Social Rights and Duties, Volume I (of 2) - Addresses to Ethical Societies
by Sir Leslie Stephen
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The Ethical Library


Addresses to Ethical Societies



In Two Volumes


London Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Limited New York: MacMillan & Co. 1896


The following chapters are chiefly a republication of addresses delivered to the Ethical Societies of London. Some have previously appeared in the International Journal of Ethics, the National Review, and the Contemporary Review. The author has to thank the proprietors of these periodicals for their consent to the republication.

L. S.










I am about to say a few words upon the aims of this society: and I should be sorry either to exaggerate or to depreciate our legitimate pretensions. It would be altogether impossible to speak too strongly of the importance of the great questions in which our membership of the society shows us to be interested. It would, I fear, be easy enough to make an over-estimate of the part which we can expect to play in their solution. I hold indeed, or I should not be here, that we may be of some service at any rate to each other. I think that anything which stimulates an active interest in the vital problems of the day deserves the support of all thinking men; and I propose to consider briefly some of the principles by which we should be guided in doing whatever we can to promote such an interest.

[1] Address to West London Ethical Society, 4th December, 1892.

We are told often enough that we are living in a period of important intellectual and social revolutions. In one way we are perhaps inclined even to state the fact a little too strongly. We suffer at times from the common illusion that the problems of to-day are entirely new: we fancy that nobody ever thought of them before, and that when we have solved them, nobody will ever need to look for another solution. To ardent reformers in all ages it seems as if the millennium must begin with their triumph, and that their triumph will be established by a single victory. And while some of us are thus sanguine, there are many who see in the struggles of to-day the approach of a deluge which is to sweep away all that once ennobled life. The believer in the old creeds, who fears that faith is decaying, and the supernatural life fading from the world, denounces the modern spirit as materialising and degrading. The conscience of mankind, he thinks, has become drugged and lethargic; our minds are fixed upon sensual pleasures, and our conduct regulated by a blind struggle for the maximum of luxurious enjoyment. The period in his eyes is a period of growing corruption; modern society suffers under a complication of mortal diseases, so widely spread and deeply seated that at present there is no hope of regeneration. The best hope is that its decay may provide the soil in which seed may be sown of a far-distant growth of happier augury. Such dismal forebodings are no novelty. Every age produces its prophecies of coming woes. Nothing would be easier than to make out a catena of testimonies from great men at every stage of the world's history, declaring each in turn that the cup of iniquity was now at last overflowing, and that corruption had reached so unprecedented a step that some great catastrophe must be approaching. A man of unusually lofty morality is, for that reason, more keenly sensitive to the lowness of the average standard, and too easily accepts the belief that the evils before his eyes must be in fact greater, and not, as may perhaps be the case, only more vividly perceived, than those of the bygone ages. A call to repentance easily takes the form of an assertion that the devil is getting the upper hand; and we may hope that the pessimist view is only a form of the discontent which is a necessary condition of improvement. Anyhow, the diametrical conflict of prophecies suggests one remark which often impresses me. We are bound to call each other by terribly hard names. A gentleman assures me in print that I am playing the devil's game; depriving my victims, if I have any, of all the beliefs that can make life noble or happy, and doing my best to destroy the very first principles of morality. Yet I meet my adversary in the flesh, and find that he treats me not only with courtesy, but with no inconsiderable amount of sympathy. He admits—by his actions and his argument—that I—the miserable sophist and seducer—have not only some good impulses, but have really something to say which deserves a careful and respectful answer. An infidel, a century or two ago, was supposed to have forfeited all claim to the ordinary decencies of life. Now I can say, and can say with real satisfaction, that I do not find any difference of creed, however vast in words, to be an obstacle to decent and even friendly treatment. I am at times tempted to ask whether my opponent can be quite logical in being so courteous; whether, if he is as sure as he says that I am in the devil's service, I ought not, as a matter of duty, to be encountered with the old dogmatism and arrogance. I shall, however, leave my friends of a different way of thinking to settle that point for themselves. I cannot doubt the sincerity of their courtesy, and I will hope that it is somehow consistent with their logic. Rather I will try to meet them in a corresponding spirit by a brief confession. I have often enough spoken too harshly and vehemently of my antagonists. I have tried to fix upon them too unreservedly what seemed to me the logical consequences of their dogmas. I have condemned their attempts at a milder interpretation of their creed as proofs of insincerity, when I ought to have done more justice to the legitimate and lofty motives which prompted them. And I at least am bound by my own views to admit that even the antagonist from whose utterances I differ most widely may be an unconscious ally, supplementing rather than contradicting my theories, and in great part moved by aspirations which I ought to recognise even when allied with what I take to be defective reasoning. We are all amenable to one great influence. The vast shuttle of modern life is weaving together all races and creeds and classes. We are no longer shut up in separate compartments, where the mental horizon is limited by the area visible from the parish steeple; each little section can no longer fancy, in the old childish fashion, that its own arbitrary prejudices and dogmas are parts of the eternal order of things; or infer that in the indefinite region beyond, there live nothing but monsters and anthropophagi, and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders. The annihilation of space has made us fellows as by a kind of mechanical compulsion; and every advance of knowledge has increased the impossibility of taking our little church—little in comparison with mankind, be it even as great as the Catholic Church—for the one pattern of right belief. The first effect of bringing remote nations and classes into closer contact is often an explosion of antipathy; but in the long run it means a development of human sympathy. Wide, therefore, as is the opposition of opinions as to what is the true theory of the world—as to which is the divine and which the diabolical element—I fully believe that beneath the war of words and dogmas there is a growth of genuine toleration, and, we must hope, of ultimate conciliation.

This is manifest in another direction. The churches are rapidly making at least one discovery. They are beginning to find out that their vitality depends not upon success in theological controversy, but upon their success in meeting certain social needs and aspirations common to all classes. It is simply impossible for any thinking man at the present day to take any living interest, for example, in the ancient controversies. The "drum ecclesiastic" of the seventeenth century would sound a mere lullaby to us. Here and there a priest or a belated dissenting minister may amuse himself by threshing out once more the old chaff of dead and buried dogmas. There are people who can argue gravely about baptismal regeneration or apostolical succession. Such doctrines were once alive, no doubt, because they represented the form in which certain still living problems had then to present themselves. They now require to be stated in a totally different shape, before we can even guess why they were once so exciting, or how men could have supposed their modes of attacking the question to be adequate. The Pope and General Booth still condemn each other's tenets; and in case of need would, I suppose, take down the old rusty weapons from the armoury. But each sees with equal clearness that the real stress of battle lies elsewhere. Each tries, after his own fashion, to give a better answer than the Socialists to the critical problems of to-day. We ought so far to congratulate both them and ourselves on the direction of their energies. Nay, can we not even co-operate, and put these hopeless controversies aside? Why not agree to differ about the questions which no one denies to be all but insoluble, and become allies in promoting morality? Enormous social forces find their natural channel through the churches; and if the beliefs inculcated by the church were not, as believers assert, the ultimate cause of progress, it is at least clear that they were not incompatible with progress. The church, we all now admit, whether by reason of or in spite of its dogmatic creed, was for ages one great organ of civilisation, and still exercises an incalculable influence. Why, then, should we, who cannot believe in the dogmas, yet fall into line with believers for practical purposes? Churches insist verbally upon the importance of their dogma: they are bound to do so by their logical position; but, in reality, for them, as for us, the dogma has become in many ways a mere excrescence—a survival of barren formulae which do little harm to anybody. Carlyle, in his quaint phrase, talked about the exodus from Houndsditch, but doubted whether it were yet time to cast aside the Hebrew old clothes. They have become threadbare and antiquated. That gives a reason to the intelligent for abandoning them; but, also, perhaps a reason for not quarrelling with those who still care to masquerade in them. Orthodox people have made a demand that the Board Schools should teach certain ancient doctrines about the nature of Christ; and the demand strikes some of us as preposterous if not hypocritical. But putting aside the audacity of asking unbelievers to pay for such teaching, one might be tempted to ask, what harm could it really do? Do you fancy for a moment that you can really teach a child of ten the true meaning of the Incarnation? Can you give him more than a string of words as meaningless as magical formulae? I was brought up at the most orthodox of Anglican seminaries. I learned the Catechism, and heard lectures upon the Thirty-nine Articles. I never found that the teaching had ever any particular effect upon my mind. As I grew up, the obsolete exuviae of doctrine dropped off my mind like dead leaves from a tree. They could not get any vital hold in an atmosphere of tolerable enlightenment. Why should we fear the attempt to instil these fragments of decayed formulae into the minds of children of tender age? Might we not be certain that they would vanish of themselves? They are superfluous, no doubt, but too futile to be of any lasting importance. I remember that, when the first Education Act was being discussed, mention was made of a certain Jew who not only sent his son to a Christian school, but insisted upon his attending all the lessons. He had paid his fees, he said, for education in the Gospels among other things, and he meant to have his money's worth. "But your son," it was urged, "will become a Christian." "I," he replied, "will take good care of that at home." Was not the Jew a man of sense? Can we suppose that the mechanical repetition of a few barren phrases will do either harm or good? As the child develops he will, we may hope, remember his multiplication table, and forget his fragments of the Athanasian Creed. Let the wheat and tares be planted together, and trust to the superior vitality of the more valuable plant. The sentiment might be expressed sentimentally as easily as cynically. We may urge, like many sceptics of the last century, that Christianity should be kept "for the use of the poor," and renounced in the esoteric creed of the educated. Or we may urge the literary and aesthetic beauty of the old training, and wish it to be preserved to discipline the imagination, though we may reject its value as a historical statement of fact.

The audience which I am addressing has, I presume, made up its mind upon such views. They come too late. It might have been a good thing, had it been possible, to effect the transition from old to new without a violent convulsion: good, if Christian conceptions had been slowly developed into more simple forms; if the beautiful symbols had been retained till they could be impregnated with a new meaning; and if the new teaching of science and philosophy had gradually percolated into the ancient formulae without causing a disruption. Possibly the Protestant Reformation was a misfortune, and Erasmus saw the truth more clearly than Luther. I cannot go into might-have-beens. We have to deal with facts. A conspiracy of silence is impossible about matters which have been vehemently discussed for centuries. We have to take sides; and we at least have agreed to take the side of the downright thinker, who will say nothing that he does not believe, and hide nothing that he does believe, and speak out his mind without reservation or economy and accommodation. Indeed, as things are, any other course seems to me to be impossible. I have spoken, for example, of General Booth. Many people heartily admire his schemes of social reform, and have been willing to subscribe for its support, without troubling themselves about his theology. I will make no objection; but I confess that I could not therefore treat that theology as either morally or intellectually respectable. It has happened to me once or twice to listen to expositions from orators of the Salvation Army. Some of them struck me as sincere though limited, and others as the victims of an overweening vanity. The oratory, so far as I could hear, consisted in stringing together an endless set of phrases about the blood of Christ, which, if they really meant anything, meant a doctrine as low in the intellectual scale as that of any of the objects of missionary enterprise. The conception of the transactions between God and man was apparently modelled upon the dealings of a petty tradesman. The "blood of Christ" was regarded like the panacea of a quack doctor, which will cure the sins of anybody who accepts the prescription. For anything I can say, such a creed may be elevating—relatively: elevating as slavery is said to have been elevating when it was a substitute for extermination. The hymns of the Army may be better than public-house melodies, and the excitement produced less mischievous than that due to gin. But the best that I can wish for its adherents is, that they should speedily reach a point at which they could perceive their doctrines to be debasing. I hope, indeed, that they do not realise their own meaning: but I could almost as soon join in some old pagan ceremonies, gash my body with knives, or swing myself from a hook, as indulge in this variety of spiritual intoxication.

There are, it is true, plenty of more refined and intellectual preachers, whose sentiments deserve at least the respect due to tender and humane feeling. They have found a solution, satisfactory to themselves, of the great dilemma which presses on so many minds. A religion really to affect the vulgar must be a superstition; to satisfy the thoughtful, it must be a philosophy. Is it possible to contrive so to fuse the crude with the refined as to make at least a working compromise? To me personally, and to most of us living at the present day, the enterprise appears to be impracticable. My own experience is, I imagine, a very common one. When I ceased to accept the teaching of my youth, it was not so much a process of giving up beliefs, as of discovering that I had never really believed. The contrast between the genuine convictions which guide and govern our conduct, and the professions which we were taught to repeat in church, when once realised, was too glaring. One belonged to the world of realities, and the other to the world of dreams. The orthodox formulae represent, no doubt, a sentiment, an attempt to symbolise emotions which might be beautiful, or to indicate vague impressions about the tendency of things in general; but to put them side by side with real beliefs about facts was to reveal their flimsiness. The "I believe" of the creed seemed to mean something quite different from the "I believe" of politics and history and science. Later experience has only deepened and strengthened that feeling. Kind and loving and noble-minded people have sought to press upon me the consolations of their religion. I thank them in all sincerity; and I feel,—why should I not admit it?—that it may be a genuine comfort to set your melancholy to the old strain in which so many generations have embodied their sorrows and their aspirations. And yet to me, its consolation is an invitation to reject plain facts; to seek for refuge in a shadowy world of dreams and conjectures, which dissolve as you try to grasp them. The doctrine offered for my acceptance cannot be stated without qualifications and reserves and modifications, which make it as useless as it is vague and conjectural. I may learn in time to submit to the inevitable; I cannot drug myself with phrases which evaporate as soon as they are exposed to a serious test. You profess to give me the only motives of conduct; and I know that at the first demand to define them honestly—to say precisely what you believe and why you believe it—you will be forced to withdraw, and explain and evade, and at last retire to the safe refuge of a mystery, which might as well be admitted at starting. As I have read and thought, I have been more and more impressed with the obvious explanation of these observations. How should the beliefs be otherwise than shadowy and illusory, when their very substance is made of doubts laboriously and ingeniously twisted into the semblance of convictions? In one way or other that is the characteristic mark of the theological systems of the present day. Proof is abandoned for persuasion. The orthodox believer professed once to prove the facts which he asserted and to show that his dogmas expressed the truth. He now only tries to show that the alleged facts don't matter, and that the dogmas are meaningless. Nearly two centuries ago, for example, a deist pointed out that the writer of the Book of Daniel, like other people, must have written after the events which he mentioned. All the learned, down to Dr. Pusey, denounced his theory, and declared his argument to be utterly destructive of the faith. Now an orthodox professor will admit that the deist was perfectly right, and only tries to persuade himself that arguments from facts are superfluous. The supposed foundation is gone: the superstructure is not to be affected. What the keenest disputant now seeks to show is, not that the truth of the records can be established beyond reasonable doubt; but that no absolute contradiction in terms is involved in supposing that they correspond more or less roughly to something which may possibly have happened. So long as a thing is not proved false by mathematical demonstration, I may still continue to take it for a divine revelation, and to listen respectfully when experienced statesmen and learned professors assure me with perfect gravity that they can believe in Noah's flood or in the swine of Gadara. They have an unquestionable right to believe if they please: and they expect me to accept the facts for the sake of the doctrine. There, unluckily, I have a similar difficulty. It is the orthodox who are the systematic sceptics. The most famous philosophers of my youth endeavoured to upset the deist by laying the foundation of Agnosticism, arbitrarily tagged to an orthodox conclusion. They told me to believe a doctrine because it was totally impossible that I should know whether it was true or not, or indeed attach any real meaning to it whatever. The highest altar, as Sir W. Hamilton said, was the altar to the unknown and unknowable God. Others, seeing the inevitable tendency of such methods, have done their best to find in that the Christian doctrine, rightly understood, the embodiment of the highest philosophy. It is the divine voice which speaks in our hearts, though it has caught some accretion of human passion and superstition. The popular versions are false and debased; the old versions of the Atonement, for example, monstrous; and the belief in the everlasting torture of sinners, a hideous and groundless caricature. With much that such men have said I could, of course, agree heartily; for, indeed, it expresses the strongest feelings which have caused religious revolt. But would it not be simpler to say, "the doctrine is not true," than to say, "it is true, but means just the reverse of what it was also taken to mean"? I prefer plain terms; and "without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" seems to be an awkward way of denying the endlessness of punishment. You cannot denounce the immorality of the old dogmas with the infidel, and then proclaim their infinite value with the believer. You defend the doctrine by showing that in its plain downright sense,—the sense in which it embodied popular imaginations,—it was false and shocking. The proposal to hold by the words evacuated of the old meaning is a concession of the whole case to the unbeliever, and a substitution of sentiment and aspiration for a genuine intellectual belief. Explaining away, however dexterously and delicately, is not defending, but at once confessing error, and encumbering yourself with all the trammels of misleading associations. The more popular method, therefore, at the present day is not to rationalise, but to try to outsceptic the sceptic. We are told that we have no solid ground from reason at all, and that even physical science is as full of contradictions as theology. Such enterprises, conducted with whatever ingenuity, are, as I believe, hopeless; but at least they are fundamentally and radically sceptical. That, under whatever disguises, is the true meaning of the Catholic argument, which is so persuasive to many. To prove the truth of Christianity by abstract reasoning may be hopeless; but nothing is easier than to persuade yourself to believe it, if once you will trust instinct in place of reason, and forget that instinct proves anything and everything. The success of such arguments with thoughtful men is simply a measure of the spread of scepticism. The conviction that truth is unattainable is the master argument for submitting to "authority". The "authority," in the scientific sense of any set of men who agree upon a doctrine, varies directly as their independence of each other. Their "authority" in the legal sense varies as the closeness of their mutual dependence. As the consent loses its value logically, it gains in power of coercion. And therefore it is easy to substitute drilling for arguing, and to take up a belief as you accept admission to a society, as a matter of taste and feeling, with which abstract logic has nothing to do. The common dilemma—you must be a Catholic or an atheist—means, that theology is only tenable if you drill people into belief by a vast organisation appealing to other than logical motives.

I do not argue these points: I only indicate what I take to be your own conviction as well as mine. It seems to me, in fact, that the present state of mind—if we look to men's real thoughts and actions, not to their conventional phrases—is easily definable. It is simply a tacit recognition that the old orthodoxy cannot be maintained either by the evidence of facts or by philosophical argument. It has puzzled me sometimes to understand why the churches should insist upon nailing themselves down to the truth of their dogmas and their legendary history. Why cannot they say frankly, what they seem to be constantly on the verge of saying—Our dogmas and our history are not true, or not "true" in the historical or scientific sense of the word? To ask for such truth in the sphere of theology is as pedantic as to ask for it in the sphere of poetry. Poetical truth means, not that certain events actually happened, or that the poetical "machinery" is to be taken as an existing fact; but that the poem is, so to speak, the projection of truths upon the cloudland of imagination. It reflects and gives sensuous images of truth; but it is only the Philistine or the blockhead who can seriously ask, is it true? Some such position seems to be really conceivable as an ultimate compromise. Put aside the prosaic insistence upon literal matter-of-fact truth, and we may all agree to use the same symbolism, and interpret it as we please. This seems to me to be actually the view of many thoughtful people, though for obvious reasons it is not often explicitly stated. One reason is, of course, the consciousness that the great mass of mankind requires plain, tangible motives for governing its life; and if it once be admitted that so much of the orthodox doctrine is mere symbolism or adumbration of truths, the admission would involve the loss of the truths so indicated. Moral conduct, again, and moral beliefs are supposed to depend upon some affirmation of these truths; and excellent people are naturally shy of any open admission which may appear to throw doubt upon the ultimate grounds of morality.

Indeed, if it could be really proved that men have to choose between renouncing moral truths and accepting unproved theories, it might be right—I will not argue the point—to commit intellectual suicide. If the truth is that we are mere animals or mere automata, shall we sacrifice the truth, or sacrifice what we have at least agreed to call our higher nature? For us the dilemma has no force: for we do not admit the discrepancy. We believe that morality depends upon something deeper and more permanent than any of the dogmas that have hitherto been current in the churches. It is a product of human nature, not of any of these transcendental speculations or faint survivals of traditional superstitions. Morality has grown up independently of, and often in spite of, theology. The creeds have been good so far as they have accepted or reflected the moral convictions; but it is an illusion to suppose that they have generated it. They represent the dialect and the imagery by which moral truths have been conveyed to minds at certain stages of thought; but it is a complete inversion of the truth to suppose that the morality sprang out of them. From this point of view we must of necessity treat the great ethical questions independently. We cannot form a real alliance with thinkers radically opposed to us. Divines tell us that we reject the one possible basis of morality. To us it appears that we are strengthening it, by severing it from a connection with doctrines arbitrary, incapable of proof, and incapable of retaining any consistent meaning. Theologians once believed that hell-fire was the ultimate sentence, and persecution the absolute duty of every Christian ruler. The churches which once burnt and exterminated are now only anxious to proclaim freedom of belief, and to cast the blame of persecution upon their rivals. Divines have discovered that the doctrine of hell-fire deserves all that infidels have said of it; and a member of Dante's church was arguing the other day that hell might on the whole be a rather pleasant place of residence. Doctrines which can thus be turned inside out are hardly desirable bases for morality. So the early Christians, again, were the Socialists of their age, and took a view of Dives and Lazarus which would commend itself to the Nihilists of to-day. The church is now often held up to us as the great barrier against Socialism, and the one refuge against subversive doctrines. In a well-known essay on "People whom one would have wished to have seen," Lamb and his friends are represented as agreeing that if Christ were to enter they would all fall down and worship Him. It may have been so; but if the man who best represents the ideas of early Christians were to enter a respectable society of to-day, would it not be more likely to send for the police? When we consider such changes, and mark in another direction how the dogmas which once set half the world to cut the throats of the other half, have sunk into mere combinations of hard words, can we seriously look to the maintenance of dogmas, even in the teeth of reason, as a guarantee for ethical convictions? What you call retaining the only base of morality, appears to us to be trying to associate morality with dogmas essentially arbitrary and unreasonable.

From this point of view it is naturally our opinion that we should promote all thorough discussion of great ethical problems in a spirit and by methods which are independent of the orthodox dogmas. There are many such problems undoubtedly of the highest importance. The root of all the great social questions of which I have spoken lies in the region of Ethics; and upon that point, at least, we can go along with much that is said upon the orthodox side. We cannot, indeed, agree that Ethics can be adequately treated by men pledged to ancient traditions, employing antiquated methods, and always tempted to have an eye to the interest of their own creeds and churches. But we can fully agree that ethical principles underlie all the most important problems. Every great religious reform has been stimulated by the conviction that the one essential thing is a change of spirit, not a mere modification of the external law, which has ceased to correspond to genuine beliefs and powerful motives. The commonest criticism, indeed, of all projectors of new Utopias is that they propose a change of human nature. The criticism really suggests a sound criterion. Unless the change proposed be practicable, the Utopia will doubtless be impossible. And unless some practicable change be proposed, the Utopia, even were it embodied in practice, would be useless. If the sole result of raising wages were an increase in the consumption of gin, wages might as well stay at a minimum. But the tacit assumption that all changes of human nature are impracticable is simply a cynical and unproved assertion. All of us here hold, I imagine, that human nature has in a sense been changed. We hold that, with all its drawbacks, progress is not an illusion; that men have become at least more tolerant and more humane; that ancient brutalities have become impossible; and that the suffering of the weaker excites a keener sympathy. To say that, in that sense, human nature must be changed, is to say only that the one sound criterion of all schemes for social improvement lies in their ethical tendency. The standard of life cannot be permanently raised unless you can raise the standard of motive. Old-fashioned political theorists thought that a simple change of the constitutional machinery would of itself remedy all evils, and failed to recognise that behind the institutions lie all the instincts and capabilities of the men who are to work them. A similar fallacy is prevalent, I fancy, in regard to what we call social reforms. Some scheme for a new mode of distributing the products of industry would, it is often assumed, remedy all social evils. To my thinking, no such change would do more than touch the superficial evils, unless it had also some tendency to call out the higher and repress the lower impulses. Unless we can to some extent change "human nature," we shall be weaving ropes of sand, or devising schemes for perpetual motion, for driving our machinery more effectively without applying fresh energy. We shall be falling into the old blunders; approving Jack Cade's proposal—as recorded by Shakespeare—that the three-hooped pot should have seven hoops; or attempting to get rid of poverty by converting the whole nation into paupers. No one, perhaps, will deny this in terms; and to admit it frankly is to admit that every scheme must be judged by its tendency to "raise the manhood of the poor," and to make every man, rich and poor, feel that he is discharging a useful function in society. Old Robert Owen, when he began his reforms, rested his doctrine and his hopes of perfectibility upon the scientific application of a scheme for "the formation of character". His plans were crude enough, and fell short of success. But he had seen the real conditions of success; and when, in after years, he imagined that a new society might be made by simply collecting men of any character in a crowd, and inviting them to share alike, he fell into the inevitable failure. Modern Socialists might do well to remember his history.

Now it is, as I understand, primarily the aim of an Ethical Society to promote the rational discussion of these underlying ethical principles. We wish to contribute to the clearest understanding we can of the right ends to which human energy should be devoted, and of the conditions under which such devotion is most likely to be rewarded with success. We desire to see the great controversy carried on in the nearest possible approach to a scientific spirit. That phrase implies, as I have said, that we must abandon much of the old guidance. The lights by which our ancestors professed to direct their course are not for us supernatural signs, shining in a transcendental region, but at most the beacons which they had themselves erected, and valuable as indications, though certainly not as infallible guides, to the right path. We must question everything, and be prepared to modify or abandon whatever is untenable. We must be scientific in spirit, in so far as we must trust nothing but a thorough and systematic investigation of facts, however the facts may be interpreted. Undoubtedly, the course marked out is long and arduous. It is perfectly true, moreover, as our antagonists will hasten to observe, that professedly scientific reasoners are hardly better agreed than their opponents. If they join upon some negative conclusions, and upon some general principles of method, they certainly do not reach the same results. They have at present no definite creed to lay down. I need only refer, for example, to one very obvious illustration. The men who were most conspicuous for their attempt to solve social problems by scientific methods, and most confident that they had succeeded, were, probably, those who founded the so-called "classical" political economy, and represented what is now called the individualist point of view. Government, they were apt to think, should do nothing but stand aside, see fair-play, and keep our knives from each other's throats and our hands out of each other's pockets. Much as their doctrines were denounced, this view is still represented by the most popular philosopher of the day. And undoubtedly we shall do well to take to heart the obvious moral. If we still believe in the old-fashioned doctrines, we must infer that to work out a scientific doctrine is by no means to secure its acceptance. If we reject them we must argue that the mere claim to be scientific may inspire men with a premature self-confidence, which tends only to make their errors more systematic. When, however, I look at the actual course of controversy, I am more impressed by another fact. "Individualism" is sometimes met by genuine argument. More frequently, I think, it is met by simple appeal to sentiment. This kind of thing, we are told, is exploded; it is not up to date; it is as obsolete as the plesiosaurus; and therefore, without bothering ourselves about your reasoning, we shall simply neglect it. Talk as much as you please, we can get a majority on the other side. We shall disregard your arguments, and, therefore—it is a common piece of logic at the present day—your arguments must be all wrong. I must be content here with simply indicating my own view. I think, in fact, that, in this as in other cases, the true answer to extreme theorists would be very different. I hold that we would begin by admitting the immense value of the lesson taught by the old individualists, if that be their right name. If they were precipitate in laying down "iron laws" and proclaiming inexorable necessity, they were perfectly right in pointing out that there are certain "laws of human nature," and conditions of social welfare, which will not be altered by simply declaring them to be unpleasant. They did an inestimable service in emphatically protesting against the system of forcibly suppressing, or trying to suppress, deep-seated evils, without an accurate preliminary diagnosis of the causes. And—not to go into remote questions—the "individualist" creed had this merit, which is related to our especial aims. The ethical doctrine which they preached may have had—I think that it had—many grave defects; but at least it involved a recognition of the truth which their opponents are too apt to shun or reject. They, at least, asserted strenuously the cardinal doctrine of the importance of individual responsibility. They might draw some erroneous inferences, but they could not put too emphatically the doctrine that men must not be taught to shift the blame of all their sufferings upon some mysterious entity called society, or expect improvement unless, among other virtues, they will cultivate the virtue of strenuous, unremitting, masculine self-help.

If this be at all true, it may indicate what I take to be the aim of our society, or rather of us as members of an ethical society. We hold, that is, that the great problems of to-day have their root, so to speak, in an ethical soil. They will be decided one way or other by the view which we take of ethical questions. The questions, for example, of what is meant by social justice, what is the justification of private property, or the limits of personal liberty, all lead us ultimately to ethical foundations. The same is, of course, true of many other problems. The demand for political rights of women is discussed, rightly no doubt, upon grounds of justice, and takes us to some knotty points. Does justice imply the equality of the sexes; and, if so, in what sense of "equality"? And, beyond this, we come to the question, What would be the bearing of our principles upon the institution of marriage, and upon the family bond? No question can be more important, or more vitally connected with Ethics. We, at any rate, can no longer answer such problems by any traditional dogmatism. They—and many other questions which I need not specify—have been asked, and have yet to be answered. They will probably not be answered by a simple yes or no, nor by any isolated solution of a metaphysical puzzle. Undoubtedly, a vast mass of people will insist upon being consulted, and will adopt methods which cannot be regarded as philosophical. Therefore, it is a matter of pressing importance that all people who can think at all should use their own minds, and should do their best to widen and strengthen the influence of the ablest thinkers. The chaotic condition of the average mind is our reason for trying to strengthen the influence, always too feeble, of the genuine thinkers. Much that passes itself off for thought is simply old prejudice in a new dress. Tradition has always this, indeed, to say for itself: that it represents the product of much unconscious reasoning from experience, and that it is at least compatible with such progress as has been hitherto achieved. Progress has in future to take place in the daylight, and under the stress of keen discussion from every possible point of view. It would be rash indeed to assume that we can hope to see the substitution of purely rational and scientific methods for the old haphazard and tentative blundering into slightly better things. It is possible enough that the creed of the future may, after all, be a compromise, admitting some elements of higher truth, but attracting the popular mind by concessions to superstition and ignorance. We can hardly hope to get rid of the rooted errors which have so astonishing a vitality. But we should desire, and, so far as in us lies, endeavour to secure the presence of the largest possible element of genuine and reasoned conviction in the faith of our own and the rising generation.

I have not sought to say anything new. I have only endeavoured to define the general position which we, as I imagine, have agreed to accept. We hold in common that the old dogmas are no longer tenable, though we are very far from being agreed as to what should replace them. We have each, I dare say, our own theory; we agree that our theories, whatever they may be, are in need of strict examination, of verification, it may be, but it may be also of modification or rejection. We hope that such societies as this may in the first place serve as centres for encouraging and popularising the full and free discussion of the great questions. We wish that people who have reached a certain stage of cultivation should be made aware of the course which is being taken by those who may rightly claim to be in the van. We often wish to know, as well as we can, what is the direction of the deeper currents of thought; what genuine results, for example, have been obtained by historical criticism, especially as applied to the religious history of the world; we want to know what are the real points now at issue in the world of science; the true bearing of the theories of evolution, and so forth, which are known by name far beyond the circle in which their logical reasoning is really appreciated; we want to know, again, what are the problems which really interest modern metaphysicians or psychologists; in what directions there seems to be a real promise of future achievement, and in what directions it seems to be proved by experience that any further expansion of intellectual energy is certain to result only in the discovery of mares' nests.

Matthew Arnold would have expressed this by saying that we are required to be made accessible to the influence of the Zeitgeist. There is a difficulty, no doubt, in discovering by what signs we may recognise the utterances of the Zeitgeist; and distinguish between loyalty to the real intellectual leaders and a simple desire to be arrayed in the last new fashion in philosophy. There is no infallible sign; and, yet, a genuine desire to discover the true lines in which thought is developing, is not of the less importance. Arnold, like others, pointed the moral by a contrast between England and Germany. The best that has been done in England, it is said, has generally been done by amateurs and outsiders. They have, perhaps, certain advantages, as being less afraid to strike into original paths, and even the originality of ignorance is not always, though it may be in nine cases out of ten, a name for fresh blundering. But if sporadic English writers have now and then hit off valuable thoughts, there can be no doubt that we have had a heavy price to pay. The comparative absence of any class, devoted, like German professors, to a systematic and combined attempt to spread the borders of knowledge and speculation, has been an evil which is the more felt in proportion as specialisation of science and familiarity with previous achievements become more important. It would be very easy to give particular instances of our backwardness. How different would have been the course of English church history, said somebody, if Newman had only known German! He would have breathed a larger air, and might have desisted—I suppose that was the meaning—from the attempt to put life into certain dead bones. And with equal truth, it may be urged, how much better work might have been done by J. S. Mill if he had really read Kant! He might not have been converted, but he would have been saved from maintaining in their crude form, doctrines which undoubtedly require modification. Under his reign, English thought was constantly busied with false issues, simply from ignorance of the most effective criticism. It is needless to point out how much time is wasted in the defence of positions that have long been turned by the enemy from sheer want of acquaintance with the relevant evidence, or with the logic that has been revealed by the slow thrashing out of thorough controversy. It would be invidious perhaps to insist too much upon another obvious result: the ease with which a man endowed with a gift of popular rhetoric, and a facility for catching at the current phrases, can set up as a teacher, however palpable to the initiated may be his ignorance. Scientific thought has perhaps as much to fear from the false prophets who take its name as from the open enemies who try to stifle its voice. I would rather emphasise another point, perhaps less generally remarked. The study has its idols as well as its market-place. Certain weaknesses are developed in the academical atmosphere as well as in the arenas of public discussion. Freeman used to say that English historians had avoided certain errors into which German writers of far greater knowledge and more thorough scholarship had fallen, simply because points were missed by a professor in a German university which were plain to those who, like many Englishmen, had to take a part in actual political work. I think that this is not without a meaning for us. We have learnt, very properly, to respect German research and industry; and we are trying in various directions to imitate their example. Perhaps it would be as well to keep an eye upon some German weaknesses. A philosophy made for professors is apt to be a philosophy for pedants. A professor is bound to be omniscient; he has to have an answer to everything; he is tempted to construct systems which will pass muster in the lecture-room, and to despise the rest of their applicability to daily life. I confess myself to be old-fashioned enough to share some of the old English prejudices against those gigantic structures which have been thrown out by imposing philosophers, who evolved complete systems of metaphysics and logic and religion and politics and aesthetics out of their own consciousness. We have multiplied professors of late, and professors are bound to write books, and to magnify the value of their own studies. They must make a show of possessing an encyclopaedic theory which will explain everything and take into account all previous theories. Sometimes, perhaps, they will lose themselves in endless subtleties and logomachies and construct cobwebs of the brain, predestined to the rubbish-heap of extinct philosophies. It is enough, however, to urge that a mere student may be the better for keeping in mind the necessity of keeping in mind real immediate human interests; as the sentimentalist has to be reminded of the importance of strictly logical considerations. And I think too that a very brief study of the most famous systems of old days will convince us that philosophers should be content with a more modest attitude than they have sometimes adopted; give up the pretensions to framing off-hand theories of things in general, and be content to puzzle out a few imperfect truths which may slowly work their way into the general structure of thought. I wish to speak humbly as befits one who cannot claim any particular authority for his opinion. But, in all humility, I suggest that if we can persuade men of reputation in the regions where subtle thought and accurate research are duly valued, we shall be doing good, not only to ourselves, but, if I may whisper it, to them. We value their attainments so highly that we desire their influence to spread beyond the narrow precinct of university lecture-rooms; and their thoughts be, at the same time, stimulated and vitalised by bringing them into closer contact with the problems which are daily forced upon us in the business of daily life. A divorce between the men of thought and the men of action is really bad for both. Whatever tends to break up the intellectual stupor of large classes, to rouse their minds, to increase their knowledge of the genuine work that is being done, to provide them even with more of such recreations as refine and invigorate, must have our sympathy, and will be useful both to those who confer and to those who receive instruction. So, after all, a philosopher can learn few things of more importance than the art of translating his doctrines into language intelligible and really instructive to the outside world. There was a period when real thinkers, as Locke and Berkeley and Butler and Hume, tried to express themselves as pithily and pointedly as possible. They were, say some of their critics, very shallow: they were over-anxious to suit the taste of wits and the town: and in too much fear of the charge of pedantry. Well, if some of our profounder thinkers would try for once to pack all that they really have to say as closely as they can, instead of trying to play every conceivable change upon every thought that occurs to them, I fancy that they would be surprised both at the narrowness of the space which they would occupy and the comparative greatness of the effect they would produce.

An ethical society should aim at supplying a meeting-place between the expert and specialist on one side, and, on the other, with the men who have to apply ideas to the complex concretes of political and social activity. How far we can succeed in furthering that aim I need not attempt to say. But I will conclude by reverting to some thoughts at which I hinted at starting. You may think that I have hardly spoken in a very sanguine or optimistic tone. I have certainly admitted the existence of enormous difficulties and the probabilities of very imperfect success. I cannot think that the promised land of which we are taking a Pisgah sight is so near or the view so satisfactory as might be wished. A mirage like that which attended our predecessors may still be exercising illusions for us; and I anticipate less an immediate fruition, than a beginning of another long cycle of wanderings through a desert, let us hope rather more fertile than that which we have passed. If this be something of a confession you may easily explain it by personal considerations. In an old controversy which I was reading the other day, one of the disputants observed that his adversary held that the world was going from bad to worse. "I do not wonder at the opinion," he remarks; "for I am every day more tempted to embrace it myself, since every day I am leaving youth further behind." I am old enough to feel the force of that remark. Without admitting senility, I have lived long enough, that is, to know well that for me the brighter happiness is a thing of the past; that I have to look back even to realise what it means; and to feel that a sadder colouring is conferred upon the internal world by the eye "which hath kept watch o'er man's mortality." I have watched the brilliant promise of many contemporaries eclipsed by premature death; and have too often had to apply Newton's remark, "If that man had lived, we might have known something". Lights which once cheered me have gone out, and are going out all too rapidly; and, to say nothing of individuals, I have also lived long enough to watch the decay of once flourishing beliefs. I can remember, only too vividly, the confident hope with which many young men, whom I regarded as the destined leaders of progress, affirmed that the doctrines which they advocated were going forth conquering and to conquer; and though I may still think that those doctrines had a permanent value, and were far from deserving the reproaches now often levelled at them, I must admit that we greatly exaggerated our omniscience. I am often tempted, I confess, to draw the rather melancholy moral that some of my younger friends may be destined to disillusionment, and may be driven some thirty years hence to admit that their present confidence was a little in excess.

I admit all this: but I do not admit that my view could sanction despondency. I can see perhaps ground for foreboding which I should once have rejected. I can realise more distinctly, not only the amount of misery in the world, but the amount of misdirected energy, the dulness of the average intellect, and the vast deadweight of superstition and dread of the light with which all improvement must have to reckon. And yet I also feel that, if a complacent optimism be impossible, the world was never so full of interest. When we complain of the stress and strain and over-excitement of modern society we indicate, I think, a real evil; but we also tacitly admit that no one has any excuse for being dull. In every direction there is abundant opportunity for brave and thoughtful men to find the fullest occupation for whatever energy they may possess. There is work to be found everywhere in this sense, and none but the most torpid can find an excuse for joining the spiritually unemployed. The fields, surely, are white for the harvest, though there are weeds enough to be extirpated, and hard enough furrows to be ploughed. We know what has been done in the field of physical science. It has made the world infinite. The days of the old pagan, "suckled in some creed outworn," are regretted in Wordsworth's sonnet; for the old pagan held to the poetical view that a star was the chariot of a deity. The poor deity, however, had, in fact, a duty as monotonous as that of a driver in the Underground Railway. To us a star is a signal of a new world; it suggests universe beyond universe; sinking into the infinite abysses of space; we see worlds forming or decaying and raising at every moment problems of a strange fascination. The prosaic truth is really more poetical than the old figment of the childish imagination. The first great discovery of the real nature of the stars did, in fact, logically or not, break up more effectually than perhaps any other cause, the old narrow and stifling conception of the universe represented by Dante's superlative power; and made incredible the systems based on the conception that man can be the centre of all things and the universe created for the sake of this place. It is enough to point to the similar change due to modern theories of evolution. The impassable barriers of thought are broken down. Instead of the verbal explanation, which made every plant and animal an ultimate and inexplicable fact, we now see in each a movement in an indefinite series of complex processes, stretching back further than the eye can reach into the indefinite past. If we are sometimes stunned by the sense of inconceivable vastness, we feel, at least, that no intellectual conqueror need ever be affected by the old fear. For him there will always be fresh regions to conquer. Every discovery suggests new problems; and though knowledge may be simplified and codified, it will always supply a base for fresh explanations of the indefinite regions beyond. Can that which is true of the physical sciences be applied in any degree to the so-called moral sciences? To Bentham, I believe, is ascribed the wish that he could fall asleep and be waked at the end of successive centuries, to take note of the victories achieved in the intervals by his utilitarianism. Tennyson, in one of his youthful poems, played with the same thought. It would be pleasant, as the story of the sleeping beauty suggested, to rise every hundred years to mark the progress made in science and politics; and to see the "Titanic forces" that would come to the birth in divers climes and seasons; for we, he says—

For we are Ancients of the earth, And in the morning of the times.

Tennyson, if this expressed his serious belief, seems to have lost his illusions; and it is probable enough that Bentham's would have had some unpleasant surprises could his wish have been granted. It is more than a century since his doctrine was first revealed, and yet the world has not become converted; and some people doubt whether it ever will be. If, indeed, Bentham's speculations had been adopted; if we had all become convinced that morality means aiming at the greatest happiness of the greatest number; if we were agreed as to what is happiness, and what is the best way of promoting it,—there would still have been a vast step to take, no less than to persuade people to desire to follow the lines of conduct which tend to minimise unhappiness. The mere intellectual conviction that this or that will be useful is quite a different thing from the desire. You no more teach men to be moral by giving them a sound ethical theory, than you teach them to be good shots by explaining the theory of projectiles. A religion implies a philosophy, but a philosophy is not by itself a religion. The demand that it should be is, I hold, founded upon a wrong view as to the relation between the abstract theory and the art of conduct. To convert the world you have not merely to prove your theories, but to stimulate the imagination, to discipline the passions, to provide modes of utterance for the emotions and symbols which may represent the fundamental beliefs—briefly, to do what is done by the founders of the great religions. To transmute speculation into action is a problem of tremendous difficulty, and I only glance in the briefest way at its nature. We, I take it, as members of Ethical Societies, have no claim to be, even in the humblest way, missionaries of a new religion: but are simply interested in doing what we can to discuss in a profitable way the truths which it ought to embody or reflect. But that is itself a work of no trifling importance; and we may imagine that a Bentham, refreshed by his century's slumber, and having dropped some of his little personal vanities, would on the whole be satisfied with what he saw. If Bacon could again come to life, he too would find that the methods which he contemplated and the doctrines which he preached were narrow and refutive; yet his prophecies of scientific growth have been more than realised by his successors, modifying, in some ways, rejecting his principles. And so Bentham might hold to-day that, although his sacred formula was not so exhaustive or precise as he fancied, yet the conscious and deliberate pursuit of the happiness of mankind had taken a much more important place in the aspirations of the time. He would see that the vast changes which have taken place in society, vast beyond all previous conception, were bringing up ever new problems, requiring more elaborate methods, and more systematic reasoning. He would observe that many of the abuses which he denounced have disappeared, and that though progress does not take place along the precise lines which he laid down, there is both a clearer recognition of the great ends of conduct, and a general advance in the direction which he desired. That this can be carried on by promoting a free and full discussion of first principles; that the great social evils which still exist can be diminished, and the creed of the future, however dim its outlines may be to our perception, may be purified as much as possible from ancient prejudice and superstition, is our faith; and however little we can do to help in carrying out that process, we desire to do that little.


It is with great pleasure that I address you as president of this Society. Your main purpose, as I understand, is to promote the serious study of political and social problems in a spirit purged from the prejudice and narrowness of mere party conflict. You desire, that is, to promote a scientific investigation of some of the most important topics to which the human mind can devote itself. There is no purpose of which I approve more cordially: yet the very statement suggests a doubt. To speak of science and politics together is almost to suggest irony. And if politics be taken in the ordinary sense; if we think of the discussions by which the immediate fate of measures and of ministries is decided, I should be inclined to think that they belong to a sphere of thought to which scientific thought is hardly applicable, and in which I should be personally an unwarrantable intruder. My friends have sometimes accused me, indeed, of indifference to politics. I confess that I have never been able to follow the details of party warfare with the interest which they excite in some minds: and reasons, needless to indicate, have caused me to stray further and further away from intercourse with the society in which such details excite a predominant—I do not mean to insinuate an excessive—interest. I feel that if I were to suggest any arguments bearing directly upon home rule or disestablishment, I should at once come under that damnatory epithet "academical," which so neatly cuts the ground from under the feet of the political amateur. Moreover, I recognise a good deal of justice in the implied criticism. An active politician who wishes to impress his doctrines upon his countrymen, should have a kind of knowledge to which I can make no pretension. I share the ordinary feelings of awful reverence with which the human bookworm looks up to the man of business. He has faculties which in me are rudimentary, but which I can appreciate by their contrast to my own feebleness. The "knowledge of the world" ascribed to lawyers, to politicians, financiers, and such persons, like the "knowledge of the human heart" so often ascribed to dramatists and novelists, represents, I take it, a very real kind of knowledge; but it is rather an instinct than a set of definite principles; a power of somehow estimating the tendencies and motives of their fellow-creatures in a mass by rule of thumb, rather than by any distinctly assignable logical process; only to be gained by long experience and shrewd observation of men and cities. Such a faculty, as it reaches sound results without employing explicit definitions and syllogisms and inductive processes, sometimes inclines its possessors to look down too contemptuously upon the closet student.

[2] Address to the Social and Political Education League, 29th March, 1892.

While, however, I frankly confess my hopeless incapacity for taking any part in the process by which party platforms are constructed, I should be ashamed to admit that I was not very keenly interested in political discussions which seem to me to touch vitally important matters. And fully recognising the vast superiority of the practical man in his own world, I also hold that he should not treat me and my like as if we, according to the famous comparison, were black beetles, and he at the opposite pole of the universe. There exists, in books at least, such a thing as political theory, apart from that claiming to underlie the immediate special applications. Your practical man is given to appealing to such theories now and then; though I confess that he too often leaves the impression of having taken them up on the spur of the moment to round a peroration and to give dignity to a popular cry; and that, in his lips, they are apt to sound so crude and artificial that one can only wonder at his condescending to notice them. He ridicules them as the poorest of platitudes whenever they are used by an antagonist, and one can only hope that his occasional homage implies that he too has a certain belief that there ought to be, and perhaps may somewhere be, a sound theory, though he has not paid it much attention. Well, we, I take it, differ from him simply in this respect, that we believe more decidedly that such theory has at least a potential existence; and that if hitherto it is a very uncertain and ambiguous guide, the mere attempt to work it out seriously may do something to strengthen and deepen our practical political convictions. A man of real ability, who is actively engaged in politics without being submerged by merely political intrigues, can hardly fail to wish at least to institute some kind of research into the principles which guide his practice. To such a desire we may attribute some very stimulating books, such, for example, as Bagehot's Physics and Politics or Mr. Bryce's philosophical study of the United States. What I propose to do is to suggest a few considerations as to the real value and proper direction of these arguments, which lie, as it were, on the borderland between the immediate "platform" and the abstract theory.

Philosophers have given us the name "Sociology"—a barbarous name, say some—for the science which deals with the subject matter of our inquiries. Is it more than a name for a science which may or may not some day come into existence? What is science? It is simply organised knowledge; that part of our knowledge which is definite, established beyond reasonable doubt, and which achieves its task by formulating what are called "scientific laws". Laws in this sense are general formulae, which, when the necessary data are supplied, will enable us to extend our knowledge beyond the immediate facts of perception. Given a planet, moving at a given speed in a given direction, and controlled by given attractive forces, we can determine its place at a future moment. Or given a vegetable organism in a given environment, we can predict within certain limits the way in which it will grow, although the laws are too obscure and too vague to enable us to speak of it with any approach to the precision of astronomy. And we should have reached a similar stage in sociology if from a given social or political constitution adopted by a given population, we could prophesy what would be the results. I need not say that any approximation to such achievements is almost indefinitely distant. Personal claims to such powers of prediction rather tend to bring discredit upon the embryo science. Coleridge gives in the Biographia Literaria a quaint statement of his own method. On every great occurrence, he says, he tried to discover in past history the event that most nearly resembled it. He examined the original authorities. "Then fairly subtracting the points of difference from the points of likeness," as the balance favoured the former or the latter, he conjectured that the result would be the same, or different. So, for example, he was able to prophesy the end of the Spanish rising against Napoleon from the event of the war between Philip II. and the Dutch provinces. That is, he cried, "Heads!" and on this occasion the coin did not come down tails. But I need hardly point out how impossible is the process of political arithmetic. What is meant by adding or subtracting in this connection? Such a rule of three would certainly puzzle me, and, I fancy, most other observers. We may say that the insurrection of a patriotic people, when they are helped from without, and their oppressors have to operate from a distant base and to fight all Europe at the same time, will often succeed; and we may often be right; but we should not give ourselves the airs of prophets on that account. There are many superficial analogies of the same character. My predecessor, Professor Dicey, pointed out some of them, to confirm his rather depressing theory that history is nothing but an old almanac. Let me take a common one, which, I think, may illustrate our problem. There is a certain analogy between the cases of Caesar, Cromwell, and Napoleon. In each case we have a military dictatorship as the final outcome of a civil war. Some people imagined that this analogy would apply to the United States, and that Washington or Grant would be what was called the man on horseback. The reasoning really involved was, in fact, a very simple one. The destruction of an old system of government makes some form of dictatorship the only alternative to chaos. It therefore gives a chance to the one indisputable holder of power in its most unmistakable shape, namely, to the general of a disciplined army. A soldier accordingly assumed power in each of the three first cases, although the differences between the societies ruled by the Roman, the English and the French dictators are so vast that further comparison soon becomes idle. Neither Washington nor Grant had the least chance of making themselves dictators had they wished, because the civil wars had left governments perfectly uninjured and capable of discharging all their functions, and had not produced a regular army with interests of its own. In this and other cases, I should say that such an analogy may be to some extent instructive, but I should certainly deny that there was anything like a scientific induction. We, happily, can reason to some extent upon political matters by the help of simple common sense before it has undergone that process of organisation, of reduction to precise measurable statements, which entitles it to be called a scientific procedure. The resemblance of Washington to Cromwell was of the external and superficial order. It may be compared to those analogies which exist between members of different natural orders without implying any deeper resemblance. A whale, we know, is like a fish in so far as he swims about in the sea, and he has whatever fishlike qualities are implied in the ability to swim. He will die on land, though not from the same causes. But, physiologically, he belongs to a different race, and we should make blunders if we argued from the external likeness to a closer resemblance. Or, to drop what may be too fanciful a comparison, it may be observed that all assemblies of human beings may be contrasted in respect of being numerous or select, and have certain properties in consequence. We may therefore make some true and general propositions about the contrasts between the action of small and large consultative bodies which will apply to many widely different cases. A good many, and, I think, some really valuable observations of this kind have been made, and form the substance of many generalisations laid down as to the relative advantages of democracy and aristocracy. Now I should be disposed to say that such remarks belong rather to the morphology than the physiology of the social organism. They indicate external resemblances between bodies of which the intimate constitution and the whole mode of growth and conditions of vitality, may be entirely different. Such analogies, then, though not without their value, are far from being properly scientific.

What remains? There is, shall we say, no science of sociology—merely a heap of vague, empirical observations, too flimsy to be useful in strict logical inference? I should, I confess, be apt to say so myself. Then, you may proceed, is it not idle to attempt to introduce a scientific method? And to that I should emphatically reply, No! it is of the highest importance. The question, then, will follow, how I can maintain these two positions at once. And to that I make, in the first place, this general answer: Sociology is still of necessity a very vague body of approximate truths. We have not the data necessary for obtaining anything like precise laws. A mathematician can tell you precisely what he means when he speaks of bodies moving under the influence of an attraction which varies inversely as the square of the distance. But what are the attractive forces which hold together the body politic? They are a number of human passions, which even the acutest psychologists are as yet quite unable to analyse or to classify: they act according to laws of which we have hardly the vaguest inkling; and, even if we possessed any definite laws, the facts to which they have to be applied are so amazingly complex as to defy any attempt at assigning results. There is, so far as I can see, no ground for supposing that there is or ever can be a body of precise truths at all capable of comparison with the exact sciences. But this obvious truth, though it implies very narrow limits to our hopes of scientific results, does not force us to renounce the application of scientific method. The difficulty applies in some degree even to physiology as compared with physics, as the vital phenomena are incomparably more complex than those with which we have to deal in the simpler sciences; and yet nobody doubts that a scientific physiology is a possibility, and, to some extent, a reality. Now, in sociology, however imperfect it may be, we may still apply the same methods which have been so fruitful in other departments of thought. We may undertake it in the scientific spirit which depends upon patient appeal to observation, and be guided by the constant recollection that we are dealing with an organism, the various relations of whose constituent parts are determined by certain laws to which we may, perhaps, make some approximation. We may do so, although their mutual actions and reactions are so complex and subtle that we can never hope to disentangle them with any approach to completeness. And one test of the legitimacy of our methods will be, that although we do not hope to reach any precise and definitely assignable law, we yet reach, or aim at reaching, results which, while wanting in precision, want precision alone to be capable of incorporation in an ideal science such as might actually exist for a supernatural observer of incomparably superior powers. A man who knows, though he knows nothing more, that the moon is kept in its orbit by forces similar to or identical with those which cause the fall of an apple, knows something which only requires more definite treatment to be made into a genuine theory of gravitation. If, on the contrary, he merely pays himself with words, with vague guesses about occult properties, or a supposed angel who directs the moon's course, he is still in the unscientific stage. His theory is not science still in the vague, but something which stops the way to science. Now, if we can never hope to get further than the step which in the problem of gravitation represents the first step towards science, yet that step may be a highly important one. It represents a diversion of the current of thought from such channels as end in mere shifting sands of speculation, into the channel which leads towards some definite conclusion, verifiable by experience, and leading to conclusions, not very precise, but yet often pointing to important practical results. It may, perhaps, be said that, as the change which I am supposing represents only a change of method and spirit, it can achieve no great results in actual assignable truth. Well! a change of method and spirit is, in my opinion, of considerable importance, and very vague results would still imply an improvement in the chaos of what now passes for political philosophy. I will try to indicate very briefly the kind of improvement of which we need not despair.

First of all, I conceive that, as I have indicated, a really scientific habit of thought would dispel many hopeless logomachies. When Burke, incomparably the greatest of our philosophical politicians, was arguing against the American policy of the Government, he expressed his hatred of metaphysics—the "Serbonian bog," as he called it, in which whole armies had been lost. The point at which he aimed was the fruitless discussion of abstract rights, which prevented people from applying their minds to the actual facts, and from seeing that metaphysical entities of that kind were utterly worthless when they ceased to correspond to the wants and aspirations of the peoples concerned. He could not, as he said, draw up an indictment against a nation, because he could not see how such troubles as had arisen between England and the Colonies were to be decided by technical distinctions such as passed current at nisi prius. I am afraid that the mode of reasoning condemned by Burke has not yet gone out of fashion. I do not wish to draw down upon myself the wrath of metaphysicians. I am perfectly willing that they should go on amusing themselves by attempting to deduce the first principles of morality from abstract considerations of logical affirmation and denial. But I will say this, that, in any case, and whatever the ultimate meaning of right and wrong, all political and social questions must be discussed with a continual reference to experience, to the contents as well as to the form of their metaphysical concepts. It is, to my mind, quite as idle to attempt to determine the value, say, of a political theory by reasoning independent of the character and circumstances of the nation and its constituent members, as to solve a medical question by abstract formulae, instead of by careful, prolonged, and searching investigation into the constitution of the human body. I think that this requires to be asserted so long as popular orators continue to declaim, for example, about the "rights of man," or the doctrines of political equality. I by no means deny, or rather I should on due occasion emphatically assert, that the demands covered by such formulae are perfectly right, and that they rest upon a base of justice. But I am forced to think that, as they are generally stated, they can lead to nothing but logomachy. When a man lays down some such sweeping principle, his real object is to save himself the trouble of thinking. So long as the first principles from which he starts are equally applicable,—and it is of the very nature of these principles that they should be equally applicable to men in all times and ages, to Englishmen and Americans, Hindoos and Chinese, Negroes and Australians,—they are worthless for any particular case, although, of course, they may be accidentally true in particular cases. In short, leaving to the metaphysicians—that is, postponing till the Greek Kalends—any decision as to the ultimate principles, I say that every political theory should be prepared to justify itself by an accurate observation of the history and all the various characteristics of the social organisation to which it is to be applied.

This points to the contrast to which I have referred: the contrast between the keen vigorous good sense upon immediate questions of the day, to which I often listen with the unfeigned admiration due to the shrewd man of business, and the paltry little outworn platitudes which he introduces when he wants to tag his arguments with sounding principles. I think, to take an example out of harm's way, that an excellent instance is found in the famous American treatise, the Federalist. It deserves all the credit it has won so long as the authors are discussing the right way to form a constitution which may satisfy the wants and appease the prejudices then actually existing. In spite of such miscalculations as beset all forecasts of the future, they show admirable good sense and clear appreciation. But when they think it necessary to appeal to Montesquieu, to tag their arguments from common sense with little ornamental formulae learnt from philosophical writings, they show a very amiable simplicity; but they also seem to me to sink at once to the level of a clever prize essay in a university competition. The mischief may be slight when we are merely considering literary effect. But it points to a graver evil. In political discussions, the half-trained mind has strong convictions about some particular case, and then finds it easiest to justify its conviction by some sweeping general principle. It really starts, speaking in terms of logic, by assuming the truth of its minor and takes for granted that any major which will cover the minor is therefore established. Nothing saves so much trouble in thinking as the acceptance of a good sounding generality or a self-evident truth. Where your poor scientific worker plods along, testing the truth of his argument at every point, making qualifications and reservations, and admitting that every general principle may require to be modified in concrete cases, you can thus both jump to your conclusion and assume the airs of a philosopher. It is, I fancy, for this reason that people have such a tendency to lay down absolute rules about really difficult points. It is so much easier to say at once that all drinking ought to be suppressed, than to consider how, in actual circumstances, sobriety can be judiciously encouraged; and by assuming a good self-evident law and denouncing your opponents as immoral worshippers of expediency, you place yourself in an enviable position of moral dignity and inaccessibility. No argument can touch you. These abstract rules, too, have the convenience of being strangely ambiguous. I have been almost pathetically affected when I have observed how some thoroughly commonplace person plumes himself on preserving his consistency because he sticks resolutely to his party dogmas, even when their whole meaning has evaporated. Some English radicals boasted of consistency because they refused to be convinced by experience that republicans under a military dictator could become tyrannous and oppressive. At the present day, I see many worthy gentlemen, who from being thorough-going individualists, have come to swallow unconsciously the first principles of socialism without the least perception that they have changed, simply because a new meaning has been gradually insinuated into the sacred formulae. Scientific habits of thought, I venture to suggest, would tend to free a man from the dominion of these abstract phrases, which sometimes make men push absolute dogmas to extravagant results, and sometimes blind them to the complete transformation which has taken place in their true meaning. The great test of statesmanship, it is said, is the knowledge how and when to make a compromise, and when to hold fast to a principle. The tendency of the thoughtless is to denounce all compromise as wicked, and to stick to a form of words without bothering about the real meaning. Belief in "fads"—I cannot avoid the bit of slang—and singular malleability of real convictions are sometimes generated just by want of serious thought; and, at any rate, both phenomena are very common at present.

This suggests another aspect of reasoning in a scientific spirit, namely, the importance which it attaches to a right comprehension of the practicable. The scientific view is sometimes described as fatalistic. A genuine scientific theory implies a true estimate of the great forces which mould institutions, and therefore a true apprehension of the limits within which they can be modified by any proposed change. We all remember Sydney Smith's famous illustration, in regard to the opposition to the Reform Bill, of Mrs. Partington's attempt to stop the Atlantic with her mop. Such an appeal is sometimes described as immoral. Many politicians, no doubt, find in it an excuse for immoral conduct. They assume that such and such a measure is inevitable, and therefore they think themselves justified for advocating it, even though they hold it to be wrong. Indeed, I observe that many excellent journalists are apparently unable to perceive any distinction between the assertion that a measure will be passed, and that it ought to be passed. Undoubtedly, if I think a measure unjust, I ought to say that it is unjust, even if I am sure that it will nevertheless be carried, and, in some cases, even though I may be a martyr to my opposition. If it is inevitable, it can be carried without my help, and my protest may at least sow a seed for future reaction. But this is no answer to the argument of Sydney Smith when taken in a reasonable sense. The opposition to the Reform Bill was a particular case of the opposition to the advance of democracy. The statement that democracy has advanced and will advance, is sometimes taken to be fatalistic. People who make the assertion may answer for themselves. I should answer, as I think we should all answer now, that the advance of democracy, desirable or undesirable, depended upon causes far too deep and general to be permanently affected by any Reform Bill. It was only one aspect of vast social changes which had been going on for centuries; and to propose to stop it by throwing out the Reform Bill was like proposing to stop a child's growth by forcing him to go on wearing his long clothes. Sydney Smith's answer might be immoral if it simply meant, don't fight because you will be beaten. It may often be a duty to take a beating. But it was, perhaps, rather a way of saying that if you want to stop the growth of democracy, you must begin by altering the course of the social, intellectual and moral changes which have been operating through many generations, and that unless you can do that, it is idle to oppose one particular corollary, and so to make a revolution inevitable, instead of a peaceful development. To say that any change is impossible in the absolute sense, may be fatalism; but it is simple good sense, and therefore good science, to say that to produce any change whatever you must bring to bear a force adequate to the change. When a man's leg is broken, you can't expect to heal it by a bit of sticking-plaster; a pill is not supposed, now, to be a cure for an earthquake; and to insist upon such facts is not to be fatalistic, but simply to say that a remedy must bear some proportion to an evil. It is a commonplace to observe upon the advantage which would have been gained if our grandfathers would have looked at the French Revolution scientifically. A terrible catastrophe had occurred abroad. The true moral, as we all see now, was that England should make such reforms as would obviate the danger of a similar catastrophe at home. The moral which too many people drew was too often, that all reforms should be stopped; with the result that the evils grew worse and social strata more profoundly alienated. It is a first principle of scientific reasoning, that a break-down of social order implies some antecedent defect, demanding an adequate remedy. It is a primary assumption of party argument, that the opposite party is wholly wrong, that its action is perfectly gratuitous, and either causeless or produced by the direct inspiration of the devil. The struggle, upon the scientific theory, represents two elements in an evolution which can be accomplished peacefully by such a reconstruction as will reconcile the conflicting aims and substitute harmony for discord. On the other doctrine, it is a conflict of hopelessly antagonistic principles, one of which is to be forcibly crushed.

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse