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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24a

The Immortality of the Soul

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The Immortality of the Soul

On another occasion, the date of which was not preserved, the advertised subject was the immortality of the soul, and evoked the following:—

The indisputable fact that in the writings atttributed to Moses the doctrine of a future life for man is consistently ignored, has been more than once dwelt upon here; and it appeared to me to be spoken of as a surprising anomaly for which an explanation could not readily be found, and as evidence of the inferiority of Moses' dispensation, rather than as I am disposed to view it;—as stamping Moses as one of the shrewdest and most clear-sighted observers that ever existed. If an explanation was offered, it escaped my attention, perhaps from its appearing to me altogether inedequate.

Moses, as we were reminded, could not by any possibility have been ignorant of the doctrine of a future state which was propounded by, and perfectly familiar to, the Egyptians; for Moses was learned in all the learning of the Egyptians. The celebrated Bishop Warburton beside others is said to have exhausted the resources of learning in demonstrating the fact, as nearly as it admits of demonstration.

Now I think that the only consistent and reasonable explanation is this. Moses, having numerous opportunities of viewing and considering men and manners in various countries, and being peculiarly observant and reflective, felt that this doctrine of a future state possessed not the smallest power to affect the practical conduct of men—to make them better or to keep them from crime. he saw that men were incapable of being influenced by any other than direct proximate and physical causes; that, though they theoretically held and taught the doctrine of post mortem rewards and punishments, experience proved daily, that if it affected the conduct of any one, it certainly did not that of those who needed control; i.e, criminals; that the only effect produced on the otherwise harmless was to make them superstitious and uncharitable; that mundane punishments page 14 had far more real terrors than any imaginary hell,—and that the immediate urgent temptations of vanity, lust, cupidity, and revenge, entirely eclipsed the attractions of any hypothetical heaven.

Moses plainly perceiving this, wisely substituted temporal and immediate, for distant and fictitious rewards and punishments; and had he only consistently carried out his principle to its legitimate conclusions, he might have had the glory of laying a substantial foundation for a universal morality. Unfortunately however, he failed to perceive also that the visible presence of a magistrate or constable was incalculably more efficacious in preventing crime than the intangible notion of a never present God; that a human executioner was beyond computation more terrible than any pretended avenging angel; and that it was ridiculous to proclaim arbitrary laws as divine, which could be and were always violated more constantly and with greater impunity than those of man. He foiled to see that virtue inevitably reaps its natural reward, and crime its appropriate punishment and degradation. In fact it is only modem aggregated experience that has taught us that no system of morality can be efficacious, that is based upon gratuitous assumptions, instead of experience and statistics. Unhappily, therefore, Moses only perpetuated the superstitious unnatural idea of a supernatural God, and a science of morality was indefinitely postponed. All honour however to Moses, for his one step in the right direction. His successors have neglected and suppressed his truth, and have only adopted his error; namely the subordination of experimental truth, to a prejudice in favor of a hypothetical system. Had he been as we all now ought to be, careful never presumptuously to assert without evidence, what the wisest of even our barbarous ancestors doubted;—had he regarded physical facts and experience, as more reliable data than superstitious traditions and imaginary existences, he would have found unnecessary in morality what Laplace found entirely superfluous in astronomy; and have seen that any true science of morality must be based solely on the nature of man and the physical conditions under which he exists.

The scientific facts,—that every event is the necessary consequence of its antecedents;—that in the universe force is unchangeable in quantity, and like matter can neither be created nor destroyed; but is constantly transferred from one form to another;—that no force of any kind can be exhibited or transmitted, that is not derived;—that moral power is but the page 15 indirect operation of physical force;—and that all attraction and repulsion, whether moral or physical, necessarily act inversely as the square of the distance, whether in time or space;—must, as soon as they are popularly recognised as certain, which is now merely a question of time, cause a complete revolution in moral systems. The silly because contradictory doctrines of original sin, freewill, and life after death, will then be entirely exploded, and moral responsibility will be defined and enforced as amenability to punishment at the hands of nature and society only. The factitious human ideas of blame and sin, those unique sources of hatred and all uncharitableness, will be abolished with the mythical devil and all his works. When imagination is subordinated as is should be to reason—when contradictions are consistently rejected as absurd, and consequently the super-natural is relinquished as un-natural and impossible in nature;— then it will be perceived that man has been blindly inventing instruments of torture for himself, by substituting the visionary for the practical, the distant for the present, the dreams of fancy for the facts of experience. When antiquated ignorance shall have succumbed to progressive science, when this beautiful pregnant world shall engross the admiration and the love which have hitherto been squandered on the barbarous past and an imaginary future, when man shall have learned to perform that duty to himself and to his neighbour, which formerly he literally sacrificed to the phantasms of his terrified imagination, then shall be realised that happiness and virtue which has hitherto been only faintly shadowed forth in incoherent visions; as in the Elysium of the Pagans, the Millenium of the Christians, the Paradise of the Mahometans, and the Utopias of isolated philosophers.

The particular theory which I now propose to notice, is that Christ first brought immortality to light, that man naturally is not immortal, and that but for Christ, death would still be really death.* Now setting aside for a moment the fact that nothing at all has really been brought to light on the subject, (for we are notoriously as much in the dark about it as ever), how could it have first been brought to light by Christ, if the Egyptians, and in fact, according to this theory, "all policied nations," had always been cognisant of it before his time? And if granting for the sake of argument merely that Christ did first introduce it; then the page 16 Egyptians and others actually held and taught it, when there was really nothing of the kind; and it is therefore clear that the most plausible argument for a belief in a future life, is thereby proved conclusively to be fallacious; namely, the general hope, opinion, and consent of men; for if they hoped and believed it, as supposed, when it was really false, and in the face of facts; the general hope, belief, and consent of men cannot constitute a valid argument for it under any circumstances, and for a reasonable ground for this belief dependence must be placed on other arguments.

Some may say that they rely on Scripture to prove that Christ overcame death. But I call the gospels to witness that Christ died! that therefore death overcame him most unequivocally. If it be said that Christ rose from the dead, he at best scarcely retrieved his former relative position; but I maintain that we have not the evidence of a single disinterested or indeed of any witness to the fact; that the accounts of the interested (so-called) witnesses contradict each other flatly in important particulars, and it should be evident from them to an impartial critic, that the disciples' opinion that they saw him afterwards was entirely an afterthought. For example, the two who went to Emmaus with a third person with whom they walked and talked much,—said that they never imagined that he was Jesus until the moment when they lost sight of him, and verification became impossible! They even acknowledge to persuading each other afterwards that it was Jesus.

But the most astounding assertion that Christ thus achieved a similar resurrection for all men, should need no refutation. For not a single man or woman has since that time given the smallest color to it by likewise rising; all lie in their graves as dead, as silent, as motionless and as soulless as they did for centuries before Christ died if he ever lived. Death's universal empire is as incontestible as ever.

* This theory has been advanced and advocated by the celebrated Dr. H. T. Dodwell, Bishop Courtenay, and many others.