« PreviousContinue »
to society. He is precisely the madman described in the book of Proverbs*, who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death; and saith, Am I not in sport? We shall hear him, at times, complain loudly of the undutifulness of children, of the dishonesty of servants, of the tumults, and insolence of the lower ranks; while he himself is, in a great measure, responsible for the disorders of which he complains. By the example which he sets of contempt for religion, he becomes accessary to tlie manifold crimes, which that contempt occasions among others. By his scoffing at sacred institutions, he is encouraging the rabble to uproar and violence; he is emboldening the false witness to take the name of God in vain; he is, in effect, putting arms into the hands of the highwayman, and letting loose the robber on the streets by night.
We come next to consider that great class of duties which respect our conduct towards our fellow-creatures. The absolute necessity of these to general welfare is so apparent, as to have secured them, in a great degree, from the attacks of the scoffer. He who would attempt to turn justice, truth, or honesty, into ridicule, would be avoided by every one. To those who had any remains of principle, he would be odious. To those who attended only to their interest, he would appear a dangerous man. But though the social virtues are treated in general as respectable and sacred, there are certain forms and degrees of them which have not been exempted from the scorn of the unthinking. That extensive generosity and high public spirit, which prompt a man to sacrifice his own interest, in order to promote some great general good; and that strict and scrupulous integrity, which will not allow one, on any occasion, to depart from the truth, have often been treated with contempt by those who are called men of the world. They who will not stoop to fiatter the great, who disdain to comply with prevailing manners, when they judge them to be evil; who refuse to take the smallest advantage of others, in order to procure the greatest benefit for themselves; are represented as persons of romantic character and visionary notions, unacquainted with the world, and unfit to live in it.
* Prov. xxvi. 18, 19.
Such persons are so far from being liable to any just ridicule, that they are entitled to a degree of respect, which approaches to veneration. For they are, in truth, the great supporters and guardians of public order. The authority of their character overawes the giddy multitude. The weight of their example retards the progress of corruption; checks that relaxation of morals, which is always too apt to gain ground insensibly, and to make encroachments on every department of society. Accordingly, it is this high generosity of spirit, this inflexible virtue, this regard to principle, superiour to all opinion, which has ever marked the characters of those who have eminently distinguished themselves in public life; wlio have patronized the cause of justice against powerful oppressors; who in critical times have supported the falling rights and liberties of men; and have reflected honour on their nation and country. Such persons may have been scoffed at by some among whom they lived; but posterity has done them ample justice; and they are the persons whose
names are recorded to future ages, and who are thought and spoken of with admiration.
The mere temporizer, the man of accommodating principles, and inferiour virtue, may support a plausible character for a while among his friends and followers; but as soon as the hollowness of his principles is detected, he sinks into contempt. They who are prone to deride men of inflexible integrity, only betray the littleness of their minds. They show that they understand not the sublime of virtue ; that they have no discernment of the true excellence of man. By affecting to throw any discouragement on purity and strictness of morals, they not only expose themselves to just contempt, but propagate sentiments very dangerous to society. For, if we loosen the regard due to virtue in any of its parts, we begin to sap the whole of it. No man, as it has been often said, becomes entirely profligate at once. He deviates, step by step, from conscience. If the loose casuistry of the scoffer were to prevail, open dishonesty, falsehood, and treachery, would speedily grow out of those complying principles, those relaxations of virtue, which he would represent to be necessary for every man who knows the world.
The last class of virtues I am to mention, are those which are of a personal nature, and which respect the government to be exercised over our pleasures and passions. Here the scoffer has always considered himself as having an ample field. Often, and often, have such virtues as sobriety, temperance, modesty, and chastity, been made the subject of ridicule, as monkish habits which exclude men from the company
of the fashionable and the gay; habits,
which are the effect of low education, or of mean spirits, or of mere feebleness of constitution ; while scoffers, walking, as it is too truly said of them by the Apostle, after their lusts, boast of their own manners as liberal and free, as manly and spirited. They fancy themselves raised thereby much above the crowd ; and hold all those in contempt, who confine themselves within the vulgar bounds of regular and orderly life.
Infatuated men! who see not that the virtues of which they make sport, not only derive their authority from the laws of God, but are moreover essentially requisite both to public and to private happiness. By the indulgence of their licentious pleasures for a while, as long as youth and vigour remain, a few passing gratifications may be obtained. But what are the consequences? Suppose any individual to persevere unrestrained in this course, it is certainly to be followed by disrepute in his character, and disorder in his affairs; by a wasted and broken constitution ; and a speedy and miserable old age. Suppose a society to be wholly formed of such persons as the scoffers applaud ; suppose it to be filled with none but those whom they call the sons of pleasure ; that is, with the intemperate, the riotous, and dissolute, among whom all regard to sobriety, decency, and private virtue was abolished; what an odious scene would such a society exhibit? How unlike any civilized or well ordered state, in which mankind have chosen to dwell? What turbulence and uproar, what contests and quarrels, would perpetually reign in it? What man of common understanding would not rather chuse to dwell in a desert, than to be associated for life with such companions ? Shall, then,
the scoffer presume to make light of those virtues, without which there could be neither peace, nor comfort, nor good order, among mankind ?
Let him be desired to think of his domestic situation and connections. Is he a father, a husband, or a brother? Has he any friend or relation, male or female, in whose happiness he is interested ? Let us put the question to him, whether he be willing that intemperance, unchastity, or dissipation of any kind, should mark their character? Would he recommend to them such excesses? Would he chuse in their presence, openly, and without disguise, to scoff at the opposite virtues, as of no consequence to their welfare? - If even the most licentious shudder at the thought; if in the midst of his loose pleasures, he be desirous that his own family should remain untainted; let this teach him the value of those private virtues, which in the hours of dissipation, in the giddiness of his mind, he is ready to contemn. Banish sobriety, temperance, and purity, and
you tear up the foundations of all public order, and all domestic quiet. You render every house a divided and miserable abode, resounding with terms of shame, and mutual reproaches of infamy. You leave nothing respectable in the human character, You change the man into a brute.
The conclusion from all the reasoning which we have now pursued is, that religion and virtue, in all their forms, either of doctrine or of precept; of piety towards God, integrity towards men, regularity in private conduct; are so far from affording any grounds of ridicule to the petulant, that they are entitled to our highest veneration; they are