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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 17. Samuel Clarke and Rational Ethics

Samuel Clarke was not a man of original genius; but, by sheer intellectual power, he came to occupy a leading position in English philosophy and theology. He touched the higher thought of the day at almost every point. The new physics, deism, the trinitarian controversy, biblical and classical study—all occupied him. Only as to Locke, and the new turn which Locke gave to many problems; he never defined his position. He was born in 1675, and died in 1729. In 1697, he published an annotated Latin translation of the Cartesian Rohault’s Traité de physique, and thereby prepared the way, as he intended to do, for the reception of Newton’s works as text-books at Cambridge; he also translated Newton’s Optics. In 1699, his controversies with the deists began, with Toland’s Amyntor for a text. In 1704 and 1705, he delivered two courses of Boyle Lectures, entitled, respectively, A demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, and A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation. He published editions of Cæsar’s Commentaries (1712) and Homer’s Iliad (1729), as well as many books of biblical exegesis. His treatise entitled The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712) brought upon him the accusation of Arianism, and led to trouble with convocation. In 1715–16, he was engaged in a controversy with Leibniz, which arose from a comment of the latter on a remark of Newton’s in which space was spoken of as the sensorium of God, branched out into fundamental questions of metaphysics, and came to an end only with the death of the German philosopher.

Clarke’s Boyle Lectures may be safely reckoned his greatest work. They contain little that is strikingly new; but the arrangement of the separate points and the logical consecutiveness of the whole are masterly; and they show, nearly always, an elevation of tone and clearness of phrase which were often lacking in the controversies of the age. Clarke arranges his argument in a series of propositions which he first states and then proceeds to demonstrate; but, otherwise, he did not imitate mathematical method, as Descartes and Spinoza had done. Nor did he, like Descartes, rely on the purely ontological argument. He argued from existence, not from idea: maintaining that there must be a self-existent being to account for existing things, and then going on to show the attributes which must belong to this self-existent being. When he has to prove that intelligence and wisdom are among these attributes, he relies expressly on a posteriori reasoning. The whole argument—therein resembling Locke’s—belongs to the cosmological variety. Clarke’s system has been represented as only a less logical Spinozism; but the comparison is superficial. One salient point of resemblance—the view of space as an attribute of God—means something different in the two systems; for Clarke does not identify space with matter. And the method of his argument leaves room for the recognition of freedom and for a distinction of morality from nature, which were impossible for Spinoza.

Clarke’s theory of morality has exerted a more permanent influence, and shows more traces of originality, than any of his other doctrines. He had an idea of a moral universe constituted by moral relations, analogous to the physical relations of the physical universe. There are certain “fitnesses of things” over and above their merely physical relations: “there is,” he says, “a fitness or suitableness of certain circumstances to certain persons, and an unsuitableness of others, founded in the nature of things and in the qualities of persons, antecedent to will and to all arbitrary or positive appointment whatsoever.” Many illustrations are given of these “relations of things”; but their nature is not further explained. “Fitness,” “agreement,” “suitableness” are the terms by which they are described. They differ, therefore, from the causal relations with which physical science is concerned. They indicate a different aspect—the moral aspect—of reality. But they are known in the same way—by reason. As they are in themselves, so they appear to be to the understanding of all intelligent beings. And, so far as they are intelligent, all reasonable beings guide their conduct by them. God is a free being; but, being rational, it is impossible that He can act against them: He is, therefore, necessarily good. The same relations ought to determine human conduct; but the will of man is deflected by his passions and particular interests, and his understanding is imperfect, so that moral error is possible and common. For this reason, also, the obligation of virtue needs the support of religion.

Clarke thus gave a new reading of an old doctrine. The view that morality is not arbitrary, but belongs to the order of the universe, had found frequent expression in theories of “the law of nature”; Cudworth, influenced by Platonic idealism, had insisted that the nature or essence of things is immutable, and that good and evil are qualities which belong to that essence; Clarke goes one step further in holding that goodness is a certain congruity of one thing with another—a relation as eternal as is the nature of the things. But he gave no further definition of this congruity, beyond the description of it by a variety of terms. That it needed very careful statement became obvious from some of the consequences drawn by his followers. His views were defended, against the first of a new school of psychological moralists, by John Balguy, in The Foundation of Moral Goodness (1727–8). Still earlier, William Wollaston, in his Religion of Nature delineated (1722), had given point to the intellectualism of the moral theory propounded by Clarke. What Clarke had called “fitness” was interpreted by him as an actual existing relation or quality: a wrong act is simply the assertion in conduct of a false proposition. Thus, “if a man steals a horse and rides away upon him,” he does not “consider him as being what he is,” namely, another man’s horse; and “to deny things to be as they are is the transgression of the great law of our nature, the law of reason.” Bentham’s criticism of this is hardly a caricature: “if you were to murder your own father, this would only be a particular way of saying he was not your father.”