Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

school. It educates the politician to bend the circumstances of general society to a conformity with those peculiar views which his own school has been pleased to sanction with the name of general principles, although those principles are in direct opposition to the tenets of other schools equally worthy. of credit and regard; and the contest is between the ipse dirit of one set of philosophers and the ipse dirit of another, rather than between the natural infirmity and selfishness of mankind, and that enlarged view of moral and religious philanthropy which can be drawn only from one source and sanctioned only by one reference. But it is upon the result of this last-mentioned contest that many important elementary principles in politics depend. Fully admitting, therefore, the usefulness of metaphysical inquiry as a means of intellectual exertion, and as an instrument for promoting what its advocates are pleased to term “the progress of mind,” I do not think that a writer can be fairly said to undervalue it, although he may wish to qualify the insinuation of one of its ablest and most eloquent professors, that the “diffusion of the philosophical spirit," and its “application to the natural or theoretical history of society, to the history of the languages, the arts, the sciences, the laws, the government, the manners, and the religion of man

kind, form the peculiar glory of the latter half of the eighteenth century.” + -

[ocr errors]

Now the practical efficacy of the two last-mentioned objects (if not of the two which precede them,) upon the welfare of mankind does not upon the whole appear to have been promoted by the philosophical spirit of the latter half of the last century. It may therefore be doubted how far a just view has yet been taken of their “natural or theoretical history.” Are we in fact authorized by history, experience, or revelation, exclusively to rest our hopes of moral and religious improvement, or in many cases even of political amelioration, upon the bare cultivation of our intellectual faculties And is not that system peculiarly liable to abuse in its application which confines those offices to the improvement of the understanding, the full discharge of which must at least be aided by a reformation of the heart, and by the abandonment of the selfish principles of our nature; operations which lie beyond the scope of mere intellectual exertion ? It may be perfectly true that in arts and sciences, on which men reason with minds comparatively unprejudiced, and where the conclusions themselves are the result of strict induction from facts previously demonstrated, every new fact or established argument is a solid addition to our knowledge, and serves as a stepping-stone to further acquisitions. Bu every man at all in the habit of reflecting upon moral evidence, is aware that moral and political truths rest upon principles very different from those by which scientific truths are established. The assent of the mind is with difficulty obtained by

[ocr errors]

reasoning alone to conclusions resting upon premises which we cannot investigate to the bottom, and which frequently run counter to the natural and selfish dispositions of mankind. Neither can propositions thus supported furnish ground for the establishment of further truths; for, as it has been well observed, “the first conclusion not being universally true, but true only in a certain proportion, out of a given number of cases, we are in danger of building our second process of reasoning on one of those cases in which it may fail. In our third process we run two risks of assuming a false ground; and in our fourth process we run three, and so on : whence it is evident that it cannot be completely safe to proceed more than one step; or, to place this matter in a plainer light, the first conclusion is not certainly but only probably true. The second will be probable only on a supposition that the first should in the event prove true; that is, it is only a probability of a probability: and the third conclusion will be probable only on a supposition that both the former should prove true; i. e. it is the probability of a probability of a probability. Thus in the progress, the uncertainty of the conclusion is continually increasing.” TNow that this is true of moral reasoning, (except in so far as it depends upon revelation,) does not, I think, admit of doubt. It appears equally true of all inquiries determinable by mere moral evidence. Hence the impossibility, on any authority less than that of revelation, of establishing general principles in those inquiries; and also the notorious fact, that what have in their day been called such have frequently turned out in the end to be nothing else but mischievous delusions. That it also applies to all argument upon natural religion, or that knowledge of God and his will which can be acquired by the unassisted operation of human reason, or by “the progress of mind,” seems equally clear. Hence the fanciful and immoral systems which from time to time have been invested with the name and character of religion. To the same causes may perhaps be ascribed the little service which the progress of metaphysical inquiry seems to have hitherto rendered to the cause of Revelation, or that it can ever be expected to render to that cause, so long as its professors persist in substituting a mass of doubtful conclusions for the certain dictates of revealed truth, instead of explaining and enforcing those dictates where they are plainly applicable to the subject under inquiry. In opposition to these systems of investigation, an attempt has certainly been made in the course of the following pages to add to the proofs already existing, that (at least in the elements of society, considered either in its “natural or theoretical history,” or in its actual progress,) political truth can only be discovered with certainty, and political improvement will, therefore, be most surely promoted, where a clear reference can be made to morals; and that moral truth and improvement depend in like manner upon a reference to Revelation. Thus, within the limited extent to which the following inquiry reaches, we may aid our political researches by referring to an unerring standard upon many questions, which must otherwise, by their very nature, be for ever suspended in the fluctuating balance of doubt and controversy. Upon the rest we must perhaps be satisfied to remain in that state of uncertainty to which the con

tingencies of human affairs, in the varieties incident

to their progress, have hitherto condemned the most enlightened conclusions of mere human reasoning.

« ForrigeFortsett »