Panegyrics of Virtue

William Greenough Thayer Shedd states:

“…[T]he approbation of goodness is not the same as the love of it.[1]

[Shedd’s Footnote 1: See, upon this whole subject of conscience as distinguished from will, and of amiable instincts as distinguished from holiness, the profound and discriminating views of Edwards: The Nature of Virtue, Chapters v. vi. vii.]

I. This is proved, in the first place, from the testimony of both God and man. The assertions and reasonings of the apostle Paul have already been alluded to, and there are many other passages of Scripture which plainly imply that men may admire and approve of a virtue which they do not practise. Indeed, the language of our Lord respecting the Scribes and Pharisees, may be applied to disobedient mankind at large:

‘Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do ye not after their works: for they say, and do not.’ (Matt. xxiii.3)

The testimony of man is equally explicit. That is a very remarkable witness which the poet Ovid bears to this truth. ‘I see the right,’ — he says, — ‘and approve of it, but I follow and practise the wrong.’ This is the testimony of a profligate man of pleasure, in whom the light of nature had been greatly dimmed in the darkness of sin and lust. But he had not succeeded in annihilating his conscience, and hence, in a sober hour, he left upon record his own damnation. He expressly informed the whole cultivated classical world, who were to read his polished numbers, that he that had taught others had not taught himself; that he who had said that man should not commit adultery had himself committed adultery” (W.G.T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man).

Thomas Brainerd (1804-1866) speaking on the influence of the stage (theatres):

“The poet Ovid, himself not too moral, advises the Emperor Augustus ‘to suppress theatrical amusements, as a grand source of moral corruption.'”

In a sermon on theatre attendance, Samuel Miller (1769-1851) said:

“Plato tells us, that ‘plays raise the passions, and pervert the use of them; and, of consequence, are dangerous to morality.’ For this reason he banished them from his commonwealth. Aristotle lays it down as a rule, ‘that the seeing of comedies ought to be forbidden to young people; such indulgencies not being safe, until age and discipline have confirmed them in sobriety, fortified their virtue, and made them proof against debauchery.’ Tacitus informs us, that the ‘German women were guarded against danger, and preserved their purity, by having no play-houses among them.’ And even Ovid, in his most licentious poems, speaks of the theatre as favorable to dissoluteness of principle and manners; and, afterwards, in a graver work, addressed to Augustus, advises the suppression of this amusenment, as a grand source of corruption.[20]

[20] These quotations are taken from Collier’s [Short] View of the English Stage, chap. vi.

Cotton Mather in his essay Of Poetry and Style writes:

“But especially preserve the charity of your soul from the dangers you may incur by a conversation with muses that are no better than harlots: among which are others besides Ovid’s Epistles, which for their tendency…[to] cast coals into your bosom, deserve rather to be thrown into the fire, than to be laid before the eye which a covenant should be made withal.”

Continuing with W.G.T. Shedd:

“And whoever will turn to the pages of Horace, a kindred spirit to Ovid both in respect to a most exquisite taste and a most refined earthiness, will frequently find the same confession breaking out. Nay, open the volumes of Rousseau, and even of Voltaire, and read their panegyrics of virtue, their eulogies of goodness. What are these, but testimonies that they, too, saw the right and did the wrong” (W.G.T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man).

What is “a most refined earthiness”? Sophisticated smut? Or what?

Back to Shedd:

“It is true, that these panegyrics of virtue, when read in light of Rousseau’s sensuality and Voltaire’s malignity, wear a dead and livid hue, like objects seen in the illumination from phosphorous or rotten wood; yet, nevertheless, they are visible and readable, and testify as distinctly as if they issued from elevated and noble natures, that the teachings of man’s conscience are not obeyed by man’s heart — that a man may praise and admire virtue, while he loves and practices vice” (W.G.T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man).

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