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Lecture Eighth. The Objective Form of the Earliest Religion.

Gradual Development of Religion — How to explain Anticipations of the Highest Religious Ideas, which appear very early in the History of Religion — What is implied in the Objective Form of Man's Earliest Consciousness, and especially of his Religious Consciousness — Its Sensuous and Materialistic Character — In, what sense the Earliest Religion is Anthropomorphic — what is meant by Fetischism — How Imagination gradually Elevates and Idealises the Objects of Worship.

IN the last lecture I attempted to carry a step farther the analysis of the idea of development, and to show that it excludes anything like an absolute break between one stage and another. The identity of a being that lives and develops is shown above all in the fact that, though it is continually changing in its whole nature, yet nothing absolutely new is ever introduced into it. This is a point which is very apt to be neglected by men who are themselves the subjects of such development, especially in any important crisis of their intellectual or moral history: perhaps, we may say that it is almost certain to be neglected by them. Those who live through any revolution which affects the deepest life of man, such, e.g. as that which took place at the first preaching of Christianity, or at the Reformation, are apt to exaggerate the violence of the transition which they have experienced, and to think that all old things have passed away, and that all things have become new. Yet the most violent revolution to which human nature can be subjected can never be more than the emergence into light of something that has been growing for a long time beneath the surface; what seems at first an absolute change is never other than the summed up result of a series of variations; and the final touch which makes the elements crystallise into a new form can be regarded as its real cause, only by superficial observers. Let me once more point out how this applies to our present subject. Those who describe the beginnings of religion are apt to speak of the religion of savages as a mere brutal terror of powers which are too great for the individual to deal with; and to suppose that, at some definite period or stage, such terror gave way to a real reverence for beings who were conceived as intellectually or morally superior. But a closer view of the facts always discloses that human thoughts and motives are too mixed and complicated to admit of such simple divisions or transitions. The element of superstitious terror does not cease all at once at a special point. It clings for generations and even for ages to religions which, on the whole, may be described as religions of reverence; and, on the other hand, the element of reverential awe for something higher, greater, better than themselves, tinges even the darkest superstition of mankind, and at times elevates the sacrifices which they make to it to the rank of heroism. And the reason is, that religion is essentially a consciousness of the infinite presupposed in all the divisions of the finite, a consciousness which, however little it be understood by him whom it inspires, however coarse and imperfect the form in which it presents itself, is yet an integral element of man's mind, of which he can no more rid himself than he can get rid of the consciousness of the object or of himself. And the true nature of this idea, as it is implied in the very constitution of our intelligence, continually reacts against the imperfect form in which it is presented. In this way, it is not unnatural that even at the lowest stage of his life man should be visited with occasional glimpses of the highest he can ever attain. The human spirit is one in all its differences, and, in a sense, the whole truth is always present in it, if not to it. In the consciousness of the simplest and most uncultured individual there are contained all the principles that can be evolved by the wisest philosopher of the most cultivated time; and even the rudest religious systems have represented in them—though, no doubt, in a shadowy and distorted way—all the elements that enter into the highest Christian worship. As the child often utters words of strange depth and richness of meaning which all the wisdom of manhood finds it difficult to fathom, or raises problems that might puzzle the greatest philosopher; so, among the earliest recorded utterances of men, and in connexion with general state of intelligence and morality which was very immature and defective, we often discover strange anticipations of the most elevated ethical and religious ideas. The golden rule of Christianity, not to war with evil against evil but to overcome evil with good, is found imprinted on Egyptian monuments of unknown antiquity, and it had been maintained by Chinese moralists before the time of Confucius: it is implied even in the generosity that mingles with the sensuality and cruelty of savages. It is difficult to say when or where we may not find some traces of the ideas of a divine justice and a Father in heaven, crossing and interfering with the coarsest superstitions and the crudest and most materialistic conceptions of supernatural powers. If we are willing to take single utterances of pious feeling, or isolated moral maxims, as evidence of the effective presence of moral and religious ideas, it would not be difficult to construct a plausible argument for the thesis, that there has been no real progress in morality or religion from the earliest period of recorded history, and that humanity has always possessed, bound up with its consciousness of itself, all the light on these subjects which it is capable of reaching. In fact, it was by evidence like this that Buckle some time ago attempted to prove, that the moral consciousness of man is stationary, and that therefore progress has depended solely on man's increasing knowledge of the laws of nature.

Now I think we should at once avoid both the temptation to explain away these facts, and the temptation to treat them as evidences that man's earliest stage was one of comparatively elevated views of morality and religion, from which the savages have fallen back. Isolated expressions of moral and religious ideas are no evidence of the general level of thought and life of the people among whom they were first uttered; and their preservation in tradition cannot, therefore, be taken as evidence that that people has retrograded from a higher stage. Before we can tell what they prove in any particular case, we need to see what consequences are drawn from them and what place they hold in the consciousness of the people in question, in relation to their other ideas and customs. Taken by themselves, all that such expressions show is that ‘a man's a Man for a’ that,’ that humanity lives already in the most immature, as it maintains itself in the most degraded condition of men. They show that any one who has a human consciousness, and who lives in society with his fellow-men amid all the changes of human life, cannot but occasionally be touched with the mystery, and elevated with the greatness of human destiny. The soul of man even at its worst is a wonderful instrument for the world to play upon; and in the vicissitudes of life, it cannot avoid having its highest chords at times touched, and an occasional note of perfect music drawn from it as by a wandering hand on the strings. The waves of emotion, of hate and love, of triumph and despair, called forth by all the tremendous risks and struggles of mortal existence, are surely sufficient to explain a few anticipations of the highest truth from the lips of the savage or the child, as they are sufficient to explain a casual sympathy with noble thoughts and deeds in the most degraded of men. But the idea of development enables us to understand how these things should be, and should “overcome men like a summer cloud” without ‘any special wonder,’ without calling for any other explanation than the general identity of the human spirit in all ages. The evidence of a real progress or development, consistent with this general identity, is to be sought, not so much in the appearance of distinctly new elements, of which we find no previous trace, but rather in the change of the relative place in consciousness of the elements which, in some form or other, are always to be detected there; a change by which what was at first only the casual manifestation of an exalted sensibility becomes raised into the central principle of a new order of thought and life.

Now, in accordance with this view, I endeavoured in the last lecture to reach some general ideas as to the method of the development of man's consciousness, especially in its religious aspect. And I pointed out that there are three stages in that development, stages which are indicated to us by the very form of that consciousness itself, with its leading ideas of the object, of the subject, and of the principle of their unity: or, if we prefer so to put it, of the world, the self, and God. For though we can never separate these terms, yet we can see that, in the order of time, the consciousness of the object must become explicit before the consciousness of self, and the consciousness of self before the consciousness of God. And the consequence of this is that the higher elements of consciousness, those that become explicit later, are forced at first to appear in the form of the lower element. Thus the consciousness of self and the consciousness of God are both at first constrained to disguise themselves in a shape which is adequate only to the consciousness of the object; and when the consciousness of self has been freed by the advance of reflexion from this subjection, it still in its turn imposes the imperfections of its own form upon the consciousness of God. Hence the consciousness of God passes through a series of changes from less to more adequate forms, and is latest of all in assuming its proper shape. To know God as God, without confusing Him with the object or the subject in their abstraction, is the highest and most difficult attainment of the religious consciousness. Nay, we might even say that it is the highest goal of all human development; for, as we have seen, it is the highest result of development to return upon its own principle; and, in the case of man, this means, to become conscious of the unity presupposed in all his divided, finite life. A religion which expresses the consciousness of the infinite in its own form, can alone solve the great problem of doing full justice to the secular consciousness, allowing it all the room that is needful for its complete differentiation, and yet overcoming or reconciling its divisions by carrying them back to the divine unity from which they spring. It alone can ‘see all things in God,’ without losing a clear consciousness of the order of nature, or of the moral order to which, in the social and political life of man, it is subordinated.

To appreciate exactly the nature of the progress which I have now described in general terms, it will be necessary for us to examine the three stages of it a little more closely. We begin, therefore, by considering the first of those stages, that in which the idea of the object is predominant, and determines the form of all our consciousness.

Man, as I have said, looks outward before he looks inward, and he looks inward before he looks upward. As a consequence, his first consciousness of that which is within as well as of that which is above him, is thrown into the mould of his consciousness of that which is without. All that exists for him in this stage is the outward, the visible, the tangible, the sensible. Into this, indeed, as into all consciousness, the mind brings its own forms of thought and perception; but of these it takes no direct account. It is to it as if all objects, and even itself, were purely given from without through the senses to the passive spirit. Hence Hegel called this the sensuous consciousness, not meaning that sensation can fully explain it, but that it does not itself recognise anything else than sense as the source of its knowledge. It is a consciousness for which, so far as it is itself aware, the only connecting links of experience are time and space. Not, of course, that even time and space are by themselves made objects of thought, but that the only unity or connexion yet clearly recognised as existing between things is that they coexist in space and pass through successive changes in time. For the sensuous consciousness, therefore, the world is a world of pure externality, ostensibly governed only by the least ideal of relations, the relations of juxtaposition, of coexistence, and of succession; and these are not yet taken as involving any real connexion, but rather the absence of connexion. Things are beside each other, events are after each other, and nothing seems to be necessarily or vitally related to anything else. All things are taken as isolated individuals, and the causality of any one of them in relation to the others, if thought of at all, is thought of as something arbitrary and accidental. Of course, there is as yet no reflexion on the fact that the subject, as being conscious of all objects, is more than merely one of them. The world is conceived only as an aggregate in which each thing or being has its nature apart from the others, or only liable to casual invasions from them; and the self seems riot to stand on any other level than the objects it knows. Still less can reflexion at this stage be expected to rise to any direct conception of the principle of unity between object and subject, as distinct from either, yet binding them both together as one. For such a unity cannot in any way be brought within reach of the sensuous consciousness without at once converting itself into an object which takes its place alongside of other objects of experience. In this primitive consciousness then, it is necessary that everything should be materialised; for, to it existence and materiality are one. No idea can approach it without being trans-substantiated into matter. What is to exist for it, must be felt and seen; hence the universal can exist for it, if at all, only in the form of the particular. To us, to whom abstraction has become easy, almost fatally easy, who are familiar with the distinction between facts and laws or general principles, and who from childhood have been accustomed to an almost dualistic way of opposing soul and body, ideal and Material existence, it is difficult even by the strongest effort of imagination to throw ourselves back into the mental attitude of those whose thoughts so persistently clung to the form of external perception, who so absolutely merged mind in matter, the universal in the particular. The gross materialism of the primitive consciousness, its coarse sensuous realism, its incapacity to rise above immediate appearance, or to grasp a whole except as a collection of parts, make its movements obscure and enigmatic for us; for there is nothing Harder than to conceive beings with a mind like our own, yet in which so much is merely potential and latent that is actual and explicit with us. We are alternately tempted to cut the knot, on the one hand, by reducing the savage to an animal, or, on the other hand, by giving him credit for ideas that are altogether beyond his reach. We can escape the fallacies of both views only by a clear realisation of the fact that the human mind is from the beginning moulded by ideas, of which it can become directly conscious only by a slow and gradual process, and which, therefore, must in the first instance present themselves in an inadequate form. We may, to some extent, help ourselves in this difficult task by considering how much our own thought is still dependent on sensuous metaphors, and how great is the risk of its being drawn down to the metaphors it uses. As Selden said that transubstantiation was ‘rhetoric turned into logic,’ so we may safely assert that much false theory is simply the logical development of the sensuous analogies, under which the truth at first necessarily presented and expressed itself. These analogies are good within certain limits, but when drawn out to all their consequences they become entirely misleading. Their value lies in their general verisimilitude; but when they are literally taken and pressed home, when they are consistently worked out, as if they were identical with the idea they are intended to convey, they hide, rather than manifest the truth. Now if, even at a later day, when the distinction of ideal and material has long been familiar, philosophers like Locke have been misled by some of the ordinary metaphors in which the idea of the relation of the mind to its object is conveyed (such as that involved in the word “impression”), and have thereby had their view of that relation distorted, how much more might we expect this to be the case in an earlier time, when men's thoughts were as yet chained to the outward and the sensible, and when they were under the necessity of representing in sensuous pictures everything which they sought to bring before their minds at all. The first stage of thought is inevitably a stage of ‘levelling down.’ For though men, as men, cannot avoid having in their thought a content which is not sensuous or material, that content must take the form of the consciousness into which it comes. They can and must think of what is not merely outward and physical; but they are obliged, in the first instance, to represent it as if it were outward and physical. They are like the members of a rude nation who have none of the precious metals to use for money, and who, if they chance to come into possession of a diamond, are obliged to represent its value in copper. The highest has to be expressed in terms of the lowest—the inward, the ideal, the spiritual, in terms of the outward, the sensuous, the material; and it is only by the slow amid persistent reaction of the meaning upon the expression, of the content against the form, that the former liberates itself from the latter.

This assertion may seem to contradict a very common view as to the earliest form of human thought. It has often been maintained that man at first is necessarily anthropomorphic in his conception of the world, i.e. that he represents all the objects around him as endowed with a nature like his own, and that it is only by the slow process of experience that he comes to recognise that there are many objects which are without life, more which are without sensation and appetite, and still more which are without reason and will. “Man gazes,” says Turgot, “upon the profound ocean of being, but what at first he discerns is not the bed hidden beneath its waters but only the reflexion of his own face.” He interprets the objects without, by what he feels and experiences within, and makes their motions and changes intelligible to himself by imputing to them the same kind of motives by which he knows that his own actions are determined.

Now there is an clement of truth in this view, but it is misleading, if taken literally. In a sense, it may be granted that primitive man, just because he does not distinguish the subject as such from the object, is disposed to transfer to the object feelings and desires like his own; but this confusion must not be taken to imply that he first looks into his own soul, and then interprets what is without on the analogy of what he has already found within. For it is rather the reverse that happens. Man, as I have already said, looks outward before he looks inward, and it may even be said that he can find within only what he has first discovered without. What is meant is only that, while man knows himself only as he knows objects, yet he knows objects only as he finds something of himself in them. For if self-knowledge comes to him only as he is reflected back upon himself from the world, yet knowledge of the world can never be other than the recognition in it of that which mirrors and reflects the self that knows it. In this sense, all our knowledge is anthropomorphic, even of that which is least like man. For, though nothing in the world reflects perfectly the spirit in man except his fellowman, all things reflect something that is in him, and they are intelligible only because they do so. On the other hand, we know ourselves only through this reflexion; we are conscious of ourselves only as the world comes to self-consciousness in us.

‘Nor doth the eye itself,

That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,

Not going from itself; but eve to eye opposed

Salutes each other with each other's form

For speculation turns not to itself,

Till it hath travelled and is mirrored there

Where it may see itself.’

All our consciousness of the world, in this higher sense, may be said to be anthropomorphic—the reflexion of ourselves from, or the discovery of ourselves in, the objects and beings around us—provided it be at the same time remembered that it is only in and through this reflexion that we come to a consciousness of what we ourselves are. But, in the earliest stage, the picture reflected back to man from the world is one which has no distinction or articulation in it. It is a picture in which all beings and things are, as it were, confused together; in which there is as yet no distinct division between things organic and things inorganic; or between the different stages of organic being, between life and sensation, or between sensation and consciousness. River and tree, animal and man, are not yet recognised as having any essential difference of nature. We may call this view, in a special sense, anthropomorphic, because it draws up everything to the level on which man seems to stand. But it would be quite as accurate to say that it draws man down to the level of the beings and even the things around him; for, on this stage, he has the same confused view of himself as of the objects around him. All things are gifted with a kind of life, but there is as yet no distinction of kinds; and even life itself is not clearly distinguished from motion.

The point of these observations may be realised more definitely, if we compare the savage animism—that is to say, the savage belief in spirits—with the developed mythology of Greece which really does attempt to anthropomorphise nature, or, in other words, to explain the world by drawing all its powers up to the level of humanity. The savage has no definite idea of the characteristic qualities of man which he could transfer to other things. But in the confusion of his consciousness, for which there is no clear idea of the distinction between intelligence and sense, or even between dead and living matter, it is natural enough that we find what is dead invested with the qualities of the living, and what is living with those of the dead. It is by thus thinking away the distinctions of later thought that we can come nearest to that which it is all but impossible for us fully to realise, viz., the first consciousness of man, as it is indicated in some of the phenomena of savage life, and of the infancy of the individual. What most perplexes us in attempting such realisation is just the undistinguishing character of that consciousness, and the facility with which it passes up and down what is to us the scala naturae, without any sense of the lines of division which separate one kind of being from another—lines which to us have come to be so deeply marked. The civilised observer of savages is continually baffled by the distinctness of his own categories of thought; because every idea which he finds them expressing, carries for him all sorts of consequences, and, in particular, all sorts of exclusions, of which they have never thought. And if he has any favourite theory of his own to maintain, he is sure to find some fact to support it amid the chaotic ὁμου̑ πάντα χρήματα of the savage mind. For the difficulty is just that we are disposed to stick to one conception at a time, and to work it out consistently, while to the savage all conceptions are, as it were, fluid, and pass into each other without warning. Take this description given by Waitz of the superstitions found among the negro races:—

“The negro carries animism, or the belief that there is soul in nature, to the utmost extreme. But as his understanding is too uncultivated to grasp or retain the conception of one universal animating principle, his imagination is carried by this idea into endless trivialties of superstition, suggested by the particular circumstances of his life. Thus a spirit may be conceived to dwell in any sensible object; and often, indeed, a great and powerful spirit is supposed to take up his habitation in an object which has otherwise no value or significance. The negro does not think of this spirit as unalterably bound up with the material thing in which it dwells, but only as having its usual or chief abode there. Not seldom he separates in his thought between the spirit and the sensible thing of which it has taken possession, sometimes even he opposes them to each other. Usually, however, he combines them as forming one whole, and this whole constitutes what Europeans call his “fetisch,” the object of his religious veneration.

“On this view, it is not difficult to see what is meant by the fetischism of the negroes. On the one hand, the fetisches are a kind of gods, though only inferior or half-gods; for they create nothing, but rather themselves are constantly in need of a material body. On the other hand, they are for the most part nothing better than the commonest sensible things, which, however, are believed to possess supernatural powers; they are supposed to be sacred to some higher being, to be his favourite abode, or in some way or other to be brought into a closer relation with him than is the case with other things. All these conceptions remain undistinguished from each other in the consciousness of the negro. The fetisch is the god himself and yet at the same time some object consecrated to hire or possessed by him (in both senses of the word), it may be a tree, au animal, a pot, an offering, a place of offering, an inspired priest or seer, a temple; it is at once thought of as the god himself, and as something upon which he has bestowed miraculous powers, a medicine, an amulet, a lucky or unlucky day, a prohibited food, or a poison used as an ordeal. The so-called ‘medicine’ of the natives of America, the Taou of the South Sea Islanders, are substantially identical in conception with the Mokisso of Congo and the Fetisch of the negro. In all these cases we find the same confusion of religious ideas, the same obscure transitions of thought by which all conceptions of the divine flow together into one. And the low stage of religious culture at which the negroes stand is shown far less by the fact that they pay veneration to particular sensible objects than by this inextricable mixture of different elements in their thoughts of deity.”1

This passage relates to the religious conceptions of a particular class of savages, but we may take it as an expression of the general point of view of the sensuous consciousness.2 It is, indeed, just what we might expect, if it be true that, in the first instance, man looks outward rather than inward, and, that in doing so, he makes no clear distinction between the different grades of being. For, as a necessary consequence of this, the form into which everything tends to be forced is that which is most external and materialistic. At this stage immediate sensuous realisation is necessary for everything that is to be regarded as real at all; and it is only because the boundaries of the natural world are yet supposed to be so elastic that room can be made in it for any reality which is not sensuous. No doubt, the reaction of the non-sensuous content against the form in which it has to be expressed is seen in the strange mingling of high and low, spiritual and material, which so much confuses and perplexes us in the uncivilised thought; but this reaction is as yet only sufficient to confuse the man's consciousness of the lower kind of reality, but not to separate the higher from it.

This, however, leads me to observe, that, as the savage is after all a rational being, it cannot but be that, in some form or other, the elements that belong to a rational consciousness should present themselves to him. Not only is it the case that the objects presented to him in the outward world are at different stages in the scale of being, and that therefore the experience of them is ever reacting against the levelling individualism of his first consciousness; but we have to remember that the savage always is more than he knows. As he is a rational being, his thought is ruled by categories on which he has never reflected, but which nevertheless express themselves in the very structure of his language. He could not know objects as in space and time, if he were himself merely an object in space and time. He could not go out of himself and rise to a point of view from which he regards himself as one individual existing along with other individuals as parts of the same world, unless there were present in his consciousness, as an element of its very constitution, the idea of an absolute unity which embraces all differences and grades of being. As we have already sufficiently shown, the division of the self from the not-self, and the unity that transcends that division, are involved in the simplest perceptive determination of objects; and all these elements must in some way be present to every conscious being, if not directly, yet in some influence which they exert on his consciousness,—either by transforming its objects or by introducing among them objects which otherwise would not exist for it at all. The confusion of the primitive consciousness, therefore, lies not merely in the fact that the grades of external being are imperfectly distinguished from each other, but in this:—that the inchoate consciousness of self and of God which goes with every consciousness of objects, tends to break down the limits of finite reality by the intrusion of a reality of a different order. Yet, on the other hand, this higher reality is forced by the necessity of the case to mask its true nature under a disguise which disfigures it.

This may become clearer if we look at it in a slightly different point of view. We have seen that the religious consciousness is posterior in genesis to the consciousness of objects and the consciousness of self, though it refers to a principle of unity which is presupposed in both. Further, we have seen that whenever the consciousness of self and of the object becomes fixed and definite, the consciousness of God rises in opposition to them, and, it might even be said, as their negation. This was the element of truth which we found in Mr. Spencer's view of religion. Religion was thus described as arising from a perception of the unreality of the finite, which itself implies or leads to a perception of the reality of the infinite. Discerning the transitoriness, the shifting and uncertainty, the imperfection and illusion, of the phenomenal world, such as it is to the eyes of sense and understanding, we are by that very consciousness carried beyond it to that which is eternal and absolutely real. Thus by a negative movement, we seem to rise from the finite to God, seeking in Him that which we at first sought in the world or in ourselves, but which we were able to find in neither. Now, though this view does in the main represent truly the logic of religion, it is a logic which cannot be distinctly discerned in the earliest forms of it. For it presupposes a more definite idea of the finite than we can find there. When the secular consciousness, the consciousness of the world as a connected system of objects going through definite and related changes, becomes clearly defined, the religions recoil from such a world of time and change must inevitably follow. But, in the first instance, there is no definite secular consciousness to rise above, and, therefore, no clear distinction of the religious consciousness from it. What we have at first is rather a confused consciousness of things, which we can neither call distinctly religious nor distinctly secular, still less a reconciliation of the two; for such a reconciliation presupposes that the secular or the religious have been first divided from and opposed to each other. The divine is not yet sought for in that which is higher than any or all objects, though manifested in them. Nevertheless, the trace of the opposition may be found in the fact that, while the idea of divinity, so far as it is yet attained, tends to attach itself to some finite object, it is at first connected rather with the objects which are farthest from man than with those that are nearest to him. It is rather a stone or a mountain, a plant or an animal, that is at first deified, than a man; though in the confused stage of thought which is characteristic of the savage, the limits of different existences are not preserved, and the wildest and most absurd metamorphoses are readily admitted. I shall not here, however, attempt to give any classification of savage beliefs or superstitions, or to exhibit the order in which they arise out of each other; for what I wish at present is only, in the first place, to throw some light upon the characteristic form which such primitive beliefs have taken as the deification of particular objects of sense; and, in the second place, to show how the inner movement of the religious consciousness must gradually alter and finally do away with that form or way of representing the divine.

If man is a ‘mean thing,’ unless he can ‘exalt himself above himself,’ still more truly we may say that he is a mean thing, if he cannot exalt himself above the finite objects he sees and handles. The development of man's higher life is dependent upon two things: in the first place, on the separation of the secular and the religious consciousness, and, in the second place, on their reunion. For it is only by that separation that either consciousness can take a definite form, and it is only by their reunion that the religious can be made the means of elevating the secular consciousness. But, for the savage, the divine takes and must take the form of finite objectivity, because that is the only form in which reality can as yet be presented to him; and the farther we go back in development, the less do we find the object or objects selected for worship distinguished in any way from other objects, or at least distinguished in any way that really lifts them above the rest. If the being or thing, to which mysterious reverence is paid, stands out in separation from other things and beings, it seems to be only as having a somewhat greater or at least less measurable power, but not as possessing any excellence which is essentially different in kind. It, or he, (for at this stage it is difficult to draw the line between the two pronouns) does not seem to be regarded as in any way nobler or purer than his worshippers, or as setting up any ideal for them to follow; but only as having somewhat more favour for them than for others. Hence the partial truth of Goethe's description of early religion as ‘fear without reverence.’ We must not, indeed, transfer the demands of a higher morality to those early times, and say that there was nothing for the savage to look up to in a god upon whom we necessarily look down. But even making all allowances, it is often difficult to detect, in the character of the deities worshipped by uncivilised peoples, the grounds for that element of reverence which must be present as a saving salt in any religion that binds men together. ‘If,’ we are disposed to say, ‘men bowed down to such monsters, it must have been merely from terror, and not because they found in them a higher self to aid them in their war against their own fears and passions. If they worshipped, it must have been to secure the god as an ally in averting danger and accomplishing their own wishes, and not because they wished to dedicate themselves to his service. It was a worship of slaves who sought to propitiate or flatter a being, for whom in himself they cared nothing, or whom they secretly hated; and not a surrender of will to a guardian and guide who set before them a higher end than their own caprice.’ And it might be added that a further evidence of the degraded character of such superstitious worships is to be found in the fact, that the abject terror of the savage easily changes into presumption; and the prayer and sacrifice, by which lie tries to enlist supernatural powers on his side, into the magic or witchcraft, by which he seeks to master or control them. The savage would, if he could, get the better of his god, and reduce him to the condition of the ‘gyns’ of the Arabian Nights, who are obliged to serve the possessor of some magic lamp or ring. Thus the god, at a turn of the hand, converts himself into a fetisch or a spirit subjected to a fetisch. For the essential point of what is called fetischism, if we use that name for any general phenomenon of religion, is just this, that the worshipper has no thought of really devoting himself to ends which are represented as belonging to his god, but desires only, by propitiation if propitiation is necessary, by magic if magic will avail—either, in other words, by begging and bribing or by fraud and force—to use the god for his own purposes. In this sense the spirit of fetischism is the dark shadow which accompanies religion in every stage, from the savage who makes presents to the medicine man of his tribe up to the Christian, who prays, not that God's will may be done but that God may be got to do his will.

Now, I shall not here inquire whether there is any religion, savage or civilised, in which this element is the whole, and in which, therefore, the god is merely an object of selfish fear or hope, and not identified with any cause or aim to which the individual is willing, or at least is called upon, to devote himself. But I maintain that, just so far as the god is conceived as a mere object among other objects, standing on the same level with them, and external both to them and to their worshippers, these are the only feelings which he can inspire. On the other hand, just so far as the divine object is raised above other objects, and conceived as the representative of some general social aim—as the permanent centre round which the life of the tribe or the family or the nation revolves—just so far will fear be changed into reverence and selfish hope into self-devotion. But if this change takes place, the object worshipped will ipso facto become idealised, i.e. it will be filled with a meaning which does not belong to it as a particular object: it will be lifted out of the rank of other finite existences, and will have a higher value attributed to it. Hence the form of it, as a particular object, will be partially set aside whenever it comes into collision with the function thus ascribed to it. In other words, the form of objectivity which is necessary to the religious consciousness in this stage of its development, will be constrained to carry a content, which properly could only be given to that which is above all finite objects. It will be treated as the embodiment of a universal principle. On the other hand, in so far as the form masters the content or limits it, the worship will necessarily degenerate into a degrading superstition which does not deserve the name of religion.

Now I wish, in the meantime, to postpone the consideration of the special nature of the objects worshipped, and to look merely at the general form of objectivity common to all such religions. To represent God as a mere object is, as we have seen, to express the divine in an inadequate form, in a form that, at least, cannot be made fully adequate to the idea; for the principle of unity in all objects and subjects cannot be properly represented as one object among others. But, at the same time, it is also true that in some sense the whole is involved in every part of the universe, and therefore any part of it may for a time be taken as a type of the whole. Hence in that early time when a universal principle cannot for itself be realised in thought—when nothing, indeed, can be brought within the reach of the mind, unless it be pictured as an external object—it is of the highest importance that the object selected, be it what it may, should be lifted above other objects, and freed from the limitations that belong to objectivity. When the spiritual cannot yet be separated from the natural, it is of the highest importance that the natural object which represents the spiritual should be, as it were, transfigured by the imagination, so that it may, so far as possible, symbolically take the place of the spiritual. For the first deliverance of man from the sensuous consciousness is necessarily the imaginative deliverance, by which the general form of that consciousness is not changed, but by which, nevertheless, it is made the vehicle of a meaning that does not properly belong to it.

Now this process of transfiguration of the sensuous consciousness and its objects, this struggle of the spiritual to express itself through the natural, begins with the dawn of religion; and it goes on continuously till it produces the highest poetic or imaginative representation of the divine, the highest representation of the divine which is possible in a merely sensuous or natural form. It then turns away from the naturalistic or objective form altogether; the attempt to represent the god as an external object is abandoned, and a subjective religion of thought takes its place. Thus the wine of spirit at first fills the bottles of sense and then destroys them: imagination first elevates the outward in order to make it a fit expression of the inward meaning, and then, as the meaning still grows, it casts away the outward altogether, and proclaims its inadequacy. It is this process which in rapid outline we have to analyse.

The savage consciousness, the consciousness of uncivilised man, is rarely poetical, though it cannot be said that it is prosaic. It is lawless and arbitrary without being free. When it gets beyond the coarsest sensuous realism, it wanders without a rein, distorting the simplest natural facts, confusing the shapes of all things, and satisfying itself with the crudest and most inconsistent hypotheses. Where there is no proper nature, there can be no proper supernatural; and the vague sense of something higher than himself, and higher than those nearest objects which alone he comprehends, may attach to anything and wander from it to anything else. Thus in the lowest stage of civilisation, it seems often to be a mere chance that directs the feeling of reverence to one thing rather than others, or brings one object rather than another into close connexion with the religious life of a tribe. Going a step higher, we find the beginnings of a poetic mythology connected with the selection and idealisation of special classes of objects. The universal does not yet separate itself as an object of thought from the particular, but objects are selected which have some special significance or suggestiveness; or, in other words, they are selected for their aesthetic qualities—like the spotless animals which were consecrated in Egypt. A farther step is indicated by the Sphynxes of Egypt, and the composite animals of Assyrian art, in which new combinations are invented to express the growing consciousness of a mystery which is not felt to be adequately symbolised by any natural shape or form. The savage stories, full of coarseness and childishness, which served in the infancy of man to express his first ideas as to the nature of things, and which show little more than that he had early become aware that there was an enigma in the world to be solved, are gradually softened and refined. Recent researches in mythology have led us to recognise the long struggle by which the poetic imagination gradually triumphed over this crude material. For they have shown that under the highest and most beautiful myths of India or Greece there are to be discovered traces of absurd and almost brutal legends, similar to those which are still found among the savage tribes of Africa or Polynesia. Such discoveries have been regarded as involving something that is degrading to religion and to human nature; but this is a one-sided view of them. They may destroy some idyllic pictures of the earliest state of man or of particular races. But they are anything but discouraging, when we consider the light which they throw on human progress, the evidence they give of the slow but irresistible effort, continued through generation after generation and century after century, whereby man triumphs over the animal within him, and makes it the servant of the spirit. They show, indeed, that the consciousness of a divine power is bound up with his very life, and that, even in his earliest and most childish stage, he is compelled to express it in some simple, and, we may admit, some coarsely sensuous way. Put they show farther that, this expression being reached, he does not long remain satisfied with it, but is continually reacting upon it, changing and remoulding it by new efforts of imagination and thought. Thus, in spite of many a failure and many a recoil, man is on the whole steadily advancing toward a fuller and clearer manifestation of the idea, by which he never ceases to be haunted. The lower and cruder we conceive man's first thoughts to have been, the coarser the earthen vessel into which he has at first to put the treasure of his spiritual life, the more powerful becomes the witness of his development to the might of the spiritual principle which urges him forward in his unhasting, unresting course. The worst that can be said of human nature we know already, apart altogether from the teaching of history; for we know that the raw materials out of which the web of our life is woven are the sensations and appetites of the animal. And we know that the struggle of the awaking spirit with those sensations and appetites is enough to explain any amount of confusion and sensual disturbance in the earliest stages of human existence. But the turbidity of the waters only proves that the angel has come down to trouble them, and the important thing is that when so disturbed they have a healing virtue. The significant facts in regard to human history is, not what manbegins with—for, as a developing being, he must begin with his lowest, the lowest that is possible to a spiritual being in its first immersion in sense—but what he ends with: how, by continual reaction on the product of his first endeavours to manifest and realise what is in him, he turns it into a more and more adequate expression, and so rises on stepping stones of his dead self to higher things. The religious consciousness finds at once the exhibition of its nature and the proof of its validity in the very history of its own transformations.

  • 1. Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, ii. 174.
  • 2. I do not, however, maintain that fetischism is the beginning of religion except in the very wide sense explained in this lecture.