The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

Proofs of the immortality of the soul. That there is a sanction, properly so called, in respect to natural law.

I. THE difficulty, we have been speaking of, and which we attempt here to illustrate, supposes, as every one may see, that the human system is absolutely limited to the present life, that there is no such thing as a future state, and consequently that there is nothing to expect from the Divine Wisdom in favour of the laws of nature, beyond what is manifested in this life.

Were it possible, on the contrary, to prove that the present State of man is only the commencement of a more extensive system; and moreover, that the supreme Being has really been pleased to invest the rules of conduct, prescribed to us by reason, with all the authority of taws, by strengthening them with a sanction, properly so called, we might in fine conclude, that there is nothing wanting to complete the moral system.

[Division of opinions. How it is possible to know the will of God in respect to this point.]

II. The learned are divided in their opinions with respect to these important questions. Some there are, who maintain, that reason alone affords clear and demonstrative proofs, not only of the rewards and punishments of a future life but likewise of a state of immortality. Others on the contrary pretend, that, by consulting reason alone, we meet with nothing but obscurity and uncertainty, and that, so far from finding any demonstration this way, we have not even a probability of a future life.

It is carrying the thing too far perhaps on both sides, to reason after this manner. Since the question is concerning a point, which depends entirely on the will of the Deity, the best way undoubtedly to know this will would be an express declaration on his side. But, confining ourselves within the circle of natural knowledge, let us try whether independently of this first method, reason alone can afford us any sure light in relation to this subject, or furnish us with conjectures and presumptions sufficiently strong, to infer with any certainty the will of God. With this view let us investigate a little closer the nature and present state of man, let us consult the ideas, which right reason gives us of the perfection of the supreme Being, and of the plan, he has formed with respect to mankind; in order to know in fine the necessary consequences of the natural laws, he has been pleased to prescribe

[Whether the soul is immortal. First proof. The nature of the soul seems entirely distinct from that of the body.]

III. With regard to the nature of man, we are first of all to inquire, whether death be really the last term of our existence, and the dissolution of the body be necessarily followed by the annihilation of the soul; or whether the soul is immortal, that is, whether it subsists after the death of the body?

Now the immortality of the soul is so far from being in itself impossible, that reason supplies us with the strongest conjectures, that this is in reality the state, for which it was designed.

The observations of the ablest philosophers distinguish absolutely the soul from the body, as being in its nature essentially different, 1. In fact we do not find, that the faculties of the mind, the understanding, the will, liberty, with all the operations they produce, have any relation to those of extension, figure, and motion, which are the properties of matter. 2. The idea we have of an extended substance, as purely passive, seems to be absolutely incompatible with that proper and internal activity, which distinguishes a thinking being. The body is not put into motion of itself, but the mind finds inwardly the principle of its own movements; it acts, it thinks, it wills, it moves the body; it turns its operations, as it pleases; it stops, proceeds, or returns the way it went. 3. We observe likewise, that our thinking part is a simple, single, and indivisible being; because it collects all our ideas and sensations, as it were, into one point, by understanding, feeling and comparing them, etc. which cannot be done by a being composed of various parts.

[Death does not therefore necessarily imply the annihilation of the soul.]

IV. The soul seems therefore to be of a particular nature, to have nothing in common with gross and material beings, but to be a pure spirit, that participates in some measure of the nature of the supreme Being. This has been very elegantly expressed by Cicero. We cannot find, says he,1 on earth the least trace of the origin of the soul. Far there is nothing mixt or compounded in the mind; nothing that seems to proceed from the earth, water, air, or fire. These elements have nothing productive of memory, understanding, reflections; nothing that is able to recall the past, to foresee the future, and to embrace the present. We shall never find the source, whence man has derived those divine qualities, but by tracing them up to God. It follows therefore, that the soul is endowed with a singular nature, which has nothing in it common with those known and familiar elements. Hence, let the nature of a being, that has sensation, understanding, will, and a principle of life, be what it will, this being is surely heavenly, divine, and consequently immortal.

This conclusion is very just. For if the soul be essentially distinct from the body, the destruction of the one is not necessarily followed by the annihilation of the other; and thus far nothing hinders the soul from subsisting, notwithstanding the destruction of its ruinous habitation.

[Objection. Answer.]

V. Should it be said, that we are not sufficiently acquainted with the intrinsic nature of substances to determine, that God could not communicate thought to some portion of matter; I should answer, that we cannot however judge of things, but according to their appearance and our ideas; otherwise, whatever is not founded on a strict demonstration must be uncertain, and this would terminate in a kind of pyrrhonism. All, that reason requires, is, that we distinguish properly between what is dubious, probable, or certain; and since all we know in relation to matter does not seem to have any affinity with the faculties of the soul; and as we even find in one and the other qualities, that seem incompatible; it is not prescribing limits to the Divine Power, but rather following the notions, that reason has given us, to affirm it is highly probable, that the thinking part of man is essentially distinct from the body.

[Confirmation of the preceding truth. Nothing in nature is annihilated.]

VI. But let the nature of the soul be what it will, and be it even, though contrary to all appearance, supposed corporeal; still it would no ways follow, that the death of the body must necessarily bring on the annihilation of the soul. For we do not find an instance of any annihilation properly so called. The body itself, how inferior soever to the mind, is not annihilated by death. It receives indeed a great alteration; but its substance remains always essentially the same, and admits only a change of modification or form. Why therefore should the soul be annihilated? It will undergo if you please, a great mutation, it will be detached from the bonds, that unite it to the body, and will be incapable of operating in conjunction with it. But is this an argument, that it cannot exist separately, or that it loses its essential quality, which is that of understanding? This does not at all appear; for one does not follow from the other.

Were it therefore impossible for us to determine the intrinsic nature of the soul, yet it would be carrying the thing too far, and concluding beyond what we are authorised by fact to maintain, that death is necessarily attended with a total destruction of the soul. The question is therefore reducible to this point; is God willing to annihilate, or to preserve the soul? But, if what we know in respect to the nature of the soul does not incline us to think it is destined to perish by death, we shall see likewise, that the consideration of its excellency is a very strong presumption in favor of its immortality.

[Second proof the excellency of the soul.]

VII. And indeed it is not at all probable, that an intelligent being, capable of knowing such a multitude of truths, of making so many discoveries, of reasoning upon an infinite number of things, of discerning their proportions, fitness, and beauties; of contemplating the works of the Creator, of tracing them up to him, of observing his designs, and penetrating into their causes; of raising itself above all sensible things to the knowledge of spiritual and divine subjects; that has a power to act with liberty and discernment, and to array itself with the most beautiful virtues; it is not I say at all probable, that a being adorned with qualities of so excellent a nature, and so superior to those of brute animals, should have been created only for the short space of this life. These considerations made a lively impression upon the ancient philosophers. When I consider, says Cicero,2 the surprising activity of the mind, so great a memory of what is past, and such an insight into futurity; when I behold such a number of arts and sciences, and such a multitude of discoveries, I believe, and am firmly persuaded, that a nature, which contains so many things within itself, cannot be mortal.

[Confirmation. Our faculties are always susceptible of a greater degree of perfection.]

VIII. Again, such is the nature of the human mind, that it is always capable of improvement, and of perfecting its faculties.

Though our knowledge it actually confined within certain limits, yet we see no bounds to that, which we are capable of acquiring, to the inventions, we are able to make, to the progress of our judgment, prudence, and virtue. Man is in this respect always susceptible of some new degree of perfection and maturity. Death overtakes him before he has finished, as it were, his progress, and when he was capable of proceeding a great deal farther. How can it enter, says a celebrated English writer,3 into the thoughts of man, that the soul, which is capable of such immense perfections, and of receiving new improvements to all eternity, shall fall away into nothing almost as soon as it is created? Are such abilities made for no purpose? A brute arrives at a point of perfection, that he can never pass. In a few years he has all the endowments he is capable of; and, were he to live ten thousand more, would be the same thing he is at present. Were a human soul thus at a stand in her accomplishments, were her faculties to be full blown, and incapable of further enlargements, I could imagine it might fall away insensibly, and drop at once into a state of annihilation. But can we believe a thinking being, that is in a perpetual progress of improvements, and travelling on from perfection to perfection, after having just looked abroad into the works of its creator, and made a few discoveries of his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, must perish at its first setting out, and in the very beginning of its inquiries?

[Objection. Answer.]

IX. True it is, that most men debase themselves in some measure to an animal life, and have very little concern about the improvement of their faculties. But, if those people voluntarily degrade themselves, this ought to be no prejudice to such, as chuse to support the dignity of their nature; neither does it invalidate what we have been saying in regard to the excellency of the soul. For, to judge rightly of things, they ought to be considered in themselves, and in their most perfect state.

[Third proof, drawn from our natural dispositions and desires.]

X. It is undoubtedly in consequence of the natural sense of the dignity of our being, and of the grandeur of the end, we are designed for, that we naturally extend our views to futurity; that we concern ourselves about what is to happen after our death; that we seek to perpetuate our name and memory, and are not insensible to the judgment of posterity. These sentiments are far frorn being the illusion of self-love or prejudice. The desire and hope of immortality is an impression, we receive from nature. And this desire is so very reasonable in itself, so useful, and so closely connected with the system of humanity, that we may at least infer from it a very probable induction in favor of a future state. How great soever the vivacity of this desire may be in itself, still it increases in proportion, as we take more care to cultivate our reason, and as we advance in the knowledge of truth and the practice of virtue. This sentiment becomes the surest principle of noble, generous, and public spirited actions; and we may affirm, that, were it not for this principle, all human views would be low, mean, and sordid.

All this seems to point out to us clearly, that, by the institution of the Creator, there is a kind of natural proportion and relation between the soul and immortality. For it is not by deceit and illusion, that the Supreme Wisdom conducts us to his proposed end. A principle so reasonable and necessary, a principle, that cannot but be productive of good effects, that raises man above himself, and renders him not only capable of the sublimest undertakings, but superior to the most delicate temptations, and such, as are most dangerous to virtue; such a principle, I say, cannot be chimerical.4

Thus every thing concurs to persuade us, that the soul must subsist after death. The knowledge we have of the nature of the mind, its excellence and faculties ever susceptible of a higher degree of perfection, the disposition, which prompts us to raise ourselves above the present life, and to desire immortality, are all so many natural inclinations, and form the strongest presumption, that,such indeed is the intention of the Creator.

[The sanction of natural laws will show itself in a future life.]

XI. The clearing up of this first point is of great importance in regard to our principal question, and solves already, in part, the difficulty we are examining. For, when once the soul is supposed to subsist after the dissolution of the body, nothing can hinder us from saying, that whatever is wanting in the present state to complete the sanction of natural law will be executed hereafter, if so it be agreeable to the Divine Wisdom.

We come now from considering man on the physical side, which opens us already a passage towards finding the object of our present pursuit. Let us see now whether, by viewing man on the moral side, that is, as a being capable of rule, who acts with knowledge and choice, and whether, raising ourselves afterwards to God, we cannot discover new reasons and still stronger presumptions of a future life, of a state of rewards and punishments.

Here we cannot avoid repeating part of those things, which have been already mentioned in this work, because we are upon the point of considering their entire result; the truth, we intend here to establish, being as it were the conclusion of the whole system. It is thus a painter, after having worked singly upon each part of his piece, thinks it necessary to retouch the whole, in order to produce what is called the total effect and harmony.

[First proof, drawn from the nature of man considered on the moral side.]

XII. Man, we have seen, is a rational and free agent, who distinguishes justice and honesty, who finds within himself the principles of conscience, who is sensible of his dependance on the Creator, and born to fulfil certain duties. His greatest ornament is reason and virtue; and his chief task in life is to advance in that path, by embracing all the occasions, that offer, to improve, to reflect, and to do good. The more he practises and confirms himself in such laudable Occupations, the more he accomplishes the views of the Creator, and proves himself worthy of the existence he has received. He is sensible, he can be reasonably called to an account for his conduct, and he approves or condemns himself according to his different manner of acting.

From all these circumstances it evidently appears, that man is not confined, like other animals, to a mere physical economy, but that he is included in a moral one, which raises him much higher, and is attended with greater consequences. For what appearance or probability is there, that a soul, which advances daily in wisdom and virtue, should tend to annihilation, and that God should think proper to extinguish this light in its greatest lustre? Is it not more reasonable to think, that the good or bad use of our faculties will be attended with future consequences; that we shall be accountable to our Creator, and finally receive the just retribution we have merited? Since therefore this judgment of God does not display itself sufficiently in this world, it is natural to presume, that the plan of the Divine Wisdom, with regard to us, embraces a duration of a much greater extent.

[Second proof, drawn from the perfections of God.]

XIII. Let us ascend from man to God, and we shall be still further convinced, that such in reality is the plan he formed.

If God is willing (a point we have already proved) that man should observe the rules of right reason, in proportion to his faculties and the circumstances he is under; this must be a serious and positive will. It is the will of the Creator, of the Governor of the world, of the sovereign Lord of all things. It is therefore a real command, which lays us under an obligation of obeying. It is moreover the will of a Being supremely powerful, wise, and good; who, proposing always, both with respect to himself and to his creatures, the most excellent ends, cannot fail to establish the means, which in the order of reason, and pursuant to the nature and state of things, are necessary for the execution of his design. No one can reasonably contest these principles; but let us see what consequences may be drawn from them.

1. If it actually became the Divine Wisdom to give laws to man, this same wisdom requires these laws should be accompanied with necessary motives to determine rational and free agents to conform thereto in all cases. Otherwise we should be obliged to say, either that God does not really and seriously desire the observance of the laws, he has enacted, or that he wants power or wisdom to procure it.

2. If through an effect of his goodness, he has not thought proper to let men live at random, or to abandon them to the capriciousness of their passions; if he has given them a light to direct them; this same goodness must undoubtedly induce him to annex a perfect and durable happiness to the good use, that every man makes of this light.

3. Reason informs us afterwards, that an all-powerful, allwise, and all-bountiful Being is infinitely fond of order; that the same perfections make him desire, that this order should reign among his intelligent and free creatures, and that it was for this very reason he subjected them to laws. The same reasons, that induced him to establish a moral order, engage him likewise to procure their observance. It must be therefore his satisfaction and glory, to render all men sensible of the difference he makes between those, who disturb, and those who conform to order. He cannot be indifferent in this respect; on the contrary, he is determined, by the love he has for himself and his perfections, to invest his commands with all the efficacy necessary to render his authority respected. This imports an establishment of future rewards and punishments; either to keep man within rule, as much as possible, in the present state, by the potent motives of hope and fear; or to give afterwards an execution worthy of his justice and wisdom to his plan, by reducing every thing to the primitive order he has established.

4. The same principle carries us yet further. For if God be infinitely fond of the order, he has established in the moral world, he cannot but approve of those, who, with a sincere and constant attachment to this order, endeavour to please him, by concurring to the accomplishment of his views; and he cannot but disapprove of such, as observe an opposite conduct,5 for the former are, as it were, his friends, and the latter declare themselves his enemies. But the approbation of the Deity imports his protection, benevolence, and love; whereas his disapprobation cannot but be attended with quite contrary effects. If so how can any one imagine, that God’s friends and enemies will be confounded, and no difference made between them?

Is it not much more consonant to reason to think, that the Divine Justice will manifest at length, some way or other, the extreme difference he places between virtue and vice, by rendering finally and perfectly happy those, who, by a submission to his will, are become the objects of his benevolence; and, on the contrary, by making the wicked feel his just severity and resentment?

XIV. This is what our clearest notions of the perfections of the supreme Being induce us to judge concerning his views, and the plan he has formed. Were not virtue to meet surely and inevitably with a final recompense, and vice with a final punishment, and this in a general and complete manner, exactly proportioned to the degree of merit or demerit of each person, the plan of natural laws would never answer our expectation from a supreme Legislator, whose prescience, wisdom, power, and goodness, are without hounds. This would be leaving the laws divested of their principal force, and reducing them to the quality of simple counsels; it would be subverting in fine the fundamental part of the system of intelligent creatures, namely, that of being induced to make a reasonable use of their faculties, with a view and expectation of happiness. In short, the moral system would fall into a state of imperfection, which could be reconciled neither with the nature of man, nor with the state of society, nor with the moral perfections of the Deity. It is otherwise, when we acknowledge a future life. The moral system is thereby supported, Connected, and finished, so as to leave nothing wanting to render it complete. It is then a plan really worthy of God, and useful to man. The supreme Being does all he ought to do with free and rational creatures, to induce them to behave as they should; the laws of nature are thus established on the most solid foundations; and nothing is wanting to bind man by such motives, as are properest to make an impression.

Hence if this plan be without comparison the most beautiful and the best; if it be likewise the most worthy of God, and the most connected with what we know of the nature, wants, and state of man; how can any one doubt of its being that, which the Divine Wisdom has actually chosen?

[The objection, drawn from the present state of things, serves to prove the sentiment it opposes.]

XV. I acknowledge indeed, that, could we find in the present life a sufficient sanction of the laws of nature, in the measure and plenitude above mentioned, we should have no right to press this argument; for nothing could oblige us to search into futurity for an entire unravelling of the divine plan. But we have seen in the preceding chapter, that though by the nature of things, and even by the various establishments of man, virtue has already its reward, and vice its punishment; yet this excellent and just order is accomplished only in part, and that we find a great number of exceptions to this rule in history, and the experience of human life. Hence arises a very puzzling objection against the authority of natural laws. But as soon as mention is made of another life, the difficulty disappears; every thing is cleared up and set to right; the system appears connected, finished, and supported; the Divine Wisdom is justified. We find all the necessary supplements and compensations to redress the present irregularities; virtue acquires a firm and unshaken prop, by furnishing the virtuous man with a motive capable of supporting him in the most dangerous difficulties, and to render him triumphant over the most delicate temptations.

Were this only a simple conjecture, it might be considered rather as a convenient than solid supposition. But we have seen, that it is founded also on the nature and excellence of the soul; on the instinct, that inclines us to raise ourselves above the present life; and on the the nature of man, considered on the moral side, as a creature accountable for his actions, and obliged to conform to a certain rule. When besides all this we behold, that the same opinion serves to support, and perfectly crowns the whole system of natural law, it must be allowed to be no less probable than it is beautiful and engaging.

[The belief of a future state has been received by all nations.]

XVI. Hence this same opinion has been received more or less at all times, and by all nations, according as reason has been more or less cultivated, or as people have inquired closer into the origin of things. It would bean easy matter to alledge divers historical proofs, and to produce also several beautiful passages from the ancient philosophers, in order to show, that the reasons, which strike us, made the like impressions on the wisest of the Pagans. But we shall be satisfied with observing, that these testimonies, which have been collected by other writers, are not indifferent on this subject; because this shows, either the vestiges of a primitive tradition, or the voice of reason and nature, or both; which adds a considerable weight to our argument.


   1.     Animorum nulla in terris origo inveniri potest; nihil enim in animis mixtum atque concretum, aut quod ex terrâ natum atque fictum esse videatur; nihil ne aut humidum quidem aut stabile aut igneum. His enim in naturis nihil inest, quod vim memoriæ, mentis, cogitationis habeat; quod et præterita teneat, et futura provideat, et complecti possit præsentia; quæ sola divina sunt; nec invenietur unquam, unde ad hominem venire possent nisi a Deo. Singularis est igitur quædam natura atque vis animi, sejuncta ab his usitatis notisque naturis. Ita quicquid est illud, quod sentit, quod sapit, quod vivit, quod viget, coeleste et divinum, ob eamque rem, æternum sit necesse est. Cic. Tuscul. disput. lib. I. cap. 27.
   2.     Quid multa; Sic mihi persuasi, sic sentio, cum tanta celeritas animorum sit, tanta memoria præteritorum futarorumque prudentia, tot artes, tantæ scientiæ, tot inventa, non posse eam naturam, quæ res eas contineat, esse mortalem. Cic. de Senec. cap. 2.
   3.    SPECTATOR, Vol. II. No. III.
   4.    Cicero gives an admirable picture of the influence which the desire and hope of immortality has had in all ages, to excite men to great and noble actions. ” Nemo unquam,” says he, “sine magna spe immortalitatis se pro patria offerret ad mortem. Licuit esse otioso Themistocli; licuit Epaminondæ; licuit, ne et vetere et externa quæram, mihi; sed nescio quo modo inhæret in mentibus quasi sæculorum quoddam augurium futurorum; idque in maximis ingeniis altissimisque animis existit maxime, et apparet facillimè. Quoquidem dempto. quis tam esset amens, qui semper in laboribus et periculis viveret.” Tuscul. Quæst. lib. 1. cap. 15.
   5.    See part ii. chap. x, § 7.