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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4

Lecture III. Advantage of a Knowledge of the Principles of Morals: Duties Prescribed to Man as an Individual: Self-Culture

Lecture III. Advantage of a Knowledge of the Principles of Morals: Duties Prescribed to Man as an Individual: Self-Culture.

The views in the preceding lecture accord with those of Bishop Butler—We go farther than he did, and shew the natural arrangements by which the consequences mentioned by him take place—Importance of doing this — Certain relations have been established between the natural laws, which give to each a tendency to support the authority of the whole—Examples—Duties prescribed to man as an individual considered—The object of man's existence on earth is to advance in knowledge, wisdom, and holiness, and thereby to enjoy his being—The glory of God is promoted by his accomplishing this object—The first duty of man is to acquire knowledge—This may be drawn from Scripture, and from nature—Results from studying heathen mythology and nature are practically different—Difference between the old and the new philosophy stated—Clerical opposition to these lectures.

Having in the previous lectures considered what constitutes an action right or wrong, and also the punishments which attend neglect of duty, and the rewards which performance bring along with it, I proceed to remark, that the views there unfolded correspond, to some extent, with those entertained by Bishop Butler, and which he has adopted as the groundwork of his treatise on the" Analogy of Natural and Revealed Religion." "Now, "says he, "in the present state, all which we enjoy, and a great part of what we suffer, is put in our own power. For pleasure and pain are the consequences of our actions; and we are endued by the Author of our nature with capacities of foreseeing these consequences." "I know not that we have any one kind or degree of enjoyment, but by the means of our own actions. And, by prudence and care, we may, for the most part, pass our days in tolerable ease and quiet; or, on the contrary, we may, by rashness, ungoverned passion, wilfulness, or even by negligence, make ourselves as miserable as ever we please. And many do please to make themselves extremely miserable; i. c., they do what they know-beforehand will render them so. They follow those ways, the fruit of which they know, by instruction, example, experience, will be disgrace, and poverty, and sickness, and untimely death. This every one observes to be the general course of things; though, it is to be allowed, we cannot find by experience that all our sufferings are owing to our own follies." (Part I. chap. 2.)

The common sense of mankind yields a ready assent to this doctrine. We go farther than Bishop Butler, by shewing the natural arrangements, according to which the consequences mentioned by him take place. This is a point of material moment in philosophy, and it leads me to remark, that one difference between the expositions of moral science which have been presented by preceding inquirers, and that which I am now endeavouring to elucidate, consists in this—that, hitherto, moralists generally have laid down precepts without shewing their foundation in our constitution, or the mode in which disregard of them is punished by the ordinary operation of natural causes. They were imperfectly acquainted with the constitution of the mind, and with the independent operation of the different natural laws, and, in consequence, failed in this branch of their subject. In their expositions of moral philosophy they resemble those who teach us to practise an art, without explaining the scientific principles on which the practice is founded.

The difference between Paley's moral philosophy, and that which I am now teaching, may be illustrated thus: A practical brewer is a man who has been taught to steep barley in cold water for a certain time, to spread it on a stone floor for so many hours, to dry it on a kiln, at which point it is malt; to grind the malt, to mash it by pouring on it hot water, to boil the extract with hops, to cool it, to add yeast to it when cold, and to allow it to ferment for a certain number of days. A person of ordinary sagacity, who has seen these processes performed, will be able to repeat them, and he may thereby produce ale. But all the while he may know nothing of the laws of chemical action, by means of which the changes are evolved. He will soon observe, however, that the fermentation of the worts goes on sometimes too rapidly, sometimes too slowly, and that he makes bad ale: By experience he may discover what he considers causes of these effects; but he will frequently find that he has been wrong in his judgment of the causes, and he will do harm by his remedies. In short, he will learn that, although he knows the rules how to make good ale, the practice of them, with uniform success, surpasses his skill. The reason of his perplexity is this: The page 15 barley is organized matter, which undergoes a variety of changes, depending partly on its own constitution and partly on the temperature of the air, on the quantity of moisture applied to it, the thickness of the heap in which it is laid, and other causes, of the precise nature and effects of which he is ignorant. Farther,—the extract from the malt, which he wishes to ferment, is a very active and delicate agent, undergoing rapid changes influenced by temperature, electricity, and other causes, of the operation of which also he knows nothing scientifically. If all the materials of his manufacture were passive, like stocks and stones, his practical rules might carry him much farther towards uniform and successful results; but, seeing that they are agents, and that their modes of action are affected by a variety of external causes and combinations, he cannot securely rely on producing the effects which he wishes to attain, until he becomes scientifically acquainted with the qualities of his materials, and the modifying influences of the agencies to the operations of which they are exposed. After attaining this knowledge, he becomes capable of suiting his practice to the circumstances in which, at each particular time, he finds his materials placed. If he cannot yet command the result, it is a proof that his knowledge is still imperfect.

This illustration may be applied to the subject of moral philosophy. In practical life we are ourselves active beings, and we are constantly influenced by agents, whose original tendencies and capacities differ from each other,—who are placed in varying circumstances, and who are acted on and excited or impeded by other beings. It is a knowledge of their nature alone, that can enable us to understand the phenomena of such beings occurring under the diversified circumstances in which they are placed. Moreover, when we know the reason why a particular line of conduct should be adopted, and the way in which reward is connected with performance, and punishment with neglect, there is a higher probability of the duty being discharged, than when a precept is our only motive to action. Mere rules may be apprehended and practised by ordinary minds; but to understandings ignorant of their foundations and sanctions in nature, their importance and authority are far from being so evident as to carry with them a deep sense of obligation. A great musician may enable another, equally gifted, to feel the exquisite harmony of a certain composition; but he will strive in vain to convey the same feeling of it to a person destitute of musical talent. By teaching the laws of harmony, however, to this individual, he may succeed in convincing his understanding that, in the piece in question, these laws have been observed, and that there can be no good music without such observance.

Although the natural laws act separately and independently, certain relations have been established between them, which tend to support the authority of the whole. In consequence of these relations, obedience to each law increases our ability to observe the others, and disobedience to one diminishes, to some extent, our aptitude for paying deference to the rest.

The man, for example, who obeys the physical laws, avoids physical injury and suffering, and gains all the advantages arising from living in accordance with inanimate nature. He consequently places himself in a favourable condition to observe the organic, the moral, and the intellectual laws.

By obeying the organic laws, he ensures the possession of vigorous health; and when we view the muscular system of man as the instrument provided to him by the Creator for operating on physical nature, and the brain as the means of acting on sentient and intelligent beings, we discover that organic health is a fundamental requisite of usefulness and enjoyment. We are led to see that the possession of it contributes, in the highest degree, to our obeying the physical laws, and also to our discharging our active duties: in other words, to our obeying the laws of morality and intelect. General obedience to the organic laws, also, by preserving the body in a favourable condition of health, fits it for recovering in the best manner from the effects of injuries sustained by inadvertent infringement of the physical laws. Disobedience to the organic laws, on the other hand, unfits us for obeying the other laws of our being. A student, for instance, who impairs his brain and digestive organs by excessive mental application and neglect of exercise, weakens his nervous and muscular systems, in consequence of which he becomes feeble, and incapable of sustained bodily exertion; in other words, of coping with the law of gravitation, without suffering pain and fatigue. He is, also, more liable to disease. A man who breaks the organic laws by committing a debauch, becomes for a season, incapable of intellectual application.

By obeying the moral and intellectual laws—that is, by exercising our whole mental faculties, according to the laws of their constitution, and directing them to their proper objects—we not only enjoy the direct pleasure which attends the favourable action and gratification of all our powers, but become more capable of coping with the physical influences which are constantly operating around us, and of bending them in subserviency to our interest and our will; and also of preserving all our organic functions in a state of regular vigour and activity.

In short, if we obey the various laws instituted by the Creator, we find that they act harmoniously for our welfare, that they support each other, and that the world becomes a clear field for the active and pleasurable exercise of all our powers: while, if we infringe one, not only does it punish us for the special act of disobedience, hut the offence has the tendency to impair, to some extent, our power of obeying the others. So that we discover in the natural laws a system of independent, yet combined and harmonious action, admirably adapted to the mind of a being who has received not only observing faculties, fitted to study existing things and their phenomena, but reflecting intellect, calculated to comprehend their relations, adaptations, and reciprocal influences.

Thus, the first step in comprehending the principles of the Divine government, is to learn to look on the physical world as it actually exists, and not through the medium of a perverted imagination, or of erroneous assumptions; and the second is to compare it with the constitution of man, physical and mental, as designedly adapted to it. We shall find that it is not an elysium, and we know that we are not angels; but we shall discover that, while the heavens declare the glory of the Creator, and the revolving firmaments of suns and worlds proclaim His might, the elements and powers of man's mind and body, viewed in their tendencies and adaptations, bespeak, in a language equally clear and emphatic, His intelligence, beneficence, and justice.

Having thus expounded the general system of the Divine government, let us now consider the duties prescribed to us by our constitutions and its relations.