The Doctrine of Life: With Some of Its Theological Applications/The Nature of Life
|The Doctrine of Life: With Some of Its Theological Applications.|
|I—The Nature of Life.|
|Back.||William B. Greene.||Forward.|
No change in human conduct ever takes place without a sufficient reason; and that sufficient reason is always found in the strongest motive.
Were the above formula false, certainty would at once vanish from all scientific investigation of human conduct. We might expect to meet as an enemy, to-morrow, him with whom we part in friendship to night; and as a friend, him, upon whom we now heap the most unpardonable indignities. Every heart would be filled with indecision and fear. No one could predict his own conduct, under given circumstances, with any certainty whatever; for high motives for perseverance in well doing, produce no effect upon a will that is selfdetermined.
But the formula is not false. From like causes we never fail to experience like effects and, for this reason, knowledge is fixed and stable, and the human mind a legitimate object of science.
In the eternity which preceded our birth, a chain of causes was generated, which, operating upon us under the form of motives, produces its precise effect upon every one of our present actions.
Much of our present character is ascribable to the school-mistress from whom we learned our alphabet,—much to the primer, the spelling-book, and the catechism, which many of us seem never to forget. But how much were the instructions received through the schoolmistress, and how much were the primer and spelling-book modified by the character of the pilgrim fathers, who have left their stamp upon every thing we meet? And how much was the character of our fathers modified by the persecutions, wars, and revolutions of the mother country? How much were these changes in the mother country modified by the Reformation, under Martin Luther, and John Calvin? How much of the Reformation was immediately occasioned by the abuses of the church? How many of the abuses of the church flowed from paganism? But enough,—else where should we stop!
All men, and all created nature, have been at work, from the beginning of time to this clay, to produce the circumstances which now influence our actions. As soon as an act has been performed, it becomes independent of the individual performing it, and forthwith gives birth to some other act, which last gives birth to still another, and so they continue, and will continue, until the law of cause and effect shall cease to operate.
Had the conduct of any one of the old Egyptian kings, who has been forgotten for ages, been other than it was, the difference would have perpetuated itself through an uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, producing and reproducing itself to the present day. That difference might indeed have been unperceived by us; but it would not have failed to produce its precise effect upon our conduct. The motion of a straw alters the centre of gravity of the universe.
But we by no means intend to establish a system of fatalism.
I am certain that whatever I do, it is I that do it, and not a mass of influences flowing from the external world. In every action, those influences are indeed present, but that which is influenced is also present. I am a free force, acting from my own centre, and dependent, for my activity, on no created object out of myself. Of this fact I am as certain as I am of the very existence of the external world, and I am as certain of the existence of that world as I am of my own,—the evidence in the one case is the same as in the other.<ref>See next chapter.</ref>
Nevertheless, I perform no action without the concurrence of something which is not myself. For every one of my actions has a character, and there are causes why that action should have been as it is, rather than otherwise. These causes, which determine the character of my action, are independent of me, and have their point of departure in the external world. Whenever I act, it is I that act; but the cause why the act should have been in one direction rather than in another, is furnished by the external world.
If I were removed into some region of space, where nothing could come in contact with me, and if there the facts of my memory should be blotted out, I should cease immediately from all action. We see, therefore, that action always requires two terms: 1st. The being that acts;
2d. The sufficient reason why that act should have been as it is, and not otherwise. But our action, in this sense, is nowise distinguishable from our Life. For we live only in so far as we act. Therefore, for all life, we must have two terms; the being that lives, and the object which determines the character of the life.
Let us endeavor to state this in a short formula, which may easily be remembered. In every fact of Life we find two terms; the Actor and the Object of the action,—which two are one in the unity of Life.
If we confine our attention exclusively to the object of the action, neglecting to recognize the actor, and proceed to build a system upon the facts then under consideration, we are inevitably led to consider man as a machine, whose thoughts, feelings, and volitions are the result of his peculiar organization. Like a harp, answering to the murmurs of the wind, he is silenced as soon as the screws are loosened, or the wires are broken.
If we confine our attention exclusively to the actor, neglecting the object of the action, and proceed to build a system upon this partial view, we find no means of going from the man to his manifestations, and the very term actor becomes absurd.
Every act of life is at once self-originated, and absolutely determined by outward circumstances. In every act of life there is an element of necessity, and an element of liberty. These two coëxist without destroying each other. Life is, as it were, a struggle between two natures; if either were wanting, there would be no struggle, and life would cease.
Man's life is entirely in his operations, which may all be classed under three heads: he thinks, he feels, and he acts,—these three modes of activity exhaust his powers.
We are aware that thinking and feeling are only so many different ways of acting, but then thinking includes feeling and acting, and feeling includes thinking and acting, in like manner as both feeling and thinking are included under the one term acting. But we will not insist upon this, as it is not essential to our present purpose.
But if a man think, he must think something: and if he feel, he must feel something; and if he act, he must do something. Thus we see again, that the being that lives, and the object in which he lives, are both necessary to every fact of life. And whatever is done, it is the man that does it; but, that the action should be one action rather than another, depends upon the object of the action.
In our communications with each other, we influence each other's feelings, prejudices, and methods of thought. Thus our lives are affected by the persons with whom we come in contact—our acquaintances, our friends, our enemies, become the objects of our lives, and we the object of theirs. In this manner we continually affect each other, and come to live a common life.
There is, through the whole human race, a unity of life, and the actions of the most insignificant member of society produce their precise effect, in modifying the life and conduct of the loftiest. As the circles formed by the falling of a stone upon a smooth sheet of water spread wider and wider, becoming less and less distinct as they recede further and further from their centre, so does the life imparted by us, in our communications with each other, flow out, producing its precise effect upon all who come within the sphere of its influence.