Containing a curious dispute on the immortality of the soul.
IT is the nature of all mankind, authors as well as others, to abuse the patience of their friends, and as I have already related two conversations in this little work, instead of supposing the reader to be satiated with them, I am tempted to trespass farther on his patience, and trouble him with a third; in which, moreover, the name of our hero will but once be mentioned.
Lady Tempest, being indisposed with some trifling disorder, kept her chamber, and was attended by two physicians. As her behaviour in life had excluded her from the prudent and virtuous part of her sex, her visitors consisted chiefly of such ladies, who had contracted a stain, which placed them on a level with her ladyship: and to say the truth, ladies of this sort are so numerous in the great city of London, that no woman may fear a solitude, let her imprudence be ever so glaring. Her Ladyship's physicians were now making their morning visit, and had just gone through the examinations, which custom immemorial prescribes—as, 'how did your ladyship sleep last night?—do you find any drouth, Madam?—pray let me look at your ladyship's tongue,'—and many other questions of a like nature, which I have not leisure now to record. When these were finished, and the youngest was preparing to write a perscription on a sudden, a violent rap at the door, and shortly afterwards the appearance of a visitor, interrupted their proceedings. The lady, who now arrived, came directly up to Lady Tempest, and made her compliments; then being desired to sit down, and addressing herself, after some little pause, to one of the physicians, with a face of infinite significance and erudition, she asked him, 'if he believed in the immortality of the soul?'—but before we answer this extraordinary question, or relate the conversation that ensued upon it, it will be for the reader's ease to receive a short sketch of her character.
In many respects this lady was in similar circumstances with Lady Tempest; only with this difference, that the one had been separated from her husband by his death, the other was divorced from hers by act of Parliament; the one was famous for wit, and the other affected the character of wisdom. Lady Sophister, (for that was her name) as soon as she was released from the matrimonial fetters, set out to visit foreign parts, and displayed her charms in most of the courts in Europe. There, in many parts of her tour, she had cultivated an acquaintance with literati, and particularly in France, where the ladies affect a reputation of science, and are able to discourse on the profoundest questions of theology and philosophy. The labyrinths of a female brain are so various and intricate, that it is difficult to say what first suggested the opinion to her, whether caprice, or vanity of being singular; but all on a sudden her ladyship took a fancy into her head to disbelieve the immortality of the soul, and never came into the company of learned men without displaying her talents on this wonderful subject. The world indeed ascribed the rise of this opinion in her ladyship's brain, to self-interest; for, they said, 'it is much better to perish than to burn;' but for my part, I choose rather to impute it to absolute whim and caprice, or rather, an absurd and ridiculous love of paradox. But whatever started the thought first in her imagination, she had been at the pains of great reading to confirm it, and could appeal to the greatest authorities in defence of it. She had read Hobbes, Malbranche, Locke, Shaftsbury, Woolaston, and many more; all of whom she obliged to give testimony to her paradox, and perverted passages out of their works with a facility very easy to be imagined. But Mr. Locke had the misfortune to be her principal favourite, and consequently it rested chiefly upon him to furnish her with quotations, whenever her ladyship pleased to engage in controversy. Such was the character of Lady Sophister, who now arrived, and asked the surprising question above-mentioned, concerning the immortality of the soul.
Doctor Killdarby, to whom she addressed herself, astonished at the novelty of the question, sat staring with horror and amazement on his companion; which Lady Tempest observing, and guessing that her female friend was going to be very absurd, resolved to promote the conversation for her own amusement. Turning herself therefore to the doctor, she said with a smile, 'don't you understand the meaning of her ladyship's question, Sir? She asks you, if you believe in the immortality of the soul?'
'Believe in the immortality of the soul, Madam!' said the doctor staring, 'bless me, your ladyships astonish me beyond measure—Believe in the immortality of the soul! Yes undoubtedly, and I hope all mankind does the same.' 'Be not sure of that, Sir,' said Lady Sophister; 'pray have you ever read Mr. Locke's controversy with the bishop of Worcester?' 'Mr. Locke's controversy, Madam!' replied the doctor, 'I protest I am not sure;—Mr. Locke's controversy with the bishop of Worcester, did your ladyship sat? Let me see—I vow I can't recollect—My reading has been very multifarious and extensive—Yes, Madam, I think I have read it, though I protest I can't be sure whether I have read it or no.' 'Have you ever read it, doctor Rhubarb?' said she, addressing herself to the other physician.—'O yes, Madam, very often,' answered he; ''tis that fine piece of his where—Yes, yes, I have read it very often; I remember it perfectly well—but pray, Madam, is there any passage—I beg your ladyship's pardon if I am mistaken—but is there any passage, I say, in that piece, which tends to confirm your ladyship's notion concerning the immortality of the soul?' 'Why pray, Sir,' said the lady, with a smile of triumph, 'what do you esteem the soul to be? Is it air, or fire, or æther, or a kind of quintessence, as Aristotle observed, and composition of all the elements?' Doctor Rhubarb quite dumb-founded with so much learning, desired first to hear her ladyship's opinion of the matter. 'My opinion,' resumed she, 'is exactly the same with Mr. Locke's. You know Mr. Locke observes, there are various kinds of matter—well—but first we should define matter, which you know the logicians tell us, is an extended solid substance—Well, out of this matter, some you know is made into roses and peach-trees; then the next step which matter takes, is animal life; from whence we have lions and elephants, and all the race of brutes. Then the next step, as Mr. Locke observes, is thought and reason and volition, from whence are created men, and therefore you very plainly see, 'tis impossible for the soul to be immortal.'
'Pardon me, Madam,' said Rhubarb—'Roses and peach-trees, an elephants and lions! I protest I remember nothing of this nature in Mr. Locke.' 'Nay Sir,' said she, 'can you deny me this? If the Soul is fire, it must be extinguished; if it is air, it must be dispersed; it be only a modification of matter, why then of course it ceases, you know, when matter is no longer modified—if it be anything else, it is exactly the same thing, and therefore you must confess—indeed Doctor, you must confess, that 'tis impossible for the Soul to be immortal.'
Doctor Killdarby, who had sat silent for some time to collect his thoughts, finding what a learned antagonist he had to cope with, began now to harangue in the following manner. 'Madam,' said he, 'I shall not trouble myself with the sophistry and quibbles of the schools, where men of idleness and retirement first of all puzzle themselves with intricate speculations, and then disturb the quiet of the world, by publishing the result of them, and by starting difficulties in men's minds that otherwise would never have occurred. Common-sense, assisted by revelation, is capable of attaining to all the knowledge, that is of use and importance for us to know; and whatever goes beyond this, is but a specious learned kind of trifling, which may be attended with much mischief, but never can produce any good. Now the concurrent opinions of mankind have ever agreed in believing the immortality of the soul, and there was never any nation so barbarous in ignorance, or so depraved by superstition, as to be without, or doubtful of, this fundamental article of all religion. They may have differed, perhaps, in their notions of a future state, but the maim article, the first groundwork of the question has ever been the same; and this to me, I confess, is to me an unanswerable argument of its truth. You see, Madam, I purposely wave the topic of revelation, that I may not expose it to the ridicule of infidelity.'
'Oh, Sir, as to that matter,' said the lady, interrupting him with a sneer, 'as to that matter, as to revelation'——and here she ran into much common-place raillery at the expense only of Christianity and the gospel, till Lady Tempest cut her short, and desired her to be silent on that head; for this good lady believed all the doctrines of religion, and was contented, like many others, with the trifling privilege only of disobeying all its precepts.
Lady Sophister however, though she had been unsuccessful in her first attack, was resolved not to quit the field of battle, but rallied her forces, and once more fell on her adversaries with an air of triumph. 'You may think, Sir,' resumed she, 'that a multitude of opinions will establish a truth—Now you know all the Indians believe that their dogs will go to heaven along with them; and if a great many opinions can prove anything to be true, what say you to that, Sir? For instance, there's Lady Tempest's little lap-dog'—'My dear little creature,' said Lady Tempest, catching him up in her arms, 'will you go to heaven along with me? I shall be vastly glad of your company, Pompey, if you will.' From this hint both their ladyships had many bright sallies, till Lady Sophister, flushed with the hopes of this argument, recalled her adversary to the question, and desired to hear his reply. 'Madam,' said Killdarby; 'The reply would be easy enough; but I am sorry to her your ladyships talk so loosely on so serious a subject; though I confess it is not a new thing to me, for I have been present in many companies of late, where the weakest arguments, and most wanton raillery against religion have been received with applause. The answer to what your ladyship has advanced, would be easy and obvious, but I must beg to be excused—my profession does not oblige me to a knowledge of such subjects—I came here to prescribe as a physician, and not to discuss topics of theology.—Come, brother, I believe we only interrupt their ladyships, and I am obliged to call upon my lord —— and Lady —— and Sir William —— and lady Betty, and many other people of quality this morning.' Dr. Rhubarb declared that he likewise had as many visits to make that morning; whereupon the two gentlemen, taking their leaves—and their fees, retired with great precipitation, leaving her ladyship in possession of the field of battle; who immediately reported all over the town, that she had out-reasoned two physicians, and obliged them by dint of argument to confess that the soul is not immortal.
Before I conclude this chapter, I must beg the reader not to imagine that any ridicule was here intended of Mr. Locke, whose name ought ever be mentioned with honour, and much less of the great question debated in it; but on the contrary, that it was designed to expose the folly and impiety of modern wits, who dare to think religion a proper subject of ridicule; and principally, to explode the vanity of women's pretending to philosophy, when neither their intellects, or education qualify them for it. Beauty is no excuse for infidelity, and when they have so many other arts to gain admirers, one would think they need not be driven to dispute against the immortality of the soul.