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Lecture 5 Divine Personality and the Moral Life

Lecture 5
Divine Personality and the Moral Life
AT the end of the preceding Lecture I reminded you of a conflict which is apt to break out between the attitudes toward life associated with the aesthetic and moral activities of the human spirit respectively and suggested that in Religion it is possible to reach a point of view from which justice can be done to both parties in this controversy. This possibility depended upon the recognition of a distinction between Religion and Morality a distinction which had already been considered in the fifth Lecture of my earlier course. But the very need to call attention to this distinction implies that there is a temptation to identify them. And if proof were needed that this temptation exists it would be sufficient to mention the name of Kant. It must however be observed as a fact of some importance to our present inquiry that it is much greater where the Religion in vogue is of the type usually designated as ‘theism’ and associated at the present day with the expression ‘a personal God’ than where the prevalent form of faith would be described in a popular classification as polytheistic or pantheistic. Where men worship one God it seems natural to regard him as the moral legislator and judge of the universe and moral laws as his commands. Such a representation as we saw is apt to jar upon the artist and is introduced by Blake into his mythology under the name of Urizen as the picture not of the good or the highest God but rather of a Demiurge such as he to whom some of the heretical Gnostics in the primitive age of the Christian Church had much in the spirit of Blake attributed the origin both of the material world and of the Old Testament with its law of commandments contained in ordinances.1

But with this very same representation Morality has often found itself quite at home. This association of Theism with Morality has its reverse in the notion which has so often been common that Atheism is inconsistent with moral rectitude and the suspicion that the free thinking which leads to Atheism is a “cloke of maliciousness.”2 In a very large number of instances such a suspicion has been grossly unjust and nowadays the reaction from the whole attitude which engendered it is so strong in us that we are perhaps more ready to expect in an Atheist an austere dignity of conduct than a reckless abandonment to sensual self-indulgence.

Perhaps even this expectation is rather of yesterday than of to-day. It belonged to a generation bred in an atmosphere wherein to deny that there is any God above from whom to expect “the due reward of our deeds” needed not only the courage to defy public opinion and face public obloquy but also the strength to maintain a high standard of duty for oneself without the support of faith in supernatural approval and assistance. But the prevalent—or at least a very common—temper of thoughtful men at the present moment is probably that which finds utterance in the declaration of an able American thinker now living Professor Parker of Michigan that for him who has renounced a belief in God “a new world dawns.” For “we cannot look upon the cosmos as cruel for not realizing our wishes.” The same writer adds “After having lived some time away from the theistic position one does not look back with regret upon it.” “The conception of man as the world's darling cared for by a benignant heavenly father while appealing to old memories in moments of weakness is too unreal and too little challenging to courage and adventure to keep hold of the twentieth century man. One finally ceases to wish to live in that protected world.”3 Here Atheism is regarded not merely as requiring some remarkable qualities in its adherents by reason of its lack of inspiration or of social encouragement but as at once presenting a view of the universe ethically more satisfactory and promoting a finer type of character than those which were or could reasonably be associated with the faith which it abandons.
With respect to the second reason assigned by Professor Parker for his satisfaction in exchanging Theism for its opposite it is sufficient to say that the description which he gives of the faith upon which he now looks back without regret is in no respect true of historical Christianity. It may apply fairly well to some moods of sentimental piety which have frequently flourished under the shadow of Christianity perhaps even to certain theologies of comparatively recent origin which have sprung up about it and drawn sustenance from its roots but from which a somewhat unheroic optimism and universalism have driven out the sterner elements of its creed. But who could recognize in this picture of a sheltered timid unadventurous faith unbraced by the discipline of real life the religion of Paul or Augustine or Dante or Luther or John of the Cross or Bunyan or Pascal or Wesley? We cannot help feeling here that Professor Parker is speaking of something whereof he knows but little.
From his other ground of satisfaction in parting from a belief in God the heights and depths of which he so little comprehends we may however learn something more to our purpose. We may learn that Theism dies hard even in those who least desire to keep it alive. For in fact the sense of relief that the world is better than we thought because it did not intend the evil the disappointment of our wishes which it has produced is expressed in terms redolent of that very personification of the Supreme Reality which Professor Parker would fain avoid. We had it is suggested previously suffered under the nightmare-like thought that it was deliberately bent on frustrating our desires or at the least was most callously indifferent to the fulfilment of them. But now we have learned that it knew and cared nothing about them our resentment is appeased. We cannot indeed worship it as God or trust it as a Father but we have a better opinion of its character than when we believed it to claim from us such veneration and confidence. Through the whole argument we are sensible of the secret influence upon the writer's attitude of that irresistible tendency to apply ethical predicates to the Supreme Reality which is in truth one of the strongest supports of Theism and (I should not fear to add) one of the strongest arguments in its favour. When I was dealing in my former course of Lectures with the problem of Evil I attempted to show that to hope by denying Personality to God really to abolish that problem was to fall into the fallacy of assuming that an argument valid within a restricted field of experience must necessarily be valid when extended to the whole universe of reality. I conceive that Professor Parker is in fact urging precisely the argument against which that criticism was brought and that I have not therefore anything new to say about it which I have not already said there.4
Not only do I think that the attempt must fail to claim for Atheism (apart from the individual circumstances of particular cases) any moral superiority to Theism but I doubt whether the old prejudice on moral grounds against Atheism did not contain a kernel of truth.
To prejudice the moral reputation of one to whose speculative convictions we are opposed on grounds of reason is so odious an action that we are inevitably shy of even appearing to perform it. Nevertheless is it not part of the relief which some minds feel in parting from a belief in God that however little they may desire to plunge into courses which would be reprobated by society or by their own conscience or even to do anything which believers in God would consider to be displeasing in his sight they nevertheless welcome the sense of no longer having to live “as ever in my great Taskmaster' eye”?5 I know that I have myself often experienced the attraction of such a prospect. It seems in some moods that by abandoning belief in God one might escape from a strain to which human nature is unequal into an easier life wherein without laying aside the decencies and self-restraints of civilization or ceasing to delight in noble thoughts and deeds or forfeiting the comfort which comes from self-respect we might more easily forget our own sins and tolerate our own faults of character might feel less bound to anxious self-scrutiny and to a penitence inconsistent with the equable cheerfulness which makes life' wheels run smoothly. I do not think I am uncharitable in conjecturing that many others beside myself may at times have shared such sentiments as these and that some of that number if they have on grounds of reason found themselves unable to retain faith in God have experienced in some measure a consolation for what they have lost in the relief of feeling that they had not any more to do with one to whose eyes all is naked and opened and who reads the most secret thoughts and intents of the heart.6 Yet I do not think that we can without much loss welcome in this way the disappearance from within us of that consciousness which the youthful Milton described in the famous line quoted above; except indeed where it is not the surrender of our belief in God but the perfecting of our love for him which has cast out from our souls the fear of his severe inquisition.7
We need not then be deterred by the fact that some have made an improper and unjustified use as a stick with which to beat their speculative or political opponents of the congruity of a belief in God with our moral experience from frankly acknowledging that this congruity exists. It is a remarkable testimony to its existence that Kant for all his anxiety to dissociate the obligation of Morality from any sanction external to the reason and conscience of the persons obliged should feel himself constrained to admit the legitimacy of the familiar language which represents the Moral Law as divinely commanded although he is careful to remind us that we must not look upon actions as obligatory because they are the commands of God but should regard them as his commands only because we have an inward obligation to perform them.8
I venture to think however that his choice of the word ‘autonomy’ to express what Butler9 had called the “manifest authority” of conscience was not in all respects a fortunate one. I will begin my criticism of this expression by stating in somewhat different terms from his the truth about Morality upon which I take Kant to be chiefly insisting in his doctrine of the Autonomy of the Practical Reason. I will then attempt shortly to describe the motives which led him to select the word ‘autonomy’ for use in this connexion and finally I will point out in what respect it seems to me apt to lead our reflections on the subject into a wrong track and suggest that it must actually bear some part of the responsibility for what I shall maintain to be a mistaken theory both of moral and of political obligation.
When I only will some course of action because some one tells me it is right or because I see it conduces to something else which I desire I do not in the strictest sense will that course of action as the one thing to be willed as the unconditionally right and good thing. Just in the same way when I make a mathematical statement on the authority of a text-book or of a professor of the science or because I see that it will bring out the result hoped for this is not really the same thing with seeing the necessity of the statement which I make. That I must see for myself immediately if I am to see it at all; I must see that this is the only thing that could be said in the case. Now I may quite intelligibly say that I only will for myself in the fullest sense what I will as the sole thing to be willed the one right thing just as I may intelligibly say that I only think in the fullest sense what I see to be the one thing thinkable.
We may if we choose speak in this sense of the Good Will as autonomous in contrast with a Will which chooses on grounds other than its own perception of the goodness of what is chosen and which may thus be called heteronomous. Yet such language must not be allowed to suggest that it is from my willing what is right that the obligation to do right comes. I cannot really think that my willing what is right is the source of my obligation to do it although except by willing it I cannot realize the obligation and in realizing the obligation I must so far in a sense will it even if I do not actually will to do it but take another and therefore wrong course. Just so I can only really think mathematically or logically so far as I see for myself the mathematical or logical necessity of what I think and in so seeing the necessity of something I must certainly think it so to be; but although I may break off thinking of it at all rather than pursue the subject further yet I do not and cannot regard the necessity of what I thus think as due to my thinking it.10
This truth as it seems to me Kant does not make so clear as might have been wished in view of the fact that the word autonomy is one which lends itself so easily to an interpretation inconsistent with the independence of the obligation upon my willing to perform the obligatory act. The choice of the expression itself is to be explained by the marked tendency of the ethical doctrines which were prevalent in his day to seek the ground of moral obligation in something which might have been other than it is we remaining the same so that we might say—‘I will to do this because I wish to be happy and I find that this will tend to make me so’ or ‘I will do this because it is written in a credible record of teaching attested by accompanying miracles to be of supernatural origin that thus and not otherwise am I commanded to do by a God who rewards obedience to his laws with eternal bliss and punishes disobedience to them with eternal misery.’
In opposition to any such teaching Kant desired to emphasize the intrinsic obligatoriness of that which the Moral Law enjoins; and the form in which he did this was that of asserting that no extrinsic consideration could be the ground of the will to do right which must thus be recognized as itself somehow the source of the very law which from another point of view it obeys. He is indeed far from being unaware of the paradoxical appearance of his doctrine which in the case of a man accused by his conscience of disobeying the moral law would make the judge on the bench identical with the prisoner at the bar.11 But he fell back for a solution of the paradox on the distinction which plays so large a part in his philosophy of the homo noumenon from the homo phœnomenon: of the higher self which itself pure reason reveals itself in that consciousness of an absolute and unconditional authority to which we give the name of moral consciousness from the lower self which is all that presents itself to observation and reflexion and which though ‘rational’ in its susceptibility to the imperative of Morality yet experiences also the solicitations of sense and appears as a particular object among others subject to the conditions which the structure of the objective world imposes upon every part of itself.
This is not the place to enter upon a full discussion of this Kantian contrast which may give occasion as is obvious to not a few very hard questions. But it is noteworthy that Kant in several passages is driven to a virtual admission that it is in practice impossible to avoid representing to ourselves the judge at whose tribunal our conscience accuses us when we do wrong as a holy God looking upon the injunctions of the moral law as his commands and attributing to him the power (which we certainly do not possess at least to any considerable degree) not only to will the contents of that law but to give them effect in the real world.12 Nor although Kant is very careful to insist that such a God must be regarded as an ideal Being in the sense that he cannot be an object of sensible experience (and for Kant this would carry with it the consequence that he cannot be the object of such personal intercourse as I have contended that God does in Religion become) is there any need to doubt that Kant himself did believe in the real existence of such a Supreme Moral Governor. But in his anxiety to disclaim any knowledge properly so called of a Being who transcended what he took to be the conditions of any knowledge open to our intelligence he missed as it seems to me the true conclusion to be drawn from that consciousness of moral obligation which few have felt more profoundly and no one perhaps described more accurately than he. That conclusion I take to be the one stated explicitly and impressively by James Martineau of whose view I may take as a summary the following quotation in which he brings together the epistemological and the ethical realism which alike sundered him from Kant to whose teaching he notwithstanding owed so much and with whose grave passion for the “stern lawgiver” Duty his own temper was so sympathetic. “In the act of Perception” he says “we are immediately introduced to an other than ourselves that gives us what we feel; in the act of Conscience we are immediately introduced to a Higher than ourselves that gives us what we feel.13
It will be however worth our while to notice how very near to the position of Martineau Kant himself came and at the same time to note that it was not only the refusal characteristic of the Critical Philosophy to claim knowledge outside of the sphere wherein the senses can verify the inferences of the understanding—though this refusal was no doubt of prime importance in the matter—which held him back from a like confession of a direct revelation in Conscience of a Personal God.
“It takes two” says Martineau in one place “to establish an obligation.…The person that bears the obligation cannot also be the person whose presence imposes it; it is impossible to be at once the upper and the nether millstone. Personality is unitary and in occupying one side of a given relation is unable to be also on the other.” Hence he goes on the sense of authority in the moral law implies “the recognition of another than I…another greater and higher and of deeper insight.”14 We have already noted that the difficulty here pointed out of identifying the subject and the imponent of the Moral Law had not escaped Kant; but that he would solve it by his distinction of the noumenal and the empirical self in man although admitting at the same time the convenience (to say the least) of envisaging the imponent as an ideal Being in whom our own rational will which utters itself in the Moral Law is personified and so distinguished from my personality who am called upon to obey that same Moral Law.
That he should acquiesce in a position of this kind is of course as students of his philosophy will at once perceive of a piece with that feature of his system which has been described as the doctrine of the als ob ‘as though it were.’ We must for example study organic nature as though it were the work of design act and live as though we were free immortal and under moral government but we must not assert as matter of knowledge that which we thus may or even must postulate as guiding or regulative principles of thought or conduct. But not to digress into a general discussion of the attitude which is expressed in such a doctrine and confining ourselves to the instance with which we are here immediately concerned it is singularly difficult to maintain it in the case of reverence for the imponent of the Moral Law. “Reverence” says Kant15 “refers always to persons only ‘as its object’ never to things. Things can arouse in us inclination and if things are animals (e.g. horses dogs etc.) also love or again fear as with the sea a volcano a beast of prey—but never reverence.” He goes on16 to observe that we try to rid ourselves of the burden of reverence for other men by attempting to find flaws in them. “Even the Moral Law itself in its solemn majesty”17 is exposed to these attempts; that is why people try to identify it with mere sentiment and so forth. But is the Moral Law a Person? or is it personal only in us? We have to distinguish it from ourselves as we have seen and even Kant though sometimes identifying our personality with that common Reason which utters itself in every man's conscience on occasion falls into that other way of speaking which applies the epithet ‘personal’ to what distinguishes one man from another and modifies if it does not counteract in each of us the action of the reason common to all. Is not our only way of escape from the embarrassment created by the presence in us of this implanted sentiment of reverence for what though bound up with our personality is yet as the object of our reverence distinguished from it the frank recognition of a Personal God in the sense in which I have been contending for it in these lectures: of a God who is not only immanent but transcendent with whom a relation only to be described as personal intercourse is possible and is in the experience of Religion actually enjoyed?
I referred above to a consideration which seems to have reinforced in the mind of Kant his general tendency to limit knowledge and experience to the sphere wherein sensible verification is possible as a motive for not accepting this obvious and familiar solution of the problem prescribed to the intellect by the fact of moral obligation. I had in mind the peculiar theory of Moral Sovereignty with which we meet in his ethical writings.
It is well known that Kant describes the world as contemplated from the ethical point of view as a ‘Kingdom of Ends’ that is as an ordered community of beings every one of which is an ‘end in himself’ and bound to recognize in his treatment alike of himself and of all his fellow members in that Kingdom that each and all possess this character. In this Kingdom we may ascribe Sovereignty in a special sense to God because in him there is as we suppose no recalcitrant lower nature by the side of a higher upon which the action which is in accordance with the higher imposes itself as a duty to be performed against the grain as it were. He is sovereign not because the laws of the Kingdom derive their obligation from his authority but because he is not like all the other members of it conscious of subjection as well as of autonomy and because for this reason the others can look to him as the representative of what is the true will of all but which although it is really our own true will and although on reflection we must acknowledge it so to be it seems nevertheless to the rest of us owing to the recalcitrant element in our nature to be not what we would do but what we must; a constraint being laid upon us though a constraint against which we know that we ought not to rebel.18
I think it will be instructive to seek for more light upon this peculiar conception of the place of God in the ‘Kingdom of Ends’ in Kant's choice of the word Reich which is in this connection translated ‘Kingdom.’19 To Kant this word would not have suggested the Prussian State of which he himself was a subject with its efficient and centralized military autocracy then not a century old whose later history of vaulting ambition and sudden downfall is in the memory of us all to-day. That was a Königreich; but Kant does not employ this word for the spiritual commonwealth of which he speaks. He calls it a Reich; and Reich had to the German of his time a quite specific meaning. It meant the Empire Roman in name and German in fact of which the Prussian sovereign was but a subordinate member. The head of this State enjoyed in those countries of which he was only Emperor and not also the ruler by some other title a position at once far more venerable and dignified and far less powerful and independent than that which Frederick the Great and his successor exercised within the dominions which acknowledged their sway.
Das liebe heil'ge röm'sche Reich
Wie hälts nur noch zusammen?
‘Good old holy Roman Empire! How does it still hang together!’—so sings one of the jolly companions whom Faust and Mephistopheles join in Auerbach's wine-shop at Leipzig.20 The disrespectful allusion dates from a time not long after that at which Kant had borrowed the title of this same illustrious institution to describe the community whose bond is the eternal Moral Law and of which God is the centre. Is it altogether fanciful to see in the position of God in that community an anti-type of the Emperor's in the Reich of Kant's and Goethe's day the position of one who differs from other Princes of the Empire in that unlike them he has himself no superior; whose supremacy is the expression of the common law which among all the diversities of territorial enactments runs throughout the Empire yet towards whom the other Princes certainly do not stand in the position of subjects rendering him a ‘habitual obedience’ in the sense of the Austinian definition of Sovereignty?
But it is precisely because Kant as we have often had occasion to point out combined with a profound insight into the nature of morality and a keen sensitiveness to anything which might prove derogatory to the dignity of that human nature which is capable of Morality a defective sense for the specifically religious factor in human life and a haunting dread of the fanaticism which might be fostered by belief in a personal intercourse with the Supreme that he was content to describe the relation of our spirits to God under a figure thus suggestive of something very different to that consciousness of dependence upon him in which Schleiermacher found the essence of Religion and which is at least a characteristic property that it cannot while it remains Religion cease to exhibit.
The frank recognition which we find in Martineau of the theistic implications of the consciousness of obligation is a step forward which we shall do well to make; although in making it we shall be wise to bear in mind as useful warnings to ourselves the considerations which withheld Kant from advancing in this direction. We shall take care lest in recognizing that the consciousness of the Moral Law introduces us as Martineau puts it into the presence of a Divine Lawgiver we deny to that law an intrinsic authority needing not to be guaranteed by any other revelation from God than that which itself is. We shall also be on our guard lest in refusing to forbid the devout soul the enjoyment of intimate communion with her Beloved we forget that the critical understanding has a part to play in the service of God and abandon ourselves without reserve to the suggestions of a pious fancy until we become victims of illusions such as those which Kant was so keenly desirous to discourage that he was suspicious of all use of words or gestures in private prayer if not indeed of private prayer altogether.
But if we may thus trace in the language of Kant the influence of the political traditions of his own country there is another and very different influence which we know21 to have strongly affected his mind and to which we shall find it instructive to advert before we leave this discussion of his conception of Morality as Autonomy. The influence which I mean is that of Rousseau. Rousseau's notion of the volonté générale which is not necessarily the volonté de tous22 is in the direct line of ancestry to Kant's conception of the Good Will which proceeding from the universal Reason constitutes the true worth and is the true personality of every one of us and always more truly my own will than a selfish will which is dragged at the heels as it were of my animal appetites can possibly be; so that even were every man in fact to err from the right path in will and deed yet what each ought to do would still be the only thing in doing which his will would follow its own law and thus be able to claim that it was autonomous. The volonté générale is in Rousseau's political philosophy the will of the Sovereign and the Sovereign whose will it is is the People in their collective capacity; in his private capacity each member of this Sovereign is a subject of that Sovereign whereof he is in his public capacity as a citizen an integral part; his private will may differ from the general will which is his own as a member of the Sovereign People; nay all the private wills together (the will of all) may vary from the ‘general will’ which aims only at the common good.
This conception translated from the political to the ethical plane would naturally assume the form of Kant's Good Will which may be no one's private will yet is every man's will in a sense in which no merely private will can be.
But the obligation under which an individual lies of obeying the Moral Law which yet is said by Kant to be a self-imposed law is not in Kant's view dependent on an interest which this obedience would serve; the determination of the will to obey it is in fact the only genuine moral interest. The chief difference between Kant's own ethical theory and that of such a Kantian as Green lies in the elevation by the latter of the notion of a Common Good to the central position in the theory of Morality and the attempt to envisage Obligation as secondary to this. Now a view which finds in the ideal of a Common Good rather than the consciousness of Duty the ruling principle of Morality has gone back as it were from Kant to Rousseau and obliterated the characteristic feature of the Kantian doctrine the emphasis upon Obligation. It however connects itself with Kant through the conception of Autonomy and thus links the Kantian teaching with a democratic political philosophy which traces its own descent from Rousseau and in which the notion of Authority the correlative of the notion of Obligation finds but a precarious footing. I venture to think that the true corrective for this outstanding defect of such a philosophy is to be found in the development of Kant's teaching about the consciousness of Obligation along the line which is suggested by Martineau and the recognition of this consciousness as the consciousness of a Divine Legislator.23
The theological development which took place within Christendom during the nineteenth century has to a great extent obviated the danger his keen perception of which had much to do with holding Kant back from such a recognition. In consequence of the progress of Biblical criticism and of the historical and comparative study of religions the affirmation of a Divine Legislator directly revealed in our conscience or consciousness of obligation is far less likely than in Kant's own day to be interpreted as opening the door to the assertion that all the commands attributed to God in Scripture or ecclesiastical tradition may claim the obedience challenged by the “manifest authority” of Conscience or to speak more properly of the object of Conscience—the Moral Law.
But in any case there is in philosophy no justification for allowing the possibility (or even the probability) that erroneous inferences may be drawn from a truth to hinder us from a candid statement of the facts as we find them; and unless I am greatly mistaken these certainly favour the assertion that in our consciousness of obligation we are aware of an imponent of the obligation whom we must reverence as other than ourselves and as not merely superior to us but supreme over us even though in virtue of the unconditional acceptance of the obligation by our reason that which he imposes may be intelligibly spoken of as self-imposed. We must acknowledge in obligation as it has been put24 an aspect not only of autonomy but also of a heteronomy which turns out on inspection to be really a theonomy. Such a heteronomy however is not a heteronomy in Kant's sense; for as we have all along insisted it is involved in our notion of God that he is immanent in our reason and will which notwithstanding he transcends.
It is a familiar and a just criticism of a certain kind of idealistic theology that nothing is gained by merely transferring to a Divine Mind the creation of the object of knowledge by the act of knowing it which it has been found impossible to maintain in the case of finite minds.25 It may be suggested that a like criticism might be directed against the arguments which have here been put forward in support of the view that our moral experience is a consciousness of ‘theonomy.’
If we may be asked it is true that we can no more regard the Categorical Imperative of duty as deriving its authority from our wills although only in an act of will can we be said properly speaking to be conscious of the obligation which it lays upon us than we can regard the reality of an object of knowledge as dependent upon the act of apprehending it is there not the same kind of difficulty in making God's will the source of moral obligation that there is in making God's knowledge the source of the reality of that which he knows? For if what we see to be necessary to Knowledge and Will as such when contemplating them in ourselves is not also necessary to them as they are in God are we not (it may be said) playing with the notion of a divine Knowledge and Will which are not after all Knowledge and Will in the proper sense at all?
I think however that this criticism overlooks some essential features of the situation. Even in respect of knowledge there is indeed a real difficulty in conceiving a perfect or divine Intelligence as related no otherwise to its object than a finite intelligence is related to that which it apprehends. It was to meet this difficulty that Aristotle for example was constrained to describe the divine Mind as having no object but its own activity of knowing.26 But not only do we in our own knowing inevitably regard the object of our knowledge as independent of the act of knowing it but the representation of this object as a divine thought whatever advantage we may find it to have when we go on to construct a metaphysical or theological system has I think we must admit no direct significance for us when we are merely trying to describe the activity of Knowledge as it exists in ourselves. But while we are as it seems to me unable to think of an act as right because we will it our attitude towards the Moral Law is as we have already seen an attitude which we can scarcely describe satisfactorily except as one towards a Personal Lawgiver. Yet the moment that we attempt to distinguish in the will of this Personal Lawgiver the object which he wills from the will itself (so that we could conceive him as willing what we should not regard as obligatory27) it ceases to be the authority of which the moral experience is the consciousness. The conception of a Supreme Being who is not merely good but is the Good28 is thus for the student of Morality not a speculation suggested by the desire (however legitimate and even inevitable that desire may be) to work out the thought of a Perfect Intelligence but it is urged upon him in the course of reflexion upon the facts of the moral experience itself.29
The recognition for which I have pleaded of the consciousness of Obligation as in its essence a consciousness of God will I think be found to have important consequences in the sphere of political philosophy. Thoughtful observers of contemporary public life can scarcely avoid having forced upon their attention the existence of a very general uncertainty as to the claim of constituted authority upon the submission and reverence of the members of the body politic. Under the name of ‘democracy’ a principle corresponding to that of ‘autonomy’ in the Kantian ethics is commonly put forward as the foundation of all legitimate power in the State; and the use in certain connexions of the expression ‘self-determination’ in a sense intimately allied with that given in current phraseology to ‘democracy’ emphasizes the close affinity of the view now prevalent of political liberty with that of moral freedom held by Kant and the thinkers of his school.
If in the word ‘autonomy’ as used by Kant there lay the possibility of a misinterpretation which by not holding fast to Kant's doctrine of two distinguishable selves in every man should pervert his meaning and give us for his doctrine of complete disinterestedness one of such egoism as we find for example in the celebrated work of Max Stirner far greater is the danger of such misinterpretation when we pass from the region of individual duty to that of political obligation.
For while in the sphere of the individual's moral life the frequent incompatibility of duty and pleasure is obvious and there is even a tendency—found as is well known in Kant himself—to exaggerate its frequency in the sphere of Politics the pursuit of the general happiness may be so plausibly represented as the whole content of public duty the sole end of public action that it is especially easy here first to think of a ‘common good’ rather than of a ‘common obligation’ and then to interpret this ‘common good’ in terms which really in the end are terms of individual happiness or pleasure. In this way the principle of Authority comes to be dissolved and of the two aspects of the political community which at one period obtained historical expression in the rival theories of the ‘social contract’ and of the ‘divine right of kings’ respectively we lose sight of the latter altogether. Yet I venture to think that both these aspects must be kept in view if we are to realize a social unity which will be satisfactory to our moral consciousness.
It is not perhaps altogether needless to remark that the rival theories to which I have just referred were not only one-sided in their emphasis on one or the other of two equally necessary aspects of the fact which they sought to explain but presented the aspect emphasized in a context of very disputable and in truth irrelevant matter. It is on account of this commingling of what is of permanent value in them with something of very inferior worth that both are apt to seem to the men of our age obsolete and fantastic. The notion of a primitive compact of which no one can assign the date or describe the circumstances binding upon all the descendants of its unknown framers; or again the notion of an inherent and indefeasible right of a person designated by a particular rule of hereditary succession to demand obedience from his fellow men—such notions are so little congenial to the minds of our contemporaries that the truths with which they were mixed are apt to be disregarded along with them.
Yet such truths they did contain: the doctrine of social contract the truth that without consent there is no legitimate authority; and the doctrine of divine right the truth that the conception of authority with its correlative obligation cannot be deduced from that of consent but derives from an ultimate experience of the human spirit incapable of explanation in terms of anything other than itself. These two truths correspond as will be at once perceived with the two aspects of the moral fact described by a writer whom I quoted in an earlier part of this Lecture the one as autonomy and the other as a heteronomy which turns out to be a theonomy.
And as with the principle of authority in the moral law to which the individual knows himself to be subject beyond all possibility of contracting himself out of his allegiance so with the principle of Authority in the community. I am convinced that no other explanation will be found in the last resort satisfactory but one which exhibits it as the presence of God to the soul which is made in his image after his likeness. Thus the legitimate authority in the community will have in the strictest sense of the word a ‘divine right’ to the obedience of its members; but that authority alone can be described as legitimate which is established by consent just as in the individual's moral life the only way by which I can know the command of God to be his is by the recognition that this and nothing else can I will in Kant's phrase ‘as law universal’ that is to say disinterestedly and as what it is not merely pleasant but right that I should do. So indispensable to the morality of the action is this personal recognition of the obligation that the obligation may be intelligibly said to be self-imposed; at the same time this very recognition is a recognition of the source of obligation as the supreme and absolute Lawgiver over all rational beings and this I cannot without absurdity say that I myself am. Yet my subjection to this supreme Lawgiver in no way impairs my freedom since it is only through my free choice of the right that I am conscious of his demands upon me; thus it can be said that “God's service is perfect freedom”30 or in the yet stronger phrase of the Latin original of the collect whence these words are taken he is one cui servire est regnare; in subjection to the Sovereign of the empire of beings who are ends in themselves his subjects are made sharers of his sovereignty.
In the common or political life of man—and as Plato has taught us31 we see writ large in the structure of the community what is writ as it were in lesser letters in the structure of the individual soul—we see this same fact of obligation exhibiting the like dual structure. Yet to carry on the Platonic figure there is a sense in which the lines of the larger writing are less delicately and accurately drawn than those of the smaller. The individual soul finds himself face to face with a law which he may take to be none other than God's but it is only in a primitive stage of civilization that the law which the citizen is expected to obey and the authority which makes it and enforces it present themselves as immediately and in themselves divine. In different periods and in different societies the precise relation to God of the law and of the government which administers this law are variously conceived.
It would be a mistake to suppose that as a matter of history the view which has often obtained in modern times that a binding law must be regarded as the enactment of a definite person or body of persons constituting the sovereign power in the community and therefore as the Sovereign competent to change at will any part of this law is either a universal or a primitive view. On the contrary we more often find the Law regarded in earlier times as something which so to say runs of itself in the society and of which the rulers are only the guardians and administrators. The difficulty which this manner of conceiving Law common as it was in antiquity and in the middle ages is apt to present to legal theorists of a later time is due I think not merely to a lack of historical knowledge and sympathy in these theorists but also to the stronger sense of Personality which marks a more advanced stage of spiritual development. When the sense of Personality was weaker than it has since become it was easier to think of the Law as binding upon us without raising the question Who was its author? To a later age it might appear natural that if not attributed to any human author it must at least have been regarded as proceeding from God. But this was not necessarily or always so though the higher the conception of God rose the less easy was it to evade the question of his relation to it.
Even in Judaism where one would certainly expect to find entertained the notion of the Law as deriving all its binding force from the mere will of God this way of looking at it is by no means the only one adopted. The son of Sirach32 personifies the Law of Moses in terms which Christian theologians could apply to the second Person of their Trinity; and the Rabbis could talk of God as himself studying and observing that law. No doubt their language was not meant to be taken literally; it was only intended to express vividly and forcibly the Jewish doctors’ estimate of their sacred code as possessing eternal and immutable validity. But their phraseology may serve to impress upon our minds that if even under a religion of which a strict monotheism was the fundamental article men could fall so easily into a way of speaking of Law as something binding of itself it is no wonder that where religions prevailed which laid no such stress on the recognition of one supreme God Law might well be regarded as divinely authoritative without being definitely envisaged as the statute or ordinance of a divine Legislator.
With the strengthening however of the sense of Personality the time came at which the notion of an impersonal Law was found less satisfying and it seemed reasonable to inquire after a personal imponent human or divine. By this time however both the conception of the divine nature and knowledge of past history had alike advanced too far to encourage the direct attribution to God of the whole law obeyed by a political community; while the officials whose function was to declare administer or execute the law were no longer (as in ages when the notions of absolute supremacy and perfect goodness were not yet associated so closely with divinity) regarded as themselves divine or of divine descent; at the most they might be held to reign ‘by the grace of God’ and claim a divine sanction for their authority.
A proof of this divine sanction was however needed; and in the absence of a supernatural or miraculous attestation and with the weakening of confidence in such evidence as could be afforded by ecclesiastical approval or by arguments of the kind illustrated in the famous work of Filmer to refute which Locke wrote the former of his Two Treatises of Government it was inevitable that resort should be had to the principle of consent. There was nothing indeed novel or unfamiliar about this principle. Indeed the theory of the Roman imperial jurisprudence had from the first traced the authority of the Prince to the People's transference of their sovereign rights to Augustus; and the imperial dignity the highest in rank of all European magistracies the only one indeed which claimed to be in Dante's sense of the word a Monarchy had always been elective. But the principle of consent was at last left alone in possession of the field and we have now to inquire whether it is compatible with a view which ascribes neither to the Law nor to those who administer and execute it any authority which is not derived from the consent of those who are subject to it or their representatives to entertain towards the Law itself or towards the government which enforces it a sentiment of reverence identical with or akin to that challenged by the Law which speaks in conscience to the individual soul and which we have seen that we can best understand when we take it for a revelation of God and the experience in which it is apprehended as an experience of personal intercourse with the Supreme Being. For only I feel convinced if such a sentiment of reverence can rightly be directed towards the authorities of the body politic can obedience to them be in the long run justified on any other ground than mere self-interest.
If however there is any value in the reasonings of the earlier part of this Lecture this sentiment of Reverence towards law and government can only be satisfactorily explained by the recognition that here as in the moral consciousness of the individual we find ourselves subject to a ‘categorical imperative’ (to use Kant's celebrated phrase); while the consciousness of this ‘categorical imperative’ we shall here as there hold to be best desscribed as an experience of the Presence of God. We have seen that our individual consciousness of obligation includes a factor which we may call with Kant autonomy and a factor to which our sentiment of reverence corresponds and which has been called theonomy. If we recognize that political obligation also involves the second of these factors we shall see in the principle of consent which is the ruling idea of what is nowadays called ‘democracy’ the form assumed in this sphere by the principle we have previously described as autonomy.
For (as I have elsewhere put it) “only where the members of a community freely choose or accept for themselves the person or persons in whom the sovereign authority is reposed is there an adequate security that this person or these persons since they are not of different clay from those who are to be in subjection to them will be able to appeal to a sense that the government has authority and can claim loyalty and obedience from its subjects. In other words the true ground of preference of free and popular institutions over despotic law lies not in this: that no one is really under obligation to obey any authority but one which is ultimately his own; but in this: that only where he has himself a say in appointing or accepting the vehicles of that authority can he be counted upon to acquiesce in their authority as—not his own—but the best representative he can find of God's. The one-sided doctrine of the divine right of kings that is to say embodied one half of the true doctrine of political obligation while the one-sided doctrine of the rights of man embodied the other. In the process of reaction from the error which invested certain particular modes of selecting the supreme authorities in the community with a religious sanctity it is apt to be forgotten that there is a sense in which authority is not really authoritative at all unless it be essentially God's and not our own in any sense in which we can at all contrast our own with God's.”33
I am thus at one with Mr. H. G. Wells—as represented by the remarkable book on which I commented in another connexion in the sixth Lecture of my first course—in regarding the true nature of political authority as theocratic; although my view of the God whose authority it is differs from his. I do not however perceive any such inconsistency as he seems to find with this main principle in the maintenance of a monarchical form of government. Such a form of government may rest as well as any other on the consent which is necessary to give to the community so governed the character of freedom or self-determination corresponding to the autonomy of the individual moral choice; while it is perhaps especially well qualified to bring before the imagination that other character of authority in which it is representative of God. And as the apostle asks34 how one who loves not his brother whom he hath seen can love God whom he hath not seen so we may at least think that loyalty to a visible king may be not the worst training in loyalty to him whom Mr. Wells rightly describes as the ultimate recipient of all true loyalty ‘God the invisible King.’ A comprehension of the former sentiment must indeed be presupposed in any appeal on behalf of the latter.
The conclusion then which I would draw from the considerations which have occupied us in this Lecture is that the conception of Divine Personality not only harmonizes very well with the ethical interest of mankind but throws a light upon the nature of the fundamental moral experience the consciousness of obligation which no other conception of the ultimate Reality can afford.
In our study of this experience we found ourselves led to include under it not only the experience of the Moral Law in the individual conscience but the notion of obligation in the political sphere.
My next Lecture the sixth of the course will deal in the first place with the relation of the conception of Divine Personality in its relation to that of collective or corporate personality. This latter conception has played a large part both in political and in religious thought; and examination of it from the point of view here adopted will form a convenient transition to the discussion of the place of the conception of Divine Personality in the religious life which will occupy the seventh Lecture and close the portion of this course allotted to the investigation of the bearing of the conclusions reached in my former course upon the attitudes connected with the various forms of activity exhibited by the human spirit.