Page images
PDF
EPUB

clothes, threw dust into the air, and exclaimed, “Away with such a fellow from the earth.” Upon this fresh outrage of popular fury, the chief captain ordered St. Paul to be brought into the castle, and by the power which the Roman laws permitted him to exercise over strangers, he bade his attendants examine Paul by scourges for the purpose (as it should seem from the original Greek word εξεταŽelv,* and from several events related in the context,) of extorting from him some confession, for what reasons the inhabitants of Jerusalem “ cried so against him.” While they were binding him with thongs, as preparatory to the infliction of scourges, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, “ Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?" The discretion or the humanity of the centurion was roused by this question, He instantly communicated the intelligence to the chief captain, and desired him “ to take heed what he did, for the man was a Roman.The chief captain, as we find in the course of his conversation with St. Paul, had obtained the freedom of a Roman citizen by purchase. St. Paul had, however, a stronger claim to it by birth, for he was a native of Tarsus, the metropolis of Cilicia, where his father or some of his ancestors probably had been recompensed with freedom for military services. Now the inhabitants of Tarsus having favoured the party of Julius Cæsar during the civil wars, though not formed into a regular colony, were honoured by great privileges, and even the city itself had obtained from Augustus the name of Juliopolis. The Apostle, then, availed himself of the rights which belonged to him as a Roman, and the chief captain knowing the validity of those rights, • loosed him from his bonds." He certainly had no very favourable impressions about St. Paul; for, as we read in the close of the preceding chapter, he had contemptuously asked him, “ Canst thou speak Greek?" Yet more invidiously he inquired, whether Paul was not the Ægyptian who before these days had made an uproar, and led out into the wilderness four thousand men who were murderers.” But neither his scorn nor his suspicions made him inattentive to his duty, and as he knew what the law required him to do to a man, who had pleaded that he was a Roman, he readily and honourably obeyed the law.

* See Hesychius, quoted by D. Whitby, in loco.

From this story we first learn the importance of clear and definite laws to the well-being of society; and secondly, have a luminous and decisive proof that Christianity does not exclude its followers from the protection, which laws may be able to give against capricious, insolent, or vindictive oppression. First, then, I shall show the essential importance of clear and definite laws to the well-being of society.

Without entering into those thorny disputes, in the course of which the origin of government may not always have been distinguished with sufficient precision from the origin of society, we may contend that, as on the one hand society is indebted for stability and order to government; so, on the other hand, to live by one man's will must be “the cause," as said the acute and pious Hooker, “ of all men's misery.” A despot, indeed, gratifies his own untameable desires by his own uncontrolable power without law, and beyond law, and against law. He decrees according to any momentary sally of passion-he kindles upon every frivolous provocationhe interdicts without necessity-he punishes without warning-he strikes, but hears not—he slumbers in the tempest—he rages in the calm-he connives to-day, and to-morrow he destroys. Despotism, therefore, is alike adverse to every known principle of every regular government to honour which thrives under monarchy-to moderation which is the vital principle of aristocracy-and to that austere virtue which has been described by some writers as necessary to the existence of a permanent and wellfounded republic. But wheresoever wise and impartial laws have been introduced, there a curb is thrown upon arbitrary will, and in point of fact, such laws, as all know, not from visionary or dubious theories, but from the solid testimony of history, have been judiciously instituted, and steadily executed under each of the three forms which I have enumerated. It is upon the basis of these laws, that under each of those governments liberty of some kind or other has been founded, and from that liberty so founded and so supported, have arisen constitutions, in which various modifications of society have existed, with high degrees of moral and intellectual improvement, with correct notions of justice, and with a long and secure enjoyment of happiness among their respective

members. In the correct administration of those laws, we have our best protection for the accomplishment of every purpose, which society in its most perfect state can be supposed to answer. For as men make greater advances in civilization and knowledge, they supply what is defective, or rectify what has ceased to be proper, in the laws themselves. But as they were at first compelled to flee to laws as a refuge from evil, so in all succeeding stages laws must be employed to establish or protect every sort, and almost every measure of good attained or attainable, to bring it within the reach of individuals—to diffuse it through all ranks and all ages to make it not the privilege of few, but the right of all—to exclude every plea of ignorance or error by rules, which every man is able to understand, and which, for his own sake, as well as that of his fellow-citizens, he is at once interested and bounden to obey. Whatsoever forms such laws may assume, and whatsoever accommodations they may undergo by the authority of human wisdom, carefully watching the changes and necessities of human affairs, still, where the benefits of legal institutions are extended to every man, the obligation to observe them is co-ordinate and co-extensive with our pretensions to any participation of the benefits themselves. It

may with laws, perhaps, as with some other of the choicest blessings, which God has conferred upon us, and of which he has made our own endeavours the instrument for our own welfare, that the value of them may in some cases be most clearly discerned by their absence. Hence, probably, arose the singular but very instructive custom of the Persians,* who on the death of their kings suffered their laws to lose their force for the space of five days, in order that after the expiration of that time the people might return more cheerfully to their obedience. Were the same experiment to be made in other countries, where learning is more diffused, where manners are more civilized, and where religion is more pure, and even more efficacious, than they were among the Persians, the same consequences would suddenly flow in temporary disorder, , and the same anxious wishes would be excited for the speedy and entire removal of it.

There are many virtues, which, according to the phraseology of writers upon ethics and jurisprudence, are of imperfect obligation, and which, depending on the private will and the private power of individuals, are more or less extensive, and in their effects more or less beneficial. But the most extensive and most necessary duty of all lies in the restraints prohibiting us to do harm to others. Good we may do, if we will; and should do, where we can. But harm we must not do, though we can do it ever so easily, and though we wish to do it ever so eagerly. The comforts, the conveniencies, and the ornaments of society are promoted and multiplied by the former duty. But society would cease even to exist unless the latter were made our duty by the very strictest

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

* Vide Sextum Empiricum adversus Mathematicos, p. 70, et Stobæum, p. 294.

« PreviousContinue »