VOLNEY'S ANSWER TO DR. PRIESTLY.*

Constantin François de Chasseboeuf Volney

 

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* In 1797, Dr. Priestly published a pamphlet, entitled, "Observation on the increase of infidelity, with animadversions upon the writings of several modern unbelievers, and especially the Ruins of Mr. Volney." The motto to this tract was:
"Minds of little penetration rest naturally on the surface of things. They do not like to pierce deep into them, for fear of labor and trouble; sometimes still more for fear of truth."
This Letter is an answer from Volney, taken from the Anti-Jacobin Review of March and April, 1799.
SIR.--I received in due time your pamphlet on the increase of infidelity, together with the note without date which accompanied it.* My answer has been delayed by the incidents of business, and even by ill health, which you will surely excuse: this delay has, besides, no inconvenience in it. The question between us is not of a very urgent nature: the world would not go on less well with or without my answer as with or without your book. I might, indeed, have dispensed with returning you any answer at all; and I should have been warranted in so doing, by the manner in which you have stated the debate, and by the opinion pretty generally received that, on certain occasions, and with certain persons, the most noble reply is silence. You seem to have been aware of this yourself, considering the extreme precautions you have taken to deprive me of this resource; but as according to our French customs, any answer is an act of civility, I am not willing to concede the advantage of politeness--besides, although silence is sometimes very significant, its eloquence is not understood by every one, and the public which has not leisure to analyze disputes (often of little interest) has a reasonable right to require at least some preliminary explanations; reserving to itself, should the discussion degenerate into the recriminative clamors of an irritated self-love, to allow the right of silence to him in whom it becomes the virtue of moderation.


* Dr. Priestly sent his pamphlet to Volney, desiring his answer to the strictures on his opinions in his Ruins of Empires.


I have read, therefore, your animadversions on my Ruins, which you are pleased to class among the writings of modern unbelievers, and since you absolutely insist on my expressing my opinion before the public, I shall now fulfill this rather disagreeable task with all possible brevity, for the sake of economizing the time of our readers. In the first place, sir, it appears evidently, from your pamphlet, that your design is less to attack my book than my personal and moral character; and in order that the public may pronounce with accuracy on this point, I submit several passages fitted to throw light on the subject.


You say, in the preface of your discourses, p. 12, "There are, however, unbelievers more ignorant than Mr. Paine, Mr. Volney, Lequino, and others in France say," &c.


Also in the preface of your present observations, p. 20. "I can truly say that in the writings of Hume, Mr. Gibbon, Voltaire, Mr. Volney--there is nothing of solid argument: all abound in gross mistakes and misrepresentations." Idem, p. 38--"Whereas had he (Mr. Volney) given attention to the history of the times in which Christianity was promulgated . . . he could have no more doubt . . . &c., it is as much in vain to argue with such a person as this, as with a Chinese or even a Hottentot."


Idem, p. 119--"Mr. Volney, if we may judge from his numerous quotations of ancient writers in all the learned languages, oriental as well as occidental, must be acquainted with all; for he makes no mention of any translation, and yet if we judge from this specimen of his knowledge of them, he cannot have the smallest tincture of that of the Hebrew or even of the Greek."


And, at last, after having published and posted me in your very title page, as an unbeliever and an infidel; after having pointed me out in your motto as one of those superficial spirits who know not how to find out, and are unwilling to encounter, truth; you add, p. 124, immediately after an article in which you speak of me under all these denominations—


"The progress of infidelity, in the present age, is attended with a circumstance which did not so frequently accompany it in any former period, at least, in England, which is, that unbelievers in revelation generally proceed to the disbelief of the being and providence of God so as to become properly Atheists." So that, according to you, I am a Chinese, a Hottentot, an unbeliever, an Atheist, an ignoramus, a man of no sincerity; whose writings are full of nothing but gross mistakes and misrepresentations. Now I ask you, sir, What has all this to do with the main question? What has my book in common with my person? And how can you hold any converse with a man of such bad connections? In the second place, your invitation, or rather, your summons to me, to point out the mistakes which I think you have made with respect to my opinions, suggest to me several observations.


First. You suppose that the public attaches a high importance to your mistakes and to my opinions: but I cannot act upon a supposition. Am I not an unbeliever?


Secondly. You say, p. 18, that the public will expect it from me: Where are the powers by which you make the public speak and act? Is this also a revelation?


Thirdly. You require me to point out your mistakes. I do not know that I am under any such obligation: I have not reproached you with them; it is not, indeed, very correct to ascribe to me, by selection or indiscriminately, as you have done, all the opinions scattered through my book, since, having introduced many different persons, I was under the necessity of making them deliver different sentiments, according to their different characters. The part which belongs to me is that of a traveler, resting upon the ruins and meditating on the causes of the misfortunes of the human race. To be consistent with yourself you ought to have assigned to me that of the Hottentot or Samoyde savage, who argues with the Doctors, chap. xxiii, and I should have accepted it; you have preferred that of the erudite historian, chap. xxii, nor do I look upon this as a mistake; I discover on the contrary, an insidious design to engage me in a duel of self-love before the public, wherein you would excite the exclusive interest of the spectators by supporting the cause which they approve; while the task which you would impose on me, would only, in the event of success, be attended with sentiments of disapprobation. Such is your artful purpose, that, in attacking me as doubting the existence of Jesus, you might secure to yourself, by surprise, the favor of every Christian sect, although your own incredulity in his divine nature is not less subversive of Christianity than the profane opinion, which does not find in history the proof required by the English law to establish a fact: to say nothing of the extraordinary kind of pride assumed in the silent, but palpable, comparison of yourself to Paul and to Christ, by likening your labors to theirs as tending to the same object, p. 10, preface. Nevertheless, as the first impression of an attack always confers an advantage, you have some ground for expecting you may obtain the apostolic crown; unfortunately for your purpose I entertain no disposition to that of martyrdom: and however glorious it might be to me to fall under the arm of him who has overcome Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire and even Frederick II., I find myself under the necessity of declining your theological challenge, for a number of substantial reasons.


1. Because, to religious quarrels there is no end, since the prejudices of infancy and education almost unavoidably exclude impartial reasoning, and besides, the vanity of the champions becomes committed by the very publicity of the contest, never to give up a first assertion, whence result a spirit of sectarism and faction.


2. Because no one has a right to ask of me an account of my religious opinions. Every inquisition of this kind is a pretension to sovereignty, a first step towards persecution; and the tolerant spirit of this country, which you invoke, has much less in view to engage men to speak, than to invite them to be silent.


3. Because, supposing I do hold the opinions you attribute to me, I wish not to engage my vanity so as never to retract, nor to deprive myself of the resource of a conversion on some future day after more ample information.


4. And because, reverend sir, if, in the support of your own thesis, you should happen to be discomfited before the Christian audience, it would be a dreadful scandal; and I will not be a cause for scandal, even for the sake of good.


5. Because in this metaphysical contest our arms are too unequal; you speaking in your mother tongue, which I scarcely lisp, might bring forth huge volumes, while I could hardly oppose pages; and the public, who would read neither production, might take the weight of the books for that of reasoning.


6. And because, being endowed with the gift of faith in a pretty sufficient quantity, you might swallow in a quarter of an hour more articles than my logic would digest in a week.


7. Because again, if you were to oblige me to attend your sermons, as you have compelled me to read your pamphlet, the congregation would never believe that a man powdered and adorned like any worldling, could be in the right against a man dressed out in a large hat, with straight hair,* and a mortified countenance, although the gospel, speaking of the Pharisees of other times, who were unpowdered, says that when one fasts he must anoint his head and wash his face.**


* Dr. Priestly has discarded his wig since he went to America, and wears his own hair. Editor A. J. Reveiw.
** St. Matthew, Chapter VI. verses 16 and 17.


8. Because, finally, a dispute to one having nothing else to do would be a gratification, while to me, who can employ my time better, it would be an absolute loss.


I shall not then, reverend sir, make you my confessor in matters of religion, but I will disclose to you my opinion, as a man of letters, on the composition of your book. Having in former days, read many works of theology, I was curious to learn whether by any chemical process you had discovered real beings in that world of invisibles. Unfortunately, I am obliged to declare to the public, which, according to your expression, p. 19, "hopes to be instructed, to be led into truth, and not into error by me," that I have not found in your book a single new argument, but the mere repetition of what is told over and over in thousands of volumes, the whole fruit of which has been to procure for their authors a cursory mention in the dictionary of heresies. You everywhere lay down that as proved which remains to be proved; with this peculiarity, that, as Gibbon says, firing away your double battery against those who believe too much, and those who believe too little, you hold out your own peculiar sensations, as to the precise criterion of truth; so that we must all be just of your size in order to pass the gate of that New Jerusalem which you are building. After this, your reputation as a divine might have become problematical with me; but recollecting the principle of the association of ideas so well developed by Locke, whom you hold in estimation, and whom, for that reason I am happy to cite to you, although to him I owe that pernicious use of my understanding which makes me disbelieve what I do not comprehend--I perceive why the public having originally attached the idea of talents to the name of Mr. Priestly, doctor in chemistry, continued by habit to associate it with the name of Mr. Priestly, doctor in divinity; which, however, is not the same thing: an association of ideas the more vicious as it is liable to be moved inversely.* Happily you have yourself raised a bar of separation between your admirers, by advising us in the first page of your preface, that your present book is especially destined for believers. To cooperate, however, with you, sir, in this judicious design, I must observe that it is necessary to retrench two passages, seeing they afford the greatest support to the arguments of unbelievers.


* Mr. Blair, doctor of divinity, and Mr. Black, doctor in chemistry, met at the coffee house in Edinburg: a new theological pamphlet written by doctor Priestly was thrown upon the table, "Really," said Dr. Blair, "this man had better confine himself to chemistry, for he is absolutely ignorant in theology:"--"I beg your pardon," answered Dr. Black, "he is in the right, he is a minister of the gospel, he ought to adhere to his profession, for in truth he knows nothing of chemistry."


You say, p. 15, "What is manifestly contrary to natural reason cannot be received by it;"--and p. 62, "With respect to intellect, men and brute animals are born in the same state, having the same external senses, which are the only inlets to all ideas, and consequently the source of all the knowledge and of all the mental habits they ever acquire."


Now if you admit, with Locke, and with us infidels, that every one has the right of rejecting whatever is contrary to his natural reason, and that all our ideas and all our knowledge are acquired only by the inlets of our external senses; What becomes of the system of revelation, and of that order of things in times past, which is so contradictory to that of the time present? unless we consider it as a dream of the human brain during the state of superstitious ignorance.


With these two single phrases, I could overturn the whole edifice of your faith. Dread not, however, sir, in me such overflowing zeal. For the same reason that I have not the frenzy of martyrdom, I have not that of making proselytes. It becomes those ardent, or rather acrimonious tempers, who mistake the violence of their sentiments for the enthusiasm of truth; the ambition of noise and rumor, for the love of glory; and for the love of their neighbor, the detestation of his opinions, and the secret desire of dominion.


As for me, who have not received from nature the turbulent qualities of an apostle, and never sustained in Europe the character of a dissenter, I am come to America neither to agitate the conscience of men, nor to form a sect, nor to establish a colony, in which, under the pretext of religion, I might erect a little empire to myself. I have never been seen evangelizing my ideas, either in temples or in public meetings. I have never likewise practiced that quackery of beneficence, by which a certain divine, imposing a tax upon the generosity of the public, procures for himself the honors of a more numerous audience, and the merit of distributing at his pleasure a bounty which costs him nothing, and for which he receives grateful thanks dexterously stolen from the original donors.
Either in the capacity of a stranger, or in that of a citizen, a sincere friend to peace, I carry into society neither the spirit of dissension, nor the desire of commotion; and because I respect in every one what I wish him to respect in me, the name of liberty is in my mind nothing else but the synonym of justice.


As a man, whether from moderation or indolence, a spectator of the world rather than an actor in it, I am every day less tempted to take on me the management of the minds or bodies of men: it is sufficient for an individual to govern his own passions and caprices.
If by one of these caprices, I am induced to think it may be useful, sometimes, to publish my reflections, I do it without obstinacy or pretension to that implicit faith, the ridicule of which you desire to impart to me, p. 123. My whole book of the Ruins which you treat so ungratefully, since you thought it amusing, p. 122, evidently bears this character. By means of the contrasted opinions I have scattered through it, it breathes that spirit of doubt and uncertainty which appears to me the best suited to the weakness of the human mind, and the most adapted to its improvement, inasmuch as it always leaves a door open to new truths; while the spirit of dogmatism and immovable belief, limiting our progress to a first received opinion, binds us at hazard, and without resource, to the yoke of error or falsehood, and occasions the most serious mischiefs to society; since by combining with the passions, it engenders fanaticism, which, sometimes misled and sometimes misleading, though always intolerant and despotic, attacks whatever is not of its own nature; drawing upon itself persecution when it is weak, and practicing persecution when it is powerful; establishing a religion of terror, which annihilates the faculties, and vitiates the conscience: so that, whether under a political or a religious aspect, the spirit of doubt is friendly to all ideas of liberty, truth, or genius, while a spirit of confidence is connected with the ideas of tyranny, servility, and ignorance.


If, as is the fact, our own experience and that of others daily teaches us that what at one time appeared true, afterwards appeared demonstrably false, how can we connect with our judgments that blind and presumptuous confidence which pursues those of others with so much hatred?


No doubt it is reasonable, and even honest, to act according to our present feelings and conviction: but if these feelings and their causes do vary by the very nature of things, how dare we impose upon ourselves or others an invariable conviction? How, above all, dare we require this conviction in cases where there is really no sensation, as happens in purely speculative questions, in which no palpable fact can be presented?


Therefore, when opening the book of nature, (a more authentic one and more easy to be read than leaves of paper blackened over with Greek or Hebrew,) and when I reflected that the slightest change in the material world has not been in times past, nor is at present effected by the difference of so many religions and sects which have appeared and still exist on the globe, and that the course of the seasons, the path of the sun, the return of rain and drought, are the same for the inhabitants of each country, whether Christians, Mussulmans, Idolaters, Catholics, Protestants, etc., I am induced to believe that the universe is governed by laws of wisdom and justice, very different from those which human ignorance and intolerance would enact.


And as in living with men of very opposite religious persuasions, I have had occasion to remark that their manners were, nevertheless, very analogous; that is to say, among the different Christian sects, among the Mahometans, and even among those people who were of no sect, I have found men who practise all the virtues, public and private, and that too without affectation; while others, who were incessantly declaiming of God and religion, abandoned themselves to every vicious habit which their belief condemned, I thereby became convinced that Ethics, the doctrines of morality, are the only essential, as they are only demonstrable, part of religion. And as, by your own avowal, the only end of religion is to render men better, in order to add to their happiness, p. 62, I have concluded that there are but two great systems of religion in the world, that of good sense and beneficence, and that of malice and hypocrisy.
In closing this letter, I find myself embarrassed by the nature of the sentiment which I ought to express to you, for in declaring as you have done, p. 123, that you do not care for the contempt of such as me* (ignorant as you were of my opinion), you tell me plainly that you do not care for their esteem. I leave, therefore, to your discernment and taste to determine the sentiment most congenial to my situation and your desert.


* "And what does it do for me here, except, perhaps, expose me to the contempt of such men as Mr. Volney, which, however, I feel myself pretty well able to bear?" p. 124. This language is the more surprising, as Dr. Priestly never received anything from me but civilities. In the year 1791 I sent him a dissertation of mine on the Chronology of the Ancients, in consequence of some charts which he had himself published. His only answer was to abuse me in a pamphlet in 1792. After this first abuse, on meeting me here last winter, he procured me an invitation to dine with his friend Mr. Russell, at whose house he lodged; after having shown me polite attention at that dinner, he abuses me in his new pamphlet. After this second abuse he meets me in Spruce Street, and takes me by the hand as a friend, and speaks of me in a large company under that denomination. Now I ask the public, what kind of a man is Dr. Priestly?


C. F. VOLNEY.
Philadelphia, March 10, 1797.


P. S. I do not accompany this public letter with a private note to Dr. Priestly, because communications of that nature carry an appearance of bravado, which, even in exercising the right of a necessary defense, appear to me incompatible with decency and politeness.