Page images

guishes him from all brute animals. And whether they are original powers, or resolvable into other original powers, it is evident that they spring up in the human mind at an early period of life, and are found in every individual of the species, whether savage or civilized.

“ For we see that children, as soon as they are capable of understanding declarations and promises, are led by their constitution to rely upon them. They are no less led by their constitution to veracity and candour on their own part. Nor do they ever deviate from this road of truth and sincerity, until corrupted by bad example and company. This disposition to sincerity in themselves, and to give credit to others, whether we call it instinct, or whatever name we give it, must be considered as the effect of their constitution *.” The question, whether the disposition to speak truth, and to give credit to the declarations of others, be an original principle in the human mind, or, merely the effect of association and experience, I do not consider of such importance as to merit a particular consideration.

No obligation can be stronger than that which attaches to the fulfilment of a declaration or promise ; and the man who feels not its force, irrespective of the effect which a character for fidelity, or the opposite, will have on his rank in human estimation, is already deeply depraved. We are led by the constitution of our nature to prefer truth to falsehood, and sincerity to deceit; nor is it till some evil affection is awakened and some pernicious example followed, that this



* Reid's Works, v. iii. p. 546.

[ocr errors]


order is inverted, and that the path of open veracity and honesty is relinquished. At a more mature

. period of life, in addition to the testimony of conscience concerning the obligations of truth and fidelity, we have powerful motives to a sacred observance of them, arising from views of utility. The authority of God on this subject is decisive: “ Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle, who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” “ Without

“ are murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie." • All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death *.” “ When an individual, by an engagement, has transferred to his neighbour one of the gifts which God had bestowed upon him, the latter has the same right to it which the original proprietor had before the transfer; and if it be withheld from him he has the same right to use force for the recovery of it as for the recovery of any other article of his property.”

Moralists and casuists have thought it necessary to ascertain the sense in which promises are to be interpreted. This appears to me to be a superfluous task, since it is not more manifest that a promise is obligatory, than that it is obligatory in the sense in which the promiser knew, at the time, the promisee received it. The expectation excited by the promise is nothing more than the promiser was aware of; and to this extent he is clearly bound to fulfil his word. He has knowingly and voluntarily conveyed to another person a right to its performance, which he cannot violate without injustice.

* Rev. xxii. 15, xxi. 8.

Temures,” says Paley, in illustration of this position, “promised the garrison of Sebastia, that if they would surrender, no blood should be shed. The garri. son surrendered ; and Temures buried them all alive. Now Temures fulfilled the promise in one sense, and in the sense too in which he intended it at the time; but not in the sense in which the garrison of Sebastia actually received it, nor in the sense in which Temures himself knew that the garrison received it; which last sense was the sense in which he was in conscience bound to have performed it*.”

If we knowingly and voluntarily by signs merely, not less than by language, awaken expectation in another, that is, if our conduct towards any person be such as designedly on our part to produce a natural expectation on his, we are as much bound by the laws of morality to fulfil this expectation, as if it had been excited by a promise in words. It becomes all, therefore, as they value their own peace and respecta bility of character, and more especially does it become those of a warm temperament, an ardent and generous disposition of mind, to deliberate, to weigh well the import of their words, before making a promise, lest they be led by surprise, or goodnature, or importunity, to encourage expectations which, without doing injustice to themselves, or to their families, or to the interests of the community, they may not be able to fulfil. When, from whatever cause, such promises are made, we find ourselves placed in trying circum

* Moral Phil. v. i. p:


stances,-trying to our virtue and happiness; and though the result may not impair our integrity, it may greatly affect the estimation in which we are held, and consequently our power of doing good.

Another question of which moralists and casuists have thought it requisite to attempt a solution is, In what cases are promises not binding ? To this it may briefly be replied, that man is morally bound to fulfil his engagements, whether the person to whom the promise was made, or with whom the contract was entered into, has any power to enforce the fulfilment. He can only be released from his obligation by a physical incapability of performing, or by the previous unlawfulness of the stipulation into which he has entered. He may and he ought to feel the sinfulness of having promised, or engaged to perform, what by no exertions on his part he can possibly accomplish ; but he can have no ground for moral disapprobation for not doing that which to him is impossible. If he was aware of this impossibility at the time that he made the

engagement, he is very criminal, inasmuch as he has fraudulently awakened expectations, knowing that it was beyond his power to gratify them.

If it be immoral in us to perform a certain action, it cannot be lawful for us to do it; and consequently, we are not bound to do it, merely because we have entered into an engagement to that effect. and it is very proper that we should suffer from remorse, for having promised or contracted to do what was in itself sinful in us in any circumstances to perform; but we can feel none in consequence of our

! non-performance. We have just cause to regret our

We may,

error ; but to fulfil our engagement could only furnish an additional ground of self-condemnation. The criminality of such promises and engagements lies in making them; the sincerity of our repentance is proved by breaking them.

A memorable example of an unlawful promise and oath we have in the case of Herod. He promised to his daughter-in-law," that he would give her what

“ soever she asked, even to the half of his kingdom.” There was nothing exceptionable in the terms in which Herod made this promise. It is presumed that he had a right to give away the half of his kingdom. But he could have none to take away the lives of innocent human beings. So far, therefore, from being bound by his oath to comply with the unlawful demand of Herodias, he was laid under the strongest moral obligation, for the reasons already assigned, to resist and refuse it.

It may be proper here to remark, that a promise or engagement may be highly criminal, from the time and manner in which it was made, and the dispositions in which it originated, and yet it may be unlawful to break it. Cases of this nature, it is presumed, are of rare occurrence; but as the question involved in it was thought to be of sufficient importance to merit a dissertation from a most distinguished casuist of a former


it is meet that I should allude to it. “ A certain person, in the lifetime of his wife, who

, was then sick, had paid his addresses, and promised marriage, to another woman ;-the wife died; and the woman demanded performance of the promise. The man, who, it seems, had changed his mind,

« PreviousContinue »