Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter VII. Browning’s Idealism, and Its Philosophical Justification.
“Master, explain this incongruity! When I dared question, ’It is beautiful, But is it true?’ thy answer was, ’In truth Lives Beauty.’"[A]
[Footnote A: Shah Abbas.]
We have now seen how Browning sought to explain all things as manifestations of the principle of love; how he endeavoured to bring all the variety of finite existence, and even the deep discrepancies of good and evil, under the sway of one idea. I have already tried to show that all human thought is occupied with the same task: science, art, philosophy, and even the most ordinary common-sense, are all, in their different ways, seeking for constant laws amongst changing facts. Nay, we may even go so far as to say that all the activity of man, the practical as well as the theoretical, is an attempt to establish a modus vivendi between his environment and himself. And such an attempt rests on the assumption that there is some ground common to both of the struggling powers within and without, some principle that manifests itself both in man and in nature. So that all men are philosophers to the extent of postulating a unity, which is deeper than all differences; and all are alike trying to discover, in however limited or ignorant a way, what that unity is. If this fact were more constantly kept in view, the effort of philosophers to bring the ultimate colligating principles of thought into clear consciousness would not, at the outset at least, be regarded with so much suspicion. For the philosopher differs from the practical man of the world, not so much in the nature of the task which he is trying to accomplish, as in the distinct and conscious purpose with which he enters upon it.
Now, I think that those, who, like Browning, offer an explicitly optimistic idea of the relation between man and the world, have a special right to a respectful hearing; for it can scarcely be denied that their optimistic explanation is invaluable, if it is true–
“So might we safely mock at what unnerves Faith now, be spared the sapping fear’s increase That haply evil’s strife with good shall cease Never on earth."[A]
[Footnote A: Bernard de Mandeville.]
Despair is a great clog to good work for the world, and pessimists, as a rule, have shown much more readiness than optimists to let evil have its unimpeded way. Having found, like Schopenhauer, that “Life is an awkward business,” they “determine to spend life in reflecting on it,” or at least in moaning about it. The world’s helpers have been men of another mould; and the contrast between Fichte and Schopenhauer is suggestive of a general truth:–"Fichte, in the bright triumphant flight of his idealism, supported by faith in a moral order of the world which works for righteousness, turning his back on the darker ethics of self-torture and mortification, and rushing into the political and social fray, proclaiming the duties of patriotism, idealizing the soldier, calling to and exercising an active philanthrophy, living with his nation, and continually urging it upwards to higher levels of self-realization–Schopenhauer recurring to the idea of asceticism, preaching the blessedness of the quiescence of all will, disparaging efforts to save the nation or elevate the masses, and holding that each has enough to do in raising his own self from its dull engrossment in lower things to an absorption in that pure, passionless being which lies far beyond all, even the so-called highest, pursuits of practical life."[A]
[Footnote A: Schopenhauer, by Prof. Wallace.]
A pessimism, which is nothing more than flippant fault-finding, frequently gains a cheap reputation for wisdom; and, on the other hand, an optimism, which is really the result of much reflection and experience, may be regarded as the product of a superficial spirit that has never known the deeper evils of life. But, if pessimism be true, it differs from other truths by its uselessness; for, even if it saves man from the bitterness of petty disappointments, it does so only by making the misery universal. There is no need to specify, when ’All is vanity.” The drowning man does not feel the discomfort of being wet. But yet, if we reflect on the problem of evil, we shall find that there is no neutral ground, and shall ultimately be driven to choose between pessimism and its opposite. Nor, on the other hand, is the suppression of the problem of evil possible, except at a great cost. It presents itself anew in the mind of every thinking man; and some kind of solution of it, or at least some definite way of meeting its difficulty, is involved in the attitude which every man assumes towards life and its tasks.
It is not impossible that there may be as much to be said for Browning’s joy in life and his love of it, as there is for his predecessor’s rage and sorrow. Browning certainly thought that there was; and he held his view consistently to the end. We cannot, therefore, do justice to the poet without dealing critically with the principle on which he has based his faith, and observing how far it is applicable to the facts of human life. As I have previously said, he strives hard to come into fair contact with the misery of man in all its sadness; and, after doing so, he claims, not as a matter of poetic sentiment, but as a matter of strict truth, that good is the heart and reality of it all. It is true that he cannot demonstrate the truth of his principle by reference to all the facts, any more than the scientific man can justify his hypothesis in every detail; but he holds it as a faith which reason can justify and experience establish, although not in every isolated phenomenon. The good may, he holds, be seen actually at work in the world, and its process will be more fully known, as human life advances towards its goal.
“Though Master keep aloof, Signs of His presence multiply from roof To basement of the building."[A]
[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]
Thus Browning bases his view upon experience, and finds firm footing for his faith in the present; although he acknowledges that the “profound of ignorance surges round his rockspit of self-knowledge.”
“Enough that now, Here where I stand, this moment’s me and mine, Shows me what is, permits me to divine What shall be."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
“Since we know love we know enough"; for in love, he confidently thinks we have the key to all the mystery of being.
Now, what is to be made of an optimism of this kind, which is based upon love and which professes to start from experience, or to be legitimately and rationally derived from it?
If such a view be taken seriously, as I propose doing, we must be prepared to meet at the outset with some very grave difficulties. The first of these is that it is an interpretation of facts by a human emotion. To say that love blushes in the rose, or breaks into beauty in the clouds, that it shows its strength in the storm, and sets the stars in the sky, and that it is in all things the source of order and law, may imply a principle of supreme worth both to poetry and religion; but when we are asked to take it as a metaphysical explanation of facts, we are prone, like the judges of Caponsacchi, not to “levity, or to anything indecorous"–
“Only–I think I apprehend the mood: There was the blameless shrug, permissible smirk, The pen’s pretence at play with the pursed mouth, The titter stifled in the hollow palm Which rubbed the eye-brow and caressed the nose, When I first told my tale; they meant, you know– ’The sly one, all this we are bound believe! Well, he can say no other than what he says.’"[A]
[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–Canon Caponsacchi, 14-20.]
We are sufficiently willing to let the doctrine be held as a pious opinion. The faith that “all’s love yet all’s law,” like many another illusion, if not hugged too closely, may comfort man’s nakedness. But if we are asked to substitute this view for that which the sciences suggest,–if we are asked to put “Love” in the place of physical energy, and, by assuming it as a principle, to regard as unreal all the infinite misery of humanity and the degradation of intellect and character from which it arises, common-sense seems at once to take the side of the doleful sage of Chelsea. When the optimist postulates that the state of the world, were it rightly understood, is completely satisfactory, reason seems to be brought to a stand; and if poetry and religion involve such a postulate, they are taken to be ministering to the emotions at the expense of the intellect.
Browning, however, was not a mere sentimentalist who could satisfy his heart without answering the questions of his intellect. Nor is his view without support–at least, as regards the substance of it. The presence of an idealistic element in things is recognized even by ordinary thought; and no man’s world is so poor that it would not be poorer still for him, if it were reduced by the abstract sciences of nature into a mere manifestation of physical force. Such a world Richter compares to an empty eye-socket.
The great result of speculation since the time of Kant is to teach us to recognize that objects are essentially related to mind, and that the principles which rule our thought enter, so to speak, into the constitution of the things we know. A very slight acquaintance with the history even of psychology, especially in modern times, shows that facts are more and more retracted into thought. This science, which began with a sufficiently common-sense view, not only of the reality and solidity of the things of the outer world, but of their opposition to, or independence of thought, is now thinning that world down into a mere shadow–a something which excites sensation. It shows that external things as we know them, and we are not concerned in any others, are, to a very great extent, the product of our thinking activities. No one will now subscribe to the Lockian or Humean view, of images impressed by objects on mind: the object which “impresses” has first to be made by mind, out of the results of nervous excitation. In a word, modern psychology as well as modern metaphysics, is demonstrating more and more fully the dependence of the world, as it is known, on the nature and activity of man’s mind. Every explanation of the world is found to be, in this sense, idealistic; and in this respect, there is no difference whatsoever between the interpretation given by science and that of poetry, or religion, or philosophy. If we say that a thing is a “substance,” or has “a cause"; if, with the physicist, we assert the principle of the transmutation of energy, or make use of the idea of evolution with the biologist or geologist; nay, if we speak of time and space with the mathematician, we use principles of unity derived from self-consciousness, and interpret nature in terms of ourselves, just as truly as the poet or philosopher, who makes love, or reason, the constitutive element in things. If the practical man of the world charges the poet and philosopher with living amidst phantoms, he can be answered with a ’Tu quoque.” “How easy,” said Emerson, “it is to show the materialist that he also is a phantom walking and working amid phantoms, and that he need only ask a question or two beyond his daily questions to find his solid universe proving dim and impalpable before his sense.”
“Sense,” which seems to show directly that the world is a solid reality, not dependent in any way on thought, is found not to be reliable. All science is nothing but an appeal to thought from ordinary sensuous opinion. It is an attempt to find the reality of things by thinking about them; and this reality, when it is found, turns out to be a law. But laws are ideas; though, if they are true ideas, they represent not merely thoughts in the mind, but also real principles, which manifest themselves in the objects of the outer world, as well as in the thinker’s mind.
It is not possible in such a work as this, to give a carefully reasoned proof of this view of the relation of thought and things, or to repeat the argument of Kant. I must be content with merely referring to it, as showing that the principles in virtue of which we think, are the principles in virtue of which objects as we know them exist; and we cannot be concerned with any other objects. The laws which scientific investigation discovers are not only ideas that can be written in books, but also principles which explain the nature of things. In other words, the hypotheses of the natural sciences, or their categories, are points of view in the light of which the external world can be regarded as governed by uniform laws. And these constructive principles, which lift the otherwise disconnected world into an intelligible system, are revelations of the nature of intelligence, and only on that account principles for explaining the world.
“To know, Rather consists in opening out a way Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape, Than in effecting entry for a light Supposed to be without."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
In this sense, it may be said that all knowledge is anthropomorphic; and in this respect there is no difference between the physics, which speaks of energy as the essence of things, and the poetry, which speaks of love as the ultimate principle of reality. Between such scientific and idealistic explanations there is not even the difference that the one begins without and the other within, or that the one is objective and the other subjective. The true distinction is that the principles upon which the latter proceed are less abstract than those of science. “Reason” and “love” are higher principles for the explanation of the nature of things than “substance” or “cause"; but both are forms of the unity of thought. And if the latter seem to have nothing to do with the self, it is only because they are inadequate to express its full character. On the other hand, the higher categories, or ideas of reason, seem to be merely anthropomorphic, and, therefore, ill-suited to explain nature, because the relation of nature to intelligence is habitually neglected by ordinary thought, which has not pressed its problems far enough to know that such higher categories can alone satisfy the demand for truth.
But natural science is gradually driven from the lower to the higher categories, or, in other words, it is learning to take a more and more idealistic view of nature. It is moving very slowly, because it is a long labour to exhaust the uses of an instrument of thought; and it is only at great intervals in the history of the human intellect, that we find the need of a change of categories. But, as already hinted, there is no doubt that science is becoming increasingly aware of the conditions, under which alone its results may be held as valid. At first, it drove “mind” out of the realm of nature, and offered to explain both it and man in physical and mathematical terms. But, in our day, the man of science has become too cautious to make such rash extensions of the principles he uses. He is more inclined to limit himself to his special field, and he refuses to make any declaration as to the ultimate nature of things. He holds himself apart from materialism, as he does from idealism. I think I may even go further, and say that the fatal flaw of materialism has been finally detected, and that the essential relativity of all objects to thought is all but universally acknowledged.
The common notion that science gives a complete view of truth, to which we may appeal as refuting idealism, is untenable. Science itself will not support the appeal, but will direct the appellant to another court. Perhaps, rather, it would be truer to say that its attitude is one of doubt whether or not any court, philosophical or other, can give any valid decision on the matter. Confining themselves to the region of material phenomena, scientific men generally leave to common ignorance, or to moral and theological tradition, all the interests and activities of man, other than those which are physical or physiological. And some of them are even aware, that if they could find the physical equation of man, or, through their knowledge of physiology, actually produce in man the sensations, thoughts, and notions now ascribed to the intelligent life within him, the question of the spiritual or material nature of man and the world, would remain precisely where it was. The explanation would still begin with mind and end there. The principles of the materialistic explanation of the world would still be derived from intelligence; mind would still underlie all it explained, and completed science would still be, in this sense, anthropomorphic. The charge of anthropomorphism thus falls to the ground, because it would prove too much. It is a weapon which cuts the hand that wields it. And, as directed against idealism, it only shows that he who uses it has inadequate notions both of the nature of the self and of the world, and is not aware that each gets meaning, only as an exponent of the other.
On the whole, we may say that it is not men of science who now assail philosophy, because it gives an idealistic explanation of the world, so much as unsystematic dabblers in matters of thought. The best men of science, rather, show a tendency to acquiesce in a kind of dualism of matter and spirit, and to leave morality and religion, art and philosophy to pursue their own ends undisturbed. Mr. Huxley, for instance, and some others, offer two philosophical solutions, one proceeding from the material world and the other from the sensations and other “facts of consciousness.” They say that we may either explain man as a natural phenomenon, or the world as a mental one.
But it is a little difficult not to ask which of these explanations is true. Both of them cannot well be, seeing that they are different. And neither of them can be adopted without very serious consequences. It would require considerable hardihood to suggest that natural science should be swept away in favour of psychology, which would be done if the one view held by Mr. Huxley were true. And, in my opinion, it requires quite as much hardihood to suggest the adoption of a theory that makes morality and religion illusory, which would be done were the other view valid.
As a matter of fact, however, such an attitude can scarcely be held by any one who is interested both in the success of natural science and in the spiritual development of mankind. We are constrained rather to say that, if these rival lines of thought lead us to deny either the outer world of things, or the world of thought and morality, then they must both be wrong. They are not “explanations” but false theories, if they lead to such conclusions as these. And, instead of holding them up to the world as the final triumph of human thought, we should sweep them into the dust-bin, and seek for some better explanation from a new point of view.
And, indeed, a better explanation is sought, and sought not only by idealists, but by scientific men themselves,–did they only comprehend their own main tendency and method. The impulse towards unity, which is the very essence of thought, if it is baulked in one direction by a hopeless dualism, just breaks out in another. Subjective idealism, that is, the theory that things are nothing but phenomena of the individual’s consciousness, that the world is really all inside the philosopher, is now known by most people to end in self-contradiction; and materialism is also known to begin with it. And there are not many people sanguine enough to believe with Mr. Huxley and Mr. Herbert Spencer, that, if we add two self-contradictory theories together, or hold them alternately, we shall find the truth. Modern science, that is, the science which does not philosophize, and modern philosophy are with tolerable unanimity denying this absolute dualism. They do not know of any thought that is not of things, or of any things that are not for thought. It is necessarily assumed that, in some way or other, the gap between things and thought is got over by knowledge. How the connection is brought about may not be known; but, that there is the connection between real things and true thoughts, no one can well deny. It is an ill-starred perversity which leads men to deny such a connection, merely because they have not found out how it is established.
A new category of thought has taken possession of the thought of our time–a category which is fatal to dualism. The idea of development is breaking down the division between mind and matter, as it is breaking down all other absolute divisions. Geology, astronomy, and physics at one extreme, biology, psychology, and philosophy at the other, combine in asserting the idea of the universe as a unity which is always evolving its content, and bringing its secret potencies to the light. It is true that these sciences have not linked hands as yet. We cannot get from chemistry to biology without a leap, or from physiology to psychology without another. But no one will postulate a rift right through being. The whole tendency of modern science implies the opposite of such a conception. History is striving to trace continuity between the civilized man and the savage. Psychology is making towards a junction with physiology and general biology, biology with chemistry, and chemistry with physics. That there is an unbroken continuity in existence is becoming a postulate of modern science, almost as truly as the “universality of law” or “the uniformity of nature.” Nor is the postulate held less firmly because the evidence for the continuity of nature is not yet complete. Chemistry has not yet quite lapsed into physics; biology at present shows no sign of giving up its characteristic conception of life, and the former science is as yet quite unable to deal with that peculiar phenomenon. The facts of consciousness have not been resolved into nervous action, and, so far, mind has not been shown to be a secretion of brain. Nevertheless, all these sciences are beating against the limits which separate them, and new suggestions of connection between natural life and its inorganic environment are continually discovered. The sciences are boring towards each other, and the dividing strata are wearing thin; so that it seems reasonable to expect that, with the growth of knowledge, an unbroken way upwards may be discovered, from the lowest and simplest stages of existence to the highest and most complex forms of self-conscious life.
Now, to those persons who are primarily interested in the ethical and religious phenomena of man’s life, the idea of abolishing the chasm between spirit and nature is viewed with no little apprehension. It is supposed that if evolution were established as a universal law, and the unity of being were proved, the mental and moral life of man would be degraded into a complex manifestation of mere physical force. And we even find religious men rejoicing at the failure of science to bridge the gap between the inorganic and the organic, and between natural and self-conscious life; as if the validity of religion depended upon the maintenance of their separating boundaries. But no religion that is free from superstitious elements has anything to gain from the failure of knowledge to relate things to each other. It is difficult to see how breaks in the continuity of being can be established, when every living plant confutes the absolute difference between the organic and inorganic, and, by the very fact of living, turns the latter into the former; and it is difficult to deny the continuity of “mind and matter," when every human being is relating himself to the outer world in all his thoughts and actions. And religion is the very last form of thought which could profit from such a proof of absolute distinctions, were it possible. In fact, as we have seen, religion, in so far as it demands a perfect and absolute being as the object of worship, is vitally concerned in maintaining the unity of the world. It must assume that matter, in its degree, reveals the same principle which, in a higher form, manifests itself in spirit.
But closer investigation will show that the real ground for such apprehension does not lie in the continuity of existence, which evolution implies; for religion itself postulates the same thing. The apprehension springs, rather, from the idea that the continuity asserted by evolution, is obtained by resolving the higher forms of existence into the lower. It is believed that, if the application of development to facts were successfully carried out, the organic would be shown to be nothing but complex inorganic forces, mental life nothing but a physiological process, and religion, morality, and art, nothing but products of the highly complex motion of highly complex aggregates of physical atoms.
It seems to me quite natural that science should be regarded as tending towards such a materialistic conclusion. This is the view which many scientific investigators have themselves taken of their work; and some of their philosophical exponents, notably Mr. Herbert Spencer, have, with more or less inconsistency, interpreted the idea of evolution in this manner. But, it may be well to bear in mind that science is generally far more successful in employing its constructive ideas, than it is in rendering an account of them. In fact, it is not its business to examine its categories: that task properly belongs to philosophy, and it is not a superfluous one. But, so long as the employment of the categories in the special province of a particular science yields valid results, scientific explorers and those who attach, and rightly attach, so much value to their discoveries, are very unwilling to believe that these categories are not valid universally. The warning voice of philosophy is not heeded, when it charges natural science with applying its conceptions to materials to which they are inadequate; and its examination of the categories of thought is regarded as an innocent, but also a useless, activity. For, it is argued, what good can arise from the analysis of our working ideas? The world looked for causes, and found them, when it was very young; but, up to the time of David Hume, no one had shown what causality meant, and the explanation which he offered is now rejected by modern science, as definitely as it is rejected by philosophy. Meantime, while philosophy is still engaged in exposing the fallacies of the theory of association as held by Hume, science has gone beyond this category altogether; it is now establishing a theory of the conservation of energy, which supplants the law of causality by tracing it into a deeper law of nature.
There is some force in this argument, but it cuts both ways. For, even if it be admitted that the category was successfully applied in the past, it is also admitted that it was applied without being understood; and it cannot now be questioned that the philosophers were right in rejecting it as the final explanation of the relation of objects to each other, and in pointing to other and higher connecting ideas. And this consideration should go some way towards convincing evolutionists that, though they may be able successfully to apply the idea of development to particular facts, this does not guarantee the soundness of their view of it as an instrument of thought, or of the nature of the final results which it is destined to achieve. Hence, without any disparagement to the new extension which science has received by the use of this new idea, it may be maintained that the ordinary view of its tendency and mission is erroneous.
“The prevailing method of explaining the world,” says Professor Caird, “may be described as an attempt to level ’downwards.’ The doctrine of development, interpreted as that idea usually is interpreted, supports this view, as making it necessary to trace back higher and more complex to lower or simpler forms of being; for the most obvious way of accomplishing this task is to show analytically that there is really nothing more in the former than in the latter."[A] “Divorced from matter,” asks Professor Tyndall, “where is life to be found? Whatever our faith may say our knowledge shows them to be indissolubly joined. Every meal we eat, and every cup we drink, illustrates the mysterious control of Mind by Matter. Trace the line of life backwards and see it approaching more and more to what we call the purely physical condition."[B] And then, rising to the height of his subject, or even above it, he proclaims, “By an intellectual necessity I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life."[C] A little further on, speaking in the name of science, and on behalf of his scientific fellow-workers (with what right is a little doubtful), he adds–"We claim, and we shall wrest, from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.” But if science is to control the knowable world, he generously leaves the remainder for religion. He will not deprive it of a faith in “a Power absolutely inscrutable to the intellect of man. As little in our days as in the days of Job can a man by searching find this Power out.” And, now that he has left this empty sphere of the unknown to religion, he feels justified in adding, “There is, you will observe, no very rank materialism here.”
[Footnote A: The Critical Philosophy of Kant, Vol. I. p. 34]
[Footnote B: Address to the British Association, 1874, p. 54.]
[Footnote C: Belfast Address, 1874.]
“Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out of the way, With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing to sway."[A]
[Footnote A: Clerk Maxwell: ’Notes of the President’s Address,“ British Association, 1874.]
Now these declarations of Mr. Tyndall are, to say the least, somewhat ambiguous and shadowy. Yet, when he informs us that eating and drinking “illustrate the control of mind by matter,” and “that the line of life traced backwards leads towards a purely physical condition,” it is a little difficult to avoid the conclusion that he regards science as destined.
“To tread the world Into a paste, and thereof make a smooth Uniform mound, whereon to plant its flag."[B]
[Footnote B: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
For the conclusion of the whole argument seems to be, that all we know as facts are mere forms of matter; although the stubborn refusal of consciousness to be resolved into natural force, and its power of constructing for itself a world of symbols, gives science no little trouble, and forces it to acknowledge complete ignorance of the nature of the power from which all comes.
“So roll things to the level which you love, That you could stand at ease there and survey The universal Nothing undisgraced By pert obtrusion of some old church-spire I’ the distance! “[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
Some writers on ethics and religion have adopted the same view of the goal of the idea of evolution. In consistency with this supposed tendency of science, to resolve all things into their simplest, and earliest forms, religion has been traced back to the superstition and ghost-worship of savages; and then it has been contended that it is, in essence, nothing more than superstition and ghost-worship. And, in like manner, morality, with its categorical imperative of duty, has been traced back, without a break, to the ignorant fear of the vengeance of a savage chief. A similar process in the same direction reduces the love divine, of which our poet speaks, into brute lust; somewhat sublimated, it is true, in its highest forms, but not fundamentally changed.
“Philosophers deduce you chastity Or shame, from just the fact that at the first Whoso embraced a woman in the field, Threw club down and forewent his brains beside; So, stood a ready victim in the reach Of any brother-savage, club in hand. Hence saw the use of going out of sight In wood or cave to prosecute his loves."[B]
[Footnote B: Bishop Blouhram’s Apology.]
And when the sacred things of life are treated in this manner–when moral conduct is showed to be evolved by a continuous process from “conduct in general,” the conduct of an “infusorium or a cephalopod,” or even of wind-mills or water-wheels, it is not surprising if the authority of the moral law seems to be undermined, and that “devout souls” are apprehensive of the results of science. “Does law so analyzed coerce you much?” asks Browning.
The derivation of spiritual from natural laws thus appears to be fatal to the former; and religious teachers naturally think that it is necessary for their cause to snap the links of the chain of evolution, and, like Professor Drummond, to establish absolute gaps, not only between the inorganic and the organic worlds, but also between the self-conscious life of man and the mysterious, spiritual life of Christ, or God. But it seems to me that, in their antagonism to evolution, religious teachers are showing the same incapacity to distinguish between their friends and their foes, which they previously manifested in their acceptance of the Kantian doctrine of “things in themselves,"–a doctrine which placed God and the soul beyond the power of speculative reason either to prove or disprove. It is, however, already recognized that the attempt of Mansel and Hamilton to degrade human reason for the behoof of faith was really a veiled agnosticism; and a little reflection must show that the idea of evolution, truly interpreted, in no wise threatens the degradation of man, or the overthrow of his spiritual interests. On the contrary, this idea is, in all the history of thought, the first constructive hypothesis which is adequate to the uses of ethics and religion. By means of it, we may hope to solve many of the problems arising from the nature of knowledge and moral conduct, which the lower category of cause turned into pure enigmas. It seems, indeed, to contain the promise of establishing the science of man, as intelligent, on a firm basis; on which we may raise a superstructure, comparable in strength and superior in worth, to that of the science of nature. And, even if the moral science must, like philosophy, always return to the beginning–must, that is, from the necessity of its nature, and not from any complete failure–it will still begin again at a higher level now that the idea of evolution is in the field.
It now remains to show in what way the idea of evolution leaves room for religion and morality; or, in other words, to show how, so far from degrading man to the level of the brute condition, and running life down into “purely physical conditions,” it contains the promise of establishing that idealistic view of the world, which is maintained by art and religion.
In order to show this, it is necessary that the idea of evolution should be used fearlessly, and applied to all facts that can in any way come under it. It must, in other words, be used as a category of thought, whose application is universal; so that, if it is valid at all as a theory, it is valid of all finite things. For the question we are dealing with is not the truth of the hypothesis of a particular science, but the truth of a hypothesis as to the relation of all objects in the world, including man himself. We must not be deterred from this universal application by the fact that we cannot, as yet, prove its truth in every detail. No scientific hypothesis ever has exhausted its details. I consider, therefore, that Mr. Tyndall had a complete right to “cross the boundary of the experimental evidence by an intellectual necessity"; for the necessity comes from the assumption of a possible explanation by the aid of the hypothesis. It is no argument against such a procedure to insist that, as yet, there is no proof of the absolute continuity of matter and physical life, or that the dead begets the living. The hypothesis is not disproved by the absence of evidence; it is only not proved. The connection may be there, although we have not, as yet, been able to find it. In the face of such difficulties as these, the scientific investigator has always a right to claim more time; and his attitude is impregnable as long as he remembers, as Mr. Tyndall did on the whole, that his hypothesis is a hypothesis.
But Mr. Tyndall has himself given up this right. He, like Mr. Huxley, has placed the phenomena of self-consciousness outside of the developing process, and confined the sphere in which evolution is applicable, to natural objects. Between objects and the subject, even when both subject and object are man himself, there lies “an impassable gulf.”
Even to try “to comprehend the connection between thought and thing is absurd, like the effort of a man trying to lift himself by his own waist-band.” Our states of self-consciousness are symbols only–symbols of an outside entity, whose real nature we can never know. We know only these states; we only infer “that anything answering to our impressions exists outside of ourselves.” And it is impossible to justify even that inference; for, if we can only know states of consciousness, we cannot say that they are symbols of anything, or that there is anything to be symbolized. The external world, on this theory, ceases to exist even as an unknown entity. In triumphantly pointing out that, in virtue of this psychological view, “There is, you will observe, no very rank materialism here,” Mr. Tyndall forgets that he has destroyed the basis of all natural science, and reduced evolution into a law of “an outside entity,” of which we can never know anything, and any inference regarding which violates every law of thought.
It seems to me quite plain that either this psychological theory, which Mr. Tyndall has mistaken for a philosophy, is invalid; or else it is useless to endeavour to propound any view regarding a “nature which is the phantom of the individual’s mind.” I prefer the science of Mr. Tyndall (and of Mr. Huxley, too) to his philosophy; and he would have escaped materialism more effectively, if he had remained faithful to his theory of evolution. It is a disloyalty, not only to science, but to thought, to cast away our categories when they seem to imply inconvenient consequences. They must be valid universally, if they are valid at all.
Mr. Tyndall contends that nature makes man, and he finds evidence in the fact that we eat and drink, “of the control of mind by matter.” Now, it seems to me, that if nature makes man, then nature makes man’s thoughts also. His sensations, feelings, ideas, notions, being those of a naturally-evolved agent, are revelations of the potency of the primal matter, just as truly as are the buds, flowers, and fruits of a tree. No doubt, we cannot as yet “comprehend the connection” between nervous action and sensation, any more than we can comprehend the connection between inorganic and organic existence. But, if the absence of “experimental evidence” does not disprove the hypothesis in the one case, it can not disprove it in the other. There are two crucial points in which the theory has not been established.
But, in both cases alike, there is the same kind of evidence that the connection exists; although in neither case can we, as yet, discover what it is. Plants live by changing inorganic elements into organic structure; and man is intelligent only in so far as he crosses over the boundary between subject and object, and knows the world without him. There is no “impassable gulf separating the subject and object"; if there were we could not know anything of either. There are not two worlds–the one of thoughts, the other of things–which are absolutely exclusive of each other, but one universe in which thought and reality meet. Mr. Tyndall thinks that it is an inference (and an inference over an impassable gulf!) that anything answering to our impressions exists outside ourselves. “The question of the external world is the great battleground of metaphysics,” he quotes approvingly from Mr. J.S. Mill. But the question of the external world is not whether that world exists; it is, how are we to account for our knowledge that it does exist. The inference is not from thoughts to things, nor from things to thoughts, but from a partially known world to a systematic theory of that world. Philosophy is not engaged on the foolish enterprise of trying to discover whether the world exists, or whether we know that it exists; its problem is how to account for our knowledge. It asks what must the nature of things be, seeing that they are known; and what is the nature of thought, seeing that it knows facts?
There is no hope whatsoever for ethics, or religion, or philosophy–no hope even for science–in a theory which would apply evolution all the way up from inorganic matter to life, but which would postulate an absolute break at consciousness. The connection between thought and things is there to begin with, whether we can account for it or not; if it were not, then natural science would be impossible. It would be palpably irrational even to try to find out the nature of things by thinking. The only science would be psychology, and even that would be the science of “symbols of an unknown entity.” What symbols of an unknown can signify, or how an unknown can produce symbols of itself across an impassable gulf–Mr. Spencer, Mr. Huxley, and Mr. Tyndall have yet to inform us.
It is the more necessary to insist on this, because the division between thought and matter, which is admitted by these writers, is often grasped at by their opponents, as a means of warding off the results which they draw from the theory of evolution. When science breaks its sword, religion assails it, with the fragment. It is not at once evident that if this chasm were shown to exist, knowledge would be a chimera; for there would be no outer world at all, not even a phenomenal one, to supply an object for it. We must postulate the ultimate unity of all beings with each other and with the mind that knows them, just because we are intellectual and moral beings; and to destroy this unity is to “kill reason itself, as it were, in the eye,” as Milton said.
Now, evolution not only postulates unity, or the unbroken continuity of all existence, but it also negates all differences, except those which are expressions of that unity. It is not the mere assertion of a substratum under qualities; but it implies that the substratum penetrates into the qualities, and manifests itself in them. That which develops–be it plant, child, or biological kingdom–is, at every stage from lowest to highest, a concrete unity of all its differences; and in the whole history of its process its actual content is always the same. The environment of the plant evokes that content, but it adds nothing to it. No addition of anything absolutely new, no external aggregation, no insertion of anything alien into a growing thing, is possible. What it is now, it was in the beginning; and what it will be, it is now. Granting the hypothesis of evolution, there can be no quarrel with the view that the crude beginnings of things, matter in its most nebulous state, contains potentially all the rich variety of both natural and spiritual life.
But this continuity of all existence may be interpreted in two very different ways. It may lead us either to radically change our notions of mind and its activities, or “to radically change our notions of matter." We may take as the principle of explanation, either the beginning, or the end of the process of development. We may say of the simple and crass, “There is all that your rich universe really means"; or we may say of the spiritual activities of man, “This is what your crude beginning really was.” We may explain the complex by the simple, or the simple by the complex. We may analyze the highest back into the lowest, or we may follow the lowest, by a process of synthesis, up to the highest.
And one of the most important of all questions for morality and religion is the question, which of these two methods is valid. If out of crass matter is evolved all animal and spiritual life, does that prove life to be nothing but matter; or does it not rather show that what we, in our ignorance, took to be mere matter was really something much greater? If “crass matter” contains all this promise and potency, by what right do we still call it “crass”? It is manifestly impossible to treat the potencies, assumed to lie in a thing that grows, as if they were of no significance; first, to assert that such potencies exist, in saying that the object develops; and then, to neglect them, and to regard the effect as constituted merely of its simplest elements. Either these potencies are not in the object, or else the object has in it, and is, at the first, more than it appears to be. Either the object does not grow, or the lowest stage of its being is no explanation of its true nature.
If we wish to know what the forms of natural life mean, we look in vain to their primary state. We must watch the evolution and revelation of the secret hid in natural life, as it moves through the ascending cycles of the biological kingdom. The idea of evolution, when it is not muddled, is synthetic–not analytic; it explains the simplest in the light of the complex, the beginning in the light of the end, and not vice versa. In a word, it follows the ways of nature, the footsteps of fact, instead of inventing a wilful backward path of its own. And nature explains by gradually expanding. If we hearken to nature, and not to the voice of illusory preconceptions, we shall hear her proclaim at the last stage, “Here is the meaning of the seedling. Now it is clear what it really was; for the power which lay dormant has pushed itself into light, through bud and flower and leaf and fruit.” The reality of a growing thing is its highest form of being. The last explains the first, but not the first the last. The first is abstract, incomplete, not yet actual, but mere potency; and we could never know even the potency, except in the light of its own actualization.
From this correction of the abstract view of development momentous consequences follow. If the universe is, as science pronounces, an organic totality, which is ever converting its promise and potency into actuality, then we must add that the ultimate interpretation even of the lowest existence in the world cannot be given except on principles which are adequate to explain the highest. We must “level up and not level down”: we must not only deny that matter can explain spirit, but we must say that even matter itself cannot be fully understood, except as an element in a spiritual world."[A]
[Footnote A: Professor Caird, The Critical Philosophy of Kant, p. 35.]
That the idea of evolution, even when applied in this consistent way, has difficulties of its own, it is scarcely necessary to say. But there is nothing in it which imperils the ethical and religious interests of humanity, or tends to reduce man into a natural phenomenon. Instead of degrading man, it lifts nature into a manifestation of spirit. If it were established, if every link of the endless chain were discovered and the continuity of existence were irrefragably proved, science would not overthrow idealism, but it would rather vindicate it. It would justify in detail the attempt of poetry and religion and philosophy, to interpret all being as the “transparent vesture” of reason, or love, or whatever other power in the world is regarded as highest.
I have now arrived at the conclusion that was sought. I have tried to show, not only that the attempt to interpret nature in terms of man is not a superstitious anthropomorphism, but that such an interpretation is implied in all rational thought. In other words, self-consciousness is the key to all the problems of nature. Science, in its progress, is gradually substituting one category for the other, and every one of these categories is at once a law of thought and a law of things as known. Each category, successively adopted, lifts nature more to the level of man; and the last category of modern thought, namely, development, constrains us so to modify our views of nature, as to regard it as finally explicable only in the terms of spirit. Thus, the movement of science is towards idealism. Instead of lowering man, it elevates nature into a potency of that which is highest and best in man. It represents the life of man, in the language of philosophy, as the return of the highest to itself; or in the language of our poet, and of religion, as a manifestation of infinite love. The explanation of nature from the principle of love, if it errs, errs “because it is not anthropomorphic enough,” not because it is too anthropomorphic; it is not too high and concrete a principle, but too low and abstract.
It now remains to show that the poet, in employing the idea of evolution, was aware of its upward direction. I have already quoted a few passages which indicate that he had detected the false use of it. I shall now quote a few others in which he shows a consciousness of its true meaning:
“’Will you have why and wherefore, and the fact Made plain as pike-staff?’ modern Science asks. ’That mass man sprung from was a jelly-lump Once on a time; he kept an after course Through fish and insect, reptile, bird and beast, Till he attained to be an ape at last, Or last but one. And if this doctrine shock In aught the natural pride.’"[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
“Not at all,” the poet interrupts the man of science: “Friend, banish fear!”
“I like the thought He should have lodged me once I’ the hole, the cave, the hut, the tenement, The mansion and the palace; made me learn The feel o’ the first, before I found myself Loftier i’ the last."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
This way upward from the lowest stage through every other to the highest, that is, the way of development, so far from lowering us to the brute level, is the only way for us to attain to the true highest, namely, the all-complete.
“But grant me time, give me the management And manufacture of a model me, Me fifty-fold, a prince without a flaw,– Why, there’s no social grade, the sordidest, My embryo potentate should brink and scape. King, all the better he was cobbler once, He should know, sitting on the throne, how tastes Life to who sweeps the doorway."[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
But then, unfortunately, we have no time to make our kings in this way,
“You cut probation short, And, being half-instructed, on the stage You shuffle through your part as best you can."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
God, however, “takes time.” He makes man pass his apprenticeship in all the forms of being. Nor does the poet
“Refuse to follow farther yet I’ the backwardness, repine if tree and flower, Mountain or streamlet were my dwelling-place Before I gained enlargement, grew mollusc."[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid.]
It is, indeed, only on the supposition of having been thus evolved from inanimate being that he is able to account
“For many a thrill Of kinship, I confess to, with the powers Called Nature: animate, inanimate, In parts or in the whole, there’s something there Man-like that somehow meets the man in me."[D]
[Footnote D: Ibid.]
These passages make it clear that the poet recognized that the idea of development “levels up,” and that he makes an intelligent, and not a perverted and abstract use of this instrument of thought. He sees each higher stage carrying within it the lower, the present storing up the past; he recognizes that the process is a self-enriching one. He knows it to be no degradation of the higher that it has been in the lower; for he distinguishes between that life, which is continuous amidst the fleeting forms, and the temporary tenements, which it makes use of during the process of ascending.
“From first to last of lodging, I was I, And not at all the place that harboured me."[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
When nature is thus looked upon from the point of view of its final attainment, in the light of the self-consciousness into which it ultimately breaks, a new dignity is added to every preceding phase. The lowest ceases to be lowest, except in the sense that its promise is not fulfilled and its potency not actualized; for, throughout the whole process, the activity streams from the highest. It is that which is about to be which guides the growing thing and gives it unity. The final cause is the efficient cause; the distant purpose is the ever-present energy; the last is always first.
Nor does the poet shrink from calling this highest, this last which is also first, by its highest name,–God.
“He dwells in all, From, life’s minute beginnings, up at last To man–the consummation of this scheme Of being, the completion of this sphere Of life."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
“All tended to mankind,” he said, after reviewing the whole process of nature in Paracelsus,
“And, man produced, all has its end thus far: But in completed man begins anew A tendency to God."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
There is nowhere a break in the continuity. God is at the beginning, His rapturous presence is seen in all the processes of nature, His power and knowledge and love work in the mind of man, and all history is His revelation of Himself.
The gap which yawns for ordinary thought between animate and inanimate, between nature and spirit, between man and God, does not baffle the poet. At the stage of human life, which is “the grand result” of nature’s blind process,
“A supplementary reflux of light, Illustrates all the inferior grades, explains Each back step in the circle."[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid.]
Nature is retracted into thought, built again in mind.
“Man, once descried, imprints for ever His presence on all lifeless things."[D]
[Footnote D: Ibid.]
The self-consciousness of man is the point where “all the scattered rays meet"; and “the dim fragments,” the otherwise meaningless manifold, the dispersed activities of nature, are lifted into a kosmos by the activity of intelligence. In its light, the forces of nature are found to be, not blind nor purposeless, but “hints and previsions”
“Strewn confusedly everywhere about The inferior natures, and all lead up higher, All shape out dimly the superior race, The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false, And man appears at last."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
In this way, and in strict accordance with the principle of evolution, the poet turns back at each higher stage to re-illumine in a broader light what went before,–just as we know the seedling after it is grown; just as, with every advance in life, we interpret the past anew, and turn the mixed ore of action into pure metal by the reflection which draws the false from the true.
“Youth ended, I shall try My gain or loss thereby; Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold: And I shall weigh the same, Give life its praise or blame: Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old."[B]
[Footnote B: Rabbi Ben Ezra.]
As youth attains its meaning in age, so does the unconscious process of nature come to its meaning in man And old age,
“Still within this life Though lifted o’er its strife,”
is able to
“Discern, compare, pronounce at last, This rage was right i’ the main, That acquiescence vain";[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid.]
so man is able to penetrate beneath the apparently chaotic play of phenomena, and find in them law, and beauty, and goodness. The laws which he finds by thought are not his inventions, but his discoveries. The harmonies are in the organ, if the artist only knows how to elicit them. Nay, the connection is still more intimate. It is in the thought of man that silent nature finds its voice; it blooms into “meaning," significance, thought, in him, as the plant shows its beauty in the flower. Nature is making towards humanity, and in humanity it finds itself.
“Striving to be man, the worm Mounts through all the spires of form."[A]
[Footnote A: Emerson.]
The geologist, physicist, chemist, by discovering the laws of nature, do not bind unconnected phenomena; but they refute the hasty conclusion of sensuous thought, that the phenomena ever were unconnected. Men of science do not introduce order into chance and chaos, but show that there never was chance or chaos. The poet does not make the world beautiful, but finds the beauty that is dwelling there. Without him, indeed, the beauty would not be, any more than the life of the tree is beautiful until it has evolved its potencies into the outward form. Nevertheless, he is the expression of what was before, and the beauty was there in potency, awaiting its expression. “Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture,” said Emerson.
“The winds Are henceforth voices, wailing or a shout, A querulous mutter, or a quick gay laugh, Never a senseless gust now man is born. The herded pines commune and have deep thoughts, A secret they assemble to discuss When the sun drops behind their trunks.
“The morn has enterprise, deep quiet droops With evening, triumph takes the sunset hour, Voluptuous transport ripens with the corn Beneath a warm moon like a happy face."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
Such is the transmuting power of imagination, that there is “nothing but doth suffer change into something rich and strange"; and yet the imagination, when loyal to itself, only sees more deeply into the truth of things, and gets a closer and fuller hold of facts.
But, although the human mind thus heals the breach between nature and spirit, and discovers the latter in the former, still it is not in this way that Browning finally establishes his idealism. For him, the principle working in all things is not reason, but love. It is from love that all being first flowed; into it all returns through man; and in all “the wide compass which is fetched,” through the infinite variety of forms of being, love is the permanent element and the true essence. Nature is on its way back to God, gathering treasure as it goes. The static view is not true to facts; it is development that for the poet explains the nature of things; and development is the evolution of love. Love is for Browning the highest, richest conception man can form. It is our idea of that which is perfect; we cannot even imagine anything better. And the idea of evolution necessarily explains the world as the return of the highest to itself. The universe is homeward bound.
Now, whether love is the highest principle or not, I shall not inquire at present. My task in this chapter has been to try to show that the idea of evolution drives us onward towards some highest conception, and then uses that conception as a principle to explain all things. If man is veritably higher as a physical organism than the bird or reptile, then biology, if it proceeds according to the principles of evolution, must seek the meaning of the latter in the former, and make the whole kingdom of life a process towards man. “Man is no upstart in the creation. His limbs are only a more exquisite organization–say rather the finish–of the rudimental forms that have already been sweeping the sea and creeping in the mud.” And the same way of thought applies to man as a spiritual agent. If spirit be higher than matter, and if love be spirit at its best, then the principle of evolution leaves no option to the scientific thinker, but to regard all things as potentially spirit, and all the phenomena of the world as manifestations of love. Evolution necessarily combines all the objects to which it is applied into a unity. It knits all the infinite forms of natural life into an organism of organisms, so that it is a universal life which really lives in all animate beings. “Each animal or vegetable form remembers the next inferior and predicts the next higher. There is one animal, one plant, one matter, and one force.” In its still wider application by poetry and philosophy, the idea of evolution gathers all being into one self-centred totality, and makes all finite existence a movement within, and a movement of, that final perfection which, although last in order of time, is first in order of potency,–the prius of all things, the active energy in all things, and the reality of all things. It is the doctrine of the immanence of God; and it reveals “the effort of God, of the supreme intellect, in the extreme frontier of His universe.”
In pronouncing, as Browning frequently does, that “after last comes first” and “what God once blessed cannot prove accursed"; in the boldness of the faith whereby he makes all the inferior grades of being into embodiments of the supreme good; in resolving the evils of human life, the sorrow, strife, and sin of man into means of man’s promotion, he is only applying, in a thorough manner, the principle on which all modern speculation rests. His conclusions may shock common-sense; and they may seem to stultify not only our observation of facts, but the testimony of our moral consciousness. But I do not know of any principle of speculation which, when elevated into a universal principle of thought, will not do the same; and this is why the greatest poets and philosophers seem to be touched with a divine madness. Still, if this be madness, there is a method in it. We cannot escape from its logic, except by denying the idea of evolution–the hypothesis by means of which modern thought aims, and in the main successfully aims, at reducing the variety of existence, and the chaos of ordinary experience, into an order-ruled world and a kosmos of articulated knowledge.
The new idea of evolution differs from that of universal causation, to which even the ignorance of our own day has learnt to submit, in this mainly–it does not leave things on the level on which it finds them. Both cause and evolution assert the unity of being, which, indeed, every one must assume–even sceptics and pessimists; but development represents that unity as self-enriching; so that its true nature is revealed, only in the highest form of existence which man can conceive. The attempt of poets and philosophers to establish a universal synthesis by means of evolution, differs from the work which is done by men of science, only in the extent of its range and the breadth of its results. It is not “idealism,” but the scepticism which, in our day, conceals its real nature under the name of dualism or agnosticism, that is at war with the inner spirit of science. “Not only,” we may say of Browning as it was said of Emerson by Professor Tyndall, “is his religious sense entirely undaunted by the discoveries of science; but all such discoveries he comprehends and assimilates. By him scientific conceptions are continually transmuted into the finer forms and warmer hues of an ideal world.” And this he does without any distortion of the truth. For natural science, to one who understands its main tendency, does not militate against philosophy, art, and religion; nor threaten to overturn a metaphysic whose principle is truth, or beauty, or goodness. Rather, it is gradually eliminating the discord of fragmentary existence, and making the harmony of the world more and more audible to mankind. It is progressively proving that the unity, of which we are all obscurely conscious from the first, actually holds in the whole region of its survey. The idea of evolution is reconciling science with art and religion, in an idealistic conception of the universe.