« PreviousContinue »
It is a poor justification of silence, when truth requires a testimony, that our speech will be liable to misconstruction or abuse, and of inaction, when all the world is in motion, that there are pitfalls or lions in the way. Of all the secondary virtues, prudence is, perhaps, the most important, but, at the same time, the most likely to degenerate into a vice. “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step,” is as true in morals as in policy. When our simple wisdom admits a tincture of worldliness it defeats its own ends, and descends from its elevation. It renounces the Providence of God for the miserable supports of earth, and these yield in the very extremities, which, but for our timorousness and unbelief, he would have made occasions of exhibiting his faithfulness and power.
The divine administration presents analogies, obscure but intelligible, to aid us in these difficult solutions. Many evils, occasionally tolerated by the Old Testament, have been sometimes drawn into an argument for justifying, or at least excusing infractions of the social law. But polygamy, divorce, slavery, and other kindred irregularities can hardly admit, with any reason, of so loose an interpretation. They were all the while declared evils, inconsistent with the original constitution ; suffered, not allowed; tolerated, not excused; and when not remediable by the motives of an ill-understood economy, limited and restrained by various prudential legislation. The moral law did not the less stand out against them. It did not the less require a different habit of the public mind and life; and although God winked for a season at such sins of ignorance, they did not the less certainly work out the natural ruin of society:
It is still more observable, that Christianity was not introduced with any mitigation of moral principle, but a more imperative enforcement of it; and that the very evils, which a ruder dispensation had not been sufficient to extirpate, were declared to admit of no apology, in view of the clearer illustrations which Christ and his ministers gave of the principles and sanctions of moral government. Its first preachers were remarkably tolerant in matters indifferent, but they endured all things, they laid down their lives in maintaining essential truths, as well the moral pertaining to human obligation, as the evangelical, which concerned more intimately the mysteries of redemption. It was the same to them, whether men would hear or forbear. They had not learned the way of avoiding difficulties which the more subtle casuists of later times opened
for the convenience of a feebler age, in which Christianity was diluted by the admixtures of a false philosophy, and bent to the purposes
of the Man of Sin. We take then an extremely uncomfortable and dangerous position, when we accommodate ourselves to habits of society incompatible with the decalogue, or only apparently excepted from that infallible rule, and more expressly condemned by Christianity upon the penalties of an eternal judgment. Even if we allowed ourselves to hope for ultimate forgiveness through the merits of Jesus Christ, notwithstanding this error, and were content to be beguiled by such an antinomian illusion, it is hardly conceivable that we could patronize unquestionable errors, without a diminished self-respect, and a distrust of our ability to answer the design of God in giving us influence over other minds. But it would be particularly humiliating to permit evils, which, with the gospel in our hands as an instrument of reformation, and the promise of the Holy Spirit to make that instrument effectual, we might reasonably expect to remedy.
Nor could it be supposed to lessen our difficulty, that others, placed under our influence or control, are personally accountable, and must meet their own risks in violating their obligations. We are undoubtedly answerable for whatever system of policy we adopt affecting the character and interests of society; and in regard to the principle now in question, as well as every other growing out of the moral degenerateness of mankind, it can be no excuse for measures which tend to develop and strengthen a wrong affection in other minds, that we put them under no invincible necessity of sinning, or that it is for them to take care for their own salvation. If we choose to proceed upon a denial of human depravity, or a future retribution, and shape our discipline to those theological errors, that may relieve us, more or less, from inconsistency, and shift our responsibility to other grounds. But if, with an understanding of our neighbor's sinfulness and accountability, we place him in circumstances of temptation, and minister to his depraved
which we mean law and its sanctions and the peculiar motives of Christianity, has been so partial and limited, that there is hardly a noticeable instance in which its sufficiency may be said to have been demonstrated by adequate experiment. Society has been guided by other views. Why it has been so, it is not our purpose, and it might be invidious to inquire. It is one of those mistakes in ethics which work themselves insensibly into other departments of study and action, perverting the intelligence and influence of ages. But it is unhappily real, and unfortunate for the purpose of these remarks. So extensive is the awkwardness of setting up general conclusions on such a subject, without facts, especially at a time remarkable for the utilitarian turn of the public mind, that we should entirely yield to the discouragement, were it not allowable to bring opposite theories to the test of their practical results.
And what are the facts on the other side ? Let us be instructed by the history of society. It would seem that if our judgments could not be corrected by general reasonings upon the selfish principle, we might at least be startled by reviewing some of its obvious effects. It is not necessary to speak of those infractions of the social law which have marked every age with controversy, war, oppression and their kindred evils. It is sufficient, that the great labor of education itself has been, with remarkable inconsistency, and of course without success, to control the wrong propensity, on the one hand, while it has stimulated it on the other. Christianity, called in to cure the evils of a false philosophy, has been itself corrupted, and made to apologize for some of the grossest violations of its own precepts. Subserviency, intrigue, equivocation, envy, jealousy, wrath, strife, and all the host of malignant passions that are stirred up by a flattered and mortified self-love, have been absolved without confession, and have flowed out from the nursery, the school and the higher seats of learning, to disturb and desolate the world.
But it may be said that this is only the excessive acting of a right principle. We reply, it is merely the natural acting of self-love, under its appropriate excitements of competition,
the very evil involved in our idea of emulation, the precise immorality, for which we would reject this principle, as far as possible, in our arrangements for the education of the young. It deserves no apology for the sake of its origin; and if it did, it were still an error to claim for it any hereditary property of moral virtue; for we have not learned that moral goodness, as it increases in degree, loses its essential character and becomes evil; nor that any cause may produce effects unlike, and contrary to itself. We have better authority than that which has imposed on half of mankind with so shallow a pretence: A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit ; wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
It is by no means an unimportant consideration, drawn from Christianity itself, not only that its first and great requirement of man, as a social being, is the exercise of a disinterested good will, and that its general spirit and precepts contemplate a profound humility, the taking of the lowest seats, the preference of another's honor, but that the entire theory and fact of our redemption, which makes and constitutes Christianity as a remedial and disciplinary system, proceeds in opposition to the principle in question. It casts us down before God, as to our own sufficiency, and raises us again to his favor only through the merits of another. It shows the perfection of religious character to consist in our becoming nothing, and less than nothing, that Christ may be all in all. A more pointed rebuke was never given by our Lord, nor one more significant of our social duty, than when, in the strife that occurred in the college of his disciples, which of them should be greatest, he called them unto him and said : Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them: but it shall not be so among you ; but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. What a commentary have we here upon the law that binds us; exceeded in impressiveness only by that other instance, when, after he had washed the disciples' feet, he said : If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye ought also to wash one another's feet : for I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. He added, doubtless for perpetual admonition: If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
If the views here presented are correct, it is obvious that the adoption of them in education must materially favor the health ful progress of society. A nation, the world is soon made or unmade, in the schools of elementary learning. The believer in Revelation expects improvement in the condition of mankind. How shall he attempt it more hopefully, than by intermingling
the precepts of Christian morality with the growing affections and capabilities of the human mind. If any judge that society has been, hitherto, too infantile and rude for such an economy, its present aspects certainly encourage the belief that a better era is at hand. The strife of moral questions is setting mind free from antiquated prejudice, and the maxims of a sensuous philosophy; and a more spiritual wisdom succeeds to appetite and force. The world is rapidly determining, in respect to all its interests, between right and wrong, law and self-will; and however violent the conflict between these opposite forces, we may not fear if the advancing spirit of education be directed by the salutary influences of the gospel. Mind—cultivated mindwill control the world, despite the dreams of ignorant enthusiasts, or the madness of atheistic levellers. But it will tend to the accumulation of spiritual and secular power, to the exactions of lordly prerogative, and to iron consolidation, unless the sway of the selfish principle shall yield to the redeeming benevolence of Christianity. Paganism, prelacy, slavery, all the forms of despotism, and the opposite extremes of revolution, anarchy, and ruin, are but developments, the action and reace tion of the wrong affection. Chritianity alone restores the equilibrium, the harmony of the otherwise disjointed and jarring members of the social system, and secures the proper results of its complicated arrangements. All other conservatives are vain expedients that issue in a worse excitement, a more terrible dissolution. Be it ours to apply this renovating agency, to give it circulation and direction, through the proper channels of intelligence and moral sentiment, and we accomplish what is impossible to policy or power. The sense of right will prevail when sophistry and cunning fail, and the sword is drawn in vain. For this end were we created, to obey the law of the Eternal Mind. That everlasting memorial, set up without the garnish of a false philosophy, encumbered not with human appendages, freed from the glosses of old tradition, the law of right, proclaimed in thunders, sealed with blood, inwrought by fire, will bring the predicted end of the divine counsels, the subjection of this world to its Redeemer. Be it ours to hasten that consummation. It is the proper glory of a rational nature. It includes all the good that can be desired for us, and all the distinction that is worthy of us : They that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars forever and ever.