Page images

perfect control of the tongue, that little member, which setteth on fire the course of things; men guard. ed in speech, careful of offence, using knowledge aright, who yet secretly cherish a spirit of unextinguishable resentment, and take no pains to conquer a passion, which they find it so easy to silence. There are others, who exhibit the utmost modesty of speech, temperance of appetites, and gentleness of passions, who yet indulge the wildest rovings of thought, and expatiate in the vainest reveries of an undisciplined imagination. Let us then consider the several provinces of self-government. And

1. The government of the thoughts. After all that has been written and recommended on the subject of self-command, the regulation of the thoughts has seldom drawn the attention of moralists. The imagination is supposed to be a faculty, which is not to be controlled, or directed. As our thoughts cannot be discerned by others, nor their habitual current determined by exterior observation, they do not enter into the estimate made of our characters by the world, and are, therefore, unregarded in our judg. ment of ourselves.

On the authority of silly maxims, like these, that thought is free as air, that no one cani help what he thinks, innumerable hours are wasted in idle reveries, without the hearing of censure or the suspicion of blame. But when we consider, how great a portion, even of the most active and busy life, must unavoidably be spent in thinking, and that complete inactivity is a state of mind unknown, even to the most sluggish of our race, the employment of the thoughts rises into unexpected importance, and constitutes no inconsiderable trait of character. The time, which we fondly supposed to be merely wasted in doing nothing, may have been busily employed in mischievous imaginations, and thus, what was considered as lost simply, is found to have been abused, When we reflect, also, that every licentious princi

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

ple, every criminal project, and every atrocious deed, is the fruit of a distempered fancy, whose rovings were originally unchecked, till thoughts grew into desires, desires ripened into resolves, and resolves terminated in execution, well may we tremble at discovering, how feeble is the control over our imaginations, which we have hitherto acquired. If we were asked, in the solemn language of the prophet, how long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you ? few of us, it is feared, could return a satisfactory answer.

It is, indeed, to be lamented, that our rules of vice and virtue are seldom to what passes within ourselves. Others must form their judgments of us from our actions and words only, but not so should we form our judgments of ourselves. The indulgence of a loose imagination is not a crime cognizable by the world, till it has betrayed itself in conversation, in writing, or in action. Thus, what others cannot censure, because they cannot know, we forget to estimate, or are afraid to examine, till correction is hopeless and impracticable. To suppress a rash speech, or curb a craving appetite, is sometimes attempted with success; but who ever thinks of checking a rising thought, or reining in a headstrong fancy? Who voluntarily draws off his attention from a seducing subject, or resolves to think no more of a favourite project, lest his imagination should lead him astray, lest his principles should be polluted, his temper injured, or his time wasted ? But out of the heart, says our Saviour, proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false-witness, blasphemies. At the head of this formidable enumeration are placed evil thoughts, the invisible, airy precursors of all the storms and tempests of the soul; and it would be no less absurd to use no precaution against the violence of the wind, because its motion is invisi. ble, than to take no care of our thoughts, because


their operations are unseen, and their tenour unmarked by others.

We do not say, that he, whose head teems with foolish fancies, is as reprehensible, as he who vents his folly in conversation, or who spreads it over the pages of a book; or that he, who suffers his imagination to dwell on impure ideas, or to portray licentious images, is guilty of a crime, as heinous as that of the wretch, who endeavours to inflame the lusts, or violate the purity of the innocent. We do not say, that Cæsar, brooding over his schemes of ambition in his tent, was as guilty as Cæsar passing the Rubicon, and turning his arms against his country; but we do say, that licentiousness of thought ever precedes licentiousness of conduct; and that many a crime, which stains the page of human nature, was generated in the retirement of the closet, in the hours of idle and listless thought, perhaps over the pages of a poisonous book, or during the contemplation of a licentious picture.

The hints, which we have now suggested, as to the importance of restraining the imagination, cannot be deemed improper in an age, of which it is the misfortune, to be inundated with books, whose smallest fault is their stupidity, and whose only permanent influence, where they have any, tends to pollute all the sources of reflection, to fill the fancy with figures unlike any thing in real life, the understanding with principles inapplicable, doubtful, or dangerous, and the heart with hopes, that it would be folly to realize, with wishes, which it would be ruin to gratify. The imagination, when completely distempered, is the most incurable of all disordered faculties. Watch, then, its first wanderings, and remember, that you have made little progress in the government of yourselves, if your thoughts disdain your control. Remember, also, that, when the thoughts are under habitual restraint, the government of the tongue, the appetites and passions easily follows.

2. The second branch of self-command is, the government of the tongue. If any man offend not in, word, the same is a perfect man. This will not appear an extravagant assertion, when we consider how numerous are the vices, in which this little member takes an active part; that it is this, which wearies us with garrulity, defames us with calumny, deceives us with falsehood"; and that, but for this, we should be no more offended with obsceneness, shocked with oaths, or overpowered with scandalous abuse. Well might the apostle write, if any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, that man's religion is vain.

If we consider these vices of the tongue in the order of their enormity, we shall see how easily one generates another. Talkativeness, the venial offspring of a lively, not to say an unrestrained fancy, hardly rises to a fault, till it is found, that he, who talks incessantly, must often talk foolishly, and that the prattle of a vain and itching tongue degenerates rapidly into that foolish talking and jesting, which, as an apostle says, are not convenient. Loquacity is for ward and assuming, and soon becomes tiresome. The story, a thousand times told, loses, at last, its humour; and a jest, a thousand times repeated, is despoiled of its point, and palls upon the ear. Something must then be found to revive flagging attention ; and what is so universally interesting as slander ? The faults of our neighbour are then dressed up all the charms of exaggeration; and the interest of a description is found to be amazingly heightened by a stroke of ridicule, or a tinge of sarcasm. In a list ening audience, at every new calumny passed upon another's reputation, some one is found, whose fancied credit revives, and rises on its ruins in all the lustre of comparison. The tongue then riots in its new


privilege, till, at length, 6 at every word a reputation dies." All this may be done without deliberate malignity, and without violation of truth ; because, to speak evil of most men, it is not necessary to speak falsehood, and to pour contempt upon another, it is not necessary to hate or to abhor him. Remember, then, that the tongue must be sometimes restrained, even in uttering truth. To justify a froward mouth by a zeal for truth, is commonly to assign, as a previous motive, what occurred only as an after apology. As we may flatter by an unseasonable and lavish expression of merited approbation, so we may calumniate by an incautious and unrestrained disclosure of real defects. A word spoken in due season, how good is it!-but remember, that death and life are in the power of the tongue, and the tongue of the wise only useth knowledge aright. Thus far the unguarded talker, we observe, may have proceeded without misrepresentation, and without mischievous intention; but he, whose vanity has been long flattered by the attention of an audience, will not easily relinquish the importance he bas acquired in particular circles, or see, without uneasiness, that interest decline, which his company has been accustomed to excite. Hence, as the stock of scandalous truths is exhausted, fiction lends her aid ; and he, who was before only a prater, a jester, or a tattler, degenerates into a liar, who entertains by falsehood, and a calumniator, who lives by abuse ; and instances are not unfrequent of men, whose moral sense, by a process similar to this

, has become so entirely obscured or corrupted, that they will utter falsehoods with the most unconscious rapidity, and the most unreflecting indifference. Such are the habits, which follow, in alarming progression, from an unrestrained indulgence of the tongue. Is not the danger formidable enough to induce us to say, I am purposed, that my mouth shall not transgress: 'I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »