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On Compromise by John Morley

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with the too fine ore of conviction; why we should adopt beliefs that we
suspect in our hearts to be of more than equivocal authenticity, but
into whose antecedents we do not greatly care to inquire, because they
stand so well with the general public. This is compromise or economy or
management of the first of the three kinds of which we are talking. It
is economy applied to the formation of opinion; compromise or management
in making up one's mind.

The lawfulness or expediency of it turns mainly, as with the other two
kinds of compromise, upon the relative rights of the majority and the
minority, and upon the respect which is owing from the latter to the
former. It is a very easy thing for people endowed with the fanatical
temperament, or demoralised by the habit of looking at society
exclusively from the juridical point of view, to insist that no respect
at all, except the respect that arises from being too weak to have your
own way, is due from either to the other. This shallow and mischievous
notion rests either on a misinterpretation of the experience of
civilised societies, or else on nothing more creditable than an
arbitrary and unreflecting temper. Those who have thought most carefully
and disinterestedly about the matter, are agreed that in advanced
societies the expedient course is that no portion of the community
should insist on imposing its own will upon any other portion, except in
matters which are vitally connected with the maintenance of the social
union. The question where this vital connection begins is open to much
discussion. The line defining the sphere of legitimate interference may
be drawn variously, whether at self-regarding acts, or in some other
condition and element of conduct. Wherever this line may be best taken,
not only abstract speculation, but the practical and spontaneous tact of
the world, has decided that there are limits, alike in the interest of
majority and minority, to the rights of either to disturb the other. In
other words, it is expedient in certain affairs that the will of the
majority should be absolutely binding, while in affairs of a different
order it should count for nothing, or as nearly nothing, as the sociable
dependence of a man on his fellows will permit.

Our thesis is this. In the positive endeavour to realise an opinion, to
convert a theory into practice, it may be, and very often is, highly
expedient to defer to the prejudices of the majority, to move very
slowly, to bow to the conditions of the _status quo_, to practise the
very utmost sobriety, self-restraint, and conciliatoriness. The mere
expression of opinion, in the next place, the avowal of dissent from
received notions, the refusal to conform to language which implies the
acceptance of such notions,--this rests on a different footing. Here
the reasons for respecting the wishes and sentiments of the majority are
far less strong, though, as we shall presently see, such reasons
certainly exist, and will weigh with all well-considering men. Finally,
in the formation of an opinion as to the abstract preferableness of one
course of action over another, or as to the truth or falsehood or right
significance of a proposition, the fact that the majority of one's
contemporaries lean in the other direction is naught, and no more than
dust in the balance. In making up our minds as to what would be the
wisest line of policy if it were practicable, we have nothing to do with
the circumstance that it is not practicable. And in settling with
ourselves whether propositions purporting to state matters of fact are
trim or not, we have to consider how far they are conformable to the
evidence. We have nothing to do with the comfort and solace which they
would be likely to bring to others or ourselves, if they were taken as

A nominal assent to this truth will be instantly given even by those who
in practice systematically disregard it. The difficulty of transforming
that nominal assent into a reality is enormous in such a community as
ours. Of all societies since the Roman Republic, and not even excepting
the Roman Republic, England has been the most emphatically and
essentially political. She has passed through military phases and
through religious phases, but they have been transitory, and the great
central stream of national life has flowed in political channels. The
political life has been stronger than any other, deeper, wider, more
persistent, more successful. The wars which built up our far-spreading
empire were not waged with designs of military conquest; they were
mostly wars for a market. The great spiritual emancipation of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries figures in our history partly as an
accident, partly as an intrigue, partly as a raid of nobles in search of
spoil. It was hardly until the reformed doctrine became associated with
analogous ideas and corresponding precepts in government, that people
felt at home with it, and became really interested in it.

One great tap-root of our national increase has been the growth of
self-government, or government by deliberative bodies, representing
opposed principles and conflicting interests. With the system of
self-government has grown the habit--not of tolerance precisely, for
Englishmen when in earnest are as little in love with tolerance as
Frenchmen or any other people, but--of giving way to the will of the
majority, so long as they remain a majority. This has come to pass for
the simple reason that, on any other terms, the participation of large
numbers of people in the control and arrangement of public affairs
immediately becomes unworkable. The gradual concentration of power in
the hands of a supreme deliberative body, the active share of so many
thousands of persons in choosing and controlling its members, the close
attention with which the proceedings of parliament are followed and
watched, the kind of dignity that has been lent to parliamentary methods
by the great importance of the transactions, have all tended in the same
direction. They have all helped both to fix our strongest and most
constant interests upon politics, and to ingrain the mental habits
proper to politics, far more deeply than any other, into our general
constitution and inmost character.

Thus the political spirit has grown to be the strongest element in our
national life; the dominant force, extending its influence over all our
ways of thinking in matters that have least to do with politics, or even
nothing at all to do with them. There has thus been engendered among us
the real sense of political responsibility. In a corresponding degree
has been discouraged, what it is the object of the present chapter to
urge, the sense of intellectual responsibility. If it were inevitable
that one of these two should always enfeeble or exclude the other, if
the price of the mental alacrity and open-mindedness of the age of
Pericles must always be paid in the political incompetence of the age of
Demosthenes, it would be hard to settle which quality ought to be most
eagerly encouraged by those who have most to do with the spiritual
direction of a community. No doubt the tone of a long-enduring and
imperial society, such as Rome was, must be conservative, drastic,
positive, hostile to the death to every speculative novelty. But then,
after all, the permanence of Roman power was only valuable to mankind
because it ensured the spread of certain civilising ideas. And these
ideas had originated among people so characteristically devoid of the
sovereign faculty of political coherency as were the Greeks and the
Jews. In the Greeks, it is true, we find not only ideas of the highest
speculative fertility, but actual political institutions. Still we
should hardly point to Greek history for the most favourable examples of
their stable working. Practically and as a matter of history, a society
is seldom at the same time successfully energetic both in temporals and
spirituals; seldom prosperous alike in seeking abstract truth and
nursing the political spirit. There is a decisive preponderance in one
direction or the other, and the equal balance between free and active
thinking, and coherent practical energy in a community, seems too hard
to sustain. The vast military and political strength of Germany, for
instance, did not exist, and was scarcely anticipated in men's minds,
during the time of her most strenuous passion for abstract truth and
deeper learning and new criticism. In France never was political and
national interest so debilitated, so extinct, as it was during the reign
of Lewis the Fifteenth: her intellectual interest was never so vivid,
so fruitful, or so widely felt.

Yet it is at least well, and more than that, it is an indispensable
condition of social wellbeing, that the divorce between political
responsibility and intellectual responsibility, between respect for what
is instantly practicable and search after what is only important in
thought, should not be too complete and universal. Even if there were no
other objection, the undisputed predominance of the political spirit has
a plain tendency to limit the subjects in which the men animated by it
can take a real interest. All matters fall out of sight, or at least
fall into a secondary place, which do not bear more or less directly and
patently upon the material and structural welfare of the community. In
this way the members of the community miss the most bracing, widening,
and elevated of the whole range of influences that create great
characters. First, they lose sincere concern about the larger questions
which the human mind has raised up for itself. Second, they lose a
fearless desire to reach the true answers to them, or if no certain
answers should prove to be within reach, then at any rate to be
satisfied on good grounds that this is so. Such questions are not
immediately discerned by commonplace minds to be of social import.
Consequently they, and all else that is not obviously connected with the
machinery of society, give way in the public consideration to what is so
connected with it, in a manner that cannot be mistaken.

Again, even minds that are not commonplace are affected for the worse by
the same spirit. They are aware of the existence of the great
speculative subjects and of their importance, but the pressure of the
political spirit on such men makes them afraid of the conclusions to
which free inquiry might bring them. Accordingly they abstain from
inquiry, and dread nothing so much as making up their minds. They see
reasons for thinking that, if they applied themselves seriously to the
formation of true opinions in this or that department, they would come
to conclusions which, though likely to make their way in the course of
some centuries, are wholly unpopular now, and which might ruin the
influence of anybody suspected of accepting, or even of so much as
leaning towards, them. Life, they reflect, is short; missionaries do
not pass for a very agreeable class, nor martyrs for a very sensible
class; one can only do a trifling amount of good in the world, at best;
it is moral suicide to throw away any chance of achieving even that
trifle; and therefore it is best not only not to express, but not to
take the trouble to acquire, right views in this quarter or that, and to
draw clear away from such or such a region of thought, for the sake of
keeping peace on earth and superficial good will among men.

It would be too harsh to stigmatise such a train of thought as
self-seeking and hypocritical. It is the natural product of the
political spirit, which is incessantly thinking of present consequences
and the immediately feasible. There is nothing in the mere dread of
losing it, to hinder influence from being well employed, so far as it
goes. But one can hardly overrate the ill consequences of this
particular kind of management, this unspoken bargaining with the little
circle of his fellows which constitutes the world of a man. If he may
retain his place among them as preacher or teacher, he is willing to
forego his birthright of free explanation; he consents to be blind to
the duty which attaches to every intelligent man of having some clear
ideas, even though only provisional ones, upon the greatest subjects of
human interest, and of deliberately preferring these, whatever they may
be, to their opposites. Either an individual or a community is fatally
dwarfed by any such limitation of the field in which one is free to use
his mind. For it is a limitation, not prescribed by absorption in one
set of subjects rather than another, nor by insufficient preparation for
the discussion of certain subjects, nor by indolence nor incuriousness,
but solely by apprehension of the conclusions to which such use of the
mind might bring the too courageous seeker. If there were no other ill
effect, this kind of limitation would at least have the radical
disadvantage of dulling the edge of responsibility, of deadening the
sharp sense of personal answerableness either to a God, or to society,
or to a man's own conscience and intellectual self-respect.

How momentous a disadvantage this is, we can best know by contemplating
the characters which have sometimes lighted up the old times. Men were
then devoutly persuaded that their eternal salvation depended on their
having true beliefs. Any slackness in finding out which beliefs are the
true ones would have to be answered for before the throne of Almighty
God, at the sure risk and peril of everlasting damnation. To what
quarter in the large historic firmament can we turn our eyes with such
certainty of being stirred and elevated, of thinking better of human
life and the worth of those who have been most deeply penetrated by its
seriousness, as to the annals of the intrepid spirits whom the
protestant doctrine of indefeasible personal responsibility brought to
the front in Germany in the sixteenth century, and in England and
Scotland in the seventeenth? It is not their fanaticism, still less is
it their theology, which makes the great Puritan chiefs of England and
the stern Covenanters of Scotland so heroic in our sight. It is the fact
that they sought truth and ensued it, not thinking of the practicable
nor cautiously counting majorities and minorities, but each man
pondering and searching so 'as ever in the great Taskmaster's eye.'

It is no adequate answer to urge that this awful consciousness of a
divine presence and supervision has ceased to be the living fact it once
was. That partly explains, but it certainly does not justify, our
present lassitude. For the ever-wakeful eye of celestial power is not
the only conceivable stimulus to responsibility. To pass from those grim
heroes of protestantism to the French philosophers of the last century
is a wide leap in a hundred respects, yet they too were pricked by the
oestrus of intellectual responsibility. Their doctrine was dismally
insufficient, and sometimes, as the present writer has often pointed
out, it was directly vicious. Their daily lives were surrounded by much
shabbiness and many meannesses. But, after all, no temptation and no
menace, no pains or penalties for thinking about certain subjects, and
no rewards for turning to think about something else, could divert such
men as Voltaire and Diderot from their alert and strenuous search after
such truth as could be vouchsafed to their imperfect lights. A
catastrophe followed, it is true, but the misfortunes which attended it
were due more to the champions of tradition and authority than to the
soldiers of emancipation. Even in the case of the latter, they were due
to an inadequate doctrine, and not at all either to their sense of the
necessity of free speculation and inquiry, or to the intrepidity with
which they obeyed the promptings of that ennobling sense.

Perhaps the latest attempt of a considerable kind to suppress the
political spirit in non-political concerns was the famous movement which
had its birth a generation ago among the gray quadrangles and ancient
gardens of Oxford, 'the sweet city with her dreaming spires,' where
there has ever been so much detachment from the world, alongside of the
coarsest and fiercest hunt after the grosser prizes of the world. No one
has much less sympathy with the direction of the tractarian revival than
the present writer, in whose Oxford days the star of Newman had set, and
the sun of Mill had risen in its stead. And it is needful to distinguish
the fervid and strong spirits with whom the revival began from the
mimics of our later day. No doubt the mere occasion of tractarianism was
political. Its leaders were alarmed at the designs imputed to the newly
reformed parliament of disestablishing the Anglican Church. They asked
themselves the question, which I will put in their own words (_Tract_
i.)--'Should the government of the country so far forget their God as to
cut off the Church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance,
on what will you rest the claims to respect and attention which you make
upon your flock? In answering this question they speedily found
themselves, as might have been expected, at the opposite pole of thought
from things political. The whole strength of their appeal to members of
the Church lay in men's weariness of the high and dry optimism, which
presents the existing order of things as the noblest possible, and the
undisturbed way of the majority as the way of salvation. Apostolical
succession and Sacramentalism may not have been in themselves
progressive ideas. The spirit which welcomed them had at least the
virtue of taking away from Caesar the things that are not Caesar's.

Glaring as were the intellectual faults of the Oxford movement, it was
at any rate a recognition in a very forcible way of the doctrine that
spiritual matters are not to be settled by the dicta of a political
council. It acknowledged that a man is answerable at his own peril for
having found or lost the truth. It was a warning that he must reckon
with a judge who will not account the _status quo_, nor the convenience
of a cabinet, a good plea for indolent acquiescence in theological
error. It ended, in the case of its most vigorous champions, in a final
and deliberate putting out of the eyes of the understanding. The last
act of assertion of personal responsibility was a headlong acceptance of
the responsibility of tradition and the Church. This was deplorable
enough. But apart from other advantages incidental to the tractarian
movement, such as the attention which it was the means of drawing to
history and the organic connection between present and past, it had, we
repeat, the merit of being an effective protest against what may be
called the House of Commons' view of human life--a view excellent in its
place, but most blighting and dwarfing out of it. It was, what every
sincere uprising of the better spirit in men and women must always be,
an effective protest against the leaden tyranny of the man of the world
and the so-called practical person. The man of the world despises
catholics for taking their religious opinions on trust and being the
slaves of tradition. As if he had himself formed his own most important
opinions either in religion or anything else. He laughs at them for
their superstitious awe of the Church. As if his own inward awe of the
Greater Number were one whit less of a superstition. He mocks their
deference for the past. As if his own absorbing deference to the present
were one tittle better bottomed or a jot more respectable. The modern
emancipation will profit us very little if the _status quo_ is to be
fastened round our necks with the despotic authority of a heavenly
dispensation, and if in the stead of ancient Scriptures we are to accept
the plenary inspiration of Majorities.

It may be urged that if, as it is the object of the present chapter to
state, there are opinions which a man should form for himself, and which
it may yet be expedient that he should not only be slow to attempt to
realise in practical life, but sometimes even slow to express,--then we
are demanding from him the performance of a troublesome duty, while we
are taking from him the only motives which could really induce him to
perform it. If, it may be asked, I am not to carry my notions into
practice, nor try to induce others to accept them, nor even boldly
publish them, why in the name of all economy of force should I take so
much pains in forming opinions which are, after all, on these conditions
so very likely to come to naught? The answer to this is that opinions do
not come to naught, even if the man who holds them should never think
fit to publish them. For one thing, as we shall see in our next
division, the conditions which make against frank declaration of our
convictions are of rare occurrence. And, apart from this, convictions
may well exert a most decisive influence over our conduct, even if
reasons exist, or seem to exist, for not pressing them on others. Though
themselves invisible to the outer world, they may yet operate with
magnetic force both upon other parts of our belief which the outer world
does see, and upon the whole of our dealings with it. Whether we are
good or bad, it is only a broken and incoherent fragment of our whole
personality that even those who are intimate with us, much less the
common world, can ever come into contact with. The important thing is
that the personality itself should be as little as possible broken,
incoherent, and fragmentary; that reasoned and consistent opinions
should back a firm will, and independent convictions inspire the
intellectual self-respect and strenuous self-possession which the
clamour of majorities and the silent yet ever-pressing force of the
_status quo_ are equally powerless to shake.

Character is doubtless of far more importance than mere intellectual
opinion. We only too often see highly rationalised convictions in
persons of weak purpose or low motives. But while fully recognising
this, and the sort of possible reality which lies at the root of such a
phrase as 'godless intellect' or 'intellectual devils'--though the
phrase has no reality when it is used by self-seeking politicians or
prelates--yet it is well to remember the very obvious truth that
opinions are at least an extremely important part of character. As it is
sometimes put, what we think has a prodigiously close connection with
what we are. The consciousness of having reflected seriously and
conclusively on important questions, whether social or spiritual,
augments dignity while it does not lessen humility. In this sense,
taking thought can and does add a cubit to our stature. Opinions which
we may not feel bound or even permitted to press on other people, are
not the less forces for being latent. They shape ideals, and it is
ideals that inspire conduct. They do this, though from afar, and though
he who possesses them may not presume to take the world into his
confidence. Finally, unless a man follows out ideas to their full
conclusion without fear what the conclusion may be, whether he thinks it
expedient to make his thought and its goal fully known or not, it is
impossible that he should acquire a commanding grasp of principles. And
a commanding grasp of principles, whether they are public or not, is at
the very root of coherency of character. It raises mediocrity near to a
level with the highest talents, if those talents are in company with a
disposition that allows the little prudences of the hour incessantly to
obscure the persistent laws of things. These persistencies, if a man
has once satisfied himself of their direction and mastered their
bearings and application, are just as cogent and valuable a guide to
conduct, whether he publishes them _ad urbem et orbem_, or esteems them
too strong meat for people who have, through indurated use and wont,
lost the courage of facing unexpected truths.

One conspicuous result of the failure to see that our opinions have
roots to them, independently of the feelings which either majorities or
other portions of the people around us may entertain about them, is that
neither political matters nor any other serious branches of opinion,
engage us in their loftiest or most deep-reaching forms. The advocate of
a given theory of government or society is so misled by a wrong
understanding of the practice of just and wise compromise in applying
it, as to forget the noblest and most inspiring shape which his theory
can be made to assume. It is the worst of political blunders to insist
on carrying an ideal set of principles into execution, where others have
rights of dissent, and those others persons whose assent is as
indispensable to success, as it is impossible to attain. But to be
afraid or ashamed of holding such an ideal set of principles in one's
mind in their highest and most abstract expression, does more than any
one other cause to stunt or petrify those elements in character to which
life should owe most of its savour.

If a man happens to be a Conservative, for instance, it is pitiful that
he should think so much more of what other people on his side or the
other think, than of the widest and highest of the ideas on which a
conservative philosophy of life and human society reposes. Such ideas
are these,--that the social union is the express creation and ordering
of the Deity: that its movements follow his mysterious and fixed
dispensation: that the church and the state are convertible terms, and
each citizen of the latter is an incorporated member of the former: that
conscience, if perversely and misguidedly self-asserting, has no rights
against the decrees of the conscience of the nation: that it is the most
detestable of crimes to perturb the pacific order of society either by
active agitation or speculative restlessness; that descent from a long
line of ancestors in great station adds an element of dignity to life,
and imposes many high obligations. We do not say that these and the
rest of the propositions which make up the true theoretic basis of a
conservative creed, are proper for the hustings, or expedient in an
election address or a speech in parliament. We do say that if these high
and not unintelligible principles, which alone can give to reactionary
professions any worth or significance, were present in the minds of men
who speak reactionary language, the country would be spared the ignominy
of seeing certain real truths of society degraded at the hands of
aristocratic adventurers and plutocratic parasites into some miserable
process of 'dishing Whigs.'

This impoverishment of aims and depravation of principles by the triumph
of the political spirit outside of its proper sphere, cannot
unfortunately be restricted to any one set of people in the state. It is
something in the very atmosphere, which no sanitary cordon can limit.
Liberalism, too, would be something more generous, more attractive--yes,
and more practically effective, if its professors and champions could
allow their sense of what is feasible to be refreshed and widened by a
more free recognition, however private and undemonstrative, of the
theoretic ideas which give their social creed whatever life and
consistency it may have. Such ideas are these: That the conditions of
the social union are not a mystery, only to be touched by miracle, but
the results of explicable causes, and susceptible of constant
modification: that the thoughts of wise and patriotic men should be
perpetually turned towards the improvement of these conditions in every
direction: that contented acquiescence in the ordering that has come
down to us from the past is selfish and anti-social, because amid the
ceaseless change that is inevitable in a growing organism, the
institutions of the past demand progressive re-adaptations: that such
improvements are most likely to be secured in the greatest abundance by
limiting the sphere of authority, extending that of free individuality,
and steadily striving after the bestowal, so far as the nature of things
will ever permit it, of equality of opportunity: that while there is
dignity in ancestry, a modern society is only safe in proportion as it
summons capacity to its public counsels and enterprises; that such a
society to endure must progress: that progress on its political side
means more than anything else the substitution of Justice as a governing
idea, instead of Privilege, and that the best guarantee for justice in
public dealings is the participation in their own government of the
people most likely to suffer from injustice. This is not an exhaustive
account of the progressive doctrine, and we have here nothing to say as
to its soundness. We only submit that if those who use the watchwords of
Liberalism were to return upon its principles, instead of dwelling
exclusively on practical compromises, the tone of public life would be
immeasurably raised. The cause of social improvement would be less
systematically balked of the victories that are best worth gaining.
Progress would mean something more than mere entrances and exits on the
theatre of office. We should not see in the mass of parliamentary
candidates--and they are important people, because nearly every
Englishman with any ambition is a parliamentary candidate, actual or
potential--that grave anxiety, that sober rigour, that immense caution,
which are all so really laughable, because so many of those men are only
anxious lest they should make a mistake in finding out what the
majority of their constituents would like them to think; only rigorous
against those who are indiscreet enough to press a principle against the
beck of a whip or a wire-puller; and only very cautious not so much lest
their opinion should be wrong, as lest it should not pay.

Indolence and timidity have united to popularise among us a flaccid
latitudinarianism, which thinks itself a benign tolerance for the
opinions of others. It is in truth only a pretentious form of being
without settled opinions of our own, and without any desire to settle
them. No one can complain of the want of speculative activity at the
present time in a certain way. The air, at a certain social elevation,
is as full as it has ever been of ideas, theories, problems, possible
solutions, suggested questions, and proffered answers. But then they are
at large, without cohesion, and very apt to be the objects even in the
more instructed minds of not much more than dilettante interest. We see
in solution an immense number of notions, which people think it quite
unnecessary to precipitate in the form of convictions. We constantly
hear the age lauded for its tolerance, for its candour, for its openness
of mind, for the readiness with which a hearing is given to ideas that
forty years ago, or even less than that, would have excluded persons
suspected of holding them from decent society, and in fact did so
exclude them. Before, however, we congratulate ourselves too warmly on
this, let us be quite sure that we are not mistaking for tolerance what
is really nothing more creditable than indifference. These two attitudes
of mind, which are so vitally unlike in their real quality, are so hard
to distinguish in their outer seeming.

One is led to suspect that carelessness is the right name for what looks
like reasoned toleration, by such a line of consideration as the
following. It is justly said that at the bottom of all the great
discussions of modern society lie the two momentous questions, first
whether there is a God, and second whether the soul is immortal. In
other words, whether our fellow-creatures are the highest beings who
take an interest in us, or in whom we need take an interest; and, then,
whether life in this world is the only life of which we shall ever be
conscious. It is true of most people that when they are talking of
evolution, and the origin of species, and the experiential or
intuitional source of ideas, and the utilitarian or transcendental basis
of moral obligation, these are the questions which they really have in
their minds. Now, in spite of the scientific activity of the day, nobody
is likely to contend that men are pressed keenly in their souls by any
poignant stress of spiritual tribulation in the face of the two supreme
enigmas. Nobody will say that there is much of that striving and
wrestling and bitter agonising, which whole societies of men have felt
before now on questions of far less tremendous import. Ours, as has been
truly said, is 'a time of loud disputes and weak convictions,' In a
generation deeply impressed by a sense of intellectual responsibility
this could not be. As it is, even superior men are better pleased to
play about the height of these great arguments, to fly in busy
intellectual sport from side to side, from aspect to aspect, than they
are intent on resolving what it is, after all, that the discussion comes
to and to which solution, when everything has been said and heard, the
balance of truth really to incline. There are too many giggling
epigrams; people are too willing to look on collections of mutually
hostile opinions with the same kind of curiosity which they bestow on a
collection of mutually hostile beasts in a menagerie. They have very
faint predilections for one rather than another. If they were truly
alive to the duty of conclusiveness, or to the inexpressible magnitude
of the subjects which nominally occupy their minds, but really only
exercise their tongues, this elegant Pyrrhonism would be impossible, and
this light-hearted neutrality most unendurable.

Well has the illustrious Pascal said with reference to one of the two
great issues of the modern controversy:--'The immortality of the soul is
a thing that concerns us so closely and touches us so profoundly, that
one must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing how the
matter is. All our actions and all our thoughts must follow such
different paths, according as there are eternal goods to hope for or are
not, that it is impossible to take a step with sense and judgment,
without regulating it in view of this point, which ought to be our first
object.... I can have nothing but compassion for those who groan and
travail in this doubt with all sincerity, who look on it as the worst of
misfortunes, and who, sparing no pains to escape from it, make of this
search their chief and most serious employment.... But he who doubts and
searches not is at the same time a grievous wrongdoer, and a grievously
unfortunate man. If along with this he is tranquil and self-satisfied,
if he publishes his contentment to the world and plumes himself upon it,
and if it is this very state of doubt which he makes the subject of his
joy and vanity--I have no terms in which to describe so extravagant a
creature.'[15] Who, except a member of the school of extravagant
creatures themselves, would deny that Pascal's irritation is most
wholesome and righteous?

Perhaps in reply to this, we may be confronted by our own doctrine of
intellectual responsibility interpreted in a directly opposite sense. We
may be reminded of the long array of difficulties that interfere between
us and knowledge in that tremendous matter, and of objections that rise
in such perplexing force to an answer either one way or the other. And
finally we may be despatched with a eulogy of caution and a censure of
too great heat after certainty. The answer is that there is a kind of
Doubt not without search, but after and at the end of search, which is
not open to Pascal's just reproaches against the more ignoble and
frivolous kind. And this too has been described for us by a subtle
doctor of Pascal's communion. 'Are there pleasures of Doubt, as well as
of Inference and Assent? In one sense there are. Not indeed if doubt
means ignorance, uncertainty, or hopeless suspense; but there is a
certain grave acquiescence in ignorance, a recognition of our impotence
to solve momentous and urgent questions, which has a satisfaction of its
own. After high aspirations, after renewed endeavours, after bootless
toil, after long wanderings, after hope, effort, weariness, failure,
painfully alternating and recurring, it is an immense relief to the
exhausted mind to be able to say, "At length I know that I can know
nothing about anything." ... Ignorance remains the evil which it ever
was, but something of the peace of certitude is gained in knowing the
worst, and in having reconciled the mind to the endurance of it.'[16]
Precisely, and what one would say of our own age is that it will not
deliberately face this knowledge of the worst. So it misses the peace of
certitude, and not only its peace, but the strength and coherency that
follow strict acceptance of the worst, when the worst is after all the
best within reach.

Those who are in earnest when they blame too great haste after
certainty, do in reality mean us to embrace certainty, but in favour of
the vulgar opinions. They only see the prodigious difficulties of the
controversy when you do not incline to their own side in it. They only
panegyrise caution and the strictly provisional when they suspect that
intrepidity and love of the conclusive would lead them to unwelcome
shores. These persons, however, whether fortunately or unfortunately,
have no longer much influence over the most active part of the national
intelligence. Whether permanently or not, resolute orthodoxy, however
prosperous it may seem among many of the uncultivated rich, has lost its
hold upon thought. For thought has become dispersive, and the
centrifugal forces of the human mind, among those who think seriously,
have for the time become dominant and supreme. No one, I suppose,
imagines that the singular ecclesiastical revival which is now going on,
is accompanied by any revival of real and reasoned belief; or that the
opulent manufacturers who subscribe so generously for restored cathedral
fabrics and the like, have been moved by the apologetics of _Aids to
Faith_ and the Christian Evidence Society.

Obviously only three ways of dealing with the great problems of which we
have spoken are compatible with a strong and well-bottomed character. We
may affirm that there is a deity with definable attributes; and that
there is a conscious state and continued personality after the
dissolution of the body. Or we may deny. Or we may assure ourselves that
we have no faculties enabling us on good evidence either to deny or
affirm. Intellectual self-respect and all the qualities that are derived
from that, may well go with any one of these three courses, decisively
followed and consistently applied in framing a rule of life and a
settled scheme of its aims and motives. Why do we say that intellectual
self-respect is not vigorous, nor the sense of intellectual
responsibility and truthfulness and coherency quick and wakeful among
us? Because so many people, even among those who might be expected to
know better, insist on the futile attempt to reconcile all those
courses, instead of fixing on one and steadily abiding in it. They speak
as if they affirmed, and they act as if they denied, and in their hearts
they cherish a slovenly sort of suspicion that we can neither deny nor
affirm. It may be said that this comes to much the same thing as if they
had formally decided in the last or neutral sense. It is not so. This
illegitimate union of three contradictories fritters character away,
breaks it up into discordant parts, and dissolves into mercurial
fluidity that leavening sincerity and free and cheerful boldness, which
come of harmonious principles of faith and action, and without which men
can never walk as confident lovers of justice and truth.

Ambrose's famous saying, that 'it hath not pleased the Lord to give his
people salvation in dialectic,' has a profound meaning far beyond its
application to theology. It is deeply true that our ruling convictions
are less the product of ratiocination than of sympathy, imagination,
usage, tradition. But from this it does not follow that the reasoning
faculties are to be further discouraged. On the contrary, just because
the other elements are so strong that they can be trusted to take care
of themselves, it is expedient to give special countenance to the
intellectual habits, which alone can check and rectify the constantly
aberrating tendencies of sentiment on the one side, and custom on the
other. This remark brings us to another type, of whom it is not
irrelevant to speak shortly in this place. The consequences of the
strength of the political spirit are not all direct, nor does its
strength by any means spring solely from its indulgence to the less
respectable elements of character, such as languor, extreme pliableness,
superficiality. On the contrary, it has an indirect influence in
removing the only effective restraint on the excesses of some qualities
which, when duly directed and limited, are among the most precious parts
of our mental constitution. The political spirit is the great force in
throwing love of truth and accurate reasoning into a secondary place.
The evil does not stop here. This achievement has indirectly
countenanced the postponement of intellectual methods, and the
diminution of the sense of intellectual responsibility, by a school that
is anything rather than political.

Theology has borrowed, and coloured for her own use, the principles
which were first brought into vogue in politics. If in the one field it
is the fashion to consider convenience first and truth second, in the
other there is a corresponding fashion of placing truth second and
emotional comfort first. If there are some who compromise their real
opinions, or the chance of reaching truth, for the sake of gain, there
are far more who shrink from giving their intelligence free play, for
the sake of keeping undisturbed certain luxurious spiritual
sensibilities. This choice of emotional gratification before truth and
upright dealing with one's own understanding, creates a character that
is certainly far less unlovely than those who sacrifice their
intellectual integrity to more material convenience. The moral flaw is
less palpable and less gross. Yet here too there is the stain of
intellectual improbity, and it is perhaps all the more mischievous for
being partly hidden under the mien of spiritual exaltation.

There is in literature no more seductive illustration of this seductive
type than Rousseau's renowned character of the Savoyard
Vicar--penetrated with scepticism as to the attributes of the deity, the
meaning of the holy rites, the authenticity of the sacred documents; yet
full of reverence, and ever respecting in silence what he could neither
reject nor understand. 'The essential worship,' he says, 'is the worship
of the heart. God never rejects this homage, under whatever form it be
offered to him. In old days I used to say mass with the levity which in
time infects even the gravest things when we do them too often. Since
acquiring my new principles [of reverential scepticism] I celebrate it
with more veneration: I am overcome by the majesty of the Supreme Being,
by his presence, by the insufficiency of the human mind, which conceives
so ill what pertains to its author. When I approach the moment of
consecration, I collect myself for performing the act with all the
feelings required by the church and the majesty of the sacrament. I
strive to annihilate my reason before the Supreme Intelligence, saying,
Who art thou that thou shouldst measure infinite power?'[17]

The Savoyard Vicar is not imaginary. The acquiescence in indefinite
ideas for the sake of comforted emotions, and the abnegation of strong
convictions in order to make room for free and plenteous effusion, have
for us all the marks of a too familiar reality. Such a doctrine is an
everyday plea for self-deception, and a current justification for
illusion even among some of the finer spirits. They have persuaded
themselves not only that the life of the religious emotions is the
highest life, but that it is independent of the intellectual forms with
which history happens to have associated it. And so they refine and
sophisticate and make havoc with plain and honest interpretation, in
order to preserve a soft serenity of soul unperturbed.

Now, we are not at all concerned to dispute such positions as that
Feeling is the right starting-point of moral education; that in forming
character appeal should be to the heart rather than to the
understanding; that the only basis on which our faculties can be
harmoniously ordered is the preponderance of affection over reason.
These propositions open much grave and complex discussion, and they are
not to our present purpose. We only desire to state the evil of the
notion that a man is warranted in comforting himself with dogmas and
formularies, which he has first to empty of all definite, precise, and
clearly determinable significance, before he can get them out of the way
of his religious sensibilities. Whether Reason or Affection is to have
the empire in the society of the future, when Reason may possibly have
no more to discover for us in the region of morals and religion, and so
will have become _emeritus_ and taken a lower place, as of a tutor whose
services the human family, being now grown up, no longer
requires,--however this may be, it is at least certain that in the
meantime the spiritual life of man needs direction quite as much as it
needs impulse, and light quite as much as force. This direction and
light can only be safely procured by the free and vigorous use of the
intelligence. But the intelligence is not free in the presence of a
mortal fear lest its conclusions should trouble soft tranquillity of
spirit. There is always hope of a man so long as he dwells in the region
of the direct categorical proposition and the unambiguous term; so long
as he does not deny the rightly drawn conclusion after accepting the
major and minor premisses. This may seem a scanty virtue and very easy
grace. Yet experience shows it to be too hard of attainment for those
who tamper with disinterestedness of conviction, for the sake of
luxuriating in the softness of spiritual transport without interruption
from a syllogism. It is true that there are now and then in life as in
history noble and fair natures, that by the silent teaching and
unconscious example of their inborn purity, star-like constancy, and
great devotion, do carry the world about them to further heights of
living than can be attained by ratiocination. But these, the blameless
and loved saints of the earth, rise too rarely on our dull horizons to
make a rule for the world. The law of things is that they who tamper
with veracity, from whatever motive, are tampering with the vital force
of human progress. Our comfort and the delight of the religious
imagination are no better than forms of self-indulgence, when they are
secured at the cost of that love of truth on which, more than on
anything else, the increase of light and happiness among men must
depend. We have to fight and do lifelong battle against the forces of
darkness, and anything that turns the edge of reason blunts the surest
and most potent of our weapons.


[Footnote 13: Burton's _Lift of Hume,_ ii. 186-188]

[Footnote 14: Isaac Taylor's _Natural History of Enthusiasm_, p. 226.]

[Footnote 15: _Pensees_, II. Art ii.]

[Footnote 16: Dr. Newman's _Grammar of Assent_, p. 201.]

[Footnote 17: _Emile_, bk. iv.]



The main field of discussion touching Compromise in expression and
avowal lies in the region of religious belief. In politics no one
seriously contends that respect for the feelings and prejudices of other
people requires us to be silent about our opinions. A republican, for
instance, is at perfect liberty to declare himself so. Nobody will say
that he is not within his rights if he should think it worth while to
practise this liberty, though of course he will have to face the obloquy
which attends all opinion that is not shared by the more demonstrative
and vocal portions of the public. It is true that in every stable
society a general conviction prevails of the extreme undesirableness of
constantly laying bare the foundations of government. Incessant
discussion of the theoretical bases of the social union is naturally
considered worse than idle. It is felt by many wise men that the chief
business of the political thinker is to interest himself in
generalisations of such a sort as leads with tolerable straightness to
practical improvements of a far-reaching and durable kind. Even among
those, however, who thus feel it not to be worth while to be for ever
handling the abstract principles which are, after all, only clumsy
expressions of the real conditions that bring and keep men together in
society, yet nobody of any consideration pretends to silence or limit
the free discussion of these principles. Although a man is not likely to
be thanked who calls attention to the vast discrepancies between the
theory and practice of the constitution, yet nobody now would
countenance the notion of an inner doctrine in politics. We smile at the
line that Hume took in speaking of the doctrine of non-resistance. He
did not deny that the right of resistance to a tyrannical sovereign does
actually belong to a nation. But, he said, 'if ever on any occasion it
were laudable to conceal truth from the populace, it must be confessed
that the doctrine of resistance affords such an example; and that all
speculative reasoners ought to observe with regard to this principle
the same cautious silence which the laws, in every species of
government, have ever prescribed to themselves.' As if the cautious
silence of the political writer could prevent a populace from feeling
the heaviness of an oppressor's hand, and striving to find relief from
unjust burdens. As if any nation endowed with enough of the spirit of
independence to assent to the right of resistance when offered to them
as a speculative theorem, would not infallibly be led by the same spirit
to assert the right without the speculative theorem. That so acute a
head as Hume's should have failed to perceive these very plain
considerations, and that he should moreover have perpetrated the
absurdity of declaring the right of resistance, in the same breath in
which he declares the laudableness of keeping it a secret, only allows
how carefully a man need steer after he has once involved himself in the
labyrinths of Economy.[18]

In religion the unreasonableness of imposing a similar cautious silence
is not yet fully established, nor the vicious effects of practising it
clearly recognised. In these high matters an amount of economy and
management is held praiseworthy, which in any other subject would be
universally condemned as cowardly and ignoble. Indeed the preliminary
stage has scarcely been reached--the stage in which public opinion
grants to every one the unrestricted right of shaping his own beliefs,
independently of those of the people who surround him. Any woman, for
instance, suspected of having cast behind her the Bible and all
practices of devotion and the elementary articles of the common creed,
would be distrustfully regarded even by those who wink at the same kind
of mental boldness in men. Nay, she would be so regarded even by some of
the very men who have themselves discarded as superstition what they
still wish women to retain for law and gospel. So long as any class of
adults are effectually discouraged in the free use of their minds upon
the most important subjects, we are warranted in saying that the era of
free thought, which naturally precedes the era of free speech, is still
imperfectly developed.

The duties and rights of free speech are by no means identical with
those of independent thought. One general reason for this is tolerably
plain. The expression of opinion directly affects other people, while
its mere formation directly affects no one but ourselves. Therefore the
limits of compromise in expression are less widely and freely placed,
because the rights and interests of all who may be made listeners to our
spoken or written words are immediately concerned. In forming opinions,
a man or woman owes no consideration to any person or persons whatever.
Truth is the single object. It is truth that in the forum of conscience
claims an undivided allegiance. The publication of opinion stands on
another footing. That is an external act, with possible consequences,
like all other external acts, both to the doer and to every one within
the sphere of his influence. And, besides these, it has possible
consequences to the prosperity of the opinion itself.[19]

A hundred questions of fitness, of seasonableness, of conflicting
expediencies, present themselves in this connection, and nothing gives
more anxiety to a sensible man who holds notions opposed to the current
prejudices, than to hit the right mark where intellectual integrity and
prudence, firmness and wise reserve, are in exact accord. When we come
to declaring opinions that are, however foolishly and unreasonably,
associated with pain and even a kind of turpitude in the minds of those
who strongly object to them, then some of our most powerful sympathies
are naturally engaged. We wonder whether duty to truth can possibly
require us to inflict keen distress on those to whom we are bound by the
tenderest and most consecrated ties. This is so wholly honourable a
sentiment, that no one who has not made himself drunk with the thin sour
wine of a crude and absolute logic will refuse to consider it. Before,
however, attempting to illustrate cases of conscience in this order, we
venture to make a short digression into the region of the matter, as
distinct from the manner of free speech. One or two changes of great
importance in the way in which men think about religion, bear directly
upon the conditions on which they may permit themselves and others to
speak about it.

The peculiar character of all the best kinds of dissent from the nominal
creed of the time, makes it rather less difficult for us to try to
reconcile unflinching honesty with a just and becoming regard for the
feelings of those who have claims upon our forbearance, than would have
been the case a hundred years ago. 'It is not now with a polite sneer,'
as a high ecclesiastical authority lately admitted, 'still less with a
rude buffet or coarse words, that Christianity is assailed.' Before
churchmen congratulate themselves too warmly on this improvement in the
nature of the attack, perhaps they ought to ask themselves how far it is
due to the change in the position of the defending party. The truth is
that the coarse and realistic criticism of which Voltaire was the
consummate master, has done its work. It has driven the defenders of the
old faith into the milder and more genial climate of non-natural
interpretations, and the historic sense, and a certain elastic
relativity of dogma. The old criticism was victorious, but after victory
it vanished. One reason of this was that the coarse and realistic forms
of belief had either vanished before it, or else they forsook their
ancient pretensions and clothed themselves in more modest robes. The
consequence of this, and of other causes which might be named, is that
the modern attack, while fully as serious and much more radical, has a
certain gravity, decorum, and worthiness of form. No one of any sense or
knowledge now thinks the Christian religion had its origin in
deliberate imposture. The modern freethinker does not attack it; he
explains it. And what is more, he explains it by referring its growth to
the better, and not to the worse part of human nature. He traces it to
men's cravings for a higher morality. He finds its source in their
aspirations after nobler expression of that feeling for the
incommensurable things, which is in truth under so many varieties of
inwoven pattern the common universal web of religious faith.

The result of this way of looking at a creed which a man no longer
accepts, is that he is able to speak of it with patience and historic
respect. He can openly mark his dissent from it, without exacerbating
the orthodox sentiment by galling pleasantries or bitter animadversion
upon details. We are now awake to the all-important truth that belief in
this or that detail of superstition is the result of an irrational state
of mind, and flows logically from superstitious premisses. We see that
it is to begin at the wrong end, to assail the deductions as impossible,
instead of sedulously building up a state of mind in which their
impossibility would become spontaneously visible.

Besides the great change which such a point of view makes in men's way
of speaking of a religion, whose dogmas and documents they reject, there
is this further consideration leaning in the same direction. The
tendency of modern free thought is more and more visibly towards the
extraction of the first and more permanent elements of the old faith, to
make the purified material of the new. When Dr. Congreve met the famous
epigram about Comte's system being Catholicism minus Christianity, by
the reply that it is Catholicism plus Science, he gave an ingenious
expression to the direction which is almost necessarily taken by all who
attempt, in however informal a manner, to construct for themselves some
working system of faith, in place of the faith which science and
criticism have sapped. In what ultimate form, acceptable to great
multitudes of men, these attempts will at last issue, no one can now
tell. For we, like the Hebrews of old, shall all have to live and die in
faith, 'not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off,
and being persuaded of them, and embracing them, and confessing that we
are strangers and pilgrims on the earth.' Meanwhile, after the first
great glow and passion of the just and necessary revolt of reason
against superstition have slowly lost the exciting splendour of the
dawn, and become diffused in the colourless space of a rather bleak
noonday, the mind gradually collects again some of the ideas of the old
religion of the West, and willingly, or even joyfully, suffers itself to
be once more breathed upon by something of its spirit. Christianity was
the last great religious synthesis. It is the one nearest to us. Nothing
is more natural than that those who cannot rest content with
intellectual analysis, while awaiting the advent of the Saint Paul of
the humanitarian faith of the future, should gather up provisionally
such fragmentary illustrations of this new faith as are to be found in
the records of the old. Whatever form may be ultimately imposed on our
vague religious aspirations by some prophet to come, who shall unite
sublime depth of feeling and lofty purity of life with strong
intellectual grasp and the gift of a noble eloquence, we may at least be
sure of this, that it will stand as closely related to Christianity as
Christianity stood closely related to the old Judaic dispensation. It is
commonly assumed that the rejecters of the popular religion stand in
face of it, as the Christians stood in face of the pagan belief and
pagan rites in the Empire. The analogy is inexact. The modern denier, if
he is anything better than that, or entertains hopes of a creed to come,
is nearer to the position of the Christianising Jew.[20] Science, when
she has accomplished all her triumphs in her own order, will still have
to go back, when the time comes, to assist in the building up of a new
creed by which men can live. The builders will have to seek material in
the purified and sublimated ideas, of which the confessions and rites of
the Christian churches have been the grosser expression. Just as what
was once the new dispensation was preached _a Judaeos ad Judaeos apud
Judaeos_, so must the new, that is to be, find a Christian teacher and
Christian hearers. It can hardly be other than an expansion, a
development, a readaptation, of all the moral and spiritual truth that
lay hidden under the worn-out forms. It must be such a harmonising of
the truth with our intellectual conceptions as shall fit it to be an
active guide to conduct. In a world '_where men sit and hear each other
groan, where but to think is to be full of sorrow_,' it is hard to
imagine a time when we shall be indifferent to that sovereign legend of
Pity. We have to incorporate it in some wider gospel of Justice and

I shall not, I hope, be suspected of any desire to prophesy too smooth
things. It is no object of ours to bridge over the gulf between belief
in the vulgar theology and disbelief. Nor for a single moment do we
pretend that, when all the points of contact between virtuous belief and
virtuous disbelief are made the most of that good faith will allow,
there will not still and after all remain a terrible controversy between
those who cling passionately to all the consolations, mysteries,
personalities, of the orthodox faith, and us who have made up our minds
to face the worst, and to shape, as best we can, a life in which the
cardinal verities of the common creed shall have no place. The future
faith, like the faith of the past, brings not peace but a sword. It is a
tale not of concord, but of households divided against themselves. Those
who are incessantly striving to make the old bottles hold the new wine,
to reconcile the irreconcilable, to bring the Bible and the dogmas of
the churches to be good friends with history and criticism, are prompted
by the humanest intention.[21] One sympathises with this amiable anxiety
to soften shocks, and break the rudeness of a vital transition. In this
essay, at any rate, there is no such attempt. We know that it is the son
against the father, and the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law.
No softness of speech will disguise the portentous differences between
those who admit a supernatural revelation and those who deny it. No
charity nor goodwill can narrow the intellectual breach between those
who declare that a world without an ever-present Creator with
intelligible attributes would be to them empty and void, and those who
insist that none of the attributes of a Creator can ever be grasped by
the finite intelligence of men.[22] Our object in urging the historic,
semi-conservative, and almost sympathetic quality, which distinguishes
the unbelief of to-day from the unbelief of a hundred years ago, is only
to show that the most strenuous and upright of plain-speakers is less
likely to shock and wound the lawful sensibilities of devout persons
than he would have been so long as unbelief went no further than bitter
attack on small details. In short, all save the purely negative and
purely destructive school of freethinkers, are now able to deal with
the beliefs from which they dissent, in a way which makes patient and
disinterested controversy not wholly impossible.

One more point of much importance ought to be mentioned. The belief that
heresy is the result of wilful depravity is fast dying out. People no
longer seriously think that speculative error is bound up with moral
iniquity, or that mistaken thinking is either the result or the cause of
wicked living. Even the official mouthpieces of established beliefs now
usually represent a bad heart as only one among other possible causes of
unbelief. It divides the curse with ignorance, intellectual shallowness,
the unfortunate influence of plausible heresiarchs, and other
alternative roots of evil. They thus leave a way of escape, by which the
person who does not share their own convictions may still be credited
with a good moral character. Some persons, it is true, 'cannot see how a
man who deliberately rejects the Roman Catholic religion can, in the
eyes of those who earnestly believe it, be other than a rebel against
God.' They assure us that, 'as opinions become better marked and more
distinctly connected with action, the truth that decided dissent from
them implies more or less of a reproach upon those who hold them
decidedly, becomes so obvious that every one perceives it.' No doubt a
protestant or a sceptic regards the beliefs of a catholic as a reproach
upon the believer's understanding. So the man whose whole faith rests on
the miraculous and on acts of special intervention, regards the strictly
positive and scientific thinker as the dupe of a crude and narrow logic.
But this now carries with it no implication of moral obliquity. De
Maistre's rather grotesque conviction that infidels always die of
horrible diseases with special names, could now only be held among the
very dregs of the ecclesiastical world.

Nor is it correct to say that 'when religious differences come to be,
and are regarded as, mere differences of opinion, it is because the
controversy is really decided in the sceptical sense.' Those who agree
with the present writer, for example, are not sceptics. They positively,
absolutely, and without reserve, reject as false the whole system of
objective propositions which make up the popular belief of the day, in
one and all of its theological expressions. They look upon that system
as mischievous in its consequences to society, for many reasons,--among
others because it tends to divert and misdirect the most energetic
faculties of human nature. This, however, does not make them suspect the
motives or the habitual morality of those who remain in the creed in
which they were nurtured. The difference is a difference of opinion, as
purely as if we refused to accept the undulatory theory of light; and we
treat it as such. Then reverse this. Why is it any more impossible for
those who remain in the theological stage, who are not in the smallest
degree sceptical, who in their heart of hearts embrace without a shadow
of misgiving all the mysteries of the faith, why is it any more
impossible for them than for us, whose convictions are as strong as
theirs, to treat the most radical dissidence as that and nothing other
or worse? Logically, it perhaps might not be hard to convict them of
inconsistency, but then, as has been so often said, inconsistency is a
totally different thing from insincerity, or doubting adherence, or
silent scepticism. The beliefs of an ordinary man are a complex
structure of very subtle materials, all compacted into a whole, not by
logic, but by lack of logic; not by syllogism or sorites, but by the

As a plain matter of fact and observation, we may all perceive that
dissent from religious opinion less and less implies reproach in any
serious sense. We all of us know in the flesh liberal catholics and
latitudinarian protestants, who hold the very considerable number of
beliefs that remain to them, quite as firmly and undoubtingly as
believers who are neither liberal nor latitudinarian. The compatibility
of error in faith with virtue in conduct is to them only a mystery the
more, a branch of the insoluble problem of Evil, permitted by a Being at
once all-powerful and all-benevolent. Stringent logic may make short
work of either fact,--a benevolent author of evil, or a virtuous
despiser of divine truth. But in an atmosphere of mystery, logical
contradictions melt away. Faith gives a sanction to that tolerant and
charitable judgment of the character of heretics, which has its real
springs partly in common human sympathy whereby we are all bound to one
another, and partly in experience, which teaches us that practical
righteousness and speculative orthodoxy do not always have their roots
in the same soil. The world is every day growing larger. The range of
the facts of the human race is being enormously extended by naturalists,
by historians, by philologists, by travellers, by critics. The manifold
past experiences of humanity are daily opening out to us in vaster and
at the same time more ordered proportions. And so even those who hold
fast to Christianity as the noblest, strongest, and only final
conclusion of these experiences, are yet constrained to admit that it is
no more than a single term in a very long and intricate series.

The object of the foregoing digression is to show some cause for
thinking that dissent from the current beliefs is less and less likely
to inflict upon those who retain them any very intolerable kind or
degree of mental pain. Therefore it is in so far all the plainer, as
well as easier, a duty not to conceal such dissent. What we have been
saying comes to this. If a believer finds that his son, for instance,
has ceased to believe, he no longer has this disbelief thrust upon him
in gross and irreverent forms. Nor does he any longer suppose that the
unbelieving son must necessarily be a profligate. And moreover, in
ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, he no longer supposes that infidels,
of his own family or acquaintance at any rate, will consume for eternal
ages in lakes of burning marl.

Let us add another consideration. One reason why so many persons are
really shocked and pained by the avowal of heretical opinions is the
very fact that such avowal is uncommon. If unbelievers and doubters were
more courageous, believers would be less timorous. It is because they
live in an enervating fool's paradise of seeming assent and conformity,
that the breath of an honest and outspoken word strikes so eager and
nipping on their sensibilities. If they were not encouraged to suppose
that all the world is of their own mind, if they were forced out of that
atmosphere of self-indulgent silences and hypocritical reserves, which
is systematically poured round them, they would acquire a robuster
mental habit. They would learn to take dissents for what they are worth.
They would be led either to strengthen or to discard their own
opinions, if the dissents happened to be weighty or instructive; either
to refute or neglect such dissents as should be ill-founded or
insignificant. They will remain valetudinarians, so long as a curtain of
compromise shelters them from the real belief of those of their
neighbours who have ventured to use their minds with some measure of
independence. A very brief contact with people who, when the occasion
comes, do not shrink from saying what they think, is enough to modify
that excessive liability to be shocked at truth-speaking, which is only
so common because truth-speaking itself is so unfamiliar.

Now, however great the pain inflicted by the avowal of unbelief, it
seems to the present writer that one relationship in life, and one only,
justifies us in being silent where otherwise it would be right to speak.
This relationship is that between child and parents. Those parents are
wisest who train their sons and daughters in the utmost liberty both of
thought and speech; who do not instill dogmas into them, but inculcate
upon them the sovereign importance of correct ways of forming opinions;
who, while never dissembling the great fact that if one opinion is
true, its contradictory cannot be true also, but must be a lie and must
partake of all the evil qualities of a lie, yet always set them the
example of listening to unwelcome opinions with patience and candour.
Still all parents are not wise. They cannot all endure to hear of any
religious opinions except their own. Where it would give them sincere
and deep pain to hear a son or daughter avow disbelief in the
inspiration of the Bible and so forth, then it seems that the younger
person is warranted in refraining from saying that he or she does not
accept such and such doctrines. This, of course, only where the son or
daughter feels a tender and genuine attachment to the parent. Where the
parent has not earned this attachment, has been selfish, indifferent, or
cruel, the title to the special kind of forbearance of which we are
speaking can hardly exist. In an ordinary way, however, a parent has a
claim on us which no other person in the world can have, and a man's
self-respect ought scarcely to be injured if he finds himself shrinking
from playing the apostle to his own father and mother.

One can indeed imagine circumstances where this would not be true. If
you are persuaded that you have had revealed to you a glorious gospel of
light and blessedness, it is impossible not to thirst to impart such
tidings most eagerly to those who are closest about your heart. We are
not in that position. We have as yet no magnificent vision, so definite,
so touching, so 'clothed with the beauty of a thousand stars,' as to
make us eager, for the sake of it, to murder all the sweetnesses of
filial piety in an aggressive eristic. This much one concedes. Yet let
us ever remember that those elders are of nobler type who have kept
their minds in a generous freedom, and have made themselves strong with
that magnanimous confidence in truth, which the Hebrew expressed in old
phrase, that if counsel or work be of men it will come to nought, but if
it be of God ye cannot overthrow it.

Even in the case of parents, and even though our new creed is but
rudimentary, there can be no good reason why we should go further in the
way of economy than mere silence. Neither they nor any other human being
can possibly have a right to expect us, not merely to abstain from the
open expression of dissents, but positively to profess unreal and
feigned assents. No fear of giving pain, no wish to soothe the alarms of
those to whom we owe much, no respect for the natural clinging of the
old to the faith which has accompanied them through honourable lives,
can warrant us in saying that we believe to be true what we are
convinced is false. The most lax moralist counts a lie wrong, even when
the motive is unselfish, and springs from the desire to give pleasure to
those whom it is our duty to please. A deliberate lie avowedly does not
cease to be one because it concerns spiritual things. Nor is it the less
wrong because it is uttered by one to whom all spiritual things have
become indifferent. Filial affection is a motive which would, if any
motive could, remove some of the taint of meanness with which pious
lying, like every other kind of lying, tends to infect character. The
motive may no doubt ennoble the act, though the act remains in the
category of forbidden things. But the motive of these complaisant
assents and false affirmations, taken at their very best, is still
comparatively a poor motive. No real elevation of spirit is possible for
a man who is willing to subordinate his convictions to his domestic
affections, and to bring himself to a habit of viewing falsehood
lightly, lest the truth should shock the illegitimate and over-exacting
sensibilities either of his parents or any one else. We may understand
what is meant by the logic of the feelings, and accept it as the proper
corrective for a too intense egoism. But when the logic of the feelings
is invoked to substitute the egoism of the family for the slightly
narrower egoism of the individual, it can hardly be more than a fine
name for self-indulgence and a callous indifference to all the largest
human interests.

This brings us to consider the case of another no less momentous
relationship, and the kind of compromise in the matter of religious
conformity which it justifies or imposes. It constantly happens that the
husband has wholly ceased to believe the religion to which his wife
clings with unshaken faith. We need not enter into the causes why women
remain in bondage to opinions which so many cultivated men either reject
or else hold in a transcendental and non-natural sense. The only
question with which we are concerned is the amount of free assertion of
his own convictions which a man should claim and practise, when he knows
that such convictions are distasteful to his wife. Is it lawful, as it
seems to be in dealing with parents, to hold his conviction silently? Is
it lawful either positively or by implication to lead his wife to
suppose that he shares her opinions, when in truth he rejects them?

If it were not for the maxims and practice in daily use among men
otherwise honourable, one would not suppose it possible that two answers
could be given to these questions by any one with the smallest pretence
of principle or self-respect. As it is, we all of us know men who
deliberately reject the entire Christian system, and still think it
compatible with uprightness to summon their whole establishments round
them at morning and evening, and on their knees to offer up elaborately
formulated prayers, which have just as much meaning to them as the
entrails of the sacrificial victim had to an infidel haruspex. We see
the same men diligently attending religious services; uttering assents
to confessions of which they really reject every syllable; kneeling,
rising, bowing, with deceptive solemnity; even partaking of the
sacrament with a consummate devoutness that is very edifying to all who
are not in the secret, and who do not know that they are acting a part,
and making a mock both of their own reason and their own probity, merely
to please persons whose delusions they pity and despise from the bottom
of their hearts.

On the surface there is certainly nothing to distinguish this kind of
conduct from the grossest hypocrisy. Is there anything under the surface
to relieve it from this complexion? Is there any weight in the sort of
answer which such men make to the accusation that their conformity is a
very degrading form of deceit, and a singularly mischievous kind of
treachery? Is the plea of a wish to spare mental discomfort to others an
admissible and valid plea? It seems to us to be none of these things,
and for the following among other reasons.

If a man drew his wife by lot, or by any other method over which neither
he nor she has any control, as in the case of parents, perhaps he might
with some plausibleness contend that he owed her certain limited
deferences and reserves, just as we admit that he may owe them to his
parents. But this is not the case. Marriage, in this country at least,
is the result of mutual choice. If men and women do as a matter of fact
usually make this choice hastily and on wofully imperfect information of
one another's characters, that is no warrant for a resort to unlawful
expedients to remedy the blunder. If a woman cares ardently enough about
religion to feel keen distress at the idea of dissent from it on the
part of those closely connected with her, she surely may be expected to
take reasonable pains to ascertain beforehand the religious attitude of
one with whom she is about to unite herself for life. On the other hand,
if a man sets any value on his own opinions, if they are in any real
sense a part of himself, he must be guilty of something like deliberate
and systematic duplicity during the acquaintance preceding marriage, if
his dissent has remained unsuspected. Certainly if men go through
society before marriage under false colours, and feign beliefs which
they do not hold, they have only themselves to thank for the degradation
of having to keep up the imposture afterwards. Suppose a protestant
were to pass himself off for a catholic because he happened to meet a
catholic lady whom he desired to marry. Everybody would agree in calling
such a man by a very harsh name. It is hard to see why a freethinker,
who by reticence and conformity passes himself off for a believer,
should be more leniently judged. The differences between a catholic and
a protestant are assuredly not any greater than those between a believer
and an unbeliever. We all admit the baseness of dissimulation in the
former case. Why is it any less base in the latter?

Marriages, however, are often made in haste, or heedlessly, or early in
life, before either man or woman has come to feel very deeply about
religion either one way or another. The woman does not know how much she
will need religion, nor what comfort it may bring to her. The man does
not know all the objections to it which may disclose themselves to his
understanding as the years ripen. There is always at work that most
unfortunate maxim, tacitly held and acted upon in ninety-nine marriages
out of a hundred, that money is of importance, and social position is of
importance, and good connections are of importance, and health and
manners and comely looks, and that the only thing which is of no
importance whatever is opinion and intellectual quality and temper. Now
granting that both man and woman are indifferent at the time of their
union, is that any reason why upon either of them acquiring serious
convictions, the other should be expected, out of mere complaisance, to
make a false and hypocritical pretence of sharing them? To see how
flimsy is this plea of fearing to give pain to the religious
sensitiveness of women, we have only to imagine one or two cases which
go beyond the common experience, yet which ought not to strain the plea,
if it be valid.

Thus, if my wife turns catholic, am I to pretend to turn catholic too,
to save her the horrible distress of thinking that I am doomed to
eternal perdition? Or if she chooses to embrace the doctrine of direct
illumination from heaven, and to hear voices bidding her to go or come,
to do or abstain from doing, am I too to shape my conduct after these
fancied monitions? Or if it comes into her mind to serve tables, and to
listen in all faith to the miracles of spiritualism, am I, lest I
should pain her, to feign a surrender of all my notions of evidence, to
pretend a transformation of all my ideas of worthiness in life and
beyond life, and to go to seances with the same regularity and
seriousness with which you go to church? Of course in each of these
cases everybody who does not happen to share the given peculiarity of
belief, will agree that however severely a husband's dissent might pain
the wife, whatever distress and discomfort it might inflict upon her,
yet he would be bound to let her suffer, rather than sacrifice his
veracity and self-respect. Why then is it any less discreditable to
practise an insincere conformity in more ordinary circumstances? If the
principle of such conformity is good for anything at all, it ought to
cover these less usual cases as completely as the others which are more
usual. Indeed there would be more to be said on behalf of conformity for
politeness' sake, where the woman had gone through some great process of
change, for then one might suppose that her heart was deeply set on the
matter. Even then the plea would be worthless, but it is more
indisputably worthless still where the sentiment which we are bidden to
respect at the cost of our own freedom of speech is nothing more
laudable than a fear of moving out of the common groove of religious
opinion, or an intolerant and unreasoned bigotry, or mere stupidity and
silliness of the vulgarest type.[23]

Ah, it is said, you forget that women cannot live without religion. The
present writer is equally of this opinion that women cannot be happy
without a religion, nor men either. That is not the question. It does
not follow because a woman cannot be happy without a religion, that
therefore she cannot be happy unless her husband is of the same
religion. Still less, that she would be made happy by his insincerely
pretending to be of the same religion. And least of all is it true, if
both these propositions were credible, that even then for the sake of
her happiness he is bound not merely to live a life of imposture, but in
so doing to augment the general forces of imposture in the world, and to
make the chances of truth, light, and human improvement more and more
unfavourable. Women are at present far less likely than men to possess a
sound intelligence and a habit of correct judgment. They will remain so,
while they have less ready access than men to the best kinds of literary
and scientific training, and--what is far more important--while social
arrangements exclude them from all those kinds of public activity, which
are such powerful agents both in fitting men to judge soundly, and in
forming in them the sense of responsibility for their judgments being

It may be contended that this alleged stronger religiosity of women,
however coarse and poor in its formulae, is yet of constant value as a
protest in favour of the maintenance of the religious element in human
character and life, and that this is a far more important thing for us
all than the greater or less truth of the dogmas with which such
religiosity happens to be associated. In reply to this, without
tediously labouring the argument, I venture to make the following
observations. In the first place, it is an untenable idea that
religiosity or devoutness of spirit is valuable in itself, without
reference to the goodness or badness of the dogmatic forms and the
practices in which it clothes itself. A fakir would hardly be an
estimable figure in our society, merely because his way of living
happens to be a manifestation of the religious spirit. If the religious
spirit leads to a worthy and beautiful life, if it shows itself in
cheerfulness, in pity, in charity and tolerance, in forgiveness, in a
sense of the largeness and the mystery of things, in a lifting up of the
soul in gratitude and awe to some supreme power and sovereign force,
then whatever drawback there may be in the way of superstitious dogma,
still such a spirit is on the whole a good thing. If not, not. It would
be better without the superstition: even with the superstition it is
good. But if the religious spirit is only a fine name for narrowness of
understanding, for stubborn intolerance, for mere social formality, for
a dread of losing that poor respectability which means thinking and
doing exactly as the people around us think and do, then the religious
spirit is not a good thing, but a thoroughly bad and hateful thing. To
that we owe no management of any kind. Any one who suppresses his real
opinions, and feigns others, out of deference to such a spirit as this
in his household, ought to say plainly both to himself and to us that he
cares more for his own ease and undisturbed comfort than he cares for
truth and uprightness. For it is that, and not any tenderness for holy
things, which is the real ground of his hypocrisy.

Now with reference to the religious spirit in its nobler form, it is
difficult to believe that any one genuinely animated by it would be
soothed by the knowledge that her dearest companion is going through
life with a mask on, quietly playing a part, uttering untrue
professions, doing his best to cheat her and the rest of the world by a
monstrous spiritual make-believe. One would suppose that instead of
having her religious feeling gratified by conformity on these terms,
nothing could wound it so bitterly nor outrage it so unpardonably. To
know that her sensibility is destroying the entireness of the man's
nature, its loyalty alike to herself and to truth, its freedom and
singleness and courage--surely this can hardly be less distressing to a
fine spirit than the suspicion that his heresies may bring him to the
pit, or than the void of going through life without even the semblance
of religious sympathy between them. If it be urged that the woman would
never discover the piety of the man to be a counterfeit, we reply that
unless her own piety were of the merely formal kind, she would be sure
to make the discovery. The congregation in the old story were untouched
by the disguised devil's eloquence on behalf of religion: it lacked
unction. The verbal conformity of the unbeliever lacks unction, and its
hollowness is speedily revealed to the quick apprehension of true

Let us not be supposed to be arguing in favour of incessant battle of
high dialectic in the household. Nothing could be more destructive of
the gracious composure and mental harmony, of which household life ought
to be, but perhaps seldom is, the great organ and instrument. Still less
are we pleading for the freethinker's right at every hour of day or
night to mock, sneer, and gibe at the sincere beliefs and
conscientiously performed rites of those, whether men or women, whether
strangers or kinsfolk, from whose religion he disagrees. 'It is not
ancient impressions only,' said Pascal, 'which are capable of abusing
us. The charm of novelty has the same power.' The prate of new-born
scepticism may be as tiresome and as odious as the cant of gray
orthodoxy. Religious discussion is not to be foisted upon us at every
turn either by defenders or assailants. All we plead for is that when
the opportunity meets the freethinker full in front, he is called upon
to speak as freely as he thinks. Not more than this. A plain man has no
trouble in acquiring this tact of reasonableness. We may all write what
we please, because it is in the discretion of the rest of the world
whether they will hearken or not. But in the family this is not so. If a
man systematically intrudes disrespectful and unwelcome criticism upon a
woman who retains the ancient belief, he is only showing that
freethinker may be no more than bigot differently writ. It ought to be
essential to no one's self-respect that he cannot consent to live with
people who do not think as he thinks. We may be sure that there is
something shallow and convulsive about the beliefs of a man who cannot
allow his house-mates to possess their own beliefs in peace.

On the other hand, it is essential to the self-respect of every one
with the least love of truth that he should be free to express his
opinions on every occasion, where silence would be taken for an assent
which he does not really give. Still more unquestionably, he should be
free from any obligation to forswear himself either directly, as by
false professions, or by implication, as when he attend services, public
or private, which are to him the symbol of superstition and mere
spiritual phantasmagoria. The vindication of this simple right of living
one's life honestly can hardly demand any heroic virtue. A little of the
straightforwardness which men are accustomed to call manly, is the only
quality that is needed; a little of that frank courage and determination
in spiritual things, which men are usually so ready to practise towards
their wives in temporal things. It must be a keen delight to a cynic to
see a man who owns that he cannot bear to pain his wife by not going to
church and saying prayers, yet insisting on having his own way,
fearlessly thwarting her wishes, and contradicting her opinions, in
every other detail, small and great, of the domestic economy.

The truth of the matter is that the painful element in companionship is
not difference of opinion, but discord of temperament. The important
thing is not that two people should be inspired by the same convictions,
but rather that each of them should hold his and her own convictions in
a high and worthy spirit. Harmony of aim, not identity of conclusion, is
the secret of the sympathetic life; to stand on the same moral plane,
and that, if possible, a high one; to find satisfaction in different
explanations of the purpose and significance of life and the universe,
and yet the same satisfaction. It is certainly not less possible to
disbelieve religiously than to believe religiously. This accord of mind,
this emulation in freedom and loftiness of soul, this kindred sense of
the awful depth of the enigma which the one believes to be answered, and
the other suspects to be for ever unanswerable--here, and not in a
degrading and hypocritical conformity, is the true gratification of
those spiritual sensibilities which are alleged to be so much higher in
women than in men. Where such an accord exists, there may still be
solicitude left in the mind of either at the superstition or the
incredulity of the other, but it will be solicitude of that magnanimous
sort which is in some shape or other the inevitable and not unfruitful
portion of every better nature.

If there are women who petulantly or sourly insist on more than this
kind of harmony, it is probable that their system of divinity is little
better than a special manifestation of shrewishness. The man is as much
bound to resist that, as he is bound to resist extravagance in spending
money, or any other vice of character. If he does not resist it, if he
suppresses his opinions, and practices a hypocritical conformity, it
must be from weakness of will and principle. Against this we have
nothing to say. A considerable proportion of people, men no less than
women, are born invertebrate, and they must got on as they best can. But
let us at least bargain that they shall not erect the maxims of their
own feebleness into a rule for those who are braver and of stronger
principle than themselves. And do not let the accidental exigencies of a
personal mistake be made the foundation of a general doctrine. It is a
poor saying, that the world is to become void of spiritual sincerity,
because Xanthippe has a turn for respectable theology.

One or two words should perhaps be said in this place as to conformity
to common religious belief in the education of children. Where the
parents differ, the one being an unbeliever, the other a believer, it is
almost impossible for anybody to lay down a general rule. The present
writer certainly has no ambition to attempt the thorny task of compiling
a manual for mixed marriages. It is perhaps enough to say that all would
depend upon the nature of the beliefs which the religious person wished
to inculcate. Considering that the woman has an absolutely equal moral
right with the man to decide in what faith the child shall be brought
up, and considering how important it is that the mother should take an
active part in the development of the child's affections and impulses,
the most resolute of deniers may perhaps think that the advantages of
leaving the matter to her, outweigh the disadvantages of having a
superstitious bias given to the young mind. In these complex cases an
honest and fair-minded man's own instincts are more likely to lead him
right than any hard and fast rule. Two reserves in assenting to the
wife's control of early teaching will probably suggest themselves to
everybody who is in earnest about religion. First, if the theology which
the woman desires to instill contains any of those wicked and depraving
doctrines which neither Catholicism nor Calvinism is without, in the
hands of some professors, the husband is as much justified in pressing
his legal rights over the child to the uttermost, as he would be if the
proposed religion demanded physical mutilation. Secondly, he will not
himself take part in baptismal or other ceremonies which are to him no
better than mere mummeries, nor will he ever do anything to lead his
children at any age to suppose that he believes what he does not
believe. Such limitations as these are commanded by all considerations
alike of morality and good sense.

To turn to the more normal case where either the man has had the wise
forethought not to yoke himself unequally with a person of ardent belief
which he does not share, or where both parents dissent from the popular
creed. Here, whatever difficulties may attend its application, the
principle is surely as clear as the sun at noonday. There can be no good
plea for the deliberate and formal inculcation upon the young of a
number of propositions which you believe to be false. To do this is to
sow tares not in your enemy's field, but in the very ground which is
most precious of all others to you and most full of hope for the future.
To allow it to be done merely that children may grow up in the
stereotyped mould, is simply to perpetuate in new generations the
present thick-sighted and dead-heavy state of our spirits. It is to do
one's best to keep society for an indefinite time sapped by hollow and
void professions, instead of being nourished by sincerity and

Nor here, more than elsewhere in this chapter, are we trying to turn
the family into a field of ceaseless polemic. No one who knows the stuff
of which life is made, the pressure of material cares, the play of
passion, the busy energising of the affections, the anxieties of health,
and all the other solicitudes, generous or ignoble, which naturally
absorb the days of the common multitude of men--is likely to think such
an ideal either desirable or attainable. Least of all is it desirable
to give character a strong set in this polemical direction in its most
plastic days. The controversial and denying humour is a different thing
from the habit of being careful to know what we mean by the words we
use, and what evidence there is for the beliefs we hold. It is possible
to foster the latter habit without creating the former. And it is
possible to bring up the young in dissent from the common beliefs around
them, or in indifference to them, without engendering any of that pride
in eccentricity for its own sake, which is so little likeable a quality
in either young or old. There is, however, little risk of an excess in
this direction. The young tremble even more than the old at the
penalties of nonconformity. There is more excuse for them in this. Such
penalties in their case usually come closer and in more stringent forms.
Neither have they had time to find out, as their elders have or ought to
have found out, what a very moderate degree of fortitude enables us to
bear up against social disapproval, when we know that it is nothing more
than the common form of convention.

The great object is to keep the minds of the young as open as possible
in the matter of religion; to breed in them a certain simplicity and
freedom from self-consciousness, in finding themselves without the
religious beliefs and customs of those around them; to make them regard
differences in these respects as very natural and ordinary matters,
susceptible of an easy explanation. It is of course inevitable, unless
they are brought up in cloistered seclusion, that they should hear much
of the various articles of belief which we are anxious that they should
not share. They will ask you whether the story of the creation of the
universe is true; whether such and such miracles really happened;
whether this person or that actually lived, and actually did all that he
is said to have done. Plainly the right course is to tell them, without
any agitation or excess or vehemence or too much elaboration, the simple
truth in such matters exactly as it appears to one's own mind. There is
no reason why they should not know the best parts of the Bible as well
as they know the Iliad or Herodotus. There are many reasons why they
should know them better. But one most important condition of this is
constantly overlooked by people, who like to satisfy their intellectual
vanity by scepticism, and at the same time to make their comfort safe by
external conformity. If the Bible is to be taught only because it is a
noble and most majestic monument of literature, it should be taught as
that and no more. That a man who regards it solely us supreme
literature, should impress it upon the young as the supernaturally
inspired word of God and the accurate record of objective occurrences,
is a piece of the plainest and most shocking dishonesty. Let a youth be
trained in simple and straightforward recognition of the truth that we
can know, and can conjecture, nothing with any assurance as to the
ultimate mysteries of things. Let his imagination and his sense of awe
be fed from those springs, which are none the less bounteous because
they flow in natural rather than supernatural channels. Let him be
taught the historic place and source of the religions which he is not
bound to accept, unless the evidence for their authority by and by
brings him to another mind. A boy or girl trained in this way has an
infinitely better chance of growing up with the true spirit and
leanings of religion implanted in the character, than if they had been
educated in formulae which they could not understand, by people who do
not believe them.

The most common illustration of a personal mistake being made the base
of a general doctrine, is found in the case of those who, after
committing themselves for life to the profession of a given creed, awake
to the shocking discovery that the creed has ceased to be true for them.
The action of a popular modern story, Mrs. Gaskell's _North and South_,
turns upon the case of a clergyman whoso faith is overthrown, and who in
consequence abandons his calling, to his own serious material detriment
and under circumstances of severe suffering to his family. I am afraid
that current opinion, especially among the cultivated class, would
condemn such a sacrifice as a piece of misplaced scrupulosity. No man,
it would be said, is called upon to proclaim his opinions, when to do so
will cost him the means of subsistence. This will depend upon the value
which he sets upon the opinions that be has to proclaim. If such a
proposition is true, the world must efface its habit of admiration for
the martyrs and heroes of the past, who embraced violent death rather
than defile themselves by a lying confession. Or is present heroism
ridiculous, and only past heroism admirable? However, nobody has a right
to demand the heroic from all the world; and if to publish his dissent
from the opinions which he nominally holds would reduce a man to
beggary, human charity bids us say as little as may be. We may leave
such men to their unfortunate destiny, hoping that they will make what
good use of it may be possible. _Non ragioniam di lor_. These cases only
show the essential and profound immorality of the priestly
profession--in all its forms, and no matter in connection with what
church or what dogma--which makes a man's living depend on his
abstaining from using his mind, or concealing the conclusions to which
use of his mind has brought him. The time will come when society will
look back on the doctrine, that they who serve the altar should live by
the altar, as a doctrine of barbarism and degradation.

But if one, by refusing to offer a pinch of incense to the elder gods,
should thus strip himself of a marked opportunity of exerting an
undoubtedly useful influence over public opinion, or over a certain
section of society, is he not justified in compromising to the extent
necessary to preserve this influence? Instead of answering this
directly, we would make the following remarks. First, it can seldom be
clear in times like our own that religious heterodoxy must involve the
loss of influence in other than religious spheres. The apprehension that
it will do so is due rather to timorousness and a desire to find a fair
reason for the comforts of silence and reserve. If a teacher has
anything to tell the world in science, philosophy, history, the world
will not be deterred from listening to him by knowing that he does not
walk in the paths of conventional theology. Second, what influence can a
man exert, that should seem to him more useful than that of a protester
against what he counts false opinions, in the most decisive and
important of all regions of thought? Surely if any one is persuaded,
whether rightly or wrongly, that his fellows are expending the best part
of their imaginations and feelings on a dream and a delusion, and that
by so doing moreover they are retarding to an indefinite degree the
wider spread of light and happiness, then nothing that he can tell them
about chemistry or psychology or history can in his eyes be comparable
in importance to the duty of telling them this. There is no advantage
nor honest delight in influence, if it is only to be exerted in the
sphere of secondary objects, and at the cost of the objects which ought
to be foremost in the eyes of serious people. In truth the men who have
done most for the world have taken very little heed of influence. They
have sought light, and left their influence to fare as it might list.
Can we not imagine the mingled mystification and disdain with which a
Spinosa or a Descartes, a Luther or a Pascal, would have listened to an
exhortation in our persuasive modern manner on the niceties of the
politic and the social obligation of pious fraud? It is not given to
many to perform the achievements of such giants as these, but every one
may help to keep the standard of intellectual honesty at a lofty pitch,
and what better service can a man render than to furnish the world with
an example of faithful dealing with his own conscience and with his
fellows? This at least is the one talent that is placed in the hands of
the obscurest of us all.[26]

And what is this smile of the world, to win which we are bidden to
sacrifice our moral manhood; this frown of the world, whose terrors are
more awful than the withering up of truth and the slow going out of
light within the souls of us? Consider the triviality of life and
conversation and purpose, in the bulk of those whose approval is held
out for our prize and the mark of our high calling. Measure, if you can,
the empire over them of prejudice unadulterated by a single element of
rationality, and weigh, if you can, the huge burden of custom,
unrelieved by a single leavening particle of fresh thought. Ponder the
share which selfishness and love of ease have in the vitality and the
maintenance of the opinions that we are forbidden to dispute. Then how
pitiful a thing seems the approval or disapproval of these creatures of
the conventions of the hour, as one figures the merciless vastness of
the universe of matter sweeping us headlong through viewless space; as
one hears the wail of misery that is for ever ascending to the deaf
gods; as one counts the little tale of the years that separate us from
eternal silence. In the light of these things, a man should surely dare
to live his small span of life with little heed of the common speech
upon him or his life, only caring that his days may be full of reality,
and his conversation of truth-speaking and wholeness.

Those who think conformity in the matters of which we have been
speaking harmless and unimportant, must do so either from indifference
or else from despair. It is difficult to convince any one who is
possessed by either one or other of these two evil spirits. Men who have
once accepted them, do not easily relinquish philosophies that relieve
their professors from disagreeable obligations of courage and endeavour.
To the indifferent person one can say nothing. We can only acquiesce in
that deep and terrible scripture, 'He that is filthy, let him be filthy
still.' To those who despair of human improvement or the spread of light
in the face of the huge mass of brute prejudice, we can only urge that
the enormous weight and the firm hold of baseless prejudice and false
commonplace are the very reasons which make it so important that those
who are not of the night nor of the darkness should the more strenuously
insist on living their own lives in the daylight. To those, finally, who
do not despair, but think that the new faith will come so slowly that it
is not worth while for the poor mortal of a day to make himself a
martyr, we may suggest that the new faith when it comes will be of
little worth, unless it has been shaped by generations of honest and
fearless men, and unless it finds in those who are to receive it an
honest and fearless temper. Our plea is not for a life of perverse
disputings or busy proselytising, but only that we should learn to look
at one another with a clear and steadfast eye, and march forward along
the paths we choose with firm step and erect front. The first advance
towards either the renovation of one faith or the growth of another,
must be the abandonment of those habits of hypocritical conformity and
compliance which have filled the air of the England of to-day with gross
and obscuring mists.


[Footnote 18: It may be said that Hume meant no more than this: that of
two equally oppressed nations, the one which had been taught to assent
to the doctrine of resistance would be more likely to practise 'the
sacred duty of insurrection' than the other, from whom the doctrine had
been concealed. Or, in other words, that the first would rise against
oppression, when the oppression had reached a pitch which to the second
would still seem bearable. The answer to Hume's proposition, interpreted
in this way, would be that if the doctrine of resistance be presented to
the populace in its true shape,--if it be 'truth,' as he admits,--then
the application of it in practice should be as little likely to prove
mischievous as that of any other truth. If the gist of the remark be
that this is a truth which the populace is especially likely to apply
wrongly, in consequence of its ignorance, passion, and heedlessness, we
may answer by appealing to history, which is rather a record of
excessive patience in the various nations of the earth than of excessive

[Footnote 19: There is another ground for the distinction between the
conditions of holding and those of expressing opinion. This depends upon
the psychological proposition that belief is independent of the will.
Though this or any other state of the understanding may be involuntary,
the manifestation of such a state is not so, but is a voluntary act,
and, 'being neutral in itself, may be commendable or reprehensible
according to the circumstances in which it takes place.' (Bailey's
_Essay on Formation of Opinion_, Sec. 7).]

[Footnote 20: The following words, illustrating the continuity between
the Christian and Jewish churches, are not without instruction to those
who meditate on the possible continuity between the Christian church and
that which is one day to grow into the place of it:--'Not only do forms
and ordinances remain under the Gospel equally as before; but, what was
in use before is not so much superseded by the Gospel ordinances as
changed into them. What took place under the Law is a pattern, what was
commanded is a rule, under the Gospel. The substance remains, the use,
the meaning, the circumstances, the benefit is changed; grace is added,
life is infused: "the body is of Christ;" but it is in great measure
that same body which was in being before He came. The Gospel has not put
aside, it has incorporated into itself the revelation which went before
it. It avails itself of the Old Testament, as a great gift to Christian
as well as to Jew. It does not dispense with it, but it dispenses it.
Persons sometimes urge that there is no code of duty in the New
Testament, no ceremonial, no rules for Church polity. Certainly not;
they are unnecessary; they are already given in the Old. Why should the
Old Testament remain in the Christian church but to be used? _There_ we
are to look for our forms, our rites, our polity; only illustrated,
tempered, spiritualised by the Gospel. The preempts remain, the
observance of them is changed,'--Dr. J.H. Newman; _Sermon on Subjects of
the Day_, p. 205.]

[Footnote 21: There is a set of most acute and searching criticisms on
this matter in Mr. Leslie Stephen's _Essays on Free-Thinking and
Plain-Speaking_ (Longmans, 1873). The last essay in the volume, _An
Apology for Plain-Speaking_, is a decisive and remarkable exposition of
the treacherous playing with words, which underlies even the most
vigorous efforts to make the phrases and formula of the old creed hold
the reality of new faith.]

[Footnote 22: Upon this sentence the following criticism has been
made:--'Surely both of these so-called contradictions are deliberately
affirmed by the vast majority of all thinkers upon the subject. What
orthodox asserter of the omnipresence of a "Creator with intelligible
attributes" ever maintained that these attributes could be "grasped by
men"?'--The orthodox asserter, no doubt, _says_ that he does not
maintain that the divine attributes can be grasped by men; but his
habitual treatment of them as intelligible, and as the subjects of
propositions made in languages that is designed to be intelligible,
shows that his first reservation is merely nominal, as it is certainly
inconsistent with his general position. Religious people who warn you
most solemnly that man who is a worm and the son of a worm cannot
possibly compass in his puny understanding the attributes of the Divine
Being, will yet--as an eminent divine not in holy orders has truly
said--tell you all about him, as if he were the man who lives in the
next street.]

[Footnote 23: That able man, the late J.E. Cairnes, suggested the
following objection to this paragraph. When two persons marry, there is
a reasonable expectation, almost amounting to an understanding, that
they will both of them adhere to their religion, just as both of them
tacitly agree to follow the ways of the world in the host of minor
social matters. If, therefore, either of them turns to some other creed,
the person so turning has, so to speak, broken the contract. The utmost
he or she can contend for is forbearance. If a woman embraces
catholicism, she may seek tolerance, but she has no right to exact
conformity. If the man becomes an unbeliever, he in like manner breaks
the bargain, and may be justly asked not to flaunt his misdemeanour.

My answer to this would turn upon the absolute inexpediency of such
silent bargains being assumed by public opinion. In the present state of
opinion, where the whole air is alive with the spirit of change, nobody
who takes his life or her life seriously, could allow an assumption
which means reduction of one of the most important parts of character,
the love of truth, to a nullity.]

[Footnote 24: The reader remembers how Wolmar, the atheistic husband of
Julie in Rousseau's _New Heloisa_, is distressed by the chagrin which
his unbelief inflicts on the piety of his wife. 'He told me that he had
been frequently tempted to make a feint of yielding to her arguments,
and to pretend, for the sake of calming her sentiments that he did not
really hold. But such baseness of soul is too far from him. Without for
a moment imposing on Julie, such dissimulation would only have been a
new torment to her. The good faith, the frankness, the union of heart,
that console for so many troubles, would have been eclipsed between
them. Was it by lessening his wife's esteem for him that he could
reassure her? Instead of using any disguise, he tells her sincerely what
he thinks, but he says it in so simple a tone, etc.--V. v. 126.]

[Footnote 25: The common reason alleged by freethinkers for having their
children brought up in the orthodox ways is that, if they were not so
brought up, they would be looked on as contaminating agents whom other
parents would take care to keep away from the companionship of their
children. This excuse may have had some force at another time. At the
present day, when belief is so weak, we doubt whether the young would be
excluded from the companionship of their equals in age, merely because
they had not been trained in some of the conventional shibboleths. Even
if it were so, there are certainly some ways of compensating for the
disadvantages of exclusion from orthodox circles.

I have heard of a more interesting reason; namely, that the historic
position of the young, relatively to the time in which they are placed,
is in some sort falsified, unless they have gone through a training in
the current beliefs of their age: unless they have undergone that, they
miss, as it were, some of the normal antecedents. I do not think this
plea will hold good. However desirable it may be that the young should
know all sorts of erroneous beliefs and opinions as products of the
past, it can hardly be in any degree desirable that they should take
them for truths. If there were no other objection, there would be this,
that the disturbance and waste of force involved in shaking off in their
riper years the erroneous opinions which had been instilled into them
in childhood, would more than counter-balance any advantages, whatever
their precise nature may be, to be derived from having shared in their
own proper persons the ungrounded notions of others.]

[Footnote 26: Miss Martineau has an excellent protest against 'the
dereliction of principle shown in supposing that any "Cause" can be of
so much importance as fidelity to truth, or can be important at all
otherwise than in its relation to truth which wants vindicating. It
reminds me of an incident which happened when I was in America, at the
time of the severest trials of the Abolitionists. A pastor from the
southern States lamented to a brother clergyman in the North the
introduction of the Anti-slavery question, because the views of their
sect were "getting on so well before!" "Getting on!" cried the northern
minister. "What is the use of getting your vessel on when you have
thrown both captain and cargo overboard?" Thus, what signifies the
pursuit of any one reform, like those specified,--Anti-slavery and the
Woman question,--when the freedom which is the very soul of the
controversy, the very principle of the movement,--is mourned over in any
other of its many manifestations? The only effectual advocates of such
reforms as those are people who follow truth wherever it
leads.'--_Autobiography_, ii. 442.]



A person who takes the trouble to form his own opinions and beliefs will
feel that he owes no responsibility to the majority for his conclusions.
If he is a genuine lover of truth, if he is inspired by the divine
passion for seeing things as they are, and a divine abhorrence of
holding ideas which do not conform to the facts, he will be wholly
independent of the approval or assent of the persons around him. When he
proceeds to apply his beliefs in the practical conduct of life, the
position is different. There are now good reasons why his attitude
should be in some ways less inflexible. The society in which he is
placed is a very ancient and composite growth. The people from whom he
dissents have not come by their opinions, customs, and institutions by a
process of mere haphazard. These opinions and customs all had their
origin in a certain real or supposed fitness. They have a certain depth
of root in the lives of a proportion of the existing generation. Their
fitness for satisfying human needs may have vanished, and their
congruity with one another may have come to an end. That is only one
side of the truth. The most zealous propagandism cannot penetrate to
them. The quality of bearing to be transplanted from one kind of soil
and climate to another is not very common, and it is far from being
inexhaustible even where it exists.

In common language we speak of a generation as something possessed of a
kind of exact unity, with all its parts and members one and homogeneous.
Yet very plainly it is not this. It is a whole, but a whole in a state
of constant flux. Its factors and elements are eternally shifting. It is
not one, but many generations. Each of the seven ages of man is
neighbour to all the rest. The column of the veterans is already
staggering over into the last abyss, while the column of the newest
recruits is forming with all its nameless and uncounted hopes. To each
its tradition, its tendency, its possibilities. Only a proportion of
each in one society can have nerve enough to grasp the banner of a new
truth, and endurance enough to bear it along rugged and untrodden ways.

And then, as we have said, one must remember the stuff of which life is
made. One must consider what an overwhelming preponderance of the most
tenacious energies and most concentrated interests of a society must be
absorbed between material cares and the solicitude of the affections. It
is obviously unreasonable to lose patience and quarrel with one's time,
because it is tardy in throwing off its institutions and beliefs, and
slow to achieve the transformation which is the problem in front of it.
Men and women have to live. The task for most of them is arduous enough
to make them well pleased with even such imperfect shelter as they find
in the use and wont of daily existence. To insist on a whole community
being made at once to submit to the reign of new practices and new
ideas, which have just begun to commend themselves to the most advanced
speculative intelligence of the time,--this, even if it were a possible
process, would do much to make life impracticable and to hurry on social

'It cannot be too emphatically asserted,' as has been said by one of
the most influential of modern thinkers, 'that this policy of
compromise, alike in institutions, in actions, and in beliefs, which
especially characterises English life, is a policy essential to a
society going through the transitions caused by continued growth and
development. Ideas and institutions proper to a past social state, but
incongruous with the new social state that has grown out of it,
surviving into this new social state they have made possible, and
disappearing only as this new social state establishes its own ideas and
institutions, are necessarily, during their survival, in conflict with
these new ideas and institutions--necessarily furnish elements of
contradiction in men's thoughts and deeds. And yet, as for the carrying
on of social life, the old must continue so long as the new is not
ready, this perpetual compromise is an indispensable accompaniment of a
normal development.'[27]

Yet we must not press this argument, and the state of feeling that
belongs to it, further than they may be fairly made to go. The danger in
most natures lies on this side, for on this side our love of ease
works, and our prejudices. The writer in the passage we have just quoted
is describing compromise as a natural state of things, the resultant of
divergent forces. He is not professing to define its conditions or
limits as a practical duty. Nor is there anything in his words, or in
the doctrine of social evolution of which he is the most elaborate and
systematic expounder, to favour that deliberate sacrifice of truth,
either in search or in expression, against which our two previous
chapters were meant to protest.[28] When Mr. Spencer talks of a new
social state establishing its own ideas, of course he means, and can
only mean, that men and women establish their own ideas, and to do that,
it is obvious that they must at one time or another have conceived them
without any special friendliness of reference to the old ideas, which
they were in the fulness of time to supersede. Still less, of course,
can a new social state ever establish its ideas, unless the persons who
hold them confess them openly, and give to them an honest and effective

Every discussion of the more fundamental principles of conduct must
contain, expressly or by implication, some general theory of the nature
and constitution of the social union. Let us state in a few words that
which seems to command the greatest amount both of direct and analogical
evidence in our time. It is perhaps all the more important to discuss
our subject with immediate and express reference to this theory, because
it has become in some minds a plea for a kind of philosophic
indifference towards any policy of Thorough, as well as an excuse for
systematic abstention from vigorous and downright courses of action.

A progressive society is now constantly and justly compared to a growing
organism. Its vitality in this aspect consists of a series of changes in
ideas and institutions. These changes arise spontaneously from the
operation of the whole body of social conditions, external and
internal. The understanding and the affections and desires are always
acting on the domestic, political, and economic ordering. They influence
the religious sentiment. They touch relations with societies outside. In
turn they are constantly being acted on by all these elements. In a
society progressing in a normal and uninterrupted course, this play and
interaction is the sign and essence of life. It is, as we are so often
told, a long process of new adaptations and re-adaptations; of the
modification of tradition and usage by truer ideas and improved
institutions. There may be, and there are, epochs of rest, when this
modification in its active and demonstrative shape slackens or ceases to
be visible. But even then the modifying forces are only latent. Further
progress depends on the revival of their energy, before there has been
time for the social structure to become ossified and inelastic. The
history of civilisation is the history of the displacement of old
conceptions by new ones more conformable to the facts. It is the record
of the removal of old institutions and ways of living, in favour of
others of greater convenience and ampler capacity, at once multiplying
and satisfying human requirements.

Now compromise, in view of the foregoing theory of social advance, may
be of two kinds, and of these two kinds one is legitimate and the other
not. It may stand for two distinct attitudes of mind, one of them
obstructive and the other not. It may mean the deliberate suppression or
mutilation of an idea, in order to make it congruous with the
traditional idea or the current prejudice on the given subject, whatever
that may be. Or else it may mean a rational acquiescence in the fact
that the bulk of your contemporaries are not yet prepared either to
embrace the new idea, or to change their ways of living in conformity to
it. In the one case, the compromiser rejects the highest truth, or
dissembles his own acceptance of it. In the other, he holds it
courageously for his ensign and device, but neither forces nor expects
the whole world straightway to follow. The first prolongs the duration
of the empire of prejudice, and retards the arrival of improvement. The
second does his best to abbreviate the one, and to hasten and make
definite the other, yet he does not insist on hurrying changes which,
to be effective, would require the active support of numbers of persons
not yet ripe for them. It is legitimate compromise to say:--'I do not
expect you to execute this improvement, or to surrender that prejudice,
in my time. But at any rate it shall not be my fault if the improvement
remains unknown or rejected. There shall be one man at least who has
surrendered the prejudice, and who does not hide that fact.' It is
illegitimate compromise to say:--'I cannot persuade you to accept my
truth; therefore I will pretend to accept your falsehood.'

That this distinction is as sound on the evolutional theory of society
as on any other is quite evident. It would be odd if the theory which
makes progress depend on modification forbade us to attempt to modify.
When it is said that the various successive changes in thought and
institution present and consummate themselves spontaneously, no one
means by spontaneity that they come to pass independently of human
effort and volition. On the contrary, this energy of the members of the
society is one of the spontaneous elements. It is quite as
indispensable as any other of them, if indeed it be not more so.
Progress depends upon tendencies and forces in a community. But of these
tendencies and forces, the organs and representatives must plainly be
found among the men and women of the community, and cannot possibly be
found anywhere else. Progress is not automatic, in the sense that if we
were all to be cast into a deep slumber for the space of a generation,
we should awake to find ourselves in a greatly improved social state.
The world only grows better, even in the moderate degree in which it
does grow better, because people wish that it should, and take the right
steps to make it better. Evolution is not a force, but a process; not a
cause, but a law. It explains the source, and marks the immovable
limitations, of social energy. But social energy itself can never be
superseded either by evolution or by anything else.

The reproach of being impracticable and artificial attaches by rights
not to those who insist on resolute, persistent, and uncompromising
efforts to remove abuses, but to a very different class--to those,
namely, who are credulous enough to suppose that abuses and bad customs
and wasteful ways of doing things will remove themselves. This
credulity, which is a cloak for indolence or ignorance or stupidity,
overlooks the fact that there are bodies of men, more or less numerous,
attached by every selfish interest they have to the maintenance of these
abusive customs. 'A plan,' says Bentham, 'may be said to be too good to
be practicable, where, without adequate inducement in the shape of
personal interest, it requires for its accomplishment that some
individual or class of individuals shall have made a sacrifice of his or
their personal interest to the interest of the whole. When it is on the
part of a body of men or a multitude of individuals taken at random that
any such sacrifice is reckoned upon, then it is that in speaking of the
plan the term _Utopian_ may without impropriety be applied.' And this is
the very kind of sacrifice which must be anticipated by those who so
misunderstand the doctrine of evolution as to believe that the world is
improved by some mystic and self-acting social discipline, which

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