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- The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe - 5/82 -
acted upon by decay. But it does not prove that it cannot destroy its existence. Therefore, for the validity of this argument, it must either be proved that the "Creator" has not the power to destroy it, or that he has not the will; but as neither of these can be established, our immortality is left dependent on the pleasure of the Creator. But it is said that it is evident that the Creator designed the soul for immortality, or he would never have created it so essentially different from the body, for had they both been designed for the same end they would both have been created alike, as there would have been no object in forming them otherwise. This only proves that the soul and body had not the same destinations. Now of what these destinations are we know nothing, and after much useless reasoning we return where we began, our argument depending upon the good pleasure of the Creator.
And here it is said that a being of such infinite wisdom and benevolence as that of which the Creator is possessed would not have formed man with such vast capacities and boundless desires, and would have given him no opportunity for exercising them.
In order to establish the validity of this argument it is necessary to prove by the light of Nature that the Creator is benevolent, which, being impracticable, is of itself sufficient to render the argument invalid.
But the argument proceeds upon the supposition that to destroy the soul would be unwise. Now this is arraigning the "All-wise" before the tribunal of his subjects to answer for the mistakes in his government. Can we look into the council of the "Unsearchable" and see what means are made to answer their ends? We do not know but the destruction of the soul may, in the government of God, be made to answer such a purpose that its existence would be contrary to the dictates of wisdom.
The great desire of the soul for immortality, its secret, innate horror of annihilation, has been brought to prove its immortality. But do we always find this horror or this desire? Is it not much more evident that the great majority of mankind have no such dread at all? True that there is a strong feeling of horror excited by the idea of perishing from the earth and being forgotten, of losing all those honors and all that fame awaited them. Many feel this secret horror when they look down upon the vale of futurity and reflect that though now the idols of the world, soon all which will be left them will be the common portion of mankind--oblivion! But this dread does not arise from any idea of their destiny beyond the tomb, and even were this true, it would afford no proof that the mind would exist forever, merely from its strong desires. For it might with as much correctness be argued that the body will exist forever because we have a great dread of dying, and upon this principle nothing which we strongly desire would ever be withheld from us, and no evil that we greatly dread will ever come upon us, a principle evidently false.
Again, it has been said that the constant progression of the powers of the mind affords another proof of its immortality. Concerning this, Addison remarks, "Were a human soul ever thus at a stand in her acquirements, were her faculties to be full blown and incapable of further enlargement, I could imagine that she might fall away insensibly and drop at once into a state of annihilation. But can we believe a thinking being that is in a perpetual progress of improvement, and traveling on from perfection to perfection after having just looked abroad into the works of her Creator and made a few discoveries of his infinite wisdom and goodness, must perish at her first setting out and in the very beginning of her inquiries?"
In answer to this it may be said that the soul is not always progressing in her powers. Is it not rather a subject of general remark that those brilliant talents which in youth expand, in manhood become stationary, and in old age gradually sink to decay? Till when the ancient man descends to the tomb scarce a wreck of that once powerful mind remains.
Who, but upon reading the history of England, does not look with awe upon the effects produced by the talents of her Elizabeth? Who but admires that undaunted firmness in time of peace and that profound depth of policy which she displayed in the cabinet? Yet behold the tragical end of this learned, this politic princess! Behold the triumphs of age and sickness over her once powerful talents, and say not that the faculties of man are always progressing in their powers.
From the activity of the mind at the hour of death has also been deduced its immortality. But it is not true that the mind is always active at the time of death. We find recorded in history numberless instances of those talents, which were once adequate to the government of a nation, being so weakened and palsied by the touch of sickness as scarcely to tell to beholders what they once were. The talents of the statesman, the wisdom of the sage, the courage and might of the warrior, are instantly destroyed by it, and all that remains of them is the waste of idiocy or the madness of insanity.
Some minds there are who at the time of death retain their faculties though much impaired, and if the argument be valid these are the only cases where immortality is conferred. Again, it is urged that the inequality of rewards and punishments in this world demand another in which virtue may be rewarded and vice punished. This argument, in the first place, takes for its foundation that by the light of nature the distinction between virtue and vice can be discovered. By some this is absolutely disbelieved, and by all considered as extremely doubtful. And, secondly, it puts the Creator under an obligation to reward and punish the actions of his creatures. No such obligation exists, and therefore the argument cannot be valid. And this supposes the Creator to be a being of justice, which cannot by the light of nature be proved, and as the whole argument rests upon this foundation it certainly cannot be correct.
This argument also directly impeaches the wisdom of the Creator, for the sense of it is this,--that, forasmuch as he was not able to manage his government in this world, he must have another in which to rectify the mistakes and oversights of this, and what an idea would this give us of our All-wise Creator?
It is also said that all nations have some conceptions of a future state, that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed in it, that no nation has been found but have possessed some idea of a future state of existence. But their belief arose more from the fact that they wished it to be so than from any real ground of belief; for arguments appear much more plausible when the mind wishes to be convinced. But it is said that every nation, however circumstanced, possess some idea of a future state. For this we may account by the fact that it was handed down by tradition from the time of the flood. From all these arguments, which, however plausible at first sight, are found to be futile, may be argued the necessity of a revelation. Without it, the destiny of the noblest of the works of God would have been left in obscurity. Never till the blessed light of the Gospel dawned on the borders of the pit, and the heralds of the Cross proclaimed "Peace on earth and good will to men," was it that bewildered and misled man was enabled to trace his celestial origin and glorious destiny.
The sun of the Gospel has dispelled the darkness that has rested on objects beyond the tomb. In the Gospel man learned that when the dust returned to dust the spirit fled to the God who gave it. He there found that though man has lost the image of his divine Creator, he is still destined, after this earthly house of his tabernacle is dissolved, to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, to a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Soon after the writing of this remarkable composition, Harriet's child-life in Litchfield came to an end, for that same year she went to Hartford to pursue her studies in a school which had been recently established by her sister Catherine in that city.
SCHOOL DAYS IN HARTFORD, 1824-1832.
MISS CATHERINE BEECHER.--PROFESSOR FISHER.--THE WRECK OF THE ALBION AND DEATH OF PROFESSOR FISHER.--"THE MINISTER'S WOOING."--MISS CATHERINE BEECHER'S SPIRITUAL HISTORY.--MRS. STOWE'S RECOLLECTIONS OF HER SCHOOL DAYS IN HARTFORD.--HER CONVERSION.--UNITES WITH THE FIRST CHURCH IN HARTFORD.--HER DOUBTS AND SUBSEQUENT RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT. --HER FINAL PEACE.
The school days in Hartford began a new era in Harriet's life. It was the formative period, and it is therefore important to say a few words concerning her sister Catherine, under whose immediate supervision she was to continue her education. In fact, no one can comprehend either Mrs. Stowe or her writings without some knowledge of the life and character of this remarkable woman, whose strong, vigorous mind and tremendous personality indelibly stamped themselves on the sensitive, yielding, dreamy, and poetic nature of the younger sister. Mrs. Stowe herself has said that the two persons who most strongly influenced her at this period of her life were her brother Edward and her sister Catherine.
Catherine was the oldest child of Lyman Beecher and Roxanna Foote, his wife. In a little battered journal found among her papers is a short sketch of her life, written when she was seventy-six years of age. In a tremulous hand she begins: "I was born at East Hampton, L. I., September 5, 1800, at 5 P.M., in the large parlor opposite father's study. Don't remember much about it myself." The sparkle of wit in this brief notice of the circumstances of her birth is very characteristic. All through her life little ripples of fun were continually playing on the surface of that current of intense thought and feeling in which her deep, earnest nature flowed.
When she was ten years of age her father removed to Litchfield, Conn., and her happy girlhood was passed in that place. Her bright and versatile mind and ready wit enabled her to pass brilliantly through her school days with but little mental exertion, and those who knew her slightly might have imagined her to be only a bright, thoughtless, light-hearted girl. In Boston, at the age of twenty, she took lessons in music and drawing, and became so proficient in these branches as to secure a position as teacher in a young ladies' school, kept by a Rev. Mr. Judd, an Episcopal clergyman, at New London, Conn. About this time she formed the acquaintance of Professor Alexander Metcalf Fisher, of Yale College, one of the most distinguished young men in New England. In January of the year 1822 they became engaged, and the following spring Professor Fisher sailed for Europe to purchase books and scientific apparatus for the use of his department in the college.
In his last letter to Miss Beecher, dated March 31, 1822, he writes:--
"I set out at 10 precisely to-morrow, in the Albion for Liverpool; the ship has no superior in the whole number of excellent vessels belonging to this port, and Captain Williams is regarded as first on their list of commanders. The accommodations are admirable--fare $140. Unless our ship should speak some one bound to America on the passage,
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