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Lecture 8. The Historical Method.

Lecture 8.
The Historical Method.
Criticism of My Definition.
THE definition of religion at which we arrived in our last lecture has received the support of a large number both of philosophers and historians; but for that very reason it would seem it has also provoked a great amount of very determined opposition.

Now we ought always to be truly grateful for adverse criticism. It generally gives us something it teaches us something which we did not know before whereas assent and laudation though they may give us more confidence in our own opinions add but seldom to our own or to the general stock of knowledge. After all every one of us is only a labourer each having his special work assigned to him in raising the temple of knowledge. It is of that temple alone that every honest workman ought to think and not of himself for he is but one in a million of hewers of wood and drawers of water. If he is planing and polishing his beam carelessly or if he is spilling the water on the way he should be thankful for his own sake and still more for the sake of the great work which is entrusted to him if his fellow-labourers will warn him correct him advise him and help him in his work. Who knows now the workmen that built the pyramids or even the architect that devised them? But if one single block of granite had been placed at a wrong angle the very pyramid would probably have collapsed long ago or would have remained blemished for ever?

Pfleiderer's Criticism.
I feel truly grateful therefore for the criticisms which have been passed by Professor Pfleiderer and others on my former definition of religion and I fully admit their justness. I had defined religion simply as ‘a perception of the infinite’ without adding the restriction ‘a perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man.’ The fact was that in my former writings I was chiefly concerned with dogmatic religion. I was anxious to discover the origin of religious concepts names and theories and I left the question of their influence on moral actions for further consideration. We cannot do or say everything at the same time and it is perhaps hardly fair that we should be supposed to have negatived what we simply had left unmentioned. Still I plead guilty to having not laid sufficient emphasis on the practical side of religion; I admit that mere theories about the infinite unless they influence human conduct have no right to the name of religion and I have tried now to remedy that defect by restricting the name of religion to those perceptions of the infinite which are able to influence the moral character of man.
Professor Gruppe.
But a much more determined attack came from a different quarter. As I had meant to treat the Science of Religion in a strictly scientific spirit I had carefully excluded all theories which ascribe the origin of religion either to innate ideas or to supernatural revelation. I had placed myself completely on what is called the positivist platform. ‘We are told’ I said1 ‘that all knowledge in order to be knowledge must pass through two gates and two gates only the gate of the senses and the gate of reason. Religious knowledge also whether true or false must have passed through these two gates. At these two gates therefore we take our stand. Whatever claims to have entered in by any other gate whether that gate be called primeval revelation or religious instinct must be rejected as contraband of thought; and whatever claims to have entered in by the gate of reason without having first passed through the gate of the senses must equally be rejected as without sufficient warrant or ordered at least to go back to the first gate in order to produce there its full credentials2.’
Religion a Psychological Necessity?
Of course if the psychological analysis of the earliest religious concepts as I had given it is correct—and no one I believe has denied the simple facts on which it rests—it follows that religion is a psychological necessity and not as positivist philosophers maintain a mere hallucination or a priestly fraud. This I believe is the real reason why my own explanation of religion though admitted to be impregnable has been so fiercely condemned by the positivists themselves. But it is one thing to condemn another to refute. I should have thought that my critics would have welcomed my admission Nihil est in fide quod non antea fuerit in sensu with open arms. But no they will hear of no psychological of no historical explanation of one of the greatest psychological and historical facts in the world namely religion. If anything however is absurd it is surely to imagine that by shutting our eyes we can annihilate facts. Is not religion as solid a fact as language law art science and all the rest? We may if we like disapprove of every one of these achievements of the human mind; but even then we cannot get rid of the problem as to how they came to exist. Unless therefore some intelligible arguments can be advanced against what I have put forward as the conditio sine quâ non of all religion I shall for the present consider the following points as firmly established:—
That like all other experience our religious experience begins with the senses;
That though the senses seem to deliver to us finite experiences only many if not all of them can be shown to involve something beyond the known something unknown something which I claim the liberty to call infinite;
That in this way the human mind was led to the recognition of undefined infinite agents or agencies beyond behind and within our finite experience; and
4. That the feelings of fear awe reverence and love excited by the manifestations of some of these agents or powers began to react on the human mind and thus produced what we call Natural Religion in its lowest and simplest form—fear awe reverence and love of the gods3.
History v. Theory.
After we have once established these premisses there are two ways open for the study of Natural Religion. We may try to find out by means of abstract reasoning what ideas would naturally spring from these simple premisses how the perception of the Infinite could be realised in language and what could or could not be predicated of those undefined agents or agencies that had been discovered behind or above or within nature.
It might be asked for instance whether the human mind could be satisfied with an indefinite number of such beings or whether after a time the mere love of simplicity would lead on to the admission of one supreme being only.
Again it might be asked whether anything beyond mere existence could be predicated of the infinite or whether after the existence of supernatural powers has been admitted and their number fixed any further qualities could be ascribed to them.
We know that the answer which was given quite regardless as yet of historical facts has been that it could be done in three ways and in three ways only.
First these beings might be looked upon not as identical with nature but as behind nature; not as what is but as the cause of what is; or in the earliest stages of human thought and language as makers shapers fathers and rulers of the world. This is the conception of the divine per viam causalitatis.
Secondly as they were conceived as powerful and perfect whatever qualities seemed most excellent in human nature might be safely ascribed to them in a supreme degree. This is the conception of the divine per viam eminentiae.
Thirdly whatever seemed imperfect in human nature or at all events weak and limited could safely be negatived of divine beings per viam negationis.
Cosmological Teleological Ontological Arguments.
Again the so-called proofs of the existence of divine beings or in the end of one Supreme God the Cosmological Teleological and Ontological might be examined and reasoned out without any reference to the history of religious thought.
All this might be done and has been done and well done and I have little doubt that some of the lecturers on Lord Gifford's foundation will do full credit to this side of our subject to what is generally called the Philosophy of Religion.
Historical Method.
I myself however am not going to follow this course and this for various reasons. First of all the philosophy of religion has such eminent representatives in Scotland and more particularly in this University that I should feel it presumptuous on my part to treat a subject which has been much better treated in this place than I could hope to do.
Secondly all my own special studies have been devoted to the history of religion and I can hardly be mistaken in supposing that it was for this reason that I was chosen to fill this lectureship.
Thirdly I must openly confess that I have great faith in history as showing to us if not the best possible at all events the only real arguments in support of the tenets of Natural Religion. To the philosopher the existence of God may seem to rest on a syllogism; in the eyes of the historian it rests on the whole evolution of human thought.
The opinions elaborated by the whole of mankind ‘with all their fluctuations and contradictions’ seem to me to carry a certain weight and at all events to convey more instruction than the system of any or even of all of our living philosophers.
Nor is it necessary that an historical study should exclude contemporary history. The philosophers of to-day will to-morrow be philosophers of yesterday and if they have added anything original to the inherited stock of human knowledge they will take their proper place in the historical Council of the world.
Whatever questions I have had to deal with I have always found their historical treatment and solution the most satisfactory. If we do not understand a thing if we hardly know what it is what it means and how to call it it is always open to us to try to find out how it has come to be what it is. It is wonderful how this method clears our thoughts and how it helps us to disentangle the most hopeless tangles which those who came before us have left to us as our inheritance. This historical method has regenerated the study of language it has infused a new spirit into the study of ancient law; why should it not render the same kind of help to an independent study of religion?
Nowhere perhaps can we see more clearly the different spirit in which these two schools the historical and the theoretical set to work than in what is called by preference the Science of Man Anthropology; or the Science of People Ethnology; or more generally the science of old things of the works of ancient men Archaeology.
Theoretic School.
The Theoretic School begins as usual with an ideal conception of what man must have been in the beginning. According to some he was the image of his Maker a perfect being but soon destined to fall to the level of ordinary humanity. According to others he began as a savage whatever that may mean not much above the level of the beasts of the field and then had to work his way up through successive stages which are supposed to follow each other by a kind of inherent necessity. First comes the stage of the hunter and fisherman then that of the breeder of cattle the tiller of the soil and lastly that of the founder of cities.
But while one school of anthropologists would thus derive civilisation by a gradual evolution from the lowest savagery another school considers the savage as a stationary and quiescent being so much so that it bids us recognise in the savage of to-day the unchanged representative of the primordial savage and encourages us to study the original features of man in such survivals as the Bushmen the Papuans and the Cherokees. These two views might seem contradictory unless we distinguish between stationary savages and progressive savages or define at least the meaning of the word before we allow it to enter into our scientific currency.
Again as man is defined as an animal which uses tools we are told that according to the various materials of which these tools were made man must by necessity have passed through what are called the three stages or ages of stone bronze and iron raising himself by means of his more and more perfect tools to what we might call the age of steel and steam and electricity in which for the present civilisation seems to culminate. Whatever discoveries are made by excavating the ruins of ancient cities by opening tombs by ransacking kitchen-middens by exploring once more the flint-mines of prehistoric races all must submit to the fundamental theory and each specimen of bone or stone or bronze or iron must take the place drawn out for it within the lines and limits of an infallible system.
Historical School.
The Historical School takes the very opposite line. It begins with no theoretical expectations with no logical necessities but takes its spade and shovel to see what there is left of old things. It describes them arranges them classifies them and thus hopes in the end to understand and to explain them. Thus when Schliemann began his work at Hissarlik he dug away noted the depth at which each relic was found placed similar relics side by side unconcerned whether iron comes before bronze or bronze before flint. Here are the facts he seems to say to the students of archaeology—now arrange them and draw your own conclusions from them.
Let me quote the words of a young and very careful archaeologist Mr. Arthur Evans in describing this kind of work and the results which we obtain from it4:
‘In the topmost stratum of Hissarlik’ he writes ‘(which some people like to call Troy) extending six feet down we find remains of the Roman and Macedonian Ilios and the Aeolic colony; and the fragments of archaic Greek pottery discovered (hardly distinguishable from that of Spata and Mykenai) take us back already to the end of the first millennium before our era.
‘Below this one superposed above the other lie the remains of no less than six successive prehistoric settlements reaching down to over fifty feet below the surface of the hill. The formation of this vast superincumbent mass by artificial and natural causes must have taken a long series of centuries; and yet when we come to examine the lowest deposits the remains of the first and second cities we are struck at once with the relatively high state of civilisation at which the inhabitants of this spot had already arrived.
‘The food-remains show a people acquainted with agriculture and cattle-rearing as well as with hunting and fishing. The use of bronze was known though stone-implements continued to be used for certain purposes and the bronze implements do not show any of the refined forms—notably the fibulae—characteristic of the later Bronze Age.
‘Trade and commerce evidently were not wanting. Articles de luxe of gold enamel and ivory were already being imported from lands more directly under Babylonian and Egyptian influence and jadeaxeheads came by prehistoric trade routes from the Kuen-Lun in China. The local potters were already acquainted with the use of the wheel and the citywalls and temples of the Second City evince considerable progress in the art of building.’
Such is the method of the Historical School and such the results which it obtains. It runs its shaft down from above; the Theoretical School runs its shaft up from below. It may be that they are both doing good work but such is the strength of temperament and taste even among scientific men that you will rarely see the same person working in both mines; nay that not seldom you hear the same disparaging remarks made by one party of the other which you may be accustomed to hear from the promoters of rival gold mines in India or in the South of Africa.
Study of Language (Historical School).
Let us now cast a glance at the work which these two schools the historical and the theoretical have done in the study of language. The Historical School in trying to solve the problem of the origin and growth of language takes language as it finds it. It takes the living languages in their various dialects and traces each word back from century to century until from the English for instance now spoken in the streets we arrive at the Saxon of Alfred the Old Saxon of the Continent and the Gothic of Ulfilas as spoken on the Danube in the fourth century. Even here we do not stop. For finding that Gothic is but a dialect of the great Teutonic stem of language that Teutonic again is but a dialect of the great Aryan family of speech we trace Teutonic and its collateral branches Greek Latin Celtic Slavonic Persian and Sanskrit back to that Proto-Aryan form of speech which contained the seeds of all we now see before us developed into germs plants flowers and fruits in the various languages of the Aryan race.
After having settled this historical outline of the growth of our family of speech the Aryan we take any word or a hundred or a thousand words and analyse them or take them to pieces. That words can be taken to pieces every grammar teaches us. The Sanskrit name for grammar is Vyâkarana which means ‘taking to pieces.’ This process however of taking them to pieces scientifically and correctly dissecting limb from limb is often as difficult and laborious as any anatomical preparation.
Well let us take quite a modern word—the American cute sharp. We all know that cute is only a shortening of acute and that acute is the Latin acutus sharp. In acutus again we easily recognise the frequent derivative tus as in cornutus horned from cornu horn. This leaves us acu as in acu-s a needle. In this word the u can again be separated for we know that it is a very common derivative in such words as pec-u cattle Sanskrit pasú from PAS to tether; or tanú thin Greek τανύ-ς Latin tenu-i-s from TAN to stretch. Thus we arrive in the end at AK and here our analysis must stop for if we were to divide AK into A and K we should get as even Plato knew (Theaetetus 205) mere letters and no longer significant sounds or syllables. Now what is this AK? We call it a root which is of course a metaphor only. What we really mean by a root is the residuum of our analysis and a residuum which itself resists all further analysis. But what is important is that these roots represent not a mere theoretic postulate but a fact an historical fact and at the same time an ultimate fact.
With these ultimate facts—that is with a limited number of predicative syllables to which every word in any of the Aryan languages can be traced back or as we may also express it from which every word in these languages can be derived—the historical school of comparative philology is satisfied at least to a certain extent; but it has also to account for certain pronouns and adverbs and prepositions which are not derived from predicative but from demonstrative roots and which have supplied at the same time many of those derivative elements like tus in acu-tus which we generally call suffixes or terminations.
After this analysis is finished the historical student has done his work. AK he says conveys the concept of sharp sharpness being sharp or pointed. How it came to do that we cannot tell or at least we cannot find out by historical analysis. If we like to guess on the subject Plato has shown us how to do it and no one is likely to do it more ingeniously than he. But that it did convey that concept we can prove by words derived from AK in Sanskrit Greek Latin in Celtic Slavonic and Teutonic speech. For instance: Sanskrit âsu quick (originally sharp) Greek ὠκύς Lat. oc-ior Lat. ac-er eager acus acuo acies acumen; Greek ὰκμή the highest point A.-S. æcg; also to egg on; ἄκων a javelin acidus sharp bitter ague a sharp fever ear of corn Old High German ahir Gothic ahs Lat. acus aceris husk of grain and many more.
Theoretic School.
Let us now look at the Theoretical School and its treatment of language. How could language arise? it says; and it answers Why we see it every day. We have only to watch a child and we shall see that a child utters certain sounds of pain and joy and very soon after imitates the sounds which it hears. It says Ah! when it is surprised or pleased; it says Bah! when it sees a lamb Bow-wow! when it sees a dog; and it soon says See-saw when it swings its doll. Language we are told could not arise in any other way; so that involuntary interjections and imitations must be considered as the ultimate or rather the primary facts of language while their transition into real words is we are assured a mere question of time.
This theory or rather these three theories which have been called the Pooh-pooh Bow-wow and Yo-heo theories are said to be easily confirmed by a number of words in all languages which still exhibit most clearly the signs of such an origin; and still further by the fact that these supposed rudiments of human speech exist even at an earlier stage in the development of animal life namely in the sounds uttered by dogs parrots and other animals; though curiously enough far more fully and frequently by our most distant ancestors the birds than by those who claim to be our nearest relatives the apes.
It is not surprising therefore that all who believe in a possible transition from an ape to a man should gladly have embraced this theory of the origin of language.
The only misfortune is that such a theory though it easily explains utterances which really require no explanation at all such as bow-wow and cuckoo; pooh-pooh and fie! yo-heo and see-saw or even words such as crashing cracking creaking crunching scrunching leaves us entirely in the lurch as soon as we come to deal with real words—I mean words expressive of general concepts such as man tree name law—in fact nine-tenths of our dictionary.
The Theoretical School has certainly one great advantage. It goes to the very bottom of the question and explains the very origin of language as it took place in the nursery of the first Pithecanthropos or Anthropopithecos and it explains it in so simple a way that every child can understand it. If a child can say Bow-wow what difference is there between that and saying Dog? If a child can say Fie why should it not say ‘I disapprove’? If a child says Dingdong why should it not say Bell? All these we are told are differences of degree only whatever that may mean and with a sufficient allowance of time there is nothing that will not become anything.
The Historical School cannot match such performances. When by a most laborious analysis it has reduced one language or one family of languages to its constituent elements it cannot claim to have accounted for the origin of all language but only of one or two or three families of human speech. When it has placed before us the roots of one language or one family of languages it has come to the end of its work. It can do no more than leave these roots as ultimate facts though between these roots and the first friendly grunts that passed between anthropopithecos and pithecanthropos there may be millions of millions of years.
Then why not adopt the Bow-wow the Pooh-pooh and the Yo-heo theories which explain everything so easily and so completely? For the simple reason that real language when we trace it back to its real constituent elements shows no trace whatever of these mere imitations of so-called natural sounds. They exist not as part and parcel of real language but simply by the side of it. Even admitting the possibility that they might have grown into some kind of language the fact remains that they have not done so5. What we call roots do not only show no outward similarity with these natural sounds—that would be the smaller difficulty—but they are totally different in nature; and this is the point which so few anthropologists seem able to see. These roots are not simply perceptual like all Bow-wow Pooh-pooh and Yo-heo utterances; but they are conceptual in character as the elements of conceptual language ought to be if they are to help us to explain what has to be explained namely conceptual speech.
Brinton on Palaeolithic Language.
This has evidently been perceived by Dr. Brinton now Professor of American Linguistics in the University of Pennsylvania. He knows that interjections and all the rest will not grow into real language. But he thinks that the American languages will help us to get behind the scene and he has drawn up a picture of what following their guidance he imagines the language of Palaeolithic Man to have been6. ‘It was far more rudimentary’ he writes ‘than any language known to us. It had no grammatical form. So fluctuating were its phonetics and so much depended on gesture tone and stress that its words could not have been reduced to writing nor arranged in alphabetic order.’ To give an idea of what he supposes the phonetic chaos of that palaeolithic language to have been he mentions that in the Araucanian of Chili the following letters are permutable. B may become W WF FU UÚ ÚI IE EG G GH GH Hu7.
But that is not all. ‘These palaeolithic words often signified logical contradictories and which of the antithetic meanings was intended could be guessed only from the accent or a sign.’ This will delight Dr. Abel. ‘It possessed no prepositions nor conjunctions no numerals no pronouns of any kind no forms to express singular and plural male nor female past nor present. The different vowel sounds and the different consonantal groups conveyed specific significance and were of more import than the syllables which they formed.’
This last rather mysterious theory of vowels and consonants being more significant than the syllables which consist of them is illustrated by some remarks made by Bishop Faraud8 on the Tinné or Athapascan language spoken widely in British America and closely allied to the Apache and Navaho dialects spoken in the United States. Being as we are told a thorough master of Tinné the Bishop states that its significant radicals are the five primitive vowels A E I O U. Of these A expresses matter E existence I force or energy O existence doubtful and U existence absent non-existence negation or succession. These vowels are put in action by single or double consonants which have more or less value in proportion as the vowel is more or less strong. Father Petitot9 tells us that there are ‘sixty-three consonants divided into nine classes each of which conveys a series of related or associated ideas in the native mind. Labials express the idea of time and space as age length distance and also whiteness—the last-mentioned perhaps through association with the white hair of age or the endless snow-fields of their winter. The dentals express all that relates to force &c. &c.’
Here I stop and though I am afraid it will sound most audacious I cannot help expressing my conviction that all this is simply wrong and that language could never have been built up with such materials as little as it was built up with interjections. I know this audacity will seem quite intolerable. My only excuse is that I could produce books published during the prehistoric times of Comparative Philology in which English and other Aryan languages have been reduced as triumphantly to significant vowels and significant consonants.
The Historical School therefore leads us up to a certain point up to where all is safe but beyond which all is darkness at least without the light of hypothetical illustration. It never pretends to prove that the roots which it leaves as ultimate facts were the primordial elements of human speech. It admits the possibility of aeons after aeons between the first man fresh from the hands of nature and the roots of the Aryan or Semitic family of speech. All it does is to venture on a guess. We found that nearly all the concepts expressed by these roots are significant of acts. Now as the great difficulty which is hardly ever realised by anthropologists consists in our having to account for the origin of concepts and sounds expressive of concepts and not merely of percepts and sounds expressive of percepts the suggestion first made by Noiré is that these roots were originally sounds uttered by men while performing certain acts in common. How little the real character of this theory has been understood is best shown by the fact that it has been actually mistaken for what is called the Yo-heoic theory. No doubt it is a suggestion and no more for who would dare to speak with positive certainty on matters so distant from us in time and still more distant from us in thought? All we can say is that such a suggestion would fulfil three essential conditions; it would explain the simultaneous origin of concepts and roots; it would account for their intelligibility among fellow-workers and it would explain what has to be explained viz. conceptual not perceptual language; language such as it is not language such as it might have been. If any one has anything better to suggest let him do so; if not his utere mecum.
Advantages of both Theories.
I certainly do not wish to throw unmerited contempt on the Theoretical School. Far from it. We want the theorist quite as much as the historian. The one must check the other nay even help the other just as every government wants an opposition to keep it in order or I ought perhaps to say to give it from time to time new life and vigour. I only wished to show by an example or two what is the real difference between these two schools and what I meant when I said that whether by temperament or by education or by conviction I myself have always belonged to the Historical School.
Science of Religion.
If now we return to the Science of Religion we shall find here again the same difference of treatment between the historian and the theorist.
The theorist begins by assuring us that all men were originally savages or to use a milder term children. Therefore if we wish to study the origin of religion we must study children and savages.
Now at the present moment some savages in Africa Australia and elsewhere are supposed to be fetish-worshippers and nothing else. Therefore we are assured that five thousand or ten thousand years ago religion must have begun with a worship of fetishes—that is of stones and shells and sticks and other inanimate objects.
Again children are very apt not only to beat their dolls but even to punish a chair or a table if they have hurt themselves against it. This shows that they ascribe life and personality—nay something like human nature—to inanimate objects. Hence we are told that savages would naturally do the same or have actually done the same from the earliest time to the present day. A savage is in fact the most obliging creature for he does everything that any anthropologist wishes him to do. But even then the question of all questions why he does what he is supposed to do is never asked. We are told that he worships a stone as his god but how he came to possess the idea of God and to predicate it of a stone is called a metaphysical question of no interest to the student of anthropology—that is of man. Nevertheless it is the primary question that is of interest and the most vital interest to us.
If then we press for an answer to this all-important question we are informed that animism personifcation and anthropomorphism are the three well-known agencies which fully account for the fact that the ancient inhabitants of India Greece and Italy believed that there was life in the rivers the mountains and the sky; that the sun and the moon and the dawn were cognisant of the deeds of men and finally that Jupiter and Juno Mars and Venus were endowed with the form and the beauty the feelings and passions of men…We might as well be told that all animals are hungry because they have an appetite.
We read in many of the most popular works of the day how from the stage of fetishism there was a natural and necessary progress to polytheism monotheism and atheism and after these stages have been erected one above the other all that remains is to fill each stage with illustrations taken from every race that ever had a religion whether these races were ancient or modern savage or civilised genealogically related to each other or perfect strangers.
Again I must guard most decidedly against being supposed to wish to throw contempt or ridicule on this school. Far from it. I differ from it; I have no taste for it; I think it is often very misleading. But to compare the thoughts and imaginations of savages and civilised races of the ancient Egyptians for instance and the modern Hottentots has its value if carried out by real scholars. We learn as much by contrast as by comparison and the bold adventures of the Theoretic School have often proved a useful warning at all events to later explorers.
Historical School.
Let us now see how the Historical School goes to work in treating of the origin and growth of religion. It begins by collecting all the evidence that is accessible and classifies it. First of all religions are divided into those that have sacred books and those that have not. Secondly the religions which can be studied in books of recognised or canonical authority are arranged genealogically.
Semitic Religions.
The New Testament is traced back to the Old the Koran to both the New and Old Testaments. This gives us one class of religions the Semitic.
Aryan Religions.
Then again the sacred books of Buddhism and Gainism of Zoroastrianism and of Brâhmanism are classed together as Aryan because they all draw their vital elements from one and the same Proto-Aryan source. This gives us a second class of religions the Aryan.
Chinese Religions.
Outside the pale of the Semitic and Aryan religions we have the two book-religions of China the old national traditions collected by Confucius and the moral and metaphysical system of Lao-gze. These two constitute a third class of Chinese religions.
The study of religions which have sacred books is in some respects easy because we have in these books authoritative evidence on which our further reasonings and conclusions can be based. But in other respects the very existence of these books creates new difficulties because after all religions do not live in books only or even chiefly but in human hearts; and when we have to deal with Vedas and Avestas and Tripitakas Old and New Testaments and Korans we are often tempted into taking the book for the religion.
Still the study of book-religions if we once have mastered their language admits at all events of a critical and scholarlike study while a study of native religions which have no books no articles no tests no councils no pope withdraws itself almost entirely from a definitely scientific treatment. Any one who attempts to describe the religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans—I mean their real faith not their mythology their ceremonial or their philosophy—knows the immense difficulty of such a task. And yet we have here a large literature spread over many centuries we know their language we can even examine the ruins of their temples.
Religions without Books.
Think after that how infinitely greater must be the difficulty of forming a right conception say of the religion of the Red Indians the Africans the Australians. Their religions are probably as old as their languages that is as old as our own language; but we know nothing of their antecedents nothing except the mere surface of to-day and that immense surface explored in a few isolated spots only here and there and often by men utterly incapable of understanding the language and the thoughts of the people. The mistakes committed by students of these savage religions would fill volumes as has been shown by Roskoff in his answer to Sir John Lubbock10. And yet we are asked to believe by the followers of the Theoretic School that this mere surface detritus is in reality the granite that underlies all the religions of the ancient world more primitive than the Old Testament more intelligible than the Veda more instructive than the mythological language of Greece and Rome. It may be so. The religious map of the world may show as violent convulsions as the geological map of the earth and what is now on the surface may belong to the lowest azoic rocks. But this would have to be proved and cannot be simply taken for granted. What I have ventured to say on several occasions to the enthusiastic believers in this contorted evolution of religious thought is let us wait till we know a little more of Hottentots and Papuans; let us wait till we know at least their language for otherwise we may go hopelessly wrong.
The Historical School in the meantime is carrying on its more modest work by publishing and translating the ancient records of the great religions of the world undisturbed by the sneers of those who do not find in the Sacred Books of the East what they in their ignorance expected. They can hardly be aware of what is thought of their daintiness. Would geologists turn up their noses at a kitchen-midden because it did not contain their own favourite lollypops? And yet that is what some students of ancient religion seem inclined to do when the ancient Rishis of the Veda are not as complacent as the primeval savages and do not think exactly what synthetic philosophers think they ought to have thought.
Where there are no sacred texts to edit and to translate the true disciples of the Historical School—men such as for instance Castrén in Finland Bishop Caldwell or Dr. Hahn in South Africa Horatio Hale or Dr. Brinton in North America—do not shrink from the drudgery of learning the dialects spoken by savage tribes gaining their confidence and gathering at last from their lips some records of their popular traditions their ceremonial customs some prayers it may be and some confession of their ancient faith. But even with all these materials at his disposal the historical student never forgets that these communications on religious subjects gathered from the lips even of a Cetwayo can hardly be more trustworthy than a description of the doctrines of Christianity gathered by the same Cetwayo during his stay in England from the lips of a London coal-heaver. He does not rush at once to the conclusion that in the Legends of the Eskimos any more than in the hymns of the Vedic Âryas he can find the solution of all the riddles in the science of religion. He only says that we are not likely to find any evidence much more trustworthy and that therefore we are justified in deriving certain lessons from these materials.
And what is the chief lesson to be learnt from all these materials? It is this that they contain certain words and concepts and imaginations which are as yet inexplicable which seem simply irrational and require for their full explanation antecedents which are lost to us; but that they contain also many words and concepts and imaginations which are perfectly intelligible which presuppose no antecedents and which whatever their date may be may be called primary in that sense.
However strange it may seem to us if we simply follow the evidence placed before us there can be little doubt that the perception of the Unknown or the Infinite was with many races as ancient as the perception of the Known or the Finite that the two were in fact inseparable. To men who lived on an island the ocean was the Unknown the Infinite and became in the end their God. To men who lived in valleys the rivers that fed them and whose sources were unapproachable the mountains that protected them and whose crests were inaccessible the sky that overshadowed them and whose power and beauty were incomprehensible these were their unknown beings their infinite beings their bright and kind beings what some of them called their Devas the Bright the same word which after passing through many changes still breathes in our own word Divinity.
This unconscious process of theogony is historically attested is intelligible requires no antecedents and may in that sense be called a primary process. How old it is chronologically who would venture to ask or to tell? All that the Historical School ventures to assert is that it explains one side of the origin of religion namely the gradual process of naming or conceiving the Infinite. While the Theoretic School takes the predicate of God when applied to a fetish as requiring no explanation the Historical School sees in it the problem of all problems the result of a long-continued evolution of thought beginning with the vague consciousness of something invisible unknown and unlimited which gradually assumes a more and more definite shape through similes names myths and legends till at last it is divested again of all names and lives within us as the invisible inconceivable unnameable—the infinite God.
Even if it should be possible to discover traces of fetishism in really ancient documents in Egyptian and Babylonian inscriptions in Chinese legends or in Vedic hymns an accurate student of the historical growth of religious ideas would always ask for its antecedents. Fetishism from its very nature cannot be primitive because it always presupposes the previous growth of the divine predicate. As to the fetishism of modern negroes we know now that it represents the very lowest stage which religion can reach whether in Africa or any other part of the world and I know of no case even among the most degraded of Negro tribes where remnants of a higher religious belief have not been discovered by the side of this degraded belief in amulets talismans and fetishes. The idea of De Brosses and his followers that fetishism could reveal to us the very primordia of religious thought will remain for ever one of the strangest cases of self-delusion and one of the boldest anachronisms committed by students of the history of religion.
I need hardly say that though in the science of religion as in the science of language all my sympathies are with the Historical School I do not mean to deny that the Theoretical School has likewise done some good work. The very opposition roused by such men as Schelling and Hegel has been of immense assistance. Let both schools work on carefully and honestly and who knows but that their ways which seem so divergent at present may meet in the end.

  • 1.

    Hibbert Lectures, 226; Gruppe, p. 218.

  • 2.

    ‘Das ist das berühmte Müller'sche System, welches eine besonders eingehende Würdigung erfordert, nicht allein wegen der persönliçhen Bedeutung seines Urhebers, sondern mehr noch weil es der beredteste und systematischeste Ausdruck einer Auffassung ist, von welcher aus eine ganze Reihe hervorragender religionsgeschichtlicher Werke anderer Forschér geschrieben sind.’ Gruppe, p. 220.

  • 3.

    I doubt whether the writer of an interesting article in the Scots Magazine, Feb. 1889, can have attended all my lectures at Glasgow. He says that my definition of religion seemed to him to labour under four objections:

    1. ‘That it is not traced back to the promiscuum (read proximum) genus, just as much and just as little as the definition modus cognoscendi, etc.’ But my definition traces religion back to one proximum genus only, and not to two. It traces it back to experience, and nothing else, not to both cognoscere and colere.
    2. ‘That it is expressed in terms which require definition.’ I say no, unless I have laboured in vain in trying to show that the experience of the infinite is as palpable as that of the finite. The infinite in this its simplest and most primitive sense seems to me to require no further definition, nay to admit of none, whereas the concept of Deus is so full of historical ingredients that it almost defies definition.
    3. He doubts ‘whether my definition of religion, though it may include Buddhism, would include Fetishism,’ Fetishism is, as I believe to have shown, the very last corruption of religion; but even in that corrupt form religion is based on the perception of something beyond the actual in the actual. And even if the fetish is coerced by blows instead of being importuned by prayers, the moral element is still present in the act of the worshipper.
    4. My critic says ‘that there are some religions which do not affect moral character, but only move the individual to the mechanical performance of certain external acts.’ Yes, but these are again corruptions of religion, and perfectly intelligible in their downward movement. Would any one say that a Megatherion ought not to be defined as a living animal, because we know it in its petrified form only?
  • 4.

    Academy, December 29, 1883.

  • 5.

    On the possibility of such a transition, see Science of Thought. pp. 309–315, a chapter for which I have been much blamed by scholars, while anthropologists have construed a limited concession into a complete surrender.

  • 6.

    The Language of Palaeolithic Man, by Daniel G. Brinton, M D. Read before the American Philosophical Society, October 5, 1888.

  • 7.

    Dr. Darapsky, La Lengua Araucana, Santiago de Chile, 1888, p. 15.

  • 8.

    Dix-huit ans chez les Sauvages, p. 85.

  • 9.

    Petitot, Dictionnaire de la Langue Dénée Dindjié.

  • 10.

    See Roskoff. Das Religiousicesen der rohesten Natureölker, 1880.

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