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The Existence of God: Sections 51-60

By Francois Fenelon

      SECTION LI. The Mind knows the Finite only by the Idea of the Infinite.

      It is even in the infinite that my mind knows the finite. When we say a man is sick, we mean a man that has no health; and when we call a man weak, we mean one that has no strength. We know sickness, which is a privation of health, no other way but by representing to us health itself as a real good, of which such a man is deprived; and, in like manner, we only know weakness, by representing to us strength as a real advantage, which such a man is not master of. We know darkness, which is nothing real, only by denying, and consequently by conceiving daylight, which is most real, and most positive. In like manner we know the finite only by assigning it a bound, which is a mere negation of a greater extent; and consequently only the privation of the infinite. Now a man could never represent to himself the privation of the infinite, unless he conceived the infinite itself: just as he could not have a notion of sickness, unless he had an idea of health, of which it is only a privation. Now, whence comes that idea of the infinite in us?

      SECTION LII. Secondly, the Ideas of the Mind are Universal, Eternal, and Immutable.

      Oh! how great is the mind of man! He carries within him wherewithal to astonish, and infinitely to surpass himself: since his ideas are universal, eternal, and immutable. They are universal: for when I say it is impossible to be and not to be; the whole is bigger than a part of it; a line perfectly circular has no straight parts; between two points given the straight line is the shortest; the centre of a perfect circle is equally distant from all the points of the circumference; an equilateral triangle has no obtuse or right angle: all these truths admit of no exception. There never can be any being, line, circle, or triangle, but according to these rules. These axioms are of all times, or to speak more properly, they exist before all time, and will ever remain after any comprehensible duration. Let the universe be turned topsy-turvy, destroyed, and annihilated; and even let there be no mind to reason about beings, lines, circles, and triangles: yet it will ever be equally true in itself, that the same thing cannot at once be and not be; that a perfect circle can have no part of a straight line; that the centre of a perfect circle cannot be nearer one side of the circumference than the other. Men may, indeed, not think actually on these truths: and it might even happen that there should be neither universe nor any mind capable to reflect on these truths: but nevertheless they are still constant and certain in themselves although no mind should be acquainted with them; just as the rays of the sun would not cease being real, although all men should be blind, and no body have eyes to be sensible of their light. By affirming that two and two make four, says St. Augustin, man is not only certain that he speaks truth, but he cannot doubt that such a proposition was ever equally true, and must be so eternally. These ideas we carry within ourselves have no bounds, and cannot admit of any. It cannot be said that what I have affirmed about the centre of perfect circles is true only in relation to a certain number of circles; for that proposition is true, through evident necessity, with respect to all circles ad infinitum. These unbounded ideas can never be changed, altered, impaired, or defaced in us; for they make up the very essence of our reason. Whatever effort a man may make in his own mind, yet it is impossible for him ever to entertain a serious doubt about the truths which those ideas clearly represent to us. For instance, I never can seriously call in question, whether the whole is bigger than one of its parts; or whether the centre of a perfect circle is equally distant from all the points of the circumference. The idea of the infinite is in me like that of numbers, lines, circles, a whole, and a part. The changing our ideas would be, in effect, the annihilating reason itself. Let us judge and make an estimate of our greatness by the immutable infinite stamp within us, and which can never be defaced from our minds. But lest such a real greatness should dazzle and betray us, by flattering our vanity, let us hasten to cast our eyes on our weakness.

      SECTION LIII. Weakness of Man's Mind.

      That same mind that incessantly sees the infinite, and, through the rule of the infinite, all finite things, is likewise infinitely ignorant of all the objects that surround it. It is altogether ignorant of itself, and gropes about in an abyss of darkness. It neither knows what it is, nor how it is united with a body; nor which way it has so much command over all the springs of that body, which it knows not. It is ignorant of its own thoughts and wills. It knows not, with certainty, either what it believes or wills. It often fancies to believe and will, what it neither believes nor wills. It is liable to mistake, and its greatest excellence is to acknowledge it. To the error of its thoughts, it adds the disorder and irregularity of its will and desires; so that it is forced to groan in the consciousness and experience of its corruption. Such is the mind of man, weak, uncertain, stinted, full of errors. Now, who is it that put the idea of the infinite, that is to say of perfection, in a subject so stinted and so full of imperfection? Did it give itself so sublime, and so pure an idea, which is itself a kind of infinite in imagery? What finite being distinct from it was able to give it what bears no proportion with what is limited within any bounds? Let us suppose the mind of man to be like a looking-glass, wherein the images of all the neighbouring bodies imprint themselves. Now what being was able to stamp within us the image of the infinite, if the infinite never existed? Who can put in a looking-glass the image of a chimerical object which is not in being, and which was never placed against the glass? This image of the infinite is not a confused collection of finite objects, which the mind may mistake for a true infinite. It is the true infinite of which we have the thought and idea. We know it so well, that we exactly distinguish it from whatever it is not; and that no subtilty can palm upon us any other object in its room. We are so well acquainted with it, that we reject from it any propriety that denotes the least bound or limit. In short, we know it so well, that it is in it alone we know all the rest, just as we know the night by the day, sickness by health. Now, once more, whence comes so great an image? Does it proceed from nothing? Can a stinted limited being imagine and invent the infinite, if there be no infinite at all? Our weak and short-sighted mind cannot of itself form that image, which, at this rate, should have no author. None of the outward objects can give us that image: for they can only give us the image of what they are, and they are limited and imperfect. Therefore, from whence shall we derive that distinct image which is unlike anything within us, and all we know here below, without us? Whence does it proceed? Where is that infinite we cannot comprehend, because it is really infinite: and which nevertheless we cannot mistake, because we distinguish it from anything that is inferior to it? Sure it must be somewhere, otherwise how could it imprint itself in our minds?

      SECTION LIV. The Ideas of Man are the Immutable Rules of his Judgment.

      But besides the idea of the infinite, I have yet universal and immutable notions, which are the rule and standard of all my judgments; insomuch that I cannot judge of anything but by consulting them; nor am I free to judge contrary to what they represent to me. My thoughts are so far from being able to correct or form that rule, that they are themselves corrected, in spite of myself, by that superior rule; and invincibly subjected to its decision. Whatever effort my mind can make, I can never be brought, as I observed before, to entertain a doubt whether two and two make four; whether the whole is bigger than one of its parts; or whether the centre of a perfect circle be equally distant from all the points of the circumference. I am not free to deny those propositions; and if I happen to deny those truths, or others much like them, there is in me something above myself, which forces me to return to the rule. That fixed and immutable rule is so inward and intimate, that I am tempted to take it for myself. But it is above me, since it corrects and rectifies me; gives me a distrust of myself, and makes me sensible of my impotency. It is something that inspires me every moment, provided I hearken to it, and I never err or mistake except when I am not attentive to it. What inspires me would for ever preserve me from error, if I were docile, and acted without precipitation; for that inward inspiration would teach me to judge aright of things within my reach, and about which I have occasion to form a judgment. As for others, it would teach me not to judge of them at all, which second lesson is no less important than the first. That inward rule is what I call my reason; but I speak of my reason without penetrating into the extent of those words, as I speak of nature and instinct, without knowing what those expressions mean.

      SECTION LV. What Man's Reason is.

      It is certain my reason is within me, for I must continually recollect myself to find it; but the superior reason that corrects me upon occasion, and which I consult, is none of mine, nor is it part of myself. That rule is perfect and immutable; whereas I am changeable and imperfect. When I err, it preserves its rectitude. When I am undeceived, it is not set right, for it never was otherwise; and still keeping to truth has the authority to call, and bring me back to it. It is an inward master that makes me either be silent or speak; believe, or doubt; acknowledge my errors, or confirm my judgment. I am instructed by hearkening to it; whereas I err and go astray when I hearken to myself. That Master is everywhere, and His voice is heard, from one end of the universe to the other, by all men as well as me. Whilst He corrects and rectifies me in France, He corrects and sets right other men in China, Japan, Mexico, and in Peru, by the same principles.

      SECTION LVI. Reason is the Same in all Men, of all Ages and Countries.

      Two men who never saw or heard of one another, and who never entertained any correspondence with any other man that could give them common notions, yet speak at two extremities of the earth, about a certain number of truths, as if they were in concert. It is infallibly known beforehand in one hemisphere, what will be answered in the other upon these truths. Men of all countries and of all ages, whatever their education may have been, find themselves invincibly subjected and obliged to think and speak in the same manner. The Master who incessantly teaches us makes all of us think the same way. Whenever we hastily judge, without hearkening to His voice, in diffidence of ourselves, we think and utter dreams full of extravagance. Thus what appears most to be part of ourselves, and our very essence, I mean our reason, is least our own, and what, on the contrary, ought to be accounted most borrowed. We continually receive a reason superior to us, as we incessantly breathe the air, which is a foreign body; or as we incessantly see all the objects near us by the light of the sun, whose rays are bodies foreign to our eyes. That superior reason over-rules and governs, to a certain degree, with an absolute power all men, even the least rational, and makes them all ever agree, in spite of themselves, upon those points. It is she that makes a savage in Canada think about a great many things, just as the Greek and Roman philosophers did. It is she that made the Chinese geometricians find out much of the same truths with the Europeans, whilst those nations so very remote were unknown one to another. It is she that makes people in Japan conclude, as in France, that two and two make four; nor is it apprehended that any nation shall ever change their opinion about it. It is she that makes men think nowadays about certain points, just as men thought about the same four thousand years ago. It is she that gives uniform thoughts to the most jealous and jarring men, and the most irreconcilable among themselves. It is by her that men of all ages and countries are, as it were, chained about an immovable centre, and held in the bonds of amity by certain invariable rules, called first principles, notwithstanding the infinite variations of opinions that arise in them from their passion, avocations, and caprices, which over-rule all their other less-clear judgments. It is through her that men, as depraved as they are, have not yet presumed openly to bestow on vice the name of virtue, and that they are reduced to dissemble being just, sincere, moderate, benevolent, in order to gain one another's esteem. The most wicked and abandoned of men cannot be brought to esteem what they wish they could esteem, or to despise what they wish they could despise. It is not possible to force the eternal barrier of truth and justice. The inward master, called reason, intimately checks the attempt with absolute power, and knows how to set bounds to the most impudent folly of men. Though vice has for many ages reigned with unbridled licentiousness, virtue is still called virtue; and the most brutish and rash of her adversaries cannot yet deprive her of her name. Hence it is that vice, though triumphant in the world, is still obliged to disguise itself under the mask of hypocrisy or sham honesty, to gain the esteem it has not the confidence to expect, if it should go bare-faced. Thus, notwithstanding its impudence, it pays a forced homage to virtue, by endeavouring to adorn itself with her fairest outside in order to receive the honour and respect she commands from men. It is true virtuous men are exposed to censure; and they are, indeed, ever reprehensible in this life, through their natural imperfections; but yet the most vicious cannot totally efface in themselves the idea of true virtue. There never was yet any man upon earth that could prevail either with others, or himself, to allow, as a received maxim, that to be knavish, passionate, and mischievous, is more honourable than to be honest, moderate, good-natured, and benevolent.

      SECTION LVII. Reason in Man is Independent of and above Him.

      I have already evinced that the inward and universal master, at all times, and in all places, speaks the same truths. We are not that master: though it is true we often speak without, and higher than him. But then we mistake, stutter, and do not so much as understand ourselves. We are even afraid of being made sensible of our mistakes, and we shut up our ears, lest we should be humbled by his corrections. Certainly the man who is apprehensive of being corrected and reproved by that uncorruptible reason, and ever goes astray when he does not follow it, is not that perfect, universal, and immutable reason, that corrects him, in spite of himself. In all things we find, as it were, two principles within us. The one gives, the other receives; the one fails, or is defective; the other makes up; the one mistakes, the other rectifies; the one goes awry, through his inclination, the other sets him right. It was the mistaken and ill-understood experience of this that led the Marcionites and Manicheans into error. Every man is conscious within himself of a limited and inferior reason, that goes astray and errs, as soon as it gets loose from an entire subordination, and which mends its error no other way, but by returning under the yoke of another superior, universal, and immutable reason. Thus everything within us argues an inferior, limited, communicated, and borrowed reason, that wants every moment to be rectified by another. All men are rational by means of the same reason, that communicates itself to them, according to various degrees. There is a certain number of wise men; but the wisdom from which they draw theirs, as from an inexhaustible source, and which makes them what they are, is but ONE.

      SECTION LVIII. It is the Primitive Truth, that Lights all Minds, by communicating itself to them.

      Where is that wisdom? Where is that reason, at once both common and superior to all limited and imperfect reasons of mankind? Where is that oracle, which is never silent, and against which all the vain prejudices of men cannot prevail? Where is that reason which we have ever occasion to consult, and which prevents us to create in us the desire of hearing its voice? Where is that lively light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world? Where is that pure and soft light, which not only lights those eyes that are open, but which opens eyes that are shut; cures sore eyes; gives eyes to those that have none to see it; in short, which raises the desire of being lighted by it, and gains even their love, who were afraid to see it? Every eye sees it; nor would it see anything, unless it saw it; since it is by that light and its pure rays that the eye sees everything. As the sensibler sun in the firmament lights all bodies, so the sun of intelligence lights all minds. The substance of a man's eye is not the light: on the contrary, the eye borrows, every moment, the light from the rays of the sun. Just in the same manner, my mind is not the primitive reason, or universal and immutable truth; but only the organ through which that original light passes, and which is lighted by it. There is a sun of spirits that lights them far better than the visible sun lights bodies. This sun of spirits gives us, at once, both its light, and the love of it, in order to seek it. That sun of truth leaves no manner of darkness, and shines at the same time in the two hemispheres. It lights us as much by night as by day; nor does it spread its rays outwardly; but inhabits in every one of us. A man can never deprive another man of its beams. One sees it equally, in whatever corner of the universe he may lurk. A man never needs say to another, step aside, to let me see that sun; you rob me of its rays; you take away my share of it. That sun never sets: nor suffers any cloud, but such as are raised by our passions. It is a day without shadow. It lights the savages even in the deepest and darkest caves; none but sore eyes wink against its light; nor is there indeed any man so distempered and so blind, but who still walks by the glimpse of some duskish light he retains from that inward sun of consciences. That universal light discovers and represents all objects to our minds; nor can we judge of anything but by it; just as we cannot discern anybody but by the rays of the sun.

      SECTION LIX. It is by the Light of Primitive Truth a Man Judges whether what one says to him be True or False.

      Men may speak and discourse to us in order to instruct us: but we cannot believe them any farther, than we find a certain conformity or agreement between what they say, and what the inward master says. After they have exhausted all their arguments, we must still return, and hearken to him, for a final decision. If a man should tell us that a part equals the whole of which it is a part, we should not be able to forbear laughing, and instead of persuading us, he would make himself ridiculous to us. It is in the very bottom of ourselves, by consulting the inward master, that we must find the truths that are taught us, that is, which are outwardly proposed to us. Thus, properly speaking, there is but one true Master, who teaches all, and without whom one learns nothing. Other masters always refer and bring us back to that inward school where he alone speaks. It is there we receive what we have not; it is there we learn what we were ignorant of; and find what we had lost by oblivion. It is in the intimate bottom of ourselves, he keeps in store for us certain truths, that lie, as it were, buried, but which revive upon occasion; and it is there, in short, that we reject the falsehood we had embraced. Far from judging that master, it is by him alone we are judged peremptorily in all things. He is a judge disinterested, impartial, and superior to us. We may, indeed, refuse hearing him, and raise a din to stun our ears: but when we hear him it is not in our power to contradict him. Nothing is more unlike man than that invisible master that instructs and judges him with so much severity, uprightness, and perfection. Thus our limited, uncertain, defective, fallible reason, is but a feeble and momentaneous inspiration of a primitive, supreme, and immutable reason, which communicates itself with measure, to all intelligent beings.

      SECTION LX. The Superior Reason that resides in Man is God Himself; and whatever has been above discovered to be in Man, are evident Footsteps of the Deity.

      It cannot be said that man gives himself the thoughts he had not before; much less can it be said that he receives them from other men, since it is certain he neither does nor can admit anything from without, unless he finds it in his own bottom, by consulting within him the principles of reason, in order to examine whether what he is told is agreeable or repugnant to them. Therefore there is an inward school wherein man receives what he neither can give himself, nor expect from other men who live upon trust as well as himself. Here then, are two reasons I find within me; one of which, is myself, the other is above me. That which is myself is very imperfect, prejudiced, liable to error, changeable, headstrong, ignorant, and limited; in short it possesses nothing but what is borrowed. The other is common to all men, and superior to them. It is perfect, eternal, immutable, ever ready to communicate itself in all places, and to rectify all minds that err and mistake; in short, incapable of ever being either exhausted or divided, although it communicates itself to all who desire it. Where is that perfect reason which is so near me, and yet so different from me? Where is it? Sure it must be something real; for nothing or nought cannot either be perfect or make perfect imperfect natures. Where is that supreme reason? Is it not the very God I look for?

      SECTION LXI. New sensible Notices of the Deity in Man, drawn from the Knowledge he has of Unity.

      I still find other traces or notices of the Deity within me: here is a very sensible one. I am acquainted with prodigious numbers with the relations that are between them. Now how come I by that knowledge? It is so very distinct that I cannot seriously doubt of it; and so, immediately, without the least hesitation, I rectify any man that does not follow it in computation. If a man says seventeen and three make twenty-two, I presently tell him seventeen and three make but twenty; and he is immediately convinced by his own light, and acquiesces in my correction. The same Master who speaks within me to correct him speaks at the same time within him to bid him acquiesce. These are not two masters that have agreed to make us agree. It is something indivisible, eternal, immutable, that speaks at the same time with an invincible persuasion in us both. Once more, how come I by so just a notion of numbers? All numbers are but repeated units. Every number is but a compound, or a repetition of units. The number of two, for instance, is but two units; the number of four is reducible to one repeated four times. Therefore we cannot conceive any number without conceiving unity, which is the essential foundation of any possible number; nor can we conceive any repetition of units without conceiving unity itself, which is its basis.

      But which way can I know any real unit? I never saw, nor so much as imagined any by the report of my senses. Let me take, for instance, the most subtle atom; it must have a figure, length, breadth, and depth, a top and a bottom, a left and a right side; and again the top is not the bottom, nor one side the other. Therefore this atom is not truly one, for it consists of parts. Now a compound is a real number, and a multitude of beings. It is not a real unit, but a collection of beings, one of which is not the other. I therefore never learnt by my eyes, my ears, my hands, nor even by my imagination, that there is in nature any real unity; on the contrary, neither my senses nor my imagination ever presented to me anything but what is a compound, a real number or a multitude. All unity continually escapes me; it flies me as it were by a kind of enchantment. Since I look for it in so many divisions of an atom, I certainly have a distinct idea of it; and it is only by its simple and clear idea that I arrive, by the repetition of it, at the knowledge of so many other numbers. But since it escapes me in all the divisions of the bodies of nature, it clearly follows that I never came by the knowledge of it, through the canal of my senses and imagination. Here therefore is an idea which is in me independently from the senses, imagination, and impressions of bodies.

      Moreover, although I would not frankly acknowledge that I have a clear idea of unity, which is the foundation of all numbers, because they are but repetitions or collections of units: I must at least be forced to own that I know a great many numbers with their proprieties and relations. I know, for instance, how much make 900,000,000 joined with 800,000,000 of another sum. I make no mistake in it; and I should, with certainty, immediately rectify any man that should. Nevertheless, neither my senses nor my imagination were ever able to represent to me distinctly all those millions put together. Nor would the image they should represent to me be more like seventeen hundred millions than a far inferior number. Therefore, how came I by so distinct an idea of numbers, which I never could either feel or imagine? These ideas, independent upon bodies, can neither be corporeal nor admitted in a corporeal subject. They discover to me the nature of my soul, which admits what is incorporeal and receives it within itself in an incorporeal manner. Now, how came I by so incorporeal an idea of bodies themselves? I cannot by my own nature carry it within me, since what in me knows bodies is incorporeal; and since it knows them, without receiving that knowledge through the canal of corporeal organs, such as the senses and imagination. What thinks in me must be, as it were, a nothing of corporeal nature. How was I able to know beings that have by nature no relation with my thinking being? Certainly a being superior to those two natures, so very different, and which comprehends them both in its infinity, must have joined them in my soul, and given me an idea of a nature entirely different from that which thinks in me.

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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