Jacques Abbadie (c. 1654-1727): The sense of our indigence is one of the greatest marks of our greatness

Jacques Abbadie

Tonight I came across this interesting discussion by the French Huguenot Jacques Abbadie (c. 1654-1727), in which he argues that man’s imperfections are, quite paradoxically, also an indication of his excellence. The main thrust I get out of this is that the consciousness of our imperfections reveals that we were made, to put it in simple terms, for “bigger things,” and herein consists our excellence. Read it for yourself, and think on it a bit. This is from his work Traité de la Verité de la Religion Chrétienne (Treatise on the Truth of the Christian Religion), vol. 1, chapter 13:

“Man, I confess, has his imperfections; his soul finds itself shut up within a very narrow compass: He sees himself confined on all sides, in the middle of an unlimited extent of space. He finds himself obliged to follow the condition of matter, which is much inferior to him in perfection. He perceived himself miserable and poor in the midst of prosperity and abundance. Nothing fills him; nothing satisfies him: He loathes everything, and desires everything. He is always seeking knowledge, and understands nothing perfectly. He admires, because he is ignorant. He has a curiosity to know, because he knows nothing. He is not only the sport of others, but in some manner his own. Equity and rectitude, with relation to him, are whatever his passions make them to be; and truth is nothing but what pleases him. His imperfections are great, and because they are great, they are not to be met with, but in an excellent being, and therefore serve better than anything else to show the perfection of man. This is what may easily be conceived with a little consideration and reflection upon ourselves.

Well, let those spaces be never so great which encompass me, I still find myself greater than they are. My body which is but an atom in comparison to the sun, is a colossus in respect to a mite. The sun which is a prodigious colossus with respect to me, is but an atom compared with that immense space, and those vast spheres wherewith it is itself encompassed. The greatness therefore or smallness of matter, does depend upon different respects, under which it is represented to us, or the different comparisons which may be made of it. It is my soul that makes those comparisons, my soul therefore has something more noble and great in it, than that whose greatness surprised me, or whose minuteness was too exquisite to be perceived by me.

Everything keeps its rank in nature; but man, who maintains his rank in the world, and knows it, is more perfect than all other [created] beings; and the narrower the space is which the soul is confined to, the greater subject of wonder is it; since by a particular prodigy, whenever it pleases, it draws together into the compass of an atom, heaven and earth, whatever we see of the immense spaces which encompass us, and all that lies beyond, out of our sight: It runs through all the parts of the universe, without any motion of its own, and that in a more amazing and wonderful manner, than if it moved itself. In the same simple undivided subject, it assembles together past, present, and future things, life and death, light and darkness, the most contrary elements, and most inconsistent qualities: And though it lies concealed, and (as it were) buried in a corner of the universe, it fetches in the universe to itself, when it pleases.

It is a surprising thing, I own, to see an intelligence so vast, subject to the laws of such a limited portion of matter, and a being so noble, wedded to the interests of a body which does not seem to have anything in common with it. And in this respect, methinks, it may be said, that it is most surprising to see the soul of man depending on matter, than separated from it; and that our life has something more astonishing in it than our death. For in fine, search as far as you please into the knowledge of the structure and constitution of the body, let the glandula pinealis be the centre of the motion of the animal spirits, or fix it in some other part of the brain; it is impossible there should be any true proportion between the motions of this gland, or this other part of our brain, and the thoughts of our soul; and though we should reason about it for ten thousand ages together, this agreement or proportion could never be found.

But is not this dependence of thought upon corporeal motion, and this dependence of corporeal motion upon thought, which are mutual occasions of one another, without any manner of proportion discoverable between them, is not this, I say, another wonder which ought infinitely to astonish us?

By this mark, I know that my soul was created: This is the character and seal of its dependence: And that it might appear the free production of an Understanding sovereignly free, it was necessary that this soul should depend upon matter, which is of a nature much inferior to it.

Moreover, of all the beings, we behold, man alone perceives his misery and wants; he is therefore the most perfect: For he must needs be of a more noble and exalted nature than other [created] beings, else he could not be miserable, since without knowledge, there can be no misery.

Besides, the mere privation of some good, is not properly indigence or want, but the privation of some good that seemed due. Cyrus whilst a shepherd, did not think himself miserable, because he was not seated on the throne: But the same Cyrus knowing himself to be of royal extraction, cannot be content except he reign.

What sort of being then is man, who is always poor and miserable, whatever degree of prosperity he enjoys? Why, he must necessarily be such a being whose excellence is no way proportioned to whatever we see. Wherefore the sense of our indigence is one of the greatest marks of our greatness.

Both our understanding and our heart, are (I confess) equally insatiable: The one is never tired with knowing, and the other never weary of desiring.  But that which occasions their extravagance in that respect, denotes their perfection.

The desire of knowledge, shows indeed that man does not know everything; that is, that he is not infinite; but it shows also that he may always be advancing in knowledge, and consequently, that his excellence is not limited in that respect.

It is the same case with the desires of man’s heart, which are perpetually renewed, and can never find anything capable of satisfying them. They show indeed that man does not enjoy all that is necessary to make him happy; but at the same time, they discover, that all temporal advantages are incapable of satisfying him; that he is above the world, and all the happiness the world can afford, and that no less than an infinite object is able to fill the vast capacity of his soul.

The admiration of the understanding is more wonderful than all he admires, and the desires of man are more noble than all the objects desired by him. That infinite thirst of our understanding tells us, that our excellence is on some sense unlimited; and the infinite appetite of our heart teaches us, that we may aspire to an infinite happiness. What we are ignorant of, humbles us; what we know, satisfies us; and that which we cannot attain to the knowledge of, does in some manner raise us higher than what we do know, and shows us that our soul shall not always continue in that low state it is now in; that it shall not always be taken up with those little interests and advantages, which are all its employs and concerns now, without the power of procuring it any true satisifaction.

It is a fault in covetous man, to be always desiring new additions of wealth; but it is a perfection not to be content with so inconsiderable a trifle as riches. Worldly-minded men are guilty of ignorance and blindness, and in that respect they sin; but properly speaking, they do not sin by being covetous, and pursuing their interest. They are to blame only for blindingly desiring what cannot satisfy them; but not for being insatiable after the possession of what they ought not to be contented with.”

Abbadie then, without offering an extensive discussion thereof (seeing that he says that he intends first to establish the existence of God in the subsequent chapters before doing so), offers some glimpses of what the perfection of man consists of, namely that man:

“…by a special privilege has the honour of representing the Supreme Being; which finds in itself some traces of that Knowledge and Wisdom it is obliged to ascribe originally to God… [man is] a being designed to collect the glory that streams from all created perfections, in order to reflect it back to their Great Maker…”

“[the perfection of man in this life consists…] …in the glorious state of virtue, regulating his desires by temperance, renouncing his passions, to practise the duties of piety, devoting the present to his duty, and gaining a sure title to the future, by his good use of the present; sacrificing his vicious desires to God, renouncing himself for the love of him who gave him all things, raising himself above time and the world by a sublime hope which carries him to far more solid objects than any time or the world can afford; and referring everything to the glory of God, as to the greatest and noblest end of all his thoughts and actions.”