An Essay on the Principle of Population
The constant pressure of distress on man, from the principle of population, seems to direct our hopes to the future—State of trial inconsistent with our ideas of the foreknowledge of God—The world, probably, a mighty process for awakening matter into mind—Theory of the formation of mind—Excitements from the wants of the body—Excitements from the operation of general laws—Excitements from the difficulties of life arising from the principle of population.
The view of human life, which results from the contemplation of the constant pressure of distress on man from the difficulty of subsistence, by shewing the little expectation that he can reasonably entertain of perfectibility on earth, seems strongly to point his hopes to the future. And the temptations to which he must necessarily be exposed, from the operation of those laws of nature which we have been examining, would seem to represent the world, in the light in which it has been frequently considered, as a state of trial, and school of virtue, preparatory to a superior state of happiness. But I hope I shall be pardoned, if I attempt to give a view in some degree different of the situation of man on earth, which appears to me, to be more consistent with the various phenomena of nature which we observe around us, and more consonant to our ideas of the power, goodness, and foreknowledge of the Deity.
It cannot be considered as an unimproving exercise of the human mind to endeavour to
"Vindicate the ways of God to man."
if we proceed with a proper distrust of our own understandings, and a just sense of our insufficiency to comprehend the reason of all we see; if we hail every ray of light with gratitude; and when no light appears, think that the darkness is from within, and not from without; and bow with humble deference to the supreme wisdom of him whose "thoughts are above our thoughts," "as the heavens are high above the earth."
In all our feeble attempts, however, to "find out the Almighty to perfection," it seems absolutely necessary, that we should reason from nature up to nature's God, and not presume to reason from God to nature. The moment we allow ourselves to ask why some things are not otherwise, instead of endeavouring to account for them as they are, we shall never know where to stop; we shall be led into the grossest, and most childish absurdities; all progress in the knowledge of the ways of Providence must necessarily be at an end; and the study will even cease to be an improving exercise of the human mind. Infinite power is so vast and incomprehensible an idea, that the mind of man must necessarily be bewildered in the contemplation of it. With the crude and puerile conceptions which we sometimes form of this attribute of the Deity, we might imagine that God could call into being myriads, and myriads of existences; all free from pain and imperfection; all eminent in goodness and wisdom; all capable of the highest enjoyments; and unnumbered as the points throughout infinite space. But when from these vain and extravagant dreams of fancy, we turn our eyes to the book of nature, where alone we can read God as he is, we see a constant succession of sentient beings, rising apparently from so many specks of matter, going through a long and sometimes painful process in this world; but many of them attaining, ere the termination of it, such high qualities and powers, as seem to indicate their fitness for some superior state. Ought we not then to correct our crude and puerile ideas of Infinite Power from the contemplation of what we actually see existing? Can we judge of the Creator but from his creation? And, unless we wish to exalt the power of God at the expense of his goodness, ought we not to conclude, that even to the Great Creator, Almighty as he is, a certain process may be necessary, a certain time (or at least what appears to us as time) may be requisite, in order to form beings with those exalted qualities of mind which will fit them for his high purposes?
A state of trial seems to imply a previously formed existence, that does not agree with the appearance of man in infancy, and indicates something like suspicion and want of foreknowledge, inconsistent with those ideas which we wish to cherish of the Supreme Being. I should be inclined, therefore, as I have hinted before in a note, to consider the world, and this life, as the mighty process of God, not for the trial, but for the creation and formation of mind; a process necessary, to awaken inert, chaotic matter, into spirit; to sublimate the dust of the earth into soul; to elicit an æthereal spark from the clod of clay. And in this view of the subject, the various impressions and excitements which man receives through life, may be considered as the forming hand of his Creator, acting by general laws, and awakening his sluggish existence, by the animating touches of the Divinity, into a capacity of superior enjoyment. The original sin of man, is the torpor and corruption of the chaotic matter, in which he may be said to be born.
It could answer no good purpose to enter into the question, whether mind be a distinct substance from matter, or only a finer form of it. The question is, perhaps, after all, a question merely of words. Mind is as essentially mind, whether formed from matter or any other substance. We know, from experience, that soul and body are most intimately united; and every appearance seems to indicate, that they grow from infancy together. It would be a supposition attended with very little probability, to believe that a complete and full formed spirit existed in every infant; but that it was clogged and impeded in its operations, during the first twenty years of life, by the weakness, or hebetude, of the organs in which it was enclosed. As we shall all be disposed to agree, that God is the creator of mind as well as of body; and as they both seem to be forming and unfolding themselves at the same time; it cannot appear inconsistent either with reason or revelation, if it appear to be consistent with phenomena of nature, to suppose that God is constantly occupied in forming mind out of matter, and that the various impressions that man receives through life, is the process for that purpose. The employment is surely worthy of the highest attributes of the Deity.
This view of the state of man on earth will not seem to be unattended with probability, if, judging from the little experience we have of the nature of mind, it shall appear, upon investigation, that the phenomena around us, and the various events of human life, seem peculiarly calculated to promote this great end; and especially, if, upon this supposition, we can account, even to our own narrow understandings, for many of those roughnesses and inequalities in life, which querulous man too frequently makes the subject of his complaint against the God of nature.
The first great awakeners of the mind seem to be the wants of the body.*18 They are the first stimulants that rouse the brain of infant man into sentient activity: and such seems to be the sluggishness of original matter, that unless, by a peculiar course of excitements, other wants, equally powerful, are generated, these stimulants seem, even afterwards, to be necessary, to continue that activity which they first awakened. The savage would slumber for ever under his tree, unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold; and the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils, by procuring food, and building himself a covering, are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity. From all that experience has taught us concerning the structure of the human mind, if those stimulants to exertion, which arise from the wants of the body, were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think, that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure. In those countries, where nature is the most redundant in spontaneous produce, the inhabitants will not be found the most remarkable for acuteness of intellect. Necessity has been with great truth called the mother of invention. Some of the noblest exertions of the human mind have been set in motion by the necessity of satisfying the wants of the body. Want has not unfrequently given wings to the imagination of the poet; pointed the flowing periods of the historian; and added acuteness to the researches of the philosopher: and though there are undoubtedly many minds at present, so far improved by the various excitements of knowledge, or of social sympathy, that they would not relapse into listlessness, if their bodily stimulants were removed; yet it can scarcely be doubted, that these stimulants could not be withdrawn from the mass of mankind, without producing a general and fatal torpor, destructive of all the germs of future improvement.
Locke, if I recollect, says that the endeavour to avoid pain, rather than the pursuit of pleasure, is the great stimulus to action in life: and that in looking to any particular pleasure, we shall not be roused into action in order to obtain it, till the contemplation of it has continued so long, as to amount to a sensation of pain or uneasiness under the absence of it. To avoid evil, and to pursue good, seem to be the great duty and business of man; and this world appears to be peculiarly calculated to afford opportunity of the most unremitted exertion of this kind: and it is by this exertion, by these stimulants, that mind is formed. If Locke's idea be just, and there is great reason to think that it is, evil seems to be necessary to create exertion; and exertion seems evidently necessary to create mind.
The necessity of food for the support of life, gives rise, probably, to a greater quantity of exertion, than any other want, bodily or mental. The supreme Being has ordained, that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities, till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface. There is no conceivable connection to our comprehensions, between the seed; and the plant, or tree, that rises from it. The Supreme Creator might, undoubtedly, raise up plants of all kinds, for the use of his creatures, without the assistance of those little bits of matter, which we call seed, or even without the assisting labour and attention of man. The processes of ploughing and clearing the ground, of collecting and sowing seeds, are not surely for the assistance of God in his creation, but are made previously necessary to the enjoyment of the blessings of life, in order to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason.
To furnish the most unremitted excitements of this kind, and to urge man to further the gracious designs of Providence, by the full cultivation of the earth, it has been ordained, that population should increase much faster than food. This general law (as it has appeared in the former parts of this essay) undoubtedly produces much partial evil; but a little reflection may, perhaps, satisfy us, that it produces a great overbalance of good. Strong excitements seem necessary to create exertion, and to direct this exertion, and form the reasoning faculty, it seems absolutely necessary, that the Supreme Being should act always according to general laws. The constancy of the laws of nature, or the certainty, with which we may expect the same effect, from the same causes, is the foundation of the faculty of reason. If in the ordinary course of things, the finger of God were frequently visible; or to speak more correctly, if God were frequently to change his purpose, (for the finger of God is, indeed, visible in every blade of grass that we see) a general and fatal torpor of the human faculties would probably ensue; even the bodily wants of mankind would cease to stimulate them to exertion, could they not reasonably expect, that if their efforts were well directed, they would be crowned with success. The constancy of the laws of nature, is the foundation of the industry and foresight of the husbandman; the indefatigable ingenuity of the artificer; the skilful researches of the physician, and anatomist; and the watchful observation, and patient investigation, of the natural philosopher. To this constancy we owe all the greatest, and noblest efforts of intellect. To this constancy we owe the immortal mind of a Newton.
As the reasons, therefore, for the constancy of the laws of Nature, seem, even to our understandings, obvious and striking; if we return to the principle of population, and consider man as he really is, inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity, (and it is surely the height of folly to talk of man, according to our crude fancies, of what he might be) we may pronounce, with certainty, that the world would not have been peopled, but for the superiority of the power of population to the means of subsistence. Strong, and constantly operative as this stimulus is on man, to urge him to the cultivation of the earth; if we still see that cultivation proceeds very slowly, we may fairly conclude, that a less stimulus would have been insufficient. Even under the operation of this constant excitement, savages will inhabit countries of the greatest natural fertility, for a long period, before they betake themselves to pasturage or agriculture. Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state. But supposing the earth once well peopled, an Alexander, a Julius Cæsar, a Tamerlane, or a bloody revolution might irrecoverably thin the human race, and defeat the great designs of the Creator. The ravages of a contagious disorder would be felt for ages; and an earthquake might unpeople a region for ever. The principle, according to which population increases, prevents the vices of mankind, or the accidents of nature, the partial evils arising from general laws, from obstructing the high purpose of the creation. It keeps the inhabitants of the earth always fully up to the level of the means of subsistence; and is constantly acting upon man as a powerful stimulus, urging him to the further cultivation of the earth, and to enable it, consequently, to support a more extended population. But it is impossible that this law can operate, and produce the effects apparently intended by the Supreme Being, without occasioning partial evil. Unless the principle of population were to be altered, according to the circumstances of each separate country, (which would not only be contrary to our universal experience, with regard to the laws of nature, but would contradict even our own reason, which sees the absolute necessity of general laws for the formation of intellect;) it is evident that the same principle which, seconded by industry, will people a fertile region in a few years, must produce distress in countries that have been long inhabited.
It seems, however, every way probable, that even the acknowledged difficulties occasioned by the law of population, tend rather to promote, than impede the general purpose of Providence. They excite universal exertion, and contribute to that infinite variety of situations, and consequently of impressions, which seems, upon the whole, favourable to the growth of mind. It is probable, that too great, or too little excitement, extreme poverty, or too great riches, may be alike unfavourable in this respect. The middle regions of society seem to be best suited to intellectual improvement; but it is contrary to the analogy of all nature, to expect that the whole of society can be a middle region. The temperate zones of the earth, seem to be the most favourable to the mental, and corporal energies of man; but all cannot be temperate zones. A world, warmed and enlightened but by one sun, must, from the laws of matter, have some parts chilled by perpetual frosts, and others scorched by perpetual heats. Every piece of matter lying on a surface, must have an upper, and an under side: all the particles cannot be in the middle. The most valuable parts of an oak, to a timber merchant, are not either the roots, or the branches; but these are absolutely necessary to the existence of the middle part, or stem, which is the object in request. The timber merchant could not possibly expect to make an oak grow without roots or branches; but if he could find out a mode of cultivation, which would cause more of the substance to go to stem, and less to root and branch, he would be right to exert himself in bringing such a system into general use.
In the same manner, though we cannot possibly expect to exclude riches, and poverty, from society; yet if we could find out a mode of government, by which, the numbers in the extreme regions would be lessened, and the numbers in the middle regions increased, it would be undoubtedly our duty to adopt it. It is not, however, improbable, that as in the oak, the roots and branches could not be diminished very greatly without weakening the vigorous circulation of the sap in the stem; so in society, the extreme parts could not be diminished beyond a certain degree, without lessening that animated exertion throughout the middle parts, which is the very cause, that they are the most favourable to the growth of intellect. If no man could hope to rise, or fear to fall, in society; if industry did not bring with it its reward, and idleness its punishment, the middle parts would not certainly be what they now are. In reasoning upon this subject, it is evident, that we ought to consider chiefly the mass of mankind, and not individual instances. There are undoubtedly many minds, and there ought to be many, according to the chances, out of so great a mass, that, having been vivified early, by a peculiar course of excitements, would not need the constant action of narrow motives, to continue them in activity. But if we were to review the various useful discoveries, the valuable writings, and other laudable exertions of mankind; I believe we should find, that more were to be attributed to the narrow motives that operate upon the many, than to the apparently more enlarged motives that operate upon the few.
Leisure is, without doubt, highly valuable to man; but taking Man, as he is, the probability seems to be, that in the greater number of instances, it will produce evil rather than good. It has been not infrequently remarked, that talents are more common among younger brothers, than among elder brothers; but it can scarcely be imagined, that younger brothers are, upon an average, born with a greater original susceptibility of parts. The difference, if there really is any observable difference, can only arise from their different situations. Exertion and activity, are in general absolutely necessary in one case, and are only optional in the other.
That the difficulties of life, contribute to generate talents, every day's experience must convince us. The exertions that men find it necessary to make, in order to support themselves or families, frequently awaken faculties, that might otherwise have lain for ever dormant: and it has been commonly remarked, that new and extraordinary situations generally create minds adequate to grapple with the difficulties in which they are involved.
Notes for this chapter
It was my intention to have entered at some length into this subject, as a kind of second part to the essay. A long interruption, from particular business, has obliged me to lay aside this intention, at least for the present. I shall now, therefore, only give a sketch of a few of the leading circumstances that appear to me to favour the general supposition that I have advanced.
End of Notes
The sorrows of life necessary to soften and humanize the heart—The excitement of social sympathy often produce characters of a higher order than the mere possessors of talents—Moral evil probably necessary to the production of moral excellence—Excitements from intellectual wants continually kept up by the infinite variety of nature, and the obscurity that involves metaphysical subjects—The difficulties in Revelation to be accounted for upon this principle—The degree of evidence which the scriptures contain, probably, best suited to the improvements of the human faculties, and the moral amelioration of mankind—The idea that mind is created by excitements, seems to account for the existence of natural and moral evil.
The sorrows and distresses of life form another class of excitements, which seem to be necessary, by a peculiar train of impressions, to soften and humanize the heart, to awaken social sympathy, to generate all the Christian virtues, and to afford scope for the ample exertion of benevolence. The general tendency of an uniform course of prosperity is rather, to degrade, than exalt the character. The heart that has never known sorrow itself, will seldom be feelingly alive, to the pains and pleasures, the wants and wishes, of its fellow beings. It will seldom be overflowing with that warmth of brotherly love, those kind and amiable affections, which dignify the human character, even more than the possession of the highest talents. Talents, indeed, though undoubtedly a very prominent and fine feature of mind, can by no means be considered as constituting the whole of it. There are many minds which have not been exposed to those excitements, that usually form talents, that have yet been vivified to a high degree, by the excitements of social sympathy. In every rank of life, in the lowest as frequently as in the highest, characters are to be found, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, breathing love towards God and man; and, though without those peculiar powers of mind called talents, evidently holding a higher rank in the scale of beings, than many who possess them. Evangelical charity, meekness, piety, and all that class of Virtues, distinguished particularly by the name of Christian Virtues, do not seem necessarily to include abilities; yet a soul possessed of these amiable qualities, a soul awakened and vivified by these delightful sympathies, seems to hold a nearer commerce with the skies, than mere acuteness of intellect.
The greatest talents have been frequently misapplied, and have produced evil proportionate to the extent of their powers. Both reason and revelation seem to assure us, that such minds will be condemned to eternal death; but while on earth, these vicious instruments performed their part in the great mass of impressions, by the disgust and abhorrence which they excited. It seems highly probable, that moral evil is absolutely necessary to the production of moral excellence. A being with only good placed in view, may be justly said to be impelled by a blind necessity. The pursuit of good in this case, can be no indication of virtuous propensities. It might be said, perhaps, that Infinite Wisdom cannot want such an indication as outward action, but would foreknow, with certainty, whether the being would chuse good or evil. This might be a plausible argument against a state of trial; but will not hold against the supposition, that mind in this world is in a state of formation. Upon this idea, the being that has seen moral evil, and has felt disapprobation and disgust at it, is essentially different from the being that has seen only good. They are pieces of clay that have received distinct impressions: they must, therefore, necessarily be in different shapes; or, even if we allow them both to have the same lovely form of virtue, it must be acknowledged that one has undergone the further process, necessary to give firmness and durability to its substance; while the other is still exposed to injury, and liable to be broken by every accidental impulse. An ardent love and admiration of virtue seems to imply the existence of something opposite to it; and it seems highly probable, that the same beauty of form and substance, the same perfection of character, could not be generated without the impressions of disapprobation which arise from the spectacle of moral evil.
When the mind has been awakened into activity by the passions, and the wants of the body, intellectual wants arise; and the desire of knowledge, and the impatience under ignorance, form a new and important class of excitements. Every part of nature seems peculiarly calculated to furnish stimulants to mental exertion of this kind, and to offer inexhaustible food for the most unremitted inquiry. Our mortal Bard says of Cleopatra—
—"Custom cannot stale
The expression, when applied to any one object, may be considered as a poetical amplification, but it is accurately true when applied to nature. Infinite variety, seems, indeed, eminently her characteristic feature. The shades that are here and there blended in the picture, give spirit, life, and prominence to her exuberant beauties; and those roughnesses and inequalities, those inferior parts that support the superior, though they sometimes offend the fastidious microscopic eye of short sighted man, contribute to the symmetry, grace, and fair proportion of the whole.
The infinite variety of the forms and operations of nature, besides tending immediately to awaken and improve the mind by the variety of impressions that it creates, opens other fertile sources of improvement, by offering so wide and extensive a field for investigation and research. Uniform, undiversified perfection, could not possess the same awakening powers. When we endeavour then to contemplate the system of the universe; when we think of the stars as the suns of other systems, scattered throughout infinite space; when we reflect, that we do not probably see a millionth part of those bright orbs, that are beaming light and life to unnumbered worlds; when our minds, unable to grasp the immeasurable conception, sink, lost and confounded, in admiration at the mighty incomprehensible power of the Creator; let us not querulously complain that all climates are not equally genial; that perpetual spring does not reign throughout the year; that all God's creatures do not possess the same advantages; that clouds and tempests sometimes darken the natural world, and vice and misery, the moral world; and that all the works of the creation are not formed with equal perfection. Both reason and experience seem to indicate to us, that the infinite variety of nature (and variety cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes) is admirably adapted to further the high purpose of the creation and to produce the greatest possible quantity of good.
The obscurity that involves all metaphysical subjects, appears to me, in the same manner peculiarly calculated, to add to that class of excitements which arise from the thirst of knowledge. It is probable that man, while on earth, will never be able to attain complete satisfaction on these subjects; but this is by no means a reason that he should not engage in them. The darkness that surrounds these interesting topics of human curiosity, may be intended to furnish endless motives to intellectual activity and exertion. The constant effort to dispel this darkness, even if it fail of success, invigorates and improves the thinking faculty. If the subjects of human inquiry were once exhausted, mind would probably stagnate; but the infinitely diversified forms and operations of nature, together with the endless food for speculation which metaphysical subjects offer, prevent the possibility that such a period should ever arrive.
It is by no means one of the wisest sayings of Solomon, that "there is no new thing under the sun." On the contrary, it is probable, that were the present system to continue for millions of years, continual additions would be making to the mass of human knowledge; and yet, perhaps, it may be a matter of doubt, whether, what may be called the capacity of mind, be in any marked and decided manner increasing. A Socrates, a Plato, or an Aristotle, however confessedly inferior in knowledge to the philosophers of the present day, do not appear to have been much below them in intellectual capacity. Intellect rises from a speck, continues in vigour only for a certain period, and will not, perhaps, admit, while on earth, of above a certain number of impressions. These impressions may, indeed, be infinitely modified, and from these various modifications, added probably to a difference in the susceptibility of the original germs,*19 arise the endless diversity of character that we see in the world; but reason and experience seem both to assure us, that the capacity of individual minds does not increase in proportion to the mass of existing knowledge. The finest minds seem to be formed rather by efforts at original thinking, by endeavours to form new combinations, and to discover new truths, than by passively receiving the impressions of other men's ideas. Could we suppose the period arrived, when there was no further hope of future discoveries; and the only employment of mind was to acquire pre-existing knowledge, without any efforts to form new and original combinations; though the mass of human knowledge were a thousand times greater than it is at present; yet it is evident that one of the noblest stimulants to mental exertion would have ceased; the finest feature of intellect would be lost; everything allied to genius would be at an end; and it appears to be impossible, that, under such circumstances, any individuals could possess the same intellectual energies, as were possessed by a Locke, a Newton, or a Shakespear, or even by a Socrates, a Plato, an Aristotle or a Homer.
If a revelation from heaven, of which no person could feel the smallest doubt, were to dispel the mists that now hang over metaphysical subjects; were to explain the nature and structure of mind, the affections and essences of all substances, the mode in which the Supreme Being operates in the works of the creation, and the whole plan and scheme of the Universe; such an accession of knowledge, so obtained, instead of giving additional vigour and activity to the human mind, would, in all probability, tend to repress future exertion, and to damp the soaring wings of intellect.
For this reason I have never considered the doubts and difficulties that involve some parts of the sacred writings, as any argument against their divine original. The Supreme Being might, undoubtedly, have accompanied his revelations to man by such a succession of miracles, and of such a nature, as would have produced universal overpowering conviction, and have put an end at once to all hesitation and discussion. But weak as our reason is to comprehend the plans of the Great Creator, it is yet sufficiently strong, to see the most striking objections to such a revelation. From the little we know of the structure of the human understanding, we must be convinced, that an overpowering conviction of this kind, instead of tending to the improvement and moral amelioration of man, would act like the touch of a torpedo on all intellectual exertion, and would almost put an end to the existence of virtue. If the scriptural denunciations of eternal punishment were brought home with the same certainty to every man's mind, as that the night will follow the day, this one vast and gloomy idea would take such full possession of the human faculties, as to leave no room for any other conceptions: the external actions of men would be all nearly alike: virtuous conduct would be no indication of virtuous disposition: vice and virtue would be blended together in one common mass; and though the all-seeing eye of God might distinguish them, they must necessarily make the same impressions on man, who can judge only from external appearances. Under such a dispensation, it is difficult to conceive how human beings could be formed to a detestation of moral evil, and a love and admiration of God, and of moral excellence.
Our ideas of virtue and vice are not, perhaps, very accurate and well-defined; but few, I think, would call an action really virtuous, which was performed simply and solely from the dread of a very great punishment, or the expectation of a very great reward. The fear of the Lord is very justly said to be the beginning of wisdom; but the end of wisdom is the love of the Lord, and the admiration of moral good. The denunciations of future punishment, contained in the scriptures, seem to be well calculated to arrest the progress of the vicious, and awaken the attention of the careless; but we see, from repeated experience, that they are not accompanied with evidence of such a nature, as to overpower the human will, and to make men lead virtuous lives with vicious dispositions, merely from a dread of hereafter. A genuine faith, by which I mean a faith that shews itself in all the virtues of a truly christian life, may generally be considered as an indication of an amiable and virtuous disposition, operated upon more by love than by pure unmixed fear.
When we reflect on the temptations to which man must necessarily be exposed in this world, from the structure of his frame, and the operation of the laws of nature; and the consequent moral certainty, that many vessels will come out of this mighty creative furnace in wrong shapes; it is perfectly impossible to conceive, that any of these creatures of God's hand can be condemned to eternal suffering. Could we once admit such an idea, all our natural conceptions of goodness and justice would be completely overthrown; and we could no longer look up to God as a merciful and righteous Being. But the doctrine of life and immortality which was brought to light by the gospel, the doctrine that the end of righteousness is everlasting life, but that the wages of sin are death, is in every respect just and merciful, and worthy of the Great Creator. Nothing can appear more consonant to our reason, than that those beings which come out of the creative process of the world in lovely and beautiful forms, should be crowned with immortality; while those which come out misshapen, those whose minds are not suited to a purer and happier state of existence, should perish and be condemned to mix again with their original clay. Eternal condemnation of this kind may be considered as a species of eternal punishment; and it is not wonderful that it should be represented, sometimes, under images of suffering. But life and death, salvation and destruction, are more frequently opposed to each other in the New Testament than happiness and misery. The Supreme Being would appear to us in a very different view, if we were to consider him as pursuing the creatures that had offended him with eternal hate and torture, instead of merely condemning to their original insensibility those beings, that, by the operation of general laws, had not been formed with qualities suited to a purer state of happiness.
Life is, generally speaking, a blessing independent of a future state. It is a gift which the vicious would not always be ready to throw away, even if they had no fear of death. The partial pain, therefore, that is inflicted by the Supreme Creator, while he is forming numberless beings to a capacity of the highest enjoyments, is but as the dust of the balance in comparison of the happiness that is communicated; and we have every reason to think, that there is no more evil in the world, than what is absolutely necessary as one of the ingredients in the mighty process.
The striking necessity of general laws for the formation of intellect, will not in any respect be contradicted by one or two exceptions; and these evidently not intended for partial purposes, but calculated to operate upon a great part of mankind, and through many ages. Upon the idea that I have given of the formation of mind, the infringement of the general law of nature, by a divine revelation, will appear in the light of the immediate hand of God mixing new ingredients in the mighty mass, suited to the particular state of the process, and calculated to give rise to a new and powerful train of impressions, tending to purify, exalt, and improve the human mind. The miracles that accompanied these revelations when they had once excited the attention of mankind, and rendered it a matter of most interesting discussion, whether the doctrine was from God or man, had performed their part, had answered the purpose of the Creator; and these communications of the divine will were afterwards left to make their way by their own intrinsic excellence; and by operating as moral motives, gradually to influence and improve, and not to overpower and stagnate the faculties of man.
It would be, undoubtedly, presumptuous to say, that the Supreme Being could not possibly have effected his purpose in any other way than that which he has chosen; but as the revelation of the divine will, which we possess, is attended with some doubts and difficulties; and as our reason points out to us the strongest objections to a revelation, which would force immediate, implicit, universal belief; we have surely just cause to think that these doubts and difficulties are no argument against the divine origin of the scriptures; and that the species of evidence which they possess is best suited to the improvement of the human faculties, and the moral amelioration of mankind.
The idea that the impressions and excitements of this world are the instruments with which the Supreme Being forms matter into mind; and that the necessity of constant exertion to avoid evil, and to pursue good, is the principal spring of these impressions and excitements, seems to smooth many of the difficulties that occur in a contemplation of human life; and appears to me to give a satisfactory reason for the existence of natural and moral evil; and, consequently, for that part of both, and it certainly is not a very small part, which arises from the principle of population. But, though upon this supposition, it seems highly improbable that evil should ever be removed from the world; yet it is evident that this impression would not answer the apparent purpose of the Creator; it would not act so powerfully as an excitement to exertion, if the quantity of it did not diminish or increase, with the activity or the indolence of man. The continual variations in the weight, and in the distribution of this pressure, keep alive a constant expectation of throwing it off.
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Evil exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest, but the duty of every individual, to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself; and from as large a circle as he can influence; and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.
Notes for this chapter
It is probable that no two grains of wheat are exactly alike. Soil undoubtedly makes the principal difference in the blades that spring up; but probably not all. It seems natural to suppose some sort of difference in the original germs that are afterwards awakened into thought; and the extraordinary difference of susceptibility in very young children seems to confirm the supposition.
End of Notes
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