Immagini della pagina



the latter belongs to the perverted and wicked only, the former misleads the infinitely more numerous class of the feeble minded, of those who have some wish to do well, and outwardly respect religion and virtue, while too weak to follow their precepts, and too blind to see the puerility of the evasions under which they seek shelter.

Persons of warm imagination, untempered by habits of reflection, fall into another error. To them something cold and sordid seems attached to the idea of duty; and they are apt to regard a strict and unhesitating adherence to it, as betokening narrowness of mind and want of sensibility. Doubtless, in many circumstances of life, the mere fulfilment of duty would make conduct formal and cold; but the confusion made by the enthusiasts of feeling, is in not perceiving that what the heart requires is something more than what duty enjoins; not the neglect of the latter, to substitute the action of other motives. Let the heart pour out of its fulness when the claims of duty are satisfied, and throw the charm which belongs to feeling alone, over the path pointed out by conscience; but let it not be forgotten, that, rugged or smooth, that path must be trodden. Even when duty and feeling most coincide, it is well ever to bear in mind the different ground of their several claims; and, while we bless Heaven for their union, still to remember where our allegiance is due, should that union be severed. It is too common, however, for persons, under these fortunate circumstances, to pride themselves on discarding all thought of mere duty, and by so doing they become gradually less sensible to the paramount claims of the latter. If destined, at length, to experience the hard conflict between duty and feeling, they are but too likely to find that they have lost the vigour, and impaired the self-command required to bring them victorious out of the bitter trial.

Erroneous views in this respect have been encouraged by the general habit of novel reading. In many works of this class, though the broad distinctions of morality may not be lost sight of, yet the being led astray by passion is invested with all the charms of a romantic interest; love or compassion are excited for the erring woman or the guilty man, while the character of those who steadfastly follow the dictates of principle, is represented as unattractive or unamiable; or if goodness be made attractive, it is that of sentiment and impulse, not that which arises from a sense of duty. But sentiment and impulse, it should be observed, however amiable, do not constitute virtue. That consists in the voluntary and steady exercise of some virtuous principle, and as such alone is entitled to merit. Involuntary emotions, on the other hand, amiable and beautiful though they may be, can give

[blocks in formation]

no such claim, any more than beauty of person or quickness of intellect. They are natural gifts, which excite our admiration, but cannot claim our praise till they have been trained into active principles. Such fictions, clothed in all the beauty of language, exercise a powerful and dangerous influence on the young, by exciting the imagination and presenting false views of life, while they relax the moral energy and destroy the healthy action of the mind which would correct their sickly effects.*

Another source of the inward strife between conscience and the desire for happiness, is misapprehension of the true nature of the happiness for which we were created, and which, in this life, must ever be very imperfect. This happiness consists (as we have elsewhere shown), in the exercise of the nobler affections and faculties of our minds, and in that inward peace and harmony which flows from our acting in accordance with the constitution of our nature, or, in other words, from our will being in harmony with God's will. It is evident that the performance of duty is a primary element in such happiness as this, and that a mind whose associations were formed and habits of life regulated on these views, would be incapable of any enjoyment to be purchased by its sacrifice.

To form these associations, to induce these habits, should be the first, as it is the most important, task of all education. Happy those who have acquired them in childhood! whose long custom of unhesitating obedience to conscience lessens the force of every temptation, and makes a deviation from the path of duty more painful than any suffering that can be inflicted from without! Of such it may truly be said, that evil is more contrary to their nature than torture, disease, or death.

The means of forming the character on these principles, are self-control and self-examination, together with a constant regard to the rules we have already explained for the formation of habits. According to those rules, if we would form a habit of conscientiousness, we must keep attention carefully alive to the emotions of moral approbation or disapprobation: if they are unattended to, or not followed by their corresponding course of action, they will obey the law of all passive emotions, and at each repetition will be less vividly felt, until we cease altogether to be conscious of them. It is thus that the callous insensibility to the voice of conscience, which marks the habitual criminal, is produced; but

The best English novelists cannot be taxed with this fault, as a class. It is to the French and German novels, that have unfortunately inundated this country of late years, that we owe a tone of sentiment so opposed to moral healthiness.



it should never be forgotten, that every occasion, however unimportant, on which we allow ourselves to neglect or resist the audible dictates of conscience, we make an approach to the state we contemplated with so much horror; we advance one step on the fatal inclined plane down which every guilty human soul has slid to its destruction.

On the other hand, each act performed in obedience to conscience will render the next act less difficult, till a habit is formed which will secure us from frequent or gross deviations from the rule of duty, and will make the lesser deviations sufficiently painful to add strength to our resolutions against them.

Our greatest difficulty in this, as in every other attempt at self-improvement, is to guard against all self-deception. No voice is so eloquent as that of passion. No sophistry so subtle as that with which inclination strives to beguile reason. Hence, in nine cases out of ten, our error is the result of after-thought.* The first decision of conscience is almost always, except in very complicated cases, right and just, because inclination has had no time to come into play. Whenever, then, our inclinations are opposed to this decision, we should exercise peculiar watchfulness, lest we yield to them, while persuading ourselves that we are only correcting a hasty judgment. Their power of persuasion will grow weaker with every successful resistance to it; and each time that we honestly set aside their confusing claims, and resolve to see and follow the path of duty only, we do something towards making that path clearer for ever after. On the contrary, each time that inclination has been allowed to call in question the decision of conscience, it grows more importunate, till at length headstrong passion oversways the mind, and the course of duty is not discerned till it is perhaps too late for everything but repentance. The rule of duty may be so involved in intricate circumstances, the magnitude of the interests at stake may be so great, the knowledge required to judge rightly so difficult to acquire, or the course of action to be decided on may stretch out to consequences so far beyond our ken, that we may feel it almost impossible to determine on what is right; in such cases we can only have recourse to higher guidance. We must pray earnestly for strength to repress the desires that would mislead us, and for the light of truth to enable us to discern the narrow

*The old adage, "Second thoughts are best," which seems to contradict this assertion, refers, so far as it is true, to forming a judgment only, in which want of deliberation prevents our acquiring the necessary information or means of judging. It relates rather to the question of how a thing should be done, than to the right or wrong of doing it at all.



path we are called upon to tread; and having acted on that which to the best of our judgment seems right, we must leave the issue to Him who reads the motive, and judges the purpose, not the result. Should we in the end be proved to have decided wrong, this must be our consolation, that we were not guided by inclination, but used all the means in our power to arrive at a right decision. There is weakness of mind in not being satisfied with the consciousness that we have acted for the best; that under the circumstances, and with the means of judging that we possessed, we could come to no other determination. We may bitterly regret our ignorance; but if there was no wilful error, there is no cause for self-reproach; and the morbid dwelling on the past, or on circumstances we could neither foresee nor prevent, is rather a source of weakness, than a pledge for the better performance of future duty.

to us.

While still in uncertainty, we shall find great assistance in performing faithfully and resolutely the duties which are clear "Let him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light," says Carlyle, "and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen into day, lay this other precept well to heart, which to me was of invaluable service: Do the duty which lies nearest thee, which thou knowest to be a duty, thy second duty will already have become clearer.' In this manner every doubtful question may be simplified, and right decisions arrived at, in cases which, if all the complicated relations of expediency or inclination were taken into consideration, would be decided wrong, or never be decided at all.


It is a common thing to hear persons of active and inquiring minds complain of having few duties to perform; of their sphere of action being too narrow and homely. This is, perhaps, especially the case with unmarried women, whose dependent and uninfluential position necessarily circumscribes their power of exertion within very narrow limits, and they are thus tempted to murmur at their lot, and to pine for a more enlarged, or a different sphere. But no human being, endowed with moral and intellectual faculties, placed in relations to God and her fellowcreatures, can be without many and important duties to perform; and the ambitious wish for more often springs rather from a disregard of actual obligations, than from the real consciousness of power to cope with greater difficulties, or to fill a post of greater usefulness.

We are all too prone to fall into the error of the Assyrian leper. We are ready to do some great thing, while we despise the ap

* Carlyle, Sartor Resartus.


parently trifling tasks which are actually imposed on us. Many a woman who would rush enthusiastically into the trials and dangers of a missionary life, performs with peevish discontent, or entirely neglects the round of small daily duties,-the household cares,—the little attentions to parents or neighbours, the punctuality that adds to their enjoyment, or the economy or neatness that ensures their comfort,—all the little things, in short, which belong to the position she actually occupies. But as in the economy of the universe each link has its appointed place, and the lowly herb must perform its functions as regularly as the burning planet, so in the economy of society each member has his own office, which, if neglected, introduces disorder into the whole.

[ocr errors]


Here we must repeat the idea of method would greatly assist the formation of morę correct notions. If society were generally regarded as one vast system composed of an infinite diversity of functions, the well-being of the whole depending on the right action and harmonious co-operation of each and all of the subordinate parts, then the folly and criminality of neglecting our own sphere of action, however lowly, would become at once apparent. Each one of us would then have his eyes better open to discern the true nature of the relations in which he stands, the true importance of the obligation they involve. We all should learn rather to look inwardly for the better means of accomplishing our task, than outwardly, for the means of raising our condition. We should feel that there is a purpose in all things; and, therefore, also in that very exemption from arduous duties, or public exertions, which leaves us leisure for stricter self-improvement, for higher moral or intellectual attainment; we should learn to feel as the great poet felt in his cruel deprivation—

"God doth not need

Either man's works or his own gifts, who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."*

* Milton. Sonnet on his Blindness.

« IndietroContinua »