energies to enlighten my fellow-creatures, to detect the weak places in our social institutions, to plead the cause of liberty, and to invite others to engage in noble actions and unite in effecting the most solid and unquestionable improvements, I erect to my name an eternal monument; or I do something better than this — secure inestimable advantage to the latest posterity, the benefit of which they shall enjoy, long after the very name of the author shall, with a thousand other things great and small, have been swallowed up in the gulph of insatiable oblivion.

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