First published in 1785, "Reason, the Only Oracle of Man" (AKA "
A Compendious System of Natural Religion") is considered the first work critical of Christianity published in the New World, but is also considered a Deist work, and a freethought work as well. Given the fact that there was a limited run and a fire in the print shop where it was created, it is a wonder that it survived.
Ethan Allen, known more familiarly as a Revolutionary War hero and for having his name adopted by a furniture company, wrote this work with Dr. Thomas Young, a New York doctor who “mentored” Allen in philosophy and politics. Young was another Revolutionary War hero, participated in the Boston Tea Party, and was heavily involved with Colonial American politics and the establishment of state borders. Allen founded the Green Mountain Boys initially as a local militia to keep those with territorial claims out of what we know as Vermont today. (Young guided the state name of Vermont, supposedly as a tribute to the Green Mountain Boys.) Allen went on to lead the Green Mountain Boys in the war, and captured Fort Ticonderoga with them.
Allen and Young discussed natural philosophy and Deism in the 1760’s, and began writing this work around 1765. Several wars later, and territorial disputes mostly concluded, Allen went to Young’s widow (Young died in 1777) and retrieved the manuscript they had written so far. He rewrote some and completed it in 1785, publishing it privately in Bennington, Vermont. 1,500 copies were made, and only 200 were sold. A fire broke out and ruined many of the title. According to some, Haswell, the publisher, believed this a divine intervention, and the rest of the stock was burned. Others have argued it did not sell well, so Haswell decided to rid himself of the rest of the stock. Regardless, the only ones that remain from that first run are the ones that were initially sold.
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REASON, THE ONLY ORACLE OF MAN
A COMPENDIUS SYSTEM OF NATURAL RELIGION
Colonel Ethan Allen, the author of Oracles of Reason, was the son of Joseph Allen, a native of Coventry, Connecticut, a farmer in moderate circumstances. He afterwards resided in Litchfield, where Ethan was born in the year 1739. The family consisted of eight children, of whom our author was the eldest. But few incidents connected with his early life are known. We are apprised, however, that notwithstanding his education was very limited, his ambition to prove himself worthy of that attention which superior intellect ever commands, induced him diligently to explore every subject that came under his notice. A stranger to fear, his opinions were ever given without disguise or hesitation; and an enemy to oppression, he sought every opportunity to redress the wrongs of the oppressed.
At the breaking out of the Revolutionary War, he raised in Vermont, where he had resided, a company of volunteers, consisting of two hundred and thirty, with which he surprised the fortress of Ticonderoga, May 10, 1775, containing about forty men, and one hundred pieces of cannon. He was unfortunately taken prisoner in September following, in an attempt on Montreal, and sufferred a cruel imprisonment for several years. For an account of which, the reader is referred to his narrative, contained in a memoir of the author, by Mr. Hugh Moore, Plattsburg, 1834.
Soon after the close of the revolution, Col. Allen composed the following work; which, on account of the bold and unusual manner, particularly in this country, that the subject of religion is treated, he had great difficulty to get published. It lay a long time in the hands of a printer at Hartford, who had not the moral courage to print it. It was finally printed by a Mr. Haswell, of Bennington, Vt. in 1784. Not long after its publication, a part of the edition, comprising the entire of several signatures, was accidentally consumed by fire. Whether Mr. H. deemed this fire a judgment upon him for having printed the work or not, is unknown — but, the fact is, he soon after committed the remainder of the edition to the flames, and joined the Methodist Connection; so that but few copies were circulated.
Col. Allen died in the town of Burlington, Vt., on the 12th of February, 1789, of apoplexy.
An apology appears to me to be impertinent in writers who venture their works to public inspection, for this obvious reason, that if they need it, they should have been stifled in the birth, and not permitted a public existence. I therefore offer my composition to the candid judgment of the impartial world without it, taking it for granted that I have as good a natural right to expose myself to public censure, by endeavouring to subserve mankind, as any of the species who have published their productions since the creation; and I ask no favor at the hands of philosophers, divines or critics, but hope and expect they will severely chastise me for my errors and mistakes, least they may have a share in perverting the truth, which is very far from my intention.
In the circle of my acquaintance, (which has not been small,) I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism make me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not, strictly speaking, whether I am one or not, for I have never read their writings; mine will therefore determine the matter; for I have not in the least disguised my sentiments, but have written freely without any conscious knowledge of prejudice for, or against any man, sectary or party whatever; but wish that good sense, truth and virtue may be promoted and flourish in the world, to the detection of delusion, superstition, and false religion; and therefore my errors in the succeeding treatise, which may be rationally pointed out, will be readily rescinded.
By the public’s most obedient and humble servant.
Section 1. The Duty of Reforming Mankind from Superstition and Error and the Good Consequences of it
The desire of knowledge has engaged the attention of the wise and curious among mankind in all ages which has been productive of extending the arts and sciences far and wide in the several quarters of the globe, and excited the contemplative to explore nature’s laws in a gradual series of improvement, until philosophy, astronomy, geography, and history, with many other branches of science, have arrived to a great degree of perfection.
It is nevertheless to be regretted, that the bulk of mankind, even in those nations which are most celebrated for learning and wisdom, are still carried down the torrent of superstition, and entertain very unworthy apprehensions of the being, perfections, creation, and providence of God, and their duty to him, which lays an indispensable obligation on the philosophic friends of human nature, unanimously to exert themselves in every lawful, wise, and prudent method, to endeavor to reclaim mankind from their ignorance and delusion, by enlightening their minds in those great and sublime truths concerning God and his providence, and their obligations to moral rectitude which in this world, and that which is to come, cannot fail greatly to affect their happiness and well being.
Though “none by searching can find out God, or the Almighty to perfection,” yet I am persuaded, that if mankind would dare to exercise their reason as freely on those divine topics as they do in the common concerns of life, they would, in a great measure, rid themselves of their blindness and superstition, gain more exalted ideas of God and their obligations to him and one another, and be proportionally delighted and blessed with the views of his moral government, make better members of society, and acquire many powerful incentives to the practice of morality, which is the last and greatest perfection that human nature is capable of.
Section 2. Of the Being of a God
The laws of nature having subjected mankind to a state of absolute dependence on something out of it, and manifestly beyond themselves, or the compound exertion of their natural powers, gave them the first conception of a superior principle existing; otherwise they could have had no possible conception of a superintending power. But this sense of dependency, which results from experience and reasoning on the facts, which every day cannot fail to produce, has uniformly established the knowledge of our dependence to every individual of the species who are rational, which necessarily involves, or contains in it, the idea of a ruling power, or that there is a God, which ideas are synonymous.
The globe with its productions, the planets in their motions, and the starry heavens in their magnitudes, surprise our senses and confound our reason, in their munificent lessons of instruction concerning God, by means whereof, we are apt to be more or less lost in our ideas of the object of divine adoration, though at the same time every one is truly sensible that their being and preservation is from God. We are too apt to confound our ideas of God with his works, and take the latter for the former. Thus barbarous and unlearned nations have imagined, that inasmuch as the sun in its influence is beneficial to them in bringing forward the spring of the year, causing the production of vegetation, and food for their subsistence, that therefore it is their God: while others have located other parts of creation, and ascribe to them prerogatives of God; and mere creatures and images have been substituted for Gods by the wickedness or weakness of man, or both together. It seems that mankind in most ages and parts of the world have been fond of corporeal Deities with whom their outward senses might be gratified, or as fantastically diverted from the just apprehension of the true God, by a supposed supernatural intercourse with invisible and mere spiritual beings, to whom they ascribe divinity, so that through one means or other, the character of the true God has been much neglected, to the great detriment of truth, justice, and morality in the world; nor is it possible that mankind can be uniform in their religious opinions, or worship God according to knowledge, except they can form a consistent arrangement of ideas of the Divine character.
Although we extend our ideas retrospectively ever so far upon the succession, yet no one cause in the extended order of succession, which depends upon another prior to itself, can be the independent cause of all things: nor is it possible to trace the order of the succession of causes back to that self-existent cause, inasmuch as it is eternal and infinite, and cannot therefore be traced out by succession, which operates according to the order of time, consequently can bear no more proportion to the eternity of God, than time itself may be supposed to do, which has no proportion at all; as the succeeding arguments respecting the eternity and infinity of God will evince. But notwithstanding the series of the succession of causes cannot be followed in a retrospective succession up to the self-existent or eternal cause, it is nevertheless a perpetual and conclusive evidence of a God. — For a succession of causes considered collectively, can be nothing more than effects of the independent cause, and as much dependent on it as those dependent causes are upon one another; so that we may with certainty conclude that the system of nature, which we call by the name of natural causes, is as much dependent on a self-existent cause, as an individual of the species in the order of generation is dependent on its progenitors for existence. Such part of the series of nature’s operations, which we understand, has a regular and necessary connection with, and dependence on its parts, which we denominate by the names of cause and effect. From hence we are authorised from reason to conclude, that the vast system of causes and effects are thus necessarily connected, (speaking of the natural world only,) and the whole regularly and necessarily dependent on a self-existent cause: so that we are obliged to admit an independent cause, and ascribe self-existence to it, otherwise it could not be independent, and consequently not a God. But the eternity or manner of the existence of a self-existent and independent being is to all finite capacities utterly incomprehensible; yet this is so far from an objection against the reality of such a being, that it is essentially necessary to support the evidence of it; for if we could comprehend that being whom we call God, he would not be God, but must have been finite and that in the same degree as those may be supposed to be who could comprehend him; therefore so certain that God is, we cannot comprehend his essence, eternity, or manner of existence. This should always be premised, when we assay to reason on the being, perfection, eternity, and infinity of God, or of his creation and providence. As far as we understand nature, we are become acquainted with the character of God, for the knowledge of nature is the revelation of God. If we form in our imagination a compendious idea of the harmony of the universe, it is the same as calling God by the name of harmony, for there could be no harmony without regulation, and no regulation without a regulator, which is expressive of the idea of a God. Nor could it be possible, that there could be order or disorder, except we admit of such a thing as creation, and creation contains in it the idea of a creator, which is another appellation for the Divine Being, distinguishing God from his creation. Furthermore, there could be no proportion, figure, or motion, without wisdom and power; wisdom to plan, and power to execute, and these are perfections, when applied to the works of nature, which signify the agency or superintendency of God. If we consider nature to be matter, figure, and motion, we include the idea of God in that of motion; for motion implies a mover as much as creation does a creator. If from the composition, texture, and tendency of the universe in general, we form a complex idea of general good resulting therefrom to mankind, we implicitly admit a God by the name of good, including the idea of his providence to man. And from hence arises our obligations to love and adore God, because he provides for, and is beneficent to us. Abstract the idea of goodness from the character of God, and it would cancel all our obligations to him, and excite us to hate and detest him as a tyrant: hence it is, that ignorant people are superstitiously misled into a conceit that they hate God, when at the same time it is only the idol of their own imagination, which they truly ought to hate and be ashamed of; but were such persons to connect the ideas of power, wisdom, goodness, and all possible perfection in the character of God, their hatred towards him would be turned into love and adoration.
By extending our ideas in a larger circle, we shall perceive our dependence on the earth and waters of the globe which we inhabit, and from which we are bountifully fed and gorgeously arrayed; and next extend our ideas to the sun, whose fiery mass darts its brilliant rays of light to our terraqueous ball with amazing velocity, and whose region of inexhaustible fire supplies it with fervent heat, which causes vegetation, and gilds the various seasons of the year with ten thousand charms: this is not the achievement of man, but the workmanship and providence of God. But how the sun is supplied with materials, thus to perpetuate its kind influences, we know not. But will any one deny the reality of those beneficial influences, because we do not understand the manner of the perpetuality of that fiery world, or how it became such a body of fire? or will any one deny the reality of nutrition by food, because we do not understand the secret operation of the digesting powers of animal nature, or the minute particulars of its cherishing influence? None will be so stupid as to do it. Equally absurd would it be for us to deny the providence of God, by “whom we live, move, and have our being,” because we cannot comprehend it.
We know that earth, water, fire and air, in their various compositions subserve us, and we also know that these elements are devoid of reflection, reason, or design; from whence we may easily infer, that a wise, understanding, and designing being has ordained them to be thus subservient. Could blind chance constitute order and decorum, and consequently a providence? That wisdom, order, and design should be the production of nonentity, or of chaos, confusion, and old night, is too absurd to deserve a serious confutation, for it supposeth that there may be effects without a cause, viz.: produced by nonentity, or that chaos and confusion could produce the effects of power, wisdom, and goodness. Such absurdities as these we must assent to, or subscribe to the doctrine of a self-existent and providential being.
Section 3. The Manner of Discovering the Moral Perfections and Attributes of God
Having in a concise manner offered a variety of indisputable reasons to evince the certainty of the being and providence of God, and of his goodness to man through the intervention of the series of nature’s operations, which are commonly described by the name of natural causes, we come now more particularly to the consideration of his moral perfections; and though all finite beings fall as much short of an adequate knowledge thereof as they do of perfection itself, nevertheless through the intelligence of our own souls we may have something of a prospective idea of the divine perfections. For though the human mind bears no proportion to the divine, yet there is undoubtedly a resemblance between them. For instance, God knows all things, and we know some things, and in the things which we do understand, our knowledge agrees with that of the divine, and cannot fail necessarily corresponding with it. To more than know a thing, speaking of that thing only, is impossible even to omniscience itself; for knowledge is but the same in both the infinite and finite minds. To know a thing is the same as to have right ideas of it, or ideas according to truth, and truth is uniform in all rational minds, the divine mind not excepted. It will not be disputed but that mankind in plain and common matters understand justice from injustice, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, virtue from vice, and praise-worthiness from blame-worthiness, for other wise they could not be accountable creatures. This being admitted, we are capable of forming a complex idea of a moral character, which when done in the most deliberate, the wisest, and most rational manner in our power, we are certain bears a resemblance to the divine perfections. For as we learn from the worlds of nature an idea of the power and wisdom of God, so from our own rational nature we learn an idea of his moral perfections.
From what has been observed on the moral perfections of God, we infer that all rational beings, who have an idea of justice, goodness, and truth, have at the same time either a greater or less idea of the moral perfections of God. It is by reason that we are able to compound an idea of a moral character, whether applied to God or man; it is that which gives us the supremacy over the irrational part of the creation.
Section 4. The Cause of Idolatry, and the Remedy of it
Inasmuch as God is not corporeal, and consequently does not and cannot come within the notice of our bodily sensations, we are therefore obliged to deduce inferences from his providence, and particularly from our own rational nature, in order to form our conceptions of the divine character, which through inattention, want of learning, or through the natural imbecility of mankind, or through the artifice of designing men, or all together, they have been greatly divided and subdivided in their notions of a God. Many have so groped in the dark as wholly to mistake the proper object of divine worship, and not distinguishing the creator from his creation, have paid adoration to “four footed beasts and creeping things.” And some have ascribed divine honors to the sun, moon, or stars; while others have been infatuated to worship dumb, senseless, and unintelligent idols, which derived their existence as Gods, partly from mechanics, who gave them their figure, proportion, and beauty, and partly from their priests, who gave them their attributes; whose believers, it appears, were so wrought upon, that they cried out in the ecstasy of their deluded zeal, “Great is Diana.” Whatever delusions have taken place in the world relative to the object of divine worship, or respecting the indecencies or immoralities of the respective superstitions themselves, or by what means soever introduced or perpetuated, whether by designing men whose interest it has always been to impose on the weakness of the great mass of the vulgar; or as it is probable, that part of those delusions took place in consequence of the weakness of uncultivated reason, in deducing a visible instead of an invisible God from the works of nature. Be that as it will, mankind are generally possessed of an idea that there is a God, however they may have been mistaken or misled as to the object. This notion of a God, as has been before observed, must have originated from a universal sense of dependence, which mankind have on something that is more wise, powerful, and beneficent than themselves, or they could have had no apprehensions of any superintending principle in the universe, and consequently would never have sought after a God, or have had any conception of his existence, nor could designing men have imposed on their credulity by obtruding false Gods upon them; but taking advantage of the common belief that there is a God, they artfully deceive their adherents with regard to the object to be adored. There are other sorts of idols which have no existence but in the mere imagination of the human mind; and these are vastly the most numerous, and universally (either in the greater or less degree) dispersed over the world; the wisest of mankind are not and cannot be wholly exempt from them, inasmuch as every wrong conception of God is (as far as the error takes place in the mind) idolatrous. To give a sample, an idea of a jealous God is of this sort. Jealousy is the offspring of finite minds, proceeding from the want of knowledge; which in dubious matters makes us suspicious and distrustful; but in matters which we clearly understand, there can be no jealousy, for knowledge excludes it, so that to ascribe it to God is a manifest infringement on his omniscience. 1
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