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Lecture 11 The World of the Individualist

Lecture 11
The World of the Individualist
THE main conclusions of our last lecture may be illustrated by a reference to Mr. Bosanquet's chapter on “The World of Claims and Counter-claims” in his great work on The Value and Destiny of the Individual.
The world of claims and counter-claims is a world of independent human units.
The facts of this world give rise to pessimism: man is a failure and God is unjust.

That his world of claims and counter-claims is the same as that which we described in our last lecture needs no proof. It is “the moral world” of ordinary and philosophic opinion the world which religious men condemn as worthless because what is done therein does not issue from love of God because all actions done in it are imperfect and sin-stained. Its fundamental characteristics as we have already seen are the unitary isolation and independence of its constituents and in consequence the external and contingent character of their relations to one another. The duty that is commanded and the claim that calls for satisfaction are both alike the personal private affairs of the individual; and both the command and the claim issue from a source that is alien. The claims come from men who are “nothing to us” or from the God of Theism who made the world long ago and has since stood aloof from it. Now the life of finite man as thus conceived “is essentially and inherently one of hazard and hardship” says Mr. Bosanquet. “It is bound to the hazard of attempting to live by the command of a superior which is outside and above it—an attempt which in the nature of the case must prove a continual failure.…It is bound to the hardship of constantly making demands for respect and assistance from God nature and fellowmen which are recognised as it appears most capriciously and imperfectly.”1 “We find ourselves always failing in our “duty” (the source of moral pessimism) and not getting our “rights” (pessimistic sense of injustice).”2 That man is spiritually unworthy and that God is unjust seem to be plain and inevitable conclusions forced upon us by our experience of the world and our observation of the doings and sufferings of our fellow-men. And the religious consciousness so far from refuting or repudiating such impious conclusions adopts them greedily and then proceeds to nullify their significance. It finds in man's failure to do his duty by his isolated strength an incentive to unite himself to his God in religious devotion; and it concludes from the unequal and apparently unjust destinies of men in this world that God will be just and make reparation in another world and a future life.

But our demands for individualistic justice are wrong.
The argument is hardly worth refuting. We do not trust our fellow-men to do justice when they are out of our sight on the ground that so long as they were in our sight they did the opposite. We make the conduct which we have observed our clue to the conduct which we expect. It is not a safe clue but it is the best we can have; for character is assumed to have a certain consistency and constancy. Similarly if the demands we make on God are just and if they remain unfulfilled by him so far as our observation reaches then there is no escape from the pessimistic and atheistic conclusion—unless our observation is incomplete or otherwise untrustworthy.
We cannot demand except on the whole and for the whole.
But this is precisely the problem which we must now ask. Are our demands just? That they are not fulfilled in this life seems all too obvious. “Our ‘individual’ fortunes” says Mr. Bosanquet “betray no approximation to any single standard of individualistic justice to any claim for apportionment of external advantages either by equality qua human beings or by any other standard.…The spiritual world as a world of true membership affords no encouragement to ideas of justice turning on apportionment of advantages to units by any rule whatever.”3 And the good man insists on no such apportionment. He does not desire to be without any share in the joys and the sorrows of others. We could not approve of a world in which everybody was indifferent to everyone else. Nay even as “members of one another” it is no mechanical justice that is demanded or given. “We do not give the ‘best’ man the most comfort the easiest task or even so far as the conduct of the enterprise is concerned the highest reward. We give him the greatest responsibility the severest toil and hazard the most continuous and exacting toil and self-sacrifice.”4 The universe “shatters and despises” the claim of individualistic justice. Nor does it seem to matter on behalf of what kind of individual the claim is made. Even “the great world of spiritual membership to which really and in the end we belong takes no account at all of any such finite claims.”5 The scheme of things is not based upon justice to the individual. Unless I misunderstand Mr. Bosanquet this means that not even when we recognize the individual's true nature as a member of a spiritual system which comprises him and his fellows and which lives in and qualifies them all can we make claims on his behalf or condemn God as unjust if his fortune is not proportionate to his merit. We have not to ask whether or not God has been just in his dealings with A B or C however suffused they may be by their relations to their fellows and the world but whether the universe as a whole is justly ruled. “The proportion of fortune to merit is not really an idea which has a strong hold on healthy minds.”6
But justice on the whole and to the whole which is not justice to any constituent of that whole seems to me unsatisfactory from every point of view. There is no whole except that which exists in the related parts and no justice can be done to either the parts or the whole except by way of the opposite of each. Such empty and disembodied universals as Mr. Bosanquet seems to refer to do not and cannot exist. Least of all can they exist if it be true that the rational individual is a self-conscious focus of the universe; or if the whole is a rational whole; or if the universe throbs in his thinking and willing.
Mr. Bosanquet's ambiguous treatment of the finite individual.
His ultimate word of man is that he is a contradiction.
I am the more reluctant to understand Mr. Bosanquet in this way because his vision of the difference between the individualistic world of claims and counter-claims and “the world to which really and in the end we belong” is so clear. Nor would I do so were it not that Mr. Bosanquet has on other occasions also left the claim of finite existence and of men and women as they stand and go in this world of space and time amid trifling as well as serious issues in an analogous position. They are appearances we are told. But what is an “appearance”? Is it real or is it a mental figment?—real like one of Shakespeare's heroines or a unicorn; real in one sense and not real in another sense both senses remaining undefined; real to-day and unreal to-morrow when the Absolute will swallow it—these things I have never been able to understand. Indeed I am not convinced that Mr. Bosanquet's individuals ought to be intelligible for according to him they are “contradictions.” Predication concerning them is quite unsafe; for they fall “within the great ultimate contradiction of the finite-infinite nature.”7 That is Mr. Bosanquet's last word concerning man. He is finite and he is infinite and being both he is neither finite nor infinite; for apparently finite and infinite contradict each other. But if they contradict each other they must supplant each other; and they must owe their existence to that negative function.
The contradiction of finite and infinite questioned.
Now I do not deny the dual nature of man; but I refuse to regard opposites which are supplementary and positive aspects of the same reality as being contradictory; contradiction as a last word is a confession of failure. If the theory that ends in a contradiction rests on it as its final hypothesis is it not thereby proved false? I should like to ask what other test of falsehood is possible? It seems to me that “the great ultimate contradiction of the finite-infinite nature” is in truth a challenge to the intelligence to effect the reconciliation which the fact itself presents. And the possibility is suggested that here as elsewhere the opposites which seemed to contradict and therefore supplant each other really supplement and fulfil each other. Surely the infinite that stands merely opposed to the finite must be another finite. The true infinite must be that which reveals and realizes itself in the finite. On the other hand the finite in which and by which the infinite is thus revealed and realized has its own reality in the infinite and exists in virtue of it. But such a process is impossible where the opposites are merely contradictory as Mr. Bosanquet assumes. The possibility that the finite is the infinite in endless process of self-realization has I think not been realized by Mr. Bosanquet. He assumes that what is complete perfect must be static; and that the Absolute has this static perfection. Separated from that Absolute the finite disappears but the complementary and consequent truth that the infinite cannot be separated from the finite does not seem to have held for him. Hence to him the Absolute is not immanent. It is not the reality that is revealing itself in all the variety and changes of finite things but an otiose substance behind the processes.
The“moral world” in the sense of external rights and duties is a pure figment.
I am in thorough agreement with Mr. Bosanquet's description of “the world of claims and counterclaims” which is the moral world as ordinarily conceived and the world of the individualist. It is an “appearance” in the sense that it is a misrepresentation of the actual social world in which all of us alike live and move and have our being. In other words the world of the ordinary moralist and religious man in which every separate man as separate does his own right and wrong deeds the world out of which God is shut or which he governs as an autocrat and in which moral obligations are declarations of his will has the cardinal aspect of not being real. It is as much the creation of imagination as Prospero's island. It would be a world in which individual men and women are separate and distinct and exclusive and clink against one another like seaside pebbles. No one could owe any man anything. A man would fulfil his whole duty provided he let his neighbour alone. But such is not the world in which we live. It is a fiction of the individualist. Social solitariness is impossible. Men are born of social antecedents; and they also form and enter into social relations. They come to stand to each other as master and servant teacher and pupil seller and buyer landlord and tenant man and wife parent and child and so on. The relations vary as to their permanence and importance but according to these thinkers all alike leave the personalities conceived as the true selves of the individuals untouched. It cannot be otherwise; for it is taken for granted that all relations are external and contingent—pure creations of more or less capricious and entirely separate wills.
Man is born of and into relations to his fellows.
Of course it cannot be denied that men do form and enter into transient relations; and that many relations (that all open-eyed agreements) are the creation of the wills of the individuals who enter into the compact. The blunder lies in assuming that all relations come about in this way; and that they make no difference but leave the selves unaffected. But the root error is that of overlooking the fundamental affinities which unite men from the first and make later agreements possible. Men no more come out of their particularity in order to form society than the leaves of a tree come together and fix themselves upon its branches. Society is in a sense prior to the individual. He is not only born into it but born of it.
I do not think it is necessary to dwell much on this truth. Recent thought has detected the fanciful and unreal character of the individualistic social schemes. As a matter of experience we have never met a Melchisedec. All the men and women we have ever known or expect to know had a father and mother and very long ancestry; and they bore physical and mental traces of their descent in their very make and structure. The world into which they were born is one complex system of interrelated human beings every one of whom is structurally affected in mind body and soul by that system and finds in the mutual obligations between himself and his fellows the conditions of living the life of a rational being. We know now that wise men never did run wild in woods and that a life according to nature in Rousseau's sense is as impossible to us as the return into the form of molluscs. Man in short as Aristotle taught long ago is “a social animal.”
The social nature of man is now admitted but the results of doing so are not seen.
But while this is now acknowledged the consequences are not realized. That is to say the universality and inevitability of the social relations within which a man must live if he is to become and to live the life of a rational being are not seen to be inconsistent with their contingency and externality. The self that I am is still supposed to be in itself secluded and not in any relations positive or negative to my fellows or to the world. My self is a separate thing. I can peep at those relations from the privacy where I dwell and I can throw them off when I please or put them on and still remain the same self. There can be no relation more obligatory and binding than that which I call my duty to my neighbour or his duty to me. If any claim or counter-claim is valid it is that of duty. Nevertheless on this view even our duties are merely external obligations. They are imposed by another being whom we usually regard as “higher.” We have no part in making them binding and consequently our obedience to the command is not free nor our conduct moral.
The economic world is proximately individualistic.
Its spiritual poverty.
But I shall return to this aspect of the matter. In the meantime I wish to indicate that we have in the economic world something that approaches this individualist's conception of society. There the units are supposed to be indifferent to each other and no one is under obligations to any one else or can make claims upon him or in any way participate in his destiny except economically. Nothing counts in this social state of things except material values and one man's money so far as “business” is concerned is as good as another's. Justice in such a world would consist in equality and equality would mean equal possession of material wealth. That is to say the standard by which desert would be measured and claims acknowledged would have no ethical significance of any kind. The human and spiritual contents of personality have all been spilled out of the economic man. They are not required and do not count. The workman in a large factory or yard is not personally known by his employer nor is he of any personal interest to him. The employer drops his name and calls him by a number. And similarly on the other side the employer to the workman is a capitalist more or less just and nothing else—a money-bag kept rather closely shut.
But no human society—not even the economic—can come to be or exist except in virtue of ethical relations.
But materialistic as we have become in these times not even in Glasgow and its neighbourhood has society taken an exclusively economic character. Most men have other interests as well. When the workman goes home to his mother or his wife and children or when he joins his fellow-workmen in pursuit of political ends or the purposes of his union in every exchange of kindliness and consideration and personal regard the crudeness of the economic world is left behind. Relations that are ethical are found to exist in every human society even the lowest and these at the same time sweeten and exalt individual life and secure social unity.
Above all it must be observed that these more or less artificial and superficial economic relations indeed economic society itself could not come into being except for the action prolonged through many centuries of relations that are either consciously or unconsciously moral. After all economic relations imply a mutual trust amongst men and a stability of will and purpose which are beyond their reach so long as they are uncivilized.
Our conclusion then as to the purely fictitious character of the individualistic world agrees with Mr. Bosanquet's. No such society ever did nor can exist.
If the world of claims is a fiction why pass judgment on it or on God's treatment of it?
Why then I must ask pass judgment on such a figment and call it either just or unjust good or bad in any sense? It is not worthy even of condemnation. It would seem to me that to make claims on behalf of a detected fiction the pure creation of incorrect thinking is absurd. And such a fiction the individual member of this society is. To call God unjust because there exists no constant proportion between the deserts and the destiny of the social atoms of an individualistic and therefore impossible community is absurd. Having discovered and exposed the error the philosophers ought to let it lie. It is not a matter that can concern anyone whose interest is wholly in the real and the true. If he finds it “the general fact that when we regard each other as finite units in a world of externality we tend to frame schemes of apportionment according to which by some rule or other each separate unitary being has some claim to a separate unitary allotment of happiness or opportunity or reward—of something which should be added to him it seems to us by God or man or nature or fortune”8 he surely can have nothing to do with such schemes known to be pure fiction a thing in the clouds. Such schemes ought to interest no one. If no such beings as the individualist conceives are to be found how can they be treated either justly or unjustly? There is no ground for pessimism in their unheeded claims. Nor it seems to me can the existence of such beings be desired. Verily the world of claims would be a hard world—it would be a world where no mother cared for her child or child for its mother and no one shared another's joys or sorrows—a world without sympathy and without love—deprived of all the deeper spiritual supports both of morality and religion.
It is not man's doom to live in such a world. The world in which he does live is an incomparably better one; at the lowest it has spiritual possibilities and human features.
Such a world can have no moral character.
I have said that the individualist's world can have no moral character of any kind. In the first place as already indicated the claims and counter-claims are external in character. Even a divine commandment in so far as it is external can have no moral value. It does not obtain free obedience. So long as the claim is not imposed or re-imposed by the agent upon himself his acknowledgment of it has no ethical value. In the next place it would seem to me that except personal fear or gain that is except some directly self-regarding motive be in operation neither claims nor counter-claims could be recognized. “Why should I be moral?” or rather “How can I be moral?” unless moral imperatives appear to me to be the demands of what is Best. The moral good must have objective value. Duty becomes a moral obligation only when it ceases to matter who has made the demand provided the agent endorses it: the demand itself must be just.
It is only “the good” that can supply social impulse to progress—really only the Best.
It would thus seem to me that a world of individualistic claims and counter-claims lacks all that can make the claims and counter-claims binding or even operative at all. The constituents of such a world as Mr. Bosanquet suggests would hold one another at arm's length; or they would seek solitude. And most certainly no progressive or spiritual impulse would be present. That impulse comes when the fulfilment of duty is recognized in both its aspects; when it seems to be at the same moment the realization of what is objectively best and the attainment of one's own true good. For man is not doing what is wrong in seeking his own well-being. His error springs from conceiving and seeking a personal well-being which is not at the same time a universal objective good. Every action has its own personal and even subjective and private aspect: willing what is right or wrong is always a lonely matter. But the exclusive features of it are in the background. They form no part of the motive and in fact do not count. For the good man is good just because he has given his self away dedicated it and saved it by the dedication. It is after the act a better “self” than it ever was before. Its life is more full and it moves on a higher level.
Hence morality and religion the finite and infinite are reconciled.
Now this means to me in one word the reconciliation of morality and religion for morality becomes the active operation of the Best that is the religious life. But this also means a victory over the contradiction of the finite and infinite aspects of man's nature. It not only affirms the immanence of God in the volitions of men but shows the grounds of its possibility. The ultimate ethical force which the individual individuates that is turns into elements of his own personality is God's. Just in the same way the physical force which man exerts and spends is that of his world.
Mr. Bosanquet ought therefore to have nothing to do with a world of exclusive wills or with an Absolute which stands over against the finite and in contradiction to it. It is “beyond” “impossible” and so on and should be left to Herbert Spencer. The infinite that we do know and have a right to call just or unjust is the power which manifests itself in the events of the world natural and spiritual in which we live. That infinite is a process which never rests. Like all else it is what it does; and to know what it is we must consider its works. If man will but lift his eyes he will find that the Universe is the daily and constant revelation of this ultimate reality and that the reality which it reveals is spiritual.
Aloofness of Mr. Bosanquet's Absolute—like Spencer's.
No evidence of it is possible nor is there any example of purely finite facts.
Hence the relation of finite and infinite is negative for Mr. Bosanquet.
My contention then is that Mr. Bosanquet's Absolute is no less a fiction than the world of claims and counter-claims whose existence he rejects. In it the finite is either lost or transmuted beyond recognition. The process of constant change which on such a view the finite appears to be is lawless and chaotic enough to satisfy the wildest Pragmatism. But we have no reliable evidence of uncaused happenings. Every event points back to conditions out of which it has arisen and if we observe it we shall find it gives rise to or rather takes the form of still other conditions. This means that what is changing is something that is also constant. The detachment of events is only one aspect of them; or more truly this one aspect closely observed will prove to be the reality itself in process. But Mr. Bosanquet keeps these two characters asunder. The events of our life stand for Mr. Bosanquet “in a temporal series” over against the fixity of what is eternal; and “the ultimate triumph” that is of the good can take place only “in the Absolute.” “The total expression of it within the temporal series is inconceivable.”9 And yet it would appear that the things of time express the Absolute. “One thing seems to me certain” he says. “The expression of the Absolute cannot be wholly reserved for the future. The past must have had its share. What else can it have been than such an expression? And something is certainly dropped as we proceed by the nature of finiteness though it is open to any one to argue that what is added must be of greater value.”10 From this it would appear that Mr. Bosanquet's Absolute contains something that the finite cannot hold; and on the other hand there seems to be something in finite facts which has to be left behind as “not capable of Salvation.” They are “dropped” and never recovered. The infinite is not the whole and the Absolute is not all-inclusive. Mr. Bosanquet's doctrine on this matter is somewhat ambiguous but his last pronouncement and final one seems to affirm the essential separateness of the finite and infinite or the relative and absolute. And yet they are not so separate as to be incapable of clashing. “The finite-infinite creature” is “always in a condition of self-transcendence.…He is always endeavouring to pass beyond himself in achievement.…He is always a fragmentary being inspired by an infinite whole which he is for ever striving to express in terms of his limited range of externality. In this ex hypothesi he can never succeed. But this effort of his is not wasted or futile. It is a factor of the self-maintenance of the Universe; it constitutes…an element in the Absolute.”11
Man for Mr. Bosanquet is in truth finite and his infinitude only a troubling aspiration.
What more do you require the reader may ask in the way of bringing the infinite and finite together in the nature of man? I reply that for “self-transcendence” I would write “self-realization” or “self-attainment.” Instead of saying that man is always endeavouring to “pass beyond himself” I would say that he is endeavouring to reach or become himself. I cannot admit that man is a fore-doomed failure: that were too cruel an invention for any Creator. Instead of affirming that in his ethical actions he is always failing I would say that he is always succeeding—even when he “learns through evil that good is best.” And I would add that the gain of the Universe consists in the increased value of the individual selves which are evolved; and would refuse to regard man the self-conscious and therefore infinite individual as a mere element even in the Absolute. What reaches over its other is more than an “element.” All through Mr. Bosanquet's argument the supposition runs that man's real nature is finite. He has to pass “beyond” himself in order to achieve the infinite—an obvious impossibility. The consequence is that if and when man does pass beyond himself (and he is lifted above himself by his religion) man's self disappears. Mr. Bosanquet speaks of “the absorption of the self by will and conviction in the perfection which inspires it and belongs to it”;12 as if in becoming real the self ceased to be or at least to be itself.
Man is the infinite in process for he is self-conscious.
At this point the difference of view becomes clear and significant. Man has not to go beyond himself in order to reach the infinite. Nor does he need to be transmuted in order to become an item in the Absolute. He is the infinite in process. A mere finite could not aspire or in any way seek to go beyond itself any more than a cow can be moral. Man can seek to become only that which he potentially is: and what a man is potentially he is most truly—only we must permit what is potential to reveal itself in the process of becoming. To be a rational self means to be self-determined and what is self-determined is at once both infinite and absolute. Nothing is alien to it. It is in its nature all-inclusive. This fundamental characteristic belongs to the narrowest and most ignorant and least virtuous self we can conceive so long as it is held to be sane and rational capable of doing either what is right or what is wrong and therefore free. It is in him to “acquire” and what he is capable of becoming is that which he most truly is.
When I read man's history therefore what I find is not a finite creature trying to transcend himself an necessarily failing but a potency that is infinite in its nature operating as a spiritual being at a certain stage of its actuality and in response to certain circumstances. If either side of the human self had to be called unreal or deceptive I should call it his finite fixed exclusive side. But the conception of the finite as the self-revealing and self-realizing process of what is in its nature absolute and infinite averts the need of fixed and static entities and avoids the difficulties which spring therefrom.
The double result of moral progress.
Hence to me every step in spiritual well-doing is at once the actual attainment of the Best the realization as demanded and made possible by the circumstances of the moment of a good that is moral and therefore Absolute and also it is the building up of the individual as an individual. He means more and is more and has more worth after the deed than before. “The Absolute is all-inclusive by transmutation” says Mr. Bosanquet “and is thus no mere aggregate”13 but the transmutation is supposed to be confined to its finite content. The Absolute cannot change. What is perfect must remain fixed in order to be real—a pure assumption if the conflict of good and evil is admitted. Such a view which rules out real perfection rules out the whole content and inspiration of progress. It suggests to Mr. Bosanquet an ever-receding goal which verily is not inspiring. That it could be a succession of achievements has not appeared probable to him. “There is no Interpreter's House or Palace Beautiful” on the way for Mr. Bosanquet's Pilgrim where he can be refitted and refreshed and sent forth singing. Mr. Bosanquet in a word “objects to the conception of change in the ultimate real.”14 The Absolute stands aloof after all from the world of finite happenings of which by the by this world is crammed full. It does not express itself in the changes. It is not that which does emit the changes; it is not a perfection which never rests or ceases to throw out its rays. It is a dead Absolute like the static substance of Spinoza. The living turmoil is all elsewhere. The relation between finite and infinite the relative and the absolute God and the world is in the end negative exclusive contradictory. The moral world is the world in which every man tries to go beyond himself and of course fails. Failure attends the efforts of him who has no less than of him who has not identified his will with that of God ratified adopted loved his commands and found in his service perfect freedom; for he has had to leave his self out and become something or somebody else. As a moral being in this world he does not do justice and he does not receive justice in any full sense. There is no such actual achievement anywhere. On all hands at the best there is only a striving after “a beyond.” Man is doomed to carry with his consciousness of “I ought” and “I would” the conviction of “I cannot.” As a moral being he must not expect to perform an act which can satisfy his sense of what is right. If being religious he is satisfied it is because his self has been transcended. Religion is God's presence and action in him and be it noted not a man's own action also; for these two are exclusive.
The contradiction is ultimate for Mr. Bosanquet and pessimism the legitimate result.
Contradiction is thus for Mr. Bosanquet the ultimate word regarding this world of time and tears. It is a contradiction between two things each of which is fixed. It is therefore not soluble. It can only be removed by treating either the one or the other of the opposites as unreal. And this is what he does. In this life it is the infinite or absolute or perfect which is unreal. In the next it is the finite that has to disappear or what comes to the same thing to be transmuted. This world the world in which we live and which we help to make the moral world is the sphere of the unavailing effort to reach a solution and the scene of a double failure. It is a world in which man is condemned to failure and in which God is not called upon to be just except “on the whole.” The next world is the scene of such transmutation that nothing is any longer recognizable.
So far as I can see such fixed opposites as Mr. Bosanquet employs are not capable of yielding any satisfying result.
I reserve for our next lecture the defence of a less despairing view.

From the book: