“I Will Beget a Son”

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[During 1811‑12 Shelley ordered from London booksellers the works of the leading scientists, historians, and philosophers—ancient and modern. These he read assiduously in preparation for his avowed purpose of reforming the world. He put the ideas thus gained to immediate use in the Notes to Queen Mab, for the most part written during the first three months of 1813. Among the Notes is one to the line, "I will beget a Son," which statement I shall use as a title for this essay. This Note is essentially a redaction of the Letter to Lord Ellenborough.

In the Note Shelley maintained that the leaders of Christianity, throughout its history, had adopted a course of coercion rather than one of persuasion to gain control over the minds of the people as if belief were a voluntary act, as unbelief and criminality were synonymous terms. Had Christianity been freely adopted by the people and in harmony with the moral and social teachings of Jesus, its influence would, Shelley urged, have been salutary. But in allying itself with kings and warriors and wealth and greed, it became the champion not of the poor and oppressed—the especial concern of Jesus—but of the oppressor.

Shelley's profound and life‑long admiration for the character and teachings of Jesus and his even profounder conviction that organized Christianity has betrayed the moral leadership of its founder is a fact that cannot be overstressed.]

A book is put into our hands when children, called the Bible, the purpose of whose history is briefly this: that God made the earth in six days, and there planted a delightful garden, in which he placed the first pair of human beings; [that] in the midst of the garden he planted a tree whose fruit, although within their reach, they were forbidden to touch; that the Devil in the shape of a snake persuaded them to eat of this fruit; in consequence of which God condemned both them and their posterity yet unborn to satisfy his justice by their eternal misery; that, four thousand years after these events (the human race in the meanwhile having gone unredeemed to perdition), God engendered with the betrothed wife of a carpenter in Judea (whose virginity was nevertheless uninjured), and begat a Son, whose name was Jesus Christ; and who was crucified and died, in order that no more men might be devoted to hell‑fire, he bearing the burden of his Father's displeasure by proxy. The book states, in addition, that the soul of whoever disbelieves this sacrifice will be burned with everlasting fire. [1]

During many ages of misery and darkness this story gained implicit belief; but at length men arose who suspected that it was a fable and imposture, and that Jesus Christ, so far from being a God, was only a man like themselves. But a numerous set of men who derived and still derive emoluments from this opinion in the shape of a popular belief told the vulgar that if they did not believe in the Bible, they would be damned to all eternity—and burned, imprisoned, and poisoned all the unbiassed and unconnected inquirers who occasionally arose. They still oppress them so far as the people—now become more enlightened—will allow. [2]

The belief in all that the Bible contains is called Christianity. A Roman governor of Judea at the instance of a priest‑led mob crucified a man called Jesus eighteen centuries ago. He was a man of pure life, who desired to rescue his countrymen from the tyranny of their barbarous and degrading superstitions. The common fate of all who desire to benefit mankind awaited him. The rabble at the instigation of the priests demanded his death, although his very judge made public acknowledgment of his innocence. Jesus was sacrificed to the honor of that God with whom he was afterwards confounded. [3] It is of importance, therefore, to distinguish between the pretended character of this being as the Son of God and the Saviour of the world and his real character as a man who for a vain attempt to reform the world paid the forfeit of his life to that overbearing tyranny which has since so long desolated the universe in his name. While the one is a hypocritical demon, who announces himself as the God of compassion and peace even while he stretches forth his blood‑red hand with the sword of discord to waste the earth, having confessedly devised this scheme of desolation from eternity; the other stands in the foremost list of those true heroes who have died in the glorious martyrdom of liberty and have braved torture, contempt, and poverty in the cause of suffering humanity. [4]

The vulgar, ever in extremes, became persuaded that the crucifixion of Jesus was a supernatural event. Testimonies of miracles, so frequent in unenlightened ages, were not wanting to prove that he was something divine. This belief, rolling through the lapse of ages, met with the reveries of Plato and the reasonings of Aristotle and acquired force and extent until the divinity of Jesus became a dogma which to dispute was death, which to doubt was infamy. [5]

Christianity is now the established religion; he who attempts to impugn it must be contented to behold murderers and traitors take precedence of him in public opinion; though, if his genius be equal to his courage, and assisted by a peculiar coalition of circumstances, future ages may exalt him to a divinity, and persecute others in his name, as he was persecuted in the name of his predecessor in the homage of the world..

The same means that have supported every other popular belief have supported Christianity. War, imprisonment, assassination, and falsehood; deeds of unexampled and incomparable atrocity have made it what it is. [6] The blood shed by the votaries of the God of mercy and peace, since the establishment of his religion, would probably suffice to drown all other sectaries now on the habitable globe. We derive from our ancestors a faith thus fostered and supported; we quarrel, persecute, and hate for its maintenance. Even under a government which, while it infringes the very right of thought and speech, boasts of permitting the liberty of the press, a man is pilloried and imprisoned because he is a deist, and no one raises his voice in the indignation of outraged humanity. But it is ever a proof that the falsehood of a proposition is felt by those who use coercion, not reasoning, to procure its admission; and a dispassionate observer would feel himself more powerfully interested in favor of a man who, depending an the truth of his opinions, simply stated his reasons for entertaining them than in that of his aggressor who, daringly avowing his unwillingness or incapacity to answer them by argument, proceeded to repress the energies and break the spirit of their promulgator by that torture and imprisonment whose infliction he could command. [7]

Analogy seems to favor the opinion that as, like other systems, Christianity has arisen and augmented, so like them it will decay and perish; that, as violence, darkness, and deceit, not reasoning and persuasion, have procured its admission among mankind so, when enthusiasm has subsided, and time, that infallible controverter of false opinions, has involved its pretended evidences in the darkness of antiquity, it will become obsolete; that Milton's poem alone will give permanency to the remembrance of its absurdities; and that men will laugh as heartily at grace, faith, redemption, and original sin, as they now do at the metamorphoses of Jupiter, the miracles of Romish saints, the efficacy of witchcraft, and the appearance of departed spirits.

Had the Christian religion commenced and continued by the mere force of reasoning and persuasion, the preceding analogy would be inadmissible. We should never speculate on the future obsoleteness of a system perfectly conformable to nature and reason; it would endure so long as they endured; it would be a truth as indisputable as the light of the sun, the criminality of murder, and other facts whose evidence, depending on our organization and relative situations, must remain acknowledged as satisfactory, so long as man is man. It is an incontrovertible fact, the consideration of which ought to repress the hasty conclusions of credulity, or moderate its obstinacy in maintaining them, that had the Jews not been a fanatical race of men, had even the resolution of Pontius Pilate been equal to his candor, the Christian religion never could have prevailed, it could not even have existed; on so feeble a thread hangs the most cherished opinion of a sixth of the human race! When will the vulgar learn humility? When will the pride of ignorance blush at having believed before it could comprehend?

Either the Christian religion is true, or it is false; if true, it comes from God, and its authenticity can admit of doubt and dispute no further than its omnipotent author is willing to allow. Either the power or the goodness of God is called in question if he leaves those doctrines most essential to the well‑being of man in doubt and dispute—the only ones which, since their promulgation, have been the subject of unceasing cavil, the cause of irreconcilable hatred. If God has spoken, why is the universe not convinced? [9]

There is this passage in the Christian Scriptures: "Those who obey not God, and believe not the Gospel of his Son, shall be punished with everlasting destruction." This is the pivot upon which all religions turn; they all assume that it is in our power to believe or not to believe; whereas the mind can only believe that which it thinks true. A human being can only be supposed accountable for those actions which are influenced by his will. But belief is utterly distinct from and unconnected with volition: it is the apprehension of the agreement or disagreement of the ideas that compose any proposition. Belief is a passion, or involuntary operation of the mind and, like other passions, its intensity is precisely proportionate to the degrees of excitement. Volition is essential to merit or demerit. [9] But the Christian religion attaches the highest possible degrees of merit and demerit to that which is worthy of neither, and which is totally unconnected with the peculiar faculty of the mind, whose presence is essential to their being.

Christianity was intended to reform the world; had an all‑wise Being planned it, nothing is more improbable than that it should have failed; omniscience would infallibly have foreseen the inutility of a scheme which experience demonstrates to this age to have been utterly unsuccessful.

Christianity inculcates the necessity of supplicating the Deity. Prayer may be considered under two points of view: as an endeavor to change the intentions of God, or as a formal testimony of our obedience. But the former case supposes that the caprices of a limited intelligence can occasionally instruct the Creator of the world how to regulate the universe; and the latter, a certain degree of servility analogous to the loyalty demanded by earthly tyrants. Obedience indeed is only the pitiful and cowardly egotism of him who thinks that he can do something better than reason.

Christianity like all other religions rests upon miracles, prophecies, and martyrdoms. No religion ever existed which had not its prophets, its attested miracles, and above all crowds of devotees who would bear patiently the most horrible tortures to prove its authenticity. It should appear that in no case can a discriminating mind subscribe to the genuineness of a miracle. A miracle is an infraction of nature's law by a supernatural cause, by a cause acting beyond that eternal circle within which all things are included. God breaks through the law of nature that he may convince mankind of the truth of that revelation which in spite of his precautions has been since its introduction the subject of unceasing schism and cavil. [10]

Miracles resolve themselves into the following question: [11] Whether it is more probable the laws of nature, hitherto so immutably harmonious, should have undergone violation, or that a man should have told a lie? Whether it is more probable that we are ignorant of the natural cause of an event, or that we know the supernatural one? That, in old times, when the powers of nature were less known than at presents a certain set of men were themselves deceived, or had some hidden motive for deceiving others; or that God begat a son who in his legislation measuring merit by belief, evidenced himself to be totally ignorant of the powers of the human mind—of what is voluntary and what is the contrary?

We have many instances of men telling lies; none of an infraction of nature's laws, those laws of whose government alone we have any knowledge or experience. The records of all nations afford innumerable instances of men deceiving others either from vanity or interest, or themselves being deceived by the limitedness of their views and their ignorance of natural causes; but where is the accredited case of God having come upon earth to give the lie to his own creations? There would be something truly wonderful in the appearance of a ghost. But the assertion of a child that he saw one as he passed through the churchyard is universally admitted to be less miraculous. [12]

But even supposing that a man should raise a dead body to life before our eyes, and on this fact rest his claim to being considered the son of God; the Humane Society restores drowned persons, and because it makes no mystery of the method it employs, its members are not mistaken for the sons of God. All that we have a right to infer from our ignorance of the cause of any event is that we do not know it; had the Mexicans attended to this simple rule when they heard the cannon of the Spaniards, they would not have considered them as gods. The experiments of modern chemistry would have defied the wisest philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome to have accounted for them on natural principles. An author of strong common sense has observed that "a miracle is no miracle at second‑hand"; he might have added, that a miracle is no miracle in any case; for until we are acquainted with all natural causes, we have no reason to imagine others.

There remains to be considered another proof of Christianity—prophecy. A book is written before a certain event in which this event is foretold; how could the prophet have foreknown it without inspiration? How could he have been inspired without God? The greatest stress is laid on the prophecies of Moses and Hosea on the dispersion of the Jews, and that of Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah. The prophecy of Moses is a collection of every possible cursing and blessing, and it is so far from being marvelous that the one of dispersion should have been fulfilled, that it would have been more surprising if, out of all these, none should have taken effect. In Deuteronomy, chap. xxviii, ver. 64, where Moses explicitly foretells the dispersion, he states that they shall there serve gods of wood and stone: "And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even to the other, and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even gods of wood and stone." The Jews are at this day remarkably tenacious of their religion. Moses also declares that they shall be subjected to these curses for disobedience to his ritual: "And it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all the commandments and statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee and overtake thee." Is this the real reason? The third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Hosea are a piece of immodest confession. The indelicate type might apply in a hundred senses to a hundred things. The fifty‑third chapter of Isaiah is more explicit, yet it does not exceed in clearness the oracles of Delphos. The historical proof that Moses, Isaiah, and Hosea did write when they are said to have written is far from being clear and circumstantial. [13]

But prophecy requires proof in its character as a miracle; we have no right to suppose that a man foreknew future events from God until it is demonstrated that he neither could know them by his own exertions, nor that the writings which contain the prediction could possibly have been fabricated after the event pretended to be foretold. It is more probable that writings pretending to divine inspiration should have been fabricated after the fulfillment of their pretended prediction than that they should have really been divinely inspired, when we consider that the latter supposition makes God at once the creator of the human mind and ignorant of its primary powers, particularly as we have numberless instances of false religions and forged prophecies of things long past, and no accredited case of God having conversed with men directly or indirectly. It is also possible that the description of an event might have foregone its occurrence; but this is far from being a legitimate proof of a divine revelation, as many men not pretending to the character of a prophet have nevertheless, in this sense, prophesied.

Lord Chesterfield was never yet taken for a prophet, even by a bishop, yet he uttered this remarkable prediction: "The despotic government of France is screwed up to the highest pitch; a revolution is fast approaching; that revolution, I am convinced, will be radical and sanguinary." This appeared in the letters of the prophet long before the accomplishment of this wonderful prediction. Now, have these particulars come to pass, or have they not? If they have, how could the Earl have foreknown them without inspiration? If we admit the truth of the Christian religion on testimony such as this, we must admit on the same strength of evidence that God has affixed the highest rewards to belief and the eternal tortures of the never‑dying worm to disbelief, both of which have been demonstrated to be involuntary.

The last proof of the Christian religion depends on the influence of the Holy Ghost. Theologians divide the influence of the Holy Ghost into its ordinary and extraordinary modes of operation. The latter is supposed to be that which inspired the Prophets and Apostles; and the former to be the grace of God, which summarily makes known the truth of his revelation to those whose mind is fitted for its reception by a submissive perusal of his word. Persons convinced in this manner can do anything but account for their conviction, describe the time at which it happened, or the manner in which it came upon them. It is supposed to enter the mind by other channels than those of the senses and therefore professes to be superior to reason founded on their experience.

Admitting, however, the usefulness or possibility of a divine revelation, unless we demolish the foundations of all human knowledge, it is requisite that our reason should previously demonstrate its genuineness; for, before we extinguish the steady ray of reason and common sense, it is fit that we should discover whether we cannot do without their assistance, whether or no there be any other which may suffice to guide us through the labyrinth of life: [14] for, if a man is to be inspired upon all occasions, if he is to be sure of a thing because he is sure, if the ordinary operations of the spirit are not to be considered very extraordinary modes of demonstration, if enthusiasm is to usurp the place of proof, and madness that of sanity, all reasoning is superfluous. The Mahometan dies fighting for his Prophet, the Indian immolates himself at the chariot-wheels of Brahma, the Hottentot worships an insect, the Negro a bunch of feathers, the Mexican sacrifices human victims! Their degree of conviction must certainly be very strong: it cannot arise from reasoning—it must from feelings, the reward of their prayers. If each of these should affirm in opposition to the strongest possible arguments that inspiration carried internal evidence, I fear their inspired brethren, the orthodox missionaries, would be so uncharitable as to pronounce them obstinate.

Miracles cannot be received as testimonies of a disputed fact, because all human testimony has ever been insufficient to establish he possibility of miracles. That which is incapable of proof itself is no proof of anything else. Prophecy has also been rejected by the test of reason. Those, then, who have been actually inspired are the only true believers in the Christian religion.

                                   Mox numine viso
Virginei tumuere sinus, innuptaque mater
Arcano stupuit compleri viscera partu,
Auctorern paritura suum. Mortalia corda
Artificem texere poli, latuitque sub uno
Pectore, qui toturn late complectitur orbem. [15]

CLAUDIAN, Carmen Paschale.

Does not so monstrous and disgusting an absurdity carry its own infamy and refutation with itself?

Notes

1. For a similar statement about the Bible, see Paine's The Age of Reason, H. H. Clark edition, American Writers Series, 1944, pp. 236‑262.

2. Compare this paragraph with paragraph twelve of the Letter to Lord Ellenborough for a similar idea.

3. Shelley could have found this account in Part One of Paine's The Age of Reason; see Chaps. II and III, especially p. 239.

4. "Since writing this note, I have some reason to suspect that Jesus was an ambitious man who aspired to the throne of Judea." [Shelley's Note.] Shelley probably found this idea in Paine's The Age at Reason. At the end of Chapter III, it is said: "Neither is it improbable that Jesus Christ had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish Nation from the bondage of the Romans." The idea of this Note has been unduly stressed by Shelley critics.

5. This entire paragraph is in the Letter to Lord Ellenborough (1812), as are the next five with slight variations.

6. Shelley could have found this idea in Paine's The Age of Reason, and also in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

7. This and the next three paragraphs are a recasting of passages in the Letter to Lord Ellenborough.

8. This is a sentence from Holbach's Système de la Nature.

9. This paragraph in modified form is in The Necessity of Atheism and also in the Letter to Lord Ellenborough; it is based in part on Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, and on Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

10. Shelley found this idea in his reading of Paine's The Age of Reason and in Hume's Essays.

11. See Hume's Essays, Vol. 11, page 121. [Shelley’s Note.]

12. The substance of the last two paragraphs is in Paine's The Age of Reason, pp. 283‑293, and the paragraph beginning, "We have many instances" and ending, "to be miraculous," is but a paraphrase of one in Paine, p. 289. See also Letter to Lord Ellenborough and Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for similar ideas.

13. The substance of this paragraph is in Paine's The Age of Reason. What Shelley says here about miracles, prophecies, and testimony as proof of the existence of God and the authenticity of the Bible is a recasting of The Necessity of Atheism and portions of the Letter to Lord Ellenborough.

14. See Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, book iv, chap. xix, on Enthusiasm. [Shelley's Note.]

15. "Soon after the maiden had seen a god, her breasts became swollen, and the unwed mother, destined to bring forth the author of her own being, was in secret amazed that her womb was filling with child. A mortal covered the maker of the heavens, and beneath one breast he lay concealed who compasses the whole wide universe." This quotation is from Claudian's De Salvatore, lines 7‑13 with one line omitted, and not from Carmen Paschale.


SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe.'“I Will Beget a Son”', in: Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 103-108.


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On Polytheism (1819?) by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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“Necessity! Thou Mother of the World!” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

A Fragment of A Refutation of Deism by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[A Refutation of the Christian Religion] (1814?) by Percy Bysshe Shelley

A Fragment on Miracles (1813-1815) by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Essay on the Devil and Devils by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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