she knew that she would speedily perish, rather than
betray the conspirators to the tyrant [Footnote:
Tacitus.]; these illustrious persons certainly made
a small estimate of their private interest. If
it be said that they sought posthumous fame; instances
are not wanting in history which prove that men have
even defied infamy for the sake of good. But
there is a great error in the world with respect to
the selfishness of fame. It is certainly possible
that a person should seek distinction as a medium of
personal gratification. But the love of fame is
frequently no more than a desire that the feelings
of others should confirm, illustrate, and sympathize
with, our own. In this respect it is allied with
all that draws us out of ourselves. It is the
’last infirmity of noble minds’.
Chivalry was likewise founded on the theory of self-sacrifice.
Love possesses so extraordinary a power over the human
heart, only because disinterestedness is united with
the natural propensities. These propensities
themselves are comparatively impotent in cases where
the imagination of pleasure to be given, as well as
to be received, does not enter into the account.
Let it not be objected that patriotism, and chivalry,
and sentimental love, have been the fountains of enormous
mischief. They are cited only to establish the
proposition that, according to the elementary principles
of mind, man is capable of desiring and pursuing good
for its own sake.
The benevolent propensities are thus inherent in the
human mind. We are impelled to seek the happiness
of others. We experience a satisfaction in being
the authors of that happiness. Everything that
lives is open to impressions or pleasure and pain.
We are led by our benevolent propensities to regard
every human being indifferently with whom we come
in contact. They have preference only with respect
to those who offer themselves most obviously to our
notice. Human beings are indiscriminating and
blind; they will avoid inflicting pain, though that
pain should be attended with eventual benefit; they
will seek to confer pleasure without calculating the
mischief that may result. They benefit one at
the expense of many.
There is a sentiment in the human mind that regulates
benevolence in its application as a principle of action.
This is the sense of justice. Justice, as well
as benevolence, is an elementary law of human nature.
It is through this principle that men are impelled
to distribute any means of pleasure which benevolence
may suggest the communication of to others, in equal
portions among an equal number of applicants.
If ten men are shipwrecked on a desert island, they
distribute whatever subsistence may remain to them,
into equal portions among themselves. If six
of them conspire to deprive the remaining four of
their share, their conduct is termed unjust.