Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

strength of which may be indefinitely increased by multiplica. tion; yet can never be so multiplied, as not to be capable of deriving further strength, by being still further multiplied ; or they are inferences drawn from repetitions of observation and experience, which it is plain can never be so often repeated, that further repetition shall not serve still to strengthen the conclu.. sion. Yet for most of the truths, which we receive with unbesi. tating confidence, we have, and can have, no better grounds of evidence, than one or the other of these, which have been stated.

We hear of Moscow and Pekin, and we read of Jerusalem, and Babylon and Rome; and we entertain no more doubt of the existence of those cities, and that they answer to the descriptions, which we have had of them, than of the existence of those places, which we have ourselves seen. We hear too, and read of the great events, which are constantly going on in distant parts of the world, nor does it ever enter into our minds to call in question the reality of what is thus reported us, or the existence of those distinguished personages, who are represented to be the principal actors in the series of public events, because we have no better grounds for our faith, than human testimony.

Who is so sceptical as to doubt, whether there is such a place as Athens, and whether there once lived there such men as Demosthenes and Plato, any more than, at the end of the simplest and plainest mathematical demonstration, he doubts the truth of the result? We read the orations of the former and the philosophical writings of the latter, with unhesitating confidence of their genuineness, and can scarcely distinguish between the assurance we feel, that our mind is employed upon thoughts, which once passed through the minds of those great masters of Grecian eloquence and philosophy; and the certainty we feel in

; the consciousness, that in this act, we are exercising our own faculties upon those thoughts. Nor, where they purport to be treating of real persons and transactions, do we any more doubt the reality of the persons whom they introduce, and the facts which they relate, or to which they allude, than we doubt the reality of those which have once been the objects of our own personal observation, and are now of our distinct recollection.

Historical evidence is naturally, and by general consent is deemed to be, a proper ground of historical faith ; and, in innumerable cases, he that should refuse it, and require other evidence, would be thought to advance very unreasonable claims, and to expect what the very condition of our being, the nature and limits of our faculties, and our relations to the past and the distant, do not admit.

We are supported then in the assertion, that important truths

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

resting on that kind of evidence upon which religion is offered, are received without hesitation, and make up a large part of human knowledge.

And upon what kind of evidence are men usually called to act in the ordinary business of life? Upon what evidence do they think it reasonable and safe to proceed?

In the pursuit of their daily occupations, men act upon the presumption, that the course of nature is regular and permaDent,--that its operations will continue to go on, as they have done,—that the future will resemble the past; the same causes producing the same effects, and from similar motives a similar course of actions proceeding. Both in the natural and the moral world we make our calculations upon a settled and uniform disposition in the course of things. Yet this uniformity is not perfect, nor is the degree in which it is liable to exceptions fully knowo. Our expectations founded on the presumption of a regular and uniform course of things may be disappointed. In most cases we are obliged to accept of conclusions which are drawn from an inadequate number of instances; from observations extremely inaccurate and superficial; from experience that is far from complete and satisfactory. We depend upon the conduct of men, and regulate our own with reference to it, upon very imperfect knowledge of their character and dispositions. We rely, in reference to it, upon the operation of principles and motives, of the very existence of which, still more of their strength, we can have but uncertain proof; and which are besides liable to be counteracted by opposite ones.

Nor is it only in bold and rash adventures; in daring and intrepid deviations from the common track of business, that this takes place. It occurs in the most regular, safe, and common occupations. In the daily business of life we think it right and prudent to act, as if we had absolute certainty, where we have in fact nothing more, and perhaps even something less, than a high degree of probability; and we must proceed to act, if we will act at all, upon evidence, which leaves doubtful to a great degree the propriety, the tendency, and the result of our conduct.

In what manner, again, are we accustomed to seek and secure our wordly interest; and upon what kind of evidence are we willing, and do we think it safe to rely, in pursuing it? That we have any interest in all that is before us, is neither intuitively certain, nor capable of demonstration. We learn, that we have such an interest depending, by a course of moral reasoning. It is an induction from several particular things. It is an inference from our own past experience, and from the observation and ex

perience of others. Hence our expectations of the future, and our provisions for it. Our foresight is the result of calculations from the past, and is more or less perfect, according to the extent of our inquiries, and the care and fidelity with which they have been conducted. Upon such information is all the business of the world conducted, and all its interests are pursued.

We rely on the regular and stated order of things, and presume, that what has usually happened will happen again in similar cases.

We depend also on the general truth of human testimony, believing that we shall find the actual state of things, in any given case, substantially what it has been represented to be.

The husbandman expects the seasons to return in their usual order of succession, accompanied with their usual characteristics, and commits his seed to the ground in the spring with the hope of harvest in autumn; and plants in bis youth the tree, that is to yield fruit to his old age ; nor is deterred from either the one or the other by a consideration of numberless contingences, which may deseat his hopes and render his labour useless.

The merchant, relying on human testimony, ventures his property abroad, sends it to distant countries, which he has never visited ; and exposes it, and his person also, to winds and seas, the character of which he has learned, not from his own personal observation, but from the declarations of others. He is not afraid to put at risk all that he most values,--not his property only, but his safety, his liberty, even his earthly being; in the confidence, that he shall find the elements upon which he depends to transport him, such as they have been described ; and that the countries which he shall visit, and their climates,—the men that inhabit them, and their customs, manners, languages, wants, and dispositions, will answer to what he has been told respecting them.

In the most ordinary transactions in our social intercourse, what have, we to serve as a foundation for mutual confi. dence, but the credit which we give to human testimony? And on what do we place de pendance respecting the conduct of others, or the result that is to follow from the course of life, which we pursue ourselves, but calculations founded on experience, which may yet he fallacious : inferences drawn from the past, which we have learned to apply to the future?

How readily does every man, notwithstanding the risks to which it is exposed from imperfection of knowledge and imperfection of virtue in the judges, submit his cause to the decision of a court of justice ! Not only our property do we deem it safe thus to place at the disposal of others, but what is dearer, our liberty, our reputation, and our lives.

When sick, will you make no exertions for the recovery of health, because none can be made with the certainty of success ? Will you apply no remedy for the disease, because none is infallible? Will you ask no aid of the physician, because his skill is imperfect, and because the remedies, which he shall prescribe, will be of uncertain efficacy, liable to be misapplied, and when misapplied, liable to increase the disease instead of giving relief?

In poverty, do you cease from exertion to improve your condi. tion, and make no endeavours to extricate yourself from embar. rassment, because whatever efforts, you may make, they may fail of being successful, and even become instrumental in involving you in deeper ruin?

The food, which you shall take to allay the suffering of hun. ger, may generate a fatal disease, or may strangle or suffocate you in the act of receiving it. Will you then abstain and perish?

The cases might be multiplied without end, in wbich it is the condition of our being to be thus placed between alternatives, which require our acting upon imperfect knowledge. We are appointed to act, if we will act at all, where certainty is denied us, both as to the prudence and success, and as to the propriety of the course we shall pursue.

Can it be pretended that there is greater uncertainty on the subject of religion, than has just been stated in relation to the common business and interests of life? And if there be not, the reasonableness of listening to its evidence, and attending to its claims will not be questioned, and we must be convicted to our own consciences of a criminal inconsistency, if in such circumstances we are regardless of its claims and reject its evidence.

But there is a further view of the subject, which is not to be overlooked. The evidence of religion, besides being such as we are satisfied with, and constantly act upon in our other concerns, is such as were to be expected from the very nature of religion itself. The nature and design of religion require, that it should be offered upon such and only such evidence, as we are speaking of. Any other than moral proof, any that should leave no room for the exercise of moral freedom, any that should force assent, whatever were our will and disposition, as it must level all distinction of character, would be inconsistent with the ends of moral government. But religion necessarily implies moral government. There can be none without it. It implies that we are in a state of trial; of trial, which is both a discipline, and a probation of virtue. And it is certain, that so far as religion itself makes a part of our trial, so far'as it is presented to us, as a matter of free choice, and we are accountable for our choice, either as respects its reception, or its practice, there must be that in its Nero Series--vol. V.

-13

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

demands, or its evidence, which shall exercise the faculties, and furnish opportunity for the proof of attention and fidelity, and in general, for the manifestation of character.

If the demands of religion be such, as to call for the controul of any of the appetites and passions, or the natural affections ; such as to oblige us to forego present for future good; such as require us to give up that, which is apparent for that which is real; and in general compel us to lay a restraint upon our inclinations, and to bend them to a compliance with the will of God, and our sense of duty; so far bave we in the very substance of its duties the elements of our trial.

But all this, important as it is, can hardly be supposed to constitute the whole of human trial, so exceedingly partial must it prove to be, and unequal in different persons. In some, the conflict between sense and reason, appetite and intellect, passion and conscience, the animal and the rational and moral man, may be severe; in others it may amount to little or nothing. So exact in some men is the balance of the several parts of the constitution, that as to the external practice of virtue, it scarcely furnishes the occasion of discipline and trial at all. What they need is some trial of a different kind; something that shall serve as a test of their intellectual integrity; something that shall furnish the opportunity for manifesting, whether they will with fairness and honesty investigate the grounds of duty, weigh the evidence of truth, and submit to a laborious and patient inquiry, to ascertain what they are to believe, and how it is their duty to act.

Now trial of this kind is furnished by the nature of the evidence, ipon which the whole of religion rests. It is the trial of attention to the subject, which is presented to us in such a manner, as cappot but show, that we have a deep interest in it, to be secured by attention, or lost by neglect; a trial of diligence, that is, whether we will examine the subject so fully, as not to err through carelessness or neglect; a trial of our fairness and uprightness, ascertaining whether or not we will make an impartial estimate of the value of evidence, and accept and allow its just weight to such, both in kind and degree, as is applicable to the subject, and not requiring that, of which its nature is not susceptible.

This part of human probation, it is apparent, applies in some degree to all men; but chiefly 'to those, who are the least affected, and have their fidelity and obedience least exercised by the other and more ordinary circumstances of trial. It furnishes a test also of a higher kind. It gives opportunity likewise for the practice of some virtues, which could not exist, or not in the

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsæt »