An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance
By John Foster.
Revised and Enlarged Edition.
"A Work, which, popular and admired as it confessedly is, has never met with the thousandth part of the attention which it deserves. It appears to me that we are now at a crisis in the state of our country, and of the world, which renders the reasonings and exhortations of that eloquent production applicable and urgent beyond all power of mine to express."
Dr. J. Pye Smith.
If the circumstance of a manner of introduction somewhat different from what would be expected in a composition of the essay class were worth a very few words of explanation, it might be mentioned, that the following production has grown out of the topics of a discourse, delivered at a public anniversary meeting in aid of the British and Foreign School Society.
When it was thought, a good while after that occasion, that a more extensive use might be made of some of the observations, the writing was begun in the form of a Discourse addressed to an assembly, and commencing with a sentence from the Bible, to serve as a general indication to the subject. But after some progress had been made, it became evident that anything like a comprehensive view of that subject would be incompatible with the proper limits of such a composition.
In relinquishing, however, the form of a public address, the writer thought he might be excused for leaving some traces of that character to remain, in both the cast of expression and the theological sentiment; for reverting repeatedly to the sentence from Scripture; and for continuing the use of the plural pronoun, so commodious for the modest egotism of public discoursers.
In the general design and course of observations, the essay retains the character of the original discourse, which was, in accordance to the presumed expectations of a grave assembly, an attempt to display the importance of the education of the people in reference, mainly, to moral and religious interests. There are special relations in which their ignorance or cultivation are of great consequence to the welfare of the community. Some of these are of indispensable consideration to the legislator, and to the political economist. But it is in that general and moral view, in which ignorance in the lower orders is beheld the cause of their vice, irreligion, and consequent misery, that the subject is attempted, imperfectly and somewhat desultorily, to be illustrated in the following pages.
Nor was it within the writer's design to suggest any particular plans, regulations, or instrumental expedients, in promotion of the system of operations hopefully begun, for raising these classes from their degradation. His part has been to make such a prominent representation of the calamitous effects of their ignorance, as shall prove it an aggravated national guilt to allow another generation to grow up to the same condition as the present and the past. In the course of attempting this, occasions have been seized of exposing the absurdity of those who are hostile to the mental improvement of the people. If any one should say that this is a mere beating of the air, for that all such hostility is now gone by, he may be assured there are many persons, of no insignificant rank in society, who would from their own consciousness smile at the simplicity with which he can so easily shape men's opinions and dispositions to his mind whether they will or not. He must have been the most charitable or the most obtuse of observers.
It is feared the readers of the following essay will find some defect of distribution and arrangement. To the candor of those who are practised in literary work it would be an admissible plea, that when, in a preparation to meet a particular occasion for which but little time has been allowed, a series of topics and observations has been hastily sketched out, it is far from easy to throw them afterwards into a different order. The author has to bespeak indulgence also, here and there, to something too like repetition. If he qualifies the terms in which this fault is acknowledged, it is because he thinks that, though there be a recurrence of similarities, a mere bare iteration is avoided, by means of a diversity and addition of the matter of illustration and enforcement.
Any benevolent writer on the subject would wish he could treat it without such frequent use of the phrases, "lower orders," "subordinate classes," "inferior portion of society," and other expressions of the same kind; because they have an invidious sound, and have indeed very often been used in contempt. He can only say, that he uses them with no such feeling; that they are employed simply as the most obvious terms of designation; and that he would like better to employ any less ungracious ones that did not require an affected circumlocution.
In several parts of the essay, there will be found a language of emphatic censure on that conduct of states, that predominant spirit and system in the administration of the affairs of nations, by which the people have been consigned to such a deplorable condition of intellectual and consequently moral degradation, while resources approaching to immensity have been lavished on objects of vanity and ambition. So far from feeling that such observations can require any apology, the writer thinks it is high time for all the advocates of intellectual, moral, and religious improvement, to raise a protesting voice against that policy of the states denominated Christian, and especially our own, which has, through age after age, found every conceivable thing necessary to be done, at all costs and hazards, rather than to enlighten, reform, and refine the people. He thinks that nothing can more strongly betray a judgment enslaved, or a time-serving dishonesty, in those who would assume to dictate to such an advocate and to censure him, than that sort of doctrine which tells him that it is beside his business, and out of his sphere, as a Christian moralist, to animadvert on the conduct of national authorities, when he sees them, during one long period of time after another, not doing that which is the most important of all things to be done for the people over whom they preside, but doing what is in substance and effect the reverse; and doing it on that great scale, which contrasts so fearfully with the small one, on which the individuals who deplore such perversion of power are confined to attempt a remedy of the consequences.
This interdiction comes with its worst appearance when it is put forth in terms affecting a profound reverence of religion; a reverence which cannot endure that so holy a thing should be defiled, by being brought in any contact with such a subject as the disastrous effect of bad government, on the intellectual and moral state of the people. The advocate of schemes for the improvement of their rational nature may, it seems, take his ground, his strongest ground, on religion, for enforcing on individuals the duty of promoting such an object. In the name and authority of religion he may press on their consciences with respect to the application of their property and influence; and he may adopt under its sanction a strongly judicial language in censure of their negligence, their insensibility to their accountableness, and their lavish expenditures foreign to the most Important uses: in all this he does well. But the instant he begins to make the like judicial application of its laws to the public conduct of the governing authorities, that instant he debases Christianity to politics, most likely to party-politics; and a pious horror is affected at the profanation. Christianity is to be honored somewhat after the same manner as the Lama of Thibet. It is to stay in its temple, to have the proprieties of homage duly preserved within its precincts, but to be exempted (in reverence of its sanctity!) from all cognizance of great public affairs, even in the points where they most interfere with or involve its interests. It could show, perhaps, in what manner the administration of those affairs injures these interests; but it would degrade its sacred character by talking of any such matter. But Christianity must have leave to decline the sinister compliment of such pretended anxiety to preserve it immaculate. As to its sacred character, it can venture that, on the strength of its intrinsic quality and of its own guardianship, while, regardless of the limits thus attempted in mock reverence to be prescribed, it steps in a censorial capacity on what will be called a political ground, so far as to take account of what concern has been shown, or what means have been left disposable, for operations to promote the grand essentials of human welfare, by that public system which has grasped and expended the strength of the community, Christianity is not so demure a thing that it cannot, without violating its consecrated character, go into the exercise of this judicial office. And as to its right to do so,—either it has a right to take cognizance now of the manner in which the spirit and measures of states and their regulators bear upon the most momentous interests, or it will have no right to be brought forward as the supreme law for the final award on those proceedings and those men. [Footnote: A censure on this alleged desecration of religious topics, which had been pronounced on the Essay (first edit.) by a Review making no small pretensions both religious and literary, was the immediate cause that prompted these observations. But they were made with a general reference to a hypocritical cant much in vogue at that time, and long before. That it was hypocritical appeared plainly enough from the circumstance, that those solemn rebukes of the profanation of religion, by implicating it with political affairs, smote almost exclusively on one side. Let the religious moralist, or the preacher, amalgamate religion as largely as he pleased with the proper sort of political sentiments, that is, the servile, and then it was all right.]
It is now more than twenty years since a national plan of education for the inferior classes, was brought forward by Mr. (now Lord) Brougham. The announcement of such a scheme from such an Author, was received with hope and delight by those who had so long deplored the condition of those classes. But when it was formally set forth, its administrative organization appeared so defective in liberal comprehension, so invidiously restricted and accommodated to the prejudices and demands of one part of the community, that another great division, the one in which zeal and exertions for the education of the people had been more and longer conspicuous, was constrained to make an instant and general protest against it. And at the same time it was understood, that the party in whose favor it had been so inequitably constructed, were displeased at even the very small reserve it made from their monopoly of jurisdiction. It speedily fell to the ground, to the extreme regret of the earnest friends of popular reformation that a design of so much original promise should have come to nothing.
All legislative consideration of the subject went into abeyance; and has so remained, with trifling exception, through an interval in which far more than a million, in England alone, of the children who were at that time within that stage of their life on which chiefly a general scheme would have acted, have grown up to animal maturity, destitute of all that can, in any decent sense of the word, be called education. Think of the difference between their state as it is, and what it might have been if there had at that time existed patriotism, liberality, and moral principle, enough to enact and carry into effect a comprehensive measure. The longer the neglect the more aggravated the pressure with which the subject returns upon us. It is forcing itself on attention with a demand as peremptory as ever was the necessity of an embankment against the peril of inundation. There are no indications to make us sanguine as to the disposition of the most influential classes; but it were little less than infatuation not to see the necessity of some extraordinary proceeding, to establish a fortified line between us and—not national dishonor; that is flagrantly upon us, but—the destruction of national safety.
As to national dishonor, by comparison with what may be seen elsewhere, it is hardly possible for a patriot to feel a more bitter mortification than in reading the description, as recently given by M. Cousin, of the state of education in the Prussian dominions, and then looking over the hideous exhibition of ignorance and barbarism in this country; in representing to himself the vernal intelligence, (as we may rightly name it,) the information, the sense of decorum, the fitness for rational converse, which must quite inevitably diffuse a value and grace throughout the general youthful character under such a discipline, and then changing his view to what may be seen all over his own country—an incalculable and ever-increasing tribe of human creatures, growing up in a condition to show what a wretched and offensive thing is human nature left to itself.
When neither opprobrium, nor prospective policy, nor sense of duty, can constrain the attention of the officially and virtually ruling part of society to an important national interest, it is sure to come on them at last in some more alarming and imperative manifestation. The present and very recent times have afforded significant indication of what an ignorant populace are capable of believing, and of being successfully instigated to perpetrate. It is not to be pretended that such ignorance, and such liabilities to mischief, exist only in particular spots of the land, as if the local outbreaks were merely incidental and insulated facts, standing out of community with anything widely pervading the mass. Within but very few years of the present date, we have had the spectacle of millions, literally millions, of the people of England, yielding an absolute credence to the most monstrous delusions respecting public questions and measures, imposed on them by dishonest artifice, and what may be called moral incendiarism; and these delusions of a nature to excite the passions of the multitude to crime. It is difficult to believe that all this can be seen without serious apprehension, by those who sustain the primary responsibility for devising measures to secure the national safety, (that we may take the lowest term of national welfare;) and that they can be content to rest that security on expedients which, in keeping the people in order, make them no wiser or better. It would truly be a glorious change in our history, if we might at length see the national power wielded by enlightened, virtuous, and energetic spirits, not only to the bare effect of withstanding disorder and danger, but in a resolute, invincible determination to redeem us from the national ignominy of exhibiting to the world, far in the nineteenth century, a rude, unprincipled, semi-barbarous populace.
Thus far the hopes which had flattered us with such a change, as a consequence of a political movement so considerable as to be denominated a revolution, have been grievously disappointed. We must wait, but with prognostics little encouraging, to see whether a professed concern for popular education will result in any effective scheme. That profession has hitherto been followed up with so little appearance of earnest conviction, or of high and comprehensive purpose, among the majority of the influential persons who, perhaps for decorum's sake, have made it, as to leave cause for apprehension that, if any such scheme were to be proposed, it would be in the first instance very limited in its compass, indecisive in its enforcement, and niggardly in its pecuniary appointments. Many of our legislators have never thought of investigating the condition of the people, and are unaware of their deplorable destitution of all mental cultivation; and many have formed but a low and indistinct estimate of the kind and measure of cultivation desirable to be imparted. Very slowly does the conviction or the desire make its way among the favorites of fortune, that the portion of humanity so far below them should be raised to the highest mental condition compatible with the limitation and duties of their subordinate allotment.
No doubt, the most genuine zeal for the object would find difficulties in the way, of a magnitude to require a great and persevering exertion of power, were they only those opposed by the degraded condition of the people themselves; by the utter carelessness of one part, and the intractableness of another. Nor is it to be denied, that the differences of religious opinion, among the promoters of the design, must create considerable difficulty as to the mode and extent of religious instruction, to form a part of a comprehensive system. But we are told, besides, of we know not what obstruction to be encountered from prejudices of prescription, privileged and peculiar interests, the jealous pride of venerable institutions, assumed rights of station and rank, punctilios of precedence, the tenacity of parties who find their advantage in things as they are, and so forth; all to be deferentially consulted.
If this mean that the old horror of a bold experimental novelty is still to be yielded to; that nothing in this so urgent affair is to be ventured but in a creeping inch-by-inch movement; that the reign of gross ignorance, with all its attendant vices, is to be allowed a very leisurely retreat, retaining its hold on a large portion of the present and following generations of the children, and therefore the adults; that their condition and fate shall be mainly left at the discretion of ignorant and often worthless parents; that there shall be no considerable positive exaction of local provision for the institution, or of attendance of those who should be benefited by it; that, in short, there shall not be a comprehensive application of the national power through its organ, the government, by authoritative, and, we must say, in some degree coercive measures, to abate as speedily as possible the national nuisance and calamity of such a state of the juvenile faculties and habits as we see glaring around us; and all this because homage is demanded to anticipated prejudices, selfishness of privilege, venerable institutions, pride of station, jealousy of the well-endowed, and the like:—if this be what is meant, we may well ask whether these factitious prerogatives, that would thus interfere to render feeble, partial, and slow, any projected exertion to rescue the nation from barbarism, turpitude, and danger, be not themselves among the most noxious things in the land, and the most deserving to be extirpated.
How readily will the proudest descend to the plea of impotence when the exhortation is to something which they care not for or dislike, but to which, at the same time, it would be disreputable to avow any other than the most favorable sentiments, to be duly expressed in the form of great regret that the thing is impracticable. Impracticable—and does the case come at last to be this, that from one cause and another, from the arrogance of the high and the untowardness of the low, the obstinacy of prejudice, and the rashness of innovation, the dissensions among friends of a beneficent design and the discountenance of those who are no better than enemies, a mighty state, triumphantly boasting of every other kind of power, absolutely cannot execute a scheme for rescuing its people from being what a great Authority on this subject has pronounced "the worst educated nation in Europe?" Then let it submit, with all its pomp, pride, and grandeur, to stand in derision and proverb on the face of the earth.
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With a view to a wider circulation than that which is limited by the price of the volume published in an expensive form and style of printing, it has been deemed advisable to publish a cheap edition of the "Essay on Popular Ignorance." It is not in any degree an abridgment of the preceding edition; the only omission, of the slightest consequence, being in a few places where changes have been rendered necessary by the subsequent conduct of our national authorities, as affecting our speculations and prospects in relation to general education; while, on the other hand, there are numerous little additions and corrections, in attempts to bring out the ideas more fully, or with some little afterthought of discrimination or exception. In some instances the connection and dependence of the series of thoughts have been rendered more obvious, and the sentences reduced to a somewhat more simple and compact construction; but the principal object in this final revised has been literary correction, without any material enlargement or change.
It is hoped that this reprint in a popular form may serve the purpose of contributing something, in co-operation with the present exertions, to expose, and partially remedy, the lamentable and nationally disgraceful ignorance to which the people of our country have been so long abandoned.
Defect of sensibility in the view of the unhappiness of mankind. —Ignorance one grand cause of that unhappiness.—Ignorance prevalent among the ancient Jewish people.—Its injurious operation—and ultimately destructive consequence.—More extended consideration of ignorance as the cause of misery among the ancient heathens.
Brief review of the ignorance prevailing through the ages subsequent to those of ancient history.—State of the popular mind in Christendom during the complete reign of Popery.—Supposed reflections of a Protestant in one of our ancient splendid structures for ecclesiastical use.—Slow progress of the Reformation, in its effects on the understandings of the people.—Their barbarous ignorance even in the time of Elizabeth, notwithstanding the intellectual and literary glories of this country in that period.—Sunk in ignorance still in what has often been called our Augustan age.—Strange insensibility of the cultivated part of the nation with regard to the mental and moral condition of the rest.—Almost heathen ignorance of religion at the time when Whitefield and Wesley began to excite the attention of the multitude to that subject.—Signs and means of a change for the better in recent times.
Great ignorance and debasement still manifest in various features of the popular character.—Entire want, in early life, of any idea of a general and comprehensive purpose to be pursued—Gratification of the senses the chief good.—Cruelty a subsidiary resource.—Disposition to cruelty displayed and confirmed by common practices.—Confirmed especially by the manner of slaughtering animals destined for food.—Displayed in the abuse of the laboring animals.—General characteristic of the people an indistinct and faint sense of right and wrong.—Various exemplifications.—Dishonor to our country that the people should have remained in such a condition.—Effects of their ignorance as appearing in several parts of the economy of life; in their ordinary occupations; in their manner of spending their leisure time, including the Sunday; in the state of domestic society; consequences of this last as seen in the old age of parents.—The lower classes placed by their want of education out of amicable communication with the higher.—Unhappy and dangerous consequences of this.—Great decline of the respect which in former times the people felt toward the higher classes and the existing order of the community.—Progress of a contrary spirit.
Objection, that a material increase of knowledge and intelligence among the people would render them unfit for their station, and discontented with it; would excite them to insubordination and arrogance toward their superiors; and make them the more liable to be seduced by the wild notions and pernicious machinations of declaimers, schemers, and innovators.—Observations in answer.—Special and striking absurdity of this objection in one important particular.—Evidence from matter of fact that the improvement of the popular understanding has not the tendency alleged.—The special regard meant to be had to religious instruction in the education desired for the lower classes, a security against their increased knowledge being perverted into an excitement to insubordination and disorder.—Absurdity of the notion that an improved education of the common people ought to consist of instruction specifically and almost solely religious.—The diminutive quantity of religious as well as other knowledge to which the people would be limited by some zealous advocates of order and subordination utterly inadequate to secure those objects.—But, question what is to be understood by order and subordination.—Increased knowledge and sense in the people certainly not favorable to a credulous confidence and a passive, unconditional submission, on their part, toward the presiding classes in the community.—Advantage, to a wise and upright government, of having intelligent subjects.—Great effect which a general improvement among the people would necessarily have on the manner of their being governed.—The people arrived, in this age, at a state which renders it impracticable to preserve national tranquillity without improving their minds and making some concession to their claims.—Folly and probable calamity of an obstinate resolution to maintain subordination in the nations of Europe in the arbitrary and despotic manner of former times.—Facility and certain success of a better system.
Extreme poverty of religious knowledge among the uneducated people: their notions respecting God, Providence, Jesus Christ, the invisible world.—Fatal effect of their want of mental discipline as causing an inaptitude to receive religious information.—Exemplifications,—in a supposed experiment of religious instruction in a friendly visit to a numerous uneducated family; in the stupidity and thoughtlessness often betrayed in attendance on public religious services; in the impossibility of imparting religious truths, with any degree of clearness, to ignorant persons, when alarmed into some serious concern by sickness; in the insensibility and invincible delusion sometimes retained in the near approach to death.—Rare instances of the admirable efficacy of religion to animate and enlarge the faculties, even in the old age of an ignorant man.—Excuses for the intellectual inaptitude and perversion of uncultivated religious minds.—Animadversions on religious teachers.
Supposed method of verifying the preceding representation of the ignorance of the people.—Renewed expressions of wonder and mortification that this should be the true description of the English nation.—Prodigious exertions of this nation for the accomplishment of objects foreign to the improvement of the people.—Effects which might have resulted from far less exertion and resources applied to that object.—The contrast between what has been done, and what might have been done by the exertion of the national strength, exposed in a series of parallel representations.—Total unconcern, till a recent period, of the generality of persons in the higher classes respecting the mental state of the populace.—Indications of an important change in the manner of estimating them.—Measures attempted and projected for their improvement.—Some of these measures and methods insignificant in the esteem of projectors of merely political schemes for the amendment of the popular condition.—But questions to those projectors on the efficacy of such schemes.—Most desirable, nevertheless, that the political systems and the governing powers of states could be converted to promote so grand a purpose.—But expostulations addressed to those who, desponding of this aid, despond therefore of the object itself.—Incitement to individual exertion.—Reference to the sublimest Example.—Imputation of extravagant hope.—Repelled; first, by a full acknowledgment how much the hopes of sober-minded projectors of improvement are limited by what they see of the disorder in the essential constitution of our nature; and next, by a plain statement, in a series of particulars, of what they nevertheless judge it rational to expect from a general extension of good education.—Answer to the question, whether it be presumed that any merely human discipline can reduce its subjects under the predominance of religion.—Answer to the inquiry, what is the extent of the knowledge of which it is desired to put the common people in possession.—Observations on supposed degrees of possible advancement of the knowledge and welfare of the community; with reflections of astonishment and regret at the actual state of ignorance, degradation, and wretchedness, after so many thousand years have passed away.—Congratulatory notice of those worthy individuals who have been rescued from the consequences of a neglected education by their own resolute mental exertions.
Essay on Popular Ignorance.
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."
It may excite in us some sense of wonder, and perhaps of self-reproach, to reflect with what a stillness and indifference of the mind we can hear and repeat sentences asserting facts which are awful calamities. And this indifference is more than the accidental and transient state, which might prevail at seasons of peculiar heaviness or languor. The self-inspector will often be compelled to acknowledge it as a symptom and exemplification of the habit of his mind, that ideas of extensive misery and destruction, though expressed in the plainest, strongest language, seem to come with but a faint glimmer on his apprehension, and die away without awakening one emotion of that sensibility which so many comparatively trifling causes can bring into exercise.
Will the hearers of the sentence just now repeated from the sacred book, give a moment's attention to the effect it has on them? We might suppose them accosted with the question, Would you find it difficult to say what idea, or whether anything distinct enough to deserve the name of an idea, has been impressed by the sound of words bearing so melancholy a significance? And would you have to confess, that they excite no interest which would not instantly give place to that of the smallest of your own concerns, occurring to your thoughts; or would not leave free the tendency to wander loose among casual fancies; or would not yield to feelings of the ludicrous, at the sight of any whimsical incident? It would not probably be unfair to suspect such faintness of apprehension, and such unfixedness and indifference of thought, in the majority of any large number of persons, though drawn together ostensibly to attend to matters of gravest concern. And perhaps many of the most serious of them would acknowledge it requires great and repeated efforts, to bring themselves to such a contemplative realization of an important subject, that it shall lay hold on the affections, though it should press on them, as in the present instance, with facts and reflections of a nature the most strongly appealing to a mournful sensibility.
That the "people are destroyed," is perceived to have the sound of a lamentable declaration. But its import loses all force of significance in falling on a state of feeling which, if resolvable into distinct sentiments, would be expressed to some such effect as this:—that the people's destruction, in whatever sense of the word, is, doubtless, a deplorable thing, but quite a customary and ordinary matter, the prevailing fact, indeed, in the general state of this world; that, in truth, it would seem as if they were made but to be destroyed, for that they have constantly been, in all imaginable ways, the subjects of destruction; that, subjected in common with all living corporeal beings to the doom of death, and to a fearful diversity of causes tending to inflict it, they have also appeared, through their long sad history, consigned to a spiritual and moral destruction, if that term be applicable to a condition the reverse of wisdom, goodness, and happiness; that, in short, such a sentence as that cited from the prophet, is too merely an expression of what has been always and over the whole world self-evident, to excite any particular attention or emotion.
Thus the destruction, in every sense of the word, of human creatures, is so constantly obvious, as mingled and spread throughout the whole system, that the mind has been insensibly wrought to that protective obtuseness which (like the thickness of the natural clothing of animals in rigorous climates) we acquire in defence of our own ease, against the aggrievance of things which inevitably continue in our presence. An instinctive policy to avoid feeling with respect to this prevailing destruction, has so effectually taught us how to maintain the exemption, by all the requisite sleights of overlooking, diverting, forgetting, and admitting deceptive maxims of palliation, that the art or habit is become almost mechanical. When fully matured, it appears like a wonderful adventitious faculty—a power of evading the sight, of not seeing, what is obviously and glaringly presented to view on all sides. There is, indeed, a dim general recognition that such things are; the hearing of a bold denial of their existence, would give an instant sense of absurdity, which would provoke a pointed attention to them, the more perfectly to verify their reality; and the perception how real and dreadful they are, might continue distinct as long as we were in the spirit of contradicting and exploding that absurd denial; but, in the ordinary state of feeling, the mind preserves an easy dulness of apprehension toward the melancholy vision, and sees it as if it saw it not.
This fortified insensibility may, indeed, be sometimes broken in upon with violence, by the sudden occurrence of some particular instance of human destruction, in either import of the word, some example of peculiar aggravation, or happening under extraordinary and striking circumstances, or very near us in place or interest. An emotion is excited of pity, or terror, or horror; so strong, that if the person so affected has been habitually thoughtless, and has no wish to be otherwise, he fears he shall never recover his state of careless ease; or, if of a more serious disposition, thinks it impossible he can ever cease to feel an awful and salutary effect. This more serious person perhaps also thinks it must be inevitable that henceforward his feelings will be more alive to the miseries of mankind. But how obstinate is an inveterate habitual state of the mind against any single impressions made in contravention to it! Both the thoughtless and the more reflective man may probably find, that a comparatively short lapse of time suffices, to relieve them from anything more than slight momentary reminiscences of what had struck them with such painful force, and to restore, in regard to the general view of the acknowledged misery of the human race, nearly the accustomed tranquillity. The course of feeling resembles a listless stream of water, which, after being dashed into commotion, by a massive substance flung into it, or by its precipitation at a rapid, relapses, in the progress of a few fathoms and a few moments, into its former sluggishness of current.
But is it well that this should be the state of feeling, in the immediate presence of the spectacle exhibiting the people under a process of being destroyed? There must be a great and criminal perversion from what our nature ought to be, in a tranquillity to which it makes no material difference whether they be destroyed or saved; a tranquillity which would hardly, perhaps, have been awaked to an effort of intercession at the portentous sign of destruction revealed to the sight of Ornan; or which might at the deluge have permitted the privileged patriarch to sink in a soft slumber, at the moment when the ark was felt to be moving from its ground. If the original rectitude of that nature had been retained by any individual, he would be confounded to conceive how creatures having their lot cast in one place, so near together, so much alike, and under such a complication of connections and dependences, can yet really be so insulated, as that some of them may behold, with immovable composure, innumerable companies of the rest in such a condition, that it had been better for them not to have existed.
To such a condition a vast multitude have been consigned by "the lack of knowledge." And we have to appeal concerning them to whatever there is of benevolence and conscience, in those who deem themselves happy instances of exemption from this deplorable consignment; and are conscious that their state of inestimable privilege is the result, under the blessing of heaven, of the reception of information, of truth, into their minds.
If it were suggested to the well instructed in our companies to take an account of the benefit they have received through the medium of knowledge, they would say they do not know where to begin the long enumeration, or how to bring into one estimate so ample a diversity of good. It might be something like trying to specify, in brief terms, what a highly improved portion of the ground, in a tract rude and sterile if left to itself, has received from cultivation; an attempt which would carry back the imagination through a progression of states and appearances, in which the now fertile spots, and picture-like scenes, and commodious passes, and pleasant habitations, may or must have existed in the advance from the original rudeness. The estimate of what has ultimately been effected, rises at each stage in this retrospect of the progress, in which so many valuable changes and additions still require to be followed by something more, to complete the scheme of improvement. In thus tracing backward the condition of a now fair and productive place of human dwelling and subsistence, it may easily be recollected, what a vast number of the earth's inhabitants there are whose places of dwelling are in all those states of worse cultivation and commodiousness, and what multitudes leading a miserable and precarious life amidst the inhospitableness of the waste, howling wilderness. Each presented circumstance of fertility or shelter, salubrity or beauty, may be named as what is wanting to a much greater number of the occupants of the world, than those to whom the "lines are fallen in such pleasant places."
When, in like manner, a person richly possessed of the benefits imparted by means of knowledge, finds, in attempting to recount them, that they rise so fast on his view, in their variety, combinations, and gradations from less to greater, as to overpower his computing faculty, he may be reminded that this account of his wealth is, in truth, that of many other men's poverty. And if, while these benefits are coming so numerously in his sight, like an irregular crowd of loaded fruit-trees, one partially seen behind the offered luxury of another, and others still descried, through intervals, in the distance, he can imagine them all devastated and swept away from him, leaving him in a scene of mental desolation,—and if he shall then consider that nearly such is the state of the great multitude,—he will surely feel that a deep compassion is due to so depressed a condition of existence. And how strongly is its infelicity shown by the very circumstance, that a being who is himself but very imperfectly enlightened, and who is exposed to sorrow and doomed to death, is nevertheless in a state to be able to look down upon the victims of the "lack of knowledge" with profound commiseration. The degree of pity is the measure of a conscious superiority.
We may say to persons so favored,—If knowledge has been made the cause that you are, beyond all comparison, better qualified to make the short sojourn on this earth to the greatest advantage, think what a fatal thing that must be which condemns so many, whose lot is contemporary and in vicinity with yours to pass through the most precious possibilities of good unprofited, and at last to look back on life as a lost adventure. If through knowledge you have been introduced into a new and superior world of ideas and realities, and your intellectual being has there been brought into exercise among the highest interests, and into communication with the noblest objects, think of that condition of the soul to which this better economy has no existence. If knowledge rendered efficacious has become, in your minds, the light and joy of the Christian faith and hope, look at the state of those, whose minds have never been cultivated to an ability to entertain the principles of religious truth, even as mere intellectual notions. You would not for the wealth of an empire consent to descend, were it possible, from the comparative elevation to which you have been raised by means of knowledge, into melancholy region of spirits abandoned to ignorance.
But in this situation have the mass of the people been, from the time of the prophet whose words we have cited, down to this hour.
The prophets had their exalted privilege of dwelling amidst the illuminations of heaven effectually countervailed, as to any elation of feeling it might have imparted, by the grief of beholding the daily spectacle of the grossest manifestations and mischiefs of ignorance among the people, for the very purpose of whose exemption from that ignorance it was that they bore the sacred office. One of the most striking of the characteristics by which their writings so forcibly seize the imagination is, a strange continual fluctuation and strife of lustre and gloom, produced by the intermingling and contrast of the emanations from the Spirit of infinite wisdom, with those proceeding from the dark, debased souls of the people. We are tempted to pronounce that nation not only the most perverse, but the most unintelligent and stupid of all human tribes. The revealed law of God in the midst of them; the prophets and other organs of oracular communication; religious ordinances and emblems; facts, made and expressly intended to embody truths, in long and various series; the whole system of their superhuman government, constituted as a school—all these were ineffectual to create so much just thought in their minds, as to save them from the vainest and the vilest delusions and superstitions.
But, indeed, this very circumstance, that knowledge shone on them from Him who knows all things, may in part account for an intellectual perverseness that appears so peculiar and marvellous. The nature of man is in such a moral condition, that anything is the less acceptable for coming directly from God; it being quite consistent, that the state of mind which is declared to be "enmity against him," should have a dislike to his coming so near, as to impart his communications by his immediate act, bearing on them the fresh and sacred impression of his hand. The supplies for man's temporal being are conveyed to him through an extended medium, through a long process of nature and art, which seems to place the great First Cause at a commodious distance; and those gifts are, on that account, more welcome, on the whole, than if they were sent as the manna to the Israelites. The manna itself might not have been so soon loathed, had it been produced in what we call the regular course of nature. And with respect to the intellectual communications which were given to constitute the light of knowledge in their souls, there can, on the same principle, be no doubt that the people would more willingly have opened their minds to receive them and exercise the thinking faculties on them, if they could have appeared as something originating in human wisdom, or at least as something which, though primarily from a divine origin, had been long surrendered by the Revealer, to maintain itself in the world by the authority of reason only, like the doctrines worked out from mere human speculation. But truth that was declared to them, and inculcated on them, through a continual immediate manifestation of the Sovereign Intelligence, had a glow of Divinity (if we may so express it) that was unspeakably offensive to their minds, which therefore receded with instinctive recoil, They were averse to look toward that which they could not see without seeing God; and thus they were hardened in ignorance, through a reaction of human depravity against the too luminous approach of the Divine presence to give them wisdom.
But in whatever degree the case might be thus, as to the cause, the fact is evident, that the Jewish people were not more remarkable for their pre-eminence in privilege, than for their grossness of mental vision under a dispensation specially and miraculously constituted and administered to enlighten them. The sacred history of which they are the subject, exhibits every mode in which the intelligent faculties may evade or frustrate the truth presented to them; every way in which the decided preference for darkness may avail to defy what might have been presumed to be irresistible irradiations; every perversity of will which renders men as accountable and criminal for being ignorant as for acting against knowledge; and every form of practical mischief in which the natural tendency of ignorance, especially wilful ignorance, is shown. A great part of what the devout teachers of that people had to address to them, wherever they appeared among them, was in reproach of their ignorance, and in order, if possible, to dispel it. And were we to indulge our fancy in picturing the forms and circumstances in which it was encountered by those teachers, we might be sure of not erring much by figuring situations very similar to what might occur in much later and nearer states of society. If we should imagine one of these good and wise instructors going into a promiscuous company of the people, and asking them, with a view at once to see into their minds and inform them, say, ten plain questions, relative to matters somewhat above the ordinary secular concerns of life, but essential for them to understand, it would be a quite probable supposition that he did not obtain from the whole company rational answers to more than three, or two, or even one, of those questions; notwithstanding that every one of them might be designedly so framed, as to admit of an easy reply from the most prominent of the dictates of the "law and the prophets," and from the right application of the memorable facts in the national history of the Jews. In his earlier experiments he might be supposed very reluctant to admit the fact, that so many of his countrymen, in one spot, could have been so faithfully maintaining the ascendency of darkness in their spirits, while surrounded by divine manifestations of truth. He might be willing to suspect he had not been happy in the form of words in which his queries had been conveyed. But it may be believed that all his changes and adaptations of expression, to elicit from the contents of his auditors' understandings something fairly answering to his questions, might but complete the proof that the thing sought was not there. And while he might be looking from one to another, with regret not unmingled with indignation at an ignorance at once so unhappy and so criminal, they probably might little care, excepting some slight feeling of mortified pride, that they were thus proved to be nearly pagans in knowledge within the immediate hearing of the oracles of God.
Or we may represent to ourselves this benevolent promoter of improvement endeavoring to instruct such a company, not in the way of interrogation, but in the ordinary manner of discourse, and assuming that they actually had in their minds those principles, those points of knowledge, which would, on the former supposition of a course of questions, have qualified them to make the proper replies. It may indeed be too much to imagine a discerning man to entertain such a presumption; but supposing he did, and proceeded upon it, you can well conceive what reception the reasonings, advices, or reproofs, would find among the hearers, according to their respective temperaments. Some would be content with knowing nothing at all about the matter, which they would perhaps say, might be, for aught they knew, something very wise; and, according to their greater or less degree of patience and sense of decorum, would wait in quiet and perhaps sleepy dulness for the end of the irksome lecture, or escape from it by a stolen retreat, or a bold-faced exit. To others it would all seem ridiculous absurdity, and they would readily laugh if any one would begin. A few, possessed of some natural shrewdness, would set themselves to catch at something for exception, with unadroit aim, but with good will for cavil. While perhaps one or two, of better disposition, imperfectly descrying at moments something true and important in what was said, and convinced of the friendly intention of the speaker, might feel a transient regret for what they would with honest shame call the stupidity of their own minds, accompanied with some resentment against those to whose neglect it was greatly attributable. The instructor also, as the signs grew evident to him of the frustration of his efforts upon the invincible grossness of the subjects before him, would become animated with indignation at the incompetence or wicked neglect in the system and office of public instruction, of which the intellectual condition of such a company of persons might be taken as a proof and consequence. And in fact there is no class more conspicuous in reprobation, in the solemn invectives of the prophets, than those whose special and neglected duty it was to instruct the Jewish people.
Now if such were the state of their intelligence, how would this friend of truth and the people find, how would he have expected to find, their piety, their morals, and their happiness affected by such destitution of knowledge? Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? We are supposing them to be in ignorance of four parts out of five, or perhaps of nine parts out of ten, of what the Supreme Wisdom was maintaining an extraordinary dispensation to declare to them. Why to declare, but because each particular in this divine promulgation was pointed to some circumstance, some propensity, some temptation, in their nature and condition, and was exactly fitted to be there applied as a rectifier and guard? The revelations and signs from heaven were the sum of what the Perfect Intelligence judged indispensable to be sent forth from him to his subjects, as seen by him liable to be wrong; and could there be one dictate or fact superfluous in such a communication? If not, consider the case of minds in which one, and a second, and the far greater number, of the points of information thus demonstrated to be necessary, had no place to shine or exist; of which minds, therefore, the estimates, passions, volitions, principles of action with the actions also, were in so many instances abandoned to take their chance for good or evil. But had they any chance for good in such an abandonment? What principle in their nature was to determine them to good, with an impulse that rendered needless the rational discrimination of it by the light of truth? It were an exceedingly probable thing truly, that some happy instinct, or some guiding star of good fortune, should have beguiled into an unknowing choice of what is right, that very nature which knowledge itself, including a recognition of the will of God, is so often insufficient to constrain to such a choice.
But further; the absence of knowledge is sure to be something more and worse than simple ignorance. Even were that absence but a mere negation, a vacancy of truth, (the terms truth and knowledge may be used for our present purpose as nearly synonymous, for what is not truth is not knowledge,) it would be by its effect as a deficiency, incalculably injurious. But it could not remain a mere deficiency: the vacancy of truth would commonly be found replenished with positive error. Not indeed replenished, (we are speaking of uncultivated persons,) with a comprehensive and arranged set of false notions; for there would not be thinking enough to form opinions in any sufficient number to be distinctly and specifically the opposites to the many truths that were absent; but a few false notions, such as could hardly fail to take the place of absent truth in the ignorant mind, however crude they might be, and however deficient for constituting a full system of error, would be sure to dilate themselves so as to have an operation at all the points where truth was wanting. It is frightful to see what a space in an ignorant mind one false notion can occupy, working nearly the same effect in many distinct particulars, as if there had been so many distinct wrong principles, each producing specifically its own bad effect. So that in that mind a few false notions, and those the ones most likely to establish themselves there, shall be virtually equivalent to a whole scheme of errors standing formally in place of so many truths of which they are the reverse. And thus the dark void of ignorance, instead of remaining a mere negation, becomes filled with agents of perversion and destruction; as sometimes the gloomy apartments of a deserted mansion have become a den of robbers and murderers.
Such a friend of the people, then, as we were supposing to expend his life and zeal on the object of rescuing them from their ignorance, would see in that ignorance not only the privation of all direction and impulsion to good, but a great positive force of determination toward evil.
But it may be alleged, that he would not find them wholly destitute of right information. True; but he would find that the small portion of knowledge which an ignorant people did really possess, could be of little avail. It is not only that, from the narrowness of its scope, knowledge so scanty as to afford no principles directly adapted for application to a vast number of matters of judgment and conduct, would of course be of small use, though it were efficient as far as it reached—of small use though it did produce that very limited quantity of good which ought to be its proper share, in a due proportion to the larger amount of good to be produced by a larger knowledge. This is not the whole of the misfortune; it would not produce that proportionate share. For the fewer are the points to which there is knowledge that can be applied, the less availing is its application even to those few points. It shall be the kind of knowledge apposite to them, and yet be nearly useless; from the obvious cause, that a few just notions existing disconnected and confused among the mass of vain and false ones, which will, like noxious weeds, infest minds left in ignorance, are not permitted by those bad associates to do their duty. Weak by being few, insulated, unsupported, and dwelling among vicious neighbors, they not only cannot perform their own due service, but are liable to be seduced to that of the evil principles whose company they are condemned to keep. The conjunction of truths is of the utmost importance for preserving the genuine tendency, and securing the appropriate efficacy, of each. It is an unhappy "lack of knowledge" when there is not enough to preserve, to what there is of it, the honest beneficial quality of knowledge. How many of the follies, excesses, and crimes, in the course of the world, have taken their pretended warrant from some fragment of truth, dissevered from the connection of truths indispensable to its right operation, and in that detached state easily perverted into coalescence with the most pernicious principles, which concealed and gave effect to their malignity under the falsified authority of a truth.
There were many and melancholy exemplifications of all we have said of ignorance, in the conduct of that ancient people at present in our view. Doubtless a sad proportion of the iniquities which, by their necessary tendency and by the divine vindictive appointment, brought plagues and destruction upon them, were committed in violation of what they knew. But also it was in no small part from blindness to the manifestation of truth and duty incessantly confronting them, that they were betrayed into crimes and consequent miseries. This is evident equally from the language in which their prophets reproached their intellectual stupidity, and from the surprise which they sometimes seem to have felt on finding themselves involved in retributive suffering, for what they could not conceive to be serious delinquencies. It appeared as if they had never so much as dreamed of such a-consequence; and their monitors had to represent to them, that it had been through their thoughtlessness of divine dictates and warnings, if they did not know that such proceedings must provoke such an infliction.
How one portion of knowledge admitted, with the exclusion of other truths equally indispensable to be known, may not only be unavailing, but may in effect lend force to destructive error, is dreadfully illustrated in the final catastrophe of that favored guilty nation. They were in possession of the one important point of knowledge, that a Messiah was to come. They held this assurance not slightly, but with strong conviction, and as a matter of the utmost interest. But then, that this knowledge might have its appropriate and happy effect, it was of essential necessity for them to know also the character of this Messiah, and the real nature of his great design. But this they closed up their understandings in a fatal contentment not to know. Literally the whole people, with a diminutive exception, had failed, or rather refused, to admit, as to that part of the subject, the inspired declarations.
Now comes the consequence of knowing only one thing of several that require to be inseparable in knowledge. They formed to themselves a false idea of the Messiah, according to their own worldly imaginations; and they extended the full assurance which they justly entertained of his coming, to this false notion of what he was to be and to accomplish when he should come. From this it was natural and inevitable that when the true Messiah should come they would not recognize him, and that their hostility would be excited against a person who, while demanding to be acknowledged in that capacity, appeared without the characteristics pictured in their vain imagination, and with directly opposite ones. And thus they were placed in an incomparably worse situation for receiving him with honor when he did appear, than if they had had no knowledge that a Messiah was to come. For on that supposition they might have regarded him as a most striking phenomenon, with curiosity and admiration, with awe of his miraculous powers, and as little prejudice as it is possible in any case for depravity and ignorance to feel toward sanctity and wisdom. But this delusive pre-occupation of their minds formed a direct grand cause for their rejecting Jesus Christ. And how fearful was the final consequence of this "lack of knowledge!" How truly, in all senses, the people were destroyed! The violent extermination at length of multitudes of them from the earth, was but as the omen and commencement of a deeper perdition. And the terrible memorial is a perpetual admonition what a curse it is not to know. For He, by the rejection of whom these despisers devoted themselves to perish, while he looked on their great city, and wept at the doom which he beheld impending, said, If them hadst known, even thou in this thy day.——
So much for that selected people:—we may cast a glance over the rest of the ancient world, as exemplifying the pernicious effect of the want of knowledge.
The ignorance which pervaded the heathen nations, was fully equal to the utmost result that could have been calculated from all the causes contributing to thicken the mental darkness. The traditional glimmering of that knowledge which had been originally received by divine communication, had long since become nearly extinct, having gone out in the act, as it were, of lighting up certain fantastic inventions of doctrine, by ignition of an element exhaled from the corruptions of the human soul. In other words, the primary truths, imparted by the Creator to the early inhabitants of the earth, gradually losing their clearness and purity, had passed, by a transition through some delusive analogies, into the vanities of fancy and notion which sprang from the inventive depravity of man; which inventions carried somewhat of an authority stolen from the grand truths they had superseded. And thus, if we except so much instruction as we may conceive that the extraordinary and sometimes dreadful interpositions of the Governor of the world might convey, unaccompanied with declarations in language, (and it was in but an extremely limited degree that these had actually the effect of illumination,) the human tribes were surrendered to their own understanding for all that they were to know and think. Melancholy predicament! The understanding, the intellect, the reason, which had not sufficed for preserving the true light from heaven, was to be competent to give light in its absence. Under the disadvantage of this loss—after the setting of the sun—it was to exercise itself on an unlimited diversity of important things, inquiring, comparing, and deciding. All those things, if examined far, extended into mystery. All genuine thinking was a hard repellent labor. Casual impressions had a mighty force of perversion. The senses were not a medium through which the intellect could receive ideas foreign to material existence. The appetites and passions would infallibly occupy and actuate the whole man. When by these his imagination was put in activity, its gleams and meteors would be anything rather than lights of truth. His interest, according to his gross apprehension of it, would in numberless instances require, and therefore would gain, false judgments for justification of the wrong manner of pursuing that interest. And all this while, there was no grand standard and test to which the notions of things could be brought. If there were some spirits of larger and purer thought, that went out in the honest search of truth, they must have felt an oppression of utter hopelessness in looking round on a world of doubtful things, on no one of which they could obtain the dictate of a supreme intelligence. There was no sovereign demonstrator in communication with the earth, to tell benighted man what to think in any of a thousand questions which arose to confound him. There were, instead, impostors, magicians, vain theorists, prompted by ambition and superior native ability to abuse the credulity of their fellow-mortals, which they did with such success as to become their oracles, their dictators, or even their gods. The multitude most naturally surrendered themselves to all such delusions. If it may be conceived to have been possible that their feeble and degraded reason, in the absence of divine light and of sound human discipline, might by earnest exertion have attained in some small degree to judge better that exertion was precluded by indolence, by the immediate wants and unavoidable employments of life, by sensuality, by love of amusement, by subjection, even of the mind, to superiors and national institutions, and by the tendency of human individuals to fall, if we may so express it, in dead conformity and addition to the lump.
The result of all these causes, the sum of all these effects, was, that unnumbered millions of beings, whose value was in their intelligent and moral nature, were, as to that nature, in a condition analogous to what their physical existence would have been under a total and permanent eclipse of the sun. It was perpetual night in their souls, with all the phenomena incident to night, except the sublimity. While the material economy, constituting the order of things which belonged to their temporal existence, was in conspicuous manifestation around them, pressing with its realities on their senses; while nature presented to them its open and distinctly-featured aspect; while there was a true light shed on them every morning from the sun; while they had constant experimental evidence of the nature of the scene; and thus they had a clear knowledge of one portion of the things connected with their existence—that portion which they were soon to leave, and look back upon as a dream when one awaketh;—all this while there was subsisting, present with them, unapprehended except in faint and delusive glimpses, another order of things involving their greatest interest, with no luminary to make that apparent to them, after the race had willingly forgotten the original instructions from their Creator.
The dreadful consequences of this "lack of knowledge," as appearing in the religion and morals of the nations, and through these affecting their welfare, equalled and even surpassed all that might by theory have been presaged from the cause.
This ignorance could not annihilate the principle of religion in the spirit of man; but in taking away the awful repression of the idea of one exclusive sovereign Divinity, it left that spirit to fabricate its religion in its own manner. And as the creating of gods might be the most appropriate way of celebrating the deliverance from the most imposing idea of one Supreme Being, depraved and insane invention took this direction with ardor. [Footnote: Those who have read Goethe's Memoirs of Himself, may recollect the part where that late idolized "patriarch" of German literature tells of the lively interest he had at one time felt in shaping out of his imagination and philosophy a theology, beginning with the fabrication of a god (or gods,) and amplified into a system of principles, existences, and relations.] The mind threw a fictitious divinity into its own phantasms, and into the objects in the visible world. It is amazing to observe how, when one solemn principle was taken away, the promiscuous numberless crowd of almost all shapes of fancy and of matter became, as it were, instinct with ambition, and mounted into gods. They were alternately the toys and the tyrants of their miserable creator. They appalled him often, and often he could make sport with them. For overawing him by their supposed power, they made him a compensation by descending to a fellowship with his follies and vices. But indeed this was a condition of their creation; they must own their mortal progenitor by sharing his depravity, even amidst the lordly domination assigned to them over him and the universe. We may safely affirm, that the mighty artificer of deifications, the corrupt soul of man, never once, in its almost infinite diversification of device in their production, struck out a form of absolute goodness. No, if there were ten thousand deities, there should not be one that should be authorized by perfect rectitude in itself to punish him; not one by which it should be possible for him to be rebuked without having a right to recriminate.
Such a pernicious creation of active delusions it was that took the place of religion in the absence of knowledge. And to this intellectual obscuration, and this legion of pestilent fallacies, swarming like the locusts from the smoke of the bottomless pit in the vision of St. John, the fatal effect on morals and happiness corresponded. Indeed the mischief done there, perhaps even exceeded the proportion of the ignorance and the false theology; conformably to the rule, that anything wrong in the mind will be the most wrong where it comes the nearest to its ultimate practical effect—except when in this operation outward it is met and checked by some foreign counteraction.
The people of those nations (and the same description is applicable to modern heathens) did not know the essential nature of perfect goodness, or virtue. How should they know it? A depraved mind would not find in itself any native conception to give the bright form of it. There were no living examples of it. The men who held the pre-eminence in the community were generally, in the most important points, its reverse. It was for the Divine nature to have presented, in a manifestation of itself, the archetype of perfect rectitude, whence might have been derived the modified exemplar for human virtue. And so would the idea of perfect moral excellence have come to dwell and shine in the understanding, if it had been the True Divinity that men beheld in their contemplations of a superior existence. But when the gods of their heaven were little better than their own evil qualities, exalted to the sky to be thence reflected back upon them invested with Olympian charms and splendors, their ideas of deity would evidently combine with the causes which made it impossible for them to conceive a perfect model for human excellence. See the mighty labor of human depravity to confirm its dominion! It would translate itself to heaven, and usurp divinity, in order to come down thence with a sanction for man to be wicked,—in order, by a falsification of the qualities of the Supreme Nature, to preclude his forming the true idea of what would be perfect rectitude in his own.
A system which could thus associate all the modes of turpitude with the most lofty and illustrious forms of existence, would go far toward vitiating essentially the entire theory of moral good and evil. And it would in a great measure defraud of their practical efficacy any just principles that might, after all, maintain their place in the convictions of the understanding, and assert at times their claim with a voice which not even all this ruination could silence.
But, how small was the number of pure moral principles, (if indeed any,) that among the people of the heathen nations did maintain themselves in the convictions of the understanding. The privation of divine light gave full freedom, if there was any disposition to take such license, for every perverse speculation which could operate toward abolishing those principles in the natural reason of the species. What disposition there would be to take it may be imagined, when the abolishing of those principles was evidently to be also the destruction of all intrinsic authority in the practical rules founded on them, which destruction would confer an exemption infinitely desirable. The freedom for such thinking would infallibly be taken, in its utmost extent; and in fact the speculation was stimulated by so mighty a force of the depraved passions, that it went beyond the primary intention: it not only annulled the right principles and rules, but, not stopping at such negation, presumed to set forth opposite ones, so that the name and repute of virtues was given to iniquities without number. It is deplorable to consider how large a proportion of all the vices and crimes of which mankind were ever guilty, have actually constituted, in some or other of their tribes and ages, a part of the approved moral and religious system. It is questionable whether we could select from the worst forms of turpitude any one which has not been at least admitted among the authorized customs, if not even appointed among the institutes of the religion, of some portion of the human race. And depravities thus become licensed or sacred would have a fatal facility of communicating somewhat of their quality to all the other parts of the moral system. For this sanction both would reinforce their own power of infection, and would so beguile away all repugnance and counteraction, that the rest of the customs and institutes would readily admit the contamination, and become assimilated in evil; as the Mohamedans have no care to avoid contact with their neighbors who are ill of the plague, since the plague has the warrant of heaven. Wherever, therefore, in the imperfect notices afforded us of ancient nations, we find any one virulent iniquity holding an authorized place in custom or religion, we may confidently make a very large inference, though record were silent, as to the corresponding quality that would pervade the remainder of the moral system of those nations. Indeed the inference is equally justified whether we regard such a sanction and establishment of a flagrant iniquity as a cause, or as an effect. Suppose this sanction of some one enormity to precede the general and equal corruption of morals,—how powerfully would it tend to bear them all down to a conformity in depravation. Suppose it to be (the more natural order) the result and completion of that corruption—how vicious must have been the previous state which could go easily and consistently to such a consummation.
Everything that, under the advantage given by this destitution of knowledge, operated to the destruction of the true morality, both in theory and practice, must have had a fatal augmentation of its power in that part especially of this ignorance which respected hereafter. The doctrine of a future existence and retribution did not, in any rational and salutary form, interfere in the adjustment of the economy of life. The shadowy notion of a future state which hovered about the minds of the pagans, a vague apparition which alternately came and vanished, was at once too fantastic and too little of a serious belief to be of any avail to preserve the rectitude, or to maintain the authority, of the distinction between right and wrong. It was not denned enough, or noble enough, or convincing enough, or of judicial application enough, either to assist the efficacy of such moral principles as might be supposed to be innate in a rational creature, and competent for prescribing to it some virtues useful and necessary to it even if its present brief existence were all; or to enjoin effectually those higher virtues to which there can be no adequate inducement but in the expectation of a future life.
Imagine, if you can, the withdrawment of this doctrine from the faith of those who have a solemn persuasion of it as a part of revealed truth. Suppose the grand idea either wholly obliterated, or faded into a dubious trace of what it had been, or transmuted into a poetic dream of classic or barbarian mythology,—and how many moral principles will be found to have vanished with it. How many things, before rendered imperative by this great article of faith, would have ceased to be duties, or would continue such only on the strength, and to the extent of the requirement, of some very minor consideration which might remain to enforce them, and that probably in a most deteriorated practical form. The sense of obligation, if continuing to recognize the nature of duty in things which could then no longer retain any such quality, otherwise than as looking to the most immediate and tangible benefit or harm, the lowest of moral calculations, would be reduced to a vulgar and reptile principle. The best of its strength, and all its dignity, would be departed from it when it could refer no more to eternity, an invisible world, and a judgment to come. It would therefore have none of that emphasis of impression which can sometimes dismay and quell the most violent passions, as by the mysterious awe of the presence of a spirit. It would be deprived of that which forms the chief power of conscience. And it would be impotent in any attempt—if so absurd an attempt could be dreamed of—to uphold, in the more dignified character of principle, that care of what is right which would be constantly degenerating into mere policy, and rationally justifying itself in doing so.
The withdrawment, we said, of the grand truth in question, from a man's faith, (together with everything of taste and habit which that faith might have created,) would necessarily break up the government over his conscience. How evident then is it, that among the people of the heathen lands, under a disastrous ignorance of this and all the other sublime truths, that are the most fit to rule an immortal being during his sojourn on earth, no man could feel any peremptory obligation to be universally virtuous, or adequate motives to excite an endeavor to approach that high attainment, even were there not a perfect inability to form the true conception of it. And then how much of course it was that the general mass would be dreadfully depraved. Though a momentary surprise may at times have seized us on the occurrence, in their history, of some monstrous form of flagitiousness, we do not wonder at beholding a state of the people such in its general character as the sacred writers exhibit, in descriptions to which the other records of antiquity add their confirming testimony and ample illustrations. For while the immense aggregate is displayed to the mental view, as pervaded, agitated, and stimulated, by the restless forces of appetites and passions, and those forces operating with an impulse no less perverted than strong, let it be asked what kinds and measure of restraint there could be upon such a world of creatures so actuated, to keep them from rushing in all ways into evil. Conceive, if you can, the fiction of such a multitude, so actuated, having been placed under an adjustment of restraints competent to withhold them. And then take off, in your imagination, one after another of these, to see what will follow. Take off, at last, all the coercion that can be applied through the belief of a judgment to come, and a future state of retribution;—by doing which you would also empower the race to defy, if any recognition of him remained, the Supreme Governor, whose possible inflictions, being confined to the present life, might at any time be escaped by shortening it. All these sacred bonds being thus dissolved, behold this countless multitude abandoned to be carried or driven the whole length to which the impulses of their appetites and passions would go,—or could go before they were arrested by some obstruction opposed to them from a quarter foreign to conscience. And the main and final thing in reserve to limit their career, after all the worthier restraints were annihilated, would be only this,—the resistance which men's self-interest opposes to one another's bad inclinations. A gloomy and humiliating spectacle truly it is, to be offered by a world of rational and moral agents, if we see that, instead of a repression of the propensity to wickedness by reverence of the Sovereign Judge, and the anticipation of a future life, there is merely a restraint put on its external activity, and that by the force of men's fears of one another. But nearly to this it was, as the only strong restraint, that those heathens were left by their ignorance, or a notion so slight as to be little better, of a future existence and judgment.
Not but that it has been, in all nations and times, of infinite practical service that there is involved in the constitution of the world a law by which a coarse self-interest thus interposes to obstruct in a degree the violent propensity to evil; for it has prevented, under Providence, more actual mischief, beyond comparison more, than all other causes together. The man inclined to perpetrate an iniquity, of the nature of a wrong to his fellow-mortals, is apprized that he shall provoke a reaction, to resist or punish him; that he shall incur as great an evil as that he is disposed to do, or greater; that either a revenge regardless of all formalities of justice will strike him, or a process instituted in organized society will vindictively reach his property, liberty, or life. This defensive array, of all men against all men, compels to remain shut up within the mind an immensity of wickedness which is there burning to come out into action. But for this, Noah's flood had been rendered needless. But for this, our planet might have been accomplishing its circles round the sun for thousands of years past without a human inhabitant. Through the effect of this essential law, in the social economy, it was possible for the race to subsist, notwithstanding all that ignorance of the Divine Being, of heavenly truth, and of uncorrupt morality, in which we are contemplating the heathen nations as benighted. But while thus it prevented utter destruction, it had no corrective operation on the depravity of the heart. It was not through a judgment of things being essentially evil that they were forborne; it was not by the power of conscience that wicked propensity was kept under restraint. It was only by a hold on the meaner principles of his nature, that the offender in will was arrested in prevention of the deed. And so the race were such virtually, as they would have hastened to become actually, could they have ceased to be afraid of one another's strength and retaliation.' [Footnote: It is not very uncommon to hear credit given to human nature apparently in sober simplicity, for the whole amount of the negation of bad actions thus prevented, as just so much genuine virtue, by some dealers in moral and theological speculation.] But even this restraint imposed by mutual apprehension, important as its operation was in the absence of nobler influences, was yet of miserably partial efficacy. Men were continually breaking through this protective provision, and committed against one another a stupendous amount of crimes. And no wonder, when we consider that the evil passions, endowed as they seem to be with a portentous excess of vigor by the very circumstance of being evil, (as the demoniacs were the strongest of men,) are exasperated the more by a certain degree of awe impressed on them by the defensive attitude of their objects. When strength so great might thus be irritated to greater, and when there were no "powers of the world to come," to invade the dreadful cavern of iniquity in the mind, and there combat and subdue it, there would often be no want of the audacity to send it forth into action at all hazards, and in defiance and contempt of the restraining force which operated through mutual fear of vindictive reaction.
But it may be said, perhaps, that in thus representing the people who were destitute of divine knowledge, as left with hardly any other control on their bad dispositions than one of a quality little more dignified than fetters literally binding the limbs, we are underrating what there still was among them to take effect in the way of instruction. Even this coarse principle of control itself, it may be alleged, this prudence of reciprocal fear became refined into something worthier of moral agents. For it passed, by a compromise among the species, from the form of individual self-defence and revenge into that of institutions of law; and legislation, it will be said, is a teacher of morals. Retaining, indeed, the rough expedient of physical force, in readiness to coerce or punish where it cannot deter by warning, it yet strongly endeavors the repression of evil emotions by means of right principles, marked out, explained, and inculcated. It teaches these principles as dictates of reason and justice, while it embodies them in the menacing authority of enactments. There was therefore, it may be pleaded, as much instruction among the ancient heathen as there was legislation.
In answering this, we may forego any rigorous examination of the quality of principles and precepts enunciated by legislators who themselves, in common with the people, looked on human existence and duty through a worse than twilight medium; who had no divine oracles to impart wisdom, and were, some of them, reduced to begin their operations with the lie that pretended they had such oracles; from all which it was inevitable that some of their maxims and injunctions would even in their efficacy be noxious, as being at variance with eternal rectitude. It is enough to observe, on the claims of legislation to the character of a moral preceptor, that it retained so palpably, after all, the nature of the gross element from which it was a refinement or transfusion, that even what it might teach right, as to the matter, it was unable to teach with the right moral impression. With all its gravity, and phrases of wisdom, and show of homage to virtue, it was, and was plainly descried to be, that very same Noli me tangere, in a disguised form; a less provoking and hostile manner only of keeping up the state of preparation for defensive war. Every one knew right well that the pure approbation and love of goodness were not the source of law; but that it was an arrangement originating and deriving all its force from self-interest; a contrivance by which each man was glad to make the collective strength of society his guarantee against his neighbor's interest and wish to do him wrong. While pleased that others were under this restraint, he was often vexed at being under it also himself; but on the whole deemed this security worth the cost of suffering the interdict on his own inclinations,—perhaps as believing other men's to be still worse than his, or seeing their strength to be greater. We repeat that a preceptive system thus estimated could not, even had the principles to which it gave expression in the mandates of law been no other than those of the soundest morality, have impressed them with the weight of sanctity on the conscience. And all this but tends to show the necessity that the rules and sanctions of morality, to come with simplicity and power on the human mind, should primarily emanate, and be acknowledged as emanating, from a Being exalted above all implication and competition of interest with man.
Thus we see, that the pagan ignorance precluded one grand requisite for crushing the dominion of iniquity; for there was nothing to insinuate or to force its way into the recesses of the soul, to apply there a repressive power to the depraved ardor which glowed in the passions. That was left, inaccessible and inextinguishable, as the subterranean fires in a volcanic region. And in the mighty impulse to evil with which it was continually operating as an energy of feeling, it compelled the subservience of the intellect; and thus combined the passions with a faculty skilful to guide their direction, to diversify their objects, to invent expedients, and to seize and create occasions. What was it that this intelligent depravity would stop short of accomplishing? Reflect on the extent of human genius, in its powers of invention, combination, and adaptation; and then think of all this faculty, in an immense number of minds, through many ages, and in every imaginable variety of situation, exerted with unremitting activity in aid of the wrong propensities. Reflect how many ideas, apt and opportune for this service, would spring up casually, or be suggested by circumstances, or be attained by the earnest study of beings goaded in pursuit of change and novelty. The simple modes of iniquity were put under an active ministry of art, to combine, innovate, and augment. And so indefatigable was its exercise, that almost all conceivable forms of immorality were brought to imagination, most of them into experiment; and the greater number into prevailing practice, in those nations: insomuch that the sated monarch would have imposed as difficult a task on ingenuity in calling for the invention of a new vice, as of a new pleasure. They would perhaps have been nearly identical demands when he was the person to be pleased.
Such are some of the most obvious illustrations that the absence of knowledge was a cause, and added in an unknown measure to the strength of all other causes, of the excessive corruption in the heathen nations. And if this depravity of a world of moral agents did not, contemplated simply as a destruction of their rectitude, appear equivalent to the gravest import of the terms "the people are destroyed," the misery inseparable from the depravity instantly comes in our view to complete their verification.
We are aware that the wickedness and misery of the ancient world, as asserted in illustration of the natural effect of estrangement from divine truth, are apt to be regarded as of the order of topics which have dwindled into insignificance, worn out by being repeated just because they have often been repeated before; a sort of exhausted quarries and dried-up wells. There is a certain class of vain and sneering mortals, in whose conceit nothing is such proof of superior sense as discarding the greatest number of topics and arguments as obsolete or impertinent. It is to be reckoned on that some of these, on hearing again the old maxims, that a people without divine instruction must be a vicious one, and that a vicious people must be an unhappy one,—and those maxims accompanied with a description of the old pagan world as illustrative evidence,—will be prompt to let forth their comments in some such strain as the following:—"The state of the ancient heathens, thus brought upon us in one cheap declamation more, is now a matter of trivial import, just fit to give some show and exaggeration to the stale common-place, that ignorance is likely to produce depravity, and that depravity and misery are likely enough to go together. The pagans might be wretched enough; and perhaps also the matter has been extravagantly magnified for the service of a favorite theme, or to make a rhetorical show. At any rate, it is not now worth while to go so far back to concern ourselves about it. The ancient heathens had their day and their destiny, and it is of little importance to us what they were or suffered."
It is fortunate, we may reply, to be "wiser than the ancients," without the trouble of learning anything by means of them. It is fortunate, also, to have ascertained how much of all that ever existed can teach us nothing. We have a signal improvement in the fashion of wisdom, when that high endowment may be possessed as a thing distinct from compass of thought, from study of causes and effects as illustrated on the great scale, from aptitude to be instructed by the past, and from contemplation of the divine government as carried over a wide extent of time. But indeed this is not a privilege peculiar to this later day. In any former age there were men in sufficient number who were wise enough to be indifferent to all but immediate passing events, as knowing no lessons that persons like them had to learn from remoter views, looking either into the past or the future; who could even have before them the very monuments of awful events that were gone by, without perceiving inscribed on them any characters for contemplation to read. It is not impossible there might be persons who could plan their schemes, and debate their questions, and even follow their amusements, quite exempt from solemn reflections, within view of the ruins of Jerusalem, after the Roman legions had left it and its myriads of dead to silence. Any reference to that dreadful spectacle, as an example of the consequences of the ignorance and wickedness of a people, might have been heard with unconcern, and lightly passed over as foreign to the matters requiring their attention: it was all over with the people dead, and the people alive had their own concerns to mind. But would not exactly such as these have been the men most likely to fall into the vices and impieties which would provoke the next avenging visitation, and to perish in it? In all times, the triflers with the great exemplifications of the connection of depravity with misery and ruin, who thought it but an impertinent moralizing that attempted to recall such funereal spectacles for admonition, were fools, whatever self-complacency they might feel in a habit of thinking more fitted, they would perhaps say, for making our best advantage of the world as we find it. And we of the present time are convicted of exceeding stupidity, if we think it not worth while to go a number of ages back to contemplate the mass of mankind, the wide world of beings such as ourselves, sunk in darkness and wretchedness, and to consider what it is that is taught by so melancholy an exhibition. What is to give fulness of evidence to an instruction, if a world be too narrow; what is to give it weight, if a world be too light?