But if by correctness be meant the conforming to a narrow legislation which, while lenient to the mala in se, multiplies, without a shadow of a reason, the mala prohibita, if by correctness be meant a strict attention to certain ceremonious observances, which are no more essential to poetry than etiquette to good government, or than the washings of a Pharisee to devotion, then, assuredly, Pope may be a more correct poet than Shakspeare; and, if the code were a little altered, Colley Cibber might be a more correct poet than Pope.
In their eagerness to avoid the mala prohibita of a foolish code, they are perpetually rushing on the mala in se. Their great predecessors, it is true, were as bad critics as themselves, or perhaps worse, but those predecessors, as we have attempted to show, were inspired by a faculty independent of criticism, and, therefore, wrote well while they judged ill.
All monopolies, all special privileges, all sumptuary laws, all restraints upon any traffic, bargain, or contract, that was naturally lawful, all restraints upon men's natural rights, the whole catalogue of mala prohibita, and all taxation to which the taxed parties had not individually, severally, and freely consented, would be at an end; because all such legislation implies a violation of the rights of a greater or less minority.
The rest of her moral characteristics were such as naturally accompany these qualities of mind and heart: the most genuine modesty combined with the loftiest pride; a simplicity and sincerity which were absolute, towards all who were fit to receive them; the utmost scorn of whatever was mean and cowardly, and a burning indignation at everything brutal or tyrannical, faithless or dishonourable in conduct and character, while making the broadest distinction between mala in se and mere mala prohibita between acts giving evidence of intrinsic badness in feeling and character, and those which are only violations of conventions either good or bad, violations which, whether in themselves right or wrong, are capable of being committed by persons in every other respect lovable or admirable.
Many laws are to be found there which are unnecessary and superfluous if applied elsewhere. Many actions, innocent in themselves, are prohibited. All the mala prohibita are not mala in se. But one thing is as clear as a sunbeam, and that is a very important light to the student of Ethics; if God was the author of these laws, nothing morally wrong was commanded or allowed by them.