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only imaginary affronts; from minute, or perhaps only suspected incivilities; from contests about insignificant forms and ceremonies; from a passion to be thought greater than some other, whom we have taken it into our heads to view with eyes of rivalship and jealousy ; it is from causes like these that the bitterest quarrels take their beginnings. It is haughtiness and impetuosity of temper from which dissentions usually commence; that is to say, a hasty, peevish, or captious pride begins them ; and that stiffness which borrows the name of firmness, dignity, or consistency of character, but which is in truth, and which we should probably call in another, mere obstinacy and stubbornness, continues them. At least these are the infirmities of temper to which many are subject; and these are the infirmities which if we would wish to see good days, if we would wish to pass the time of our sojourning here' in ease and quietness, we must endeavour to overcome.
If I can offer any brief rules, by which these endeavours may be assisted; by which we may learn, what is most to be desired, to avoid unnecessary quarrels; or, what holds the second place in usefulness, to soothe, to compose, and reconcile them,
shall think I have made choice of a subject by the consideration of which we may all be benefited.
First; from what has been laid down concerning the usual progress of the malignant and vindictive passions, which are called into action in the course of a dispute, it is evident that our caution is best exercised at first. • Leave off contention before it be meddled with ;' refrain from all language and behaviour which is likely to beget enmity and dissension. You see the beginning of your quarrel, but not the end, the extent, or the consequences. A provoking word, in the heat of passion and resentment, may be forcibly or shrewdly thrown out at the moment by the person who uses it, but it is sure to return upon his mind with bitterness and regret.
Secondly; a reflection which may put us on our guard against that promptness to take offence, and that precipitation in punishing or revenging the injury we conceive ourselves to have received, is, the consideration how extremely liable we all are to mistake both facts and words in the first report that is made, and the first apprehension that is formed of them. A very minute difference will convert innocent but heedless actions into studied insults, loose and equivocal or unguarded expressions into deliberate affronts. And this circumspection is doubly necessary, when the behaviour or language that cffends us comes to our knowledge through the representation of a
third person, or the intervention, perhaps, of two or three intermediate accounts. It is not always necessary to suppose express malice in that person. Inaccuracy alone, in either observing or relating, will often fatally mislead a rash and impetuous hearer.
Thirdly; if we be often incorrect in the judgment we form of other men's behaviour, I mean as to the facts, words, and circumstances themselves, much more are we apt to misinterpret the motives from which they arise. It will convince us of this, to recur to our own consciousness, and to recollect whether it hath not frequently happened to ourselves to have the principles, views, and inducements upon which we have acted,
, totally misunderstood or misrepresented ; how forgetfulness hath been construed into neglect; inadvertency into insult; cheerfulness or vivacity of spirits into forwardness, intrusion, or petulance; shyness into distance; natural reserve into super
; ciliousness and disrespect. It may sometimes have fallen out worse. An unfortunate conjunction of circumstances, or combination of accidents, may have caused us to be suspected of dark purposes, or mean contrivances, of art, craft, or design, when, in truth, our minds were perfectly free from them. We may have appeared to be insincere when we were never less so; to have acted an equivocal part, when the whole embarrassinent arose from unforeseen, unknown, or unthought of, positive circumstances. If ever this case has been ours, it ought to admonish us to reflect, that the same may happen to others; and possibly to those with whom we have a present cause of dissatisfaction or complaint. We may be acting, at this very time, upon those hasty judgments from which we have ourselves experienced hardships and injustice. We have seen how liable other men are to error, with respect to us, when they proceed upon first impressions, partial accounts, or even upon appearances; and we cannot but know, that we are no less fallible in judging of them. It ought to teach us caution and forbearance in our first behaviour, under a supposed injury or affront.
Fourthly; one would think it no extraordinary stretch of candor to make those allowances to others, which we habitually expect for ourselves. Yet we are with difficulty brought to do this, or to perceive palliation in any conduct but our own. We do not remember, what we should never forget, that others have their passions and prejudices as well as we; their favorite aims, their favorite friends, their early fears, their particu
lar caution, their interest, their impulses, their varieties of humor, constancy, or changeableness of mind; by which, when they are guided, they do no more than we are doing. They act, it may be true, differently from us, but they act under the same infirmities of temper, constitution, or understanding.
Fifthly; there is a point in the progress of a quarrel, and a situation in which men are often placed, and that is, when both sides would be glad of a reconciliation, but know not how to effect it; when both wish to approach, but neither will make the first advance. It may help us to improve this disposition, and to avail ourselves of this opportunity, to be apprized that neither disposition nor opportunity will last long. If we suffer the quarrel to proceed, the season of reconciliation will be gone for ever; and to invite us to make the first advance, let us be assured that it is a generosity which will never be forgot. There is no man living who is not affected by the kindness, and who feels not the superiority, of a ready forgiveness.
Sixthly; one compendious rule, which, if observed, would prevent many quarrels from originating, and many more from proceeding to desperate extremities, is the following; “Never to speak what will give pain, without a prospect of doing good.' It is of the nature of human resentment to prompt us to say what we think may vex and mortify our adversary, what may raise up in his breast uneasy recollections, and to have a pleasure in doing so. This propensity is more irresistible when the sting is pointed by some scornful wit or vivacity of reply. A successful retort is what few can deny themselves. Our admonition, therefore, is, to control and withstand the impulse ; and to reflect upon each occasion, not how grating what we are about to say may be, how it will confound and silence our adversary, how smart or lively, how true, or even how just and deserved, but what good it is likely to produce. This reflection would correct those sudden ebullitions either of anger or fancy, by which, if applause be gained, peace and friendship are destroyed, our tranquillity disturbed, our character ultimately injured, or at least ruflled in the estimation of every one who knows his duty.
Lastly; these rules, and every rule upon the subject, would become unnecessary, if we once acquired, perhaps if we sincerely sought, that disposition which Christianity inculcates and enjoins; which disposition is not that of the proud and haughty and jealous, or peevish and passionate and captious, least of all the malicious and vindictive, but is mild and gentle, patient and longsuffering, forbearing and forgiving; and if any one be overtaken in a fault, restoring such a one in the spirit of meekness, under a constant sense of our own trials and frailties, lest we also be tempted.
HEBREWS VI. 16.
For men verily swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an
end of all strife.
PERHAPS there are few who, in the course of their lives, are not, upon some occasion or other, called upon to take an oath. Therefore, if there is a thing which well deserves to be learnt, to be understood, it is the nature and obligation of an oath. It is an article, indeed, in which the sentiments of mankind are not generally to be found fault with; for if there be any one thing which men do hold sacred, it is an oath ; if there be one character which they agree to condemn and detest, it is that of the perjured man. I believe it is generally true, that few or none have the hardiness to go about knowingly and deliberately to perjure themselves, but those who have given up all pretensions to virtue, and all concern about it, as well as all hopes of religion and interest about their future happiness or misery. And with some, perhaps, this is no security. But admitting that there is with the generality some concern for virtue at the bottom, there is ground to believe, that their opinion of virtue is rather forced by custom than consideration; and this shows it, that you shall frequently see men scrupulous enough about the observation of the law of oaths; as oaths, for instance, in evidence before a court of justice, and the like; who are very heedless, not to say worse, of the authority and obligation of an oath in other cases; as oaths for the due discharge of their office, oaths relating to the customs, and oaths concerning their allegiance, and some others of a like kind. Now it is an oath in both cases; and men's care about the one, and indifference about the other, seem, I say, to indicate that their judgment of oaths is taken up rather from conforming to the prevailing way of thinking, than any just knowledge of the subject, or reflections of their own about it.
In treating this at present, we will observe the following order; first, to say a few words concerning the form of oaths; secondly, their nature; and then the force and obligation upon the consciences of those who take them.
Now as to the form, an oath is a religious ceremony; and like other religious ceremonies not described or pointed out in scripture, is, and may be, in different countries and different ages of the world, very various, without any substantial alteration in the thing itself. Amongst the Jews the person sworn held up his right hand towards the heavens, while he repeated the terms of the oath ; which explains the meaning of an expression in the Psalms, ' And their right hand is full of falsehood.' Amongst Christians, also, the form differs considerably; and in no country, I believe, in the world, is the form worse contrived, either to express or impress the nature of an oath, than in our own. The shortness and obscurity of the form, together with the levity and too great frequency with which it is administered, has brought about an inadvertency to the obligation of an oath, which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented. I do not mean that it is a cornmon practice for men knowingly and deliberately to perjure themselves. I trust, as I said before, that this is rare and singular; but on some occasions, they carry away so little awe or sense of an oath upon their minds, as hardly to know whether they have taken an oath or not; and therefore they must be in perpetual danger of violating the obligation of the oath, from mere ignorance, or inattention, or want of thought; which, though it does not come up to the crime of wilful and corrupt perjury, is still a crime. All I think necessary to say, in explanation of the form in use amongst us, is this ; that when the person sworn repeats the words, “So help me God,' he is understood to mean, so,' that is, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing what I now promise ; this he is understood to say when he repeats the words, and to assent to when another repeats them. But whatever be the forin of an oath, the substance and signification are the same. It is the calling upon God to witness, that is, to take notice of, what we say; and invoking his vengeance, or renouncing his favor, if what we say be false, or what we promise be not performed.
This is what the person who swears in effect does; and no man can do that, and know what he is doing, without an awe or dread upon his mind, both at the time and whenever after