SOME of the readers of the former edition of this work, whilst they have admitted the exalted view of the Creator, which arises from considering his will as the development of laws of unbounded generality, have expressed regret that those views appeared to them, in some measure, to imply that we are less immediately the objects of his protecting care, — that he seems thus less constantly and less directly, our watchful Guardian and Protector. [141/142]

This difficulty ultimately resolves itself into that of the reconciling foreknowledge with freewill. Without, however, entering at present on that abstruse discussion, there are some reflections which may at least afford a partial reply to the objection stated above.

In reverting to the first origin of our knowledge of the motives and feelings of those around us, we must necessarily look into our own hearts. When we exercise that feeling which is called kindness or benevolence, we are conscious that we make some exertion, or some sacrifice, to add to the happiness of another person, without ourselves expecting to derive any advantage in return. When we observe other persons making similar exertions or sacrifices, and when we can discover no possibility of their deriving advantage from them, except that interior feeling of happiness which always arises from the exercise of such good offices, we conclude that they are actuated by the same feeling of kindness or benevolence. [142/143] In the first case we are conscious of the existence of that feeling within our own bosoms; in the second we infer that it exists in others, from the similarity of human actions under the same apparent circumstances.

The reasoning which leads us to ascribe the attribute of benevolence to the Creator, is of precisely the same kind, although the infinity of this, as of his other attributes, can bear no comparison to the finite extent of those of other beings. Since however it is by such reasoning only that we attain the knowledge of them, so, if there arise a question about the comparative amount of any of those attributes when exerted in one way rather than in another, we must apply to such cases the same reasoning.

The inference from which the objection has arisen, is that the superintendence of Providence is remote, not immediate; the answer that I shall endeavour to make to it is, that [144] the value of benevolence is not diminished by the distance of time at which its exertion arises.

In order to examine this question of immediate or remote superintendence, let us imagine a case occurring amongst our fellow-creatures, and let us endeavour to ascertain the conclusion we should form with regard to it.

Let us suppose the wealthy resident near a small village, returning from the neighbouring town, to have observed from a distance that the bridge across a rapid stream has been carried away by a flood, and that the blind postman who makes his daily journey along the causeway to the neighbouring town, unconscious of what has happened, is just approaching the torrent. Setting spurs to his horse, he dashes forward, and clearing the broken bridge, has just time to alight and patch the postman on the verge of destruction. [145] Such conduct is an example of kindness or benevolence, and would receive the praise it justly merits.

Let us now suppose another village, — another stream,—and another postman starting, like the former one, at an early hour, before the villagers are abroad. We will imagine too the wealthy resident near this other village to have been out on the preceding day amongst the distant mountains, from which the torrent which passes the village is fed; and that observing the quantity of rain which has fallen in those parts, he foresees that the resulting flood will in all probability destroy the bridge across that stream; and knowing from his experience that several hours must elapse before the rain which falls in the mountains produces its full effect on the stream in his neighbourhood, he sends off one of his attendants in time to reach the broken bridge just before the moment when the stream [147/148] would be crossed by the unsuspecting traveller, who is thus saved from death,

Undoubtedly this is benevolence. And although we may not infer, that the benevolence in the latter, was greater than in the former case, yet it cannot for a moment be maintained to be less. In fact, the first case was one of benevolence excited by feeling; in the second it was benevolence called forth by reflection, and aided and reduced to action by reasoning founded upon knowledge. The sportsman in the mountains who thus reasoned, would not have been less active had he been on the spot at the dangerous moment. But he who by his personal exertion preserved the blind man, although of an equally benevolent heart, might not have possessed the knowledge available for the safety of the postman, had he been at a distance from the spot on which his effort was successful.

Two inferences are connected with this imagined case.

1st, That the benevolence which organizes beforehand contrivances for the advantage or security of its objects, is at least as high as that which acts from the impulse of immediate feeling.

2d, That the benevolence which is guided by knowledge, even though, as a feeling, it may not be superior in intensity, is often of far more value to those' who are its subjects.

Such are the decisions we should arrive at respecting human, feelings and human knowledge; and applying the same principles instead of looking with any feelings of doubt or apprehension at the distance of time at which it may have pleased the Creator to have organized eur protection from danger, we ought, when once convinced of his benevolence, to discover in that very distance, proof of his higher knowledge and higher power, and with every addition to those attributes, to feel ourselves under still more potent and unintermitted watchfulness.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian Science Next

13 December 2008