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The Existence of God: Sections 82-92

By Francois Fenelon

      SECTION LXXXII. No Law of Motion has its Foundation in the Essence of the Body; and most of those Laws are Arbitrary.

      Among the laws of motion we must look upon all those as arbitrary which we cannot account for by the very essence of bodies. We have already made out that no motion is essential to any body. Wherefore all those laws which are supposed to be eternal and immutable are, on the contrary, arbitrary, accidental, and made without cogent necessity; for there is none of them that can be accounted for by the essence of bodies.

      If there were any law of motion essential to bodies, it would undoubtedly be that by which bodies of less bulk and less solid are moved by such as have more bulk and solidity. And yet we have seen that that very law is not to be accounted for by the essence of bodies. There is another which might also seem very natural--that, I mean, by which bodies ever move rather in a direct than a crooked line, unless their motion be otherwise determined by the meeting of other bodies. But even this rule has no foundation in the essence of matter. Motion is so very accidental, and super-added to the nature of bodies, that we do not find in this nature of bodies any primitive or immutable law by which they ought to move at all, much less to move according to certain rules. In the same manner as bodies might have existed, and yet have never either been in motion or communicated motion one to another, so they might never have moved but in a circular line, and this motion might have been as natural to them as the motion in a direct line. Now, who is it that pitched upon either of these two laws equally possible? What is not determined by the essence of bodies can have been determined by no other but Him who gave bodies the motion they had not in their own essence. Besides, this motion in a direct line might have been upwards or downwards, from right to left, or from left to right, or in a diagonal line. Now, who is it that determined which way the straight line should go?

      SECTION LXXXIII. The Epicureans can draw no Consequence from all their Suppositions, although the same should be granted them.

      Let us still attend the Epicureans even in their most fabulous suppositions, and carry on the fiction to the last degree of complaisance. Let us admit motion in the essence of bodies, and suppose, as they do, that motion in a direct line is also essential to all atoms. Let us bestow upon atoms both a will and an understanding, as poets did on rocks and rivers. And let us allow them likewise to choose which way they will begin their straight line. Now, what advantage will these philosophers draw from all I have granted them, contrary to all evidence? In the first place, all atoms must have been in motion from all eternity; secondly, they must all have had an equal motion; thirdly, they must all have moved in a direct line; fourthly, they must all have moved by an immutable and essential law.

      I am still willing to gratify our adversaries, so far as to suppose that those atoms are of different figures, for I will allow them to take for granted what they should be obliged to prove, and for which they have not so much as the shadow of a proof. One can never grant too much to men who never can draw any consequence from what is granted them; for the more absurdities are allowed them, the sooner they are caught by their own principles.

      SECTION LXXXIV. Atoms cannot make any Compound by the Motion the Epicureans assign them.

      These atoms of so many odd figures--some round, some crooked, others triangular, &c.--are by their essence obliged always to move in a straight line, without ever deviating or bending to the right or to the left; wherefore they never can hook one another, or make together any compound. Put, if you please, the sharpest hooks near other hooks of the like make; yet if every one of them never moves otherwise than in a line perfectly straight, they will eternally move one near another, in parallel lines, without being able to join and hook one another. The two straight lines which are supposed to be parallel, though immediate neighbours, will never cross one another, though carried on ad infinitum; wherefore in all eternity, no hooking, and consequently no compound, can result from that motion of atoms in a direct line.

      SECTION LXXXV. The Clinamen, Declination, or Sending of Atoms is a Chimerical Notion that throws the Epicureans into a gross Contradiction.

      The Epicureans, not being able to shut their eyes against this glaring difficulty, that strikes at the very foundation of their whole system, have, for a last shift, invented what Lucretius calls clinamen--by which is meant a motion somewhat declining or bending from the straight line, and which gives atoms the occasion to meet and encounter. Thus they turn and wind them at pleasure, according as they fancy best for their purpose. But upon what authority do they suppose this declination of atoms, which comes so pat to bear up their system? If motion in a straight line be essential to bodies, nothing can bend, nor consequently join them, in all eternity; the clinamen destroys the very essence of matter, and those philosophers contradict themselves without blushing. If, on the contrary, the motion in a direct line is not essential to all bodies, why do they so confidently suppose eternal, necessary, and immutable laws for the motion of atoms without recurring to a first mover? And why do they build a whole system of philosophy upon the precarious foundation of a ridiculous fiction? Without the clinamen the straight line can never produce anything, and the Epicurean system falls to the ground; with the clinamen, a fabulous poetical invention, the direct line is violated, and the system falls into derision and ridicule.

      Both the straight line and the clinamen are airy suppositions and mere dreams; but these two dreams destroy each other, and this is the upshot of the uncurbed licentiousness some men allow themselves of supposing as eternal truths whatever their imagination suggests them to support a fable; while they refuse to acknowledge the artful and powerful hand that formed and placed all the parts of the universe.

      SECTION LXXXVI. Strange Absurdity of the Epicureans, who endeavour to account for the Nature of the Soul by the Declination of Atoms.

      To reach the highest degree of amazing extravagance, the Epicureans have had the assurance to explain and account for what we call the soul of man and his free-will, by the clinamen, which is so unaccountable and inexplicable itself. Thus they are reduced to affirm that it is in this motion, wherein atoms are in a kind of equilibrium between a straight line and a line somewhat circular, that human will consists.

      Strange philosophy! If atoms move only in a straight line, they are inanimate, and incapable of any degree of knowledge, understanding, or will; but if the very same atoms somewhat deviate from the straight line, they become, on a sudden, animate, thinking, and rational. They are themselves intelligent souls, that know themselves, reflect, deliberate, and are free in their acts and determinations. Was there ever a more absurd metamorphosis? What opinion would men have of religion if, in order to assert it, one should lay down principles and positions so trifling and ridiculous as theirs who dare to attack it in earnest?

      SECTION LXXXVII. The Epicureans cast a Mist before their own Eyes by endeavouring to explain the Liberty of Man by the Declination of Atoms.

      But let us consider to what degree those philosophers impose upon their own understandings. What can they find in the clinamen that, with any colour, can account for the liberty of man? This liberty is not imaginary; for it is not in our power to doubt of our free- will, any more than it is to doubt of what we are intimately conscious and certain. I am conscious I am free to continue sitting when I rise in order to walk. I am sensible of it with so entire certainty that it is not in my power ever to doubt of it in earnest; and I should be inconsistent with myself if I dared to say the contrary. Can the proof of our religion be more evident and convincing? We cannot doubt of the existence of God unless we doubt of our own liberty; from whence I infer that no man can seriously doubt of the being of the Deity, since no man can entertain a serious doubt about his own liberty. If, on the contrary, it be frankly acknowledged that men are really free, nothing is more easy than to demonstrate that the liberty of man's will cannot consist of any combination of atoms, if one supposes that there was no first mover, who gave matter arbitrary laws for its motion. Motion must be essential to bodies, and all the laws of motion must also be as necessary as the essences of natures are. Therefore, according to this system, all the motions of bodies must be performed by constant, necessary, and immutable laws; the motion in a straight line must be essential to all atoms, that are not made to deviate from it by the encounter of other atoms; the straight line must likewise be essential either upwards or downwards, either from right to left, or left to right, or some other diagonal way, fixed, precise, and immutable. Besides, it is evident that no atom can make another atom deviate; for that other atom carries also in its essence the same invincible and eternal determination to follow the straight line the same way. From hence it follows that all the atoms placed at first on different lines must pursue ad infinitum those parallel lines without ever coming nearer one another; and that those who are in the same line must follow one another ad infinitum without ever coming up together, but keeping still the same distance from one another. The clinamen, as we have already shown, is manifestly impossible: but, contrary to evident truth, supposing it to be possible, in such a case it must be affirmed that the clinamen is no less necessary, immutable, and essential to atoms than the straight line. Now, will anybody say that an essential and immutable law of the local motion of atoms explains and accounts for the true liberty of man? Is it not manifest that the clinamen can no more account for it than the straight line itself? The clinamen, supposing it to be true, would be as necessary as the perpendicular line, by which a stone falls from the top of a tower into the street. Is that stone free in its fall? However, the will of man, according to the principle of the clinamen, has no more freedom than that stone. Is it possible for man to be so extravagant as to dare to contradict his own conscience about his free-will, lest he should be forced to acknowledge his God and maker? To affirm, on the one hand, that the liberty of man is imaginary, we must silence the voice and stifle the sense of all nature; give ourselves the lie in the grossest manner; deny what we are most intimately conscious and certain of; and, in short, be reduced to believe that we have no eligibility or choice of two courses, or things proposed, about which we fairly deliberate upon any occasion. Nothing does religion more honour than to see men necessitated to fall into such gross and monstrous extravagance as soon as they call in question the truths she teaches. On the other hand, if we own that man is truly free, we acknowledge in him a principle that never can be seriously accounted for, either by the combinations of atoms or the laws of local motion, which must be supposed to be all equally necessary and essential to matter, if one denies a first mover. We must therefore go out of the whole compass of matter, and search far from combined atoms some incorporeal principle to account for free-will, if we admit it fairly. Whatever is matter and an atom, moves only by necessary, immutable, and invincible laws: wherefore liberty cannot be found either in bodies, or in any local motion; and so we must look for it in some incorporeal being. Now whose hand tied and subjected to the organs of this corporeal machine that incorporeal being which must necessarily be in me united to my body? Where is the artificer that ties and unites natures so vastly different? Can any but a power superior both to bodies and spirits keep them together in this union with so absolute a sway? Two crooked atoms, says an Epicurean, hook one another. Now this is false, according to his very system; for I have demonstrated that those two crooked atoms never hook one another, because they never meet. But, however, after having supposed that two crooked atoms unite by hooking one another, the Epicurean must be forced to own that the thinking being, which is free in his operations, and which consequently is not a collection of atoms, ever moved by necessary laws, is incorporeal, and could not by its figure be hooked with the body it animates. Thus which way so ever the Epicurean turns, he overthrows his system with his own hands. But let us not, by any means, endeavour to confound men that err and mistake, since we are men as well as they, and no less subject to error. Let us only pity them, study to light and inform them with patience, edify them, pray for them, and conclude with asserting an evident truth.

      SECTION LXXXVIII. We must necessarily acknowledge the Hand of a First Cause in the Universe without inquiring why that first Cause has left Defects in it.

      Thus everything in the universe--the heavens, the earth, plants, animals, and, above all, men--bears the stamp of a Deity. Everything shows and proclaims a set design, and a series and concatenation of subordinate causes, over-ruled and directed with order by a superior cause.

      It is preposterous and foolish to criticise upon this great work. The defects that happen to be in it proceed either from the free and disorderly will of man, which produces them by its disorder, or from the ever holy and just will of God, who sometimes has a mind to punish impious men, and at other times by the wicked to exercise and improve the good. Nay, it happens oftentimes that what appears a defect to our narrow judgment in a place separate from the work is an ornament with respect to the general design, which we are not able to consider with views sufficiently extended and simple to know the perfection of the whole. Does not daily experience show that we rashly censure certain parts of men's works for want of being thoroughly acquainted with the whole extent of their designs and schemes? This happens, in particular, every day with respect to the works of painters and architects. If writing characters were of an immense bigness, each character at close view would take up a man's whole sight, so that it would not be possible for him to see above one at once; and, therefore, he would not be able to read--that is, put different letters together, and discover the sense of all those characters put together. It is the same with the great strokes of Providence in the conduct of the whole world during a long succession of ages. There is nothing but the whole that is intelligible; and the whole is too vast and immense to be seen at close view. Every event is like a particular character that is too large for our narrow organs, and which signifies nothing of itself and separate from the rest. When, at the consummation of ages, we shall see in God--that is, in the true point and centre of perspective--the total of human events, from the first to the last day of the universe, together with their proportions with regard to the designs of God, we shall cry out, "Lord, Thou alone art just and wise!" We cannot rightly judge of the works of men but by examining the whole. Every part ought not to have every perfection, but only such as becomes it according to the order and proportion of the different parts that compose the whole. In a human body, for instance, all the members must not be eyes, for there must be hands, feet, &c. So in the universe, there must be a sun for the day, but there must be also a moon for the night. Nec tibi occurrit perfecta universitas, nisi ubi majora sic praesto sunt, ut minora non desint. This is the judgment we ought to make of every part with respect to the whole. Any other view is narrow and deceitful. But what are the weak and puny designs of men, if compared to that of the creation and government of the universe? "As much as the heavens are above the earth, as much," says God in the Holy Writ, "are My ways and My thoughts above yours." Let, therefore, man admire what he understands, and be silent about what he does not comprehend. But, after all, even the real defects of this work are only imperfections which God was pleased to leave in it, to put us in mind that He drew and made it from nothing. There is not anything in the universe but what does and ought equally to bear these two opposite characters: on the one side, the seal or stamp of the artificer upon his work, and, on the other, the mark of its original nothing, into which it may relapse and dwindle every moment. It is an incomprehensible mixture of low and great; of frailty in the matter, and of art in the maker? The hand of God is conspicuous in everything, even in a worm that crawls on earth. Nothingness, on the other hand, appears everywhere, even in the most vast and most sublime genius. Whatever is not God, can have but a stinted perfection; and what has but a stinted perfection, always remains imperfect on the side where the boundary is sensible, and denotes that it might be improved. If the creature wanted nothing, it would be the Creator Himself; for it would have the fulness of perfection, which is the Deity itself. Since it cannot be infinite, it must be limited in perfection, that is, it must be imperfect on one side or other. It may have more or less imperfection, but still it must be imperfect. We must ever be able to point out the very place where it is defective, and to say, upon a critical examination, "This is what it might have had, what it has not."

      SECTION LXXXIX. The Defects of the Universe compared with those of a Picture.

      Do we conclude that a piece of painting is made by chance when we see in it either shades, or even some careless touches? The painter, we say, might have better finished those carnations, those draperies, those prospects. It is true, this picture is not perfect according to the nicest rules of art. But how extravagant would it be to say, "This picture is not absolutely perfect; therefore it is only a collection of colours formed by chance, nor did the hand of any painter meddle with it!" Now, what a man would blush to say of an indifferent and almost artless picture he is not ashamed to affirm of the universe, in which a crowd of incomprehensible wonders, with excellent order and proportion, are conspicuous. Let a man study the world as much as he pleases; let him descend into the minutest details; dissect the vilest of animals; narrowly consider the least grain of corn sown in the ground, and the manner in which it germinates and multiplies; attentively observe with what precautions a rose-bud blows and opens in the sun, and closes again at night; and he will find in all these more design, conduct, and industry than in all the works of art. Nay, what is called the art of men is but a faint imitation of the great art called the laws of Nature, and which the impious did not blush to call blind chance. Is it therefore a wonder that poets animated the whole universe, bestowed wings upon the winds, and arrows on the sun, and described great rivers impetuously running to precipitate themselves into the sea, and trees shooting up to heaven to repel the rays of the sun by their thick shades? These images and figures have also been received in the language of the vulgar, so natural it is for men to be sensible of the wonderful art that fills all nature. Poetry did only ascribe to inanimate creatures the art and design of the Creator, who does everything in them. From the figurative language of the poets those notions passed into the theology of the heathens, whose divines were the poets. They supposed an art, a power, or a wisdom, which they called numen, in creatures the most destitute of understanding. With them great rivers were gods; and springs, naiads. Woods and mountains had their particular deities; flowers had their Flora; and fruits, Pomona. After all, the more a man contemplates Nature, the more he discovers in it an inexhaustible stock of wisdom, which is, as it were, the soul of the universe.

      SECTION XC. We must necessarily conclude that there is a First Being that created the Universe.

      What must we infer from thence? The consequence flows of itself. "If so much wisdom and penetration," says Minutius Felix, "are required to observe the wonderful order and design of the structure of the world, how much more were necessary to form it!" If men so much admire philosophers, because they discover a small part of the wisdom that made all things, they must be stark blind not to admire that wisdom itself.

      SECTION XCI. Reasons why Men do not acknowledge God in the Universe, wherein He shows Himself to them, as in a faithful glass.

      This is the great object of the universe, wherein God, as it were in a glass, shows Himself to mankind. But some (I mean, the philosophers) were bewildered in their own thoughts. Everything with them turned into vanity. By their subtle reasonings some of them overshot and lost a truth which a man finds naturally and simply in himself without the help of philosophy.

      Others, intoxicated by their passions, live in a perpetual avocation of thought. To perceive God in His works a man must, at least, consider them with attention. But passions cast such a mist before the eyes, not only of wild savages, but even of nations that seem to be most civilised and polite, that they do not so much as see the light that lights them. In this respect the Egyptians, Grecians, and Romans were no less blind or less brutish than the rudest and most ignorant Americans. Like these, they lay, as it were, buried within sensible things without going up higher; and they cultivated their wit, only to tickle themselves with softer sensations, without observing from what spring they proceeded. In this manner the generality of men pass away their lives upon earth. Say nothing to them, and they will think on nothing except what flatters either their brutish passions or vanity. Their souls grow so heavy and unwieldy that they cannot raise their thoughts to any incorporeal object. Whatever is not palpable and cannot be seen, tasted, heard, felt, or told, appears chimerical to them. This weakness of the soul, turning into unbelief, appears strength of mind to them; and their vanity glories in opposing what naturally strikes and affects the rest of mankind, just as if a monster prided in not being formed according to the common rules of Nature, or as if one born blind boasted of his unbelief with respect to light and colours, which other men perceive and discern.

      SECTION XCII. A Prayer to God.

      O my God, if so many men do not discover Thee in this great spectacle Thou givest them of all Nature, it is not because Thou art far from any of us. Every one of us feels Thee, as it were, with his hand; but the senses, and the passions they raise, take up all the attention of our minds. Thus, O Lord, Thy light shines in darkness; but darkness is so thick and gloomy that it does not admit the beams of Thy light. Thou appearest everywhere; and everywhere unattentive mortals neglect to perceive Thee. All Nature speaks of Thee and resounds with Thy holy name; but she speaks to deaf men, whose deafness proceeds from the noise and clutter they make to stun themselves. Thou art near and within them; but they are fugitive, and wandering, as it were, out of themselves. They would find Thee, O Sweet Light, O Eternal Beauty, ever old and ever young, O Fountain of Chaste Delights, O Pure and Happy Life of all who live truly, should they look for Thee within themselves. But the impious lose Thee only by losing themselves. Alas! Thy very gifts, which should show them the hand from whence they flow, amuse them to such a degree as to hinder them from perceiving it. They live by Thee, and yet they live without thinking on Thee; or, rather, they die by the Fountain of Life for want of quenching their drought in that vivifying stream; for what greater death can there be than not to know Thee, O Lord? They fall asleep in Thy soft and paternal bosom, and, full of the deceitful dreams by which they are tossed in their sleep, they are insensible of the powerful hand that supports them. If Thou wert a barren, impotent, and inanimate body, like a flower that fades away, a river that runs, a house that decays and falls to ruin, a picture that is but a collection of colours to strike the imagination, or a useless metal that glisters--they would perceive Thee, and fondly ascribe to Thee the power of giving them some pleasure, although in reality pleasure cannot proceed from inanimate beings, which are themselves void and incapable of it, but only from Thee alone, the true spring of all joy. If therefore Thou wert but a lumpish, frail, and inanimate being, a mass without any virtue or power, a shadow of a being, Thy vain fantastic nature would busy their vanity, and be a proper object to entertain their mean and brutish thoughts. But because Thou art too intimately within them, and they never at home, Thou art to them an unknown God; for while they rove and wander abroad, the intimate part of themselves is most remote from their sight. The order and beauty Thou scatterest over the face of Thy creatures are like a glaring light that hides Thee from and dazzles their sore eyes. Thus the very light that should light them strikes them blind; and the rays of the sun themselves hinder them to see it. In fine, because Thou art too elevated and too pure a truth to affect gross senses, men who are become like beasts cannot conceive Thee, though man has daily convincing instances of wisdom and virtue without the testimony of any of his senses; for those virtues have neither sound, colour, odour, taste, figure, nor any sensible quality. Why then, O my God, do men call Thy existence, wisdom, and power more in question than they do those other things most real and manifest, the truth of which they suppose as certain, in all the serious affairs of life, and which nevertheless, as well as Thou, escape our feeble senses? O misery! O dismal night that surrounds the children of Adam! O monstrous stupidity! O confusion of the whole man! Man has eyes only to see shadows, and truth appears a phantom to him. What is nothing, is all; and what is all, is nothing to him. What do I behold in all Nature? God. God everywhere, and still God alone. When I think, O Lord, that all being is in Thee, Thou exhaustest and swallowest up, O Abyss of Truth, all my thoughts. I know not what becomes of me. Whatever is not Thou, disappears; and scarce so much of myself remains wherewithal to find myself again. Who sees Thee not, never saw anything; and who is not sensible of Thee, never was sensible of anything. He is as if he were not. His whole life is but a dream. Arise, O Lord, arise. Let Thy enemies melt like wax and vanish like smoke before Thy face. How unhappy is the impious soul who, far from Thee, is without God, without hope, without eternal comfort! How happy he who searches, sighs, and thirsts after Thee! But fully happy he on whom are reflected the beams of Thy countenance, whose tears Thy hand has wiped off, and whose desires Thy love has already completed. When will that time be, O Lord? O Fair Day, without either cloud or end, of which Thyself shalt be the sun, and wherein Thou shalt run through my soul like a torrent of delight? Upon this pleasing hope my bones shiver, and cry out:--"Who is like Thee, O Lord? My heart melts and my flesh faints, O God of my soul, and my eternal wealth."

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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