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nearest to them, that are anterior to time, and to them, that continue to eternity, are more important than others, to which circumstances of time oblige
3. Our third rule regards objects of virtue. A virtue, that hath a great object, is more important than those, which have small objects. The answer of Jesus Christ to a famous question in his time is well known. It was then warmly disputed, Which is the greatest commandment? Some Rabbies said, it was that which appointeth phylacteries; others affirmed, it was the law of circumcision; others again contended for that, which appointed sacrifices. No, said Jesus Christ, none of these commandments merit the highest place, the great commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength. This law admits of no dispensation, no limitation, no concurrence.
This law, I say, is indispensible; it binds alike angels and men, and they are only devils, who, having precipitated themselves by the greatest of all crimes into the greatest of all miseries, are reduced to the dreadful necessity of hating a God, whose perfections incline him to render them miserable.
This law is unlimited. Others are confined to a certain sphere, they cease to be virtues when they are carried to excess, and whatever carries us too far in performing one obligation retrenches another obligation. Excessive justice runs into barbarity, and leaves no room for the exercise of humanity. Excessive penitence ceases to be repentance, degenerates into despair, and leaves no room for faith in the promises of mercy made to us in the gospel. Excessive faith ceases to be faith, degenerates into superstition and puerile credulity, and leaves no room for the exercise of reason. But
who can love God in an extreme? A passion so noble can never be too vehement, nor can its flames ever burn with too much ardor.
This law is without concurrence. The great ob. ject of our love admits of no rival in our heart. In many cases we ought to sacrifice one duty, which has God for its object, to another that has a neighbor for its object. It would be better to absent ones-self from the external duties of religion than to neglect a dying parent. Love to God in this case is not in opposition to love for a fellow creature. God himself requires us in such a case to suspend a performance of ritual service, and to bend all our attention to relieve a dying parent. The love then shewn to a dying parent is a necessary consequence of loving God, of that primitive love from which all other loves proceed. Whenever the love of God and the love of our neighbor are in opposition, so that we cannot perform the last without neglecting the first, we need not hesitate, love to God must be preferred before love to creatures. The most lawful attachments become criminal, when they diminish, yea when they divide the regard, that we ought to have for God. No man can serve two masters. He, that loveth father or mother, or son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, Matt. vi 24. x. 17. and xxii. 36. 37.
The objects of some virtues, which regard our neighbor, are greater than others of the same class. Charity, which respects the life of a neighbor, is greater than that, which regards his fortune. Charity, that regards his salvation, is greater than that, which regards his life; the objects are greater.
The same may be said of virtues, which regard
ourselves. The rule is certain. A virtue, which hath a great object, is more important than another, which hath a small object.
4. Our fourth rule regards the influence of virtues. Every virtue connected with other virtues, and drawing after it many more, is greater than any single and detached virtue. The influence of virtues proceeds in some cases from the relations of him, who performs them, and in other cases from the nature of the virtues themselves.
The virtues of a minister of state, and those of a minister of Christ, are of far greater importance in the execution of their offices than the other virtues of the same men, which they practise as private persons in the comparative obscurity of their families. It is a very virtuous 'action in a statesman to provide good tutors for his children: but it is a far more virtuous action in him to prefer able professors in an university. The first influence only his family, the last the whole state. The same reasoning holds in the case of a minister of Christ, and of every other person, always proportioning, however, the duty of the relation, that each bears in the world.
Sometimes the influence of a virtue is essential to the nature of the virtue itself. It is a virtue to bestow on a beggar a sum sufficient to free him from the necessity of begging: but it is a far more virtuous action to put him in a capacity of supporting himself; for by this mean he is not only freed from the temptations of poverty, but from those of idleness, the parent of all vice and misery. By this mean you make a good member of society, a good father of a family, a good christian in the church, and so
What has been said on the difference of virtues,
both in this and in the former rules, may be applied to the difference of vices. Vicious actions of extensive influence ought to be considered as more odious than others of confined effects. It is certainly a detestible action to utter, in excesses of debauchery, any maxims injurious to religion and good manners: but it is incomparably more detestable, coolly and deliberately to pen, print, publish, extend, and perpetuate these maxims. There is no pretext specious enough to palliate the permission of such publications, as there are no colors black enough to describe the audacious authors of such books.
No, neither that spirit of toleration, which produces such innumerable blessings where it reigns, nor that freedom of commerce, which, where it is allowed, enriches nations, and renders them so flourishing and formidable; no, no pretext can palliate the liberty, or rather the licentiousness, that we deplore. The law of God ordained, that a blasphemer should be stoned, and this law was executed in all its rigor by the Jewish legislature. Have christians more right to blaspheme God than Jews had? Has the christian magistrate a greater right to exercise indulgence towards blasphemers than Jewish magistrates had?
But if no pretext can be invented to palliate a permission of such publications, who can furnish colors black enough to describe the publishers of them? Thou miserable wretch, who, in order to obtain the empty reputation of an author, and to' acquire the false glory of writing with vivacity and beauty, coverest thyself with real infamy, what madness animates thee! Wretch! who spreadest the poison of thy corruption, not only through thine own circles but thro' all the countries where thine infamous productions go; infecting not only
thy own contemporaries, but all others who succeed thee; what punishment proportioned to thy malice can be inflicted on thee! Miserable wretch! methinks I distinguish thee hereafter in the crowd of victims, which the vengeance of God sacrificeth in hell. Methinks I see thee amidst the unworthy captives, whom thy writings subdued to Satan, and I hear them address this frightful language to thee: Thou barbarian! was it not enough for thee to delight thyself with error and vice, didst thou aspire at the glory of giving us a relish for it! Was it not enough to exclude thyself from eternal happiness, must heaven also be shut against us, by thine abominable maxims as well as thy pernicious example! Was it not enough to precipitate thyself into these flames, must we be drawn after thee! Thou wast our betrayer in time, and we will be thy tormentors through all eternity.
Finally, the last rule to distinguish virtues the most important from others of inferior importance, is taken from the end of each. A virtue, that constitutes the end, to which all religion conducts us, is more important than other virtues, which at most are only means to lead to the end. What is the end and design of all religion? Can there be one among us so great a novice in the school of Jesus Christ as to want an answer to this question? Let us hear St. Paul. Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify it, and that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish, Eph. v. 25, 26, 27. This is the end of religion. In order to obtain this end, we are dedicated to God in baptism as soon as we are born. In our infancy we are inspired with a piety of preju dice in hope that in time we may imbibe a rational