The Note-Books of Samuel Butler
by Samuel Butler
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When we had put from us "the desire of meat and drink," Ismail began to talk to me. He said he had now for the first time in his life found himself in familiar conversation with Wisdom from the West (that was me), and that, as he greatly doubted whether such another opportunity would be ever vouchsafed to him, he should wish to consult me upon a matter which had greatly exercised him. He was now fifty years old and had never married. Sometimes he thought he had done a wise thing, and sometimes it seemed to him that he had been very foolish. Would I kindly tell him which it was and advise him as to the future? I said he was addressing one who was in much the same condition as himself, only that I was some ten years older. We had a saying in England that if a man marries he will regret it, and that if he does not marry he will regret it.

"Ah!" said Ismail, who was leaning towards me and trying to catch every word I spoke, though he could not understand a syllable till Yakoub interpreted my Italian into Turkish. "Ah!" he said, "that is a true word."

In my younger days, I said (may Heaven forgive me!), I had been passionately in love with a most beautiful young lady, but—and here my voice faltered, and I looked very sad, waiting for Yakoub to interpret what I had said—but it had been the will of Allah that she should marry another gentleman, and this had broken my heart for many years. After a time, however, I concluded that these things were all settled for us by a higher Power.

"Ah! that is a true word."

"And so, my dear sir, in your case I should reflect that if Allah" (and I raised my hand to Heaven) "had desired your being married, he would have signified his will to you in some way that you could hardly mistake. As he does not appear to have done so, I should recommend you to remain single until you receive some distinct intimation that you are to marry."

"Ah! that is a true word."

"Besides," I continued, "suppose you marry a woman with whom you think you are in love and then find out, after you have been married to her for three months, that you do not like her. This would be a very painful situation."

"Ah, yes, indeed! that is a true word."

"And if you had children who were good and dutiful, it would be delightful; but suppose they turned out disobedient and ungrateful— and I have known many such cases—could anything be more distressing to a parent in his declining years?"

"Ah! that is a true word that you have spoken."

"We have a great Imaum," I continued, "in England; he is called the Archbishop of Canterbury and gives answers to people who are in any kind of doubt or difficulty. I knew one gentleman who asked his advice upon the very question that you have done me the honour of propounding to myself."

"Ah! and what was his answer?"

"He told him," said I, "that it was cheaper to buy the milk than to keep a cow."

"Ah! ah! that is a most true word."

Here I closed the conversation, and we began packing up to make a start. When we were about to mount, I said to him, hat in hand:

"Sir, it occurs to me with great sadness that, though you will, no doubt, often revisit this lovely spot, yet it is most certain that I shall never do so. Promise me that when you come here you will sometimes think of the stupid old Englishman who has had the pleasure of lunching with you to-day, and I promise that I will often think of you when I am at home again in London."

He was much touched, and we started. After we had gone about a mile, I suddenly missed my knife. I knew I should want it badly many a time before we got to the Dardanelles, and I knew perfectly well where I should find it: so I stopped the cavalcade and said I must ride back for it. I did so, found it immediately and returned. Then I said to Ismail:

"Sir, I understand now why I was led to leave my knife behind me. I had said it was certain I should never see that enchanting spot again, but I spoke presumptuously, forgetting that if Allah" (and I raised my hand to Heaven) "willed it I should assuredly do so. I am corrected, and with great leniency."

Ismail was much affected. The good fellow immediately took off his watch-chain (happily of brass and of no intrinsic value) and gave it me, assuring me that it was given him by a very dear friend, that he had worn it for many years, and valued it greatly—would I keep it as a memorial of himself? Fortunately I had with me a little silver match-box which Alfred had given me and which had my name engraved on it. I gave it to him, but had some difficulty in making him accept it. Then we rode on till we came to the saw-mills. I ordered two lambs for the ten soldiers who had accompanied us, having understood from Yakoub that this would be an acceptable present. And so I parted from this most kind and friendly gentleman with every warm expression of cordiality on both sides.

I sent him his photograph which I had taken, and I sent his soldiers their groups also—one for each man—and in due course I received the following letter of thanks. Alas! I have never written in answer. I knew not how to do it. I knew, however, that I could not keep up a correspondence, even though I wrote once. But few unanswered letters more often rise up and smite me. How the Post Office people ever read "Bueter, Ciforzin St." into "Butler, Clifford's Inn" I cannot tell. What splendid emendators of a corrupt text they ought to make! But I could almost wish that they had failed, for it has pained me not a little that I have not replied.

Mr. Samuel Bueter, No. 15 Ciforzin St. London, England. Dardanelles, August 4/95.

Mr. Samuel. England.


Many thanks for the phothograph you have send me. It was very kind of you to think of me to send me this token of your remembrance. I certainly, appreciate it, and shall think of you whenever I look at it. Ah My Dear Brother, it is impossible for me to forget you. under favorable circumstance I confess I must prefer you. I have a grate desire to have the beautifull chance to meet you. Ah then with the tears of gladness to be the result of the great love of our friendness A my Sir what pen can describe the meeting that shall be come with your second visit if it please God.

It is my pray to Our Lord God to protect you and to keep you glad and happy for ever.

Though we are far from each other yet we can speak with letters.

Thank God to have your love of friendness with me and mine with your noble person.

Hopeing to hear from you,

Yours truly, ISMAYEL, from Byramich hizar memuerue iuse bashi.


Apologise for the names in Erewhon. I was an unpractised writer and had no idea the names could matter so much.

Give a map showing the geography of Erewhon in so far as the entrance into the country goes, and explain somewhere, if possible, about Butler's stones.

Up as far as the top of the pass, where the statues are, keeps to the actual geography of the upper Rangitata district except that I have doubled the gorge. There was no gorge up above my place [Mesopotamia] and I wanted one, so I took the gorge some 10 or a dozen miles lower down and repeated it and then came upon my own country again, but made it bare of grass and useless instead of (as it actually was) excellent country. Baker and I went up the last saddle we tried and thought it was a pass to the West Coast, but found it looked down on to the headwaters of the Rakaia: however we saw a true pass opposite, just as I have described in Erewhon, only that there were no clouds and we never went straight down as I said I did, but took two days going round by Lake Heron. And there is no lake at the top of the true pass. This is the pass over which, in consequence of our report, Whitcombe was sent and got drowned on the other side. We went up to the top of the pass but found it too rough to go down without more help than we had. I rather think I have told this in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, but am so much ashamed of that book that I dare not look to see. I don't mean to say that the later books are much better; still they are better.

They show a lot of stones on the Hokitika pass, so Mr. Slade told me, which they call mine and say I intended them in Erewhon [for the statues]. I never saw them and knew nothing about them.

Refer to the agony and settled melancholy with which unborn children in the womb regard birth as the extinction of their being, and how some declare that there is a world beyond the womb and others deny this. "We must all one day be born," "Birth is certain" and so on, just as we say of death. Birth involves with it an original sin. It must be sin, for the wages of sin is death (what else, I should like to know, is the wages of virtue?) and assuredly the wages of birth is death.

They consider "wilful procreation," as they call it, much as we do murder and will not allow it to be a moral ailment at all. Sometimes a jury will recommend to mercy and sometimes they bring in a verdict of "justifiable baby-getting," but they treat these cases as a rule with great severity.

Every baby has a month of heaven and a month of hell before birth, so that it may make its choice with its eyes open.

The hour of birth should be prayed for in the litany as well as that of death, and so it would be if we could remember the agony of horror which, no doubt, we felt at birth—surpassing, no doubt, the utmost agony of apprehension that can be felt on death.

Let automata increase in variety and ingenuity till at last they present so many of the phenomena of life that the religious world declares they were designed and created by God as an independent species. The scientific world, on the other hand, denies that there is any design in connection with them, and holds that if any slight variation happened to arise by which a fortuitous combination of atoms occurred which was more suitable for advertising purposes (the automata were chiefly used for advertising) it was seized upon and preserved by natural selection.

They have schools where they teach the arts of forgetting and of not seeing. Young ladies are taught the art of proposing. Lists of successful matches are advertised with the prospectuses of all the girls' schools.

They have professors of all the languages of the principal beasts and birds. I stayed with the Professor of Feline Languages who had invented a kind of Ollendorffian system for teaching the Art of Polite Conversation among cats.

They have an art-class in which the first thing insisted on is that the pupils should know the price of all the leading modern pictures that have been sold during the last twenty years at Christie's, and the fluctuations in their values. Give an examination paper on this subject. The artist being a picture-dealer, the first thing he must do is to know how to sell his pictures, and therefore how to adapt them to the market. What is the use of being able to paint a picture unless one can sell it when one has painted it?

Add that the secret of the success of modern French art lies in its recognition of values.

Let there be monks who have taken vows of modest competency (about 1000 pounds a year, derived from consols), who spurn popularity as medieval monks spurned money—and with about as much sincerity. Their great object is to try and find out what they like and then get it. They do not live in one building, and there are no vows of celibacy, but, in practice, when any member marries he drifts away from the society. They have no profession of faith or articles of association, but, as they who hunted for the Holy Grail, so do these hunt in all things, whether of art or science, for that which commends itself to them as comfortable and worthy to be accepted. Their liberty of thought and speech and their reasonable enjoyment of the good things of this life are what they alone live for.

Let the Erewhonians have Westminster Abbeys of the first, second and third class, and in one of these let them raise monuments to dead theories which were once celebrated.

Let them study those arts whereby the opinions of a minority may be made to seem those of a majority.

Introduce an Erewhonian sermon to the effect that if people are wicked they may perhaps have to go to heaven when they die.

Let them have a Regius Professor of Studied Ambiguity.

Let the Professor of Worldly Wisdom pluck a man for want of sufficient vagueness in his saving-clauses paper.

Another poor fellow may be floored for having written an article on a scientific subject without having made free enough use of the words "patiently" and "carefully," and for having shown too obvious signs of thinking for himself.

Let them attach disgrace to any who do not rapidly become obscure after death.

Let them have a Professor of Mischief. They found that people always did harm when they meant well and that all the professorships founded with an avowedly laudable object failed, so they aim at mischief in the hope that they may miss the mark here as when they aimed at what they thought advantageous.

The Professor of Worldly Wisdom plucked a man for buying an egg that had a date stamped upon it. And another for being too often and too seriously in the right. And another for telling people what they did not want to know. He plucked several for insufficient mistrust in printed matter. It appeared that the Professor had written an article teeming with plausible blunders, and had had it inserted in a leading weekly. He then set his paper so that the men were sure to tumble into these blunders themselves; then he plucked them. This occasioned a good deal of comment at the time.

One man who entered for the Chancellor's medal declined to answer any of the questions set. He said he saw they were intended more to show off the ingenuity of the examiner than either to assist or test the judgment of the examined. He observed, moreover, that the view taken of his answers would in great measure depend upon what the examiner had had for dinner and, since it was not in his power to control this, he was not going to waste time where the result was, at best, so much a matter of chance. Briefly, his view of life was that the longer you lived and the less you thought or talked about it the better. He should go pretty straight in the main himself because it saved trouble on the whole, and he should be guided mainly by a sense of humour in deciding when to deviate from the path of technical honesty, and he would take care that his errors, if any, should be rather on the side of excess than of asceticism

This man won the Chancellor's medal.

They have a review class in which the pupils are taught not to mind what is written in newspapers. As a natural result they grow up more keenly sensitive than ever.

Round the margin of the newspapers sentences are printed cautioning the readers against believing the criticisms they see, inasmuch as personal motives will underlie the greater number.

They defend the universities and academic bodies on the ground that, but for them, good work would be so universal that the world would become clogged with masterpieces to an extent that would reduce it to an absurdity. Good sense would rule over all, and merely smart or clever people would be unable to earn a living.

They assume that truth is best got at by the falling out of thieves. "Well then, there must be thieves, or how can they fall out? Our business is to produce the raw material from which truth may be elicited."

"And you succeed, sir," I replied, "in a way that is beyond all praise, and it seems as though there would be no limit to the supply of truth that ought to be available. But, considering the number of your thieves, they show less alacrity in flying at each other's throats than might have been expected."

They live their lives backwards, beginning, as old men and women, with little more knowledge of the past than we have of the future, and foreseeing the future about as clearly as we see the past, winding up by entering into the womb as though being buried. But delicacy forbids me to pursue this subject further: the upshot is that it comes to much the same thing, provided one is used to it.

Paying debts is a luxury which we cannot all of us afford.

"It is not every one, my dear, who can reach such a counsel of perfection as murder."

There was no more space for the chronicles and, what was worse, there was no more space in which anything could happen at all, the whole land had become one vast cancerous growth of chronicles, chronicles, chronicles, nothing but chronicles.

The catalogue of the Browne medals alone will in time come to occupy several hundreds of pages in the University Calendar.

There was a professor who was looked upon as such a valuable man because he had done more than any other living person to suppress any kind of originality.

"It is not our business," he used to say, "to help students to think for themselves—surely this is the very last thing that one who wishes them well would do by them. Our business to make them think as we do, or at any rate as we consider expedient to say we do."

He was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge and for the Complete Obliteration of the Past.

They have professional mind-dressers, as we have hair-dressers, and before going out to dinner or fashionable At-homes, people go and get themselves primed with smart sayings or moral reflections according to the style which they think will be most becoming to them in the kind of company they expect.

They deify as God something which I can only translate by a word as underivable as God—I mean Gumption. But it is part of their religion that there should be no temple to Gumption, nor are there priests or professors of Gumption—Gumption being too ineffable to hit the sense of human definition and analysis.

They hold that the function of universities is to make learning repellent and thus to prevent its becoming dangerously common. And they discharge this beneficent function all the more efficiently because they do it unconsciously and automatically. The professors think they are advancing healthy intellectual assimilation and digestion when they are in reality little better than cancer on the stomach.

Let them be afflicted by an epidemic of the fear-of-giving- themselves-away disease. Enumerate its symptoms. There is a new discovery whereby the invisible rays that emanate from the soul can be caught and all the details of a man's spiritual nature, his character, disposition, principles, &c. be photographed on a plate as easily as his face or the bones of his hands, but no cure for the f. o. g. th. a. disease has yet been discovered.

They have a company for ameliorating the condition of those who are in a future state, and for improving the future state itself.

People are buried alive for a week before they are married so that their offspring may know something about the grave, of which, otherwise, heredity could teach it nothing.

It has long been held that those constitutions are best which promote most effectually the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Now the greatest number are none too wise and none too honest, and to arrange our systems with a view to the greater happiness of sensible straightforward people—indeed to give these people a chance at all if it can be avoided—is to interfere with the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Dull, slovenly and arrogant people do not like those who are quick, painstaking and unassuming; how can we then consistently with the first principles of either morality or political economy encourage such people when we can bring sincerity and modesty fairly home to them?

Much we have to tolerate, partly because we cannot always discover in time who are really insincere and who are only masking sincerity under a garb of flippancy, and partly also because we wish to err on the side of letting the guilty escape rather than of punishing the innocent. Thus many people who are perfectly well known to belong to the straightforward class are allowed to remain at large and may even be seen hobnobbing and on the best of possible terms with the guardians of public immorality. We all feel, as indeed has been said in other nations, that the poor abuses of the time want countenance, and this moreover in the interests of the uses themselves, for the presence of a small modicum of sincerity acts as a wholesome stimulant and irritant to the prevailing spirit of academicism; moreover, we hold it useful to have a certain number of melancholy examples whose notorious failure shall serve as a warning to those who do not cultivate a power of immoral self-control which shall prevent them from saying, or indeed even thinking, anything that shall not be to their immediate and palpable advantage with the greatest number.

It is a point of good breeding with the Erewhonians to keep their opinions as far as possible in the background in all cases where controversy is even remotely possible, that is to say whenever conversation gets beyond the discussion of the weather. It is found necessary, however, to recognise some means of ventilating points on which differences of opinion may exist, and the convention adopted is that whenever a man finds occasion to speak strongly he should express himself by dwelling as forcibly as he can on the views most opposed to his own; even this, however, is tolerated rather than approved, for it is counted the perfection of scholarship and good breeding not to express, and much more not even to have a definite opinion upon any subject whatsoever.

Thus their "yea" is "nay" and their "nay," "yea," but it comes to the same thing in the end, for it does not matter whether "yea" is called "yea" or "nay" so long as it is understood as "yea." They go a long way round only to find themselves at the point from which they started, but there is no accounting for tastes. With us such tactics are inconceivable, but so far do the Erewhonians carry them that it is common for them to write whole reviews and articles between the lines of which a practised reader will detect a sense exactly contrary to that ostensibly put forward; nor is a man held to be more than a tyro in the arts of polite society unless he instinctively suspects a hidden sense in every proposition that meets him. I was more than once misled by these plover-like tactics, and on one occasion was near getting into a serious scrape. It happened thus:-

A man of venerable aspect was maintaining that pain was a sad thing and should not be permitted under any circumstances. People ought not even to be allowed to suffer for the consequences of their own folly, and should be punished for it severely if they did. If they could only be kept from making fools of themselves by the loss of freedom or, if necessary, by some polite and painless method of extinction—which meant hanging—then they ought to be extinguished. If permanent improvement can only be won through ages of mistake and suffering, which must be all begun de novo for every fresh improvement, let us be content to forego improvement, and let those who suffer their lawless thoughts to stray in this direction be improved from off the face of the earth as fast as possible. No remedy can be too drastic for such a disease as the pain felt by another person. We find we can generally bear the pain ourselves when we have to do so, but it is intolerable that we should know it is being borne by any one else. The mere sight of pain unfits people for ordinary life, the wear and tear of which would be very much reduced if we would be at any trouble to restrain the present almost unbounded licence in the matter of suffering—a licence that people take advantage of to make themselves as miserable as they please, without so much as a thought for the feelings of others. Hence, he maintained, the practice of putting dupes in the same category as the physically diseased or the unlucky was founded on the eternal and inherent nature of things, and could no more be interfered with than the revolution of the earth on its axis.

He said a good deal more to the same effect, and I was beginning to wonder how much longer he would think it necessary to insist on what was so obvious, when his hearers began to differ from him. One dilated on the correlation between pain and pleasure which ensured that neither could be extinguished without the extinguishing along with it of the other. Another said that throughout the animal and vegetable worlds there was found what might be counted as a system of rewards and punishments; this, he contended, must cease to exist (and hence virtue must cease) if the pain attaching to misconduct were less notoriously advertised. Another maintained that the horror so freely expressed by many at the sight of pain was as much selfish as not—and so on.

Let Erewhon be revisited by the son of the original writer—let him hint that his father used to write the advertisements for Mother Seigel's Syrup. He gradually worked his way up to this from being a mere writer of penny tracts. [Dec. 1896.]

On reaching the country he finds that divine honours are being paid him, churches erected to him, and a copious mythology daily swelling, with accounts of the miracles he had worked and all his sayings and doings. If any child got hurt he used to kiss the place and it would get well at once.

Everything has been turned topsy-turvy in consequence of his flight in the balloon being ascribed to miraculous agency.

Among other things, he had maintained that sermons should be always preached by two people, one taking one side and another the opposite, while a third summed up and the congregation decided by a show of hands.

This system had been adopted and he goes to hear a sermon On the Growing Habit of Careful Patient Investigation as Encouraging Casuistry. [October 1897.]



You may have all growth or nothing growth, just as you may have all mechanism or nothing mechanism, all chance or nothing chance, but you must not mix them. Having settled this, you must proceed at once to mix them.

Two Points of View

Everything must be studied from the point of view of itself, as near as we can get to this, and from the point of view of its relations, as near as we can get to them. If we try to see it absolutely in itself, unalloyed with relations, we shall find, by and by, that we have, as it were, whittled it away. If we try to see it in its relations to the bitter end, we shall find that there is no corner of the universe into which it does not enter. Either way the thing eludes us if we try to grasp it with the horny hands of language and conscious thought. Either way we can think it perfectly well—so long as we don't think about thinking about it. The pale cast of thought sicklies over everything.

Practically everything should be seen as itself pure and simple, so far as we can comfortably see it, and at the same time as not itself, so far as we can comfortably see it, and then the two views should be combined, so far as we can comfortably combine them. If we cannot comfortably combine them, we should think of something else.



We can neither define what we mean by truth nor be in doubt as to our meaning. And this I suppose must be due to the antiquity of the instinct that, on the whole, directs us towards truth. We cannot self-vivisect ourselves in respect of such a vital function, though we can discharge it normally and easily enough so long as we do not think about it.


The pursuit of truth is chimerical. That is why it is so hard to say what truth is. There is no permanent absolute unchangeable truth; what we should pursue is the most convenient arrangement of our ideas.


There is no such source of error as the pursuit of absolute truth.


A. B. was so impressed with the greatness and certain ultimate victory of truth that he considered it unnecessary to encourage her or do anything to defend her.


He who can best read men best knows all truth that need concern him; for it is not what the thing is, apart from man's thoughts in respect of it, but how to reach the fairest compromise between men's past and future opinions that is the fittest object of consideration; and this we get by reading men and women.


Truth should not be absolutely lost sight of, but it should not be talked about.


Some men love truth so much that they seem to be in continual fear lest she should catch cold on over-exposure.


The firmest line that can be drawn upon the smoothest paper has still jagged edges if seen through a microscope. This does not matter until important deductions are made on the supposition that there are no jagged edges.


Truth should never be allowed to become extreme; otherwise it will be apt to meet and to run into the extreme of falsehood. It should be played pretty low down—to the pit and gallery rather than the stalls. Pit-truth is more true to the stalls than stall-truth to the pit.


An absolute lie may live—for it is a true lie, and is saved by being flecked with a grain of its opposite. Not so absolute truth.


Whenever we push truth hard she runs to earth in contradiction in terms, that is to say, in falsehood. An essential contradiction in terms meets us at the end of every enquiry.


In Alps and Sanctuaries (Chapter V) I implied that I was lying when I told the novice that Handel was a Catholic. But I was not lying; Handel was a Catholic, and so am I, and so is every well-disposed person. It shows how careful we ought to be when we lie—we can never be sure but what we may be speaking the truth.


Perhaps a little bit of absolute truth on any one question might prove a general solvent, and dissipate the universe.


Truth generally is kindness, but where the two diverge or collide, kindness should override truth.



Truth consists not in never lying but in knowing when to lie and when not to do so. De minimis non curat veritas.

Yes, but what is a minimum? Sometimes a maximum is a minimum and sometimes it is the other way.


Lying is like borrowing or appropriating in music. It is only a good, sound, truthful person who can lie to any good purpose; if a man is not habitually truthful his very lies will be false to him and betray him. The converse also is true; if a man is not a good, sound, honest, capable liar there is no truth in him.


Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well.


I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.


A friend who cannot at a pinch remember a thing or two that never happened is as bad as one who does not know how to forget.


Cursed is he that does not know when to shut his mind. An open mind is all very well in its way, but it ought not to be so open that there is no keeping anything in or out of it. It should be capable of shutting its doors sometimes, or it may be found a little draughty.


He who knows not how to wink knows not how to see; and he who knows not how to lie knows not how to speak the truth. So he who cannot suppress his opinions cannot express them.


There can no more be a true statement without falsehood distributed through it, than a note on a well-tuned piano that is not intentionally and deliberately put out of tune to some extent in order to have the piano in the most perfect possible tune. Any perfection of tune as regards one key can only be got at the expense of all the rest.


Lying has a kind of respect and reverence with it. We pay a person the compliment of acknowledging his superiority whenever we lie to him.


I seem to see lies crowding and crushing at a narrow gate and working their way in along with truths into the domain of history.

Nature's Double Falsehood

That one great lie she told about the earth being flat when she knew it was round all the time! And again how she stuck to it that the sun went round us when it was we who were going round the sun! This double falsehood has irretrievably ruined my confidence in her. There is no lie which she will not tell and stick to like a Gladstonian. How plausibly she told her tale, and how many ages was it before she was so much as suspected! And then when things did begin to look bad for her, how she brazened it out, and what a desperate business it was to bring her shifts and prevarications to book!



We wonder at its being as hard often to discover convenience as it is to discover truth. But surely convenience is truth.


The use of truth is like the use of words; both truth and words depend greatly upon custom.


We do with truth much as we do with God. We create it according to our own requirements and then say that it has created us, or requires that we shall do or think so and so—whatever we find convenient.


"What is Truth?" is often asked, as though it were harder to say what truth is than what anything else is. But what is Justice? What is anything? An eternal contradiction in terms meets us at the end of every enquiry. We are not required to know what truth is, but to speak the truth, and so with justice.


The search after truth is like the search after perpetual motion or the attempt to square the circle. All we should aim at is the most convenient way of looking at a thing—the way that most sensible people are likely to find give them least trouble for some time to come. It is not true that the sun used to go round the earth until Copernicus's time, but it is true that until Copernicus's time it was most convenient to us to hold this. Still, we had certain ideas which could only fit in comfortably with our other ideas when we came to consider the sun as the centre of the planetary system.

Obvious convenience often takes a long time before it is fully recognised and acted upon, but there will be a nisus towards it as long and as widely spread as the desire of men to be saved trouble. If truth is not trouble-saving in the long run it is not truth: truth is only that which is most largely and permanently trouble- saving. The ultimate triumph, therefore, of truth rests on a very tangible basis—much more so than when it is made to depend upon the will of an unseen and unknowable agency. If my views about the Odyssey, for example, will, in the long run, save students from perplexity, the students will be sure to adopt them, and I have no wish that they should adopt them otherwise.

It does not matter much what the truth is, but our knowing the truth- -that is to say our hitting on the most permanently convenient arrangement of our ideas upon a subject whatever it may be—matters very much; at least it matters, or may matter, very much in some relations. And however little it matters, yet it matters, and however much it matters yet it does not matter. In the utmost importance there is unimportance, and in the utmost unimportance there is importance. So also it is with certainty, life, matter, necessity, consciousness and, indeed, with everything which can form an object of human sensation at all, or of those after-reasonings which spring ultimately from sensations. This is a round-about way of saying that every question has two sides.


Our concern is with the views we shall choose to take and to let other people take concerning things, and as to the way of expressing those views which shall give least trouble. If we express ourselves in one way we find our ideas in confusion and our action impotent: if in another our ideas cohere harmoniously, and our action is edifying. The convenience of least disturbing vested ideas, and at the same time rearranging our views in accordance with new facts that come to our knowledge, this is our proper care. But it is idle to say we do not know anything about things—perhaps we do, perhaps we don't—but we at any rate know what sane people think and are likely to think about things, and this to all intents and purposes is knowing the things themselves. For the things only are what sensible people agree to say and think they are.


The arrangement of our ideas is as much a matter of convenience as the packing of goods in a druggist's or draper's store and leads to exactly the same kind of difficulties in the matter of classifying them. We all admit the arbitrariness of classifications in a languid way, but we do not think of it more than we can help—I suppose because it is so inconvenient to do so. The great advantage of classification is to conceal the fact that subdivisions are as arbitrary as they are.


There can be no perfect way, for classification presupposes that a thing has absolute limits whereas there is nothing that does not partake of the universal infinity—nothing whose boundaries do not vary. Everything is one thing at one time and in some respects, and another at other times and in other respects. We want a new mode of measurement altogether; at present we take what gaps we can find, set up milestones, and declare them irremovable. We want a measure which shall express, or at any rate recognise, the harmonics of resemblance that lurk even in the most absolute differences and vice versa.

Attempts at Classification

are like nailing battens of our own flesh and blood upon ourselves as an inclined plane that we may walk up ourselves more easily; and yet it answers very sufficiently.

A Clergyman's Doubts

Under this heading a correspondence appeared in the Examiner, 15th February to 14th June, 1879. Butler wrote all the letters under various signatures except one or perhaps two. His first letter purported to come from "An Earnest Clergyman" aged forty-five, with a wife, five children, a country living worth 400 pounds a year, and a house, but no private means. He had ceased to believe in the doctrines he was called upon to teach. Ought he to continue to lead a life that was a lie or ought he to throw up his orders and plunge himself, his wife and children into poverty? The dilemma interested Butler deeply: he might so easily have found himself in it if he had not begun to doubt the efficacy of infant baptism when he did. Fifteen letters followed, signed "Cantab," "Oxoniensis," and so forth, some recommending one course, some another. One, signed "X.Y.Z.," included "The Righteous Man" which will be found in the last group of this volume, headed "Poems." From the following letter signed "Ethics" Butler afterwards took two passages (which I have enclosed, one between single asterisks the other between double asterisks), and used them for the "Dissertation on Lying" which is in Chapter V of Alps and Sanctuaries.

To the Editor of the Examiner.

Sir: I am sorry for your correspondent "An Earnest Clergyman" for, though he may say he has "come to smile at his troubles," his smile seems to be a grim one. We must all of us eat a peck of moral dirt before we die, but some must know more precisely than others when they are eating it; some, again, can bolt it without wry faces in one shape, while they cannot endure even the smell of it in another. "An Earnest Clergyman" admits that he is in the habit of telling people certain things which he does not believe, but says he has no great fancy for deceiving himself. "Cantab" must, I fear, deceive himself before he can tolerate the notion of deceiving other people. For my own part I prefer to be deceived by one who does not deceive himself rather than by one who does, for the first will know better when to stop, and will not commonly deceive me more than he can help. As for the other—if he does not know how to invest his own thoughts safely he will invest mine still worse; he will hold God's most precious gift of falsehood too cheap; he has come by it too easily; cheaply come, cheaply go will be his maxim. The good liar should be the converse of the poet; he should be made, not born.

It is not loss of confidence in a man's strict adherence to the letter of truth that shakes my confidence in him. I know what I do myself and what I must lose all social elasticity if I were not to do. * Turning for moral guidance to my cousins the lower animals— whose unsophisticated instinct proclaims what God has taught them with a directness we may sometimes study—I find the plover lying when she reads us truly and, knowing that we shall hit her if we think her to be down, lures us from her young ones under the fiction of a broken wing. Is God angry, think you, with this pretty deviation from the letter of strict accuracy? or was it not He who whispered to her to tell the falsehood, to tell it with a circumstance, without conscientious scruples, and not once only but to make a practice of it, so as to be an habitual liar for at least six weeks in the year? I imagine so. When I was young I used to read in good books that it was God who taught the bird to make her nest, and, if so, He probably taught each species the other domestic arrangements which should be best suited to it. Or did the nest- building information come from God and was there an Evil One among the birds also who taught them to steer clear of pedantry? Then there is the spider—an ugly creature, but I suppose God likes it— can anything be meaner than that web which naturalists extol as such a marvel of Providential ingenuity?

Ingenuity! The word reeks with lying. Once, on a summer afternoon, in a distant country I met one of those orchids whose main idea consists in the imitation of a fly; this lie they dispose so plausibly upon their petals that other flies who would steal their honey leave them unmolested. Watching intently and keeping very still, methought I heard this person speaking to the offspring which she felt within her though I saw them not.

"My children," she exclaimed, "I must soon leave you; think upon the fly, my loved ones; make it look as terrible as possible; cling to this thought in your passage through life, for it is the one thing needful; once lose sight of it and you are lost."

Over and over again she sang this burden in a small, still voice, and so I left her. Then straightway I came upon some butterflies whose profession it was to pretend to believe in all manner of vital truths which in their inner practice they rejected; thus, pretending to be certain other and hateful butterflies which no bird will eat by reason of their abominable smell, these cunning ones conceal their own sweetness, live long in the land and see good days. Think of that, O Earnest Clergyman, my friend! No. Lying is like Nature, you may expel her with a fork, but she will always come back again. Lying is like the poor, we must have it always with us. The question is, How much, when, where, to whom and under what circumstances is lying right? For, once admit that a plover may pretend to have a broken wing and yet be without sin if she have pretended well enough, and the thin edge of the wedge has been introduced so that there is no more saying that we must never lie. *

It is not, then, the discovery that a man has the power to lie that shakes my confidence in him; it is loss of confidence in his mendacity that I find it impossible to get over. I forgive him for telling me lies, but I cannot forgive him for not telling me the same lies, or nearly so, about the same things. This shows he has a slipshod memory, which is unpardonable, or else that he tells so many lies that he finds it impossible to remember all of them, and this is like having too many of the poor always with us. The plover and the spider have each of them their stock of half a dozen lies or so which we may expect them to tell when occasion arises; they are plausible and consistent, but we know where to have them; otherwise, if they were liable, like self-deceivers, to spring mines upon us in unexpected places, man would soon make it his business to reform them—not from within, but from without.

And now it is time I came to the drift of my letter, which is that if "An Earnest Clergyman" has not cheated himself into thinking he is telling the truth, he will do no great harm by stopping where he is. Do not let him make too much fuss about trifles. The solemnity of the truths which he professes to uphold is very doubtful; there is a tacit consent that it exists more on paper than in reality. If he is a man of any tact, he can say all he is compelled to say and do all the Church requires of him—like a gentleman, with neither undue slovenliness nor undue unction—yet it shall be perfectly plain to all his parishioners who are worth considering that he is acting as a mouthpiece and that his words are spoken dramatically. As for the unimaginative, they are as children; they cannot and should not be taken into account. Men must live as they must write or act—for a certain average standard which each must guess at for himself as best he can; those who are above this standard he cannot reach; those, again, who are below it must be so at their own risk.

Pilate did well when he would not stay for an answer to his question, What is truth? for there is no such thing apart from the sayer and the sayee. ** There is that irony in nature which brings it to pass that if the sayer be a man with any stuff in him, provided he tells no lies wittingly to himself and is never unkindly, he may lie and lie and lie all the day long, and he will no more be false to any man than the sun will shine by night; his lies will become truths as they pass into the hearer's soul. But if a man deceives himself and is unkind, the truth is not in him, it turns to falsehood while yet in his mouth, like the quails in the wilderness of Sinai. How this is so or why, I know not, but that the Lord hath mercy on whom He will have mercy and whom He willeth He hardeneth, and that the bad man can do no right and the good no wrong. **

A great French writer has said that the mainspring of our existence does not lie in those veins and nerves and arteries which have been described with so much care—these are but its masks and mouthpieces through which it acts but behind which it is for ever hidden; so in like manner the faiths and formulae of a Church may be as its bones and animal mechanism, but they are not the life of the Church, which is something rather that cannot be holden in words, and one should know how to put them off, yet put them off gracefully, if they wish to come too prominently forward. Do not let "An Earnest Clergyman" take things too much au serieux. He seems to be contented where he is; let him take the word of one who is old enough to be his father, that if he has a talent for conscientious scruples he will find plenty of scope for them in other professions as well as in the Church. I, for aught he knows, may be a doctor and I might tell my own story; or I may be a barrister and have found it my duty to win a case which I thought a very poor one, whereby others, whose circumstances were sufficiently pitiable, lost their all; yet doctors and barristers do not write to the newspapers to air their poor consciences in broad daylight. Why should An Earnest (I hate the word) Clergyman do so? Let me give him a last word or two of fatherly advice.

Men may settle small things for themselves—as what they will have for dinner or where they will spend the vacation—but the great ones- -such as the choice of a profession, of the part of England they will live in, whether they will marry or no—they had better leave the force of circumstances to settle for them; if they prefer the phraseology, as I do myself, let them leave these matters to God. When He has arranged things for them, do not let them be in too great a hurry to upset His arrangement in a tiff. If they do not like their present and another opening suggests itself easily and naturally, let them take that as a sign that they make a change; otherwise, let them see to it that they do not leave the frying-pan for the fire. A man, finding himself in the field of a profession, should do as cows do when they are put into a field of grass. They do not like any field; they like the open prairie of their ancestors. They walk, however, all round their new abode, surveying the hedges and gates with much interest. If there is a gap in any hedge they will commonly go through it at once, otherwise they will resign themselves contentedly enough to the task of feeding.

I am, Sir,

One who thinks he knows a thing or two about



The Baselessness of Our Ideas

That our ideas are baseless, or rotten at the roots, is what few who study them will deny; but they are rotten in the same way as property is robbery, and property is robbery in the same way as our ideas are rotten at the roots, that is to say it is a robbery and it is not. No title to property, no idea and no living form (which is the embodiment of idea) is indefeasible if search be made far enough. Granted that our thoughts are baseless, yet they are so in the same way as the earth itself is both baseless and most firmly based, or again most stable and yet most in motion.

Our ideas, or rather, I should say, our realities, are all of them like our Gods, based on superstitious foundations. If man is a microcosm then kosmos is a megalanthrope and that is how we come to anthropomorphise the deity. In the eternal pendulum swing of thought we make God in our own image, and then make him make us, and then find it out and cry because we have no God and so on, over and over again as a child has new toys given to it, tires of them, breaks them and is disconsolate till it gets new ones which it will again tire of and break. If the man who first made God in his own image had been a good model, all might have been well; but he was impressed with an undue sense of his own importance and, as a natural consequence, he had no sense of humour. Both these imperfections he has fully and faithfully reproduced in his work and with the result we are familiar. All our most solid and tangible realities are but as lies that we have told too often henceforth to question them. But we have to question them sometimes. It is not the sun that goes round the world but we who go round the sun.

If any one is for examining and making requisitions on title we can search too, and can require the title of the state as against any other state, or against the world at large. But suppose we succeed in this, we must search further still and show by what title mankind has ousted the lower animals, and by what title we eat them, or they themselves eat grass or one another.

See what quicksands we fall into if we wade out too far from the terra firma of common consent! The error springs from supposing that there is any absolute right or absolute truth, and also from supposing that truth and right are any the less real for being not absolute but relative. In the complex of human affairs we should aim not at a supposed absolute standard but at the greatest coming- together-ness or convenience of all our ideas and practices; that is to say, at their most harmonious working with one another. Hit ourselves somewhere we are bound to do: no idea will travel far without colliding with some other idea. Thus, if we pursue one line of probable convenience, we find it convenient to see all things as ultimately one: that is, if we insist rather on the points of agreement between things than on those of disagreement. If we insist on the opposite view, namely, on the points of disagreement, we find ourselves driven to the conclusion that each atom is an individual entity, and that the unity between even the most united things is apparent only. If we did not unduly insist upon—that is to say, emphasise and exaggerate—the part which concerns us for the time, we should never get to understand anything; the proper way is to exaggerate first one view and then the other, and then let the two exaggerations collide, but good-temperedly and according to the laws of civilised mental warfare. So we see first all things as one, then all things as many and, in the end, a multitude in unity and a unity in multitude. Care must be taken not to accept ideas which though very agreeable at first disagree with us afterwards, and keep rising on our mental stomachs, as garlic does upon our bodily.



Imagination depends mainly upon memory, but there is a small percentage of creation of something out of nothing with it. We can invent a trifle more than can be got at by mere combination of remembered things.


When we are impressed by a few only, or perhaps only one of a number of ideas which are bonded pleasantly together, there is hope; when we see a good many there is expectation; when we have had so many presented to us that we have expected confidently and the remaining ideas have not turned up, there is disappointment. So the sailor says in the play:

"Here are my arms, here is my manly bosom, but where's my Mary?"


What tricks imagination plays! Thus, if we expect a person in the street we transform a dozen impossible people into him while they are still too far off to be seen distinctly; and when we expect to hear a footstep on the stairs—as, we will say, the postman's—we hear footsteps in every sound. Imagination will make us see a billiard hall as likely to travel farther than it will travel, if we hope that it will do so. It will make us think we feel a train begin to move as soon as the guard has said "All right," though the train has not yet begun to move if another train alongside begins to move exactly at this juncture, there is no man who will not be deceived. And we omit as much as we insert. We often do not notice that a man has grown a beard.


I read once of a man who was cured of a dangerous illness by eating his doctor's prescription which he understood was the medicine itself. So William Sefton Moorhouse [in New Zealand] imagined he was being converted to Christianity by reading Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which he had got by mistake for Butler's Analogy, on the recommendation of a friend. But it puzzled him a good deal.


At Ivy Hatch, while we were getting our beer in the inner parlour, there was a confused melee of voices in the bar, amid which I distinguished a voice saying:

"Imagination will do any bloody thing almost."

I was writing Life and Habit at the time and was much tempted to put this passage in. Nothing truer has ever been said about imagination. Then the voice was heard addressing the barman and saying:

"I suppose you wouldn't trust me with a quart of beer, would you?"


Kant says that all our knowledge is founded on experience. But each new small increment of knowledge is not so founded, and our whole knowledge is made up of the accumulation of these small new increments not one of which is founded upon experience. Our knowledge, then, is founded not on experience but on inexperience; for where there is no novelty, that is to say no inexperience, there is no increment in experience. Our knowledge is really founded upon something which we do not know, but it is converted into experience by memory.

It is like species—we do not know the cause of the variations whose accumulation results in species and any explanation which leaves this out of sight ignores the whole difficulty. We want to know the cause of the effect that inexperience produces on us.

Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

We say that everything has a beginning. This is one side of the matter. There is another according to which everything is without a beginning—beginnings, and endings also, being, but as it were, steps cut in a slope of ice without which we could not climb it. They are for convenience and the hardness of the hearts of men who make an idol of classification, but they do not exist apart from our sense of our own convenience.

It was a favourite saying with William Sefton Moorhouse [in New Zealand] that men cannot get rich by swopping knives. Nevertheless nature does seem to go upon this principle. Everybody does eat everybody up. Man eats birds, birds eat worms and worms eat man again. It is a vicious circle, yet, somehow or other, there is an increment. I begin to doubt the principle ex nihilo nihil fit.

We very much want a way of getting something out of nothing and back into it again. Whether or no we ever shall get such a way, we see the clearly perceptible arising out of and returning into the absolutely imperceptible and, so far as we are concerned, this is much the same thing. To assume an unknowable substratum as the source from which all things proceed or are evolved is equivalent to assuming that they come up out of nothing; for that which does not exist for us is for us nothing; that which we do not know does not exist qua us, and therefore it does not exist. When I say "we," I mean mankind generally, for things may exist qua one man and not qua another. And when I say "nothing" I postulate something of which we have no experience.

And yet we cannot say that a thing does not exist till it is known to exist. The planet Neptune existed though, qua us, it did not exist before Adams and Leverrier discovered it, and we cannot hold that its continued non-existence to my laundress and her husband makes it any the less an entity. We cannot say that it did not exist at all till it was discovered, that it exists only partially and vaguely to most of us, that to many it still does not exist at all, that there are few to whom it even exists in any force or fullness and none who can realise more than the broad facts of its existence. Neptune has been disturbing the orbits of the planets nearest to him for more centuries than we can reckon, and whether or not he is known to have been doing so has nothing to do with the matter. If A is robbed, he is robbed, whether he knows it or not.

In one sense, then, we cannot say that the planet Neptune did not exist till he was discovered, but in another we can and ought to do so. De non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est ratio; as long, therefore, as Neptune did not appear he did not exist qua us. The only way out of it is through the contradiction in terms of maintaining that a thing exists and does not exist at one and the same time. So A may be both robbed, and not robbed.

We consider, therefore, that things have assumed their present shape by course of evolution from a something which, qua us, is a nothing, from a potential something but not an actual, from an actual nothing but a potential not-nothing, from a nothing which might become a something to us with any modification on our parts but which, till such modification has arisen, does not exist in relation to us, though very conceivably doing so in relation to other entities. But this Protean nothing, capable of appearing as something, is not the absolute, eternal, unchangeable nothing that we mean when we say ex nihilo nihil fit.

The alternative is that something should not have come out of nothing, and this is saying that something has always existed. But the eternal increateness of matter seems as troublesome to conceive as its having been created out of nothing. I say "seems," for I am not sure how far it really is so. We never saw something come out of nothing, that is to say, we never saw a beginning of anything except as the beginning of a new phase of something pre-existent. We ought therefore to find the notion of eternal being familiar, it ought to be the only conception of matter which we are able to form: nevertheless, we are so carried away by being accustomed to see phases have their beginnings and endings that we forget that the matter, of which we see the phase begin and end, did not begin or end with the phase.

Eternal matter permeated by eternal mind, matter and mind being functions of one another, is the least uncomfortable way of looking at the universe; but as it is beyond our comprehension, and cannot therefore be comfortable, sensible persons will not look at the universe at all except in such details as may concern them.

Contradiction in Terms

We pay higher and higher in proportion to the service rendered till we get to the highest services, such as becoming a Member of Parliament, and this must not be paid at all. If a man would go yet higher and found a new and permanent system, or create some new idea or work of art which remains to give delight to ages—he must not only not be paid, but he will have to pay very heavily out of his own pocket into the bargain.

Again, we are to get all men to speak well of us if we can; yet we are to be cursed if all men speak well of us.

So when the universe has gathered itself into a single ball (which I don't for a moment believe it ever will, but I don't care) it will no sooner have done so, than the bubble will burst and it will go back to its gases again.

Contradiction in terms is so omnipresent that we treat it as we treat death, or free-will, or fate, or air, or God, or the Devil—taking these things so much as matters of course that, though they are visible enough if we choose to see them, we neglect them normally altogether, without for a moment intending to deny their existence. This neglect is convenient as preventing repetitions the monotony of which would defeat their own purpose, but people are tempted nevertheless to forget the underlying omnipresence in the superficial omniabsence. They forget that its opposite lurks in everything—that there are harmonics of God in the Devil and harmonics of the Devil in God.

Contradiction in terms is not only to be excused but there can be no proposition which does not more or less involve one.

It is the fact of there being contradictions in terms, which have to be smoothed away and fused into harmonious acquiescence with their surroundings, that makes life and consciousness possible at all. Unless the unexpected were sprung upon us continually to enliven us we should pass life, as it were, in sleep. To a living being no "It is" can be absolute; wherever there is an "Is," there, among its harmonics, lurks an "Is not." When there is absolute absence of "Is not" the "Is" goes too. And the "Is not" does not go completely till the "Is" is gone along with it. Every proposition has got a skeleton in its cupboard.



Intuition and evidence seem to have something of the same relation that faith and reason, luck and cunning, freewill and necessity and demand and supply have. They grow up hand in hand and no man can say which comes first. It is the same with life and death, which lurk one within the other as do rest and unrest, change and persistence, heat and cold, poverty and riches, harmony and counterpoint, night and day, summer and winter.

And so with pantheism and atheism; loving everybody is loving nobody, and God everywhere is, practically, God nowhere. I once asked a man if he was a free-thinker; he replied that he did not think he was. And so, I have heard of a man exclaiming "I am an atheist, thank God!" Those who say there is a God are wrong unless they mean at the same time that there is no God, and vice versa. The difference is the same as that between plus nothing and minus nothing, and it is hard to say which we ought to admire and thank most—the first theist or the first atheist. Nevertheless, for many reasons, the plus nothing is to be preferred.


To be poor is to be contemptible, to be very poor is worse still, and so on; but to be actually at the point of death through poverty is to be sublime. So "when weakness is utter, honour ceaseth." [The Righteous Man, p. 390, post.]


The meeting of extremes is never clearer than in the case of moral and intellectual strength and weakness. We may say with Hesiod "How much the half is greater than the whole!" or with S. Paul "My strength is made perfect in weakness"; they come to much the same thing. We all know strength so strong as to be weaker than weakness and weakness so great as to be stronger than strength.


The Queen travels as the Countess of Balmoral and would probably be very glad, if she could, to travel as plain Mrs. Smith. There is a good deal of the Queen lurking in every Mrs. Smith and, conversely, a good deal of Mrs. Smith lurking in every queen.

Free-Will and Necessity

As I am tidying up, and the following beginning of a paper on the above subject has been littering about my table since December 1889, which is the date on the top of page i, I will shoot it on to this dust-heap and bury it out of my sight. It runs:

The difficulty has arisen from our forgetting that contradiction in terms lies at the foundation of all our thoughts as a condition and sine qua non of our being able to think at all. We imagine that we must either have all free-will and no necessity, or all necessity and no free-will, and, it being obvious that our free-will is often overridden by force of circumstances while the evidence that necessity is overridden by free-will is harder to find (if indeed it can be found, for I have not fully considered the matter), most people who theorise upon this question will deny in theory that there is any free-will at all, though in practice they take care to act as if there was. For if we admit that like causes are followed by like effects (and everything that we do is based upon this hypothesis), it follows that every combination of causes must have some one consequent which can alone follow it and which free-will cannot touch.

(Yes, but it will generally be found that free-will entered into the original combination and the repetition of the combination will not be exact unless a like free-will is repeated along with all the other factors.)

From which it follows that free-will is apparent only, and that, as I said years ago in Erewhon, we are not free to choose what seems best on each occasion but bound to do so, being fettered to the freedom of our wills throughout our lives.

But to deny free-will is to deny moral responsibility, and we are landed in absurdity at once—for there is nothing more patent than that moral responsibility exists. Nevertheless, at first sight, it would seem as though we ought not to hang a man for murder if there was no escape for him but that he must commit one. Of course the answer to one who makes this objection is that our hanging him is as much a matter of necessity as his committing the murder.

If, again, necessity, as involved in the certainty that like combinations will be followed by like consequence, is a basis on which all our actions are founded, so also is freewill. This is quite as much a sine qua non for action as necessity is; for who would try to act if he did not think that his trying would influence the result?

We have therefore two apparently incompatible and mutually destructive faiths, each equally and self-evidently demonstrable, each equally necessary for salvation of any kind, and each equally entering into every thought and action of our whole lives, yet utterly contradictory and irreconcilable.

Can any dilemma seem more hopeless? It is not a case of being able to live happily with either were t'other dear charmer away; it is indispensable that we should embrace both, and embrace them with equal cordiality at the same time, though each annihilates the other. It is as though it were indispensable to our existence to be equally dead and equally alive at one and the same moment.

Here we have an illustration which may help us. For, after all, we are both dead and alive at one and the same moment. There is no life without a taint of death and no death that is not instinct with a residuum of past life and with germs of the new that is to succeed it. Let those who deny this show us an example of pure life and pure death. Any one who has considered these matters will know this to be impossible. And yet in spite of this, the cases where we are in doubt whether a thing is to be more fitly called dead or alive are so few that they may be disregarded.

I take it, then, that as, though alive, we are in part dead and, though dead, in part alive, so, though bound by necessity, we are in part free, and, though free, yet in part bound by necessity. At least I can think of no case of such absolute necessity in human affairs as that free-will should have no part in it, nor of such absolute free-will that no part of the action should be limited and controlled by necessity.

Thus, when a man walks to the gallows, he is under large necessity, yet he retains much small freedom; when pinioned, he is less free, but he can open his eyes and mouth and pray aloud or no as he pleases; even when the drop has fallen, so long as he is "he" at all, he can exercise some, though infinitely small, choice.

It may be answered that throughout the foregoing chain of actions, the freedom, what little there is of it, is apparent only, and that even in the small freedoms, which are not so obviously controlled by necessity, the necessity is still present as effectually as when the man, though apparently free to walk to the gallows, is in reality bound to do so. For in respect of the small details of his manner of walking to the gallows, which compulsion does not so glaringly reach, what is it that the man is free to do? He is free to do as he likes, but he is not free to do as he does not like; and a man's likings are determined by outside things and by antecedents, pre-natal and post- natal, whose effect is so powerful that the individual who makes the choice proves to be only the resultant of certain forces which have been brought to bear upon him but which are not the man. So that it seems there is no detail, no nook or corner of action, into which necessity does not penetrate.

This seems logical, but it is as logical to follow instinct and common sense as to follow logic, and both instinct and common sense assure us that there is no nook or corner of action into which free- will does not penetrate, unless it be those into which mind does not enter at all, as when a man is struck by lightning or is overwhelmed suddenly by an avalanche.

Besides, those who maintain that action is bound to follow choice, while choice can only follow opinion as to advantage, neglect the very considerable number of cases in which opinion as to advantage does not exist—when, for instance, a man feels, as we all of us sometimes do, that he is utterly incapable of forming any opinion whatever as to his most advantageous course.

But this again is fallacious. For suppose he decides to toss up and be guided by the result, this is still what he has chosen to do, and his action, therefore, is following his choice. Or suppose, again, that he remains passive and does nothing—his passivity is his choice.

I can see no way out of it unless either frankly to admit that contradiction in terms is the bedrock on which all our thoughts and deeds are founded, and to acquiesce cheerfully in the fact that whenever we try to go below the surface of any enquiry we find ourselves utterly baffled—or to redefine freedom and necessity, admitting each as a potent factor of the other. And this I do not see my way to doing. I am therefore necessitated to choose freely the admission that our understanding can burrow but a very small way into the foundations of our beliefs, and can only weaken rather than strengthen them by burrowing at all.

Free-Will otherwise Cunning

The element of free-will, cunning, spontaneity, individuality—so omnipresent, so essential, yet so unreasonable, and so inconsistent with the other element not less omnipresent and not less essential, I mean necessity, luck, fate—this element of free-will, which comes from the unseen kingdom within which the writs of our thoughts run not, must be carried down to the most tenuous atoms whose action is supposed most purely chemical and mechanical; it can never be held as absolutely eliminated, for if it be so held, there is no getting it back again, and that it exists, even in the lowest forms of life, cannot be disputed. Its existence is one of the proofs of the existence of an unseen world, and a means whereby we know the little that we do know of that world.

Necessity otherwise Luck

It is all very well to insist upon the free-will or cunning side of living action, more especially now when it has been so persistently ignored, but though the fortunes of birth and surroundings have all been built up by cunning, yet it is by ancestral, vicarious cunning, and this, to each individual, comes to much the same as luck pure and simple; in fact, luck is seldom seriously intended to mean a total denial of cunning, but is for the most part only an expression whereby we summarise and express our sense of a cunning too complex and impalpable for conscious following and apprehension.

When we consider how little we have to do with our parentage, country and education, or even with our genus and species, how vitally these things affect us both in life and death, and how, practically, the cunning in connection with them is so spent as to be no cunning at all, it is plain that the drifts, currents, and storms of what is virtually luck will be often more than the little helm of cunning can control. And so with death. Nothing can affect us less, but at the same time nothing can affect us more; and how little can cunning do against it? At the best it can only defer it. Cunning is nine- tenths luck, and luck is nine-tenths cunning; but the fact that nine- tenths of cunning is luck leaves still a tenth part unaccounted for.


Our choice is apparently most free, and we are least obviously driven to determine our course, in those cases where the future is most obscure, that is, when the balance of advantage appears most doubtful.

Where we have an opinion that assures us promptly which way the balance of advantage will incline—whether it be an instinctive, hereditarily acquired opinion or one rapidly and decisively formed as the result of post-natal experience—then our action is determined at once by that opinion, and freedom of choice practically vanishes.

Ego and Non-Ego

You can have all ego, or all non-ego, but in theory you cannot have half one and half the other—yet in practice this is exactly what you must have, for everything is both itself and not itself at one and the same time.

A living thing is itself in so far as it has wants and gratifies them. It is not itself in so far as it uses itself as a tool for the gratifying of its wants. Thus an amoeba is aware of a piece of meat which it wants to eat. It has nothing except its own body to fling at the meat and catch it with. If it had a little hand-net, or even such an organ as our own hand, it would use it, but it has only got itself; so it takes itself by the scruff of its own neck, as it were, and flings itself at the piece of meat, as though it were not itself but something which it is using in order to gratify itself. So we make our own bodies into carriages every time we walk. Our body is our tool-box—and our bodily organs are the simplest tools we can catch hold of.

When the amoeba has got the piece of meat and has done digesting it, it leaves off being not itself and becomes itself again. A thing is only itself when it is doing nothing; as long as it is doing something it is its own tool and not itself.

Or you may have it that everything is itself in respect of the pleasure or pain it is feeling, but not itself in respect of the using of itself by itself as a tool with which to work its will. Or perhaps we should say that the ego remains always ego in part; it does not become all non-ego at one and the same time. We throw our fist into a man's face as though it were a stick we had picked up to beat him with. For the moment, our fist is hardly "us," but it becomes "us" again as we feel the resistance it encounters from the man's eye. Anyway, we can only chuck about a part of ourselves at a time, we cannot chuck the lot—and yet I do not know this, for we may jump off the ground and fling ourselves on to a man.

The fact that both elements are present and are of such nearly equal value explains the obstinacy of the conflict between the upholders of Necessity and Free-Will which, indeed, are only luck and cunning under other names.

For, on the one hand, the surroundings so obviously and powerfully mould us, body and soul, and even the little modifying power which at first we seem to have is found, on examination, to spring so completely from surroundings formerly beyond the control of our ancestors, that a logical thinker, who starts with these premises, is soon driven to the total denial of free-will, except, of course, as an illusion; in other words, he perceives the connection between ego and non-ego, tries to disunite them so as to know when he is talking about what, and finds to his surprise that he cannot do so without violence to one or both. Being, above all things, a logical thinker, and abhorring the contradiction in terms involved in admitting anything to be both itself and something other than itself at one and the same time, he makes the manner in which the one is rooted into the other a pretext for merging the ego, as the less bulky of the two, in the non-ego; hence practically he declares the ego to have no further existence, except as a mere appendage and adjunct of the non- ego the existence of which he alone recognises (though how he can recognise it without recognising also that he is recognising it as something foreign to himself it is not easy to see). As for the action and interaction that goes on in the non-ego, he refers it to fate, fortune, chance, luck, necessity, immutable law, providence (meaning generally improvidence) or to whatever kindred term he has most fancy for. In other words, he is so much impressed with the connection between luck and cunning, and so anxious to avoid contradiction in terms, that he tries to abolish cunning, and dwells, as Mr. Darwin did, almost exclusively upon the luck side of the matter.

Others, on the other hand, find the ego no less striking than their opponents find the non-ego. Every hour they mould things so considerably to their pleasure that, even though they may for argument's sake admit free-will to be an illusion, they say with reason that no reality can be more real than an illusion which is so strong, so persistent and so universal; this contention, indeed, cannot be disputed except at the cost of invalidating the reality of all even our most assured convictions. They admit that there is an apparent connection between their ego and non-ego, their necessity and free-will, their luck and cunning; they grant that the difference is resolvable into a difference of degree and not of kind; but, on the other hand, they say that in each degree there still lurks a little kind, and that a difference of many degrees makes a difference of kind—there being, in fact, no difference between differences of degree and those of kind, except that the second are an accumulation of the first. The all-powerfulness of the surroundings is declared by them to be as completely an illusion, if examined closely, as the power of the individual was declared to be by their opponents, inasmuch as the antecedents of the non-ego, when examined by them, prove to be not less due to the personal individual element everywhere recognisable, than the ego, when examined by their opponents, proved to be mergeable in the universal. They claim, therefore, to be able to resolve everything into spontaneity and free-will with no less logical consistency than that with which freewill can be resolved into an outcome of necessity.

Two Incomprehensibles

You may assume life of some kind omnipresent for ever throughout matter. This is one way. Another way is to assume an act of spontaneous generation, i.e. a transition somewhere and somewhen from absolutely non-living to absolutely living. You cannot have it both ways. But it seems to me that you must have it both ways. You must not begin with life (or potential life) everywhere alone, nor must you begin with a single spontaneous generation alone, but you must carry your spontaneous generation (or denial of the continuity of life) down, ad infinitum, just as you must carry your continuity of life (or denial of spontaneous generation) down ad infinitum and, compatible or incompatible, you must write a scientific Athanasian Creed to comprehend these two incomprehensibles.

If, then, it is only an escape from one incomprehensible position to another, cui bono to make a change? Why not stay quietly in the Athanasian Creed as we are? And, after all, the Athanasian Creed is light and comprehensible reading in comparison with much that now passes for science.

I can give no answer to this as regards the unintelligible clauses, for what we come to in the end is just as abhorrent to and inconceivable by reason as what they offer us; but as regards what may be called the intelligible parts—that Christ was born of a Virgin, died, rose from the dead—we say that, if it were not for the prestige that belief in these alleged facts has obtained, we should refuse attention to them. Out of respect, however, for the mass of opinion that accepts them we have looked into the matter with care, and we have found the evidence break down. The same reasoning and canons of criticism which convince me that Christ was crucified convince me at the same time that he was insufficiently crucified. I can only accept his death and resurrection at the cost of rejecting everything that I have been taught to hold most strongly. I can only accept the so-called testimony in support of these alleged facts at the cost of rejecting, or at any rate invalidating, all the testimony on which I have based all comfortable assurance of any kind whatsoever.

God and the Unknown

God is the unknown, and hence the nothing qua us. He is also the ensemble of all we know, and hence the everything qua us. So that the most absolute nothing and the most absolute everything are extremes that meet (like all other extremes) in God.

Men think they mean by God something like what Raffaelle and Michael Angelo have painted; unless this were so Raffaelle and Michael Angelo would not have painted as they did. But to get at our truer thoughts we should look at our less conscious and deliberate utterances. From these it has been gathered that God is our expression for all forces and powers which we do not understand, or with which we are unfamiliar, and for the highest ideal of wisdom, goodness and power which we can conceive, but for nothing else.

Thus God makes the grass grow because we do not understand how the air and earth and water near a piece of grass are seized by the grass and converted into more grass; but God does not mow the grass and make hay of it. It is Paul and Apollos who plant and water, but God who giveth the increase. We never say that God does anything which we can do ourselves, or ask him for anything which we know how to get in any other way. As soon as we understand a thing we remove it from the sphere of God's action.

As long as there is an unknown there will be a God for all practical purposes; the name of God has never yet been given to a known thing except by way of flattery, as to Roman Emperors, or through the attempt to symbolise the unknown generally, as in fetish worship, and then the priests had to tell the people that there was something more about the fetish than they knew of, or they would soon have ceased to think of it as God.

To understand a thing is to feel as though we could stand under or alongside of it in all its parts and form a picture of it in our minds throughout. We understand how a violin is made if our minds can follow the manufacture in all its detail and picture it to ourselves. If we feel that we can identify ourselves with the steam and machinery of a steam engine, so as to travel in imagination with the steam through all the pipes and valves, if we can see the movement of each part of the piston, connecting rod, &c., so as to be mentally one with both the steam and the mechanism throughout their whole action and construction, then we say we understand the steam engine, and the idea of God never crosses our minds in connection with it.

When we feel that we can neither do a thing ourselves, nor even learn to do it by reason of its intricacy and difficulty, and that no one else ever can or will, and yet we see the thing none the less done daily and hourly all round us, then we are not content to say we do not understand how the thing is done, we go further and ascribe the action to God. As soon as there is felt to be an unknown and apparently unknowable element, then, but not till then, does the idea God present itself to us. So at coroners' inquests juries never say the deceased died by the visitation of God if they know any of the more proximate causes.

It is not God, therefore, who sows the corn—we could sow corn ourselves, we can see the man with a bag in his hand walking over ploughed fields and sowing the corn broadcast—but it is God who made the man who goes about with the bag, and who makes the corn sprout, for we do not follow the processes that take place here.

As long as we knew nothing about what caused this or that weather we used to ascribe it to God's direct action and pray him to change it according to our wants: now that we know more about the weather there is a growing disinclination among clergymen to pray for rain or dry weather, while laymen look to nothing but the barometer. So people do not say God has shown them this or that when they have just seen it in the newspapers; they would only say that God had shown it them if it had come into their heads suddenly and after they had tried long and vainly to get at this particular point.

To lament that we cannot be more conscious of God and understand him better is much like lamenting that we are not more conscious of our circulation and digestion. Provided we live according to familiar laws of health, the less we think about circulation and digestion the better; and so with the ordinary rules of good conduct, the less we think about God the better.

To know God better is only to realise more fully how impossible it is that we should ever know him at all. I cannot tell which is the more childish—to deny him, or to attempt to define him.

Scylla and Charybdis

They are everywhere. Just now coming up Great Russell Street I loitered outside a print shop. There they were as usual—Hogarth's Idle and Virtuous Apprentices. The idle apprentice is certainly Scylla, but is not the virtuous apprentice just as much Charybdis? Is he so greatly preferable? Is not the right thing somewhere between the two? And does not the art of good living consist mainly in a fine perception of when to edge towards the idle and when towards the virtuous apprentice?

When John Bunyan (or Richard Baxter, or whoever it was) said "There went John Bunyan, but for the grace of God" (or whatever he did say), had he a right to be so cock-sure that the criminal on whom he was looking was not saying much the same thing as he looked upon John Bunyan? Does any one who knows me doubt that if I were offered my choice between a bishopric and a halter, I should choose the halter? I believe half the bishops would choose the halter themselves if they had to do it over again.


As a general rule philosophy is like stirring mud or not letting a sleeping dog lie. It is an attempt to deny, circumvent or otherwise escape from the consequences of the interlacing of the roots of things with one another. It professes to appease our ultimate "Why?" though in truth it is generally the solution of a simplex ignotum by a complex ignotius. This, at least, is my experience of everything that has been presented to me as philosophy. I have often had my "Why" answered with so much mystifying matter that I have left off pressing it through fatigue. But this is not having my ultimate "Why?" appeased. It is being knocked out of time.

Philosophy and Equal Temperament

It is with philosophy as with just intonation on a piano, if you get everything quite straight and on all fours in one department, in perfect tune, it is delightful so long as you keep well in the middle of the key; but as soon as you modulate you find the new key is out of tune and the more remotely you modulate the more out of tune you get. The only way is to distribute your error by equal temperament and leave common sense to make the correction in philosophy which the ear does instantaneously and involuntarily in music.

Hedging the Cuckoo

People will still keep trying to find some formula that shall hedge- in the cuckoo of mental phenomena to their satisfaction. Half the books—nay, all of them that deal with thought and its ways in the academic spirit—are but so many of these hedges in various stages of decay.

God and Philosophies

All philosophies, if you ride them home, are nonsense; but some are greater nonsense than others. It is perhaps because God does not set much store by or wish to encourage them that he has attached such very slender rewards to them.

Common Sense, Reason and Faith

Reason is not the ultimate test of truth nor is it the court of first instance.

For example: A man questions his own existence; he applies first to the court of mother-wit and is promptly told that he exists; he appeals next to reason and, after some wrangling, is told that the matter is very doubtful; he proceeds to the equity of that reasonable faith which inspires and transcends reason, and the judgment of the court of first instance is upheld while that of reason is reversed.

Nevertheless it is folly to appeal from reason to faith unless one is pretty sure of a verdict and, in most cases about which we dispute seriously, reason is as far as we need go.

The Credit System

The whole world is carried on on the credit system; if every one were to demand payment in hard cash, there would be universal bankruptcy. We think as we do mainly because other people think so. But if every one stands on every one else, what does the bottom man stand on? Faith is no foundation, for it rests in the end on reason. Reason is no foundation, for it rests upon faith.


We are not won by argument, which is like reading and writing and disappears when there is need of such vanity, or like colour that vanishes with too much light or shade, or like sound that becomes silence in the extremes. Argument is useless when there is either no conviction at all or a very strong conviction. It is a means of conviction and as such belongs to the means of conviction, not to the extremes. We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper, by the manner which is the man himself.

Logic and Philosophy

When you have got all the rules and all the lore of philosophy and logic well into your head, and have spent years in getting to understand at any rate what they mean and have them at command, you will know less for practical purposes than one who has never studied logic or philosophy.


If it tends to thicken the crust of ice on which, as it were, we are skating, it is all right. If it tries to find, or professes to have found, the solid ground at the bottom of the water, it is all wrong. Our business is with the thickening of this crust by extending our knowledge downward from above, as ice gets thicker while the frost lasts; we should not try to freeze upwards from the bottom.


A religion only means something so certainly posed that nothing can ever displace it. It is an attempt to settle first principles so authoritatively that no one need so much as even think of ever re- opening them for himself or feel any, even the faintest, misgiving upon the matter. It is an attempt to get an irrefragably safe investment, and this cannot be got, no matter how low the interest, which in the case of religion is about as low as it can be.

Any religion that cannot be founded on half a sheet of note-paper will be bottom-heavy, and this, in a matter so essentially of sentiment as religion, is as bad as being top-heavy in a material construction. It must of course catch on to reason, but the less it emphasises the fact the better.


Logic has no place save with that which can be defined in words. It has nothing to do, therefore, with those deeper questions that have got beyond words and consciousness. To apply logic here is as fatuous as to disregard it in cases where it is applicable. The difficulty lies, as it always does, on the border lines between the respective spheres of influence.

Logic and Faith

Logic is like the sword—those who appeal to it shall perish by it. Faith is appealing to the living God, and one may perish by that too, but somehow one would rather perish that way than the other, and one has got to perish sooner or later.

Common Sense and Philosophy

The voices of common sense and of high philosophy sometimes cross; but common sense is the unalterable canto fermo and philosophy is the variable counterpoint.

First Principles

It is said we can build no superstructure without a foundation of unshakable principles. There are no such principles. Or, if there be any, they are beyond our reach—we cannot fathom them; therefore, qua us, they have no existence, for there is no other "is not" than inconceivableness by ourselves. There is one thing certain, namely, that we can have nothing certain; therefore it is not certain that we can have nothing certain. We are as men who will insist on looking over the brink of a precipice; some few can gaze into the abyss below without losing their heads, but most men will grow dizzy and fall. The only thing to do is to glance at the chaos on which our thoughts are founded, recognise that it is a chaos and that, in the nature of things, no theoretically firm ground is even conceivable, and then to turn aside with the disgust, fear and horror of one who has been looking into his own entrails.

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