« AnteriorContinua »
and administers a discipline infinitely more severe than any chastisement which can be inflicted by a mere physical power.
But there is a third way which is adopted when it is impossible to maintain a visible or sensible moral influence always standing by the side of man's frailty, and acting as an immediate keeper upon his heart-adopted when he must be left to himself and be removed from every check but a law within his conscience. To provide him with this law and this check, promises are enforced, of which the whole obliging force may be traced to the principle of shame. And as an oath is a religious obligation of some kind or another, superinduced upon a promise, the true nature and conditions of promises must form a preliminary question in every discussion upon
oaths. In the first place, then, a promise, however it may practically oblige, can in no way affect the intrinsic obligatory character of the act promised. If the act be bad, the promise cannot make it good. If it be good, it ought to be performed, whether or not it is coupled with any previous pledge. The security which is given for a debt may, indeed, strengthen the confidence of the creditor, and give punctuality to the debtor, but it does not alter the nature of the debt. It is therefore the obliging nature of a promise which is to be analyzed. How does it act upon secondary feelings and motives before the first and highest are developed ? These feelings are not simple, but very complicated.
One is that tremulous, sensitive susceptibility of impressions from other minds by which all men not very practiced in deceit, or hardened, acknowledge the presence of a superior being, whether man or God, by which they fall unconsciously into the position which he commands; are thrown off their guard, and so prevented from practicing hypocrisy ; are incapable of continuing any double mindedness; and still more incapable of uttering words at variance with their thoughts. The power of the human eye over even bad men arises from this law. The effect may be produced in part by an admonition, or by any one of those moral influences which rise in a graduated scale from the first secret voice of conscience up to the most awful imprecatory oaths imposed under the most appalling circumstances. But the utterance of words, or any external act of the party to be influenced, not only brings him under this influence, but effects something more. It is a test that his mind is affected as it should be, and also has a tendency to affect it, just as the posture of kneeling not only evinces the disposition, but positively disposes us to pray. Once fix on the mind, though only for a space, a right intention, and something is done to insure its accomplishment: the aim is taken, the wheel is set on the tram-road. And thus a promise is obliging, in the first place, by giving this intention and direction to the thoughts and feelings of the moment.
Secondly. If exacted with formality and deliberation, and especially if recorded in some shape which may serve as a permanent memorial, it keeps the same intention constantly before the eyes, and fixes it more deeply. Hence signatures to writing, monuments of treaties, tokens and symbols of vows and engagements. They oblige by constantly renewing the original impression and assisting the niemory
Thirdly. A promise renders man in a remarkable way susceptible of shame by placing him at once in an elevated relation to other
moral beings and to himself, from which he fears to fall. Instead of lying passive, and merely witnessing examples, listening to admonitions, or submitting to punishment from others, he is by a promise roused up to a consciousness of his own free agency, power, and his own responsibility; for a promise is a voluntary surrender of some portion of our liberty of action. It therefore necessarily implies that liberty, and, consequently, a corresponding amount of independence. The making of a promise for the first time is, therefore, a very important era, and exerts a very important influence on our moral development. It is the coming of age of a moral being. So long as he is kept in his minority, subject only to the lash, with the whole burden both of his virtues and vices thrown upon his guardians, so long he is very slightly susceptible of shame: slightly, in his own eyes, because he never exercises reflection, or arraigns himself before his own conscience, or recalls a former state more elevated than the present-slightly, in the eyes of others, because he is accustomed to consider them, and not himself, responsible for his conduct. And as they have never treated him as an equal, it is no degradation to be lightly esteemed by them. But admit men to promise, and you deal with them as independent beings-you abdicate a portion of your own power over them, and convert their previous subjection into a voluntary and far more ennobling compact; you place them on a high position in your eyes, from which they fear to fall; and you raise them in their own eyes, not only in this way, but by compelling thought, deliberation, and forethought, previous to a binding engagement. This, when it can safely be practiced, is the great object of education, as it is of civil government, and appears to have been studiously practiced in all the dealings of God to man, which have been uniformly carried on from the beginning, and in a very extraordinary way, by covenant and compact, as between free, independent agents, not as the overruling of a creature by an absolute lord and master.
Thus our desire of retaining the good opinion of others, a desire which exists in the fullest vigor in almost every mind, long before we are even sensible of a law of abstract goodness, is brought to bear in support of that law. And happily its influence has full scope, because other men, also, are peculiarly alive to what is called a law of honor long before they recognize the right of other virtues. The infraction of a promise solemnly made lowers men in the eyes of the world far more than the violation of many other duties. If it were not so, the feeling of shame would not exist in all its present keenness to warn us against the infraction.
One more mode in which, very often, a promise obliges, is by involving the positive interests of others in our fulfilment of it. It seldom happens that a promise is exacted without the party hazarding upon the strength of it some advantage which might otherwise have been legally retained. And men are very sensible to the rights
, and still more to the wrongs of others, at a very early age,
and even when they are under the influence of passions. It is, like shame, one of the last good feelings which are obliterated—one of the first which come forth. He must be a very bad man who would not be in some measure deterred from an evil action by remembering that it must injure another who had rendered himself thus liable to injury by a voluntary act of confidence. But if no promise is given, no
confidence is reposed, no responsibility is therefore incurred, and no remorse is felt.
The same observation may be extended to cases where favors have been conferred upon the strength of an engagement, though without any positive detriment to the party who confers them, arising from the violation of the compact. Gratitude very early, and very strong, and very lasting secondary feeling, and possesses a very obliging and stringent power.
And thus far a promise serves to bind us down to a course of conduct, simply by appealing forcibly to the principle of shame, or, in other words, to our moral susceptibility of influence from the presence of other moral beings. There might be added to this the vague but certain apprehension of evil arising from the loss of respect and confidence. But in the present view of an oath this is an accident, not an object, and we wish to draw the line of distinction broadly and clearly between promises which bind by a moral feeling, and those which bind by fear, and are in some shape or another imprecatory. And it will very much assist our view if we trace briefly the stages through which a simple promise passed into an imprecatory oath.
A very large portion of the oaths which occur, particularly in ancient history, convey no trace of imprecation; they are simply the mention of some object, either thing or person, the presence of which, from its dignity or influence, it was supposed would produce the moral effects above mentioned, would reduce the mind to seriousness, simplicity, and awe, and would therefore ensure the truth. Oaths such as these,-- per Deos, per venerationem principis, per timorem patris sui, per cineres suorum, per salem, per stellas, per nomen imperatoris, per membra carorum, per tenebras, per noctem, per barbam, per dextram, per caput alterius, per fortunam suam et gloriam ; per horrendum hoc diluvium, per animas avorum et proavorum ;-or in the Mohammedan practice,-per Angelorum ordines, per Alcoranum, per ventos, per nubes, per librum lineariter in chartis subtilissime scriptum ;-or in the Christian practice,--per altare, per Evangelium, per nomen vel reliquias Sanctorum'—without collecting more instances from various writers, these all appeal to the same principle of shame, that is, of reverential feeling to some object, the very thought of which was to exclude the inclination to falsehood. To add to the effect, the object itself was very often brought forward, and the repetition of the words was accompanied by a corporal act. Thus the northern nations swore sometimes brandishing their spears, sometimes on a drawn sword, sometimes clasping the robe of the person who exacted the oath; sometimes holding a piece of coin which bore the king's effigy. Selden mentions a practice in London of swearing on the tomb of the dead, when a witness had died without giving his testimony. The laws of Hoel the Good speak of the same practice applied in the case of deceased debtors. Du Fresne speaks of a Danish king whose armlet was so used. According to Gyraldus, the Irish swore upon the crosiers of their bishops. So the oath was taken by Christians, sometimes touching the gospel, sometimes the altar, sometimes the relics of saints, sometimes with the cross laid on their head. Sometimes in monasteries they touched the feet of the abbot. In India they touch the feet of the Brahmin. In the middle ages, it was no VOL. IX.-Oct., 1838.
uncommon thing to lay the hand on the head of the party who received the oath. And the forms of laying the hand on the heart, or of stretching the arms out, were intended for the same purpose. Actions were chosen to express the oath, as being supposed to imply more sincerity, to require more deliberation, and to impress the mind more strongly than mere words; and very frequently the oath was repeated at several times, in the presence of fixed numbers, before several altars, or over accumulated relics, in order to increase the reverential feeling. As Mr. Tyler observes, the expression of a corporal oath comes from this practice.
Now it is evident, that the use of inanimate things as fit objects of reverential awe is not only mere folly and superstition, but is a heavy offence against the first principles of ethics. It is a species of moral idolatry—and no one will now defend it. And yet men are found to demand that human creatures should be thus employed; and promises be sanctioned and enforced by the respect felt to man alone, without any reference whatever to the only legitimate Source of all obligation--the only Being whom men ought to fear. They will admit of promises, but will not allow them to be sanctioned by the name of God, as made in his presence, and binding by his will. A few words will show at once the mischief of such a theory, and the principles upon which, with the consent of the church, promises in the middle ages were so generally raised into oaths--but oaths without imprecation.
It is evident that if truth is to be enforced by the eye, and the presence of any one, no being can be so able or so fit to enforce it as the Source of all truth. If any one is to be placed before us as the supreme object of our fear and respect, it must be God. Whether we swear by stocks and stones or by human beings, (which, in fact, is done when a promise or declaration is made in the presence of man alone,) in each case there is the same detraction from the sole right of God. And this cannot be admitted by the legislature without most evil consequences; for in the moral government of men, while motives which, in their imperfect state, they can feel and understand, are applied to make them act, great care must at the same time be taken to suggest others, which may place the action upon the right ground-to name at least the motives which ought to bind as a corrective of the motive which does bind. When a child is flogged to deter him from misconduct
, he should always be informed that obedience to God, not the fear of being flogged, should be his real inducement to do right. When a man binds himself by a law of honor, though the obligation may be accepted, he should always be reminded
that the command of God, not the opinion of man, is the real standard of right and wrong. If this is not done, in a very short time the low immature views of common minds will universally prevail. Men will consider that acquiescence in their notion of obligation is a proof of its correctness, they will have no better and truer rule placed before their eyes; and the fundamental principles of morality will, in a very short time, be overlaid and lost
. For this reason, a promise to man ought always to be connected with the thought of God, to whom every act of goodness is due obedience to whom constitutes the measure of all goodness-without reference to whom all our faith, and reverence, and honesty, and truth to man, is but a species of vice. What must be the
language of any right-thinking Christian to a person who, on a solemn occasion, offers to bind himself by a promise, as one human creature to another, without any reference to their Creator? “You acknowledge," he would surely say, "respect for my opinion-you fear to tell me a falsehood—you are ashamed to deceive, or dissemble, or disappoint me in the eyes of the world—you own that the right which I obtain by your present engagement cannot be withheld or violated without injustice :-is there not another moral Being for whom you are bound to feel respect indeed-in whose presence you can still less dare to lie, or to deceive—who has a right to all your actions—and from whom all my rights are derived? Can you offend against me, without offending against Him? Is He not as much a party to every engagement that man can make, as the visible covenanters themselves? Will He not avenge your faithlessness, even though no direct appeal be made to Him even though you cast His name aside, as if you could possibly prevent Him from being a witness to your compact and your fraud ?" Surely the attempt which men are now making quietly to put away the name of God from those very affairs of life where his presence and sanction are most needed, is an alarming proof of either our thoughtlessness or our ungodliness. Surely those generations were far wiser who endeavored, however vainly, to make it hallow every action, and reminded man, at every entrance upon a duty to his neighbor, that it was also and chiefly a duty to his Maker.
It was undoubtedly upon this principle that from the fifth century downward, oaths, and chiefly official oaths, were so multiplied within the church. An ecclesiastical, if not a purely religious spirit, had penetrated the whole of society; and whenever a duty was to be performed, it was directed to the one great Centre of all obligation. And although there may be something to censure in the occasions or forms of these oaths, the principle was wise. It was only stating, and making others state in form, what the early Christians recognized as the great axiom of all morality-and an axiom which, if they refused to state in the shape of an oath, they refused only because they would not permit the slightest distrust of their holding it -“We swear,” said the old fathers, " by our lives, not by our lips. We make God the great object of all our thoughts, and the rule of all our actions. If, therefore, we make a promise, it is to God if we keep it, it is because we dare not break an engagement which was made in his presence; but we do not make mention of his name, because it is not required. It is written in our hearts, and borne publicly before all our deeds.” When this high spirit began to cease, then oaths commenced, just as law and precept enter in only with suspicion and wrong. And as the suspicion and wrongs increased, men ceased to feel confidence in the simple principle of shame, and recurred to fear—the lowest and the worst, and with good men the most deteriorating motive.
Imprecatory oaths were the only security of promises in heathenism; and as the principles of heathenism gradually re-established themselves in the bosom of Romanism, imprecatory oaths revived with the corruptions of the church. They were founded on several distinct notions, which perhaps more properly may be called superstitions, though superstition is a hard word, and in the present day is far too lightly used. It may be worth while to mention them.