THE STUDY OF NATURE
There can be no doubt that everything in the world
is governed by fatality. My own life is a convincing
proof of this doctrine. An English lord, with whom
I was a great favorite, had promised me that I
should have the first living that fell to his gift.
An old incumbent of eighty happened to die, and I
immediately traveled post to London to remind the
earl of his promise. I was honored with an immediate
interview, and was received with the greatest kindness.
I informed his lordship of the death of the rector,
and of the hope I cherished relative to the disposal
of the vacant living. He replied that I really looked
very ill. I answered that, thanks to God, my greatest
affliction was poverty. I am sorry for you, said his
lordship, and he politely dismissed me with a letter
of introduction to a Mr. Sidrac, who dwelt in the
vicinity of Guildhall. I ran as fast as I could to
this gentleman's house, not doubting but that he
would immediately install me in the wished-for living.
I delivered the earl's letter, and Mr. Sidrac, who
had the honor to be my lord's surgeon, asked me to
sit down; and, producing a case of surgical instruments,
began to assure me that he would perform an operation
which he trusted would very soon relieve me.
You must know, that his lordship had understood
that I was suffering from some dreadful complaint,
and that he generously intended to have me cured
at his own expense. The earl had the misfortune
to be as deaf as a post, a fact with which I,
alas! had not been previously acquainted.
During the time which I lost in defending myself
against the attacks of Mr. Sidrac, who insisted
positively upon curing me, whether I would or no,
one out of the fifty candidates who were all on
the lookout, came to town, flew to my lord, begged
the vacant living and obtained it.
I was deeply in love with an interesting girl, a
Miss Fidler, who had promised to marry me upon
condition of my being made rector. My fortunate
rival not only got the living, but also my mistress
into the bargain!
My patron, upon being told of his mistake, promised
to make me ample amends, but alas! he died two days
Mr. Sidrac demonstrated to me that, according to
his organic structure, my good patron could not
have lived one hour longer. He also clearly proved
that the earl's deafness proceeded entirely from
the extreme dryness of the drums of his ears, and
kindly offered, by an application of spirits of
wine, to harden both of my ears to such a degree
that I should, in one month only, become as deaf
as any peer of the realm.
I discovered Mr. Sidrac to be a man of profound
knowledge. He inspired me with a taste for the
study of nature, and I could not but be sensible
of the valuable acquisition I had made in acquiring
the friendship of a man who was capable of relieving
me, should I need his services. Following his advice,
I applied myself closely to the study of nature,
to console myself for the loss of the rectory and
of my enchanting Miss Fidler.
THE STUDY OF NATURE
After making many profound observations upon nature
(having employed in the research, my five senses,
my spectacles, and a very large telescope) I said
one day to Mr. Sidrac, "Unless I am much deceived,
philosophy laughs at us. I cannot discover any trace
of what the world calls nature; on the contrary,
everything seems to me to be the result of art.
By art the planets are made to revolve around the
sun, while the sun revolves on its own axis. I am
convinced that some genius has arranged things in
such a manner, that the square of the revolutions
of the planets is always in proportion to the cubic
root from their distance to their centre, and one
had need be a magician to find out how this is
accomplished. The tides of the sea are the result
of art no less profound and no less difficult to
"All animals, vegetables and minerals are arranged
with due regard to weight and measure, number and
motion. All is performed by springs, levers, pullies,
hydraulic machines, and chemical combinations, from
the insignificant flea to the being called man, from
the grass of the field to the far-spreading oak,
from a grain of sand to a cloud in the firmament
of heaven. Assuredly, everything is governed by art,
and the word nature is but a chimera."
"What you say," answered Mr. Sidrac, "has been said
many years ago, and so much the better, for the
probability is greater that your remark is true.
I am always astonished when I reflect that a grain
of wheat cast into the earth will produce in a short
time above a handful of the same corn. Stop, said I,
foolishly, you forget that wheat must die before it
can spring up again, at least so they say at college.
My friend Sidrac, laughing heartily at this interruption,
replied: That assertion went down very well a few
years ago, when it was first published by an apostle
called Paul; but in our more enlightened age, the
meanest laborer knows that the thing is altogether
too ridiculous even for argument."
"My dear friend," said I, "excuse the absurdity of my
remark, I have hitherto been a theologian, and one
cannot divest one's self in a moment of every silly
Some time after this conversation between the
disconsolate person, whom we shall call Goodman,
and the clever anatomist, Mr. Sidrac, the latter,
one fine morning, observed his friend in St. James's
Park, standing in an attitude of deep thought.
"What is the matter?" said the surgeon. "Is there
"No," replied Goodman, "but I am left without a
patron in the world since the death of my friend,
who had the misfortune to be so deaf. Now supposing
there be only ten thousand clergymen in England,
and granting these ten thousand have each two
patrons, the odds against my obtaining a bishopric
are twenty thousand to one; a reflection quite
sufficient to give any man the blue-devils. I
remember, it was once proposed to me, to go out
as cabin-boy to the East Indies. I was told that
I should make my fortune. But as I did not think
I should make a good admiral, whenever I should
arrive at the distinction, I declined; and so,
after turning my attention to every profession
under the sun, I am fixed for life as a poor
clergyman, good for nothing."
"Then be a clergyman no longer!" cried Sidrac, "and
turn philosopher: what is your income?"
"Only thirty guineas a year," replied Goodman;
although at the death of my mother, it will be
increased to fifty."
"Well, my dear Goodman," continued Sidrac, "that
sum is quite sufficient to support you in comfort.
Thirty guineas are six hundred and thirty shillings,
almost two shillings a day. With this fixed income,
a man need do nothing to increase it, but is at
perfect liberty to say all he thinks of the East
India Company, the House of Commons, the king and
all the royal family, of man generally and individually,
and lastly, of God and his attributes; and the
liberty we enjoy of expressing our thoughts upon
these most interesting topics, is certainly very
agreeable and amusing.
"Come and dine at my table every day. That will
save you some little money. We will afterwards
amuse ourselves with conversation, and your
thinking faculty will have the pleasure of
communicating with mine by means of speech,
which is certainly a very wonderful thing, though
its advantages are not duly appreciated by the
greater part of mankind."
DIALOGUE UPON THE SOUL AND OTHER TOPICS
GOODMAN. -- But my dear Sidrac, why do you
always say my thinking faculty and not my soul?
If you used the latter term I should understand
you much better.
SIDRAC. -- And for my part, I freely confess,
I should not understand myself. I feel, I know,
that God has endowed me with the faculties
of thinking and speaking, but I can neither
feel nor know that God has given me a
thing called a soul.
GOODMAN. -- Truly upon reflection, I perceive
that I know as little about the matter as you
do, though I own that I have, all my life, been
bold enough to believe that I knew. I have often
remarked that the eastern nations apply to the
soul the same word they use to express life.
After their example, the Latins understood the
word anima to signify the life of the animal.
The Greeks called the breath the soul. The Romans
translated the word breath by spiritus, and thence
it is that the word spirit or soul is found in
every modern nation. As it happens that no one
has ever seen this spirit or breath, our imagination
has converted it into a being, which it is impossible
to see or touch. The learned tell us, that the soul
inhabits the body without having any place in it,
that it has the power of setting our different
organs in motion without being able to reach and
touch them, indeed, what has not been said upon
the subject? The great Locke knew into what a
chaos these absurdities had plunged the human
understanding. In writing the only reasonable
book upon metaphysics that has yet appeared in
the world, he did not compose a single chapter
on the soul; and if by chance he now and then
makes use of the word, he only introduces it to
stand for intellect or mind.
In fact, every human being, in spite of Bishop
Berkeley, is sensible that he has a mind, and
that this mind or intellect is capable of receiving
ideas; but no one can feel that there is another
being -- a soul, -- within him, which gives him
motion, feeling and thought. It is, in fact,
ridiculous to use words we do not understand, and
to admit the existence of beings of whom we cannot
have the slightest knowledge.
SIDRAC. -- We are then agreed upon a subject which,
for so many centuries, has been a matter of dispute.
GOODMAN. -- And I must observe that I am surprised
we should have agreed upon it so soon.
SIDRAC. Oh! that is not so astonishing. We really
wish to know what is truth. If we were among the
Academies, we should argue like the characters in
Rabelais. If we had lived in those ages of darkness,
the clouds of which so long enveloped Great Britain,
one of us would very likely have burned the other.
We are so fortunate as to be born in an age
comparatively reasonable; we easily discover what
appears to us to be truth, and we are not afraid
to proclaim it.
GOODMAN. -- You are right, but I fear, that, after
all, the truth we have discovered is not worth much.
In mathematics, indeed, we have done wonders; from
the most simple causes we have produced effects that
would have astonished Apollonius or Archimedes: but
what have we proved in metaphysics? Absolutely
nothing but our own ignorance.
SIDRAC. -- And do you call that nothing? You grant
the supreme Being has given you the faculties of
feeling and thinking, he has in the same manner
given your feet the faculty of walking, your hands
their wonderful dexterity, your stomach the capability
of digesting food, and your heart the power of
throwing arterial blood into all parts of your body.
Everything we enjoy is derived from God, and yet we
are totally ignorant of the means by which he governs
and conducts the universe. For my own part, as
Shakespeare says, I thank him for having taught me
that, of the principles of things, I know absolutely
nothing. It has always been a question, in what manner
the soul acted upon the body. Before attempting to
answer this question, I must be convinced that I have
a soul. Either God has given us this wonderful spark
of intellect, or he has gifted us with some principle
that answers equally well. In either case, we are
still the creatures of his divine will and goodness,
and that is all I know about the matter.
GOODMAN. -- But if you do not know, tell me at least
what you are inclined to think upon the subject. You
have opened skulls, and dissected the human fetus.
Have you ever, in these dissections, discovered any
appearance of a soul?
SIDRAC. -- Not the least, and I have not been able
to understand how an immortal and spiritual essence
could dwell for months together in a membrane. It
appears to me difficult to conceive that this pretended
soul existed before the foundation of the body; for
in what could it have been employed during the many
ages previous to its mysterious union with flesh?
Again! how can we imagine a spiritual principle
waiting patiently in idleness during a whole eternity,
in order to animate a mass of matter for a space of
time, which, compared with eternity, is less than a
It is worse still, when I am told that God forms
immortal souls out of nothing, and then cruelly
dooms them to an eternity of flames and torments.
What? burn a spirit, in which there can be nothing
capable of burning; how can he burn the sound of
a voice, or the wind that blows? though both the
sound and wind were material during the short time
of their existence; but a pure spirit -- a thought --
a doubt -- I am lost in the labyrinth; on whichever
side I turn, I find nothing but obscurity and absurdity,
impossibility and contradiction. But I am quite at
ease when I say to myself God is master of all. He
who can cause each star to hold its particular course
through the broad expanse of the firmament, can
easily give to us sentiments and ideas, without the
aid of this atom, called the soul. It is certain that
God has endowed all animals, in a greater or lesser
degree, with thought, memory, and judgment; he has
given them life; it is demonstrated that they have
feeling, since they possess all the organs of feeling;
if then they have all this without a soul, why is
it improbable that we have none? and why do mankind
flatter themselves that they alone are gifted with
a spiritual and immortal principle?
GOODMAN. -- Perhaps this idea arises from their
inordinate vanity. I am persuaded that if the peacock
could speak, he would boast of his soul, and would
affirm that it inhabited his magnificent tail. I am
very much inclined to believe with you, that God has
created us thinking creatures, with the faculties of
eating, drinking, feeling, etc., without telling us
one word about the matter. We are as ignorant as the
peacock I just mentioned, and he who said that we
live and die without knowing how, why, or wherefore,
spoke nothing but the truth.
SIDRAC. -- A celebrated author, whose name I forget,
calls us nothing more than the puppets of Providence,
and this seems to me to be a very good definition.
An infinity of movements are necessary to our existence,
but we did not ourselves invent and produce motion.
There is a Being who has created light, caused it to
move from the sun to our eyes in about seven minutes.
It is only by means of motion that my five senses are
put in action, and it is only by means of my senses
that I have ideas, hence it follows that my ideas are
derived from the great author of motion, and when he
informs me how he communicates these ideas to me, I
will most sincerely thank him.
GOODMAN. -- And so will I. As it is I constantly
thank him for having permitted me, as Epictetus says,
to contemplate for a period of some years this beautiful
and glorious world. It is true that he could have made
me happier by putting me in possession of Miss Fidler
and a good rectory; but still, such as I am, I consider
myself as under a great obligation to God's parental
kindness and care.
SIDRAC. -- You say that it is in the power of God to
give you a good living, and to make you still happier
than you are at present. There are many persons who
would not scruple flatly to contradict this proposition
of yours. Do you forget that you yourself sometimes
complain of fatality? A man, and particularly a priest,
ought never to contradict one day an assertion he has
perhaps made the day before. All is but a succession
of links, and God is wiser than to break the eternal
chain of events, even for the sake of my dear friend
GOODMAN. -- I did not foresee this argument when I
was speaking of fatality; but to come at once to the
point, if it be so, God is as much a slave as myself.
SIDRAC. -- He is the slave of his will, of his wisdom,
and of the laws which he has himself instituted; and
it is impossible that he can infringe upon any of them;
because it is impossible that he can become either
weak or inconsistent.
GOODMAN. -- But, my friend, what you say would tend
to make us irreligious, for, if God cannot change any
of the affairs of the world, what is the use of teasing
him with prayers, or of singing hymns to his praise?
SIDRAC. -- Well! who bids you worship or pray to God?
We praise a man because we think him vain; we entreat
of him when we think him weak and likely to change his
purpose on account of our petitions. Let us do our
duty to God, by being just and true to each other. In
that consists our real prayers, and our most heartfelt