Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXX

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"Before thy holy altar, sacred Truth,
I bow in manhood, as I knelt in youth;
There let me bend till this frail form decay,
And my last accents hail thine opening day."

The à priori proof of the existence of a Deity—Proof from Revelation—Dr. Johnson's definition of Inspiration—Various Meanings assigned to the word 'Revelation'—Illustration of transmitted Testimony—The third source of proof of the existence of a Deity—By an examination of His Works—Effect of hearing the Athanasian Creed read for the first time.

There are three sources from which it is stated that man can arrive at the knowledge of the existence of a Deity.

1. The à priori or metaphysical proof. Such is that of Dr. Samuel Clarke.

2. From Revelation.

3. From the examination of the works of the Creator.

1. The first of these, the à priori proof, is of such a nature that it can only be apprehended in a high state of civilization, and then only by the most intellectual. Even amongst that very limited class it does not, as an argument, command universal assent.

2. The argument deduced from revelation is advanced in many countries and for several different forms of faith. When it is sincerely adopted it deserves the most respectful examination. It must, however, on the other hand, be submitted to the most scrutinizing inquiry. As long as the believer in any form of revelation maintains it by evidence or by argument, it is only by such means that it ought to be questioned.

When, however, professed believers dare to throw doubt upon the motives of those whose arguments they are unable to refute, and still more, when, availing themselves of the imperfections of language, they apply to their opponents epithets which they can defend in one sense but know will be interpreted in another—when they speak of an adversary as a disbeliever, because, though he believes in the same general revelation, he doubts the accuracy of certain texts, or believes in a different interpretation of others—when they apply the term infidel, meaning thereby a disbelief in their aim view of revelation, but knowing that it will be understood as disbelief in a Deity,—then it is at least allowable to remind them that they are richly paid for the support of their own doctrines, whilst those they revile have no such motives to influence or to mislead their judgment.

Before, however, we enter upon that great question it is necessary to observe that belief is not a voluntary operation. Belief is the result of the influence of a greater or less preponderance of evidence acting upon the human mind.

It ought also to be remarked that the word revelation assumes, as a fact, that a Being exists from whom it proceeds; whilst, on the other hand, the existence of a Deity is possible without any revelation.

The first question that arises is the meaning of the word revelation. In its ordinary acceptation it is said to be a direct communication from the Deity to an individual human being. Dr. Johnson remarks:—"Inspiration is when an overpowering impression of any propositions is made upon the mind by God himself, that gives a convincing and indubitable evidence of the truth and divinity of it." Be it so; but then, as such, it is not revelation to any other human being. All others receive it from the statement of the person to whom the revelation was vouchsafed. To all others its truth depends entirely on human testimony. Now in a certain sense all our faculties being directly given to us by the Supreme Being might be said to be revelations. But this is clearly not the religious meaning of the word. In the latter sense it is a direct special communication of knowledge to one or more persons which is not given to the rest of the race.

Before any person can admit the truth of a revelation asserted by another, he must have clearly established in his own mind what evidence he would require to believe in a special revelation to himself.

But when he communicates this revelation to his fellow-creatures that which may truly be a revelation to him is not revelation to them. It is to them merely human testimony, which they are bound to examine more strictly from its abnormal nature.

Let us now suppose that this believer in his own special revelation offers to work a miracle in proof of the truth of his doctrine, and even, further, that he does perform a miracle. Those who witness it have now before them far higher evidence of inspiration than that of the prophet's testimony. They have the evidence of their own senses that an act contrary to the ordinary laws of nature has been performed.

But even here the amount of conviction will be influenced by the state of knowledge the spectator of the miracle himself possesses of the laws of nature which he believes he has thus seen violated.[1]

Granting him, however, the most profound knowledge, the evidence influencing his own mind will be inferior to that which acts upon the mind of the inspired worker of the miracle. If there are more witnesses than one thus qualified, this will to a certain extent augment the evidence, although a large number might not give it a proportional addition of weight.

It would be profane to compare evidence derived directly from the Almighty, which must necessarily be irresistible, with the testimony of man, which must always be carefully weighed by taking into account the state of his knowledge, his prejudices, his interests, and his truthfulness. On the other hand, it would lead to endless confusion, and be destructive to all reasoning on the subject, to apply the same word 'Revelation' to things so different in their nature as—

The immediate act of the Deity.

The impression produced by that act on the mind of the person inspired.

The description of it given by him in the language of the people he addressed.

The record made of his description by those who heard it.

The transmission of this through various languages and people to the present day.

We have now arrived at the highest external evidence man can have—the declaration of inspiration by the prophet, supported by an admitted miracle performed before competent witnesses, to prove the truth of his inspiration.

But to all who were not present, the evidence of this is entirely dependent on the truth and even upon the accuracy of human testimony.

At every step of its transmission it undergoes some variation in the words in which it is related; and without the least want of good faith at any stage, the mere imperfection of language will necessarily vary the terms by which it is described. Even when written language has conveyed it to paper as a MSS., there may be several different manuscripts by different persons. Even in the extraordinary case of two MSS. agreeing perfectly there remains a perpetual source of doubt as to the exact interpretation arising from the continually fluctuating meaning of the words themselves.

Few persons who have not reflected deeply, or had a very wide experience, are at all aware of the errors arising from this source.

There is a game occasionally played in society which eminently illustrates the value of testimony transmitted with the most perfect good faith through a succession of truthful persons. It is called Russian Scandal, and is thus played:—

One of the party writes a short simple tale, perhaps a single anecdote. The original composer of the tale, whom we will call A, retires into another room with B, to whom he communicates it. A then returns to the party, and sends in C, who is told by B the tale he had just learnt. B then returns to the party and sends in D, who is informed of the anecdote by C, and so on until the story has been transmitted through twelve educated and truthful witnesses.

The twelfth then relates to the whole party the story he has just heard: after that the original written document is read. The wit or fun of the transmitted story is invariably gone, and nothing but an unmeaning platitude generally remains.

One very interesting case occurred a few years ago in which the wit of the original story had evidently been lost, but had afterwards been revived in a different form in the latter part of its transmission. The story at starting consisted of the following anecdote:—

The Duke of Rutland and Theodore Hook having dined with the Lord Mayor, were looking for their hats previously to their departure. The Duke, unable to find his own, said to his friend: "Hook, I have lost my castor." The Lord Chief Baron, Sir Frederick Pollock, was at that moment passing down the stairs. Hook perceiving him, replied instantly, "Never mind, take Pollock's" (Pollux).

The story told at the conclusion, after a dozen transmissions, was thus:—

Theodore Hook and the Duke of Rutland were dining with the Bishop of Oxford. Both being equally incapable of finding their respective hats, the Duke said to the wit, "Hook, you have stolen my castor." " No," replied the prince of jokers, "I haven't stolen your castor, but I should have no objection to take your beaver;" alluding to Belvoir Castle, the splendid seat of the Duke of Rutland, which in the language of the day is pronounced precisely in the same way as the name of that animal whom man robs of his great-coat in order to make a covering for his own skull.

It requires considerable training to become an accurate witness of facts. No two persons, however well trained, ever express, in the same form of words, the series of facts they have both observed.

3. There remains a third source from which we arrive at the knowledge of the existence of a supreme Creator, namely, from an examination of his works. Unlike transmitted testimony, which is weakened at every stage, this evidence derives confirmation from the progress of the individual as well as from the advancement of the knowledge of the race.

Almost all thinking men who have studied the laws which govern the animate and the inanimate world around us, agree that the belief in the existence of one Supreme Creator, possessed of infinite wisdom and power, is open to far less difficulties than the supposition of the absence of any cause, or of the existence of a plurality of causes.

In the works of the Creator ever open to our examination, we possess a firm basis on which to raise the superstructure of an enlightened creed. The more man inquires into the laws which regulate the material universe, the more he is convinced that all its varied forms arise from the action of a few simple principles. These principles themselves converge, with accelerating force, towards some still more comprehensive law to which all matter seems to be submitted. Simple as that law may possibly be, it must be remembered that it is only one amongst an infinite number of simple laws: that each of these laws has consequences at least as extensive as the existing one, and therefore that the Creator who selected the present law must have foreseen the consequences of all other laws.

The works of the Creator, ever present to our senses, give a living and perpetual testimony of his power and goodness far surpassing any evidence transmitted through human testimony. The testimony of man becomes fainter at every stage of transmission, whilst each new inquiry into the works of the Almighty gives to us more exalted views of his wisdom, his goodness, and his power.

When I was between sixteen and seventeen years of age, I heard, or rather I attended, for the first time, to the words of the Athanasian Creed. I felt the utmost disgust at the direct contradiction in terms which its words implied; and during several weeks I recurred, at intervals, to the Prayer-Book to assure myself that I rightly remembered its singular and self-contradictory assertions. On inquiry amongst my seniors, I was assured that it was all true, and that it was part of the Christian religion, and that it was most wicked to doubt a single sentence of it. Whereupon I was much alarmed, seeing that I found it absolutely impossible to believe it, and consequently, if it were an essential dogma, I clearly did not belong to that faith.

In the course of my inquiries, I met with the work upon the Trinity, by Dr. Samuel Clarke. This I carefully examined, and although very far from being satisfied, I ceased from further inquiry. This change arose probably from my having acquired the much more valuable work of the same author, on the Being and Attributes of God. This I studied, and felt that its doctrine was much more intelligible and satisfactory than that of the former work. I may now state, as the result of a long life spent in studying the works of the Creator, that I am satisfied they afford far more satisfactory and more convincing proofs of the existence of a supreme Being than any evidence transmitted through human testimony can possibly supply.

If I were to express my opinion of the Athanasian Creed merely from my experience of the motives and actions of mankind, I should say that it was written by a clever, but most unscrupulous person, who did not believe one syllable of the doctrine,—that he purposely asserted and reiterated propositions which contradict each other in terms, in order that in after and more enlightened times, he should not be supposed to have believed in the religion which he had, from worldly motives, adopted.

The Athanasian Creed is a direct contradiction in terms: if three things can be one thing, then the whole science of arithmetic is at once annihilated, and those wonderful laws, which, as astronomers have shown, govern the solar system, are mere dreams. If, on the other hand, it is attempted to be shown that there may be some mystic sense in which three and one are the same thing, then all language through which alone man can exert his reasoning faculty becomes useless, because it contradicts itself and is untrue.[2]

The great basis of virtue in man is truth—that is, the constant application of the same word to the same thing.

The first element of accurate knowledge is number—the foundation and the measure of all he knows of the material world.

I believe these views of the Athanasian Creed are by no means singular,—that they are indeed very generally held, although very rarely asserted. If such is the case, it were wise to take the opportunity which the new Commission for the revision of the Liturgy presents, to remove from the Rubric doctrines so thoroughly destructive of all true religion, and about which the author, doubtless in mockery, so complacently tells us, that whosoever does not believe them "without doubts he shall perish everlastingly."

The true value of the Christian religion rests, not upon speculative views of the Creator, which must necessarily be different in each individual, according to the extent of the knowledge of the finite being, who employs his own feeble powers in contemplating the infinite: but it rests upon those doctrines of kindness and benevolence which that religion claims and enforces, not merely in favour of man himself, but of every creature susceptible of pain or of happiness.

A curious reflection presents itself when we meditate upon a state of rewards and punishments in a future life. We must possess the memory of what we did during our existence upon this earth in order to give them those characteristics.

In fact, memory seems to be the only faculty which must of necessity be preserved in order to render a future state possible.

If memory be absolutely destroyed, our personal identity is lost.

Further reflection suggests that in a future state we may, as it were, awake to the recollection that, previously to this our present life, we existed in some former state, possibly in many former ones, and that the then state of existence may have been the consequences of our conduct in those former stages.

It would be a very interesting research if naturalists could devise any means of showing that the dragon-fly, in its three stages of a grub beneath the soil—an animal living in the water—and that of a flying, insect—had in the last stage any memory of its existence in its first.

Another question connected with this subject offers still greater difficulty. Man possesses five sources of knowledge through his senses. He proudly thinks himself the highest work of the Almighty Architect; but it is quite possible that he may be the very lowest. If other animals possess senses of a different nature from ours, it can scarcely be possible that we could ever be aware of the fact. Yet those animals, having other sources of information and of pleasure, might, though despised by us, yet enjoy a corporeal as well as an intellectual existence far higher than our own.

  1. I have adopted in the text that view of the nature of miracles which prevailed many years ago. In 1838, I published, in the "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise," my own views on those important subjects—the nature of miracles and of prophecy. Those opinions have been received and adopted by many of the most profound thinkers of very different religious opinions.
  2. See Appendix, Note B.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.