« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »
may be exceedingly enlightened, and, at the same time, atrociously wicked; and that the most horrible crimes may distinguish the people of an age and nation, boasting, and not without reason, of high attainments in philosophy.
In our own country it would be impossible to fix upon a period when knowledge was so generally diffused as it is now. For some years past the most strenuous exertions have been made to give to every one the power of acquiring information by reading, and the consequence is, that we are now a nation of readers. Books are published at such a price as to come within the means of all, and a portion of the time of all is devoted to their perusal. What has been the result of this? Have morals improved in proportion? Are the relative duties of life better performed? Has crime diminished? Alas, the records of our courts but too clearly intimate that it has fearfully increased! Do we find the rich more munificent, the poor more contented, and all classes of society more temperate, just, and benevolent?. If these effects have not taken place, our own country will not form an exception to the general rule which must be deduced from history, ancient and modern, that the moral improvement of mankind has not kept pace with their intellectual advancement.
ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE it was observed, that it was some. what strange that a question could be raised, whether or not intellectual improvement produced immorality; that, if this were the case, and a decay of morals was the necessary consequence of advancement in refinement and civilization, we had better, as fast as possible, re-assume the character of barbarians, and obliterate every vestige of knowledge, and every trace of intellectual exertion. From the history of man, it had been attempted to be shewn that those nations which had been most eminent in the display of intellectual power, had also been the most infamous for their vices and their crimes; not only so, but that precisely at those periods when intellectual improvement was at its height, has immorality also been most generally prevalent. Now, if the fact be admitted, it will not prove that the one is the cause of the other. The two facts may exist at the same time, and yet be altogether independent of each other. But there is no reason to conclude that this opinion of the superabundance of vice in enlightened nations, is well founded. Vices, of a certain character, will be found among the inhabitants of such nations, but they will be free from others which prevail among uncivilized people. The vices of refinement and of barbarism are not the same; and the only proper question to inquire into would be, in which state of society was found the greater balance of evil? Now we may obtain considerable assistance in forming our
opinion upon this question, by referring to those centuries which, with striking emphasis and propriety, were denominated the dark ages. In those happy times of ignorance, according to the arguments that had been advanced, the purest morals must have prevailed, for there was no knowledge to counteract their influence; there was no excess of illumination to mislead; there was no science to corrupt the heart while it informed the understanding! Yet, in these halcyon days of ignorance and innocence, Europe was deluged with crime of the most revolting and atrocious kind, from one extremity to the other. The occupations of commerce being despised, and the exercise of the greater part of the liberal and useful arts unknown, all men were employed in war; and they devoted themselves to the destruction of the lives of each other, for want of something better to do. Human life was regarded as without value; the rights of property were little understood, and less respected; and nothing is presented to the observer of this period, but a scene of universal rapine and disorder, little consonant with that arcadian innocence and peace, which Rousseau and some others have supposed, would result from the exclusion of the arts and sciences from society.
But let us inquire what is the state of morals among those who are still found in a state of nature? it is pretty much the same with that which prevailed in Europe during the period just considered. In fact, the savage seems to have no idea of morality at all, nor does he appear conscious that any thing is deserving of praise or blame, except just as far as it promotes or impedes his own personal gratifications. Justice, among such people, has no existence; strength is the only title to possession ; benevolence is unknown; the weak, the aged, the infirm, are regarded as a burden on society; in many instances, are left to perish from neglect; in some, are consigned, without hesitation, to speedy death. How, indeed, can any superior state of morals be expected where knowledge does not exist ?—before the duties of morality can be practised, its principles must be understood; and, before this can take place, the mind must be cultivated. The object of philosophy, is the discovery of truth; and how truth can be detrimental to morality, it is not easy to conceive.
In our own age and country where does crime most prevail? Certainly in the lower classes of society, whose situation has unfortunately precluded them from instruction, and who are in consequence labouring under the accumulated evils of ignorance. In every class above the lowest, superior information has produced a superior state of morals; and it may be unhesitatingly affirmed, that the people of the present age are not only eminent for intellectual illumination, but that, in the discharge of all the social duties, they are generally exemplary; and that, in one instance at least, science and morality are found to exist in a high degree together.
There was indeed a certain class of persons, called Grumblers, who were eternally complaining of the depravity of the age, and the degeneracy of all existing things. The sect is not new, it is as old as the days of Nestor; the present period seems to abound with such characters, and the theme upon which they are most delighted to expatiate, is the astonishing increase of crime. What would these persons say when they were informed that, in the reign of Henry the Eighth, two thousand persons were executed in one year for theft alone; and, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, four hundred were executed, annually, for the same offence. Let us compare the number of these executions with those which annually take place now; let us consider the mighty increase of population in the last three hundred years; let us look attentively at the astonishing progress of the human mind in the same period; and then let us draw our conclusion upon the question, whether, as mankind have advanced in knowledge, they have retrograded in morals?
No fair experiment seems yet to have been made as to what would be the effect upon society of the universal diffusion of knowledge. From all that we have yet seen, it is reasonable to conclude that it would be most favourable. The charity and national schools, although far from being at present equal to the wants of the population of the country, appear, as far as they have been traced, to have produced the most beneficial effects upon the lower classes of society. The liberality with which these institutions have been supported by the opulent, and even by those who are far from opulent, affords another striking evidence of the advancement of our country in moral improvement. For ages, the rich appear to have been as regardless of the want of instruction under which the poor were suffering, as if they were beings of another species; but, in our own times, benevolence has been unwearied in exertions to promote the diffusion of knowledge. Plans of education, the most original in their character, the most simple in their operation, and the most grand and extensive in their effects, have been promul. gated with an assiduity, and sustained by a liberality, which must, at no distant period, ensure the blessing of education to every one born beneath a British sky. But it is not this species of charity alone which has flourished under the reign of science. With a bounty-wide as the claims of human misery, an asylum has been opened for every species of suffering to which human nature is exposed, and a remedy afforded for every woe which the author of Nature has left in the power of man to redress.
While the numerous literary and scientific establishments which have been formed in our own days attest the progress of intellectual improvement, the benevolent institutions, which have arisen in a tenfold proportion, evince the intimate connection between knowledge and morality, and furnish a convincing refutation of the opinion, which denies that the moral improvement of man has kept pace with his intellectual advancement.
To this, IT WAS REPLIED, that it was not an answer to the arguments which had been advanced, to say that man was more virtuous in a civilized than in a savage state, or that he was more virtuous now than he was a thousand years ago. The question to be resolved was, whether the moral improvement of mankind had kept pace with their intellectual advancement. Admitting, therefore, that morality had advanced in some degree, unless it could be shewn that it had advanced in as great a degree as knowledge had been extended, the question must be answered in the negative.
It had been denied that there was an increase of crime. Reference was made to a remote period, when great numbers of
persons were executed in one year for theft; and from this is inferred, that there is less crime now, because fewer persons suffer the last penalty of the law. To this, there is a ready answer : at that period, all persons convicted of a capital offence received sentence of death, and all who were sentenced were executed. In the present time, many who are really guilty of a capital offence are arraigned for a minor one, of these many escape conviction, from technical errors, or from the laudable practice of giving the accused the benefit of any doubt that may arise of his guilt; of those who are convicted, but few receive sentence of death; and of those who are sentenced, but few suffer. The difficulty is obviated at once by the statement of this fact, that the laws were then executed more rigorously than they are now.
But the great increase of crime is not a mere matter of opinion : it has been recognized by the legislature itself; and various plans, all hitherto ineffectual, have been suggested for its correction. Crime has increased both in quantum and in enormity; and one of the disgusting circumstances attending its increase is, that a large proportion of offenders are at an age when we look for innocence, if not for active virtue. The literary instruction of the poor, which has been so highly lauded, and from which so much is anticipated, does not appear to have been very efficacious in the repression of juvenile crime. It has been said, that no fair experiment has been made as to the effect of universal education upon society. We seem, however, to be in a fair way of making it; and it is to be hoped, that the result may be as favourable as its advocates expect.
While it has been denied that crime has increased, it has been asserted that it is in the lower classes of society that it is most frequent, and that this arises from the prevalence of ignorance. Now, if this be so, it may be presumed that we shall find morality raising its tone the higher we advance in the scale of society, and that the superior ranks will be perfect exemplars of all that is excellent. Will experience bear us out in this belief? Crime, it is said, is almost peculiar to the lower classes : one species of crime, that of theft, certainly is so, because in no other condition of life does there exist the temptation to commit it; but, surely, in every other species of immorality, the higher ranks of society may contend with the lowest for the disgraceful pre-eminence of guilt. In proportion as their minds are more highly cultivated, we ought to find purity of morals existing among them; we discover them, however, to be inferior in this respect to the middle classes, who, alike removed from the dangers of poverty and of excessive wealth, exhibit generally a state of morals superior to that which is found in either extreme of society; and this not because they have more or less information than those below or above them, but because they are happily removed from those temptations towhich the other classes ofsocietyare exposed.
It has been said, that knowledge is necessary to ascertain the obligations of morality. To a certain extent, this is true. Until a man knows what is required of him, he cannot be expected to perform it; but the knowledge of our duty is generally of pretty easy attainment, and few do wrong without knowing it. But this is evidently not the kind of knowledge contemplated by the question. It cannot be supposed that ignorance of the claims of morality is compatible with the practice of virtue ; it is to the numerous other branches of knowledge that the question applies. Chemistry and astronomy are valuable sciences; but a man will not be more just or benevolent, because he can calculate the comparative distances of the planets; nor will he be more inclined to restrain his evil passions, because he is intimately acquainted with the discoveries of Fourcroy and Lavoisier. History lends her aid to confirm the deductions of reason; and, from the examples of Greece and Rome,-of France, and of our own country, -assures us that there is no necessary connection between intellectual and moral improvement, but that the first may advance without being accompanied by the other.