Perhaps never was there a wiser mind, a more methodical understanding,
nor a more exact logician, than Locke, even though he was not a great
mathematician. He never could bring himself to undergo the drudgery of
calculation, nor the dryness of mathematical truths, which present nothing
tangible to the mind; and no one has proved better than he, that a man, without
the aid of geometry, might still possess the geometrical spirit. The great
philosophers before his time had decided positively what the human soul was;
but as they were wholly ignorant of the matter, it was but reasonable they
should all be of different opinions.
In Greece, the cradle of arts and of errors, where the greatness and
folly of the human mind were pushed so far, they reasoned on the soul exactly
as we do.
The divine Anaxagoras, who had altars erected to him for teaching men
that the sun was bigger than the Peloponnessus, that snow was black, that the
sky was of stone, affirmed that the soul was an aerial spirit, though
Diogenes, a different person from him who became a cynic after having
been a counterfeiter, asserted that the soul was a portion of the very
substance of God, a notion which was at least striking.
Epicurus maintained the soul is composed of parts, in the same manner as
bodies. Aristotle, whose works have been interpreted a thousand different ways,
because they were unintelligible, was of the opinion, if we may trust some of
his disciples, that the understanding of all men was but one and the same
The divine Plato, master of the divine Aristotle, and the divine
Socrates, master of the divine Plato, said that the soul was at the same time
corporeal and eternal. The dæmon of Socrates had, no doubt, let him into
the secret of this matter. There are actually some who claim that a fellow who
boasted of having a private spirit of his own was most assuredly either knave
or fool; but these people are too demanding.
As for our Fathers of the Church, several of them in the first centuries
were of the opinion that the human soul, as well as the Angels, and God
himself, were all corporeal.
The world is every day improving. St. Bernard, as Father Mabillon
admits, taught, with respect to the soul, that after death it did not behold
God in heaven, but was obliged to rest satisfied with conversing with the
humanity of Jesus Christ. He was not believed this time on his bare word. The
adventure of the crusade had somewhat discredited his oracles. A thousand
Scholastics came after him: there was the irrefragable doctor, the subtle
doctor, the angelic doctor, the seraphic doctor, the cherubimical doctor, all
of whom were absolutely sure of knowing the soul perfectly, but who have, for
all that, spoken of it exactly as if they did not want anyone to understand of
what they spoke.
Our Descartes, born to discover the errors of antiquity, but also to
substitute his own in their place, and dragged along by that systematic spirit
which blinds the greatest men, imagined he had demonstrated that the soul was
the same thing as thought, in the same way, according to him, as matter is the
same as extension. He firmly maintained that the soul always thinks, and that,
at its arrival in the body, it is provided with all of the metaphysical
notions, knowing God, space, infinity, having all the abstract ideas, filled
with wonderful knowledge which it unhappily loses the moment it comes out of
its mother's womb.
Father Malebranche, of the Oratory, in his sublime illusions, not only
admits of innate ideas, but he has no doubt of our seeing everything in God;
and that God Himself, so to speak, is our soul.
After so many reasoners had made this romance of the soul, one truly
wise man appeared, who has modestly given us its history. Locke has exposed
human reason, just as a learned anatomist would have explained the functions of
the body. He is aided throughout by the light of physics; he sometimes dares to
speak in a positive manner, but he also dares to doubt. Instead of defining at
once what we do not know, he examines, by degrees, what we want to know. He
takes a child from the moment of its birth; he follows all the stages of its
understanding; he views what it possesses in common with animals, and in what
it is superior to them. Above all, he consults his own experience, the
consciousness of his thought.
"I leave," says he, "those who are possessed of more knowledge than I am
to determine whether our souls exist before or after the organization of the
body; but cannot help acknowledging that the soul that has fallen to my share
is one of those coarse material kinds which does not always think, and I am
even so unhappy as not to be able to conceive how it should be more
indispensably necessary that the soul should always think, than that the body
should always be in motion."
For my part, I am proud of the honor of being as stupid on this point as
Locke. Nobody shall every persuade me that I always think; and I don't find
myself in the least more disposed than he to think that, a few weeks after I
was conceived, my soul was very learned, and acquainted with a thousand things
that I forgot the moment I came into the world, and that I possessed to very
little good purpose in the uterus, so much valuable knowledge, which escaped me
the instant it could have been of any advantage, and which I have never since
been able to recover.
Locke, after demolishing the notion of innate ideas; having renounced
the vain belief that the mind always thinks, establishes the fact, that all our
ideas come through the senses; examines our simple and compound ideas;
accompanies the mind in all its operations; shows the imperfection of all the
languages spoken by men, and what abuse of terms we commit every moment.
He finally proceeds to consider the extent, or rather the nothingness,
of human knowledge. This is the chapter in which he has the boldness to
advance, though in a modest manner, that
We shall never be able to determine, whether a purely material being
is capable of thought or not.
This sagacious proposition seemed to more than one theologian as a
scandalous assertion that the soul is material and mortal.
Some Englishmen, devout in their manner, gave the alarm. The
superstitious are in society what cowards are in an army; they infect the rest
with their own panic. They cried out that Locke wanted to turn all religion
topsy-turvy: there was, however, not the smallest question of religion in the
affair, the matter was purely philosophical, and altogether independent of
faith and revelation. They had only to examine, without rancor, whether it were
a contradiction to say: matter can think, and God is able to endow
matter with thought. But it is common with theologians to begin by pronouncing
that God is offended, whenever we happen not to think as they do. The case is
pretty much like that of the bad poets, who exclaimed that Boileau insulted the
king, because he made fun of them.
Doctor Stillingfleet has acquired the reputation of a moderate
theologian, only because he has refrained from abuse in his controversy with
Locke. He ventured to enter the lists with him, but was vanquished, because he
reasoned like a doctor; while Locke, like a philosopher acquainted with the
strength and weakness of human understanding, fought with arms of whose temper
he was perfectly well assured.
If I may dare to speak after Locke on so delicate a subject, I would
say: For a long time men have argued about nature and the immortality of the
soul. With respect to its immortality, it is impossible to demonstrate it, for
there is still much dispute over its nature, and it is certain that we must
know a created being completely in order to decide if it is immortal or not.
Human reason is so little capable of demonstrating by itself the immortality of
the soul, that religion has been obliged to reveal it to us. The common welfare
of all men demands that we believe the soul to be immortal; faith orders that
we do so; no more is needed, and the matter is decided. It is not the same with
respect to man's nature. It matters little to religion of what substance the
soul is composed, provided that it is virtuous; it is like a watch we are given
to take care of: the workman does not tell us what the watchspring is made
I am a body and I think: I know nothing more. Shall I attribute to an
unknown cause what I can so easily attribute to the only immediate cause that I
know? Here all the schoolmen interrupt my argument and say: "A body is made up
only of extension and solidity and can have only movement and shape. Now, out
of movement and shape, extension and solidity, a thought cannot come. Hence the
soul cannot be matter." This great process of reasoning so often repeated is
reduced uniquely to this: "I know absolutely nothing about matter; I can
imperfectly guess at a few of its properties. Now I do not know at all if these
properties may be joined to thought; hence, because I know nothing at all, I
assert positively that matter is not able to think." Here you have clearly the
reasoning process of the School. Locke would say quite simply to these
gentlemen: "At least confess that you are as ignorant as I; neither your
imagination nor my own can conceive how a body may have ideas; and do you
understand any better how a substance, whatever it may be, has ideas? You do
not conceive either of matter or of mind; how do you dare to assert
The superstitious man comes in his turn and says that for the good of
their souls we must burn those who suspect that we can think with the sole aid
of the body. But what would such persons say if they were the ones guilty of
irreligion? In fact, who is the man who would dare to assert, without an absurd
impiety, that it is impossible for the Creator to give thought and feeling to
matter? See, if you please, to what a pass you are reduced, you who thus limit
the power of the Creator! Animals have the same organs as we, the same
feelings, the same perceptions; they have memory, they combine several ideas.
If God could not animate matter and give it feeling, it must be true either
that animals are pure machines or that they have a spiritual soul.
It seems to me almost demonstrated that animals can not be mere
machines. Here is my proof: God has given them precisely the same organs of
feeling as we have; hence, if they do not feel, God has made something useless.
Now God, by your own admission, does nothing in vain; hence he has not invented
so many organs of feeling so that there be no feeling; hence animals are
certainly not pure machines.
Animals, according to you, cannot have a spiritual soul; hence, in spite
of you, there is nothing else to say, except that God has given the organs of
animals, which are matter, the faculty of feeling and perceiving, which you
call their instinct.
Well then! What could prevent God from communicating to our finer organs
this faculty of feeling, perceiving and thinking, that we call human reason?
Whichever way you turn, you are obliged to admit your ignorance and the immense
power of the Creator. Do not, then, rebel against the sage and modest
philosophy of Locke; far from being contrary to religion, it serves it as a
proof, should religion have need of it; for what philosophy is more religious
than that which, while affirming only what it conceives clearly and admitting
its weakness, tells you that we must have recourse to God as soon as we examine
Besides, we must never fear that any philosophical belief can harm a
nation's religion. Our mysteries in vain run counter to our demonstrations;
they are no less revered by Christian philosophers, who know that the objects
of reason and faith are of a different nature. Never will philosophers create a
religious sect. Why? Because they do not write for the whole people, and they
are without enthusiasm.
Divide the human race into twenty parts: nineteen will be composed of
those who work with their hands and who will never know if there was a Locke in
the world; in the twentieth part which remains, how few men will be found who
read! And among those who read, there are twenty who read the Roman authors for
every one who studies philosophy. The number of those who think is excessively
small, and these do not care to disturb the world.
It is not Montaigne or Locke or Bayle or Spinoza or Hobbes or
Shaftesbury or Collins or Toland or the like who have kindled the flame of
discord in their land; it is rather the theologians, who, having first had the
ambition of becoming heads of a sect, soon came to have that of becoming heads
of a faction. Indeed, all of the books of modern philosophers put together will