The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 10/On mutual Subjection

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A

SERMON

ON

MUTUAL SUBJECTION.

(First printed in 1744.)


I ST. PETER, V. 5.

——Yea, all of you be subject one to another.

THE apostle having in many parts of this epistle given directions to Christians concerning the duty of subjection or obedience to superiours; in the several instances of the subject to the prince, the child to his parent, the servant to his master, the wife to her husband, and the younger to the elder; doth here, in the words of my text, sum up the whole, by advancing a point of doctrine, which at first may appear a little extraordinary; "Yea, all of you," saith he, "be subject one to another." For it should seem, that two persons cannot properly be said to be subject to each other, and that subjection is only due from inferiours to those above them: yet St. Paul hath several passages to the same purpose. For he exhorts the Romans, "in honour to prefer one another;" and the Philippians, "that in lowliness of mind they should each esteem other better than themselves;" and the Ephesians, "that they should submit themselves one to another in the fear of the "Lord." Here we find these two great apostles recommending to all Christians this duty of mutual subjection. For we may observe by St. Peter, that having mentioned the several relations which men bear to each other, as governor and subject, master and servant, and the rest which I have already repeated, he makes no exception, but sums up the whole with commanding "all to be subject one to another." Whence we may conclude, that this subjection due from all men to all men, is something more than the compliment of course, when our betters are pleased to tell us they are our humble servants, but understand us to be their slaves.

I know very well, that some of those who explain this text apply it to humility, to the duties of charity, to private exhortations, and, to bearing with each other's infirmities; and it is probable the apostle may have had a regard to all these. But, however, many learned men agree, that there is something more understood, and so the words in their plain natural meaning must import; as you will observe yourselves, if you read them with the beginning of the verse, which is thus; "Likewise ye younger submit yourselves unto the elder; yea, all of you be subject one to another." So that, upon the whole, there must be some kind of subjection due from every man to every man, which cannot be made void by any power, preeminence, or authority whatsoever. Now what sort of subjection this is, and how it ought to be paid, shall be the subject of my present discourse.

As God hath contrived all the works of nature to be useful, and in some manner a support to each other, by which the whole frame of the world, under his providence, is preserved and kept up; so among mankind our particular stations are appointed to each of us by God Almighty, wherein we are obliged to act, as far as our power reacheth, toward the good of the whole community. And he who doth not perform that part assigned him toward advancing the benefit of the whole, in proportion to his opportunities and abilities, is not only a useless, but a very mischievous member of the publick: because he takes his share of the profit, and yet leaves his share of the burden to be born by others, which is the true principal cause of most miseries and misfortunes in life. For a wise man, who does not assist with his counsels; a great man, with his protection; a rich man, with his bounty and charity; and a poor man, with his labour; are perfect nuisances in a commonwealth. Neither is any condition of life more honourable in the sight of God than another; otherwise he would be a respecter of persons, which he assures us he is not: for he hath proposed the same salvation to all men, and hath only placed them in different ways or stations to work it out. Princes are born with no more advantages of strength or wisdom, than other men; and, by an unhappy education, are usually more defective in both, than thousands of their subjects. They depend for every necessary of life upon the meanest of their people: besides, obedience and subjection were never enjoined by God to humour the passions, lusts, and vanities of those who demand them from us; but we are commanded to obey our governours, because disobedience would breed seditions in the state. Thus servants are directed to obey their masters, children their parents, and wives their husbands; not from any respect of persons in God, but because otherwise there would be nothing but confusion in private families. This matter will be clearly explained, by considering the comparison which St. Paul makes between the church of Christ, and the body of man: for the same resemblance will hold, not only to families and kingdoms, but to the whole corporation of mankind. "The eye," saith he, "cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the hand to the foot, I have no need of thee. Nay, much more, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it." The case is directly the same among mankind. The prince cannot say to the merchant, I have no need of thee; nor the merchant to the labourer, I have no need of thee. Nay, much more those members, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary. For the poor are generally more necessary members of the commonwealth than the rich: which clearly shows, that God never intended such possessions for the sake and service of those to whom he lends them; but because he hath assigned every man his particular station to be useful in life, and this for the reason given by the apostle, "that there may be no schism in the body."

From hence may partly be gathered the nature of that subjection, which we all owe to one another. God Almighty hath been pleased to put us into an imperfect state, where we have perpetual occasion of each other's assistance. There is none so low, as not to be in a capacity of assisting the highest; nor so high, as not to want the assistance of the lowest.

It plainly appears from what hath been said, that no one human creature is more worthy than another in the sight of God, farther than according to the goodness or holiness of their lives; and that power, wealth, and the like outward advantages, are so far from being the marks of God's approving or preferring those on whom they are bestowed, that, on the contrary, he is pleased to suffer them to be almost engrossed by those who have least title to his favour. Now, according to this equality wherein God hath placed all mankind with relation to himself, you will observe, that in all the relations between man and man, there is a mutual dependence, whereby the one cannot subsist without the other. Thus, no man can be a prince without subjects, nor a master without servants, nor a father without children. And this both explains and confirms the doctrine of the text: for where there is a mutual dependence there must be a mutual duty, and consequently a mutual subjection. For instance, the subject must obey his prince, because God commands it, human laws require it, and the safety of the publick makes it necessary; for the same reasons we must obey all that are in authority, and submit ourselves not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward, whether they rule according to our liking or not. On the other side, in those countries that pretend to freedom, princes are subject to those laws which their people have chosen; they are bound to protect their subjects in liberty, property, and religion, to receive their petitions, and redress their grievances: so that the best prince is, in the opinion of wise men, only the greatest servant of the nation; not only a servant to the publick in general, but in some sort to every man in it. In the like manner, a servant owes obedience, and diligence, and faithfulness to his master; from whom at the same time he hath a just demand for protection, and maintenance, and gentle treatment. Nay, even the poor beggar hath a just demand of an alms from the rich man; who is guilty of fraud, injustice, and oppression, if he does not afford relief according to his abilities.

But this subjection we all owe one another, is no where mere necessary than in the common conversations of life; for without it there could be no society among men. If the learned would not sometimes submit to the ignorant, the wise to the simple, the gentle to the froward, the old to the weaknesses of the young, there would be nothing but everlasting variance in the world. This our Saviour himself confirmed by his own example; for he appeared in the form of a servant, and washed his disciples feet, adding those memorable words, "Ye call me Lord and Master, and ye say well, for so I am. If I then your Lord and Master wash your feet, how much more ought ye to wash one another's feet?" Under which expression of washing the feet, is included all that subjection, assistance, love, and duty, which every good Christian ought to pay his brother, in whatever station God hath placed him. For the greatest prince, and the meanest slave, are not, by infinite degrees so distant, as our Saviour and those disciples, whose feet he vouchsafed to wash.

And although this doctrine of subjecting ourselves to one another may seem to grate upon the pride and vanity of mankind, and may therefore be hard to be digested by those who value themselves upon their greatness or their wealth: yet it is really no more than what most men practise upon other occasions. For, if our neighbour who is our inferiour comes to see us, we rise to receive him, we place him above us, and respect him as if he were better than ourselves; and this is thought both decent and necessary, and is usually called good manners. Now the duty required by the apostle, is only, that we should enlarge our minds, and that what we thus practise in the common course of life, we should imitate in all our actions and proceedings whatsoever; since our Saviour tells us, that every man is our neighbour, and since we are so ready in the point of civility to yield to others in our own houses, where only we have any title to govern.

Having thus shown you, what sort of subjection it is, which all men owe one another, and in what manner it ought to be paid, I shall now draw some observations from what hath been said.

And first; A thorough practice of this duty of subjecting ourselves to the wants and infirmities of each other, would utterly extinguish in us the vice of pride.

For, if God has pleased to intrust me with a talent, not for my own sake, but for the service of others, and at the same time hath left me full of wants and necessities, which others must supply; I can then have no cause to set any extraordinary value upon myself, or to despise my brother, because he hath not the same talents which were lent to me. His being may probably be as useful to the publick, as mine; and therefore, by the rules of right reason, I am in no sort preferable to him.

Secondly; 'Tis very manifest from what has been said, that no man ought to look upon the advantages of life, such as riches, honour, power, and the like, as his property, but merely as a trust, which God hath deposited with him to be employed for the use of his brethren; and God will certainly punish the breach of that trust, though the laws of man will not, or rather indeed cannot; because the trust was conferred only by God, who has not left it to any power on earth to decide infallibly, whether a man makes a good use of his talents or not, or to punish him where he fails. And therefore God seems to have more particularly taken this matter into his own hands, and will most certainly reward, or punish us, in proportion to our good, or ill performance in it. Now, although the advantages, which one possesseth more than another, may in some sense be called his property with respect to other men, yet with respect to God they are, as I said, only a trust; which will plainly appear from hence: if a man does not use those advantages to the good of the publick, or the benefit of his neighbour, it is certain he doth not deserve them, and consequently that God never intended them for a blessing to him; and on the other side, whoever does employ his talents as he ought, will find, by his own experience, that they were chiefly lent him for the service of others; for, to the service of others he will certainly employ them.

Thirdly, if we could all be brought to practise this duty of subjecting ourselves to each other, it would very much contribute to the general happiness of mankind: for this would root out envy and malice from the heart of man; because you cannot envy your neighbour's strength, if he make use of it to defend your life, or carry your burden: you cannot envy his wisdom, if he gives you good counsel; nor his riches if he supplies you in your wants; nor his greatness, if he employs it to your protection. The miseries of life are not properly owing to the unequal distribution of things; but God Almighty, the great King of Heaven, is treated like the kings of the earth, who, although perhaps intending well themselves, have often most abominable ministers and stewards, and those generally the vilest, to whom they intrust the most talents. But here is the difference, that the princes of this world see by other men's eyes, but God sees all things; and therefore, whenever he permits his blessings to be dealt among those who are unworthy, we may certainly conclude, that he intends them only as a punishment to an evil world, as well as to the owners. It were well, if those would consider this, whose riches serve them only as a spur to avarice, or as an instrument to their lusts; whose wisdom is only of this world, to put false colours upon things, to call good evil, and evil good, against the conviction of their own consciences; and lastly, who employ their power and favour in acts of oppression or injustice, in misrepresenting persons and things, or in countenancing the wicked, to the ruin of the innocent.

Fourthly, The practice of this duty of being subject to one another, would make us rest contented in the several stations of life, wherein God hath thought fit to place us; because it would, in the best and easiest manner, bring us back as it were to that early state of the Gospel, when Christians had all things in common. For, if the poor found the rich disposed to supply their wants; if the ignorant found the wise ready to instruct and direct them; or if the weak might always find protection from the mighty; they could none of them, with the least pretence of justice, lament their own condition.

From all that hath been hitherto said, it appears, that great abilities of any sort, when they are employed as God directs do but make the owners of them greater and more painful servants to their neighbour, and the publick: however, we are by no means to conclude from hence, that they are not really blessings, when they are in the hands of good men. For, first, what can be a greater honour than to be chosen one of the stewards and dispensers of God's bounty to mankind? What is there that can give a generous spirit more pleasure and complacency of mind, than to consider, that he is an instrument of doing much good? that great numbers owe to him, under God, their subsistence, their safety, their health, and the good conduct of their lives? The wickedest man upon earth takes a pleasure in doing good to those he loves; and therefore surely a good Christian, who obeys our Saviour's commands of loving all men, cannot but take delight in doing good even to his enemies. God, who gives all things to all men, can receive nothing from any; and those among men, who do the most good, and receive the fewest returns, do most resemble the Creator: for which reason St. Paul delivers it as a saying of our Saviour, that, "it is more blessed to give than receive". By this rule, what must become of those things, which the world values as the greatest blessings, riches, power, and the like, when our Saviour plainly determines, that the best way to make them blessings is to part with them? Therefore, although the advantages, which one man hath over another, may be called blessings, yet they are by no means so in the sense the world usually understands. Thus, for example, great riches are no blessings in themselves: because the poor man with the common necessaries of life enjoys more health, and has fewer cares without them: how then do they become blessings? No otherwise than by being employed in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rewarding worthy men, and in short, doing acts of charity and generosity. Thus likewise, power is no blessing in itself, because private men bear less envy, and trouble, and anguish without it. But when it is employed to protect the innocent, to relieve the oppressed, and to punish the oppressor, then it becomes a great blessing.

And so, lastly, even great wisdom is, in the opinion of Solomon, not a blessing in itself: for "in much wisdom is much sorrow"; and men of common understanding, if they serve God, and mind their callings, make fewer mistakes in the conduct of life, than those who have better heads. And yet wisdom is a mighty blessing, when it is applied to good purposes, to instruct the ignorant, to be a faithful counsellor either in publick or private, to be a director to youth, and to many other ends needless here to mention.

To conclude: God sent us into the world to obey his commands, by doing as much good, as our abilities will reach, and as little evil, as our many infirmities will permit. Some he hath only trusted with one talent, some with five, and some with ten. No man is without his talent; and he that is faithful or negligent in a little, shall be rewarded or punished, as well as he that hath been so in a great deal.

Consider what hath been said, &c.