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remote,1 cannot be eternity. The very notion of any duration's being past, implies that it was once present; for the idea of being once present, is actually included in the idea of its being past. This, therefore, is a depth not to be sounded by human understanding. We are sure that there has been an eternity, and yet contradict ourselves when we measure this eternity by any notion which we can frame of it.
If we go to the bottom of this matter, we shall find that the difficulties we meet with in our conceptions of eternity proceed from this single reason, that we can have no other idea of any kind of duration, than that by which we ourselves, and all other created beings, do exist; which is a successive duration, made up of past, present, and to come. There is nothing which exists after this manner, all the parts of whose existence were not once actually present, and consequently may be reached by a certain number of years applied to it. We may ascend as high as we please, and employ our being to that eternity which is to come, in adding millions of years to millions of years, and we can never come up to any fountain-head of duration, to any beginning in eternity: but, at the same time, we are sure, that whatever was once present, does lie within the reach of numbers, though perhaps we can never be able to put enough of them together for that purpose. We may as well say, that anything may be actually present in any part of infinite space, which does not lie at a certain distance from us, as that any part of infinite duration was once actually present, and does not also lie at some de
1 Be the distance never so remote.] Some have thought this mode of expression incongruous and ungrammatical: but, never, is the same as not ever; and the sentence is to be filled up thus-" be the distance not [near, but] ever so remote." This, then, is one of those elliptical forms (see No. 535) which are to be explained, by observing nicely the posture of the mind in discoursing, (to use Mr. Locke's words,) and not by attending merely to the obvious sense of the terms employed. For, in discoursing, we love to contrast our ideas, though the opposition be not always, or but imperfectly, expressed. Never so remote, if we regard this posture of the mind, is, therefore, as intelligible, and as proper, asever so remote-and, till of late, was more commonly used. We now say -ever so remote-more clearly, indeed, but with something less force: for-never so-implies an effort, or vehemence in asserting, which-ever so-has not. However, as perspicuity is the main object of grammar, I acknowledge it to be a good general rule, to avoid not only real, but seeming incongruities of speech.
termined distance from us. The distance in both cases may be immeasurable and indefinite as to our faculties, but our reason tells us that it cannot be so in itself. Here, therefore, is that difficulty which human understanding is not capable of surmounting. We are sure that something must have existed from eternity, and are at the same time unable to conceive, that anything which exists, according to our notion of existence, can have existed from eternity.
It is hard for a reader, who has not rolled this thought in his own mind, to follow in such an abstracted speculation; but I have been the longer on it, because I think it is a demonstrative argument of the being and eternity of a God and though there are many other demonstrations which leads us to this great truth, I do not think we ought to lay aside any proofs of this matter which the light of reason has suggested to us, especially when it is such a one as has been urged by men famous for their penetration and force of understanding, and which appears altogether conclusive to those who will be at the pains to examine it.
Having thus considered that eternity which is past, according to the best idea we can frame of it, I shall now draw up those several articles on this subject which are dictated to us by the light of reason, and which be looked upon as the creed of a philosopher in this great point.
First, It is certain that no being could have made itself; for if so, it must have acted before it was, which is a contradiction.
Secondly, That, therefore, some being must have existed from all eternity.
Thirdly, That whatever exists after the manner of created beings, or, according to any notions which we have of existence, could not have existed from eternity.
Fourthly, That this Eternal Being must therefore be the great Author of nature, "the Ancient of days," who, being at infinite distance in his perfections from all finite and created beings, exists in a quite different manner from them, and in a manner of which they can have no idea.
I know that several of the school-men, who would not be thought ignorant of anything, have pretended to explain the manner of God's existence, by telling us, "That he comprehends infinite duration in every moment; that eternity is with him a punctum stans, a fixed point; or, which is as good
sense, an Infinite Instant: that nothing with reference to his existence is either past or to come:" To which the ingenious Mr. Cowley alludes in his description of heaven,
Nothing is there to come, and nothing past,
But an eternal NOW does always last.
For my own part, I look upon these propositions as words that have no ideas annexed to them; and think men had better own their ignorance, than advance doctrines by which they mean nothing, and which indeed are self-contradictory. We cannot be too modest in our disquisitions, when we meditate on him who is environed with so much glory and perfection, who is the source of being, the fountain of all that existence which we and his whole creation derive from him. Let us, therefore, with the utmost humility, acknowledge, that as some being must necessarily have existed. from eternity, so this Being doth exist after an incomprehensible manner, since it is impossible for a being to have existed from eternity after our manner or notions of existence. Revelation confirms these natural dictates of reason in the accounts which it gives us of the Divine existence, where it tells us, that he is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; that he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending; that a thousand years are with him as one day, and one day as a thousand years; by which, and the like expressions, we are taught that his existence, with relation to time or duration, is infinitely different from the existence of any of his creatures, and consequently that it is impossible for us to frame any adequate conceptions of it.
In the first revelation that he makes of his own Being, he entitles himself, “I am that I am;" and when Moses desires to know what name he shall give him in his embassy to Pharaoh, he bids him say that, "I am hath sent you.' Our great Creator, by this revelation of himself, does in a manner exclude everything else from a real existence, and distinguishes himself from his creatures, as the only Being which truly and really exists. The ancient Platonic notion, which was drawn from speculations of eternity, wonderfully agrees with this revelation which God has made of himself. There is nothing, say they, which in reality exists, whose existence, as we call it, is pieced up of past, present, and to
Such a flitting and successive existence is rather a
shadow of existence, and something which is like it, than existence itself. He only properly exists whose existence is entirely present; that is, in other words, who exists in the most perfect manner, and in such a manner as we have no idea of.
I shall conclude this speculation with one useful inference. How can we sufficiently prostrate ourselves and fall down before our Maker, when we consider that ineffable goodness and wisdom which contrived this existence for finite natures? What must be the overflowings of that good-will, which prompted our Creator to adapt existence to beings in whom it is not necessary? especially when we consider, that he himself was before in the complete possession of existence and of happiness, and in full enjoyment of eternity. What man can think of himself as called out and separated from nothing, of his being made a conscious, a reasonable, and a happy creature, in short, of being taken in as a sharer of existence, and a kind of partner in eternity, without being swallowed up in wonder, in praise, in adoration! It is, indeed, a thought too big for the mind of man, and rather to be entertained in the secrecy of devotion and in the silence of the soul, than to be expressed by words. The Supreme Being has not given us powers or faculties sufficient to extol and magnify such unutterable goodness.
It is, however, some comfort to us, that we shall be always doing what we shall never be able to do, and that a work which cannot be finished, will, however, be the work of an eternity.
1 This sublime passage, with many others of the like stamp, dispersed through Mr. Addison's works, may let us see how unjust the observation is, that he was an agreeable writer only. But the natural turn and easy perspicuity of his expression, imposes on the judgment, when we would make an estimate of his capacity. There is so little effort in his manner, that he appears to want force; especially to those who have formed their idea of this quality on some later models. Such will tell us, that this Attic writer has not the nerves of Montesquieu, or the pomp of Bolingbroke. Without doubt. But neither has Livy the convulsions of Tacitus, nor Cicero, let me add, the swagger of Seneca.
No. 592. FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10.
-Studium sine divite vena. HOR.
I LOOK upon the play-house as a world within itself. They have lately furnished the middle region of it with a new set of meteors, in order to give the sublime to many modern tragedies. I was there last winter at the first rehearsal of the new thunder, which is much more deep and sonorous than any hitherto made use of. They have a Salmoneus behind the scenes, who plays it off with great success. Their lightnings are made to flash more briskly than heretofore; their clouds are also better furbelowed, and more voluminous; not to mention a violent storm locked up in a great chest that is designed for the Tempest. They are also provided with above a dozen showers of snow, which, as I am informed, are the plays of many unsuccessful poets artificially cut and shreded for that use. Mr. Rimer's Edgar is to fall in snow at the next acting of King Lear, in order to heighten, or rather to alleviate, the distress of that unfortunate prince; and to serve by way of decoration to a piece which that great critic has written against.
I do not, indeed, wonder that the actors should be such professed enemies to those among our nation who are commonly known by the name of critics, since it is a rule among these gentlemen to fall upon a play, not because it is ill written, but because it takes. Several of them lay it down as a maxim, that whatever dramatic performance has a long run, must of necessity be good for nothing; as though the first precept in poetry were not to please. Whether this rule holds good or not, I shall leave to the determination of those who are better judges than myself: if it does, I am sure it tends very much to the honour of those gentlemen who have established it; few of their pieces having been disgraced by a run of three days, and most of them being so exquisitely written, that the town would never give them more than one night's hearing.
I have a great esteem for a true critic, such as Aristotle and Longinus among the Greeks, Horace and Quintilian among the Romans, Boileau and Dacier among the French. But it is our misfortune, that some who set up for professed