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 immortal.
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 substance.
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 of.
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 anything?"
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 first principles?
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 never