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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 42

1.—the Highest Duty

1.—the Highest Duty

Of every man is to "examine every subject for himself, and to think freely and speak freely what he may think." With this maxim I have no quarrel. I have for years acted upon it, for I discovered that it was in itself good, and also that it was promulgated in the Bible, and that those who acted upon it were highly commended for their noble perseverance and zeal. But I have a strong objection to any set, of men claiming; that only they accept this as a high and elevating principle, for it is prominent throughout the teaching of protestant reformers, and lives in healthy robustness throughout Protestant Christianity. With the position which Mr Stout has assigned to it, however, I have a most emphatic protest to enter. That this should be the highest duty of man contracts human duty into a channel of miserable meanness, whence it can permeate no further than a man's own person. This rule shuts out the entire world from the man—withers up the most precious of human comforts which flow from the affections. It expels love from the catalogue of human virtues, for love is nothing if it is not unselfish. But worst of all, this rule is capable of such wide and various application that it might be the certain destruction of all rule and good order. For if a man's "highest" duty is to "think, speak, and act" simply as his mind dictates, it must also be the "highest" duty of all other men to refrain from interfering with him. There can therefore be no standard of right between a man and his neighbours, for Mr Stout contends that this rule is to be adhered to "independent altogether of the consequence that may result from our actions." If this be the case, then every man is bound in the highest duty to act out his own convictions whatever they may be, not in any way taking into consideration what effect the action may have upon the community; and this community has no authority to prevent the action. Yet, I should be more than surprised if Mr Stout would carry out the rule if a man were to act upon thoughts which dictated him to possess himself of some of the former gentleman's property. Mr Stout would have convictions which he would deem it prudent to assert and defend, regardless of the other man's convictions to the contrary; and how should they settle their difference? To whom could they appeal? There is "no authority competent to dictate" to either. Society is by page 8 such a means completely disorganised. Each man is a law to himself; he is the only person capable of interpreting that law, and to no other law is he responsible. That this is no false comment, let us follow up the argument and we shall see.