A Dissertation Concerning 
The Nature Of True Virtue

Jonathan Edwards

[abridged by Charles Bellinger]


Showing wherein the essence of true virtue consists.

WHATEVER controversies and variety of opinions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all excepting some skeptics, who deny any real difference between virtue and vice, mean by it, something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency. [snip]

But virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, i.e., such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise, or blame. Things of this sort, it is generally agreed, so far as I know, do not belong merely to speculation; but to the disposition and will, or to the heart. Therefore, I suppose I shall not depart from the common opinion, when I say, that virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them. So that when it is inquired, what is the nature of true virtue? this is the same as to inquire, what that is, which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful.

[snip] That only, therefore, is what I mean by true virtue, which, belonging to the heart of an intelligent being, is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to every thing with which it stands in connection. And therefore, when we are inquiring concerning the nature of true virtue, — wherein this true and general beauty of the heart does most essentially consist — this is my answer to the inquiry: —

True virtue most essentially consists in BENEVOLENCE TO BEING IN GENERAL. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.

[snip] And if every intelligent being is some way related to being in general, and is a part of the universal system of existence; and so stands in connection with the whole; what can its general and true beauty be, but its union and consent with the great whole?

[snip] no exercise of love, or kind affection, to any one particular being, that is but a small part of this whole, has any thing of the nature of true virtue. But that the nature of true virtue consists in a disposition to benevolence towards being in general; though from such a disposition may arise exercises of love to particular beings, as objects are presented and occasions arise. [snip] But my meaning is, that no affections towards particular persons or beings are of the nature of true virtue, but such as arise from a generally benevolent temper, or from that habit or frame of mind, wherein consists a disposition to love being in general.

[snip] Love is commonly distinguished into love of benevolence and love of complacence [delight]. Love of benevolence is that affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness. [snip] And benevolence or goodness in the Divine Being is generally supposed, not only to be prior to the beauty of many of its objects, but to their existence; so as to be the ground both of their existence and their beauty, rather than they the foundation of God’s benevolence; as it is supposed that it is God’s goodness which moved him to give them both being and beauty. So that if all virtue primarily consists in that affection of heart to being, which is exercised in benevolence, or an inclination to its good, then God’s virtue is so extended as to include a propensity, not only to being actually existing and actually beautiful, but to possible being, so as to incline him to give being beauty and happiness.

[snip] the primary object of virtuous love is being simply considered; or that true virtue primarily consists, not in love to any particular beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to being simply considered; exciting absolute benevolence, if I may so call it, to being in general. I say, true virtue primarily consists in this. [snip]

The first object of a virtuous benevolence is being, simply considered: and if being, simply considered, be its object, then being in general is its object; and what it has an ultimate propensity to, is the highest good of being in general. And it will seek the good of every individual being unless it be conceived as not consistent with the highest good of being in general. In which case the good of a particular being, or some beings, may be given up for the sake of the highest good of being in general. And particularly, if there be any being statedly and irreclaimably opposite, and an enemy to being in general, then consent and adherence to being in general will induce the truly virtuous heart to forsake that enemy, and to oppose it.

Further, if BEING, simply considered, be the first object of a truly virtuous benevolence, then that being who has most of being, or has the greatest share of existence, other things being equal, so far as such a being is exhibited to our faculties, will have the greatest share of the propensity and benevolent affection of the heart. [snip]

The second object of a virtuous propensity of heart is benevolent being. A secondary ground of pure benevolence is virtuous benevolence itself in its object. When anyone under the influence of general benevolence, sees another being possessed of the like general benevolence, this attaches his heart to him, and draws forth greater love to him, than merely his having existence: because so far as the being beloved has love to being in general, so far his own being is, as it were, enlarged, extends to, and in some sort comprehends, being in general: and therefore, he that is governed by love to being in general, must of necessity have complacence [delight] in him, and the greater degree of benevolence to him. [snip] But several things may be noted more particularly concerning this secondary ground of a truly virtuous love.

1. That loving a being on this ground necessarily arises from pure benevolence to being in general, and comes to the same thing. For he that has a simple and pure good will to general existence, must love that temper in others, that agrees and conspires with itself. A spirit of consent to being must agree with consent to being. That which truly and sincerely seeks the good of others, must approve of, and love, that which joins with him in seeking the good of others.

2. This secondary ground of virtuous love, is the thing wherein true moral or spiritual beauty primarily consists. [snip]

3. As all spiritual beauty lies in these virtuous principles and acts, so it is primarily on this account they are beautiful, viz. that they imply consent and union with being in general. This is the primary and most essential beauty of every thing that can justly be called by the name of virtue, or is any moral excellency in the eye of one that has a perfect view of things. [snip]

6. It is impossible that anyone should truly relish this beauty, consisting in general benevolence, who has not that temper himself. I have observed, that if any being is possessed of such a temper, he will unavoidably be pleased with the same temper in another. And it may in like manner be demonstrated, that it is such a spirit, and nothing else, which will relish such a spirit. For if a being, destitute of benevolence, should love benevolence to being in general, it would prize and seek that for which it had no value. For how should one love and value a disposition to a thing, or a tendency to promote it, and for that very reason, when the thing itself is what he is regardless of, and has no value for, nor desires to have promoted.


Showing how that love, wherein true virtue, consists, respects the Divine Being and created beings.

FROM what has been said, it is evident, that true virtue must chiefly consist in LOVE TO GOD; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best. This appears, whether we consider the primary or secondary ground of virtuous love. It was observed, that the first objective ground of that love, wherein true virtue consists, is BEING simply considered: and, as a necessary consequence of this, that being who has the greatest share of universal existence has proportionably the greatest share of virtuous benevolence, so far as such a being is exhibited to the faculties of our minds, other things being equal. But God has infinitely the greatest share of existence. So that all other being, even the whole universe, is as nothing in comparison of the Divine Being.

And if we consider the secondary ground of love, or moral excellency, the same thing will appear. For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who has an infinite fullness of brightness and glory. God’s beauty is infinitely more valuable than that of all other beings upon both those accounts mentioned, viz. the degree of his virtue, and the greatness of his being, possessed of this virtue. And God has sufficiently exhibited himself, both in his being, and his infinite greatness and excellency: and has given us faculties, whereby we are capable of plainly discovering his immense superiority to all other beings, in these respects. Therefore, he that has true virtue, consisting in benevolence to being in general, and in benevolence to virtuous being, must necessarily have a supreme love to God, both of benevolence and complacence [delight]. And all true virtue must radically and essentially, and, as it were, summarily, consist in this. Because God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being, but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.

[snip] There seems to be an inconsistency in some writers on morality, in this respect, that they do not wholly exclude a regard to the Deity out of their schemes of morality, but yet mention it so slightly, that they leave me room and reason to suspect they esteem it a less important and subordinate part of true morality; and insist on benevolence to the created system, in such a manner as would naturally lead one to suppose they look upon that as by far the most important and essential thing in their scheme. But why should this be? If true virtue consists partly in a respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it. If true morality requires that we should have some regard, some benevolent affection to our Creator, as well as to his creatures, then doubtless it requires the first regard to be paid to him; and that he be every way the supreme object of our benevolence. If his being above our reach, and beyond all capacity of being profited by us, does not hinder, but that nevertheless he is the proper object of our love, then it does not hinder that he should be loved according to his dignity, or according to the degree in which he has those things wherein worthiness of regard consists, so far as we are capable of it. But this worthiness, none will deny, consists in these two things, greatness and moral goodness. And those that own a God, do not deny that he infinitely exceeds all other beings in these. If the Deity is to be looked upon as within that system of beings which properly terminates our benevolence, or belonging to that whole, certainly he is to be regarded as the head of the system, and the chief part of it: if it be proper to call him a part, who is infinitely more than all the rest, and in comparison of whom, and without whom, all the rest are nothing, either as to beauty or existence. And therefore certainly, unless we will be atheists, we must allow that true virtue does primarily and most essentially consist in a supreme love to God; and that where this is wanting, there can be no true virtue.

But this being a matter of the highest importance, I shall say something further to make it plain, that love to God is most essential to true virtue; and that no benevolence whatsoever to other beings can be of the nature of true virtue without it.

And therefore, let it be supposed, that some beings, by natural instinct, or by some other means, have a determination of mind to union and benevolence to a particular person, or private system,  which is but a small part of the universal system of being: and that this disposition or determination of mind is independent on, or not subordinate to, benevolence to being in general. Such a determination, disposition, or affection of mind is not of the nature of true virtue.

[snip] However, it may not be amiss more particularly to consider the reasons why private affections, or good will limited to a particular circle of beings, falling infinitely short of the whole existence, and not dependent upon it, nor subordinate to general benevolence, cannot be of the nature of true virtue.

Such a private affection, detached from general benevolence, and independent on it, as the case may be, will be against general benevolence, or of a contrary tendency; and will set a person against general existence, and make him an enemy to it. As it is with selfishness, or when a man is governed by a regard to his own private interest, independent of regard to the public good, such a temper exposes a man to act the part of an enemy to the public. As, in every case wherein his private interest seems to clash with the public; or in all those cases wherein such things are presented to his view, that suit his personal appetites or private inclinations, but are inconsistent with the good of the public. On which account, a selfish, contracted, narrow spirit is generally abhorred, and is esteemed base and sordid. [snip]

[snip] ... the divine virtue, or the virtue of the divine mind, must consist primarily in love to himself, or in the mutual love and friendship which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead, or that infinitely strong propensity there is in these divine persons one to another. There is no need of multiplying words, to prove that it must be thus, on a supposition that virtue, in its most essential nature, consists in benevolent affection or propensity of heart towards being in general; and so flowing out to particular beings, in a greater or lesser degree, according to the measure of existence and beauty which they are possessed of. It will also follow, from the foregoing things, that God’s goodness and love to created beings, is derived from and subordinate to his love to himself.

With respect to the manner in which a virtuous love in created beings, one to another, is dependent on, and derived from love to God, this will appear by a proper consideration of what has been said; that it is sufficient to render love to any created being, virtuous, if it arise from the temper of mind wherein consists a disposition to love God supremely. Because it appears from what has been already observed, all that love to particular beings, which is the fruit of a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general is virtuous love. But, as has been remarked, a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general, and a temper or disposition to love God supremely, are in effect the same thing. [snip]

The most proper evidence of love to a created being, arising from that temper of mind wherein consists a supreme propensity of heart to God, seems to be the agreeableness of the kind and degree of our love to God’s end in our creation, and in the creation of all things, and the coincidence of the exercise of our love, in their manner, order, and measure, with the manner in which God himself exercises love to the creature in the creation and government of the world, and the way in which God, as the first cause and supreme disposer of all things, has respect to the creature’s happiness, in subordination to himself as his own supreme end. For the true virtue of created beings is doubtless their highest excellency, and their true goodness, and that by which they are especially agreeable to the mind of their Creator. But the true goodness of a thing, must be its agreeableness to its end, or its fitness to answer the design for which it was made. Therefore, they are good moral agents, whose temper of mind, or propensity of heart, is agreeable to the end for which God made moral agents. But, as has been shown, the last end for which God has made moral agents, must be the last end for which God has made all things: it being evident, that the moral world is the end of the rest of the world; the inanimate and unintelligent world being made for the rational and moral world, as much as a house is prepared for the inhabitants.

By these things, it appears, that a truly virtuous mind, being as it were under the sovereign dominion of love to God, above all things, seeks the glory of God, and makes this his supreme, governing, and ultimate end. This consists in the expression of God’s perfections in their proper effects, — the manifestation of God’s glory to created understandings, — the communications of the infinite fullness of God to the creature, — the creature’s highest esteem of God, love to, and joy in him, — and in the proper exercises and expressions of these. And so far as a virtuous mind exercises true virtue in benevolence to created beings, it chiefly seeks the good of the creature; consisting in its knowledge or view of God’s glory and beauty, its union with God, conformity and love to him, and joy in him. And that disposition of heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind to being in general, which appears chiefly in such exercises, is VIRTUE, truly so called; or in other words, true GRACE and real HOLINESS. And no other disposition or affection but this is of the nature of true virtue.

Corollary. Hence it appears, that those schemes of religion or moral philosophy, which — however well in some respects they may treat of benevolence to mankind, and other virtues depending on it, yet — have not a supreme regard to God, and love to him, laid as the foundation, and all other virtues handled in a connection with this, and in subordination to it, are not true schemes of philosophy, but are fundamentally and essentially defective. And whatever other benevolence or generosity towards mankind, and other virtues, or moral qualifications which go by that name, any are possessed of, that are not attended with a love to God, which is altogether above them, and to which they are subordinate, and on which they are dependent, there is nothing of the nature of true virtue or religion in them. And it may be asserted in general, that nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last; or which, with regard to their exercises in general, have not their first foundation and source in apprehensions of God’s supreme dignity and glory, and in answerable esteem and love of him, and have not respect to God as the supreme end.


Of Self-Love, and its various Influence, to cause Love to others, or the Contrary.

[snip] a man’s love to those that love him, is no more than a certain expression or effect of self-love. — No other principle is needful in order to the effect, if nothing intervenes to countervail the natural tendency of self-love. — Therefore there is no more true virtue in a man thus loving his friends merely from self-love, than there is in self-love itself, the principle from whence it proceeds. So a man being disposed to hate those that hate him, or to resent injuries done him, arises from self-love, in like manner as loving those that love us, and being thankful for kindness shown us.

[snip] ... it seems to us no other than just, that as they love us and do us good, we also should love them and do them good. And so it seems just, that when others’ hearts oppose us, and they from their hearts do us hurt, our hearts should oppose them, and that we should desire themselves may suffer in like manner as we have suffered, i. e. there appears to us to be a natural agreement, proportion, and adjustment between these things; which is indeed a kind of moral sense, or sense of beauty in moral things. But, as was before shown, it is a moral sense of a secondary kind, and is entirely different from a sense or relish of the original: essential beauty of true virtue; and may be without any principle of true virtue in the heart. Therefore, doubtless, it is a great mistake in any to suppose, that the moral sense which appears and is exercised in a sense of desert, is the same thing as a love of virtue, or a disposition and determination of mind to be pleased with true virtuous beauty, consisting in public benevolence. [snip]


Of natural conscience, and the moral sense

THERE is yet another disposition or principle, of great importance, natural to mankind; which, if we consider the consistence and harmony of nature’s laws, may also be looked upon as, in some sort, arising from self-love, or self-union; and that is, a disposition in man to be uneasy in a consciousness of being inconsistent with himself, and as it were against himself in his own actions. This appears particularly in the inclination of the mind to be uneasy in the consciousness of doing that to others, which he should be angry with them for doing to him, if they were in his case, and he in theirs; or of forbearing to do that to them, which he would be displeased with them for neglecting to do to him.

I have observed, from time to time, that in pure love to others, i.e. love not arising from self-love, there is an union of the heart with others; a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves. So, self-love implies an inclination to feel and act as one with ourselves; which naturally renders a sensible inconsistency with ourselves, and self-opposition in what we ourselves choose and do, to be uneasy to the mind: which will cause uneasiness of mind to be the consequence of a malevolent and unjust behavior towards others, and a kind of disapprobation of acts of this nature, and an approbation of the contrary. To do that to another, which we should be angry with him for doing to us, and to hate a person for doing that to us, which we should incline to and insist on doing to him, if we were exactly in the same case, is to disagree with ourselves, and contradict ourselves. It would be for ourselves both to choose and adhere to, and yet to refuse and utterly reject, the very same thing. No wonder this is contrary to nature. No wonder, that such a self-opposition, and inward war with a man’s self, naturally begets unquietness, and raises disturbance in his mind.

Thus approving of actions, because we therein act as in agreement with ourselves; and thus disapproving, and being uneasy in the consciousness of disagreeing with ourselves, in what we do, is quite a different thing from approving or disapproving actions because in them we are united with being in general: which is loving or hating actions from a sense of the primary beauty of true virtue, and of the odiousness of sin. The former of these principles is private; the latter is public, and truly benevolent in the highest sense. The former — an inclination to agree with ourselves — is a natural principle: but the latter — an agreement or union of heart to the great system, and to God the head of it, who is all and all in it — is a divine principle.

[snip] Approbation and disapprobation of conscience, in the sense now explained, will extend to all virtue and vice; to every thing whatsoever that is morally good or evil, in a mind which does not confine its view to a private sphere, but will take things in general into its consideration, and is free from speculative error. For, as all virtue or moral good may be resolved into love to others, either God or creatures; so, men easily see the uniformity and natural agreement there is between loving others, and being accepted and favored by others. And all vice, sin, or moral evil summarily consisting in the want of this love to others, or in malevolence; so, men easily see the natural agreement there is between hating and doing ill to others, and being hated by them, and suffering ill from them, or from him that acts for all, and has the care of the whole system. And as this sense of equality and natural agreement extends to all moral good and evil; so, this lays a foundation of an equal extent with the other kind of approbation and disapprobation which is grounded upon it, arising from an aversion to self-inconsistency and opposition. For in all cases of benevolence, or the contrary, towards others, we are capable of putting ourselves in the place of others, and are naturally led to do it; and so of being conscious to ourselves, how we should like or dislike such treatment from others. Thus natural conscience, if the understanding be properly enlightened, and stupefying prejudices are removed, concurs with the law of God, is of equal extent with it, and joins its voice with it in every article.

And thus, in particular, we may see in what respect this natural conscience extends to true virtue, consisting in union of heart to being in general, and supreme love to God. For, although it sees not, or rather does not taste, its primary and essential beauty, i.e. it tastes no sweetness in benevolence to being in general, simply considered, for nothing but general benevolence itself can do that, yet, this natural conscience, common to mankind, may approve of it from that uniformity, equality, and justice, which there is in it; and the demerit which is seen in the contrary, consisting in the natural agreement between the contrary, and being hated of being in general. [snip]

Thus has God established and ordered that this principle of natural conscience, which, though it implies no such thing as actual benevolence to being in general, nor any delight in such a principle, simply considered, and so implies no truly spiritual sense or virtuous taste, yet should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense or virtuous taste. And that moral sense which is natural to mankind, so far as it is disinterested, and not founded in association of ideas, is the same with this natural conscience.

The sense of moral good and evil, and that disposition to approve virtue, and disapprove vice, which men have by natural conscience, is that moral sense so much insisted on in the writings of many of late. [snip]

Christians have the greatest reason to believe, from the Scriptures, that in the future day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, when sinners shall be called to answer before their judge, and all their wickedness, in all its aggravations, brought forth, and clearly manifested in the perfect light of that day, and God will reprove them, and set their sins in order before them, their consciences will be greatly awakened and convinced, their mouths will be stopped, all stupidity of conscience will be at an end, and conscience will have its full exercise; and therefore their consciences will approve the dreadful sentence of the judge against them; and seeing that they have deserved so great a punishment, will join with the judge in condemning them. And this, according to the notion I am opposing, would be the same thing as their being brought to the fullest repentance; their hearts being perfectly changed to hate sin and love holiness; and virtue or holiness of heart in them will be brought to the most full and perfect exercise. But how much otherwise have we reason to suppose it will then be! Then the sin and wickedness of their heart will come to its highest dominion and completest exercise; they shall be wholly left of God, and given up to their wickedness, even as the devils are! When God has done waiting on sinners, and his Spirit done striving with them, he will not restrain their wickedness, as he does now. But sin shall then rage in their hearts, as a fire no longer restrained or kept under. It is proper for a judge when he condemns a criminal, to endeavor so to set his guilt before him as to convince his conscience of the justice of the sentence. This the Almighty will do effectually, and do to perfection, so as most thoroughly to awaken and convince the conscience. But if natural conscience, and the disposition of the heart to be pleased with virtue, were the same, then at the same time that the conscience was brought to its perfect exercise, the heart would be made perfectly holy; or, would have the exercise of true virtue and holiness in perfect benevolence of temper. But instead of this, their wickedness will then be brought to perfection, and wicked men will become very devils, and accordingly will be sent away as cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

But supposing natural conscience to be what has been described, all these difficulties and absurdities are wholly avoided. Sinners when they see the greatness of the Being in contempt of whom they have lived with rebellion and opposition, and have clearly set before them their obligations to him, as their Creator, Preserver, Benefactor, etc. together with the degree in which they have acted as enemies to him, may have a clear sense of the desert of their sin, consisting in the natural agreement there is between such contempt and opposition of such a Being, and his despising and opposing them; between their being and acting as so great enemies to such a God, and their suffering the dreadful consequences of his being and acting as their great enemy; and their being conscious within themselves of the degree of anger, which would naturally arise in their own hearts in such a case, if they were in the place and state of their judge. In order to these things, there is no need of a virtuous benevolent temper, relishing and delighting in benevolence, and loathing the contrary. The conscience may see the natural agreement between opposing and being opposed, between hating and being hated, without abhorring malevolence from a benevolent temper of mind, or without loving God from a view of the beauty of his holiness. These things have no necessary dependence one on the other.


The reasons why those things that have been mentioned, which have not the essence of virtue, have yet by many been mistaken for true virtue

[snip] Pity to others in distress, though not properly of the nature of love, as has been demonstrated, yet has partly the same influence and effect with benevolence. [snip]

Natural gratitude, though not properly called love — because persons may be moved with a degree of gratitude towards others on certain occasions for whom they have no real and proper friendship. [snip] The natural disposition there is to mutual affection between the sexes, often operates by what may properly be called love. There is oftentimes truly a kind both of benevolence and complacence [delight]. As there also is between parents and children.

Thus these things have something of the general nature of virtue. What they are essentially defective in, is, that they are private in their nature; they do not arise from any temper of benevolence to being in general, nor have they a tendency to any such effect in their operation. But yet agreeing with virtue in its general nature, they are beautiful within their own private sphere, i.e. they appear beautiful if we confine our views to that private system, and while we shut out all other things to which they stand related from our consideration. If that private system contained the sum of universal existence, their benevolence would have true beauty; or, in other words, would be beautiful, all things considered; but now it is not so. These private systems are so far from containing the sum of universal being, or comprehending all existence to which we stand related, that it contains but an infinitely small part of it. The reason why men are so ready to take these private affections for true virtue, is the narrowness of their views; and above all, that they are so ready to leave the Divine Being out of their view, and to neglect him in their consideration, or to regard him in their thoughts, as though he did not properly belong to the system of real existence, but was a kind of shadowy, imaginary being. And though most men allow that there is a God, yet, in their ordinary view of things, his being is not apt to come into the account, and to have the influence and effect of real existence, as it is with other beings which they see, and are conversant with, by their external senses. In their views of beauty and deformity, and in their inward sensations of displicence [dislike] and approbation, it is not natural to them to view the Deity as part of the system, and as the head of it, in comparison of whom all other things are to be viewed with corresponding impressions.

Yea, we are apt, through the narrowness of our views, in judging of the beauty of affections and actions, to limit our consideration to only a small part of the created system. When private affections extend themselves to a considerable number, we are ready to look upon them as truly virtuous, and accordingly to applaud them highly. Thus it is with respect to a man’s love to a large party, or a country. For though his private system contains but a small part even of the world of mankind, yet, being a considerable number, they — through the contracted limits of his mind, and the narrowness of his views — are ready to engross his sight, and to seem as if they were all. Hence, among the Romans, love to their country was the highest virtue; though this affection of theirs, so much extolled, was employed as it were for the destruction of the rest of mankind. The larger the number is, to which that private affection extends, the more apt men are, through the narrowness of their sight, to mistake it for true virtue; because then the private system appears to have more of the image of the universal.

[snip] Another reason why the things mentioned are mistaken for true virtue, is, that there is indeed a true negative moral goodness in them. By a negative moral goodness, I mean the negation or absence of true moral evil. They have this negative moral goodness, because being without them would be an evidence of a much greater moral evil. Thus the exercise of natural conscience in such and such degrees, wherein appears such a measure of sensibility, though it be not of the nature of real positive virtue, or true moral goodness, yet has a negative moral goodness; because of the present state of things, it is an evidence of the absence of that higher degree of wickedness, which causes great insensibility, or stupidity of conscience. For sin is not only against a spiritual and divine sense of virtue, but is also against the dictates of that moral sense which is in natural conscience. [snip]

So with respect to natural gratitude; though there may be no virtue merely in loving them that love us, yet the contrary may be in evidence of a great degree of depravity, as it may argue a higher degree of selfishness, so that a man is come to look upon himself as all, and others as nothing, and so their respect and kindness as nothing. Thus an increase in pride diminishes gratitude. [snip]

[snip] Another reason why these natural principles and affections are mistaken for true virtue, is, that in several respects they have the same effect which true virtue tends to; especially in these two ways:

1. The present state of the world is so constituted by the wisdom and goodness of its supreme Ruler, that these natural principles, for the most part, tend to the good of mankind. So do natural pity, gratitude, parental affection, etc. Herein they agree with the tendency of general benevolence, which seeks and tends to the general good. But this is no proof that these natural principles have the nature of true virtue. For self-love is exceeding useful and necessary; and so are the natural appetites of hunger, thirst, etc. Yet nobody will assert that these have the nature of true virtue.

2. These principles have a like effect with true virtue in this respect, that they tend several ways to restrain vice, and prevent many acts of wickedness. So natural affection, love to our party, or to particular friends, tends to keep us from acts of injustice towards these persons; which would be real wickedness. Pity preserves from cruelty which would be real and great moral evil. Natural conscience tends to restrain sin in general. But this cannot prove these principles themselves to be of the nature of true virtue. For so is this present state ordered by a merciful God, that even self-love often restrains from acts of true wickedness; and not only so, but puts men upon seeking true virtue; yet it is not itself true virtue, but is the source of all the wickedness that is in the world. [snip]


In what respects virtue or moral good is founded in sentiment; and how far it is founded in the reason and nature of things

[snip] Virtue, as I have observed, consists in the cordial consent or union of being to being in general. And that frame of mind, whereby it is disposed to relish and be pleased with the view of this, is benevolence, or union of heart, to being in general; or it is an universally benevolent frame of mind. Because, he whose temper is to love being in general, must therein have a disposition to approve and be pleased with love to being in general. Therefore, now the question is, whether God, in giving this temper to a created mind, acts so arbitrarily, that there is nothing in the necessary nature of things to hinder, but that a contrary temper might have agreed or consisted as well with that nature of things as this?

And in the first place, to assert this would be a plain absurdity, and contrary to the very supposition. For here it is supposed, that virtue in its very essence consists in agreement or consent of being to being. Now certainly agreement itself to being in general must necessarily agree better with general existence, than opposition and contrariety to it.

I observe, secondly, that God in giving to the creature such a temper of mind, gives that which is agreeable to what is by absolute necessity his own temper and nature. For, as observed, God himself is in effect being in general; and without all doubt it is in itself necessary, that God should agree with himself, be united with himself, or love himself: and therefore, when he gives the same temper to his creatures, this is more agreeable to his necessary nature, than the opposite temper: yea, the latter would be infinitely contrary to his nature.

Let it be noted, thirdly, that by this temper only can created beings be united to and agree with one another. This appears, because it consists in consent and union to being in general; which implies agreement and union with every particular being, except in such cases wherein union with them is by some means inconsistent with union to general existence. But certainly, if any particular created being were of a temper to oppose being in general, that would infer the most universal and greatest possible discord, not only of creatures with their Creator, but of created beings one with another.

Fourthly, there is no other temper but this, whereby a man can agree with himself, or be without self-inconsistency, i.e. without having some inclinations and relishes repugnant to others; and that for these reasons. Every being that has understanding and will necessarily loves happiness. For, to suppose any being not to love happiness would be to suppose he did not love what was agreeable to him; which is a contradiction: or at least would imply, that nothing was agreeable or eligible to him, which is the same as to say that he has no such thing as choice, or any faculty of will. So that every being who has a faculty of will, must of necessity have an inclination to happiness. And therefore, if he be consistent with himself, and has not some inclinations repugnant to others, he must approve of those inclinations whereby beings desire the happiness of being in general, and must be against disposition to the misery of being in general: because otherwise he would approve of opposition to his own happiness. For if a temper inclined to the misery of being in general prevailed universally, it is apparent, it would tend to universal misery. But he that loves a tendency to universal misery, in effect loves a tendency to his own misery: and as he necessarily hates his own misery, he has then one inclination repugnant to another. And besides, it necessarily follows from self-love, that men love to be loved by others; because in this others’ love agrees with their own love. But if men loved hatred to being in general, they would be inconsistent with themselves, having one natural inclination contrary to another.

These things may help us to understand why that spiritual and divine sense, by which those who are truly virtuous and holy perceive the excellency of true virtue, is in the sacred Scriptures called by the name of light, knowledge, understanding, etc. If this divine sense were a thing arbitrarily given, without any foundation in the nature of things, it would not properly be called by such names. [snip]

[snip] ... men cannot call anything right or wrong, worthy or ill-deserving, consistently, any other way than by calling things so, which truly deserve praise or blame, i.e. things, wherein all things considered there is most uniformity in connecting with them praise or blame. There is no other way in which they can use these terms consistently with themselves. Thus if thieves or traitors may be angry with informers that bring them to justice, and call their behavior by odious names; yet herein they are inconsistent with themselves; because, when they put themselves in the place of those who have injured them, they approve the same things they condemn. And therefore, such are capable of being convinced, that they apply these odious terms in an abusive manner. So, a nation that prosecutes an ambitious design of universal empire, by subduing other nations with fire and sword, may affix terms, that signify the highest degrees of virtue, to the conduct of such as show the most engaged, stable, resolute spirit in this affair, and do most of this bloody work. But yet they are capable of being convinced, that they use these terms inconsistently, and abuse language in it, and so having their mouths stopped. [snip]