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CHA P. IV.
Of Authority, of the Abuse of it, and of its real and
proper Use and Service, The influence which other persons have upon our opinions is usually called authority. The power of it is so great and widely extensive, that there is scarcely any person in the world entirely free from the impression of it, even after their utmost watchfulness and care to avoid it. Our parents and tutors, yea, our very nurses, determine a multitude of our sentiments; our friends, our neighbours, the custom of the country where we dwell, and the established opinions of mankind, form our belief; the great, the pious, the learned, and the ancient, the king, the priest, and the philosopher, are characters of mighty efficacy to persuade us to receive what they dictate. These may be ranked under different heads of prejudice, but they are all of a kindred nature, and may be reduced to this one spring or head of authority.
I have treated of these particularly in Logic, part II. chap. iii. sect. 4th. Yet a few other remarks occurring among my papers, I thought it not improper to let them find a place here.
Cicero was well acquainted with the unhappy influences of authority, and complains of it in his first book, De natura Deorum. “ In disputes and controversies (says he) it is not so much the author, or patrons of any opinion, as the weight and force of argument, which should influence the mind. The authority of those who teach is a frequent hindrance to those who learn, because they utterly neglect to exercise their own judgement, taking for granted whatsoever others whom they reverence have judged for them. I can by no means approve what we learn from the Pythagoreans, that if any thing asserted in disputation was questioned, they were wont to answer, Ipse dixit, i. e. He himself said so, meaning Pythagoras.” So far did prejudice prevail, that authority without reason was sufficient to des termine disputes, and to establish truth,
All human authority, though it be ever so ancient, though it hath had universal sovereignty, and swayed all the learned and the vulgar world for some thousands of years, yet has no certain and undoubted claim to truth : nor is it any violation of good manners to enter a caveat with due decency against its pretended dominion. What is there among all the sciences that has been longer established and more universally received ever since the days of Aristotle, and perhaps for ages before he lived, than this, that all heavy bodies whatsoever tend toward the centre of the earth? But Sir Isaac Newton has found that those bulký and weighty bodies, the earth and all the planets, tend toward the centre of the sun, whereby the authority of near three thousand years or more is not only called in question, but actually refuted and renounced
Again, Was' ever any thing more universally agreed among the nation of the poets and critics, than that Homer and Virgil are inimitable writers of heroic poems ? And whoever presumed to attack their writings or their reputation was either condemned for his malice, or derided for his folly. These ancient authors have been supposed to derive peculiar advantages to aggrandize their verses from the Heathen theology, and that variety of appearances in which they could represent their gods, and mingle them with the affairs of men : yet within these few years
Sir Richard Blackmore (whose prefaces are universally esteemed superior in their kind to any of his poems) has ventured to pronounce some noble truths in that excellent preface to his poem called Alfred, and has bravely demonstrated there, beyond all possible exception, that both Virgil and Homer are often guilty of very gross blunders, indecencies, and shameful improprieties : and that they were so far from deriving any advantage from the rabble of Heathen gods, that their theology almost unavoidably exposed them to many of those blunders; and that it is not possible, upon the foot of Gentile superstition, to write a perfect epic poem : whereas the sacred religion of the Bible would furnish a
poem with much more just and glorious scenes, and a nobler machinery.
Mr Dennis also had made it appear in his essays some years before, that there were no images so sublime in the brightest of the Heathen writers as those with which we are furnished in the poetic . parts of the holy scripture : and Rapin, the French critic, dared to profess the same sentiments, notwithstanding the world of poets and critics had so universally and unanimously exalted the Heathen writers to the sovereignty for so many ages. If we would find out the truth in many cases, we must dare to deviąte from, the long-beaten track, and venture to think with a just and unbiassed liberty.
Though it be necessary to guard against the evil influ. ences of authority, and the prejudices derived thence, be, cause it has introduced thousands of errors and mischiefs into the world, yet there are three eminent and remarkable cases wherein authority, or the sentiments of other persons, must or will determine the judgements and practice of mankind.
1. Parents are appointed to judge for their children in their younger years, and to instruct them what they should believe, and what they should practise in the civil and religious life. This is a dictate of nature, and doubtless it would have been so in a state of innocence. It is impossible that children should be capable of judging for them. selves, before their minds are furnished with a competent number of ideas, before they are acquainted with any principles and rules of just judgement, and before their reason is grown up to any degrees of maturity and proper exercises upon such subjects.
I will not say that a child ought to believe nonsense and impossibility, because his father bids him ; for so far as the impossibility appears, he cannot believe it: nor will I say he ought to assent to all the false opinions of his parents, or to practise idolatry and murder, or mischief, at their command: yet a child knows not any better way to
find out what he should believe and what he should practise, before he can possibly judge for himself, than to run to his parents, and receive their sentiments and their dia rections.
You will say, This is hard indeed, that the child of a Heathen idolater, or a cruel cannibal, is laid under a sort of necessity by nature of sinning against the light of nature. I grant it is hard indeed; but it is only owing to our original fall and apostasy: the law of nature continues as it was in innocence, namely, that a parent should judge for his child; but, if the parent judges ill, the child is greatly exposed by it, through that universal disorder that is brought into the world by the sin of Adam our common father : and from the equity and goodness of God we may reasonably infer that the great Judge of all will do right; he will balance the ignorance and incapacity of the child, with the criminal nature of the offence in those puerile instances, and will not punish beyond just demerit.
Besides, what could God, as a Creator, do better for children in their minority than to commit them to the care and instruction of parents, none are supposed to be so much concerned for the happiness of children as their parents are ; therefore it is the safest step to happiness, according to the original law of creation, to follow their directions, their parents reason acting for them, before they have reason of their own in proper exercise ; nor indeed is there any better general rule in our fallen state, by which children. are capable of being governed, though in many particular cases it may lead them far astray from virtue and happiness.
If children by providence be cast under some happier instructions, contrary to their parents erroneous opinions, I cannot say it is the duty of such children to follow error, when they discern it to be error, because their father believes it : What I said before is to be interpreted only of those that are under the immediate care and education of their parents, and not yet arrived at years capable of examination ; I know not how these can be freed from receiving
this dictate of parental authority in their youngest years, except by immediate or divine inspiration.
It is hard to say at what exact time of life the child is exempted from the sovereignty of parental dictates. Pere haps it is much juster to suppose that this sovereignty diminishes by degrees as the child grows in understanding and capacity, and is more and more capable of exerting his own intellectual powers, than to limit this matter by months
When childhood and youth are so far expired, that the reasoning faculties are grown up to any just measure of maturity, it is certain that persons ought to begin to inquire into the reasons of their own faith and practice in all the affairs of life and religion ; but as reason does not arrive at this power and self-sufficiency in any single moment of time, so there is no single moment when a child should at once cast off all its former beliefs and practices; but by degrees, and in slow succession, he should examine them, as opportunity and advantages offer; and either confirm, or doubt of or change them, according to the leadings of conscience and reason, with all its best advantages of information.
When we are arrived at manly age, there is no person on earth, no set or society of men whatsoever, that have power and authority given them by God, the Creator and governor of the world, absolutely to dictate to others their opinions or practices in the moral and religious life. God has given every man reason to judge for himself, in higher or in lower degrees. Where less is given, less will be required. But we are justly chargeable with criminal sloth, and misimprovement of the talents with which our Creator has entrusted us, if we take all things for granted which others assert, and believe and practise all things which they dictate, without due examination.
II. ANOTHER case wherein authority must govern our assent is in many matters of fact. Here we may and ought to be determined by the declarations or narratives of other men ; though I must confess this is usually called testimony