Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Loss of Shame
By Robert South (16341716)
From Sermons preached upon Several Occasions
CUSTOM in sinning never fails in the issue to take away the sense and shame of sin, were a person never so virtuous before. For albeit the object of shame still carries with it something strange, new and unusual, yet the strangeness of any thing wears off with the frequency of its practice. This makes it familiar to the mind, and being so, the mind is never startled or moved at it. By great sins (as we have shewn) the soul casts off shame all on a sudden; but by customary sinning it lays it down leisurely, and by degrees. And no man proceeding in such a course or method, arrives presently at the top of any vice; but holding on a continual steady progress in the paths of sin, passes at length into a forlorn, shameless condition by such steps as these. First, he begins to shake off the natural horror and dread which he had of breaking any of Gods commands, and so not to fear sin: in the next place, finding his sinful appetites gratified by such breaches of the divine law, he comes thereupon to like his sin, and to be pleased with what he has done; and then, from ordinary complacencies, heightened and improved by custom, he comes passionately to delight in such ways. And thus, being captivated with delight, he resolves to continue and persist in them; which, since he can hardly do without incurring the censure and ill opinion of the world, he frames himself to a resolute contempt of whatsoever is either thought or said of him; and so having hereby done violence to those apprehensions of modesty, which nature had placed as guardians and overseers to his virtue, he flings off all shame, wears his sin upon his forehead, looks boldly with it, and so at length commences a fixed, thorough-paced and complete sinner.
The examples of great persons take away the shame of anything which they are observed to practise, though never so foul and shameful in itself. Every such person stamps a kind of authority upon what he does; and the examples of superiors (and much more of sovereigns) are both a rule and an encouragement to their inferiors. The action is seldom abhorred, where the agent is admired; and the filth of one is hardly taken notice of, where the lustre of the other dazzles the beholder. Nothing is or can be more contagious, than an ill action set off with a great example; for it is natural for men to imitate those above them, and to endeavour to resemble, at least, that which they cannot be. And therefore, whatsoever they see such grandees do, quickly becomes current and creditable, it passes cum privilegio; and no man blushes at the imitation of a scarlet or a purple sinner, though the sin be so too.
It is, in good earnest, a sad consideration to reflect upon that intolerable weight of guilt which attends the vices of great and eminent offenders. Every one, God knows, has guilt enough from his own personal sins to consign him over to eternal misery; but when God shall charge the death of so many souls upon one mans account, and tell him at the great day, This man had his drunkenness from thee, that man owes his uncleanness to thy example; another was at first modest, bashful, and tender, till thy practice, enforced by the greatness of thy place and person, conquered all those reluctancies, and brought him in the end to be shameless and insensible, of a prostitute conscience and a reprobate mind. When God, I say, shall reckon all this to the score of a great, illustrious, and exemplary sinner, over and above his own personal guilt, how unspeakably greater a doom must needs pass upon him for other mens sins, than could have done only for his own! The sins of all about him are really his sins, as being committed in the strength of that which they had seen him do. Wherein, though his action was personal and particular, yet his influence was universal.
The observation of the general and common practice of anything, takes away the shame of that practice. Better be out of the world, than not be like the world, is the language of most hearts. The commonness of a practice turns it into a fashion, and few, we know, are ashamed to follow that. A vice à la mode will look virtue itself out of countenance, and it is well if it does not look it out of heart too. Men love not to be found singular, especially where the singularity lies in the rugged and severe paths of virtue. Company causes confidence, and multitude gives both credit and defence; credit to the crime, and defence to the criminal. The fearfullest and the basest creatures, got into herds and flocks, become bold and daring: and the modestest natures, hardened by the fellowship and concurrence of others in the same vicious course, grow into another frame of spirit; and in a short time lose all apprehension of the indecency and foulness of that which they have so familiarly and so long conversed with. Impudence fights with and by number, and by multitude becomes victorious. For no man is ashamed to look his fellow-thief or drunkard in the face, or to own a rebellious design in the head of a rebel army.
And we see every day what a degree of shamelessness the common practice of some sins amongst us has brought the generality of the nation to; so that persons of that sex, whose proper ornament should be bashfulness and modesty, are grown bold and forward, offer themselves into company, and even invite those addresses, which the severity of former times would have scorned to admit: from the retirements of the closet they are come to brave it in theatres and taverns; where virtue and modesty are drunk down, and honour left behind to pay the reckoning. And now ask such persons with what face they can assume such unbecoming liberties; and they shall answer you, that it is the mode, the gallantry, and the genteel freedom of the present age, which has redeemed itself from the pitiful pedantry and absurd scrupulosity of former times, in which those bugbears of credit and conscience spoiled all the pleasure, the air, and fineness of conversation. This is all the account you shall have from them; and thus, when common practice has vouched for an ill thing, and called it by a plausible name, the credit of the word shall take away the shame of the thing: vice grows triumphant; and, knowing itself to be in its full glory, scorns to fly to corners or concealments, but loves to be seen and gazed upon, and has thrown off the mask or vizard as an useless, unfashionable thing. This, I say, is the guise of our age, our free thinking and freer practising age, in which people generally are ashamed of nothing, but to be virtuous, and to be thought old.