« PoprzedniaDalej »
of his worship, in Palestine: for which purpose he gave a particular law, as well as the country of the Canaanites, to the Israelites. If we consider his laws, as means of preserving monotheism, and the purity of worship, in opposition to polytheism and superstition, we shall find that no means could be worse proportioned to this end. If we consider the manner in which this people was conducted, by God himself, out of Egypt into the promised land; how they acquired the possession of it, by his immediate assistance, and by the execution of his crders, signified to their leaders; we shall find, that nothing can be conceived more unworthy of an all-perfect Being. In order to preserve the purity of his worship, he prescribes to them a multitude of rites and ceremonies, founded in the superstitions of Egypt, from which they were to be weaned, or in some analogy to them. He succeeded accordingly. They were never weaned entirely from all these superstitions, and the great merit of the law of Moses was teaching the people to adore one God, as much as the idolatrous nations adored several. This may be called sanctifying pagan rites and ceremonies, in theological language; but it is profaning the pure worship of God, in the language of common sense. In order to make good his grant to Abraham of the land of Canaan, he orders the posterity of this patriarch to conquier it, and to exterminate the inhabitants. Just so the leaders of Huns, of Goths, and Vandals, might, and did make good their promises with the people who followed them. Just so the Spaniards made good the decree of Alexander the Sixth, when they conquered America. Pizarro was not more cruel than Joshua, nor the Franciscan monk, who accompanied him in his expedition against Atahualpa, so cruel as Samuel, who spoke in the name of the Lord. The Franciscan monk excited the soldiers to kill the king of Peru in the heat of battle. The Jewish priest hewed the king of the Amalekites “to pieces before the Lord,” in cool blood, and Saul was deposed for the clemency he had showed, though he too had exercised cruelty enough to sate any human ferocity.
I am not ignorant of the arbitrary assumptions, and silly evasions, which are employed to soften and excuse such acts of cruelty, by ancient fathers, and modern commentators. You may remember, that we read together, not long ago, the answer which Cyril of Alexandria wrote to the emperor Julian, after the death of this emperor. When we laid aside the Billingsgate, and the long recrirninations, by which if he could not defend Moses, he tried to revenge himself on Plato, we found little, or nothing, in it that deserved attention, except for its absurdity; for absurdity deserves some attention to warn us against it. The men who justify such cruelties, as I have mentioned, and many others, which might be cited from the Old Testament, upon any hypothesis whatever, must have very ill hearts as well as heads; and he, who imputes them to the Supreme Being, is worse than an atheist, though he pass for a saint.
It is very unnecessary, in writing to you, that I should dwell upon the stale, theological artifices that are employed to get over such objections as have been raised against the books of Moses, and the other books of the Old Testament. The most absurd things they contain, are called, sometimes, types and figures, though they have no more relation to the things said to be typified and signified by them, than to any thing that passes now in France. Others of the same kind are called allegories, and are explained, not by the book wherein they are found, but by some fanciful commentary on them. Sometimes the order of allegory is inverted, and things, plain in themselves, are assumed to be allegories, in order to establish, upon them, such doctrines as suit theological hypotheses; many examples of which may be found in the writings of St. Paul. But the great expedient they employ after him likewise, is that of mystery; when things, that stand in flat contradiction to the divine attributes, and that can be neither disguised by allegory, nor softened by analogy, are urged against them. When a theist sees nothing repugnant to the wisdom and power, or any other attributes of a supreme, all-perfect being, in the works of God, and therefore thinks himself justified in rejecting the impiety of those who would impose on him, as the word of God, a book which contains scarce any thing that is not so, the divine has recourse to exclamation. Restrain your profane temerity, he cries. The wisdom of God is not like the wisdom of man, nor the justice of God like the justice of man; and who art thou, O man! who presumest to sound the depths of either? There is something so impudent, as well as absurd in this proceeding, that common as it is, one can see no example of it without surprise; for what can any man mean, who insists that I should receive these books, as the word of God, on account of the evident marks of a divine original, which he pretends to show me in them; and then stops me in this examination, by assuming the very thing that is in question? There are many appearances, no doubt, in the physical and moral systems which may pass for mysteries, because we cannot fully comprehend them; but there is nothing in either of these, repugnant to any excellency which we ought to attribute to the Supreme Being. We confess our ignorance, but we do not therefore call in question the divine attributes, nor disbelieve these systems to be his work, nor the law of nature to be his law. Had we the same certainty that the Jewish Scriptures were his word, we might reason in the same manner about them. But we cannot believe them to be his word, though we know that the physical and moral systems are his work, whilst we find in them such repugnances to the nature of an all-perfect being; not mysteries, but absurdities; not things incomprehensible, but things that imply, manifestly, contradiction with his nature. They imply it so strongly, that if we believe in Moses and his God, we cannot believe in that God, whom our reason shows us; nay, we must believe against knowledge, and oppose the authority of Jewish traditions to demonstration.
Here will I conclude, having said enough, I think, to show that the beginning of the world is sufficiently proved, by the universality of tradition; that the testimony of Moses cannot be reputed an historical testimony, if we give no more credit to him than we should give to any other historian; and that we cannot admit his testimony, for divine, without absurdity and blasphemy.
LETTERS OR ESSAYS
ALEXANDER POPE, ESQ.
DEAR SIR:—Since you have begun, at my request, the work which I have wished long that you would undertake, it is but reasonable that I submit to the task you impose upon me. Mere compliance with any thing you desire, is a pleasure to me. On the present occasion, however, this compliance is a little interested; and that I may not assume more merit with you than I really have, I will own that in performing this act of friendship, for such you are willing to esteem it, the purity of my motive is corrupted by some regard to my private utility. In short, I suspect you to be guilty of a very friendly fraud, and to mean my service, whilst you seem to mean your own.
In leading me to discourse, as you have done often, and in pressing me to write as you do now, on certain subjects, you may propose to draw me back to those trains of thought, which are, above all others, worthy to employ the human mind, and I thank you for it. They have been often interrupted by the business and dissipations of the world, but they were never so more grievously to me, nor less usefully to the public, than since royal seduction prevailed on me to abandon the quiet and leisure of the retreat I had chosen abroad, and to neglect the example of Rutilius, for I might have imitated him in this at least, who fled further from his country when he was invited home.
You have begun your ethic epistles in a masterly manner. You have copied no other writer, nor will you, I think, be copied by any one. It is with genius as it is with beauty; there are a thousand pretty things that charm alike; but superior genius, like
superior beauty, has always something particular, something that belongs to itself alone. It is always distinguishable, not only from those who have no claim to excellence, but even from those who excel, when any such there are.
I am pleased, you may be sure, to find your satire turn in the very beginning of these epistles, against the principal cause, for such you know that I think it, of all the errors, all the contradictions, and all the disputes which have arisen among those who impose themselves on their fellow-creatures for great masters, and almost sole proprietors of a gift of God, which is common to the whole species. This gift is reason, a faculty, or rather an aggregate of faculties, that is bestowed, in different degrees, and not in the highest certainly, on those who make the highest pretensions to it. Let your satire chastise, and if it be possible, humble that pride, which is the fruitful parent of their vain curiosity, and bold presumption; which renders them dogmatical in the midst of ignorance, and often sceptical in the midst of knowledge. The man who is puffed up with this philosophical pride, whether divine, or theist, or atheist, deserves no more to be respected, than one of those trifling creatures, who are conscious of little else than their animality, and who stop as far short of the attainable perfections of their nature, as the other attempts to go beyond them. You will discover as many silly affections, as much foppery and futility, as much inconsistency and low artifice, in one as in the other. I never met the mad-woman at Brentford, decked out in new and old rags, and nice and fantastical in the manner of wearing them, without reflecting on many of the profound scholars, and sublime philosophers of our own, and of former ages.
You may expect some contradiction, and some obloquy on the part of these men, though you will have less to apprehend from their malice and resentment, than a writer in prose on the same subjects would have. You will be safer in the generalities of poetry, and I know your precaution enough to know, that you will screen yourself in them against any direct charge of heterodoxy. But the great clamor of all will be raised when you descend lower, and let your muse loose among the herd of mankind. Then will those powers of dulness, whom you have ridiculed into immortality, be called forth in one united phalanx against you. But why do I talk of what may happen? You have experienced lately something more than I prognosticate. Fools and knaves should be modest at least, they should ask quarter of men of sense and virtue; and so they do till they grow up to a majority; till a similitude of character assures them of the protection of the great. But then vice and folly, such as prevail in our country, corrupt our manners, deform even social life, and