You are here

Part II

XIV: The Laws of God, The Laws of Man

Make laws as though all men were good: the wicked triumph, the good are crushed. Make laws as though all men were evil: the wicked slip through them or circumvent them. Only the good obey them and suffer.


Moralists distinguish Magnanimity and Modesty by making the one the desire of greater, the other of less and inferior, honours. But in my apprehension there is more in Magnanimity. It includes all that belongs to a Great Soul: a high and mighty courage, an invincible Patience, an immoveable Grandeur which is above the reach of injuries, a contempt of all little and feeble enjoyments, and a certain kind of majesty that is conversant with great things; a high and lofty frame of spirit, allied with the sweetness of Courtesy and Respect; a deep and stable resolution founded on humility without any baseness; an infinite hope and a vast desire; a Divine, profound, uncontrollable sense of one’s own capacity; a generous confidence, and a great inclination to heroical deeds; all these conspire to complete it, with a severe and mighty expectation of Bliss incomprehensible.


Let us now adventure for an hour upon the still-vexed waters of ethical theory, turn, that is, from the professors of knowledge, who tell us what we should believe, to the professors of conduct, who tell us what we should do—and why. If you have any hopes that they are likely to prove less peremptory with us, you must, I fear, lay those hopes aside. The professors of conduct have been in the main austere men, seldom genial, complacent or humorous. They have dealt more often in censure than in praise. They have been for the most part men who prescribed for themselves a rigorous discipline, and, believing that their fellows were at least equally in need of it, advocated the same mode of life for their neighbours.

We have seen that the theologians have their troubles. The moralists, too, have theirs, and you may be sure no slight ones. ‘To preach morality is easy,’ remarked Schopenhauer, ‘to find a foundation for morality is hard.’ If philosophers agree upon anything they agree that the conduct of men is a matter of supreme consequence. Good behaviour is the cement of society. Without it there neither is nor can be safety or order in the world. How then is this desirable behaviour to be secured and maintained? Laws can of course be enacted and enforced, but on what principle? Religion, true or false, with its attendant beliefs in God and a world to come, has been, on the whole, if not its only, at least we may believe, a stout bulwark of morality. With the decay of religion and its sanctions it becomes an urgent question what can take its place, what support for ethics of equal efficacy, indeed of any efficacy, can be substituted. To find a basis for morality is a pressing necessity, but, as Schopenhauer said, by no means easy.

And there is the further distressing enquiry which Sidgwick, a professor of moral philosophy, put to himself—‘the question, whether to profess ethics without a basis?’ ‘It is beyond a doubt’, wrote Pascal, ‘that the mortality or the immortality of the soul must make an entire difference in morals; yet philosophers have treated morality as independent of the question. They discuss to pass the time.’ This great man, you may think, exaggerates, yet a difference of some kind it must surely make. And Pascal is not alone in his opinion. ‘In order that it may be concluded by a universal demonstration that everything honourable is beneficial, and that everything base is hurtful,’ said Leibniz, ‘we must assume the immortality of the soul, and the Ruler of the Universe, God.’ Do you desire further testimony? Listen, then, to Rousseau. ‘If the Deity does not exist, only the ill-disposed can be said to reason, the good are without sense.’ Add still another from the numerous witnesses who might be called into court in support of Pascal’s contention. Here is that of a living scholar and thinker, Mr. Joseph: ‘It seems to me that as long as we hold the world and what happens in it really to be what physical science takes it for, we cannot talk the language of ethics, and must jettison conduct.’1

Would you be surprised to hear that this opinion, held by many men of the highest intelligence—the opinion that outside religion no firm basis for morals can be found—excites in others the utmost exasperation and repugnance? Who can they be? you enquire. I will tell you. They are the ethical idealists, who though they have nothing to say either upon immortality or a moral Governor of the universe, yet perceive the necessity—if human society is to be preserved from destruction—the crying need for moral standards. Do not be misled by their zeal for righteousness. It does not arise from any concern for the final destiny of the race. It arises from the gnawing, though undisclosed, anxiety, the well-grounded alarm that, religion apart, no binding laws, no well-knit principles of human conduct can be discovered. With them religion is valued, though they themselves dispense with it, for the support it lends to goodness and virtue. They would identify religion with ethics, make it, as Arnold did, ‘morality touched with emotion,’ seeing in good behaviour, as they think, the supreme interest of mankind, and the absolute pivot of civilisation. They tremble at the thought of the chaos that would accompany its disappearance, a wintry season for the virtues, and the final demoralisation of society, whose stability is their one, and, indeed, only concern.

For this reason the ethical idealists will go so far as to remain silent upon—even countenance—a creed they believe false, yield that pawn that they may win the queen. They are aware that human beings live long in the atmosphere of a faith which has lost its vitality, and with a physician’s arts would prolong the life of a patient they believe to be in articulo mortis. Nietzsche ridiculed ‘the English shallow-pates’, who when they abandoned the Christian God illogically retained Christian morality; but what were they to do, if they could find no other?

Let me recall to you a moving poem by Matthew Arnold, which has for its subject the story told by Herodotus of a young king of Egypt, the best and justest of its rulers. To him came an oracle, foretelling that he had but six years more to live and reign. Was this, he asked himself, the recompense of the gods for virtuous living and duty done,—

When on the strenuous just man Heaven bestows,

Crown of his struggling life, an unjust close.

Oh, wherefore cheat our youth, if thus it be,

Of one short joy, one lust, one pleasant dream:

Stringing vain words of powers we cannot see,

Blind divinations of a will supreme;

Lost labour! when the circumambient gloom

But hides, if gods, gods careless of our doom?

And as he ponders the iniquity or indifference of the celestial powers, the young king resolves to throw aside the duties and the cares of state, and, in a forest retreat he loved, to give, with a group of friends, the brief remaining years to revelry and sensuous delights.

Here came the King, holding high feast, at morn,

Rose-crown’d; and ever when the sun went down

A hundred lamps beam’d in the tranquil gloom,

From tree to tree all through the twinkling grove,

Revealing all the tumult of the feast—

Flush’d guests, and golden goblets foam’d with wine;

While the deep-burnished foliage overhead

Splinter’d the silver arrows of the moon.

‘And why not?’ If you have the courage to utter the words, be prepared for the tempest of moral indignation that will burst over your head. The best of men dislike being driven into a corner, and since there is absolutely no answer to this ‘why not?’ it is only natural that it should exasperate the ethical idealists. Nothing in their view approaches ethics in importance, and some means therefore of controlling the natural impulses of men is the imperative of imperatives. Yet where in the absence of religion to look for the authority to enforce upon human beings the binding moral principles?—how, indeed, to show that such principles exist, or are in any way binding at all?—there you have the unanswered riddle. There you have ‘the philosopher’s stone’, the gem of price which has been sought with diligence, with anxiety, even with desperation, yet alas, also in vain.

Probably upon no subject ever discussed through the length and breadth of the globe has there been expended a fiercer hubbub of words than upon this—the foundations of morality. ‘Why should I ask God to make me good when I want to be naughty?’ asked the little girl. All the wise men of the world are put to silence by this childish query. A parliament of philosophers will not resolve it. When we set out in search of an answer we are, like the rebel angels in Milton’s Pandemonium, ‘in wand’ring mazes lost’. ‘Pleasure is empty,’ say the Puritans; ‘it passes away.’ Ah, yes, but the ascetic as well as the reveller goes, and who has the best of the bargain?

During an illness towards the close of his life Voltaire was visited by a priest, who summoned him to confession. ‘From whom do you come?’ enquired the sick man. ‘From God,’ was the reply. When Voltaire desired to see his visitor’s credentials, the priest could go no further and withdrew. Is the moralist in better case? Unhappily no; he is in worse. He cannot speak in the name of any church, any accredited body of opinion, but only in his own. How many moral systems are there? It will take you some time to count them.

If philosophers have been suspected of lip service to religion in order to obtain its support in the service of morals, rulers of states have come under a similar suspicion. The gods they considered a useful fiction, and faith in them to be encouraged among their subjects. If gods did not exist it would have been necessary to invent them—or something else to take their place. Whatever else goes, the moral law must be preserved, and no harm if in the regalia of religion it could be made to look more imposing. Otherwise the State itself had to be dressed up to look like God; in some cases presenting no very engaging or convincing portrait. Of this pious fraud even Plato was suspect. In his anxiety for righteousness he mingled, it was said, myths in his writings, inducing men to fancy that their conduct in this life might affect their fortunes in a life to come. Was Kant free from Plato’s dread that in their own interests men might stray from the path of virtue? He, too, appears to have suffered from similar apprehensions, and gave to the moral imperative a higher certainty in the universe than God or immortality. They were postulates, far from demonstrable truths. Postulates cost nothing; postulates are cheap. There is no harm in postulates. But the moral law, the ‘I ought, therefore, I can’, could not safely be left in the air. It was raised to the dignity of an unchallengeable proposition, enthroned in awful majesty above the very gods themselves, immutable and eternal. Such was Kant’s uneasiness lest in the interminable flux all foothold for virtue might be lost, that, as Schopenhauer said, he hurried back to the Decalogue, and took over the inviolable law, the categorical imperative, from the Mosaic tables of stone.

Lest men might be precipitated into the abyss, lest they might do as they pleased—from this frightful prospect even the most hardened rationalists recoil in consternation. Ethics are the sheet anchor of the Cosmos. In their view the world might get along pretty comfortably without God, but without rules of conduct it would become a total wreck. So perilous is the situation that in the attempt to find an indestructible basis for conduct even philosophers will flout every law of logic, and torture words out of every vestige of meaning. Listen to Socrates, the most admirable and most lovable of men. ‘No evil’, he told his judges, ‘can befall a good man, neither in this life nor in that which is to come.’ What meaning can be attached to these words? His statement is certainly false if the word ‘evil’ be used in the sense it has invariably borne throughout the whole of history, in all times and in every language under the sun. ‘No evil can befall a good man.’ How interesting a discovery! A good man, therefore, has never suffered in mind or body, never been bereaved of friends or children, never sickened at the sight of cruelty or in-injustice, at the miseries of the innocent. Epictetus talks in the same lofty strain. The good man is known by his complete indifference to all experiences of this kind. May we not say to Socrates and Epictetus, ‘My good friends, we cannot sufficiently admire your constancy, your noble sentiments, but we should have preferred you to use words in a human and intelligible sense. And have you considered the case of the simple souls, or of children? Have they never suffered? Have evils never befallen them? Have they never been bewildered by misery they could not understand, never wept in the desolation of their gentle hearts? No doubt, like you, they should have reflected that all was well with them, that they were not in any way afflicted, and like you should have remained serene in the consciousness of their virtue. We fear, my dear Socrates and Epictetus, that it was hardly possible for them, and that in your commendable zeal for good conduct you have outstripped your wonderful wisdom, for which you have been so justly celebrated.’

To save morality men will deny the plainest facts, and cry out in horror against truths of which the whole world is vividly aware as indisputable. ‘Everyone admits’, wrote Machiavelli, ‘how praiseworthy it is in princes to keep faith, and to live with integrity, and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have placed reliance on their word.’ No historian would dare to contradict that bold assertion. Yet for his frank utterance of this, and similar irrefutable truths, Machiavelli has been execrated as a monster, and his name coupled with the Prince of Darkness. Schiller went a step further than Machiavelli. ‘Not a single example can be shown of a people,’ said he, ‘where a high level and a wide universality of aesthetic culture went hand in hand with political freedom and civic virtue, or where beautiful manners went with good morals, or polished behaviour with truth.’ We are, you see, still in the region of the contraries, of conflicting ideals. As the child is born of two parents, so the world of the two opposites. They make their way into the very heart of Christian doctrine.

Many Christians, like Pascal and Luther, held that the ethical ideal is irreconcilable with the religious—in our day a strange idea. They saw in the attachment to conduct as supreme a great danger, equivalent in their eyes to the doctrine of salvation by works, instead of by the grace of God alone. The moralists, they held, had set up a false god, the god of the heathen, in the place of the true and living God. And, however you permit yourself to confuse the issue, religion and ethics, though in the interests of the latter frequently identified, are, in their essence, poles apart.

For, in the first place, ethics never lifts its eyes from the present scene; it is earthbound, and thinks only of the prosperity and security of our daily lives. Society and its institutions are the sole objects of its interest and concern. Regard for the rule, which is ethics, and regard for the person, which is religion, are widely separated and often irreconcilable interests. The law, or the rule, knows no friends, cherishes no affectionate solicitude for the human soul, and offers no consolation to the individual man, ‘created sick, commanded to be whole.’ It presents, and must present to all alike, and at all times, an inflexible countenance. For the particular person it has not a spark of consideration. Whatever his heredity, environment, circumstances, the law is the law. For it the individual is a mere abstraction, and the community or State the true and only reality. The soul of the sinner, your soul or mine, has for ethics no more relevance than the sparks that fly upward. It has never heard of souls, and has nothing to do with them, if they happen to exist.

Religion, on the other hand, or so it claims, is based upon an affection for humanity. It extends hope, consolation and encouragement to weak and suffering mortals. It has pity for man in his outcast state, and for it, as St. Augustine will tell you, the individual human creature outweighs in his infinite preciousness all other values that can be placed in the scale against him. For religion man’s destiny is the supreme issue. And who can dwell exclusively upon the faults of a beloved person, or be indifferent to his distresses or his fate? But the categorical imperative—is it kind? Does it minister to you in disease, or visit you in prison? Does it care whether you come to your end upon the gallows, or descend into hell? Is it prepared to do anything for you? Have you ever heard that the categorical imperative at any time offered anyone a drink, even so much as a cup of cold water? It is, then, neither human nor divine. I think perhaps that the best thing to do with the categorical imperative is to banish it to an uninhabited island, where it can contemplate throughout eternity its own unapproachable perfection.

It is told of Edmund Burke that upon one occasion he gave a shilling to a beggar. A young lady in his company ventured to remonstrate, remarking that it would probably be spent on gin. ‘Madam,’ said Burke, ‘he is an old man, and if gin be his comfort, let him have gin.’ How disrespectful to the categorical imperative! I share Burke’s disrespect for it. I prefer the dictates of human kindness.

And this imperative, so famous and so awe-inspiring, does it in fact assist you to a knowledge of what is right in a particular time and place? Its secret is like that of the British Constitution. No one can tell you what it prescribes. You object that I have forgotten its single comprehensive behest—‘So act that your action can be universalised, can apply to all men in a similar situation.’ Very exalted, yes, and very useless. How many men throughout the whole history of humanity ever employed such a formula? And, unfortunately, in this vexing world situations are invariably unique, never exactly repeat themselves in respect of place, time, circumstances and the persons affected by them. Nor can any rule be framed applicable to a course of conduct in any and all circumstances, times and places. The touchstone of values is not everywhere among men the same. When Mrs. Rosita Forbes visited the penitentiary at San Paulo, she asked if there were many thieves among the inmates. The warder was shocked. ‘Oh, no,’ he replied, ‘Brazilians are very honest. Nearly all these men are murderers.’

The ethical idealists, Puritans without being Christians, search without ceasing for the book entitled The Eternal Law. In these days of religious apathy they have their golden opportunity. Let them produce its credentials. They insist that it derives from a source higher than high heaven, that it came into existence at the same moment as the world itself, and is as old and fixed as the stars in their courses. The assertion has often been made. Well, let them now prove it. Never was there greater need. Nature will not, however, come to their aid. Is nature concerned whether we wash or not, have good manners or not, keep our promises or not? Is nature, or any principle in nature, concerned whether we are ambitious or not, musical or not, humorous or not? He has something on his hands who sets out to prove her preferences in such matters. Let us go further. Is she concerned if we live by thieving or honest toil, are pitiful or cruel, have many love affairs, few or none, prefer sport to study, delight in war, hunting, adventure, or shudder at them? She makes men of every pattern, and sends her rain upon the just and unjust alike. People talk as if nature should be better pleased with good than with bad men, as we judge good and bad. But they are equally her children, as are the fish of the sea and the fowls of the air—her creation, owing all they are and have to her bounty. We may well, indeed, extend our reverence to saints and heroes, but nature neither reveres nor admires. How could we think it possible? She creates saints, heroes, reverences and admirations, even gives birth to creatures that we, from our human standpoint, view, it may be, with abhorrence and disgust.

There is in all this no slight cause for amazement and bewildered dread of the world and life. Are we to trust the heart or the intellect, for they do not understand each other, and speak a different language? As you cannot prove the existence of a benevolent God, so you cannot prove the values of goodness or beauty. The testimony to God, goodness and beauty are in the affections of your own heart. In this pass ethics will not serve you. For ethics the battle is lost before it is joined. Ethics is in arms against the will-to-live, and proposes to cut off the right hand with the left. Ethics does not so much as attempt an explanation of things as we find them. It throws no light upon the great mystery. It cannot even produce its own birth certificate. Curious, is it not? that morality, as Plato, Sophocles and Cicero observed, never intrudes into our dreams. Nor does it make life worth living, or shed over it a beam of cheerfulness. It gives to the weary no encouragement. Is life a prison, and were we born to go about in fetters? Was man made for the Sabbath, for the sake of obeying the law? How utterly tiresome and unprofitable, then, is existence. The very word ‘ethics’ seems to cast a gloom over the human spirit. Is it necessary to have this skeleton at the feast? Is it necessary to enthrone a tyrant over us in order to be just and honest and friendly? We do it no honour, nor honour to the human race, when we distress ourselves over the foundations and future of goodness. While the human soul endures it will not perish out of the earth; commanded, however, it will not be. Not law, but love, say the poets. Friendliness is as natural as self-love. ‘I see no difference’, said Leopardi, ‘between kindliness and what is called virtue.’ Virtue is friendliness, an attempt to see our neighbours’ point of view, to radiate cheerfulness, to make them happy. Blake saw very clearly that there is no such thing as general benevolence. Virtue in the abstract is a vain thing. There are only particular acts of kindness, personal, of a certain date and time, and the sooner we cease to think of virtue as separable from such actions the better.

There is an incident in the life of Socrates rarely recalled by the moralists. I quote Lecky’s account of it. ‘In one of the most remarkable of his pictures of Greek life Xenophon describes how Socrates, having heard of the beauty of the courtesan Theodota, went with his disciples to ascertain for himself whether the report was true; how with a quiet humour he questioned her about the sources of the luxury of her dwelling, and how he proceeded to sketch for her the qualities she should cultivate in order to attach her lovers. She ought, he tells her, to shut the door against the insolent, to watch her lovers in sickness, to rejoice greatly when they succeed in anything honourable, to love tenderly those who love her. Having carried on a cheerful and perfectly unembarrassed conversation with her, with no kind of reproach on his part, either expressed or implied, and with no trace either of the timidity or effrontery of conscious guilt upon hers, the best and wisest of the Greeks left his hostess with a graceful compliment to her beauty.’2

But for the impulse towards kindness already seated in the human heart the talkers talk in vain. Were it not already in our nature, as well imagine you could impart valour to a stone, or humour to an alligator, as plant it there. Nor will debate, however prolonged, determine whether the universe has claims upon our obedience, or deserves our affection. Have the gods a case against mankind, or mankind against the gods? Has the human race done wrong or suffered wrong? In this world of the opposites no deeper fissure has divided opinion. Men there have been in whom a sense of their sinfulness, of unworthiness to stand in God’s presence has overwhelmed all other thoughts, and men there have also been of a wholly different fibre, in whom indignation took the place of penitence, and resentment of reverence—indignation and resentment that we poor pawns upon the chess board of existence should be subjected by the tyranny of heaven to lifelong miseries, and yet called upon to obey and worship our persecutor. Indignant such men have been that to the burden of life, hard enough to bear, there should be added the burden of the moral law, from which other creatures are free. For there is this matter of justice, which the theologians and moralists are prone to overlook, not the justice between man and man, but the justice due from heaven for men in the grasp of fate. Since they find it difficult to secure from the gods, is it surprising that they endeavour to secure it for themselves? And will you blame them for the disorders that follow? Is it better to see injustice done, or suffer it in one’s own person, than attempt to redress it? The world is no mirror of justice. If men cannot find justice in the courts of heaven, you will not persuade them to accept God as their judge. An unjust God has nothing divine about him.

Before the Oriental despot men prostrated themselves in the dust. His might was right, and their God was made in his image. They saw nothing strange in his caprices, his tyranny or injustice. The Greek had a prouder heart and thought differently. Power was not in his eyes a synonym for justice. The despotism of the East met at Marathon, at Salamis and Plataea, men who would not consent to live in bondage. The Oriental stands for peace at the price of submission, the Greek for freedom at the price of combat. Take your choice, remembering that it is the choice between the slave and the freeman.

To me it sometimes seems that our moralists would do well to cease their upbraidings and apply themselves to the interesting problem—‘How is goodness to be made the object of passionate desire, as attractive as fame, success, or even adventure?’ If they could excite in men an enthusiasm for virtue, as the poets, musicians and artists excite in them enthusiasm for beauty, and the men of science for truth; if they could devise a morality that had power to charm, they would win all hearts. ‘To be virtuous’, said Aristotle, ‘is to take pleasure in noble actions.’ A poet does not tell you how happiness is to be secured, he gives you happiness. And our reformers might do a great service to humanity if they could explain to us why a diet of milk and water does not appear to suit the human race, why the milksop has never been the hero of the romancers, why the biographies of the peace-makers lack readers, why the lives of dare-devils, of buccaneers and smugglers and all manner of wild men captivate the youthful souls, the young folk so recently—if we are to believe Plato and Wordsworth—arrived from heaven, trailing clouds of glory from their celestial home. There is a mystery for them, upon which to exercise their wits. Why should courage and reckless daring, even the adroitness and cunning of Ulysses, not conspicuously moral qualities, so entertain and delight us? Why, as Luther enquired, should the devil have all the best tunes? If the moralists made these obscure matters clear to us, they would earn our thanks. ‘He had too much spirit to be a scholar,’ said Aubrey. Must we add another to the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not have high spirits’? Are we to put a premium upon low vitality? Something appears to have gone amissing in our moral code. Repression, renunciation, resignation, we have heard of their values and recognise their values. But how dispiriting, how slavish as a panacea for our ills! Mankind in these days appears in need of more rather than less life, of resolution, high-heartedness, and the star of hope in the heavens. If you desire to serve rather than desert the world, you must avoid the attempt to quench the flame of life, to destroy the energies nature has implanted in the race. You take the wrong path. You should make use of them, divert or deflect them to nobler ends, harness them to the chariot of your ideal. And not till we have rid ourselves of the monstrous notion that the sole human motive is self-interest need we hope to lay the foundations of a sane moral philosophy.

And something seems to have gone amiss with our ethics if the brightest proposal it can at the moment offer as a shining goal is either to turn ourselves to stone, as the Stoics advised, or accept some kind of human ant-heap or beehive as the model for the future human commonwealth, a recommendation to go back to the insects for our instruction—a miserable, an ignoble Wiederverthierung—and achieve a harmony by the enslavement of the individual. Men are to accept serfdom for the sake of peace and quiet, the content of the dungeon, where you have regular meals, and are in no danger from robbers. It is an agreeable prospect. For my part I should be much surprised and disappointed in my fellow creatures were they so poor in spirit as to prefer plenty in servitude to freedom with a diet of herbs, were they prepared to accept the ‘base, dishonourable, vile submission’, to lose all dignity and stateliness in their outlook upon both life and death. Time will tell. But when you hear these proposals made,

Then loosen the sword in the scabbard and settle the helm on thy head,

For men betrayed are mighty, and great are the wrongfully dead.

We have no reason to believe ‘God is a merely moral Being’, says Dean Inge. Certainly it were a giant folly so to contract our vision, to suppose that regulations for human traffic through the crowded world were the Be-all and the End-all of things, the sum of existence, the sole aim and purpose of the illimitable universe. No one thing is everything, and ‘goodness’, as Bradley wrote, ‘is not absolute or ultimate; it is but one side, one partial aspect of the nature of things.’ Virtue is indeed adorable, but there is also truth, there is intelligence, there is strength, there is grandeur, there is humour, there is magnanimity. There are even such things as good scenery, good art, good health and good looks—all worth some consideration, or the human race has been much deceived. Why should we refuse to admit the infinite complexity, the innumerable windows through which the soul may view the astonishing landscape? Heaven save us from the blindness of single vision, from the philosopher’s confined to the intellectual, the naturalist’s to the physical, the moralist’s to the ethical, the artist’s to the aesthetic view—

Great God, I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn:

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

There is not, never was and never will be a perfect world. A perfect world there cannot be, yet an improving world is possible and even probable; and as an unweeded garden may yet contain a luxuriance of flower and fruit and fragrance, so an imperfect world like ours may well contain ten thousand types of excellence, of perfect or well-nigh perfect things—days, hours and seasons to content the heart, beauty in nature, beauty in art, splendour in man, in faith, in courage, in honour, in friends and lovers. ‘Tis our grief we cannot have them all together, and for ever. Were that possible their values would vanish. Their perfections would be without a foil, and we should pray for rain and storms to diversify the celestial weather. The human soul delights to walk in the dark as well as in the sunlit avenues. And only infants in reflection could suppose that the warfare in which, whether we like it or not, we never lay down the sword, not even the ‘pacifists’, is the simple warfare between good and evil. Every good casts its dark shadow, every good is the enemy of another good. One type of perfection, one ideal, however exalted, is attainable only by the sacrifice of another. You cannot on the same site and at the same time erect a Greek temple in all its divine loveliness and a Gothic minster in its equally divine loveliness. The ascetic virtues cannot flourish side by side with the social and domestic. If you choose to be an anchorite you cannot be a statesman. A hermit can know nothing of love or friendship, nor can the social worker devote his strength to the advancement of knowledge. Contradictions swarm in the very air we breathe. And the world’s sensitive and tired souls sicken at them, and avert their eyes, forgetting that the contradictions have given us a world to live in, and that we owe to them our birth and being.

I think ideas are the most mysterious things in a mysterious world. Not so long ago men were convinced that science would save us, or universal suffrage would save us, or education for everyone would save us. Now it is universal peace that will bring about the millennium. O sancta simplicitas! During the Middle Ages, the ages of the soul, men believed in God, in themselves as sinful and in need of salvation. They had no doctrine of progress, never supposed that by any human efforts could the world be saved. They put their trust in their Creator and a better world to come. Then arrived the Renaissance with a new and captivating bundle of ideas, which exalted the European mind to an ecstasy of delight. The previous ideas were amusingly crude and mistaken. Here at last was the final truth. Man was not by nature sinful, and consequently not in need of salvation. God was an unnecessary hypothesis. No other world than the present existed, which could by the proper use of reason be transformed by human exertions into an earthly paradise.

How unforeseen and startling are the alterations in opinion, how strange these secular revolutions! What changes in heaven or earth, you ask, or in the conditions of human life brought about this remarkable revolution? You may well ask. No change of any kind in the natural world. The sun and stars rose and set as they had ever done. The winds blew and ocean rolled; calms and tempests succeeded each other; heat and cold, health and disease, joy and sorrow, birth and death—all the circumstances of human life remained unaltered. The change, the astonishing transformation took place in the inner world of the mind or heart of humanity. An idea, a faith was inexplicably born. A thought took shape, and went forth conquering and to conquer. We talk of the origin of cultures and civilisations, but where have new and happy, or for that matter misleading thoughts their origin? Are they whispered by the winds, or do their seeds fall out of some other planet to take root in the soil of our souls? I find the origin of ideas as perplexing as the origin of mutations or species. They exhibit a similar suddenness. They are beyond prediction. They appear to have a life of their own, independent of space and time, and to come and go at their own good pleasure. ‘A passion’, said Hume, ‘is an original existence.’ We have natural histories of plants and animals, but the natural history of ideas remains to be written. It should be done. For they are living and powerful entities of some kind, and as infective as fevers. Some, like flowers, are the creatures of an hour; others of a prodigious vitality, root themselves, like oaks, in the soil of human nature for a thousand years. Ideas, like individuals, live and die. They flourish, according to their nature, in one soil or climate, and droop in another. They are the vegetation of the mental world.

Certain ideas go by the family name of concepts. What is a concept? It is an image or picture by which we endeavour to make things clearer to ourselves, or, as we say, to understand them. They are postulates, or lanterns, and have in science an instrumental value. But in regard to these postulates men of science have made the important discovery that you must not trust them too long or too completely. They are useful servants but bad masters. Unless periodically examined they may lead you astray. And in science, when her concepts, her working hypotheses cease to keep in step with observed facts they are ruthlessly discharged. I submit we might do well to follow the example of our scientific friends, and enquire whether a number of the concepts which have so long dominated ethical and religious thought are not in need of revision. Whether, for instance, when religion committed itself, in one breath, and with no distinctions drawn, to a denunciation of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’, and ethics set forth to war down the will-to-live, they were not involved in fixations of thought, whose day was done, and in need of other and more encouraging concepts. It is certainly possible to go about in self-imposed fetters, and ‘drag at each remove a lengthening chain’. It is certainly true that in the light of a new concept a situation may be transformed and wear a different countenance. Unexpected possibilities may be revealed, and a wholly new prospect come into view. And when a choice is offered, we should without hesitation exchange the thought that narrows and restricts for the thought that enlarges and stimulates the mind.

‘I think’, said Conrad, ‘that the proper wisdom is to will what the gods will.’ I would go further. I would say that to love life is to love the gods, and that in obeying the will-to-live we are fulfilling divine orders. Or why else is the instinct to be found in all creatures as they set forth on their great expedition? No doubt we are beset with difficulties. There are other beings in the world beside ourselves, to whom the same orders have been issued. The opportunity is the greater to exercise our brains. Birth is the sudden opening of a window, through which you look out upon a stupendous prospect. For what has happened? A miracle. You have exchanged nothing for the possibility of everything. This everything is, however, a bare possibility, and to implement it demands all the powers of body, mind and spirit at their highest tension. In life, the gift of the gods, you have in your hands the master key which unlocks all the doors of the universe. Existence has this advantage over non-existence: it denies nothing, and leaves room for experiences beyond imagining. The gods deal lavishly in surprises, and will spring, I fancy, a good many more on us. There will be misadventures and mischances among them, for existence is an oxymel, a bitter sweet. Yet an exhilaration accompanies all creatures, a zest for living wells up in them from the profoundest depths of being, which it is too monstrous a contradiction to suppose that nature or nature’s God intended them to suppress or deny. We have energies, nature has seen to that. But upon what are they to be expended? That she appears to have left to us.

The connoisseurs of misery interpret the pervasive melancholy which also accompanies existence as a regret that ever they were born. I am not skilled in this variety of metaphysical diagnosis. Do not forget, however, that if its pains exceeded its pleasures no life could endure. Do not forget that nature distributes her buffets: they are neither continuous nor cumulative, and have even their medicinal values. Our de-luxe pessimists, who have personally little to complain of, take upon their shoulders, omitting its satisfactions, the wretchedness of the whole creation, and find it an insupportable burden. You may judge them right. You may declare the cost of living too high. You may proclaim a surrender of individual consciousness, and re-absorption in the whole the finale to be most desired. Very possibly nature may meet your wishes. She has no need for, and no liking for unwilling recruits, and enrolls none but volunteers for the endless adventure. Let those who fear wounds, toils, sufferings, go their way and be for ever at rest. But how many, were the choice allowed them, would refuse another life?

This recurring mood of the soul is, we have seen, itself one of the contraries, the night which contradicts and yet is followed by the day. Give to the pessimist youth and health, a spring morning and a lover, and his mood will change. He will consent to postpone extinction, he will cling to the excruciating wheel of existence a little longer. With the present generation any form of optimism is, of course, a mere synonym for stupidity. How many writers of our time have made the discovery that the world is not wholly charming, that life is brutal, tiresome and vulgar, and that no decent person should have been invited to so squalid a party? How clever they are and how vocal! They display their cleverness by asking for better bread than can be made from wheat. It was, moreover, at their birth that intelligence entered the world. They first discovered that there were tears in mortal things, and go about pluming themselves upon their superior penetration. But neither their grandmothers, nor their great-grandmothers, though they wrote fewer books, were as ignorant as they suppose. They, too, knew something about life. There were, as the poet said, many brave men before Agamemnon, and there will be other brave men, and as clever as our contemporaries, born after them. And part of their cleverness will consist in making another discovery—that they can take it or leave it; and still another, that neither lamentation nor sneers are of much assistance, so that it would be wiser to save your breath to cool your porridge.

The struggle for existence? What need further to dwell upon it? Or of the struggle with nature, never ending, for a little bread and water? True it is that

Not for golden fancies do iron truths make room.

Life, we know, has a double edge. But neither science nor philosophy has put into our hands the touchstone whereby these iron truths can be distinguished. And what, indeed, is truth, what goodness, and what beauty? These, as I think, are among the things we have to discover. Who has defined them for us, despite the cataract of words with which the world is deluged? The soul of man is not yet awake, not by millenniums. And his religious and ethical codes are no more than stammering efforts to speak a language imperfectly known. They reflect, indeed, some common experience. There flows beneath them an undercurrent of agreement, but the expression of it cannot reach the lips, and the tongue falters when the heart would speak. Yet it is possible through it all to accept Hegel’s advice, ‘Be a person.’ Be a person and treat others as persons—if you must have a formula, there are not many better. That, or the English one, ‘Be a gentleman.’

The best religion for a man, said the oracle of Delphi, is the religion of his country. And if you ask how, in the meantime, are we to order our lives, the answer is ‘Exactly as our predecessors have ordered their lives, by the customs and traditions of their nation and country, by the best conceptions of their day and generation.’ Never, indeed, regarding them as final, but as provisional, till we can improve upon them. Speaking of one of his own poems, Keats wrote—‘I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands and the rocks than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice.’

In creation is perpetual and unfailing delight. Nature revels in it. It is the goal of all desire, and upon creation of some sort every man is bent. Nor is there anything of pleasure or of profit which he does not make for himself. He is the eternal dreamer. He creates his own ethics, as he creates his pictures, his poems and his worlds to come. Out of his own experiences he builds them. He has to live by his own rules, and knows his own needs, and of these no angel can tell him more than he already knows. He has business on his hands which will outlast things as they are, and the present arena of his activities. For there is nothing static in the universe, as there is nothing static in thought, either in science or philosophy, in religion or ethics. There is nothing static even in the laws of nature, which we fancy unchanging and eternal. Her ways were not always her present ways, and her present ways will not be her ways to everlasting. Is the thought too terrible that we are children, who know nothing, absolutely nothing, children trying to be happy, who have everything to learn? ‘However early you rise’, says the proverb, ‘you cannot hasten the dawn.’ Is it absurd to suppose that we have not yet learnt, and are far from knowing, standing as we do on the very edge of the world, anything of its inner recesses and resources? That we are far from knowing even what we fancy we know—the true nature of truth and beauty and goodness?

Mankind, as I fancy, is committed to a long journey. Knowledge and wisdom are of slow growth, as history is witness, and the universe offers an extensive field of enquiry. No one can say what awaits us. Not, we have found reason to believe, unbroken felicity, yet on the other hand the possibility of very great felicity. The omens are not all unfavourable. It was the fair ivory gate that sent forth the false, and the gate of horn the true dreams. You may insist that the present and visible world is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all things as far as we ourselves are concerned. For that conclusion there are arguments in plenty. ‘Death’, said Aristotle, ‘is a dreadful thing, for it is the end.’ Take that view and you cannot but think poorly and despairingly of the whole creation. To many minds it appears so certain a truth as to require no demonstration, and the contrary so preposterous a fancy as not to be worth discussion—as not for a moment to be entertained. If you know of course you know. But there is knowledge and there is also a different thing, opinion. A fixed idea has great advantages. Your mind is at rest, and you are under no necessity either to defend it, or to consider further evidence on the matter. For myself I have no affection for fixed ideas. My distrust of them, as of all that appears certain and obvious, is profound. Had I been present at the birth of this planet I would probably not have believed on the word of an archangel that the blazing mass, the incandescent whirlpool there before our eyes at a temperature of fifty million degrees, would presently set about the establishment of empires and civilisations, that it was on its way to produce Greek art and Italian painting, would tolerate such things as music and mathematics, make room for optimists and pessimists, admit the arrival of Homers, Beethovens and Napoleons, or even the small fry of Gifford Lecturers. I would have listened most respectfully to the archangel, who predicted these singular occurrences, but I would have whispered to myself—‘He is a romantic.’ So it is that I have become a confirmed sceptic in respect of precipitate and headlong conclusions. I say to myself, ‘If things half as improbable happen in time to come there will be plenty to talk about.’

The universe does not deal in things that mortals expect, and when a fixed idea makes its appearance, as Nietzsche would say, a great ass makes its appearance. The only incredibility, as it seems to me, and the only impossibility is that the Cosmos contradicts itself. If by the use of reason we declare it unreasonable we are thrust back upon the question ‘How did this reason arrive in an unreasonable world?’ Yet whatever our attachment to reason, and we cannot be too greatly attached to it, let us remember that the secret of the world’s everlasting interest lies precisely here, that you cannot explain it, and never know what is going to happen next. This is the source of our unabating hope and never-dying expectation.

  • 1. Some Problems of Ethics, p. 39.
  • 2. W. E. H. Lecky’s History of European Morals, ii, p. 296.
From the book: