Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Materialism and Morality
|MATERIALISM AND MORALITY.|
"WORDS are grown so false that I am loath to prove reason with them," says Viola in "Twelfth Night." The saying constantly comes to my mind in dealing with the philosophical controversies of the present day. Rigorous definition, careful analysis, precise classification, are no longer in favor. It is an age of loose thinking, and of looser writing; of "idle words, servants to shallow fools." Never, perhaps, was there an age in which the trade of the sophist, whose business it is "to make the worse reason appear the better," was carried on so successfully. Never was there an age in which a writer who feels that he is "a teacher, or nothing," had greater need of well-considered and accurate language. Hence it is that in the papers which I have from time to time contributed to this "Review" I have sought, before entering upon my argument, to state clearly the sense in which I employ my principal terms. Most necessary is it that I should do this in respect of such a word as materialism. There are those who would restrict it to a doctrine which is now discredited for higher minds. What we know of living forces, of the real properties of bodies, has made an end of the old notion of matter reduced merely to solidity and extension. Our better acquaintance with the physiology of the sense-organs has been fatal to the sensism which Professor Clifford contemptuously calls "the crass materialism of the savage." It lingers, indeed, in the lower intellectual regions. Nay, more, it is still widely held there. "II y a des morts qu'il faut tuer encore." And this is one of them. My present point, however, is that this coarse and vulgar theory is by no means the only form of materialism. Nor is it the form under which materialism is most potently working in the world just now. The more subtile doctrines which have arisen upon the ruins of the old materialistic hypothesis are, in all essentials, identical with it. Positivism, determinism, and much that passes current as agnosticism, are mere varieties of materialism; sublimated expressions of it, perhaps, but true expressions, having in them the root of the matter. Now here I am conscious of a difficulty. Is it fair, one may be asked, to impose the name of materialist upon those who, more or less energetically, repudiate it? I think it is fair, and, more, that it is a duty, if the name truly describes them. Take, for example, the late Mr. Clifford. As we have just seen, he rejects emphatically "the crude materialism of the savage," but only to substitute a materialism which is, indeed, more refined, but which is also, as it seems to me, more irrational. His biographer, Mr. Frederick Pollock, claims that his view is, in truth, "idealistic monism, a very subtile form of idealism," and points out that his conception of the ultimate reality is "mind, not mind as we know it in the complex form of thought and feeling, but those simpler elements of which thought and feeling are built up." Well, of course, materialism affects to be monistic, for it seeks to explain the whole universe in terms of matter. But how is Mr.Clifford's monism idealistic? The element of which "even the simplest feeling is a complex" he calls "mind-stuff." "Matter," he tells us, "is the mental picture of which mind is the thing represented. Reason, intelligence, and volition are properties of a complex, which is made up of elements, themselves not rational, not intelligent, not conscious." Is it possible, Mr.Pollock himself being judge, to call this doctrine idealism? This "mind-stuff," which, we are told, is the thing-in-itself, of which "a moving molecule of organic matter possesses a small piece," and which, "when matter takes the complex form of a living human brain, takes the form of a human consciousness, having intelligence and volition"—how is it possible to account for this "mind-stuff" as anything but matter? Again, consider the teaching of Professor Huxley. With whatever rhetorical ornaments he may gild it, what is its practical outcome but materialism? I am well aware of his opinion that the question "whether there is really anything anthropomorphic, even in man's nature," will ever remain an open one. I do not lose sight of his recognition of "the necessity of cherishing the noblest and most human of man's emotions by worship, for the most part of the silent sort, at the altar of the Unknown and Unknowable." But, on the other hand, I remember his positive declaration that "consciousness is a function of nervous matter, when that nervous matter has attained a certain degree of organization." I remember, too, his confident anticipation that "we shall sooner or later arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat." And I do not forget that singularly powerful passage in his "Lay Sermons"—who that has once read it can forget it?—in which he enforces what he deems "the great truth," that "the progress of science has in all ages meant, and now more than ever means, the extension of the province of what we call matter and causation, and the concomitant gradual banishment, from all regions of human thought, of what we call spirit and spontaniety"; that "as surely as every future grows out of the past and present, so will the physiology of the future gradually extend the realm of matter and law until it is coextensive with knowledge, with feeling, with action." Once more. Let us turn to a teacher more widely influential, perhaps, than even Mr.Huxley. I mean Mr.Herbert Spencer. He, too, recognizes "an unknown and unknowable power without beginning or end in tirae." He tells us expressly in his "Psychology" that consciousness can not be a mode of movement, and that if we must choose between these two modes of being, as the generative and primitive mode, it would be the first, and not the last, which he would choose. These sayings certainly do not sound like materialism. I think, however, that if we closely examine his writings, we shall find the persistence of force his one formula. With that he will bring for you life out of the non-living; morality out of the unethical; the spiritual out of the physical. The persistence of force! I trust it will not seem to exhibit an unappreciativeness, which I am far from feeling, of the high gifts and unwearied self-devotion of this eminent man, if I say that he has always appeared to me to belong to a class of thinkers aptly described in one of Voltaire's letters: "Des gens que se mettent, sans façon, dans la place de Dieu: qui veulent créer le monde avec la parole." But this autotheism is really materialism in disguise. If all beings, all modes and forms of existence, are but transformations of force, obeying only mechanical laws, the laws of movement—and that is what Mr.Spencer's doctrine amounts to, if there is any meaning in words—what is the universe but a senseless mechanism? Mr.Spencer, indeed, protests against the application to matter of such epithets as "gross" or "brute." He delights to expatiate on its wonderful properties; and in his latest work he speaks of "a universe everywhere alive; alive, if not in a restricted sense, at least in a general sense." Still the fact remains that Mr.Spencer seeks to interpret all things in terms of matter and motion, and holds life to be a mere result of physical forces. There are only two conceivable hypotheses open to us. Either Nature is the outcome of intellect, or intellect is the outcome of Nature. Mr.Spencer's teaching, considered as a whole, is an elaborate argument on behalf of the latter of these hypotheses. And what is this but materialism? I know that Mr.Spencer would call himself a realist. I think that Professor Huxley, in better moments "among the many workings of his mind," would call himself an idealist; and, as we have seen, the friend who has written so well about the late Professor Clifford calls him an idealistic monist. Mr. Pollock, indeed, goes on to observe, "It is hardly worth while to dispute about names, when more serious things remain for discussion." These words seem to me in themselves a revelation, not, indeed, of light, but of darkness; they give us a glimpse of chaos and the void inane. Surely names are the signs of, nay, the substitutes for, ideas; formulas summing up for us, briefly, it may be a train of reasoning, a series of sensations, a multitude of images. Unless we use them as parrots do, which, to be sure, is the habit of many people, they stand to us in the place of things. Hence the immense importance, upon which I have already touched, of exact terminology. If our nomenclature is vague, we shall be continually mistaking one thing for another. "Pantheism or pottheism—what matter, so long as it is true?" Mr.Carlyle asked. But my present inquiry is not if the teaching, whether of the late Mr. Clifford, of Mr.Huxley, of Mr.Herbert Spencer, is true, but what that teaching really is. And my contention is that all these three gifted men, whom I select as types of a host of less famous writers widely influential on English thought, must in strictness be reckoned as materialists. All three do, in effect, express the entire man by matter, his intellectual and moral being as well as his corporal frame. All three do, in effect, restrict our knowledge to the phenomenal universe, of which consciousness and will are, for them, fortuitous or necessary products. Now I am far from asserting that there is anything to prevent us from being spiritualists in psychology, while in cosmology we accept the dynamical explanation, and confess that everywhere in the universe are forces and centers of forces. But this is a very different view from that which regards intellect as a mode of motion, or as a manifestation of physical energy. "The faculties of the mind, feeling, and will," writes Mr.Frederic Harrison, "are directly dependent upon the physical organs. To talk to me of mind, feeling, will, in the absence of physical organs, is to use language which to me, at least, is pure nonsense." Mr. Harrison's creed, it would appear, may be summed up in the simple symbol, "I believe in the brain, the viscera, and the reproductive apparatus." Deity without a stomach is inconceivable to him. This very eloquent and very positive writer has the courage of his opinions. But, as it appears to me, the doctrines of Professor Clifford, of Professor Huxley, of Mr.Herbert Spencer, in their ultimate resolution, are substantially at one with his. Whatever differences divide these illustrious men from one another, they all agree in putting aside, as unverifiable, everything which the senses can not verify; everything beyond the bounds of physical science; everything which can not be brought into a laboratory and dealt with chemically. It will be found in the long run that there are two, and only two, great schools of thought, two schools which, in common with the philosophical writers of Germany, France, and Italy, I shall denominate Spiritualism and Materialism, until better terms are forthcoming. Spiritualism seeks the explanation of the universe from within, and with Kant holds it as a fundamental truth that the nature of our thinking being imposes our way of conceiving, of valuing, and even of apprehending sensible things. Materialism maintains that in those sensible things must be sought the explanation of our ideas and of our wills. Spiritualism postulates a First Cause possessing absolute freedom, and recognizes true causality in man also, with his endowment of limited and conditioned liberty of the will. Materialism holds that we can know nothing before the proximate and determining causes of phenomena, and demands, in the words of Mr.Huxley, "the banishment from all regions of human thought of what we call spirit and spontaneity." Spiritualism insists upon the unity of consciousness, upon consciousness of personal identity, upon the ichheit des Ego—the selfhood of the Me—as the original and ultimate facts of man's existence. Materialism dissolves the Ego into a collection of sensations, makes of consciousness an accidental and superficial effect of mechanism, and exhibits man as a mere sequence of action and reaction. Spiritualism maintains the absolute nature of ethics; the immutable distinction between moral good and evil. Materialism refers everything to heredity, temperament, environment, convention. Spiritualism affirms the supersensuous, yes, let us venture upon the word, the supernatural, in man, and finds irrefragable evidence of it in
With power on thine own act, and on the world."
Materialism makes of the soul, with Professor Tyndall, "a poetical rendering of a phenomenon which refuses the yoke of ordinary mechanical laws," explains will and conscience as merely a little force and heat organized, and, in Coleridge's pungent phrase, "peeps into death to look for life, as monkeys put their hands behind a looking-glass." Such are the two great schools of thought which are disputing the intellect of the world.
Now, I take it, that one of the most striking signs of the times is the extent to which materialism has triumphed throughout Europe. Fifty or sixty years ago it might well have seemed as though Kant had made an end in Germany of the doctrine which, derived by the philosophes of the last century from Locke, had been carried to its logical issue by Cabanis and Condillac. In England the school of Reid was, in some sort, doing a similar work. In France the influence of Royer Collard, Maine de Biran, Jouffroy, and Cousin—all, whatever their differences, firmly attached to the main principles of spiritualism—was dominant. In Italy the works of Pasquale Galuppi had diffused some knowledge of the critical philosophy, and Rosmini's "New Essay on the Origin of Ideas" had made its way into many seminaries. Now, all is changed. In Germany a school has arisen based on the empirical doctrines supposed to have been forever discarded, but giving to them a new and more precise form. Of its many able exponents it must suffice here to mention only one, Herr Büchner, whose book on "Matter and Force" has had an immense success in his own country, and has been translated, I believe, into well-nigh all European languages. M.Janet, no mean judge, reckons it as "the tersest, frankest, and clearest system of materialism which has appeared in Europe since the famous 'Système de la Nature.'" It is true that in Germany the influence of these new materialistic doctrines would appear to be on the wane. They are not specially fitted to recommend themselves to the Teutonic mind, with its innate bias to idealism. And they have been vigorously combated by a number of extremely able writers, foremost among whom must be reckoned Lange and Von Hartmann, Ulrici and Lotze. Yet no one can carefully study contemporary German literature without perceiving how potential still is the school which relies wholly upon the positive sciences, and puts aside entirely psychology and metaphysics. Its prevalence in England may be sufficiently indicated by merely mentioning the names of the three accomplished scientists at whose teaching we have already glanced, the late Professor Clifford, Professor Huxley, and Mr.Herbert Spencer, not to speak of Professor Tyndall. But if we would see this way of thinking have free course, if we would fully realize the inglorious liberty of the sous of matter, it is upon France that we must gaze. In that country, at the present moment, the most widely influential school is unquestionably the medico-atheistic: the school which inculcates sensism of the grossest kind, which reeks of the brothel, the latrine, and the torture-trough. "A most superficial and most degraded positivism," M.Beaussire tells us in his recent able work, "seems to have taken possession of well-nigh all souls." A remnant, indeed, is left in the higher regions of French thought which has not bowed the knee to the Baal of dead mechanism, nor joined itself to the dung-god. In M.Caro and M.Janet, to mention no others, may be found worthy successors of Cousin and Maine de Biran, But unquestionably the two greatest intellectual forces in France at the present time are M.Renan and M.Taine, neither of whom can be claimed by spiritualism. I do not lose sight of the many magnificent passages in which M.Renan pays homage to the super-sensuous, the ideal, the divine. Yet there is ever before him the haunting suspicion that, after all, Gavroche maybe right—that "jouir et mépriser "may be the last word of the true philosopher. There are those who find the secret of his transitions of thought in the famous mot of M. Sardou's comedy, "J'ai assez pratiqué le monde pour savoir qu'on n'a jamais que la conviction de ses intérĜêts." There are those again who tell us that in his profound and serene intellect every passing phase of contemporary thought is reflected like the clouds in the bosom of the calm ocean. I am not ambitious to decide which explanation is the true one. It is enough for me to point to his own account of himself, which is that he does not know whether or no he is a materialist: "Je ne sais bien si je suis spiritualiste ou matérialiste. Le but du monde, c'est l'idée: mais je ne connais pas un cas où l'idée se soit produite sans matière: je ne connais pas d'esprit pur, ni d'œuvre d'esprit pur," M.Taine has of late years been most prominently before the world as the first living historian of his country, perhaps of any country. But we must not forget that his high place among contemporary thinkers was first won as a philosopher. A closely knit system his is, indeed. But what a system! A system of mechanism and fatality, dealing with the universe as an immense and eternal series of visible movements, more or less complex, all reducible to invisible movements, obeying the laws of physics. Reason, intelligence, will, personality are for him mere metaphors. He reduces them all to mechanism and movement. The intellect he regards as a thinking machine, just as the stomach is a digesting machine. He will speak of the soul, if you please; but, like Mr.Tyndall, he warns you that you must take it merely as a poetical expression, a rhetorical figure. With reason did Michelet, after reading his admirably written book on Intelligence, exclaim in dismay, "II me prend mon moi." France, after all, is still the country in which the movements of the European mind may be most fruitfully studied. If Germany is the mine of ideas, it is France which mints them and makes them current coin. Intellectually considered, Italy and Spain are merely outlying provinces of France, and her influence upon English and Teutonic thinkers, if less magisterial, is hardly less effective.
I consider, then, that if we survey the higher thought of Europe, as a whole, we must find it largely given over to materialism. And if we turn to the more popular literature, in which is the truest expression of society, the same tale is unfolded. What a portent is that large and ever-growing school of "naturalistic" fiction of which M.Zola is the honored and prosperous chief, and which is so eagerly read, and so largely imitated, throughout the civilized world! "Toute metaphysique m'épouvante" that master tells us. His works, he claims, are conceived in the true "scientific" spirit. Matter is for him the only reality, and in its honor he raises pæsans "like the shrieks of a hyena at discovering that the universe is all actually carrion." But it is not merely in the literature of the erotic passion, and of the genetic impulse, that the mark of the beast is plainly visible. How many a grave writer of our day has acquired a reputation for originality simply upon the strength of a fantastic physical terminology! Instead of intellect, he speaks of nervous centers; instead of life, of the play of cellular activities; instead of mental energy, of cerebral erethism. And his readers, piquing themselves on their distrust of everything outside the sphere of what they call facts, will "wonder with a foolish face of praise." In truth, every branch of intellectual activity bears witness to the advance of materialism in the popular mind; to the dying out of the old spiritual and ideal types. Thus, in politics, we see the domination of the brute force of numbers, of majorities told by head, becoming almost everywhere an accomplished fact. The instincts and passions of the masses, who are little more than matter in motion, are accepted as the supreme law, in the place of justice and virtue, of reason and religion. Art, too, has bowed her sacred head to the materialistic yoke. It has been well remarked that in the pictures of the old masters you have not merely a natural scene, but the soul of the painter who looked upon it. That attribute of soul is precisely what has been steadily dying out from modem art, as the physical sciences have more and more imposed their sway upon our ways of thinking and our habits of life. The true function of the artist, as of the metaphysician, is to seek the reason and essence of things. But while to the philosopher this reason and essence are revealed in a principle, in a general conception, to the artist they are revealed in a concrete form, as individual beauty. Both are seekers after truth; but the beautiful is the splendor of the true, and the sense of beauty is the light of the intellect. Materialism quenches that light. All that the artist now usually aims at is to copy exactly, to reproduce phenomena. And here, indeed, he attains some measure of success, especially if the phenomena be of the lupanarian order. Well has Mr.Ruskin pronounced the art of our own time to be "a poor toy, petty or vile." Perhaps its portraits are its most valuable achievement. But their value is rather historical than artistic; they tell their own tale about the men and women of the age. What that tale is, a distinguished French painter not long ago pointed out. They are the abstract and brief chronicle, he observed, in which is written the spiritual history of our century. During the first half of it, the neck is thrown back, the head is upturned toward heaven, as if in quest of some ideal vision. As we draw toward our own days the neck contracts, the head sinks nearer the shoulders, as though by the instinctive movement of a bull gathering himself up for the combat. It is because the battle of life has become more intense, because the mind is concentrated upon the material interests of the world. The habit of thought—curious verification of a law of Darwin's—has transformed the physical habit. A most delicate and sensitive intellect—to whom British philistinism, with its "certitude de mauvais goût," has largely paid the homage of its contumely and scorn—notes the same fact in his own way. The substitution of the laws of dead matter for the laws of the moral nature, the subjection of the soul to things, "écraser I'homme spirituel, dépersonalizer l'homme" is, as Amiel discerned, the dominant tendency of the times. It appears to me that if you survey the civilized world you find everywhere the same tokens. Everywhere I note the practical triumph of that earth-to-earth philosophy which will see nothing beyond experience, which shuts off the approach of science to all that can not be weighed and measured. Everywhere literature and art are losing themselves in the most vulgar sensuousness. Look throughout Europe, and what, in every country, are the great majority of the educated classes, who give the tone to the rest? Skeptics in religion, doubters in ethics, given over to industrialism, and to the exact sciences which minister to it, respecting nothing but accomplished fact and palpable force, with nerves more sensitive than their hearts, seeking to season the platitude of existence by a more or less voluptuous æstheticism, a more or less prurient hedonism. Such are the men of this new ago. The intellectual atmosphere is charged with materialism; and breathe that atmosphere we must, whether we will or no.
Now the question which I would invite my readers to ponder is, What, in such an age, is the prospect before us as regards those ethical conceptions upon which society has as yet existed? Can they live in this blighted air? And, without them, what will become of the moral life of mankind? Do not let us mistake the fact. We are living in a crisis of the world's history, a great crisis, for it is a moral crisis. Fifty years ago Jouffroy wrote his celebrated article, "Comment finissent les dogmes." He had in view religious dogmas only, and especially the distinctive tenets of Christianity. He might now, were he alive, discuss the question in a much wider sense. Philosophy, as well as religion, has its traditional bases. Certain it is, as mere matter of history, apart from all controversy, that the ethical ideas which have hitherto ruled the conduct of mankind, have rested upon certain metaphysical credenda. As certain is it that the postulates of the old philosophy—a First Cause, by which the universe was brought into existence, and that for a good end, the personality of man, his limited and conditioned liberty and moral responsibility, the immateriality and immortality of the Ego, the absolute nature of ethics—certain it is that these things are now very commonly put aside as antiquated delusions. Kant is no less discredited than St. Paul in the eyes of the prophets of materialism. The practical reason fares as badly as the Christian revelation at the hands of the sages of positivism. Nay, every newspaper hack of Continental Liberalism is ready with his gibe at M.de l'Absolu and Mdlle.l'Âme. In the novel, in the play, in the babble of the drawing-room or the dinner-table, the most august and venerable of ethical doctrines are called in question and denied. Even the supreme authority of conscience is impugned. To its "Thou must" the answer is prompt: "On what compulsion must I? tell me that!" Its "dogmatism" is contemptuosly rejected, for physical science—the only science—is supposed to have given an explanation of it, fatal alike to its authoritativeness and to its coerciveness. No longer may we account of it with St. Paul, as the divine law written in the heart; no longer with Kant, as the law laid by a man's higher self upon himself. Has not Mr.Herbert Spencer resolved its obligation into a long-sighted selfishness? its sanction into a brain-track? Certain it is that every civilization which the world has as yet known, has been reared upon an ethical, not a physical foundation. A common belief in dogmas of morality—I use the word dogmas advisedly—has hitherto been the very condition of social cohesion. To speak of Europe only, its public order has ever been based upon the conviction, deep down in the hearts of all, at the very root of their moral and spiritual being, that man was encompassed by duties—duties which, however grudgingly performed or brutally violated, in countless instances, were everywhere undoubtingly recognized as the divinely imposed laws of life; no more to be chosen by men or women, Savonarola reminds the fugitive Romola, than birthplace, or father, or mother could be chosen, though men might choose to forsake them. So long as a moral code exists, and is generally acknowledged and revered, the fact of individual deflections from it, whether they be more or less numerous, is of comparatively small importance. It is the invalidation of the moral code, the prevalence of ethical agnosticism, the skepticism as to all first principles, which I account so portentous a sign of our own times. It seems to me to be the token of a decadent and moribund civilization.
Let us look at the matter as practical men. Assuredly what we may expect from materialism is not construction but destruction in all the most important departments of human life. Consider only two. The bond of civil society is obedience to law, fenced round with penalties; but legislation rests upon the doctrine of human responsibility. "Will," Kant tells us, "is a kind of causality belonging to living beings in so far as they are rational; and freedom is such a property of causality as enables them to be efficient agents, independently of outside causes determining them; while, on the other hand, necessity is that property of all irrational beings, which consists in their being determined to activity by the influence of outside causes." This conception of human freedom underlies the notion of crime. Yes; the sense of crime is bound up with the belief in man's power of choice, and in his obligation to choose rightly. Where there is no faculty to judge of acts, as right or wrong, and to elect between them, as in a young child or a lunatic, there is no criminal responsibility, for there are no persons. Personality manifests itself under the condition of free-will, influenced but not coerced by motives, a will which has the power of choice between two alternative courses. Without that power assuredly there is no moral acountability. Ought is a meaningless word without Can. Now, every school and variety of materialism does, in effect, deny free-will, be the denial more or less direct, more or less veiled. Either we are presented with the a posteriori argument, so elaborately worked out by Buckle, which aims at establishing, by the aid of statistics, that what we call morality is subject to fixed laws, like the course of the stars or the return of the seasons; that what we call virtue and vice are the results of physical causes, as regular as those which rule the germination of plants or the procreation of animals. Or the a priori road is followed, and we are told that though we can determine our actions according to our wishes, we can not determine our wishes. The will—what we call will—is exhibited to us as always governed by the strongest motives, the force of which is not due to us, for we suffer them, we do not originate them. Do we reply: "True, indeed; but though we do not create motives we have in our own hands the culture of the will; we are the architects of our own characters, because character is formed by acts, is, in fact, a chain of acts, and it rests with us to forge the first link of that chain"? The rejoinder is: "You beg the question. That first act was determined by motives; it was produced by the influence of the strongest of the external causes. Your so-called free-will is an illusion; it is really the sum of the many influences, of various kinds, which have been brought to bear upon a man, not merely individually, but during the countless generations of his existence in his ancestors. These have given to his soul—what we poetically call soul—its characteristic ply. 'Such as we are made of such we be.' What we call virtue and vice are, in M.Taine's striking phrase, 'merely products, like sugar and vitriol.' They are mainly the outcome of heredity. Francis of Assisi was necessarily a saint. Eccelino was necessarily a monster. Alexander Borgia could not by any means have become a Savonarola, nor Savonarola an Alexander Borgia. 'A poor devil can't command courage any more than he can make himself six feet high,' says Colonel Newcome, in extenuation of the cowardice of his nephew Barnes. No; nor can he command purity, or veracity, or pitifulness. 'To doubt the necessary nature of an action when a motive is presented to a given character,' writes the German philosopher, 'is just as absurd as to doubt that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.' "The conclusion to which materialism in all its schools is inevitably led, is that will is not what Kant has defined it, but only a word to hide our ignorance of causation, a modality of instinctive acts, accompanied by a certain degree of sensation. But with what is called metaphysical liberty, with freedom of volition, merit and demerit disappear too. Human causality, human spontaneity, human responsibility, all die before the "uncreating word" of materialism. Its doctrine of absolute irresponsibility makes an end of ethics; its criminal legislation can be nothing but leges sine moribus vanœ. For the sting of punishment is not the actual fact—"stone walls do not a prison make"—but the moral disapprobation of which the fact is evidence. But how visit with moral disapprobation those who were incapable of doing anything but what they did? Poor victims of temperament, of heredity, of environment, they are to be pitied, not blamed; while, indeed, we seclude them for the protection of our persons and pockets; for we are the numerical majority, we can appeal to the ultima ratio of force, if to nothing higher. It is no fancy picture which I am now drawing. Fifty years ago Balzac wrote: "Crime has been made poetical; tears are driveled over assassins." True as his words were then, they are even truer now. The idea of law as the embodied conscience of a nation of persons, the belief in justice, in the old sense, as something quite transcending mere expediency—fiat justitia pereat mundus—the conception of the civil magistrate as a minister of the retribution ordained by that justice as "tbe other half of crime," these things have well-nigh died out from the popular mind, as in place of the old spiritual principles of ethics, materialism refers us to natural history.
If law, with penal sanctions, be the bond of civil society, the family is certainly its foundation. But the family depends upon marriage. Now marriage, as it exists in Europe, is mainly the creation of spiritualism embodied in Christianity. Wordsworth gave utterance to no mere poetical fancy, but to the exact truth, when he wrote of "pure religion breathing household laws." What will become of marriage, and of that virtue of chastity of which it is the guardian, if we are to be governed by purely physical canons? In a recent work I have pointed out what, as a matter of fact, was the effect upon matrimony of the materialism dominant in France during the second half of the last century. I may here note how the legislators of the first French Republic dealt with it. The National Convention reduced it to a civil contract terminable, under circumstances, by the decree of a secular tribunal. As a fitting pendant to this enactment, the law of the 12th of Brumaire, year II of the Republic, placed natural children upon a footing of almost complete equality with children born in wedlock. Cambacérès, who acted as the rapporteur of the measure, would, indeed, have put them upon a completely equal footing. "The existing differences," he urged, "are the result of pride and superstition; they are ignominious and contrary to justice." The materialists who now sit in the seat of those sages are bent upon continuing and completing their work. The recent law on divorce is but a beginning, quite insufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the bolder spirits who pant for the entire abolition of marriage upon the ground that it is "the tomb of love, and the chief cause of stupidity (abêtissement) and ugliness (enlaidissement), in the human race." I suppose it must be conceded that stupidity and ugliness are the rule, rather than the exception, in the human race. But I have never been able to follow the reasoning which professes to find the source of these evils in matrimony, and their remedy in sexual promiscuity. Certain it is, however, that every school of materialism tends to the substitution of ephemeral connections, of what Mr.John Morley calls, after Rousseau, "marriage according to the truth of nature"—it is usually known as concubinage—for permanent and indissoluble wedlock, a "servitude" for which no sanction is found in physical science. "The moral and legal rule of marriage will be changed," M.Renan lately prophesied to the well-pleased students gathered around him at the Grand-Véfour; "the old Roman and Christian law will one day seem too exclusive, too narrow." And evidently M.Renan thinks that day of redemption drawing nigh. Certain it is that every school of materialism, by banishing the spiritual element from love, reduces it to a mere physical function, and makes of chastity a monkish superstition. "La morale," a keen witted Frenchman observed to me the other day, "est considérée par la Révolution comme une cléricale." And the abounding obscenity of literature and art in France is viewed with satisfaction by her present rulers, as the most effective weapon wherewith to combat this dreaded foe of the Third Republic. We in England have not as yet got so far as advanced thinkers across the Channel. But unquestionably we are on the road. The establishment of the divorce court has been a heavy blow at the old spiritual conceptions of wedlock hitherto unquestioningly received among us. And who can estimate the demoralizing effect of the flood of filth vomited throughout the country from that "common sewer of the realm"? The warnings of the saintly Keble "against profane dealing with holy matrimomy" have received only too ample justification. On every side we may discern the tokens how the old reverence for woman, and for that virtue of chastity which is the very citadel of her moral being, is being sapped among us, as materialism advances. The "Christian idea of purity," the Dean of St.Paul's some time ago told the University of Oxford, "has still a hold upon our society, imperfectly enough." Can we ask a more anxious question than whether this hold will continue? No one can help seeing, I think, many ugly symptoms. The language of revolt is hardly muttered. The ideas of purity, which we have inherited and thought sacred, are boldly made the note and reproach of the Christians. "Ugly symptoms," indeed, abound on every side. How largely has our popular literature lost itself in a so-called "realism," devoid of that ethical sentiment, without which, Goethe has well observed, "the actual is the vulgar, the low, the gross"! The art of the novelist in particular, how very generally is it degraded to the delineation of what the author of "Sapho"—no mean authority on such a subject—calls "ces amours de chair"; "those merely animal loves," wherein, he tells us, "there is no esteem, no respect, for the object of the passion, and brutality ever wells up, whether in anger or in caresses." Consider how the art of painting has been debased into a vehicle of mere sensuousness, a provocative of pruriency, a "procuress to the lords of hell." It is a true saying of Pope that a man shows not only his taste, but his virtue, by the pictures which bang upon walls. What a tale as to the virtue of this age do its pictorial exhibitions unfold! Or, again, think—but briefly—of the apotheosis of prostitution which is one distinctive note of our epoch. And here let me guard myself against misconception. I know well that the poor in virtue, as the poor in worldly wealth, we shall have always with us. I know that, in our present highly complex and artificial civilization, the rude proceedings, whereby the men of simpler ages sought to enforce chastity, would be out of date. I think it probable that in any age they did more harm than good. True, emphatically, in the existing condition of society, is St.Augustine's warning "Aufer meretrices de rebus humanis, turbaveris omnia libidinibus." And, this being so, I believe the true function of the state is to control and regulate what it must regard as a necessary evil, and to minimize, as far as may be, the resultant mischiefs, moral and physical. These miserable women are the guardians of our domestic purity. The "macte virtute esto" of Cato was prompted by a true knowledge of human nature. But, at all events, the infamy of the courtesan's trade has hitherto been generally recognized. It has been reserved for the materialism of the nineteenth century to make of this unclean creature an object of admiration, of envy, nay, of respect; the heroine of drama, the type of comedy, the theme of romance, the arbitress of fashion, the model curiously and attentively studied by great ladies with daughters to marry, by debutantes with husbands to find. 'Hoc fonte derivata clades." One need not go very much into general society to know how widely spread the corruption is. The language of the lupanar is heard from virginal lips. Things which it is a shame even to speak of, are calmly discussed by beauty just out of the nursery. A taint of lubricity hangs over "society." It is as though body and soul were steeped in materialism. "Si un homme epouse une jeune femme, élevée à la moderne, il risque fort d'épouser une petite courtisane," debauched in mind, if physically intact. It is an observation of Bernard de Vaudricourt in "La Morte," and is true of other countries than France. If any one wishes to see what the woman of the future, brought up without religious or metaphysical dogmas, in the school of physical facts, accepted as the only facts, is fated to become, let him survey "Sabine Tallevaut," as she is depicted for us in the pages of that admirably written book. Nowhere has M.Feuillet displayed more signally the sagacity and acuteness of his observation of social phenomena, or his singular psychological skill. I know not whether to admire more his refinement or his audacity, his mastery of the emotions or his descriptive power. Certain it is that the morality of the world, in the long run, is determined by women. Certain it is that the philosopher was well warranted when he wrote, "ce qu'on appelle l'homme moral, est formé sur les genoux de sa mére." Certain it is that for woman the idea of duty is, as a matter of fact, inseparably bound up with the spiritual conceptions derived by her from religion. And as certain is it that, if she once lose those conceptions, nothing but lack of personal attractions, or absence of opportunity, saves her from utter ethical degradation. Let us never forget that the difference between man and woman is not merely of physical conformation. It is psychical. "Woman is not undeveloped man, but diverse." She is governed far more by instinct, by impulse, by affections, than by logic, by purpose, by principles. For her, materialism means more utter ruin than for man, for it extinguishes the ideal which is her one light of life. As it destroys the sense of duty in man, so is it fatal to pure love in woman. Bring up woman in the positivist school, and you make of her a monster: the very type of ruthless cynicism, of all-engrossing selfishness, of unbridled passion.
There are eminent persons, I am well aware, to whom these conclusions will be extremely distasteful. Writers, whose names alone suffice to establish a claim upon our respectful attention, discourse to us of "independent morality." Professor Huxley, as I remember, somewhere protests with characteristic vehemence, "I will not for a moment admit that morality is not strong enough to hold its own." After all, however, the vital question is not what this accomplished physicist will admit, but what, from the nature of the case, is likely to happen. No doubt Professor Huxley, emancipated from belief in angel or spirit, still guides himself by the same ethical rules as before. I do not myself know anything of the early history of this illustrious man; but I suppose that, like the rest of us, he was brought up upon the Catechism. At all events I am quite sure that he is the product of many generations of Christian progenitors. What M.Renan happily calls the moral sap of the old belief—"la sève morale de la vieille croyance"—still courses through his spiritual being. His materialism takes credit for virtues springing from quite another source: "Miraturque novas frondes et non sua poma." He knows, far better than I do, the influence of heredity and of environment upon character. He is well aware how deeply rooted in the past are those ethical principles whereby human life is still largely governed, even among materialists. The question is. Can you uproot those principles and expect them to flourish upon a quite different soil? Morality in Professor Huxley, I can well believe, is strong enough to hold its own. But will it be strong enough in Professor Huxley's great-grandchildren? "It takes several generations for Christian morality to get into the blood," the missionaries in Samoa told Baron von Hübner. It will doubtless take several generations for Christian morality to get out of the blood. And then? Kant, a teacher whom Professor Huxley very highly esteems, held the existence of God and a future life to be necessary postulates of morality. Certainly, as a matter of fact, they are postulates upon which morality has hitherto rested. They have supplied the strongest incentives to duty, and to that self-sacrifice which the performance of duty usually involves. What is to take the place, in the generations to come, of those old spiritual dogmas? I do not know of any materialists who so much as profess to care for duty for its own sake. They are all agreed that personal interest or selfishness, of course enlightened selfishness, is for the future to be the foundation of ethics. It is from sympathy, they tell us, that the highest virtues must now spring. "Sympathy," they confidently maintain, "will impel us to seek the agreeable consciousness that results from the healthy exercise of the energies of our nature, and to promote it in others by the exercise of virtue and benevolence." "A deep and intelligent sympathy with the race" is to supply the place of the old sanctions. I pity the race. There is no conceivable motive why we should trouble ourselves about the welfare of others if they are mere automatic organisms. The "agreeable consciousness that results from the healthy exercise of the energies of our nature" is grotesquely inadequate to support the old rule of right action, "Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra." Physical science is utterly unable to supply any reason why we should "prefer a noble life before a long." If ever M.Renan, who is of the house and lineage of Balaam, the son of Beor, said a true word, it is this, "L'intérêt personnel n'inspire que la lâchetė." It is an insult to my understanding to tell me that selfishness, however sublimated, will yield the same fruits as self-sacrifice; that from natural history, from physiology, from chemistry, you can derive the elements of moral force. Justice, duty, love, are the idlest of words, if no echo come back to them from beyond the grave." Virtue will never cease to be admirable so long as man is man," a Teutonic materialist urges. I entirely agree. But if you empty the human mammal of the ideas of God, right, responsibility, immortality, he ceases to be man. "'A had him from me Christian, and, look, if the fat villain have not transformed him ape! "And then assuredly virtue will cease to be admirable to him. Not indeed that I am now pleading for Christianity. Still less am I pleading for any special form of it. There is little in Christian morality that is exclusively Christian; and I am not prepared to assert that many of the most precious of the ethical elements of our civilization might not survive a general decay of specifically Christian dogmas. My present contention is more general. It is this: that morality can have root only in the spiritual nature of man. If from that happy soil, watered by the river of life and refreshed by the dews of heaven, you transplant it to the rocks and sands of materialism, wither and die it must. "Independent morality." Yes. I quite allow that, in a sense, morality is independent. It is independent of all systems, religious and metaphysical; of all facts, psychological or historical. It is, as Kant has so well shown—that is to me the great achievement of his philosophy—it is a formal law, transcending all persons and all conditions, and sovereign over all: a law of ideal relation, universally obligatory upon all wills. It is as absolute as are the laws of mathematics, and concerning it even God is not free; for it has its source in his nature, and "he can not deny himself." In this sense it is independent; but it is not independent of personality. How can we predicate ethicalness or unethicalness of a thing? I maintain, then, that whether morality be regarded subjectively or objectively, materialism is fatal to it. Only a person is capable of a moral act; and materialism destroys personality. No action can be I obligatory, in the strict sense, unless it is binding upon us without regard to its consequences and without reference to any personal end. But, according to the universal teaching of all schools of materialism, the true criterion of the value of an action is its pleasurable tendency. Show that it is not conducive to human gratification, and it ceases to be virtuous. Let materialism efface from the world the old spiritual dogmas on which ethics have hitherto rested, and the somber picture of the great poet of the last century will assuredly be realized:
And, unawares, Morality expires:
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine,
It may be said that consequences are the scarecrows of fools; that things are what they are, and that it is our wisdom to see them as they are; that their consequences will be what they will be, and can in no way alter the facts of which they are the outcome. This is true enough, but it is not the whole truth. Consequences assuredly do deserve our attention. "Exitus acta probat" is a faithful saying, and with it accords that utterance of a diviner wisdom, "By their fruits ye shall know them." A reductio ad absurdum is a good logical process. Why? Because man consists in reason. And so the fact, if fact it be, as I believe, that the doctrines of materialism issue in unreason, in that "universal darkness" of which Pope prophesied, raises a strong presumption against them. If they are true, the last word of philosophy is spoken in the verse of Baudelaire, "Resigne-toi, mon ame, dors ton sommeil de brute." But to tell me that this is the conclusion of the whole matter, is in flat contradiction to my deepest and most assured certitudes. Certain to me is the reasonableness of the universe. It is cosmos, not chaos. Be its final cause immeasurably distant from our knowledge, yet every part of the process through which it moves is found, when examined, to be intelligible. "Nothing is that errs from law." There are mysteries, indeed, and locked doors, everywhere. As Hegel saw, every convex is concave, and every concave convex. But this is not contradiction nor unreason. Certain also to me is the supremacy of duty. Whatever is doubtful, of this I am ineffably sure, that right I must do, whatever the result; that on the side of right I must be, whether it triumph or not. And as certain to me is the sacredness of love. I do not speak of those amours de chair at which we have glanced with the French novelist, but of that passion for the ideal, which is the light of life:
Amor di vero ben pien di letizia,
But that which in my heart is love, in my conscience justice, in my intellect reason, is one and the same thing; it is the primary truth of which my whole moral being is full; and any doctrine which contradicts it is condemned already, even if it were, apparently, as well established, as materialism is, manifestly, ill established. For, in truth, all schools of materialists are confronted with the initial difficulties of the unity of consciousness, of the individuality and permanency of the Ego. These facts, however complex and obscure—and I fully recognize their complexity and obscurity—are the stumbling-block of every school of materialists, just as they are the adamantine foundation of all spiritual philosophy. And the writer who tries to explain them away, who asks me to believe, upon his ipse dixit, that consciousness is a mere fortuitous result of mechanism, that thought is a mere cerebral secretion, that the Ego is a mere sensation, is a dogmatist who makes far greater demands upon my faith than any Catholic theologian or Jewish rabbi. I know not any article of any creed, which so largely taxes my credulity, as does the proposition that there can be consciousness without personality, memory without identity, duty without liberty.
No sort of compromise, no kind of modus vivendi, appears to me to be possible between these two schools of Spiritualism and Materialism. I admit, indeed, that we may learn much from many teachers whose theories I judge most false. Let us gladly accept their facts. Let us also narrowly scrutinize their arguments. The writers whom I have in view, however admirable in other respects, are assuredly great corrupters of words. Too often they exhibit the smallest power of distinguishing between a nude hypothesis and a proved conclusion. They omit necessary links in their reasoning, as when, for example, they pass at a bound over the unbridged gulf between automatic consciousness and deliberate volition. They tell us, perhaps not quite accurately, that the brain is the origin of thought, and then they proceed to argue as though they had demonstrated that it is the cause of thought, and that intellect is a mere cerebral phenomenon. They talk glibly of causation, as if they knew all about it, overlooking their entire inability to analyze the causal nexus. And what shall we say of the way in which they habitually employ the term law? It really means in physics no more than "an observed uniformity of sequence or co-existence." But they give it a sort of personification, and speak of it as a cause. They confound it with necessity, forgetting that there is all the difference in the world between invariable regularity and necessary regularity. I confess—I trust I may be pardoned for so far yielding to a professional instinct—that I often put down the pompous pages of some of the most famous of them and say to myself: "If only I could have you under cross-examination for half an hour! How easy it would be to turn you inside out to show what a mass of arbitrary assumption, of confused ratiocination, of audacious sophism, all this brilliant rhetoric is!"
But let us remember that philosophy is the science of principles, and so ought to be encyclical, encyclopedic. It must no more neglect the positive sciences than the moral. "A wider metaphysic would not harm our physic" is an abundantly true warning. Equally true is it that a wider physic would not harm our metaphysic. It fills me with amazement to see the arguments still resorted to by men, learned in a fashion, and full of good-will, but quite unacquainted with the true bearings of the problems which agitate the modern mind, nay, totally devoid of the intellectual training necessary in order so much as to appreciate them. Their blindness to the signs of the times is well-nigh miraculous. They do not seem to possess even the sensitive membrane which Darwin tells us is the beginning of the eye. Who, that is at all competent to judge, can deny that the progress of the sciences during the present century has largely revolutionized the world of thought, or doubt that many old questions assume quite a new aspect in the light now shed upon them? To take one instance only, spiritualism is by no means bound up with the old dualistic conceptions which posit matter and mind as two incomprehensibly related substances, eternally alien from each other, and irreconcilably hostile. For myself, every day that I live I become more confirmed in the belief, which I expressed some years ago in this "Review," that "the old wall of partition between spirit and matter is cracking in all directions," that "we shall come to recognize a thinking substance, of which thought is the foundation, not the resultant." Even now—in words which I gladly borrow from Mr.Romanes—may we not regard "any sequence of natural causation as the merely phenomenal aspect of the ontological reality, the outward manifestation of an inward meaning"? The reality is spiritual, the phenomenon merely the shadow and the symbol. Materialism, like all errors, is but the distortion of a truth. It is a false expression of that tendency to unity which is so marked a characteristic of the modern mind, and which is not false. A century ago Lessing pronounced ѐѵ каì πӑѵ to be the last word of philosophy. Whatever exception may be taken to the formula, assuredly, it adumbrates a great verity. And as assuredly none can be further removed from the apprehension of that verity than those who, like Diderot, discern in the universe nothing but "one and the same phenomenon indefinitely diversified." Enveloped as we are, according to the profound doctrine of the old Vedic sages, in the veil of Mâya, what grosser illusion can there be than to mistake the fleeting shows apprehensible by our senses for the Self-Existent? "Of him, and through him, and to hira are all things." Most near and most hidden all phenomena consist by him, all phenomena point to hira, his indwelling leads us to his transcendence. "Wer darf ihn nennen?"—Who dare name him?—the poet asks. And the question may well seem reverent when we think how men talk of the Absolute and Eternal as if he were altogether such a one as themselves, as if he were the man in the next room. Let us celebrate that higher ignorance, that docta ignorantia, as the mystics speak, which is the last word alike of physics, of philosophy, of religion: "Deveni in altitudinem maris et silui."—Fortnightly Review.
- The misuse of the word Spiritualism to denote a certain sect of vulgar charlatans is unfortunate, but "abusus non tollit usum." The Roman Church could hardly be expected to abandon her description of herself as Catholic and Apostolic because these adjectives have been adopted by the followers of Mr.Irving.
- "Les Principes de la Morale," Paris, 1885. The extremely striking introduction—whence my citation is taken—attracted much notice when it appeared originally in the "Revue des Deux Mondes" of August 1, 1884.
- Thus, Mr.Clifford, in words, admits man's free agency; but, in fact, he reduces it to the mere shadow of a great name. It is with him nothing but the consciousness of being attracted, not propelled.
- "Chapters in European History," vol.ii, pp.153-159, second edition,
- See his account of Rousseau's mock marriage in vol.1, chap. iv, of his work on that philosopher.
- I should prefer saying that the brain is the organ, not of thought, but of the phantasmata which furnish thought with materials: it is the organ of imagination in the highest sense.
- Sec "Ancient Religion and Modern Thought," pp.340-315, third edition.
- Compare St.Augustine: "Quid dicit aliquis, cum de Te dicit? Et vae tacentibus de Te; quoniam loquaces muti sunt."