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On Compromise by John Morley

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_'It makes all the difference in the world whether we put
Truth in the first place or in the second place.'_








_This Edition first printed 1886_


The writer has availed himself of the opportunity of a new edition to
add three or four additional illustrations in the footnotes. The
criticisms on the first edition call for no remark, excepting this,
perhaps, that the present little volume has no pretensions to be
anything more than an Essay. To judge such it performance as if it
professed to be an exhaustive Treatise in casuistry, is to subject it to
tests which it was never designed to bear. Merely to open questions, to
indicate points, to suggest cases, to sketch outlines,--as an Essay does
all these things,--may often be a process not without its own modest
usefulness and interest.

_May 4, 1877._



Design of this Essay
The question stated
Suggested by some existing tendencies in England
Comparison with other countries
Test of this comparison
The absent quality specifically defined
History and decay of some recent aspirations
Characteristics of one present mood
Analysis of its causes
(1) Influence of French examples
(2) Influence of the Historic Method
(3) Influence of the Newspaper Press
(4) Increase of material prosperity
(5) Transformation of the spiritual basis of thought
(6) Influence of a State Church


Questions of a dual doctrine lies at the outset of our inquiry
This doctrine formulated
Marks the triumph of _status quo_
Psychological vindication of such a doctrine
Answered by assertion of the dogmatic character of popular belief
And the pernicious social influence of its priests
The root idea of the defenders of a dual doctrine
Thesis of the present chapter, against that idea
Examination of some of the pleas for error
I. That a false opinion may be clothed with good associations
II. That all minds are not open to reason
III. That a false opinion, considered in relation to the general
mental attitude, may be less hurtful than its premature
IV. That mere negative truth is not a guide
V. That error has been a stepping-stone to truth
We cannot tell how much truth has been missed
Inevitableness is not utility


The modern _disciplina arcani_
Hume's immoral advice
Evil intellectual effects of immoral compromise
Depravation that follows its grosser forms
The three provinces of compromise
Radical importance of their separation
Effects of their confusion in practical politics
Economy or management in the Formation of opinion
Its lawfulness turns on the claims of majority and minority over one
Thesis of the present chapter
Its importance, owing to the supremacy of the political spirit in
Effects of the predominance of this spirit
Contrasted with epochs of intellectual responsibility
A modern movement against the political spirit
An objection considered
Importance to character of rationalised conviction, and of ideals
The absence of them attenuates conduct
Illustrations in modern politics
Modern latitudinarianism
Illustration in two supreme issues
Pascal's remarks upon a state of Doubt
Dr. Newman on the same
Three ways of dealing with the issues
Another illustration of intellectual improbity
The Savoyard Vicar
Mischievousness of substituting spiritual self-indulgence for reason


Compromise in Expression
Touches religion rather than politics
Hume on non-resistance
Reason why rights of free speech do not exactly coincide with rights of
free thought
Digression into the matter of free speech
Dissent no longer railing and vituperative
Tendency of modern free thought to assimilate some elements from the
old faith
A wide breach still remains
Heresy, however, no longer traced to depravity
Tolerance not necessarily acquiescence in scepticism
Object of the foregoing digression
The rarity of plain-speaking a reason why it is painful
Conformity in the relationship between child and parent
Between husband and wife
In the education of children
The case of an unbelieving priest
The case of one who fears to lose his influence
Conformity not harmless nor unimportant


The application of opinion to conduct
Tempering considerations
Not to be pressed too far
Our action in realising our opinions depends on our social theory
Legitimate and illegitimate compromise in view of that
The distinction equally sound on the evolutional theory
Condition of progressive change
A plea for compromise examined
A second plea
The allegation of provisional usefulness examined
Illustrated in religious institutions
In political institutions
Burke's commendation of political compromise
The saying that small reforms may be the worst enemies of great ones
In what sense true
Illustration in the Elementary Education Act
Wisdom of social patience
The considerations which apply to political practice do not apply to
our own lives
Nor to the publication of social opinions
The amount of conscience in a community
Evil of attenuating this element
Historic illustration
New side of the discussion
Is earnestness of conviction fatal to concession of liberty to others?
Two propositions at the base of an affirmative answer
Earnestness of conviction consistent with sense of liability to error
Belief in one's own infallibility does not necessarily lead to
The contrary notion due to juristic analogies in social discussion
Connection between the doctrine of liberty and social evolution
The timid compromisers superfluous apprehension
Material limits to the effect of moral speculation
Illustration from the history of Slavery
Illustration from French history
Practical influence of a faith in the self-protecting quality of a


The Doctrine of Liberty




The design of the following essay is to consider, in a short and direct
way, some of the limits that are set by sound reason to the practice of
the various arts of accommodation, economy, management, conformity, or
compromise. The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of
using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our
lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally
accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought
that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what
circumstances does the exercise and vindication of the right, thus
conceded in theory, become a positive duty in practice? If the majority
are bound to tolerate dissent from the ruling opinions and beliefs,
under what conditions and within what limitations is the dissentient
imperatively bound to avail himself of this toleration? How far, and in
what way, ought respect either for immediate practical convenience, or
for current prejudices, to weigh against respect for truth? For how much
is it well that the individual should allow the feelings and convictions
of the many to count, when he comes to shape, to express, and to act
upon his own feelings and convictions? Are we only to be permitted to
defend general principles, on condition that we draw no practical
inferences from them? Is every other idea to yield precedence and empire
to existing circumstances, and is the immediate and universal
workableness of a policy to be the main test of its intrinsic fitness?

To attempt to answer all these questions fully would be nothing less
than to attempt a compendium of life and duty in all their details, a
Summa of cases of conscience, a guide to doubters at every point of the
compass. The aim of the present writer is a comparatively modest one;
namely, to seek one or two of the most general principles which ought
to regulate the practice of compliance, and to suggest some of the
bearings which they may have in their application to certain
difficulties in modern matters of conduct.

It is pretty plain that an inquiry of this kind needs to be fixed by
reference to a given set of social circumstances tolerably well
understood. There are some common rules as to the expediency of
compromise and conformity, but their application is a matter of endless
variety and the widest elasticity. The interesting and useful thing is
to find the relation of these too vague rules to actual conditions; to
transform them into practical guides and real interpreters of what is
right and best in thought and conduct, in a special and definite kind of
emergency. According to the current assumptions of the writer and the
preacher, the one commanding law is that men should cling to truth and
right, if the very heavens fall. In principle this is universally
accepted. To the partisans of authority and tradition it is as much a
commonplace as to the partisans of the most absolute and unflinching
rationalism. Yet in practice all schools alike are forced to admit the
necessity of a measure of accommodation in the very interests of truth
itself. Fanatic is a name of such ill repute, exactly because one who
deserves to be called by it injures good causes by refusing timely and
harmless concession; by irritating prejudices that a wiser way of urging
his own opinion might have turned aside; by making no allowances,
respecting no motives, and recognising none of those qualifying
principles, which are nothing less than necessary to make his own
principle true and fitting in a given society. The interesting question
in connection with compromise obviously turns upon the placing of the
boundary that divides wise suspense in forming opinions, wise reserve in
expressing them, and wise tardiness in trying to realise them, from
unavowed disingenuousness and self-illusion, from voluntary
dissimulation, and from indolence and pusillanimity. These are the three
departments or provinces of compromise. Our subject is a question of
boundaries.[1] And this question, being mainly one of time and
circumstance, may be most satisfactorily discussed in relation to the
time and the circumstances which we know best, or at least whose
deficiencies and requirements are most pressingly visible to us.

Though England counts her full share of fearless truth-seekers in most
departments of inquiry, yet there is on the whole no weakening, but a
rather marked confirmation, of what has become an inveterate national
characteristic, and has long been recognised as such; a profound
distrust, namely, of all general principles; a profound dislike both of
much reference to them, and of any disposition to invest them with
practical authority; and a silent but most pertinacious measurement of
philosophic truths by political tests. 'It is not at all easy, humanly
speaking,' says one who has tried the experiment, 'to wind an Englishman
up to the level of dogma.' The difficulty has extended further than the
dogma of theology. The supposed antagonism between expediency and
principle has been pressed further and further away from the little
piece of true meaning that it ever could be rightly allowed to have,
until it has now come to signify the paramount wisdom of counting the
narrow, immediate, and personal expediency for everything, and the
whole, general, ultimate, and completed expediency for nothing.
Principle is only another name for a proposition stating the terms of
one of these larger expediencies. When principle is held in contempt, or
banished to the far dreamland of the philosopher and the student, with
an affectation of reverence that in a materialist generation is in truth
the most overweening kind of contempt, this only means that men are
thinking much of the interests of to-day, and little of the more ample
interests of the many days to come. It means that the conditions of the
time are unfriendly to the penetration and the breadth of vision which
disclose to us the whole range of consequences that follow on certain
kinds of action or opinion, and unfriendly to the intrepidity and
disinterestedness which make us willing to sacrifice our own present
ease or near convenience, in the hope of securing higher advantages for
others or for ourselves in the future.

Let us take politics, for example. What is the state of the case with
us, if we look at national life in its broadest aspect? A German has his
dream of a great fatherland which shall not only be one and
consolidated, but shall in due season win freedom for itself, and be as
a sacred hearth whence others may borrow the warmth of freedom and order
for themselves. A Spaniard has his vision either of militant loyalty to
God and the saints and the exiled line of his kings, or else of devotion
to the newly won liberty and to the raising up of his fallen nation. An
American, in the midst of the political corruption which for the moment
obscures the great democratic experiment, yet has his imagination
kindled by the size and resources of his land, and his enthusiasm fired
by the high destinies which he believes to await its people in the
centuries to come. A Frenchman, republican or royalist, with all his
frenzies and 'fool-fury' of red or white, still has his hope and dream
and aspiration, with which to enlarge his life and lift him on an ample
pinion out from the circle of a poor egoism. What stirs the hope and
moves the aspiration of our Englishman? Surely nothing either in the
heavens above or on the earth beneath. The English are as a people
little susceptible in the region of the imagination. But they have done
good work in the world, acquired a splendid historic tradition of stout
combat for good causes, founded a mighty and beneficent empire; and
they have done all this notwithstanding their deficiencies of
imagination. Their lands have been the home of great and forlorn causes,
though they could not always follow the transcendental flights of their
foreign allies and champions. If Englishmen were not strong in
imagination, they were what is better and surer, strong in their hold of
the great emancipating principles. What great political cause, her own
or another's, is England befriending to-day? To say that no great cause
is left, is to tell us that we have reached the final stage of human
progress, and turned over the last leaf in the volume of human
improvements. The day when this is said and believed marks the end of a
nation's life. Is it possible that, after all, our old protestant
spirit, with its rationality, its austerity, its steady political
energy, has been struck with something of the mortal fatigue that seizes
catholic societies after their fits of revolution?

We need not forget either the atrocities or the imbecilities which mark
the course of modern politics on the Continent. I am as keenly alive as
any one to the levity of France, and the [Greek: hubris] of Germany. It
may be true that the ordinary Frenchman is in some respects the victim
of as poor an egoism as that of the ordinary Englishman; and that the
American has no advantage over us in certain kinds of magnanimous
sentiment. What is important is the mind and attitude, not of the
ordinary man, but of those who should be extraordinary. The decisive
sign of the elevation of a nation's life is to be sought among those who
lead or ought to lead. The test of the health of a people is to be found
in the utterances of those who are its spokesmen, and in the action of
those whom it accepts or chooses to be its chiefs. We have to look to
the magnitude of the issues and the height of the interests which engage
its foremost spirits. What are the best men in a country striving for?
And is the struggle pursued intrepidly and with a sense of its size and
amplitude, or with creeping foot and blinking eye? The answer to these
questions is the answer to the other question, whether the best men in
the country are small or great. It is a commonplace that the manner of
doing things is often as important as the things done. And it has been
pointed out more than once that England's most creditable national
action constantly shows itself so poor and mean in expression that the
rest of Europe can discern nothing in it but craft and sinister
interest. Our public opinion is often rich in wisdom, but we lack the
courage of our wisdom. We execute noble achievements, and then are best
pleased to find shabby reasons for them.

There is a certain quality attaching alike to thought and expression and
action, for which we may borrow the name of grandeur. It has been
noticed, for instance, that Bacon strikes and impresses us, not merely
by the substantial merit of what he achieved, but still more by a
certain greatness of scheme and conception. This quality is not a mere
idle decoration. It is not a theatrical artifice of mask or buskin, to
impose upon us unreal impressions of height and dignity. The added
greatness is real. Height of aim and nobility of expression are true
forces. They grow to be an obligation upon us. A lofty sense of personal
worth is one of the surest elements of greatness. That the lion should
love to masquerade in the ass's skin is not modesty and reserve, but
imbecility and degradation. And that England should wrap herself in the
robe of small causes and mean reasons is the more deplorable, because
there is no nation in the world the substantial elements of whose power
are so majestic and imperial as our own. Our language is the most widely
spoken of all tongues, its literature is second to none in variety and
power. Our people, whether English or American, have long ago superseded
the barbarous device of dictator and Caesar by the manly arts of
self-government. We understand that peace and industry are the two most
indispensable conditions of modern civilisation, and we draw the lines
of our policy in accordance with such a conviction. We have had imposed
upon us by the unlucky prowess of our ancestors the task of ruling a
vast number of millions of alien dependents. We undertake it with a
disinterestedness, and execute it with a skill of administration, to
which history supplies no parallel, and which, even if time should show
that the conditions of the problem were insoluble, will still remain
for ever admirable. All these are elements of true pre-eminence. They
are calculated to inspire us with the loftiest consciousness of national
life. They ought to clothe our voice with authority, to nerve our action
by generous resolution, and to fill our counsels with weightiness and

Within the last forty years England has lost one by one each of those
enthusiasms which may have been illusions,--some of them undoubtedly
were so,--but which at least testified to the existence among us, in a
very considerable degree, of a vivid belief in the possibility of
certain broad general theories being true and right, as well as in the
obligation of making them lights to practical conduct and desire. People
a generation ago had eager sympathy with Hungary, with Italy, with
Poland, because they were deeply impressed by the doctrine of
nationalities. They had again a generous and energetic hatred of such an
institution as the negro slavery of America, because justice and
humanity and religion were too real and potent forces within their
breasts to allow them to listen to those political considerations by
which American statesmen used to justify temporising and compromise.
They had strong feelings about Parliamentary Reform, because they were
penetrated by the principle that the possession of political power by
the bulk of a society is the only effective security against sinister
government; or else by the principle that participation in public
activity, even in the modest form of an exercise of the elective
franchise, is an elevating and instructing agency; or perhaps by the
principle that justice demands that those who are compelled to obey laws
and pay national taxes should have a voice in making the one and
imposing the other.

It may be said that the very fate of these aspirations has had a
blighting effect on public enthusiasm and the capacity of feeling it.
Not only have most of them now been fulfilled, and so passed from
aspiration to actuality, but the results of their fulfilment have been
so disappointing as to make us wonder whether it is really worth while
to pray, when to have our prayers granted carries the world so very
slight a way forward. The Austrian is no longer in Italy; the Pope has
ceased to be master in Rome; the patriots of Hungary are now in
possession of their rights, and have become friends of their old
oppressors; the negro slave has been transformed into an American
citizen. At home, again, the gods have listened to our vows. Parliament
has been reformed, and the long-desired mechanical security provided for
the voter's freedom. We no longer aspire after all these things, you may
say, because our hopes have been realised and our dreams have come true.
It is possible that the comparatively prosaic results before our eyes at
the end of all have thrown a chill over our political imagination. What
seemed so glorious when it was far off, seems perhaps a little poor now
that it is near; and this has damped the wing of political fancy. The
old aspirations have vanished, and no new ones have arisen in their
place. Be the cause what it may, I should express the change in this
way, that the existing order of facts, whatever it may be, now takes a
hardly disputed precedence with us over ideas, and that the coarsest
political standard is undoubtingly and finally applied over the whole
realm of human thought.

The line taken up by the press and the governing classes of England
during the American Civil War may serve to illustrate the kind of mood
which we conceive to be gaining firmer hold than ever of the national
mind. Those who sympathised with the Southern States listened only to
political arguments, and very narrow and inefficient political
arguments, as it happened, when they ought to have seen that here was an
issue which involved not only political ideas, but moral and religious
ideas as well. That is to say, the ordinary political tests were not
enough to reveal the entire significance of the crisis, nor were the
political standards proper for measuring the whole of the expediencies
hanging in the balance. The conflict could not be adequately gauged by
such questions as whether the Slave States had or had not a
constitutional right to establish an independent government; whether the
Free States were animated by philanthropy or by love of empire; whether
it was to the political advantage of England that the American Union
should be divided and consequently weakened. Such questions were not
necessarily improper in themselves, and we can imagine circumstances in
which they might be not only proper but decisive. But, the
circumstances being what they were, the narrower expediencies of
ordinary politics were outweighed by one of those supreme and
indefeasible expediencies which are classified as moral. These are, in
other words, the higher, wider, more binding, and transcendent part of
the master art of social wellbeing.

Here was only one illustration of the growing tendency to substitute the
narrowest political point of view for all the other ways of regarding
the course of human affairs, and to raise the limitations which
practical exigencies may happen to set to the application of general
principles, into the very place of the principles themselves. Nor is the
process of deteriorating conviction confined to the greater or noisier
transactions of nations. It is impossible that it should be so. That
process is due to causes which affect the mental temper an a whole, and
pour round us an atmosphere that enervates our judgment from end to end,
not more in politics than in morality, and not more in morality than in
philosophy, in art, and in religion. Perhaps this tendency never showed
itself more offensively than when the most important newspaper in the
country criticised our great naturalist's scientific speculations as to
the descent of man, from the point of view of property, intelligence,
and a stake in the country, and severely censured him for revealing his
particular zoological conclusions to the general public, at a moment
when the sky of Paris was red with the incendiary flames of the Commune.
It would be hard to reduce the transformation of all truth into a
subordinate department of daily politics, to a more gross and unseemly

The consequences of such a transformation, of putting immediate social
convenience in the first place, and respect for truth in the second, are
seen, as we have said, in a distinct and unmistakable lowering of the
level of national life; a slack and lethargic quality about public
opinion; a growing predominance of material, temporary, and selfish
aims, over those which are generous, far-reaching, and spiritual; a
deadly weakening of intellectual conclusiveness, and clear-shining moral
illumination, and, lastly, of a certain stoutness of self-respect for
which England was once especially famous. A plain categorical
proposition is becoming less and less credible to average minds. Or at
least the slovenly willingness to hold two directly contradictory
propositions at one and the same time is becoming more and more common.
In religion, morals, and politics, the suppression of your true opinion,
if not the positive profession of what you hold to be a false opinion,
is hardly ever counted a vice, and not seldom even goes for virtue and
solid wisdom. One is conjured to respect the beliefs of others, but
forbidden to claim the same respect for one's own.

This dread of the categorical proposition might be creditable, if it
sprang from attachment to a very high standard of evidence, or from a
deep sense of the relative and provisional quality of truth. There might
even be a plausible defence set up for it, if it sprang from that
formulated distrust of the energetic rational judgment in comparison
with the emotional, affective, contemplative parts of man, which
underlies the various forms of religious mysticism. If you look closely
into our present mood, it is seen to be the product mainly and above all
of a shrinking deference to the _status quo_, not merely as having a
claim not to be lightly dealt with, which every serious man concedes,
but as being the last word and final test of truth and justice. Physical
science is allowed to be the sphere of accurate reasoning and distinct
conclusions, but in morals and politics, instead of admitting that these
subjects have equally a logic of their own, we silently suspect all
first principles, and practically deny the strict inferences from
demonstrated premisses. Faith in the soundness of given general theories
of right and wrong melts away before the first momentary triumph of
wrong, or the first passing discouragement in enforcing right.

Our robust political sense, which has discovered so many of the secrets
of good government, which has given us freedom with order, and popular
administration without corruption, and unalterable respect for law along
with indelible respect for individual right, this, which has so long
been our strong point, is fast becoming our weakness and undoing. For
the extension of the ways of thinking which are proper in politics, to
other than political matter, means at the same time the depravation of
the political sense itself. Not only is social expediency effacing the
many other points of view that men ought to take of the various facts of
life and thought: the idea of social expediency itself is becoming a
dwarfed and pinched idea. Ours is the country where love of constant
improvement ought to be greater than anywhere else, because fear of
revolution is less. Yet the art of politics is growing to be as meanly
conceived as all the rest At elections the national candidate has not
often a chance against the local candidate, nor the man of a principle
against the man of a class. In parliament we are admonished on high
authority that 'the policy of a party is not the carrying out of the
opinion of any section of it, but the general consensus of the whole,'
which seems to be a hierophantic manner of saying that the policy of a
party is one thing, and the principle which makes it a party is another
thing, and that men who care very strongly about anything are to
surrender that and the hope of it, for the sake of succeeding in
something about which they care very little or not at all. This is our
modern way of giving politicians heart for their voyage, of inspiring
them with resoluteness and self-respect, with confidence in the worth of
their cause and enthusiasm for its success. Thoroughness is a mistake,
and nailing your flag to the mast a bit of delusive heroics. Think
wholly of to-day, and not at all of to-morrow. Beware of the high and
hold fast to the safe. Dismiss conviction, and study general consensus.
No zeal, no faith, no intellectual trenchancy, but as much low-minded
geniality and trivial complaisance as you please.

Of course, all these characteristics of our own society mark tendencies
that are common enough in all societies. They often spring from an
indolence and enervation that besets a certain number of people, however
invigorating the general mental climate may be. What we are now saying
is that the general mental climate itself has, outside of the domain of
physical science, ceased to be invigorating; that, on the contrary, it
fosters the more inglorious predispositions of men, and encourages a
native willingness, already so strong, to acquiesce in a lazy
accommodation with error, an ignoble economy of truth, and a vicious
compromise of the permanent gains of adhering to a sound general
principle, for the sake of the temporary gains of departing from it.

Without attempting an elaborate analysis of the causes that have brought
about this debilitation of mental tone, we may shortly remind ourselves
of one or two facts in the political history, in the intellectual
history, and in the religious history of this generation, which perhaps
help us to understand a phenomenon that we have all so keen an interest
both in understanding and in modifying.

To begin with what lies nearest to the surface. The most obvious agency
at work in the present exaggeration of the political standard as the
universal test of truth, is to be found in some contemporary incidents.
The influence of France upon England since the revolution of 1848 has
tended wholly to the discredit of abstract theory and general reasoning
among us, in all that relates to politics, morals, and religion. In
1848, not in 1789, questions affecting the fundamental structure and
organic condition of the social union came for the first time into
formidable prominence. For the first time those questions and the
answers to them were stated in articulate formulas and distinct
theories. They were not merely written in books; they so fascinated the
imagination and inflamed the hopes of the time, that thousands of men
were willing actually to go down into the streets and to shed their
blood for the realisation of their generous dream of a renovated
society. The same sight has been seen since, and even when we do not see
it, we are perfectly aware that the same temper is smouldering. Those
were premature attempts to convert a crude aspiration into a political
reality, and to found a new social order on a number of umcompromising
deductions from abstract principles of the common weal. They have had
the natural effect of deepening the English dislike of a general theory,
even when such a theory did no more than profess to announce a remote
object of desire, and not the present goal of immediate effort.

It is not only the Socialists who are responsible for the low esteem
into which a spirit of political generalisation has fallen in other
countries, in consequence of French experience. Mr. Mill has described
in a well-known passage the characteristic vice of the leaders of all
French parties, and not of the democratic party more than any other.
'The commonplaces of politics in France,' he says, 'are large and
sweeping practical maxims, from which, as ultimate premisses, men reason
downwards to particular applications, and this they call being logical
and consistent. For instance, they are perpetually arguing that such and
such a measure ought to be adopted, because it is a consequence of the
principle on which the form of government is founded; of the principle
of legitimacy, or the principle of the sovereignty of the people. To
which it may be answered that if these be really practical principles,
they must rest on speculative grounds; the sovereignty of the people
(for example) must be a right foundation for government, because a
government thus constituted tends to produce certain beneficial effects.
Inasmuch, however, as no government produces all possible beneficial
effects, but all are attended with more or fewer inconveniences; and
since these cannot be combated by means drawn from the very causes which
produce them, it would often be a much stronger recommendation of some
practical arrangement that it does not follow from what is called the
general principle of the government, than that it does,'[2]

The English feeling for compromise is on its better side the result of a
shrewd and practical, though informal, recognition of a truth which the
writer has here expressed in terms of Method. The disregard which the
political action of France has repeatedly betrayed of a principle really
so important has hitherto strengthened our own regard for it, until it
has not only made us look on its importance as exclusive and final, but
has extended our respect for the right kind of compromise to wrong and
injurious kinds.

A minor event, which now looks much less important than it did not many
years ago, but which still had real influence in deteriorating moral
judgment, was the career of a late sovereign of France. Some apparent
advantages followed for a season from a rule which had its origin in a
violent and perfidious usurpation, and which was upheld by all the arts
of moral corruption, political enervation, and military repression. The
advantages lasted long enough to create in this country a steady and
powerful opinion that Napoleon the Third's early crime was redeemed by
the seeming prosperity which followed. The shocking prematureness of
this shallow condonation is now too glaringly visible for any one to
deny it. Not often in history has the great truth that 'morality is the
nature of things' received corroboration so prompt and timely. We need
not commit ourselves to the optimistic or sentimental hypothesis that
wickedness always fares ill in the world, or on the other hand that
whoso hearkens diligently to the divine voice, and observes all the
commandments to do them, shall be blessed in his basket and his store
and all the work of his hand. The claims of morality to our allegiance,
so far as its precepts are solidly established, rest on the same
positive base as our faith in the truth of physical laws. Moral
principles, when they are true, are at bottom only registered
generalisations from experience. They record certain uniformities of
antecedence and consequence in the region of human conduct Want of faith
in the persistency of these uniformities is only a little less fatuous
in the moral order than a corresponding want of faith would instantly
disclose itself to be in the purely physical order. In both orders alike
there is only too much of this kind of fatuousness, this readiness to
believe that for once in our favour the stream shall flow up hill, that
we may live in miasmatic air unpoisoned, that a government may depress
the energy, the self-reliance, the public spirit of its citizens, and
yet be able to count on these qualities whenever the government itself
may have broken down, and left the country to make the best of such
resources as are left after so severe and prolonged a drain. This is the
sense in which morality is the nature of things. The system of the
Second Empire was in the same sense an immoral system. Unless all the
lessons of human experience were futile, and all the principles of
political morality mere articles of pedantry, such a system must
inevitably bring disaster, as we might have seen that it was sowing the
seeds of disaster. Yet because the catastrophe lingered, opinion in
England began to admit the possibility of evil being for this once good,
and to treat any reference to the moral and political principles which
condemned the imperial system, and all systems like it, beyond hope or
appeal, as simply the pretext of a mutinous or Utopian impatience.

This, however, is only one of the more superficial influences which have
helped and fallen in with the working of profounder causes of weakened
aspiration and impoverished moral energy, and of the substitution of
latitudinarian acquiescence and faltering conviction for the
whole-hearted assurance of better times. Of these deeper causes, the
most important in the intellectual development of the prevailing forms
of thought and sentiment is the growth of the Historic Method. Let us
consider very shortly how the abuse of this method, and an unauthorised
extension and interpretation of its conclusions, are likely to have had
something to do with the enervation of opinion.

The Historic Method may be described as the comparison of the forms of
an idea, or a usage, or a belief, at any given time, with the earlier
forms from which they were evolved, or the later forms into which they
were developed, and the establishment, from such a comparison, of an
ascending and descending order among the facts. It consists in the
explanation of existing parts in the frame of society by connecting them
with corresponding parts in some earlier frame; in the identification of
present forms in the past, and past forms in the present. Its main
process is the detection of corresponding customs, opinions, laws,
beliefs, among different communities, and a grouping of them into
general classes with reference to some one common feature. It is a
certain way of seeking answers to various questions of origin, resting
on the same general doctrine of evolution, applied to moral and social
forms, as that which is being applied with so much ingenuity to the
series of organic matter. The historic conception is a reference of
every state of society to a particular stage in the evolution of its
general conditions. Ideas of law, of virtue, of religion, of the
physical universe, of history, of the social union itself, all march in
a harmonious and inter-dependent order.

Curiosity with reference to origins is for various reasons the most
marked element among modern scientific tendencies. It covers the whole
field, moral, intellectual, and physical, from the smile or the frown on
a man's face, up to the most complex of the ideas in his mind; from the
expression of his emotions, to their root and relations with one another
in his inmost organisation. As an ingenious writer, too soon lost to our
political literature, has put it:--'If we wanted to describe one of the
most marked results, perhaps the most marked result, of late thought, we
should say that by it everything is made _an antiquity_. When in former
times our ancestors thought of an antiquarian, they described him as
occupied with coins and medals and Druids' stones. But now there are
other relics; indeed all matter is become such. Man himself has to the
eye of science become an antiquity. She tries to read, is beginning to
read, knows she ought to read, in the frame of each man the result of a
whole history of all his life, and what he is and what makes him so.'[3]
Character is considered less with reference to its absolute qualities
than as an interesting scene strewn with scattered rudiments, survivals,
inherited predispositions. Opinions are counted rather as phenomena to
be explained than as matters of truth and falsehood. Of usages, we are
beginning first of all to think where they came from, and secondarily
whether they are the most fitting and convenient that men could be got
to accept. In the last century men asked of a belief or a story, Is it
true? We now ask, How did men come to take it for true? In short the
relations among social phenomena which now engage most attention, are
relations of original source, rather than those of actual consistency in
theory and actual fitness in practice. The devotees of the current
method are more concerned with the pedigree and genealogical connections
of a custom or an idea than with its own proper goodness or badness, its
strength or its weakness.

Though there is no necessary or truly logical association between
systematic use of this method rightly limited, and a slack and slipshod
preference of vague general forms over definite ideas, yet every one can
see its tendency, if uncorrected, to make men shrink from importing
anything like absolute quality into their propositions. We can see also,
what is still worse, its tendency to place individual robustness and
initiative in the light of superfluities, with which a world that goes
by evolution can very well dispense. Men easily come to consider
clearness and positiveness in their opinions, staunchness in holding and
defending them, and fervour in carrying them into action, as equivocal
virtues of very doubtful perfection, in a state of things where every
abuse has after all had a defensible origin; where every error has, we
must confess, once been true relatively to other parts of belief in
those who held the error; and where all parts of life are so bound up
with one another, that it is of no avail to attack one evil, unless you
attack many more at the same time. This is a caricature of the real
teaching of the Historic Method, of which we shall have to speak
presently; but it is one of those caricatures which the natural sloth in
such matters, and the indigenous intellectual haziness of the majority
of men, make them very willing to take for the true philosophy of

Then there is the newspaper press, that huge engine for keeping
discussion on a low level, and making the political test final. To take
off the taxes on knowledge was to place a heavy tax on broad and
independent opinion. The multiplication of journals 'delivering brawling
judgments unashamed on all things all day long,' has done much to deaden
the small stock of individuality in public verdicts. It has done much to
make vulgar ways of looking at things and vulgar ways of speaking of
them stronger and stronger, by formulating and repeating and
stereotyping them incessantly from morning until afternoon, and from
year's end to year's end. For a newspaper must live, and to live it must
please, and its conductors suppose, perhaps not altogether rightly, that
it can only please by being very cheerful towards prejudices, very
chilly to general theories, loftily disdainful to the men of a
principle. Their one cry to an advocate of improvement is some sagacious
silliness about recognising the limits of the practicable in politics,
and seeing the necessity of adapting theories to facts. As if the fact
of taking a broader and wiser view than the common crowd disqualifies a
man from knowing what the view of the common crowd happens to be, and
from estimating it at the proper value for practical purposes. Why are
the men who despair of improvement to be the only persons endowed with
the gift of discerning the practicable? It is, however, only too easy to
understand how a journal, existing for a day, should limit its view to
the possibilities of the day, and how, being most closely affected by
the particular, it should coldly turn its back upon all that is general.
And it is easy, too, to understand the reaction of this intellectual
timorousness upon the minds of ordinary readers, who have too little
natural force and too little cultivation to be able to resist the
narrowing and deadly effect of the daily iteration of short-sighted

Far the most penetrating of all the influences that are impairing the
moral and intellectual nerve of our generation, remain still to be
mentioned. The first of these is the immense increase of material
prosperity, and the second is the immense decline in sincerity of
spiritual interest. The evil wrought by the one fills up the measure of
the evil wrought by the other. We have been, in spite of momentary
declensions, on a flood tide of high profits and a roaring trade, and
there is nothing like a roaring trade for engendering latitudinarians.
The effect of many possessions, especially if they be newly acquired, in
slackening moral vigour, is a proverb. Our new wealth is hardly leavened
by any tradition of public duty such as lingers among the English
nobles, nor as yet by any common custom of devotion to public causes,
such as seems to live and grow in the United States. Under such
conditions, with new wealth come luxury and love of ease and that fatal
readiness to believe that God has placed us in the best of possible
worlds, which so lowers men's aims and unstrings their firmness of
purpose. Pleasure saps high interests, and the weakening of high
interests leaves more undisputed room for pleasure. Management and
compromise appear among the permitted arts, because they tend to
comfort, and comfort is the end of ends, comprehending all ends. Not
truth is the standard, but the politic and the reputable. Are we to
suppose that it is firm persuasion of the greater scripturalness of
episcopacy that turns the second generation of dissenting manufacturers
in our busy Lancashire into churchmen? Certainly such conversions do no
violence to the conscience of the proselyte, for he is intellectually
indifferent, a spiritual neuter.

That brings us to the root of the matter, the serious side of a
revolution that in this social consequence is so unspeakably ignoble.
This root of the matter is the slow transformation now at work of the
whole spiritual basis of thought. Every age is in some sort an age of
transition, but our own is characteristically and cardinally an epoch of
transition in the very foundations of belief and conduct. The old hopes
have grown pale, the old fears dim; strong sanctions are become weak,
and once vivid faiths very numb. Religion, whatever destinies may be in
store for it, is at least for the present hardly any longer an organic
power. It is not that supreme, penetrating, controlling, decisive part
of a man's life, which it has been, and will be again. The work of
destruction is all the more perturbing to timorous spirits, and more
harassing even to doughtier spirits, for being done impalpably,
indirectly, almost silently and as if by unseen hands. Those who dwell
in the tower of ancient faiths look about them in constant
apprehension, misgiving, and wonder, with the hurried uneasy mien of
people living amid earthquakes. The air seems to their alarms to be full
of missiles, and all is doubt, hesitation, and shivering expectancy.
Hence a decisive reluctance to commit one's self. Conscience has lost
its strong and on-pressing energy, and the sense of personal
responsibility lacks sharpness of edge. The native hue of spiritual
resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of distracted, wavering,
confused thought. The souls of men have become void. Into the void have
entered in triumph the seven devils of Secularity.

And all this hesitancy, this tampering with conviction for fear of its
consequences, this want of faithful dealing in the highest matters, is
being intensified, aggravated, driven inwards like a fatal disorder
toward the vital parts, by the existence of a State Church. While
thought stirs and knowledge extends, she remains fast moored by ancient
formularies. While the spirit of man expands in search after new light,
and feels energetically for new truth, the spirit of the Church is
eternally entombed within the four corners of acts of parliament. Her
ministers vow almost before they have crossed the threshold of manhood
that they will search no more. They virtually swear that they will to
the end of their days believe what they believe then, before they have
had time either to think or to know the thoughts of others. They take
oath, in other words, to lead mutilated lives. If they cannot keep this
solemn promise, they have at least every inducement that ordinary human
motives can supply, to conceal their breach of it. The same system which
begins by making mental indolence a virtue and intellectual narrowness a
part of sanctity, ends by putting a premium on something too like
hypocrisy. Consider the seriousness of fastening up in these bonds some
thousands of the most instructed and intelligent classes in the country,
the very men who would otherwise be best fitted from position and
opportunities for aiding a little in the long, difficult, and plainly
inevitable work of transforming opinion. Consider the waste of
intelligence, and what is assuredly not less grave, the positive
dead-weight and thick obstruction, by which an official hierarchy so
organised must paralyse mental independence in a community.

We know the kind of man whom this system delights to honour. He was
described for us five and thirty years ago by a master hand. 'Mistiness
is the mother of wisdom. A man who can set down half a dozen general
propositions which escape from destroying one another only by being
diluted into truisms; who can hold the balance between opposites so
skilfully as to do without fulcrum or beam; who never enunciates a truth
without guarding himself against being supposed to exclude the
contradictory,--who holds that scripture is the only authority, yet that
the Church is to be deferred to, that faith only justifies, yet that it
does not justify without works, that grace does not depend upon the
sacraments, yet is not given without them, that bishops are a divine
ordinance, yet that those who have them not are in the same religious
condition as those who have,--this is your safe man and the hope of the
Church; this is what the Church is said to want, not party men, but
sensible, temperate, sober, well-judging persons, to guide it through
the channel of no meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of Aye and
No.'[4] The writer then thought that such a type could not endure, and
that the Church must become more real. On the contrary, her reality is
more phantom-like now than it was then. She is the sovereign pattern and
exemplar of management, of the triumph of the political method in
spiritual things, and of the subordination of ideas to the _status quo_.

It is true that all other organised priesthoods are also bodies which
move within formularies even more inelastic than those of the
Establishment. But then they have not the same immense social power, nor
the same temptations to make all sacrifices to preserve it. They affect
the intellectual temper of large numbers of people, but the people whom
they affect are not so strongly identified with the greater organs of
the national life. The State Church is bound up in the minds of the most
powerful classes with a given ordering of social arrangements, and the
consequence of this is that the teachers of the Church have reflected
back upon thorn a sense of responsibility for these arrangements, which
obscures their spirituality, clogs their intellectual energy and mental
openness, and turns them into a political army of obstruction to new
ideas. They feel themselves to a certain extent discharged from the
necessity of recognising the tremendous conflict in the region of belief
that goes on around them, just as if they were purely civil
administrators, concerned only with the maintenance of the present
order. None of this is true of the private Churches. Their teachers and
members regard belief as something wholly independent of the civil
ordering of things. However little enlightened in some respects, however
hostile to certain of the ideas by which it is sought to replace their
own, they are at least representatives of the momentous principle of our
individual responsibility for the truth of our opinions. They may bring
their judgments to conclusions that are less in accord with modern
tendencies than those of one or two schools that still see their way to
subscribing Anglican articles and administering Anglican rites. At any
rate, they admit that the use of his judgment is a duty incumbent on the
individual, and a duty to be discharged without reference to any
external considerations whatever, political or otherwise. This is an
elevating, an exhilarating principle, however deficiencies of culture
may have narrowed the sphere of its operations. It is because a State
Church is by its very conception hostile to such a principle, that we
are justified in counting it apart from the private Churches with all
their faults, and placing it among the agencies that weaken the vigour
of a national conscience and check the free play and access of
intellectual light.

Here we may leave the conditions that have made an inquiry as to some of
the limits of compromise, which must always be an interesting and
important subject, one of especial interest and importance to ourselves
at present. Is any renovation of the sacredness of principle a possible
remedy for some of these elements of national deterioration? They will
not disappear until the world has grown into possession of a new
doctrine. When that comes, all other good things will follow. What we
have to remember is that the new doctrine itself will never come, except
to spirits predisposed to their own liberation. Our day of small
calculations and petty utilities must first pass away; our vision of the
true expediencies must reach further and deeper; our resolution to
search for the highest verities, to give up all and follow them, must
first become the supreme part of ourselves.


[Footnote 1: See below, ch. iii.]

[Footnote 2: _System of Logic_, bk. vi. ch. xi.]

[Footnote 3: Bagehot.]

[Footnote 4: Dr. J.H. Newman's _Essays Critical and Historical_, vol. i.
p. 301.]



_Das Wahre foerdert; aus dem Irrthum entwickelt
sich nichts, er verwickeltuns nur.--_

At the outset of an inquiry how far existing facts ought to be allowed
to overrule ideas and principles that are at variance with them, a
preliminary question lies in our way, about which it may be well to say
something. This is the question of a dual doctrine. In plainer words,
the question whether it is expedient that the more enlightened classes
in a community should upon system not only possess their light in
silence, but whether they should openly encourage a doctrine for the
less enlightened classes which they do not believe to be true for
themselves, while they regard it as indispensably useful in the case of
less fortunate people. An eminent teacher tells us how after he had
once succeeded in presenting the principle of Necessity to his own mind
in a shape which seemed to bring with it all the advantages of the
principle of Free Will, he 'no longer suffered under the burden so heavy
to one who aims at being a reformer in opinions, of thinking one
doctrine true, and the contrary doctrine morally beneficial.'[5] The
discrepancy which this writer thought a heavy burden has struck others
as the basis of a satisfactory solution.

Nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere
Edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
Despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
Errare atque viam palantes quaerere vitae.

The learned are to hold the true doctrine; the unlearned are to be
taught its morally beneficial contrary. 'Let the Church,' it has been
said, 'admit two descriptions of believers, those who are for the
letter, and those who hold by the spirit. At a certain point in rational
culture, belief in the supernatural becomes for many an impossibility;
do not force such persons to wear a cowl of lead. Do not you meddle with
what we teach or write, and then we will not dispute the common people
with you; do not contest our place in the school and the academy, and
then we will surrender to your hands the country school.'[6] This is
only a very courageous and definite way of saying what a great many less
accomplished persons than M. Renan have silently in their hearts, and in
England quite as extensively as in France. They do not believe in hell,
for instance, but they think hell a useful fiction for the lower
classes. They would deeply regret any change in the spirit or the
machinery of public instruction which would release the lower classes
from so wholesome an error. And as with hell, so with other articles of
the supernatural system; the existence of a Being who will distribute
rewards and penalties in a future state, the permanent sentience of each
human personality, the vigilant supervision of our conduct, as well as
our inmost thoughts and desires, by the heavenly powers; and so forth.

Let us discuss this matter impersonally, without reference to our own
opinions and without reference to the evidence for or against their
truth. I am not speaking now of those who hold all these ideas to be
certainly true, or highly probable, and who at the same time
incidentally insist on the great usefulness of such ideas in confirming
morality and producing virtuous types of character. With such persons,
of course, there is no question of a dual doctrine. They entertain
certain convictions themselves, and naturally desire to have their
influence extended over others. The proposition which we have to
consider is of another kind. It expresses the notions of those who--to
take the most important kind of illustration--think untrue the popular
ideas of supernatural interference in our obscure human affairs; who
think untrue the notion of the prolongation of our existence after death
to fulfil the purpose of the supernatural powers; or at least who think
them so extremely improbable that no reasonable man or woman, once
awakened to a conviction of this improbability, would thenceforth be
capable of receiving effective check or guidance from beliefs, that
would have sunk slowly down to the level of doubtful guesses. We have
now to deal with those who while taking this view of certain doctrines,
still declare them to be indispensable for restraining from anti-social
conduct all who are not acute or instructed enough to see through them.
In other words, they think error useful, and that it may be the best
thing for society that masses of men should cheat and deceive themselves
in their most fervent aspirations and their deepest assurances. This is
the furthest extreme to which the empire of existing facts over
principles can well be imagined to go. It lies at the root of every
discussion upon the limits which separate lawful compromise or
accommodation from palpable hypocrisy.

It will probably be said that according to the theory of the school of
which M. Renan is the most eloquent representative, the common people
are not really cheating themselves or being cheated. Indeed M. Renan
himself has expatiated on the charm of seeing figures of the ideal in
the cottages of the poor, images representing no reality, and so forth.
'What a delight,' he cries, 'for the man who is borne down by six days
of toil to come on the seventh to rest upon his knees, to contemplate
the tall columns, a vault, arches, an altar; to listen to the chanting,
to hear moral and consoling words!'[7] The dogmas which criticism
attacks are not for these poor people 'the object of an explicit
affirmation,' and therefore there is no harm in them; 'it is the
privilege of pure sentiment to be invulnerable, and to play with poison
without being hurt by it.' In other words, the dogmas are false, but the
liturgy, as a performance stirring the senses of awe, reverence,
susceptibility to beauty of various kinds, appeals to and satisfies a
sentiment that is both true and indispensable in the human mind. More
than this, in the two or three supreme moments of life to which men look
forward and on which they look back,--at birth, at the passing of the
threshold into fulness of life, at marriage, at death,--the Church is
present to invest the hour with a certain solemn and dignified charm.
That is the way in which the instructed are to look at the services of a
Church, after they have themselves ceased to believe its faith, us a
true account of various matters which it professes to account for

It will be perceived that this is not exactly the ground of those who
think a number of what they confess to be untruths, wholesome for the
common people for reasons of police, and who would maintain churches on
the same principle on which they maintain the county constabulary. It is
a psychological, not a political ground. It is on the whole a more true,
as well as a far more exalted position. The human soul, they say, has
these lovely and elevating aspirations; not to satisfy them is to leave
man a dwarfed creature. Why quarrel with a system that leaves you to
satisfy them in the true way, and does much to satisfy thorn in a false
but not very harmful way among those who unfortunately have to sit in
the darkness of the outer court?

This is not a proper occasion for saying anything about the adequateness
of the catholic, or any other special manner of fostering and solacing
the religious impulses of men. We have to assume that the instructed
class believe the catholic dogmas to be untrue, and yet wishes the
uninstructed to be handed over to a system that reposes on the theory
that these dogmas are superlatively true. What then is to be said of the
tenableness of such a position? To the plain man it looks like a
deliberate connivance at a plan for the propagation of error--assuming,
as I say, for the moment, that these articles of belief are erroneous
and contrary to fact and evidence. Ah, but, we are told, the people make
no explicit affirmation of dogma; that does nothing for them; they are
indifferent to it. A great variety of things might be said to this
statement. We might ask, for instance, whether the people ever made an
explicit affirmation of dogma in the past, or whether it was always the
hazy indifferent matter which it is supposed to be now. If so, whether
we shall not have to re-cast our most fundamental notions of the way in
which Christian civilisation has been evolved. If not, and if people did
once explicitly affirm dogma, when exactly was it that they ceased to do

The answers to these questions would all go to show that at the time
when religion was the great controlling and organising force in conduct,
the prime elemental dogmas were accepted with the most vivid conviction
of reality. I do not pretend that the common people followed all the
inferences which the intellectual subtlety of the master-spirits of
theology drew so industriously from the simple premisses of scripture
and tradition. But assuredly dogma was at the foundation of the whole
structure. When did it cease to be so? How was the structure supported,
after you had altered this condition of things?

Apart from this historic issue, the main question one would like to put
to the upholder of duality of religion on this plea, is the simple one,
whether the power of the ceremonial which charms him so much is not
actually at this moment drawn wholly from dogma and the tradition of
dogma; whether its truth is not explicitly affirmed to the unlettered
man, and whether the inseparable connection between the dogma and the
ceremonial is not constantly impressed upon him by the spiritual
teachers to whom the dual system hands him and his order over for all
time? If any one of those philosophic critics will take the trouble to
listen to a few courses of sermons at the present day, and the remark
applies not less to protestant than to catholic churches, he will find
that instead of that '_parole morale et consolante_' which is so
soothing to think of, the pulpit is now the home of fervid controversy
and often exacerbated declamation in favour of ancient dogma against
modern science. We do not say whether this is or is not the wisest line
for the clergy to follow. We only press the fact against those who wish
us to believe that dogma counts for nothing in the popular faith, and
that therefore we need not be uneasy as to its effects.

Next, one would say to those who think that all will go well if you
divide the community into two classes, one privileged to use its own
mind, the other privileged to have its mind used by a priesthood, that
they overlook the momentous circumstance of these professional upholders
of dogmatic systems being also possessed of a vast social influence in
questions that naturally belong to another sphere. There is hardly a
single great controversy in modern politics, where the statesman does
not find himself in immediate contact with the real or supposed
interests, and with the active or passive sentiment, of one of these
religious systems. Therefore if the instructed or intellectually
privileged class cheerfully leave the field open to men who, _ex
hypothesi_, are presumed to be less instructed, narrower, more
impenetrable by reason, and the partisans of the letter against the
spirit, then this result follows. They are deliberately strengthening
the hands of the persons least fitted by judgment, experience, and
temper, for using such power rightly. And they are strengthening them
not merely in dealing with religious matters, but, what is of more
importance, in dealing with an endless variety of the gravest social and
political matters. It is impossible to map out the exact dimensions of
the field in which a man shall exercise his influence, and to which he
is to be rigorously confined. Give men influence in one matter,
especially if that be such a matter as religious belief and ceremonial,
and it is simply impossible that this influence shall not extend with
more or less effect over as much of the whole sphere of conduct as they
may choose surrendering the common people without dispute or effort to
organised priesthoods for religious purposes, you would be inevitably
including a vast number of other purposes in the self-same destination.
This does not in the least prejudice practical ways of dealing with
certain existing circumstances, such as the propriety or justice of
allowing a catholic people to have a catholic university. It is only an
argument against erecting into a complete and definite formula the
division of a society into two great castes, the one with a religion of
the spirit, the other with a creed of the letter.

Again, supposing that the enlightened caste were to consent to abandon
the common people to what are assumed to be lower and narrower forms of
truth,--which is after all little more than a fine phrase for forms of
falsehood,--what can be more futile than to suppose that such a
compromise will be listened to for a single moment by a caste whose
first principle is that they are the possessors and ministers, not of an
inferior or superior form of truth, but of the very truth itself,
absolute, final, complete, divinely sent, infallibly interpreted? The
disciples of the relative may afford to compromise. The disciples of the
absolute, never.

We shall see other objections as we go on to this state of things, in
which a minority holds true opinions and abandons the majority to false
ones. At the bottom of the advocacy of a dual doctrine slumbers the idea
that there is no harm in men being mistaken, or at least only so little
harm as is more than compensated for by the marked tranquillity in which
their mistake may wrap them. This is not an idea merely that
intellectual error is a pathological necessity of the mind, no more to
be escaped than the pathological necessities which afflict and finally
dissolve the body. That is historically true. It is an idea that error
somehow in certain stages, where there is enough of it, actually does
good, like vaccination. Well, the thesis of the present chapter is that
erroneous opinion or belief, in itself and as such, can never be useful.
This may seem a truism which everybody is willing to accept without
demur. But it is one of those truisms which persons habitually forget
and repudiate in practice, just because they have never made it real to
themselves by considering and answering the objections that may be
brought against it. We see this repudiation before our eyes every day.
Thus for instance, parents theoretically take it for granted that error
cannot be useful, while they are teaching or allowing others to teach
their children what they, the parents, believe to be untrue. Thus
husbands who think the common theology baseless and unmeaning, are found
to prefer that their wives shall not question this theology nor neglect
its rites. These are only two out of a hundred examples of the daily
admission that error may be very useful to other people. I need hardly
say that to deny this, as the commonplace to which this chapter is
devoted denies it, is a different thing from denying the expediency of
letting errors alone at a given time. That is another question, to be
discussed afterwards. You may have a thoroughly vicious and dangerous
enemy, and yet it may be expedient to choose your own hour and occasion
for attacking him. 'The passage from error to truth,' in the words of
Condorcet, 'may be accompanied by certain evils. Every great change
necessarily brings some of these in its train; and though they may be
always far below the evil you are for destroying, yet it ought to do
what is possible to diminish them. It is not enough to do good; one must
do it in a good way. No doubt we should destroy all errors, but as it is
impossible to destroy them all in an instant, we should imitate a
prudent architect who, when obliged to destroy a building, and knowing
how its parts are united together, sets about its demolition in such a
way as to prevent its fall from being dangerous.'[8]

Those, let us note by the way, who are accustomed to think the moral
tone of the eighteenth century low and gross compared with that of the
nineteenth, may usefully contrast these just and prudent word? of
caution in extirpating error, with M. Renan's invitation to men whom he
considers wrong in their interpretation of religion, to plant their
error as widely and deeply as they can; and who are moreover themselves
supposed to be demoralised, or else they would not be likely to
acquiesce in a previous surrender of the universities to men whom they
think in mortal error. Apart however from M. Renan, Condorcet's words
merely assert the duty of setting to work to help on the change from
false to true opinions with prudence, and this every sensible man
admits. Our position is that in estimating the situation, in counting up
and balancing the expediencies of an attack upon error at this or that
point, nothing is to be set to the credit of error as such, nor is there
anything in its own operations or effects to entitle it to a moment's
respite. Every one would admit this at once in the case of physical
truths, though there are those who say that some of the time spent in
the investigation of physical truths might be more advantageously
devoted to social problems. But in the case of moral and religious
truths or errors, people, if they admit that nothing is to be set to the
credit of error as such, still constantly have a subtle and practically
mischievous confusion in their minds between the possible usefulness of
error, and the possible expediency of leaving it temporarily
undisturbed. What happens in consequence of such a confusion is this.
Men leave error undisturbed, because they accept in a loose way the
proposition that a belief may be 'morally useful without being
intellectually sustainable,' They disguise their own dissent from
popular opinions, because they regard such opinions as useful to other
people. We are not now discussing the case of those who embrace a creed
for themselves, on the ground that, though they cannot demonstrate its
truth to the understanding, yet they find it pregnant with moralising
and elevating characteristics. We are thinking of a very different
attitude--that, namely, of persons who believe a creed to be not more
morally useful than it is intellectually sustainable, so far as they
themselves are concerned. To them it is pure and uncompensated error.
Yet from a vague and general idea that what is useless error to them may
be useful to others, they insist on doing their best to perpetuate the
system which spreads and consecrates the error. And how do they settle
the question? They reckon up the advantages, and forget the drawbacks.
They detect and dwell on one or two elements of utility in the false
belief or the worn-out institution, and leave out of all account the
elements that make in the other direction.

Considering how much influence this vague persuasion has in encouraging
a well-meaning hypocrisy in individuals, and a profound stagnation in
societies, it may be well to examine the matter somewhat generally. Let
us try to measure the force of some of the most usual pleas for error.

I. A false opinion, it may be said, is frequently found to have
clustering around it a multitude of excellent associations, which do far
more good than the false opinion that supports them, does harm. In the
middle ages, for instance, there was a belief that a holy man had the
gift of routing demons, of healing the sick, and of working divers other
miracles. Supposing that this belief was untrue, supposing that it was
an error to attribute the sudden death of an incredible multitude of
troublesome flies in a church to the fact of Saint Bernard having
excommunicated them, what then? The mistaken opinion was still
associated with a deep reverence for virtue and sanctity, and this was
more valuable, than the error of the explanation of the death of the
flies was noxious or degrading.

The answer to this seems to be as follows. First, in making false
notions the proofs or close associates of true ones, you are exposing
the latter to the ruin which awaits the former. For example, if you have
in the minds of children or servants associated honesty, industry,
truthfulness, with the fear of hell-fire, then supposing this fear to
become extinct in their minds,--which, being unfounded in truth, it is
in constant risk of doing--the virtues associated with it are likely to
be weakened exactly in proportion as that association was strong.

Second, for all good habits in thought or conduct there are good and
real reasons in the nature of things. To leave such habits attached to
false opinions is to lessen the weight of these natural or spontaneous
reasons, and so to do more harm in the long run than effacement of them
seems for a time to do good. Most excellences in human character have a
spontaneous root in our nature. Moreover if they had not, and where they
have not, there is always a valid and real external defence for them.
The unreal defence must be weaker than the real one, and the
substitution of a weak for a strong defence, where both are to be had,
is not useful but the very opposite.

II. It is true, the objector would probably continue, that there is a
rational defence for all excellences of conduct, as there is for all
that is worthy and fitting in institutions. But the force of a rational
defence lies in the rationality of the man to whom it is proffered. The
arguments which persuade one trained in scientific habits of thought,
only touch persons of the same kind. Character is not all pure reason.
That fitness of things which you pronounce to be the foundation of good
habits, may be borne in upon men, and may speak to them, through other
channels than the syllogism. You assume a community of highly-trained
wranglers and proficient sophisters. The plain fact is that, for the
mass of men, use and wont, rude or gracious symbols, blind custom,
prejudices, superstitions,--however erroneous in themselves, however
inadequate to the conveyance of the best truth,--are the only safe
guardians of the common virtues. In this sense, then, error may have its

A hundred years ago this apology for error was met by those high-minded
and interesting men, the French believers in human perfectibility, with
their characteristic dogma,--of which Rousseau was the ardent
expounder,--that man is born with a clear and unsophisticated spirit,
perfectly able to discern all the simple truths necessary for common
conduct by its own unaided light. His motives are all pure and unselfish
and his intelligence is unclouded, until priests and tyrants mutilate
the one and corrupt the other. We who have the benefit of the historic
method, and have to take into account the medium that surrounds a human
creature the moment it comes into the world, to say nothing of all the
inheritance from the past which it brings within it into the world at
the same moment, cannot take up this ground. We cannot maintain that
everybody is born with light enough to see the rational defences of
things for himself, without the education of institutions. What we do
maintain is--and this is the answer to the plea for error at present
under consideration--that whatever impairs the brightness of such light
as a man has, is not useful but hurtful. Our reply to those who contend
for the usefulness of error on the ground of the comparative impotence
of rationality over ordinary minds, is something of this kind.
Superstition, blind obedience to custom, and the other substitutes for a
right and independent use of the mind, may accidentally and in some few
respects impress good ideas upon persons who are too darkened to accept
those ideas on their real merits. But then superstition itself is the
main cause of this very darkness. To hold error is in so far to foster
erroneous ways of thinking on all subjects; is to make the intelligence
less and less ready to receive truth in all matters whatever. Men are
made incapable of perceiving the rational defences, and of feeling
rational motives, for good habits,--so far as they are thus
incapable,--by the very errors which we are asked silently to
countenance as useful substitutes for right reason. 'Erroneous motives,'
as Condorcet has expressed this matter, 'have an additional drawback
attached to them, the habit which they strengthen of reasoning ill. The
more important the subject on which you reason ill, and the more you
busy yourself about it, by so much the more dangerous do the influences
of such a habit become. It is especially on subjects analogous to that
on which you reason wrongly, or which you connect with it by habit, that
such a defect extends most powerfully and most rapidly. Hence it is
extremely hard for the man who believes himself obliged to conform in
his conduct to what he considers truths useful to men, but who
attributes the obligation to erroneous motives, to reason very correctly
on the truths themselves; the more attention he pays to such motives,
and the more importance he comes to attach to them, the more likely he
will be to go wrong.'[9] So, in short, superstition does an immense harm
by enfeebling rational ways of thinking; it does a little good by
accidentally endorsing rational conclusions in one or two matters. And
yet, though the evil which it is said to repair is a trifle beside the
evil which it is admitted to inflict, the balance of expediencies is
after all declared to be such as to warrant us in calling errors useful!

III. A third objection now presents itself to me, which I wish to state
as strongly as possible. 'Even if a false opinion cannot in itself be
more useful than a true one, whatever good habits may seem to be
connected with it, yet,' it may be contended, 'relatively to the general
mental attitude of a set of men, to their other notions and maxims, the
false opinion may entail less harm than would be wrought by its mere
demolition. There are false opinions so intimately bound up with the
whole way of thinking and feeling, that to introduce one or two detached
true opinions in their stead, would, even if it were possible, only
serve to break up that coherency of character and conduct which it is
one of the chief objects of moralists and the great art of living to
produce. For a true opinion does not necessarily bring in its train all
the other true opinions that are logically connected with it. On the
contrary, it is only too notorious a fact in the history of belief, that
not merely individuals but whole societies are capable of holding at one
and the same time contradictory opinions and mutually destructive
principles. On the other hand, neither does a false opinion involve
practically all the evil consequences deducible from it. For the results
of human inconsistency are not all unhappy, and if we do not always act
up to virtuous principle, no more do we always work out to its remotest
inference every vicious principle. Not insincerity, but inconsistency,
has constantly turned the adherents of persecuting precepts into friends
of tolerant practice.'

'It is a comparatively small thing to persuade a superstitious person to
abandon this or that article of his superstition. You have no security
that the rejection of the one article which you have displaced will lead
to the rejection of any other, and it is quite possible that it may lead
to all the more fervid an adhesion to what remains behind. Error,
therefore, in view of such considerations may surely be allowed to have
at least a provisional utility.'

Now undoubtedly the repudiation of error is not at all the same thing
as embracing truth. People are often able to see the force of arguments
that destroy a given opinion, without being able to see the force of
arguments for the positive opinion that ought to replace it. They can
only be quite sure of seeing both, when they have acquired not merely a
conviction that one notion is false and another true, but have
furthermore exchanged a generally erroneous way of thinking for a
generally correct way. Hence the truly important object with every one
who holds opinions which he deems it of the highest moment that others
should accept, must obviously be to reach people's general ways of
thinking; to stir their love of truth; to penetrate them with a sense of
the difference in the quality of evidence; to make them willing to
listen to criticism and new opinion; and perhaps above all to teach them
to take ungrudging and daily trouble to clear up in their minds the
exact sense of the terms they use.

If this be so, a false opinion, like an erroneous motive, can hardly
have even a provisional usefulness. For how can you attack an erroneous
way of thinking except in detail, that is to say through the sides of
this or that single wrong opinion? Each of these wrong opinions is an
illustration and type, as it is a standing support and abettor, of some
kind of wrong reasoning, though they are not all on the same scale nor
all of them equally instructive. It is precisely by this method of
gradual displacement of error step by step, that the few stages of
progress which the race has yet traversed, have been actually achieved.
Even if the place of the erroneous idea is not immediately taken by the
corresponding true one, or by the idea which is at least one or two
degrees nearer to the true one, still the removal of error in this
purely negative way amounts to a positive gain. Why? For the excellent
reason that it is the removal of a bad element which otherwise tends to
propagate itself, or even if it fails to do that, tends at the best to
make the surrounding mass of error more inveterate. All error is what
physiologists term fissiparous, and in exterminating one false opinion
you may be hindering the growth of an uncounted brood of false opinions.

Then as to the maintenance of that coherency, interdependence, and
systematisation of opinions and motives, which is said to make character
organic, and is therefore so highly prized by some schools of thought.
No doubt the loosening of this or that part of the fabric of
heterogeneous origin, which constitutes the character of a man or woman,
tends to loosen the whole. But do not let us feed ourselves upon
phrases. This organic coherency, what does it come to? It signifies in a
general way, to describe it briefly, a harmony between the intellectual,
the moral, and the practical parts of human nature; an undisturbed
cooperation between reason, affection, and will; the reason prescribing
nothing against which the affections revolt, and proscribing nothing
which they crave; and the will obeying the joint impulses of these two
directing forces, without liability to capricious or extravagant
disturbance of their direction. Well, if the reason were perfect in
information and method, and the affections faultless in their impulse,
then organic unity of character would be the final consummation of all
human improvement, and it would be criminal, even if it were possible,
to undermine a structure of such priceless value. But short of this
there can be no value in coherency and harmonious consistency as such.
So long as error is an element in it, then for so long the whole product
is vitiated. Undeniably and most fortunately, social virtues are found
side by side with speculative mistakes and the gravest intellectual
imperfections. We may apply to humanity the idea which, as Hebrew
students tell us, is imputed in the Talmud to the Supreme Being. _God
prays_, the Talmud says; and his prayer is this,--'Be it my will that my
mercy overpower my justice.' And so with men, with or without their
will, their mercifulness overpowers their logic. And not their
mercifulness only, but all their good impulses overpower their logic. To
repeat the words which I have put into the objector's mouth, we do not
always work out every vicious principle to its remotest inference. What,
however, is this but to say that in such cases character is saved, not
by its coherency, but by the opposite; to say not that error is useful,
but what is a very different thing, that its mischievousness is
sometimes capable of being averted or minimised?

The apologist may retort that he did not mean answer to the argument
from coherency of conduct. In measuring utility you have to take into
account not merely the service rendered to the objects of the present
hour, but the contribution to growth, progress, and the future. From
this point of view most of the talk about unity of character is not much
more than a glorifying of stagnation. It leaves out of sight the
conditions necessary for the continuance of the unending task of human
improvement. Now whatever ease may be given to an individual or a
generation by social or religious error, such error at any rate can
conduce nothing to further advancement That, at least, is not one of its
possible utilities.

This is also one of the answers to the following plea. 'Though the
knowledge of every positive truth is an useful acquisition, this
doctrine cannot without reservation he applied to negative truth. When
the only truth ascertainable is that nothing can be known, we do not, by
this knowledge, gain any new fact by which to guide ourselves.'[10] But
logical coherency, but a kind of practical everyday coherency, which
may be open to a thousand abstract objections, yet which still secures
both to the individual and to society a number of advantages that might
be endangered by any disturbance of opinion or motive. No doubt, and the
method and season of chasing erroneous opinions and motives out of the
mind must always be a matter of much careful and far-seeing
consideration. Only in the course of such consideration, let us not
admit the notion in any form that error can have even provisional
utility. For it is not the error which confers the advantages that we
desire to preserve, but some true opinion or just motive or high or
honest sentiment, which exists and thrives and operates in spite of the
error and in face of it, springing from man's spontaneous and
unformulated recognition of the real relations of things. This
recognition is very faint in the beginnings of society. It grows clearer
and firmer with each step forward. And in a tolerably civilised age it
has become a force on which you can fairly lean with a considerable
degree of assurance.

And this leads to the central point of the the negative truth that
nothing can be known is in fact a truth that guides us. [Transcriber's
note: sic.] It leads us away from sterile and irreclaimable tracts
of thought and emotion, and so inevitably compels the energies which
would otherwise have been wasted, to feel after a more profitable
direction. By leaving the old guide-marks undisturbed, you may give
ease to an existing generation, but the present ease is purchased at
the cost of future growth. To have been deprived of the faith of the
old dispensation, is the first condition of strenuous endeavour after
the new.

No doubt history abounds with cases in which a false opinion on moral or
religious subjects, or an erroneous motive in conduct, has seemed to be
a stepping-stone to truth. But this is in no sense a demonstration of
the utility of error. For in all such cases the erroneous opinion or
motive was far from being wholly erroneous, or wholly without elements
of truth and reality. If it helped to quicken the speed or mend the
direction of progress, that must have been by virtue of some such
elements within it. All that was error in it was pure waste, or worse
than waste. It is true that the religious sentiment has clothed itself
in a great number of unworthy, inadequate, depressing, and otherwise
misleading shapes, dogmatic and liturgic. Yet on the whole the religious
sentiment has conferred enormous benefits on civilisation. This is no
proof of the utility of the mistaken direction which these dogmatic or
liturgic shapes imposed upon it. On the contrary, the effect of the
false dogmas and enervating liturgies is so much that has to be deducted
from the advantages conferred by a sentiment in itself valuable and of
priceless capability.[11]

Yes, it will be urged, but from the historic conditions of the time,
truth could only be conveyed in erroneous forms, and motives of
permanent price for humanity could only be secured in these mistaken
expressions. Here I would again press the point of this necessity for
erroneous forms and mistaken expressions being, in a great many of the
most important instances, itself derivative, one among other ill
consequences of previous moral and religious error. 'It was gravely
said,' Bacon tells us, 'by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent,
where the doctrines of the Schoolmen have great sway; that the schoolmen
were like Astronomers, which did faigne Eccentricks and Epicycles and
Engines of Orbs to save the Phenomena; though they know there were no
such Things; and in like manner that the Schoolmen had framed a number
of subtile and intricate Axioms and Theorems, to save the practice of
the Church.' This is true of much else besides scholastic axioms and
theorems. Subordinate error was made necessary and invented, by reason
of some pro-existent main stock of error, and to save the practice of
the Church. Thus we are often referred to the consolation which this or
that doctrine has brought to the human spirit. But what if the same
system had produced the terror which made absence of consolation
intolerable? How much of the necessity for expressing the enlarged
humanity of the Church in the doctrine of purgatory, arose from the
existence of the older unsoftened doctrine of eternal hell?

Again, how much of this alleged necessity of error, as alloy for the too
pure metal of sterling truth, is to be explained by the interest which
powerful castes or corporations have had in preserving the erroneous
forms, even when they could not resist, or did not wish to resist, their
impregnation by newer and better doctrine? This interest was not
deliberately sinister or malignant. It may be more correctly as well as
more charitably explained by that infirmity of human nature, which makes
us very ready to believe what it is on other grounds convenient to us to
believe. Nobody attributes to pure malevolence the heartiness with which
the great corporation of lawyers, for example, resist the removal of
superfluous and obstructive forms in their practice; they have come to
look on such forms as indispensable safeguards. Hence powerful teachers
and preachers of all kinds have been spontaneously inclined to suppose
a necessity, which had no real existence, of preserving as much as was
possible of what we know to be error, even while introducing wholesome
modification of it. This is the honest, though mischievous, conservatism
of the human mind. We have no right to condemn our foregoers; far less
to lavish on them the evil names of impostor, charlatan, and brigand,
which the zealous unhistoric school of the last century used so
profusely. But we have a right to say of them, as we say of those who
imitate their policy now, that their conservatism is no additional proof
of the utility of error. Least of all is it any justification for those
who wish to have impressed upon the people a complete system of
religious opinion which men of culture have avowedly put away. And,
moreover, the very priests must, I should think, be supposed to have put
it away also. Else they would hardly be invited deliberately to abdicate
their teaching functions in the very seats where teaching is of the
weightiest and most far-spreading influence.

Meanwhile our point is that the reforms in opinion which have been
effected on the plan of pouring the new wine of truth into the old
bottles of superstition--though not dishonourable to the sincerity of
the reformers--are no testimony to even the temporary usefulness of
error. Those who think otherwise do not look far enough in front of the
event. They forget the evil wrought by the prolonged duration of the
error, to which the added particle of truth may have given new vitality.
They overlook the ultimate enervation that is so often the price paid
for the temporary exaltation.

Nor, finally, can they know the truths which the error thus prolonged
has hindered from coming to the birth. A strenuous disputant has
recently asserted against me that 'the region of the _might have been_
lies beyond the limits of sane speculation.'[12] It in surely extending
optimism too far to insist on carrying it back right through the ages.
To me at any rate the history of mankind is a huge _pis-aller_, just as
our present society is; a prodigious wasteful experiment, from which a
certain number of precious results have been extracted, but which is
not now, nor ever has been at any other time, a final measure of all the
possibilities of the time. This is not inconsistent with the scientific
conception of history; it is not to deny the great law that society has
a certain order of progress; but only to urge that within that, the only
possible order, there is always room for all kinds and degrees of
invention, improvement, and happy or unhappy accident. There is no
discoverable law fixing precisely the more or the less of these; nor how
much of each of them a community shall meet with, nor exactly when it
shall meet with them. We have to distinguish between possibility and
necessity. Only certain steps in advance are possible at a given time;
but it is not inevitable that those potential advances should all be
realised. Does anybody suppose that humanity has had the profit of all
the inventive and improving capacity born into the world? That Turgot,
for example, was the only man that ever lived who might have done more
for society than he was allowed to do, and spared society a cataclysm?
No,--history is a _pis-aller_. It has assuredly not moved without the
relation of cause and effect; it is a record of social growth and its
conditions; but it is also a record of interruption and misadventure and
perturbation. You trace the long chain which has made us what we are in
this aspect and that. But where are the dropped links that might have
made all the difference? _Ubi sunt eorum tabulae qui post vota nuncupate
perierunt_? Where is the fruit of those multitudinous gifts which came
into the world in untimely seasons? We accept the past for the same
reason that we accept the laws of the solar system, though, as Comte
says, 'we can easily conceive them improved in certain respects.' The
past, like the solar system, is beyond reach of modification at our
hands, and we cannot help it. But it is surely the mere midsummer
madness of philosophic complacency to think that we have come by the
shortest and easiest of all imaginable routes to our present point in
the march; to suppose that we have wasted nothing, lost nothing, cruelly
destroyed nothing, on the road. What we have lost is all in the region
of the 'might have been,' and we are justified in taking this into
account, and thinking much of it, and in trying to find causes for the
loss. One of them has been want of liberty for the human intelligence;
and another, to return to our proper subject, has been the prolonged
existence of superstition, of false opinions, and of attachment to gross
symbols, beyond the time when they might have been successfully
attacked, and would have fallen into decay but for the mistaken
political notion of their utility. In making a just estimate of this
utility, if we see reason to believe that these false opinions, narrow
superstitions, gross symbols, have been an impediment to the free
exercise of the intelligence and a worthier culture of the emotions,
then we are justified in placing the unknown loss as a real and most
weighty item in the account against them.

In short, then, the utmost that can be said on behalf of errors in
opinion and motive, is that they are inevitable elements in human
growth. But the inevitable does not coincide with the useful. Pain can
be avoided by none of the sons of men, yet the horrible and
uncompensated subtraction which it makes from the value and usefulness
of human life, is one of the most formidable obstacles to the smoother
progress of the world. And as with pain, so with error. The moral of our
contention has reference to the temper in which practically we ought to
regard false doctrine and ill-directed motive. It goes to show that if
we have satisfied ourselves on good grounds that the doctrine is false,
or the motive ill directed, then the only question that we need ask
ourselves turns solely upon the possibility of breaking it up and
dispersing it, by methods compatible with the doctrine of liberty. Any
embarrassment in dealing with it, due to a semi-latent notion that it
may be useful to some one else is a weakness that hinders social


[Footnote 5: Mill's _Autobiography_ p. 170.]

[Footnote 6: M. Renan's _Reforme Intellectuelle et Morale de la France_,
p. 98.]

[Footnote 7: _Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse_, Preface, p. xvi.]

[Footnote 8: In 1779 the Academy of Prussia announced this as the
question for their annual prize essay:--'_S'il est utile au peuple
d'etre trompe_.' They received thirty-three essays; twenty showing that
it is not useful, thirteen showing that it is. The Academy, with an
impartiality that caused much amusement in Paris and Berlin, awarded two
prizes, one to the best proof of the negative answer, another to the
best proof of the affirmative. See Bartholmess, _Hist. Philosophique de
l'Academie de Prusse_, i. 281, and ii. 278. Condorcet did not actually
compete for the prize, but he wrote a very acute piece, suggested by the
theme, which was printed in 1790. _Oeuv._ v. 343.

To illustrate the common fact of certain currents of thought being in
the air at given times, we may mention that in 1770 was published the
posthumous work of another Frenchman, Chesneau du Marsais (1676-1756)
entitled:--'_Essai sur les Prejuges; ou de l'influence des Opinions sur
les Moeurs et sur le Bonheur des Hommes_.' The principal prejudices to
which he refers are classed under Antiquity--Ancestry--Native
Country--Religion--Respect for Wealth. Some of the reasoning is almost
verbally identical with Condorcet's. For an account of Du Marsais, see
D'Alembert, _Oeuv._ iii 481.]

[Footnote 9: _Oeuv._ v. 354.]

[Footnote 10: Mill's _Three Essays on Religion_, p.73. I have offered
some criticisms on the whole passage in _Critical Miscellanies, Second
Series_, pp. 300-304.]

[Footnote 11: 'Enfin, supposons pour un instant que le dogme de l'autre
vie soit de quelqu'utilite, et qu'il retienne vraiment un petit nombre
d'individus, qu'est-ce que ces foibles avantages compares a la foule de
maux que l'on en voir decouler? Contre un homme timide que cette idee
contient, il en est des millions qu'elle ne peut contenir; il en des
millions qu'elle rend insenses, farouches, fanatiques, inutiles et
mechants; il en est des millions qu'elle detourne de leurs devoirs
envers la societe; il en est une infinite qu'elle afflige et qu'elle
trouble, sans aucun bien reel pour leurs associes.--_Systeme de la
Nature_, i. xiii.]

[Footnote 12: Sir J.F. Stephen's _Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity_,
2d. ed., p. 19, _note_.]



We have been considering the position of those who would fain divide the
community into two great castes; the one of thoughtful and instructed
persons using their minds freely, but guarding their conclusions in
strict reserve; the other of the illiterate or unreflecting, who should
have certain opinions and practices taught them, not because they are
true or are really what their votaries are made to believe them to be,
but because the intellectual superiors of the community think the
inculcation of such a belief useful in all cases save their own. Nor is
this a mere theory. On the contrary, it is a fair description of an
existing state of things. We have the old _disciplina arcani_ among us
in as full force as in the primitive church, but with an all-important
difference. The Christian fathers practised reserve for the sake of
leading the acolyte the more surely to the fulness of truth. The modern
economiser keeps back his opinions, or dissembles the grounds of them,
for the sake of leaving his neighbours the more at their ease in the
peaceful sloughs of prejudice and superstition and low ideals. We quote
Saint Paul when he talked of making himself all things to all men, and
of becoming to the Jews a Jew, and as without the Law to the heathen.
But then we do so with a view to justifying ourselves for leaving the
Jew to remain a Jew, and the heathen to remain heathen. We imitate the
same apostle in accepting old time-worn altars dedicated to the Unknown
God. We forget that he made the ancient symbol the starting-point of a
revolutionised doctrine. There is, as anybody can see, a whole world of
difference between the reserve of sagacious apostleship, on the one
hand, dealing tenderly with scruple and tearfulness and fine sensibility
of conscience, and the reserve of intellectual cowardice on the other
hand, dealing hypocritically with narrow minds in the supposed interests
of social peace and quietness. The old _disciplina arcani_ signified
the disclosure of a little light with a view to the disclosure of more.
The new means the dissimulation of truth with a view to the perpetuation
of error. Consider the difference between these two fashions of
compromise, in their effects upon the mind and character of the person
compromising. The one is fully compatible with fervour and hopefulness
and devotion to great causes. The other stamps a man with artifice, and
hinders the free eagerness of his vision, and wraps him about with
mediocrity,--not always of understanding, but that still worse thing,
mediocrity of aspiration and purpose.

The coarsest and most revolting shape which the doctrine of conformity
can assume, and its degrading consequences to the character of the
conformer, may be conveniently illustrated by a passage in the life of
Hume. He looked at things in a more practical manner than would find
favour with the sentimental champions of compromise in nearer times.
There is a well-known letter of Hume's, in which he recommends a young
man to become a clergyman, on the ground that it was very hard to got
any tolerable civil employment, and that as Lord Bute was then all
powerful, his friend would be certain of preferment. In answer to the
young man's scruples as to the Articles and the rest, Hume says:--

'It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and their superstitions
to pique one's self on sincerity with regard to them. If the thing were
worthy of being treated gravely, I should tell him [the young man] that
the Pythian oracle with the approbation of Xenophon advised every one to
worship the gods--[Greek: nhomo pholeos]. I wish it were still in my
power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society
usually require it; and the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little
more to an innocent dissimulation, or rather simulation, without which
it is impossible to pass through the world.'[13]

This is a singularly straightforward way of stating a view which
silently influences a much greater number of men than it is pleasant to
think of. They would shrink from throwing their conduct into so gross a
formula. They will lift up their hands at this quotation, so strangely
blind are we to the hiding-places of our own hearts, even when others
flash upon them the terrible illumination that comes of calling conduct
and motives by plain names. Now it is not merely the moral improbity of
these cases which revolts us--the improbity of making in solemn form a
number of false statements for the sake of earning a livelihood; of
saying in order to get money or social position that you accept a number
of propositions which in fact you utterly reject; of declaring expressly
that you trust you are inwardly moved to take upon you this office and
ministration by the Holy Ghost, when the real motive is a desire not to
miss the chance of making something out of the Earl of Bute. This side
of such dissimulation is shocking enough. And it is not any more
shocking to the most devout believer than it is to people who doubt
whether there be any Holy Ghost or not. Those who no longer place their
highest faith in powers above and beyond men, are for that very reason
more deeply interested than others in cherishing the integrity and
worthiness of man himself. Apart, however, from the immorality of such
reasoned hypocrisy, which no man with a particle of honesty will
attempt to blink, there is the intellectual improbity which it brings in
its train, the infidelity to truth, the disloyalty to one's own
intelligence. Gifts of understanding are numbed and enfeebled in a man,
who has once played such a trick with his own conscience as to persuade
himself that, because the vulgar are superstitious, it is right for the
learned to earn money by turning themselves into the ministers and
accomplices of superstition. If he is clever enough to see through the
vulgar and their beliefs, he is tolerably sure to be clever enough from
time to time and in his better moments to see through himself. He begins
to suspect himself of being an impostor. That suspicion gradually unmans
him when he comes to use his mind in the sphere of his own
enlightenment. One of really superior power cannot escape these better
moments and the remorse that they bring. As he advances in life, as his
powers ought to be coming to fuller maturity and his intellectual
productiveness to its prime, just in the same degree the increasing
seriousness of life multiplies such moments and deepens their remorse,
and so the light of intellectual promise slowly goes out in impotent
endeavour, or else in taking comfort that much goods are laid up, or,
what is deadliest of all, in a soulless cynicism.

We do not find out until it is too late that the intellect too, at least
where it is capable of being exercised on the higher objects, has its
sensitiveness. It loses its colour and potency and finer fragrance in an
atmosphere of mean purpose and low conception of the sacredness of fact
and reality. Who has not observed inferior original power achieving
greater results even in the intellectual field itself, where the
superior understanding happens to have been unequally yoked with a
self-seeking character, over scenting the expedient? If Hume had been in
the early productive part of his life the hypocrite which he wished it
were in his power to show himself in its latter part, we may be
tolerably sure that European philosophy would have missed one of its
foremost figures. It has been often said that he who begins life by
stifling his convictions is in a fair way for ending it without any
convictions to stifle. We may, perhaps, add that he who sets out with
the notion that the difference between truth and falsehood is a thing of
no concern to the vulgar, is very likely sooner or later to come to the
kindred notion that it is not a thing of any supreme concern to himself.

Let thus much have been said as to those who deliberately and knowingly
sell their intellectual birthright for a mess of pottage, making a
brazen compromise with what they hold despicable, lest they should have
to win their bread honourably. Men need to expend no declamatory
indignation upon them. They have a hell of their own; words can add no
bitterness to it. It is no light thing to have secured a livelihood on
condition of going through life masked and gagged. To be compelled, week
after week, and year after year, to recite the symbols of ancient faith
and lift up his voice in the echoes of old hopes, with the blighting
thought in his soul that the faith is a lie, and the hope no more than
the folly of the crowd; to read hundreds of times in a twelvemonth with
solemn unction as the inspired word of the Supreme what to him are
meaningless as the Abracadabras of the conjuror in a booth; to go on to
the end of his days administering to simple folk holy rites of
commemoration and solace, when he has in his mind at each phrase what
dupes are those simple folk and how wearisomely counterfeit their rites:
and to know through all that this is really to be the one business of
his prostituted life, that so dreary and hateful a piece of play-acting
will make the desperate retrospect of his last hours--of a truth here is
the very [Greek: bdhelygma tes eremhoseos], the abomination of
desolation of the human spirit indeed.

No one will suppose that this is designed for the normal type of priest.
But it is well to study tendencies in their extreme catastrophe. This is
only the catastrophe, in one of its many shapes, of the fatal doctrine
that money, position, power, philanthropy, or any of the thousand
seductive masks of the pseudo-expedient, may carry a man away from love
of truth and yet leave him internally unharmed. The depravation that
follows the trucking for money of intellectual freedom and self-respect,
attends in its degree each other departure from disinterested following
of truth, and each other substitution of convenience, whether public or
private, in its place. And both parties to such a compromise are losers.
The world which offers gifts and tacitly undertakes to ask no questions
as to the real state of the timeserver's inner mind, loses no less than
the timeserver himself who receives the gifts and promises to hold his
peace. It is as though a society placed penalties on mechanical
inventions and the exploration of new material resources, and offered
bounties for the steadiest adherence to all ancient processes in culture
and production. The injury to wealth in the one case would not be any
deeper than the injury to morality is in the other.

To pass on to less sinister forms of this abnegation of intellectual
responsibility. In the opening sentences of the first chapter we spoke
of a wise suspense in forming opinions, a wise reserve in expressing
them, and a wise tardiness in trying to realise them. Thus we meant to
mark out the three independent provinces of compromise, each of them
being the subject of considerations that either do not apply at all to
the other two, or else apply in a different degree. Disingenuousness or
self-illusion, arising from a depressing deference to the existing state
of things, or to what is immediately practicable, or to what other
people would think of us if they knew our thoughts, is the result of
compromising truth in the matter of forming and holding opinions.
Secondly, positive simulation is what comes of an unlawful willingness
to compromise in the matter of avowing and publishing them. Finally,
pusillanimity or want of faith is the vice that belongs to unlawful
compromise in the department of action and realisation. This is not
merely a division arranged for convenience of discussion. It goes to the
root of conduct and character, and is the key to the present mood of our
society. It is always a hardy thing to attempt to throw a complex matter
into very simple form, but we should say that the want of energy and
definiteness in contemporary opinions, of which we first complained, is
due mainly to the following notion; that if a subject is not ripe for
practical treatment, you and I are therefore entirely relieved from the
duty of having clear ideas about it. If the majority cling to an
opinion, why should we ask whether that is the sound and right opinion
or the reverse? Now this notion, which springs from a confusion of the
three fields of compromise with one another, quietly reigns almost
without dispute. The devotion to the practical aspect of truth is in
such excess, as to make people habitually deny that it can be worth
while to form an opinion, when it happens at the moment to be incapable
of realisation, for the reason that there is no direct prospect of
inducing a sufficient number of persons to share it. 'We are quite
willing to think that your view is the right one, and would produce all
the improvements for which you hope; but then there is not the smallest
chance of persuading the only persons able to carry out such a view; why
therefore discuss it?' No talk is more familiar to us than this. As if
the mere possibility of the view being a right one did not obviously
entitle it to discussion; discussion being the only process by which
people are likely to be induced to accept it, or else to find good
grounds for finally dismissing it.

It is precisely because we believe that opinion, and nothing but
opinion, can effect great permanent changes, that we ought to be
careful to keep this most potent force honest, wholesome, fearless, and
independent. Take the political field. Politicians and newspapers almost
systematically refuse to talk about a new idea, which is not capable of
being at once embodied in a bill, and receiving the royal assent before
the following August. There is something rather contemptible, seen from
the ordinary standards of intellectual integrity, in the position of a
minister who waits to make up his mind whether a given measure, say the
disestablishment of the Irish Church, is in itself and on the merits
desirable, until the official who runs diligently up and down the
backstairs of the party, tells him that the measure is practicable and
required in the interests of the band. On the one hand, a leader is
lavishly panegyrised for his highmindedness, in suffering himself to be
driven into his convictions by his party. On the other, a party is
extolled for its political tact, in suffering itself to be forced out of
its convictions by its leader. It is hard to decide which is the more
discreditable and demoralising sight. The education of chiefs by
followers, and of followers by chiefs, into the abandonment in a month
of the traditions of centuries or the principles of a lifetime may
conduce to the rapid and easy working of the machine. It certainly marks
a triumph of the political spirit which the author of _The Prince_ might
have admired. It is assuredly mortal to habits of intellectual
self-respect in the society which allows itself to be amused by the
cajolery and legerdemain and self-sophistication of its rulers.

Of course there are excellent reasons why a statesman immersed in the
actual conduct of affairs, should confine his attention to the work
which his hands find to do. But the fact that leading statesmen are of
necessity so absorbed in the tasks of the hour furnishes all the better
reason why as many other people as possible should busy themselves in
helping to prepare opinion for the practical application of unfamiliar
but weighty and promising suggestions, by constant and ready discussion
of them upon their merits. As a matter of fact it is not the men most
occupied who are usually most deaf to new ideas. It is the loungers of
politics, the quidnuncs, gossips, bustling idlers, who are most
industrious in stifling discussion by protests against the waste of
time and the loss of force involved in talking about proposals which are
not exactly ready to be voted on. As it is, everybody knows that
questions are inadequately discussed, or often not discussed at all, on
the ground that the time is not yet come for their solution. Then when
some unforeseen perturbation, or the natural course of things, forces on
the time for their resolution, they are settled in a slovenly,
imperfect, and often downright vicious manner, from the fact that
opinion has not been prepared for solving them in an efficient and
perfect manner. The so-called settlement of the question of national
education is the most recent and most deplorable illustration of what
comes of refusing to examine ideas alleged to be impracticable. Perhaps
we may venture to prophesy that the disendowment of the national church
will supply the next illustration on an imposing scale. Gratuitous
primary instruction, and the redistribution of electoral power, are
other matters of signal importance, which comparatively few men will
consent to discuss seriously and patiently, and for our indifference to
which we shall one day surely smart. A judicious and cool writer has
said that 'an opinion gravely professed by a man of sense and education
demands always respectful consideration--demands and actually receives
it from those whose own sense and education give them a correlative
right; and whoever offends against this sort of courtesy may fairly be
deemed to have forfeited the privileges it secures.'[14] That is the
least part of the matter. The serious mischief is the eventual
miscarriage and loss and prodigal waste of good ideas.

The evil of which we have been speaking comes of not seeing the great
truth, that it is worth while to take pains to find out the best way of
doing a given task, even if you have strong grounds for suspecting that
it will ultimately be done in a worse way. And so also in spheres of
thought away from the political sphere, it is worth while 'to scorn
delights and live laborious days' in order to make as sure as we can of
having the best opinion, even if we know that this opinion has an
infinitely small chance of being speedily or ever accepted by the
majority, or by anybody but ourselves. Truth and wisdom have to bide
their time, and then take their chance after all. The most that the
individual can do is to seek them for himself, even if he seek alone.
And if it is the most, it is also the least. Yet in our present mood we
seem not to feel this. We misunderstand the considerations which should
rightly lead us in practice to surrender some of what we desire, in
order to secure the rest; and rightly make us acquiesce in a second-best
course of action, in order to avoid stagnation or retrogression. We
misunderstand all this, and go on to suppose that there are the same
grounds why we should in our own minds acquiesce in second-best
opinions; why we should mix a little alloy of conventional expression

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