Home > Comments and Articles > An Agnostic's Apology
by Sir Leslie Stephen (1897)
The name Agnostic, originally coined by Professor Huxley about 1869, has gained general acceptance. It is sometimes used to indicate the philosophical theory which Mr. Herbert Spencer, as he tells us, developed from the doctrine of Hamilton and Mansel. Upon that theory I express no opinion. I take the word in a vaguer sense, and am glad to believe that its use indicates an advance in the courtesies of controversy. The old theological phrase for an intellectual opponent was Atheist a name which still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next, and which, moreover, implies an inaccuracy of some importance. Dogmatic Atheism the doctrine that there is no God, whatever may be meant by God is, to say the least, a rare phase of opinion. The word Agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to imply a fairly accurate appreciation of a form of creed already common and daily spreading. The Agnostic is one who asserts what no one denies that there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence. He asserts, further, what many theologians have expressly maintained, that those limits are such as to exclude at least what Lewes called ' metempirical ' knowledge. But he goes further, and asserts, in opposition to theologians, that theology lies within this forbidden sphere. This last assertion raises the important issue ; and, though I have no pretension to invent an opposition nickname, I may venture, for the purposes of this article, to describe the rival school as Gnostics.
The Gnostic holds that our reason can, in some sense, transcend the narrow limits of experience. He holds that we can attain truths not capable of verification, and not needing verification, by actual experiment or observation. He holds, further, that a knowledge of those truths is essential to the highest interests of mankind, and enables us in some sort to solve the dark riddle of the universe. A complete solution, as everyone admits, is beyond our power. But some answer may be given to the doubts which harass and perplex us when we try to frame any adequate conception of the vast order of which we form an insignificant portion. We cannot say why this or that arrangement is what it is ; we can say, though obscurely, that some answer exists, and would be satisfactory, if we could only find it. Overpowered, as every honest and serious thinker is at times overpowered, by the sight of pain, folly, and helplessness, by the jarring discords which run through the vast harmony of the universe, we are yet enabled to hear at times a whisper that all is well, to trust to it as coming from the most authentic source, and to know that only the temporary bars of sense prevent us from recognising with certainty that the harmony beneath the discords is a reality and not a dream. This knowledge is embodied in the central dogma of theology. God is the name of the harmony ; and God is knowable. Who would not be happy in accepting this belief, if he could accept it honestly? Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence : ' the evil is transitory, the good eternal : our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties '? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognise the facts? Our brief path is dark enough on any hypothesis. We cannot afford to turn aside after every ignis fatuus without asking whether it leads to sounder footing or to hopeless quagmires. Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities ; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities. And who, that has felt the burden of existence, and suffered under well-meant efforts at consolation, will deny that such consolations are the bitterest of mockeries? Pain is not an evil ; death is not a separation ; sickness is but a blessing in disguise. Have the gloomiest speculations of avowed pessimists ever tortured sufferers like those kindly platitudes? Is there a more cutting piece of satire in the language than the reference in our funeral service to the ' sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection '? To dispel genuine hopes might be painful, however salutary. To suppress these spasmodic efforts to fly in the face of facts would be some comfort, even in the distress which they are meant to alleviate.
Besides the important question whether the Gnostic can prove his dogmas, there is, therefore, the further question whether the dogmas, if granted, have any meaning. Do they answer our doubts, or mock us with the appearance of an answer? The Gnostics rejoice in their knowledge. Have they anything to tell us? They rebuke what they call the ' pride of reason ' in the name of a still more exalted pride. The scientific reasoner is arrogant because he sets limits to the faculty in which he trusts, and denies the existence of any other faculty. They are humble because they dare to tread in the regions which he declares to be inaccessible. But without bandying such accusations, or asking which pride is the greatest, the Gnostics are at least bound to show some ostensible justification for their complacency. Have they discovered a firm resting-place from which they are entitled to look down in compassion or contempt upon those who hold it to be a mere edifice of moonshine? If they have diminished by a scruple the weight of one passing doubt, we should be grateful : perhaps we should be converts. If not, why condemn Agnosticism?
I have said that our knowledge is in any case limited. I may add that, on any showing, there is a danger in failing to recognise the limits of possible knowledge. The word Gnostic has some awkward associations. It once described certain heretics who got into trouble from fancying that men could frame theories of the Divine mode of existence. The sects have been dead for many centuries. Their fundamental assumptions can hardly be quite extinct. Not long ago, at least, there appeared in the papers a string of propositions framed so we were assured by some of the most candid and most learned of living theologians. These propositions denned by the help of various languages the precise relations which exist between the persons of the Trinity. It is an odd, though far from an unprecedented, circumstance that the unbeliever cannot quote them for fear of profanity. If they were transplanted into the pages of the ' Fortnightly Be view,' it would be impossible to convince anyone that the intention was not to mock the simple-minded persons who, we must suppose, were not themselves intentionally irreverent. It is enough to say that they defined the nature of God Almighty with an accuracy from which modest naturalists would shrink in describing the genesis of a black-beetle. I know not whether these dogmas were put forward as articles of faith, as pious conjectures, or as tentative contributions to a sound theory. At any rate, it was supposed that they were interesting to beings of flesh and blood. If so, one can only ask in wonder whether an utter want of reverence is most strongly implied in this mode of dealing with sacred mysteries ; or an utter ignorance of the existing state of the world in the assumption that the question which really divides mankind is the double procession of the Holy Ghost ; or an utter incapacity for speculation in the confusion of these dead exuviae of long-past modes of thought with living intellectual tissue ; or an utter want of imagination, or of even a rudimentary sense of humour, in the hypothesis that the promulgation of such dogmas could produce anything but the laughter of sceptics and the contempt of the healthy human intellect?
The sect which requires to be encountered in these days is not one which boggles over the filioque, but certain successors of those Ephesians who told Paul that they did not even know ' whether there were any Holy Ghost.' But it explains some modern phenomena when we find that the leaders of theology hope to reconcile faith and reason, and to show that the old symbols have still a right to the allegiance of our hearts and brains, by putting forth these portentous propositions. We are struggling with hard facts, and they would arm us with the forgotten tools of scholasticism. We wish for spiritual food, and are to be put off with these ancient mummeries of forgotten dogma. If Agnosticism is the frame of mind which summarily rejects these imbecilities, and would restrain the human intellect from wasting its powers on the attempt to galvanise into sham activity this caput mortuum of old theology, nobody need be afraid of the name. Argument against such adversaries would be itself a foolish waste of time. Let the dead bury their dead, and Old Catholics decide whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. Gentlemen, indeed, who still read the Athanasian Creed, and profess to attach some meaning to its statements, have no right to sneer at their brethren who persist in taking things seriously. But for men who long for facts instead of phrases, the only possible course is to allow such vagaries to take their own course to the limbo to which they are naturally destined, simply noting, by the way, that modern Gnosticism may lead to puerilities which one blushes even to notice.
It is not with such phenomena that we have seriously to deal. Nobody maintains that the unassisted human intellect can discover the true theory of the Trinity ; and the charge of Agnosticism refers, of course, to the sphere of reason, not to the sphere of revelation. Yet those who attack the doctrine are chiefly believers in revelation ; and as such they should condescend to answer one important question. Is not the denunciation of reason a commonplace with theologians? What could be easier than to form a catena of the most philosophical defenders of Christianity who have exhausted language in declaring the impotence of the unassisted intellect? Comte has not more explicitly enounced the incapacity of man to deal with the Absolute and the Infinite than a whole series of orthodox writers. Trust your reason, we have been told till we are tired of the phrase, and you will become Atheists or Agnostics. We take you at your word : we become Agnostics. What righ have you to turn round and rate us for being a degree more logical than yourselves? Our right, you reply, is founded upon a Divine revelation to ourselves or our Church. Let us grant it is a very liberal concession that the right may conceivably be established ; but still you are at one with us in philosophy. You say, as we say, that the natural man can know nothing of the Divine nature. That is Agnosticism. Our fundamental principle is not only granted, but asserted. By what logical device you succeed in overleaping the barriers which you have declared to be insuperable is another question. At least you have no prima facie ground for attacking our assumption that the limits of the human intellect are what you declare them to be. This is no mere verbal retort. Half, or more than half, of our adversaries agree formally with our leading principle. They cannot attack us without upsetting the very ground upon which the ablest advocates of their own case rely. The last English writer who professed to defend Christianity with weapons drawn from wide and genuine philosophical knowledge was Dean Mansel. The whole substance of his argument was simply and solely the assertion of the first principles of Agnosticism. Mr. Herbert Spencer, the prophet of the Unknowable, the foremost representative of Agnosticism, professes in his programme to be carrying ' a step further the doctrine put into shape by Hamilton and Mansel.' Nobody, I suspect, would now deny, nobody except Dean Mansel himself, and the ' religious ' newspapers, ever denied very seriously, that the ' further step ' thus taken was the logical step. Opponents both from within and without the Church, Mr. Maurice and Mr. Mill, agreed that this affiliation was legitimate. The Old Testament represents Jehovah as human, as vindictive, as prescribing immoralities ; therefore, Jehovah was not the true God ; that was the contention of the infidel. We know nothing whatever about the true God was the reply, for God means the Absolute and the Infinite. Any special act may come from God, for it may be a moral miracle ; any attribute may represent the character of God to man, for we know nothing whatever of His real attributes, and cannot even conceive Him as endowed with attributes. The doctrine of the Atonement cannot be revolting, because it cannot have any meaning. Mr. Spencer hardly goes a step beyond his original, except, indeed, in candour.
Most believers repudiate Dean Mansel's arguments. They were an anachronism. They were fatal to the decaying creed of pure Theism, and powerless against the growing creed of Agnosticism. When theology had vital power enough to throw out fresh branches, the orthodox could venture to attack the Deist, and the Deist could assail the traditional beliefs. As the impulse grows fainter, it is seen that such a warfare is suicidal. The old rivals must make an alliance against the common enemy. The theologian must appeal for help to the metaphysician whom he reviled. Orthodoxy used to call Spinoza an Atheist ; it is now glad to argue that even Spinoza is a witness on its own side. Yet the most genuine theology still avows its hatred of reason and distrusts sham alliances. Newman was not, like Dean Mansel, a profound metaphysician, but his admirable rhetoric expressed a far finer religious instinct. He felt more keenly, if he did not reason so systematically ; and the force of one side of his case is undeniable. He holds that the unassisted reason cannot afford a sufficient support for a belief in God. He declares, as innumerable writers of less power have declared, that there is 'no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other.' He looks in vain for any antagonist, except the Catholic Church, capable of baffling and withstanding ' the fierce energy of passion, and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious matters.' l Some such doctrine is in fact but a natural corollary from the doctrine of human corruption held by all genuine theologians. The very basis of orthodox theology is the actual separation of the creation from the Creator. In the * Grammar of Assent,' Newman tells us that we ' can only glean from the surface of the world some faint and fragmentary views ' of God. ' I see,' he proceeds, ' only a choice of alternatives in view of so critical a fact ; either there is no Creator, or He has disowned His creatures.' The absence of God from His own world is the one prominent fact which startles and appals him. Newman, of course, does not see or does not admit the obvious consequence. He asserts most emphatically that he believes in the existence of God as firmly as in his own existence ; and he finds the ultimate proof of this doctrine a proof not to be put into mood and figure in the testimony of the conscience. But he apparently admits that Atheism is as logical, that is, as free from self-contradiction, as Catholicism. He certainly declares that though the ordinary arguments are conclusive, they are not in practice convincing. Sound reason would, of course, establish theology ; but corrupt man does not and cannot reason soundly. Newman, however, goes further than this. His Theism can only be supported by help of his Catholicity. If, therefore, Newman had never heard of the Catholic Church if, that is, he were in the position of the great majority of men now living, and of the overwhelming majority of the race which has lived since its first appearance, he would be driven to one of two alternatives. Either he would be an Atheist or he would be an Agnostic. His conscience might say, there is a God ; his observation would say, there is no God. Moreover, the voice of conscience has been very differently interpreted. Newman's interpretation has no force for anyone who, like most men, does not share his intuitions. To such persons, therefore, there can be, on Newman's own showing, no refuge except the admittedly logical refuge of Atheism. Even if they shared his intuitions, they would be necessarily sceptics until the Catholic Church came to their aid, for their intuitions would be in hopeless conflict with their experience. I need hardly add that, to some minds, the proposed alliance with reason of a Church which admits that its tenets are corroded and dissolved wherever free reason is allowed to play upon them, is rather suspicious. At any rate, Newman's arguments go to prove that man, as guided by reason, ought to be an Agnostic, and that, at the present moment, Agnosticism is the only reasonable faith for at least three-quarters of the race.
All, then, who think that men should not be dogmatic about matters beyond the sphere of reason or even conceivability, who hold that reason, however weak, is our sole guide, or who find that their conscience does not testify to the divinity of the Catholic God, but declares the moral doctrines of Catholicity to be demonstrably erroneous, are entitled to claim such orthodox writers as sharing their fundamental principles, though^ refusing to draw the legitimate inferences. The authority of Dean Mansel and Newman may of course be repudiated. In one sense, however, they are simply stating an undeniable fact. The race collectively is agnostic, whatever may be the case with individuals. Newton might be certain of the truth of his doctrines, whilst other thinkers were still convinced of their falsity. It could not be said that the doctrines were certainly true, so long as they were doubted in good faith by competent reasoners. Newman may be as much convinced of the truth of his theology as Professor Huxley of its error. But speaking of the race, and not of the individual, there is no plainer fact in history than the fact that hitherto no knowledge has been attained. There is not a single proof of natural theology of which the negative has not been maintained as vigorously as the affirmative.
You tell us to be ashamed of professing ignorance. Where is the shame of ignorance in matters still involved in endless and hopeless controversy '? Is it not rather a duty? Why should a lad who has just run the gauntlet of examinations and escaped to a country parsonage be dogmatic, when his dogmas are denounced as erroneous by half the philosophers of the world? What theory of the universe am I to accept as demonstrably established? At the very earliest dawn of philosophy men were divided by earlier forms of the same problems which divide them now. Shall I be a Platonist or an Aristotelian? Shall I admit or deny the existence of innate ideas? Shall I believe in the possibility or in the impossibility of transcending experience? Go to the mediaeval philosophy, says one controversialist. To which mediaeval philosophy, pray? Shall I be a nominalist or a realist? And why should I believe you rather than the great thinkers of the seventeenth century, who agreed with one accord that the first condition of intellectual progress was the destruction of that philosophy? There would be no difficulty if it were a question of physical science. I might believe in Galileo and Newton and their successors down to Adams and Leverrier without hesitation, because they all substantially agree. But when men deal with the old problems there are still the old doubts. Shall I believe in Hobbes or in Descartes? Can I stop where Descartes stopped, or must I go on to Spinoza? Or shall I follow Locke's guidance, and end with Hume's scepticism? Or listen to Kant, and, if so, shall I decide that he is right in destroying theology, or in reconstructing it, or in both performances? Does Hegel hold the key of the secret, or is he a mere spinner of jargon? May not Feuerbach or Schopenhauer represent the true development of metaphysical inquiry? Shall I put faith in Hamilton and Mansel, and, if so, shall I read their conclusions by the help of Mr. Spencer, or shall I believe in Mill or in Green? State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true ; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty? The only agreement I can discover is, that there is no philosopher of whom his opponents have not said that his opinions lead logically either to Pantheism or to Atheism.
When all the witnesses thus contradict each other, the primd facie result is pure scepticism. There is no certainty. Who am I, if I were the ablest of modern thinkers, to say summarily that all the great men who differed from me are wrong, and so wrong that their difference should not even raise a doubt in my mind? From such scepticism there is indeed one, and, so far as I can see, but one, escape. The very hopelessness of the controversy shows that the reasoners have been transcending the limits of reason. They have reached a point where, as at the pole, the compass points indifferently to every quarter. Thus there is a chance that I may retain what is valuable in the chaos of speculation, and reject what is bewildering by confining the mind to its proper limits. But has any limit ever been suggested, except a limit which comes in substance to an exclusion of all ontology? In short, if I would avoid utter scepticism, must I not be an Agnostic?
Let us suppose, however, that this difficulty can be evaded. Suppose that, after calling witnesses from all schools and all ages, I can find ground for excluding all the witnesses who make against me. Let me say, for example, that the whole school which refuses to transcend experience errs from the wickedness of its heart and the consequent dullness of its intellect. Some people seem to think that a plausible and happy suggestion. Let the theologian have his necessary laws of thought, which enable him to evolve truth beyond all need of verification from experience. Where will the process end? The question answers itself. The path has been trodden again and again, till it is as familiar as the first rule of arithmetic. Admit that the mind can reason about the Absolute and the Infinite, and you will get to the position of Spinoza, or to a position substantially equivalent. In fact, the chain of reasoning is substantially too short and simple to be for a moment doubtful. Theology, if logical, leads straight to Pantheism. The Infinite God is everything. All things are bound together as cause and effect. God, the first cause, is the cause of all effects down to the most remote. In one form or other, that is the conclusion to which all theology approximates as it is pushed to its legitimate result.
Here, then, we have an apparent triumph over Agnosticism. But nobody can accept Spinoza without rejecting all the doctrines for which the Gnostics really contend. In the first place, revelation and the God of revelation disappear. The argument according to Spinoza against supernaturalism differs from the argument according to Hume in being more peremptory. Hume only denies that a past miracle can be proved by evidence : Spinoza denies that it could ever have happened. As a fact, miracles and a local revelation were first assailed by Deists more effectually than by sceptics. The old Theology was seen to be unworthy of the God of nature, before it was said that nature could not be regarded through the theological representation. And, in the next place, the orthodox assault upon the value of Pantheism is irresistible. Pantheism can give no ground for morality, for nature is as much the cause of vice as the cause of virtue ; it can give no ground for an optimist view of the universe, for nature causes evil as much as it causes good. We no longer doubt, it is true, whether there be a God, for our God means all reality ; but every doubt which we entertained about the universe is transferred to the God upon whom the universe is moulded. The attempt to transfer to pure being or to the abstraction Nature the feelings with which we are taught to regard a person of transcendent wisdom and benevolence is, as theologians assert, hopeless. To deny the existence of God is in this sense the same as to deny the existence of no-God. We keep the old word ; we have altered the whole of its contents. A Pantheist is, as a rule, one who looks upon the universe through his feelings instead of his reason, and who regards it with love because his habitual frame of mind is amiable. But he has no logical argument as against the Pessimist, who regards it with dread unqualified by love, or the Agnostic, who finds it impossible to regard it with any but a colourless emotion.
The Gnostic, then, gains nothing by admitting the claims of a faculty which at once overturns his conclusions. His second step is invariably to half-retract his first. We are bound by a necessary law of thought, he tells us, to believe in universal causation. Very well, then, let us be Pantheists. No, he says ; another necessary law of thought tells us that causation is not universal. We know that the will is free, or, in other words, that the class of phenomena most important to us is not caused. This is the position of the ordinary Deist ; and it is of vital importance to him, for otherwise the connection between Deism and morality is, on his own ground, untenable. The ablest and most logical thinkers have declared that the free-will doctrine involves a fallacy, and have unravelled the fallacy to their own satisfaction. Whether right or wrong, they have at least this advantage, that, on their showing, reason is on this point consistent with itself. The advocate of free-will, on the other hand, declares that an insoluble antinomy occurs at the very threshold of his speculations. An uncaused phenomenon is unthinkable ; yet consciousness testifies that our actions, so far as they are voluntary, are uncaused. In face of such a contradiction, the only rational state of mind is scepticism. A mind balanced between two necessary and contradictory thoughts must be in a hopeless state of doubt. The Gnostic, therefore, starts by proclaiming that we must all be Agnostics in regard to a matter of primary philosophical importance. If by free-will he means anything else than a denial of causation, his statement is irrelevant. For, it must be noticed, this is not one of the refined speculative problems which may be neglected in our ordinary reasoning. The ancient puzzles about the one and the many, or the infinite and the finite, may or may not be insoluble. They do not affect our practical knowledge. Familiar difficulties have been raised as to our conceptions of motion : the hare and tortoise problem may be revived by modern metaphysicians ; but the mathematician may continue to calculate the movements of the planets and never doubt whether the quicker body will, in fact, overtake the slower. The free-will problem cannot be thus shirked. We all admit that a competent reasoner can foretell the motions of the moon ; and we admit it because we know that there is no element of objective chance in the problem. But the determinist asserts, whilst the libertarian denies, that it would be possible for an adequate intelligence to foretell the actions of a man or a race. There is or is not an element of objective chance in the question ; and whether there is or is not must be decided by reason and observation, independently of those puzzles about the infinite and the finite, which affect equally the man and the planet. The anti-determinist asserts the existence of chance so positively, that he doubts whether God Himself can foretell the future of humanity ; or, at least, he is unable to reconcile Divine prescience with his favourite doctrine.
In most practical questions, indeed, the difference is of little importance. The believer in free-will admits that we can make an approximate guess ; the determinist admits that our faculty of calculation is limited. But when we turn to the problems with which the Gnostic desires to deal, the problem is of primary importance. Free-will is made responsible for all the moral evil in the world. God made man perfect, but He gave His creature free will. The exercise of that free-will has converted the world into a scene in which the most striking fact, as Newman tells us, is the absence of the Creator. It follows, then, that all this evil, the sight of which leads some of us to Atheism, some to blank despair, and some to epicurean indifference, and the horror of which is at the root of every vigorous religious creed, results from accident. If even God could have foretold it, He foretold it in virtue of faculties inconceivable to finite minds ; and no man, however exalted his faculties, could by any possibility have foretold it. Here, then, is Agnosticism in the highest degree. An inexorable necessity of thought makes it absolutely impossible for us to say whether this world is the ante-room to heaven or hell. We do not know, nay, it is intrinsically impossible for us to know, whether the universe is to be a source of endless felicity or a ghastly and everlasting torture-house. The Gnostic invites us to rejoice because the existence of an infinitely good and wise Creator is a guarantee for our happiness. He adds, in the same breath, that this good and wise Being has left it to chance whether His creatures shall all, or in any proportion, go straight to the devil. He reviles the Calvinist, who dares to think that God has settled the point by His arbitrary will. Is an arbitrary decision better or worse than a trusting to chance? We know that there is a great First Cause ; but we add that there are at this moment in the world some twelve hundred million little first causes which may damn or save themselves as they please.
The free-will hypothesis is the device by which theologians try to relieve God of the responsibility for the sufferings of His creation. It is required for another purpose. It enables the Creator to be also the judge. Man must be partly independent of God, or God would be at once pulling the wires and punishing the puppets. So far the argument is unimpeachable ; but the device justifies God at the expense of making the universe a moral chaos. Grant the existence of this arbitrary force called free will, and we shall be forced to admit that, if justice is to be found anywhere, it is at least not to be found in this strange anarchy, where chance and fate are struggling for the mastery.
The fundamental proposition of the anti-determinist, that which contains the whole pith and substance of his teaching, is this : that a determined action cannot be meritorious. Desert can only accrue in respect of actions which are self-caused, or in so far as they are self-caused ; and self-caused is merely a periphrasis for uncaused. Now no one dares to say that our conduct is entirely self-caused. The assumption is implied in every act of our lives and every speculation about history that men's actions are determined, exclusively or to a great extent, by their character and their circumstances. Only so far as that doctrine is true can human nature be the subject of any reasoning whatever ; for reason is but the reflection of external regularity, and vanishes with the admission of chance. Our conduct, then, is the resultant of the two forces, which we may call fate and free-will. Fate is but the name for the will of God. He is responsible for placing us with a certain character in a certain position ; He cannot justly punish us for the consequences ; we are responsible to Him for the effects of our free will alone, if free will exists. That is the very contention of the anti-determinist ; let us look for a moment at the consequences.
The ancient difficulty which has perplexed men since the days of Job is this : Why are happiness and misery arbitrarily distributed? Why do the good so often suffer, and the evil so often flourish? The difficulty, says the determinist, arises entirely from applying the conception of justice where it is manifestly out of place. The advocate of free-will refuses this escape, and is perplexed by a further difficulty. Why are virtue and vice arbitrarily distributed? Of all the puzzles of this dark world, or of all forms of the one great puzzle, the most appalling is that which meets us at the corner of every street. Look at the children growing up amidst moral poison ; see the brothel and the public-house turning out harlots and drunkards by the thousand ; at the brutalised elders preaching cruelty and shamelessness by example ; and deny, if you can, that lust and brutality are generated as certainly as scrofula and typhus. Nobody dares to deny it. All philanthropists admit it ; and every hope of improvement is based on the assumption that the moral character is determined by its surroundings. What does the theological advocate of free-will say to reconcile such a spectacle with our moral conceptions? Will God damn all these wretches for faults due to causes as much beyond their power as the shape of their limbs or as the orbits of the planets? Or will He make some allowance, and decline to ask for grapes from thistles, and exact purity of life from beings born in corruption, breathing corruption, and trained in corruption? Let us try each alternative.
To Job's difficulty it has been replied that, though virtue is not always rewarded and vice punished, yet virtue as such is rewarded, and vice as such is punished. If that be true, God, on the free-will hypothesis, must be unjust. Virtue and vice, as the facts irresistibly prove, are caused by fate or by God's will as well as by free-will that is, our own will. To punish a man brought up in a London slum by the rule applicable to a man brought up at the feet of Christ is manifestly the height of injustice. Nay, for anything we can tell for we know nothing of the circumstances of their birth and education the effort which Judas Iscariot exerted in restoring the price of blood may have required a greater force of free-will than would have saved Peter from denying his Master. Moll Flanders may put forth more power to keep out of the lowest depths of vice than a girl brought up in a convent to kill herself by ascetic austerities. If, in short, reward is proportioned to virtue, it cannot be proportioned to merit, for merit, by the hypothesis, is proportioned to the free-will, which is only one of the factors of virtue. The apparent injustice may, of course, be remedied by some unknowable compensation ; but for all that appears, it is the height of injustice to reward equally equal attainments under entirely different conditions. In other words, the theologian has raised a difficulty from which he can only escape by the help of Agnosticism. Justice is not to be found in the visible arrangements of the universe.
Let us, then, take the other alternative. Assume that rewards are proportioned, not to virtue, but to merit. God will judge us by what we have done for ourselves, not by the tendencies which He has impressed upon us. The difficulty is disguised, for it is not diminished, and morality is degraded. A man should be valued, say all the deepest moralists, by his nature, not by his external acts ; by what he is, not by how he came to be what he is. Virtue is heaven, and vice is hell. Divine rewards and punishments are not arbitrarily annexed, but represent the natural state of a being brought into harmony with the supreme law, or in hopeless conflict with it. We need a change of nature, not a series of acts unconnected with our nature. Virtue is a reality precisely in so far as it is a part of nature, not of accident ; of our fate, not of our free-will. The assertion in some shape of these truths has been at the bottom of all great moral and religious reforms. The attempt to patch up some compromise between this and the opposite theory has generated those endless controversies about grace and free-will on which no Christian Church has ever been able to make up its mind, and which warn us that we are once more plunging into Agnosticism. In order to make the Creator the judge, you assume that part of man's actions are his own. Only on that showing can he have merit as against his Maker. Admitting this, and only if we admit this, we get a footing for the debtor and creditor theories of morality for the doctrine that man runs up a score with Heaven in respect of that part of his conduct which is uncaused. Thus we have a ground for the various theories of merit by which priests have thriven and Churches been corrupted ; but it is at the cost of splitting human nature in two, and making happiness depend upon those acts which are not really part of our true selves.
It is not, however, my purpose to show the immorality or the unreasonableness of the doctrine. I shall only remark that it is essentially agnostic. Only in so far as phenomena embody fixed ' laws ' can we have any ground for inference in this world, and, a fortiori, from this world to the next. If happiness is the natural consequence of virtue, we may plausibly, argue that the virtuous will be happy hereafter. If heaven be a bonus arbitrarily bestowed upon the exercise of an inscrutable power, all analogies break down. The merit of an action as between men depends upon the motives. The actions for which God rewards and punishes are the actions or those parts of actions which are independent of motive. Punishment amongst men is regulated by some considerations of its utility to the criminal or his fellows. No conceivable measure of Divine punishment can even be suggested when once we distinguish between divine and natural ; and the very essence of the theory is that such a distinction exists. For whatever may be true of the next world, we begin by assuming that new principles are to be called into play hereafter. The new world is summoned into being to redress the balance of the old. The fate which here too often makes the good miserable and the bad happy, which still more strangely fetters our wills and forces the strong will into wickedness and strengthens the weak will to goodness, will then be suspended. The motive which persuades us to believe in the good arrangement hereafter is precisely the badness of this. Such a motive to believe cannot itself be a reason for belief. That would be to believe because belief was unreasonable. This world, once more, is a chaos, in which the most conspicuous fact is the absence of the Creator. Nay, it is so chaotic that, according to theologians, infinite rewards and penalties are required to square the account and redress the injustice here accumulated. What is this, so far as the natural reason is concerned, but the very superlative of Agnosticism? The appeal to experience can lead to nothing, for our very object is to contradict experience. We appeal to facts to show that facts are illusory. The appeal to a priori reason is not more hopeful, for you begin by showing that reason on these matters is self-contradictory, and you insist that human nature is radically irregular, and therefore beyond the sphere of reason. If you could succeed in deducing any theory by reason, reason would, on your showing, be at hopeless issue with experience.
There are two questions, in short, about the universe which must be answered to escape from Agnosticism. The great fact which puzzles the mind is the vast amount of evil. It may be answered that evil is an illusion, because God is benevolent ; or it may be answered that evil is deserved, because God is just. In one case the doubt is removed by denying the existence of the difficulty, in the other it is made tolerable by satisfying our consciences. We have seen what natural reason can do towards justifying these answers. To escape from Agnosticism we become Pantheists ; then the divine reality must be the counterpart of phenomenal nature, and all the difficulties recur. We escape from Pantheism by the illogical device of free-will. Then God is indeed good and wise, but God is no longer omnipotent. By His side we erect a fetish called free-will, which is potent enough to defeat all God's good purposes, and to make His absence from His own universe the most conspicuous fact given by observation ; and which, at the same time, is by its own nature intrinsically arbitrary in its action. Your Gnosticism tells us that an almighty benevolence is watching over everything, and bringing good out of all evil. Whence, then, comes the evil? By free-will ; that is, by chance ! It is an exception, an exception which covers, say, half the phenomena, and includes all that puzzle us. Say boldly at once no explanation can be given, and then proceed to denounce Agnosticism. If, again, we take the moral problem, the Pantheist view shows desert as before God to be a contradiction in terms. We are what He has made us ; nay, we are but manifestations of Himself how can He complain? Escape from the dilemma by making us independent of God, and God, so far as the observed universe can tell us, becomes systematically unjust. He rewards the good and the bad, and gives equal reward to the free agent and the slave of fate. Where are we to turn for a solution?
Let us turn to revelation ; that is the most obvious reply. By all means, though this is to admit that natural reason cannot help us ; or, in other words, it directly produces more Agnosticism, though indirectly it makes an opening for revelation. There is, indeed, a difficulty here. Pure theism, as we have observed, is in reality as vitally opposed to historical revelation as simple scepticism. The word God is used by the metaphysician and the savage. It may mean anything, from * pure Being ' down to the most degraded fetish. The * universal consent ' is a consent to use the same phrase for antagonistic conceptions for order and chaos, for absolute unity or utter heterogeneity, for a universe governed by a human will, or by a will of which man cannot form the slightest conception. This is, of course, a difficulty which runs off the orthodox disputant like water from a duck's back. He appeals to his conscience, and his conscience tells him just what he wants. It reveals a Being just at that point in the scale between the two extremes which is convenient for his purposes. I open, for example, a harmless little treatise by a divine who need not be named. He knows intuitively, so he says, that there is a God, who is benevolent and wise, and endowed with personality, that is to say, conceived anthropomorphically enough to be capable of acting upon the universe, and yet so far different from man as to be able to throw a decent veil of mystery over His more questionable actions. Well, I reply, my intuition tells me of no such Being. Then, says the divine, I can't prove my statements, but you would recognise their truth if your heart or your intellect were not corrupted : that is, you must be a knave or a fool. This is a kind of argument to which one is perfectly accustomed in theology. I am right, and you are wrong ; and I am right because I am good and wise. By all means ; and now let us see what your wisdom and goodness can tell us.
The Christian revelation makes statements which, if true, are undoubtedly of the very highest importance. God is angry with man. Unless we believe and repent we shall all be damned. It is impossible, indeed, for its advocates even to say this without instantly contradicting themselves. Their doctrine frightens them. They explain in various ways that a great many people will be saved without believing, and that eternal damnation is not eternal nor damnation. It is only the vulgar who hold such views, and who, of course, must not be disturbed in them ; but they are not for the intelligent. God grants * uncovenanted mercies ' that is, He sometimes lets a sinner off, though He has not made a legal bargain about it an explanation calculated to exalt our conceptions of the Deity ! But let us pass over these endless shufflings from the horrible to the meaningless. Christianity tells us in various ways how the wrath of the Creator may be appeased and His goodwill ensured. The doctrine is manifestly important to believers ; but does it give us a clearer or happier view of the universe? That is what is required for the confusion of Agnostics ; and, if the mystery were in part solved, or the clouds thinned in the slightest degree, Christianity would triumph by its inherent merits. Let us, then, ask once more, Does Christianity exhibit the ruler of the universe as benevolent or as just?
If I were to assert that of every ten beings born into this world nine would be damned, that all who refused to believe what they did not hold to be proved, and all who sinned from overwhelming temptation, and all who had not had the good-fortune to be the subjects of a miraculous conversion or the recipients of a grace conveyed by a magical charm, would be tortured to all eternity, what would an orthodox theologian reply? He could not say, ' That is false ' ; I might appeal to the highest authorities for my justification ; nor, in fact, could he on his own showing deny the possibility. Hell, he says, exists ; he does not know who will be damned ; though he does know that all men are by nature corrupt and liable to be damned if not saved by supernatural grace. He might, and probably would, now say, ' That is rash. You have no authority for saying how many will be lost and how many saved : you cannot even say what is meant by hell or heaven : you cannot tell how far God may be better than His word, though you may be sure that He won't be worse than His word.' And what is all this but to say, We know nothing about it? In other words, to fall back on Agnosticism. The difficulty, as theologians truly say, is not so much that evil is eternal, as that evil exists. That is in substance a frank admission that, as nobody can explain evil, nobody can explain anything. Your revelation, which was to prove the benevolence of God, has proved only that God's benevolence may be consistent with the eternal and infinite misery of most of His creatures ; you escape only by saying that it is also consistent with their not being eternally and infinitely miserable. That is, the revelation reveals nothing.
But the revelation shows God to be just. Now, if the free-will hypothesis be rejected and it is rejected, not only by infidels, but by the most consistent theologians this question cannot really arise at all. Jonathan Edwards will prove that there cannot be a question of justice as between man and God. The creature has no rights against his Creator. The question of justice merges in the question of benevolence ; and Edwards will go on to say that most men are damned, and that the blessed will thank God for their tortures. That is logical, but not consoling. Passing this over, can revelation prove that God is just, assuming that justice is a word applicable to dealings between the potter and the pot?
And here we are sent to the ' great argument of Butler.' Like some other theological arguments already noticed, that great argument is to many minds those of James Mill and of Dr. Martineau, for example a direct assault upon Theism, or, in other words, an argument for Agnosticism. Briefly stated, it comes to this. The God of revelation cannot be the God of nature, said the Deists, because the God of revelation is unjust. The God of revelation, replied Butler, may be the God of nature, for the God of nature is unjust. Stripped of its various involutions, that is the sum and substance of this celebrated piece of reasoning. Butler, I must say in passing, deserves high credit for two things. The first is that he is the only theologian who has ever had the courage to admit that any difficulty existed when he was struggling most desperately to meet the difficulty ; though even Butler could not admit that such a difficulty should affect a man's conduct. Secondly, Butler's argument really rests upon a moral theory, mistaken indeed in some senses, but possessing a stoical grandeur. To admit, however, that Butler was a noble and a comparatively candid thinker is not to admit that he ever faced the real difficulty. It need not be asked here by what means he evaded it His position is in any case plain. Christianity tells us, as he thinks, that God damns men for being bad, whether they could help it or not ; and that He lets them off, or lets some of them off, for the sufferings of others. He damns the helpless and punishes the innocent. Horrible ! exclaims the infidel. Possibly, replies Butler, but nature is just as bad. All suffering is punishment. It strikes the good as well as the wicked. The father sins, and the son suffers. I drink too much, and my son has the gout. In another world we may suppose that the same system will be carried out more thoroughly. God will pardon some sinners because He punished Christ, and He will damn others everlastingly. That is His way. A certain degree of wrongdoing here leads to irremediable suffering, or rather to suffering remediable by death alone. In the next world there is no death ; therefore, the suffering won't be remediable at all. The world is a scene of probation, destined to fit us for a better life. As a matter of fact, most men make it a discipline of vice instead of a discipline of virtue ; and most men, therefore, will presumably be damned. We see the same thing in the waste of seeds and animal life/and may suppose, therefore, that it is part of the general scheme of Providence.
This is the Christian revelation according to Butler. Does it make the world better? Does it not, rather, add indefinitely to the terror produced by the sight of all its miseries, and justify James Mill for feeling that rather than such a God he would have no God? What escape can be suggested? The obvious one : it is all a mystery ; and what is mystery but the theological phrase for Agnosticism? God has spoken, and endorsed all our most hideous doubts. He has said, let there be light, and there is no light no light, but rather darkness visible, serving only to discover sights of woe.
The believers who desire to soften away the old dogmas in other words, to take refuge from the unpleasant results of their doctrine with the Agnostics, and to retain the pleasant results with the Gnostics have a different mode of escape. They know that God is good and just; that evil will somehow disappear and apparent injustice be somehow redressed. The practical objection to this amiable creed suggests a sad comment upon the whole controversy. We fly to religion to escape from our dark forebodings. But a religion which stifles these forebodings always fails to satisfy us. We long to hear that they are groundless. As soon as we are told that they are groundless we mistrust our authority. No poetry lives which reflects only the cheerful emotions. Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought. We can bring harmony out of melancholy ; we cannot banish melancholy from the world. And the religious utterances, which are the highest form of poetry, are bound by the same law. There is a deep sadness in the world. Turn and twist the thought as you may, there is no escape. Optimism would be soothing if it were possible ; in fact, it is impossible, and therefore a constant mockery ; and of all dogmas that ever were invented, that which has least vitality is the dogma that whatever is, is right.
Let us, however, consider for a moment what is the net result of this pleasant creed. Its philosophical basis may be sought in pure reason or in experience ; but, as a rule, its adherents are ready to admit that the pure reason requires the support of the emotions before such a doctrine can be established, and are therefore marked by a certain tinge of mysticism. They feel rather than know. The awe with which they regard the universe, the tender glow of reverence and love with which the bare sight of nature affects them, is to them the ultimate guarantee of their beliefs. Happy those who feel such emotions ! Only, when they try to extract definite statements of fact from these impalpable sentiments, they should beware how far such statements are apt to come into terrible collision with reality. And, meanwhile, those who have been disabused with Candide, who have felt the weariness and pain of all ' this unintelligible world,' and have not been able to escape into any mystic rapture, have as much to say for their own version of the facts. Is happiness a dream, or misery, or is it all a dream? Does not our answer vary with our health and with our condition? When, rapt in the security of a happy life, we cannot even conceive that our happiness will fail, we are practical optimists. When some random blow out of the dark crushes the pillars round which our life has been entwined as recklessly as a boy sweeps away a cobweb, when at a single step we plunge through the flimsy crust of happiness into the deep gulfs beneath, we are tempted to turn to Pessimism. Who shall decide, and how? Of all questions that can be asked, the most important is surely this : Is the tangled web of this world composed chiefly of happiness or of misery? And of all questions that can be asked, it is surely the most unanswerable. For in no other problem is the difficulty of discarding the illusions arising from our own experience, of eliminating * the personal error ' and gaining an outside standing point, so hopeless.
In any case the real appeal must be to experience. Ontologists may manufacture libraries of jargon without touching the point. They have never made, or suggested the barest possibility of making, a bridge from the world of pure reason to the contingent world in which we live. To the thinker who tries to construct the universe out of pure reason, the actual existence of error in our minds and disorder in the outside world presents a difficulty as hopeless as that which the existence of vice and misery presents to the optimist who tries to construct the universe out of pure goodness. To say that misery does not exist is to contradict the primary testimony of consciousness ; to argue on a priori grounds that misery or happiness predominates, is as hopeless a task as to deduce from the principle of the excluded middle the distance from St. Paul's to Westminster Abbey. Questions of fact can only be solved by examining facts. Perhaps such evidence would show and if a guess were worth anything, I should add that I guess that it would show ^that happiness predominates over misery in the composition of the known world. I am, therefore, not prejudiced against the Gnostic's conclusion ; but I add that the evidence is just as open to me as to him. The whole world in which we live may be an illusion a veil to be withdrawn in some higher state of being. But be it what it may, it supplies all the evidence upon which we can rely. If evil predominates here, we have no reason to suppose that good predominates elsewhere. All the ingenuity of theologians can never shake our conviction that facts are what we feel them to be, nor invert the plain inference from facts ; and facts are just as open to one school of thought as to another.
What, then, is the net result? One insoluble doubt has haunted men's minds since thought began in the world. No answer has ever been suggested. One school of philosophers hands it to the next. It is denied in one form only to reappear in another. The question is not which system excludes the doubt, but how it expresses the doubt. Admit or deny the competence of reason in theory, we all agree that it fails in practice. Theologians revile reason as much as Agnostics ; they then appeal to it, and it decides against them. They amend their plea by excluding certain questions from its jurisdiction, and those questions include the whole difficulty. They go to revelation, and revelation replies by calling doubt, mystery. They declare that their consciousness declares just what they want it to declare. Ours declares something else. Who is to decide? The only appeal is to experience, and to appeal to experience is to admit the fundamental dogma of Agnosticism.
Is it not, then, the very height of audacity, in face of a difficulty which meets us at every turn, which has perplexed all the ablest thinkers in proportion to their ability, which vanishes in one shape only to show itself in another, to declare roundly, not only that the difficulty can be solved, but that it does not exist? Why, when no honest man will deny in private that every ultimate problem is wrapped in the profoundest mystery, do honest men proclaim in pulpits that unhesitating certainty is the duty of the most foolish and ignorant? Is it not a spectacle to make the angels laugh? We are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness, learning only by incessantly repeated blunders, obtaining a glimmering of truth by falling into every conceivable error, dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths ; and yet, when one of us ventures to declare that we don't know the map of the universe as well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled, and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his faithlessness. Amidst all the endless and hopeless controversies which have left nothing but bare husks of meaningless words, we have been able to discover certain reliable truths. They don't take us very far, and the condition of discovering them has been distrust of a priori guesses, and the systematic interrogation of experience. Let us, say some of us, follow at least this clue. Here we shall find sufficient guidance for the needs of life, though we renounce for ever the attempt to get behind the veil which no one has succeeded in raising; if, indeed, there be anything behind. You miserable Agnostics ! is the retort ; throw aside such rubbish, and cling to the old husks. Stick to the words which profess to explain everything ; call your doubts mysteries, and they won't disturb you any longer ; and believe in those necessary truths of which no two philosophers have ever succeeded in giving the same version.
Gentlemen, we can only reply, wait till you have some show of agreement amongst yourselves. Wait till you can give some answer, not palpably a verbal answer, to some one of the doubts which oppress us as they oppress you. Wait till you can point to some single truth, however trifling, which has been discovered by your method, and will stand the test of discussion and verification. Wait till you can appeal to reason without in the same breath vilifying reason. Wait till your Divine revelations have something more to reveal than the hope that the hideous doubts which they suggest may possibly be without foundation. Till then we shall be content to admit openly, what you whisper under your breath or hide in technical jargon, that the ancient secret is a secret still ; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute ; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance. And, meanwhile, we will endeavour to be as charitable as possible, and whilst you trumpet forth officially your contempt for our scepticism, we will at least try to believe that you are imposed upon by your own bluster.