Substance and Shadow: Or, Morality and Religion in Their Relation to Life


An Essay on the Physics of Creation. By HENRY JAMES. Boston : Tieknor & Fields.
ANY one tolerably conversant with either the religion or the philosophy of the last twenty-five years, as displayed in the current literature, must have been convinced that both had left their ancient moorings, never again to find them, and were floating about perilously in quest of a new anchorage. We read the “ Essays and Reviews ” and “ The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua critically Examined,” and the replications long-drawn-out from High Church and Low, with a decided impression that the combatants are skirmishing on an immense ice-field, which is drifting them all together into other and unknown seas. What cares any man profoundly conscious of the wants both of the intellect and the heart whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or not, and if so, whether he was as accomplished a geologist as Professors Buekland and Lyell ? Admit that the whole letter of Scripture comes from God, even to the vowel-points, by what laws and methods shall we expound it so as to put an end to the internecine' war between Faith and Reason, between Religion arid Philosophy ?
We say without reserve, that this book of Mr. James’s, if we except a small and unpretending treatise by the same author, published a few years since, on the “ Nature of Evil,” is the first we have met with, in the range of modern religious controversy, which goes to the heart and marrow of the subject.
To see into what straits we had been brought, call to mind the essentials of the Kantian and Scotch philosophies, which have dominated the German and English mind, and partially the French mind, for the last quarter of a century. Kant resolves all our knowledge into the science of phenomena. Our faculties give us nothing but the phenomena of consciousness; and the phenomena of consciousness are not noumenal existence, or existence in se. Nor have we any right to reason from phenomena to noumena, or to say that the former authenticate the latter. We know only the Ego. The NonEgo lies on the other side of a yawning chasm, — if, indeed, there is anything on the other side, which is doubtful. The Ego becomes the centre of the Universe, and God, who comes under the Non-Ego, lies somewhere on the circumference, and is only yielded to us as the product of our moral instinct. Sir William Hamilton, following Reid, asserts a natural Realism, or noumenal existence within the phenomenal ; but he utterly denies that either of these authenticates the Infinite and Absolute. He and his disciple, Dr. Mansel, labor immensely' to prove that there can be no such thing as a philosophy of the Infinite, and that to attempt such a philosophy leads us into inextricable confusion and self-contradiction.
In thus degrading Philosophy, unchurching her ignominiously, as fit only to deal with the Finite, — in other words, making her the lackey of mere Science, — they fancy they are doing famous service to Revelation. Very well,—we are ready to say, —.having scourged Philosophy out of the temple, will you please, Gentlemen, to conduct us yourselves towards its hallowed shrine ? If Philosophy cannot yield us a knowledge of the Infinite, we take it that Revelation, as you apprehend it, can. We, poor prodigals, have been feeding long enough upon husks that the swine do eat, and crave a little nourishing food. — The answer we get is, that Revelation does not propose to give us any such fare. Not any more than Philosophy does Revelation disclose to us the Infinite. It only gives us finite conceptions and formulas about the Infinite. The gulf between us and God yawns wide as ever, and is eternal. We mustworship still an unknown God, as the heathen did. But we have this consolation,— that we have creed-articles which we can get by' heart, though ignorant of what they mean, and under what these philosophers call a “regulative” religion repeat our paternosters to the end of time.
“ These be thy gods, 0 Philosophy ! exclaims Dr. Mansel to the German Pantheists, pointing to the bloodless spectres which they have evoked in place of Christianity. “ These be thy gods, 0 Scotch Metaphysics ! ” the Pantheists might reply, when called upon to worship the wooden images in which avowedly no pulse of the Infinite and Absolute ever beats or ever can beat.
Mr. James’s whole argument, as he deals with the German and Scotch philosophies, is profound and masterly. He uses two sets of weapons, both of them with admirable skill. One set is awfully destructive. He clears off the rubbish of the pseudometaphysics with a logic so remorseless that we are tempted sometimes to cry for mercy. But, on the whole, Mr. James is right here. If men pretending to add to the stock of human knowledge treacherously knock away its foundations, and bring down the whole structure into a heap of rubbish, leaving us, if not killed outright, unhoused in a limbo of Atheism, — or if men pretending to hold the keys of knowledge will not go in themselves, and shut the doors in our faces when we seek to enter, no matter how sharply their treachery and charlatanry are exposed, however famous are the names they bear.
But Mr. James is quite as much constructive as destructive. He shows not only that there must be a philosophy of the Infinite, but that herein is its high office and glory Sense deals only with facts, — science deals with relations, or groups phenomena ; and when these usurp the place of philosophy, they turn things exactly upside down, or mistake the centre for the circumference. This is the glaring fault both of the German and the Scotch metaphysicians, that they swamp philosophy in mere science; and hence they grovel in the Finite, and muddle everything they touch even there. Revelation, on the other hand, does unfold to us a true philosophy of the Infinite. It shows how the Infinite is contained in the Finite, the Absolute in the Relative, not spatially or by continuation, but by exact correspondency, as the soul is contained in the body. Mr. James demonstrates the supreme absurdity of the notion of noumenal existence, or of any created existence which has life in se. God alone has life in Himself. All things else are only forms and receptacles of life, sheerly phenomenal, except so far forth as He is their substance. The notion of Creation as something made out of nothing, having life afterwards in se, and so holding an external relation to Deity, falsifies all the theologies, and degrades them into mere natural religions. “ It is the mother-fallacy,” says Mr. James, “ which breeds all these petty fallacies in the popular understanding.” Those familiar with Dr. Mansel’s argument will see that he has not the remotest conception of Creation, except as an exploit of God in time and space, or of the Infinite, except as an unbounded aggregation of finites. That God reposed alone through all the past eternities, but roused some day and sent forth a shout, or six successive shouts, and spoke things out of nothing into “ noumenal ” existence, were absurd enough, to use Mr. James’s nervous English, “to nourish a standing army of Tom Paines into annual famess.” The utter childishness of the theological quarrels over the first chapter of Genesis is obvious enough, so long as both parties swamp the spirit in the letter, or deny that the Finite can reveal the Infinite.
Following out his favorite postulate, that God alone has life in Himself, and all things else are only phenomena of life, Mr. James evolves the doctrine of Creation, of Man and Nature, and of Redemption, steering clear alike of the shoals of Atheism and the devouring jaws of Pantheism. In his constructive argument he draws upon the vast wealth of Swedenborg, and herein, as we conceive, lie has done a rare service to our literature. Both the popular and ecclesiastical conception of Swedenborg would be ludicrously, if they were not shamefully inadequate. He has been known hut little, except as a ghost-seer, or as a Samson grinding painfully in sectarian mills. Mr. James has done something like justice to his broad humanity, and his incomparably profound and exhaustive philosophy. It was Kant who first called him a ghostseer ; but while Kant was doing his best to turn all realities into the ghastliest of spectres, and remove all the underpinning of faith, till the heavens themselves should tumble through, Swedenborg was laying the foundation of all knowledge on the solid floors of Nature, subordinating sense to science, science to philosophy, philosophy to revelation, each serving as the impregnable support of its superior, and all filled and quickened with the life of God, and lighted up with those divine illuminations in whose illustrious morning the first and fainiest cock-crowing would scare the ghosts of the Kantian philosophy out of the universe.
We have regarded Mr. James for some time as among the first of American essayists. There are few writers whose thought is more worthy to be spoken, or whose grand and nervous English displays it in finer shades and nobler proportions. The present volume is his crowning work, and he has coined his life blood into it. But as honest critics we have some grounds of quarrel with him. A man has no right to be obscure who can make words so flexible and luminous as he can. In the present volume, his readers who here make his first acquaintance will inevitably misconstrue him, simply because he alters the fundamental nomenclature of religion and moral science. Religion with him means chiefly Ritualism, and we find only by the most wide-awake searching that he means anything else. Morality means the Selfhood, not social justice, not that which hinds the individual in his relations to society and to humanity. Very true, religion has operated mainly with precatory rites for the purpose of deflecting God’s wrath, or, as Mr. James would say, with some sneaking design upon His bounty. And morality has been the starched buckram in which men walk and strut for distinguished consideration. But religion in its true and native meaning is that which binds man to God in loving unison, and morality covers all the relations which bind a man to his neighbor, not assumed as decorations of the selfhood, but with all divine charities flowing through them. So Swedenborg uses the word morality. See his noble chapter on Charity in the “ True Christian Religion.” And for ourselves, we have not the least idea of abandoning these honored words either to superstitious formalists or handsome scoundrels.
We have no such respect for the Devil as Mr. James has expressed for him, even when transformed into the gentleman and utilized for beneficent purposes. Nor do we see how the gap in Mr. James’s argument is to be closed up, while he avows his belief in the eternity of the hells, and yet holds that we are ab intra the unqualified creations of God. Again, we should take exception to his favorite position, or, rather, the batteries he opens from it, that saints and scoundrels are not different in the sight of God, allowing the sense which alone, of course, he intends, different in se.
But the merits of the book, as one of the noblest and profoundest contributions to philosophy which have been produced, are undeniable. Mr. Janies possesses two qualities in very rare combination, the power of subtile metaphysical analysis and the power of picturesque representation, so that, while he tasks the thinking faculty of his readers to the utmost, he chains their attention by the fascination of his rhetoric. His sturdy honesty is everywhere apparent, and his success the most complete which we have yet witnessed in rescuing Philosophy from her degrading bondage to Sense, and restoring her to the divine service of Revelation.