Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 6: On Duty to God 1 - Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael
Return to Title Page for Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 6: On Duty to God 1 - Gershom Carmichael, Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael 
Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On Duty to God1
Among the duties owed to God, our author is right to give first place to correct beliefs about him. Beneath the first elements of moral doctrine we must set a sure and certain knowledge of God, of his attributes, and of the dependence of all things upon him. (In this sense the distinguished Gerard de Vries in the last paragraph of the final chapter of his Pneumatological Determinations, section 3,2 has rightly observed that the end of pneumatology is the beginning of moral philosophy.) Consequently these beliefs are not put forward here so much to establish their truth as to emphasize every man’s duty of supporting and protecting them. [I.4.1.i]
The older writers may profitably be read on this argument [to the existence of God from “reflection on the fabric of the universe”]; we will realize that nature clearly confessed its author even before it was explored. But we should give particular attention to those who have recently written on this question: for the greater the progress that has been made in the science of nature, the more brightly the signs of the Divine Workman shine.3 [I.4.2.i]
Conviction of the existence and providence of the Supreme Deity should be planted deep in our minds as the immovable foundation of all religion and morality. And therefore, we must very much beware of those who oppose this belief and must root them out of our midst, as they have an utterly destructive effect on men’s very morals.
Particularly pernicious in this way (apart from atheism and Epicureanism, both of which, as the author notes, equally attack in a very direct way all religion and morality) is the opinion of those ancients, whether philosophers or poets, who taught that all things and actions are necessarily determined by a certain inevitable fate, antecedent to the determination of the divine will; they subjected even Jove to fate.
Nor is it a correct understanding of the absolute dominion of God to think that the network of secondary causes and effects is so firm and inviolable that even God himself could not abolish it once he had established the original frame of things, or suspend it in a particular case. Innumerable examples of miracles fully prove the falseness of this doctrine. It is a mistake to object, as our author does at Of the Law of Nature and Nations, II.IV.4, that if you accept this belief, you seem to destroy the effect of prayers, penitence, and moral reform. For God could connect the moral actions of men with these moral effects both by his decree and also, if he willed, by the pre-established harmony of things. And it is reasonable to believe that this is the case, since experience proves that divine providence often reveals its splendor in attuning the outcome of events to our moral actions, even when there is no reason to believe that a miracle has occurred. Others may wish to argue for a physical concatenation of causes and effects in order to exclude the moral connection of which we have spoken, but we cannot readily accept this error, which has quite pernicious consequences, so far as morals are concerned. Those who attribute an insuperable efficacy of this kind over the good or ill events which happen to individuals, to the aspects of the stars or other imaginary causes which have no connection with them, add insanity to impiety by tormenting themselves with an anxiety which is as vain as it is irreligious.
But none have a more unworthy conception of divine providence than those who think that evil spirits are permitted to control human affairs so that one can only get or keep one’s health and safety in this life by showing some fear or reverence for them in one’s words or actions. Akin to this is the impious, or shall I say, fatuous, superstition of those who, although they reject the malice of evil spirits and the pernicious arts of sorcerers, yet themselves employ absurd, idolatrous, and diabolical practices which rest on no sound reason, no experience of intelligent men, nor on any revelation except perhaps from the devil, but which find their strength in the mere stupid and fatuous credulity of the ignorant people. The pernicious effect of all these superstitions shows itself not only in inspiring groundless anxiety and terror, but above all because those whose minds have once been taken over by these ravings show no concern thereafter to conform their actions to the norm of the divine law, whether in performing their duties toward God himself or toward men, since they have placed all their hope and salvation, and thus all their religion and morality, in the observance of these follies. [I.4.4.i]
Spiritual, or thinking, nature cannot be at all reconciled with extension, since the latter includes a real diversity of parts; and therefore the infinitude of the former does not lie in infinite extension, nor its finitude in figure or in the termination of extension. Therefore, figure is to be denied to God, not only because it involves the limits of a thing having figure or an outline, but also because it presupposes extension, which, precisely because it is constituted of finite parts, cannot be an attribute of an infinitely perfect Being. And for the same reason, not only can God not be fully comprehended by imagination properly so called, he cannot be reached to any degree at all by this means. [I.4.5.i]
I would think that a distinction absolutely must be made here. For since what is understood by the term sensation and its individual kinds, taken strictly, involves a passive state and hence includes dependence in its very idea, it must certainly not be attributed to God. But we must speak differently of the terms intellect, will, and knowledge (provided the last is not restricted to dianoetic knowledge). For although they denote things which in men really are imperfect, yet those imperfections are not at all involved in the abstract idea itself which is associated with these terms. For it is not true that intellection or cognition of the truth in themselves involve a passive state or that willing as such implies lack of an appropriate object. On the contrary he would have an utterly unworthy conception of God, who did not conceive of him as understanding as well as willing in the most perfect manner. Our author agrees with this at Of the Law of Nature and Nations, II.IV.3, and elsewhere. [I.4.5.v]
[Pufendorf had reduced the terms applicable to the attributes of God to two kinds, negative and indefinite. Carmichael would add a third:]
When indefinite terms such as good, just, and the like are attributed to God in an eminent degree, they are in this case equivalent to superlatives. I would think therefore that one should add relative terms as a third class, such as those the author mentions later, Creator, King, Lord, etc.
From what has been said it is clear that not only must all imperfections be far removed from the Supreme Deity, as happens particularly in the case of his incommunicable attributes,4 but we must also constantly attribute to him also all the pure perfections and in particular those proper to rational agents, which are usually called the communicable attributes of the Deity,5 and insist that they are possessed by him in the most perfect, and consequently incommunicable, manner. We must also attribute to him every activity concerned with created things, especially rational creatures, which is worthy of those perfections. That is, God must be conceived as infinitely wise, powerful, just, and holy. From him, as from an intelligent and free cause, other things have their origin and the principle of their motion. And as he governs all things by physical authority, so he governs rational things, particularly men, by moral authority. By this authority he requires duties from them; observation of duties pleases him, violation and contempt of duties displeases him; and in their name he will exact an account from all incorruptibly, without respect for persons. For recognition of the moral authority of God and of the moral perfections he displays contributes in a certain special way to duly regulate men’s moral behavior; hence those who oppose this belief should be carefully watched and kept far away.
Such are the fantasies of those who imagine that the Supreme Deity strikes bargains about the sins of men. That is, that he accepts the offering of gifts or of any kind of rituals (especially those devised by men’s puny minds) in satisfaction for wrongs which men have committed, or are about to commit; or that a man can be freed, by any satisfaction offered for sin, from the obligation to perform the duties of piety and goodness in the future. Even more detestable is the insanity of those who hold that the Deity favors certain sins and treats them as jokes—as the old pagans imagined that the gods smiled at the perjuries of lovers; they even established different gods as patrons of nearly every different kind of crime. One must also outlaw the impiety of those who dare to hope that their wicked prayers will find favor with God, by which they seek to bring down some undeserved evil on others for their own benefit, or that a religion will be pleasing to him whose teachings tend to subvert the common laws of sociability, as when they teach for example that faith is not to be kept with men who differ from them in religion, that nothing is forbidden in the propagation of a religion, and so on. These, I say, and similar monstrous doctrines, as alike contumelious to God and his authority and inimical to all religion and moral goodness among men, are to be thoroughly detested by all good men. [I.4.5.vi]
[Pufendorf is considering “the usefulness of religion in human life” as “the ultimate and the strongest bond of human society.” Carmichael comments:]
By the term religion here, of which these things are said, we are not so much to understand the narrow sense of the direct worship of God, as that universal respect for Him as Supreme Lord and Judge which should be involved in all obedience to law, upon whose removal, ideas of moral good and evil become empty noises. Some, including Grotius himself, Rights of War and Peace, Prolegomena, sec. 12, have rashly taken up a contrary opinion; and some have championed it in our time with an ulterior motive, namely, to conceal the hideous features of atheism under whatever disguise they can. But this matter requires a fuller discussion than the plan of this course allows: see the remarks of the distinguished Barbeyrac against the censure of Anonymous (i.e., the celebrated Leibniz), secs. 13 ff.6 [I.4.9.i]
[1.] From the notes to bk. I, ch. 4, “On the Duty of Man toward God, or on Natural Religion.”
[2.] See De Natura Dei, p. 89.
[3.] Carmichael identifies the more recent writers at Synopsis, I.5, pp. 241–42, below. The “older writers” are the Augustinian scholastics (Anselm, Peter Lombard) and the Reformed theologians (Wendelinus, the elder Turretini), whom Carmichael followed particularly in Synopsis, chs. 2 and 3. De Vries continued the older tradition of Reformed theology in his Pneumatological Determinations, sec. III, “De Deo.”
[4.] See Synopsis, ch. 2, pp. 248–56.
[5.] Synopsis, ch. 3, pp. 257–69.
[6.] Barbeyrac, “Jugement d’un Anonyme,” secs. 13 ff.