« PreviousContinue »
a spiritual entity or reality, distinct by itself, and essentially belonging to another and a higher state of being. Metaphysic is flouted as mere verbalism. Religion is discarded along with Metaphysic, or at least religion in the old sense.
This is the drift of the modern spirit—the “ Zeitgeist," as it is called. It has penetrated philosophy, literature, religion itself; and men and women, in numbers, are trying everywhere to satisfy themselves with theories spun out of the naturalistic web supposed not merely to confine life, but to constitute it. One might use the words of Bishop Butler with reference to the allied but very different state of thought in his own time, and say, “It has come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is not so much a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious,”—at least “among all people of discernment.” Beyond what man can know by his senses or feel by his higher affections, nothing, it is alleged, can be known. Facts, or supposed facts, of the external world or of our inner life, are to be accepted; but all inferences from these facts which would carry us into a transcendental, spiritual, or metaphysical region, are to be rejected. The existence of an unseen world, or of beings higher than man, is at best problematical, and admits of no verification.
This naturalistic or agnostic principle is especially identified with “ Positivism,” and has been launched on its modern career by Auguste Comte more than by
any other thinker. The principle itself is by no means new,' and there are many modern thinkers now identified with it who disclaim any lineage with the great Positivist. My estimate of Comte will be found in its proper place. It is not, in some respects, a lofty estimate. But it is impossible to refuse to him the credit
-if credit it is—of having, more than any other man, created the modern movement. The speculations of Mr Herbert Spencer, the essays of Professor Huxley, Dr Tyndall, and others, are largely independent, and would possibly have been what they are if the “ Positive Philosophy" had never appeared. They are inspired by a motif of their own, and I have no wish to claim for these writers a discipleship which they repudiate. Their own range of genius is such as not to need the invocation of any name save their own. It is nevertheless true that the agnostic inspiration of the nineteenth century has come, above all, from Auguste Comte, and that his “ Positive Philosophy" is its most complete expression. Comte had that indomitable enthusiasm, amounting to fanaticism, often possessed by great teachers, which comes from the inrush of new ideas, or ideas supposed to be new, and gives them a missionary impulse. He is the prophet of our modern Naturalism, and we must go back to his writings if we would study the springs of the movement, and understand something of the hold which it has taken of our age. Moreover, it is to Comte's professed followers rather
" See pp. 34, 428.
than others that we must look for the most consistent and thorough expression of the naturalistic theory, and to none of these followers more than to the class of British Comtists. With men like Mr Frederick Harrison and Mr Congreve and Dr Bridges, Naturalism is no mere theory, but a faith, as it was with Comte himself. And there is a certain passionate glow in their expositions, just as there was in those of the master. The love of the present world, of the great cosmos of natural life, with man at its summit, has passed into their hearts as a new Evangel; and to hold that there is any kingdom of heaven beyond what this world may become, is with them a species of blasphemy against natural law. Few preachers have ever spoken more earnestly of eternity and its awful issues than Mr Frederick Harrison has spoken of Humanity and its religion. It would have been interesting to trace the development of Comtist thought in England, and especially in Mr Harrison's eloquent pages; but the principles of the creed, and even its details, are best presented in the full light of Comte's own thought and life.
The same subject is pursued less directly in the next essay. There have been few more beautiful or thoughtful minds in our time than William Smith, the author of 'Thorndale'; but it is the "conflict of opinion ” rather than the dogmatic affirmation of a purely naturalistic doctrine that is characteristic of Smith. He clung to a species of Theism to the lastan imperfect and untenable Theism in our view, but in
his own view a doctrine consistent with a spiritual interpretation of life and nature. His widow prepared a touching Memoir of his life, which now appears as an introduction to his second work, 'Gravenhurst'; and she was warmly interested in this paper, in which she recognised a true estimate of her husband's philosophical and religious position. The paper appears, therefore, as originally written, with the exception of a statement as to which the Memoir in its first form (it was first printed privately) had misled the author.
The special questions of Evolution, and of the relation of mind to matter, started in the second essay, are argued out more fully in the third paper, dealing with Dr Tyndall's famous address to the British Association in 1874. There are traces of a polemical feeling in this essay which would be better away; but it is impossible to eliminate them fully without breaking up the argument,—and there is nothing in its spirit and scope to which I do not adhere.
The paper on “Pessimism” naturally follows. If there is no supernatural or spiritual order, there will always be a large class of minds to whom Pessimism will approve itself as both a truer feeling and philosophy than the “Enthusiasm of Humanity.” In the wake of materialistic theories the question promptly arises—“Is life worth living ?” And it becomes interesting to consider how far the question has penetrated our modern consciousness, as well as from what old fountain-heads of atheistic theory it really comes.
The three next papers are all closely connected, and in fact really treat successive aspects of the same question—How far morality, religion, and theology can survive the elimination of the Supernatural. The relation of Ethics to Metaphysics might have been examined in connection with significant works in our own language, which have lately attracted much attentionMr Herbert Spencer's . Data of Ethics,' and Mr Leslie Stephen's Science of Ethics.' Both works are deserving of careful examination ; but perhaps the subject is treated with fully as much interest and freshness on the basis of M. Caro's · Problèmes de Morale Sociale,' which also enables us to see how closely contemporary thought in France runs along the same lines.
The essays on Mr Matthew Arnold's views of Religion without Metaphysic,' and the recent well-known volume on ‘Natural Religion,' are in considerable part freshly written, and have not appeared before. They speak for themselves. But I may say here that I have wished to speak with all respect of both writers—the friendship of one of whom I may claim, as I willingly do homage with thousands of readers to his delightful literary qualities. Yet nothing appears to me more untenable than the attempt which these distinguished writers have made-in different ways, but to the same purpose — of working out a religion on a basis of natural experience. That such attempts should be made, as well as attempts to revive old pessimistic theories, is in the very character of that negative movement or wave of thought which is so powerful