The Life of Reason is no fair reproduction of the universe, but the expression of man alone. A theory of nature is nothing but a mass of observations, made with a hunter's and an artist's eye. A mortal has no time for sympathy with his victim or his model; and, beyond a certain range, he has no capacity for such sympathy. As in order to live he must devour one-half the world and disregard the other, so in order to think and practically to know he must deal summarily and selfishly with his materials; otherwise his intellect would melt again into endless and irrevocable dreams. The law of gravity, because it so notably unifies the motions of matter, is something which these motions themselves know nothing of; it is a description of them in terms of human discourse. Such discourse can never assure us absolutely that the motions it forecasts will occur; the sensible proof must ensue spontaneously in its own good time. In the interval our theory remains pure presumption and hypothesis. Reliable as it may be in that capacity, it is no replica of anything on its own level existing beyond. It creates, like all intelligence, a secondary and merely symbolic world.
[Sidenote: In translating existence into human terms they give human nature its highest exercise.]
When this diversity between the truest theory and the simplest fact, between potential generalities and actual particulars, has been thoroughly appreciated, it becomes clear that much of what is valued in science and religion is not lodged in the miscellany underlying these creations of reason, but is lodged rather in the rational activity itself, and in the intrinsic beauty of all symbols bred in a genial mind. Of course, if these symbols had no real points of reference, if they were symbols of nothing, they could have no great claim to consideration and no rational character; at most they would be agreeable sensations. They are, however, at their best good symbols for a diffused experience having a certain order and tendency; they render that reality with a difference, reducing it to a formula or a myth, in which its tortuous length and trivial detail can be surveyed to advantage without undue waste or fatigue. Symbols may thus become eloquent, vivid, important, being endowed with both poetic grandeur and practical truth.
The facts from which this truth is borrowed, if they were rehearsed unimaginatively, in their own flat infinity, would be far from arousing the same emotions. The human eye sees in perspective; its glory would vanish were it reduced to a crawling, exploring antenna. Not that it loves to falsify anything. That to the worm the landscape might possess no light and shade, that the mountain's atomic structure should be unpicturable, cannot distress the landscape gardener nor the poet; what concerns them is the effect such things may produce in the human fancy, so that the soul may live in a congenial world.
Naturalist and prophet are landscape painters on canvases of their own; each is interested in his own perception and perspective, which, if he takes the trouble to reflect, need not deceive him about what the world would be if not foreshortened in that particular manner. This special interpretation is nevertheless precious and shows up the world in that light in which it interests naturalists or prophets to see it. Their figments make their chosen world, as the painter's apperceptions are the breath of his nostrils.
[Sidenote: Science should be mathematical and religion anthropomorphic.]
While the symbol's applicability is essential to its worth—since otherwise science would be useless and religion demoralising—its power and fascination lie in its acquiring a more and more profound affinity to the human mind, so long as it can do so without surrendering its relevance to practice. Thus natural science is at its best when it is most thoroughly mathematical, since what can be expressed mathematically can speak a human language. In such science only the ultimate material elements remain surds; all their further movement and complication can be represented in that kind of thought which is most intimately satisfactory and perspicuous. And in like manner, religion is at its best when it is most anthropomorphic; indeed, the two most spiritual religions, Buddhism and Christianity, have actually raised a man, overflowing with utterly human tenderness and pathos, to the place usually occupied only by cosmic and thundering deities. The human heart is lifted above misfortune and encouraged to pursue unswervingly its inmost ideal when no compromise is any longer attempted with what is not moral or human, and Prometheus is honestly proclaimed to be holier than Zeus. At that moment religion ceases to be superstitious and becomes a rational discipline, an effort to perfect the spirit rather than to intimidate it.
[Sidenote: Summary of this book.]
We have seen that society has three stages—the natural, the free, and the ideal. In the natural stage its function is to produce the individual and equip him with the prerequisites of moral freedom. When this end is attained society can rise to friendship, to unanimity and disinterested sympathy, where the ground of association is some ideal interest, while this association constitutes at the same time a personal and emotional bond. Ideal society, on the contrary, transcends accidental conjunctions altogether. Here the ideal interests themselves take possession of the mind; its companions are the symbols it breeds and possesses for excellence, beauty, and truth. Religion, art, and science are the chief spheres in which ideal companionship is found. It remains for us to traverse these provinces in turn and see to what extent the Life of Reason may flourish there.
*** End of Volume Two ***
REASON IN RELIGION
Volume Three of "The Life of Reason"
he gar noy enhergeia zohe
This Dover edition, first published in 1982, is an unabridged republication of volume three of The Life of Reason; or The Phases of Human Progress, originally published by Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., in 1905.
REASON IN RELIGION
HOW RELIGION MAY BE AN EMBODIMENT OF REASON
Religion is certainly significant, but not literally true.—All religion is positive and particular.—It aims at the Life of Reason, but largely fails to attain it.—Its approach imaginative.—When its poetic method is denied its value is jeopardised.—It precedes science rather than hinders it.—It is merely symbolic and thoroughly human. Pages 3-14
RATIONAL ELEMENTS IN SUPERSTITION
Felt causes not necessary causes.—Mechanism and dialectic ulterior principles.—Early selection of categories.—Tentative rational worlds.—Superstition a rudimentary philosophy.—A miracle, though unexpected, more intelligible than a regular process.—Superstitions come of haste to understand.—Inattention suffers them to spread.—Genius may use them to convey an inarticulate wisdom. Pages 15-27
MAGIC, SACRIFICE, AND PRAYER
Fear created the gods.—Need also contributed.—The real evidences of God's existence.—Practice precedes theory in religion.—Pathetic, tentative nature of religious practices.—Meanness and envy in the gods, suggesting sacrifice.—Ritualistic arts.—Thank-offerings.—The sacrifice of a contrite heart.—Prayer is not utilitarian in essence.—Its supposed efficacy magical.—Theological puzzles.—A real efficacy would be mechanical.—True uses of prayer.—It clarifies the ideal.—It reconciles to the inevitable.—It fosters spiritual life by conceiving it in its perfection.—Discipline and contemplation are their own reward Pages 28-48
Status of fable in the mind.—It requires genius.—It only half deceives.—Its interpretative essence.—Contrast with science.—Importance of the moral factor.—Its submergence.—Myth justifies magic.—Myths might be metaphysical.—They appear ready made, like parts of the social fabric.—They perplex the conscience.—Incipient myth in the Vedas.—Natural suggestions soon exhausted.—They will be carried out in abstract fancy.—They may become moral ideals.—The Sun-god moralised.—The leaven of religion is moral idealism Pages 49-68
THE HEBRAIC TRADITION
Phases of Hebraism.—Israel's tribal monotheism.—Problems involved.—The prophets put new wine in old bottles.—Inspiration and authority.—Beginnings of the Church.—Bigotry turned into a principle.—Penance accepted.—Christianity combines optimism and asceticism.—Reason smothered between the two.—Religion made an institution Pages 69-82
THE CHRISTIAN EPIC
The essence of the good not adventitious but expressive.—A universal religion must interpret the whole world.—Double appeal of Christianity.—Hebrew metaphors become Greek myths.—Hebrew philosophy of history identified with Platonic cosmology.—The resulting orthodox system.—The brief drama of things.—Mythology is a language and must be understood to convey something by symbols Pages 83-98
PAGAN CUSTOM AND BARBARIAN GENIUS INFUSED INTO CHRISTIANITY
Need of paganising Christianity.—Catholic piety more human than the liturgy.—Natural pieties.—Refuge taken in the supernatural.—The episodes of life consecrated mystically.—Paganism chastened, Hebraism liberalised.—The system post-rational and founded on despair.—External conversion of the barbarians.—Expression of the northern genius within Catholicism,—Internal discrepancies between the two.—Tradition and instinct at odds in Protestantism.—The Protestant spirit remote from that of the gospel.—Obstacles to humanism.—The Reformation and counter-reformation.—Protestantism an expression of character.—It has the spirit of life and of courage, but the voice of inexperience.—Its emancipation from Christianity Pages 99-126
CONFLICT OF MYTHOLOGY WITH MORAL TRUTH
Myth should dissolve with the advance of science.—But myth is confused with the moral values it expresses.—Neo-Platonic revision.—It made mythical entities of abstractions.—Hypostasis ruins ideals.—The Stoic revision.—The ideal surrendered before the physical.—Parallel movements in Christianity.—Hebraism, if philosophical, must be pantheistic.—Pantheism, even when psychic, ignores ideals.—Truly divine action limited to what makes for the good.—Need of an opposing principle.—The standard of value is human.—Hope for happiness makes belief in God Pages 127-147
THE CHRISTIAN COMPROMISE
Suspense between hope and disillusion.—Superficial solution.—But from what shall we be redeemed?—Typical attitude of St. Augustine.—He achieves Platonism.—He identifies it with Christianity.—God the good.—Primary and secondary religion.—Ambiguous efficacy of the good in Plato.—Ambiguous goodness of the creator in Job.—The Manicheans.—All things good by nature.—The doctrine of creation demands that of the fall.—Original sin.—Forced abandonment of the ideal.—The problem among the Protestants.—Pantheism accepted.—Plainer scorn for the ideal.—The price of mythology is superstition. Pages 148-177
The core of religion not theoretical.—Loyalty to the sources of our being.—The pious AEneas.—An ideal background required.—Piety accepts natural conditions and present tasks.—The leadership of instinct is normal.—Embodiment essential to spirit.—Piety to the gods takes form from current ideals.—The religion of humanity.—Cosmic piety Pages 178-192
SPIRITUALITY AND ITS CORRUPTIONS
To be spiritual is to live in view of the ideal.—Spirituality natural.—Primitive consciousness may be spiritual.—Spirit crossed by instrumentalities.—One foe of the spirit is worldliness.—The case for and against pleasure.—Upshot of worldly wisdom.—Two supposed escapes from vanity: fanaticism and mysticism.—Both are irrational.—Is there a third course?—Yes, for experience has intrinsic, inalienable values.—For these the religious imagination must supply an ideal standard Pages 193-213
Possible tyranny of reason.—Everything has its rights.—Primary and secondary morality.—Uncharitable pagan justice is not just.—The doom of ancient republics.—Rational charity.—Its limits.—Its mythical supports.—There is intelligence in charity.—Buddhist and Christian forms of it.—Apparent division of the spiritual and the natural Pages 214-228
THE BELIEF IN A FUTURE LIFE
The length of life a subject for natural science.—"Psychical" phenomena.—Hypertrophies of sense.—These possibilities affect physical existence only.—Moral grounds for the doctrine.—The necessary assumption of a future.—An assumption no evidence.—A solipsistic argument.—Absoluteness and immortality transferred to the gods.—Or to a divine principle in all beings.—In neither case is the individual immortal.—Possible forms of survival.—Arguments from retribution and need of opportunity.—Ignoble temper of both.—False optimistic postulate involved.—Transition to ideality Pages 229-250
Olympian immortality the first ideal.—Its indirect attainment by reproduction.—Moral acceptance of this compromise.—Even vicarious immortality intrinsically impossible.—Intellectual victory over change.—The glory of it.—Reason makes man's divinity and his immortality.—It is the locus of all truths.—Epicurean immortality, through the truth of existence.—Logical immortality, through objects of thought.—Ethical immortality, through types of excellence Pages 251-273
The failure of magic and of mythology.—Their imaginative value.—Piety and spirituality justified.—Mysticism a primordial state of feeling.—It may recur at any stage of culture.—Form gives substance its life and value. Pages 274-279
REASON IN RELIGION
HOW RELIGION MAY BE AN EMBODIMENT OF REASON
[Sidenote: Religion certainly significant.]
Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's, that "a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." In every age the most comprehensive thinkers have found in the religion of their time and country something they could accept, interpreting and illustrating that religion so as to give it depth and universal application. Even the heretics and atheists, if they have had profundity, turn out after a while to be forerunners of some new orthodoxy. What they rebel against is a religion alien to their nature; they are atheists only by accident, and relatively to a convention which inwardly offends them, but they yearn mightily in their own souls after the religious acceptance of a world interpreted in their own fashion. So it appears in the end that their atheism and loud protestation were in fact the hastier part of their thought, since what emboldened them to deny the poor world's faith was that they were too impatient to understand it. Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function. Such studies would bring the sceptic face to face with the mystery and pathos of mortal existence. They would make him understand why religion is so profoundly moving and in a sense so profoundly just. There must needs be something humane and necessary in an influence that has become the most general sanction of virtue, the chief occasion for; art and philosophy, and the source, perhaps, of the best human happiness. If nothing, as Hooker said, is "so malapert as a splenetic religion," a sour irreligion is almost as perverse.
[Sidenote: But not literally true.]
At the same time, when Bacon penned the sage epigram we have quoted he forgot to add that the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them. It would be pitiful indeed if mature reflection bred no better conceptions than those which have drifted down the muddy stream of time, where tradition and passion have jumbled everything together. Traditional conceptions, when they are felicitous, may be adopted by the poet, but they must be purified by the moralist and disintegrated by the philosopher. Each religion, so dear to those whose life it sanctifies, and fulfilling so necessary a function in the society that has adopted it, necessarily contradicts every other religion, and probably contradicts itself. What religion a man shall have is a historical accident, quite as much as what language he shall speak. In the rare circumstances where a choice is possible, he may, with some difficulty, make an exchange; but even then he is only adopting a new convention which may be more agreeable to his personal temper but which is essentially as arbitrary as the old.
[Sidenote: All religion is positive and particular.]
The attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. A courier's or a dragoman's speech may indeed be often unusual and drawn from disparate sources, not without some mixture of personal originality; but that private jargon will have a meaning only because of its analogy to one or more conventional languages and its obvious derivation from them. So travellers from one religion to another, people who have lost their spiritual nationality, may often retain a neutral and confused residuum of belief, which they may egregiously regard as the essence of all religion, so little may they remember the graciousness and naturalness of that ancestral accent which a perfect religion should have. Yet a moment's probing of the conceptions surviving in such minds will show them to be nothing but vestiges of old beliefs, creases which thought, even if emptied of all dogmatic tenets, has not been able to smooth away at its first unfolding. Later generations, if they have any religion at all, will be found either to revert to ancient authority, or to attach themselves spontaneously to something wholly novel and immensely positive, to some faith promulgated by a fresh genius and passionately embraced by a converted people. Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in—whether we expect ever to pass wholly into it or no—is what we mean by having a religion.
[Sidenote: It aims at the Life of Reason.]
What relation, then, does this great business of the soul, which we call religion, bear to the Life of Reason? That the relation between the two is close seems clear from several circumstances. The Life of Reason is the seat of all ultimate values. Now the history of mankind will show us that whenever spirits at once lofty and intense have seemed to attain the highest joys, they have envisaged and attained them in religion. Religion would therefore seem to be a vehicle or a factor in rational life, since the ends of rational life are attained by it. Moreover, the Life of Reason is an ideal to which everything in the world should be subordinated; it establishes lines of moral cleavage everywhere and makes right eternally different from wrong. Religion does the same thing. It makes absolute moral decisions. It sanctions, unifies, and transforms ethics. Religion thus exercises a function of the Life of Reason. And a further function which is common to both is that of emancipating man from his personal limitations. In different ways religions promise to transfer the soul to better conditions. A supernaturally favoured kingdom is to be established for posterity upon earth, or for all the faithful in heaven, or the soul is to be freed by repeated purgations from all taint and sorrow, or it is to be lost in the absolute, or it is to become an influence and an object of adoration in the places it once haunted or wherever the activities it once loved may be carried on by future generations of its kindred. Now reason in its way lays before us all these possibilities: it points to common objects, political and intellectual, in which an individual may lose what is mortal and accidental in himself and immortalise what is rational and human; it teaches us how sweet and fortunate death may be to those whose spirit can still live in their country and in their ideas; it reveals the radiating effects of action and the eternal objects of thought.
Yet the difference in tone and language must strike us, so soon as it is philosophy that speaks. That change should remind us that even if the function of religion and that of reason coincide, this function is performed in the two cases by very different organs. Religions are many, reason one. Religion consists of conscious ideas, hopes, enthusiasms, and objects of worship; it operates by grace and flourished by prayer. Reason, on the other hand, is a mere principle or potential order, on which, indeed, we may come to reflect, but which exists in us ideally only, without variation or stress of any kind. We conform or do not conform to it; it does not urge or chide us, nor call for any emotions on our part other than those naturally aroused by the various objects which it unfolds in their true nature and proportion. Religion brings some order into life by weighting it with new materials. Reason adds to the natural materials only the perfect order which it introduces into them. Rationality is nothing but a form, an ideal constitution which experience may more or less embody. Religion is a part of experience itself, a mass of sentiments and ideas. The one is an inviolate principle, the other a changing and struggling force. And yet this struggling and changing force of religion, seems to direct man toward something eternal. It seems to make for an ultimate harmony within the soul and for an ultimate harmony between the soul and all the soul depends upon. So that religion, in its intent, is a more conscious and direct pursuit of the Life of Reason than is society, science, or art. For these approach and fill out the ideal life tentatively and piecemeal, hardly regarding the goal or caring for the ultimate justification of their instinctive aims. Religion also has an instinctive and blind side, and bubbles up in all manner of chance practices and intuitions; soon, however, it feels its way toward the heart of things, and, from whatever quarter it may come, veers in the direction of the ultimate.
[Sidenote: But largely fails to attain it.]
Nevertheless, we must confess that this religious pursuit of the Life of Reason has been singularly abortive. Those within the pale of each religion may prevail upon themselves to express satisfaction with its results, thanks to a fond partiality in reading the past and generous draughts of hope for the future; but any one regarding the various religions at once and comparing their achievements with what reason requires, must feel how terrible is the disappointment which they have one and all prepared for mankind. Their chief anxiety has been to offer imaginary remedies for mortal ills, some of which are incurable essentially, while others might have been really cured by well-directed effort. The Greek oracles, for instance, pretended to heal our natural ignorance, which has its appropriate though difficult cure, while the Christian vision of heaven pretended to be an antidote to our natural death, the inevitable correlate of birth and of a changing and conditioned existence. By methods of this sort little can be done for the real betterment of life. To confuse intelligence and dislocate sentiment by gratuitous fictions is a short-sighted way of pursuing happiness. Nature is soon avenged. An unhealthy exaltation and a one-sided morality have to be followed by regrettable reactions. When these come, the real rewards of life may seem vain to a relaxed vitality, and the very name of virtue may irritate young spirits untrained in any natural excellence. Thus religion too often debauches the morality it comes to sanction, and impedes the science it ought to fulfil.
[Sidenote: Its approach imaginative.]
What is the secret of this ineptitude? Why does religion, so near to rationality in its purpose, fall so far short of it in its texture and in its results? The answer is easy: Religion pursues, rationality through the imagination. When it explains events or assigns causes, it gives imaginative substitute for science. When it gives; precepts, insinuates ideals, or remoulds aspiration, it is an imaginative substitute for wisdom—I mean for the deliberate and impartial pursuit of all good. The conditions and the aims of life are both represented in religion poetically, but this poetry tends to arrogate to itself literal truth and moral authority, neither of which it possesses. Hence the depth and importance of religion become intelligible no less than its contradictions and practical disasters. Its object is the same as that of reason, but its method is to proceed by intuition and by unchecked poetical conceits. These are repeated and vulgarised in proportion to their original fineness and significance, till they pass for reports of objective truth and come to constitute a world of faith, superposed upon the world of experience and regarded as materially enveloping it, if not in space at least in time and in existence. The only truth of religion comes from its interpretation of life, from its symbolic rendering of that moral, experience which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate. Its falsehood comes from the insidious misunderstanding which clings to it, to the effect that these poetic conceptions are not merely representations of experience as it is or should be, but are rather information about experience or reality elsewhere—an experience and reality which, strangely enough, supply just the defects betrayed by reality and experience here.
[Sidenote: When its poetic method is denied its value is jeopardised.]
Thus religion has the same original relation to life that poetry has; only poetry, which never pretends to literal validity, adds a pure value to existence, the value of a liberal imaginative exercise. The poetic value of religion would initially be greater than that of poetry itself, because religion deals with higher and more practical themes, with sides of life which are in greater need of some imaginative touch and ideal interpretation than are those pleasant or pompous things which ordinary poetry dwells upon. But this initial advantage is neutralised in part by the abuse to which religion is subject, whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth. Like poetry, it improves the world only by imagining it improved, but not content with making this addition to the mind's furniture—an addition which might be useful and ennobling—it thinks to confer a more radical benefit by persuading mankind that, in spite of appearances, the world is really such as that rather arbitrary idealisation has painted it. This spurious satisfaction is naturally the prelude to many a disappointment, and the soul has infinite trouble to emerge again from the artificial problems and sentiments into which it is thus plunged. The value of religion becomes equivocal. Religion remains an imaginative achievement, a symbolic representation of moral reality which may have a most important function in vitalising the mind and in transmitting, by way of parables, the lessons of experience. But it becomes at the same time a continuous incidental deception; and this deception, in proportion as it is strenuously denied to be such, can work indefinite harm in the world and in the conscience.
[Sidenote: It precedes science rather than hinders it.]
On the whole, however, religion should not be conceived as having taken the place of anything better, but rather as having come to relieve situations which, but for its presence, would have been infinitely worse. In the thick of active life, or in the monotony of practical slavery, there is more need to stimulate fancy than to control it. Natural instinct is not much disturbed in the human brain by what may happen in that thin superstratum of ideas which commonly overlays it. We must not blame religion for preventing the development of a moral and natural science which at any rate would seldom have appeared; we must rather thank it for the sensibility, the reverence, the speculative insight which it has introduced into the world.
[Sidenote: It is merely symbolic and thoroughly human.]
We may therefore proceed to analyse the significance and the function which religion has had at its different stages, and, without disguising or in the least condoning its confusion with literal truth, we may allow ourselves to enter as sympathetically as possible into its various conceptions and emotions. They have made up the inner life of many sages, and of all those who without great genius or learning have lived steadfastly in the spirit. The feeling of reverence should itself be treated with reverence, although not at a sacrifice of truth, with which alone, in the end, reverence is compatible. Nor have we any reason to be intolerant of the partialities and contradictions which religions display. Were we dealing with a science, such contradictions would have to be instantly solved and removed; but when we are concerned with the poetic interpretation of experience, contradiction means only variety, and variety means spontaneity, wealth of resource, and a nearer approach to total adequacy.
If we hope to gain any understanding of these matters we must begin by taking them out of that heated and fanatical atmosphere in which the Hebrew tradition has enveloped them. The Jews had no philosophy, and when their national traditions came to be theoretically explicated and justified, they were made to issue in a puerile scholasticism and a rabid intolerance. The question of monotheism, for instance, was a terrible question to the Jews. Idolatry did not consist in worshipping a god who, not being ideal, might be unworthy of worship, but rather in recognising other gods than the one worshipped in Jerusalem. To the Greeks, on the contrary, whose philosophy was enlightened and ingenuous, monotheism and polytheism seemed perfectly innocent and compatible. To say God or the gods was only to use different expressions for the same influence, now viewed in its abstract unity and correlation with all existence, now viewed in its various manifestations in moral life, in nature, or in history. So that what in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics meets us at every step—the combination of monotheism with polytheism—is no contradiction, but merely an intelligent variation of phrase to indicate various aspects or functions in physical and moral things. When religion appears to us in this light its contradictions and controversies lose all their bitterness. Each doctrine will simply represent the moral plane on which they live who have devised or adopted it. Religions will thus be better or worse, never true or false. We shall be able to lend ourselves to each in turn, and seek to draw from it the secret of its inspiration.
RATIONAL ELEMENTS IN SUPERSTITION
We need not impose upon ourselves the endless and repulsive task of describing all the superstitions that have existed in the world. In his impotence and laziness the natural man unites any notion with any other in a loose causal relation. A single instance of juxtaposition, nay, the mere notion and dream of such a combination, will suffice to arouse fear or to prompt experimental action.
[Sidenote: Felt causes not necessary causes.]
When philosophers have objected to Hume's account of causation that he gave no sufficient basis for the necessary influence of cause on effect, they have indulged in a highly artificial supposition. They have assumed that people actually regard causes as necessary. They suppose that before we can feel the interdependence of two things in experience we must have an unshakable conviction that their connection is necessary and universal. But causation in such an absolute sense is no category of practical thinking. It appears, if at all, only in dialectic, in ideal applications of given laws to cases artificially simplified, where the terms are so defined that their operation upon one another is involved in the notion of them. So if we say that an unsupported weight must fall to the ground, we have included in the word "weight" the notion of a downward strain. The proposition is really trifling and identical. It merely announces that things which tend to fall to the ground tend to fall to the ground, and that heavy things are heavy. So, when we have called a thing a cause, we have defined it as that which involves an effect, and if the effect did not follow, the title of cause would no longer belong to the antecedent. But the necessity of this sequence is merely verbal. We have never, in the presence of the antecedent, the assurance that the title of cause will accrue to it. Our expectation is empirical, and we feel and assert nothing in respect to the necessity of the expected sequence.
[Sidenote: Mechanism and dialectic ulterior principles.]
A cause, in real life, means a justifying circumstance. We are absolutely without insight into the machinery of causation, notably in the commonest cases, like that of generation, nutrition, or the operation of mind on matter. But we are familiar with the more notable superficial conditions in each case, and the appearance in part of any usual phenomenon makes us look for the rest of it. We do not ordinarily expect virgins to bear children nor prophets to be fed by ravens nor prayers to remove mountains; but we may believe any of these things at the merest suggestion of fancy or report, without any warrant from experience, so loose is the bond and so external the relation between the terms most constantly associated. A quite unprecedented occurrence will seem natural and intelligible enough if it falls in happily with the current of our thoughts. Interesting and significant events, however, are so rare and so dependent on mechanical conditions irrelevant to their value, that we come at last to wonder at their self-justified appearance apart from that cumbrous natural machinery, and to call them marvels, miracles, and things to gape at. We come to adopt scientific hypotheses, at least in certain provinces of our thought, and we lose our primitive openness and simplicity of mind. Then, with an unjustified haste, we assert that miracles are impossible, i.e., that nothing interesting and fundamentally natural can happen unless all the usual, though adventitious, mise-en-scene has been prepared behind the curtain.
The philosopher may eventually discover that such machinery is really needed and that even the actors themselves have a mechanism within them, so that not only their smiles and magnificent gestures, but their heated fancy itself and their conception of their roles are but outer effects and dramatic illusions produced by the natural stage-carpentry in their brains. Yet such eventual scientific conclusions have nothing to do with the tentative first notions of men when they begin to experiment in the art of living. As the seeds of lower animals have to be innumerable, so that in a chance environment a few may grow to maturity, so the seeds of rational thinking, the first categories of reflection, have to be multitudinous, in order that some lucky principle of synthesis may somewhere come to light and find successful application. Science, which thinks to make belief in miracles impossible, is itself belief in miracles—in the miracles best authenticated by history and by daily life.
[Sidenote: Early selection of categories.]
When men begin to understand things, when they begin to reflect and to plan, they divide the world into the hateful and the delightful, the avoidable and the attainable. And in feeling their way toward what attracts them, or in escaping what they fear, they at first follow passively the lead of instinct: they watch themselves live, or rather sink without reserve into their living; their reactions are as little foreseen and as naturally accepted as their surroundings. Their ideas are incidents in their perpetual oscillation between apathy and passion. The stream of animal life leaves behind a little sediment of knowledge, the sand of that auriferous river; a few grains of experience remain to mark the path traversed by the flood. These residual ideas and premonitions, these first categories of thought, are of any and every sort. All the contents of the mind and all the threads of relation that weave its elements together are alike fitted, for all we can then see, to give the clue to the labyrinth in which we find ourselves wandering.
There is prima facie no ground for not trying to apply to experience such categories, for instance, as that of personal omnipotence, as if everything were necessarily arranged as we may command or require. On this principle children often seem to conceive a world in which they are astonished not to find themselves living. Or we may try aesthetic categories and allow our reproductive imagination—by which memory is fed—to bring under the unity of apperception only what can fall within it harmoniously, completely, and delightfully. Such an understanding, impervious to anything but the beautiful, might be a fine thing in itself, but would not chronicle the fortunes of that organism to which it was attached. It would yield an experience—doubtless a highly interesting and elaborate experience—but one which could never serve as an index to successful action. It would totally fail to represent its conditions, and consequently would imply nothing about its continued existence. It would be an experience irrelevant to conduct, no part, therefore, of a Life of Reason, but a kind of lovely vapid music or parasitic dream.
Now such dreams are in fact among the first and most absorbing formations in the human mind. If we could penetrate into animal consciousness we should not improbably find that what there accompanies instinctive motions is a wholly irrelevant fancy, whose flaring up and subsidence no doubt coincide with the presence of objects interesting to the organism and causing marked reactions within it; yet this fancy may in no way represent the nature of surrounding objects nor the eventual results, for the animal's consciousness, of its own present experience.
[Sidenote: Tentative rational worlds.]
The unlimited number of possible categories, their arbitrariness and spontaneity, may, however, have this inconvenience, that the categories may be irrelevant to one another no less than to the natural life they ought to express. The experience they respectively synthesise may therefore be no single experience. One pictured world may succeed another in the sphere of sensibility, while the body whose sensibility they compose moves in a single and constant physical cosmos. Each little mental universe may be intermittent, or, if any part of it endures while a new group of ideas comes upon the stage, there may arise contradictions, discords, and a sense of lurking absurdity which will tend to disrupt thought logically at the same time that the processes of nutrition and the oncoming of new dreams tend to supplant it mechanically. Such drifting categories have no mutual authority. They replace but do not dominate one another, and the general conditions of life—by conceiving which life itself might be surveyed—remain entirely unrepresented.
What we mean, indeed, by the natural world in which the conditions of consciousness are found and in reference to which mind and its purposes can attain practical efficacy, is simply the world constructed by categories found to yield a constant, sufficient, and consistent object. Having attained this conception, we justly call it the truth and measure the intellectual value of all other constructions by their affinity to that rational vision.
Such a rational vision has not yet been attained by mankind, but it would be absurd to say that because we have not fully nor even proximately attained it, we have not gained any conception whatever of a reliable and intelligible world. The modicum of rationality achieved in the sciences gives us a hint of a perfect rationality which, if unattainable in practice, is not inconceivable in idea. So, in still more inchoate moments of reflection, our ancestors nursed even more isolated, less compatible, less adequate conceptions than those which leave our philosophers still unsatisfied. The categories they employed dominated smaller regions of experience than do the categories of history and natural science; they had far less applicability to the conduct of affairs and to the happy direction of life as a whole. Yet they did yield vision and flashes of insight. They lighted men a step ahead in the dark places of their careers, and gave them at certain junctures a sense of creative power and moral freedom. So that the necessity of abandoning one category in order to use a better need not induce us to deny that the worse category could draw the outlines of a sort of world and furnish men with an approach to wisdom. If our ancestors, by such means, could not dominate life as a whole, neither can we, in spite of all progress. If literal truth or final applicability cannot be claimed for their thought, who knows how many and how profound the revolutions might be which our own thought would have to suffer if new fields of perception or new powers of synthesis were added to our endowment?
[Sidenote: Superstition a rudimentary philosophy.]
[Sidenote: A miracle, though unexpected, more intelligible than a regular process.]
We sometimes speak as if superstition or belief in the miraculous was disbelief in law and was inspired by a desire to disorganise experience and defeat intelligence. No supposition could be more erroneous. Every superstition is a little science, inspired by the desire to understand, to foresee, or to control the real world. No doubt its hypothesis is chimerical, arbitrary, and founded on a confusion of efficient causes with ideal results. But the same is true of many a renowned philosophy. To appeal to what we call the supernatural is really to rest in the imaginatively obvious, in what we ought to call the natural, if natural meant easy to conceive and originally plausible. Moral and individual forces are more easily intelligible than mechanical universal laws. The former domesticate events in the mind more readily and more completely than the latter. A miracle is so far from being a contradiction to the causal principle which the mind actually applies in its spontaneous observations that it is primarily a better illustration of that principle than an event happening in the ordinary course of nature. For the ground of the miracle is immediately intelligible; we see the mercy or the desire to vindicate authority, or the intention of some other sort that inspired it. A mechanical law, on the contrary, is only a record of the customary but reasonless order of things. A merely inexplicable event, manifesting no significant purpose, would be no miracle. What surprises us in the miracle is that, contrary to what is usually the case, we can see a real and just ground for it. Thus, if the water of Lourdes, bottled and sold by chemists, cured all diseases, there would be no miracle, but only a new scientific discovery. In such a case, we should no more know why we were cured than we now know why we were created. But if each believer in taking the water thinks the effect morally conditioned, if he interprets the result, should it be favourable, as an answer to his faith and prayers, then the cure becomes miraculous because it becomes intelligible and manifests the obedience of nature to the exigencies of spirit. Were there no known ground for such a scientific anomaly, were it a meaningless irregularity in events, we should not call it a miracle, but an accident, and it would have no relation to religion.
[Sidenote: Superstitions come of haste to understand.]
What establishes superstitions is haste to understand, rash confidence in the moral intelligibility of things. It turns out in the end, as we have laboriously discovered, that understanding has to be circuitous and cannot fulfil its function until it applies mechanical categories to existence. A thorough philosophy will become aware that moral intelligibility can only be an incidental ornament and partial harmony in the world. For moral significance is relative to particular interests and to natures having a constitutional and definite bias, and having consequently special preferences which it is chimerical to expect the rest of the world to be determined by. The attempt to subsume the natural order under the moral is like attempts to establish a government of the parent by the child—something children are not averse to. But such follies are the follies of an intelligent and eager creature, restless in a world it cannot at once master and comprehend. They are the errors of reason, wanderings in the by-paths of philosophy, not due to lack of intelligence or of faith in law, but rather to a premature vivacity in catching at laws, a vivacity misled by inadequate information. The hunger for facile wisdom is the root of all false philosophy. The mind's reactions anticipate in such cases its sufficient nourishment; it has not yet matured under the rays of experience, so that both materials and guidance are lacking for its precocious organising force. Superstitious minds are penetrating and narrow, deep and ignorant. They apply the higher categories before the lower—an inversion which in all spheres produces the worst and most pathetic disorganisation, because the lower functions are then deranged and the higher contaminated. Poetry anticipates science, on which it ought to follow, and imagination rushes in to intercept memory, on which it ought to feed. Hence superstition and the magical function of religion; hence the deceptions men fall into by cogitating on things they are ignorant of and arrogating to themselves powers which they have never learned to exercise.
[Sidenote: Inattention suffers them to spread.]
It is now generally acknowledged that workers of miracles, prophets, soothsayers, and inspired or divinely appointed men may, like metaphysicians, be quite sincere and fully believe they possess the powers which they pretend to display. In the case of the more intelligent, however, this sincerity was seldom complete, but mixed with a certain pitying or scornful accommodation to the vulgar mind. Something unusual might actually have happened, in which case the reference of it to the will that welcomed it (without, of course, being able to command it unconditionally) might well seem reasonable. Or something normal might have been interpreted fancifully, but to the greater glory of God and edification of the faithful; in which case the incidental error might be allowed to pass unchallenged out of respect for the essential truths thus fortified in pious minds. The power of habit and convention, by which the most crying inconsistencies and hypocrisies are soon put to sleep, would facilitate these accommodations and render them soon instinctive; while the world at large, entirely hypnotised by the ceremonious event and its imaginative echoes, could never come to close quarters with the facts at all, but could view them only through accepted preconceptions. Thus elaborate machinery can arise and long endure for the magical service of man's interests. How deeply rooted such conventions are, how natural it is that they should have dominated even civilised society, may best be understood if we consider the remnants of such habits in our midst—not among gypsies or professional wonder-workers but among reflecting men.
[Sidenote: Genius may use them to convey an inarticulate wisdom.]
Some men of action, like Caesar and Napoleon, are said to have been superstitious about their own destiny. The phenomenon, if true, would be intelligible. They were masterful men, men who in a remarkable degree possessed in their consciousness the sign and sanction of what was happening in the world. This endowment, which made them dominate their contemporaries, could also reveal the sources and conditions of their own will. They might easily come to feel that it was destiny—the total movement of things—that inspired, crowned, and ruined them. But as they could feel this only instinctively, not by a systematic view of all the forces in play, they would attach their voluminous sense of fatality to some chance external indication or to some ephemeral impulse within themselves; so that what was essentially a profound but inarticulate science might express itself in the guise of a superstition.
In like manner Socrates' Demon (if not actually a playful fable by which the sage expressed the negative stress of conscience, the "thou shalt not" of all awe-inspiring precepts) might be a symbol for latent wisdom. Socrates turned a trick, played upon him by his senses, into a message from heaven. He taught a feeble voice—senseless like all ghostly voices—to sanction precepts dictated by the truly divine element within himself. It was characteristic of his modest piety to look for some external sign to support reason; his philosophy was so human, and man is obviously so small a part of the world, that he could reasonably subordinate reason at certain junctures. Its abdication, however, was half playful, for he could always find excellent grounds for what the demon commanded.
In much the same manner the priests at Delphi, when they were prudent, made of the Pythia's ravings oracles not without elevation of tone and with an obvious political tendency. Occasions for superstition which baser minds would have turned to sheer lunacy or silly fears or necromantic clap-trap were seized by these nobler natures for a good purpose. A benevolent man, not inclined to scepticism, can always argue that the gods must have commanded what he himself knows to be right; and he thinks it religion on his part to interpret the oracle accordingly, or even to prompt it. In such ways the most arbitrary superstitions take a moral colour in a moral mind; something which can come about all the more easily since the roots of reason and superstition are intertwined in the mind, and society has always expressed and cultivated them together.
MAGIC, SACRIFICE, AND PRAYER
[Sidenote: Fear created the gods.]
That fear first created the gods is perhaps as true as anything so brief could be on so great a subject. To recognise an external power it is requisite that we should find the inner stream and tendency of life somehow checked or disturbed; if all went well and acceptably, we should attribute divinity only to ourselves. The external is therefore evil rather than good to early apprehension—a sentiment which still survives in respect to matter; for it takes reflection to conceive that external forces form a necessary environment, creating as well as limiting us, and offering us as many opportunities as rebuffs. The first things which a man learns to distinguish and respect are things with a will of their own, things which resist his casual demands; and so the first sentiment with which he confronts reality is a certain animosity, which becomes cruelty toward the weak and fear and fawning before the powerful. Toward men and animals and the docile parts of nature these sentiments soon become defined accurately, representing the exact degree of friendliness or use which we discover in these beings; and it is in practical terms, expressing this relation to our interests, that we define their characters. Much remains over, however, which we cannot easily define, indomitable, ambiguous regions of nature and consciousness which we know not how to face; yet we cannot ignore them, since it is thence that comes what is most momentous in our fortunes—luck, disease, tempest, death, victory. Thence come also certain mysterious visitations to the inner mind—dreams, apparitions, warnings. To perceive these things is not always easy, nor is it easy to interpret them, while the great changes in nature which, perhaps, they forebode may indeed be watched but cannot be met intelligently, much less prevented. The feeling with which primitive man walks the earth must accordingly be, for the most part, apprehension; and what he meets, beyond the well-conned ways of his tribe and habitat, can be nothing but formidable spirits.
[Sidenote: Need also contributed.]
Impotence, however, has a more positive side. If the lightning and thunder, startling us in our peace, suddenly reveal unwelcome powers before which we must tremble, hunger, on the contrary, will torment us with floating ideas, intermittent impulses to act, suggesting things which would be wholly delightful if only we could find them, but which it becomes intolerable to remain without. In this case our fear, if we still choose to call it so, would be lest our cravings should remain unsatisfied, or rather fear has given place to need; we recognise our dependence on external powers not because they threaten but because they forsake us.
[Sidenote: The real evidences of God's existence.]
Obvious considerations like these furnish the proof of God's existence, not as philosophers have tried to express it after the fact and in relation to mythical conceptions of God already current, but as mankind originally perceived it, and (where religion is spontaneous) perceives it still. There is such an order in experience that we find our desires doubly dependent on something which, because it disregards our will, we call an external power. Sometimes it overwhelms us with scourges and wonders, so that we must marvel at it and fear; sometimes it removes, or after removing restores, a support necessary to our existence and happiness, so that we must cling to it, hope for it, and love it. Whatever is serious in religion, whatever is bound up with morality and fate, is contained in those plain experiences of dependence and of affinity to that on which we depend. The rest is poetry, or mythical philosophy, in which definitions not warranted in the end by experience are given to that power which experience reveals. To reject such arbitrary definitions is called atheism by those who frame them; but a man who studies for himself the ominous and the friendly aspects of reality and gives them the truest and most adequate expression he can is repeating what the founders of religion did in the beginning. He is their companion and follower more truly than are the apologists for second-hand conceptions which these apologists themselves have never compared with the facts, and which they prize chiefly for misrepresenting actual experience and giving it imaginary extensions.
Religion is not essentially an imposture, though it might seem so if we consider it as its defenders present it to us rather than as its discoverers and original spokesmen uttered it in the presence of nature and face to face with unsophisticated men. Religion is an interpretation of experience, honestly made, and made in view of man's happiness and its empirical conditions. That this interpretation is poetical goes without saying, since natural and moral science, even to-day, are inadequate for the task. But the mythical form into which men cast their wisdom was not chosen by them because they preferred to be imaginative; it was not embraced, as its survivals are now defended, out of sentimental attachment to grandiloquent but inaccurate thoughts. Mythical forms were adopted because none other were available, nor could the primitive mind discriminate at all between the mythical and the scientific. Whether it is the myth or the wisdom it expresses that we call religion is a matter of words. Certain it is that the wisdom is alone what gives the myth its dignity, and what originally suggested it. God's majesty lies in his operation, not in his definition or his image.
[Sidenote: Practice precedes theory in religion.]
Fear and need, then, bring us into the presence of external powers, conceived mythically, whose essential character is to be now terrible, now auspicious. The influence is real and directly felt; the gods' function is unmistakable and momentous, while their name and form, the fabulous beings to which that felt influence is imputed, vary with the resources of the worshipper's mind and his poetic habits. The work of expression, the creation of a fabulous environment to derive experience from, is not, however, the first or most pressing operation employing the religious mind. Its first business is rather the work of propitiation; before we stop to contemplate the deity we hasten to appease it, to welcome it, or to get out of its way. Cult precedes fable and helps to frame it, because the feeling of need or fear is a practical feeling, and the ideas it may awaken are only incidental to the reactions it prompts. Worship is therefore earlier and nearer to the roots of religion than dogma is.
[Sidenote: Pathetic, tentative nature of religious practices.]
At the same time, since those reactions which are directly efficacious go to form arts and industrial habits, and eventually put before us the world of science and common-sense, religious practice and thought are confined to the sphere in which direct manipulation of things is impossible. Cultus is always distinguishable from industry, even when the worshipper's motives are most sordid and his notions most material; for in religious operations the changes worked or expected can never be traced consecutively. There is a break, often a complete diversity and disproportion, between effort and result. Religion is a form of rational living more empirical, looser, more primitive than art. Man's consciousness in it is more immersed in nature, nearer to a vegetative union with the general life; it bemoans division and celebrates harmony with a more passive and lyrical wonder. The element of action proper to religion is extremely arbitrary, and we are often at a loss to see in what way the acts recommended conduce at all to the result foretold.
As theoretical superstition stops at any cause, so practical superstition seizes on any means. Religion arises under high pressure: in the last extremity, every one appeals to God. But in the last extremity all known methods of action have proved futile; when resources are exhausted and ideas fail, if there is still vitality in the will it sends a supreme appeal to the supernatural. This appeal is necessarily made in the dark: it is the appeal of a conscious impotence, of an avowed perplexity. What a man in such a case may come to do to propitiate the deity, or to produce by magic a result he cannot produce by art, will obviously be some random action. He will be driven back to the place where instinct and reason begin. His movement will be absolutely experimental, altogether spontaneous. He will have no reason for what he does, save that he must do something.
[Sidenote: Meanness and envy in the gods, suggesting sacrifice.]
What he will do, however, will not be very original; a die must fall on some one of its six faces, shake it as much as you please. When Don Quixote, seeking to do good absolutely at a venture, let the reins drop on Rocinante's neck, the poor beast very naturally followed the highway; and a man wondering what will please heaven can ultimately light on nothing but what might please himself. It is pathetic to observe how lowly the motives are that religion, even the highest, attributes to the deity, and from what a hard-pressed and bitter existence they have been drawn. To be given the best morsel, to be remembered, to be praised, to be obeyed blindly and punctiliously—these have been thought points of honour with the gods, for which they would dispense favours and punishments on the most exorbitant scale. Indeed, the widespread practice of sacrifice, like all mutilations and penances, suggests an even meaner jealousy and malice in the gods; for the disciplinary functions which these things may have were not aimed at in the beginning, and would not have associated them particularly with religion. In setting aside the fat for the gods' pleasure, in sacrificing the first-born, in a thousand other cruel ceremonies, the idea apparently was that an envious onlooker, lurking unseen, might poison the whole, or revenge himself for not having enjoyed it, unless a part—possibly sufficient for his hunger—were surrendered to him voluntarily. This onlooker was a veritable demon, treated as a man treats a robber to whom he yields his purse that his life may be spared.
To call the gods envious has a certain symbolic truth, in that earthly fortunes are actually precarious; and such an observation might inspire detachment from material things and a kind of philosophy. But what at first inspires sacrifice is a literal envy imputed to the gods, a spirit of vengeance and petty ill-will; so that they grudge a man even the good things which they cannot enjoy themselves. If the god is a tyrant, the votary will be a tax-payer surrendering his tithes to secure immunity from further levies or from attack by other potentates. God and man will be natural enemies, living in a sort of politic peace.
[Sidenote: Ritualistic arts.]
Sacrifices are far from having merely this sinister meaning. Once inaugurated they suggest further ideas, and from the beginning they had happier associations. The sacrifice was incidental to a feast, and the plenty it was to render safe existed already. What was a bribe, offered in the spirit of barter, to see if the envious power could not be mollified by something less than the total ruin of his victims, could easily become a genial distribution of what custom assigned to each: so much to the chief, so much to the god, so much to the husbandman. There is a certain openness, and as it were the form of justice, in giving each what is conventionally his due, however little he may really deserve it. In religious observances this sentiment plays an important part, and men find satisfaction in fulfilling in a seemly manner what is prescribed; and since they know little about the ground or meaning of what they do, they feel content and safe if at least they have done it properly. Sacrifices are often performed in this spirit; and when a beautiful order and religious calm have come to dignify the performance, the mind, having meantime very little to occupy it, may embroider on the given theme. It is then that fable, and new religious sentiments suggested by fable, appear prominently on the scene.
In agricultural rites, for instance, sacrifice will naturally be offered to the deity presiding over germination; that is the deity that might, perhaps, withdraw his favour with disastrous results. He commonly proves, however, a kindly and responsive being, and in offering to him a few sheaves of corn, some barley-cakes, or a libation from the vintage, the public is grateful rather than calculating; the sacrifice has become an act of thanksgiving. So in Christian devotion (which often follows primitive impulses and repeats the dialectic of paganism in a more speculative region) the redemption did not remain merely expiatory. It was not merely a debt to be paid off and a certain quantum of suffering to be endured which had induced the Son of God to become man and to take up his cross. It was, so the subtler theologians declared, an act of affection as much as of pity; and the spell of the doctrine over the human heart lay in feeling that God wished to assimilate himself to man, rather than simply from above to declare him forgiven; so that the incarnation was in effect a rehabilitation of man, a redemption in itself, and a forgiveness. Men like to think that God has sat at their table and walked among them in disguise. The idea is flattering; it suggests that the courtesy may some day be returned, and for those who can look so deep it expresses pointedly the philosophic truth of the matter. For are not the gods, too, in eternal travail after their ideal, and is not man a part of the world, and his art a portion of the divine wisdom? If the incarnation was a virtual redemption, the truest incarnation was the laborious creation itself.
[Sidenote: The sacrifice of a contrite heart.]
If sacrifice, in its more amiable aspect, can become thanksgiving and an expression of profitable dependence, it can suffer an even nobler transformation while retaining all its austerity. Renunciation is the corner-stone of wisdom, the condition of all genuine achievement. The gods, in asking for a sacrifice, may invite us to give up not a part of our food or of our liberty but the foolish and inordinate part of our wills. The sacrifice may be dictated to us not by a jealous enemy needing to be pacified but by a far-seeing friend, wishing we may not be deceived. If what we are commanded to surrender is only what is doing us harm, the god demanding the sacrifice is our own ideal. He has no interests in the case other than our own; he is no part of the environment; he is the goal that determines for us how we should proceed in order to realise as far as possible our inmost aspirations. When religion reaches this phase it has become thoroughly moral. It has ceased to represent or misrepresent material conditions, and has learned to embody spiritual goods.
Sacrifice is a rite, and rites can seldom be made to embody ideas exclusively moral. Something dramatic or mystical will cling to the performance, and, even when the effect of it is to purify, it will bring about an emotional catharsis rather than a moral improvement. The mass is a ritual sacrifice, and the communion is a part of it, having the closest resemblance to what sacrifices have always been. Among the devout these ceremonies, and the lyric emotions they awaken, have a quite visible influence; but the spell is mystic, the god soon recedes, and it would be purely fanciful to maintain that any permanent moral effect comes from such an exercise. The Church has felt as much and introduced the confession, where a man may really be asked to consider what sacrifices he should make for his part, and in what practical direction he should imagine himself to be drawn by the vague Dionysiac influences to which the ritual subjects him.
[Sidenote: Prayer is not utilitarian in essence.]
As sacrifice expresses fear, prayer expresses need. Common-sense thinks of language as something meant to be understood by another and to produce changes in his disposition and behaviour, but language has pre-rational uses, of which poetry and prayer are perhaps the chief. A man overcome by passion assumes dramatic attitudes surely not intended to be watched and interpreted; like tears, gestures may touch an observer's heart, but they do not come for that purpose. So the fund of words and phrases latent in the mind flow out under stress of emotion; they flow because they belong to the situation, because they fill out and complete a perception absorbing the mind; they do not flow primarily to be listened to. The instinct to pray is one of the chief avenues to the deity, and the form prayer takes helps immensely to define the power it is addressed to; indeed, it is in the act of praying that men formulate to themselves what God must be, and tell him at great length what they believe and what they expect of him. The initial forms of prayer are not so absurd as the somewhat rationalised forms of it. Unlike sacrifice, prayer seems to be justified by its essence and to be degraded by the transformations it suffers in reflection, when men try to find a place for it in their cosmic economy; for its essence is poetical, expressive, contemplative, and it grows more and more nonsensical the more people insist on making it a prosaic, commercial exchange of views between two interlocutors.
Prayer is a soliloquy; but being a soliloquy expressing need, and being furthermore, like sacrifice, a desperate expedient which men fly to in their impotence, it looks for an effect: to cry aloud, to make vows, to contrast eloquently the given with the ideal situation, is certainly as likely a way of bringing about a change for the better as it would be to chastise one's self severely, or to destroy what one loves best, or to perform acts altogether trivial and arbitrary. Prayer also is magic, and as such it is expected to do work. The answer looked for, or one which may be accepted instead, very often ensues; and it is then that mythology begins to enter in and seeks to explain by what machinery of divine passions and purposes that answering effect was produced.
[Sidenote: Its supposed efficacy magical.]
Magic is in a certain sense the mother of art, art being the magic that succeeds and can establish itself. For this very reason mere magic is never appealed to when art has been found, and no unsophisticated man prays to have that done for him which he knows how to do for himself. When his art fails, if his necessity still presses, he appeals to magic, and he prays when he no longer can control the event, provided this event is momentous to him. Prayer is not a substitute for work; it is a desperate effort to work further and to be efficient beyond the range of one's powers. It is not the lazy who are most inclined to prayer; those pray most who care most, and who, having worked hard, find it intolerable to be defeated.
[Sidenote: Theological puzzles.]
No chapter in theology is more unhappy than that in which a material efficacy is assigned to prayer. In the first place the facts contradict the notion that curses can bring evil or blessings can cure; and it is not observed that the most orthodox and hard-praying army wins the most battles. The facts, however, are often against theology, which has to rely on dialectical refinements to explain them away; but unfortunately in this instance dialectic is no less hostile than experience. God must know our necessities before we ask and, if he is good, must already have decided what he would do for us. Prayer, like every other act, becomes in a providential world altogether perfunctory and histrionic; we are compelled to go through it, it is set down for us in the play, but it lacks altogether that moral value which we assign to it. When our prayers fail, it must be better than if they had succeeded, so that prayer, with all free preference whatsoever, becomes an absurdity. The trouble is much deeper than that which so many people find in determinism. A physical predetermination, in making all things necessary, leaves all values entire, and my preferences, though they cannot be efficacious unless they express preformed natural forces, are not invalidated ideally. It is still true that the world would have been better to all eternity if my will also could have been fulfilled. A providential optimism, on the contrary, not merely predetermines events but discounts values; and it reduces every mortal aspiration, every pang of conscience; every wish that things should be better than they are, to a blind impertinence, nay, to a sacrilege. Thus, you may not pray that God's kingdom may come, but only—what is not a prayer but a dogma—that it has come already. The mythology that pretends to justify prayer by giving it a material efficacy misunderstands prayer completely and makes it ridiculous, for it turns away from the heart, which prayer expresses pathetically, to a fabulous cosmos where aspirations have been turned into things and have thereby stifled their own voices.
[Sidenote: A real efficacy would be mechanical.]
The situation would not be improved if we surrendered that mystical optimism, and maintained that prayer might really attract super-human forces to our aid by giving them a signal without which they would not have been able to reach us. If experience lent itself to such a theory there would be nothing in it more impossible than in ordinary telepathy; prayer would then be an art like conversation, and the exact personages and interests would be discoverable to which we might appeal. A celestial diplomacy might then be established not very unlike primitive religions. Religion would have reverted to industry and science, to which the grosser spirits that take refuge under it have always wished to assimilate it. But is it really the office of religion to work upon external powers and extract from them certain calculable effects? Is it an art, like empiric medicine, and merely a dubious and mystic industry? If so, it exists only by imperfection; were it better developed it would coincide with those material and social arts with which it is identical in essence. Successful religion, like successful magic, would have passed into the art of exploiting the world.
[Sidenote: True uses of prayer.]
What successful religion really should pass into is contemplation, ideality, poetry, in the sense in which poetry includes all imaginative moral life. That this is what religion looks to is very clear in prayer and in the efficacy which prayer consistently can have. In rational prayer the soul may be said to accomplish three things important to its welfare: it withdraws within itself and defines its good, it accommodates itself to destiny, and it grows like the ideal which it conceives.
[Sidenote: It clarifies the ideal.]
If prayer springs from need it will naturally dwell on what would satisfy that necessity; sometimes, indeed, it does nothing else but articulate and eulogise what is most wanted and prized. This object will often be particular, and so it should be, since Socrates' prayer "for the best" would be perfunctory and vapid indeed in a man whose life had not been spent, like Socrates', in defining what the best was. Yet any particular good lies in a field of relations; it has associates and implications, so that the mind dwelling on it and invoking its presence will naturally be enticed also into its background, and will wander there, perhaps to come upon greater goods, or upon evils which the coveted good would make inevitable. An earnest consideration, therefore, of anything desired is apt to enlarge and generalise aspiration till it embraces an ideal life; for from almost any starting-point the limits and contours of mortal happiness are soon descried. Prayer, inspired by a pressing need, already relieves its importunity by merging it in the general need of the spirit and of mankind. It therefore calms the passions in expressing them, like all idealisation, and tends to make the will conformable with reason and justice.
[Sidenote: It reconciles to the inevitable.]
A comprehensive ideal, however, is harder to realise than a particular one: the rain wished for may fall, the death feared may be averted, but the kingdom of heaven does not come. It is in the very essence of prayer to regard a denial as possible. There would be no sense in defining and begging for the better thing if that better thing had at any rate to be. The possibility of defeat is one of the circumstances with which meditation must square the ideal; seeing that my prayer may not be granted, what in that case should I pray for next? Now the order of nature is in many respects well known, and it is clear that all realisable ideals must not transgress certain bounds. The practical ideal, that which under the circumstances it is best to aim at and pray for, will not rebel against destiny. Conformity is an element in all religion and submission in all prayer; not because what must be is best, but because the best that may be pursued rationally lies within the possible, and can be hatched only in the general womb of being. The prayer, "Thy will be done," if it is to remain a prayer, must not be degraded from its original meaning, which was that an unfulfilled ideal should be fulfilled; it expressed aspiration after the best, not willingness to be satisfied with, anything. Yet the inevitable must be accepted, and it is easier to change the human will than the laws of nature. To wean the mind from extravagant desires and teach it to find excellence in what life affords, when life is made as worthy as possible, is a part of wisdom and religion. Prayer, by confronting the ideal with experience and fate, tends to render that ideal humble, practical, and efficacious.
[Sidenote: It fosters spiritual life by conceiving it in its perfection.]
A sense for human limitations, however, has its foil in the ideal of deity, which is nothing but the ideal of man freed from those limitations which a humble and wise man accepts for himself, but which a spiritual man never ceases to feel as limitations. Man, for instance, is mortal, and his whole animal and social economy is built on that fact, so that his practical ideal must start on that basis, and make the best of it; but immortality is essentially better, and the eternal is in many ways constantly present to a noble mind; the gods therefore are immortal, and to speak their language in prayer is to learn to see all things as they do and as reason must, under the form of eternity. The gods are furthermore no respecters of persons; they are just, for it is man's ideal to be so. Prayer, since it addresses deity, will in the end blush to be selfish and partial; the majesty of the divine mind envisaged and consulted will tend to pass into the human mind.
This use of prayer has not been conspicuous in Christian times, because, instead of assimilating the temporal to the eternal, men have assimilated the eternal to the temporal, being perturbed fanatics in religion rather than poets and idealists. Pagan devotion, on the other hand, was full of this calmer spirit. The gods, being frankly natural, could be truly ideal. They embodied what was fairest in life and loved men who resembled them, so that it was delightful and ennobling to see their images everywhere, and to keep their names and story perpetually in mind. They did not by their influence alienate man from his appropriate happiness, but they perfected it by their presence. Peopling all places, changing their forms as all living things must according to place and circumstance, they showed how all kinds of being, if perfect in their kind, might be perfectly good. They asked for a reverence consistent with reason, and exercised prerogatives that let man free. Their worship was a perpetual lesson in humanity, moderation, and beauty. Something pre-rational and monstrous often peeped out behind their serenity, as it does beneath the human soul, and there was certainly no lack of wildness and mystic horror in their apparitions. The ideal must needs betray those elemental forces on which, after all, it rests; but reason exists to exorcise their madness and win them over to a steady expression of themselves and of the good.
[Sidenote: Discipline and contemplation are their own reward.]
Prayer, in fine, though it accomplishes nothing material, constitutes something spiritual. It will not bring rain, but until rain comes it may cultivate hope and resignation and may prepare the heart for any issue, opening up a vista in which human prosperity will appear in its conditioned existence and conditional value. A candle wasting itself before an image will prevent no misfortune, but it may bear witness to some silent hope or relieve some sorrow by expressing it; it may soften a little the bitter sense of impotence which would consume a mind aware of physical dependence but not of spiritual dominion. Worship, supplication, reliance on the gods, express both these things in an appropriate parable. Physical impotence is expressed by man's appeal for help; moral dominion by belief in God's omnipotence. This belief may afterwards seem to be contradicted by events. It would be so in truth if God's omnipotence stood for a material magical control of events by the values they were to generate. But the believer knows in his heart, in spite of the confused explanations he may give of his feelings, that a material efficacy is not the test of his faith. His faith will survive any outward disappointment. In fact, it will grow by that discipline and not become truly religious until it ceases to be a foolish expectation of improbable things and rises on stepping-stones of its material disappointments into a spiritual peace. What would sacrifice be but a risky investment if it did not redeem us from the love of those things which it asks us to surrender? What would be the miserable fruit of an appeal to God which, after bringing us face to face with him, left us still immersed in what we could have enjoyed without him? The real use and excuse for magic is this, that by enticing us, in the service of natural lusts, into a region above natural instrumentalities, it accustoms us to that rarer atmosphere, so that we may learn to breathe it for its own sake. By the time we discover the mechanical futility of religion we may have begun to blush at the thought of using religion mechanically; for what should be the end of life if friendship with the gods is a means only? When thaumaturgy is discredited, the childish desire to work miracles may itself have passed away. Before we weary of the attempt to hide and piece out our mortality, our concomitant immortality may have dawned upon us. While we are waiting for the command to take up our bed and walk we may hear a voice saying: Thy sins are forgiven thee.
[Sidenote: Status of fable in the mind.]
Primitive thought has the form of poetry and the function of prose. Being thought, it distinguishes objects from the experience that reveals them and it aspires to know things as they are; but being poetical, it attributes to those objects all the qualities which the experience of them contains, and builds them out imaginatively in all directions, without distinguishing what is constant and efficacious in them. This primitive habit of thought survives in mythology, which is an observation of things encumbered with all they can suggest to a dramatic fancy. It is neither conscious poetry nor valid science, but the common root and raw material of both. Free poetry is a thing which early man is too poor to indulge in; his wide-open eyes are too intently watching this ominous and treacherous world. For pure science he has not enough experience, no adequate power to analyse, remember, and abstract; his soul is too hurried and confused, too thick with phantoms, to follow abstemiously the practical threads through the labyrinth. His view of things is immensely overloaded; what he gives out for description is more than half soliloquy; but his expression of experience is for that very reason adequate and quite sincere. Belief, which we have come to associate with religion, belongs really to science; myths are not believed in, they are conceived and understood. To demand belief for an idea is already to contrast interpretation with knowledge; it is to assert that that idea has scientific truth. Mythology cannot flourish in that dialectical air; it belongs to a deeper and more ingenuous level of thought, when men pored on the world with intense indiscriminate interest, accepting and recording the mind's vegetation no less than that observable in things, and mixing the two developments together in one wayward drama.
[Sidenote: It requires genius.]
A good mythology cannot be produced without much culture and intelligence. Stupidity is not poetical. Nor is mythology essentially a half-way house between animal vagueness in the soul and scientific knowledge. It is conceivable that some race, not so dreamful as ours, should never have been tempted to use psychic and passionate categories in reading nature, but from the first should have kept its observations sensuous and pure, elaborating them only on their own plane, mathematically and dialectically. Such a race, however, could hardly have had lyric or dramatic genius, and even in natural science, which requires imagination, they might never have accomplished anything. The Hebrews, denying themselves a rich mythology, remained without science and plastic art; the Chinese, who seem to have attained legality and domestic arts and a tutored sentiment without passing through such imaginative tempests as have harassed us, remain at the same time without a serious science or philosophy. The Greeks, on the contrary, precisely the people with the richest and most irresponsible myths, first conceived the cosmos scientifically, and first wrote rational history and philosophy. So true it is that vitality in any mental function is favourable to vitality in the whole mind. Illusions incident to mythology are not dangerous in the end, because illusion finds in experience a natural though painful cure. Extravagant error is unstable, unless it be harmless and confined to a limbo remote from all applications; if it touches experience it is stimulating and brief, while the equipoise of dulness may easily render dulness eternal. A developed mythology shows that man has taken a deep and active interest both in the world and in himself, and has tried to link the two, and interpret the one by the other. Myth is therefore a natural prologue to philosophy, since the love of ideas is the root of both. Both are made up of things admirable to consider.
[Sidenote: It only half deceives.]
Nor is the illusion involved in fabulous thinking always so complete and opaque as convention would represent it. In taking fable for fact, good sense and practice seldom keep pace with dogma. There is always a race of pedants whose function it is to materialise everything ideal, but the great world, half shrewdly, half doggedly, manages to escape their contagion. Language may be entirely permeated with myth, since the affinities of language have much to do with men gliding into such thoughts; yet the difference between language itself and what it expresses is not so easily obliterated. In spite of verbal traditions, people seldom take a myth in the same sense in which they would take an empirical truth. All the doctrines that have flourished in the world about immortality have hardly affected men's natural sentiment in the face of death, a sentiment which those doctrines, if taken seriously, ought wholly to reverse. Men almost universally have acknowledged a Providence, but that fact has had no force to destroy natural aversions and fears in the presence of events; and yet, if Providence had ever been really trusted, those preferences would all have lapsed, being seen to be blind, rebellious, and blasphemous. Prayer, among sane people, has never superseded practical efforts to secure the desired end; a proof that the sphere of expression was never really confused with that of reality. Indeed, such a confusion, if it had passed from theory to practice, would have changed mythology into madness. With rare exceptions this declension has not occurred and myths have been taken with a grain of salt which not only made them digestible, but heightened their savour.
It is always by its applicability to things known, not by its revelation of things unknown and irrelevant, that a myth at its birth appeals to mankind. When it has lost its symbolic value and sunk to the level of merely false information, only an inert and stupid tradition can keep it above water. Parables justify themselves but dogmas call for an apologist. The genial offspring of prophets and poets then has to be kept alive artificially by professional doctors. A thing born of fancy, moulded to express universal experience and its veritable issues, has to be hedged about by misrepresentation, sophistry, and party spirit. The very apologies and unintelligent proofs offered in its defence in a way confess its unreality, since they all strain to paint in more plausible colours what is felt to be in itself extravagant and incredible.
[Sidenote: Its interpretative essence.]
Yet if the myth was originally accepted it could not be for this falsity plainly written on its face; it was accepted because it was understood, because it was seen to express reality in an eloquent metaphor. Its function was to show up some phase of experience in its totality and moral issue, as in a map we reduce everything geographically in order to overlook it better in its true relations. Had those symbols for a moment descended to the plane of reality they would have lost their meaning and dignity; they would tell us merely that they themselves existed bodily, which would be false, while about the real configuration of life they would no longer tell us anything. Such an error, if carried through to the end, would nullify all experience and arrest all life. Men would be reacting on expressions and meeting with nothing to express. They would all be like word-eating philosophers or children learning the catechism.
The true function of mythical ideas is to present and interpret events in terms relative to spirit. Things have uses in respect to the will which are direct and obvious, while the inner machinery of these same things is intricate and obscure. We therefore conceive things roughly and superficially by their eventual practical functions and assign to them, in our game, some counterpart of the interest they affect in us. This counterpart, to our thinking, constitutes their inward character and soul. So conceived, soul and character are purely mythical, being arrived at by dramatising events according to our own fancy and interest. Such ideas may be adequate in their way if they cover all the uses we may eventually find in the objects they transcribe for us dramatically. But the most adequate mythology is mythology still; it does not, like science, set things before us in the very terms they will wear when they are gradually revealed to experience. Myth is expression, it is not prophecy. For this reason myth is something on which the mind rests; it is an ideal interpretation in which the phenomena are digested and transmuted into human energy, into imaginative tissue.
[Sidenote: Contrast with science.]
Scientific formulas, on the contrary, cry aloud for retranslation into perceptual terms; they are like tight-ropes, on which a man may walk but on which he cannot stand still. These unstable symbols lead, however, to real facts and define their experimental relations; while the mind reposing contentedly in a myth needs to have all observation and experience behind it, for it will not be driven to gather more. The perfect and stable myth would rest on a complete survey and steady focussing of all interests really affecting the one from whose point of view the myth was framed. Then each physical or political unit would be endowed with a character really corresponding to all its influence on the thinker. This symbol would render the diffuse natural existences which it represented in an eloquent figure; and since this figure would not mislead practically it might be called true. But truth, in a myth, means a sterling quality and standard excellence, not a literal or logical truth. It will not, save by a singular accident, represent their proper internal being, as a forthright unselfish intellect would wish to know it. It will translate into the language of a private passion the smiles and frowns which that passion meets with in the world.
[Sidenote: Importance of the moral factor.]
There are accordingly two factors in mythology, a moral consciousness and a corresponding poetic conception of things. Both factors are variable, and variations in the first, if more hidden, are no less important than variations in the second. Had fable started with a clear perception of human values, it would have gained immensely in significance, because its pictures, however wrong the external notions they built upon, would have shown what, in the world so conceived, would have been the ideals and prizes of life. Thus Dante's bad cosmography and worse history do not detract from the spiritual penetration of his thought, though they detract from its direct applicability. Had nature and destiny been what Dante imagined, his conception of the values involved would have been perfect, for the moral philosophy he brought into play was Aristotelian and rational. So his poem contains a false instance or imaginary rehearsal of true wisdom. It describes the Life of Reason in a fantastic world. We need only change man's situation to that in which he actually finds himself, and let the soul, fathomed and chastened as Dante left it, ask questions and draw answers from this steadier dream.
[Sidenote: Its submergence.]
Myth travels among the people, and in their hands its poetic factor tends to predominate. It is easier to carry on the dialectic or drama proper to a fable than to confront it again with the facts and give them a fresh and more genial interpretation. The poet makes the fable; the sophist carries it on. Therefore historians and theologians discuss chiefly the various forms which mythical beings have received, and the internal logical or moral implications of those hypostases. They would do better to attend instead to the moral factor. However interesting a fable may be in itself, its religious value lies wholly in its revealing some function which nature has in human life. Not the beauty of the god makes him adorable, but his dispensing benefits and graces. Side by side with Apollo (a god having moral functions and consequently inspiring a fervent cult and tending himself to assume a moral character) there may be a Helios or a Phaethon, poetic figures expressing just as well the sun's physical operation, and no less capable, if the theologian took hold of them, of suggesting psychological problems. The moral factor, however, was not found in these minor deities. Only a verbal and sensuous poetry had been employed in defining them; the needs and hopes of mankind had been ignored. Apollo, on the contrary, in personifying the sun, had embodied also the sun's relations to human welfare. The vitality, the healing, the enlightenment, the lyric joy flowing into man's heart from that highest source of his physical being are all beautifully represented in the god's figure and fable. The religion of Apollo is therefore a true religion, as religions may be true: the mythology which created the god rested on a deep, observant sense for moral values, and drew a vivid, if partial, picture of the ideal, attaching it significantly to its natural ground.
[Sidenote: Myth justifies magic.]
The first function of mythology is to justify magic. The weak hope on which superstition hangs, the gambler's instinct which divines in phenomena a magic solicitude for human fortunes, can scarcely be articulated without seeking to cover and justify itself by some fable. A magic function is most readily conceived and defined by attributing to the object intentions hostile or favourable to men, together with human habits of passion and discourse. For lack of resources and observations, reason is seldom able to discredit magic altogether. Reasonable men are forced, therefore, in order to find some satisfaction, to make magic as intelligible as possible by assimilating it to such laws of human action as may be already mastered and familiar. Magic is thus reduced to a sort of system, regulated by principles of its own and naturalised, as it were, in the commonwealth of science.