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A DISCOURSE on SPEECH,
and the ABUSES of it.
MATT. xii. 37.
By thy Words thou shalt be justified, and by thy Words thou shalt be condemned.
HIS Paffage fhews in general, that Men are accountable to God for their Words, as well as for their Works; or that there are certain Rules of Speaking, as well as acting, in which the Morality of a Chriftian is concerned. It is my Design, with as much Brevity as I can, to point out the distinct Boundaries of right and wrong in this Cafe, and the Grounds from whence the Distinction arifes.
The End of Speech cannot be mistaken. It is the Inftrument whereby we communicate our Thoughts and Conceptions one to another; without which there can be no Intercourfe between Man and Man, nor therefore any Society. If the Interefts of Men were - independent, the Communication of their Thoughts to one another would be an ufelefs Thing; for what is it to me what the Emperor of China, or the Great Mogul think of? But if I am concerned with any Man in Trade and Commerce; if I would give Advice, or take it; if I would command where I have Authority, or obey where I am in Subjection; if in
any Cafe I would please or profit others, or be pleafed or profited by others, (and in thefe Things confifts the whole Business of civil Life) in these Cases it it necessa ry, that Men fhould understand one another's Minds, or nothing can be done.
This fhews the Obligation that every Man is under, that his Words be true; that is, that they truly exprefs the Sentiments of his Mind; otherwise we do not follow the natural End and Ufe of Speech: For an untrue Representation of a Man's Thoughts is not a Reprefentation of his Thoughts, but of fomething elfe. To tell a Lie is like putting off falfe or counterfeit Coin. A Brafs Shilling bears the King's Image and Superfcription, as a Lie bears the Image of a Man's Mind; but neither of them are the Thing they are understood to be. In both Cafes there is a Fraud committed, and every Fraud is an Invafion of natural Right.
To explain this more diftinftly, it is neceffary to be obferved, that Words have no Virtue to fignify our Thoughts or Conceptions, otherwife than by fome Senfe affixed to them by mutual Agreement; and whenever this Agreement is common, it makes a common Language. This fhews that the whole moral Turpitude of a Lie refts precifely in this, that it is a Breach of Contract; for mutual Confent is a mutual Compact; and mutual Confent apart, it is plain, that there will be in Words neither Truth nor Falfhood. Now if Contract makes Truth in Words, a Lie can be no otherwife a Lie, than as it is a Breach of Contract; nor let it therefore be esteemed a fmall Offence, for the obferving Contracts is the firft Law of Society.
There is in every Affirmation or Negation a twofold Contract: One is, that he who ufes known, or common Words, will (unless it is aforehand otherwife fettled by private Agreement) use them in their known, or common Acceptation; and if common Ufe hath affixed more Meanings to any Word than one, the Law of Truth requires, that the Speaker ufes it in that Senfe, in which he is conscious the Hearer will most naturally. anderfand him; for when a Man fpeaks, he pretends
so fpeak for his Information with whom he converfes, and is by him always fo understood. But if a Quef. tion, for Inftance, is asked in one Sense, and the Anfwer is given in another, the Perfon is not informed, but deceived. This is what we call Equivocation, and it hath in it the whole Effence and Formality of a Lie.
The other Contract in every Affirmation or Negation, is, that he who speaks will declare his real Sentiments; for he pretends to do fo. No Man fpeaks but with an Intention to be believed; therefore he muft be understood as profeffing that he will declare his Mind; for if he were to profefs otherwife, nobody would, or could believe him. The Declaration of a Man's Mind is the Declaration either of his Judgment, or of his Knowledge, which in all Cafes fhould be carefully diftinguished. If a Man fays I believe, or I think a Thing is fo or fo, he may fpeak Truth, tho' the Thing be otherwife; but if (in a Matter in which it may be prefumed that he is a competent Judge) he says abfolutely it is fo, whilft he doubts, or even tho' he should believe it to be fo, but does not know it, it is a Lie; for he pretends to speak not his Opinion or Belief, but his Knowledge.
It is farther to be observed, that to make our Words true, they must fully come up to the Expectation of the Hearer, i. e. to what we know he expects, and what by our Difcourfe we are underflood as taking upon ourfelves to discover. As in Matters of Judgment; when a Witness is examined, what is expected from him, is, that he declares what he knows that will help towards clearing up the Point in Queftion; and it is upon the Prefumption of his Intention to do this, that the Judge receives his Evidence: Therefore, tho' all that he fays be true, yet, if he knowingly conceals any material Thing or Circumftance, he is a falfe Witnefs. That which is concealed makes that which is truly declared to become a Lie.
We fee now what a Lie is, and that every Lie, as fach, is morally bad; for it is a Breach of Contract.
A Contract fuppofes the Effentials of a Contract, and this is always the Cafe, when Men tranfact together upon equal Terms. An unlawful Force may be applied to make Men fpeak against their Wills, as it may be applied to make them promise a Sum of Money against their Wills; but these Cases have fo little to do in com. mon Life, that they are not worth confidering.
In Cafes where telling a Lie is prejudicial to our Neighbour, no one doubts of its being an Offence: But when a Lie hurts nobody, (much more when it ferves to some useful Purpose) there are those who think it to be no Crime. But if a Lie is bad in itself, (as has been fhewn) Confequences can never make it either good, or abfolutely indifferent. Place the Immorality of a Lie in any Thing but the Violation of Truth, and you will never know where to fix. If a Man accuftoms himfelf to tell Lies to make Sport, it is hard to believe him; for who knows when he means to be serious? And if there are Cafes where telling a Lie is fo near akin to nothing, that it may be fuffered to pass for nothing, this will not prove it to be right, but excufable only. If a Stick be a little bent, it may as well serve the Purposes of a Stick, as if it was ftrait to a Mathematical Exactness: But wrong is wrong, and will be eternally fo.
Things in themfelves bad, are generally capable of Aggravation by Circumftances, and this is no where more evident than in the Sin of Lying. There are three Points of principal Concern, in which Truth ought moft religiously to be observed. As,
1. In Matters which concern the Credit, or Reputation of another, which is fometimes his ALL. A Man that is not born to an Estate, for Instance, but must live by his Trade or Profeffion; what has he to truft to but the good Opinion of the World? To vi. lify him therefore in thefe Points, tends to the depriving him of his Bread; and is, many times, a much worfe Injury than ftopping him upon the Highway, and taking his Purfe. But how little foever Men may have need of others, they always defire to be well thought:
thought of by others, and with Reafon; for a good Name makes us Friends, and Friendship is the great Sweetner of human Life. A Man without Character, if he has Juftice done him, is worse than a Brute, and is feldom better treated; but there is this material Difference in their Cafes, the one has Senfe to feel the Contempt, the other not.
What should make us more cautious not to offend in this Way is, that when a Man's Character is once hurt, the Mischief feldom admits of a thorough Remedy. All that one can do to put a Stop to an ill Report, is to unfay what hath been faid; but what will this avail, when the Report is spread far and wide? Bad Words fly apace, whilft good ones move flowly, and lag behind: Such is the ill Nature of the World! Thousands may have heard the Scandal, who will know nothing of the Retractation, or if they should know it would not believe it. Prepoffeffion is a great Matter with moft, and with many the first Impreffions are the laft foo.
As to thofe Mischiefs which may follow from an evil Report, with refpect to a Man's outward Circumftances, fomething may be done by Way of Reparation; but the Infelicity is ftill the fame, that if we defign never so honeftly to make full Amends, we can never have the Satisfaction of being fare that we have done it. If any one steals from me, or cheats me of fo much Mo. ney, he knows what he takes from me, and how much he is become my Debtor; but he that robs me of my good Name, can never make a certain Eftimate how much he owes me; for who can tell with whom I may have fuffered, in whofe Power it is, it was, or it might have been, to do me good; or what Advantages I may have loft, which I might have had if I had been better thought of? When one Man fues another for Defamation, and recovers Damages, the Law is fatisfied, but the Debt may not be fatisfied. Juries can judge only by probable Circumftances, and award fo much as (the Nature of the Scandal, and the Situation of the injured Perfon confidered) appears to them to be a reasonable