“Necessity! Thou Mother of the World!”

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[The following essay, a Note from Queen Mab, is important in understanding the development of Shelley's philosophy. It is a blending of the ideas of Spinoza, Hume, and Holbach. Spinoza's vigorous and persuasive exposition of the doctrine of Necessity and its impact on religion and morals powerfully influenced Shelley's youthful mind. It was Spinoza who gave direction to Shelley's thought about Necessity. His reading in Hume on the same subject only confirmed Shelley's growing belief in scientific determinism. But it was perhaps to Holbach’s Système de la Nature that Shelley owed his greatest and most immediate debt for his ideas of a universe ruled by Necessity. The very phrase, Thou mother of the world, comes directly from Holbach, and the idea of a pervading force in nature Holbach discusses at length. The ideas thus early gained underwent but slight change throughout his life, and Necessity under various forms and figures is the key to his fundamental philosophy. Shelley scholars, I am convinced, have overstressed what modification Shelley made in the doctrine of Necessity. The change is more of form than of substance. His study of Plato only accentuated his early leanings toward the doctrine of pantheism, already encountered in Spinoza. It is in the blending of Platonic ideas of Love and Intellectual Beauty and Spinozan pantheism, and their impact upon the cold, impersonal doctrine of Necessity, that we must look for whatever change Shelley's philosophy underwent.

Shelley was never a materialist in the philosophical use of the term, and his conception of Necessity always carried with it a belief in a spiritual or mental element. That is why he defined God as the Soul of the Universe, the animating principle in all forms of matter—both animate and inanimate.]

He who asserts the doctrine of Necessity means that, contemplating the events which compose the moral and material universe, he beholds only an immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, no one of which could occupy any other place than it does occupy, or act in any other place than it does act. The idea of Necessity is obtained by our experience of the connection between objects, the uniformity of the operations of nature, the constant conjunction of similar events, and the consequent inference of one from the other. Mankind are therefore agreed in the admission of Necessity, if they admit that these two circumstances take place in voluntary action. Motive is to voluntary action in the human mind what cause is to effect in the material universe. The word liberty as applied to mind is analogous to the word chance as applied to matter: [1] they spring from the ignorance of the certainty of the conjunction of antecedents and consequents. [2]

Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated which, operating under the name of motives, make it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than it is. Were the doctrine of Necessity false, the human mind would no longer be a legitimate object of science; from like causes it would be in vain that we should expect like effects; the strongest motive would no longer be paramount over the conduct; all knowledge would be vague and undeterminate; we could not predict with any certainty that we might not meet as an enemy to‑morrow him from whom we have parted in friendship to‑night; the most probable inducements and the clearest reasonings would lose the invariable influence they possess. [3] The contrary of this is demonstrably the fact. Similar circumstances produce the same unvariable effects. The precise character and motives of any man on any occasion being given, the moral philosopher could predict his actions with as much certainty as the natural philosopher could predict the effects of the mixture of any particular chemical substances. [4] Why is the aged husbandman more experienced than the young beginner? Because there is an uniform, undeniable necessity in the operations of the material universe. Why is the old statesman more skilful than the raw politician? Because, relying on the necessary conjunction of motive and action, he proceeds to produce moral effects by the application of those moral causes which experience has shown to be effectual. Some actions may be found to which we can attach no motives, but these are the effects of causes with which we are unacquainted. Hence the relation which motive bears to voluntary action is that of cause to effect; nor, placed in this point of view, is it, or ever has it been, the subject of popular or philosophical  dispute. [5] None but the few fanatics who are engaged in the Herculean task of reconciling the justice of their God with the misery of man will longer outrage common sense by the supposition of an event without a cause, voluntary action without a motive. History, politics, morals, criticism, all grounds of reasoning, all principles of science, alike assume the truth of the doctrine of Necessity. [6] No farmer carrying his corn to market doubts the sale of it at the market price. The master of a manufactory no more doubts that he can purchase the human labor necesary for his purposes than that his machines will act as they have been accustomed to act. [7]

But, while none have scrupled to admit Necessity as influencing matter, many have disputed its dominion over mind. [8] Independently of its militating with the received ideas of the justice of God, it is by no means obvious to a superficial inquiry. When the mind observes its own operations, it feels no connection of motive and action; but as we know "nothing more of causation than the constant conjunction of objects and the consequent inference of one from the other, as we find that these two circumstances are universally allowed to have place in voluntary action, we may be easily led to own that they are subjected to the necessity common to all causes." [9] The actions of the will have a regular conjunction with circumstances and characters; motive is to voluntary action what cause is to effect. [10] But the only idea we can form of causation is a constant conjunction of similar objects and the consequent inference of one from the other; wherever this is the case, Necessity is clearly established. [11]

The idea of liberty, applied metaphorically to the will, has sprung from a misconception of the meaning of the word power. What is power?—id quod potest, that which can produce any given effect. To deny power is to say that nothing can or has the power to be or act. In the only true sense of the word power, it applies with equal force to the lodestone as to the human will. Do you think these motives which I shall present are powerful enough to rouse him? is a question just as common as, Do you think this lever has the power of raising this weight? The advocates of free‑will assert that the will has the power of refusing to be determined by the strongest motive; but the strongest motive is that which, overcoming all others, ultimately prevails; this assertion therefore amounts to a denial of the will being ultimately determined by that motive which does determine it, which is absurd. But it is equally certain that a man cannot resist the strongest motive, as that he cannot overcome a physical impossibility. [12]

The doctrine of Necessity tends to introduce a great change into the established notions of morality and utterly to destroy religion. Reward and punishment must be considered by the Necessarian merely as motives which he would employ in order to procure the adoption or abandonment of any given line of conduct. Desert in the present sense of the word would no longer have any meaning; and he who should inflict pain upon another for no better reason than that he deserved it would only gratify his revenge under pretense of satisfying justice. It is not enough, says the advocate of free‑will, that a criminal should be prevented from a repetition of his crime: he should feel pain, and his torments when justly inflicted ought precisely to be proportioned to his fault. But utility is morality; that which is incapable of producing happiness is useless; and though the crime of Damiens must be condemned, yet the frightful torments which revenge, under the name of justice, inflicted on this unhappy man, cannot be supposed have augmented, even at the long run, the stock of pleasurable sensation in the world. At the same time the doctrine of necessity does not in the least diminish our approbation of vice. [13] The conviction which all feel that a viper is a poisonous animal and that a tiger is constrained by the inevitable condition of his existence to devour men does not induce us to avoid them less sedulously, or, even more, to hesitate in destroying them; but he would surely be of hard heart, who, meeting with a serpent on a desert island, or in a situation where it was capable of injury, should wantonly deprive it of existence. A Necessarian is inconsequent to his own principles, if he indulges in hatred or contempt; the compassion which he feels for the criminal is unmixed with a desire of injuring him; he looks with elevated and dreadless composure upon the links of the universal chain as they pass before his eyes; while cowardice, curiosity, and inconsistency only assail him in proportion to the feebleness and indistinctness with which he has perceived and rejected the elusions of free‑will.

Religion is the perception of the relation in which we stand to the principle of the universe. But if the principle of the universe be not an organic being, the model and prootype of man, the relation between it and human beings is absolutely none. Without some insight into its will respecting our actions, religion is nugatory and vain. But will is only a mode of animal mind; moral qualities also are such as only a human being can possess; to attribute them to the principle of the universe is to annex to it properties incompatible with any possible definition of its nature. [14] It is probable that the word God was originally only an expression denoting the unknown cause of the known events which men perceived in the universe. By the vulgar mistake of a metaphor for a real being, of a word for a thing, it became a man endowed with human qualities and governing the universe as an earthly monarch governs his kingdom. Their addresses to this imaginary being, indeed, are much in the same style as those of subjects to a king. They acknowledge his benevolence, deprecate his anger, and supplicate his favor. [15]

But the doctrine of Necessity teaches us that in no case could any event have happened otherwise than it did happen, and that, if God is the author of good, he is also the author of evil; that, if he is entitled to our gratitude for the one, he is entitled to our hatred for the other; that, admitting the existence of this hypothetic being, he is also subjected to the dominion of an immutable Necessity. It is plain that the same arguments which prove that God is the author of food, light, and life prove him also to be the author of poison, darkness, and death. The wide‑wasting earthquake, the storm, the battle, and the tyranny are attributable to this hypothetic being in the same degree as the fairest forms of nature, sunshine, liberty, and peace. [16]

But we are taught by the doctrine of Necessity that there is neither good nor evil in the universe, otherwise than as the events to which we apply these epithets have relation to our own peculiar mode of being. [17] Still less than with the hypothesis of a God will the doctrine of Necessity accord with the belief of a future state of punishment. God made man such as he is and then damned him for being so; for to say that God was the author of all good, and man the author of all evil is to say that one man made a straight line and a crooked one, and another man made the incongruity.

A Mahometan story, much to the present purpose, is recorded, wherein Adam and Moses are introduced disputing before God in the following manner. Thou, says Moses, art Adam, whom God created, and animated with the breath of life, and caused to be worshipped by the angels, and placed in Paradise, from whence mankind have been expelled for thy fault. Whereto Adam answered, Thou art Moses, whom God chose for his apostle, and entrusted with his word, by giving thee the tables of the law, and whom he vouchsafed to admit to discourse with himself. How many years dost thou find the law was written before I was created? Says Moses, Forty. And dost thou not find, replied Adam, these words therein, And Adam rebelled against his Lord and transgressed? Which Moses confessing, Dost thou therefore blame me, continued he, for doing that which God wrote of me that I should do, forty years before I was created, nay, for what was decreed concerning me fifty thousand years before the creation of heaven and earth? [18]


1. This idea may be found in Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding. Selections, Sec. 6, p. 175. All references to Hume unless otherwise indicated are to this edition, edited by Charles W. Hendel, Jr., Scribner's Sons, 1927.

2. Shelley is here drawing heavily on Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding and also on Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico‑Politicus, upon which I am convinced Shelley based his philosophy of Necessity.

3. This idea is the basis of Spinoza's philosophy of scientific determinism. See also Holbach, 1.27‑39.

4. Compare this series of statements with similar ones in Hume's An Enquiry, Spinoza's Tractatus, and Holbach's Système.

5. See Hume's An Enquiry, Sec. 6.

6. Compare these with like statements in Spinoza's Tractatus and the Ethics.

7. The last two sentences are a paraphrase of Hume's An Enquiry, Part III, Sec. 6, pp. 168‑169.

8. Discussed in both Hume and Spinoza, idem. See Hume's An Enquiry, Part III, Sec. 6.

9. A modified quotation from Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sec. 6. Similar ideas are found in Holbach's Système, Chaps. 1‑8, Bk. I.

10. This sentence is a paraphrase of a passage in Hume, An Enquiry, Sec. 6, p. 168.

11. This sentence is a recasting of one in Hume, An Enquiry, Sec. 6, Part 1, p. 171.

12. This idea is common to Hume, Spinoza, and Holbach.

13. Compare these statements with similar ones in Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, Part III, Sec. 1, and the Enquiry, p. 171.

14. Shelley is here building on Spinoza's ethics. See also Holbach's Système, 1.1‑116.

15. See the letters for 1811‑13 for a similar idea of God.

16. The thought in this paragraph is in Hume's Essays 2:81‑82, and Spinoza's Tractatus.

17. This idea is common to both Spinoza and Hume. For a discussion of Shelley's idea of the doctrine of Necessity see article by F. B. Evans, Shelley, Godwin, Hume, and the Doctrine of Necessity, Studies in Philology (1940), 37: 632‑640. Holbach's influence is not mentioned, and Spinoza is ignored.

18. Sale's Prelim. Disc. to the Koran, p. 164. [Shelley's Note.]

SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe.'“Necessity! Thou Mother of the World!”', in: Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 109-112.

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