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Chapter IX: Truth and Reality

In the last lecture we were considering the assumption that it is necessary for religion to take the ideas it uses as perfectly true, and I pointed out that this is very questionable. I was not here referring to questions regarding matters of fact, historical events for instance. In this case it is of course true that, so far as this mere matter of fact is concerned, whether the supposed event happened or not, there is a simple alternative of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and so the idea of its having happened is either true or not true. But, supposing it is settled that it did or did not happen, then the question will be about its meaning, what it signifies, its further bearing: for the mere outward event, without this meaning, nobody would care about. In what sense, then, or to what extent, is it a necessity of religion to believe that its idea of this meaning is perfectly true? And there is the same question as to other ideas which are not about events at all, such as the idea of heaven or of God, progress, humanity.

This was the question dealt with, and against that assumption I pointed out (1) that some ideas are knowingly used in higher religions as figurative or symbolical. What is taken to be a true matter of conviction is not their obvious or literal meaning, but one behind or beyond that. (2) That with regard to this further meaning and, again, to the meaning of ideas not supposed to be figurative at all—e.g. of God—while the religious mind does believe it possesses truth, it would at once admit, if questioned, that it does not possess the whole truth: for example, that it does not know what God is as God himself knows it. The same thing may be expressed by saying that in the end there must be mystery for us; or by the metaphor of seeing through a glass darkly; or by the stronger metaphor of refraction, ‘they are but broken lights of Thee.’

All this shows, I was saying, that it is not necessary to religion to take its ideas to be perfectly true or adequate, and that it would be better to be clearly conscious of this. And I wish, before going further, to point out that the question as to these ideas is not one of an alternative true or not-true, but of more or less of truth or adequacy. Metaphor in these matters is always dangerous, but perhaps I may put it thus. It is not a question whether what is seen through the glass is reality or illusion—certainly absolute conviction on that point, in the case of such ideas, is a necessity of religion—it is a question how much the glass is darkened, or, again, whether it is more or less tinted, or even slightly uneven. And—you will see that the metaphor breaks down here—what I suggested earlier was that for religious purposes that does not greatly matter, if what I see is adorable; and if, again, the darkening or tinting of the glass is not dependent on my good or evil will, but is a necessity of my finite nature. In short, the purpose of religion is the union of will with the object of worship; and, though that requires ideas about this object, it does not require conviction that these ideas are perfectly adequate: the desire for this perfect adequacy is a desire to understand, to satisfy the intellect.

Why is it that this line of thought, which seems so natural and innocent, is viewed with dislike or suspicion by so many religious minds?

(1) First, I answer, because they are unconsciously influenced by the notion that some ideas are perfectly true, and that, therefore, religious ideas ought to be so also. But what are these perfectly true ideas—granted for the moment their perfect truth? Ideas like that of the greenness of a tree, or the equality of twice two to four. The reason, that is to say, why such ideas have this kind of truth is their emptiness, their containing so little meaning, their being so extremely limited or finite. But as you pass to fuller ideas, ideas of larger realities, this kind of truth diminishes. The more meaning the idea has, the less can it be apprehended in perception, like the tree's greenness, or by the intellect as engaged in the very elementary operation of counting. We saw this in the case of the idea of a nation, or justice, or liberty; they are far beyond the limits of this kind of truth, yet these are still ideas of finite realities. But religious ideas are either ideas of the infinite, or of finite things, events, persons, etc., in their relation to the infinite; and it is therefore in the highest degree absurd to ask that they should have the same kind of exactness as the idea of a tree's greenness. If they had, it would simply mean that the infinite was, like that greenness or that tree, a mere perceptible quality or object.

And then (it is really the same thing in another form) we saw that these literally true ideas are, in another and fuller sense, the least true of ideas; for the most true idea of the object would be that of these objects in their relation to everything else in the universe. In other words, a perfectly true idea of any one thing would include a perfectly true idea of everything else. That means, again, it would be the true idea of the whole or the infinite; and that would be the only true idea. An idea of God, then, though inadequate, though symbolic, is a million times nearer the truth than common-sense ideas of finite things. Indeed, we may boldly say that any religious idea is so—that the notion of a tree as a spirit or god, though exceedingly inadequate, is at least an attempt to grasp something which the notion of a tree as a mere green thing does not even attempt to grasp. In this notion of a tree as a spirit there is struggling into life, in a poor, meagre, distorted fashion, the idea of spirit itself, and that, fully developed, would be the idea of the infinite.

(2) In the second place there are, of course, religious ideas which, unlike that of the omniscience of God, have to do on one side with matters of fact, finite, sensible fact. An idea of this kind may belong to the sphere of nature (and of such ideas something has been said already); or it may be historical. And it is felt that, so far as this mere matter of fact is concerned, the idea or belief is not more or less inadequate, it is simply true or not true. Now some of these ideas no one would question, but there are others the truth of which is, on intellectual grounds, doubted or denied. An example of what I mean is the story of the Temptation of Christ, and you will easily supply other examples. Here, it is said, there is doubtless a spiritual meaning, but there is also a statement of fact; and this last is not more or less true, it is true or not true. And, it is added, belief in the spiritual meaning is absolutely dependent on belief in the matter of fact.

It lies outside my province to discuss these ideas, and I will add but a very few words of a general kind. I do not think the question of fact is always so simple as is supposed, though I will not dwell on that, but admit fully that in the end there is a question of matter of fact as to which there is an alternative of true or not true; and that here, therefore, the line of thought I have been suggesting does not apply. But to those who say that the spiritual meaning is necessarily connected with the question of fact I would venture to suggest this. The mere fact, apart from its meaning, would evidently be destitute of religious value. The meaning, apart from the fact, has a great religious value. Neither of these statements, I think, could well be denied. Is it not best then, even if you are certain of the fact, to dwell rather on the meaning? And are you so sure that belief in the latter is necessarily connected with belief in the former? Is it not the case in regard to many other ideas that in the past this necessary connection has seemed to be as clear as, in this case, it seems to you to-day? Yet you yourself perhaps, and certainly thousands of others whom you respect, now use those ideas as merely symbolic of their meaning, and find their whole value in this meaning. And I will add but one word. My intellectual experience in other matters is that when I have given up ideas A.B.C.D. in a given sphere, but have attempted to retain ideas E and F, though they are of just the same kind, I have always come to see in the end that I was mistaken, and that the truth lay in changing my point of view about all these ideas, and looking at them all from another point of view.

(3) In the third place, and lastly, objection is felt to the notion of regarding many religious ideas as more or less inadequate or symbolic, because it is thought to point to the conclusion that the meaning symbolised by these ideas is to be found in philosophy; in which case philosophy would take the place of religion.

There is here, it seems to me, a mixture of truth with very serious error. Certainly philosophy is the supreme effort made by the intellect to get at truth, to see things in a form perfectly satisfactory to itself, and as little inadequate as possible. And hence it is probable that philosophy, for her purpose of understanding, will change the form of many religious ideas—possibly of all.

But it does not follow on the view thus taken that the philosopher will want to change their form for his religious purpose. That will depend on his individual consciousness. For that purpose he may use many of them as they stand, as other people do. And we must remember that it is not a case of the philosopher on one side and everybody else on the other; for these ideas are not really the same to any two grades of intelligence; they are one thing to a simple-minded peasant, and another to an educated man who has still no training in theology or philosophy, and yet another to the man who has such training.1

Next, it is ambiguous to say that the meaning or reality inadequately expressed by religious ideas is to be found in philosophy. I do not mean merely because there are some religious ideas—and perhaps those nearest the centre of religious experience—on which philosophy would perhaps find no occasion for change. What I refer to is this—even on the supposition that philosophy is able to attain to absolute truth, it would not follow that this is simply equivalent to absolute reality. That would follow only on the supposition that this reality is itself pure intellect. Otherwise the absolute truth, supposed to be attained by philosophy, would still be, so to say, only one aspect of this reality. And then we must say it is this whole reality, not only its aspect as absolute truth, that is the further meaning both of the religious and of the philosophical idea; and it would be misleading to say that the meaning symbolised in religious ideas is to be found in philosophy.

In the same way it may be correct to say that beauty is the sensuous appearance of the infinite, and also that philosophical truth is the appearance of the infinite to thought; but it does not at all follow, or at least it would be very ambiguous to say, that beauty is the sensuous appearance of philosophical truth. Art, religion, and philosophy are perhaps rather three ways in which the infinite reveals itself in finite mind; but three specifically different ways, parallel to one another, all necessary and not mutually replaceable, so that in each way something comes which cannot come in any other way. Naturally, from its own point of view, each appears the highest, and so, intellectually, philosophy is the highest, and is bound to claim jurisdiction on questions of truth; but that does not show that it is the manner in which man comes most completely into union with the infinite.

Finally, however undeniable the supremacy of philosophy on the side of truth may be, there can be no question of its superseding or taking the place of religion. There is a meaning in speaking of philosophical ideas taking the place of religious ideas, but the notion of philosophy taking the place of religion is really nonsensical. The place of a thing can be taken only by another thing of the same kind, which performs the same office, and religion and philosophy are of different kinds and different offices. Philosophy is purely intellectual, religion is not so. Thinking may, as the philosopher said, be divine worship, but it is so in the full sense only because it is also willing; and the willing does not appear in the thought-product, the truth, which is the whole concern of philosophy. But the whole concern of religion is by no means its intellectual element; its concern is union with the divine will, and it is meaningless to speak of an intellectual activity taking the place of that. You might as well speak of theology taking the place of charity, or of the theory of art taking the place of beauty.

We have now to return to the result at which we had arrived by considering the imperfection, from the point of view of religious needs, of a mere worship of ideal humanity; and, again, of the worship of a finite god; and, again, of the worship of an abstract infinite. This result was the idea of an infinite being, beyond nature and beyond ourselves, yet in both, and the completion or perfection of both, manifested partially in everything finite, but not equally in everything; not a mere ideal awaiting its fulfilment, but realised and, in the end, the only absolutely real. This idea, as I pointed out, would not be the opposite or the mere denial of the ideas previously discussed: it would contain what was positive in them—the ideal humanity, for example, which our supposed searcher for a creed had worshipped, would now be the manifestation of the infinite. The question was whether the idea of this being was true or had truth, or whether this being was real.

It cannot be my design to attempt a fully reasoned answer to this question. If I were competent to the task it would occupy not only the remainder of this course but the whole of the next. And I could do nothing but repeat more feebly and with less understanding, in ways that happen to appeal to me, what I have gathered from others in the intervals of years given chiefly to other work. I will try merely to give in these last lectures some sort of outline, with some slight indications of its bearing on questions about the nature of man and of religion.

Coming, then, to this question of the truth of that idea of the infinite, I have two words of preface to add. I ask leave to use at first some terms which will afterwards have to be modified. I will not state them now, for that would only complicate matters, but will refer to them when we come to the modifications. And, secondly, I would ask you to bear in mind that by ‘ideas’ or ‘conceptions’ is to be understood their contents, or the matters thought or conceived in them; not merely or mainly certain events or activities of thinking. We are to ask if this idea of the infinite is true.

We saw that the question of the truth of an idea is determined by the intellect or reason, looking at things as a whole, with the one purpose of arriving at truth. For ‘truth’ means in the end simply what does satisfy reason, or ideas in which the mind can rest. When, then, is it unable to rest in an idea? In the first place, when the idea contradicts itself, or is inconsistent. In that case the mind pronounces at once that, though the idea may point to truth, it cannot be ultimately true, or is not true as it stands; and must be set aside or altered. And, in the second place, if one idea clashes with another, the mind cannot accept both these ideas as true: either, it says, one is true and the other is not so, or neither is true, however much truth one or both may point to. We need go no further than these two requirements at present. For it follows from them that ‘truth’ means ideas consistent with themselves and with one another, and therefore complete truth would mean an all-inclusive and harmonious whole or system of ideas. Now truth, or true ideas, it is obvious, imply a mind; a truth means a mind thinking a certain true idea or ideas, or truly conceiving certain portions of experience; complete or absolute truth, therefore, will mean complete or absolute mind or reason, moving in its all-inclusive harmonious whole of ideas. Absolute truth, that is to say, and absolute mind will be one and the same thing. If we imagine mind as an inactive something, apart from true ideas, we are trying to think of a mere abstraction, a non-entity, a form with no content. If, conversely, we imagine the whole of truth as a sort of fixed globe apart from mind, we are equally trying to think of a non-entity, thought-contents without a thought-form or activity. These are really indivisible aspects of one whole.

If, then, we ask whether the idea of the infinite or of infinite mind is true, the answer would seem to be: ‘Of course it is: for truth in the end means that, and nothing else can be wholly true. And such truth as we reach, or the mind of each of us, knowing truly, is this truth or mind incomplete, finite, limited, and striving to be its full or unlimited self.’

This answer will not satisfy those who are not satisfied already. ‘Truth’, they will perhaps say, ‘does not mean merely this self-consistent whole of ideas or mind. It means the agreement of ideas or the mind with reality. And this self-consistent whole, though it might be absolute truth formally, might be absolutely false materially, because quite inconsistent with reality.’

This sounds very sensible—only it contains an assumption. It assumes that there is something called reality outside and independent of that whole of ideas or mind; or something, called real, that is not determined by ideas, is not conceived or conceivable; whereas reflection shows that by reality we can only mean something that is so determined, something conceived or conceivable. If you say anything of reality, as that it is ‘being’ or ‘one’, this character of ‘being’ or ‘one-ness’ that belongs to it is identical with the content of the idea ‘being’ or ‘one’. Whatever other character you assign to it is equally what you think in conceiving that character. If you say of ‘reality’ that you have no conception of it you contradict yourself, for, in saying that, you are conceiving it, conceiving it as being that of which you have no further conception. If you distinguish it from your conception of it or it as conceived by you, you are in fact distinguishing it, as fully conceived, from it as partially conceived, or a complete idea of it from an incomplete one. Hence, certainly, there is always a difference between reality and our ideas or reality as we conceive it. But this final reality cannot mean something totally unknown or of which there is no idea—for that is a self-contradiction; it means something totally and finally known. If then reality means this it is impossible for the harmonious whole of knowledge or truth to be inconsistent with it, for being totally known it must fall within that whole, and the whole of it must be that whole.

We shall arrive at the same result and indeed only be repeating ourselves if, instead of asking whether the idea of the infinite is true, we ask whether the infinite is ‘real’. What do we mean by a ‘reality’? We mean any item of experience of any kind, apprehended, conceived, interpreted, self-consistently and consistently with the rest of our interpreted experience. Anything that will not bear this test we pronounce to be not real, or not real as it at first appears. The greater part of our common experience has become so familiar that we do not need to apply this test to it. We conceive or interpret habitual appearances like houses, horses, men and the like, in a second; we are not even aware that we do conceive them, we say we ‘see’ they are houses and horses. But of course that is misleading. When we were babies, we did not see they were houses and horses; it took us a long time to learn to interpret certain visual appearances in that way, and our present so-called seeing is the result of innumerable intricate intellectual processes. We see as a practised pianist reads notes; there is a sensation of a little black dot, and in much less than a second he reads or interprets it into a note, and he does so interpret it.

Thus, to the mass of our daily experiences we have no need to apply a test, we read it off as he reads his notes, but the moment we are in doubt what an appearance really is, we apply that test of consistency. If, for instance, we had any reason to suspect that we were subject to illusions, so that we asked ‘Is that which looks to me a horse really a horse?’ we should find out, perhaps, by trying whether it was sensible to touch, and whether it felt as a horse's skin does feel. If so, the thing conceived as a horse, we should conclude, really is a horse, for there is nothing contradictory in that interpretation. But if our hand found nothing where we saw the horse-image, or found a skin like an Aberdeen terrier's, we should say ‘It cannot really be a horse’. Why? Because a reality does not contradict itself, but this appearance conceived as a horse does contradict itself. This is a simple instance, but if we consider any other of the same kind we shall find that reality means the same thing. Thus, if you ask how you determine what a distant appearance which you cannot quite make out really is, a man or a small tree, for example; or whether an event recorded in history really happened or not, you find that you are always looking for a conception which will be consistent with itself and with everything else that you know. So that reality means, so far, something thus conceived.

But now you will remember the result we arrived at before about the tree—and we must recall it here. Let us suppose we have approached the distant object and found it really a tree, yet still the tree really is much more than the tree as we are now vaguely conceiving it. If we tried to take this conception of it as final, we should find it impossible: the idea would be inconsistent. To get at what the tree really is, we must find out how the botanist conceives it: and, in the end, we saw, the tree must really be the tree perfectly conceived in its place in a universe, every other part of which is perfectly conceived. Nothing short of that can be the real tree; for the tree is determined by its relations to absolutely everything else, and therefore if you conceive it without conceiving every one of these relations, and therefore everything else, you are omitting part of its reality. To know, then, what anything really is you must know the whole. And that means, in other words, that nothing is ultimately real except the whole, for if you try to say that anything short of it is ultimately real you are considering a part in abstraction from the rest, and then it will be inconsistent. It will be pretending to stand alone and be complete, although you know that it has relations to something beyond it.

Reality then seems to mean (1) any item or part of experience conceived consistently with itself and with the rest of experience. And this is what we usually mean by the word, for we draw a line, for practical purposes, at a certain point and refuse to consider the further relations, which in fact means the further being, of the thing. But, when we think, we see that this is illegitimate, and that reality ultimately must mean (2) the whole of experience conceived completely harmoniously. But that means conceived by absolute mind.

Now we saw before that absolute truth means an infinite harmonious system of ideas or thought-contents, and that is exactly what we have now found absolute reality to mean—the whole or system of experience conceived harmoniously. Absolute truth and absolute reality are the same, and both are the same as absolute mind. Or these two, reality and mind, are the same whole, regarded from different aspects: objectively as reality—but that implies a mind experiencing or conceiving it in the contents of this mind; subjectively as mind—but that implies the contents, experience, ideas, of mind. Either, taken apart, is a self-contradictory abstraction. You may speak of it therefore indifferently as reality or as mind; or, if you want to remind yourself of both aspects, you may say, in the terrible phrase of the philosophers, that the absolute or infinite is absolute subject-object. Any partial reality is a form of subject-object, mind conscious of something, or something an object to mind: but the something is less than the whole object, and the mind still finite, short of the whole subject. The ultimate reality is the whole subject-object or absolute experience. Aristotle's phrase νόησις νοήσεως, the thought of thought, says the same thing: absolute thought (subject) thinking itself, or its own absolute content (object).

If now the question is repeated, ‘But is this being real, does it exist?’ What can that mean? It is equivalent to the absurd question ‘Is absolute reality real?’ If the question is to be intelligible, it must mean ‘But is this idea of the ultimate reality or infinite, after all, self-consistent?’ And on this question we must touch later, for you will remember that I asked leave to use some language that might have to be reconsidered. But I think the recurrent inquiry ‘Is this infinite real? Does it exist?’ has not a perfectly intelligible meaning, but proceeds from that rooted prejudice that we have so often encountered. The type of reality we have in our minds is that of perceptible things, which of course are finite—and a low form of subject-object or reality. What we really mean when we ask whether the infinite is real or exists is, ‘Is it real or does it exist in the same way as these finite objects?’ And the answer is that of course it does not. If it did, how could it possibly be infinite? It would not be itself but a mere part of itself; and we are really asking ‘Is the infinite a part of itself?’ This, it will be confessed, is ridiculous: nor does it accord with our religious ideas: for we are accustomed to say that God must be invisible and the like, and cannot have a body like a man. And yet we are so much in the habit of associating reality with perceptible partial realities that we are always hungering after this preposterous notion of a sensible infinite. Though we say that God is invisible, the idea haunts us that he is so merely because our eyes are not strong enough to see him (darkened glass); like the man of science who swept the heavens with his telescope, and triumphantly announced that he had found no God. If he had found one, he would have demonstrated that there is none. It was fixed in his head as a sacred truth that the real is the finite, and the finite is the real. But we may truly say, on the contrary, that if any finite existence could be absolutely real, there could be no God.

But there is a correlative truth to this. If any finite existence could be totally unreal, there could be no God. All finite beings of course exist, they have their partial reality; if for the present we may for convenience use the terms part and whole (which are not fully appropriate) we must say they are parts of the infinite experience, and if they were not, the infinite therefore would not be. As we saw, it cannot be something else than they; for in that case it would not be infinite: it would have something outside itself, and would be limited by this outside existence. It must therefore contain, or be the unity of, everything finite; and in every atom of our experience we must be in contact with it. Though it is invisible, in everything visible we see it. Even in our errors and illusions it must somehow be present, for they exist, and it is the unity of all existence. Hence philosophers have said in answer to the question ‘Can we know the infinite?’ we can know nothing else. This answer, and what we have just been saying, may of course mislead. It does so, if it suggests that the infinite contains the finite as such or as it appears; that it is the aggregate of finite things and persons; that our errors and illusions are in it what they are to us in our error and illusion. We must return to this point, but for the present we may dwell on the result that the infinite must contain, or be the unity of, everything finite.

It may be otherwise expressed by saying that everything finite is a partial appearance or manifestation of the infinite, or the infinite partially appearing or manifested. Any finite existence is thus double-sided. On the one hand, it is not the infinite, but is partial; and this is obvious in the fact that it is not other finite things, that, e.g., any one of us is not any other, but each is only a fragment of the whole. This is the negative side. On the other hand, any finite existence manifests the infinite or, to put it otherwise, has the infinite in it; and this again is obvious in the fact that in trying to know anything as it really is, you are led beyond it and must try to know everything else. The first or negative aspect is expressed by the term ‘appearance’; the second, or positive aspect, by the term ‘manifestation’, which again means partial reality. I prefer the latter because it does imply partiality, and yet it indicates the positive aspect, and does not suggest to anyone the misleading idea that the finite is simply unreal.2

Now a further step. All finite existences are partial manifestations of the infinite, but they differ greatly. Some are less full and some more full expressions of it. They differ, in other words, in the degree of their approach to the infinite, according to which we may call them higher or lower in the scale. And we may express this in various ways. The place of a finite existence in the scale depends on the question how partial it is; how much of the infinite appears in it; how much of the whole is ignored when you consider it by itself; how much it would have to be filled out, and therefore changed, in order to express the infinite fully; how near it comes to being a self-dependent harmonious whole; how much it contradicts itself, for contradict itself in some degree it must, (a) because, if it was perfectly self-consistent, it would be the infinite; or, again, (b) because the whole is in it and yet appears in it but partially. If you test, say, a grain of sand and a horse in this way, you find that they differ greatly. You ignore much more of the whole in conceiving a grain of sand than in conceiving a horse: for in conceiving a horse you take into account not only the sphere of existence to which the grain of sand belongs, but spheres above that, the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Hence, again, the grain of sand would have to be supplemented and changed even more than the horse before it could express the whole fully. That means, again, that it is less of a self-dependent whole than the horse. The latter is at least a unity of diverse members and functions; it assimilates other substances and converts them into its own nature; it changes and yet remains the same. It is a kind of living system. If you compare, again, a horse and a man in these respects you find the man much the higher, as well as in the more obvious respect that he is mind.

Let us return to a point already touched on, and observe by way of illustration how the difference of higher and lower shows itself in regard to the perceptibility of anything. The infinite can present itself as such, or in its fulness, in no single form—cannot be perceived, therefore, as such—this is the one side: on the other hand it is perceived partially or fragmentarily in absolutely every form. Finite existence then (if we consider this test alone: others may interfere and modify the result) will be higher according as, on the one hand, it is less able to be perceived as such, and, on the other hand, presents itself partially over a wider field. This means, roughly, the higher it is, the less you can see, hear, touch it, the more you must think it: and yet, in its parts, the more will it show itself to sense. For instance, a grain of sand presents more of its being to sight than a horse does, and a horse than a man: for you cannot see a horse's feelings and inward actions, and with a man there is a vast inner world that you cannot see. Or, to put it otherwise, you can take in a great deal more of a grain of sand by looking at it and touching it than you can of a man. On the other hand a man is perceptible indirectly a million times more than a grain of sand by his actions and products. By the same test a state, or again a church, is a higher existence than a man; as a whole it has no single outward form as a man has, and if you want to see it thus you must do so through a makeshift representative, a Pope or other visible head: yet its perceptible operations and manifestations are many million times greater than a man's. It is thus everywhere (exceptis excipiendis). It is a sign of lowness, distance from the infinite, want of reality, to be immediately perceptible: the higher anything is the more spiritually has it to be apprehended, yet the greater amount of existence it covers.

Take another test. The infinite is everything, and yet is absolutely one: it is the unity of all differences, a unity so pervasive that every difference or part, truly apprehended, would reveal the whole. And so the higher any finite existence, the liker it is to the infinite in these respects. It covers a wider field of appearances, has (we have just seen) more differences in it, but it also unites them in a more intense unity. What we call the inorganic is a low form of finite being because it has so little unity. Its parts lie outside one another, and, though you divide it, each part will retain much of its original nature. Break up a lump of clay and each fragment has still the character it had in the lump—a rough statement. But if you do this with an organism, say a plant, you destroy it: its parts are not mere parts but members; the principle of the whole, the unity, is in each. If you cut it in pieces, therefore, the pieces die, or they change into another kind of existence, which is not united in a whole of that pervasive kind. When you come to animal organisms, this unity is still the same3—and the higher the animal the less will it bear division; and also the unity now appears in a totally new shape, the whole feels: there is the beginning of soul, or self, or spiritual unity. And this develops in man enormously, so that his soul or self or mind is far the most intense unity we have: its parts are not outside each other any more, they are elements which flow into and through one another. And, observe, it is not only the unity of what we call the soul in distinction from the body, but of the whole, which has these two aspects. The man wills and his body moves in response. He can only act in and through his body, and if the soul is sick, so in some degree or way is the body, and vice versa.

This leads to another point. The higher is not only higher than the lower, but it includes it. The animal kingdom contains physical elements, and chemical and vegetable, as well as animal. The man contains all that the animal does, and again more. Man, in the old phrase, is a microcosm: whatever there is outside him there is also in him: he concentrates in himself all that exists separately in nature, so that to understand him would be to understand physics and chemistry and botany and zoology, as well as what is distinctive of man. And so the infinite, which is beyond him, includes him and more. It is the all-inclusive unity.

Only we must observe again in passing, that the lower is included in the higher, not in its original form, but in a new combination, a unity which infuses its own nature on everything that enters into it; and, as we saw, the higher the unity, the more intense and pervasive it is. There is not in strictness anything merely physical or chemical or animal in the man. He is not these elements plus something else, but this unity of them in a new form, though for practical purposes it is sometimes convenient to ignore this, and to treat what we call the body as if it were not the body of a soul, nor even vital nor even chemical. And so the infinite will be a unity which unites absolutely everything, all the finite, but in its own element, and not as these finite existences appear apart from it. That it is the aggregate of these is the vulgar notion of Pantheism.

Let us try to sum up what has been said of these distinctions of value in the finite in the formula that the higher is the more spiritual, as it must be if the infinite is infinite mind or spirit. Only we must be on our guard against the associations of that word. We are apt to understand by it, when we first hear it, the mere opposite of the natural, and so it seems to suggest something thin and spectral. But, we have seen, the higher is not the mere opposite of the lower, but contains it and unites it in its own higher element. And so it is with what we call our soul or spirit. This we distinguish from the body, but it is not something apart from the body. It is the living concentration of all the natural elements and forces that meet in the body, and, as we have seen, that means all the elements of nature: and the body, again, is in ceaseless interaction and interchange with these as they exist and work outside it. The spirit, then, is the unity of all these elements and forces. It is their negative unity, certainly, for they are not in it what they would be for themselves; and again it can abstract itself in thought and will from them all, and even from its natural aptitudes—and in that sense is free from them. Still it is their concentration; and that is obvious in the fact that this spirit, this ‘I’, which does thus abstract itself, has a definite character which but for them it would not have: each of us has a distinct natural endowment, and the self or spirit is a mere abstraction or form if you leave this out of account. And again this self or spirit expresses itself in and through these natural elements and forces. It is free not only from them but in them; and its full freedom would be that it should find them perfectly subdued to its own element, and so expressive of it and not of their separate natures. It is not a ghost, and it is higher not merely because it is immaterial, but because it is the most intense and far-reaching unity of the natural or material. If we bear this in mind, we avoid the danger of thinking of the spiritual as something thin and empty.

We should perhaps see things in general more truly if we looked at them occasionally from this point of view, if we ignored for the time being our current distinctions of nature and spirit, or matter and mind, and looked at everything in the same way. We should understand ‘natural’ to mean relatively narrow, poor, separate, disconnected; ‘spiritual’ to mean full, variegated, united. Everything would then be more or less natural, more or less spiritual. Everything consists of differences or—if you like—parts, it is thus natural: everything is a unity of differences or parts, and therefore spiritual. Everything is perceptible (actually or possibly) on one side, imperceptible, only thinkable, on the other. A thing is more spiritual the greater the amount of its differences, of what it concentrates into unity, and the more intense and pervasive the unity in which it concentrates them. A man is more spiritual than a horse, and a horse than a grain of sand, for this reason. And man is natural-spiritual, instead of being completely spiritual like the infinite, because the variety he concentrates is still limited, and the unity not entirely pervasive; natural (if for the moment I may put it so) not because he has a body, but because his body is not the universe and his soul is not God: he falls short on both sides. And so the absolutely spiritual will not be some new sort of spirit, discontinuous from these imperfect grades of the spiritual, but the spiritual, as we find it in all these grades and most in man, carried further, carried to its perfection, the unity containing them all as its experience—a whole in which there is nothing natural in the sense of disconnected, separate, exclusive of other being, expressive only of itself. It might, in a sense, be called absolute love, because this egoism of the parts has vanished, and each freely communicates its being to every other, gives itself up to every other, is itself in being what seemed not-itself. So in the sphere of the finite—the manifestation or partial appearance—anything will be higher, the nearer it approaches to this perfectly spiritual life.

And this our experience confirms. We cannot get rid of our finitude. There is always for us a not-self in which we find ourselves but partially; but our best moments are those in which we most get rid of the sense of opposition and separation, feel ourselves one with other selves and with everything else, so that it all seems beautiful and good. All our highest experience in feeling, perceiving, knowing, acting, is in the end a form of love, a doing away of separation. From the mere flash of joy at a beautiful sight, or the simplest act of kindness, up to that love of the many members of one body that St. Paul described, it is an experience of dissolving barriers and a fore-feeling of the divine life.

  • 1.

    Again, as I pointed out before, if a philosopher uses even strictly philosophical ideas religiously he does not use them in their strictly philosophical form.

  • 2.

    The term ‘appearance’ is apt to mislead, because it suggests that the finite is illusory, or even somehow totally unreal—a meaningless idea—whereas it ought to suggest only that in the finite the infinite does appear or show itself, but does so only partially; and that if you take this partial appearance as absolute or total, or as the infinite itself, you are under an illusion.

  • 3.

    The unity of a plant is of course less intense than that of an animal—witness the possibility of propagation by cuttings or of dividing a root to produce a second plant. The author's language is thus inaccurate, but he clearly intends to illustrate his point by the scale of increasing intensity in three broad types of unity —viz. inorganic, vegetable and animal.

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