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NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE.
SHEWING WHEREIN THE ESSENCE OF TRUE VIRTUE CONSISTS.
WHATEVER controversies and variety of opin
ions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all (excepting some sceptics, who deny any real difference between virtue and vice) mean by it, something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency....... It is not all beauty, that is called virtue; for instance, not the beauty of a building, of a flower, or of the rainbow: But some beauty belonging to Beings that have perception and will....It is not all beauty of mankind, that is called virtue; for instance, not the external beauty of the countenance, or shape, gracefulness of motion, or harmony of voice: But it is a beauty that has its original seat in the mind, .....But yet perhaps not every thing that may be called a beau¬ ty of mind, is properly called virtue. There is a beauty of understanding, and speculation. There is something in the ideas and conceptions of great philosophers and statesmen, that may be called beautiful; which is a different thing from what is most commonly meant by virtue. But virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, i, e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise, or blame. Things of this sort, it is generally agreed, so far as I know, are not any thing belonging merely to speculation; but to the disposition and will, or (to use a
*It is to be questioned whether it would not be more correct to say that virtue consists in those acts of the mind in themselves; beauty properly der noting their quality.-EDITOR.
general word, I suppose commonly well understood) the heart. Therefore I suppose, I shall not depart from the common opinion, when I say, that virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them. So that when it is inquired, what is the nature of true virtue? This is the same as to inquire, what that is which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful? I use the phrase true virtue, and speak of things truly beautiful, because I suppose it will generally be allowed, that there is a distinction to be made between some things which are truly virtuous, and others which only seem to be virtuous, through a partial and imperfect view of things: That some actions and dispositions appear beautiful, if considered partially and superficially, or with regard to some things belonging to them, and in some of their circumstances and tendencies, which would appear otherwise in a more extensive and comprehensive view, wherein they are seen clearly in their whole nature and the extent of their connexions in the universality of things........There is a general and a particular beauty. By a particular beauty, I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connexion with, and tendency to some particular things within a limited, and as it were, a private sphere. And a general beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connexions with every thing it stands related to......The former may be without and against the latter. As, a few notes in a tune, taken only by themselves, and in their relation to one another, may be harmonious; which, when considered with respect to all the notes in the tune, or the entire series of sounds, they are connected with, may be very discordant and disagreeable. (Of which more afterwards)......That only therefore, is what I mean by true virtue, which is that, belonging to the heart of an intelligent Being, that is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view as it is in itself, and as related to every thing that it stands in connexion with. And therefore when we are inquiring concerning
the nature of true virtue, viz. wherein this true and general
True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Be-
The things which were before observed of the nature of true virtue, naturally lead us to such a notion of it. If it has its seat in the heart, and is the general goodness and beauty of the disposition and exercise of that, in the most comprehensive view, considered with regard to its universal tendency, and as related to every thing that it stands in connexion with; what can it consist in, but a consent and good will to being in general?......Beauty does not consist in discord and dissent, but in consent and agreement. And if every intelligent Being is some way related to Being in general, and is a part of the universal system of existence; and so stands in connexion with the whole; what can its general and true beauty be, but its union and consent with the great whole.
If any such thing can be supposed as an union of heart to some particular Being, or number of Beings, disposing it to benevolence to a private circle or system of Beings, which are but a small part of the whole; not implying a tendency to an union with the great system, and not at all inconsistent with enmity towards Being in general; this I suppose not to be of the nature of true virtue : Although it may in some respects be good, and may appear beautiful in a confined and contracted view of things......But of this more afterwards.
It is abundantly plain by the holy scriptures, and generally allowed, not only by Christian divines, but by the more considerable deists, that virtue most essentially consists in love. And I suppose, it is owned by the most considerable writers, to consist in general love of benevolence, or kind affection : Though it seems to me, the meaning of some in this affair is not sufficiently explained which perhaps occasions some error er confusion in discourses on this subject.
THE NATURE OF VIRTUE.
When I say, true virtue consists in love to being in gener al, I shall not be likely to be understood, that no one act of the mind or exercise of love is of the nature of true virtue, but what has Being in general, or the great system of universal existence, for its direct and immediate object: So that no exercise of love or kind affection to any one particular Being, that is but a small part of this whole, has any thing of the nature of true virtue. But, that the nature of true virtue consists in a disposition to benevolence towards Being in general. Though, from such a disposition may arise exercises of love to particular Beings, as objects are presented and occasions arise. No wonder, that he who is of a generally benevolent disposition, should be more disposed than another to have his heart moved with benevolent affection to particular persons, whom he is acquainted and conversant with, and from whom arise the greatest and most frequent occasions for exciting his benevolent temper. But my meaning is, that no affec tions towards particular persons, or Beings, are of the nature of true virtue, but such as arise from a generally benevolent temper, or from that habit or frame of mind, wherein consists a disposition to love Being in general.
And perhaps it is needless for me to give notice to my readers, that when I speak of an intelligent Being's having a heart united and benevolently disposed to Being in general, I thereby mean intelligent Being in general. Not inanimate things, or Beings that have no perception or will, which are not properly capable objects of benevolence.
Love is commonly distinguished into love of benevolence and love of complacence. Love of benevolence is that affection or propensity of the heart to any Being, which causes it to incline to its well being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness. And if I mistake not, it is agreeable to the common opinion, that beauty in the object is not always the ground of this propensity: But that there may be such a thing as benevolence, or a disposition to the welfare of those that are not considered as beautiful; unless mere existence be accounted a beauty. And benevolence or goodness in the divine Being is generally supposed, not only to be prior to the