The Influence of Opinion
August 25, 1801
Source: W&S 494-504

AMID the variety presented at this Anniversary, indulge us in asking your attention for a moment to the Influence and Instability of Opinion; a subject, although not entirely new, yet as little hackneyed as any that falls within the sphere of occasional declamation.

In literature, in religion, in polities and in manners ve equally recognize the vestiges and recount the triumphs of Opinion. No genius, however sublime or persevering, however discriminating or accurate, but has found itself, in a degree, baffled and perplexed by the authority of custom and the imposition of names.

Minutely to mark all the wanderings of sentiment would be endless, or, if not endless, impossible, since it would require us to run through the catalogue of human errors; but to point at instances, in which Opinion assumes the purple and dictates with imperial authority, may, perhaps be not unentertaining from the subject, though not embellished by the flights of genius, nor decorated with the effloresvence of Oratory.

We want not proof that man was made for improvement and excellence. His faculties, his feelings, his capability of investigation, and the variety of knowledge within the circle of his attainment, all concur in declaring to us, that human nature has in it the germs of greatness. We know, at the same time, however, that the dreams of enthusiasts, the golden age of science, the time when the apex of possible perfection is attained, never has been, and probably never will be realized. The ardent philanthropist of every age looking forward through the perspective of future years beholds, in his imaginations human nature rising like a pyramid, and the arts and seiences progressing without relapse or essential retardation.

But this is all delusion and a dream, the cobweb of fancy, brushed away by the essay s of experience; [the] majority of mankind are still in ignorance; as one nation rises to civilization, another sinks into barbarism; as art or science finds encouragement and cultivation, another is neglected and despised. To impute the direct causes that have thus retarded the progress of man, to moral depravity alone, might argue too great severity of stoicism. Various [causes7 undoubtedly contribute their force. Impatience of enquiry, peculiarities of temper, attachments and connexions, and among the rest, the corruption of the heart, have all their respective influence. But more consequential and pernicious than all these, is the blind obsequiousness to received Opinion, taking things at second hand and admitting them into a creed without care or examination; or on the other extreme, that infatuated love of novelty, which hurries us from one thing to another without order or control. rlshesft two ex1zrfhrrsrfu are produced by the same cause operating in in different ways. For the same feelings which tie a man down by dogmas which he receives from prescription, will, in every other freak of fancy, drive him from all his positions and bear him away into the new, the striking and the brilliant. Thus Opinion works wonders, without enlisting, as auxiliaries, other passions than the admiration of antiquity or novelty. Men will be too fond of old things or of new; and as the authority of the great and illustrious, or their particular caprice attaches them to the former or the latter, reason cannot prevail on them to relinquish their tenets. Hence a free, candid spirit of enquiry, a determination to appeal to self judgment, to discard, and reject each old and new absurdity, to retain and adopt each old and new improvement, has seldom prevailed in any age or nation.

XVho ever is read in the history of literature has seen this; has seen men relinquish the deeision of their oven understandings, travel through all the mazes of erratic Opinion and forsake the probability of attaining truth for the certainty of running into error. In one age a literary champion comes forward, broaches a new theory, and attempts to support it with the suS tilties of scholastic disquisition, or render it plausible by the flowers of rhetoric. One half the age anathematize hiln as an unprincipled innovator, while with the other his Opinion becomes literary law; to doubt it, is heresy. But, erelong a new systematizer appears, attacks the former doctrine and perhaps destroys it by argument, or overthrows it by ridicule. P2ans are immediately shouted to him as the great emancipator from prejudice, the restorer of true knowledge, a new-created sun in the firmament of science.

But amidst the bustle of applause, pushed on by order of discovery, he overshoots the mark, and carries mankind into the other extreme. True indeed, in mathematical philosophy, ire have a few truths from demonstration, which may constantly serve as rallying points to our speculations. In the plainer parts of metaphysics, too, we have certain knowledge; since the existence of a God, and some other propositions are as clearly demonstrable as any theorem in Euclid. But so soon as we step without the sphere of demonstration, we are embarked on an ocean, without pole star or compass.

There can be no better exemplification of the contradiction of sentiment on a subject of seience, than the contest between the material and ideal philosophers. The former, conversant with speculations about external bodies, lugged all their materialism into the doctrine of spirit. With them spirit must occupy space, can receive no impression without contact—there can be no thought without images, and in short, the soul, and even Deity must be material. The absurdities of this system being at length exhibited, its reformers, in their thirst for novelty, over reached all the bounds of common sense, and concluded we had no evidence of the real existence of any thing. A most extraordinary discovery indeed, and worthy the great geniuses that produced it! Common abilities could never conceive so great an inconsistency. It requires refinement and absurdity to draw such an inference from the premises that exist around Us. Who, of less talents than Berkley could ever convert hills and rivers into tumbled and aquaeous ideas 2 Or who but he, could pull the sun from his sphere by an argument of logic and place a burning idea in his stead ? Who, less than the fashionable Hume, after writing volumes on volumes of history, could set himself down to convince us that he had only been telling an Utopian tale; that his revolutions and conspiracies were mere creatures of fancy; that his Henrys and his Edwards were nothing but resemblances, and that he himself, in the height of his reputation, was, at best but a scribbling idea 2 As these philosophers were proof against the usual methods of conviction, their theory, however obviously inconsistent, was not easily refuted. But the practical part of their system exposed them to ridicule. Though they might tell us that mountains and seas, and temples were but ideas, yet a child of this doctrine, who had broken his skull upon a stone, made a contemptible figure in saying that he had beaten his brains out against an idea. But the fashion of this world passeth away, and Berkley and Hume and all their ideal associates are hastening toforgetfulness. In religion,the triumphs of Opinion and prejudice are no less splendid than in science. Look through the ages of Christianity, read the history of the persecutions, proscriptions, excommuni cations, beheadings and burnings that have harassed and destroyed the Protestants, and you will acknowledge that the colossal monument of religious tyranny has threatened to crush humanity. The princes and hierarchs of Europe have committed enormities at which human nature relents; and all under the specious pretext of supporting religion. But does religion delight in massacre and bloodshed ? Is it propagated by fire, sword and desolation ? Did religion suggest the edicts that banished the Huguenots of France ? does it glow in the thunders of the papal see ? does it stream in the blood of the inquisition, or ascend with the flames of marts rdom ? Did it wave the banners of the Cross over the South Americans, and drench in blood the plains of Mexico and Peru ? Was it religion, or was it a holy phrenzy that originated the crusades, and laid waste the regions of Palestina ? Ore on the other extreme, is religion emblazoned on the pasquinade at the palace of the Tuileries, which decrees death to be an eternal sleep ?

Is devotion monopolized by the inhabitants of a dull, gloomy forest, or shut within the dreary walls of a convent ? Has religion avowed open hostility with the passions and feelings of nature— passions and feelings which man receives from his God ? Behold the crippled pilgrim hobbling o'er mountains, and crossing extents of ocean, to bow and worship on the desolated ruins of Jerusalem; or wading through the blistering sands of Arabia, to bend before the tomb of Mahomet, and adore a delusion ! Are these the dictates of rational religion, or is it superstition, whose throne is girded in Ereban blackness, that belches forth these mists to benighten the intellect?

As we approach the world of politics, we enter in a region where Opinion has performed its greatest achievements; where it has started beyond the bounds of common reason, and pushed itself onward with the most eccentric flights of the human mind. What a difference between the political sentiments of this dad, and those entertained two centuries ago ! Man vgas then torpid and unfeeling under the thorny lash of oppression. A slavish dependency, and unconditional devotion to the will of his master, were his boast and glory. Slothful and inactive, ignorant and incapable of self judgment, he approached and prostrated himself at the throne of power, to receive at the same time his political creed and his religious principles.

These were the disgraceful feelings and sentiments that brutalized the mind under the reigns of the Stuarts and the Bourbons. Nothing then was heard but the " divine rights of Kings ! "—the rights of kings, to tyrannize and oppress —to proseribe and persecute—The rights of kings to barter their subjects like cattle—to war with each other till they destroy the inhabitants of half the globe !—to transport armies into the forests of Asia and America, and bear destruction to the hut of the savage ! The rights of kings, to commit to the Tower and the Bastile, the scaffold and the grave, without even the ceremonies of a trial ! Shocking, indeed, must be the degradation of the human mind, when such sentiments find advocates, and such outrages impunity! From this state of decrepitude and despondency, this abysm of slavery and wretchedness, man at length arose and like a bird just loosed from the snare, sought for safety in the opposite extreme. While he built an enormous mound to secure him from the approaches of the tyrant; while he entrenched himself in constitutions and compacts with his sovereign, and boasted in having erected sufficient barriers against the encroachments of prerogative, he unwarily left himself exposed to the attacks of that licentiousness, that disarms and dissipates, that unnerves and hebetates the energies of the mind. Thus one extreme alternates with another and from a superstitious rigidity, man falls away to a wicked laxity of principle. The " divine rights of kings " was perhaps as significant in the seventeenth century, as the " impreseriptible rights of man " in the nineteenth. That man, as a child of God, and a member of society, has rights essential and intransferable, is a truth; and a dear truth to the lovers of rational freedom. But that modern Opinion has annexed significations to the phrase, ridiculous and subversive of general happiness, can be denied only by fools and fanatics. These new-fangled rights of men, according to the definitions of the theorists of the day, have, in themselves, just as much meaning as the substantial forms of Aristotle; but in their consequences they have proved the wrongs of human nature, and destruction of the species. They are taught amidst the o rgies of a civic feast, and propagated at mouth of cannon, and point of the bayonet. They have these ten years shaken Europe to its centre, and the distant murmurings of the tempest they occasion, have been heard on the shores of Asia and America. They are planted on the blood-moistened soil of Germany, in the lowlands of Belgium; they are fostered amidst the howling desolations of the mountains of Switzerland; they are burning with the spires of Italy. They have transported the veterans of Europe into Africa, and are now swelling the Nile with the mixed blood of three quarters of the globe! They were cherished by a sea breeze off the Cape St. Vincent, at the Texel, in the bay of Aboukir and before Copenhagen.

But the rights of man are not the only novelties ushered in at the close of the last century. W oman also comes forward to prefer her claims, and she finds an advocate. The greatest innovations on the antiquated systems of government,the grandest illuminations which the new school has flashed on our eyes, are to be found in the writings of Mary Wolstoneraft, the unsexed authoress of the " rights of Woman." Mary has exercised her talents to raise the female mind from the mires of ignorance and the toy shops of vanity, and to give it dignity and character!

Here we might remark the great difference of Opinion on the subject of female education. Ask a North American the proper business of Woman, and he shall tell you it is the drudgery of his cornfield; an Asiatic, and he answers, to burn 11erself on the funeral pile of her husband; a young Parisian, and he sa) s (to be sure) to become an earthly goddess, illuminated and indescribable; to pursue the fashions, and to read a novel. But ask Mary Wolstoneraft, and she shall tell you a quite dif ferent story. She will have women legislators and magistrates, representatives to Congress, and ministers plenipotentiary. Instead of their toilette and their volume, she would have [them] spend their hours over French and British treaties; and instead of calculating their pin money, they are to become financiers to a nation.

It is not enough that the female can produce works like those of Moore or Morton; that the whole garden of Alienee lies open and invites the tender culture of their hands, but Mary would launch her sex indiscriminately on the ocean of polities, deep, rocky and tempestuous. But let us turn from theory to practice, from the lucubrations of Mary to the history of her life, and we shall find that prostitution and infamy are the " issue of the new system, certain, inevitable, irreversible." Opinion, in modern times, effects much by the magic of names. Some pompous title is sought for in the verbiage of empty declamation, and men are imposed on by sound for want of sense. Philosopher is an appellation, now appropriated to the most insignificant scribblers in existence Socrates and Plato were true philosophers—they were emphatically "lovers of wisdom." But had it been their allotment to live in the present age, their ideas would have been enlarged or they been pointed at as sons of delusion, and advocates for the reign of terror. Sons of delusion—because they believed the soul immortal—and advocates for the reign of terror, because they thought the malefactor should be punished. But who, that has the feelings of a man, who that has claims to common intelligence that would not despise to hear himself named philosopher, and to bear the title in common with the hosts of the day ? William Godwin has told us, that there is no more propriety in punishing the guilty than the innocent that the necessity of sleep in animal bodies would erelong be suspended; and that as the knowledge of physic progressed, man would be immortal on earth. These things were new, and astonishing; and they were suSivient. Godwin has immediately thirty notes of admiration suffixed to his name, and is set down for a philosopher !

Paine declared that revelation was a forgery; a masterly exertion of priestcraft and deception. This sufficed for him and though staggering with intoxication, the doors are thrown open, he is by many admitted to the superb palace of philosophy, and directed to a seat at the right hand of Godwin

The process of becoming a philosopher of the new kind is plain and easy. Let any man revile Christianity, let him exercise an uncontrollable and unconquerable malevolence to the clergy, and spin out some new political theory, Opinion immediately announces him a convert to reason, and decorates his temples with the garlands of philosophy. A swarm of disciples gathers around him, and shouts in the language of Lucullus " cedite Romani, cedite Graii ! "

These are the illusions of Opinion; thus does it sport with the imbecility of our nature, till it makes beings of perpetual change. Instead of the light of truth it displays to us an finis fatuus that bewilders our way, and wearies our steps; that leads into difficulties and entanglements, then vanishes away and leaves us in the dark.

The man, who can keep himself from all these aberrations is truly and characteristically great. Whoever can stand amidst the turmoil of passion and prejudice, amidst the confliet of the winds and waters of party and opinion, has more durable wreaths for his fame, than were ever woven in the schools of the new philosophy. This character was possessed, in a degree, by Locke and Newton. Though subject to errors, like other men, they had that consciousness of their own powers, that rendered them adequate to high improvements in seience. Nor would an American here fail to add the name of Washington; a name far excelling that of the Roman Cincinnatus. If there was a single trait of excellence in his character, it was this dependence on his own exertions, and rejection of the phantasms of Opinion. Washington had been just as great a man as he was, if the plains of Monmouth, the streams of Brandywine, or the walls of Yorktown had never existed. For his greatness was altogether internal; it consisted in a regular and compacted syF tern of passions and powers arranged in a manner that gave him, at once, energy and moderation; and the brilliant achievements were only the outward expressions of what existed in his mind. Self collected, he could stand unmoved in " the rocking of the battlements; " was a bulwark in the "iron front of war;" and a guardian and guide in the councils of his country.

With such examples before us, let us endeavor to collect principles, that may direct us in a path which leads not into the mazes of Opinion; let our sentiments be immovable by any other powers than truth and conviction; and let neither tergiversation nor seduction attach us to the systems of those opinionated visionaries, who mistake the fantastic dreamsof their own minds for the oracles of philosophy.

GENTLEMEN OF TRE SOCIETY,

Occasions like the present have commonly called from your orator a valedictory address; and perhaps there are few periods in life, when the sympathies of nature are more irresistibly excited. Science unites the hearts of her votaries, and whet they have paid their incense together on her altars, a separation is painful, and agonizing. But indiscriminately to address BUCh a mixed assemblage as IIOW celebrate our anniversary, were unapt and incongruous. Among you are those who have long since advanced beyond the years of their pupilage, and are now high in the ranks of honor and eminence. We consider yogi Gentlemen, as our patterns and directors; we consider your names as doing honor to our registry, and we are confident, that if in us, your younger brothers, you find any genius, if you find any merit, they will meet your patronage and reward. And though engaged in the active employments of life, in the service of God and our country, you will yet cherish the remembrance of this Institution, where you first sipped the dews of instruction, and tasted the sweets of science.

Our Brothers, who have longer here to continue, will accept our gratulations on the respectability of their standing. Persevere in industry and improvement, and you may expect the completion of your wishes. Let your conduct be open and manly, and never bow to those contracted notions, which would tie you to sect or party; be lovers of virtue and excellence, and foes to vice and meanness, wherever found or by whomsoever possessed. Opinion has told you that College is the temple of fame; that the academic amaranths bestowed by an University will blossom forever. But this is a mistake. The laurels of fame are reaped in more extensive fields; in scenes of hazard and danger; or earned by a life of labor and contemplation. For these things be prepared, and look forward with a noble and virtuous emulation. Those of us who are now about to leave you, and to step on to a new scene in the drama, have emotions which we cannot express. We proffer you our tenderest feelings, our sincerest affections; and as the dearest pledges of our confidence, we commit to your guardianship the constitution of the Society, the pages that infold our friendship. Wherever we may be called, to scenes of prosperity or misery, peace or war, our prayers will constantly ascend for your felicity. Happy were it, if these observations could close our subject. But, Alas, the badges you assume would remind, if it were necessary, that the most painful, the most agonizing part of our duty remains unperformed ! You are now to carry back your mind to that distressful period, when the ravages of death tore from our bosoms a brother and a friend. You remember that Simonds fell in the morn of manhood; you remember the agony of your spirit as you followed his pallid corpse to the grave.

" The turf tear-moistened, the dull cypress gloom,
And every sad appendage of the tomb,''
will ever live in your recollection, and your united affections will bless his memory. Simonds has set an example; be it ours to learn wisdom; like him let us be virtuous, like him let us be religious, and meet him again in realms of blessedness; and as he here bade us welcome to his friendship, so there he shall again acknowledge us, and with the smile of an angel address us, " Welcome, my Brethren ! "


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