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Lecture 5: The Worth of Life

IN last lecture we saw that the gods of pessimism are theoretical inventions to account for a bad world. The question now therefore naturally arises: Is the world as bad as it is called?

The problem, What is the worth of life? has only recently taken a prominent place in the reflective thought of philosophers and moralists. This fact of itself is almost sufficient to justify the suspicion that modern pessimists have, under some unhappy influence, fallen into gross exaggeration; and that their type of thought is properly to be regarded as a morbid phenomenon, a kind of fin du siècle disease, for which a physician, rather than a refutation, is wanted. Thus viewed, it doubtless has its causes, not merely in the idiosyncrasies of individuals, but in tendencies of the age which it might be instructive to investigate. Of course the disease, if we may without disrespect call it such, is not absolutely new; few diseases physical or mental are. Like the recent scourge of influenza, it is an old disease revived in a malignant form, as old indeed as the time of Buddha. Yet antiquity does not alter its character, or give it the right to assume airs of authority. We may dare to form our own independent estimate of the world, and we must strive to do so as sanely, soundly, and unbiassedly as possible. This, however, is no easy task. We are all apt to find what we bring. We are all more or less the children of our time. In the eighteenth century it was difficult to be anything but an extreme optimist; at the end of the nineteenth century it is perhaps as difficult to be an optimist even of the mildest type. Our judgment is liable to variation with age, health, experience. The same man may be a pessimist in youth, and an optimist in feeling and tendency in advancing years. ‘Age,’ says Hegel, ‘generally makes men more tolerant; youth is always discontented. The tolerance of age is the result of the ripeness of a judgment which, not merely as the result of indifference, is satisfied even with what is inferior; but, more deeply taught by the grave experience of life, has been led to perceive the substantial solid worth of the object in question.’1 The state of health makes a difference in our estimates as great as that between a cloudless and a clouded sky. A youth diseased in body and morbid in mind visits a particular part of the country and finds it a bleak, flat, treeless plain. He revisits it forty years later, and, to his surprise, discovers that during all that time he has been under a delusion, and that the tabooed spot is neither bleak, nor flat, nor treeless. This is a parable from impressions of physical nature teaching the possibility of a similar experience in the moral world.

The truth here, as so often elsewhere, lies between two extremes. Unqualified optimism is as false as unqualified pessimism. By the law of reaction the one tends to produce the other. Given a deistic optimism in one century, you may expect as a matter of course a cynical atheistic pessimism in the next. The synthesis of the true elements in both makes the nearest approach to the reality of things. It can therefore serve no purpose, simply to ignore, laugh at, or denounce sombre views of the world, and in particular of human life. We must take them seriously and deal with them wisely. The first thing we have to do is to lay to heart the fact that Ethical Agnosticism prevails. By that phrase I mean scepticism as to the reality of a moral order in the world, or of a Providence steadily directed to the realisation of the right and the good, based on the confusion observable in the world suggestive of the reign of chance, blind fate, or even of diabolic will, rather than of a benignant, righteous, gracious God. It is a significant symptom of wide-spread tendency when this pessimistic mood reveals itself in the literature of fiction, the chief intellectual pabulum of the million. In how many minds must the cynical, sinister phrase, ‘The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess,’2 awaken an ominous echo fatal to all living faith in a Father in heaven! That is a sentiment worthy of job's wife, and in full accord with the teaching of modern pessimistic philosophy, and it would not have been uttered unless the writer had believed it would bring him into touch with the secret thoughts of many hearts. Without doubt many in our time are in the mood to go to Schopenhauer's school and learn of him. The sentiment of the psalmist: ‘Truly God is good,’ is no longer an axiom commanding unhesitating assent. Many are saying in their hearts: ‘The existence of a good God is about as improbable a dogma as one can imagine. There is little in the state of the world, physical, social, or moral, to support it, much that seems irreconcilable with it. We do not pretend to have any theory to account for things as they are; the whole matter is a dark mystery to us, and we are content to leave it so, and to get through life as best we can, glad at last to make the final plunge into eternal nothingness. But, pray, do not mock our misery by offering us that farthing-candle of faith in Providence to guide us through the gloom.’

Ethical Agnosticism prevails: that, I have said, is the first thing to be laid to heart by the wise man. A second fact to be reckoned with is that the pessimistic mood is far from being without apparent justification. There is much in the world to foster a gloomy, hopeless temper. There is an immense amount of wretchedness and wrong in society, and so long as these prevail, a very earnest disbelief in a benignant Providence may be expected to reveal itself on an extensive scale. It is by no means so easy to believe that God is good as people whose life-course runs smoothly imagine. For such the sentiment of the Psalmist is a commonplace. ‘God good! why, certainly; who ever doubted it?’ Strange to say, it has been doubted by the best, noblest, most religious men, even by Hebrew prophets, by all those, indeed, who have ultimately most firmly believed it. The prosperity of the wicked and the tribulations of the righteous were the stumbling-blocks of the Hebrew bard who said at last, with emphasis, ‘Truly, God is good.’ He marvelled at the worldly weal of the frankly bad, and at the woe of the sincerely good. An additional source of temptation is supplied in a third type of men, whose character is an amalgam of wickedness without the frankness, and of goodness without the sincerity. These are men who are both religious and worldly, orthodox and unjust; who confess with unction that God is good, and all other usually accepted theological truths, yet neither do justly nor love mercy; who can even interest themselves in saving souls, yet by their conduct do their best to ruin both the souls and the bodies of their fellow-men. This type of character is a great temptation to unbelief in God, especially in the case of young men who love truth, honour, and humanity, and hate hypocrisy. It tempts them to become Atheists that they may have nothing in common, not even the affirmation that there is a God, with men whose character they despise, and whose conduct they detest. Mr. John Morley writes: ‘It is hard to imagine a more execrable emotion than the complacent religiosity of the prosperous.’v This is strong language, but think with what bitter emphasis the sentiment must be still further accentuated in the hearts of those who have suffered wrong at the hands of these prosperous ones!

In attempting to estimate the worth of human life, we must have a standard of judgment. Valuation based on merely personal, subjective, random impressions can have no value. What then is to be our standard? Is it to be hedonistic, or is it to be ethical? Is the question to be settled by summing up the pleasures and the pains and striking a balance, or are all experiences to be valued in relation to that which is distinctively human, the rational and moral elements of our nature? I cannot hesitate as to the answer. In inquiring into the worth of human life, we must remember that it is the life of a man and not of a mere animal we are considering. This point of view is imposed on us by our hypothesis that man, as a rational and moral being, was an end for God in creation. It was only under that aspect of his nature that we found him worthy to be the aim and crown of the creative process, and it is only under the same aspect that we can fitly estimate the value of the life of this latest arrival. The bearing of experience on the moral interest must always be the dominant, if not the exclusive, consideration. It may in its own place be an interesting enough inquiry how far the life of man in this world is on the whole a happy one, containing considerably more pleasant than unpleasant sensations. But if that were all that was involved in the present question, it would hardly deserve the serious attention of a busy, earnest man. Human life is more than pleasant sensation. That can never be the highest good for man, but at most only something superadded. The distinction of man as compared with the lower animals does not lie in this, that, in an equal space of time, he has a larger amount of pleasurable feeling than any of them. It might, with more truth, be said to consist in a far greater capacity for misery clue to his endowment with reason and conscience. Man's capacity for misery, even to a tragic extent, is one of the evidences of the dignity of his nature. It is due to his having a soul, a spiritual nature, with its own special needs, which, if not attended to, take their revenge by overtaxing bodily appetites, so turning the pleasure of natural use into the torment of unnatural excess.

While these things are true, and never for a moment to be left out of sight, it is nevertheless the fact that, even on their own hedonistic ground, pessimistic estimates of life are by no means criticism-proof. Throughout, they are characterised by special pleading, distortion, exaggeration. Among the favourite theses of pessimistic philosophy, are such as these: Life is essentially suffering; will means restless, tormenting desire; pain alone is real, pleasure is negative, consisting simply in the removal of antecedent pain; where there is not the misery of unsatisfied desire, there will be the greater misery of ennui. All these propositions are but plausible falsities, joint birth of a bad psychology and a jaundiced mind. Life essentially suffering! On the contrary, the fuller the life the greater the joy. It is so in the physical sphere. Fulness of life here means health, and health means buoyancy, freedom from all the unpleasant sensations of pain or languor connected with diseased organs or low vital tone. But we may be told that this freedom from unpleasant sensations characteristic of the healthy man is not itself positive pleasure, but only a state favourable to enjoyment, the foundation on which a life of happiness may be built up. As well might one say that pure, colourless light is not light, or that water is a worthless beverage because it has little taste, or that air is an unimportant element because it is invisible, or that the motion of the earth on its axis, or round the sun, is an unreality because it escapes observation. This so-called neutral base is really the best of it, of far more importance as an element in our cup of gladness than the occasional excitements to which sensualists restrict the name of pleasure. Highly emotional conditions are transient, and it is well that they are. Our nerves soon succumb to the strain of prolonged excitement, not less in the case of pleasure than in the case of pain. Best for us is the unemotional state in which we enjoy existence without feeling or consciousness, happy yet not knowing why. Such is the fact, and the fact is significant. It means that ‘not enjoyment and not sorrow is our destined end and way.’

The identification of will with desire is bad psychology, though it very well serves the pessimist's purpose to make life a synonym for misery. Desire is irrational, will is rational. Desire presses blindly on towards a particular gratification, will regulates desires, restraining some, allowing others to attain their object; and in so far as it successfully performs this task, it prevents rather than causes misery. It is a great moral crisis in a man's life when he deliberately and seriously addresses the energy of his will to the task. It is what in religious language is called ‘repentance’ or the renewal of the will. Schopenhauer has his own theory of repentance. ‘Repentance,’ he says, ‘never proceeds from a change of the will (which is impossible), but from a change of knowledge. The essential and peculiar in what I have always willed I must still continue to will; for I myself am this will which lies outside time and change. I can therefore never repent of what I have willed, though I can repent of what I have done; because, led by false conceptions, I did something that was not in conformity with my will.’ The discovery of this through fuller knowledge is repentance.3 There is a fallacy here arising from the confusion of desire and will. Even in a morally altered life old desire remains. Our characteristic impulses, weaknesses, besetting temptations, pass over from the old into the new roots of evil which, if allowed to grow up, will trouble us again. And it is just the function of our will, enlightened by experience, to prevent these roots from springing up. The adoption of this repressive attitude towards desires and passions and the vices they engender, is the new element which enters into our will in repentance. And so, while desire repressed and curbed remains, the will changes in the moral crisis.

The negative nature of pleasure is another mistake in pessimist psychology. Pleasure is surely something more than mere momentary relief from a more abiding state of pain! There are pleasures pure and real which have no pains as their antecedents. ‘Where,’ asks Mr. Sully, ‘is the want, the longing, preceding the innumerable, agreeable sensations which are excited in us during a walk on a bright spring morning?’4 Hartmann indeed concedes that there are such pleasures, herein differing from Schopenhauer. But he maintains that they are few compared with the pleasures of the negative sort, consisting in relief to pain-causing desire. Whether they be few or many depends a good deal on the individual. To not a few men blessed with good health and good simple habits, it is a true pleasure to open the eyes on the light of day after a refreshing sleep during the hours of unconsciousness. This is a pleasure not preceded by desire. Hartmann confesses that he has never found waking and rising the pleasure it is alleged to be. This may be his misfortune, due to lack of physical tone, or it may be his fault. One cannot help suspecting the competency to judge of the pleasurableness of life on the part of one who writes as Hartmann does about the drawbacks connected with certain other enjoyments which are more than reliefs to antecedent pain, those, viz., connected with the fine arts. Fatiguing pacing up and down the rooms of the picture-gallery, the heat and crowding of theatres and concert-rooms, the risk of taking cold, the tiring of the eye and ear, all the more annoying that you have to pay for the whole entertainment when the half is as much as you can enjoy:5 what grave annoyances! how obvious that even in the enjoyment of art the pain outweighs the pleasure! Really, when it comes to this, one begins to feel that in the case of this would-be representative of pessimistic philosophy we have to do with an effeminate person rather than with a healthy-minded man, and that the proper way of treating him is to laugh at him rather than to answer him. It would be easy to cancel all the purest pleasures of life by such paltry grumbling; those, e.g., connected with travel, which occupy so large a place in modern experience. Sweet is recreation after toil; what delights nature, by its mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, forests and wild-flowers, singing birds and rippling streams, brings to eye and ear! But then the drawbacks: sea-sickness, the custom-house, crowded trains, disagreeable companions, luggage gone astray, unseasonable hours of starting, rainy days, mists hiding the glorious view which you painfully climbed to the mountain top to behold!

Pain, then, is not the one great reality of human life. I add that however extensive the rôle it plays, pain is not a pure unmitigated evil. It serves beneficent ends. It cannot indeed be fully understood till it is viewed in relation to the moral and religious elements in man's nature, and there may continue to be something mysterious about it even then. But at least some light can be thrown on this dark region by a consideration of the service pain renders to man as a sentient creature. One broad fact often remarked on is that the susceptibility to painful sensations has a preservative use in the economy of nature. The pains of want, hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc., as Dr. Martineau puts it, ‘work the organism.’6 ‘Painful sensations,’ remarks Professor Le Conte, ‘are only watchful vedettes upon the outposts of our organism to warn us of approaching danger. Without these the citadel of our life would be quickly surprised and taken.’7 Attempts indeed have been made to show that the vedettes might be dispensed with; but while, again to use the vivid language of Dr. Martineau, we cannot go so far as to say that ‘among the infinite reserves of things, there is no alternative possibility,’ yet ‘so far as our range of conditions goes, the objection to pain is an objection to sentient life, and proposes not to reform, but to abolish all but the vegetable realm of natural history.’8 Pain thus belongs to the natural normal order, not only in human life, but in all animal life. So does death, the most formidable evil we have to encounter. Creatures subject to the law of growth must decay and die. Birth has death for its correlate. This fact alone might reconcile us to the repulsive experience, and there are other considerations which come in to help us to contemplate it with composure. Successive generations make room for each other. In this view not only the fact of death, but the brevity of human life,—the trite theme of many lamentations in the literature of our race,—is far from being an unmixed evil. ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore years; yet is their pride but labour and sorrow, for it is soon gone and we fly away.’9 Sad fact, doubtless, yet there is another side to the picture which cannot have been in view of these French optimists of last century who included in the glowing prospect of human progress the indefinite prolongation of life, say to the extent of three or four hundred years.10 Consider for a moment what that would mean. What intolerable obstructives to the very progress in which this preternatural longevity is conceived to be an clement would these ancients of three hundred years be! They would wish all things—science, art, machinery, social customs, religious belief and practice—to remain the same as when they were in their prime. The younger generation, those who desire the world to move on, have trouble enough with seniors even as it is. If the length of human life were doubled or tripled, life for the pioneers of humanity would become hardly worth living through the oppressive conservatism of a too numerous and ultra-venerable body of elders.11 Let it not be imagined, therefore, that we have any cause to envy Methuselah. We are much better as we are. This is an instance illustrating the importance of looking at physical evil in connection with ethical interests. From a merely natural point of view we might all be inclined to unite with the French optimists in their wish for the indefinite extension of man's time on earth. With all deference to the pessimist, life, in spite of all its drawbacks, is sweet, and the longer our lease of it, one would say, the better. But take the higher goods of life into account, and at once you begin to see that there is room for doubt, and by and by it becomes apparent that the generations of man must not linger too long if progress is to be attained, Alan must come and go in quick, succession if the river of humanity is to flow on in ever increasing fulness of spiritual vitality.

Before passing from the topic of death, let me glance for a moment at the form in which it comes to many creatures in the lower animal world, viz., not by natural decay, but through the predaceous instincts of carnivorous animals. This has ever appeared to thoughtful minds a peculiarly repulsive feature in the economy of nature, hard to reconcile with the beneficence of the Creator. We seem here to see Schopenhauer's ‘Will’ asserting itself with brutal indifference to the torture it may inflict on sentient beings. Yet even on this dark aspect of nature, Dr. Martineau, whose whole treatment of the subject of pain is very fertile in instructive suggestion, has contrived to throw some relieving rays of light. The point he makes is that you have to choose between the predaceous system and a world full of death caused by the poison of putrefaction. ‘Withdraw altogether the carnivorous habit, and the whole stock of the world must become graminivorous.’ Then ‘how would you dispose of the bodies of the dead animals?’ Do you say that ‘in order to have an herbivorous world, we might ask for the corresponding alteration in the laws of putrefaction’? That would mean ‘a reconstitution, on new bases, of the whole chemical legislation of the world.’12 Thus it appears that on a connected view of things beneficence may be discovered even here.

And if here where not? Is there really any stringent reason for denying the thesis of the old Hebrew Psalmist, ‘The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord’?13 Is there not, as Dr. Chalmers alleged, an extensive capacity in the world for making a virtuous human species happy?14 Nay, is there not a capacity, which has by no means remained an unrealised possibility, for making men happy to a large extent irrespective of virtue? God is a magnanimous Being. ‘He hath not dealt with us after our sins.’15 ‘He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’16 Hartmann's elaborate demonstration that the hope of man to find happiness here on earth is a delusion is not conclusive. It is simply a plausible show of argument in support of a foregone conclusion. Therefore this so-called first stage of the ‘illusion’ does not lie behind us. The ‘illusion’ lives and prospers still, and it will continue to do so while the world lasts. Mankind is not yet driven by despair into the next world, or into the distant future of this world, as the only available anchorage of hope. Life is good, not evil; healthy life is full of joy; the world that appeals to eye and ear is the source of a pure delight that does not pall with years; work is no curse, rather the want of it is; a harsh climate is not a calamity, it makes a manly, hardy, energetic race; love to young man and maiden is sweet and blissful still, home is home in all the centuries; true friendship is still possible.

But virtue or vice, morality, ethically right conduct, or the reverse, makes a great difference. It is only when we pass into this higher region that we are able to estimate duly the worth and the unworth of human life. It is only then we understand to what an extent physical evil is interwoven with moral evil. So we come back to the point from which we started, viz., that if you wish to judge truly of the value of life we must contemplate it, not from a merely hedonistic, but from an ethical point of view.

One broad fact stares us in the face here: That much of the suffering that comes on men is the direct effect of their evil-doing. Many sorrows overtake the wicked: disease, disgrace, untimely death. There is no room for complaint on this score, no perplexing problem for the man who wishes to justify the ways of God. Things are as they should be. The sufferings of the evil-doer are the penalty of his folly and crime. It is well that there is a penalty. The penalties of transgression witness to the dignity of human nature and to the reality of a moral order in the world. They show that man was meant to be something higher and better than a slave of appetite and passion, a mere puppet of Schopenhauer's blind will. If there were no penalties attached to self-indulgence and lawless living, one might legitimately doubt whether the Divine Being cared for morality. The severer the penalty, the more certain it is that there is such a thing as a moral government of God in this world.

Yet this is only half the truth. The punitive experiences of moral offenders are not exclusively penal. They are likewise redemptive in purpose and tendency, and not unfrequently in effect. Divine justice is tempered with mercy. The furies of judgment are also angels of grace that would conduct the foolish back to wisdom. Penalties are at the same time chastisements, stripes for scourging out the brute nature and making room for the spirit of a man. ‘Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou one and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.’17 As the pain of hunger stimulates to exertion in order to procure food, so the dire pains of sin stimulate to repentance.

If it were only sinners that suffered in this world, the task of justifying Providence would be easy. But there is another phenomenon of a more perplexing character—suffering falling on the righteous, not merely as well as on the sinful, but sometimes even more than on them, often, too, inflicted by their hands. This fact seems to raise doubts as to the reality of a moral order, and to throw all things into confusion. It puzzled sages of ancient times in Palestine, China, and Greece, and raised in their minds questions they were not able to answer. Thanks to Jesus Christ, we understand the matter better now. But even apart from the light thrown on the subject by the teaching of Christ, there are certain truths that might disclose themselves to close observation, and that were indeed partly discerned by the unknown author of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and by Plato. One is that the suffering of the righteous is not an accident, but rather happens by law; not a specially dark feature in a moral chaos, but a recondite aspect of a moral cosmos. A second truth is, that this suffering is not in vain, but has redemptive value. These two truths we shall have an opportunity of considering at a later stage. Meantime, there is a third truth to be added to them which may appropriately be commented on here, this, viz., that the suffering of the righteous is not without compensation to themselves, especially when they understand the law of the case, and loyally adjust themselves to it. This crowning truth has not been plain to all who have been alive to the fact that the suffering of preeminent goodness is a uniform experience. In a dialogue between nature and a soul Leopardi makes nature say: ‘Go, my beloved child. You shall be regarded as my favoured one for very many centuries. Live; be great, and unhappy.’18 This is an echo in modern literature of the thought of Euripides: ‘I have never heard it said that sons born to mortals of divine paternity were happy.’19 Leopardi regarded the fact stated as one of the most convincing arguments in support of a pessimistic theory of the universe. The unhappiness of nature's noblest children unrelieved, and serving no purpose—how can a good God preside over such a world! But the unhappiness is not unrelieved. With the outward unhappiness goes inward Blessedness. When the suffering endured ceases to be regarded as an untoward fate involuntarily endured, and is freely accepted as an incident in a heroic career, then all heaviness of heart departs, and pain is transmuted into pleasure. The heroic temper is cheerful, buoyant, exultant. It can mount up on wings like an eagle, it can bound like a chamois from rock to rock on the Alpine mountains. ‘Rejoice and be exceeding glad,’ said Jesus to the persecuted, hinting a fact in terms of an exhortation. And He ought to know. He speaks with the authority of an expert. His first disciples caught His spirit, and knew how to exult in tribulation, and many Christians since the apostolic age have learned the high art. But the mood is not confined to Christendom; witness Socrates and the serenity with which he met death. It is the mood of self-sacrificing love all the world over; of every mother who devotes herself to her offspring, and counts all hardship endured in their behalf a very light affliction. Herein lies the ‘mystery of pain’ that, in association with love, it ceases to be an evil. ‘The pains of martyrs, or the losses of self-sacrificing devotion, are never classed among the evil things of the world. They are its bright places rather, the culminating points at which humanity has displayed its true glory, and reached its perfect level. An irrepressible pride and gladness are the feelings they elicit: a pride which no regret can drown, a gladness no indignation overpower.’20

Only with this highest truth does the apology of pain reach its triumphant climax. The three points stated before—that pain stimulates to self-preservation, serves as penalty for transgression, subjects those who have erred to a salutary discipline—are all true and important, and together go a considerable way towards justifying the large place which suffering holds in human experience. But not till it has been seen that in a world where evil abounds, pain is inseparable from love and welcome to love, does perplexity vanish. Then we perceive that love needs pain for its highest self-manifestation. Then also complaining is rebuked by the manner in which love takes pain. If the noblest do not lament over their afflictive experience, why should others repine? Is our repining not a proof that we have not been initiated into the highest kind of life? Does not our extreme sensitiveness to pain reveal some moral defect, some blindness as to the true nature of happiness? ‘Doubtless, we are right to loathe and repudiate pain, and count its endurance an evil. To be happy is good: to feel pain is evil and the sign of evil…But the question is, What is the happiness God has meant us for, the happiness to which human nature is fitted, to which it should aspire? Should it be that from which the painful is banished, or that in which pain is latent? Should pain be merely absent, or swallowed up in love and turned to joy?’21

If we were initiated into this life of love, we should not need to fly to another world in quest of a happiness we could not find here. This earth offers peculiar facilities for enjoying the bliss connected with self-sacrifice. You do not need to leave the world to escape from Hartmann's first phase of illusion. You require only to discover the secret of the blessed life, now and always, here and everywhere. This is the life which Christ called eternal, because it is the true life, and which He did not locate exclusively in heaven. It is the life which makes a hereafter credible and desirable. For one who possesses this life now, the life beyond will not be an absolute novelty. It will simply be a case of present life going on. In any case, whether there be a heaven or not, it is the best life going, the life of wisdom and goodness, and of peace independent of circumstance.

The question of Progress is a vital one for those who believe in a beneficent Providence. It is characteristic of pessimism to meet the thesis that the condition of the world is steadily advancing with a blunt, unqualified denial. The hope of a good time coming is for Hartmann simply the final stage of illusion. By this view he places himself in antagonism not merely to Christian belief, but to the convictions of the most prominent advocates of evolutionism. Spencer and Fiske expect the social condition to go on improving. They are optimists for the distant future. And the evils of the present they can bear with a patient mind, regarding them simply as incidental to the stage of social evolution at which we have arrived. ‘The physical ills with which humanity is afflicted,’ writes Mr. Fiske, ‘are undoubtedly consequent upon the very movement of progress which is bearing it onwards towards relative perfection of life, and moral evils likewise are the indispensable concomitants of its slow transition from the primeval state of savage isolation to the ultimate state of civilised interdependence. They are not obstacles to any scientific theory of evolution, nor do they provide an excuse for gloomy cynicism, but should rather be viewed with quiet resignation, relieved by philosophic hopefulness and enlightened endeavours to ameliorate them.’22 Into the question in dispute between pessimists and optimistic evolutionists I cannot here enter; I confine myself for the present to a point on which these antagonists are agreed, viz., the non-reality of a living beneficent Providence. This, Fiske, in his Cosmic Philosophy, affirms as resolutely as Hartmann does in his Philosophy of the Unconscious, and the grounds on which he rests his position are worth noticing. If, you naturally ask, one can put such calm trust in the course of evolution, why not equal confidence in a living God? The answer in effect is: Because in the one case you have to do with an impersonal unconscious tendency, in the other with a personal conscious will, from which you are entitled to expect more, even the instant removal of evil, a millennium per saltum. Such is the gist of the following arraignment of Providence. ‘A scheme which permits thousands of generations to live and die in wretchedness, cannot, merely by providing for the well-being of later ages, be absolved from the alternative charge of awkwardness or malevolence. If there exist a personal creator of the universe who is infinitely intelligent and powerful, he cannot be infinitely good; if, on the other hand, he be infinite in goodness, then he must be lamentably finite in power or in intelligence.’ God, that is, cannot be allowed time to do His beneficent work: He must make the world perfect at once.

Is this a reasonable demand? It is certainly a very sweeping stipulation. It really amounts to this, that God, as theistically conceived, is incompatible with evolution in any sphere of being. God can, and ought to, make the universe with a wave of the hand, with a word of His mouth. Why should millions of years elapse before man comes on the scene? If this creature was so good in God's eyes as to be the reason for the creation of the world, why not create both stage and actor off-hand? And if man, in his ideal form, was so fair in God's sight, why bring him into being at the first in a state far short of the ideal, as evolutionists believe, with the bare rudiments of humanity, just one short step in advance of the brute, so that thousands of years would be necessary to make him out and out a man with fully developed rational and moral powers?

But the demand for summary action, while really striking at the very idea of evolution, has reference chiefly to the social aspect of the process. It is here the shoe pinches. The tediousness of evolution anterior to man's arrival might be excused, but, after that, ought not the Creator to have accelerated his pace, and to have moved on rapidly towards the grand consummation when men, the world over, should ‘brothers be,’ with all that goes along with that?

It must be admitted that there is a difference between the earlier merely physical, and the later social and moral evolution, in respect to the measure in which they try faith. Pious men of old did not know enough of the method of creation to be able to make any reflections on the former, but they did have experience of the slow movement of Providence in human history, and their recorded utterances show that it created in their minds surprise and disappointment. They often exclaimed, ‘O Lord, how long!’ It did not in their case go the length of unbelief in a living God, to whom to appeal, but that is what it is coming to now. Agnostics say, ‘It is useless to exclaim, useless to pray; so far as appears, there is no “Lord” to pray to, or that can give seasonable, effective succour. Bear, therefore, patiently if you can, the ills of life, and hope that it will fare better with later generations than it has fared with you.’ Not much of a gospel this! Is there no better? Cannot we combine the old faith in Providence with the new faith in a slow, secular, social evolution?

Evolution does not appear to introduce any new element into the problem beyond a clearer perception of the exceeding slowness with which the world moves on towards goodness. At no time in the world's history have men of deep earnestness and profound moral reflection expected the consummation soon. It is only persons of sanguine temper and shallow thought who in any age imagine that evil is going to disappear from the earth in a year or two. But now that the evolutionary theory of the universe has taken possession of men's minds, it has become more than ever impossible to think that by any amount of faith, prayer, or effort, the bringing in of the kingdom of heaven into this world can be made other than a slow, insensible movement, at the rate, say, of a single great step in a generation, or a century, or in some cases even a millennium. This is now understood more clearly than ever it was before. But this clearer vision of the slow rate of movement does not introduce any new principle into the question at issue. The real question is, Is any delay whatever compatible with the idea of Providence? Should not a good God, with adequate power, make the world what it ought to be, at once? Now the best men of other ages did not find themselves shut up to this conclusion. And let us not lower the value of their judgment by imagining that for them a living God and a Providence were fixed elements of a traditional creed which for even the freest minds was above criticism. The book of job is a standing proof to the contrary. The author of job was capable of any amount of audacity in the way of questioning accepted beliefs. He could put into his hero's mouth such a sentiment as this: ‘It is all one; therefore I say, He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked. If the scourge slay suddenly, He will mock at the trial of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked: He covereth the faces of the judges thereof; if it be not He, who then is it?’23 If not He, who then? The ancient thinker could not anticipate the answer of the modern Agnostic that it is not a ‘He’ but a great unconscious law of progress with which we have to do. But he could ask the question. It was present to his mind, as a possibility, that the state of things to be observed in the world was due to the fact of there being no living or righteous God above the world, and ruling over it in justice and mercy. If, nevertheless, he held fast his faith in such a God, it was not in servile subjection to a traditional creed, but with free, personal conviction victorious over daring, radical, possibly protracted doubt.

If the evolutionary theory in one respect increases our burden, in another it lightens it. The burden is made heavier by the perception that æons must elapse before the kingdom of goodness come in power. But it is lightened by the inspiring thought that the world is marching on towards the desired consummation with the certainty of a law of nature. Of old it might be doubted whether there was any certainty in the matter. The world seemed given over to a reign of chance and caprice. If relief came, it came apparently by special, miraculous providence, catastrophically, not by the sure action of an immanent law. On that view, faith might occasionally gain great confirmation, but it was also liable to crushing disappointment. If the Lord turned back the captivity of Zion, the mouth was filled with laughter and the tongue with singing. But if the Lord did not visit His people in mercy, but brought wrath upon them to the uttermost, what then? Now, faith is less liable to extreme fluctuations. It looks at things on the large scale, and has less to hope for, so far as the single generation is concerned, and also less to fear. Catastrophes, crises, may come now as of old, and in these, devout souls will continue to trace the divine hand. But whether they come or not, the world marches on, and that is our comfort and stay. The heart may bleed over the miseries of mankind, yet it will cling to the hope that these miseries will not last for ever.

Still the questions come back, Why last so long, why last at all? How is the lasting reconcilable with the idea of a good God, and with an optimistic view of the world? Why cannot the moral ideal be realised at once? The answer must be, Because process is essential to morality. To realise the moral ideal per saltum, by an act of omnipotence, is to annihilate it; it is to turn the moral into something merely physical. To introduce the category of power into this region, as if it were equal to all demands, is to ignore the nature of the region, to forget that a will or a heart is not a thing like a lump of clay that can be moulded, or a mass of rock that can be broken in pieces. Moralisation is possible only in accordance with the nature of morality, i.e. in the exercise of freedom, through struggle, effort, experience, all demanding time as an indispensable condition, even for the sanctification of the individual, still more for the humanisation of the community, or the race. It is true indeed that for one who contemplates the history of the world sub specie aeternitatis time and process are eliminated. Ideal and reality, root and fruit, seed and tree, beginning and end, then become one. For God the moral ideal is eternally realised. Hence He might see in man perfect goodness the day he was created, though in him at that initial stage were found only the rudiments of goodness, the fruitful germ out of which a thoroughly disciplined moral character had to be slowly evolved. To the mystic temper of religion the same divine mode of contemplation is congenial. For it also the ideal is the real, and distinctions between beginning and end, now and then, are abolished. The good are perfectly good, the regenerate man knows no sin. This mode of viewing things has its own value, but used exclusively and carried out consistently it would mean the abolition of time, history, change, process, finitude, all swallowed up in the categories of the infinite and the absolute. Alongside of it, to balance it and make it have any significance, must be placed the ethical mode of viewing the world for which process is not only real but indispensable. In the moral world, process has its drawbacks; it implies defect, error, suffering, hopes deferred making the heart sick. But not otherwise can the goal be reached. And what an interest attaches to the sublime, though tragic, process of moral evolution! Who would exchange the historic method of human redemption for a magic transformation which should in the twinkling of an eye make all things new? The former supplies to devout reason a subject for admiring study; the latter, if it were possible, would simply stupefy. Process in the moral world commends itself at once to the scientific and to the ethical spirit. It is in analogy with all that we find elsewhere in the universe, and it is in accordance with the nature of morality. Heart and conscience may cry out against it; the heart because of the misery that follows sin, the conscience because the goal is still so far away. But the heart's pain and the wound of conscience are themselves among the chief forces working for the grand consummation. ‘And this process of learning goodness, this gradual realisation by man of an ideal infinitely high and absolute in worth, throws back a light which illumines all the pain and strife and despair, and shows them all to be steps in the endless “love-way.” The unrealised, though ever-realising good, which brings despair, is the best fact in man's history; and it should rightly bring, not despair, but endless joy.’24

  • 1.

    Philosophy of History, Bohn's translation, p. 37.

  • 2.

    Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Hardy, at the end.

  • 3.

    The World as Will and Idea, vol. i. p. 382.

  • 4.

    Pessimism, p. 219.

  • 5.

    Philosophie des Unbewussten, p. 703.

  • 6.

    A Study of Religion, vol. ii. p. 81.

  • 7.

    I regret that I cannot give the reference.

  • 8.

    A Study of Religion, vol. ii. p. 82.

  • 9.

    Psalm xc. 10, R.V.

  • 10.

    So Condorset and Fourier. Vide Flint, The Philosophy of history, pp. 338, 410.

  • 11.

    Vide on this my Article in The Expositor on the 90th Psalm (vol. ix. 1879), also the elaborate statement by Martineau in A Study of Religion, vol i.

  • 12.

    A Study of Religion, vol. ii. pp. 95, 96.

  • 13.

    Psalm xxxiii. 5.

  • 14.

    Natural Theology, vol. ii. chap. vi.

  • 15.

    Psalm ciii, 10.

  • 16.

    Matthew v. 45.

  • 17.

    Jeremiah xxxi. 18.

  • 18.

    Essays and Dialogues, p. 36.

  • 19.

    Ion. v. 510.

  • 20.

    Hinton, The Mystery of Pain, p. 12.

  • 21.

    Hinton, The Mystery of Pain, pp. 38, 39.

  • 22.

    Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, vol. ii. p, 404.

  • 23.

    Job ix. 22-24. Revised Version.

  • 24.

    Professor Henry Jones, Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher, p. 268.