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Showing wherein the essence of true virtue consists.
Whatever controversies and variety of opinions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all excepting, some sceptics, who deny any real difference between virtue and vice, mean by it something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency. It is not all beauty that is called virtue; for instance, not the beauty of a building, of a flower, or of the rainbow; but some beauty belonging to beings that have perception and will. It is not all beauty of mankind that is called virtue; for instance, not the external beauty of the countenance, or shape, gracefulness of motion, or harmony of voice: but it is a beauty that has its original seat in the mind. But yet perhaps not every thing that may be called a beauty of mind, is properly called virtue. There is a beauty of understanding and speculation; there is something in the ideas and conceptions of great philosophers and statesmen, that may be called beautiful; which is a different thing from what is most commonly meant by virtue.
But virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame. Things of this sort, it is generally agreed, so far as I know, do not belong merely to speculation; but to the disposition and will, or (to use a general word, I suppose commonly well understood) to the heart. Therefore, I suppose, I shall not depart from the common opinion, when I say, that virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them. So that when it is inquired, what is the nature of true virtue? this is the same as to inquire, what that is, which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful?
I use the phrase true virtue, and speak of things truly beautiful, because I suppose it will generally be allowed, that there is a distinction to be made between some things which are truly virtuous, and others which only seem to be so, through a partial and imperfect view of things: that some actions and dispositions appear beautiful, if considered partially and superficially, or with regard to some things belonging to them, and in some of their circumstances and tendencies, which would appear otherwise in a more extensive and comprehensive view, wherein they are seen clearly in their whole nature, and the extent of their connexions in the universality of things.
There is a general and particular beauty. By a particular beauty, I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connexion with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited, and as it were a private, sphere. And a general beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively, and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connexions with every thing to which it stands related. The former may be without and against the latter. As a few notes in a tune, taken only by themselves, and in their relation to one another, may be harmonious; which, when considered with respect to all the notes in the tune, or the entire series of sounds they are connected with, may be very discordant, and disagreeable. That only, therefore, is what I mean by true virtue, which, belonging to the heart of an intelligent being, is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to every thing with which it stands connected. And therefore, when we are inquiring concerning the nature of true virtue—wherein this true and general beauty of the heart does most essentially consist—this is my answer to the inquiry:—
True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity, and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will.
The things before observed respecting the nature of true virtue, naturally lead us to such a notion of it. If it has its seat in the heart, and is the general goodness and beauty of the disposition and its exercise, in the most comprehensive view, considered with regard to its universal tendency, and as related to every thing with which it stands connected; what can it consist in, but a consent and good will to being in general? Beauty does not consist in discord and dissent, but in consent and agreement. And if every intelligent being is some way related to being in general, and is a part of the universal system of existence; and so stands in connexion with the whole; what can its general and true beauty be, but its union and consent with the great whole?
If any such thing can be supposed as a union of heart to some particular being, or number of beings, disposing it to benevolence to a private circle or system of beings, which are but a small part of the whole; not implying a tendency to an union with the great system, and not at all inconsistent with enmity towards being in general; this I suppose not to be of the nature of true virtue; although it may in some respects be good, and may appear beautiful in a confined and contracted view of things.—But of this more afterwards.
It is abundantly plain by the Holy Scriptures, and generally allowed, not only by christian divines, but by the more considerable Deists, that virtue most essentially consists in love. And I suppose, it is owned by the most considerable writers, to consist in general love of benevolence, or kind affection: though it seems to me the meaning 123 of some in this affair is not sufficiently explained; which perhaps occasions some error or confusion in discourses on this subject.
When I say, true virtue consists in love to being in general, I shall not be likely to be understood, that no one act of the mind or exercise of love is of the nature of true virtue, but what has being in general, or the great system of universal existence, for its direct and immediate object: so that no exercise of love, or kind affection, to any one particular being, that is but a small part of this whole, has any thing of the nature of true virtue. But, that the nature of true virtue consists in a disposition to benevolence towards being in general; though from such a disposition may arise exercises of love to particular beings, as objects are presented, and occasions arise. No wonder, that he who is of a generally benevolent disposition, should be more disposed than another to have his heart moved with benevolent affection to particular persons, with whom he is acquainted and conversant, and from whom arise the greatest and most frequent occasions for exciting his benevolent temper. But my meaning is, that no affections towards particular persons or beings are of the nature of true virtue, but such as arise from a generally benevolent temper, or from that habit or frame of mind, wherein consists a disposition to love being in general.
And perhaps it is needless for me to give notice to my readers, that when I speak of an intelligent being having a heart united and benevolently disposed to being in general, I thereby mean intelligent being in general. Not inanimate things, or beings that have no perception or will; which are not properly capable objects of benevolence.
Love is commonly distinguished into love of benevolence, and love of complacence. Love of benevolence is that affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well-being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness. And if I mistake not, it is agreeable to the common opinion, that beauty in the object is always the ground of this propensity; but that there may be a disposition to the welfare of those that are not considered as beautiful, unless mere existence be accounted a beauty. And benevolence or goodness in the Divine Being is generally supposed, not only to be prior to the beauty of many of its objects, but to their existence; so as to be the ground both of their existence and their beauty, rather than the foundation of God’s benevolence; as it is supposed that it is God’s goodness which moved him to give them both being and beauty. So that if all virtue primarily consists in that affection of heart to being, which is exercised in benevolence, or an inclination to its good, then God’s virtue is so extended as to include a propensity not only to being actually existing, and actually beautiful, but to possible being, so as to incline him to give a being beauty and happiness.
What is commonly called love of complacence, presupposes beauty. For it is no other than delight in beauty; or complacence in the person or being beloved for his beauty. If virtue be the beauty of an intelligent being, and virtue consists in love, then it is plain inconsistence, to suppose that virtue primarily consists in any love to its object for its beauty; either in a love of complacence, which is delight in a being for its beauty, or in a love of benevolence, that has the beauty of its object for its foundation. For that would be to suppose, that the beauty of intelligent beings primarily consists in love to beauty; or that their virtue first of all consists in their love to virtue. Which is an inconsistence, and going in a circle. Because it makes virtue, or beauty of mind, the foundation or first motive of that love wherein virtue originally consists, or wherein the very first virtue consists; or, it supposes the first virtue to be the consequence and effect of virtue. Which makes the first virtue both the ground and the consequence, both cause and effect of itself. Doubtless virtue primarily consists in something else besides any effect or consequence of virtue. If virtue consists primarily in love to virtue, then virtue, the thing loved, is the love of virtue: so that virtue must consist in the love of the love of virtue—and so on in infinitum. For there is no end of going back in a circle. We never come to any beginning or foundation; it is without beginning, and hangs on nothing.—Therefore, if the essence of virtue, or beauty of mind, lies in love, or a disposition to love, it must primarily consist in something different both from complacence, which is a delight in beauty, and also from any benevolence that has the beauty of its object for its foundation. Because it is absurd to say that virtue is primarily and first of all the consequence of itself; which makes virtue primarily prior to itself.
Nor can virtue primarily consist in gratitude; or one being’s benevolence to another for his benevolence to him. Because this implies the same inconsistence. For it supposes a benevolence prior to gratitude, which is the cause of gratitude. The first benevolence cannot be gratitude. Therefore there is room left for no other conclusion, than that the primary object of virtuous love is being, simply considered; or that true virtue primarily consists, not in love to any particular beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to being simply considered; exciting absolute benevolence, if I may so call it, to being in general. I say, true virtue primarily consists in this. For I am far from asserting, that there is no true virtue in any other love than this absolute benevolence. But I would express what appears to me to be the truth, on this subject, in the following particulars.
The first object of a virtuous benevolence is being, simply considered: and if being, simply considered, be its object, then being in general is its object; and what it has an ultimate propensity to, is the highest good of being in general. And it will seek the good of every individual being unless it be conceived as not consistent with the highest good of being in general. In which case the good of a particular being, or some beings, may be given up for the sake of the highest good of being in general. And particularly, if there be any being statedly and irreclaimably opposite, and an enemy to being in general, then consent and adherence to being in general will induce the truly virtuous heart to forsake that enemy, and to oppose it.
Further, if being, simply considered, be the first object of a truly virtuous benevolence, then that object who has most of being, or has the greatest share of existence, other things being equal, so far as such a being is exhibited to our faculties, will have the greatest share of the propensity and benevolent affections of the heart. I say, “other things being equal,” especially because there is a secondary object of virtuous benevolence, that I shall take notice of presently, which must be considered as the ground or motive to a purely virtuous benevolence. Pure benevolence in its first exercise is nothing else but being’s uniting consent, or propensity to being; and inclining to the general highest good, and to each being, whose welfare is consistent with the highest general good, in proportion to the degree of existence, 226226 I say, “in proportion to the degree of existence,” because one being may have more existence than another, as he may be greater than another. That which is great, has more existence, and is further from nothing, than that which is little. One being may have every thing positive belonging to it, or every thing which goes to its positive existence (in opposition to defect) in a higher degree than another; or a greater capacity and power, greater understanding, every faculty and every positive quality in a higher degree. An arch-angel must be supposed to have more existence, and to be every way further removed from non-entity, than a worm. understand, “other things being equal.”
The second object of a virtuous propensity of heart is benevolent being. A secondary ground of pure benevolence is virtuous benevolence itself in its object. When any one under the influence of general benevolence, sees another being possessed of the like general benevolence, this attaches his heart to him, and draws forth greater love to him, than merely his having existence: because so far as the being beloved has love to the being in general, so far his own being is, as it were, enlarged; extends to, and in some sort comprehends, being in general: and therefore, he that is governed by love to being in general, must of necessity have complacence in him, and the greater degree of benevolence to him, as it were out of gratitude to him for his love to general existence, that his own heart is extended and united to, and so looks on its interest as its own. It is because his heart is thus united to being in general, that he looks on a benevolent propensity to being in general, wherever he sees it, as the beauty of the being in whom it 124 is; an excellency that renders him worthy of esteem, complacence, and the greater good will.—But several things may be noted more particularly concerning this secondary ground of a truly virtuous love.
1. That loving a being on this ground necessarily arises from pure benevolence to being in general, and comes to the same thing. For he that has a simple and pure good will to general existence, must love that temper in others, that agrees and conspires with itself. A spirit of consent to being must agree with consent to being. That which truly and sincerely seeks the good of others, must approve of and love that which joins with him in seeking the good of others.
2. This secondary ground of virtuous love, is the thing wherein true moral or spiritual beauty primarily consists. Yea, spiritual beauty consists wholly in this, and in the various qualities and exercises of mind which proceed from it, and the external actions which proceed from these internal qualities and exercises. And in these things consists all true virtue, viz. in this love of being, and the qualities and acts which arise from it.
3. As all the spiritual beauty lies in these virtuous principles and acts, so it is primarily on this account they are beautiful, viz. that they imply consent and union with being in general. This is the primary and most essential beauty of every thing that can justly be called by the name of virtue, or is any moral excellency in the eye of one that has a perfect view of things. I say, “the primary and most essential beauty,” because there is a secondary and inferior sort of beauty; which I shall take notice of afterwards.
4. This spiritual beauty, which is but a secondary ground of virtuous benevolence, is the ground, not only of benevolence, but complacence. and is the primary ground of the latter; that is, when the complacence is truly virtuous. Love to us in particular, and kindness received, may be a secondary ground: but this is the primary objective foundation of it.
5. It must be noted, that the degree of the amiableness of true virtue, primarily consisting in consent, and a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general, is not in the simple proportion of the degree of benevolent affection seen, but in a proportion compounded of the greatness of the benevolent being, or the degree of being and the degree of benevolence. One that loves being in general, will necessarily value good will to being in general, wherever he sees it. But if he sees the same benevolence in two beings, he will value it more in two, than in one only. Because it is a greater thing, more favourable to being in general, to have two beings to favour it, than only one of them. For there is more being that favours being: both together having more being than one alone. So, if one being be as great as two, has as much existence as both together, and has the same degree of general benevolence, it is more favourable to being in general, than if there were general benevolence in a being that had but half that share of existence. As a large quantity of gold, with the same quality, is more valuable than a small quantity of the same metal.
6. It is impossible that any one should truly relish this beauty, consisting in general benevolence, who has not that temper himself. I have observed, that if any being is possessed of such a temper, he will unavoidably be pleased with same temper in another. And it may in like manner be demonstrated, that it is such a spirit, and nothing else, which will relish such a spirit. For if a being, destitute of benevolence, should love benevolence to being in general, it would prize and seek that for which it had no value. For how should one love and value a disposition to a thing, or a tendency to promote it, and for that very reason, when the thing itself is what he is regardless of, and has no value for, nor desires to have promoted. 227227 In this masterly Dissertation on the nature of virtue, our author enters at once on his own definition of the term, and explains very clearly what he means by true virtue. His views, in some respects, are considerably different from those which are most current among ethical writers; and, probably, for want of some explanations, whereby the different definitions adopted by others may be accounted for, his invaluable treatise has not only been underrated, but even, by some, unreasonably opposed. We shall here offer a few remarks, which, perhaps, may tend to cast some light on the subject in general, as well as to relieve our author’s definition from unfair imputations. 1. Virtue, if we regard the use of the term () among the NOT ENGLISHs, seems to have been appropriated as much to the idea of martial courage, as the English term is appropriated to that of female chastity. Not that it was used exclusively in the former case, any more than in the latter. It often signifies power, energy, efficacy, and excellence. But by moral writers both ancient and modern, it has been unanimously adopted to represent a very general moral idea.—It would be easy to produce a great number of definitions from moralists and divines; but this is neither necessary, nor does it comport with our present purpose. 2. If we mistake not, there is just definition of virtue, which is not reducible to this general one: virtue is a laudable mean of real happiness. Cicero, indeed, says of it, that it is “affectio animi constans, conveniensque, laudabiles efficiens eos. in quibus est, et ipsa per se, sua sponte, separatea etiam utilitate, laudabilis.” (Tuscul. Quæst. Lib. iv. § 15.) But virtue being laudable from its very nature, independently of any advantageous result, does not hinder it from being “a laudable mean of real happiness.” 3. Now happiness being the uniform and voluntary end of intellectual existence, a desire of it being inseparable from our nature; we become liable to err, not only by adopting wrong means for accomplishing the end we propose to ourselves, but also by forming a false estimate of the nature of happiness, or the end itself. If the happiness be not real but imaginery, in the contemplation of the agent, however well adapted the means may be in order to attain it, they deserve not the epithet virtuous. 4. To discover the nature of true happiness, the light of wisdom is requisite: and while desire is blind, false estimates will be made. But every one thinks himself wise and prudent enough to prescribe his own happiness, till much folly be shown him by the wisdom which is from above; and he who supposes himself adequate to fix the end, cannot be very diffident about the means to be employed. 5. Hence there is room for as many representations of virtue, as there are kinds of happiness which men think to be real; in addition to as many means employed to accomplish their proposed end, as they judge to be laudable. 6. From these preliminary remarks, it appears, that the nature and real character of virtue, must arise from the nature of the end proposed, and of the means employed for securing it. We shall now attempt to illustrate the ground of numerous representations of virtue, by comparison. 7. Let the different kinds of happiness which we propose to ourselves, whether those which have been classified by moral writers, or any others, be represented by so many concentric circles. For instance, let happiness be considered as personal and relative, private and public, domestic and national, temporal and eternal, or the like: and for every species of happiness let there be a corresponding circle drawn. Let the filling up of that circle express the virtue requisite to attain the happiness thus represented. 8. Suppose, for example, that health, friendship, domestic unanimity, national prosperity, the welfare of the human race, and our individual conformity to God in his moral excellence through eternal ages, or the happiness implied in these respectively, be represented by the concentric circles above mentioned. Then, the happiness implied in health, a small circle, will be filled by corresponding virtues, when the end is sought by laudable means: such as temperance, moderation, chastity, government of the passions, &c. The circle representing the happiness implied in friendship will be filled by corresponding virtues, when the end is sought, as before, by laudable means: such as benevolence, fidelity, prudence, sympathy, &c. The circle of domestic happiness is filled with the virtues of kindness, meekness, patience, industry, economy, &c. That of national prosperity by diligence in business, honesty, justice, truth, liberality, conscientious submission, fortitude, real patriotism, &c. The circle representing the welfare of the human race, as the common offspring of one progenitor, and who are regarded by the Supreme Parent as the children of one family, is filled by the virtues of philanthropy, expansive benevolent zeal, self-denial, public spirit, passive courage, &c. And the circle of that happiness which is implied in our individual conformity to God’s moral excellence; in other words, that happiness which is ultimate and supreme, is filled by nothing short of supreme love to God, or, in language more philosophically accurate, consent of will to BEING in general—benevolent attachment to universal being. 9. Now who can question whether temperance, fidelity, meekness, honesty and liberality, philanthropy and public spirit, should be ranked among the virtues? And who can doubt that they are calculated to secure the happiness implied in health, friendship, national prosperity, and the welfare of the human race, respectively? And yet, if we exclude the disposition which is required to fill the largest circle—benevolent attachment to universal being—which of these virtues may not an atheist actually possess? Nay, may not an atheist possess them all? For may he not promote his health by temperance, moderation, chastity, and the like? May he not exercise friendly benevolence, fidelity, prudence, sympathy, and similar virtues? Have not atheists been great patriots, if by patriotism we mean a supreme regard for the prosperity and glory of the nation to which they belonged, manifested by severe studies, by the lightning and thunder of their eloquence, the fatigues of war, and a willingness to shed the last drop of their blood in defence of their country? Nay more, may not an atheist possess the virtues of generous philanthropy, and, to a certain extent, of benevolent zeal for the welfare of mankind in general, expressed by an attempt to remove their ignominious chains, to promote the civilization of savage nations whom he has never seen, to alleviate the sufferings and to enhance the comforts of all mankind? 10. Far be it from us to suppose that atheists are favourable to virtue, even in these inferior acceptations of the term. The reverse is abundantly evident. But this is what we assert, that such virtues as those above mentioned, when exclusive of what our author contends for, are what an atheist may possess, without inconsistency; and that they have no moral worth, no direct connexion, either with the complacency of God in them, or with the ultimate happiness of the agent. However attentive a man may be to practise the virtues in subservience to his health, while he repels those of friendship; or however observant of the virtues of friendship, while he repels others which are conducive to domestic, national, and universal happiness; his virtues, if the name be retained, are those of a bad character. Some have been conspicuous and zealous patriots, while determined foes to philanthropy and general good will to mankind as such. And how many have fought with the most patriotic zeal and courage in the field of honour, though tyrants at home, and in private life trampling on those virtues which constitute a good husband, a good father, a good master, a good neighbour, a good friend, or a good any thing. In short, were a man to “give all his goods to feed the poor, and his body to be burned,” out of zeal to promote some public good, yet without love to God, without benevolent attachment to universal being, he is morally nothing, or worse than nothing. 11. What are called virtues, without a disposition to embrace universal being and excellence, are, morally considered, but lifeless images. To compare them to a series of decimal figures, which, however increased, will never amount to an unit of moral worth, is to place them in too favourable a view; they are more like cyphers. But let these unmeaning cyphers be preceded by a figure, let these images have an informing and invigorating principle, let these dry bones have the spirit of life in them, and they will acquire a moral excellence; they will deserve the name of real virtues. 12. Some have defined virtue, by calling it, “a tendency to ultimate happiness.” If the meaning of this definition be, “a tendency to God, in whom our ultimate happiness is found,” it may be admitted; otherwise, it seems not admissible on many accounts. Tendency may be considered as either voluntary or involuntary. In the first place, let us suppose it to be voluntary. We then observe, that it is not rational, nor even compatible with common sense, to say, that virtue is a voluntary tendency to a quality of our own minds, as happiness evidently is. For happiness, from its very nature, is a relative state, or quality of mind, which is the result of enjoying an object suited to our wants. And to desire ultimate happiness, without including the object of choice from whence happiness results, is the same as to seek happiness in nothing. If it be said, that happiness itself is the object sought; then virtue consists in a voluntary tendency to seek happiness in happiness, which is absurd. 13. Ultimate happiness has been defined, “the durable possession of perfect good.” If this be a just statement, which few or none will question, what is the perfect good possessed? If it be answered, The Supreme Being: to this there is no objection. But if it be said, the ultimate happiness itself is the perfect good enjoyed: then the happiness to which the choice is directed is both cause and effect at the same time. Both the thing enjoyed and the enjoyment itself are the same thing. Which is no less absurd than for a man to assert, that the stock of a tree and the fruit on its branches, are the same thing; or that his relish of food is the same as the food itself. A tendency to happiness resulting from no object of that tendency, is the same thing as a tendency to no happiness. In other words, according to this definition, supposing the tendency to be voluntary, virtue is a desire of ultimate happiness. And this will reduce it to another absurdity; for, as a desire of ultimate happiness is an inseparable property of intelligent beings, the most vicious being in existence is virtuous. These consequences, however just, will not be thought very extraordinary, when compared with the following declarations. “The following seems to be at present the true moral state of the world: In every moral agent the number of virtuous actions greatly exceed that of vicious ones.—In by far the greater number of moral agents, and even amongst those who are considered as most vicious and profligate, the number of virtuous affections and habits greatly preponderates over the vicious ones. A character in which there is a preponderance of vice, is very rarely, if ever, to be met with.” (Belsham’s Elements, p. 400.) And, to advance one step further in this hopeful way, as this desire belongs to all intelligent beings alike, all intelligent beings are alike virtuous! 14. In reality, a mere desire of ultimate happiness is no virtue, has nothing laudable in it, but is a mere instinct of intellectual nature, and belongs alike to the best and the worst of intelligent beings. But virtue consists in the choice of, or a disposition to choose, laudable means in order to arrive at this end. A bad man in his choice of objects, or a vicious choice itself, aims at ultimate happiness; but the means are not laudable, and this wrong choice of means constitutes the very essence of his vice. 15. If it be said, that virtue is a tendency to ultimate self-enjoyment, as constituting happiness; then it follows that self is the perfect good desired. And then every one is himself all-sufficient to constitute his own happiness. Let any rational person judge, whether this be not a definition of sordid vice, rather than of virtue; and whether such a disposition would not be a tendency to insubordination, anarchy, and confusion, rather than to happiness—the very temper of an apostate spirit. 16. If it be said, moreover, that “a tendency to ultimate happiness,” does not refer to the will, desire, or choice; but expresses any thing which in fact tends to ultimate happiness. This leads us to suppose secondly, that the tendency is involuntary. It seems, then, on this supposition, that the means employed to acquire ultimate happiness need not be laudable. This is the genuine result of that account of virtue which is here animadverted upon; and which the abettors of it are forced to admit. The doctrine of “intrinsic merit or demerit of actions. Independent on their consequences.” they call an “absurd supposition.” (Belsham’s Elements, p. 309, 372, 373.) 17. It seems, then, we are all bound to be virtuous at our peril, and yet we must wait the result of all our actions, before we can know what is virtuous and what is not. For if virtue and vice have no intrinsic character of good or evil, but actions, affections, habits, or characters, are either good or bad from their ultimate consequences; then we must wait for those consequences, as the only expositors of virtue and vice. 18. Can any thing more be necessary, in order to show the absurdity of such a notion of virtue? Happiness, it is allowed, is a consequent, of which virtue is the antecedent. But what is the moral nature of this antecedent? Is it any thing good, beautiful, or laudable per se? No, say they; it has no nature beside tendency; which has no intrinsic merit or demerit; and consequently, that which has no moral nature is a moral nothing; that is, virtue is a moral nothing, or nothing moral. And whether this character of virtue be not totally distinct from the distant of right reason, philosophic accuracy, common sense, and christian piety, let the reader judge.—W. 125
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