It being obvious that this was a very unsatisfactory scheme for arriving at the knowledge desired, the celebrated Halley suggested another method, in the year 1716, by an observation to be taken at the time of the transit of Venus over the sun(50).
(50) Philosophical Transactions, Vol. XXIX, p. 454.
It was supposed that we were already pretty accurately acquainted with the distance of the moon from the earth, it being so much nearer to us, by observing its parallax, or the difference of its place in the heavens as seen from the surface of the earth, from that in which it would appear if seen from its centre(51). But the parallax of the sun is so exceedingly small, as scarcely to afford the basis of a mathematical calculation(52). The parallax of Venus is however almost four times as great as that of the sun; and there must therefore be a very sensible difference between the times in which Venus may be seen passing over the sun from different parts of the earth. It was on this account apprehended, that the parallax of the sun, by means of observations taken from different places at the time of the transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769, might be ascertained with a great degree of precision(53).
(51) Bonnycastle, Astronomy, 7th edition, p. 262, et seq.
(52) Ibid, p. 268.
(53) Phil. Transactions, Vol. XXIX, p. 457.
But the imperfectness of our instruments and means of observation have no small tendency to baffle the ambition of man in these curious investigations.
"The true quantity of the moon's parallax," says Bonnycastle, "cannot be accurately determined by the methods ordinarily resorted to, on account of the varying declination of the moon, and the inconstancy of the horizontal refractions, which are perpetually changing according to the state the atmosphere is in at the time. For the moon continues but for a short time in the equinoctial, and the refraction at a mean rate elevates her apparent place near the horizon, half as much as her parallax depresses it(54)."
(54) Astronomy, p. 265.
"It is well known that the parallax of the sun can never exceed nine seconds, or the four-hundredth part of a degree(55)." "Observations," says Halley, "made upon the vibrations of a pendulum, to determine these exceedingly small angles, are not sufficiently accurate to be depended upon; for by this method of ascertaining the parallax, it will sometimes come out to be nothing, or even negative; that is, the distance will either be infinite, or greater than infinite, which is absurd. And, to confess the truth, it is hardly possible for a person to distinguish seconds with certainty by any instruments, however skilfully they may be made; and therefore it is not to be wondered at, that the excessive nicety of this matter should have eluded the many ingenious endeavours of the most able opetators."(56).
(55) Ibid, p. 268.
(56) Phil. Transactions, Vol. XXIX, p. 456.
Such are the difficulties that beset the subject on every side. It is for the impartial and dispassionate observers who have mastered all the subtleties of the science, if such can be found, to determine whether the remedies that have been resorted to to obviate the above inaccuracies and their causes, have fulfilled their end, and are not exposed to similar errors. But it would be vain to expect the persons, who have "scorned delights, and lived laborious days" to possess themselves of the mysteries of astronomy, should be impartial and dispassionate, or be disposed to confess, even to their own minds, that their researches were useless, and their labours ended in nothing.
It is further worthy of our attention, that the instruments with which we measure the distance of the earth from the sun and the planets, are the very instruments which have been pronounced upon as incompetent in measuring the heights of mountains(57). In the latter case therefore we have substituted a different mode for arriving at the truth, which is supposed to be attended with greater precision: but we have no substitute to which we can resort, to correct the mistakes into which we may fall respecting the heavenly bodies.
(57) See above, Essay XXI.
The result of the uncertainty which adheres to all astronomical observations is such as might have been expected. Common readers are only informed of the latest adjustment of the question, and are therefore unavoidably led to believe that the distance of the sun from the earth, ever since astronomy became entitled to the name of a science, has by universal consent been recognised as ninety-five millions of miles, or, as near as may be, twenty-four thousand semi-diameters of the earth. But how does the case really stand? Copernicus and Tycho Brahe held the distance to be twelve hundred semi-diameters; Kepler, who is received to have been perhaps the greatest astronomer that any age has produced, puts it down as three thousand five hundred semi-diameters; since his time, Riccioli as seven thousand; Hevelius as five thousand two hundred and fifty(58); some later astronomers, mentioned by Halley, as fourteen thousand; and Halley himself as sixteen thousand five hundred(59).
(58) They were about thirty and forty years younger than Kepler respectively.
(59) Halley, apud Philosophical Transactions, Vol. XXIX, p. 455.
The doctrine of fluxions is likewise called in by the astronomers in their attempts to ascertain the distance and magnitude of the different celestial bodies which compose the solar system; and in this way their conclusions become subject to all the difficulties which Berkeley has alleged against that doctrine.
Kepler has also supplied us with another mode of arriving at the distance and size of the sun and the planets: he has hazarded a conjecture, that the squares of the times of the revolution of the earth and the other planets are in proportion to the cubes of their distances from the sun, their common centre; and, as by observation we can arrive with tolerable certainty at a knowledge of the times of their revolutions, we may from hence proceed to the other matters we are desirous to ascertain. And that which Kepler seemed, as by a divine inspiration, to hazard in the way of conjecture, Newton professes to have demonstratively established. But the demonstration of Newton has not been considered as satisfactory by all men of science since his time.
Thus far however we proceed as we may, respecting our propositions on the subject of the solar system. But, beyond this, all science, real or pretended, deserts us. We have no method for measuring angles, which can be applied to the fixed stars; and we know nothing of any revolutions they perform. All here therefore seems gratuitous: we reason from certain alleged analogies; and we can do no more.
Huygens endeavoured to ascertain something on the subject, by making the aperture of a telescope so small, that the sun should appear through it no larger than Sirius, which he found to be only in the proportion of 1 to 27,664 times his diameter, as seen by the naked eye. Hence, supposing Sirius to be a globe of the same magnitude as the sun, it must be 27,664 times as distant from us as the sun, in other words, at a distance so considerable as to equal 345 million diameters of the earth(60). Every one must feel on how slender a thread this conclusion is suspended.
(60) Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Vol. 11, p. 407.
And yet, from this small postulate, the astronomers proceed to deduce the most astounding conclusions. They tell us, that the distance of the nearest fixed star from the earth is at least 7,600,000,000,000 miles, and of another they name, not less than 38 millions of millions of miles. A cannon-ball therefore, proceeding at the rate of about twenty miles in a minute would be 760,000 years in passing from us to the nearest fixed star, and 3,800,000 in passing to the second star of which we speak. Huygens accordingly concluded, that it was not impossible, that there might be stars at such inconceivable distances from us, that their light has not yet reached the earth since its creation(61).
(61) Ibid, p. 408.
The received system of the universe, founded upon these so called discoveries, is that each of the stars is a sun, having planets and comets revolving round it, as our sun has the earth and other planets revolving round him. It has been found also by the successive observations of astronomers, that a star now and then is totally lost, and that a new star makes its appearance which had never been remarked before: and this they explain into the creation of a new system from time to time by the Almighty author of the universe, and the destruction of an old system worn out with age(62). We must also remember the power of attraction every where diffused through infinite space, by means of which, as Herschel assures us, in great length of time a nebula, or cluster of stars, may be formed, while the projectile force they received in the beginning may prevent them from all coming together, at least for millions of ages. Some of these nebulae, he adds, cannot well be supposed to be at a less distance from us than six or eight thousand times the distance of Sirius(63). Kepler however denies that each star, of those which distinctly present themselves to our sight, can have its system of planets as our sun has, and considers them as all fixed in the same surface or sphere; since, if one of them were twice or thrice as remote as another, it would, supposing their real magnitudes to be equal, appear to be twice or thrice as small, whereas there is not in their apparent magnitudes the slightest difference(64).
(62) Encycl. Lond. Vol. II, p. 411.
(63) Ibid, p. 348.
(64) Ibid, p. 411.
Certainly the astronomers are a very fortunate and privileged race of men, who talk to us in this oracular way of "the unseen things of God from the creation of the world," hanging up their conclusions upon invisible hooks, while the rest of mankind sit listening gravely to their responses, and unreservedly "acknowledging that their science is the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful of all the sciences cultivated by man(65)."
(65) Ferguson, Astronomy, Section 1.
We have a sensation, which we call the sensation of distance. It comes to us from our sight and our other senses. It does not come immediately by the organ of sight. It has been proved, that the objects we see, previously to the comparison and correction of the reports of the organ of sight with those of the other senses, do not suggest to us the idea of distance, but that on the contrary whatever we see seems to touch the eye, even as the objects of the sense of feeling touch the skin.
But, in proportion as we compare the impressions made upon our organs of sight with the impressions made on the other senses, we come gradually to connect with the objects we see the idea of distance. I put out my hand, and find at first that an object of my sense of sight is not within the reach of my hand. I put out my hand farther, or by walking advance my body in the direction of the object, and I am enabled to reach it. From smaller experiments I proceed to greater. I walk towards a tree or a building, the figure of which presents itself to my eye, but which I find upon trial to have been far from me. I travel towards a place that I cannot see, but which I am told lies in a certain direction. I arrive at the place. It is thus, that by repeated experiments I acquire the idea of remote distances.
To confine ourselves however to the question of objects, which without change of place I can discover by the sense of sight. I can see a town, a tower, a mountain at a considerable distance. Let us suppose that the limit of my sight, so far as relates to objects on the earth, is one hundred miles. I can travel towards such an object, and thus ascertain by means of my other senses what is its real distance. I can also employ certain instruments, invented by man, to measure heights, suppose of a tower, and, by experiments made in ways independent of these instruments, verify or otherwise the report of these instruments.
The height of the Monument of London is something more than two hundred feet. Other elevations, the produce of human labour, are considerably higher. It is in the nature of the mind, that we conclude from the observation that we have verified, to the accuracy of another, bearing a striking analogy to the former, that we have not verified. But analogy has its limits. Is it of irresistible certainty, or is it in fact to be considered as approaching to certainty, because we have verified an observation extending to several hundred feet, that an observation extending to ninety-five millions of miles, or to the incredible distances of which Herschel so familiarly talks, is to be treated as a fact, or laid down as a principle in science? Is it reasonable to consider two propositions as analogous, when the thing affirmed in the one is in dimension many million times as great as the thing affirmed in the other? The experience we have had as to the truth of the smaller, does it authorise us to consider the larger as unquestionable? That which I see with a bay of the sea or a wide river between, though it may appear very like something with which I am familiar at home, do I immediately affirm it to be of the same species and nature, or do I not regard it with a certain degree of scepticism, especially if, along with the resemblance in some points, it differs essentially, as for example in magnitude, in other points? We have a sensation, and we enquire into its cause. This is always a question of some uncertainty. Is its cause something of absolute and substantive existence without me, or is it not? Is its cause something of the very same nature, as the thing that gave me a similar sensation in a matter of comparatively a pigmy and diminutive extension?
All these questions an untrained and inquisitive mind will ask itself in the propositions of astronomy. We must believe or not, as we think proper or reasonable. We have no way of verifying the propositions by the trial of our senses. There they lie, to be received by us in the construction that first suggests itself to us, or not. They are something like an agreeable imagination or fiction: and a sober observer, in cold blood, will be disposed deliberately to weigh both sides of the question, and to judge whether the probability lies in favour of the actual affirmation of the millions of millions of miles, and the other incredible propositions of the travelling of light, and the rest, which even the most cautious and sceptical of the retainers of modern astronomy, find themselves compelled to receive.
But I shall be told, that the results of our observations of the distances of the heavenly bodies are unvaried. We have measured the distances and other phenomena of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their satellites, and they all fall into a grand system, so as to convey to every unprejudiced mind the conviction that this system is the truth itself. If we look at them day after day, and year after year, we see them for ever the same, and performing the same divine harmony. Successive astronomers in different ages and countries have observed the celestial orbs, and swept the heavens, and for ever bring us back the same story of the number, the dimensions, the distances, and the arrangement of the heavenly bodies which form the subject of astronomical science.
This we have seen indeed not to be exactly the case. But, if it were, it would go a very little way towards proving the point it was brought to prove. It would shew that, the sensations and results being similar, the causes of those results must be similar to each other, but it would not shew that the causes were similar to the sensations produced. Thus, in the sensations which belong to taste, smell, sound, colour, and to those of heat and cold, there is all the uniformity which would arise, when the real external causes bore the most exact similitude to the perceptions they generate; and yet it is now universally confessed that tastes, scents, sounds, colours, and heat and cold do not exist out of ourselves. All that we are entitled therefore to conclude as to the magnitudes and distances of the heavenly bodies, is, that the causes of our sensations and perceptions, whatever they are, are not less uniform than the sensations and perceptions themselves.
It is further alleged, that we calculate eclipses, and register the various phenomena of the heavenly bodies. Thales predicted an eclipse of the sun, which took place nearly six hundred years before the Christian era. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Hindoos, and the Chinese early turned their attention to astronomy. Many of their observations were accurately recorded; and their tables extend to a period of three thousand years before the birth of Christ. Does not all this strongly argue the solidity of the science to which they belong? Who, after this, will have the presumption to question, that the men who profess astronomy proceed on real grounds, and have a profound knowledge of these things, which at first sight might appear to be set at a distance so far removed from our ken?
The answer to this is easy. I believe in all the astronomy that was believed by Thales. I do not question the statements relative to the heavenly bodies that were delivered by the wise men of the East. But the supposed discoveries that were made in the eighteenth, and even in the latter part of the seventeenth century, purporting to ascertain the precise distance of the sun, the planets, and even of the fixed stars, are matters entirely distinct from this.
Among the earliest astronomers of Greece were Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Anaxagoras. Thales, we are told, held that the earth is a sphere or globe, Anaximenes that it is like a round, flat table; Anaximander that the sun is like a chariot-wheel, and is twenty-eight times larger than the earth. Anaxagoras was put in prison for affirming that the sun was by many degrees larger than the whole Peloponnesus(66). Kepler is of opinion that all the stars are at an equal distance from us, and are fixed in the same surface or sphere.
(66) Plutarch, De Placitis Philosophorum. Diogenes Laertius.
In reality the observations and the facts of astronomy do not depend either upon the magnitudes or the distances of the heavenly bodies. They proceed in the first place upon what may lie seen with the naked eye. They require an accurate and persevering attention. They may be assisted by telescopes. But they relate only to the sun and the planets. We are bound to ascertain, as nearly as possible, the orbits described by the different bodies in the solar system: but this has still nothing to do, strictly speaking, with their magnitudes or distances. It is required that we should know them in their relations to each other; but it is no preliminary of just, of practical, it might almost be said, of liberal science, that we should know any thing of them absolutely.
The unlimited ambition of the nature of man has discovered itself in nothing more than this, the amazing superstructure which the votaries of contemplation within the last two hundred years have built upon the simple astronomy of the ancients. Having begun to compute the distances of miles by millions, it appears clearly that nothing can arrest the more than eagle-flight of the human mind. The distance of the nearest fixed star from the earth, we are informed, is at least 7,000,000,000,000 miles, and of another which the astronomers name, not less than 38 millions of millions of miles. The particles of light are said to travel 193,940 miles in every second, which is above a million times swifter than the progress of a cannon-ball(67). And Herschel has concluded, that the light issuing from the faintest nebulae he has discovered, must have been at this rate two millions of years in reaching the Barth(68).
(67) Ferguson, Section 216. "Light moves," says Brewster, Optics, p. 2, "from one pole of the earth to the other in the 24th part of a second: a velocity which surpasses all comprehension."
(68) Brinkley, Astronomy, p. 130.
The next process of the modern astronomer is to affirm the innumerable orbs around us, discovered with the naked eye, or with which we are made acquainted by the aid of telescopes, to be all stocked with rational inhabitants. The argument for this is, that an all-wise and omnipotent creator could never have produced such immense bodies, dispersed through infinite space, for any meaner purpose, than that of peopling them with "intelligent beings, formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity(69)."
(69) See above, Essay XXI.
Now it appears to me, that, in these assertions, the modern astronomers are taking upon themselves somewhat too boldly, to expound the counsels of that mysterious power, to which the universe is indebted for its arrangement and order.
We know nothing of God but from his works. Certain speculative men have adventured to reason upon the source of all the system and the wonders that we behold, a priori, and, having found that the creator is all powerful, all wise, and of infinite goodness, according to their ideas of power, wisdom and goodness, have from thence proceeded to draw their inferences, and to shew us in what manner the works of his hands are arranged and conducted by him. This no doubt they have done with the purest intentions in the world; but it is not certain, that their discretion has equalled the boldness of their undertaking.
The world that we inhabit, this little globe of earth, is to us an infinite mystery. Human imagination is unable to conceive any thing more consummate than the great outline of things below. The trees and the skies, the mountains and the seas, the rivers and the springs, appear as if the design had been to realise the idea of paradise. The freshness of the air, the silvery light of day, the magnificence of the clouds, the gorgeous and soothing colouring of the world, the profusion and exquisiteness of the fruits and flowers of the earth, are as if nothing but joy and delicious sensations had been intended for us. When we ascend to the animal creation, the scene is still more admirable and transporting. The birds and the beasts, the insects that skim the air, and the fishes that live in the great deep, are a magazine of wonders, that we may study for ever, without fear of arriving at the end of their excellence. Last of all, comes the crown of the creation, man, formed with looks erect, to commerce with the skies. What a masterpiece of workmanship is his form, while the beauty and intelligence of Gods seems to manifest itself in his countenance! Look at that most consummate of all implements, the human hand; think of his understanding, how composed and penetrating; of the wealth of his imagination; of the resplendent virtues he is qualified to display! "How wonderful are thy works, Oh God; in wisdom hast thou created them all!"
But there are other parts of the system in which we live, which do not seem to correspond with those already enumerated. Before we proceed to people infinite space, it would be as well, if we surveyed the surface of the earth we inhabit. What vast deserts do we find in it; what immense tracks of burning sands! One half of the globe is perhaps irreclaimable to the use of man. Then let us think of earthquakes and tempests, of wasting hurricanes, and the number of vessels, freighted with human beings, that are yearly buried in the caverns of the ocean. Let us call to mind in man, the prime ornament of the creation, all the diseases to which his frame is subject,
Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs, Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs, Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy, Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence, Dropsies, and asthmas, and joint-racking rheums.
The very idea of our killing, and subsisting upon the flesh of animals, surely somewhat jars with our conceptions of infinite benevolence.
But, when we look at the political history of man, the case is infinitely worse. This too often seems one tissue of misery and vice. War, conquest, oppression, tyranny, slavery, insurrections, massacres, cruel punishments, degrading corporal infliction, and the extinction of life under the forms of law, are to be found in almost every page. It is as if an evil demon were let loose upon us, and whole nations, from one decad of years to another, were struck with the most pernicious madness. Certain reasoners tell us that this is owing to the freedom of will, without which man could not exist. But here we are presented with an alternative, from which it is impossible for human understanding to escape. Either God, according to our ideas of benevolence, would remove evil out of the world, and cannot; or he can, and will not. If he has the will and not the power, this argues weakness; if he has the power and not the will, this seems to be malevolence.
Let us descend from the great stage of the nations, and look into the obscurities of private misery. Which of us is happy? What bitter springs of misery overflow the human heart, and are borne by us in silence! What cruel disappointments beset us! To what struggles are we doomed, while we struggle often in vain! The human heart seems framed, as if to be the capacious receptacle of all imaginable sorrows. The human frame seems constructed, as if all its fibres were prepared to sustain varieties of torment. "In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the earth." But how often does that sweat prove ineffective! There are men of whom sorrow seems to be the destiny, from which they can never escape. There are hearts, into which by their constitution it appears as if serenity and content could never enter, but which are given up to all the furious passions, or are for ever the prey of repining and depression.
Ah, little think the gay, licentious proud, Whom pleasure, power and affluence surround, How many pine in want! How many shrink Into the sordid hut, how many drink The cup of grief, and eat the bitter bread Of misery!
And, which aggravates the evil, almost all the worst vices, the most unprincipled acts, and the darkest passions of the human mind, are bred out of poverty and distress. Satan, in the Book of Job, says to the Almighty, "Thou hast blessed the work of thy servant, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and take away all that he hath; and he will curse thee to thy face." The prayer of Agar runs, "Feed me with food convenient for me; lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain."
It is with a deep knowledge of the scenes of life, that the prophet pronounces, "My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord."
All reflecting persons, who have surveyed the state of the world in which we live, have been struck with the contrarieties of sublunary things; and many hypotheses have been invented to solve the enigma. Some have maintained the doctrine of two principles, Oromasdes and Arimanius, the genius of good and of evil, who are perpetually contending with each other which shall have the greatest sway in the fortunes of the world, and each alternately acquiring the upper hand. Others have inculcated the theory of the fall of man, that God at first made all things beautiful and good, but that man has incurred his displeasure, and been turned out of the paradise for which he was destined. Hence, they say, has arisen the corruption of our nature. "There is none that cloth good, no, not one. That every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." But the solution that has been most generally adopted, particularly in later days, is that of a future state of retribution, in which all the inequalities of our present condition shall be removed, the tears of the unfortunate and the sufferer shall be wiped from their eyes, and their agonies and miseries compensated. This, in other words, independently of the light of revelation, is to infer infinite wisdom and benevolence from what we see, and then, finding the actual phenomena not to correspond with our theories, to invent something of which we have no knowledge, to supply the deficiency.
The astronomer however proceeds from what we see of the globe of earth, to fashion other worlds of which we have no direct knowledge. Finding that there is no part of the soil of the earth into which our wanderings can penetrate, that is not turned to the account of rational and happy beings, creatures capable of knowing and adoring their creator, that nature does nothing in vain, and that the world is full of the evidences of his unmingled beneficence, according to our narrow and imperfect ideas of beneficence, (for such ought to be our premises) we proceed to construct millions of worlds upon the plan we have imagined. The earth is a globe, the planets are globes, and several of them larger than our earth: the earth has a moon; several of the planets have satellites: the globe we dwell in moves in an orbit round the sun; so do the planets: upon these premises, and no more, we hold ourselves authorised to affirm that they contain "myriads of intelligent beings, formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity." Having gone thus far, we next find that the fixed stars bear a certain resemblance to the sun; and, as the sun has a number of planets attendant on him, so, we say, has each of the fixed stars, composing all together "ten thousand times ten thousand" habitable worlds.
All this is well, so long as we view it as a bold and ingenious conjecture. On any other subject it would be so regarded; and we should consider it as reserved for the amusement and gratification of a fanciful visionary in the hour, when he gives up the reins to his imagination. But, backed as it is by a complexity of geometrical right lines and curves, and handed forth to us in large quartos, stuffed with calculations, it experiences a very different fortune. We are told that, "by the knowledge we derive from astronomy, our faculties are enlarged, our minds exalted, and our understandings clearly convinced, and affected with the conviction, of the existence, wisdom, power, goodness, immutability and superintendency of the supreme being; so that, without an hyperbole, 'an undevout astronomer is mad(e)(70).'"
(70) Ferguson, Astronomy, Section I.
It is singular, how deeply I was impressed with this representation, while I was a schoolboy, and was so led to propose a difficulty to the wife of the master. I said, "I find that we have millions of worlds round us peopled with rational creatures. I know not that we have any decisive reason for supposing these creatures more exalted, than the wonderful species of which we are individuals. We are imperfect; they are imperfect. We fell; it is reasonable to suppose that they have fallen also. It became necessary for the second person in the trinity to take upon him our nature, and by suffering for our sins to appease the wrath of his father. I am unwilling to believe that he has less commiseration for the inhabitants of other planets. But in that case it may be supposed that since the creation he has been making a circuit of the planets, and dying on the cross for the sins of rational creatures in uninterrupted succession." The lady was wiser than I, admonished me of the danger of being over-inquisitive, and said we should act more discreetly in leaving those questions to the judgment of the Almighty.
But thus far we have reasoned only on one side of the question. Our pious sentiments have led us to magnify the Lord in all his works, and, however imperfect the analogy, and however obscure the conception we can form of the myriads of rational creatures, all of them no doubt infinitely varied in their nature, their structure and faculties, yet to view the whole scheme with an undoubting persuasion of its truth. It is however somewhat in opposition to the ideas of piety formed by our less adventurous ancestors, that we should usurp the throne of God,
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
and, by means of our telescopes and our calculations, penetrate into mysteries not originally intended for us. According to the received Mosaic chronology we are now in the five thousand eight hundred and thirty-fifth year from the creation: the Samaritan version adds to this date. It is therefore scarcely in the spirit of a Christian, that Herschel talks to us of a light, which must have been two millions of years in reaching the earth.
Moses describes the operations of the Almighty, in one of the six days devoted to the work of creation, as being to place "lights in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day from the night, to be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and to give light upon the earth; two great lights, the greater to rule the day, and the lesser the night; and the stars also." And Christ, prophesying what is to happen in the latter days, says, "The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven." Whatever therefore be the piety of the persons, who talk to us of "ten thousand times ten thousand worlds, all peopled with rational creatures," it certainly is not a piety in precise accordance with the Christian scriptures.
SECTION IV. It is also no more than just, that we should bear in mind the apparent fitness or otherwise, of these bodies, so far as we are acquainted with them, for the dwelling-place of rational creatures. Not to mention the probable extreme coldness of Jupiter and Saturn, the heat of the sunbeams in the planet Mercury is understood to be such as that water would unavoidably boil and be carried away(71), and we can scarcely imagine any living substance that would not be dissolved and dispersed in such an atmosphere. The moon, of which, as being so much nearer to us, we may naturally be supposed to know most, we are told by the astronomers has no water and no atmosphere, or, if any, such an atmosphere as would not sustain clouds and ascending vapour. To our eye, as seen through the telescope, it appears like a metallic substance, which has been burned by fire, and so reduced into the ruined and ragged condition in which we seem to behold it. The sun appears to be still less an appropriate habitation for rational, or for living creatures, than any of the planets. The comets, which describe an orbit so exceedingly eccentric, and are subject to all the excessive vicissitudes of heat and cold, are, we are told, admirably adapted for a scene of eternal, or of lengthened punishment for those who have acquitted themselves ill in a previous state of probation. Buffon is of opinion, that all the planets in the solar system were once so many portions of our great luminary, struck off from the sun by the blow of a comet, and so having received a projectile impulse calculated to carry them forward in a right line, at the same time that the power of attraction counteracts this impulse, and gives them that compound principle of motion which retains them in an orbicular course. In this sense it may be said that all the planets were suns; while on the contrary Herschel pronounces, that the sun itself is a planet, an opake body, richly stored with inhabitants(72).
(71) Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Vol. II, p. 355.
(72) Philosophical Transactions for 1795, p. 68.
The modern astronomers go on to account to us for the total disappearance of a star in certain cases, which, they say, may be in reality the destruction of a system, such as that of our sun and its attendant planets, while the appearance of a new star may, in like manner, be the occasional creation of a new system of planets. "We ought perhaps," says Herschel, "to look upon certain clusters of stars, and the destruction of a star now and then in some thousands of ages, as the very means by which the whole is preserved and renewed. These clusters may be the laboratories of the universe, wherein the most salutary remedies for the decay of the whole are prepared(73)."
(73) Philosophical Transactions for 1785, p. 217.
All this must appear to a sober mind, unbitten by the rage which grows out of the heat of these new discoverers, to be nothing less than astronomy run mad. This occasional creation of new systems and worlds, is in little accordance with the Christian scriptures, or, I believe, with any sober speculation upon the attributes of the creator. The astronomer seizes upon some hint so fine as scarcely by any ingenuity to be arrested, immediately launches forth into infinite space, and in an instant returns, and presents us with millions of worlds, each of them peopled with ten thousand times ten thousand inhabitants.
We spoke a while since of the apparent unfitness of many of the heavenly bodies for the reception of living inhabitants. But for all this these discoverers have a remedy. They remind us how unlike these inhabitants may be to ourselves, having other organs than ours, and being able to live in a very different temperature. "The great heat in the planet Mercury is no argument against its being inhabited; since the Almighty could as easily suit the bodies and constitutions of its inhabitants to the heat of their dwelling, as he has done ours to the temperature of our earth. And it is very probable that the people there have such an opinion of us, as we have of the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn; namely, that we must be intolerably cold, and have very little light at so great a distance from the sun."
These are the remarks of Ferguson(74). One of our latest astronomers expresses himself to the same purpose.
(74) Astronomy, Section 22.
"We have no argument against the planets being inhabited by rational beings, and consequently by witnesses of the creator's power, magnificence and benevolence, unless it be said that some are much nearer the sun than the earth is, and therefore must be uninhabitable from heat, and those more distant from cold. Whatever objection this may be against their being inhabited by rational beings, of an organisation similar to those on the earth, it can have little force, when urged with respect to rational beings in general.
"But we may examine without indulging too much in conjecture, whether it be not possible that the planets may be possessed by rational beings, and contain animals and vegetables, even little different from those with which we are familiar.
"Is the sun the principal cause of the temperature of the earth? We have reason to suppose that it is not. The mean temperature of the earth, at a small depth from the surface, seems constant in summer and in winter, and is probably coeval with its first formation.
"At the planet Mercury, the direct heat of the sun, or its power of causing heat, is six times greater than with us. If we suppose the mean temperature of Mercury to be the same as of the earth, and the planet to be surrounded with an atmosphere, denser than that of the earth, less capable of transmitting heat, or rather the influence of the sun to extricate heat, and at the same time more readily conducting it to keep up an evenness of temperature, may we not suppose the planet Mercury fit for the habitation of men, and the production of vegetables similar to our own?
"At the Georgium Sidus, the direct influence of the sun is 360 times less than at the earth, and the sun is there seen at an angle not much greater than that under which we behold Venus, when nearest. Yet may not the mean temperature of the Georgium Sidus be nearly the same as that of the earth? May not its atmosphere more easily transmit the influence of the sun, and may not the matter of heat be more copiously combined, and more readily extricated, than with us? Whence changes of season similar to our own may take place. Even in the comets we may suppose no great change of temperature takes place, as we know of no cause which will deprive them of their mean temperature, and particularly if we suppose, that on their approach towards the sun, there is a provision for their atmosphere becoming denser. The tails they exhibit, when in the neighbourhood of the sun, seem in some measure to countenance this idea.
"We can hardly suppose the sun, a body three hundred times larger than all the planets together, was created only to preserve the periodic motions, and give light and heat to the planets. Many astronomers have thought that its atmosphere only is luminous, and its body opake, and probably of the same constitution as the planets. Allowing therefore that its luminous atmosphere only extricates heat, we see no reason why the sun itself should not be inhabited(75)."
(75) Brinkley, Elements of Astronomy, Chap. IX.
There is certainly no end to the suppositions that may be made by an ingenious astronomer. May we not suppose that we might do nearly as well altogether without the sun, which it appears is at present of little use to us as to warmth and heat? As to light, the great creator might, for aught we know, find a substitute; feelers, for example, endued with a certain acuteness of sense: or, at all events, the least imaginable degree of light might answer every purpose to organs adapted to this kind of twilight. In that way the inhabitants of the Georgium Sidus are already sufficiently provided for; they appear to have as little benefit of the light as of the heat of the sun. How the satellites of the distant planets are supplied with light is a mystery, since their principals have scarcely any. Unless indeed, like the sun, they have a luminous atmosphere, competent to enlighten a whole system, themselves being opake. But in truth light in a greater or less degree seems scarcely worthy of a thought, since the inhabitants of the planet Mercury have not their eyes put out by a light, scarcely inferior in radiance to that which is reflected by those plates of burning brass, with which tyrants in some ages were accustomed to extinguish the sense of vision in their unfortunate victims. The comets also must be a delectable residence; that of 1680 completing its orbit in 576 years, and being at its greatest distance about eleven thousand two hundred millions of miles from the sun, and at its least within less than a third part of the sun's semi-diameter from its surface(76). They must therefore have delightful vicissitudes of light and the contrary; for, as to heat, that is already provided for. Archdeacon Brinkley's postulate is, that these bodies are "possessed by rational beings, and contain animals and vegetables, little different from those with which we are familiar."
(76) Ferguson, Section 93.
Now the only reason we have to believe in these extraordinary propositions, is the knowledge we possess of the divine attributes. From the force of this consideration it is argued that God will not leave any sensible area of matter unoccupied, and therefore that it is impossible that such vast orbs as we believe surround us even to the extent of infinite space, should not be "richly stored with rational beings, the capable witnesses of his power, magnificence and benevolence." All difficulties arising from the considerations of light, and heat, and a thousand other obstacles, are to give way to the perfect insight we have as to how the deity will conduct himself in every case that can be proposed. I am not persuaded that this is agreeable to religion; and I am still less convinced that it is compatible with the sobriety and sedateness of common sense.
It is with some degree of satisfaction that I perceive lord Brougham, the reputed author of the Preliminary Discourse to the Library of Useful Knowledge, at the same time that he states the dimensions and distances of the heavenly bodies in the usual way, says not a word of their inhabitants.
It is somewhat remarkable that, since the commencement of the present century, four new planets have been added to those formerly contained in the enumeration of the solar system. They lie between the planets Mars and Jupiter, and have been named Vesta, Juno, Ceres and Pallas. Brinkley speaks of them in this manner. "The very small magnitudes of the new planets Ceres and Pallas, and their nearly equal distances from the sun, induced Dr. Olbers, who discovered Pallas in 1802, nearly in the same place where he had observed Ceres a few months before, to conjecture that they were fragments of a larger planet, which had by some unknown cause been broken to pieces. It follows from the law of gravity, by which the planets are retained in their orbits, that each fragment would again, after every revolution about the sun, pass nearly through the place in which the planet was when the catastrophe happened, and besides the orbit of each fragment would intersect the continuation of the line joining this place and the sun. Thence it was easy to ascertain the two particular regions of the heavens through which all these fragments would pass. Also, by carefully noting the small stars thereabout, and examining them from time to time, it might be expected that more of the fragments would be discovered.—M. Harding discovered the planet Juno in one of these regions; and Dr. Olbers himself also, by carefully examining them (the small stars) from time to time, discovered Vesta."
These additions certainly afford us a new epoch in the annals of the solar system, and of astronomy itself. It is somewhat remarkable, that Herschel, who in the course of his observations traced certain nebulae, the light from which must have been two millions of years in reaching the earth, should never have remarked these planets, which, so to speak, lay at his feet. It reminds one of Esop's astrologer, who, to the amusement of his ignorant countrymen, while he was wholly occupied in surveying the heavens, suddenly found himself plunged in a pit. These new planets also we are told are fragments of a larger planet: how came this larger planet never to have been discovered?
Till Herschel's time we were content with six planets and the sun, making up the cabalistical number seven. He added another. But these four new ones entirely derange the scheme. The astronomers have not yet had opportunity to digest them into their places, and form new worlds of them. This is all unpleasant. They are, it seems, "fragments of a larger planet, which had by some unknown cause been broken to pieces." They therefore are probably not inhabited. How does this correspond with the goodness of God, which will suffer no mass of matter in his creation to remain unoccupied? Herschel talks at his ease of whole systems, suns with all their attendant planets, being consigned to destruction. But here we have a catastrophe happening before our eyes, and cannot avoid being shocked by it. "God does nothing in vain." For which of his lofty purposes has this planet been broken to pieces, and its fragments left to deform the system of which we are inhabitants; at least to humble the pride of man, and laugh to scorn his presumption? Still they perform their revolutions, and obey the projectile and gravitating forces, which have induced us to people ten thousand times ten thousand worlds. It is time, that we should learn modesty, to revere in silence the great cause to which the universe is indebted for its magnificence, its beauty and harmony, and to acknowledge that we do not possess the key that should unlock the mysteries of creation.
One of the most important lessons that can be impressed on the human mind, is that of self-knowledge and a just apprehension of what it is that we are competent to achieve. We can do much. We are capable of much knowledge and much virtue. We have patience, perseverance and subtlety. We can put forth considerable energies, and nerve ourselves to resist great obstacles and much suffering. Our ingenuity is various and considerable. We can form machines, and erect mighty structures. The invention of man for the ease of human life, and for procuring it a multitude of pleasures and accommodations, is truly astonishing. We can dissect the human frame, and anatomise the mind. We can study the scene of our social existence, and make extraordinary improvements in the administration of justice, and in securing to ourselves that germ of all our noblest virtues, civil and political liberty. We can study the earth, its strata, its soil, its animals, and its productions, "from the cedar that is in Lebanon, to the hyssop that springeth out of the wall."
But man is not omnipotent. If he aspires to be worthy of honour, it is necessary that he should compute his powers, and what it is they are competent to achieve. The globe of earth, with "all that is therein," is our estate and our empire. Let us be content with that which we have. It were a pitiful thing to see so noble a creature struggling in a field, where it is impossible for him to distinguish himself, or to effect any thing real. There is no situation in which any one can appear more little and ludicrous, than when he engages in vain essays, and seeks to accomplish that, which a moment's sober thought would teach him was utterly hopeless.
Even astronomy is to a certain degree our own. We can measure the course of the sun, and the orbits of the planets. We can calculate eclipses. We can number the stars, assign to them their places, and form them into what we call constellations. But, when we pretend to measure millions of miles in the heavens, and to make ourselves acquainted with the inhabitants of ten thousand times ten thousand worlds and the accommodations which the creator has provided for their comfort and felicity, we probably engage in something more fruitless and idle, than the pigmy who should undertake to bend the bow of Ulysses, or strut and perform the office of a warrior clad in the armour of Achilles.
How beautiful is the "firmament; this majestical roof fretted with golden fire!" Let us beware how we mar the magnificent scene with our interpolations and commentaries! Simplicity is of the essence of the truly great. Let us look at the operations of that mighty power from which we ourselves derive our existence, with humility and reverential awe! It may well become us. Let us not "presume into the heaven of heavens," unbidden, unauthorised guests! Let us adopt the counsel of the apostle, and allow no man to "spoil us through vain philosophy." The business of human life is serious; the useful investigations in which we may engage are multiplied. It is excellent to see a rational being conscious of his genuine province, and not idly wasting powers adapted for the noblest uses in unmeasured essays and ill-concocted attempts.
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 nutshell(77), 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 existences(78).
(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 speculation(79)." We have seen, in the case of the doctrine of philosophical necessity(80), 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 themselves(81). 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.
ESSAY XXIII. OF HUMAN VIRTUE. THE EPILOGUE.
The life of man is divided into many stages; and we shall not form a just estimate of our common nature, if we do not to a certain degree pass its successive periods in review, and observe it in its commencement, its progress, and its maturity.
It has been attempted to be established in an early part of the present volume(82), that all men, idiots and extraordinary cases being put out of the question, are endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew them to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which their organisation especially fitted them. We are bound therefore, particularly in the morning of life, to consider every thing that presents itself to us in the human form, with deference and attention.
(82) See above, Essay III.
"God," saith the Preacher, "made man upright; but he hath sought out many inventions." There is something loose and difficult of exposition in this statement; but we shall find an important truth hid beneath its obscurity.
Junius Brutus, in the play, says to his son,
I like thy frame: the fingers of the Gods I see have left their mastery upon thee; And the majestic prints distinct appear.
Such is the true description of every well-formed and healthful infant that is born into the world.
He is placed on the threshold of existence; and an eventful journey is open before him. For the first four or five years of life indeed he has little apprehension of the scenes that await him. But a child of quick apprehension early begins to have day-dreams, and to form imaginations of the various chances that may occur to him, and the things he shall have to do, when, according to the language of the story-books, he "goes out to seek his fortune."
"God made man upright." Every child that is born, has within him a concealed magazine of excellence. His heart beats for every thing that is lovely and good; and whatever is set before him of that sort in honest colours, rouses his emulation. By how many tokens does he prove himself worthy of our approbation and love—the unaffected and ingenuous sobriety with which he listens to what addresses itself to his attention, the sweetness of his smile, his hearty laugh, the clear, bell tones of his voice, his sudden and assured impulses, and his bounding step!
To his own heart he promises well of himself. Like Lear in the play, he says, "I will do such things!—What they are, yet I know not." But he is assured, frank and light-spirited. He thinks of no disguise. He "wears his heart upon his sleeve." He looks in the face of his seniors with the glistening eye of confidence, and expects to encounter sympathy and encouragement in return. Such is man, as he comes from the hands of his maker.
Thus prepared, he is turned into the great field of society. Here he meets with much that he had not anticipated, and with many rebuffs. He is taught that he must accommodate his temper and proceedings to the expectations and prejudices of those around him. He must be careful to give no offence. With how many lessons, not always the most salutary and ingenuous, is this maxim pregnant! It calls on the neophyte to bear a wary eye, and to watch the first indications of disapprobation and displeasure in those among whom his lot is cast. It teaches him to suppress the genuine emotions of his soul. It informs him that he is not always to yield to his own impulses, but that he must "stretch forth his hands to another, and be carried whither he would not."
It recommends to him falseness, and to be the thing in outward appearance that he is not in his heart.
Still however he goes on. He shuts up his thoughts in his bosom; but they are not exterminated. On the contrary he broods over them with genial warmth; and the less they are exposed to the eye of day, the more perseveringly are they cherished. Perhaps he chooses some youthful confident of his imaginings: and the effect of this is, that he pours out his soul with uncontrolable copiousness, and with the fervour of a new and unchecked conceiving. It is received with answering warmth; or, if there is any deficiency in the sympathy of his companion, his mind is so earnest and full, that he does not perceive it. By and by, it may be, he finds that the discovery he had made of a friend, a brother of his soul, is, like so many of the visions of this world, hollow and fallacious. He grasped, as he thought, a jewel of the first water; and it turns out to be a vulgar pebble. No matter: he has gained something by the communication. He has heard from his own lips the imaginings of his mind shaped into articulate air; they grew more definite and distinct as he uttered them; they came by the very act to have more of reality, to be more tangible. He shakes off the ill-assorted companion that only encumbered him, and springs away in his race, more light of heart, and with a step more assured, than ever.
By and by he becomes a young man. And, whatever checks he may have received before, it usually happens that all his hopes and projects return to him now with recruited strength. He has no longer a master. He no longer crouches to the yoke of subjection, and is directed this way and that at the judgment of another. Liberty is at all times dear to the free-soured and ingenuous; but never so much so, as when we wear it in its full gloss and newness. He never felt before, that he was sui juris, that he might go whithersoever he would, without asking leave, without consulting any other director than the law of his own mind. It is nearly at the same season that he arrives at the period of puberty, at the stature, and in a certain degree at the strength, which he is destined to attain. He is by general consent admitted to be at years of discretion.
Though I have put all these things together, they do not, in the course of nature, all come at the same time. It is a memorable period, when the ingenuous youth is transferred from the trammels of the schoolmaster to the residence of a college. It was at the age of seventeen that, according to the custom of Rome, the youthful citizen put on the manly gown, and was introduced into the forum. Even in college-life, there is a difference in the privileges of the mere freshman, and of the youth who has already completed the first half of his period in the university.
The season of what may be denominated the independence of the individual, is certainly in no small degree critical. A human being, suddenly emancipated from a state of subjection, if we may not call it slavery, and transported into a state of freedom, must be expected to be guilty of some extravagancies and follies.
But upon the whole, with a small number of exceptions, it is creditable to human nature, that we take this period of our new powers and immunities with so much sobriety as we do.
The young man then, calls to mind all that he imagined at an earlier season, and that he promised himself. He adds to this the new lights that he has since obtained, and the nearer and more distinct view that he has reached, of the realities of life.
He recollects the long noviciate that he served to reach this period, the twenty years that he passed in ardent and palpitating expectation; and he resolves to do something worthy of all he had vowed and had imagined. He takes a full survey of his stores and endowments; and to the latter, from his enthusiasm and his self-love, he is morally sure to do justice. He says to himself, "What I purpose to do will not be achieved to-day. No; it shall be copious, and worthy of men's suffrage and approbation. But I will meditate it; I will sketch a grand outline; I will essay my powers in secret, and ascertain what I may be able to effect." The youth, whose morning of life is not utterly abortive, palpitates with the desire to promote the happiness of others, and with the desire of glory.
We have an apt specimen of this in the first period of the reign of Nero. The historians, Tacitus in particular, have treated this with too much incredulity. It was the passion of that eminent man to indulge in subtleties, and to find hidden meanings in cases where in reality every thing is plain. We must not regard the panegyric of Seneca, and the devotion of Lucan to the imperial stripling, as unworthy of our attention. He was declared emperor before he had completed the eighteenth year of his age. No occasion for the exhibition of liberality, clemency, courtesy or kindness escaped him. He called every one by his name, and saluted all orders of men. When the senate shewed a disposition to confer on him peculiar honours, he interposed, he said, "Let them be bestowed when I have deserved them(83)." Seneca affirms, that in the first part of his reign, and to the time in which the philosopher dedicated to him his treatise of Clemency, he had "shed no drop of blood(84)." He adds, "If the Gods were this day to call thee to a hearing, thou couldst account to them for every man that had been intrusted to thy rule. Not an individual has been lost from the number, either by secret practices, or by open violence. This could scarcely have been, if thy good dispositions had not been natural, but assumed. No one can long personate a character. A pretended goodness will speedily give place to the real temper; while a sincere mind, and acts prompted by the heart, will not fail to go on from one stage of excellence to another(85)."