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On A Future State

It has been the persuasion of an immense majority of human beings
in all ages and nations that we continue to live after death,--that
apparent termination of all the functions of sensitive and intellectual
existence. Nor has mankind been contented with supposing that
species of existence which some philosophers have asserted; namely,
the resolution of the component parts of the mechanism of a living
being into its elements, and the impossibility of the minutest
particle of these sustaining the smallest diminution. They have
clung to the idea that sensibility and thought, which they have
distinguished from the objects of it, under the several names
of spirit and matter, is, in its own nature, less susceptible of
division and decay, and that, when the body is resolved into its
elements, the principle which animated it will remain perpetual
and unchanged. Some philosophers-and those to whom we are indebted
for the most stupendous discoveries in physical science, suppose,
on the other hand, that intelligence is the mere result of certain
combinations among the particles of its objects; and those among
them who believe that we live after death, recur to the interposition
of a supernatural power, which shall overcome the tendency inherent
in all material combinations, to dissipate and be absorbed into
other forms.

Let us trace the reasonings which in one and the other have conducted
to these two opinions, and endeavour to discover what we ought to
think on a question of such momentous interest. Let us analyse the
ideas and feelings which constitute the contending beliefs, and
watchfully establish a discrimination between words and thoughts.
Let us bring the question to the test of experience and fact; and
ask ourselves, considering our nature in its entire extent, what
light we derive from a sustained and comprehensive view of its
component parts, which may enable, us to assert, with certainty,
that we do or do not live after death.

The examination of this subject requires that it should be stript
of all those accessory topics which adhere to it in the common opinion
of men. The existence of a God, and a future state of rewards and
punishments, are totally foreign to the subject. If it be proved
that the world is ruled by a Divine Power, no inference necessarily
can be drawn from that circumstance in favour of a future state.
It has been asserted, indeed, that as goodness and justice are to
be numbered among the attributes of the Deity, He will undoubtedly
compensate the virtuous who suffer during life, and that He will
make every sensitive being who does not deserve punishment, happy
for ever. But this view of the subject, which it would be tedious
as well as superfluous to develop and expose, satisfies no person,
and cuts the knot which we now seek to untie. Moreover, should it
be proved, on the other hand, that the mysterious principle which
regulates the proceedings of the universe, is neither intelligent
nor sensitive, yet it is not an inconsistency to suppose at the
same time, that the animating power survives the body which it
has animated, by laws as independent of any supernatural agent as
those through which it first became united with it. Nor, if a future
state be clearly proved, does it follow that it will be a state of
punishment or reward.

By the word death, we express that condition in which natures
resembling ourselves apparently cease to be that which they were.
We no longer hear them speak, nor see them move. If they have
sensations and apprehensions, we no longer participate in them.
We know no more than that those external organs, and all that fine
texture of material frame, without which we have no experience that
life or thought can subsist, are dissolved and scattered abroad.
The body is placed under the earth, and after a certain period there
remains no vestige even of its form. This is that contemplation
of inexhaustible melancholy, whose shadow eclipses the brightness
of the world. The common observer is struck with dejection at the
spectacle. He contends in vain against the persuasion of the grave,
that the dead indeed cease to be. The corpse at his feet is prophetic
of his own destiny. Those who have preceded him, and whose voice
was delightful to his ear; whose touch met his like sweet and subtle
fire; whose aspect spread a visionary light upon his path--these
he cannot meet again. The organs of sense are destroyed, and the
intellectual operations dependent on them have perished with their
sources. How can a corpse see or feel? its eyes are eaten out, and
its heart is black and without motion. What intercourse can two
heaps of putrid clay and crumbling bones hold together? When you
can discover where the fresh colours of the faded flower abide,
or the music of the broken lyre, seek life among the dead. Such
are the anxious and fearful contemplations of the common observer,
though the popular religion often prevents him from confessing them
even to himself.

The natural philosopher, in addition to the sensations common
to all men inspired by the event of death, believes that he sees
with more certainty that it is attended with the annihilation of
sentiment and thought. He observes the mental powers increase and
fade with those of the body, and even accommodate themselves to
the most transitory changes of our physical nature. Sleep suspends
many of the faculties of the vital and intellectual principle;
drunkenness and disease will either temporarily or permanently
derange them. Madness or idiotcy may utterly extinguish the most
excellent and delicate of those powers. In old age the mind gradually
withers; and as it grew and was strengthened with the body, so does
it together with the body sink into decrepitude. Assuredly these
are convincing evidences that so soon as the organs of the body
are subjected to the laws of inanimate matter, sensation, and
perception, and apprehension, are at an end. It is probable that
what we call thought is not an actual being, but no more than the
relation between certain parts of that infinitely varied mass,
of which the rest of the universe is composed, and which ceases
to exist so soon as those parts change their position with regard
to each other. Thus colour, and sound, and taste, and odour exist
only relatively. But let thought be considered as some peculiar
substance, which permeates, and is the cause of, the animation of
living beings. Why should that substance be assumed to be something
essentially distinct from all others, and exempt from subjection
to those laws from which no other substance is exempt? It differs,
indeed, from all other substances, as electricity, and light, and
magnetism, and the constituent parts of air and earth, severally
differ from all others. Each of these is subject to change and
to decay, and to conversion into other forms. Yet the difference
between light and earth is scarcely greater than that which exists
between life, or thought, and fire. The difference between the two
former was never alleged as an argument for the eternal permanence
of either, in that form under which they first might offer themselves
to our notice. Why should the difference between the two latter
substances be an argument for the prolongation of the existence
of one and not the other, when the existence of both has arrived
at their apparent termination? To say that fire exists without
manifesting any of the properties of fire, such as light, heat,
etc., or that the principle of life exists without consciousness,
or memory, or desire, or motive, is to resign, by an awkward
distortion of language, the affirmative of the dispute. To say
that the principle of life MAY exist in distribution among various
forms, is to assert what cannot be proved to be either true or
false, but which, were it true, annihilates all hope of existence
after death, in any sense in which that event can belong to the
hopes and fears of men. Suppose, however, that the intellectual
and vital principle differs in the most marked and essential manner
from all other known substances; that they have all some resemblance
between themselves which it in no degree participates. In what manner
can this concession be made an argument for its imperishability?
All that we see or know perishes and is changed. Life and thought
differ indeed from everything else. But that it survives that
period, beyond which we have no experience of its existence, such
distinction and dissimilarity affords no shadow of proof, and nothing
but our own desires could have led us to conjecture or imagine.
Have we existed before birth? It is difficult to conceive the
possibility of this. There is, in the generative principle of each
animal and plant, a power which converts the substances by which
it is surrounded into a substance homogeneous with itself. That
is, the relations between certain elementary particles of matter
undergo a change, and submit to new combinations. For when we use
the words PRINCIPLE, POWER, CAUSE, we mean to express no real being,
but only to class under those terms a certain series of co-existing
phenomena; but let it be supposed that this principle is a certain
substance which escapes the observation of the chemist and anatomist.
It certainly MAY BE; though it is sufficiently unphilosophical
to allege the possibility of an opinion as a proof of its truth.
Does it see, hear, feel, before its combination with those organs
on which sensation depends? Does it reason, imagine, apprehend,
without those ideas which sensation alone can communicate? If we
have not existed before birth; if, at the period when the parts
of our nature on which thought and life depend, seem to be woven
together; if there are no reasons to suppose that we have existed

before that period at which our existence apparently commences,
then there are no grounds for supposition that we shall continue
to exist after our existence has apparently ceased. So far as
thought is concerned, the same will take place with regard to use,
individually considered, after death, as had place before our birth.

It is said that it, is possible that we should continue to exist
in some mode totally inconceivable to us at present. This is a most
unreasonable presumption. It casts on the adherents of annihilation
the burthen of proving the negative of a question, the affirmative
of which is not supported by a single argument, and which, by its
very nature, lies beyond the experience of the human understanding.
It is sufficiently easy, indeed, to form any proposition, concerning
which we are ignorant, just not so absurd as not to be contradictory
in itself, and defy refutation. The possibility of whatever enters
into the wildest imagination to conceive is thus triumphantly
vindicated. But it is enough that such assertions should be either
contradictory to the known laws of nature, or exceed the limits of our
experience, that their fallacy or irrelevancy to our consideration
should be demonstrated. They persuade, indeed, only those who
desire to be persuaded. This desire to be for ever as we are; the
reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change, which is common
to all the animated and inanimate combinations of the universe, is,
indeed, the secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions
of a future state.

[written c.1815; pub. 1840]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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