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Now, because this is a prejudice which may prevail with some persons, so far as to lessen the influence of the gospel; and whereas, therefore, this is an opinion which men of education are likely to be encountered with, when they have produced themselves into the world; I shall endeavour to show that their preference of heathen wisdom and virtue before that of the Christian is every way unjust, and grounded upon ignorance or mistake; in order to which, I shall consider four things : First, I shall produce certain points, wherein
the wisdom and virtue of all unrevealed philosophy in general fell short, and was very imper
fect. Secondly, I shall show, in several instances, where
some of the most renowned philosophers have been grossly defective in their lessons of mora
lity: Thirdly, I shall prove the perfection of Christian wisdom, from the proper characters and marks
of it. Lastly, I shall show that the great examples of
wisdom and virtue, among the heathen wisemen, were produced by personal merit, and not influenced by the doctrine of any sect; whereas, in Christianity, it is quite the contrary.
First, I shall produce certain points, wherein the wisdom and virtue of all unrevealed philosophy in general fell short, and was very imperfect.
My design is, to persuade men, that Christian philosophy is in all things preferable to heathen wisdom; from which, or its professors, I shall,
however, have no occasion to detract. They were as wise, and as good, as it was possible for them to be under such disadvantages; and would have probably been infinitely more so, with such aids as we enjoy : but our lessons are certainly much better, however our practices may fall short.
The first point I shall mention is, that universal defect which was in all their schemes, that they could not agree about their chief good, or wherein to place the happiness of mankind; nor had any of them a tolerable answer upon this difficulty, to satisfy a reasonable person. For, to say, as the most plausible of them did,“ that happiness consisted in virtue,” was but vain babbling, and a mere sound of words, to amuse others and themselves; because they were not agreed what this virtue was, or wherein it did consist; and likewise, because several among the best of them taught quite different things, placing happiness in health or good fortune, in riches or in honour, where all were agreed that virtue was not, as I shall have occasion to show, when I speak of their particular tenets.
The second great defect in the Gentile philosophy, was, that it wanted some suitable reward, proportioned to the better part of man, his mind, as an encouragement for his progress in virtue. The difficulties they met with upon the score of this default were great, and not to be accounted for: bodily goods being only suitable to bodily wants, are no rest at all for the mind; and if they were, yet are they not the proper fruits of wisdom and virtue, being equally attainable by the ignorant and wicked. Now, human nature is so constituted, that we can never pursue any thing heartily, but upon hopes of a reward. If we run
ce, it is in expectation of a prize; and the greater the prize, the faster we run; for an incorruptible crown, if we understand it, and believe it to be such, more than a corruptible one. But some of the philosophers gave all this quite another turn, and pretended to refine so far as to call virtue its own reward, and worthy to be followed only for itself; whereas, if there be any thing in this more than the sound of the words, it is at least too abstracted to become a universal influencing principle in the world, and therefore could not be of general use.
It was the want of assigning some happiness proportioned to the soul of man, that caused many of them, either, on the one hand, to be sour and morose, supercilious and untreatable; or, on the other, to fall into the vulgar pursuits of common men, to hunt after greatness and riches, to make their court, and to serve occasions; as Plato did to the younger Dionysius, and Aristotle to Alexander the Great. So impossible it is for a man, who looks no farther than the present world, to fix himself long in a contemplation where the present world has no part: he has no sure hold, no firm footing : he can never expect to remove the earth he rests upon, while he has no support besides for his feet, but wants, like Archimedes, some other place whereon to stand. To talk of bearing pain and grief, without any sort of present or future hope, cannot be purely greatness of spirit; there must be a mixture in it of affectation, and an allay of pride; or perhaps is wholly counterfeit.
It is true, there has been all along in the world a notion of rewards and punishments in another life: but it seems to have rather served as an entertainment to poets, or as a terror of children, than a settled principle by which men pretended
to govern any of their actions. The last celebrated words of Socrates, a little before his death, do not seem to reckon or build much upon any such opinion; and Cæsar made no scruple to disown it, and ridicule it in open senate.
Thirdly, The greatest and wisest of all their philosophers were never able to give any satisfaction to others and themselves, in their notions of a Deity. They were often extremely gross and absurd in their conceptions ; and those who made the fairest conjectures, are such as were generally allowed by the learned, to have seen the system of Moses, if I may so call it, who was in great reputation at that time in the heathen world, as we find by Diodorus, Justin, Longinus, and other authors : for the rest, the wisest
among them laid aside all notions after a Deity, as a disquisition vain and fruitless, which indeed it was, upon unrevealed principles; and those who ventured to engage too far, fell into incoherence and confusion.
Fourthly, Those among them who had the justest conceptions of a Divine Power, and did also admit a Providence, had no notion at all of entirely relying and depending upon either ; they trusted in themselves for all things ; but as for a trust or dependence upon God, they would not have understood the phrase; it made no part of the profane style.
Therefore it was, that in all issues and events which they could not reconcile to their own sentiments of reason and justice, they were quite disconcerted : they had no retreat; but upon every blow of adverse fortune, either affected to be indifferent, or grew sullen and severe, or else yielded and sunk like other men.
Having now produced certain points, wherein the wisdom and virtue of all unrevealed philosophy fell short, and was very imperfect; I go on, in the second place, to show, in several instances, where some of the most renowned philosophers have been grossly defective in their lessons of morality.
Thales, the founder of the Ionic sect, so celebrated for morality, being asked how a man might bear ill-fortune with greatest case, answered, “By seeing his enemies in a worse condition. An answer truly barbarous, unworthy of human nature, and which included such consequences, as must destroy all society from the world.
Solon lamenting the death of a son, one told him, “ You lament in vain." “ Therefore,” said he, “ I lament, because it is in vain.” This was a plain confession how imperfect all his philosophy was, and that something was still wanting. He owned that all his wisdoin and morals were useless, and this upon one of the most frequent accidents in life. How much better could he have learned to support himself even from David, by his entire dependence upon God; and that, before our Saviour had advanced the notions of religion to the height and perfection wherewith he hath instructed his disciples !
Plato himself, with all his refinements, placed happiness in wisdom, health, good fortune, honour, and riches; and held that they who enjoyed all these were perfectly happy : which opinion was indeed unworthy its owner, leaving the wise and good man wholly at the mercy of uncertain chance, and to be miserable without resource.
His scholar Aristotle fell more grossly into the same notion, and plainly affirmed, “ That virtue, without the goods of fortune, was not sufficient