The Stupidest Commentary on the Decalogue Ever Written
This is bad. For one thing, it is an embarrassing example of wishful thinking, as if some imaginary standard of justice (“Equal Natural Rights of Man”) could ever displace the express Word of God “spoken through angels” (Hebrews 2:2). What makes the matter more egregious is the number of Bible texts the author (“Amicus humani generis” or “friend of the human race”) puts on the title page of this most curious work (see the figure). Why display Bible texts as being somehow authoritative when you disavow that authority in the body of the work?
But that is just the beginning of the stupidity of this treatment. Take, for example, the discussion of the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” This tells us that we have to take God for what He says He is, not for what we wish to make Him out to be. But for “Amicus humani generis,” we cannot take Him for what He says He is – because “the word God is a very indefinite term, nearly every person forming a different conception of what the term means.” That’s the entire point! You can’t do that! You must take Him for what He says He is, not for what you imagine Him to be! Images are idols! But for God to insist on being recognized for who and what He is, would be to violate the “Equal Natural Rights of Man”!
Furthermore, the insistence that these commandments be declared null and void because they cannot in all instances be enforced by civil government is again to lose sight of what these commandments are: a revelation of ethics. Civil law is one limited expression of ethics. Civil law does not embody an entire ethical system, but only a subset of an ethical system. Yet the author would have the stipulations in the Decalogue enforced as civil law, and would have them declared invalid because they cannot be so. But this is to beg the question, what is civil government’s jurisdiction vis-à-vis ethics?
We could go on pointing out the abundant ludicrous elements of this treatment, but we will leave that to the reader. The treatment of adultery is especially diverting. Without further ado, we turn to the stupidest commentary on the Decalogue ever written.
I have set up, as my standard, as an absolute truth, the doctrine of the Equal Natural Rights of Man. By this standard must everything pertaining to man’s actions be measured ; and whatever act, when measured by this standard, is found wanting, it is imperfect, and whatever rule of action or law is adopted by society, that in any way results in the infringement on the Equality of Rights between men, is imperfect.
I suppose the essence of what we call the revealed law, to be contained in the decalogue. I shall take the liberty to examine it therefore.
The first commandment of the decalogue is: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
As the word God is a very indefinite term, nearly every person forming a different conception of what the term means, and as all possess an equal right to their peculiar conceptions, no one person, or any number of persons, can have any right to dictate to others what peculiar God they shall worship, without infringing on the natural rights of others; any law, therefore, based on such a command is unjust.
The next command is, that there shall not be made any graven image or likeness of anything for man to bow to in worship.
As different peoples have different views about worship, if some wish to engrave an image, or paint a picture, as a remembrancer of their peculiar Deity; and as the worship of any Deity is entirely a personal matter, not in any way infringing on the rights of another, it would be unjust and tyrannical to prohibit any one, by statute, from doing as the individual sees fit to do in the matter.
The next is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” As this cannot in any way affect the rights of another, any law based on this must be wrong.
The next is, that there shall not be any manner of work done on the Sabbath day.
It will not be necessary for me to go into any discussion as to any sanitary or economic benefits, that man may derive from resting one day in seven, as one day would be as good as another for that purpose, and each individual would be the best judge of when he or she should take a rest; and as there are differences of opinion as to the correct day to rest, or whether any day at all should be set apart or not, there cannot be any law enacted compelling people to rest on a certain day, without being tyrannical and unjust. If any community or people should agree to set apart any particular day as a day of rest for mutual convenience, there should not be any penalty attached for the non-observance of it by those wishing to do otherwise. The doctrine of Equal Natural Rights will not admit of any one dictating to another what he shall do or shall not do, so long as others’ rights are not infringed; no one having any superior rights, he cannot dictate; whenever one man assumes superior rights and undertakes to enforce them, he degrades himself with employing the methods of the brute—that of Force. Herein lies the difference between a man and a brute: man knows the rights of another, and yields them of his own will, while a brute knows nothing of Rights; all it knows is Force. And as man’s civilization advances, he uses less and less the methods of the brute and more and more the methods of the man.
The next command is, Honor thy father and thy mother, etc. This as a command or law is void, as it cannot be enforced, but as an exhortation, it is good. If the parents treat their children with kindness and love, they will be apt to be repaid with the same; but if they tyrannize over them and otherwise misuse their children, no amount of commanding and force can make their children honor them.
The next is: Thou shalt not kill.
As it is clearly demonstrable that it is wrong to injure or take the life of another, this law is just.
The next is : Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Perhaps no command in the decalogue has caused more mischief than this. It would be safe to say that more than one-half of the people who have lived since this command was first given, have disobeyed it. And why? I can give no other reason than because they wanted to. I do not wish to be understood as advocating adultery; it can make no difference what my prejudices or feelings on the subject may be; all that I hope to do, is to apply the test of Natural Rights to this command in a logical and fearless manner. If adultery infringes on anybody’s natural rights, it is wrong, and society would do well to prohibit it ; and if it does not infringe on anybody’s natural rights, it would be as much an act of tyranny for society to say that you shall not commit adultery as it would be for society to say that you shall commit adultery.
Society at large, through its laws, has no right to interfere in the personal affairs of any of its members, so long as such members injure no one. Whenever one of its members is injured by another willfully, the strong arm of the law should resent the injury, and retaliate ; but so long as no one is injured, the law should be inert. We can have no Equal Rights in any other way.
Society is pretty evenly divided up as to sex—man and woman. As a rule the man possesses the greater physical strength, and perhaps greater mental ability, also, but his greater strength and wisdom cannot give him any superior right; she possesses exactly the same rights with him. There can be no Equality of Rights otherwise ; they are both sovereigns, and both are entitled to follow the dictates of their own wills, limited only by the rights of others. They obey a natural instinct or desire when they select each other for man and wife, and if they truly love each other, they are happier in each other’s company than with any other ; there is a natural bond of affection that keeps them together ; there is no desire on their part to separate from each other; they take pleasure in their home, in their family ; they have found their true estate, their true mode of life—they are happy. There is no desire on their part to commit adultery ; as they look in the faces of their children the thought becomes repugnant; there is a desire on their part to set a good example for their children to follow. They live natural lives ; they have obeyed a natural law in coming together as husband and wife; and also in living for each other they have obeyed their natural instincts and desires. If there had been no human laws enacted on this subject they would have lived together just the same. Observation and experience teaches me that monogamous marriage is the true estate of man. Both man and woman will find more real pleasure in life by this mode than by any other, and the more a man and wife have their affections centered in each other the happier their life will be. While I advocate such a mode of life, because I believe it is the best, have I the right to compel others to live as I do? I could persuade or exhort others to do so without infringing on their rights, but to compel them to do so I go beyond my rights and infringe on theirs. If a man and woman get married, and after living together they begin to quarrel and live unhappily with each other, shall I compel them to live together after they wish to separate, simply because I live happily with my wife, and think it is the best mode of life? What right has society, through its law, to compel two persons to live together when they wish to separate? Under the doctrine of Equal Natural Rights it has no right to do so, and if it assumes the right and enforces it, society degrades itself on a level with the brute in using force instead of Rights.
If I were married to a wife who had lost her affection for me, have I the natural right to compel her to live with me when she did not wish to? Would not I commit a rape by doing so ? And yet I should have the sanction of law on my side.
When two persons join together in marriage, one having Equal Natural Rights with the other, neither can dictate to the other what he or she shall do or not do; each being sovereign in their will, each must determine for himself or herself what he or she will do. Their marriage can only be a compact entered into by two sovereigns, if we admit the doctrine of Equal Rights, and such compact can only be enforced by the honor of each. If each is sovereign in his or her rights, there can be no superior human authority to obey than their own respective wills. If, therefore, one should commit adultery the other’s rights cannot have been infringed ; the compact may have been broken, the honor of one of them may have been sullied by breaking of such compact, and the other may in honor withdraw from such compact, but the right of neither can extend beyond his or her own actions in this case. It can make no difference what our prejudices on this subject may be, if we admit the doctrine of Equal Natural Rights, we must admit the force of this logic; and if we deny the doctrine of Equal Natural Rights, we admit the partiality of Nature, and, consequently, Natural Injustice. Justice is impossible to be obtained in any other way or by any other means, than by Equal Natural Rights. To say thou shalt not commit adultery, therefore, as a command is unjust, but as an exhortation, I believe it to be right.
This command has made hypocrites of us all, and filled the land with those dens of corruption and pollution, called houses of prostitution. There can be no good gained by hypocrisy, neither can we attain universal happiness by enacting laws contrary to the laws of nature. It is only by observing natural laws and working in harmony with them that we can attain happiness. While I believe that to commit adultery is a mistake; that it is not the right road to happiness, yet I could not use force to prevent it without infringing on the natural rights of some one. I could only use moral suasion by pointing out the reasons why I believe it to be a wrong course to pursue. Nature has imposed checks on lascivious desires over which we cannot pass—no statute can reach. There is a love of approbation implanted in all, and the law of public opinion cannot be evaded; the burden of maternity cannot be overcome, and the natural love of honor, of doing as we agree to do, these are Nature’s checks, and cannot be evaded. Public opinion may be nearly as arbitrary and cruel as a statute, made so by a false education. But this is a matter of growth that time must remedy. We must surround ourselves with the natural and true, instead of the artificial and false conditions if we would have natural and pure morals, and a correct public opinion. As we all learn by observation and experience, the total observation and experience of the whole must produce a greater wisdom than can be attained by any one individual. So that thought or opinion which is most universally held is the most likely to be true, and this thought or opinion becomes a guide to the individual in leading him to do right, and no force need be used except where the individual steps beyond the limits of his own rights and infringes on the rights of another. Man’s civilization has passed beyond its infancy and early youth, and is now verging on its maturity. Therefore, less arbitrary and coercive methods should be used in our Government than has been used in the past.
The next command is: “Thou shalt not steal.” This command is just, as it can be clearly demonstrated that to steal infringes on the rights of others.
The next is: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This command is also right, as it clearly infringes on the rights of others to give false testimony.
The next and last command, “That we shall not covet,” etc., as a law is void, as it cannot be enforced, but as an exhortation it is good.
To set up such a code of laws as being too sacred for human criticism, is the sheerest nonsense, and to base a system of human laws on them, must result in injustice and misery.
|Amicus humani generis, The Labor Question: Or, An Exact Science of Equivalents (Chicago Legal News Company, 1881), pp. 161–168. (link to Google books version)|