The Prospect of a Moral Interregnum

IN a paper on the results of universal suffrage which appeared a short time ago in the Atlantic Monthly, among the adverse influences for which allowance ought to be made was mentioned the disturbance of morality, political and general, at the present juncture by the breaking up of religious belief. The writer has since been struck, on more than one occasion, by the unsuspecting complacency with which thinkers of the materialist or the Agnostic school seem to regard the immediate future; as though religion had been merely an obstruction in the way of science, and its removal were sure to be followed by a happy acceleration of scientific progress without danger to morality, or to anything else in human life. Some of them speak as if the peculiar moral code of Christianity would remain unaffected, or would even practically gain influence, by the total destruction of the Christian faith. They seem almost to think that under the reign of evolution, natural selection, and the struggle for existence the Sermon on the Mount will still be accepted as perfectly true; that the Christian beatitudes will retain their place; and that meekness, humility, poverty of spirit, forgiveness, unworldliness, will continue to be regarded as virtues. Much less do they suspect that the brotherhood of man may fall when its present foundation fails, or that the weak things of this world may miss the protection which the life and death of Christ and the consecration of his character have hitherto afforded them against the strong. The truth is that many who have renounced Christianity have not yet ceased to be Christians, or begun to regard human nature and society from any but an essentially Christian point of view. In the next generation Evolutionists and the belief in the struggle for existence will be clear of the penumbra of gospel morality, and the world will then have their Sermon on the Mount.

It is commonly assumed by positivists (if that is the appropriate name for the anti - theological school) that the religions of the world have been merely so many primitive and unscientific attempts to explain the origin of things and the phenomena of nature by reference to the arbitrary action of a divinity or a group of divinities. Were it so, we might see the last of them go to its grave without misgiving, or rather with a jubilant, sense of final emancipation. But the fact surely is quite otherwise. The religions have been much more than infantine cosmogonies or explanations of physical phenomena: each of them in its turn has been the basis of moral life, and especially of the moral life of the community; each of them after its fashion has been the support of righteousness and the terror of unrighteousness. Overlaid and disguised by fable, ceremony, and priestcraft the moral element has been, but it has always been present in everything that could be called a religious system. Particularly is this true of the great religions, and above all of Christianity, which is clearly an effort to improve morality and to give it a consecrated type and a divine foundation, not to explain phenomena of any kind. Apart, indeed, from miracles, which belong to a totally different category, the gospel says very little about the physical world; it rebukes an excessive belief in special interpositions of Providence by the apologue of the Tower of Siloam, and in the single petition “ Give us this day our daily bread ” it hardly implies anything more than sustaining care.

So with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. This may have been always mixed up more or less with animistic fancy, but animistic fancy is not the essence of it; the essence of it is, to righteousness assured reward, to unrighteousness inevitable retribution.

It may be that morality is now about to disengage itself finally from religion, and to find a new basis in science; but in the past it has rested on religious belief, and the collapse of religious belief has accordingly been always followed by a sort of moral interregnum.

It will not be questioned that the moral civilization of Hellas, for instance, in her earlier and brighter day, was supported by her religion. This is seen in every page of Herodotus, Æschylus, Pindar, Sophocles, the best mirrors of the heroic age. It appears in the religious character of Hellenic art, of the drama, of the games, as well as in the influence of the Eleusinian mysteries. It appears above all in the authority of the Delphic oracle. During that age, manifestly, power not seldom was led to forego its advantage, strength to respect the rights of weakness, by fear of the gods. In the relations between the separate states and their conduct towards each other the influence of religion wielded by the Delphic oracle was evidently powerful for good. Hellenic life, public and

private, in those days was full of religion, which presented itself in different forms according to individual character and intellect: in the philosopher approaching moral theism, while among the people at large it was fed with ceremony and fable.

Every one knows the passage in Œdipus Tyrannus hymning in language of breadth and grandeur unsurpassed the religious source of the moral law: “ Be it ever mine to keep a devout purity concerning all things, whether words or deeds, whereof the laws are established on high, born of the heavenly ether, having no sire but Olympus, the offspring of none of mortal mold, nor ever to be buried in oblivion. Great in these is the divine power, and it waxeth not old.”

In Herodotus, Glaucus, renowned for his righteousness, receives a large deposit of money from a stranger. When, the depositor being dead, his sons apply for the money, the virtue of Glaucus fails; he repudiates his trust. Afterwards he consults the Delphic oracle on the propriety of forswearing himself to keep his prize. “ O Glaucus,” answers the oracle, “for the present it is expedient for thee to gain thy cause by false swearing and to embezzle the money. Swear, then; all alike must die, he that sweareth falsely and he that doth not. But the Oath hath an offspring that is nameless, without hands or feet; yet swiftly it pursues a man, till it overtakes and destroys his whole house and race. But he that sweareth and deceiveth not is in his posterity more blessed.” Glaucus implores the god to pardon him and to spare his race. But the oracle replies that to tempt the god is as bad as to do the act; and though Glaucus restores the money, the divine wrath extirpates his race, that penalty being the primitive and tribal equivalent for the future punishment threatened by more spiritual creeds.

That the sanction of morality in the conception of the historian and his contemporaries was not merely prudential, or of the kind cognizable by social science, but religious, appears most plainly from the words of the oracle, placing the corrupt thought on a level with the evil deed.

Hellenic religion, however, was entangled with a gross mythology, immoral legends, a worship of sacrifices, a thaumaturgic priesthood, an infantine cosmogony, a polytheistic division of the physical universe into the domains of a number of separate deities. It fell before awakened intellect and the first efforts of scientific speculation. Its fall and the rise of a physical philosophy on its ruins were ultimately conducive to progress. But Hellenic morality, especially public and international morality, felt the withdrawal of its basis. In Thucydides the presence of scientific skepticism in its early stage is strongly marked; at its side appears political Machiavelism, if we may use that name by anticipation; and the same page testifies to the general dissolution of moral ties and the lapse of Hellas into a state in which might made right, and public life became a mere struggle for existence, wherein the fittest, that is the strongest or the most cunning, survived. The Athenian envoys, in their controversy with the Melians, which is evidently intended by Thucydides to dramatize the prevailing morality, frankly enunciate the doctrine that the more powerful must give the law, putting aside as the sheerest simplicity the idea that any one can expect to be sheltered by moral right; and their unhappy antagonists betray by their counter-plea a tragical consciousness that there is no power to which the weaker can appeal. In the well-known passage of the third book, moralizing on the civil war of Corcyra, the historian seems to struggle with the difficulties of rudimentary language in his endeavor to describe the general outburst of moral anarchy, — the unbridled perfidy, the treachery, factious violence, disregard of oaths and treaties, savage vindictiveness, inversion of moral ideas, exultation in evil, and, to use his own expression, the utter confusion of Hellenic life which reigned around him. In his explanation of the phenomena, the skeptical writer does not go beyond the immediate causes, faction and ambition; but his words on the disregard of oaths and the failure of religious restraints (eusebeia) indicate the connection between the collapse of religious belief and the ruin of morality.

Let Grote say what he will in vindication of the Sophists and against the common conception of them, it seems unreasonable to doubt that Hellenic depravity produced its Machiavels. Thucydides himself, by his praise of such a character as Antiphon, shows that he shared the moral obliquity which he paints. To combat the sophistic teachings and to stem the current of demoralization a pair of reformers arose, a sort of double star in the intellectual firmament,— Socrates and Plato, the moral life and its expositor. The Platonic philosophy is an attempt to establish morality on a new basis, immutable and indefeasible, beyond the flux of circumstance and above the specious shows of expediency; and this new basis, like that which it replaces, is manifestly religious. The ideas, or eternal and unchangeable essences, of Plato are an impersonal God, dimly conceived ; they are what a writer of the present day tries to express by “ the Eternal not ourselves which makes for righteousness.” But the time had not come for any except the highest minds to dispense with traditional anthropomorphism, or accept a God manifested only in conscience and in the upward aspirations and strivings of the soul. Therefore, to conservatives Socrates seemed a revolutionary skeptic. By the conservative Aristophanes he was assailed as a subverter of religion and of morality at the same time, just as a liberal theologian, trying to give us fresh assurance of our faith, would be assailed by tory orthodoxy at the present day. An attempt was afterwards made by the positivist Aristotle to place morality, not on a religious, but on a scientific and secular basis. His treatise is a work of genius, but in its main object it is a failure. Its cardinal doctrine that virtue is a mean, if true in a certain sense, is almost valueless; it supplies no motive power, and there is no reason for believing that it produced any effect upon Hellenic life.

That Roman virtue, public and private, was sustained by reverence for the gods is a fact which needs no proof. It is specially attested in a famous passage of Polybius, a foreign observer, shrewd, cool-headed, and, as the passage itself shows, no devotee. He compares together the principal polities of the world, and awards the palm to the Roman polity on account of its religious character. “The thing in which the Roman commonwealth seems to me especially to have the advantage over all others is religious sentiment. That which is elsewhere decried as superstition seems to me, in the case of Rome, to be the salvation of the state. I mean the fear of the gods. To so high and almost extravagant a pitch is this carried by them, both in public and private life, that nothing can exceed it. For my part, I regard this as a concession to the requirements of the multitude. In a commonwealth consisting wholly of wise men, such a policy would scarcely be needful. But as the multitude is always giddy, full of lawless desires, unreasoning anger, and all sorts of headstrong passions, the only course is to restrain it by fear of the invisible and by impressive figments of this kind. Wherefore, in my judgment, it was not without good reason that the statesmen of old instilled into the minds of the vulgar these notions about the gods and the belief in a future retribution. I should rather say that the statesmen of the present day are unwise and heedless in rejecting them. To take a single instance: among the Greeks, those who are intrusted with public money, even a single talent, in spite of their having ten sureties, as many seals, and double the number of witnesses, cannot be faithful to their trust; whereas among the Romans, though public men, as magistrates or ambassadors, often have in their hands large sums of public money, the obligation of their oath suffices by itself to keep them in the path of right. In other nations you seldom find official purity ; among the Romans you as seldom find official corruption.”

Roman religion, like that of Hollas, succumbed, and to forces similar in the main, though the philosophic and scientific skepticism was not native, but an importation from Hellas. Practical good sense probably played a more important part in the overthrow of superstition at Rome than in Hellas, and strategy would soon find it necessary to set the auguries at defiance. Contact with a great variety of religions, the toleration of which was prescribed by policy, must have bred a cynical indifference in the administrators and soldiers of the empire, as contact with the religion of the East undermined the Christian orthodoxy of the Templars. The result, at all events, was general skepticism, or indifference, and the decay of the reverence for the gods, in which Polybius saw the main-stay of Roman virtue. At the same time a tremendous strain was laid on public morality by the circumstances of the empire. There ensued a cataclysm of selfish ambition, profligate corruption, and murderous faction, which left to society only the choice between chaos and a military despotism. In the case of Hellas, also, the fall of liberty follows closely on the decay of religion. We must be careful, of course, in assigning the causes of the deterioration of public character, in Hellas as well as in republican Rome, to allow a due share to the pressure of external circumstances, such as the fatal rivalries of the republics and the growth of the Macedonian power. But upon the decline of Catholicism a similar lapse of Europe from the imperfect liberty of the feudal era into general despotism ensues; and after the second great collapse of religion in France comes the empire of the Bonapartes, an avowed reproduction of tliat of the Cæsars. Be the significance of the fact what it may, a fact it seems to be that hitherto only men with a religious belief, and a sanction for morality which they believe to be divine have been able to live under a government of law; and if any one doubts that there has been a certain thread of connection between the eclipse of faith and the need of a government of force to keep men from mutual destruction and rapine, let him turn once more to the Leviathan of Hobbes. A political religion, to be sure, Hobbes has, but it is political indeed.

The last effort to reform the Roman republic and save what, with all its maladies and evils, was at least a government of law was made by religious men; for Cato and Cicero were believers, not in the auguries, but in a supreme power of right, while Cæsar and his party were followers of Epicurus. When morality rallied, it was on a religious basis, at Rome not less than in Hellas, as anyone who is acquainted with Roman Stoicism must know. Not only are the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus theistic; they are in some respects thoroughly pietist. It is not surprising that this philosophy and the law, improved in humanity, which stoic jurists molded, should have been claimed as the offspring of Christianity. Christian ideas, especially the Christian idea of human brotherhood, were no doubt in the air.

Proof will not be required of the fundamentally religious character of life and society in the Middle Ages. Witnesses enough present themselves in the works of that religious art which has almost carried captive to the faith whereto it once ministered the reason of a later and more enlightened time. The creed of the Middle Ages, it is true, was one derived from a preceding civilization. It was the creed of the later Roman Empire, which, however, it had failed to transform, mainly through the repellent influence of slavery; Christian brotherhood, and purity at the same time, remaining unattainable so long as one portion of mankind was given up to the tyranny and the lust of the other portion. Still it was evidently from the gospel transmitted through the Christian clergy that the new nations drew the ideas of a universal Father, of a brotherhood of mankind, of humanity itself; that they learned to believe in a society embracing all races, a common effort and a common hope, international relations modified by those beliefs, the indefeasible sanctity of human life, mercy, humility, charity, the spiritual equality of the sexes, purity, the value of virtues other than military, the spiritual worth and dignity of the weak things of this world. There are those who call mediæval Christendom and Christendom altogether a vast relapse of humanity, or at best a suspension of progress, simply because physical science during those centuries did not advance, though it advanced not less than it had done under the pagan empire. A man of comprehensive mind, however devoted to science and hostile to priestcraft, will not refuse to recognize the happy transition of society from slavery through serfage to free labor; the notions of mutual right and duty of which even the feudal system was the school; the combination of responsibility with power in Christian monarchy; the development of liberty, both political and personal, by means of Parliaments and free cities; the services rendered by monasticism in its better day, as the asylum of culture and gentleness; the dignity which the monk conferred on labor; the ideal of self-devotion presented by chivalry, which in the battle - fields of Palestine rescued Western civilization, as it had before been rescued at Marathon and Salamis, from the barbarism and pollution of Eastern invasion. But the great achievement, and the one to which, for the purpose of the present inquiry, we would specially call attention, is the homage which force, in a military age, was constrained to pay to something higher than itself, and which forms the first condition and the most distinct mark of civilization. The fierce and proud Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, after a life of war, sends on his death-bed for a bishop; when the bishop enters with the body of the Lord, he ties a rope round his own neck in token of his being a felon before God, casts himself down on the floor, and refuses to be raised tillh he has been received back as a penitent into the allegiance which in the midst of his violence his heart had never renounced. His corpse is borne to the tomb through a great storm; but the tapers are not extinguished, and the people infer that the terrible earl has been received among the sons of light. Here we have a moral restraint; for the earl evidently does not think that he can buy salvation, or secure it by mere priestly thaumaturgy and talismans. It is a restraint which may not have been without its influence even over that wild life, and which in the case of natures less fierce can hardly have failed to produce considerable effects. Religion inspired the international equity of St. Louis, who voluntarily gave up territories which he thought not rightfully his, to the ill-concealed disgust of the Chauvinist historians of his country at the present day. In the thirteenth century as in the seventeenth, political progress in England was closely connected with religious enthusiasm. De Montfort was devout and the associate of ecclesiastical reformers, while the character of the magnanimous foster father of liberty, the great Edward I., was also distinctly formed by his religion.

Catholicism fell through the superstitions and impostures which had gathered round it, and which intellect, awakened by the Renaissance, spurned away; through papal tyranny and clerical corruption; through the general ossification, so to speak, of a system which had once in all its organs ministered to spiritual life. With it fell the morality which it had sustained, and once more we find ourselves in a moral interregnum. In Italy it is the era of the Borgias, the Tyrants, and Machiavelli; in France, of the civil wars, with all their crimes and treacheries; in England, of the Wars of the Roses. Catherine de’ Medicis and the Guises belong to it as well as the profligate and murderous leaders of the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. So does Henry VIII., with his uxoricides and his judicial murders, and so does Elizabeth, with her vicious court and her own wickedness. It does not end among the upper class in England till religion is revived in the form of Puritanism, and brings with it a renewed morality. Machiavel is everywhere the great political teacher of this period. Bacon himself shows the taint in his political writings as well as in his public life: “ To deal in person is best, where a man’s face breedeth regard, as commonly with inferiors; or in tender eases, where a man’s eyes upon the countenance of him with whom he speaketh may give him a direction how far to go; and generally when a man will reserve to himself liberty, either to disavow or to expound.”

In Italy a last stand was made for morality and liberty together by the religious enthusiast, Savonarola. A scene in the life of that man helps us to understand the difference between the genuine religion, the morality with a divine support, which was passing away, and the formal religion, of which abundance still remained. The formal religion was ready enough to shrive the dying Lorenzo; but his conscience told him that this was not the voice of morality, and that he could obtain assurance of absolution only from Savonarola.

In each eclipse of religious faith there has prevailed, at once as a nemesis and as a spiritual make-shift, a charlatan superstition. In the case of Hellas it was soothsaying; in that of Rome astrology and the thaumaturgic mysteries of Isis; in the Catholic decadence astrology again; at the present day it is spiritualism, while even astrology has, or recently had, its votaries in England.

Once more European morality was renewed by a revival of religious faith. It is needless to say that there was a Catholic as well as a Protestant Reformation, though the disparity between the two in point of moral efficacy was great. In England, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, religious belief in a large, section of society had again declined, and morality with it, when both were restored by the evangelical movement, which was unquestionably a moral reformation as well as a religious revival.

It will be said that all this time social science did not exist, the hour for its appearance in the course of intellectual development not having come, and that if it had existed it might’have superseded these efforts to find for morality a new basis in religion. We desire to bear this constantly in mind. But the present question is, In the case of a collapse of religions belief, what, according to the indications of history, is likely to happen, unless social science is ready at once to step in and fill the void?

A collapse of religious belief, of the most complete and tremendous kind, is apparently now at hand. At the time of the Reformation the question was, after all, only about the form of Christianity; and even the skeptics of the last century, while they rejected Christ, remained firm theists; not only so, but they mechanically retained the main principles of Christian morality, as we see very plainly in Rousseau’s Vicaire Savoyard and Voltaire’s letters on the Quakers. Very different is the crisis at which we have now arrived. No one who has watched the progress of discussion and the indications of opinion in literature and in social intercourse can doubt that, in the minds of those whose views are likely to become — and in an age when all thought is rapidly popularized soon to become —the views of society at large, belief in Christianity as a revealed and supernatural religion has given way. Science and criticism combined have destroyed the faith of free inquirers in the Mosaic cosmogony, in the inspiration of the Bible and the genuineness of many books of it, in large portions of the history of the Old Testament, and in the history of the New Testament so far as it is miraculous or inseparably connected with miracles. The mortal blow has been given by criticism in disproving or rendering uncertain the authenticity of the historical books of the New Testament. Reasonings as to the antecedent probability or improbability of miracles are wholly inconclusive; to Hume’s argument that experience excludes miracles the ready answer is that miracles, if they occurred, would be a part of experience. It is simply a question of evidence. To prove a miracle, everybody but a mystic would say that we require the testimony of eye-witnesses, and those numerous and good. But unless the authenticity of the historical books of the New Testament can be certainly established, we have no eye-witnesses of the Christian miracles at all; and in the absence of such testimony the adverse arguments derived from the uniformity of nature and from mythological analogy, which traces the belief in miracles to the universal propensities of uncritical ages, rush in with overwhelming force. In fact, in almost any book written by a learned man who feels himself at liberty to say what he really thinks, you will now find the miracles abandoned, though it may be with evident reluctance and with faltering lips. Mesmero-miraculism, such as is introduced into some popular lives of Christ, is palpably enough invented for the purpose of breaking the fall.

Not supernatural religion alone, but the existence of a Deity itself, has for many minds, and those the minds of good, able, and highly instructed men, ceased to be an object of distinct belief, if it has not become an object, of distinct disbelief. The emancipated and emboldened lips of science have met the theist’s argument of Design with the apparent evidences of the absence of design, waste and miscarriage in the heavens and the earth, seemingly purposeless havoc and extinction of races; while philosophy has breathed doubt upon the logical validity of the reasonings which satisfied the apologists of former days. The argument of Beneficence is encountered by the perplexing array of the cruelties — often apparently gratuitous cruelties — of nature. Above all, creation is supposed to have been supplanted by evolution, which, in spite of partial objections, lingering doubts, and the imperfections sure to be found in any newborn theory, is to all appearances destined soon to be the creed of the world. With the belief in a Deity perishes that in the immortality of the soul, which, apart from animistic superstitions and special fancies about the other world, is a belief in the connection of the human soul with the Eternal. Nothing apparently is left but the secular consequences of conduct, human law, which the strong may make or unmake, and reputation, which success, even criminal success, may to a great extent command. That which prevails as Agnosticism among philosophers and the highly educated prevails as secularism among mechanics, and in that form is likely soon to breed mutinous questionings about the present social order among those who get the poorer share, and who can no longer be appeased by promises of compensation in another world. All English literature, even that which is socially and politically most conservative, teems with evidences of a change of sentiment, the rapid strides of which astonish those who revisit England at short intervals. There is a recoil, of course, from the brink, which looks like a reaction, and there is a political rallying round the established church, which in what have been called tory-atheist journals is seen in grotesque union with cynical repudiation of that church’s creed. There is perhaps an increase of church-building and church-going, but the crust of outward piety is hollow, and growing hollower every day. Those who know the inward parts of American society will be able to say better tban the writer whether the same process is going on there. It is true — and the fact is of the profoundest significance and of the highest importance— that in the minds of some men who combine great depth of character with powerful and scientific intellect the religious sentiment, stripped of all special forms and formularies, appears as a sentiment to have grown stronger than ever. Here, perhaps, is something which whispers that the succession of attempts to connect the soul and life of man with the soul and life of the universe, which we call religions, and which have upborne the great types of character, the great civilizations, the great efforts of humanity, are not destined to end in futility and final failure. But at present, if a man of this class admits you to the recesses of his thoughts, you find there nothing definite, nothing communicable, nothing which will serve the purposes of humanity at large; some make-shift drawn from personal study or experience, some mixture, perhaps, of Christian ethics with ancient philosophy, a plank of the theological wreck which will barely hold two.

What then, we ask, is likely to be the effect of this revolution on morality? Some effect it can hardly fail to have. Evolution is force, the struggle for existence is force, natural selection is force. It is not possible, at all events, that their enthronement in place of the Christian theory should leave untouched a type of character which is a renunciation of force,—which is weakness, humility, poverty of spirit, self-abnegation. But what will become of the brotherhood of men and of the very idea of humanity? Historically these beliefs are evidently Christian. Will they survive the doctrines with which in the Christian creed they are inseparably connected of the universal Fatherhood of God and of the fraternal relation of all men to Christ? On what other basis do they rest? God, says the New Testament, “ hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” Blot out the name of the Creator, and on what does this assertion of the unity and virtual equality of mankind rest? What principle forbids the stronger races and those that have superior fire-arms to prey upon the weaker? What guards the sanctity of human life, if there is nothing more divine in man than in any other animal? Mr. Roebuck says, “ The first business of a colonist is to clear the country of wild beasts, and the most noxious of all the wild beasts is the wild man.” What is to be said in answer to this, and why is it not to be extended in principle to all the human lives which may stand in the way of the elect of nature, the strong and cunning masters of their kind? Nothing, we must recollect, can in any but a figurative sense be henceforth sacred; everything must present its natural title to existence, which, according to the theory of evolution, must apparently be some sort of force. It may be the collective force of a community, not that of an individual; but if the individual gets the better of the community, as a successful tyrant does, it would seem that there is no more to be said.

Science is not. neglectful of the need. She is presenting us with elaborate delineations of the origin, growth, and dissolution of human communities, from the point of view and in the terms of evolution, that is, of force. But those delineations, supposing them to square with the facts of history, — which we venture to think some of the most elaborate of them are far from doing, — scarcely touch our moral being; much less do they furnish a new motive power, either impelling or restraining, for the actions of the individual man. Being theories of which the principle is force, they in fact exclude morality in the common acceptation and practical sense of the term. Being necessarian, they, according to the existing perceptions of the human mind, exclude responsibility and effort, that is, the elements of moral life. Hereafter the difficulty of reconciling necessarianism with responsibility and effort may be overcome; it has not been overcome yet. Christianity had taught that we were all members one of another; political economy, that the progress of society was marked by a division of trades. We are now told that society is actually and literally an organism, and that the trades are organs. As to the latter part of the proposition it may be remarked that, though trades are specialized in the progress of society, men are not, but on the contrary become more general in their ideas, knowledge, relations, and functions, especially in free states. But if society is an organism, it must be an organism in such a sense as to admit antagonisms of volition without limit, and mutual injury, designed as well as undesigned. For all this — we are speaking of an immediate need — the mere theory affords no cure, unless it can be shown that the injury is always perfectly reciprocal, and that an English minister (to take the example of the hour) who launches havoc upon an Afghan village suffers as much as the slaughtered peasant, which will hardly be the case, unless they are both to stand before some tribunal other than that of force. It is difficult at present even to conceive how any mechanical or physiological theory of humanity as a whole can evolve, for the individual man, a moral motive power.

Are there no practical symptoms of a change? In France from the atheism as well as the anarchy of the Revolution rose Napoleon. He was an Agnostic, thoroughbred; all the more evidently so because he coolly restored religion for the purposes of his policy. He constantly avowed and formulated the Agnostic and evolutionary creed, the ascendency of force, — force moral as well as military: “ Let two or three towns be sacked to produce a moral effect.” By a clear enough process he was evolved and lifted to power; nature selected him out of a thousand ambitious adventurers. In the struggle for existence he survived, — survived the Duc d’Enghien, Pichegru, and every one who crossed his path to empire. To create his power and his institutions millions perished; as millions have perished to create a bed of limestone. What have Agnosticism and evolution to oppose to the warrant of his success? The French Agnostics had nothing. They produced no Socrates or Savonarola. They bowed before Napoleon, acted under him, and worshiped him; only when his force had encountered a greater force they turned against him, because he was unsuccessful, as Talleyrand plainly enough avowed, — not because he was immoral.

The worship of success, signally exemplified in the adoration of a character such as that of Napoleon, seems to be the morality of evolution supplanting that of Christianity. When the second Napoleon, after mounting his uncle’s throne by the same unscrupulous use of force, rode in triumph into London, a leading English journal derided the morality which protested against paying homage to a success achieved by treachery, perjury, and massacre as a morality of Sunday-schools. It was precisely so, and now the Sunday-schools seem likely to lose their authority and disappear. It may be said that success has always been worshiped. Success has alalways commanded servile deference, but it has not always been worshiped. Nothing will be found in mediæval chroniclers, for example, resembling the spirit which pervades Thiers’s history of the Empire. The vision of the monk may be, and often is, narrowed by his asceticism, or distorted by his fanaticism. He can see no good in a king who is an enemy of the church, and hardly any evil in one who is her friend ; but a morality which he believes to be divine is under his feet like adamant; he stands erect in spirit before what he regards as wickedness, however successful it may be, and at most looks upon it with awe as a scourge in the hand of God.

In England you hear it said on all sides that the old rules are relaxed and the old lines broken through; that commercial adventurers who have made fortunes by questionable means, unscrupulous political intriguers, and even brilliant courtesans occupy in virtue of their success a position which they never occupied before. This appears to be the fact, and when full allowance has been made for the mere influence of circumstances, such as the rapid growth of wealth, it will probably be found that there is a real change of principle and sentiment. It is not likely that there would at once be a sensible alteration in the moral code of private life; much less that any sudden change would be visible in the character or conduct of men trained in high principles, engaged perhaps in science, philosophy, or other exalting pursuits, and, it may be, put upon their mettle to prove that virtue has no need of support from superstition.

The incipient change of principle, however, is more perceptible in another quarter, where, in fact, the strain upon the old morality being greatest, we should expect the relaxation first to appear. We mean the sentiment and conduct of England as an imperial country towards weaker communities and subject races. Those who have paid attention to the history of English opinion will probably agree with us in saying that heretofore, bad as the practice might sometimes be, the Christian principle of human brotherhood was acknowledged, and it was allowed that all men, and all races of men, however weak or inferior, were equally entitled to justice and mercy. Nobody in the time of Wilberforce would have dared to avow that the rule in dealing with a Hindoo or an African was not to be equity, humanity, or respect for human life, but British interest and the requirements of British policy. Warren Hastings was acquitted by the lords, who, as an aristocracy, have always sympathized with the representatives of arbitrary government; but he was impeached, and Pitt, the tory leader, voted for his impeachment. His trial was at once an enlightenment of the national mind as to what was going on in the distant dependency, and an awakening of the national conscience which proved the commencement of reform; and his defense was conducted on grounds which, however unsatisfactory, were perfectly moral and consistent with the principle of humanity. Slavery and the slavetrade themselves were defended, not upon the ground that the higher race was at liberty to do what it pleased with the lower, but on the plea that the lot of the negro was improved by transporting him to a Christian and civilized country; and the hypocrisy in this, as in other cases, was a homage paid to the principle. But the slave-trade and afterwards slavery were abolished, — both at a great commercial sacrifice, to which, in the case of the second, was added the payment of a heavy indemnity. Had the same sentiment continued to prevail, it is not inconceivable that conquest. itself and imperial aggrandizement might in time have been relinquished, as radically inconsistent with the rule of humanity and benevolence which was imperfectly asserted in the impeachment of Warren Hastings.

That the same sentiment has not continued to prevail, all Englishmen who at the time of the American civil war were concerned in the struggle against an alliance with the slave power must well know. It was perfectly clear that, apart from every other opinion or feeling which was enlisted on the Southern side, there was in a considerable section at least of that party, if not a positive sympathy with slavery, certainly a very palpable abatement of the moral feeling against it. The denunciations of “ negrophilism ” which then resounded on all sides did not denote merely antipathy to Northern aggrandizement, or even to maudlin philanthropy, but dislike of emancipation; and had slavery been still in existence in the British colonies, a proposal to abolish it at that moment would have stood a very poor chance of success. Moral phenomena of the same kind marked the controversy arising out of the Jamaica massacre; for the enthusiastic supporters of Governor Eyre perfectly recognized in him an organ of the sanguinary vengeance of the dominant race, even if they did not believe that he had committed a foul judicial murder. On that occasion the moral equality of races and the universal sanctity of human life, which is the Christian doctrine and had up to that time been the doctrine of England, was formally denied by a man of great eminence, who said in plain terms that it was one thing to slaughter negroes, and another to slaughter Englishmen. It was replied that between slaughtering negroes and slaughtering people of any other race, reputed inferior, in the interest of a higher race, or even slaughtering the inferior members of the English race itself in the interest of those who might deem themselves the higher members, no distinct line could be drawn; and that a governing class, alarmed by threatenings of social revolution, might some day claim for itself in England the same license which the whites, in their Cruel panic, had claimed for themselves in Jamaica. If there is any one who finds it difficult to regard such a possibility as real, a reperusal of the very able treatise entitled Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity will assist his apprehension. That work embodies, in language of manly vigor, a frank repudiation of the Christian, and once English, doctrine of human brotherhood and brotherly love, with which, on the hypothesis of mere evolution and natural selection, it would not be easy to find fault.

The same eminent writer, the other day, in a letter on the subject of the Afghan war, took up with equal courage the position that in dealing with the weaker and less civilized communities the rule was to be, not “ international law,” that is, in effect, the recognized principles of equity, but the “ policy ” of England. Policy means interest and passion, which are thus apparently set loose from every restraint but the fear of superior force. It is now averred by the prime minister of England that the real object of the war was a “ scientific frontier,” and that Afghanistan was invaded, the villages burned, and the people killed in execution of that “policy.”

In the letters of British officers from South Africa, the phrase “our colored brethren ” is used to add zest to slaughter. In an English illustrated journal of the highest class there is a picture, in compartments, of incidents in the Zulu war. In one compartment a tall Zulu in chains is being ignominiously led captive by a diminutive British drummerboy. This perhaps is mere brag. Not so the representation in another compartment of “Jack’s captive,” a Zulu prisoner with a halter, the end of which is held by a jolly tar, round his neck, crouching in an agony of fear beneath a gallows on which he is evidently going to be hanged, while a bystander, apparently an officer, with a pipe in his month and a jaunty air, stares at the doomed wretch with a look of mockery. Still less doubt can there be about the animus of a third sketch, entitled Something to Hold By, in which two more jolly tars are holding down by the feet, and ears a Zulu whom they have caught hiding in the reeds, while an officer in the attitude of a man searching for game is coming up with a drawn sword. In a corresponding picture of the Afghan war, we see in one compartment a prisoner being flogged; in another, one being hanged; in a third, three prisoners, with the hands of all lashed to a pole behind them, are being shot in the back, and in their death agony, struggling different ways, they present a grotesque medley of attitudes which forms the fun of the sketch. It may pretty safely be said that these pictures, in which the inferior races are treated simply and literally as game for the British hunter, would not have been produced for the amusement of Englishmen and Englishwomen fifty or even thirty years ago, and that their appearance now denotes a change in the mind of the nation.

There have been protests and resistance, no doubt, but almost exclusively from religious quarters: from the free churches, which alone are organs of religious morality, the state church taking its morality from the state; from a portion of the ritualists, who are now so much at variance with the establishment as to be nearly a free church; and from that section of the Comtists which is avowedly and almost enthusiastically religious, though it prefers the name of Humanity to that of God.

We might refer also, in illustration of the general tendency, to t the exaltation (hideous it seemed to those who could not share it!) in the frightful butcheries during and after the suppression of the Indian mutiny. It is not of mere unmercifulness or panic fury that we speak, but of the new principle upon which the massacres were vindicated, and which could be clearly enough distinguished from the ordinary violence of passion.

It is not necessary to take a special view, or any view at all, of the Eastern Question, in order to perceive the moral significance, of the often-quoted passage in the dispatch of Sir Henry Eliot, the British ambassador at Constantinople, respecting the Bulgarian massacres: “ We may indeed and we must feel indignant at the needless and monstrous severity with which the Bulgarian insurrection was put down; but the necessity which exists for England to prevent changes from occurring here which would be most detrimental to ourselves is not affected by the question whether it was ten thousand or twenty thousand persons who perished in the suppression. We have been upholding what we knew to be a semi-civilized nation, liable under certain circumstances to be carried into fearful excesses; but the fact of this having just now been strikingly brought home to us cannot be sufficient reason for abandoning a policy which is the only one that can be followed with due regard to our own interests.” Pitt would have repudiated the sentiments, and probably ceased to employ the ambassador. But Sir Henry Eliot had a great body of British opinion with him. The journal which is the great organ at once of Agnosticism and aggrandizement confidently threatened with national scorn and indignation any government which, merely because the Turks had been guilty, as it confessed they had, of “ loathsome cruelty,” should shift the ground of English policy, which had for its ruling principle “ the irrepressible struggle for empire.” The practical deduction coheres perfectly with the principle thus avowed; and what is the irrepressible struggle for empire but evolution and natural selection applied to international relations ?

Perhaps some subtler indications of evolutionist influence may be discerned. There seems to prevail in the treatment of history and politics not only an increased impartiality and comprehensiveness, the happy offspring of science, but what may almost be called a furore of cynical moderation. Enthusiasm, selfsacrifice, heroism, if they are to continue to exist, must be provided with new aliments; they have hitherto certainly been fed by the belief that he who should lose his life in a good cause would in some form or other gain it. Yet without enthusiasm, self - sacrifice, heroism, how could humanity have been nerved for its grandest efforts, or saved from its greatest perils?

China is without any real religion; she is thoroughly positive; and she is simply conservative of the present, especially of the existing political and social order, without thought, of progress: the worship of ancestors seems to consecrate that idea. It is to something of this kind that the line on which materialists are moving seems to us really to tend. A hive of human bees is, we believe, the avowed ideal of some social philosophers. In the routine life of Chinese industry, submitting to almost mechanical laws, without reflection or aspiration, we have a hive of human bees.

The world is in no danger of another Peloponnesian war, or of a repetition of the convulsions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; but it is in considerable danger of a desperate conflict between different classes of society for the good things of that which people are coming to believe is the only world. Is it likely that the passions of such a conflict will be controlled by any motive derived from scientific definitions of evolution; by any consideration connected with the rhythm of motion, the instability of the homogeneous, or the multiplication of effects? Force is force, and its own warrant: so the strong will say, and upon this principle they will act in the struggle for existence and for the enjoyments of existence; they will be restrained only by something to which force must bow, and which no alembic, apparently, can extract from force itself.

Renan and others of his school scent danger from the operation of their criticism on the minds of the common people, in whose ideas they know that morality is bound up with religion. They propose, accordingly, that the clergy shall keep up religion for the masses, leaving the select few to think as they please. A pleasant element in a moral civilization would be a clergy so conscious of the fraud which it was practicing on the ignorant as to grant letters of exemption from belief to the learned! It is too late t for populus vult decipi. The people will have no lies. Mechanics are alive to the state of the case, or to all that is most material in it, not less than M. Renan himself. Needless disturbance of vital belief is to be deprecated on grounds higher than the selfish fears of wealth and literary fastidiousness; but good never came of trying to blindfold any one.

A less Jesuitical plea for caution might be founded on the present state of the inquiry and the novelty of the situation, if we could here presume to enter on so vast a theme. Agnosticism, if it means suspense of judgment and refusal to accept the unknown as known, is the natural frame of mind for any one who has followed the debate with an unprejudiced understanding, and who is resolved to be absolutely loyal to truth. To such a man existence must appear at this moment an unfathomable and overwhelming mystery. But let Agnosticism be true to itself, and not, while ostensibly declining to decide at all, assume and insinuate a negative decision. For a negative decision the hour has surely not yet arrived, especially as the world has hardly yet had time to draw breath after the bewildering rush of physical discovery. That the history of religion has closed, and that no more efforts will ever be made by the human mind to penetrate beyond the veil of sense and approach the Spirit of the Universe, is an opinion which rests mainly on the belief that religions are mere crude interpretations of natural phenomena; and that this is not their essence we have already ventured to submit. Suppose supernaturalism to be discarded; this does not put out of the question natural manifestations of Deity in the spiritual conceptions, efforts, and experiences of men. Christianity itself, though it may cease to be accepted as a miraculous revelation, remains the central fact of history; and as such it, in connection with other religions, seems to call for an examination which it has not yet received. It is true that religions thought is employed on objects not like those of science, perceived by the bodily sense. But let evolution itself, which presents all things as in course of development, say whether exhaustive apprehension and final authority can he claimed for the nerves of sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. Let evolution it self say, too, whether it is certain that organized matter is the ultimate goal of progress, and that nothing answering to the name of spirit can have been evolved. To the Eozoön the limits of the knowable were narrow. We are pleading merely for circumspection, and for a careful examination of the phenomena of religious history, which are phenomena like the rest. Religious sentiment is still strong in the minds of many scientific men, who find nothing in the pure monotheistic hypothesis that contradicts the results of science. At any rate, it is vain to bid men exclude these subjects from their minds, and think only of making the best of this world. The question in what hands we are — in those of goodness, of something other than goodness, or of blind force — is not one concerning the nature of things, of which we might be content to remain in ignorance; it is one concerning the estate of man, and it swallows up all others in its practical importance; the truth about it, if known, would affect all our conceptions, all our estimates of the value of objects, every action of our lives. It cannot be in its own nature insoluble; and on the hypothesis that we are in the hands of goodness there seems to be reason to hope for a solution, and to believe that the delay and the necessity of effort are part of a moral plan. Mankind are not bees; they have learned to look before and after, and will never be cured of the habit. The present will not satisfy or engross them. Let the place of their brief sojourn be made as commodious as possible by science, and, what is more, enriched as much as possible by affection. “ Aye, sir,” said Johnson, after being shown over a luxurious mansion, “these are the things that make death bitter.” Upon the materialist hypothesis of life, the pessimist has the best of the argument; and the effect of his unsparing scrutiny will soon appear.

So with regard to the immortality of the soul, if we are to retain that popular but somewhat, misleading phrase. Has it been conclusively shown that moral personality, or, to put aside the special questions which even the term personality might raise, spirit, depends for its being on the continuance of the material matrix in which it has been formed? If not, the question for the present remains open, and attention must not be refused to such a phenomenon as the existence in us of a sense of moral responsibility extending beyond this life and the opinions of our fellow - men, which, we must repeat, is a very different thing from any animistic fancies about disembodied spirits and ghosts.

Again, the question which is perhaps at the bottom of all, tainted as it has been by logomachy, the question of human free agency, seems to claim the benefit of the same consideration. It may be very difficult to reconcile our sense of free agency and of the responsibility attaching to it with the apparent arguments in favor of necessarianism, automatism, or whatever the opposite theory is to be called. But the difficulty is equally great of conceiving moral responsibility not to exist, or to exist without free agency. To ignore one element of our perplexity is merely to cut the logical knot with a sword. Have we an exhaustive knowledge of the possibilities of being, and can we say that free agency is excluded? If not, and if it must be allowed to be possible that in the ascending scale of being human free agency might at last emerge, we have to consider how its appearance could be manifested in any other way than those in which it is apparently manifested now, — our sense of a qualified freedom of choice before action, our consciousness of responsibility founded on the same belief after action, and our uniform treatment of our fellows as free and responsible agents. Science appeals to the reasonings of Jonathan Edwards as conclusive in favor of the necessarian theory. If Jonathan Edwards found the truth, it is very remarkable, since he never sought it for a moment. He was not a free inquirer,1 but a sectarian divine, trying to frame a philosophic apology for the dogma of his sect. He is reduced to the absurd conclusion that moral evil emanates directly from perfect goodness.

But these questions are beyond our present scope. The object of this short paper is only to call attention to the fact that, if we may judge by the experience of history, a crisis in the moral sphere, which will probably bring with it a political and social crisis, appears to have arrived.

Goldwin Smith.

  1. His critic, Mr. Hazard, is a free inquirer in the full sense of the term, and one of a very vigorous mind.