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living in a community where christianity has elevated and refined the public standard of morals, conform insensibly to that standard, without explicitly acknowledging its authority, even to themelves. That such men are estimable and valuable, as far as this world is concerned, I mean not to deny. They are certainly not to be confounded with the vulgar herd of trifling cavillers, and bold blasphemers. I would say only, that the virtues of such men are not founded on a solid and unchangeable basis, and they cannot be relied on in all cases as uniform and stable ; and they never reach to the highest form of character of which our nature is capable, and which he who cometh to God must possess.
What then are the rules by which a man, without a religious principle, must form his character, and govern his conduct? They must be drawn from the prevailing moral sentiments of the community of which he is a member; from that
peculiar modification of them, which is called the law of honour; from a calculation of the temporal consequences of his actions; or from the dictates of a moral instinct.
With respect then to the first of these, the prevailing moral sentiments of the community, of which we are members, as the standard of action. It is obvious that the purity of this standard will vary greatly in different countries. Let us take one of the strongest cases which can be put--that standard as it exists in the place where we live. It may
well be doubted, whether it will be found higher purer
any spot of equal population on the earth. The principles of religion have been so long established among us; we have so many hereditary habits of respect for them; they are presented to us every week, I trust I may on such an occasion be allowed to say it, in so much of their native simplicity and rationality; they are so publicly reverenced by the greatest and best men among us, that they certainly exert a most direct and sensible and powerful influence in giving rectitude and elevation to the public judgment of morals. A man, then, who should argue with us, from the purity and elevation of this standard, against the importance and necessity of a religious principle of action, has an advantage to which he is not fairly entitled. He ought to take the case of a community, where that religious principle, which he would discard for himself, is equally neglected by others; and this would bring him, I believe, to a state of society so corrupt, that we should hear little more of this argument.
But, granting that he has a right to take the highest and purest which he can find; the incompetency of this standard, as it is found among us, to form a character of pure and uniform and exalted virtue, is sufficiently manifest. What this standard is, must be determined, of course, not by the moral sentiments of those who are professedly governed by a religious principle, but is to be seen in the de
gree of virtue, which a man must possess, in order not to forfeit the general estimation of those around him. Now need I remind
you, essential defects of character he may have, without suffering this penalty ? He may not only want almost all the higher virtues, he may
many positive vices. He may be profane, provided his profanity be not excessively vulgar and gross and obtrusive; he may be parsimonious, provided he be not absolutely miserly and mean;
may, certain point, be hard in his dealings, passionate, censorious, proud. These, and many other most serious defects of character he may have, and though he certainly will not be loved and honoured like a man of uniform christian virtue, yet he will pass on the whole for a tolerably fair character, and will not incur the loss of the general estimation of the community. Now, my friends, supposing this representation true, or any thing near the truth, will you say, that public opinion, in this or any other community that can be found, will supersede the necessity of a religious principle; will afford you a high and solid and uniform criterion of conduct; will give you principles, on which you may build a character, which we may believe God will regard with favour, and with which
will not fear to enter his presence ?
2. Of that modification of public opinion, which is called the law of honour, I would next speak. Honour is a word of no very determinate meaning in the mouths of most of those who use it. It is so subtle and volatile, as almost to escape the chains of definition, and it is not easy to assail an enemy so mutable in its form, and aerial in its nature. It is sometimes taken in its best sense, to signify a certain refinement and delicacy of feeling, beyond what the law of strict rectitude might appear to exact; a sensibility, and as it were polish of principle, which cannot bear the slightest soil, and which would feel a stain, like a wound.” Now, so far as this sentiment of honour coincides with the laws of virtue, it is no doubt always innocent, and to some men valuable; though it teaches nothing, I think, which is not taught with greater force by the genuine spirit of christianity. But when it is talked of as a law of conduct by itself, and a substitute for all religious principle, it must be looked into more narrowly. What then do we find it to be ? As far as it is any thing definite, it seems to be a sort of tacit convention among men in refined life, to observe certain points of morality, and certain particulars of manners, in their common intercourse, with peculiar strictness, and to compensate themselves with more than a proportionate relaxation of others. A man of honour, for example, must not cheat; and, except in some cases, to one greatly inferior, must not lie. In general he must abstain from all those vices, which fashion abandons to the vulgar and low, because she can make them neither elegant nor interesting. Within these
limits he is left at liberty to lay waste the happiness of society. Honour will permit a man to neglect every duty to his God. Honour will tolerate unbounded sensuality, and the licentious indulgence of every passion. Honour will permit him to lay in the dust the purity and peace of unguarded in
Honour will permit, nay honour will command him to take on himself the execution of the vengeance, which belongs to God alone, and bathe his hands in an offending brother's blood. Need I ask, whether such a principle as this is a basis, on which to raise a character of exalted virtue ; whether this is to be taken as the substitute for the eternal and unvarying rectitude of the commands of God?
3. Nor will he who discards the aid of a religious principle, be able to find a perfect rule of action in a calculation of the temporal consequences of his conduct. Undoubtedly a life of virtue, considered merely in relation to ourselves, and this world alone, may be proved to be the most rational and politic course of conduct. But the question is not, at present, concerning the value of such a calculation as a motive, but of its clearness, its universality and its steadiness as a rule of action. That it is deficient in all these particulars is extremely evident. The consequences of human actions are sometimes uncertain, and often remote, and it is not possible therefore in many cases for most men, and in some cases for any man, to determine what actions are,