Page images
PDF
EPUB

tories of human imbecility are, in truth, the strongeft teftimonies which can be produced, to prove, how wonderful is the influence of the fundamental principles of morality over the belief; when they are able to fan&tify, in the apprehensions of mankind, every extravagant opinion, and every unmeaning ceremony, which early education has taught us to associate with thein.

That implicit credulity is a mark of a feeble mind, will not be difputed; but it may not, perhaps, be as generally acknowledged, that the case is the fame with unlimited scepticism : on the contrary, we are fometimes apt to afcribe this disposition to a more than ordinary vigor of intellect. Such a prejudice was by no means unnatural at that period in the history of modern Europe, when reason first began to throw off the yoke of authority; and when it unquestionably required a fuperiority of understanding, as well as of intrepidity, for an individual to refift the contagion of prevailing fuperftition. But in the present age, in which the tendency of fashionable opinions is directly opposite to those of the vul. gar; the philosophical creed, or the philosophical scepticism of by far the greater number of those who value themselves on an emancipation from popular errors, arises from the very fame weaknefs with the credulity of the multitude : nor is it going too far to say, with Rousseau, that “ He, who, in the end “ of the eighteenth century, has brought himself to " abandon all his early principles without discrimina“tion, would probably have been a bigot in the “ days of the League." In the midft of these contrary impulses, of fashionable and of vulgar prejudices, he alone evinces the superiority and the itrength of his mind, who is able to disentangle truth from error ; and to oppose the clear conclusions of his own unbiassed faculties, to the united clamours of fuperftition, and of false philosophy. Such are the men, whom nature marks out to be the lights of the world ; to fix the wavering opinions of the multitude, and to inpress their own characters on that of

their age.

For securing the mind completely from the weak. nesses I have now been describing and enabling it to maintain a steady course of inquiry, between implicit credulity, and unlimited scepticism, the most important of all qualities is a sincere and devoted attachment to truth; which seldom fails to be accompanied with a manly confidence in the clear conclusions of human reason. It is such a confidence, united, (as it generally is) with perfonal intrepidity, which forms what the French writers call force of character; one of the rareft endowments, it must be confefled, of our species ; but which, of all endowments, is the most effential for rendering a philosopher happy in himself, and a blessing to mankind.

There is, I think, good reason for hoping, that the sceptical tendency of the present age, will be only a temporary evil. While it continues, however, it is an evil of the most alarming nature; and, as it extends, in general, not only to religion and morality, but in some measure, also, to politics, and the conduct of life, it is equally fatal to the comfort of the indi. vidual, and to the improvement of fociety. Even in its most inoffensive form, when it happens to be united with a peaceable disposition and a benevolent heart, it cannot fail to have the effect of damping every active and patriotic exertion. Convinced that truth is placed beyond the reach of human faculties; and doubtful how far the prejudices we despise may not be essential to the well-being of society, we refolve to abandon completely all speculative inquiries; and suffering ourselves to be carried quietly along with the itream of popular opinions, and of tashionable manners, determine to amuse ourselves, the best way we can, with business or pleasure, during our

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]

short passage through this scene of illusions. But he who thinks more favourably of the human powers, and who believes that reason was given to man to direct him to his duty and his happiness, will defpise the suggestions of this timid philofophy; and while he is conscious that he is guijed in his inquiries only by the love of truth, will rest assured that their result will be equally favourable to his own comfort, and to the best interest of mankind. What, indeed, will be the particular effects in the first instance, of that general diffusion of knowledge, which the art of printing must sooner or later produce ; and of that fpirit of reformation with which it cannot tail to be accompanied, it is beyond the reach of human fagacity to conjecture; but unless we chuse to abandon ourselves entirely to a desponding scepticism, we must hope and believe, that the progrets of human reason can never be a source of permanent disorder to the world, and that they alone have cause to apprehend the consequences, who are led, by the imperfection of our present institutions, to feel themselves interefted in perpetuating the prejudices, and follies, of their species.

From the observations which have been made, it sufficiently appears, that in order to secure the mind on the one hand, from the influence of prejudice ; and on the other, from a tendency to unlimited scepticism ; it is necessary that it should be able to distinguish the original and universal principles and laws of human nature, from the adventitious effects of local situation. But if, in the case of an individual, who has received an imperfect or erroneous education, such a knowledge puts it in his power to correct, to a certain degree, his own bad habits, and to surmount his own speculative errors; it enables him to be useful, in a much higher degree, to those whose education he has an opportunity of superintending from early intancy. Such, and so perma

[ocr errors]

pructi

nent, is the effect of first impressions, on the character, that although a philosopher may succeed, by perfeverance, in freeing his reason from the prejudices with which he was entangled, they will still retain some hold of his imagination, and his affections: and, therefore, however enlightened his understanding may be in his hours of speculation, his philofophical opinions will frequently lose their influence over his mii.d, in those very filuations in which their cal assistance is most required :—when his temper

is. foured by mistortune ; or when he engages in the pursuits of life, and exposes himself to the contagion of popular errors. His opinions are supported nerely by speculative arguments ; and, inftead of being connected with any of the active principles of his na. ture, are counteracted and thwarted by some of the most powerful of them. How different would the case be, if education were conducted, from the beginning, with attention and judgment ? Were the fanie pains taken, to iinpress truch on the mind in early infancy, that is often taken to inculcate error, the great principles of our conduct would not only be jufter than they are ; but, in consequence of the aid which they would receive from the imagination and the heart, trained to conspire with them

in the same direction, they would render us happier in ourselves, and would influence our practice more powerfully and more habitually. There is surely nothing in error, which is more congenial to the mind than truth. On the contrary, when exhibited separately and alone to the understanding, it shocks our reason, and provokes our ridicule ;, and it is only, (as I had occasion already to remark,) by an alliance with truths, which we find it difficult to renounce, that it can obtain our assent, or command our reverence. What advantages, then, might be derived from a proper attention to early impressions and affociations, in giving support to those principles which are con

F

nected with human happinefs ? The long reign of error in the world, and the influence it maintains, even in an age of liberal inquiry ; far from being favourable to the fuppofition, that human reason is destined to be for ever the sport of prejudice and absurdity, demonstrates the tendency which there is to permanence in established opinions, and in established institutions; and promises an eternal stability to true philofophy, when it shall once have acquired the ascendant, and when proper means shall be employed to support it, by a more perfect system of education.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that this happy æra were arrived, and that all the prepoffefsions of child. hood and youth were directed to support the pure and sublime truths of an enlightened morality:With what ardour, and with what transport, would the understanding, when arrived at maturity, proceed in the search of truth; when, instead of being obliged to struggle, at every step, with early preju. dices, its office was merely to add the force of philofophical conviction, to impressions, which are equally delightful to the imagination, and dear to the heart! The prepoffeffions of childhood would, through the whole of life, be gradually acquiring Itrength from the enlargement of our knowledge ; and, in their turn, would fortify the conclusions of our reason, against the sceptical suggestions of disappointment or melancholy.

Our daily experience may convince us, how fusceptible the tender mind is of deep impressions ; and what important and permanent effects are produced on the characters, and the happiness of individuals, by the casual associations formed in childhood among the various ideas, feelings, and affections, with which they were habitually occupied. It is the business of education not to counteract this conftitution of nature, but to give it a proper direction : and the miser

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »