Had Emil Meyerson been alive I should not now be addressing you. He had accepted the invitation to succeed His Grace, The Archbishop of York, as Gifford Lecturer in this University. From him, had he survived, you would have had a survey of modern thought such as I cannot hope to rival. By his scientific attainments, his subtle and searching intellect, he was brilliantly equipped for such a survey. Few among the thinkers of our time possessed in as high a degree that delightful lucidity of thought and expression which seems to be a birthright of all Frenchmen. To your misfortune an amateur takes the place of a tried and laurelled veteran.
If it be said, and it is no more than the truth to say, that I owe my position here to the friendship of my colleagues, I would wish this to be added, that I take more pleasure in the regard of my friends than in any honour that could be done me. And yet their choice is, indeed, a great and signal honour. Possibly—it is a conjecture—I was invited to deliver this course of lectures partly at least in the hope that if I could not be so profound as my predecessors, I might, for that reason, be more easily followed. My colleagues may have had the Founder’s intention in mind. The ‘Deed of Gift’ clearly sets forth his wish that the Gifford Lectures should be ‘popular discourses’. ‘Popular’ I take to be within the compass of the plain man’s understanding. Some Gifford Lecturers have ranked his mental powers and accomplishments very high, so high, indeed, that I have wondered at times whether I had myself attained to them. You would wish me, I fancy, to avoid the ‘holy jungle of transcendental metaphysics’, as Swinburne irreverently called it, the tangled wilderness of technical and inconclusive debate. You would prefer discourses as little in the manner of Spinoza or Hegel as possible. If such be your wish, I am in the heartiest sympathy. You might even go so far as to hope that I am in a state of innocence in respect of philosophy. However that may be, I am certainly in an embarrassing position. Before some of my colleagues my philosophical errors will be an open book, before others my scientific, before others again my theological errors; more especially as it will be my aim to reduce the issues that confront us to their simplest terms. I do not propose to apologise for these errors. I have never believed in excuses, and I have hopes that they may possibly in a measure cancel each other out. Were it possible I should gladly avoid the Chinese puzzle of metaphysics. Alas, we cannot. For, however little we are conscious of it, we are one and all metaphysicians, good or bad, generally indeed bad, yet inveterate metaphysicians.
The best we can do, the most I can promise you, is to employ familiar words, the words of our daily speech, and to use them in the sense to which we are all accustomed. I shall abide, as far as I can, by the tradition of our country and our ancestors.
Ours are not the first, nor yet the wisest heads which have pondered the riddle of the painful earth, and we shall not succeed where our betters have failed. But just as none of us can live any life save his own, none of us can wholly transfer his burdens to another’s shoulders. We must in some measure in these days think for ourselves, as we must breathe for ourselves, and walk for ourselves. Happier, it may be, are those who can with serenity leave this troublesome business of thinking to others. Denken ist schwer, and it is not everyone who has a good head for thinking. Let the mind once awake, however, and nothing, whatever vexation or labour is entailed, can extinguish its curiosity or stay its tormenting propensity for enquiry. Not a few men have at times breathed the wish that God or nature had upon the great fundamental problems of life broken the spell of silence. Yet, perhaps, we should not desire it, since it may well be for the benefit of both mind and soul that it remains unbroken.
I would remind you that we have on this journey to part company with the friends of revealed religion.
O well with him who hath secured his wealth
Of thoughts divine, and wretched he whose care
Is shadowy speculation on the gods.
To those who sail across the great ocean under the colours of revealed religion we dip our flag in greeting—and a good voyage to them. Ours is a stormier course, the course prescribed by the founder of the Lectureship.
I propose to speak my mind. I cannot believe you would wish me to say what I did not think, or think what I did not say. Nothing is to be gained by concealment or equivocation. If you find my conclusions unpalatable, you are not without resource. You have only to assure yourselves that I am totally mistaken, which may, indeed, very likely be the truth. And—who knows?—I may learn wisdom, and come to think differently. I would have you regard these occasions as conversations. My views will be at your disposal for consideration, not necessarily for acceptance. If they have no inherent persuasiveness I would not have you accept them. There are in the realm of thought no absolute authorities, no dictators. No man, living or dead, can claim oracular powers. Mine is a personal view. All philosophies are in the end personal. You can no more escape your philosophy than you can escape your own shadow, for it also is a reflection of yourself. Systems of thought are the shadows cast by different races, epochs and civilisations.
China and Ind, Hellas and France,
Each hath its own inheritance;
And each to Truth’s rich market brings
Its bright, divine imaginings.
All reasoning is in a manner biassed, and the bias is due to the nature, surroundings and education of the thinker. We are none of us merely logical or calculating machines. Mathematical reasoning is more nearly impersonal than any other type, but, as Aristotle pointed out, you do not ask it of the statesman. And the matters with which we are to deal are not susceptible of mathematical demonstration.
Like myself, you have probably not seldom, in listening to discourses, found yourselves more interested in the man than in his deliverances, putting the question, for example, how far his true mind was revealed in them, or how far he merely wore the official costume of his party or profession. How much more interesting are men than their utterances, and how much more revealing! I am inclined to think you would greatly prefer me to tell you point-blank what I believe than trouble you with the arguments for or against my beliefs. And, indeed, within the time at our disposal, I cannot deal with the innumerable disputed questions either in science or philosophy. Few, if any, are the points upon which there is agreement. I can do little more than outline my own preferences, and the conclusions to which, in my judgment, among the many matters in debate, they appear to lead.
And it may be best for your protection and guidance to make, at the outset, a confession of some of these personal preferences. Of the more highly praised virtues (save courage and magnanimity) I am, as far as one can oneself judge of such things, deficient in appreciation, and the heaven of my choice would, I fear, contain but few saints or examples of moral perfection. Indeed I am not sure that it would contain any; it would be mainly peopled by agreeable sinners, not too unlike myself for companionship. How sad are the virtuous, and how cheerful and light-hearted so often the profane. How gay and gallant, how amusing so many of the rascals! My affections have, I suppose, betrayed or undermined my moral principles. Holiness is a strong perfume, and a little of it goes a long way in the world. I have never been very clear whether it was compatible with laughter, and I should be very loath to bid an eternal farewell to laughter. For I am one of those people who love good sense, and yet love sheer nonsense in as great, almost in a higher degree. It affects me like champagne. I find it most exhilarating. Perhaps I should not, but I find even the frenzied illogicality of the world amusing. And my private opinion is that only if you can appreciate nonsense can you appreciate sense.
Again I am less enamoured of truth than of beauty. Beauty I know, or think I know, when I meet with it. Of truth I am never so sure. And if I could spend the course of everlasting time in a paradise of varied loveliness, I do not fancy my felicity would be greatly impaired if the last secret of the universe were withheld from me.
None the less my natural sympathies—though I fear they might not one and all recognise me as a friend—lie with the men of religion rather than with the ethical idealists, for whom, I confess, I have small regard and with whom I feel little sympathy. Putting the world to rights has never appealed to me as an occupation for which I felt myself in any degree or fashion fitted, nor have I believed those who were foremost in the endeavour peculiarly qualified for the undertaking. The world has gone its own imperturbable way despite their efforts, and the many-fountained Utopias and rose-scented Commonwealths will be established only, I believe, on the arrival of the Greek Kalends, when dreams come true. In what century did Nature change her ways, and in what year was human nature born again? When did disagreement die, and who has written the epitaph of injustice? In all ages the prophets and moralists have upbraided and denounced their fellow creatures. I desire to be excused their honourable society. I will sit on no jury for the arraignment of the human species. There is more than a morsel of truth in the saying, ‘He who hates vice hates mankind.’
Qui vitia odit, homines odit.
I have, indeed, my own strong likes and dislikes, as you will presently discover, but I can find in myself no kind of superiority to my neighbours, which would justify me in censure of their ways or works. ‘No man can justly censure another’, wrote Sir Thomas Browne, ‘because no man truly knows another.’ And again, ‘For my conversation it is like the Sun’s with all men, and with a friendly aspect to good and bad.’
I propose, with your permission, in this first series of discourses to set forth, as briefly and clearly as in me lies, the undisputed and indisputable facts of the human situation, the circumstances in which we actually find ourselves. Of Schopenhauer it was said, ‘He is not a philosopher like the rest; he is a philosopher who has seen the world.’ The point is a cardinal one. There is no hope for those who will not face the facts, who philosophise, however well and wisely, in a desert, in an imaginary world conjured up in the solitude of their studies. To give any kind of interpretation of human life you must first try ‘to see it steadily and see it whole’. ‘I wish to make the world my book of study,’ said Montaigne. It is also my wish. And I propose to allow my thoughts to revolve, as in the curve of an ellipse, around two foci; to ask, in the first place, What kind of world is this that we in fact inhabit? And later to discuss some among the possible and alternative interpretations of things as they are.
We begin, then, with every man’s experience. Neither philosophy nor science operates in a vacuum. Beneath them lies our common and immediate knowledge of the world and ourselves. We did not make our natures, nor their surroundings. We find them. Here we are, eating and drinking, conversant with health and disease; here we are among our neighbours, thinking and feeling, hoping and fearing, enjoying and suffering, in a state of being not of our choosing; and it is of this very remarkable, this astonishing situation that we desire to reach some explanation, some interpretation, if explanation or interpretation be at all possible.
No doubt you will detect errors, even contradictions, in my reasoning. I comfort myself by remembering that no thinker of my acquaintance, however eminent, is free of them. Not the mathematically-minded Plato or Spinoza, not Descartes, nor Kant nor Leibniz. Their works, one and all, sparkle with contradictions of the most flagrant, delightful and encouraging variety. And why? It was said of Confucius that he had ‘no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy and no egotism’. How charming to meet with is a mild and amiable comprehension of human character and human beliefs, which rejects all pedantry, all dogmatism, all doctrinaire types of thought, and is willing with perfect urbanity and good humour to hear and consider the views of an opponent. I should like to have known Confucius. He was evidently a gentleman. Yet I am satisfied he had his secret wish. Every heart has its secret wish, and the systems even of the most renowned philosophers betray it. Goethe describes the formidable look with which Napoleon disposed of superfluous persons without a word. They were ‘pierced through by his glance, and saw themselves already shot or beheaded’. So with the famous monarchs of the mind. They terrify you with their authority, their look subdues you. Exalted like Oriental sultans, they sit on their golden thrones, and their subjects do obeisance before them. You are vanquished by their imposing air, or crushed by their powerful dialectic. How royal is their gesture, how incomparable their technique!
There is, however, no need for alarm. Pluck up your heart, approach a little nearer, and what do you find; that they have human wishes and weaknesses like yourself. You may discover that Kant smoked, played billiards and had a fancy for candied fruit. The discovery renders him at once less awe-inspiring. Look a little closer, and you perceive that this magnificence of demeanour is a mask. This terrifying apparatus conceals a preference for a certain conclusion. You may even find that the systems throw more light upon the preferences of the philosophers who construct them, or upon the race to which they belong, than upon the matters they discuss. The Jew, for example, is clearly apparent in the philosophy of Spinoza, and English blood and êthos in the Utilitarians. Differences of opinion are deeply rooted in the differences of our nature, in the original pattern of our souls. There never yet was a philosopher, whatever they may have said, no, nor man of science, whose conclusions ran counter to the dearest wishes of his heart, who summed up against them, or condemned his hopes to death. How honestly Darwin confessed the lurking presence of the desire to prove his theory true. ‘I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over… The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.’ What a danger lies in wait for our logic, when our affections or our interests are aroused.
I ask for no more than your conclusions on the great matters of human life and destiny. Let me know them, and I shall not trouble you to set out the arguments. I can myself supply them. Our desires attract supporting reasons as a magnet the iron filings. You will say, ‘Then you are yourself prejudiced.’ I fear most certainly. Yet there is a limit. We shall none of us be easily persuaded that we can believe the outrageously absurd because it takes our fancy. We must endeavour to proceed warily, and with what detachment we can muster. We should aim, I venture to think, now and always, at a conclusion, if such there be, which will satisfy the whole of our nature. And for two reasons. It is neither sensible nor scientific to take a part for the whole. ‘The nature of man is his whole nature,’ said Pascal. I accept that position. To strip the human being, for example, of all his attributes save his logical or calculating powers is an unwarrantable mutilation. Nature made him what he is. You cannot pick and choose. Nature is asserting herself in him, and you must take account not of one or two, but of all her assertions. On every side to-day you meet with an exaltation of the intellect at the expense of the spirit. You may trust, it is said, your thoughts, but not your aspirations. In your ideals you employ, it seems, a private script, a language unknown to nature; in your logic, on the other hand, nature herself speaks. This is, in effect, the great two-handed sword with which Spinoza struck terror into the hearts of his adversaries. With this selfsame sword science confidently lays about her to-day. You see the design. Nature is rent asunder. You enthrone the measuring, weighing, calculating faculty of the human creature. His remaining attributes are irrelevant. But who told you that nature had drawn this line? Where did you learn of this preference? Nature has no preferences. If she has given us deceiving souls, how can you argue that she has given us trustworthy intellects? It was the opinion of Coleridge that deep thinking and deep feeling were inseparable, and that the ‘Euclidean understanding’ failed, and must fail, to comprehend in isolation the sum of reality. If nature misleads us in the one case, she very probably misleads us in the other, and if that be so, it were best to wind up the debate, and turn our attention to stocks and shares. We should at least, then, aim at a conclusion which the intellect can accept and the heart approve.
And for a second reason. If you satisfy the heart alone, the understanding stands to its arms, and with justice protests: if the understanding alone, the heart is in revolt, and with equal justice refuses to be satisfied. For of what are we in search? Peace of mind. We desire to be at home in a friendly world, we desire a reconciliation, a harmony between ourselves and our surroundings. It might well, indeed, be asked, how came we at all to entertain the notion that life should present to us a countenance wreathed in perpetual smiles, why should we expect unearned, eternal good, a world good throughout, good for everyone, at all times and for ever? Apparently we do expect it as a birthright. And men ardently pursue truth also, assuming that it will be angel’s bread when found.
Yet again, whence and why this determination to discover truth, irrespective of any certainty that it will prove either pleasant or profitable? A strange quest surely, and a strange conviction that the truth will not disappoint or betray us. Is there any guarantee that the truth, if it could be ascertained, would coincide with the good? Many philosophies have been built upon the assumption that the true and the good are one and the same. Much may be said for that thesis. None the less it is an assumption, an essay of faith. The universe contains secrets, which, if discovered, would astound men, but whether with terror or delight, who can tell us? Some thinkers, like Spinoza, have been driven to the desperate expedient of asserting that the true must be the good, however villainous in our eyes it appears. Every species of wickedness and folly, every kind of agony, physical and mental, must be called good simply because it exists. To my mind if we propose to use the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, we must use them in a human and intelligible sense. I care not what great names are subscribed to this type of doctrine, this jugglery which merely changes the names, but leaves the pains and aches. For me it has no validity. Not a few men have clung passionately to the hope we all share that the nearer to the truth the nearer to happiness, yet so far the fruit of the tree of knowledge seems to have added little to human felicity. Indeed, some powerful thinkers have declared that he ‘who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow’, and that truth is a synonym for disillusion. Julian the Apostate was of opinion, and it is not a manifestly absurd belief, that the happiness of mankind would be increased by a return to earlier and more primitive conditions, that the human race should endeavour to forget its gains, and retrace its steps in time. Julian’s thought, that the Golden Age lay behind us, has its echoes in Rousseau, and reverberates through the Christian scheme itself. The miseries of man arose, the story goes, from the eating of the fruit of knowledge. But the peculiar and mysterious fact is that however poisonous, we continue to crave for it, to believe it the healthiest diet, and to consume it with eager appetites; even to be convinced that it is medicinal, a sovereign remedy for all our diseases.
Let us, to begin with, agree upon something. And we can at least agree, borrowing the words of Cromwell, on the eve of Dunbar, that ‘We are upon an engagement very difficult’. For the first and last of all life’s complicated circumstances, the presiding fact, utterly astonishing, even stupefying, is that we are wholly in the dark about everything. Blank ignorance is our portion. In reasoning from our experience of nature and ourselves we have all the evidence there is. We can add none. There remains, then, the reasoning itself, which is philosophy. People often complain that philosophy is useless. This, however, is merely to vilify our own minds. Philosophy is nothing but men’s thinking. The evidence fails us, and the reasoning fails us, and ‘Nature nothing careth’, as said Galileo, ‘whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operating be, or be not, exposed to the capacity of men.’ In a measure, no doubt, nature responds to examination and study. We learn, and have learnt something of her history and habits. Yet upon the matters that most deeply concern us we have in reality no more information than our ancestors of the Stone Age. Without exception all the thoughts men have entertained upon this very singular experience we call ‘life’ are speculations, and no more than the purest speculations, hazardous guesses at the authorship and significance of the mystery play in which we are actors. ‘“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ And what, indeed, is truth? For, so strange is our plight that even were you and I in possession of the truth, we could not know with certainty whether it was the truth or not. There is in the Pacific Ocean a vast expanse, a lonely solitude, without islands, which sailing vessels dread, and never willingly traverse. There variable winds baffle the mariner. You may lose your way, sail in its immensities for a hundred years, and never sight land. On such an ocean the ship of human enquiry contends continually with contrary winds. We would, indeed, think rather poorly of the world if we could understand it, if it were so trifling an affair as to be easily compassed by our petty understandings. Of that we are in no danger. Life and the world ‘beggar all description’, let alone comprehension.
Recall the systems which propose to instruct us, the philosophies realistic and idealistic, atomistic, theistic, atheistic, pantheistic; recall the innumerable doctrines, Buddha’s doctrine, Plato’s doctrine, the doctrines of Aristotle, Epicurus, Dante, Hegel; recall the religions, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Mahommedanism, Christianity, the gods of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mexicans and Peruvians, all the creeds and theories, the attempts to draw a map of human nature they respectively present, their accounts of the relations of man to the source and origin, or creative principle of things—all held, be it remembered, by men anxious for the truth, by wise men and good; and is there any need to argue that no pillar of fire has been vouchsafed to mortals as a guide through the wilderness, no revelation of the Most High, final, convincing, sufficing? If the truth be with Christ, it is not with Voltaire, if with Buddha it is not with Epicurus, if with Dante it is not with Nietzsche. Opinions, creeds, faiths, not one commands instant and unhesitating acceptance. All, whatever the part they have played in human history, however powerful the influence they have exercised on men’s minds, however numerous their adherents, are tapestries wrought in the loom of human thought. The theologians of all ages and races have formed an image of God after their own fancies, and nothing could be more improbable than that He resembles in the least particular their conceptions of Him.
The Ethiop gods have Ethiop lips,
Bronze cheeks and woolly hair;
The Grecian gods are like the Greeks,
As keen-eyed, cold and fair.
In the great matters it is now common knowledge that we have no knowledge, unless it be sufficient to advise us of the utter folly of all dogmatism. Reason, for all the flourishing of her trumpets, has had no greater success in illuminating the grand problems than the imagination. From the central keep of the world’s mystery its arrows fall idly back, as from the walls of the medieval castle the bolts of the archers.
All periods have their own methods of approach to the siege, in all there is a certain etiquette of opinions. And to-day you are not in the mode, in the best company unless you speak the language of science. Your accent is looked upon as provincial, and excludes you from intellectual society. In the armour of its vast prestige science bestrides the modern world ‘like a Colossus’, and
we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
‘Every philosophy’, in Hegel’s words, ‘belongs to its age, and is subject to its limitations.’ Well, we shall have to present ourselves at the Vatican of Science, which occupies to-day the same position among the kingdoms of thought as did the Church in the Middle Ages. Roma locuta, causa finita. Science has delivered judgment, the case is closed. We shall have to enquire at this oracle as well as at the others, remembering that even oracles, like Churches, change their minds. In an authoritative scientific work of the date 1905 I read not long since the sentence, ‘Ether is the fundamental postulate of physics’. In an equally authoritative work upon modern physics, dated 1934, I could not find the word ‘ether’ at all, the ‘fundamental postulate’ did not even occur in the index. The Victorian men of science supposed themselves near to plumbing the depths of the ocean of being. Our contemporaries do not think so. On the contrary, they declare that their predecessors were dredging the merest shallows. In the history of mind king succeeds king and dynasty follows dynasty. This continuous flux of thought I find encouraging as well as disconcerting. The dogmatisms at least are dead. We have discovered, too, something of real importance, that men are not only subject to the social conventions of their generation and country, but to those also of current opinion. They think in the manner of their times, and can no more escape it than they can escape the idiom of their mother tongue. Prisoners we are of our age, which is not of our choosing any more than our parentage or country.
And how persistent is the illusion that in our present way of looking at things, we have, if not the final truth, certainly the direct, the only avenue of approach to it. And yet the ways of thought which governed men’s minds, which appeared inevitable five thousand years ago, are as strange and unfamiliar as the speech and institutions of that time. Did I say five thousand years? I should have said five hundred. Look back to the opinions universally held in Europe in 1435. The beliefs of savages excite our amusement. Ours will amuse our successors a few hundred years hence, and theirs, no doubt, be recalled with amazement a millennium later. Our business is not to solve problems beyond mortal powers, but to see to it that our thoughts are not unworthy of the great theme.
Briefly and broadly the issue is what it has always been, and always will be, the age-long issue between Naturalism and Super-naturalism. In the end everything melts into the cosmic background. All enquiries lead to the one enquiry. The great debate circles round a few words—good and evil, the soul, immortality, God. Interesting, is it not, that religion, though never more discredited, still remains a matter of universal interest? As in the late war there were engagements and encounters on many lands and many seas, which would in themselves have been senseless and unintelligible save in their relation to a single and central issue—the victory of Germany or the Allies, so in the mental world the various disputes and conflicts in many fields, which appear wholly remote from religion, are in fact closely related to a single fundamental issue. They are skirmishes or affairs of outposts. To understand them you must look to the centre. You may isolate such matters as Evolution or Relativity Theory for special study, as you may study the campaign in East Africa or in Mesopotamia, but their real interest lies in the light they may throw upon the still profounder problems of human life and destiny. All turns upon your answer to the simple, penetrating question, the first in the Scottish Catechism, ‘What is man’s chief end?’ The answer is equally admirable—‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.’ Unhappily the answer leads to still further enquiries. How is God to be glorified and how enjoyed? There you have the hinge of the human situation. According to your convictions life becomes shallow or significant, to be borne with anger, indifference, disdain, or with eager anticipation. Death, for example, wears a different countenance if you regard it as the final destruction of us and all other creatures, or as an incident in a journey, a night of repose between days of activity. ‘Human affairs’, said Plato, ‘are hardly worth considering with any great seriousness, and yet we must be in earnest about them.’ We need not contest the point. What else, indeed, is there to be in earnest about? And if human affairs are not important, what else is important? Our interests are first in ourselves, and in the gods only in so far as they are associated with our lives and destinies. The Epicurean gods have no value for men, or for any beings save themselves. Nor is there any consolation to be drawn from supposing human affairs subservient to some other and grander scheme, of which we know nothing—a puppet show for the amusement of an audience of angels—a cog-wheel in a design without meaning or interest for us. You may remember the argument of the old theology that the pot may not complain to the Potter, or ask ‘Wherefore hast thou made me thus?’ With this Oriental attitude of mind which identifies the will of a despot with righteousness, the Western man has little sympathy. He replies, ‘If the Potter chooses to make creatures who can think and feel, sentient and reflective pots, they enter immediately into rights of their own. You cannot, even if a God, create sentient beings, and stand clear of responsibility for their undeserved miseries. To make pots that suffer and have no compensation for their sufferings, that are steeped in ignorance of the cause of their wretchedness, is not from any human standpoint defensible, and assuredly provides no reason for praising their creator.’ ‘Is it not possible’, asks Dostoievsky, ‘to eat me up without insisting that I should sing the praises of my devourer?’ To my way of thinking, justice is justice, and tyranny is tyranny, whether a sultan’s or a God’s.
How often it is proclaimed that Naturalism, or Materialism, is dead. Yet its ghost continues to haunt the philosophers. Perhaps it has not been buried with the proper rites. In my opinion a very powerful case can be made out for Naturalism, and its opponents have good reason to view its strength with apprehension. It has an ally in the human heart, there is something in us which approves and accepts it. Let us say that there is something in us hostile to religion, and something in us friendly to it. ‘The soul is naturally Christian,’ said Tertullian. Yes, and it is naturally Pagan. It is divided against itself. Religion knows it well, this double mind: Psychology is well aware of it. But this division is not of our making. It is from nature, ‘the outward man’, in the phrase of Paracelsus, that we inherit this double-mindedness. Man mirrors the world and is involved in its duality, in the balanced rhythms which permeate the whole fabric of things. We shall meet the swaying forces, the crossing currents in many forms and guises. ‘If man is good,’ it has been asked, ‘why does he do evil? If evil, why does he love the good?’ Nature has decreed that he should desire incompatible things—to have, for example, the approval of others, and yet go his own unhindered way. He seeks unity and peace with his neighbours, and at the same time to be the controller of their lives. Nature urges him to exert all his powers, and in an instant their exercise precipitates him into a struggle with the interests of others. He is at once the lover and the rival of his fellows. We are very strange creatures, so strange that, in my opinion at least, not a philosopher of them all has written the first sentence in the book of the soul. ‘Four thousand volumes of metaphysics’, said Voltaire, ‘will not teach us what the soul is.’ ‘You will not find its boundaries’, said Heraclitus, ‘by travelling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it.’
Allow, since you cannot deny, that this strange being, man, is nature’s architecture. Allow, as you must allow, that she has not limited his desires to material goods, or mere physical well-being. Look how he is willing to sacrifice them, vitam impendere vero, to stake his life for the truth, for his soul’s satisfaction—a remarkable peculiarity in a worm of the dust. This worm will die for his creed, his country, his honour; a very delicate matter to account for by chemical reactions. To find the way to truth men have endured thirst and hunger, meditated in caves, on mountain tops, scourged themselves, stood motionless on pillars, undertaken lacerating pilgrimages, dedicated themselves to eternal silence, tortured their minds and bodies to destruction. Strange inhabitants are we of a world so strange that at one moment the heart aches at its loveliness, at another aches at its miseries, so strange that when we think of death we are in love with life, when of life we are enamoured of death. What kind of beings are we in fact? Whatever we are, never forget that we are nature’s children, her contradictions are ours, ours also her talents and graces.
Questions in plenty throng upon us, questions to which no convincing answers have been given—the origin of things, the existence of God, time and space, the nature of mind, the meaning of life, the fate of the soul. Plato cannot inform us, nor Newton, nor Kant, nor Darwin. What is our business in the world, if we have any, and how are we to occupy ourselves while its tenants? An idle question, no doubt, for most men anxiously engaged, as the majority are engaged, in the task of keeping body and soul together, clinging to life with apparently no other aim save clinging to life.
But can we indeed be said to have any task in the world at all? Is it to seek pleasure and happiness, or, setting these aside, to prepare ourselves for another and wholly different world to come?—a question which has sharply divided opinion. If to find happiness here is the wise man’s endeavour, how best to secure it? If in another place, of what kind is it likely to be, and how are we to prepare ourselves for it? Should we concern ourselves with the lives of others, to secure their happiness, or pursue our own independently, seeking, after the manner of some ascetics and quietists, an existence as far withdrawn as possible from the activities of human society? If, on the other hand, it is of the community and our neighbours we should chiefly think, should we endeavour to provide what they tell us would satisfy them, or what we, armed with superior wisdom, know would be much better for them, since by the grace of God we always have that knowledge? How easy are generalisations, and how futile. Does kindness to animals, for example, which we are all persuaded is a duty, include kindness to the wolf and the scorpion, the locust, the tsetse fly and the mosquito? Controversy upon most matters of consequence appears likely to be acute and prolonged.
How, we may further ask, are the proper principles of living to be discovered at all? If you propose to take nature as your guide, tell us what morality is taught by nature. What is her own morality? Has she in fact any? If not, is there a divine revelation enjoining us to eschew her ways, as perhaps antiquated, and to substitute other and better ways? We hear much of the preference of men for goodness, truth and beauty. Is this noble preference any more, than an idiosyncrasy, an eccentricity, an interesting feature of the human species, distinguishing it among other animals, as his trunk distinguishes the elephant, or his hump the camel? Is it of any more intrinsic importance than a preference, let us say, for classical architecture over Gothic, or a vegetarian over a carnivorous diet?
Times so remarkable as those in which we are privileged to live brighten the intelligence. They are more than remarkable, they are revolutionary. Since the Renaissance there has been no such upheaval of thought, no such revaluation of values as in the century upon which we have entered. Now as then, within about fifty years, within the span of a single lifetime, all the old conceptions, the previous beliefs in science, in religion, in politics, have been wholly transformed; a change has taken place, we might almost say, in the inclination of the earth’s orbit. We might fancy our planet had passed through some zone of cosmic disturbance. We are surrounded by specialists the most brilliant in every branch of human enquiry. But for a conspectus, a unifying creed, the plain man knows not where to look, and is plunged in a sea of perplexity. He reads one book to find its conclusions flatly contradicted by the next he opens. One is reminded of the celebrated summing up by Mr. Justice Maule. ‘Gentlemen of the jury—If you believe the evidence of the plaintiff in this action, you will no doubt find for the defendant; if on the other hand you believe the evidence of the defendant, you will no doubt find for the plaintiff. But if, like myself, you believe the evidence of neither, God help you all! Gentlemen of the jury, you may consider your verdict.’
Physics, upon which all the other sciences must necessarily build, introduces the modern man to new and bewildering, if not contradictory concepts. He hears of a finite but unlimited universe, of wrinkled and twisted space-time. He is told of electrons and protons constituting the atom, whirling in unimaginable orbits at inconceivable speeds, and before he has accommodated his mind to their fantastic dances they are joined by neutrons and positrons in a system of which the mathematical framework is still more complicated. If he supposes himself to understand the character of energy—a very foolish supposition on the part of any man—he must add to it the conception of negative energy. He must enlarge his mind to embrace the possibility of half a dozen geometries, which would have made Euclid stare and gasp; he must attempt to visualise cosmic rays, and ‘waves of probability’, and be aware, while he is attending to his income tax forms, that he is a dweller in an exploding or stampeding universe.
Time was when man was the chief object of his own attention, interest and study. We have changed all that. Nature has usurped the pride of place, and we are told to think of ourselves as mere incidents in a process. The modern view fuses man and things. Men are merely things of one kind among innumerable things of other kinds. That light travels at the rate of 186,000 miles a second rather than at 146,000, makes me neither glad nor sorry, any more than does the proportion of the electrons to the protons in an atom of oxygen; but that we are glad or sorry at any time, or at any thing, is, it seems, utterly irrelevant. What is of real importance is to know that there are six thousand white corpuscles and five million red corpuscles in a cubic millimetre of the blood of each one of us.
Time was when man’s presence on the earth gave it dignity amid the heavenly host, when the intellectual systems magnified mankind, exalted the mind and assigned it great place in the hierarchy of creation. ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!’ Hamlet was, of course, mad, and only a madman could say such things. One must admit that it is hard for the plain man to accept what the philosophers and men of science tell him is the truth. Hamlet’s bright angel wears, in their picture of him, a very bedraggled appearance. He comes last instead of first, and his god-like apprehension is merely a curious sparkling deposit left by the tides of matter upon the shore of time, or a kind of pearl secreted by a wounded oyster. Too much chlorine, too much or too little sulphur make us or mar us. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, or their combinations under colloidal conditions—there you have the whole history, a complete account of mankind. In them are to be found the spirit of Plato and of Shakespere, the brain of Newton and Beethoven, the hopes and fears and affections, the saints and heroes, the wars and civilisations, the religions and sciences, the cathedrals and the poems and the pictures.
If this is what is meant by explanation or enlightenment offered by our times, the plain man may well exclaim, ‘Heaven keep us in our wits. Perhaps we are as mad as Hamlet. His madness would not be noticed among us—we are as mad as he.’ Nevertheless, towards some such conclusions, unless I am mistaken, the finger of modern knowledge seems to point. Much has been said in their support. You will not be out of the fashion if you adopt them. True it is that they have not been demonstrated. It is not what science has proved, but what she threatens to prove, that so alarms the friends of religion and of the soul. ‘You cannot’, it is one of Chatham’s sayings, ‘you cannot make war with a map.’ It might with equal truth be said, ‘You cannot refute a programme’. And this ambitious programme has a long journey before it. For myself I have not been able to persuade myself and have not been persuaded that this our age has found the philosopher’s stone, that the sublime futility, the grand reductio ad absurdum it offers us is the final truth.
Nay, come up hither. From this wave-washed mound,
Unto the farthest flood-brim look with me;
Then reach on with thy thought till both be drowned:
Miles and miles distant though the last line be,
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond,—
Still, leagues beyond those leagues there is more sea.
Were the soul of man easily alarmed, it would long ago, one thinks, have perished out of the earth It has stood its ground against the giants and dragons, the material powers and terrors, amid which its lot is cast. It has survived the denunciations of prophets and the wrath of kings. You would not say that it was born in the purple, you would not say it has had an easy journey since the birth of time. But an enduring heart has been given by the gods to mortals. The human soul is inured to hardships. Its resilience is not spent, nor its natural strength abated.
It is a sword of Spain, the ice-brook’s temper.
No stranger to bad news, it will not cower and shudder under the disdain or contempt of this or any future day. Our modern teachers appear, I sometimes feel, apprehensive lest man should prove a greater enigma than they can deal with, or indeed, perhaps, than they desire him to be. They have, in my judgment, good reasons for their misgivings. The truth about him may be very remote from their notions, may lie elsewhere than they would have us believe. Man may be more interesting and important than they suppose, possibly even a star of some magnitude in the celestial universe.