Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones

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Chapter V. Optimism and Ethics: Their Contradiction.

  “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
  Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
  Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
  Our slow designs, when we ourselves are dull.


  “But most it is presumption in us, when
  The help of heaven we count the act of men."[A]

[Footnote A: All’s Well that Ends Well.]

I have tried to show that one of the ruling conceptions of Browning’s view of life is that the Good is absolute, and that it reveals itself in all the events of human life. By means of this conception, he endeavoured to bring together the elements which had fallen asunder in the sensational and moral pessimism of Byron and Carlyle. In other words, through the re-interpreting power which lies in this fundamental thought when it is soberly held and fearlessly applied, he sought to reconcile man with the world and with God, and thereby with himself. And the governing motive, whether the conscious motive or not, of Browning’s poetry, the secret impulse which led him to dramatise the conflicts and antagonisms of human life, was the necessity of finding in them evidence of the presence of this absolute Good.

Browning’s optimism was deep and comprehensive enough to reject all compromise. His faith in the good seemed to rise with the demands that were made upon it by the misery and wickedness of man, and the apparently purposeless waste of life and its resources. There was in it a deliberate earnestness which led him to grapple, not only with the concrete difficulties of individual life, but with those also that spring from reflection and theory.

The test of a philosophic optimism, as of any optimism which is more than a pious sentiment, must finally lie in its power to reveal the presence of the good in actual individual evils. But there are difficulties still nearer than those presented by concrete facts, difficulties arising out of the very suggestion that evil is a form of good. Such speculative difficulties must be met by a reflective mind, before it can follow out the application of an optimistic theory to particular facts. Now, Browning’s creed, at least as he held it in his later years, was not merely the allowable exaggeration of an ecstatic religious sentiment, the impassioned conviction of a God-intoxicated man. It was deliberately presented as a solution of moral problems, and was intended to serve as a theory of the spiritual nature of things. It is, therefore, justly open to the same kind of criticism as that to which a philosophic doctrine is exposed. The poet deprived himself of the refuge, legitimate enough to the intuitive method of art, when, in his later works, he not only offered a dramatic solution of the problem of life, but definitely attempted to meet the difficulties of speculative ethics.

In this chapter I shall point out some of these difficulties, and then proceed to show how the poet proposed to solve them.

A thorough-going optimism, in that it subdues all things to the idea of the supreme Good, and denies to evil the right even to dispute the absoluteness of its sway, naturally seems to imply a pantheistic theory of the world. And Browning’s insistence on the presence of the highest in all things may easily be regarded as a mere revival of the oldest and crudest attempts at finding their unity in God. For if all, as he says, is for the best, there seems to be no room left for the differences apparent in the world, and the variety which gives it beauty and worth. Particular existences would seem to be illusory and evanescent phenomena, the creations of human imagination, itself a delusive appearance. The infinite, on this view, stands over against the finite, and it overpowers and consumes it; and the optimism, implied in the phrase that “God is all,” turns at once into a pessimism. For, as soon as we inquire into the meaning of this “all,” we find that it is only a negation of everything we can know or be. Such a pantheism as this is self-contradictory; for, while seeming to level all things upwards to a manifestation of the divine, it really levels all downwards to the level of mere unqualified being, a stagnant and empty unknowable. It leaves only a choice between akosmism and atheism, and, at the same time, it makes each of the alternatives impossible. For, in explaining the world it abolishes it, and in abolishing the world it empties itself of all signification; so that the Godhood which it attempts to establish throughout the whole realm of being, is found to mean nothing. “It is the night, in which all cows are black.”

The optimistic creed, which the poet strove to teach, must, therefore, not only establish the immanence of God, but show in some way how such immanence is consistent with the existence of particular things. His doctrine that there is no failure, or folly, or wickedness, or misery, but conceals within it, at its heart, a divine element; that there is no incident in human history which is not a pulsation of the life of the highest, and which has not its place in a scheme of universal good, must leave room for the moral life of man, and all the risks which morality brings with it. Otherwise, optimism is impossible. For a God who, in filling the universe with His presence, encroaches on the freedom and extinguishes the independence of man, precludes the possibility of all that is best for man–namely, moral achievement. Life, deprived of its moral purpose, is worthless to the poet, and so, in consequence, is all that exists in order to maintain that life. Optimism and ethics seem thus to come into immediate collision. The former, finding the presence of God in all things, seems to leave no room for man; and the latter seems to set man to work out his own destiny in solitude, and to give him supreme and absolute authority over his own life; so that any character which he forms, be it good or bad, is entirely the product of his own activity. So far as his life is culpable or praiseworthy, in other words, so far as we pass any moral judgment upon it, we necessarily think of it as the revelation of a self, that is, of an independent will, which cannot divide its responsibility. There may be, and indeed there always is for every individual, a hereditary predisposition and a soliciting environment, tendencies which are his inheritance from a remote past, and which rise to the surface in his own life; in other words, the life of the individual is always led within the larger sweep of the life of humanity. He is part of a whole, and has his place fixed, and his function predetermined, by a power which is greater than his own. But, if we are to call him good or evil, if he is to aspire and repent and strive, in a word, if he is to have any moralcharacter, he cannot be merely a part of a system; there must be something within him which is superior to circumstances, and which makes him master of his own fate. His natural history may begin with the grey dawn of primal being, but his moral history begins with himself, from the time when he first reacted upon the world in which he is placed, and transformed his natural relations into will and character. For who can be responsible for what he did not will? What could a moral imperative mean, what could an “ought” signify, to a being who was only a temporary embodiment of forces, who are prior to, and independent of himself? It would seem, therefore, as if morality were irreconcilable with optimism. The moral life of man cannot be the manifestation of a divine benevolence whose purpose is necessary; it is a trust laid upon himself, which he may either violate or keep. It surpasses divine goodness, “tho’ matched with equal power” to make man good, as it has made the flowers beautiful. From this point of view, spiritual attainment, whether intellectual or moral, is man’s own, a spontaneous product. Just as God is conceived as all in all in the universe, so man is all in all within the sphere of duty; for the kingdom of heaven is within. In both cases alike, there is absolute exclusion of external interference.

For this reason, it has often seemed both to philosophers and theologians, as if the world were too confined to hold within it both God and man. In the East, the consciousness of the infinite seemed at times to leave no room for the finite; and in the West, where the consciousness of the finite and interest therein is strongest, and man strives and aspires, a Deism arose which set God at a distance, and allowed Him to interfere in the fate of man only by a benevolent miracle. Nor is this collision of pantheism and freedom, nay of religion and morality, confined to the theoretical region. This difficulty is not merely the punishment of an over-bold and over-ambitious philosophy, which pries too curiously into the mystery of being. It lies at the very threshold of all reflection on the facts of the moral life. Even children feel the mystery of God’s permitting sin, and embarrass their helpless parents with the contradiction between absolute benevolence and the miseries and cruelties of life. “A vain interminable controversy," says Teufels-dröckh, “which arises in every soul since the beginning of the world: and in every soul, that would pass from idle suffering into actual endeavouring, must be put an end to. The most, in our own time, have to go content with a simple, incomplete enough Suppression of this controversy: to a few Solution of it is indispensable.”

Solution, and not Suppression, is what Browning sought; he did, in fact, propound a solution, which, whether finally satisfactory or not, at least carries us beyond the easy compromises of ordinary religious and ethical teaching. He does not deny the universality of God’s beneficence or power, and divide the realm of being between Him and the adversary: nor, on the other hand, does he limit man’s freedom, and stultify ethics by extracting the sting of reality from sin. To limit God, he knew, was to deny Him; and, whatever the difficulties he felt in regarding the absolute Spirit as realising itself in man, he could not be content to reduce man into a temporary phantom, an evanescent embodiment of “spiritual” or natural forces, that take a fleeting form in him as they pursue their onward way.

Browning held with equal tenacity to the idea of a universal benevolent order, and to the idea of the moral freedom of man within it. He was driven in opposite directions by two beliefs, both of which he knew to be essential to the life of man as spirit, and both of which he illustrates throughout his poems with an endless variety of poetic expression. He endeavoured to find God in man and still to leave man free. His optimistic faith sought reconciliation with morality. The vigour of his ethical doctrine is as pre-eminent, as the fulness of his conviction of the absolute sway of the Good. Side by side with his doctrine that there is no failure, no wretchedness of corruption that does not conceal within it a germ of goodness, is his sense of the evil of sin, of the infinite earnestness of man’s moral warfare, and of the surpassing magnitude of the issues at stake for each individual soul. So powerful is his interest in man as a moral agent, that he sees nought else in the world of any deep concern. “My stress lay,” he said in his preface to Sordello (1863), “on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study. I, at least, always thought so–you, with many known and unknown to me, think so–others may one day think so.” And this development of a soul is not at any time regarded by the poet as a peaceful process, like the growth of a plant or animal. Although he thinks of the life of man as the gradual realization of a divine purpose within him, he does not suppose it to take place in obedience to a tranquil necessity. Man advances morally by fighting his way inch by inch, and he gains nothing except through conflict. He does not become good as the plant grows into maturity. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”

  “No, when the fight begins within himself,
  A man’s worth something. God stoops o’er his head,
  Satan looks up between his feet,–both tug–
  He’s left, himself, i’ the middle: the soul awakes
  And grows. Prolong that battle through this life!
  Never leave growing till the life to come."[A]

[Footnote A: Bishop Blougram.]

Man is no idle spectator of the conflict of the forces of right and wrong; Browning never loses the individual in the throng, or sinks him into his age or race. And although the poet ever bears within him the certainty of victory for the good, he calls his fellows to the fight as if the fate of all hung on the valour of each. The struggle is always personal, individual like the duels of the Homeric heroes.

It is under the guise of warfare that morality always presents itself to Browning. It is not a mere equilibrium of qualities–the measured, self-contained, statuesque ethics of the Greeks, nor the asceticism and self-restraint of Puritanism, nor the peaceful evolution of Goethe’s artistic morality: it is valour in the battle of life. His code contains no negative commandments, and no limitations; but he bids each man let out all the power that is within him, and throw himself upon life with the whole energy of his being. It is better even to seek evil with one’s whole mind, than to be lukewarm in goodness. Whether you seek good or evil, and play for the counter or the coin, stake it boldly!

  “Let a man contend to the uttermost
  For his life’s set prize, be it what it will!

  “The counter our lovers staked was lost
  As surely as if it were lawful coin:
  And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost

  “Is, the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin
  Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.
  You, of the virtue (we issue join)
  How strive you?–’_De te fabula!_’"[A]

[Footnote A: The Statue and the Bust.]

Indifference and spiritual lassitude are, to the poet, the worst of sins. “Go!” says the Pope to Pompilia’s pseudo-parents,

  “Never again elude the choice of tints!
  White shall not neutralize the black, nor good
  Compensate bad in man, absolve him so:
  Life’s business being just the terrible choice."[B]

[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1235-1238.]

In all the greater characters of The Ring and the Book, this intensity of vigour in good and evil flashes out upon us. Even Pompilia, the most gentle of all his creations, at the first prompting of the instinct of motherhood, rises to the law demanding resistance, and casts off the old passivity.

  “Dutiful to the foolish parents first,
  Submissive next to the bad husband,–nay,
  Tolerant of those meaner miserable
  That did his hests, eked out the dole of pain “;[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid., 1052-1055.]

she is found

“Sublime in new impatience with the foe.”

  “I did for once see right, do right, give tongue
  The adequate protest: for a worm must turn
  If it would have its wrong observed by God.
  I did spring up, attempt to thrust aside
  That ice-block ’twixt the sun and me, lay low
  The neutralizer of all good and truth."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Pompilia, 1591-1596.]

  “Yet, shame thus rank and patent, I struck, bare,
  At foe from head to foot in magic mail,
  And off it withered, cobweb armoury
  Against the lightning! ’Twas truth singed the lies
  And saved me."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid., 1637-1641.]

Beneath the mature wisdom of the Pope, amidst the ashes of old age, there sleeps the same fire. He is as truly a warrior priest as Caponsacchi himself, and his matured experience only muffles his vigour. Wearied with his life-long labour, we see him gather himself together “in God’s name,” to do His will on earth once more with concentrated might.

                                    “I smite
  With my whole strength once more, ere end my part,
  Ending, so far as man may, this offence."[C]

[Footnote C: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1958-1960.]

Nor, spite of doubts, the promptings of mercy, the friends plucking his sleeve to stay his arm, does he fear “to handle a lie roughly"; or shrink from sending the criminal to his account, though it be but one day before he himself is called before the judgment seat. The same energy, the same spirit of bold conflict, animates Guido’s adoption of evil for his good. At all but the last moment of his life of monstrous crime, just before he hears the echo of the feet of the priests, who descend the stair to lead him to his death, “he repeats his evil deed in will.”

  “Nor is it in me to unhate my hates,–
  I use up my last strength to strike once more
  Old Pietro in the wine-house-gossip-face,
  To trample underfoot the whine and wile
  Of beast Violante,–and I grow one gorge
  To loathingly reject Pompilia’s pale
  Poison my hasty hunger took for food."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Guido, 2400-2406.]

If there be any concrete form of evil with which the poet’s optimism is not able to cope, any irretrievable black “beyond white’s power to disintensify,” it is the refusal to take a definite stand and resolute for either virtue or vice; the hesitancy and compromise of a life that is loyal to nothing, not even to its own selfishness. The cool self-love of the old English moralists, which “reduced the game of life to principles,” and weighed good and evil in the scales of prudence, is to our poet the deepest damnation.

  “Saint Eldobert–I much approve his mode;
  With sinner Vertgalant I sympathize;
  But histrionic Sganarelle, who prompts
  While pulling back, refuses yet concedes,–


“Surely, one should bid pack that mountebank!”

In him, even

               “thickheads ought to recognize
  The Devil, that old stager, at his trick
  Of general utility, who leads
  Downward, perhaps, but fiddles all the way!"[A]

[Footnote A: Red Cotton Nightcap Country.]

For the bold sinner, who chooses and sustains his part to the end, the poet has hope. Indeed, the resolute choice is itself the beginning of hope; for, let a man only give himself to anything, wreak himself on the world in the intensity of his hate, set all sail before the gusts of passion and “range from Helen to Elvire, frenetic to be free,” let him rise into a decisive self-assertion against the stable order of the moral world, and he cannot fail to discover the nature of the task he has undertaken, and the meaning of the power without, against which he has set himself. If there be sufficient strength in a man to vent himself in action, and “try conclusions with the world,” he will then learn that it has another destiny than to be the instrument of evil. Self-assertion taken by itself is good; indeed, it is the very law of every life, human and other.

                                      “Each lie
  Redounded to the praise of man, was victory
  Man’s nature had both right to get and might to gain."[B]

[Footnote B: Fifine at the Fair, cxxviii.]

But it leads to the revelation of a higher law than that of selfishness. The very assertion of the self which leads into evil, ultimately leaves the self assertion futile. There is the disappointment of utter failure; the sinner is thrown back upon himself empty-handed. He finds himself subjected, even when sinning,

                                         “To the reign
  Of other quite as real a nature, that saw fit
  To have its way with man, not man his way with it."[A]

[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, cxxviii.]

  “Poor pabulum for pride when the first love is found
  Last also! and, so far from realizing gain,
  Each step aside just proves divergency in vain.
  The wanderer brings home no profit from his quest
  Beyond the sad surmise that keeping house were best
  Could life begin anew."[B]

[Footnote B:_Ibid. cxxix.]

The impossibility of living a divided life, of enjoying at once the sweets of the flesh on the “Turf,” and the security of the “Towers,” is the text of Red Cotton Nightcap Country. The sordid hero of the poem is gradually driven to choose between the alternatives. The best of his luck, the poet thinks, was the

  “Rough but wholesome shock,
  An accident which comes to kill or cure,
  A jerk which mends a dislocated joint!"[C]

[Footnote C: Red Cotton Nightcap Country.]

The continuance of disguise and subterfuge, and the retention of “the first falsehood,” are ultimately made impossible to Léonce Miranda:

  “Thus by a rude in seeming–rightlier judged
  Beneficent surprise, publicity
  Stopped further fear and trembling, and what tale
  Cowardice thinks a covert: one bold splash
  Into the mid-shame, and the shiver ends,
  Though cramp and drowning may begin perhaps."[D]

[Footnote D: Ibid.]

In the same spirit he finds Miranda’s suicidal leap the best deed possible for him.

                       “’Mad!’ ’No! sane, I say.
  Such being the conditions of his life,
  Such end of life was not irrational.
  Hold a belief, you only half-believe,
  With all-momentous issues either way,–
  And I advise you imitate this leap,
  Put faith to proof, be cured or killed at once!’"[A]

[Footnote A: Red Cotton Nightcap Country.]

Thus it is the decisive deed that gains the poet’s approval. He finds the universe a great plot against a pied morality. Even Guido claims some kind of regard from him, since “hate,” as Pompilia said, “was the truth of him.” In that very hate we find, beneath his endless subterfuges, something real, at last. And since, through his hate, he is frankly measuring his powers against the good at work in the world, there cannot remain any doubt of the issue. To bring the rival forces face to face is just what is wanted.

      “I felt quite sure that God had set
  Himself to Satan; who would spend
  A minute’s mistrust on the end?"[B]

[Footnote B:_Count Gismond.]

It is the same respect for strenuous action and dislike of compromise, that inspired the pathetic lines in which he condemns the Lost Leader, who broke “From the van and the free-men, and sunk to the rear and the slaves.” For the good pursues its work without him.

  “We shall march prospering,–not thro’ his presence;
    Songs may inspirit us,–not from his lyre;
  Deeds will be done,–while he boasts his quiescence,
    Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
  Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
    One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
  One more devil’s triumph and sorrow for angels,
    One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!"[A]

[Footnote A: The List Leader.]

Everywhere Browning’s ethical teaching has this characteristic feature of vigorous decisiveness. As Dr. Westcott has said, “No room is left for indifference or neutrality. There is no surrender to an idle optimism. A part must be taken and maintained. The spirit in which Luther said ’_Pecca fortiter_’ finds in him powerful expression.” Browning is emphatically the poet-militant, and the prophet of struggling manhood. His words are like trumpet-calls sounded in the van of man’s struggle, wafted back by the winds, and heard through all the din of conflict by his meaner brethren, who are obscurely fighting for the good in the throng and crush of life. We catch the tones of this heart-strengthening music in the earliest poems he sung: nor did his courage fail, or vigour wane, as the shades of night gathered round him. In the latest of all his poems, he still speaks of

  “One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
    Never doubted clouds would break,
  Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
    Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
      Sleep to wake.”

  “No, at noon-day in the bustle of man’s work-time
    Greet the unseen with a cheer!
  Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
    ’Strive and thrive’! cry ’Speed!–fight on, fare ever
      There as here.’"[A]

[Footnote A: Epilogue to Asolande.]

These are fit words to close such a life. His last act is a kind of re-enlistment in the service of the good; the joyous venturing forth on a new war under new conditions and in lands unknown, by a heroic man who is sure of himself and sure of his cause.

But now comes the great difficulty. How can the poet combine such earnestness in the moral struggle with so deep a conviction of the ultimate nothingness of evil, and of the complete victory of the good? Again and again we have found him pronounce such victory to be absolutely necessary and inevitable. His belief in God, his trust in His love and might, will brook no limit anywhere. His conviction is that the power of the good subjects evil itself to its authority.

    “My own hope is, a sun will pierce
  The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
    That, after Last, returns the First,
  Though a wide compass round be fetched;
    That what began best, can’t end worst.
    Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst."[B]

[Footnote B: Apparent Failure.]

It is the poet himself and not merely the sophistic aesthete of Fifinethat speaks:–

  “Partake my confidence! No creature’s made so mean
  But that, some way, it boasts, could we investigate,
  Its supreme worth: fulfils, by ordinance of fate,
  Its momentary task, gets glory all its own,
  Tastes triumph in the world, pre-eminent, alone.”


  “As firm is my belief, quick sense perceives the same
  Self-vindicating flash illustrate every man
  And woman of our mass, and prove, throughout the plan,
  No detail but, in place allotted it, was prime
  And perfect."[A]

[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, xxix.]

But if so,–if Helen, Fifine, Guido, find themselves within the plan, fulfilling, after all, the task allotted to them in the universal scheme, how can we condemn them? Must we not plainly either modify our optimism and keep our faith in God within bounds, or, on the other hand, make every failure “apparent” only, sin a phantom, and the distinction between right and wrong a helpful illusion that stings man to effort–but an illusion all the same?

  “What but the weakness in a Faith supplies
  The incentive to humanity, no strength
  Absolute, irresistible comforts.
  How can man love but what he yearns to help?"[B]

[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1649-1652.]

Where is the need, nay, the possibility, of self-sacrifice, except where there is misery? How can good, the good which is highest, find itself, and give utterance and actuality to the power that slumbers within it, except as resisting evil? Are not good and evil relative? Is not every criminal, when really known, working out in his own way the salvation of himself and the world? Why cannot he, then, take his stand on his right to move towards the good by any path that best pleases himself: since move he must. It is easy for the religious conscience to admit with Pippa that

  “All service ranks the same with God–
  With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
  Are we: there is no last or first."[A]

[Footnote A: Pippa Passes.]

But, if so, why do we admire her sweet pre-eminence in moral beauty, and in what is she really better than Ottima? The doctrine that

  “God’s in His heaven–
  All’s right with the world!"[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

finds its echo in every devout spirit from the beginning of the world: it is of the very essence of religion. But what of its moral consequences? Religion, when thoroughly consistent, is the triumphant reconciliation of all contradictions. It is optimism, the justification of things as the process of evolving the good; and its peace and joy are just the outcome of the conviction, won by faith, that the ideal is actual, and that every detail of life is, in its own place, illumined with divine goodness. But morality is the condemnation of things as they are, by reference to a conception of a good which ought to be. The absolute identification of the actual and ideal extinguishes morality, either in something lower or something higher. But the moral ideal, when reached, turns at once into a stepping-stone, a dead self; and the good formulates itself anew as an ideal in the future. So that morality is the sphere of discrepancy, and the moral life a progressive realization of a good that can never be complete. It would thus seem to be irreconcilably different from religion, which must, in some way or other, find the good to be present, actual, absolute, without shadow of change, or hint of limit or imperfection.

How, then, does the poet deal with the apparently fundamental discrepancy between religion, which postulates the absolute and universal supremacy of God, and morality, which postulates the absolute supremacy of man within the sphere of his own action, in so far as it is called right or wrong?

This difficulty, in one or other of its forms, is, perhaps, the most pressing in modern philosophy. It is the problem of the possibility of rising above the “Either, Or” of discrepant conceptions, to a position which grasps the alternatives together in a higher idea. It is at bottom the question, whether we can have a philosophy at all; or whether we must fall back once more into compromise, and the scepticism and despair which it always brings with it.

It is just because Browning does not compromise between the contending truths that he is instructive. The value of his solution of the problem corresponds accurately to the degree in which he holds both the absoluteness of God’s presence in history, and the complete independence of the moral consciousness. He refused to degrade either God or man. In the name of religion, he refuses to say that “a purpose of reason is visible in the social and legal structures of mankind"–only “on the whole “; and in the name of morality, he refuses to “assert the perfection of the actual world” as it is, and by implication to stultify all human endeavour. He knew the vice of compromising, and strove to hold both the truths in their fulness.

That he did not compromise God’s love or power, and make it dominant merely “on the whole,” leaving within His realm, which is universal, a limbo for the “lost,” is evident to the most casual reader.

  “This doctrine, which one healthy view of things,
  One sane sight of the general ordinance–
  Nature,–and its particular object,–man,–
  Which one mere eyecast at the character
  Of Who made these and gave man sense to boot,
  Had dissipated once and evermore,–
  This doctrine I have dosed our flock withal.
  Why? Because none believed it."[A]

[Footnote A: The Inn Album.]

“O’er-punished wrong grows right,” Browning says. Hell is, for him, the consciousness of opportunities neglected, arrested growth; and even that, in turn, is the beginning of a better life.

  “However near I stand in His regard,
  So much the nearer had I stood by steps
  Offered the feet which rashly spurned their help.
  That I call Hell; why further punishment?"[B]

[Footnote B: A Camel-Driver.]

Another ordinary view, according to which evil is self-destructive, and ends with the annihilation of its servant, he does not so decisively reject. At least, in a passage of wonderful poetic and philosophic power, which he puts into the mouth of Caponsacchi, he describes Guido as gradually lapsing towards the chaos, which is lower then created existence. He observes him

  “Not to die so much as slide out of life,
  Pushed by the general horror and common hate
  Low, lower,–left o’ the very ledge of things,
  I seem to see him catch convulsively,
  One by one at all honest forms of life,
  At reason, order, decency and use,
  To cramp him and get foothold by at least;
  And still they disengage them from his clutch.


  “And thus I see him slowly and surely edged
  Off all the table-land whence life upsprings
  Aspiring to be immortality.”

There he loses him in the loneliness, silence and dusk–

  “At the horizontal line, creation’s verge.
  From what just is to absolute nothingness."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Giuseppe Caponsacchi, 1911-1931.]

But the matchless moral insight of the Pope leads to a different conclusion, and the poet again retrieves his faith. The Pope puts his first trust “in the suddenness of Guido’s fate,” and hopes that the truth may “be flashed out by the blow of death, and Guido see one instant and be saved.” Nor is his trust vain. “The end comes,” said Dr. Westcott. “The ministers of death claim him. In his agony he summons every helper whom he has known or heard of–


“and then the light breaks through the blackest gloom:

“’Pompilia! will you let them murder me?’

“In this supreme moment he has known what love is, and, knowing it, has begun to feel it. The cry, like the intercession of the rich man in Hades, is a promise of a far-off deliverance.”

But even beyond this hope, which is the last for most men, the Pope had still another.

  “Else I avert my face, nor follow him
  Into that sad obscure sequestered state
  Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
  He else made first in vain: which must not be."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 2129-2132.]

This phrase, “which must not be,” seems to me to carry in it the irrefragable conviction of the poet himself. The same faith in the future appears in the words in which Pompilia addresses her priest.

  “O lover of my life, O soldier-saint,
  No work begun shall ever pause for death!
  Love will be helpful to me more and more
  I’ the coming course, the new path I must tread,
  My weak hand in thy strong hand, strong for that!"[B]

[Footnote B: The Ring and the Seek–Pompilia, 1786-1790.]

For the poet, the death of man brings no change in the purpose of God; nor does it, or aught else, fix a limit to His power, or stultify by failure the end implied in all God’s work, nature no less than man himself–to wit, that every soul shall learn the lesson of goodness, and reflect the devine life in desire, intelligence, and will.

Equally emphatic, on some sides at least, is Browning’s rejection of those compromises, with which the one-sided religious consciousness threatens the existence of the moral life. At times, indeed, he seems to teach, as man’s best and highest, a passive acquiescence in the divine benevolence; and he uses the dangerous metaphor of the clay and potter’s wheel. Rabbi Ben Ezra bids us feel

“Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay";

and his prayer is,

  “So, take and use Thy work:
  Amend what flaws may lurk,
  What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
  My times be in Thy hand!
  Perfect the cup as planned!
  Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!"[A]

[Footnote A: Rabbi Ben Ezra.]

But this attitude of quiescent trust, which is so characteristic of religion, is known by the poet to be only a phase of man’s best life. It is a temporary resting-place for the pilgrim: “the country of Beulah, whose air is very sweet and pleasant, where he may solace himself for a season.” But, “the way lies directly through it,” and the pilgrim, “being a little strengthened and better able to bear his sickness,” has to go forward on his journey. Browning’s characteristic doctrine on this matter is not acquiescence and resignation. “Leave God the way” has, in his view, its counterpart and condition–"Have you the will!”

               “For a worm must turn
  If it would have its wrong observed by God."[B]

[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–Pompilia, 1592-1593.]

The root of Browning’s joy is in the need of progress towards an infinitely high goal. He rejoices

           “that man is hurled
  From change to change unceasingly,
  His soul’s wings never furled.”

The bliss of endeavour, the infinite worth of the consciousness of failure, with its evidence of coming triumph, “the spark which disturbs our clod,” these are the essence of his optimistic interpretation of human life, and also of his robust ethical doctrine.

  “Then, welcome each rebuff
  That turns earth’s smoothness rough,
  Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
  Be our joys three-parts pain!
  Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
  Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!"[A]

[Footnote A: Rabbi Ben Ezra.]

And he prolongs the battle beyond time, for the battle is the moral life and man’s best, and therefore God’s best in man. The struggle upward from the brute, may, indeed end with death. But this only means that man “has learned the uses of the flesh,” and there are in him other potencies to evolve:

“Other heights in other lives, God willing.”

Death is the summing up of this life’s meaning, stored strength for new adventure.

“The future I may face now I have proved the past;” and, in view of it, Browning is

  “Fearless and unperplexed
  When I wage battle next,
  What weapons to select, what armour to indue.”

He is sure that it will be a battle, and a winning one. There is no limiting here of man’s possibility, or confining of man’s endeavour after goodness.

  “Strive and Thrive! cry ’Speed,’ fight on, fare ever
  There as here,”

are the last words which came from his pen.

Now, it may fairly be argued that these allusions to what death may mean, and what may lie beyond death, valuable as they may be as poetry, cannot help in philosophy. They do not solve the problem of the relation between morality and religion, but merely continue the antagonism between them into a life beyond, of which we have no experience. If the problem is to be solved, it must be solved as it is stated for us in the present world.

This objection is valid, so far as it goes. But Browning’s treatment is valuable all the same, in so far as it indicates his unwillingness to limit or compromise the conflicting truths. He, by implication, rejects the view, ordinarily held without being examined, that the moral life is preliminary to the joy and rest of religion; a brief struggle, to be followed by a sudden lift out of it into some serene sphere, where man will lead an angel’s life, which knows no imperfection and therefore no growth. He refuses to make morality an accident in man’s history and “to put man in the place of God,” by identifying the process with the ideal; he also refuses to make man’s struggle, and God’s achievement within man, mutually exclusive alternatives. As I shall show in the sequel, movement towards an ideal, actualizing but never actualized, is for the poet the very nature of man. And to speak about either God or man (or even the absolute philosopher) as “the last term of a development” has no meaning to him. We are not first moral and then religious, first struggling with evil and then conscious of overcoming it. God is with us in the battle, and the victory is in every blow.

But there lies a deeper difficulty than this in the way of reconciling morality and religion, or the presence of both God and man in human action. Morality, in so far as it is achievement, might conceivably be immediately identified with the process of an absolute good; but morality is always a consciousness of failure as well. Its very essence and verve is the conviction that the ideal is not actual. And the higher a man’s spiritual attainment, the more impressive is his view of the evil of the world, and of the greatness of the work pressing to be done. “Say not ye, there are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? Behold I say unto you, ’Lift up your eyes and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.’” It looks like blasphemy against morality to say “that God lives in eternity and has, therefore, plenty of time." Morality destroys one’s contentment with the world; and its language seems to be, “God is not here, but there; the kingdom is still to come.”

Nor does it rest with condemning the world. It also finds flaws in its own highest achievement; so that we seem ever “To mock ourselves in all that’s best of us.” The beginning of the spiritual life seems just to consist in a consciousness of complete failure, and that consciousness ever grows deeper.

This is well illustrated in Browning’s account of Caponsacchi; from the time when Pompilia’s smile first “glowed” upon him, and set him–

    “Thinking how my life
  Had shaken under me–broken short indeed
  And showed the gap ’twixt what is, what should be–
  And into what abysm the soul may slip"–[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the BookGiuseppe Caponsacchi, 485-488.]

up to the time when his pure love for her revealed to him something of the grandeur of goodness, and led him to define his ideal and also to express his despair.

  “To have to do with nothing but the true,
  The good, the eternal–and these, not alone
  In the main current of the general life,
  But small experiences of every day,
  Concerns of the particular hearth and home:
  To learn not only by a comet’s rush
  But a rose’s birth–not by the grandeur, God,
  But the comfort, Christ. All this how far away  Mere delectation, meet for a minute’s dream!"[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid. 2089-2097.]

So illimitably beyond his strength is such a life, that he finds himself like the drudging student who

                           “Trims his lamp,
  Opens his Plutarch, puts him in the place
  Of Roman, Grecian; draws the patched gown close,
  Dreams, ’Thus should I fight, save or rule the world!’–
  Then smilingly, contentedly, awakes
  To the old solitary nothingness."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Giuseppe Caponsacchi, 2098-2103.]

The moral world with its illimitable horizon had Opened out around him, the voice of the new commandment bidding him “be perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect” had destroyed his peace, and made imperative a well nigh hopeless struggle; and, as he compares himself at his best with the new ideal, he breaks out into the cry,

“O great, just, good God! Miserable Me!”

This humility and contrition, this discontent verging on hopelessness, constituted, as we have seen, the characteristic attitude of Carlyle; and it represents a true and, in fact, an indispensable element of man’s moral life.

But this self-condemnation in the face of the moral law is nothing more than an element, and must not be taken either for the whole truth or for the most fundamental one. It is because it is taken as fundamental and final that the discrepancy between morality and religion is held to be absolute, and the consciousness of evil is turned against faith in the Good. It is an abstract way of thinking that makes us deduce, from the transcendent height of the moral ideal, the impossibility of attaining goodness, and the failure of God’s purpose in man. And this is what Carlyle did. He stopped short at the consciousness of imperfection, and he made no attempt to account for it. He took it as a complete fact, and therefore drew a sharp line of distinction between the human and the divine. And, so far, he was right; for, if we look no further than this negative side, it is emphatically absurd to identify man, be he “philosopher” or not, with the Absolute. “Why callest thou Me good? there is none good save One, that is God.” The “ought” must stand above all human attainment, and declare that “whatever is, is wrong." But whence comes the ought itself, the ideal which condemns us? Is it not also immanent in the fact it condemns?

“Who is not acute enough,” asks Hegel, “to see a great deal in his surroundings which is really far from being what it ought to be?” And who also, we may add, has not enough of the generalizing faculty, often mistaken for a philosophical one, to extend this condemnation over the whole of “this best of all possible worlds”? But what is this “ought-to-be,” which has such potency in it that all things confronted with it lose their worth?

The first answer is, that it is an idea which men, and particularly good men, carry with them. But a little consideration will show that it cannot be a mere idea. It must be something more valid than a capricious product of the individual imagination. For we cannot wisely condemn things because they do not happen to answer to any casual conception which we may choose to elevate into a criterion. A criterion must have objective validity. It must be an idea of something and not an empty notion; and that something must, at the worst, be possible. Nay, when we consider all that is involved in it, it becomes obvious that a true ideal–an ideal which is a valid criterion–must be not only possible but real, and, indeed, more real than that which is condemned by reference to it. Absolute pessimism has in it the same contradiction as absolute scepticism has,–in fact, it is only its practical counterpart; for both scepticism and pessimism involve the assumption that it is possible to reach a position outside the realm of being, from which it may be condemned as a whole. But the rift between actual and ideal must fall within the real or intelligible world, do what the pessimists will; and a condemnation of man which is not based on a principle realized by humanity, is a fiction of abstract thought, which lays stress on the actuality of the imperfect and treats the perfect as if it were as good as nothing, which it cannot be. In other words, this way of regarding human life isolates the passing phenomenon, and does not look to that which reveals itself in it and causes it to pass away. Confining ourselves, however, for the present, to the ideal in morality, we can easily see that, in that sphere at least, the actual and ideal change places; and that the latter contrasts with the former as the real with the phenomenal. For, in the first place, the moral ideal is something more than a mere idea not yet realized. It is more even than a trueidea; for no mere knowledge, however true, has such intimate relation to the self-consciousness of man as his moral ideal. A mathematical axiom, and the statement of a physical law, express what is true; but they do not occupy the same place in our mind as a moral principle. Such a principle is an ideal, as well as an idea. It is an idea which has causative potency in it. It supplies motives, it is an incentive to action, and, though in one sense a thing of the future, it is also the actual spring and source of present activity. In so far as the agent acts, as Kant put it, not according to laws, but according to an ideaof law (and a responsible agent always acts in this manner), the ideal is as truly actualized in him as the physical law is actualized in the physical fact, or the vegetable life in the plant. In fact, the ideal of a moral being is his life. All his actions are its manifestations. And, just as the physical fact is not seen as it really is, nor its reality proved, till science has penetrated through the husk of the sensuous phenomenon, and grasped it in thought as an instance of a law; so an individual’s actions are not understood, and can have no moral meaning whatsoever, except in the light of the purpose which gave them being. We know the man only when we know his creed. His reality is what he believes in; that is, it is his ideal.

It is the consciousness that the ideal is the real which explains the fact of contrition. To become morally awakened is to become conscious of the vanity and nothingness of the past life, as confronted with the new ideal implied in it. The past life is something to be cast aside as false show, just because the self that experienced it was not realized in it. It is for this reason that the moral agent sets himself against it, and desires to annihilate all its claims upon him by undergoing its punishment, and drinking to the dregs its cup of bitterness. Thus his true life lies in the realization of his ideal, and his advance towards it is his coming to himself. Only in attaining to it does he attain reality, and the only realization possible for him in the present is just the consciousness of the potency of the ideal. To him to live is to realize his ideal. It is a power that irks, till it finds expression in moral habits that accord with its nature, i.e., till the spirit has, out of its environment, created a body adequate to itself.

The condemnation of self which characterizes all moral life and is the condition of moral progress, must not, therefore, be regarded as a complete truth. For the very condemnation implies the actual presence of something better. Both of the terms–both the criterion and the fact which is condemned by it–fall within the same individual life. Man cannot, therefore, without injustice, condemn himself in all that he is; for the condemnation is itself a witness to the activity of that good of which he despairs. Hence, the threatening majesty of the moral imperative is nothing but the shadow of man’s own dignity; and moral contrition, and even the complete despair of the pessimistic theory, when rightly understood, are recognized as unwilling witnesses to the authority and the actuality of the highest good. And, on the other hand, the highest good cannot be regarded as a mere phantom, without nullifying all our condemnation of the self and the world.

The legitimate deduction from the height of man’s moral ideal is thus found to be, not, as Carlyle thought, the weakness and worthlessness of human nature, but its promise and native dignity: and in a healthy moral consciousness it produces, not despair, but faith and joy. For, as has been already suggested in a previous chapter, the authority of the moral law over man is rooted in man’s endowment. Its imperative is nothing but the voice of the future self, bidding the present self aspire, while its reproof is only the expression of a moral aspiration which has misunderstood itself. Contrition is not a bad moral state which should bring despair, but a good state, full of promise of one that is still better. It is, in fact, just the first step which the ideal takes in its process of self-realization: “the sting that bids nor sit, nor stand, but go!”

The moral ideal thus, like every other ideal, even that which we regard as present in natural life, contains a certain guarantee of its own fulfilment. It is essentially an active thing, an energy, a movement upwards. It may, indeed, be urged that the guarantee is imperfect. Ideals tend to self-realization, but the tendency may remain unfulfilled. Men have some ideals which they never reach, and others which, at first sight at least, it were better for them not to reach. The goal may never be attained, or it may prove “a ruin like the rest." And, as long as man is moral, the ideal is not, and cannot be, fully reached, Morality necessarily implies a rift within human nature, a contradiction between what is and what ought to be; although neither the rift nor the contradiction is absolute. There might seem for this reason to be no way of bringing optimism and ethics together, of reconciling what is and what ought to be.

My answer to these difficulties must at this stage be very brief and incomplete. That the moral good, if attained, should itself prove vain is a plain self-contradiction. For moral good has no meaning except in so far as it is conceived as the highest good. The question. “Why should I be moral,” has no answer, because it is self-contradictory. The moral ideal contains its justification in itself, and requires to lean on nothing else.

But it is not easy to prove that it is attainable. In one sense it is not attainable, at least under the conditions of human life which fall within our experience, from which alone we have a right to speak. For, as I shall strive to show in a succeeding chapter, the essence of man’s life as spiritual, that is as intelligent and moral, is its self-realizing activity. Intellectual and moral life is progress, although it is the progress of an ideal which is real and complete, the return of the infinite to itself through the finite. The cessation of the progress of the ideal in man, whereby man interprets the world in terms of himself and makes it the instrument of his purposes, is intellectual and moral death. From one point of view, therefore, this spiritual life, or moral and intellectual activity, is inspired at every step by the consciousness of a “beyond” not possessed, of an unsolved contradiction between the self and the not-self, of a good that ought to be and is not. The last word, or rather the last word but one, regarding man is “failure.”

But failure is the last word but one, as the poet well knew. “What’s come to perfection perishes,” he tells us. From this point of view the fact that perfection is not reached, merely means that the process is not ended. “It seethes with the morrow for us and more.” The recognition of failure implies more effort and higher progress, and contains a suggestion of an absolute good, and even a proof of its active presence. “The beyond,” for knowledge and morality, is the Land of Promise. And the promise is not a false one; for the “land” is possessed. The recognition of the fact to be known, the statement of the problem, is the first step in its solution; and the consciousness of the moral ideal not attained is the first step in its self-actualizing progress. Had man not come so far, he would not have known the further difficulty, or recognized the higher good. To say that the moral ideal is never attained, is thus only a half-truth. We must add to it the fact that it is always being attained; nay, that it is always present as an active reality, attaining itself, evolving its own content. Or, to return to the previous metaphor, the land of promise is possessed, although the possession always reveals a still better beyond, which is again a land of promise.

While, therefore, it must always remain true that knowledge does not reach absolute reality, nor morality absolute goodness, this cannot be used as an argument against optimism, except on the presupposition that mental and moral activity are a disease. And this is a contradiction in terms. If the ideal is in itself good, the process whereby it is attained is good; if the process in itself is evil, the ideal it seeks is evil, and therefore the condemnation of the actual by reference to it is absurd. And, on the other hand, to postulate as best the identity of ideal and actual, so that no process is necessary, is to assume a point of view where both optimism and pessimism are meaningless, for there is no criterion. As Aristotle teaches us, we have no right either to praise or to blame the highest. A process, such as morality is, which is not the self-manifestation of an actual idea, and an ideal which does not reveal its potencies in its passing forms, are both fictions of one-sided thought. The process is not the ideal, but its manifestation; and the ideal is not the process, but the principle which is its source and guide.

But if the process cannot be thus immediately identified with the ideal, or “man take the place of God,” or “human self-consciousness be confused with the absolute self-consciousness,” far less can they be separated. The infinitely high ideal of perfect knowledge and perfect goodness, implied in the Christian command, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” is an ideal, just because the unity of what is and what ought to be is deeper than their difference. The recognition of the limit of our knowledge, or the imperfection of our moral character, is a direct witness to the fact that there is more to be known and a better to be achieved. The negative implies the affirmative, and is its effect. Man’s confession of the limitation of his knowledge is made on the supposition that the universe of facts, in all its infinitely rich complexity, is meant to be known; and his confession of moral imperfection is made by reference to a good which is absolute, and which yet may be and ought to be his. The good in morality is necessarily supreme and perfect. A good that is “merely human,” “relative to man’s nature,” in the sense of not being true goodness, is a phantom of confused thinking. Morality demands ’the good,” and not a simulacrum or make-shift. The distinction between right and wrong, and with it all moral aspiration, contrition, and repentance, would otherwise become meaningless. What can a seeming good avail to a moral agent? There is no better or worse among merely apparent excellencies, and of phantoms it matters not which is chosen. And, in a similar way, the distinction between true and false in knowledge, and the common condemnation of human knowledge as merely of phenomena, implies the absolute unity of thought and being, and the knowledge of that unity as a fact. There is no true or false amongst merely apparent facts.

But, if the ideal of man as a spiritual being is conceived as perfect, then it follows not only that its attainment is possible, but that it is necessary. The guarantee of its own fulfilment which an ideal carries with it as an ideal, that is, as a potency in process of fulfilment, becomes complete when that ideal is absolute. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” The absolute good, in the language of Emerson, is “too good not to be true.” If such an ideal be latent in the nature of man, it brings the order of the universe over to his side. For it implies a kinship between him, as a spiritual being, and the whole of existence. The stars in their courses fight for him. In other words, the moral ideal means nothing, if it does not imply a law which is universal. It is a law which exists already, whether man recognizes it or not; it is the might in things, a law of which “no jot or tittle can in any wise pass away.” The individual does not institute the moral law; he finds it to be written both within and without him. His part is to recognize, not to create it; to make it valid in his own life and so to identify himself with it, that his service of it may be perfect freedom.

We thus conclude that morality, and even the self-condemnation, contrition, and consciousness of failure which it brings with it as phases of its growth, are witnesses of the presence, and the actual product of an absolute good in man. Morality, in other words, rests upon, and is the self-evolution of the religious principle in man.

A similar line of proof would show that religion implies morality. An absolute good is not conceivable, except in relation to the process whereby it manifests itself. In the language of theology, we may say that God must create and redeem the world in order to be God; or that creation and redemption,–the outflow of the universe from God as its source, and its return to Him through the salvation of mankind,–reveal to us the nature of God. Apart from this outgoing of the infinite to the finite and its return to itself through it, the name God would be an empty word, signifying a something unintelligible dwelling in the void beyond the realm of being. But religion, as we have seen, is the recognition not of an unknown but of the absolute good as real; the joyous consciousness of the presence of God in all things. And morality, in that it is the realization of an ideal which is perfect, is the process whereby the absolute good actualizes itself in man. It is true that the ideal cannot be identified with the process; for it is the principle of the process, and therefore more than it. Man does not reach “the last term of development,” for there is no last term to a being whose essence is progressive activity. He does not therefore take the place of God, and his self-consciousness is never the absolute self-consciousness. But still, in so far as his life is a progress towards the true and good, it is the process of truth and goodness within him. It is the activity of the ideal. It is God lifting man up to Himself, or, in the language of philosophy, “returning to Himself in history.” And yet it is at the same time man’s effort after goodness. Man is not a mere “vessel of divine grace,” or a passive recipient of the highest bounty. All man’s goodness is necessarily man’s achievement. And the realization by the ideal of itself is man’s achievement of it. For it is his ideal. The law without is also the law within. It is the law within because it is recognized as the law without. Thus, the moral consciousness passes into the religious consciousness. The performance of duty is the willing service of the absolute good; and, as such, it involves also the recognition of a purpose that cannot fail. It is both activity and faith, both a struggle and a consciousness of victory, both morality and religion. We cannot, therefore, treat these as alternative phases of man’s life. There is not first the pain of the moral struggle, and then the joy and rest of religion. The meat and drink is “to do the will of Him that sent Me, to finish His work.” Heaven is the service of the good. “There is nothing in the world or out of it that can be called unconditionally good, except the good will.” The process of willing–the moral activity–is its own reward; “the only jewel that shines in its own light.”

It may seem to some to be presumptuous thus to identify the divine and the human; but to separate them makes both morality and religion impossible. It robs morality of its ideal, and makes God a mere name for the “unknown.” Those who think that this identification degrades the divine, misapprehend the nature of spirit; and forget that it is of its essence to communicate itself. And goodness and truth do not become less when shared; they grow greater. Spiritual possessions imply community wherein there is no exclusion; and to the Christian the glory of God is His communication of Himself. Hence the so-called religious humility, which makes God different in nature from His work, really degrades the object of its worship. It puts mere power above the gifts of spirit, and it indicates that the worshipper has not been emancipated from the slavishness, which makes a fetish of its God. Such a religion is not free, and the development of man destroys it.

  “I never realized God’s birth before–
  How He grew likest God in being born."[A]

[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Pompilia, 1690-1691.]

The intense love of the young mother drew the divine and the human together, and set at nought the contrast which prose ever draws between them. This thought of the unity of God and man is one which has frequent utterance from the poet when his religious spirit is most deeply moved; for it is the characteristic of religious feeling that it abolishes all sense of separation. It removes all the limitations of finitude and lifts man into rapturous unity with the God he adores; and it gives such completeness to his life that it seems to him to be a joyous pulse of the life that is absolute. The feeling of unity may be an illusion. This we cannot discuss here; but, in any case, it is a feeling essential to religion. And the philosophy which seeks to lift this feeling into clear consciousness and to account for its existence, cannot but recognize that it implies and presupposes the essential affinity of the divine nature with the nature of man.

Thus, both from the side of morality and from that of religion, we are brought to recognize the unity of God with man as a spiritual being. The moral ideal is man’s idea of perfection, that is, his idea of God. While theology and philosophy are often occupied with the vain task of bridging a chasm between the finite and the infinite, which they assume to be separated, the supreme facts of the life of man as a spirit spring from their unity. In other words, morality and religion are but different manifestations of the same principle. The good that man effects is, at the same time, the working of God within him. The activity that man is,

                                “tending up,
  Holds, is upheld by, God, and ends the man
  Upward in that dread point of intercourse
  Nor needs a place, for it returns to Him."[A]

[Footnote A: A Death in the Desert.]

                              “God, perchance,
  Grants each new man, by some as new a mode,
  Inter-communication with Himself
  Wreaking on finiteness infinitude."[B]

[Footnote B: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]

And while man’s moral endeavour is thus recognized as the activity of God within him, it is also implied that the divine being can be known only as revealed, and incarnated, if one may so say, in a perfect human character. It was a permanent conviction of Browning, that

      “the acknowledgment of God in Christ
  Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
  All questions in the earth and out of it.”

So far from regarding the Power in the world which makes for righteousness, as “not-ourselves,” as Matthew Arnold did in his haste, that Power is known to be the man’s true self and more, and morality is the gradual process whereby its content is evolved. And man’s state of perfection, which is symbolized for the intelligent by the term Heaven, is, for Browning,

  “The equalizing, ever and anon,
  In momentary rapture, great with small,
  Omniscience with intelligency, God
  With man–the thunder glow from pole to pole
  Abolishing, a blissful moment-space,
  Great cloud alike and small cloud, in one fire–
  As sure to ebb as sure again to flow
  When the new receptivity deserves
  The new completion."[A]

[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]

Thus, therefore, does the poet wed the divine strength with human weakness; and the principle of unity, thus conceived, gives him at once his moral strenuousness and that ever present foretaste of victory, which we may call his religious optimism.

Whether this principle receives adequate expression from the poet, we shall inquire in the next chapter. For on this depends its worth as a solution of the enigma of man’s moral life.


Preface  •  Chapter I. Introduction.  •  Chapter II. On the Need of a Philosophy of Life.  •  Chapter III. Browning’s Place in English Poetry.  •  Chapter IV. Browning’s Optimism.  •  Chapter V. Optimism and Ethics: Their Contradiction.  •  Chapter VI. Browning’s Treatment of the Principle of Love.  •  Chapter VII. Browning’s Idealism, and Its Philosophical Justification.  •  Chapter VIII. Browning’s Solution of the Problem of Evil.  •  Chapter IX. A Criticism of Browning’s View of the Failure of Knowledge.  •  Chapter X. The Heart and the Head.–Love and Reason.  •  Chapter XI. Conclusion.

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