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Part I: The Transcendence of the Immanent

Lecture IX: Freedom and Determinism

The great problem of spiritual freedom has usually been debated as if it concerned only the will, regarded in this connexion as the immediate determinant of moral action; and the subject has usually been discussed in specially close connexion with the notion of responsibility. Because this has been so prevalent a custom in philosophy, it will be convenient to take that starting-point. But we shall find reason to hold that, when so limited, the problem is insoluble. Just as our discussion of obligation pressed us back from action to character, and even from morality as commonly understood to something more fundamental, so our discussion of freedom will take us behind acts of choice to the whole life of mind or spirit.

The relation of freedom to responsibility is intricate. The superficial observer is liable to say that a man is not responsible for what he could not avoid, and that it we hold him responsible for an action we must attribute to him freedom to do it or not to do it. Freedom is thus conceived as freedom of choice at the moment of action. But if this freedom is complete, it seems to be as fatal to responsibility as its total absence would be. The culprit when charged with his offence might say that he did choose that course at that time, but he is not choosing it now; for all moral purposes he is now a different person. Responsibility, in short, involves continuity not only of physical organism, but of moral character; and this, in turn, imposes some limitation upon freedom of choice. The question is, indeed, whether the continuity requisite for responsibility does not preclude the freedom also thought to be requisite, so that responsibility seems to require both of two incompatible conditions. Some moralists have been led by this and kindred problems to regard “responsibility” as a legal rather than a moral term, connoting only accountability before the law but not fitness for moral praise or blame.

It is noticeable that for legal or civic purposes, it is easier to associate responsibility with Determinism1 than with an extreme doctrine of Free Will. The difficulties created by the latter have been mentioned. So far as character is conceived as the source of conduct, an extreme doctrine of Free Will makes it uncertain whether the prisoner, though convicted of a crime, can justly be punished; for in what sense is he the same person who committed the crime? Determinism gives rise to no such difficulty. The judge may say to the convicted prisoner: “The Law, which I am charged to administer, takes no interest in the process by which you came to be what you are; but you are the perpetrator of a crime; and as such you must submit to the penalty prescribed by the Law, both that you may be thereby determined to a different course of conduct, and that others may be determined to avoid the conduct which is seen to incur such penalties”. It is true that the administration of law on such a basis is likely to be callous and even cruel. The notion that Determinism tends towards sympathy and gentleness is due to mere confusion.2 Determinism indeed condemns moral indignation as foolish; but it is ready to punish brutally though dispassionately, because fundamentally it treats Persons as Things, and will throw away the useless citizen as a man throws away a rotten apple, not thinking whether pain is involved or not, and quite sure that there is no such thing as free personality to be outraged.

This points the way to a change of approach to the question. For what is morally amiss in thorough-going.

Determinism is not its impracticability in a civilised world, but its implied insult to personality. It is thus a theory destructive of all morality, which we found to consist fundamentally of respect for personality. The popular judgement is therefore right when it condemns Determinism as destructive of morality. But because it conceives morality as chiefly concerned with actions, it seeks to assert freedom (as the opposite of determinism) primarily in connexion with actions. And so it entangles itself in a complicated toil of difficulty from which there is no escape.

For even when it is admitted that freedom of choice is not absolute, but limited by continuity of character, and even when it is assumed that this limits freedom without destroying it, baffling questions still remain. Just how much freedom of choice is there on each occasion? Why does the “free will” choose as it does? and how does it effect its choice? If we say that it follows the strongest motive, we are returning to determinism; if we say that it chooses the motive by which it will be determined,3 we are involved in a circle or an endless regress; for on what grounds does it make this choice? If this choice is motived it is not free; and if it is unmotived it is casual, not moral. Are we to say that it is a little motived, as the freedom is a little limited? The argument is leading us to nonsense.

The difficulty is nowhere so starkly exhibited as in Kant’s treatment of it. He accepted the complete subjection of all experience to the category of causation; thus his doctrine of phenomena was determinist; but acts of choice are phenomena, so that concerning these also his doctrine was determinist. But besides phenomena, and in some sense the ground of them, he held that there are Things-in-Themselves, which are not subject to the Forms of Perception (Time and Space) or to the Categories of the Understanding (of which Causation is one). The Thing-in-Itself which is the ground of acts of choice is the Will. This is not subject to Causation. It is free. Only of course it never acts. Kant’s apprehension of the matter is presented in the mythical form of a free prenatal volition, of which all empirical choices are necessary and “determined” representations in the series of phenomena.4 Kant was so near the truth that one is almost irritated at the completeness of his blindness to it. We saw in a previous Lecture that in his second version of the Categorical Imperative—“Treat humanity always as an end withal and never only as a means”—he found the true moral principle; but because he treated it, not as his starting-point, but as a corollary or restatement of his abstract formula—“Act at all times from a maxim fit for universal law”—he never perceived or elaborated its full significance. So here, in seeking the locus of freedom, he knows that it cannot be the momentary acts of choice which constitute the activity of the moral life, but looks for it in an abstract Will or Practical Reason instead of in the concrete Person, and so leaves it where for all practical purposes it has to be ignored.

By concentrating attention upon acts of choice, which are particular events or occurrences in the time-process, the traditional mode of discussion has presented the problem as though it were a question whether causality is present at all in relation to those acts; and inasmuch as the only alternative to causality is chance (if indeed that be a name for anything but blind causality), the defenders of freedom have often seemed in their own despite to be defending the principle of chance, and to attribute to chance just that which they desired especially to claim as the sphere of reason in action. Indeed nothing is further removed from chance than strength of will, which shows itself in constancy of character, not in unaccountable variations. Kant avoided a surrender to chance, as we have seen, by delivering the phenomenal acts over to causation while he asserted the freedom of the noumenal will. But he shared with most others who have taken part in the debate the disastrous limitation of the notion of “cause” to efficient causation. Indeed this is a main source of the whole difficulty. The Kantian list of categories is framed under the influence of mathematical-physics and chemistry as typical sciences of the world of perception. It is no longer possible for us to be content with those categories. They are not easily applied to biology; if such students of that subject as Dr. J. S. Haldane are following a right course in their handling of it, these categories are entirely inadequate to it. In Psychology they lead to the absurdities of Behaviourism. In Ethics they prove their insufficiency by necessitating Kant’s acceptance of a comprehensible incomprehensibility as the last word on the subject.

We must begin again at the beginning. Stark Determinism is stark nonsense, not only in Ethics but in every other field of study; for it declares that all objects are constituted by their external relations; and, if so, the process of mutual determination can never start. It may very well be true that every particular existent is what it now is because of the influence exerted upon it by other existents, perhaps even by all other existents. But it must have been something in its own being, so to speak, in order to be influenced by those others. And each of them must have been something in order to exert or submit to influence. Neither nothing-at-all, nor a perfectly undifferentiated homogeneous substance, could be the origin of a world of mutually determining constituent parts. Stark Determinism presents us with the spectacle of nothing-at-all differentiating itself into this richly varied universe through the mutual interaction of its non-existent parts. At whatever point we stop in our analysis of the cosmic continuum presented to us in experience, whether at the division of the classical four “elements”—earth, air, fire and water—or at the atoms of more modern science, or at protons, electrons and neutrons, at every stage we are confronted with aboriginal existents determining and determined by each other. How the term “aboriginal” is here to be understood is a further question. Theistic philosophy will interpret it in terms of creation, naturalistic philosophy in terms of self-subsistence. But whatever the interpretation, it remains true that every part of the universe confronts us with the mystery of Being!5

There is a school of physicists which finds in the Quantum Theory not only a gap in the continuity of causation not yet filled by our knowledge, but a positive indeterminacy. There are other students no less eminent who scornfully repudiate this suggestion,6 and are convinced that increasing knowledge will re-establish the reign of causation over electrons as over all other physical phenomena. For the Theistic philosopher the question has little interest, for the two views merely present him with two pictures of the constant activity of God. The one is a picture of perpetual directive acts, the other a picture of continuous directive activity; for the behaviour of Nature according to “Law” is no less a manifestation of the Mind of God, and thus an utterance of His Word, than its unpredictable behaviour from moment to moment would be. The indeterminist form of the Quantum Theory is hard to reconcile with Deism, no doubt; but Deism is not a living theory at the present time, and needs no killing. That any one should be turned from Atheism to Theism by a belief that electrons act unaccountably seems inconceivable. We may therefore leave the matter to the specialists, content to accept their decision whatever it may be.

There has indeed been some eager interest on the part of theologians and Christian apologists in the supposed discovery of indeterminacy at the basis of the physical world. This seems to be misplaced; for it is no more difficult and no less necessary to read the wholly determined course of nature as an expression of the will of God than it would be so to read the course of nature if indeterminacy were an inherent principle of it. And to welcome indeterminacy in nature as a supposed ally of such freedom of volition as is necessary to, or compatible with, obligation and duty, is a disastrous error. Concentration on acts of choice as the proper locus of freedom has led to the conception of freedom as indeterminism; but that, as we have partly seen and shall see more clearly, is a blunder. Freedom is not absence of determination; it is spiritual determination, as distinct from mechanical or even organic, determination. It is determination by what seems good as contrasted with determination by irresistible compulsion. The question is not whether certain events are determined or not, but what is the mode of the determination of any particular event; and we shall expect to find that this is appropriate to the distinctive nature of the agent.

We return then to our picture of the universe as consisting of mutually determining parts, where each none the less contributes something of its own to the totality. At the level of the simplest physical particles this contribution is such that (apparently) one could be substituted for another without perceptible difference in the result; each must indeed be somewhat on its own account, but its individuality counts for very little—so little as to be strictly negligible for all purposes except the metaphysical interest in the principle of individuality itself. But this principle is important, because if this has no application at the physical basis of the scale of being, it would be very hard to account for its appearance at other stages. We have seen, however, that unimportant as it may be for the purposes of physical science, the reactions and relationships studied in that branch of science presuppose individuality as a necessity of their own existence.

As we move from the simpler to the more complex structures, individuality counts ever more potently in the reactions and relationships observed. Where the rudimentary sentience, implied by the plant’s turning to the sun, makes itself apparent; where the organism in search of nourishment detaches itself from its position and exercises powers of self-motion; where the animal develops interests and affections beyond what are relevant to the biological concern for survival; where the mind frames ideas drawn from, but also separable from, its particular experiences; where the moral person selects his ends independently of biological or even (in the narrow sense) personal, interests, aspiring, it may be, towards an ideal of which neither his own experience nor all recorded history supplies the origin—at every stage the individual is playing a greater part in determining his own reactions to the environment which is the field of his activity.

It is with this latest stage that we are now concerned. In the last Lecture we arrived at a conception of Mind as framing ideas based upon, but free from, actual experiences; thus it is able to seek in the future a goal by which to determine in the present the modification which it shall impose upon the inheritance bequeathed by the past; thus also it is able to find its own fulfilment in apprehension of, and correspondence to, a Being akin to itself though so transcending its scope as to seem almost wholly other and inaccessible. It is with the reaction of such an entity to the environment that we are concerned in the problem of Freedom.

There has been a tendency to maintain in connexion with volition and acts of choice what is really a survival of the old faculty-psychology, even though that form of psychology as a whole has long been discarded. Thus Bishop Gore held that the existence of a “central core of personality” was something which “philosophy must take over from common sense”7; and in like manner the existence of a distinguishable entity called a Will is often regarded as something which everyone recognises and can only be denied at the risk of absurdity. Bishop Gore himself, though without referring to a specific faculty of volition, attempted to solve the controversy about Free Will by simple introspection.8

But the difficulties attendant upon this conception of freedom, and the conception of Will commonly associated with it, are insuperable. They are the result of abstraction. When we consider the concrete person in action, they largely disappear. For the concrete person is a self-organising system of impulses, instincts, sentiments, emotions, ideas, and all the rest which psychological analysis may set out. The initial unity of all this phantasmagoria is the physiological organism. Any of the psychological elements can be stimulated into activity by the appropriate impact of the environment upon the organism. Thus at first the psychological life is disjointed and chaotic, but there are limits set to its chaos by the physiological organism which is its basis; for two incompatible impulses cannot simultaneously actuate the same organism. But consciousness is itself psychological, or, in other words, cannot be accounted for without remainder in the terms of pure physiology, because this does not allow for causation operating on the present from the anticipated future; and, because consciousness is psychological, the sense of value falls upon the psychological side of the line and begins very early to give to the psychological factor in the psycho-physical system a preponderance which steadily increases. For while the organism makes demands for its own sustenance, its physical appetition is translated by consciousness into the appetites of hunger and thirst. Need becomes desire, and it is as desire that it influences movement and action. The “soul”, to use a conveniently short term, cannot at this stage dispense with the “body”, for indeed it is nothing as yet but the “body’s” psychological counterpart; and its various activities arise out of “bodily” stimulations. But they are from the outset more and other than “bodily”.

Desire, which is in its basis need-apprehended-in-consciousness, fastens, as we have seen, on the element of generality in those objects towards which it is directed, and thus out of the most “biological” element in the field of psychology there arises that apprehension of universals which makes possible the free and rational movement of thought. So science, which justly boasts its detachment from all desire except desire for truth, has its origin at the point where consciousness and organic process are most nearly allied. What is noteworthy for our purpose is the fact that freedom of thought has its source in the appetitive and conative part of nature. But Desire, though directed to the general character rather than to the particularity of its object, and thus supplying the starting-point of science, is in itself disorderly. Each desire is directed to its own satisfaction, and though each has reference at first to the needs of the organism and its survival, yet each also becomes active without regard to the economy of organic life. As consciousness develops, this trouble develops; for the power of imagination, whereby attention can be given to the general idea of what is not present to the senses, vastly increases the stimulation of desire, so that it may operate without reference to the proportion required by the life-process of the organism. Thus the same element in nature supplies the starting-point of the reasoning process which seeks order, and of the riot of appetite which destroys order.

Experience itself does something to restore harmony. The growing mind becomes aware that certain indulgences bring disagreeable consequences, and there arises an incipient purpose to hold the several desires in check. Under the discipline supplied by family and society this purpose is strengthened and defined, until, so far as education is complete, there is a wholly unified or integrated nature, controlling all its own elements to the fulfilment of its purpose. Of course education never is complete, and the process of integration extends throughout life; but that is its fundamental purpose—that out of the chaos which we are at birth order may be fashioned, and from being many we may become one: e{na genevsqai ejk pollw¤n.9 When this process is still near its beginning, great difficulties often confront the educator. For integration is often commenced, yet is in such fashion incomplete that two or more alternative characters are active through the same body at different times, each in response to its appropriate environment. The schoolboy is often a different person in his home and at school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room and among rowdy companions. For this he is sometimes accused of hypocrisy; but that is unjust; both groups of reaction are perfectly spontaneous and sincere; and to treat such a boy as if he deliberately adapted himself to his surroundings would be profoundly mistaken. He is not to be treated as having a perverted will, but as having a will incompletely formed.

For where in the initial welter of impulses is anything like a will to be found? And where in the schoolboy, whose impulses are organised in two or more groups but not yet in one, is anything like a will to be found? Will, if it means more than mere appetition, which is certaintly not “free”, first appears as an activity of a man’s nature as a whole, or in chief part, exercising control over particular desires or impulses.

Those impulses become active in presence of their appropriate stimulus; no motion of will is needed to set them in motion; will therefore appears at first chiefly as imposing inhibition on impulses and desires.

Will, then, as the agent in truly moral action is the whole organised nature of the person concerned; it is his personality as a whole; and so far is it from being an initial endowment of our nature, that the main function of education is to fashion it—a process which is only complete when the entire personality is fully integrated in a harmony of all its constituent elements. St. Augustine was, so far as I know, the first to perceive this truth, and the most fruitful parts of his immense influence on Europe have their origin in that perception. In a well-known passage10 to which I have already alluded he asks why it is that when I will to move my hand, the hand immediately moves, whereas when I will to will the good, my will remains in the same state as before; and his answer is that in the second instance I do not completely will; for if I already willed the good, I need not will to will it; and if I will to will it, that proves that I do not completely will this. In other words, though the will can largely control my body, it cannot at any given moment control itself. It is what it is. If it is set on selfish ambitions or carnal pleasures, the fact that it is so set precludes it from changing its direction; it cannot change, because it does not will to change; if it did will to change, that would itself be the change. Of course there may be a most sincere wish to change; but that is different; it is something that may become a constituent part of a will to good; but so long as there are also present any forms of wish to enjoy what is evil, with motive power at all approximating to the wish for good, there are only two incompatible wishes, and no real or effective will.

The ideal is complete integration of personality, with all its elements included within its harmony. Wherever we meet that we admire it. It may be won at various levels of development and complexity. The “noble savage” has won it in a life of few relationships. The civilised man, with his vastly greater range of relationships, with all the varied interests and outlets for energy which they offer, has a harder task, but the attainment is so much the more excellent. There is a certain admiration extorted from us even by the man unified in sheer self-seeking, so that all scruples which might hinder his effectiveness in pursuing his own interests are removed—a Cesare Borgia, for example. But in fact that is always a mutilated unity. The scruples suppressed represent elements in nature for which no place has been found, and there is here no more true attainment of the ideal integration than in the life which, having failed to control certain elements in its nature, has gained unity by eliminating them. We must all offer our homage to the heroic souls who have plucked out the right eye or cut off the right hand to ensure their entry into life, for we are always doubtful if our will to life is sufficiently formed and stable to take the drastic and painful step. Yet we must also recognise that while to enter into life maimed is better than to perish with two hands, it is better still to enter into life with two hands. The once-born soul, if only it can acquire the same depth and earnestness, has the advantage over the twice-born soul, as we see at once when we pass from the study of Jesus of Nazareth to the study of St. Paul. But for the once-born soul to acquire that depth is very rare; perhaps indeed there is only the one recorded instance.

The will, then, is not an aboriginal endowment of our nature, but is something in process of formation throughout life under the influence of our environment, natural and social—and of any other sort that environment may be. It is the name for our personality so far as that is integrated. That process is never quite complete, but in the majority of men and women there is a dominant nucleus established by the time that the law recognises them to be of age. There is usually still very much that is not yet gathered into the positive service of the principle or goal which supplies unity to the dominant nucleus; but this has acquired an authority which can restrain those other elements from defying that principle or frustrating the attainment of that goal. This is called self-control. And strength of will first shows itself in certain splendid incapacities, as when it is said of a man accused of some base action, “He could never have done that”. Where this control fails, and the as yet unco-ordinated impulses still act in defiance of the main purpose or dominant nucleus, there is moral weakness, and there is also a grave threat to mental stability, and even to sanity: sometimes this division of the soul amounts to complete dissociation of personality.

In considering this process of will-formation the most vital point to keep in mind is that the personality is largely a self-organising system. The importance of external influence is very great; scarcely any natural endowments are proof against certain combinations of circumstances; and in any case it is true that only such opportunities as present themselves can be utilised. But while influence plays a great part, it is never decisive by itself, as is shown by the differences in character often apparent in children of the same parents brought up under the same conditions. Each personality is largely a self-organising system, wherein the selection of elements to form the dominant nucleus is partly determined by the proportion which they bear to one another at the outset.

At first the process of integration is almost unconscious, but increasingly consciousness and its apprehension of values exerts an influence which at last becomes decisive. Its chief instrument is found in those “free ideas” which the mind forms for the tracing of connexions in the world of its experience. As these increase the scope of their embrace, they bring more and more of experience into some sort of unity. Among them are ideas which correspond to the purely scientific activity of mind, and other ideas which correspond to its aesthetic and moral activities. The trio of terms already discussed—Truth, Beauty, Goodness—supplies a rough classification of them; and in so far as a “free idea” manifests the quality denoted by one of those three terms it is apprehended as laying a claim or obligation upon the mind entertaining it. Thus the mind finds itself equipped with leading principles for the co-ordination of that living entity of which it is itself the reflective awareness; by the direction which it gives to attention it determines the form of co-ordination or integration which takes place. It is here—in this constant direction of attention—rather than in the moment of action that freedom is found to be effectively present.

At the moment of action it is still true that the person acting is a self-determining system, and even in that moment he can do something to mould the character that acts, especially if he is equipped with a truly adequate imaginative symbol of the right and good to which he may turn his attention at the critical moment. The element of self-determination in the act of moral choice is usually greatest when there is time for reflection and least when any action taken must be taken immediately. But in most cases the main decision is not made then; it is made by the discipline or non-discipline of the life of thought and imagination, which determines the general quality of character and consequently also the actions which will be done in the various combinations of circumstance that arise. The locus of freedom is the personality as a whole, but rather the life of thought than of will, so far as will is conceived as active in particular choices of alternative modes of conduct. Hence comes the profound significance of St. Paul’s counsel: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are righteous, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, occupy your minds with these things.”11

In what sense is the freedom of the self-integrating system of personal life sufficient to support legal and moral responsibility? For legal responsibility it is amply sufficient. All that is needed for that is a repudiation of mechanistic Determinism. If my bodily actions are a necessary outcome of the age-long play of material forces, so that my consciousness has nothing to do with them, then there is no place for responsibility at all. The State might still be wise in imprisoning or executing human organisms which preyed upon their neighbours, but it would be as one destroys vermin, not as one punishes crime. In fact the State itself, or rather the human organisms called State officials, would, on this theory, do whatever the disposition of gases in the nebula, from which the solar system has emerged, necessitated that they should do. But our view has nothing in common with that. It recognises that a human personality is a self-determining self-integrating system, and that ideas are the chief instrument of its self-determination. Moreover it is not wholly governed by the past, but by an imagined if not an actual future. What we have called the dominant nucleus may control and check some wayward passion under the influence of hope that one day the whole character will be something other than it is, or that through its self-discipline it may be able to help in bringing to birth a new social order. This is a form of determination; it is not indeterminism, but it is determination by other than efficient causation, though this, as always, plays its part. No knowledge of the person acting, or of his circumstances, at the moment previous to action will enable an observer to predict that action with precision, unless this knowledge includes apprehension of his unrealised ideals and the strength of their appeal to him; nor can he by self-observation predict his own future conduct or character. He is growing under the impulse of his own aspiration and the ground of his action is only revealed in the action itself. The acorn is potentially an oak, but so far as a man can predict the oak it is from observation of the growth of other acorns, not from analysis of this acorn. In the case of the child the same principle obtains, but here the prediction is still less informative, because here individuality counts for much, whereas with the acorn it counted for little. Therefore each moment as it passes reveals more completely the character that is moulding itself, and of every action the mature character must say “I did it, and what made me do it was myself”. That is the freedom that supports both legal and moral responsibility, as commonly understood. It is nonsense in such a case for a man to plead compulsion; as Aristotle observed, no man is under necessity to murder his mother.12 If he does it, whatever the motives, it must be because he has chosen or consented so to act, and the act is a manifestation of character. In relation to every moral choice, it is true to say that nothing compels the choice except the character of the agent, and that is something built up through the self-determining process of the whole personal life, limited by environment but not wholly directed by it. The self, which (like all other existing things) brings some original contribution of its own to the sum-total of existence, shapes itself according to its own initial nature and the influence of its environment and the reactions set up between these two. In some cases the self exercises a preponderating share of initiative; in others it submits to be almost passively moulded; but which of these it does depends upon what it is. Therefore the responsibility still lies with the self, even if it has contributed little beyond inertia to the process of its development. Consequently there is always credit due to the good character, however favourable the circumstances, and blame to the bad character, however unfavourable the circumstances. In respect of the mutual relations of the moral agent and his environment the famous Kantian declaration is justified, “I ought, therefore I can”,13 for no environment can compel me to fail in duty or to do what duty forbids.

“I ought, therefore I can.” Yet “The good which I would I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I practise. But if what I would not, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?”14 There is no logical incompatibility between the assertion of the philosopher and the ejaculation of the Apostle. Yet the difference between the two is fundamental. For of what use, after all, is it that I can, if I will, do what I ought if, in fact, I cannot so will? And though Kant argues truly that if I ought, I can, St. Paul meets that with equal truth by saying that, sometimes at least, it is even because I ought that I will not.15 It is something to find that the cause of wrong-doing is in the self; but to diagnose the disease is not to discover the remedy. It is here that the popular doctrine of Free Will so hopelessly breaks down; for the will which is evil, or so far as it is evil, is not free to reform itself. If I am evil, then because it is due to myself that I am evil, I am justly held responsible for my evil state. But that does not help me to cure the evil. Every man lives at different levels of purpose and aspiration, and he may in his better moments take steps, by the direction of his attention, to extend these and their influence over an even greater portion of his life. But so far as his will is genuinely set on evil, it cannot cure itself; for if it truly wished to be cured it would be cured already. To the man’s better nature this evil direction of the will may seem something utterly alien—“sin that dwelleth in him”. But, alien or akin, it is there; and its seat is the very focus of directive energy; so self-cure is impossible. The man is free, for the origin of his actions is himself; yet he is bound hand and foot, for from himself there is no escape.16 Of what avail is it for Kant to say “You can” if this only elicits the reply “I will not”?

It may be answered that this is no concern of the moral philosopher, whose business is to give an accurate description of the facts presented by the moral consciousness, not to offer advice for their modification. But though the moral philosopher may thus escape, the metaphysician cannot. For if the moral consciousness of man has appeared only to taunt him with the realisation that his plight is miserable, and that he cannot cure his misery precisely because he is the source of it, then the fact that he is endowed with such moral consciousness is no evidence that the ultimate principle of reality shares his moral purposes or that as he pursues them he is in harmony with it. For the freedom that we have found in man so far is the bitterest form of bondage. Just so far as he is lifted above the brutes by the fact that his self-determination is self-conscious and guided by deliberately chosen ideals, he is also sensitive to his failures and harrassed by inability to attain to the ideals which he has chosen. The almost animal man is near to contentment; the man of moral aspiration is filled with self-contempt and despair. If his only freedom is that which assures him that because he ought he can, he will be conscious of bondage in proportion as his aspiration is noble. The freedom established by a non-religious ethical philosophy is a reality indeed, but is rather a curse than a blessing. It is fundamentally a freedom to sin; and while this, in contrast with an external compulsion to goodness, is the inevitable presupposition alike of vice and of virtue, yet no man can congratulate himself that he is free to sin. When regarded from within, the freedom not to sin is formal only; the self-centred will must choose selfishly. Posse non peccare is in fact an attribute of peccaturus; mere ability not to sin can only be predicated of one who does and will sin. Freedom of choice is a necessary pre-condition of morality; but it falls far short of true spiritual freedom.

True spiritual freedom would be the state of a man who, knowing an ideal which completely satisfied all aspects of his nature, always in fact conformed to it and could perfectly trust himself so to do; it is, in short, non posse peccare, inability to sin. We have already remarked that strength of will chiefly shows itself in splendid incapacities.17 Here will is conceived as perfect. It is like freedom of choice, in that there is no external compulsion and action flows solely from the autonomous will. Yet it differs from freedom of choice because there is no selection between alternative courses of action regarded as equally possible. There may be real temptation, for pleasure and pain do not lose their qualities, and the mind still apprehends, with perfect clearness, the delights of comfort or indulgence, the anguish of suffering or renunciation. Yet there is now no doubt which course will be taken if it is clear on which side duty lies; there will still be consciousness of struggle, but no sense of a traitor within the fortress of the soul ready to open the gates to the insidious and plausible ambassadors of evil. There is a real conflict; but there is no doubt about its issue. Such a soul chooses indeed, but not between any “real alternatives”, for by its very constitution it renders one of the alternatives impossible. That “inner logic of its nature” which we found to be the source of obligation now in a fuller sense “obliges” the man to act in accordance with its dictates.

Such would be true freedom; and it is not ours. We see that it would bring with it the peace which passeth understanding, but that does not help us to reach it. For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour; the very effort will plant it there the more fixedly than ever. The man of science is drawn out of himself as regards one whole range of his activity by the concentration of his attention on the object of his study in his search for truth; the artist, by a similar concentration in his search for beauty; the good man, or public-spirited man, by a similar concentration in the service of his cause. But none of these cover the whole of life. Always there remains a self-centred area of life, and sometimes by a natural process of compensation those who are most selfless in the search for truth or beauty, or in public service, are most selfish, fretful and querulous at home. No ideal which a man purposes to himself will deliver him from the tyranny of self.18

But there is another environment besides that of nature and human beings; it is that Mind in which the Cosmic Process is grounded, that Spirit of the Whole, which is most adequately conceived on the analogy of Personality such as our own, but freed from our limitations and fulfilling all that in us is potential only. If it be possible to establish fellowship between the human soul and that Spirit, such fellowship would be the source of the true freedom of man. For just because it is the Spirit of the Whole, it is not alien from, however much it may transcend, any existing thing. The human spirit will find here something which has for it the appeal as well as the claim of kinship, and will be drawn to make a response, which is at the same time a submission, to the Spirit of the Whole, and therein attain to the fulfilment of itself in the freedom which is also peace.

Thus the soul which grows not only amid, but out of, the organic interactions of the physical world, by means of the free ideas that arise in it to guide its own reactions, becomes self-determining, using its environment as material for its own artistic enterprise of fashioning itself after its ideal; then, discovering its inability to satisfy itself because of the limitations inherent in its self-hood, it finds in fellowship with the Spirit of the Whole the power it needs to escape from self-determination to determination by that Spirit. Coleridge was right when he bade us think of “freedom as the power of the human being to maintain the obedience, which God through the conscience has commanded, against all the might of nature”.19 But that power belongs to man only so far as he is in fellowship with God.

Self-determination is the characteristic of man as a moral being, and without it he could never be called into fellowship with God. But it is not the last word of human development; on the contrary it contains the sentence of endless frustration as truly as it affords the opportunity of entry upon the spiritual enterprise. For the self which determines cannot carry the self which is determined above its own level. Self-determination must fulfil itself in the recognition of an Other which may lift it to heights for ever out of its own reach; self-determination fulfils itself in self-surrender to that which is entitled to receive the submission of the self.

But how can the self find the Other which is entitled to its homage? If it were possible for a man to comprehend the whole system of reality in its entire extent of time and space, he would have there an expression of the Spirit of the Whole, from which he might infer the character of that Spirit. But this is impossible. If he follows the guidance of his own experience of life, that is for this purpose accidental, and might lead to a multitude of divers conclusions, each of which would inevitably be inadequate. If he sets up his own ideals, and elevates to the throne of the Universe that which commands his personal admiration, he is back at the self-centred level from which his homage to this Other is to deliver him. There is in fact only one condition on which man can reach that true freedom for which his nature yearns; it is that the Spirit of the Whole should have offered to man a veritable self-disclosure, not only in the whole range of existence but in some act or series of acts such that man can apprehend them and direct upon them his concentrated attention. In other words, if God be such as to reveal Himself, and has revealed Himself, in a fashion apprehensible by man, then man by his homage to God so revealed may find the fulfilment of the destiny which his consciousness proclaims to be his.

That any particular event or series of events is truly the self-disclosure of God can never be proved; but it can be put to the test by whole-hearted experiment. If, as the experiment continues, the claim that in this event or that God is revealed finds vindication, then, though proof is out of the question, assurance becomes more intense and grounded in a wider range of experience. If it appears to be the fact that the mind which dwells on the alleged revelation finds that it is confronted with something akin yet transcendent, and discovers a new power of self-forgetfulness increasingly to pervade both thought and conduct, that will be strong evidence that this event is not a mere occurrence, which happened once and is now past, but is indeed a self-disclosure of that Spirit of the Whole, who sustains all things in being, but here offers Himself to be received into the minds of men. Man fulfils his natural destiny when the supernatural comes upon him, wins his loyalty, and transforms him into its own likeness, through his self-surrender to its determining appeal. But how this may be, is a topic for further enquiry.20

  • 1. Provided it be not mechanistic Determinism. See p. 238.
  • 2. Cf. R. L. Stevenson’s fable, The Devil and the Innkeeper.
  • 3. Cf. e.g. F. Temple, The Relations between Religion and Science, p. 80, and Gore, The Philosophy of the Good Life, p. 265.
  • 4. Cf. Plato’s more frankly mythical statement of a similar position in the Myth of Er—Republic, x. 617 D–620 D.
  • 5. Cf. Coleridge, The Friend, Section II. Essay XI.: “Hast thou ever raised thy mind to the consideration of existence, in and by itself, as the mere act of existing? Hast thou ever said to thyself thoughtfully, It is! heedless in that moment whether it were a man before thee, or a flower, or a grain of sand,—without reference, in short to this or that particular mode of existence? If thou hast indeed attained to this, thou wilt have felt the presence of a mystery, which must have fixed thy spirit in awe and wonder.”
  • 6. So Einstein: “That nonsense is not merely nonsense. It is objectionable nonsense.” See Where is Science Going? by Max Planck, p. 201.
  • 7. Gore, Can we then Believe? pp. 151–156. The phrase in the text is quoted from a letter written by Bishop Gore to myself.
  • 8. Belief in God, pp. 139–144; The Philosophy of the Good Life, pp. 262–266.
  • 9. Plato, Republic, 443 E.
  • 10. Confessions, Bk. VIII. chapter ix.
  • 11. Philippians iv. 8.
  • 12. Eth. Nic. 1110 a 26–29.
  • 13. It was with great surprise that I failed to find this celebrated saying in any of Kant’s works. The nearest parallel that I can find is this: “He judges, therefore, that he can do a certain thing because he is conscious that he ought” (Critique of Practical Reason (Abbott’s translation) in Kant’s Theory of Ethics, p. 119). (The original is: “Er urteilt also, dass er etwas kann, darum weil er sich bewusst ist, das er es soll”.) Mr. Edwyn Bevan has sent me two other references, both in Religion innerhalb etc., of which the closer to the familiar phrase is as follows: “Wir sollen ihr gemäss sein, und wir müssen es daher auch können” (2 Stück, I Abschnitt 8 b).
  • 14. St. Paul, Epistle to the Romans, vii. 19, 20, 24.
  • 15. Ibid, vii. 9.
  • 16. Part of the supreme art of Shakespeare’s tragedies consists in the power with which they illustrate this paradox. Cf. my Mens Creatrix, chap. xi.
  • 17. Cf. supra, p. 236.
  • 18. For a further development of this theme see Lecture XV.
  • 19. S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, vol. i. p. 143.
  • 20. See Lectures XII. and XV.
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