Affiliate Link

Men are Naturally Benevolent as Well as Selfish

To the Printer of the GAZETTE.


It is the Opinion of some People, that Man is a Creature altogether selfish, and that all our Actions have at Bottom a View to private Interest; If we do good to others, it is, say they, because there is a certain Pleasure attending virtuous Actions. But how Pleasure comes to attend a virtuous Action, these Philosophers are puzzled to shew, without contradicting their first Principles, and acknowledging that Men are naturally benevolent as well as selfish. For whence can arise the Pleasure you feel after having done a good-natured Thing, if not hence, that you had before strong humane and kind Inclinations in your Nature, which are by such Actions in some Measure gratified?

I am told that a late ingenious Author, enquiring why we approve and disapprove of Actions done many Ages since, which can no way be suppos’d to affect our present Interest, conceives that we have a certain internal Moral Sense, which tastes the Beauty of a rational benevolent Action, and the Deformity of an ill-natured cruel one; and that our consequent Judgment is as involuntary as when the Tongue is apply’d to Aloes, and we can by no Act of the Will prevail with the Mind to acknowledge it tastes like Honey. However this be, the Fact is certain, that we do approve and disapprove of Actions which cannot in the least influence our present Affairs. How could this happen, if we did not in contemplating such Actions, find something agreeable or disagreeable to our natural Inclinations as Men, that is, to our benevolent Inclinations?

Let this serve as an Introduction to a short Story, which I have translated from the French, for the Pleasure of your Readers, who will therein find wherewith to exercise their moral Sense of Tasting, if such a Sense they have. The Writer delivers it as a known Affair, transacted but a few Years since. It is as follows.

`A certain French Merchant, remarkable for his Honesty and Uprightness, which had procured him the Confidence of the greatest Traders in Europe, having suffered very considerable Losses at Sea, followed by the Bankrupcy of several who were deeply in his Debt, fell at length into so great Necessity, that he resolved to visit Paris in quest of Succours. He addressed himself to all his old Correspondents, acquainted them with his Misfortunes, and prayed them to help him in beginning the World again; assuring those to whom he owed any thing, that he had no greater Desire than to pay them, and that he should die contented if he might be so happy as to accomplish it. All equally affected with his Condition, promised to assist him.

`One only inexorable, to whom he owed 1000 Crowns, took him precisely in these Circumstances, and threw him into Prison, absolutely resolved there to let him rot, rather than risque longer what was his due.

`The Son of this Merchant, aged about two and twenty Years, informed of the sorrowful Situation of his Father, arrives at Paris, goes and throws himself at the Feet of the pitiless Creditor, and there dissolving in Tears, intreats him by every Thing that is most touching, to restore him his Father; protesting solemnly, that if he would not thus make himself an Obstacle to their Hopes of being re-establish’d in their Affairs, he should certainly be the first payed.

`But if this fail’d to move, he conjures him to have Pity of his Youth, and to be sensible to the Unhappiness of a Mother, charg’d with seven or eight young Children, who are reduc’d to Beggary, and perish: And in fine, if nothing was capable to touch him, at least that he would permit him to put himself in his Father’s Place, who by his greater Skill in Business would probably sooner come to give him entire Satisfaction. In uttering these last Words, he so tenderly press’d his Knees in hope the Request would be granted, that this Man, so hard and inflexible, struck with the Sight of so much Virtue at his Feet, raised the young Man and embrac’d him in his Turn, with Eyes all bathed in Tears: Ah! my Son, said he, your Father shall come out. So much Love, and so much Respect for him, makes me even die with Shame. I have resisted too long; let me efface forever the Remembrance of it. I have one only Daughter, and she is worthy of you. She would do as much for me as you for your Father. I give her to you with all my Wealth, accept her; and let us run to your Father, and demand his Consent.

`This tender Scene finished through all that the purest Generosity might inspire on such Occasions, they ran to renew it at the Dungeon of the poor Prisoner. But what was his Joy and his Surprize! He saw his Son, of whose Arrival at Paris he had not known; and in the same Moment he saw him at the Top of Fortune and Happiness. The Day of Marriage was fixed, all the Creditors were payed by the Father-in-law, and the Merchant even in these so delicate Circumstances, found himself free enough to take their Receipts. In fine, they live all together, and their Union is cemented on both sides with so much cordial hearty Love, that their Happiness is perfect.’

A Friend of mine, to whom I show’d this Story in the Original, altho’ his Circumstances are very near as unfortunate as those of the Merchant before the happy Change, yet could say upon reading it, That he knew not whose Happiness was most to be envy’d, his whose Affairs were so happily retriev’d, or his who had the Opportunity of giving so much Pleasure to others. I believe my benevolent Friend spoke his real Sentiments. I see Virtue in all those who were concern’d in the Story, yet I know not whether their Virtue is more worthy of Admiration than his.

I am Your Friend and Reader, Y. Z.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 30, 1732