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The Ruins of Empire

By C. F. Volney



Q. EXPLAIN the principles of the law of nature with relation to man.

A. They are simple; all of them are comprised in one fundamental and single precept.

Q. What is that precept?

A. It is self-preservation.

Q. Is not happiness also a precept of the law of nature?

A. Yes: but as happiness is an accidental state, resulting only from the development of man's faculties and his social system, it is not the immediate and direct object of nature; it is in some measure, a superfluity annexed to the necessary and fundamental object of preservation.

Q. How does nature order man to preserve himself?

A. By two powerful and involuntary sensations, which it has attached, as two guides, two guardian Geniuses to all his actions: the one a sensation of pain, by which it admonishes him of, and deters him from, everything that tends to destroy him; the other, a sensation of pleasure, by which it attracts and carries him towards everything that tends to his preservation and the development of his existence.

Q. Pleasure, then, is not an evil, a sin, as casuists pretend?

A. No, only inasmuch as it tends to destroy life and health, which, by the avowal of those same casuists, we derive from God himself.

Q. Is pleasure the principal object of our existence, as some philosophers have asserted?

A. No; not more than pain; pleasure is an incitement to live as pain is a repulsion from death.

Q. How do you prove this assertion? {184}

A. By two palpable facts: One, that pleasure, when taken immoderately, leads to destruction; for instance, a man who abuses the pleasure of eating or drinking, attacks his health, and injures his life. The other, that pain sometimes leads to self-preservation; for instance, a man who permits a mortified member to be cut off, suffers pain in order not to perish totally.

Q. But does not even this prove that our sensations can deceive us respecting the end of our preservation?

A. Yes; they can momentarily.

Q. How do our sensations deceive us?

A. In two ways: by ignorance, and by passion.

Q. When do they deceive us by ignorance?

A. When we act without knowing the action and effect of objects on our senses: for example, when a man touches nettles without knowing their stinging quality, or when he swallows opium without knowing its soporiferous effects.

Q. When do they deceive us by passion?

A. When, conscious of the pernicious action of objects, we abandon ourselves, nevertheless, to the impetuosity of our desires and appetites: for example, when a man who knows that wine intoxicates, does nevertheless drink it to excess.

Q. What is the result?

A. That the ignorance in which we are born, and the unbridled appetites to which we abandon ourselves, are contrary to our preservation; that, therefore, the instruction of our minds and the moderation of our passions are two obligations, two laws, which spring directly from the first law of preservation.

Q. But being born ignorant, is not ignorance a law of nature?

A. No more than to remain in the naked and feeble state of infancy. Far from being a law of nature, ignorance is an obstacle to the practice of all its laws. It is the real original sin.

Q. Why, then, have there been moralists who have looked upon it as a virtue and perfection?

A. Because, from a strange or perverted disposition, they confounded the abuse of knowledge with knowledge itself; as if, because men abuse the power of speech, their tongues should be cut out; as if perfection and virtue consisted in the nullity, and not in the proper development of our faculties.

Q. Instruction, then, is indispensable to man's existence?

A. Yes, so indispensable, that without it he is every instant {185} assailed and wounded by all that surrounds him; for if he does not know the effects of fire, he burns himself; those of water he drowns himself; those of opium, he poisons himself; if, in the savage state, he does not know the wiles of animals and the art of seizing game, he perishes through hunger; if in the social state, he does not know the course of the seasons, he can neither cultivate the ground, nor procure nourishment; and so on, of all his actions, respecting all his wants.

Q. But can man individually acquire this knowledge necessary to his existence, and to the development of his faculties?

A. No; not without the assistance of his fellow men, and by living in society.

Q. But is not society to man a state against nature?

A. No: it is on the contrary a necessity, a law that nature imposed on him by the very act of his organization; for, first, nature has so constituted man, that he cannot see his species of another sex without feeling emotions and an attraction, which induce him to live in a family, which is already a state of society; secondly, by endowing him with sensibility, she organized him so that the sensations of others reflect within him, and excite reciprocal sentiments of pleasure and of grief, which are attractions, and indissoluble ties of society; thirdly, and finally, the state of society, founded on the wants of man, is only a further means of fulfilling the law of preservation: and to pretend that this state is out of nature, because it is more perfect, is the same as to say, that a bitter and wild fruit of the forest, is no longer the production of nature, when rendered sweet and delicious by cultivation in our gardens.

Q. Why, then, have philosophers called the savage state the state of perfection?

A. Because, as I have told you, the vulgar have often given the name of philosophers to whimsical geniuses, who, from moroseness, from wounded vanity, or from a disgust to the vices of society, have conceived chimerical ideas of the savage state, in contradiction with their own system of a perfect man.

Q. What is the true meaning of the word philosopher?

A. The word philosopher signifies a lover of wisdom; and as wisdom consists in the practice of the laws of nature, the true philosopher is he who knows those laws, and conforms the whole tenor of his conduct to them. {186}

Q. What is man in the savage state?

A. A brutal, ignorant animal, a wicked and ferocious beast.

Q. Is he happy in that state?

A. No; for he only feels momentary sensations, which are habitually of violent wants which he cannot satisfy, since he is ignorant by nature, and weak by being isolated from his race.

Q. Is he free?

A. No; he is the most abject slave that exists; for his life depends on everything that surrounds him: he is not free to eat when hungry, to rest when tired, to warm himself when cold; he is every instant in danger of perishing; wherefore nature offers but fortuitous examples of such beings; and we see that all the efforts of the human species, since its origin, sorely tends to emerge from that violent state by the pressing necessity of self-preservation.

Q. But does not this necessity of preservation engender in individuals egotism, that is to say self-love ? and is not egotism contrary to the social state?

A. No; for if by egotism you mean a propensity to hurt our neighbor, it is no longer self-love, but the hatred of others. Self-love, taken in its true sense, not only is not contrary to society, but is its firmest support, by the necessity we lie under of not injuring others, lest in return they should injure us.

Thus man's preservation, and the unfolding of his faculties, directed towards this end, teach the true law of nature in the production of the human being; and it is from this essential principle that are derived, are referred, and in its scale are weighed, all ideas of good and evil, of vice and virtue, of just and unjust, of truth or error, of lawful or forbidden, on which is founded the morality of individual, or of social man.