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SUPREMACY OF CONSCIENCE.
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.
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 self-interest, 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. "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 pro
* See Bishop Butler's Sermons on Human Nature.
† Dr. Butler, Sermon iii., note.
portion, 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; 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 connexion 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 cognisance 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
* Sir J. Mackintosh, History of Ethical Philosophy, p. 198.
judgment on the motives and moral affections alone, and condemns the error of the reason only when it proceeds from wilful neglect of the mens 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 cognisance 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 the disuse of reason, that it will sanction a thousand errors, or even crimes, as in the case of the honest fanatic; while, on the other hand, reason may attain the strongest convictions of moral truth without producing right action, because such convictions have no power over the will. Hence, whilst the fanatic violates every dictate of reason and humanity, in obedience to a blind sense of duty, and believes he is doing service to God by trampling on every law of the nature He has given us, others, such as Bacon, not only perceive, but eloquently advocate, moral truth, yet act in direct opposition to its precepts.
The history of the human race but too clearly illustrates these facts. The monstrous iniquities which have been not only tolerated, but legalised, by whole nations through a succession of ages; infanticide sanctioned by the customs of one people; the desertion of aged and infirm parents by those of another; licentiousness made a part of the religious worship of a great empire; robbery and murder considered as a religious duty by a large tribe of its inhabitants; these are fearful testimonies to the possible perversions of reason and conscience, and justify the exclamation of our Saviour, "If the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness!"
When, however, these facts are made use of to prove that man has no moral sense, the conclusion is wholly false. They are, on the contrary, proofs of its power and of the extent to which it may be perverted, without losing its supremacy over the mind. For if there be no voice in the soul of man commanding him to
CONSCIENCE ASSISTED BY REVELATION,
do, at whatever cost, what he believes to be his duty, how shall we account, in the very instances adduced, for the unhesitating obedience of thousands, to laws that trample on the dearest feelings of our nature, and require a far greater sacrifice of private ffections and desires, than is ever demanded by right reason and true religion? Conscience in these cases has retained its power, but has been led into false judgments by the neglect or disuse of reason.
Had no disorder been introduced into the moral constitution,had reason remained unclouded by the fumes of passion and prejudice which have carried the disease of the moral nature into the intellect, ‚—man might have been a "law to himself," and that inward light have guided him unerringly on his path. But in the infirmity of these noblest faculties of our nature, God has been pleased to grant us another guide in the Christian revelation,* where the law, already written on the heart, to which man was too generally blind, is promulgated once more in formal and simple precepts. The use of the natural faculties is not thereby superseded, but an unchangeable standard of right and wrong is given, by which to try their decisions and correct their errors. Reason must still be exercised to perceive the truths of revealed religion; and to deduce from them the rule of life by applying general principles to particular cases; and conscience, thus enlightened, acquires new authority over the mind by becoming the faithful interpreter of the acknowledged will of God, the avowed representative in every human heart of that awful tribunal, before which each of us must finally render account of his actions.
Unfortunately, however, this truth,-that revelation was intended not to supersede, but to assist the exercise of our natural faculties, has been so commonly overlooked, that men have erred almost as 'widely from the standard of morality, since the promulgation of Christianity, as before it. If vice is no longer enshrined in our temples, it is still too often tolerated in our homes; while crime and bloodshed have been sanctioned by the very ministers of Christ's religion. Had reason and conscience been duly exercised, could the Gospel of Peace have been so turned into a law of blood? Could religious persecution have stained the annals of every Christian country? Could war continue to be waged, and justified on the most frivolous pretences? Or could other practices, almost as widely at variance with the spirit of Christianity, still retard and disgrace the civilization of which we boast?
In contemplating such facts as these, we can find consolation only in the certainty that, in Christian communities, errors, however great and prevalent, must be ultimately corrected. The
* See Dr. Butler's Analogy, Part ii., chap. i.
REQUIRES TO BE ENLIGHTENED.
standard of right and wrong remains unchanged; the revealed law, in perfect accordance with the law of our nature, points towards the full development of the latter; and as the temporary cloud of passion or ignorance passes away, its dictates must appear again clear and legible in the eyes of all. The principle denied in one century is recognised in another; the truth for which martyrs died in one age, is taught as the alphabet of morals in the succeeding one; and slowly but surely is asserted the inherent supremacy of good over evil-of truth over error.
This process of correction, which nations pass through only by slow and almost imperceptible degrees, extending perhaps over several generations, each individual should strive to perform for himself by the combined and constant exercise of reason and conscience. It is not enough to make a general resolve to do our duty-we must learn to discern what are our duties; not satisfied with the vague notions our early education or habits of life may have led us to form on the subject, but seriously and closely examining what are the principles which ought to guide our conduct, and what their application to the particular instances in which we are called upon to decide. We must examine our own position as moral and responsible beings-the relations in which we stand to God and our fellow-creatures, with the duties which spring from such relations-and endeavour to arrive at clear and decided results.
It is evidently most essential that no confusion should exist in our ideas of right and wrong, and that the limits of each should be marked as distinctly as possible. If the line of duty be faint or wavering in our minds, our conduct will necessarily be undecided. This sort of indecision is accordingly very common; and as uncertainty of any kind is uneasy and disagreeable, attempts are constantly made to shake off hesitation as unnecessary scrupulosity, and to use whatever argument comes first to hand, to satisfy conscience that the course which is easiest, or most seemingly expedient, is also the right one. Such attempts seldom fail of success, unless the mind be more than usually earnest and thoughtful; and many people, while lulling themselves with the belief that their conduct is perfectly conscientious, neglect every duty which requires a little thought and attention to become apparent, or which does not lie, as it were, on the surface of life.
We may here perceive the important practical bearing of the love of truth, of which we shall have so much to say hereafter. In such an investigation of our position and duties, it is only an earnest desire to know the simple truth, and to follow it out at all costs, which can lead to any trustworthy result. Without it,