Then as to the maintenance of that coherency, interdependence, and systematisation of opinions and motives, which is said to make character organic, and is therefore so highly prized by some schools of thought. No doubt the loosening of this or that part of the fabric of heterogeneous origin, which constitutes the character of a man or woman, tends to loosen the whole. But do not let us feed ourselves upon phrases. This organic coherency, what does it come to? It signifies in a general way, to describe it briefly, a harmony between the intellectual, the moral, and the practical parts of human nature; an undisturbed cooperation between reason, affection, and will; the reason prescribing nothing against which the affections revolt, and proscribing nothing which they crave; and the will obeying the joint impulses of these two directing forces, without liability to capricious or extravagant disturbance of their direction. Well, if the reason were perfect in information and method, and the affections faultless in their impulse, then organic unity of character would be the final consummation of all human improvement, and it would be criminal, even if it were possible, to undermine a structure of such priceless value. But short of this there can be no value in coherency and harmonious consistency as such. So long as error is an element in it, then for so long the whole product is vitiated. Undeniably and most fortunately, social virtues are found side by side with speculative mistakes and the gravest intellectual imperfections. We may apply to humanity the idea which, as Hebrew students tell us, is imputed in the Talmud to the Supreme Being. God prays, the Talmud says; and his prayer is this,—'Be it my will that my mercy overpower my justice.' And so with men, with or without their will, their mercifulness overpowers their logic. And not their mercifulness only, but all their good impulses overpower their logic. To repeat the words which I have put into the objector's mouth, we do not always work out every vicious principle to its remotest inference. What, however, is this but to say that in such cases character is saved, not by its coherency, but by the opposite; to say not that error is useful, but what is a very different thing, that its mischievousness is sometimes capable of being averted or minimised?
The apologist may retort that he did not mean answer to the argument from coherency of conduct. In measuring utility you have to take into account not merely the service rendered to the objects of the present hour, but the contribution to growth, progress, and the future. From this point of view most of the talk about unity of character is not much more than a glorifying of stagnation. It leaves out of sight the conditions necessary for the continuance of the unending task of human improvement. Now whatever ease may be given to an individual or a generation by social or religious error, such error at any rate can conduce nothing to further advancement That, at least, is not one of its possible utilities.
This is also one of the answers to the following plea. 'Though the knowledge of every positive truth is an useful acquisition, this doctrine cannot without reservation he applied to negative truth. When the only truth ascertainable is that nothing can be known, we do not, by this knowledge, gain any new fact by which to guide ourselves.' But logical coherency, but a kind of practical everyday coherency, which may be open to a thousand abstract objections, yet which still secures both to the individual and to society a number of advantages that might be endangered by any disturbance of opinion or motive. No doubt, and the method and season of chasing erroneous opinions and motives out of the mind must always be a matter of much careful and far-seeing consideration. Only in the course of such consideration, let us not admit the notion in any form that error can have even provisional utility. For it is not the error which confers the advantages that we desire to preserve, but some true opinion or just motive or high or honest sentiment, which exists and thrives and operates in spite of the error and in face of it, springing from man's spontaneous and unformulated recognition of the real relations of things. This recognition is very faint in the beginnings of society. It grows clearer and firmer with each step forward. And in a tolerably civilised age it has become a force on which you can fairly lean with a considerable degree of assurance.
And this leads to the central point of the the negative truth that nothing can be known is in fact a truth that guides us. [Transcriber's note: sic.] It leads us away from sterile and irreclaimable tracts of thought and emotion, and so inevitably compels the energies which would otherwise have been wasted, to feel after a more profitable direction. By leaving the old guide-marks undisturbed, you may give ease to an existing generation, but the present ease is purchased at the cost of future growth. To have been deprived of the faith of the old dispensation, is the first condition of strenuous endeavour after the new.
No doubt history abounds with cases in which a false opinion on moral or religious subjects, or an erroneous motive in conduct, has seemed to be a stepping-stone to truth. But this is in no sense a demonstration of the utility of error. For in all such cases the erroneous opinion or motive was far from being wholly erroneous, or wholly without elements of truth and reality. If it helped to quicken the speed or mend the direction of progress, that must have been by virtue of some such elements within it. All that was error in it was pure waste, or worse than waste. It is true that the religious sentiment has clothed itself in a great number of unworthy, inadequate, depressing, and otherwise misleading shapes, dogmatic and liturgic. Yet on the whole the religious sentiment has conferred enormous benefits on civilisation. This is no proof of the utility of the mistaken direction which these dogmatic or liturgic shapes imposed upon it. On the contrary, the effect of the false dogmas and enervating liturgies is so much that has to be deducted from the advantages conferred by a sentiment in itself valuable and of priceless capability.
Yes, it will be urged, but from the historic conditions of the time, truth could only be conveyed in erroneous forms, and motives of permanent price for humanity could only be secured in these mistaken expressions. Here I would again press the point of this necessity for erroneous forms and mistaken expressions being, in a great many of the most important instances, itself derivative, one among other ill consequences of previous moral and religious error. 'It was gravely said,' Bacon tells us, 'by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrines of the Schoolmen have great sway; that the schoolmen were like Astronomers, which did faigne Eccentricks and Epicycles and Engines of Orbs to save the Phenomena; though they know there were no such Things; and in like manner that the Schoolmen had framed a number of subtile and intricate Axioms and Theorems, to save the practice of the Church.' This is true of much else besides scholastic axioms and theorems. Subordinate error was made necessary and invented, by reason of some pro-existent main stock of error, and to save the practice of the Church. Thus we are often referred to the consolation which this or that doctrine has brought to the human spirit. But what if the same system had produced the terror which made absence of consolation intolerable? How much of the necessity for expressing the enlarged humanity of the Church in the doctrine of purgatory, arose from the existence of the older unsoftened doctrine of eternal hell?
Again, how much of this alleged necessity of error, as alloy for the too pure metal of sterling truth, is to be explained by the interest which powerful castes or corporations have had in preserving the erroneous forms, even when they could not resist, or did not wish to resist, their impregnation by newer and better doctrine? This interest was not deliberately sinister or malignant. It may be more correctly as well as more charitably explained by that infirmity of human nature, which makes us very ready to believe what it is on other grounds convenient to us to believe. Nobody attributes to pure malevolence the heartiness with which the great corporation of lawyers, for example, resist the removal of superfluous and obstructive forms in their practice; they have come to look on such forms as indispensable safeguards. Hence powerful teachers and preachers of all kinds have been spontaneously inclined to suppose a necessity, which had no real existence, of preserving as much as was possible of what we know to be error, even while introducing wholesome modification of it. This is the honest, though mischievous, conservatism of the human mind. We have no right to condemn our foregoers; far less to lavish on them the evil names of impostor, charlatan, and brigand, which the zealous unhistoric school of the last century used so profusely. But we have a right to say of them, as we say of those who imitate their policy now, that their conservatism is no additional proof of the utility of error. Least of all is it any justification for those who wish to have impressed upon the people a complete system of religious opinion which men of culture have avowedly put away. And, moreover, the very priests must, I should think, be supposed to have put it away also. Else they would hardly be invited deliberately to abdicate their teaching functions in the very seats where teaching is of the weightiest and most far-spreading influence.
Meanwhile our point is that the reforms in opinion which have been effected on the plan of pouring the new wine of truth into the old bottles of superstition—though not dishonourable to the sincerity of the reformers—are no testimony to even the temporary usefulness of error. Those who think otherwise do not look far enough in front of the event. They forget the evil wrought by the prolonged duration of the error, to which the added particle of truth may have given new vitality. They overlook the ultimate enervation that is so often the price paid for the temporary exaltation.
Nor, finally, can they know the truths which the error thus prolonged has hindered from coming to the birth. A strenuous disputant has recently asserted against me that 'the region of the might have been lies beyond the limits of sane speculation.' It in surely extending optimism too far to insist on carrying it back right through the ages. To me at any rate the history of mankind is a huge pis-aller, just as our present society is; a prodigious wasteful experiment, from which a certain number of precious results have been extracted, but which is not now, nor ever has been at any other time, a final measure of all the possibilities of the time. This is not inconsistent with the scientific conception of history; it is not to deny the great law that society has a certain order of progress; but only to urge that within that, the only possible order, there is always room for all kinds and degrees of invention, improvement, and happy or unhappy accident. There is no discoverable law fixing precisely the more or the less of these; nor how much of each of them a community shall meet with, nor exactly when it shall meet with them. We have to distinguish between possibility and necessity. Only certain steps in advance are possible at a given time; but it is not inevitable that those potential advances should all be realised. Does anybody suppose that humanity has had the profit of all the inventive and improving capacity born into the world? That Turgot, for example, was the only man that ever lived who might have done more for society than he was allowed to do, and spared society a cataclysm? No,—history is a pis-aller. It has assuredly not moved without the relation of cause and effect; it is a record of social growth and its conditions; but it is also a record of interruption and misadventure and perturbation. You trace the long chain which has made us what we are in this aspect and that. But where are the dropped links that might have made all the difference? Ubi sunt eorum tabulae qui post vota nuncupate perierunt? Where is the fruit of those multitudinous gifts which came into the world in untimely seasons? We accept the past for the same reason that we accept the laws of the solar system, though, as Comte says, 'we can easily conceive them improved in certain respects.' The past, like the solar system, is beyond reach of modification at our hands, and we cannot help it. But it is surely the mere midsummer madness of philosophic complacency to think that we have come by the shortest and easiest of all imaginable routes to our present point in the march; to suppose that we have wasted nothing, lost nothing, cruelly destroyed nothing, on the road. What we have lost is all in the region of the 'might have been,' and we are justified in taking this into account, and thinking much of it, and in trying to find causes for the loss. One of them has been want of liberty for the human intelligence; and another, to return to our proper subject, has been the prolonged existence of superstition, of false opinions, and of attachment to gross symbols, beyond the time when they might have been successfully attacked, and would have fallen into decay but for the mistaken political notion of their utility. In making a just estimate of this utility, if we see reason to believe that these false opinions, narrow superstitions, gross symbols, have been an impediment to the free exercise of the intelligence and a worthier culture of the emotions, then we are justified in placing the unknown loss as a real and most weighty item in the account against them.
In short, then, the utmost that can be said on behalf of errors in opinion and motive, is that they are inevitable elements in human growth. But the inevitable does not coincide with the useful. Pain can be avoided by none of the sons of men, yet the horrible and uncompensated subtraction which it makes from the value and usefulness of human life, is one of the most formidable obstacles to the smoother progress of the world. And as with pain, so with error. The moral of our contention has reference to the temper in which practically we ought to regard false doctrine and ill-directed motive. It goes to show that if we have satisfied ourselves on good grounds that the doctrine is false, or the motive ill directed, then the only question that we need ask ourselves turns solely upon the possibility of breaking it up and dispersing it, by methods compatible with the doctrine of liberty. Any embarrassment in dealing with it, due to a semi-latent notion that it may be useful to some one else is a weakness that hinders social progress.
[Footnote 5: Mill's Autobiography p. 170.]
[Footnote 6: M. Renan's Reforme Intellectuelle et Morale de la France, p. 98.]
[Footnote 7: Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse, Preface, p. xvi.]
[Footnote 8: In 1779 the Academy of Prussia announced this as the question for their annual prize essay:—'S'il est utile au peuple d'etre trompe.' They received thirty-three essays; twenty showing that it is not useful, thirteen showing that it is. The Academy, with an impartiality that caused much amusement in Paris and Berlin, awarded two prizes, one to the best proof of the negative answer, another to the best proof of the affirmative. See Bartholmess, Hist. Philosophique de l'Academie de Prusse, i. 281, and ii. 278. Condorcet did not actually compete for the prize, but he wrote a very acute piece, suggested by the theme, which was printed in 1790. Oeuv. v. 343.
To illustrate the common fact of certain currents of thought being in the air at given times, we may mention that in 1770 was published the posthumous work of another Frenchman, Chesneau du Marsais (1676-1756) entitled:—'Essai sur les Prejuges; ou de l'influence des Opinions sur les Moeurs et sur le Bonheur des Hommes.' The principal prejudices to which he refers are classed under Antiquity—Ancestry—Native Country—Religion—Respect for Wealth. Some of the reasoning is almost verbally identical with Condorcet's. For an account of Du Marsais, see D'Alembert, Oeuv. iii 481.]
[Footnote 9: Oeuv. v. 354.]
[Footnote 10: Mill's Three Essays on Religion, p.73. I have offered some criticisms on the whole passage in Critical Miscellanies, Second Series, pp. 300-304.]
[Footnote 11: 'Enfin, supposons pour un instant que le dogme de l'autre vie soit de quelqu'utilite, et qu'il retienne vraiment un petit nombre d'individus, qu'est-ce que ces foibles avantages compares a la foule de maux que l'on en voir decouler? Contre un homme timide que cette idee contient, il en est des millions qu'elle ne peut contenir; il en des millions qu'elle rend insenses, farouches, fanatiques, inutiles et mechants; il en est des millions qu'elle detourne de leurs devoirs envers la societe; il en est une infinite qu'elle afflige et qu'elle trouble, sans aucun bien reel pour leurs associes.—Systeme de la Nature, i. xiii.]
[Footnote 12: Sir J.F. Stephen's Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, 2d. ed., p. 19, note.]
INTELLECTUAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE POLITICAL SPIRIT.
We have been considering the position of those who would fain divide the community into two great castes; the one of thoughtful and instructed persons using their minds freely, but guarding their conclusions in strict reserve; the other of the illiterate or unreflecting, who should have certain opinions and practices taught them, not because they are true or are really what their votaries are made to believe them to be, but because the intellectual superiors of the community think the inculcation of such a belief useful in all cases save their own. Nor is this a mere theory. On the contrary, it is a fair description of an existing state of things. We have the old disciplina arcani among us in as full force as in the primitive church, but with an all-important difference. The Christian fathers practised reserve for the sake of leading the acolyte the more surely to the fulness of truth. The modern economiser keeps back his opinions, or dissembles the grounds of them, for the sake of leaving his neighbours the more at their ease in the peaceful sloughs of prejudice and superstition and low ideals. We quote Saint Paul when he talked of making himself all things to all men, and of becoming to the Jews a Jew, and as without the Law to the heathen. But then we do so with a view to justifying ourselves for leaving the Jew to remain a Jew, and the heathen to remain heathen. We imitate the same apostle in accepting old time-worn altars dedicated to the Unknown God. We forget that he made the ancient symbol the starting-point of a revolutionised doctrine. There is, as anybody can see, a whole world of difference between the reserve of sagacious apostleship, on the one hand, dealing tenderly with scruple and tearfulness and fine sensibility of conscience, and the reserve of intellectual cowardice on the other hand, dealing hypocritically with narrow minds in the supposed interests of social peace and quietness. The old disciplina arcani signified the disclosure of a little light with a view to the disclosure of more. The new means the dissimulation of truth with a view to the perpetuation of error. Consider the difference between these two fashions of compromise, in their effects upon the mind and character of the person compromising. The one is fully compatible with fervour and hopefulness and devotion to great causes. The other stamps a man with artifice, and hinders the free eagerness of his vision, and wraps him about with mediocrity,—not always of understanding, but that still worse thing, mediocrity of aspiration and purpose.
The coarsest and most revolting shape which the doctrine of conformity can assume, and its degrading consequences to the character of the conformer, may be conveniently illustrated by a passage in the life of Hume. He looked at things in a more practical manner than would find favour with the sentimental champions of compromise in nearer times. There is a well-known letter of Hume's, in which he recommends a young man to become a clergyman, on the ground that it was very hard to got any tolerable civil employment, and that as Lord Bute was then all powerful, his friend would be certain of preferment. In answer to the young man's scruples as to the Articles and the rest, Hume says:—
'It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and their superstitions to pique one's self on sincerity with regard to them. If the thing were worthy of being treated gravely, I should tell him [the young man] that the Pythian oracle with the approbation of Xenophon advised every one to worship the gods—[Greek: nhomo pholeos]. I wish it were still in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it; and the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to an innocent dissimulation, or rather simulation, without which it is impossible to pass through the world.'
This is a singularly straightforward way of stating a view which silently influences a much greater number of men than it is pleasant to think of. They would shrink from throwing their conduct into so gross a formula. They will lift up their hands at this quotation, so strangely blind are we to the hiding-places of our own hearts, even when others flash upon them the terrible illumination that comes of calling conduct and motives by plain names. Now it is not merely the moral improbity of these cases which revolts us—the improbity of making in solemn form a number of false statements for the sake of earning a livelihood; of saying in order to get money or social position that you accept a number of propositions which in fact you utterly reject; of declaring expressly that you trust you are inwardly moved to take upon you this office and ministration by the Holy Ghost, when the real motive is a desire not to miss the chance of making something out of the Earl of Bute. This side of such dissimulation is shocking enough. And it is not any more shocking to the most devout believer than it is to people who doubt whether there be any Holy Ghost or not. Those who no longer place their highest faith in powers above and beyond men, are for that very reason more deeply interested than others in cherishing the integrity and worthiness of man himself. Apart, however, from the immorality of such reasoned hypocrisy, which no man with a particle of honesty will attempt to blink, there is the intellectual improbity which it brings in its train, the infidelity to truth, the disloyalty to one's own intelligence. Gifts of understanding are numbed and enfeebled in a man, who has once played such a trick with his own conscience as to persuade himself that, because the vulgar are superstitious, it is right for the learned to earn money by turning themselves into the ministers and accomplices of superstition. If he is clever enough to see through the vulgar and their beliefs, he is tolerably sure to be clever enough from time to time and in his better moments to see through himself. He begins to suspect himself of being an impostor. That suspicion gradually unmans him when he comes to use his mind in the sphere of his own enlightenment. One of really superior power cannot escape these better moments and the remorse that they bring. As he advances in life, as his powers ought to be coming to fuller maturity and his intellectual productiveness to its prime, just in the same degree the increasing seriousness of life multiplies such moments and deepens their remorse, and so the light of intellectual promise slowly goes out in impotent endeavour, or else in taking comfort that much goods are laid up, or, what is deadliest of all, in a soulless cynicism.
We do not find out until it is too late that the intellect too, at least where it is capable of being exercised on the higher objects, has its sensitiveness. It loses its colour and potency and finer fragrance in an atmosphere of mean purpose and low conception of the sacredness of fact and reality. Who has not observed inferior original power achieving greater results even in the intellectual field itself, where the superior understanding happens to have been unequally yoked with a self-seeking character, over scenting the expedient? If Hume had been in the early productive part of his life the hypocrite which he wished it were in his power to show himself in its latter part, we may be tolerably sure that European philosophy would have missed one of its foremost figures. It has been often said that he who begins life by stifling his convictions is in a fair way for ending it without any convictions to stifle. We may, perhaps, add that he who sets out with the notion that the difference between truth and falsehood is a thing of no concern to the vulgar, is very likely sooner or later to come to the kindred notion that it is not a thing of any supreme concern to himself.
Let thus much have been said as to those who deliberately and knowingly sell their intellectual birthright for a mess of pottage, making a brazen compromise with what they hold despicable, lest they should have to win their bread honourably. Men need to expend no declamatory indignation upon them. They have a hell of their own; words can add no bitterness to it. It is no light thing to have secured a livelihood on condition of going through life masked and gagged. To be compelled, week after week, and year after year, to recite the symbols of ancient faith and lift up his voice in the echoes of old hopes, with the blighting thought in his soul that the faith is a lie, and the hope no more than the folly of the crowd; to read hundreds of times in a twelvemonth with solemn unction as the inspired word of the Supreme what to him are meaningless as the Abracadabras of the conjuror in a booth; to go on to the end of his days administering to simple folk holy rites of commemoration and solace, when he has in his mind at each phrase what dupes are those simple folk and how wearisomely counterfeit their rites: and to know through all that this is really to be the one business of his prostituted life, that so dreary and hateful a piece of play-acting will make the desperate retrospect of his last hours—of a truth here is the very [Greek: bdhelygma tes eremhoseos], the abomination of desolation of the human spirit indeed.
No one will suppose that this is designed for the normal type of priest. But it is well to study tendencies in their extreme catastrophe. This is only the catastrophe, in one of its many shapes, of the fatal doctrine that money, position, power, philanthropy, or any of the thousand seductive masks of the pseudo-expedient, may carry a man away from love of truth and yet leave him internally unharmed. The depravation that follows the trucking for money of intellectual freedom and self-respect, attends in its degree each other departure from disinterested following of truth, and each other substitution of convenience, whether public or private, in its place. And both parties to such a compromise are losers. The world which offers gifts and tacitly undertakes to ask no questions as to the real state of the timeserver's inner mind, loses no less than the timeserver himself who receives the gifts and promises to hold his peace. It is as though a society placed penalties on mechanical inventions and the exploration of new material resources, and offered bounties for the steadiest adherence to all ancient processes in culture and production. The injury to wealth in the one case would not be any deeper than the injury to morality is in the other.
To pass on to less sinister forms of this abnegation of intellectual responsibility. In the opening sentences of the first chapter we spoke of a wise suspense in forming opinions, a wise reserve in expressing them, and a wise tardiness in trying to realise them. Thus we meant to mark out the three independent provinces of compromise, each of them being the subject of considerations that either do not apply at all to the other two, or else apply in a different degree. Disingenuousness or self-illusion, arising from a depressing deference to the existing state of things, or to what is immediately practicable, or to what other people would think of us if they knew our thoughts, is the result of compromising truth in the matter of forming and holding opinions. Secondly, positive simulation is what comes of an unlawful willingness to compromise in the matter of avowing and publishing them. Finally, pusillanimity or want of faith is the vice that belongs to unlawful compromise in the department of action and realisation. This is not merely a division arranged for convenience of discussion. It goes to the root of conduct and character, and is the key to the present mood of our society. It is always a hardy thing to attempt to throw a complex matter into very simple form, but we should say that the want of energy and definiteness in contemporary opinions, of which we first complained, is due mainly to the following notion; that if a subject is not ripe for practical treatment, you and I are therefore entirely relieved from the duty of having clear ideas about it. If the majority cling to an opinion, why should we ask whether that is the sound and right opinion or the reverse? Now this notion, which springs from a confusion of the three fields of compromise with one another, quietly reigns almost without dispute. The devotion to the practical aspect of truth is in such excess, as to make people habitually deny that it can be worth while to form an opinion, when it happens at the moment to be incapable of realisation, for the reason that there is no direct prospect of inducing a sufficient number of persons to share it. 'We are quite willing to think that your view is the right one, and would produce all the improvements for which you hope; but then there is not the smallest chance of persuading the only persons able to carry out such a view; why therefore discuss it?' No talk is more familiar to us than this. As if the mere possibility of the view being a right one did not obviously entitle it to discussion; discussion being the only process by which people are likely to be induced to accept it, or else to find good grounds for finally dismissing it.
It is precisely because we believe that opinion, and nothing but opinion, can effect great permanent changes, that we ought to be careful to keep this most potent force honest, wholesome, fearless, and independent. Take the political field. Politicians and newspapers almost systematically refuse to talk about a new idea, which is not capable of being at once embodied in a bill, and receiving the royal assent before the following August. There is something rather contemptible, seen from the ordinary standards of intellectual integrity, in the position of a minister who waits to make up his mind whether a given measure, say the disestablishment of the Irish Church, is in itself and on the merits desirable, until the official who runs diligently up and down the backstairs of the party, tells him that the measure is practicable and required in the interests of the band. On the one hand, a leader is lavishly panegyrised for his highmindedness, in suffering himself to be driven into his convictions by his party. On the other, a party is extolled for its political tact, in suffering itself to be forced out of its convictions by its leader. It is hard to decide which is the more discreditable and demoralising sight. The education of chiefs by followers, and of followers by chiefs, into the abandonment in a month of the traditions of centuries or the principles of a lifetime may conduce to the rapid and easy working of the machine. It certainly marks a triumph of the political spirit which the author of The Prince might have admired. It is assuredly mortal to habits of intellectual self-respect in the society which allows itself to be amused by the cajolery and legerdemain and self-sophistication of its rulers.
Of course there are excellent reasons why a statesman immersed in the actual conduct of affairs, should confine his attention to the work which his hands find to do. But the fact that leading statesmen are of necessity so absorbed in the tasks of the hour furnishes all the better reason why as many other people as possible should busy themselves in helping to prepare opinion for the practical application of unfamiliar but weighty and promising suggestions, by constant and ready discussion of them upon their merits. As a matter of fact it is not the men most occupied who are usually most deaf to new ideas. It is the loungers of politics, the quidnuncs, gossips, bustling idlers, who are most industrious in stifling discussion by protests against the waste of time and the loss of force involved in talking about proposals which are not exactly ready to be voted on. As it is, everybody knows that questions are inadequately discussed, or often not discussed at all, on the ground that the time is not yet come for their solution. Then when some unforeseen perturbation, or the natural course of things, forces on the time for their resolution, they are settled in a slovenly, imperfect, and often downright vicious manner, from the fact that opinion has not been prepared for solving them in an efficient and perfect manner. The so-called settlement of the question of national education is the most recent and most deplorable illustration of what comes of refusing to examine ideas alleged to be impracticable. Perhaps we may venture to prophesy that the disendowment of the national church will supply the next illustration on an imposing scale. Gratuitous primary instruction, and the redistribution of electoral power, are other matters of signal importance, which comparatively few men will consent to discuss seriously and patiently, and for our indifference to which we shall one day surely smart. A judicious and cool writer has said that 'an opinion gravely professed by a man of sense and education demands always respectful consideration—demands and actually receives it from those whose own sense and education give them a correlative right; and whoever offends against this sort of courtesy may fairly be deemed to have forfeited the privileges it secures.' That is the least part of the matter. The serious mischief is the eventual miscarriage and loss and prodigal waste of good ideas.
The evil of which we have been speaking comes of not seeing the great truth, that it is worth while to take pains to find out the best way of doing a given task, even if you have strong grounds for suspecting that it will ultimately be done in a worse way. And so also in spheres of thought away from the political sphere, it is worth while 'to scorn delights and live laborious days' in order to make as sure as we can of having the best opinion, even if we know that this opinion has an infinitely small chance of being speedily or ever accepted by the majority, or by anybody but ourselves. Truth and wisdom have to bide their time, and then take their chance after all. The most that the individual can do is to seek them for himself, even if he seek alone. And if it is the most, it is also the least. Yet in our present mood we seem not to feel this. We misunderstand the considerations which should rightly lead us in practice to surrender some of what we desire, in order to secure the rest; and rightly make us acquiesce in a second-best course of action, in order to avoid stagnation or retrogression. We misunderstand all this, and go on to suppose that there are the same grounds why we should in our own minds acquiesce in second-best opinions; why we should mix a little alloy of conventional expression with the too fine ore of conviction; why we should adopt beliefs that we suspect in our hearts to be of more than equivocal authenticity, but into whose antecedents we do not greatly care to inquire, because they stand so well with the general public. This is compromise or economy or management of the first of the three kinds of which we are talking. It is economy applied to the formation of opinion; compromise or management in making up one's mind.
The lawfulness or expediency of it turns mainly, as with the other two kinds of compromise, upon the relative rights of the majority and the minority, and upon the respect which is owing from the latter to the former. It is a very easy thing for people endowed with the fanatical temperament, or demoralised by the habit of looking at society exclusively from the juridical point of view, to insist that no respect at all, except the respect that arises from being too weak to have your own way, is due from either to the other. This shallow and mischievous notion rests either on a misinterpretation of the experience of civilised societies, or else on nothing more creditable than an arbitrary and unreflecting temper. Those who have thought most carefully and disinterestedly about the matter, are agreed that in advanced societies the expedient course is that no portion of the community should insist on imposing its own will upon any other portion, except in matters which are vitally connected with the maintenance of the social union. The question where this vital connection begins is open to much discussion. The line defining the sphere of legitimate interference may be drawn variously, whether at self-regarding acts, or in some other condition and element of conduct. Wherever this line may be best taken, not only abstract speculation, but the practical and spontaneous tact of the world, has decided that there are limits, alike in the interest of majority and minority, to the rights of either to disturb the other. In other words, it is expedient in certain affairs that the will of the majority should be absolutely binding, while in affairs of a different order it should count for nothing, or as nearly nothing, as the sociable dependence of a man on his fellows will permit.
Our thesis is this. In the positive endeavour to realise an opinion, to convert a theory into practice, it may be, and very often is, highly expedient to defer to the prejudices of the majority, to move very slowly, to bow to the conditions of the status quo, to practise the very utmost sobriety, self-restraint, and conciliatoriness. The mere expression of opinion, in the next place, the avowal of dissent from received notions, the refusal to conform to language which implies the acceptance of such notions,—this rests on a different footing. Here the reasons for respecting the wishes and sentiments of the majority are far less strong, though, as we shall presently see, such reasons certainly exist, and will weigh with all well-considering men. Finally, in the formation of an opinion as to the abstract preferableness of one course of action over another, or as to the truth or falsehood or right significance of a proposition, the fact that the majority of one's contemporaries lean in the other direction is naught, and no more than dust in the balance. In making up our minds as to what would be the wisest line of policy if it were practicable, we have nothing to do with the circumstance that it is not practicable. And in settling with ourselves whether propositions purporting to state matters of fact are trim or not, we have to consider how far they are conformable to the evidence. We have nothing to do with the comfort and solace which they would be likely to bring to others or ourselves, if they were taken as true.
A nominal assent to this truth will be instantly given even by those who in practice systematically disregard it. The difficulty of transforming that nominal assent into a reality is enormous in such a community as ours. Of all societies since the Roman Republic, and not even excepting the Roman Republic, England has been the most emphatically and essentially political. She has passed through military phases and through religious phases, but they have been transitory, and the great central stream of national life has flowed in political channels. The political life has been stronger than any other, deeper, wider, more persistent, more successful. The wars which built up our far-spreading empire were not waged with designs of military conquest; they were mostly wars for a market. The great spiritual emancipation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries figures in our history partly as an accident, partly as an intrigue, partly as a raid of nobles in search of spoil. It was hardly until the reformed doctrine became associated with analogous ideas and corresponding precepts in government, that people felt at home with it, and became really interested in it.
One great tap-root of our national increase has been the growth of self-government, or government by deliberative bodies, representing opposed principles and conflicting interests. With the system of self-government has grown the habit—not of tolerance precisely, for Englishmen when in earnest are as little in love with tolerance as Frenchmen or any other people, but—of giving way to the will of the majority, so long as they remain a majority. This has come to pass for the simple reason that, on any other terms, the participation of large numbers of people in the control and arrangement of public affairs immediately becomes unworkable. The gradual concentration of power in the hands of a supreme deliberative body, the active share of so many thousands of persons in choosing and controlling its members, the close attention with which the proceedings of parliament are followed and watched, the kind of dignity that has been lent to parliamentary methods by the great importance of the transactions, have all tended in the same direction. They have all helped both to fix our strongest and most constant interests upon politics, and to ingrain the mental habits proper to politics, far more deeply than any other, into our general constitution and inmost character.
Thus the political spirit has grown to be the strongest element in our national life; the dominant force, extending its influence over all our ways of thinking in matters that have least to do with politics, or even nothing at all to do with them. There has thus been engendered among us the real sense of political responsibility. In a corresponding degree has been discouraged, what it is the object of the present chapter to urge, the sense of intellectual responsibility. If it were inevitable that one of these two should always enfeeble or exclude the other, if the price of the mental alacrity and open-mindedness of the age of Pericles must always be paid in the political incompetence of the age of Demosthenes, it would be hard to settle which quality ought to be most eagerly encouraged by those who have most to do with the spiritual direction of a community. No doubt the tone of a long-enduring and imperial society, such as Rome was, must be conservative, drastic, positive, hostile to the death to every speculative novelty. But then, after all, the permanence of Roman power was only valuable to mankind because it ensured the spread of certain civilising ideas. And these ideas had originated among people so characteristically devoid of the sovereign faculty of political coherency as were the Greeks and the Jews. In the Greeks, it is true, we find not only ideas of the highest speculative fertility, but actual political institutions. Still we should hardly point to Greek history for the most favourable examples of their stable working. Practically and as a matter of history, a society is seldom at the same time successfully energetic both in temporals and spirituals; seldom prosperous alike in seeking abstract truth and nursing the political spirit. There is a decisive preponderance in one direction or the other, and the equal balance between free and active thinking, and coherent practical energy in a community, seems too hard to sustain. The vast military and political strength of Germany, for instance, did not exist, and was scarcely anticipated in men's minds, during the time of her most strenuous passion for abstract truth and deeper learning and new criticism. In France never was political and national interest so debilitated, so extinct, as it was during the reign of Lewis the Fifteenth: her intellectual interest was never so vivid, so fruitful, or so widely felt.
Yet it is at least well, and more than that, it is an indispensable condition of social wellbeing, that the divorce between political responsibility and intellectual responsibility, between respect for what is instantly practicable and search after what is only important in thought, should not be too complete and universal. Even if there were no other objection, the undisputed predominance of the political spirit has a plain tendency to limit the subjects in which the men animated by it can take a real interest. All matters fall out of sight, or at least fall into a secondary place, which do not bear more or less directly and patently upon the material and structural welfare of the community. In this way the members of the community miss the most bracing, widening, and elevated of the whole range of influences that create great characters. First, they lose sincere concern about the larger questions which the human mind has raised up for itself. Second, they lose a fearless desire to reach the true answers to them, or if no certain answers should prove to be within reach, then at any rate to be satisfied on good grounds that this is so. Such questions are not immediately discerned by commonplace minds to be of social import. Consequently they, and all else that is not obviously connected with the machinery of society, give way in the public consideration to what is so connected with it, in a manner that cannot be mistaken.
Again, even minds that are not commonplace are affected for the worse by the same spirit. They are aware of the existence of the great speculative subjects and of their importance, but the pressure of the political spirit on such men makes them afraid of the conclusions to which free inquiry might bring them. Accordingly they abstain from inquiry, and dread nothing so much as making up their minds. They see reasons for thinking that, if they applied themselves seriously to the formation of true opinions in this or that department, they would come to conclusions which, though likely to make their way in the course of some centuries, are wholly unpopular now, and which might ruin the influence of anybody suspected of accepting, or even of so much as leaning towards, them. Life, they reflect, is short; missionaries do not pass for a very agreeable class, nor martyrs for a very sensible class; one can only do a trifling amount of good in the world, at best; it is moral suicide to throw away any chance of achieving even that trifle; and therefore it is best not only not to express, but not to take the trouble to acquire, right views in this quarter or that, and to draw clear away from such or such a region of thought, for the sake of keeping peace on earth and superficial good will among men.
It would be too harsh to stigmatise such a train of thought as self-seeking and hypocritical. It is the natural product of the political spirit, which is incessantly thinking of present consequences and the immediately feasible. There is nothing in the mere dread of losing it, to hinder influence from being well employed, so far as it goes. But one can hardly overrate the ill consequences of this particular kind of management, this unspoken bargaining with the little circle of his fellows which constitutes the world of a man. If he may retain his place among them as preacher or teacher, he is willing to forego his birthright of free explanation; he consents to be blind to the duty which attaches to every intelligent man of having some clear ideas, even though only provisional ones, upon the greatest subjects of human interest, and of deliberately preferring these, whatever they may be, to their opposites. Either an individual or a community is fatally dwarfed by any such limitation of the field in which one is free to use his mind. For it is a limitation, not prescribed by absorption in one set of subjects rather than another, nor by insufficient preparation for the discussion of certain subjects, nor by indolence nor incuriousness, but solely by apprehension of the conclusions to which such use of the mind might bring the too courageous seeker. If there were no other ill effect, this kind of limitation would at least have the radical disadvantage of dulling the edge of responsibility, of deadening the sharp sense of personal answerableness either to a God, or to society, or to a man's own conscience and intellectual self-respect.
How momentous a disadvantage this is, we can best know by contemplating the characters which have sometimes lighted up the old times. Men were then devoutly persuaded that their eternal salvation depended on their having true beliefs. Any slackness in finding out which beliefs are the true ones would have to be answered for before the throne of Almighty God, at the sure risk and peril of everlasting damnation. To what quarter in the large historic firmament can we turn our eyes with such certainty of being stirred and elevated, of thinking better of human life and the worth of those who have been most deeply penetrated by its seriousness, as to the annals of the intrepid spirits whom the protestant doctrine of indefeasible personal responsibility brought to the front in Germany in the sixteenth century, and in England and Scotland in the seventeenth? It is not their fanaticism, still less is it their theology, which makes the great Puritan chiefs of England and the stern Covenanters of Scotland so heroic in our sight. It is the fact that they sought truth and ensued it, not thinking of the practicable nor cautiously counting majorities and minorities, but each man pondering and searching so 'as ever in the great Taskmaster's eye.'
It is no adequate answer to urge that this awful consciousness of a divine presence and supervision has ceased to be the living fact it once was. That partly explains, but it certainly does not justify, our present lassitude. For the ever-wakeful eye of celestial power is not the only conceivable stimulus to responsibility. To pass from those grim heroes of protestantism to the French philosophers of the last century is a wide leap in a hundred respects, yet they too were pricked by the oestrus of intellectual responsibility. Their doctrine was dismally insufficient, and sometimes, as the present writer has often pointed out, it was directly vicious. Their daily lives were surrounded by much shabbiness and many meannesses. But, after all, no temptation and no menace, no pains or penalties for thinking about certain subjects, and no rewards for turning to think about something else, could divert such men as Voltaire and Diderot from their alert and strenuous search after such truth as could be vouchsafed to their imperfect lights. A catastrophe followed, it is true, but the misfortunes which attended it were due more to the champions of tradition and authority than to the soldiers of emancipation. Even in the case of the latter, they were due to an inadequate doctrine, and not at all either to their sense of the necessity of free speculation and inquiry, or to the intrepidity with which they obeyed the promptings of that ennobling sense.
Perhaps the latest attempt of a considerable kind to suppress the political spirit in non-political concerns was the famous movement which had its birth a generation ago among the gray quadrangles and ancient gardens of Oxford, 'the sweet city with her dreaming spires,' where there has ever been so much detachment from the world, alongside of the coarsest and fiercest hunt after the grosser prizes of the world. No one has much less sympathy with the direction of the tractarian revival than the present writer, in whose Oxford days the star of Newman had set, and the sun of Mill had risen in its stead. And it is needful to distinguish the fervid and strong spirits with whom the revival began from the mimics of our later day. No doubt the mere occasion of tractarianism was political. Its leaders were alarmed at the designs imputed to the newly reformed parliament of disestablishing the Anglican Church. They asked themselves the question, which I will put in their own words (Tract i.)—'Should the government of the country so far forget their God as to cut off the Church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance, on what will you rest the claims to respect and attention which you make upon your flock? In answering this question they speedily found themselves, as might have been expected, at the opposite pole of thought from things political. The whole strength of their appeal to members of the Church lay in men's weariness of the high and dry optimism, which presents the existing order of things as the noblest possible, and the undisturbed way of the majority as the way of salvation. Apostolical succession and Sacramentalism may not have been in themselves progressive ideas. The spirit which welcomed them had at least the virtue of taking away from Caesar the things that are not Caesar's.
Glaring as were the intellectual faults of the Oxford movement, it was at any rate a recognition in a very forcible way of the doctrine that spiritual matters are not to be settled by the dicta of a political council. It acknowledged that a man is answerable at his own peril for having found or lost the truth. It was a warning that he must reckon with a judge who will not account the status quo, nor the convenience of a cabinet, a good plea for indolent acquiescence in theological error. It ended, in the case of its most vigorous champions, in a final and deliberate putting out of the eyes of the understanding. The last act of assertion of personal responsibility was a headlong acceptance of the responsibility of tradition and the Church. This was deplorable enough. But apart from other advantages incidental to the tractarian movement, such as the attention which it was the means of drawing to history and the organic connection between present and past, it had, we repeat, the merit of being an effective protest against what may be called the House of Commons' view of human life—a view excellent in its place, but most blighting and dwarfing out of it. It was, what every sincere uprising of the better spirit in men and women must always be, an effective protest against the leaden tyranny of the man of the world and the so-called practical person. The man of the world despises catholics for taking their religious opinions on trust and being the slaves of tradition. As if he had himself formed his own most important opinions either in religion or anything else. He laughs at them for their superstitious awe of the Church. As if his own inward awe of the Greater Number were one whit less of a superstition. He mocks their deference for the past. As if his own absorbing deference to the present were one tittle better bottomed or a jot more respectable. The modern emancipation will profit us very little if the status quo is to be fastened round our necks with the despotic authority of a heavenly dispensation, and if in the stead of ancient Scriptures we are to accept the plenary inspiration of Majorities.
It may be urged that if, as it is the object of the present chapter to state, there are opinions which a man should form for himself, and which it may yet be expedient that he should not only be slow to attempt to realise in practical life, but sometimes even slow to express,—then we are demanding from him the performance of a troublesome duty, while we are taking from him the only motives which could really induce him to perform it. If, it may be asked, I am not to carry my notions into practice, nor try to induce others to accept them, nor even boldly publish them, why in the name of all economy of force should I take so much pains in forming opinions which are, after all, on these conditions so very likely to come to naught? The answer to this is that opinions do not come to naught, even if the man who holds them should never think fit to publish them. For one thing, as we shall see in our next division, the conditions which make against frank declaration of our convictions are of rare occurrence. And, apart from this, convictions may well exert a most decisive influence over our conduct, even if reasons exist, or seem to exist, for not pressing them on others. Though themselves invisible to the outer world, they may yet operate with magnetic force both upon other parts of our belief which the outer world does see, and upon the whole of our dealings with it. Whether we are good or bad, it is only a broken and incoherent fragment of our whole personality that even those who are intimate with us, much less the common world, can ever come into contact with. The important thing is that the personality itself should be as little as possible broken, incoherent, and fragmentary; that reasoned and consistent opinions should back a firm will, and independent convictions inspire the intellectual self-respect and strenuous self-possession which the clamour of majorities and the silent yet ever-pressing force of the status quo are equally powerless to shake.
Character is doubtless of far more importance than mere intellectual opinion. We only too often see highly rationalised convictions in persons of weak purpose or low motives. But while fully recognising this, and the sort of possible reality which lies at the root of such a phrase as 'godless intellect' or 'intellectual devils'—though the phrase has no reality when it is used by self-seeking politicians or prelates—yet it is well to remember the very obvious truth that opinions are at least an extremely important part of character. As it is sometimes put, what we think has a prodigiously close connection with what we are. The consciousness of having reflected seriously and conclusively on important questions, whether social or spiritual, augments dignity while it does not lessen humility. In this sense, taking thought can and does add a cubit to our stature. Opinions which we may not feel bound or even permitted to press on other people, are not the less forces for being latent. They shape ideals, and it is ideals that inspire conduct. They do this, though from afar, and though he who possesses them may not presume to take the world into his confidence. Finally, unless a man follows out ideas to their full conclusion without fear what the conclusion may be, whether he thinks it expedient to make his thought and its goal fully known or not, it is impossible that he should acquire a commanding grasp of principles. And a commanding grasp of principles, whether they are public or not, is at the very root of coherency of character. It raises mediocrity near to a level with the highest talents, if those talents are in company with a disposition that allows the little prudences of the hour incessantly to obscure the persistent laws of things. These persistencies, if a man has once satisfied himself of their direction and mastered their bearings and application, are just as cogent and valuable a guide to conduct, whether he publishes them ad urbem et orbem, or esteems them too strong meat for people who have, through indurated use and wont, lost the courage of facing unexpected truths.
One conspicuous result of the failure to see that our opinions have roots to them, independently of the feelings which either majorities or other portions of the people around us may entertain about them, is that neither political matters nor any other serious branches of opinion, engage us in their loftiest or most deep-reaching forms. The advocate of a given theory of government or society is so misled by a wrong understanding of the practice of just and wise compromise in applying it, as to forget the noblest and most inspiring shape which his theory can be made to assume. It is the worst of political blunders to insist on carrying an ideal set of principles into execution, where others have rights of dissent, and those others persons whose assent is as indispensable to success, as it is impossible to attain. But to be afraid or ashamed of holding such an ideal set of principles in one's mind in their highest and most abstract expression, does more than any one other cause to stunt or petrify those elements in character to which life should owe most of its savour.
If a man happens to be a Conservative, for instance, it is pitiful that he should think so much more of what other people on his side or the other think, than of the widest and highest of the ideas on which a conservative philosophy of life and human society reposes. Such ideas are these,—that the social union is the express creation and ordering of the Deity: that its movements follow his mysterious and fixed dispensation: that the church and the state are convertible terms, and each citizen of the latter is an incorporated member of the former: that conscience, if perversely and misguidedly self-asserting, has no rights against the decrees of the conscience of the nation: that it is the most detestable of crimes to perturb the pacific order of society either by active agitation or speculative restlessness; that descent from a long line of ancestors in great station adds an element of dignity to life, and imposes many high obligations. We do not say that these and the rest of the propositions which make up the true theoretic basis of a conservative creed, are proper for the hustings, or expedient in an election address or a speech in parliament. We do say that if these high and not unintelligible principles, which alone can give to reactionary professions any worth or significance, were present in the minds of men who speak reactionary language, the country would be spared the ignominy of seeing certain real truths of society degraded at the hands of aristocratic adventurers and plutocratic parasites into some miserable process of 'dishing Whigs.'
This impoverishment of aims and depravation of principles by the triumph of the political spirit outside of its proper sphere, cannot unfortunately be restricted to any one set of people in the state. It is something in the very atmosphere, which no sanitary cordon can limit. Liberalism, too, would be something more generous, more attractive—yes, and more practically effective, if its professors and champions could allow their sense of what is feasible to be refreshed and widened by a more free recognition, however private and undemonstrative, of the theoretic ideas which give their social creed whatever life and consistency it may have. Such ideas are these: That the conditions of the social union are not a mystery, only to be touched by miracle, but the results of explicable causes, and susceptible of constant modification: that the thoughts of wise and patriotic men should be perpetually turned towards the improvement of these conditions in every direction: that contented acquiescence in the ordering that has come down to us from the past is selfish and anti-social, because amid the ceaseless change that is inevitable in a growing organism, the institutions of the past demand progressive re-adaptations: that such improvements are most likely to be secured in the greatest abundance by limiting the sphere of authority, extending that of free individuality, and steadily striving after the bestowal, so far as the nature of things will ever permit it, of equality of opportunity: that while there is dignity in ancestry, a modern society is only safe in proportion as it summons capacity to its public counsels and enterprises; that such a society to endure must progress: that progress on its political side means more than anything else the substitution of Justice as a governing idea, instead of Privilege, and that the best guarantee for justice in public dealings is the participation in their own government of the people most likely to suffer from injustice. This is not an exhaustive account of the progressive doctrine, and we have here nothing to say as to its soundness. We only submit that if those who use the watchwords of Liberalism were to return upon its principles, instead of dwelling exclusively on practical compromises, the tone of public life would be immeasurably raised. The cause of social improvement would be less systematically balked of the victories that are best worth gaining. Progress would mean something more than mere entrances and exits on the theatre of office. We should not see in the mass of parliamentary candidates—and they are important people, because nearly every Englishman with any ambition is a parliamentary candidate, actual or potential—that grave anxiety, that sober rigour, that immense caution, which are all so really laughable, because so many of those men are only anxious lest they should make a mistake in finding out what the majority of their constituents would like them to think; only rigorous against those who are indiscreet enough to press a principle against the beck of a whip or a wire-puller; and only very cautious not so much lest their opinion should be wrong, as lest it should not pay.
Indolence and timidity have united to popularise among us a flaccid latitudinarianism, which thinks itself a benign tolerance for the opinions of others. It is in truth only a pretentious form of being without settled opinions of our own, and without any desire to settle them. No one can complain of the want of speculative activity at the present time in a certain way. The air, at a certain social elevation, is as full as it has ever been of ideas, theories, problems, possible solutions, suggested questions, and proffered answers. But then they are at large, without cohesion, and very apt to be the objects even in the more instructed minds of not much more than dilettante interest. We see in solution an immense number of notions, which people think it quite unnecessary to precipitate in the form of convictions. We constantly hear the age lauded for its tolerance, for its candour, for its openness of mind, for the readiness with which a hearing is given to ideas that forty years ago, or even less than that, would have excluded persons suspected of holding them from decent society, and in fact did so exclude them. Before, however, we congratulate ourselves too warmly on this, let us be quite sure that we are not mistaking for tolerance what is really nothing more creditable than indifference. These two attitudes of mind, which are so vitally unlike in their real quality, are so hard to distinguish in their outer seeming.
One is led to suspect that carelessness is the right name for what looks like reasoned toleration, by such a line of consideration as the following. It is justly said that at the bottom of all the great discussions of modern society lie the two momentous questions, first whether there is a God, and second whether the soul is immortal. In other words, whether our fellow-creatures are the highest beings who take an interest in us, or in whom we need take an interest; and, then, whether life in this world is the only life of which we shall ever be conscious. It is true of most people that when they are talking of evolution, and the origin of species, and the experiential or intuitional source of ideas, and the utilitarian or transcendental basis of moral obligation, these are the questions which they really have in their minds. Now, in spite of the scientific activity of the day, nobody is likely to contend that men are pressed keenly in their souls by any poignant stress of spiritual tribulation in the face of the two supreme enigmas. Nobody will say that there is much of that striving and wrestling and bitter agonising, which whole societies of men have felt before now on questions of far less tremendous import. Ours, as has been truly said, is 'a time of loud disputes and weak convictions,' In a generation deeply impressed by a sense of intellectual responsibility this could not be. As it is, even superior men are better pleased to play about the height of these great arguments, to fly in busy intellectual sport from side to side, from aspect to aspect, than they are intent on resolving what it is, after all, that the discussion comes to and to which solution, when everything has been said and heard, the balance of truth really to incline. There are too many giggling epigrams; people are too willing to look on collections of mutually hostile opinions with the same kind of curiosity which they bestow on a collection of mutually hostile beasts in a menagerie. They have very faint predilections for one rather than another. If they were truly alive to the duty of conclusiveness, or to the inexpressible magnitude of the subjects which nominally occupy their minds, but really only exercise their tongues, this elegant Pyrrhonism would be impossible, and this light-hearted neutrality most unendurable.
Well has the illustrious Pascal said with reference to one of the two great issues of the modern controversy:—'The immortality of the soul is a thing that concerns us so closely and touches us so profoundly, that one must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing how the matter is. All our actions and all our thoughts must follow such different paths, according as there are eternal goods to hope for or are not, that it is impossible to take a step with sense and judgment, without regulating it in view of this point, which ought to be our first object.... I can have nothing but compassion for those who groan and travail in this doubt with all sincerity, who look on it as the worst of misfortunes, and who, sparing no pains to escape from it, make of this search their chief and most serious employment.... But he who doubts and searches not is at the same time a grievous wrongdoer, and a grievously unfortunate man. If along with this he is tranquil and self-satisfied, if he publishes his contentment to the world and plumes himself upon it, and if it is this very state of doubt which he makes the subject of his joy and vanity—I have no terms in which to describe so extravagant a creature.' Who, except a member of the school of extravagant creatures themselves, would deny that Pascal's irritation is most wholesome and righteous?
Perhaps in reply to this, we may be confronted by our own doctrine of intellectual responsibility interpreted in a directly opposite sense. We may be reminded of the long array of difficulties that interfere between us and knowledge in that tremendous matter, and of objections that rise in such perplexing force to an answer either one way or the other. And finally we may be despatched with a eulogy of caution and a censure of too great heat after certainty. The answer is that there is a kind of Doubt not without search, but after and at the end of search, which is not open to Pascal's just reproaches against the more ignoble and frivolous kind. And this too has been described for us by a subtle doctor of Pascal's communion. 'Are there pleasures of Doubt, as well as of Inference and Assent? In one sense there are. Not indeed if doubt means ignorance, uncertainty, or hopeless suspense; but there is a certain grave acquiescence in ignorance, a recognition of our impotence to solve momentous and urgent questions, which has a satisfaction of its own. After high aspirations, after renewed endeavours, after bootless toil, after long wanderings, after hope, effort, weariness, failure, painfully alternating and recurring, it is an immense relief to the exhausted mind to be able to say, "At length I know that I can know nothing about anything." ... Ignorance remains the evil which it ever was, but something of the peace of certitude is gained in knowing the worst, and in having reconciled the mind to the endurance of it.' Precisely, and what one would say of our own age is that it will not deliberately face this knowledge of the worst. So it misses the peace of certitude, and not only its peace, but the strength and coherency that follow strict acceptance of the worst, when the worst is after all the best within reach.
Those who are in earnest when they blame too great haste after certainty, do in reality mean us to embrace certainty, but in favour of the vulgar opinions. They only see the prodigious difficulties of the controversy when you do not incline to their own side in it. They only panegyrise caution and the strictly provisional when they suspect that intrepidity and love of the conclusive would lead them to unwelcome shores. These persons, however, whether fortunately or unfortunately, have no longer much influence over the most active part of the national intelligence. Whether permanently or not, resolute orthodoxy, however prosperous it may seem among many of the uncultivated rich, has lost its hold upon thought. For thought has become dispersive, and the centrifugal forces of the human mind, among those who think seriously, have for the time become dominant and supreme. No one, I suppose, imagines that the singular ecclesiastical revival which is now going on, is accompanied by any revival of real and reasoned belief; or that the opulent manufacturers who subscribe so generously for restored cathedral fabrics and the like, have been moved by the apologetics of Aids to Faith and the Christian Evidence Society.
Obviously only three ways of dealing with the great problems of which we have spoken are compatible with a strong and well-bottomed character. We may affirm that there is a deity with definable attributes; and that there is a conscious state and continued personality after the dissolution of the body. Or we may deny. Or we may assure ourselves that we have no faculties enabling us on good evidence either to deny or affirm. Intellectual self-respect and all the qualities that are derived from that, may well go with any one of these three courses, decisively followed and consistently applied in framing a rule of life and a settled scheme of its aims and motives. Why do we say that intellectual self-respect is not vigorous, nor the sense of intellectual responsibility and truthfulness and coherency quick and wakeful among us? Because so many people, even among those who might be expected to know better, insist on the futile attempt to reconcile all those courses, instead of fixing on one and steadily abiding in it. They speak as if they affirmed, and they act as if they denied, and in their hearts they cherish a slovenly sort of suspicion that we can neither deny nor affirm. It may be said that this comes to much the same thing as if they had formally decided in the last or neutral sense. It is not so. This illegitimate union of three contradictories fritters character away, breaks it up into discordant parts, and dissolves into mercurial fluidity that leavening sincerity and free and cheerful boldness, which come of harmonious principles of faith and action, and without which men can never walk as confident lovers of justice and truth.
Ambrose's famous saying, that 'it hath not pleased the Lord to give his people salvation in dialectic,' has a profound meaning far beyond its application to theology. It is deeply true that our ruling convictions are less the product of ratiocination than of sympathy, imagination, usage, tradition. But from this it does not follow that the reasoning faculties are to be further discouraged. On the contrary, just because the other elements are so strong that they can be trusted to take care of themselves, it is expedient to give special countenance to the intellectual habits, which alone can check and rectify the constantly aberrating tendencies of sentiment on the one side, and custom on the other. This remark brings us to another type, of whom it is not irrelevant to speak shortly in this place. The consequences of the strength of the political spirit are not all direct, nor does its strength by any means spring solely from its indulgence to the less respectable elements of character, such as languor, extreme pliableness, superficiality. On the contrary, it has an indirect influence in removing the only effective restraint on the excesses of some qualities which, when duly directed and limited, are among the most precious parts of our mental constitution. The political spirit is the great force in throwing love of truth and accurate reasoning into a secondary place. The evil does not stop here. This achievement has indirectly countenanced the postponement of intellectual methods, and the diminution of the sense of intellectual responsibility, by a school that is anything rather than political.
Theology has borrowed, and coloured for her own use, the principles which were first brought into vogue in politics. If in the one field it is the fashion to consider convenience first and truth second, in the other there is a corresponding fashion of placing truth second and emotional comfort first. If there are some who compromise their real opinions, or the chance of reaching truth, for the sake of gain, there are far more who shrink from giving their intelligence free play, for the sake of keeping undisturbed certain luxurious spiritual sensibilities. This choice of emotional gratification before truth and upright dealing with one's own understanding, creates a character that is certainly far less unlovely than those who sacrifice their intellectual integrity to more material convenience. The moral flaw is less palpable and less gross. Yet here too there is the stain of intellectual improbity, and it is perhaps all the more mischievous for being partly hidden under the mien of spiritual exaltation.
There is in literature no more seductive illustration of this seductive type than Rousseau's renowned character of the Savoyard Vicar—penetrated with scepticism as to the attributes of the deity, the meaning of the holy rites, the authenticity of the sacred documents; yet full of reverence, and ever respecting in silence what he could neither reject nor understand. 'The essential worship,' he says, 'is the worship of the heart. God never rejects this homage, under whatever form it be offered to him. In old days I used to say mass with the levity which in time infects even the gravest things when we do them too often. Since acquiring my new principles [of reverential scepticism] I celebrate it with more veneration: I am overcome by the majesty of the Supreme Being, by his presence, by the insufficiency of the human mind, which conceives so ill what pertains to its author. When I approach the moment of consecration, I collect myself for performing the act with all the feelings required by the church and the majesty of the sacrament. I strive to annihilate my reason before the Supreme Intelligence, saying, Who art thou that thou shouldst measure infinite power?'
The Savoyard Vicar is not imaginary. The acquiescence in indefinite ideas for the sake of comforted emotions, and the abnegation of strong convictions in order to make room for free and plenteous effusion, have for us all the marks of a too familiar reality. Such a doctrine is an everyday plea for self-deception, and a current justification for illusion even among some of the finer spirits. They have persuaded themselves not only that the life of the religious emotions is the highest life, but that it is independent of the intellectual forms with which history happens to have associated it. And so they refine and sophisticate and make havoc with plain and honest interpretation, in order to preserve a soft serenity of soul unperturbed.
Now, we are not at all concerned to dispute such positions as that Feeling is the right starting-point of moral education; that in forming character appeal should be to the heart rather than to the understanding; that the only basis on which our faculties can be harmoniously ordered is the preponderance of affection over reason. These propositions open much grave and complex discussion, and they are not to our present purpose. We only desire to state the evil of the notion that a man is warranted in comforting himself with dogmas and formularies, which he has first to empty of all definite, precise, and clearly determinable significance, before he can get them out of the way of his religious sensibilities. Whether Reason or Affection is to have the empire in the society of the future, when Reason may possibly have no more to discover for us in the region of morals and religion, and so will have become emeritus and taken a lower place, as of a tutor whose services the human family, being now grown up, no longer requires,—however this may be, it is at least certain that in the meantime the spiritual life of man needs direction quite as much as it needs impulse, and light quite as much as force. This direction and light can only be safely procured by the free and vigorous use of the intelligence. But the intelligence is not free in the presence of a mortal fear lest its conclusions should trouble soft tranquillity of spirit. There is always hope of a man so long as he dwells in the region of the direct categorical proposition and the unambiguous term; so long as he does not deny the rightly drawn conclusion after accepting the major and minor premisses. This may seem a scanty virtue and very easy grace. Yet experience shows it to be too hard of attainment for those who tamper with disinterestedness of conviction, for the sake of luxuriating in the softness of spiritual transport without interruption from a syllogism. It is true that there are now and then in life as in history noble and fair natures, that by the silent teaching and unconscious example of their inborn purity, star-like constancy, and great devotion, do carry the world about them to further heights of living than can be attained by ratiocination. But these, the blameless and loved saints of the earth, rise too rarely on our dull horizons to make a rule for the world. The law of things is that they who tamper with veracity, from whatever motive, are tampering with the vital force of human progress. Our comfort and the delight of the religious imagination are no better than forms of self-indulgence, when they are secured at the cost of that love of truth on which, more than on anything else, the increase of light and happiness among men must depend. We have to fight and do lifelong battle against the forces of darkness, and anything that turns the edge of reason blunts the surest and most potent of our weapons.
[Footnote 13: Burton's Lift of Hume, ii. 186-188]
[Footnote 14: Isaac Taylor's Natural History of Enthusiasm, p. 226.]
[Footnote 15: Pensees, II. Art ii.]
[Footnote 16: Dr. Newman's Grammar of Assent, p. 201.]
[Footnote 17: Emile, bk. iv.]
The main field of discussion touching Compromise in expression and avowal lies in the region of religious belief. In politics no one seriously contends that respect for the feelings and prejudices of other people requires us to be silent about our opinions. A republican, for instance, is at perfect liberty to declare himself so. Nobody will say that he is not within his rights if he should think it worth while to practise this liberty, though of course he will have to face the obloquy which attends all opinion that is not shared by the more demonstrative and vocal portions of the public. It is true that in every stable society a general conviction prevails of the extreme undesirableness of constantly laying bare the foundations of government. Incessant discussion of the theoretical bases of the social union is naturally considered worse than idle. It is felt by many wise men that the chief business of the political thinker is to interest himself in generalisations of such a sort as leads with tolerable straightness to practical improvements of a far-reaching and durable kind. Even among those, however, who thus feel it not to be worth while to be for ever handling the abstract principles which are, after all, only clumsy expressions of the real conditions that bring and keep men together in society, yet nobody of any consideration pretends to silence or limit the free discussion of these principles. Although a man is not likely to be thanked who calls attention to the vast discrepancies between the theory and practice of the constitution, yet nobody now would countenance the notion of an inner doctrine in politics. We smile at the line that Hume took in speaking of the doctrine of non-resistance. He did not deny that the right of resistance to a tyrannical sovereign does actually belong to a nation. But, he said, 'if ever on any occasion it were laudable to conceal truth from the populace, it must be confessed that the doctrine of resistance affords such an example; and that all speculative reasoners ought to observe with regard to this principle the same cautious silence which the laws, in every species of government, have ever prescribed to themselves.' As if the cautious silence of the political writer could prevent a populace from feeling the heaviness of an oppressor's hand, and striving to find relief from unjust burdens. As if any nation endowed with enough of the spirit of independence to assent to the right of resistance when offered to them as a speculative theorem, would not infallibly be led by the same spirit to assert the right without the speculative theorem. That so acute a head as Hume's should have failed to perceive these very plain considerations, and that he should moreover have perpetrated the absurdity of declaring the right of resistance, in the same breath in which he declares the laudableness of keeping it a secret, only allows how carefully a man need steer after he has once involved himself in the labyrinths of Economy.
In religion the unreasonableness of imposing a similar cautious silence is not yet fully established, nor the vicious effects of practising it clearly recognised. In these high matters an amount of economy and management is held praiseworthy, which in any other subject would be universally condemned as cowardly and ignoble. Indeed the preliminary stage has scarcely been reached—the stage in which public opinion grants to every one the unrestricted right of shaping his own beliefs, independently of those of the people who surround him. Any woman, for instance, suspected of having cast behind her the Bible and all practices of devotion and the elementary articles of the common creed, would be distrustfully regarded even by those who wink at the same kind of mental boldness in men. Nay, she would be so regarded even by some of the very men who have themselves discarded as superstition what they still wish women to retain for law and gospel. So long as any class of adults are effectually discouraged in the free use of their minds upon the most important subjects, we are warranted in saying that the era of free thought, which naturally precedes the era of free speech, is still imperfectly developed.
The duties and rights of free speech are by no means identical with those of independent thought. One general reason for this is tolerably plain. The expression of opinion directly affects other people, while its mere formation directly affects no one but ourselves. Therefore the limits of compromise in expression are less widely and freely placed, because the rights and interests of all who may be made listeners to our spoken or written words are immediately concerned. In forming opinions, a man or woman owes no consideration to any person or persons whatever. Truth is the single object. It is truth that in the forum of conscience claims an undivided allegiance. The publication of opinion stands on another footing. That is an external act, with possible consequences, like all other external acts, both to the doer and to every one within the sphere of his influence. And, besides these, it has possible consequences to the prosperity of the opinion itself.
A hundred questions of fitness, of seasonableness, of conflicting expediencies, present themselves in this connection, and nothing gives more anxiety to a sensible man who holds notions opposed to the current prejudices, than to hit the right mark where intellectual integrity and prudence, firmness and wise reserve, are in exact accord. When we come to declaring opinions that are, however foolishly and unreasonably, associated with pain and even a kind of turpitude in the minds of those who strongly object to them, then some of our most powerful sympathies are naturally engaged. We wonder whether duty to truth can possibly require us to inflict keen distress on those to whom we are bound by the tenderest and most consecrated ties. This is so wholly honourable a sentiment, that no one who has not made himself drunk with the thin sour wine of a crude and absolute logic will refuse to consider it. Before, however, attempting to illustrate cases of conscience in this order, we venture to make a short digression into the region of the matter, as distinct from the manner of free speech. One or two changes of great importance in the way in which men think about religion, bear directly upon the conditions on which they may permit themselves and others to speak about it.
The peculiar character of all the best kinds of dissent from the nominal creed of the time, makes it rather less difficult for us to try to reconcile unflinching honesty with a just and becoming regard for the feelings of those who have claims upon our forbearance, than would have been the case a hundred years ago. 'It is not now with a polite sneer,' as a high ecclesiastical authority lately admitted, 'still less with a rude buffet or coarse words, that Christianity is assailed.' Before churchmen congratulate themselves too warmly on this improvement in the nature of the attack, perhaps they ought to ask themselves how far it is due to the change in the position of the defending party. The truth is that the coarse and realistic criticism of which Voltaire was the consummate master, has done its work. It has driven the defenders of the old faith into the milder and more genial climate of non-natural interpretations, and the historic sense, and a certain elastic relativity of dogma. The old criticism was victorious, but after victory it vanished. One reason of this was that the coarse and realistic forms of belief had either vanished before it, or else they forsook their ancient pretensions and clothed themselves in more modest robes. The consequence of this, and of other causes which might be named, is that the modern attack, while fully as serious and much more radical, has a certain gravity, decorum, and worthiness of form. No one of any sense or knowledge now thinks the Christian religion had its origin in deliberate imposture. The modern freethinker does not attack it; he explains it. And what is more, he explains it by referring its growth to the better, and not to the worse part of human nature. He traces it to men's cravings for a higher morality. He finds its source in their aspirations after nobler expression of that feeling for the incommensurable things, which is in truth under so many varieties of inwoven pattern the common universal web of religious faith.
The result of this way of looking at a creed which a man no longer accepts, is that he is able to speak of it with patience and historic respect. He can openly mark his dissent from it, without exacerbating the orthodox sentiment by galling pleasantries or bitter animadversion upon details. We are now awake to the all-important truth that belief in this or that detail of superstition is the result of an irrational state of mind, and flows logically from superstitious premisses. We see that it is to begin at the wrong end, to assail the deductions as impossible, instead of sedulously building up a state of mind in which their impossibility would become spontaneously visible.
Besides the great change which such a point of view makes in men's way of speaking of a religion, whose dogmas and documents they reject, there is this further consideration leaning in the same direction. The tendency of modern free thought is more and more visibly towards the extraction of the first and more permanent elements of the old faith, to make the purified material of the new. When Dr. Congreve met the famous epigram about Comte's system being Catholicism minus Christianity, by the reply that it is Catholicism plus Science, he gave an ingenious expression to the direction which is almost necessarily taken by all who attempt, in however informal a manner, to construct for themselves some working system of faith, in place of the faith which science and criticism have sapped. In what ultimate form, acceptable to great multitudes of men, these attempts will at last issue, no one can now tell. For we, like the Hebrews of old, shall all have to live and die in faith, 'not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and being persuaded of them, and embracing them, and confessing that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth.' Meanwhile, after the first great glow and passion of the just and necessary revolt of reason against superstition have slowly lost the exciting splendour of the dawn, and become diffused in the colourless space of a rather bleak noonday, the mind gradually collects again some of the ideas of the old religion of the West, and willingly, or even joyfully, suffers itself to be once more breathed upon by something of its spirit. Christianity was the last great religious synthesis. It is the one nearest to us. Nothing is more natural than that those who cannot rest content with intellectual analysis, while awaiting the advent of the Saint Paul of the humanitarian faith of the future, should gather up provisionally such fragmentary illustrations of this new faith as are to be found in the records of the old. Whatever form may be ultimately imposed on our vague religious aspirations by some prophet to come, who shall unite sublime depth of feeling and lofty purity of life with strong intellectual grasp and the gift of a noble eloquence, we may at least be sure of this, that it will stand as closely related to Christianity as Christianity stood closely related to the old Judaic dispensation. It is commonly assumed that the rejecters of the popular religion stand in face of it, as the Christians stood in face of the pagan belief and pagan rites in the Empire. The analogy is inexact. The modern denier, if he is anything better than that, or entertains hopes of a creed to come, is nearer to the position of the Christianising Jew. Science, when she has accomplished all her triumphs in her own order, will still have to go back, when the time comes, to assist in the building up of a new creed by which men can live. The builders will have to seek material in the purified and sublimated ideas, of which the confessions and rites of the Christian churches have been the grosser expression. Just as what was once the new dispensation was preached a Judaeos ad Judaeos apud Judaeos, so must the new, that is to be, find a Christian teacher and Christian hearers. It can hardly be other than an expansion, a development, a readaptation, of all the moral and spiritual truth that lay hidden under the worn-out forms. It must be such a harmonising of the truth with our intellectual conceptions as shall fit it to be an active guide to conduct. In a world 'where men sit and hear each other groan, where but to think is to be full of sorrow,' it is hard to imagine a time when we shall be indifferent to that sovereign legend of Pity. We have to incorporate it in some wider gospel of Justice and Progress.
I shall not, I hope, be suspected of any desire to prophesy too smooth things. It is no object of ours to bridge over the gulf between belief in the vulgar theology and disbelief. Nor for a single moment do we pretend that, when all the points of contact between virtuous belief and virtuous disbelief are made the most of that good faith will allow, there will not still and after all remain a terrible controversy between those who cling passionately to all the consolations, mysteries, personalities, of the orthodox faith, and us who have made up our minds to face the worst, and to shape, as best we can, a life in which the cardinal verities of the common creed shall have no place. The future faith, like the faith of the past, brings not peace but a sword. It is a tale not of concord, but of households divided against themselves. Those who are incessantly striving to make the old bottles hold the new wine, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to bring the Bible and the dogmas of the churches to be good friends with history and criticism, are prompted by the humanest intention. One sympathises with this amiable anxiety to soften shocks, and break the rudeness of a vital transition. In this essay, at any rate, there is no such attempt. We know that it is the son against the father, and the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law. No softness of speech will disguise the portentous differences between those who admit a supernatural revelation and those who deny it. No charity nor goodwill can narrow the intellectual breach between those who declare that a world without an ever-present Creator with intelligible attributes would be to them empty and void, and those who insist that none of the attributes of a Creator can ever be grasped by the finite intelligence of men. Our object in urging the historic, semi-conservative, and almost sympathetic quality, which distinguishes the unbelief of to-day from the unbelief of a hundred years ago, is only to show that the most strenuous and upright of plain-speakers is less likely to shock and wound the lawful sensibilities of devout persons than he would have been so long as unbelief went no further than bitter attack on small details. In short, all save the purely negative and purely destructive school of freethinkers, are now able to deal with the beliefs from which they dissent, in a way which makes patient and disinterested controversy not wholly impossible.