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Lecture Fifth. Mr. Spencer's Dualistic View of the Consciousess of the Finite.

Summary of the Views of Prof. Max Müller and Mr. Spencer as to the Infinite — Mr. Spencer's View as to the Two Forms of our Consciousness of the Finite — That he makes Inner and Outer Experience the Sources of Two Opposite Philosophies — That they are really Two Factors in One Experience — That, though Opposed, they are necessarily Related — That to Separate them is to make these Both Meaningless — Consequences of this as regards their Relation to the Consciousness of the Infinite — Sense in which we ‘See All Things in God’ — Sense in which God is Unknowable.

IN the last lecture I endeavoured to throw some light on the idea of religion by considering two views of it which, though not far removed from each other, yet are in one aspect contrasted and opposed. The view of Professor Max Müller is that the infinite, which is the object of religion, is to be taken as primarily the negative of the finite, as a ‘Beyond’ to which we reach out from the firm ground of the finite, but which we cannot define in itself. To this conception a twofold objection has been taken. In the first place, if this definition be meant to express that which is common to all religions, it is obvious that, as Professor Max Müller allows, there are many religions which do not rise to the explicit consciousness of this idea of the infinite, and which he can bring under this idea only on the ground that the object worshipped is one which cannot be fully grasped and measured by the senses, an object, therefore, in which the idea of the infinite may be supposed to be implicitly present. In other words, he justifies the assertion that the idea of the infinite is essential to religion by attempting to show that it is latent in religion from the first, and that as religion develops, it necessarily becomes explicit. In the second place, the idea of the infinite as a ‘Beyond’ or negation of the finite is itself an imperfect idea, which does not explain itself, and which can be explained only as a step toward the evolution of a higher idea. But if in defining religion we are to speak of what is implicitly contained in religion, we must follow it to the highest form which alone reveals all that is so contained in it; for, as I showed in a former lecture, it is only the last stage in a development which clearly tells us all that was contained in the first. Now the consciousness of the infinite as a mere ‘Beyond’ would be impossible, if it were not based on a sleeper thought, the thought of the infinite as present to us with and in the finite. We could not be conscious of our own finitude, if we were altogether finite. We could not even strive after the infinite, if we did not, in some sense, take our stand upon it in determining our own limits.

Hence Mr. Spencer seems to present us with a more adequate view of the subject when he speaks of the infinite and unconditioned not as the negative of the finite but as the presupposition of our consciousness of the finite, the positive basis of our thought of it. As we know by distinguishing and relating, i.e. by a process which involves negation, so, he argues, we always go upon the assumption of a primary affirmation, an absolute reality of which all finite things must be conceived as parts or elements. And the one reason why our thought reaches beyond the finite is that the infinite is presupposed in it. From this point of view we might expect him to adopt an idea of God similar to that suggested in our second lecture, the idea of an infinite being who is the unity of all differences, and especially of the ultimate difference of subject and object. And, up to a certain point, he seems to be on the way to realise this expectation. For lie treats the infinite as that which is beyond all differences; and he brings this conception into special relation with the difference of matter and mind, which he regards as including under it all other differences But when we ask how he conceives this infinite, we find that, though he declares it to be the presupposition of all our knowledge, he does not conceive it as the unity which is the source and limit of all difference, but only, so to speak, as the empty continuity of a background, on which we draw lines of division. Accepting the principle of Spinoza—that all our determination of things involves the introduction of an element of negation into the pure affirmative being of the infinite—he finds absolute reality only in the indeterminate, in the ἄπϵιρον of Greek philosophy, which neither determines itself, nor is affected by any determination it receives from our intelligence. Hence the idea of the infinite is said to be a “consciousness” which is not knowledge, a consciousness which, though it is the prius of everything, explains nothing. Thus, although the infinite is the presupposition of all our thought, it is not a principle by which we can explain any of the differences that come into our consciousness, even the primary difference of subject and object, or of inner and outer experience. It cannot throw any light upon the relation of the mind to its object. It cannot tell us why we distinguish the one from the other or oppose the one to the other; nor can it help us to reconcile their division or bring them into harmony with each other. The consequence is that the object and the self fall apart from each other in a disunion which admits of no reconciliation. Mr. Spencer's theory thus combines the difficulties of Pantheism and Dualism. It is a Dualism, because it asserts that there is an absolute breach between the two modes of the infinite, which it leaves without any possibility of mediation. And it is an abstract Pantheism, because it conceives the infinite, to which it ultimately refers everything, not as a principle which explains or reconciles the differences of these modes, but simply as a gulf in which they are all finally submerged and lost. When we take matter and mind in themselves, they are absolutely divided; when we bring them in relation to the infinite which is their presupposition, they both alike disappear and dissolve themselves into it.

Now this way of thinking is not peculiar to Mr. Herbert Spencer. On the contrary, it is a way of thinking which has prevailed, in a form more or less akin to that in which it appears in him, ever since the dawn of modern philosophy. We find it already suggested by Descartes, and worked out to its logical result by Spinoza, who held that thought and extension— as we might put it, mind and matter—are two parallel but unrelated attributes under which the infinite substance manifests itself. And it has been accepted from Mr. Spencer by Professor Huxley and Dr. Tyndall. It may thus be regarded as the accepted creed of modern Agnosticism; and it is therefore needful to subject it to a careful examination.

Now we have already discussed Mr. Spencer's statements as to the unknowableness of the infinite in itself; and it remains for us to consider what he says of the two opposite phenomenal modes in which it expresses itself. When we go beyond the infinite, which is the presupposition of all consciousness, there are, he declares, two different ways of looking at the world, each complete in itself. We may regard it either as a material or as an ideal process, either as a series of causally linked states of natter or as a series of causally linked states of mind, according as we consider the objects of our consciousness as external objects, or the ideas through which such objects are presented to us. And each of these ways of representing the world-process would naturally lead, if it were taken by itself, to a special philosophical theory—the former to a materialistic, and the latter to an idealistic theory of the world. “Follow the teaching of the one,” says Mr. Spencer, “and you are forced to admit that matter is a mode of mind; accept the results of the other, and you cannot deny the inference that mind is a mode of matter.” When we look outwards, we become for the nonce Materialists: for all that is outwardly presented to us is matter and motion; and, if we follow up this mode of consciousness, we ultimately reduce the world to the continuous product of the action and reaction of moving atoms or molecules, which variously attract or repel each other. On the other hand, if we change our point of view and look inwards, we become for the nonce Idealists, and regard the external world and all that is in it as consisting in feelings and their complex relations; for it is through these alone that the external world is presented to us. These alone are the immediate objects of consciousness, and it is their association, according to certain general laws, that gives rise to all the knowledge that we possess. Explanation under this mode of consciousness only consists in showing how primitive shocks of feeling may become associated together so as to give rise to a coherent consciousness of things. Each of these forms of consciousness has thus a primitive element to which we may reduce everything, but these primitive elements have no assignable relation to each other. We cannot pass over the gulf between them, or translate the language of the one mode into that of the other. “When the two modes of being which we distinguish as subjective and objective have been severally reduced to the lowest terms, any further comprehension must be an assimilation of these lowest terms to one another; and, as we have already seen, this assimilation is negated by the very distinction of subject anal object, which is itself the consciousness of a difference transcending all other differences. So far from helping us to think of them as of one kind, analysis only serves to render more manifest the impossibility of finding for them a common concept, a thought under which they can be united”…for “that a unit of feeling has nothing in common with a unit of motion becomes more than ever manifest when we bring the two into juxtaposition.”1 Hence we have two principles of explanation, to either of which we can reduce the whole of things. We can take for granted mind, or rather feelings as the ultimate units of which mind is made up, and on this basis we can work out a complete idealistic system, explaining matter simply as objectified feelings; or we can take for granted matter or its atomic constituents, and on this basis we can work out a complete materialistic system, explaining life and mind as modes of motion. But finally we find ourselves balanced between these two opposite principles and systems, without hope of finding our way from the one to the other. The unity is found only in that unknowable of which, though we cannot know it, we still are conscious, as the absolute reality of which both subject and object may be regarded as modes. In other words, we are suspended between two finite forms of thought, and can regard the infinite only as the absolute reality which is determined and limited in both, but of which in itself we can say nothing except that it is. “See then our predicament,” says Mr. Spencer, “we can explain matter only in terms of mind; we can think of mind only in terms of matter. When we have pushed our explanation of the first to the furthest limit, we are referred to the second for a final answer; and, when we have got the final answer to the second, we are referred back to the first.”2

We may then sum up the whole matter thus. According to Mr. Spencer, we have and can have no knowledge of the ultimate unity beyond all difference except as ‘Being’ in the abstract, infinite Being, or, what is the same thing for Mr. Spencer, Being without any determination. We cannot grasp it as a productive principle which explains difference and at the same time overcomes it. It is the dark in which all colours become grey. When we reach this unity, it only remains for us to lose ourselves in it; for the ascent to it is by the way of pure abstraction, and pure abstraction as it ascends draws the ladder after it. When we proceed merely by omitting elements, what is left does not afford any clue to what is omitted. So conceived, the idea of the infinite has no dialectic in it to bring us back to the finite; in other words, it has nothing in it which could be supposed to give origin to the finite or which could be used to explain it. If, therefore, we return to the finite at all, it must be by a leap from unity to difference, by an arbitrary restoration of the forms of the finite which we had rejected in our upward path. And these forms will remain for us just the same as if we had never gone beyond them at all. We have thus risen for a moment above our ordinary consciousness of the finite world and our finite selves, but we have brought back no light which can make that consciousness more intelligible. We have, as it were, ascended into heaven, but have stolen from it no Promethean spark to kindle a fire upon earth. For the only result is to leave our “two consciousnesses,” to use the strange expression of Mr. Spencer, in such complete discord with each other that they become the parents of two rival philosophies; and these two philosophies must continue their internecine war without end so long as human life lasts, or till its antinomies and inconsistencies are lost in the unknowable infinite from which for a season they have emerged.

Now I wish again, before criticising this view, to call attention to the elements of truth in it. In the first place, Mr. Spencer seems to me to be right in regarding the idea of God or of the infinite as the primary presupposition of all our knowledge. I agree with him also in thinking that the idea of the infinite is the source out of which all religion springs, and that the clear consciousness of it is the last result of the development of religion. For the highest religion must be that in which the principle of all religion comes to self-consciousness. Further, I accept Mr. Spencer's view, in so far as he regards the final difference of the finite, beyond which lies only the infinite, as being the difference of subject and object, of inner and outer experience. These are, as it were, the pillars of Hercules, between which the current of our life flows, and beyond them lies only the ocean. Nay, I am ready to admit that, if we can find no connexion between these two factors, no unity that transcends the division between the consciousness of self and that of the not-self, then our intelligence must be fundamentally incoherent, and unable to answer the questions which it itself suggests. Thus knowledge will be for ever vexed with an opposition which cannot be overcome, because it is an opposition between two first principles, each of which, from its own point of view, dominates the whole world. For, though there is a principle which is above both, it cannot, if this be the true conception of it, be used to bridge over the gulf, but only makes us conscious of its depth and darkness.

To this view, however, there is, at the outset, an obvious empirical objection. If it were true, consciousness would always need to alternate between its two modes, between inner and outer experience, and it could never bring them together, except in an idea of the infinite which leaves out all that distinguishes either mode. Mr. Spencer forgets that this impossible feat of combining the consciousness of the self with that of the not-self, is performed by us every day and in almost every act of thought; for we are constantly putting our inner experience in relation to outer experience, and our outer experience in relation to inner experience. The consciousness of our own feelings or ideas and the consciousness of objects are not “two consciousnesses,” but rather they are two elements of one consciousness, which are always present together. Our whole intellectual life is a continual return upon ourselves from the outward world; our whole practical life is a continual effort after the realisation of ourselves in the outward world. A theory that divorces these two elements from each other, and maintains that there is nothing to unite them but the abstraction of Being, is at variance with obvious facts of experience; for experience teaches us that the inner and outer life are two things which are never found separated, two things which we may distinguish, but which are never actually disjoined from each other. Hence it is absurd to say that it is impossible to unite or to relate, what we are always uniting and relating; or to speak of two separate ‘consciousnesses,’ when what we have is only one consciousness, though with more than one element included in it. Those who talk of an impassable gulf between the inner and the outer world may fairly be asked to produce one of them without the other. And if any theory makes it necessary to separate them, we shall surely say, ‘so much the worse for the theory,’ and not ‘so much the worse for the facts.’

But, further, not only may we thus meet Mr. Spencer by an appeal to the facts, but also we call see quite clearly the reason why the facts are so. We can see, in other words, not merely that the inner and the outer world are not disjoined in experience, but we can see that it is impossible in the nature of things that they should be so disjoined, and even that there is a contradiction in the very idea of their separation. In fact, if we try in thought to carry out a thoroughgoing separation of the inner and the outer world, we empty them both of all their contents, these contents lying just in their relations. When Mr. Spencer speaks of two independent ‘consciousnesses,’ one of which gives rise to a consistent materialism and the other to a consistent idealism, it may fairly be answered that both of these theories—as Mr. Spencer states them—are the results of a false abstraction, by which elements of consciousness, only to be known in their correlation, are torn asunder, and set up as independent realities, each complete in itself without the other. Let me show this by considering very shortly what is the general meaning and purport of each of these supposed rival philosophies.

In the first place, what is Materialism, as Mr. Spencer understands it? It is a theory, we must answer, which takes the world purely as an external world wherein everything is explained by matter and motion. It is a theory which looks upon the objects of the external world—which we know only through perception and thought and in relation to the subject within us—as if they existed in themselves altogether apart from relation not merely to us but to any such subject. Now it would take us too far to enter into the complete proof that such a view is baseless and inconsistent with itself. But it is scarcely necessary to call up the ghost of Kant, or even of Berkeley, to show that the idea of an intelligible world without any relation to an intelligence, leads, if it is carried out to its logical results, to absurdity and self-contradiction. It must, of course, be admitted that in our ordinary consciousness of the world, we do not take note of the fact that an object implies a subject. Indeed, it requires a distinct effort of reflexion to realise that it does; for, at first, we are so much occupied with the object we are contemplating that we do not turn our attention to the self for which it is. But our forgetfulness or want of reflexion cannot alter the fact—that knower and known are essentially correlative, and that neither of them can be conceived to exist without the other. Divest the world of all its relations to a subject, and it sinks into a “thing in itself,” a caput mortuum of abstraction, of which nothing can be said. It ceases to have either primary or secondary qualities, to be coloured or extended or solid, or to have any one of the characteristics by which we determine it as material: for all these imply relations to a percipient or thinking subject. Even the assertion that it exists has no right to be called Materialism any more than Idealism. For thus viewed apart from all its relations to the subject, it is nothing but the same indetermined being which Mr. Spencer calls the Absolute. Thus Materialism, like every partial truth when treated as the whole truth, commits suicide. The object setting up for itself apart from the subject, ceases to be even an object.

Nor is it otherwise with what Mr. Spencer calls Idealism, the doctrine that all objects are reducible to feelings or ideas, states or data of a subjective consciousness. Our inner life is nothing but our return upon ourselves from the outer life, and the consequent reaction of the self within upon the world without. I admit, of course, that when we do thus return upon ourselves, or direct our thought to the subject that thinks, we are apt to oppose ourselves, our own feelings and ideas, to the objects and facts that excite them. At such times we are intensely conscious of the self as distinct from the objective world, and not seldom we exaggerate this distinction into a contradiction. The loneliness and isolation from which the individual spirit cannot escape—the ring, as it were, of adamant that is about each one of us, preventing us from coming into union with any even the nearest brother soul—is a frequent theme of poets and moralists. In each individual there is a special stream of tendency, a particularity of interest, which he cannot entirely communicate to any one else. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with its joy.” This sense of isolation is often vividly expressed by Matthew Arnold, and may be said to be one of the main themes of his poetry:—

“Yes, in the sea of life inisled

With echoing straits between us thrown,

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

We mortal millions live alone.

Around us spreads the watery plain,

Oh, might our margins meet again!

“Who ordered that this longing's fire

Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?

Who renders vain this deep desire?

A God, a God their severance ruled,

And bade between their shores to be

The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.”

Even in regard to the realm of thought and knowledge many writers are fond of dwelling upon the idea that each of us lives in a little world of his own, in which things are arranged in a way not quite identical with the mental cosmos of any other individual. And one of the two great individualistic schools of morals—that to which the Stoics belong—is constantly insisting on the lesson that the isolated self-determination of the individual is that in which alone he shows his character as a moral being; while the opposite school holds that his only possible aim is to seek his own pleasure and avoid his own pain. Such exaggerations of the subjective aspect of our consciousness have their value, and even their necessity, at particular stages in the life of the individual or the race. But they contain only one side of the truth, and if they tempt us to obliterate the other side, and to entrench ourselves in a theory of subjective idealism (such as is commonly attributed to Berkeley), they become self-contradictory and contain their own refutation. The consciousness of self, it must be again pointed out, is always primarily and immediately a return upon self from objects; and though this return involves a kind of opposition between the self and that from which the return is made upon it, yet it should be remembered that a negative relation is still a relation, and, in this case at least, a necessary relation. If there is no consciousness of the object except in relation to the subject, as little is there a consciousness of the subject which is not mediated by a consciousness of the object.

And if it be said that, in the practical life, self-consciousness goes beyond the objective consciousness and reacts upon it, yet this does not permit us to treat the inner life in this sphere as forming a whole in itself, extraneous to and independent of the outer life. For if, in action, we go beyond what is already contained in our consciousness of the objective world, yet, in the first place, we could not have gone beyond it except by means of it; and, in the second place, we go beyond it only as we set up for ourselves a new end to be realised in it. It is thus the presupposition from which we start, and it determines the form of every end which we can seek to realise. Hence the idea of a pure consciousness of self, shut up in itself without any knowledge of objects, is the abstraction of one element in our life, which, in losing all relation to the other elements, loses all its own meaning. And the same is true of a pure self-determination such as some moralists have imagined, i.e. a determination of the self without any relation to objects, or which is not at the same time the determination of something other than the self. The moral law has no meaning, it is absolutely emptied of all its contents, if we take out of it all relations to the world and especially to the social environment in which the individual stands. The conception of the individual subject as at any time alone with himself, conscious of nothing but his own states, and seeking nothing but his own pleasures—or, at best, seeking only the realisation of a purely subjective law—is a fiction which, logically, is as fatal to self-consciousness as it is to the consciousness of the objective world. The Berkeleian Idealism—if this view of the pure subjectivity of consciousness is to be attributed to Berkeley—rests on a confusion between the truth, that all objects are objects for a subject, and the error that the only possible objects, or at least direct objects, for such a subject are its own states. The truth is that we are conscious of our own states as such only in distinction from, and in relation to, the objects to which we refer them; but neither these states nor anything else can be known except in relation to a subject. And the same is true on the practical side. We cannot find ends for our action in our own feelings apart from objects; nor can we determine ourselves with a view to our own pleasure without reference to any objective end in which pleasure is found. We must seek our pleasure in something, and joy or sorrow can come to us only through the attainment or the failure of ends, which are other than the joy or sorrow itself. For good or ill we are bound to the universe, so that we can neither know our own nature, nor seek our own good, apart from it. And a theory which speaks of inner experience as one thing and outer experience as another and totally different thing, might as well, to employ a homely illustration which Professor Ferrier was fond of using, speak of a stick with one end only. It is as absurd in the realm of spirit as in the realm of matter to suppose that we can have an inside without an outside, or an outside without an inside.

But if this be true, it leads us directly to the refutation of another part of the theory of Mr. Spencer. If the consciousness of the self is essentially related to the consciousness of the not-self, and cannot by any possibility be disjoined from it, it follows that the consciousness of the unity, which is beyond the opposition of self and not-self, need not remain an empty and otiose abstraction, to which no further determination can be given than that it is. It would be truer to say that our consciousness of objects and our consciousness of the self, when we take them in their isolation from the unity, involve such an abstraction; and that, therefore, we cannot see either in its truth, until we see them both as embraced in or derived from it. Mr. Spencer tells us that, when we lift our thoughts to the infinite, we leave behind us all that characterises either the subject or the object, so that nothing remains but the vague thought of indeterminate being, which may be said to include everything, only because it excludes nothing. In like manner Spinoza speaks of those who forget the finite whenever they turn their minds to God, and again forget God whenever they turn their minds to the finite world.3 But, on the principles of Mr. Spencer, such forgetfulness is absolutely necessary; for, on these principles, it is impossible to think of the infinite except by abstracting from all that determines the finite as such, and especially from the two imperfect modes in which the finite is given to us. On the other hand, if these two modes of the infinite be in vital relation to each other—if there be no element in self-consciousness which does not involve a relation to objects, and no element in the consciousness of objects which does not involve a relation to the self—it becomes absurd to suppose that, in rising to that principle of unity which is presupposed in both, we need to turn our back upon either. Rather, we must say that, in rising to that unity, our intelligence is, for the first time, taking up the point of view from which they can be seen as they truly are. It is our divided consciousness, in which we take finite things as if they could be understood in their isolation, in which we rend the self from the world and both from God—it is this consciousness that misleads us. Nor can we see anything in its true meaning and import, till, in a sense, we “see all things in God,” i.e. till we see them from the point of view of their unity as parts of one organic whole, as the manifestations of one principle. The ultimate unity, which, as Mr. Spencer rightly maintains, is presupposed in all our knowledge of objects and of ourselves, is the end as well as the beginning of that knowledge. And, when we carry our life back to it, we do not submerge all our knowing and being in a gulf of nescience, but only bring it into relation with the principle by which it must ultimately be explained. On the other hand, Mr. Spencer's view involves that, after all the other questions which we can answer, we come upon a question which we can never answer, and in the attempt to answer which all our previous results give us no help. If that were the case, we must undoubtedly agree with him in regarding the whole movement of religious life as an effort to determine the indeterminable, to give imaginative form or logical definition to that which by its very nature can neither be perceived nor conceived. And the natural end of the process would simply be the discovery of this incapacity, and the resolve to ‘cultivate our gardens,’ and worship nothing at all. On this view the whole religious history of man would be the process whereby he learns to dispense with a religion: it would be of none but a negative use; for all that it could teach us would be to recognise the nature of the illusion, which thus at once tempts and baffles us, and to understand why it must do both. It would teach us, in short, that, in the first instance, we inevitably seek to define the Infinite, because the consciousness of it is ever with us, while we as inevitably fail to define it, because it is the infinite, and therefore the negation of all definition. We should thus at last discover the nature of the adamantine wall which hems us in, and we should cease to waste ourselves in vain efforts to break through it.

Now, from what has already been said, it appears that this is just the reverse of the truth. For, if the self and the object are so essentially related as we have maintained they are, then all our progress in knowledge of objects must deepen and widen our consciousness of the self; and all our knowledge of ourselves, won by the whole effort of our theoretical and practical lives, must, in its turn, be an increase in our knowledge of the objective world. Further, it is obvious that when we thus break down the supposed wall of division between the consciousness of self and that of the not-self, we must also break down the wall of division between both and the consciousness of God. And, instead of thinking of ourselves as confined to the finite to the exclusion of the infinite, we must rather recognise that everything we can learn of the former is also a step in the knowledge of the latter. The consciousness of the finite is based on the idea of the infinite as its first presupposition; nor can it become knowledge in the highest sense till it understands this presupposition; till, in other words, it recognises the consciousness of the finite subject and the consciousness of the finite object as elements in the consciousness of God. Recognised or not, they are such elements; and the growth of man's religious consciousness is therefore related, not accidentally or externally, but essentially and necessarily, to his growing knowledge of the world and of himself. The same development of thought which shows itself in the advance of modern upon ancient ideas of nature and of man, brings with it that deepening and widening of the idea of God which may be traced in Christianity, as compared with Greek Polytheism and Jewish Monotheism: a deepening and widening which is perceptible even in the works of those who deny the very existence of God, and is sometimes the cause of that denial. For a higher idea necessarily brings with it greater difficulties, and its rise is apt to produce scepticism, till those difficulties are solved. We may doubt God's existence, just because the idea of Him has gained so great fulness for us, that we cannot easily satisfy ourselves with imperfect representations of Him. If, on the other hand, there appears at any time to be an advance in man's knowledge of the finite world without a corresponding advance in the religious consciousness, we may explain it by the alternating way in which the process of development necessarily goes on. In the slow secular progress of man's spiritual history, one element may often seem to gain a temporary prominence at the expense of another. The interest of the outward life may for a time throw that of the inward life into the shade; or, on the other hand, an intense self-consciousness may for a time cause the individual to withdraw into himself from his natural and social environment. And, in like manner, the finite interests of man's earthly existence may for a time seem to leave no room for the development of the religious consciousness. But if, according to the German proverb, it is provided that the trees shall not grow into the sky, it is equally provided that they shall always grow towards it; and the sinking of the roots deeper into the soil is inevitably accompanied or followed by a farther expansion of the branches. Human development will belie all its past history, if the new light upon man's relations to the world and to his fellowmen, which science is every day bringing to us, does not give occasion to a new evolution or interpretation of the idea of God.4

To overcome an error, we must discern its partial truth. In one way Mr. Spencer's view meets and satisfies the religious consciousness. It was not in an irreligious spirit that the friend of Job asked the question, “Canst thou by searching find out God, canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?” “Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour,” said the prophet Isaiah. “Of Thee,” said Hooker, “our fittest eloquence is silence, while we confess without confessing that Thy glory is unsearchable and beyond our reach.” Such utterances of the religious consciousness have sometimes been used to confirm the idea that God is, in the proper sense, unknowable. And Mansel, with a strange unconsciousness of the meaning of his own logic, tried to show that all revealed religion is founded upon that doctrine. But to say that we cannot know God to perfection, is only to say that we cannot know everything; while to say that we cannot know Him at all is to say that we can know nothing. We cannot know God to perfection, because we cannot know the world or ourselves to perfection; but all our knowledge is based on the presence of these three inseparable elements of consciousness within us, and all our knowledge is therefore a part of the knowledge of God. It is true that, just because He is the light of all our seeing, He can never be completely seen; for the return we make on the ultimate presupposition of our being can never be a final return. It is true that “the margin” of knowledge “fades for ever and for ever as we move”; but, if we might correct the metaphor, it fades not before us merely, but also into us. We are not condemned to chase a phantom which continually flies before us, so that we are as near it at first as at last. Rather, we are pursuing a course of self-development in which we are continually realising more deeply and fully what the world, the object of all our thought and action, is, and what we are, who think and act upon it; and in which, by necessary consequence, we are continually learning more of God, who is the ultimate unity of our own life and of the life of the world. Our growing knowledge amid seeming ignorance may perhaps be illustrated by an imperfect analogy. It is sometimes said that we cannot know the mind of Shakspeare, because we cannot gather to a focus in one inclusive conception all the wealth of thought and feeling which presents itself, when we try to form an estimate of such a many-sided genius. In reality, we know more of the mind of Shakspeare than we know of that of many of our nearest friends; for the good reason that there is a great deal more to know. In like manner, a deep sense of the impossibility of measuring the object which goes along with the idea of God—the feeling that prompts St. Paul, after saying that “we know God,” to correct himself and add: “or rather are known of God”—must always be an element in our consciousness of the divine principle of unity from which all our rational life proceeds and to which it tends, and to the growing apprehension of which all knowledge is to be regarded as a contribution. For all our difficulties of thought and action must inevitably gather to a climax in our religion, just because our religious view of things, if it be real and sincere, is the final summing up—the concentrated result—of all our thought and activity.

A farther reason, why we are specially conscious of ignorance in this sphere, may, as I have already suggested, be derived from the fact that human life is a process of development, and that in the order of development the secular consciousness, the consciousness of the finite world and of the concerns of our finite life in it, anticipates or is prior to the religious consciousness. Hence the latter passes into a new phase only in order to correspond with the advance and meet the difficulties of the former. Thus in the secular consciousness there are continually arising new questions and wants, new divisions of the elements of our existence against each other, new conflicts of thought and will, which are imperfectly met in any solution or reconciliation given as yet by religion, and which, therefore, may be said to anticipate a new development of the religious idea. Religion is thus constantly struggling with a growing problem to which no solution is final. In this sense, therefore, it is possible even for the religious man to say that he does not know God, without knowledge of whom, nevertheless, all his religion would be baseless. And we can understand that in the violent antithesis of his rhetoric, St. Augustine is uttering a truth when he says that the divine Being sciendo ignoratur et nesciendo cognoscitur. “When we would say we know Him, He is hid from us: when we declare that we know Him not, He is revealed to us.” Such verbal contradiction is only a more emphatic way of expressing the fact that in the religious consciousness all our knowledge and all our sense of its defects are concentrated in one—concentrated, just because it is in this sphere that we cease for a moment to be the victims of abstraction, or to satisfy ourselves with the imperfect and hypothetical modes of thought which are sufficient for ordinary purposes; just because we are here in direct contact with the absolute reality, which is the beginning and the end of all our rational life. For where we rise most above our finitude, there of necessity we are most distinctly conscious of it. But this is something very different from the consciousness of an iron wall of limitation, fixed by our finite nature, behind which the infinite is for ever hid from us. On the contrary, it is the consciousness of a Presence within and without us, which, if it makes “our mortal nature tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” is yet “the master-light of all our seeing,” and is continually lifting us above the weakness of which it makes us aware. Our ignorance of God is thus, in one aspect of it, the effect of too much knowledge. For it is simply the incapacity of rising to the idea of a unity, which yet is implied in all our knowledge, or it is the incapacity which necessarily besets every growing intelligence, of fully realising that unity amid the many conflicting interests of our theoretical and practical life. In either case it is consistent with a conviction that man's finite existence is positively, and not merely negatively, related to the infinite: it is consistent with the idea that the divine is “not far from any one of us,” and that, indeed, we can know nothing, not even ourselves, except in the light of it.

While those pages are passing through the press, my attention has been directed (by Professor Paulsen's Einleitung in die Philosophie, p. 319) to certain passages in the concluding sections of Mr. Spencer's Ecclesiastical Institutions which, though capable of being interpreted in conformity with the view of religion given in the First Principles, yet suggest a more positive idea of it. Thus in §§ 659-660, Mr. Spencer argues that though “the very notions, origin, cause, and purpose, are relative notions belonging to human thought, which are probably irrelevant to the Ultimate Reality,” yet, “amid the mysteries which become the more mysterious, the more they are thought about, there will remain one absolute certainty, that he is ever ill the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.” This energy Mr. Spencer farther characterises thus: “The last stage reached,” in the development of religion, “is recognition of the truth that force as it exists beyond consciousness, cannot be like what we know as force within consciousness; and that yet, as either is capable of generating the other, they must be different modes of the same. Consequently, the final outcome of that speculation commenced by the primitive man, is that the Power manifested throughout the world distinguished as material, is the same Power which in ourselves wells up under the form of consciousness.” In the next section, Mr. Spencer goes on to say that “those who think that science is dissipating religious beliefs and sentiments, seem unaware that whatever of mystery is taken from the old interpretation, is added to the new.” Farther on in the same section he takes occasion to remark that “the necessity we are under to think of the external energy in terms of the internal energy, gives rather a spiritualistic than a materialistic interpretation to the Universe”; though further thought obliges us “to recognise the truth that a conception given in phenomenal manifestations of this ultimate energy can in no wise show us what it is.” Towards the end of the section, Mr. Spencer compares our present knowledge of things to “an undeveloped musical faculty which is able only to appreciate a single melody, but cannot grasp the variously entangled passages of as symphony.” “So, by future more evolved intelligences, the course of things now apprehensible only in parts may be apprehensible all together, with an accompanying feeling as much beyond that of the present cultured man, as his feeling is beyond that of the savage. And this feeling is not likely to be decreased but rather to be increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to Agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows cannot be solved.” In this passage, Mr. Spencer seems for a moment to hesitate between the idea of the absolute unknowableness of God, and the idea of an imperfection of knowledge due to the conditions of an intelligence which is in course of development. These statements are all so guarded that they are capable of being reduced to the Dualistic and Agnostic theory of the First Principles, but I think they would lose a great part of their meaning if this reduction were strictly carried out. At least, they show that, if Mr. Spencer still adheres to the doctrine that religion is based on a consciousness of the Unknowable, yet he is anxious to claims for it some of those feelings of reverential awe, which are possible only towards that which we partly know and, therefore, see to be worthy of our reverence.

  • 1. Principles of Psychology, I. 158, § 61.
  • 2. Principles of Psychology, I. 627, § 272.
  • 3. Eth. II. 10, Schol. 2.
  • 4. In what has been as yet said, it will be observed that we have to do only with the abstract idea of God as a principle of unity in all our consciousness, not with any further conception of Him such as we may afterwards meet with in special religions.