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ON OUR IGNORANCE OF GOOD AND EVIL IN THIS LIFE.
ECCLES. vi, 12
Who knoweth what is good for man in this life,
all the days of his vain life, which he spendeth as a shadow ?
The measure according to which knowledge is dispensed to man, affords conspicuous proofs of divine wisdom. In many instances we clearly perceive, that either more or less would have proved detrimental to his state ; that entire ignorance would have deprived him of proper motives to action ; and that complete discovery would have raised him to a sphere too high for his present powers. He is, therefore, permitted to know only in part ; and to see through a glass, darkly. He is left in that state of conjecture, and partial information, which, though it may occasionally subject him to distress, yet, on the whole, conduces most to his improvement; which affords him knowledge sufficient for the purposes of virtue, and of active life, without disturbing the operations of his mind, by a light too bright and dazzling. This evidently holds with respect to that degree of obscurity which now covers the great laws of Nature, the decrees of the Supreme Being, the state of the invisible world, the future events of our own life, and the thoughts and designs which pass within the breasts of others. *
But there is an ignorance of another kind, with respect to which the application of this remark may appear more dubious ; the ignorance under which men labour concerning their happiness in the present life, and the means of obtaining it. If there be foundation for Solomon's complaint in the text, who knoweth what is good for man in this life ? this consequence may be thought inevitably to follow, that the days of his life must be vain in every sense; not only because they are fleeting, but because they are empty too, like the shadow.
. Vide Serm. IV.
For to what purpose are all his labours in the pursuit of an object, which it is not in his power to discover or ascertain ?-Let us then seriously enquire, what account can be given of our present ignorance, respecting what is good for us in this life; whether nothing be left, but only to wander in uncertainty amidst this darkness, and to lament it as the sad consequence of our fallen state ; or whether such instructions may not be derived from it, as give ground for acknowledging, that by this, as by all its other appointments, the wisdom of Providence brings real good out of seeming evil. I shall, in order to determine this point, first, endeavour to illustrate the doctrine of the Text, That we know not, or at most know imperfectly, what is good for us in this life: I shall next explain the causes to which this defect in our knowledge is owing: And then shall shew the purposes which it is intended to serve, and the effects which it ought to produce on our conduct.
The whole history of mankind seems a comment on the doctrine of the Text. When we review the course of human affairs, one of the first objects which every where attracts our notice, is, the mistaken judgment of men concerning their own interest. The sore evil which Solomon long ago remarked with re
spect to riches, of their being kept by the owners thereof to their hurt, takes place equally with respect to dominion and power, and all the splendid objects and high stations of life.
every day behold men climbing, by painful steps, to that dangerous height, which, in the end, renders their fall more severe, and their ruin more conspicuous. But it is not to high stations that the doctrine of the Text is limited. In the crimes by which too often these are gained, and in the misfortunes which they afterwards bring forth, the greater part of every audience
think themselves little concerned. Leaving such themes, therefore, to the poet and the historian, let us come nearer to ourselves, and survey the ordinary walk of life.
Around us, we every-where behold a busy multitude. Restless and uneasy in their present situation, they are incessantly employed in accomplishing a change of it; and as soon as their wish is fulfilled, we discern by their behaviour, that they are as dissatisfied as they were before. Where they expected to have found a paradise, they find a desart. The man of business pines for leisure. The leisure for which he had longed, proves an irksomegloom; and, through want of employment, he languishes, sickens, and dies. The man of re
tirement fancies no state so happy as that of active life. But he has not engaged long in the tumults and contests of the world, until he finds cause to look back with regret on the calm hours of his former privacy and retreat. Beauty, wit, eloquence, and fame, are eagerly desired by persons in every rank of life. They are the parent's fondest wish for hischild: the ambition of the young, and the admiration of the old. And yet, in what numberless instances have they proved, to those who possessed them, no other than shining snares ; seductions to vice, instigations to folly, and, in the end, sources of misery? Comfortably might their days have passed, had they been less conspicuous. But the distinctions which brought them forth to notice, conferred splendour, and withdrew happiness. Long life is, of all others, the most general, and seemingly the most innocent object of desire. With respect to this, too, we so frequently err, that it would have been a blessing to many to have had their wish denied. There was a period when they might have quitted the stage with honour, and in peace. But, by living too long, they outlived their reputation; outlived their family, their friends, and comforts; and reaped nothing from the continuance of days, except to feel the pressure of age, to taste the