An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding HTML version

XI. Of A Particular Providence And Of A Future State
102. I was lately engaged in conversation with a friend who loves sceptical paradoxes;
where, though he advanced many principles, of which I can by no means approve, yet as
they seem to be curious, and to bear some relation to the chain of reasoning carried on
throughout this enquiry, I shall here copy them from my memory as accurately as I can,
in order to submit them to the judgement of the reader.
Our conversation began with my admiring the singular good fortune of philosophy,
which, as it requires entire liberty above all other privileges, and chiefly flourishes from
the free opposition of sentiments and argumentation, received its first birth in an age and
country of freedom and toleration, and was never cramped, even in its most extravagant
principles, by any creeds, concessions, or penal statutes. For, except the banishment of
Protagoras, and the death of Socrates, which last event proceeded partly from other
motives, there are scarcely any instances to be met with, in ancient history, of this
bigotted jealousy, with which the present age is so much infested. Epicurus lived at
Athens to an advanced age, in peace and tranquillity: Epicureans27 were even admitted to
receive the sacerdotal character, and to officiate at the altar, in the most sacred rites of the
established religion: And the public encouragement28 of pensions and salaries was
afforded equally, by the wisest of all the Roman emperors29, to the professors of every
sect of philosophy. How requisite such kind of treatment was to philosophy, in her early
youth, will easily be conceived, if we reflect, that, even at present, when she may be
supposed more hardy and robust, she bears with much difficulty the inclemency of the
seasons, and those harsh winds of calumny and persecution, which blow upon her.
You admire, says my friend, as the singular good fortune of philosophy, what seems to
result from the natural course of things, and to be unavoidable in every age and nation.
This pertinacious bigotry, of which you complain, as so fatal to philosophy, is really her
offspring, who, after allying with superstition, separates himself entirely from the interest
of his parent, and becomes her most inveterate enemy and persecutor. Speculative
dogmas of religion, the present occasions of such furious dispute, could not possibly be
conceived or admitted in the early ages of the world; when mankind, being wholly
illiterate, formed an idea of religion more suitable to their weak apprehension, and
composed their sacred tenets of such tales chiefly as were the objects of traditional belief,
more than of argument or disputation. After the first alarm, therefore, was over, which
arose from the new paradoxes and principles of the philosophers; these teachers seem
ever after, during the ages of antiquity, to have lived in great harmony with the
established superstition, and to have made a fair partition of mankind between them; the
former claiming all the learned and wise, the latter possessing all the vulgar and illiterate.
103. It seems then, say I, that you leave politics entirely out of the question, and never
suppose, that a wise magistrate can justly be jealous of certain tenets of philosophy, such
as those of Epicurus, which, denying a divine existence, and consequently a providence
and a future state, seem to loosen, in a great measure, the ties of morality, and may be
supposed, for that reason, pernicious to the peace of civil society.