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the particulars by which they are distinguished from whatever other classes have fallen under our notice. We frame propositions, and, detaching ourselves from the immediate impressions of sense, proceed to generalities, which exist only, in a way confused, and not distinctly adverted to, in the conceptions of the animal creation. It is thus that we arrive at science, and go
forward to those subtleties, and that perspicuity of explanation, which place man in a distinct order of being, leaving all the other inhabitants of earth at an immeasurable distance below him. It is thus that we communicate our discoveries to each other, and hand down the knowledge we have acquired, unimpaired and entire, through successive ages, and to generations yet unborn.
But in certain respects we pay a very high price for this distinction. It is to it that we must impute all the follies, extravagances and hallucinations of human intellect. There is nothing so absurd that some man has not affirmed, rendering himself the scorn and laughing-stock of persons of sounder understanding. And, which is worst, the more ridiculous and unintelligible is the proposition he has embraced, the more pertinaciously does he cling to it; so that creeds the most outrageous and contradictory have served as the occasion or pretext for the most impassioned debates, bloody wars, inhuman executions, and all that most deeply blots and dishonours the name of man--while often, the more
evanescent and frivolous are the distinctions, the more furious and inexpiable have been the contentions they have produced.
The result of the whole, in the vast combinations of men into tribes and nations, is, that thousands and millions believe, or imagine they believe, propositions and systems, the terms of which they do not fully understand, and the evidence of which they have not considered. They believe, because so their fathers believed before them. No phrase is more commonly heard than, “I was born a Christian;" “I was born a Catholic, or a Protestant.”
The priest continues what the nurse began,
But this sort of belief forms no part of the subject of the present Essay. My purpose is to confine myself to the consideration of those
who in some degree, more or less, exercise the reasoning faculty in the pursuit of truth, and, having attempted to examine the evidence of an interesting and weighty proposition, satisfy thenıselves that they have arrived at a sound conclusion.
It is however the rarest thing in the world, for any one to found his opinion, simply upon the evidence that presents itself to him of the truth of the proposition which comes before him to be examined. Where is the man that breaks loose from all the shackles that in his youth had been imposed npon him, and says to Truth, “Go on; whithersoever thou leadest, I am prepared to follow?" To weigh the evidence for and against a proposition, in scales so balanced, that the “ division of the twentieth part of one poor scruple, the estimation of a hair,” shall be recognised and submitted to, is the privilege of a mind of no ordinary fairness and firmness.
The Scriptures say “The heart of man is deceitful above all things.” The thinking principle within us is so subtle, has passed through so many forms of instruction, and is under the influence and direction of such a variety of causes, that no man can accurately pronounce by what impulse he has been led to the conclusion in which he finally reposes. Every ingenuous person, who is invited to embrace a certain profession, that of the church for example, will desire, preparatorily to his final determination, to examine the evidences and the merits of the religion he embraces, that he may enter upon his profession under the influence of a sincere conviction, and be inspired with that zeal, in singleness of heart, which can alone prevent his vocation from being disgraceful to him. Yet how many motives are there, constraining him to abide in an affirmative conclusion? His friends expect this from him. Perhaps his own inclination leads him to select this destination rather than any other. Perhaps preferment and opulence wait upon his decision. If the final result of his enquiries lead him to an opposite judgment, to how much obloquy will he be exposed!
Where is the man who can say that no unconscious bias has influenced him in the progress of his investigation? Who shall pronounce that, under very different circumstances, his conclusions would not have been essentially other than they are ?
But the enquiry of an active and a searching mind does not terminate on a certain day. He will be for ever revising and reconsidering his first determinations. It is one of the leading maxims of an honourable mind, that we must be, at all times, and to the last hour of our existence, accessible to conviction built upon new evidence, or upon evidence presented in a light in which it had not before been viewed. If then the probationer for the clerical profession was under some bias in his first investigation, how must it be expected to be with him, when he has already taken the vow, and received ordination? Can he with a calm and unaltered spirit contemplate the possibility, that the ground shall be cut away from under him, and that, by dint of irrefragable argument, he shall be stripped of his occupation, and turned out naked and friendless into the world?
But this is only one of the broadest and most glaring instances. In every question of paramount importance there is ever a secret influence urging me earnestly to desire to find one side of the question right and the other wrong. Shall I be a whig or a tory, believe a republic or a mixed monarchy most conducive to the improvement and happiness of mankind, embrace the creed of free will or necessity? There is in all cases a “strong temptation that waketh in the heart.” Cowardice urges me to become the adherent of that creed, which is espoused by my nearest friends, or those who are most qualified to serve me. Enterprise and a courageous spirit on the contrary bid me embrace the tenet, the embracing of which shall most conduce to my reputation for extraordinary perspicuity and acuteness, and gain me the character of an intrepid adventurer, a man who dares commit himself to an unknown voyage.
In the question of religion, even when the consideration of the profession of an ecclesiastic does not occur, yet we are taught to believe that there is only one set of tenets that will lead us in the
way of salvation. Faith is represented as the first of all qualifications. “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin.” With what heart then does a man set himself to examine, and scrupulously weigh the evidence on one side and the other, when some undiscerned frailty, some secret bias that all his care cannot detect, may lurk within, and insure for him the “greater condemnation?". I well remember in early life, with what tingling sensation and unknown horror I looked into the books of the infidels and the repositories of unlawful tenets, lest I should be seduced. I held it my duty to “prove all things;” but I knew not how far it might be my fate; to sustain the penalty attendant even upon an honourable and virtuous curiosity.