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Chapter VI: Abstract and Concrete Idealism

Leaving, then, the views we were discussing in the last lecture, and passing by Mr. Spencer's ideas of religion, can we sketch an evolutionary view which might satisfy the worshipper of the ideal? It could not, we have seen, be materialistic. What we call matter would appear before conscious mind, but it could not be the mere opposite of mind. It would be, in the phrase already quoted, the ‘promise and potency’ of all that issues from it; and it would be so really and itself, not merely to us as we look back to a time when there were no thinking beings on the earth. In other words, on this view, intelligence and will are immanent in matter. There are not two principles or substances: the universe is one substance, but it is double-sided and expresses itself in two main forms. Nature is its earlier, simpler, and more partial expression. The immanent intelligence and will show themselves in it and that is the reason why nature is a realm of law, and is in part intelligible and beautiful to us; but the mind in nature acts unconsciously or, so to say, like a giant labouring in a dream. Conscious mind, which emerges on the basis of nature and, so far as we know, exists only on that basis, is a more adequate expression of the one substance; and man's effort to attain the ideal is the effort of that substance, of the whole, to express itself completely, an effort which, we may hope, will one day reach fulfilment on the earth—or possibly it has already done, is doing, or will do, elsewhere. Thus that which appeals to us as absolutely valuable would be also the innermost nature, tendency and end of the whole, and in our devotion to the ideal we should be worshipping no dream of ours but this very nature and end of the whole. Our devotion itself would free us from the worst of evils, that is our own hearts. The presence of this and other kinds of imperfection we should have to regard as an inevitable consequence of the fact that the whole is something not eternally complete but essentially self-evolving, in which one stage issues from another by a process involving conflict and destruction, as well as attainment and advance. We can see that evil, both natural and moral, is sometimes converted into the means of good: and we know that we have the obligation and a certain power to co-operate, both in this way and by directly diminishing evil, in the process of world redemption.

This view shares the advantage of its predecessor in escaping the problem of reconciling the existence or evil with that of omnipotent and creative perfection, and it has not, like its predecessor, to suppose the action of mere mind on matter even in the way ordering or arranging. For it recognises no mere mind and no mere matter, though the one substance and everything in it is double-sided. It forgoes the advantage of appealing to feelings of gratitude loyalty, or devotion to a personal being—and this would weigh heavily against it with many minds: but our worshipper of the moral ideal probably does not expect this advantage. On the other hand, it seems to represent much better than its predecessor the implication of nature and mind, and again of evil and good, while it cannot be accused of ignoring the difference between them. And it is also decidedly more in harmony with the general drift of modern thought, and gives more satisfaction to that tendency of the mind to find a unity in the world from which knowledge springs. It seems, therefore, to be the most satisfactory view we have yet considered, and to contain a good deal that would survive even if the view is not found sufficient as it stands.

If, however, we ask whether it can fully meet the demands from which religion arises we can hardly answer, ‘Yes’. The object of its worship has not indeed a precarious existence, like the finite god, but still there seems to be no guarantee that the complete victory over evil, which is taken to be in some sense the end and object of the self-evolving development, will ever be attained. The one substance certainly can have nothing outside itself to offer resistance, but there is plainly something in it to be overcome, or evil in its various forms would not be here. And however we may hope and aspire, how can we be assured, therefore, that the forward movement may not exhaust itself and an imperfect stationary state ensue, or even that the direction of the movement may not be reversed, that man may not slowly ‘reel back into the beast’ and the beast, in turn, degenerate and die out, and the planet follow it, and at last nothing remain but a frozen ball? That, we know, has seemed likely to science, and with our present religion, at any rate, we could not view the prospect without dismay even if we knew (as we cannot) that when the defeated ideal vanished from earth it was advancing, or even realised, on other planets or stars.1

And this brings us to a question which refers to all these religions of mere progress and which I have hitherto postponed. However great the value of the idea of progress and the belief in it may be, is this idea by itself a satisfactory one? I hope later to take up this question more fully, but here I will touch on it very briefly.

(1) Progress has its value apparently in its end—perfection, the ideal realised. The value of everything else lies in its contribution to this. And this has been taken all along to involve the disappearance of all imperfection and evil. Well, is that conceivable, while man is man and the earth the earth? Does it not mean a change in his natural conditions of which there appears no prospect, and that he himself would be quite changed—for instance, that he would not be born and would not die? I will not pursue this question now and will only ask you to consider it.

(2) Let us suppose this doubt removed: let us suppose such perfection is possible, and that we had assurance that progress would ultimately lead to it; would that assurance satisfy the needs of religion? Would it do so even if we could also be certain that the conflict and pain in nature too would disappear—for we could not surely be content without that? Unquestionably this assurance would help and inspire us greatly, but would it give us full satisfaction? It seems clear, if you face the question, that it would not. For, first, evil is here now and we want freedom from it now. No good that some day is to be can give us that: no future perfection can remove present imperfection. And, secondly, there is the past as well as the present. What will the perfection of the future—what would even our own present perfection, if we had it—avail the millions who have suffered and sinned in the past and have vanished from the earth? We seem to be regarding all the human beings who have existed, and will exist during the hundreds of thousands of years which precede the arrival of perfection, as mere means to the possession of that perfection by the happy men who then exist and will afterwards exist. The lives of all our predecessors, our own lives, the lives of millions and millions of our successors (for perfection is manifestly still far off), were and are and will be in themselves valueless—nothing but a preparation for lives to be lived by other people. Surely nobody can believe that? Surely when you look it in the face, it is an idea both inhuman and absurd?

If so, what follows? It follows that the notion of good, or the end-in-itself, as something merely future cannot be true, that while we hope and work for a better than the present we must yet believe that the present is, or may be, good and valuable in itself and not merely as a preparation. And that is what we all, as a matter of fact, do believe. We do not regard childhood as a mere means to youth or youth as a mere means to manhood and so on, or this year or month or minute as valueless in itself and valuable only as leading to the next, which again is valueless in itself. That is absurd. On the contrary: when we are forced to regard even an hour or a minute as a mere means, we regard it as something exceptionally bad. Our real belief is that every stage in life, though it is a striving beyond itself, is, or may be, at the same time good in itself—that it attains the end of life. We rightly regard it as a defect in our life that we cannot make every hour and minute of it thus intrinsically good, but are obliged to treat some as merely means to something further. Now if this is so with the life of the individual, how much more must it be so with that of the race? For I, who thus have to treat this hour or minute chiefly as a means to a further end, am yet the person who is to reach that end: but the generations whose lives are to be regarded as mere means to perfection are not the generations that will enjoy perfection. They will never have touched one atom of the good of life. That is surely not what we can really believe.

It does not follow in the least from these reflections that the idea of progress is to be rejected or slighted. But it follows that by itself it will not satisfy the needs from which morality and religion spring. It cannot stand alone, though it may have the greatest value as one element in a larger view.

What then would satisfy the needs in question? What is it that religion wants? The answer seems to be clear, however audacious it may sound. It wants the ideal actually realised: something that is, and not merely ‘should be’ or ‘will be’; perfection now, and in the past as well as in the future, an eternal perfection. And it requires that we should be able to reach and unite ourselves with this perfect reality, and so should be able now to share its freedom from our imperfection, and by our dependence on it should now escape from our dependence on the imperfect world. These may be thought monstrous demands, but it is impossible to consider the language of fully developed religion and to doubt that these are its demands. Moreover, they seem really to correspond with our own habitual attitude even outside religion. For we have just seen that we do suppose that in some sense we can attain the end of life in any fraction of time, and do not merely look forward to its attainment.

Now what do these demands imply? They imply that the imperfection and evil which limit us and appear in the world do not limit or appear in that perfect reality. If they did, it could not be perfect, nor could we escape from them by union with it. Hence neither they nor the world nor ourselves can be for that perfect reality what they appear to us to be. And therefore they cannot really and truly be just what they appear to us to be, and what in the religions so far considered they are taken to be. In other words, if the needs of religion are to be satisfied, we have got to go beyond and even to flout our ordinary view of the world, and also what we call our positive knowledge of it. I am putting this fact as nakedly as possible, for it is useless to blink it, and it is patent in the greatest religions. They openly or tacitly deny that the world or ourselves are what they seem, and in that sense they deny their reality. And any view that would fully satisfy the needs of religion must do so. It must, that is to say, do in theory or belief what religion does in practice, renounce the world and the self, and renounce them because they are unreal.

Our supposed searcher for a creed, the centre of which shall be his human ideal, may at first be staggered by these results. For he has taken for granted all along that he need not question obvious facts or his positive knowledge, whereas now it appears that as they stand he is not to take them for final. But after all (if he has followed us) he has really admitted for some time that he must go beyond them; and now he may begin to reflect that to go beyond them must, in some sense, mean to modify and perhaps even to deny them, and that he ought never to have taken them for granted. We may conclude this part of our subject by considering, very briefly and partially, what kind of view, starting from this new position, he might adopt.

He might turn to the faith of the average good Christian:—I do not say to Christianity (for we must be brief and uncontroversial, and what Christianity is is matter of much dispute), but it may be possible to describe briefly and securely that part of the belief of an average religious Christian which is relevant here. God for him is, or includes and goes beyond, the human ideal realised; is, and is more than, the perfection of man; is the end of man attained. He is also the sole source both of nature and of man, and is all-powerful over them. Nothing has existed, exists, or will exist, unpermitted by Him; and whatever for us is merely imperfect or evil, is by Him overruled and serves as the instrument of His will. Why it is permitted to be, our Christian probably does not profess to know, but he is sure of this. Now this means, though he may not put the matter so, that for God, and therefore in truth, the world and he himself are not what for his sight they are and must be. But since through faith (not a mere theoretical belief, remember) he is here and now united or—as he may put it—reconciled with God, all things are for him in faith what they are not for sight; all things, not only those he sees to be good, work together for his good; the power of evil over him is, and not only will be, done away; and by his dependence on God he escapes or—as he would say—is saved from dependence on his imperfect self and the imperfect world.

This belief, our searcher will hardly deny, satisfies the needs of religion; but, considering his antecedents, it is not likely to content him. At any rate it is inconvenient at this point to assume that it will. Its terminology, perhaps, is repellent to him: it has come to conceal rather than express the ideas within it. He finds these ideas, he is likely to say, connected, if not essentially, yet historically and in the minds of the great majority of its adherents, with cosmological, historical, and other ideas which his intellect is unable to accept; and perhaps also the notion of the best human life which most of its adherents cherish seems to him defective. Besides, he has already meddled with philosophy, wants a view which will satisfy the philosophic impulse and does not find it in the system of dogmas which purports to explicate the matter of simple faith. The same impulse again would forbid him to rest content with views like those of Mazzini, or, again, of writers like Emerson or Carlyle. They may be true but are not philosophies; nor will this impulse permit him to rest in any of the theosophic romances which hover in the air around him like volcano-dust borne on the wind from India. But perhaps the genuine East, philosophic Brahmanism for example, may give him what he seeks.

Here again all the imperfection that he saw within and around him has ceased to be the solid fact it appeared. It, with his vain desires and fears, and pains and pleasures, is but illusion. There is one being and one only, and in that one reality; and therefore really and truly nothing of all this exists. There is no finitude; no time or space or multiplicity or change; neither the world that hemmed him in or enticed him, nor the self that tormented him. The one being is free from it all, and abides for ever in changeless perfection. And he can reach it; for it is not far from him but in him; and his real self (not the illusion of which he is conscious and which men call himself) is it. The way to it is to renounce and at last to die to the illusion; to mortify the senses and the vain dreams they generate; to desire neither to possess nor to change anything in that phantom called the world; to fix the mind exclusively in meditation and longing on the one reality. If he can follow this way to its end, nothing will be left in him but God, he will be freed from his bondage for ever. The illusion that bears his name will be said by the foolish world to persist for a time, dragging out a life of utter abstinence, if not of pain, and at last to die; but he, the true self, will know nothing of all that; he is already joined to the eternal, and will never return to the evil dream of life.

No more genuine religion than this has existed or can exist. The denial of the finite, the longing for the infinite, the pæan of its attainment that passes understanding, the conviction that all we see is such stuff as dreams are made on, and that nothing truly is except that which never came to be and never changes or can cease to be, can hardly be more powerfully, even touchingly, expressed than they are in its literature. And our searcher, if he has within him anything that answers to these longings and convictions, must feel this. But considering again his antecedents, that he is a Western and of an active race, and has built much on hopes of man's future, he is not likely to rest here. He may be ready to renounce the world and the flesh; but, it seems, he must renounce also innocent pleasures and active kindness, and his political interests, and all effort to make things better: in fact, knowledge and beauty and goodness and the ideal itself, at least as he has understood them. For none of these is or can, as such, belong to the one reality; and whatever is not it is mere illusion; and among mere illusions how can one really be any truer or better than another? Nothing remains but the one eternal being. It is said to be his real self. Certainly to find that self would satisfy him. But what is it? No predicate, it appears, can be assigned to it, for that would make it finite. If he must call it something, it is pure being or pure thought—it matters not which—for he can say no more of either. It is free from evil, no doubt, but free from everything else. This, he feels perhaps, will not fill his heart, nor does it satisfy his head. For he does not see how, if all finite existence is a vain show, it manages to show itself, or how, if there really is only one changeless being, there can ever seem (and there certainly does seem) to be anything else. The question may be unanswerable, may even be senseless, but it gives him no rest.

None the less perhaps this view of things, this theory of the abstract infinite, fascinates him. For on one side it does give him what religion asks for: an eternal being untouched by finite imperfections, in union with whom he can escape his own bondage to them. Now that implies, it has appeared, that the imperfections of the finite cannot in reality be what they seem. And that implies, in other words, that the imperfect finite cannot be in reality what it seems. Is there any great difference between saying that, and saying that the finite is an illusion? There is a difference, for the word illusion (rightly or wrongly) suggests that the finite does not exist at all: and that is absurd. Anything whatever that in any sense is experienced or shows itself, however deceptively it may show itself, must in some sense exist. You do not abolish it by calling it an illusion. An illusion is not what it professes to be, but neither is it nothing; and you cannot get rid of the finite by flying to an infinite which leaves it existing in this curious ambiguous fashion. But if we start from the basis that somehow there is to be the infinite, and yet that the finite is not to be evaporated into nothingness, we should then perhaps have retained the positive element of the religion of the abstract infinite and have removed what rendered its acceptance impossible.

If we try to indicate in the briefest way how this might be, we ought not to use terms which would tie us down to one particular view, but should confine ourselves here, as much as may be, to the general direction in which a solution might lie. And so we see that what is wanted is a view which, instead of severing the infinite eternal reality from the finite, imperfect and temporal, would make the relation between them (if that word may be vaguely used) positive as well as negative. For the main defects of the theory of the abstract infinite all seem to arise from its representing this relation as merely negative. The first of these defects was that the one reality, though called self, and again, by some, spirit, remains in effect a mere blank, of which in strictness nothing can be said except that it is not the finite. What then do we want? We cannot say that this one reality is the finite. Clearly it cannot be any one finite, neither can it be the aggregate or sum of finites (a notion absurdly attributed to something called Pantheism), for things do not lose their finite character in the least by being merely added together. It must then be the opposite or negation of the finite, and so far the theory was right. But on the other hand, it cannot be merely that; for, if it were, the finite, which certainly in some sense exists, would still remain unchanged, and therefore the infinite would not be infinite, it would be limited by this opposite outside it. What is required, then, is that the infinite should negate the finite in such a way as to include it; and since it cannot include it as finite, or in its finite character, it must include it in a form compatible with the nature of the infinite. In that case this infinite would not be a blank in which all the distinctions of finite existence had run together and vanished, but would be the perfection of the finite which as such it denies. We might even say that it would be the finite, seen as it truly is—though not, of course, the mere tiny fragment of it which our earth contains.

The second and third defects of the view we have just abandoned were that it made all finite existence simply unreal, and so made all this existence equally illusory. What we want, then, is a view according to which the finite would be the partial appearance or manifestation of the infinite. All finite existence would be so. Everything would be negatively and positively related to the infinite; negatively because falling short of it, positively because manifesting it. But again these partial manifestations must not be equally partial. They must form a graduated scale from the lowest to the highest. The lowest will mean that which is related most negatively and least positively to the infinite, that which manifests least of it, that which taken by itself is emptiest and most limited. And the highest will, of course, be that of which the opposite can be truly said:—so that, for instance, the difference between a plant and a man does not from the point of view of the infinite vanish into nothing, and if we pictured the infinite itself as the wisest and best human soul, we should indeed be in error, but not so preposterously as if we pictured it as matter and force, or even as Jupiter.

On a theory like this, philosophy and religion may both be called attempts to approach the point of view of the infinite or to see things sub specie æternitatis, and both accordingly will go beyond and (so far) deny the point of view of ordinary life and again of that knowledge of the finite which is called positive. That, as we have seen, is implied in religion and required by it. Religion will differ from philosophy not only because, on the theoretic side, in its attempt to view things as they truly are, its ideas, its mode of sight, are different, but more especially because it is not merely theoretic, but tries to feel and will from the point of view of the infinite. Thus the believer is sure that for the infinite the imperfect world and he himself are not merely what they seem to him; and therefore he feels and acts on this belief, he practically renounces and denies both the world and himself. Believing that in reality he is not separated from God as he seems to be, he wills in accordance with this belief, and in this act of will he is united with God. This is that denial or renunciation of the finite by which it ceases to be the opposite of the infinite and becomes (what in reality or eternally it is) an expression of the infinite: the death of the self is not its abolition as an illusion but its rebirth as the man's true self in God, a self none the less active in his earthly life. In like manner his renunciation of the world as merely finite, as the opposite of God, is the new birth of that world as the manifestation of God, which he accepts as such and rejoices in and loves as beautiful and good. And this may be expressed equally well from the other side as an action of the infinite. Religion thus may be called man's release from evil, his present release, not something merely future. Not that through it he escapes the sufferings and sorrows of a finite being, but he has determined to reckon as his true self only that self which is at one with God, and for him as thus one with God nothing, whether sorrow or joy, can come which is not God's will and therefore good. And to this he must hold, in face even of the evil of which he is conscious in himself, and of which the world is full. Somehow it is not to God, is not in reality, the impenetrable wall of resistance it appears to his sight to be: even it must somehow serve the divine purpose. And therefore—however his heart may ache with the sense of it—in the centre of his being he is at peace even concerning it. This is at once the essence and the paradox of religion. He is sure that the soul can be united to God, because for God it is so united; that the world can be overcome, because for God it is overcome; that evil can be subdued, because for God there is none to subdue.

These expressions sound paradoxical if not contradictory: they seem to unite two different points of view, and what I want to bring out is the fact that it is necessary for religion to take these different points of view. The present release from evil is the immense advantage which religion as we are now regarding it (in any form it may take) has over a mere religion of progress, and religion cannot be fully satisfied without it. Nor can religion have it without belief in one eternal perfection wholly free from evil, and without itself taking on one side

‘even here, upon this bank and shoal of time,’

this eternal point of view.

But this release is not a matter of sight. No man can see that whatever befalls him and those he loves is the best thing possible, or that the evil he contends against is, for God, already defeated. That is for faith, and even if in philosophy as a general truth it is a matter of knowledge, it certainly cannot be so in detail. And if for sight the evil the religious man contends against were already defeated, why should he fight against it? With that question religion has assumed another point of view, the temporal, the point of view of the finite. All action does so, and must do so. And, with this, evil becomes again, not indeed an ultimate reality, but a fact and force to be contended with. And thereupon there reappears the idea of the future, and with it the idea and hope of progress towards an end which is not yet, and this (in one shape or another) takes its place again in religion, though now as one element among others. Religion is thus double-sided. It is a way of escape out of the temporal and finite into union with eternal perfection, and short of that there is no present release from evil, and that which so escapes into the eternal is thereby eternal. But (if I may put it thus) the self that so escapes is not the whole empirical self. That, half infinite and half finite, remains half in eternity but half in time, the battle-field of contending forces, and correlative to it is the temporal finite process in which action takes place, and imperfection and evil remain facts. And this point of view is no less a necessity for religion—indeed without it there would not be religion. God is not religious, but man. Religion implies imperfection.

It is easy to illustrate this double point of view. The reconciliation or atonement with God, which the Christian desires and obtains, he desires and obtains now. His sins are done away. He is at peace. He has eternal life. He is told to be perfect. And the idea that all this lies merely in the future and that meanwhile he is to bear the burden of unforgiven sin he would reject with horror and, if theologically minded, would point to passage upon passage in the New Testament which contradicts it. But, on the other hand, he is here in the field of time and change where neither he nor anything else can be perfect, and it is equally essential to him to look forward to a future both for himself and his brothers more blessed than the present. God, again, being infinite and perfect, can be limited by nothing—he must believe that. Yet he looks forward to a time when God will be all in all; that is, limited by nothing. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof: and yet the whole creation groans and travails. The kingdom of heaven is within or among us; and yet we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’. He is to work out his salvation because it is God who works it out in him. Is there not just the same paradox in all this as in his going out to overcome the world because it is overcome, and to conquer evil because it is already conquered? Everywhere there appear these dual points of view, a looking at things now from the side of the eternal reality and now from that of the changing appearance or manifestation. And how should this be otherwise for a being like man who on the one side has infinity and eternity within him and therefore can conceive the eternal and infinite, and on the other is a finite creature struggling in the element of change?

  • 1.

    And here we recognise again the old trouble, i.e. want of Power in the object of worship.

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