Item of the Day: An Enquiry into the Duties of Men (1794)
Full Title: An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society in Great Britain, Resulting from their Respective Stations, Professions, and Employments. By Thomas Gisborne, M.A. London: Printed by J. Davis, For B. and J. White, Fleet-Street, 1794.
Plan of the Work Explained.
To apply moral truths to practical purposes; to point out their bearings on modern opinions and modern manners; and to deduce from them rules of conduct by which the inhabitants of the country in particular, each in his respective station, may be aided in acquiring the knowledge and encouraged in the performance of their several duties, are objects of unequivocal utility. They are the objects which it is my wish to attain, as far as I am able, in the present work.
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The plan proposed required me to enter into a regular and to a certain degree minute detail of the various duties of the different classes of society, which fall within its limits; to combine in every branch of my enquiry, as far as the nature of the subjects will admit, the conclusions of reason with the dictates of religion; and to deduce such inferences, and subjoin such remarks, as appear immediately applicable to the circumstances of Englishmen in common life. In the prosecution of a plan of this nature, the attention will of course be attracted in the first place by those objects which are of the most general importance, and those situations which render the persons fixed in them particularly conspicuous. And it will afterwards be directed to points which interest either a smaller proportion of the community, or that part of it which is more withdrawn from public observation. I propose therefore, in the outset of the undertaking, to investigate the conformity between the acknowledged principles of the British Constitution, as it stands and is administered at present, and those fundamental rules of political wisdom, which ought to be carefully regarded in every civil society: to offer, in the next place, some remarks on the functions of the sovereign, and to notice the general duties of Englishmen as subjects and fellow-citizens: and afterwards to discriminate the upper and middle classes of the inhabitants of this country according to the several ranks, professions, and employments, into which they are distributed, beginning with those of a public nature, and descending to those which are private and domestic, and to state the several duties and temptations peculiar to each. It will not be expected that in a work of this kind a distinct part should be appropriated to those, who are placed in the lowest ranks of society. By them argumentatives and bulky treatises on morality will not be read. The careful perusal of their bible, and the study of short and familiar expositions of its precepts, aided by the public and private admonitions of their pastors, are to them the principal sources of instruction. Not but that the morals of the common people may be materially corrected, their understandings improved and their misconceptions rectified, with equal benefit to themselves and to the whole community, by judicious attention on the part of their superiors among the laity. To pursue those objects with diligence, with perseverance, and with a studious regard to the difference of temporary or local circumstances, practices, and opinions, is a moral obligation strictly incumbent on all persons in the higher classes; and one which will not pass without further notice in the course of the following pages.
To the choice of this plan I was determined by a persuasion, that it offered the fairest opportunity of effectually bringing home the duties of men to their understandings and bosoms. He who would read with indifference an abstract enquiry into the nature of a particular duty, and the proper means of performing it, might be struck with a faithful representation of the occasions on which the performance of that duty is required, the manner in which it is to be effected, and the pretences by which it is commonly evaded, exemplified in the occurrences which attend his own profession and situation in life. Remarks, which in the former case he might probably have slighted as the reveries of speculative theory, in the latter press upon his mind corroborated by the energy of authentic facts, of the truth of which he has had ocular and almost hourly demonstration. I may likewise add as a further reason for adopting the method proposed, that I do not recollect any ethical work in which a similar plan is pursued with regularity, and at the same time extended to any considerable variety of subjects.
There is however one imperfection inseparable from this mode of proceeding, which it may be requisite briefly to mention. No man acts in a single character; nor can all his duties be brought into one point of view. The member of the legislature, the minister of state, the counsellor, the merchant, is also a subject, a husband, a parent, a landlord, or a master. In order then to avoid the repetition which would only swell the bulk of the performance without conveying additional information; I request the reader, of whatever description he may be, not to confine his attention to the chapter appropriated to the station or profession to which he belongs; but to consider those chapters also which include the general duties of subjects, and the especial obligations of private and domestic life, as particularly addressed to himself. If I should be told that remarks and directions will still be found applied to persons of one description which equally appertain to those of another; instead of sheltering myself under the acknowledged impossibility of avoiding all defects in any undertaking, or pleading that the defect alleged is of no prominent magnitude, I might reply that it is a circumstance which I scarcely desire to be otherwise. For, as the matter now stands, even the cursory enquirer, who turns to a particular chapter from curiosity to know what is there stated concerning the profession of which it treats, though a profession in which he is not personally engaged; may chance to meet with observations, which he may perceive to be not altogether inapplicable to his own.