Page images
PDF
EPUB

the like manner any other person, supposing him in all the same circumstances : for he is in regard to every consideration of duty, as it were, the same person. There is no need then of saying (what yet is very true, and would, if it were wanted, be very material) that all men are absolutely equal in many things, nearly equal in most * ; that in whatever they are unequal, the inequality is of very uncertain duration, and by no means always acknowledged (for scarce any one upon the whole would willingly be any person else, that could be named to him): and therefore we ought to act towards each other, for the greatest part entirely, and always nearly, as being on the level; and if we do not, those with whom we have concerns, and society in general, will never be easy and happy. Such reflections go somewhat beyond, or fall somewhat wide of, what is needful to establish the precept in question: which only requires this very brief and plain demonstration of its justness, indeed so brief and plain, as hardly to need being given in form : that wherever the case is in all respects the same (as in order to make use of this rule we must in the first place imagine it to be), there the right behaviour must be the same too : and whether it be one person or another, I or my neighbour, who is really in that case, makes no difference in the answer to the question, what the behaviour should be. This cannot be denied, and therefore ought not to be forgotten or overlooked. For whatever is true, and relates to our practice, we feel ourselves bound by nature to observe in our practice. And the God of nature, who hath made us and every thing what we are, must expect us to act suitably to what he hath made us : and if that were not enough to determine our judgment, he hath farther told us expressly by his beloved Son, that he expects us to live with one another according to this rule. Nor (which completes our obligation) hath he left us any room to doubt, but that in every thing, as we obey or disobey, he will reward or punish : and certainly in a greater or smaller degree, as the matter is more or less important. Let us therefore now,

* Nihil enim est unum uni tam simile, tam par, quam omnes inter nosmet ipsos sumus. Cic. de Leg. i. 10.

III. Consider well the importance of the precept before us.

Indeed the stamp of divine authority upon it, especially joined with the annexed declaration, that it contains the substance of all, that the law and prophets have taught concerning our mutual behaviour, may fully assure us, even before we make any particular enquiry, that its moment is remarkably great. And yet there seems to lie a plausible objection against it: that as it only enjoins men to do to others what they see would be right for others to do to them; the question still remains, what that right part is : that where this is known, the rule of the text is needless; and where it is not known, we have no more direction for our conduct, than we had before; but are only perplexed with an imaginary change of persons to no purpose.

Now it must be confessed, that if we had neither by nature nor by revelation any sense or knowledge at all of right and wrong in particular cases, this rule could not give us any; nor could we understand it any otherwise, than very grossly and imperfectly: but still it would be of some, and no small use to us.

For if we knew nothing else, at least we should know what we desired; we should know too, that in the main we were all alike: and by treating

each other as we merely wished (without considering how reasonably) to be treated in return, we should for the most part do tolerably well; please those around us, and make ourselves easy. Sometimes indeed, for want of distinguishing, what wishes were fit, and what unfit, we should act extremely ill : but in comparison perhaps not very often. And upon the whole, where we had no particular precepts, this general one would be the best that we could follow, even though we could not apprehend its full import.

But the delivery of it to us presupposes, and very justly, that in the main the contrary is true: that all mankind perceive, in some good degree, one sort of behaviour to be commendable, another blamable ; some things right to be done, others wrong. And hence arises, instead of an objection, the principal use of our Saviour's rule. For it enables us to apply these perceptions, where otherwise we should not know how; and inclines us to apply them justly, where otherwise we should have misapplied them.

Though we every one of us have the perceptions, yet to form distinct notions of the proper measures and objects of them; to discover how far they are mere conclusions of the understanding; and how far dictates of passions or affections, which ought to be corrected and moderated by the understanding ; to make a rational examination of the several interfering circumstances of a case, and judge in that manner how we are to be moved, and how to act; is a work, for which the bulk of mankind is totally unqualified. The different opinions entertained by speculative inquiries concerning the precise nature, foundation, limits of moral obligation, run into niceties, that are altogether beyond common apprehension. And of those, who can be amused with them, few, if any, have skill to proceed upon them in the ordinary affairs of life. The great thing therefore, which the world needs for practice, is, not a complete system of virtue, regularly drawn out, and strictly demonstrated; but a familiar palpable instruction, what people are to do in such matters, as chiefly come before them. Now the rule of the text will instruct them, without studying the theory and grounds of virtuous affection at all, to show such affection notwithstanding, when it is requisite ; and to conduct as they should what they are concerned in, without troubling themselves about refinements, which they may never be concerned in. Seriously asking ourselves, and waiting for a serious answer from within, how we should think it reasonable for others to behave towards us in the business, in which we must behave one way or another towards them, will excite in us a very peculiar kind of attention to it; will awaken our faculties to judge of this question with much more certainty, than we could of the more abstracted ones, upon which the philosophical solution of it may depend; and throw a strong light on the point before us, how little soever we may discern in relation to others, with which perhaps it is closely connected. At least it will cause us to feel experimentally what we ought to do, whether we see it speculatively, or not.

But further, the observation of this precept will not only set our minds to work upon the subject, (and yet many want that to be done for them ;) but, which is a greater benefit still, will singularly preserve them from working unfairly. The love, that we bear to ourselves, our zeal for the persons and things which we like, and our vehemence against those which we dislike, hinder us perpetually from discovering what is our duty, where else it would be most evident; and constitute our principal danger of judging amiss. Now, if there can be in the world a method of securing us against this danger, our Saviour's rule is that method. Viewing only one face of an object is apt to deceive us; therefore we are directed to view it on the reverse too. Considering a case as our own gives us a bias : suppose then the contrary to be our own; and our second thoughts will correct the first. Self-love is what usually carries us wrong: but the rule prescribed us converts that very passion into an instrument of setting us right: by placing in their turns, before our eyes, two selfs to decide between (if the expression may be allowed) the real and the fictitious one. The appearances of reason, which arise from the circumstances favourable to our own side, engross our attention : let imagination therefore change the side, and we shall attend to the opposite appearances. The inward feelings, which we have, of our own interest, our own honour, our own sufferings, of whatever relates to ourselves, are so very strong, that we quite forget, how the same feelings affect the other party. But this admirable contrivance of a feigned experience enables and obliges us to feel for each party successively, and thus to become impartial judges. Farther than this we cannot go in combating selfish prejudices, and therefore a more perfect direction than this cannot be given.

But, besides being a most excellent and obvious rule to guide and try ourselves by, it is likewise a most natural and easy one for others, friends or opposers, to suggest to us : who thus, one should think, might immediately shame us into doing right, only by putting a question to our consciences, which is

« PreviousContinue »