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Memoirs of John Urquhart
Appendix F


ON WRITTEN LANGUAGE.

The acknowledged priority of spoken to written language, appears to us a very decisive argument for the divine origin of the latter.

Among those who hold that language is a mere human invention, there have been two opinions, some maintaining that substantives, or the names of external objects would be the words first invented, and others holding that verbs or words expressive of the mutual relations of objects, must have existed anterior to these, as an individual would not think of naming an object, until he had been in some way or other affected by its properties. On either of these hypotheses, it seems to us very obvious, that it would occur much more readily to the mind of a savage to represent his ideas by forms than by sounds. If he wished to particularize any object that was near, he would point to it; and if he wished to express the relation between any two objects, he would, in all probability, point first to the one, and then to the other; or, if the objects were movable, he might express the same idea by bringing them into actual contact.

Were these objects removed from his view, so that he could no longer express his idea by pointing to them, the most natural resource that could occur to him, would be to produce, if possible, a resemblance to the objects, and now to point to these, as he had formerly done to the objects themselves.

As there are comparatively few objects that utter sound; and as the sounds cannot be distinctly imitated by human voice; and, as on the other hand, all external objects have a form which can in general be easily represented, it would probably occur to him, that to delineate the absent objects would be the best method of representing them. If he wished to express some relation existing between two objects, he would express the idea as before, by representing the symbols of two objects in a state of contact.

Thus, had man been the inventor of language, we should have expected that at first men would have expressed their ideas by written symbols accompanied by gestures, and now and then perhaps by the utterance of such articulate sounds, as evidently resembled the idea they intended to express. But quite the reverse of this is admitted by those who maintain that language is of human origin, and while they do not deny that a slight degree of civilization is necessary before men begin to express their ideas by symbols, which bear some resemblance to the objects they are intended to represent, these philologists are guilty of very gross inconsistency in attributing to the most barbarous savages, a discovery of a much higher order, even the discovery of spoken language, where ideas are represented by sounds almost entirely arbitrary.

On this subject, as on most others, men of different parties seem to have run into opposite extremes. Some of the advocates of revelation, thinking they perceived it clearly declared there, that language is of divine origin, jealous of the least infringement on the authority of the sacred volume, have attempted to prove the unqualified proposition, that language is the gift of God. A hold has thus been given to their opponents, as it is evident from the very nature of the expressions, that many, if not most of the words in every language have been invented by man. The mere philologist again, in attempting to philosophize on language as a mere human invention, has landed himself in the absurdity of attributing the sublime discovery of the power of speech, to an age confessedly too barbarous to make the much more simple discovery of symbolical language. Revelation and sound philosophy in this case, as in all others, are at one. Language was originally the gift of God, and no doubt, for a considerable time, the same language. It may have been a language of the simplest kind, and in all probability was so. And yet, although there had been no multiplying of the languages of the earth, and the passage of Scripture in reference to this bears another signification which has been sometimes assigned to it, that "God confounded their works;" still we say, from this one original tongue, there may easily have emerged all the languages on the face of our earth. When we consider the great changes that have taken place in modern languages in a comparatively short time, how easy would it be for a language to be entirely changed, when there was almost no communication between different countries?

On the supposition that language is of human origin, we should be inclined to favour the former of these hypotheses, although we confess, from the very able treatise on this subject which was delivered a few weeks ago from our Humanity Chair, we had almost been led to give the preference to the latter. Place a number of children in a room by themselves, say the advocates of the first hypothesis, and the first thing they would set about, would be, to give names to the objects around them. This, however, say those who hold by the other supposition, suppose that the children have been previously acquainted with language. Were it otherwise, no child would give a name to an object, until it had, in some way or other, affected his own person, and then he would name the object from its felt effects. Thus, it is said, he would call fire the burner, water the cooler, &c.

There is a difficulty, however, connected with this hypothesis, notwithstanding its plausibility, which would lead us, were we at all inclined to think language a human invention, to give the preference to the other. Before the child could make his companions understand what was meant by the name burner, he must have first communicated to them the meaning of the verb to burn.

* * * * * *

In the discussions of Political Economy, the subject of ecclesiastical establishments necessarily finds a place. Dr. Chalmers naturally and properly discusses them in his prelections. Though unacquainted with the arguments employed in his lectures to his class, those who have read his volumes on "Christian and Civic Economy," cannot be altogether ignorant of his views. Those volumes I have read with some attention, and greatly admire the ingenious and often conclusive reasonings of their eloquent and candid author on many of the points which he discusses. But I do not hesitate to say, that on his own principles as a political economist, he begs the question in regard to civil establishments of religion; he assumes what he ought first to have proved, and reasons on premises not sufficiently established. And, if certain data laid down by himself be incontrovertible, the defence of such institutions is, in my opinion, rendered impracticable. If bounties and drawbacks are invaribly injurious to commerce; if chartered companies and monopolies are destructive to the natural operations of enterprise and labour: if fair trade, and fair competition, ought to be allowed and encouraged in regard to all other things, I do not perceive how religion should be excluded from the same benefit. With the religious question I have here nothing to do; that rests on different principles, and must be met on different grounds. But I am not the only person who wishes most ardently that Dr. Chalmers would fairly meet the subject on its true merits as a question of Political Economy. He will forgive me for saying, in this public manner, what I know to be the opinion of many of his own pupils, as well as of others, that he is called upon to do so: for, if his politico-economical principles should be once firmly fixed in this country, they would do more to lessen and destroy the faith of the country in the necessity and beneficial tendency of church establishments, than any other thing.

I am led to make these observations, by finding among the papers of my young friend, a fragment on this subject, which refers to the views and reasonings of Dr. Chalmers, and which shows, while it shows no more, that they had not produced conviction on his mind. The truly catholic spirit of the writer is strongly marked; and I can only regret that the paper was left unfinished.

ON RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS.

In the history of nations, we often find that those states which had been united in the closest alliance by the approach of some common enemy, have no sooner succeeded in their efforts to repel him, than there have again burst forth between them those ancient feuds and dissensions which the common danger had for a while extinguished. And such too has been the case among different sects of Christians. The doctrines of Christianity are of such a nature, that in order to experience their efficacy we must judge of them for ourselves. They cannot, like algebra and political economy, be transmitted unaltered from one mind to another. All those who give sufficient attention to a mathematical problem, however varied may be the conformation of their minds, will come exactly to the same conclusion. Such truths are not affected by the peculiar conformation of the mind through which they pass. But it is quite the reverse with the truths of Christianity. And, accordingly, though we may find many whose philosophical or political creed agrees in every iota, yet we know not if there can be found any two Christians whose theological views entirely coincide. Were every one to resolve to hold communion with none but those whose theological creed in every point coincided with his own, there would in all likelihood, be in the Christian Church, nearly as many sects as there are members.

They are only the externals of Christianity, however, about which Christians are divided; concerning those grand doctrines which distinguish it from every other religion, they are perfectly agreed. In times of persecution, accordingly, we find, that their petty differences are forgotten, and they rally with one accord to defend the bulwarks of their common faith. And no sooner was our land favoured with the inestimable blessing of religious toleration, than religionists began to be divided into different sects or parties. This of itself, however distressing it may appear at first sight, we consider as a matter of rejoicing, rather than regret.

There seems to be a final cause in even this imperfection of our Christian knowledge. There is a generous emulation thus maintained in the walks of Christianity, and a greater provoking of one another to good works, than if all were perfectly agreed. But there is a spirit of sectarianism, which, in this state of things, is too apt to break forth among all parties, a desire to magnify those matters about which Christians differ, and thereby to forget those sublimer truths concerning which they are agreed.

It must be matter of regret to every one of a really catholic spirit, and who has the interests of genuine religion seriously at heart, that so much has been said, and so much has been written about the merest trifles in the externals of Christianity, while those who have been keenest in the controversy have frequently been forgetful of those grander truths, which imparted to the matters about which they were contending, all their weight and all their importance. Insignificant and unimportant, however, as we believe these matters to be, when compared with the vital doctrines of Christianity; yet, viewed abstractly, or, in comparison of earthly things, we deem them of the highest and most serious import. While it seems imperiously our duty to attend to the spiritual things of religion, it seems equally our duty not to neglect those external regulations which are intended to preserve the purity and spirituality of our faith.

Of all those inferior points about which Christians disagree, the question of religious establishments is perhaps the most important. We confess that, from our education, all our prejudices have been against church establishments; and it is, perhaps, on this account that that powerful argumentation, which has appeared and so luminous and so satisfactory to others, has failed to produce upon our minds the same effect. It has very much enlightened, but it has not convinced us. We waive, at present, the consideration of any religious establishments that have ever existed, or of our national establishments as they exist at present.

* * * * * *

ON THE LOVE OF FAME.

"And seekest thou great things for thyself?" &c.
JEREMIAH.

I have often thought it peculiarly interesting to compare that morality which is to be found in the systems of ancient philosophy, with the morality which is contained in the Bible; to see the heart of man still reflecting, though dimly and imperfectly, that image which was stamped upon it at first; to observe the harmonious accordance which obtains between the law that is written in the heart, and the law which has been revealed to us by the Spirit of God, and thus to identify that God who hath formed the heart of man, with that God, who, in times past, spake unto the fathers by the prophets; and who hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.

Some of these theories of the ancients are so beautiful, and so perfect, that we are apt to feel disappointed that their practical influence was not extensively and powerfully felt. But we shall not wonder at this, if we consider how difficult it is to arrest the attention by abstract truths; and how little of practical efficacy there is in such truths, even when most fully apprehended. To cultivate any feeling, we must not look to the feeling itself, but to the object which naturally excites it. And in this point of view we may behold the vast superiority of the Christian religion, to every other, as a system of practical morality.

Here the abstract principles of natural religion are embodied in facts: and all that we have to do is to direct the attention to these facts, and the proper state of feeling is the invariable and immediate result.

But not only are the symptoms of the ancient philosophers deficient in practical efficacy; they are even imperfect as theories of morality. Pure and elevated as they appear, when viewed abstractly and in themselves, they cannot stand a comparison with that purer system which has been given us by revelation.

To most of the precepts which are given us in the Bible, we can find some counterpart in the writings of heathen philosophers; but there is one virtue which we hesitate not to say, is more frequently inculcated in the Bible, than any other, for a counterpart to which you may search the whole writings of ancient philosophy, and find nothing that bears to it the most distant resemblance. Never did there come from the pen of a heathen, sentiments like those contained in our motto: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not." It is a very striking fact, that, in the language of Greece and Rome, there is not a word to express humility as a virtue: those words which are generally used signify rather meanness, and that crouching to power, which is the feeling not of a humble, but of a dastardly spirit. On the other hand, pride and haughtiness were considered as the concomitants of prowess and bravery; and hence the heroes of ancient poetry are generally furnished with an abundant portion of both.

Yes, that vice which we inherit from the author of our misery, lurks too successfully in the recesses of the human bosom, to be covered by the light of reason alone; it requires a more searching scrutiny to drag it from that place, while it has taken up its abode in the inmost penetralia of our souls. In the present depraved state of the human heart, it is difficult to distinguish between those desires and propensities which may have once been pure, but which, at the fall, were perverted; and those which are radically evil, and which could not have existed in the heart of man, in his state of original purity. Without hesitation, we would class pride in the latter division, as a feeling altogether of demoniacal origin; and which could not exist in the mind of a pure and holy being.

But though we can thus give a most unhesitating deliverance with regard to this vice itself, there are some of its modifications about which we cannot pronounce so decidedly. The desire of fame, and the desire of power, and all that is described in our text by the seeking after great things, have so often been declared by their theological writers to be innocent, if not laudable propensities, that we almost feel as if it were presumption for us to give it as our opinion, that they are inimical to the spirit of true religion.

It may be true, that such feelings existed in the bosom of our first parents, before their expulsion from the blissful abodes of Eden; and that they vied with each other to gain the favour and applause perhaps of their God. And it may be true, that there is among the angels a generous emulation, to provoke each other to good works; but still we think it true, that in our present condition, it is extremely dangerous, if not sinful, to give way to this propensity.

It may be argued, indeed, that the love of praise operates as a very powerful principle in restraining many of the fiercer passions, and that without it the moral world would soon become a scene of wild confusion and disorder; but in the same manner might we plead for anger and selfishness, and even avarice itself. These are all very powerful checks in restraining many of our grosser propensities, and to them we are indebted for many of the decencies which adorn civilized society; but who would make this a plea for their virtuousness?

There is one circumstance which makes the love of fame a very dangerous propensity; it is the very low standard of virtue which generally prevails in the world. Were the standard a perfect one, then would the case be different. He only would be praised, who was truly virtuous, and the love of fame would be identical with the love of virtue. But this, alas, is not the case. The men of the world have fixed on a standard of virtue convenient for themselves; and whoever by his actions goes beyond this standard, tacitly pronounces condemnation upon them, and most assuredly will meet with their hatred and disapprobation. It is thus that the most virtuous in all ages have been met with ignominy and contempt. And it is thus that this deference to the opinion of the world has diverted many from the conscientious performance of what they knew to be right.

Thus, even in a worldly point of view, and considered merely as an abstract question in morals, would we consider the opinions of our fellow-men a most improper standard whereby to regulate our actions. But when we add yet another element, and consider the subject as it bears upon our religious character, when we consider it not only as it affects our duty to our fellow-men, but as it affects our duty to God, we shall feel that to make the praise of men the standard of our conduct is still more dangerous.

The love of praise is, perhaps, an original principle of our constitution; and if it be, then it were vain to attempt its annihilation. Nor is this required of us. All that we are bid to do in the Bible, is to give it a new direction. And the condemnation of the Pharisees of old, was not that they loved praise, but that they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

We know of no feeling in our constitution which is stronger, which is more difficult to overcome than the love of fame, or the love of praise, for we hold them to be very nearly the same. So strong is it, that it is capable of carrying us through the greatest difficulties and dangers, of enabling us to persevere in the most unwearied exertion, and urging us onward even to death itself.

What is it that animates the breast of the enterprising traveller, in his laborious researches?

* * * * * *


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