Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

spirit to its own drudgery. We might ask our proud reasoner, moreover, whence the moral and metaphysical philosopher obtains the facts with which he speculates, argues, and builds up his admirable theory? And our sceptic must answer, that the metaphysical and moral philosopher goes to human nature; that he goes to it in its very attitudes of toil and its free actings of passion, and thence takes his materials and his form, and his living charm of representation, which delight the world. We might say still more. We might say that all there is of vastness, and grandeur, and beauty in the world, lies in the conception of man; that the immensity of the universe, as we term it, is but the roach of his imagination—that immensity, in other words, is but the image of his own idea ; that there is no eternity to him, but that which exists in his own unbounded thought; that there is no God to man, but what has been conceived of in his own capacious and unmeasured understanding

These things we might say; but I will rather meet the objector on his own ground, confident that I may triumph even there. I take up the indignant argument, then. I allow that there is much weight and truth in it, though it brings me to a different conclusion. I feel that man is, in many respects and in many situations and, above all, compared with what he should be—that man is a mean creature. I feel it, as I should, if I saw some youth of splendid talents and promise plunging in at the door of vice and infamy. Yes, it is meanness for a MAN—who stands in the presence of his God and among the sons of heaven—it is meanness in him to play the humble part of sycophant · before his fellows—to fawn and flatter, to make his very soul a slave, barely to gain from that fellow-man his smile, his nod, his hand, his favour, his vote, his patronage. It is meanness for a man to prevari. cate and falsify, to sell his conscience for advantage, to barter his soul for gain, to give his noble brow to the smiting blush of shame, or his cheek to the deadly paleness of convicted dishonesty. Yes, it is a degradation unutterable, for a man to steep his soul in gross, sensual, besotting indulgence; to live for this, and in this one poor, low sensation, to shut up the mind with all its boundless range; to sink to a debasement more than beastly: below where an animal can go. Yes, all this, and much beside this, is meanness; but why, now I ask-why do we speak of it thus, unless it is because we speak of a being who might have put on such a nobility of soul, and such a loftiness and independence, and spiritual beauty and glory, as would Aing rebuke upon all the hosts of sin and temptation, and cast dimness upon all the splendour of the world?

It may be proper, under the head of philosophical objections, to take notice of the celebrated maxim of Rochefoucauld; since it is among the written, and has as good a title as others to be among the philosophic objections. This maxim is, that we take a sort of pleasure in the disappointments and miseries of others, and are pained at their good fortune and success. If this maxim were intended to fix upon mankind the charge of pure, absolute, disinterested malignity, and if it could be sustained, it would be fatal to my argument. If I believed this, I should believe not only in total, but in diabolical depravity. And I am aware that the apologists for human nature, receiving the maxim in this light, have usually contented themselves with indignantly

[ocr errors]

denying its truth. I shall however, for myself take different ground. I suppose, and I admit, that the maxim is true to a certain extent. Yet I deny that the feelings on which it is founded are malignant. They may be selfish, they may be bad; but they are not malicious and diabolical. But let us explain. It should be premised, that there is nothing wrong in our desiring the goods and advantages of life, provided the desire be kept within proper bounds. Suppose, then, that you are pursuing the same object with your neighbour,-a situation, an office, for instance,--and suppose that he succeeds. His success, at the first disclosure of it to you, will, of course, give you a degree of pain ; and for this reason it immediately brings the sense of your own disappointment. Now it is not wrong, perhaps, that you do regret your own failure; it is probably unavoidable that you should. You feel, perhaps, that you need or deserve the appointment more than your rival." You cannot help, therefore, on every account, regretting that he has obtained it. It does not follow that you wish him any less happy. You may make the distinction in your own mind.

You may say,—"I am glad he is happy, but I am sorry he has the place; I wish he could be as happy in some other situation.” Now, all this, so far from being malignant, is scarcely selfish; and even when the feeling, in a very had mind, is altogether selfish, yet it is very different from a malignant pain at another's good fortune. But now, let us extend the case a little, from immediate rivalship, to that general competition of interests which exists in society-a competition which the selfishness of men makes to be far more than is necessary, and conceives to be far greater than it is. There is an erroneous idea, or imagination, shall I call it—and certainly it is one of the moral delusions of the world, that something gained by another is something lost to one's self; and hence the feeling, before described, may arise at almost any indifferent instance of good fortune. But it always rises in this proportion it is stronger, the nearer the case comes to direct competition. You do not envy a rich man in China, nor a great man in Tartary.

But if envy, as it has been sometimes called, were pure malignity, a man should be sorry that any body is happy, that any body is fortunate or honoured in the world. But this is not true ; it does not apply to human nature. If ever you feel pain at the successes or acquisitions of another, it is when they come into comparison or contrast with your own failures or deficiencies. You feel that those successes or acquisitions might have been your own; you regret, and perhaps rightly, that they are not ; and then, you insensibly slide into the very wrong feeling of regret that they belong to another. This is envy; and it is sufficiently base; but it is not purely malicious, and it is, in fact, the perversion of a feeling originally capable of good and valuable uses.

But I must pursue the sceptical philosopher a step farther—into actual life. The term philosopher, may seem to be but ill applied here; but we have probably all of us known or heard those, who, pretending to have a considerable knowledge of the world, if not much other knowledge, take upon them, with quite an air of philosophic superiority, to pronounce human nature nothing but a mass of selfishness; and to say, that this mass, whenever it is refined, is only refined into luxury and licentiousness, duplicity and knavery. Some simple souls, they suppose, there may be in the retired corners of the earth, that are walking in the chains of mechanical habit or superstitious piety, who have not the knowledge to understand, nor the courage to seek, what they want. But the moment they do act freely, they act, says our objector, upon the selfish principle. And this, he maintains, is the principle which, in fact, governs the world. Nay, more, he avers that it is the only reasonable and sufficient principle of action ; and freely confesses that it is his own.

Let me ask you here to keep distinctly in view the ground which the objector now assumes. There are talkers against human virtue, who never think, however, of going to this length; men, in fact, who are a great deal better than their theory; whose example, indeed, refutes their theory. But there are worse objectors, and worse men; vicious and corrupt men; sensualists—sensualists in philosophy and in practice alike, who would gladly believe all the rest of the world as bad as themselves. And these are objectors, I say, who, like the objections before stated, refute themselves.

For who is this small philosopher, that smiles either at the simplicity of all honest men, or at the simplicity of all honest defenders of them? He is, in the first place, a man who stands up before us, and has the face to boast that he is himself without principle. No doubt he thinks other men as bad as himself. A man necessarily, perhaps, judges the actions of other men by his own feelings. He has no other interpreter. The honest man, therefore, will often presume honesty in another; and the generous man, generosity. And so the selfish man can see nothing around him but selfishness; and the knave nothing but dishonesty; and he who never felt anything of a generous and self-devoting piety, who never bowed down in that holy and blessed worship, can see in prayer nothing but the offering of selfish fear,-in piety nothing but a slavish superstition.

In the next place; this sneerer at all virtue and piety not only imagines others to be as destitute of principle as himself, but, to some extent, he makes them such, or makes them seem such. His eye

of pride chills every goodly thing it looks upon. His breath of scorn blights every generous virtue where it comes. His supple and crafty hand puts all men upon their guard. They become like himself, for the time; they become more crafty while they deal with him. How shall any noble aspiration, any high and pure thoughts, any benevolent purposes, any sacred and holy communing, venture into the presence of the proud and selfish scorner of all goodness! It has been said that the letters your friends write to you will show their opinion of your temper and tastes. And so it is, to a certain extent, with conversation.

But, in the third place; where, let us ask, has this man studied human nature ? Lord Chesterfield observes and the observation is worthy of a man who never seems to have looked beneath the surface of anything—that the court and the camp are the places in which a knowledge of mankind is to be gained. And we may remark, that it is from two fields not altogether dissimilar, that our sceptic about virtue always gains his knowledge of mankind : I mean, from fashion and business; the two most artificial spheres of active life. Our objector has witnessed heartless civilities, and imagines that he is acquainted with the deep fountains of human nature. Or, he has been out into the paths of business, and seen men girt up for competition, and acting in that artificial state of things which trade produces; and he imagines that he has witnessed the free and unsophisticated workings of the human heart; he supposes that the laws of trade are also the laws of human affection. Ile thinks himself deeply read in the book of the human heart, that unfathomable mystery, because he is acquainted with notes and bonds, with cards and compliments.

How completely, then, is this man disqualified from judging of human nature! There is a power, which few possess, which none have attained in perfection; à power to unlock the retired, the deeper, and nobler sensibilities of men's minds, to draw out the hoarded and hidden virtues of the soul, to open the fountains which custom and ceremony and reserve have sealed up: it is a power, I repeat, which few possess -how evidently does our objector possess it not-and yet without some portion of which, no man should think himself qualified to study human nature. Men know but little of each other, after all; but little know how many good and tender affections are suppressed and kept out of sight, by diffidence, by delicacy, by the fear of appearing awkward or ostentatious, by habits of life, by education, by sensitiveness, and even by strong sensibility, that sometimes puts on a hard and rough exterior for its own check or protection. And the power that penetrates all these barriers must be an extraordinary one. There must belong to it charity, and kindness, and forbearance, and sagacity, and fidelity to the trust which the opening heart reposes in it. But how peculiarly, I repeat, how totally devoid of this power of opening and unfolding the real character of his fellows, must be the scoffer at human nature!

I have said that this man gathers his conclusions from the most formal and artificial aspects of the world. He never could have drawn them from the holy retreats of domestic life—to say nothing of those deeper privacies of the heart of which I have just been speaking; he never could have drawn his conclusions from those family scenes, where unnumbered, nameless, minute, and indescribable sacrifices are daily made by thousands and ten thousands all around us; he never could have drawn them from the self-devoting mother's cares, or from the grateful return, the lovely assiduity and tenderness of filial affection; he never could have derived his contemptuous inference from the sickroom, where friendship, in silent prayer, watches and tends its charge. No: he dare not go out from our dwellings, from our temples, from our hospitals, -he dare not tread upon the holy places of the land, the high places, where the devout have prayed, and the brave have died; and proclaim that patriotism is a visionary sentiment, and piety a selffsh delusion, and charity a pretence, and virtue a name!

II. But it is time that we come now to the objection of the theologian. And I go at once to the single and strong point of his objection. The theologian says that human nature is bad and corrupt. Now, taking this language in the practical and popular sense, I find no difficulty in agreeing with the theologian. And, indeed, if he would confine himself leaving vague and general declamation and technical phraseologyif he would confine himself to facts ;-if he would confine himself to a description of actual bad qualities and dispositions in men,- I think he could not well go too far. Nay, more, I am not certain that theologian's description, so far as it is of this nature, has gone deep enough into the frightful mass of human depravity. For it requires an acute

any

a

[ocr errors]

perception, that is rarely possessed, and a higher and holier conscience, perhaps, than belongs to any, to discover, and to declare how bad, and degraded, and unworthy a being, a bad man is. I confess that nothing would beget in me a higher respect for a man, than a real—not a theological and factitious—but a real and deep sense of human sinfulness and unworthiness; of the mighty wrong which man does to himself, to his religion, and to his God, when he yields to the evil and accursed inclinations that find place in him. This moral indignation is not half strong enough in those who profess to talk the most about human depravity. And the objection to them is, not that they feel too much or speak too strongly, about the actual wickedness, the actual and distinct sins of the wicked; but they speak too generally and vaguely of human wickedness,—that they speak with too little discrimination to every man as if he were a murderer or a monster,—that they speak, in fine, too argumentatively, and too much, if I may say so, with a sort of argumentative satisfaction, as if they were glad that they could make this point so strong,

I know, then, and admit, that men, and all men, more or less, are, alas! sinful and bad. I know that the catalogue of human transgressions is long, and dark, and mournful. The words, pride, and envy, and anger, and selfishness, and base indulgence, are words of lamentation. They are words that should make a man weep when he pronounces them, and most of all when he applies them to himself, or to his fellow-men.

But what now is the inference from all this? Is it, that man is an utterly debased, degraded, and contemptible creature?— that there is nothing in him to be revered or respected ?-— that the human heart presents nothing to us but a mark for cold and blighting reproach? Without wishing to assert anything paradoxical, it seems to me that the very reverse is the inference.

I should reason thus upon this point. I should say, it must be a noble creature that can so offend. I should say, there must be a contrast of light and shade, to make the shade so deep. It is no ordinary being, surely—it is a being of conscience, of moral powers and glorious capacities, that calls from us such intense reproach and indignation. We never so arraign the animal creation. The very power of sinning is a lofty and awful power! It is, in the language of our holiest poet, “the excess of glory observed.” Neither is it a power standing alone. It is not a solitary, unqualified, diabolical power of evil; a dark and cold abstraction of wickedness. No, it is clothed with other qualities. No, it has dread attendants-attendants, I had almost said, that dignify even the wrong. A waiting conscience, visitings-oh! visitings of better thoughts, calls of honour and self-respect, come to the sinner; terrific admonition whispering on his secret ear; prophetic warning pointing him to the dim and veiled shadows of future retribution; and the all-penetrating, all-surrounding idea of an avenging God, are present with him: and the right arm of the felon and the transgressor is lifted up, amidst lightnings of conviction and thunderings of reproach. I can tremble at such a being as this; I can pity him; I can weep for him; but I cannot scorn him.

The very words of condemnation which we apply to sin are words of comparison. When we describe the act of the transgressor as mean, for

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »