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Conversations of an Old Man No. IV

Brownson's Quarterly Review, October, 1850

Art. V.  Conversations of an Old Man with his   Young Friends,  No. IV.

C. Notwithstanding all you say, your doctrine is dis­tasteful, humiliating, and repugnant to the natural instincts and aspirations of the human heart.

B. No doubt of it.   But is that to its reproach, or to yours ?

C How can you expect us to embrace a doctrine repugnant to our feelings and tastes, that contradicts our natural tenden­cies and aspirations ?

B. I do not expect you to embrace it by a natural predilec­tion, and it is certain that you cannot embrace it without the grace of God moving and assisting you to do so.

Z. But is it not a sufficient condemnation of a religion, that it is contrary to our nature, above our natural strength, and can be embraced only by violence to our nature ?

B. If our nature were sufficient of itself to attain the end for which its Maker has intended it, and if it had not fallen and be­come corrupt and enfeebled, perhaps so.

W. Surely our nature is all that God has made it, and it would be unjust on his part to demand of it what it is not able to do.

B. That all may be, and yet God may justly appoint us to a destiny above our natural reach, because he may provide us with graces and helps above our natural powers adequate to its attainment. And in this he would show himself, not only, just, but superabounding in goodness. In our nature he has prom­ised us only the good to which that nature by its own powers is adequate. But in the order of grace he provides something better, a far higher good for us, and furnishes us with sufficient means to obtain it. Instead of murmuring at this, we should be grateful for it, and see in it an additional motive for love and gratitude to him.

Z. But why need this supernatural destiny be attainable only by violence to our nature ? I see no reason why we might not have been so made that nature and grace should aspire to the same end, so that we might have followed our nature and grace at the same time.

B. Such, in a certain sense, was the case with us prior to sin. Prior to sin, our nature was turned towards God, was held by grace in subjection to his law, and it required no interior struggle to fulfil it, and attain our supernatural destiny. But by sin that grace was lost, and our nature became turned away from God, and inclined to evil. In consequence of this, our nature, that is, the flesh, is now opposed to God, and we can obey his law and live for our supernatural destiny only by doing violence to it. Hence you see that a religion may be very true, very holy, and indispensable to our salvation, and yet be very distasteful to the natural man, and altogether repugnant to the instincts and aspirations of the natural heart.

Z. But one cannot believe what he finds repugnant to his natural feelings.

B. That were some comfort, if it were true ; but in the various vicissitudes of life, I find myself obliged to believe many things exceedingly repugnant to my feelings. There are a great many disagreeable truths even in the order of nature, which all of us are compelled to believe.

Z. I am in the habit of relying on my feelings, and when I find I cannot feel with you in what you say, I say at once I do not and cannot believe with you. I do not like your doctrine, for it sacrifices the pure feelings, the noble emotions, and the gentle affections of the human heart, to the cold propositions and rigid deductions of a dry and inexorable logic.

B. Such may be your habit, but the question for you to de­termine is, whether it be commendable or the reverse. If the propositions and deductions of logic are true, if they conform to reality, your feelings, emotions, and affections, which are opposed to them, are false, and are neither pure nor noble, and if followed lead into falsehood and sin. They are repugnant to truth, and therefore they, not the propositions and deductions, are in fault.

Z. But I am tired of dry and rigid logic, of the cold forms of the intellect.    1 want the heart, the warm and loving heart, and the heart is a better guide to the truth than the under­standing.

B. That is to say, you are a bit of a sentimentalist, too in­dolent to think, and simply disposed to lie at your length under a wide-spreading beech, and indulge the luxury of feeling.

" Lentus in umbra Formosam resonare doces       Amaryllida silvas."

This is no uncommon case with young men, especially when smitten by the sweet face and laughing eyes of Amaryllis. But the state of mind you describe is not one to boast of, or to parade before the world. It is a state in which one is expect­ed to say and do a thousand foolish things, but no one ever thinks of taking them as a proof of his good sense, or piety and orthodoxy. Man is not a block of marble, nor is he required to be a mere logic-grinder. The heart has its place and its office ; but, when used in a good sense, it means the will, not mere sen­timent, and the will, as a blind faculty, never does or can act, save in reference to objects presented to it by the intellect, or that are intellectually apprehended. The heart, distinguished from the understanding, is no guide to truth, for it cannot ap­prehend truth, and it can be safely trusted only when it is en­lightened or informed by intellectual apprehension.

Z, What I mean is, not that we are to follow blind feeling, but our intuitions, that is, the truth as intuitively beheld, rather than as drawn out into logical statements and formal propo­sitions.

B. So that you can disport yourself in the vague, and never
be called to an account for any thing you say, however false or
absurd.    Intuition, on the part of the subject, is an intellectual
act, but in the intelligible order it is never a clear, distinct, con­
scious apprehension of the object, and one knows not that he
knows what he intuitively apprehends, till he makes it an object
of reflection, and logic is simply the instrument or form of the
reflective understanding  as distinguished  from  the  intuitive.
The intuitions are never practically  available as  intuitions.
They must be embodied in language, and presented through it
to the mind, before we can distinctly know what they are, or
make any use of them.    And the moment you begin to use
language you are in the domain of reflection, and answerable at
the bar of logic.

C. That is too metaphysical for my understanding.    What
is the reason you cannot talk in the plain language of common
sense, so that simple men even can understand you ?

B. My young friends are too hard with me. They bring out doctrines which can neither be confirmed nor refuted with­out resort to metaphysical principles and distinctions, and the moment I attempt to subject them to these principles and dis­tinctions, they cry out, That is too metaphysical,  give us common sense, and speak so that we can understand you. I am accused of making too much of logic, and overlooking the feelings and affections. You tell me these are trustworthy, and our surest guides to truth. I reply, the value of these is in the fact that they are informed by truth, and conform to it, and that they can be so only as we intellectually apprehend the truth ; for truth is apprehended only by the intellect. The feelings can no more apprehend it than the eye can apprehend sounds, or the ear colors. Then you shift your ground, and tell me that they are our intuitions, not properly our feelings and affections, you mean. I acknowledge the fact of intuition, and that all our knowledge in the natural order, in the order of the intelligible as distinguished from the superintelligible, rests mediately or immediately on intuition for its evidence. But intuition of the intelligible, as distinguished from the sensible object, is, though apprehension, an unconscious apprehension, that is, in intuition we apprehend the object indeed, but do not take note of the fact that it is we who apprehend it. We do not consciously connect the apprehending subject with the ap­prehended object, and therefore the intuition is what Leibnitz calls simple perception, wanting the character of apperception, in which we apprehend both the object and ourselves as appre­hending it. How, without adverting to this fact, am I to test the value of what you allege ? And how, without understanding this, are you to be disabused of your error ?

The truth, and the whole truth, of the intelligible order, is undoubtedly in our primitive intuitions, in which are all the principles or data of the speculative reason in the order of nature. But in the state of pure intuition this truth is not avail­able, is never practical knowledge. It must become apper­ception first, and this it cannot become without reflection. Reflection is a turning back upon or rethinking the objects re­vealed in the intuitions. But as the intuitions in themselves, save when intuitions of sensible objects, are simple apprehen­sions, and not apprehensions which we are conscious of having, the reflective intellect cannot seize this object in them and make it the object of its own action. It must be presented in language, and therefore, as it must have been already embodied in language, language must be a Divine revelation, not a human invention. Without language, intuition is very possible, but reflection is not possible at all; and understanding by thought a reflective act, or an intellectual act in which the actor ap­prehends both the object perceived and himself as subject perceiving it, De Bonald is right in saying that man cannot think without language. Every human speech, however cul­tivated or however rude, contains the elements of all that is knowable, and through its medium is repeated, so to speak, in a tangible form, to the reflective understanding, what is revealed to primitive intuition. And when so presented, it is intuitively evident, because in intuition the intelligible object evidences itself.

Intuitions, then, are practically available only as evidencing and rendering certain the truth presented to reflection through the medium of language. They are not the fountain from which we primarily draw those truths by reflection, but the authority by which we know and assert them to be truths. You cannot, then, follow pure intuition, to the neglect of re­flection, if you would, and you cannot reflect without language. But if you use language, you must make use of intellectual forms and logical statements, however great your repugnance to them, and the only question to be settled is, whether you make a good or a bad use of them. I have no more fondness for metaphysi­cal systems than you have. I have and wish to have no met­aphysical system of my own. I accept in metaphysics simply logic, or the right use of reason in its application to the various matters that fall under our observation, whether by revelation or intuition. The attempt to build up systems of philosophy, and of natural ethics, independent of theology, I cannot approve, and I hold it to be as foolish as was the attempt of the builders in the plain of Shinar to erect a tower whose top should reach to heaven. It has probably arisen from the apparent success with which speculative science was cultivated among the gen­tiles, and the use which the fathers made of it in their con­troversies with the heathen, and the scholastics in reducing Christian doctrine to the form of theological science. But the truth in the natural order, though barely possible to be known by our natural light, can without revelation be known only to a very few. The gentile philosophy was far enough from being perfect, and yet what perfection it had was by no means de­rived solely from the light of nature. No nation, people, or tribe has ever yet been abandoned to the simple light of nature. A portion of the primitive revelation has been preserved to all in language, and some traditions of it have always been retained and transmitted from father to son, even in the most degraded and savage tribes. It is by virtue of these traditions of the revelations made to our first parents, embodied and preserved in every speech or language of men under heaven, that the gentile philosophy attained to what of perfection it had ; and it is the ignoring of these traditions, the discarding of the fuller revelations of the Gospel, and the attempt to build up a phi­losophy by simple natural reason, despoiled of whatever it has received from revelation, that has led modern philosophers into the monstrous systems of error which are boasted as the crown­ing glory of the modern world.

W. All that may be very plausible to those who understand it, but I still insist that a religion which contradicts my natural instincts and tendencies cannot be true. God gave me these instincts, implanted these tendencies in my nature, and as he can never be in contradiction to himself, he cannot have given me a religion that is repugnant to them.

B. That might be, if your nature was in its normal state ; but your nature has been perverted by the Fall, and turned away, as I have said, from God. Its instincts and tendencies now bear you from him, and therefore a religion which is to convert you and bear you to him must necessarily contradict them, and require their repression and mortification.

Z. That proceeds on the assumption that what your Church teaches is true, which I do not concede. I hold to the innate rectitude and perfectibility of human nature.

B.  And for what reason ?

Z. It must be true, if what your Church teaches, of man's corruption by sin, his need of redemption, and the necessity of grace, is false.

B. If what the Church teaches in these respects be false, the innate rectitude and perfectibility of man must be true, con­ceded ; so if what she leaches be true, what you assert of this rectitude and perfectibility must be false. Pray, tell me on what authority you assert that you are right and that she is wrong.

W. She is wrong, because what she teaches is repugnant to our natural feelings and tendencies.

B. Why not, you are wrong, because your natural feelings and tendencies are repugnant to what she teaches ?

0.  The Church has for eighteen hundred years been in the world, and yet evil abounds, and therefore it is clear that her system is false.    If hers is false, ours must be true.

W. But if evil abounds in spite of all the Church has done to eradicate it, how much more it must have abounded if there had been no Church !

Z. It is clear to every enlightened mind, that the cause of the evil suffered by society and individuals is all owing to the false system of the Church. Her system makes man of no account, places no generous confidence in human nature, and allows man to place no reliance on himself. Making him noth­ing, allowing him no rights before God, no strength, no virtue of his own, it is not surprising that he has done nothing, and does nothing, to meliorate his condition.

B. You probably regard the Church as an evil.

Z. Most assuredly I do, and were it not that I respect your feelings, I should speak of her in terms of the strongest repro­bation.

B. That the Church exists is a fact in the world's history. It is either the work of Almighty God, or of man himself. If you say it is the work of Almighty God, you cannot maintain that it is an evil without blasphemy.

Z. I do not say it is the work of God. It is the work of men,  vile, crafty, wicked men.

B. Prior to the Church, then, there were vile, crafty, wick­ed men, capable of creating a great evil.

Z, Certainly.

ii. It would seem, then, that there was evil before the Church, and you cannot say that she has caused all the evil in the world. How did your human nature, of which you predi­cate innate rectitude and perfectibility, become so corrupt as to produce the vile, crafty, wicked men who created so great an evil as you hold the Church to be ? And if men could without the Church become corrupt enough to create her, how does it follow that, if she were removed, all evil would be removed ?

M. I hold that the Church is of human origin, and now a most mischievous institution, which the good of society and of individuals requires to be abolished ; but I do not think that its originators were wicked men. They were governed by good motives, sought really to promote earthly felicity and to ad­vance mankind, and I have no doubt that the Church in its origin was a good institution, far in advance of Paganism and Judaism, and for a long series of ages, that is, so long as it was in harmony with ihe intelligence of the times, it exerted a beneficial influence. Its grand defect was in its inflexibility and want of expansive power. If it had only adopted the theory of development, and admitted the principle of progress into its code of doctrine and morals, it might have advanced with the advance of general intelligence, and continued to be a useful institution. The Church now does harm, because it is no longer in harmony with our times, because it has fallen behind the age, and labors to confine our intelligence to the beliefs, and our conduct to the morality, of the age in which it origi­nated. In order to do this, it is obliged to repel all progress of intelligence, and to claim an authority over the minds of men which is tyrannical, and to which no man conscious of the rights and the dignity of his nature will submit.

B. That is your theory of the origin of the Church. I have not leisure to examine it at length ; but you cannot hold it and be a very rigid moralist. The men who founded the Church professed to erect her as a Divine institution, on certain facts. These facts, if facts, clearly and unequivocally established her Divine origin. Now, with regard to these facts, these men could not, humanly speaking, be deceived. They either knew them to be facts, or they knew them not to be facts. If facts, the Church is Divine, not human ; if not facts, these men lied when they asserted them to be facts, and were liars and im­postors, and the Church was a lie and an imposition. Now, how can you say liars and impostors are good men, governed by good motives ? And how can you say a stupendous lie and imposition can be and do good even for a time ? Does the enlightened morality of the nineteenth century allow you to maintain such monstrous propositions ?

Z. I maintain no such thing, and believing the Church to be a sink of iniquity, I believe her origin was in wickedness, not in virtue.

B. Yet you see that you cannot easily explain the origin of that wickedness consistently with your doctrine of the innate rectitude and perfectibility of human nature.

M. For that reason I assign the Church a good origin, and believe it the work of good men.

B. Yet agree that it has become wholly evil, and now pro­duces only evil.

M. Certainly.

B. If it was good in its origin, worked good for a time, and has from first to last been only what men have made it, how, if human nature has the innate rectitude and perfectibility you assert, has it ceased to be good, and become productive only of evil ? The evil it now produces must have had a cause, and as the Church has, according to you, been all the time subject to human control, this evil can have had only a human origin, that is, it must have originated in the wickedness of the men who have managed the Church. How do you, with your views of the impeccability, perfectibility, and self-sufficiency of human nature, account for this wickedness ?

J\l. I would say the evil originated in ignorance rather than in wickedness.

B. Be it so. But according to you the Church was at first adapted to the wants of man and society, and for a series of ages aided progress. As human nature is perfectible, and in­herently progressive according to you, Churchmen themselves, inasmuch as they as well as you share human nature, must have continued for a long series of ages to advance under the Church, and therefore at any point of time subsequent to her origin must have been more competent to mould her to the wants of that subsequent time than they were to fit her to the age in which they created her. Will you explain to me the reason of their failure to do so ?

M. They had lost sight of her real human origin ; had had so much experience of her benefits, that they had come to believe her really a Divine institution, and therefore were de­terred by reverence and praiseworthy religious motives from effecting in her the changes and modifications really required.

B. And this coming to regard and to reverence as Divine what was really only a human creation, you take, I suppose, as an evidence of progress, of enlightenment, of the perfectibility of human nature !

M. My theory, I see, is not tenable.

W. The true cause, I apprehend, why the Church was not made to keep pace with the progress of intelligence was, that in the Dark Ages it had acquired great wealth and political power, and they who enjoyed these, who lived in luxury, and lorded it over the people, were selfish, grasping, ambitious, and would not suffer any change or innovation, lest they should lose them.

B. Do you approve their conduct ?

W, By no means.

B.  They were wicked men, were they not ?

W. Certainly they were.

B. Yet they followed, I presume, their own natural instincts and tendencies.

W. No doubt of it.

B. Nevertheless, you hold to the innate rectitude, perfecti­bility, and self-sufficiency of human nature !

C. I take a very  different view of the case.    I  believe
Christianity was from God, that its first preachers were in­
spired and holy men, but through the ignorance and perversity
of their immediate followers, who only imperfectly understood
their doctrines, it began to be corrupted by an admixture of
surrounding heathenism, and has been growing more and more
corrupt down to our times, save the partial purification effected
by the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and by their suc­

B. Yet human nature is impeccable, perfectible, sufficient of itself to attain its destiny, and there has been continuous prog­ress in knowledge and virtue from the earliest ages down to the full blaze of the nineteenth century, when reformers are as thick as grasshoppers on an August afternoon !

P. I take a different view still. I believe that man has fall­en, lies under sin, needs redemption, and can be redeemed and attain to his destiny only by Divine grace. Thus far I agree with the Church, and have no confidence in the suffi­ciency of human nature for itself. I believe also that redemp­tion is through the atoning blood of the Saviour, and that the Christian Church, one and Catholic, was founded by Almighty God, as the ordinary medium of salvation. But the Bishop of Rome encroached upon the rights of his brethren, and gradually usurped power over the whole Church, and set himself up as the vicegerent of God, and allowed no liberty of instruction, nor right of private judgment. From that time all manner of errors crept into the Church, the simple doctrines of the Gos­pel were overlaid with a mass of heathenish notions, and the pure worship instituted by the Apostles was corrupted by the introduction of the whole heathen ritual.

B. When did all that take place ?

P. Why, I cannot fix the precise date when it took place, but it began with Constantine, and continued from that time down, till Luther and Calvin sounded the note of Reform.

B. How do you suppose the usurper happened to be the Bishop of Rome rather than any other bishop ? Do you not hold that previously all the bishops were equal ?

P. It was owing to the fact that Rome was the capital city of the empire, and the church of Rome the richest and most influential church of the time.

B. If I recollect aright, when, according to you, this process of usurpation began, Rome had ceased to be the capital city of of the empire. Constantine had founded Constantinople, and made it the capital of the empire, and the customary seat of the emperors of the whole empire was never afterwards at Rome. Your first reason, therefore, fails, and may be dis­missed. Your second is no better. That the church of Rome was the richest church of the time is not a fact. It had been from the beginning one of the poorest, and was for a long time in splendor and wealth far inferior to many of the Oriental churches, such as those of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constan­tinople. Constantinople from the time of Constantine was a Christian city, while Rome remained long after a pagan city, and had pagan Senators as late as the time of St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan. The city of Rome was almost the last stronghold of paganism in the Western Empire, and had not been wholly Christianized at the close of the fifth century. None of these external causes you assign can explain why the usurper was the Bishop of Rome, rather than the Bishop of Constantinople, of Antioch, or Alexandria.

Then this usurpation does not strike me as a very feasible thing. Grant, if you will,  what in fact I deny,that the Roman pontiff had a disposition to encroach, to usurp power, you must bear in mind that his disposition must have been met by the resistance of all the bishops in the world, who, you must presume, were as much disposed to keep their power as he was to usurp it. Now, supposing the eighteen hundred bishops of the Roman empire to have commenced with the fact and the right of equality, ignorant of the Papacy, and acknowledging no primacy of power in the Bishop of Rome, and each as deter­mined to keep his power as the Bishop of Rome was to usurp it, what progress in usurpation do you imagine the Roman pontiff could have made ? Suppose, as on your ground you must suppose, that each of these bishops had the disposition of the Roman, the odds against his success and in favor of them would have been far too great for one to be willing to bet on his head, or for any reasonable man to accept your theory.

But suppose the matter to be as you state, what is your remedy ? If God has founded a Church, and taken no better care of it than you suppose, who can rely on it ? If your theory be correct, God must have founded his Church, and then abandoned it to the care of men, and concerned himself no further with itj which is sheer Epicureanism, only transformed from the natural order to the supernatural, and involves sheer atheism as its logical consequence, as much as it does when confined to the order of nature. If God abandoned his Church to the care of men, and they through their ignorance and per­versity corrupted it, so that for at least eight hundred years the true Church was no longer to be found on the earth, what sure­ty can you give, or have you for yourselves, that, even if you could restore it, as your fruitless efforts for three hundred years show you cannot, men would not soon corrupt it again.

Your grand  error,  my  young friends, is  in  the  denial of Providence.    Some of you are out-and-out Epicureans, and hold that God made the world, gave it a kick, set it agoing, and bade it go ahead on its own hook and take care of itself; others among you do not say quite so much of the natural world.   You are willing, one division of you, to say that he had so much regard for the world that he founded a Church for its redemption and salvation, and another division of you, that he made a revelation for its benefit; but you both agree that he abandoned the Church or the revelation immediately to its fate,  threw it upon the great concourse of men, and said, Here, take it, and make the most of it.   I have no further con­cern with it.    Here you deny the providence of God in the supernatural order.   Now 1 beg you to reflect seriously on this denial.    God has created the world from nothing, and it is only by  virtue of his immanence in the world  through that creative act that the world exists or does not return to nothing. But he remains thus immanent, and all created power is insuf­ficient to annihilate or displace a single monad.     By the same free act of his will by which he created the world he preserves it, and suffers no change in its physical constitution to take place but according to his own good will and pleasure.    So also by his grace has he created the Christian order, or the "new creation," the Church and all that pertains to it, and it subsists only by virtue of his immanence in it through his act of grace creating it, and were he to cease for a single moment to be so immanent in it, it would sink instantly back into noth­ing.    So long as so immanent, it is and must be preserved, and all the powers of earth and hell strive in vain against it. Men may beat against it, and break their own heads in the shock, but they cannot move or injure it.    There is, then, no medium between its entire indefectibility and its total ceasing to be.   Your theory, whether you call it the Church or simply revelation, of its gradual, partial, or total corruption, is untenable, and you have no middle ground on which to stand be­tween the Roman Catholic Church and the absolute denial of Christianity ; and if you deny Christianity, you have nothing but sheer humanism, the absolute divinity of human nature, putting man in the place of God, setting him in the temple of God to show himself and to be worshipped as if he were God.