Cato's Letter No. 110

Of Liberty and Necessity.

John Trenchard (Saturday, January 5, 1723)

SIR, I have already said, that I could consider good and evil only as in relation to menís actions to one another, or to the Supreme Being; in which actions they can have for their end their own interest alone, in present or futurity. But when I consider these ideas in regard to God, I must consider them as objects of his will, which can alone constitute right or wrong, though they may sometimes not quadrate with the notions that we form of justice amongst one another, and which are only prudent rules for our own separate convenience, and take in no part of the creation but ourselves. We cannot enter into the rationale of Godís punishing all mankind for the sin of their first parents, which they could not help; nor for his punishing all Israel with a pestilence for the private sin of David, which, without doubt, many of them condemned; nor for his bringing plagues upon the Egyptians, because he had hardened Pharaohís heart; no more than for his destroying all mankind at the Deluge, for crimes which he could have prevented; and multitudes of the like instances in Holy Writ besides, which we cannot account for by our weak reasonings (which have for their object only our own advantage). But we are very sure that these things were done, and rightly done; and all conduced to some superior, wise, and just end. Almighty God judges of the whole of things, and we only of them as they regard ourselves: The whole system of the universe is his care; and all other inferior beings must be subordinate to the interests of this great one, must all contribute, in their several stations and actions, to bring about at last the grand purposes of his providence. Infinite millions of animals are born with the morning sun, and probably see old age, and feel the pangs of death, before noon: Great numbers of them by their death preserve life, or give convenience to others who otherwise could not live at all, or must live upon very ill terms. Vegetables rise, grow, decay, die again, and get a new resurrection in other shapes. All nature is in perpetual rotation, and working through a thousand revolutions to its last period, and the consummation of all things, when its great author will know how to make all individuals recompence for the evils which they have suffered here, and perhaps give us faculties to know, admire, and glorify his conduct, in those instances which may seem most mysterious to our narrow capacities in this frail state.

But this general and comprehensive system of the universe, this honourable conception of the deity, acquiescence in, and submission to his will, will not square with the interests of particular societies of men, who think themselves concerned to find out a system for themselves alone; and therefore, to avoid those consequences (which I can see no purposes of religion served in avoiding) they compliment away his power, prescience and general providence, to do respect to the notions which they have pleased to conceive of his justice, which they have thought fit to measure by their own interests, or what they think best for themselves. They first determine what they desire to have; then call it just, and immediately interest heaven to bring it about; and finding that it contradicts the experience of mankind, and all the notions that they can conceive of the workings of providence, and the nature of things themselves (which always operate from cause to effect) they set themselves to work to form a new scheme at the expence of denying all that they see or can know.

In order to this, they have made man the primum mobile, and his mind the first principle or spring of all his actions, independent of the author of his being, and of all the second causes which evidently influence and concur to determine his resolutions and his actions. They say, that Almighty God (who has infinite justice and power) having given to mankind a rule to act by, and annexed rewards or menaces to the observance or non-observance of this rule, has given a free uncontrolled, and impartial liberty to him to determine, without being coerced or restrained by any other power to do, or not to do an action, or to choose good or evil to himself: His justice, they say, obliges him to this conduct, and his power enables him to execute and bring it to pass; and so by affecting to do right to one attribute of his, which they cannot understand, and which they may possibly mistake, by supposing it to be different from his will (which alone, as has been said, can constitute right or wrong) they take away and rob him of all or most of the rest.

His prescience or knowledge (from all eternity) of every event which does or can happen in the universe, is denied at once; for whatever is contingent in its own nature, and may or may not happen, cannot be foreseen: for when any being sees that a thing will be, it must be; for it is impossible to know that any event will come to pass, that may not come to pass; and it is equally impossible to foresee an effect, without knowing the causes which produce it. It is no irreverence to the Supreme Being, to say, that he cannot do impossibilities, and know things which cannot be known; and it is certain he must know all things that can be known, because they depend upon his will.

It reflects upon his wisdom or power: Upon the first, as supposing that he desires or intends to bring any designs or purposes to pass, and yet that he has not chosen the proper methods to attain them; or upon the latter, that he cannot attain them if he would: It entrenches upon his providence and government of the universe, by giving part of his power out of his own hands, and by leaving it to the discretion of inferior and weak beings, to contradict himself, and disappoint his intentions: And even his justice itself, to which all the rest are so freely sacrificed, is attacked upon such reasons, in charging Almighty God with severity in punishing crimes committed through weakness, want, or predominant appetites, and which he could have prevented by giving others. I do not see what has been, or can be said to these objections more, than that we are not to reason upon the proceedings of providence, which acts upon motives and maxims far above us, and which are not to be scanned by our little rules and scanty capacities; and if these gentlemen could but be persuaded to reason thus at first, they would save themselves the trouble of solving perpetual contradictions.

For what can be more evident, than that the actions of man, which seem most spontaneous and free, depend upon his will to do them; and that that will is directed by his reasoning faculties, which depend again upon the good or ill organizations of his body, upon his complexion, the nature of his education, imbibed prejudices, state of health, predominant passions, manner of life, fortuitous reasonings with others, different kinds of diet, and upon the thousands of events, seeming accidents, and the perpetual objects which encompass him, and which every day vary and offer themselves differently to him; all or most of which causes, and many more which probably determine him, must be confessed to be out of his power? Constant experience shews us, that men differently constituted, or differently educated, will reason differently, and the same men in different circumstances. A man will have different sentiments about the same things, in youth, in middle age, and in dotage, in sickness and in health, in liquor and sobriety, in wealth and in poverty, in power and out of it; and the faculties of the mind are visibly altered by physick, exercise, or diet.

The same reason which is convincing to one man, appears ridiculous to another, and to the same man at different times; and consequently, his or their actions, which are results of those reasonings, will be different: And we not only all confess this, by endeavouring to work upon one another by these mediums, but heaven thinks fit to choose the same; for what else can be meant by offering rewards and denouncing punishments, but as causes to produce the effects designed, that is, to save those whom Almighty God in his deep wisdom has preordained to bliss, and to be influenced by those motives? We all confess, that no man can do his duty without the grace of God, and whoever has the grace of God will do his duty. It is undoubtedly to be obtained by prayer, but we must have grace to pray for it; and I am not insensible that Almighty God does any other way give his grace, but by offering to us, or by laying in our way sufficient inducements to obey his will: I am sure that I can find none else in myself, or discover them in others, whatever the enthusiastick and visionary gentlemen may do. I doubt much, that what they call grace, is what I call enthusiasm, or a strong conceit or persuasion of their own godliness and communication with the deity.

What sort of reasoning then is this, to say, that heaven gives every man sufficient power and motives to choose the best, which yet prove insufficient; that he has made every man free to act or not to act by a rule, and yet has placed him in such a situation as to find a thousand obstacles in his way to that freedom; and that he has given him a judgment capable to determine right, and opportunities rightly to exercise that judgment; yet by making use of that judgment and those opportunities, he often judges directly contrary: And all this is to make good a system, as yet owned but by a very small part of mankind, and for which I can find no foundation in reason and scripture?

I must beg leave to think it very audacious in a small number of men, to determine the workings of providence by their own narrow schemes, at the expence too of the opinions and reasonings of the greatest part of the world in all ages. All or most of the sects of philosophers in Greece and Rome, held fate or necessity, as the several sects among the Jews did, except the Essenes, a very small sect indeed, not exceeding some few thousands. The Mahometans, throí the world, hold predestination: The Calvinists, and some other Protestant sects, hold it now; and I do not understand the articles of the Church of England, if it be not the orthodox opinion amongst us; and it certainly was held to be so, till a few doctors in King Jamesí and Charles Iís time advanced the contrary system, and who, in the addresses of Parliament, were always, in those reigns, ranked with the papists for doing so; and it is yet undoubtedly the opinion of the common people through the world. However, I do not condemn any one who may think that this is derogatory to the attributes of God, for offering in a modest manner, his reasons against any dogma ever so well established (which I think is the right of all mankind); yet I could wish that he would shew the same modesty, in giving other people their liberty of defending the contrary opinion with the same good intentions.

The most pregnant and usual objection against this doctrine is, that if men are predestinated to eternal bliss or misery, their own endeavours are useless, and they can have no motives to prefer good before evil; which I confess, will always be the reasonings of men who are predestinated to the latter (if it be possible to suppose that there can be any such); but those who are determined to the first, will always believe, that God takes proper means to attain his ends, and that he designs to save men by the medium of good works, and of obeying his will; and this conviction will be an adequate cause to produce such obedience in those who are destined to happiness. If the end be predestinated, the means must be predestinated too. If a man [is] to die in war, he must meet an enemy; if he [is] to be drowned, he must come within the reach of water; or if he [is] to be starved, he must not know how to come at any victuals, or have no mind to eat them, or stomach to digest them.

For my own part, I dare not believe, that the all-good, all-wise, and most merciful God, has determined any of his creatures to endless misery, by creating and forming them with such appetites and passions as naturally and necessarily produce it; though I think it to be fully consistent with his power, goodness, and justice, to give inclinations which may lead and entitle us to happiness. And, as I conceive that there is nothing in the holy scriptures which expressly decides this difficulty, as I may possibly shew hereafter; so I shall not presume to search too narrowly into the secret dispensations of providence, or to pronounce any thing dogmatically concerning his manner of governing the universe, more than that he cannot make his creatures miserable without just and adequate reasons. And therefore, since we find in fact, that many of them are so in this state, we must account for this, but mediums agreeable to his indisputed attributes, or own that we cannot account for it at all, though it be unquestionably just in itself. All means will probably conduce in the end to impartial and universal good; and whatever, or how many states soever of probation we may pass through, yet I hope, that the mercies of God, and the merits of Jesus Christ, will at last exceed and preponderate the frailties, mistakes, and temporary trangressions of weak and mortal men; all which I shall endeavour, in time, to shew from scripture and reason: The former of which, in my opinion, is too generally mistaken or perverted, to signify what it does not intend; by straining some passages beyond their literal and genuine signification, by explaining others too literally, and by not making due allowances to the manner of speaking used amongst the eastern nations, which was very often, if not most commonly, in hyperboles, and other figures and allegories. But more of this hereafter; when I dare promise to deserve the pardon of every candid person, whom I cannot convince.

T I am, &c.


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