Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 5

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In the preceding chapter we have shown that the divine law, which renders mankind truly happy, and teaches the perfect way of life, was of universal application and common to all; indeed, we have so deduced it from the nature of man and shown it to be innate, written as it were on his heart and mind. But when we come to speak of Rites and Ceremonies, of those at least which in the Old Testament are declared to have been instituted for the Jews especially, and so accommodated to their state that they might be observed by the people at large, though not perhaps by every individual member of the Hebrew community, we see for certain that they do not belong to the code of the divine law, and that in themselves they contribute nothing of necessity, either to mental felicity or to virtuous life. They have reference, in fact, to the special election of the Jews; in other words, and as has been shown in our third chapter, to the mere temporal well-being of the body, and to the prosperity and peace of the Hebrew commonwealth; whence, save in connections with state-policy, they are inapplicable and of non-avail. If ordinances of this description consequently are classed in the Old Testament with the laws of God, this is only because they were instituted on the ground of revelation. But as reason, even of the most cogent kind, is not held of much account by the common run of Theologians, it will be satisfactory by the testimony of Scripture to confirm the points we have already demonstrated; and next, for the sake of greater clearness, to show both how and why ceremonies were of service in establishing and maintaining the empire of the Jews.

Isaiah has nothing more clearly expressed than that the divine law, taken absolutely, signifies that universal law which consists not in ceremonies, but in purity of life; for he calls upon his countrymen to listen to the divine law preached to them by him, which excludes feasts and sacrifices of every kind, but is comprehended in purity of soul and in virtuous action, — in succouring the helpless, &c. [Here are the noble words of the prophet, — "Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of rams, or of he-goats. Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me. Your new moons and your sabbaths and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers I will not hear. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord."]

The testimony of the Psalmist is no less remarkable, when in Psalm xl. (7, 9), addressing God, he says, — "Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened; burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required; I delight to do thy will, O my God; yea, thy law is within my heart." Here the Psalmist plainly reckons as law that only which is inscribed on his heart or mind, excluding ceremony and observance of every kind; these being mere institutions, not good of themselves, not written in the heart and understanding of man. Besides these there are other passages in Scripture which are to the same effect; but to have quoted the above two seems sufficient. That ceremony and observance, moreover, are no aids to true happiness, but that they bear upon the temporal prosperity of the State, also appears from Scripture, which for ceremonial observance promises nothing but personal benefits and sensual delights; whilst for observance of the universal divine law, it assures us of true happiness. In the whole of the five books, commonly ascribed to Moses, nothing is promised but such temporal felicities as honour, renown, victory, riches, and health. And although scattered through these five books there are many things that concern morals, they are never propounded as universal moral precepts to be observed of all men, but only as commands especially adapted to the capacity and genius of the Hebrew people, and having an especial bearing on the interests of their State alone. For example, Moses does not as doctor or prophet teach the Jews that they are to do no murder, that they are not to steal. &c., but as a legislator and prince, or magistrate; for he does not commend these precepts by an appeal to reason, but adds pains and penalties to their infraction, which may, and indeed ought, to vary according to the genius of every nation, as experience proves. The command not to commit adultery, too, has reference alone to the advantages of the commonwealth and the rights of individuals. Had he intended to enunciate a moral precept, which should have a bearing not only on the conveniences or proprieties of public and private life, but on the true happiness of all, then would he have condemned not only the outward act but the frame of mind that led or consented to it, as Christ did, who taught universal moral doctrines only (vide Matt. v. 28[1]), and this is the reason why Christ always promises spiritual rewards, not personal advantages as Moses does; for Christ, as I have said, was sent into the world not for the preservation of the temporal power of the Jews and the institution of legal formalities, but wholly and solely to teach the law of universal morality. In this view we readily understand that Christ came not to abrogate the law of Moses. He never attempted to introduce new laws into the republic; and in his moral teaching he was more careful of nothing than to distinguish between his precepts and the laws of the State. The grand cause of this solicitude appears to have been the ignorance of the Pharisees, who thought that he lived a good life who was zealous for the usages of the commonwealth or the law of Moses; which, as we have seen, bore reference only to the security and prosperity of the nation, and were not so much taught to the Hebrews as imposed upon them.

But let us return to our subject, and have recourse to, Scripture for further assurance, that for ceremonial observance nothing is promised but personal advantages, whilst for obedience to the universal moral law peace of mind is the rich reward. No one among the prophets has taught this more clearly than Isaiah. In his 58th chapter, after condemning hypocrisy, he commends charity, the lightening of heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, to cover the naked, &c. "Then," he proceeds, "shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall break into bloom, thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of the Lord shall gather about thee."[2] He next refers to the Sabbath, commending its careful observance, and as motive for doing so, promising reward in these words, "Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father, for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it." The prophet therefore for liberty bestowed and deeds of charity done promises health of mind with soundness of body in this life, and after death the glory of the Lord, whilst for ceremonials he has no higher reward to offer than security of power, temporal prosperity, and bodily well-being. In Psalms xv. and xxiv. there is no mention made of ceremonies, but only of moral precepts, for the reason that in these poems the only question is of true happiness, which is alone discussed there, although it is done in parable; for it is certain that by the holy hill of God, by his tents and the dwellers therein, we are to understand peace and purity of soul, and not the mountain of Jerusalem, nor the tabernacles of Moses, places which were not inhabited by any one, or were only served by those of the tribe of Levi. Further, all those sentences of Solomon, which I have referred to in the preceding chapter, for devotion to understanding and wisdom, promise true happiness, whereby the fear of God is at length understood, and the knowledge of God is revealed. That the Jews themselves, after the destruction of their power, were not held strictly to ceremonial observance is apparent from Jeremiah, who when he sees the desolation of Jerusalem to be imminent, and predicts it, declares that God only delights in those who know and understand that he is the Lord, who exercises loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth; and who will punish the circumcised and the uncircumcised alike, who neglect his- honour and glory (vide ix. 23, 24, 25), which is as much as if he had said that God, after the destruction of Jerusalem, would exact nothing, especially of the Jews, nor of their posterity, more than the observance of the natural law, which all mankind are bound to obey.

The New Testament amply confirms this view, for there, as has been said, moral doctrines only are taught, and for observance of these the kingdom of heaven is promised as the reward. In the New Testament, indeed, something is said of ceremonies after the gospel begins to be preached to other nations which lived under different systems of polity. Among the Jews themselves, the Pharisees remained the great sticklers for their ceremonial, retaining the whole or the greater part of it, rather, as it seems, through hostility to the new Christian sect than with any purpose or thought of being therefore particularly acceptable to God; for after the first destruction of their city, when the Jews were led captive to Babylon, as they were not then divided into sects, they forthwith neglected their ceremonies; and may indeed be said to have abandoned the whole of the law of Moses, suffering the code of their country to sink into oblivion, and beginning themselves to mix with the nations among whom they were domiciled. All this appears plainly from Esdras and Nehemiah.

It is not doubtful, therefore, that the Jews paid no more attention to the law of Moses after the destruction of their empire than they had done before its establishment; for whilst they lived among other nations, and before their departure from Egypt, they had no peculiar laws, observing no code but that of natural right, and doubtless conforming to the system of jurisprudence of the country in which they dwelt. As the patriarchs offered sacrifices to God, however, I presume that this was done to keep the flame of devotion alive in their souls, as they had been accustomed to sacrifices from the days of their youth. All, indeed, from the time of Enoch, were certainly habituated to sacrifices as the grand incentives to devotion [or means of making themselves acceptable to God]. The patriarchs, consequently, offered sacrifices to God, not in consequence of any divine command, or because taught to do so by the fundamental principles of divine or natural law, but in obedience to the uniform custom of their age; or, if they sacrificed because of any special command, this was no other than that of the law of the land in which they dwelt, and in which the same rite was observed, as we have shown in our third chapter, when speaking of Melchisedek.

And now I think I have sufficiently established my view of the significance of rites and ceremonies as regards the people on the authority of Scripture. But I have still to show in what way, and for what reason, the ceremonial of the Hebrews contributed to the establishment and support of their empire, and this I shall proceed to do as briefly as possible.

Society, a State, is not only most useful, as enabling us to live secure against the assaults of enemies, but is also advantageous, and even necessary, on many other grounds. Unless men were disposed to co-operate, to lend each other mutual assistance, the talent and the time necessary to his own convenient maintenance would be wanting to every one; for all are not alike fit for every kind of work, and no one suffices to provide everything most indispensable even to himself. The strength and the time, I say, would be wanting to him who alone and single-handed should propose to plough, sow, reap, grind, bake, brew, weave, stitch, &c., too many things to mention, but which are all most necessary to the support of life; and I have said nothing of the arts and sciences, which are all indispensable for the improvement of mankind, and for their comfort and well-being. We see those who live in a state of barbarism, and without a polity, passing miserable lives, but little raised in condition above the beasts of the field; and even they, wretched and unpolicied as they are, could not procure the few things they have without some kind of mutual assistance and co-operation. Were men constituted by nature so as to require nothing but that which right reason demands, society would require no laws, it would suffice then to teach men the true moral doctrine, to have them do of their own accord and free-will that which is truly good and useful.

But human nature is constituted very differently; all indeed strive after what they think will be advantageous to themselves, nowise, however, in accordance with the dictates of right reason, but mostly from mere desire, and swayed by those appetites and affections of the mind which never consider the future and the reasonableness of things. Hence it comes that no State could exist without authority and power at its head, and consequently without laws, which moderate or restrain human desires and passions, that were apt else to be uncontrolled. Human nature, however, will not long submit to any merely arbitrary or absolute control, and as Seneca, the tragedian, says, no one ever exercised violent authority long; moderation alone endures; for so long as men act from fear only, so long do they that which they most dislike, nor do they note the reason, the use, or the necessity of the thing done, — they have no care but to escape the penalties with which they are threatened. Men, indeed, under such a system of arbitrary control cannot but rejoice when misfortune befalls their ruler, even though they themselves should suffer with him; nay, they cannot help wishing him ill, and where they can they will not fail to inflict it. Men, again, can endure nothing less than to serve their equals, or to be governed by them. Finally, there is nothing more difficult than to take away liberties once conceded.

From these premises it follows: — First. Either that the whole community, if this were possible, should hold authority together, so that every one might be esteemed as serving himself, and none as serving his fellow; or if a few or one only be intrusted with the supreme authority, he or they ought to be something above the common level of humanity, or should at all events use every endeavour to persuade the vulgar that they are so. Secondly. The laws of the State, however constituted, should be such as that men shall be restrained, not so much by fear, as be led by the hope of some advantage which they greatly desire; for in this way every one will do his duty heartily and willingly. Lastly. Since obedience consists in this, that commands are carried out on the sole authority of the person commanding, it follows that where the authority belongs to all, and the laws are made by common consent, no one can be said to rule and no one to obey; and in a State so constituted, whether the laws are increased or diminished in severity, the people nevertheless remain equally free, seeing that it is not under the authority of another that they act, but in virtue of their own consent. It is very different where one alone possesses the supreme and absolute control; for all then is done on the sole authority of one, and unless the people have been educated in the persuasion that they are to depend entirely on the will and pleasure of the ruler, it may be difficult for him in case of necessity to institute new laws, or to abrogate privileges already conceded.

Having premised these general views, let us revert to the Hebrew Republic. The Jews, on their first exit from Egypt, being subjected to the laws of no other nation, felt themselves at liberty to institute their own system of jurisprudence, and to make new laws, to establish their authority wherever they could, and to take possession of territory whenever they were strong enough. But they never showed themselves less capable than when attempting reasonable legislation and self-government. The people were mostly barbarous in manners, every finer feeling blunted by long-continued and grievous slavery. The chief authority must therefore be intrusted to one whom all the rest should obey; one who should prescribe laws for the nation, and finally be the interpreter of his own decrees. Now Moses, more highly endowed than any of his contemporaries, as matter of course asserted, and readily obtained, this supremacy, persuading the people that he was divinely called, and proving his title to their obedience by many signs and wonders (Exod. xiv. and xix). On these grounds he based his system, and prescribed laws to the people; but he ever took especial care that they should do his bidding of their own free will, rather than from fear; a course which he was led to adopt by these two principal considerations, viz. the rebellious or contumacious temper of the people, which would not endure to be driven by fear alone, and the constant state of warfare in which by force of circumstances the Jews must live. Now for success in arms it is much more necessary to encourage the soldier by hope of honour and reward than to force him by threats of punishment to do his duty; for thus every one strives to shine by daring and magnanimity, rather than merely to escape observation or punishment by exposing himself as little as possible. Moses, therefore, was led to institute the Hebrew Republic on the basis of virtue and a divine mission, in order that the people might be induced to do their duty from devotion rather than from fear. Besides, he was abundantly bountiful in present temporal favours, and was lavish of promises for the future. Nor are his laws so severe as is often supposed, a fact of which any one may satisfy himself who carefully studies them, especially if he attends to all that is required before any one charged with an offence can be found guilty. Finally, that the people, who could not be left to the freedom of their own will, might depend entirely upon their ruler, Moses actually left nothing to the arbitrement of the Jews themselves, so long accustomed to slavery; everything was fixed by law, everything must be done in a certain definite way, depending entirely upon the will of the ruler: the Jew was not at liberty to plough, to sow, or to reap, in his own fashion, neither dared he to eat, to dress, to shave his head or his beard, to grieve or to rejoice, in short, to do any one thing, save in conformity with the orders and commands of the law. Nor was this all: he was ordered to have certain signs on his hands, on his forehead, and on the door-posts of his house, which should constantly remind him of the duty of obedience.

This, then, is the whole scope and tendency of the Hebrew ceremonial law. The people were to do nothing of themselves, but everything by the command of another. By all their actions, by all their thoughts, they were to confess that they were nothing of themselves, but the creatures of the ruler's will. From all this it clearly appears that ceremonial observances conduce in no way to true happiness, and that all those of the Old Testament, nay, the whole Law of Moses has no other purpose than the supremacy of the Jews, and consequently bears reference to nothing but mere personal advantages. As to the Christian ceremonial, such as baptism, the Lord's supper, feasts, public prayers, and the rest, if there be any more which are and always were common to the whole Christian community, supposing them to have been instituted by Christ or the apostles (and I am not quite certain that they were), still, these in themselves are nothing more than outward signs of the universal Church, not things that in any way conduce to true beatitude, or that have aught of sanctity in their nature. Wherefore I say that these ceremonies, although not instituted with a view to empire or state policy, but only in respect of the Christian society, are not generally imperative; so that he who lives alone need in no way be bound by them, as he who lives under a dominion where the Christian religion is interdicted may ignore and abstain from them all, and yet live the good life that insures true happiness. "We have an example of this in the Empire of Japan, where the Christian religion is prohibited, and the Dutch who dwell there are ordered by their East India Company's express commands to abstain from all outward religious observance. I do not deem it necessary to illustrate this matter further, though I could demonstrate its truth by many remarkable examples; indeed, it would not be difficult to deduce the principle now insisted on from the pages of the New Testament itself, but I am induced to pass these by, my mind being bent on other matters. I therefore proceed to the second subject which was proposed for discussion in this chapter, viz. of the credibility of historical narrative, and the trust to be reposed in its authors. As this is one of the subjects to be investigated by natural light, I proceed thus: —

Whoever seeks to persuade or dissuade mankind of anything which is not evident of itself, is bound to state his proposition on acknowledged grounds, and by appeals to reason and experience to satisfy those he addresses; that is to say, by reference to things that are appreciated by the senses, that happen in nature, or are comprised in self-evident intellectual axioms. But unless experience be such that it is clearly, distinctly understood, though it may convince mankind, still it cannot in the same degree affect the understanding, and disperse its clouds, as when the things taught are deduced from mathematical axioms, i.e. when they reach the mind by the sole power of the understanding. And this is especially the case when the question is of spiritual things, which do not in any way fall under the cognizance of the senses. But as, in deducing things from pure intellectual notions, a long concatenation of perceptions is mostly required, and in addition the most stringent precautions, the highest intellectual perspicacity, and the greatest reserve, all of which are rarely found in man, therefore are men more inclined to be taught by experience than to deduce and reciprocally to concatenate their perceptions from a small number of axioms; whence it follows that any one desiring to have his doctrine proposed to a nation, I do not say to the whole of the human kind, and who would be understood of all in all things, must be prepared to refer to experience for confirmation of his teaching, and be careful to accommodate his reasonings, and definitions of the things taught, to the capacity of the common people, who constitute the great mass of mankind; he must be chary in the use of concatenated reasonings, and of definitions intended the better to link his reasonings together; otherwise he will write for the learned only, in other words, he will be understood by a very small number out of the great mass of mankind.

But seeing that the whole of the Scriptures were first revealed for the use of the Hebrew nation at large, and subsequently of the whole human family, it was imperative that the things contained therein should be accommodated to the capacity of those to whom they were addressed, and that they should be referred to experience especially. Let us explain this point a little more fully. The things taught in Scripture that are of a purely speculative nature are principally these: There is a God, or Being who made all things, who with highest wisdom rules and sustains the world, and who carefully watches over those among men who live piously and honestly, but threatens the wicked with punishment, and distinguishes them from the good. And all its teaching to this effect, Scripture confirms by appeals to experience only in the histories of those whose laws and actions it records; it gives no definitions of the things taught; but in word and method accommodates itself to the capacity of common people. And although experience can give us no clear knowledge of any of these things, nor inform us what God is, in what way he sustains and governs all things, and takes care of man, still men may teach and illustrate so much as is necessary to enforce obedience, and as suffices to impress the minds of those addressed with devotional feelings.

These considerations I conceive enable us to speak assuredly of the kind of trust that is to be reposed, as well in the narratives contained in Scripture as in their writers. From what immediately precedes it evidently follows that such narratives were indispensable to the vulgar, whose capacity does not extend to a clear and distinct perception of things. He, again, who knowing these things denies them because he does not believe in the existence of God, nor that God watches over man and nature, is an impious person whilst he who does not know them, and nevertheless by his natural light acknowledges the existence of God, and the other matters just touched upon, if in addition he lead a good life, may enjoy true happiness — ay, he may live much more happily spiritually than the vulgar believer, because, besides his right opinions, he has in addition clear and distinct conceptions in his mind. Lastly, he who is ignorant of these Scripture doctrines and histories, and who knows nothing of natural light, if he cannot properly be called impious, still is he barbarous, almost brutal, and without God's best gifts to man. But here it is to be observed, that when we say a knowledge of Scripture history is commonly very necessary, we are not to be understood as meaning all the histories contained in Scripture, but only those that are most remarkable, and of themselves, and without reference to any others, most obviously inculcate the doctrine we have insisted on, whereby the minds of men are most powerfully impressed. For were all the histories contained in Holy Writ required to prove its doctrines, and were no conclusion possible save on a general consideration of all these histories, then indeed would the demonstration and conclusion in regard to Scripture doctrines be impossible, not only for the people at large, but would also be absolutely beyond human capacity; for who could attend to such a multitude of histories, and to such a variety of circumstances and such diversities of doctrine, as present themselves in these histories? I, at all events, cannot persuade myself that the men who left us the Scriptures as we have them, possessed such amplitude of genius that they took in all the elements of such a demonstration, and still less that the doctrines of Scripture are not to be understood without listening to the domestic troubles of Isaac, the counsels of Achitophel to Absalom, the civil wars of Judah and Israel and other chronicles of this description, or that the Jews who lived in the time of Moses had more difficulty in comprehending the doctrines of their law than those who were contemporaries of Esdras. But of these topics I shall have more to say and at greater length by and by. The vulgar, we may meantime conclude, were only required to know those histories which were best calculated to lead their hearts to obedience and to piety. But the vulgar themselves are not sufficient judges of such matters; inasmuch as they are rather taken with narratives of wonderful and unlooked-for events than with the doctrines involved in history; and this is one grand cause wherefore, besides reading the Scriptures, pastors or ministers of the Church are particularly required to supply guidance and instruction in aid of the popular infirmity of understanding. But that we may not stray from our subject, nor delay to show what was especially proposed as the subject of this chapter, let us conclude that faith in the Bible histories, whatever these may be, forms no part of the divine law, that neither do these histories of themselves necessarily contribute to make men more virtuous or happy, nor are they of any use, save with reference to the moral doctrines they contain, those moral doctrines which are in fact the sole reason of the superiority of Bible over common history. The narratives of the Old and New Testament, in brief, excel ordinary narrative, and one narrative in them is more excellent than another, by reason of the wholesomeness of the truths therein contained, the salutary conclusions supplied. Wherefore, were any one to read the whole of the Bible histories, and to yield implicit faith to all their details, did he give no heed to the doctrines they were meant to inculcate, and amended not his life, he would be like one who read the Koran, or the romances of the poets, or the common chronicles of a country, with the attention which the vulgar commonly bestow on such matters. On the other hand, as has been said, he who was entirely ignorant of all Bible history, and nevertheless professed opinions salutary to himself and to others, and who above all led a good life, that man is truly blessed, and has indeed within him the spirit of Christ.

The Jews however thought very differently on this matter; for they maintain that sound moral views and a good life profit a man nothing, if embraced from natural reasons, and not as principles and practice prophetically revealed to Moses. Maimonides (Cap. viii. Regum, lege 11) dares openly to declare that "Every one who takes to heart the seven precepts,[3] and diligently follows them out, is to be reckoned among the pious of his nation, and the heir of the world to come; that is to say, if he adopts and practises what they enjoin because they were prescribed by God in the Law, and revealed to us by the mouth of Moses, though they were already precepts to the sons of Noah; but if he have been led by his reason to be what he is, he is not a true denizen, not one of the pious and learned of the nations." These are the words of Maimonides, to which Rabbi Joseph, son of Shem Tob, in his book entitled Kebod Elohim, or Glory of God, appends what follows: That "although Aristotle" (whom he thinks indited consummate principles of ethics, and whom he esteems above all other writers) "omits nothing that is within the scope of true ethics in his writings on this subject, although all the precepts he enjoins were carefully observed, this nevertheless would avail nothing towards salvation; because what Aristotle teaches is not embraced as a divine command prophetically revealed, but only as dictated by natural reason." But all these conclusions of Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph, son of Shem Tob, are mere figments, grounded neither on reason, nor to be found in Scripture, as any one who diligently reads it may readily convince himself. It seems, indeed, to be sufficient to mention such narrow views to have found their refutation. But it is no part of my purpose in this place to contend with writers who maintain that natural light can teach nothing salutary of the things that are essential to salvation; for they who permit nothing to themselves in the way of sound reason, can allow nothing to sound reason in another; and they who boast themselves above reason, only show themselves far below reason, which, indeed, their common mode of living would of itself sufficiently demonstrate. But I need not proceed further on this ungrateful track: I only add that we can know no man but by his works; and with Paul, I say, that for him who abounds in such fruits as love, joy, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, the law is not ordained (vide Paul, Epistle to Galat. v. 22, 23), that that man, whether guided by simple reason or instructed by Scripture, is Truly Taught of God, and is in every way blessed. Thus I conclude what I purposed to say on the divine law, and on rites and ceremonies.


  1. "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." — Ed.
  2. A Hebraism or mode of expression which refers to the time of death, aggregari ad populos suos, signifies to die. — Spinoza. The author's version is mainly followed in the above beautiful verse. — Ed.
  3. The Jews held that God gave to Noah seven precepts, which were alone to be observed by all nations, and to the Jews a great many more precepts in addition, that they might be made more blessed than the rest of mankind.