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CHAP. IV.–Of Authority, of the Abuse of it, and of its
real and proper Use and Service. THE influence which other persons have upon our opinions, is usually called authority. The power of it is so great and widely extensive, that there is scarcely any person in the world entirely free from the impression of it, even after their utmost watchfuloess and care to avoid it. Our parents and tutors, yea our very nurses determine a multitude of our sentiments; our friends, our neighbours, the custom of the country where we dwell, and the established opinions of mankind, form our belief; the great, the pious, the learned, and the ancient, the king, the priest, and the philosopher, are characters of mighty efficacy to persuade us to receive what they dictate. These may be ranked under different heads of prejudice, but they are all of a kindred valure, and may be reduced to this one spring or head of authority.
I have treated of these particularly in Logic, Part II. Chap. III. Sec. 4th. Yet a few other remarks occurring among my papers, I thought it not improper to let them find a place here.
Cicero was well acquainted with the unhappy influences of authority, and complains of it in the first book De natura Deorum. - In disputes and controversies (says he) it is not so much the author, or patron of any opinion, as the weight and force of argument, which should influence the mind. The authority of those who teach, is a frequent hindrance to those who learn, be. cause they utterly neglect to exercise their own judgment, taking for granted whatsoever others whom they reverence have judged for them. I can by no means approve, what we learn from the Pythagoreans, that if any thing asserted in disputation was ques. tioned they were wont to answer, Ipse dixit, that is, He biinself said so, meaning Pythagoras. So far did prejudice prevail, that authority without reason was sufficient to determine disputes and to establish truth.” All buian authority, though it be ever su ancient, though it bath had universal sovereignty, and swayed all the learned and the vulgar world for some thousands of years, yet has no certain and undoubted claim to truth : nor is it any violation of good manners, to enter a caveat with due decency against its pretended dominion. What is there among all the sciences that has been longer established and more universally received ever since the days of Aristotle, and perhaps for ages before he lived, than this, that “ all heavy bodies whatsoever tend towards the centre of the earth ?” But Sir Isaac Newton has found that those bulky and weighty bodies, the earth and all the planets tend toward the centre of the sun, whereby, the authority of near three thousand years or more is not only called in question, but actually refuted and renounced..
Again, Was ever any thing more universally agreed among the nation of the poets and critics, than that Homer and Virgil are inimitable writers of heroic poems? And whosoever presumed to attack their writings or their reputation, was either condemned for his malice or derided for his folly. These ancient authors have been supposed to derive peculiar advantages to aggrandize their verses from the heathen theology, and that variety of appearances in which they could represent their gods, and mingle them with the affairs of men ; yet within these few years Sir Richard Blackmore, (whose prefaces are universally esteemed superior in their kind to any of his poems) has ventured to pronounce some poble truths in ibat excellent preface to his poem called Alfred, and has bravely demonstrated there, beyond all possible exception, that both Virgil and Homer are often guilty of very gross blunders, indecencies and shameful improprieties? and that they were so far from deriving any advantage from the rabble of heathen gods, that their theology almost unavoidably exposed them to many of those blunders; and that it is not possible upon the foot of Gentile superstition, to write a perfect epic poern; whereas the sacred religion of the bible, would furnish a poem with much more just and glorious scenes and a pobler machinery.
Mr. Dennis also had made it appear in his essays some years before, that there were no images so sublime in the brightest of the heathen writers, as those with which we are furnished in the poetic parts of the holy scripture; and Rapin, the French critic, dared to profess the same sentiments, notwithstanding the world of poets and critics had so universally and unanimously exalted the heathen writers to the sovereignty for so many ages. If we would find out the truth in many cases, we must dare to deviate from the long-beaten track, and venture to think with a just and unbiassed liberty.
Though it be necessary to guard against the evil infuences of authority, and the prejudices derived thence, because it has introduced thousands of errors and mischiefs into the world, yet there are three eminent and remarkable cases wherein authority, or the sentiments of other persons, must or will determine the judgments and practice of mankind :
I. Parents are appointed to judge for their children in their younger years, and to instruct them what they should believe, and what they should practise in the civil and religious life. This is a dictate of nalure, and doubtless it would have been so in a state of innocence. It is impossible that children should be capable of judging for themselves before their minds are furnished with a competent puinber of ideas, before they are acquainted with any principles and rules of just judgment, and before their reason is grown up to any degrees of maturity and proper exercises upon such subjects.
I will not say, that a child ought to believe nonsense and impossibility, because his father bids him ; for so far as the impossibility appears, he cannot believe it ; nor will I say, he ought to assent to all the false opinions of his parents, or to practise idolatry and murder, or mischief, at their command; yet a child knows not any better way to find out what he should believe and what he should practise, before he can possibly judge for himself, than to run to his parents, and receive their sentiments and their directions.
You will say, This is hard indeed, that the child of a hea. then idolater, or a cruel cannibal, is laid under a sort of necessity by nature of sinning against the light of nature. I grant it is hard indeed, but it is only owing to our original fall and apostacy : the law of nature continues as it was in innocence, namely, that a parent should judge for his child; but, if the parent judges ill, the child is greatly exposed by it, through that universal disorder that is brouglit into the world by the sin of Adam, our common father; and from the equity and goodness of God we may reasonably infer, that the great Judge of all will do right; he will balance the ignorance and incapacity of the child, with the criminal nature of the offence in those puerile instances, and will not punish beyond just demerit.
Besides, what could God, as a Creator, do better for children in their minority, than to commit them to the care and instruction of parents ; none are supposed to be so inuch cons cerned for the happiness of children as their parents are ; there. fore it is the safest step to happiness, according to the original law of creation, to follow their directions, their parents' reason acting for them, before they have reason of their own in proper exereise ; nor iudeed is there any better general rule in our fal. len state by which children are capable of being governed, though in many particular cases it may lead them far astray from virtue and happiness.
If children by providence be cast under some happier instructions, contrary to their parents' erroneous opinions, I cannot say it is the duty of such children to follow error, when tbey discero it to be error, because their father believes it ; what I said before, is to be interpreted only of those that are under the immediate care and education of their parents, and not yet arrived at year's capable of examination ; I know not how these can be freed from receiving the dictates of parental authority in their youngest years, except by immediate or divine inspiration.
It is hard to say, at what exact time of life the child is exempted from the sovereignty of parental dictates. Perhaps it is much juster to suppose, that this sovereignty diminishes by de. grees as the child grows in understanding and capacity, and is
more and more capable of exerting his own intellectual powers, than to limit this matter by inonths and years.
When childhood and youth are so far expired, that the reasoping faculties are grown up to any jast measure or maturity, it is certain that persons ought to begin to enquire into the reasons of their own faith and practice in all the affairs of life and religion ; but as reason does not arrive at this power and self-sufficiency in any single moment of time, so ihere is no siugle moment when a child should at once cast off all its former beliefs and practices; but by degrees and in slow succession be should examine them, as opportunity and advantages offer; and either confirm or doubt of, or change thein, according to the leadings of conscience and reason, with all its best advantages of information. .
, When we are arrived at manly age, there is no person on earth, no set or society of men whatsoever, that have power and authority given them by God, the Creator and governor of the world, absolutely to dictate to others their opinions or practices in the moral and religious life. God has given every man reason to judge for himself, in bigher or in lower degrees. Where less is given, less will be required. But we are justly chargeable with criminal sloth, and misimprovement of the talents with which our Creator has entrusted us, if we take all things for granted which others assert, and believe and practise all things which they dictate, without due examination.
II. Another case wherein authority must govern our assent, is in many matters of fact. Here we may and ought to be determined by the declarations or narratives of other men ; though I must confess, this is usually called testimony rather than authority. It is upon this foot, that every son or daughter among mankind are required to believe that such and such persons are their parents, for they can never be informed of it but by the dictates of others. It is by testimony that we are to believe the laws of our country, and to pay all proper deference to the prince, and to magistrates, in subordinate degrees of authority, though we did not actually see them chosen, crowned, or in. vested with their title and character. It is by testimony that we are necessitated to believe there is such a city as Canterbury or York, though perhaps we have never been at either; that there are such persons as papists at Paris and Rome, and that there are many sottish and cruel tenets in their religion. It is by testimony we believe that christianity and the books of the bible, have been faitbfully delivered down to us through many generations ; that there was such a person as Christ our Saviour, that be wrought miracles and died on the cross, that he rose again and ascended up to beaven.
The authority or testimuny of men, if they are wise and
honest, if they had full opportunities and capacities of knowing the truth, and are free from all suspicion of deceit in relating it, ought to sway our assent; especially when multitudes coucur in the same testimony, and when there are many other attending circumstances that raise the proposition which they dictate to the degree of moral certainty.
But in this very case, even in matters of fact and affairs of history, we should not too easily give in to all the dictates of tradition, and the pompous pretences to the testimony of men, till we have fairly examined the several things which are neces. sary to make up a credible testiinony, and to lay a just foundation for our belief. There are and have been so many falseloods imposed upon mankind, with specious pretences of eye and ear witnesses, that should make us wisely cautious and justly suspicious of reports, where the concurrent signs of truth do not fairly appear, and especially where the matter is of considerable importance. And the less probable the fact testified is in itself, the greater evidence may we justly demand of the veracity of that testimony on which it claims to be admitted.
III. The last case wherein uuthority most govern us is, when we are called to believe what persons under inspiration have dietated to us. This is not properly the authority of men, but of God hjinself; and we are obliged to believe what that authority asserts, though our reason at present may not be able any other way to discover the certainty or evidence of the proposition : it is enough if our faculty of reason, in its best exercise, can discover the divine authority, which has proposed it. Where doctrines of divine revelation are plainly published, together with sufficient proofs of their revelation, all mankiod are bound to receive them, though they cannot perfectly understand them; for we know that God is true, and cannot dictate falsebood.
But if these pretended dictates are directly contrary to the natural faculties of understanding and reason which God has given us, we may be well assured these dictates were never revealed to us by God himself. When persons are really influenced by authority to believe pretended mysteries, in plain opposition to reason, and yet pretend reason for what they believe, this is but a vaiu ainusement.
There is no reason whatsoever that can prove or establish any authority so firmly, as to give it power to dictate in matters of belief, what is contrary to all the dictates of our reasonable nature. God himself has dever given us any such revelations ; and I think it may be said, with reverence, he neither can por will do it, upless he changes our faculties from what they are at present. To tell us we must believe a proposition which is plainly contrary to reason, is to tell us that we must believe two