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itself derived from a previous knowledge of what is right; and PART II.
Mediocrity is certainly, not always upon its own account, an object of estimation. In matters, rather ornamental than neceffary to human life, it is the reverse of a commendation. In matters of genius, for inftance, whether poetry, eloquence, politics, or war, it is better not to have any pretenfions, than to have a mediocrity, which is likely to engage the perfon poffeffed of it in a course, of which he is not likely to attain the end. It is better to follow tamely in the track of others, than to affect the command, or the display of abilities, which mislead or disgust the more, that they substitute a mediocrity of effect, where an exertion of the highest degree is required.
Wherever the mean betwixt two extremes is the preferable object of choice, it seems to be fixed by its comparative utility, not by any original perception of merit, in mediocrity itfelf, confidered apart from its use. In the extreme of too little, there is a defect of utility; in the extreme of too much the excess is pernicious: And the falutary, or most useful measure, is that which determines the middle way to be chofen between the extremes: So that we are to look for the rule, by which this mean is to be diftinguished, and the very confideration which recommends it in the circumstance of its abfolute utility, or fitness to ferve the purpose of nature.
If the ill effect of extremes fuggeft the expedience of recurring to the proper mean in every inftance of human conduct, fome apprehenfion of the proper measure or end of action is necessary
PART II. CHAP. II. SECT. VI
to point out the evil of extremes, which confift in a deviation from the middle path towards either fide, of excess, or of defect. And, if the confideration of extremes ferves to illuftrate the mean betwixt them, it is evident that the knowledge of that mean is required to point out the boundaries beyond which all that exceeds, or falls fhort, is in extreme, and pernicious.
Of the unequal Degrees of Merit and Demerit in External Actions.
MERIT is the prefence of that quality which, whatever it be, is the object of moral approbation; demerit, on the contrary, is the abfence of fuch quality; or the prefence of any quality which is the object of disapprobation.
From the obfervations, that have occurred under a few of the preceding titles, it fhould appear, that neither mediocrity of effect, fympathy of feelings, nor actual utility, is the specific object of moral approbation; that moral good and evil are peculiar to mind; and that the merit of an action, or the object of moral approbation in any action, is the presence of qualities which conftitute the specific excellence of mind: Such are wisdom, goodness, temperance, and fortitude. That efforts of benevolence, or good will to mankind, properly supported with intellectual ability, application, and resolution,. constitute actions morally good. That
SECT. VII. n
PART II. malice, however directed or fupported, conftitutes an action
This distinction is, to us, not only matter of perception and difcernment, but awakens a fentiment or paffion, by which we are difpofed to accumulate good on the good, and evil on the evil. While we perceive that beneficence is a bleffing, we would willingly confer additional bleffings. Perceiving that malice is a curse, we would willingly inflict additional fuffering. This fentiment is partly implied or expreffed in the terms of merit and demerit.
That the good deferves to be rewarded, and the evil to be pu-. nished, is an apprehenfion which we are born to entertain, and is justly confidered as a fymptom or earnest of the moral government of God, under which men being infpired with a difpofition to distributive justice, become instruments of Providence for its actual effect. This difpofition operates moft powerfully, perhaps, in its animofity to what is wrong. The right is firm upon its own foundation, and needs not the prop of extraneous reward; while the wrong feems to call for interpofition, to prevent, repel, or repair its effects.
Hence it is that wrongs are diftinguished under their respective denominations of guilt or demerit, more precifely, perhaps, than the oppofite degrees of merit. The right, however, alfo has its gradations, and the actions of men their unequal measures of approbation or esteem. Actions, which indicate good will to mankind in the highest degree, are thofe commonly which we conceive to be of the highest merit; as the effects of malice prepenfe are, on the contrary. of the highest demerit; and thus the prefence of good or ill difpofition is not only attended with mo
ral approbation or disapprobation; but the measure of the effect,
Perfeverance in the exercife of any good difpofition, is admitted as an evidence of its power; or is the indication of a mind exempt from those paffions or views which occafionally mislead the will, or interrupt the tenour of a virtuous conduct.
Hence it is, that a beneficent courfe of life, uniformly purfued; that duties performed in the midst of difficulty, danger, or unmerited obloquy, in the midft of allurements, that would feduce, in the midst of pain or fuffering, that would deprefs the mind, or daunt the refolution, as they carry evidence of a difpofition proportionally vigorous and unshaken, are justly estimated of the highest merit.
Hence it is alfo, that fuperftitious Afceticks having a view to the circumstances that would prove the force of a virtuous affection, if any fuch actually exifted, while they withdraw from the world, and fhun every occafion on which good difpofitions towards mankind are exerted, mistake fasting, abstinence, and corporal penances, for articles of merit towards God. They attach the esteem that is due to merit to the circumstances of difficulty or fuffering, in which merit if real might fhine out with advantage; but which voluntarily incurred, and without any rational object, only give evidence of misapprehenfion and folly.
Befides the immediate effects of wifdom and benevolence, which form the higeft order in the scale of merit, there are articles of inferior confideration, fuch as propriety, decency, civility and