The Encyclopedia 1765

Freedom of Thought

Source: L’Encyclopédie, Tome neuvième. Reprod. de l’édition. de, Neufchastel : chez Samuel Faulche: chez Samuel Faulche, [1765];
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

FREEDOM OF THOUGHT: (Moral) This term, freedom of thought, has two meanings, one general and the other limited. In the first it signifies that generous strength of spirit that binds our beliefs solely to truth. In the second it expresses the only effect that, according to strong spirits we can expect from free and exact examination, I mean unbelief. As much as the one is praiseworthy and is deserving of applause, the other is worthy of being combated. True freedom of thought maintains the spirit on the alert against prejudices and precipitation. Guided by that wise Minerva it only gives the dogmas proposed to it a degree of adherence proportional to their degree of certainty. It firmly believes those that are evident and it classifies as probabilities those that aren’t. There are some about which it holds its belief in a state of equilibrium, but if the marvelous is added to them it believes in them less; it begins to have its doubts and distrusts the charms of the illusion. In a word, it only surrenders to the marvelous after fully protecting itself against the rapid slope that that leads us to it. Above all, it gathers all its strength against the prejudices concerning religion that our childhood education leads us to, because these are the ones we undo with the most difficulty. A trace of them always remains, even after we have distanced ourselves from them. Worn out by being left to our own devices, an influence stronger than ourselves compels us return to them. We change fashion and language; there are a thousand things about which we unknowingly grow accustomed to thinking about differently than we did in our childhood. Our reason willingly takes on these new forms. But as far as it is concerned the ideas that it has formed about religion are respectable. It rarely dares to examine them, and the impression that they have made on the man when still a child ordinarily only die along with him. There is nothing in this to be surprised about; the importance of the matter, together with the example of our parents – who we see truly persuaded about this – are more than sufficient reasons to engrave them in our hearts in such a way that it is difficult to erase them. The first traits that their hands imprint on our souls always leave profound and durable impressions. Such is our superstition that we think we honor God by the hindrances we place before our reason. We are afraid to reveal ourselves to ourselves, to catch ourselves in an error, as if the truth should be afraid to appear in broad daylight.

I am far from concluding that as a result of this we should decide the questions that are concerned with faith alone in the tribunal of proud reason. God has not abandoned to our discussions mysteries that, if subjected to speculation, would appear to be absurdities. He has placed insurmountable barriers to our efforts in the order of revelation. He has marked a point where evidence ceases to shine for us, and this point is reason’s term. But where it ends faith begins, which has the right to demand perfect assent by the spirit to those things it doesn’t understand. But this submission of blind reason to faith does not, for all that, shake the foundations or overturn the limits of knowledge. And then? If this doesn’t take occur in maters of religion – this reason, which some people so loudly decry – we would have no right to ridicule the ceremonies, the opinions, and the extravagant ceremonies we note in all religions except the true one. Who doesn’t see that this would mean opening a vast field to the most extreme fanaticism and the most foolish superstitions? With such principles there is nothing we don’t believe in, and the most monstrous opinions, the shame of humanity, would be adopted. Is not religion, which is their honor, and which distinguishes us from beasts, is it not the thing in which men seem the least reasonable? We are strangely made: we are unable to keep ourselves on the middle way. If we aren’t superstitious we are impious. It appears we can’t be docile in reason and faithful in philosophy. I won’t decide here which of the two is more unreasonable and more harmful to religion, superstition or unbelief. Whatever the case, the limits placed on the one and the other suffered less from the daring of the sprit than from the corruption of the heart. Superstition has become impiety and impiety itself has become superstitious. Yes, in all religions of the world freedom of thought, which is insulting to good believers, as well as weak souls, superstitious spirits, and servile intelligences, is sometimes more credulous and more superstitious than is thought. What use do I see reason being put to in those men who believe on authority that we shouldn’t believe based on authority? What are most of those children who glory in not having a religion? To hear them speak, they are the only sages, the only philosophers worthy of the name. They alone possess the art of examining the truth; they alone are capable of maintaining their reason in perfect equilibrium, which can only be destroyed under the weight of proof. All other men, lazy spirits, servile and cowardly hearts, crawl under the yoke of authority and allow themselves to be dragged along without reticence by received opinion. But how many in their society do we not see who allow themselves to be subjugated by a cleverer child. Let one of those happy geniuses be found among them whose lively and original wit is capable of setting the tone; let that enlightened wit give itself over to unbelief because it was the dupe of a corrupted heart and this strong, vigorous and dominant imagination will exercise an even more despotic power over their sentiments, and a secret penchant towards freedom will loan a new strength to his victorious reasons. It will make him pass his enthusiasms on to young imaginations, will weaken them, will bend them to his will, will subjugate them, will overturn them.

The treatise on freedom of thought by Collins passes among the unbelievers as the masterpiece of human reason, and the young unbelievers hide themselves behind this redoubtable volume as if it were under Minerva’s aegis. In this book all that is good in the words freedom of thought is abused in order as to reduce it to irreligion, as if any free search for truth must necessarily lead to this. This means supposing that which must be proved, i.e., that distancing oneself from generally received opinions is a distinctive characteristic of a reason enslaved to evidence alone. Laziness and blind respect for authority are not the sole hindrances to the human spirit. Corruption of the heart, vainglory, the ambition to build oneself up as the leader of a party only too often exercise a tyrannical power over our souls, which they violently turn away from pure love for the truth.

It is true that unbelievers are and can’t help but be imposing, given the list of great men among the ancients who according to them have distinguished themselves by freedom of thought: Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Petronius, Cornelius Tacitus. What names for he who respects talent and virtue! But is this logic the right one to get us to think freely? In order to show that these illustrious ancients thought freely it suffices to cite a few passages in their writings where they rise above vulgar opinion, above the gods of their countries. Doesn’t this suppose that the freedom of thought is the prerogative of unbelievers, and consequently supposes what must be proved. We don’t say that in order to persuade oneself that these great men of antiquity were entire free in their researches one must have penetrated the secret movements of their hearts, about which their works cannot possibly give us sufficient knowledge, that if the unbelievers are capable of this incomprehensible force of penetration they are quite clever. But if they aren’t it is clear that by a coarse sophism, which supposes as obvious what is in question, they want us to commit to respect as excellent models so-called sages whose interior is as unknown to them as it is to the rest of men. This way of reasoning would put on trial all the honest men who have written for or against any system at all, and would accuse of hypocrisy, in Paris, in Rome, in Constantinople, in all places on earth and at all times, those who have been the honor of nations in the past and the present. But what angers us is that an author doesn’t content himself with giving us as models of freedom of thought some of the most famous sages of paganism, but that he also places before our eyes inspired writers, and that he imagines he proves that they thought freely because they rejected the dominant religion. The prophets, he says, condemned the sacrifices offered by the people of Israel, thus the prophets were the patrons of freedom of thought. Could it be possible that he who writes this was so distinguished in unbelief or ignorance as to believe that these holy men wanted to turn the people of Israel from the levitical cult? Is it not more reasonable to interpret their sentiments by their conduct and to explain the irregularity of some of their expressions either by the vehemence of oriental languages – which don’t always submit to the precision of ideas – or by a violent feeling of indignation inspired in holy men by the abuses of the precepts of a holy religion committed by corrupted peoples? Is there no difference between the man inspired by his God and the man who examines, discusses, and reflects in tranquility and with a cool head?

We can’t deny that there were and are among the unbelievers men of the first merit; that their works show intelligence, judgment, knowledge in a hundred places; that they haven’t served religion by decrying true abuses; that they haven’t forced our theologians to become more learned and circumspect, and that they haven’t infinitely contributed in establishing the sacred spirits of peace and tolerance among men. But it must also be agreed that there are many about whom we can ask, along with Swift: “Who would have suspected their existence if religion, that inexhaustible subject, hadn’t abundantly provided them with wit and syllogisms? What other subject enclosed within the limits of nature and art would have been capable of procuring for them the name of profound authors and having them read? If a hundred pens of this strength had been employed for the defense of Christianity they would have been delivered to eternal oblivion. Who would have ever thought to read their works if their defects hadn’t been hidden and buried beneath a strong tincture of irreligion?” Impiety is a great resource for many men. They find in it the talents that nature has refused them. The singularity of the sentiments they affect is a mark less of their superior wit than of a violent desire to be seen. Would their vanity be satisfied if they were the simple approvers of the best demonstrated opinions? Would they content themselves of the subaltern honor of supporting the proofs, or strengthening them with some new reasons? No. The first places are taken, and the second can’t satisfy their ambition. Like Caesar they prefer to be the first in a village than the second in Rome; they crave the honor of being the leaders of a party by reviving old errors, or in searching for new quibbles in an imagination that pride renders vivid and fertile.