Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter II. On the Need of a Philosophy of Life.
“Art,–which I may style the love of loving, rage Of knowing, seeing, feeling the absolute truth of things For truth’s sake, whole and sole, not any good, truth brings The knower, seer, feeler, beside,–instinctive Art Must fumble for the whole, once fixing on a part However poor, surpass the fragment, and aspire To reconstruct thereby the ultimate entire."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, xliv.]
No English poet has spoken more impressively than Browning on the weightier matters of morality and religion, or sought with more earnestness to meet the difficulties which arise when we try to penetrate to their ultimate principles. His way of poetry is, I think, fundamentally different from that of any other of our great writers. He often seems to be roused into speech, rather by the intensity of his spiritual convictions than by the subtle incitements of poetic sensibility. His convictions caught fire, and truth became beauty for him; not beauty, truth, as with Keats or Shelley. He is swayed by ideas, rather than by sublime moods. Beneath the endless variety of his poems, there are permanent principles, or “colligating conceptions,” as science calls them; and although these are expressed by the way of emotion, they are held by him with all the resources of his reason.
His work, though intuitive and perceptive as to form, “gaining God by first leap” as all true art must do, leaves the impression, when regarded as a whole, of an articulated system. It is a view of man’s life and destiny that can be maintained, not only during the impassioned moods of poetry, but in the very presence of criticism and doubt. His faith, like Pompilia’s, is held fast “despite the plucking fiend.” He has given to us something more than intuitive glimpses into, the mysteries of man’s character. Throughout his life he held up the steady light of an optimistic conception of the world, and by its means injected new vigour into English ethical thought. In his case, therefore, it is not an immaterial question, but one almost forced upon us, whether we are to take his ethical doctrine and inspiring optimism as valid truths, or to regard them merely as subjective opinions held by a religious poet. Are they creations of a powerful imagination, and nothing more? Do they give to the hopes and aspirations that rise so irrepressibly in the heart of man anything better than an appearance of validity, which will prove illusory the moment the cold light of critical inquiry is turned upon them?
It is to this unity of his work that I would attribute, in the main, the impressiveness of his deliverances on morality and religion. And this unity justifies us, I think, in applying to Browning’s view of life methods of criticism that would be out of place with any other English poet. It is one of his unique characteristics, as already hinted, that he has endeavoured to give us a complete and reasoned view of the ethical nature of man, and of his relation to the world–has sought, in fact, to establish a philosophy of life. In his case, not without injustice, it is true, but with less injustice than in the case of any other poet, we may disregard, for our purposes, the artistic method of his thought, and lay stress on its content only. He has a right to a place amongst philosophers, as Plato has to a place amongst poets. There is such deliberate earnestness and systematic consistency in his teaching, that Hegel can scarcely be said to have maintained that “The Rational is the Real” with greater intellectual tenacity, than Browning held to his view of life. He sought, in fact, to establish an Idealism; and that Idealism, like Kant’s and Fichte’s, has its last basis in the moral consciousness.
But, even if it be considered that it is not altogether just to apply these critical tests to the poet’s teaching, and to make him pay the penalty for assuming a place amongst philosophers, it is certain that what he says of man’s spiritual life cannot be rightly valued, till it is regarded in the light of his guiding principles. We shall miss much of what is best in him, even as a poet, if, for instance, we regard his treatment of love merely as the expression of elevated passion, or his optimism as based upon mere hope. Love was to him rather an indwelling element in the world, present, like power, in everything.
“From the first, Power was–I knew. Life has made clear to me That, strive but for closer view, Love were as plain to see."[A]
[Footnote: A Reverie–Asolando.]
Love yielded to him, as Reason did to Hegel, a fundamental exposition of the nature of things. Or, to express the same thing in another way, it was a deliberate hypothesis, which he sought to apply to facts and to test by their means, almost in the same manner as that in which natural science applies and tests its principles.
That Browning’s ethical and religious ideas were for him something different from, and perhaps more than, mere poetic sentiments, will, I believe, be scarcely denied. That he held a deliberate theory, and held it with greater and greater difficulty as he became older, and as his dialectical tendencies grew and threatened to wreck his artistic freedom, is evident to any one who regards his work as a whole. But it will not be admitted so readily that anything other than harm can issue from an attempt to deal with him as if he were a philosopher. Even if it be allowed that he held and expressed a definite theory, will it retain any value if we take it out of the region of poetry and impassioned religious faith, into the frigid zone of philosophical inquiry? Could any one maintain, apart from the intoxication of religious and poetic sentiment, that the essence of existence is love? As long as we remain within the realm of imagination, it may be argued, we may find in our poet’s great sayings both solacement and strength, both rest and an impulse towards higher moral endeavour; but if we seek to treat them as theories of facts, and turn upon them the light of the understanding, will they not inevitably prove to be hallucinations? Poetry, we think, has its own proper place and function. It is an invaluable anodyne to the cark and care of reflective thought; an opiate which, by steeping the critical intellect in slumber, sets the soul free to rise on the wings of religious faith. But reason breaks the spell; and the world of poetry, and religion–a world which to them is always beautiful and good with God’s presence–becomes a system of inexorable laws, dead, mechanical, explicable in strict truth, as an equipoise of constantly changing forms of energy.
There is, at the present time, a widespread belief that we had better keep poetry and religion beyond the reach of critical investigation, if we set any store by them. Faith and reason are thought to be finally divorced. It is an article of the common creed that every attempt which the world has made to bring them together has resulted in denial, or at the best in doubt, regarding all supersensuous facts. The one condition of leading a full life, of maintaining a living relation between ourselves and both the spiritual and material elements of our existence, is to make our lives an alternating rhythm of the head and heart, to distinguish with absolute clearness between the realm of reason and that of faith.
Now, such an assumption would be fatal to any attempt like the present, to find truth in poetry; and I must, therefore, try to meet it before entering upon a statement and criticism of Browning’s view of life. I cannot admit that the difficulties of placing the facts of man’s spiritual life on a rational basis are so great as to justify the assertion that there is no such basis, or that it is not discoverable by man. Surely, it is unreasonable to make intellectual death the condition of spiritual life. If such a condition were imposed on man, it must inevitably defeat its own purpose; for man cannot possibly continue to live a divided life, and persist in believing that for which his reason knows no defence. We must, in the long run, either rationalize our faith in morality and religion, or abandon them as illusions. And we should at least hesitate to deny that reason–in spite of its apparent failure in the past to justify our faith in the principles of spiritual life–may yet, as it becomes aware of its own nature and the might which dwells in it, find beauty and goodness, nay, God himself, in the world. We should at least hesitate to condemn man to choose between irreflective ignorance and irreligion, or to lock the intellect and the highest emotions of our nature and principles of our life, in a mortal struggle. Poetry and religion may, after all, be truer then prose, and have something to tell the world that science, which is often ignorant of its own limits, cannot teach.
The failure of philosophy in the past, even if it were as complete as is believed by persons ignorant of its history, is no argument against its success in the future. Such persons have never known that the world of thought like that of action makes a stepping stone of its dead self. He who presumes to decide what passes the power of man’s thought, or to prescribe absolute limits to human knowledge, is rash, to say the least; and he has neither caught the most important of the lessons of modern science, nor been lifted to the level of its inspiration. For science has done one thing greater than to unlock the secrets of nature. It has revealed something of the might of reason, and given new grounds for the faith, which in all ages has inspired the effort to know,–the faith that the world is an intelligible structure, meant to be penetrated by the thought of man. Can it be that nature is an “open secret,” but that man, and he alone, must remain an enigma? Or does he not rather bear within himself the key to every problem which he solves, and is it not his thought which penetrates the secrets of nature? The success of science, in reducing to law the most varied and apparently unconnected facts, should dispel any suspicion which attaches to the attempt to gather these laws under still wider ones, and to interpret the world in the light of the highest principles. And this is precisely what poetry and religion and philosophy do, each in its own way. They carry the work of the sciences into wider regions, and that, as I shall try to show, by methods which, in spite of many external differences, are fundamentally at one with those which the sciences employ.
There is only one way of giving the quietus to the metaphysics of poets and philosophers, and of showing the futility of a philosophy of life, or of any scientific explanation of religion and morals. It is to show that there is some radical absurdity in the very attempt. Till this is done, the human mind will not give up problems of weighty import, however hard it may be to solve them. The world refused to believe Socrates when he pronounced a science of nature impossible, and centuries of failure did not break man’s courage. Science, it is true, has given up some problems as insoluble; it will not now try to construct a perpetually moving machine, or to square the circle. But it has given them up, not because they are difficult, but because they are unreasonable tasks. The problems have a surd or irrational element in them; and to solve them would be to bring reason into collision with itself.
Now, whatever may be the difficulties of establishing a theory of life, or a philosophy, it has never been shown to be an unreasonable task to attempt it. One might, on the contrary, expect, prima facie, that in a world progressively proved to be intelligible to man, man himself would be no exception. It is impossible that the “light in him should be darkness,” or that the thought which reveals the order of the world should be itself chaotic.
The need for philosophy is just the ultimate form of the need for knowledge; and the truths which philosophy brings to light are implied in every rational explanation of things. The only choice we can have is between a conscious metaphysics and an unconscious one, between hypotheses which we have examined and whose limitations we know, and hypotheses which rule us from behind, as pure prejudices do. It is because of this that the empiric is so dogmatic, and the ignorant man so certain of the truth of his opinion. They do not know their postulates, nor are they aware that there is no interpretation of an object which does not finally point to a theory of being. We understand no joint or ligament, except in relation to the whole organism, and no fact, or event, except by finding a place for it in the context of our experience. The history of the pebble can be given, only in the light of the story of the earth, as it is told by the whole of geology. We must begin very far back, and bring our widest principles to bear upon the particular thing, if we wish really to know what it is. It is a law that explains, and laws are always universal. All our knowledge, even the most broken and inconsistent, streams from some fundamental conception, in virtue of which all the variety of objects constitute one world, one orderly kosmos, even to the meanest mind. It is true that the central thought, be it rich or poor, must, like the sun’s light, be broken against particular facts. But there is no need of forgetting the real source of knowledge, or of deeming that its progress is a synthesis without law, or an addition of fact to fact without any guiding principles.
Now, it is the characteristic of poetry and philosophy that they keep alive our consciousness of these primary, uniting principles. They always dwell in the presence of the idea which makes their object one. To them the world is always, and necessarily, a harmonious whole, as it is also to the religious spirit. It is because of this that the universe is a thing of beauty for the poet, a revelation of God’s goodness to the devout soul, and a manifestation of absolute reason to the philosopher. Art, religion, and philosophy fail or flourish together. The age of prose and scepticism appears when the sense of the presence of the whole in the particular facts of the world and of life has been dulled. And there is a necessity in this; for if the conception of the world as a whole is held to be impossible, if philosophy is a futility, then poetry will be a vain sentiment and religion a delusion.
Nor will the failure of thought, when once demonstrated in these upper regions, be confined to them. On the contrary, it will spread downwards to science and ordinary knowledge, as mountain mists blot out the valleys. For every synthesis of fact to fact, every attempt to know, however humble and limited, is inspired by a secret faith in the unity of the world. Each of the sciences works within its own region, and colligates its details in the light of its own hypothesis; and all the sciences taken together presuppose the presence in the world of a principle that binds it into an orderly totality. Scientific explorers know that they are all working towards the same centre. And, ever and anon, as the isolated thinker presses home his own hypothesis, he finds his thought beating on the limits of his science, and suggesting some wider hypothesis. The walls that separate the sciences are wearing thin, and at times light penetrates from one to the other. So that to their votaries, at least, the faith is progressively justified, that there is a meeting point for the sciences, a central truth in which the dispersed rays will again be gathered together. In fact, all the sciences are working together under the guidance of a principle common to them all, although it may not be consciously known and no attempt is made to define it. In science, as in philosophy and art and religion, there is a principle of unity, which, though latent, is really prior to all explanation of particular matters of fact.
In truth, man has only one way of knowing. There is no fundamental difference between scientific and philosophic procedure. We always light up facts by means of general laws. The fall of the stone was a perfect enigma, a universally unintelligible bit of experience, till the majestic imagination of Newton conceived the idea of universal gravitation. Wherever mind successfully invades the realm of chaos, poetry, the sense of the whole, comes first. There is the intuitive flash, the penetrative glimpse, got no one knows exactly whence–though we do know that it comes neither from the dead facts nor from the vacant region of a priori thought, but somehow from the interaction of both these elements of knowledge. After the intuitive flash comes the slow labour of proof, the application of the principle to details. And that application transforms both the principle and the details, so that the former is enriched with content and the latter are made intelligible–a veritable conquest and valid possession for mankind. And in this labour of proof, science and philosophy alike take their share.
Philosophy may be said to come midway between poetry and science, and to partake of the nature of both. On the one side it deals, like poetry, with ideals of knowledge, and announces truths which it does not completely verify; on the other, it leaves to science the task of articulating its principles in facts, though it begins the articulation itself. It reveals subsidiary principles, and is, at the same time, a witness for the unity of the categories of science. We may say, if we wish, that its principles are mere hypotheses. But so are the ideas which underlie the most practical of the sciences; so is every forecast of genius by virtue of which knowledge is extended; so is every principle of knowledge not completely worked out. To say that philosophy is hypothetical implies no charge, other than that which can be levelled, in the same sense, against the most solid body of scientific knowledge in the world. The fruitful question in each case alike is, how far, if at all, does the hypothesis enable us to understand particular facts.
The more careful of our scientific thinkers are well aware of the limits under which they work and of the hypothetical character of their results. “I take Euclidean space, and the existence of material particles and elemental energy for granted,” says the physicist; “deny them, and I am helpless; grant them, and I shall establish quantitative relations between the different forms of this elemental energy, and make it tractable and tame to man’s uses. All I teach depends upon my hypothesis. In it is the secret of all the power I wield. I do not pretend to say what this elemental energy is. I make no declaration regarding the actual nature of things; and all questions as to the ultimate origin or final destination of the world are beyond the scope of my inquiry. I am ruled by my hypothesis; I regard phenomena from my point of view; and my right to do so I substantiate by the practical and theoretical results which follow.” The language of geology, chemistry, zoology, and even mathematics is the same. They all start from a hypothesis; they are all based on an imaginative conception, and in this sense their votaries are poets, who see the unity of being throb in the particular fact.
Now, so far as the particular sciences are concerned, I presume that no one will deny the supreme power of these colligating ideas. The sciences do not grow by a process of empiricism, which rambles tentatively and blindly from fact to fact, unguided of any hypothesis. But if they do not, if, on the contrary, each science is ruled by its own hypothesis, and uses that hypothesis to bind its facts together, then the question arises, are there no wider colligating principles amongst these hypotheses themselves? Are the sciences independent of each other, or is their independence only surface appearance? This is the question which philosophy asks, and the sciences themselves by their progress suggest a positive answer to it.
The knowledge of the world which the sciences are building is not a chaotic structure. By their apparently independent efforts, the outer kosmos is gradually reproduced in the mind of man, and the temple of truth is silently rising. We may not as yet be able to connect wing with wing, or to declare definitely the law of the whole. The logical order of the hypotheses of the various sciences, the true connection of these categories of constructive thought, may yet be uncertain. But, still, there is such an order and connection: the whole building has its plan, which becomes more and more intelligible as it approaches to its completion. Beneath all the differences, there are fundamental principles which give to human thought a definite unity of movement and direction. There are architectonic conceptions which are guiding, not only the different sciences, but all the modes of thought of an age. There are intellectual media, “working hypotheses,” by means of which successive centuries observe all that they see; and these far-reaching constructive principles divide the history of mankind into distinct stages. In a word, there are dynasties of great ideas, such as the idea of development in our own day; and these successively ascend the throne of mind, and hold a sway over human thought which is well-nigh absolute.
Now, if this is so, is it certain that all knowledge of these ruling conceptions is impossible? In other words, is the attempt to construct a philosophy absurd? To say that it is, to deny the possibility of catching any glimpse of those regulative ideas, which determine the main tendencies of human thought, is to place the supreme directorate of the human intelligence in the hands of a necessity which, for us, is blind. For, an order that is hidden is equivalent to chance, so far as knowledge is concerned; and if we believe it to exist, we do so in the face of the fact that all we see, and all we can see, is the opposite of order, namely lawlessness. Human knowledge, on this view, would be subjected to law in its details and compartments, but to disorder as a whole. Thinking men would be organized into regiments; but the regiments would not constitute an army, nor would there be any unity of movement in the attack on the realm of ignorance.
But, such is not the conclusion to which the study of human history leads, especially when we observe its movements on a large scale. On the contrary, it is found that history falls into great epochs, each of which has its own peculiar characteristics. Ages, as well as nations and individuals, have features of their own, special and definite modes of thinking and acting. The movement of thought in each age has its own direction, which is determined by some characteristic and fundamental idea, that fulfils for it the part of a working hypothesis in a particular science. It is the prerogative of the greatest leaders of thought in an age to catch a glimpse of this ruling idea when it first makes its appearance; and it is their function, not only to discover it, but also to reveal it to others. And, in this way, they are at once the exponents of their time, and its prophets. They reveal that which is already a latent but active power–"a tendency"; but they reveal it to a generation which will see the truth for itself, only after the potency which lies in it has manifested itself in national institutions and habits of thought and action. After the prophets have left us, we believe what they have said; as long as they are with us, they are voices crying in the wilderness.
Now, these great ideas, these harmonies of the world of mind, first strike upon the ear of the poet. They seem to break into the consciousness of man by the way of emotion. They possess the seer; he is divinely mad, and he utters words whose meaning passes his own calmer comprehension. What we find in Goethe, we find also in a manner in Browning: an insight which is also foresight, a dim and partial consciousness of the truth about to be, sending its light before it, and anticipating all systematic reflection. It is an insight which appears to be independent of all method; but it is in nature, though not in sweep and expanse, akin to the intuitive leap by which the scientific explorer lights upon his new hypothesis. We can find no other law for it, than that sensitiveness to the beauty and truth hidden in facts, which much reflection on them generates for genius. For these great minds the “muddy vesture” is worn thin by thought, and they hear the immortal music.
The poet soon passes his glowing torch into the hands of the philosopher. After Aeschylus and Sophocles, come Plato and Aristotle. The intuitive flash grows into a fixed light, which rules the day. The great idea, when reflected upon, becomes a system. When the light of such an idea is steadily held on human affairs, it breaks into endless forms of beauty and truth. The content of the idea is gradually evolved; hypotheses spring out of it, which are accepted as principles, rule the mind of an age, and give it its work and its character. In this way, Hobbes and Locke laid down, or at least defined, the boundaries within which moved the thought of the eighteenth century; and no one acquainted with the poetic and philosophic thought of Germany, from Lessing to Goethe and from Kant to Hegel, can fail to find therein the source and spring of the constitutive principles of our own intellectual, social, political, and religious life. The virtues and the vices of the aristocracy of the world of mind penetrate downwards. The works of the poets and philosophers, so far from being filled with impracticable dreams, are repositories of great suggestions which the world adopts for its guidance. The poets and philosophers lay no railroads and invent no telephones; but they, nevertheless, bring about that attitude towards nature, man and God, and generate those moods of the general mind, from which issue, not only the scientific, but also the social, political and religious forces of the age.
It is mainly on this account that I cannot treat the supreme utterances of Browning lightly, or think it an idle task to try to connect them into a philosophy of life. In his optimism of love, in his supreme confidence in man’s destiny and sense of the infinite height of the moral horizon of humanity, in his courageous faith in the good, and his profound conviction of the evanescence of evil, there lies a vital energy whose inspiring power we are yet destined to feel. Until a spirit kindred to his own arises, able to push the battle further into the same region, much of the practical task of the age that is coming will consist in living out in detail the ideas to which he has given expression.
I contend, then, not merely for a larger charity, but for a truer view of the facts of history than is evinced by those who set aside the poets and philosophers as mere dreamers, and conceive that the sciences alone occupy the region of valid thought in all its extent. There is a universal brotherhood of which all who think are members. Not only do they all contribute to man’s victory over his environment and himself, but they contribute in a manner which is substantially the same. There are many points of superficial distinction between the processes of philosophy and science, and between both and the method of poetry; but the inner movement, if one may so express it, is identical in all. It is time to have done with the notion that philosophers occupy a transcendent region beyond experience, or spin spiritual cocoons by a priori methods, and with the view that scientific men are mere empirics, building their structures from below by an a posteriori way of thought, without the help of any ruling conceptions. All alike endeavour to interpret experience, but none of them get their principles from it.
“But, friends, Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise From outward things, whate’er you may believe.”
There is room and need for the higher synthesis of philosophy and poetry, as well as for the more palpable and, at the same time, more narrow colligating conceptions of the systematic sciences. The quantitative relations between material objects, which are investigated by mathematics and physics, do not exhaust the realm of the knowable, so as to leave no place for the poet’s, or the philosopher’s view of the world. The scientific investigator who, like Mr. Tyndall, so far forgets the limitations of his province as to use his natural data as premises for religious or irreligious conclusions, is as illogical as the popular preacher, who attacks scientific conclusions because they are not consistent with his theological presuppositions. Looking only at their primary aspects, we cannot say that religious presuppositions and the scientific interpretation of facts are either consistent or inconsistent: they are simply different. Their harmony or discord can come only when the higher principles of philosophy have been fully developed, and when the departmental ideas of the various sciences are organized into a view of the world as a whole. And this is a task which has not as yet been accomplished. The forces from above and below have not met. When they do meet, they will assuredly find that they are friends, and not foes. For philosophy can articulate its supreme conception only by interaction with the sciences; and, on the other hand, the progress of science, and the effectiveness of its division of labour, are ultimately conditioned by its sensitiveness to the hints, given by poets and philosophers, of those wider principles in virtue of which the world is conceived as a unity. There are many, indeed, who cannot see the wood for the trees, as there are others who cannot see the trees for the wood. Carlyle cared nothing though science were able to turn a sunbeam on its axis; Ruskin sees little in the advance of invention except more slag-hills. And scientific men have not been slow to return with interest the scorn of the moralists. But a more comprehensive view of the movement of human knowledge will show that none labour in vain. For its movement is that of a thing which grows! and in growth there is always movement towards both unity and difference. Science, in pursuing truth into greater and greater detail, is constrained by its growing consciousness of the unlimited wealth of its material, to divide and isolate its interests more and more; and thus, at the same time, the need for the poets and philosophers is growing deeper, their task is becoming more difficult of achievement, and a greater triumph in so far as it is achieved. Both science and philosophy are working towards a more concrete view of the world as an articulated whole. If we cannot quite say with Browning that “poets never dream,” we may yet admit with gratitude that their dreams are an inspiration.
“Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear. Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe: But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear; The rest may reason and welcome: ’tis we musicians know."[A]
[Footnote A: Abt Vogler.]
And side by side with the poetry that grasps the truth in immediate intuition, there is also the uniting activity of philosophy, which, catching up its hints, carries “back our scattered knowledge of the facts and laws of nature to the principle upon which they rest; and, on the other hand, develops that principle so as to fill all the details of knowledge with a significance which they cannot have in themselves, but only as seen sub specie aeternitatis."[B]
[Footnote B: The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time, by Professor Caird.]
So far we have spoken of the function of philosophy in the interpretation of the phenomena of the outer world. It bears witness to the unity of knowledge, and strives by the constructive criticism of the categories of science to render that unity explicit. Its function is, no doubt, valid and important, for it is evident that man cannot rest content with fragmentary knowledge. But still, it might be objected that it is premature at present to endeavour to formulate that unity. Physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences, while they necessarily presuppose the unity of knowledge, and attempt in their own way and in their own sphere to discover it, are making very satisfactory headway without raising any of the desperate questions of metaphysics as to its ultimate nature. For them it is not likely to matter for a long time to come whether Optimism or Pessimism, Materialism or Idealism, or none of them, be true. In any case the principles they establish are valid. Physical relations always remain true; “ginger will be hot i’ the mouth, and there will be more cakes and ale.” It is only when the sciences break down beneath the weight of knowledge and prove themselves inadequate, that it becomes necessary or advantageous to seek for more comprehensive principles. At present is it not better to persevere in the way of science, than to be seduced from it by the desire to solve ultimate problems, which, however reasonable and pressing, seem to be beyond our power to answer?
Such reasonings are not convincing; still, so far as natural science is concerned, they seem to indicate that there might be no great harm in ignoring, for a time, its dependence on the wider aspects of human thought. There is no department of nature so limited, but that it may more than satisfy the largest ambition of the individual for knowledge. But this attitude of indifference to ultimate questions is liable at any moment to be disturbed.
“Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch, A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death, A chorus-ending from Euripides,– And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears As old and new at once as nature’s self, To rap and knock and enter in our soul, Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring, Round the ancient idol, on his base again,– The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly. There the old misgivings, crooked questions are."[A]
[Footnote A: Bishop Blougram’s Apology.]
Amongst the facts of our experience which cry most loudly for some kind of solution, are those of our own inner life. We are in pressing need of a “working hypothesis” wherewith to understand ourselves, as well as of a theory which will explain the revolution of the planets, or the structure of an oyster. And this self of ours intrudes everywhere. It is only by resolutely shutting our eyes, that we can forget the part it plays even in the outer world of natural science. So active is it in the constitution of things, so dependent is their nature on the nature of our knowing faculties, that scientific men themselves admit that their surest results are only hypothetical. Their truth depends on laws of thought which natural science does not investigate.
But quite apart from this doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, which is generally first acknowledged and then ignored, every man, the worst and the best alike, is constrained to take some practical attitude towards his fellows. Man is never alone with nature, and the connections with his fellows which sustain his intelligent life, are liable to bring him into trouble, if they are not to some degree understood.
“There’s power in me,” said Bishop Blougram, “and will to dominate Which I must exercise, they hurt me else.”
The impulse to know is only a phase of the more general impulse to act and to be. The specialist’s devotion to his science is his answer to a demand, springing from his practical need, that he realize himself through action. He does not construct his edifice of knowledge, as the bird is supposed to build its nest, without any consciousness of an end to be attained thereby. Even if, like Lessing, he values the pursuit of truth for its own sake, still what stings him into effort is the sense that in truth only can he find the means of satisfying and realizing himself. Beneath all man’s activities, as their very spring and source, there lies some dim conception of an end to be attained. This is his moral consciousness, which no neglect will utterly suppress. All human effort, the effort to know like every other, conceals within it a reference to some good, conceived at the time as supreme and complete; and this, in turn, contains a theory both of man’s self and of the universe on which he must impress his image. Every man must have his philosophy of life, simply because he must act; though, in many cases, that philosophy may be latent and unconscious, or, at least, not a definite object of reflection. The most elementary question directed at his moral consciousness will at once elicit the universal element. We cannot ask whether an action be right or wrong without awakening all the echoes of metaphysics. As there is no object on the earth’s surface whose equilibrium is not fixed by its relation to the earth’s centre, so the most elementary moral judgment, the simplest choice, the most irrational vagaries of a will calling itself free and revelling in its supposed lawlessness, are dominated by the conception of a universal good. Everything that a man does is an attempt to articulate his view of this good, with a particular content. Hence, man as a moral agent is always the centre of his own horizon, and stands right beneath the zenith. Little as he may be aware of it, his relation between himself and his supreme good is direct. And he orders his whole world from his point of view, just as he regards East and West as meeting at the spot on which he stands. Whether he will or not, he cannot but regard the universe of men and objects as the instrument of his purposes. He extracts all its interest and meaning from himself. His own shadow falls upon it all. If he is selfish, that is, if he interprets the self that is in him as vulturous, then the whole outer world and his fellow-men fall for him into the category of carrion, or not-carrion. If he knows himself as spirit, as the energy of love or reason, if the prime necessity he recognizes within himself is the necessity to be good, then the universe becomes for him an instrument wherewith moral character is evolved. In all cases alike, his life-work is an effort to rob the world of its alien character, and to translate it into terms of himself.
We are in the habit of fixing a chasm between a man’s deeds and his metaphysical, moral, and religious creed; and even of thinking that he can get on “in a sufficiently prosperous manner,” without any such creed. Can we not digest without a theory of peptics, or do justice without constructing an ideal state? The truest answer, though it is an answer easily misunderstood, is that we cannot. In the sphere of morality, at least, action, depends on knowledge: Socrates was right in saying that virtuous conduct ignorant of its end is accidental. Man’s action, so far as it is good or evil, is shot through and through with his intelligence. And once we clearly distinguish between belief and profession, between the motives which really impel our actions and the psychological account of them with which we may deceive ourselves and others, we shall be obliged to confess that we always act our creed. A man’s conduct, just because he is man, is generated by his view of himself and his world. He who cheats his neighbour believes in tortuosity, and, as Carlyle says, has the Supreme Quack for his God. No one ever acted without some dim, though perhaps foolish enough, half-belief that the world was at his back; whether he plots good or evil he always has God as an accomplice. And this is why character cannot be really bettered by any peddling process. Moralists and preachers are right in insisting on the need of a new life, that is, of a new principle, as the basis of any real improvement; and such a principle necessarily carries in it a new attitude towards men, and a new interpretation of the moral agent himself and of his world.
Thus, wherever we touch the practical life of man, we are at once referred to a metaphysic. His creed is the heart of his character, and it beats as a pulse in every action. Hence, when we deal with moral life, we must start from the centre. In our intellectual life, it is not obviously unreasonable to suppose that there is no need of endeavouring to reach upward to a constructive idea, which makes the universe one, but when we act, such self-deception is not possible. As a moral agent, and a moral agent man always is, he not only may, but must have his working hypothesis, and that hypothesis must be all-inclusive. As there are natural laws which connect man’s physical movements with the whole system of nature, so there are spiritual relations which connect him with the whole spiritual universe; and spiritual relations are always direct.
Now it follows from this, that, whenever we consider man as a moral agent, that is, as an agent who converts ideas into actual things, the need of a philosophy becomes evident. Instead of condemning ideal interpretations of the universe as useless dreams, the foolish products of an ambition of thought which refuses to respect the limits of the human intellect, we shall understand that philosophers and poets are really striving with greater clearness of vision, and in a more sustained manner, to perform the task which all men are obliged to perform in some way or other. Man subsists as a natural being only on condition of comprehending, to some degree, the conditions of his natural life, and the laws of his natural environment. From earliest youth upwards, he is learning that fire will burn and water drown, and that he can play with the elements with safety only within the sphere lit up by his intelligence. Nature will not pardon the blunders of ignorance, nor tamely submit to every hasty construction. And this truth is still more obvious in relation to man’s moral life. Here, too, and in a pre-eminent degree, conduct waits on intelligence. Deep will only answer unto deep; and great characters only come with much meditation on the things that are highest. And, on the other hand, the misconstruction of life’s meaning flings man back upon himself, and makes his action nugatory. Byronism was driven “howling home again,” says the poet. The universe will not be interpreted in terms of sense, nor be treated as carrion, as Carlyle said. There is no rest in the “Everlasting No," because it is a wrong view of man and of the world. Or rather, the negative is not everlasting; and man is driven onwards by despair, through the “Centre of Indifference,” till he finds a “Universal Yea"–a true view of his relation to the universe.
There is given to men the largest choice to do or to let alone, at every step in life. But there is one necessity which they cannot escape, because they carry it within them. They absolutely must try to make the world their home, find some kind of reconciling idea between themselves and the forces amidst which they move, have some kind of working hypothesis of life. Nor is it possible to admit that they will find rest till they discover a true hypothesis. If they do not seek it by reflection–if, in their ardour to penetrate into the secrets of nature, they forget themselves; if they allow the supreme facts of their moral life to remain in the confusion of tradition, and seek to compromise the demands of their spirit by sacrificing to the idols of their childhood’s faith; if they fortify themselves in the indifference of agnosticism,–they must reap the harvest of their irreflection. Ignorance is not harmless in matters of character any more than in the concerns of our outer life. There are in national and in individual history seasons of despair, and that despair, when it is deepest, is ever found to be the shadow of moral failure–the result of going out into action with a false view of the purpose of human life, and a wrong conception of man’s destiny. At such times, the people have not understood themselves or their environment, and, in consequence, they come into collision with their own welfare. There is no experiment so dangerous to an age or people, as that of relegating to the common ignorance of unreasoning faith the deep concerns of moral conduct; and there is no attitude more pitiable than that which leads it to turn a deaf ear and the lip of contempt towards those philosophers who carry the spirit of scientific inquiry into these higher regions, and endeavour to establish for mankind, by the irrefragable processes of reason, those principles on which rest all the great elements of man’s destiny. We cannot act without a theory of life; and to whom shall we look for such a theory, except to those who, undaunted by the difficulties of the task, ask once more, and strive to answer, those problems which man cannot entirely escape, as long as he continues to think and act?