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subject of punishment, when the effects are the same, the lie will be punished without, as well as with any ceremony preparatory to its utterance. If, then, an increase of punishment will be inflicted-it must be for the profanation of the ceremony, and nothing else.
If the future punishment, is increased in consequence of the administration of the oath then what follows? That man, by the use of certain words and ceremonies, can compel the Deity to inflict other, and increased, and different punishments; that man can control the Deity. The punishment for the falsehood is one thing; the punishment for the falsehood would be just without the ceremony, and the falsehood being the same, the punishment, for that cause, must be the same. If there be an increase, it is for the profanation, and for that alone.
The perjury committed, the falsehood judicially uttered, as by the Quaker, the temporal punishment the same, the evil the same, is the future punishment the same? If so, then the oath is utterly valueless? It is increased, then, for precisely the same temporal offence; for the same identical violation of truth, there is, then, a different future punishment, and that arising from, and caused by the utterance of certain words, and the performance of certain gestures, previous to uttering such falsehood! The Quaker suffers equally in this world for his crime, but hereafter he is to be a gainer, by having his suffering diminished.
All that is alleged, then, to have been accomplished is, that an increased amount of punishment is hereafter to be inflicted, simply for the violation of a ceremony, and entirely irrespective and regardless of any evils flowing from the falsehood. No sanction for truth is really obtained.
But in what does the binding force of an oath consist? When Jepthah, returning in triumph, was met by his daughter with timbrels and dances, was Jepthah under any obligation to perform the vow he had made, "to offer up for a burnt offering whatsoever should come forth from the doors of his house to meet him?" If yea, such obligation arose not from the rightfulness or propriety of the matter vowed, for that was a dark and atrocious murder, "for she was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter." The performance, if required, was required solely in consequence of the vow. "For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and cannot go back." If nay, if the vow was not to be performed, then does it not follow, that it is the fitness of the thing sworn to be done or not, which is
the basis of the obligation, and upon which its binding force rests?
When Herod, pleased with the dancing of the daughter of Herodias, "promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would," and when she requested the head of John the Baptist in a dish, was he thereby bound to give it her?"Yet for his oath's sake and them that sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her."
Mahomet says when you swear to do a thing, and afterwards find it better to do otherwise, do that which is better, and make void your oath.
The very definitions of an oath show that, by reason and in consequence of the oath, the Deity becomes bound to punish a perjured person irremissibly. History, too, shows that obligations upon man, and so, too, upon the Deity, arising from the oath, varied, or were supposed to vary in intensity, according to the varying forms and circumstances attendant upon its administration. When Robert, the pious king of France, abstracted the holy relics from the cases upon which the oath was taken, and substituted therefor the egg of an ostrich, as being an innocent object, and incapable of taking vengeance on those who should swear falsely, he might have been correct as to the incapacity of the egg; but did he thereby save his subjects from perjury, or avert the punishment of the Deity? When Harold shuddering saw the bones and relics of saints and martyrs, real or fictitious, upon which he had unconsciously sworn, were the obligations he had assumed, increased by their unknown presence? Or was it the unreasoning fear of abject superstition, which led him to believe that he had thus immeasurably increased the dangers of superhuman punishment?
Indeed, when men consider they are under obligation to utter the truth or not, as they stand upon a tiger's skin or hold in their hand the tail of a cow, as they have their hat on or off, as certain spurious relics of fictitious saints are enclosed in the pyx or not; as the lips touch the thumb or the book; as the book has, or not, a cross upon it, who does not see that the virtue resides, or is considered by those thus believing, to reside in the ceremony and in that alone; that the thing sworn to be done or not, and its propriety, are not even matters deemed worthy of thought?
But is the obligation to utter truth thereby increased? Is not that eternal, immutable? Is not the duty to utter truth paramount and prior to all oaths? The oath may be the same
so far as the ceremony is concerned, either to utter the truth or a falsehood, but is the obligation the same? If the obligation rests on the oath, each alike must be performed as sworn. If it rests on the rightfulness of the thing to be done, then why add the oath?
The oath is not without its accompanying evils. By imposing punishment only when it has been administered, it lessens the importance of, and the respect due to truth, in statements uttered extrajudicially, and gives an implied license to falsehood, out of Court. The truth seems only to be specially requisite in case of an oath, otherwise it is comparatively immaterial.
Charles Lamb, in his quaint and quiet way, and with great humor and truth, says, "the custom of resorting to an oath in extreme cases, is apt to introduce into the laxer sort of minds, the notion of two kinds of truth; the one applicable to the solemn affairs of Justice, and the other to the common proceedings of daily intercourse. As truth, bound upon the conscience by an oath, can be but truth, so, in the common affirmations of the shop and the market, a latitude is expected and conceded upon questions wanting this solemn covenant. Something less than the truth satisfies. It is common for a person to say, you do not expect me to speak as if I were upon my oath. Hence, a kind of secondary or laic truth is tolerated, when clergy truth, oath truth, is not required. A Quaker knows none of these distinctions."
Not very dissimilar was the idea of St. Basil, that "it is a very foul and silly thing for a man to accuse himself as unworthy of belief, and to proffer an oath for security."
The oath, too, is a disturbing force in giving the just degree of weight to testimony. It tends to place all testimony upon the same level, to cause equal credence to be given to all, because all have passed through the same ceremony. The attention of the jury or the judge, is withdrawn from the just appreciation of the grounds of belief or disbelief in the evidence. The same ceremony for all, the tendency is, to believe that its force is the same upon all, and thus the bad receive undue credence, while the good are reduced to the standard of the bad.
In what does the difference consist between judicial and extrajudicial falsehood? The consequences of the latter may be more or less injurious than those of the former; the injury greater, the loss, in the latter case, of property, reputation or even life, in the former of a few shillings, it may be; is the falsehood judicially uttered the greater offence? To suffer the
same loss by the utterance of the same words in Court or out of Court, in the Street or on the Stand, with or without assenting with upraised hand to certain words, in what is the difference to the loser, or the general injury to the community? Why in one case punish, in the other exempt from punishment? Does it not degrade the general standard of veracity; does it not create the notion that truth is not competent on ordinary occasions, but is only required as a sort of Court language?
What are the lessons of experience? To determine the real value of this sanction, one must abstract all those concurring and coöperating securities, which alone are of real importance, but which, not being estimated at their value, give this an unnatural and undeserved efficiency. Take away public opinion; let falsehood be regarded with as much indifference as among the Hindoos; remove all fear of temporal punishment in case of testimonial falsehood; abolish the test of crossexamination; leave it to the willing or unwilling witness to state more or less, according to the promptings of his inclination, and you then see the measure of security for trustworthiness derivable from the oath. When the oath sanction is in accordance with the other securities of trustworthiness, its weakness is not perceived. Let the religious cease to be in conformity with the popular sentiment or even with convenience, and its violation is looked on with indifference or even complacency. "If you wish," says Bentham, "to have powder of post taken for an efficacious medicine, try it with opium and antimony; if you wish to have it taken for what it is, try it by itself."
Definite, certain, immediate punishment alone is powerful to restrain or coerce. The future, enshrouded in darkness, yields to the present. The fear of punishment, hereafter to be imposed for falsehood without oath, or with oath so far as it may be increased thereby, is a motive of little strength. The uncertainty whether any will be inflicted, the unalterable ignorance as to what the amount may be, or when in time, or where in space it is to be inflicted, render it a security unreliable and powerless in its action upon even the most intelligent and conscientious, when unaided and unsupported by other securities.
The oaths of Oxford University have been taken by the most cultivated minds of England, by those, who in after life attained the highest dignities of the Church or the State, by those, who from their station, their education and intelligence, would be least likely to disregard their obligation. These oaths required obedience to statutes framed centuries ago by
and for a set of monks, and are about as consonant to the present state of Society as the monkish costume would be to a General in Chief at the head of his army. Consequently, they are not merely not observed, but their observance would be a matter of astonishment to all, equally to those sworn to observe and to those sworn to require their observance.
Another instance of habitual violation of oaths, has been seen in the conduct of English Judges and Juries, in the administration of the criminal law. The English code was written in blood. Draco would have shuddered at the multiplicity of its bloody enactments. Death was inflicted in cases of larceny, dependent upon the value of the thing stolen. With greater regard to the dictates of humanity than to their oathobligations, juries, at the suggestion of the Court, and for the express purpose of evading the law, have intentionally returned the article stolen as of less than its true value, to avoid the punishment of death, which otherwise would have attached.
Unanimity, too, is required in juries. A difference of opinion exists; in most contested cases of much complexity, it is likely to exist. The really dissenting minority yield to the majority. The Court aid or advise, and if advice will not serve, compel agreements by partial starvation thus bringing physical wants to their aid, to coerce real opinion.
The open and profligate violation of custom-house oaths, has attracted so much attention, that in England they have been abolished. In this country, a bill to that effect, with the approbation of the late John Quincy Adams, was introduced, but we believe it was defeated.
The Jews had no temporal punishment for perjury, and they have descended to posterity as a nation of oath-breakers. It will be fully understood how little effect the fear of future punishment had over the Grecian mind, when it is remembered that the wit of Aristophanes was directed against the very idea of Jove's interference for the punishment of this crime.
"Dunce, dotard, were you born before the flood,
The perjured villains, brave the lightning's stroke,
The caustic and vehement pen of Juvenal affords an equally true and vivid picture of Roman want of belief and truth.