Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

prevail; but virtue shall be justified out of the sinner's mouth, whilst he wishes to die the death of the righteous, and that his last end may be like his.'

It may seem perhaps that we have but little confidence in the cause of virtue under all other circumstances and conditions of life, when we defer the judgment to the last moments, and bring the wicked and the righteous to the very doors of death, before we venture to ask your opinion on their several conditions: it may be thought unfair too, so to state the case as to exclude all the pleasures and enjoyments on one side, all the difficulties and discouragements on the other, which are the very considerations that are known to weigh most with the generality of mankind, and to leave nothing but the prospect, whether certain or uncertain, of a future state, when every thing is removed out of the contrary scale, which might serve, as in experience we find they do serve at other times, to balance against such hopes and fears: it may be said too, that it is no very great commendation to virtue, that men should prefer the hopes it offers to the fears of iniquity, when all contest is over in other respects, and at a time when nothing is left but mere hope and fear; for who would not prefer the most uncertain chance of being happy to the least degree of fear of being miserable, or even to the thoughts of falling into silence and perpetual sleep?

Were these exceptions well founded, it would take much from the weight of the comparison laid before us in the text: but the truth is, that there is no time or circumstance of life in which virtue may not bear being compared with vice, the passions and prejudices and corruptions of mankind being moved out of the question.

The words of the text, in their first and most natural sense, lead us to compare the wicked and the righteous, not only in their latest hours, but in the whole course and circumstances of their life: they arise from the contemplation of the happiness and prosperity of the people of Israel, and their future greatness and security in the land of promise, compared with the misery of the idolatrous nations, given up to sin and superstition, and therefore devoted to ruin.

• The people,' says the prophesier, shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned

[ocr errors]

among the nations.

Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.' And in the next chapter, · When he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations ; but his latter end shall be, that he perish for ever.'

These two places help to expound each other; for as the prophecy relating to Amalek was completed in the temporal destruction of that people, so by parity of reason the prophecy concerning Israel imported the temporal happiness of that nation. It was denounced against Amalek, “ that he should perish for ever ;' that he should be cut off, and leave no posterity behind him: but to Israel a long continuance of great increase is promised; · Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel ?'

If we add to this the remark of the learned Bishop Patrick, that the original words, which our translators render, · Let my last end be like his,' may properly be rendered, “Let my posterity be like his ;' it will give us farther reason to acknowlege that temporal prosperity was not excluded from the prophesier's thoughts, but was contained in his wish, as the peculiar lot and inheritance of the righteous.

The other sense of the words, which looks beyond the limits of this world, and considers the wicked and the righteous distinguished by their merits in another state of life, has of ancient times been ascribed to the text: nor need we be much concerned to determine between the two expositions ; since both fairly arise from the words before us, both are agreeable to the apprehensions, and, as far as experience teaches, to the experience of mankind, and both have a foundation in reason and nature,

That' righteousness exalteth a nation, that 'sin' is not only "a reproach,' but also a weakening to any people,' are truths so universally received as to want no proof. All lawgivers in all times have thought so, and made it their business to cultivate virtue and justice, temperance and frugality, and to discourage the contrary vices. Philosophers and moralists have been in the same opinion, and have taught with one consent that the virtue of the people is the stability of all govern

ments, and the true source of public prosperity. Practice and experience have, in all ages, answered to the truth of these speculations. If we consult the memoirs of the most renowned nations, which have made a figure in the world, we shall find that they rose to greatness by virtue, and sank into nothing through vice; that they got dominion by their temperance and probity of manners, and a serious regard to religion; and that when they grew dissolute, luxurious, and despisers of religion, they became slaves to their neighbors, whom they were no longer worthy to govern.

Besides the natural tendency which there is in virtue to make nations great and happy, there is this farther to be considered: if we believe the being of a God, and have just notions of his attributes, and think him at all concerned in the government of this world which he made, we must necessarily conclude that virtuous nations are his peculiar care, and under his immediate protection; that he counsels their counsellors, and teaches their senators wisdom ; that he goes forth with their armies, and covers them in the day of battle, and brings them home crowned with victory and peace.

Notwithstanding the general consent of men to this truth, that virtue is the true foundation of the happiness and prosperity of public societies, yet they differ much in opinion and practice in the choice and pursuit of happiness for themselves ; and yet there is no doubt but that the same thing which is necessary to the happiness of a kingdom, is also necessary to the happiness of private families and private men ; unless we çan suppose that the body politic may be in a very florishing condition, whilst every member of it is in misery and distress. As a nation cannot be said to be healthy, when the private families of which it consists are visited with plague and pestilence; so neither can it be said to be rich and happy, when the members are poor

and miserable : from whence it follows that whatever is vecessary to the public happiness is necessary also to the private happiness of particulars, considered in themselves, and in the more contracted relations of life.

Since then we have the express consent of all men that virtue is the true way to public happiness, we have, in consequence, their confession that private happiness must be obtained in the

same method : how is it then that men are so inconsistent with themselves, as in their own case to prefer the momentary pleasures of vice to the solid happiness which arises from virtue ? How come they to think that the same thing which will make all others miserable, will make them happy?

This difference arises not from the nature of the things under consideration, which continue always the same without alteration, but from the passions of men, which in one case are excluded, and admitted in the other with all their force to bias the judgment. When we consider what is good for other men, their passions have no weight on our understandings, and we deliberate calmly what is right for them; but when we consider for ourselves, all our passions are awakened, and often prove too strong for our reason and understanding. The people are happy, you say, who are observers of justice, temperance, and chastity. Very well: and why would it not be as happy for you to observe the same rule as it is for them ? Can reason, do you think, show a difference in the case ? No: but when a man judges for himself, he can lay aside his reason and give himself up to his passions and corrupt inclinations. It is a common observation, that it is much easier to give good instructions than to follow them; and there is much truth in the observation : but this ought to be no prejudice to the cause of virtue; for when a man speaks reason at the same time that he acts against it, he ought to be taken as a strong witness for the truth.

A reason may be demanded perhaps, why we prefer the judgment of a man when he chooses happiness for others, to the judgment he makes when he chooses for himself. Do we not know that men are always truest to themselves, and never more sincere than when their own interest and happiness are concerned ? Should a number of men consent to a law for suppressing vice and immorality, and yet indulge themselves in the very enjoyments which they forbid to others; whatever we may think of their opinion concerning the expediency of virtue to the public, yet we must not suppose them to judge that life may be rendered comfortable and happy by the practice of virtue; since such an opinion would be utterly inconsistent

VOL. III.

SHERL.

F

with the measures which they pursue in order to their own happiness.

But if this way of arguing is allowed, there is but one law for man and for beasts: reason makes no difference in the case ; for the happiness of both consists in the mere gratifications of sense: a conclusion so absurd, that there is no man unreasonable enough to embrace it. When a sickly and vitiated appetite craves unwholesome food, who is in the right ? the patient, who is eager to gratify his appetite, or the physician, who stands between him and the deadly experiment, and prescribes safer, though less grateful remedies ? The case is the same in the comparison between virtue and vice : the sensual man has a continual fever on him; and we can no more judge what will render a man truly happy by observing the choice he makes for himself, than we can learn the true cure of a disease by observing the cravings of a distempered appetite. If sense only is to be judge of the true measures of human happiness, in vain is it that we have reason given us for our direction; it can serve only to increase our shame; for a brute without reason is a much more honorable creature than a brute with it.

But we have no reason to decline the comparison between the pleasures of vice and the calm enjoyments of virtue : let us therefore take a nearer view of the two conditions, and ther there be no reason to wish that we may live the life of the righteous, as well as to die his death.

As to the good things of life, the wicked can make out no peculiar title to them: riches and honors may be held and enjoyed by the righteous as well as the wicked. They differ indeed extremely in the use they make of the good things of the world: and this being the only difference in this respect, the only question in this view is, whether a man is happier in the enjoyment of a large fortune, when he applies it to the purposes, and uses it within the bounds of virtue, or when he makes it subservient to all the ends and pleasures of vice?

Or if you remove the fortune out of the

carry the comparison into another condition of life, the question then will be, whether the difficulties of life which attend on mean circumstances, are more tolerable to a virtuous or a vicious man; and which of

case, and

see whe

« AnteriorContinuar »