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JER. XIII. 23.
CAN THE ETHIOPIAN CHANGE HIS SKIN, OR THE LEOPARD HIS SPOTS
THERE is no proverb more common, or better understood than this, that habit is a second nature. It is an observation, which the slightest knowledge of the human mind enables us to make, and which the shortest life is long enough to verify. Habit is a law of our condition, of vast and indispensable advantage; but, like all other general laws, operates sometimes favourably, and sometimes unfavourably, to the happiness of men. Without it, there would be nothing established and pertanent in the human character; and with it, much is rendered permanent, which we should rejoice to remove. Without it, all our virtue would consist of casual, and unconnected acts, on whose repetition we could never calculate ; with it, our vices become firmly associated, mutually dependent, and hard to be subdued. Without it, our best dispositions would be nothing more than transitory feelings, our friendships and our loves fickle and momentary passions; with it, our lusts become inveterate, and the nascent propensities of a sensual and
selfish heart become, at length, its undisputed tyrants. Without it, first aversions would be unconquerable, grief would continue violent and excessive, and man could never be reconciled to any unwelcome change of circumstances, however unavoidable ; but with it, the sharpness of remorse, too, is easily blunted, the horrour, which attends the first perpetration of a crime, is, soon dissipated, and the effectual reformation of a vicious character often proves a desperate expectation. Without it, in fine, the characters of men would be indescribable, unstable and incapable of improvement; education would be vain; example, fruitless; and discipline, ineffectual cruelty; but with it, also, prejudices are rooted, and vice becomes inveterate, before the mind is sufficiently strong to examine the one or reject the other; and early impressions, together with painful and perpetual vigilance, are necessary to the security of virtue. Indeed, on this universal law, that habit renders stable, what was before fluctuating; pleasant, what was before painful; strong, what was before weak; easy, what was before difficult; and morally certain, what was before doubtful, depends the character of man here, and, consequently, his condition hereafter.
If it were not in some measure inconsistent with the dignity of public religious instruction, I could refer you to a multitude of familiar illustrations of the power of habit. But it is enough, that we have all observed, in general, that, what is at first disagreeable to any of our senses, becomes less unpleasant by repetition, so that we may be, at length, reconciled, as it is termed, to what was, at first, our aversion. On the contrary, impressions, in themselves originally pleasant, become, when often repeated, so necessary to our happiness, that, though every successive act of indulgence affords less absolute pleasure than the preceding, the general propensity is continually gaining strength; and, while the perception of pleasure,
in every particular instance, is lessening, desire, on the whole, increases, and the pain of deprivation becomes greater and greater.
It is our intention, at present, to consider this law of our nature in its influence on the moral character. We shall, first, say something of the ease, with which evil habits are formed; secondly, of those circumstances, which make it so difficult to subdue them; and, lastly, dwell on the consequences, which follow from our view of the subject.
1. To form a vicious habit, is one of the easiest processes in nature. Man comes into a world, where sin is, in many of its various forms, originally pleasant, and where evil propensities may be gratified at small expense. The necessary indulgence of appetite, and the first use of the senses would make us all sensual and selfish from our birth, if the kind provision, which heaven has made of suffering, of instruction and of various discipline,, did not sometimes break the propensities, which we bring with us from the cradle. Nothing is required, but to leave man to what is called the state of nature, to make him the slave of habitual sensuality.
But even after the mind is, in some degree, fortified by education, and reason has acquired a degree of force, the ease, with which a bad habit can be acquired, is not less to be lamented. If, indeed, the conscience were to struggle with sin, in fair, open, and direct contest, it would not so often and so readily yield. But sin enters, not by breach or escalade, but by cunning or treachery .It presents itself, not as sin, but as innocence, when your watchfulness is hushed to sleep, or the eye of reason diverted, Vige gains its power by insinuation. It winds gently round the soul, without being felt, till its twines be. come so numerous, that the sinner, like the wretched Laocoon, writhes in vain to extricate himself, and his faculties are crushed, at length, in the folds of the serpent.
If the first entrance of vice is so easy, every successive act, which is to form the habit, is easier than the last. The taste of pleasure provokes the appetite. If conscience receive no aid, when the temptation returns, the victory will be easier, and the triumph more complete. If no evil consequences immediately follow, if the sentence of reproach, of infamy, or of natural punishment, be not speedily executed, conscience, thus unsupported, is not heard or not credited. If, however, reproach should follow, or infamy be apprehended, the culprit may either be driven to - the society of the shameless, or attempt some new viee to conceal, or varnish, or vindicate the former.
This leads to observe further, that no evil habit can long exist alone. Vice is prolifie. It is no solitary invader. Admit one of its train, and it immediately introduces, with an irresistible air of insinuation, the multitude of its fellows, who promise you liberty, but whose service is corruption, and whose wages is death. Enter not, then, into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.
2. The effects of sinful indulgence, which make its relinquishment so difficult, are, that it perverts the moral discernment, benumbs the sensibility of conscience, destroys the sentiment of shame, and separates the sinner from the means and opportunities of conversion. The moral discernment is perverted. Where sin is practised, it must be excused. Passion is called in to make the apology; sophistry supplies the beads of the defence. Stern moral precepts are entangled by equivocations, subtile exceptions, and ingenious perplexities. ;
Again, by sinful indulgence, the sensibility of conscience is deadened. As the taste can be reconciled to the most nauseous and unpleasant impressions, the eye familiarized to a deformed object, the ear, to the most grating and discordant noises, and
the feeling, to the most rough and irritating garment, so the moral tact becomes insensible to the loathsomeness of vice. It is, perhaps, true, that, in the regular, smooth tenour of the life of a well-principled man, a single transgression or inconsiderate step may, sometimes, prove the means of awakening the vigour of conscience, and increasing, for a time, its sensibility. But it is not so with the young and immature. If in them passion, desire, or appetite be fed and gratified, while conscience is unenlightened and unfortified, the moral sense will always be imperfect, a neglected part of the mental constitution, and, like a contracted, shrunken limb, will be without feeling and without use. How many of those, who enter daily upon the intercourse of life, do we see destitute of any delicacy of moral feeling? Their senses, in the language of the apostle, have never been exercised by use to discern between good and evil. They call evil, good; and good, evil. They shudder, perhaps, at murder, perceive the guilt of robbery, and of the grosser offences against the peace and order of society; but of the nicer distinctions of virtue and vice, of interestedness and disinterestedness, of honour and disgrace, of holiness and impurity, they have few and imperfect notions. Hence they fall an easy prey to any indirect temptation. Conscience, blunt and unexercised, cannot discern the tendency of a first step. Taking no alarm, it offers no resistance. If, then, the conscience of the young can become thus dull, merely by neglect, how impenetrable and callous may it prove by repeated acts of deliberate iniquity, and a long course of profligacy and crime? In such a state, termed by divines a judicial hardness of heart, all the usual means of reformation are ineffectual. The gentle dews of instruction distil in vain on the close and clayey soil of a hardened heart. It imbibes nothing, it retains nothing, it produces nothing. The curse
the young otrable and caniquity, and a