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FOR OCTOBER, 1816.
Art. I. A Treatise on the Records of the Creation, and on
the moral Attributes of the Creator; with particular Re. ference to the Jewish History, and to the Consistency of the Principle of Population with the Wisdom and Goodness of
the Deity. By J. Bird Sumner, M.A. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 352 and 393. il. Is. Hatchard. 1816.
Art. II. An Essay on the Existence of a Supreme Creator,
possessed of infinite Power, Wisdom, and Goodness; and deducing from the whole Subject, the most important practical Inferences. By Wm. Laurence Brown, D.D. Principal of Marischal-College und University of Aberdeen, &c. &c. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 414 and 383. il. 1s. J. Hamilton,
London; and A. Brown and Co. Aberdeen. 1816. In the course of the year 1807, an advertisement was inserted in several public papers, announcing to the literary world, that, " A gentleman had bequeathed a sum, not less than 12001. to be paid to the person who shouid write, and lay before the judges, to be appointed as after mentioned; a Treatise, which shall, by them, be determined to have the most merit, upon the following subjects, as expressed in his will, viz.
« The Evidence that there is a Being, all-powerful, wise, and good, by whom every thing exists; and, particularly, to obriate difficulties regarding the wisdom and goodness of the Deity; and this, in the first place, from considerations independent of written Revelation; and, in the second place, from ihe Revelation of the Lord Jesus; and froin the whole, to point out the inferences most necessary for, and useful to mankind." A a
Τα VOL. VI. OCTOBER, 1816.
To the second-best Treatise, the testator further bequeathed “ a sum, not less than 4001. after deducting therefrom the expence of printing, binding, or purchasing 300 copies of each of the said Treatises."
This munificent beqnest did not proceed from one of that class of persons, who, after an irregular life, attempt to purchase the pardon of heaven by posthumous charities; by giving away what it is impossible for them any longer to enjoy ; wliat, indeed, before the donation can be made, has ceased to be theirs, except by a fiction of the law. Of such legacies, the best that can be said is, that the testator's selfishness was less mischievous at the close, than it had usually been in the course of his life. Neither was Mr. Burnett, (for his name has been made public, notwithstanding his express injunction to the contrary), induced to make this bequest by ostentatious motives. He had desired that his name should be kept secret; but the curiosity, and the acquaintance with each other's affairs, so characteristic of the narrow society of a provincial town, made compliance with this part of his will impracticable; and, to avoid the evil of a garbled account of the transaction, the principal executor authorized Dr. Brown to prefix to his publication, such details as he might think proper.
From this narrative it appears, that Mr. Burnett was born in Aberdeen, and, at the age of 21, commenced business in bis native tou n, under the unfavourable circumstance of his father's failing at the same time for a very large sum ; that by patient industry, and with the help of a good character, the result of that industry, he, in the course of little more than 20 years, had cleared such a sum as enabled him, jointly with a prospefous brother, to pay off his father's creditors, with the exception of certain individuals, whose severe conduct to the father justified his sons, as they seem to have thought, in making a distinction, where there was no legal claim. Having satisfied this duty, and left to his nearest relation a small landed estate which he had inherited from his mother, Mr. Burnett felt, that he had a right to dispose of the produce of his own labour, for such useful purposes as his benevolent disposition might suggest. To the poor he had given liberally during that part of his life which found him possessed of the means. Dr. Brown supposes biin to have spent 3001). annually in charitable donations; but he also gave, what was no less uselul than money," he appropriated one or two hours every day to the hearing of their cases, and to their relief.” The property devoted by his will to permanent charitable establishments, principally intended to benefit the neighbouring poor, and apparently with a judicious selection of the proper objects for this kind of relief, amounted to 7001. per annum. A temporary deduction from the income of these different charities was to be allowed to accumulate, till it should be sufficient for his two prizes, so that though Mr. Burnett died in 1784, it was not till 1807, that, as we have before mentioned, the subject for the Prize-essays was made public; and a period, which fell but little short of the Horatian rule, was very properly allowed for the composition of the Essays. The power of electing three judges, who should decide on the comparative merits of such treatises as might be laid before them, was placed in the hands of the Testator's Trustees, and of the leading persons in the literary society of his native place. Amongst these Dr. Brown, the author of the Essay which obtained the tirst prize, was naturally placed as principal of Marischal College and University of Aberdeen. Dr. B. was, it appears, prevented by indisposition from attending at the election of the judges, but recommended, in a letter, “that two judges should be selected from two of the other three Scottish Universities, and one from England ," at the same time positively declining the office of judge, if offered 10 bimself.
The electors did not, however, think proper to adopt the suggestion of their absent colleague, but elected the three judges from their own body; two of them Professors in Marischal College; the third, Professor of Divinity in King's College, Aberdeen.
Dr. Brown's conduct and advice was both prudent and deli. cate; and he appears, farther, to have behaved liberally to Mr. Sumner, in declining to put that gentleman to the expence of paying for the 300 copies of Dr. B.'s treatise ; an expence which the will fixed on the person obtaining the second prize.
It is a painful reflection for us, (and becomes the more so, as what has been just noticed inclines us to consider Dr. Brown as a worthy and excellent man, filling a very respectable situation in a very creditable manner), that the public will require from us an explicit and rather detailed statement of our reasons for placing Dr. Brown's treatise below Mr. Sumner's, and that in the face of a unanimous decision on the part of these select judges. If our present article should fall under Dr. Brown's eye; and, as Sir Fretful Plagiary observes, there is al. ways some good-natured acquaintance ready to prevent one's overlooking an unfriendly criticism, he must blame the partia lity of those friends, whose decision we feel it our duty to reverse. We would not be understood to suppose any intentional partiality on the part of the judges. From different portions of Dr. Brown's treatise we can easily imagine him to be a very im. pressive preacher; and, when an Essay on Theological quesA a 2
tions, from the pen of one whom these judges had long been in the habit of considering as a powerful divine, was found to be in the list of those on whose merits they were authorized to decide, their expectations would be such, as to make them misgive every feeling which should happen to arise in favour of rival candidates. This may account for that preference which has been shewn to Dr. Brown's treatise over Mr. Sumner's, whuch. in our opinion at least, no common variety of taste or judgment could satisfactorily explain. Instead of an argumențative work, Dr. Brown has produced a long sermon; he is constantly running off from the point which his plan required lim to d cuss, it cominon-place declamation. Sometimes, indeed, he holds forth an expectation of deep and subtle melaphysical disquisition; he prepares for the contest with much solemnity; sta es the question in syllogistic form ; clears the ground, by a series of digressions on the errors which his fancied opponents may commit, and on the fallacies which be, the Doctor, is prepared to detect; and enters the field with a formidable display of hard words and crabbed terms, defined anew for the purpose. But, when the reader has summoned all his powers of attention, and supporting his forehead with his hands, is prepares foi conviction and a inead-ache; lie is surprized to see the Doctor, alter a little preluding, thing away his armour; declare, that his autayonist cannot seriously intend to combat his assertion; and, in the next chapter, congratulating himself on his victory.
The commencement of bis Essay affords a perfect example of this singular mode of conducting an argument; or of establishing, as he calls it, a “metaphysical proof of the existence of God.” In Chapter I. we are prepared for the discussion, by elaborate detinitions of necessary and contingent existence of self and derired existence, of cause, causality, and causation. Cap. 11. is en itled “ Metaphysical proofs of the existence of God.” We advance to the assertion, that a world exists. We are then sunimoved “ to apply the established principles to the case belore us," but a question which occurs in the very best sentence, (and for the solution of which this metaphysical apparatus should seem to have been expressly prepared), viz. Whether the world can be self-produced, is only replied to by calling it,
“ A proposition so absurd, that to state it is sufficient for its rejection. A child would not admit it.”
We, then, beat about the main point for some time, meeting indeed with some very sensible remaiks, but tracing out with difficulty a disjointed argument; and when we expect, after a series of negationis, that the proof will be laid before us in regular or
der, and brought to a methodical conclusion, the train of reason. ing and the chapter break off thus :
“ To discover the original cause of all, we must leave this succession, and tind a self-existent Being, who has given, to men, to ani. mals, and to every part of nature, that limited, dependent, and contingent existence which they possess. We must find God! I shall, next, consider the principal schemes, or inventions of Atheism, to account for the world.” Vol. I. P. 66.
Yet, unfinished as the argument proper to the second chapter is left by this sudden termination, the third begins with a triu:1). phant declaration, that Spinosa, Toland, and other atheists “ have been refuted in the laut chapter,” since their “ opinions will be found to involve all the absurdities there supposed."
It appears to have been the particular wish of Mr. Burnett, to provide future generations with an answer to those difficulties and objections against the wisdom and goodness of the Deity, which had probably at times perplexed linself. He had not perhaps sufficiently reflected, that
“ Though objections against the evidence of Christianity are most seriously to be considered, yet objections against Christianit itself are, in a great measure, frivolo is : almost all objections against it, excepting those which are alleged against the particular proofs of its coming from God.” Butler's Analogy, Part II. Chapter 3.
From the same profound reasoner he might have learnt, that to defend the wisdom and goduess of God, from objections founded on particular portions of his moral government which come under our view, it is not necessary that we should be able to gne a satisfactory proof of the immediate, nor even of the ultimale good tendency of those parts of the general scheine. For upon supposition of a moral constitution of nature, and a moral government over it, analogy suggests and makes it credibi , that this
government must be a system, as distinguished from a number of single unconnected acts of distributive justice and gooduss; and likewise, that it must be a scheme, so imperfectly comprehended, that the very circumstance of our linited insight into the prmciples on wbich the systein is conducted, afturds a direct veneral answer to all objections agamsi the justice and gooduess of it.
“ If a man, contemplating any one providential dispensation, which had no relation to any others, should object, that he discerned in it a disregard to justice, or a deficiency of goodness; nothing would be less an answer to such objection, than our ignorance in other parts of providence, or in the possibilities of things, no way related to what he was contemplating. But when we know not, but the parts objected against may be relative to other parts un