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The Existence of God: Sections 41-50

By Francois Fenelon

      SECTION XLI. Of the Smell, Taste, and Hearing.

      Who were able to explain the niceness of the organs by which man discerns the numberless savours and odours of bodies? But how is it possible for so many different voices to strike at once my ear without confounding one another, and for those sounds to leave in me, after they have ceased to be, so lively and so distinct images of what they have been? How careful was the Artificer who made our bodies to give our eyes a moist, smooth, and sliding cover to close them; and why did He leave our ears open? Because, says Cicero, the eyes must be shut against the light in order to sleep; and, in the meantime, the ears ought to remain open in order to give us warning, and wake us by the report of noise, when we are in danger of being surprised. Who is it that, in an instant, imprints in my eye the heaven, the sea, and the earth, seated at almost an infinite distance? How can the faithful images of all the objects of the universe, from the sun to an atom, range themselves distinctly in so small an organ? Is not the substance of the brain, which preserves, in order, such lively representations of all the objects that have made an impression upon us ever since we were in the world, a most wonderful prodigy? Men admire with reason the invention of books, wherein the history of so many events, and the collection of so many thoughts, are preserved. But what comparison can be made between the best book and the brain of a learned man? There is no doubt but such a brain is a collection infinitely more precious, and of a far more excellent contrivance, than a book. It is in that small repository that a man never misses finding the images he has occasion for. He calls them, and they come; he dismisses them, and they sink I know not where, and disappear, to make room for others. A man shuts or opens his fancy at pleasure, like a book. He turns, as it were, its leaves; and, in an instant, goes from one end to the other. There is even in memory a sort of table, like the index of a book, which shows where certain remote images are to be found. We do not find that these innumerable characters, which the mind of man reads inwardly with so much rapidity, leave any distinct trace or print in the brain, when we open it. That admirable book is but a soft substance, or a sort of bottom made up of tender threads, woven one with another. Now what skilful hand has laid up in that kind of dirt, which appears so shapeless, such precious images, ranged with such excellent and curious art?

      SECTION XLII. Of the Proportion of Man's Body.

      Such is the body of man in general: for I do not enter into an anatomical detail, my design being only to discover the art that is conspicuous in nature, by the simple cast of an eye, without any science. The body of man might undoubtedly be either much bigger and taller, or much lesser and smaller. But if, for instance, it were but one foot high, it would be insulted by most animals, that would tread and crush it under their feet. If it were as tall as a high steeple, a small number of men would in a few days consume all the aliments a whole country affords. They could find neither horses nor any other beasts of burden either to carry them on their backs or draw them in a machine with wheels; nor could they find sufficient quantity of materials to build houses proportioned to their bigness; and as there could be but a small number of men upon earth, so they should want most conveniences. Now, who is it that has so well regulated the size of man to so just a standard? Who is it that has fixed that of other animals and living creatures, with proportion to that of man? Of all animals, man only stands upright on his feet, which gives him a nobleness and majesty that distinguishes him, even as to the outside, from all that lives upon earth. Not only his figure is the noblest, but he is also the strongest and most dextrous of all animals, in proportion to his bigness. Let one nicely examine the bulk and weight of the most terrible beasts, and he will find, that though they have more matter than the body of a man, yet a vigorous man has more strength of body than most wild beasts. Nor are these dreadful to him, except in their teeth and claws. But man, who has not such natural arms in his limbs, has yet hands, whose dexterity to make artificial weapons surpasses all that nature has bestowed upon beasts. Thus man either pierces with his darts or draws into his snares, masters, and leads in chains the strongest and fiercest animals. Nay, he has the skill to tame them in their captivity, and to sport with them as he pleases. He teaches lions and tigers to caress him: and gets on the back of elephants.

      SECTION XLIII. Of the Soul, which alone, among all Creatures, Thinks and Knows.

      But the body of man, which appears to be the masterpiece of nature, is not to be compared to his thought. It is certain that there are bodies that do not think: man, for instance, ascribes no knowledge to stone, wood, or metals, which undoubtedly are bodies. Nay, it is so natural to believe that matter cannot think, that all unprejudiced men cannot forbear laughing when they hear any one assert that beasts are but mere machines; because they cannot conceive that mere machines can have such knowledge as they pretend to perceive in beasts. They think it to be like children's playing, and talking to their puppets, the ascribing any knowledge to mere machines. Hence it is that the ancients themselves, who knew no real substance but the body, pretended, however, that the soul of a man was a fifth element, or a sort of quintessence without name, unknown here below, indivisible, immutable, and altogether celestial and divine, because they could not conceive that the terrestrial matter of the four elements could think, and know itself: Aristoteles quintam quandam naturam censet esse, e qua sit mens. Cogitare enim, et providere, et discere, et docere. . . . in horum quatuor generum nullo inesse putat; quintum genus adhibet vacans nomine.

      SECTION XLIV. Matter Cannot Think.

      But let us suppose whatever you please, for I will not enter the lists with any sect of philosophers: here is an alternative which no philosopher can avoid. Either matter can become a thinking substance, without adding anything to it, or matter cannot think at all, and so what thinks in us is a substance distinct from matter, and which is united to it. If matter can acquire the faculty of thinking without adding anything to it, it must, at least, be owned that all matter does not think, and that even some matter that now thinks did not think fifty years ago; as, for instance, the matter of which the body of a young man is made up did not think ten years before he was born. It must then be concluded that matter can acquire the faculty of thinking by a certain configuration, ranging, and motion of its parts. Let us, for instance, suppose the matter of a stone, or of a heap of sand. It is agreed this part of matter has no manner of thought; and therefore to make it begin to think, all its parts must be configurated, ranged, and moved a certain way and to a certain degree. Now, who is it that knew how to find, with so much niceness, that proportion, order, and motion that way, and to such a degree, above and below which matter would never think? Who is it that has given all those just, exact, and precise modifications to a vile and shapeless matter, in order to form the body of a child, and to render it rational by degrees? If, on the contrary, it be affirmed that matter cannot become a thinking substance without adding something to it, and that another being must be united to it, I ask, what will that other thinking being be, whilst the matter, to which it is united, only moves? Therefore, here are two natures or substances very unlike and distinct. We know one by figures and local motions only; as we do the other by perceptions and reasonings. The one does not imply, or create the idea of the other, for their respective ideas have nothing in common.

      SECTION XLV. Of the Union of the Soul and Body, of which God alone can be the Author.

      But now, how comes it to pass that beings so unlike are so intimately united together in man? Whence comes it that certain motions of the body so suddenly and so infallibly raise certain thoughts in the soul? Whence comes it that the thoughts of the soul, so suddenly and so infallibly, occasion certain motions in the body? Whence proceeds so regular a society, for seventy or fourscore years, without any interruption? How comes it to pass that this union of two beings, and two operations, so very different, make up so exact a compound, that many are tempted to believe it to be a simple and indivisible whole? What hand had the skill to unite and tie together these two extremes and opposites? It is certain they did not unite themselves by mutual consent, for matter having of itself neither thought nor will, to make terms and conditions, it could not enter into an agreement with the mind. On the other hand, the mind does not remember that it ever made an agreement with matter; nor could it be subjected to such an agreement, if it had quite forgot it. If the mind had freely, and of its own accord, resolved to submit to the impressions of matter, it would not, however, subject itself to them but when it should remember such a resolution, which, besides, it might alter at pleasure. Nevertheless, it is certain that in spite of itself it is dependent on the body, and that it cannot free itself from its dependence, unless it destroy the organs of the body by a violent death. Besides, although the mind had voluntarily subjected itself to matter, it would not follow that matter were reciprocally subjected to the mind. The mind would indeed have certain thoughts when the body should have certain motions, but the body would not be determined to have, in its turn, certain motions, as soon as the mind should have certain thoughts. Now it is most certain that this dependence is reciprocal. Nothing is more absolute than the command of the mind over the body. The mind wills, and, instantly, all the members of the body are in motion, as if they were acted by the most powerful machines. On the other hand, nothing is more manifest than the power and influence of the body over the mind. The body is in motion, and, instantly the mind is forced to think either with pleasure or pain, upon certain objects. Now, what hand equally powerful over these two divers and distinct natures has been able to bring them both under the same yoke, and hold them captive in so exact and inviolable a society? Will any man say it was chance? If he does, will he be able either to understand what he means, or to make it understood by others? Has chance, by a concourse of atoms, hooked together the parts of the body with the mind? If the mind can be hooked with some parts of the body, it must have parts itself, and consequently be a perfect body, in which case, we relapse into the first answer, which I have already confuted. If, on the contrary, the mind has no parts, nothing can hook it with those of the body, nor has chance wherewithal to tie them together.

      In short, my alternative ever returns, and is peremptory and decisive. If the mind and body are a whole made up of matter only, how comes it to pass that this matter, which yesterday did not, has this day begun to think? Who is it that has bestowed upon it what it had not, and which is without comparison more noble than thoughtless matter? What bestows thought upon it, has it not itself, and how can it give what it has not? Let us even suppose that thought should result from a certain configuration, ranging, and degree of motion a certain way, of all the parts of matter: what artificer has had the skill to find out all those just, nice, and exact combinations, in order to make a thinking machine? If, on the contrary, the mind and body are two distinct natures, what power superior to those two natures has been able to unite and tie together without the mind's assent, or so much as its knowing which way that union was made? Who is it that with such absolute and supreme command over-rules both minds and bodies, and keeps them in society and correspondence, and under a sort of incomprehensible policy?

      SECTION XLVI. The Soul has an Absolute Command over the Body.

      Be pleased to observe that the command of my mind over my body is supreme and absolute in its bounded extent, since my single will, without any effort or preparation, causes all the members of my body to move on a sudden and immediately, according to the rules of mechanics. As the Scripture gives us the character of God, who said after the creation of the universe, "Let there be light, and there was light"--in like manner, the inward word of my soul alone, without any effort or preparation, makes what it says. I say, for instance, within myself, through that inward, simple, and momentaneous word, "Let my body move, and it moves." At the command of that simple and intimate will, all the parts of my body are at work. Immediately all nerves are distended, all the springs hasten to concur together, and the whole machine obeys, just as if every one of the most secret of those organs heard a supreme and omnipotent voice. This is certainly the most simple and most effectual power that can be conceived. All the other beings within our knowledge afford not the like instance of it, and this is precisely what men that are sensible and persuaded of a Deity ascribe to it in all the universe.

      Shall I ascribe it to my feeble mind, or rather to the power it has over my body, which is so vastly different from it? Shall I believe that my will has that supreme command of its own nature, though in itself so weak and imperfect? But how comes it to pass that, among so many bodies, it has that power over no more than one? For no other body moves according to its desires. Now, who is it that gave over one body the power it had over no other? Will any man be again so bold as to ascribe this to chance?

      SECTION XLVII. The Power of the Soul over the Body is not only Supreme or Absolute, but Blind at the same time.

      But that power, which is so supreme and absolute, is blind at the same time. The most simple and ignorant peasant knows how to move his body as well as a philosopher the most skilled in anatomy. The mind of a peasant commands his nerves, muscles, and tendons, which he knows not, and which he never heard of. He finds them without knowing how to distinguish them, or knowing where they lie; he calls precisely upon such as he has occasion for, nor does he mistake one for the other. If a rope-dancer, for instance, does but will, the spirits instantly run with impetuousness, sometimes to certain nerves, sometimes to others--all which distend or slacken in due time. Ask him which of them he set a-going, and which way he begun to move them? He will not so much as understand what you mean. He is an absolute stranger to what he has done in all the inward springs of his machine. The lute-player, who is perfectly well acquainted with all the strings of his instrument, who sees them with his eyes, and touches them one after another with his fingers, yet mistakes them sometimes. But the soul that governs the machine of man's body moves all its springs in time, without seeing or discerning them, without being acquainted with their figure, situation, or strength, and yet it never mistakes. What prodigy is here! My mind commands what it knows not, and cannot see; what neither has, nor is capable of any knowledge. And yet it is infallibly obeyed. How much blindness and how much power at once is here! The blindness is man's; but the power, whose is it? To whom shall we ascribe it, unless it be to Him who sees what man does not see, and performs in him what passes his understanding? It is to no purpose my mind is willing to move the bodies that surround it, and which it knows very distinctly; for none of them stirs, and it has not power to move the least atom by its will. There is but one single body, which some superior Power must have made its property. With respect to this body, my mind is but willing, and all the springs of that machine, which are unknown to it, move in time and in concert to obey him. St. Augustin, who made these reflections, has expressed them excellently well. "The inward parts of our bodies," says he, "cannot be living but by our souls; but our souls animate them far more easily than they can know them. . . . The soul knows not the body which is subject to it. . . . It does not know why it does not move the nerves but when it pleases; and why, on the contrary, the pulsation of veins goes on without interruption, whether the mind will or no. It knows not which is the first part of the body it moves immediately, in order thereby to move all the rest. . . . It does not know why it feels in spite of itself, and moves the members only when it pleases. It is the mind does these things in the body. But how comes it to pass it neither knows what she does, nor in what manner it performs it? Those who learn, anatomy," continues that father, "are taught by others what passes within, and is performed by themselves. Why," says he, "do I know, without being taught, that there is in the sky, at a prodigious distance from me, a sun and stars; and why have I occasion for a master to learn where motion begins? . . . When I move my finger, I know not how what I perform within myself is performed. We are too far above, and cannot comprehend ourselves."

      SECTION XLVIII. The Sovereignty of the Soul over the Body principally appears in the Images imprinted in the Brain.

      It is certain we cannot sufficiently admire either the absolute power of the soul over corporeal organs which she knows not, or the continual use it makes of them without discerning them. That sovereignty principally appears with respect to the images imprinted in our brain. I know all the bodies of the universe that have made any impression on my senses for a great many years past. I have distinct images of them that represent them to me, insomuch that I believe I see them even when they exist no more. My brain is like a closet full of pictures, which should move and set themselves in order at the master's pleasure. Painters, with all their art and skill, never attain but an imperfect likeness; whereas the pictures I have in my head are so faithful, that it is by consulting them I perceive all the defects of those made by painters, and correct them within myself. Now, do these images, more like their original than the masterpieces of the art of painting, imprint themselves in my head without any art? Is my brain a book, all the characters of which have ranged themselves of their own accord? If there be any art in the case, it does not proceed from me. For I find within me that collection of images without having ever so much as thought either to imprint them, or set them in order. Moreover, all these images either appear or retire as I please, without any confusion. I call them back, and they return; I dismiss them, and they sink I know not where. They either assemble or separate, as I please. But I neither know where they lie, nor what they are. Nevertheless I find them always ready. The agitation of so many images, old and new, that revive, join, or separate, never disturbs a certain order that is amongst them. If some of them do not appear at the first summons, at least I am certain they are not far off. They may lurk in some deep corner, but I am not totally ignorant of them as I am of things I never knew; for, on the contrary, I know confusedly what I look for. If any other image offers itself in the room of that I called for, I immediately dismiss it, telling it, "It is not you I have occasion for." But, then, where lie objects half-forgotten? They are present within me, since I look for them there, and find them at last. Again, in what manner are they there, since I look for them a long while in vain? What becomes of them? "I am no more," says St. Augustin, "what I was when I had the thoughts I cannot find again. I know not," continues that father, "either how it comes to pass that I am thus withdrawn from and deprived of myself, or how I am afterwards brought back and restored to myself. I am, as it were, another man, and carried to another place, when I look for, and do not find, what I had trusted to my memory. In such a case we cannot reach, and are, in a manner, strangers remote from ourselves. Nor do we come at us but when we find what we are in quest of. But where is it we look for but within us? Or what is it we look for but ourselves? . . . So unfathomable a difficulty astonishes us!" I distinctly remember I have known what I do not know at present. I remember my very oblivion. I call to mind the pictures or images of every person in every period of life wherein I have seen them formerly, so that the same person passes several times in my head. At first, I see one a child, then a young, and afterwards an old, man. I place wrinkles in the same face in which, on the other side, I see the tender graces of infancy. I join what subsists no more with what is still, without confounding these extremes. I preserve I know not what, which, by turns, is all that I have seen since I came into the world. Out of this unknown store come all the perfumes, harmonies, tastes, degrees, and mixtures of colours; in short, all the figures that have passed through my senses, and which they have trusted to my brain. I revive when I please the joy I felt thirty years ago. It returns; but sometimes it is not the same it was formerly, and appears without rejoicing me. I remember I have been well pleased, and yet am not so while I have that remembrance. On the other hand, I renew past sorrows and troubles. They are present; for I distinctly perceive them such as they were formerly, and not the least part of their bitterness and lively sense escapes my memory. But yet they are no more the same; they are dulled, and neither trouble nor disquiet me. I perceive all their severity without feeling it; or, if I feel it, it is only by representation, which turns a former smart and racking pain into a kind of sport and diversion, for the image of past sorrows rejoices me. It is the same with pleasures: a virtuous mind is afflicted by the memory of its disorderly unlawful enjoyments. They are present, for they appear with all their softest and most flattering attendants; but they are no more themselves, and such joys return only to make us uneasy.

      SECTION XLIX. Two Wonders of the Memory and Brain.

      Here, therefore, are two wonders equally incomprehensible. The first, that my brain is a kind of book, that contains a number almost infinite of images, and characters ranged in an order I did not contrive, and of which chance could not be the author. For I never had the least thought either of writing anything in my brain, or to place in any order the images and characters I imprinted in it. I had no other thought but only to see the objects that struck my senses. Neither could chance make so marvellous a book: even all the art of man is too imperfect ever to reach so high a perfection, therefore what hand had the skill to compose it?

      The second wonder I find in my brain, is to see that my mind reads with so much ease, whatever it pleases, in that inward book; and read even characters it does not know. I never saw the traces or figures imprinted in my brain, and even the substance of my brain itself, which is like the paper of that book, is altogether unknown to me. All those numberless characters transpose themselves, and afterwards resume their rank and place to obey my command. I have, as it were, a divine power over a work I am unacquainted with, and which is incapable of knowledge. That which understands nothing, understands my thought and performs it instantly. The thought of man has no power over bodies: I am sensible of it by running over all nature. There is but one single body which my bare will moves, as if it were a deity; and even moves the most subtle and nicest springs of it, without knowing them. Now, who is it that united my will to this body, and gave it so much power over it?

      SECTION L. The Mind of Man is mixed with Greatness and Weakness. Its Greatness consists in two things. First, the Mind has the Idea of the Infinite.

      Let us conclude these observations by a short reflection on the essence of our mind; in which I find an incomprehensible mixture of greatness and weakness. Its greatness is real: for it brings together the past and the present, without confusion; and by its reasoning penetrates into futurity. It has the idea both of bodies and spirits. Nay, it has the idea of the infinite: for it supposes and affirms all that belongs to it, and rejects and denies all that is not proper to it. If you say that the infinite is triangular, the mind will answer without hesitation, that what has no bounds can have no figure. If you desire it to assign the first of the units that make up an infinite number, it will readily answer, that there can be no beginning, end, or number in the infinite; because if one could find either a first or last unit in it, one might add some other unit to that, and consequently increase the number. Now a number cannot be infinite, when it is capable of some addition, and when a limit may be assigned to it, on the side where it may receive an increase.

Back to Francois Fenelon index.

See Also:
   Sections 1-6
   Sections 7-16
   Sections 17-23
   Sections 24-30
   Sections 31-40
   Sections 41-50
   Sections 51-60
   Sections 62-69
   Sections 70-81
   Sections 82-92


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