The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer

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George Herbert Palmer, (1842-1933)
Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity
Harvard University
Portrait: 1926, 40 x 30 inches, Oil

VII. Nature and Spirit


At this culmination of our long discussion, a discussion much confused by its necessary mass of details, it may be well to pause a moment, to fix attention on the great lines along which we have been moving, and to mark the points on which they appear to converge. We have regarded goodness as divided into two very unequal parts. The first two chapters treated of goodness in general, a species which being shared alike by persons and things is in no sense distinctive of persons. The last four chapters have been given to the more complex task of exploring the goodness of persons.

In things we found that goodness consists in having their manifold parts drawn into integral wholeness. And this is true also of persons. But the modes of organization in the two cases were so unlike as to require long elucidation. Our conclusion would seem to be that while goodness is everywhere expressive of organization, personal conduct is good only when consciously organized, guided, and aimed at the development of a social self. We have seen how self-consciousness lies at the foundation of personality, sharply discriminating persons from things. We have seen too that wherever it is present, the person curiously directs himself, passing through all the varieties of purposive activity which were catalogued in the chapter on self- direction. But such activity implies a being of variable, not of fixed powers, a being accordingly capable of enlargement, and with possibilities in him which every moment renders real. This progressive realization of himself, this development, he–so far as he is good– consciously conducts. And finally we found in the person the strange fact that he conceives of his good self as essentially in conjunction with his fellow man, and recognizes that parted off and in separate abstractness he is no person at all. Accordingly personal organization, direction, enlargement, conjunction. Under our analysis two antithetic worlds emerge, a world of nature and of spirit, the former guided by blind forces, the latter self-managed. Unlike spiritual beings, natural objects are under alien control; have not the power of development, and when brought into close conjunction with others are liable to disruption.


Accepting this vital distinction, we see that the work of spiritual man will consist in progressively subjugating whatever natural powers he finds within him and without, rendering them all expressive of self-conscious purpose. for we men are not altogether spiritual; in us two elements meet. Our spirituality is superposed on a natural basis. Like things, we have our natural aptitudes, blind tendencies, established functions of body and mind. These are all serviceable and organic; but to become spiritual all need to be redeemed, or drawn over into the field of consciousness, where our special stamp may be set upon them. When we speak of a good act, we mean an act which shows the results of such redemption, one whose every part has been studied in relation to every other part, and has thus been made to bear our own image and superscription.

And this is essentially the Christian ideal, that spirit shall be lord of nature. I ought to reject my natural life, accounting it not my life at all. Until shaped by myself, it is merely my opportunity for life, material furnished, out of which my true and conscious life may be constructed. Widely is this contrasted with the pagan conceptions, where man appears with powers as fixed as the things around him. Indeed, in many forms of paganism there is no distinction between persons and things. They are blended. And such blending usually operates to the disparagement of the person; for things being more numerous, and their laws more urgent, the powers of man become lost in those of nature. Or if distinction is made, and men in some dim fashion become aware that they are different from things, still it is the tendency of paganism to subordinate person to nature. The child is sacrificed to the sun. The sun is not thought of as existing for the child. From the Christian point of view everything seems turned upside down. Man is absorbed in natural forces, natural forces are reverenced as divine, and self-consciousness–if noticed at all–is regarded as an impertinent accident.

In the Christian ideal all this is reversed. Man is called to be master of himself, and therefore of all else. The many beautiful adjustments of the natural world are thought to possess dignity only so far as they accept the conscious purposes put by us in their keeping. And in man himself goodness is held to exist only in proportion as his conduct expresses fullness of self-consciousness, fullness of direction, and fullness of conscious conjunction with other persons. I do not see how we can escape this conclusion. The careful argumentation through which the previous chapters have brought us obliges us to count conduct valuable in proportion as it bears the impress of self-conscious mind.


Yet it must be owned that during the last few centuries doubts have arisen about the justice of this Christian ideal. The simple conception of a world of spirit and a world of nature arrayed against each other, the one of them exactly what the other is not, the world of spirit the superior, the world of nature to be frowned on, used possibly, but always in subordination to spiritual purposes,–this view, dominant as it was in the Middle Ages, and still largely influential, has been steadily falling into disrepute. There is even a tendency in present estimates to reverse the ancient valuation and allow superiority to nature. Such a transformation is strikingly evident in those sensitive recorders of human ideals, the Fine Arts. Let us see what at different times they have judged best worthy of record.

Early painting dealt with man alone, or rather with persons; for personality in its transcendent forms–saints, angels, God himself– was usually preferred above little man. Except the spiritual, nothing was regarded as of consequence. The principle of early painting might be summed in the proud saying, “On earth there is nothing great but man; in man there is nothing great but mind.” It is true when man is thus detached from nature he hardly appears to advantage or in his appropriate setting. But the early painters would tolerate nothing natural near their splendid persons. They covered their backgrounds with gilding, so that a glory surrounded the entire figure, throwing out the personality sharp and strong. Nothing broke its effect. But after all, one comes to see that we inhabit a world; nature is continually about us, and man really shows his eminence most fully when standing dominant over nature. Early painting, accordingly, began to set in a little landscape around the human figures, contrasting the person with that which was not himself. But an independent interest could not fail to spring up in these accessories. By degrees the landscape is elaborated and the figure subordinated. The figure is there by prescription, the landscape because people enjoy it. Nature begins to assert her claims; and man, the eminent and worthy representative of old ideals, retires from his ancient prominence.

When the Renaissance revolted against the teachings of the mediaeval church, the disposition to return to nature was insolently strong. Natural impulses were glorified, the physical world attracted attention, and even began to be studied. Hitherto it had been thought deserving of study only because in a few respects it was able to minister to man. But in the Renaissance men studied it for its own sake. Gradually the distinction between man and nature grew faint, so that a kind of pantheism arose in which a general power, at once natural and spiritual, appeared as the ruler of all. We individual men emerge for a moment from this great central power, ultimately relapsing into it. Nature had acquired coordinate, if not superior, rights. Yet the full expression of this independent interest in nature is more recent than is usually observed. Landscape painting goes back but little beyond the year sixteen hundred. It is only two or three centuries ago that painters discovered the physical world to be worthy of representation for its own sake.

As the worth of nature thus became vindicated in painting, parallel changes were wrought in the other arts. Arts less distinctly rational began to assert themselves, and even to take the lead. The art most characteristic of modern times, the one which most widely and poignantly appeals to us, is music. But in music we are not distinctly conscious of a meaning. Most of us in listening to music forget ourselves under its lulling charms, abandon ourselves to its spell, and by it are swept away, perhaps to the infinite, perhaps to an obliteration of all clear thought. Is it not largely because we are so hard pressed under the anxious conditions of modern life that music becomes such an enormous solace and strength? I do not say that no other factors have contributed to the vogue of music, but certainly it is widely prized as an effective means of escape from ourselves. Music too, though early known in calm and elementary forms, has within the last two centuries been developed into almost a new art.

Of all the arts poetry is the most strikingly rational and articulate. Its material is plain thought, plain words. We employ in it the apparatus of conscious life. Poetry was therefore concerned in early times entirely with things of the spirit. It dealt with persons, and with them alone. It celebrated epic actions, recorded sagacious judgments, or uttered in lyric song emotions primarily felt by an individual, yet interpreting the common lot of man. But there has occurred a great change in poetry too, a change notable during the last century but initiated long before. Poetry has been growing naturalistic, and is to-day disposed to reject all severance of body and spirit. The great nature movement which we associate with the names of Cowper, Burns, and Wordsworth, has withdrawn man’s attention from conscious responsibility, and has taught him to adore blind and vast forces which he cannot fully comprehend. We all know the refreshment and the deepening of life which this mystic new poetry has brought. But it is hard to say whether poetry is nowadays a spiritual or a natural art. Many of us would incline to the latter view, and would hold that even in dealing with persons it treats them as embodiments of natural forces. Our instincts and unguided passions, the features which most identify us with the physical world, are coming more and more to be the subjects of modern poetry.


Nature, meanwhile, that part of the universe which is not consciously guided, has become within a century our favorite field of scientific study. The very word science is popularly appropriated to naturalistic investigation. Of course this is a perversion. Originally it was believed that the proper study of mankind was man. And probably we should all still acknowledge that the study of personal structure is as truly science as study of the structure of physical objects. Yet so powerfully is the tide setting toward reverence for the unconscious and the sub-conscious that science, our word for knowledge, has lost its universality and has taken on an almost exclusively physical character.

Perhaps there was only one farther step possible. Philosophy itself, the study of mind, might be regarded as a study of the unconscious. And this step has been taken. Books now bear the paradoxical title “Philosophy of the Unconscious,” and investigation of the sub- conscious processes is perhaps the most distinctive trait of philosophy to-day. More and more it is believed that we cannot adequately explore a person without probing beneath consciousness. The blind processes can no longer be ruled out. Nature and spirit cannot be parted as our fathers supposed they might. Probably Kant is the last great scholar who will ever try to hold that distinction firm, and he is hardly successful. In spite of his vigorous antitheses, hints of covert connection between the opposed forces are not absent. Indeed, if the two are so widely parted as his usual language asserts, it is hard to see how his ethics can have mundane worth. Curiously enough too, at the very time when Kant was reviving this ancient distinction, and offering it as the solid basis of personal and social life, the opposite belief received its most clamorous announcement, resounding through the civilized world in the teachings of Rousseau. Rousseau warns us that the conscious constructions of man are full of artifice and deceit, and lead to corruption and pain. Conscious guidance should, consequently, be banished, and man should return to the peace, the ease, and the certainty of nature.


Now I do not think it is worth while to blame or praise a movement so vast as this. If it is folly to draw an indictment against a nation, it is greater folly to indict all modern civilization. We must not say that philosophy and the fine arts took a wrong turn at the Renaissance,–at least it is useless to call on them now to turn back. The world seldom turns back. It absorbs, it re-creates, it brings new significance into the older thought. All progress, Goethe tells us, is spiral,–coming out at the place where it was before, but higher up. No, we cannot wisely blame or praise, but we may patiently study and understand. That is what I am attempting to do here. The movement described is no negligible accident of our time. It is world-wide, and shows progress steadily in a single direction.

In order, however, to prove that such a change in moral estimates has occurred, it was hardly necessary to survey the course of history. The evidence lies close around us, and is found in the standards of the society in which we move. Who are the people most prized? Are they the most self-conscious? That should be the case if our long argument is sound. Our preceding chapters would urge us to fill life with consciousness. In proportion as consciousness droops, human goodness becomes meagre; as our acts are filled with it, they grow excellent. These are our theoretic conclusions, but the experience of daily life does not bear them out. If, for example, I find the person who is talking to me watches each word he utters, pauses again and again for correction, choosing the determined word and rejecting the one which instinctively comes to his lips, I do not trust what he says, or even listen to it; while he is shaping his exact sentences I attend to something else. In general, if a man’s small actions impress us as minutely planned, we turn from him. It is not the self-reflecting persons, cautious of all they do, say, or think, who are popular. It is rather those instinctively spontaneous creatures characterized by abandon–men and women who let themselves go, and with all the wealth of the world in them, allow it to come out of itself–that we take to our hearts. We prize them for their want of deliberation. In short, we give our unbiased endorsement not to the spiritual or consciously guided person, but to him, on the contrary, who shows the closest adjustment to nature.


Yet even so, we have gone too far afield for evidence. First we surveyed the ages, then we surveyed one another. But there is one proof-spot nearer still. Let us survey ourselves. I am much mistaken if there are not among my readers persons who have all their lives suffered from self-consciousness. They have longed to be rid of it, to be free to think of the other person, of the matter in hand. Instead of this, their thoughts are forever reverting to their own share in any affair. Too contemptible to be avowed, and more distressing than almost any other species of suffering, excessive self-consciousness shames us with our selfishness, yet will not allow us to turn from it. When I go into company where everybody is spontaneous and free, easily uttering what the occasion calls for, I can utter only what I call for and not at all what the occasion asks. Between the two demands there is always an awkward jar. When tortured by such experiences it does not soothe to have others carelessly remark, “Oh, just be natural!" That is precisely what we should like to be, but how? That little point is continually left unexplained. Yet obviously self- consciousness involves something like a deadlock. For how can one consciously exert himself to be unconscious and try not to try? We cannot arrange our lives so as to have no arrangement in them, and when shaking hands with a friend, for example, be on our guard against noticing. Once locked up in this vicious circle, we seem destined to be prisoners forever. That is what constitutes the anguish of the situation. The most tyrannical of jailers–one’s self–is over us, and from his bondage we are powerless to escape. The trouble is by no means peculiar to our time, though probably commoner forty years ago than at any other period of the world’s history. But it had already attracted the attention of Shakespeare, who bases on it one of his greatest plays. When Hamlet would act, self-consciousness stands in his way. The hindering process is described in the famous soliloquy with astonishing precision and vividness, if only we substitute our modern term “self-consciousness” for that which was its ancient equivalent:–

     “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
      And thus the native hue of resolution
      Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
      And enterprises of great pith and moment
      With this regard their currents turn awry,
      And lose the name of action.”

And such is our experience. We, too, have purposed all manner of important and serviceable acts; but just as we were setting them in execution, consideration fell upon us. We asked whether it was the proper moment, whether he to whom it was to be done was really needy, or were we the fit doer, or should it be done in this way or that. We hesitated, and the moment was gone. Self-consciousness had again demonstrated its incompetence for superintending a task. Many of us, far from regarding self-consciousness as a ground of goodness, are disposed to look upon it as a curse.


Before, however, attempting to discover whether our theoretic conclusions may he drawn into some sort of living accord with these results of experience, let us probe a little more minutely into these latter, and try to learn what reasons there may be for this very general distrust of self-consciousness as a guide. Hitherto I have exhibited that distrust as a fact. We always find it so; our neighbors find it so, the ages have found it so. But why? I have not pointed out precisely the reasons for the continual fact. Let me devote a page or two to rational diagnosis.

To begin with, I suppose it will be conceded that we really cannot guide ourselves through and through. There are certain large tracts of life totally unamenable to consciousness.

Of our two most important acts, and those by which the remaining ones are principally affected, birth and death, the one is necessarily removed from conscious guidance, and the other is universally condemned if so guided. We do not–as we have previously seen–happen to be present at our birth, and so are quite cut off from controlling that. Yet the conditions of birth very considerably shape everything else in life. We cannot, then, be purely spiritual; it is impossible. We must be natural beings at our beginning; and at the other end the state of things is largely similar, for we are not allowed to fix the time of our departure. The Stoics were. “If the house smokes,” they said, “leave it.” When life is no longer worth while, depart. But Christianity will not allow this. Death must be a natural affair, not a spiritual. I am to wait till a wandering bacillus alights in my lung. He will provide a suitable exit for me. But neither I nor my neighbors must decide my departure. Let laws of nature reign.

And if these two tremendous events are altogether removed from conscious guidance, many others are but slightly amenable to it. The great organic processes both of mind and body are only indirectly, or to a partial extent, under the control of consciousness. A few persons, I believe, can voluntarily suspend the beating of their hearts. They are hardly to be envied. The majority of us let our hearts alone, and they work better than if we tried to work them. Though it is true that we can control our breathing, and that we occasionally do so, this also in general we wisely leave to natural processes. A similar state of affairs we find when we turn to the mind itself. The association of ideas, that curious process by which one thought sticks to another and through being thus linked draws after it material for use in all our intellectual constructions, goes on for the most part unguided. It would be plainly useless, therefore, to treat our great distinction as something hard and fast. Nature and spirit may be contrasted; they cannot be sundered. Spirit removed from nature would become impotent, while nature would then proceed on a meaningless career.

Then too there are all sorts of degrees in consciousness. No man was ever so conscious of himself and his acts that he could not be more so. When introspection is causing us our sharpest distress, it may still be rendered more minute. That is one cause of its peculiar anguish. We are always uncertain whether our troubles have not arisen from too little self-consciousness, and we whip ourselves into greater nicety and elaborateness of personal observation. Varying through a multitude of degrees, the fullness of consciousness is never reached. A more thorough exercise of it is always possible. At the last, nature must be admitted as a partner in the control of our lives, and her share in that partnership the present age believes to be a large one.


For could we always consciously steer our conduct, we should be unwise to do so. Consciousness hinders action. Acts are excellent in proportion as they are sure, swift, and easy. When we undertake anything, we seek to do exactly that thing, reach precisely that end, and not merely to hit something in the neighborhood. Occasions, too, run fast, and should be seized on the minute. Action is excellent only when it meets the urgent and evasive demands of life. Faltering and hesitation are fatal. Nor must action unduly weary. Good conduct effects its results with the least necessary expenditure of effort. When there are so many demands pressing upon us, we should not allow ourselves to become exhausted by a single act, but should keep ourselves fresh for further needs. Efficient action, then, is sure, swift, and easy.

Now the peculiarity of self-consciousness is that it hinders all this and makes action inaccurate, slow, and fatiguing. Inaccuracy is almost certain. When we study how something is to be done, we are apt to lay stress on certain features of the situation, and not to bring others into due prominence. It is difficult separately to correlate the many elements which go to make up a desired result. Sometimes we become altogether puzzled and for the moment the action ceases. When I have had occasion to drive a screw in some unusual and inconvenient place, after setting the blade of the screw-driver into the slot I have asked myself, “In which direction does this screw turn?” But the longer I ask, the more uncertain I am. My only solution lies in trusting my hand, which knows a great deal more about the matter than I. When we once begin to meditate how a word is spelled, how helpless we are! It is better to drop the question, and pick up the dictionary. In all such cases consideration tends to confuse.

It tends to delay, too, as everybody knows. To survey all the relations in which a given act may stand, to balance their relative gains and losses, and with full sight to decide on the course which offers the greatest profit, would require the years of Methuselah. But at what point shall we cut the process short? To obtain full knowledge, we should pass in review all that relates to the act we propose; should inquire what its remoter consequences will be, and how it will affect not merely myself, my cousin, my great-grandchild, but the man in the next street, city, or state. There is no stopping. To carry conscious verification over a moderate range is slow business. If on the impulse of occasion we dash off an action unreflectingly, life will be swift and simple. If we try to anticipate all consequences of our task it will be slow and endless.

Nor need I dwell on the fatigue such conscious work involves. In writing a letter, we usually sit down before our paper, our minds occupied with what we would say. We allow our fingers to stroll of themselves across the page, and we hardly notice whether they move or not. If anybody should ask, “How did you write the letter s?” we should be obliged to look on the paper to see. But suppose, instead of writing in this way, I come to the task to-morrow determined to superintend all the work consciously. How shall I hold my pen in the best possible manner? How shape this letter so that each of its curves gets its exact bulge? How give the correct slant to what is above or below the line? I will not ask how long a time a letter prepared in this fashion would require, or whether when written it would be fit to read, for I wish to fix attention on the exhaustion of the writer. He certainly could endure such fatigue for no more than a single epistle. The schoolboy, when forced to it, seldom holds out for more than half a page, though he employs every contortion of shoulder, tongue, and leg to ease and diversify the struggle.

A dozen years ago some nonsense verses were running through the papers,–verses pointing out with humorous precision the very infelicities of conscious control to which I am now directing attention. They put the case thus:–

     “The centipede was happy, quite,
         Until the toad for fun
      Said, ’Pray which leg comes after which?’
      This worked her mind to such a pitch
      She lay distracted in a ditch,
         Considering how to run.”

And no wonder! Problems so complex as this should be left to the disposal of nature, and not be drawn over into the region of spiritual guidance. But the complexities of the centipede are simple matters when compared with the elaborate machinery of man. The human mind offers more alternatives in a minute than does the centipede in a lifetime. If spiritual guidance is inadequate to the latter, and is found merely to hinder action, why is not the blind control of nature necessary for the former also? Our age believes it is and, ever disparaging the conscious world, attaches steadily greater consequence to the unconscious. “It is the unintelligent me,” writes Dr. O. W. Holmes, “stupid as an idiot, that has to try a thing a thousand times before he can do it and then never knows how he does it, that at last does it well. We have to educate ourselves through the pretentious claims of intellect into the humble accuracy of instinct; and we end at last by acquiring the dexterity, the perfection, the certainty which those masters of arts, the bee and the spider, inherit from nature.”


Green’s Prolegomena, Section 297.

Dewey’s Study of Ethics, Section xli.

Seth’s Study of Ethical Principles, pt. i. ch. 3, Section 6.

Alexander’s Moral Order and Progress, bk. i. ch. i. Section iii.

Earle’s English Prose, p. 490-500.

Palmer in The Forum, Jan. 1893.


Preface.  •  I. The Double Aspect of Goodness  •  II. Misconceptions of Goodness  •  III. Self-Consciousness  •  IV. Self-Direction  •  V. Self-Development  •  VI. Self-Sacrifice  •  VII. Nature and Spirit  •  VII. The Three Stages of Goodness

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Nature of Goodness
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