The World of the Idealist
Idealism in modern poetry and philosophy.
THE substance of the view which I would demonstrate by irrefragable proof if I could is suggested by Wordsworth in the opening words of the Ninth Book of The Excursion.
“To every Form of being is assigned
An active Principle:—howe'er removed
From sense and observation it subsists
In all things in all natures; in the stars
Of azure heaven the unenduring clouds
In flower and tree in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks the stationary rocks
The moving waters and the invisible air.
Unfolded still the more more visible
The more we know; and yet is reverenced least
And least respected in the human Mind
Its most apparent home.”
Kant's Copernican change—his affirmation of the priority of practical reason.
I have quoted Wordsworth because we accept optimistic utterances from the poets more readily than from philosophers; and we are less ready to charge them with taking a shallow view of life and treating evil too lightly. Moreover if I have not misapprehended the whole mission of modern Idealism I should say that it is to give a reasoned and definite expression to this poetic faith and to justify it in the face of the facts of life—justify it that is to say to the understanding of men who will neither reduce the reality of these facts by calling them appearances nor proceed by a method which selects convenient and favourable facts and passes all others by. Idealism received its inspiration from Wordsworth and Coleridge and their fellow-poets no less than it received its specific problem from Kant. Kant introduced what he called the Copernican change by giving the necessities of spirit logical priority over those of sense and natural facts. But the change which he introduced carries far more consequences than he foresaw or indeed than have even yet been realized whether in the theories or in the practice of mankind. It implies not only that religion and morality and all the rights and privileges of a nature that is rational can be placed beyond the reach of the engines of scepticism safe from all attack but have to be reinterpreted and to take a wider meaning. In the last resort for Kant the interests of man are moral; the truth is to be known for the sake of the good; the knowable universe exists in order to furnish a fit frame for the moral life; and the ultimate necessity for the existence of God lies in the demand for the realization of a complete good. But the moral life for Kant is ultimately intensely individualistic. Every man is set to seek his own perfection. The pursuit is solitary. He stands alone with no strength save his own under the thunder of the categorical imperative. And his strength is sufficient. “He can because he ought” although he is never complete victor over his own desires and requires infinite time. If in one sense he may be held to be an ephemeral phenomenon amongst phenomena in another the whole natural scheme is a thing lighter than vanity in the presence of his spirit. And if he has intercourse with his fellows in society it is that of a king with kings.1
The Idealistic re-affirmation of the kinship of man and his world and the spiritualization of the latter.
But all this Kantian teaching had to be changed in being adopted. The individual had to suffer at least temporary dethronement. Psychology was to cease to play the rôle of metaphysics; man had to be derived and to appear as mediated by the natural scheme. Morality had to be both naturalized and socialized: it must cease to be either an exception or an antagonist to the scheme of things and lose its defiant character. Moral goodness which is the becoming morally good must itself be a process of the real. The movement must be seen as the very best thing that could take place and as that in which the world of the real reveals its true character and reaches its full fruition. Hence religion too must attain a new character. It must derive its value not from the failure of morality but from its success: it must be recognized as that which inspires morality being the sense of infinite companionship—“If God be for us who can be against us?”
Now this change though it involves the whole outlook of philosophy morality and religion comes in the last resort to one thing only: man as an individual instead of being the centre around which the Universe revolves is now caught up in its career. But the Universe itself is spiritual relative to mind and therefore to man in every item. It verily is a Copernican change a new spiritual astronomy destined to make many beliefs obsolete and to be received reluctantly. Man is man on this view in virtue of his kinship with the world; not because his self is private but for the very opposite reason.
Apparent contradiction of human nature.
But it is difficult for man to give up or even to postpone his self in any department. He seems to stand naturally at the centre of things: East and West and North and South seem inevitably to begin where he is and the zenith is always immediately above his head. The difficulty is especially great if the promise that he will receive his self back enriched is uncertain and given in indefinite language. And that the promise has thus far not been free from these defects is hard to deny; for the votaries of this way of thinking are not seldom given to accentuate the negative side of the process of morality and to make much of its contradictions and pains and perils; while the Absolute in which is the ultimate truth and reality of things is apt to be an empty maw where finite things are transmuted. This is the substance of our criticism of Mr. Bosanquet. He over-accentuates the merely negative side of morality and emphasizes its hazards and hardships. Man's self is “a finite being which is infinite without realizing it and so…is always beyond itself.” “It is this double being which necessitates the atmosphere of hazard and hardship which surrounds the finite self when it tries to take itself as such.” 2
If it could “take itself” as more than finite if it could realize its infinitude by completely identifying itself with the perfect thinking no imperfect thoughts seeking no imperfect good doing no deed in an imperfect way then all would be well. But to do this the finite being would be obliged to pass beyond itself that is I presume it would have to leave its self behind and become something or somebody else—which is plainly impossible.
This I think is not merely contradiction but confusion. In the face of it one is disposed to ask some plain questions and to make some plain statements. Presumably man's life would have as little “hazard” or “hardship” as the animal's if he had no moral aspirations that is to say if the aim of his being were not the attainment of the perfect which means the doing of what is morally right. Expunge his higher nature and there would remain not a being acquainted with hazards and hardships but a contented animal chewing its cud. Presumably on the other hand “hazard and hardship” would not fitly characterize a life which actually attained the perfect.
It is no longer necessary to discuss the first of these two alternatives. However close the kinship between men and animals we are not disposed to overlook the fact that somehow or another the process of evolution culminates in converting man's natural needs into spiritual ideals freely sought. The second alternative remains I think even for Mr. Bosanquet himself provided he keeps running the hazards and facing the hardships. He has detected the unreality of the “world of claims and counter-claims.” Bad as our world is in many ways it is not so hopelessly bad as that—not even the economic part of it.
The contradiction is not real: for morality is religion in practice.
What world is real then? Or how are we to characterize truly what we falsely viewed as a world of claims and counter-claims? Evidently as a world in which morality is re-interpreted in the light of religion; and in which man is recognized as having claims and fulfilling them (or as a being with rights and duties) because he is already in the service of the Best. His rights are conclusive and his claims are sound only because the good actually is at their back; and his duties are binding for the same reason. But this is nothing more nor less than to attribute both the demands that men make upon one another and upon their God and the mutual service they render each other in this world of space and time to the activity of what is Perfect. The world of human intercourse of mutual help and hindrance the ordinary social or moral world we thus trace first to the volitions of men. It is their continued volitions that keep it in existence. Let man cease to will and the moral world as known to us disappears. And if we take up the volitions of men we shall find (not seldom under deep obscuration) that nothing could call them into being except a vision of a good end—nay of the best—or what he conceives to be the Best though it may not by any means be regarded by him as morally best. That vision incites the will receives the assent of the head and heart and becomes the object of a choice which is free. If we want further to trace his right or wrong interpretations of what is best we shall have a long road to travel. We must bring in all that went to the making of his disposition all his past history. But we should not have to go beyond his personality for all these things are gathered into him and the choice in the end is his own. But his world has co-operated. If you are asked who did this deed you must answer in the same way as you would answer a question regarding physical movement. Whose forces are employed when I walk? Are they mine and not the physical world's or the world's and not mine? We can deny the part therein neither of the individual nor of the physical world.
An action is both mine and my world's.
A man's world is the positive content of his personality.
Why should we judge spiritual facts otherwise and conclude that an action must cease to be mine if I am to regard it as inspired by my religious attitude and the result of “God's working in me”? The reason is that spiritual deeds are as already observed more obviously private individual; and that we overlook the fact that they are the result of the individuation of common elements. The spiritual as compared with the natural universe is a closer unity for the members enter into each other's life and fate; and yet the unity is made up of more independent elements. The intensely individual character of moral responsibility cannot be compromised. Man does what is right or what is wrong as if he were the sole living being in the Universe. His action is the result of his own interpretation of his self and its needs and of that which can satisfy. His antecedents and his environment are not forces operating upon him. They are elements of his concrete self. His individuality has absorbed incorporated them and they are active only because they are elements in his personality and are therefore participant in his volitions. The difference that separated the self and the not-self is overcome through the inclusion or absorption of the latter in the former. It is the nature of the rational self to negate the strangeness of the not-self and to deprive it of its alien character. All that is spiritual must be individual. Human life on this view is a process in which what appears at first glance to be finite and exclusive is found to be infinite. That which actually works as rational life is that which has no fixed limits. It is engaged in overpassing them; that is to say in showing that they are not limits. Man is the infinite in the process of demonstrating his infinitude.
His self is the Perfect realizing itself anew.
Hence the finite and infinite in man are not contradictory but complementary to each other.
Hence so far from transcending himself through the activities of his life he is becoming himself. The human world is to me a moral world in the making. In the last resort nothing or nothing of consequence takes place except that men here are slowly learning goodness. This is the same thing as to say that what is operative everywhere in and through and as the wills of men is the infinite goodness of God—human history is “God's working” as we say. The process is both moral and religious both human and divine both finite and infinite. So intimately are these related so truly are they inseparable aspects of one whole that the moment we do separate them each becomes an abstract nonentity and unintelligible. The aspirations of the finite the moral movement of the world becomes impossible. Not even the effort can take place. There were for man nothing but pure stagnancy if the ideals of reason did not translate his natural desires. And on the other hand the infinite or absolute would be distant “beyond” out of touch with finitude. The finite could not reach it without “going beyond itself”—a feat it cannot perform. These are the conclusions to which Mr. Bosanquet is driven and so long as the distinction between the finite and infinite is regarded as the opposition of contradictory facts they are not avoidable.
Can this optimistic faith be justified?
What he regards as contradictory I would represent as complementary. The opposites if we so call them maintain and exist and act in virtue of each other. The infinite reveals and realizes itself in the finite; and the finite is real and not an appearance. It is a final and ultimate real retaining its individuality through all changes because and in so far as it is the operation of the whole. The whole on its part is the infinite articulated and in man individuated. But can this view be proved? Does not such a faith carry with it consequences which are obviously inadmissible? The advantages of reconciling the sacred and the secular religion and morality the claims of the spiritual and of the natural self and of finding in what is perfect the impulse that moves the universe on its course would be to establish a priceless confidence and bring that Peace of which the greatest optimist the world ever saw is said to have spoken. But even that optimism is too dearly bought if bought at the expense of either denying imperfection and reducing evil into a temporary appearance or on the other hand of making God participate in the evil doings of men and responsible for the inequalities under which they live and the injustice they suffer.
Only on the whole: in the sense that we cannot fully know the individual.
The answer which as we saw has been offered is that we are not concerned with the destiny of the individual but with the character of the scheme of things as a whole. We rejected this answer in a summary fashion. The parts we thought must inevitably share the character of the whole and in justice ought also to share its destiny. And this is true above all of a system which is spiritual and which is focussed more or less fully in every individual member of it.
But there is another sense in which we are not called upon to justify God's dealing with the individual or to maintain a religious faith except in view of the scheme as a whole. We are not called upon to perform a task which exceeds our capacities; and it does exceed the capacity of man who is only in process of realizing his infinitude finally to prove or disprove anything concerning the individual. That can be done only when knowledge is complete; and complete knowledge of the individual that is of the concrete individual who alone is real implies complete knowledge of his relations to the universe which give him the elements of his personality. To pass judgment on a man's action we must know the man; indeed know everything in him or about him which either palliated or aggravated his act—his circumstances his history his parentage his disposition his tastes instincts and all the advantages and disabilities under which he lives. But such exhaustive knowledge is evidently beyond our power to attain. Our statements must therefore be general and applicable only on the whole; for the consequences of an omission of any item were to render our verdict insecure and possibly unjust.
Evidently under such circumstances we should not pass any judgment on our fellows. But that is not practicable and in this as in other matters we must do the best we can. To live together we must form estimates of one another. Social life implies different degrees of mutual reliance. As a rule we pass moral judgments; but not always by any means. Indeed nothing is more vague or uncertain than the standard of values which men employ and no vital matter has received less consideration. In our ordinary life of more or less useful mutual service which human society is the problems we have practically to solve are problems of priority. That is to say in order to play our part as members of the social system we must judge not so much between the decisive opposites good and evil as between the good and the better or between the bad and the worse. Plain opposites do not often present themselves. The questions we decide are questions of degree and of what is or is not opportune.
Practical necessity of passing judgment on individuals.
These judgments if religious are universal; hence not demonstrably right or wrong.
But the religious attitude is different. There our judgments must be comprehensive and final and our approval or disapproval is in nowise limited. It applies to the whole man and it is a pronouncement upon his spiritual i.e. his true and ultimate worth or worthlessness. All judgments inspired by the religious point of view have this comprehensive and final character. All is right or all is wrong. If “God's in his heaven all's right with the world.” If there be no God or if he lacks either power or goodness then nothing is right. The religious man's experience of the world may be limited his observation of man's life may have been external and superficial but if his enquiry concerns the existence and character of God and is made in the interest and from the point of view of religion the conclusion at which he arrives is an affirmation or a denial of the validity of a faith which is all-inclusive and final. But his judgments whether valid or not are insecure. Their truth has not been demonstrated. He has drawn a conclusion which is universal in its character from premisses which are particular and incomplete.
External aspect of the world favours scepticism; but it is a scepticism that omits and is untrustworthy.
From this point of view I am in entire agreement with Mr. Bosanquet that we cannot justify a scheme that equalizes on any principles the destiny and the deserts of individuals. There can be no doubt as to the evidence which is offered by the world in which we live. Taken as simply “given” or at its face value it favours scepticism. The circumstances of the life of good individuals do not furnish grounds for believing that a loving God has them in his special care. What such observation presents to our view is a world apparently left to itself. And if we observe the ways of men from the purely secular point of view and without admitting the truth of the presuppositions of a religious faith the best we can see is a moral struggle. And from this point of view the moral struggle is not merely full of hazards and hardships but tragical to the last degree; for it is the hopeless struggle of finite beings to “transcend themselves.” And what worse can there be than the necessary failure of the pursuit of the best? Whether the world is not better “left to itself” and whether the moral struggle is the attempt of men to transcend or to reach themselves are further questions. These we postpone for the moment. But one thing must be clearly recognized: if we cannot approve neither can we condemn the actual world from mere observation of the particulars of the lives of individuals. If the religious conclusion is insecure the opposite is in nowise better founded. We can in fact convict scepticism of the omission of a ruling factor. It overlooks the fact that external circumstances owe the value that they have to the use which is made of them. Their value is not intrinsic as is the value of moral facts. Whether a man's poverty or ill-health or misfortunes are his loss or gain we cannot know except by relating them to his life and its aims. And what is true of individual men is true of the whole scheme. It too must be set in its spiritual context if we would find its final value. Should it happen that the present world abandoned to itself as it seems to be and full of inequalities—wealth health the respect of men and every form of prosperity and their opposites distributed without any reference to the deserts of men—should it happen that it furnishes to mankind as a whole the best opportunity for learning goodness then the sceptical condemnation of it and the denial of the existence and perfection of God are wrong. But they are wrong only if a still further condition is fulfilled. They are wrong if the process of learning to do what is right or in the language of religion if “the service of God” has itself a worth which is neither conditional nor limited.
We cannot draw either religious or sceptical conclusions from observation of the world and man's history.
Particular facts furnish not premisses but tests of our conceptions.
Our religious beliefs or disbeliefs spring from reflexion on our spiritual and inner experience.
It would appear then that we are as little entitled to justify or condemn the scheme of things as a whole as we are to justify or condemn its details. Neither side to this controversy has a right to draw universal inferences from particular data and the affirmation or denial of the existence of God is such a universal. This was suggested by Kant so far as he denies our right to conclude anything but a finite Creator from a finite world. But we can go further. The particulars of human experience even if we could exhaust their meaning would not furnish grounds for theological deductions. In their logical applications the particulars are not premisses so much as tests. We do not draw from our observation of the world or of the ways and destiny of men our conception of either the being or the character of God: we try to discover whether facts do or do not justify our religious belief or unbelief. In short we employ the same method as the scientific man does in his enquiries. He does not go to the facts he wishes to understand with an open-mouth and an empty-mind nor wait in the laboratory on anything that may happen. He is endeavouring to discover whether facts corroborate that is exemplify some presupposition or hypothesis which he brings with him. Strictly speaking inference from particulars can yield not explanatory principles but generalizations. Newton might though most unsafely have inferred from the fall of one apple that other apples would also fall under similar circumstances. But the idea which explained the fall the conception of the active principle which produced the fall he had to bring with him. We may call this power of anticipating the meaning of facts imagination or intuition and make it seem miraculous and inexplicable. My view as I have already indicated is that our intuitions and hypothetical preconceptions have their origin like other ideas in our experience. In any case we employ them in all our enquiries. And in so far as our conception of the being and of the character of God—the religious or sceptical attitude in which we approach the world and the doings of men in order to observe them—in so far as this is not merely traditional we owe it not so much to external observation as to reflexion upon our own inner experience—upon our nature our needs our yearnings our disappointments and satisfaction. We discover our need of God when we come to our selves. The evidence must be spiritual if our conclusion is the acceptance or rejection of a religious faith. In this controversy or enquiry only spiritual values can count. If the scheme of things is such as to maintain these then all is well; if not then all is wrong.
That we cannot trace spiritual law in the particular does not disprove its presence.
Does the scheme of things then justify religious faith even when we judge of it only as a whole and make use of no standard of measurement except that which is strictly spiritual? This is the question we have now to face. I would recall to your minds the limits within which our answer is offered: first that with Mr. Bosanquet we judge only of the scheme as a whole (I am not saying on the whole); and secondly that the conclusion is made to rest and religious faith accepted or rejected on spiritual grounds. As to the first of these two conditions I think it has been made plain that we speak of the scheme as a whole and not of its particulars not because we admit that the benevolent will of God may not be operative in the latter but because we cannot know them through and through and therefore cannot draw from our observation of them any conclusion either religious or sceptical. My attitude in this differs radically from that of Mr. Bosanquet who does not merely suspend judgment but considers that the evidence of the divine benevolence is to be found only in the scheme as a whole.
The purely spiritual criterion of judgment.
No evident connexion between right action and external well-being.
The second point—the employment of purely spiritual standards in the matter of religious belief or unbelief—needs some explanation. It means that in this enquiry we really ask and try to answer only one question. Do the moral laws—the laws which demand justice between man and man and man and God and not only justice but “love” and every other principle of spiritual excellence—do these hold in our world? Is the relation of deed and result or antecedent and consequent reliable universal necessary as we consider it to be in the natural world? Or are there any instances in which the doing of a good action leaves the doer a worse man? Expressed in a more general way has right-doing ever been known to inflict moral loss or wrong-doing to bring moral gain? One such case would be as destructive of religious faith and as justly negate the existence power and goodness of God and the effective operation of his will as one instance of the failure of natural law would be a conclusive negation of that law. But two conditions must be fulfilled before the sceptic could draw his negative conclusion. He must not only have failed to trace the operation of the spiritual law but he must have succeeded in tracing its failure. The first case would only justify suspension of judgment: scepticism in order to deny must prove the second. The second condition must be the exclusion of all considerations which are not directly moral or spiritual. It is not for a moment to be denied that as things are and have been in the past and will be till that distant future comes when social life attains a high degree of perfection men by doing what is right have brought and will bring tragic misfortune upon themselves and upon those who depend on them. This indeed is the most frequent theme of tragedy. The reflective scrupulousness of Hamlet the intensity of Othello's love for Desdemona the headlong trustfulness of Lear—in short the apparent failure of some form of good is at the heart of every great tragedy. If it be true that in the long run natural well-being follows moral good conduct it is not true so far as the history of mankind has proceeded that “all these things are added” to those who “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Spiritual excellence and material prosperity—good health wealth social esteem and so on—seem to be related to each other by no law of any kind. If the demand for such a sequence be right then the sceptic's case is so far to all appearance in process of being proved by man's experience.
Assumption that spiritual good is supreme and the source of all other values.
But on the assumption that spiritual excellence is supreme excellence that moral or spiritual good is the only final and absolute good—good in its own right and good whatever else occurs—and that all material things derive their value positive or negative from this final good according as they contribute to it or hinder it—on that assumption the demand that “good men should have a good time” and that pain suffering loss sorrow should be concentrated on bad men would be irrelevant and even wrong. The religious spirit has no difficulties over this question. It finds no insuperable obstacle to counting “all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus.” It says with Paul I “do count them but dung that I may win Christ.” And there are considerations which go far to show that its conviction is valid.
In the first place there are very many undeniable instances of the conversion by the spiritual-minded man of all manner of apparently unfavourable circumstances into means of further religious progress. External circumstances of all kinds have been made into opportunities for learning goodness; and there are hardly any limits to the power of character over circumstance. The praise of God has arisen at times from strange conditions—given a love of the Highest that fills the soul it will find fuel in everything and break into the brighter flame for pain poverty and other natural ills.
On the other hand the secondary and derivative and conditional character of natural goods is in constant process of being demonstrated. The most miserable men the blankest failures the lives which become most weary of themselves the men whose career has all along its course had low value and ends in defeat are I believe as a rule “the men of pleasure.”
If this assumption is true then the world is a training place in virtue.
From both sides the same conclusion is pressed upon us if we are at all fair-minded. The experience of the former and especially their “peace” of soul and happiness indicate that they have been making the right use of the external circumstances of life. That of the second is a frank confession that the circumstances have been misused. And for my part I have never heard the verdict of either withdrawn. And the right use of a thing always implies a right understanding of its nature. Those who make the best use of the changes and chances of the present life must thus have rightly interpreted their purpose; those who have made a wrong foolish disappointing use have wrongly interpreted them. I do not see how this conclusion can be avoided; nor the value of the testimony coming as it does from both sides be denied. It seems that the natural world is the instrument of a spiritual end.
A moral good that is not supreme is an absurdity.
The moral process is itself a triumph.
In the next place the very existence of moral good must imply its supremacy. It cannot be means to anything above or beyond itself. To use what is moral as means is to destroy its moral character. To be good in order to “get on” either here or hereafter is not a precept that the moral consciousness can enforce. The final value of spiritual excellence is so obvious that I need not dwell upon it. What remains is this—that in this world of ours confused as it often seems lawless and abandoned there is in operation a force making for ends whose value is unconditional. We may say that its victory has not arrived as yet but I do not think that we can deny that it is in process. The history of the world in the past may possibly be regarded as giving ambiguous evidence of the presence of the Best. One is not always able to be certain that “the world is becoming better.” Nevertheless it seems to me that the intrinsic nature of the moral process makes it in itself a triumph; or in other words that while both good and bad are real and both a process the former is a process of growth and of attainment the latter a process of self-refutation and deletion.
I may conclude the present lecture by summarizing our results.
Summary of results.
Firstly: The particular events and experiences of individual lives cannot furnish to us the grounds for concluding either the truth or falsity of religious faith. These furnish not premisses but tests.
Secondly: We approach the facts of life with a preconception favourable or unfavourable of the existence and nature of God which is the result not so much of external observation as of reflexion upon our own nature and needs.
Thirdly: Hence our religious faith or scepticism has the same ultimate use and character as a scientific hypothesis and its validity must be tested in the same way.
Fourthly: The test must be spiritual for the conception whose truth we wish to prove or disprove is spiritual.
Fifthly: No other test is final; no values other than spiritual values are unconditional.
Sixthly: Subjected to such a test the world in which we live appears to have one supreme purpose; that is to furnish mankind with the opportunity for learning goodness.
Lastly: The confessions of the religious spirit and of the pleasure-loving corroborate each other in that the former has rightly interpreted and rightly used the natural circumstances of life while the latter has done the opposite.
The moral victory is in process and the nature alike of moral good and of moral evil is such as to make it secure.