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THE MISAPPLICATION OF EXAMPLE.
1 Cor. xv. 33.
Evil communications corrupt good manners.
We often make a very bad use of the example of others; and this is not owing solely to the wickedness of the example, but to our own error and perverseness in applying it. It is very difficult to live well among bad companions. It is a proof of a strong sense of duty, as well as of a great command of resolution, to maintain our virtue and innocence in any particular branch of morals, in which there is a general relaxation of principle and insensibility of guilt prevailing among the persons
Men without principle, men without religion, men of unstedfast minds, of easy consciences, of thoughtless dispositions, are swept away by the current--they go down with the stream of general practice, and of general conversation, with very little opposition to corruptions which have example to support them ; hence, the infectious nature of vice, and the rapid progress
of the infection : if licentious and lascivious sins have found their way into a neighbourhood, good and serious men are shocked to see how the youth of both sexes fall into the snare. It is with concern
that they observe how many are undone, and how
When drinking, late hours, riotous proceedings, gain footing in a place, there is no computing what numbers are drawn in : at first, it is probable, those only who were bad beforehand—then the idle and unoccupied, who are ready for
seduction then the giddy and foolish—then the pliant tempered; but the evil practice continues, till husbands and parents forget all those who ought to be the nearest and dearest to them, and share in the general profligacy, to the great grief, terror, and prejudice of their friends, and those who depend upon them. If swearing get into use, it is inconceivable how the horror of it wears away, and how soon oaths and imprecations become frequent in our streets, even from the lips of children; how all discourse, especially all mirth and diversion, become tainted with it; but the good Christian reflects—he knows that sin is the same, whether it be common or uncommon, whether there be many examples to countenance it, or none, whether it be the fashion of the place, or the contrary --that it is the same in the sight of God, the same in its final effects, the same in its punishment; and that all those, be they many or few, who are led away by the commonness of a vice, are either men of hollow and unsound principles, or foolish and ignorant-men wanting in firmness and self-command, men incapable of any moral proficiency: yet, that is the true time to hold close to a man's innocency and resolutions, when he is beset, as I may so say, by the restless importunity of evil example, of a corrupt neighbourhood, of a licentious age.
These all are the natural consequences of bad examples; but what I rather propose to consider is, not so much the effects, as the misapplications of example. And of these one is the following,—when a man of general good character has some particular failing mixed with his virtues, we, without possessing their virtues, make them an excuse for the failings in ourselves : than which nothing can be more absurd, for how far these virtues may extenuate the failings in him is certainly of no importance to us; if we have not his virtues to allege in our conduct, they can be of no benefit or profit to us. And if we take the argument the other way if we
that the failing cannot have so much harm and guilt in it as some impute to it, otherwise so good a man would not have allowed himself in the practice, we advance the unsafest argument that can be alleged. Some are very mixed characters, very inconsistent with themselves; and men, otherwise good, are under surprising delusions in that part of their character in which they have suffered themselves to be overcome ; so that, to build upon their authority in the very point in which they betray their weakness, is to rely upon a very feeble support indeed. Thus, a man of honour and honesty in his dealings, in whom the world places great trust and confidence, may unfortunately, with all his character for general conscientiousness and integrity, have fallen into habits of sottishness and drinking; others who give themselves up to this insinuating and pernicious vice will plead his example,—and appear to themselves to be sheltered, as it were, under his character, though not one of the qualities which compose his character belong to themselves. But, they say, could he be the man to permit himself these indulgences, if he thought them so wrong? Alas! we ought never to argue in this manner-we cannot infer a man's judgement from his practice, we know not what passes in his mind : perhaps his conscience is struggling against it all the while ; perhaps he has been so often overcome by temptation and by his propensity, that conscience has lost its force and its sensibility—which will happen; perhaps, if he were to counsel and admonish, he would be the first man to warn or caution us against the very indulgence in which we think we are only following him : he would
his own case to us, not as an encouragement or an example, which we make it to be, but as a lesson and a warning. Sensible of his infirmity and his unsteadiness, he does not undertake to defend it, although he has often found himself overcome by it. And what must be the consequence of this kind of imitation ? If we will imitate some particular person, let us imitate him in his good properties ; at least, let us imitate him throughout. Picking out from each character the bad parts of it, and infusing those, and those only, into our own, is a plan which must end in gradual loss of virtue and growth of vice; and if others pursued it as well as we, in universal depravity and corruption. We are to judge of actions and conduct as they are in themselves, and not as they are joined with other actions and other conduct in the same person--that is the right and sound judgement : but the most wrong, and the most unsound, is that which would excuse vices which we have, by virtues which we have not; that which presumes that a man's judgement vindicates what his passions prompt him to.
A second misapplication of example is this: when we see a man of pious and religious carriage forget his character, so as to fall into some unjustifiable or loose conduct, we forthwith conclude that his former piety was all hypocrisy, his religion feigned. Now this is a very hasty conclusion; the experience of human life does not authorise it: on the contrary, we see men drawn into transgressions of their duty, without renouncing, or even disturbing their principles. There is a great deal of difference between secretly respecting religion, and religion not having so firm a hold on our minds as to guide and direct our conduct uniformly. We may infer the weakness of a man's principles and resolution, or we may infer the violence of his passions, and the mastery they have gained over him, from his giving way to temptation ; but we cannot infer, either his former insincerity, or that any deliberate change in his opinions has taken place. A difference ought to be made whether the sin be casual or habitual ; that is, whe