Who has not felt the painful memory of departed folly? who has not at times found crowding on his recollection, thoughts, feelings, scenes, by all perhaps but himself forgotten, which force themselves involuntarily on his attention? Who has not reproached himself with the bitterest regret at the follies he has thought, or said, or acted? Time brings no alleviation to these periods of morbid memory: the weaknesses of our youthful days, as well as those of later life, come equally [159/160] unbidden and unarranged, to mock our attention and claim their condemnation from our severer judgment.
It is remarkable that those whom the world least accuses, accuse themselves the most; and that a foolish speech, which at the time of its utterance was unobserved as such by all who heard it, shall yet remain fixed in the memory of him who pronounced it, with a tenacity which he vainly seeks to communicate to more agreeable subjects of reflection. It is also remarkable that whilst our own foibles, or our imagined exposure of them to others, furnish the most frequent subject of almost nightly regret, yet we rarely call to recollection our acts of consideration for the feelings of others, or those of kindness and benevolence. These are not the familiar friends of our memory, ready at all times to enter the domicile of mind its welcome but unbidden guests. When they appear, they are usually summoned at the command of reason, to meet some [160/161] expected ingratitude, or when the mind retires within its council chamber to nerve itself for the endurance or the resistance of injustice.
If such be the pain, the penalty of thoughtless folly, who shall describe the punishment of real guilt? Make but the offender better, and he is already severely punished. Memory, that treacherous friend but faithful monitor, recalls the existence of the past, to a mind now imbued with finer feelings, with sterner notions of justice than when it enacted the deeds thus punished by their recollection.
If additional knowledge be given to us, the consequences of many of our actions appear in a very altered light. We become acquainted with many evils they have produced, which, although quite unintentional on our part, are yet subjects of painful regret. But this unavailing regret is mixed with another feeling far more distressing. We reproach ourselves with not having sufficiently employed the faculties we [161/162] possessed in acquiring that knowledge, which, if we had attained it, would have prevented us from committing acts we now discover to have been injurious to those we best loved.
On the other hand, the good which such increased knowledge enables us to discover that we have unintentionally done, fails to produce the satisfaction always arising from a virtuous motive; and it is accompanied by the regret that, by a sufficient cultivation of our faculties, we might have enjoyed a still higher gratification, by a more efficient service to our fellow-creatures.
Thus, on whichsoever side we look at the question, knowledge alone is advantageous to virtue; and if additional knowledge alone were given in a future life, it would cause the best of us to regret the errors of the present.
Let us now consider the consequences of a higher tone of moral feeling—of a perception [162/163] of excellencies of character in others, hitherto unappreciated.
Without the torment arising from additional knowledge, we may, in such circumstances, perceive, that the pain we have inflicted for imagined offences was quite beyond their real deserts; and may feel that the justice we have done to others, has been quite disproportioned to the sacrifices they have made to serve us.
If, without any addition to our intellectual faculties, increased perfection were given to our bodily senses, the same result would ensue. Wollaston has shown, that there are sounds of such a nature, that they can be heard by some individuals, but are inaudible to others,—a circumstance which may arise either from the incapacity of the parts of the ear to vibrate in the same time as those producing the sound, or from the force of the sounding body being insufficient to communicate motion through the [163/164] air to those portions of the ear whose movement is required to produce the sensation of hearing.
If we imagine the soul in an after stage of our existence, to be connected with a bodily organ of hearing so sensitive, as to vibrate with motions of the air, even of infinitesimal force, and if it be still within the precincts of its ancient abode, all the accumulated words pronounced from the creation of mankind, will fall at once upon that ear. Imagine, in addition, a power of directing the attention of that organ entirely to any one class of those vibrations: then will the apparent confusion vanish at once; and the punished offender may hear still vibrating on his ear the very words uttered, perhaps, thousands of centuries before, which at once caused and registered his own condemnation.
It seems, then, that either with improved faculties or with increased knowledge, we could scarcely look back with any satisfaction on our [164/165] past lives;—that, to the major part of our race, oblivion would be the greatest boon. But if, in a future state, we could turn from the contemplation of our own imperfections, and with increased powers apply our minds to the discovery of nature's laws, and to the invention of new methods by which our faculties might be aided in that research, pleasure the most unalloyed would await us at every stage of our progress. Unclogged by the dull corporeal load of matter which tyrannizes even over our most intellectual moments, and chains the ardent spirit to its unkindred clay, we should advance in the pursuit, stimulated instead of wearied by our past exertions, and encountering each new difficulty in the inquiry, with the accumulated power derived from the experience of the past, and the irresistible energy resulting from the confidence of ultimate success.
Whether, then, we regard our future prospects as connected with afar higher acuteness of our present senses—or, as purified by more [165/166] exalted moral feelings—or, as guided by intellectual power surpassing all we contemplate upon earth, we equally arrive at the conclusion, that the mere employment of such enlarged faculties, in surveying our past existence, will be an ample punishment for all our errors; whilst, on the other hand, if that Being who assigned to us those faculties, should turn their application from the survey of the past, to the inquiry into the present and to the search into the future, the most enduring happiness would arise from the most inexhaustible source.
13 December 2008