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But if the general appearance of things, in a civilized and christian country is such, as forces us to conclude, that hu man attention and efforts are centered on that part of exis tence, which is now present, while the eternity of a future life and retribution is universally believed; must we not conclude, with equal certainty, that there is in man a strong indisposition to the cultivation of those habits, which are essential to future happiness and glory? As these habits are those of moral rectitude, the conclusion is, that moral rectitude is that, to which man is strongly disinclined.
That this argument may be more distinctly considered, we will enumerate some of the restraints, in opposition to which crimes are committed; viz. the restraints of parents and guardians, the restraints of civil authority, and those of religion.
I. The restraints of parents and guardians. I am not speaking of infancy, or of an age, so little removed from it, as to preclude the free use of intellectual powers. It is generally allowed, in the case supposed, that authority is under the influence of affection and good design. Youth themselves, will, in few instances, deliberately deny, that the restraints, which parental authority imposes, are intended to promote their permanent advantage. Why then should num. berless arts be resorted to, with design, that these restraints may be evaded? Why should the child cherish any desires to counteract a government, which has for its object, his own felicity? What a monstrous victory is that, which is gained over the efforts of parental wisdom, guided by unremitting good will and tenderness? What language would this be in the mouth of a son; "I know, that my parents love me cordially; and are continually anxious for my reputation, virtue, and happiness: but they shall not be gratified. I have the pleasure of reflecting that my efforts to render their designs abortive have been crowned with no inconsiderable success!" O! tis the triumph of the maniac, who slips the halter to his neck, and strangles himself, in spite of his keepers!
II. Let us next consider, against what restraints of a civil nature crimes are committed. Civil government itself is little more, than an institution for preventing mankind from doing injury to others and themselves. The whole criminal code, and a great part of civil restrictions, have their origin in the corruption of man. But for this, their necessity and use would be superseded. It would not be easy to enumerate the expedients, to which legislators have resorted, nor the various penalties, by which their laws have been sanctioned. I need not mention public infamy, disfranchisement, bodily mutilation, pillories, posts, imprisonment, the axe, the gal lows, and the gibbet. Yet this whole ghastly assemblage of terrors is inadequate to the suppression of crimes. Thefts, forgeries, violations of contracts the most sacred, robberies, and assassinations are not exterminated.
Now, must not the disposition to evil be inveterate and violent, if it operate in defiance of all these obstacles? But though the restraints, already enumerated, cannot be considered but as strong dissuasives from vice,and though we cannot but consider their inefficacy, as proving a very high degree of moral depravity; there are other restraints, the neglect of which affords evidence, still more clear and convincing. I mean the restraints of religion.
Extremely pertinent to the present purpose are the words of Mr. Locke, which I am not deterred from using by the consideration of their having been quoted by a writer on this subject. "Were the will determined by the views of good, as it appears, in contemplation, greater or less to the understanding, it could never get loose from the infinite, eternal joys of heaven, once proposed and considered as possible; the eternal condition of a future state infinitely outweighing the expectation of riches and honour, or any other worldly pleasure, which we can propose to ourselves; though we should grant these the more probable to be obtained. He, that will not be so far a rational creature, as to reflect seriously on infinite happiness and misery, must needs condemn himself, as not making that use of his understand
ing, which he should. The rewards and punishments of another life, which the Almighty has established, as the enforcements of his laws, are of weight enough to determine the choice, against whatever of pleasure or pain this life can show. When the eternal state is considered, but in its bare possibility, which nobody can make doubt of, he, that will allow exquisit and endless happiness to be but the possible consequence of a good life here, and the contrary state the possible reward of a bad one, must own himself to judge very much amiss, if he does not conlcude, that a virtuous life, with the certain expectation of everlasting bliss, which may come, is to be preferred to a vicious one, with the fear of that dreadful state of misery, which, it is very possible, may overtake the guilty, or, at least, the terrible, uncertain hope of annihilation. This is so evidently so, that though the virtuous life here had nothing but pain, and the vicious continued pleasure, which yet for the most part, is quite otherwise, and wicked men have not much the odds to boast of, even in their present possession; nay, all things rightly considered, have, I think, even the worst part here. But, when infinite happiness is put in one scale, against infinite misery in the other: if the worst, that comes to the pious man, if he mis takes, be the best, which the wicked man can attain to, if he be right, who can, without madness, run the venture? who, in his wits, would choose to come within the possibility of infinite misery? which, if he miss, there is still nothing to be got by the hazard. Whereas, on the other side, the sober man ventures nothing against infinite happiness to be got, if his expectation comes to pass."
Thus, does this profound reasoner show the extreme irrationality of neglecting religion, even though there were but a bare possibility of its truth. The case will be incompar ably stronger, if we consider, that what is here supposed only possible, is generally believed in christian countries: I mean, that future rewards and punishments are interminable. All the infringements of moral rectitude, all the neglect of moral obligation, which occur in christian coun
tries, take place in contempt of endless sufferings, and of endless pleasures. These are the restraints, against which crimes are perpetrated. Besides, it is a fact, perfectly beyond contradiction, that most persons, under the circumstances supposed, in full belief of eternal retributions, have either never felt sufficient anxiety to institute an investigation of their own moral characters, or else maintain an irreligious life, without even doubting their exposure to endless punishment.
Here, I would ask again, whether religion, which is only agreement with the dictates of sound reason, must not be an object of our fixed aversion, if, under such circumstances; in opposition to such motives, we perseveringly reject it? How is it possible to account for facts undeniable and without number, unless we suppose a very strong propensity to evil?
It will be replied, perhaps, that though the motives to a religious life, are indeed extremely forcible, they do not come into contact with the mind. Considerations of a religious nature are forgotten among innumerable objects of
I answer, that the superiority of weight in religious motives, infinitely overbalances any advantage, which the other may have merely on the score of proximity. Besides, how distant is that change in our existence, which brings us to the commencement of a retribution? In truth, the ground is perpetually opening for some new deposit. Mortality is common: and the transition of not a few, is instantaneous. By these providences, by the most urgent solicitations of inspired eloquence, and by the commanding remonstrances of Deity himself, the motives of religion are brought into contact with the mind: and it can scarcely be conceived, that they should be presented under circumstances, more favourable to their influence.
It will probably not be denied, that the arguments, already used, prove no inconsiderable degree of depravity in those, to whom they apply. But whatever moral disorder exists among ourselves, or among those, who are best known to us, we are not hence to conclude, that all men are equally criminal. The present state of our country does not indicate the present moral character of other nations; much less does it indicate their morality in past ages.
To these remarks I offer no objection. On the other hand, those, who make them, will not deny, that if the moral character of other countries and other ages be found as bad, or worse than our own, whatever legitimate conclusions have already been drawn, may be fairly extended to the species in general.
A very high degree of moral corruption has been proved by our flagrant ingratitude to the Most High; by our indisposition to hold communion with him, in exercises of devotion; by our reluctance to contemplate his perfections and relation to us; by the infrequency of religious conversation; by the little interest and pleasure, which it excites; by the universal, and almost exclusive attention, bestowed on present existence; and by the maintenance of a vicious life in opposition to motives of eternal consequence.
Do not all these facts exist in those nations, whose mor