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If there was really such a proportion, or such a conformity, as is assumed, particular men, philosophers here and there, might have held polytheism notwithstanding this, but the general opinion of mankind would have been the orthodox opinion, instead of which we know that polytheism and idolatry prevailed almost every where. Polytheism and idolatry, therefore, seem more conformable to human ideas, abstracted from the first appearances of things, and better proportioned, by an analogy of human conceptions, to the uncultivated reason of mankind, and to understandings not sufficiently informed. Our archbishop supposes it objected to him, that the general consent of mankind in acknowledging one God does not prove that there is one, any more than the general consent of numberless nations in acknowledging several proves that there are several. He answers the objection by saying, that philosophers and wise men, in every nation and in every age, were of a different opinion from the vulgar, so that the heterodox opinion cannot pretend to have general consent on its side, since the opinions of the vulgar, opposed to those of philosophers and wise men, can be received into this reckoning no otherwise than like a multitude of noughts without any figure. This is strange reasoning to fall from the pen of so great a man. It is certain, that the orthodox belief maintained itself in some minds, perhaps in some nations, and pierced through all the darkness of ignorant ages; but yet polytheism, and the consequence of it, idolatry, were avowed and taught by legislators and by philosophers. Neither will it avail any thing to say, that these men had their inward, as well as their outward doctrine, and that they taught, in private, the contrary of what they taught in public. On this very supposition it will still follow, that polytheism and idolatry prevailed more easily, because they were more conformable to the natural conceptions of the human mind, than the belief of one first intelligent Cause, the sole creator, preserver, and governor of all things. It is absurd to say, that the consent of some wise men, and even of some nations, instructed and governed by them, in the acknowledgment of one Supreme Being, is a proof that this idea is innate in all men, or universally proportioned to the conceptions of all men, and to deny that the almost universal consent of mankind, in the acknowledgment of several gods, is a proof of the contrary.
If you are not very well satisfied with these theological reasonings, as I think you are not, you will be no better satisfied with the manner in which our archbishop attempts to prove that the world had a beginning. The question, which is commonly put to those who maintain the eternity of it, would be trifling, as well as trite, if it did not oblige the atheist to give an answer which implies, in his mouth, the greatest absurdity, and makes him pronounce, in effect, his own condemnation. Tillotson takes this advantage, as I have done; but he throws it away, when he has taken it, by applying it against those who may think the world more ancient than the theological era makes it to be, though they do not believe it eternal. He asserts that the most ancient histories were written long after this era, and quotes to prove it, some verses of Lucretius, finely written, but very little to the purpose, because of no authority in this case.
66 Si nulla fuit genitalis origo
Non alias alii quoque res cecinêre poëtæ?" Men have been always fond, not only to carry the originals of their several nations as far back as they could, and to represent them, sometimes, as coeval with the world itself, but to establish their own, or the traditions which had come to them, as the most ancient of all traditions. Thus the Roman poet employed those of Greece to prove that the world had not begun very long before the wars of Thebes and of Troy. The world had a beginning, says the Jew; for there is neither history nor tradition more ancient than Moses; and we know by his writings how, and how long ago, the world was created. If we bring a Chinese into the scene, he will assure us that the world had a beginning; because the cycles, of three-score years each, in the chronological tables of his nation, do not rise any higher than Hoam-Ti, who reigned about four thousand four hundred years before our era, that from him to Xin-num, the successor of Fohi, there are not more than three hundred and eighty years, and that Fohi was the first that civilised mankind. It was he, will the Chinese continue to say, who left us the adorable and hitherto incomprehensible Yekin, in the explication of which our learned men have labored these two thousand six hundred years. It was Fohi and Xin-num who taught men the use of the plough, who invented letters, and to whom all arts and sciences owe their original. Let a learned Mexican come forward next, and he will assure you, not only, that the world began, but that the time when it began is known; for we had but nine kings before Montezuma, will this great chronologer say. Tenuch was the first of them, and the founder of our monarchy; our hieroglyphical annals rise no higher; we know nothing beyond him; this calculation is confirmed by that of our neighbors, whose traditions place the destruction of the last sun, and the beginning of this, but a little before our era. Let a Peruvian follow the Mexican, he will assure us, that the inca Manco-Capac preceded Atahualpa, about four hundred years; that he and his sister, CoyaMama-Oella-Huaco, were sent, at that time, by their father, the sun, to civilise mankind, who could not have been long in being, since they had neither civil polity nor religion, since they knew neither how to build houses, spin wool or cotton to cover their nakedness, nor to till their lands. These are the traditions of the east and of the west. The former make the world more ancient than those of the Jews, as they stand in the Hebrew, at least; the latter place the commencement of it about the beginning of the twelfth century of the Christian era, that is about the time of your king Louis le Gros, and of our first Norman princes. Our learned Europeans may laugh, as much as they please, at these learned Americans: but they must not be offended, if they are laughed at, in their turn, by those who think, that if Cadmus, the cook of a certain king of Sidon, carried the use of letters, and his son, or his grandson, Bacchus, the culture of the vine, to the Greeks three thousand years before Manca-Capac civilised the Peruvians, it may very well be, that the Atlantic, or some other nation still more unknown to us, had made all these improvements, by a long experience, three thousand years before the Greeks, or even their masters, who boasted of a much greater antiquity, the Egyptians.
A crowd of reflections presents itself; but these may serve to show how ridiculous it is, whilst we receive on the faith of universal tradition this fact, “the world had a beginning,” to go about to fix the era of it according to those of any particular nations. The negative argument, we have no memorials beyond such a time," proves nothing but our ignorance; and the positive arguinent, that we have relations of the beginning of arts and sciences in several countries;" proves nothing more than what it is very needless to prove; I mean, that there was a time, when every one of these nations began to be civilised. Neither of these arguments is of weight against the atheist who asserts the eternity of the world. But they give him an advantage, such as it is, which bad arguments give frequently in polemical writings; and having refuted these, he may triumph, as if he had refuted all the rest, which is a practice very common among his adversaries the divines.
If the divine had not more at heart to establish the credit of Jewish traditions than the commencement of the world, he would not proceed as he does. He would not neglect the universal tradition of a naked fact, such as tradition may preserve, to insist on particular traditions of a fact so complicated with circumstances, that no tradition could preserve it. These circumstances might make the fact doubtful; the fact will never make them probable. Even that of the time, when the present system of things began, has been supported weakly, I will not, though, I think, I might say fraudulently, by Jewish rabbins and by Chris
tian doctors, from Julius Africanus, and Eusebius, and George the monk, down to Stillingfleet, whom I mention, particularly, because Tillotson ventures to assert, that he has proved, in his Origines Sacræ, the chronological traditions of the Egyptians, and the Chaldeans, to agree with those of the Bible. If he had proved this, which he has not, most certainly, he would have proved nothing more than what the Mexicans assert, that the traditions of two or three neighboring nations, all derived probably enough from one original, are conformable to one another. But it is, indeed, too bold an imposition to pretend to prove, by descending into particulars of facts and dates, any thing of this kind. Our learned antiquaries have no other materials than a certain number of broken, incoherent, and precarious traditions. These they make to cohere, for the most part, by guess, and then drag them to a seeming conformity with the Mosaical system, which they assume, all along, to be true, whilst they pretend to prove it to be so by collateral evidence. I will only add, to show how impertinent all this admired learning ought to be deemed, that by little differences in the arrangement of the same materials, and by a no greater liberty of guessing, distinct, opposite, and yet equal probabilities may be made to result from them. I affirm this the more confidently, because I tried it once, as you may remember, and we both thought that the trial succeeded very plausibly.
But without insisting any longer on this head; to show how divines weaken the short and plain proof that we have of the beginning of the world, let us grant, for argument's sake, that the most ancient traditions are the Mosaical, and that arts and sciences have not been invented more than four or five thousand years, or more or less as they think fit. Will they prove, even by this concession, that the world has had a beginning? They cannot: for the atheist will object that he may have reason to think the world eternal, without being obliged to think the arts and sciences eternal likewise. He will maintain it to be indifferent, in his hypothesis, when or where they began; since at whatever era the divine places this beginning, an eternity must have preceded this era. The divine, therefore, will be obliged to show that it implies contradiction to assert that the world is froin eternity, and not to assert that arts and sciences are so likewise. He will endeavor this by assuming, as Tillotson does, that arts and sciences are necessary to the well-being of mankind, and even to their being; that necessity, the great mother of industry and of invention, set mankind to work as soon, and as fast, as the species began and multiplied, in some places with more, in others with less, of these, but in all with as much as their real wants required. Since you agree, then, will the divine say to the atheist, that arts and sciences began about the time we have fixed, the world must have begun about the time we have fixed likewise. This reasoning is commonly employed against those atheists who assume that the world is eternal. But without being one of their number, I venture to say that this reasoning is frivolous, and founded on a supposition which the men, who make it, must know to be false. The different eras of arts and sciences, invented in some countries, and carried into others, are so distant, even according to the received chronology, that the men who dispensed with the want of them, during such long intervals, might have dispensed with it longer, and in many cases, always. Are there not nations, at this hour, whose originals are unknown to us, who may be the aborigines of the countries they inhabit, and who are ignorant, not only of all science, but of many arts supposed necessary; not only of letters, for instance, but of those, which serve to defend us against the inclemency of the air and the rigor of the seasons, by making clothes and building houses sufficient for this purpose? These arts must have their place, surely, among those which Tillotson reckons so necessary, or, at least, so useful to mankind, that they could not fail to be invented, nor when they were invented, to be preserved. But his reasoning will not hold here neither; for if these arts were ever known to the people, to whom they are now unknown, they may be totally lost, after having been once found: nay, they may have been found, lost, and found anew, an infinite number of times, in an eternal duration. If these arts were never known to the people to whom they are now unknown, it follows that mankind may dispense with the want of them during many ages, and therefore always. We may easily conceive that Samojedes, Hottentots, and other nations as barbarous and ignorant as these, have always been, and will always remain, in the same state of barbarity and ignorance.
Tillotson was led by his prejudices, and by the examples of men, much inferior to him, in the herd of divines, into the two absurdities I have observed to you already; into that of proving the commencement of the world by the authority of particular traditions, which considered separately amount to no proof at all, instead of resting his proofs solely on the authority of universal tradition: and into that of confounding traditions of opinion with traditions of fact. He insists not only on traditions which concur in affirming that the world began, but on those which enter into a detail of circumstances, concerning the manner in which it began. Nay, more; he joins the existence of God and the commencement of the world together, as if tradition was proper alike to prove both these truths. His proceeding is much the same with that of Maximus of Tyre, whom he cites,