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Unitarianism in the Hour of Death-Religion and Morality-Tillot-
On the Danger of Error. Most of the religious differences among christians, it is believed, have arisen from their disregard of the causes, and their misapprehension of the nature of error. To be in error is often deemed a crime, when in reality it is nothing more than a commanding proof of the independence, honest zeal, and conscious rectitude of a mind seeking for truth.
Error is a conviction of the mind, that a proposition is true, which is false; it is a mistake of the judgment, a wrong conclusion of the understanding. In the abstract, it is not a thing with which the will, the moral sense, or religious principles are in any way concerned; it is a necessary result of a simple exercise of the reasoning powers. I say necessary, because the mind, from its own constitution, is compelled to assent whenever it discovers an overbalance of evidence; and, on the contrary, it cannot assent, where this evidence does not appear. An erroneous belief is no more under the control of the will, than a true one; and as far as the simple act of believing is considered, one is as innocent as the other.
Guilt, or sin, implies an act of choice and intention; an act which receives the censure of conscience at the time it is committed. There is no sin in doing what we cannot avoid, or what we sincerely think to be right; there is no sin in believing what we cannot disbelieve. In forming opinions, it is every man's duty to use the powers, which God has given him, and to judge from his best knowledge and positive convictions. When he has done this, there is no help for him, if he is wrong, nor is he chargeable with any moral or religious offence. It would be a sin to be right, if it were in his power, against his conscience and sober judgment.*
This position is self-evident, and may be illustrated by recurring to some of the principal causes of error. Among these, the imperfections of the human faculties are a fertile source, from which no mind is free. The strongest intellect and the most feeble are, in this respect, nearly on an equality. How suddenly is the mind arrested in any attempt to investigate the conformation, or detect the properties of natural objects, even where all the senses lend their aids.
What do we know of the world around us? Enough, it is true, to convert some of the bounties of providence to the general purposes of utility and comfort, and scarcely any thing more. The visible and tangible works nature, which are perpetually under our eyes, and obtruded on our touch, can never be so completely developed, as to be thoroughly understood, or understood by all persons alike. Take the simplest object on which the senses can be called to act, and you
*“No man can change his opinion wlion he will, or be satisfied in his reason, that his opinion is false, because discountevanced. If a mian could change his opinion when he lists, he might cure many inconveniences of his life. All bis fears and sorrows would soon dis. band, if he would but alter his opinion whereby he is persuaded, that such an accident that affiicts him is an evil, and such an object furni. dable; let him but believe himself impregnable, or that he receives a benefit when he is plundered, disgraced, imprisoned, condemned, and afflicted, neither his sleep need to be disturbed, nor his quietness discomposed.” Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying', p. 286.
will find no two persons agreeing in regard to the particulars it involves. Where there is disagreement, there is
Proceed further, and examine subjects of a purely mental character, and it will be perceived, that the sources of disagreement are infinitely enlarged and multiplied. No limits are set to the wanderings of the mind, no powers to control, no rules to guide; conjecture takes the place of fact, speculation of argument, fancy of reason; and all this, without any fault of will, or intention. It arises from the inability of the mind to admit just perceptions, and attain accurate ideas.
Now I would ask, if all errors thus acquired are criminal, and worthy of punishment? If so, who will escape? Who has not erred from this cause, that is, for not being endowed with the attribute of omniscience? To say that God will punish men for this defect, is to charge him with injustice and cruelty; to say,
he will not punish them, is to confess that error is innocent.
Education and authority constitute another source of error. The impressions and ideas first communicated, are laid down as original principles. Hence it is, that what men call first principles, are not always such in the nature of things, not the primordia rerum with which Lucretius formed the universe, not the primary elements of reason and induction, but the particular facts, or rational propositions, which the mind happens first to grasp. They are taken in when the memory is vacant, and the judgment unskilled, and at a stage of the intellectual process, when every thing is believed, because experience has not yet taught her lessons of caution, nor the kindly hand of discipline fixed her wholesome rules. Impressions thus received are called principles, and the mind recurs to them from infancy to age as axioms and guides; if they happen to be imperfect, as they always are in some degree, they communicate their imperfections to the fabric of all future opinions. As the foundation is defective, the superstructure can never be sound; love of truth, and zeal for attainment, will do little to remedy the evil; nature has received its stamp, and the impression will rather grow brighter, than more obscure, as years advance.
Cautious vigilance, and perseverance, may prevent errors, thus early received, from making inroads upon the moral sense, and the religious feelings and affections, yet they will continue to exist. The seed is sown; the tree will grow; the fruit will appear. The whole is a process of nature, and the destiny of providence. To talk of crime as connected with this process, is to insinuate, that God is at war with the determinations of his own will, and the operations of his own power.
The errors of authority are similar in their character, and almost equally unavoidable. How many truths do we derive from history, compared with the false habiliments with which they are encumbered and half concealed? This is the authority on which we are obliged to rely for the events of all preceding time; but who is ignorant of its fallacy? What page of history does not contain more darkness than light? Here and there an