Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones

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Chapter VIII. Browning’s Solution of the Problem of Evil.

    “Let him, therefore, who would arrive at knowledge of
    nature, train his moral sense, let him act and conceive in
    accordance with the noble essence of his soul; and, as if
    of herself, nature will become open to him. Moral action
    is that great and only experiment, in which all riddles of
    the most manifold appearances explain themselves."[A]

[Footnote A: Novalis.]

In the last chapter, I tried to set forth some considerations that justify the attempt to interpret the world by a spiritual principle. The conception of development, which modern science and philosophy assume as a starting-point for their investigation, was shown to imply that the lowest forms of existence can be explained, only as stages in the self-realization of that which is highest. This idea “levels upwards," and points to self-consciousness as the ultimate truth of all things. In other words, it involves that all interpretation of the world is anthropomorphic, in the sense that what constitutes thought constitutes things, and, therefore, that the key to nature is man.

In propounding this theory of love, and establishing an idealism, Browning is in agreement with the latest achievement of modern thought. For, if the principle of evolution be granted, love is a far more adequate hypothesis for the explanation of the nature of things, than any purely physical principle. Nay, science itself, in so far as it presupposes evolution, tends towards an idealism of this type. Whether love be the best expression for that highest principle, which is conceived as the truth of being, and whether Browning’s treatment of it is consistent and valid, I do not as yet inquire. Before attempting that task, it must be seen to what extent, and in what way, he applies the hypothesis of universal love to the particular facts of life. For the present, I take it as admitted that the hypothesis is legitimate, as an hypothesis; it remains to ask, with what success, if any, we may hope, by its means, to solve the contradictions of life, and to gather its conflicting phenomena into the unity of an intelligible system. This task cannot be accomplished within our limits, except in a very partial manner. I can attempt to meet only a few of the more evident and pressing difficulties that present themselves, and I can do that only in a very general way.

The first of these difficulties, or, rather, the main difficulty from which all others spring, is that the hypothesis of universal love is incompatible with the existence of any kind of evil, whether natural or moral. Of this, Browning was well aware. He knew that he had brought upon himself the hard task of showing that pain, weakness, ignorance, failure, doubt, death, misery, and vice, in all their complex forms, can find their legitimate place in a scheme of love. And there is nothing more admirable in his attitude, or more inspiring in his teaching, than the manly frankness with which he endeavours to confront the manifold miseries of human life, and to constrain them to yield, as their ultimate meaning and reality, some spark of good.

But, as we have seen, there is a portion of this task in the discharge of which Browning is drawn beyond the strict limits of art. Neither the magnificent boldness of his religious faith, nor the penetration of his artistic insight, although they enabled him to deal successfully with the worst samples of human evil, as in The Ring and the Book, could dissipate the gloom which reflection gathers around the general problem. Art cannot answer the questions of philosophy. The difficulties that critical reason raises reason alone can lay. Nevertheless, the poet was forced by his reflective impulse, to meet that problem in the form in which it presents itself in the region of metaphysics. He was conscious of the presuppositions within which his art worked, and he sought to justify them. Into this region we must now follow him, so as to examine his theory of life, not merely as it is implied in the concrete creations of his art, but as it is expressed in those later poems, in which he attempts to deal directly with the speculative difficulties that crowd around the conception of evil.

To the critic of a philosophy, there is hardly more than one task of supreme importance. It is that of determining the precise point from which the theory he examines takes its departure; for, when the central conception is clearly grasped, it will be generally found that it rules all the rest. The superstructure of philosophic edifices is usually put together in a sufficiently solid manner–it is the foundation that gives way. Hence Hegel, who, whatever may be thought of his own theory, was certainly the most profound critic of philosophy since Aristotle, generally concentrates his attack on the preliminary hypothesis. He brings down the erroneous system by removing its foundation-stone. His criticism of Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling may almost be said to be gathered into a single sentence.

Browning has made no secret of his central conception. It is the idea of an immanent or “immundate” love. And that love, we have shown, is conceived by him as the supreme moral motive, the ultimate essence and end of all self-conscious activity, the veritable nature of both man and God.

  “Denn das Leben ist die Liebe,
  Und des Lebens Leben Geist.”

His philosophy of human life rests on the idea that it is the realization of a moral purpose, which is a loving purpose. To him there is no supreme good, except good character; and the foundation of that character by man and in man is the ultimate purpose, and, therefore, the true meaning of all existence.

            “I search but cannot see
  What purpose serves the soul that strives, or world it tries
  Conclusions with, unless the fruit of victories
  Stay, one and all, stored up and guaranteed its own
  For ever, by some mode whereby shall be made known
  The gain of every life. Death reads the title clear–
  What each soul for itself conquered from out things here:
  Since, in the seeing soul, all worth lies, I assert."[A]

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

In this passage, Browning gives expression to an idea which continually reappears in his pages–that human life, in its essence, is movement to moral goodness through opposition. His fundamental conception of the human spirit is that it is a process, and not a fixed fact. “Man,” he says, “was made to grow not stop.”

  “Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
  Because he lives, which is to be a man,
  Set to instruct himself by his past self."[B]

[Footnote B: A Death in the Desert.]

             “By such confession straight he falls
  Into man’s place, a thing nor God nor beast,
  Made to know that he can know and not more:
  Lower than God who knows all and can all,
  Higher than beasts which know and can so far
  As each beast’s limit, perfect to an end,
  Nor conscious that they know, nor craving more;
  While man knows partly but conceives beside,
  Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
  And in this striving, this converting air
  Into a solid he may grasp and use,
  Finds progress, man’s distinctive mark alone,
  Not God’s and not the beasts’: God is, they are,
  Man partly is and wholly hopes to be."[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

It were easy to multiply passages which show that his ultimate deliverance regarding man is, not that he is, nor that he is not, but that he is ever becoming. Man is ever at the point of contradiction between the actual and ideal, and moving from the latter to the former. Strife constitutes him. He is a war of elements; “hurled from change to change unceasingly.” But rest is death; for it is the cessation of the spiritual activity, whose essence is acquirement, not mere possession, whether in knowledge or in goodness.

            “Man must pass from old to new,
  From vain to real, from mistake to fact,
  From what once seemed good, to what now proves best."[A]

[Footnote A: A Death in the Desert.]

Were the movement to stop, and the contradiction between the actual and ideal reconciled, man would leave man’s estate, and pass under “angel’s law.”

  “Indulging every instinct of the soul
  There, where law, life, joy, impulse are one thing."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

But as long as he is man, he has

“Somewhat to cast off, somewhat to become.”

In Paracelsus, Fifine at the Fair, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, and many of his other poems, Browning deals with the problem of human life from the point of view of development. And it is this point of view, consistently held, which enables him to throw a new light on the whole subject of ethics. For, if man be veritably a being in process of evolution, if he be a permanent that always changes from earliest childhood to old age, if he be a living thing, a potency in process of actualization, then no fixed distinctions made with reference to him can be true. If, for instance, it be asked whether man is rational or irrational, free or bound, good or evil, God or brute, the true answer, if he is veritably a being moving from ignorance to knowledge, from wickedness to virtue, from bondage to freedom, is, that he is at once neither of these alternatives and both. All hard terms of division, when applied to a subject which grows, are untrue. If the life of man is a self-enriching process, if he is becoming good, and rational, and free, then at no point in the movement is it possible to pass fixed and definite judgments upon him. He must be estimated by his direction and momentum, by the whence and whither of his life. There is a sense in which man is from the first and always good, rational and free; for it is only by the exercise of reason and freedom that he exists as man. But there is also a sense in which he is none of these; for he is at the first only a potency not yet actualized. He is not rational, but becoming rational; not good, but becoming good; not free, but aspiring towards freedom. It is his prayer that “in His light, he may see light truly, and in His service find perfect freedom.”

In this frank assumption of the point of view of development. Browning suggests the question whether the endless debate regarding freedom, and necessity, and other moral terms, may not spring from the fact, that both of the opposing schools of ethics are fundamentally unfaithful to the subject of their inquiry. They are treating a developing reality from an abstract point of view, and taking for granted,–what cannot be true of man, if he grows in intellectual power and moral goodness–that he is either good or evil, either rational or irrational, eitherfree or bond, at every moment in the process. They are treating man from a static, instead of from a kinetic point of view, and forgetting that it is his business to acquire the moral and intellectual freedom, which he has potentially from the first–

            “Some fitter way express
  Heart’s satisfaction that the Past indeed
  Is past, gives way before Life’s best and last,
  The all-including Future!"[A]

[Footnote A: Gerard de Lairesse.]

But, whether or not the new point of view renders some of the old disputations of ethics meaningless, it is certain that Browning viewed moral life as a growth through conflict.

            “What were life
  Did soul stand still therein, forego her strife
  Through the ambiguous Present to the goal
  Of some all-reconciling Future?"[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

To become, to develop, to actualize by reaction against the natural and moral environment, is the meaning both of the self and of the world it works upon. “We are here to learn the good of peace through strife, of love through hate, and reach knowledge by ignorance.”

Now, since the conception of development is a self-contradictory one, or, in other words, since it necessarily implies the conflict of the ideal and actual in all life, and in every instant of its history, it remains for us to determine more fully what are the warring elements in human nature. What is the nature of this life of man, which, like all life, is self-evolving; and by conflict with what does the evolution take place? What is the ideal which condemns the actual, and yet realizes itself by means of it; and what is the actual which wars against the ideal, and yet contains it in potency, and reaches towards it? That human life is conceived by Browning as a moral life, and not a more refined and complex form of the natural life of plants and animals–a view which finds its exponents in Herbert Spencer, and other so-called evolutionists–it is scarcely necessary to assert. It is a life which determines itself, and determines itself according to an idea of goodness. That idea, moreover, because it is a moral ideal, must be regarded as the conception of perfect and absolute goodness. Through the moral end, man is ideally identified with God, who, indeed, is necessarily conceived as man’s moral ideal regarded as already and eternally real. “God” and the “moral ideal” are, in truth, expressions of the same idea; they convey the conception of perfect goodness from different standpoints. And perfect goodness is, to Browning, limitless love. Pleasure, wisdom, power, and even the beauty which art discovers and reveals, together with every other inner quality and outer state of being, have only relative worth. “There is nothing either in the world or out of it which is unconditionally good, except a good will,” said Kant; and a good will, according to Browning, is a will that wills lovingly. From love all other goodness is derived. There is earnest meaning, and not mere sentiment, in the poet’s assertion that

  “There is no good of life but love–but love!
  What else looks good, is some shade flung from love.
  Love gilds it, gives it worth. Be warned by me,
  Never you cheat yourself one instant! Love,
  Give love, ask only love, and leave the rest!"[A]

[Footnote A: In a Balcony.]

“Let man’s life be true,” he adds, “and love’s the truth of mine.” To attain this truth, that is, to constitute love into the inmost law of his being, and permanent source of all his activities, is the task of man. And Browning defines that love as

            “Yearning to dispense,
  Each one its own amount of gain thro’ its own mode
  Of practising with life.”

There is no need of illustrating further the doctrine, so evident in Browning, that “love” is the ideal which in man’s life makes through conflict for its own fulfilment. From what has been already said, it is abundantly plain that love is to him a divine element, which is at war with all that is lower in man and around him, and which by reaction against circumstance converts its own mere promise into fruition and fact. Through love man’s nature reaches down to the permanent essence, amid the fleeting phenomena of the world, and is at one with what is first and last. As loving he ranks with God. No words are too strong to represent the intimacy of the relation. For, however limited in range and tainted with alien qualities human love may be, it is still “a pin-point rock of His boundless continent.” It is not a semblance of the divine nature, an analogon, or verisimilitude, but the love of God himself in man: so that man is in this sense an incarnation of the divine. The Godhood in him constitutes him, so that he cannot become himself, or attain his own ideal or true nature, except by becoming perfect as God is perfect.

But the emphasis thus laid on the divine worth and dignity of human love is balanced by the stress which the poet places on the frailty and finitude of every other human attribute. Having elevated the ideal, he degrades the actual. Knowledge and the intellectual energy which produces it; art and the love of beauty from which it springs: every power and every gift, physical and spiritual, other than love, has in it the fatal flaw of being merely human. All these are so tainted with creatureship, so limited and conditioned, that it is hardly too much to say that they are, at their best, deceptive endowments. Thus, the life of man regarded as a whole is, in its last essence, a combination of utterly disparate elements. The distinction of the old moralists between divinity and dust; the absolute dualism of the old ascetics between flesh and spirit, sense and reason, find their accurate parallel in Browning’s teachings. But he is himself no ascetic, and the line of distinction he draws does not, like theirs, pass between the flesh and the spirit. It rather cleaves man’s spiritual nature into two portions, which are absolutely different from each other. A chasm divides the head from the heart, the intellect from the emotions, the moral and practical from the perceptive and reflective faculties. And it is this absolute cleavage that gives to Browning’s teaching, both on ethics and religion, one of its most peculiar characteristics. By keeping it constantly in sight, we may hope to render intelligible to ourselves the solution he offers of the problem of evil, and of other fundamental difficulties of the life of man. For, while Browning’s optimism has its original source in his conception of the unity of God and man, through the Godlike quality of love–even “the poorest love that was ever offered"–he finds himself unable to maintain it, except at the expense of degrading man’s knowledge. Thus, his optimism and faith in God is finally based upon ignorance. If, on the side of love, he insists, almost in the spirit of a Spinozist, on God’s communication of His own substance to man; on the side of knowledge he may be called an agnostic, in spite of stray expressions which break through his deliberate theory. While “love gains God at first leap,”

            “Knowledge means
  Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
  That victory is somehow still to reach."[A]

[Footnote A: A Pillar at Sebzevar.]

A radical flaw runs through our knowing faculty. Human knowledge is not only incomplete–no one can be so foolish as to deny that–but it is, as regarded by Browning, essentially inadequate to the nature of fact, and we must “distrust it, even when it seems demonstrable.” No professed agnostic can condemn the human intellect more utterly than he does. He pushes the limitedness of human knowledge into a disqualification of it to reach truth at all; and makes the conditions according to which we know, or seem to know, into a deceiving necessity, which makes us know wrongly.

            “To know of, think about,–
  Is all man’s sum of faculty effects
  When exercised on earth’s least atom, Son!
  What was, what is, what may such atom be?
  No answer!"[B]

[Footnote B: A Bean-Stripe.]

Thought plays around facts, but never reaches them. Mind intervenes between itself and its objects, and throws its own shadow upon them; nor can it penetrate through that shadow, but deals with it as if it were reality, though it knows all the time that it is not.

This theory of knowledge, or rather of nescience or no-knowledge, he gives in La Saisiaz, Ferishtah’s Fancies, The Parleyings, and Asolando–in all his later and more reflective poems, in fact. It must, I think, be held to be his deliberate and final view–and all the more so, because, by a peculiar process, he gets from it his defence of his ethical and religious faith.

In the first of these poems, Browning, while discussing the problem of immortality in a purely speculative spirit, and without stipulating, “Provided answer suits my hopes, not fears,” gives a tolerably full account of that which must be regarded as the principles of his theory of knowledge. Its importance to his ethical doctrine justifies a somewhat exhaustive examination of it.

He finds himself to be “a midway point, between a cause before and an effect behind–both blanks.” Within that narrow space, of the self hemmed in by two unknowns, all experience is crammed. Out of that experience crowds all that he knows, and all that he misknows. There issues from experience–

            “Conjecture manifold,
  But, as knowledge, this comes only–things may be as I behold,
  Or may not be, but, without me and above me, things there are;
  I myself am what I know not–ignorance which proves no bar
  To the knowledge that I am, and, since I am, can recognize
  What to me is pain and pleasure: this is sure, the rest–surmise.
  If my fellows are or are not, what may please them and what pain,–
  Mere surmise: my own experience–that is knowledge once again."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

Experience, then, within which he (and every one else) acknowledges that all his knowledge is confined, yields him as certain facts–the consciousness that he is, but not what he is: the consciousness that he is pleased or pained by things about him, whose real nature is entirely hidden from him: and, as he tells us just before, the assurance that God is the thing the self perceives outside itself,

                  “A force
  Actual e’er its own beginning, operative thro’ its course,
  Unaffected by its end."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

But, even this knowledge, limited as it is to the bare existence of unknown entities, has the further defect of being merely subjective. The “experience” from which he draws his conclusions, is his own in an exclusive sense. His “thinking thing” has, apparently, no elements in common with the “thinking things” of other selves. He ignores the fact that there may be general laws of thought, according to which his mind must act in order to be a mind. Intelligence seems to have no nature, and may be anything. All questions regarding “those apparent other mortals” are consequently unanswerable to the poet. “Knowledge stands on my experience"; and this “my” is totally unrelated to all other Mes.

            “All outside its narrow hem,
  Free surmise may sport and welcome! Pleasures, pains affect mankind
  Just as they affect myself? Why, here’s my neighbour colour-blind,
  Eyes like mine to all appearance: ’green as grass’ do I affirm?
  ’Red as grass’ he contradicts me: which employs the proper term?"[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

If there were only they two on earth as tenants, there would be no way of deciding between them; for, according to his argument, the truth is apparently decided by majority of opinions. Each individual, equipped with his own particular kind of senses and reason, gets his own particular experience, and draws his own particular conclusions from it. If it be asked whether these conclusions are true or not, the only answer is that the question is absurd; for, under such conditions, there cannot be either truth or error. Every one’s opinion is its own criterion. Each man is the measure of all things; “His own world for every mortal,” as the poet puts it.

  “To each mortal peradventure earth becomes a new machine,
  Pain and pleasure no more tally in our sense than red and green."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

The first result of this subjective view of knowledge is clearly enough seen by the poet. He is well aware that his convictions regarding the high matters of human destiny are valid only for himself.

            “Only for myself I speak,
  Nowise dare to play the spokesman for my brothers strong and weak."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

Experience, as he interprets it, that is, present consciousness, “this moment’s me and mine,” is too narrow a basis for any universal or objective conclusion. So far as his own inner experience of pain and pleasure goes,

  “All–for myself–seems ordered wise and well
  Inside it,–what reigns outside, who can tell?"[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

But as to the actual world, he can have no opinion, nor, from the good and evil that apparently play around him, can he deduce either

  “Praise or blame of its contriver, shown a niggard or profuse
  In each good or evil issue."[B]

[Footnote B: La Saisiaz.]

The moral government of the world is a subject, regarding which we are doomed to absolute ignorance. A theory that it is ruled by the “prince of the power of the air” has just as much, and just as little, validity as the more ordinary view held by religious people. Who needs be told

            “The space
  Which yields thee knowledge–do its bounds embrace
  Well-willing and wise-working, each at height?
  Enough: beyond thee lies the infinite–
  Back to thy circumscription!"[C]

[Footnote C: Francis Furini.]

And our ignorance of God, and the world, and ourselves is matched by a similar ignorance regarding moral matters.

  “Ignorance overwraps his moral sense,
  Winds him about, relaxing, as it wraps,
  So much and no more than lets through perhaps
  The murmured knowledge–’ Ignorance exists.’"[D]

[Footnote D: Ibid.]

We cannot be certain even of the distinction and conflict of good and evil in the world. They, too, and the apparent choice between them to which man is continually constrained, may be mere illusions–phenomena of the individual consciousness. What remains, then? Nothing but to “wait.”

  “Take the joys and bear the sorrows–neither with extreme concern!
  Living here means nescience simply: ’tis next life that helps to
        learn."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

It is hardly necessary to enter upon any detailed criticism of such a theory of knowledge as this, which is proffered by the poet. It is well known by all those who are in some degree acquainted with the history of philosophy–and it will be easily seen by all who have any critical acumen–that it leads directly into absolute scepticism. And absolute scepticism is easily shown to be self-contradictory. For a theory of nescience, in condemning all knowledge and the faculty of knowledge, condemns itself. If nothing is true, or if nothing is known, then this theory itself is not true, or its truth cannot be known. And if this theory is true, then nothing is true; for this theory, like all others, is the product of a defective intelligence. In whatsoever way the matter is put, there is left no standing-ground for the human critic who condemns human thought. And he cannot well pretend to a footing in a sphere above man’s, or below it. There is thus one presupposition which every one must make, if he is to propound any doctrine whatsoever, even if that doctrine be that no doctrine can be valid; it is the presupposition that knowledge is possible, and that truth can be known. And this presupposition fills, for modern philosophy, the place of the Cogito ergo sum of Descartes. It is the starting-point and criterion of all knowledge.

It is, at first sight, a somewhat difficult task to account for the fact, that so keen an intellect as the poet’s did not perceive the conclusion to which his theory of knowledge so directly and necessarily leads. It is probable, however, that he never critically examined it, but simply accepted it as equivalent to the common doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, which, in some form or other, all the schools of philosophy adopt. But the main reason will be found to lie in the fact that knowledge was not, to Browning, its own criterion or end. The primary fact of his philosophy is that human life is a moral process. His interest in the evolution of character was his deepest interest, as he informs us; he was an ethical teacher rather than a metaphysician. He is ever willing to asperse man’s intelligence. But that man is a moral agent he will in no wise doubt. This is his

            “Solid standing-place amid
  The wash and welter, whence all doubts are bid
  Back to the ledge they break against in foam."[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

His practical maxim was

  “Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
  As wholly love allied to ignorance!
  There lies thy truth and safety."[B]

[Footnote B: A Pillar of Sebzevar.]

All phenomena must, in some way or other, be reconciled by the poet with the fundamental and indubitable fact of the progressive moral life of man. For the fundamental presupposition which a man makes, is necessarily his criterion of knowledge, and it determines the truth or illusoriness of all other opinions whatsoever.

Now, Browning held, not only that no certain knowledge is attainable by man, but also that such certainty is incompatible with moral life. Absolute knowledge would, he contends, lift man above the need and the possibility of making the moral choice, which is our supreme business on earth. Man can be good or evil, only on condition of being in absolute uncertainty regarding the true meaning of the facts of nature and the phenomena of life.

This somewhat strange doctrine finds the most explicit and full expression in La Saisiaz. “Fancy,” amongst the concessions it demands from “Reason,” claims that man should know–not merely surmise or fear–that every action done in this life awaits its proper and necessary meed in the next.

                “I also will that man become aware
  Life has worth incalculable, every moment that he spends
  So much gain or loss for that next life which on this life depends."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

But Reason refuses the concession, upon the ground that such sure knowledge would be destructive of the very distinction between right and wrong, which the demand implies. The “promulgation of this decree,” by Fancy, “makes both good and evil to cease.” Prior to it “earth was man’s probation-place"; but under this decree man is no longer free; for certain knowledge makes action necessary.

  “Once lay down the law, with Nature’s simple ’Such effects succeed
  Causes such, and heaven or hell depends upon man’s earthly deed
  Just as surely as depends the straight or else the crooked line
  On his making point meet point or with or else without incline,’
  Thenceforth neither good nor evil does man, doing what he must."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz, 195.]

If we presuppose that “man, addressed this mode, be sound and sane” (and we must stipulate sanity, if his actions are to be morally judged at all)–then a law which binds punishment and reward to action in a necessary manner, and is known so to bind them, would “obtain prompt and absolute obedience.” There are some “edicts, now styled God’s own nature’s,” “which to hear means to obey.” All the laws relating to the preservation of life are of this character. And, if the law–"Would’st thou live again, be just"–were in all ways as stringent as the other law–

  “Would’st thou live now, regularly draw thy breath!
  For, suspend the operation, straight law’s breach results in death"–[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

then no one would disobey it, nor could. “It is the liberty of doing evil that gives the doing good a grace.” And that liberty would be taken away by complete assurance, that effects follow actions in the moral world with the necessity seen in the natural sphere. Since, therefore, man is made to grow, and earth is the place wherein he is to pass probation and prove his powers, there must remain a certain doubt as to the issues of his actions; conviction must not be so strong as to carry with it man’s whole nature. “The best I both see and praise, the worst I follow,” is the adage rife in man’s mouth regarding his moral conduct. But, spite of his seeing and praising,

            “he disbelieves
  In the heart of him that edict which for truth his head receives."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

He has a dim consciousness of ways whereby he may elude the consequences of his wickedness, and of the possibility of making amends to law.

  “And now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin’,
  A certain Bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’,
  Some luckless hour will send him linkin’
    To your black pit;
  But, faith, he’ll turn a corner jinkin’,
    And cheat you yet.”

The more orthodox and less generous individual is prone to agree, as regards himself, with Burns; but, he sees, most probably, that such an escape is impossible to others. He has secret solacement in a latent belief that he himself is an exception. There will be a special method of dealing with him. He is a “chosen sample"; and “God will think twice before He damns a man of his quality.” It is just because there is such doubt as to the universality and necessity of the law which connects actions and consequences in the moral sphere, that man’s deeds have an ethical character; while, to disperse doubt and ignorance by the assurance of complete knowledge, would take the good from goodness and the ill from evil.

In this ingenious manner, the poet turns the imperfect intellect and delusive knowledge of man to a moral use. Ordinarily, the intellectual impotence of man is regarded as carrying with it moral incapacity as well, and the delusiveness of knowledge is one of the strongest arguments for pessimism. To persons pledged to the support of no theory, and to those who have the na´vetÚ, so hard to maintain side by side with strong doctrinal convictions, it seems amongst the worst of evils that man should be endowed with fallacious faculties, and cursed with a futile desire for true knowledge which is so strong, that it cannot be quenched even in those who believe that truth can never be attained. It is the very best men of the world who cry

            “Oh, this false for real,
  This emptiness which feigns solidity,–
  Ever some grey that’s white, and dun that’s black,–
  When shall we rest upon the thing itself,
  Not on its semblance? Soul–too weak, forsooth,
  To cope with fact–wants fiction everywhere!
  Mine tires of falsehood: truth at any cost!"[A]

[Footnote A: A Bean-Stripe.]

The poet himself was burdened in no small degree with this vain desire for knowing the truth; and he recognized, too, that he was placed in a world which seems both real and beautiful, and so well worth knowing. Yet, it is this very failure of knowledge–a failure which, be it remembered, is complete and absolute, because, as he thinks, all facts must turn into phantoms by mere contact with our “relative intelligences,"–which he constitutes into the basis of his optimistic faith.

So high is the dignity and worth of the moral life to Browning, that no sacrifice is too great to secure it. And, indeed, if it were once clearly recognized that there is no good thing but goodness, nothing of supreme worth, except the realization of a loving will, then doubt, ignorance, and every other form of apparent evil would be fully justified–provided they were conditions whereby this highest good is attained. And, to Browning, ignorance was one of the conditions. And consequently, the dread pause in the music which agnosticism brings, is only “silence implying sound"; and the vain cry for truth, arising from the heart of the earth’s best men, is only a discord moving towards resolution into a more rapturous harmony.

I do not stay here to inquire whether sure knowledge would really have this disastrous effect of destroying morality, or whether its failure does not rather imply the impossibility of a moral life. I return to the question asked at the beginning of this chapter, and which it is now possible to answer. That question was: How does Browning reconcile his hypothesis of universal love with the natural and moral evils existing in the world?

His answer is quite explicit. The poet solves the problem by casting doubt upon the facts which threaten his hypothesis. He reduces them into phenomena, in the sense of phantoms begotten by the human intellect upon unknown and unknowable realities.

  “Thus much at least is clearly understood–
  Of power does Man possess no particle:
  Of knowledge–just so much as shows that still
  It ends in ignorance on every side."[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

He is aware of the phenomena of his own consciousness,

  “My soul, and my soul’s home,
  This body “;

but he knows not whether “things outside are fact or feigning.” And he heeds little, for in either case they

            “Teach
  What good is and what evil,–just the same,
  Be feigning or be fact the teacher."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

It is the mixture, or rather the apparent mixture, of shade and light in life, the conflict of seeming good with seeming evil in the world, that constitutes the world a probation-place. It is a kind of moral gymnasium, crowded with phantoms, wherein by exercise man makes moral muscle. And the vigour of the athlete’s struggle is not in the least abated by the consciousness that all he deals with are phantoms.

 “I have lived, then, done and suffered, loved and hated, learnt and taught
  This–there is no reconciling wisdom with a world distraught,
  Goodness with triumphant evil, power with failure in the aim,
  If–(to my own sense, remember! though none other feel the same!)–
  If you bar me from assuming earth to be a pupil’s place,
  And life, time–with all their chances, changes,–just probation-space,
  Mine, for me."[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

And the world would not be such a probation-space did we once penetrate into its inmost secret, and know its phenomena as veritably either good or evil. There is the need of playing something perilously like a trick on the human intellect if man is to strive and grow.

            “Here and there a touch
  Taught me, betimes, the artifice of things–
  That all about, external to myself,
  Was meant to be suspected,–not revealed
  Demonstrably a cheat–but half seen through."[B]

[Footnote B: A Bean-Stripe.]

To know objects as they veritably are, might reveal all things as locked together in a scheme of universal good, so that “white would rule unchecked along the line.” But this would be the greatest of disasters; for, as moral agents, we cannot do without

            “the constant shade
  Cast on life’s shine,–the tremor that intrudes
  When firmest seems my faith in white."[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

The intellectual insight that would penetrate through the vari-colour of events into the actual presence of the incandescent white of love, which glows, as hope tells us, in all things, would stultify itself, and lose its knowledge even of the good.

                                “Think!
  Could I see plain, be somehow certified
  All was illusion–evil far and wide
  Was good disguised,–why, out with one huge wipe
  Goes knowledge from me. Type needs antitype:
  As night needs day, as shine needs shade, so good
  Needs evil: how were pity understood
  Unless by pain? “[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

Good and evil are relative to each other, and each is known only through its contrary.

                                    “For me
  (Patience, beseech you!) Knowledge can but be
  Of good by knowledge of good’s opposite–
  Evil."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

The extinction of one of the terms would be the extinction of the other. And, in a similar manner, clear knowledge that evil is illusion and that all things have their place in an infinite divine order would paralyze all moral effort, as well as stultify itself.

            “Make evident that pain
  Permissibly masks pleasure–you abstain
  From out-stretch of the finger-tip that saves
  A drowning fly."[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

Certainty on either side, either that evil is evil for evermore, irredeemable and absolute, a drench of utter dark not illuminable by white; or that it is but mere show and semblance, which the good takes upon itself, would alike be ruinous to man. For both alternatives would render all striving folly. The right attitude for man is that of ignorance, complete uncertainty, the equipoise of conflicting alternatives. He must take his stand on the contradiction. Hope he may have that all things work together for good. It is right that he should nourish the faith that the antagonism of evil with good in the world is only an illusion; but that faith must stop short of the complete conviction that knowledge would bring. When, therefore, the hypothesis of universal love is confronted with the evils of life, and we ask how it can be maintained in the face of the manifold miseries everywhere apparent, the poet answers, “You do not know, and cannot know, whether they are evils or not. Your knowledge remains at the surface of things. You cannot fit them into their true place, or pronounce upon their true purpose and character; for you see only a small arc of the complete circle of being. Wait till you see more, and, in the meantime, hope!”

  “Why faith–but to lift the load,
    To leaven the lump, where lies
  Mind prostrate through knowledge owed
    To the loveless Power it tries
  To withstand, how vain!"[A]

[Footnote A: Reverie–Asolando.]

And, if we reply in turn, that this necessary ignorance leaves as little room for his scheme of love as it does for its opposite, he again answers: “Not so! I appeal from the intellect, which is detected as incompetent, to the higher court of the moral consciousness. And there I find the ignorance to be justified: for it is the instrument of a higher purpose, a means whereby what is best is gained, namely, Love.”

    “My curls were crowned
  In youth with knowledge,–off, alas, crown slipped
  Next moment, pushed by better knowledge still
  Which nowise proved more constant; gain, to-day,
  Was toppling loss to-morrow, lay at last
  –Knowledge, the golden?–lacquered ignorance!
  As gain–mistrust it! Not as means to gain:
  Lacquer we learn by: ...
  The prize is in the process: knowledge means
  Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
  That victory is somehow still to reach,
  But love is victory, the prize itself:
  Love–trust to! Be rewarded for the trust
  In trust’s mere act."[A]

[Footnote A: A Pillar at Sebzevar.]

Now, in order to complete our examination of this theory, we must follow the poet in his attempt to escape from the testimony of the intellect to that of the heart. In order to make the most of the latter, we find that Browning, especially in his last work, tends to withdraw his accusation of utter incompetence on the part of the intellect. He only tends to do so, it is true. He is tolerably consistent in asserting that we know our own emotions and the phenomena of our own consciousness; but he is not consistent in his account of our knowledge, or ignorance, of external things. On the whole, he asserts that we know nothing of them. But in Asolando he seems to imply that the evidence of a loveless power in the world, permitting evil, is irresistible.[A] To say the least, the testimony of the intellect, such as it is, is more clear and convincing with regard to evil than it is with regard to good. Within the sphere of phenomena, to which the intellect is confined, there seems to be, instead of a benevolent purpose, a world ruled by a power indifferent to the triumph of evil over good, and either “loveless” or unintelligent.

[Footnote A: See passage just quoted.]

            “Life, from birth to death,
  Means–either looking back on harm escaped,
  Or looking forward to that harm’s return
  With tenfold power of harming."[B]

[Footnote B: A Bean-Stripe.]

And it is not possible for man to contravene this evidence of faults and omissions: for, in doing so, he would remove the facts in reaction against which his moral nature becomes active. What proof is there, then, that the universal love is no mere dream? None! from the side of the intellect, answers the poet. Man, who has the will to remove the ills of life,

  “Stop change, avert decay,
  Fix life fast, banish death,"[C]

[Footnote C: Reverie–Asolando.]

has not the power to effect his will; while the Power, whose limitlessness he recognizes everywhere around him, merely maintains the world in its remorseless course, and puts forth no helping hand when good is prone and evil triumphant. “God does nothing.”

              “’No sign,’–groaned he,–
  No stirring of God’s finger to denote
  He wills that right should have supremacy
  On earth, not wrong! How helpful could we quote
  But one poor instance when He interposed
  Promptly and surely and beyond mistake
  Between oppression and its victim, closed
  Accounts with sin for once, and bade us wake
  From our long dream that justice bears no sword,
  Or else forgets whereto its sharpness serves.’"[A]

[Footnote A: Bernard de Mandeville.]

But he tells us in his later poems, that there is no answer vouchsafed to man’s cry to the Power, that it should reveal

       “What heals all harm,
  Nay, hinders the harm at first,
  Saves earth."[B]

[Footnote B: Reverie–Asolando.]

And yet, so far as man can see, there were no bar to the remedy, if “God’s all-mercy” did really “mate His all-potency.”

  “How easy it seems,–to sense
    Like man’s–if somehow met
  Power with its match–immense
    Love, limitless, unbeset
  By hindrance on every side!"[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

But that love nowhere makes itself evident. “Power,” we recognize,

                 “finds nought too hard,
    Fulfilling itself all ways,
  Unchecked, unchanged; while barred,
    Baffled, what good began
  Ends evil on every side."[A]

[Footnote A: Reverie–Asolando.]

Thus, the conclusion to which knowledge inevitably leads us is that mere power rules.

  “No more than the passive clay
    Disputes the potter’s act,
  Could the whelmed mind disobey
    Knowledge, the cataract."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

But if the intellect is thus overwhelmed, so as to be almost passive to the pessimistic conclusion borne in upon it by “resistless fact,” the heart of man is made of another mould. It revolts against the conclusion of the intellect, and climbs

  “Through turbidity all between,
    From the known to the unknown here,
  Heaven’s ’Shall be,’ from earth’s ’Has been.’"[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

It grasps a fact beyond the reach of knowledge, namely, the possibility, or even the certainty, that “power is love.” At present there is no substantiating by knowledge the testimony of the heart; and man has no better anchorage for his optimism than faith. But the closer view will come, when even our life on earth will be seen to have within it the working of love, no less manifest than that of power.

  “When see? When there dawns a day,
    If not on the homely earth,
  Then, yonder, worlds away,
    Where the strange and new have birth,
  And Power comes full in play."[D]

[Footnote D: Ibid.]

Now, what is this evidence of the heart, which is sufficiently cogent and valid to counterpoise that of the mind; and which gives to “faith," or “hope,” a firm foothold in the very face of the opposing “resistless" testimony of knowledge?

Within our experience, to which the poet knows we are entirely confined, there is a fact, the significance of which we have not as yet examined. For, plain and irresistible as is the evidence of evil, so plain and constant is man’s recognition of it as evil, and his desire to annul it. If man’s mind is made to acknowledge evil, his moral nature is made so as to revolt against it.

    “Man’s heart is made to judge
  Pain deserved nowhere by the common flesh
  Our birth-right–bad and good deserve alike
  No pain, to human apprehension."[A]

[Footnote A: Mihrab Shah–Ferishtah’s Fancies.]

Owing to the limitation of our intelligence, we cannot deny but that

            “In the eye of God
  Pain may have purpose and be justified.”

But whether it has its purpose for the supreme intelligence or not,

  “Man’s sense avails to only see, in pain,
  A hateful chance no man but would avert
  Or, failing, needs must pity."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

Man must condemn evil, he cannot acquiesce in its permanence, but is, spite of his consciousness of ignorance and powerlessness, roused into constant revolt against it.

  “True, he makes nothing, understands no whit:
  Had the initiator-spasm seen fit
  Thus doubly to endow him, none the worse
  And much the better were the universe.
  What does Man see or feel or apprehend
  Here, there, and everywhere, but faults to mend,
  Omissions to supply,–one wide disease
  Of things that are, which Man at once would ease
  Had will but power and knowledge?"[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

But the moral worth of man does not suffer the least detraction from his inability to effect his benevolent purpose. “Things must take will for deed,” as Browning tells us. David is not at all distressed by the consciousness of his weakness.

            “Why is it I dare
  Think but lightly of such impuissance? What stops my despair?
  This;–’tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do."[B]

[Footnote B: Saul.]

The fact that “his wishes fall through,” that he cannot, although willing, help Saul, “grow poor to enrich him, fill up his life by starving his own,” does not prevent him from regarding his “service as perfect.” The will was there, although it lacked power to effect itself. The moral worth of an action is complete, if it is willed; and it is nowise affected by its outer consequences, as both Browning and Kant teach. The loving will, the inner act of loving, though it can bear no outward fruit, being debarred by outward impediment, is still a complete and highest good.

  “But Love is victory, the prize itself:
  Love–trust to! Be rewarded for the trust
  In trust’s mere act. In love success is sure,
  Attainment–no delusion, whatso’er
  The prize be: apprehended as a prize,
  A prize it is."[A]

[Footnote A: A Pillar at Sebzevar.]

Whatever the evil in the world and the impotence of man, his duty and his dignity in willing to perform it, are ever the same. Though God neglect the world

            “Man’s part
  Is plain–to send love forth,–astray, perhaps:
  No matter, he has done his part."[B]

[Footnote B: The Sun.]

Now, this fact of inner experience, which the poet thinks incontrovertible–the fact that man, every man, necessarily regards evil, whether natural or moral, as something to be annulled, were it only possible–is an immediate proof of the indwelling of that which is highest in man. On this basis, Browning is able to re-establish the optimism which, from the side of knowledge, he had utterly abandoned.

The very fact that the world is condemned by man is proof that there dwells in man something better than the world, whose evidence the pessimist himself cannot escape. All is not wrong, as long as wrong seems wrong. The pessimist, in condemning the world, must except himself. In his very charge against God of having made man in His anger, there lies a contradiction; for he himself fronts and defies the outrage. There is no depth of despair which this good cannot illumine with joyous light, for the despair is itself the reflex of the good.

            “Were earth and all it holds illusions mere,
  Only a machine for teaching love and hate, and hope and fear,

            “If this life’s conception new life fail to realize–
  Though earth burst and proved a bubble glassing hues of hell, one huge
  Reflex of the devil’s doings–God’s work by no subterfuge,"[A]

[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]

still, good is good, and love is its own exceeding great reward. Alone, in a world abandoned to chaos and infinite night, man is still not without God, if he loves. In virtue of his love, he himself would be crowned as God, as the poet often argues, were there no higher love elsewhere.

            “If he believes
  Might can exist with neither will nor love,
  In God’s case–what he names now Nature’s Law–
  While in himself he recognizes love
  No less than might and will,"[B]

[Footnote B: Death in the Desert.]

man takes, and rightly takes, the title of being “First, last, and best of things.”

  “Since if man prove the sole existent thing
  Where these combine, whatever their degree,
  However weak the might or will or love,
  So they be found there, put in evidence–
  He is as surely higher in the scale
  Than any might with neither love nor will,
  As life, apparent in the poorest midge,
  Is marvellous beyond dead Atlas’ self,
  Given to the nobler midge for resting-place!
  Thus, man proves best and highest–God, in fine."[A]

[Footnote A: A Death in the Desert.]

To any one capable of spiritually discerning things, there can be no difficulty in regarding goodness, however limited and mated with weakness, as infinitely above all natural power. Divinity will be known to consist, not in any senseless might, however majestic and miraculous, but in moral or spiritual perfection. If God were indifferent to the evil of the world, acquiesced in it without reason, and let it ripen into all manner of wretchedness, then man, in condemning the world, though without power to remove the least of its miseries, would be higher than God. But we have still to account for the possibility of man’s assuming an attitude implied in the consciousness that, while he is without power, God is without pity, and in the despair which springs from his hate of evil. How comes it that human nature rises above its origin, and is able–nay, obliged–to condemn the evil which God permits? Is man finite in power, a mere implement of a mocking will so far as knowledge goes, the plaything of remorseless forces, and yet author and first source of something in himself which invests him with a dignity that God Himself cannot share? Is the moral consciousness which, by its very nature, must bear witness against the Power, although it cannot arrest its pitiless course, or remove the least evil,

  “Man’s own work, his birth of heart and brain,
  His native grace, no alien gift at all?”

We are thus caught between the horns of a final dilemma. Either the pity and love, which make man revolt against all suffering, are man’s own creation; or else God, who made man’s heart to love, has given to man something higher than He owns Himself. But both of these alternatives are impossible.

“Here’s the touch that breaks the bubble.”

The first alternative is impossible, because man is by definition powerless, a mere link in the endless chain of causes, incapable of changing the least part of the scheme of things which he condemns, and therefore much more unable to initiate, or to bring into a loveless world abandoned to blind power, the noble might of love.

            “Will of man create?
  No more than this my hand, which strewed the beans
  Produced them also from its finger-tips."[A]

[Footnote A: A Bean-Stripe.]

All that man is and has is a mere loan; his love no less than his finite intellect and limited power, has had its origin elsewhere.

  “Back goes creation to its source, source prime
  And ultimate, the single and the sole."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

The argument ends by bringing us back

    “To the starting-point,–
  Man’s impotency, God’s omnipotence,
  These stop my answer."[A]

[Footnote A: A Bean-Stripe.]

I shall not pause at present to examine the value of this new form of the old argument, ’Ex contingentia mundi.” But I may point out in passing, that the reference of human love to a divine creative source is accomplished by means of the idea of cause, one of the categories of the thought which Browning has aspersed. And it is a little difficult to show why, if we are constrained to doubt our thought, when by the aid of causality it establishes a connection between finite and finite, we should regard it as worthy of trust when it connects the finite and the infinite. In fact, it is all too evident that the poet assumes or denies the possibility of knowledge, according as it helps or hinders his ethical doctrine.

But, if we grant the ascent from the finite to the infinite and regard man’s love as a divine gift–which it may well be although the poet’s argument is invalid–then a new light is thrown upon the being who gave man this power to love. The “necessity,” “the mere power,” which alone could be discerned by observation of the irresistible movement of the world’s events, acquires a new character. Prior to this discovery of love in man as the work of God–

  “Head praises, but heart refrains
    From loving’s acknowledgment.
  Whole losses outweigh half-gains:
    Earth’s good is with evil blent:
  Good struggles but evil reigns."[A]

[Footnote A: Reverie–Asolando.]

But love in man is a suggestion of a love without; a proof, in fact, that God is love, for man’s love is God’s love in man. The source of the pity that man shows, and of the apparent evils in the world which excite it, is the same. The power which called man into being, itself rises up in man against the wrongs in the world. The voice of the moral consciousness, approving the good, condemning evil, and striving to annul it, is the voice of God, and has, therefore, supreme authority. We do wrong, therefore, in thinking that it is the weakness of man which is matched against the might of evil in the world, and that we are fighting a losing battle. It is an incomplete, abstract, untrue view of the facts of life which puts God as irresistible Power in the outer world, and forgets that the same irresistible Power works, under the higher form of love, in the human heart.

  “Is not God now i’ the world His power first made?
  Is not His love at issue still with sin,
  Visibly when a wrong is done on earth?
  Love, wrong, and pain, what see I else around?"[B]

[Footnote B: A Death in the Desert.]

In this way, therefore, the poet argues back from the moral consciousness of man to the goodness of God. And he finds the ultimate proof of this goodness in the very pessimism and scepticism and despair, that come with the view of the apparently infinite waste in the world and the endless miseries of humanity. The source of this despair, namely, the recognition of evil and wrong, is just the Godhood in man. There is no way of accounting for the fact that “Man hates what is and loves what should be,” except by “blending the quality of man with the quality of God.” And “the quality of God” is the fundamental fact in man’s history. Love is the last reality the poet always reaches. Beneath the pessimism is love: without love of the good there were no recognition of evil, no condemnation of it, and no despair.

But the difficulty still remains as to the permission of evil, even though it should prove in the end to be merely apparent.

  “Wherefore should any evil hap to man–
  From ache of flesh to agony of soul–
  Since God’s All-mercy mates All-potency?
  Nay, why permits He evil to Himself–
  Man’s sin, accounted such? Suppose a world
  Purged of all pain, with fit inhabitant–
  Man pure of evil in thought, word, and deed–
  Were it not well? Then, wherefore otherwise?"[A]

[Footnote A: Mihrab Shah.]

The poet finds an answer to this difficulty in the very nature of moral goodness, which, as we have seen, he regards as a progressive realization of an infinitely high ideal. The demand for a world purged of all pain and sin is really, he teaches us, a demand for a sphere where

            “Time brings
  No hope, no fear: as to-day, shall be
  To-morrow: advance or retreat need we
  At our stand-still through eternity?"[A]

[Footnote A: Rephan–Asolando.]

What were there to “bless or curse, in such a uniform universe,”

            “Where weak and strong,
  The wise and the foolish, right and wrong,
  Are merged alike in a neutral Best."[B]

[Footnote B: Ibid.]

There is a better way of life, thinks Browning, than such a state of stagnation.

  “Why should I speak? You divine the test.
  When the trouble grew in my pregnant breast
  A voice said, So would’st thou strive, not rest,

  “Burn and not smoulder, win by worth,
  Not rest content with a wealth that’s dearth,
  Thou art past Rephan, thy place be Earth."[C]

[Footnote C: Ibid.]

The discontent of man, the consciousness of sin, evil, pain, is a symbol of promotion. The peace of the state of nature has been broken for him; and, although the first consequence be

  “Brow-furrowed old age, youth’s hollow cheek,–
  Diseased in the body, sick in soul,
  Pinched poverty, satiate wealth,–your whole
  Array of despairs,"[D]

[Footnote D: Ibid.]

still, without them, the best is impossible. They are the conditions of the moral life, which is essentially progressive. They are the consequences of the fact that man has been “startled up”

            “by an Infinite
  Discovered above and below me–height
  And depth alike to attract my flight,

  “Repel my descent: by hate taught love.
  Oh, gain were indeed to see above
  Supremacy ever–to move, remove,

  “Not reach–aspire yet never attain
  To the object aimed at."[A]

[Footnote A: Rephan–Asolando.]

He who places rest above effort, Rephan above the earth, places a natural good above a moral good, stagnation above progress. The demand for the absolute extinction of evil betrays ignorance of the nature of the highest good. For right and wrong are relative. “Type need antitype.” The fact that goodness is best, and that goodness is not a stagnant state but a progress, a gradual realization, though never complete, of an infinite ideal, of the perfection of God by a finite being, necessarily implies the consciousness of sin and evil. As a moral agent man must set what should be above what is. If he is to aspire and attain, the actual present must seem to him inadequate, imperfect, wrong, a state to be abolished in favour of a better. And therefore it follows that

            “Though wrong were right
  Could we but know–still wrong must needs seem wrong
  To do right’s service, prove men weak or strong,
  Choosers of evil or good."[B]

[Footnote B: Francis Furini.]

The apparent existence of evil is the condition of goodness. And yet it must only be apparent. For if evil be regarded as veritably evil, it must remain so for all that man can do; he cannot annihilate any fact nor change its nature, and all effort would, therefore, be futile. And, on the other hand, if evil were known as unreal, then there were no need of moral effort, no quarrel with the present and therefore no aspiration, and no achievement. That which is man’s highest and best,–namely, a moral life which is a progress–would thus be impossible, and his existence would be bereft of all meaning and purpose. And if the highest is impossible then all is wrong, “the goal being a ruin, so is all the rest.”

The hypothesis of the moral life as progressive is essential to Browning.

But if this hypothesis be granted, then all difficulties disappear. The conception of the endless acquirement of goodness at once postulates the consciousness of evil, and the consciousness of it as existing in order to be overcome. Hence the consciousness of it as illusion comes nearest to the truth. And such a conception is essentially implied by the idea of morality. To speculative reason, however, it is impossible, as the poet believes, that evil should thus be at the same time regarded as both real and unreal. Knowledge leads to despair on every side; for, whether it takes the evil in the world as seeming or actual, it stultifies effort, and proves that moral progress, which is best of all things, is impossible. But the moral consciousness derives its vitality from this contradiction. It is the meeting-point and conflict of actual and ideal; and its testimony is indisputable, however inconsistent it may be with that of knowledge. Acknowledging absolute ignorance of the outer world, the poet has still a retreat within himself, safe from all doubt. He has in his own inner experience irrefragable proof

    “How things outside, fact or feigning, teach
  What good is and what evil–just the same,
  Be feigning or be fact the teacher."[A]

[Footnote A: Francis Furini.]

The consciousness of being taught goodness by interaction with the outside unknown is sufficient; it is “a point of vantage” whence he will not be moved by any contradictions that the intellect may conjure up against it. And this process of learning goodness, this gradual realization by man of an ideal infinitely high and absolute in worth, throws back a light which illumines all the pain and strife and despair, and shows them all to be steps in the endless “love-way.” The consciousness of evil is thus at once the effect and the condition of goodness. The unrealized, though ever-realizing good, which brings despair, is the best fact in man’s history; and it should rightly bring, not despair, but endless joy.

Continue...

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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