Immagini della pagina



inquiry, if made at all, will fail to throw additional light on our moral relations; but, in fact, the inquiry will probably be altogether neglected, and conscience will remain the slave of custom. It may still enforce obedience to what is believed to be right and true; but it has already been shown how erroneous that unenlightened belief may be, and how pernicious its consequences. Enlightened conscientiousness is acted truth. It is the sincere carrying out into action of the truths perceived by reason.

Duties may be divided into two classes-namely, those which are directly enjoined by the moral law written in our hearts, and yet more explicitly revealed in Scripture; and those concerning which there is no positive command, but which are perceived to arise from the circumstances in which we are placed, or from the application of the general principles of the moral law. Concerning duties of the first class, there can be neither hesitation nor perplexity they are binding alike upon every human being, they are acknowledged by every uncorrupted mind; and however habitually thoughtless we may be, we are all aware of the guilt we incur by neglecting them. Thus, no consideration is required to make us perceive the duty of respect to a parent, of fidelity to a husband, or of honesty towards an employer; but the case is very different with regard to duties of the second class, which, arising from the position of the individual, must vary with it. When the question concerns the employment of time or wealth, the cultivation of the understanding, or the wide circle of domestic and social relations, no small exertion of attention and thought is required to solve it; and it is the want of these which causes to a great extent the melancholy neglect of duty which we have already noticed.

Want of thought is, indeed, a most fruitful source of moral evil. Were we in the habit of reflecting upon our own minds, on the purposes of life, on the truths we acknowledge, would it be possible to lead the life we daily see led by thousands, who yet believe themselves to be innocent and religious? Should we so often see women frittering away their existence and drowning all their energies in luxury and frivolity, without one pang of self-reproach?-mothers abandoning their children's education to strangers, without one suspicion of having violated a duty?wives exerting their influence to make their husbands sacrifice public interests to private considerations, without one perception of the selfish dishonesty of their conduct? Nor are such women to be classed with the unprincipled or the vicious; they may be amiable and well-meaning persons, fulfilling faithfully the duties they are able to discern; they would shrink with horror from breaking any one of the ten commandments; but it has never


occurred to them to apply those general principles of morality to their daily habits of thought and action, or to try by that standard the customs and principles of the society they live in. The question, "What is my duty in the midst of these wide and complicated relations?" has never yet been earnestly and thoughtfully addressed by them to their own conscience.

Another source of confused notions of duty is the incapacity of the untrained mind to seize a general principle and perceive its bearings. A general principle in morals must almost necessarily be an already acknowledged truth, familiar to all educated persons. For instance, that we should love and speak truth is an undisputed aphorism; but how many are those who understand the far-searching influence of that love of truth extending over the whole moral and intellectual nature of man? In the same way, that nothing can be done without system, is a general principle known and true to triteness; but how many see the true bearing of system, or perceive how the leading idea, involved in systematic arrangement, requires to be applied to the minutest as to the most complicated of our schemes, or see its relation to each part as well as to the whole, and to all the parts as composing the whole? They cannot reason out the principle, the very truth of which has made it trite, and each requires to be told what he or she is to do, forgetting that no writer or preacher, addressing whole classes of persons, can so enter into individual cases. The consequence is, that they believe themselves conscientiously to hold such or such a principle, while they only hold a form of words, the practical bearing of which they are unable to discern, and which can therefore have no influence on their notions of duty.

In striving to ascertain what is our own duty, we must, then, remember that it is vain to seek in books, whether in the Gospel or any other, for positive rules adapted to particular cases. We shall go wrong at the very outset of our inquiry if we think to find directions by which we may regulate our conduct, as the Jew regulated the ceremonial of his worship. This error produces different, but equally pernicious, consequences in minds of different orders. It makes the thoughtless, as we have already shown, limit their sense of duty to the positive commands of Scripture, and thus fall immeasurably below its standard of virtue; while, on the other hand, the earnest-minded, who seek in vain for precise directions how to act in each case, are tortured with doubt and fear, and feel, with the Bible in their hands, as if its pages had no meaning for them, and that God had withdrawn his light from their souls. It is one of the striking characteristics of our Saviour's teaching, that he always



lays down principles, and it is this which makes Christianity an universal religion, applicable to all human hearts, in whatever combination of social circumstances. In making the Gospel, therefore, the standard of right and wrong, we must look for its general principles, and from them deduce the rule applicable to the case in point. If the question, for instance, regard the life of elegant idleness, or busy frivolity, led by the majority of women in the upper classes, it might be difficult to find a text which should exactly apply to the case, and, if found, it might be eluded by objecting the difference of social arrangements, &c. But, if we look to general principles of Christianity, we shall find at once a complete and explicit condemnation. In so far, then, as the mind untrained to reasoning is incapable of developing general principles, it is incapable of taking a comprehensive view of duty, and must, on all but a few points, remain in uncertainty, or in blind dependence upon others.

This is a sufficient answer to the fallacy of those who deprecate any appeal to reason, and seem to dread its exercise as necessarily hostile to religion. Had every case which could arise been contemplated in Scripture, and a positive command given with regard to each, it might have been asserted that no room was left for that exercise, and that man's whole duty consisted in passive and formal obedience; even then, however, reason must have been appealed to, in the first instance, to decide on the authority of Scripture, and afterwards on the extent of its commands, and the mode of obeying them. But it was impossible that any law should contemplate the infinite variety of cases which spring from the complex relations of human life, and through the succession of ages and the changes of country and race, since the commandments given for one generation or one stage of society must necessarily have been misunderstood or misapplied in another. Each individual, therefore, must follow his own conclusions, and act upon his own responsibility.* The necessity of exercising reason conjointly with conscience, is hereby not only recognised but enforced.


*The Church of Rome, with her usual ability and consistency, has met this difficulty by first assuming infallibility, and then taking into her own hands the interpretation and application of Scripture. Thus she apparently relieves her members from all necessity of private judgment, at the same time that she forbids its exercise, by supplying to each an infallible guide in the shape of a confessor. It has been well said, however, by Paley, that "all rules which appeal to or bind the conscience, must in the application depend upon private judgment," and that it is to be observed, "that it ought equally to be accounted the exercise of a man's own private judgment, whether he be determined by reasonings or conclusions of his own, or submit to be directed

[blocks in formation]

In forming rules of conduct with regard to that large portion of our actions which come under no positive precept, we shall be much assisted by considering the general consequences of an action as well as its particular consequences to ourselves.* It was shown in our second chapter that many actions, insignificant in themselves, acquire importance by tending to form habits. In the same manner, conduct, which appears harmless when considered without reference to anything but our own immediate case, is seen to involve moral guilt as soon as its consequences are generalized. For instance, it seems indifferent that any one woman should prefer fancy-work to reading, but if women generally love trifling amusements better than solid pursuits, the whole tone of society is lowered, and women lose the best part of their influence over the other sex. So also it may seem of no importance that a few people should give money indiscriminately to street-beggars, or any other applicants who may move their compassion, or weary them with importunity; but if the practice become general, vice, idleness, and immorality are encouraged, and the honest poor are defrauded of needful assistance. From these observations, we may draw two excellent rules for determining our duty. First, that every course of action which by continuance would form a bad habit, is wrong. Secondly, that every course of action which, if generally practised, would lead to evil, is also wrong. We say course of action, not individual acts, for these must continually form exceptions, as in the case of amusements, which individually are good, although, if carried on as a course of living, they degenerate into evil.

When we have clearly ascertained the broad lines of duty, it only remains that we should direct our efforts steadily towards following them. The sense of responsibility here comes in to enforce the dictates of conscience; since wherever we acknowledge a duty, we admit ourselves responsible for its performance.

It follows that our feeling of responsibility will vary with our estimate of duty, and will be narrow or comprehensive like that. If we admit, for instance, that perpetual advance in self-improvement, careful management of time, and conscientious exercise of influence, are duties, our sense of responsibility will bear on these points, and check any disposition to neglect them. The funda

by the advice of others, provided he be free to choose his guide."-Paley's Philosophy, vol. ii., ch. iii. Of course, where freedom ceases, there also ceases moral responsibility. This digression may not seem impertinent or useless in our days, where, after a lapse of three centuries, the right of private judgment is again openly questioned in this country. See chap. xiv.

* See Paley's Moral Philosophy, vol. i., chap. vi., p. 76.


mental principle of conduct should be, that every duty is part of God's will, and must be performed as such, without hesitation or regard to cost. The relation by which one duty is subordinated to another, must, as we have already remarked, be decided by reason; but every duty, whether great or small, is, in its appointed place and season, that portion of God's will which we are responsible for performing. It may seem to some persons needless to dwell on a truth so fully recognised as this; yet, if we look to the general practice, even of the well-meaning portion of society, we find it in many cases, and with regard to whole classes of actions, so qualified in its application, that we cannot think it superfluous to dwell upon it, in addressing the young, who are most likely to be misled by the sophistry of worldly reasoners and the delusions of their own inclinations or passions.


Conscience forces us to acknowledge the obligations of duty, but the desire of enjoyment, which is one of the strongest instincts of our nature, leads us often to justify ourselves in throwing off the yoke, when it thwarts our indulgence of the natural appetite. It seems to us that to be happy is our right; and if duty interferes with this right, we feel it to be a hard case, and are apt to accuse our fate of injustice. We try all possible means of reconciling duty with pleasure, and when this attempt fails, we too easily persuade ourselves that a duty so hard to perform cannot, in justice, be required of us. It is a common thing to hear people acknowledge a certain course of action to be the right one, and then add some excellent reason for following another quite different. "I know I ought to live within my income,' says one, "but I must have such or such luxuries-I cannot be expected to give up what I have been used to all my life." "No doubt," says another, "it is very wrong for a girl to marry a man whose character she cannot respect; but who could require of her to sacrifice her feelings and happiness by giving him up ?" Whether openly expressed or not, such are the distinctions too generally made whenever duty and inclination are opposed to each other, and they imply that the standard referred to-the ruling principle to which appeal is made against the testimony of conscience-is the desire of happiness. If that is opposed to the voice within, the sentence of the latter is set aside, and we rest securely amid the delusions we have ourselves created. To the truly upright, those whom Scripture denominates single-minded, there is no second question after that of right and wrong is decided. Search and doubt are then at an end, and the soul has but to gather up her strength, to follow the course pointed out. The wretched compromise with conscience, which we have spoken of, is so far more dangerous than an open contempt for duty, that

[ocr errors]
« IndietroContinua »