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is regardless of, and has no value for, nor desires to have
In this masterly Dissertation on the nature of virtue, our author enters at once on his own definition of the term, and explains very clearly what he means by true virtue. His views, in some respects, are considerably different from those which are most current among ethical writers; and probably for want of some explanations, whereby the different definitions adopted by others may be accounted for, his invaluable treatise has not only been underrated, but even, by some, unreasonably opposed. We shall here offer a few remarks, which perhaps may tend to cast some light on the subject in general, as well as to relieve our author's definition from unfair imputations.
1. Virtue, if we regard the use of the term (p) among the Greeks, seems to have been appropriated as much to the idea of martial courage, as the English term is appropriated to that of female chastity. Not that it was used exclusively in the former case, any more than in the latter. It often signifies power, energy, -efficacy, and excellence. But by moral writers, both ancient and modern, it has been unanimously adopted to represent a very general moral idea. easy to produce a great number of definitions from moralists and divines; but this It would be is neither necessary, nor does it comport with our present purpose.
2. If we mistake not, there is no just definition of virtue, which is not reducible to this general one: VIRTUE IS A LAUDABLE MEAN OF REAL HAPPINESS. Cicero, indeed, says of it, that it is "affectio animi constans conveniensque, laudabiles efficiens eos, in quibus est, et ipsa per se, sua sponte, separata etiam utilitate laudabilis." (Tuscul. Quæst. Lib. iv. § 15.) very nature, independently of any advantageous result, does not hinder it from But virtue being laudable from its being "a laudable mean of real happiness."
3. Now happiness being the uniform and voluntary end of intellectual existence, a desire of it being inseparable from our nature; we become liable to err, not only by adopting wrong means for accomplishing the end we propose to ourselves, but also by forming a false estimate of the nature of happiness, or the end itself. If the happiness be not real but imaginary, in the contemplation of the agent, however well adapted the means may be in order to attain it, they deserve not the epithet virtuous.
4. To discover the nature of true happiness, the light of wisdom is requisite; and while desire is blind, false estimates will be made. But every one thinks himself wise and prudent enough to prescribe his own happiness, till such folly be shewn him by the wisdom which is from above; and he who supposes himself adequate to fix the end, cannot be very diffident about the means to be employed.
5. Hence there is room for as many representations of virtue, as there are kinds of happiness which men think to be real; in addition to as many means employed to accomplish their proposed end, as they judge to be laudable.
6. From these preliminary remarks it appears, that the nature and real character of virtue must arise from the nature of the end proposed, and of the means employed for securing it. We shall now attempt to illustrate the ground of numerous representations of virtue, by comparison.
7. Let the different kinds of happiness which we propose to ourselves, whether those which have been classified by moral writers, or any others, be represented by so many concentric circles. For instance, let happiness be considered as personal and relative, private and public, domestic and national, temporal and eternal, or the like; and for every species of happiness let there be a corresponding circle drawn. Let the filling up of that circle express the virtue requisite to attain the happiness thus represented.
8. Suppose, for example, that health, friendship, domestic unanimity, national prosperity, the welfare of the human race, and our individual conformity to God in his moral excellence through eternal ages, or the happiness implied in these respectively, be represented by the concentric circles above-mentioned. Then the happiness implied in health, a smal, circle, will be filled by corresponding virtues, when the end is sought by laudable means; such as temperance, moderation, chastity, government of the passions, &c. The circle representing the happiness implied in friendship will be filled by corresponding virtues, when the end is sought, as before, by laudable means; such as benevolence, fidelity, prudence, sympathy.
Shewing how that love, wherein true virtue consists, respects the divine Being and created things.
From what has been said, it is evident, that true virtue must chiefly consist in LOVE TO GOD; the Being of beings,
&c. The circle of domestic happiness is filled by the virtues of kindness, meekness, patience, industry, economy, &c. That of national prosperity by diligence in business, honesty, justice, truth, liberality, conscientious submission, fortitude, real patriotism, &c. The circle representing the welfare of the human race, as the common offspring of one progenitor, and who are regarded by the Supreme Parent as the children of one family, is filled by the virtues of philanthropy, expansive benevolent zeal, self-denial, public spirit, passive courage, &c. And the circle of that happiness which is implied in our individual conformity to God's moral excellence; in other words, that happiness which is ultimate and supreme, is filled by nothing short of supreme love to God, or, in language more philosophically accurate, consent of will to BEING in general-benevolent attachment to universal BEING.
9. Now who can question whether temperance, fidelity, meekness, honesty and liberality, philanthropy and public spirit, should be ranked among the virtues? And who can doubt that they are calculated to secure the happiness implied in health, friendship, national prosperity, and the welfare of the human race, respectively? And yet, if we exclude the disposition which is required to fill the largest circle-benevolent attachment to universal being-which if those virtues may not an atheist actually possess? Nay, may not an atheist possess them all? For may he not promote his health by temperance, moderation, chastity, and the like? May he not exercise friendly benevolence, fidelity, prudence, sympathy, and similar virtues? Have not atheists been great patriots, if by patriotism we mean a supreme regard for the prosperity and glory of the nation to which they belonged, manifested by severe studies, by the lightning and thunder of their eloquence, the fatigues of war, and a willingness to shed the last drop of their blood in defence of their country? Nay more, may not an atheist possess the virtues of generous philanthropy, and, to a certain extent, of benevolent zeal for the welfare of mankind in general, expressed by an attempt to remove their ignominious chains, to promote the civilization of savage nations whom he has never seen, to alleviate the sufferings, and to enhance the comforts of all mankind?
10. Far be it from us to suppose that atheists are favourable to virtue, even in these inferior acceptations of the term. The reverse is abundantly evident. But this is what we assert, that such virtues as those above-mentioned, when exclusive of what our author contends for, are what an atheist may possess without inconsistency; and that they have no moral worth, no direct connection either with the complacency of God in them, or with the ultimate happiness of the agent. However attentive a man may be to practise virtues in subservience to his health, while he repels those of friendship; or however observant of the virtues of friendship, while he repels others which are conducive to domestic, national, and universal happiness; his virtues, if the name be retained, are those of a bad character. Some have been conspicuous and zealous patriots, while determined foes to philanthropy and general good will to mankind as such. And how many have fought with the most patriotic zeal and courage in the field of honour, though tyrants at home, and in private life trampling on those virtues which constitute a good husband, a good father, a good master, a good neighbour, a good friend, or a good any thing In short, were a man to "give all his goods to feed the poor, and his body to be burned," out of zeal to promote some public good, yet without love to God, without benevolent attachment to universal being, he is morally nothing, or worse than nothing.
11. What are called virtues, without a disposition to embrace universal being and excellence, are morally considered, but lifeless images. To compare them to
infinitely the greatest and best. This appears, whether we consider the primary or secondary ground of virtuous love.
a series of decimal figures, which, however increased, will never amount to an unit of moral worth, is to place them in too favourable a view; they are more like ciphers. But let these unmeaning ciphers be preceded by a figure, let these images have an informing and invigorating principle, let these dry bones have the spirit of life in them, and they will acquire a moral excellence; they will deserve the name of REAL VIRTUES.
12. Some have defined virtue by calling it, "a tendency to ultimate happiness." If the meaning of this definition be, "a tendency to God, in whom our ultimate happiness is found," it may be admitted; otherwise it seems not admissible on many accounts. Tendency may be considered as either voluntary or involuntary. In the first place let us suppose it to be voluntary. We then observe, that it is not rational, nor even compatible with common sense, to say that virtue is a voluntary tendency to a quality of our own minds, as happiness evidently is. For happiness, from its very nature, is a relative state or quality of mind, which is the result of enjoying an object suited to our wants. And to desire ultimate happiness without including the object of choice from whence happiness results, is the same as to seek happiness in nothing. If it be said that happiness itself is the object sought; then virtue consists in a voluntary tendency to seek happiness in happiness, which is absurd.
13. Ultimate happiness has been defined, "the durable possession of perfect good." If this be a just statement, which few or none will question, what is the perfect good possessed? If it be answered, The Supreme Being; to this there is no objection. But if it be said, the ultimate happiness itself is the perfect good enjoyed; then the happiness to which the choice is directed is both cause and effect at the same time. Both the thing enjoyed and the enjoyment itself are the same thing. Which is no less absurd than for a man to assert, that the stock of a tree and the fruit on its branches, are the same thing; or that his relish of food is the same as the food itself. A tendency to happiness resulting from no object of that tendency, is the same thing as a tendency to no happiness. In other words, according to this definition, supposing the tendency to be voluntary, virtue is a de sire of ultimate happiness. And this will reduce it to another absurdity; for, as a desire of ultimate happiness is an inseparable property of intelligent beings, the most vicious being in existence is virtuous. These consequences, however just, will not be thought very extraordinary, when compared with the following declarations. "The following seems to be at present the true moral state of the world: In every moral agent the number of virtuous actions greatly exceed that of vicious ones. In by far the greater number of moral agents, and even amongst those who are considered as most vicious and profligate, the number of virtuous affections and habits greatly preponderates over the vicious ones. A character in which there is a preponderance of vice, is very rarely, if ever, to be met with." (BELSHAM'S Elements, p. 400.) And, to advance one step further in this hopeful way, as this desire belongs to all intelligent beings alike, all intelligent beings are alike virtuous !
14. In reality, a mere desire of ultimate happiness is no virtue, has nothing laudable in it, but is a mere instinct of intellectual nature, and belongs alike to the best and the worst of intelligent beings. But virtue consists in the choice of, or a disposition to choose, laudable means in order to arrive at this end. A bad man in his choice of objects, or a vicious choice itself, aims at ultimate happiness; but the means are not laudable, and this wrong choice of means constitutes the very essence of his vice.
15. If it be said that virtue is a tendency to ultimate self-enjoyment, as constituting happiness; then it follows that self is the perfect good desired. And then every one is himself all-sufficient to constitute his own happiness. Let any rational person judge; whether this be not a definition of sordid vice, rather than of virtue; and whether such a disposition would not be a tendency to insubordination, anarchy, and confusion, rather than to happiness-the very temper of an apostate spirit.
16. If it be said moreover, that "a tendency to ultimate happiness," does not refer to the will, desire, or choice; but expresses any thing which in fact tends to ultimate happiness. This leads us to suppose secondly, that the tendency is involuntary. It seems then, on this supposition, that the means employed to ao
It was observed that the first objective ground of that love wherein true virtue consists, is BEING simply considered: and, as a necessary consequence of this, that being who has the greatest share of universal existence has proportionably the greatest share of virtuous benevolence, so far as such a being is exhibited to the faculties of our minds, other things being equal. But God has infinitely the greatest share of existence. So that all other being, even the whole universe, is as nothing in comparison of the divine Being.
And if we consider the secondary ground of love, or moral excellency, the same thing will appear. For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory. God's beauty is infinitely more valuable than that of all other beings upon both those accounts mentioned, viz. the degree of his virtue and the greatness of his being, possessed of this virtue. And God has sufficiently exhibited himself, both in his being, and his infinite greatness and excellency and has given us faculties, whereby we are capable of plainly discovering his immense superiority to all other beings in these respects. Therefore he that has true virtue, consisting in benevolence to being in general, and in benevolence to virtuous being, must necessarily have a supreme love to God, both of benevolence and complacence. And all true virtue must radically and essentially, and as it were summarily consist in this. Because God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being, but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom
quire ultimate happiness need not be laudable. This is the genuine result of that account of virtue which is here animadverted upon; and which the abettors of it are forced to admit. The doctrine of "intrinsic merit or demerit of actions independent on their consequences," they call an "absurd supposition." (BELSHAM'S Elements, p. 309, 372, 373.)
17. It seems then we are all bound to be virtuous at our peril, and yet we must wait the result of all our actions, before we can know what is virtuous and what is not. For if virtue and vice have no intrinsic character of good or evil, but actions, affections, habits, or characters, are either good or bad from their ultimate consequences; then we must wait for those consequences, as the only expositors of virtue and vice.
18. Can any thing more be necessary, in order to shew the absurdity of such a notion of virtue? Happiness it is allowed, is a consequent, of which virtue is the antecedent. But what is the moral nature of this antecedent? Is it any thing good, beautiful, or laudable per se? No, say they: it has no nature beside tendency; which has no intrinsic merit or demerit; and consequently, that which has no moral nature is a moral nothing; that is, virtue is a moral nothing, or nothing moral. And whether this character of virtue be not totally distant from the dictates of right reason, philosophic accuracy, common sense, and christian piety, let the reader judge.-W.
is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.
If it should be objected, that virtue consists primarily in benevolence, but that our fellow-creatures, and not God, seem to be the most proper objects of our benevolence; inasmuch as our goodness extendeth not to God, and we cannot be profitable to him.-To this I answer,
1. A benevolent propensity of heart is exercised, not only in seeking to promote the happiness of the being towards whom it is exercised, but also in rejoicing in his happiness. Even as gratitude for benefits received will not only excite endeavours to requite the kindness we receive, by equally benefiting our benefactor, but also if he be above any need of us, or we have nothing to bestow, and are unable to repay his kindness, it will dispose us to rejoice in his prosperity.
2. Though we are not able to give any thing to God, which we have of our own independently; yet we may be the instru ments of promoting his glory, in which he takes a true and proper delight.*-Whatever influence such an objection may seem to have on the minds of some, yet is there any that owns the being of a God, who will deny that any benevolent affection is due to God, and proper to be exercised towards him? If no benevolence is to be exercised towards God, because we cannot profit him, then for the same reason, neither is gratitude to be exercised towards him for his benefits to us: because we cannot requite him. But where is the man who believes a God and a providence, that will say this?
There seems to be an inconsistence in some writers on morality, in this respect, that they do not wholly exclude a regard to the Deity out of their schemes of morality, but yet mention it so slightly, that they leave me room and reason to suspect they esteem it a less important and a subordinate part of true morality and insist on benevolence to the created system, in such a manner as would naturally lead one to suppose they look upon that as by far the most important and essential thing in their scheme. But why should this be? If true virtue consists partly in a respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it. If true morality requires that we should have some regard, some benevolent affection to our Creator, as well as to his creatures, then doubtless it requires the first regard to be paid to him; and that he be every way the supreme object of our benevolence. If his being above our reach, and beyond all capa
As was shewn at large in the former treatise, on God's end in creating the world, Chap. I. sect. 4, whither I must refer the reader for a more full answer to this objection.