Comparative Study of Religious Problems.
The Problem of Creation.
WHEN we study the same problem first in the heated controversies of our own time and then look at it from a more elevated position which allows us to watch its historical progress in all its varying aspects it seems often difficult to believe that the problem is really the same. And yet if history teaches us anything it teaches us that there is continuity in the growth of thought as in the growth of language.
Let us look at the problem of creation. The question which the Vedic poet asked (X. 31 7) when he said ‘What was the forest what was the tree from which they hewed heaven and earth’ is in reality the same question which we ask to-day and which has received ever so many answers from century to century and will receive as many more so long as heaven and earth remain. It is true these early questioners would hardly understand our language if we tried to put them off with the nebular theories of Kant and Laplace with Lyall's explanation of the formation of the crust of the earth or with Huxley's account of the transition of inorganic into organic protoplasm. But what they were in search of was after all the same and what they called wood out of which heaven and earth were hewn was but another name for ὕλη wood materies wood then material and matter something behind or antecedent to the phenomenal world as it appears before our eyes.
The Logic of Facts.
It is sometimes quite startling after we have tried to unravel the subtle webs of philosophy such as the so-called Cosmological Ontological and Teleological proofs of the existence of a supreme deity to have to face the question what the earliest searchers after God would have said to these arguments. They would hardly have comprehended the language in which they present themselves now and if we tried ourselves to translate them for instance into Vedic Sanskrit we should completely fail. And yet we are the descendants of those Vedic poets their language is essentially our language their thoughts are essentially our thoughts the world we live in is much the same as their Aryan home and whatever discoveries have been made in other branches of knowledge no new facts have been discovered since their time to help us to solve that old and yet always new question whether there is an author of the Universe whether there is a Creator and a God.
That the three famous arguments the Cosmological the Ontological and the Teleological have collapsed before the tribunal of formal logic may be admitted. But it has been truly said that ‘as an analysis of the unconscious or implicit logic of religion as tracing the steps of the process by which the human spirit rises to the knowledge of God and finds therein the fulfillment of its own highest nature these proofs possess great value.’ We must not imagine that belief in God is founded on a subtle syllogism. Besides the logic of the philosopher there is a logic of facts or a logic of history and where can we find these facts and where can we find the steps of that process by which the human mind rose gradually and irresistibly to the knowledge of God if not in the history of religions?
The cosmological argument or the argument a contingentiâ mundi may be summed up in the language of the nineteenth century in the following words: ‘The human mind rises from the perception of the transitory contingent finite character of the world to the notion of an absolutely necessary or infinite Being.’
It is clear that language like this would be as much beyond the comprehension of an Aryan savage as it is beyond the comprehension of a child in the nursery and as a matter of fact even of the majority of mankind at the present day.
But we must reckon in all these questions with those very Aryan savages. They began the work which we are continuing and there has been no break between them and ourselves for the chain of language that is of thought is perfect in all its links from Sanskrit to English. From the very annals of language it has been possible to put together some kind of picture of the earliest period of Aryan life. And even in that earliest period we find names for a Heaven-father for bright and heavenly beings nay even if you remember for faith.
But for that very reason this period of Aryan language and thought has been rejected as quite modern and a very different picture of the true Aryan savage has been painted for us by Professor Huxley. In his ‘Struggle for Existence: a Programme’ he tells us: ‘In the cycle of phenomena presented by the life of man the animal no more moral end is discernible than in that presented by the lives of the wolf and of the deer. However imperfect the relics of prehistoric man may be the evidence which they afford clearly tends to the conclusion that for thousands and thousands of years before the origin of the oldest known civilisations men were savages of a very low type. They strove with their enemies and their competitors; they preyed upon things weaker or less cunning than themselves; they were born multiplied without stint and died for thousands of generations alongside the mammoth the urus the lion and the hyena whose lives were spent in the same way; and they were no more to be praised or blamed on moral grounds than their less erect and more hairy compatriots. As among these so among primitive men the weakest and stupidest went to the wall while the toughest and shrewdest those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances but not the best in any other sense survived. Life was a continual free fight and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence. The human species like others plashed and floundered amid the general stream of evolution keeping its head above water as it best might and thinking neither of whence or whither.’
Though this graphic picture of the state of mankind thousands of generations ago rests chiefly on inductive imagination I am quite willing to accept it. The greater the savagery the dulness the stupidity with which Homo sapiens began the greater the marvel at what must have been from the first though undeveloped in him and made him in the end what we find him to be in the men of light and leading of our own age. For whether he asked his Whence or Whither while browsing as yet on the lichens of glacial fields with his less erect compatriots the mammoth the urus the lion and the hyena or whether that question was first asked during a postglacial period certain it is that he alone asked it and that he alone tried to answer it in the end by what we call the cosmological argument.
That very question may be illogical and every attempt to answer it still more illogical. But why will people not see that the mere fact of such a question being asked and being asked at a time when as yet there was no Bible no creed no dogma is something that ought to make us reflect. Why did man alone among all his hairy compatriots ask that question Whence? Why was he surprised when no one else was? Why was he not satisfied with the fulness of life and enjoyment like his fellow-creatures the mammoth the urus the lion and the hyena? Can we ever imagine a mammoth saying to himself Who is my father? Who was my grandfather my great-grandfather my great-great-grandfather the father of all fathers our Father in heaven? Can we imagine even the most favoured specimen of the so-called Pithecanthropos the ape-man uttering the question Whence comes this world? Yet in the earliest relics of ancient thought in the hymns of the Rig-veda that question is asked. I cannot enter here on the question bow far the hymns of the Rig-veda are modern or ancient. Let them be as modern as you like yet to the historian they represent the earliest human thought within his reach. In that Rig-veda then and I am quite willing to admit in a hymn which compared with others strikes me as decidedly more modern the poet asks:
‘Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here Whence whence this manifold creation sprang?’
That it sprang from somewhere or as we should say that it was contingent on something non-contingent is taken for granted. There is as yet no cosmological argument. But yet the question is there and to my mind that question is far more important than all its answers. It is in that question in the power of asking that question that the true nerve of the cosmological argument lies. Man is so made that he cannot be satisfied with mere perceptions but must proceed to ask whence they come. Philosophers may tell us that it is a very foolish and illogical question to ask; but it is not the fault of the nightingale that it sings nor is it the fault of man that he asks Whence? There is no power on earth to stop that question not even the power of logic. The answers themselves as I said before are far less important but they are interesting nevertheless as showing us the historical development of the human mind when brought face to face with that Whence?
Answers to the cosmological Question.
Every kind of answer more or less childish to our mind was given to that question in India in China in Palestine and in Greece; and what is important some of the earliest answers did not suggest creation by a personal creator but something very like what is now called evolution. In India as in Greece water was at first guessed to have been the beginning of all things then fire and heat and every kind of element but not yet a creator. Sometimes fire is placed first as by Heraclitus afterwards water and then the earth and the wind. We see here again that what is often supposed to be a very modern is in reality a very ancient theory of the origin of the world the theory of emanation closely connected with the theory of evolution.
We can study it in its appearance and reappearance from century to century.
In the hymns of the Rig-veda the two ideas of an uncreated and self-developing world and of a creator or a maker run side by side.
We find the first traces of a maker or creator in the Vedic deity called Tvashtar the carpenter τέκτων then the maker who is described as a clever workman (apasâm apastamah X. 53 9) having good hands (supâni III. 54 12 sugabhasti VI. 49 9); and even as a smith forging the thunder-bolt for Indra (I. 32 2). But he is also the maker of the world and of all creatures in it. Thus we read Rv. III. 55 19:
Devas tvashtâ savitâ visvarûpah
Puposha pragâh purudhâ gagâna
Imâ ka visvâ bhuvanâni asya
‘The god Tvashtar the enlivener endowed with many forms has nourished the creatures and produced them in many ways; all these worlds are his.’
And again Vâg. Samh. XXIX. 9:
Tvashtâ idam visvam bhuvanam gagâna
‘Tvashtar has begotten this whole world.’
Another god who is often put prominently forward as the maker of the world is Visvakarman literally the All-maker who is afterwards called Pragâpati lord of creatures (Sat. Br. VIII. 2 1 10). Of him we read Rv. X. 81 2:
‘What was the stand on which he rested how was it and where from whence the all-seeing Visvakarman creating the earth disclosed the sky by his power?’
‘The god who has eyes on every side and a face on every side and arms on every side and feet on every side when he creates heaven and earth being alone he forges them with his arms and with wings (used as bellows).’
‘What was the wood what was the tree whence they fashioned heaven and earth? Search O sages in your mind for that on which he stood when establishing the worlds.’
Soon however the thought appears that all these questions are of no avail and that no one can discover the secret of creation. Thus the poet of this very hymn finishes by saying:
‘You will not know him who produced these worlds; something else is within you; the chanters of hymns move about enveloped in mist talking vaguely and enjoying life.’
Emanation or Srishti.
There is however a second stream of ideas which likewise comes to the surface in the Veda. The world is spoken of as having been originally water without light (salilam apraketam) and very soon water is mentioned as the beginning of all things. But in this very same hymn (X. 129) the poet admits that no one knows and no one can declare whence this creation sprang. The gods even came after it and he who is called the seer in the highest heaven even he may know or he may not know.
The very word which we generally translate by creation teaches us a lesson. It is visrishti and comes from a root srig which means simply to let out so that visrishti comes much nearer to emanation or even evolution than to creation.
The idea that water was the beginning of the world became soon very popular. It is said in the Rig-veda ‘the waters contained a germ from which everything else sprang forth’ (Rv. X. 82 5–6; X. 121 7).
In the Brâhmanas we find it plainly stated that this (universe) was in the beginning water ‘Âpo ha vâ idam agre salilam âsa.’ From the water arose a golden egg which floated about for a year. Then a male arose and this was Pragâpati the lord of creatures. He divided the golden egg and floated about in it for another year. He then spoke those words bhûr bhuvah and svar and by them he created the earth the firmament and the sky. This golden egg too became a very favourite topic. Thus we read in the Khândogya-Upanishad III. 19: ‘In the beginning this was not. It became it grew. I turned into an egg. The egg lay for the time of a year. It broke open. The two halves were one of silver the other of gold.
‘The silver one became this earth the golden one the sky the thick membrane (of the white) the mountains the thin membrane (of the yoke) the mist with the clouds the small veins the rivers the fluid the sea.
‘And what was born from it was the sun. When he was born shouts of hurrah arose and all beings arose and all things which they desired. Therefore whenever the sun rises and sets shouts of hurrah arise and all beings arise and all things which they desire.’
The idea of the world beginning as an egg is so natural that we cannot be surprised when we meet with it again and again in different parts of the world where historical communication seems out of the question. We read in the famous Finnish epic the Kalevala:
‘From the lower half of the egg
Shall arise the roof of the earth
From the upper half of the egg
The high heaven shall arise.
The white that is in the egg
Shall shine bright in the sky;
The yellow that is in the egg
Shall beam softly as moon in the sky;
From the other parts of the egg
Stars may come in the sky.’
Some scholars suppose that the Fins borrowed this idea from their Slavonic neighbours especially the Lituanians but Castrén accepts it as of Finnish origin.
If we turn to Egypt we find that there also the sun is represented as an egg. Râ the sun-god is invoked: ‘O Râ in thine egg radiant in thy disk shining forth from the horizon swimming over the steel firmament—thou who producest the winds by the flames of thy mouth and who enlightenest the world with thy splendours save the departed’ etc.
In the Orphic mythology the mundane egg is frequently mentioned but from what sources the Orphic poets took their ideas is as yet very doubtful.
The Brâhmanas are overflowing with similar speculations all mere guesses at truth it is true but all flowing from the same conviction that the phenomenal world is not the real world or at all events that behind what we see and know there is something which we do not see and which we do not know that there is something real behind the contingent. In the beginning the Brâhmanas say there was the real the sat that which truly is and from it came all that now is or seems to be. Here we see the root of the cosmological argument; and the whole history of religious thought thus running in that self-made channel seems to me stronger than any elaborate argument. It may be quite true as Kant holds that the category of causality is applicable to the deliverances of the senses only and that therefore we cannot logically prove the existence of an extra-mundane cause. But if the human mind has once formed the concept of phenomena and of a phenomenal world that very word and concept implies the admission of something non-phenomenal by whatever name we like to call it. If there were no phenomena at all if the world had not been seen through and found out to be transparent then the case would be different and Kant would be right in his demolition of the cosmological argument; but so long as we speak of the phenomenal as Kant does himself we speak at the same time of the non-phenomenal. It is this non-phenomenal or trans-phenomenal which the cosmological argument postulates and has postulated through all ages; and it is this postulate this craving for something more real than this so-called real world which in itself is more convincing to me than any subtle argumentation in support of what is called the First Cause of all causes. Ask yourselves Can you imagine the craving of hunger in nature unless there was something in nature to satisfy that hunger? I go even further and ask Can you imagine an eye without light or an ear without sound? Neither can we imagine this craving for the Unseen the Unheard the Unperceived or the Infinite unless there was something to satisfy that craving if only we look for it where alone it can be found.
As soon as this non-phenomenal is represented in the likeness of man—and man knows nothing better in the whole world and in his whole mind than man—the teleological argument comes in by itself. The author and creator of the universe if once conceived cannot be conceived except as a wise being or per viam eminentiae as the wisest being and man claims the right to look for his wisdom in his works. Thus one of the Vedic poets exclaims VII. 86 1:
‘Wise and mighty are the works of him who stemmed asunder the wide firmaments (heaven and earth). He lifted on high the bright and glorious heaven; he stretched out apart the starry sky and the earth.’
It may be said that the existence of a creator has not been proved and that therefore it is folly to predicate anything of him or of his works. I do not deny this I only assert as an historical fact whatever that may be worth that if once the phenomenal and the non-phenomenal had been conceived man being what he is was constrained and in that sense justified in conceiving the author of both under the form of the best he knew that is under the form of man or anthropomorphically.
Man may know that anthropomorphism is wrong in the abstract but it cannot be wrong for man for it is after all the best that being what he is he can conceive. If he could imagine or conceive anything better than man naturally the anthropomorphic conception or at least some parts of it would go. But unless it was possible to conceive anything wiser than wise or better than good the author and creator would always to human beings retain these human qualities and his work the phenomenal world would necessarily be scanned for proofs of his purposes and his wisdom.
This is the teleological argument in its most rudimentary form.
As to the ontological argument we may discover traces of this also in the earliest speculations of Indian sages. We saw how they simply state: ‘In the beginning this (world) was existent one only without a second.’ But they add: ‘Others say in the beginning this world was non-existent and from the non-existent the existent was born.’ After these two alternatives follows an argument which though it differs from the ontological in its present form contains nevertheless the true germ of it: ‘How could that which is be born of that which is not?’ This is the question asked by the author of the Brâhmana and the very question supplies the answer It could not.
This may seem a very crude form in which to state the ontological argument but it is its very crudeness that makes it instructive. I hope I shall not be understood as if I thought any of these crude attempts at solving the great problems of the world supplied a real solution of them. History cannot replace philosophy but it can assist it it can serve as the best preparation for it.
It is quite true that the fact that the great portion of the human race believed in a creator does in no way establish the existence of a creator. I am not even certain that we should find that the majority of the human race shared in the belief in a creator that is to say a maker such as a carpenter or a potter. We know that the Buddhists whose number is considerable reject the idea of a creator or at all events do not either assert or deny it. They adduce very good reasons for this abstinence our incompetence to know anything beyond what comes to us first through the senses—the very argument repeated by Kant; and secondly the imperfection of the world which ought to restrain us from ascribing its workmanship to a perfect being. In other countries too the idea of a creation was sternly rejected as for instance by Heraclitus who declares that no god and no man made this world but that it was always and is and will be an eternal fire assuming forms and destroying them. And this protest it should be remembered came from a man who was able to say with equal honesty that ‘God is day and night winter and summer war and peace satiety and hunger—and that be is called according to the pleasure of every one.’ What I wish to put clearly before you is that neither the assertion of creation by certain Semitic authorities nor the denial of creation by certain Aryan authorities could possibly settle that question in one way or the other.
All I wish to show is that an historical study of the theory of creation and of the reasons for which it was either held or rejected in different countries and in different ages is the best preparation nay an indispensable preparation before we approach the solution of the problem itself if indeed it admits of any solution at the hand of created beings.
Astronomers study the Ptolemaic before they approach the Copernican system and they become most firmly convinced of the truth of the latter after they have themselves discovered the flaws inherent in the former system.
Origin of the idea of cause.
We can see how at a very early period in the growth of the human mind the idea of a father of a maker and fashioner of the world was inevitable and it is equally inevitable at the present day with large classes of people whose mind has not yet risen beyond the level of those early sages. They speak a language of their own and with them father or maker expresses all they have to express.
The ideas which an honest peasant connects with the fatherhood of God do not differ much from what the natives of California declared in their simple language when asked as to their faith in any higher powers. ‘Their God’ they declared ‘had neither father nor mother and his origin was quite unknown. But he is present everywhere he sees everything even at midnight though himself invisible to human eyes. He is the friend of all good people and punishes the evil-doers.’
If our metaphysicians define God as Causa sui do they say much more than what the Californians meant when they said that their God had neither father nor mother? or what the Vedic poets meant when they spoke of one who was the father of the father?
It will hardly believed that these Californians with a creed to my mind more perfect than that of most nations are classed by Sir John Lubbock among the races without any religion.
At a later time when the human intellect had reached a higher stage it was no doubt inevitable that many characteristics of father and maker should have to be eliminated in order to make room for the higher concept of an author of the world. Nay the time would come when a thinker like Heraclitus would revolt against the very idea of a manufacturer of the world and would assert that none of the beings who were then called gods could have performed so stupendous a work. This idea of any being manufacturing the world as a potter on his wheel became so repugnant to more enlightened minds that Buddha as we saw declared it irreverent even to ask that question much more to attempt to answer it.
And if we turn our eyes away from that Indian sage who became the founder of one of the great religions of the world and ask what Des Cartes the founder of modern philosophy has to say on the same subject we find a wonderful similarity of thought in spite of great diversity of expression. ‘Knowing as I do’ he writes ‘that my nature is extremely weak and limited while that of God is immeasurable incomprehensible and infinite I have no difficulty in acknowledging that he has command of an infinitude of things of which my mind cannot compass the causes; and this alone suffices to convince me that the whole class of causes supplied by the end in view is useless in regard to natural things; for it seems to me it would be rash in me to investigate and undertake to recover the impenetrable ends of God’
If we watch these changes of thought among men anxious for truth and for truth only we learn at all events to approach this question in a calm and perfectly judicial spirit. We are not carried away into mere denunciation but are inclined to listen with equanimity both to those who assert and to those who deny the theory of creation in the ordinary sense of that word.
Religions without a Creator.
Unless it were known that some of the lowest as well as some of the highest races the Negroes of Africa for instance and the Buddhists of Ceylon either ignored or rejected the idea of creation altogether and yet possessed religions of great efficacy and extreme subtlety we should doubt whether religion was even possible without a belief in a Creator. But it is a fact that the very denial of a creating God arose in many cases from a too exalted conception of the deity whether on moral or philosophical grounds. From a moral point of view it has been asserted again and again that so imperfect a world as this ought not to be looked upon as the work of a perfect Being; while from a philosophical point of view it has been urged that a belief in a Creator would involve a belief that there was a time when there was a divine cause but no effect.
The denial of a Creator therefore so far from being necessarily anti-religious may be traced back to religion itself that is to a feeling that shrinks from assigning to a Supreme Being anything unworthy of it or contradicting its essential attributes.
The Theory of Evolution.
If this had been clearly seen and if our modern philosophers had learnt from history that a man who does not admit a creator is not ipso facto an atheist a controversy which in England at least has of late excited the most passionate heat might have been carried on with perfect scientific composure—I allude of course to the theory evolution as received by Darwin. It was disheartening to hear the followers of Darwin stigmatised as atheists because they rejected the theory of a Creator in the ordinary acceptation of that word. It was equally painful to see the opponents of Darwin's theories; treated as mere bigots because if they did not accept the theory of evolution they must believe in the account of creation as given in Genesis. Is there no room left then in our modern schools of philosophy for men like Descartes?
It was owing to a want of what I should like to call ‘historical preparedness’ that all this unseemly squabbling about evolution was stirred up. In Germany the idea of evolution had so completely pervaded the popular literature and become so familiar to every thinking man that I was as much surprised at the excitement caused by the ‘Origin of Species’ as by the ferment stirred up by ‘Essays and Reviews.’ Darwin's book ushered in a new intellectual spring but it produced no cataclysm in the world of science.
As however we have lately been told again after it seemed that the principal disputants had become more reasonable that Darwin's theory of evolution forms a kind of deluge dividing ante-diluvian from post-diluvian science a few remarks on the real history and meaning of evolution may not be out of place at the point which we have reached in our own argument. We want to establish the advantages which the Historical has over the Theoretic Method whether in the Science of Religion or in every other department of human knowledge. Let us see then what advantages it would have conferred if it had been adopted by the principal disputants in the Darwinian controversy.
Meaning of Evolution.
Let us first of all see clearly what this word evolution really means if applied to nature or to anything else.
Evolution is really the same as history if we take it in its objective sense. Subjectively history (ἰστορία) meant originally inquiry or a desire to know; it then came to mean knowledge obtained by inquiry; and lastly in a purely objective sense the objects of such knowledge.
Natural History was originally an inquiry about nature (ἡ πϵρὶ ϕύσϵως ἱστορία); then knowledge of nature while we now use Natural History in the sense of the facts of nature. The same with political history. It meant at first an inquiry into political events then a knowledge and likewise a coherent account of such events and lastly these political events themselves as known by historians and philosophers.
History however if it is worthy of its name is more than a mere acquaintance with facts and dates. It is the study of a continuous process in the events of the world the discovery of cause and effect and in the end of a law that holds the world together. Apply this historical study to nature and try to discover in it an uninterrupted succession of cause and effect a continuity which holds the whole of nature together; and what is this but what is now called evolution? Evolution if only properly understood has always seemed to me a very old friend; it is history or what used to be called pragmatic history under a new name. What used to be called the history of language is now called its evolution. What used to be studied under the name of the history of law and religion is now presented to us as the evolution of law and religion. Suppose there were no evolution in language in law or in religion would there be a history? Would they admit of any scientific treatment at all? Nay is not evolution if we look at it sharply nothing but an alias for causality in all our experience and in the end from Kant's point of view a necessity inherent in all rational thought? ‘Entwickelung is a very old word in German and seemed very harmless but when it appeared in its English disguise as evolution it was supposed to portend revolution and all that is terrible and destructive. I can understand a man not believing in gravitation but a rational being denying evolution in its true sense ceases ipso facto to be a rational being.
Darwin admits a Creator.
We saw that with regard to the origin of the world evolutionary theories were much older than any others. And yet when Darwin and others brought forward their accumulated knowledge in support of what may almost be called the primeval theory of evolution the outcry against it became so overwhelming that even Darwin himself seems to have been frightened and glad to avail himself as be tells us of the support of an eminent theologian.
Darwin writes: ‘I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one…A celebrated author and divine has written to me that he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms as to believe that he organised a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of his laws.’
Herder the precursor of Darwin.
Darwin has often been blamed by his disciples for what they consider a ‘timid concession to the prejudices of theologians’ and yet there are theologians to whom even that concession does not seem to go far enough—so well are they acquainted as they imagine with ‘the impenetrable ends of God.’
I do not know who that celebrated author and divine may have been but Darwin if he had been better acquainted with the history of philosophy during the last century ought to have known a most celebrated author and divine the friend of Goethe and Schiller and Kant who not only gave the sanction of his office which was as high as that of any bishop in England to the theory of evolution but worked it out himself in so comprehensive a spirit and at the same time in so much detail that in reading his books we seem to be reading an edition of Darwin only published a hundred years ago. I am speaking of Herder who was the head of the church in Saxe-Weimar and at the same time one of the greatest philosophers and writers that Germany has ever produced. He was born in the same year as Lamarck 1744 and died in 1803 Lamarck in 1829. I must read you a few extracts from his Ideen zur Philosophie der Menschheit (1784) in order to show you that I am by no means exaggerating when I call Herder the Darwin of the eighteenth century.
Herder traces the process of evolution from inorganic to organic nature from the crystal through plants and animals to man the younger brother of the animals as be calls him. ‘From stone to crystal’ he writes ‘from crystal to metals from metals to the creation of plants from plants to animals and from these to man we see the form of organisation rising higher and higher and with it the forces and impulses of the creature becoming differentiated till all that can be comprehended in one became united in the human form. With man the series stops; we know of no creature above him more complex and perfect in its organisation. Man seems to be the highest form which an earth-organism can reach.’
When Herder touches the problem of the beginning of life he allows himself some poetic licence. ‘In the sight of the eternal Being’ he writes ‘the shape of a small particle of ice as it forms itself and of a flake of snow on its surface has some analogous relationship to the formation of the embryo.’ (p. 49.)
‘The plant is a higher kind of organisation than all formations of the earth and the kingdom of plants has so wide an extension that it loses itself in those formations and on the other hand approaches the animal kingdom in several of its germs and varieties. The plant possesses a kind of life and stages of life it has sex fructification birth and death. The surface of the earth was ready for it before it was ready for animals and men. The plant pushes forward before them and with its grasses mildew and mosses clings to those barren rocks which have not yet been trodden by the foot of any living thing.’
Herder then traces the transition from plants to plant-animals. ‘The nutritive organs’ he says (p. 63) ‘are already separated in them; they have something analogous to animal sensation and voluntary motion; but their principal organic power is still nutrition and propagation.’ He then proceeds to molluscs insects cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals and points to the elements in which they live or what is sometimes alled their environment as a determining cause of their peculiar organisation. ‘The bird’ he says (p. 51) ‘flies in the air; every deviation of its form from that of terrestrial animals can be accounted for by its element. As soon as it touches the earth again even if only in some monstrous intermediate form as in bats and vampires it assimilates itself to the human skeleton. The fish swimming in the water has its hands and feet grown together in fins and a tail and there is little articulation in its limbs. As soon as it dwells on land it develops like the manatee at least its forefeet and the female develops mammæ. The sea-bear and sea-lion show clearly their four feet though they are not able as yet to use their hind feet but drag their five toes like rags of fins behind. They creep along quietly to warm themselves in the rays of the sun and have advanced a step beyond the dulness of the misshapen seal. Thus there is progress from the dust of worms from the chalk-houses of molluscs and from the webs of insects towards more fully articulated and higher organisation.’…
‘Each species takes care of itself (p. 45) as if it were the only one in existence; but by its side there is another species which limits it and in this mutual relation of different and opposite species nature in its creative power found the means of preserving the whole.’
Herder then proceeds to show how in this struggle for existence whole species of animals and of men may have perished while yet a general equilibrium was maintained. Man is in Herder's eyes no more than the brother of the animals (p. 44) Nay goes further and in order to bring down the pride of man he reminds him (p. 54) that he is nothing but a digestive tube (an ascidian) like his lowest brethren. He tells Buffon (p. 85) that he is wasting his eloquence in vain in denying the uniformity of organism in ape and man and that the facts which he has collected himself refute him.
And yet the same Herder sees as clearly as anybody the specific difference of man and animal. After showing (p. 57) how irritations of the senses produce a reaction and a corresponding impulse how sensations result in thought and how there is in every living organism a perpetual progress he points to language as a divine gift by which alone our slumbering reason was awakened or by which the mere faculty which by itself would have remained dead for ever became living force (p. 101). ‘Animals’ he says (p. 104) ‘are truly called in the East the Silent ones of the earth; for with the organisation of language only did man receive the breath of the deity the seed of reason and eternal perfection an echo of that creative call to the lordship of the earth in fact the divine art of ideas the mother of all arts.’
These ideas enunciated by Herder became the intellectual property of the whole of Germany and reigned supreme in schools and universities during the early part of this century. In the school of Oken in the first philosophy of Schelling in the eloquent treatises of Goethe all was evolution development or as it was called in more general language Das Werden the Becoming. The same spirit though in a higher sense pervaded the philosophy of Hegel. According to him the whole world as conceived by man was an evolution a development by logical necessity to which all facts must bow. If they would not then tant pis pour les faits.
Evolution in the beginning of our century.
I do not remember the heyday of that school but I still remember its last despairing struggle. I still remember at school and at University rumours of carbon half solid half liquid the famous Urschleim now called Protoplasm the substance out of which everything was evolved. I remember the more or less amusing discussions about the loss of the tail and about races supposed to be still in possession of that ancestral appendage. I do not know whether Lord Monboddo's works are still read in Scotland but whoever wishes for evidence in support of our descent from hairy and tailed ancestors will find more startling evidence in his portly quartos than in any of Darwin's publications.
I well remember my own particular teacher the great Greek scholar Gottfried Hermann giving great offence to his theological colleagues by publishing an essay in 1840 in which he tried to prove the descent of man from an ape. Allow me to quote a few extracts from this rare and little-noticed essay. As the female is always less perfect than the male Hermann now nearly fifty years ago argued that the law of development required that Eve must have existed before Adam not Adam before Eve. Quoting the words of Ennius
Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis
he goes on in his own peculiar Latin:—
‘Ex hac nobili gente quid dubitemus unam aliquando simiam exortam putare quae paullo minus belluina facie et indole esset? Ea sive illam Evam sive Pandoram appellare placet quum ex alio simio gravida facta esset peperit ut saepenumero fieri constat filium matri quam patri similiorem qui primus homo fuit.
‘Haec ergo eat hominis generisque humani origo non illa quidem valde honesta sed paullo tamen honestior multoque probabilior quam si ex luto aqua permixto cui anima fuerit inspirata genus duceremus.’
Surely Gottfried Hermann was a bolder man than even Darwin and to me who had attended his lectures at Leipzig in 1841 Darwin's Descent of Man. published in 1871 was naturally far less novel and far less startling by its theory than by the new facts by which that theory was once more supported.
Kant on the Chimpanzee.
Kant's philosophy also had long familiarised students of Anthropology with the same ideas. For he too towards the end of his Anthropologie had spoken of a future period in the development of nature when an Oran-Utang or Chimpanzee may develop his organs of locomotion touch and speech to the perfection of human organs raise his brain to an organ of thought and slowly elevate himself by social culture. I cannot admire such airy speculations even if they come from Kant but I ask Is there anything in Darwin so much more startling and novel than these theories of Herder Gottfried Hermann and Kant?
Darwin felt compelled by the enormous weight of analogy to adopt the theory that man is the genealogical descendant of some kind of ape. Haeckel adds that the statement that man was developed from lower vertebrates and proximately from genuine apes is a special deduction which follows with absolute certainty from the general induction of the theory of descent. Even if that were so it would remain a deduction from a general intuition of a theory of descent; it would remain a theoretical conviction of an eminent zoologist. But we must not forget that another eminent zoologist who yields to no one either in knowledge or in outspoken honesty I mean Virchow has never on this point allowed himself to be carried away by mere analogy or even by the powerful pleading of Darwin. We know how able and persuasive a pleader Darwin could be but all his eloquence was in vain against the conscientious convictions of Virchow.
When Darwin wished to show how man could have been born of an animal which was hairy and remained so during life he could not well maintain that an animal without hair was fitter to survive than an animal with hair. He therefore appealed to sexual selection and wished us to believe that our female semi-human progenitrix lost her hair by some accident became thus as Hermann would have said minus belluina facie et indole minus belluina sed magis bella so that in the process of time this partial or complete baldness call it leprosy or leucoderma was perpetuated from mother to son and made us what we are.
These theories put forward by Herder and Kant and more of less seriously advocated by Gottfried Hermann found the most enthusiastic defender in Oken. Oken (1779–1851) was not satisfied with deriving man from an animal. He and his disciples taught that the transition from inorganic to organic nature was likewise a mere matter of development. The first step according to him was the formation of rising bubbles such as we see in champagne which he at that time called infusoria and the manifold repetition of which led as he taught to the formation of plants and animals. The plant was represented by him as an imperfect animal the animal as an imperfect man. To doubt that the various races of men were descended from one pair was considered at that time and even so late as the days of Prichard not only a theological but a biological heresy. All variety was traced back to unity—and in the beginning there was nothing but Being; which Being coming in conflict with Not-being entered upon the process of Becoming of development of evolution.
While this philosophy was still being preached in some German universities a sharp reaction took place in others followed by the quick ascendency of that Historical School of which I spoke in a former lecture. It was heralded in Germany by such men as Niebuhr Savigny Bopp Grimm Otfried. Müller Johannes Müller the two Humboldts and many others whose names are less widely known in England but who did excellent work each in his own special line.
Historical School: its true character.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that the Historical School was exclusively concerned with the history of problems that it cared for the past only and not for the present and the future. On the contrary that school wants to show that there is no break between the past and the present but that an uninterrupted continuity connects what has been thought of old with what is being thought at present. History is to teach us to understand what is by teaching us to understand what has been. All our present difficulties are difficulties of our own making. All the tangles at which we are so impatiently pulling were made either by ourselves or by those who came before us. Who else should have made them? The Historical School knowing how hopeless it is to pull and tear at a tangled reel by main force quietly takes us behind the scenes and shows us how first one thread and then another and a third and in the end hundreds and thousands of threads went wrong and became entangled but how in the beginning they lay before man's eyes as even and as regular as on a weaver's loom.
Men who possess the historical instinct and who whenever they have to deal with any of the grave problems of our age always ask how certain difficulties and apparent contradictions first arose are what we should call practical men; and as a rule they are far more successful in unravelling knotty questions than the philosopher who has a theory and a remedy ready for everything and who actually prides himself on his ignorance of the past.
I think I can best make my meaning clear by taking a well-known instance. Whether Dean Stanley was what is now called a scientific historian a very laborious student of ancient chronicles and charters is not for me to say; but if I were asked to define his mind and his attitude towards all the burning questions of the day whether in politics or morality or religion I should say it was historical. He was a true disciple of the Historical School. I could show it by examining the position he took in dealing with some of the highest questions of theology. But I prefer as an easier illustration to consider his treatment of one of the less exciting questions the question of vestments. Incredible as it may sound to us it is a fact nevertheless that not many years ago a controversy about surplices and albs and dalmatics and stoles was raging all over England. The question by whom at what time and in what place the surplice should be worn divided brother from brother and father from child as if that piece of white linen possessed some mysterious power or could exercise some miraculous influence on the spirit of the wearer. Any one who knew Stanley would know how little he cared for vestments or garments and how difficult he would have found it to take sides either right or left in a controversy about millinery or ritual. But what did he do? ‘Let us look at the surplice historically’ he said. What is a surplice?—and first of all what is the historical origin or the etymology of the word? Surplice is the Latin super-pellicium. Super-pellicium means what is worn over a fur or fur-jacket which was called pellicium. Now this fur-jacket was not worn by the primitive Christians in Rome or Constantinople or Jerusalem nor is there any mention of such a vestment at the time of the Apostles. What then is the history of that fur-jacket? So far as we know it was a warm jacket worn by peasants in countries of colder climate worn in many countries to the present day. Like most of the garments which we now consider as exclusively ecclesiastical it was worn by clergy and laity alike. As this fur-jacket was apt to get dirty and unsightly a kind of smock-frock or blouse that could be washed from time to time was worn over it—and this was called the super-pellicium the surplice. Stanley thought it sufficient gently to remind the wearer of the surplice that what he was so proud of was only the lineal descendant of a German peasant's blouse; and I believe he was right and his historical explanation certainly produced a better effect on all who had a sense of history and of humour than the most elaborate argument on the mystical meaning of that robe of purity and innocence.
Nor did this historical denouement take away from the true character of the surplice. Being worn over the every-day garment the shabby and dirty fur-coat it was a sign of real respect both for the sacred building in which it was worn and for the congregation of the faithful whose minister the wearer of the surplice was. That was the real meaning of the white and pure surplice and we find here as elsewhere that we never lose anything that is worth having by historical truth.
Stanley rendered the same service to other vestments. Under the wand of the historian the alb turned out to be the old Roman tunic or shirt and the deacon officiating in his alb was recognised as a servant working in his shirt-sleeves. The dalmatic again was traced back to the shirt with long sleeves worn by the Dalmatian peasants which became recognised as the dress of the deacon about the time of Constantine. The chasuble turned out to be a great-coat worn originally by laity and clergy alike; while the cope descended from the copa or capa also called pluviale was translated by Stanley as a ‘waterproof.’ The mitre was identified with the caps and turbans worn in the East by princes and nobles and to this day by the peasant women. The division into two points was shown to be the mark of the crease which is the consequence of its having been folded and carried under the arm like an operahat. The stole lastly in the sense of a scarf had a still humbler origin. It was the substitute for the orarium or handkerchief used for blowing the nose. No doubt the possession and use of a handkerchief was in early times restricted to the ‘higher circles.’ It is so to the present day in Borneo for instance where only the king is allowed to carry a handkerchief and to blow his nose in that way. In like manner then as in Borneo the handkerchief became the insignia of royalty it rose in the Roman Church to become the distinctive garment of the deacon.
I know that some of these explanations have been contested perhaps rightly contested but the general drift of the argument remains unaffected by such reservations. I only quote them in order to explain what I meant by Stanley's historical attitude the very attitude which all who belong to the Historical School and are guided by an historical spirit like to assume when brought face to face with the problems of the day.
What I maintain then is that a study of the history of philosophy would in this as in other instances have proved an immense advantage. It would have prevented on the one hand the foolish outcry against Darwin's works as if they had broached an unheard-of heresy and it would have moderated on the other the extravagant and ignorant panegyrics detested I feel sure by no one more than by Darwin himself. Darwin's real merit consisted not in discovering evolution but in suggesting new explanations of evolution such as natural selection survival of the fittest influence of environment sexual selection etc. These explanations whether they are still adequate or not give to Darwin his commanding position in the history of natural philosophy. We know at present that from a physiological point of view the transition from any other animal to man has not been established; and we likewise know that if it ever were established it would leave us exactly as we are divided by language as by an impassable Rubicon from every other animal. The nearer the approach between the physical nature of an ape and that of a man the wider and the more wonderful will that gulf appear which language has fixed between them.
Necessity of Historical Study of Religion.
If therefore I maintain the necessity of an historical and comparative study of religion or venture to represent it as the best preparation for the study of what is called the philosophy of religion what I mean is that it acclimatises and invigorates our mind and produces that judicial temper which is so essential in the treatment of religious problems. Whatever philosophy may have to teach us hereafter it will prove useful in the mean time to have learnt from history at least so elementary a lesson as that no opinion is true simply because it has been held either by the greatest intellects or by the largest number of human beings at different periods in the history of the world. No one can spend years of his life in the study of the religions of the world beginning with the lowest and ending with the highest forms no one can watch the sincerity of religious endeavour the warmth of religious feeling the nobleness of religious conduct among races whom we are inclined to call either pagan or savage without learning at all events a lesson of humility. Anybody be he Jew Christian Mohammedan or Brahman if he has a spark of modesty left must feel that it would be nothing short of a miracle that his own religion alone should be perfect throughout while that of every other believer should be false and wrong from beginning to end.
History teaches us that religions change and must change with the constant changes of thought and language in the progress of the human race. The Vedic religion led on the religion of the Upanishads the religion of the Upanishads led on to the doctrines which Buddha embodied in a new religion. Not only the Jewish religion but the religion of Greece and Rome also had to yield to Christianity as more on a level with the height of thought reached after long struggles by the leading nations of the world. It is wonderful no doubt to see religions belonging to an almost prehistoric stratum of thought such as ancient Brahmanism surviving to the present day in a modified yet not always more elevated form. But even this becomes historically intelligible if we consider that society consists of different intellectual strata. Some of the reformers of our own religion four hundred years ago stood on an eminence which even now is far beyond the reach of the majority. In theology as in geology the whole scale of super-imposed strata is often exhibited on the surface of the present day and there may still be Silurians walking about among us in broad daylight. It seems as if an historical study of religion alone could enable us to understand those Silurians nay help us to sympathise with them and to honour them for the excellent use which they often make of the small talent committed to them.
After having said so much in support of the Historical School more particularly for a right study of religion I feel bound in conclusion to notice some recent criticisms which seem to me to arise from a complete misapprehension of the character of that school. It has been observed by an eminent Scotch theologian that the tendency to substitute history for science and the historical method for the scientific method is prevalent in the present day in theology as well as in ethics and jurisprudence social philosophy and political economy. ‘Obviously however’ he says ‘it rests on exaggeration and illusion and confounds things which ought to be distinguished. Neither history of the objects of a science nor history of the ideas or doctrines of a science is science and the historical method of itself can only give us in connexion with science either or both of these forms of history. It is therefore inherently absurd to suppose that the historical method can be sufficient in such theological disciplines as Natural Theology and Christian Dogmatics. In reality it is not directly or immediately available in the study of these disciplines at all and that just because it does not directly or immediately yield theory doctrine science. Only he who knows both the history of the objects and the history of the ideas of a science and especially of a psychological social or religious science can be expected to advance the science.’
Is not that an admission which covers all we claim for the Historical School namely that it alone is able to advance the science of religion? But he goes on:—‘In the sphere of religion as in every other sphere to confound history with science is to eliminate and destroy science; but in no sphere is knowledge of history more a condition of the attainment of sceince and historical research properly conducted more serviceable to scientific investigation than in that of religion.’
I claim no more and should be quite satisfied by this admission.
And lastly: ‘To the historical method we owe not only the historical disciplines of theology but also in a considerable measure the recent progress of its positive or theoretical disciplines. It can never however be as some fanatical disciples the the historical school would have us to suppose the method of these last’
This is as you will perceive very strong language arising no doubt from a very strong conviction. But you will generally find that if one philosopher who is not a fool calls another philosopher who is not a fool either absurb there is some misunderstanding between the two. Now the historical school because it calls itself historical does not profess to devote itself to the history only of any given science. There are for instance the inductive sciences and there is a history of the inductive sciences. Now the historical school never intended to limit itself to the study of the history of these sciences. That is a subject by itself. What the historical school meant to teach was that no actual problem of any science should be studied without a reference to what had been said or written on that problem from the day on which it was first started to the present day. I see no other or at all events no better means by which the mind could be strengthened and matured for grappling with any problem. The very mistakes of those who came before us serve us often as finger-posts for our own line of research. Suppose a man were to study Comparative Philology without making himself acquainted with the labours of Bopp and Pott and Grimm with their false as well as their true discoveries what a waste of time would it entail on him to explore afresh all the avenues which they had explored and many of which they had found to lead to nothing! Or suppose a man should attempt the etymology of a modern word without tracing it back first of all to its earliest form that is within our reach. We should then have again such etymologies as ear of corn being the same as ear while if we only go as far back as Gothic we find ahs for ear of corn but ausô for ear.
Nor should it be supposed that history ends with the last century. The principle of the historical school is not to ignore the present but to try to understand the present by means of the past. A man may be a philosopher no doubt without knowing Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Kant; but unless he is a man of marvellous intuition he will never acquire that sure judgment and that sense of proportion which can only be acquired by an acquaintance with many minds. His philosophy will be in great danger of becoming an anachronism.
But whatever may be possible in other sciences let no one venture on the open sea of religious discussion without having the compass of history steadily before his eyes. Let no one attempt to study Natural Religion without having served his apprenticeship as a patient student of the history of the religions of the world. I cannot sum up the advantages of historical study and of the historical spirit in dealing with all the problems of life better than in the words of Mr. John Morley: ‘It gives us a view of the ground we stand on. It gives us a solid backing of precedent experiences. It teaches us where we are. It protects us against imposture and surprise!’