Modern Optimism: Browning
WE now make a sudden great leap over eighteen hundred yearsfrom the beginning of the Christian era to our own time. My apology must be that our limits are narrow, and that, whatever is to be omitted under pressure of controlling conditions, we cannot afford to pass over in silence the outstanding features of contemporary thought on our chosen theme. And, great as is the interval between the Founder of the Christian religion and the present age, one is not conscious, in making the transition, of passing into an entirely different thought-world. On the contrary, we are sensible rather of close affinity, as if the leading thinkers of our time had come to their task fresh from the study of the Gospels, and had derived their main inspiration from Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, while, for the full comprehension of any system of ideas current at a particular period, exhaustive knowledge of the history of opinion on the subject to which they relate may be necessary, it would seem as if we might, without serious loss of insight, proceed from the study of the teaching of Christ on Divine Providence to a brief consideration of the kindred wisdom of the nineteenth century.
In a previous course of lectures I had occasion to advert to a prevalent pessimistic temper as one of the evil influences which make faith in a providential order difficult for the men of this generation. I do not regret that I pointedly directed attention to the portentous phenomenon called modern pessimism. But it is comforting to reflect that that type of thought, so anti-Christian in temper, is not in undisputed possession of the field. There is a vigorous, exhilarating modern optimism as well as a baleful, blighting modern pessimism. It is a river of faith in God as our refuge and strength, which makes glad the city of God and all its citizens. Of this river of life, clear as crystal, and making sweet music with the enamell'd stones, I propose now to speak.
The optimism of the century now approaching its close is of a much weightier and worthier type than that of the century preceding. The optimist of the eighteenth century gained his victory over evil, physical and moral, far too easily. He underestimated greatly the strength of the antagonist. In physical evil, even death, he saw good in disguise, and in moral evilsin, crimeonly infirmity. Of the tragic element in human life he had no adequate conception; as far as possible he shut his eyes to it, and in so far as he was aware of its existence, he fathomed neither its source nor its rationale. The summum bonum, for him, consisted in happiness rather than in goodness, and his theory of the universe provided for its realisation by conceiving of God as a Being with one predominant attribute, benevolence, and of the world as a complicated apparatus for supplying sentient creatures with pleasant sensations. There were no clouds in his sky, save such as relieved and beautified the blue.
Widely different in tone and tendency is the more recent optimism as expounded by its best representatives. Echoes of the eighteenth century type can indeed be heard in some nineteenth century utterances. When, e.g.
, Theodore Parker declares that there must be another worlda heavenfor the sparrow as for man, and that all mankind must be eternally saved as a mere matter of justice from the Creator to the creature, and shall be, in spite of the small oscillations of human freedom within the bounds of beneficent omnipotent predestination,1
we have not only deism revived but deism out-deismed, if we take a Rousseau as its spokesman. Of Emerson also, though a wiser, calmer, and more discriminating man, it may be said with a measure of truth that his optimism is a plunge into the pure blue and away from facts.2
I own, he writes in one of his charming essays, I am gladdened by seeing the predominance of the saccharine principle throughout vegetable nature, and not less by beholding in morals that unrestrained inundation of the principle of good into every chink and hole that selfishness has left open, yea, into selfishness and sin itself; so that no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme satisfactions.3
A still more recent American author, the well-known poet, Walt Whitman, outdoes both his fellow-countrymen in optimistic audacity; witness these lines:
Omnes! Omnes! let others ignore what they may,
I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also.
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation isand I say there is in fact no evil
(Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the land or to me, as anything else).4
Witness also the poem entitled Chanting the Square Deific, which turns the Trinity into a Quaternity, and represents the Holy Spirit as including all life on earth, touching, including God, including Saviour and Satan.
Such extravagances as these are not to be found in any important English expounder of optimism, least of all in Browning
, the greatest modern apostle of that buoyant, hope-inspiring creed. Browning's optimism is sober as well as bold, circumspect as well as uncompromising. It is not a matter of genial temperament and robust health, but the well-considered faith of one who has thought earnestly and long, and who understands and accepts the philosophic implications of his creed. It is not an eclectic system, but a belief resolutely maintained in view of all relevant facts, and aiming at a complete vindication of God's ways. It asserts its position with earnest purpose not to compromise moral interests, with ample knowledge of the evil that is in man, and with fearlessness in looking into its darkest depths, as revealed, e.g.
in the character of a Guido.5
When a man of whose intellectual and moral attitude all this can be said, announces as his conviction that love is the divinest thing in the universe, and the key to all mysteries; that, though manifested in its true nature only at a late stage in the evolution of the world it explains all that went before; that it is the light of the present and the hope of the future; that there are seeds of goodness in even the most depraved characters; that by conflict with evil good is reached; that not otherwise can it be attained; that evil is here, not to be tolerated but to be overcome, and that it is not invincible; that the conflict is going on more or less strenuously in all, and that it will continue beyond the grave with good hope, if not with absolute certainty, of universal ultimate victory, we are bound to give him a respectful, candid hearing. It is not blameworthy to hold and try to establish such a bright creed. The attempt may fail, but it is legitimate and even noble. Success in the endeavour would be fraught with much moral advantage. It would cure the paralysis resulting from doubt whether God be a Being of infinitely good will, and whether the victory of good over evil be possible:
So might we safely mock at what unnerves
Faith now, be spared the sapping fear's increase
That haply evil's strife with good shall cease
Debatable questions apart, this creed of Browning's, in its general spirit and tendency, is Christian and, I may add, Biblical. For an optimistic strain runs through the whole sacred literature of the Hebrews: through Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord;7
Thou hast made summer and winter;8
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands . . . for the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations:9
thus cheerily sing the lyric poets of Israel. Messianic prophecy, with its Utopian pictures of the good time coming, is the outcome and triumphant expression of Hebrew optimism. Jesus, with His inspiring doctrine of a Father-God who careth for all, and His invincible hope for the redemption of the worst of men, was emphatically optimist. Even Paul, sombre though his theology in some aspects seems, was, in His general religious tone, in sympathy with the Master. He believed that if sin abounded grace abounded more, that all things work together for good to them that love God, and that God's mercy is over all. The most orthodox and devout adherents of the Christian faith may, therefore, open their ears to the teaching of the fervent apostle of modern optimism, without timidity or distrust, assured that they listen to a friend, not to a foe.
Let us consider in detail the salient features in Browning's creed.
Foremost stands his doctrine of God. It is, in brief, that God is love and love is God. In Browning's view love is the greatest, mightiest, most all-pervasive thing in the world. Where it is, even in the smallest measure, and in the meanest guise, there is something divine; where it is not, were the lack even in God Himself, there is no divinity. Man, nay even the lowliest worm, loving were greater than God not loving.
For the loving worm within its clod
Were diviner than a loveless God
Amid His worlds, I will dare to say.10
Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here the parts shift?
Here, the creature surpass the Creatorthe end, what Began?11
But the poet cherishes no such doubt. God, in his view, is the fountain of all love.
I believe it! 'Tis thou, God, that givest, 'tis I who receive:
In the first is the last, in Thy will is my power to believe.
God is the perfect exemplar of love. Whatever man can do in the way of heroic love, God can do still more:
Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst Thouso wilt Thou!
So shall crown Thee, the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown
And Thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down
One spot for the creature to stand in!13
No other attribute of God, however august, is allowed to eclipse his love. The All-Great is also the All-Loving;14
the Almighty and Omniscient One the infinitely good:
So, gazing up, in my youth, at love
As seen through power, ever above
All modes which make it manifest,
My soul brought all to a single test;
That He, the Eternal First and Last,
Who, in His power, had so surpassed
All man conceives of what is might
Whose wisdom, too, shewed infinite
Would prove as infinitely good;
Would never (my soul understood),
With power to work all love desires,
Bestow e'en less than man requires.15
God's love is revealed in the universe not less clearly than His power and His wisdom. It is immanent in the constitution of the world and manifested through the laws of nature:
I have gone the whole round of creation: I saw and I spoke;
I, a work of God's hand for that purpose, received in my brain
And pronounced on the rest of His handiworkreturned Him again
His creation's approval or censure: I spoke as I saw.
I report, as a man may of God's workall's love, yet all's law.16
God's love, finally, is immanent and operative in human life, in its sin and sorrow, transporting, transforming aspiring souls from worst to best; there ever really, though not always plainly:
I have faith such end shall be:
From the first, Power wasI knew.
Life has made clear to me
That, strive but for closer view,
Love were as plain to see.17
Browning's doctrine of man is in full sympathy with his genial idea of God. He accepts the view, confirmed by modern science, of man's place in the universe as the crown of the creative process; and in man's history he sees the continuation of the evolutionary movement, carrying him upwards ever nearer to the moral ideal:
All tended to mankind.
And, man produced, all has its end thus far:
But in completed man begins anew
The Godward tendency is admitted to be faint enough in many instances, but it is not believed to be in any case altogether wanting. Our poet would subscribe to the sentiment of Emerson: That pure malignity can exist is the extreme proposition of unbelief. It is not to be entertained by a rational agent; it is atheism; it is the last profanation.19
To character as well as to lot he would apply the words he puts into the mouth of the Persian sage Ferishtah:
Of absolute and irretrievable
And all-subduing blackblack's soul of black,
Beyond white's power to disintensify,
Of that I saw no sample.20
He finds dim traces of good in most unexpected quarters, in a Fifine at the Fair, e.g
. the gipsy trull who traffics in just what we most pique us that we keep; in her freedom from pretence, her kindness to parents, her capacity of devotion, common to her sex, and notable when compared to that of men: women rush into you, and there remain absorbed;21
women grow you, while men depend on you at best.22
Even in her case he believes
That through the outward sign, the inward grace allures,
And sparks from heaven transpierce earth's coarsest covertures.23
With reference to all beings, animate and inanimategrains of sand or strolling play-actorshis confident persuasion is that
No creature's made so mean
But that, some way, it boasts, could we investigate,
Its supreme worth: fulfils, by ordinance of fate,
Its momentary task, gets glory all its own,
Tastes triumph in the world, pre-eminent, alone.24
Not merely alongside of evil, but even in evil itself, our poet can descry good, or the promise and potency of good; in its energy, for example. He admires above all things earnest purpose, vigorous will, and demands these qualities of all men, whatever their aims. Indifference, lukewarmness, half-heartedness, is for him the unpardonable sin:
Let a man contend to the uttermost,
For his life's set prize, be it what it will.25
Does a man leap from a tower to test his faith, he holds his act rational, though it ends in death:
Hold a belief, you only half-believe,
With all momentous issues either way,
And I advise you imitate this leap,
Put faith to proof, be cured or killed at once.26
It will be evident that one holding such views as to the presence of good even in characters to all appearance desperately evil, can recognise no hard-and-fast line of demarcation between good men and bad men, saints and sinners, sages and fools. Character becomes fluid, dividing-lines melt away, a little of the saint is found in every sinner, and not a little of the sinner in every saint. In view of accepted theological classifications, this may seem a dangerous doctrine, but it is little more than was said long ago by so good a Christian as Richard Baxter. In a comparative estimate of his religious experience in youth and age, he sets down this shrewd observation: I now see more good and more evil in all men than heretofore I did. I see that good men are not so good as I once thought they were, and find that few men are so bad as their enemies imagine.27
Baxter lived before the days of evolutionary philosophy, and had only an open eye and a candid mind to guide him. Besides these, Browning had the benefit of a theory of development which, applied to the moral sphere, means that at no time can you say of any man that he altogether is free, rational, good, or the reverse, but only that he is becoming such to a greater or less extent. The one valid distinction between men is one of tendency and momentum.
It goes without saying that a benevolent estimate of human character and conduct which discovers a soul of goodness in things evil, will have no difficulty in assigning value not only to the victories and successes, but even to the defeats and failures of the good. Human life even at the best is full of such experiences: of wishes that have not ripened into purposes, of purposes that have remained half executed, of ideas unrealised, of aspirations that have not got beyond impotent longing. It is the consciousness of this that so often clouds the evening sky with sadness. Browning would fain remove this shadow from the mind of the aged. By the mouth of a wise Rabbi he bids them be of good cheer, and preaches to them this comfortable doctrine:
Not on the vulgar mass
Called work, must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price;
O'er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:
But all the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account:
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:
Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped:
All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.28
There is a truth here, though the teaching of Ben Ezra certainly goes counter to the adage: Hell is paved with good intentions; and it is questionable whether one should be very ready to accept its consolation, even in old age, not to speak of youth, which assuredly should not be content to dream, but take heed that dreams pass into vows and vows into performances.
Browning's optimism reveals itself conspicuously in his mode of dealing with the problem of evil. That problem, in his view, lies chiefly in the phenomena of moral evil in the lives of individual men. He does not altogether overlook physical evil; characteristic utterances on that topic also are scattered up and down his pages. Ferishtah's Fancies, one of Browning's later works, supplies good samples. In one of these Fancies a disciple of the sage, having got his thumb nipped by a scorpion while culling herbs, asks: Why needs a scorpion be? nay, Wherefore should any evil hap to man? assuming that God's all-mercy mates all-potency. The answer in brief is:
Put pain from out the world, what room were left
For thanks to God, for love to Man?
The connection between pain and sympathy is illustrated by supposing the case of the Shah wasting with an internal ulcer. As Shah, born to empire, he is nothing to his subjects; his very virtues are discounted as matters of course. But speak of the ulcer, and anon pity wells up:
Say'st thou so?
How should I guess? Alack, poor soul! But stay
Sure in the reach of art some remedy
Must lie to hand?
To the suggestion that it does not matter though the malady should end in death in the case of one Odious, in spite of every attribute commonly deemed loveworthy, the disciple exclaims:
Faugh!nay, Ferishtah, 'tis an ulcer, think?
Attributes quotha? Here's poor flesh and blood,
Like thine and mine and every man's, a prey
To hell-fire! Hast thou lost thy wits for once?29
In another Fancy the question is propounded:
A good thing or a bad thingLife is which?
The answer is given in a parable of beans representing the days of man's life, the question being which colour in a handful predominatesblack or white. The disciple agrees with Buddha in thinking that black is the reigning colour. The master finds that no beans or days are absolutely black, and that the blackish and whitish qualify each other, yielding a prevailing grey. Joys are bettered by sorrow gone before, and sobered by the shadowy sense of sorrow which came after or might come. Such has been his own experience; others, he knew, may not fare so well. What then? Why:
God's care be God's! 'Tis mineto boast no joy
Unsobered by such sorrows of my kind
As sully with their shade my life that shines.30
This is not ambitious philosophy.
A different judgment may be supposed to be called for on the poet's solution of the problem of moral evil.
Browning's theory may be summed up in these six propositions:
1. Morality, the realisation of the moral ideal, is the highest good.
2. Process, progress by conflict, is necessary to morality.
3. Evil is the foe with which man has to fight.
4. Evil is needed to make a struggle possible.
5. Ignorance of the true nature of evil is necessary to give strenuousness and even reality to the struggle.
6. The struggle will have a happy issue in all.
That the first of these theses has a place in the poet's scheme of thought needs no proof. The conviction that righteousness, goodness, is the summum bonum
for God and for men, and that all else in human life is to be valued by its bearing thereon, is the underlying assumption of all he has written. The Moral development of the soul is, in his view, the one thing in human life of supreme interest: little else is worth study. So he thought at an early period when he wrote Sordello
so he continued to think nearly fifty years later when he published his Parleyings with certain People
To evolutionists who look from above downwards seeking to explain man by the fiery cloud, he says by the mouth of Francis Furini:
Have you done
Descending? Here's ourselfman, known to-day,
Duly evolved at last; so far, you say,
The sum and seal of being's progress. Good!
Thus much at least is clearly understood
Of power does Man possess no particle!
Of knowledgejust so much as shows that still
It ends in ignorance on every side:
But righteousnessah, man is deified
Thereby, for compensation. 33
Righteousness is man's prerogative:
Righteousness, moral sense, except in man?34
and the crown of creation is due to him on that account:
Rather let it seek thy brows,
Man, whom alone a righteousness endows
Would cure the world's ailing! Who disputes
But the crown is not one of moral perfection, but only of indefinite moral capability.
The moral ideal is a far-off goal, to be reached only by arduous effort. This is a very fundamental item in Browning's creed, affirmed and re-affirmed with unwearying iteration. Perfect goodness, he holds, is not attained per saltum; cannot be, would not be worth having even if it could. Progress is man's distinctive mark:
Not God's and not the beasts: God is, they are,
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.36
He should not be sorry that the fact is so. He should rather
Welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joy three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!37
The smooth life of effortless virtue and unchequered joyno want, no growth, no change, no hope, no fear, no better and no worsewere an utter weariness from which one would be glad to escape into a world where all these things were familiar facts of experience. The inhabitant of the star Rephan, the imagined scene of the smooth life, grows tired of its monotonous felicity, yearns for a difference in thing and thing that might shock his sense with a want of worth in them all, and so startle him up by an Infinite discovered above and below. He would
Strive, not rest,
Burn and not smoulder, win by worth,
Not rest content with a wealth that's dearth.38
He is past Rephan; his proper place is Earth.
Earth is the scene of struggle, and it is the struggle with evil that gives zest, value, tragic significance, to life:
When the fight begins within himself,
A man's worth something. God stoops o'er his head,
Satan looks up between his feetboth tug
He's left, himself, i' the middle: the soul wakes
And grows. Prolong that battle through his life!
Never leave growing till the life to come!39
But does this not amount to saying that evil is in its own way good, or at least that it is a necessary means to good as its end, as supplying the stimulus to a heroic struggle without which life would lack moral interest? It does, and Browning does not shrink from this daring conception. He puts into the mouth of the bishop who gives such a graphic description of man's fight, with God and Satan for spectators, the bold expression: the blessed evil. Evil is deemed blessed for various reasons. One is, because it helps to hide God:
Some think, Creation's meant to show Him forth:
I say it's meant to hide Him all it can,
And that's what all the blessed evil's for.
Its use in Time is to environ us,
Our breath, our drop of dew, with shield enough
Against that sight till we can bear its stress.40
Another reason is because without power and temptation to do evil goodness would lose its value:
Liberty of doing evil gave his doing good a grace.41
Yet another reason is that for our poet the struggle with evil is an end in itself, more important than the victory.
Aspire, break bounds! I say,
Endeavour to be good, and better still,
And best! Success is nought, endeavour's all.42
One who so worships endeavour cannot be content with the bare liberty to do evil. There must be actual moral aberration to give zest to the struggleto make it sublime, nay, even to make it real:
Type needs antitype:
As night needs day, as shine needs shade, so good
This doctrine seems to come perilously near to confounding moral distinctions and making evil good in disguise, with equal rights to existence in the universe, as Spinoza contended. But Browning is no Spinozist, though he fails, as has been pointed out,44
to grasp clearly the distinction between pantheistic optimism and that of which he himself is the champion. He regards evil not as a thing to be contemplated with philosophic complacency, but rather as a foe to be resolutely fought with; and that makes all the difference. And yet he is in the position of a man divided against himself. His robust moral sense constrains him to view moral evil as a great tremendous reality which might conceivably assert its power in the universe victoriously and permanently. On the other hand, his assured conviction that, under the reign of a God of love, this cannot be, tempts him to think of sin as part of the divine plan: no detail, not even the vice of a Fifine, but, in place allotted to it, prime and perfect. How, then, does he get out of the dilemma? He takes refuge in ignorance
, and asserts that it is impossible for us to know whether sin be a grim reality, or only a shadowy appearance. And he thinks that this ignorance is beneficent, that without it one could not be in earnest in the struggle against evil, that certainty either way would paralyse moral energy, or even make moral action impossible. This curious doctrine of ignorance and the use it serves occupies a prominent place in Browning's later poems, and the seeds of it are to be found even in the earlier. The need for ignorance as a spur to action is broadly asserted in these lines:
Though wrong were right
Could we but knowstill wrong must needs seem wrong
To do right's service, prove men weak or strong,
Choosers of evil or of good.45
That uncertainty is necessary to give action moral quality is not less explicitly affirmed in this passage:
Once lay down the law, with nature's simple: Such effects succeed
Causes such, and heaven or hell depends upon man's earthly deed
Just as surely as depends the straight or else the crooked line
On his making point meet point or with or else without incline
Thenceforth neither good nor evil does man, doing what he must.46
This doctrine is plausible but sophistical; one wonders how so robust and healthy a mind as Browning's could have anything to do with it. Certainty as to the deep radical distinction between good and evil is not paralysing to the moral energies; it is uncertainty that paralyses. Firm, unfaltering conviction as to the reality of moral distinctions is the foundation on which strong character is built, the most powerful aid to moral achievement, and one of the most conspicuous characteristics of all who have fought well the good fight. No man ever made a great figure in the moral world whose state of mind was that of Francis Furinideeming it possible that wrong might be right, but adopting as a working hypothesis that wrong is wrong in order to a decided choice between good and evil. Decided choices cannot rest on make-believe. Decision in will demands decision in thought. Then, as for the supposed compulsory and therefore non-moral character of action arising out of belief in the certainty of the law connecting lot with conduct, it is a fallacious notion due to not distinguishing between physical and moral necessity. Man is under no brute-compulsion to do right because he is morally certain that wrong-doing will bring penalties. He may be ever so sure that his sin will find him out and yet commit sin; ever so sure that it shall be well with the righteous and yet take his place among the unrighteous. Faith in a moral order which acts with the certainty of the law of gravitation is a motive to well-doing which may be powerful, but is never irresistible. Its power is greatest over those who freely follow the dictates of reason, least over those who are the slaves of evil desire and habit. The citizens of the Kingdom of heaven have no doubt that those who hunger after righteousness shall be filled. Does that conviction annihilate their righteousness? On the whole, this doctrine of uncertainty has no proper place in a truly optimistic theory. Its metaphysical presupposition is an agnostic theory of knowledge; it introduces a dualism between thought and conduct which cannot fail to be a source of moral weakness; it suggests a view of the illusoriness of life whose true affinities are with pessimism.
The last article in Browning's theory for the solution of the problem of evil is that the struggle will in all cases have a happy issue. There will be no final irretrievable failure, not even in the case of those who can hardly be said to have struggled, because they have been through life the abject slaves of evil passion. There will be no failure even in the case of a Guido the reprobate, though in his case salvation should mean unmaking in order to remake his soula soul in which there is nothing good save the raw material as it came from the hands of the Creator. The trust in such a case cannot, of course, be in the will of man, but solely in the unchangeable gracious purpose of God, which is assumed to have for its aim the realisation in all human souls of all moral possibilities. That being the aim, failure to realise it in any instance would mean a soul made in vain, the divine purpose frustrated by its perdition, which, though the soul be that of a Guido, must not be.47
The scene of the unmaking and remaking is the world beyond the grave. There, in general, the problem of evil finds its adequate solution, according to the firm conviction of our poet, who in this belief is true to the spirit of optimism. Not that all optimists believe in the future life. Some find it unnecessary to go outside the present life for support and vindication of their sunny creed. Emerson writes: Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely those interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois
. . . . It was left to His disciples to sever duration from the moral elements, and to teach the immortality of the soul as a doctrine, and maintain it by evidences. The moment the doctrine of immortality is separately taught man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question, or condescends to those evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.48
Far otherwise thinks Browning, who sees in this life without a life beyond only a hopeless muddle.
There is no reconciling wisdom with a world distraught,
Goodness with triumphant evil, power with failure in the aim,
If you bar me from assuming earth to be a pupil's place,
And life, timewith all their chances, changesjust probation-space.49
In the light of a life to come all the ills of this life seem easily bearable:
Only grant a second life, I acquiesce
In this present life as failure, count misfortune's worst assaults
Triumph, not defeat, assured that loss so much the more exalts
Grant me (once again) assurance we shall each meet each some day,
Walkbut with how bold a footstep! on a waybut what a way!
Worst were best, defeat were triumph, utter loss were utmost gain.51
These two great teachers of our century represent two different types of optimism. That of Emerson is so serene that the present satisfies, and leaves little room for wistful questionings regarding an unknown future. That of Browning is so painfully conscious of the abounding sin and sorrow of the present world as to be ready to exclaim with St. Paul, If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable. Mood and theory in either case correspond, and both in mood and in theory the two representative men will always have their followers. Philosophers of tranquil didactic temper will teach that a solution of life's problem must be found here or nowhere, and that it can
be found here; theologians brought more or less closely face to face with the dark side of life will tell you that without faith in immortality the moral conception of the universe is untenable. A momentous issue is thus raised, and those who worthily take part in the debate will not lack eager listeners. The minds of many are in a state of suspense. They know not what to think as to the life hereafter, either as to its reality or as to its nature. Old arguments for its reality have ceased to tell, and old conceptions as to its nature have ceased to interest. Nothing will win attention or produce faith but fresh, free, fearless, while reverent, discussion; and those who bring contributions of this character should be welcomed even when their reasonings conduct to conclusions we would rather not adopt. It is a hopeful sign of the times that such contributions are not wanting. I gladly recognise one in a work recently published, Immortality and the New Theodicy
, by Dr. George Gordon of Boston.52
This book has something to say deserving a respectful hearing both as to the reality and as to the nature of the life to come. Dr. Gordon recognises three postulates of immortality, three positions on which faith in a hereafter depends, and from which it surely follows. These are: The moral perfection of the Creator, the reasonableness of the universe, and the worth of human life.53
On the first he remarks that the belief in the moral perfection of God is an assumption for which there is proof, but by no means complete proof. Its deepest justification is that it is the assumption without which human life cannot be understood; without which the ideals and the higher endeavours, the best character and hope of man, are unaccountable and insane.54
With reference to the second postulate, he observes that death as a finality is the demonstration of the delusion of belief in the universe as intelligible. For it is man's universe that in the first place is supposed to be intelligible, not the absolute universe, whatever that may mean. And a universe that defeats his best life, that contradicts his deepest thought, cannot be considered by man at least as the expression of Supreme Reason.55
The third postulate, the worth of human life, is held to be a corollary from the Christian idea of God as a Father. The worth of human life to such a God is beyond dispute. It must be of permanent value, not only in those solitary instances when it becomes the flowering of moral beauty and disinterested service, but also in our total humanity so long as the bare possibility of noble character continues.56
According to the author of whose views I now give an account, the foregoing postulates compel faith not only in immortality but, and in order to that faith, revision of current opinions as to the nature and conditions of the immortal life. Illogical limitations of divine interest in mankind must, above all, be discarded. Of these Dr. Gordon specifies three: the Hebrew idea of the remnant, the Augustinian doctrine of election, and restriction of the opportunity of salvation to this life: character for eternity fixed in time. Setting aside all three, he holds that God's interest covers the whole of humanity, including prehistoric man, and that the future life will be no Rephan
-like stagnation in a character that has assumed final form, but a life subject to the law of evolution assumed to hold sway there not less than here. In maintaining these positions, he does not regard himself as an advocate of universalism, which has to do with matters of fact, and contends that, as a matter of fact, all men will be finally saved. What he is concerned with is God's relation to mankind, His disposition towards the human race, the scope of His moral purpose.57
The thesis of the theologian, broadly stated, is identical with that of our optimistic poet: A life to come, a life under conditions favourable to the culture of goodness, a life open to all, a life not of stagnation but of perpetual progress:
Greet the unseen with a cheer!
Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
Strive and thrive! Cry Speedfight on, fare ever there as here.58
What is to be said of it? That, regarded from the point of view of natural theology, and in connection with the general principles involved in the providential order as set forth in a former course of lectures, it possesses a considerable measure of probability. If man be, as has been steadfastly maintained, a chief end for God, a life after death is highly probable. There is no apparent reason a priori
why the divine interest in man should be restricted either in the number of its objects or in the aims it cherishes for their benefit. The presumption is that the beneficent Father in heaven seeks the good of all His children, in all possible ways and in all worlds; that He willeth that all men should be saved, in the highest sense of the word, here and hereafter. Election, historically interpreted, is not incompatible with this view. As one of the methods by which Providence seeks to accomplish its beneficent purposes it does not imply partial interest or exclusive regard. It simply means the use of oneman or peopleto bless the many. So far is it from involving a monopoly of favour for the elect that in the light of history we might rather be tempted to think that the lot of chosen vessels was to convey a cup of blessing to others, then to be dashed in pieces. In no case is benefit confined to them.59
If this be the fact in the providential order, why should it be otherwise in the spiritual order, either in the divine intention or in actual result? It is true, indeed, that in the spiritual sphere we have become so accustomed to associate election with exclusive benefit to favoured individuals that it is difficult to dissociate the two ideas. Yet even here changes have taken place in the significance of phrases which ought to help us over the difficulty. The phrase elect infants dying in infancy60
does not now mean, whatever it may have meant originally, that some of the class denoted are chosen to salvation and others doomed to perdition. The term elect is now taken as applying to the whole class. This extension of reference has been brought about, not by the exegesis of relative texts, but by the imperious logic of human feeling pronouncing infant damnation an intolerable thought. That logic is a formidable force to encounter, which may be expected to assert its power on a larger scale in connection with the whole subject of eschatology, and it will be well if the theology of the future shall be able to avoid a collision which may give rise to a disastrous eclipse of faith. Some say that this can be done simply by giving due heed to Bible texts which have been severely let alone as leading the mind in unorthodox directions, and which, when taken in earnest, will create a literature more abundant and infinitely nobler than that which other sentences, isolated from them, and thus made to conflict with them, have generated.61
It does not suit my temper to speak oracularly. I am content to occupy the humble position of one who feels keenly the pressure of the question.
In the same spirit would I contemplate the other issue raised by recent discussions, viz., the extension of the principle of evolution into the future world. One who believes in evolution as a law of the universe in all stages of its history is bound to admit that the presumption is in favour of its operation continuing in the state after death. As Bishop Butler said: There is in every case a probability that all things will continue as we experience they are, in all respects, except those in which we have some reason to think they will be altered.62
He applied the principle to the continuance
of life after death, holding that there was no reason to regard death as a change sufficiently great to involve destruction of the living powers. But may we not apply the principle to the quality
of the future life, and say, a fortiori
, that there is no reason to regard death, great change though it be, as involving the abrogation of the great universal law of development according to which things become what it is in them to be, not per saltum
, but by a slow, insensible process! Suppose that law obtains there as here, what will it mean? Judging from analogy of what goes on here, this: those who pass out of this world with some appreciable measure of goodness growing slowly better, moving steadily onwards towards, if never reaching, the moral ideal; those who die with only the barest rudiments of good in them finding opportunity for quickening those dormant seeds into life; andfor this also, I fear, must be contemplated as a possibilitythose who in this life have gone on from bad to worse, evolving character in a downward direction, undergoing ever-deepening degeneracy. That this bad possibility might be kept from becoming a realised fact by the action of divine love incessantly at work with redemptive intent is conceivable; but there it is, in the mysterious Beyond, an unwelcome alternative to be reckoned with by those who would cherish the larger hope. We may not lightly dispose of it by exaggerated notions of irresistible grace, which in effect cancel human freedom and responsibility, and degrade divine love into a physical force. Rather let the shadow remain, dark and awful though it be. Dark and awful it surely is. Degeneracy, or say even arrested growth, what a fate! It is Hell enough:
However near I stand in His regard,
So much the nearer had I stood by steps
Offered the feet which rashly spurned their help.
That I call Hell; why further punishment?63