Front Page Titles (by Subject) : A Well-Wisher to Mankind [JOHN PERKINS 1698-1781]: Theory of Agency: Or, An Essay on the Nature, Source and Extent of Moral Freedom - American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 1
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: A Well-Wisher to Mankind [JOHN PERKINS 1698-1781]: Theory of Agency: Or, An Essay on the Nature, Source and Extent of Moral Freedom - Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 1 
American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 1.
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A Well-Wisher to Mankind
Theory of Agency: Or, An Essay on the Nature, Source and Extent of Moral Freedom
Perkins was a physician of Lynn, Massachusetts, who authored a number of pamphlets on earthquakes, comets, and other natural phenomena. This present essay is the only instance where he is known to have taken on political matters in print. Americans during the founding era frequently had a deeper philosophical or theological basis for their understanding of concepts like freedom and equality than is apparent from their political writing. Such theoretical assumptions and underpinnings were frequently taken for granted. Perkins here lays out the basis for consent—a concept central to American politics but rarely analyzed philosophically.
The consideration of the subject of Liberty has been, not only an agreeable amusement to the Author, but really interesting; he having formerly been carried away by the metaphysical, and very specious reasonings of the Necessitarians, into a favourable opinion of their notion.
What gave him lately an occasion of considering the matter, was, the reading an Essay entitledPrinciples of Morality,written as it seems, to establish the doctrine of Fatalism. In that piece, the author represents the strong sense, or feeling, as he calls it, of Liberty, so universal in mankind, as a deceitful idea. That in want of power to confer liberty, the Divinity was oblig’d to impress our minds with this fallacious perception, to dispose us to perform the part assigned us. This was too striking to pass without attention:It had the effect; and but for this, the Author of the following pages had probably remain’d quiet, and secure, in the Necessitarian tenets. In examining the matter, he put down his thoughts in writing, as they occurr’dnot indeed as any answer to that piece, but for his own information, and in the most impartial manner he was capable of; if possible to find on which side of the question the truth lay. In this way he became assured of the reality of Liberty, particularly by a discovery of what it consisted in, and how it originated in the operations of the mind. This is what he has in the following pages endeavour’d to explain. Upon the whole, he thinks a Theory of Liberty practicable, and accordingly leaves the consideration of it, together with the materials he has collected, to the candor of the publick: Not without a pleasing hope that some better hand may undertake and perfect the idea.
THEORY OF AGENCY, &c.
Considering the design’d brevity of the following Essay, any particular examination of what others have written upon the subject, may not be expected: neither that much notice should be taken of the terms they have used, to express their meanings and explain the thing. A few words concerning absolute liberty, and moral freedom, may suffice to introduce the Author’s private way of thinking.
By absolute liberty, a person has been supposed capable of determining differently, all circumstances remaining the same. Coactive necessity is its reverse; and both equally destructive of true liberty: One being absolute will, without any reason for action; the other being acted from without, as a mere machine.
On both sides of the question, it has been firmly believed, that some degree of a self-determining power was necessary to the existence of liberty; on neither side, however, has any one been able to find it; and probably many may have become Fatalists for no other reason, than because they could not conceive of Liberty without it.
By Moral Freedom, has been meant a power of determining according to apprehended good and evil; opposed to a state of moral necessity, either natural, or induced by long custom, habit, passion, or some special depravity; which may be further taken notice of in the sequel: For the present, we may observe, that the question of Liberty turns upon this, viz.
Whether there be any moral power or faculty in the mind, whereby it can occasionally change a prior determination? Wherein this consists? and by what operation of the mind effected?
Preparatory to a solution of this question, we may consider some of the differences between the rational and the sensitive world; together with the nature of what is called the will.
The powers of all creatures are suited to their wants and intentions; and their liberty is of the same nature, and proper to their powers. The brute, with only sensitive powers, and what are called instincts, acts according to these, and without constraint; or as he lists; but cannot have moral freedom; this being the exclusive property of the rational nature. Man has the inherent power of controuling the animal affections, which is denominated moral. So that he is not, as may by and by appear, in all things necessitated. I say in all, because in many things he is so; thus by the constitution of his nature, as a corporeal being; in what life consists; and in some appetites, desires and aversions; but wholly so, till arrived to the use of reason, as in childhood, and at any time of life when reason fails; or the subject criminally neglects the proper use of it.
All appearances evidence that man was form’d for self-direction; since by his intellectual powers he can govern the sensitive clues in the use of proper means; rectify errors in judgment; disengage himself from prejudices; foresee events, and conduct accordingly: All which, by consideration; not by any thing of an absolute intention; the appearances of which are deceitful. The same may be said of the choice of two exactly similar objects, wherein there is no preference. I mention this, because the pitching upon one, instead of the other, has been objected as a proof of free-will: Tho’ the person takes one instead of the other, only to get rid of the difficulty, which is all the motive he has in the case.
But suppose a person could chuse without a motive, (i.e.) with absolute liberty, what would be the wisdom of such a power? To what purpose an unmeaning determination more likely to produce ill than good effects? It is time enough for willing and determination, when some cause, some reason for it appears.
The notion of absolute liberty leads us to enquire into the nature of what is call’d the Will: A thing which, as it seems, has not been rightly understood by the writers in morals. Much has been said of it in the affair of liberty; some have imagined it the first mover in the mind; and long use has associated a notion of something arbitrary in the mental economy, which has occasioned great confusion and obscurity.
The common expression is, that man has a Will; his faults are charg’d on the Will; and his Liberty called Freedom of the Will. Now in these expressions, we have strong intimations of some certain subsistence, faculty, or distinct power in the mind, by which it chuses and refuses, wills and nills, as the terms have been, and which have, as it were, given a sanction to the notion, and prejudiced people against an examination of the thing; whereas by a little observation of what passes in their own minds, almost any one might perceive the mistake.
By looking inwards with respect to will, nothing appears but desire and aversion; and by these, we constantly observe the mind determined; and by no other means. By these, we pursue apprehended good, and avoid evil; our determination wills, or choices, which are * synonimous, are as our desires and aversions; and these, as our perceptions, and the ideas we have of things; or as our external and internal senses are affected. By all which it is evident, that will is no other than the mind determined by motive.
These affections of the mind, determining to action and conduct, are what have been invariably express’d by the term will. And indeed a proper name was necessary, as well as convenient, to prevent tedious and irksome descriptions of the complex idea. The fault has been, that in the name, we have lost the true nature of the thing; we have insensibly taken that for a cause, which was only an effect. Thus much may suffice in a preliminary way. We come now to the enquiry what our Liberty is, and how it originates.
The great Mr. Lock placed it in suspension of the mind, (i.e.) as I suppose, a being duly disposed to determine as evidence should appear. Suspension implies impartiality, and a freedom from byas and prejudice; but it does not solve the difficulty of motive; so that none have receiv’d any real information from it. But it appears that the author himself was not satisfy’d of the existence of Liberty; for in a letter to his friend Molineux, he owns that he could not conceive of Liberty being compatible to the omniscience of the Deity. This no doubt was from a notion of something absolute being necessary to the idea of Liberty; the universal mistake of all the writers in the controversy, on one side as well as on the other, while the thing is so far otherwise, that the mind is evidently passive in every thing it gives attention to, at least it is so in a state of vigilance, since the spirit here strictly observes the laws of its union with the body, though it may be otherwise in sleep. And probably from this effect of the laws of union, the Necessitarians have been induced to rest their cause on the power of motive, and latterly have persuaded themselves that this alone is an effectual bar to liberty.
If, say they, we do nothing without a motive, we cannot by any means have liberty. And they add, that a moral determination no more admits of freedom, than a natural or physical one; in which they plainly make no distinction between the sensitive, and the rational nature. Nor do they better, when they would confirm their doctrine of Fatality, by the sophistical whim of motive depending on motive, in infinitum, (i. e.) that there is no first mover. A notion too puerile to admit of a grave answer, were it not that many sober writers have adopted it, as if it was really to their purpose. But so it is, that in attempting a system of absurdities, one must give an answer to such stuff as this as well as the rest; therefore quo ineptia trahunt, retrahuntque sequamur.
This notion of a boundless series of motives, must have been the offspring of contracted views, as well as the impossibility of tracing them back to a first mover, viz. the external senses in their first affecting the mind; before this, it is to be observed there could be no motive. What chiefly gave occasion to the whim, seems to have been the impossibility of tracing them back to their source. The case is such, that long before we are capable of looking back, our first perceptions in childhood have escaped us. The memory of childhood is not retentive. In infancy the perceptions are seldom retain’d to the next day; tho’ in a short time they may remain two or three risings and settings of the sun; but were it otherwise, in the course of a few years our faculties pass through such a variety of action, associations, improvements, and interweavements of ideas; and too often such actual depravities of our moral powers, that the hundredth part of these may be well thought more than enough to prevent our pursuing the thread of motive back to its original.
But there is yet a way by which we may satisfy ourselves; and that is, by beginning at the first perceptions of the human mind: What these are, we may be assured by considering our frame; the order of our ideas; and what must, in the nature of things, have been our first perceptions: And indeed the impossibility of their having been any other than what originated in external sense. The first of these senses in use, are feeling and tasting; we feel first, then taste, loath, or else suffer hunger. Our use of the other senses appear to follow, but no mental ones are perceptible, till the bodily ones have been exercised. Anger is the first of the passions, and grief known by shedding tears, (i. e. weeping); for in the first days, the child cries without tears. After some experience, imagination begins; and in length of time reason, and the moral sense unfolds. All these, in their uses supply a vast number of images, ideas, and correspondent motives, forming a wilderness effectually preventive of any other way of inquiry; while in this it will evidently appear, that our first motives originated in external sense. For we have no innate ideas; nor have we the least appearance of mental powers, before perception by our senses. We must have perception before we can have motive; and sensation before we can have perception: So that here is the beginning of all motive. Motive then is not such an infinite thing as the Necessitarians would have us believe; they make it like space, unbounded; for which this was once deify’d: As for the same reason, according to them, motive might be too.
By the way, I have taken for granted that others have the same idea of motive that I have, (i. e.) any perception exciting to action; or determining the judgments we make of things. It may be considered of two kinds, natural and moral; the former immediately from our various senses; the latter the offspring of our understandings, in reasoning; on which account I take the liberty of distinguishing them by the terms primary and secondary.
At the first view, man appears constituted of two natures, the animal and the intellectual. Motive necessitates all mere animals without a remedy; and it does the same by every human creature; as far as he is governed by his animal affections, so far he is necessitated. But experience shows he can controul these. Socrates and others in all ages have done so, by considering things, and their circumstances; and further by disciplines and use, facilitating the capacity, and improving the habit of reflection. We can consider the bodily claims, and submit to, or reject them.
In considering the power of Motive, I readily grant the Necessitarians all the facts they build upon; but not the assumed principles, and hypothesis. I own we are in all things determined by Motive; that we never act without and never contrary to the present one. These concessions no ways interfere with our Liberties. What this consists in, is a particular prior to secondary Motives. Our Liberty consists in the procuring this sort of Motive. By consideration we determine concerning the propriety of our Motives, and confirm or reject them, in lieu of such as we approve: (i. e.) We reject the primary ones occasionally, and adopt others, which I call secondary, as more eligible: In the same manner as a servant who has leave for it, upon consideration of two persons, chuses which shall be his master.
In fact, we find our Motives do often change, and why? but by seeing things in different lights. It is true that they frequently change, as it were, by chance; but this is far from being always the case. New Ideas, and of consequence, new Motives arise in a way of reasoning and reflection; and this difference of origination alters the quality of the Motives, with respect to Liberty; in the latter case, we are active in their production: It is in this way we controul our inferior affections, according to the natural order, that the nobler powers should rule the ignobler. The thing is, that upon examination, finding the reasons intended action, conduct, judgment or opinion faulty, a change of Motive naturally ensues, for other, or contrary ones. Any one may recollect that he has often done so, and satisfy himself that he can on like occasions, do the same again; viz. as reasons occur in reflection.
Here the Necessitarians may probably ask, Where shall we find the Motives for consideration? since they hold it not at our command.
The question indeed is proper to the occasion; but in putting it, they virtually own a fault they have always been reprehensible for, viz. a negligence in their enquiries into the frame of the human mind, and the operations of it; or they might have answer’d this question by themselves.
We freely grant that we have no immediate power of commanding consideration: But we have an equivalent, for all human purposes, implanted in the mind; a naturally strong disposition to it, which nothing but culpable self neglects, and rejections of its use, destroy: So that we have only to submit to our native promptings, to its use, on all occasions; and we shall sufficiently consider. Where there is reason, consideration and reflection constantly and readily offer. A much wiser provision for us, than any absolute power of commanding it; we can let the disposition take place; or we can shut the eyes of the mind against it; we can use or refute it as free creatures.
We may with an agreeable propriety, call consideration the eye of the mind; since we make discoveries by it. And in comparing it with the bodily organ of sight, we may find we have a like power over both. The bodily eye is automatically, and naturally kept open by a proper muscle for that purpose; while yet we have a voluntary power of shutting it by another prepar’d for that office. The power of consideration is as really and as much under our command, in its design’d use, as the bodily eye is to view, or not, any external object. And we are in the general as much promted to the use of it, with this advantage, besides others, that the new motives obtain’d by the use of it, are our own property; redound to our praise and benefit; as the neglect of it does to our guilt and injury.
But the Necessitarians object, that desires and aversions are not in our power, and therefore we have no Liberty.
The reader will easily perceive the sameness of these and Motive, in so many respects, that the same answer might have served for both: But as particular expressions and sounds have very great influence on some minds; and considering that a separate discussion may give occasion to the mentioning some things which more or less affect the argument, I was determined to give it a place by itself.
It is then readily own’d, that desires and aversions are not immediately at our command, as has been observ’d of Motive; but we have a remote power of obtaining new ones; or altering them, which is sufficient for our purpose. Experience teaches that we can procure very different, and even contrary ones, by industry and application of mind.
The body and the mind are both improveable, and by improving their faculties, likings and dislikings, are generated: Custom and use have great influence in altering our likings and dislikings; so applications of mind in the use of the understandings, as in arts and sciences, we become delighted with them in proportion as we increase in understanding them: The mind is like the palate, to which many things by use become agreeable which before were irksome, as oyl, olives, tobacco, &c.
Observation and attention make some things agreeable, by giving us right notions of them; thus we see the rustic, who at first despis’d the gentle manner and obliging behavior of the well-bred and polite, esteeming them incompatible with a manly fortitude and resolution, upon further acquaintance, becoming delighted with them.
Would we rectify our tastes concerning buildings, sculpture, paintings, &c. we may do it by frequent observations on them; and thus alter our erroneous likings and aversions. And it is the same with our moral likings and aversions which we rectify, or change, by obtaining better notions of the things themselves, with their tendencies and benefits.
By consideration we become reconciled to various disagreeable self-denials; as with respect to the means for recovery from sickness; for the preservation of life and health: For these we deny ourselves many, otherwise desireable gratifications; the contrary becoming desirable by reflection.
Here I cannot pass some notice of what happened in the hot weather, while I was revising these pages for the press; particularly the death of divers by drinking freely cold water, or other cold small liquors, to quench thirst, when they were overheated by the sun, or exercise; now although accounts of such accidents are well known to every one, yet they are not attended to for want of consideration, and a resolution to consider and to take their drink leisurely, and by mouthfuls, at intervals, swallowing it slowly, ’till cool enough to make free with it. One would think the past and striking instances of mortality, by indulging in such circumstances, should render every one attentive and considerate; whereas we see them soon forgot; and why? but because no astonishing sound like thunder attends them. Altho’ for one that dies by lightnight, there are many that die by such inconsideration. The least thought might prevent many of these accidents. If no more than this remark is remembered, of this essay, I shall think all the rest, which gave occasion to it, well rewarded; and have the satisfaction of having been useful to the world.
But to proceed,—
I have observed elsewhere, that we can consider, or we can reject consideration; and that in both these we have liberty; altho’ by the latter, in the use of liberty, we act against the continuance of it, so as gradually to lose the capacity for it, by depravities which always take place in the neglect of it. Both the learned, and the unlearned, are faulty in consideration. In their inquiries, they have too many resting places; they are too apt to take up with the first appearances of truth, by which they frequently come short of it. On a cursory view, we should be at a loss to say which of these classes of men are most faulty. We have therefore to consider, that among the learned, as among the vulgar, there are the knowing, and the unknowing. That man, alone, is knowing, who has not only acquired a proper stock of ideas, but well digested his notions of things. Not the mere scholars, that have scamper’d through the fields of science for the vanity of a title, and university diploma, without any becoming improvement of mind, or substantial principles of knowledge; these are generally more disposed to avoid consideration, than the illiterate; those they despise under the term of the prophanum vulgus. They have more important and injurious prejudices, with an additional obstinacy, and arrogant assurance, from the pride of vain and imaginary knowledge. The plain, the simple, and honestly well-meaning, are, if I may be allowed the expression, infinitely more free, than those whose self-affections are exalted by a mere formal education. Practical knowledge only is valuable; literature is but a mean for obtaining it, but often falls short of the end. Right knowledge is a moral principle, which, besides other things, qualifies for self-government, and so the enlargement of moral liberty; as literature without it tends to its destruction: We see the pride of literature and contempt of the sense of mankind in a Bolingbroke, Morgan, Coventry, Hume, Wolston, and others; who have made the most violent attacks upon all religion, both natural and revealed: These however suit only the grosser palates, who can swallow absurdity without any seasoning, besides a little elegance of language to recommend it; they are therefore much less dangerous to religion than another sort of writers who are little suspected; and of which there is a great number: These in a covert and insinuating way, with the specious cloak of moral principles, and refined notions of things, are unsuspectedly poisoning the minds of the people. Nothing shows the depravity of mankind more than the zeal with which these writers endeavour to root out of the minds of their readers, those principles which have the best tendency for the happiness of mankind. They are prejudiced, and voluntarily continue so: They avoid a manly reflection and consideration, being apprehensive it would prove an interruption to their love of licence: Their fondness for this, has an effect upon them similar to that of the serpent’s enchantment of small animals, which is said to be done by a bewitching appearance round the serpent’s head, when his eyes are fixed on the creature; drawing it, by admiration, to still nearer views of the thing, till it is brought within his reach, so weaken’d that he becomes an easy prey.
It is not pretended that the most considerate can in all things find truth; but then they will be generally cautious of misleading others: And yet a strong ruling passion may without a steady watch, betray them into gross enormities. Thus ambition and an over-fondness for honor, as by high offices in church or state, or the being esteemed as persons of superiour talents, knowledge and abilities: Such persons if not sufficiently attach’d, and zealous for a particular party, will be apt to list on the side of a controversy where their most flattering hopes of distinction attract them. In this class perhaps, we might place the Author of an Essay on the Principles of Morality. An Author, who had he written in favor of Liberty, with the same genius and capacity he has done against it, would have done himself honor; and sav’d one, unus’d to the pen, from attempting such an abstruse subject.
Containing a few presumptive Proofs of Liberty.
The Author imagined it might not be amiss to subjoin to the foregoing theoretic thoughts, some moral probabilities of the reality of our freedom; which perhaps may prove more agreeable to some readers than the other more philosophic treatment. To these may be premised a few words concerning the ancient Fatalists, and the general belief of Liberty in the first ages.
It is acknowledged that universal consent is no infallible criterion of the truth. And yet it seems worth observing, that in all ages mankind have been invariable persuaded of the reality of Liberty; and this assurance continued till the Grecian Philosophers, by their blind way of inquiry, overlook’d and deny’d it: However it was several ages before the doctrine of Necessity spread farther than themselves, even to the days of Epicurus. Epicurus erected an academy, and taught it to his disciples, and these propagated it: But what manner of reasoners he and they were, may be seen in Lucretius, who handed down his imaginations to posterity. After Epicurus, Liberty became more disputed; but was still believ’d by all that were not more or less taught to disbelieve their senses. Our modern Fatalists would reduce us to this, by confusing our minds with their abstract reasonings, which if they prove any thing, imply a great deal too much; particularly by the lengths they carry their power of motive. If we would have liberty, in their way of talk, we must be void of passions, appetites, desires and aversions; and be capable of willing differently, all circumstances the same. Unless our liberty be absolute, they will not allow it to be liberty. So that according to them, if a man’s property is limited, it is no property; if he is confin’d to his own house, or parcel of land, he has no liberty within his own walls; if he has not the strength of a giant, he has no strength at all: But besides this, their notion ends in ridiculous nonsense; as that only inanimate things can have liberty: A stone then, a stock, or the posts in the streets have it. A man certainly cannot, unless he is fast asleep, and does not so much as dream. But enough of this; the particulars here intended follow.
The faculty of reason strongly implies Liberty. In the foregoing part, it was considered as the faculty in which it inher’d, as it was evidenced in the article of consideration. Here I take it in a different light, as a proof of its reality.
Reason in man is in lieu of instinctive direction. Man has but few instincts; and these only such as are for purposes prior to, or rather out of the province of reason; while more had been superfluous for a creature furnished with rational powers. Our frame is contriv’d, as every thing through universal nature is, with nothing wanting, nothing redundant. And our being endow’d with reason and understanding, instead of more instinctive powers, shows that we were ordain’d for self-direction, in conducting by the former: And in fact, we find that we determine frequently on action and conduct by consideration and reflection, without any instinctive impulse, further than self-love, which without the other, is blind in the human species.
Man is plainly form’d not only to provide as the sensitive hoarding species do, the necessaries of life, but to procure both them and the conveniences of life, to look beyond what sense and instinct can direct him, for this and other purposes; to take in by his understanding large prospects; consider the effects and events of prosecuting excursions into them; and determining on the suitable conduct for his intentions. His understanding is accordingly analagous to a prospective glass, which furnishes views beyond what the eye unassisted could afford him; and which he is upon innumerable occasions, in wisdom and prudence oblig’d to make use of, or suffer for the neglect. This glass we may use, or refuse in supplying the mind with materials for conduct so peculiarly needful in the system of man, and no other ways provided for him: It is the mean, as before observed, by which he can occasionally change his mere animal motives, and whereby he is denominated free. Upon this occasion, I may be allowed to repeat, That our being naturally oblig’d to act in conformity to the judgments we procure by consideration, is no objection to our liberty; since this arises only in the consideration itself, which is prior to the judgment. The essence of our liberty consisting in that use of reason whereby we can occasionally turn our present determination into another channel.
In the next place the moral sense, or conscience, so universally found in our species, is a strong presumptive proof of liberty.
Every human creature has a sense of right and wrong, ought and ought not, which are evidently intended to remind him of duty and obligation; and without which he could have no idea of it. It is as really a natural sense, as the external ones of sight, feeling, tasteing &c. As constitutional as the other internal ones of honor, harmony, benevolence, &c. All which where any of them are wanting, no industry or discipline can give the subject any idea of their objects, whatever the Fatalists or Moralists pretend to the contrary. It is well known that these gentlemen assert it to be generated by the occasions, although by these it is only excited into action, upon the appearance of its objects: It unfolds when the person is arrived to the use of reason, and this being its nature, it evidently implies moral laws with a capacity of obeying and refusing. Here then it is to be observ’d, that such a sense could be to no pertinent purpose, if we had not liberty. The faculty would otherwise shew great unkindness in the construction of the mind. Is it possible to believe that an infinitely wise and good Being, would have plac’d such a severe chastiser in our frame, were we really necessitated; but rather that he would have form’d us so as not wrongfully and injuriously to afflict ourselves. We should rather believe that he would have impressed mankind with an effectual bias to right conduct, or else with proper instincts for every laudable purpose. vid. Divine moral government next to be considered.
The appearances of a divine moral government are presumptive of liberty.
In the general course of common providence a scheme of moral government appears. We find that right action and conduct tend to happy enjoyments; as the contrary naturally to evil effects; and this by an establishment in the nature of things. So that we are beforehand apprised of the respective general consequences, in which we find ourselves interested, and naturally accountable: Common providence having thus the nature of law and government.
As to any special providence, the Materialists would have us believe there is no such thing; but that every event is the effect of general laws without any interpositions. They are no ways concerned that observation and facts are against them, as well as the universal sense of the first ages. We find the ancients firmly persuaded of a particular and special providence, and frequently observing that good morals and religious observances, engage a kind and indulgent providence on their side. That where these and religious observances have been duly attended to, especially by their rulers, a people have been divinely smiled upon by providence; and not only so, but many times honoured with riches, power and grandeur; together with the prolonging their duration as a people; and contrariwise. This was matter of their observation, an evidence of what the universal Father of his creatures expects in the moral world, viz. That all mankind, of whatever condition, or however circumstanced, should use their intelligent powers in the best manner they were capable of; by improving and disciplining themselves into virtuous, and approvable conduct; and with the use of the best religious observances they are furnished with, or can obtain. A confirmation of which we have in the beginning of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
What shall we then think of the present doctrine of our sectaries, That materially good deeds are hateful to the Deity, unless in a state of grace; and that by every act of obedience, although performed with an honest intention to amend our lives, we render ourselves more abominable in the sight of God, and are further remov’d from his grace and favour, than by a course of licencious living, and total disregard of every thing praise-worthy. Do not these teachings tend to render the divine word, dispensations and grace, inconsistent and contradictory to one another, and to the harmony of the divine attributes; as well as abhorrent to any idea we can form of the divine wisdom and rectitude? But I return.
By careful examination it might evidently appear, that events are not always effects of general laws, but that at least some of them are really expressive of a divine, and special administration. Cursory observers may not be sensible of this; so few of the instances being explicit enough to satisfy such persons. And yet in this very particular, they are most agreeable to that divine wisdom which would not too much interrupt our liberty. Which observations bring me to the following question;
By what rules the divine disposer governs the moral world?
And the general answer to this may be, That he does it in a manner suitable to the moral nature of mankind. Has he given man moral powers? Then surely he rules him in a moral manner, so far as those powers reach. To suppose any thing different from this, would be to charge unerring rectitude with impropriety. The most evident appearances are, that he deals with mankind as rational beings, in a state of trial and probation. Agreeable to this, if we only contemplated the system of man, with his relations to his Maker, it would naturally appear, and even prior to any perception of the fact, that there must be some sort of correspondent treatment, as by revealed will, and specialties in providence. The nature of man, and the circumstances he is placed in, absolutely require it; and the wisdom of the Deity appears concerned in it. But the mode is to treat these things with banter and ridicule; or to explain them away; or at best to give no solid reasons against them.
The learned, and from them the unlearned, form to themselves, what they esteem honorary notions of the Deity. They judge of the divinity by themselves; they find care, and extensive employment, burdensome; and esteem attention to small things servile. On the contrary, that it is great and noble to have their affairs carry’d on without their own attention and looking after. This they imagine God-like. They do not advert to it, that inaction is unnatural to intelligences; and that continued, and eternal action, is essential to the Deity, the supream intelligence. From their feelings, they imagine the Deity hath surely so dispos’d the laws of nature, as to bring about all his designs without any specialties, and please themselves with their own conclusions. They indeed own there are some events which cannot be accounted for by the known laws, but they do not allow them to be specialties, or interpositions. Instead of this they tell us, there are unknown laws by which they are effected: But they do not advert to it, what such an imagination, if pursued through its consequences, would run up into. I shall mention only one thought upon it.
Suppose then there are such unknown laws, Do we not hold that there are no confusions, contradictions, or absurdities in, or among, these laws, whether there be more or fewer, but a perfect harmony, as in the attributes of their divine author? Allowing this, how shall we reason about events which require laws contrary to the known ones, and subversive of them; for such instances might be given, but for some reasons must be left to the reader’s reflections to supply for himself. Such, whatever they be, must be resolv’d into a supernatural agency, an agency that does not affect matter in the manner of the laws of nature; some power interposing in the natural course of things: And for which there is always some special and moral, not natural occasion, but effected by an immediate will and agency, which it would be improper to term a law of nature, since it does not always have effect on the same occasions, and in the same circumstances. Let the matter be considered, without bias and prejudice and it will appear that there is in specialties no repugnancy to any of the natural laws, farther than a temporary suspension of their operations; or only a particular exertion of power; having the natural laws directly after to take place.
Can it imply any contradiction in the divine government, to admit such additions to common providence? I confess, that as a divine moral government of the world requires it, I can form no idea of such an administration without them: But on the contrary, that they appear most wise, and honorable to the divinity, and beneficial to the world. The short question is, Hath the Divinity never interpos’d? If it be allowed that he has once done so, the argument is or ought to be given up.
It is difficult in this day of modern opinion to offer any thing in contradiction to the vogue. It is well known that there are [some] who hold the notion of visitations from the unseen world, and of various kinds: as there are others who deny them. Without asserting or denying the thing, I shall offer a few thoughts upon the supposition of it.
They who hold the doctrine of specialties, do it as the divine method of supplying events for answering the designs of infinite wisdom: This is pious and well; but may there not be some remote and future uses of them as well as the immediate intentions? for the present, supposing such events, which by the way it would be unbecoming rashly to deny, certainly the natural tendency would be to excite considerations of various kinds; particularly concerning an unseen world; the agency of a supreme cause; the being and employment of intelligences, and a divine government; by these religious reflections would naturally arise in the mind. He that form’d us knew our weakness and need of mementos; and, however the present question be determin’d has certainly order’d all things in infinite wisdom. Our concern is not to injure ourselves by mistakes; but in this as in all things else, to think impartially, distinguishing well between the real, and the only apparent; and not be implicitly carry’d away by any vulgar apprehensions on one side, or modish opinions on the other: In a word, to observe well, and judge accordingly.
Mankind are creatures immers’d in sense; every instance therefore of supernal power must, and will, if realiz’d prove more or less a balance to their original sensitive propensities, which naturally impel them to undue indulgences and gratifications; it would excite ideas of their dependent state, and their obligations: Ideas of their being divinely observ’d by an all-seeing eye upon them for their good, if they conduct wisely. It may be consider’d whether they who endeavor to lessen the credibility of interpositions in providence, and the other mention’d events, are friendly to the cause of religion and virtue, and duly cautious for the supporters of revelation, the reality of which cannot be prov’d without allowing an intercourse between both worlds. Revelation was founded on miracle; and the continuance of any special agencies and visitations from the unseen world, may be ultimately design’d to prevent mankind’s losing all sense of the reality of it as well as of religious obligation; agreeable to what has been before observ’d, and also to what we now see, that as these specialties are denied, revelation is so too.
The Deists may tell us that natural religion would remain without any assistances of these kinds, or any other. Suppose then it did so, what effect would it have? What in any case are the benefits of it without a practical sense? alone it does not appear to be any sufficient principle of virtue. It might be shown that it is only a foundation for a superstructure; and that it is no more than a meer capacity without this. That good breeding, an impress’d habit of right decorum, with a native common honesty, are much more effectual to all the purposes of a good life than this; although it has been improv’d by its patrons, with all the helps they could obtain from revelation. Indeed the influence of the above imaginary qualifications of their natural religion have, by the Deists, been palm’d upon us as the effects of it, whereas their religion is no more than a mental sense rendering the human species capable of receiving reveal’d religion; that as far as nature goes, it might take place in belief.
Opinion grounded on common providence alone, is far from answering the intentions plainly pointed out in the understanding, and moral powers of the human mind. On the contrary, the course of nature, and common providence, are, by themselves, coincident with, and every way agreeable to, the doctrines of Necessity, and Materialism.
Natural religion is founded on what is observable in the course of nature, and material objects. It is indeed own’d that these imply an intelligent author of nature; but they do not enlighten us what business we have with this cause. We see that the laws of nature affect all creatures with good or evil, according as they do, or do not, attend to them: For instance, if they approach too near the fire, it burns them; if they immerge too long under water, it drowns; and so in a thousand other mistakes, they suffer for their errors. And it is chiefly in owning the wisdom of the laws of creation, that natural religion consists; and at best, on no better principle than weak opinion, all its obligations end.
It follows as a corollary, that this natural sense of dependence on, and obligation to heaven, this native disposition to religious observance, is a proof of the design of the Maker, that man should be a religious creature, that all, both good and bad, should use their utmost care to regulate their lives, and moralise their minds, by every means in their power. All powers of the creature were given with wise design, and not one of them intended to be useless, altho’ some of them were designed to be regulated by the natural understanding, moral sense, and rules of life. But if this natural power of amendment is not to be used till it is superceeded by a divine and special change of heart, it was given in vain; and to be as the S. S. phrase is, wrapt in a napkin. We see, in the story of the criminal alluded to, the condemnation of a servant who neglected the use of his powers because they were small, and with the pretence, perhaps a perswasion, of his lord’s being a hard master: He would not employ them according to the intention of the giver. Was he then in a converted state? certainly not; and yet his endeavors were required. To say no more, the notion is grounded on an erroneous piety, inadvertently exalting one of the divine attributes and dispensations, at the expence of the others. As to the rest, the intelligent observer will easily see how it is founded, and with what faulty arts conducted and inculcated in the present day.
After what has been said of specialties and interpositions, a Materialist may probably ask some such question as this; if specialties have such a beneficial tendency, why did not the divine Being order them more frequently, and in a more determinate, and perspicuous manner? This requires an answer, and accordingly a few lines upon it will not be amiss.
All will allow, in words, at least, that there is through every part of the divine works and dispensations, the utmost consistency and agreement, no repugnancy or clashing, and nothing contradictory, redundant or deficient to be found: Whereas, was the divine conduct altered, to what the Materialists in the question requires, the case would be quite otherwise in the moral world. It would have destroy’d all Liberty, and subverted a state of probation. Man would be necessitated contrary to the divine intention. Had the divine will been to secure an uninterrupted and uniform moral conduct, no doubt the instances of specialties and interpositions would have been much more frequent, and explicit, together with immediate rewards of good, and punishment of ill deeds. The divine finger barred to mortal sight had no question astonish’d mankind into continued moral order, without any room for praise or blame. The event would have been the same as if he had impell’d mankind into right conduct, by effectual instinctive impressions, or mechanically dispos’d them to religious observance, without any capacity to the contrary. But man then would not have been man. He would have been a cold unspirited lump of absurdity; such only as a Lucretian genius, or materializing projector could have had the credit of devising—No! infinite wisdom laid a nobler plan, in which the rational creature, by the use of moral powers, with Liberty, might approve himself to his maker in a suitable and determin’d degree; with attention to whose laws, providential dispensations, and by the assistances provided for him, he should obtain the happiness his nature was made capable of. I say approve himself, in the use of the talents he has given him, for it would be presumption to expect his maker should do that for him which he has given him the powers to perform; while yet in all beyond this, and what is requisite for him, he may piously expect his gracious assistance.
I shall mention but one more of these proofs of liberty, viz. that of the notions we naturally form of the Deity. As soon as we are capable of consideration, we perceive ourselves constitutionally led to negative every idea that appears to imply imperfection; and to attribute to the divine Being whatever implies the highest degrees of excellency and perfection, with the most perfect harmony of the divine attributes. And upon severe examination of the matter, we find we were right in these sentiments. Whereas when we enquire into the consequences that arise from the doctrine of Necessity, we find them derogatory to them; particularly to those of divine power, wisdom, and goodness: Besides that, it unavoidably makes the perfection of holiness the author of sin; while on the contrary, the doctrine of liberty shows the origin of moral evil to be a very different thing. Thus we also find we agree with the genuine sense and meaning of S. S. I need only add, that our natural notions and common sense, have more real weight and intrinsic worth, than our Necessitarians, and Semimaterialists, of which we have a great number, will admit. But we must take care to distinguish between what is truly common sense, and the notions that arise from educated ignorance, and various misleading causes, in the course of life; together with the bias of our corporeal affections.
I shall finish what I have to say on liberty, with some very short observations on the divine fore-knowledge of events.
The Necessitarians would have us believe, that unless every action of mankind were previously decreed, (i. e.) absolutely determin’d, they could not be foreknown by the Deity. It remains therefore to examine this agreably to the foregoing theory, by which the contrary will be evident.
But in order to make a right judgment concerning this weighty question, we must be suitably prepared by a competent knowledge of the nature of man, particularly the operations of his mind; how far he is necessitated and how far free; according to, or in some such manner as has been already expres’d. But especially we must have right notions of the Deity; right so far as they go, for we cannot have adequate ones. We must allow the infinite difference between his manner of knowing, and that of mankind; of him who sees the essence of matter, and all effects in their causes; to whom the past, the present, and the future are ever before him in one perfect, and continued view. We must acknowledge the boundless immensity of that wisdom and power by which he made all Worlds; and that Omnipresence by which he is every moment of duration present to them, to every part of them, and to all, even the minutest beings in them. Then if we add to this, the dependent nature of man, whose Liberty is no more than a capacity of passing occasionally, from one necessitating motive to another, we shall be in some measure prepared to satisfy ourselves in the present question.
Admitting then the foregoing postulate, which I think will not be disrupted, we shall perceive that as the Almighty sees all effects in their causes, so all the causes and changes of Motive must be accordingly foreknown by him; that he can foresee whether the subject will consider or not; whether partially or impartially; and in either case, what the event will be. For we may easily perceive, that he can as well forsee what the mental eye of the mind in consideration will discover, as what will appear to the bodily eye in the course of life; and equally what the effect will be, (i.e.) how the rational creature will determine.
It is own’d, that the determinations of the mind are greatly influenced by the different characters of persons. So that although they see the same thing, and under the same individual circumstances, they will yet judge very differently; but however perplexing this may be to mankind to determine what the party will do, it makes no difference with Omniscience. He equally sees their special peculiarities as he does any simple object; their original nature, various complications, and special influences; and in one self-same view, what particular in the whole will determine them, and exactly how. So that he cannot need an absulute decree to know what one will do.
This short account of the matter, may prove sufficient for the impartial and contemplative, while the most clear and full rationale would be to no purpose for others. On this, and the foregoing way of thinking, it is evident, to me, that the Almighty could make a free agent; and that, man having liberty, his every action is yet foreknown. Such objection being remov’d, affords one more presumption of the reality of liberty, as distinguished from any absolute self-determining power; and upon the whole, that such a power is not necessary to the idea of Moral Freedom.
[* ] Will and choice may indeed be distinguished, but the difference does not affect our present subject. Will properly respects action; Choice the manner and references of it. Or otherwise; Will determines a thing shall be done; Choice the manner how, or by what agent; this or another. Or conversely, Choice determines to the greater apparent good; Will to act accordingly; but in general there is such a sameness, that to say we may change our motives, is to say we may change our Wills or Choices.