Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER X.: Of Monastic Institutions, and Mr. Burke's general Maxim that existing Powers are not to be destroyed. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER X.: Of Monastic Institutions, and Mr. Burke’s general Maxim that existing Powers are not to be destroyed. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
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Of Monastic Institutions, and Mr. Burke’s general Maxim that existing Powers are not to be destroyed.
YOU enlarge much, p. 234, &c. on the ill policy of the National Assembly of France, in dissolving the monastic institutions of that country, acknowledging, at the same time, that “they savour of superstition. This,” you say, “ought not, however, to hinder them from deriving from superstition itself any resources which from thence may be furnished for the public advantage.” You do not say what uses, religious or political, you would have made of the funds of these societies; but as you acknowledge that “the body of all true religion consists in obedience to the will of the Sovereign of the universe, in a confidence in his declarations, and in an imitation of his perfections,” it is sufficient, I should think, for a state to provide for this. If the state give the body, let the individuals themselves provide the cloathing, and to what better use can public lands and funds be applied, than to liquidate the debts of a state?
Monastic institutions have, no doubt, had their uses, and very great uses, when there was no other retreat for letters, or from the bustle of a barbarous age. But as literature and piety do not now want that asylum, and every purpose of useful religion may be gained as well, and even better, without it, what reason can there be for its continuance? Why preserve an old and inconvenient road, when a better is actually gained? Rather convert it into good arable or pasture land.
It is, besides, impossible to encourage superstition, but at the expence of true religion, as the experience of every age demonstrates. The duties of superstition are better defined than those of religion. Men know precisely when they have recited a certain number of prayers, or when they have received a certain number of lashes; but the great duties of benevolence (which, indeed, can only be discharged in society) are indefinite, and withal require an attention to the inward temper of mind, which is far more difficult than any of the injunctions of superstition. Will it not be natural, then, for men to attach themselves to the one, and neglect the other, especially when they are taught that the same end may be gained by either?
The very principle upon which monachism is founded, is false and delusive. It is that men, capable of performing the duties of life, may become fit for heaven by solitary meditation and prayer, without mixing with the world at all. While monasteries are kept up, this idea is encouraged. I cannot help thinking, therefore, that the National Assembly acted very wisely, when, in order to relieve themselves from the difficulties which the folly and extravagance of a former government had brought upon the country, they adopted the measure of abolishing their monasteries, making however a sufficient provision for the inhabitants of them.
You will not pretend to say that monastic institutions are any necessary part of the christian system, since no mention is made of any such thing in the New Testament, since such establishments as you lament the fall of, are, in fact, but recent things, and since christianity has not been found to suffer any thing by the demolition of them in this, or any other protestant country.
But “in monastic institutions,” you say, p. 232, “in my opinion, was found a great power for the mechanism of politic benevolence. There were revenues with a public direction; there were men wholly set apart and educated to public purposes, without any other than public ties, and public principles; men without a possibility of converting the estate of the community into a private fortune; men denied to self interest, whose avarice is for the community; men to whom personal poverty is honour, and implicit obedience stands in the place of freedom. In vain shall a man look to the possibility of making such things when he wants them. The winds blow as they list. These institutions are the products of enthusiasm; they are the instruments of wisdom. Wisdom cannot create materials, they are the gifts of nature, or chance; her pride is in the use. To destroy any power,” you say, p. 233, “growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind, is almost tantamount in the moral world, to the destruction of the apparently active properties of bodies in the material. Had you no way of using the men, but by converting monks into pensioners?”
Upon this principle, of no power being to be destroyed, but only to be regulated, the greatest abuses may be perpetuated; because, in many cases, there is no preventing the abuse, without destroying the power itself. Such, for example, is the claim of the Popes to universal dominion over the christian church, and even over temporal princes; in fact, the assumption of all power in heaven and in earth. Such, also, is the power of a priest to give absolution of sins. To you it signifies nothing to allege, that these were altogether, and from the beginning, innovations and abuses in the christian system. You answer that they were great powers, which cannot be created at pleasure, and therefore that a wise statesman would be an advocate for their preservation, and not for their destruction.
To adopt your mode of reasoning, such deep rooted opinions, as formerly prevailed in all the christian world, of an immense power lodged for the wisest purposes in one visible head of the church, the sublime idea of one spiritual father of all christian princes, who had no other bond of union, and who stood in great need of one, and the confidence that all christians once had in the absolving power of their priests, authorised to give advice and direction in all cases in which conscience was concerned; such opinions as these, you will say, cannot be produced at pleasure, they were the slow growth of ages, and a foundation of great powers, which, if once destroyed, will never rise again. It was, therefore, nothing else than madness, you would say, in the first reformers, to aim at the subversion of these powers, by refuting the opinions on which they were founded. They should have contented themselves with preserving these powers, sacred and inviolable, and have contrived how to make a right use of them.
For the same reason, had you, in any country, as in Morocco, found the idea of the absolute power in the prince, the sacredness of his person, and the happiness of dying by his hand, you would have been careful not to destroy that power, which you might not be able to re-produce; but, being happily in possession of it, would have made it subservient to the good of the country.
I am glad, however, to find that, though all powers are to be continued, you allow of some improvement in the application of them, which implies some change for the better. This is also implied in what you say by way of apology for the old church establishment of France, p. 206, that “it was an old one, and not frequently revised,” as if some revisal, at least, would have been proper. And if a revisal of this establishment would have been proper, why not that of ours also? Has the church of England acquired any prescriptive right, to stand in no need of any farther revision; or are you, Sir, authorised to say to reformation, Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther? If not, why your sneers, p. 14, at a certain lay divine, who only proposed a revisal of the English liturgy and articles, which, in the opinion of many serious and thinking persons, though not in yours, very much want revision? Why, also, did you oppose the petition of a number of conscientious clergymen, to be released from their present obligation to subscribe to the thirty-nine articles, many of which you must yourself, surely, think are not absolutely essential to christianity? Why, then, might not clergymen, as well as others, have been at liberty to speculate freely, and think as they saw reason to do, with respect to them?
On the same principles on which you opposed a revision of the church establishment of this country, you would, no doubt, have opposed a revision of that of France, of Turkey, or of Indostan. However, the spirit of reformation, which is now gone forth, is another great power, as well as the existing systems to be reformed by it; and it is a power which grows stronger as they grow weaker; so that there can be no doubt which of them will finally prevail, notwithstanding the aid that your potent arm may give them.
You boldly avow your attachment to old establishments, because they are old. “In this enlightened age,” you say, p. 129, “I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.”
On this principle, Sir, had you been a Pagan at the time of the promulgation of christianity, you would have continued one. You would also have opposed the reformation. You would, no doubt, have cherished the long and deep rooted prejudice of the earth being the center of our system, and every notion that was old; the creed of your nurse, and of your grandmother, in opposition to every thing new.
Cherish them, then, Sir, as much as you please. Prejudice and error is only a mist, which the sun, which has now risen, will effectually disperse. Keep them about you as tight as the countryman in the fable did his cloak; the same sun, without any more violence than the warmth of his beams, will compel you to throw it aside, unless you chuse to sweat under it, and bear the ridicule of all your cooler and less encumbered companions. The spirit of free and rational enquiry is now abroad, and without any aid from the powers of this world, will not fail to overturn all error and false religion, wherever it is found, and neither the church of Rome, nor the church of England, will be able to stand before it.
Instead of your chimerical idea of destroying no existing powers, but of converting them to some use, which may answer no better than an attempt to tame a lion, or a tiger, adopt a plainer maxim, infinitely better adapted to the weak faculties of man, viz. to follow truth wherever it leads you, confident that the interests of truth will ever be inseparable from those of virtue and happiness, and equally so to states, as to individuals.
I am, Dear Sir,