Life and Habit
by Samuel Butler
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Transcribed from the 1910 Jonathan Cape edition by David Price, email



Since Samuel Butler published "Life and Habit" thirty-three {1} years have elapsed—years fruitful in change and discovery, during which many of the mighty have been put down from their seat and many of the humble have been exalted. I do not know that Butler can truthfully be called humble, indeed, I think he had very few misgivings as to his ultimate triumph, but he has certainly been exalted with a rapidity that he himself can scarcely have foreseen. During his lifetime he was a literary pariah, the victim of an organized conspiracy of silence. He is now, I think it may be said without exaggeration, universally accepted as one of the most remarkable English writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century. I will not weary my readers by quoting the numerous tributes paid by distinguished contemporary writers to Butler's originality and force of mind, but I cannot refrain from illustrating the changed attitude of the scientific world to Butler and his theories by a reference to "Darwin and Modern Science," the collection of essays published in 1909 by the University of Cambridge, in commemoration of the Darwin centenary. In that work Professor Bateson, while referring repeatedly to Butler's biological works, speaks of him as "the most brilliant and by far the most interesting of Darwin's opponents, whose works are at length emerging from oblivion." With the growth of Butler's reputation "Life and Habit" has had much to do. It was the first and is undoubtedly the most important of his writings on evolution. From its loins, as it were, sprang his three later books, "Evolution Old and New," "Unconscious Memory," and "Luck or Cunning", which carried its arguments further afield. It will perhaps interest Butler's readers if I here quote a passage from his note-books, lately published in the "New Quarterly Review" (Vol. III. No. 9), in which he summarizes his work in biology:

"To me it seems that my contributions to the theory of evolution have been mainly these

"1. The identification of heredity and memory, and the corollaries relating to sports, the reversion to remote ancestors, the phenomena of old age, the causes of the sterility of hybrids, and the principles underlying longevity—all of which follow as a matter of course. This was 'Life and Habit' [1877].

"2. The re-introduction of teleology into organic life, which to me seems hardly, if at all, less important than the 'Life and Habit' theory. This was 'Evolution Old and New' [1879].

"3. An attempt to suggest an explanation of the physics of memory. This was Unconscious Memory' [1880]. I was alarmed by the suggestion and fathered it upon Professor Hering, who never, that I can see, meant to say anything of the kind, but I forced my view upon him, as it were, by taking hold of a sentence or two in his lecture, 'On Memory as a Universal Function of Organised Matter,' and thus connected memory with vibrations.

"What I want to do now (1885) is to connect vibrations not only with memory but with the physical constitution of that body in which the memory resides, thus adopting Newland's law (sometimes called Mendelejeff's law) that there is only one substance, and that the characteristics of the vibrations going on within it at any given time will determine whether it will appear to us as, we will say, hydrogen, or sodium, or chicken doing this, or chicken doing the other." [This is touched upon in the concluding chapter of "Luck or Cunning?" 1887].

The present edition of "Life and Habit" is practically a re-issue of that of 1878. I find that about the year 1890, although the original edition was far from being exhausted, Butler began to make corrections of the text of "Life and Habit," presumably with the intention of publishing a revised edition. The copy of the book so corrected is now in my possession. In the first five chapters there are numerous emendations, very few of which, however, affect the meaning to any appreciable extent, being mainly concerned with the excision of redundancies and the simplification of style. I imagine that by the time he had reached the end of the fifth chapter Butler realised that the corrections he had made were not of sufficient importance to warrant a new edition, and determined to let the book stand as it was. I believe, therefore, that I am carrying out his wishes in reprinting the present edition from the original plates. I have found, however, among his papers three entirely new passages, which he probably wrote during the period of correction and no doubt intended to incorporate into the revised edition. Mr. Henry Festing Jones has also given me a copy of a passage which Butler wrote and gummed into Mr. Jones's copy of "Life and Habit." These four passages I have printed as an appendix at the end of the present volume.

One more point deserves notice. Butler often refers in "Life and Habit" to Darwin's "Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication." When he does so it is always under the name "Plants and Animals." More often still he refers to Darwin's "Origin of Species by means Natural Selection," terming it at one time "Origin of Species" and at another "Natural Selection," sometimes, as on p. 278, using both names within a few lines of each other. Butler was as a rule scrupulously careful about quotations, and I can offer no explanation of this curious confusion of titles.

R. A. STREATFEILD. November, 1910.


The Italics in the passages quoted in this book are generally mine, but I found it almost impossible to call the reader's attention to this upon every occasion. I have done so once or twice, as thinking it necessary in these cases that there should be no mistake; on the whole, however, I thought it better to content myself with calling attention in a preface to the fact that the author quoted is not, as a general rule, responsible for the Italics.

S. BUTLER. November 13, 1877.


It will be our business in the following chapters to consider whether the unconsciousness, or quasi-unconsciousness, with which we perform certain acquired actions, would seem to throw any light upon Embryology and inherited instincts, and otherwise to follow the train of thought which the class of actions above-mentioned would suggest; more especially in so far as they appear to bear upon the origin of species and the continuation of life by successive generations, whether in the animal or vegetable kingdoms.

In the outset, however, I would wish most distinctly to disclaim for these pages the smallest pretension to scientific value, originality, or even to accuracy of more than a very rough and ready kind—for unless a matter be true enough to stand a good deal of misrepresentation, its truth is not of a very robust order, and the blame will rather lie with its own delicacy if it be crushed, than with the carelessness of the crusher. I have no wish to instruct, and not much to be instructed; my aim is simply to entertain and interest the numerous class of people who, like myself, know nothing of science, but who enjoy speculating and reflecting (not too deeply) upon the phenomena around them. I have therefore allowed myself a loose rein, to run on with whatever came uppermost, without regard to whether it was new or old; feeling sure that if true, it must be very old or it never could have occurred to one so little versed in science as myself; and knowing that it is sometimes pleasanter to meet the old under slightly changed conditions, than to go through the formalities and uncertainties of making new acquaintance. At the same time, I should say that whatever I have knowingly taken from any one else, I have always acknowledged.

It is plain, therefore, that my book cannot be intended for the perusal of scientific people; it is intended for the general public only, with whom I believe myself to be in harmony, as knowing neither much more nor much less than they do.

Taking then, the art of playing the piano as an example of the kind of action we are in search of, we observe that a practised player will perform very difficult pieces apparently without effort, often, indeed, while thinking and talking of something quite other than his music; yet he will play accurately and, possibly, with much expression. If he has been playing a fugue, say in four parts, he will have kept each part well distinct, in such a manner as to prove that his mind was not prevented, by its other occupations, from consciously or unconsciously following four distinct trains of musical thought at the same time, nor from making his fingers act in exactly the required manner as regards each note of each part.

It commonly happens that in the course of four or five minutes a player may have struck four or five thousand notes. If we take into consideration the rests, dotted notes, accidentals, variations of time, &c., we shall find his attention must have been exercised on many more occasions than when he was actually striking notes: so that it may not be too much to say that the attention of a first-rate player may have been exercised—to an infinitesimally small extent— but still truly exercised—on as many as ten thousand occasions within the space of five minutes, for no note can be struck nor point attended to without a certain amount of attention, no matter how rapidly or unconsciously given.

Moreover, each act of attention has been followed by an act of volition, and each act of volition by a muscular action, which is composed of many minor actions; some so small that we can no more follow them than the player himself can perceive them; nevertheless, it may have been perfectly plain that the player was not attending to what he was doing, but was listening to conversation on some other subject, not to say joining in it himself. If he has been playing the violin, he may have done all the above, and may also have been walking about. Herr Joachim would unquestionably be able to do all that has here been described.

So complete would the player's unconsciousness of the attention he is giving, and the brain power he is exerting appear to be, that we shall find it difficult to awaken his attention to any particular part of his performance without putting him out. Indeed we cannot do so. We shall observe that he finds it hardly less difficult to compass a voluntary consciousness of what he has once learnt so thoroughly that it has passed, so to speak, into the domain of unconsciousness, than he found it to learn the note or passage in the first instance. The effort after a second consciousness of detail baffles him—compels him to turn to his music or play slowly. In fact it seems as though he knew the piece too well to be able to know that he knows it, and is only conscious of knowing those passages which he does not know so thoroughly.

At the end of his performance, his memory would appear to be no less annihilated than was his consciousness of attention and volition. For of the thousands of acts requiring the exercise of both the one and the other, which he has done during the five minutes, we will say, of his performance, he will remember hardly one when it is over. If he calls to mind anything beyond the main fact that he has played such and such a piece, it will probably be some passage which he has found more difficult than the others, and with the like of which he has not been so long familiar. All the rest he will forget as completely as the breath which he has drawn while playing.

He finds it difficult to remember even the difficulties he experienced in learning to play. A few may have so impressed him that they remain with him, but the greater part will have escaped him as completely as the remembrance of what he ate, or how he put on his clothes, this day ten years ago; nevertheless, it is plain he remembers more than he remembers remembering, for he avoids mistakes which he made at one time, and his performance proves that all the notes are in his memory, though if called upon to play such and such a bar at random from the middle of the piece, and neither more nor less, he will probably say that he cannot remember it unless he begins from the beginning of the phrase which leads to it. Very commonly he will be obliged to begin from the beginning of the movement itself, and be unable to start at any other point unless he have the music before him; and if disturbed, as we have seen above, he will have to start de novo from an accustomed starting-point.

Yet nothing can be more obvious than that there must have been a time when what is now so easy as to be done without conscious effort of the brain was only done by means of brain work which was very keenly perceived, even to fatigue and positive distress. Even now, if the player is playing something the like of which he has not met before, we observe he pauses and becomes immediately conscious of attention.

We draw the inference, therefore, as regards pianoforte or violin playing, that the more the familiarity or knowledge of the art, the less is there consciousness of such knowledge; even so far as that there should seem to be almost as much difficulty in awakening consciousness which has become, so to speak, latent,—a consciousness of that which is known too well to admit of recognised self-analysis while the knowledge is being exercised—as in creating a consciousness of that which is not yet well enough known to be properly designated as known at all. On the other hand, we observe that the less the familiarly or knowledge, the greater the consciousness of whatever knowledge there is.

Considering other like instances of the habitual exercise of intelligence and volition, which, from long familiarity with the method of procedure, escape the notice of the person exercising them, we naturally think of writing. The formation of each letter requires attention and volition, yet in a few minutes a practised writer will form several hundred letters, and be able to think and talk of something else all the time he is doing so. It will not probably remember the formation of a single character in any page that he has written; nor will he be able to give more than the substance of his writing if asked to do so. He knows how to form each letter so well, and he knows so well each word that he is about to write, that he has ceased to be conscious of his knowledge or to notice his acts of volition, each one of which is, nevertheless, followed by a corresponding muscular action. Yet the uniformity of our handwriting, and the manner in which we almost invariably adhere to one method of forming the same character, would seem to suggest that during the momentary formation of each letter our memories must revert (with an intensity too rapid for our perception) to many if not to all the occasions on which we have ever written the same letter previously—the memory of these occasions dwelling in our minds as what has been called a residuum—an unconsciously struck balance or average of them all—a fused mass of individual reminiscences of which no trace can be found in our consciousness, and of which the only effect would seem to lie in the gradual changes of handwriting which are perceptible in most people till they have reached middle-age, and sometimes even later. So far are we from consciously remembering any one of the occasions on which we have written such and such a letter, that we are not even conscious of exercising our memory at all, any more than we are in health conscious of the action of our heart. But, if we are writing in some unfamiliar way, as when printing our letters instead of writing them in our usual running hand, our memory is so far awakened that we become conscious of every character we form; sometimes it is even perceptible as memory to ourselves, as when we try to remember how to print some letter, for example a g, and cannot call to mind on which side of the upper half of the letter we ought to put the link which connects it with the lower, and are successful in remembering; but if we become very conscious of remembering, it shows that we are on the brink of only trying to remember,—that is to say, of not remembering at all.

As a general rule, we remember for a time the substance of what we have written, for the subject is generally new to us; but if we are writing what we have often written before, we lose consciousness of this too, as fully as we do of the characters necessary to convey the substance to another person, and we shall find ourselves writing on as it were mechanically while thinking and talking of something else. So a paid copyist, to whom the subject of what he is writing is of no importance, does not even notice it. He deals only with familiar words and familiar characters without caring to go behind them, and thereupon writes on in a quasi-unconscious manner; but if he comes to a word or to characters with which he is but little acquainted, he becomes immediately awakened to the consciousness of either remembering or trying to remember. His consciousness of his own knowledge or memory would seem to belong to a period, so to speak, of twilight between the thick darkness of ignorance and the brilliancy of perfect knowledge; as colour which vanishes with extremes of light or of shade. Perfect ignorance and perfect knowledge are alike unselfconscious.

The above holds good even more noticeably in respect of reading. How many thousands of individual letters do our eyes run over every morning in the "Times" newspaper, how few of them do we notice, or remember having noticed? Yet there was a time when we had such difficulty in reading even the simplest words, that we had to take great pains to impress them upon our memory so as to know them when we came to then again. Now, not even a single word of all we have seen will remain with us, unless it is a new one, or an old one used in an unfamiliar sense, in which case we notice, and may very likely remember it. Our memory retains the substance only, the substance only being unfamiliar. Nevertheless, although we do not perceive more than the general result of our perception, there can be no doubt of our having perceived every letter in every word that we have read at all, for if we come upon a word misspelt our attention is at once aroused; unless, indeed, we have actually corrected the misspelling, as well as noticed it, unconsciously, through exceeding familiarity with the way in which it ought to be spelt. Not only do we perceive the letters we have seen without noticing that we have perceived them, but we find it almost impossible to notice that we notice them when we have once learnt to read fluently. To try to do so puts us out, and prevents our being able to read. We may even go so far as to say that if a man can attend to the individual characters, it is a sign that he cannot yet read fluently. If we know how to read well, we are as unconscious of the means and processes whereby we attain the desired result as we are about the growth of our hair or the circulation of our blood. So that here again it would seem that we only know what we know still to some extent imperfectly, and that what we know thoroughly escapes our conscious perception though none the less actually perceived. Our perception in fact passes into a latent stage, as also our memory and volition.

Walking is another example of the rapid exercise of volition with but little perception of each individual act of exercise. We notice any obstacle in our path, but it is plain we do not notice that we perceive much that we have nevertheless been perceiving; for if a man goes down a lane by night he will stumble over many things which he would have avoided by day, although he would not have noticed them. Yet time was when walking was to each one of us a new and arduous task—as arduous as we should now find it to wheel a wheelbarrow on a tight-rope; whereas, at present, though we can think of our steps to a certain extent without checking our power to walk, we certainly cannot consider our muscular action in detail without having to come to a dead stop.

Talking—especially in one's mother tongue—may serve as a last example. We find it impossible to follow the muscular action of the mouth and tongue in framing every letter or syllable we utter. We have probably spoken for years and years before we became aware that the letter h is a labial sound, and until we have to utter a word which is difficult from its unfamiliarity we speak "trippingly on the tongue" with no attention except to the substance of what we wish to say. Yet talking was not always the easy matter to us which it is at present—as we perceive more readily when we are learning a new language which it may take us months to master. Nevertheless, when we have once mastered it we speak it without further consciousness of knowledge or memory, as regards the more common words, and without even noticing our consciousness. Here, as in the other instances already given, as long as we did not know perfectly, we were conscious of our acts of perception, volition, and reflection, but when our knowledge has become perfect we no longer notice our consciousness, nor our volition; nor can we awaken a second artificial consciousness without some effort, and disturbance of the process of which we are endeavouring to become conscious. We are no longer, so to speak, under the law, but under grace.

An ascending scale may be perceived in the above instances.

In playing, we have an action acquired long after birth, difficult of acquisition, and never thoroughly familiarised to the power of absolutely unconscious performance, except in the case of those who have either an exceptional genius for music, or who have devoted the greater part of their time to practising. Except in the case of these persons it is generally found easy to become more or less conscious of any passage without disturbing the performance, and our action remains so completely within our control that we can stop playing at any moment we please.

In writing, we have an action generally acquired earlier, done for the most part with great unconsciousness of detail, fairly well within our control to stop at any moment; though not so completely as would be imagined by those who have not made the experiment of trying to stop in the middle of a given character when writing at fit speed. Also, we can notice our formation of any individual character without our writing being materially hindered.

Reading is usually acquired earlier still. We read with more unconsciousness of attention than we write. We find it more difficult to become conscious of any character without discomfiture, and we cannot arrest ourselves in the middle of a word, for example, and hardly before the end of a sentence; nevertheless it is on the whole well within our control.

Walking is so early an acquisition that we cannot remember having acquired it. In running fast over average ground we find it very difficult to become conscious of each individual step, and should possibly find it more difficult still, if the inequalities and roughness of uncultured land had not perhaps caused the development of a power to create a second consciousness of our steps without hindrance to our running or walking. Pursuit and flight, whether in the chase or in war, must for many generations have played a much more prominent part in the lives of our ancestors than they do in our own. If the ground over which they had to travel had been generally as free from obstruction as our modern cultivated lands, it is possible that we might not find it as easy to notice our several steps as we do at present. Even as it is, if while we are running we would consider the action of our muscles, we come to a dead stop, and should probably fall if we tried to observe too suddenly; for we must stop to do this, and running, when we have once committed ourselves to it beyond a certain point, is not controllable to a step or two without loss of equilibrium.

We learn to talk, much about the same time that we learn to walk, but talking requires less muscular effort than walking, and makes generally less demand upon our powers. A man may talk a long while before he has done the equivalent of a five-mile walk; it is natural, therefore, that we should have had more practice in talking than in walking, and hence that we should find it harder to pay attention to our words than to our steps. Certainly it is very hard to become conscious of every syllable or indeed of every word we say; the attempt to do so will often bring us to a check at once; nevertheless we can generally stop talking if we wish to do so, unless the crying of infants be considered as a kind of quasi-speech: this comes earlier, and is often quite uncontrollable, or more truly perhaps is done with such complete control over the muscles by the will, and with such absolute certainty of his own purpose on the part of the wilier, that there is no longer any more doubt, uncertainty, or suspense, and hence no power of perceiving any of the processes whereby the result is attained—as a wheel which may look fast fixed because it is so fast revolving. {2}

We may observe therefore in this ascending scale, imperfect as it is, that the older the habit the longer the practice, the longer the practice, the more knowledge—or, the less uncertainty; the less uncertainty the less power of conscious self-analysis and control.

It will occur to the reader that in all the instances given above, different individuals attain the unconscious stage of perfect knowledge with very different degrees of facility. Some have to attain it with a great sum; others are free born. Some learn to play, to read, write, and talk, with hardly an effort—some show such an instinctive aptitude for arithmetic that, like Zerah Colburn, at eight years old, they achieve results without instruction, which in the case of most people would require a long education. The account of Zerah Colburn, as quoted from Mr. Baily in Dr. Carpenter's "Mental Physiology," may perhaps be given here.

"He raised any number consisting of ONE figure progressively to the tenth power, giving the results (by actual multiplication and not by memory) FASTER THAN THEY COULD BE SET DOWN IN FIGURES by the person appointed to record them. He raised the number 8 progressively to the SIXTEENTH power, and in naming the last result, which consisted of 15 figures, he was right in every one. Some numbers consisting of TWO figures he raised as high as the eighth power, though he found a difficulty in proceeding when the products became very large.

"On being asked the SQUARE ROOT of 106,929, he answered 327 before the original number could be written down. He was then required to find the cube root of 268,336,125, and with equal facility and promptness he replied 645.

"He was asked how many minutes there are in 48 years, and before the question could be taken down he replied 25,228,800, and immediately afterwards he gave the correct number of seconds.

"On being requested to give the factors which would produce the number 247,483, he immediately named 941 and 263, which are the only two numbers from the multiplication of which it would result. On 171,395 being proposed, he named 5 x 34,279, 7 x 24,485, 59 x 2905, 83 x 2065, 35 x 4897, 295 x 581, and 413 x 415.

"He was then asked to give the factors of 36,083, but he immediately replied that it had none, which was really the case, this being a prime number. Other numbers being proposed to him indiscriminately, he always succeeded in giving the correct factors except in the case of prime numbers, which he generally discovered almost as soon as they were proposed to him. The number 4,294,967,297, which is 2^32 + 1, having been given him, he discovered, as Euler had previously done, that it was not the prime number which Fermat had supposed it to be, but that it is the product of the factors 6,700,417 x 641. The solution of this problem was only given after the lapse of some weeks, but the method he took to obtain it clearly showed that he had not derived his information from any extraneous source.

"When he was asked to multiply together numbers both consisting of more than these figures, he seemed to decompose one or both of them into its factors, and to work with them separately. Thus, on being asked to give the square of 4395, he multiplied 293 by itself, and then twice multiplied the product by 15. And on being asked to tell the square of 999,999 he obtained the correct result, 999,998,000,001, by twice multiplying the square of 37,037 by 27. He then of his own accord multiplied that product by 49, and said that the result (viz., 48,999,902,000,049) was equal to the square of 6,999,993. He afterwards multiplied this product by 49, and observed that the result (viz., 2,400,995,198,002,401) was equal to the square of 48,999,951. He was again asked to multiply the product by 25, and in naming the result (viz., 60,024,879,950,060,025) he said it was equal to the square of 244,999,755.

"On being interrogated as to the manner in which he obtained these results, the boy constantly said he did not know HOW the answers came into his mind. In the act of multiplying two numbers together, and in the raising of powers, it was evident (alike from the facts just stated and from the motion of his lips) that SOME operation was going forward in his mind; yet that operation could not (from the readiness with which his answers were furnished) have been at all allied to the usual modes of procedure, of which, indeed, he was entirely ignorant, not being able to perform on paper a simple sum in multiplication or division. But in the extraction of roots, and in the discovery of the factors of large numbers, it did not appear that any operation COULD take place, since he gave answers IMMEDIATELY, or in a very few seconds, which, according to the ordinary methods, would have required very difficult and laborious calculations, and prime numbers cannot be recognised as such by any known rule."

I should hope that many of the above figures are wrong. I have verified them carefully with Dr. Carpenter's quotation, but further than this I cannot and will not go. Also I am happy to find that in the end the boy overcame the mathematics, and turned out a useful but by no means particularly calculating member of society.

The case, however, is typical of others in which persons have been found able to do without apparent effort what in the great majority of cases requires a long apprenticeship. It is needless to multiply instances; the point that concerns us is, that knowledge under such circumstances being very intense, and the ease with which the result is produced extreme, it eludes the conscious apprehension of the performer himself, who only becomes conscious when a difficulty arises which taxes even his abnormal power. Such a case, therefore, confirms rather than militates against our opinion that consciousness of knowledge vanishes on the knowledge becoming perfect—the only difference between those possessed of any such remarkable special power and the general run of people being, that the first are born with such an unusual aptitude for their particular specialty that they are able to dispense with all or nearly all the preliminary exercise of their faculty, while the latter must exercise it for a considerable time before they can get it to work smoothly and easily; but in either case when once the knowledge is intense it is unconscious.

Nor again would such an instance as that of Zerah Colburn warrant us in believing that this white heat, as it were, of unconscious knowledge can be attained by any one without his ever having been originally cold. Young Colburn, for example, could not extract roots when he was an embryo of three weeks' standing. It is true we can seldom follow the process, but we know there must have been a time in every case when even the desire for information or action had not been kindled; the forgetfulness of effort on the part of those with exceptional genius for a special subject is due to the smallness of the effort necessary, so that it makes no impression upon the individual himself, rather than to the absence of any effort at all. {3}

It would, therefore, appear as though perfect knowledge and perfect ignorance were extremes which meet and become indistinguishable from one another; so also perfect volition and perfect absence of volition, perfect memory and utter forgetfulness; for we are unconscious of knowing, willing, or remembering, either from not yet having known or willed, or from knowing and willing so well and so intensely as to be no longer conscious of either. Conscious knowledge and volition are of attention; attention is of suspense; suspense is of doubt; doubt is of uncertainty; uncertainty is of ignorance; so that the mere fact of conscious knowing or willing implies the presence of more or less novelty and doubt.

It would also appear as a general principle on a superficial view of the foregoing instances (and the reader may readily supply himself with others which are perhaps more to the purpose), that unconscious knowledge and unconscious volition are never acquired otherwise than as the result of experience, familiarity, or habit; so that whenever we observe a person able to do any complicated action unconsciously, we may assume both that he must have done it very often before he could acquire so great proficiency, and also that there must have been a time when he did not know how to do it at all.

We may assume that there was a time when he was yet so nearly on the point of neither knowing nor willing perfectly, that he was quite alive to whatever knowledge or volition he could exert; going further back, we shall find him still more keenly alive to a less perfect knowledge; earlier still, we find him well aware that he does not know nor will correctly, but trying hard to do both the one and the other; and so on, back and back, till both difficulty and consciousness become little more than a sound of going in the brain, a flitting to and fro of something barely recognisable as the desire to will or know at all—much less as the desire to know or will definitely this or that. Finally, they retreat beyond our ken into the repose—the inorganic kingdom—of as yet unawakened interest.

In either case,—the repose of perfect ignorance or of perfect knowledge—disturbance is troublesome. When first starting on an Atlantic steamer, our rest is hindered by the screw; after a short time, it is hindered if the screw stops. A uniform impression is practically no impression. One cannot either learn or unlearn without pains or pain.


In this chapter we shall show that the law, which we have observed to hold as to the vanishing tendency of knowledge upon becoming perfect, holds good not only concerning acquired actions or habits of body, but concerning opinions, modes of thought, and mental habits generally, which are no more recognised as soon as firmly fixed, than are the steps with which we go about our daily avocations. I am aware that I may appear in the latter part of the chapter to have wandered somewhat beyond the limits of my subject, but, on the whole, decide upon leaving what I have written, inasmuch as it serves to show how far-reaching is the principle on which I am insisting. Having said so much, I shall during the remainder of the book keep more closely to the point.

Certain it is that we know best what we are least conscious of knowing, or at any rate least able to prove, as, for example, our own existence, or that there is a country England. If any one asks us for proof on matters of this sort, we have none ready, and are justly annoyed at being called to consider what we regard as settled questions. Again, there is hardly anything which so much affects our actions as the centre of the earth (unless, perhaps, it be that still hotter and more unprofitable spot the centre of the universe), for we are incessantly trying to get as near it as circumstances will allow, or to avoid getting nearer than is for the time being convenient. Walking, running, standing, sitting, lying, waking, or sleeping, from birth till death it is a paramount object with us; even after death— if it be not fanciful to say so—it is one of the few things of which what is left of us can still feel the influence; yet what can engross less of our attention than this dark and distant spot so many thousands of miles away?

The air we breathe, so long as it is neither too hot nor cold, nor rough, nor full of smoke—that is to say, so long as it is in that state within which we are best acquainted—seldom enters into our thoughts; yet there is hardly anything with which we are more incessantly occupied night and day.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that we have no really profound knowledge upon any subject—no knowledge on the strength of which we are ready to act at all moments unhesitatingly without either preparation or after-thought—till we have left off feeling conscious of the possession of such knowledge, and of the grounds on which it rests. A lesson thoroughly learned must be like the air which feels so light, though pressing so heavily against us, because every pore of our skin is saturated, so to speak, with it on all sides equally. This perfection of knowledge sometimes extends to positive disbelief in the thing known, so that the most thorough knower shall believe himself altogether ignorant. No thief, for example, is such an utter thief—so GOOD a thief—as the kleptomaniac. Until he has become a kleptomaniac, and can steal a horse as it were by a reflex action, he is still but half a thief, with many unthievish notions still clinging to him. Yet the kleptomaniac is probably unaware that he can steal at all, much less that he can steal so well. He would be shocked if he were to know the truth. So again, no man is a great hypocrite until he has left off knowing that he is a hypocrite. The great hypocrites of the world are almost invariably under the impression that they are among the very few really honest people to be found and, as we must all have observed, it is rare to find any one strongly under this impression without ourselves having good reason to differ from him.

Our own existence is another case in point. When we have once become articulately conscious of existing, it is an easy matter to begin doubting whether we exist at all. As long as man was too unreflecting a creature to articulate in words his consciousness of his own existence, he knew very well that he existed, but he did not know that he knew it. With introspection, and the perception recognised, for better or worse, that he was a fact, came also the perception that he had no solid ground for believing that he was a fact at all. That nice, sensible, unintrospective people who were too busy trying to exist pleasantly to trouble their heads as to whether they existed or no—that this best part of mankind should have gratefully caught at such a straw as "cogito ergo sum," is intelligible enough. They felt the futility of the whole question, and were thankful to one who seemed to clench the matter with a cant catchword, especially with a catchword in a foreign language; but how one, who was so far gone as to recognise that he could not prove his own existence, should be able to comfort himself with such a begging of the question, would seem unintelligible except upon the ground of sheer exhaustion.

At the risk of appearing to wander too far from the matter in hand, a few further examples may perhaps be given of that irony of nature, by which it comes about that we so often most know and are, what we least think ourselves to know and be—and on the other hand hold most strongly what we are least capable of demonstrating.

Take the existence of a Personal God,—one of the most profoundly- received and widely-spread ideas that have ever prevailed among mankind. Has there ever been a DEMONSTRATION of the existence of such a God as has satisfied any considerable section of thinkers for long together? Hardly has what has been conceived to be a demonstration made its appearance and received a certain acceptance as though it were actual proof, when it has been impugned with sufficient success to show that, however true the fact itself, the demonstration is naught. I do not say that this is an argument against the personality of God; the drift, indeed, of the present reasoning would be towards an opposite conclusion, inasmuch as it insists upon the fact that what is most true and best known is often least susceptible of demonstration owing to the very perfectness with which it is known; nevertheless, the fact remains that many men in many ages and countries—the subtlest thinkers over the whole world for some fifteen hundred years—have hunted for a demonstration of God's personal existence; yet though so many have sought,—so many, and so able, and for so long a time—none have found. There is no demonstration which can be pointed to with any unanimity as settling the matter beyond power of reasonable cavil. On the contrary, it may be observed that from the attempt to prove the existence of a personal God to the denial of that existence altogether, the path is easy. As in the case of our own existence, it will be found that they alone are perfect believers in a personal Deity and in the Christian religion who have not yet begun to feel that either stands in need of demonstration. We observe that most people, whether Christians, or Jews, or Mohammedans, are unable to give their reasons for the faith that is in them with any readiness or completeness; and this is sure proof that they really hold it so utterly as to have no further sense that it either can be demonstrated or ought to be so, but feel towards it as towards the air which they breathe but do not notice. On the other hand, a living prelate was reported in the "Times" to have said in one of his latest charges: "My belief is that a widely extended good practice must be founded upon Christian doctrine." The fact of the Archbishop's recognising this as among the number of his beliefs is conclusive evidence with those who have devoted attention to the laws of thought, that his mind is not yet clear as to whether or no there is any connection at all between Christian doctrine and widely extended good practice. {4}

Again, it has been often and very truly said that it is not the conscious and self-styled sceptic, as Shelley for example, who is the true unbeliever. Such a man as Shelley will, as indeed his life abundantly proves, have more in common than not with the true unselfconscious believer. Gallio again, whose indifference to religious animosities has won him the cheapest immortality which, so far as I can remember, was ever yet won, was probably if the truth were known, a person of the sincerest piety. It is the unconscious unbeliever who is the true infidel, however greatly he would be surprised to know the truth. Mr. Spurgeon was reported as having recently asked the Almighty to "change our rulers AS SOON AS POSSIBLE." There lurks a more profound distrust of God's power in these words than in almost any open denial of His existence.

So it rather shocks us to find Mr. Darwin writing ("Plants and Animals under Domestication," vol. ii., p. 275): "No doubt, in every case there must have been some exciting cause." And again, six or seven pages later: "No doubt, each slight variation must have its efficient cause." The repetition within so short a space of this expression of confidence in the impossibility of causeless effects would suggest that Mr. Darwin's mind at the time of writing was, unconsciously to himself, in a state of more or less uneasiness as to whether effects could not occasionally come about of themselves, and without cause of any sort,—that he may have been standing, in fact, for a short time upon the brink of a denial of the indestructibility of force and matter.

In like manner, the most perfect humour and irony is generally quite unconscious. Examples of both are frequently given by men whom the world considers as deficient in humour; it is more probably true that these persons are unconscious of their own delightful power through the very mastery and perfection with which they hold it. There is a play, for instance, of genuine fun in some of the more serious scientific and theological journals which for some time past we have looked for in vain in " —- ."

The following extract, from a journal which I will not advertise, may serve as an example:

"Lycurgus, when they had abandoned to his revenge him who had put out his eyes, took him home, and the punishment he inflicted upon him was sedulous instructions to virtue." Yet this truly comic paper does not probably know that it is comic, any more than the kleptomaniac knows that he steals, or than John Milton knew he was a humorist when he wrote a hymn upon the circumcision, and spent his honeymoon in composing a treatise on divorce. No more again did Goethe know how exquisitely humorous he was when he wrote, in his Wilhelm Meister, that a beautiful tear glistened in Theresa's right eye, and then went on to explain that it glistened in her right eye and not in her left, because she had had a wart on her left which had been removed—and successfully. Goethe probably wrote this without a chuckle; he believed what a good many people who have never read Wilhelm Meister believe still, namely, that it was a work full of pathos, of fine and tender feeling; yet a less consummate humorist must have felt that there was scarcely a paragraph in it from first to last the chief merit of which did not lie in its absurdity.

Another example may be taken from Bacon of the manner in which sayings which drop from men unconsciously, give the key of their inner thoughts to another person, though they themselves know not that they have such thoughts at all; much less that these thoughts are their only true convictions. In his Essay on Friendship the great philosopher writes: "Reading good books on morality is a little flat and dead." Innocent, not to say pathetic, as this passage may sound it is pregnant with painful inferences concerning Bacon's moral character. For if he knew that he found reading good books of morality a little flat and dead, it follows he must have tried to read them; nor is he saved by the fact that he found them a little flat and dead; for though this does indeed show that he had begun to be so familiar with a few first principles as to find it more or less exhausting to have his attention directed to them further—yet his words prove that they were not so incorporate with him that he should feel the loathing for further discourse upon the matter which honest people commonly feel now. It will be remembered that he took bribes when he came to be Lord Chancellor.

It is on the same principle that we find it so distasteful to hear one praise another for earnestness. For such praise raises a suspicion in our minds (pace the late Dr. Arnold and his following) that the praiser's attention must have been arrested by sincerity, as by something more or less unfamiliar to himself. So universally is this recognised that the world has for some time been discarded entirely by all reputable people. Truly, if there is one who cannot find himself in the same room with the life and letters of an earnest person without being made instantly unwell, the same is a just man and perfect in all his ways.

But enough has perhaps been said. As the fish in the sea, or the bird in the air, so unreasoningly and inarticulately safe must a man feel before he can be said to know. It is only those who are ignorant and uncultivated who can know anything at all in a proper sense of the words. Cultivation will breed in any man a certainty of the uncertainty even of his most assured convictions. It is perhaps fortunate for our comfort that we can none of us be cultivated upon very many subjects, so that considerable scope for assurance will still remain to us; but however this may be, we certainly observe it as a fact that the greatest men are they who are most uncertain in spite of certainty, and at the same time most certain in spite of uncertainty, and who are thus best able to feel that there is nothing in such complete harmony with itself as a flat contradiction in terms. For nature hates that any principle should breed, so to speak, hermaphroditically, but will give to each an help meet for it which shall cross it and be the undoing of it; as in the case of descent with modification, of which the essence would appear to be that every offspring should resemble its parents, and yet, at the same time, that no offspring should resemble its parents. But for the slightly irritating stimulant of this perpetual crossing, we should pass our lives unconsciously as though in slumber.

Until we have got to understand that though black is not white, yet it may be whiter than white itself (and any painter will readily paint that which shall show obviously as black, yet it shall be whiter than that which shall show no less obviously as white), we may be good logicians, but we are still poor reasoners. Knowledge is in an inchoate state as long as it is capable of logical treatment; it must be transmuted into that sense or instinct which rises altogether above the sphere in which words can have being at all, otherwise it is not yet vital. For sense is to knowledge what conscience is to reasoning about right and wrong; the reasoning must be so rapid as to defy conscious reference to first principles, and even at times to be apparently subversive of them altogether, or the action will halt. It must, in fact, become automatic before we are safe with it. While we are fumbling for the grounds of our conviction, our conviction is prone to fall, as Peter for lack of faith sinking into the waves of Galilee; so that the very power to prove at all is an a priori argument against the truth—or at any rate the practical importance to the vast majority of mankind—of all that is supported by demonstration. For the power to prove implies a sense of the need of proof, and things which the majority of mankind find practically important are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred above proof. The need of proof becomes as obsolete in the case of assumed knowledge, as the practice of fortifying towns in the middle of an old and long settled country. Who builds defences for that which is impregnable or little likely to be assailed? The answer is ready, that unless the defences had been built in former times it would be impossible to do without them now; but this does not touch the argument, which is not that demonstration is unwise, but that as long as a demonstration is still felt necessary, and therefore kept ready to hand, the subject of such demonstration is not yet securely known. Qui s'excuse, s'accuse; and unless a matter can hold its own without the brag and self-assertion of continual demonstration, it is still more or less of a parvenu, which we shall not lose much by neglecting till it has less occasion to blow its own trumpet. The only alternative is that it is an error in process of detection, for if evidence concerning any opinion has long been denied superfluous, and ever after this comes to be again felt necessary, we know that the opinion is doomed.

If there is any truth in the above, it should follow that our conception of the words "science" and "scientific" should undergo some modification. Not that we should speak slightingly of science, but that we should recognise more than we do, that there are two distinct classes of scientific people corresponding not inaptly with the two main parties unto which the political world is divided. The one class is deeply versed in those sciences which have already become the common property of mankind; enjoying, enforcing, perpetuating, and engraving still more deeply unto the mind of man acquisitions already approved by common experience, but somewhat careless about extension of empire, or at any rate disinclined, for the most part, to active effort on their own part for the sake of such extension—neither progressive, in fact, nor aggressive—but quiet, peaceable people, who wish to live and let live, as their fathers before them; while the other class is chiefly intent upon pushing forward the boundaries of science, and is comparatively indifferent to what is known already save in so far as necessary for purposes of extension. These last are called pioneers of science, and to them alone is the title "scientific" commonly accorded; but pioneers, unimportant to an army as they are, are still not the army itself; which can get on better without the pioneers than the pioneers without the army. Surely the class which knows thoroughly well what it knows, and which adjudicates upon the value of the discoveries made by the pioneers—surely this class has as good a right or better to be called scientific than the pioneers themselves.

These two classes above described blend into one another with every shade of gradation. Some are admirably proficient in the well-known sciences—that is to say, they have good health, good looks, good temper, common sense, and energy, and they hold all these good things in such perfection as to lie altogether without introspection—to be not under the law, but so utterly and entirely under grace that every one who sees them likes them. But such may, and perhaps more commonly will, have very little inclination to extend the boundaries of human knowledge; their aim is in another direction altogether. Of the pioneers, on the other hand, some are agreeable people, well versed in the older sciences, though still more eminent as pioneers, while others, whose services in this last capacity have been of inestimable value, are noticeably ignorant of the sciences which have already become current with the larger part of mankind—in other words, they are ugly, rude, and disagreeable people, very progressive, it may be, but very aggressive to boot.

The main difference between these two classes lies in the fact that the knowledge of the one, so far as it is new, is known consciously, while that of the other is unconscious, consisting of sense and instinct rather than of recognised knowledge. So long as a man has these, and of the same kind as the more powerful body of his fellow- countrymen, he is a true man of science, though he can hardly read or write. As my great namesake said so well, "He knows what's what, and that's as high as metaphysic wit can fly." As usual, these true and thorough knowers do not know that they are scientific, and can seldom give a reason for the faith that is in them. They believe themselves to be ignorant, uncultured men, nor can even the professors whom they sometimes outwit in their own professorial domain perceive that they have been outwitted by men of superior scientific attainments to their own. The following passage from Dr. Carpenter's "Mesmerism, Spiritualism," &c., may serve as an illustration:-

"It is well known that persons who are conversant with the geological structure of a district are often able to indicate with considerable certainty in what spot and at what depth water will be found; and men OF LESS SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE, BUT OF CONSIDERABLE PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE"—(so that in Dr. Carpenter's mind there seems to be some sort of contrast or difference in kind between the knowledge which is derived from observation of facts and scientific knowledge)— "frequently arrive at a true conclusion upon this point without being able to assign reasons for their opinions.

"Exactly the same may be said in regard to the mineral structure of a mining district; the course of a metallic vein being often correctly indicated by the shrewd guess of an OBSERVANT workman, when THE SCIENTIFIC REASONING of the mining engineer altogether fails."

Precisely. Here we have exactly the kind of thing we are in search of: the man who has observed and observed till the facts are so thoroughly in his head that through familiarity he has lost sight both of them and of the processes whereby he deduced his conclusions from them—is apparently not considered scientific, though he knows how to solve the problem before him; the mining engineer, on the other hand, who reasons scientifically—that is to say, with a knowledge of his own knowledge—is found not to know, and to fail in discovering the mineral.

"It is an experience we are continually encountering in other walks of life," continues Dr. Carpenter, "that particular persons are guided—some apparently by an original and others by AN ACQUIRED INTUITION—to conclusions for which they can give no adequate reason, but which subsequent events prove to have been correct." And this, I take it, implies what I have been above insisting on, namely, that on becoming intense, knowledge seems also to become unaware of the grounds on which it rests, or that it has or requires grounds at all, or indeed even exists. The only issue between myself and Dr. Carpenter would appear to be, that Dr. Carpenter, himself an acknowledged leader in the scientific world, restricts the term "scientific" to the people who know that they know, but are beaten by those who are not so conscious of their own knowledge; while I say that the term "scientific" should be applied (only that they would not like it) to the nice sensible people who know what's what rather than to the discovering class.

And this is easily understood when we remember that the pioneer cannot hope to acquire any of the new sciences in a single lifetime so perfectly as to become unaware of his own knowledge. As a general rule, we observe him to be still in a state of active consciousness concerning whatever particular science he is extending, and as long as he is in this state he cannot know utterly. It is, as I have already so often insisted on, those who do not know that they know so much who have the firmest grip of their knowledge: the best class, for example, of our English youth, who live much in the open air, and, as Lord Beaconsfield finely said, never read. These are the people who know best those things which are best worth knowing—that is to say, they are the most truly scientific. Unfortunately, the apparatus necessary for this kind of science is so costly as to be within the reach of few, involving, as it does, an experience in the use of it for some preceding generations. Even those who are born with the means within their reach must take no less pains, and exercise no less self-control, before they can attain the perfect unconscious use of them, than would go to the making of a James Watt or a Stephenson; it is vain, therefore, to hope that this best kind of science can ever be put within the reach of the many; nevertheless it may be safely said that all the other and more generally recognised kinds of science are valueless except in so far as they tend to minister to this the highest kind. They have no raison d'etre except so far as they tend to do away with the necessity for work, and to diffuse good health, and that good sense which is above self-consciousness. They are to be encouraged because they have rendered the most fortunate kind of modern European possible, and because they tend to make possible a still more fortunate kind than any now existing. But the man who devotes himself to science cannot- -with the rarest, if any, exceptions—belong to this most fortunate class himself. He occupies a lower place, both scientifically and morally, for it is not possible but that his drudgery should somewhat soil him both in mind and health of body, or, if this be denied, surely it must let him and hinder him in running the race for unconsciousness. We do not feel that it increases the glory of a king or great nobleman that he should excel in what is commonly called science. Certainly he should not go further than Prince Rupert's drops. Nor should he excel in music, art, literature, or theology—all which things are more or less parts of science. He should be above them all, save in so far as he can without effort reap renown from the labours of others. It is a lache in him that he should write music or books, or paint pictures at all; but if he must do so, his work should be at best contemptible. Much as we must condemn Marcus Aurelius, we condemn James I. ever more severely.

It is a pity there should exist so general a confusion of thought upon this subject, for it may be asserted without fear of contradiction that there is hardly any form of immorality now rife which produces more disastrous effects upon those who give themselves up to it, and upon society in general, than the so-called science of those who know that they know too well to be able to know truly. With very clever people—the people who know that they know—it is much as with the members of the early Corinthian Church, to whom St. Paul wrote, that if they looked their numbers over, they would not find many wise, nor powerful, nor well-born people among them. Dog- fanciers tell us that performing dogs never carry their tails; such dogs have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and are convinced of sin accordingly—they know that they know things, in respect of which, therefore, they are no longer under grace, but under the law, and they have yet so much grace left as to be ashamed. So with the human clever dog; he may speak with the tongues of men and angels, but so long as he knows that he knows, his tail will droop. More especially does this hold in the case of those who are born to wealth and of old family. We must all feel that a rich young nobleman with a taste for science and principles is rarely a pleasant object. We do not even like the rich young man in the Bible who wanted to inherit eternal life, unless, indeed, he merely wanted to know whether there was not some way by which he could avoid dying, and even so he is hardly worth considering. Principles are like logic, which never yet made a good reasoner of a bad one, but might still be occasionally useful if they did not invariably contradict each other whenever there is any temptation to appeal to them. They are like fire, good servants but bad masters. As many people or more have been wrecked on principle as from want of principle. They are, as their name implies, of an elementary character, suitable for beginners only, and he who has so little mastered them as to have occasion to refer to them consciously, is out of place in the society of well-educated people. The truly scientific invariably hate him, and, for the most part, the more profoundly in proportion to the unconsciousness with which they do so.

If the reader hesitates, let him go down into the streets and look in the shop-windows at the photographs of eminent men, whether literary, artistic, or scientific, and note the work which the consciousness of knowledge has wrought on nine out of every ten of them; then let him go to the masterpieces of Greek and Italian art, the truest preachers of the truest gospel of grace; let him look at the Venus of Milo, the Discobolus, the St. George of Donatello. If it had pleased these people to wish to study, there was no lack of brains to do it with; but imagine "what a deal of scorn" would "look beautiful" upon the Venus of Milo's face if it were suggested to her that she should learn to read. Which, think you, knows most, the Theseus, or any modern professor taken at random? True, the advancement of learning must have had a great share in the advancement of beauty, inasmuch as beauty is but knowledge perfected and incarnate—but with the pioneers it is sic vos non vobis; the grace is not for them, but for those who come after. Science is like offences. It must needs come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes; for there cannot be much beauty where there is consciousness of knowledge, and while knowledge is still new it must in the nature of things involve much consciousness.

It is not knowledge, then, that is incompatible with beauty; there cannot be too much knowledge, but it must have passed through many people who it is to be feared must be more or less disagreeable, before beauty or grace will have anything to say to it; it must be so incarnate in a man's whole being that he shall not be aware of it, or it will fit him constrainedly as one under the law, and not as one under grace.

And grace is best, for where grace is, love is not distant. Grace! the old Pagan ideal whose charm even unlovely Paul could not understand, but, as the legend tells us, his soul fainted within him, his heart misgave him, and, standing alone on the seashore at dusk, he "troubled deaf heaven with his bootless cries," his thin voice pleading for grace after the flesh.

The waves came in one after another, the sea-gulls cried together after their kind, the wind rustled among the dried canes upon the sandbanks, and there came a voice from heaven saying, "Let My grace be sufficient for thee." Whereon, failing of the thing itself, he stole the word and strove to crush its meaning to the measure of his own limitations. But the true grace, with her groves and high places, and troups of young men and maidens crowned with flowers, and singing of love and youth and wine—the true grace he drove out into the wilderness—high up, it may be, into Piora, and into such-like places. Happy they who harboured her in her ill report.

It is common to hear men wonder what new faith will be adopted by mankind if disbelief in the Christian religion should become general. They seem to expect that some new theological or quasi-theological system will arise, which, mutatis mutandis, shall be Christianity over again. It is a frequent reproach against those who maintain that the supernatural element of Christianity is without foundation, that they bring forward no such system of their own. They pull down but cannot build. We sometimes hear even those who have come to the same conclusions as the destroyers say, that having nothing new to set up, they will not attack the old. But how can people set up a new superstition, knowing it to be a superstition? Without faith in their own platform, a faith as intense as that manifested by the early Christians, how can they preach? A new superstition will come, but it is in the very essence of things that its apostles should have no suspicion of its real nature; that they should no more recognise the common element between the new and the old than the early Christians recognised it between their faith and Paganism. If they did, they would be paralysed. Others say that the new fabric may be seen rising on every side, and that the coming religion is science. Certainly its apostles preach it without misgiving, but it is not on that account less possible that it may prove only to be the coming superstition—like Christianity, true to its true votaries, and, like Christianity, false to those who follow it introspectively.

It may well be we shall find we have escaped from one set of taskmasters to fall into the hands of others far more ruthless. The tyranny of the Church is light in comparison with that which future generations may have to undergo at the hands of the doctrinaires. The Church did uphold a grace of some sort as the summum bonum, in comparison with which all so-called earthly knowledge—knowledge, that is to say, which had not passed through so many people as to have become living and incarnate—was unimportant. Do what we may, we are still drawn to the unspoken teaching of her less introspective ages with a force which no falsehood could command. Her buildings, her music, her architecture, touch us as none other on the whole can do; when she speaks there are many of us who think that she denies the deeper truths of her own profounder mind, and unfortunately her tendency is now towards more rather than less introspection. The more she gives way to this—the more she becomes conscious of knowing—the less she will know. But still her ideal is in grace.

The so-called man of science, on the other hand, seems now generally inclined to make light of all knowledge, save of the pioneer character. His ideal is in self-conscious knowledge. Let us have no more Lo, here, with the professor; he very rarely knows what he says he knows; no sooner has he misled the world for a sufficient time with a great flourish of trumpets than he is toppled over by one more plausible than himself. He is but medicine-man, augur, priest, in its latest development; useful it may be, but requiring to be well watched by those who value freedom. Wait till he has become more powerful, and note the vagaries which his conceit of knowledge will indulge in. The Church did not persecute while she was still weak. Of course every system has had, and will have, its heroes, but, as we all very well know, the heroism of the hero is but remotely due to system; it is due not to arguments, nor reasoning, nor to any consciously recognised perceptions, but to those deeper sciences which lie far beyond the reach of self-analysis, and for the sturdy of which there is but one schooling—to have had good forefathers for many generations.

Above all things, let no unwary reader do me the injustice of believing in ME. In that I write at all I am among the dammed. If he must believe in anything, let him believe in the music of Handel, the painting of Giovanni Bellini, and in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians.

But to return. Whenever we find people knowing that they know this or that, we have the same story over and over again. They do not yet know it perfectly.

We come, therefore, to the conclusion that our knowledge and reasoning thereupon, only become perfect, assured, unhesitating, when they have become automatic, and are thus exercised without further conscious effort of the mind, much in the same way as we cannot walk nor read nor write perfectly till we can do so automatically.


What is true of knowing is also true of willing. The more intensely we will, the less is our will deliberate and capable of being recognised as will at all. So that it is common to hear men declare under certain circumstances that they had no will, but were forced into their own action under stress of passion or temptation. But in the more ordinary actions of life, we observe, as in walking or breathing, that we do not will anything utterly and without remnant of hesitation, till we have lost sight of the fact that we are exercising our will.

The question, therefore, is forced upon us, how far this principle extends, and whether there may not be unheeded examples of its operation which, if we consider them, will land us in rather unexpected conclusions. If it be granted that consciousness of knowledge and of volition vanishes when the knowledge and the volition have become intense and perfect, may it not be possible that many actions which we do without knowing how we do them, and without any conscious exercise of the will—actions which we certainly could not do if we tried to do them, nor refrain from doing if for any reason we wished to do so—are done so easily and so unconsciously owing to excess of knowledge or experience rather than deficiency, we having done them too often, knowing how to do them too well, and having too little hesitation as to the method of procedure, to be capable of following our own action without the utter derangement of such action altogether; or, in other cases, because we have so long settled the question, that we have stowed away the whole apparatus with which we work in corners of our system which we cannot now conveniently reach?

It may be interesting to see whether we can find any class or classes of actions which would seem to link actions which for some time after birth we could not do at all, and in which our proficiency has reached the stage of unconscious performance obviously through repeated effort and failure, and through this only, with actions which we could do as soon as we were born, and concerning which it would at first sight appear absurd to say that they can have been acquired by any process in the least analogous to that which we commonly call experience, inasmuch as the creature itself which does them has only just begun to exist, and cannot, therefore, in the very nature of things, have had experience.

Can we see that actions, for the acquisition of which experience is such an obvious necessity, that whenever we see the acquisition we assume the experience, gradate away imperceptibly into actions which would seem, according to all reasonable analogy, to presuppose experience, of which, however, the time and place seem obscure, if not impossible?

Eating and drinking would appear to be such actions. The new-born child cannot eat, and cannot drink, but he can swallow as soon as he is born; and swallowing would appear (as we may remark in passing) to have been an earlier faculty of animal life than that of eating with teeth. The ease and unconsciousness with which we eat and drink is clearly attributable to practice; but a very little practice seems to go a long way—a suspiciously small amount of practice—as though somewhere or at some other time there must have been more practice than we can account for. We can very readily stop eating or drinking, and can follow our own action without difficulty in either process; but, as regards swallowing, which is the earlier habit, we have less power of self-analysis and control: when we have once committed ourselves beyond a certain point to swallowing, we must finish doing so,—that is to say, our control over the operation ceases. Also, a still smaller experience seems necessary for the acquisition of the power to swallow than appeared necessary in the case of eating; and if we get into a difficulty we choke, and are more at a loss how to become introspective than we are about eating and drinking.

Why should a baby be able to swallow—which one would have said was the more complicated process of the two—with so much less practice than it takes him to learn to eat? How comes it that he exhibits in the case of the more difficult operation all the phenomena which ordinarily accompany a more complete mastery and longer practice? Analogy would certainly seem to point in the direction of thinking that the necessary experience cannot have been wanting, and that, too, not in such a quibbling sort as when people talk about inherited habit or the experience of the race, which, without explanation, is to plain-speaking persons very much the same, in regard to the individual, as no experience at all, but bona fide in the child's own person.

Breathing, again, is an action acquired after birth, generally with some little hesitation and difficulty, but still acquired in a time seldom longer, as I am informed, than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. For an ant which has to be acquired at all, there would seem here, as in the case of eating, to be a disproportion between, on the one hand, the intricacy of the process performed, and on the other, the shortness of the time taken to acquire the practice, and the ease and unconsciousness with which its exercise is continued from the moment of acquisition.

We observe that in later life much less difficult and intricate operations than breathing acquire much longer practice before they can be mastered to the extent of unconscious performance. We observe also that the phenomena attendant on the learning by an infant to breathe are extremely like those attendant upon the repetition of some performance by one who has done it very often before, but who requires just a little prompting to set him off, on getting which, the whole familiar routine presents itself before him, and he repeats his task by rote. Surely then we are justified in suspecting that there must have been more bona fide personal recollection and experience, with more effort and failure on the part of the infant itself than meet the eye.

It should be noticed, also, that our control over breathing is very limited. We can hold our breath a little, or breathe a little faster for a short time, but we cannot do this for long, and after having gone without air for a certain time we must breath.

Seeing and hearing require some practice before their free use is mastered, but not very much. They are so far within our control that we can see more by looking harder, and hear more by listening attentively—but they are beyond our control in so far as that we must see and hear the greater part of what presents itself to us as near, and at the same time unfamiliar, unless we turn away or shut our eyes, or stop our ears by a mechanical process; and when we do this it is a sign that we have already involuntarily seen or heard more than we wished. The familiar, whether sight or sound, very commonly escapes us.

Take again the processes of digestion, the action of the heart, and the oxygenisation of the blood—processes of extreme intricacy, done almost entirely unconsciously, and quite beyond the control of our volition.

Is it possible that our unconsciousness concerning our own performance of all these processes arises from over-experience?

Is there anything in digestion, or the oxygenisation of the blood, different in kind to the rapid unconscious action of a man playing a difficult piece of music on the piano? There may be in degree, but as a man who sits down to play what he well knows, plays on, when once started, almost, as we say, mechanically, so, having eaten his dinner, he digests it as a matter of course, unless it has been in some way unfamiliar to him, or he to it, owing to some derangement or occurrence with which he is unfamiliar, and under which therefore he is at a loss now to comport himself, as a player would be at a loss how to play with gloves on, or with gout in his fingers, or if set to play music upside down.

Can we show that all the acquired actions of childhood and after- life, which we now do unconsciously, or without conscious exercise of the will, are familiar acts—acts which we have already done a very great number of times?

Can we also show that there are no acquired actions which we can perform in this automatic manner, which were not at one time difficult, requiring attention, and liable to repeated failure, our volition failing to command obedience from the members which should carry its purposes into execution?

If so, analogy will point in the direction of thinking that other acts which we do even more unconsciously may only escape our power of self-examination and control because they are even more familiar— because we have done them oftener; and we may imagine that if there were a microscope which could show us the minutest atoms of consciousness and volition, we should find that even the apparently most automatic actions were yet done in due course, upon a balance of considerations, and under the deliberate exercise of the will.

We should also incline to think that even such an action as the oxygenisation of its blood by an infant of ten minutes' old, can only be done so well and so unconsciously, after repeated failures on the part of the infant itself.

True, as has been already implied, we do not immediately see when the baby could have made the necessary mistakes and acquired that infinite practice without which it could never go through such complex processes satisfactorily; we have therefore invented the words "hereditary instinct," and consider them as accounting for the phenomenon; but a very little reflection will show that though these words may be a very good way of stating the difficulty, they do little or nothing towards removing it.

Why should hereditary instinct enable a creature to dispense with the experience which we see to be necessary in all other cases before difficult operations can be performed successfully?

What is this talk that is made about the experience OF THE RACE, as though the experience of one man could profit another who knows nothing about him? If a man eats his dinner, it nourishes HIM and not his neighbour; if he learns a different art, it is HE that can do it and not his neighbour. Yet, practically, we see that the vicarious experience, which seems so contrary to our common observation, does nevertheless appear to hold good in the case of creatures and their descendants. Is there, then, any way of bringing these apparently conflicting phenomena under the operation of one law? Is there any way of showing that this experience of the race, of which so much is said without the least attempt to show in what way it may or does become the experience of the individual, is in sober seriousness the experience of one single being only, repeating in a great many different ways certain performances with which he has become exceedingly familiar?

It would seem that we must either suppose the conditions of experience to differ during the earlier stages of life from those which we observe them to become during the heyday of any existence— and this would appear very gratuitous, tolerable only as a suggestion because the beginnings of life are so obscure, that in such twilight we may do pretty much whatever we please without danger of confutation—or that we must suppose the continuity of life and sameness between living beings, whether plants or animals, and their descendants, to be far closer than we have hitherto believed; so that the experience of one person is not enjoyed by his successor, so much as that the successor is bona fide but a part of the life of his progenitor, imbued with all his memories, profiting by all his experiences—which are, in fact, his own—and only unconscious of the extent of his own memories and experiences owing to their vastness and already infinite repetitions.

Certainly it presents itself to us at once as a singular coincidence -

I. That we are MOST CONSCIOUS OF, AND HAVE MOST CONTROL OVER, such habits as speech, the upright position, the arts and sciences, which are acquisitions peculiar to the human race, always acquired after birth, and not common to ourselves and any ancestor who had not become entirely human.

II. That we are LESS CONSCIOUS OF, AND HAVE LESS CONTROL OVER, eating and drinking, swallowing, breathing, seeing and hearing, which were acquisitions of our prehuman ancestry, and for which we had provided ourselves with all the necessary apparatus before we saw light, but which are still, geologically speaking, recent, or comparatively recent.

III. That we are MOST UNCONSCIOUS OF, AND HAVE LEAST CONTROL OVER, our digestion and circulation, which belonged even to our invertebrate ancestry, and which are habits, geologically speaking, of extreme antiquity.

There is something too like method in this for it to be taken as the result of mere chance—chance again being but another illustration of Nature's love of a contradiction in terms; for everything is chance, and nothing is chance. And you may take it that all is chance or nothing chance, according as you please, but you must not have half chance and half not chance.

Does it not seem as though the older and more confirmed the habit, the more unquestioning the act of volition, till, in the case of the oldest habits, the practice of succeeding existences has so formulated the procedure, that, on being once committed to such and such a line beyond a certain point, the subsequent course is so clear as to be open to no further doubt, to admit of no alternative, till the very power of questioning is gone, and even the consciousness of volition? And this too upon matters which, in earlier stages of a man's existence, admitted of passionate argument and anxious deliberation whether to resolve them thus or thus, with heroic hazard and experiment, which on the losing side proved to be vice, and on the winning virtue. For there was passionate argument once what shape a man's teeth should be, nor can the colour of his hair be considered as ever yet settled, or likely to be settled for a very long time.

It is one against legion when a creature tries to differ from his own past selves. He must yield or die if he wants to differ widely, so as to lack natural instincts, such as hunger or thirst, or not to gratify them. It is more righteous in a man that he should "eat strange food," and that his cheek should "so much as lank not," than that he should starve if the strange food be at his command. His past selves are living in him at this moment with the accumulated life of centuries. "Do this, this, this, which we too have done, and found our profit in it," cry the souls of his forefathers within him. Faint are the far ones, coming and going as the sound of bells wafted on to a high mountain; loud and clear are the near ones, urgent as an alarm of fire. "Withhold," cry some. "Go on boldly," cry others. "Me, me, me, revert hitherward, my descendant," shouts one as it were from some high vantage-ground over the heads of the clamorous multitude. "Nay, but me, me, me," echoes another; and our former selves fight within us and wrangle for our possession. Have we not here what is commonly called an INTERNAL TUMULT, when dead pleasures and pains tug within us hither and thither? Then may the battle be decided by what people are pleased to call our own experience. Our own indeed! What is our own save by mere courtesy of speech? A matter of fashion. Sanction sanctifieth and fashion fashioneth. And so with death—the most inexorable of all conventions.

However this may be, we may assume it as an axiom with regard to actions acquired after birth, that we never do them automatically save as the result of long practice, and after having thus acquired perfect mastery over the action in question.

But given the practice or experience, and the intricacy of the process to be performed appears to matter very little. There is hardly anything conceivable as being done by man, which a certain amount of familiarity will not enable him to do, as it were mechanically and without conscious effort. "The most complex and difficult movements," writes Mr Darwin, "can in time be performed without the least effort or consciousness." All the main business of life is done thus unconsciously or semi-unconsciously. For what is the main business of life? We work that we may eat and digest, rather than eat and digest that we may work; this, at any rate, is the normal state of things: the more important business then is that which is carried on unconsciously. So again the action of the brain, which goes on prior to our realising the idea in which it results, is not perceived by the individual. So also all the deeper springs of action and conviction. The residuum with which we fret and worry ourselves is a mere matter of detail, as the higgling and haggling of the market, which is not over the bulk of the price, but over the last halfpenny.

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