'It makes all the difference in the world whether we put Truth in the first place or in the second place.'
MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON
This Edition first printed 1886
The writer has availed himself of the opportunity of a new edition to add three or four additional illustrations in the footnotes. The criticisms on the first edition call for no remark, excepting this, perhaps, that the present little volume has no pretensions to be anything more than an Essay. To judge such it performance as if it professed to be an exhaustive Treatise in casuistry, is to subject it to tests which it was never designed to bear. Merely to open questions, to indicate points, to suggest cases, to sketch outlines,—as an Essay does all these things,—may often be a process not without its own modest usefulness and interest.
May 4, 1877.
CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTORY.
Design of this Essay The question stated Suggested by some existing tendencies in England Comparison with other countries Test of this comparison The absent quality specifically defined History and decay of some recent aspirations Illustrations Characteristics of one present mood Analysis of its causes (1) Influence of French examples (2) Influence of the Historic Method (3) Influence of the Newspaper Press (4) Increase of material prosperity (5) Transformation of the spiritual basis of thought (6) Influence of a State Church
CHAPTER II. OF THE POSSIBLE UTILITY OF ERROR
Questions of a dual doctrine lies at the outset of our inquiry This doctrine formulated Marks the triumph of status quo Psychological vindication of such a doctrine Answered by assertion of the dogmatic character of popular belief And the pernicious social influence of its priests The root idea of the defenders of a dual doctrine Thesis of the present chapter, against that idea Examination of some of the pleas for error I. That a false opinion may be clothed with good associations II. That all minds are not open to reason III. That a false opinion, considered in relation to the general mental attitude, may be less hurtful than its premature demolition IV. That mere negative truth is not a guide V. That error has been a stepping-stone to truth We cannot tell how much truth has been missed Inevitableness is not utility
CHAPTER III. INTELLECTUAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE POLITICAL SPIRIT.
The modern disciplina arcani Hume's immoral advice Evil intellectual effects of immoral compromise Depravation that follows its grosser forms The three provinces of compromise Radical importance of their separation Effects of their confusion in practical politics Economy or management in the Formation of opinion Its lawfulness turns on the claims of majority and minority over one another Thesis of the present chapter Its importance, owing to the supremacy of the political spirit in England Effects of the predominance of this spirit Contrasted with epochs of intellectual responsibility A modern movement against the political spirit An objection considered Importance to character of rationalised conviction, and of ideals The absence of them attenuates conduct Illustrations in modern politics Modern latitudinarianism Illustration in two supreme issues Pascal's remarks upon a state of Doubt Dr. Newman on the same Three ways of dealing with the issues Another illustration of intellectual improbity The Savoyard Vicar Mischievousness of substituting spiritual self-indulgence for reason
CHAPTER IV. RELIGIOUS CONFORMITY.
Compromise in Expression Touches religion rather than politics Hume on non-resistance Reason why rights of free speech do not exactly coincide with rights of free thought Digression into the matter of free speech Dissent no longer railing and vituperative Tendency of modern free thought to assimilate some elements from the old faith A wide breach still remains Heresy, however, no longer traced to depravity Tolerance not necessarily acquiescence in scepticism Object of the foregoing digression The rarity of plain-speaking a reason why it is painful Conformity in the relationship between child and parent Between husband and wife In the education of children The case of an unbelieving priest The case of one who fears to lose his influence Conformity not harmless nor unimportant
CHAPTER V. THE REALISATION OF OPINION.
The application of opinion to conduct Tempering considerations Not to be pressed too far Our action in realising our opinions depends on our social theory Legitimate and illegitimate compromise in view of that The distinction equally sound on the evolutional theory Condition of progressive change A plea for compromise examined A second plea The allegation of provisional usefulness examined Illustrated in religious institutions In political institutions Burke's commendation of political compromise The saying that small reforms may be the worst enemies of great ones In what sense true Illustration in the Elementary Education Act Wisdom of social patience The considerations which apply to political practice do not apply to our own lives Nor to the publication of social opinions The amount of conscience in a community Evil of attenuating this element Historic illustration New side of the discussion Is earnestness of conviction fatal to concession of liberty to others? Two propositions at the base of an affirmative answer Earnestness of conviction consistent with sense of liability to error Belief in one's own infallibility does not necessarily lead to intolerance The contrary notion due to juristic analogies in social discussion Connection between the doctrine of liberty and social evolution The timid compromisers superfluous apprehension Material limits to the effect of moral speculation Illustration from the history of Slavery Illustration from French history Practical influence of a faith in the self-protecting quality of a society Conclusion
NOTE TO PAGE 242.
The Doctrine of Liberty
The design of the following essay is to consider, in a short and direct way, some of the limits that are set by sound reason to the practice of the various arts of accommodation, economy, management, conformity, or compromise. The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what circumstances does the exercise and vindication of the right, thus conceded in theory, become a positive duty in practice? If the majority are bound to tolerate dissent from the ruling opinions and beliefs, under what conditions and within what limitations is the dissentient imperatively bound to avail himself of this toleration? How far, and in what way, ought respect either for immediate practical convenience, or for current prejudices, to weigh against respect for truth? For how much is it well that the individual should allow the feelings and convictions of the many to count, when he comes to shape, to express, and to act upon his own feelings and convictions? Are we only to be permitted to defend general principles, on condition that we draw no practical inferences from them? Is every other idea to yield precedence and empire to existing circumstances, and is the immediate and universal workableness of a policy to be the main test of its intrinsic fitness?
To attempt to answer all these questions fully would be nothing less than to attempt a compendium of life and duty in all their details, a Summa of cases of conscience, a guide to doubters at every point of the compass. The aim of the present writer is a comparatively modest one; namely, to seek one or two of the most general principles which ought to regulate the practice of compliance, and to suggest some of the bearings which they may have in their application to certain difficulties in modern matters of conduct.
It is pretty plain that an inquiry of this kind needs to be fixed by reference to a given set of social circumstances tolerably well understood. There are some common rules as to the expediency of compromise and conformity, but their application is a matter of endless variety and the widest elasticity. The interesting and useful thing is to find the relation of these too vague rules to actual conditions; to transform them into practical guides and real interpreters of what is right and best in thought and conduct, in a special and definite kind of emergency. According to the current assumptions of the writer and the preacher, the one commanding law is that men should cling to truth and right, if the very heavens fall. In principle this is universally accepted. To the partisans of authority and tradition it is as much a commonplace as to the partisans of the most absolute and unflinching rationalism. Yet in practice all schools alike are forced to admit the necessity of a measure of accommodation in the very interests of truth itself. Fanatic is a name of such ill repute, exactly because one who deserves to be called by it injures good causes by refusing timely and harmless concession; by irritating prejudices that a wiser way of urging his own opinion might have turned aside; by making no allowances, respecting no motives, and recognising none of those qualifying principles, which are nothing less than necessary to make his own principle true and fitting in a given society. The interesting question in connection with compromise obviously turns upon the placing of the boundary that divides wise suspense in forming opinions, wise reserve in expressing them, and wise tardiness in trying to realise them, from unavowed disingenuousness and self-illusion, from voluntary dissimulation, and from indolence and pusillanimity. These are the three departments or provinces of compromise. Our subject is a question of boundaries. And this question, being mainly one of time and circumstance, may be most satisfactorily discussed in relation to the time and the circumstances which we know best, or at least whose deficiencies and requirements are most pressingly visible to us.
Though England counts her full share of fearless truth-seekers in most departments of inquiry, yet there is on the whole no weakening, but a rather marked confirmation, of what has become an inveterate national characteristic, and has long been recognised as such; a profound distrust, namely, of all general principles; a profound dislike both of much reference to them, and of any disposition to invest them with practical authority; and a silent but most pertinacious measurement of philosophic truths by political tests. 'It is not at all easy, humanly speaking,' says one who has tried the experiment, 'to wind an Englishman up to the level of dogma.' The difficulty has extended further than the dogma of theology. The supposed antagonism between expediency and principle has been pressed further and further away from the little piece of true meaning that it ever could be rightly allowed to have, until it has now come to signify the paramount wisdom of counting the narrow, immediate, and personal expediency for everything, and the whole, general, ultimate, and completed expediency for nothing. Principle is only another name for a proposition stating the terms of one of these larger expediencies. When principle is held in contempt, or banished to the far dreamland of the philosopher and the student, with an affectation of reverence that in a materialist generation is in truth the most overweening kind of contempt, this only means that men are thinking much of the interests of to-day, and little of the more ample interests of the many days to come. It means that the conditions of the time are unfriendly to the penetration and the breadth of vision which disclose to us the whole range of consequences that follow on certain kinds of action or opinion, and unfriendly to the intrepidity and disinterestedness which make us willing to sacrifice our own present ease or near convenience, in the hope of securing higher advantages for others or for ourselves in the future.
Let us take politics, for example. What is the state of the case with us, if we look at national life in its broadest aspect? A German has his dream of a great fatherland which shall not only be one and consolidated, but shall in due season win freedom for itself, and be as a sacred hearth whence others may borrow the warmth of freedom and order for themselves. A Spaniard has his vision either of militant loyalty to God and the saints and the exiled line of his kings, or else of devotion to the newly won liberty and to the raising up of his fallen nation. An American, in the midst of the political corruption which for the moment obscures the great democratic experiment, yet has his imagination kindled by the size and resources of his land, and his enthusiasm fired by the high destinies which he believes to await its people in the centuries to come. A Frenchman, republican or royalist, with all his frenzies and 'fool-fury' of red or white, still has his hope and dream and aspiration, with which to enlarge his life and lift him on an ample pinion out from the circle of a poor egoism. What stirs the hope and moves the aspiration of our Englishman? Surely nothing either in the heavens above or on the earth beneath. The English are as a people little susceptible in the region of the imagination. But they have done good work in the world, acquired a splendid historic tradition of stout combat for good causes, founded a mighty and beneficent empire; and they have done all this notwithstanding their deficiencies of imagination. Their lands have been the home of great and forlorn causes, though they could not always follow the transcendental flights of their foreign allies and champions. If Englishmen were not strong in imagination, they were what is better and surer, strong in their hold of the great emancipating principles. What great political cause, her own or another's, is England befriending to-day? To say that no great cause is left, is to tell us that we have reached the final stage of human progress, and turned over the last leaf in the volume of human improvements. The day when this is said and believed marks the end of a nation's life. Is it possible that, after all, our old protestant spirit, with its rationality, its austerity, its steady political energy, has been struck with something of the mortal fatigue that seizes catholic societies after their fits of revolution?
We need not forget either the atrocities or the imbecilities which mark the course of modern politics on the Continent. I am as keenly alive as any one to the levity of France, and the [Greek: hubris] of Germany. It may be true that the ordinary Frenchman is in some respects the victim of as poor an egoism as that of the ordinary Englishman; and that the American has no advantage over us in certain kinds of magnanimous sentiment. What is important is the mind and attitude, not of the ordinary man, but of those who should be extraordinary. The decisive sign of the elevation of a nation's life is to be sought among those who lead or ought to lead. The test of the health of a people is to be found in the utterances of those who are its spokesmen, and in the action of those whom it accepts or chooses to be its chiefs. We have to look to the magnitude of the issues and the height of the interests which engage its foremost spirits. What are the best men in a country striving for? And is the struggle pursued intrepidly and with a sense of its size and amplitude, or with creeping foot and blinking eye? The answer to these questions is the answer to the other question, whether the best men in the country are small or great. It is a commonplace that the manner of doing things is often as important as the things done. And it has been pointed out more than once that England's most creditable national action constantly shows itself so poor and mean in expression that the rest of Europe can discern nothing in it but craft and sinister interest. Our public opinion is often rich in wisdom, but we lack the courage of our wisdom. We execute noble achievements, and then are best pleased to find shabby reasons for them.
There is a certain quality attaching alike to thought and expression and action, for which we may borrow the name of grandeur. It has been noticed, for instance, that Bacon strikes and impresses us, not merely by the substantial merit of what he achieved, but still more by a certain greatness of scheme and conception. This quality is not a mere idle decoration. It is not a theatrical artifice of mask or buskin, to impose upon us unreal impressions of height and dignity. The added greatness is real. Height of aim and nobility of expression are true forces. They grow to be an obligation upon us. A lofty sense of personal worth is one of the surest elements of greatness. That the lion should love to masquerade in the ass's skin is not modesty and reserve, but imbecility and degradation. And that England should wrap herself in the robe of small causes and mean reasons is the more deplorable, because there is no nation in the world the substantial elements of whose power are so majestic and imperial as our own. Our language is the most widely spoken of all tongues, its literature is second to none in variety and power. Our people, whether English or American, have long ago superseded the barbarous device of dictator and Caesar by the manly arts of self-government. We understand that peace and industry are the two most indispensable conditions of modern civilisation, and we draw the lines of our policy in accordance with such a conviction. We have had imposed upon us by the unlucky prowess of our ancestors the task of ruling a vast number of millions of alien dependents. We undertake it with a disinterestedness, and execute it with a skill of administration, to which history supplies no parallel, and which, even if time should show that the conditions of the problem were insoluble, will still remain for ever admirable. All these are elements of true pre-eminence. They are calculated to inspire us with the loftiest consciousness of national life. They ought to clothe our voice with authority, to nerve our action by generous resolution, and to fill our counsels with weightiness and power.
Within the last forty years England has lost one by one each of those enthusiasms which may have been illusions,—some of them undoubtedly were so,—but which at least testified to the existence among us, in a very considerable degree, of a vivid belief in the possibility of certain broad general theories being true and right, as well as in the obligation of making them lights to practical conduct and desire. People a generation ago had eager sympathy with Hungary, with Italy, with Poland, because they were deeply impressed by the doctrine of nationalities. They had again a generous and energetic hatred of such an institution as the negro slavery of America, because justice and humanity and religion were too real and potent forces within their breasts to allow them to listen to those political considerations by which American statesmen used to justify temporising and compromise. They had strong feelings about Parliamentary Reform, because they were penetrated by the principle that the possession of political power by the bulk of a society is the only effective security against sinister government; or else by the principle that participation in public activity, even in the modest form of an exercise of the elective franchise, is an elevating and instructing agency; or perhaps by the principle that justice demands that those who are compelled to obey laws and pay national taxes should have a voice in making the one and imposing the other.
It may be said that the very fate of these aspirations has had a blighting effect on public enthusiasm and the capacity of feeling it. Not only have most of them now been fulfilled, and so passed from aspiration to actuality, but the results of their fulfilment have been so disappointing as to make us wonder whether it is really worth while to pray, when to have our prayers granted carries the world so very slight a way forward. The Austrian is no longer in Italy; the Pope has ceased to be master in Rome; the patriots of Hungary are now in possession of their rights, and have become friends of their old oppressors; the negro slave has been transformed into an American citizen. At home, again, the gods have listened to our vows. Parliament has been reformed, and the long-desired mechanical security provided for the voter's freedom. We no longer aspire after all these things, you may say, because our hopes have been realised and our dreams have come true. It is possible that the comparatively prosaic results before our eyes at the end of all have thrown a chill over our political imagination. What seemed so glorious when it was far off, seems perhaps a little poor now that it is near; and this has damped the wing of political fancy. The old aspirations have vanished, and no new ones have arisen in their place. Be the cause what it may, I should express the change in this way, that the existing order of facts, whatever it may be, now takes a hardly disputed precedence with us over ideas, and that the coarsest political standard is undoubtingly and finally applied over the whole realm of human thought.
The line taken up by the press and the governing classes of England during the American Civil War may serve to illustrate the kind of mood which we conceive to be gaining firmer hold than ever of the national mind. Those who sympathised with the Southern States listened only to political arguments, and very narrow and inefficient political arguments, as it happened, when they ought to have seen that here was an issue which involved not only political ideas, but moral and religious ideas as well. That is to say, the ordinary political tests were not enough to reveal the entire significance of the crisis, nor were the political standards proper for measuring the whole of the expediencies hanging in the balance. The conflict could not be adequately gauged by such questions as whether the Slave States had or had not a constitutional right to establish an independent government; whether the Free States were animated by philanthropy or by love of empire; whether it was to the political advantage of England that the American Union should be divided and consequently weakened. Such questions were not necessarily improper in themselves, and we can imagine circumstances in which they might be not only proper but decisive. But, the circumstances being what they were, the narrower expediencies of ordinary politics were outweighed by one of those supreme and indefeasible expediencies which are classified as moral. These are, in other words, the higher, wider, more binding, and transcendent part of the master art of social wellbeing.
Here was only one illustration of the growing tendency to substitute the narrowest political point of view for all the other ways of regarding the course of human affairs, and to raise the limitations which practical exigencies may happen to set to the application of general principles, into the very place of the principles themselves. Nor is the process of deteriorating conviction confined to the greater or noisier transactions of nations. It is impossible that it should be so. That process is due to causes which affect the mental temper an a whole, and pour round us an atmosphere that enervates our judgment from end to end, not more in politics than in morality, and not more in morality than in philosophy, in art, and in religion. Perhaps this tendency never showed itself more offensively than when the most important newspaper in the country criticised our great naturalist's scientific speculations as to the descent of man, from the point of view of property, intelligence, and a stake in the country, and severely censured him for revealing his particular zoological conclusions to the general public, at a moment when the sky of Paris was red with the incendiary flames of the Commune. It would be hard to reduce the transformation of all truth into a subordinate department of daily politics, to a more gross and unseemly absurdity.
The consequences of such a transformation, of putting immediate social convenience in the first place, and respect for truth in the second, are seen, as we have said, in a distinct and unmistakable lowering of the level of national life; a slack and lethargic quality about public opinion; a growing predominance of material, temporary, and selfish aims, over those which are generous, far-reaching, and spiritual; a deadly weakening of intellectual conclusiveness, and clear-shining moral illumination, and, lastly, of a certain stoutness of self-respect for which England was once especially famous. A plain categorical proposition is becoming less and less credible to average minds. Or at least the slovenly willingness to hold two directly contradictory propositions at one and the same time is becoming more and more common. In religion, morals, and politics, the suppression of your true opinion, if not the positive profession of what you hold to be a false opinion, is hardly ever counted a vice, and not seldom even goes for virtue and solid wisdom. One is conjured to respect the beliefs of others, but forbidden to claim the same respect for one's own.
This dread of the categorical proposition might be creditable, if it sprang from attachment to a very high standard of evidence, or from a deep sense of the relative and provisional quality of truth. There might even be a plausible defence set up for it, if it sprang from that formulated distrust of the energetic rational judgment in comparison with the emotional, affective, contemplative parts of man, which underlies the various forms of religious mysticism. If you look closely into our present mood, it is seen to be the product mainly and above all of a shrinking deference to the status quo, not merely as having a claim not to be lightly dealt with, which every serious man concedes, but as being the last word and final test of truth and justice. Physical science is allowed to be the sphere of accurate reasoning and distinct conclusions, but in morals and politics, instead of admitting that these subjects have equally a logic of their own, we silently suspect all first principles, and practically deny the strict inferences from demonstrated premisses. Faith in the soundness of given general theories of right and wrong melts away before the first momentary triumph of wrong, or the first passing discouragement in enforcing right.
Our robust political sense, which has discovered so many of the secrets of good government, which has given us freedom with order, and popular administration without corruption, and unalterable respect for law along with indelible respect for individual right, this, which has so long been our strong point, is fast becoming our weakness and undoing. For the extension of the ways of thinking which are proper in politics, to other than political matter, means at the same time the depravation of the political sense itself. Not only is social expediency effacing the many other points of view that men ought to take of the various facts of life and thought: the idea of social expediency itself is becoming a dwarfed and pinched idea. Ours is the country where love of constant improvement ought to be greater than anywhere else, because fear of revolution is less. Yet the art of politics is growing to be as meanly conceived as all the rest At elections the national candidate has not often a chance against the local candidate, nor the man of a principle against the man of a class. In parliament we are admonished on high authority that 'the policy of a party is not the carrying out of the opinion of any section of it, but the general consensus of the whole,' which seems to be a hierophantic manner of saying that the policy of a party is one thing, and the principle which makes it a party is another thing, and that men who care very strongly about anything are to surrender that and the hope of it, for the sake of succeeding in something about which they care very little or not at all. This is our modern way of giving politicians heart for their voyage, of inspiring them with resoluteness and self-respect, with confidence in the worth of their cause and enthusiasm for its success. Thoroughness is a mistake, and nailing your flag to the mast a bit of delusive heroics. Think wholly of to-day, and not at all of to-morrow. Beware of the high and hold fast to the safe. Dismiss conviction, and study general consensus. No zeal, no faith, no intellectual trenchancy, but as much low-minded geniality and trivial complaisance as you please.
Of course, all these characteristics of our own society mark tendencies that are common enough in all societies. They often spring from an indolence and enervation that besets a certain number of people, however invigorating the general mental climate may be. What we are now saying is that the general mental climate itself has, outside of the domain of physical science, ceased to be invigorating; that, on the contrary, it fosters the more inglorious predispositions of men, and encourages a native willingness, already so strong, to acquiesce in a lazy accommodation with error, an ignoble economy of truth, and a vicious compromise of the permanent gains of adhering to a sound general principle, for the sake of the temporary gains of departing from it.
Without attempting an elaborate analysis of the causes that have brought about this debilitation of mental tone, we may shortly remind ourselves of one or two facts in the political history, in the intellectual history, and in the religious history of this generation, which perhaps help us to understand a phenomenon that we have all so keen an interest both in understanding and in modifying.
To begin with what lies nearest to the surface. The most obvious agency at work in the present exaggeration of the political standard as the universal test of truth, is to be found in some contemporary incidents. The influence of France upon England since the revolution of 1848 has tended wholly to the discredit of abstract theory and general reasoning among us, in all that relates to politics, morals, and religion. In 1848, not in 1789, questions affecting the fundamental structure and organic condition of the social union came for the first time into formidable prominence. For the first time those questions and the answers to them were stated in articulate formulas and distinct theories. They were not merely written in books; they so fascinated the imagination and inflamed the hopes of the time, that thousands of men were willing actually to go down into the streets and to shed their blood for the realisation of their generous dream of a renovated society. The same sight has been seen since, and even when we do not see it, we are perfectly aware that the same temper is smouldering. Those were premature attempts to convert a crude aspiration into a political reality, and to found a new social order on a number of umcompromising deductions from abstract principles of the common weal. They have had the natural effect of deepening the English dislike of a general theory, even when such a theory did no more than profess to announce a remote object of desire, and not the present goal of immediate effort.
It is not only the Socialists who are responsible for the low esteem into which a spirit of political generalisation has fallen in other countries, in consequence of French experience. Mr. Mill has described in a well-known passage the characteristic vice of the leaders of all French parties, and not of the democratic party more than any other. 'The commonplaces of politics in France,' he says, 'are large and sweeping practical maxims, from which, as ultimate premisses, men reason downwards to particular applications, and this they call being logical and consistent. For instance, they are perpetually arguing that such and such a measure ought to be adopted, because it is a consequence of the principle on which the form of government is founded; of the principle of legitimacy, or the principle of the sovereignty of the people. To which it may be answered that if these be really practical principles, they must rest on speculative grounds; the sovereignty of the people (for example) must be a right foundation for government, because a government thus constituted tends to produce certain beneficial effects. Inasmuch, however, as no government produces all possible beneficial effects, but all are attended with more or fewer inconveniences; and since these cannot be combated by means drawn from the very causes which produce them, it would often be a much stronger recommendation of some practical arrangement that it does not follow from what is called the general principle of the government, than that it does,'
The English feeling for compromise is on its better side the result of a shrewd and practical, though informal, recognition of a truth which the writer has here expressed in terms of Method. The disregard which the political action of France has repeatedly betrayed of a principle really so important has hitherto strengthened our own regard for it, until it has not only made us look on its importance as exclusive and final, but has extended our respect for the right kind of compromise to wrong and injurious kinds.
A minor event, which now looks much less important than it did not many years ago, but which still had real influence in deteriorating moral judgment, was the career of a late sovereign of France. Some apparent advantages followed for a season from a rule which had its origin in a violent and perfidious usurpation, and which was upheld by all the arts of moral corruption, political enervation, and military repression. The advantages lasted long enough to create in this country a steady and powerful opinion that Napoleon the Third's early crime was redeemed by the seeming prosperity which followed. The shocking prematureness of this shallow condonation is now too glaringly visible for any one to deny it. Not often in history has the great truth that 'morality is the nature of things' received corroboration so prompt and timely. We need not commit ourselves to the optimistic or sentimental hypothesis that wickedness always fares ill in the world, or on the other hand that whoso hearkens diligently to the divine voice, and observes all the commandments to do them, shall be blessed in his basket and his store and all the work of his hand. The claims of morality to our allegiance, so far as its precepts are solidly established, rest on the same positive base as our faith in the truth of physical laws. Moral principles, when they are true, are at bottom only registered generalisations from experience. They record certain uniformities of antecedence and consequence in the region of human conduct Want of faith in the persistency of these uniformities is only a little less fatuous in the moral order than a corresponding want of faith would instantly disclose itself to be in the purely physical order. In both orders alike there is only too much of this kind of fatuousness, this readiness to believe that for once in our favour the stream shall flow up hill, that we may live in miasmatic air unpoisoned, that a government may depress the energy, the self-reliance, the public spirit of its citizens, and yet be able to count on these qualities whenever the government itself may have broken down, and left the country to make the best of such resources as are left after so severe and prolonged a drain. This is the sense in which morality is the nature of things. The system of the Second Empire was in the same sense an immoral system. Unless all the lessons of human experience were futile, and all the principles of political morality mere articles of pedantry, such a system must inevitably bring disaster, as we might have seen that it was sowing the seeds of disaster. Yet because the catastrophe lingered, opinion in England began to admit the possibility of evil being for this once good, and to treat any reference to the moral and political principles which condemned the imperial system, and all systems like it, beyond hope or appeal, as simply the pretext of a mutinous or Utopian impatience.
This, however, is only one of the more superficial influences which have helped and fallen in with the working of profounder causes of weakened aspiration and impoverished moral energy, and of the substitution of latitudinarian acquiescence and faltering conviction for the whole-hearted assurance of better times. Of these deeper causes, the most important in the intellectual development of the prevailing forms of thought and sentiment is the growth of the Historic Method. Let us consider very shortly how the abuse of this method, and an unauthorised extension and interpretation of its conclusions, are likely to have had something to do with the enervation of opinion.
The Historic Method may be described as the comparison of the forms of an idea, or a usage, or a belief, at any given time, with the earlier forms from which they were evolved, or the later forms into which they were developed, and the establishment, from such a comparison, of an ascending and descending order among the facts. It consists in the explanation of existing parts in the frame of society by connecting them with corresponding parts in some earlier frame; in the identification of present forms in the past, and past forms in the present. Its main process is the detection of corresponding customs, opinions, laws, beliefs, among different communities, and a grouping of them into general classes with reference to some one common feature. It is a certain way of seeking answers to various questions of origin, resting on the same general doctrine of evolution, applied to moral and social forms, as that which is being applied with so much ingenuity to the series of organic matter. The historic conception is a reference of every state of society to a particular stage in the evolution of its general conditions. Ideas of law, of virtue, of religion, of the physical universe, of history, of the social union itself, all march in a harmonious and inter-dependent order.
Curiosity with reference to origins is for various reasons the most marked element among modern scientific tendencies. It covers the whole field, moral, intellectual, and physical, from the smile or the frown on a man's face, up to the most complex of the ideas in his mind; from the expression of his emotions, to their root and relations with one another in his inmost organisation. As an ingenious writer, too soon lost to our political literature, has put it:—'If we wanted to describe one of the most marked results, perhaps the most marked result, of late thought, we should say that by it everything is made an antiquity. When in former times our ancestors thought of an antiquarian, they described him as occupied with coins and medals and Druids' stones. But now there are other relics; indeed all matter is become such. Man himself has to the eye of science become an antiquity. She tries to read, is beginning to read, knows she ought to read, in the frame of each man the result of a whole history of all his life, and what he is and what makes him so.' Character is considered less with reference to its absolute qualities than as an interesting scene strewn with scattered rudiments, survivals, inherited predispositions. Opinions are counted rather as phenomena to be explained than as matters of truth and falsehood. Of usages, we are beginning first of all to think where they came from, and secondarily whether they are the most fitting and convenient that men could be got to accept. In the last century men asked of a belief or a story, Is it true? We now ask, How did men come to take it for true? In short the relations among social phenomena which now engage most attention, are relations of original source, rather than those of actual consistency in theory and actual fitness in practice. The devotees of the current method are more concerned with the pedigree and genealogical connections of a custom or an idea than with its own proper goodness or badness, its strength or its weakness.
Though there is no necessary or truly logical association between systematic use of this method rightly limited, and a slack and slipshod preference of vague general forms over definite ideas, yet every one can see its tendency, if uncorrected, to make men shrink from importing anything like absolute quality into their propositions. We can see also, what is still worse, its tendency to place individual robustness and initiative in the light of superfluities, with which a world that goes by evolution can very well dispense. Men easily come to consider clearness and positiveness in their opinions, staunchness in holding and defending them, and fervour in carrying them into action, as equivocal virtues of very doubtful perfection, in a state of things where every abuse has after all had a defensible origin; where every error has, we must confess, once been true relatively to other parts of belief in those who held the error; and where all parts of life are so bound up with one another, that it is of no avail to attack one evil, unless you attack many more at the same time. This is a caricature of the real teaching of the Historic Method, of which we shall have to speak presently; but it is one of those caricatures which the natural sloth in such matters, and the indigenous intellectual haziness of the majority of men, make them very willing to take for the true philosophy of things.
Then there is the newspaper press, that huge engine for keeping discussion on a low level, and making the political test final. To take off the taxes on knowledge was to place a heavy tax on broad and independent opinion. The multiplication of journals 'delivering brawling judgments unashamed on all things all day long,' has done much to deaden the small stock of individuality in public verdicts. It has done much to make vulgar ways of looking at things and vulgar ways of speaking of them stronger and stronger, by formulating and repeating and stereotyping them incessantly from morning until afternoon, and from year's end to year's end. For a newspaper must live, and to live it must please, and its conductors suppose, perhaps not altogether rightly, that it can only please by being very cheerful towards prejudices, very chilly to general theories, loftily disdainful to the men of a principle. Their one cry to an advocate of improvement is some sagacious silliness about recognising the limits of the practicable in politics, and seeing the necessity of adapting theories to facts. As if the fact of taking a broader and wiser view than the common crowd disqualifies a man from knowing what the view of the common crowd happens to be, and from estimating it at the proper value for practical purposes. Why are the men who despair of improvement to be the only persons endowed with the gift of discerning the practicable? It is, however, only too easy to understand how a journal, existing for a day, should limit its view to the possibilities of the day, and how, being most closely affected by the particular, it should coldly turn its back upon all that is general. And it is easy, too, to understand the reaction of this intellectual timorousness upon the minds of ordinary readers, who have too little natural force and too little cultivation to be able to resist the narrowing and deadly effect of the daily iteration of short-sighted commonplaces.
Far the most penetrating of all the influences that are impairing the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation, remain still to be mentioned. The first of these is the immense increase of material prosperity, and the second is the immense decline in sincerity of spiritual interest. The evil wrought by the one fills up the measure of the evil wrought by the other. We have been, in spite of momentary declensions, on a flood tide of high profits and a roaring trade, and there is nothing like a roaring trade for engendering latitudinarians. The effect of many possessions, especially if they be newly acquired, in slackening moral vigour, is a proverb. Our new wealth is hardly leavened by any tradition of public duty such as lingers among the English nobles, nor as yet by any common custom of devotion to public causes, such as seems to live and grow in the United States. Under such conditions, with new wealth come luxury and love of ease and that fatal readiness to believe that God has placed us in the best of possible worlds, which so lowers men's aims and unstrings their firmness of purpose. Pleasure saps high interests, and the weakening of high interests leaves more undisputed room for pleasure. Management and compromise appear among the permitted arts, because they tend to comfort, and comfort is the end of ends, comprehending all ends. Not truth is the standard, but the politic and the reputable. Are we to suppose that it is firm persuasion of the greater scripturalness of episcopacy that turns the second generation of dissenting manufacturers in our busy Lancashire into churchmen? Certainly such conversions do no violence to the conscience of the proselyte, for he is intellectually indifferent, a spiritual neuter.
That brings us to the root of the matter, the serious side of a revolution that in this social consequence is so unspeakably ignoble. This root of the matter is the slow transformation now at work of the whole spiritual basis of thought. Every age is in some sort an age of transition, but our own is characteristically and cardinally an epoch of transition in the very foundations of belief and conduct. The old hopes have grown pale, the old fears dim; strong sanctions are become weak, and once vivid faiths very numb. Religion, whatever destinies may be in store for it, is at least for the present hardly any longer an organic power. It is not that supreme, penetrating, controlling, decisive part of a man's life, which it has been, and will be again. The work of destruction is all the more perturbing to timorous spirits, and more harassing even to doughtier spirits, for being done impalpably, indirectly, almost silently and as if by unseen hands. Those who dwell in the tower of ancient faiths look about them in constant apprehension, misgiving, and wonder, with the hurried uneasy mien of people living amid earthquakes. The air seems to their alarms to be full of missiles, and all is doubt, hesitation, and shivering expectancy. Hence a decisive reluctance to commit one's self. Conscience has lost its strong and on-pressing energy, and the sense of personal responsibility lacks sharpness of edge. The native hue of spiritual resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of distracted, wavering, confused thought. The souls of men have become void. Into the void have entered in triumph the seven devils of Secularity.
And all this hesitancy, this tampering with conviction for fear of its consequences, this want of faithful dealing in the highest matters, is being intensified, aggravated, driven inwards like a fatal disorder toward the vital parts, by the existence of a State Church. While thought stirs and knowledge extends, she remains fast moored by ancient formularies. While the spirit of man expands in search after new light, and feels energetically for new truth, the spirit of the Church is eternally entombed within the four corners of acts of parliament. Her ministers vow almost before they have crossed the threshold of manhood that they will search no more. They virtually swear that they will to the end of their days believe what they believe then, before they have had time either to think or to know the thoughts of others. They take oath, in other words, to lead mutilated lives. If they cannot keep this solemn promise, they have at least every inducement that ordinary human motives can supply, to conceal their breach of it. The same system which begins by making mental indolence a virtue and intellectual narrowness a part of sanctity, ends by putting a premium on something too like hypocrisy. Consider the seriousness of fastening up in these bonds some thousands of the most instructed and intelligent classes in the country, the very men who would otherwise be best fitted from position and opportunities for aiding a little in the long, difficult, and plainly inevitable work of transforming opinion. Consider the waste of intelligence, and what is assuredly not less grave, the positive dead-weight and thick obstruction, by which an official hierarchy so organised must paralyse mental independence in a community.
We know the kind of man whom this system delights to honour. He was described for us five and thirty years ago by a master hand. 'Mistiness is the mother of wisdom. A man who can set down half a dozen general propositions which escape from destroying one another only by being diluted into truisms; who can hold the balance between opposites so skilfully as to do without fulcrum or beam; who never enunciates a truth without guarding himself against being supposed to exclude the contradictory,—who holds that scripture is the only authority, yet that the Church is to be deferred to, that faith only justifies, yet that it does not justify without works, that grace does not depend upon the sacraments, yet is not given without them, that bishops are a divine ordinance, yet that those who have them not are in the same religious condition as those who have,—this is your safe man and the hope of the Church; this is what the Church is said to want, not party men, but sensible, temperate, sober, well-judging persons, to guide it through the channel of no meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of Aye and No.' The writer then thought that such a type could not endure, and that the Church must become more real. On the contrary, her reality is more phantom-like now than it was then. She is the sovereign pattern and exemplar of management, of the triumph of the political method in spiritual things, and of the subordination of ideas to the status quo.
It is true that all other organised priesthoods are also bodies which move within formularies even more inelastic than those of the Establishment. But then they have not the same immense social power, nor the same temptations to make all sacrifices to preserve it. They affect the intellectual temper of large numbers of people, but the people whom they affect are not so strongly identified with the greater organs of the national life. The State Church is bound up in the minds of the most powerful classes with a given ordering of social arrangements, and the consequence of this is that the teachers of the Church have reflected back upon thorn a sense of responsibility for these arrangements, which obscures their spirituality, clogs their intellectual energy and mental openness, and turns them into a political army of obstruction to new ideas. They feel themselves to a certain extent discharged from the necessity of recognising the tremendous conflict in the region of belief that goes on around them, just as if they were purely civil administrators, concerned only with the maintenance of the present order. None of this is true of the private Churches. Their teachers and members regard belief as something wholly independent of the civil ordering of things. However little enlightened in some respects, however hostile to certain of the ideas by which it is sought to replace their own, they are at least representatives of the momentous principle of our individual responsibility for the truth of our opinions. They may bring their judgments to conclusions that are less in accord with modern tendencies than those of one or two schools that still see their way to subscribing Anglican articles and administering Anglican rites. At any rate, they admit that the use of his judgment is a duty incumbent on the individual, and a duty to be discharged without reference to any external considerations whatever, political or otherwise. This is an elevating, an exhilarating principle, however deficiencies of culture may have narrowed the sphere of its operations. It is because a State Church is by its very conception hostile to such a principle, that we are justified in counting it apart from the private Churches with all their faults, and placing it among the agencies that weaken the vigour of a national conscience and check the free play and access of intellectual light.
Here we may leave the conditions that have made an inquiry as to some of the limits of compromise, which must always be an interesting and important subject, one of especial interest and importance to ourselves at present. Is any renovation of the sacredness of principle a possible remedy for some of these elements of national deterioration? They will not disappear until the world has grown into possession of a new doctrine. When that comes, all other good things will follow. What we have to remember is that the new doctrine itself will never come, except to spirits predisposed to their own liberation. Our day of small calculations and petty utilities must first pass away; our vision of the true expediencies must reach further and deeper; our resolution to search for the highest verities, to give up all and follow them, must first become the supreme part of ourselves.
[Footnote 1: See below, ch. iii.]
[Footnote 2: System of Logic, bk. vi. ch. xi.]
[Footnote 3: Bagehot.]
[Footnote 4: Dr. J.H. Newman's Essays Critical and Historical, vol. i. p. 301.]
OF THE POSSIBLE UTILITY OF ERROR.
Das Wahre foerdert; aus dem Irrthum entwickelt sich nichts, er verwickeltuns nur.— GOETHE.
At the outset of an inquiry how far existing facts ought to be allowed to overrule ideas and principles that are at variance with them, a preliminary question lies in our way, about which it may be well to say something. This is the question of a dual doctrine. In plainer words, the question whether it is expedient that the more enlightened classes in a community should upon system not only possess their light in silence, but whether they should openly encourage a doctrine for the less enlightened classes which they do not believe to be true for themselves, while they regard it as indispensably useful in the case of less fortunate people. An eminent teacher tells us how after he had once succeeded in presenting the principle of Necessity to his own mind in a shape which seemed to bring with it all the advantages of the principle of Free Will, he 'no longer suffered under the burden so heavy to one who aims at being a reformer in opinions, of thinking one doctrine true, and the contrary doctrine morally beneficial.' The discrepancy which this writer thought a heavy burden has struck others as the basis of a satisfactory solution.
Nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere Edita doctrina sapientum templa serena, Despicere unde queas alios passimque videre Errare atque viam palantes quaerere vitae.
The learned are to hold the true doctrine; the unlearned are to be taught its morally beneficial contrary. 'Let the Church,' it has been said, 'admit two descriptions of believers, those who are for the letter, and those who hold by the spirit. At a certain point in rational culture, belief in the supernatural becomes for many an impossibility; do not force such persons to wear a cowl of lead. Do not you meddle with what we teach or write, and then we will not dispute the common people with you; do not contest our place in the school and the academy, and then we will surrender to your hands the country school.' This is only a very courageous and definite way of saying what a great many less accomplished persons than M. Renan have silently in their hearts, and in England quite as extensively as in France. They do not believe in hell, for instance, but they think hell a useful fiction for the lower classes. They would deeply regret any change in the spirit or the machinery of public instruction which would release the lower classes from so wholesome an error. And as with hell, so with other articles of the supernatural system; the existence of a Being who will distribute rewards and penalties in a future state, the permanent sentience of each human personality, the vigilant supervision of our conduct, as well as our inmost thoughts and desires, by the heavenly powers; and so forth.
Let us discuss this matter impersonally, without reference to our own opinions and without reference to the evidence for or against their truth. I am not speaking now of those who hold all these ideas to be certainly true, or highly probable, and who at the same time incidentally insist on the great usefulness of such ideas in confirming morality and producing virtuous types of character. With such persons, of course, there is no question of a dual doctrine. They entertain certain convictions themselves, and naturally desire to have their influence extended over others. The proposition which we have to consider is of another kind. It expresses the notions of those who—to take the most important kind of illustration—think untrue the popular ideas of supernatural interference in our obscure human affairs; who think untrue the notion of the prolongation of our existence after death to fulfil the purpose of the supernatural powers; or at least who think them so extremely improbable that no reasonable man or woman, once awakened to a conviction of this improbability, would thenceforth be capable of receiving effective check or guidance from beliefs, that would have sunk slowly down to the level of doubtful guesses. We have now to deal with those who while taking this view of certain doctrines, still declare them to be indispensable for restraining from anti-social conduct all who are not acute or instructed enough to see through them. In other words, they think error useful, and that it may be the best thing for society that masses of men should cheat and deceive themselves in their most fervent aspirations and their deepest assurances. This is the furthest extreme to which the empire of existing facts over principles can well be imagined to go. It lies at the root of every discussion upon the limits which separate lawful compromise or accommodation from palpable hypocrisy.
It will probably be said that according to the theory of the school of which M. Renan is the most eloquent representative, the common people are not really cheating themselves or being cheated. Indeed M. Renan himself has expatiated on the charm of seeing figures of the ideal in the cottages of the poor, images representing no reality, and so forth. 'What a delight,' he cries, 'for the man who is borne down by six days of toil to come on the seventh to rest upon his knees, to contemplate the tall columns, a vault, arches, an altar; to listen to the chanting, to hear moral and consoling words!' The dogmas which criticism attacks are not for these poor people 'the object of an explicit affirmation,' and therefore there is no harm in them; 'it is the privilege of pure sentiment to be invulnerable, and to play with poison without being hurt by it.' In other words, the dogmas are false, but the liturgy, as a performance stirring the senses of awe, reverence, susceptibility to beauty of various kinds, appeals to and satisfies a sentiment that is both true and indispensable in the human mind. More than this, in the two or three supreme moments of life to which men look forward and on which they look back,—at birth, at the passing of the threshold into fulness of life, at marriage, at death,—the Church is present to invest the hour with a certain solemn and dignified charm. That is the way in which the instructed are to look at the services of a Church, after they have themselves ceased to believe its faith, us a true account of various matters which it professes to account for truly.
It will be perceived that this is not exactly the ground of those who think a number of what they confess to be untruths, wholesome for the common people for reasons of police, and who would maintain churches on the same principle on which they maintain the county constabulary. It is a psychological, not a political ground. It is on the whole a more true, as well as a far more exalted position. The human soul, they say, has these lovely and elevating aspirations; not to satisfy them is to leave man a dwarfed creature. Why quarrel with a system that leaves you to satisfy them in the true way, and does much to satisfy thorn in a false but not very harmful way among those who unfortunately have to sit in the darkness of the outer court?
This is not a proper occasion for saying anything about the adequateness of the catholic, or any other special manner of fostering and solacing the religious impulses of men. We have to assume that the instructed class believe the catholic dogmas to be untrue, and yet wishes the uninstructed to be handed over to a system that reposes on the theory that these dogmas are superlatively true. What then is to be said of the tenableness of such a position? To the plain man it looks like a deliberate connivance at a plan for the propagation of error—assuming, as I say, for the moment, that these articles of belief are erroneous and contrary to fact and evidence. Ah, but, we are told, the people make no explicit affirmation of dogma; that does nothing for them; they are indifferent to it. A great variety of things might be said to this statement. We might ask, for instance, whether the people ever made an explicit affirmation of dogma in the past, or whether it was always the hazy indifferent matter which it is supposed to be now. If so, whether we shall not have to re-cast our most fundamental notions of the way in which Christian civilisation has been evolved. If not, and if people did once explicitly affirm dogma, when exactly was it that they ceased to do so?
The answers to these questions would all go to show that at the time when religion was the great controlling and organising force in conduct, the prime elemental dogmas were accepted with the most vivid conviction of reality. I do not pretend that the common people followed all the inferences which the intellectual subtlety of the master-spirits of theology drew so industriously from the simple premisses of scripture and tradition. But assuredly dogma was at the foundation of the whole structure. When did it cease to be so? How was the structure supported, after you had altered this condition of things?
Apart from this historic issue, the main question one would like to put to the upholder of duality of religion on this plea, is the simple one, whether the power of the ceremonial which charms him so much is not actually at this moment drawn wholly from dogma and the tradition of dogma; whether its truth is not explicitly affirmed to the unlettered man, and whether the inseparable connection between the dogma and the ceremonial is not constantly impressed upon him by the spiritual teachers to whom the dual system hands him and his order over for all time? If any one of those philosophic critics will take the trouble to listen to a few courses of sermons at the present day, and the remark applies not less to protestant than to catholic churches, he will find that instead of that 'parole morale et consolante' which is so soothing to think of, the pulpit is now the home of fervid controversy and often exacerbated declamation in favour of ancient dogma against modern science. We do not say whether this is or is not the wisest line for the clergy to follow. We only press the fact against those who wish us to believe that dogma counts for nothing in the popular faith, and that therefore we need not be uneasy as to its effects.
Next, one would say to those who think that all will go well if you divide the community into two classes, one privileged to use its own mind, the other privileged to have its mind used by a priesthood, that they overlook the momentous circumstance of these professional upholders of dogmatic systems being also possessed of a vast social influence in questions that naturally belong to another sphere. There is hardly a single great controversy in modern politics, where the statesman does not find himself in immediate contact with the real or supposed interests, and with the active or passive sentiment, of one of these religious systems. Therefore if the instructed or intellectually privileged class cheerfully leave the field open to men who, ex hypothesi, are presumed to be less instructed, narrower, more impenetrable by reason, and the partisans of the letter against the spirit, then this result follows. They are deliberately strengthening the hands of the persons least fitted by judgment, experience, and temper, for using such power rightly. And they are strengthening them not merely in dealing with religious matters, but, what is of more importance, in dealing with an endless variety of the gravest social and political matters. It is impossible to map out the exact dimensions of the field in which a man shall exercise his influence, and to which he is to be rigorously confined. Give men influence in one matter, especially if that be such a matter as religious belief and ceremonial, and it is simply impossible that this influence shall not extend with more or less effect over as much of the whole sphere of conduct as they may choose surrendering the common people without dispute or effort to organised priesthoods for religious purposes, you would be inevitably including a vast number of other purposes in the self-same destination. This does not in the least prejudice practical ways of dealing with certain existing circumstances, such as the propriety or justice of allowing a catholic people to have a catholic university. It is only an argument against erecting into a complete and definite formula the division of a society into two great castes, the one with a religion of the spirit, the other with a creed of the letter.
Again, supposing that the enlightened caste were to consent to abandon the common people to what are assumed to be lower and narrower forms of truth,—which is after all little more than a fine phrase for forms of falsehood,—what can be more futile than to suppose that such a compromise will be listened to for a single moment by a caste whose first principle is that they are the possessors and ministers, not of an inferior or superior form of truth, but of the very truth itself, absolute, final, complete, divinely sent, infallibly interpreted? The disciples of the relative may afford to compromise. The disciples of the absolute, never.
We shall see other objections as we go on to this state of things, in which a minority holds true opinions and abandons the majority to false ones. At the bottom of the advocacy of a dual doctrine slumbers the idea that there is no harm in men being mistaken, or at least only so little harm as is more than compensated for by the marked tranquillity in which their mistake may wrap them. This is not an idea merely that intellectual error is a pathological necessity of the mind, no more to be escaped than the pathological necessities which afflict and finally dissolve the body. That is historically true. It is an idea that error somehow in certain stages, where there is enough of it, actually does good, like vaccination. Well, the thesis of the present chapter is that erroneous opinion or belief, in itself and as such, can never be useful. This may seem a truism which everybody is willing to accept without demur. But it is one of those truisms which persons habitually forget and repudiate in practice, just because they have never made it real to themselves by considering and answering the objections that may be brought against it. We see this repudiation before our eyes every day. Thus for instance, parents theoretically take it for granted that error cannot be useful, while they are teaching or allowing others to teach their children what they, the parents, believe to be untrue. Thus husbands who think the common theology baseless and unmeaning, are found to prefer that their wives shall not question this theology nor neglect its rites. These are only two out of a hundred examples of the daily admission that error may be very useful to other people. I need hardly say that to deny this, as the commonplace to which this chapter is devoted denies it, is a different thing from denying the expediency of letting errors alone at a given time. That is another question, to be discussed afterwards. You may have a thoroughly vicious and dangerous enemy, and yet it may be expedient to choose your own hour and occasion for attacking him. 'The passage from error to truth,' in the words of Condorcet, 'may be accompanied by certain evils. Every great change necessarily brings some of these in its train; and though they may be always far below the evil you are for destroying, yet it ought to do what is possible to diminish them. It is not enough to do good; one must do it in a good way. No doubt we should destroy all errors, but as it is impossible to destroy them all in an instant, we should imitate a prudent architect who, when obliged to destroy a building, and knowing how its parts are united together, sets about its demolition in such a way as to prevent its fall from being dangerous.'
Those, let us note by the way, who are accustomed to think the moral tone of the eighteenth century low and gross compared with that of the nineteenth, may usefully contrast these just and prudent word? of caution in extirpating error, with M. Renan's invitation to men whom he considers wrong in their interpretation of religion, to plant their error as widely and deeply as they can; and who are moreover themselves supposed to be demoralised, or else they would not be likely to acquiesce in a previous surrender of the universities to men whom they think in mortal error. Apart however from M. Renan, Condorcet's words merely assert the duty of setting to work to help on the change from false to true opinions with prudence, and this every sensible man admits. Our position is that in estimating the situation, in counting up and balancing the expediencies of an attack upon error at this or that point, nothing is to be set to the credit of error as such, nor is there anything in its own operations or effects to entitle it to a moment's respite. Every one would admit this at once in the case of physical truths, though there are those who say that some of the time spent in the investigation of physical truths might be more advantageously devoted to social problems. But in the case of moral and religious truths or errors, people, if they admit that nothing is to be set to the credit of error as such, still constantly have a subtle and practically mischievous confusion in their minds between the possible usefulness of error, and the possible expediency of leaving it temporarily undisturbed. What happens in consequence of such a confusion is this. Men leave error undisturbed, because they accept in a loose way the proposition that a belief may be 'morally useful without being intellectually sustainable,' They disguise their own dissent from popular opinions, because they regard such opinions as useful to other people. We are not now discussing the case of those who embrace a creed for themselves, on the ground that, though they cannot demonstrate its truth to the understanding, yet they find it pregnant with moralising and elevating characteristics. We are thinking of a very different attitude—that, namely, of persons who believe a creed to be not more morally useful than it is intellectually sustainable, so far as they themselves are concerned. To them it is pure and uncompensated error. Yet from a vague and general idea that what is useless error to them may be useful to others, they insist on doing their best to perpetuate the system which spreads and consecrates the error. And how do they settle the question? They reckon up the advantages, and forget the drawbacks. They detect and dwell on one or two elements of utility in the false belief or the worn-out institution, and leave out of all account the elements that make in the other direction.
Considering how much influence this vague persuasion has in encouraging a well-meaning hypocrisy in individuals, and a profound stagnation in societies, it may be well to examine the matter somewhat generally. Let us try to measure the force of some of the most usual pleas for error.
I. A false opinion, it may be said, is frequently found to have clustering around it a multitude of excellent associations, which do far more good than the false opinion that supports them, does harm. In the middle ages, for instance, there was a belief that a holy man had the gift of routing demons, of healing the sick, and of working divers other miracles. Supposing that this belief was untrue, supposing that it was an error to attribute the sudden death of an incredible multitude of troublesome flies in a church to the fact of Saint Bernard having excommunicated them, what then? The mistaken opinion was still associated with a deep reverence for virtue and sanctity, and this was more valuable, than the error of the explanation of the death of the flies was noxious or degrading.
The answer to this seems to be as follows. First, in making false notions the proofs or close associates of true ones, you are exposing the latter to the ruin which awaits the former. For example, if you have in the minds of children or servants associated honesty, industry, truthfulness, with the fear of hell-fire, then supposing this fear to become extinct in their minds,—which, being unfounded in truth, it is in constant risk of doing—the virtues associated with it are likely to be weakened exactly in proportion as that association was strong.
Second, for all good habits in thought or conduct there are good and real reasons in the nature of things. To leave such habits attached to false opinions is to lessen the weight of these natural or spontaneous reasons, and so to do more harm in the long run than effacement of them seems for a time to do good. Most excellences in human character have a spontaneous root in our nature. Moreover if they had not, and where they have not, there is always a valid and real external defence for them. The unreal defence must be weaker than the real one, and the substitution of a weak for a strong defence, where both are to be had, is not useful but the very opposite.
II. It is true, the objector would probably continue, that there is a rational defence for all excellences of conduct, as there is for all that is worthy and fitting in institutions. But the force of a rational defence lies in the rationality of the man to whom it is proffered. The arguments which persuade one trained in scientific habits of thought, only touch persons of the same kind. Character is not all pure reason. That fitness of things which you pronounce to be the foundation of good habits, may be borne in upon men, and may speak to them, through other channels than the syllogism. You assume a community of highly-trained wranglers and proficient sophisters. The plain fact is that, for the mass of men, use and wont, rude or gracious symbols, blind custom, prejudices, superstitions,—however erroneous in themselves, however inadequate to the conveyance of the best truth,—are the only safe guardians of the common virtues. In this sense, then, error may have its usefulness.
A hundred years ago this apology for error was met by those high-minded and interesting men, the French believers in human perfectibility, with their characteristic dogma,—of which Rousseau was the ardent expounder,—that man is born with a clear and unsophisticated spirit, perfectly able to discern all the simple truths necessary for common conduct by its own unaided light. His motives are all pure and unselfish and his intelligence is unclouded, until priests and tyrants mutilate the one and corrupt the other. We who have the benefit of the historic method, and have to take into account the medium that surrounds a human creature the moment it comes into the world, to say nothing of all the inheritance from the past which it brings within it into the world at the same moment, cannot take up this ground. We cannot maintain that everybody is born with light enough to see the rational defences of things for himself, without the education of institutions. What we do maintain is—and this is the answer to the plea for error at present under consideration—that whatever impairs the brightness of such light as a man has, is not useful but hurtful. Our reply to those who contend for the usefulness of error on the ground of the comparative impotence of rationality over ordinary minds, is something of this kind. Superstition, blind obedience to custom, and the other substitutes for a right and independent use of the mind, may accidentally and in some few respects impress good ideas upon persons who are too darkened to accept those ideas on their real merits. But then superstition itself is the main cause of this very darkness. To hold error is in so far to foster erroneous ways of thinking on all subjects; is to make the intelligence less and less ready to receive truth in all matters whatever. Men are made incapable of perceiving the rational defences, and of feeling rational motives, for good habits,—so far as they are thus incapable,—by the very errors which we are asked silently to countenance as useful substitutes for right reason. 'Erroneous motives,' as Condorcet has expressed this matter, 'have an additional drawback attached to them, the habit which they strengthen of reasoning ill. The more important the subject on which you reason ill, and the more you busy yourself about it, by so much the more dangerous do the influences of such a habit become. It is especially on subjects analogous to that on which you reason wrongly, or which you connect with it by habit, that such a defect extends most powerfully and most rapidly. Hence it is extremely hard for the man who believes himself obliged to conform in his conduct to what he considers truths useful to men, but who attributes the obligation to erroneous motives, to reason very correctly on the truths themselves; the more attention he pays to such motives, and the more importance he comes to attach to them, the more likely he will be to go wrong.' So, in short, superstition does an immense harm by enfeebling rational ways of thinking; it does a little good by accidentally endorsing rational conclusions in one or two matters. And yet, though the evil which it is said to repair is a trifle beside the evil which it is admitted to inflict, the balance of expediencies is after all declared to be such as to warrant us in calling errors useful!
III. A third objection now presents itself to me, which I wish to state as strongly as possible. 'Even if a false opinion cannot in itself be more useful than a true one, whatever good habits may seem to be connected with it, yet,' it may be contended, 'relatively to the general mental attitude of a set of men, to their other notions and maxims, the false opinion may entail less harm than would be wrought by its mere demolition. There are false opinions so intimately bound up with the whole way of thinking and feeling, that to introduce one or two detached true opinions in their stead, would, even if it were possible, only serve to break up that coherency of character and conduct which it is one of the chief objects of moralists and the great art of living to produce. For a true opinion does not necessarily bring in its train all the other true opinions that are logically connected with it. On the contrary, it is only too notorious a fact in the history of belief, that not merely individuals but whole societies are capable of holding at one and the same time contradictory opinions and mutually destructive principles. On the other hand, neither does a false opinion involve practically all the evil consequences deducible from it. For the results of human inconsistency are not all unhappy, and if we do not always act up to virtuous principle, no more do we always work out to its remotest inference every vicious principle. Not insincerity, but inconsistency, has constantly turned the adherents of persecuting precepts into friends of tolerant practice.'
'It is a comparatively small thing to persuade a superstitious person to abandon this or that article of his superstition. You have no security that the rejection of the one article which you have displaced will lead to the rejection of any other, and it is quite possible that it may lead to all the more fervid an adhesion to what remains behind. Error, therefore, in view of such considerations may surely be allowed to have at least a provisional utility.'
Now undoubtedly the repudiation of error is not at all the same thing as embracing truth. People are often able to see the force of arguments that destroy a given opinion, without being able to see the force of arguments for the positive opinion that ought to replace it. They can only be quite sure of seeing both, when they have acquired not merely a conviction that one notion is false and another true, but have furthermore exchanged a generally erroneous way of thinking for a generally correct way. Hence the truly important object with every one who holds opinions which he deems it of the highest moment that others should accept, must obviously be to reach people's general ways of thinking; to stir their love of truth; to penetrate them with a sense of the difference in the quality of evidence; to make them willing to listen to criticism and new opinion; and perhaps above all to teach them to take ungrudging and daily trouble to clear up in their minds the exact sense of the terms they use.
If this be so, a false opinion, like an erroneous motive, can hardly have even a provisional usefulness. For how can you attack an erroneous way of thinking except in detail, that is to say through the sides of this or that single wrong opinion? Each of these wrong opinions is an illustration and type, as it is a standing support and abettor, of some kind of wrong reasoning, though they are not all on the same scale nor all of them equally instructive. It is precisely by this method of gradual displacement of error step by step, that the few stages of progress which the race has yet traversed, have been actually achieved. Even if the place of the erroneous idea is not immediately taken by the corresponding true one, or by the idea which is at least one or two degrees nearer to the true one, still the removal of error in this purely negative way amounts to a positive gain. Why? For the excellent reason that it is the removal of a bad element which otherwise tends to propagate itself, or even if it fails to do that, tends at the best to make the surrounding mass of error more inveterate. All error is what physiologists term fissiparous, and in exterminating one false opinion you may be hindering the growth of an uncounted brood of false opinions.