The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4
The Duties Prescribed to Man as an Individual
The Duties Prescribed to Man as an Individual.
Descending to particular duties, we may first consider those prescribed to man as an individual, by page 16 his own constitution and that of the external creation.
The constitution of man seems to show that the object of his existence on earth is to discharge certain duties, to advance in knowledge, refinement, beneficence, and holiness; and thereby to enjoy his being. Divines add, that another object is to "glorify God." According to my views, obedience to the Divine laws—or, performance of our duties—is the prime requisite; enjoyment is the natural as companiment of this conduct; and the glory of God is evolved as the result of these two combined. His wisdom and power are strikingly conspicuous, when we discover a system, apparently complicated, to be, in fact, simple, clear, beautiful, and beneficent: and when we behold His rational creatures comprehending His will, acting in harmony with it, reaping all the enjoyments which His goodness intended for them, and ascending in the scale of being by the cultivation and improvement of their nobler powers, the glory of God appears surpassingly great. A deep conviction thence arises, that the only means by which we can advance that glory, is to promote, where possible, the fulfilment of the Creator's beneficent designs, and sedulously to cooperate in the execution of his plans. When the object of human existence is regarded in this light, it becomes evident that obedience to every natural law is a positive duly imposed on us by the Creator, and that infringement or neglect of it is a sin or transgression against His will. Hence, we do not promote the glory of God by singing His praises, offering up prayers at His throne, and performing other devotional exercises, if, at the same time, we shut our eyes to his institutions of nature, neglect the physical, organic, and moral laws, and act in direct contradiction to His plan of government, presenting ourselves before Him as spectacles of pain and misfortune, suffering the punishment of our infringements of His institutions, and ascribing those lamentable consequences of our own ignorance and folly to inherent imperfections in the world which He has made. Every law of God, however proclaimed to us, has an equal claim to observance; and as religion consists in revering God, and obeying His will, it thus appears that the discharge of our daily secular duties is literally the fulfilment of an essential part of our religious obligations.
It is only by presenting before the Creator our bodies in as complete a condition of health and vigour, our minds as thoroughly disciplined to virtue and holiness, and as replete with knowledge, and, in consequence, our whole being as fall of enjoyment, as our constitution will admit, that we can really shew forth His goodness and glory.
If these ideas be founded in nature, the first duty of man as an individual is obviously to acquire knowledge of himself and of God's laws, in whatever record these are contained. I infer this to be a duty, because I perceive intellectual powers bestowed on him, obviously intended for the purpose of acquiring knowledge; and not only a wide range of action permitted to all his powers, corporeal and mental, with pleasure annexed to the use, and pain to the abuse of them: but also a liability to suffer by the influence of the objects and beings around him, unless, by means of knowledge, he accommodate his conduct to their qualities and action. He has only one alternative presented to him—of using his reason, or of enduring evil.
It has too rarely been inculcated that the gaining of knowledge is a moral duty; and yet, if our constitution be so framed that we cannot securely enjoy life, and discharge our duties as parents and members of society without it, and if a capacity for acquiring it has been bestowed on us, its acquisition is obviously commanded by the Creator as a duty of the highest moment. The kind of knowledge which we are bound to acquire is clearly that of God's will and laws. It is the office of divines to instruct you in the duties prescribed in the Bible; and of philosophers to teach the department of nature.
The ignorant man suffers many inconveniences and distresses to which he submits as inevitable dispensations of Providence: his own health perhaps fails him; his children are perverse and disobedient; his trade is unsuccessful; and he regards all these as visitations from God, or as examples of the chequered lot of man on earth. If he be religious, he prays for a spirit of resignation, and directs his hopes to heaven: but if the fore going view of the divine administration be sound, he should ascribe his sufferings, in great part, to his own ignorance of the scheme of creation, and to his non-compliance with its rules. In addition to his religious duties, he should, therefore, fulfil the natural conditions appointed by the Creator as antecedents to happiness; and then he may expect a blessing on his exertions and on his life.
Important, however, as the knowledge of nature thus appears to be, it is surprising how recently the efficient study of it has begun. It is not more than three centuries since the very dawn of inductive philosophy; and some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made within the last fifty or sixty years. These facts tell us plainly that the race of man, like the individual, is progressive; that it has its infancy and youth; and that we who now exist live only in the dayspring of intelligence. In Europe and America, the race may be viewed as putting forth the early blossoms of its rational existence; while the greater part of the world lies buried in utter darkness. And even in Europe, it is only the more gifted minds who see and appreciate their true position. These, from the Pisgah of knowledge, gaze upon the promised land of virtue and happiness stretched out before their intellectual eye; although it is too remote to admit of their entrance on its soil, yet it lies sufficiently near to permit them to descry its beauty and luxuriance.
If the study of nature and nature's laws be our first duty as rational and accountable beings, a moment's reflection will satisfy you that the instruction hitherto generally given even to the young of the higher ranks, has been unavailing for purposes of practical utility. If a boy be taught the structure, uses, and laws of action of the lungs, he will be furnished with motives for avoiding sudden transitions of temperature, excessive bodily and mental exertion, and sleeping in ill-ventilated rooms; for improving the purity of the air in his native city; for constructing churches, theatres, lecture-rooms, and all places of public resort, in accordance with the laws of the human constitution in regard to temperature and ventilation! in short, this knowledge will enable him to avoid much evil and to accomplish much practical good. If he do not acquire it, he will be exposed, in consequence of his ignorance, to suffer from many of these external influences, operating injuriously both on his body and mind. If, on the other hand, he be taught that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf; that Æneas was the son of Venus, who was the goddess of love; that in Tartarus were three Furies, called Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megœra, who sent wars and pestilence on earth, and punished the wicked after death with whips of scorpions; that Jupiter was the son of Saturn, and the chief among all the gods; that he dwelt on Mount Olympus, and employed one-eyed giants called Cyclops, whose workshop was in the heart of Mount Etna. to forge thunderbolts, which he threw down on the world! when he was angry—the youth learns mere poetical page 17 fancies, often abundantly ridiculous and absurd, which lead to no useful actions. As all the personages of the heathen mythology existed only in the imaginations of poets and sculptors, they are not entities or agents; and do not operate in any way whatever on human enjoyment: The boy who has never dedicated his days and nights to the study of them does not suffer punishment for his neglect; which he infallibly does for his ignorance of nature's laws. Neither is he rewarded for acquiring such knowledge, as he is by becoming acquainted with nature, which always enables him to do something that otherwise he could not have done; to reap some enjoyment which otherwise he could not have reached; or to avoid an evil which otherwise would have overtaken him. Jupiter throws no thunderbolts on those who neglect the history of his amours and of his war with the Giants; the Furies do not scourge those who are ignorant that, according to some writers, they sprang from the drops of blood which issued from a wound inflicted by Saturn upon his father Cœlus, and that, according to others, they were the daughters of Pluto and Proserpine; and the she-wolf does not bite us, although we be not aware that she suckled the founders of Rome—or, to speak more correctly, that credulous and foolish historians have said so. But if we neglect the study of God's laws, evil and misery most certainly ensue.
These observations, however, are not to be understood as an unqualified denunciation of classical learning. The sentiment of Ideality finds gratification in poetic fictions: but it is absurd to cultivate it and the faculty of Language to the exclusion of others not less important; and besides, it must be kept in view, that in the pages of the Book of Nature, as well as in those of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, ample materials are to be found for the cultivation and gratification of a refined taste.
The religious teachers of mankind, also, in the education of their flocks, have too generally omitted instruction in the natural laws of God. The pastors of every sect have been more anxious to in still into the minds of the young peculiar views of religious faith, than a correct and practical knowledge of the divine wisdom and will inscribed in the Book of Nature. In consequence, even the best educated classes are, in general, very imperfectly informed regarding Nature, her laws, and her rewards and punishments. They have been instructed in classical literature, composed chiefly of elegant and ingenious fables; a certain portion of the people at large has been taught to read and write, but left at that point to grope their way to knowledge without teachers, without books, and without encouragement or countenance from their superiors; while countless multitudes have been left without any education whatever. In no country have the occupations of society, and the plan of life of individuals, been deliberately adopted in just appreciation of the order of nature. We ought, therefore, in reason, to feel no surprise that the very complex mechanism of our individual constitution, and the still more complicated relations of our social condition, frequently move harshly, and sometimes become deranged. It would have been miraculous indeed, if a being deliberately framed to become happy only in proportion to his attainments in knowledge and morality, had found himself, while yet in profound ignorance of himself, of the world, and of their mutual adaptations, in possession of all the comforts and enjoyments of which his cultivated nature is susceptible.
As individuals, our sphere of intellectual vision is so limited, that we have great difficulty in discovering the indispensable necessity of knowledge to the discharge of our duties, and the promotion of our happiness. We are too apt to believe that our lot is immutably fixed, and that we can do extremely little to change or improve it. We feel as if we were overruled by a destiny too strong for our limited powers to control: And, as if to give strength and permanence to this impression, the man of the world asks us, What benefit could scientific information confer on the labourer, whose duty consists in digging ditches, in breaking stones or in carrying loads all day long; and when the day is gone, whose only remaining occupation is to eat, sleep, and propagate his kind? Or of what use is information concerning nature's laws to the shopkeeper, whose duty in life is to manage his small trade, to pay his bills punctually, and to collect sharply his outstanding debts? If these were all the duties of the labourer and of the shopkeeper, the man of the world would be right. But we discover in the individuals to whom these duties are allotted, faculties capable of far higher aims, and Mature points out the necessity of cultivating them. The scheme of life of the day-labourer and of the shopkeeper, as now cast, is far short of the improvement which it is capable of reaching, and which it was evidently designed to attain. It does not afford scope for the exercise of their noblest and best gifts; and it does not favour the steady advance of these classes as moral, religious, and intellectual beings.
The objector assumes that they have already reached the limits of their possible attainments; and if the case were so, the conclusion might be sound, that science is useless to them. But if they be at present far from enjoying the full sweets of existence: if the whole order of social life, and their condition in it, be capable of vast amelioration; and if the knowledge of ourselves and of nature be a means of producing these advantages; then the duty of acquiring knowledge is at once fundamental and paramount it lies at the foundation of all improvement. If the mass of the people be destined never to rise above their present condition of ignorance, suffering, and toil, we must abandon the idea that the attributes of justice and benevolence are manifested by God in this world.
I am anxious to press this idea earnestly on your consideration, because it appears to me to constitute the grand difference between the old and the new philosophy. The characteristic feature of the old philosophy, founded on the knowledge, not of man's nature, but of his political history, is, that Providence intended different lots for men (a point in which the new philosophy agrees), and that, in the divine appointment of conditions, the millions, or masses of the people, were destined to act the part only of industrious ministers to the physical wants of society, while a favoured few were meant to be the sole recipients of knowledge and refinement. It was long regarded, not only as Utopian, but as actually baneful and injurious to the happiness of the industrious classes themselves, to open up their minds to high and comprehensive views of their own capabilities and those of external nature; because it was said that such ideas might render them discontented with the condition which the arrangements of the Creator have assigned to them. According to the old philosophy, therefore, it is not a duty imposed on every individual to exercise his intellectual powers in extending his acquaintance with nature; on the contrary, according to it, a working man fulfils his destiny when he becomes master of his trade, acquires a knowledge of his moral and religious duties from the Bible, and quietly practises them, rears a family of labourers, and, unmoved by ambition, unenlightened by science, and unrefined by accomplishments, sinks into the grave, in a good old age, to give place to an endless succession of beings like himself. Human nature was viewed as page 18 stationary, or at least regarded as depending for its advance on Providence, or on the higher classes, and in no degree on humbler me;
The new philosophy, on the other hand, or that "which is founded on a knowledge of man's nature, admits the adotment of distinct conditions to different individuals, because it recognises differences in their mental and bodily endowments but in surveying the human faculties it discovers that all men possess, in a greater or less degree, powers of observation and reflection adapted to the study of nature; the sentiment of Ideality prompting them to desire refinement and perfect institutions; the feeling of Benevolence longing for universal happiness; the sentiment of Conscientiousness rejoicing in justice; and emotions of Hope, Veneration, and Wonder, causing the glow of religious devotion to spring up in their souls, and their whole being to love, worship, and obey the beneficent Author of their existence. And it proclaims that beings so gifted were not destined to exist as mere animated machinery, liable to be superseded at every stage of their lives by the steam-engine, the pulley, or the lever; but were clearly intended to advance in their ment. l attainments, and to rise higher and higher in the scale of intelligence, virtue, and happiness.
This conclusion is irresistible, if the general idea of the divine administration, communicated in the previous lecture, be sound,—viz., that all the evolutions of physical nature proceed under fixed, independent, and harmonious laws. Under such a system, the Creator speaks forth from every element, and proclaims that every human being must acquire knowledge or suffer evil. As it is not probable that the Creator has bestowed capacities and desires on his creatures which their inevitable condition renders it impossible for them to cultivate and gratify, we may reasonably presume that the fulfilment of every necessary duty is compatible with enlarged mental attainments in the race. There are, no doubt, humble minds, incapable of high cultivation, who are adapted to the humble stations of life, but they do not constitute the majority of mankind; they are susceptible of improvement far beyond their present attainments, and in a thoroughly moral and enlightened community, no useful office will be degrading; nor will any be incompatible with the due exercise of the highest faculties of man.
It is delightful to perceive that these views are gaining ground, and are daily more and more advocated by the press. I recommend to your perusal a work just published (1835), entitled, "My Old House, or the Doctrine of Changes,"in which they are ably and eloquently enforced. Speaking of the purposes of God in the adminstration of the world, the author observes, that "the great error of mankind, on this subject, has at all times been, that feeling themselves, at least in the vast multitude of cases, to occupy (by the ordination of Providence, or by what they commonly consider as their unfortunate lot in life), but a very obscure and laborious station in the household, they are apt to think that it matters little with what spirit they advance to their toils—that they cannot be in a condition to give any appreciable advancement to the plans of the Master-and that, at any rate, if they do not altogether desert their place, and permit it to run into disorder, they have done all that can well be expected from them, or that they are indeed in a condition to do, for the progressive good of the whole. Take, for instance, the condition of a person, who in the lowest and obscurest lot of life, is entrusted with the bringing up of a family—and how often do we hear from such persons the complaint, that all their cares are insufficient for the moment that is passing over their heads—and that, provided they can obtain the mere necessaries of life, they cannot be required to look to any higher purposes which may be obtained by their cares. And yet, what situation in life is in reality more capable of being conducted in the most efficient and productive manner, or more deserving the nicest and most conscientious care of those entrusted with it? For are not the hearts and understanding of the young committed to the immediate care of those who chiefly and habitually occupy the important scenes of domestic life—and if they pay a due regard, not only to the temporal, but to the moral and intellectual, interests of their charge—if they make home the seat of all the virtues which are so appropriately suited to it—if they set the example—an example which is almost never forgotten—of laborious worth struggling, it may be, through long years, and yet never disheartened in its toils—and if, by these means, they make their humble dwelling a scene of comfort, of moral training, and of both material and moral beauty, which attracts the eye and warms the hearts of all who witness it—how truly valuable is the part which such servants of the Master have been enabled to perform for the due regulation of all the parts of his household—and when their day of labour is done, and the cry goeth forth, 'Call the labourers to their reward,' with what placid confidence may they advance to receive the recompense of their toils—and be satisfied, as they prepare themselves for ' the rest that awaits them,' that, though their lot in life has been humble, and their toils obscure, they have yet not been unprofitable servants, and that the results of their labours shall yet be ' seen after many days.'" "The same style of thought may be applied to all the varied offices which human life, even in its lowest forms, and most unnoticed places, can be found to present—and when these varied conditions and duties of the ' humble poor' are so considered, it will be found that a new light seems to diffuse itself over the whole plan of the divine kingdom—and that no task which the Master of the household can assign to any of his servants, is left without inducements to its fulfilment, which may prepare the labourer for the most cheerful and delighted attention to his works." (P. 84.) How important is knowledge to the due fulfilment of the humble, yet respectable duties here so beautifully described!
* These Lectures were reported in one of the newspapers in Edinburgh, and during the delivery of them, more than one of the clergy of the Established Church preached sermons against them. The audience to whom they were addressed belong to that class of society over whom the clergy exercise the most powerful influence, and this appeal appeared to be called for to induce them to continue their attendance. In this respect, it was successful.
It would seem, therefore, that the instructors alluded to have assumed that it is not truth, but error, which is inculcated in this place. If they had pronounced such an opinion after inquiry, and for reasons stated, I should have been ready to listen to their objections, and reconsider my views; but they have condemned us unheard and untried—assuming boldly that, because we teach ideas different from their own individual notions, we are necessarily in error. This assumption indicates merely that our accusers have not arrived at the same perceptions of the Divine government with ourselves—a result that will by no means be wondered at by any one who considers that they have not followed the course of inquiry pursued by us. There is, however, some reason for surprise, that their opinions should be advanced as unquestionably superior to, and exclusive of, those of other men, adopted after patient observation and thought,—seeing that many of them are the emanations of a dark age, in which the knowledge of Nature's laws did not exist, and that they are prohibited, under pain of forfeiting their livings, from changing their tenets, even although they should see them to be erroneous.*
I advance here, for your acceptance, no propositions based on the authority of my own discernment alone; but I submit them all to your scrutiny and judgment. I enable you, as far as in me lies, to detect the errors into which I may inadvertently have fallen, and ask you to embrace only the ideas which seem to be supported by evidence and reason. We are told by a great authority, to judge of all things by their fruits; and, by this test, I leave the doctrines of this philosophy to stand or fall. What are the effects of them on your minds? Do you feel your conceptions of the Deity circumscribed and debased by the views which I have presented—or, on the contrary, purified and exalted? In the simplicity, adaptations, and harmony of Nature's laws, do you not recognise positive and tangible proof of the omniscience and omnipotence of the Creator—a solemn and impressive lesson, that in every moment of our existence, we live, and move, and have our being, supported by his power, rewarded by his goodness, and restrained by his justice? Does not this sublime idea of the continual presence of God now cease to be a vague, and therefore a cold and barren conception; and does it not, through the medium of the natural laws, become a deep-felt, encouraging, and controlling reality? Do your understandings revolt from such a view of creation, as ill adapted to a moral, religious, and intelligent being? or do they ardently embrace it, and leap with joy at light evolving itself from the moral chaos, and exhibiting order and beauty, authority and rule, in a vast domain where previously darkness, perplexity, and doubt prevailed? Do you feel your own nature do-based by viewing every faculty as calculated for virtue, yet so extensive in its range, that when it moves blindly and without control it may find a sphere of action even beyond virtue, in the wild regions of vice? Or do you perceive in this constitution a glorious liberty—yet the liberty only of moral beings, happy when they follow virtue, and miserable when they offend? In teaching you that every action of your lives has a consequence of good or evil annexed to it, according as it harmonizes with, or is in opposition to, the laws of God, do I promise impunity to vice, and thereby give a loose rein to the impetuosity of passion—or do I set up around the youthful mind a hedge and circumvallation, within which it may expatiate in light, and liberty, and joy; but beyond which lie sin and inevitable suffering,—weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth? Let the tree, I say, be known by its fruits. Look to heaven, and see if the doctrines which I teach have circumscribed or darkened the attributes of the Supreme; then turn your contemplation in wards, and examine whether they have degraded or exalted,—chilled or inspired with humble confidence and hope,—the soul which God has given you; and by your verdict, pronounced after this consideration, let the fate of the doctrines be sealed. In teaching them, be it repeated, I consider myself to be discharging a moral duty; and no frown of men will tempt me to shrink from proceeding in such a course. If my exposition of the Divine government be true, it is a noble vocation to proclaim it to the world; for the knowledge of it must be fraught with blessings and enjoyment to man. It would be a cold heart and a coward soul, that, with such convictions, shotild fear the face of clay; and only a demonstration of my being in error, or the hand of the destroyer Death, shall arrest my course in proclaiming any knowledge that I possess which promises to augment the virtue and happiness of mankind. If you participate in these sentiments, let us advance and fear not1—encouraged by the assurance, that if this doctrine be of man it will come to nought, but that if it be of God, no human authority can prevail against it!
* The Church of Scotland recently deposed from the ministry the author of My Old House, or the Doctrine, of Changes" quotedon page 18, on account of what they considered to be the heresy of his opinions.