Sermon 5

By Samuel Johnson

Edited by Jack Lynch

[Headnote to follow.]

Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us, for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly.

Nehemiah ix.33

[1] There is nothing upon which more writers, in all ages, have laid out their abilities, than the miseries of life; and it affords no pleasing reflections to discover that a subject so little agreeable is not yet exhausted.

[2] Some have endeavoured to engage us in the contemplation of the evils of life for a very wise and good end. They have proposed, by laying before us the uncertainty of prosperity, the vanity of pleasure, and the inquietudes of power, the difficult attainment of most earthly blessings, and the short duration of them all, to divert our thoughts from the glittering follies and tempting delusions that surround us, to an enquiry after more certain and permanent felicity; felicity not subject to be interrupted by sudden vicissitudes, or impaired by the malice of the revengeful, the caprice of the inconstant, or the envy of the ambitious. They have endeavoured to demonstrate, and have in reality demonstrated to all those who will steal a few moments from noise and show, and luxury, to attend to reason and to truth, that nothing is worthy of our ardent wishes, or intense solicitude, that terminates in this state of existence, and that those only make the true use of life, that employ it in obtaining the favour of God, and securing everlasting happiness.

[3] Others have taken occasion from the dangers that surround, and the troubles that perplex us, to dispute the wisdom or justice of the Governour of the world, or to murmur at the laws of divine Providence, as the present state of the world, the disorder and confusion of every thing about us, the casual and certain evils to which we are exposed, and the disquiet and disgust which either accompany, or follow, those few pleasures that are within our reach, seem, in their opinion, to carry no marks of infinite benignity. This has been the reasoning by which the wicked and profligate, in all ages, have attempted to harden their hearts against the reproaches of conscience, and delude others into a participation of their crimes. By this argument weak minds have been betrayed into doubts and distrust, and decoyed by degrees into a dangerous state of suspence, though perhaps never betrayed to absolute infidelity. For few men have been made infidels by argument and reflection; their actions are not generally the result of their reasonings, but their reasonings of their actions. Yet these reasonings, though they are not strong enough to pervert a good mind, may yet, when they coincide with interest, and are assisted by prejudice, contribute to confirm a man, already corrupted, in his impieties, and at least retard his reformation, if not entirely obstruct it.

[4] Besides, notions, thus derogatory from the providence of God, tend, even in the best men, if not timely eradicated, to weaken those impressions of reverence and gratitude, which are necessary to add warmth to his devotions, and vigour to his virtue; for as the force of corporeal motion is weakened by every obstruction, though it may not be entirely overcome by it, so the operations of the mind are by every false notion impeded and embarrassed, and though they are not wholly diverted or suppressed, proceed at least with less regularity, and with less celerity.

[5] But these doubts may easily be removed, and these arguments confuted, by a calm and impartial attention to religion and to reason; it will appear upon examination, that though the world be full of misery and disorder, yet God is not to be charged with disregard of his creation; that if we suffer, we suffer by our own fault, and that "he has done right, but we have done wickedly."

[6] We are informed by the Scriptures, that God is not the Authour of our present state, that when he created man, he created him for happiness; happiness indeed dependant upon his own choice, and to be preserved by his own conduct; for such must necessarily be the happiness of every reasonable being: that this happiness was forfeited by a breach of the conditions to which it was annexed, and that the posterity of him that broke the covenant were involved in the consequences of his fault. Thus religion shews us that physical and moral evil entered the world together, and reason and experience assure us that they continue for the most part so closely united, that, to avoid misery, we must avoid sin, and that while it is in our power to be virtuous, it is in our power to be happy, at least to be happy to such a degree as may have little room for murmur and complaints.

[7] Complaints are doubtless irrational in themselves, and unjust with respect to God, if the remedies of the evils we lament are in our hands; for what more can be expected from the beneficence of our Creatour, than that he should place good and evil before us, and then direct us in our choice?

[8] That God has not been sparing of his bounties to mankind, or left them, even since the original transgression of his command, in a state so calamitous as discontent and melancholy have represented it, will evidently appear if we reflect,

[9] First, how few of the evils of life can justly be ascribed to God.

[10] Secondly, how far a general piety might exempt any community from those evils.

[11] Thirdly, how much in the present corrupt state of the world, particular men may, by the practice of the duties of religion, promote their own happiness.

[12] First, how few of the evils of life can justly be ascribed to God.

[13] In examining what part of our present misery is to be imputed to God, we must carefully distinguish that which is actually appointed by him, from that which is only permitted, or that which is the consequence of something done by ourselves, and could not be prevented, but by the interruption of those general and settled laws, which we term the course of nature, or the established order of the universe. Thus it is decreed by God, that all men should die; and therefore the death of each man may justly be ascribed to God, but the circumstances and time of his death are very much in his own power, or in the power of others. When a good man falls by the hand of an assassin, or is condemned by the testimony of false witnesses, or the sentence of a corrupt judge; his death may, in some measure, be called the work of God, but his murther is the action of men. That he was mortal is the effect of the divine decree, but that he was deprived of life unjustly, is the crime of his enemies.

[14] If we examine all the afflictions of mind, body, and estate, by this rule, we shall find God not otherwise accessary to them, than as he works no miracles to prevent them, as he suffers men to be masters of themselves, and restrains them only by coercions applied to their reason. If God should, by a particular exertion of his omnipotence, hinder murder or oppression, no man could then be a murderer or an oppressor, because he would be with-held from it by an irresistible power; but then that power, which prevented crimes, would destroy virtue; for virtue is the consequence of choice. Men would be no longer rational, or would be rational to no purpose, because their actions would not be the result of free-will, determined by moral motives; but the settled and predestined motions of a machine impelled by necessity. Thus it appears, that God would not act as the Governour of rational and moral agents, if he should lay any other restraints upon them, than the hope of rewards, or fear of punishments; and that to destroy, or obviate the consequences of human actions, would be to destroy the present constitution of the world.

[15] When therefore any man suffers pain from an injury offered him, that pain is not the act of God, but the effect of a crime, to which his enemy was determined by his own choice. He was created susceptible of pain, but not necessarily subjected to that particular injury which he now feels, and he is therefore not to charge God with his afflictions. The materials for building are naturally combustible, but when a city is fired by incendiaries, God is not the authour of its destruction.

[16] God may indeed, by special acts of providence, sometimes hinder the designs of bad men from being successfully executed, or the execution of them from producing such consequences as it naturally tends to; but this, whenever it is done, is a real, though not always a visible miracle, and is not to be expected in the ordinary occurrences of life, or the common transactions of the world.

[17] In making an estimate therefore of the miseries that arise from the disorders of the body, we must consider how many diseases proceed from our own laziness, intemperance, or negligence; how many the vices or follies of our ancestors have transmitted to us, and beware of imputing to God, the consequences of luxury, riot, and debauchery.

[18] There are indeed distempers, which no caution can secure us from, and which appear to be more immediately the strokes of Heaven; but these are not of the most painful or lingering kind, they are for the most part acute and violent, and quickly terminate, either in recovery, or death; and it is always to be remembered, that nothing but wickedness makes death an evil.

[19] Nor are the disquietudes of the mind less frequently excited by ourselves. Pride is the general source of our infelicity. A man that has an high opinion of his own merits, of the extent of his capacity, of the depth of his penetration, and the force of his eloquence, naturally forms schemes of employment, and promotion, adequate to those abilities he conceives himself possessed of; he exacts from others the same esteem which he pays to himself, and imagines his deserts disregarded, if they are not rewarded to the extent of his wishes. He claims more than he has a right to hope for, finds his exorbitant demands rejected, retires to obscurity and melancholy, and charges Heaven with his disappointments.

[20] Men are very seldom disappointed, except when their desires are immoderate, or when they suffer their passions to overpower their reason, and dwell upon delightful scenes of future honours, power, or riches, till they mistake probabilities for certainties, or wild wishes for rational expectations. If such men, when they awake from these voluntary dreams, find the pleasing phantom vanish away; what can they blame but their own folly?

[21] With no greater reason can we impute to Providence the fears and anxieties that harrass and distract us; for they arise from too close an adherence to those things, from which we are commanded to disengage our affections. We fail of being happy, because we determine to obtain felicity by means different from those which God hath appointed. We are forbidden to be too solicitous about future events, and is the Authour of that prohibition to be accused, because men make themselves miserable by disregarding it?

[22] Poverty indeed is not always the effect of wickedness, it may often be the consequence of virtue; but it is not certain that poverty is an evil. If we exempt the poor man from all the miseries to which his condition exposes him from the wickedness of others, if we secure him from the cruelty of oppression, and the contumelies of pride; if we suppose him to rate no enjoyment of this life, beyond its real and intrinsick value; and to indulge no desire more than reason and religion allow; the inferiority of his station will very little diminish his happiness; and therefore the poverty of the virtuous reflects no reproach upon Providence. But poverty, like many other miseries of life, is often little more than an imaginary calamity. Men often call themselves poor, not because they want necessaries, but because they have not more than they want. This indeed is not always the case, nor ought we ever to harden our hearts against the cries of those who implore our assistance, by supposing that they feel less than they express; but let us all relieve the necessitous according to our abilities, and real poverty will soon be banished out of the world.

[23] To these general heads may be reduced almost all the calamities that imbitter the life of man. To enumerate particular evils would be of little use. It is evident that most of our miseries are, either imaginary, or the consequences, either of our own faults, or the faults of others; and that it is therefore worthy of enquiry

[24] Secondly, how far a general piety might exempt any community from those evils.

[25] It is an observation, very frequently made, that there is more tranquillity and satisfaction diffused through the inhabitants of uncultivated, and savage countries, than is to be met with in nations filled with wealth and plenty, polished with civility, and governed by laws. It is found happy to be free from contention, though that exemption be obtained, by having nothing to contend for; and an equality of condition, though that condition be far from eligible, conduces more to the peace of society, than an established and legal subordination; in which every man is perpetually endeavouring to exalt himself to the rank above him, though by degrading others, already in possession of it; and every man exerting his efforts, to hinder his inferiors from rising to the level with himself. It appears that it is better to have no property, than to be in perpetual apprehensions of fraudulent artifices, or open invasions; and that the security arising from a regular administration of government, is not equal to that which is produced by the absence of ambition, envy, or discontent. Thus pleasing is the prospect of savage countries, merely from the ignorance of vice, even without the knowledge of virtue; thus happy are they, amidst all the hardships, and distresses that attend a state of nature, because they are in a great measure free from those, which men bring upon one another.

[26] But a community, in which virtue should generally prevail, of which every member should fear God with his whole heart, and love his neighbour as himself, where every man should labour to make himself "perfect, even as his Father which is in heaven is perfect," and endeavour, with his utmost diligence, to imitate the divine justice, and benevolence, would have no reason to envy those nations, whose quiet is the effect of their ignorance.

[27] If we consider it with regard to publick happiness, it would be opulent without luxury, and powerful without faction; its counsels would be steady, because they would be just; and its efforts vigorous, because they would be united. The governours would have nothing to fear from the turbulence of the people, nor the people any thing to apprehend from the ambition of their governours. The encroachments of foreign enemies, they could not always avoid, but would certainly repulse, for scarce any civilized nation has been ever enslaved, till it was first corrupted.

[28] With regard to private men, not only that happiness, which necessarily descends to particulars from the publick prosperity, would be enjoyed; but even those blessings, which constitute the felicity of domestick life, and are less closely connected with the general good. Every man would be industrious to improve his property, because he would be in no danger of seeing his improvements torn from him. Every man would assist his neighbour, because he would be certain of receiving assistance, if he should himself be attacked by necessity. Every man would endeavour after merit, because merit would always be rewarded. Every tie of friendship and relation would add to happiness, because it would not be subject to be broken by envy, rivalship, or suspicion. Children would honour their parents, because all parents would be virtuous; all parents would love their children, because all children would be obedient. The grief which we naturally feel at the death of those that are dear to us, could not perhaps be wholly prevented, but would be much more moderate, than in the present state of things, because no man could ever want a friend, and his loss would therefore be less, because his grief, like his other passions, would be regulated by his duty. Even the relations of subjection would produce no uneasiness, because insolence would be separated from power, and discontent from inferiority. Difference of opinions would never disturb this community, because every man would dispute for truth alone, look upon the ignorance of others with compassion, and reclaim them from their errours with tenderness and modesty. Persecution would not be heard of among them, because there would be no pride on one side, nor obstinacy on the other. Disputes about property would seldom happen, because no man would grow rich by injuring another, and when they did happen, they would be quickly terminated, because each party would be equally desirous of a just sentence. All care and solicitude would be almost banished from this happy region, because no man would either have false friends, or publick enemies. The immoderate desire of riches would be extinguished where there was no vanity to be gratified. The fear of poverty would be dispelled, where there was no man suffered to want what was necessary to his support, or proportioned to his deserts. Such would be the state of a community generally virtuous, and this happiness would probably be derived to future generations; since the earliest impressions would be in favour of virtue, since those, to whom the care of education should be committed, would make themselves venerable by the observation of their own precepts, and the minds of the young and unexperienced would not be tainted with false notions, nor their conduct influenced by bad examples.

[29] Such is the state at which any community may arrive by the general practice of the duties of religion. And can Providence be accused of cruelty or negligence, when such happiness as this is within our power? Can man be said to have received his existence as a punishment, or a curse, when he may attain such a state as this; when even this is only preparatory to greater happiness, and the same course of life will secure him from misery, both in this world and in a future state?

[30] Let no man charge this prospect of things, with being a train of airy phantoms; a visionary scene, with which a gay imagination may be amused in solitude and ease, but which the first survey of the world will shew him to be nothing more than a pleasing delusion. Nothing has been mentioned which would not certainly be produced in any nation by a general piety. To effect all this, no miracle is required; men need only unite their endeavours, and exert those abilities, which God has conferred upon them, in conformity to the laws of religion.

[31] To general happiness indeed, is required a general concurrence in virtue; but we are not to delay the amendment of our own lives, in expectation of this favourable juncture. An universal reformation must be begun somewhere, and every man ought to be ambitious of being the first. He that does not promote it, retards it; for every man must, by his conversation, do either good or hurt. Let every man therefore, endeavour to make the world happy, by a strict performance of his duty to God and man, and the mighty work will soon be accomplished.

[32] Governours have yet a harder task; they have not only their own actions, but those of others, to regulate, and are not only chargeable with their own faults, but with all those which they neglect to prevent or punish. As they are intrusted with the government for the sake of the people, they are under the strongest obligations to advance their happiness, which they can only do by the encouragement of virtue.

[33] But since the care of governours may be frustrated, since publick happiness, which must be the result of publick virtue, seems to be at a great distance from us, let us consider

[34] Thirdly, how much in the present corrupt state of the world, particular men may, by the practice of the duties of religion, promote their own happiness.

[35] He is very ignorant of the nature of happiness, who imagines it to consist wholly in the outward circumstances of life, which being in themselves transient and variable, and generally dependant upon the will of others, can never be the true basis of a solid satisfaction. To be wealthy, to be honoured, to be loved, or to be feared, is not always to be happy. The man who considers himself as a being accountable to God, as a being sent into the world only to secure immortal happiness by his obedience to those laws which he has received from his Creatour, will not be very solicitous about his present condition, which will soon give way to a state permanent and unchangeable, in which nothing will avail him but his innocence, or disturb him but his crimes. While this reflection is predominant in the mind, all the good and evil of life sinks into nothing. While he presses forward towards eternal felicity, honours and reproaches are equally contemptible. If he be injured, he will soon cease to feel the wrong; if he be calumniated, the day is coming in which all the nations of the earth, and all the host of heaven, shall be witnesses of his justification. If his friends forsake, or betray him, he alleviates his concern, by considering, that the divine promises are never broken, and that the favour of God can only be forfeited by his own fault. In all his calamities he remembers, that it is in his own power to make them subservient to his own advantage, and that patience is one of those virtues which he is commanded to practise, and which God has determined to reward. That man can never be miserable to whom persecution is a blessing; nor can his tranquillity be interrupted, who places all his happiness in his prospect of eternity.

[36] Thus it appears, that by the practice of our duty, even our present state may be made pleasing and desirable; and that if we languish under calamities, they are brought upon us, not by the immediate hand of Providence, but by our own folly and disobedience; that happiness will be diffused, as virtue prevails; and "that God has done right, but we have done wickedly."