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Chapter VII: Religious Ideas and Truth (I)

Let us now look back for a moment at the course we have traversed. In our third chapter, leaving religion in the usual sense behind us, we started afresh with the idea suggested by one of the criticisms on that religion—the idea that the essence of the matter lies not in the so-called supernatural character of the object to which worship is directed, but in worship itself. The kind of view last reached seems to include most of the positive elements contained in those we examined before, and to be free from their defects. The object of worship—the infinite—is now, as in the religion of ideal humanity, no alien power but the goal of desire and aspiration, the completion of all that, at our best, we value highest and feel constrained to serve. Beauty, truth, goodness, if not identical with it, are its highest manifestations. But it is no longer something which merely ought to be, or even is to be, but real and indeed the only absolute reality; and it is also the one and only power. Again, it is not merely human, but is manifested in nature as well as in man, links them together, is the source of both and the goal of both. It is therefore free from the defects of the finite god, and at the same time it gives us all which that evolutionary view of the universe as one doublesided substance could give. Nor does there seem to be anything positive in that view which might not be included in the idea we have reached, while it supplies the defects inherent in any religion of mere progress. The difference is that the developing substance has now become an actual infinite which manifests itself in a development, and which, if it is the perfection of all that appears in this development and therefore of conscious mind, cannot be unconscious or below the level of that mind, though it may rise above it in such a manner as not to be accurately describable in exactly the same terms. Thus our movement forward seems also to have led us back to something like religion in the accepted sense, for we saw that the good towards which that seemed to move was the idea of one spiritual and perfect being. And we have seen too that religion in the wider sense, no less than religion in the accepted sense, although not quite in the same way, requires us to go beyond and modify our ordinary notions of the world, and even what is called our positive knowledge. Indeed, the idea of the infinite at which we have arrived requires us to suppose that nothing is in ultimate truth what it appears in those notions and that knowledge to be.

In our advance we have, here and there, considered theoretical difficulties—questions of truth; and we pointed to such difficulties in almost all the forms of religion we discussed. But our main inquiry was rather, ‘Will a given form satisfy the needs from which religion arises?’ And our main object was to make out what those needs are and what ideas would satisfy them. We started from that idea, the religious side, not from the purely intellectual question, ‘To what ideas are we driven by the desire to understand the world, to make our experience intelligible?’ And so now we may expect our supposed searcher for a creed to raise the question: ‘But are these notions we have reached true, or only something which, it seems, our religious impulses would like to be true but which the intellect cannot accept?’

Before attempting to say the little that is possible on this question, at least in the present course, or to develop further the view we have reached, it will be advisable to look more generally at the relation of truth and the needs of the intellect to religious ideas—to religious ideas in general, and not only to the particular ideas last reached. For though we for our special purpose may have been led to them in looking for something that would meet religious needs, they would more naturally be called philosophical ideas; whereas the great mass of religious ideas are not of this character, and have not come into being by the kind of process we have been passing through so rapidly. But we cannot dismiss them when we are trying to understand religion, though we may think principally of those which belong to its higher forms.

Religious ideas and beliefs, we saw long ago, form only one element in religion and have religious value only in combination with feeling and will. And the desire for truth, for the satisfaction of the intellect, we saw also, is by no means the main impulse which leads to religion. Yet it is natural, habitual, and at any rate in some degree necessary to religion in general to take its ideas to be true, and to feel that it itself is affected by any doubt thrown on their truth. ‘What I believe’, it instinctively says, ‘is not merely indispensable to me, it is the truth.’

Now on the question of truth, whatever the ideas or beliefs concerned may be, the intellect or reason sooner or later claims jurisdiction. It may for a long time be so entangled with other activities that it is unconscious, or only half-conscious, of its claim, yet even then implicitly it asserts it, gradually changing in some measure whatever offends itself; and in the end, when it comes to full consciousness of itself, it asserts its claim as absolute.

A man may value something else much more highly than theoretical truth or the satisfaction of his intellect, but what his intellect rejects he cannot take for true. He may hold that revelation tells him of something above reason, but whether he has any reason to hold this, reason claims to decide. He may resign his own reason to the authority of Scripture or the Church, but he first gives himself reasons for doing so. When the claim of the intellect is resisted, it itself is employed to resist the claim and in that employment is trusted. Even when the possibility of attaining truth, and so of satisfying reason, is denied, it is reason itself that makes the denial, and here at any rate asserts its supremacy. It is easy to call the claim of the intellect monstrous or arrogant, but it cannot help itself, it is simply following its nature, and where truth is concerned it is obliged by this nature to make an unconditional demand, just as conscience or the moral law must do so where right and wrong are concerned. And its claim is thus unconditional, it may turn out, because reason, like conscience, is an expression of the unconditional itself.

The intellect must decide what is true, because ‘true’ means, in the end, ‘what satisfies, or would satisfy, the intellect.’ It is only another name for that. To say it is true that the earth goes round the sun is to say that this idea is the only interpretation of certain matters of experience which does not produce intellectual discordance. To say that a historical statement is true is to say that the intellect, dealing with the available evidence, can find its own nature and its own self-consistency in this statement, but not in its opposite. To say that a philosophical idea or a theological dogma is a truth means strictly in the same way that it answers to the nature of the intellect, and the intellect can find itself in it. No doubt I may only partially understand it, but then that means really that it is only partially a truth to me. It does not collide with my intellect, but it is in part opaque to it—words, not meanings. I may then receive it, as we say, on authority, but it is I who receive it, not, properly speaking, the intellect in me: the intellect cannot receive on authority, it can do nothing but understand. Some of us, for example, so receive the higher mathematical truths; we believe them to be true; but, strictly speaking, they are not to us truths, for we do not understand them, cannot rethink them. We call them true because we have reason to believe that to intellects stronger and more developed than ours in that direction they are truths, are something intelligible and understood. If, again, something is offered for my acceptance which, instead of being only partially intelligible to me, contradicts my intellect, it cannot, strictly speaking, be truth to me at all. I may abstain from judging it false, and may even act upon it; but, if I am to judge of its truth, I must judge it to be untrue. Perhaps I may see reason to suspect that it is the faulty expression of some truth I cannot grasp, but, taken as it stands, I must still judge it to be untrue. And this is not a matter of modesty or arrogance. It is a matter of necessity, just as much as is my obligation practically to reject anything which the good will in me finds to be in contradiction with itself. If the intellect were to assume that it can make no mistake, that would certainly be exceedingly arrogant and foolish, but that is another matter.

When the intellect asserts its claim to judge of truth, some amount of conflict is likely, we may even say certain, to arise between it and any existing body of religious ideas. The source of this conflict we need not consider at present; but when it becomes acute, various attempts are made to compose it. The most radical of these are in effect proposals to annihilate one of the combatants. We have already met with two of them. There was the attempt to disconnect religious beliefs altogether from truth by regarding them as mere products of imagination which, though baseless, appeal to us. There was the opposite attempt to found religion simply on the scientific knowledge of part of the finite world. Both we found to be futile because powerless to satisfy the needs of religion, even if they were theoretically justifiable. But there are two other ways of escape which we had better consider before looking at the nature of religious ideas.

First, there is the appeal to feeling pure and simple. ‘Religion,’ it is said, ‘is really a matter of feeling: it is a mistake for it to attempt to be more, since in going on to make statements it inevitably gets into difficulties. We should rest in this feeling, resisting any temptation either to define it or to claim that it reveals any truth to us.’ Or again it is said, ‘There is nothing more certain in the world than the certainty of religious feeling or direct experience; it is far more certain than any result reached by the intellect in searching for truth. It needs no confirmation or justification from the intellect: nay, it guarantees, whatever the mere intellect may say, the truth of whatever ideas or beliefs are found in it or are implied in its existence. Religion is not made by the mere intellect, and it yields truths which the mere intellect could never reach and is incompetent to judge.’

(1) This is a proposal to dispense altogether with an intellectual element in religion. It does not merely mean that we should abstain from expressing religious feelings in statements for others; it means that we should not allow any ideas whatever to mingle with these feelings. We must not, for example, let ourselves regard the feeling as one caused by, or directed to, or connected with an object of worship, nor must we even form an idea of the way in which the religious feeling differs from other feelings. For the moment an idea is employed, the intellect will raise the question of truth.

Now there can be no doubt whatever that religion is a matter of feeling. If anyone said that he was religious and yet was wholly destitute of religious emotions, we should be sure that he was deceiving himself: and we may even say in one sense that feeling is the centre of religion. It is in feeling that we are most aware how much religion is to us, most conscious that it is ours our personal possession. For whatever I feel is emphatically mine, it is in me, while that which I perceive, imagine or think, seems for the moment to stand away from me. Thus for the religious man what he feels in religion has a peculiar certainty—the certainty, if I may so express it, of a bodily pleasure or pain; and although he may be fully convinced of the truth of some idea, yet it is only when this idea becomes (so far as that is possible) his own feeling, when he not only believes, for instance, that God is love, but feels this love in his own soul, that the truth—as he would say—is in the very centre of his being. Hence, though the part played by feeling in religion varies greatly and a man may be in a very real way religious, though for some reason (frequently a bodily one) he is unable to feel intensely, yet such a condition distresses him, and normally feeling forms in religion a kind of personal centre, out of which thoughts and acts of will issue, and into which they return to enrich it.

But what the view before us requires is something different from this: it is that religion should consist simply and solely in feeling. And that surely cannot be. For, in the first place, even if from time to time such a state occurs, even if, that is, occasionally we feel religiously though no religious idea is in our minds (a question I need not discuss), yet these feelings are in us and are religious only because we have had religious ideas in our minds. Let us suppose that a man suffers from a sense of sin, but that this feeling is unaccompanied by any idea of what sin is or what it is a sin against, still his vague sense of sin is not like a vague sense of physical discomfort; it is there because he has had ideas about himself and something from which he is alienated. And it is the same with any other vague religious feeling, whether painful or joyful. There is in fact no such thing as an immediate religious feeling, if that means a feeling not due to mediation through perceptions or ideas; what is now directly felt has none the less come indirectly into existence. And it is clear that this must be so. Religion, we may truly hold, I think, to be a priori in the mind. It could never be inserted simply from outside any more than reason could; but that cannot mean that it is born ready-made in a baby. It must grow up somehow with the general development of the mind, even if it is not intentionally fostered, and so it must be connected with ideas.

And, in the second place, if we try to imagine religious feelings neither now nor ever connected with perceptions or ideas—mere feelings—we shall find, I believe, that we cannot do it. How, in the absence of any sort of perception or idea, could they have, to the man who feels them, anything of the distinctive character indicated by the word ‘religious’? Could they have it even if, unknown to him, they were in fact caused by an operation of God on his feeling self? I cannot see how. If I try to imagine it, I find I am really imagining him as having, or having had, some religious idea as well as mere feelings. Hence Hegel seems to be right in holding that to base religion simply on feeling is to base it on something below the specifically human level. He has been much blamed for this, because he is supposed to be denying that there are religious feelings, or that feeling is in a sense the primary form in which religion appears. He did no such thing. What he meant was that if you take a feeling in which there is no implicit thought—no distinction in some way of a universal element and a particular, which becomes ultimately the distinction of the object and the subject in religion—you are taking something from which the specific human character is absent, something merely animal. And religion could not arise from that or be present in it.

In any case it seems clear that it is useless to try to escape conflict with the intellect by confining religion to the sphere of emotion, wholly unqualified by ideas. It may be worth while to note—(a) If you could find such religious emotions, they would either have to be wholly confined to the individual, or expressed merely in gestures, cries or music. Whether you could avoid intimating in these ways some intellectual content is questionable; but even so it would be hardly possible to unite a community, however small, by means of them. (b) Such a religion of mere emotion would involve great danger, and this is a remark which applies even to the tendency to lay stress on the emotional element in a religion which does contain ideas.

Let us consider the case, very interesting on its own account, where religious feelings are stirred by contact with nature or again by music—merely instrumental music, not music accompanied by religious language. Many people, who are religious, but who for intellectual reasons cannot find in any set of ideas an expression of their feelings, do find it in nature or again in music. It is to them an unspeakable blessing—for feeling totally unexpressed either torments us or dies away—and they get it without having to commit themselves to any doubtful statement. Now no one who has this experience in any degree will question its reality or its value. But, though no definite ideas may accompany the feelings here, they are due to a whole world of perceptions and ordered perceptions. And, again, the persons concerned have had definitely religious ideas; and it is very hard to believe that these have so utterly disappeared as to leave behind nothing of an intellectual kind, no ideas, for instance, of being separated from some ideal life that is longed for and of being somehow reunited with it. And, lastly, if you ask such persons what it is they feel in the presence of nature, or in hearing music, at the time when they feel religiously, you can detect the presence of ideas. What they feel, they will say at once, is inexpressible. And, in fact, no intense feeling is wholly expressible: but, if they must say something, they speak of perfect peace, or absolute harmony, or boundless power, or infinite pain or longing or struggle, or divine and infinite bliss or satisfaction of union—all of it immeasurably greater than their little selves and yet their very life. Now it is far from necessary that all this should come explicitly before the mind, but then it is somehow in the mind and it is what is felt, the content of the feeling, and what makes it religious. Hence people not affected religiously by nature or music do not understand this in others. Hence, again, if a person who does feel this unfortunately recognises that what he feels is at odds with his intellectual creed, he is in trouble at once and perhaps can no longer yield himself freely to his feelings. In that case this way of escape begins to close itself to him. But fortunately not many are so clear-sighted or have so imperious a need for intellectual consistency: and therefore nature and music do remain to some an avenue to the infinite, when all merely intellectual avenues are closed.

Such contact with the infinite is of immense value. Its obvious defects are that it is confined to a very few, for it depends on comparatively rare natural endowments; and that, again, the feelings concerned cannot be communicated so readily as ideas expressible in language, and so the social impulse in religion is imperfectly satisfied. But I need not develop this and will pass to a last point.

The view we are considering of confining religion to mere feeling is impracticable. It would be practicable on the other hand to urge that much greater weight should be given to feeling than to the other elements in the religious life; and, so far as this means that less weight should be given to the elaboration of beliefs, and does not mean either that all belief should disappear or that feeling should preponderate over the element of will, we may be ready to agree. But that this last should occur would be disastrous, and it must be remembered that religious emotion like any other emotion has its dangers.

There is such a thing as intemperance in regard to religious emotion, a gloating over it, a luxury of remorse, and a gluttony in the sense of salvation. To dwell on any emotion which does not lead straight to action tends to morbidity, and much intense religious feeling is morbid. Few things are more disgusting than religious sentimentality, and few more dreadful than religious mania and melancholy. Emotion, as we saw, is the form in which religion is most personally felt: what I feel is emphatically mine. That is its strength, and also its danger. For what is merely felt is merely mine, and to live for the sake of mere religious feeling is in the end one way of living for oneself. We may say of it what Bunyan says of the fall of poor Ignorance: ‘Then I saw that there was a way to Hell even from the gates of Heaven.’

(2) Let us pass to a second and now a more popular attempt to escape conflict. It is the appeal to religious experience. There is nothing more certain, it is said, than this experience. It is far more certain than any results the mere intellect can reach. It proves itself, and with itself the truth of whatever ideas are involved in it.

There is here, so far as I can see, a confusion of thought and therefore a mixture of truth and error. It is true that religious experience is in a sense an ultimate fact and proves itself: but that does not show that the truth of religious ideas can be decided by anything except the intellect.

Religious experience is in one sense an ultimate fact which the intellect has simply to accept. It is an unquestionable truth that this experience exists. How it ought ultimately to be described, or what, on the best view we can form of the world, it truly is, is a further question—the goal of inquiry but not the starting-point. The starting-point is the phenomenon, the psychological fact; and that, recalling our first lecture, we may roughly describe. It is the experience, on the one side, of my feared or felt separation from something conceived as beyond me, much greater than I am, superior to me in mode of existence and powerful over me; and, on the other side, the experience of the removal of that separation by my submission to, or union with, this something, a removal which gives me freedom and happiness. Or, more briefly, it is the experience of freedom from evil attained by willed union with a being which is free from evil. The existence of this experience is not a matter of reasonable doubt. It is just as certain that people go through it as that they see and hear, hate or love one another, find things beautiful, try to understand things. The intellect, then, dealing with this fact, must start from it and must recognise its character truly. And more, its theory of the fact, its attempt to account for it, must in a sense be tested by reference to the fact. It must show that it has accounted for this experience, and not for something else. If, for example, it arrives at the conclusion that the experience is, or contains, a psychological illusion, then it must give the psychology of the illusion, and not mere phrases about it. It must not simply say that the not-myself, which in religious experience I oppose to myself, is really only myself. If it does, I shall answer ‘You are simply ignoring the fact you have to explain. It is as plain as noonday that, psychologically at any rate, the notmyself and the myself, which you say are the same, are not so. They oppose one another, they unite and when united are still not simply one. If they are both myself, then that myself which is both is certainly not the same myself which is one of them. Give me an account of this fact, and do not put me off with words about its being all myself, as if you and I knew without any inquiry what this “myself” is. Call the whole by any name you like, but show me that you have faced the fact that somehow it divides itself and that the most intense suffering and joy arise from this division.’

Thus we see that the fact of religious experience is not only the starting-point of any theory about it, but must in one sense be the test of any such theory, just as poetic experience is the starting-point and test of any theory of poetry. But then with this we have by no means reached the conclusion that religious experience gives truths which vouch for themselves and are not amenable to the jurisdiction of the intellect. The fact is one thing, the interpretation of it, the decision what the fact really is, is something further. And that is the question of truth—the question by what set of ideas we can understand the fact in a way that is self-consistent and harmonises with the rest of our ideas. That set of ideas may turn out to be the very same set by which the subject of the experience interprets it to himself. But these latter ideas have no claim whatever to be taken as true forthwith, and, if in the result they turn out to be true, they will be true not at all because the worshipper held them, but because they satisfy the intellect which applies its test to them—in other words, because they prove to hold together, and also to be consistent with the best interpretation we are able to give to the rest of experience.

And the theory can never take the place of the experience. I point this out because one meets with the strange notion that theory—science or philosophy, for instance—might perhaps take the place of religion, or that the intellect in giving an account of religion is aiming at superseding it. But this is the merest confusion. The intellect may indirectly further religious experience by showing that it is rational; and it may indirectly weaken or perhaps make it impossible through the conviction that it is irrational; and it may change it by indirectly altering its intellectual element. But the intellectual element in religion—once more—is not religion but a mere element in it; and to talk of anything whatever taking the place of religion is as meaningless as to talk of intellect taking the place of feeling or will. A thing cannot take the place of another thing unless they are of the same kind.

Moreover, it avails nothing, we should distinctly realise, for the worshipper to appeal to the certainty his ideas have for him. This certainty is characteristic of almost all religious experience, and just for that reason it would prove, if it could prove anything, the equal truth of all religious ideas, or the equal reality of all the gods that ever were worshipped. That would be absurd. All that this certainty can do is to draw our attention again to the fact of religion and make us realise that we must not slur its essential feature, the distinction of the worshipper from something presented as not himself and yet certain to him. In the same way it is useless to urge that any ideas must be true which people with some experience found necessary to that experience. It is said, for instance, that one idea of the Divinity of Christ, or again of the Trinity, was essentially involved in the experience of Christians of a particular date, and that this experience, being unquestionable fact, guarantees the truth of the ideas involved in it.

But this argument again would prove the truth of well-nigh all the religious ideas that ever were; and, indeed, the truth of the ideas of religious insanity. It rests on a mere confusion of thought. No doubt, whatever ideas really are involved in the existence of that Christian experience, or indeed of any experience under the sun, religious or other, must be true; but the whole question is what these ideas are, and that can only be settled by trying what ideas will hold of the experience—that is, will account for it without clashing with the best account we can give of the rest of experience. Every man has a spatial experience, but if you want to know what space is, you do not ask the first man you meet and take his answer for gospel.

Again, it is said, ‘No idea reached by the intellect can be so certain as my own existence, and in religion I am just as certain of God's existence as of my own.’ Perhaps so, I will not question it: but consider in what sense I am certain of my own existence. In some sense assuredly I am. I could not deny it without thereby affirming it. A non-existence could not deny: to deny is to be, and it is the being of what denies. But what I am, what is to be understood by this word ‘I’ and this word ‘am’—that is far from being certain or self-evident. On the contrary, if I could answer that question, I could answer every other; and if I want to find the answer, it will be very foolish in me to accept the first obvious notions that come into my head or any other head.

In like manner it is certain that there is religious experience and that it means something, probably something important. But what it means, what the ‘I’ is that feels separated from and united with the object, and what the object, and what the separation and the union—all this can be ascertained, if at all, not by asking the subject of the experience how he interprets it, but by trying to find what interpretation will satisfy the intellect.1

It appears, then, that we cannot escape the possible conflict of religious ideas with the intellect by an appeal to feeling or to religious experience, though it is true that the intellect has got to account for that experience and not to explain it away. And so we have to face the fact that in the case of many of these ideas a conflict does arise; and, rightly or wrongly, they are held to contradict other knowledge or to contain inconsistencies.

What can be said on this subject in the present lecture and the next must be very fragmentary and cannot pretend to be more than suggestions; but they are more connected than possibly they may sound at first, and the connection may be more apparent if I state at once some of the conclusions to which they point. So stated they are, of course, no more than personal opinions and had better be put in that form.

I think, then, firstly, that in many religious ideas there are elements the origin of which is not, properly speaking, religious but of another kind, e.g. aesthetic or philosophical; and if these elements are modified or removed, the ideas do not really lose any religious value, though from association and custom they may seem to do so to persons who hold them. Secondly, as to the more purely religious ideas, I believe (i) that religion has its ultimate source in the presence or manifestation of the infinite in man, and that in this sense all religion may be called revelation; but (ii) that man's consciousness of this manifestation, or his idea of the infinite and his relation to it, varies greatly in adequacy or truth, being never wholly untrue and rarely, if ever, wholly true; and (iii) that its untruth arises largely from the fact that, being habitually conscious of the finite, he naturally tries to conceive the infinite through ideas properly only applicable to the finite. His religious ideas, accordingly, are apt both to contain self-contradictions and to collide with his knowledge of the finite as that advances. Thirdly, though this is so, they, or some of them, are in one sense more true than his knowledge of the finite, because at least they point to, or express imperfectly, truths which that knowledge does not even try to grasp. And, fourthly, I cannot see that for religion ultimate or absolute truth is a matter of prime importance. It is so for philosophy, but religion is an attempt at union with the infinite not mainly on the side of thought but mainly on the side of will, and perfectly true ideas are neither essential for that, nor is it essential to religion even to believe that its ideas are perfectly true.

And now, I will ask you to dismiss from your mind this confession of faith, and let me begin the discussion of the subject from a remote point. And I would ask those who study philosophy to understand that, for the sake of getting forward, I shall make some concessions to the adherent of positive knowledge which I do not believe ought in strictness to be made.

Let us begin by observing two different senses in which we may speak of a statement being true or a thing being real. And first let us take a simple statement about a fact of perception: ‘That tree there is green’ or ‘There is a green tree there’.

It is not necessary to ask what in the end we mean when we say that this statement is true or is untrue, or how we determine its truth or untruth. But we shall agree on this point: either there is a perceptible tree at the point indicated, or there is not; and, if there is, it is either green or not. And in the same way the tree is either real or not (there might, for example, be an hallucination), and so with the colour. There is, as to the truth of the statement and the reality of the object, a mere question of Yes or No, not a question of more or less. Here there is one sense of truth and reality.

But now let us take another sense. Let it be assumed that the tree you spoke of is a real tree; and its colour is green, and your statement about it is true in the sense assigned. But this truth is miserably insignificant; it may satisfy you as a mere percipient, but if you are more than that, you will want the tree to be much more than that green thing there: and to a botanist it is so. It is not a mere green tree but a particular kind of tree, with a definite structure and laws of its life and growth, and a place in the vegetable system, and so on. His idea of the tree is therefore a much more true idea than yours, and his tree is much more like the real tree than yours—in fact, the mere tree you perceive is, as he might say to you, nothing like the real tree.

Now evidently here ‘true’ and ‘real’ do not mean quite what they did before. For before, your statement was either simply true or false, and the tree of your perception simply real or not. But now your idea is said to have a very little truth, and your tree to be a long way from the reality, while the botanist's idea is much more true than yours, and his tree much nearer the real tree, and therefore more real than yours. Truth and reality here, then, are matters of degree; there may be a more and a less of them. A statement thus may be quite true within its own limited sphere; and yet, in the other sense of true, it may contain hardly any truth, and as compared with an ideally full statement may even be called untrue. And again the mere green tree of perception is in one sense quite real, but in the other so immeasurably distant from the whole reality that it would be absurd to call it real.2

Now why is the botanist's idea much more true (in this second sense) than yours, and his tree much more real than yours? Partly (and we will confine ourselves to that) because your tree is simply a particular thing that happens to catch your eye here and now, and of which ex hypothesi you know hardly anything; but his is the centre of a vast amount of knowledge about trees in general in all sorts of times and places, an example of a huge mass of existence on the face of the earth during hundreds of years, the focus or particularisation of all this reality. The tree is to him the sign of all that. It means all that, and this meaning belongs to the being of the tree—and in fact to the botanist, as botanist, it is the tree, for science cares nothing about the tree being this or that, here or there, at all. In the same way, what may be called the total scientific idea of the tree would be more true than the botanist's—so far as he was exclusively a botanist—and the tree of science would be more real than the botanist's tree, because it would be a focus, sign, or particularisation of all the reality, physical, chemical and what not, of which total science gives an account; in fact of all nature.

Would this scientific idea of a tree, then, be wholly true, or the whole truth, and would the tree of science be the real tree? Obviously not, for more than one reason. First because, even in its own sphere of nature, scientific knowledge is not and cannot be complete. But, secondly, and that is our point here, because even if it were complete, still nature, the object of natural science, is not the whole of being. There is much besides—for instance, science itself, the scientific mind; and, again, mind as moral, and mind as religious, and mind as aesthetic, and pain and pleasure, to go no further. And all this forms in some way part of the whole along with nature. Well, but no part of the whole can be what it is except in its place in the whole: in the end, to put it otherwise, the tree must be related to absolutely everything else that there is—or for that matter was and will be. The real tree, the only absolutely real tree, is the tree thus related, or the tree as a sign or particularisation of all reality; and the only perfectly true idea of the tree would be the idea of this—from which, by the way, it follows that there is only one perfectly true idea, that of this allinclusive infinite.

But, if so, how untrue must even the total scientific idea be, since it takes no notice whatever of the relation of the tree to anything but nature; and how ridiculously untrue must be your mere perceptive idea of the tree, which is confined to two or three impressions of shape and size and colour? Why, if the tree were experienced as what it really is, the perceptible tree and your perception of it—though they could not have totally vanished, for they are somehow in the whole—might well have suffered such an enormous change that you could not recognise them; and the tree of science and the scientific idea of the tree, the best so-called positive knowledge of it, though they would be less transformed, would certainly wear a very different appearance. And yet remember that, within your ridiculously narrow sphere of perception, what you saw was true; and so again, within the scientific sphere, what science maintains is true. So that an idea may in one sense be quite true and yet in another be absurdly inadequate and therefore untrue. And in this second sense it holds a place in a series of ideas, varying in truth or adequacy from the lowest degree to the highest.

Now let us try to move forward. The very marked inadequacy of perception and the inadequacy of science—less marked, but still there—lie in the fact that they take their object more or less in isolation from the whole. There is no reason why they should not, for it is not their business to arrive at ultimate truth or reality, nor would their particular aim be furthered by inquiries into that. Science therefore ignores the further relations of her object to other aspects or parts of the whole—those that are ‘mental’ or ‘spiritual’. And she is doubtless right. Only, doing so, she certainly cannot know anything whatever as it really is, in the ultimate sense of reality, for that means as it is in the whole. Now that is what philosophy would like to know. It is an attempt to diminish the isolation in which things are viewed by what is called positive knowledge, and more, to see them as far as may be from the point of view of the whole. And again religion in its higher forms takes, in another way, the point of view of the whole. It is the effort of a part to put itself into a certain practical relation with the principle of the whole; and that effort implies some sort of idea or belief about the whole or this principle. And so, whatever defect there may be in this idea or belief, it is at least an attempt to see more truly and get nearer to reality than we can succeed in doing by our ordinary ideas, and even our scientific ideas. Its defects therefore would be of quite a different kind from those of the ideas we use every day or again in science.

This will also be true of poetry. And the example of poetry may perhaps help us on our way; for, though there are great differences, there is evidently a likeness at certain points between it and religion. Thus, in some religions, a tree is believed to be the dwelling or embodiment of a spirit, and that is also the way in which poetry sometimes regards a tree. Or let us take the example of the wind. We speak of the wind's wailing. Shelley speaks of it as wailing for the world's wrong, the suffering of the world: it is the voice of the suffering world. Well, is that a true idea, and is this wind of poetry the real wind? A devotee of poetry might perhaps answer thus:—‘At any rate the poetic idea is much more true, and the wind of poetry much more real, than the ordinary or even the scientific idea and wind. For poetry does not consider the object in isolation from everything except nature. It is higher in that sense, and it shows itself to be so here. The human wrong and suffering in the world is just as much a fact as the movement of the air, and it is a much more important fact. And the movement of the air, the wind of science, is most certainly somehow related in the whole to this fact, though science ignores this relation. The real wind is the wind in all its relations. It shows but a miserable fragment of its being to perception, a larger amount to science, but much more to poetry. And so it is everywhere. The men in poetry are not less real than what you call real men, but more real. There is more of humanity in Hamlet than there can possibly be in what you call a real man. Science may say that poetry is not true, but the fact is it is too true to be what science calls true.’

What shall we say to this answer, we who are more or less in the position of philosophy and want the whole truth? We shall sympathise with it, probably, but we must answer, it would seem, thus:—

‘Granting in a sense all you say, you must still take care not to carry your poetic truth into the sphere of perception or the sphere of science, and not to assert that the wind they talk about wails for the world's wrong. Granted that they take their object in artificial isolation, still they do so take it, and your poetic assertions are simply not true of the object so taken. Every sphere has its conventions, if you like to call them so, and if you talk about objects within that sphere you must respect the conventions.

‘And, secondly, your own sphere, though it may be higher and truer than theirs, is still not final. Your poetic wind is not the real wind, and that is shown by the fact that what poetry says does not satisfy the intellect. It is not finally true, it is an indication or symbol of some truth which it does not fully express. That is no defect from the point of view of poetry, but it is a defect from the point of view of philosophy. Poetry brings the wind and human suffering into relation, and it does well; but, in so doing, it forces into direct connection with one another two aspects of the whole which the intellect can see to be connected in no such manner, but indirectly through a long series of links. The intellect wants to see that mediated connection; for truth means that. Perhaps its want cannot be satisfied, but in any case the poetic way of putting the matter cannot satisfy it. On the contrary, if the intellect tried to accept it as it stands, it would introduce confusion and contradiction into its interpretation of the world. And the beautiful pictures which poetry offers it, cannot make good this defect. It does not want pictures, which always half-conceal as well as half-reveal the thought in them: the intellect wants this thought.’

Let us state our result in more general terms. The poetic view of nature is obviously different from the views both of common-sense and of science: and according to them it is untrue. If we ask why it is untrue, the answer would be that the poet attributes to nature what belongs not to it but to the mind; such as emotions of sadness or joy due to experience of human life. The reply to this might be:—‘If you are going to take that line, you cannot stop at the denial of truth to the poetic view. You must go on to deny, first, that nature has any sort or kind of beauty; and, then, that it has any secondary quality—colour, sound, odour, tangibility; for apart from sense-organs and sensibility these cannot be. And when you have deprived nature of all perceptible quality and have reduced it to a matter and motion which cannot be perceived but can only be thought, you will have to ask what, in abstraction from this thought, nature in itself can possibly mean, and whether you are not pursuing a phantom. Is not this whole method of reduction in fact an error? Is not the nature that is mere matter and motion further from the real nature, and the sensible nature something a good deal nearer to that, and the nature of poetry much nearer to it still, and the real nature something which includes that and goes much beyond it—something which poetry is not able to represent, but still represents a thousand times more truly than common-sense or even science.’

This we might say; but we need not press this line of argument. The line taken before points the same way. Whatever is, is what it really is only in the whole and in its relation to everything else in the whole. And therefore the nature of common-sense and again of science is not this real nature, but a piece of it or an aspect of it, taken in abstraction from the rest, while the nature of poetry (though it may be otherwise defective) is on this side far more like the real nature.

But then on the other hand, we must say to poetry:—‘Your view of nature is certainly far more true than these abstract views. They are, however, not only perfectly legitimate for certain purposes; but these purposes are essential, essential to man's life and, more, to any complete view of nature, for that would unite the common-sense view and the scientific view and yours, with further elements, in a higher harmony. And within any one of these views nature has a definite meaning. You must not therefore apply what is true of your nature to the nature of common-sense or of science: for it is not true of that, and they are perfectly right in repudiating it. Science will say to you,: “Do you mean to assert that the world's wrong makes the slightest difference to this movement of the air, makes it slower or quicker or change its direction?” And if you make the mistake of answering “Yes”, science will answer—“That is untrue. I can account for the movement, and rate, and direction, quite apart from the world's wrong; and if I were to admit that they are modified by any causes but those I can verify I should be powerless to arrive at any conclusion—there would be no knowledge of nature at all, and we should be back in the helpless fancyworld of savages.” So science would say, and philosophy would endorse its reply. It would urge poetry not to confuse the spheres and to convert the truth that there is a relation between the movement of the air and the world's wrong into the error that the latter causally affects the former. And you must also recognise that your nature, though nearer the real nature than theirs, is still short of it. It has doubtless all the qualities you attribute to it, but it has them, as you attribute them, only under certain conditions, viz. the action of a certain kind of imagination; and, in its ultimate reality, we can see it cannot have them quite in that way, for if we attempt so to conceive it, we find that contradictions arise. They are not so extreme as those that arise if we try to take the nature of common-sense or of science as ultimate, but still there they are: and what contradicts itself cannot be ultimate truth or reality. And in the end they come from one source, the endeavour lo picture or see in forms of imagination what refuses to express itself completely in such forms, and what therefore is indicated, figured, or symbolised by them but not adequately expressed.’

  • 1.

    There is a certain sense in which the idea of God may be said to prove itself, but that can be considered later.

  • 2.

    Thus we have two distinct senses of truth. It is quite true that the tree as an object of perception is green. But this green tree, the mere object of perception, is very far from being the tree seen truly; or your perception of it is very far from being the truth. Or, otherwise, within the sphere of perception it is quite true that the tree is green; or again, the perceptible tree is green. But the sphere of perception itself is exceedingly narrow and inadequate, and the perceptible tree is an immense distance from being the whole or real tree.

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