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(1.) what appears to be perfectly safe and harmless, will sometimes not be really such : and (2.) that which is in itself harmless, may, under some circumstances, carry with it the admission of a dangerous principle.
(1.) As an instance of the first kind, we may observe how apt the vulgar are to superadd to the prescription of a wise Physician, some Nostrum recommended by their neighbours, to aid its operation ;-something which they think may do good, and can do no harm ; but which perhaps has a powerful and deleterious effect. I have even known an instance of a medical practitioner, who published an account of his trial of Acetate of Lead (vulgo, Sugar of Lead] to stop a hæmorrhage, for which it had been recommended to him. He recorded that, to aid its operation (by way of being on the safe side') he added to it another well-known and very innocent Styptic, Alum : and was disappointed at finding no good result. Now in reality, since these two substances decomposé each other, he had applied neither Sugar of Lead nor Alum, but Sulphate of Lead; which has no styptic efficacy.
Even so, the idolatrous Israelites had usually no thought of rejecting their God Jehovah, but thought it was keeping on the 'safe side' to pay some reverence to the gods of the Heathen also. And a like practice is followed in many an obscure corner of Christendom at this day, by ignorant Rustics who pay some superstitious reverence to the gods of their heathen ancestors; which they do not indeed call Gods, but Fairies, Brownies, Trolls, &c. In fact this kind of error is the chief stronghold of Superstition. Many a one who has no full belief in the mediæval Legends of miracles wrought by supposed Saints, thinks it a safe course to inculcate that belief along with a belief in Scripture; because, forsooth, there is at any rate no harm in men's believing a little more than is true. And when men come to deride all these tales as groundless fictions, it will often happen that they will proceed to reject all religion. The 'wall daubed with untempered mortar' will be likely, in its fall, to throw down with itself the sound building also. Again, there are probably many—some there are, to my knowledge—who practise and recommend the invocation of (supposed) Saints, as the 'safe side,' though without any full conviction that there is any advantage in it. But a little reflection would show that the opposite is the really safe side. For we know that God is able and willing to hear prayers addressed to Him through Christ : and we cannot be equally sure that it may not be offensive to Him to have deceased men so far exalted into gods as to have the divine attribute of omniscience assigned to them, by which they can hear the prayers of millions of votaries in various parts of the world.
(2.) Of the other error,—that of adopting some course in itself harmless and safe, but which may imply the admission of a wrong principle, we have a striking instance in the Judaizing of some of the early Gentile-converts. There could be no harm, at any rate, they thought, in adopting the observances of the Mosaic Law, which the Apostles themselves adhered to; and there might be some sanctifying benefit in it. The Galatians were doubtless much surprised to hear from Paul, who ‘himself walked orderly and kept the Law,' that if they adopted the Jewish Ordinances 'Christ became of none effect to them. But the rule he laid down was, “Let every man continue in his vocation wherein he is called :' that is, let no man change his customs on becoming a Christian, except where the Gospel requires it. He who should, for instance, begin to abstain, on embracing the Gospel, from some kind of meat which he had been accustomed to use, or should begin to partake of what he had been accustomed to reject-each of these would be admitting a false principle; since neither the eating, nor the abstaining, is any part of Christianity.
Any one, again, who should see no harm in such and such a dogma or practice enjoined by a Church claiming universal and absolute supremacy, may think compliance the safe side ; not considering that he is thus helping to establish 'groundless and most dangerous claim to a complete dominion over men's conscience.
Again, one who is not quite sure of the truth of the alleged tradition of the Apostles having transferred the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first, and of the perpetual obligation of the fourth Commandment, to be thus obeyed, may yet think this the safe side,' as being likely to secure the observance of the Lord's Day by the mass of the people. But he will be thus establishing the dangerous principle that we are allowed to
alter, according to our own discretion, on the strength of a supposed tradition (one which cannot be traced up so far as most of the Romish Traditions), a command given in Scripture and admitted to be binding on us.'
1 Paley justly remarks in his second volume, that if the Law respecting the Sabbath contained in the Books of Moses be binding on Christians, we must be bound to observe it strictly, just as it was given.
When the same doctrine, substantially, with his, was put forth some years since, it was denounced by Writers of some note, as not merely unsound, but a startling novelty, unheard of before! Whether Paley's view is correct or not (and it is that which was held almost universally for the first fifteen centuries and more) is a ques. tion of opinion ; but the existence of his work is a fact, of which one would think no educated person could have been ignorant; and it was very bold for any Writer to trust to his readers being ignorant of it.
THE QUESTION, 'WHY AM I OBLIGED TO KEEP MY WORD ?'
W HY am I obliged to keep my word ?
W Because it is right, says one. Because it is agreeable to the fitness of things, says another.— Because it is conformable to reason and nature, says a third. Because it is conformable to truth, says a fourth.—Because it promotes the public good, says a fifth.—Because it is required by the will of God, concludes a sixth.
Upon which different accounts, two things are observable :First, that they all ultimately coincide.
The fitness of things means their fitness to produce happiness; the nature of things means that actual constitution of the world, by which some things, as such and such actionis, for example, produce happiness, and others misery. Reason is the principle, by which we discover or judge of this constitution : truth is this judgment expressed or drawn out into propositions. So that it necessarily comes to pass, that what promotes the public happiness, or happiness on the whole, is agreeable to the fitness of things, to nature, to reason, and to truth: and such (as will appear by and by) is the divine character, that what promotes the general happiness is required by the will of God, and what has all the above properties must needs be right ; for right means no more than conformity to the rule we go by, whatever that rule be.
And this is the reason that moralists, from whatever different principles they set out, commonly meet in their conclusions ; that is, they enjoin the same conduct, prescribe the same rules of duty, and, with a few exceptions, deliver upon dubious cases the same determinations.
Secondly, it is to be observed, that these answers all leave the matter short ; for the inquirer may turn round upon his teacher with a second question, in which he will expect to be satisfied, namely, Why am I obliged to do what is right; to act agreeably to the fitness of things; to conform to reason, nature, or truth; to promote the public good, or to obey the will of God?
The proper method of conducting the inquiry is, First, to examine what we mean, when we say a man is obliged to do anything; and then to show why he is obliged to do the thing which we have proposed as an example, namely, 'to keep his word.'
WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY A MAN IS 'OBLIGED' TO DO A
A MAN is said to be obliged, ' when he is urged by a violent n motive resulting from the command of another.
I. "The motive must be violent. If a person, who has done me some little service, or has a small place in his disposal, ask me upon some occasion for my vote, I may possibly give it to him, from a motive of gratitude or expectation : but I should hardly say that I was obliged to give it him; because the inducement does not rise high enough. Whereas if a father or a master, any great benefactor, or one on whom my fortune depends, require my vote, I give it him of course : and my answer to all who ask me why I voted so and so is, that my father or my master obliged me; that I had received so many favours from, or had so great a dependence upon, such a one, that I was obliged to vote as he directed me.
SECONDLY, 'It must result from the command of another.' Offer a man a gratuity for doing anything, for seizing, for example, an offender, he is not obliged by your offer to do it; nor would he say he is; though he may be induced, persuaded, prevailed upon, tempted. If a magistrate or the man's immediate superior command it, he considers himself as obliged to comply, though possibly he would lose less by a refusal in this case than in the former.