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HUMAN LIFE, OR PRACTICAL ETHICS.
Human Life, or Practical Ethics. Translated from the German of De Wette. By SAMUEL OSGOOD. In two volumes, 12mo. Boston, James Munroe & Co.
THESE books constitute the twelfth and thirteenth volumes of the Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, edited by -Mr. George Ripley. The series, thus far, has much interest; and, if the mind be suitably disciplined and guarded, may be read with profit. They open for us an avenue into the society of a class of highly cultivated intellects on the other side of the water. They awaken thought, through the spiritualized, ethereal sentiments, which everywhere abound in them.They remove us, for a season, from the dust and turmoil of real life, and introduce us to the ideal-world of speculative philosophy. The ignorant should not read these books, for they cannot fully comprehend them. The wavering should not read them; it would be at the hazard of confirming unbelief. The imaginative should not read them; for they might produce a feeling of self-justification in those who withdraw themselves from the circle of common life. They might foster in them the habit of living in the world of transcendental possibilities.
Indeed, great intellectual activity and evangelical cultivation are a necessary bulwark to him, who would read with safety many books of the present age. We fear even that mental power and the heart-work of piety have both been deteriorated by an imprudent dalliance with them. They strengthen neither the love of the study, nor of the closet, nor of the duties of life. They improve neither the intellect, nor the taste. They aid a man, in no respect, in working out the true end of existence. They contribute nothing to make him more worthy of his immortal destination. There is no vitality in the soils which they present, suited to make youthful virtue vigorous and verdant; no fertilizing sap, by whose constant inworking influence, the aged man, full of days and of honors, may be fitted for the heavenly garner, 66 as a shock of corn
cometh in his season." But these latter remarks are not applicable, without modification, to the volumes before us. If they contain some error, they contain also much truth. If they have some paragraphs, whose tendency is evil, it is not unmingled evil. If some views exhibited by them are excessive or distorted, some, also, are correct; and many of the suggestions, which they contain, highly valuable. If there is poison, it is mingled with salutary food; perhaps, however, on that very account, the more pernicious, and likely to be so much the more destructive. We propose in this article to point out some of the excellences, and of the errors contained in the volumes, and to follow out a few of the thoughts to which they have given rise.
The English dress of the volumes is highly ornate and beautiful. If the style, in any parts, inclines to the declamatory, we are aware that this is to be ascribed to the original, rather than to the translator. We object especially, to the frequent recurrence of apostrophes to various qualities, motions, and states of being; as lowliness, faith, justice, peacefulness,treachery, falsehood. The native country of the volumes can be discerned, without much difficulty, from the character of them. The manner, and the sentiment, and the thought, are neither American nor English. They belong to the continent of Europe. They are at home in Germany. We do not mean to speak reproachfully of them, when we say they may, also, fairly be regarded as the exponent of the views of the Community, of which the editor is understood to be the head. They use the same style; they involve, occasionally, the same mystical forms of speech; they abound in kindred thoughts. They discourse of the "inner nature," the "inner essence of the spirit," the "inner constitution of the will," "man's inner being," and "inner self," and the apprehension of "the divine instruction in the soul,"-phrases, which may express a meaning wholly intelligible to the metaphysician, but which are too great refinements on the speech of common people, and indicate too great discrimination of thought, to be understood by them, or appreciated, or admired. Yet these Lectures were given by De Wette, some twenty years since, to a mixed audience, at Basle. The interest of the discussions generally doubtless served as a sufficient compensation for the occasional misfortune of having the speaker deal in terms, which his hearers could not fathom.
VOL. VII.NO. XXVIII.
The moral and religious views of De Wette are already sufficiently known to our readers, through an article on another work of his, reviewed in this Journal, Vol. VI, p. 537. They are aware that, although he is a professor of theology, a teacher of morals, and a skilful commentator on the sacred writings, he is not the person to whom we should wish to entrust the spiritual culture of our children. And any treatise on morals from his pen would, of course, be narrowly scrutinized, before it should be adopted as disclosing a perfect standard. We are not so deficient in works on ethics, that we have need to resort to such as advocate, in any respect, an imperfect morality.
Notwithstanding what we have said of the Lectures, as being of a character, in some respects, too refined, it is nevertheless true, that they are a highly popular exhibition of some of the main points usually discussed in books on moral philosophy. They do not profess to be a complete treatise on this science. The author was not bound, therefore, to discuss every question on morals, nor to give a complete statement of the principles on which human actions should be based. If he goes thoroughly into all the points which he takes up, that is all we can demand. The reader who perceives his purpose is prepared, therefore, for what, in fact, he finds,—a book, however complete in itself, somewhat incomplete in reference to the science of which, in part, it treats. The style is that of essays; and the work might well have been entitled, "a series of essays on topics relating to practical life." You find in it neither the hard, oaken frame-work of Wayland, nor the planed beams and rafters of Paley. On the contrary, whenever the frame-work appears, it is gaudily painted, or decked out with ribbons and flowers. This may be suited to a popular audience, composed of persons of various capacities. may have its advantages for the learned, when they seek recreation. But, when we read a scientific work, we much prefer a more rigid and unadorned style. Exactness is better than ornament. Brilliant colors are well enough in the proper place. There are topics in which they never seem to us in place. Dr. Brown has spoiled his Intellectual Philosophy, by arraying it throughout in studied finery.
The Lectures contained in these volumes are twenty-two in number, preceded by an introduction, which gives an interesting view of the idea, extent, use, necessity and sources
of moral science. This is followed by discussions on various topics, adapted to the work. The first is virtue, and the nature of the virtuous disposition. Under this head, he treats of three, which he denominates cardinal virtues. The first is clearness of mind; then, vital strength of will; and, thirdly, purity of heart. After this he speaks of the unity of all elementary virtues in pure independence of mind, the duty of piety, and piety in contemplation, conviction and communion, or social piety. He next shows that there is no real conflict among duties; that, as a new affection has power to expel that which preceded it, so the claims of a present duty supersede all other claims. Having finished the contemplation of man as an individual, he views him in his relation to his fellowmen. This introduces the subject of justice, as a civil obligation, veracity, fidelity, love, friendship, marriage, public spirit, honor, suicide. He closes with remarks on the nature and importance of personal perfection, and the means of attaining it, and on professional life.
Thus he passes over a wide field, and finds opportunity for a copious statement of principles, and for rich and varied illustration, an opportunity, which he does not fail to improve. The volumes are certainly unique,-alone, of their kind, in our English literature. They are neither better nor worse, than other books on kindred topics. They are sui generis, and cannot, therefore, be compared with the works of any other author.
The following remarks on the true aims of life, while they serve as a specimen of the style of the book, will also commend themselves to every well-regulated mind.
"It is the wise man's aim to live truly, to see and to act out the true dignity of his nature, and to respect that dignity in his fellow-men. Respect for true human worth in himself and others, vital love of true man, is the central principle of his view of life.
"Animated by this principle, he seeks and enjoys all the outward goods of existence, and makes the demands and satisfaction of the sensual impulses minister to the true aims of his being. Freed from the bonds of selfishness, and possessed of the feeling of pure humanity, he views sensuous life, and all that appertains to human enjoyment, in a higher significance; and, although little of earthly fortune may be granted him, he yet lives, even as a sensuous being, more than the man of pleasure and of selfishness; and, even in this case, our great principle of life is confirmed. In pleasures outwardly the same, the wise man feels a deeper and more comprehensive life than the sensual man; the one lives in enjoyment, merely as an animal; the other, even in his pleasures, feels as man and mind. The one presses only the object of
desire to his heart; the other feels the vital emotion and vital joy of his whole nature in every pleasure he enjoys, and his individual life is enlarged into the universal. The one takes enjoyment only alone, or yet selfishly feels the joy of pleasures only in reference to himself; the other takes enjoyment only in sympathy, and thus infinitely multiplies it; and his highest delight is to make others happy. However much the votary of pleasure may heap enjoyments around him, yet he never reaches the joyfulness of him who is glad wherever others are glad; who sympathizes with every pure human pleasure; to whom the whole earth is a garden of delight; to whom all human life belongs, and who, in every jubilee, in every glad thanksgiving which ascends to heaven, joins with cheerful heart.
"His final aim will be to give harmonious unity to his nature, by regulating all its impulses in accordance with the rule of true temperance; and, in all cases of conflict between the lower and higher instincts, subjecting and sacrificing all the demands of lower instinct to regard for true moral dignity. In order to produce real harmony and unity of soul, he must attain true freedom of mind from the thraldom of tumultuous lusts and passions; he must have a vital sense of the immortality of the soul, of the eternity of the purely spiritual nature; he must enshrine God within the soul, and to him refer every thing in life. This is the highest and holiest point of his view of life.
"Piety completes the consecration of the truly wise man. Thus all that he respects, loves, and values-all that he strives after, does, and enjoys-unites at last in the holy feeling of devotion to God; all the movements, melodies, and tones of his life flow together into the keynote of the divine will; all earthly colors lose themselves in the pure light, which irradiates the throne of the Eternal.”—pp. 63–66.
The foundation of moral actions is stated differently by different moral philosophers. Most of them fall short of the gospel standard. Paley's system is founded on utility. He urges men to virtue, "for the sake of everlasting happiness." With lord Shaftesbury, virtue is the maintenance of the proper balance of the affections. With Grotius and Puffendorf, it is the fulfilment of the obligation to promote the general good. The fundamental principle of Leibnitz is, aim at perfection. The duke de la Rochefoucauld, in whose steps followed lord Chesterfield, assumes personal benefit as the ground of right action, descending even to the narrow compass of the good to be enjoyed in the present life. The principle of Kant is thus expressed: "So act,that the law of thy conduct may become the universal law of all rational beings." Virtue, according to Aristotle, consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason. Plato expresses the law of morality under three different forms: "Strive to resemble the Deity. Let your passions be in harmony with each other. Live in accordance with the fundamental type of the soul, or