Ever since there has been philosophy, that is, ever since men first reflected on themselves and the beings around them, they have been engaged with those questions which have for their object the basis of human knowledge, and this shows that on this subject serious difficulties are encountered. Inquirers, however, have not been discouraged by the sterility of philosophical labors; and this shows that in the last term of the investigation an object of high importance is discovered.
Philosophers have cavilled in the most extravagant manner upon the questions of certainty; on few subjects has the history of the human mind presented such lamentable aberrations. This consideration may excite suspicion that such investigations offer nothing solid to the mind, and serve only to feed the vanity of the sophist. But here, as elsewhere, we attribute no exaggerated importance to the opinions of philosophers, and we are very far from believing that they ought to be regarded as the legitimate representatives of human reason. It cannot, however, be denied that they are in the intellectual order the most active portion of the human race. When the whole body of philosophers dispute, humanity itself may be said to dispute. Every fact affecting the human race merits a thorough examination; to undervalue it, on account of the sophisms which envelop it, is to fall into the worst of all sophisms. There should be no contradiction between reason and common sense; yet such a contradiction there would be, if we should, in the name of common sense, contemn what occupies the reason of the most enlightened minds. Oftentimes it happens that what is grave and significant, that which makes a thinking man meditate, is the result neither of a disputation, nor of the arguments therein adduced, but the simple existence of the dispute itself. In itself it is sometimes of little importance, but by reason of what it indicates, of great consequence.
All philosophical questions are in some manner involved in that of certainty. When we have completely unfolded this, we have examined under one aspect or another all that human reason can conceive of God, man, and the universe. At first sight it may perhaps seem to be the simple foundation of the scientific structure; but in this foundation, if we carefully examine it, we shall see the whole edifice represented: it is a plane whereon is projected, visibly and in fair perspective, the whole body it is to support.
However limited may be the direct and immediate result of these investigations, they are of incalculable advantage. It is highly important to acquire science, but not less important to know its limits. Near these limits there are shoals which the navigator ought to know. It is by examining the question of certainty that we ascertain the limits of human science.
In descending to the depths to which these questions lead us, the understanding grows dim, and the heart is awed with a religious fear. A moment ago we were contemplating the edifice of human knowledge, and grew proud to see it with its colossal dimensions, its beautiful forms, its fine and bold construction; we enter it, and are led through deep caverns, and, as if by enchantment, the foundation seems to be subtilized, to evaporate, and the superb edifice remains floating in the air.
Like a clap of thunder, it attracted at once the attention of all Europe; on one side it spread alarm, and on the other excited the most lively sympathy: it grew so rapidly, that its adversaries had not time to strangle it in its cradle. Scarcely had it begun to exist, and already all hope of stopping, or even restraining it, was gone; when, emboldened by being treated with respect and consideration, it became every day more daring; if exasperated by rigour, it openly resisted measures of coercion, or redoubled and concentrated its forces, to make more vigorous attacks. Discussions, the profound investigations and scientific methods which were used in combating it, contributed to develop the spirit of inquiry, and served as vehicles to propagate its ideas.
By creating new and prevailing interests, it made itself powerful protectors; by throwing all the passions into a state of fury, it aroused them in its favor. It availed itself, by turns, of stratagem, force, seduction, or violence, according to the exigencies of times and circumstances. It attempted to make its way in all directions; either destroying impediments, or taking advantage of them, if they were capable of being turned to account.
When introduced into a country, it never rested until it had obtained guarantees for its continued existence; and it succeeded in doing so everywhere. After having obtained vast establishments in EuropeÑwhich it still retainsÑit was transported into other parts of the world, and infused into the veins of simple and unsuspecting nations.
In order to appreciate a fact at its just value, to embrace it in all its relations, and to distinguish properly between them, it is necessary to examine whether the constituting principle of the fact can be ascertained, or at least whether we can observe in its appearance any characteristic trait capable of revealing its inward nature. This examination is very difficult when we have to do with a fact of the kind and importance of that which now occupies our attention. In matters of this sort, numbers of opinions accumulate in the course of time, in favor of all which arguments have been sought. The inquirer, in the midst of so many and such various objects, is perplexed, disconcerted, and confounded; and if he wish to place himself in a more advantageous point of view, he finds the ground so covered with fragments, that he cannot make his way without risk of losing himself at every step.
The first glance which we give to Protestantism, whether we consider its actual condition, or whether we regard the various phases of its history, shows us that it is very difficult to find any thing constant in it, any thing which can be assigned as its constituent character. Uncertain in its opinions, it modifies them continually, and changes them in a thousand ways. Vague in its tendencies, and fluctuating in its desires, it attempts every form, and essays every road. It can never attain to a well-defined existence; and we see it every moment enter new paths, to lose itself in new labyrinths.