Page images

to the noblest feelings of human nature, who would so far belie their motives as to insinuate that interest was their object?

When Speculation, for it does not deserve the name of Philosophy, will not hear the voice of nature, it leaves the straight-forward path that leads to Truth. But the voice of nature cannot be mistaken on this question; and therefore the Selfish System must be pronounced to be more visionary than true.

It must indeed be admitted that the Benevolent Affections are possessed in very different measures or proportions by different individuals,-in some, one or more of these active principles nearly absorbing all others, in many, what is called Goodness of Nature making up the strongest feature in the character,— and in others, a seeming apathy throwing its shade over every social endearment. Yet amidst all the natural varieties, which this part of the mental constitution presents to our notice, an example of pure unmixed selfishness is almost anomalous in the human family. For I do not here speak of those miserable objects, who, by brooding over wealth have extinguished the sparks of generosity, and, to their far greater loss, have nearly smothered the sparks of virtue; like aliens from God and man, forsaking both, for that which was given them by their Maker, not as an idol to be worshipped, but as an instrument in their hands to benefit their fellow-creature.-Nor yet do I speak of those isolated beings, who, from whatever cause, by voluntary seclusion, and a studied morose

ness, have perverted their best feelings so as to acquire an insensibility to social enjoyments, and almost a hatred of their species.

These are blots in the fair scheme of social order, swerving alike from human and from natural institutions, and alike disowned by humanity and by reason. They appear to serve no end in the creation, but as beacons, to warn others to shun the poison of corroding solitude, which dries up the fountain of social warmth and virtue in the heart; and to avoid the early tomb in which the votary of Riches buries, amidst his hoards, his usefulness and his best affections, becoming dead, as it were, to the world, before the appointed time when he is called upon to surrender for others' use what he has neglected to employ.

It seems to have been a two-fold error in the philosophy of Pope, that he made Self-love to comprehend the whole active principles on the one hand; and Reason to comprehend the regulating balance, check, and supreme authority, on the other. For, besides Self-love, if Appetite and Desire may be included in the term, we have the several disinterested Affections of which I have spoken, as springs of action: And besides the "comparing balance" of Reason, we have a still higher principle, Conscience, to preside and govern.




Of its comprehensive Signification.

FROM what has been last stated we may conclude that there is a principle in Man, to which all his Appetites, Desires and Affections, as well as his rational or intellectual nature ought to be subservient. For, as his rational or intellectual nature may be wholly employed in ministering to the indulgence of these lower propensities; seeing we have around us the proofs of system, skill, experience, knowledge, art, in numerous instances where the moral good either of individuals or of society is not even once presumed to be the ultimate object (and into all these combinations of means to ends Reason essentially enters,) it follows, that Reason itself must be subjected and sanctified by some higher principle. For, it is the very nature and business of the rational faculty to be occupied in the things of time; or, if it chance to contemplate the things of eternity, in

forming to itself speculative notions, which may prove altogether barren with respect to purity of conduct. But, in the subjection of Reason, its legitimate uses may still be preserved; seeing that in the best and wisest of mortals, sense and appetite, and desire and affection, may be lawfully exercised, without prejudice to moral and religious advancement.

It is observed by Dr. Beattie, and the remark illustrates the concluding observation of the last chapter, that "Conscience being proved to be the Supreme regulating Principle of human nature, it follows that virtuous action is the ultimate end for which Man was made." Without Conscience, or some analogous principle, it is plain, that there would be no internal guide to virtue—no judge of thoughts and actions, to approve or to condemn. It is, therefore, the power that constitutes man a moral and account. able agent, and virtue is its object.

Conscience, however, is a word which has been used in various senses; and though almost every one may seem to understand it, the precise meaning is far from being agreed upon.

I have already apprised my reader that, in an Essay of this sort, embracing a comparative view of different authors' opinions, and resting in the first instance on natural reasoning, he must expect to find a good deal of confusion and ambiguity, both in reference to such opinions and to the terms in which they are conveyed. These appear to be inseparable from all human efforts, by the light of nature, to pierce the

veil which hides the operation of supreme Power on the mind of man. But if by natural reason we can come to nothing clear and demonstrative, it may at least be satisfactory to show, by reference to the conflicting or various opinions of different authors, how far this light extends, and how little concerning moral truth and its source, the feeble lamp of reason really discovers.

In the use of the word Conscience, there appears to be considerable diversity, both as to its meaning and the precise relation it bears to the other faculties. Of this I shall attempt a more full explanation.

Some represent the Conscience to be a distinct faculty, synonymous with what is called a Moral Sense; others take it to be a modification of Memory, others of Reason; and some assign it the same place in moral perception, that simple consciousness holds in every natural operation of the mind. In the last sense it is the secret testimony or immediate knowledge, which the mind has in itself concerning the pravity and rectitude of its own thoughts, words and actions. This perhaps is its most correct etymological meaning and it agrees best with Scripture.

Before I proceed further, it may be proper to notice two very different significations in which Conscience has been frequently employed, each of which has been sanctioned by eminent authorities. In the first of these it appears to stand as an independent principle: in the second as a simple modification of some other power, filling only a subordinate office.

« PreviousContinue »