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Chapter V: The Ideals of Seeley and Mill

We have seen that a religion of ideal humanity which involves no belief as to the universe, cannot fully perform the office of religion because its object is deficient in power. It has appeared, secondly (though this I do not assert to be unquestionable), that this religion does really, though unconsciously, involve a belief that the ideal is in some way an essential product or expression of some considerable power in the universe.

Assuming these results to be accepted, then it seems that we must enlarge our religious view. We may still regard as the immediate object of worship what we have called ideal humanity, though we have seen that the words ‘human’, ‘man’, ‘self’ are ambiguous; but we must try to form some notion of the relation this object bears to the universe and so in the first instance to nature, that part of the known world that we are accustomed to distinguish from man or man's mind.

At present we are still to assume the position of the believer in a religion of ideal humanity, and to ask how he might remedy the deficiencies that have appeared in his religion.

We may first observe that this ‘human’ religion at any rate excludes one belief on this subject, I mean Materialism. For Materialism is the doctrine that the sole ultimate reality is mere matter, the opposite of mind; and, as the ideal is certainly in some sense, and to a large extent, mind and the product of mind, this doctrine means that the ideal is not an essential expression of any power, considerable or inconsiderable, in the ultimate nature of things. And, at the stage we have reached, this result is enough for us, for we have found it a necessity of this religion to believe that the ideal is such an essential expression. Hence we need not raise the insoluble theoretical difficulty how the ideal and the mind that forges it could possibly issue from their mere opposite, or ask whether there is really any meaning, anything you can think, in the statement that they do so.

But, it may be said, we are too hasty. For some adherents of a human religion have as a matter of fact been materialists, and others have held that it makes no difference to religion whether or no we suppose the sole ultimate reality to be matter. And this is true: but then the answer is that they have not really been materialists. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have believed in a matter which is far from being the mere opposite of mind. They have, for example, like Tyndall, thought of matter as ‘the promise and potency’ of all that issues from it, and therefore of mind and the products of mind. Now such a ‘matter’ is not mere matter. Here again we have not to ask whether there is any meaning in speaking of a promise and potency existing on its own account and in the absence of mind. For, supposing it can, and supposing it is the promise and potency of mind, it has then an essential relation to mind; it is part of its being that it ‘promises’, and is able to issue in, mind; and such being is certainly not the mere opposite of mind, but is potential mind. If you took matter in this enlarged sense for the ultimate reality, you might quite well continue to worship your ideal, for this would then be no casual by-product, thrown off in some unintelligible way by the reality, but its necessary and essential expression or development. Nay, you might even succeed in worshipping this matter itself as the source of your ideal, as something of whose essence it is part to give birth to the ideal, though this part of its being is at first ‘potential’ and not actual. Such a religion might not be satisfactory or secure against attack, but it would neither rest on materialism nor be consistent with it.

We may glance next at the proposal (mentioned some time ago) to take nature by itself and to worship it on its own account, without attempting to form an idea of its connection with the human ideal. We should simply add it to the latter. That would be one object of worship; nature would be another; but we should worship the two apart, as two separate constituents in the whole of things. This whole somehow produces in us the ideal: it also produces nature: we do not ask how the two are connected, but we worship each for itself. Nature we take simply as science discloses it to us; we mean by it solely what science means, and thus, in our religion, we shall be secure against that conflict with exact knowledge and with the prevalent conception of universal law, which has so greatly shaken the position of supernatural religion. A proposal of this kind was made some twenty-five years ago in Seeley's book on Natural Religion—a remarkable and valuable book—quite apart from this proposal, and I may illustrate the idea by reference to that book, though it would hardly be just to identify it with Seeley's total view.1

It is an idea very attractive to many minds, because it seems to fall in with ideas of their own and to harmonise with their love of nature. Nature, we say to ourselves, used to be worshipped in many religions. It was for a time degraded, and rightly so, in those forms of religion which give the first place to ethical or spiritual qualities. But since that position is now secured to them, surely we ought to find a place beside, or in subordination to, them for the power and glory and mystery of Nature and to regard her as, in some way, a revelation of the divine soul of things.

Thus many of us are inclined to welcome a proposal, such as Seeley's, to worship nature as disclosed by science. But we shall find, I think, (1) that the nature which Seeley describes as the nature known to science, and proposes to worship, is much more than that and quite different. And (2) we shall find that what we really want is to regard and possibly to worship nature not as something side by side with our ideal and separate from it, but as standing in an essential relation to it and qualified and spiritualised by that relation. If we really took nature simply as disclosed to science, and took it as standing merely side by side with our ideal, we should never dream of worshipping it. While if we take it otherwise, that may be very well, only we renounce the promised advantage of worshipping an object guaranteed by science.

Let us first see how Seeley describes what he supposes to be nature as known to science. He wishes to show that, quite apart from any ideas introduced from any other quarter, it is adorable and in fact is adored. He does not say that it would be a satisfactory god, but still he says it may be and is a god. For it is, to the man of science, a power which is not himself and is immeasurably above himself: a power in the contemplation of which he is absorbed; in the knowledge of which he finds safety and happiness. . . . The scientific man knows him—this power—to be eternal: and in astronomy, in geology, he becomes familiar with the countless millenniums of his life-time. The scientific man strains his mind actually to realise God's infinity. As far off as the fixed stars he traces him, ‘distance inexpressible by numbers that have name.’ Meanwhile to the theologian infinity and eternity are very much empty words when applied to the Object of his worship. He does not realise them in ‘actual facts and definite computations’. Nor is this all. Nature, besides all this, is to the man of science a power infinitely beautiful and glorious, and a power with which he has a sense of personal relationship, because he lives and moves and has his being in it.

Now we are not directly concerned with the comments a theologian might make on these statements. He might ask in what sense nature is immeasurably above man; whether much safety and happiness can be found in contemplating what may knock me on the head to-morrow; and whether ‘actual facts and definite computations’ are not strange places in which to look for infinity and eternity? But, passing these doubts by, we must notice that the question is not at all what nature is to the ‘man of science’, but what it is to science. The man of science is a man; and like the rest of us he may regard nature as power and unity and glory and infinity, and ought, I am sure, to wonder at it and admire it more than we ignorant people can. But the question here is what he knows as nature, what it is to his science, and I imagine that from that point of view he might say to Seeley something of this kind:—

‘Elsewhere in your work you describe nature as “a number of co-existences and sequences”, and again as “certain laws of co-existence and sequence in phenomena ”. If I may unite these expressions in the phrase “an indefinite number of co-existent and sequent phenomena which behave and occur, so far as our knowledge goes, in certain regular ways,” I accept that as an account of the nature known to me. But that is not the nature you propose to worship. You speak of a power, and of this power as being one, and of its being infinite and eternal, and of all phenomena as its appearances, and of all the glory and beauty you perceive in them as its glory and beauty. But science knows nothing of all this: we do not know that all phenomena form a single unity, much less that they are appearances of a single power. We are ignorant whether they come to an end in space or in time, and you convert this ignorance into a positive knowledge of an infinite and eternal power. What you propose to worship under the name of “nature” may be a reality or a fiction of your imagination; but science can give you no information on the subject.’

Now, if the nature proposed as an object for worship is not nature as known to science, it is equally clear that nature as known to science is no object for worship. Phenomena and their laws are very interesting to the intellect, but nobody would be inclined to worship them if he did not regard them as in some way the expressions of a unity, of one power or one mind manifesting itself in a variety of aspects or in subordinate unities. Even the impressions of sublimity we derive from the endlessness of phenomena depend on our regarding the phenomena in some such light, and as having some unity. When endless distances appear sublime, it is because we unconsciously take them as distances traversed or established by something which knows no limit. There is nothing sublime in a mere indefinite repetition of units of time or space. Wherever natural phenomena make the kind of appeal that could issue in religious feeling, we shall find that we are going beyond the point of view of science, and of course we habitually do so; but then we habitually interpret the world by ideas which science cannot guarantee, ideas which do not belong to what is called positive knowledge.

Our second criticism referred to the proposal to worship nature as something merely side by side with the moral ideal. Anything like religion, we said, requires more than this: it requires that we should be able to connect nature with the moral ideal in such a way that it would be qualified by this connection. An illustration may be enough to show this. Suppose science did reveal to us that nature is a single power manifesting itself in endless phenomena, and suppose that by this revelation at once of nature's unity and of its infinite power religious feeling were stirred in us. Still it would not be a moral power; on the contrary, as Professor Seeley himself asserts, nature seems to be quite indifferent to morality. We should then have before us two objects—one, called nature, exhibiting boundless power but nothing, or less than nothing, of the qualities which are immeasurably more sacred to us than power; and another, the moral ideal, consisting of these qualities brought to perfection. And it is suggested we should give to each of these two objects a perfectly distinct worship, without allowing our thought of the one to influence our thought of the other. Now I will not say it would be impossible to do this, but considering the unity of human nature it would surely be very difficult, and it seems most likely that anyone who attempted the feat would find sooner or later that he had shifted his position. Either one of his worships would have driven the other into the back of his mind, or altogether out of it, and he would have concentrated his religion simply on a moral ideal or (less probably) on a non-moral power of nature. Or else he would insensibly have so far fused the two together that the regularity and beauty of nature would appeal to him as an expression of one and the same power that also produced his moral ideal; or this ideal would appeal to him as the goal towards which nature was struggling, in spite of the resistance of some irrational or non-moral element.2 But in any of these cases he would not be worshipping two distinct objects kept side by side without being allowed to influence one another; and in none of them would he be worshipping nature simply as known by science.3

It would be a great advantage if we could dismiss from our minds completely the dream that science can provide us with an object of worship, and also the extraordinary notion that its inability to do so is something to its discredit. It surely is not so in the least. To do this is no part of the business of science. Religion implies, like philosophy, some sort of notion of the whole of things, and of the relation of one sphere to another. Natural science makes no profession to provide such a notion; and if a man of science makes such a profession, he does so as a philosopher or teacher of religion. Science deliberately limits itself to a certain part of the universe and considers it in abstraction from the rest. It is possible for it to do so and essential for its purpose that it should do so. The relations of nature to man's mind and to the principle of the universe—whatever that may be—are apparently of such a constant kind, that they do not affect the behaviour of nature which it is the interest of science to discover and determine. Science is therefore able to ignore them, and it does well to ignore them. For the history of science proves that to consider them only introduces danger and confusion into the attempt to investigate phenomena and to explain them, in the scientific sense of that term. Such questions as whether nature is independent of mind or is an appearance of mind or to mind, and, if so, of or to what mind, or whether nature is beautiful in itself or only to us, or how it is related to our moral ideas, are perfectly useless—or worse than useless—for the purpose of discovering the manner in which phenomena behave. And therefore science ignores them. But for that very reason it is idle to expect that the knowledge it gives can satisfy demands or interests of human nature which go beyond and necessarily raise questions about the relations of nature to the rest of the world: and while it is, as it appears to me, perfectly reasonable and of the first importance that in seeking an answer to such questions we should not contradict what science tells us of nature, it is mere nonsense to ask that we should not go beyond this, and a prejudice to require that, in doing so, we should employ only the methods which are suitable to the special requirements of science. But the prestige, the fully justified prestige of science, is so great that it has generated a vague notion (which affected, I think, even Professor Seeley) that science may be expected to accomplish not only its own task but all the other tasks of the human mind, and that we ought to sit waiting with hopes and fears, but without beliefs, until it has done so.

We must return, then, to the position from which we set out. The religion of the ideal is to include some notion of the universe, therefore some notion of the bearing of nature on the ideal. Let us, then, without confining ourselves to the scientific view of nature, which has a special and limited purpose, consider, at least in a popular way, what impressions nature makes on us in this respect. And let us understand by nature, first, nature outside man—external nature.

It soon becomes clear that nature makes apparently contradictory impressions, or presents two faces. That is what is so puzzling, alluring and frightening about her. On the one hand, it may be said, she seems to have nothing to do with our ideal. She is for ever thwarting our effort to reach it. She is so stingy that man has to spend far the greater part of his time labouring to exist—and his existence is only tolerable because he subdues and improves her. She vexes him with weakness and disease, ends him at the best before he has accomplished a hundredth part of his aims, and holds out no hope of his being able to take up elsewhere the task, or pursue elsewhere the ideal, which is left frustrate here. She shows further no discrimination between the good man and the evil, but feeds and murders both alike; and unless we thought her blind, we should esteem her utterly unjust and even maliciously cruel. The same thing is evident even if we put ourselves out of the question. It is her constant rule to make her children fight together, and live on one another. Her world is full of change, pain and death. She is so busy with the latter—with the decay and death of animals and plants and even of worlds—that we are astonished that she should care to create existence at all. If there is anything permanent in her, it is atoms or something like them, the very things whose existence would seem to us by itself worthless. For the rest she is one never-resting process of idle change. These are some of the charges that may be brought against nature.

On the other hand, the force of these charges depends, in part, on our rhetorical way of talking as if nature were not blind but a conscious agent; and, again, as if the worlds and creatures who exist or change and enjoy and suffer, were something different from her, on which she operated, instead of being parts or phases of herself. And, further, our charges are hasty, and we get from nature impressions of quite a different kind. We complain of the want of permanence in nature, but are we really prepared to say, for example, that it would be better if the same clouds and plants and animals and men went on for ever and there were no new ones?

If we observe quietly and dispassionately, can we really think that there is more pain in nature than enjoyment, or anything like as much? And to come to ourselves, while it is true that nature thwarts our effort to reach our ideal, on the other side she certainly seems to forward it, for what sort of creatures should we be if she did not force us to labour? Again, if we set aside what seems an incipient morality in her animals, it is true that nature appears to be quite unmoral and not to discriminate between our good and evil. Yet it is curious that our own moral method of making one part of ourselves live by suppressing another part has a certain likeness to her unmoral method of dealing with parts of herself. Neither is it wholly true that she does not discriminate between good and evil; for some of the most prominent forms of evil she avenges by weakness or death, and perhaps most of what we call good makes for physical health and vigour.

Again, while she is unlike us in being unmoral, there seems to be in her something like us on the intellectual side. She does not reason, yet her laws are intelligible to us and so of kin to our reason; she appears to be an excellent mathematician; and, rightly or wrongly, the adaptations of her organic products often suggest to us the action of something like contriving intelligence. Thus, though our love of goodness (one aspect of the ideal) finds perhaps no satisfaction in her, or but little, our love of truth finds a great deal. And, finally, our love of beauty finds still more. And how does it happen that some men, perhaps many, appear to find in contact with nature so deep and strange an answer to their spiritual being? You may say they are deluded and really commune with themselves: but, even so, how is it that they cannot commune thus with themselves except in contact with her?

I have tried to put these double-sided, even contradictory impressions fairly. Let us pass from nature outside us to nature in ourselves. We are accustomed to speak of ourselves, or our minds and their products, e.g. our ideal, as distinct from the natural impulses and activities obviously connected with our bodies. We need not ask in what sense we ought to do that, but, accepting the distinction (which in some form we must make), let us see what impression this nature in ourselves makes on us. It is again double-sided, if not contradictory.

On the one hand nature here too seems to stand in our way. Our progress means leaving it behind or subduing it. We want, for instance, to get at truth, and to do so we have to abandon our blind sensations and to rise to a region of laws and conceptions; and that which limits us seems to be mainly the fact that our material comes bit by bit through the body and therefore neither is nor can be complete. And our advance in goodness is equally checked by the nature in us. It is lazy, sensual, revengeful, quarrelsome; it urges each of us to pursue his own advantage and make himself the centre of things. No doubt these impulses are not in themselves morally bad, for nothing merely natural is so; but they become bad the moment we consciously adopt them, and they are powerful so much sooner than our higher being that we can hardly escape adopting them. All our moral education therefore, and later our moral effort, is directed against them. Most of us remain more or less subjected to one or more of them; none of us fully overcomes them; and it is difficult to imagine how, so long as human beings are born and do not drop ready-made from heaven, this can be otherwise. In short it seems that, while we have in us wonderful possibilities and longings, nature in us, like nature without us, condemns them to remain unrealised.

Yet, on the other hand, nature in us seems also to have a positive relation to our ideal. The stuff that clogs this ideal forms also the body in which it is partially realised, and without which it would be but a ghost. We want really not to abolish this stuff, but to transform it. Thus everything beautiful implies either sense—something visible or audible—or an imaginative matter which has the colour of sense. Again, we could never rise to truth from our sensations unless we used them, and the truth we aim at seems to be not bare thoughts, but thoughts which would find in sensations nothing alien to themselves. And so it is with goodness. Some of our natural impulses and feelings, though not good in themselves, are friendly to goodness—for example, the social and sympathetic feelings already clearly shown by some of the lower animals. And even those impulses, which so readily give rise to evil, become also the material and basis of good. Refined and transfigured, they reappear in civil society—one of them in the family, the mere acquisitive self-assertion in property, revenge in justice and law. And so, again, we think of the ideal character not as a man with no nature in him, but as one in whom nature has become the perfect instrument and expression of mind and will. But all this seems to mean that, though nature has to be resisted and denied, it has yet in it something akin to the power that denies it and transforms it. If it prevents this power from realising itself completely, without it this power could not realise itself at all. It could not do so even in part in a material wholly alien to it; and in fact it masters one impulse of nature by turning against it the forces of another. No nature, no morality.

Thus, though we set nature in man on one side and this power of mind or spirit on the other, the antithesis cannot be absolute. Nor have we any experience in ourselves of a mind that does not involve nature. I do not mean merely to repeat that an ideal which abolished nature would be empty, I mean that the very process of suppressing and transforming nature appears at least to be on one side natural. Thinking and willing are much more than changes in the organism, but the most obvious facts suggest that they are such changes and that, in every act by which, as we say, the mind overcomes the body, the body overcomes itself. So that, in worshipping the ideal which is at the furthest remove from nature, we worship something which implies nature, and can say nothing about it which is not implicitly a statement about nature too.

Hence, if we look back for a moment, it seems now quite hopeless to attempt to worship the ideal without forming some idea of its relation to nature and the whole of things. This attempt, we saw, perns really to imply not the absence of any such idea but the presence of the assumption that the mind with its product is perfectly independent. And now that assumption seems to be not merely unproved but in contradiction with the appearances we have been observing. These point to some kind of opposition, but equally clearly to some kind of continuity, between nature and the mind—such a continuity that we can hardly speak strictly of the ideal as the product of mere mind. They suggest that one and the same power is active both in nature and mind; or at any rate that, if there are ultimately two or more powers, they are active in both spheres.

We may now proceed, therefore, to a sketch in mere outline of two main types which, on consideration of these appearances, might arise in the mind of our believer in the ideal. It is evident that such views must go beyond the observed and certain facts; it must be a philosophical theory or a faith; and, on the other hand, in our believer at least, we may presuppose the acknowledgment that his view must not contradict these facts but must be based on them, at any rate in part.

(1) First, then, the view taken may be, more or less decidedly, dualistic. The contradictory phenomena are here interpreted by supposing two independent principles, substances, or powers; one highly, if not perfectly, rational and good; the other of an opposite nature. The latter may be conceived as a personal being, and there have, of course, been dualistic religions of this type—though Christianity, I may observe, cannot be reckoned among them, since it does not hold an independent principle of evil. But we must not linger over this type since, for reasons which would be interesting to discuss, a worship of the human ideal does not tend to develop in this direction.

(2) We may pass therefore to a second type, in which the resistance to reason and goodness is otherwise explained. An example may be found in the Theism which J. S. Mill was inclined to advocate, not as a view fit to found a religion by itself, but as capable of combination with the worship of humanity (he means Comte's humanity; that is, humanity without evil). This we may call the ‘theory of a limited or finite god.’ The evidence, Mill thought, points, though not with certainty, to the existence of a being possessed of superhuman and perhaps unlimited intelligence and desirous of the happiness of his creatures—though, the facts suggest, not of that alone. The unreason and suffering in the world would then be due, perhaps in part, to a defect in the intelligence or in the benevolence of this being, or in both; but in any case to want of power. And that might be due to his having to deal with a material which he did not create but could only order and arrange; the character of this material (the uncreated matter and force of the universe) preventing him from carrying out his intentions fully. But, Mill thought, the appearances on our earth point to his increasing mastery of this material, and man may regard himself as a fellow-worker with God in the effort to carry his purposes to final victory,4

The main appeal of such a view and of a religion based on it lies in its moral purity and intensity. It is vehemently hostile to any worship of mere power. It emphasises the existence and prevalence of evil in the world, and the difference between evil and good. It appeals to the aspirations of the worshipper, his consciousness of freedom, his sense of duty, of loyalty—one may even say, of chivalry. He is dependent on God, but God is also his leader, who does not command his obedience but asks his aid in fighting for the good cause in the world. On this side it is a religion which appeals powerfully to a certain number.

It has, naturally, corresponding defects. Apart from theoretical difficulties, it almost ignores the implication of good and evil and the plain fact of religious experience that what is counted evil often turns out good, that ‘natural’ evil is ‘religious’ good.5 And on the other hand it offers no present release from evil, which remains in the worshipper and the world a solid reality, not sure even in the distant future to disappear. The believer can but hope and aspire. Even if he is certain of the complete benevolence of his god, he has no assurance that this god will be victorious, or even (according to Mill) continue to exist. Such assurance, of course, may be unattainable, but without it the needs of religion are certainly far from being satisfied.6

[The following additional notes, bracketed as though for further consideration or development orally, were found at the end of the lectures.]

(1) There have been occasional appearances of late in theology to avoid the difficulty of conceiving God as at once absolute and personal by admitting in him some deficiency of power—without, I think, a full realisation of the consequences of this admission.

(2) One would be sorry to speak disrespectfully of any god, but it is not easy to think quite seriously of one who, for all we can tell, may perish to-morrow or indeed may, like a fixed star, have vanished already, although he is so far off that we have not yet received news of his decease.

(3) This religion has made little way among persons religiously disposed but alienated from the received religious ideas. Perhaps the defects just noticed are one cause of this, but perhaps there are others. Mill escapes the difficulty of the idea of mind creating matter out of nothing, but does not help us to understand how a mere mind could even arrange a matter with which it has no intrinsic connection. His theory again gives no satisfaction to the instinct of reason to find unity in the whole. Besides, he rests his argument for the existence of a god chiefly on the appearances of contrivance in nature, appearances which it has been the tendency of science to endeavour to explain in other ways.

  • 1.

    Seeley's book was published in 1882.

  • 2.

    [Within nature.]

  • 3.

    The following paragraph was written in brackets, whether publication or not is uncertain, but is given as showing Bradley's considered view of Seeley's theories.

  • 4.

    Those who adopt a view like this generally, I think, set aside the possibility of defect in anything but the power of the god, and ascribe the imperfection of the world solely to the intractability or resistance of the material.

  • 5.

    Very curious that Mill seems hardly aware of the existence of this fact—I say ‘fact’, not view.

  • 6.

    Mill was, of course, familiar with the evolution hypothesis, yet those readers during the last forty years who were most likely to be influenced by him have probably felt that his speculations on religion bear the impress of a pre-Darwinian time.

From the book: