You are here

Part II

XIX: Retrospect

All things to Circulations owe

Themselves; by which alone

They do exist; they cannot show

A sigh, a word, a groan,

A colour or a glimpse of light;

The sparkle of a precious stone,

A virtue, or a smell; a lovely sight,

A fruit, a beam, an influence, a tear,

But they another’s livery must wear:

And borrow matter first,

Before they can communicate.

Whatever’s empty is accurst;

And this doth shew that we must some estate

Possess, or never can communicate.


In our search for a philosophy which would leave the fewest difficulties upon our hands we have come, be they right or wrong, to certain conclusions, of which I may now remind you.

That this world of ours is imperfect needs no supporting arguments. And we have reason to believe that, although we may hope for a better, we need not look for a perfect world either in the near or distant future. For it is imperfect of necessity. A universe uniform and without variety, static and unchanging, all colours and shapes alike, all creatures, thoughts and feelings in unison, could be no scene or home of life. Existence involves diversity and movement, and thus better and worse, light and darkness, good and evil. It has its risks, therefore, is dangerous and will remain so. It involves the contraries, the ups and downs, the tidal rhythms, which preserve it from stagnation, in whose absence we could not be conscious of existence, or know ourselves to be alive. The good, too, is, for growing and expanding entities—however they came to a knowledge of such a thing—the enemy of the best, for with what has been already attained they cannot rest content, having hopes within them of a still better state, which imagined ‘better’ is the eternal critic of the present and actual. Such, then, is our nature and destiny. A perfect world is, moreover, manifestly incompatible with myriads of beings seeking there each its own individual welfare. Their intercourse, since no two are exactly alike, since each is in some respect singular or unique and ever in search of its private and peculiar needs, entails loves and hates, collisions and oppositions. A world of any kind is, in a word, a synonym for what we have, with the philosophers, called ‘the Many’, and thus the antithesis or denial of whatever perfection Unity or ‘the One’ could be supposed to provide.

You recall also that we put aside as beyond hope of solution by ours, or any other minds, the nature of ‘the One’, the great Reality or Being, in which they are rooted—a knot which neither atomists nor idealists have been able to untie. In what manner God or the Absolute can be at the same time the One and the Many we cannot tell, nor could the relationship between unity and plurality in primordial Being be made clear or set forth in human terms. God is at once the One and the Many, and before that mystery all the philosophies bow their heads. This, however, may be said, that for us to ask that the differences which constitute the world of the Many should be eliminated, that movement should be replaced by rest, and that the One should be all in all is to ask, as Heraclitus said, that the universe, and we with it, should pass away. It is to express a preference for death over life. To escape the differences and the contraries, therefore, is for us impossible. They are our life blood. Life is movement, movement is life, and movement is disturbance.

We arrived, too, at the conclusion that the activities or energies which make the world limit and condition each other, and what seem to us material bodies are the events which emerge from the interaction of these activities. Self-existent matter must be ruled out as an impossible conception. To this conclusion we added another, that the source of these activities, the souls or monads, though in our restricted view they appear as incessantly going and coming, arriving and departing, neither enter nor leave the universe, for it consists of them, and is at the same time their scene of operations, where infinite Being is progressively mirrored in Becoming. In these souls or selves we have the unique, unfathomable, constitutive and indispensable factors in the fundamental order. An undifferentiated unity is incompatible with the existence of a world, and the only differentiation of primordial or creative Being, which we can conceive as adequate, is its actualisation in thinking, feeling, expanding selves. For in these experiencing entities, and in them alone, can the system of nature find its recognition, and thus without them it has no true existence, and neither dignity nor worth. What is anything without beings aware of themselves and of their surroundings? The answer can only be ‘nothing’. In the absence of such beings nature had not risen to knowledge of herself, nor could the universe know itself, or be known as a universe.

We saw, too, that all manifested life is individual life, throughout the whole realm of nature, in its own manner and degree purposive. And the problem of change and permanence finds in these individual souls or selves its solution. Like the streamers or ribbons of weed attached to the sea-girt rock, they sway to and fro in the tides of time, yet are rooted in the underlying and immutable reality. We must rid ourselves of the notion that the universe is something outside ourselves, to which we accidentally belong. We are the universe, in every fibre of our body and being, nerve and thought, as are all other souls, each a microcosm of that macrocosm. There is a saying attributed to Hippocrates and quoted by Leibniz, that ‘animals are not born and do not die, and that the things which we suppose to come into Being merely appear and disappear’. And with this opinion we are in agreement. They form, the souls or monads, a vast society, a hierarchy of innumerable levels, of which in organic and inorganic nature we see a part, as represented in the elements, the plants, the animals; an association the most intimate, an interlocked and interwoven confederacy. So that the universe is an arena at once of conflicting and yet linked and united purposes, such as human society itself exhibits.

If it be said ‘These are unwarranted opinions’, we must reply, ‘Do not trouble to refute them, provide us rather with better in their room: not with certainties, for which we do not ask; but with conclusions more firmly grounded, with a broader foundation in facts, or such experience as we possess; with a way of thought by which the whole system of things can be rendered more intelligible, and you shall have our unstinted gratitude and thanks.’

In the course of our meditations we were driven, you remember, to reject not only the doctrine of the atomists, but to dissent from the most haughty and uncompromising among the philosophical systems, that of the Absolutists, since for the plebeian concourse of the Many, among whom we were ourselves, numbered, it could find no enduring value. They were illusions, flitting phantoms or transient modes of a transcendent whole, for whose appearance upon the stage no reason was vouchsafed. The omnipotent One, the fountain of all life, we were required to believe, was the weaver of a Penelope’s web, ceaselessly occupied throughout eternity in aimless and unnecessary undertakings, in doing what need never have been done.

By this doctrine we were, moreover, required to ignore what we most desire to have explained—the strange ironies and contradictions in nature, the miseries and tribulations of sentient creatures, the wounds and heartaches they were called upon to endure, neither in their own interests nor in that of the One which gave them birth. We were required to accept the thought of this all-inclusive Absolute, in the stainless perfection ascribed to it, as none the less the source of all manner of unpleasantness, as paradoxically distributing throughout the world of our experience plague and tempest as well as health and sunshine, as present in the disease as well as in the physician; of this majestic mind, if mind it were, as present in the idiot as in Plato, in the sensualist as in the ascetic, in the sadist as in the philanthropist. And if we were disposed to enquire for the why and wherefore of its random operations, to ask what this ineffable Whole was about, whether it were, indeed, about anything beyond the production of change, and change for no better reason than the production of change; to all such enquiries no intelligible answers were to be obtained. This Whole without intelligence unleashed the hounds of strife, misery and pain for no imaginable purpose, or to no other end than to hunt the creatures it had previously brought forth, till the crack of doom. It was the Hindu Siva, the god with the necklace of skulls, ‘who slays for the joy of slaying.’ If its sublime energy were put to some use or served some purpose, well; if not, it could only be viewed with disdain. To suppose it wandering blindly into the darkness without intention or aim of any kind seemed to place it in a lower category of wisdom than our poor selves, to suppose its sole employment the creation of ephemeral shadows, in order idly to watch their movements as one watches the dance of gnats on a summer evening.

Above all we were left to wonder how it happened that the wide universe which brought them into being and implanted in its creatures a desire for justice was itself unjust; that the One, which called forth in them affections, itself had no affections; which bade them follow reason was itself unreasonable. ‘Twas, we contended, too easy a thesis that within the immensities of this Whole or Absolute the conscious self should be regarded as an insignificant trifle, a negligible cypher in the sum of things, of no greater dignity than a leaf or cloud. Certainly against the background of eternity anything might be set down as insignificant. But least insignificant, one would think, the only entities which had formed the concept of eternity. And again, in their absence, by whom could testimony to the sublimity of this almighty power be given, or how could its intellectual or moral superiority be established? Was theirs merely the part to testify to that superiority and be extinguished?

Or once more, how are we to find anywhere within the One and Absolute’s domain something of greater significance and worth than the enquiring and aspiring minds, which had made discovery of this transcendent One, otherwise unknown? Where to look save in them for any importance or value anywhere? Was it to be found in stratified rocks or planetary rings? On any form of computation were souls and their destinies, were minds and their questing thoughts, of no more consequence than the things they contemplate, than vaporous condensations or spinning orbs? Of more worth surely, we argued, the students than the objects of their study, than the times and spaces, atoms or motions. Set over against this imagined reality, the Absolute, in its everlasting and insensate duration, the despised entities seemed to have much to say for themselves. Unless, indeed, we were to think of the Absolute as indifferent to all values, and none were therefore anywhere to be found.

In such a doctrine, propounded seemingly to meet the requirements of a static and antiquated logic, what could be discerned but a pretence of majesty, a hollow beating of great drums? If we were by nature rational beings, let us, we concluded, be rational, and avoid, if possible, the acceptance of the final foolishness of all things as truth supreme. To resolve its age-long perplexity mankind has need to seek, we suggested, new concepts, to search profounder depths for the source of the contradictions it deplores—which none the less the world displays. They are omnipresent, run through the whole extent of nature and the mind, must be accepted and should be welcomed. For we seem driven to look for their origin at a deeper level, in the very ground of Being itself. The old and simple antithesis to which humanity has clung, upon which it has built its so many philosophies and religions, which it has pictured as a conflict between the powers of light and darkness, of good and evil, between Ormuz and Ahriman, between God and Satan—that old antithesis has failed. It will not serve to untie the Gordian knot, to account either for the world’s structure or the ironies of man’s estate.

Hard as it is to lay hold of, hard to allow, the antagonistic principles we see at work reside in Reality itself, and must there be resolved and reconciled. They are its attributes, equal and complementary principles, neither subordinate to the other, the twin pillars of the world’s structure. The centrifugal and centripetal forces—not to be identified simply with good and evil—may be discerned within the heart of the universe, the very source of its existence, of life’s never-failing fountain. In their opposition is the tension without which were neither life nor consciousness, and in its absence no world at all. Theirs is the left and right, the calm and storm, the congruities and incongruities, the tragic and the humorous, the social and the anti-social, the material and the spiritual. And in such a world we may expect to find, as we do find, pessimists and optimists, lovers of life and haters of it, lovers of activity and of passivity, of Becoming and Being. There is room and verge enough for an infinite and inexpugnable variety.

From the book: