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Lecture 3: Æsthetic and Theism


IN this lecture I have undertaken to consider certain beliefs and emotions relating to beauty, and to inquire how far their value is affected by our views as to their origin.

The poverty of language, however, makes it rather difficult to describe with any exactness the scope of such an inquiry. Beauty is an ill-defined attribute of certain members of an ill-defined class; and for the class itself there is no very convenient name. We might describe its members as “objects of æsthetic interest” always bearing in mind that this description (as I use it) applies to objects of the most varying degrees of excellence—to the small as well as the great, the trifling as well as the sublime: to conjuring and dancing; to literature, art, and natural beauty.

It follows from this description that, while all things of beauty possess æsthetic interest, not all things of æsthetic interest would in common parlance be described as beautiful.1 They might, for example, display wit, or finish, or skill. They might, therefore, properly excite admiration. But beauty is a term whose use may well be confined to the qualities which excite only the highest forms of æsthetic interest, and it is thus I propose to employ it.

Now what are the characteristics which distinguish objects of æsthetic interest from interesting objects generally? I will mention two.

In the first place, the value of æsthetic objects depends on the intrinsic quality of the emotions they arouse, and not upon the importance of any ulterior purpose which they may happen to sub-serve. In the second place, the emotions themselves, whatever be their value, must be contemplative. They must not prompt to action or reach forward to any end. They must be self-sufficient, and self-contained.

Of course, I do not suggest that works of art are useless. A building may be beautiful, although it is also convenient. A sword most delicately damascened may be an admirable engine of destruction. We may even go further and admit that utility unadorned may have about it an æsthetic flavour. Nice adjustment and fitness exquisitely accomplished are without doubt agreeable objects of contemplation. But, in the first two of these cases, beauty is deliberately added to utility, not organically connected with it. An ill-proportioned building might have been equally fitted for its purpose; a plain sword might have been equally lethal. In the third case the connection between utility and æsthetic interest is organic, yet undesigned. From the very nature of the case it forms no part of the purpose for which the mechanism was contrived.

Again—when I say that æsthetic interest does not prompt to action, I am, of course, speaking of those who enjoy, not of those who are laboriously trying to enjoy, still less of those who create what is to be enjoyed. It commonly requires effort, conscious and unconscious, to be a good spectator; it always requires effort to become a good artist. Yet these are no real exceptions to the principle, Æsthetic interests, once aroused, do not prompt to action; and it is, I conceive, of their essence that they should not. The most emotional spectator does not rush to save Desdemona from Othello; and, though tragedy may (or may not) purify by “pity and terror,” the pity does not suggest a rescue, nor the terror urge to flight.


Now these characteristics of æsthetic emotions and beliefs raise problems of great interest. How came they to be what they are? To what causal process are they due? In the case of ethics (to anticipate a discussion that will occupy us in the next lecture) the earlier stages at least are seemingly due to selection. They lead to action, and to action which has survival value. But what survival value have æsthetic judgments and feelings at any stage of culture? It is true that actions which are sometimes represented as primitive forms of artistic creation play their part in the drama of animal courtship. Some animals dance, some sing, some croak; some flaunt colours, some exhale smells. Apes (it seems) make inarticulate noises which (according to Spencer) were the humble beginnings, not only of speech, but of music. I own that to me this sort of explanation leaves our æsthetic interests quite unexplained. Grant, for the sake of argument, that, were our knowledge sufficient, we could trace a continuous history of musical emotions from the simple satisfaction excited in the female ape by the howling of the male, down to the delicate delights of the modern musician, should we be nearer an answer to the problem of æsthetic causation? I doubt it. Certainly we should not have succeeded in coupling the development of our feelings for beauty to the general process of organic evolution. Before this can be satisfactorily accomplished it must be shown, not merely that the tastes of anthropoid apes are useful to anthropoid apes, but that the tastes of men are useful to men, and in particular that the tastes of civilised men are useful to civilised men. Nor would even this be enough unless usefulness be carefully defined in terms of survival value. It must, in other words, be shown that communities rich in the genius which creates beauty and in the sensibility which enjoys it, will therefore breed more freely and struggle more successfully than their less gifted neighbours. And I am not aware that any attempt to establish such a doctrine has ever been seriously undertaken.

But, if so, our æsthetic sensibilities must be regarded (from the naturalistic standpoint) as the work of chance. They form no part of the quasi design which we attribute to selection; they are unexplained accidents of the evolutionary process. This conclusion harmonises ill with the importance which civilised man assigns to them in his scheme of values. On this point, at least, there reigns a singular unanimity. However people may differ as to what we should admire, all are agreed that we should admire something. However they may differ about the benefits to be derived from æsthetic, all are agreed that the benefits are great. The pessimist finds in art the solitary mitigation of human miseries. A certain type of agnostic treats it as an undogmatic substitute for religion. He worships beauty, but nothing else; and expects from it all the consolations of religious experience without the burdens of religious belief. Even those who would refuse to art and literature this exalted position, are prepared to praise them without stint. They regard the contemplative study of beautiful things as a most potent instrument of civilisation; in countless perorations they preach its virtues; delicacy of æsthetic discrimination they deem the surest proof of culture, and the enjoyment of æsthetic excellence its highest reward.

The case is apparently, but not really, different when we turn from beauty to the minor æsthetic interests—the popular novel, the music-hall song, the cricket-match (as spectacle), the cinematograph, and so forth. Nobody, it is true, greatly praises these things, but multitudes greatly enjoy them. The space they occupy in the life of the community has increased beyond computation. As locomotion becomes easier and leisure greater that space will increase yet more. This may be good or bad; but none will deny that it is important. What a paradox this seems! Theories of selection were devised to explain the complex structures and the marvellous adjustments of the organic world without needlessly postulating design. We should think but poorly of them if they accounted for some organs by methods quite inapplicable to others—if they showed us, for example, how the eye had developed, but appealed to some wholly different principle (say special creation) when they set to work on the ear; or taught that the nose must be regarded as an evolutionary accident not to he explained on any general principle at all. If what required explanation was of small biological importance, this last hypothesis would not seem perhaps startling. The most convinced selectionist is not obliged to suppose that selection eliminates everything which does not make for survival. Useless variations may be spared if they be harmless. Even harmful variations may be spared if they be Jinked to variations so advantageous that their joint effect proves beneficial on balance. But is this the case with æsthetic? Are we to treat as unconsidered trifles our powers of enjoying beauty and of creating it? Can we be content with a world-outlook which assigns to these chance products of matter and motion so vast a value measured on the scale of culture, and no value worth counting measured on the scale of race survival? If design may ever be invoked where selection fails and luck seems incredible, surely it may be invoked here.


These observations are applicable, more or less, to the whole body of our æsthetic interests—whether they be roused by objects we deem relatively trivial, or by objects which are admittedly rare and splendid. But while neither fit comfortably into a purely naturalistic framework, it is only the second which, in virtue of their intrinsic quality, demand a source beyond and above the world of sense perception. Here, then, we are face to face with a new question. So far we have been concerned to ask whether that which is admittedly valuable can be plausibly attributed to chance. Now we must ask whether that which is attributed to chance can thereafter retain its value. Of these questions the first is germane to the ordinary argument from design. It is the second which chiefly concerns us in these lectures.

Perhaps an affirmative answer may seem to have been already given by implication. The admission that the second problem only touches the highest values in the æsthetic scale may be thought to render the whole inquiry vain. And the admission cannot be avoided. No one supposes that when we are looking (for example) at an acrobat, it matters in the least what we think of the universe. Our beliefs and disbeliefs about the Cosmic order will not modify either in quantity or quality such satisfaction as we can derive from the contemplation of his grace and agility. Where, then, it will be asked, do we reach the point in the æsthetic scale at which values begin to require metaphysical or theological postulates? Is it the point where beauty begins? If so, who determine where this lies; and by what authority do they speak?

Evidently we are here on difficult and delicate ground. On questions of taste there is notoriously the widest divergence of opinion. Nor, if we regard our æsthetic interests simply as the chance flotsam and jetsam of the evolutionary tides, could it well be otherwise. If there be practically no “limits of deviation” imposed by selection; if, from a survival point of view, one taste be as good as another, it is not the varieties in taste which should cause surprise so much as the uniformities.

To be sure, the uniformities have often no deep æsthetic roots. They represent no strong specific likes and dislikes shared by all men at a certain stage of culture, but rather tendencies to agreement (as I have elsewhere called them), which govern our social ritual, and thereby make social life possible. We rail at “fashion,” which by an unfelt compulsion drives multitudes simultaneously to approve the same dresses, the same plays, the same pictures, the same architecture, the same music, and the same scenery. We smile at the obsequious zeal with which men strive to admire what the prophets of the moment assure them is admirable. But admitting, as I think we must, that these prophets neither possess any inherent authority, nor can point to any standard of appeal, we must also admit that if in Art there were no orthodoxies, if the heresies themselves were unorganised, if every man based his æsthetic practice on a too respectful consideration of his own moods and fancies, the world we live in would be even more uncomfortable than it is.

However this may be, it is clear that this second portion of my argument, which is not based, like the first, on any objective survey of the part played in human affairs by general æsthetic interests, has special difficulties to surmount. For it rests on experiences of high emotion rare for all, unknown to many, roused in different men by different objects. How can any conclusions be securely based on foundations at once so slender and so shifting?

I agree that the values dealt with in this part of the argument are not values for everybody. Yet everybody, I think, would be prepared to go some way in the direction I desire. They would acknowledge that, in art, origin and value cannot be treated as independent. They would agree that those who enjoy poetry and painting must be at least dimly aware of a poet beyond the poem and a painter beyond the picture. If by some unimaginable process works of beauty could be produced by machinery, as a symmetrical colour pattern is produced by a kaleidoscope, we might think them beautiful till we knew their origin, after which we should be rather disposed to describe them as ingenious. And this is not, I think, because we are unable to estimate works of art as they are in themselves, not because we must needs buttress up our opinions by extraneous and irrelevant considerations; but rather because a work of art requires an artist, not merely in the order of natural causation, but as a matter of æsthetic necessity.

It conveys a message which is valueless to the recipient, unless it be understood by the sender. It must be expressive.

Such phrases are no doubt easily misunderstood. Let me, therefore, hasten to add that by an “expressive” message I do not mean a message which can be expressed in words. A work of art can never be transferred from one medium into another, as from marble to music. Even when words are the medium employed, perfect translation is impossible. One poet may paraphrase, in a different language, the work of another; and a new work of art may thus be produced. But however closely it follows the original, it will never be the same. On the other hand, if the medium used be (for example) colour, or sound, or stone, the work of art cannot be translated into words at all. It may be described; and the description may better the original. Yet it cannot replace it. For every work of art is unique; and its meaning cannot be alternatively rendered. But are we, therefore, to conclude that it has no meaning? Because its message cannot be translated, has it therefore no message? To put these questions is to answer them.

Many people, however, who would travel with me so far would refuse to go further. They would grant that a work of art must be due to genius, and not, in the first instance, to mechanism or to chance, But whether, in the last resort, mechanism or chance has produced the genius, they would regard as, from the æsthetic point of view, quite immaterial. Music and poetry must have a personal source. But the musician and the poet may come whence they will.

And perhaps, in very many cases, this is so; hut not, I think, in all, nor in the highest. If any man will test this for himself, let him recall the too rare moments when beauty gave him a delight which strained to its extremest limit his powers of feeling; when not only the small things of life, but the small things of Art—its technical dexterities, its historical associations—vanished in the splendour of an unforgettable vision; and let him ask whether the attribution of an effect like this to unthinking causes, or to an artist created and wholly controlled by unthinking causes, would not go far to impair its value.

To such an appeal it is not difficult to raise objections. It may be said, for example, that, under the stress of emotions like those I have described, no man troubles his head about problems of cosmology; thought is merged in feeling; speculation is smothered. But though this is true, it is not wholly true. As no pain, I suppose, is so intense as to exclude all reflections on its probable duration, so no rapture is so absorbing as to exclude all reflections on its probable source. I grant that at such moments we do not philosophise; we do not analyse a problem, turning it this way or that, and noting every aspect of it with a cool curiosity. Nevertheless, for those accustomed to reflect, reflection is never wholly choked by feeling. Nor can feeling, in the long run, be wholly unaffected by reflection.

Again, it may be said that such moments too seldom occur in any man's experience to justify even the most modest generalisations—let alone generalisations that embrace the universe. But this objection seems to rest on a misapprehension. We must remember that the argument from æsthetic values is not a scientific induction or a logical inference. There is here no question of truth and falsehood, or even of good taste and bad taste. We are not striving to isolate what is essential to beauty by well-devised experiments; nor are we concerned with psycho-physical determination of the normal relation between feeling and stimulus. If it be urged that some particular example of deep æsthetic emotion quite outruns the merits of its object, so that sound canons of criticism require its value to be lowered, we need not deny it. We are not dealing with sound canons of criticism; though I may observe, in passing, that if they lower emotional values in one direction without raising them in others, good taste becomes a some-what costly luxury. My point is different, I am not appealing to all men, but only to some men—to those and to those only who, when they explicitly face the problem, become deeply conscious of the incongruity between our feelings of beauty and a materialistic account of their origin.

The extreme individualism of this point of view may seem repulsive to many. Are the feelings (they will ask) of some transient moment to be treated as authentic guides through the mysteries of the universe, merely because they are strong enough to overwhelm our cooler judgment? And, if so, how far is this method of metaphysical investigation to be pressed? Are we, for example, to attach transcendental value to the feelings of a man in love? There is evidently a close, though doubtless not a perfect, parallel between the two cases. It is true that love is rooted in appetite, and that appetite has a survival value which I, at least, cannot find in the purely contemplative emotions. But romantic love goes far beyond race requirements. From this point of view it is as useless as æsthetic emotion itself. And, like æsthetic emotion of the profounder sort, it is rarely satisfied with the definite, the limited, and the immediate. It ever reaches out towards an unrealised infinity. It cannot rest content with the prose of mere fact. It sees visions and dreams dreams which to an unsympathetic world seem no better than amiable follies. Is it from sources like these—the illusions of love and the enthusiasms of ignorance—that we propose to supplement the world-outlook provided for us by sober sense and scientific observation?

Yet why not? Here we have values which by supposition we are reluctant to lose. Neither scientific observation nor sober sense can preserve them. It is surely permissible to ask what will. And if Naturalism be inimical to their maintenance, the fact should at least be noted.

It is true, no doubt, that these high-wrought feelings have worse enemies even than naturalism. When the impassioned lover has sunk into a good husband, and the worshipper of beauty has cooled into a judicious critic, they may look back on their early raptures with intelligent disdain. In that event there are for them no values to be maintained. They were young, they were foolish, they made a mistake, and there is no more to be said. But there is a higher wisdom. Without ignoring what experience has to teach, they may still believe that through these emotions they have obtained an authentic glimpse of a world more resplendent and not less real than that in which they tramp their daily round. And, if so, they will attribute to them a value independent of their immediate cause—a value which cannot be maintained in a merely naturalistic setting.2

This may seem a doctrine too mystical to suit the general tenor of these lectures. Let me, therefore, hasten to add that our ordinary and repeatable experiences of beauty seem to point in the same direction as these rarer and more intense emotions. It is, of course, true that even about these we cannot generalise as we may (for example) about the external world. We cannot, I mean, assume that there is a great body of æsthetic experience which all normal persons possess in common. There is always something about our feeling for beautiful things which can neither be described nor communicated, which is unshared and unsharable. Many normal persons have no such feelings, or none worth talking about. Their æsthetic interests may be great, but they lie at a lower level of intensity. They do not really care for beauty. Again, there are many who do care, and care greatly, who would yet utterly repudiate the doctrine that the highest æsthetic values were in any sense dependent on a spiritual view of the universe. The fact that so much of the greatest art has been produced in the service of religion they would not regard as relevant. They would remind us that one great poet at least has been a passionate materialist; that many have been pessimists; that many have been atheists; that many have been in violent revolt against the religion of their age and country. Of these we cannot say that their art suffered from their opinions, for we cannot imagine what their art would have been like had their opinions been different. Neither can we say that the readers who shared their opinions, became, thereby, less qualified to enjoy their art. Such a paradox would be too violent. How, then (the objectors may ask), are facts like these to be harmonised with the views I am recommending?

Probably they cannot be harmonised. We are confronted with a difference of temperament which must be accepted as final. Yet the contradiction may often be less than at first appears. In the case which I brought forward just now, strong æsthetic emotion was assumed to carry with it, both at the crisis of immediate experience and yet more in periods of reflective retrospect, a demand for some cause emotionally adequate to its effect. In other words, it was assumed that such an experience suggested the question—whence comes it? of matter? or of spirit? and required the answer—if it be not born of spirit it is little, or it is naught.

But in many cases this answer is not given because the question is not asked; or, if it be asked, is misunderstood. And there are many reasons why it should not be asked; and many why it should be misunderstood.

For there are two things which must, in this connection, be remembered. The first is that materialism has never been the prevailing creed among lovers of beauty. The second is that though (as I contend) a deep-lying incongruity infects theories which trace the ultimate genesis of beauty exclusively to causes which neither think, nor feel, nor will, such theories involve no contradiction, nor can those who hold them be taxed with inconsistency. There is, therefore, little in the ordinary routine of artistic criticism which raises the point which we are now discussing. A critic examining some artistic whole—a picture, a poem, a symphony—is much occupied in separating out the elements which contribute to the total effect, and in observing their character, value, and mutual relations. But it is only when we cease to analyse, when we contemplate, directly or in retrospect, the whole as a whole, that the problem of origin arises; and even then it need never become explicit. It may remain in the shape of an unsatisfied longing for a spiritual reality beyond the sensuous impression, or of a vaguely felt assurance that the spiritual reality is there. And in neither case has it developed into a question definitely presented—and pressing for a definite reply.

While, then, I am quite ready to believe that there are many persons whose enjoyment of beauty is quite independent of their world-out-look, I am also convinced that there are some who count themselves among the number only because they have never put the matter to the proof. It may be that they have given but little thought to questions of theology or metaphysics. It may be that they are pantheists after the manner of Shelley, or pessimists after the manner of Schopenhauer. Perhaps, again, they hold one or other of the theosophies which pass current in the West as the esoteric wisdom of the East. In any case, they are averse from orthodoxy, or what they regard as such. A lover of the beautiful belonging to any type like these, if asked whether his estimate of æsthetic values depended on his creed, might easily miss the point of the inquiry, and his negative reply would be worthless. Let the question, therefore, be put in different terms. Let him be asked whether beauty would not lose value for him if his world-outlook required him to regard it as a purposeless accident; whether the æsthetic delights which he deems most exquisite would not be somewhat dimmed if reflection showed them to be as vain, as transitory, though not so useful, as the least considered pleasures of sense. If he replies in the negative, there is no more to be said. This lecture is not addressed to him. But I believe there are many to whom such an answer would be profoundly unsatisfying; and they, at least, can hardly deny that æsthetic values are in part dependent upon a spiritual conception of the world we live in.


So far I have been considering art and the beauty expressed by art. But there are two kinds of æsthetic interest, which, though not artistic in the ordinary sense of the word, are so important that something must be said about them before this lecture closes.

The first of these is natural beauty. Hegel, if I rightly understand him, altogether excluded this from the sphere of æsthetic. For him the point of importance was Spirit—the Idea—expressing itself in art; and since nature is not spirit, nor natural beauty art, the exclusion was logical. For me, on the other band, the main thing is feeling roused by contemplation; and particularly feeling at its highest level of quality and intensity. Natural beauty, therefore, cannot be ignored; since no feelings of contemplation possess higher quality, or greater intensity, than those which natural beauty can arouse.

Evidently, however, there is, even from my point of view, a great difference between beauty in art and beauty in nature. For, in the case of nature, there is no artist; while, as I observed just now, “a work of art requires an artist, not merely in the order of natural causation, but in the order of æsthetic necessity. It conveys a message which is valueless to the recipient unless it be understood by the sender. It must be significant.”

Are we, then, to lay down one rule for artistic beauty and another rule for natural beauty? Must the first be expressive, but not the second? Is creative mind necessary in one case, and superfluous in the other? And if in the case of nature it be necessary, where is it to be found? On the naturalistic hypothesis, it is not to be found at all. The glory of mountain and of plain, storm and sunshine, must be regarded as resembling the kaleidoscopic pattern of which I just now spoke; with this difference only—that the kaleidoscope was designed to give some pattern, though no one pattern more than another; while nature was not designed with any intention at all, and gives us its patterns only by accident.

I know not whether you will think that this train of thought is helped or hindered by bringing it into relation with our scientific knowledge of natural realities. The world which stirs our æsthetic emotions is the world of sense, the world as it appears. It is not the world as science asks us to conceive it. This is very ill-qualified to afford æsthetic delight of the usual type; although the contemplation of complicated relations reduced to law may produce an intellectual pleasure in the nature of æsthetic interest. Yet none, I think, would maintain that mass and motion abstractly considered, nor any concrete arrangement of moving atoms or undulating ether, are beautiful as represented in thought, or would be beautiful could they become objects of perception. We have a bad habit of saying that science deals with nothing but “phenomena.” If by phenomena are meant appearances, it is to æsthetics rather than to science that, on the principle of Solomon's judgment, phenomena most properly belong. To get away from appearances, to read the physical fact behind its sensuous effect, is one chief aim of science; while to put the physical fact in place of its sensuous effect would be the total and immediate ruin of beauty both in nature and in the arts which draw on nature for their material. Natural beauty, in other words, would perish if physical reality and physical appearance became one, and we were reduced to the lamentable predicament of perceiving nature as nature is!

Now, to me, it seems that the feeling for natural beauty cannot, any more than scientific curiosity, rest satisfied with the world of sensuous appearance. But the reasons for its discontent are different. Scientific curiosity hungers for a knowledge of causes; causes which are physical, and, if possible, measurable. Our admiration for natural beauty has no such needs. It cares not to understand either the physical theories which explain what it admires, or the psychological theories which explain its admiration. It does not deny the truth of the first, nor (within due limits) the sufficiency of the second. But it requires more. It feels itself belittled unless conscious purpose can be found somewhere in its pedigree. Physics and psychophysics, by themselves, suffice not. It longs to regard beauty as a revelation—a revelation from spirit to spirit, not from one kind of atomic agitation to the “psychic” accompaniment of another. On this condition only can its highest values be maintained.3


There is yet one other subject of æsthetic interest on which I desire to say something before the course of these lectures carries me into very different regions of speculation. The subject I refer to is history.

That history has æsthetic value is evident. An age which is both scientific and utilitarian occasionally pretends to see in it no more than the raw material of a science called sociology, and a store-house of precedents from which statesmen may draw maxims for the guidance of mankind. It may be all this, but it is certainly more. What has in the main caused history to be written, and when written to be eagerly read, is neither its scientific value nor its practical utility, but its æsthetic interest. Men love to contemplate the performances of their fellows, and whatever enables them to do

so, whether we belittle it as gossip, or exalt it as history, will find admirers in abundance.

Yet the difference between this subject of contemplative interest and those provided either by-beauty in art or beauty in nature is striking.

In the first place, history is not concerned to express beauty. I do not deny that a great historian, in narrating some heroic incident, may rival the epic and the saga. He may tell a tale which would be fascinating even if it were false. But such cases are exceptional, and ought to be exceptional. Directly it appears that the governing preoccupation of an historian is to be picturesque, his narrative becomes intolerable.

This is because the interestæI mean the æsthetic interest—of history largely depends upon its accuracy; or (more strictly) upon its supposed accuracy. Fictitious narrative, whether realistic or romantic, may suggest deeper truths, may tell us more about the heart of man, than all the histories that ever were written; and may tell it more agreeably. But fact has an interest, because it is fact; because it actually happened; because actual people who really lived and really suffered and really rejoiced caused it to happen, or were affected by its happening. And on this interest the charm of history essentially depends.

In this respect there is, I think, a certain analogy between the æsthetic interest aroused by history and that aroused by natural beauty. Our pleasure in a landscape is qualified if we discover ourselves to have been the victims of an optical delusion. If, for example, purple peaks are seen on a far horizon, the traveller may exclaim, “What beautiful mountains!” Something there-upon convinces him that the mountains are but clouds, and his delight suffers an immediate chill. But why? The mountains, it is true, proved unreal; but they had as much reality as mountains in a picture. Where lies the essential difference between a representation accidentally produced by condensed vapour and a representation deliberately embodied in paint and canvas? It is not to be found, as might be at first supposed, in the fact that the one deceives us and the other does not. Were we familiar with this particular landscape, did we know that nothing but a level plain stretched before us to the limits of our vision, we might still feel that, if the clouds on the horizon were what they seemed to be, the view would gain greatly in magnificence. Here there is no deception and no shock of disillusionment. If, therefore, we remain dissatisfied, it is because in this case verisimilitude does not suffice us; we insist on facts.

It has, perhaps, not been sufficiently noticed that brute fact, truth as it is apprehended in courts of law, truth as it is given by an accurate witness speaking on oath, has for some purposes great æsthetic value. That it is all-important in the dealings between man and man would be universally conceded; that it has no importance either in fine art or imaginative literature, and no meaning in music or architecture, most people would be ready to admit. But that it possesses worth where no practical issues are involved, and that this worth is of the contemplative or æsthetic order, is perhaps not so easy of acceptance. Yet so it is. A tale which would be inexpressibly tedious if we thought it was (in the “law court” sense) false may become of absorbing interest if we think it true. And this not because it touches morals or practice, not because it has theoretic interest or controversial importance, but in its own right and on its own merits.

Now this to me, required both from “natural beauty” and historic narrative; but if there is here a resemblance between them, in other respects they are profoundly different. Landscape appeals to us directly. I do not mean that our enjoyment of it, both in quality and quantity, is not largely due to the work of artists. Our tastes have, no doubt, been formed and our sensibilities educated by the interpretation of nature which we owe to painters and poets. But though this is true, it is also true that what we see and what we enjoy is not art but nature, nature at first hand, nature seen immediately, if not as she is, at least as she appears. In the case of history it is otherwise. Except when we happen to have been ourselves spectators of important events, there is always an artist to be reckoned with. It may be Thucydides. It may be Dr. Dryasdust. It may be a mediæval chronicler. It may be Mrs. Candour at the tea-table. But there is always somebody; and though that somebody might repudiate the notion that his narrative was a work of art, yet he cannot evade responsibility for selection, for emphasis, and for colour. We may think him a bad artist, but, even in his own despite, an artist he is;—an artist whose material is not marble or sound, but brute fact.

There is another way in which the æsthetic interest of history characteristically differs from the interest we feel in beauty, whether of art or of nature. It is massive rather than acute. Particular episodes may indeed raise the most poignant emotions. But, broadly speaking, the long-drawn story of man and his fortunes stirs feelings which (to borrow a metaphor from physics) are great in quantity but of low intensity. So it comes about that, whereas in the case of art the emotions stand out prominently above their associated judgments, in the case of history the positions are commonly reversed.

Yet this need not be so; and in particular it need not be so when we are contemplating the historical process as a whole. Details are then merged in a general impression; and the general impression drives us beyond the limits of history proper into questions of origin and purpose, into reflections about man and destiny, into problems of whence and whither. Speculations like these have an emotional as well as an intellectual value, which must be affected by the answers we give them.

Let me illustrate and explain. It is possible, indeed it is easy, to contemplate aspects of history with the coolest intellectual interest. In this mood we might, for instance, study the development of science and religion out of primitive magics and superstitions. In this mood we might observe the characteristics of the city state, or the growth and decay of feudalism, or the history of the Mongols. On the other hand, the interest often becomes tinged with stronger feelings when we sympathetically follow the changing fortunes of particular individuals or communities. We are then, as it were, spectators of a drama, moved by dramatic hopes and fears, dramatic likes and dislikes, dramatic “pity and terror.” And our emotions are not merely those appropriate to drama; they have, besides, that special quality (already referred to) which depends on the belief that they are occasioned by real events in a world of real people.

But there is yet a third case to be considered, in which the two previous cases are included and partially submerged. This occurs when the object of our contemplative interest is not episodic but general, not the fate of this man or that nation, this type of polity or that stage of civilisation, but the fate of mankind itself, its past and future, its collective destiny.

Now we may, if we please, treat this as no more than a chapter of natural history. Compared with the chapter devoted, let us say, to the Dinosaurs it no doubt has the disadvantage of being as yet unfinished, for the Dinosaurs are extinct, and man still survives. On the other hand, though the natural history of “Homo Sapiens” is incomplete, we may admit that it possesses a peculiar interest for the biologist; but this interest is scientific, not historical.

For what does historical interest require? Not merely “brute fact,” but brute fact about beings who are more than animals, who look before and after, who dream about the past and hope about the future, who plan and strive and suffer for ends of their own invention; for ideals which reach far beyond the appetites and fears which rule the lives of their brother beasts. Such beings have a “natural history,” but it is not with this that we are concerned. The history which concerns us is the history of self-conscious personalities, and of communities which are (in a sense) self-conscious also. Can the contemplative values which this possesses, especially in its most comprehensive shape, be regarded as independent of our world-outlook? Surely not.

Observe that history, so conceived, must needs compare faculty with desire, achievement with expectation, fulfilment with design. And no moralist has ever found pleasure in the comparison. The vanity of human wishes and the brevity of human life are immemorial themes of lamentation; nor do they become less lamentable when we extend our view from the individual to the race. Indeed, it is much the other way. Men's wishes are not always vain, nor is every life too brief to satisfy its possessor. Only when we attempt, from the point of view permitted by physics and biology, to sum up the possibilities of collective human endeavour, do we fully realise the “vanity of vanities” proclaimed by the Preacher.

I am not, of course, suggesting that history is uninteresting because men are unhappy: nor yet that naturalism carries pessimism in its train.

It may well be that if mankind could draw up a hedonistic balance-sheet, the pleasures of mundane existence would turn out to be greater than its sufferings. But this is not the question. I am not (for the moment) concerned with the miseries of the race, but with its futility. Its miseries might be indefinitely diminished, yet leave its futility unchanged. We might live without care and die without pain; nature, tamed to our desires, might pour every luxury into our lap; and, with no material wish unsatisfied, we might contemplate at our ease the inevitable, if distant, extinction of all the life, feeling, thought, and effort whose reality is admitted by a naturalistic creed.

But how should we be advanced? What interest would then be left in the story of the human race from its sordid beginnings to its ineffectual end? Poets and thinkers of old dimly pictured a controlling Fate to which even the Olympian gods were subject. The unknown power, which they ignorantly worshipped, any text-book on physics will now declare unto you. But no altars are erected in its honour. Its name is changed. It is no longer called Fate or Destiny, but is known by a title less august if more precise, the law of energy-degradation, or (if you please) “the second law of thermodynamics.” It has become the subject of scientific experiment; the physicists have taken it over from the seers, and its attributes are defined in equations. All terrestrial life is in revolt against it; but to it, in the end, must all terrestrial life succumb. Eschatology, the doctrine of the last things, has lapsed from prophecy to calculation, and has become (at least potentially) a quantitative science.

And, from a scientific point of view, this is quite satisfactory. But it is not satisfactory when we are weighing the æsthetic values of universal history. Shakespeare, in the passionate indictment of life which he puts into the mouth of Macbeth, declares it to be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,” and (mark well the climax) “signifying nothing.” That is the point with which in this lecture we are chiefly concerned. It most clearly emerges when, in moments of reflection, we enlarge the circuit of our thoughts beyond the needs of action, and, in a mood untouched by personal hopes or fears, endeavour to survey man's destiny as a whole. Till a period within the memory of men now living it was possible to credit terrestrial life with an infinite future, wherein there was room for an infinite approach towards some, as yet, unpictured perfection. It could always be hoped that human efforts would leave behind them some enduring traces, which, however slowly, might accumulate without end. But hopes like these are possible no more. The wider is the sweep of our contemplative vision the more clearly do we see that the rôle of man, if limited to an earthly stage, is meaningless and futile;—that, however it be played, in the end it “signifies nothing.” Will any one assert that universal history can maintain its interest undimmed if steeped in the atmosphere of a creed like this?

Here, however, we are evidently nearing the frontier which divides æsthetic from ethic. Before I cross it, and begin a new subject, let me very briefly touch on a difficulty which may have occurred to some of my hearers.

The line of thought followed in the last section of this lecture assumes, or seems to assume, that our only choice lies between history framed in a naturalistic, and history framed in a theistic, setting. In the first case we have a world-outlook which forbids the attribution of permanent value to human effort; in the second case we have a world-outlook which requires, or, at the least, permits it. But are these the only alternatives? What are we to say, for example, about those metaphysical religions which, whether they be described as theistic, pantheistic, or atheistic, agree in regarding all life as illusion, all desire as wretchedness, and deem the true end of man to be absorption in the timeless identity of the real? Such creeds Have no affinity with naturalism. Philosophically they are in sharpest contrast to it. But even less than naturalism do they provide history with a suitable setting. For naturalism does, after all, leave untouched the interest of historical episodes, so long as they are considered out of relation to the whole of which they form a part. As we are content, in the realm of fiction, to bid farewell to the hero and heroine on their marriage, unmoved by anxieties about their children, so, in the realm of “brute fact,” we may arbitrarily isolate any period we choose, and treat the story of it without reference to any theories concerning the future destiny of man. But this process of abstraction must surely be useless for those who think of the world in terms of the metaphysical religions to which I have referred. In their eyes all effort is inherently worthless, all desire inherently vain. Nor would they change their opinion even were they persuaded that progress was real and unending; that effort and desire were building up, however slowly, an imperishable polity of super-men. For those who in this spirit face the struggling world of common experience the contemplative interest of universal history must be small indeed.

  • 1.
    I greatly regret having to stretch the ordinary meaning of the word “æsthetic” to the extent required by the argument of this chapter. I got into trouble in a previous work by the extension I gave to the word “Authority.” And as, in that case, no explanation seemed sufficient to avoid misconception, so I am afraid it will be in the present case.

    But what better course is open to me? I require a word to express a concept which is vital to the doctrines I am preaching. Where am I to get it? If there is no such word in ordinary use, I must either invent a new word, or I must modify the familiar meaning of an old word. There are objections to both courses; yet one of them must be taken, I nave chosen the second; and can do no more than ask for the indulgence of those readers who think I should have chosen the first.

  • 2.

    Cf. Plato in the “Phædrus.”

  • 3.

    It is perhaps to this tendency we may (in part) attribute the eagerness with which poetry and fine art have used and abused the personifications of natural objects provided for them by primitive superstition. If not, it is curious that these tedious mythologies should have been cherished by poets long after they were abandoned by everybody else; and that we still use every expedient for endowing material nature with fictitious sympathies and powers. But it is, I think, an error to see nothing in such metaphors but a trick of style. They represent the same deep-rooted tendency which finds significance in such phrases as “Mother Earth,” which has suggested certain poetic forms of Pantheism; or which gathers a vague, semi-spiritual consolation from the thought that, when we die, our bodies, resolved into their elements, may still share in the new manifestations of life which Nature (half personified) pours out in exhaustless profusion.

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