You are here

Lecture Twelfth. The Logical Justification of Subjective Religion.

The Principle of Positivism — That it admits no Exceptions — That its Defect is its Abstractness — Complementary Principle of the Relativity of all Objects to the Subject — Appeal from the Objective to the Subjective Consciousness — The Argument from Desire — Kant's Distinction between the Desires of the Individual and the Postulates of Reason — “We Ought, therefore we Can” — Kant's Inference from this that the Summum Bonum or Moral Ideal must be Realised — That this Interface underlies all Subjective Religion.

IN the last lecture I pointed out the nature of the movement which went formerly by the name of the Aufklärung, or Enlightenment, and which nowadays is more simply called Positivism; and I tried to show what is its strength and its weakness. Its strength lies in this, that it takes objects simply as such, and recognises that, as objects in one world, they are linked together in necessary relations. It carries out unflinchingly the idea of nature as a system of finite causes and effects, each of which is determined in its place, its time, and its character, by its connexion with the rest. Hence it refuses to admit that there can be any hiatus in the series of finite causation, or that any element can be intercalated in it which does not belong to it. That any object should break away from the general conditions of objective experience, or should be endowed with an independence and completeness such as is inconsistent with these conditions, is to it an impossibility. Hence the poetic idealisation of special objects which lets them escape, so to speak, from the ranks of merely natural existences, and throw off the control of necessity—and, equally of course, the poetic creation of new objects which claim exemption from such limits of finitude—is regarded as an entirely fictitious process. Such mythical creations, whether they be due to the imagination of a particular poet, or to the unconscious working of the poetic instinct in a nation, are not fact, and, therefore, not truth; for Positivism does not admit that there is any truth but the truth of fact. What is not fact is fiction; and as men have now learnt what are the criteria of fact, they must reject as fiction everything that will not submit to these criteria, everything that does not fit itself as a finite link into the connexion of experience. Every object which exempts itself from the limits of finitude, every event that breaks the chain of natural necessity, is ipso facto proved to be an illusion, and belief in it may be at once set aside as superstition.

Is there any possibility of escaping this logic by maintaining that the laws of nature are subject to exception, or that its course is broken in upon at particular points by supernatural agencies? I am bound to say that I do not think so. I do not think that we can admit in general the mode of thinking represented by the Enlightenment of last century, and by the Positivism of the present day, and then say that, here and there, whether in a few or in many instances, the objective connexion of nature is interrupted by agencies that are outside of the system of nature. If a miracle is a breach of the order of nature, it is a fact that will not submit to the only criteria by which such facts can be determined. If, therefore, I venture to challenge the view of things to which this mode of thought leads, it is on other grounds; not on exceptional grounds which apply to this fact and not to that, to this object and not to that, but on grounds which apply equally to all facts and all objects. I should despair of finding evidence of a principle which transcends the necessity of nature, if that necessity were of itself sufficient to give a complete account of anything. I should not expect to find what is above nature anywhere, if there were not something above nature everywhere. If materialism by the aid of the atomic or any other mechanical theory can furnish a complete rationale of the simplest physical fact, it may still be far away from an explanation of the universe, but it will have got over its greatest difficulty. On the other hand, it would be a fatal mistake for any spiritual or idealistic philosophy—if by idealism we mean the doctrine that the ultimate explanation of the world is to be found in a rational principle kindred to the soul of man,—to admit that the general course of things is to be explained by nature and necessity, and that the need for a higher explanation arises only when a break is made in that course. It would be dangerous for it even to admit that in such breaks we have better evidence of the existence of a higher power than is to be found in the ordinary course of things. If God must be conceived as revealing himself in the whole world, one object may still be higher, may contain more of Him than another, but there can be no absolute division between different objects, and no breach in the continuity of the process whereby He reveals himself in them all.

If this be true, then any attack upon the principle of Positivism, which seeks only to establish special exceptions to the course of nature, must be a failure. A supernaturalism which tries to survive alongside of naturalism, dividing the kingdom with it, will soon have taken away from it ‘even that which it seemeth to have.’ The only hope of a successful issue is to carry the war into the enemy's quarters, and to maintain what Carlyle called a Natural Supernatural ism,1 i.e. the doctrine not that there are single miracles, but that the universe is miraculous; and that in order to conceive it truly, we must think of it, not as a mechanical system occasionally broken in upon from above, but as an organism which implies a spiritual principle as its beginning and as its end. The idealist must be prepared to show that the mechanical or external view of the world to which Positivism tends is an essentially imperfect view, a view which, no doubt, has its uses, and represents certain aspects of the truth, but which never can be taken as a final account of anything, not even of inorganic matter. He must, in short, be prepared to show that that view, though based upon premises which represent an important aspect of reality, yet involves a forgetfulness of other and even more important aspects of it; and that, therefore, its ultimate consequences, as they are derived from a partial hypothesis, are themselves hypothetical. In other words, they do not give us the whole truth in any one instance, and, therefore, can still less be taken as containing a true view of the universe as a whole.

Now it is impossible here to develop this thesis to its ultimate consequence; but one thing it is not difficult to show, viz. that Positivism rests on the ordinary objective view of things, in which no account is taken of their subjective aspect. Yet the object is essentially related to the subject, and it is an obvious fact that we never have the former without the latter. It is possible and natural that this element of our consciousness should at first escape our attention; for, as we have seen, our first consciousness so far loses itself in the object, that it is forced to regard even the self within us as a mere object; and, as a necessary consequence, it also reduces God, who is the principle of unity in subject and object, to the form of an object. At this late period of human history, indeed, the objective consciousness does not retain its original directness and simplicity. The general current of ordinary thought has been widened and modified by many streams of subjective reflexion which it has received into itself. Still the one-sided objective attitude of mind, the attitude in which the object, and nothing but the object, is distinctly recognised or attended to, is the common attitude of men. It is that attitude in which we all receive the first lessons of experience, and no one escapes from living more than half his life in it, however he may realise its inadequacy.

Nor, in this point of view, does science attempt to correct the error or inadvertence of the ordinary consciousness. In fact, it rather tends to increase that error by the self-imposed limitations under which it pursues its task. The usual method of science in dealing with any complex problem is to break it up into as many simpler problems as possible, in order that it may lessen the difficulties to be encountered, and win the battle of knowledge in detail. As I showed in the first of these lectures, science seeks to isolate the element or aspect of reality which it would investigate, from all the other elements or aspects of it. It thus for a time deliberately accepts what it knows to be an untrue hypothesis, in order that it may avoid the impossible task of answering all questions at once. It deals with pure numbers, with simple geometrical figures, with absolutely rigid bars and perfect fluids, though it is well aware that all these are fictions of abstraction. In all this it pursues a legitimate end by perfectly legitimate means. But there is one thing which it is necessary for the scientific man always to remember, if he would not become the victim of his own method, and that is, that he is abstracting. For it is obvious that there are no things which are purely mathematical, or mechanical, or chemical in all their relations. There is no aspect or element of the real world which exists alone. Of none of them can we say what it would be, or whether it could be at all, if the others were removed. Science is, therefore, strictly speaking, hypothetical, i.e. it gives an account of certain elements, as if they could be absolutely isolated; while yet we know that they never are isolated, nor, so far as we know, can be isolated from the rest. And from this follows an obvious consequence, viz. that we cannot either apply our science, or know what its results really mean, unless we invert our abstracting process, and recall the elements we have left out of account. We cannot apply the simplest mechanical rules without making allowance for the varied nature of our materials, and the varied conditions under which they are to be used. We cannot apply our abstract economical reasonings without considering that men are not creatures moved by the simple motive of a thirst for gain, but human beings living in families and states, and affected by each other in a thousand ways of which economic science takes no account. We cannot apply our anatomical knowledge to the explanation of the phenomena of life, if we do not remember that the body was dead when we dissected it; otherwise we are likely to find that the very process whereby we seek the truth has removed from our view the most important fact to be considered.

“Wer will was Lebendigs erkennen und beschreiben,

Sucht erst den Geist heraus zu treiben;

Dann hat er die Theile in seiner Hand,

Fehlt, leider! nur das geistige Band.”2

Nothing exists alone, and when we take it alone, We may be leaving out just what is essential to a true view of it. Hence the thought that divides is apt to lead to dangerous illusions, idols of the cave, if it be not corrected by the thought that reunites. Synthesis must complete the work of analysis, and give us back the whole which we have ‘murdered in order to dissect.’ We must restore the parts, which by the inevitable abstraction of science we have displaced and distorted, to their proper position and relations. And on the success of this process of restoration must it depend whether we get from science a true view of the world as a whole,—a view which is better than the confused unity of sense, because it distinguishes, and better than the one-sidedness of the special sciences, because it reunites.

Now, among the elements of reality which are put aside or neglected by science, and which it is necessary to restore if we would have the truth of knowledge, is that of which we have been speaking, viz. the relation of all objects to a subject. Like the ordinary consciousness, and even more than the ordinary consciousness, science insists on a purely objective view of things. And here, too, the abstraction is useful and even necessary, so long as it is not forgotten that it is an abstraction. But this is just what Positivism forgets, when it attempts to universalise the mechanical view of nature and human nature. It treats the world as if it were complete in itself without any knowing subject; whereas it is almost all Irish bull to say that, if there be such a world, we do not and cannot know anything about it. The conscious self may be an important or an unimportant element of experience, of that we are not in the first instance called upon to decide; at any rate, it is an essential element. In the drama of our experience, the Ego may be the Hamlet, or it may be only a walking gentleman: one thing is certain, it is always on the stage; and, if it were not, the play could not go on. And if we wish to complete our view of the facts, we must restore to its place the part we have omitted, and consider what difference its restoration makes. We must recognise that the whole truth of our experience is not summed up in what we call the facts of the objective world, even if we add all the laws of their connexion which science has discovered or ever can discover; but that, besides, we must take account of the no less certain fact of the subjective unity of the intelligence for which these facts exist. Any merely objective explanation of the world, however complete it may be, leaves out an essential element in it, and is therefore abstract and hypothetical. For we cannot know a priori that the reintroduction of the element left out will not change our whole view of the other elements. Even if science were able to give a complete account of the world, and to explain all the relations of its parts on principles of mechanical necessity, it would not have secured the triumph of materialism. For it might well be that a careful consideration of the relation of this mechanically explained world to the mind that knows it, would invalidate or even invert all the results thus attained. A French writer has said that “if there were nothing but matter, there would be no Materialism.” The very presence of the consciousness which is implied in such a theory, is a demonstration that the theory is incomplete; and therefore that, if it be put forward as a philosophical dogma as to the nature of things, and not merely as an hypothesis which it is useful for certain scientific purposes to assume, it is untrue.

There are two ways in which this result may be taken, and therefore two ways in which we may seek to advance beyond it. We may take it in a purely negative way, as a condemnation of all our knowledge in so far as it is based on an objective view of things; or, in other words, as a proof that the objective view of things can only at best give us a systematic account of phenomena or appearances, and not any knowledge of things as they really are. And from this we may draw the inference that, in order to reach the reality that is hid beneath these appearances, we must look inwards and not outwards, we must cease to study the outward world and begin to study our own souls. Or, on the other hand, we may take it in a positive way, as a proof that the objective view of things, even when corrected and systematised by science, gives us an abstract and therefore an imperfect knowledge of them, because it leaves out one and that the most important of their aspects. We may argue, therefore, that the intelligible world cannot be understood, unless we take into account its relation to the intelligence; and we may attempt to reach the truth by bringing back the element thus omitted. We may thus seek to reinterpret the results of our objective knowledge of the world in the light of a fact which science neglects and which Positivism would exclude. If we adopt the former alternative, we shall be led to oppose the subjective to the objective view of things, and to assert the inner at the expense of the outer life. In other words, our weapon against materialism will lie in showing that the world of matter is a world of appearance, and that it is only as we withdraw upon the inner world of thought that we can apprehend the reality of things. If we adopt the latter alternative, we shall be led to regard the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, as abstract elements of reality, which can only be understood when seen in their unity with each other. And our weapon against materialism will be the proof that matter itself is relative to spirit, and that, therefore, neither can be understood as what it really is, till it is seen as a factor in the development of spiritual life.

Now, after what has been said in a former lecture, I need scarcely repeat that these two ways of thinking are not, strictly speaking, alternatives, but rather, successive stages through which the mind passes in the course of its development. The one-sided objective view of things develops till its imperfection becomes manifest, and then it finds its natural corrective in a view which separates the subject from, and raises it above the object. And it is only when this view also has been thoroughly worked out, and has shown all its characteristic excellences and defects, that it becomes possible to reach a view which does justice to object and subject alike. Even religion, though it is essentially the consciousness of a unity which is beyond the difference of subject and object, and therefore always contains in itself a kind of anticipation of this last and highest view of things, has itself to pass through a predominantly subjective as well as a predominantly objective phase, ere it can reach an explicit apprehension of that unity, or, as I have previously expressed it, ere it can know God in the form of God.

It is the second of these phases of religion which we have now to examine. But before dealing with it in the concrete form in which it presents itself in religious history, it may be useful to consider a little more closely the inner logic of it, the secret movement of thought which it involves. Subjective religion is, in the first place, the surrender of the outward world, and of the external course of things to fate, to the law of nature and necessity, or, at least, to some power or principle which is not regarded as divine, and may even be regarded as essentially opposed to the divine. And it is, in the second place, the appeal to something within us, something that is bound up with the inner consciousness of self, as the revelation of the highest, the authentic voice of God. It is the religion of subjectivity, of moral aspiration, of prophecy; the religion for which the ideal is opposed to the real, yet in a sense conceived to have a higher reality. It is a religion which sets the demands of the heart, the conscience, or the reason, above all the facts of outward experience. Thus when Tennyson, disgusted with the conclusions to which materialistic science seems to be driving him, cuts the knot by declaring that—

“Then, like a man in wrath, the heart

Stood up and answered, ‘I have felt,’”

he is speaking the language of subjective religion, and claiming that an inward conviction should out vote all outward experience. Again, when Iphigenia in Goethe's tragedy, meets the objection—

“It is no God that speaks, ’tis only thine own heart,”

with the instant answer—

“’Tis only through our hearts the gods speak to us,”

she is setting her own inward ideal against the apparent reality, and claiming that the former should be trusted against all evidence derived from the latter, And Kant is only translating the poetry of such passages into prose when he asserts that the conviction that we ought to do any act, is a sufficient evidence that we can do it; and even calls upon us to believe in God and immortality, because a God must exist to realise the moral ideal, and because there is no room fully to realise it within the bounds of mortal life. He is, in fact, asserting that the Good is the True, that the highest moral ideal is at the same time the ultimate reality of things, and that, in short, our subjective consciousness of that which ‘ought to be,’ is at the same time our best definition of that which ‘is.’ On this view our inner recoil against immediate reality is believed to carry us beyond it to a deeper reality; the demand which our spirits make, that the facts should yield to our ideal, is taken as itself a proof that they are illusive, phenomenal, or transitory; and that, therefore, in one way or another, they are to be put out of court in our ultimate judgments as to the real nature of things and of the Divine Being on whom they depend.

Now, how can such a way of thinking be justified? It is easy to see that it may be morally profitable; for a belief in the existence of goodness often does good to him who entertains it, even when the individual believed to be good has none of the virtues attributed to him. Love may be directed to an unworthy or commonplace object, but none the less does its idealising power elevate the character of the lover. And sometimes we may say without any cynicism that the dream is so much beyond the reality, that it is no ill fortune for the dreamer if it remain unrealised. Is it not the fruits that are never enjoyed, or that are prematurely snatched from our lips, which retain immortal sweetness? Desire is always prophesying its own complete satisfaction; and it requires only a slight suggestion from without to connect the idea of such satisfaction with an object which, if real at all, has no reality corresponding to the hopes that are attached to it so long as it is unattained. And, if it is never attained, its finitude may never be discovered. But in such cases the beauty lies, if anywhere, in the eye that sees it. The good sought is nowhere, if not in the soul that seeks it. Might we not even quote the words of Scripture in a changed sense, and say that “faith is the substance of things hoped for,” their only substance? Is it not the commonplace of moralists that life is a hunt after illusions, which are found out whenever they are caught,—an experience which would soon produce despair, were it not for what Goethe calls the ‘unconquerable levity’ of man, with which he substitutes a new illusion for the one that has been found out, and were it not that there are some shadows that are never caught?

Now, what reason is there for attaching higher credit to such subjective evidence in religion? If we find men worshipping what they admire, and bestowing the throne of the universe upon a being who realises what they wish for—or at least, what they wish for in their best moments, and think they ought always to wish for—does this show anything except that, as Feuerbach says, the gods are ‘the wishes of men thought of as already realised.’ Why in the case of religion should we regard such a conversion of the subjective into the objective with a respect which we do not pay to it in any other sphere? Our desires and longings, at least when they reach a certain degree of intensity, recalcitrate against the idea of their own subjectivity. They are incredulous of the unreality of their objects, and hold out against the strongest evidence of such unreality, almost with the same instinctive revolt with which we listen to a story that reflects discredit upon the character of a trusted friend. In such a case men have often felt that they could outvote the world in the strength of their solitary conviction. “My life upon his faith!” But what right have we to treat the great Power of the universe, as if it were a friend whose character is so intimately known to us that we feel certain he cannot deceive? Is not such a belief an extension of our first natural mistake of thinking all things centred in ourselves, a mistake which is seen in an exaggerated form in childhood with its unreasonable demands, that would grasp at the sun and moon and expect them to become its playthings? Is it not the lesson of experience that the world goes its own way, and that we cannot make it accommodate itself to us, but that we must accommodate ourselves to it?

The argument from desire is, undoubtedly, one to which recourse is often had by writers who are trying to find some philosophical; justification for the religious sentiment, and especially for the demand of our spiritual nature for something more than any finite satisfaction. Thus Dante, in a remarkable passage, pictures man's insatiable thirst for knowledge, which cannot be satisfied by anything less than the attainment of absolute truth. At the foot of every certainty, he declares, a new doubt springs up, and so drives us to seek beyond every truth for a still deeper truth; and then he adds that the possibility of our finally reaching absolute truth is not to be questioned; for, if it were not possible, then “all desire would be vain and meaningless.” In this, as is often the case with Dante, he is just repeating the words of the great Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, who declares that “if the rational intelligence of the creature could not attain to the first cause of things, natural desire would remain empty and ineffectual.” In the same spirit Pascal speaks of man, as a being ‘cribbed, cabined, and confined’ by the conditions of his earthly existence—a being whose destiny in this world brings with it no good which is adequate to his deepest wants; whose nature, therefore, must be taken as prophetic of another sphere for which it is preparing, and in which alone it will have full scope. And Goethe's great dramatic poem, Faust, has a similar theme. The devil deceives himself when he undertakes to satisfy man with earthly food, and Faust is saved because he cannot thus be satisfied. “The man who is ever striving, ever endeavouring after some higher good, him,” says the song of the angels, “we can redeem or deliver from the powers of evil.”3 Whom neither the devil nor the world can satiate, God must satisfy.

Now, whatever the value of this argument, we cannot accept it simply as it is stated. Before we can even admit that it has any validity at all, we must find some way of distinguishing between the chance desires, which are continually arising within us to meet or to miss a chance satisfaction, and those higher longings which, as it is maintained, carry with them the assurance of the reality, and the attainableness of their objects. We must be able to show why we do not put man's aspiration to the infinite in the same class with those random wishes for the impossible, which every day we set aside, in obedience to the common sense that makes us recognise their inconsistency with the conditions and limits of our earthly existence. There is, indeed, an obvious difference between the desire for the knowledge of God or for the realisation of the kingdom of heaven—for the attainment, whether in this world or another, of a perfect state, in which sin and misery shall be done away, and the last enemy death shall be destroyed—between desires like these, and the desire for any finite good; say, for the attainment of immense riches or power. But, at first, the difference seems to be in favour of the practical possibility of realising the latter, rather than the former. For desires for a finite good, however great, do not carry us beyond the limits of experience. The wish to be a king or even a millionaire is dependent for its realisation on a thousand contingencies; but there is a calculable, though, it may be, an almost infinitesimal chance, that these contingencies may meet together in my individual case. “Being a man,”says Sancho Panza, “I may come to be Pope, and much more easily governor of an island.”4 On the other hand, it might seem that the distinguishing characteristic of those higher desires of which we have been speaking, is just that, on empirical grounds, there is not even a chance, or, at least, the means of calculating a chance of their fulfilment; seeing that to think of them as fulfilled, is to go beyond all the conditions of experience, on the basis of which alone we can calculate anything. Why should our faith in the prophetic power of our desires, turn into a confident expectation, just when they become transcendent, and carry us altogether beyond the region of the calculable? Why should we reject as unreasonable all wishes which somewhat strain the limits of finite possibility, and count supremely reasonable those which, as it were, break the mould of experience in which all our ordinary hopes and fears are cast, and refuse to express themselves except ‘under the form of eternity’? Is not this another example of the credo quia impossibile, which we can explain only on Kant's principle that what is altogether beyond experience, is for that very reason safe from being refuted by experience?

Now I have already indicated how these difficulties would be met by one who, like Kant, takes his stand at the point of view of subjective religion. In the first place, he would set aside the argument from outward experience as irrelevant. The world of experience, he would argue, is merely a world of appearances, which have no reality except for the self to whom they appear: it is a system of objects, which are themselves essentially related to the subject that knows them. But this subject cannot, without reasoning in a circle, be included in the system which presupposes him. The self to which all appears cannot be one of the appearances of its own subjectivity: the subject, as Kant agrees, cannot be brought under the laws by which it determines and connects the objects of its knowledge. Although, therefore, outward experience does not afford any evidence for those beliefs and hopes which are connected with our moral consciousness, no shadow of doubt is thereby cast upon those beliefs and hopes themselves. We could not expect that our objective consciousness, which has to do only with the relative and phenomenal, should supply any evidence for ideas that reach beyond the sphere of the relative and phenomenal. But neither can it give us any reason to reject such ideas, if evidence for them should be found elsewhere in our inward consciousness of ourselves. The astronomer who swept the heavens with his telescope and found no God, had proved nothing except that God is not an object of outward experience. Setting aside, therefore, all objections derived from such experience, we can listen undisturbed to the voice of reason within us; for it is only in the inward forum of self-consciousness that we cease to deal with the appearances of sense, and are brought into contact with the essential reality of things.

But, in the second place, the defender of subjective religion has to meet the objection that the inner oracle to which he appeals is at least ambiguous. For, when we turn our eye upon ourselves, we find within us many impulses which obviously have no objective reality corresponding to them. Kant, therefore, tries to show that there is an essential distinction between our ordinary wishes—the wishes which spring out of our natural individuality and out of the particular circumstances of our environment—and those desires which arise directly out of our rational and moral nature, our nature as self-conscious beings. The former class of desires is bound up with our individual existence as sensitive beings in a world of sense, beings who are, therefore, acted upon by other objects, and stimulated to react upon them by the pleasures and pains which they occasion. The latter class of desires arises out of the pure consciousness of ourselves as subjects, and is, therefore, independent of all the conditions of our individual existence. For when we abstract from all such empirical relations of our being, we yet do not find our inner life a blank. Indeed, it is just then, as Kant maintains, that we become most clearly conscious of certain desires or tendencies, certain demands of our rational nature, which we cannot suppose to be aimless without distrusting that rational principle which is the basis of all our certitude. In the language of Kant, they take the form of Postulates of Reason, postulates which reason entitles us to make, in the absence of any other evidence. Thus we postulate God, freedom, and immortality, not because we can prove them to be real, but because, as moral beings, we cannot do without them: because the attitude towards the world which we necessarily take up, when we regard ourselves as moral subjects, involves their objective reality. Kant does not shun expressing this belief in what seems its most paradoxical form. “The righteous man,” he declares, “may say: I will that there should be a God: I will that, though in this world of natural necessity, I should not be of it, but should also belong to a purely intelligible world of freedom: finally, I will that my duration should be endless. On this faith I insist and will not let it be taken from me.”

These statements were criticised by a certain Professor Wizenmann, who brought against them the same objection which has been stated above. In other words, Wizenmann pointed out that the feeling of want is the source of endless illusions, leading men to suppose that a satisfaction is provided for it in cases in which no such provision is made; and, still more frequently, making them attribute to some object a perfect adaptation to our wants, which it does not possess, which, perhaps, no object whatever possesses. And he went on to compare Kant's assertion—that we have a right to assume the possibility of the realisation of the moral ideal, or the existence of all the conditions which are necessary to its objective realisation—with the dream of a lover who attributes to the object of his affection all the excellences which he can conceive or desire, and which, perhaps, were never united in any one person. Kant replies: “I quite agree with Professor Wizenmann in all cases where the feeling of want is due to mere inclination. Such a want cannot postulate the existence of the object desired, even for him who feels it: still less can it be the ground of a postulate which is universal. In this case, however, we have a want of reason, springing not from the subjective ground of our wishes, but from an objective ground of the will, which binds every rational being, and thence authorises him a priori to presuppose in nature the conditions necessary for its satisfaction.” In other words, Kant holds that there are certain tendencies in us which do not belong to our nature as individuals, with special feelings determined by heredity and circumstance; but which are the pure expression of our rational nature, of that in us which lifts us above our finite and phenomenal individuality. And for these tendencies we may reasonably expect, nay, we have a right to expect, to find a satisfaction provided. Thus there is in us a desire, not merely to have our wrongs righted and our happiness secured,—or even to see these ends attained by certain persons or classes in which we are interested,—but a desire to see right triumphant for the sake of right; a desire for the realisation of a social order in which universal goodness shall be joined to universal happiness, not because of any good which we might derive from it, but simply because we are obliged to think of such an order as highest and best. It is Kant's view that such desires, and such alone, carry with them the assurance of the possibility and, indeed, of the necessity, of their satisfaction. Thus the very universality, the infinite character, of the ends in question, which makes it impossible empirically to understand how they can be realised, is regarded by him, not as a reason to doubt the possibility of their realisation, but rather as taking them altogether out of the category of ends, whose realisation need be a matter of doubt or whose certainty is dependent upon calculation. We are obliged to regard them as the ends for which all things exist; and we cannot, therefore, reasonably ask by what special means they are to be attained.

With this agrees Kant's conception of the moral law itself, which, according to his view of it, carries with it the certitude that it can be realised by every one who hears its commands. For the central characteristic of the moral consciousness is that it lifts us above the region of calculation as to means and ends, and makes us set aside as irrelevant all questions as to the possibility of the actions it prescribes to us. The categorical imperative of duty is an absolute demand which is made upon us, or rather which we make upon ourselves, without any previous consideration as to what is attainable. The consciousness that we ‘ought’ is at once to be taken as sufficient evidence that we ‘can.’ When we think of life in this point of view, we are obliged ipso facto to throw aside our finite weights and measures; we cease to consult with flesh and blood; we defy augury and go forward trusting in our ideal without, and sometimes against, all calculation. We are to say with Hector: “It is the one best omen of success that we fight for fatherland.” We are to say with Danton: “Impossible! do not name to me that stupid word.” The sense of power is not here to anticipate, but to follow upon the resolve to act. For it is futile to weigh spirit against matter, or to use at once the scales of worldly prudence and the standard of moral right. We are to assume that the former will adjust itself, like everything else in the world, to the latter. High moral achievement can never be attained by one who anxiously weighs the empirical considerations that make for and against the practicability of the course of action which he regards as best. “Impossible,” says one of the bravest of Shakespeare's heroines, “impossible be strange attempts to such as weigh their pains in sense.” Every great deed has seemed impossible till it was done. And even in the sphere of moral deeds which have no claim to the name of greatness, a certain courage of faith is constantly required of those that would act rightly. We cannot be true to ourselves unless we have the power, in any crisis where an important moral decision is necessary, to put aside the spirit of calculation, and to believe that fidelity to our best instincts will somehow carry us through.

But if this faith in the moral imperative be reasonable, we ought clearly to realise what it involves. It does not mean, strictly speaking, that “to do right is wisdom in the scorn of consequence,” unless we are referring merely to the consequences to ourselves; for an act cannot, except by a false abstraction, be separated from its consequences. If it is reasonable that we should be called upon to listen to the demands of our conscience without empirically calculating the consequences, it must be on the ground that the conscience itself yields not only a higher, but a truer view of life than any empirical calculation could enable us to reach. In other words, it is rational so to act, because we are really taking a more complete and comprehensive estimate of things, and especially of our own highest interests, when we trust in what is called the ideal, than when we hold by what we usually call the real. If it is not a fair answer to the claim made in behalf of the moral law: “You ought, therefore you can,” to reply: “I cannot, therefore I ought not,” it must be because the reply comes from a less reliable source than the first assertion; in other words, the moral ideal is not a mere subjective dream of perfection, which has no relation to the possibilities of our actual human life; it is simply the actual itself, as seen in the light of a deeper reflexion, which detects the secret forces working in it. On this view, we are called upon to disregard what is, as against what ought to be, because, after all, our consciousness of what ought to be represents what in a deeper sense really is. In breaking with that which is empirically calculable, we are breaking with superficial appearances that we may reach the truth of things. Hence also the obstructions which, in the former point of view, seem to make action impossible, are, in the latter, rightly regarded as shadows which can offer no effective resistance. For it is absurd to think that any power in the universe can ultimately defeat those who have the divine principle of the universe on their side. If, therefore, we admit the claims of the moral imperative to override or set aside experience, we must also admit the farther consequence that “morality is the nature of things,” and that what Kant calls the ‘postulates of reason’ are true. In other words, the demands or aspirations which are connected with our consciousness of the moral ideal are not merely subjective wishes; they are our highest and truest revelation of the nature of the universe, and of that divine principle upon which it depends. And if God, freedom, and immortality be necessary postulates with a view to the realisation of the moral ideal, then they have for us the same evidence as the moral ideal itself.

Now, I have given this answer—which is substantially the answer of Kant—to the objections usually brought against subjective religion, not because I regard it as finally satisfactory, but because it throws light on the nature of the difficulties in which such religion is involved, and indicates the only way in which those difficulties can be met with any show of reason. Kant, in fact, only makes explicit a process of thought which we can detect in all cases where appeal is made from outward experience to inward conviction, from consciousness to self-consciousness. In brief, his argument is that, when we abstract from outward experience and purify our minds front all those impulses which are due to our nature as objects and our relations to other objects,—when, that is, we leave out of account all that belongs to the phenomenal side of our being,—we still find within us, bound up with the practical consciousness of ourselves as moral beings, ideas of the world, the soul, and God, which have a higher truth than all our empirical knowledge. For it is this practical consciousness and its postulates which alone reveal to us what we really are, and what is our relation to God as the absolute Reality. It is thus for us the legitimate ground of a faith which goes beyond all our knowledge. Now, in this reasoning, Kant, as I have just said, is only making explicit the logic which underlies subjective religion in all its forms—from the extreme form of Buddhism, in which the subject is altogether torn away from the object, to the Judaic form, in which the latter is merely subordinated to the former, and even to the partial revival of the Judaic spirit in modern Protestantism.

It will, however, be easier to appreciate the merits and defects, the partial truth and the partial untruth of this mode of religious thought, after we have followed it out in the concrete, in the historical development of the different religious of this type.

  • 1. Sartor Resartus, iii. 8: “Innumerable are the illusions and legerdemain tricks of custom; but of all these perhaps the cleverest is her knack of persuading us that the miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be miraculous.”
  • 2. He who wishes to know and to describe a living thing, endeavours first to drive the soul out of it; then he has in his hands the separate parts; only the spiritual bond, unfortunately, is gone.
  • 3. Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, Den können wir erlösen.
  • 4. Don Quixote, First Part, iv. 47.