Page images

With those he loves, unconscious of his guilt,
Is yet most guilty.


And that doctrine is espoused by Aristotle in a later period; who holding Oedipus to have been deeply criminal, though without intention, is of opinion, that a more proper subject for tragedy never was brought upon the stage. Nay, as a philosopher, he talks currently of an involuntary crime. Orestes, in Euripides, acknowledges himself to be guilty in killing his mother; yet asserts with the same breath, that his crime was inevitable, a necessary crime, a crime commanded by religion.

In Oedipus Coloneus, the other tragedy mentioned, a very different opinion is maintained. A defence is made for that unlucky man, agreeable to sound moral principles; that, having had no bad intention, he was entirely innocent; and that his misfortunes ought to be ascribed to the wrath of the gods.

Thou who upbraid'st me thus for all my woes,
Murder and incest, which against my will,
I had committed; so it pleas'd the gods,
Offended at my race for former crimes.
But I am guiltless: can'st thou name a fault
Deserving this? For, tell me, was it mine,
When to my father, Phoebus did declare,
That he should one day perish by the hand
Of his own child; was Oedipus to blame,


Who had no being then? If, born at length
To wretchedness, he met his sire unknown,
And slew him; that involuntary deed
Can'st thou condemn? And for my
Dost thou not blush to name it? was not she

fatal marriage,

Thy sister, she who bore me, ignorant

And guiltless woman! afterwards my wife,

And mother to my children? What she did, she did un


But, not for that, nor for my murder'd father,
Have I deserv'd thy bitter taunts: for, tell me,
Thy life attack'd, wouldst thou have staid to ask
Th' assassin, if he were thy father? No;
Self-love would urge thee to revenge the insult.
Thus was I drove to ill by th' angry gods;
This, should my father's soul revisit earth,
Himself would own, and pity Oedipus.

Again, in the fourth act, the following prayer is


put up for Oedipus by the chorus:

O grant,

That not oppress'd by tort'ring pain,

Beneath the stroke of death he linger long;

But swift, with easy steps, descend to Styx's drear abode;

For he hath led a life of toil and pain;

May the just gods repay his undeserved woe.

The audience was the same in both plays. Did they think Oedipus to be guilty in the one play, and innocent in the other? If they did not, how could both plays be relished? If they did, they must have been grossly stupid.



The statues of a Roman Emperor were held so sacred, that to treat them with any contempt was high treason. This ridiculous opinion was carried so far out of common sense, that a man was held guilty of high treason, if a stone thrown by him happened accidentally to touch one of these statues. And the law continued in force till ab rogated by a rescript of Severus Antoninus *.

In England, so little was intention regarded, that casual homicide, and even homicide in selfdefence, were capitally punished. It requires strong evidence to vouch so absurd a law; and I have the strongest, viz. the act 52d Henry III. cap. 26. converting the capital punishment into a forfeiture of moveables. The same absurdity continued much longer to be law in Scotland. By act 19. Parl. 1649, renewed act 22. Parl. 1661, the capital punishment is converted to imprisonment, or a fine to the wife and children. In a period so late as the Restoration, strange blindness it was, not to be sensible, that homicide in self-defence, being a lawful act justified by the strictest rules of morality, subjects not a man to punishment, more than the defending his property against a robber; and that casual homicide, meaning homicide committed innocently without ill intention, may subject him to reparation, but never to any punishment, mild or


L. 5. ad Leg. Jul. Majest.


The Jesuits in their doctrines seem to rest on the external act, disregarding intention. It is with them a matter of perfect indifference, from what motive men obey the laws of God; consequently that the service of those who obey from fear of punishment, is no less acceptable to the Deity, than of those who obey from a principle of love.

The other error mentioned above, is, That the

end justifies the means. In defence of that proposition, it is urged, that the character of the means is derived from the end; that every action must be right which contributes to a good end; and that every action must be wrong which contributes to an ill end. According to this reasoning, it is right to assassinate a man who is a declared or concealed enemy to his country. It is right to rob a rich man, in order to relieve a person in want. What becomes then of property, which by all is held inviolable? It is totally unhinged. The proposition then is untenable as far as light can be drawn from reason. At the same time, the tribunal of reason may be justly declined in this case. Reason is the only touchstone of truth and falsehood: but the moral sense is the only touchstone of right and wrong. And to maintain, that the qualities of right and wrong are discoverable by reason, is no less absurd than that truth and falsehood are discoverable by the moral sense. The moral sense dictates, that on no pretext whatever is it lawful


: and men,

to do an act of injustice, or any wrong conscious that the moral sense governs in matters of right and wrong, submit implicitly to its dictates. Influenced, however, by the reasoning mentioned, men, during the nonage of the moral sense, did wrong currently in order to bring about a good end; witness pretended miracles and forged wri tings, urged without reserve by every sect of Christians against their antagonists. And I am sorry to observe, that the error is not entirely eradicated: missionaries employed in converting infidels to the true faith, are little scrupulous about the means: they make no difficulty to feign prodigies, in order to convert those who are not moved by ar gument. Such pious frauds tend to sap the very foundations of morality.

* See the first part of this Sketch, Sect. 3. at the end.


« PreviousContinue »