Henry St. John Bolingbroke.

The works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John, lord viscount Bolingbroke (Volume 8) online

. (page 20 of 35)
Online LibraryHenry St. John BolingbrokeThe works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John, lord viscount Bolingbroke (Volume 8) → online text (page 20 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Clarke's words upon him, though there is a natu-
ral and unalterable difference between good and


evil ; yet nothing but the extremest stupidity of
mind, or perverseness of spirit, and disregard to
truth, can possibly make any man affirm, like him,



that moral fitnesses and unfitnesses are, evert in
their applications to our scene of action, (and
they will be infinitely less so in their applications
to that of God) as manifest as mathematical
truths. We may discover moral fitness as we dis-
cover natural law, but then we must be on our
guard, lest we should pervert our notions of mo-
ral fitness and unfitness by wrong applications of
them out of our system, as we pervert the princi-
ples of natural law by wrong applications of them
within it. To suppose, in terms, that the laws of
human are the laws of divine nature, would be too
absurd, though some writers have done no less.
But it is just as absurd, nay, it is just the same, to
suppose, that the moral fitness and unfitness of
things must be in every instance, whatever it may
be in some, exactly the same to God as it is to
man. He made our system for us, not for him-
self; and though we are sure he cannot exact that
we should believe or practice any thing repugnant
to the moral fitness resulting from it, we must not
imagine, that, by abstracting our notions from it,
we can render them adequate to that moral fitness
which is the object of omniscience, the omni-
science of that Supreme Being, who is the author
of this, and every other system.

The men, who attempt to do this, leave to
God nothing more than they assume to themselves,
except a greater degree of power : and even this
they assume to be limited of right, by natures as
eternal, and as independent as his own, though
executed, in fact, repugnantly to these natures.



What these natures arc they know as well as he ;
for they soar up on Platonick wings to the first
good and the first just. What his attribute* must
be to be conformable to these natures, and what
they require of him consequently, these persons
illuminated by an eternal reason cannot, there-
fore, fail to know : and they seem to exalt them, as
if they meancd only by exalting them to aggravate
the want of goodness and justice in the conduct of
Providence. Let not this pass for any exaggera-
tion. It is, in plain terms, the sum of a doctrine
they teach in the cant of metaphysical theology,
to which they liave accustomed the ears of men,
and by which they impose on their understandings.
I desire no better proof of what is here advanced,
than the twelfth section of Clarke's Demonstra-
tion, and the first of his Evidences. The subject
has been often touched in these Essays, and even
in some of the last paragraphs, but it may be pro-
per, however, to examine this famous argumenta-
tion a priori a little more particularly. It is
plausible, for it speaks to the pride of the human
heart, and submits the whole' ceconomy of Divine
Wisdom to the judgment of man. But I appre-
hend, that it supposes some things very doubtful,
and affirms others that imply contradiction. I
trill enter into it, therefore, in this place, further
than I have done, and slide or leap from subject
to subject, or revert to the same a second, and a
third time, in these ill connected minutes, as I
used to do in the conversations they are designed
to recal.


OF ESSAf Si ' 307

That there is a fitness and unfitness of things
to one another, a suitableness and unsuitableness
of circumstances to persons, no reasonable man
wil deny. But I suspect, that many reasonable
meri will doubt, whether they are founded in na-
tures and qualifications independently on God,
and antecedently to his will. They will find it dif-
ficult to conceive how fitnesses, resulting from the
natures of things, or from the qualifications of
persons, can be called antecedent to these things,
and to these persons : and yet they must be so, if
they are antecedent to that will, by the act of
which these things and these persons first existed*.
It is said, that the existence of things, and the ar-
gument requires that the same should be said of
persons, depends on the arbitrary will of God.
But that when they are created, and as long as they
exist, their proportions, respects, and relations
are abstractly of eternal necessity, according to
the different natures of things, and the different
qualifications of persons, in one common nature.
This I take to be the sense and strength of the
argument, which will not appear, in my appre-
hension, very intelligible, nor, as far as it is intel-
ligible, very conclusive.

We consider one tiling, or one property, one
pei*son, or one qualification, without considering
another, and by that we make a very real, and I
presume, the sole kind of abstraction our minds
are capable of making. But to consider the pro-

V '. %K '.t.-Jiii i. ,'t'.' - -'i'-ll t-tl ' 'i!" -7.

.J .3K.L' ;;; <ri.'. . Si-h'.J K

* vid. p. 87.

x 2 parties


perties of things, or the qualifications of person?,
and the fitnesses and unfit nesses resulting from
them, as independent natures existing before there
were any such things, or any such persons, any
such natures, qualifications, circumstances, seems
to me a fictitious abstraction doubly. It assumes,
that we have ideas which we have not, and that
the modes of being, by which things and persons
are what they are, may be conceived as adventi-
tious to them, instead of being conceived as so
constitutive of them, that they could not be with-
out the things and persons, nor these without
them. By assuming one of these imaginary ab-
stractions, men are led to assume the other, and
their mistake about the operations of nature is
connected with that about the operations of their

own minds.


The modes of being, and the properties of
things, are inseparable from them, even in imagi-
nation, which might be an argument the more to
persuade, that they are the same specifick natures,
and that his will, which constituted these natures,
constituted at the same time all that is essential
to them. But though we cannot separate in this
manner, we can take the properties of things,
both physical and moral, into distinct considera-
tion. This philosophers have done with honour
to themselves, and advantage to others. But
when they have, been long accustomed to such ab*
stract considerations, and have established certain
mathematical and moral truths upon them, some
of these philosophers assume, that these general



notions are natures independent on God, and in
themselves of eternal necessity. God has made
triangles and men. But triangularity they say,
and they might say just as well humanity, are in-
dependent natures, antecedent to his will, and
that do not owe their original to arbitrary and
positive appointment. That there are necessary
truths, mathematical and moral, and that such
they must be, as long as there are men, and as
the present system of things continues, is certain.
But they would not be called, perhaps, eternal
truths, nor would these notions be represented
like eternal and independent natures, if it was
more considered, that the selfexistent Being is
the fountain of all existence, and that, since every
thing exists by his will, it must exist according to
bis will; for which reason it seems as absurd to
say, that when he made man he could give him no
other nature than the human, which was there-
fore necessarily, not arbitrarily given, as it would
be to say, that when he made a man, he did not
make a tree. A man with the properties of a
tree would not be a man. A tree with the pro-
perties of a man would not be a tree. The same
will, whfch made each, made the properties of
each. It is one and the same act ; and to say
that the nature of any thing, or the truths result-
ing from it, are independent, in any sense, on the
will that made them, seems, to me, therefore, to
imply contradiction.

Clarke quotes .a passage from Plato, wherein
that philosopher says, according to his transla-

x 3 tion,


tion, that " as in matters of sense, the reason why
" a thing is visible is not because it is seen, but
" it is therefore seen because it is visible : so in
" matters of natural reason and morality, that
" which is holy and good is not therefore holy
" and good, because it is commanded to be done,
" but it is therefore commanded by God, because
" it is holy and good." If I would cavil a little,
I might show, that this quotation does not serve
the doctor's purpose, nor prove that Plato was of
his mind in asserting, that moral obligations are
primarily and originally antecedent to the will of
God ; if by will be meant his determination, that
they should be obligatory, when he made a moral
world : and if by will he meant a positive com-
mand, signified by revelation, the quotation from
Plato, who knew nothing of any such revelation,
is strangely absurd. Things may be seen, be-
cause they are visible, they are not visible, be-
cause they are seen. Let it be so. Does this
prove, that the philosopher thought visibility, any
more than vision, an eternal independent nature ?
Might he not think, that God made things to be
seen, and creatures to see, and that visibility and
vision began when he willed the physical system
into existence ? Thus again, that which is good,
is not such because it is cpmmanded, but it is
commanded because it is good. Will it follow
from this expression, that good is, according to
Plato, an eternal independent nature ? Will it
not follow as naturally, that good and evil began
when God willed the moral system into existence,



and that he commanded the former by the laws
Of their nature, at the same time when he created
moral agents capable of either? This remark
may serve, at least, to show how apt even the best
writers are to amuse themselves, and to impose on
others by a mere gingle of words, and to quote what
makes against them, or does not make for them.
But now, having made this remark, I am ready
to acknowledge, that Plato meaned by this pas-
sage in his Euthyphro the first good, that inde-
pendent nature, which resides among others in his
imaginary region of eternal ideas. This should
be his meaning, whatever his words in this place
import, to make them consistent with his doc-
trine, and apposite to the present dispute, wherein
Plato and the Platonicks run into one extreme,
as Hobbes and the Hobbists into another. The
former assume an eternal morality, antecedent
not only to any signification, but to any actual
determination of the will of God. The latter
assume, that there was no moral duty, no differ-
ence, no distinction made between just and un-
just, moral good and evil, till the will of man
made this distinction, by civil constitutions, and
positive laws. It seems to me, that both these
opinions tend to weaken the authority of natural
religion. By the first, God published, indeed, a
moral law, when he made moral agents. But he
was not properly the legislator. The law existed
before them, and it binds both him and them. By
the second, he has not so much as the appearance
of legislature. He made a moral world, indeed, but
he made it in. confusion, and he left it without any

X 4 rule,


rule, till at last his creatures made one for them-
selves. He brought order out of the confusion of
a physical, they out of that of a moral chaos.
How preferable is the middle opinion between
these two extremes, that God instituted moral
obligations when he made moral agents, that the
law of their nature is the law of his will, and that,
how indifferent soever we may presume every
thing is to him, before his will has determined it
to be, it becomes, after this determination, a ne-
cessary, though created creature ! Such justice is
in man, though in God it may be nothing more
than one mode of his infinite wisdom. As long
as there are men, this nature must exist. Where
it will be, and what it will be, when they and this
moral system are at an end, let those able persons,
who know so well where and what it was before
they both began to exist, determine. If I insist
much on this point, I do not pretend to clear it
from all the difficulties that lie in the way, neither
by what is said nere, nor by what has been said
elsewhere, nor by what I may say hereafter.
There are many on either side, that have per-
plexed, and may continue to perplex, much bet-
ter heads than mine. But, in the first place, I
feel an insuperable repugnancy to own, that any
thing is independent of God ; and in the next
place, I am shocked at the consequences, that are
drawn from this doctrine,



vHi i.irW* K$*,''T ^ti) raffc,' liv fMi-; .'/ ' .- *%
HE who dar.es to affirm, that there are eternal

selfexistent natures independent on God, is bold
enough. But what shall we say to those who
dare to affirm, that these eternal natures, result-
ing from the eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses,
agreements and disagreements, proportions and
disproportions of things, are absolutely and ne-
cessarily, in themselves, what they appear to be
to the understandings of all intelligent beings?
I do not add the exception, except those who
understand things to be what they are not, be-
cause it is unnecessary to any other purpose than
that of aa evasion, which Clarke, like a cunning
disputant, foresaw he might want, and did want.
What shall we say of those, who think it necessary
to bring proofs to show, that God must know
what his rational creatures may know concerning
these eternal natures independent on him, and
who conclude from thence, that the rule of divine
and human conduct is the same? God disdains
not to observe this rule, it is said, as the law of
his actions, and he appeals to men for his obser-
vation of it ; which matter of fact is asserted on
the authority of a chapter in Ezekiel*, where the
prophet, like a prophet and a poet, introduces
God expostulating with the Jews in this style,
and appealing to them for the equity of his pro-
ceedings. Bishop Cumberland, who is quoted by

Chap. 18.



Clarke*, carries these notions still further, when
he maintains in his seventh chapterf, with much
obscure subtilty, not only, that the rules of this law
are the dictates of divine intelligence to God him-
self, but that the dominion of God over all his
creatures is a right derived from these very rules,
and from his wisdom, which prescribes them to
him. I shall not enter on a discussion, which is
not immediately necessary to the present purpose.
I shall only say, that the wisdom, as well as the
power of God, in the creation, preservation, and
government of all things, is, without doubt, a
true and joint foundation of his dominion over
them, and that there seems to be no need of ex-
cluding one of the two, God's irresistible power,
in order to obviate the consequences, which the
good bishop suspected that Hobbes intended.
Let us keep out of these mists, and pursue our
subject in a clearer light

I ask then, if nothing less than infinite know-
ledge, infinite wisdom, and absolute independency,
be necessary to make it impossible, that the Su-
preme Being should be ignorant in any respect
of the eternal natures, on which the eternal rea-
son of things is founded, how can it be said with
the least appearance of truth, that these assumed
natures appear just such as they are absolutely
and necessarily in themselves to the understand-
ings of all intelligent beings, and become con-
stantly the rule of their actions ? Have we then
infinite knowledge, infinite wisdom, and absolute

* Evid. p. 8$. t Ee Leg. Naturae.

independency ?


independericy ? The human mind apprehends
clearly enough the gross differences of things in
the moral system, as human sense does in the
physical. But in the former, as in the latter, the
nicer differences are not so perceptible. We have
not any knowledge of the first qualities of sub-
stances. It is enough for us to have some know-
ledge of the second, of those which affect us im-
mediately. It is in vain, that we attempt to go
higher in search of scientifical knowledge, and
even about these we are very liable to mistakes.
Much in the same manner we know something of
moral entities, allow me the use of this metaphysi-
cal word for once, as they arise in our moral sys-
tem, and are able to affirm many general truths
concerning them. But it is in vain, that we attempt
to go higher in our search, or to know any thing
more about them than God has shown us in the
actual constitution of things ; and even when we
judge of them thus, and make particular applica-
tions of the general laws of our nature, we are
very liable to mistakes. We are not liable to
these mistakes in such cases only as are very far
from occurring frequently, which Clarke affirms,
but we are liable to them in such as occur the
most frequently, whether they relate to publick or
to private life. The contrary laws that legislators
have made, the contrary opinions that casuists
daily give in matters of morality, wherein some of
them must have been mistaken, are evident proofs
of this.

That there are things fit and unfit, right and
wrong, just and unjust, in the human system, and



discernible by human reason, as far as our natural
imperfections admit, I acknowledge most readily.
But from the difficulty we have to judge, and
from the uncertainty of our judgments in a mul-
titude of cases which lie within our bounds, I
would demonstrate the folly of those who affect
to have knowledge beyond them. They pretend
dogmatically to deduce from abstract eternal na-
tures what these natures require of God, while
they are at the same time unable, on many oc-
casions, to deduce, from the constitution of their
own system, and the laws of their own nature,
with precision and certainty, what these require
of them, and what is right or wrong, just or un-
just, for them to do. Clarke employs an allusion
to evade this objection, which would be extremely
pretty, if it did not make directly against him in
the present application of it, and the only appli-
cation that can make it pertinent. There is jus-
tice and injustice, as certainly as there is white
and black*. But as the painter can, by diluting
the two colours, not make them terminate in the
midst insensibly, for these words are mere exple-
tives and mean nothing ; but as he can make them
run into one another till no eye can distinguish
them, so the casuist in law or divinity dilutes
right and wrong, just and unjust, till no mind,
not even his own, can unblend and distinguish
them again. If white and black were colours as
immutable as they are obvious to human sight,
-&n.{toi'2V -ifeO'C 9 : ^ *9nc93iayifc.tifl.nKtt




and if justice and injustice were abstract natures,
immutably obvious to the human understanding,
this could not be. But neither are the colours
immutable, nor the natures so fixed and so ob-
vious as to be always discerned, and in every light
alike. This is what I say, and what the doctor
would, if he could, deny. His learned men, his
men who understand things to be what they are,
not what they are not, blunder about, and con-
tradict one another in matters that are certainly
objects of jiuman reason, though they presume to
say, that they are guided in their judgments, and
directed in their conduct, by the eternal reason
of things, by a rule that is common to God and
them. I will quote the doctor against himself,
on this occasion. I might do so, perhaps, on
others. If Lycurgus had made a new law to au-
thorise every man to rob, by violence and murder,
whomsoever he met with, such a law could not
have been justified. But the law which permitted
the Spartan youth to steal, as absurd as it was,
may bear much dispute, whether it was abso-
lutely unjust or no. Such an opinion delivered
by one, who did not reckon himself certainly
among those who understand things to be what
they are not, may authorise, or excuse, at least,
many that have come out of the school of Loyola,
and therefore I think it proper to recal another
Spartan institution in this place. The helotes or
slaves were made drunk, in order to create an aver-
sion to drunkenness in the youth by such ridi-
culous spectacles. Far be it from me, and from



every lover of truth, and of common sens*?, 16
wish that the race of metaphysicians and casuists
should increase, or so much as continue. But
since there are, have been, and will be such men
in alt ages, it is very reasonable to wish, that they
may serve to the same good purpose, that the
helotes did at Sparta, and that their delirium,
instead of imposing on ethers, and even infecting
many, may be at length laughed out of the world.

It may seem strange to the cool reflections of
common sense, that any men, who have the use
of their reason, and those especially who would
be thought to have cultivated and improved it
most, should attempt to persuade us, that com-
plex notions of the moral kind, for I meddle with
no other, and such as we call mixed modes, are
eternal natures, and independent on God, when
these persons must or may know intuitively, that
they are dependent on man. I have said already,
and I must repeat here, that the mind frames
them as it has occasion for them, gives to each a
name, and keeps them in store as artificial instru-
ments of the understanding. They exist variously
in various minds, nay sometimes in the same
mind ; but when they exist in no mind, these
eternal immutable natures exist no where. Yet
such as they are, we are to believe them founded
in the eternal fitness of things ; we are to believe
the moral attributes of God founded in them ;
we are to deduce from them, and from these
attributes, what God is under a moral necessity
of doing, and what it is his will that men should



do ; nay we are to prove in a circle, that there is
a God, because there are such natures*, and
that there are such natures, because there is a
God. These are opinions, which common sense
will be hardly induced to adopt, and yet meta-
physical and artificial theology teach them. As
proud as we are of our rationality, certain it
is, that reason, unmixed, uninfluenced, has less
to do than we imagine in framing the opinions, and
directing the judgments of men.

Let us change the image, and observe that it
happens to reason, as it happens to instruments
ill tuned. The strings are left sometimes too lax,

O '

and are sometimes wound up too high. In one
case, they give no sound at all, or one that is
lifeless and heavy. In the other, the noise they
make is great, it fills the ear, but it carries no
true harmony to the soul. By the first we may
allude to reason weak and unimproved, by the
second to reason strained into all the abstractions
of metaphysicks, and we may discern good sense
between these extremes, that is, reason at it's pro-
per tone.

There is no subject on which it is more impor-
tant, that reason should be kept strictly to this
tone, than that of the first philosophy, and there
is no subject on which it is so liable to be let down
below it, or wound up above it. I am not to
speak here of the first, of that insensibility and
stupidity, wherein a great part of mankind is im-


* Sec Cudworth of Eter. Moral.



mersed, but of that activity of the mind, which
raises some of them so far above it. Now among
these, they who apply themselves to the first phi-
losophy, apply themselves to the noblest objects
that can demand the attention of their mind, to
the existence of an All-perfect Being, to the in-
finite wisdom and power that are manifested in
his works, and to the significations of his will,
concerning the duties we owe to him, and to one
another. From these different subjects arise two
kinds of philosophy, divine philosophy or theology,
moral philosophy or ethicks. Like different
branches of the same tree, they spring from the
same root, and that root is the actual system of
things. As high as they can be trained up from
hence, they bear the genuine fruit of knowledge.
But when fantastical gardeners bend the tops of
the highest sprigs, like the ficus indica, down to
Earth ; if they take root, they bear it of a bas-

Online LibraryHenry St. John BolingbrokeThe works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John, lord viscount Bolingbroke (Volume 8) → online text (page 20 of 35)