And what than this can be more plain and clear?
What truth than this more evident appear!
The Godhead cannot prize
The sun at all, nor yet the skies
Or air, or earth, or trees, or seas,
Or stars, unless the soul of man they please.
He neither sees with human eyes,
Nor needs Himself seas, skies,
Or earth, or anything: He draws
No breath, nor eats or drinks by Nature’s laws.
The joy and pleasure which His soul doth take
In all His works is for His creatures’ sake.
So great a certainty
We in this holy doctrine see
That there could be no worth at all
In any thing material, great or small,
Were not some creature more alive,
Whence it might worth derive.
God is the spring whence things come forth;
Souls are the fountains of their real worth.
What is undeniable if anything be undeniable? Looking about him for an indisputable proposition, upon which to erect his house of thought, a recent brilliant metaphysician, the late Professor McTaggart, took for his foundation not the famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ of Descartes, but a more general proposition—‘Something exists’. Let us, too, allow that ‘something exists’. And let us assure ourselves that this something includes ourselves, that we also exist, at least momentarily, since we are here discussing the situation. To exist, when you reflect upon the matter, appears the most natural state imaginable, and yet the most puzzling. For if you make a resolute effort to grasp the idea, with all its implications, you become speechless. We awake at birth, you may say, upon a rocky islet in a waste of immeasurable waters. How did we arrive here, on this lonely spot? How did the island itself come to be there, the surrounding seas, the sun, moon and stars over our heads? A most peculiar situation when you come to think of it, which has provided the wise men of our species with an inexhaustible topic of conversation. ‘Something exists’, and here in some miraculous fashion we are. And our awareness of the situation, that is, our conscious life, first emerges in a distinction we draw between ourselves and our surroundings. ‘Here am I’, each of us comes to say to himself, ‘and over there is something else.’ ‘Me and not me,’ the distinction between subject and object, marks the first step on the long journey of every man’s mind.
Later, when you and I look round the island upon which we are marooned, and begin to take stock of its features, we become aware of a motley assembly of shapes and colours, ‘the ten thousand things’, as the Chinese call them, or in philosophic language, ‘the manifold’, ‘shot’, as it were, ‘out of a pistol at us’, as Hegel said. We behold a variegated landscape of moving and stationary objects, we distinguish stars, clouds, trees, rivers, hills, valleys, flying, walking and creeping animals. Some of these animals are, we discover, like ourselves in a number of ways, and with them we establish communications of one kind and another, engage in common undertakings, eat and drink together, and become more or less quite friendly.
For this charming prospect, however, a species of the race, the true-blue philosophers, have no eye. Their thoughts wander elsewhere. They are consumed, you remember, with a professional passion, which does not trouble others in the least, for the invisible rather than the visible, for the ensemble, the totality, the whole, in their own phraseology the Absolute; in which the various objects, with all their distinctive peculiarities, that the rest of us are content to observe and admire, are, they tell us, included; from which they were originally derived; and of which, ourselves with the rest, all are the manifestations. With almost one voice the sages to whom we go for guidance in our difficulties proclaim that the world, which certainly appears as a multiplicity of separate things, extremely unlike each other, is fundamentally a unity.
How do they know this? Obviously not by inspection or observation. Such a conclusion does not leap to the eye. You would never reach it by simply looking round you. Nor is it a conclusion that can be proved. Yet the human mind when it sets to work, trying to account for its singular situation, persistently demands, and usually reaches this result. It is better pleased, as we have seen, with the idea of unity than plurality, better satisfied to think, whatever the appearances suggest, or however things now are, that, at all events in the beginning, once upon a time, everything emerged out of a single substance or state of being. Human thought is anxious to get rid of the multiplicity of separate objects, and to show that they are derived from and supported by a single underlying substance, more real, stable and permanent than the separate things, which are in a state of flux, always coming and going, arriving and departing.
Now it is a matter of very great interest and importance—quite apart from the truth or falsity of the opinion—to note this characteristic of the human mind. Why do we prefer to think in this way, to go behind and deny the plain evidence of our senses that there are numerous and very different things, in favour of a doctrine that they are ultimately one and the same? Why do our mortal minds demand this unity, which cannot be derived from observation? If it be a prejudice of the mind, and a prejudice it may certainly be called, it is an extremely curious prejudice, for it appears irresistible, a law or necessity of our logic, compelling intellectual consent. Reason, that is, opposes the testimony of the senses, and we reject the distinct information they give. Seeing, in short, is not believing.
Such then is the structure of our intellects. Matters appear to us easier to understand, more amenable and intelligible when the Many are reduced to One. Or, if we probe further, we discover that we think in this fashion because to do so meets some deep-seated emotional need of our natures. It conduces to our mental comfort. In daily life we are called upon to deal with all manner of things, to understand them, as we say, and we endeavour to identify them, to find them alike. In their similarity they present a more friendly appearance. ‘So, this is like that’, we tell ourselves, and thus simplify them.
And not only do we thus agreeably save ourselves trouble by economy in thought, bringing different things under the same category, but by pigeon-holing them we attain a sense of tranquillity and security. Human beings, like all animals, are nervous creatures, nervous, and rightly nervous, in unfamiliar surroundings. Dangers lurk in the shadowy places, in the forest gloom. Nothing is more repulsive to us or more alarming than the strange and unknown. From the strange and unknown, from anything of which we have no previous experience, and from which we do not know what to expect, we edge away. Unexplored lands are full of hazards. If on the other hand we can say, ‘Ah, yes, this is like that’, or ‘We have seen this before’, or ‘This was to be expected’, our natural apprehensiveness is diminished and light-heartedness engendered. Were one of our prehistoric ancestors to be introduced for the first time to a railway station, and see an express train emerge roaring from a tunnel, we may be sure he would be terrified out of his senses. We, who have seen this kind of monster before, remain calm and composed. To find resemblances or patterns in the world around us, to which its various strange appearances can be assigned, eases the mind, banishes our anxieties, and opens up the possibility of bringing unusual, eccentric and hazardous things under our own control—in a word, of rising superior to circumstances, and mastering the general or universal principles at work in them.
Another peculiarity of the human intellect is its desire to see things clearly and distinctly, in the sharpest, most clean-cut outlines, so that there may be no mistaking what they are. The terms we apply to render the idea of intelligibility are all terms associated with ocular vision, with sight. The visible and the intelligible are, indeed, virtually interchangeable and synonymous terms. Light, without which the eye cannot function, is pleasant to us because it makes things clear and plain, and we speak of it as revealing or illuminating. Similarly with mental processes. We say ‘I see that’ in respect of an argument, or ‘That is apparent’, ‘That is clear to me’, ‘How lucid’, or ‘As clear as daylight’. Conversely darkness is depressing and distasteful. It corresponds to the unintelligible. ‘How obscure’, we say, or ‘One has to grope for his meaning’, or ‘He is blind to that view of the matter’.
The ideal in science, or any intellectual activity is, then, geometrical precision. Since geometry deals in figured spaces, in sharp outlines, in pictures, diagrams and patterns, the clearest mental life is that of the geometer, to which all science and philosophy aspire, where there is ocular demonstration, where the squares, triangles and circles provide proof beyond argument of what they are. Here everything is triumphantly certain and final. There are no intellectual remainders, no dubieties; no shadows are cast. There are no ragged edges, no imperceptible meltings of one thing into another, no uncertainties and no hesitations. What clearness and finality, what absolute perfection, what mental comfort there is in a circle, or the very idea of a circle.
So there is a similar clearness, finality, perfection in the idea of the One, the Whole, the all-containing Absolute. When it reaches that idea our thought reaches utter completeness and a haven of rest. It cannot go further, and there is no further to go. Its troubles are ended. And with the peace the idea provides is bound up the blessed sense of security. For the Whole is a closed system. Nothing can enter it from without, for there is no without. Nothing can escape from it to go elsewhere. There is no elsewhere. It is itself the all, the total assembly of things that are, or were or ever will be. Or if there be other universes, out of any relation with it, they can be no concern of ours. One can see, then, why this idea of the all-inclusive One, providing as it does the completeness and perfection so dear to the human mind, immensely attracts the philosophers. The monistic doctrine is their favourite creed, around which they flutter fascinated, as the moth around the shining lamp.
If now we accept this doctrine that everything derived originally from one source or one substance, we are involved in metaphysics—in an enquiry, that is, which goes beyond physics. We meet once more the vexatious puzzle of the One and the Many, to which, as the Rome, you might say, of philosophy, all roads eventually lead. And the puzzle is simply this—how between them can any reconciliation be effected? How can the Many be derived from the One, how did they come into existence? Even to appreciate the complicated and thorny nature of this conundrum involves tedious travelling. To a lady of my acquaintance, who said she liked the English, a Scotsman put the unusual query, ‘Hae ye ever been able to get one of them into a metapheesical argument?’ Scotsmen are by nature philosophers—the famous Kant had Scotch blood in his veins—and for them metaphysics is as much a necessity and as palatable as their daily bread; so we may perhaps proceed with confidence, and do our best with this ancient enigma.
I have said that it carries us beyond physics. For even if you have satisfied yourself that the world is a physical world, through and through made up of material particles, and trace all its varieties, physical and mental, to combinations of these particles or atoms, you have still to account for the atoms and the void in which they float, for their origin. You are faced, that is, with the problem of a first cause. Modern physics, leaning upon the law of entropy, asserts that the world must have had a beginning. ‘There is no doubt’, to quote Sir Arthur Eddington, ‘that the scheme of physics, as it has stood for the last three-quarters of a century, postulates a date at which either the entities of the universe were created in a state of high organisation, or pre-existing entities were endowed with that organisation which they have been squandering ever since. Moreover, this organisation is admittedly the antithesis of chance. It is something which could not occur fortuitously.’
Could it possibly have arisen without a cause, out of a previous nothing? Hume and Kant professed to think it possible. But few of us can compass such a thought. Nothing can come from nothing, we think. Few of us are such master magicians as to be able, even in imagination, to conjure a whole universe, ourselves included, out of utter vacancy. And in any case it simply cannot be believed that it arose all at once, just as it is at present. If you begin with atoms, it is quite obvious that it took them a long time to arrange themselves into the world we see and the creatures it contains—a very long time. Miracles, some think—though I do not myself see why they should think so—are not quite so remarkable if you have millions upon millions of years in which to perform them. And you have still to begin with something—space and time, which, wherever they came from, when they got together had some heavy work before them to construct the universe. It is necessary to begin with something, and, if you take this line of explanation, you try to picture a gradual process of development, of evolution, from the original substance to the present state of things.
If your imagination fails before this conception, there are alternative theories. You may believe that the world never had a beginning, it was always there, always in some form in existence, and can never go out of existence, or you may believe that it was created by a supreme, eternal power, which existed prior to the world, and called it into being. Great issues depend upon your choice of answer. It is a metaphysical problem, which concerns the divine as much as the philosopher. With, however, a difference.
The difference is this, that the philosopher does not consider himself called upon to assign any peculiar status or dignity to the human race, to regard it as in any sense a separate kingdom or state within a greater. For him, you and I may be merely things among other things, more curious, perhaps, but without any privileged rank or position over stones, flowers or stars. The philosopher is merely at a loss to explain how and why all the separate, dissimilar things arose out of the One. The theologian, on the other hand, has more serious matters on his hands—two in particular. He desires to maintain the absolute perfection of the One, of God the Creator, who, as he holds, made the world, and to account at the same time for the evils and imperfections present in His creation; and preserving, moreover, the supreme unity of God, to provide a separate status for man, an independent existence and will, which confer upon him responsibility for his actions, without which he becomes the merest nonentity, with no firmer standing in the universe than a wave of the sea or grain of desert sand. If God is all in all, man, the theologian sees, is nothing. If man be in any sense an independent creature, his own master, who can go his own way, God has lost control of His world. Glorify the Whole, and the parts correspondingly lose their importance and significance. Exalt the parts, and you diminish the majesty of the Whole.
The philosopher, you observe, is free from the theologian’s anxiety, not concerned to claim any importance for human beings. He is at liberty to assert, as he frequently does assert, that in respect of being or reality they are upon the same footing as chairs or tables. He is free also wholly to ignore the problem of evil. For nature, if it be a blind energy, or for Space-Time, good and evil have no meaning. We have no doubt our preferences, our ideas about them. If things meet with our approval we call them good, if they conflict with our aims and purposes we call them bad. If, however, we are unimportant our ideas and preferences are also unimportant. And the distinctions we draw between good and bad are manifestly not to be found in nature. There is no right or wrong in the tiger’s leap upon the antelope, the rending of its prey by the shark, or the bite of Anopheles, the mosquito which carries malaria. There is nothing more natural in health than in disease, in the action of an anti-toxin than of a toxin. If, then, an indifferent, unthinking energy produced the universe, or, as Spinoza declared, a God whose thoughts are not like our thoughts, no explanation of good and evil is required. They are simply occurrences or events among other events.
With their differing dilemmas neither religion nor philosophy has successfully grappled. Must we then abandon the effort? The world is certainly beyond our comprehension, yet we cannot but entertain ideas about it. ‘The true logic for this world’, said that great mathematical genius, Clerk Maxwell, ‘is the Calculus of Probabilities, the only mathematics for practical men.’ Bishop Butler was in agreement with this standpoint. ‘Probability’, said he, ‘is the guide of life.’ When the man of science and the theologian are at one, we may, perhaps, accept their guidance and go forward.
And here, before entering upon debatable land, lest we be trapped in a delusion which has afflicted so many poor souls, let us beware of supposing that materialism and idealism, so called, or the schools of thought represented by these terms, necessarily lead in respect of ourselves to different results, necessarily differ at all in their estimate of man, in their respect for his aspirations, or concern for his destiny. Idealism is often no more than an inverted materialism, and provides no better for man’s spiritual welfare. Religion obtains no firmer support, however the terminology may differ, from the one than from the other. It matters not in the least whether you say ‘All is matter’ or ‘All is mind’, as far as human beings are concerned, if they be looked upon as mere passing manifestations of the universal process, either as ephemeral appearances of a conjectured universal mind or temporary atomic structures on the stage of nature. There is little to choose between these two schemes of thought save in their manner of execution. You may be shot or hanged; it matters nothing five minutes later. If you have a care for the individual man and his hopes, put not too hastily your trust in the word ‘idealism’, that wolf in sheep’s clothing of the philosophic schools.
Well, then, beginning with the assumption of the One, or whole of Being, how should we regard the universe, what conclude as to its true nature? Is it, for example, material or spiritual, created or self-originated, temporary or everlasting? And again, how came it, whatever be its nature, to give birth to its multitudinous and very dissimilar products? Ask these questions, and you are plunged into an ocean of disputes and conjectures, from the idea of a divine creative intelligence, wisdom in excelsis, ‘Zeus alone with his thoughts’ a world-soul or God, to that of a vortex of material particles, out of whose continual clashing, accidental and interminable, there arose the astounding texture, of which we are ourselves the most astonishing portion.
We have, let us suppose for the moment, a unity. The One is all and the all is One. Our bodies, our minds, the external world—nothing anywhere has an independent existence, all are knit up in the same tapestry.
They reckon ill, who leave me out;
When me they fly I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
Yes, but it still remains to be decided ‘what kind of unity?’ A conglomeration, an aggregation, a clashing, contending multitude, or a single enduring whole, of which the parts are but momentary, evanescent appearances, as Shelley seemed to think?
The One remains, the many change and pass:
Heaven’s light for ever shines, earth’s shadows fly:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.
It sounds as plausible as it is undoubtedly poetical. Yet how came it about that this immaculate Whole, in its aboriginal lordly seclusion, so far forgot itself as to make war even in appearance upon its own perfection, to condescend to apparent parts and discords within itself? How came it to harbour battle, murder and misery, or what seem like them, within its gates? To call them appearances does not rid us of their unpleasant society. To change the name is not to change the thing. ‘He who denies the real existence of nature’, said Rouvier, ‘has still to create a natural history of appearance and illusion.’ He has still, in philosophic language, ‘to save’ the appearances, to account for them. Let us know, we ask, why they tell an independent story of their own, why the world should wear so false a countenance if in fact it be one, and only one. How came this pristine unity to be so violently disturbed and shattered into innumerable fragments? What kind of explosion produced these results? Why all this sublime futility? Logic tells you that all is one, but we common men are not, like the great system builders, so much in love with logic as to wipe ourselves off the slate for the sake of its bright eyes. We have our aches and pains as unpleasantly conclusive evidence of a vivid existence all our own. We are not, like you, on visiting terms with the Absolute. ‘A philosopher’, wrote Hamann, ‘who admonishes me to look upon the whole sets before me a task as difficult as does he who bids me look into his heart. The Whole is as much concealed from me as is his heart. Does he think I am a god?’
In all its forms the monistic doctrine, that the great reality is an indivisible unity, encounters grave difficulties, so grave that we read in Plato, ‘certain Ionian and Sicilian Muses agreed that it is safest to weave together both opinions, and to say that Being is Many and One (πολλά τε καὶ ἕν), and that it is controlled by love and hate.’ To that opinion we may have to return. Meanwhile the position appears to be either that the universe originally consisted of the Many, already from the first separate, independent and uncreated entities, or the One somehow became the Many, and so gave rise to a world, which could not otherwise have come into existence. And this latter view, by reason of its immense philosophical prestige, cannot, whatever the difficulties, lightly be dismissed. In what form, then, if adopted, can it be rendered most acceptable to the reason and the imagination?
However far into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’ we travel to explain the present, we must suppose the past was of such a kind as to render the present possible. If we hold by the notion of causation at all the past necessarily contained the possibility of the present. Whether or not you call it God, if you are to ascribe to it the origin of all the worlds, the power within or behind the universe must have been of God-like quality. And we must also conclude that it could not express itself, or in any way manifest its attributes, save through some division or dissolution of its original unity. For a world whose parts—and to be a world it must have parts—are indistinguishable from each other, all perfectly alike, is a contradiction in terms. A world of any kind involves discontinuous and separate elements, differing from each other. And however supreme and perfect the One in its primal and majestic isolation might potentially be, how in a state of undiversified sameness could its qualities be displayed? They could not. Just as in the physical world there could be no events if an equal temperature everywhere prevailed, so in a Whole without differences nothing can take place. To be revealed or disclosed the primordial power, or any power, must meet with resistance. Yet, since it is itself the only reality, no such resistance necessary for the revelation of the Whole can anywhere beyond its own boundaries be encountered. The resistance, therefore, must be self-created. The One must itself release its powers, and provide the opposing principle, the resisting energy. It must engender the polarity, the mighty opposite, which will serve to display or manifest its omnipotence. As one may see a lake or reservoir among the hills, motionless and calm, exhibiting no sign of strength, yet give rise on the raising of a sluice, to a foaming cataract, a torrent of leaping plunging waters, so we may think of the unmoving and perfect One transformed by its own act into the turbulent Many, the angry, contending surges of a world at war. ‘There would seem to be’, as Professor Laurie said, ‘no other way of creating a finite world save through the negation of the One of Being, and this again is inconceivable save as resistance to the One, and the conflict of each with all.’1
Thus, perhaps, if anything profitable can be thought or said on such a topic, if our frail minds are to form any conception of the inconceivable, of the beginning of things, which, as Socrates believed, demanded ‘superhuman wisdom’ to explore, we may think of the Cosmos as the ‘awakening’ of the Many in the One, as arising from a self-division within the Whole. And we may think of creation as the moment at which its duration passed into our time. During the reign of the undivided Absolute time was not, there were ‘no days and nights, and months and years’, as Plato said, and there was no story. History begins with time—cum tempore. A story is the unfolding of events in time, and for us there is no penetrating into eternity. God, then, as the mystics say, negates Himself, in order that there may be a world, and this negation or sundering is creation’s dawn. ‘In Ja und Nein bestehen alle Dinge,’ as Boehme expressed it. ‘All things subsist in Yes and No.’
After this shadowy fashion we may essay to imagine the unimaginable, and suppose the separate, individual entities to have arrived on the stage of being, each carrying with it a portion of the spiritual energy, each reflecting from its personal and finite centre, in its own degree, the vitality, the fire, the light, the intelligence, the inexhaustible energy of the primordial source or fountain whence it sprang. But for the self-division which gave them birth the One had remained a tranquil, unruffled ocean,
still as night
Or summer’s noon-tide air.
In some such metaphysical manner the appearances may be accounted for or ‘saved’. But their status within the whole still remains uncertain. The appearances are of very varied types and grades, of longer and shorter life, differing as the tortoise differs from Achilles, or the mountain from the rainbow. Among them can the creatures drawing the breath of life be distinguished as of greater consequence than others, the grass of the fields, the sunshine and the rain? And in particular can any eminent or unique standing be claimed for human beings, those remarkable rational creatures, stranded, or as some would say shipwrecked, on the shores of a minor planet? Are these nobler appearances, as they themselves fancy, of any more importance than the waves which tossed them there?
Most men eddy about
Here and there—eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and then they die—
Perish; and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves,
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,
Foam’d for a moment, and gone.
Can they be ‘saved’ in any fuller sense, rescued from the flux of the eternal tides, or do they, like the waves, again subside into the ocean depths?
No philosophic system which begins with the One or Absolute has succeeded in discriminating among its emanations, or providing for some, as against others, any enduring value or significance. All are but as water drops, condensed out of the primal mist only to be absorbed, to lose again the identity or individual being they had temporarily experienced. If the One gives birth to the Many it ends by devouring its offspring. For the monistic doctrines the Many are the creatures of a day. They flower to fade and wither.
The sun comes forth, and many reptiles spawn;
He sets, and each ephemeral insect then
Is gathered into death without a dawn,
And the immortal stars awake again.
So is it in the world of living men.
If now we decline to fly about the universe in search of the Absolute, of which knowledge is hard to obtain, we may take another and, as some think, a more promising route, beginning our philosophical journey with matters near at hand, and as we know them. We may take counsel with the pluralists, the friends or adherents of the Many. The One, they argue, is beyond our scrutiny, and therefore a profitless subject of discourse; ‘the ten thousand things’, on the other hand, are in possession of the visible field, and possession is nine points of the law, and of some consequence even in logic. But for these illusory appearances, being yourself one of them, they ironically remark, you would never have heard of the One or Absolute about which you are so anxious. However they arrived upon the scene, the appearances at least appear, which is something. They are, moreover, persistently and overwhelmingly in evidence, stand resolutely at bay, and decline to depart at the bidding either of monarchs or mystics. Let us begin then, advise the pluralists, with the evidence of common sense, with ‘the furniture of the earth and the choir of heaven’.
If now we go to school with the a posteriori rather than the a priori thinkers, we find among them at least one philosopher of the first rank, Leibniz, the chief protagonist of their way of thinking, ‘the greatest intellectual genius’, it has been said, ‘since Aristotle.’ All knowledge was, like Aristotle’s, his province, and though born in 1646, nearly three centuries ago, the scientific acumen and prescience of Leibniz enabled him to foresee, and even in a measure anticipate, many conclusions arrived at by the most recent science. He arrived, for example, by his own acute and original route, at the modern theory of ‘the unconscious’, ‘changes in the soul’, as he called them, petites and imperceptible, so slight as not to attract our attention, which, nevertheless, in combination—as many slight and hardly heard sounds may together make a great noise—exercise a profound influence upon our waking lives. In his denial that between conscious and unconscious states a hard and fast line could anywhere be drawn; in his declaration, supported by modern physics, that matter or substance is but another name for energy, since all substances are for ever in activity, and action is their characteristic quality; in his view that empty space is a fiction, and that space and time, however distinct, are inseparable—in these, as in his approach to philosophical problems by the mathematical route, in his idea resembling the modern cell theory of the organism as composed of lesser organisms, Leibniz appears as a bright prophetic star, forerunner and foreteller of new ways of thought.
In his view, in the view of this most suggestive and remarkable thinker, just as a nation is composed of persons, so the universe may best be understood as consisting of an infinite variety of living and active beings, monads, as he called them, each a separate and distinct centre of energy, monads of many grades and levels, the whole forming a scala naturae, a staircase of living creatures. ‘The world’, said Leibniz, ‘is not a machine. Everything in it is force, life, thought, desire.’ The monads reflect the universe, each from its own angle, each in its own degree. Each has its own energy and appetite, and each seeks, as men and animals seek, the fulfilment of its own peculiar needs. This great community extends both upwards and downwards from man through the whole creation. The world, in brief—a noble thought, and at least worthy of belief—is a living society.
Suppose we carry with us this thought, which has earlier authority behind it, and see what light it may throw upon our immediate experience. If that experience tells us anything, it reports that energy is operative throughout the length and breadth of the Cosmos, which is, indeed, a texture of energies. It reports with assurance that the realm of nature exhibits both order and disorder, sympathies and antipathies, purposes and cross-purposes, is fissured by such opposites as are to be found in human society and within ourselves. For the adherents of the perfect One or Absolute these contrary forces present a mystery, an enigma utterly beyond solution. How unpalatable the view that the history of the universe is merely that of an unfortunate episode, arising out of the inexplicable dissolution of a perfect Whole, which, doing only to undo, scattered itself abroad with lamentable and painful results only to repent, and to resume again its solitary reign—indulging in the childish game of building up merely to destroy. Or how strange and distasteful to suppose that God first created the world and then had to redeem it. Hard as they are to interpret, things wear for the pluralist an aspect far less forbidding and formidable. Of the contradictions and frictions everywhere present in the world some at least, to our knowledge, arise out of the simultaneous existence of innumerable creatures, struggling each upon its own account for more and fuller life, the satisfaction of its own independent aims and purposes. May it not be that a similar state of things prevails throughout the entire structure?
Accept for a moment the point of view. Suppose, with Leibniz, the world to be a congregation of separate entities, extending from the dust beneath our feet to the stars above us. A surprising fancy, you think, but let us give it rein. Suppose each individual particle within the Universe bent in its own mode and measure upon the expression and expansion of its separate being, all in a degree sentient, some below, some above what we call consciousness, ‘less sunk in matter’, as Leibniz expressed it, than others. Suppose the world’s existing patterns the outcome of these striving selves. Suppose further—a crucial step—the division we habitually make between the animate and inanimate a needless dichotomy, and the minutest of existing things, the very constituents of the atoms themselves, charged with vital energy, each living and spiritual in its essential nature. We know, indeed, that life proceeds only from previous life, but who has drawn for us, as in the case of the viruses, the dividing line? So pervasive and ubiquitous is the will to live that we may well stretch the line of imagination, and suppose it to inform not only ourselves and all organic nature, but even what to us appears inanimate nature itself. Does science forbid the suggestion? On the contrary, it now inclines to support it. The wheel has come full circle. Whereas until yesterday physics dictated its concepts to biology, biological concepts are now invading the realm of chemistry and physics. The modern physiological view, we hear from Dr. Charles Myers, maintains ‘that consciousness, however primitive, fulfilling however feebly the function of orderly direction and purpose, is primary, and that it has grown by distillation, differentiation and restriction to narrower, more dominating, higher levels within the organism’, in a word, that throughout the Cosmos mind controls matter, and not matter mind. Nature teems with life. Let us be bold, and say where there is life there is intelligence, which all living things in some elementary form display. All are architects or builders on their own account, and all life in its individual centres is marked by movement and spontaneity, which, indeed, are its distinguishing features. And what appears to us inanimate matter is, too, in perpetual activity, and may be correctly described as motion become visible.
‘Spontaneity’, you say, possibly with some indignation, ‘how can that be ascribed to inanimate things?’ Let us meanwhile postpone this enquiry, and fortify ourselves with Plato’s words, ‘if only we adduce probabilities as likely as any others, that ought to be enough for us’. ‘Why not admit’, asked Zeno, ‘that the world is a living and rational being since it produces animate and rational entities?’—a pertinent query.
And here is, as I think, another. If science has for twenty centuries thought and spoken without reproach in terms of dead atoms, which no eye has ever seen, why not we in terms of living atoms? It was held by Giordano Bruno, who lectured for a time at Oxford in the sixteenth century, the first philosopher to use the term ‘monad’, that life and mind flowed through and belonged to all things from the least to the greatest, that
the multitudinous abyss
Where secrecy remains in bliss,
And wisdom hides her skill,
was alive and eternal in all its parts, and from pole to pole.
On this conception the Cosmos is ‘a vast and complex web of life’, a concourse or colony of creatures, for each of whom its environment, or forum of activities, is just the rest of the society. It is a hierarchy of innumerable minds, an ascending series of intelligences. In their association and after their several fashions they endeavour, one and all, to secure each for itself a modus vivendi and a better life. And the physical world in its various patterns is the outcome of their combined strivings to that end, the form their interaction takes for us. In their fellowships they find their opportunities, and from their intimacies and rivalries, from their ceaseless intercourse, arise the evolutions and processes which the passage of nature displays. They have made, as it were, terms with each other, settled down in groups, formed habits, as do communities of men and animals, in adaptation to circumstances, and achieved a certain stability, an adjustment and equilibrium, such as, despite its convulsions and disharmonies, appear in the regularity and uniformity, the stability and order of nature that we call her laws. Or how else are we to account for these laws? Who made them? How did they come into being? Did nature make her own laws, as we make resolutions?
‘Mind’, as Professor Stout wrote, ‘is not produced at all, but is in some way involved as a primary factor in the creation of the universe.’ Look round over the landscape of nature and observe its continuity, the almost insensible series of its gradations, and you know not where to insert your dividing knife or draw your line. Overnight and in secret ways the minerals take counsel together and glide into plants, plants into animals and animals into men. Observe the organisations on land and water, in air and sky, federations in which the higher and more advanced among the monads make use of the lower, the growing things of the elements and minerals, the moving creatures of the growing things. Crude or mindless matter is not capable of organising a world. What hinders that we should accept the analogy offered by human society and human history? There, in that scene of action, as in what seems the inanimate creation, the striving individuals have formed tribes and federations, adapted themselves to surrounding circumstances, fallen into fixed customs, and ordered, as the creatures on the lower steps of nature’s staircase have ordered, their ways of life.
Pursue the thought, and you find a thousand resemblances between the events of human history and the story of the physical world as related by science. Are we not then justified in regarding nature’s ways as everywhere the same, in believing that in her higher patterns she repeats and reflects her lower and works to the same design throughout her whole domain? Rotate the arch and you have the dome. And whence comes our intelligence unless it already animates the whole? The world of our experience has two sides: the external world with which we are in contact through our senses—the bridges between soul and soul—and the internal realm of thoughts, desires, affections, a private realm of equal importance, not less insistent or less real. Of these two realms, the public and the private, we are somehow the citizens, and of both we must take account. Utterly dissimilar as they seem, they are somehow united, as if by miracle, yet an accomplished miracle. It is there and at work. If we regard the universe as a congregation of living beings, a spiritual assembly, the external world is the manifestation of their co-operation. And the resistances and oppositions it discloses are the oppositions and resistances of will to will, of thought to thought, of soul to soul among its innumerable members, exhibiting in the public arena, as in human society, each its individual will to live in its various intensities, degrees and forms. ‘Each portion of matter’, wrote Leibniz, ‘may be conceived as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fish. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its juices, is also some such garden or pond. And although the earth and air separating the plants of the garden, or the water separating the fish of the pond are neither plant nor fish, they also contain plants and fish, but, for the most part, too minute to be perceptible by us.’
Life and intelligence, then, are present throughout the entire universe, and shared by all the monads in their respective modes, and the world we see is the result of their collective activities. Governed they are, as Empedocles asserted, by sympathies and antipathies, as are the individuals in human society, and may be looked upon as members one of another, as sharers in a common existence—however undeveloped and primitive on its lower levels—in the same confederacy. Nature, we may say, has not given birth to life. She is life. The Universe is not the home of life only because it is itself alive. And the mind, although it has its centres in the individuals, develops only in the co-operations and frictions of society.
Such a view, if we take it, at least involves us in no denials and no manifest contradictions. Yet, it may be objected, if you paint such an atomic picture of the world, you must still find a meeting-place for the individual monads, a ground for their interaction. They are somehow together. They cannot be wholly unrelated and solitary wanderers in the boundless void. If the One cannot in its unpartitioned, undivided unity produce a world, the Many are equally powerless without the One. ‘Hegel maintained’, wrote Professor McTaggart—‘and there is much to be said for his theory—that finite existences can only be really individual and differentiated in proportion as they are united between themselves in a close unity. The organs of the human body are contained in a closer unity than the stones in a heap, and at the same time these organs have each a more individual nature than have the stones of a heap.’ To complete the picture we may accept the argument, and allow the universe its ground, its unifying genius, and yet think of the whole as less a single splendour, like the sun, than a night of stars. None the less, though it is all too easy to lose oneself amid the endless galleries and perspectives of time, it is still easier to put upon reasoning more than reasoning can bear, to plunge into an abyss of speculation where nothing can be determined, there to court illusion and return with disordered minds and empty hands.
Regions there are where for us enquiry ends. ‘I do not think’, wrote Harvey, ‘we are greatly to dispute about the name by which the First Cause is to be called, whether it be God, Nature or the Soul of the universe; all still intend by it that which is the beginning and end of all things, which exists from eternity, which is author and creator, is omnipresent, and not less in the single and several operations of natural things than in the infinite universe.’ That there is a source of life, a ground of things, sufficient to have produced all things, a foundation everlasting, self-existing, is consistent with reason, and I do not know that any better name than God, or any better definition of that Power than ‘the Life of life’ has yet been given. ‘He who believes he knows it not, knows it,’ says the Sama Veda, ‘he who believes he knows it, knows it not at all. It is regarded as incomprehensible by those who know it most, and as perfectly known by those who are utterly ignorant of it.’ Let no man speak of certainties, for at the best we but gaze into a great mirror, where the transient is for a moment seen—the birth of new ideas, or of faiths that serve their hour, the march of unpredictable events, armies that pass, kingdoms that rise to fall and princes riding by. Yet we may be sure our destiny is the world’s destiny and our journey its journey; nothing less is to be believed. Life has its inexpugnable trials. They are our lot, and the law of its being, arising out of the conditions which made it possible. We must expect winters as well as springs, and seasons of wild weather.
The world is what it is, not for us alone. It exists, because it provides for the largest number of compatible patterns, is more comprehensive and inclusive than any other could be, and with wider present and future horizons. And God thought it good, you may say, better than none. ‘I worship Him’, said Goethe, ‘who has infused into the world such a power of production that, when only a millionth part of it comes out into life the world swarms with creatures to such a degree that war, pestilence, fire and water cannot prevail against them.’
Goethe worshipped the omnipotent, continuously creative Spirit. And in His universe is everywhere to be found purpose. If you ask ‘what purpose?’ we come to a halt. For if we are to use the word ‘purpose’ in respect of the whole universe it must be in some different sense than in its application to ourselves and our finite ends. The supreme purpose at least includes and provides a scene or realm of purposes, of undertakings, of patterns on the loom of time, woven by the individual selves. These are our present and immediate concern. On this field you can grow your crop, or build your house or fight your battle. To each creature belongs a certain freedom in his own hour and place, and for his own dreams and preferences, such as was permitted the masons for their carvings in the great medieval cathedrals, within the larger design. And as the coral insects, occupied each with its own activities, at work upon they know not what, are yet the builders of new inhabitable lands, new worlds flowering into ocean paradises, so the individual entities have their share in the creative advance into novelty. Process is real and history is real, but the process will not be the process, nor the history the history we anticipate. There the deep opens beneath our feet and imagination fails. For although our private aims and ends are within our view and partially within our compass, the greater purpose and the cosmic history are not in our hands. They are taken up and overruled by the genius of the universe.
We must revise and enlarge our categories of thought, for the logic of yesterday will not serve us to-day and for ever, as Kant and many philosophers before and since, supposed. We are deceived if we fancy that the mind, which has had a long history, has no more to say, or that the universe, whose history is as long, has wound up its affairs. There is much to come. ‘Modern science,’ says a great physicist, Weyl, ‘so far as I am familiar with it through my own scientific work, mathematics and physics, makes the world appear more and more as an open one, as a world not closed, but pointing beyond itself.’
Leave the inferior minds and look at man!
Is he, the strong, intelligent and good,
Up to his own conceivable height? Nowise.
And if not, is it likely that he has exhausted in thought the depths and heights of the system to which he belongs? As science continually endeavours to reduce life to death, the body to a corpse, in order the better to understand it, so the philosophers, who desire to bring things to a standstill, prefer a static universe, as more amenable to their examination.
When we have a choice a spacious view is to be preferred, as best in keeping with a Cosmos we know to be spacious. I put to you a question. Are our thoughts too noble, too magnificent for the reality to compass? Are our cheques too large for the bank of the universe to honour? Can the mind, even in imagination, outrun or outrange the whole from which it sprang? For my part, I think not. ‘The sun’, said Anaxagoras, ‘is larger than the Peloponnesus,’ and people wondered at his saying. For my part I think the universe is wider and larger than the wisest even of philosophers have ever conceived. Let us then think imperially, for the more magnificent our thoughts the nearer the truth.
- 1. Synthetica, vol. i, p. 219.From the book: