Mr. Hall, in his justly admired Sermon on modern Infidelity, has brought forward some very plausible objections to President Edwards’s definition of virtue, but which appear to be founded in misapprehension. The definition itself is fairly stated—that “virtue consists in a passion for the general good, or love to being in general.” Mr. Hall observes that “the order of nature is, evermore, from particulars to generals: we advance from private to public affections; from the love of parents, brothers, and sisters, to those more expanded regards which embrace the immense society of human kind,”—p. 51. And afterwards, in a note, pp. 57, 58, he maintains that, on the President’s principles, “virtue is an utter impossibility; because that the human mind is not capable of such different degrees of attachment as are due to the infinitely various objects of the intelligent system; also because that our views of the system being capable of perpetual enlargement, our attachments are liable to undue proportion, so that those regards which appeared virtuous may afterwards become vicious. And, lastly, that if virtue consists in the love of being in general, or attachment to the general good, the particular affections are to every purpose of virtue useless, and even pernicious; for their necessary tendency is to attract to their objects a proportion of attention which far exceeds their comparative value in the general scale.”
“The question is,” as Mr. Hall observes, “what is virtue?” Answer, love. But love to whom, or what? To being, says Edwards; and as the Supreme Being is the first and best of beings, it is to love him supremely, and our fellow creatures in subordination to him. It is objected that we cannot comprehend the Supreme Being, and therefore cannot love him in proportion to what he is in the scale of being. True; and we cannot fully comprehend ourselves; yet we may love ourselves supremely.
“The order of nature,” says Mr. Hall, “is evermore from particulars to generals; we advance from private to public affections; from the love of parents, brothers, and sisters, to those more expanded regards which embrace the immense society of human kind.” But to this it may be replied—
1. Virtuous affection does not consist in natural attachment; if it did, birds and beasts would be virtuous, as well as men. Nor does genuine benevolence arise from those instinctive feelings as their root; if it did, all men who are not “without natural affection “would be virtuous, benevolent characters. It may imply a high degree of depravity to have obliterated natural affection, though the thing itself have no moral good in it. Natural affection, however, if exercised in subserviency to the Divine glory, becomes virtuous; as are eating and drinking, and all other natural actions that are capable of being performed to a higher end.
2. The question does not relate to the order in which the human mind comes to the knowledge of objects, and so to the actual exercise of affection towards them; but to the order in which love operates when the objects are known. If we were free from every taint of original sin, yet we should not love God before we loved our parents; and that because we should not know him first. We cannot love an object before we know it; but it does not follow from hence that, when we know both God and our parents, we must continue to love them first, and God for their sake. That which this writer calls “the order of nature” may indeed be so called, as it is the order established for our being brought to the actual exercise of our powers; but, with regard to the argument, it is rather the order of time than of nature.
“The welfare of the whole system of being must be allowed,” says Mr. Hall, “to be in itself the object of all others the most worthy to be pursued; so that, could the mind distinctly embrace it, and discern at every step what action would infallibly promote it, we should be furnished with a sure criterion of right and wrong; an unerring guide, which would supersede the use and necessity of all inferior rules, laws, and principles,”—p. 55.
But it is not necessary to true virtue that it should comprehend all being, or “distinctly embrace the welfare of the whole system.” It is sufficient that it be of an expansive tendency; and this appears to be Edwards’s view of the subject. A child may love God by loving godliness, or godly people, though it has yet scarcely any ideas of God himself. It may also possess a disposition the tendency of which is to embrace in the arms of good-will “the immense society of human kind;” though at the time it may be acquainted with but few people in the world. Such a disposition will come into actual exercise, “from particulars to generals,” as fast as knowledge extends. This, however, is not “private affection,” or self-love, ripening into an “extended benevolence, as its last and most perfect fruit;” but benevolence itself, expanding in proportion as the natural powers expand, and afford it opportunity.
Excerpt from: “The Nature of True Virtue,” in Fugitive Pieces.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 817–818). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.