Page images

priety, perspicuity, and elegance-I seem, since I have spent my life in that pursuit, to lay claim to it with a certain degree of right.

Wherefore, my dear Cicero, I most earnestly recommend that you carefully peruse not only my Orations, but even my philosophical works, which have now nearly equaled them in extent; for there is in the former the greater force of language, but you ought to cultivate, at the same time, the equable and sober style of the latter. And, indeed, I find, that it has not happened in the case of any of the Greeks, that the same man has labored in both departments, and pursued both the former—that of forensic speaking—and the latter quiet mode of argumentation; unless, perhaps, Demetrius Phalereus may be reckoned in that number—a refined reasoner, a not very animated speaker, yet of so much sweetness, that you might recognize the pupil of Theophrastus. How far I havo succeeded in both, others must determine; certain it is that I have attempted both. Indeed, I am of opinion that Plato, had he attempted forensic oratory, would have spoken with copiousness and power; and that had Demosthenes retained and repeated the lessons of Plato, he would have delivered them with gracefulness and beauty. I form the same judgment of Aristotle and Isocrates, each of whom was so pleased with his own pursuit that he neglected that of the other.

II. But having resolved at this time to write to you somewhat, and a great deal in time to come, I have thought proper to set out with that subject which is best adapted to your years and to my authority. For, while many subjects in philosophy, of great weight and utility, have been accurately and copiously discussed by philosophers, the most extensive seems to be what they have delivered and enjoined concerning the duties of mankind; for there can be no state of life, amic public or private affairs, abroad or at homewhether you transact any thing with yourself or contract any thing with another—that is without its obligations. In the due discharge of that consists all the dignity, and in its neglect all the disgrace, of life.

This is an inquiry common to all philosophers; for where is the man who will presume to style himself a philosopher, and lay down no rules of duty ? But there are certain

schools which pervert all duty by the ultimate objects of good and evil which they propose. For if a man should lay down as the chief good that which has no connection with virtue, and measure it by his own interests, and not according to its moral merit; if such a man shall act consistcntly with his own principles, and is not sometimes influenced by the goodness of his heart, he can cultivate neither friendship, justice, nor generosity. In truth, it is impossible for the man to be brave who shall pronounce pain to be the greatest evil, or temperate who shall propose pleasure as the highest good.'

i Cicero thus enters briefly but definitely into the most vexed, and yet the most fundamental, question of ethics: What is that which constitutes human conduct morally right or wrong? In doing so, he plainly avows his own conviction that this great distinction is not dependent upon the mere expediency or inexpediency of the supposed conduct. The many eminent moral philosophers of modern times, and especially of our own country, may be comprehensively divided into the two classes of thoso who maintain, and those who oppose, the principle thus enunciated by Cicero. A very condensed view of the leading philosophers of these schools will not be uninstructive.

The most celebrated of the earlier opponents of the principle laid down by Cicero was Hobbes, of Malmesbury, who flourished in the 17th century. His system takes no account of moral emotions whatever. He makes pure selfishness the motive and end of all moral actions, and makes religion and morals alike to consist in passive conformity to the dogmas and laws of the reigning sovereign.

Perhaps the best reply to this latter notion was given by Cicero himself, in his treatise, “Do Legibus:"-"The impulse," he says, “ which directs to right conduct, and deters from crime, is not only older than the ages of nations and cities, but coeval with that Divine Being who sees and rules both heaven and earth. Nor did Tarquin less violate that eternal law, though in his reign there might have been no written law at Rome against such violence; for the principle that impels us to right conduct, and warns us against guilt, springs out of the nature of things. It did not begin to be law when it was first written but when it originated, and it is coeval with the Divine Mind itself."

The most noted cotemporary opponents of these views were Cudworth and Dr. Clarke; the sum of whose moral doctrine is thus stated in Mackintosh's “ Progress of Ethical Philosophy:-“Man can conceive nothing without, at the same time, conceiving its relation to other things. Ho must ascribe the same law of perception to every being to whom he ascribes thought. He cannot, therefore, doubt that all the relations of all things to all must have always been present to the Eternal Mind. The relations in this sense are eternal, however recent the things may be between whom they subsist. The whole of these relations constitute truth; the knowledge of them is omniscience. These eternal different relations of things involve a consequent eternal fitness or unfitness in the applica

Though these truths are so self-evident that they require no philosophical discussion, yet they have been treated by me elsewhere. I say, therefore, that if these schools are tion of things one to another, with a regard to which the will of God always chooses, and which ought likewise to determine the wills of all subordinate rational beings. These eternal differences make it fit and reasonable for the creatures so to act; they cause it to be their duty, or lay an obligation on them so to do, separate from the will of God, and antecedent to any prospect of advantage or reward.”

This system professes to base all morals upon pure reason, as applied to the fitness of things. A single passage from the work of Sir James Mackintosh points out the fallacy it involves. "The murderer who poisons by arsenic acts agreeably to his knowledge of the power of that substance to kill, which is a relation between two things as much as the physician who employs an emetic after the poison, acts upon his belief of the tendency of that remedy to preserve life, which is another relation between two things. All men who seek a good or bad end by good or bad means, must alike conform their conduct to some relation between their actions as means, and their object as an end. All the relations of inanimate things to each other are undoubtedly observed as much by the criminal as by the man of virtue."

Lord Shaftesbury, a little later, made a considerable advance in ethical philosophy, by placing virtue in the prevalence of love for the system of which we are a part, over the passions pointing to our individual wel. fare; and still further, by admitting an intrinsic power in all, of judging of moral actions by a moral sense. In his general principles Leibnitz, to a great extent, concurs: though the latter appears to have lost himself in a refinement of the selfish system, by considering the pleasure connected with the exercise of this virtuous benevolence as the object in the view of the benevolent man.

Malebranche places all virtue in “the love" of the universal order, as it eternally existed in the Divine reason, where every created reason contemplates it.

The metaphysician of America, designated by Robert Hall," that prodigy of metaphysical acumen,” Jonathan Edwards, places moral excellence in the love to being (that is, sentient being) in general. This good will should be felt toward a particular being—first, in proportion to his degree of existence (“' for," says he, “that which is great has more existence, and is further from nothing, than that which is little"); and, secondly, in proportion to the degree in which that particular being feels benevolence to others.

With the 18th century aroso a far higher system of morals, under the auspices of the celebrated Dr. Butler. He makes CONSCIENCE the ruling moral power in the complex constitution of man, and makes its dictates the grand criterion of moral rightness and wrongness. A few of his own words will explain the essence of his system. “Man," says he, “from his make, constitution, or nature, is, in the strictest and most proper sense, a law to himself; he hath the rule of right within, and what is wanting is that he honestly attend to it. Conscienco does not only offer

self-consistent, they can say nothing of the moral duties. Neither can any firm, permanent, or natural rules of duty be laid down, but by those who esteem virtue to be solely, itself to show us the way we should walk in, but it likewise carries its own authority with it, that it is our natural guide—the guide assigned us by the Author of our nature. It, therefore, belongs to our condition of being. It is our duty to walk in that path, and to follow this guide, without looking about to see whether we may not possibly forsake them with impunity.”—“Butler's Sermons," Serm. 3.

With David Hume, who was cotemporary with Butler, the principlo against which Cicero protests assumes a systematic character. The doctrine of the utility of actions, as that which constitutes them virtuous, was set forth with the whole force of his genius and eloquence. How far Dr. Paley acquiesces in the principles of Hume, and how far, on the other hand, ho may seem to have been a disciple of Butler, will be seen by two brief passages in his "Moral and Political Philosophy.” A comparison of the two, and especially a consideration of his attribution of an abstract moral charActer to actions, will reveal the grand defect of Paley's ethical system. The most masterly refutation of that system that ever appeared is to be found in the ethical work of Jonathan Dymond, in which an irrefragable superstructure of practical morals is built, chiefly on the foundation of Dr. Butler. The former of the passages referred to is as follows:-“We conclude that God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures; and this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, that the method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness.' So, then, actions are to be estimated by their tendency. Whatever is expedient is right. It is the utility of any moral rule alone which constitutes the obligation of it." The second is as follows:-"Actions, in the abstract, are right or wrong according to their tendency; the agency is virtuous or vicious according to his design.'--"Paley's Moral philosophy,” book 1, chaps. 5, and 6.

A still later philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, however, is the great apostle of the principle of expediency as the foundation of ethics. His theory, also, as the basis of moral obligation, may be learned by two characteristic passages :-"Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong; on the other, the chain of causes and effects are fastened to their throne.”-“Bentham's Introd. of Morals," vol. ). c. 1. And again:-“But is it never then, from any other consideration than that of utility that we derive our notions of right and wrong? I do not know; I do not care. Whether moral sentiment can be originally conceived from any other sense than a view of utility, is one question: Whether, upon examination and reflection, it can, in point of fact, be persisted in and justified on any other ground, by a person reflecting within, is another. Both are questions of speculation; it matters not, comparatively, how they are decided.”—Id. vol. 1, c. 2.

In conclusion, the two most enlightened philosophers of modern times,

or by those who dcem it to be chiefly, desirable for its own sake. The teaching of duties, therefore, is the peculiar study of the Stoics, of the Academics, and the Peripatetics ; because the sentiments of Aristo, Pyrrho, and Herillus, have been long exploded. Yet even those professors would have been entitled to have treated upon the duties of men, had they left us any distinction of things, so that there might have been a path open to the discovery of duty. We shall, therefore, upon this occasion, and in this inquiry, chietly follow tho Stoics, not as their expositors, but by drawing, as usual, from their sources, at our own option and judgment, so much and in such manner as we please. I therefore think proper, as my entire argument is on moral obligation, to define what a duty is, a definition which I am surprised has been omitted

Dugald Stewart and Dr. Thomas Brown, have returned to the principle thus simply laid down by Cicero, in repudiation of the Epicurian theory, that expediency, or its tendency to produce happiness, is the moral criterion of actions, and have supported it by an unexampled array of profound and ingenious argument and eloquent illustration. A single reconciling principle may be given in the words of Dugald Stewart: "An action may be said to be absolutely right, when it is in every respect suitable to the circumstances in which the agent is placed; or, in other words, when it is such as, with perfectly good intentions, under the guidance of an enlightened and well-informed understanding, he would have performed. An action may be said to be relatively right, when the intentions of the agent are sincerely good, whether his conduct be suitable to his circumstances or not. According to these definitions, an action may be right in one sense and wrong in another-an ambiguity in language, which, how obvious soever, has not always been attended to by the writers on morals. It is the relative rectitude of an action which determines the moral desert of the agent; but it is its absolute rectitudo which determines its utility to his worldly interests and to the welfare of society. And it is only so far as relative and absolute rectitude coincide, that utility can be affirmed to be a quality of virtue.”—“Outlines of Moral Philosophy," part 2, sec. 6.

A similar truth is enunciated by Sir Thomas Brown, in his "Christian Morals," first published in 1716:—“Make not the consequence of virtuo the ends thereof. Be not beneficent for a name or cymbal of applause, nor exact and just in commerce for the advantages of trust and credit, which attend the reputation of true and punctual dealing; for these rewards, though unsought for, plain virtue will bring with her. To have other by-ends in good actions sours laudable performances, which must have deeper roots, motives, and instigations, to give them the stamp of virtues."-"Christian Morals,” part 1, sec. 10.

· Cicero, though generally adopting the principles of the Stoics, still professes himself an Eclectic philosopher, culling from all systems what

« PreviousContinue »