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Lecture Fourth. The Idea of the Infinite as Defined by Professor Max Müller and Mr. Herbert Spencer.

Essential Unity of the Religious Idea in different Stages of its Development — Statement of the views of Professor Max Müller and Mr. Herbert Spencer — Three Possible Conceptions of the Infinite — Criticism of the Conception of the Infinite as a ‘Beyond,’ or Negative of the Finite — Criticism of the Conception of the Infinite as the Positive Basis and Presupposition of the Finite — Relation of Mr. Spencer's view to that of Spinoza — That the Infinite, as Presupposition and Principle of the Finite, cannot be unknowable.

IN the last lecture I attempted to give a general idea of religion, and at the same time to meet one or two obvious objections which naturally present themselves, when we attempt to verify such an idea by the actual history of religion. I maintained that the consciousness of God, or at least the principle out of which the consciousness of God arises, is as truly one of the primary elements of our intelligence as the consciousness of the object or the consciousness of the self. Thus all our knowledge of the objective world and all our knowledge of ourselves, presupposes the idea of God; though it is equally true that, just because it is the presupposition of all other knowledge, it is the last thing on which we reflect, or which we try to explain to ourselves. This becomes manifest if we consider that our whole life, theoretical and practical, turns on the opposition and relation between objects without and the self within us. To reproduce in our minds the order and system of the objective world, and to realise in the objective world the ends determined for us by our nature as self-conscious beings, is the sum and substance of our earthly existence. But both these movements presuppose an ultimate unity, which reveals itself both in the self and the not-self, and in all the intercourse that goes on between them. Thus, beneath and beyond what we may call our secular consciousness in all its forms, beneath and beyond all our consciousness of finite objects and of the subjective interests and desires that bind us to them, there is always a religious consciousness, the consciousness of an infinite or Divine Being who is the source of all existence and of all knowledge, and in whom we and all things “live and move and have our being.”

Religion, on this view of it, arises in man because his consciousness of himself in distinction from, and relation to the world without him always implies that he transcends both and that he looks down upon both—upon himself as well as upon that which is not himself—from the point of view of an all embracing unity. Thus we are not confined to any object of perception that is before us, but are able to raise our thoughts above it, and to put it in its proper relation to other objects that are not immediately present to us. Nay, to a certain extent we are obliged, as rational beings, to do this. We cannot gaze like a dumb animal at the object of sense, as if there were nothing in the world beyond it. Inevitably, in a moment, our imagination or our reason carries us beyond it, and almost without our being aware of any movement of our thought, we have formed some conception of it, which binds it to other things and makes it a link in the general connexion of experience. And it is the same with our own inner life. The feeling of the moment can be nothing to us apart from its relation to the past and the future: we cannot be conscious of it without being carried beyond it, and regarding it as a stage in a continuous life. Nay, we are obliged to view our own lives as parts of a wider and more comprehensive life. We cannot fix our minds upon ourselves as individuals without regarding ourselves as constituents of a greater whole—as members in a society and parts of the system of the world. In apprehending ourselves, we can, nay, to a certain extent we must, rise above ourselves, and treat our own individual existence as if it were no more to us than that of any other being to whom we are brought into relation. To do this thoroughly and systematically, indeed,—in knowledge to get rid of subjective views and to look at all particular objects from the point of view of the whole, and in practice, to devote ourselves to the good of that whole, to make ourselves the instruments of the great organism of which we are members—would be to attain the highest intellectual and moral ideal we can conceive. But the capacity for such universal life is the birth-right of every rational being; and every one who has shown himself a rational being has begun to realise it. It is the strange paradox of the spiritual life, that to be a self is at once to be one finite individual among other finite individuals and things, and to reach beyond the individuality not only of all other things and beings but even of ourselves; for we can neither know nor act without thus transcending ourselves. But thus to go beyond our own individuality and all mere individuality is already to apprehend in some way that which is universal and divine. Hence, in all his secular consciousness of other objects and of himself, man is necessarily haunted by the idea of something which is beyond them, yet in them—something in opposition to which they are as nothing, in unity with which they are more than they immediately seem to be.

Now the main difficulty in realising the truth of this view is the same which meets us in all applications of the idea of development. It is hard to trace in the earlier forms of religion anything that corresponds to the idea which we maintain to be the spring of that development, the idea of an all-embracing power which is at once beyond all objects and all subjects, which through all divisions of the finite world “spreads undivided, operates unspent,” which remains as the permanent basis of man's life, unchanged through all his conflict with nature, with his fellowmen, and with himself, and which is ever bringing the struggle and tumult of his finite existence back into peace again. And it will be no small part of our work in the sequel to trace out the various forms in which this idea disguises itself from us in different religions. Here, I can only refer by anticipation to the fact that religion, wherever it shows itself in any definite form, gives harmony and direction to man's life in two ways—(1) it delivers him from himself and the difficulties of his immediate life by reverence for that which is above him; and (2) it teaches him to regard that power which he thus reverences as manifested both in nature and in the society to which he as an individual belongs. Wherever we find these two things in a religion, we may safely assert that, in spite of the dark superstitions and immoral practices with which it may be united, it brings unity to the life of man. And we are prepared to recognise it as a step towards that consciousness of a divine unity beneath all the divisions of finitude of which we have been speaking, or, in other words, as a step in the development of that religious consciousness of which even the highest religion is an imperfect expression.

The idea of religion we have thus reached may be rendered more clearly intelligible, if we compare it with certain other views of religion, which have been taken by distinguished modern writers. Professor Max Müller has maintained that the principle of religion lies in the consciousness of the infinite. This consciousness is, he asserts, the opposite counterpart to the consciousness of the finite as such, for “limitation and finitude in whatever sense we use them, always implies a something beyond…Beyond every limit, we must always take it for granted that there is something else. But what is the reason of this? The reason why we cannot conceive an absolute limit is because we never perceive an absolute limit; or, in other words, because, in perceiving the finite, we always perceive the infinite also.” “If we perceive a square, the only way we can perceive it is by perceiving the space beyond the square. If we perceive the horizon, we perceive at the same time that which hems in our senses from going beyond the horizon. There is no limit which has not two sides, one turned towards us, the other turned towards that which is beyond: and it is this Beyond, which from the earliest days has formed the only real foundation for all that we call transcendental in our perceptual as well as in our conceptual knowledge, though it has no doubt been peopled with the manifold creations of the poetic imagination.” Professor Max Müller goes on to refer to the infinite of time and the infinite series of causation as other illustrations of the same principle, the principle that any limit we take is always in relation to a yet undetermined ‘Beyond.’ And when it is objected to this view of religion that the idea of the infinite is an abstraction to which primitive man is not capable of rising, Professor Max Müller answers that in saying that this is the fundamental idea in religion, he does not mean that the religious consciousness has in all ages and nations carried with it the explicit idea of the infinite, as such, i.e. the idea of the infinite as he defines it; but merely that the idea of God has in all times tended to attach itself to objects which cannot be completely grasped in sensuous perception or imagination, to objects which, as it were, strain our apprehensive faculty whenever we try to gather them into the unity of one idea. Hence he declares, with doubtful accuracy, that there are things too limited and too easily apprehended for men to make gods of them. “A stone is not infinite, nor a shell, nor a dog, and hence they have no ‘theogonic capacity.’ But a river or a mountain, and still more the sky or the dawn, possess theogonic capacity, because they have in themselves from the beginning something going beyond limits of sensuous perception, something which, for want of a better world, I must continue to call infinite.”1

Looking at these statements and illustrations, Professor Max Müller would seem to mean that we can become conscious of things only as we limit them, and that we cannot limit them without going beyond the limit. All things determined as in space and time, are determined as against a ‘Beyond.’ All definition is in relation to a wider undefined. And it is just in this relation that we must find the secret cause of worship or religious reverence, the object of such reverence being always either the infinite, the ‘Beyond’ in general, or at least some object which, because it seems to the worshipper to transcend all his measurement, is for him identified with the infinite.

Now before criticising this view, I would like to compare it with another view which, though not identical, is closely akin to it—the view of Mr. Spencer also asserts that the proper object of religion is the infinite or unconditioned. And he maintains farther that this infinite or unconditioned, though in itself unknown and even unknowable, is yet involved or presupposed in all that we know. All definite thought, all distinct determination of objects, is within the circle of an unconditioned reality, which cannot be directly perceived or thought by us, except as the presupposition of all other perception or thought. Mr. Spencer's first principles, therefore, begin with a theory of the Infinite or Absolute, which, according to him, is the true object of religion. Of this Infinite or Absolute he attempts to prove at once that it is unknowable, and yet that we have a kind of consciousness of it which precludes all reasonable doubt of its reality. It is unknowable; for, as Mr. Spencer repeats after Mansel, to know is to distinguish and to relate, and therefore the object of knowledge can never be that which is unlimited and unrelated. Yet we are forced to believe in it, because a limit always implies a distinction of parts within a whole which is itself unlimited; and a relation is a connexion of factors, both of which belong to a totality which is itself unrelated. He therefore rejects the view of Mansel that the Infinite and Absolute cannot be present to us in consciousness at all. “The error,” says Mr. Spencer, “(very naturally fallen into by philosophers intent on demonstrating the limits and conditions of consciousness), consists in assuming that consciousness has nothing but limits and conditions, to the entire neglect of that which is limited and conditioned. It is forgotten that there is something which alike forms the raw material of definite thought, and remains after the definiteness which thought gives it has been destroyed. We are conscious of the relative as existing under conditions and limits; it is impossible that these conditions can be thought of apart from that something to which they give the form: the abstraction of these limits and conditions is by hypothesis the abstraction of them only; consequently, there must be a residuary consciousness of something which filled up these outlines, and this indefinite something constitutes our consciousness of the non-relative and absolute.” Or again: “Our notion of the limited is composed, firstly, of a consciousness of some kind of being; and, secondly, of a consciousness of the limits under which it is known. In the antithetical notion of the unlimited, the consciousness of limits is abolished, but not the consciousness of some kind of being. It is quite true that in the absence of conceived limits this consciousness ceases to be a conception properly so called”—in other words, it ceases to be knowledge in the full sense of the term—“but it is none the less true that it remains a mode of consciousness.”2 Hence Mr. Spencer denies that the idea of the absolute and infinite and unconditioned is negative, and maintains that, on the contrary, it is the positive basis of all our consciousness of the relative, the finite, and the conditioned. It is, so to speak, the blank background on which we draw lines of division, or from which we cut off parts, when we try to determine the finite; it is the empty space in which we describe our figures. In this consciousness of an unknowable reality, which is out of all limits and conditions, and which accompanies and underlies all our other consciousness, we have the permanent basis of religion, the element which gives all the truth they have to the religions of the world, and which alone will survive when science has destroyed the illusions and superstitions by which they are overgrown.

From this short abstract of the views of these two writers, it appears that there is a general basis of agreement between them, but also a difference of no little importance. Professor Max Müller and Mr. Spencer agree in conceiving the infinite as the correlate or counterpart of the finite, but the former thinks of it as a Beyond, to which the mind always reaches out from the limits of the finite, while the latter rather thinks of it as the presupposition from which all determination of the finite starts. To the former the infinite is the posterius of all positive knowledge, like the indetermined space which stretches beyond every limit we attain; to the latter it is the prius of all positive knowledge, like the indetermined space which is presupposed in the definition of special figures. To the former the infinite is never given, except as the negative of everything that is positively known; to the latter it is always given, in a primary positive consciousness which we must have ere we can know anything else. The former takes his stand on the finite as the affirmatively determined reality, which, however, in its limited character always implies something beyond that we cannot so determine; while the latter takes his stand on the infinite as the affirmative basis of all our knowledge—knowledge, that is, conceived as a process of limiting the infinite by negatives.

Now, in this and the following lecture, I shall attempt to show that Professor Max Müller and Mr. Spencer have each taken hold of one half of the truth, but have destroyed its virtue by rending it from the other half. Or, what is the same thing in another aspect of it, they have each taken the idea of God or of the infinite at a particular stage of its development, and have refused to follow the movement of thought any farther. Let me first put generally and abstractly what afterwards will be more fully explained. Professor Max Müller's infinite is the bare negation of the finite. It is therefore only another finite; for it is limited by that which it denies, and in relation to which alone it has any meaning. Mr. Spencer seems at first to escape from this immediate self-contradiction by taking the infinite as the affirmative basis of the finite, the indetermined Being which has no limits in itself, but only receives them from without, from our intelligence. But this pure affirmative basis turns out on examination to be a blank unknowable, of which we can only say that it is, and of which we can say so much only in contrast with the negative nature of the finite. In truth, whether we take the infinite as the negative of the finite, or as the affirmative basis on which the finite is determined by negation, we arrive at the same result. The only difference is that in the former case we add the infinite to the finite, while in the latter case we add the finite to the infinite. In both cases the addition is merely external, and in both cases our infinite becomes itself a finite, because it is only the correlate of the finite. Meanwhile, we lose the true idea of the infinite, of which I began to speak in the last lecture, as the unity which reveals itself in all the differences of the finite, especially in the last difference of subject and object, and which through all these differences remains in unity with itself. And if, as was there maintained, this is just the idea upon which religion rests, we at the same time lose the clue to the interpretation of the history of religion.

Such an abstract statement as this can, however, carry little conviction to those who are not convinced already; and I shall therefore attempt successively to show what is the element of truth and what is the defect in each of these views, and to illustrate what I conceive to be the true idea by contrast with both.

There are many things which, at first, seem to lend support to the view of Professor Max Müller that religion rests on or starts from the conception of the Infinite, as the ‘Beyond’ or negative of the finite. Such at least may be admitted to be the first reflective form in which the idea presents itself to our minds. We first discover the Infinite in the impossibility of being satisfied with the finite, or limiting our thoughts to it. Just because the idea of an infinite or unconditioned principle of unity which underlies all the differences of the objects we apprehend, is the silent presupposition of all our thought, we are unable finally to rest in any one of these objects as an absolute reality, i.e., a reality which does not need to be referred to anything else as its source or explanation. Hence, even before any general idea of the Infinite makes its appearance, we find traces of the tendency, of which Professor Max Müller speaks, to select objects of worship which cannot be completely grasped by the senses or the imagination. The physical vastness of the heavens, the irresistible strength of the elemental forces of nature, may awe and elevate the soul that is not yet able to attach its emotion except to some outward form. Hence the worship of such objects may indicate a stage of religious experience in which the thought of God is, so to speak, outgrowing the possibility of being confined to any object whatsoever. And when this is the case, the development of religion may be expected soon to bring with it a consciousness that even such forms are measurable and limited, and that neither they nor any other objective forms are fit to receive the stamp of divinity. The divine presence vanishes from the outward world, and the religious consciousness is driven out upon the ‘vague and formless infinite,’ which is merely the negative counterpart of the finite reality. Thus nothing is left to which the religious sentiment can attach itself but the dim idea of something ‘beyond,’ to which no form or name can be given, because the moment we attempt to define it, we lose it. Religion becomes a kind of divine discontent with all that is attained or attainable, and an endless aspiration after something which, from the very idea of it, never can be reached, the longing for a morrow that never comes, the effort to reach ‘a margin’ that “fades for ever and for ever as we move.” It becomes a vague yearning for we know not what—

“The desire of the moth for the star

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.”

Now I shall not deny that there is an element of the truth in this view. Religion does lift us above the immediate present, and joins our existence to an ideal that is never perfectly realised in it. But, if we make this ideal the mere negative of all that is actual, it ceases to have any meaning. The infinite, conceived as a mere ‘beyond,’ the mere negation of any limit or determination that may be given, is what the Germans call a false or bad infinite. It is, indeed, little more than the bare word “Not”; and, to any one who realised what it meant, it would be impossible to bow the knee to it. If men ever appear to worship a being, whose only predicate is the absence of all predicates, it is because they take it for more than it is; they intend another infinite than that of which they seem to speak. What causes the illusion is that at first we rise from the finite to the infinite by negation, and therefore become conscious of the latter as that which is altogether opposed to the former. Hence heaven is defined, in the first instance, only as that which earth is not; and men seem to be religious, rather because the world is not enough for them, than because they know what else they want. Religion is but an altar reared by unsatisfied and insatiable hearts to the unknown God, who is in some inconceivable way to find means to satisfy them—

“Ah, love, could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bits,—and then

Remould it nearer to the heart's desire.”3

But, though in this way we at first become conscious of the infinite merely as that which goes beyond the finite, this is not the true relation of the two ideas. The infinite as a mere ‘beyond’ or negation of limits, ultimately carries us back to another idea as its explanation and source, the idea of an infinite which is not merely the negative of the finite but its positive presupposition. In fact, the negative conception of the infinite presupposes a positive conception of it. For the effort to escape from the limits of the finite is possible only to a thought which in some way apprehends that which is not finite. To know our limits, and to be striving against them, would be impossible, if the infinite we sought were not already in some way present to us: nor could we ever be conscious of the ‘world's constraint on our aspirant souls,’ if we were really and entirely confined to our prison-house. Front this it follows that the idea of the infinite as a mere ‘beyond’ is an imperfect thought, a thought which does not realise its own meaning; for, if our consciousness of the finite did not presuppose the idea of the infinite, and were not based on it, we could not seek for the latter beyond the former. This pursuit of a shadow that seems to fly before us, is really due to an imperfect consciousness of that which is ever with us and within us, that without which we could not be conscious of any object, or even of ourselves. We are seeking abroad for that which we can only find at home, and which we could not even seek, if we did not, in a sense, already and continually possess it. For in the isolated consciousness of the finite, whether it be of ourselves as finite, or of any other object, we are estranged from ourselves, blind to our own real nature, and unconscious of that which yet we imply in every word we say and every action which we are, above all, in want of a Socrates to call our attention to the universal basis of our existence, and to force us to understand ourselves. For, if the infinite is just the all-embracing unity implied in all our consciousness of the finite, it is possible that the attempt to bring it within our knowledge, or to make it the principle of our action, may be surrounded with difficulties of its own; but, at any rate, in seeking it we are not condemned to strain after something which is far off, still less to pursue a phantom which must always escape from our grasp, but only to return upon ourselves and to recognise what is involved in our simplest consciousness of ourselves, or, indeed, of any other object. We do not need to “go up into heaven,” or to “descend into the deep,” for “that which is very near us in our mouth and in our heart.”

We have now to ask whether Mr. Spencer in his idea of the infinite supplies the element which was lacking to the view of Professor Max Müller. In one aspect of his theory he seems to do so; for he regards the infinite not as the ‘Beyond’ or negative of the finite, but as the positive presupposition from which we must start in determining it. In this he seems to be following out one of the most characteristic conceptions of the founder of modern philosophy. “It ought not,” says Descartes in his Meditations, “to be supposed that we perceive the infinite only by negation of the finite, as we perceive rest and darkness only by the negation of motion and light. On the contrary, we discern that there is more of reality in the infinite than in the finite substance, and therefore that in some sense the idea of the infinite is prior to that of the finite.” The infinite is pure affirmative Being without any mixture of not-being; hence in becoming conscious of finite things we always presuppose and partly negate the infinite. The ultimate consequences of this way of thinking were shown in the next generation by the greatest of the followers of Descartes. “All determination,” said Spinoza, “is or involves negation,” and negation corresponds to unreality. To reach the pure reality of God or the infinite, we must therefore undo (or negate) our negations, we must set aside the unreality which necessarily introduces itself into our consciousness of the finite. We must seek for the absolute reality in that which, as it is entirely without determinations or predicates, is untainted by any negation, finitude, or imperfection. Spinoza thus reaches the supreme reality of God by denying the reality of everything else; for all the limitations of lines of division by which one finite existence is distinguished from another are regarded by him as the products of an illusive mode of thought, which we must discard in order to reach the truth of things. Hence, in the continually widening vortex of his abstraction, all definite outlines at last disappear; all distinction of material substances is merged in the continuity of one infinite extension, and all distinction of minds in the continuity of one infinite thought; and even this last distinction of extension and thought, or, as we should say, of object and subject, is declared to be a distinction without a difference: for extension and thought are nothing but forms under which the one substance, in itself without difference or division, is manifested to our intelligence. Hence Hegel rightly answered those who accused Spinoza of atheism, by saying that he was not an atheist but an “akosmist”; it was not God, but the world of finite things whose reality lie denied.

Now it is easy to see that the logic of Mr. Spencer is identical with that of Spinoza. Like Spinoza, he reaches the infinite simply by wiping out the lines of division between finite things and beings. Like Spinoza, he regards these lines as due to our imperfect ways of apprehending the reality of things. The only essential difference is that he realises, as Spinoza did not, the effect of his own logic. With a true speculative intuition, but with an utter disregard of his own logical principle, Spinoza at once passed from the mere blank of indeterminate being, to which he had reduced everything, to the idea of God as a self-determining principle, who is the source of all the manifold determinations of the universe. Mr. Spencer commits no such sublime inconsequence. He sees that the negation of all the determinations of the finite can bring us only to an abstract being, of which nothing can be said except that it is; and this result he accepts. He is, therefore, shut up to the hopeless conclusion that there is an irreconcilable opposition between the reality of things and our thought of them. He holds, in other words, that that which alone we can recognise as reality is that of which we can know nothing, while that which alone we can know is a mere product, and for aught we can tell an illusive product, of our own thought. Owing to the limitations of our minds we are obliged to divide and to relate that which is above all division and relation; for otherwise we could not think it at all. And the glimpse we have of real being is only sufficient to enable us to recognise that we can know nothing; for the idea of God is nothing but the counterpart of the consciousness of our own limitations, which we can see, but which we cannot transcend.

Now, in order to discover the defects of this view, it is necessary to recognise the element of truth which, it contains. It is true that the movement of thought from the finite to the infinite is regressive, and that this regression is caused by a discernment of the negative or unreal character of the finite existence from which we start. It is the illusiveness, the uncertainty, the instability of the things of time and sense which, in the first instance at least, makes us look beyond them to God. It is not because of what the finite is, but mainly because of what it is not, that we seek refuge in the infinite. As it is the illusion of appearance that awakens scientific inquiry to search beneath or beyond it for that which is not to be found in it, so it is the failure of the world to supply what he at first expected to get from it that drives man back upon God. “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” says St. Augustine, “and our souls are ever restless till they rest in Thee.” The necessity of thought to rise from the finite to the infinite lies in the awaking consciousness that the finite in itself is naught, that neither the intelligence nor the will can finally accept it as an absolute reality. The, round sinks beneath us, and forces us to look for a more solid foundation on which we may build our lives, nor is it possible for us to be satisfied till we have found one that cannot be moved.

This being the case, it is natural that the infinite which is reached by such a regressive process, should in the first instance be defined as that in which all the limits and imperfections of the finite are done away, and that the purely affirmative Being, the supreme reality, should be regarded simply as the negative of an existence which is itself negative or unreal. But the question is whether we can stop at this negative result. If so, then, as Dr. Erdmann says, the idea of the infinite would be like the lion's den in the fable; all the footsteps of thought would point inwards, and none would be directed outwards. In other words, the ultimate form of religion would be a pantheism which dissolved everything in a God of whom we could say nothing but that He or It is.

Now it will be shown in the sequel that there is a stage of religion which corresponds to this description, a stage in which God is viewed simply as an abstract unity that swallows up all the differences of the finite. But it will be shown also that such religion is the product of an imperfect reflexion, which fixes in hard abstraction moments of thought that should be regarded merely as points of transition. For the negative movement of thought by which we rise from the finite to the infinite has no meaning except as the preparation for a positive movement in which we contemplate the finite from the point of view of the infinite. If we can go hack upon the infinite as the presupposition of the finite, this regress must enable us to see the finite in a new light. And this means that the infinite itself must be conceived, not merely as that which the finite is not, but as that which includes and explains it; not merely as an indeterminate background of the finite but as a self-determining principle, which manifests itself in all the determinations of the finite without losing its unity with itself. It must be so conceived; otherwise the negative or regressive movement by which we rise to the infinite would itself be impossible. How could we have an idea of the infinite which enabled us to see the defect of the finite without enabling us to see anything more? A consciousness which apprehends a limit must reach beyond it: it cannot be shut out from the positive knowledge of that which gives it the power to detect and look down upon its own finitude. The consciousness of an impassable limit set to our minds by something of which we can only say that it is, is a contradiction in terms; for it would involve at once that we could, and that we could not transcend our own finitude. A merely finite being, a being excluded from all contact with the infinite, could not take up any point of view beyond its own limits, still less the point of view of the infinite; and, on the other hand, a being, who could raise himself to such a point of view, still more a being whose consciousness of himself and other things was based upon the idea of the infinite as its first presupposition, could not be excluded from the positive knowledge of the infinite.

It appears then that there is a fundamental incoherence in a view which, though treating the infinite as a positive reality, and, indeed, as the reality that underlies all other realities, yet reduces it to that of which nothing can be said, except that it is. The first principle through which all is known cannot itself be unknowable or unintelligible. As we are essentially self-conscious, that which is the presupposition of all our life and thought cannot be permanently hid from us. Our very nature is to return upon ourselves, and such a return can only mean that we become conscious of that which at first we presuppose. To say, as Mr. Spencer says, that all things are knowable through the idea of the infinite, but that the infinite is itself not knowable; to say that our consciousness of it is the condition and limit of all our other consciousness, but that it cannot itself be determined as an object, is simply to deny us the power of reflexion. If we were to adopt such a principle, we could not stop at this application of it; for, as Socrates showed long ago, we always know the particular through the universal, i.e. we always go upon certain general principles in our consciousness of particular objects; and, if we could not turn the light of consciousness upon these general principles, if we could not define the universals we use, we could never come to know anything. In truth, all knowledge of universal principles involves the same difficulty, for the universal is always infinite in relation to the particulars that fall under it, though it may be particular and finite in relation to a still higher universal. To know is simply to carry back the particular to the universal, and finally to the highest universal through which everything else is known; and if this highest universal is itself unknowable, then nothing is knowable. If, then, it be true, as Mr. Spencer tells us, that the infinite is not merely the negative of the finite, not a mere ‘Beyond’ to which we reach out from the basis of the finite, but that it is rather the basis of all our consciousness of the finite and even of ourselves, it is absurd to think that it is itself beyond the reach of knowledge. In saying that it is so, Mr. Spencer in effect admits the very doctrine he had seemed to reject.

But if this be so, then the only alternative is that we should cease to regard the infinite after the manner of Mr. Spencer, as identical with the mere abstraction of being, and that we should begin to regard it as a principle which is unlimited and undetermined, in the sense that it limits and determines itself. If this seem an unfamiliar notion, it can only be because we do not reflect on the nature of that regressive process to which all our knowledge is due; for religion is simply a higher form of that tendency which, in science, leads us to seek the universal beyond the particular, the one beyond the many. Thus in our first natural view of the world, we are apt to take it as a collection of individual things and beings, each of which is centred in itself, or has only accidental relations with the rest. But science, in the strict sense of the term, does not begin till we realise that these supposed independent individuals are nothing apart from their relations to the other objects from which we distinguish them; that, therefore, their distinction and division from each other is relative; and that, in order to see them as they really are, we must regard them as parts of a whole, differences in a unity, particular manifestations of a general principle, which is at once the source of their distinction and of their relation to each other. Something like this correction of our first ideas we make every time we rise from unintelligent perception to scientific knowledge. For it is the main business of science to make things intelligible through some general law or principle that determines their relation to other things. We thus pass from the denial of the independent reality of the particulars to the assertion of the general principle as the source and explanation of whatever reality they have. But this does not mean that in any case we absolutely lose the particular in the universal. For the same law or principle which is fatal to the independent existence of the particular object, also assigns to it its special place and function in the whole to which it belongs. And it could not do the former without also doing the latter.

To apply this to the case in point. The religious like the scientific consciousness seeks to find the reason or principle of the particular in the universal; and it differs from science mainly in this, that it cannot rest except in the infinite unity which underlies all the differences of the finite. It involves, therefore, to begin with, a perception of the relative and limited character of all finite things and beings. It makes us retract our first belief in the things of the world as stable and permanent existences, which need to be referred to no cause or principle but themselves. It thus forces us, in a sense, to ‘see all things in God,’ or to regard nothing as having any reality apart from Him. But it does not force us to regard God as a mere abyss of being, which has no individuality in itself, and which, therefore, is fatal to the individuality of all other existences. On the contrary, in its ultimate form, it leads us to regard Him as a principle of life and intelligence through whom all things are and are known, who is continually realising Himself in all the infinite difference of the natural and the spiritual worlds, and in whom all natural and spiritual beings find their end. Hence the final form of religion is not, as Mr. Spencer's principles would compel us to think, a quietism which despairs of all finite interests, and dissolves them and itself in the absolute. It is a faith which loses all things in God to find them again transformed, a faith which rises above the immediate disappointments of finite existence, and rekindles the love of life on the altar on which it is consecrated to God. If its first word is that the things of time and sense are naught in themselves, its last word is that in God—as elements in the manifestation or realisation of the ultimate principle of reality—they have a reality and an import which can never be exhausted.

  • 1. Natural Religion, p. 122 seq. It would be easy to attack the instances here given, and to show that men have worshipped every one of the objects to which Professor Max Müller denies all ‘theogonic capacity.’ And it might farther be maintained that the worship of dogs and other animals may show a deeper consciousness of the infinite than that which finds the manifestation of it in a mere physical vastness that reaches beyond the immediate grasp of sense.

    But there is a still more vital objection. Professor Max Müller here allows that the consciousness of the infinite is not explicit in the earliest religions; and in doing so, he altogether destroys the claim of his own definition. For, if we have a right to consider what is implicit, i.e. that which exists in germ in the lowest religion and is developed or made fully explicit only in the highest, we cannot stop at such an idea of the infinite as Professor Max Müller gives us, the idea of a mere ‘Beyond,’ or negative of any given limit. For this idea, as will immediately be shown, corresponds to a stage in the history of religion which is neither the first nor the last, a stage at which the religious consciousness has become reflective, but in which reflexion has not yet done its perfect work. And there can be no reason for deriving tile definition of religion from such a transition stage in its development. On the other hand, if we are bound to base our definition on that which is common to all religions, and which therefore exists explicitly even in the earliest or lowest forms of religion, we should be reduced, as Professor Max Müller allows, to something lower than his or any idea of the infinite. Professor Max Müller's definition thus gives us neither what is involved in the idea of religion nor what is common to all religions.
  • 2. First Principles, p. 90 seq.
  • 3. Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyᾱm.