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To practise Virtue,




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BY RELIGION : Or, An Argument to prove, that the only Effectual Obligation

of Mankind to practise Virtue, depends on the Existence and Will of God, &c.

Sect. I.The General Proposal of the Subject.

IT has been a great controversy, whether the rules of virtue, and our obligations to practise them, be eternal and immutable in themselves, antecedent to our conceptions of the being of a God; or, whether they depend on his will and appointment. In things which are merely speculative, it is very evident and certain, that there are many eternal and unchangeable truths ; as, “ two and two make four; a circle is most comprehensive of all figures, and a right angle is larger than an acute.” Note, By eternal truths we can mean no more than this; that in whatsoever moment of the eternity, past or to come, these ideal truths were or shall be proposed to an intelligent being, they must be assented to, and acknowledged to be true : But any real, eternal existence of them, cannot be supposed, without a God, in whose mind alone they could exist.

And when we call them unchangeable, our meaning is this, that we cannot conceive it possible, that any circumstances, or situation of things, or even the will of a God, should ever alter the nature of these truths, or make them cease to be true. But the case is not quite so evident to us, and so indisputable with regard to moral or practical subjects, however these may be supposed to be as certain in themselves. It may admit of a doubt, whether all the rules of virtue, and more especially, whether the obligations of mankind to practise them, are eternal and unchangeable; and that even before the supposition of the existence of a God, or without any regard to such a supreme Governor.

It must be granted, that there are persons of known learning and piety who have chosen this side of the question : And yet it must be acknowledged too, that it grates a little upon some religious minds, to hear of eternal and unchangeable obligations lying on men, which are independent on the will or appointment of God; or even upon a supposition there were no God. I would not chuse to see such sort of suppositions introduced, if it be possible to secure the rules and practice of virtue without them. I think that thesc eterval rules of virtue, whatsoever they

be, and especially our obligations to practise them, stand in suels a close connexion with the being and the will of God, as Governor of the world, that if one could help it, they should not be even divided and separated in thought.

But since these sort of suppositions are and will be made, I beg leave to examine, according to the best rules of my reason, how far this doctrine of eternal and unchangeable obligations to practise virtue may be supported ; and I will endeavour it in these following positions : Sect. II.--There are Eternal Fitnesses in Il uman Actions and

in Divine.. It is granted, there is an eternal fitness or unfitness of things in nature, or, if I might so express it, in our ideas of the natural world which do not depend on the will or appointment of God ; and these are perfectly unchangeable. “A globe is not fit to fiilup the space of a hollow cube ; nor is a triangle fit to fill up the area of a circle.” Note, By the eternal fitness of things, we must understand the same as before I said concerning eternal truths, viz. that in themselves they are mere abstracted ideas, and can have no real, eternal existence but in the mind of God. Let it be observed also, that this eternal fitness of things doos not require the actual existence of these things from eternity: If the mere ideas of these things have a necessary connexion together, they may be called eternal fitnesses, in the sense I have explained. I think there can remain no reasonable doubt or contest upon this matter. The supe position of a God, or no God, seems to make no alteration in these abstracted ideas. "

There seems also to be an eternal fitness or unfitness in the actions of single, rational and sensible beings. Note, Though we are here speaking chiefly of mankind, yet I call every rational being sensible, whether it be united to flesh or blood or no; because it is conscious and perceptive of pleasure or pain, happiness or misery. I say therefore, it is fit that every rational being should preserve itself, at least so far as it may be made happy; and it is unfit that it should destroy itself, or permit its own destruction. It is fit a rational being should seek its own general, ultimate, or supreme happiness*; and it is unfit that such a being should procure its own misery, or permit it, if he can avoid it. Nature, self-love, and reason, seem to dictate the same thing. This self-preservation and self-felicitation, are inwrought in our natural constitution : and our rational powers, confirm it. These may be called single or personal duties of

* I use the words " general, ultimate and supreme happiness," to distioguish it from any particular present pleasures, wbich a man may and ought to deny or refuse by the mere rules of reason, when they stand in competition with bis general and ultimate happiness.

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