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Meditation XVIII

ABSOLUTE SYNTHESIS: The Synthesis of the Absolute and the Absolute Synthesis, i.e., the Absolute Truth of the Related—Knowledge as Absolute and as Relative—Critical Pluralism—Planes of Being and of Mind—Man's Knowledge not solely of the Conditioned—Faith.

THE past discussions ought to satisfy us that finite mind cannot grasp The Absolute in its initiation, nature, inner process and ends. And yet, in these very strivings to bring the Absolute within the circle of his comprehension, lies the possibility of man's realising himself as distinctive Man. The definition of Man is that he is a striving being involved in the Infinite. Hence all his greatness and all his woe.

It is a truism to say that not to know “The Absolute” is not to know any one thing; for no thing is out of relation to the Whole, no thing but has its roots in the Absolute and to know it would be to know the Whole. Says the Sphinx:—1

Who readeth one of my meanings,

Is Master of all I am.

Notwithstanding, Man has his rights: he is not made after the image of God to be flouted. Being and the Dialectic of the Universe do not emerge into self-consciousness in him without giving him the capacity to know; nay, imposing it as a duty in order that through knowledge he may truly live.

Accordingly, an organised knowledge of that sphere of Universal Being in which man exists, theoretically is, and practically may be, within his power; but, even if he attained to this, it would carry with it as part of its content the affirmation of a “more” which ever lay beyond him, under him, around him and above him.

The completed result of possible human knowledge I have called the absolute synthesis as opposed to a synthesis of The Absolute, which is impossible. In an early Meditation we saw that there are many planes, or rather orbs, of Universal Being. In our own earth-experience we see that every feeling thing, from the protozoon to Man, has its orb determined by the potency and potentiality of its monadic entity. The orb within which man is placed is so far complete and harmonious in itself, as to be adequate to the evolution and fulfilment of the man-being. He perceives the truth or actuality of Universal Being as displayed within his own orb. And if there be in the animals, down to the very lowest, orbs of being in which there is a revelation falling short the one of the other, and, above all, falling short of the orb within which Man is placed, there are doubtless also orbs or planes of Being which transcend that of man. It is the very function of the Infinite in us to say so. My knowledge, then, can be absolute knowledge only on the stage of Being which I occupy. When I have exhausted the man-categories in my comprehension of a thing, I am at the end of my tether: the Absolute in its totality is for ever a mystery. The final truth of things is as they are in God and appear to God: the finite mind is ever pathetically groping its way to this; but it finds itself, at a certain point, grasping the mist.

It is in the above sense alone, we have said, that all knowledge is “relative”. Even if we suppose Man to have exhausted all the experience which actuality can give on the plane of evolving Absolute Mind which he occupies, he will not yet have grasped the truth of Absolute Being, save on a certain plane of its endless and immeasurable evolution. God is great. This does not invalidate man's knowledge of Absolute Being as it actualises itself in his present recipient consciousness; nor yet the truth of his rational interpretation of the datum which he thus receives as his portion. In so far as a worm is aware of the object, it is aware of it truly and validly; but the datum to it, while true so far as it goes, is, in the cosmic system (as well as in the worm owing to its limitations), as nothing compared to that of man, whose higher range, however, embraces, without cancelling, the worm-reality. So with man: knowledge is restricted: it is within an orb, or on a certain plane; but as a step in the infinite and absolute process, it is objective fact and actuality; and any further evolution of finite mind will take up as true, and not cancel, what now is. The “more,” in brief, as seen by a higher spirit, does not reveal the less to be illusion, but contains it; nay must do so, if there be a “system” at all.

Knowledge then is relative only because it is not absolute in the sense of knowledge of The Absolute; that is to say, because it is restricted by the range of the being that feels and knows. That which is felt and known is complete within itself, and true. The True and the Good to man is not only the True and the Good for man, but for God on this plane of His Actuality. And man's function is, like that of all other individual and finite organisms, to work out the fulness of his own life, having first ascertained the meaning and law of that. Let any being—a snail or a man, negate its own “absolute” or truth, and it will be first miserable, and then perish.

And yet of Absolute Being unconditioned we are not ignorant, for we know the fact of it: and of Absolute Being, as externalised, we can know much: for we can see that, as an empirical fact, Evolution is the method of procedure—in other words, Evolution is the method of the universal process—that is to say the Evolution of God in and through things. The Absolute life is activity; not merely creative activity, but sustaining activity as Being and Formative Process. The Dialectic puts it beyond all question that it is a teleologico-causal Nisus, which, through various grades of Being, reveals The Absolute. The End or Idea (call it Absolute Idea if you like) is always there working itself out. I am stating the actual facts contained in our Epistemology. Each step or grade of Being is complete in itself, but it will also be found to contain, as an element in its very completeness, a prediction of a further—its own incompleteness. This is characteristic of all actuality, and of all knowledge of actuality. Do we not see the lowest forms of sentience predicting sensation as if feeling their way to a higher, and the fulfilled sentience which we call attuition predicting and feeling its way to reason?

In each lower stage, The Absolute as truth is determined for that stage—for it and in it; but, in the case of Man, it is determined in him as sentient, but by himself as a willing and knowing energy, through the necessity of the dialectic. God is not only in man and for man but with man—the very nerve of the Man-being.

It is only Man who can raise the question of The Absolute in its totality, and try to look at the vast and various Whole of difference through the eyes (as it were) of God. Man has strained after this from time immemorial with indifferent success, and latterly, with the melancholy confession that the Absolute Being can be nothing but a semi-sentient “somewhat” or a “systematic individuality” or “absolute experience”—conceptions which will probably fail to evoke religious emotion in us, or rouse our sons to a strenuous moral life. Better far to erect an altar “To the Unknown God” and call upon the nations to sacrifice and worship there. I do not know, and cannot ever know, how and in what sense good and evil, right and wrong, black and white, straight and crooked, cause and effect, are held in the Absolute consciousness. But I do know, or may know, what they are on my grade of Being, which is one of God's grades. The differences between these contraries give the possibility of knowledge and virtue, and beauty, as of all existence: they are the keystone of the arch of human life; take out the keystone and the whole crumbles into dust.

The critical Natural Realist and Pluralist accepts the Whole of Being, Dialectic, and Externalisation as the sole actuality; and Being and Dialectic as One throughout. He accepts the patent fact of difference in continuity and continuity in difference. This contradiction is indeed the very basis of his thought, as it is of all possible finite reality,—Being in diverse beings, Mind in particular and individual minds: and this so that the diverse and distinct is not only as much a factor in the total Actual as the One is; but is the very method of the One as existent. Good and bad are real oppositions in man,—distinctions just as valid as the distinction between a man and a horse. Each unit, moreover, has its own rights, privileges, claims, and duties in and through the Whole, by virtue of the cosmic fact of Negation. That tree exists independently of me just as much as you do; and it exists as I see it, whatever further significance it may have as a “That” in the Absolute.

Critical Pluralism again, is as rational and reasonable in its relation to The Absolute Whole as in its relation to the finite object. When I use the expression, “Man, like every other entity, is within a system,” I mean that he is inside the system of related entities which constitute this universe. Although he is a conditioning Will-reason so far as his own experience is concerned, he is himself conditioned. The universe or system of relata, within which man is, existing as it does by means of individuals, individua and the One are, to begin with, accepted as an apparent contradiction by the Pluralist; but, when he grips the object in the Whole of Being and Dialectic, he sees that the contradictions that arise out of the inadequate functioning of percipience and concipience are woven into a one in many, a many in one. Plurality does not contradict itself: it is only by virtue of plurals that there can be a One; only by virtue of contraries that there can be harmony.

But, even when man has solved this problem for himself, he knows that he is limited by the essential potentialities of his own specific being as an entitative unit in the continuous One; and consequently, that his possible knowledge is a true and absolute knowledge of the Absolute, only at this stage in its logical and time, evolution. The principles and law of the Whole, however, are necessarily in the part, for the part must be a veritable “moment” in the one infinite movement: and, so far as I can know these, I know the Absolute and God. The difficulty is to know them. The last word of physics will give us the truth of the phenomenal presentation as a truth in the infinite process and procession of the externalised Absolute—a truth in the Absolute and for ever true: so the last word of metaphysics, were that a possible achievement, would give us the truth of the infinite process of Universal Being-Mind,—a truth in the Absolute and for ever true. And by Truth we mean the Actual, i.e., the conscious reflection of the object as comprehended and interpreted by the subjective will-dialectic. Were I a god (and there is no reason to doubt the probability of super-human minds), both the phenomenal and the noumenal would doubtless assume another and a higher aspect and meaning; but within this higher would be seen, as I have frequently said, the truth of the lower as contained in it. This lower would have reached further explication, but without detracting from the truth of the prior revelation as fact and necessity in the great evolving series. God is something more than a finite reason can comprehend, but he is not something else.

But because man is within the conditioned, does it follow that he can know only the conditioned? Far from it. The transcendent infinite, we have seen, is contained in the very act of conditioning: nay more, the man-mind feels, and reason subsequently affirms, the Infinite Unconditioned on which all reposes. That is to say he can “perceive,” as mediated by the finite, (not the Infinite and Unconditioned but) the fact of the Infinite and Unconditioned. Or, we may say, he has a negative perception of these; but a positive Feeling. The windows which open out into the infinite are set all round him, and these are made of crystal so that he can look out into the infinite of the Conditioned and the infinite Unconditioned, although he cannot go out and take possession. Even the well-known Hamiltonian position affirms the Unconditioned as fact, and even, we may say, as ground. There is a prius of the conditioned—a pure experience which permeates, sustains—nay, makes possible my conscious being and all its content. If the strict definition of knowledge be the subsumption of an object under the moments of the subject as dialectic, man cannot “know” either the transcendent or the transcendental Infinite; but he can be conscious of both as a Feeling; and he can also “perceive” the Feeling. This Percipience I have called negative percipience: the positive Infinite Unconditioned being mediated through the negating finite and conditioned. If we object to the word “knowledge,” let us call this percept intuition. Feeling is not precisely the word to use, because reason has, in the act of percipience, gone on to affirm what Feeling primarily gives.

It is, in fact, not correct to say that man's knowledge is of the conditioned alone, but rather that his knowing is conditioning, determining, finitising. The resultant of the process is the reduction to his self-consciousness of, it may be, only a particular—a sample of the infinite Universal. But it is a sample: and in that sample we find not only the sense-categories—the categories of limitation, negation and diversity; but if we look long enough and watch the process by which we win for ourselves a knowledge of God as finitised in His creation, we shall find the universals which are implicit in all sense-phenomena and give them reality and actuality. I have been attempting to do this, in the hope of revealing to myself the ground-affirmation of Being and Thought-universal in all the particulars presented to me in this finite sphere, and which alone give meaning to nature and human life. It is not merely an irrepressible reason-instinct that compels me to affirm that the very fact of plurals, of contraries and contradictions, presupposes a One of fact of Process and End. I “know” it.

Surely there is intellectual perversity in concluding that because man's knowledge is not absolute and he fails to grasp “all differences in an inclusive harmony” he does not “know”. If it be truly so, man is a derelict wreck drifting in the infinite ocean of Being, without a hope of saving even a spar of the battered and broken vessel. The next ship that sails that sea may pick up a plank on which is painted the name of its predecessor; and the name is “Despair”.

Finally,—Not to know is ignorance; to know the limitations of knowledge is knowledge: to know how it is that by the very nature of the act of knowing we can know nothing absolutely is the highest knowledge—Docta ignorantia. And this highest knowledge is itself an anticipation and a prophecy.

After all, the chief business of the thinker is to solve the problem of himself. What is Man in this system of differences and oppositions, and what is his function? Can the answer to this give us a key to the Whole? Our attempt to know the totality thus falls back on ourselves, and we ask to know the knower as himself the sum of an infinite complex of differences—to know the knower and the process and limits of his knowing. The world-riddle is thus the riddle of Man, and, in solving that, we find a certain solution of the total of his experience—Man's Absolute. We find the unity in his differences and solve therein the problem of the world. Each unit in the whole belongs to every other unit, and all are one in the One of Being-Dialectic, and are harmonised in the teleological movement which is the central fact and nerve of the Absolute Process.

Strange it is that The Absolute should have for its highest terrestrial expression a finite reason asking questions that cannot be finally answered in terms of knowledge, although the very function of the said reason is to “know”! What is it in the dialectic that compels this? Is there any profound significance concealed in this reason-impulse and reason-impotence? Assuredly. The impotence is the birth of a higher potency: the purpose is to evoke the ever-aspiring energy of man and to predict a future. And what of this future—this Not-Yet? Briefly and perfunctorily, I would say here:—

The general conviction of some solution or other is Trust (a complex of Belief and Hope),—a solution that would preserve differences and does not suppress them. Suppression would be an evasion, not a solution. And, in like manner, as regards the destiny of the individual soul, we believe in and forecast some special solution. This is Faith or subjective conviction; not mawkish sentiment, nor yet engendered by unworthy weakness. Faith is entitled to assert itself, however, only when reason has exhausted its powers; and, thus, it is far removed from credulity. Faith rests on what reason has so far clearly affirmed, but leaves incomplete; and it is thus that faith finds its guarantee in reason itself and draws its strength therefrom. It may be said to be fore-knowledge—anticipated knowledge, pre-science; for a philosophic and virile faith is merely the concluding judgment of a long induction resting on the total of a reasoned experience. I call such a faith virile; for the man who yields to the seductive and spurious intellectualism of ever dwelling on the ultimate mystery and obvious contradictions of things instead of manfully accepting the conditions of the system and doing his part, is a spiritual weakling.

And yet, it must be confessed, even the strongest man has his ebb-tides. As he thinks on the race to which he belongs and its eventful and bewildered story, his compassion and his wonder are aroused at the contradictions that beset this remarkable cosmic product, at the seemingly futile and ever-renewed conflict with evil in its myriad shapes and with the fateful necessities of natural environment. In a mood of despair, he may even have to withdraw awhile that he may brace himself anew for the striving and struggle and pain which, explain it how we may, lie at the root of the life of all who inherit the fatal gift of reason; but, if he be true to the highest in him, he will soon return to the arena, in the masculine conviction that there is a spiritual order, and that both mystery and misery have a significance which, if he saw the whole, would put to shame his passing pusillanimity.

  • 1.

    Emerson.