Page images
PDF
EPUB

VIII. Sept. 11, 1836. My dear Friend, A severe attack of illness, and the performance of some duties of kindness to two young relatives, whom I had never seen before, but whom to know at present is to me a source of peculiar satisfaction; this combination of events has interrupted my Sunday letters. I take, however, the earliest opportunity to prevent the interruption growing into a habit ; for I conceive that this weekly contribution, which affection to you has suggested, and supports, may help to preserve some fragments of that chain of thought which I hoped to exhibit at full length in the Second Part of my Memoirs ; a work which I fear my extreme reluctance to travel over ground which I have so long and so painfully surveyed, will not allow me to finish. Nor do I greatly regret that it is so. The internal sources, the seeds which have been unfolded into my present convictions, may all be found, I may say, in every one of my writings. It cannot be said that a new light has at any time found its way to me; if by new, something is meant totally different from every principle which was there at some former period. Knowledge of various kinds has indeed reached my mind; but it has been like fuel to feed the original sparks which have remained unquenched in spite of the deadly superstition which was instilled into me in the form of education, and the powerful influence of authority, supported by admiration and affection, during my protracted self-schooling-my second youth in England. What I believe, what I am, does not proceed from external sources: no power out of my own soul has been able to make a compound of my mental character. Many have been the attempts to engraft the wild trunk, and sincere indeed have been the efforts of my will and affections to make those branches take and thrive ; but they withered and died, without fruit. And now nothing whatever remains but what has grown from the root. Any one qualified for that sort of observation will be able to trace my present features of mind to the original lineaments of its embryo. My first act of mental emancipation in Spain was only the rough sketch of the now finished drawing; what, by a kind of instinctive anticipation, I settled, at once, to be false in the hierarchical Christianity of Europe, I have, at the distance of nearly forty years, found to be so, I may say, in spite of myself. This might be shown in the result of my long examination of the theory of miracles. The principles upon which my mind has been made up since the removal of the powerful shacklesnamely, the pledges given to a priesthood, and, what is infinitely more, to friends whose intimacy depended on faithfulness to, part at least of, those pledges—those prin. ciples had never been dislodged from my mind : nay, they were never dormant there; they acted, but I resisted, as I thought it my duty, under the influence of mental asceticism —that notion that flows from the monstrous doctrine of the total corruption of human nature, according to which man must remain a monster odious to God as long as he does not cease to be himself; yet, curiously enough, that Being whose every faculty is corrupted, and whose every avenue of knowledge made crooked,—that Being is allowed to possess such a knowledge of what is perfectly right, that he is invited to declare (by a comparison, of course, with his intellectual model) his whole nature to be perfectly wrong. But I must not digress.

It was my intention to continue the subject of my last letter, and show that Professor Norton gives way to an un

examined prejudice when he asserts that the belief in past miracles, when reduced to historical records, “affords a support for religious faith in the highest sense of the word) which nothing beside can furnish.” But, by looking over my letter, I find that I have already fully stated the grounds which invalidate this assertion ; for I have shown that the highest certainty (except by the assistance of enthusiasm) which historical written records can produce, must be the same in kind with that which arises in other cases on merely critical grounds; with this great deduction, however, that documents attesting natural facts have the feeling of analogy to support them, whilst those which attest miracles are opposed by a strong sense of internal improbability. I do not question the abstract possibility of proving a miracle by testimony; I only state a universal fact of human consciousness; namely, that human testimony, especially when the witnesses live only in records, has less weight upon uncommon than upon usual things. This appears to me quite sufficient to prove that “the support of religious faith” which Professor Norton reckons as the highest that man can obtain, is, I will not say the lowest, though I believe it so, but inferior to many others.

Early habits of mind, supported by religious awe, are the true sources of the certainty so overvalued by the Professor. That certainty arises from material images produced in infancy, and carefully strengthened, in colouring and outline, during the long period in which the critical reason has little or no power. The material images which represent, in the fancy, what is called historical reality, acquire by this means a vividness which almost equals that which we find in the similar images produced by experience. They unquestionably produce certainty, but the real value of this certainty cannot be higher than that of the source of the images-namely, the critical value of the documents which stand, to the believers, in lieu of experience. The strong belief, so frequent in such cases, proves, indeed, too much, and betrays itself: it proves that the belief arises from mere feeling. You recollect when a man with an enlightened mind, and free from the gross theological errors which pervert the judgment of most divines, asserted warmly, in your presence and mine, that he believed in the resurrection of Lazarus, just as if he had seen him come out of the sepulcbre. Now, I believe he did not use the proper words to express what passed in his mind. I judge entirely by his manner. He ought to have said, " I believe in the resurrection of Lazarus, just as if I was now seeing him come out of the sepulchre.” That, I am persuaded, was the state of his mind. The picture of Lazarus called out of the tomb, which from his infancy had been deeply engraved upon the reproductive fancy, was present to him at that moment, with all the strength and distinctness of any event he had witnessed.

But a practical question arises here. It cannot be denied that such pictures have all the effect of reality, especially supported as they are by that notion of duty to believe them, which never fails to attend persons of that description. It may therefore be doubted whether that kind of faith should not be encouraged, as the best foundation for the hopes and practical virtues of the mass of mankicd.My answer is decidedly in the negative; but I cannot here fully develop the principle on which I give it. A word will, however, be enough for you. It is this : Such belief is equally applicable to reality and fable. The whole world is full of proofs of this observation. Paint the greatest ab

surdity on the infant fancy, protect the picture by religious awe, and you will see the same certainty. There is another reason for rejecting such means, to which I give still more weight. The education of mankind should be progressive, indeed, but always aiming at final perfection. Even in the lowest state in which humanity may be found, attention should be paid to the natural rank of the faculties about to be cultivated. Imagination and feeling ought never to be placed above Reason: both the infant and the savage should be trained under the conviction that reason has a natural supremacy. Both may certainly be removed from ignorance and barbarism by means of the inferior faculties; but, in that case, both will remain children-most probably, mischievous children—for ever. Adieu, my dear friend.

Yours ever affectionately,

J. B. W.

IX.

Sept. 18th, 1836. My dear Friend, I was, a few minutes before the moment when this is written, quite on the point of addressing you upon the little school-book-Of the Soul,* when, by one of those rapid flashes of thought which cross each other before the mind has fixed its view in a certain direction, my purpose was instantly changed. The change, however, was not the effect of levity or caprice ; there is, indeed, a cogent reason for it: and as I saw that reason clearly at once, no room was left for hesitation. My observations on the pre

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »