The mind of man is capable of anything.—Guy de Maupassant, 1884
The passions lead us into error because they fix our attention to that particular part of the object they present to us, not allowing us to view it on every side.
A king passionately affects the title of conqueror. “Victory,” says he, “calls me to the remotest part of the earth. I shall fight. I shall gain the victory. I shall load my enemy with chains, and the terror of my name, like an impenetrable rampart, will defend the entrance of my empire.” Inebriated with this hope, he forgets that fortune is inconstant, and that the victor shares the load of misery almost equally with the vanquished. He does not perceive that the welfare of his subjects is only a pretense for his martial frenzy, and that pride alone forges his arms and displays his ensigns. His whole attention is fixed on the pomp of his triumph.
Fear, equally powerful with pride, will produce the same effect. It will raise ghosts and phantoms, and disperse them among the tombs, and in the darkness of the woods, present them to the eyes of the affrighted traveler, seize on all the faculties of his soul, without leaving anyone at liberty to reflect on the absurdity of the motives for such a ridiculous terror.
The passions not only fix the attention on particular sides of the objects they present to us, they also deceive us by exhibiting the same objects when they do not really exist. The story of a country clergyman and an amorous lady is well-known. They had heard, and concluded, that the moon was peopled, and were looking for the inhabitants through their telescopes. “If I am not mistaken,” said the lady, “I perceive two shadows. They mutually incline toward each other. Doubtless they are two happy lovers.” “Oh, fie! Madam,” replied the clergyman, “these two shadows are the two steeples of a cathedral.” This tale is our history, it being common for us to see in things what we are desirous of finding there. On earth, as in the moon, different passions will cause us to see either lovers or steeples. Illusion is a necessary effect of the passions, the strength or force of which is generally measured by the degree of obscurity into which they lead us. This was well known to a certain lady, who being caught by her lover in the arms of his rival, obstinately denied the fact of which he had been a witness. “How!” said he, “have you the assurance?” “Ah! Perfidious creature,” cried the lady, “it is plain you no longer love me. For you believe your eyes, before all I can say.” This is equally applicable to all the passions, as well as to love. All strike us with the most perfect blindness. When ambition has kindled a war between two nations, and the anxious citizens ask one another the news, what readiness appear, on one side, to give credit to the good; and on the other, what incredulity with regard to the bad? How often have Christians, from placing a ridiculous confidence in monks, denied the possibility of the antipodes? There is no century that has not, by some ridiculous affirmation or negation, afforded matter of laughter to the following age. A past folly is seldom sufficient to show mankind their present folly.
The same passions, however, that are the germ of an infinity of errors are also the sources of our knowledge. If they mislead us, at the same time they impart to us the strength necessary for walking. It is they alone that can rouse us from that sluggishness and torpor always ready to seize on the faculties of our soul.
From On the Mind. When Helvétius—who used his vast fortune to support the Enlightenment thinkers known as the philosophes—published this discourse, it attracted public outcry from both the royal family and the Sorbonne for its claims that physical sensation rather than morality directed human faculties. The book was burned in Paris. “I have no doubt,” wrote Voltaire of the response to the work, “that they will soon condemn to the galleys the first who shall have the insolence to say that a man cannot think without his head.”