Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XIV.: GRAND OBSTACLE TO IMPROVEMENT. - The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires
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CHAP. XIV.: GRAND OBSTACLE TO IMPROVEMENT. - Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, marquis de Volney, The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires 
The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires, 3rd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1796).
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GRAND OBSTACLE TO IMPROVEMENT.
The Genius stopt. My mind however, preoccupied with gloomy forebodings, yielded not to persuasion; but fearful of offending him by opposition, I made no reply. After a short interval; fixing on me a look that transpierced my soul: You are silent, said he, and your heart is agitated with thoughts which it dares not utter!—Confused and terrified: O Genius, I made answer, pardon my weakness: truth alone has doubtless proceeded from your lips; but your celestial intelligence can distinguish its traits, where to my gross faculties there appear nothing but clouds. I acknowledge it, conviction has not penetrated my soul, and I feared that my doubts might give you offence.
And what is doubt, replied he, that it should be regarded as a crime? Has man the power of thinking contrary to the impressions that are made upon him? If a truth be palpable, and its observance important, let us pity the man who does not perceive it: his punishment will infallibly spring from his blindness. If it be uncertain and equivocal, how is he to find in it what does not exist? To believe without evidence and demonstration is an act of ignorance and folly. The credulous man involves himself in a labyrinth of contradictions; the man of sense examines and discusses every question, that he may be consistent in his opinions; he can endure contradiction, because from the collision evidence arises. Violence is the argument of falsehood; and to impose a creed authoritatively, is the index and proceeding of a tyrant.
Emboldened by these sentiments, I replied: O Genius, since my reason is free, I strive in vain to welcome the flattering hope with which you would console me. The sensible and virtuous soul is prone enough to be hurried away by dreams of fancied happiness; but a cruel reality incessantly recals its attention to suffering and wretchedness. The more I meditate on the nature of man, the more I examine the present state of society, the less possible does it appear to me that a world of wisdom and felicity should ever be realized. I survey the face of our whole hemisphere, and no where can I perceive the germ of a happy revolution. All Asia is buried in the most profound darkness. The Chinese, subjected to an insolent despotism(z) , dependent for their fortune upon the decision of lots, and held in awe by strokes of the bamboo, enslaved by the immutability of their code, and by the irremediable vice of their language, offer to my view an abortive civilization and a race of automata. The Indian, fettered by prejudice, and manacled by the inviolable institution of his casts, vegetates in an incurable apathy. The Tartar, wandering or fixed, at all times ignorant and ferocious, lives in the barbarity of his ancestors. The Arab, endowed with a happy genius, loses its force and the fruit of his labour in the anarchy of his tribes, and the jealousy of his families. The African, degraded from the state of man, seems irremediably devoted to servitude. In the North I see nothing but serfs, reduced to the level of cattle, the live stock of the estate upon which they live(1) . Ignorance, tyranny, and wretchedness have every where struck the nations with stupor; and vicious habits, depraving the natural senses, have destroyed the very instinct of happiness and truth. In some countries of Europe, indeed, reason begins to expand its wings; but even there, is the knowledge of individual minds common to the nation? Has the superiority of the government been turned to the advantage of the people? And these people, who call themselves polished, are they not those who three centuries ago filled the earth with their injustice? Are they not those who, under the pretext of commerce, laid India waste, dispeopled a new continent, and who at present subject Africa to the most inhuman slavery? Can liberty spring up out of the bosom of despots, and justice be administered by the hands of rapacity and avarice? O Genius! I have beheld civilized countries, and the illusion of their wisdom has vanished from my sight. I saw riches accumulated in the hands of a few individuals, and the multitude poor and destitute. I saw all right and power concentered in certain classes, and the mass of the people passive and dependent. I saw the palaces of princes, but no incorporation of individuals as such, no common-hall of nations. I perceived the deep attention that was given to the interests of government; but no public interest, no sympathetic spirit. I saw that the whole science of those who command consisted in prudently oppressing; and the refined servitude of polished nations only appeared to me the more irremediable.
With one obstacle in particular my mind was sensibly struck. In surveying the globe. I perceived that it was divided into twenty different systems of religious worship. Each nation has received, or formed for itself, opposite opinions, and ascribing to itself exclusively the truth, has imagined every other to be in error. But if, as is the fact, in this discordance the majority deceive themselves, and deceive themselves with sincerity, it follows that the human mind as readily imbibes falsehood as truth; and in that case how is it to be enlightened? How are prejudices to be extirpated that first take root in the mind? How is the bandage to be removed from the eyes, when the first article in every creed, the first dogma of all religions, is the proscription of doubt, of examination, and of the right of private judgment? How is truth to make itself known? If she resort to the demonstration of argument, pusillanimous man appeals against evidence to his conscience. If she call in the aid of divine authority, already prepossessed, he opposes an authority of a similar kind, and treats all innovation as blasphemy. Thus, in his blindness, riveting the chains upon himself, does he become the sport of his ignorance and passions. To dissolve these fatal shackles, a miraculous concurrence of happy circumstances would be necessary. It would be necessary that a whole nation, cured of the delirium of superstition, should no longer be liable to the impressions of fanaticism; that, freed from the yoke of a false doctrine, it should voluntarily embrace the genuine system of morality and reason; that it should become at once courageous and prudent, wise and docile; that every individual, acquainted with his rights, should scrupulously observe their limits; and the poor should know how to resist seduction, and the rich the allurements of avarice; that there should be found upright and disinterested chiefs; that its tyrants should be seized with a spirit of madness and folly; that the people, recovering their powers, should perceive their inability to exercise them, and consent to appoint delegates; that having first created their magistrates, they should know both how to respect and how to judge them; that in the rapid renovation of a whole nation pervaded with abuse, each individual, removed from his former habits, should suffer patiently the pains and self-denials annexed; in fine, that the nation should have the courage to conquer its liberty, the wisdom to secure it, the power to defend it, and the generosity to communicate it. Can sober judgment expect this combination of circumstances? Should fortune in the infinite variety of her caprices produce them, is it likely that I should live to see that day? Will not this frame long before that have mouldered in the tomb?
Here, oppressed with sorrow, my heart deprived me of utterance. The Genius made no reply; but in a low tone of voice I heard him say to himself: “Let us revive the hope of this man; for if he who loves his fellow-creatures be suffered to despair, what is to become of nations? The past is perhaps but too much calculated to deject him. Let us then anticipate futurity; let us unveil the astonishing age that is about to arise, that virtue, seeing the end of its wishes, animated with new vigour, may redouble its efforts to hasten the accomplishment of it.”
[Page 119. (z).]The Chinese subjected to an insolent despotism. The emperor of China calls himself the son of heaven, that is, of God; for in the opinion of the Chinese, the material heaven, the arbiter of fatality, is the Deity himself. “The emperor only shows himself once in ten months, left the people, accustomed to see him, might lose their respect; for he holds it as a maxim, that power can only be supported by force, that the people have no idea of justice, and are not to be governed but by coercion.” Narrative of two Mahometan Travellers in 851 and 877, translated by the Abbe Renaudot in 1718.
[Page 119. (1.)]In the North I see nothing but serfs reduced to the level of cattle. When this was written the revolution in Poland had not taken place. I beg leave to apologise to the virtuous nobles and the enlightened prince by whom it was effected.