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Cato's Letter No. 109

Inquiry into the Origin of Good and Evil.

John Trenchard (Saturday, December 29, 1722)

SIR, We have been long confounded about the origin of good and evil, or, in other words, of virtue and vice. The opinion of some is, that virtue is a sort of real being, and subsists in its own nature. Others make it to consist in rules and cautions, given us by the Supreme Being for our conduct here on earth and either implanted in our natures, or conveyed to us by revelation. A late philosopher searches it from the will and commands of the civil magistrate. But, for my own part, I must conceive it only as a compound of the two last; namely, a relation of menís actions to one another, either dictated by reason, by the precepts of heaven, or the commands of the sovereign, acting according to his duty.

It is the misfortune of those publick-spirited and acute gentlemen, who have obliged the world with systems, that they always make common sense truckle to them; and when they are bewildered, and entangled amongst briars and thorns, never go back the way that they got in, but resolve to scramble through the brake, leap over hedge and ditch, to get into their old road, and so for the most part scratch themselves from head to foot, and sometimes break their necks into the bargain. They never look back, and examine whether their system be true or false, but set themselves to work to prove it at all adventures: They are determined to solve all contradictions, and grow very angry with all who are not so clear-sighted as themselves.

This seems to me to be the case in the present question. The common light of reason has told all mankind, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; and that every cause must be an effect of some superior cause; till they come to the last of all, which can be no otherwise than self-existent, that is, must have existed from all eternity. Some sects of philosophers have thought this first cause to be only pure matter, not being able to conceive that any thing can be made out of nothing, or can be annihilated again afterwards; and they suppose that matter has been in eternal motion, and has the seeds of animals, vegetables, and of every thing else within itself, and by its constant motion and revolutions gives them life, duration, and at last death; and throws them into the womb of nature again to rise up in new shapes.

But others, by far the greatest part of mankind, are not able by this dark system to account for the exquisite contrivance and consummate wisdom shewn in the formation of animals and vegetables, in the regular and stupendous structure and circulation of the heavenly bodies, and of the earth, no more than for the operations of our own minds. They therefore most reasonably judged, that when so much contrivance is necessary to bring about our own little designs; the great machine of heaven and earth, and the infinite and admirable systems in it, could not be the spontaneous or necessary productions of blind matter. Thence they determine, that the First Being must have suitable wisdom to contrive and execute these great and amazing works.

But these latter are not so well agreed amongst themselves about the manner of acting, or the operations of this being. For some think that he must act from the necessity of his own nature: For, since his being is necessary, they think that his will and attributes (which are parts of his being, essential to it, and inseparable from it) and consequently his actions, which are results of that will, and of those attributes, must be necessary too. They cannot conceive how a being, who has the principles and causes of all things within itself, could exist without having seen every thing intuitively from all eternity; a consideration which must exclude from his actions all choice and preference, as these imply doubt and deliberation.

They cannot apprehend how reason and wisdom can be analagous in him to what are called by the same names in men: For judgment in them, as far as it regards their own voluntary operations, is only the balance of the conveniences or inconveniences which will result from their own or otherís thoughts or actions, as they have relation to beings or events out of their power, and which depend upon other causes: But if a being can have no causes without itself, but produces every thing by its own energy and power, sees all things at once, and cannot err, as men may, nor consequently deliberate and debate with itself, they think that it must act singly, and in one way only; and where there is no choice, or, which is the same thing, but one choice, they conceive that there is always necessity.

But the contrary is much the more orthodox and religious opinion, and has been held by far the greatest and best part of mankind in all ages, before and without revelation: They have thought that this last opinion bordered too much upon the material system, as being able to see but little difference in the operations of a being acting necessarily, and the productions of blind matter constantly in action, and acting mechanically; since the effect is supposed to be the same, though wisdom and contrivance, or what we are forced to call by those names for want of another, be the first spring, or chief wheel of the machine, or one link of the chain of causes: And therefore men have condemned this opinion as impious and atheistical.

Indeed the other speculations have been only the wild and babbling notions of fairy philosophers, or of enthusiastick and visionary madmen; for all prudent and modest men pretend to know no more of this being, without revelation, than that he is wise, good, and powerful, and made all things; and do not presume farther to enquire into the modus of his existence and operations. However, their own interest and curiosity were so much concerned to guess at his designs and motives in placing them here, that it was impossible they could be otherwise than solicitous and inquisitive about it; and finding, or fancying themselves to be the most valuable part of the whole, it was very natural for them to believe, that all was made for their sakes; and that their happiness was the only or chief view of the Supreme Being.

With these thoughts about him, every man knowing what he had a mind to have himself, and what he believed would constitute his own happiness, and not being able to attain it without making the same allowance to other people; men agreed upon equal rules of mutual convenience and protection, and finding these rules dictated to them by impartial reason, they justly believed that they were implanted within them by the deity; and as they expected themselves returns of gratitude or applause for benefits conferred by them upon others, they thought the same were due to the original being who gave them life, and every thing else which they enjoyed: and this is called natural religion.

But as the motive which men had to enter into this equal agreement, was their own pleasure and security, which most or all men prefer before the advantage of others, so they often found themselves in a condition, by superior power, will, and abilities, to circumvent those who had less than themselves, and either by artful confederacies, impostures, or by downright force, to oppress them; and in order to it, have invented systems or partial schemes of separate advantage, and have annexed suitable promises or menace to them: All which they have pretended to receive from this divine being. They assumed to have communication with him, and to know his will, and denounced his anger against all who would not take their word, and let them do by his authority what they would never have been permitted to do by any other; and the herd not daring to oppose them, or not knowing how, have acquiesced to their tales, and come in time to believe them. From hence sprang all the follies and roguery of the heathen and Jewish priests, and all the false religions in the world; with all the persecutions, devastations, and massacres caused by them; which were all heterogeneous engraftments upon natural religion.

Almighty God thought it proper therefore at last to communicate himself again to man, and by immediate revelation to confirm what he at first implanted in all menís minds, and what was eradicated thence by delusion and imposture; but though he thought it not necessary to tell us more than we were concerned to know, namely, to do our duty to himself and to one another, yet we will still be prying into his secrets, and sifting into the causes of his original and external decrees, which are certainly just and reasonable, though we neither know his reasons, nor could judge of them, if we did.

From hence arises this dispute concerning the origin of good and evil, amongst a thousand others. For, our vanity inducing us to fancy ourselves the sole objects of his providence, and being sure that we receive our beings from him, and consequently our sensations, affections, and appetites, which are parts of them, and which evidently depend either mediately or immediately, upon causes without us, and seeing at the same time, that many things happen in the world seemingly against his revealed will, which he could prevent if he thought fit; we either recur to the intrigues of a contrary being, whose business is to thwart his designs, and disappoint his providence, or else account for it by a malignity in human nature, more prone to do evil than good, without considering from whence we had that nature; for if the malignity in it be greater than precepts, examples, or exhortations can remove, the heavier scale must weigh down.

How much more modest and reasonable would it be to argue, that moral good and evil in this world, are only relations of our actions to the Supreme Being, and to one another, and would be nothing here below, if there were no men? That no event can happen in the universe but what must have causes strong enough to produce it? That all causes must first or last center in the supreme cause; who, from the existence of his own nature, must always do what is best, and all his actions must be instantaneous emanations of himself? He sees all things at one view, and nothing can happen without his leave and permission, and without his giving power enough to have it effected: When therefore we see any thing which seems to contradict the images which we have presumed to form about his essence, or the attributes which we bestow upon him (which images and attributes are, for the most part, borrowed from what we think most valuable amongst ourselves), we ought to suspect our own ignorance, to know that we want appetites to fathom infinite wisdom, and to rest assured that all things conduce to the ends and designs of his providence, who always chooses the best means to bring them about.

T I am, &c.


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