|« Prev||Proposition III.||Next »|
MY third Proposition is this, that from this book, called the New Testament, may be collected a system of ethics, in which every moral precept founded on reason is carried to a higher degree of purity and perfection, than in any other of the ancient philosophers of preceding ages; every moral precept founded, on false principles is intirely omitted, and many new precepts added, peculiarly corresponding with the new object of this religion.
By moral precepts founded on reason, I mean all those which enforce the practice of such duties as reason 44informs us must improve our natures, and conduce to the happiness of mankind; such are piety to God, benevolence to men, justice, charity, temperance, and sobriety, with all those which prohibit the commission of the contrary vices, all which debase our natures, and, by mutual injuries, introduce universal disorder, and, consequently, universal misery. By precepts founded on false principles, I mean those which recommend fictitious virtues productive of none of these salutary effects, and therefore, however celebrated and admired, are in fact no virtues at all; such are valour, patriotism, and friendship.
That virtues of the first kind are carried to a higher degree of purity and perfection by the Christian religion 45than by any other, it is here unnecessary to prove, because this is a truth, which has been so frequently demonstrated by her friends, and never once denied by the most determined of her adversaries; but it will be proper to shew, that those of the latter sort are most judiciously omitted, because they have really no intrinsic merit in them, and are totally incompatible with the genius and spirit of this institution.
Valour, for instance, or active courage, is for the most part constitutional, and therefore can have no more claim to moral merit, than wit, beauty, health, strength, or any other endowment of the mind or body; and so far is it from producing any salutary effects by introducing peace, order, or happiness, into 46society, that it is the usual perpetrator of all the violences which from retaliated injuries distract the world with bloodshed and devastation. It is the engine by which the strong are enabled to plunder the weak, the proud to trample upon the humble, and the guilty to oppress the innocent; it is the chief instrument which Ambition employs in her unjust pursuits of wealth and power, and is therefore so much extolled by her votaries; it was, indeed, congenial with the religion of Pagans, whose gods were for the most part made out of deceased heroes, exalted to Heaven as a reward for the mischiefs which they had perpetrated upon earth, and therefore with them this was the first of virtues, and had even engrossed that denomination to 47itself; but whatever merit it may have assumed among Pagans, with Christians it can pretend to none, and few or none are the occasions in which they are permitted to exert it; they are so far from being allowed to inflict evil, that they are forbid even to refill it; they are so far from being encouraged to revenge injuries, that one of their first duties is to forgive them; so far from being incited to destroy their enemies, that they are commanded to love them, and to serve them to the utmost of their power. If Christian nations, therefore, were nations of Christians, all war would be impossible and unknown amongst them, and valour could be neither of use or estimation, and therefore could never have a place in the catalogue of Christian 48virtues, being irreconcileable with all its precepts. I object not to the praise and honours bestowed on the valiant, they are the least tribute which can be paid them by those, who enjoy safety and affluence by the intervention of their dangers and sufferings; I assert only, that active courage can never be a Christian virtue, because a Christian can have nothing to do with it. Passive courage is indeed frequently, and properly, inculcated by this meek and suffering religion, under the titles of patience and resignation; a real and substantial virtue this, and a direct contrail to the former; for passive courage arises from the noblest dispositions of the human mind, from a contempt of misfortunes, pain, and death, and a confidence in the 49protection of the Almighty; active from the meanest: from passion, vanity, and self-dependence: passive courage is derived from a zeal for truth, and a perseverance in duty; active is the offspring of pride and revenge) and the parent of cruelty and injustice: in short, passive courage is the resolution of a philosopher; active, the ferocity of a savage. Nor is this more incompatible with the precepts, than with the object, of this religion, which is the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven; for valour is not that sort of violence, by which that kingdom is to be taken; nor are the turbulent spirits of heroes and conquerors admissible into those regions of peace, subordination, and tranquillity.50
Patriotism also, that celebrated virtue so much practised in ancient, and so much professed in modern, times; that virtue, which so long preserved the liberties of Greece, and exalted Rome to the empire of the world; this celebrated virtue, I say, must also be excluded, because it not only falls short of, but directly counteracts, the extensive benevolence of this religion. A Christian is of no country; he is a citizen of the world, and his neighbours and countrymen are the inhabitants of the remotest regions, whenever their distresses demands his friendly assistance. Christianity commands us to love all mankind; Patriotism to oppress all other countries. to advance the imaginary prosperity of our own. 51 Christianity enjoins us to imitate the universal benevolence of our Creator, who pours forth his blessings on every nation upon earth; Patriotism to copy the mean partiality of an English parish-officer, who thinks injustice and cruelty meritorious, whenever they promote the interests of his own inconsiderable village. This has ever been a favourite virtue with mankind, because it conceals self-interest under the mask of public spirit, not only from others, but even from themselves, and gives a licence to inflict l wrongs and injuries, not only with impunity, but with applause; but it is so diametrically opposite to the great characteristic of this institution, that it never could have been admitted into the list of Christian virtues.52
Friendship, likewise, although more congenial to the principles of Christianity, arising from more tender and amiable dispositions, could never gain admittance amongst her benevolent precepts for the same reason; because it is too narrow and confined, and appropriates that benevolence to a single subject, which is here commanded to be extended over all. Where friendships arise from similarity sentiments and disinterested affections, they are advantageous, agreeable, and innocent, but have little pretensions to merit; for it is justly observed, “If ye love them, which love you, what thanks have ye? for sinners also love those, that love them.”99 Luke vi. 32. But if they are formed from alliances in parties, 53factions, and interests, or from a participation of vices, the dual parents of what are called friendships among mankind, they are then both mischievous and criminal, and consequently forbidden, but in their utmost purity deserve no recommendation from this religion.
To the judicious omission of these false virtues we may add, that remarkable silence which the Christian Legislator every where preserves on subjects esteemed by all others of the highest importance, civil government, national policy, and the rights of war and peace; of these he has not taken the least notice, probably for this plain reason, because it would have been impossible to have formed any explicit regulations concerning them, which must not have been inconsistent 54with the purity of his religion, or with the practical observance of such imperfect creatures as men ruling over, and contending with, each other; for instance, had he absolutely forbid all resistance to the reigning powers, he had constituted a plan of despotism, and made men slaves; had he allowed it, he must have authorised disobedience and made them rebels; had he in direct terms prohibited all war, he must have left his followers for ever an easy prey to every infidel invader; had he permitted it, he must have licensed all that rapine and murder, with which it is unavoidably attended.
Let us now examine what are those new precepts in this religion, peculiarly corresponding with the 55new object of it, that is preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven: of these the chief are poorness of spirit, forgiveness of injuries, and charity to all men; to these we may add repentance, faith; self-abasement, and a detachment from the world, all moral duties peculiar to this religion, and absolutely necessary to the attainment of its end.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven:”1010 Matt. v. 3. By which poorness of spirit is to be understood a disposition of mind, meek, humble, submissive to power, void of ambition, patient of injuries, and free from all resentment: this was so new, and so opposite to the ideas of all Pagan moralists, 56that they though this temper of mind a criminal and contemptible meanness, which must induce men to sacrifice the glory of their country, and their own honour, to a shameful pusillanimity; and such it appears to almost all who are called Christians even at this day, who not only reject it in practice, but disavow it in principle, notwithstanding this explicit declaration of their Master. We see them revenging the smallest affronts by premeditated murder, as individuals, on principles of honour; and, in their national capacities, destroying each other with fire and sword, for the low considerations of commercial interests, the balance of rival powers, or the ambition of princes: we see them with their last breath animating each other to a 57savage revenge, and, in the agonies of death, plunging with feeble arms their daggers into the hearts of their opponents: and, what is still worse, we hear all these barbarisms celebrated by historians, flattered by poets; applauded in theatres, approved in senates, and even sanctified in pulpits. But universal practice cannot alter the nature of things, nor universal error change the nature of truth. Pride was not made for man, but humility, meekness, and resignation, that is poorness of spirit was made for man, and properly belongs. to his dependent and precarious situation; and is the only disposition of mind, which can enable him to enjoy ease and quiet here, and happiness hereafter: yet, was this important precept intirely unknown 58until it was promulgated by him, who said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven; Verily I say unto you, whoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he than not enter therein.”1111 Matt. x. 14.
Another precept equally new, and no less excellent, is forgiveness of injuries: “Ye have heard,” says Christ to his disciples, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, love your enemies; bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”1212 Matt. v. 43. This was a lesson so new, 59and so utterly unknown, till taught by his doctrines, and enforced by his example, that the wisest moralists of the wisest nations and ages represented the desire of revenge as a mark of a noble mind, and the accomplishment of it, as one of the chief felicities attendant on a fortunate man. But how much more magnanimous, how much more beneficial to mankind, is forgiveness! it is more magnanimous, because every generous and exalted disposition of the human mind is requisite to the practice of it: for these alone can enable us to bear the wrongs and insults of wickedness and folly with patience, and to look down on the perpetrators of them with pity, rather than indignation; these alone can teach us, that such are but a 60part of those sufferings allotted to us in this state of probation, and to know, that to overcome evil with good is the most glorious of all victories: it is the most beneficial, because this amiable conduct alone can put an end to an eternal succession of injuries and retaliations; for every retaliation becomes a new injury, and requires another as of revenge for satisfaction. But would we observe this salutary precept, to love our enemies, and to do good to those who despitefully use us; this obstinate benevolence would at. ha conquer the most inveterate hearts, and we should have no enemies to forgive. How much more exalted a character, therefore, is a Christian martyr, suffering with resignation, and praying for the guilty, than that of 61a Pagan hero breathing revenge, and destroying the innocent! Yet, noble and useful as this virtue is, before the appearance of this religion, it was not only unpractised, but decried in principle as mean and ignominious, though so obvious a remedy for most of the miseries of this life, and so necessary a qualification for the happiness of another.
A third precept, first noticed and first injoined by this institution, is charity to all. men. What this is, we may best learn from this admirable description, painted in the following words: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not her own; is not easily provoked; thinketh 62no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in truth; feareth all things; believeth all things; hopeth all things; endureth all things.”1313 1 Cor. xiii. 4. Here we have an accurate delineation of this bright constellation of all virtues, which consists not, as many imagine, in the building of monasteries, endowment of hospitals, or the distribution of alms, but in such an amiable disposition of mind, as exercises itself every hour in acts of kindness, patience, complacency, and benevolence to all around us, and which alone is able to promote happiness in the present life, or render us capable of receiving it in another: and yet this is totally new, and so it is declared to be by the author of it: “A new commandment 63I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye love one another; by this shall all men know, that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”1414 John. xiii. 34. This benevolent disposition is made the great characteristic of a Christian, the test of his obedience, and the mark by which he is to be distinguished. This love for each other is that charity just now described, and contains all those qualities which are there attributed. to it; humility, patience, meekness, and beneficence: without which we must live in perpetual discord, and consequently cannot pay obedience to this commandment by loving one another; a commandment 64so sublime, so rational, and so beneficial, so wisely calculated to correct the depravity, diminish the wickedness, and abate the miseries of human nature, that, did we universally comply with it, we should soon be relieved from all the inquietudes arising from our own unruly passions, anger, envy, revenge, malice, and ambition, as well as from all those injuries, to which we are perpetually exposed, from the indulgence of the same passions in others. It would also preserve our minds in such a state of tranquillity, and so prepare them for the Kingdom of Heaven, that we should slide out of a life of peace, love, and benevolence, into that celestial society, by an almost imperceptible transition. Yet was this commandment 65intirely new when given by him, who so intitles it, and has made it the capital duty of his religion, because the most indispensably necessary to the attainment of its great object, the Kingdom of Heaven; into which, if proud, turbulent, and vindictive, spirits were permitted to enter, they must unavoidably destroy the happiness of that state by the operations of the same passions and vices, by which they disturb the present, and therefore all such must be eternally excluded, not only as a punishment, but also from incapacity
Repentance, by this we plainly see, is another new moral duty strenuously insisted on by this religion, and by no other, because absolutely necessary to the accomplishment of 66its end; for this alone can purge us from those transgressions, from which we cannot be totally exempted in this state of trial and temptation, and purify us from that depravity in our nature, which renders us incapable of attaining this end. Hence also we may learn, that no repentance can remove this incapacity, but such as intirely changes the nature and disposition of the offender; which in the language of Scripture is called “being born again.” Mere contrition for past crimes, nor even the pardon of them, cannot effect this, unless it operates to this intire conversion or new birth, as it is properly and emphatically named for sorrow can no more purify a mind corrupted by a long continuance in vicious habits, than it can restore 67health to a body distempered by a long course of vice and intemperance. Hence also every one, who is in the least acquainted with himself, may judge of the reasonableness of the hope that is in him, and of his situation in a future state by that of his present. If he feels in himself a temper proud, turbulent, vindictive, and malevolent, and a violent attachment to the pleasures or business of the world, he may be assured, that he must: be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven; not only because his conduct can merit no such reward, but because, if admitted, he would find there no objects satisfactory to his passions, inclinations, and pursuits, and therefore could only disturb the happiness 68of others without enjoying any share of it himself.
Faith is another moral duty injoined by this institution, of a species so new, that the philosophers of antiquity had no word expressive of this idea, nor any such idea to be expressed; for the word πιστις, or fides, which we translate faith, was never used by any Pagan writer in a sense the least similar to that, to which it is applied in the New Testament where in general it signifies a humble, teachable, and candid, disposition, a trust in God, and confidence in his promises; when applied particularly to Christianity, it means no more than a belief of this single proposition, that Christ was the Son of God; that is, in the language 69of those writings, the Messiah, who was foretold by the prophets, and expected by the Jews; who was sent by God into the world to preach righteousness, judgement, and everlasting life, and to die as an atonement for the sins of mankind. This was all that Christ required to be believed by those who were willing to become his disciples he, who does not believe this, is not a Christian, and he who does believes the whole that is essential to his profession, and all that is properly comprehended under the name of faith. This unfortunate word has indeed: been so tortured and so misapplied. to mean every absurdity, which artifice could impose upon ignorance, that it has lost all pretensions to the title of virtue; but if brought back 70to the simplicity of its original signification, it well deserves that name, because it usually arises from the most amiable dispositions, and is always a direct contrast to pride, obstinacy, and self-conceit. If taken in the extensive sense of an assent to the evidence of things not seen, it comprehends the existence of a God, and a future state, and is therefore not only itself a moral virtue, but the source from whence all others must proceed; for on the belief of these all religion and morality must intirely depend. It cannot be altogether void of moral merit; (as some would represent it) because it is in a degree voluntary; for daily experience shews us, that men not only pretend to, but actually do believe, and disbelieve almost any propositions, 71which best suit their interests or inclinations, and unfeignedly change their sincere opinions with their situations and circumstances. For we have power over the mind’s eye, as well as over the body’s, to shut it against the strongest rays of truth and religion, whenever they become painful to us, and to open it again to the faint glimmerings of scepticism and infidelity, when we “love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil.”1515 John iii. 19.—And this, I think, sufficiently refutes all objections to the moral nature of faith, drawn from the supposition of its being quite involuntary and necessarily dependent on the degree 72of evidence which is offered to our understandings.
Self-abasement is another moral duty inculcated by this religion only; which requires us to impute even our own virtues to the grace and favour of our Creator, and to acknowledge that we can do nothing good by our own powers, unless assisted by his over-ruling influence. This doctrine seems at first sight to infringe on our free-will, and to deprive us of all merit; but, on a closer examination, the truth of it may be demonstrated both by reason and experience, and that in fact it does not impair the one or depreciate the other, and that it is productive of so much humility, resignation, and dependence, on God, that it justly 73claims a place amongst the most illustrious moral virtues. Yet was this duty utterly repugnant to the proud, and self-sufficient. principles of the ancient philosophers, as well as modern Deists, and therefore, before the publication of the Gospel, totally unknown and uncomprehended.
Detachment, from the world is another moral virtue (constituted by, this religion alone) so new, that even at this day few of its professors can be persuaded that it is required, or, that it is any virtue, at all. By this detachment from the world, is not to be understood a seclusion from society, abstraction from all business; or retirement to a gloomy. cloister.—Industry and labour, cheerfulness and hospitality, are frequently recommended; nor is the acquisition 74 of wealth and honours prohibited, if they can be obtained by honest means, and a moderate degree of attention and care; but such an unremitted anxiety and perpetual application, as engrosses our whole time and thoughts, are forbid, because they are incompatible with the spirit of this religion, and must utterly disqualify us for the attainment of its great end. We toil on in the vain pursuits and frivolous occupations of the world, die in our harness, and then expect, if no gigantic crime stands in the way, to step immediately into the Kingdom of Heaven; but this is impossible; for, without a previous detachment from the business of this world, we cannot be prepared for the happiness of another. Yet this could make no part of the morality 75of Pagans, because their virtues were altogether connected with this business, and confined chiefly in conducting it with honour to themselves and benefit to the public. But Christianity has a nobler object in view—which, if not attended to, must be lost for ever! This object is that celestial mansion of which we should never lose sight, and to which we should ever be advancing, during our journey through life; but this, by no means, precludes us from performing the business, or enjoying the amusements, of travellers, provided they detain us not too long, or lead us too far out of our way.
It cannot be denied, that the great author of the Christian institution, first and singly ventured to oppose all the chief principles of Pagan virtue, 76and to introduce a religion directly opposite to those erroneous, though long-established, opinions, both in its duties and in its object. The most celebrated virtues of the ancients were high spirit, intrepid courage, and implacable resentment.
Impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer,
was the portrait of the most illustrious hero drawn by one of the first poets of antiquity. To all these admired qualities, those of a true Christian are an exact contrast; for, this religion constantly enjoins poorness of spirit, meekness, patience, and forgiveness of injuries. “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; but whoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the 77other also.”1616 Matt. v. 39. The favourite characters among the Pagans were the turbulent, ambitious, and intrepid, who, through toils and dangers, acquired wealth and spent it in luxury, magnificence, and corruption; but both these are equally adverse to the Christian system, which forbids all extraordinary efforts to obtain wealth, care to secure, or thought concerning the enjoyment of it. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth,” &c. “Take no thought, saying, what shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewithal shall we be clothed?—for after all these things do the Gentiles seek.”1717 Matt. vi. 31. The chief object of the Pagans was immortal fame; for this, their poets 78sang, their heroes fought, and their patriots died: and this was hung out, by their philosophers and legislators, as the great incitement to all noble and virtuous deeds. But what says the Christian legislator to his disciples on this subject?—“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and shall say all manner of evil against you, for my sake; rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”1818 Matt. v. 14. So widely different is the genius of the Pagan and Christian morality, that I will venture to affirm, that the most celebrated virtues of the former are more opposite to the spirit, and more inconsistent with the end, of the latter, than even their most infamous vices; 79and that a Brutus, wrenching vengeance out of his hands to whom alone it belongs, by murdering the oppressor of his country, or a Cato, murdering himself, from an impatience of controul, leaves the world more unqualified for, and more inadmissible into, the Kingdom of Heaven, than even a Messalina, or an Heliogabalus, with all their profligacy about them.
Nothing, I believe, has so much contributed to corrupt the true spirit of the Christian institution, as that partiality which we contract from out earliest education for the manners of Pagan antiquity; from whence we learn to adopt every moral idea which is repugnant to it; to applaud false virtues, which that disavows; to be guided by laws of honour, which 80that abhors; to imitate characters which that detests; and to behold heroes, patriots, conquerors, and suicides, with admiration, whose conduct that utterly condemns. From a coalition of there opposite principles, was generated that monstrous system of cruelty and benevolence, of barbarism and civility, of rapine and justice, of fighting and devotion, of revenge and generosity, which harrassed the world, for several centuries, with crusades, holy wars, knight-errantry, and single combats, and even still retains influence enough, under the name of honour, to defeat the most beneficent ends of this holy institution. I mean not, by this, to pass any censure on the principles of valour, patriotism, or honour; they may be useful, and perhaps 81necessary, in the commerce and business of the present turbulent and imperfect state, and those who are actuated by them may be virtuous, honest, and even religious, men. All that I assert is, that they cannot be Christians; a profligate may be a Christian, though a bad one, because he may be overpowered by passions and temptations, and his actions may contradict his principles; but a man, whose ruling principle is honour, however virtuous he may be, cannot be a Christian, because he erects a standard of duty, and deliberately adheres to it, diametrically opposite to the whole tenour of that religion.
The contrast between the Christian, and all other institutions, religious 82or moral, previous to its appearance, is sufficiently evident; and surely the superiority of the former is as little to be disputed, unless any one than undertake to prove that humility, patience, forgiveness, and benevolence, are less amiable and less beneficial qualities than pride, turbulence, revenge, and malignity; that the contempt of riches is less noble than the acquisition by fraud and villany, or the distribution of them to the poor less commendable than avarice or profusion; or, that a real immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven is an object less exalted, less rational, and less worthy of pursuit, than an imaginary immortality in the applause of men—that worthless 83tribute which the folly of one part of mankind pays to the wickedness of the other—a tribute which a wise man ought always to despise, because a good man can scarce ever obtain.84
|« Prev||Proposition III.||Next »|
►Proofing disabled for this book
► Printer-friendly version