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who is at our tea-table every morning, shall read it to us; and if my dear can take the hint, and say not one word, but let this be the beginning of a new Life without further explanation, it is very well; for as soon as the Spectator is read out, I shall, without more ado, call for the coach, name the hour when I shall be at home, if I come at all; if I do not, they may go to dinner. If my spouse only swells and says nothing, Tom and I go out together, and all is well, as I said before ; but if she begins to command or expostulate, you shall in my next to you receive a full account of her resistance and submission, for submit the dear thing must, to,
« humble servant,
"P.S. I hope I need not tell you that I desire this may be in your very next."
No. 213. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1711.
- Mens sibi conscia recti.
VIRG. ÆN. i. 608.
A good intention.
It is the great art and secret of christianity, if I may use that phrase, to manage our actions to the best advantage, and direct them in such a manner that every thing we do may turn to account at that great day when every thing we have done will be set before us.
In order to give this consideration its full weight, we may cast all our actions under the division of such as are in themselves either good, evil, or indifferent. If we divide our intentions after the same manner, and consider them with regard to our actions, we may discover that great art and secret of religion which I have here mentioned.
A good intention, joined to a good action, gives it its proper force and efficacy; joined to an evil action, extenuates its malignity, and, in some cases, may take it wholly away; and, joined to an indifferent action, turns it to virtue, and makes it meritorious as far as human actions can be so.
In the next place, to consider in the same manner the influence of an evil intention upon our actions. An evil intention perverts the best of actions, and makes them in reality, what the fathers with a witty kind of zeal have termed the virtues of the heathen world, so many shining sins *. It destroys the innocence of an indifferent action, and gives an evil action all possible blackness and horror; or, in the emphatical language of sacred writ, makes "sin exceeding sinful t."
If, in the last place, we consider the nature of an indifferent intention, we shall find that it destroys the merit of a good action; abates, but never takes away, the malignity of an evil action; and leaves an indifferent action in its natural state of indifference.
It is therefore of unspeakable advantage to possess our minds with an habitual good intention, and to aim all our thoughts, words, and actions, at some laudable end, whether it be the glory of our Maker,
* Splendida peccata.
† Rom. vii, 13.
the good of mankind, or the benefit of our own souls.
This is a sort of thrift or good-husbandry in moral life, which does not throw away any single action, but makes every one go as far as it can. It multiplies the means of salvation, increases the number of our virtues, and diminishes that of our vices.
There is something very devout though not so solid, in Acosta's answer to Limborch, who objects to him the multiplicity of ceremonies in the Jewish religion, as washings, dresses, meats, purgations, and the like. The reply which the Jew makes upon this occasion, is, to the best of my remembrance, as follows: • There are not duties enough,' says he, ' in the essential parts of the law for a zealous and active obedience. Time, place, and person are requisite, before you have an opportunity of putting a moral virtue into practice. We have therefore, says he, enlarged the sphere of our duty, and made many things, which are in themselves indifferent, a part of our religion, that we may have more occasions of showing our love to God, and in all the circumstances of life be doing something to please him.'
Monsieur St. Evremont has endeavoured to palliate the superstitions of the Roman catholic religion with the same kind of apology, where he pretends to consider the different spirit of the Papists and the Calvinists, as to the great points wherein they disagree. He tells us, that the former are actuated by love, and the other by fear; and that in their expressions of duty and devotion towards the Supreme Being, the former seem particularly careful to do every thing which may possibly please him, and the other to abstain from every thing which may possibly displease him.
But notwithstanding this plausible reason with which both the Jew and the Roman catholic would
excuse their respective superstitions, it is certain there is something in them very pernicious to mankind, and destructive to religion ; because the injunction of superfluous ceremonies makes such actions duties, as were before indifferent, and by that means renders religion more burdensome and difficult than it is in its own nature, betrays many into sins of omission which they would not otherwise be guilty of, and fixes the minds of the vulgar to the shadowy, unessential points, instead of the more weighty and more important matters, of the law.
This zealous and active obedience, however, takes; place in the great point we are recommending; for if, instead of prescribing to ourselves indifferent actions as duties, we apply a good intention to all our most indifferent actions, we make our very existence one continued act of obedience, we turn our diversions and amusements to our eternal advantage, and are pleasing Him, whom we are made to please, in all the circumstances and occurrences of life.
It is this excellent frame of mind, this holy officiousness, if I may be allowed to call it such, which is recommended to us by the apostle in that uncommon precept wherein he directs us to propose to ourselves the glory of our Creator in all our most indifferent actions, whether we eat, or drink, or whatsoever we do' *.
A person therefore, who is possessed with such an habitual good intention as that which I have been here speaking of, enters upon no single circumstance of life, without considering it as wellpleasing to the great Author of his being, conformable to the dictates of reason, suitable to human nature in general, or to that particular station in which Providence has placed him. He lives in a
* 1 Cor. x. 31.
perpetual sense of the Divine Presence, regards himself as acting, in the whole course of his existence, under the observation and inspection of that Being, who is privy to all his motions and all his thoughts, who knows his down-sitting and his uprising, who is about his path, and about his bed, and spieth out all his ways *.' In a word, he remembers that the eye of his Judge is always upon him, and in every action he reflects that he is doing what is commanded or allowed, by Him who will hereafter either reward or punish it. This was the character of those holy men of old, who in that beautiful phrase of scripture are said to have 'walked with God! t.
When I employ myself upon a paper of morality, I generally consider how I may recommend the particular virtue which I treat of, by the precepts or examples of the ancient heathens; by that means, if possible, to shame those who have greater advantages of knowing their duty, and therefore greater obligations to perform it, into a better course of life; besides that, many among us are unreasonably disposed to give a fairer hearing to a Pagan philosopher than to a Christian writer.
I shall therefore produce an instance of this excellent frame of mind in a speech of Socrates, which is quoted by Erasmus. This great philosopher on the day of his execution, a little before the draught of poison was brought to him, entertaining his friends with a discourse on the immortality of the soul, has these words: "Whether or no God will approve of my actions, I know not; but this I am sure of, that I have at all times made it my endeavour to please him, and I have a good hope that this my endeavour will be accepted by him.'
+ Gen. v. 22. vi. 9.
* Psal. cxxxix. 2, 3.