Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/Science and Conscience
By Professor THOMAS SERGEANT PERRY.
WHENEVER we find men's thoughts concerning any one of the main questions of life inclining steadily in a certain direction, there is some probability that we shall not be far astray if we expect to find a similar tendency in the way in which other questions are regarded by the same persons. Our experience tells us that this is true of individuals: a radical in politics is likely to be a radical in religion, and what is true of individuals is true of the race. The more we study the past, the more we shall be convinced of the uniformity of thought at different periods of history. Thus, the general awakening of interest that we call the Renaissance was not confined to art and literature; it became a reaction against every form of medievalism. It aided the great movement of religious thought and produced the Reformation, as it also followed the new channels of scientific investigation. The decay of feudalism that accompanied these new interests was far from being an accidental coincidence.
The pedantic sequel of the Renaissance, the limitation of interest to what was called good sense, which distinguished the age of Louis XIV in France, and, to speak somewhat crudely, what we may call the literature of the last century in England, was far-reaching in its effects: government and religion, as well as letters, rested on conventionalities. They were all affected by the prevailing reaction in favor of authority. In government, this took the form of monarchism; in literature, that of relying on Latin models, and abandoning all the national forms of composition. The French Revolution was more than a mere political outbreak: it was but one form of a wide-spread revolt against the narrow limits which pseudo-classicism and monarchism had imposed on intellectual and personal freedom. The very logical coherence of the French, which had made their chains more binding than the clumsy imitations which other countries forged for themselves, made the revolution, when it came, thorough and terrible. What was a smoldering discontent burst then into a flame of vengeance. Romanticism, again, was not simply a literary movement; its roots lay deep in the recognition of the fact that all human beings, without regard to their social position, are equally objects of interest to literature and art. The discovery was made gradually and almost simultaneously in literature and politics, that the aristocracy had no monopoly of importance. In short, toward the end of the last century there was a Renaissance of humanity; and aristocratic principles received a blow from which they can never wholly recover. The revolution is not yet complete, and its course hitherto has been uneven. Some of the leaders, who in their hatred of classicism discovered that civilization had a past, were so elated with their discovery that they stopped short to admire and make over again the past which they had painfully exhumed. There was a revival of mediævalism in art, in literature, in politics—modern imperialism is an instance of this—and that religion was not exempt is shown by ritualism in England. Yet the greater original movement has gone on, and in the realism that is beginning to affect art and literature, as in the spread of democracy, we see the natural growth of one inspiring thought.
If, then, we observe in the past the complex results of a single strong, animating influence, we may be justified in examining the life about us to see, so far as we may, how it is affected by contemporary thought. One of the most important influences now at work is doubtless that of science, which is of course as old as human curiosity, and is only new in its results. That the effect of the great advance in scientific thought has been to modify considerably most forms of religious belief can not be denied; and, in spite of the many attempted reconciliations of the two, it is not difficult to see that some of the leading dogmas of Christianity are doomed. Fortunately, one of the rewards of the freedom that is given to science is a lack of venom in its attack, and, on the other side, there is an absence of bitterness in those whose opinions it unavoidably alters. There are, of course, exceptions; modern science has not expelled arrogance from the world, and enlightenment Las not wholly driven out bigotry. Yet, in the calmness with which the controversy is carried on, we see how wide-spread is the belief that dogmas are less essential than the truth which all men alike are seeking. As Professor Asa Gray puts it: "No sensible person now believes what the most sensible people believed formerly. Settled scientific belief must control religious belief." It is one of the time-honored jests which the late Lord Beaconsfield thrust into his last novel, that the religion of sensible people is what sensible people never tell. They may not, but their tolerance of new truths and the altered position of ecclesiasticism declare all that need be known.
The present interest in science is distinctly part of the revolutionary movement which demands, with restless curiosity, why everything should be as it is. This is the question that is put to every existing institution, and science often gives a serviceable answer. The answer is a leveling one to all conventionalities, because science concerns itself only about facts, and it is heard now because science can only exist where thought is free. Freedom of thought is a powerful solvent, and it is especially destructive to all the conventionalities which exist by means of the common agreement that they shall not be examined. We see that in politics the divine right of kings is called in question, and in the uniform tendency of modern times toward democracy the assumption of government by those who are governed. In social matters we perceive a similar movement toward the emancipation of the individual. All knowledge advances from vague generalities to the comprehension of particulars, and as human beings have succeeded in understanding themselves they have thrown aside the convenient habit of dividing the rest of the world into vast homogeneous classes, and have recognized the dignity and importance of each individual of the race. This is most vividly reflected in the literature of the present day. We find in the romantic movement an expression of the renewed interest in man and nature: this interest was mainly felt at first simply in their picturesqueness; modern realism shuns the picturesque, as one form of the romantic exaggeration, and endeavors to treat human life as the man of science treats the objects of his study.
It would be singular if religion remained untouched by these movements. There would be no precedent for its escape from the common fate of all branches of thought. The Reformation was a democratic revolution. That its original fervor died out, and was succeeded by imitation of the forms that it had bitterly fought, is well known. When, toward the end of the last century, the great outburst of Methodism startled the Church of England out of its lethargy, it was not so clear as it is now that religion was experiencing the same change that was mating over politics and literature. The campaigns of the Salvation Army, so far as they have more than mere temporary importance, give proof that lower social circles are feeling the general excitement. Can we suppose that the most important subject of man's thought is disregarded at the present time? Far from it; we see in the modification of the demands it makes on society a great change in religious feeling. We may observe the general relaxation of formal bonds in the more liberal ground that is taken by even the more conservative sects, and in the fact that the others insist rather on righteous living than on rigid belief.
May not some of this spirit of toleration be due to the recognition of the fact that laxity of belief does not necessarily connote immorality? Are not society and theology tending toward a generally acceptable modus vivendi? Is not ecclesiasticism dwindling before the change which has made itself felt in politics and literature, that is, before the growing importance of the individual? If this phrase meant that the individual has simply grown in conceit, the result would be absolutely intolerable; but if it implies that there has been greater development in the notions of right and wrong, and a more general recognition of the rights of conscience rather than of an outside force, the change, if it exists, may not be for the worse. The examination of these questions is a difficult matter. Some will answer them, without delay, in accordance with their already fixed opinions; and any one who gives them any consideration must be ready to acknowledge the difficulty of judging the present in anything like a satisfactory way. Contemporary life obviously lacks the perspective which is necessary to set in their proper place what is important and what is merely trivial and ephemeral. Yet we have before us a certain amount of testimony which will he all that is left for posterity to judge from, and in consulting this we may find material from which to form a tolerably satisfactory conclusion.
It is an easy definition of the literature of the last century that its tone was didactic. From the "Spectator" to the "Rambler" it abounds with the soundest instruction in morality, yet it may be worth while to notice that this is generally about the very rudiments of decorum. The "Spectator," for example, defended matrimony from the ribald attacks of the comic writers; it preached sound views concerning education, and it by no means neglected minor matters, such as "that huddled economy of dress which passes under the general name of a mob, the bane of conjugal love, and one of the readiest means imaginable to alienate the affection of a husband, especially a fond one" (No. 302). Elsewhere mention is made of misbehavior at church; improper conversation in public vehicles is denounced: these are the domestic and somewhat rudimentary lessons inculcated amid a great deal of social instruction concerning witchcraft, the folly of dueling, the beauties of the arts, etc. The work of the "Spectator" was summed up not inaccurately in these lines of an admirer, which are given in Drake's "Essays," illustrative of the "Tatler," etc.:
"Improving youth, and hoary age,
There is a certain anti-climax in this outburst of praise, but it has the merit of accuracy, and it is easy to see how great are the advances made since the beginning of the last century in what we may call social morality.
Richardson, too, was didactic; but no reader of "Pamela" can avoid seeing that the heroine clings to her virtue quite as much for the reward she expects to win in this world as from any higher motive. The dangers portrayed in "Clarissa Harlowe" are somewhat remote in this more decorous age; and Sir Charles Grandison is a curious combination of heroic romance and catlike domesticity. The life that Fielding draws seems to us all very remote. Miss Edgeworth, again, took charge of the education of her contemporaries by writing a series of novels, each one of which exhibited the evil effects of one minor vice and the advantages of the opposite virtue. In all her stories, clever though they are, there is a great deal of the teaching with which Frank was dosed.
When at length society was tamed, hospitality did not mean drinking with your guest till one or both of you fell under the table, and Squire Western became as strange a type as Achilles; the discovery was made that family life, which had promised perfect peace, had yet its own trials, and that a very admirable person who always told the truth and shut the door after him, who was deaf to flattery and to gross temptation, might yet be an extremely disagreeable companion. We demand something more of those with whom we live than the certainty that they will not stab us or burn the roof over our heads, and it is not enough that they abstain from breaking the commandments. We require profound respect for one another's rights, and we perceive in selfishness, in all its intricate shapes, an evil that was overlooked, except in its more violent forms, by those who were eager in the contest against more heinous offenses. Society now busies itself with what we may call the statute law of ethics, the greater principles being generally observed by common agreement. Vice, to be sure, is not extinct, but intemperance, for example, is frowned upon by society rather than tolerated and sanctioned, as has been the case in the past. In the novels of the day, which are the most faithful records of contemporary life, the problems that are discussed are those that directly concern the individual conscience. George Eliot's work is full of such questions, and, like many great writers, she has set the standard before the reader ahead of what it is in fact, so that it is, as it were, a goal toward which we are striving with what strength we may have. In this respect she resembles Goethe, who pushed forward the outer lines of criticism to a point which the main body of his successors is only gradually reaching.
Compare, for example, Miss Edgeworth's chilly prudence with George Eliot's tender sympathy with suffering, and the advance that has been made becomes clear. What would Miss Edgeworth have thought of such a statement as this—"That element of tragedy, which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind. . . . If we had a keener vision and feeling of all ordinary human life it would be hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence"? Yet, of course, George Eliot is far from despising the minutiæ of domestic life; she makes it the setting of the most delicate ethical problems. It is character and not incidents that she studies; not the glowing crimes that make the fascination of the melodrama, but rather the corruption or weakness that gives them birth. She traces the growth of sin in the human heart with a vividness that is really appalling. Who has ever read "Romola" without feeling that his own vanity, boasting, and shuffling performances are branded in the chronicle of Tito's slow moral decay? In "The Mill on the Floss," again, we have a typical representation of a form of domestic tyranny that can be matched in every household that we know. In "Middlemarch" we follow the struggle of generosity and a high ideal against incompetence and corroding selfishness. In all her works the accidents of vice are carefully distinguished from the vileness of moral ruin; what tragedy there may be lies not in audacious crimes that make the fascination of the melodrama, but in the wrecked conscience of him who commits them. It is not long since fiction saw a hero in a murderer, who had at least the merit of boldness; now the analysis has been carried a step further, and novelists acknowledge, what we all know, that there may be evil-doers who are comparatively innocent, but that there is little to be said in behalf of a being sodden with selfishness, even if he do not offend against criminal law.
This distinction which the novelist draws between crime and wickedness is one that society itself is making, otherwise the novelist would not perceive it, and the growing interest in the discussion of the subject corresponds with the general increase in the value of the individual. Laws, we may perhaps say, concern masses; moral corruption is a personal matter that eludes the legislator. The ordinary citizen is law-abiding by nature and education; he does not consult the statute-book and trim his life in such a way as to avoid the grip of the constable; the policeman is his ally, not his foe. This alteration in men's way of modeling their lives has not been without effect on the position of the Church. Sermons are still preached that are remote from close connection with human interests, but there are many instances of the attempt that is making to save religion from the dry rot of ecclesiasticism. Doctrinal exposition is giving place to simpler explanation of right and wrong, and to aid in the government of life.
What was once a hierarchy is becoming a democracy. We see a proof of this in the way in which books of casuistry are left stranded for the entertainment of the curious. Society has nothing more to do with those huge folios in which the leaders of the Church tormented themselves to devise possible sins for which they constructed ingenious reproofs. This treatment of the problems of sin reminds us of the barren and intricate exercises of the logicians who were contemporary with the casuists. Nowadays no one dreams of consulting a book to find out how wicked he has been, any more than an orator who wishes to influence his hearers practices with x, y, and z—the skeleton of the syllogism—to ascertain how he shall move the feelings of his audience. A man trusts to his conscience, to the sentiments of his neighbors, to tell him what his conduct shall be. The possession of the test of right and wrong has spread from a class to society at large. In the same way, with every year less stress is laid on the cosmogony of the Old Testament, and more on the ethics of the New. It is no longer demanded that we believe in the literal truth of Genesis, or in the ever varying reconciliations, as they are called, with which theologians try not to be left behind by modern thought.
These modifications of ecclesiasticism—that is to say, the relaxation of dogmatism coincident with a general comprehension of morality—are part of the change which in matters of government is represented by the decay of aristocracy and the spread of democracy. "The theory of the Church," Mr. Stopford Brooke says ("Faith and Freedom," Boston, 1881, page 333), "is an aristocratic theory, and it has ministered to that imperialistic conception of God which in theology has done as much harm as despotism or caste system of any kind has done to society." In England the Church exists as a part of the general aristocratic system of a country in which non-conformity is detested mainly as a social stigma; in America we see the clearest proofs of the altered circumstances, and these are visible on every side. The formal side of ecclesiasticism loses its force, while ethical teaching gives and receives fresh life. Dogmas linger a couple of centuries behind what people really believe, and even the most conservative are far more liberal than they try to be, or than they say they are. Even the most fervent Roman Catholic refuses to believe that his Protestant friend is doomed to eternal damnation.
If theology is willing to satisfy itself with furthering right living and right thinking, its future is bright; if it demands assent to irreconcilable dogmas, it must in time disappear like everything which rests on sheer authority. Yet probably no age will ever be confronted with this direct question; the present one has come near it, and, while a century ago the general discussion was tabooed by the cautious, lest the whole social system should be swept by the board, it is now seen more or less clearly that men can think variously about dogmas without relapsing into barbarism. In time this will be generally acknowledged—what we now feel in our hearts—that the eternal laws of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of truth and falsehood, are safe from the bungling of copyists, the destruction of wars, and the confusion of commentators.
This, however, is taking us from the question immediately before us, which is the relation that religion bears to contemporary thought. We can judge of what may be in store in the future only from the past and the present. If we fail to detect any modification of older ways of thought, there is no firm ground for prophecy about what is yet to happen. Yet we have seen Christianity molded into a church by the force of the current Roman ideas; we have seen feudalism triumphant in things terrestrial and things celestial; we have seen new freedom come into religion as into the rest of the world with the Renaissance, and we have seen a renewed reaction into old ideas following this freedom, as we see mediævalism in the fantastic robes and many candles of the Church when, in its turn, it was affected by the Romantic movement. In the wider freedom that begets science we see new tolerance for freedom of thought, and this freedom of thought can not fail to undermine some of the artificial constructions of the past. That it will destroy the essential principles of religion need scarcely be feared, any more than that science will expel literature. Only what has within it the seeds of mortality can be killed, and religion and imagination are outside of science; but ecclesiasticism, which has been built by men, can be destroyed by men, just as literary conventions, which were the work of scholars, can be torn to shreds by scholars and writers.