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legends, wherever they may be found, either directly aim to represent what we have significantly learned to name “Poetic Justice," or pay the idea still deeper homage by founding the tragedy of the piece on the failure of Justice. Never is the notion absent, either from the ethical poets, such as the author of "Job,” Euripides, Dante or Milton, or from those who have followed the principle of Art for Art's sake-Æschylus, Shakespeare and Goethe. Each of us in the course of life exemplifies the cycle of human thought in the matter. In childhood we read History with impatient longing for the triumph of patriots and heroes and the overthrow of their oppressors, and we prefer ancient history to modern because it seems to offer a clearer field for the vindication of ethical ideas. In youth we find delight in the romances which exhibit Virtue as crowned with success and wickedness defeated ; and it is invariably with a mingled sense of surprise and indignation that we fling down the first tale which leaves us at its conclusion with our legitimate anticipations of such a dénouement unsatisfied. To this hour the play-going public, which represents the youthful-mindedness of the community, refuses to sanction any picture of life wherein, ere the curtain falls, the hero is not vindicated from all aspersion and the villain punished and exposed. Only far on in life and in literary culture do we begin, with many misgivings, mournfully to recognize the superior verisimilitude of tales which depict Virtue as receiving no reward, and Guilt no punishment, in this world.
The question, “How mankind has come to possess this confidence in Nemesis ?" will of course be answered differently according to our various theories of the origin of all moral sentiments. Dr. Johnson ascribes our passion for justice to the simple source of Fear lest we should personally suffer from injustice,—an hypothesis which would be highly satisfactory, provided, in the first place, we were all so good that we had everything to hope and nothing to dread from justice; and, secondly, provided our interest in justice never extended backward in time and far off into distance, immeasurably beyond the circle of events in which we can ever have personal
The theory which would accord with the general neo-utilitarian doctrine now in fashion would be a little more philosophic than this. Our modern teachers would probably tell us that our expectation of justice is the result of the “set” of the human brain, fixed by experience through countless generations. As our sense of Duty is, on their showing, derived from the repeated observation of the utility of virtuous actions, so, on the same principle, our expectation of Justice must come from numberless observations of instances wherein justice has been illustriously manifested. It is, indeed, easier to see how the constant association of the ideas of guilt and punishment, virtue and reward, formed by such observations, should produce the expectation to see one always follow the other, than it is to understand how the observation of the Utility of Virtue should impress upon us the solemn categoric imperative, “Be virtuous.” The expectation of Justice might be merely an intellectual presumption of the same character as our anticipation of the recurrence of day and night, or any other phenomena associated in unbroken sequence. The sense of Duty is a practical spur to action, whose relation to its supposed origin of long-observed utility remains, when all is said, a “mystic extension" of that prosaic idea altogether unaccountable.
But there is unfortunately a difficulty in the way of availing ourselves of this easy solution of the origin of the universal expectation of Justice. It is hard to see how the “set of our brains" towards such expectation could have been formed by experience, considering that no generation seems to have been favoured by any such experience at all. To produce such a “set," it would (by the hypothesis) be necessary that the instances wherein Justice was plainly exhibited should be so common as to constitute the rule, and those wherein it failed exceptions too rare to hinder the solid mass of conviction from settling in the given direction. Like a sand-bar formed by the action of the tides and currents, our "set of brain" can only come from uniform impressions, and were the angle of pressure to shift continually, it is clear it could take no permanent shape whatever. Now, does any one imagine that such uniform and perspicuous vindication of Justice in the course of events, has been witnessed by mankind at any age of the world's history? Is there anything like it impressed upon our own minds as we read day after day of public affairs, or reflect on the occurrences of private life? Are we accustomed to see well-meant actions always followed by reward, and evil ones infallibly productive of failure or disgrace? Even at the present stage of moral advance in public opinion and in righteous legislation, can we flatter ourselves that things are so arranged as to secure the unvarying triumph of probity, veracity, modesty, and all the other virtues, and the exemplary overthrow of fraud, impudence and selfishness ? Suppose a cynic to hold the opposite thesis, and maintain that we are continually punished for our generosity and simplicity, and rewarded for cunning and hypocrisy. Should we be able to overwhelm him with a mass of instances to the contrary, ready at a moment's notice in our memory? Can we imagine (as a single illustration of the subject) that the thousands of adulterating tradesmen and fraudulent merchants in England at this moment would pursue their evil courses so consistently, did daily experience really warn those sagacious persons that “Honesty is the best policy”? Of course, as we recede towards times when laws were far less just than they are now, and oppression and violence were far more common, the scene becomes darker and less hopeful. Looking back through the vista of the historic and pre-historic ages, the probability of finding a reign of Astræa when Right always triumphed over Might, becomes necessarily “fine by degrees and beautifully less," till we are driven to the conclusion, that, if we owe the set of our brains towards Justice to the experience of our ancestors, that “set” must have been given when Justice was rarely manifest at all, "and the earth was full of violence and cruel habitations.” The share which the purely physical laws have had in punishing moral offences has doubtless been always what it is now, and that share, to all our knowledge, is extremely obscure. If health and longevity are the frequent accompaniment of one class of virtues, disease and death are equally often incurred by another; nor is there any sort of token that abundant harvests or blighted fields, prosperous voyages or tempestdriven wrecks, have any relation to the moral character of the mariner or the agriculturist; or that from the observation of such events for sixty centuries, a theory of morals could possibly have been evolved. Practically, it is obvious that men do not see wickedness and infer punishment, but rather when they see punishment they infer wickedness. A thousand tyrants had been more cruel than Herod, and yet had never been "smitten by God” with the portentous disease of which the Idumaan died. A hundred invaders before Xerxes had trampled on the necks of conquered nations, but no Nemesis had deserved a temple for rebuking their pride; no Hellespontine waves had risen in tempest to destroy their fleets.