From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
IN looking at the system of Christianity as exhibited in the pages of the New Testament, we see not only a grand and gracious scheme, the fruit of the benignant counsels of its Author, for the recovery or a fallen race, but a body also of moral precepts most wisely adapted to mould the character and to regulate the entire conduct of mankind, Yet the fact is indubitable, that for reasons which it would be more easy to specify than to obviate, there has hitherto existed a strong propensity in the Christian world to contemplate the religion of the gospel under the exclusive aspect of its remedial features, as a relief for the guilty, and as connecting itself mainly with the interests of another life. Its ethical has been lost sight of in its doctrinal character; and in the various developments of its genius and tendencies which have been given to the world, a work adequately displaying its true nature as a system of moral instruction, adapting itself to the various departments of responsible human action, must yet, we fear, be pronounced a desideratum.
The volume now presented to the public with a view to supply, in some measure, this deficiency, is the production of a Mr. DYMOND, an English gentleman, and a member of the Society of Friends, a portion of the religious community who, whatever may be thought of their doctrinal and speculative views of Christianity, have certainly aimed at such a practical exhibition of its spirit and precepts as to exempt them very much from the application of the remarks made above upon the too partial display of its character in other quarters. The work, though hitherto but little known in this country, has passed through two editions in England since the death of its lamented author, in the spring of 1828. But even in that country, though reviewed and commended in the London Quarterly,* it would seem, from the rarity of the allusions made to it in the current writings of the day, to have attracted comparatively little notice, and to have been by no means appreciated according to its intrinsic worth. But with books, as with men, the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Were it so, a different award, we are persuaded, would have fallen to the lot of the “Essays on Morality.” Whether the failure of the work hitherto to command a degree of notoriety at all proportioned to its merits be owing to the fact that many of its leading positions on the great questions of Moral and Political Rectitude are too far in advance of the state of public opinion in that country, or to a presumption somewhat akin to that which once prompted the incredulity of an Israelite in reference to the coming forth of any good from Nazareth, a presumption that no work of distinguished ability on such a subject was to be expected from the source in which this originated, or to other causes of which we are not competent to form a judgment, we are unable to say; yet it is not among the least pleasing of the anticipations connected with its present appearance from an American press, that a just though tardy tribute of honour and applause shall redound to a name at once so little covetous and so highly deserving of a grateful distinction.
The general object and plan of the work are so fully explained by the author in his “Introductory Notices,” that it will be unnecessary to recapitulate or enlarge upon them here. His aim appears to have been to establish, by a train of valid argumentation, the system of moral and political duties upon what he considered to be its only true and legitimate basis, the expressed will of God. This is, in fact, but a peculiar mode of converting the dubious system of moral philosophy into a definite code of Christian ethics-a task for which the author, by the original structure of his mind and his prevailing habits of reflection, seems to have been eminently fitted. His success has accordingly been decided and signal. Whether we regard the soundness and lucidness of his reasonings, the temper, candour, and wisdom of his conclusions, the elegance of his stylet the felicity of his illustrations, or the singularly excellent spirit which pervades the whole, the Essays of Dymond are entitled to rank high in the highest class of ethical productions.
We learn from the author that his undertaking sprang from a belief (in which he probably is not alone), that the existing treatises did not exhibit the principles nor enforce the obligations of morality in all their perfection and purity, and from the desire to supply the apprehended deficiency, by presenting a true and authoritative standard of rectitude, one by an appeal to which the moral character of human actions might be rightly estimated. Such an object, it is obvious, could not be attained without bringing the writer into direct collision with the most prominent of the extant theories of moral obligation, particularly that of Paley and his disciples. It will accordingly be found that he intrepidly enters the lists with the great apostle and champion of expediency, and with the weapons of an uncompromising logic battles the fallacies of that specious but dangerous doctrine through every stage of his investigations. How complete and triumphant is his refutation, and upon what a far more stable foundations he builds his own, or rather Heaven’s, beautiful system of obligations, duties, and rights, we will not forestall the reader by stating. Suffice it to say, that he has erected his edifice on the solid basis of inspired truth; and that in the choice of his materials he has excluded the wood, bay, and stubble of vain hypotheses, and admitted no ornaments but such as are fitted to grace the temple of God. It will be seen, moreover, if we mistake not, that in the treatment of the various topics which come under review, be evinces not only an intimate acquaintance with the genius of the Christian religion, and a deep insight into the true principles of morals, but an extensive observation of human life in those spheres of action which are seldom apt to attract the notice of the meditative philosopher. Indeed it is the strong vein of practical good sense running through the volume which constitutes a leading feature of its excellence.
But upon what achievement of human skill, talent, or wisdom can be bestowed the meed of unqualified applause? It is not the prerogative of mortality to stamp perfection upon its works,—and in heaven only, the region of moral purity, will man be wholly exempt from the inroads of intellectual error. Even of this excellent work we are compelled to predicate the usual attributes of infirmity, which leave their traces upon every emanation of the mind of man. We cannot regard with equal approbation every portion of the ensuing “Essays”: yet it is seldom indeed that we find a sentiment advanced, but we feel that it propounds malts worthy of serious consideration; and even where we hesitate to assent to his conclusions, we perceive at the same time so much evidence of profound deference to the Will of God, and that even the very faults which we may have detected have arisen solely from an occasional undue pressing of some of its intimations, that the spirit of censure is softened and while our assent is withheld from the reasonings, our respect for the reasoner remains undiminished.
We cannot but be aware that exceptions will probably be taken by many persons to the author’s views contained in the chapters on Religious Obligations, particularly in what he says of Sabbatic Institutions, Oaths, Intellectual Education, Capital Punishments, and the Rights of Self-defence: others, again, finding his sentiments on these points to be but an echo to their own, will fix upon other parts of the system as more liable to objection.
To the author’s views on these subjects, we can only bespeak from the reader that candid and charitable allowance on the score of denominational bias which the conditions of our common humanity require. Who will refuse to grant to a brother a boon which that brother feels himself bound continually to accord to him? The points to which we allude are not of prime or vital moment to the interests of Christianity; and though we may feel unable to subscribe, in every particular, to the sentiments advanced by the author, yet shall we suffer a slight admixture of error to neutralize so large an amount of sound Christian philosophy as the reader will find imbodied in the compass of these pages? Certain we are, that if all that is true, all that is valuable, all that is unexceptionable in the ensuing “Essays’’ be fully received, digested, and assimilated with the materiel of our own reflections, the inconsiderable infusion of error, if error there be, will be rendered all but absolutely harmless.
Did our ideas of justice to an author’s work and to his memory permit, we should perhaps have been induced, in the present reprint, to cancel a few of the pages to which certain classes of readers will be likely to object; but besides that the stern spirit of moral rectitude which breathes through the volume would seem to frown upon the proceeding, and reprove as for a breach of that very integrity of which it treats, and which it goes to inculcate, we are fully of the opinion that truth never suffers by discussion. “Although,” says the able author of the ‘Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions,’ “ we have no absolute test of truth, yet we have faculties to discern it, and it is only by the unrestrained exercise of those faculties that we can hope to attain correct opinions. The way to attain this result is to permit all to be said on a subject that can be said. All error is the consequence of narrow and partial views, and can be removed only by having a question presented in all its possible bearings, or, in other words, by unlimited discussion. Where there is a perfect freedom of examination, there is the greatest probability which it is possible to have that the truth will be ultimately attained. To impose the least restraint is to diminish this probability: it is to declare that we will not take into consideration all the possible arguments which can be presented, but that we will form our opinions on partial views. It is therefore to increase the probability of error. Nor need we, under the utmost freedom of discussion, be in any fear of an inundation of crude and preposterous speculations. All such will meet with a proper and effectual check in the neglect or ridicule of the public: none will have much influence but those which possess the plausibility bestowed by a considerable admixture of truth, and which it is of importance should appear, that amid the contention of controversy, what is true may be separated from what is false.”
On the principle, then, that the truth ever stands the fairest chance to make good its triumphs when the antagonist error is permitted to array itself in open field against it, and under the full conviction that the true, the certain, and the solid of the present work immeasurably overbalances the doubtful and the feeble, we have determined to set forth the speculations of the author precisely in the form in which they came from his own pen. An occasional note, designated by the letter B, has been appended at the foot of the page to some of the paragraphs which seemed to admit or require a slight qualification or expansion of their leading positions.—On one point, however, we take the present opportunity of speaking somewhat more at length.
The portion of the ensuing Essays which we are disposed to regard as more peculiarly obnoxious to exception is that in which he treats of the fundamental ground of moral obligation. While we are glad to see him array himself against the pernicious theory of Paley, that “it is the utility of any action alone which constitutes the obligation of it,” we find it difficult to accord with our author in regarding the simple expression of the Divine will as the ultimate standard of right and wrong. “If we examine,” says he, “those sacred volumes in which the written expression of the Divine will is contained, we find that they habitually proceed upon the supposition that the will of God, being expressed, is for that reason our final law. They do not set about formal proofs that we ought to sacrifice inferior rules to it, but conclude, as of course, that if the will of God is made known, human duty is ascertained. In short, the whole system of moral legislation, as it is exhibited in Scripture, is a system founded upon authority. The propriety, the utility of the requisitions are not made of importance. That which is made of importance is the authority of the Being who legislates. ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ is regarded as constituting a sufficient and a final law. So also it is with the moral instruction of Christ. ‘He put the truth of what he taught upon authority.’† In the Sermon on the Mount, I say unto you, is proposed as the sole, and sufficient, and ultimate ground of obligation. He does not say, My precepts will promote human happiness, therefore you are bound to obey them: but he says, They are my precepts, therefore you are to obey them. So habitually is this principle borne in mind, if we may so speak, by those who were commissioned to communicate the Divine will, that the reason of a precept is not often assigned. The assumption evidently was, that the Divine will was all that it was necessary for us to know.”‡
We have no doubt that in laying down this as the foundation of his system, the object of the author was, as far as might be, to simplify the subject, to disencumber it of all abstruse and metaphysical appendages, and to exhibit a standard of morals that should be plain, perspicuous, practical, and by levelling itself to the capacities of all men, secure to itself the exercise of the widest possible influence. And thus far we highly applaud his motives; for it is certain that the great mass of mankind are little likely to be practically governed by a system of ethics beset by scholastic subtleties and intangible distinctions. We admit, moreover, that so far as any other authority comes in competition with the will of God as a rule of duty, we are not to hesitate a moment in preferring the claims of the latter; but a rule of duty is not the same with the ultimate ground of duty: yet the author seems occasionally to have confounded them. The grand question is, Does the expressed will of God make the distinction between right and wrong in regard to moral conduct, or does it simply declare it? Here, we are of opinion, Mr. Dymond has failed to exhibit his usual degree of clearness and acumen, and in his laudable zeal to establish the paramount authority of the will of God as the grand directory of human conduct, has overlooked the force of certain considerations which might have been brought to corroborate, instead of weaken, his main positions. For while we agree with him that the communicated will of God is the grand expositor of human duty, it surely does not detract from its supremacy in this respect to say, that this will is not in itself the constituting cause of moral good and evil. If right and wrong are terms denoting what actions are in themselves, then whatever they are they are such, not by will, or decree, or power, but by nature and necessity. In the demonstrative sciences, whatever a triangle or a circle is, that it is unchangeably and eternally: it depends upon no will or power, whether the three angles or a triangle shall be equal to two right angles, or whether the diameter and the circumference of a circle shall be incommensurable. So of moral good and evil. We see not how the will of any being can render any thing morally good and obligatory which was not so antecedently and from eternity, or any action morally right which is not so absolutely in itself. If this be so, if the qualities of actions as good and evil, right and wrong, be immutable and eternal, then obligation to action and rectitude of action are obviously coincident and identical; so that we cannot form an idea of the one without including that of the other. Of this any one may be satisfied who shall attempt to point out the difference between what is right, meet, or fit to be done, and what ought to be done. As easily may we conceive of figure without extension, or of motion without a change of place, as that it can be right for us to do an action, and yet that it may not be what we should do, what it is our duty to do, or what we are under an obligation to do. It follows, then, that that which is morally good has a real obligatory power antecedently to all positive laws, and independently of all will, since obligation is involved in its very nature; and those who maintain that all obligation is to be deduced from positive laws, or from the Divine will, do in effect assert that the words right and good stand for no real and distinctive characters of actions, but signify merely what is willed and commanded.
Those who place the ground of moral obligation in the simple will of God usually maintain that the obligatory power of this will depends upon the rewards and punishments annexed to obedience or disobedience. This seems to come little short of subverting entirely the independent nature of moral good and evil; for if the doctrine be true, it follows that vice is properly nothing more than imprudence, and that nothing is right or wrong, just or unjust, any further than it affects our self-interest. But let it be asked, Would a person who believes there is no God, or if there be one, that he concerns not himself in human affairs, be for that reason exempt from the feeling of moral obligation, and therefore not be accountable? Would his unbelief release him from any bond of duty and morality? Yet these consequences must follow if obligation depends wholly on the knowledge of the will of a superior. The truth is, rewards and punishments suppose, in the very idea of them, moral obligation, and are founded upon it. They enforce it, but do not make it. They are the sanctions of virtue, not its efficients. A reward supposes something done to deserve it, or a conformity to obligation previously subsisting; and punishment is inflicted on account of some breach of obligation. Were we under no obligations antecedently to the proposal of rewards and punishments, it would be a contradiction to suppose us capable of them.
We could have wished, therefore, that the excellent author of these Essays had laid the corner-stone of his theory somewhat deeper, and assumed that the precepts of Revelation are obligatory, not merely because they have emanated from the highest authority in the universe, but because they command that which is in its own intrinsic nature eternally and immutably binding. It is surely important to establish as far as possible the identity of the dictates and promptings of our own rational nature with those of the revealed will of our Maker, and thus to invigorate the force of law by the verdict of the internal convictions of our own breasts.
But after every abatement on this or any other score, there remains so large and solid a residuum of excellence in the speculations of Mr. Dymond, that his work may be confidently left to its own intrinsic merits, as a sure passport to public favour. It can scarcely fail to find a response in every heart rightly affected to the highest interests of our race: and to those who have concerned themselves in its republication it cannot but be matter of complacent reflection, that they have been in any way instrumental in putting their fellow-men in possession of a work so well calculated to raise the general tone of morality, to give distinctness to their perceptions of rectitude, and to add strength to their resolutions to virtue.
Since the foregoing Preface was put to press, we have received, through the kindness of a friend, whose high estimate of Dymond’s work had prompted him to write to an eminent individual in England, with a view to obtain some particulars of his life and character, the following brief but interesting Memoir of the author of the “Essays.” This imperfect sketch, while it will do something towards gratifying that curiosity which a perusal of the volume cannot fail to excite, will go still farther in raising the reader’s admiration of the intellect and the heart which, under such adverse circumstances, could rear so noble a monument of their power and piety.
* * * * * * * I was indeed greatly concerned to bear that —— had been arrested by illness in the career of his benevolence. There is no reasoning upon these dispensations of Providence according to our short-sighted notions of public usefulness. None can work but as the Lord gives them ability in the great work of universal peace and righteousness; and as He knows best when each has done the portion of work allotted to him, so he can release the instrument, and raise up others to do himself honour and to take away all glorying from the sons of men.
The very early removal of Jonathan Dymond from this scene of trial, was a striking instance of the principle alluded to; for, with talents rarely bestowed, and exalted piety capable of extensive usefulness, be was called away from an amiable wife and infant family, as it were in the morning of his days. I am sorry that I am not able to give thee many particulars relative to this extraordinary young man, who has left behind him a work, viz. his “Essays on Morality, &c.,” that is built on too firm a foundation to be soon forgotten: for it is built on Christianity itself. He kept a shop as a linen-draper in some part of the S.W. of England; I believe in Exeter. His first literary effort was the “Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the Principles of Christianity,”§ in which be completely succeeded in overthrowing the delusive and pernicious doctrines of Paley, with regard to “expediency” as a rule of conduct either for states or individuals. This work has had a very powerful effect in deciding some close reasoners to adopt the principles of peace; for the author shows himself to be well skilled in using the weapons of the logician, and he brings his arguments to bear on questions of pure morality and religion with extraordinary force and ability. I have understood that he wrote a great part of the work on peace, as well of his posthumous essays, in a little room adjoining his shop, subject to frequent interruptions from customers in the midst of his most profound and interesting speculations.
I enjoyed but a short and melancholy portion of his society and acquaintance, for it was under peculiar and trying circumstances that I last saw him; but an impression has been left upon my mind that can never, I think, be removed. He came to London for professional advice, if I remember right, about the latter end of the year 1827, or the beginning of 1828. His complaint was seated chiefly in the throat, and the irritation was such that talking, even to a friend, for a few minutes, brought on coughing; so that, in order to prevent it, he came to the resolution not to speak at all to any one, and for many months before I saw him he had scrupulously followed this plan, using a slate to maintain the interchange of sentiment with those about him. Great part of his essays must have been written while he was under this self-imposed interdict. His mind was then remarkably clear and vigorous, and he appeared to be quite free from all depressing anticipation with regard to the result. His disease proved in the end to be pulmonary consumption.
I have a letter from his father dated Exeter, 12th of 6th month, 1828, informing me that on the 6th “he was taken from this mutable state.” He adds, “Through the merciful regard of our Holy Head and High Priest, I believe I may venture to say that his mind was kept in perfect peace, and that he was favoured while living to experience a foretaste of that state of blessedness into which I dare not doubt his being entered.”
In the same letter J.D. informs me that his daughter was removed on the 8th of the 3d month, his son George on the 24th of the 4th, and Jonathan, as before mentioned, on the 6th. “So that in rather less than two months I have had to experience the loss of three of my children near and dear to me, not only by the ties of nature, but additionally so as they were all of them eminently favoured with the precious influence of Heavenly love; and concerned in no ordinary degree to live in the fear of Him who called them to virtue, and who, I humbly trust, has received them into glory.”
* “The present work is one which the Society (the Friends) may well consider it an honour to have produced; it is indeed a book of such ability, and so excellently intended, as well as well executed, that even those who differ most widely, as we must do, from some of its conclusions, must regard the writer with the greatest respect, and look upon his death as a public loss.”—QUAR. REV., Jan., 1831.
† Paley, Evid. of Christ. p. 2, c. II.
‡ P. 31, 32.
§ The substance of this inquiry is included in the present work.—Ed.