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essay iii: Liberty and Necessity - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion 
Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Liberty and Necessity
When we apply our thoughts to final causes, no subject more readily presents itself than the material world, which is stamped with the brightest characters of wisdom and goodness. The moral world, being less in view, hath been generally overlooked, though it yields not to the other in rich materials. Man’s inward system will be found no less admirable, than the external system of which he makes a part. The subject is the more curious, that the traces of wisdom and design discernible in our internal frame, lie more out of common sight. They are touches, as it were, of a finer pencil and of a nicer hand, than are discovered in the material world. Thought is more subtile than motion; and more of exquisite art is displayed in the laws of voluntary action, than in the laws of mere matter.i
That nothing can happen without a cause, is a principle embraced by all men, the illiterate and ignorant as well as the learned. Nothing that happens is conceived as happening of itself, but as an effect produced by some other thing. However ignorant of the cause, we notwithstanding conclude, that every thing which happens must have a cause. We should perhaps be at a loss to deduce this proposition from any premises, by a chain of reasoning. But perception affords conviction, where reason leaves us in the dark. We perceive the proposition to be true. Curiosity is one of the earliest emotions that are discovered in children; and about nothing are they more curious, than to have causes and reasons given them, why such a thing happened or how it came about. Historians and politicians make it their chief concern, to trace the causes of actions, the most mysterious not excepted. Be an event ever so extraordinary, the sense of its being an effect, is not in the least weakened, even with the vulgar; who, rather than assign no cause, recur to the operation of invisible powers. What is a cause with respect to its proper effect, is considered as an effect with respect to some prior cause, and so backward, without end. Events thus viewed in a chain of causes and effects, should naturally be considered, one would think, as necessary and fixed: for the relation betwixt a cause and its effect implies somewhat precise and determinate, and leads our thoughts to what must be, and cannot be other ways than it is.
That we have such a sense as is above described, cannot be controverted; and yet, when we search farther into human nature, a sense of chance or contingency in events seems to be no less deeply rooted in our nature than the former. This sense of chance or contingency is most conspicuous when we look forward to future events. Some things we indeed always consider as certain or necessary; such as, the revolution of seasons, and the rising and setting of the sun. These as experience teacheth, are regulated by fixed laws. But many things appear to us loose, fortuitous, uncertain; uncertain not only with respect to us on account of our ignorance of the cause, but uncertain in themselves, or not tied down and predetermined to fall out by any invariable law. We naturally make a distinction betwixt things that must be, and things that may be, or may not be. Thus, with respect to future events, we have a sense of chance, or of contingency, which seems to banish the other sense of the dependency of events upon precise and determinate causes.
When we consider in what view our own actions are perceived by the mind, there is somewhat equally strange and mysterious. It is admitted by all men, that we act from motives. The plain man, as well as the philosopher, perceives the connection betwixt an action and its motive to be so strong, that from this perception both of them reason with full confidence about the future actions of others. That an avaritious man will take every fair opportunity of acquiring riches, is as little doubted, as that rain and sunshine will make plants grow. The motive of gain is judged to operate as certainly and infallibly upon his temper, as heat and moisture upon the soil, each to produce its proper effect. If we be uncertain what part any particular man will act, the uncertainty ariseth not from our doubting whether he will act from a motive, for this is never called in question: it ariseth from our not being able to judge, what motive will prevail. If so, it should seem, that all the train of human actions would occur to the mind as necessary and fixed. Yet human actions do not always appear to us in that light. Previous to any particular action, we indeed always judge, that it will be the necessary result of some motive. But in a retrospect the judgment seems to vary. Hath a man done what is wrong and shameful? we accuse, and we condemn him for acting the wrong and shameful part. We conceive that he had power to act otherwise, and ought to have acted otherwise. Nay he himself gives the same impartial judgment of his conduct. The whole train of our perceptions, in a moment, accommodate themselves to the supposition of his being a free agent.
These are phaenomena in human nature of a singular kind; perceptions that clash with each other; every past event admitted to have a necessary cause, and yet many future events supposed contingent; every future action admitted to be necessary, and yet many actions, in an after view, judged free. Our perceptions are no doubt the test of truth; and the few exceptions that are discovered by reason or experience, serve the more to confirm the general rule. But the perceptions now laid open can be no test of truth; because, in contradictory propositions, truth cannot lie on both sides. There is no other way to get out of this labyrinth of doubts and difficulties, but to enter upon a strict survey both of the material and moral world, which may possibly lead to a discovery of what is really the truth. Let us then proceed with impartiality and attention, to inquire what we are to believe concerning contingency in events, and liberty or necessity in human actions: whether our perceptions can be reconciled to each other, and reconciled to truth; or whether there be not here some delusion.
Taking a view of the material world, we find all things there proceeding in a fixed and settled train of causes and effects. It is a point indisputable, that all the changes produced in matter and all the different modifications it assumes, are the result of fixed laws. Every effect is so precisely determined, that no other effect could, in such circumstances, have resulted from the operation of the cause: which holds even in the minutest changes of the different elements, as all philosophers admit. Casual and fluctuating as these seem, even their slightest variations are the result of pre-established laws. There is a chain of causes and effects which hang one upon another, running through this whole system; and not the smallest link of the chain can be broken, without altering the whole constitution of things, or suspending the regular operation of the laws of nature. Here then, in the material world, there is nothing that can be called contingent; nothing that is left loose; but every thing must be precisely what it is, and be found in that state in which we find it.
In the moral world, this necessary chain of causes and effects appears not so clearly.
Man is the actor here. He is endued with will, and he acts from choice. He hath a power of beginning motion, which is subject to no mechanical laws; and therefore he is not under what is called physical necessity. He hath appetites and passions which prompt him to gratify them: but he is under no necessity of blindly submitting to their impulse. For reason hath a power of restraint. It suggests motives from the cool views of good and evil. He deliberates upon these. In consequence of his deliberation he chuseth: and here lies our liberty.1
Let us examine to what this liberty amounts. That motives have some influence in determining the mind, is certain; and that they have this influence in different degrees, is equally certain. The sense of honour and gratitude for example, are powerful motives with a man to serve a friend. Let the man’s private interest concur; and the motives become more powerful. Add the certain prospect of poverty, shame, or bodily suffering, if he shall act a different part; and you leave him no choice; the motives to action become irresistible. Motives being once allowed to have a determining influence in any degree, it is easy to suppose the influence so augmented, whether of the same or of accumulated motives, as to leave little freedom to the mind, or rather none at all. In such a case, there is no denying that we are under a necessity to act. And though this arises from the constitution of the mind, not from external compulsion; yet in this case the consequence is no less certain, fixed, and unavoidable, than in that of external compulsion. So evident this is, that, in some instances, moral and physical necessity seem to coincide, or scarcely to be distinguished. A criminal walks to the scaffold in the midst of his guards. No man will deny that he is under an absolute necessity in this case. Why? because he knows, that if he refuse to go, they will drag him. I ask, Is this a physical or a moral necessity? The answer at first view is not obvious. And yet, strictly speaking, the necessity is only moral: for it is the force of a motive that determines the criminal to walk to the scaffold; to wit, that resistence is vain. The idea of necessity however in the mind of the spectators, when they view the criminal in this situation, is no less strong, than if they saw him bound and carried on a sledge. Nothing is more common, than to talk of an action which one must do, and cannot avoid. He was compelled to it, we say, and it was impossible he could act otherwise; when all the compulsion we mean, is only the application of some very strong motive to the mind. This shows, that, in the judgment of all men, a motive may, in certain circumstances, carry in it the power of rendering an action necessary. In other words, we expect such an action in consequence of such a motive, with equal confidence, as when we expect to see a stone fall to the ground when dropped from the hand.
This, it will be said, may hold in some instances, but not in all. For, in the greater part of human actions, there is really a sense of liberty. When the mind hesitates betwixt two things, examines and compares, and at last resolves, is there any compulsion or necessity here?2
No compulsion, it is granted; but as to necessity, let us pause, and examine more accurately. The resolution being taken, the choice being made, upon what is it founded? Certainly upon some reason or motive, however silent or weak. No man in his senses ever made choice of one thing before another, without being able to assign a reason, weak or strong, for the preference. It would be a pregnant mark of idiocy, to say that one has come to are solution and cannot say why. If this be an undoubted fact, it follows that the determination must result from that motive which has the greatest influence for the time; or from what appears the best and most eligible upon the whole. If motives be different with regard to strength and influence, which is plainly the case; it is involved in the very idea of the strongest motive, that it must have the strongest effect in determining the mind. This can no more be doubted, than that in a balance the greater weight must turn the scale.
Here perhaps we shall be interrupted. “Men are not always rational in their determinations: they often act from whim, passion, humor, motives loose and variable as the wind.” This is admitted. But suppose the motive that determines the mind to be as whimsical and unreasonable as you please; its influence however is equally necessary with that of the most rational motive. An indolent man, for example, is incited to action, by the strongest considerations that reason, virtue, interest, can suggest. He wavers and hesitates: at last resists them all, and folds his arms. What is the cause of this odd choice? Is it that he is less under the power of motives than another man? Love of rest is his motive, his prevailing passion; which is as effectual to fix him in his place, as the love of glory or riches are to actuate the vain or the covetous. In short, if motives be not under our power or direction, which is confessedly the fact, we are necessary agents. In acting by blind impulse or instinct, we are obviously necessary agents: and with regard to matters that admit deliberation and choice, such is our constitution, that we cannot exert a single action, but with some view, aim, or purpose. And when two opposite motives present themselves, we have not the power of an arbitrary choice: we are necessarily determined to prefer the stronger motive.
It is true, that, in debating upon human liberty, a man may attempt to show that motives have no necessary influence, by eating perhaps the worst apple that is before him, or, in some such trifling matter, preferring an obviously less good to a greater. But is it not plain, that the humor of showing that he can act against motives, is the very motive of the whimsical preference?
Comparing the laws that govern human actions with those that govern the actions of matter, they will be found equally operative, and their effects equally necessary. Where the motives to any action are perfectly full, cogent, and clear, the sense of liberty, as we showed before, entirely vanisheth. In other cases, where the field of choice is wider, and where opposite motives counter balance and work a gains teach other, the mind fluctuates for a while, and feels itself more loose: but at last, must as necessarily be determined to the side of the most powerful motive, as the balance, after several vibrations, to the side of the preponderating weight. The laws of mind, and the laws of matter, are in this respect perfectly similar; though, in making the comparison, we are apt to deceive ourselves. In forming a notion of physical necessity, we seldom think of any force, but what hath visibly a full effect. A man in prison, or tied to a post, must remain there: if dragged along, he cannot resist. Whereas motives, which are very different, do not always produce sensible effects. Yet, when the comparison is accurately instituted, the very same thing holds in the actions of matter. A weak motive makes some impression: but, in opposition to one more powerful, it has no effect to determine the mind. In the precise same manner, a small force will not overcome a great resistance; nor an ounce in one scale, counter balance a pound in the other. Comparing together the actions of mind and of matter, similar causes will in both equally produce similar effects.
But admitting all that hath been contended for, of the necessary influence of motives to bring on the choice or last judgment of the understanding, it is urged by Dr. Clarke, that man is still a free agent, because he hath a power of acting or beginning motion according to his will. In this he placeth human liberty, that motives are not physical efficient causes of motion.*ii Man is a free agent undoubtedly, because he acts as he wills; but he is equally a necessary agent, as being necessarily influenced by motives to act. The motive, according to his own concession, necessarily determines the will; and the will necessarily produces the action, unless it be obstructed by some foreign force. “But,” says he, “it is only a moral necessity which is produced by motives; and a moral necessity is no necessity at all, being consistent with the highest liberty.” The Doctor’s error lies in opposing moral necessity to liberty. Man is a free agent, because he acts according to his own will. He is at the same time a necessary agent, because his will is necessarily influenced by motives. These are perfectly consistent. The laws of action which respect the human mind, are as fixed as those which respect matter. The idea of necessary, certain, unavoidable, equally agrees to both.
One great source of confusion, in reflecting upon this subject, seems to be, our not distinguishing betwixt necessity and constraint. In common language, these are used as equivalent terms; but they ought to be distinguished when we treat of this subject. A person having a strong desire to escape, remains in prison because the doors are guarded. Finding his keepers gone, he makes his escape. His escape now is as necessary, i.e. as certain and infallible a consequence of the circumstances he finds himself in, as his confinement was before; though in the one case there is constraint, in the other none. When, being under no constraint, we act according to our inclination and choice, our actions are justly reckoned free. At the same time they are strictly necessary; because every inclination and choice is unavoidably caused or occasioned by the prevailing motive.
The preceding reasonings may perhaps make a stronger impression upon being reduced into a short argument, after the following manner. When a being acts merely by instinct and without any view to consequences, every one must see that it acts necessarily. Though not so obvious, the case comes to the same where an action is exerted in order to bring about some end or event. This end or event must be the object of desire; for no man in his senses who uses means in order to a certain end, but must desire the means to be effectual: if we do not desire to accomplish an event, we cannot possibly act in order to bring it about. Desire and action are then intimately connected; so intimately, that no action can be exerted where there is no antecedent desire: the event is first the object of desire, and then we act in order to bring it about. This being so, it follows clearly, that our actions cannot be free in any sense opposed to their being morally necessary. Our desires obviously are not under our own power, but are raised by means that depend not upon us. And if our desires are not under our power, neither can our actions be under our power. Liberty, as opposed to moral necessity, if it have any meaning, must signify a power to act in contradiction to desire; or, in other words, a power to act in contradiction to any view, purpose, or design, we can have in acting; which power, beside that no man was ever conscious of it, seems to be an absurdity altogether inconsistent with a rational being.
With regard to things supposed so equal as to found no preference of one to another, it is not necessary to enter into any intricate inquiry how the mind in such cases is directed. Though it should be admitted, that where there is no motive to influence the mind, it may act arbitrarily; this would not affect the preceding reasonings, which suppose the existence of a prevailing motive. Objects balanced one against another with perfect equality, if such are to be found, must be so few and in matters so trivial (as in the common instance of eggs) that they cannot have any considerable influence upon the chain of causes and effects. It may well admit of a doubt, whether the mind be in any case left altogether destitute of a motive to determine its choice betwixt two objects: for though the objects should in themselves be perfectly equal, yet various unobserved circumstances of fancy, custom, proximity of place, &c. may turn the scale in favour of one of the objects. In this state of suspense, betwixt two things equally balanced, the uneasiness one feels, searching and casting about for some ground of choice, proves, that to act altogether arbitrarily is unnatural, and that our constitution fits us to be determined by motives.
As there is scarce room for overdoing in explaining the doctrine of moral necessity, which in some particulars goes cross to vulgar notions, I shall endeavour to set it in a clear light, by opposing it to physical necessity. In the first place, a man under the influence of a physical cause is passive: he is acted upon, and doth not act. Under the influence of a moral cause, he himself acts; and the moral cause operates by influencing and determining him to act. Secondly, a physical cause is generally exerted against a man’s inclination and will. If the force applied overcome his resistance, he must submit; and in this case, the necessity is involuntary: it is constraint or coaction.* On the other hand, moral necessity is always voluntary. A moral cause operates not by force or coaction, but by solicitation and persuasion. It applies to the judgment, and generally affords conviction. But whether or no, it never fails to succeed with the sensitive part of our nature, by raising desire; and when a man is under no restraint, he naturally and necessarily proceeds to action, in order to accomplish his desire. The action is performed as a means to an end. It is directed by will, and is in the strictest sense voluntary. It is at the same time necessary: for such is the nature of man, that desire always determines the will. The necessity here is of the same kind with that of being pleased with a beautiful object, or of being displeased with one that is ugly. But as this necessity is altogether voluntary, it is directly opposite to what arises from external force. Thirdly, physical necessity, except when voluntary which rarely happens, is extremely disagreeable. But moral necessity, which is always voluntary, is for that reason always agreeable. To nothing is human nature more averse than to constraint: on the other hand, our condition is always agreeable when we enjoy the freedom of our own will. Fourthly, a man impelled by a physical cause and acted upon involuntarily, must be sensible of the force and coaction, and consequently of the necessity he is under. A moral cause is in a very different condition. As it influences by persuasion, and not force, it may well be supposed to operate without discovering itself to be a necessary cause. And in fact that it so operates, is evident from constant experience. And hence the ignorance, almost universal, of our being necessary agents.
And this luckily suggests a comparison between moral necessity, and a power to act against motives, termed commonly liberty of indifference. To convince men that they are necessary agents, is I am sensible a difficult undertaking. Voluntary necessity is in the course of life never felt; and for that reason we find in common language no term for it. It is not other ways discoverable, but by a long chain of abstract reasoning. It is there fore known to philosophers only, who give it the name of moral necessity. Hence it is, that when we talk of necessity, the gross of mankind are apt to take the alarm; because they can form no idea of necessity, different from that of constraint, where the necessity is involuntary. We have thus natural prejudice and prepossession to struggle with, which are not to be surmounted till the heart be prepared to receive a favourable impression. The comparison proposed will, I am hopeful, place moral necessity in a light to be generally relished. Moral necessity, as has been observed, is always agreeable. An action, provided it be voluntary, is not the less agreeable by being necessary: so far from it, that the necessity and agreeableness are in separable, as proceeding from the same cause. An action is necessary, because it is directed by desire: it is at the same time agreeable, because it tends to the accomplishment of desire. And from this it clearly follows, that the greater the necessity is, the greater must also be the pleasure. And now to the other member of the comparison. It is difficult to form a conception of a power to act, without motives or any thing to influence the mind. But supposing such a power, it must be devoid of all pleasure or satisfaction, even when exercised without crossing any appetite or passion. It is still more difficult to form a conception of a power to act in contradiction to motives, or in other words in contradiction to desire. But such power, if it can exist, must be extremely disagreeable: for here a man acting in contradiction to his desires, must of course render himself miserable. In this particular, liberty of indifference resembles perfectly physical necessity: for when a man lies open to have his most rational and best-concerted schemes disappointed, it comes to the same in point of distress, whether the disappointment be occasioned by an internal or an external cause. Imagine a person constantly at my elbow, who contradicts me in every thing, would not I be a miserable being? Instead of such a person, imagine a power within the breast of every man, ready to cross all his inclinations, his most innocent desires, his firmest resolves, would any thing be wanting to render him the most unhappy of all beings?
But now a thought comes across the mind that demands attention. How hard is the lot of the human species, to be thus tied down, and fixed by motives; subjected by a necessary law to the choice of evil, if evil happen to be the prevailing motive, or if it mislead us under the form of our greatest interest or good! How happy to have had a free independent power of acting contrary to motives, when the prevailing motive hath a bad tendency! By this power we might have pushed our way to virtue and happiness, whatever motives were suggested by vice and folly to draw us back; or we might by arbitrary will have refrained from acting the bad part, though all the power of motives concurred to urge us on. So far well. But may not this arbitrary power be exerted against good motives as well as against bad ones? If it do good in restraining us from vice, may it not do ill in restraining us from virtue? and so shall we not be thrown loose altogether? At this rate, we could not rely on any man. Promises, oaths, vows, would be vain; for nothing can ever bind or fix one who is influenced by no motive. The distinction of characters would be at an end; for a person cannot have a character who hath no fixed nor uniform principle of action. Nay, moral virtue itself and all the force of law, rule, and obligation, would upon this hypothesis be nothing; for no creature can be the subject of rational or moral government, whose actions, by the constitution of its nature, are independent of motives, and whose will is capricious and arbitrary. To exhort, to instruct, to promise, to threaten, would be to no purpose. In short, such a creature, if such could exist, would be a most bizarre and unaccountable being; a mere absurdity in nature, whose existence could serve no end. Were we so constituted as always to be determined by the moral sense, even against the strongest counter motives; this would be consistent with human nature, because it would preserve entire the connection unalterably established betwixt the will and the prevailing motive. But to break this connection altogether; to introduce an unbounded arbitrary liberty in opposition to motives, would be, instead of amending, to deform and unhinge the human constitution. No reason have we therefore to regret, that we find the will necessarily subjected to motives; unless we would have man to be a whimsical and ridiculous being.iii
In the course of this reasoning, we have abstracted from all controversies about divine prescience and decree. Though from what hath been proved it appears, that the Divine Being decreed all future events: for he who gave such a nature to his creatures, and placed them in such circumstances, as that a certain train of actions must necessarily follow; did certainly resolve or decree, that events should fall out, and men should act as they do. Prescience indeed is not, properly speaking, any cause of events: for events do not happen because they are foreseen, but because they are to happen, they are capable of being foreseen. Though prescience doth not cause, yet it undoubtedly supposes, the certain futurition (as schoolmen speak) of events. And were there not causes that render the existence of future events certain, it would involve a contradiction to maintain, that future events could be certainly foreseen.iv
In Sketches of the History of Man, the argument here insisted on is brought within a narrow compass.
With respect to instinctive actions, no man I presume thinks there is any freedom: an infant applies to the nipple, and a bird builds a nest, no less necessarily than a stone falls to the ground. With respect to voluntary actions, the necessity is the same, tho’ less apparent at first view. The external action is determined by the will, the will is determined by desire, and desire by what is agreeable or disagreeable. Here is a chain of causes and effects, not one link of which is arbitrary, or under command of the agent. He cannot act but according to his will: he cannot will but according to his desire: he cannot desire but according to what is agreeable or disagreeable in the objects perceived. Nor do these qualities depend on his inclination or fancy: he has no power to make a beautiful woman appear ugly, nor to make a rotten car case smell sweet.*
Thus, after a deep and diligent investigation, it is discovered, that moral necessity and prescience in the Deity are perfectly consistent with liberty or absolute freedom in acting; a seeming paradox which that acute and penetrating philosopher Mr. Locke despaired ever to explain. In a letter to Mr. Molyneux he writes,
I own freely to you the weakness of my understanding, that though it be unquestionable that there is omnipotence and omniscience in God our Maker, and though I cannot have a clearer perception of any thing than that I am free; yet I cannot make freedom in man consistent with omnipotence and omniscience in God, though I am as fully persuaded of both as of any truth I most firmly assent to: and therefore I have long since given off the consideration of that question; resolving all into this short conclusion, That if it be possible for God to make a free agent, then man is free, though I see not the way of it.
The sum of what is discovered concerning the impressions we have of contingency in events, and liberty in actions, is this. Comparing together the moral and the material world, every thing is as much the result of established laws in the one as in the other. There is nothing in the whole universe that can properly be called contingent, that may be, or may not be; nothing loose and fluctuating in any part of nature: but every motion in the material, and every action in the moral world, are directed by immutable laws; so that, whilst these laws remain in force, not the smallest link of the universal chain of causes and effects can be broken, nor any one thing be otherwise than it is.*
Against this system I know but of one objection that appears formidable. It is observed above, that though with respect to any future event we constantly judge that it will be the result of some motive, yet that after the event happens the judgement varies: looking back upon any shameful action, we condemn the author as having done wrong; have a conviction that he ought to have acted a better part; and the author himself has the same conviction. Is not this an appeal to every man’s own conviction, that he is not a necessary agent; and can he be a necessary agent when he is conscious of the contrary? Let any man consider his own case when stung with remorse for having committed a gross crime: he will acknowledge his being convinced that he might and ought to have restrained his passion, that he is ashamed of himself and repents bitterly. I consider my own case. In a fit of remorse for having injured my best friend, conscience stares me in the face, and condemns me for a deed that even the most violent passion cannot excuse. “I was not deprived of my senses: I knew what I was doing; and yet yielded to an outragious passion, which I ought to have restrained.” This objection is stated in the former editions;4 and the only answer I could find was, that this sentiment relates to physical power only, “that I was compelled by no force, and that I could have acted a right part had I been so inclined.” One is easily convinced of a favourite opinion; and in the heat of composition I was satisfied with that answer. But upon a long interval the subject becoming in a measure new again, I perceived the answer to be insufficient. After much perplexity, I discovered an answer, which I am confident will be found solid and satisfactory. I take it for granted, that during a fit of passion instigating one to perpetrate a lawless deed, there is not the slightest notion of a power to resist; will being the necessary consequence of desire, as the external act is of will. But no sooner does remorse make its appearance, than we find it accompanied with the notion of are straining power. From the example now given, and from a thousand of the same kind that may be recollected, there is reason to believe that the notion of a restraining power constantly attends remorse; and so far they are connected. Further, that the connection is so entire as that the notion of a restraining power never appears alone, will be evident from the following example. A man who had long professed himself my friend, takes advantage of the confidence I have in him, to corrupt my wife. Inflamed with revenge, I put the infamous betrayer to death. This, it is true, is a crime prohibited by the law of the land; but I cannot repent of it, nor have any remorse. My constant reflection is, that not a man of spirit but would have done the same; and that my revenge was not only just but unavoidable. This example is given as a copy of human nature, representing what every man of feeling would think on the like occasion. If so, it follows that where there is no remorse, there is no notion of liberty or a restraining power after the deed is committed more than before. Thus, we find that remorse and the notion of a restraining power are constant companions; and in particular that the latter never appears without the former. What remains for giving complete satisfaction, is to make out that it is the nature of remorse to produce that delusive notion. For this I refer to Elements of Criticism,* where is handled the irregular influence of passion on our opinions and sentiments. All passions, especially those that are violent, are prone to their gratification. Remorse for an atrocious crime, makes the man odious in his own eyes: it gratifies his remorse to find himself guilty; and to leave him without excuse, the passion forces upon him a conviction that he might and ought to have done other ways. If the unlawful act be so slight or so natural as to give no remorse, the man sees what he has done in its true light, without the disguise of passion. During the act he is not conscious of any restraining power; and as little after. Let any action of that kind be analised, and it will be found, that any notion of a power to act against motives, is intirely owing to the irregular influence of passion. So mighty indeed is its influence, as to force upon a man a sort of conviction of guilt, even where the fact done was accidental so as to admit no notion of are straining power. Agentleman, directing his pistol to a troublesome cur biting his horse’s heels, most unhappily lodged the ball in the breast of a young girl crossing the way. In his cool moments he was conscious of innocence; but at whatever time his imagination painted the sweet and beautiful creature lying dead at his feet, his tender and sensible heart stung him with a sort of remorse, and he could not help condemning himself as rash, impetuous, and in a degree criminal. If the reader wish more light on this curious subject, he will please to cast his eye on Sketches of the History of Man.* What is here observed with respect to the author himself, is equally applicable to the by standers. Remorse is gratified in the criminal by a conviction that it was in his power to have restrained his passion. The indignation of the bystanders is equally gratified, by thinking as the guilty person does. But with respect to any slight wrong that raises little or no indignation in others, there is nothing to bias them against truth, more than to bias the actor himself. And now having proved, I hope to the satisfaction of my readers, that this formidable objection is no better than a bugbear, and that any notion we have of a power to act against motives is a delusion of passion not of nature, I rest with entire satisfaction in the necessary chain of causes and effects, which I am thoroughly convinced to be the system of nature.v
The doctrine of universal necessity being thus laid open and proved to be the system of nature, we proceed to a most importants peculation; which is to consider how far that system is consistent with our moral sentiments, and in particular with those of praise, blame, merit, demerit, guilt, &c. While we continue uncertain as to that point, we cannot have any just or accurate notion of morals. The doctrine of liberty and necessity is in that view worthy of great attention; and in that view chiefly was it undertaken. To find our actions governed by a law repugnant to the foregoing moral sentiments, which are natural and universal, would in the human constitution be a puzzling circumstance. It would argue a defect or inconsistence, not uncommon in works of art, but rare if at all to be found in any work of nature. And yet we have occasion to be alarmed, when we hear the advocates for liberty of indifference reason in the following manner.
If human actions be necessary, and if we know them to be so, what ground can there be for reprehension and blame, for self condemnation and remorse? If a clock were sensible of its own motions, knowing that they proceed according to necessary laws, could it find fault with itself for striking wrong? Would it not rather blame the artist, who had ill-adjusted the wheels on which its movements depend? They urge accordingly, that upon the system of necessity, the moral constitution of our nature is totally over turned; that there is an end to all the operations of conscience about right and wrong; and that man is no longer a moral agent, nor the subject of praise or blame for what he does.
This is a strong attack upon human nature; and better a thousand times give up the system we have been contending for, than acknowledge that man is incapable of morality. But let us not rashly relinquish a system that is so well supported. Upon a narrower inspection, it may possibly be discovered, that the moral sense is concordant with necessity, and that the connection betwixt desire and will is no obstacle to approbation and disapprobation, praise and blame. To have a just conception of this matter, we must examine carefully by what particular circumstances these moral sentiments are occasioned. I observe, in the first place, that an action is always approved when it proceeds from a virtuous motive, and consequently hath a good aim or tendency. The connection betwixt the motive and the action, so far from diminishing, is the very circumstance that constitutes the morality of the action: the greater the influence of the motive, the greater the virtue of the actor, and the more warm our approbation. Do we not even praise one for modesty or sweetness of temper? The Deity is an object of the highest praise, for the very reason that he is necessarily good. On the other hand, an action is disapproved when it proceeds from a vitious motive; and the more influence the motive had on the agent, the greater his vice, and the more warm our disapprobation. We are so constituted, as to blame ourselves, even when we have the clearest conviction of inability to behave better. A coward is conscious that he has no heart to encounter danger, and that he will certainly turn his back upon the approach of an enemy. Though he cannot overcome this weakness, yet he accuses and blames himself: he cannot help censuring himself in this manner, more than he can help his weakness, or more than he can help being ashamed of it. Upon the same foundations are evidently built our notion of rewards and punishments. If virtue ought to be rewarded, the man hath the best claim who is virtuous by the constitution of his nature, and upon whom a vitious motive hath no influence. On the other hand, no man is more guilty or more deserving of punishment, than he who by his nature hath the strongest propensity to vice, and upon whom virtuous motives have little or no effect.
But in the foregoing instances it will be urged, that the man we praise or blame had it in his power to act a different part; that we praise him for a benevolent action, or blame him for one that is sordid, because such action was his choice when he could have abstained from it. I admit, that in all our moral sentiments it is understood that the person acts voluntarily, and according to the dictates of his own heart. A man, in doing what is worthy of praise or blame, must be free from external coaction, and at liberty to follow his own choice. This power or freedom, which is perfectly consistent with moral or voluntary necessity, is evidently the only power that morality requires. Supposing only a man to be free to act as he pleases, we currently praise or blame him for the part he acts, without requiring any other condition. We demand not that he should have a power to act in contradiction to his own desire and choice. The idea of such a power enters not into any of our moral sentiments: on the contrary, if the nature of any individual be either so good or so bad, as that he could not avoid being determined to the choice he made, he on that very account is the more praised or blamed.
We then find, that the moral sentiments have their full swing, without supposing liberty of indifference, or any thing like a power to act against our own will. Nor can I even conceive, that such a power, supposing it real, could add any spring or force to the moral sense. When a man commits a crime, let us suppose that he could have resisted the prevailing motive. Why then did he not resist? why did he yield to the vitious motive, and bring upon himself shame and misery? The answer must be, for no other can be given, That his disposition was bad, that he is a wretch, and deserves to be detested and abhorred. Here we clearly see, upon the present supposition as well as upon that of necessity that praise and blame rest ultimately upon the disposition or frame of mind; that a virtuous disposition is the only object of praise, and a vitious disposition the only object of blame. It is therefore a fond conceit, to espouse the chimerical system of liberty of indifference, as necessary to explain our moral sentiments. These sentiments are perfectly concordant with the system of voluntary necessity; and supposing liberty of indifference, we cannot even conceive how it should make man a more proper subject of moral sentiments, than in fact he is, considered as a necessary being.
I proceed one step farther; which is, to make out, that liberty of indifference, far from being implied in the moral sentiments of praise and blame, would in some measure cramp the moral sense, and blunt the sentiments arising from it. In order to put this matter in its true light, I shall state a case. A man tempted to betray his trust, deliberates, wavers, but at last rejects the offered bribe, and adheres to his duty. Another man, without the least deliberation, rejects with disdain the bribe, and considers the offer as a high injury. Which of these persons is the most virtuous and the most praise-worthy, no one is at a loss to say. A power of resisting the strongest motive, must imply a wavering and fluctuation of the mind, betwixt the motive, and the power of resistance; for, by the supposition, the mind has both to chuse on. If so, a man endued with liberty of indifference is justly represented by the person first described, fluctuating and wavering betwixt a virtuous and vitious motive; and upon that account the actions of a man endued with liberty of indifference, will, in the estimation of all mankind, be less praise or blame worthy, than the actions of a man who is unerringly directed by the strongest motive without wavering or fluctuating. And indeed, it would sound extremely harsh, that a good or an evil tendency, so slight as to leave power in the mind to resist it, should be an object of greater praise or blame, than a tendency so strong as to leave no power of resistance. Viewing the matter in this light, it evidently appears, that a power to act against motives, so far from being necessary to found praise or blame, would, if it really did exist, detract considerably from both.
Having showed that our moral sentiments are perfectly concordant with moral necessity; I urge, in the next place, that no other system of action can lay a better foundation for praise or blame, or for any moral sentiment, than the system of voluntary necessity doth. It is, I hope, made evident, that liberty of indifference or a power to act against motives, lays not so good a foundation; and yet I cannot imagine another system that will better answer the purpose. In judging of moral sentiments, an error is extremely apt to creep in. We have a clear conception, that a man under coaction or external force acts involuntarily, and can neither be praised nor blamed for what he doth. This reflection we unwarily apply to moral necessity, not adverting to the substantial difference betwixt a voluntary and involuntary action. A man in his own conscience is made accountable for every voluntary action: it is not regarded whether he had or had not a power of resistance. And it has been proved, that were that power to be regarded, so far from contributing to praise or blame, it would have no other effect but to lessen both.
The strong prepossession in favour of liberty of indifference, ariseth, I am sensible, from a laudable cause: it is conceived to be more consistent with our sentiments of morality, than the system of necessity is. This opinion is found to be erroneous. A man who is necessarily good or bad by the constitution of his nature, deserves more to be praised or blamed, than if he had a power of resisting all motives, and acting against them. And indeed as every action doth proceed from a virtuous or vitious temper as its primary cause; praise or blame must ultimately rest upon that cause, and not upon the external action, or the power of acting. This consideration ought to make us chearfully abandon a chimerical system, which at the same time is less concordant with the moral sense, than the system of necessity is.
And this leads me to enquire, whence is derived the delusive notion of liberty of indifference; for surely it could not be generally espoused without some foundation. It has been observed, that we have no intuitive perception or direct consciousness of our being necessary agents; and that this branch of our nature is hid from the generality of mankind. The knowledge of it, not being necessary for our well-being, is left to be gathered by reasoning and reflection. We are however intuitively conscious of freedom of action, and of a power existing in us to act according to our will and choice. This power is far from being the same with that of willing and chusing in an arbitrary manner; and yet, in superficial thinking, we are apt to confound these two powers, and to consider them as the same. Power indeed is with mankind a favourite idea, and we are prone to adopt any system which seems to extend it. The operations of the will, beside, are subtile and delicate; and, with the bulk of mankind, a power to chuse, and a power to act according to our choice, though essentially distinct, pass readily for being the same.
Having discovered, that the moral sense is perfectly concordant with moral or voluntary necessity, as also, that we have no such thing naturally as a sense of power to act in contradiction to our inclination and choice; I proceed to a more particular examination of the sense of contingency, in the view chiefly to discover, if possible, whether it have any deeper root in our nature, than the erroneous conviction of liberty of indifference. In our ordinary train of thinking, it is certain, that all events appear not to us as necessary. A multitude of events seem to be under our power to cause or to prevent; and we readily make a distinction betwixt events that are necessary, i.e. that must be, and events that are contingent, i.e. that may be or may not be. This distinction is void of truth; for all things that fall out either in the material or moral world, are, as we have seen, alike necessary, and alike the result of fixed laws. Yet whatever may be the conviction of a philosopher, the distinction betwixt things necessary and things contingent, possesses his common train of thought, as much as those of the most illiterate. We act universally upon that distinction: nay, it is in truth the cause of all the labour, care, and industry of mankind. I illustrate this doctrine by an example. Constant experience hath taught us, that death is a necessary event. The human frame is not made to last for ever in its present condition; and no man thinks of more than a temporary existence upon this globe. But the particular time of our death appears a contingent event: however certain it be, that the time and manner of a man’s death is determined by a train of preceding causes, and is not less fixed than the hour of the sun’s rising or setting; yet no person is affected by that doctrine. In the care of prolonging life, we are directed by the supposed contingency of the time of death; which, to a certain term of years, we consider as depending in a great measure on ourselves, by caution against accidents, due use of food, exercise, &c. These means are prosecuted with the same diligence, as if there were in fact no necessary train of causes to fix the period of life. In short, whoever attends to his own practical ideas, whoever reflects upon the meaning of the following words, which occur in all languages, of things possible, contingent, that are in our power to cause or prevent; whoever, I say, reflects upon these words, will clearly see, that they suggest certain perceptions or notions, repugnant to the doctrine above established of universal necessity.*
So stands the fact, and the question is, Whence proceeds this delusive sense of contingency? Is it original, or can it otherwise be accounted for? Reflecting upon this subject, I find that uniform events are understood to be necessary, such as day and night, winter and summer, death, &c.; but that events in which there are any degrees of variety, such as the time of death, good or bad weather, &c. are generally understood to be contingent. Does our sense of contingency arise from the uncertainty of the event? Hardly so; for uncertainty cannot naturally have any other effect upon the mind, than to produce a consciousness of our ignorance. The sense of contingency, then, with respect to things uncertain, must be pronounced an original law in our nature. By this law we are made to conceive many future events as in themselves uncertain, and as having no determined cause of existence. Contingency in this view may justly be considered as a secondary quality, which hath no real existence in things; but, like other secondary qualities, is made to appear as an attribute of events, in order to serve the purposes of human life.
This sense of contingency in events, regards not only events in the material world, but also what arise from moral causes, or from the activity of man. The event of a pitched battle betwixt two armies equal in numbers and in discipline, every one deems to be in some measure contingent. When a man wavers in his resolutions, the course he will steer is reckoned a matter of chance or contingency. But how can the sense of contingency in this case be reconciled to the doctrine of our being necessary agents? A sense of necessity would, no doubt, be directly contradictory to the sense of contingency; and both could not subsist together. To make way for the sense of contingency, the necessary connection betwixt desire and will is kept out of sight; and by this contrivance it is, that we are not sensible of being necessary agents. The discovery that we are so, proceeds from a long train of reasoning; and the conviction that arises from a process of reasoning, is too faint to counter balance an intuitive perception or original sense of contingency.vi
The Deity is the primary cause of all things. In his infinite mind he formed the great plan of government, which is carried on by laws fixed and immutable. These laws produce a regular train of causes and effects in the moral as well as material world, bringing about those events which are comprehended in the original plan, and admitting the possibility of none other. This universe is a vast machine, winded up and set a-going: the several springs and wheels operate unerringly one upon another: the hand advanceth and the clock strikes, precisely as the artist had determined. Whoever hath just ideas, will see this to be the real theory of the universe; and that other ways there can be no general order, no whole, no plan, no means nor end in its administration. In this plan, man bears his part, and fulfils certain ends for which he was designed. He must be an actor, and must act with consciousness of spontaneity. He exercises thought and reason, and his nature is improved by the due use of these powers. Consequently, it is necessary, that he should have some notion of things depending upon himself to cause, that he may be led to a proper exercise of that activity for which he was designed. But as a sense of necessity would be a perpetual contradiction to that activity, it was well ordered, that his being a necessary agent should be hid from him. To have had his perceptions and ideas formed upon the plan of universal necessity, to have seen himself a part of that great machine, winded up and set a-going by the author of his nature; would have been inconsistent with the part that is allotted him to act. Then indeed the ignava ratio, the inactive doctrine of the Stoics, would have followed. Conceiving no thing to be contingent, or depending upon himself to cause, there would have been no room for forethought about futurity, nor for any sort of industry and care. He would have had no motives to action, but immediate sensations of pleasure and pain. He must have been formed like the brutes, who have no other principle of action but mere instinct. The few instincts he is at present endued with, would have been insufficient. He must have had an instinct to sow, another to reap; he must have had instincts to pursue every conveniency, and perform every office of life. In short, reason and thought could not have been exercised in the way they are, had not man been furnished with a sense of contingency, and been kept in ignorance of his being a necessary agent. Let the philosopher meditate in his closet upon abstract truth; let him be ever so much convinced of the settled necessary train of causes and effects, which leaves nothing, properly speaking, in his power; yet the moment he comes forth into the world, he acts as a free agent. And, what is wonderful, though in this he acts upon a false supposition, yet he is not thereby misled from the ends of action, but, on the contrary, fulfils them to better advantage.vii
So far the second edition, which, with respect to the present article, is preserved entire as expressing the notion of chance and contingency hitherto universally admitted. But time, productive of many changes, has upon the thinking part of mankind a great influence in detecting errors. It is now my opinion, that there is no such thing in nature as a sense of chance or contingency, such as is described above; that on the contrary our notions of them are entirely consonant to the system of universal necessity, and therefore not in any degree delusive. To clear that important subject, I lay down a preliminary proposition which will have the voice of every thinking person, namely, that nothing can happen without a cause. This proposition is the work of nature, and familiar even among children, who are ever solicitous to learn, why such a thing happened, or how it came about. The most singular events are not made an exception: rather than rest satisfied without a cause, the vulgar commonly recur to invisible powers. It is indeed true, that our conviction of a cause is not always equally entire. With respect to events that happen regularly, such as summer, winter, rising and setting of the sun, we have an entire conviction of a cause. It is less entire with respect to irregular events, such as alterations in the weather; and least of all entire with respect to events that are not only irregular but that seldom fall out, such as a meteor, a water-spout, or an earthquake. But with respect to no event whatever, does our conviction of a cause vanish so entirely, as to give way to a notion of any thing happening without a cause. Chance is applied to events that have happened: contingency, to future events. By the expression that such a thing happened by chance, it cannot be meant that it happened without a cause, or that chance was the cause; for no one ever imagined that an effect can exist without a cause, or that chance can act and produce effects. Nothing is or can be meant, but that we are ignorant of the cause, and that for ought we know the event might have happened or not happened. With respect to contingency, future events are said to be contingent when they cannot be foreseen; not that they will happen without a cause. Chance and contingency thus explained are entirely consistent with the conviction of universal necessity: they are expressive of our ignorance only, not of any looseness in the course of events. The first opportunity I had of publishing this discovery, was in Sketches of the History of Man;* where it is more fully handled; particularly, that a firm conviction of universal necessity has no tendency to make us relax in our pursuits, either for our own good or for that of others; more than a delusive sense of contingency would have.* And here I finish the present Essay with the satisfaction of finding the system of universal necessity firmly established, and free from any delusive sense.
[1. ]Here Kames quotes his own words, from Essay III, “Of Liberty and Necessity” (pp. 162–3) of the first edition of his Essays (for textual variations between the three editions, see Appendix).
[2. ]Another direct quotation from the first edition of the Essays (pp. 166–7).
[* ]Vid. his Demonstration of the Being and Attributes, p. 565. fol. edit. and his answer to Collins Passim. [Kames quotes from Proposition X, “The Self-Existent Being, the Supreme Cause of all Things, must of Necessity have Infinite Powers,” of Samuel Clarke’s A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, in A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God, p. 98. Clarke engaged in a series of published exchanges with the freethinker Anthony Collins (1676–1729) over the question of divine will and human agency, and responded to Collins’s Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717) with his Remarks upon a Book, Entituled, A Philosophical Enquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717).]
[* ]Physical necessity, however, is not always involuntary. Force may be applied to bring about an agreeable event. In this case the necessity is voluntary. A ship having in a storm lost its masts and rigging, is driven towards the port by a violent wind: the seamen being under the power of physical necessity, are entirely passive; but their desire is to be on shore. The necessity they are under, corresponds with their desire, and is thereby voluntary. Elias was translated to heaven in a chariot of fire. The necessity was physical, but it was also voluntary. [The reference to Elias comes from 2 Kings 2:11.]
[* ]Vol. IV. p. 95. Edit. 2d. [From “Liberty and necessity considered with respect to morality,” in Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 4, bk. 3, sketch 8. As Kames notes at the end of this sketch (p. 118), his discussion is an abridgement of the essay “Of Liberty and Necessity” from the Essays, parts of which were also published in the second edition (1767) of the Principles of Equity (1st ed. 1760).]
[3. ]Locke to Molyneux, Jan. 1692–3, Some Familiar Letters between Locke and several of his Friends, in The Works of John Locke, 12th ed., 10 vols. (London, 1823), 8:304. William Molyneux (1656–1698), Anglo-Irish mathematician and astronomer, translated Descartes’ Meditations into English as Six metaphysical meditations wherein it is proved that there is a God and that mans mind is really distinct from his body (London, 1680). Kames cites from part 7 of Voltaire’s La Henriade (Rouen, France, 1723; English translation, 1728), an epic in ten verses that celebrates the struggles of the Protestant Henry of Navarre (Henri IV) against the Catholic League.
[* ]As to an objection of making God the author of sin, which may seem to arise from our system, it is rather popular than philosophical. Sin, or moral turpitude, lies in the evil intention of him who commits it. It consists in some wrong or depraved affection supposed to be in the sinner. Now the intention of the Deity is unerringly good. The end purposed by him is order and general happiness; and there is the greatest reason to believe, that all events are so directed by him, as to work towards this end. In the present system of things, some moral disorders are indeed included. No doubt it is a considerable difficulty, how evil comes to be in the world, seeing God is perfectly good. But this difficulty is not peculiar to our doctrine; but recurs upon us at last with equal force, whatever hypothesis we embrace. For moral evil cannot exist, without being, at least, permitted by the Deity. And with regard to a first cause, permitting is the same thing with causing; since against his will nothing can possibly happen. All the schemes that have been contrived for answering this objection, are but the tortoise introduced to support the elephant. They put the difficulty a step further off, but never remove it.
[4. ]In the first ed., pp. 197–9; in the second ed., p. 144.
[* ]Chap. 2. Part 5. [Kames refers the reader to his discussion of the “causes of fear and anger” in Elements of Criticism, vol. 1, chap. 2, pt. I, sec. v.]
[* ]Vol. IV. page 113. edition 2d. [“Liberty and necessity considered with respect to morality,” in Kames, Sketches, vol. 4, bk. 3, sketch 8.]
[* ]This deviation of perception from truth, gave rise to the famous debate concerning things possible, among the ancient Stoics, who held the doctrine of universal necessity. Diodorus, as Cicero informs us in his book De Fato, cap. 7, held this opinion, Id solum fieri posse, quod aut verum sit, aut futurum sit verum; at quicquid futurum sit, id dicit fieri necesse esse, et quicquid non sit futurum, id negat fieri posse: that is, He maintained, there is nothing contingent in future events, nothing possible to happen, but that precise event which will happen. This no doubt, was carrying their system its due length: though, in this way of speaking, there is something that contradicts the preceptions of mankind. Chrysippus, on the other hand, maintained, that it is possible for future events to happen other ways than in fact they happen. This was inconsistent with his general system of necessity; and therefore, as Cicero gives us to understand, he was often imbarrassed in the debate with Diodorus: and Plutarch, in his book De Repugnantiis Stoicorum, exposes him for this inconsistency. But Chrysippus chose to follow his natural perceptions, in opposition to philosophy; holding, that Diodorus’s doctrine of nothing being possible but what happens, is ignava ratio, tending to absolute inaction; cui si pareamus, as Cicero expresses it, nihil omnino agamus in vita. So early were philosophers sensible of the difficulty of reconciling speculation with perception, as to this doctrine of fate. [Cicero’s account of the opinion of Diodorus: “For he says that only what either is true or will be true can happen, and he says that whatever is going to happen must necessarily happen, and that whatever will not happen cannot happen.” Cicero, On Fate (De Fato), ed. and trans. R. W. Sharples (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1991), 7.13, pp. 64–5; 7.28, pp. 76–7. His characterization of ignava ratio (“lazy argument”) reads: “If we obeyed this, we would do nothing at all in life.” As an example of the inaction caused by lazy argument, Cicero writes that some followers of Diodorus maintain there is no point in calling a doctor when ill, since one is fated either to recover or not recover from the illness. Diodorus Cronus (fl. 3rd. c. ) was a philosopher and dialectician known for his love of logical paradoxes. Chrysippus (ca. 280–207 ) was a leading Stoic known for his book on logic. Plutarch (45–125 ) attacked the doctrines of the Stoics in his De Repugnantiis Stoicorum (“On Stoic Self-Contradictions”).]
[* ]Vol. IV. page 118. edition 2d. [Sketches, vol. 4, bk. 3, sketch 8.]
[* ]It appears from Homer, that among the Greeks, an inquisitive and enlightened people, the doctrine of fate or destiny prevailed. Yet when a man’s destiny was foretold, even by the most celebrated Oracle, it had no effect but to make him more diligent to evade the impending evil. Such authority have natural impressions, in opposition to abstract reasoning, and even to what is held divine authority.