« IndietroContinua »
attaining them. When the habit is formed, then, indeed, the details may be set aside. They may be allowed to fall off, as the rude scaffolding, no longer necessary when the edifice is complete within ; and the mind, most thoroughly imbued with the spirit of method, may then be most independent of that exterior regularity which, in ordinary circumstances, and to ordinary minds, is its necessary accompaniment.
Having stated what method is, and how important its influence in self-education, we may now proceed to view the detail of labor which, under that influence, must be harmonized into one scheme or system. As we go on, each branch of the subject will furnish a practical illustration of the truth of what we have advanced. We shall see the need of method in the ac. quisition of knowledge, its influence on memory, its value in preserving due proportion in the cultivation of our various faculties, and, above all, in maintaining that union and balance between our moral and mental powers so necessary to the fulfilment of the great scheme of life. An earnest, practical attempt at carrying this out will teach us better than
dissertation, that, if habit is the great instrument of self-improvement, method is its presiding genius. Without the one, progress in any direction is impossible ; without the other, progress in one direction is counterbalanced by deterioration in another; the course of life is disjointed, efforts are desultory and therefore barren, and man becomes the blind instrument of impulse and circumstances, instead of the intelligent servant of God, study. ing His purposes in the great scheme of creation and providence, and bending his whole will to bring his own life into conformity with them, - to become, in the words of Scripture, 66 a fellow-laborer with Christ."
CHAPTER I V.
CONSCIENCE AND THE GOVERNMENT OF THE WILL.
When reflecting upon human conduct, we are all conscious of a feeling of moral approbation attaching to some actions and disapprobation to others; the actions which excite this internal approbation we term meritorious, - those which excite disapproval we term wrong or guilty. We are conscious, also, of a sense of obligation to perform the acts which this moral judg. ment pronounces to be right, and to refrain from those which it condemns as wrong. To this inward monitor we give the name of Conscience; and in thus arraigning our actions before its judgment-seat, and stamping their character, it proclaims its right of sovereignty over our whole being.
This supremacy is fully recognized in the Scriptures.* Conscience is there spoken of as “the law of God written in our hearts"; its judgments are appealed to as anticipating those of God himself, and to disobey its commands is considered as disobedience to him. The office of conscience is thus plainly declared to be, not moral judgment only, but the control of the will; and a glance at the constitution of our minds will show how necessary
is such an office to introduce order and harmony into our moral economy.
The various affections and desires of the mind are capable of being excited by their respective objects, and of becoming motives to action. It is evident, that, if unregulated by any controlling power, each would prevail in turn, and the will become the mere slave of impulse. Or when any one affection or desire predominated in the natural disposition, or was most called forth by the circumstances of the individual, it would become the ruling principle of action, wholly irrespective of its good or evil tendencies ; and, even if beneficial in itself, it would probably lead to evil, by exceeding its due limits, and overthrowing the proper balance of the mind.
* Rom. i. 19; ii. 15; 2 Cor. i. 12; 1 Peter iii. 21 ; 1 John iii. 20, 21, &c. * See Bishop Butler's Sermons on Human Nature.
In examining the constitution of our moral nature, we find that our affections are placed in certain relations to each other ; and that it is agreeable to this constitution, that we should be guided by the superior principles and affections. Thus, he who acts on the principles of justice, truth, and benevolence acts more in accordance with the constitution of his nature, in other words, more in accordance with the moral law impressed on it by the Creator, than he whose conduct is only guided by selfinterest, or the gratification of the animal passions.* But even the higher principles have relative proportions to each other, which must be observed, to produce conduct really consonant with the fullest development of our nature. For instance, benevolence is one of the most beautiful of our moral affections ; but if we cultivate it at the expense of justice, the moral balance will be lost, and the actions proceeding from the former will lose their beneficial character in proportion as they are opposed to the latter. The generous man who gives away in charity the sums which should have paid his debts, is only following an impulse, not performing a virtuous act. Indeed, if beneficial tendency be the criterion of virtue, such generosity would appear actually to partake of the character of vice, since, if general, its consequences would be pernicious to society.
Again, prudence, or a due regard to our own interests, is a necessary quality ; but if we cultivate it at the expense of justice or benevolence, it loses the name of virtue, and sinks into mere selfishness. 6. Whoever will consider his own nature,” says Dr. Butler, “ will see that the several appetites, passions, and particular affections have different respects among themselves. They are restraints upon, and are in proportion to, each other. This proportion is just and perfect when all those under principles are perfectly coincident with conscience, so far as their nature permits, and in all cases under its absolute and entire direction. The least excess or defect, the least alteration of the due proportions amongst themselves, or of their coincidence with conscience, though not proceeding into action, is some degree of disorder in the moral constitution.” *
To prevent that disorder, and to maintain that necessary proportion, conscience has been given us, whose end is not any external object or definite course of action, but the direction of the dispositions and volitions only; t in other words, the subordination of the whole moral nature to itself, so that no affection or desire shall move the will, except under its guidance and control. The mode in which this controlling power is exercised is by that inward sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of which we are all conscious, and to which nothing but continual and determined inattention can make us insensible.
From this sense of moral approbation and disapprobation, and the authority it carries with it, arises the sense of duty, or the obligation we feel ourselves to be under to do what is pronounced by conscience to be right, and avoid what is condemned by it as wrong.
The rule of duty is so far perfectly plain, and he who acts in obedience to it is morally blameless, however erroneous or criminal his actions may appear in the judgment of other men. But if from this general principle we wish to deduce particular rules applicable to each relation of life, we shall find an unenlightened conscience a fallible and insufficient guide. Our moral perceptions are often blunted and distorted by long inattention to them, or by the customs and prejudices in which we have been brought up, and the question of duty is still further complicated by the difference of circumstances in different positions, and by the relations in which we stand to others. Of these it is the province of reason to judge, and we have here a proof of the intimate
* Dr. Butler, Sermon III., note.
connection between our moral and intellectual nature ; since the question of duty, the most important which can be presented to us, and one upon which every human being is forced to decide, can be solved only by the combined exercise of reason and conscience, the highest moral, and the highest intellectual, faculty of the mind.
The nature of reason, and the mode of its operation, will be considered at length in the next chapter ; but in speaking here of its union with conscience in the decision of moral questions, it is necessary briefly to explain the diversity of their offices.
Reason is the faculty by which we perceive truth ; it regards the character of actions only so far as they are wise or mistaken in relation to the end proposed. Conscience, on the other hand, has no cognizance of intellectual error, and approves or condemns actions only as they are morally right or wrong. Even as the Almighty Searcher of hearts will judge us according to our motives, to the inward acts of the mind, — so that voice within, which he has appointed as his representative, pronounces its judgment on the motives and moral affections alone, and condemns the error of the reason only when it proceeds from wilful neglect of the means of attaining truth. Therefore it was that our Saviour, while enduring without rebuke the ignorance of his followers, and their misconception of his mission, addressed the keenest reproach to those who loved darkness better than light. When conscience convicts us of this, then intellectual error becomes moral guilt.
The action of conscience on the will, and its cognizance of motives and dispositions alone, set in a clear light the difference of its office from that of reason, while showing how intimately and necessarily both must be blended in the healthy action of the mind. If conscience had the perception of truth, and the power of examining and discriminating, as well as of pronouncing judgment, its voice might have guided us without the help of reason. So, also, if reason had power over the will, conscience might not be needed to carry into action the convictions of the understanding; but constituted as we actually are, conscience, although supreme, may yet be so darkened by