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R. Hildreth's Joint Letter

Brownson's Quarterly Review, July, 1845

Art. III. —A Joint Letter to O. A. Brownson, and the Editor of the North American Review. By R. Hildreth, Author of " Theory of Morals."

This pamphlet seems to us to be improperly termed a joint Letter ; for a joint letter, we believe, is not a letter addressed by one person to several others in common, but a letter addressed in the joint names of two or more authors, whether addressed to one or to many. As it is not probable that Mr. Hildreth wishes to deny his own unity, or to intimate that he is, as the respectable Mrs. Malaprop says, " two gentlemen at once," he would express himself more correctly, in our judgment, if he should say, A Letter addressed conjointly, &c. A philosopher should never disdain to use language correctly.
The Letter is addressed conjointly to us and to the North American Review. In what way our brother Reviewer will receive or dispose of the portion intended specially for him, we have no means of knowing; but as he is still vigorous, and blest
with a strong constitution and firm nerves, we trust he will survive it. As for ourselves, being naturally kind-hearted, although the world may think differently, and feeling that Mr. Hildreth has received rather rough handling from all quarters, we are disposed to congratulate him on his happy delivery, and to gratify him, as much as we may, by a brief reply. It is churlish, when a man sends out a pamphlet, or but the third of a pamphlet, against you, not to acknowledge the favor. We all have our little vanities, and, as we none of us like to have our own little vanities wounded, we should be careful not to wound those of others.

Mr. Hildreth is somewhat known in this immediate neighbourhood by several publications, which we "have been assured are not without merit.    He was formerly one of the writers for the Boston Mas, and, under the supervision of its senior editor, the late Mr.   Haughton,   contributed not a little to the reputation and influence that paper for a time enjoyed with its party. Some time since he appears to have persuaded himself that he was a philosopher, and he conceived a series of works, which were to embrace the whole circle of the science of man. The first work of the contemplated series he completed and published over a year ago, under the title of Theory of Morals.    This work was sent to us, and reviewed, as we thought proper, in our Journal for July last.    A copy was also sent, vye presume, to the North American, in which respectable, periodical, for April last,  it received as severe  treatment as it had previously received from  us.    Meanwhile the book does rot sell, but lies on the bookseller's shelves or in the binder's garret.    To remain unsold, and at the same time to be cut up by hostile reviews, is too much for flesh and blood.    The author can contain himself no longer.    Hence, the Joint Letter before us, — the hint of which may possibly have been taken from   Byron's famous   satire,   English   Bards   and   Scotch Reviewers, and the author's ambition may have been to do in plain prosewhat the poet effected in polished verse.   The Letter wants, it must be admitted, something of the keen wit of the satire, but this we do not think is the author's fault ; it is heavily written, in a loose, declamatory style, as we cannot deny ; but what it wants in  liveliness,   terseness, and logic, it abundantly supplies in vulgarity, vituperation, and abuse.    The author appears to have thrown his whole heart and soul into his work, and to have executed it as well as he was able ; and therefore should not be blamed for not doing it as well as his friends may have wished. We can rightfully ask of no man more than the best he can do ; for the best can do no better than they can.

We have read the Letter with sufficient care, but we do not find that the author has vindicated his theory from the very grave objections we urged against it; nor do we find that he has successfully controverted any of the positions we assumed in our Review against him. His restatement of his theory proves that we rightly apprehended him, and were far from misrepresenting his views. Our strictures, then, remain, so far as we can see, in their full force. Whether our venerable contemporary can say as much, we are not so certain. Mr. Hildreth makes some strong points against him, which, from his point of view, we think he will find it difficult to meet. But this is no affair of ours. A few of the points Mr. Hildreth has attempted to make against us, although they hardly touch the great ethical questions involved, we will briefly notice, because by so doing we may offer some remarks which will not be wholly valueless to our readers.
The fine names, as Gnostic, Sophist, Thwackum, &c, which Mr. Hildreth has so liberally bestowed on us, we must, however reluctantly, pass over. Some men will be ridiculous, though you call them by their baptismal names ; others cannot be made ridiculous, call them by what ludicrous names you will. Moreover, admitting the appropriateness of these names, we cannot perceive how from them Mr. Hildreth can logically conclude to the soundness of his Theory of Morals.
Mr. Brownson objects to my Theory of Morals;

But Mr. Brownson is a Gnostic, a Sophist, a Thwackum ;

Therefore, my Theory of Morals is sound.

The man who could reason in this way would make an admirable professor of logic ! !

We are a Gnostic, a Sophist, &c, it seems, because we profess to have attained to truth in relation to the fundamental principles of morals. For this profession Mr. Hildreth sneers at us in his most approved style, and commends himself for his own modesty in not pretending to so much,—-in contenting himself with the simple claim to be a philosopher, or one who loves and seeks the truth. Very well. If he seeks the truth, it must be because he feels that he has not yet found it. If he have not yet found the truth, what confidence can he have or expect us to have in his Theory of Morals ? If he feels that he has found the truth, with what justice does he term himself a seeker? We own, that, for ourselves, we do not think it a reproach for a man to feel that he has arrived at moral truth. In morals, which are an every-day concernment, the truth ought to be early ascertained, and the progress which we ought all to aspire to should be not so much in knowing the law as in keeping it. Progress we of course approve ; but progress in obedience, not in doctrine. We may come to such perfection m doctrine, that, in ordinary cases, we have no more to learn ; but in obedience we never become so perfect that there is nothing more for us to do.

But it seems we are a " Gnostic of the Roman school." That we are a Roman Catholic now, we own, and thank God that we are ; but we were not when we wrote the review of Mr. Hildreth's book, for our conversion dates only from last October, and the ethical theory we opposed to his was one which, consistently or inconsistently, we had advocated for years.    A moralist should study to be exact even in trifles.

According to Mr. Hildreth, nothing is or can be fixed or permanent in moral doctrine. " Every tree," he says, " grows old, ceases to bear wholesome fruit, and comes presently to cumber the ground. It must be cut down, and something more adapted to existing wants and circumstances planted in its place." From this we infer, 1. That he holds that his own theory will soon cease to bear wholesome fruit, and come presently to cumber the ground, —in which he is probably right; and 2. That morality is a creature of circumstance, one thing in one age or one country, and another thing in another ; one thing under one set of circumstances, and another thing under another ; and therefore that there is no universal, eternal, and immutable right. It is easy now to understand why Mr. Hildreth commends those who are ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth; for, according to him, there is in morals no truth to be known.

Mr. Hildreth makes morality consist in obedience to the inherent laws of man's nature, and characterizes as right obedience to the law or sentiment of benevolence. His theory is, therefore, naturalism, and belongs to the class denominated sentimental. Of this we were aware when we wrote our strictures, and we condemned his theory, among other reasons, because it had only a sentimental basis. Sentiment can afford no solid basis for an ethical doctrine, because none of our sentiments can be safely indulged, save under the direction and control of reason.    Benevolence, as simple benevolence, can inflict pain on the guilty no more than on the innocent. Obeying simply its impulses, we should throw open the prison-doors and let the convicts escape, when both public and private good might require them to be confined and punished. Benevolence itself, then, must be exercised under the direction and control of reason, that is, must be in subjection to reason. Similar remarks may be made of all the sentiments ; —which proves that none of them can ever be taken as safe guides in matters of duty.

In opposition to this sentimental theory, we stated in our strictures, that morality presupposes a law out of man and above him, imposed by a sovereign lawgiver, which he is bound to obey. The lawgiver is God ; the law is his will; therefore morality is simply obedience to the will of God. To this Mr. Hildreth objects, that it implies that "might makes right." We deny the conclusion. Because God is infinitely and essentially good, and his will is the expression of his infinite and essential goodness, not of his power regarded as a distinct attribute. God is essentially the right in itself, absolute right, because he is in his own essence the good in itself, that is, absolute goodness. Whatever he wills, then, must be right, not by reason of his infinite power, but by reason of his essential goodness.^ We do not, then, make right depend on might; for in God it is not dependent at all, and in creatures it depends on the infinite, eternal, and immutable goodness of the Creator, to which his power, as a distinct attribute, is not legislative, but simply ministerial.
Men may reluct as they will to our doctrine, but no doctrine except the one that makes morality consist solely and simply in obedience to the will of God can abide the test of reason. Atheism leaves as little foundation for morals as for theology. Morality is rightly termed Theologia moralis, or practical theology. It consists in practical obedience to the will of God, and to the inherent laws of human nature only so far as they express, and only for the reason that they express, the will of God.

The question naturally comes up, then, How are we to ascertain the will of God ? Up to a certain point, unquestionably, by the light of nature, that is, by natural reason operating on our own natures and the nature of things, so far as open to our inspection. This gives us Natural Morality, which is good and true as far as it goes, but which is deficient in clearness, extent, and power, as we may learn from the history of all nations   destitute  of divine revelation.      Divine  revelation  is necessary to supply its deficiencies.

But this divine revelation will need an interpreter. Granted. This interpreter, according to us, is the Church. Granted again. Then, says Mr. Hildreth, we "make the Church the sovereign lawgiver, the God we are to trust and obey." Not at all. There is a very obvious distinction between the legislature that enacts, and the court that expounds and applies, the law. The Church does not make the law ; she merely keeps, expounds, and applies it, and is herself bound by it. This is so obvious, that Mr. Hildreth is unpardonable for having overlooked it, and so, too, is the good President of Dartmouth College, who also asserts that we regard the Church as God. We hope we are not quite stupid enough to confound the organ with the speech, far less with the speaker. God gives the law to the Church, who has nothing except what she receives ; and we receive the law from her, because he has authorized her to declare it.

Our infidel doctors on the one hand, and our Protestant doctors on the other, must have queerly constructed minds to be able to imagine that Catholics fall into such gross absurdities as they now and then charge us with. One is forced to believe that their own education has been sadly neglected, and their reasoning powers left wholly uncultivated. We sometimes amuse ourselves by representing to ourselves the strange feelings these sage doctors, who talk so flippantly about Catholicity, would have, if they could suddenly change places with the Catholic, and see the marvellous ignorance and gullibility on their part which their objections usually imply. It is rare that we meet with an objection to the Church, that does not impeach the common intelligence, the common sense, or the common honesty of the objector ; and in almost all cases, the difficulty of replying to the objection lies solely in the fact that the objector is too ignorant of the subject to understand the refutation. The ignorance of the enemies of the Church is really deplorable. And yet, to believe them, they are the only enlightened portion of mankind. If they should die, all light would be extinguished, and total darkness would cover the earth. Poor men ! would they would " get wisdom, and, with all their getting, get understanding " ; at least, so far as to be able to bring forward objections not discreditable to themselves.

Mr. Hildreth says, Roman Catholics, as well as Protestants, teach that " man is totally depraved, utterly incapable of any good action. As all his actions want the quality of voluntary obedience to God, in which alone goodness consists, they are all bad, and all equally bad. It is only those persons who are redeemed, sanctified, marvellously regenerated, by divine grace, who are capable of good actions.'' This may be Calvinistic theology, but it is not Catholic theology. The Church does not teach, that men, even since the Fall, are naturally incapable of good actions, or that all actions performed without the aid of divine grace are bad, far less that all are equally bad. The actions of men in an unregenerate state may be good, and no small portion of them, unquestionably, are good ; but none of them are meritorious in relation to the supernatural destiny to tohich the elect are appointed. They are good in relation to our natural destiny ; but not good, though not necessarily bad, in relation to our supernatural destiny, because no natural act can bear any proportion to a supernatural end. No man can gain eternal life without the infusion of supernatural grace, which enables him to perform acts of a supernatural virtue ; yet every man has the natural ability, if he will but exercise it, to keep the law of God in the whole sphere of natural morality, or else his disobedience would not be his sin.

It is never safe to assume that the Catholic and Protestant theologies are the same, for they are widely different. Protestant theology teaches^ that man, by the Fall, lost the ability to will the good, and therefore that the Fall destroyed in man both reason and free-will ; Catholic theology teaches, that the Fall, though it wounded, weakened, reason and free-will, did not destroy them. According to it, the principal effects of the Fall are in the loss of the supernatural grace by which man, before he sinned, was able, 1. to keep his lower or sensitive nature in perfect submission to his higher or rational nature ; 2. his reason and will in perfect submission to the will of God ; and 3. to fulfil the law of God in that supernatural sense in which obedience merits eternal life. By losing this grace, man lost his ability to merit eternal life, for that life was never merit-able, so to speak, save through the aid of supernatural grace ; he lost, also, the dominion of reason and will over the lower nature, or the flesh. The flesh, therefore, escaped from its subjection, became disorderly, rebellious, breeding all manner of lusts, and not unfrequently bringing reason and will themselves into bondage to the law of sin and death reigning in the members.    According to Protestant theology, man ceased, by the Fall, to be a moral being, because he lost by it reason and freewill, and became therefore necessarily incapable, till regenerated, of performing a moral act, a single good act in any sense whatever. According to Catholic theology, he did not cease to be a moral being, nor become incapable of performing moral acts, good acts, acts meritorious in their sphere, but only incapable of performing acts meritorious of eternal life, of which no natural act, either before the Fall or since, before regeneration or after it, ever was or ever can be meritorious.

This premised, we distinguish ; if you say man'is incapable, till regenerated, of performing acts which are good, meritorious in relation to our supernatural destiny, we grant it ; if in relation to our natural destiny, within the sphere of natural morality, we deny it. Bearing this distinction in mind, the objection Mr. Hildreth brings against Catholic theology, that, according to it, no man, till redeemed, sanctified, regenerated, can perform a moral act, is unfounded. The objection may bear, and in fact does bear, against Calvinistic theology, but not against Catholic theology. It would do those who wish to write about Catholicity no harm, but perhaps some good, to begin by reading a short course of Catholic theology. It might save them from many blunders and from much useless labor.

Mr. Hildreth in his Letter talks largely of the triumphs of reason, and informs us that "Rome has fallen to rise no more." All this may be very fine, but we cannot take it for granted. We have heard much of these triumphs of reason, but we have never seen them, and know not where to look for them. Where are they ? Will our Protestant brethren name to us a single point in theology on which they are all agreed, — a single question they have definitively answered, and which they all regard as no longer an open question ? Will our philosophers inform us what has been settled in philosophy ? Was there a single question debated by the old philosophers of Greece and Italy, which is not debated still in our modern schools ? What have we settled ? On what single point have philosophers come to a definitive conclusion ? Systems we have had, and haver in abundance, but is there any one whose right to reign is undisputed ? We have had Cartesianism, but that is defunct ; Lockism, but that is dethroned ; Condilla-cism, but that has become a tradition ; Leibnitzism, Wolfism, Kantism, Fichteism, Schellingism, Hegelism, but they are all exploded, even in the land where they originated ; we have had the Scottish school, hut it is nearly forgotten ; the Eclectic school, the Humanitarian and Progressist school, Owenism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonism, Transcendentalism, and we know not how many more ismsy but they all, to say the least, have culminated. The wildest disorder, confusion, and uncertainty now reign throughout the whole philosophic world. Each man has his own theory, and no two have the same. Where, then, are your boasted triumphs of reason ?

You have for three hundred years been triumphing and boasting of your triumphs, and yet you do not possess the extent of territory you won during the first fifty years of your existence. You rebelled against the Church and the Schools : you demanded a reform. Well, you got it, but it was not enough. You must reform the reformation : you did so. But that would not do ; you must reform the reformed reformation. Well, that you did, but found yourselves as bad off as ever. Reform had stopped short of the mark. You would reform the reformed reformed Reformation. You have done so, but are as far from being satisfied as you were at first. Ever a u lower deep " yawns before you. In France you have resolved the Supreme Being into void ; in Germany your triumphs have resulted in Nihilism ; in this country, in Hildreth's Theory of Morals, which every body scouts. Yet reason triumphs, and the mighty heart of humanity leaps and exults in the wonderful progress of her children ! Be so good, Gentlemen, as to draw up an inventory of what you have really won, of what you regard as settled, and then — we will talk with you about the triumphs of reason.

And then you talk of reason, as if reason were against the Church, and as if you were reasoners. Strange infatuation ! Happy should we be to find an opponent of the Church that could, or at least would, reason. Our great complaint against the enemies of the Church is, that they either will not or cannot reason ; that they are governed by prejudice, caprice, and rarely seem able to distinguish between reason and their own fancies ; whence we find them able, on the one hand, to resist the clearest demonstrations of reason, and, on the other, to believe without even the shadow of a reason. They who suppose reason has any thing to do with their opposition to Catholicity are grievously mistaken. Infidels do not reason against us, for they do not reason at all. Protestants do not reason against us ; they declaim, denounce, invent idle stories and tell gross falsehoods about us ;   and when these  fail, they burn our convents, our churches, seminaries, dwellings, shoot us down in the street, pass severe penal laws against us, set a price on our heads, hunt us down as wild beasts. This is the way Protestantism reasons against us, and has reasoned against us for three hundred years ; and it is by such arguments, which you call reason, and we unreason, that she has won her boasted triumphs. O my brother, say no more about reason, for reason laughs you in the face, and scorns the relationship you claim.

Then, again, where are the evidences that Rome has fallen to rise no more ?    Do you find them in the violent hostility manifested at this very moment throughout all Protestantdom against Catholicity?     Do you find them in the Protestant unions, the " Native American " mobs in this country, and the Iree Corps in Switzerland ?    Do you find them in the multitude of books and pamphlets against the Church with which a licentious but all active press now is teeming ?    Why this fear and consternation ?   Why do the heathen rage, and the Protestant people imagine a vain thing ?    Do Protestants tremble before the fallen ? do they trample on the dead ?    Do you find the proofs of your assertion in the fact, that never, since the commission was given to the Apostles to teach all nations, has the Church  been more united, more active, more vigorous, more faithful in the discharge of her high trusts, and that she has never, at any one period, counted a larger number of members than at this moment ?   Strange evidences, these, that Rome has fallen to rise no more.    A single Jesuit makes whole masses of Protestants and infidels tremble and turn pale.    Why this blanching of the cheek, and this trembling of the frame, before the Church, if it be defunct ?   Is it that a dead lion is better than a living dog ?   O my friends, be not deceived !   Rome has not fallen, and your very fears and deadly rage prove it.    The Church is not dead, cannot die ; for she is immortal, the living Spouse of the living God.   She will outlive, ay, and triumph over, all her enemies ; for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, and hath declared it.    Vain is your rage, impotent is your malice.    You may harm yourselves, but her you cannot harm.

Mr. Hildreth and some others take considerable pains to account for our conversion to the Catholic Church, and, assuming that we must needs be still a Protestant at heart, conclude that it must have been in consequence of visions of lawn sleeves, a cardinal's hat, and perhaps of a Yankee pope, that floated in the distance before us.    It is a pity to spoil their solution of the problem, but we are obliged to tell them, they are quite wrong, for there is a lady in the way, and known to be in the way, of the realization of such visions, before our conversion. Married men cannot take orders in the Church, and one cannot aspire to a cardinal's hat unless he be in orders. Whatever might be our personal ambition, or however capable we might be of having respect, as the President of Dartmouth College has it, to " the purple glory," we can, as a Catholic, be nothing but a simple layman. There can be no dispensation in our favor, and we must submit.

Moreover, if there were no barrier of the kind intimated, it is not quite so certain that we could attain to the " purple glory." He must know little of the Church, and of her thousands upon thousands of meritorious sons, who could dream that one so insignificant as ourselves could ever be thought of, save by her enemies, as a candidate for her honors. Mr. Hil-dreth and others estimate us quite above our merits. We are nothing to the Church, except as we have a soul to be saved. It was not the Church that needed us, but we that needed the Church ; and we would fain hope that a poor sinner, long beaten about in the world, might fly to her maternal bosom and find peace for his troubled conscience, rest for his'wearied soul, and helps to a holy life, without dreaming of lawn sleeves, or even a cardinal's hat. These things do not have such powerful attractions for Catholics as they seem to have for Protestants. To the true Catholic, earth has no honors he cares for ; to him, no crown is desirable but the crown of life, and no glory but the glory of God. The Catholic religion teaches us that this world is not our home, that the great ends of our existence are not attained in this life, and our real good can come from nothing earthly, temporal, or changeable. It teaches that we were made for heaven, to find our good in serving God here, and in enjoying him for ever hereafter. It bids us, therefore, to place our affections on things above, to aspire to the eternal and the immutable, to labor not for the meat that perisheth, but for the meat that endureth unto everlasting life. To the soul that listens to and obeys this teaching, the honors and distinctions of this life, all that the men of the world live for and aspire to, are vanity, yea, less than vanity and nothing. Nor was it only in olden times this teaching could be received, and believed. Men still hear it, believe it, and, we trust, strive to obey it, as incredible as it may seem to the great mass of our Protestant and infidel brethren.

We have now remarked on all the points in Mr. Hildreth's Letter which we have thought worth while to notice. Mr. Hildreth intimates, in the conclusion of his Letter, that another Review will soon he commenced, to be, we presume, the organ of views similar to his own, perhaps to be edited by himself. Be this as it may, it is his affair and not ours. But, if he expects us to reply to any thing more he may write, he must write in a style somewhat different from that adopted in the letter before us. He must try to write, if not as a Christian, at least as a gentleman. We have replied to him now, because we really felt compassion for him, and were actually touched by the severity with which he had been treated from all quarters, and because we did not wish him to feel that he was entirely an outcast. He has talents, and, we can believe, benevolent intentions ; and we have wished that he might have an opportunity to redeem himself, and devote his very considerable powers to the cause of truth and good morals, — if not to religion, at least to natural morality and social improvement. We take our leave of him, with our wishes for his speedy recovery from his foolish notions, and for his future usefulness.