On Benefits Book I, IV


The good-will of the benefactor is the fountain of all benefits; nay it is the benefit itself, or, at least, the stamp that makes it valuable and current.

Some there are, I know, that take the matter for the benefit, and tax the obligation by weight and measure.

When anything is given them, they presently cast it up; “What may such a house be worth? such an office? such an estate?” as if that were the benefit which is only the sign and mark of it: for the obligation rests in the mind, not in the matter; and all those advantages which we see, handle, or hold in actual possession by the courtesy of another, are but several modes or ways of explaining and putting the good-will in execution.

There needs no great subtlety to prove, that both benefits and injuries receive their value from the intention, when even brutes themselves are able to decide this question.

Tread upon a dog by chance, or put him to pain upon the dressing of a wound; the one he passes by as an accident; and the other, in his fashion, he acknowledges as a kindness: but, offer to strike at him, though you do him no hurt at all, he flies yet in the face of you, even for the mischief that you barely meant him.

It is further to be observed, that all benefits are good; and (like the distributions of Providence) made up of wisdom and bounty; whereas the gift itself is neither good nor bad, but may indifferently be applied, either to the one or to the other.

The benefit is immortal, the gift perishable: for the benefit itself continues when we have no longer either the use or the matter of it.

He that is dead was alive; he that has lost his eyes, did see; and, whatsoever is done, cannot be rendered undone.

My friend (for instance) is taken by pirates; I redeem him; and after that he falls into other pirates’ hands; his obligation to me is the same still as if he had preserved his freedom.

And so, if I save a man from any misfortune, and he falls into another; if I give him a sum of money, which is afterwards taken away by thieves; it comes to the same case.

Fortune may deprive us of the matter of a benefit, but the benefit itself remains inviolable.

If the benefit resided in the matter, that which is good for one man would be so for another; whereas many times the very same thing, given to several persons, work contrary effects, even to the difference of life or death; and that which is one body’s cure proves another body’s poison.

Beside that, the timing of it alters the value; and a crust of bread, upon a pinch, is a greater present than an imperial crown.

What is more familiar than in a battle to shoot at an enemy and kill a friend? or, instead of a friend, to save an enemy? But yet this disappointment, in the event, does not at all operate upon the intention.

What if a man cures me of a wen with a stroke that was designed to cut off my head? or, with a malicious blow upon my stomach, breaks an imposthume? or, what if he saves my life with a draught that was prepared to poison me?

The providence of the issue does not at all discharge the obliquity of the intent.

And the same reason holds good even in religion itself. It is not the incense, or the offering, that is acceptable to God, but the purity and devotion of the worshipper: neither is the bare will, without action, sufficient, that is, where we have the means of acting; for, in that case, it signifies as little to wish well, without well-doing, as to do good without willing it.

There must be effect as well as intention, to make me owe a benefit; but, to will against it, does wholly discharge it. In fine, the conscience alone is the judge, both of benefits and injuries.

It does not follow now, because the benefit rests in the good-will, that therefore the good-will should be always a benefit; for if it be not accompanied with government and discretion, those offices, which we call benefits, are but the works of passion, or of chance; and many times, the greatest of all injuries.

One man does me good by mistake; another ignorantly; a third upon force: but none of these cases do I take to be an obligation; for they were neither directed to me, nor was there any kindness of intention; we do not thank the seas for the advantages we receive by navigation; or the rivers with supplying us with fish and flowing of our grounds; we do not thank the trees either for their fruits or shades, or the winds for a fair gale; and what is the difference betwixt a reasonable creature that does not know and an inanimate that cannot?

A good horse saves one man’s life; a good suit of arms another’s; and a man, perhaps, that never intended it, saves a third.

Where is the difference now betwixt the obligation of one and of the other?

A man falls into a river, and the fright cures him of the ague; we may call this a kind of lucky mischance, but not a remedy.

And so it is with the good we receive, either without, or beside, or contrary to intention. It is the mind, and not the event, that distinguishes a benefit from an injury.