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that from human weakness, the neglect of religious ceremonies in the Christian, as well as the heathen world, will sometimes produce sharper remorse than the violation of a plain duty. Under these circumstances the judgment of men err. We perceive their error—we deplore it—and if any opportunity should occur, we should endeavour to rectify it. Yet, in following the dictates of their own conscience, imperfectly enlightened, they may err, and, I should add, they would sin, if they acted in the same manner amidst a clearer light to their judgment. Their guilt, however, would lie, not in the error of their understanding, as such, but in the concomitant and unresisted influence of those sensual, malevolent, and selfish affections, which unhappily were allied with error, and of which the criminal properties were disguised by false notions of duty. Those properties might indeed be discovered by reflection; and that discovery might break the force of previous habit, and separate them from the misconceptions with which they had co-operated. Men would then find that benevolence is better than sacrifice, and that the neglect of penance, fasting, and offerings of cummin-seed, is less unworthy of a Christian than the neglect of justice, piety, faithfulness, and other weightier matters of the law. These they would chiefly wish to do; and at the same time they would take care not to leave acts of external devotion undone. Conscience would soon have its proper sway over their reason, their affections, and their will, and the whole compass of their moral agency; and remorse would be felt in
proportion to the real sinfulness of their conduct. They would have no shelter under the plea of ignorance, and not being accustomed to metaphysical refinement, they would have no thought of looking for justification in philosophical necessity. But upon
the delusions of conscience I shall speak more largely in one of my subsequent discourses. My present concern is with the reality and efficacy of
Doubtless, where superstition misleads our opinions upon the comparative merits and demerits of actions, we have to lament, not so much that men feel very sharp compunction in consequence of what they suppose to be criminal, as that they feel it very indistinctly and feebly, and in matters which men of more cultivated understandings uniformly and deservedly hold to be of superior importance. The absence of remorse may, now and then, be to them pernicious; but I contend, that the presence of remorse is not useless to them, because it implies a sincere desire of doing what is right; and this desire carries with it a strong presumption that, under more favourable circumstances, a quick, strong, habitual feeling of compunction would operate to the advantage of the agent, so as to rescue him from many idle scruples, and many superstitious extravagancies, to which he was formerly exposed, so as to guide him hereafter to very good actions—so as to restrain him from actions very bad. In that condition of imperfect knowledge, which the Deity has allotted to him, his mind is a law unto itself, and it were unreasonable to contend, that his obedience to that law, when he knew not a better, is wholly destitute of merit, or wholly unworthy of commendation. Besides, what men will take upon themselves to say, that the same active influence of conscience which directed him where we think him mistaken, has not, in various instances, been a guide to him, in those points, upon which nearly all men are agreed. Today, he is sorry for having neglected some observances of piety; and to-morrow, he will be more alive to compunction, for having transgressed the rules of honesty, temperance, and humanity.
Whatsoever be the acuteness of metaphysicians, it is quite impossible for them to disprove the actual power of conscience, and the visible usefulness of it, as inflicting upon moral agents the pain and the shame of remorse. If they had no consciousness of free agency, there could be no room for remorse, as the word is now understood; and as the thing by men, who are not engaged in abstract speculations, is now confessedly experienced. Upon such a supposition they, whom we call virtuous, and they whom we call vicious, would appear to others and to themselves quite undistinguished by any property, which should entitle the one to approbation, or subject the other to disapprobation. The advocates of necessity, to do them justice, are not insensible of these consequences, and they virtually admit them as flowing from the premises which they reject, to make room for their scheme of necessity.
I have dwelt the more largely on the subject of remorse, because a right view of it is inseparably
connected with our inquiries upon the force of con science; and because I think that the inferences drawn from disputable and obscure metaphysics are at variance with the generally received notions of mankind, and are practically confuted too by their feelings, when they have been inattentive to the principles of virtue, or have been tempted to act in contradiction to them. Even amidst the errors, which now and then call remorse into action, a man would not be good if he slighted the scruples which he really felt. He might, indeed, be a better man, if by the removal of those scruples, he had a stronger sense of the obligation under which he lies to perform other and greater duties. But, under the guidance of those very scruples, he obeys the authority of conscience; and probably, he on many occasions, has had the sincerity and the fortitude to obey it in opposition to his unruly appetites, and with a partial or total sacrifice of his worldly in
In my next discourse I shall set before you some additional observations upon the properties of remorse; and I shall endeavour to illustrate them by a pertinent and interesting series of instances, which I have selected from writers both profane and sacred.
MATTHEW xiv. 12.
At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,
and said unto his servants, “ This is John the Baptist : he is risen from the dead ; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him."
In a former discourse I explained to you largely and minutely the import of the word conscience. I stated generally the agreement of mankind upon the importance of the thing itself; and in opposition to some metaphysical refinements which have gone abroad, I set before you the reality and the usefulness of that feeling, which is usually and properly called remorse. Upon the present occasion I shall bring forward, as I told you, some additional remarks upon the properties of remorse; and I shall illustrate them by a pertinent and interesting series of instances, which I have selected from writers both profane and sacred. Let me begin the subject with passages
persons to whom the light of the Gospel was unknown, and who were guided by those principles, which cultivated reason and natural religion suggested to them.
Hear then the words of one who was no less distinguished as a profound philosopher than as an