Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 16: Oaths - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Chapter 16: Oaths - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (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.
I. The forms of oaths, like other religious ceremonies, have in all ages been various; consisting, however, for the most part, of some bodily action,* and of a prescribed form of words. Amongst the Jews, the juror held up his right hand towards heaven, which explains a passage in the 144th Psalm; “Whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.” The same form is retained in Scotland still. Amongst the same Jews, an oath of fidelity was taken, by the servant’s putting his hand under the thigh of his lord, as Eliezer did to Abraham, Gen. xxiv. 2; from whence, with no great variation, is derived perhaps the form of doing homage at this day, by putting the hands between the knees, and within the hands, of the liege.
Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the form varied with the subject and occasion of the oath. In private contracts, the parties took hold of each other’s hand, whilst they swore to the performance; or they touched the altar of the god by whose divinity they swore. Upon more solemn occasions, it was the custom to slay a victim; and the beast being struck down with certain ceremonies and invocations, gave birth to the expressions temnein orkon, ferire pactum; and to our English phrase, translated from these, of “striking a bargain.”
The forms of oaths in Christian countries are also very different; but in no country in the world, I believe, worse contrived, either to convey the meaning, or impress the obligation of an oath, than in our own. The juror with us, after repeating the promise or affirmation which the oath is intended to confirm, adds, “So help me God”: or more frequently the substance of the oath is repeated to the juror by the officer or magistrate who administers it, adding in the conclusion, “So help you God.” The energy of the sentence resides in the particle so; so, that is, hâc lege, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me. The juror, whilst he hears or repeats the words of the oath, holds his right hand upon a Bible, or other book containing the four Gospels. The conclusion of the oath sometimes runs, “Ita me Deus adjuvet, et haec sancta evangelia,” or “So help me God, and the contents of this book”: which last clause forms a connexion between the words and action of the juror, that before was wanting. The juror then kisses the book: the kiss, however, seems rather an act of reverence to the contents of the book (as, in the popish ritual, the priest kisses the Gospel before he reads it), than any part of the oath.
This obscure and elliptical form, together with the levity and frequency with which it is administered, has brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths; which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented: and it merits public consideration, whether the requiring of oaths on so many frivolous occasions, especially in the Customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect, than to make them cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer, without costing half a dozen oaths at the least; and the same security for the due discharge of their office, namely, that of an oath, is required from a churchwarden and an archbishop, from a petty constable and the chief justice of England. Let the law continue its own sanctions, if they be thought requisite; but let it spare the solemnity of an oath. And where, from the want of something better to depend upon, it is necessary to accept men’s own word or own account, let it annex to prevarication penalties proportioned to the public mischief of the offence.
II. But whatever be the form of an oath, the signification is the same. It is “the calling upon God to witness, i.e. to take notice of, what we say,” and it is “invoking his vengeance, or renouncing his favour, if what we say be false, or what we promise be not performed.”
III. Quakers and Moravians refuse to swear upon any occasion; founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths upon our Saviour’s prohibition, Matt. v. 34. “I say unto you, Swear not at all.”
The answer which we give to this objection cannot be understood without first stating the whole passage: “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.”
To reconcile with this passage of Scripture the practice of swearing, or of taking oaths, when required by law, the following observations must be attended to:
1. It does not appear that swearing “by heaven,” “by the earth,” “by Jerusalem,” or “by their own head,” was a form of swearing ever made use of amongst the Jews in judicial oaths: and consequently, it is not probable that they were judicial oaths, which Christ had in his mind when he mentioned those instances.
2. As to the seeming universality of the prohibition, “Swear not at all,” the emphatic clause “not at all” is to be read in connexion with what follows; “not at all,” h.e. neither “by the heaven,” nor by “the earth,” nor “by Jerusalem,” nor “by thy head”; “not at all,” does not mean upon no occasion, but by none of these forms. Our Saviour’s argument seems to suppose, that the people to whom he spake made a distinction between swearing directly by the “name of God,” and swearing by those inferior objects of veneration, “the heavens,” “the earth,” “Jerusalem,” or “their own head.” In opposition to which distinction, he tells them, that on account of the relation which these things bore to the Supreme Being, to swear by any of them, was in effect and substance to swear by him; “by heaven, for it is his throne; by the earth, for it is his footstool; by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King; by thy head, for it is his workmanship, not thine—thou canst not make one hair white or black”: for which reason he says, “Swear not at all,” that is, neither directly by God, nor indirectly by any thing related to him. This interpretation is greatly confirmed by a passage in the twenty-third chapter of the same Gospel, where a similar distinction, made by the Scribes and Pharisees, is replied to in the same manner.
3. Our Saviour himself being “adjured by the living God,” to declare whether he was the Christ, the Son of God, or not, condescended to answer the high-priest, without making any objection to the oath (for such it was) upon which he examined him. “God is my witness,” says St. Paul to the Romans, “that without ceasing I make mention of you in my prayers”: and to the Corinthians still more strongly, “I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you, I came not as yet to Corinth.” Both these expressions contain the nature of oaths. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the custom of swearing judicially, without any mark of censure or disapprobation: “Men verily swear by the greater; and an oath, for confirmation, is to them an end of all strife.”
Upon the strength of these reasons, we explain our Saviour’s words to relate, not to judicial oaths, but to the practice of vain, wanton, and unauthorised swearing, in common discourse. Saint James’s words, chap. v. 12, are not so strong as our Saviour’s, and therefore admit the same explanation with more ease.
IV. Oaths are nugatory, that is, carry with them no proper force or obligation, unless we believe that God will punish false swearing with more severity than a simple lie, or breach of promise; for which belief there are the following reasons:
1. Perjury is a sin of greater deliberation. The juror has the thought of God and of religion upon his mind at the time; at least, there are very few who can shake them off entirely. He offends, therefore, if he do offend, with a high hand; in the face, that is, and in defiance of the sanctions of religion. His offence implies a disbelief or contempt of God’s knowledge, power, and justice; which cannot be said of a lie, where there is nothing to carry the mind to any reflection upon the Deity, or the Divine Attributes at all.
2. Perjury violates a superior confidence. Mankind must trust to one another; and they have nothing better to trust to than one another’s oath. Hence legal adjudications, which govern and affect every right and interest on this side of the grave, of necessity proceed and depend upon oaths. Perjury, therefore, in its general consequence, strikes at the security of reputation, property, and even of life itself. A lie cannot do the same mischief, because the same credit is not given to it.*
3. God directed the Israelites to swear by his name;† and was pleased, “in order to show the immutability of his own counsel,‡ to confirm his covenant with that people by an oath: neither of which it is probable he would have done, had he not intended to represent oaths as having some meaning and effect beyond the obligation of a bare promise; which effect must be owing to the severer punishment with which he will vindicate the authority of oaths.
V. Promissory oaths are not binding where the promise itself would not be so: for the several cases of which, see the Chapter of Promises.
VI. As oaths are designed for the security of the imposer, it is manifest that they must be interpreted and performed in the sense in which the imposer intends them; otherwise, they afford no security to him. And this is the meaning and reason of the rule, “jurare in animum imponentis”; which rule the reader is desired to carry along with him, whilst we proceed to consider certain particular oaths, which are either of greater importance, or more likely to fall in our way, than others.
[* ]It is commonly thought that oaths are denominated corporal oaths from the bodily action which accompanies them, of laying the right hand upon a book containing the four Gospels. This opinion, however, appears to be a mistake; for the term is borrowed from the ancient usage of touching, on these occasions, the corporale, or cloth which covered the consecrated elements.
[* ]Except, indeed, where a Quaker’s or Moravian’s affirmation is accepted in the place of an oath; in which case, a lie partakes, so far as this reason extends, of the nature and guilt of perjury.
[† ]Deut. vi. 13. x. 20.
[‡ ]Heb. vi. 17.