I call it illusion, although our contact with things may be real, and our sensations and thoughts may be inevitable and honest; because nevertheless it is always an illusion to suppose that our images are the intrinsic qualities of things, or reproduce them exactly. The Ptolemaic system, for instance, was perfectly scientific; it was based on careful and prolonged observation and on just reasoning; but it was modelled on an image—the spherical blue dome of the heavens—proper only to an observer on the earth, and not transferable to a universe which is diffuse, centreless, fluid, and perhaps infinite. When the imagination, for any reason, comes to be peopled with images of the latter sort, the modern, and especially the latest, astronomy becomes more persuasive. For although I suspect that even Einstein is an imperfect relativist, and retains Euclidean space and absolute time at the bottom of his calculation, and recovers them at the end, yet the effort to express the system of nature as it would appear from any station and to any sensorium seems to be eminently enlightening.
Theory and practice in the latest science are still allied, otherwise neither of them would prosper as it does; but each has taken a leap in its own direction. The distance between them has become greater than the naked eye can measure, and each of them in itself has become unintelligible. We roll and fly at dizzy speeds, and hear at incredible distances; at the same time we imagine and calculate to incredible depths. The technique of science, like that of industry, has become a thing in itself; the one veils its object, which is nature, as the other defeats its purpose, which is happiness. Science often seems to be less the study of things than the study of science. It is now more scholastic than philosophy ever was. We are invited to conceive organisms within organisms, so minute, so free, and so dynamic, that the heart of matter seems to explode into an endless discharge of fireworks, or a mathematical nightmare realised in a thousand places at once, and become the substance of the world. What is even more remarkable—for the notion of infinite organisation has been familiar to the learned at least since the time of Leibniz—the theatre of science is transformed no less than the actors and the play. The upright walls of space, the steady tread of time, begin to fail us; they bend now so obligingly to our perspectives that we no longer seem to travel through them, but to carry them with us, shooting them out or weaving them about us according to some native fatality, which is left unexplained. We seem to have reverted in some sense from Copernicus to Ptolemy: except that the centre is now occupied, not by the solid earth, but by any geometrical point chosen for the origin of calculation. Time, too, is not measured by the sun or stars, but by any "clock"—that is, by any recurrent rhythm taken as a standard of comparison. It would seem that the existence and energy of each chosen centre, as well as its career and encounters, hang on the collateral existence of other centres of force, among which it must wend its way: yet the only witness to their presence, and the only known property of their substance, is their "radio-activity", or the physical light which they shed. Light, in its physical being, is accordingly the measure of all things in this new philosophy: and if we ask ourselves why this element should have been preferred, the answer is not far to seek. Light is the only medium through which very remote or very minute particles of matter can be revealed to science. Whatever the nature of things may be intrinsically, science must accordingly express the universe in terms of light.
These reforms have come from within: they are triumphs of method. We make an evident advance in logic, and in that parsimony which is dear to philosophers (though not to nature), if we refuse to assign given terms and relations to any prior medium, such as absolute time or space, which cannot be given with them. Observable spaces and times, like the facts observed in them, are given separately and in a desultory fashion. Initially, then, there are as many spaces and times as there are observers, or rather observations; these are the specious times and spaces of dreams, of sensuous life, and of romantic biography. Each is centred here and now, and stretched outwards, forward, and back, as far as imagination has the strength to project it. Then, when objects and events have been posited as self-existent, and when a "clock" and a system of co-ordinates have been established for measuring them, a single mathematical space and time may be deployed about them, conceived to contain all things, and to supply them with their respective places and dates. This gives us the cosmos of classical physics. But this system involves the uncritical notion of light and matter travelling through media previously existing, and being carried down, like a boat drifting down stream, by a flowing time which has a pace of its own, and imposes it on all existence. In reality, each "clock" and each landscape is self-centred and initially absolute: its time and space are irrelevant to those of any other landscape or "clock", unless the objects or events revealed there, being posited as self-existent, actually coincide with those revealed also in another landscape, or dated by another "clock". It is only by travelling along its own path at its own rate that experience or light can ever reach a point lying on another path also, so that two observations, and two measures, may coincide at their ultimate terms, their starting-points or their ends. Positions are therefore not independent of the journey which terminates in them, and thereby individuates them; and dates are not independent of the events which distinguish them. The flux of existence comes first: matter and light distend time by their pulses, they distend space by their deployments.
This, if I understand it, is one half the new theory; the other half is not less acceptable. Newton had described motion as a result of two principles: the first, inertia, was supposed to be inherent in bodies; the second, gravity, was incidental to their co-existence. Yet inherent inertia can only be observed relatively: it makes no difference to me whether I am said to be moving at a great speed or absolutely at rest, if I am not jolted or breathless, and if my felt environment does not change. Inertia, or weight, in so far as it denotes something intrinsic, seems to be but another name for substance or the principle of existence: in so far as it denotes the first law of motion, it seems to be relative to an environment. It would therefore be preferable to combine inertia and attraction in a single formula, expressing the behaviour of bodies towards one another in all their conjunctions, without introducing any inherent forces or absolute measures. This seems to have been done by Einstein, or at least impressively suggested: and it has been found that the new calculations correspond to certain delicate observations more accurately than the old.
This revolution in science seems, then, to be perfectly legal, and ought to be welcomed; yet only under one important moral condition, and with a paradoxical result. The moral condition is that the pride of science should turn into humility, that it should no longer imagine that it is laying bare the intrinsic nature of things. And the paradoxical result is this: that the forms of science are optional, like various languages or methods of notation. One may be more convenient or subtle than another, according to the place, senses, interests, and scope of the explorer; a reform in science may render the old theories antiquated, like the habit of wearing togas, or of going naked; but it cannot render them false, or itself true. Science, when it is more than the gossip of adventure or of experiment, yields practical assurances couched in symbolic terms, but no ultimate insight: so that the intellectual vacancy of the expert, which I was deriding, is a sort of warrant of his solidity. It is rather when the expert prophesies, when he propounds a new philosophy founded on his latest experiments, that we may justly smile at his system, and wait for the next.
Self-knowledge—and the new science is full of self-knowledge—is a great liberator: if perhaps it imposes some retrenchment, essentially it revives courage. Then at last we see what we are and what we can do. The spirit can abandon its vain commitments and false pretensions, like a young man free at last to throw off his clothes and run naked along the sands. Intelligence is never gayer, never surer, than when it is strictly formal, satisfied with the evidence of its materials, as with the lights of jewels, and filled with mounting speculations, as with a sort of laughter. If all the arts aspire to the condition of music, all the sciences aspire to the condition of mathematics. Their logic is their spontaneous and intelligible side: and while they differ from mathematics and from one another in being directed in the first instance upon various unintelligible existing objects, yet as they advance, they unite: because they are everywhere striving to discover in those miscellaneous objects some intelligible order and method. And as the emotion of the pure artist, whatever may be his materials, lies in finding in them some formal harmony or imposing it upon them, so the interest of the scientific mind, in so far as it is free and purely intellectual, lies in tracing their formal pattern. The mathematician can afford to leave to his clients, the engineers, or perhaps the popular philosophers, the emotion of belief: for himself he keeps the lyrical pleasure of metre and of evolving equations: and it is a pleasant surprise to him, and an added problem, if he finds that the arts can use his calculations, or that the senses can verify them; much as if a composer found that the sailors could heave better when singing his songs.
Yet such independence, however glorious inwardly, cannot help diminishing the prestige of the arts in the world. If science misled us before, when it was full of clearness and confidence, how shall we trust it now that it is all mystery and paradox? If classical physics needed this fundamental revision, near to experience and fruitful as it was, what revision will not romantic physics require? Nor is the future alone insecure: even now the prophets hardly understand one another, or perhaps themselves; and some of them interlard their science with the most dubious metaphysics. Naturally the enemies of science have not been slow to seize this opportunity: the soft-hearted, the muddle-headed, the superstitious are all raising their voices, no longer in desperate resistance to science, but hopefully, and in its name. Science, they tell us, is no longer hostile to religion, or to divination of any sort. Indeed, divination is a science too. Physics is no longer materialistic since space is now curved, and filled with an ether through which light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second—an immaterial rate: because if anything material ventured to move at that forbidden speed, it would be so flattened that it would cease to exist. Indeed, matter is now hardly needed at all; its place has been taken by radio-activity, and by electrons which dart and whirl with such miraculous swiftness, that occasionally, for no known reason, they can skip from orbit to orbit without traversing the intervening positions—an evident proof of free-will in them. Or if solids should still seem to be material, there are astral bodies as well which are immaterial although physical; and as to ether and electricity, they are the very substance of spirit. All this I find announced in newspapers and even in books as the breakdown of scientific materialism: and yet, when was materialism more arrant and barbarous than in these announcements? Something no doubt has broken down: but I am afraid it is rather the habit of thinking clearly and the power to discern the difference between material and spiritual things.
The latest revolution in science will probably not be the last. I do not know what internal difficulties, contradictions, or ominous obscurities may exist in the new theories, or what logical seeds of change, perhaps of radical change, might be discovered there by a competent critic. I base my expectation on two circumstances somewhat more external and visible to the lay mind. One circumstance is that the new theories seem to be affected, and partly inspired, by a particular philosophy, itself utterly insecure. This philosophy regards the point of view as controlling or even creating the object seen; in other words, it identifies the object with the experience or the knowledge of it: it is essentially a subjective, psychological, Protestant philosophy. The study of perspectives, which a severer critic might call illusions, is one of the most interesting and enlightening of studies, and for my own part I should be content to dwell almost exclusively in that poetic and moral atmosphere, in the realm of literature and of humanism. Yet I cannot help seeing that neither in logic nor in natural genesis can perspectives be the ultimate object of science, since a plurality of points of view, somehow comparable, must be assumed in the beginning, as well as common principles of projection, and ulterior points of contact or coincidence. Such assumptions, which must persist throughout, seem to presuppose an absolute system of nature behind all the relative systems of science.
The other circumstance which points to further revolutions is social. The new science is unintelligible to almost all of us; it can be tested only by very delicate observations and very difficult reasoning. We accept it on the authority of a few professors who themselves have accepted it with a contagious alacrity, as if caught in a whirlwind. It has sprung up mysteriously and mightily, like mysticism in a cloister or theology in a council: a Soviet of learned men has proclaimed it. Moreover, it is not merely a system among systems, but a movement among movements. A system, even when it has serious rivals, may be maintained for centuries as religions are maintained, institutionally; but a movement comes to an end; it is followed presently by a period of assimilation which transforms it, or by a movement in some other direction. I ask myself accordingly whether the condition of the world in the coming years will be favourable to refined and paradoxical science. The extension of education will have enabled the uneducated to pronounce upon everything. Will the patronage of capital and enterprise subsist, to encourage discovery and reward invention? Will a jealous and dogmatic democracy respect the unintelligible insight of the few? Will a perhaps starving democracy support materially its Soviet of seers? But let us suppose that no utilitarian fanaticism supervenes, and no intellectual surfeit or discouragement. May not the very profundity of the new science and its metaphysical affinities lead it to bolder developments, inscrutable to the public and incompatible with one another, like the gnostic sects of declining antiquity? Then perhaps that luminous modern thing which until recently was called science, in contrast to all personal philosophies, may cease to exist altogether, being petrified into routine in the practitioners, and fading in the professors into abstruse speculations.
A LONG WAY ROUND TO NIRVANA
That the end of life is death may be called a truism, since the various kinds of immortality that might perhaps supervene would none of them abolish death, but at best would weave life and death together into the texture of a more comprehensive destiny. The end of one life might be the beginning of another, if the Creator had composed his great work like a dramatic poet, assigning successive lines to different characters. Death would then be merely the cue at the end of each speech, summoning the next personage to break in and keep the ball rolling. Or perhaps, as some suppose, all the characters are assumed in turn by a single supernatural Spirit, who amid his endless improvisations is imagining himself living for the moment in this particular solar and social system. Death in such a universal monologue would be but a change of scene or of metre, while in the scramble of a real comedy it would be a change of actors. In either case every voice would be silenced sooner or later, and death would end each particular life, in spite of all possible sequels.
The relapse of created things into nothing is no violent fatality, but something naturally quite smooth and proper. This has been set forth recently, in a novel way, by a philosopher from whom we hardly expected such a lesson, namely Professor Sigmund Freud. He has now broadened his conception of sexual craving or libido into a general principle of attraction or concretion in matter, like the Eros of the ancient poets Hesiod and Empedocles. The windows of that stuffy clinic have been thrown open; that smell of acrid disinfectants, those hysterical shrieks, have escaped into the cold night. The troubles of the sick soul, we are given to understand, as well as their cure, after all flow from the stars.
I am glad that Freud has resisted the tendency to represent this principle of Love as the only principle in nature. Unity somehow exercises an evil spell over metaphysicians. It is admitted that in real life it is not well for One to be alone, and I think pure unity is no less barren and graceless in metaphysics. You must have plurality to start with, or trinity, or at least duality, if you wish to get anywhere, even if you wish to get effectively into the bosom of the One, abandoning your separate existence. Freud, like Empedocles, has prudently introduced a prior principle for Love to play with; not Strife, however (which is only an incident in Love), but Inertia, or the tendency towards peace and death. Let us suppose that matter was originally dead, and perfectly content to be so, and that it still relapses, when it can, into its old equilibrium. But the homogeneous (as Spencer would say) when it is finite is unstable: and matter, presumably not being co-extensive with space, necessarily forms aggregates which have an inside and an outside. The parts of such bodies are accordingly differently exposed to external influences and differently related to one another. This inequality, even in what seems most quiescent, is big with changes, destined to produce in time a wonderful complexity. It is the source of all uneasiness, of life, and of love.
"Let us imagine [writes Freud] an undifferentiated vesicle of sensitive substance: then its surface, exposed as it is to the outer world, is by its very position differentiated, and serves as an organ for receiving stimuli.... This morsel of living substance floats about in an outer world which is charged with the most potent energies, and it would be destroyed ... if it were not furnished with protection against stimulation. [On the other hand] the sensitive cortical layer has no protective barrier against excitations emanating from within.... The most prolific sources of such excitations are the so-called instincts of the organism.... The child never gets tired of demanding the repetition of a game ... he wants always to hear the same story instead of a new one, insists inexorably on exact repetition, and corrects each deviation which the narrator lets slip by mistake.... According to this, an instinct would be a tendency in living organic matter impelling it towards reinstatement of an earlier condition, one which it had abandoned under the influence of external disturbing forces—a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the manifestation of inertia in organic life.
"If, then, all organic instincts are conservative, historically acquired, and directed towards regression, towards reinstatement of something earlier, we are obliged to place all the results of organic development to the credit of external, disturbing, and distracting influences. The rudimentary creature would from its very beginning not have wanted to change, would, if circumstances had remained the same, have always merely repeated the same course of existence.... It would be counter to the conservative nature of instinct if the goal of life were a state never hitherto reached. It must be rather an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago, and to which it harks back again by all the circuitous paths of development.... The goal of all life is death....
"Through a long period of time the living substance may have ... had death within easy reach ... until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel [it] to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we know it."
Freud puts forth these interesting suggestions with much modesty, admitting that they are vague and uncertain and (what it is even more important to notice) mythical in their terms; but it seems to me that, for all that, they are an admirable counterblast to prevalent follies. When we hear that there is, animating the whole universe, an Elan vital, or general impulse toward some unknown but single ideal, the terms used are no less uncertain, mythical, and vague, but the suggestion conveyed is false—false, I mean, to the organic source of life and aspiration, to the simple naturalness of nature: whereas the suggestion conveyed by Freud's speculations is true. In what sense can myths and metaphors be true or false? In the sense that, in terms drawn from moral predicaments or from literary psychology, they may report the general movement and the pertinent issue of material facts, and may inspire us with a wise sentiment in their presence. In this sense I should say that Greek mythology was true and Calvinist theology was false. The chief terms employed in psycho-analysis have always been metaphorical: "unconscious wishes", "the pleasure-principle", "the Oedipus complex", "Narcissism", "the censor"; nevertheless, interesting and profound vistas may be opened up, in such terms, into the tangle of events in a man's life, and a fresh start may be made with fewer encumbrances and less morbid inhibition. "The shortcomings of our description", Freud says, "would probably disappear if for psychological terms we could substitute physiological or chemical ones. These too only constitute a metaphorical language, but one familiar to us for a much longer time, and perhaps also simpler." All human discourse is metaphorical, in that our perceptions and thoughts are adventitious signs for their objects, as names are, and by no means copies of what is going on materially in the depths of nature; but just as the sportsman's eye, which yields but a summary graphic image, can trace the flight of a bird through the air quite well enough to shoot it and bring it down, so the myths of a wise philosopher about the origin of life or of dreams, though expressed symbolically, may reveal the pertinent movement of nature to us, and may kindle in us just sentiments and true expectations in respect to our fate—for his own soul is the bird this sportsman is shooting.
Now I think these new myths of Freud's about life, like his old ones about dreams, are calculated to enlighten and to chasten us enormously about ourselves. The human spirit, when it awakes, finds itself in trouble; it is burdened, for no reason it can assign, with all sorts of anxieties about food, pressures, pricks, noises, and pains. It is born, as another wise myth has it, in original sin. And the passions and ambitions of life, as they come on, only complicate this burden and make it heavier, without rendering it less incessant or gratuitous. Whence this fatality, and whither does it lead? It comes from heredity, and it leads to propagation. When we ask how heredity could be started or transmitted, our ignorance of nature and of past time reduces us to silence or to wild conjectures. Something—let us call it matter—must always have existed, and some of its parts, under pressure of the others, must have got tied up into knots, like the mainspring of a watch, in such a violent and unhappy manner that when the pressure is relaxed they fly open as fast as they can, and unravel themselves with a vast sense of relief. Hence the longing to satisfy latent passions, with the fugitive pleasure in doing so. But the external agencies that originally wound up that mainspring never cease to operate; every fresh stimulus gives it another turn, until it snaps, or grows flaccid, or is unhinged. Moreover, from time to time, when circumstances change, these external agencies may encrust that primary organ with minor organs attached to it. Every impression, every adventure, leaves a trace or rather a seed behind it. It produces a further complication in the structure of the body, a fresh charge, which tends to repeat the impressed motion in season and out of season. Hence that perpetual docility or ductility in living substance which enables it to learn tricks, to remember facts, and (when the seeds of past experiences marry and cross in the brain) to imagine new experiences, pleasing or horrible. Every act initiates a new habit and may implant a new instinct. We see people even late in life carried away by political or religious contagions or developing strange vices; there would be no peace in old age, but rather a greater and greater obsession by all sorts of cares, were it not that time, in exposing us to many adventitious influences, weakens or discharges our primitive passions; we are less greedy, less lusty, less hopeful, less generous. But these weakened primitive impulses are naturally by far the strongest and most deeply rooted in the organism: so that although an old man may be converted or may take up some hobby, there is usually something thin in his elderly zeal, compared with the heartiness of youth; nor is it edifying to see a soul in which the plainer human passions are extinct becoming a hotbed of chance delusions.
In any case each fresh habit taking root in the organism forms a little mainspring or instinct of its own, like a parasite; so that an elaborate mechanism is gradually developed, where each lever and spring holds the other down, and all hold the mainspring down together, allowing it to unwind itself only very gradually, and meantime keeping the whole clock ticking and revolving, and causing the smooth outer face which it turns to the world, so clean and innocent, to mark the time of day amiably for the passer-by. But there is a terribly complicated labour going on beneath, propelled with difficulty, and balanced precariously, with much secret friction and failure. No wonder that the engine often gets visibly out of order, or stops short: the marvel is that it ever manages to go at all. Nor is it satisfied with simply revolving and, when at last dismounted, starting afresh in the person of some seed it has dropped, a portion of its substance with all its concentrated instincts wound up tightly within it, and eager to repeat the ancestral experiment; all this growth is not merely material and vain. Each clock in revolving strikes the hour, even the quarters, and often with lovely chimes. These chimes we call perceptions, feelings, purposes, and dreams; and it is because we are taken up entirely with this mental music, and perhaps think that it sounds of itself and needs no music-box to make it, that we find such difficulty in conceiving the nature of our own clocks and are compelled to describe them only musically, that is, in myths. But the ineptitude of our aesthetic minds to unravel the nature of mechanism does not deprive these minds of their own clearness and euphony. Besides sounding their various musical notes, they have the cognitive function of indicating the hour and catching the echoes of distant events or of maturing inward dispositions. This information and emotion, added to incidental pleasures in satisfying our various passions, make up the life of an incarnate spirit. They reconcile it to the external fatality that has wound up the organism, and is breaking it down; and they rescue this organism and all its works from the indignity of being a vain complication and a waste of motion.
That the end of life should be death may sound sad: yet what other end can anything have? The end of an evening party is to go to bed; but its use is to gather congenial people together, that they may pass the time pleasantly. An invitation to the dance is not rendered ironical because the dance cannot last for ever; the youngest of us and the most vigorously wound up, after a few hours, has had enough of sinuous stepping and prancing. The transitoriness of things is essential to their physical being, and not at all sad in itself; it becomes sad by virtue of a sentimental illusion, which makes us imagine that they wish to endure, and that their end is always untimely; but in a healthy nature it is not so. What is truly sad is to have some impulse frustrated in the midst of its career, and robbed of its chosen object; and what is painful is to have an organ lacerated or destroyed when it is still vigorous, and not ready for its natural sleep and dissolution. We must not confuse the itch which our unsatisfied instincts continue to cause with the pleasure of satisfying and dismissing each of them in turn. Could they all be satisfied harmoniously we should be satisfied once for all and completely. Then doing and dying would coincide throughout and be a perfect pleasure.
This same insight is contained in another wise myth which has inspired morality and religion in India from time immemorial: I mean the doctrine of Karma. We are born, it says, with a heritage, a character imposed, and a long task assigned, all due to the ignorance which in our past lives has led us into all sorts of commitments. These obligations we must pay off, relieving the pure spirit within us from its accumulated burdens, from debts and assets both equally oppressive. We cannot disentangle ourselves by mere frivolity, nor by suicide: frivolity would only involve us more deeply in the toils of fate, and suicide would but truncate our misery and leave us for ever a confessed failure. When life is understood to be a process of redemption, its various phases are taken up in turn without haste and without undue attachment; their coming and going have all the keenness of pleasure, the holiness of sacrifice, and the beauty of art. The point is to have expressed and discharged all that was latent in us; and to this perfect relief various temperaments and various traditions assign different names, calling it having one's day, or doing one's duty, or realising one's ideal, or saving one's soul. The task in any case is definite and imposed on us by nature, whether we recognise it or not; therefore we can make true moral progress or fall into real errors. Wisdom and genius lie in discerning this prescribed task and in doing it readily, cleanly, and without distraction. Folly on the contrary imagines that any scent is worth following, that we have an infinite nature, or no nature in particular, that life begins without obligations and can do business without capital, and that the will is vacuously free, instead of being a specific burden and a tight hereditary knot to be unravelled. Some philosophers without self-knowledge think that the variations and further entanglements which the future may bring are the manifestation of spirit; but they are, as Freud has indicated, imposed on living beings by external pressure, and take shape in the realm of matter. It is only after the organs of spirit are formed mechanically that spirit can exist, and can distinguish the better from the worse in the fate of those organs, and therefore in its own fate. Spirit has nothing to do with infinite existence. Infinite existence is something physical and ambiguous; there is no scale in it and no centre. The depths of the human heart are finite, and they are dark only to ignorance. Deep and dark as a soul may be when you look down into it from outside, it is something perfectly natural; and the same understanding that can unearth our suppressed young passions, and dispel our stubborn bad habits, can show us where our true good lies. Nature has marked out the path for us beforehand; there are snares in it, but also primroses, and it leads to peace.
THE PRESTIGE OF THE INFINITE
"The more complex the world becomes and the more it rises above the indeterminate, so much the farther removed it is from God; that is to say, so much the more impious it is." M. Julien Benda is not led to this startling utterance by any political or sentimental grudge. It is not the late war, nor the peace of Versailles, nor the parlous state of the arts, nor the decay of morality and prosperity that disgusts him with our confused world. It is simply overmastering respect for the infinite. La Trahison des Clercs, or Treason of the Levites, with which he had previously upbraided the intellectuals of his time, now appears to consist precisely in coveting a part in this world's inheritance, and forgetting that the inheritance of the Levites is the Lord: which, being interpreted philosophically, means that a philosopher is bound to measure all things by the infinite.
This infinite is not rhetorical, as if we spoke of infinite thought or infinite love: it is physico-mathematical. Nothing but number, M. Benda tells us, seems to him intelligible. Time, space, volume, and complexity (which appears to the senses as quality) stretch in a series of units, positions, or degrees, to infinity, as number does: and in such homogeneous series, infinite in both directions, there will be no fixed point of origin for counting or surveying the whole and no particular predominant scale. Every position will be essentially identical with every other; every suggested structure will be collapsible and reversible; and the position and relations of every unit will be indistinguishable from those of every other. In the infinite, M. Benda says, the parts have no identity: each number in the scale, as we begin counting from different points of origin, bears also every other number.
This is no mere mathematical puzzle; the thought has a strange moral eloquence. Seen in their infinite setting, which we may presume to be their ultimate environment, all things lose their central position and their dominant emphasis. The contrary of what we first think of them or of ourselves—for instance that we are alive, while they are dead or unborn—is also true. Egotism becomes absurd; pride and shame become the vainest of illusions. If then it be repugnant to reason that the series of numbers, moments, positions, and volumes should be limited—and the human spirit has a great affinity to the infinite—all specific quality and variety in things must be superficial and deeply unreal. They are masks in the carnival of phenomena, to be observed without conviction, and secretly dismissed as ironical by those who have laid up their treasure in the infinite.
This mathematical dissolution of particulars is reinforced by moral considerations which are more familiar. Existence—any specific fact asserting itself in any particular place or moment—is inevitably contingent, arbitrary, gratuitous, and insecure. A sense of insecurity is likely to be the first wedge by which repentance penetrates into the animal heart. If a man did not foresee death and fear it, he might never come at all to the unnatural thought of renouncing life. In fact, he does not often remember death: yet his whole gay world is secretly afraid of being found out, of being foiled in the systematic bluff by which it lives as if its life were immortal; and far more than the brave young man fears death in his own person, the whole life of the world fears to be exorcised by self-knowledge, and lost in air. And with good reason: because, whether we stop to notice this circumstance or not, every fact, every laborious beloved achievement of man or of nature, has come to exist against infinite odds. In the dark grab-bag of Being, this chosen fact was surrounded by innumerable possible variations or contradictions of it; and each of those possibilities, happening not to be realised here and now, yet possesses intrinsically exactly the same aptitude or claim to existence. Nor are these claims and aptitudes merely imaginary and practically contemptible. The flux of existence is continually repenting of its choices, and giving everything actual the lie, by continually substituting something else, no less specific and no less nugatory. This world, any world, exists only by an unmerited privilege. Its glory is offensive to the spirit, like the self-sufficiency of some obstreperous nobody, who happens to have drawn the big prize in a lottery. "The world", M. Benda writes, "inspires me with a double sentiment. I feel it to be full of grandeur, because it has succeeded in asserting itself and coming to exist; and I feel it to be pitiful, when I consider how it hung on a mere nothing that this particular world should never have existed." And though this so accidental world, by its manifold beauties and excitements, may arouse our romantic enthusiasm, it is fundamentally an unholy world. Its creation, he adds in italics, "is something which reason would wish had never taken place".
For we must not suppose that God, when God is defined as infinite Being, can be the creator of the world. Such a notion would hopelessly destroy that coherence in thought to which M. Benda aspires. The infinite cannot be selective; it cannot possess a particular structure (such, for instance, as the Trinity) nor a particular quality (such as goodness). It cannot exert power or give direction. Nothing can be responsible for the world except the world itself. It has created, or is creating, itself perpetually by its own arbitrary act, by a groundless self-assertion which may be called (somewhat metaphorically) will, or even original sin: the original sin of existence, particularity, selfishness, or separation from God. Existence, being absolutely contingent and ungrounded, is perfectly free: and if it ties itself up in its own habits or laws, and becomes a terrible nightmare to itself by its automatic monotony, that still is only its own work and, figuratively speaking, its own fault. Nothing save its own arbitrary and needless pressure keeps it going in that round. This fatality is impressive, and popular religion has symbolised it in the person of a deity far more often recognised and worshipped than infinite Being. This popular deity, a symbol for the forces of nature and history, the patron of human welfare and morality, M. Benda calls the imperial God.
"It is clear that these two Gods ... have nothing to do with one another. The God whom Marshal de Villars, rising in his stirrups and pointing his drawn sword heavenwards, thanks on the evening of Denain, is one God: quite another is the God within whose bosom the author of the Imitation, in a corner of his cell, feels the nothingness of all human victories."
It follows from this, if we are coherent, that any "return to God" which ascetic philosophy may bring about cannot be a social reform, a transition to some better form of natural existence in a promised land, a renovated earth, or a material or temporal heaven. Nor can the error of creation be corrected violently by a second arbitrary act, such as suicide, or the annihilation of the universe by some ultimate general collapse. If such events happen, they still leave the door open to new creations and fresh errors. But the marvel is (I will return to this point presently) that the world, in the person of a human individual endowed with reason, may perceive the error of its ways and correct it ideally, in the sphere of estimation and worship. Such is the only possible salvation. Reason, in order to save us, and we, in order to be saved, must both subsist: we must both be incidents in the existing world. We may then, by the operation of reason in us, recover our allegiance to the infinite, for we are bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh: and by our secret sympathy with it we may rescind every particular claim and dismiss silently every particular form of being, as something unreal and unholy.
An even more cogent reason why M. Benda's God cannot have been the creator of the world is that avowedly this God has never existed. We are expressly warned that "if God is infinite Being he excludes existence, in so far as to exist means to be distinct. In the sense which everybody attaches to the word existence, God, as I conceive him, does not exist". Of course, in the mind of a lover of the infinite, this fact is not derogatory to God, but derogatory to existence. The infinite remains the first and the ultimate term in thought, the fundamental dimension common to all things, however otherwise they may be qualified; it remains the eternal background against which they all are defined and into which they soon disappear. Evidently, in this divine—because indestructible and necessary—dimension, Being is incapable of making choices, adopting paths of evolution, or exercising power; it knows nothing of phenomena; it is not their cause nor their sanction. It is incapable of love, wrath, or any other passion. "I will add", writes M. Benda, "something else which theories of an impersonal deity have less often pointed out. Since infinity is incompatible with personal being, God is incapable of morality." Thus mere intuition and analysis of the infinite, since this infinite is itself passive and indifferent, may prove a subtle antidote to passion, to folly, and even to life.
I think M. Benda succeeds admirably in the purpose announced in his title of rendering his discourse coherent. If once we accept his definitions, his corollaries follow. Clearly and bravely he disengages his idea of infinity from other properties usually assigned to the deity, such as power, omniscience, goodness, and tutelary functions in respect to life, or to some special human society. But coherence is not completeness, nor even a reasonable measure of descriptive truth; and certain considerations are omitted from M. Benda's view which are of such moment that, if they were included, they might transform the whole issue. Perhaps the chief of these omissions is that of an organ for thought. M. Benda throughout is engaged simply in clarifying his own ideas, and repeatedly disclaims any ulterior pretensions. He finds in the panorama of his thoughts an idea of infinite Being, or God, and proceeds to study the relation of that conception to all others. It is a task of critical analysis and religious confession: and nothing could be more legitimate and, to some of us, more interesting. But whence these various ideas, and whence the spell which the idea of infinite Being in particular casts over the meditative mind? Unless we can view these movements of thought in their natural setting and order of genesis, we shall be in danger of turning autobiography into cosmology and inwardness into folly.
One of the most notable points in M. Benda's analysis is his insistence on the leap involved in passing from infinite Being to any particular fact or system of facts; and again the leap involved in passing, when the converted spirit "returns to God", from specific animal interests—no matter how generous, social, or altruistic these interests may be—to absolute renunciation and sympathy with the absolute. "That a will to return to God should arise in the phenomenal world seems to be a miracle no less wonderful (though it be less wondered at) than that the world should arise in the bosom of God." "Love of man, charity, humanitarianism are nothing but the selfishness of the race, by which each animal species assures its specific existence." "To surrender one's individuality for the benefit of a larger self is something quite different from disinterestedness; it is the exact opposite." And certainly, if we regarded infinite Being as a cosmological medium—say, empty space and time—there would be a miraculous break, an unaccountable new beginning, if that glassy expanse was suddenly wrinkled by something called energy. But in fact there need never have been such a leap, or such a miracle, because there could never have been such a transition. Infinite Being is not a material vacuum "in the bosom" of which a world might arise. It is a Platonic idea—though Plato never entertained it—an essence, non-existent and immutable, not in the same field of reality at all as a world of moving and colliding things. Such an essence is not conceivably the seat of the variations that enliven the world. It is only in thought that we may pass from infinite Being to an existing universe; and when we turn from one to the other, and say that now energy has emerged from the bosom of God, we are turning over a new leaf, or rather picking up an entirely different volume. The natural world is composed of objects and events which theory may regard as transformations of a hypothetical energy; an energy which M. Benda—who when he comes down to the physical world is a good materialist—conceives to have condensed and distributed itself into matter, which in turn composed organisms and ultimately generated consciousness and reason. But in whatever manner the natural world may have evolved, it is found and posited by us in perception and action, not, like infinite Being, defined in thought. This contrast is ontological, and excludes any derivation of the one object from the other. M. Benda himself tells us so; and we may wonder why he introduced infinite Being at all into his description of the world. The reason doubtless is that he was not engaged in describing the world, except by the way, but rather in classifying and clarifying his ideas in view of determining his moral allegiance. And he arranged his terms, whether ideal or materials, in a single series, because they were alike present to his intuition, and he was concerned to arrange them in a hierarchy, according to their moral dignity.
Not only is infinite Being an incongruous and obstructive term to describe the substance of the world (which, if it subtends the changes in the world and causes them, must evidently change with them), but even mathematical space and time, in their ideal infinity, may be very far from describing truly the medium and groundwork of the universe. That is a question for investigation and hypothesis, not for intuition. But in the life of intuition, when that life takes a mathematical turn, empty space and time and their definable structure may be important themes; while, when the same life becomes a discipline of the affections, we see by this latest example, as well as by many a renowned predecessor of M. Benda, that infinite Being may dominate the scene.
Nor is this eventual dominance so foreign to the natural mind, or such a miraculous conversion, as it might seem. Here, too, there is no derivation of object from object, but an alternative for the mind. As M. Benda points out, natural interests and sympathies may expand indefinitely, so as to embrace a family, a nation, or the whole animate universe; we might even be chiefly occupied with liberal pursuits, such as science or music; the more we laboured at these things and delighted in them, the less ready should we be for renunciation and detachment. Must conversion then descend upon us from heaven like a thunderbolt? Far from it. We need not look for the principle of spiritual life in the distance: we have it at home from the beginning. Even the idea of infinite Being, though unnamed, is probably familiar. Perhaps in the biography of the human race, or of each budding mind, the infinite or indeterminate may have been the primary datum. On that homogeneous sensuous background, blank at first but secretly plastic, a spot here and a movement there may gradually have become discernible, until the whole picture of nature and history had shaped itself as we see it. A certain sense of that primitive datum, the infinite or indeterminate, may always remain as it were the outstretched canvas on which every picture is painted. And when the pictures vanish, as in deep sleep, the ancient simplicity and quietness may be actually recovered, in a conscious union with Brahma. So sensuous, so intimate, so unsophisticated the "return to God" may be for the spirit, without excluding the other avenues, intellectual and ascetic, by which this return may be effected in waking life, though then not so much in act as in intent only and allegiance.
I confess that formerly I had some difficulty in sharing the supreme respect for infinite Being which animates so many saints: it seemed to me the dazed, the empty, the deluded side of spirituality. Why rest in an object which can be redeemed from blank negation only by a blank intensity? But time has taught me not to despise any form of vital imagination, any discipline which may achieve perfection after any kind. Intuition is a broadly based activity; it engages elaborate organs and sums up and synthesises accumulated impressions. It may therefore easily pour the riches of its ancestry into the image or the sentiment which it evokes, poor as this sentiment or image might seem if expressed in words. In rapt or ecstatic moments, the vital momentum, often the moral escape, is everything, and the achievement, apart from that blessed relief, little or nothing. Infinite Being may profit in this way by offering a contrast to infinite annoyance. Moreover, in my own way, I have discerned in pure Being the involution of all forms. As felt, pure Being may be indeterminate, but as conceived reflectively it includes all determinations: so that when deployed into the realm of essence, infinite or indeterminate Being truly contains entertainment for all eternity.
M. Benda feels this pregnancy of the infinite on the mathematical side; but he hardly notices the fact, proclaimed so gloriously by Spinoza, that the infinity of extension is only one of an infinity of infinites. There is an aesthetic infinite, or many aesthetic infinites, composed of all the forms which nature or imagination might exhibit; and where imagination fails, there are infinite remainders of the unimagined. The version which M. Benda gives us of infinite Being, limited to the mathematical dimension, is therefore unnecessarily cold and stark. His one infinity is monochrome, whereas the total infinity of essence, in which an infinity of outlines is only one item, is infinitely many-coloured. Phenomena therefore fall, in their essential variety, within and not without infinite Being: so that in "returning to God" we might take the whole world with us, not indeed in its blind movement and piecemeal illumination, as events occur, but in an after-image and panoramic portrait, as events are gathered together in the realm of truth.
On the whole I think M. Benda's two Gods are less unfriendly to one another than his aggrieved tone might suggest. This pregnant little book ends on a tragic note.
"Hitherto human self-assertion in the state or the family, while serving the imperial God, has paid some grudging honours, at least verbally, to the infinite God as well, under the guise of liberalism, love of mankind, or the negation of classes. But today this imperfect homage is retracted, and nothing is reverenced except that which gives strength. If anyone preaches human kindness, it is in order to establish a "strong" community martially trained, like a super-state, to oppose everything not included within it, and to become omnipotent in the art of utilising the non-human forces of nature.... The will to return to God may prove to have been, in the history of the phenomenal world, a sublime accident."
Certainly the will to "return to God", if not an accident, is an incident in the life of the world; and the whole world itself is a sublime accident, in the sense that its existence is contingent, groundless, and precarious. Yet so long as the imperial God continues successfully to keep our world going, it will be no accident, but a natural necessity, that many a mind should turn to the thought of the infinite with awe, with a sense of liberation, and even with joy. The infinite God owes all his worshippers, little as he may care for them, to the success of the imperial God in creating reflective and speculative minds. Or (to drop these mythological expressions which may become tiresome) philosophers owe to nature and to the discipline of moral life their capacity to look beyond nature and beyond morality. And while they may look beyond, and take comfort in the vision, they cannot pass beyond. As M. Benda says, the most faithful Levite can return to the infinite only in his thought; in his life he must remain a lay creature. Yet nature, in forming the human soul, unintentionally unlocked for the mind the doors to truth and to essence, partly by obliging the soul to attend to things which are outside, and partly by endowing the soul with far greater potentialities of sensation and invention than daily life is likely to call forth. Our minds are therefore naturally dissatisfied with their lot and speculatively directed upon an outspread universe in which our persons count for almost nothing. These insights are calculated to give our brutal wills some pause. Intuition of the infinite and recourse to the infinite for religious inspiration follow of themselves, and can never be suppressed altogether, so long as life is conscious and experience provokes reflection.
Spirit is certainly not one of the forces producing spirit, but neither is it a contrary force. It is the actuality of feeling, of observation, of meaning. Spirit has no unmannerly quarrel with its parents, its hosts, or even its gaolers: they know not what they do. Yet spirit belongs intrinsically to another sphere, and cannot help wondering at the world, and suffering in it. The man in whom spirit is awake will continue to live and act, but with a difference. In so far as he has become pure spirit he will have transcended the fear of death or defeat; for now his instinctive fear, which will subsist, will be neutralised by an equally sincere consent to die and to fail. He will live henceforth in a truer and more serene sympathy with nature than is possible to rival natural beings. Natural beings are perpetually struggling to live only, and not to die; so that their will is in hopeless rebellion against the divine decrees which they must obey notwithstanding. The spiritual man, on the contrary, in so far as he has already passed intellectually into the eternal world, no longer endures unwillingly the continual death involved in living, or the final death involved in having been born. He renounces everything religiously in the very act of attaining it, resigning existence itself as gladly as he accepts it, or even more gladly; because the emphasis which action and passion lend to the passing moment seems to him arbitrary and violent; and as each task or experience is dismissed in turn, he accounts the end of it more blessed than the beginning.
 The following quotations are drawn from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, by Sigmund Freud; authorised translation by C.J.M. Hubback. The International Psycho-Analytic Press, 1922, pp. 29-48. The italics are in the original.
 Essai d'un Discours coherent sur les Rapports de Dieu et du Monde. Par Julien Benda. Librairie Gallimard, Paris, 1931.