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THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.
Tisu carentem magna pars veri latet .
Sen. in Oedip.
Great part of truth is hidden from the blind.
IT is very reasonable to believe that part of the pleasure which happy minds shall enjoy in a future state will arise from an enlarged contemplation of the divine wisdom in the government of the world, and a discovery of the secret and amazing steps of Providence, from the beginning to the end of time. Nothing seems to be an entertainment more adapted to the nature of man, if we consider that curiosity is one of the strongest and most lasting appetites implanted in us, and that admiration is one of our most pleasing passions; and what a perpetual succession of enjoyments will be afforded to both these, in a scene so large and various as shall then be laid open to our view in the society of superior spirits, who perhaps will join with us in so delightful a prospect.
It is not impossible, on the contrary, that part of the punishment, of such as are excluded from bliss, may consist not only in their being denied this privilege but in having their appetites at the same time vastly increased, with out any satisfaction afforded to them. In these the vain pursuit of knowledge shall perhaps add to their infelicity, and bewilder them into labyrinths of error, darkness, distraction, and uncertainty of every thing but their own evil state. Milton has thus represented the fallen angels reasoning together in a kind of respite from their torments, and creating to themselves a new disquiet amidst their very amusements: he could not properly have described the sports of condemned spirits, without that cast of horror and melancholy he had so judicioufly mingled with them.
Others apart sat on a hill retir’ed,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fix’d fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost.
In our present condition, which is a middle state, our minds are, as it were, chequered with truth and falsehood: and as our faculties are narrow, and our views imperfect, it is impossible but our curiosity must meet with many repulses. The business of mankind in this life being rather to act, than to know, their portion of knowledge is dealt to them accordingly.
From hence it is, that the reason of the inquisitive has so long been exercised with difficulties, in accounting for the promiscuous distribution of good and evil to the virtuous and the wicked in this world. From hence come all those pathetical complaints of so many tragical events, which happen to the wise and the good: and of such surprising prosperity which is often the reward of the guilty and the foolish; that reason is sometimes puzzled, and at a loss what to pronounce upon so mysterious a dispensation.
Plato expresses his abhorrence of some fables of the poets, which seem to reflect on the gods as the authors of injustice; and lays it down as a principle, that whatever is permitted to befal a just man, whether poverty, sickness, or any of those things which seem to be evils, shall either in life or death conduce to his good. My reader will observe how agreeable this maxim is to what we find delivered by a greater authority. Seneca has written a discourse purposely on this subject, in which he takes pains, after the doctrine of the Stoics, to shew, that adversity is not in itself an evil; and mentions a noble saying of Demetrius, “That nothing would be more unhappy than a man who had never known affliction.” He compares prosperity to the indulgence of a fond mother to a child which often proves his ruin; but the affection of the Divine Being to that of a wise father, who would have his sons exercised with labour, disappointment, and pain, that they might gather strength, and improve their fortitude. On this occasion the philosopher rises into that celebrated sentiment, that there is not on earth a spectacle more worthy the regard of a Creator intent on his works, than a brave man superior to his sufferings; to which he adds, that it must be a pleasure to Jupiter himself to look down from heaven and see Cato, amidst the ruins of his country, preserving his integrity.
This thought will appear yet more reasonable, if we consider human life as a state of probation, and adversity as the post of honour in it, assigned often, to the best and most select spirits.
But what I would chiefly insist on here, is, that we are not at present in a proper situation to judge of the counsels by which Providence acts, since but little arrives at our knowledge, and even that little we discern imperfectly; or, according to the elegant figure in holy writ, “we see but in part, and as in a glass darkly.” It is to be considered, that Providence, in its economy, regards the whole system of time and things together, so that we cannot discover the beautiful connexions between incidents, which lie widely separated in time, and by losing so many links of the chain, our reasonings become broken and imperfect. Thus those parts in the moral world which have not an absolute, may yet have a relative beauty, in respect of some other parts concealed from us, but open to his eye, before whom past, present, and to come, are set together in one point of view: and those events, the permission of which seems now to accuse his goodness, may, in the consummation of things, both magnify his goodness, and exalt his wisdom. And this is enough to check our presumption, since it is in vain to apply our measures of regularity to matters of which we know neither the antecedents nor the consequents, the beginning nor the end.
I shall relieve my readers from this abstracted thought, by relating here a Jewish tradition concerning Moses, which seems to be a kind of parable illustrating what I have last mentioned. That great prophet, it is said, was called up by a voice from heaven to the top of a mountain; where, in a conference with the Supreme Being, he was permitted to propose to him some questions concerning his administration of the universe. In the midst of this divine colloquy he was commanded to look down on the plain below. At the foot of the mountain there issued out a clear spring of water, at which a soldier alighted from his horse to drink. He was no sooner gone than a little boy came to the same place, and finding a purse of gold which the soldier had dropped, took it up, and went away with it. Immediately after this came an infirm old man, weary with age and travelling, and having quenched his thirst, sat down to rest himself by the side of the spring.. The soldier missing his purse returns to search for it,. and demands it of the old man, who affirms he had not seen it, and appeals to heaven in witness of his innocence. The soldier, not believing his protestation, kills him. Moses fell on his face with horror and amazement, when the divine voice thus prevented his expostulation; “Be not surprised, Moses, nor ask, why the judge of the whole earth has suffered this thing to come to pass: the child is the occasion that the blood of the old man is spilt; but know, that the old man, whom thou sawest, was the murderer of that child’s father.”
Fortune favours still the wise and brave.
THE famous Gratian, in his little book wherein he lays down maxims for a man’s advancing himself at court, advises his reader to associate himself with the fortunate, and to shun the company of the unfortunate; which, notwithstanding the baseness of the precept to an honest mind, may have something useful in it for those who push their interest in the world. It is certain, a great part of what we call good or ill fortune, rises out of right or wrong measures or schemes of life. When I hear a man complain of his being unfortunate in all his undertakings, I shrewdly suspect him for a weak man in his affairs. In conformity with this way of thinking, Cardinal Richlieu used to say, that unfortunate and imprudent were but two words for the same thing. As the Cardinal himself had a great share both of prudence and good fortune, his famous antagonist, the Count D’Olivarez, was disgraced at the court of Madrid, because it was alledged against him that he had never any success in his undertakings. This, says an eminent author; was indirectly accussing him of imprudence.
Cicero recommended Pompey to the Romans for their general, upon three accounts, as he was a man of courage, conduct, and good fortune. It was perhaps for the reason above mentioned, namely, that a series of good fortune supposes a prudent management in the person to whom it befals, that not only Sylla the dictator, but several of the Roman emperors, as is fill to be seen upon their medals, among their other titles, give themselves that of Felix or Fortunate. The heathens indeed seem to have valued a man more for his good fortune than for any other quality, which I think is very natural for those who have not a strong belief of another world. For how can I conceive a man crowned with many distinguishing blessings, that has not some extraordinary fund of merit and perfection in him, which lies open to the Supreme eye, though perhaps it is not discovered by my observation? What is the reason Homer and Virgil’s heroes do not form a resolution, or strike a blow, without the conduct and direction of some deity?—Doubtless because the poets esteemed it the greatest honour to be favoured by the gods, and thought the best way of praising a man was to recount those favours which naturally implied an extraordinary merit in the person on whom they descended.
Those who believe a future state of rewards and punishments, act very absurdly if they form their opinions of a man’s merit from his successes.
But certainly if I thought the whole circle of our being was concluded between our births and deaths, I should think a man’s good fortune the measure and standard of his real merit, since Providence would have no opportunity of rewarding his virtue and perfections but in the present life. A virtuous unbeliever, who lies under the pressure of misfortunes, has reason to cry out, as they say Brutus did, a little before his death, “O virtue! I have worshipped thee as a substantial good, but I find thou art an empty name.”
But to return to our first point, though prudence does undoubtedly in a great measure produce our good or ill fortune in the world, it is certain that there are many unforeseen accidents and occurrences, which very often pervert the finest schemes that can be laid by human wisdom. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Nothing les than infinite wisdom can have an absolute command over fortune: the highest degree of it which man can possess is by no means equal to fortuitous events, and to such contingencies as may rise in the prosecution of our affairs. Nay, it very often happens, that prudence, which has always in it a great mixture of caution, hinders a man from being so fortunate as he might possibly have been without it. A person who only aims at what is likely to succeed, and follows closely the dictates of human prudence, never meets with those great and unforeseen successes, which are often the effect of a sanguine temper, or a more happy rashness; and this perhaps may be the reason, that according to the common observation, fortune, like other females, delights rather in favouring the young than the old.
Upon the whole, since man is so sighted a creature, and the accidents which may happen to him so various, I cannot but be of Dr. Tillotson’s opinion in another case, that were there any doubt of a Providence, yet it certainly would be very desirable there should be such a being of infinite wisdom and goodness, on whose direction we might rely in the conduct of human life.
It is a great presumption to ascribe our successes to our own management, and not to esteem ourselves upon any blessing, rather as it is the bounty of Heaven than the acquisition of our own prudence. 1 am very well pleased with a medal which was struck by Queen Elizabeth, a little after the defeat of the invincible Armada, to perpetuate the memory of that extraordinary event. It is well known how the king of Spain, and others, who were the enemies of that great princes, to derogate from her glory, ascribed the ruin of their fleet rather to the violence of storms and tempests than to the bravery of the English. Queen Elizabeth, instead of looking upon this as a diminution of her honour, valued herself upon such a signal favour of Providence: and accordingly, in the reverse of the medal above mentioned, has represented a fleet beaten by a tempest, and falling foul upon one another, with that religious inscription, Afflavit Deus, et dissipantur; “He blew with his wind, and they were scattered.”
It is remarked of a famous Grecian General, whose name I cannot at present recollect, and who had been a particular favourite of fortune, that upon recounting his victories among his friends, he added, at the end of several great actions, And in this fortune had no share. After which, it is observed in history, he never prospered in any thing he undertook.
As arrogance, and a conceitedness of our own abilities are very shocking and offensive to men of sense and virtue; we may be sure they are highly displeasing to that Being who delights in an humble mind, and by several of his dispensations, seems purposely to show us that our own schemes or prudence have no share in our advancements.
Since on this subject I have already admitted several quotations which have occurred to my memory upon writing this paper, I will conclude it with a little Persian fable. A drop of water fell out of a cloud into the sea, and finding itself lost in such an immensity of fluid matter, broke out into the following reflection; “Alas! what an insignificant creature am I in this prodigious ocean of waters; my existence is of no concern to the universe; I am reduced to a kind of nothing, and am less than the least of the works of God.” It so happened, that an oyster, which lay in the neighbourhood of this drop, chanced to gape and swallow it up in the midst of this its humble soliloquy. The drop, says the fable, lay a great while hardening in the shell, till by degrees it was ripened into a pearl which, falling into the hands of a diver, after a long series of adventures, is at present that famous pearl which is fixed on the top of the Persian diadem.
Si fractus illabatur orbis
Impavidum ferient ruina.
Hor. Lib. III. Ode 3. l. 7.
Should the whole frame of nature round him break,
In ruin and confusion hurl’d,
He, unconcern’d, would hear the mighty crack,
And stand secure amidst a falling world.
MAN, considered in himself, is a very helpless and a very wretched being. He is subject every moment to the greatest calamities and misfortunes. He is beset with danger on all sides, and may become unhappy by numberless casulties, which he could not foresee, nor have prevented had he foreseen them.
It is our comfort, while we are obnoxious to so many accidents, that we are under the care of one who directs contingencies, and has in his hands, the management of every thing that is capable of annoying or offending us; who knows the assistance we stand in need of, and is always ready to bestow it on those who ask it of him.
The natural homage which such a creature bears to so infinitely wise and good a Being, is a firm reliance on him for the blessings and conveniencies of life: and an habitual trust in him for deliverance out of all such dangers and difficulties as may befal us.
The man who always lives in this disposition of mind, has not the same dark and melancholy views of human nature as he who considers himself abstractedly from this relation to the Supreme Being. At the same time that he reflects upon his own weakness and imperfection, he comforts himself with the contemplation of these divine attributes, which are employed for his safety and his welfare. He finds his want of foresight made up by the omniscience of him who is his support. He is not sensible of his own want of strength, when he knows that his helper is almighty. In short, the person who has a firm trust on the Supreme Being, is powerful in his power, wise by his wisdom, happy by his happiness. He reaps the benefit of every divine attribute and loses his own insufficiency in the fulness of infinite perfection.
To make our lives more easy to us, we are commanded to put our trust in him, who is thus able to relieve and and succour us; the divine goodness having made such a reliance a duty, notwithstanding we should have been miserable had it been forbidden us.
Among several motives which might be made use of to recommend this duty to us, I shall only take notice of those that follow.
The first and strongest is, that we are promised he will not fail those who put their trust in him.
But without considering the supernatural blessing which accompanies this duty, we may observe, that it has a natural tendency to its own rewards; or, in other words, that this firm trust and confidence in the great Disposer of all things, contributes very much to the getting clear of any affliction, or to the bearing it manfully. A person who believes he has his succour at hand, and that he acts in sight of his friend, often exerts himself beyond his abilities, and does wonders that are not to be matched by one who is not animated with such a confidence of success. I could produce instances from history, of generals, who, out of a belief that they were under the protection of some invisible assistant, did not only encourage their soldiers to do their utmost, but have acted themselves beyond what they would have done, had they not been inspired by such a belief. I might, in the same manner, shew how such a trust in the assistance of an Almighty Being naturally produces patience, hope, cheerfulness, and all other dispositions of mind, that alleviate those calamities which we are not able to remove.
The practice of this virtue administers great comfort to the mind of man in times of poverty and afflictions, but most of all in the hour of death. When the soul is hovering in the last moments of its seperation, when it is jut entering on another state of existence, to converse with scenes, and objects, and companions, that are altogether new; what can support her under such tremblings of thought, such fear, such anxiety, such apprehensions but the casting of all her cares upon him who first gave her being, who has conducted her through one stage of it, and will be always with her to guide and comfort her in her progress through eternity?
David has very beautifully represented this steady reliance on God Almighty, in his 23d Pfalm; which is a kind of pastoral hymn, and filled with those allusions which are usual in that kind of writing. As the poetry is very exquisite, I shall present my reader with the following translation of it.
I. The Lord my pasture shall prepare,
And feed me with a shepherd’s care;
His presence shall my wants supply,
And guard me with a watchful eye;
My noon-day walks he shall attend,
And all mid-night hours defend.
II. When in the sultry glebe I faint,
Or on the thirsty mountain pant,
To fertile vales, and dewy meads,
My weary wand’ring steps he leads.
Where peaceful rivers, soft and. slow,
Amid the verdant landscape flow.
III. Though in the paths of death I tread,
With gloomy horrors overspread,
My steadfast heart shall fear no ill,
For thou, O Lord, art with me still;
Thy friendly crook shall give me aid,
And guide me through the dreadful shade.
IV. Though in a bare and rugged way,
Through devious lonely wilds I stray,
Thy bounty shall my pains beguile;
The barren wilderness shall smile,
With sudden greens and herbage crown’d,
And streams shall murmer all around.
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