« PreviousContinue »
errors, under which they were buried; and, by the help of a
, most prodigious capacity, laying them together, comparing them with the nature of things, and drawing consequences from them, he found reason to question the soundness of the Grecian theology and morality. But this is all the length he seems to have gone. He reasoned extremely well against the prevailing errors of his time ; but wis able to form no systein of religion or morality. This was a work above the strength of his nature, and the lights he enjoyed. He taught his disciples to wo ship the gols, and to ground the distinction between right and wrong on the laws of their country ; in the latter of which he followed the saying of his master, Archelaus, who taught, that what is just or dishonest, is defined by law, not by nature.
$ 24. The notions of Plato concerning the divine nature, were infinitely more sublime and nearer the truth, than those of his master, Socrates. He did not content bimself merely with removing errors : He ventured on a system; and maintained, that virine is a science, and that God is the object and source of duty; that there is but one God, the fountain of all being, and superior to all essence; that he bath a Son, called The World: that there is a judgment to come, by which the just who have suffered in this life, shall be recompensed in the other, and the wicked punished eternally; that God is omnipresent: and consequently, that the wicked, if he were to dive into the deepest caverns of the earth, or should get wings, and fly into the heavens, would not be able to escape from him : that man is formed in the image of God; and that, in order to establish laws and government, relations made by true traditions and ancient oracles, are to be consulted. These points, so much insisted on by Plato, are far from being the growth of Greece, or his own invention, but derived from Eastern traditions, wbich we know he travelled for, at least as far as Egypt. He was wiser than his teacher, (who was a much greater man,) because his lights were better : But, as they were not sufficient, he ran into great errors, speaking plainly as if he believed in a plurality of gods; making goods, women, and children, common, &c.
$ 25. The natural faculties of men, in all nations, are alike : and did nature itself furnish all men with the means and materials of knowledge, philosophy need never turn traveller, either in order to ber own improvement, or to the communication of her lights to the world. How came it to pass that Scytbia did not produce so many, so great philosophers, as Greece? I think it very evident, that the great difference between these countries as to learning and instruction, arose
from this : The latter had the benefit of commerce with the Phænicians, from whence they came by the knowledge of letters, and probably of navigation; and with the Egyptians, from whom they learned the greater part of their theology, policy, arts and sciences. Such advantages the Scythians wanted; and therefore, although their natural talents were as good as those of the Grecians, they were not able to make any improvements in philosopby. Why are the Asiatic Scythians at this day as ignorant as ever, while the European Scythians are liule inferior to the other nations of Europe in arts and politeness? And how does it come to pass, that we, at this day, take upon us to approve the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, rather than that of Epicurus and Aristippus? The Grecians were divided in this matter : some followed the notions of the former, and others those of the latter. Why did not reason put the matter out of question in those times, or at least immediately after? The infinite contradictions and uncertainties among the ancient pbilosophers produced the sects of the Sceptics. In respect to religion, Socrates and Plato either were, or pretended to be, Sceptics, beating down the absurd notions of others, but seldom building up any thing of their own; or, when they did, building on mere conjectures, or arguments suspected by themselves.
§ 26. If it be said, the finding out of truth by the light of nature, is a work of time; time hath taught the Tartars, Africans, and Americans, little or nothing of true theology or morality, even yet. Time, of itself, can search nothing. It was the Christian religion that opened the eyes of the polite nations of Europe, and even of the deists of this age, wherein
, their eyes are still open, and they have any true principles by which they are able to examine the philosophy of the ancients, and, by comparing their several opiniops one with another, and with the truths derived from the Christian revelation, to decide in favour of some against the rest.
$ 27. As to the doctrine of the IMMORTALITY OF THE Soul; it is certain nothing can be more agreeable to reason, when once the doctrine is proposed and thoroughly canvassed ; while, at the same time, there is no one probable opinion in the world, which mankind, left entirely to themselves, would have been more unlikely to have started. Wbo, if he was not assured of it by good authority, would ever take it into his head to imagine, that man, who dies, and rots, and vanishes for ever, like all other animals, still exists? It is well, if this when proposed, can be believed; but, to strike out the thought itself, is somewhat, I am afraid, too high and difficult for the capacity of men. The only natural argument, of any weight,
for the immortality of the soul, takes its rise from this observation, that justice is not extended to the good, nor executed upon the bad man in this life; and, that as the Governor of the world is just, man must live hereafter to be judged. But as this only argument that can be drawn from mere reason, in order either to lead us to a discovery of our own immortality, or to support the opinion of it when once started, is founded entirely on tbe knowledge of God and his attributes; and as we have already seen, that such knowledge is almost unattainable by the present light of nature, the argument itself, which before the fall, could not possibly have been thought of, is, since the fall, clogged with all the difficulties mere reason labours under, in finding out a right idea of God. And besides, this argument in itself, is utterly inconclusive, on the principles of the deists of our age and nation : because they insist that virtue fully rewards, and vice fully punishes itself. It is no wonder that many heathen nations believed a future state, as they received it by tradition from their ancestors. But yet, there is this evidence that mankind had not this doctrine merely from the easy and plain dictates of reason and nature, that many did not believe it.
§ 28. Socrates, in the Phædon of Plato, says, most men were of opinion, that the soul, upon its separation from the body, is dissipated and reduced to nothing. And Tully, in
, his first Tusculan question, says, Pherecydes Syrus, preceptor to Pytbagoras, was the first person known to the learned world, who taught the immortality of the soul. The other arguments brought by Plato and Cicero for the immortality of the soul, besides that already mentioned, are very inconclusive. They themselves thought so. The former, in his Phædon, makes Socrates speak with some doubt concerning his own arguments, and introduces Simmias saying to Socrates, after having listened to his principal reasonings, “ We ought to lay hold of the strongest arguments for this doctrine, that either we ourselves, or others can suggest to us. If both ways prove ineffectual, we must however put up with the best proofs we can get, till some promise or revelation shall clear up the point to us.”One of Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul, is this: 6 Every cause produces an effect contrary to itself; and that therefore, as life produces death, so death shall produce life.” Cicero, to prove that the soul will exist after it is separated from the body, endeavours to prove that it existed before it was joined to it; and to that end he insists, " that what we call aptness in children to learn, is nothing more than memory.' Another argument of Plato is this : “ That alone which moves itself, inasınuch as it is never deserted by itself, never ceases to move: but the mind moves itself, and borrows not its motion from any thing else, and therefore must move, and consequently exist for ever."
The wisdom of Socrates and Plato united, produce such arguments for a most favourite opinion, as they themselves are dissatisfied with, and therefore call for more than human help.
$ 29. Cicero being so fond of this opinion, that, as he says, he would rather err with Plato in holding it, than think rightly with those who deny it, poorly echoes the arguments of Plato; adds little to them himself; and at the conclusion, in a manner giving up the point, with all the arguments brought to support it, endeavours to comfort himself and others against the approach of death, by proving death to be no evil, even supposing the soul to perish with the body. And this great philosopher, with all his knowledge, gives but one lot to the good and evil in another life. It was his opinion, If the soul is immortal, it must be happy: if it perishes with the body, it cannot be miserable. This consolation he administers alike to all men, without making any distinction, and consequently leaves moral obligation on a mere temporal footing, which, in effect, is not a whit better than downright atheism. But in his dream of Scipio, when he does not reason nor seem to inculcate any particular doctrine, he indeed introduces the elder Scipio telling the younger, by way of dream, that those who served their country, and cultivated justice and the other virtues, should
go to heaven after death: But that the souls of those that had violated the laws of the gods and men, should, after leaving their bodies, be tossed about on the earth, and not return to heaven for many ages. Now if a person of Cicero's abilities and learning could, from the light of nature, work out no better scheme than this, wbich renders futurity almost useless to moral obligation, how much farther from truth and reason must we suppose the bulk of mankind to stray, if cach ignorant person is to be left entirely to his own thoughts and discoveries, in respect to the future rewards of virtue, and punishments of vice?
§ 30. Thus, upon considering the extent and strength of human faculties, we have found them at present utterly inca'pable of attaining to any competent notion of divine law, if left wholly to themselves. This is vastly confirmed by experience; from which it appears, that mankind, instead of being able, through a long series of ages, by the mere light of nature, to find out a right idea of God and his laws; on the contrary after having, without doubt, been well acquainted at first with both-gradually, and at length almost universally, lost sight of both; insomuch, that idolatry as bad as atheism, and
wickedness worse than brutality, were established for religion and law in all countries. The philosophers who lived in the most knowing countries, and sought for religion and moral truth, but sought in vain, as the wisest of them confess, render this argument still more cogent and conclusive.
$31. As the apostle Paul observes in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, men did not like to retain God in their knowledge, and, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Thus were their foolish hearts darkened; upon which God gave them over to a reprobate mind, and gave them up to uncleanness, to sins of all kinds, even such as were utterly against nature. St. Chrysostom, in his descant on this passage, says, “ The Gentiles fell into a kind of madness, insomuch, that having deprived themselves of the light, and involved their minds in the darkness of their own thoughts, their attempt to travel towards heaven ended in a miserable shipwreck, as his must do, who, in a dark night, undertakes a voyage by sea.” Being guided by conceit, and too great an attachment to sensible things, they entered upon a wrong way; so that, still the longer they travelled, the farther they wandered from the knowledge of the true God, and right religion. The doctrine of St. Paul, concerning the blindness into which the Gentiles fell, is so confirmed by the state of religion in Africa, America, and even China, where, to this day, no advances towards the true religion have been made, that we can no longer be at a loss to judge of the insufficiency of unassisted reason, to dissipate the prejudices of the Heathen world, and open their eyes to religious truths.
§ 32. The starting of a proposition is one thing, and the proof of it quite another. Every science has its proofs in the nature of things. Yet all sciences require to be taught; and those require it most, the first principles of which lie a little out of the reach of ordinary capacities. The first principles of religion, being of a high and spiritual nature, are harder to be found out than those of any other science; because the minds of men are gross and earthly, used to objects of sense; and all their depraved appetites and corrupt dispositions, which are by nature opposite to the true religion, help to increase the natural weakness of their reason, and clip the wings of their contemplation, when they endeavour, by their own strength, to soar towards God and heavenly things. No man in his, nor hardly in any other time, knew better how to catch at the evidence of divine truths discovered in the works of