It is a commonplace to say that the most outstanding defect of ordinary philosophical treatises on ethics is their usually inadequate treatment of the problem of moral evil. Most writers on the subject seem to think they have done all that is to be expected of them when they have tried to tell us what the good for man is and what virtue, or the moral law, demands of us. What they set before us is either a theory of the good, or, it may be, a Tugendlehre or Pflichtlehre, and not much more. Even when the writer formally styles his exposition a “theory of good and evil,” it is good of which he has most to say; evil usually comes off with a perfunctory consideration, and sometimes, as in Dr. G. E. Moore’s influential Principia Ethica, is barely mentioned. So much is this the case that in many generally excellent moral treatises the very word sin never occurs, and the notion of sinfulness, or wickedness, is represented as a distinctively theological supplementation to, if not a theological distortion of, the plain facts of the moral life. It might not be going much too far to say that, of the major philosophers who have dealt expressly and at length with the moral life of man (independently of a theological tradition), there are only two, though they are two of the greatest, Plato and Kant, whose language reveals a keen and constant sense of human sinfulness. Certainly, one would look in vain for such a sense in the work of most of the best-known of these philosophers. It is not in Aristotle, nor in Descartes, nor in Spinoza, nor in Leibniz, nor in Hegel; least of all in the breezy and easy-tempered David Hume.1 It is not even prominent in such vigorous champions of an “eternal and immutable” morality as Cudworth, Clarke and Price. The exceeding sinfulness of man is not one of their themes, and this is the more noteworthy that they are divines of a Church which teaches a dogma of “original sin,” and professional preachers of a religion of redemption. They would, no doubt, if questioned, have given a formal assent to the proposition that actual human nature is “fallen through sin,” but it is hard to believe that the assent would have been more than formal. I do not think I shall be seriously misrepresenting the habitual outlook of most moralists by saying that they take it very much as an obvious and regrettable incident of human life that we so often do what we ought not to do, but as nothing more than a regrettable incident. If they do not approach the spectacle of human wrongdoing in the spirit of such a maxim as “Better luck next time,” or even, “There’s no use in crying over spilt milk,” at any rate they tend to the view that our misdeeds are just things to be put right and avoided for the future, and that there is something morbid in troubling ourselves greatly over them, when once we have done our best to “make good,” by repairing the consequences of the past and reforming our habits. Amendment, attended perhaps with confession, virtually becomes, with them, the whole of penitence; the contrition which makes itself heard in the “penitential” Psalms seems almost unknown to “philosophical” ethics.
I would not suggest that this attitude to the problem is wholly without its historical justification. The traditional Christian dogma of original sin, its consequences and the mode of its transmission, as shaped in the West by St. Augustine, has always seemed to me, even in the moderated form in which it persists in the Thomist theology, manifestly the most vulnerable part of the whole Christian account of the relations of God and man, and to call more imperatively than any other part of the theological system for reconstruction in the light of philosophy and history. It would be ludicrous, if it were less sad, to see the Anglican communion at this moment fiercely engaged in polemics over eucharistic doctrines, where the differences are almost entirely about words, but apparently unconcerned by the fact that the language of its Baptismal office, if it means anything, seems to assert that millions of infants are condemned by a just judge to irretrievable exclusion from true felicity for a fault committed, as Pascal put it, by someone else thousands of years before their birth.2 And yet, if we look more closely at the matter, there is something doubly strange about the current ready acceptance of the fact of human misconduct. From the speculative point of view there is a real problem here, a problem which has been set in the clearest light by the Platonic Socrates. It surely is plain, as Socrates is always contending in the dialogues,3 that though a man may, and often does, prefer the show or the reputation of power, or riches, or beauty, or learning to the actual possession of them, there is just one case in which no man prefers shadow to substance. No one wants the show of happiness, good, felicity; we all want the substance; we want to enjoy good, not to be believed to enjoy it; to be happy, not to seem happy. We have to reconcile this patent and undeniable fact with the other equally undeniable fact that all of us, in practice, so constantly take the shadow and let the reality go. No one in his senses can suppose that we act thus with our eyes open. There can be no real escape from Socrates’ conclusion that the wrongdoer acts from “ignorance,” in the sense in which Socrates used the phrase; he mistakes for the highest good something which is not the highest good, is misled by a deceptive appearance of good. I confess that all the attempted defences of the reality of “unreasonable action” impress me as mere sporting with words. If we look not to words but to facts, it is incredible to me that evil should ever be chosen just because it is recognised for what it is. If I asked any man the reason why he preferred A to B, I should think it a complete explanation to be told “because I see that A is so much better than B,” even if I thought that “perception” an illusion. If I received the answer “because I see A to be worse than B,” I should certainly refuse to take my interlocutor seriously; I should suppose that he was “playing” with my question. There is a legend that Henry II. of England on his death-bed deliberately blasphemed God in order to ensure his own damnation. “Since thou,” he is made to say, “hast taken from me the thing I most delight in, Le Mans, I will deprive thee of the thing in me thou hast most delight in, my soul.” If any man, neither insane nor delirious, ever has behaved in this fashion, I can only say that, in fact, if not in words, he must have pronounced the revengeful frustration of God’s purpose a good worth purchasing at the cost of his own ruin. He must have thought it would be truer happiness to look up out of the flames and see the Creator disappointed than to enjoy the delights of Paradise, but forgo wreaking his spite.
Yet the explanation that the choice of evil is due to ignorance or mistake only throws the difficulty back one stage. The problem of wrong choice, with this explanation, becomes a part of the more general problem of false judgement, or error, and this problem is itself a perplexing one. The real difficulty for the epistemologist is created, as Plato suggests in the Theaetetus and Descartes indicates more plainly in his Fourth Meditation, not by true judgement, but by error. Why do we ever judge falsely about anything? Descartes tries to answer the question, as you may remember, by saying “because we allow ourselves to make assertions when the evidence for them is inconclusive”. But we may ask, as Spinoza said,4 how it comes that we do this. If we perceived the insufficiency of the evidence, we could not give assured assent to the conclusion. We cannot make ourselves believe true what we see to be false, or believe proved what we see not to be proved. Why then does a creature, ex hypothesi endowed with “understanding,” the power to discern the true from the false, not habitually discern that insufficient evidence is insufficient? Why, in particular, does the merely relatively and temporarily good ever impose itself on us as the absolute best? We all, to be sure, know how the evolutionist answers the question. He will tell us that the answer is that our own reason and judgement are themselves in course of development, things still in the making, not things made and completed. Judgement is untrustworthy and mistaken because it is, at every moment, making itself, and the method by which it makes itself is one of trial and learning from the consequences of error. We learn to think truly or to do right by thinking falsely or acting wrongly and having to “take the consequences,” thus coming to readjust our ways of thinking, or acting, to the situation our error, or misconduct, has created. In both cases the process of correction is never fully completed, but in both it can be, and is, carried steadily further and further “without limit”.
Whether this solution of the speculative problem of error is as satisfactory as it is simple is a question I must not raise here. For the present it is sufficient for my purpose to ask the more restricted question whether, as applied to the special case of moral error, it does anything like justice to the whole of the familiar facts of life. Does it really “save the appearances”? I think it is fairly clear that it does nothing of the kind. I cannot, indeed, undertake to offer demonstration on such a point; in matters of practice, as Aristotle should long ago have taught us, strict demonstration has no place. But I think it possible to show that any ethical doctrine which minimises the seriousness of human sinfulness is incompatible with notorious facts of a moral psychology which any of us may verify in his own personal experience, and that these facts cannot be disposed of by treating them as illusion bred of antecedent theological prepossession. Our moral reaction to “wickedness” appears to me to be a genuinely ethical reaction, and yet to bear witness to the impossibility of preventing the ethical habit of mind, once thoroughly awakened, from developing spontaneously into a habit which must be regarded as specifically religious. It is not, so far as I can see, theology which has contaminated ethics with the notion of sin; it is morality which has brought the notion into theology.
The “naturalistic” interpretations of moral misdoing may take more forms than one, and we may meet some of them in philosophies based on metaphysical speculations which the consistently naturalistic thinker would be careful to repudiate. Moral badness may be thought of as no more than temporary or permanent failure to keep up to the standard of adjustment of action to situation already reached in our society, and, in the main, in our personal conduct; as “atavistic” regression to the ruder practice of a more “primitive” age. The bad man may be regarded simply as a “barbarian” among civilised surroundings, or an “animal” among men. This is, in fact, the form in which the naturalistic conception of sin most readily recommends itself to the thoroughgoing evolutionist. But the same thought may show itself in connection with a completely non-evolutionist metaphysic, when sin is treated as nothing more than a breach of a reasonable law. Thus Dr. McTaggart, who regards the universe as a vast complex of persons all underived and ultimate, stands in his metaphysic at the opposite pole from the evolutionist. From his point of view all “evolution” seems to be, but really is not, and all judgements that anything has “evolved,” is “evolving” or will “evolve,” are, strictly speaking, false judgements. But McTaggart’s view of moral wrongdoing, pithily condensed by himself into the statement that it is good there should be rules of conduct, good that we should have the spirit to break them, and good that the birch should descend on us when we do so,5 is frankly naturalistic. It is against every view of this easy-going type that I would enter a protest in the name of a sound moral psychology. The point I am anxious to enforce is that, in more ways than one, our human expression of wrongdoing and guilt is so singularly unlike anything we can detect in the pre-human world that we are bound to treat it as something strictly sui generis and human, not generically animal. If we could really succeed in proving the existence of the same specific experience in any of our humbler congeners, what we should have shown would be, not that sin can be adequately described by the categories of “naturalism,” but that some of the creatures we have supposed to be “mere animals” are more than we have taken them to be, that the categories of naturalism will not even do all the work moralists like T. H. Green have been willing to concede.
There would be nothing necessarily paradoxical in such a conclusion. We cannot be too careful to remember what “naturalists,” good and bad, are too prone to forget, that our notion of an “animal” is a highly artificial one, constructed by starting with specifically human experience, and leaving out of account the features which strike us as most intimately human. We have got at our conception of the animal’s life by trying to construct the whole of a comparative series in which we really know only the first terms.6 It is possible enough, proceeding in this way, to leave out too much. Any limit we construct in this way may be a merely “ideal limit” never to be met in actual fact. But if we commit the mistake of assuming that the ideal limit is actual fact, we clearly must not expect subsequently to be able to show the identity of actual human experiences with imagined experiences which are not even those of a real “animal”. What it is like to be a non-human animal we do not know, and at best can only conjecture. The one thing we have no right to do is to mutilate the known facts of the only life with which we are directly and intimately acquainted on the strength of our conjectures about a life we can never experience.
Presuming, then, that “animals” really are very much what a naturalistic account assumes them to be, but being careful to remember that such an account may be inadequate, we may, I think, specify five familiar characteristics which distinguish our human experience of guilt and wrongdoing from anything which—at least on the naturalistic account of the matter—is to be found in the infra-human world.
(1) In the first place, it is characteristic of the human sense of guilt that it always involves condemnation of our own selves and our own doings, and is thus radically different from any discontent with our surroundings. As Butler says,7 when he is contrasting self-condemnation with mere discontent, the one regards our “conduct,” the other our “condition”. Butler is here thinking of a case such as that of a man who forfeits an expected inheritance through his own folly or ill-behaviour, and of dissatisfaction which expresses itself in an explicit judgement. He means that there is a vast difference between the reflective judgements of the man who finds himself disappointed by a senile freak of the testator and the man who knows he has caused himself to be disinherited for his idleness, profligacy, or ingratitude. The one pronounces himself unfortunate, the other, if he has any vestiges of a conscience, owns himself deservedly punished. I take it Butler would not have denied that the same kind of difference may be found at a less articulate stage of mental development, at which no explicit judgement is formed either on our conduct or on our condition. There may be some analogy between the total mental reaction of a young child who is disappointed of a holiday by the rain and that of one who is deprived of the holiday as a punishment for quarrelling with his brothers and sisters, but we all remember our own childhood well enough to know that the reactions are not identical. If they were, it would be unintelligible how, at a later stage, the familiar explicit distinction between unmerited “hard luck” and deserved unhappiness should ever have been developed. We should not even remark it, as we do, as a common feature of human nature, that men so regularly try to awaken our pity for their misfortunes by dwelling on the theme of their being due “to no fault of their own”.
The point is so obvious that I should think it needless to dwell on it but for the fact that so eminent a philosopher as F. H. Bradley has, in one passage of his best-known work, hinted that something at least analogous to and continuous with moral self-condemnation may already be found in germ in the sulky brooding of a beast of prey which has missed its “kill”.8 In Bradley’s mouth the words, I suppose, are not meant to have a naturalistic significance. His meaning is probably not that a man oppressed by the sense of personal misdoing is no more than a sulky and disappointed brute, but rather that the brute may conceivably be something more than merely disappointed and sulky. But it must not be forgotten that if the tiger which has missed its spring is only disappointed and sulky, there is a gulf which cannot be bridged between the tiger’s state of mind and that of the youngest child who knows the specific “feel” of naughtiness. The suggestion which Bradley’s words at least ought to imply is that the tiger is sulky and dissatisfied with itself, not merely with the general state of things, however rudimentary its self-disapproval may be. I should suppose that such a suggestion is one which will never be capable either of definite proof or of certain disproof. But if it is sound, it follows at once that a tiger is something very much more like a moral person than has ever been supposed by those who have undertaken to derive human morality from “animal” origins. The attractiveness of the derivation for a certain type of mind lies precisely in its apparent minimalisation of the “nature” it requires us to accept as given fact; its success would require us not to minimalise, but to maximalise, “nature”.
(2) A more striking difference between the moral life of man and what appears to be the mental life of animals is found when we consider the human attitude to our own unsatisfactory past. Something has already been said on this by way of anticipation, but we may treat the matter at this stage a little more in detail. Nothing is more characteristic of the human sense of guilt than its indelibility, its power of asserting itself with unabated poignancy in spite of all lapse of time and all changes in the self and its environment. It is only a man with the “mentality” of the animal who can reconcile himself to the comfortable view that what he has done amiss is “washed off” by punishment, or “made good” by subsequent better conduct, and so no longer any present concern of his life. From the point of view of secular society and its criminal law, it is no doubt true that the past is past, if the discipline of life has corrected a man’s evil passions and habits, and the actual mischief he has done to individuals, or the community at large, has been compensated. So far we can understand the view that the criminal who has “purged” his offence and made restitution ought to be free from all reproach for his past. It is not for us to cast it in his teeth. But the point which, as it seems to me, all the moralists who treat the conduct of life as no more than a matter between the individual and “society” customarily overlook is that an offender who has been genuinely moralised by experience of the way of transgressors is never satisfied to take this view of himself. We may have lost the right to reproach him; he does not cease to reproach himself. He may know quite well that the “hurt” he has done to his victims has been abundantly compensated and that he has himself become a different man, and is no longer in danger of offending in the old way. But even if his past has been forgotten, or condoned by every one else, he does not himself forget or condone it. He is never secure, and does not seek to be secure, against the recurrence of the old self-condemnation in all the intensity of its bitterness. It is not likely that St. Paul’s converts or fellow-apostles remembered against him the part he had played in the death of Stephen; from their point of view he had “made good” many times over. But we see from his own language that he had neither forgotten nor condoned. Now the kind of experience which led St. Paul to speak of himself, with the near prospect of crowning his apostolate by martyrdom before him, as the greatest of sinners, seems to me to be one which we all can detect in ourselves, sometimes in forms fantastic enough. There are old misdoings, often they are such as any kindly outside observer would dismiss as mere trivialities, not infrequently they date from childhood itself, which can haunt and torment us all through life. The sting of them, often enough, does not seem to lie in any social harm or distress they have occasioned, nor yet in the apprehension that we are now tainted by the particular moral defect they reveal. It is sometimes the juvenile misdeeds which were not taken seriously to heart by anyone at the time, caused no appreciable hurt to anyone, and were prompted by cupidities and tempers which have long since died out with the march of time, that can wound most in the remembrance. This goes a long way to explain why the best men find that penitence and self-humiliation are no mere occasional or temporary accompaniments of their experience, but a constant and ever-present feature in the moral life.
I know, of course, that the numerous exponents of a morality of “healthy-mindedness” would simply dismiss all such experiences as “morbid”—a convenient way of burking serious thought by parrot-like repetition of a disparaging epithet—or account for them all as due to an illegitimate influence of theological “superstition” on our ethical outlook. Against the charge of morbidity it should be enough to reply that, if you allow yourself to dismiss any universal characteristic of life as “morbid,” you lose the very basis for an intelligible distinction between health and disease. If we cannot take quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus as the standard of health and normality, what is to be our criterion of the normal and the morbid? If all men without exception are mad, how are we to draw the distinction between the sane man and insane? Whether the sense of the indelibility of some moral misdoing is in fact a universal feature of human experience can, of course, only be decided in one way. Each of us must ask himself whether there are not some episodes in his own past about which he himself feels it.
I do not mean to say that the feeling of which we are speaking is not, like other feelings, subject to strange aberrations. The memories which give me the keenest pang when they recur need not be memories of the worst acts I have committed. I may have forgotten, or may take credit to myself for, deeds which I should recognise to be the worst of my life, if my insight into good and evil were more penetrating. But these large possibilities of aberration no more prove the sense of personal guilt a “morbid” delusion than our sense of beauty is proved illusory by the indubitable facts that it is often powerfully affected by objects which, as we discover for ourselves, when our aesthetic perception has been refined and deepened, had little real beauty, and that from the dullness of our perceptions we often let exquisite beauty go unrecognised. The facts “are beyond dispute,” but an intelligent man does not infer from them that beauty is an illusion, or that sensitiveness to it is not a real and very specific character of our human experience. In the same way, when a speaker says, as I have heard a distinguished scholar say, perhaps not wholly in earnest, that he has no such sense of sin as books tell of, and can only suppose that it is something of the same kind as his own discomfort on the recollection of a humiliating “social blunder,” he is really bearing witness against himself. He is testifying that he has the feeling all the time, though it may, in his case, be attached to the wrong objects, exactly as the man who is thrown into transports of delight by the second-rate in literature or music really has a sense of beauty, though an untrained and ill-regulated sense.
Further, it should be evident that the attempt, while admitting the actuality of the sense of guilt, to explain it away as a consequence of the importation of non-moral “theological” superstition into the ethical domain, is a pure fallacy of hysteron proteron. This point has been made so clearly and finally by Professor Gilbert Murray9 that I make no apology for openly borrowing his example. If we examine the poetry of Homer—and the same thing will be found true of any literature which reveals much of human thought and feeling—we shall note that there are some kinds of conduct, even if they are few, which are regarded as specially unpardonable and certain to provoke the anger of the gods, the unseen guardians of the moral law. To put poison on your arrows seems to be one of these offences. The poisoned arrow appears to horrify the Homeric Achaean much as “poison gas” horrified us when it first made its appearance in the recent War. According to Odyssey a, Odysseus was denied by his friend when he requested a “deadly drug” for this purpose: “he gave it not, for he felt an awe of the gods who live for ever”.10 Now whence, as Murray asks, has this conviction that the gods will not forgive the man who poisons his arrows come? Obviously not from observation of the experienced course of events. It can never have been the case that all users of poisoned arrows were remarked to come to mysterious and horrible ends, only to be accounted for as due to the anger of unseen beings. The order of thought, as Murray says, must have been that the poisoning of arrows is so hateful a practice that I should certainly take vengeance for it, were I a god; presumably, then, the real gods feel and act as I should do in their place. Therefore, I must never take this kind of advantage or have anything to do with others who take it. The crime is not believed unpardonable because it has first been believed that, as a fact, it is not pardoned. It is believed to be in fact never pardoned because it is first felt that it ought not to be pardoned.
The same thing is true about other offences which Homer treats as peculiarly unforgivable. They are all forms of what the Greeks of a later time called ὕβρις, taking full advantage of your superiority against the peculiarly helpless, orphans, beggars, strangers in the land, that is, those who have no visible human backer to do them right. (We see the same thing in the Old Testament in the special stress laid upon the duty of considerateness to orphan, widow, alien in the land.) In all these cases, it is plainly a strictly ethical sense of the enormity and indelibility of the guilt which has led to the belief, by no means directly suggested by observed facts, that it has its unseen avengers. And I would add that we cannot account for this antecedent moral conviction by any appeal to considerations of social utility. The facts in question, on the contrary, fairly prove that morality has its source elsewhere than in “usefulness”. Poisoned arrows are eminently useful to the group which has tribal enemies to resist and can command a supply of an effective poison. It is not ill-treatment of the widow or the defenceless alien, but ill-treatment of a valuable member of the tribe that should be the great offence, if moral codes were no more than rules of social utility. Many of us, I trust, to-day agree that the last war has revealed new and unsuspected depths of turpitude in mankind, against which we must be strenuously on our guard in all time to come. But the reason for our unqualified detestation of “scientific warfare” and all its devil’s paraphernalia of bombs and poisons is not regard for social utility; it is our conviction that the whole thing is a disgrace to human nature.
If we may fairly regard this sense of indelible guilt as a genuine feature of distinctively human life, it seems to me, as I have already hinted more briefly, to reveal the presence in man of something we never detect in the animals. Animals, it is often remarked, and sometimes with a suggestion of envy, have no sense of sin. I am not sure that the statement would be admitted without fuller qualification by all observers. There are those who profess that they can detect in their dogs, after some breach of the customary discipline of the household, signs of a shame and uneasiness which might seem analogous with what we men call consciousness of guilt. Thus I have known it maintained that a dog which has transgressed in the matter of cleanliness sometimes seems to be not merely offended by the result, or apprehensive of punishment, but actually ashamed of itself. The question of fact would be hard to settle, and must be left to the determination of experts in animal psychology, of whom I am not one. But I must repeat a remark which has been already made and is, I think, of fundamental importance. We are in grave danger of being misled if we base our conceptions of an animal’s psychology on the conduct of just those animals which have been most successfully made companions of man in his daily life, our domesticated and civilised dogs. We have to allow for the real possibility that the naturalistic account of human conduct itself is wholly inadequate. If it is, then man is something more than an animal, and constant and familiar association with the life of man may consequently have, in a lesser degree, made the highly domesticated dog something more than an “animal” too. If he has some analogon in his life to what we know in ourselves as morality, the reason may be that by association with man, who is a moral person, he has become what he could never have become of himself. To understand the real limitations of a purely animal life we should surely, as a matter of method, start from consideration of animals which have not been subjected to the possibly transfiguring influence of association with man; our standard dog should be “yellow dog Dingo”. If we neglect this caution we may obviously be led into a glaring petitio principii. You must not argue that the behaviour of the dog domesticated by man is sufficient proof that our human morality is only a development from beginnings all to be found in the infra-human animals, unless you can first establish a merely naturalistic theory of the genesis of human morality itself, and thus your argument from the behaviour of your dog presupposes the very thesis it is meant to establish.
Still, even if we neglect the, as I think, necessary caution which has just been given, we yet seem to detect a real difference between human morality and anything which the extremest believer in the quasi morality of the more highly domesticated animals can fairly claim for them. Even if it is true that an animal admitted to human fellowship does on occasion show signs of feeling ashamed of itself, there seems no sufficient reason to believe that there is any memory of the shame which can be effective after the creature has been duly punished and restored to favour again. When that has happened, the animal’s past seems, as has been said already in a rather different context, to be not only dead, but fairly buried. Now we, too, speak of our “dead” past, but, as I have already said, it is only the “criminal” who thinks of his past as buried and done with when he has undergone his appointed punishment. That he can thus feel at ease with the past, which has been “paid for,” is the very thing which most certainly proves that he has not really become a “new man”. If he had become a “new man,” he would have to say, in the language of the familiar hymn,
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone.
The familiar human sense of guilt thus points directly to that complication of the eternal and the temporal which is characteristic of moral aspiration. To be merely temporal would be to live wholly in the present moment, to be, in the phrase I once heard wittily used of a certain politician, “incapable of acquiring a past”. If our life were a mere pulse or episode in the “passage of nature,” the past, once past, would be left behind, dead and done for. That is just what it is not and what we must not aspire to make it. The man who is truly aspiring to a better moral life is not aiming at “forgetting the past,” painful as the memory of it may be. If that were all his purpose, drink would probably serve his end better than moral effort. It may be necessary, at certain stages of his progress, that he should be warned not to “brood” on the details of the past, but simple unconsciousness of it is not the condition he wishes to attain. Forgetting may be seasonable in its time, but what we really aim at is a state in which we can remember and yet feel no pang in the remembrance, because we see how all the evil has “worked for good”. Dante11 has taken the point rightly when he makes his ex-troubadour in Paradise recall his disordered youth, not with shame and pain, but with thanksgiving for the grace which has transmuted a personality with such beginnings. Because we are creatures with a passion for eternity, our characteristic moral endeavour is not to forget or cancel the past, but to make it, with all that is worst in it, an actual instrument to the achieving of a stable personality that will not pass. Whether our personal moral effort, unaided by an antecedent free movement from the side of the eternal to meet us, can achieve this task is another question. It may be thought that the recurrent stings of guilt, odd as are the disguises they sometimes assume, are just consequences of our secret consciousness that the task of complete transmutation cannot be achieved in our own unaided strength.
(3) A further peculiarity of the genuinely ethical attitude towards sin seems to me to be that recognition of our guilt is regularly attended by what we may call a demand for punishment. In days now gone by, it used to be a commonplace of the average sermon that “sin must be punished,” “God must execute justice on the wrongdoer”. Utterances of this kind are out of fashion to-day, and I should certainly not care to rehabilitate some of the ethical and theological tenets with which it was customary to connect them. But I own they appear to me to be prompted by a genuinely ethical feeling and to contain an important truth, though in a form readily liable to unethical perversions. They have the same value, and are open to the same misunderstandings as the old doctrine, also now much out of fashion, of the retributive character of punishment; a doctrine really indispensable to sound ethics. We have to remark that the notion of retribution, fundamental in this way of thinking, has nothing to do, except accidentally, with the gratification of revengeful passion; any psychological analysis based on the common confusion between retribution and revenge is a falsification of facts. Revenge is essentially a personal gratification to be enjoyed by a party who conceives himself to have been in some way aggrieved or damaged. It follows, therefore, that if punishment is mere vengeance, its proper measure is the material detriment, or the sentimental grievance felt by the party who has been damaged or affronted. If he feels no deep resentment, or is ready to compromise his resentment for some material or sentimental offset, there can be no reason why the revenge should be exacted. The detriment or affront is his own personal affair, with which no one but himself is deeply concerned. We have only to look at the way in which, as society becomes more and more moralised, the development of a satisfactory system of penal law depends on the withdrawal of the initiative in bringing offences to punishment from the parties immediately concerned and the lodging of it with bodies representative of the community at large, as well as on the substitution of a reasonable and “objective” for a personal and arbitrary standard of penalties, to see that throughout the whole process retribution becomes more prominent and more certain in proportion as the feature of satisfaction for the desire of personal vengeance sinks into the background. It would be a mistake to suppose that the process is no more than one of suppressing the excesses to which personal vengeance may provoke an aggrieved party, though this is one side of it.
It is true that when the initiative in the punishment of homicide is taken out of the hands of the family of the deceased it is no longer possible for the avenger of blood to gratify his passion by torturing the culprit; but it is equally true that the main motive for the change of practice has, in fact, been not so much the desire to avoid excessive severities as the desire to make it impossible for the shedder of blood to escape lightly by compounding with the relatives of his victim. If we look at the actual working of the system by which it is left to private persons who feel themselves aggrieved to bring offenders to justice, as we see it in operation in historical societies, what most seriously outrages our civilised sense of justice, I make bold to say, is not that some offenders meet with excessive and inhuman treatment, but that most offenders escape so lightly. The prevalent mischief in the arrangement by which murder, for example, goes unpunished, unless the relatives of the murdered man initiate proceedings, is that most murders are either disregarded or compounded for by what we judge a wholly inadequate “blood-price”. It is even possible, with such a system, for the powerful and violent to take the view that their crimes are “well worth” the very moderate cost of patching them up. Men in general are more indolent and covetous, and less vindictive than they are supposed to be when the transition from private to public initiative in the prosecution of crimes is traced to a growing fear of undue cruelty. We may fairly doubt whether, when all is said, the penalties for serious crimes are not, on the whole, severer as well as more certain in highly moralised than in more imperfectly moralised societies.12
Again, it would not be true to say that the change on which we are commenting leaves the connection between revenge and punishment unaffected, and merely substitutes the larger group of the community for the private person, or the smaller group of relatives, friends or associates, as the party exacting satisfaction for revengeful feeling. This is, no doubt, a small part of the truth. As we become increasingly humanised, we do learn to see more clearly how the interests of all are bound up together, and how the wrong which immediately falls on one member of the community more indirectly inflicts some injury on the others. But this is far from being the whole of the truth. It has to be added that the punishment of an offence by the agents of a civilised society is, in principle, not a “revenge”. We ourselves should be profoundly disturbed if homicides and forgers were not brought to justice, and we should not be disturbed merely because we thought our own chance of being murdered or cheated increased by the negligence of the authorities. Hume’s moral theory is far from being the last word of ethics, but it has at least the merit of putting the “disinterested” character of moral judgements beyond dispute. But when the murderer and the forger are brought to justice, no section of a civilised society enjoys the pleasant feeling of gratified personal revenge. It is in the novels of Dickens, not in real life, that men get a thrill of personal satisfaction when Fagin is driven mad by the near prospect of the gallows, or Uriah Heep sent to solitary confinement. And I believe we should all agree to reject as immoral the view that if society felt so inclined it would be at liberty to compound with a criminal, as a man who has only his personal vindictiveness to gratify, and prefers making a profit to getting the gratification of vindictive feeling, may quite reasonably do. If this were our attitude to crime and criminals, I cannot help thinking there would be a much greater general readiness to “let the offender off” than serious men actually exhibit. We might have to reckon, on behalf of almost every criminal, with the regular defence that his crime can be argued to have been actually beneficial to the community, and that the benefit more than outweighs the indirect detriment caused by the encouragement that acquittal may give to future potential criminals. And in some cases, I believe, such a defence could be made good. It might be no more than the truth, in some cases of deliberate murder, that society had benefited much more by the removal of a bad and dangerous man than it stood to lose by the very slight encouragement afforded to intending murderers by an acquittal in this special case and on these special grounds.
Yet I cannot think a sober moralist would contend that the badness of a murdered man’s character should be a recognised ground for condoning murder.13 The reason given by Macaulay for condemning the illegal punishment of so complete a scoundrel as Oates, that illegal penalties inflicted on notorious villains are likely to be made precedents for similar illegalities in the case of less hardened offenders, though sound enough, does not go to the root of the matter. The villain, villain as he is, has his rights, and they must not be violated, even though it were certain that the precedent would not be abused. Morality is, indeed, society’s great weapon for self-protection, but it is something very much more than a device for social self-protection; its intrinsic character must not be confounded with this obvious external effect.
What we all feel at bottom, I believe, is that the sentence of society, or of a court of law, inflicting punishment on an offender, if it is really a just sentence, is only the repetition of one which the offender, if his moral being remains sound at the centre, must already have passed against himself. We recognise the justice of a social penalty decreed upon us, when and if we have already sat in judgement on ourselves. Similarly, when pious men say that God “must” punish wrongdoing, they are giving expression to a demand for punishment which they find in their own hearts. We may understand the matter better in the light of our personal feelings about our lapses from the standard of the best in things of which no society can possibly take cognisance. When, for example, we are convicted by our own conscience of disloyalty to a friend, even were it only a disloyalty of secret thought, it is intolerable to us that our friend should go on, in ignorance of the fault, treating us with the same trust as though it had never been committed. We feel that we must make confession of it, and that we should be poor creatures if we congratulated ourselves on the absence of evidence of the fault and the certainty that it cannot come to our friend’s knowledge, so long as we keep our own counsel. If we confess the fault and our friend treats it with careless condonation, our situation is made still worse. We feel that he is treating us as beings who are not fully human and accountable, creatures from whom nothing better than treachery was to be expected, and this puts an end to all possibility of all genuine human love and friendship. If we are capable of them, they ought to be expected of us, and our lapses into treason ought to make a difference to our friend’s attitude towards us. We may look forward to forgiveness, when we have earned it, or as freely given for the sake of some third party honoured and loved by both ourselves and the friend we have injured, but genuine forgiveness must, of course, involve, on the side of the forgiving party, the awareness that there has been something to forgive. We measure the moral nobility of the forgiveness by the magnitude of the fault to be forgiven. Forgiveness of injuries, prompted by love, is one thing; easy condonation, really based on contempt, a very different thing. He to whom much is forgiven, the Gospel tells us, will love much; we cannot love much because something has been lightly condoned to us. We appreciate a great forgiveness only because we credit the forgiver with a true estimate of the gravity of the act he loves us well enough to forgive.14
At the cost of a brief digression, I would remark here that what we have just said needs to be kept carefully in mind in estimating the ethical bearings of the Christian doctrine of the remission of sins. Two different objections are taken to the doctrine on professedly ethical grounds, and both seem to me morally superficial. On the one hand, it is urged that there is something morally offensive in the doctrine that God’s justice demands any penalties for human wrongdoing, and that the remission of sins is only effected, as Christian theology teaches, at an immense price, is purchased by the death of the God-man. Justice, we are told, is unworthy of a God; a God should simply “let us all off,” and it should cost him nothing to do it. On the other side, it is also said that any remission is unworthy of a God. For remission is “letting off,” and it is always immoral that anyone should be “let off” any part of the full consequences of his acts. Both criticisms, I believe, arise from a confusion between forgiveness and condonation, and one destroys the other. Mere light condonation, such as that ascribed to God in the Persian scoffer’s quatrain about the potter who is a “good fellow,” or by the saying of the scientific man who informed us some years ago that God “does not concern himself with our peccadillos,” is a wholly unethical attitude. A God who “lets us off,” because He does not care what such insects do or do not do, would be a God who despised us, and with whom we could have no vivifying relations. We could not draw any real inspiration towards good from whatever relations we may have with a being who thinks so little of us that he does not care what we may do. Indeed such a being would be morally on a lower level than ourselves, who may not care what we do as profoundly as we ought, but at any rate do care to some extent. A “great first cause” of so unspiritual a kind would plainly be no fit recipient of respect, to say nothing of adoration, from beings with a moral nature. Still less would such a being be an unseen friend and helper of man. For the paradox of Socrates in the Gorgias15 is no more than the truth. The offender who is simply “let off” remains worse in himself, and so further from true felicity, than the offender who is “brought to book”. It is good for us, and not bad, if the power which rules the universe takes account of what we are in our moral being; only on that condition can we expect that experience of life will be a discipline into moral good.
It is often said—it is not for me to judge with how much justice—that the Moslem confuses forgiveness with mere condonation, a “letting-off” from a penalty which is to be had for the simple ejaculation of an astaghfiru ’llāh without any change of heart.16 If this is true, the Moslem must mean by divine forgiveness something quite alien to the spirit of genuine Christianity. From the moralist’s point of view it is a recommendation, not a defect, of the Christian conception that it insists on the justice of God, which is but another name for the fact that God is good, and, being good, cares for the participation of His creatures in the absolute good which He Himself possesses. It is because Christians think of their God as “just in all His ways” that they can also believe that His purpose with them is to make them a new creation, not simply to let them loose on a new environment. He makes them happy by first enabling them to “merit” their happiness. Because He is just, His forgiveness is no mere indifference, but a genuine moral forgiveness which means so much to Himself that it can remake the very self of the recipient, as, in a lesser degree, a man’s self may be cleansed and remade by receiving a fellow-man’s forgiveness for a grievous wrong, though never by being “let off” as a creature from whom nothing can be expected except that he should behave after his worthless kind.
The rival criticism is equally beside the mark. Careless condonation is rightly regarded as proof of moral indifference to justice. But we do not charge a man with injustice when he has been cruelly wronged, and yet, with full knowledge of the wrong that has been done, forgives because he loves. To be “let off” our disloyalties and infidelities because our friends expect no faith or loyalty and, at heart, do not much care whether faith and loyalty are shown, would be morally enervating and ruinous to any of us; to be forgiven by a friend with a finer sense of the loyalty of true friendship than our own may be morally regenerating to all but the “wholly incurable,” if indeed there are incurables. Thus the Christian paradox that God is at once the supremely just and also the great forgiver of iniquities, so far from creating an ethical difficulty, is exactly what we should expect to find in a religion which has one of its roots in the ethical conviction of the absoluteness of moral “values”. To boggle at it is proof that such religion as one has has not risen far above the level of naturalism.
(4) A further very striking and characteristic feature of our actual experience of the moral life, not always made sufficiently prominent in writing about ethics, though abundantly witnessed to by the universal language of mankind, is our recognition of the peculiarly polluting quality of moral guilt. The vocabulary of all languages is full of expressions which prove how spontaneously men speak of whatever most offends their conscience in the same phraseology which they use about defilement by what is loathsome to sight, touch or smell. In all languages we find grave offences against the really living moral standard spoken of as things “filthy,” “dirty,” “stinking”. The same feeling reveals itself in the numerous ritual practices of all ages which treat various forms of moral guilt, exactly like so many physical pollutions or infections, as things to be actually washed off by ablutions, or banished by fumigation, much as we fumigate, or destroy by fire, objects suspected of reeking with noxious germs. As Dr. Edwyn Bevan says, in his most suggestive essay on Dirt,17 the philosophers in general have taken far too little account of the fact that this specific emotional reaction seems characteristic of humanity in all ages and at all levels of civilisation. They tend to treat the “moral sense” too exclusively as a sense of obligation, and the mental disquiet occasioned by wrongdoing as only an uneasy consciousness of violated or neglected obligation. They seem hardly even to have tried to fathom the significance of the standing association in popular language between “sin” and “uncleanness”. “The man who is sorry for having done wrong does not only feel that he has violated an obligation; he feels unclean.”
As Dr. Bevan goes on to say, this notion of the “dirty,” whether in the physical realm or in the moral, suggests very interesting questions for the psychologist. In the realm of the senses, the “dirty” is often that which, because it is the vehicle of infection, is also dangerous. Yet it is certain that it is by no means always the most noxious things which are regarded as peculiarly filthy or dirty.18 As Dr. Bevan says, there is nothing particularly noxious about human saliva as such; we do not feel ourselves infected by its permanent presence in our own mouths, and we are well aware that we do not expose ourselves to any kind of infection by contact with healthy saliva expelled from the mouth of another person. Yet we should probably all think it a dirty practice to wash ourselves in water in which another, or we ourselves, had just cleansed the teeth; we do not shrink to anything like the same extent from washing ourselves in water in which we or others have cleansed the hands, though the probability that the water contains noxious matter may be much greater in this case. The point might have been made more apparent by recalling the familiar fact that though a European has no scruple about washing his face in the water in which he has just washed his hands, and usually no serious scruple about plunging his face in that in which he is bathing his whole body, a scrupulous Indian Moslem thinks it polluting to wash himself in water which has been poured into a basin, because this involves allowing the face to come in contact with that which has been “defiled” by previous contact with the sordes of less honourable parts. Similarly the least refined among us would be pretty certainly withheld by an almost invincible disgust from relieving severe thirst by drinking a liquid into which another, or even he himself, had spit; and in all societies, to spit on the skin or clothes of another is to offer him the most unpardonable, because the “dirtiest,” of insults. Any ordinary Briton would rather a ruffian should strike him a severe blow than that he should spit in his face, though the first insult may be also a dangerous assault, while the second is normally harmless. And the same thing is true of moral “dirt”. The “dirtiest” sins of civilised men are regularly sexual offences of various kinds, though the users of this language may be quite alive to the truth that aberrations commonly directly connected with unhappy physical constitution or condition—as these offences usually are—are far less ruinous to the moral life of the soul than the great “spiritual” sins—pride, cruelty, fraud, treachery. Cruelty is, as all moralists would admit, a more evil thing than any kind of mere perverted carnal appetite, and if we were angels, would presumably revolt us more. Yet in man, it seems clear, though calculating cruelty may awaken the severer reflective condemnation, it has to be excessive indeed before it arouses anything like the same disgust. What commonly revolts one in the character even of a Nero, as depicted in the Roman anti-Caesarean literary tradition, is not so much the stories of deliberate cruelty—which does not, in fact, seem to have been one of Nero’s vices—as the anecdotes of a morbid and “unnatural” lust.
It would be interesting, with Dr. Bevan, to carry the attempt to analyse our repugnance to the morally “polluting” further, and to try to indicate its specific differentia more exactly, but that inquiry would take us too far away from our principal theme. For my own purpose I must be content to repeat one of Dr. Bevan’s conclusions,19 and to call attention to some inferences which seem to be justified. The physically “dirty” seems to be primarily excrement from our own bodies, and secondarily whatever we have come to associate in any way with the thought of such excrement. I would support this illuminating remark by adding that any calling, however honourable and beneficial, which brings its practitioner into regular contact with any of these excreta of the human body also seems to awaken in all of us a repugnance based on the feeling that the occupation is “dirty” work. Thus the physician is constantly compelled, for purposes of diagnosis, to examine specimens of the urine of his patients. We know that this work is an indispensable part of the routine of an ennobling and beneficent profession, that it involves no actual infection of the physician’s person, and that there are many occupations, none of which revolt us, that bring the craftsman constantly into contact with matter much more noxious and much more directly unpleasant to our senses; but I believe we all have the secret feeling that this particular part of the physician’s work is “disgusting” and “dirty”. We should shrink from practising it ourselves, and it breeds a recognisable shrinking from the man who does practise it, a repugnance we only overcome by reflection and reasoning, or by a real effort to relegate our knowledge of the fact to the limbo of the unconscious.
Yet—and this is the point Dr. Bevan is specially anxious to make—the excretions which excite this violent disgust are only disgusting to us when they have been expelled from the organism. So long as they remain in it, they are not dirty. I do not regard my own body as dirty or disgusting, unless I am morbidly “cynical,” by reason of the permanent presence within it of the very materials which, when once they have been expelled, are regarded as the vilest of “filth”. There may be seen in this a striking illustration of that close association of thought exhibited by so much of the traditional vocabulary, between the holy and the unclean. The experience is seen in the attitude of all human beings who have an articulate moral tradition to that which has to do with the sexual side of life. It is at once “holy,” as the source of the renewal and continuance of life itself, and yet is, in some mysterious way, “polluting”. To quote Dr. Bevan, “It is the same act which in one moral context is the very type of impurity and in another context is the sacrament of love and life. It would seem as if some slight change in circumstances could transfer its character straight away from one end of the moral scale to the other. … Deep at the bottom of all our sense of uncleanness, of dirt, is the feeling, primitive, irresolvable, universal, of the sanctity of the body. Nothing in the material world can properly be dirty, except the body. We speak of a ‘dirty road’, but in an uninhabited world moist clay would be no more dirty than hard rock; it is the possibility of clay adhering to a foot which makes it mire.”20
Now the same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of the morally “dirty”. At the root of our sense of moral foulness lies a “primitive and universal” feeling about the sanctity of the rational soul. Nothing can be morally dirty but an anima rationalis. I may illustrate, perhaps, from a distaste which I detect very readily in myself and suspect to be no personal idiosyncrasy. There is one part of any zoological garden which I find it almost intolerable to visit, that devoted to the monkeys, and what makes observation of monkeys so repugnant to me is, more than anything else, the preoccupation of the creatures with the functions of sex. Yet I do not know that the preoccupation is really more patent in monkeys than it is, for example, in our domestic dogs, whose corresponding behaviour gives me no conscious uneasiness. What makes behaviour in a monkey disgusting to me when the same behaviour does not disgust me in the dog? So far as I can see, only the suggestion conveyed by the monkey’s general physique, but not by the dog’s, that the creature is half-human, that it has, as the dog has not, a human soul to be smirched.
And this reflection leads, naturally, as I think, to another. From a strictly naturalistic point of view all repugnance to “dirt” is no more than a “subjective” illusion. Dirt is only what it has been called by someone, “matter in the wrong place,” and there is no “objective” distinction between one corporeal “substance” and another in respect of cleanness or uncleanness. Matter which is in the “wrong” place has only to be removed to its proper place—and all matter has its proper place—and it ceases forthwith to be “dirt,” just as the “refuse” of an industry ceases to be refuse, and is considered a valuable “by-product,” when it becomes the “raw material” of a second industry. If the purely naturalistic conception of man were an adequate one, then, we might expect that as we learn more and more, as our scientific knowledge of nature advances, to make some employment of every kind of body, the notion of the “dirty” would be gradually eliminated from our thinking. In a society where science had called into existence a plentiful supply of industries working on “refuse,” we might expect that the right place would be progressively found for all forms of matter; there would no longer be any “dirt,” and in the end the very word “dirt” would disappear from language. We should learn to talk not of dirt, but of highly valuable “by-products” everywhere. Yet in actual fact the progress of science does not seem to have this result, of banishing the notion of “dirt” and the emotional reaction against it from men’s lives. A cultivated Indian Moslem, Dr. Bevan says, thinks it an unspeakable pollution to bring into contact with the human mouth a toothbrush made of bristles of one unclean creature, the pig, set in a bone of a second unclean creature, the dog. But a European does not feel himself “dirty” because he cleans his teeth with a brush made of these materials.21 Yet, though the European has learned to think clean some things which the Indian Moslem regards as polluted, he has also learned to shrink from a great deal which does not offend Moslems as dirty. He is revolted, as Sir Richard Burton remarks that Moslems in general are not, by a “dirty” nose. I should suppose that we may take it as reasonably certain that, though our more “enlightened” posterity may come to live down disgust with some things we now regard as dirty, they will equally be astonished to read of our indifference to much they will have learned to think repulsive dirt; for example, the carbon-loaded atmosphere of our industrial cities.
We see the same thing in connection with the morally “dirty”. As our code of moral values becomes more conscious and more coherent, and so, as we say, is progressively “rationalised,” we do not find that our sense of the “foulness” of sin is steadily giving place to an unemotional view of it as merely “unsuitable response,” action in the wrong place. What actually happens is rather that our notion of the “polluting” is transferred to fresh types of action. It costs us some trouble to-day to put ourselves back at the point of view of a hero in Greek tragedy who regards himself as morally unspeakably polluted by a homicide which he has committed, like Heracles, in a fit of madness, or even an “incestuous” marriage, like that of Oedipus, contracted in simple and unavoidable ignorance of the facts. The situation of Heracles or Oedipus, of course, distresses us intensely, but we cannot really “go along with” their sense of their moral foulness. But we have also developed a new sense of honour which would feel as an uneffaceable stain deeds which the ancient world left unreprobated, or even admired. To us, with our tradition of the chivalrous, there are comparatively few heroes of Greek epic story or Old Testament narrative who do not seem to have something of the “dirty fellow” about them.22 Noblesse oblige is a maxim with a significance which is steadily being extended and is very far from being exhausted by any interpretation yet put upon it. And it is not merely that the range of acts to which the principle is felt to apply is an ever widening one. As the range of applicability widens, the principle itself acquires a deeper inwardness at every fresh stage in the process. It is not the overt act alone, but the unworthy desire or thought, even the desire which is regularly repressed before it can influence action, the thought which arises only to be dismissed, that our “honour” feels as a stain.
A fine sense of honour, no less than a genuine piety, demands the “cleansing of the thoughts of the heart by the infusion of a holy spirit,” a remaking of the natural self and its interests from their centre. Here we have, as it seems to me, plain proof that the identification of the moral good with mere beneficent social activities is a superficial falsification of moral experience. If the whole of our aim as persons with moral aspirations were merely to act for the promotion of “social welfare,” I can see no reason why our discontent with our own character should demand the purification of the inner man with all this intensity. So long as our unworthier thoughts and contemplations lead to no consequences in overt action, I cannot see why, on such an interpretation of morality, they should not be regarded as exempt from the judgement of conscience. Why should they not be smilingly dismissed with the reflection, neque semper arcum Tendit Apollo? Indeed, it might actually be pleaded that some indulgence in such thoughts and fancies is a useful practice for the man who is to do good, as providing a harmless discharge for tendencies which, if too vigorously repressed, are likely to take their revenge in explosive action. I myself have heard grossness in the conversation of our lighter hours defended, and I believe sincerely defended, by this plea of the need for a safety-valve. The gross in action, I have been told, are commonly reticent in speech, and the reticent in speech may be presumed to be secretly gross in act.
It might, of course, be replied to this last remark that even if we mean by morality no more than the promotion of social welfare, still we need to be careful about day-dreaming because our day-dreams are likely to come true in our conduct. I cannot think this of itself an adequate basis for regulation of the internal motions of imagination and desire. I should rather suppose that, if a day-dream is fantastic enough, one may safely disregard its possible influence on action, exactly as we may and do disregard dreams of the night. If I allowed myself to enjoy an “Alnaschar’s dream” of unbounded wealth and sensual luxury, or to take pleasure in imagining myself a world-conqueror, my knowledge that I have not the remotest chance of becoming a multi-millionaire or a Napoleon would be quite enough to ensure that my imagination should remain a mere game of the mind with itself and should have no appreciable influence on my conduct towards my fellow-men. And yet, as it also seems to me, any serious morality is bound to treat the enjoyment of the dreams themselves, apart from any possible “consequences,” as a fault calling for vigorous correction. And the reason is not far to see. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” for the aspiration in which all moral goodness has its source is not a mere endeavour to do, but an aspiration to be. Or, if objection is taken to that distinction, I would at least say that the aspiration is not directed on any merely outward-issuing doing.
The right discharge of social function itself seems to be most regularly and most successfully attained when it arises from concern with the purification of the inner springs of our personal being. For that reason alone, I would urge, any moral theory which makes the notion of right conduct, the fulfilment of the precepts of a law of action, rather than the notion of good, the attainment of a personality of the highest absolute worth, primary would lead, if seriously acted on, to a lowering of the standard of outward-going action itself. Even if such a morality conceives its supreme law of action with the austerity of Kant, it leaves it at least a possibility that a man might say, truthfully and sincerely, “All this have I done from my youth up; I have been indeed a profitable servant”; there is no sufficient place left for the recognition that humility of spirit is the most exquisite flower of the moral life. Even the Kantian morality, hard as it would be of achievement, would, I conceive, tend to make the habitually dutiful man into something of a high-minded Pharisee. If the criticism be thought too severe, I would only remark that the “stoical” tone of Kant’s practical philosophy is matter of commonplace, and that the Stoics of literature are, almost without exception, Pharisees, unless, like Seneca, they have actual grave violations of their own precepts on their conscience. To be at once truly virtuous and truly humble is something beyond them.
At this point I think it may be in place to say a word in reply to a highly fashionable current criticism of the morality of true inwardness. It is common to represent such a morality as a life of preoccupation with mere negations. We hear Christian morality depreciated for its concern with purity of heart and will, on the ground that, as is alleged, it sets up “doing no particular harm” as its ideal. It is usual to make this a point of contact with the “superior” Greek conception of virtue, or goodness, as something positive, as efficiency in doing something definite. I presume that writers who are fond of the antithesis may fairly be taken to imply a preference for the man who has visible and palpable results of his mingling in the world’s business to show, no matter with what stains of vice, or even downright crime, he comes out of the bustle, as against the man who has kept his ideal of personal being high, but cannot point to any very definite positive achievements. There is, perhaps, a touch of this temper about Hegel’s well-known gibe at the schoolmaster who thinks himself a greater than Alexander, because, though he has taken no cities, he can keep his temper and has never murdered a friend in a tipsy brawl.23 There is more than a touch of it in the numerous writers who invite us to regard a coarse-grained political adventurer of genius like Caesar as one of the greatest in the kingdom of ends, on the strength of the real or alleged social benefits which have resulted from his pursuit of personal ambition, and still more in Nietzsche’s fantastic glorification of Alcibiades, who effected nothing but the ruin of the society which allowed him to embark it on a grandiose criminal adventure.
I would not deny that this glorification of “efficiency” has elements of truth in it, when it appears merely as a reaction against the confusion of virtue with abstention from definite and recognisable ways of doing social harm. But I am sure that when it is taken as anything more than such a protest, it is morally mischievous. In the first place, it is a mere caricature to represent the ideal of inward purity as meaning only abstention from recognised wrong-doing. It is an endeavour to be something very real and positive indeed, and can only be taken to be a “negative ideal” though a double confusion. It is true that, for reasons which have already been pretty fully given, we cannot say in detail what the man who is aiming at becoming “as like as possible to God” is striving to be. This is not because he is striving to become something without positive character, but because the character he is seeking to acquire is too rich in positive content to admit of exhaustion by any formula, and because that content only discloses itself very gradually as the aspiration succeeds. Again, though it is true that such a life must have its negative aspect, since it is an unending “putting off of the old man,” this correcting of the old self is not undertaken for its own sake, but as the indispensable means to a remaking: the “old man” is put off, not that we may be “unclothed,” but that we may be “clothed upon,” re-made in the image of the “new”. To use a homely simile, you cannot take a bath without stripping yourself; but when a man comes home soiled with work and takes off his dirty working-clothes to step into the bath, his intention is not to remain naked, but to assume the clean raiment of family life and civilised intercourse. Seeing how much of the soil of the world we habitually contract in our daily life, I cannot believe that exhortations to care less than the little most of us do care about ceasing to do evil are likely to be very productive of doing good.
Further, those who have most to say in praise of the ideal of “positive efficiency” too often forget that the “positive” achievement of a life cannot be measured by a standard so crude as that of readily ascertainable specific results. Dr. Inge has truly said more than once that the most effective work in the way of “social amelioration” has usually been due to men who were all the while thinking primarily of something else. An example in point is the beneficent effect on art, literature, and social conditions in general directly traceable to the personality of St. Francis of Assisi, who all through his life troubled himself very little about any of the three. The same thing is equally true of the moral effects of any individual life of quiet goodness. It is not usually the persons who are most definitely preoccupied with this or that project of social reform as the great business of life, still less those who proclaim that their main interest is that of “making their neighbours better” in general, who actually most often send us away from contact with them better men than we were before. More commonly the best influence in our lives is that of quiet and unpretending persons who were quite unconscious of any intention to moralise us directly, and of whom we might find it hard to say just what special “good habit” or reform of our practice we owe to them, though we may feel certain that we “owe our souls” to them. The goodness of the tree, no doubt, is proved by the goodness of its fruit, but the fruit is not usually very precisely discerned by our imperfect vision. And Hegel’s smart gibe misses the point. The schoolmaster who prefers himself to Alexander is, indeed, presumably a self-satisfied prig. If he were not a prig, the comparison would not be likely to suggest itself to him, or if it did, his verdict on himself would be less confident, did he remember, before passing it, as he should, that the real question is whether he would have mastered his temper better than Alexander in Alexander’s position and with Alexander’s temptations. But it still remains true that Alexander might have done much more for the world than he did, if he had known how to keep the strain of the savage in himself under better restraint, and so had not deprived himself of his wisest and most devoted counsellors. And it is not a preposterous view that, though in the eyes of the average man a schoolmaster may seem a little figure and a great conqueror an imposing one, there may be schoolmasters who are greater “in the kingdom of heaven” than Alexander or Napoleon. Plato would certainly have said that there are or may be; and if we desire the authority of a great name to support our considerations, Plato’s name may count for as much as Hegel’s. In fact, many at least of us would say that however much the world owes to Alexander, it owes much more to Plato, and Plato himself, when all is said, was a kind of pedagogue. Like Johnson, “he keepit a schule and ca’d it an Academy”. The element of truth in Hegel’s mot reduces to little more than this, that a schoolmaster who was really a greater man morally than Alexander would be very unlikely to be conscious of the fact. We must not introduce into moral valuation that pernicious heresy of judgement by grossly palpable results which has worked so much havoc with education wherever it has prevailed.
(5) This rather desultory consideration of the implications of the sense of guilt may be brought to a close with one further consideration. What is the subiectum we feel to be defiled and polluted by contact with that which awakens our sense of guilt, or wounds our sense of honour? Assuredly nothing which we could plausibly represent as primitive and elemental human nature; the merely “natural” man, not yet caught up in the advance of the moralising process, if such a creature ever existed, must have known nothing of either sin or honour; the sense of both is itself a product of the moralising process. If a man could be serious with the proposal to “return to nature” by expelling what Nietzsche, with his unfortunate itch for journalistic epigram, has taught a generation to call “moralic acid” from his system, his first task would have to be to divest himself once for all of shame, honour, and chivalry. Modern advocates of Herrenmoral take a sentimental pleasure in contemplating themselves as lions or eagles; but the lion and eagle of their fancy have never existed except in the bestiaries and romances. The real lion and the real eagle are not the chivalrous beasts of fable who disdain to harm a virgin or to taste carrion; they are as much mere creatures of their appetites as the wolf and the vulture.24 Nor is it my own person as it actually exists that is the object of this unqualified and solicitous reverence. That, in many a case, already bears the stain of so many disgraces that I might well feel that one more spot could not add much to its uncleanness. What is defiled by sin and dishonour is the self I aspire yet to possess as my own, quando che sia. The poignant shame which goes with consciousness of guilt or dishonour gets its pungency from the contrast with my ideal of what I, as a person, may be and am shaped to be, and this is why we all feel guilt and dishonour to be things much more intimate to ourselves than they would be if they were adequately described as mere infractions of an impersonal law. What is amiss with all of us is not merely that we have done this or that which we should not have done, or omitted this or that which “regulations” call on us to do, but that the very fountain of our moral personality is poisoned.
Whether Adam ever “fell” or not, I am a “fallen creature,” and I know it. Our moral task is no mere business of canalising or embanking the course of a stream; it has to begin higher up with the purification of the bitter waters at their source. Hence, when we feel as we ought to feel about the evil in ourselves, we cannot help recognising that our position is not so much that of someone who has broken a wise and salutary regulation, as of one who has insulted or proved false to a person of supreme excellence, entitled to wholehearted devotion. Similarly, even in lives in which the thought of sin as a personal offence against the living divine majesty is not operative, we all know that an adequate sense of the dishonour attaching to treason to a principle or a cause can only be awakened when one succeeds in “personifying” the cause or the principle. To make a man feel the shame of treason to the cause of his country as he ought to feel it, you must first make him accept a figure like that of Britannia as something very much more than a convenient abbreviatory symbol for “the system of social institutions and traditions in which I have been brought up”; if he is to care as he ought to care, he must somehow be got, in spite of himself, to feel that Britannia is a living person. Just so, if we are to think adequately of the shame of disloyalty to our best spiritual ideal, we have to learn to think of that ideal as already embodied in the living and personal God, and of falsehood as personal disloyalty and ingratitude to God. It is just because so many of our modern philosophical moralists are afraid to make the idea of God frankly central in their theories of conduct that their treatment of guilt is inadequate to the actual moral experiences of men with any depth of character.
It is easy to say that passionate loyalty can be and is awakened by the imaginative personification of Britannia, though no one really believes in the personification, and that, in the same way, the practical necessity of imagining moral guilt as an offence against a personal living God proves nothing as to the truth of such a conception. But the two cases are only imperfectly analogical. There may be no such actual person as Britannia, but we should remember that the loyalties symbolised and summed up for the patriotic Briton in the figure of Britannia are themselves, in the main, loyalties to persons. The symbolic figure represents the body of a man’s attachments to a host of those whom he loves and respects, and has respected and loved from his childhood. Britannia means for him all his intensest and most deeply rooted loyalties to persons at once. If you could find a man without any of these personal devotions, a man to whom Britannia was only a “figure of speech” for a set of impersonal institutions of which he approved—the House of Commons, the Assizes, the Quarter Sessions, the Coroner’s Inquest, and the like—I wonder how much power the figure would have to brace him for the great endurances and the great sacrifices. Not, I should suspect, very much.
Now the moral life, adequately conceived, is a life of unremitting endurances and sacrifices which go beyond anything that would be demanded by loyalty to our personal attachments to fellow-men, and may, at any moment, require the sacrifice of the most intimate of these attachments to a higher loyalty. Can this supreme loyalty be felt towards any object but one with which we stand in a personal relation more intimate than any that could come into competition with it? Can it be demanded, and, if demanded, is it likely to be displayed? To my own mind the answer is clear. The supreme endurances and surrenders can be made, but they can only be made by love, and who can really love a code or a system of institutions? Who could love the Categorical Imperative or the Code Napoléon or the perfected social organisation of a distant future? The more patent it is that it may be a good man’s duty not to let love of friend, or mistress, or wife, or mother, be the paramount and final influence in all his choices, the more patent also, it seems to me, that this final motive must be found in another and a supreme love, and that such a love, like all loves, must have its real personal object. Thus once more I find myself forced back on the conclusion that, to be truly itself, the moral life must have as its last motive love to God, and so become transfigured into the life of religious faith and devotion. For the moralist, belief in the true and living God cannot be relegated to the position of an “extra,” which we may perhaps be allowed on sufferance to add to our respect for duty or regard for the good of our fellowmen, if physicist, biologist, and anthropologist will be kind enough to raise no objection. Belief in the absolute reality of God, and love for the God in whom we believe, are at the heart of living morality. The good of our fellow-men is unworthily thought of when we do not conceive that good as a life of knowledge of God and transformation by the knowledge into the likeness of God. And the love which arises from our belief is the one motive adequate to secure the full and wholehearted discharge of the duties laid on us by our ideal.
If moralists are at times ready to compound with the naturalist on easier terms, the reason, I suspect, is that they have not always the courage of their convictions as moralists. They are not quite sure at heart whether the moral life is quite as much “hard fact” as the facts of which the natural sciences treat. If a man is seriously convinced that of all facts those of our own moral struggle are the most immediately sure and certain, that we have more intimate assurance of the reality of love and hate, virtue and vice, than of the reality of atoms or electrons, I do not believe he is in much danger of reducing Theism to the level of a metaphysical speculation or a “permitted” hypothesis.
I do not forget Schopenhauer, but I think it would be true to say that his attention is given almost exclusively to “original” sin, to the exclusion of “actual,” and that, with him, original sin itself receives a metaphysical interpretation which evacuates the meaning. When, for example, he quotes Calderon to the effect that
“el mayor pecado
Del hombre es haber nacido,”
he forgets that Calderon was a Christian priest, to whom the words meant something very different from a thesis in metaphysics.
The difficulty is not so apparent in St. Thomas, since he expressly teaches that the infant in limbo suffers only a poena damni, unattended by any poena sensus. But this does not seem to me to remove the root of the difficulty, which is, in fact, Augustine’s division of evil into the two species of malum culpae and malum poenae. St. Thomas himself contrives, in his discussion of “vengeance,” to bring all the “unmerited sufferings” of good men under the head of poena by arguing that they are “medicinal to the soul” (S.T. ii.a ii.ae q. 109, art. 4 resp.), but unless we accept Augustine’s forensic view of the implication of unborn manhood in the sin of the first man, this is merely playing fast and loose with the notion of poena. And if we did accept this Augustinian view, could we logically object to his condemnation of infants wholesale to the “fire”?
Cf. Gorgias, 466 E 1 ff.
Spinoza, Ep. lix. (V.V.L.), to Tschirnhaus.
Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, p. 174.
And this procedure may always involve error. To take a trivial example, I give you the first three terms of a series as 1, 3, 9, and ask you to say what the fourth and other terms, which I have not given, are. I am almost certain to be told that the fourth term is 27, the fifth 81, and so forth. But this may be a mere mistake; the fourth term may have been 25. I may have intended the series of which the “general term” is 1 + (n — 1).2n-1, not that of which the “general term” is 3n-1.
Dissertation of the Nature of Virtue (ed. Gladstone, § 8).
Appearance and Reality, p. 431 n.
In his Rise of the Greek Epic.
Odyssey a, 262:
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὔ οἱ
δωκεν, ἐπεί ῥα θεοὺς νεμεσίζετο αἰὲν ἐόντας.
Paradiso, ix. 103:
“Non però qui si pente, ma si ride,
Non de la colpa, ch’ a mente non torna,
Ma del valor ch’ ordinò e provide.”
Thus it comes as a shock to us when we first discover that, as recently as 1685 in our own country, perjuries like those of Oates, who deliberately for gain swore away the lives of innocent men, were legally only punishable as misdemeanours. We feel that they ought to have been capital felonies. It is absurd to pretend that suffering inflicted is made just punishment by the circumstances that the suffering is either (1) salutary to the sufferer, or (2) conducive to the general social welfare, or by both. It might be highly salutary to me to learn to bear the loss of eyesight, or to be reduced to extreme poverty, but it would be no “just penalty” if I were sentenced to lose my property, or my eyes, on that ground. And if I am sentenced to penal servitude for a crime, the sentence does not cease to be just because it is foreseen that my character will deteriorate Dartmoor. It is arguable that it would be socially beneficial to deepen the sense of responsibility in ambitious politicians by hanging ministers whose conduct of affairs is proved by the event to have been infatuated; it is quite another question whether the procedure would be just punishment. Justice is no more possible in a society which refuses to recognise retribution than chastity in one where
“man and woman,
Their common bondage burst, may freely borrow
From lawless love a solace for their sorrow.”
It is arguable that in such a society there may be something better than either of these virtues, but not that it possesses them. To do Shelley justice, he never pretended to regard chastity as a virtue. Would that utilitarians had been as honest, or as clear-headed, about justice.
Thus society probably gains considerably when a professional blackmailer is murdered by one of his victims. But I cannot believe that any one would seriously desire to see it made a good legal defence against a charge of murder to prove that the victim had lived by blackmail, even apart from the danger that such a defence might often be pleaded in cases where it would be materially false.
May this not explain why, as Macaulay says, so little gratitude was ever called forth by the “cold magnanimity” of William III. to useful but treacherous persons? The pardoned offenders felt that the pardoner despised them, and pardoned them because he despised them too completely to be moved by their treacheries. Naturally, then, they felt little or no gratitude.
Gorgias, 472 e.
Cf. Lane, Modern Egyptians, ch. xiii. (pp. 285–7 of edition published by Gardner, 1895).
E. Bevan, Hellenism and Christianity, pp. 152 ff.
This state of things has its spiritual counterpart also. It is not always the sins which are most destructive of our moral being which are commonly abhorred as particularly “vile”. Gross sexual offences, marked pettinesses, are commonly felt as “viler” than the much more ruinous sins of spiritual pride and self-complacency. This has been remarked by von Hügel, and long before him by St. Thomas (S.T. iia iiae q. 117, art. 2 ad 2um “non semper in actibus humanis illud est gravius quod est turpius. Decor enim hominis est ex ratione; et ideo turpiora sunt peccata carnalia, quibus caro dominatur rationi, quamvis peccata spiritualia sint graviora, quia procedunt ex majori contemptu”). The same consideration explains why in Dante’s Hell Ulysses and Bertrand de Born are placed lower down than Semiramis or Cleopatra, or Brunetto Latini. See infra.
Op. cit. p. 151.
Op. cit. p. 153.
Op. cit. p. 147.
We all feel this about Achilles’ treatment of Hector, and I own to something of the same feeling in myself about David slinging his stones against a Philistine who was expecting to be met honourably with lance and sword
If it is his, I have not succeeded in verifying the reference.
So much at least was correctly understood by the “horned Siegfrieds” who provoked Nietzsche’s disgust by trying to act out his theories. No doubt, they were young blackguards, but the humour of the situation is precisely that no one could be a “superman” without being something of a blackguard, while the inventor of the “superman” was at heart, after all, a “Christian gentleman”.