Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter X. The Heart and the Head.–Love and Reason.
“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter."[A]
[Footnote A: Milton’s Areopagitica.]
It has been shown that Browning appeals, in defence of his optimistic faith, from the intellect to the heart. His theory rests on three main assumptions:–namely (1) that knowledge of the true nature of things is impossible to man, and that, therefore, it is necessary to find other and better evidence than the intellect can give for the victory of good over evil; (2) that the failure of knowledge is a necessary condition of the moral life, inasmuch as certain knowledge would render all moral effort either futile or needless; (3) that after the failure of knowledge there still remains possible a faith of the heart, which can furnish a sufficient objective basis to morality and religion. The first of these assumptions I endeavoured to deal with in the last chapter. I now turn to the remaining two.
Demonstrative, or certain, or absolute knowledge of the actual nature of things would, Browning asserts, destroy the very possibility of a moral life.[A] For such knowledge would show either that evil is evil, or that evil is good; and, in both cases alike, the benevolent activity of love would be futile. In the first case, it would be thwarted and arrested by despair; for, if evil be evil, it must remain evil for aught that man can do. Man cannot effect a change in the nature of things, nor create a good in a world dominated by evil. In the second case, the saving effect of moral love would be unnecessary; for, if evil be only seeming, then all things are perfect and complete, and there is no need of interference. It is necessary, therefore, that man should be in a permanent state of doubt as to the real existence of evil; and, whether evil does exist or not, it must seem, and only seem to exist to man, in order that he may devote himself to the service of good.[B]
[Footnote A: See Chapter VIII., p. 255.]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
Now, if this view of the poet be taken in the strict sense in which he uses it in this argument, it admits of a very easy refutation. It takes us beyond the bounds of all possible human experience, into an imaginary region, as to which all assertions are equally valueless. It is impossible to conceive how the conduct of a being who is moral would be affected by absolute knowledge; or, indeed, to conceive the existence of such a being. For morality, as the poet insists, is a process in which an ideal is gradually realized through conflict with the actual–an actual which it both produces and transmutes at every stage of the progress. But complete knowledge would be above all process. Hence we would have, on Browning’s hypothesis, to conceive of a being in whom perfect knowledge was combined with an undeveloped will. A being so constituted would be an agglomerate of utterly disparate elements, the interaction of which in a single character it would be impossible to make intelligible.
But, setting aside this point, there is a curious flaw in Browning’s argument, which indicates that he had not distinguished between two forms of optimism which are essentially different from each other,–namely, the pantheistic and the Christian.
To know that evil is only apparent, that pain is only pleasure’s mask, that all forms of wickedness and misery are only illusions of an incomplete intelligence, would, he argues, arrest all moral action and stultify love. For love–which necessarily implies need in its object–is the principle of all right action. In this he argues justly, for the moral life is essentially a conflict and progress; and, in a world in which “white ruled unchecked along the line,” there would be neither the need of conflict nor the possibility of progress. And, on the other hand, if the good were merely a phantom, and evil the reality, the same destruction of moral activity would follow. “White may not triumph,” in this absolute manner, nor may we “clean abolish, once and evermore, white’s faintest trace.” There must be “the constant shade cast on life’s shine.”
All this is true; but the admission of it in no way militates against the conception of absolutely valid knowledge; nor is it any proof that we need live in the twilight of perpetual doubt, in order to be moral. For the knowledge, of which Browning speaks, would be knowledge of a state of things in which morality would be really impossible; that is, it would be knowledge of a world in which all was evil or all was good. On the other hand, valid knowledge of a world in which good and evil are in conflict, and in which the former is realized through victory over the latter, would not destroy morality. What is inconsistent with the moral life is the conception of a world where there is no movement from evil to good, no evolution of character, but merely the stand-still life of “Rephan.” But absolutely certain knowledge that the good is at issue with sin in the world, that there is no way of attaining goodness except through conflict with evil, and that moral life, as the poet so frequently insists, is a process which converts all actual attainment into a dead self, from which we can rise to higher things–a self, therefore, which is relatively evil–would, and does, inspire morality. It is the deification of evil not negated or overcome, of evil as it is in itself and apart from all process, which destroys morality. And the same is equally true of a pantheistic optimism, which asserts that all things are good. But it is not true of a Christian optimism, which asserts that all things are working together for good. For such optimism implies that the process of negating or overcoming evil is essential to the attainment of goodness; it does not imply that evil, as evil, is ever good. Evil is unreal, only in the sense that it cannot withstand the power which is set against it. It is not mere semblance, a mere negation or absence of being; it is opposed to the good, and its opposition can be overcome, only by the moral effort which it calls forth. An optimistic faith of this kind can find room for morality; and, indeed, it furnishes it with the religious basis it needs. Browning, however, has confused these two forms of optimism; and, therefore, he has been driven to condemn knowledge, because he knew no alternative but that of either making evil eternally real, or making it absolutely unreal. A third alternative, however, is supplied by the conception of moral evolution. Knowledge of the conditions on which good can be attained–a knowledge that amounts to conviction–is the spring of all moral effort; whereas an attitude of permanent doubt as to the distinction between good and evil would paralyse it. Such a doubt must be solved before man can act at all, or choose one end rather than another. All action implies belief, and the ardour and vigour of moral action can only come from a belief which is whole-hearted.
The further assertion, which the poet makes in La Saisiaz, and repeats elsewhere, that sure knowledge of the consequences that follow good and evil actions would necessarily lead to the choice of good and the avoidance of evil, and destroy morality by destroying liberty of choice, raises the whole question of the relation of knowledge and conduct, and cannot be adequately discussed here. It may be said, however, that it rests upon a confusion between two forms of necessity: namely, natural and spiritual necessity. In asserting that knowledge of the consequences of evil would determine human action in a necessary way, the poet virtually treats man as if he were a natural being. But the assumption that man is responsible and liable to punishment, involves that he is capable of withstanding all such determination. And knowledge does not and cannot lead to such necessary determination. Reason brings freedom; for reason constitutes the ends of action.
It is the constant desire of the good to attain to such a convincing knowledge of the worth and dignity of the moral law that they shall be able to make themselves its devoted instruments. Their desire is that “the good” shall supplant in them all motives that conflict against it, and be the inner principle, or necessity, of all their actions. Such complete devotion to the good is expressed, for instance, in the words of the Hebrew Psalmist: “Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined mine heart to perform Thy statutes alway, even unto the end. I hate vain thoughts, but Thy law do I love.” “Nevertheless I live,” said the Christian apostle, “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.” In these words there is expressed that highest form of the moral life, in which the individual is so identified in desire with his ideal, that he lives only to actualize it in his character. The natural self is represented as dead, and the victory of the new principle is viewed as complete. This full obedience to the ideal is the service of a necessity; but the necessity is within, and the service is, therefore, perfect freedom. The authority of the law is absolute, but the law is self-imposed. The whole man is convinced of its goodness. He has acquired something even fuller than a mere intellectual demonstration of it; for his knowledge has ripened into wisdom, possessed his sympathies, and become a disposition of his heart. And the fulness and certainty of his knowledge, so far from rendering morality impossible, is its very perfection. To bring about such a knowledge of the good of goodness and the evil of evil, as will engender love of the former and hatred of the latter, is the aim of all moral education. Thus, the history of human life, in so far as it is progressive, may be concentrated in the saying that it is the ascent from the power of a necessity which is natural, to the power of a necessity which is moral. And this latter necessity can come only through fuller and more convincing knowledge of the law that rules the world, and is also the inner principle of man’s nature.
There remains now the third element in Browning’s view,–namely, that the faith in the good, implied in morality and religion, can be firmly established, after knowledge has turned out deceptive, upon the individual’s consciousness of the power of love within himself. In other words, I must now try to estimate the value of Browning’s appeal from the intellect to the heart.
Before doing so, however, it may be well to repeat once more that Browning’s condemnation of knowledge, in his philosophical poems, is not partial or hesitating. On the contrary, he confines it definitely to the individual’s consciousness of his own inner states.
“Myself I solely recognize. They, too, may recognize themselves, not me, For aught I know or care."[A]
[Footnote A: A Bean-Stripe. See also La Saisiaz.]
Nor does Browning endeavour to correct this limited testimony of the intellect as to its own states, by bringing in the miraculous aid of revelation, or by postulating an unerring moral faculty. He does not assume an intuitive power of knowing right from wrong; but he maintains that ignorance enwraps man’s moral sense.[B]
[Footnote B: See Chapter VIII.]
And, not only are we unable to know the rule of right and wrong in details, but we cannot know whether there is right or wrong. At times the poet seems inclined to say that evil is a phenomenon conjured up by the frail intelligence of man.
“Man’s fancy makes the fault! Man, with the narrow mind, must cram inside His finite God’s infinitude,–earth’s vault He bids comprise the heavenly far and wide, Since Man may claim a right to understand What passes understanding."[A]
[Footnote A: Bernard de Mandeville.]
God’s ways are past finding out. Nay, God Himself is unknown. At times, indeed, the power to love within man seems to the poet to be a clue to the nature of the Power without, and God is all but revealed in this surpassing emotion of the human heart. But, when philosophizing, he withdraws even this amount of knowledge. He is
“Assured that, whatsoe’er the quality Of love’s cause, save that love was caused thereby, This–nigh upon revealment as it seemed A minute since–defies thy longing looks, Withdrawn into the unknowable once more."[B]
[Footnote B: A Pillar at Sebzevar.]
Thus–to sum up Browning’s view of knowledge–we are ignorant of the world; we do not know even whether it is good, or evil, or only their semblance, that is presented to us in human life; and we know nothing of God, except that He is the cause of love in man. What greater depth of agnosticism is possible?
When the doctrine is put in this bald form, the moral and religious consciousness of man, on behalf of which the theory was invented, revolts against it.
Nevertheless, the distinction made by Browning between the intellectual and emotional elements of human life is very common in religious thought. It is not often, indeed, that either the worth of love, or the weakness of knowledge receives such emphatic expression as that which is given to them by the poet; but the same general idea of their relation is often expressed, and still more often implied. Browning differs from our ordinary teachers mainly in the boldness of his affirmatives and negatives. They, too, regard the intellect as merely human, and the emotion of love as divine. They, too, shrink from identifying the reason of man with the reason of God; even though they may recognize that morality and religion must postulate some kind of unity between God and man. They, too, conceive that human knowledge differs in nature from that of God, while they maintain that human goodness is the same in nature with that of God, though different in degree and fulness. There are two kinds of knowledge, but there is only one kind of justice, or mercy, or loving-kindness. Man must be content with a semblance of a knowledge of truth; but a semblance of goodness, would be intolerable. God really reveals Himself to man in morality and religion, and He communicates to man nothing less than “the divine love.” But there is no such close connection on the side of reason. The religious life of man is a divine principle, the indwelling of God in him; but there is a final and fatal defect in man’s knowledge. The divine love’s manifestation of itself is ever incomplete, it is true, even in the best of men; but there is no defect in its nature.
As a consequence of this doctrine, few religious opinions are more common at the present day, than that it is necessary to appeal, on all the high concerns of man’s moral and religious life, from the intellect to the heart. Where we cannot know, we may still feel; and the religious man may have, in his own feeling of the divine, a more intimate conviction of the reality of that in which he trusts, than could be produced by any intellectual process.
“Enough to say, ’I feel Love’s sure effect, and, being loved, must love The love its cause behind,–I can and do.’"[A]
[Footnote A: A Piller at Sebzevar.]
Reason, in trying to scale the heights of truth, falls-back, impotent and broken, into doubt and despair; not by that way can we come to that which is best and highest.
“I found Him not in world or sun, Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye; Nor thro’ the questions men may try, The petty cobwebs we have spun."[B]
[Footnote B: In Memoriam.]
But there is another way to find God and to conquer doubt.
“If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep, I heard a voice ’believe no more,’ And heard an ever-breaking-shore That tumbled in the Godless deep;
“A warmth within the breast would melt The freezing reason’s colder part, And like a man in wrath the heart Stood up and answer’d ’I have felt.’"[A]
[Footnote A: In Memoriam.]
What, then, I have now to ask, is the meaning and value of this appeal to emotion? Can love, or emotion in any of its forms, reveal truths to man which his intellect cannot discover? If so, how? If not, how shall we account for the general conviction of good men that it can? We have, in a word, either to justify the appeal to the heart, by explaining how the heart may utter truths that are hidden from reason; or else to account for the illusion, by which religious emotion seems to reveal such truths.
The first requirement is shown to be unreasonable by the very terms in which it is made. The intuitive insight of faith, the immediate conviction of the heart, cannot render, and must not try to render, any account of itself. Proof is a process; but there is no process in this direct conviction of truth. Its assertion is just the denial of process; it is a repudiation of all connections; in such a faith of feeling there are no cob-web lines relating fact to fact, which doubt could break. Feeling is the immediate unity of the subject and object. I am pained, because I cannot rid myself of an element which is already within me; I am lifted into the emotion of pleasure, or happiness, or bliss, by the consciousness that I am already at one with an object that fulfils my longings and satisfies my needs. Hence, there seems to be ground for saying that, in this instance, the witness cannot lie; for it cannot go before the fact, as it is itself the effect of the fact. If the emotion is pleasurable it is the consciousness of the unity within; if it is painful, of the disunity. In feeling, I am absolutely with myself; and there seems, therefore, to be no need of attempting to justify, by means of reason, a faith in God which manifests itself in emotion. The emotion itself is its own sufficient witness, a direct result of the intimate union of man with the object of devotion. Nay, we may go further, and say that the demand is an unjust one, which betrays ignorance of the true nature of moral intuition and religious feeling.
I am not concerned to deny the truth that lies in the view here stated; and no advocate of the dignity of human reason, or of the worth of human knowledge, is called upon to deny it. There is a sense in which the conviction of “faith” or “feeling” is more intimate and strong than any process of proof. But this does not in any wise justify the contention of those who maintain that we can feel what we do not in any sense know, or that the heart can testify to that of which the intellect is absolutely silent.
“So let us say–not ’Since we know, we love,’ But rather, ’Since we love, we know enough.’"[A]
[Footnote A: A Pillar at Sebzevar.]
In these two lines there are combined the truth I would acknowledge, and the error I would confute. Love is, in one way, sufficient knowledge; or, rather, it is the direct testimony of that completest knowledge, in which subject and object interpenetrate. For, where love is, all foreign elements have been eliminated. There is not “one and one with a shadowy third"; but the object is brought within the self as constituting part of its very life. This is involved in all the great forms of human thought–in science and art, no less than in morality and religion. It is the truth that we love, and only that, which is altogether ours. By means of love the poet is
“Made one with Nature. There is heard His voice in all her music, from the moan Of thunder to the song of night’s sweet bird “;
and it is because he is made one with her that he is able to reveal her inmost secrets. “Man,” said Fichte, “can will nothing but what he loves; his love is the sole and at the same time the infallible spring of his volition, and of all his life’s striving and movement.” It is only when we have identified ourselves with an ideal, and made its realization our own interest, that we strive to attain it. Love is revelation in knowledge, inspiration in art, motive in morality, and the fulness of religious joy.
But, although in this sense love is greater than knowledge, it is a grave error to separate it from knowledge. In the life of man at least, the separation of the emotional and intellectual elements extinguishes both. We cannot know that in which we have no interest. The very effort to comprehend an object rests on interest, or the feeling of ourselves in it; so that knowledge, as well as morality, may be said to begin in love. We cannot know except we love; but, on the other hand, we cannot love that which we do not in some degree know. Wherever the frontiers of knowledge may be it is certain that there is nothing beyond them which can either arouse feeling, or be a steadying centre for it. Emotion is like a climbing plant. It clings to the tree of knowledge, adding beauty to its strength. But, without knowledge, it is impossible for man. There is no feeling which is not also incipient knowledge; for feeling is only the subjective side of knowledge–that face of the known fact which is turned inwards.
If, therefore, the poet’s agnosticism were taken literally, and, in his philosophical poems he obviously means it to be taken literally, it would lead to a denial of the very principles of religion and morality, which it was meant to support. His appeal to love would then, strictly speaking, be an appeal to the love of nothing known, or knowable; and such love is impossible. For love, if it is to be distinguished from the organic, impulse of beast towards beast, must have an object. A mere instinctive activity of benevolence in man, by means of which he lightened the sorrows of his brethren, if not informed with knowledge, would have no more moral worth than the grateful warmth of the sun. Such love as this there may be in the animal creation. If the bird is not rational, we may say that it builds its nest and lines it for its brood, pines for its partner and loves it, at the bidding of the returning spring, in much the same way as the meadows burst into flower. Without knowledge, the whole process is merely a natural one; or, if it be more, it is so only in so far as the life of emotion can be regarded as a foretaste of the life of thought. But such a natural process is not possible to man. Every activity in him is relative to his self-consciousness, and takes a new character from that relation. His love at the best and worst is the love of something that he knows, and in which he seeks to find himself made rich with new sufficiency. Thus love can not “ally” itself with ignorance. It is, indeed, an impulse pressing for the closer communion of the lover with the object of his love.
“Like two meteors of expanding flame, Those spheres instinct with it become the same, Touch, mingle, are transfigured; ever still Burning, yet ever inconsumable; In one another’s substance finding food."[A]
[Footnote A: Shelley’s Epipsychidion.]
But, for a being such as Browning describes, who is shut up within the blind walls of his own self, the self-transcending impulse of love would be impossible. If man’s inner consciousness is to be conceived as a dark room shutting out the world, upon whose shadowy phenomena the candle of introspection throws a dim and uncertain light, then he can have no interest outside of himself; nor can he ever take that first step in goodness, which carries him beyond his narrow individuality to seek and find a larger self in others. Morality, even in its lowest form, implies knowledge, and knowledge of something better than “those apparentother mortals.” With the first dawn of the moral life comes the consciousness of an ideal, which is not actual; and such a break with the natural is not possible except to him who has known a better and desired it. The ethical endeavour of man is the attempt to convert ideas into actuality; and all his activity as moral agent takes place within the sphere that is illumined by the light of knowledge. If knowledge breaks down, there is no law of action which he can obey. The moral law that must be apprehended, and whose authority must be recognized by man, either sinks out of being or becomes an illusive phantom, if man is doomed to ignorance or false knowledge. To extinguish truth is to extinguish goodness.
In like manner, religion, which the poet would fain defend for man by means of agnosticism, becomes impossible, if knowledge be denied. Religion is not blind emotion; nor can mere feeling, however ecstatic, ascend to God. Animals feel, but they are not, and cannot be, religious–unless they can know. The love of God implies knowledge. “I know Him whom I have believed” is the language of religion. For what is religion but a conscious identification of the self with One who is known to fulfil its needs and satisfy its aspirations? Agnosticism is thus directly destructive of it. We cannot, indeed, prove God as the conclusion of a syllogism, for He is the primary hypothesis of all proof. But, nevertheless, we cannot reach Him without knowledge. Emotion reveals no object, but is consequent upon the revelation of it; feeling yields no truth, but is the witness of the worth of a truth for the individual. If man were shut up to mere feeling, even the awe of the devout agnostic would be impossible. For the Unknowable cannot generate any emotion. It appears to do so, only because the Unknowable of the agnostic is not altogether unknown to him; but is a vast, abysmal “Something,” that has occupied with its shadowy presence the field of his imagination. It is paganism stricken with the plague, and philosophy afflicted with blindness, that build altars to an unknown God. The highest and the strongest faith, the deepest trust and the most loving, come with the fullest knowledge. Indeed, the distinction between the awe of the agnostic, which is the lowest form of religion, and that highest form in which perfect love casteth out fear, springs from the fuller knowledge of the nature of the object of warship, which the latter implies. Thus, religion and morality grow with the growth of knowledge; and neither has a worse enemy than ignorance. The human spirit cannot grow in a one-sided manner. Devotion to great moral ends is possible, only through the deepening and widening of man’s knowledge of the nature of the world. Those who know God best, render unto Him the purest service.
So evident is this, that it seems at first sight to be difficult to account for that antagonism to the intellect and distrust of its deliverances, which are so emphatically expressed in the writings of Browning, and which are marked characteristics of the ordinary religious opinion of our day. On closer examination, however, we shall discover that it is not pure emotion, or mere feeling, whose authority is set above that of reason, but rather the emotion which is the result of knowledge. The appeal of the religious man from the doubts and difficulties, which reason levels against “the faith,” is really an appeal to the character that lies behind the emotion. The conviction of the heart, that refuses to yield to the arguments of the understanding, is not mere feeling; but, rather, the complex experience of the past life, that manifests itself in feeling. When an individual, clinging to his moral or religious faith, says, “I have felt it,” he opposes to the doubt, not his feeling as such, but his personality in all the wealth of its experience. The appeal to the heart is the appeal to the unproved, but not, therefore, unauthorized, testimony of the best men at their best moments, when their vision of truth is clearest. No one pretends that “the loud and empty voice of untrained passion and prejudice” has any authority in matters of moral and religious faith; though, in such cases, “feeling” may lack neither depth nor intensity. If the “feelings" of the good man were dissociated from his character, and stripped bare of all the significance they obtain therefrom, their worthlessness would become apparent. The profound error of condemning knowledge in order to honour feeling, is hidden only by the fact that the feeling is already informed and inspired with knowledge. Religious agnosticism, like all other forms of the theory of nescience, derives its plausibility from the adventitious help it purloins from the knowledge which it condemns.
That it is to such feeling that Browning really appeals against knowledge becomes abundantly evident, when we bear in mind that he always calls it “love.” For love in man is never ignorant. It knows its object, and is a conscious identification of the self with it. And to Browning, the object of love, when love is at its best–of that love by means of which he refutes intellectual pessimism–is mankind. The revolt of the heart against all evil is a desire for the good of all men. In other words, his refuge against the assailing doubts which spring from the intellect, is in the moral consciousness. But that consciousness is no mere emotion; it is a consciousness which knows the highest good, and moves in sympathy with it. It is our maturest wisdom; for it is the manifestation of the presence and activity of the ideal, the fullest knowledge and the surest. Compared with this, the emotion linked to ignorance, of which the poet speaks in his philosophic theory, is a very poor thing. It is poorer than the lowest human love.
Now, if this higher interpretation of the term “heart” be accepted, it is easily seen why its authority should seem higher than that of reason; and particularly, if it be remembered that, while the heart is thus widened to take in all direct consciousness of the ideal, “the reason" is reduced to the power of reflection, or mental analysis. “The heart," in this sense, is the intensest unity of the complex experiences of a whole life, while “the reason” is taken merely as a faculty which invents arguments, and provides grounds and evidences; it is what is called, in the language of German philosophy, the “understanding.” Now, in this sense, the understanding has, at best, only a borrowed authority. It is the faculty of rules rather than of principles. It is ever dogmatic, assertive, repellent, hard; and it always advances its forces in single line. Its logic never convinced any one of truth or error, unless, beneath the arguments which it advanced, there lay some deeper principle of concord. Thus, the opposition between “faith and reason,” rightly interpreted, is that between a concrete experience, instinct with life and conviction, and a mechanical arrangement of abstract arguments. The quarrel of the heart is not with reason, but with reasons. “Evidences of Christianity?” said Coleridge; “I am weary of the word.” It is this weariness of evidence, of the endless arguments pro and con, which has caused so many to distrust reason and knowledge, and which has sometimes driven believers to the dangerous expedient of making their faith dogmatic and absolute. Nor have the opponents of “the faith” been slow to seize the opportunity thus offered them. “From the moment that a religion solicits the aid of philosophy, its ruin is inevitable,” said Heine. “In the attempt at defence, it prates itself into destruction. Religion, like every absolutism, must not seek to justify itself. Prometheus is bound to the rock by a silent force. Yea, Aeschylus permits not personified power to utter a single word. It must remain mute. The moment that a religion ventures to print a catechism supported by arguments, the moment that a political absolutism publishes an official newspaper, both are near their end. But therein consists our triumph: we have brought our adversaries to speech, and they must reckon with us."[A] But, we may answer, religion is notan absolutism; and, therefore, it is not near its end when it ventures to justify itself. On the contrary, no spiritual power, be it moral or religious, can maintain its authority, if it assumes a despotic attitude; for the human spirit inevitably moves towards freedom, and that movement is the deepest necessity of its nature, which it cannot escape. “Religion, on the ground of its sanctity, and law, on the ground of its majesty, often resist the sifting of their claims. But in so doing, they inevitably awake a not unjust suspicion that their claims are ill-founded. They can command the unfeigned homage of man, only when they have shown themselves able to stand the test of free inquiry.”
[Footnote A: Religion and Philosophy in Germany.]
And if it is an error to suppose, with Browning, that the primary truths of the moral and religious consciousness belong to a region which is higher than knowledge, and can, from that side, be neither assailed nor defended; it is also an error to suppose that reason is essentially antagonistic to them. The facts of morality and religion are precisely the richest facts of knowledge; and that faith is the most secure which is most completely illumined by reason. Religion at its best is not a dogmatic despotism, nor is reason a merely critical and destructive faculty. If reason is loyal to the truth of religion on which it is exercised, it will reach beneath all the conflict and clamour of disputation, to the principle of unity, on which, as we have seen, both reason and religion rest.
The “faith” to which religious spirits appeal against all the attacks of doubt, “the love” of Browning, is really implicit reason; it is “abbreviated” or concentrated knowledge; it is the manifold experiences of life focussed into an intense unity. And, on the other hand, the “reason” which they condemn is what Carlyle calls the logic-chopping faculty. In taking the side of faith when troubled with difficulties which they cannot lay, they are really defending the cause of reason against that of the understanding. For it is quite true that the understanding, that is, the reason as reflective or critical, can never bring about either a moral or religious life. It cannot create a religion, any more than physiology can produce men. The reflection which brings doubt is always secondary; it can only exercise itself on a given material. As Hegel frequently pointed out, it is not the function of moral philosophy to create or to institute a morality or religion, but to understand them. The facts must first be given; they must be actual experiences of the human spirit. Moral philosophy and theology differ from the moral or religious life, in the same way as geology differs from the earth, or astronomy from the heavenly bodies. The latter are facts; the former are theories about the facts. Religion is an attitude of the human spirit towards the highest; morality is the realization of character; and these are not to be confused with their reflective interpretations. Much of the difficulty in these matters comes from the lack of a clear distinction between beliefs and creeds.
Further, not only are the utterances of the heart prior to the deliverances of the intellect in this sense, but it may also be admitted that the latter can never do full justice to the contents of the former. So rich is character in content and so complex is spiritual life, that we can never, by means of reflection, lift into clear consciousness all the elements that enter into it. Into the organism of our experience, which is our faith, there is continually absorbed the subtle influences of our complex natural and social environment. We grow by means of them, as the plant grows by feeding on the soil and the sunshine and dew. It is as impossible for us to set forth, one by one, the truths and errors which we have thus worked into our mental and moral life, as it is to keep a reckoning of the physical atoms with which the natural life builds up the body. Hence, every attempt to justify these truths seems inadequate; and the defence which the understanding sets up for the faith, always seems partial and cold. Who ever fully expressed his deepest convictions? The consciousness of the dignity of the moral law affected Kant like the view of the starry firmament, and generated a feeling of the sublime which words could not express; and the religious ecstasy of the saints cannot be confined within the channels of speech, but floods the soul with overmastering power, possessing all its faculties. In this respect, it will always remain true that the greatest facts of human experience reach beyond all knowledge. Nay, we may add further, that in this respect the simplest of these facts passes all understanding. Still, as we have already seen, it is reason that constitutes them; that which is presented to reason for explanation, in knowledge and morality and religion, is itself the product of reason. Reason is the power which, by interaction with our environment, has generated the whole of our experience. And, just as natural science interprets the phenomena given to it by ordinary opinion, i.e., interprets and purifies a lower form of knowledge by converting it into a higher; so the task of reason when it is exercised upon morality and religion, is simply to evolve, and amplify the meaning of its own products. The movement from morality and religion to moral philosophy and the philosophy of religion, is thus a movement from reason to reason, from the implicit to the explicit, from the germ to the developed fulness of life and structure. In this matter, as in all others wherein the human spirit is concerned, that which is first by nature is last in genesis–[Greek: nika d’ ho prôtos kai teleutaios dramôn.] The whole history of the moral and religious experience of mankind is comprised in the statement, that the implicit reason which we call “faith” is ever developing towards full consciousness of itself; and that, at its first beginning, and throughout the whole ascending process of this development, the highest is present in it as a self-manifesting power.
But this process from the almost instinctive intuitions of the heart towards the morality and religion of freedom, being a process of evolution, necessarily involves conflict. There are men, it is true, the unity of whose moral and religious faith is never completely broken by doubt; just as there are men who are not forced by the contradictions in the first interpretation of the world by ordinary experience to attempt to re-interpret it by means of science and philosophy.
Throughout their lives they may say like Pompilia–
“I know the right place by foot’s feel, I took it and tread firm there; wherefore change?"[A]
[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1886-1887.]
Jean Paul Richter said that he knew another way of being happy, beside that of soaring away so far above the clouds of life, that its miseries looked small, and the whole external world shrunk into a little child’s garden. It was, “Simply to sink down into this little garden; and there to nestle yourself so snugly, so homewise, in some furrow, that in looking out from your warm lark-nest, you likewise can discern no wolf-dens, charnel-houses, or thunder-rods, but only blades and ears, every one of which, for the nest-bird, is a tree, and a sun-screen, and rain-screen.” There is a similar way of being good, with a goodness which, though limited, is pure and perfect in nature. Nay, we may even admit that such lives are frequently the most complete and beautiful, just as the fairest flowers grow, not on the tallest trees, but on the fragile plants at their foot. Nevertheless, even in the case of those persons who have never broken from the traditional faith of the past, or felt it to be inadequate, that faith has been silently reconstructed in a new synthesis of knowledge. Spiritual life cannot come by inheritance; but every individual must acquire a faith for himself, and turn his spiritual environment into personal experience. “A man may be a heretic in the truth,” said Milton, “and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.” It is truth to another but tradition to him; it is a creed and not a conviction. Browning fully recognizes the need of this conflict–
“Is it not this ignoble confidence, Cowardly hardihood, that dulls and damps, Makes the old heroism impossible?"[A]
[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1848-1850.]
asks the Pope. The stream of truth when it ceases to flow onward, becomes a malarious swamp. Movement is the law of life; and knowledge of the principles of morality and religion, as of all other principles, must, in order to grow, be felt from time to time as inadequate and untrue. There are men and ages whose mission is–
“to shake This torpor of assurance from our creed, Re-introduce the doubt discarded, bring That formidable danger back, we drove Long ago to the distance and the dark."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid., 1853-1856.]
Such a spirit of criticism seems to many to exercise a merely destructive power, and those who have not felt the inadequacy of the inherited faith defend themselves against it, as the enemy of their lives. But no logic, or assailing doubt, could have power against the testimony of “the heart,” unless it was rooted in deeper and truer principles than those which it attacked. Nothing can overpower truth except a larger truth; and, in such a conflict, the truth in the old view will ultimately take the side of the new, and find its subordinate position within it. It has happened, not infrequently, as in the case of the Encyclopædists, that the explicit truths of reason were more abstract, that is, less true, than the implicit “faith” which they assailed. The central truths of religion have often proved themselves to possess some stubborn, though semi-articulate power, which could ultimately overcome or subordinate the more partial and explicit truths of abstract science. It is this that gives plausibility to the idea, that the testimony of the heart is more reliable than that of the intellect. But, in this case also, it was really reason that triumphed. It was the truth which proved itself to be immortal, and not any mere emotion. The insurrection of the intellect against the heart is quelled, only when the untruth, or abstract character, of the principle of the assailants has been made manifest, and when the old faith has yielded up its unjust gains, and proved its vitality and strength by absorbing the truth that gave vigour to the attack. Just as in morality it is the ideal, or the unity of the whole moral life, that breaks up into differences, so also here it is the implicit faith which, as it grows, breaks forth into doubts. In both cases alike, the negative movement which induces despair, is only a phase of a positive process–the process of reason towards a fuller, a more articulate and complex, realization of itself.
Hence it follows that the value and strength of a faith corresponds accurately to the doubts it has overcome. Those who never went forth to battle cannot come home heroes. It is only when the earthquake has tried the towers, and destroyed the sense of security, that
“Man stands out again, pale, resolute, Prepared to die,–that is, alive at last. As we broke up that old faith of the world, Have we, next age, to break up this the new– Faith, in the thing, grown faith in the report– Whence need to bravely disbelieve report Through increased faith i’ the thing reports belie?"[A]
[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1862-1868.]
“Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrive by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion.”
It was, thus, I conclude, a deep speculative error into which Browning fell, when, in order to substantiate his optimistic faith, he stigmatized human knowledge as merely apparent. Knowledge does not fail, except in the sense in which morality also fails; it does not at any time attain to the ultimate truth, any more than the moral life is in any of its activities[B] a complete embodiment of the absolute good. It is not given to man, who is essentially progressive, to reach the ultimate term of development. For there is no ultimate term: life never stands still. But, for the same reason, there is no ultimate failure. The whole history of man is a history of growth. If, however, knowledge did fail, then morality too must fail; and the appeal which the poet makes from the intellect to the heart, would be an appeal to mere emotion. Finally, even if we take a generous view of the poet’s meaning, and put out of consideration the theory he expresses when he is deliberately philosophizing, there is still no appeal from the reason to an alien and higher authority. The appeal to “the heart” is, at best, only an appeal from the understanding to the reason, from a conscious logic to the more concrete fact constituted by reason, which reflection has failed to comprehend in its completeness; at its worst, it is an appeal from truth to prejudice, from belief to dogma.
[Footnote B: See Chapter IX., p. 291.]
And in both cases alike, the appeal is futile; for, whether “the heart be wiser than the head,” or not, whether the faith which is assailed be richer or poorer, truer or more false, than the logic which is directed against it, an appeal to the heart cannot any longer restore the unity of the broken life. Once reflection has set in, there is no way of turning away its destructive might, except by deeper reflection. The implicit faith of the heart must become the explicit faith of reason. “There is no final and satisfactory issue from such an endless internal debate and conflict, until the ’heart’ has learnt to speak the language of the head–i.e., until the permanent principles, which underlay and gave strength to faith, have been brought into the light of distinct consciousness."[A]
[Footnote A: Caird’s Comte.]
I conclude, therefore, that the poet was right in saying that, in order to comprehend human character,
“I needs must blend the quality of man With quality of God, and so assist Mere human sight to understand my Life."[A]
[Footnote A: A Bean-Stripe–Ferishtah’s Fancies.]
But it was a profound error, which contained in it the destruction of morality and religion, as well as of knowledge, to make “the quality of God” a love that excludes reason, and the quality of man an intellect incapable of knowing truth. Such in-congruous elements could never be combined into the unity of a character. A love that was mere emotion could not yield a motive for morality, or a principle of religion. A philosophy of life which is based on agnosticism is an explicit self-contradiction, which can help no one. We must appeal from Browning the philosopher to Browning the poet.