« AnteriorContinuar »
themselves in this employment possessed talents not inferior to any equal number of those who have succeeded them ; yet their efforts not only failed, but failed in such a degree, that their doctrines, taken in the mass, would not now be regarded with any emotion, but contempt and horror, by a Christian child twelve years old! Their best apprehensions concerning virtue, or moral excellence, were, in many respects, crude, gross, and false. They placed it successively in the love of glory, in the adherence to one or other of their systems of philosophy,—in courage,—and in that love of country, which prompts its inhabitants to hate all others, and to carry into them fire, and sword, and desolation !
Concerning the supreme good,—that is, the object which chiefly deserves to be pursued by man,—their apprehensions were equally erroneous. Some supposed it to be glory; others, contemplation; others, what they call wisdom ; others still, apathy, sloth, and the pleasures of sense. From their ignorance and mistakes concerning these subjects, they became absolutely incompetent to devise a system of morality which would bear an examination, or could be adopted either with safety or hope by their fellow-men. As these subjects were every where radical in moral inquiries, errors about them were fundamental, and extended their influence to all their views concerning the duty of man. Hence they enjoined many things as duties which we perceive to be grossly sinful and abominable, and pronounced many things to be lawful which we know to be violations of the divine law. What was right, also, they so blended with what was wrong,—what was true with what was false,—that a separation of the good from the evil became impossible to themselves and their followers, and much more to mankind at large.
The worship which they authorised, (for they never attempted to devise a scheme of worship,) was made up of the stupid, frenzied, and abominable rites of their respective countries,-a violation alike of common sense and common decency !
What was done by these men was, in all probability, the utmost which man is able to do. If Pythagoras, Thales, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, could not form just opinions concerning these subjects, who, in the same circumstances, could ? If their opinions concerning them were, to a great extent, gross and contemptible, where are the men to whom we could apply with confidence for such as were sound, profitable, and certain means of our acceptance with God?
But though the general fact, which I have mentioned, is decisive proof that men are incapable of devising a system of duty which man may safely pursue, it is not the only proof of this truth. The very nature of the subject furnishes, if I mistake not, unanswerable evidence of the same truth.
The only manner in which the human mind is able to determine, satisfactorily, concerning the moral nature of any conduct, without the aid of revelation, is by its consequences. That which, upon the whole, or which throughout time and eternity is profitable to the universe, is unquestionably right. But who beside God can discern what this is ? The consequences of every action are endless, and, by them all, this determination is to be made. The infinite eye only can discern these consequences; the infinite mind only can comprehend them. Man plainly can know scarcely one out of millions, even of those which will take place in the present world, and not one of those which will exist beyond the grave. How absolutely must he err, who is precluded from the means of forming a judgment ?
The three great duties of man to his fellow men are undoubtedly truth, justice, and kindness. The first of these, truth, is a subject absolutely definite, and scarcely less distinguishable in any case than a mathematical quantity. Its importance, also, is pre-eminently great. The consequences of speaking it are more obviously beneficial, and those of speaking falsehood more clearly pernicious, than such as follow any human conduct. Here, then, if any where, we may expect to find the dictates of the human understanding free from perplexity, supported, and decisive. Yet, in every age of the world, men, who have relied on the investigations of reason for the establishment of a moral creed, have fallen into very serious errors concerning this subject. Nor have these been persons of inferior talents. Archdeacon Paley, one of the ablest and most luminous writers of our own time, pursuing this course of inquiry, has determined that lying is sometimes lawful, and this, with his Bible before him, and the awful declaration of God himself sounding in his ears, “ There shall in no wise “ enter into the heavenly city any one, who loveth or maketh
a lie.” If such is the decision of a Protestant divine of great eminence, when thus employed, what are we to suppose must be the decision of other men ? If such is the decision concerning truth, a subject perfectly simple, obvious, and unembarrassing, what are we to suppose must be the determinations concerning justice and kindness, especially the latter, far less distinctly understood, far less accurately defined, and of course exposed to far greater uncertainty ?
With respect to the duties involved in the general name of piety, the difficulties are obviously greater. The first of them, and that evidently insuperable, springs from the invincible ignorance of man concerning God.
Most persons who employ themselves in reasoning concerning this subject, deceive themselves, if I mistake not, and that grossly, with respect to one particular of very great importance. They seem very extensively to suppose, that reason, without any assistance, would be able to discover the very same arguments concerning the existence and character of this glorious being, which, with the Bible in our hands, our own reason pos
No opinion is more fallacious. From the Bible we learn the existence of one God, and the nature and perfection of his character. From the same source we derive the most just and most comprehensive views of both his works and designs. In this manner we are placed in a situation entirely new and unattainable by men destitute of the light of Revelation. It is one thing to know the existence and character of God, and then to discover the proofs of his existence and character, presented to the mind by his works; and wholly another thing to learn his being and attributes from the works themselves. In the former case, many arguments are discoverable by reason, of which, left to itself, it would never have entertained a thought. All the arguments, also, which it actually discovers, are seen in a new light, and far more clearly,
distinctly, comprehensively, and therefore far more justly and satisfactorily, than in the latter case. These advantages are incalculable, and ought ever to be remembered with exact discrimination, and to their full extent.
But even now, Revelation apart, it is a task of extreme difficulty to prove the unity of God; of so much difficulty, that, unless I have been deceived, it has never been performed to the full satisfaction of thinking men. There is also to this day, when we lay aside the Scriptures, not a little uncertainty hanging over our views and discussions concerning the divine attributes, particularly those of a moral nature. clouded and obscure are, in this case, the works of God, while his designs are almost absolutely veiled in darkness. Could the divines and philosophers, who think most favourably concerning the capacity of reason to direct our researches into these subjects, place themselves, for a short period, exactly in the circumstances of an enlightened heathen, they would, I suspect, think much less favourably concerning the powers of the human intellect, than they sometimes seem to have done.
What reason is really able to accomplish, with respect to this subject, is in all probability that, and nothing more than that, which it has already accomplished. Its efforts have been made so long, so often, so laboriously, in so many different ages and countries, and by so many minds of the first order, that we cannot, without renouncing our own reason, expect them ever to rise above the height to which they have already attained. What man has done in this respect, is justly pronounced to be all which man can do.
But man has, in fact, lost invariably the knowledge of the one perfect God; and, when lost, has never recovered it. Reason has invariably formed many gods, and these, without an exception, have been imperfect in their manner of existence, their attributes, their conduct, and their happiness. They have been impotent, foolish, and vicious.
But the apprehension that there are more gods than one changes our whole system of thought concerning the universe, and changes it entirely. Both its worlds and their inhabitants have a new origin, and a new destination. They are placed in entirely new relations, subjected to an entirely different set of laws, and are summoned to the performance of an entirely different set of duties. At the same time it becomes impossible, on this plan, for an individual ever to know who or how
many are the beings who stand in the relation of gods to himself, or the relations which he bears severally to them. The character, station, office, and agency of each become absolutely undiscoverable. It becomes impossible to learn their will and his own duty. Of course, it is equally impossible for him to know how to please them, when he has, or has not pleased them, and how to obtain the rewards which might be expected from doing his duty. Every new god introduced into the system, renews all the difficulties attendant upon our inquiries concerning these things, and others connected with them, as they respected him who was first placed by the mind in this exalted station. The difficulties, therefore, are multiplied as the number of deities is multiplied, and are mightily increased also by the differences of character, stations, powers, and employments, which they are supposed to possess.
Such has actually been the state of Gentilism with respect to this all-important subject. Such have been its gods, such the variety and uncertainty of their character, stations, and pleasure; such the undeterminable nature of the duties owed them. Hence the nations who have embraced this scheme, and the philosophers, as truly as other men, have been absolutely unsettled with regard to their own moral actions, especially those included under the name of piety. The consequence has been that, which could not fail of being rationally expected, a deplorable degeneracy of mind, and an absolute corruption of life, with regard to all these duties. It ought here to be observed, that this system has not been improved by philosophers; I mean, upon the whole. That they formed just opinions concerning some subjects must certainly be acknowledged; but that their whole scheme of moral doctrines and duties was at all fitted to make men better than they found them, I see no reason to believe. The system of the Iroquois is less absurd, less a vagrant from truth and virtue, than that