Mr. 'Gladstone’s account of the matter, as I understand it, is as follows:
His general object is to ‘extend the conclusions of Sir George Lewis’ on a ‘point of the utmost weight affecting not the frame of his argument, but its application.’ To effect this object he gives in the first instance a short account of Sir George Lewis’s position. This begins with a reference to the first three chapters of the book, the general result of which is somewhat to this effect. Sir George Lewis says that authority is of the greatest possible use; that a large proportion of the opinions of mankind are derived merely from authority; that men become, in a sense, authorities to themselves; that certain countries only are entitled ‘to count in that consent which makes up authority;’ finally, ‘that the authority of the professors of any science is trustworthy in proportion as the points of agreement between them are numerous, and the points of difference few, and that the opposition which is sometimes made between authority and reason rests on a confusion of thought.’ In short, the passages of Sir George Lewis’s first three chapters which have attracted Mr. Gladstone’s special attention are those which give to authority the highest value and the widest scope. Mr. Gladstone then proceeds to the fourth chapter, which treats of ‘the applicability of the principle of authority to questions of religion,’ and after a paraphrase of its opening passage, ‘which seems to me not to be a correct or adequate representation of the original, he quotes the observation:—‘This description, however, is not applicable to religion, or, at least, is only applicable to it within certain limits.’ This Mr. Gladstone regards ‘as equivalent to saying that ‘the principle of authority’ is ‘truly applicable to the subject of religion within certain limits.’ He conceives that those limits, as understood by Sir George Lewis, ‘may be briefly summed up in a few words as follows:
‘1. The consent of mankind binds us in reason to acknowledge the being of God. 2. The consent of civilised mankind similarly binds us to the acceptance of Christianity. 3. The details of Christianity are contested; but in doubtful questions the Church, and e.g. the Church of England at large with respect to its own members, is more competent than they are individually; and the business and duty of a reasonable man, so far as he is bound to have an opinion, is to follow the best opinion.’
Mr. Gladstone goes on to say that he does not think Sir George Lewis would have placed the obligation implied by the third proposition on a level in point of stringency with that of the two former; but he adds that
‘on the premisses which sustain the first two propositions we ought to widen the conclusions at which Lewis has arrived; and this not so much upon ecclesiastical principles, in obedience to the authority of a particular Church or of the Church at large, qua Church, as upon philosophical principles in deference to that general sense of mankind which in such matters is entitled to claim authority.’Mr. Gladstone proceeds :
‘I take my departure, however, from the standing ground of the two propositions, and do not go behind them, or argue with such as contend, in opposition to Lewis, that there is no such authority of consent in existence with respect either to the existence of God or the acceptance of the Christian religion.’Mr. Gladstone then goes on partly to assert, and partly to imply, that whatever authority there may be for believing in the existence of God is an authority for believing in the goodness of God, the moral government of the world, and a future state of existence which may be regarded as a state of reward and punishment in so far as it will show the connection between virtue and happiness, vice and misery, more distinctly than the present state of existence.
As for Christianity, Mr. Gladstone cautions us, towards the end of his article, “against allowing so general a term to become a blind ‘which on the one hand excludes knowledge, and on the other leaves us imbued with the notion that we possess it.’
In an earlier part of the article he ascribes to Sir George Lewis ‘the proposition that the acceptance of Christianity is required of us by a scientific application of the principle of authority.’ “Elsewhere he says: ‘I . . . contend that this Christianity must in reason be understood to include a doctrinal as well as a moral and a symbolical system;’ and from explanations extending over several pages ‘it appears that he includes under a belief in ‘Christianity’ in general a belief in ‘1. The doctrine of Revelation. 2. The use of Sacraments. 3. The Christian Ethics. 4. The Creed. 5. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.’
For this amount of religious belief Mr. Gladstone, as I understand him, claims what he calls, in reference to another matter, ‘the benefit of the scientific principle of authority;’ and I also gather that he considers that in so doing he is only reducing to a specific form the general statements of Sir George Lewis to which he refers.
As to more detailed applications of theology, the matter, in Mr. Gladstone’s opinion, is different. Christians differ upon these subjects, but each Christian body is an authority, ‘not indeed final, but yet real and weighty for those who belong to it.’ He goes indeed beyond Christianity. He says that no one ought to depart,
‘except upon serious and humble examination, as well as clear conviction, from the religion they have been brought up to profess, even though non-Christian, for it is the school of character and belief in which Providence has placed them, even though non-Christian, and even while I follow Lewis in urging that the undivided authority of civilised and progressive man demands of us the acceptance of Christianity.’This, as I understand the article, is a fair abstract of Mr. Gladstone’s view of the proper way of applying what he believes to be Sir George Le\vis’s principles. The article also contains some further observations of his own, with which I will deal separately. But I will begin by stating what I understand to be Sir George Lewis's principle, and by showing how, in my opinion, it would affect the question of religious belief if fairly applied to it.
The first question is, what did Sir George Lewis understand by ‘authority’? for the whole meaning of his book depends upon the definition of that term. A distinct explanation upon this point is given in these words." He says:
‘The distinction between testimony, argument, and authority may be briefly summed up thus:Fact is defined: ‘Anything of which we obtain a conviction from our internal consciousness, or any individual event or phenomenon which is the object of sensation.’
In questions of testimony I believe a matter of fact because the witness believes it [? says he perceived it].
In questions of argument I believe the conclusion to be true because it is proved by reasons satisfactory to my understanding.
In questions of authority I believe a matter of opinion because it is believed by a person whom I consider a competent judge of the question.’
[This exactly corresponds to the definition of fact given in the Indian Evidence Act, s. I:
‘“Fact" means and includes: 1. Any thing, state of things, or relation of things capable of being perceived by the senses. 2. Any mental condition of which any person is conscious.‘
I am responsible for this definition, but I had not seen Sir George Lewis's book when I drew it. As to its grounds, see my Introduction to the Indian Evidence Act, pp. 14-16.]
‘Matter of opinion’ is defined thus:
‘When an individual fact is doubted upon reasonable grounds, its existence becomes matter of opinion.Putting these passages together, we get the following definition of authority:—
Matters of opinion, not being disputed questions of fact, are general propositions or theorems relating to laws of nature or mind, principles and rules of human conduct, future probabilities, deductions from hypotheses, and the like, about which a doubt may reasonably exist. All doubtful questions, whether of speculation or practice, are matters of opinion.’
Authority is the opinion of one person upon a doubtful question of fact, speculation, or practice accepted by another person as a reason for believing that which the person first mentioned believes in relation to such question.
The main purport of Sir George Lewis’s book is, first, to assert the proposition that all men have to believe upon authority thus defined in reference to many subjects, if they have any opinions at all about them; and secondly, to investigate the conditions which make authority trustworthy. I should have supposed the first proposition to be self-evident as soon as its terms were understood. The amount of knowledge or opinion which anyone derives from his own perceptions, or from inferences drawn from them by his own reflections, must be almost infinitesimal in proportion to the amount which he derives in a greater or less degree from what Sir George Lewis defines as authority. Nor did I ever hear of anyone who doubted it.
Hence the important part of Sir George Lewis’s book is his investigation of the ‘marks of sound or trustworthy authority.’
He enters upon this subject in his third chapter, and gives the following qualifications as being those which ‘render a person a competent authority in matters of opinion.
The first qualification is that a. person should have devoted much study and thought to the subject-matter, if it be merely speculative, and that if it be practical he should also have had adequate experience respecting it.
Secondly, his mental powers must be equal to the task of comprehending the subject, and they must be of the sort fitted to it.
Thirdly, he ought to be exempt as far as possible from personal interest in the matter; or, if he be not exempt, his honesty and integrity ought to be such as to afford a reasonable security against the perversion of his opinions by views of his individual advantage.’
Each of these qualifications is amplified in (I must say) a rather wearisome way. In one place the author says that when we want to know who is a competent authority on any subject ‘we should look out for a man able, honest, and well versed in the subject;’ that ‘we must be assured that he had time to study and consider the subject, that he availed himself of his opportunity, that he understood what he studied, and that he judged correctly;’ and I do not see that the amplifications spread over so many pages add much to this. The chapter contains little beyond this directly relating to the ‘marks of trustworthy authority,’ but it concludes with some observations on physical science, moral science, and mock sciences respectively. He says: ‘There is a prevailing approach to agreement in the sciences founded on an observation of outward nature.’ ‘In the moral and political sciences there is a less general consensus than in the physical.’ He then proceeds to make some observations upon the subject of mock sciences. One passage in this chapter deserves particular remark.” It relates to the question, ‘What countries are important with reference to the general agreement of opinion?’ ‘In determining the question as to the existence of a consensus of opinion on any speculative subject it would be absurd to take barbarous or semi-civilised communities into the account.’ Amongst such communities he reckons all savage and most Oriental nations; for ‘although these Oriental nations are not to be confounded with uncivilised societies, and although they have, at different periods, made considerable progress in literature and the useful arts, yet their progress both in political institutions and scientific knowledge has been so limited as to place them on a low intellectual level.’ He goes on to say ‘that France, Germany, and England stand at the head of contemporary science and literature; that Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, may be ranked with them; but that Italy and Spain must be placed on a lower level on account of the ‘benumbing influence of the Inquisition and severe censorship of the press, reaching uninterruptedly from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.’
The effect of the first three chapters of Sir George Lewis’s work may be shortly summed up as follows:—The fact that A. holds a given opinion may be a reason why B. should hold the same opinion without further inquiry if B. has reason to believe that A. has devoted much study and thought to the subject, that A.’s mental powers are equal to the task of comprehending the subject, and are fitted for it, and that A. is either exempt from all personal interest in the matter, or, if not exempt, is so honest that his opinions are not perverted by views of his own advantage. If these conditions are not fulfilled, A.’s opinion can be no authority for B.’s.
The fourth chapter is entitled, ‘On the Applicability of the Principle of Authority to Questions of Religion.’ The expression ‘principle of authority’ is defined to mean the principle of adopting the belief of others on matters of opinion without reference to the grounds upon which the belief may rest.
The chapter begins with some introductory remarks, which Mr. Gladstone paraphrases in a manner which I have already observed appears to me unsatisfactory. This is so important a point that I exhibit the two passages side by side :
|Sir George Lewis|
In the preceding chapter a description has been given of the process by which, in scientific matters, an agreement of the competent judges, and consequently a body of trustworthy authority, has gradually been formed.
In each subject the first attempts at a scientific treatment are crude, imperfect, and alloyed with rash hypotheses, and there is much hasty induction from single facts or partial phenomena. Numerous discordant opinions thus arise, and there are rival schools and sects, each with its own set of distinctive tenets. But by degrees some system or body of doctrine acquires the ascendency-there is an approach to agreement in important matters—a progressive improvement, a gradual advance are visible—the controversies bemn to turn chiefly on subordinate points, and peculiar opinions are no longer handed down in schools by a succession of masters and disciples. Certain doctrines cease to predominate in certain countries—they are no longer hereditary or local, but are common to the whole scientific world. They are diffused by the force of mere evidence and demonstration acting upon the reason of competent judges, not by persecution, or reward, or the influence of the civil government. A trustworthy authority is thus at length formed to which a person uninformed on the subject may reasonably defer, satisfied that he adopts those opinions which, so far as existing researches and reflection have gone, are the most deserving of credit.
This description, however, is not applicable to religion, or at least is only applicable to it within certain limits.
The fourth chapter . . . begins with a brief description, which seems to belong to the general subject and therefore to all of the earlier chapters. In it he shows how the authority of which he treats is not that of individuals only. Traditive systems grow up in a course of generations, and by collection, purgation, adjustment, and enlargement or advance, acquire those kinds and degrees of adhesion according to which ‘ a trustworthy authority may at length be formed, to which a person uninformed on the subject may reasonably defer.’
He proceeds: ‘This description, however, is not applicable to religion, or at least is only applicable to it within certain limits.
Mr. Gladstone’s abridgment of Sir George Lewis appears to me not only to miss the point of the matter abridged, but to add to it matter inconsistent with other parts of the book. Sir George Lewis does not say or suggest that the mere gradual growth of ‘traditive systems’ invests them with ‘trustworthy authority.’ I shall show immediately that he elsewhere says exactly the opposite in regard to the schoolmen, and that he regards the authority of such systems as dependent on the method pursued by their authors, and on the nature of the subject to which they refer. Not only, however, does the abridgment add to the matter abridged something not contained in it, but it seems to me to miss the point of what it does contain. As I read it, the passage draws a contrast between the history of the growth of scientific and the growth of religious opinion. Sir George Lewis’s account of the growth of religious opinion is given in the latter part of the chapter. What he says of the growth of science is, that it advances from disagreement to agreement ; that the agreement is in important matters, the disagreement on subordinate points; that the doctrines common to the whole scientific world are diffused, not by mere tradition, but ‘by the force of mere evidence and demonstration acting upon the reason of competent persons,’ and also not by persecution, reward, or the influence of the civil government; and that it is for these reasons that the authority of scientific men may be regarded as trustworthy. He next proceeds to show that this description is not applicable to religion, or at least only within certain limits. He says that all mankind, at all times and in all countries, have agreed in recognising some form of religious belief, and that the argument of the consent of nations applies with peculiar force to the belief in a Divine Power; and he gives some quotations in support of this opinion. He then goes on to say that all the civilised nations of the present world, together with their colonies in all parts of the earth, agree in accepting some form of the Christian religion.
These passages are regarded by Mr. Gladstone as equivalent to the assertion of two principles—name1y, first, that the consent of mankind binds us in reason to acknowledge the belief in God; secondly, the consent of civilised man similarly binds us to the acceptance of Christianity. On the next page Mr. Gladstone speaks of ‘the proposition of Sir George Lewis that the acceptance of Christianity is required of us by a scientific application of the principle of authority.’
It seems to me, upon comparing together the different parts of Sir George Lewis’s work, that the true state of the case is this: The two passages quoted from Sir George Lewis by Mr. Gladstone do not state in terms the propositions to which Mr. Gladstone considers them to be equivalent, but they do hint at and suggest them. They are, however, if taken as asserting what they suggest, inconsistent with the general spirit of the book, and with many other passages contained in it. If, therefore, Mr. Gladstone wishes to follow Sir George Lewis, he ought to reject or at least to qualify these passages, instead of extending them to other subjects than those to which their author in terms applied them.'
In order to show this, it will be necessary to notice many passages in Sir George Lewis’s book which are not referred to by Mr. Gladstone. After saying that all nations have agreed in ‘the existence of a Divine Power, superhuman and imperceptible to our senses,’ and that all the civilised nations of the modern world agree ‘in recognising some form of the Christian religion,’ he says ‘that no such agreement has existed throughout Christendom with respect to any particular form of Christianity; and he then proceeds to state the causes which have conspired to prevent it. They are as follows:
‘The Christian religion first assumed a dogmatic form in the hands of the later Greeks, who had received from their ancestors the inheritance of a subtle, refined, and abstruse metaphysical philosophy. This instrument of reasoning and exposition they applied to the Christian religion, and particularly its more mysterious portions.He then proceeds to give a general reason for the interminable character of religious controversy, and the differences to which the interpretation of the Christian records has given rise:
At a later time the Christian theology, now reduced to a more systematic form, passed through the hands of the schoolmen, and was treated in the spirit of the scholastic philosophy. Afterwards the Reformation awakened new controversies, or gave increased importance to old ones.
These, combined with other questions, have served to divide Christians into numerous churches and sects, and to keep up continual controversies between their respective advocates.’
‘It is that religion, as such, is conversant with matters which are neither the subjects of consciousness or intuition, nor within the range of the senses. This is necessarily the case with all questions concerning the nature of the Deity and his attributes and the state of human existence after death. Upon these subjects we have no experience, derived either from internal consciousness or external sensation, to guide us, and accordingly not only the abstract reasonings of natural religion, but the interpretation of the records of revealed religion, give rise to questions for the settlement of which it is difficult to find any decisive rule of judgment.’‘Difficult,’ I think, is merely a euphemism for ‘impossible,’ for in no part of the book is any method of removing the difficulty suggested or even hinted at.
He goes on to say:
‘Owing to the operation of these causes the various Christian bodies continue to exist side by side with each other, and show little or no tendency to coalesce into a common belief, or recognise a common organ of religious truth;’and he says :
‘Opinions on scientific matters, although they may spring from different sources, and follow for a time distinct courses, at last flow together into one main stream; whereas the distinctive tenets of the several Christian Churches not only spring from different sources, but continue to run in different channels.’He proceeds:
‘We may discern a certain analogy between the perpetuation of a particular form of Christianity and the perpetuation of a particular language. Both belong to a class, of which the forms are various, but each variety having once arisen is unchanging, and when adopted by a nation remains.’He contrasts the diversity of Christian creeds with the ‘nearly uniform standard of morality which prevails throughout the world.’
He observes that—
‘Scientific opinions follow a certain law of progressive development. While error is gradually diminished, truth is established by a continually enlarging consensus, like the successive circles made upon the surface of the water. Opinion, however, in the several Christian Churches, on the subject of their distinctive tenets, is rather variable than progressive. It oscillates backwards and forwards, but does not tend to a joint action or a common centre.’He enlarges at considerable length upon the efforts which have been made to obtain agreement in matters of religious opinion. He explicitly states that such an agreement would be in the highest degree important.
He declares that the attempts which have been made to reconcile existing differences are sincere; he also declares that they have absolutely failed.
‘There is no consent of competent judges over the civilised world. Inconsistent and opposite forms of Christianity continue to exist side by side. There is not any general agreement among divines of different Churches, as there is among men of science, as to their respective subjects in different countries, and scarcely even any tendency to such agreement. Attempts at mutual conversion on a large scale entirely fail, while those which are limited in their numbers give rise to questions as to the motives of the converts, and add but little strength to the Church which receives them.’I do not think that I misrepresent the view which Sir George Lewis partly suggests and partly expresses upon the whole of this subject by summing it up as follows.
The opinions of scientific men tend to converge, and the opinions of theologians tend to diverge, because the subject-matter to which the opinions of scientific men relate is one upon which we can exercise our senses, and on which a practically inexhaustible amount of evidence is accessible to a diligent observer, whereas the subject matter of theological speculation is one in which we have no opportunity either of exercising our senses or of collecting information from those who have been able to exercise their senses. Therefore the differences between the opinions formed upon these subjects by inquirers who may be supposed to be candid and laborious are differences inseparable from the nature of the subject.
Other parts of the book seem to me to show that this must have been Sir George Lewis’s view upon the subject. [The fifth chapter, which relates to the utility and province of authority, does not appear to me to throw much light upon this particular question. I may say the same of the seventh (‘On the Applicability of the Principle of Authority to the Decisions of Political Bodies’) and of the eighth (‘On the Relation of the Principle of Authority to the Democratic Principle’).]
The sixth chapter, which relates to the number of persons competent to guide opinion upon any subject as compared with the number of the rest of the community, states in many places that the number of such persons is exceedingly small, that opinions are to be weighed and not counted, and that the weight of any person’s opinion upon any subject depends entirely upon the amount of original study which he has given to it, and upon the degree of his aptitude for that study. It refers to cases in which systems of opinion obviously false obtained a very general currency; as, for instance, ‘The belief in astrology and other mock sciences of divination, in the ominous nature of eclipses and comets, as well as in witchcraft, sorcery, and magic, prevailed in Europe for many centuries.’
This view is summed up in the following remarkable passage:
'So great is the influence of authority in matters of opinion, that the extensive diffusion of any belief does not prove that numerous persons have examined the question upon its own merits, and have founded their conclusion upon an independent investigation of the evidence. An opinion may be held by a large number of persons, but they may all have been misled by some erroneous authority --they may have all mechanically followed the same blind guide—so that their number has in fact no weight, and they are no more entitled to reckon as independent witnesses than the successive compilers who transcribe an historical error are entitled to reckon as independent witnesses.’The ninth chapter relates to the propagation of sound opinions by the creation of a. trustworthy authority, and this may deserve some further attention.
Sir George Lewis refers to four kinds of bodies by which sound opinion may be diffused. These are the civil government of a country; the heads of an Established Church and other Churches or religious bodies; subordinate associations for political, scientific, literary, and other purposes (including universities and places of learning) ; and lastly, the press.
After investigating the subject at great length, Sir George Lewis arrives at the conclusion that a government can do nothing directly, and not much indirectly, towards the diffusion of sound opinions. With regard to Churches, he says that they do in fact exercise an important influence by ascertaining the fitness of candidates for the Christian ministry or priesthood and stamping them with the public character of the Christian profession; but he also observes that the authority of the heads and doctors of each Church is confined to the members of their own communion, and does not pervade all Christendom—a statement which I imagine to be a statement of fact and not a statement of what, in Sir George Lewis’s opinion, ought to exist.
He then enters at considerable length into the question of the influence of scientific and literary associations, and of the periodical press. The result of the whole is summed up in the following short statement:
‘With respect to public instruction, whether it be controlled by learned bodies. or Churches, or voluntary associations, the cardinal maxim is that, as all men cannot be judges of all things, the learner should be instructed in the conclusions and results at which the most eminent authorities in each department of knowledge have arrived, and should, as far as possible, be furnished with an instrument for testing the soundness of the method which each original inquirer may employ.’The concluding chapter relates to the abuses of the principle of authority. It contains a second definition of the word, which, however, substantially agrees with the definition given at the beginning of the book: ‘By authority we have in this essay understood, in conformity with general usage, the influence which determines the belief without the comprehension of the proof.’ But a more remarkable passage is one in which he gives an account of the schoolmen and their method:
‘The scientific student, who servilely follows a beaten track, does not necessarily accept opinions upon the mere credit of his master, and without understanding the evidence on which they rest. He may, on the contrary, have gone through all the reasonings propounded by his guide—may have perused and re-perused all his writings—have annotated select portions of them, interpreting the obscure and illustrating the concise passages—and reproduced his doctrines in compends and epitomes. He may be a slavish follower, but a slave both voluntarily and upon conviction. Now the revolution in philosophy which is represented by the name of Bacon must be considered mainly as a change of scientific method, and the subsequent substitution of a set of sound doctrines, of which the proof was understood, for a set of unsound doctrines of which the proof was equally understood.Towards the end of the work occur the following characteristic words:—‘The most important general formula. which appears deducible from this inquiry is, that one of the main elements of civilisation is well-placed confidence.’
. . . . . . . . . .
The schoolmen repeated the Aristotelian philosophy as a system of deductive science, not as a series of axioms. In truth the schoolmen adopted the physical tenets of Aristotle as a modern astronomer adopts the Principia of Newton; they studied the system, understood the proofs, and assented to the conclusions. Men such as Thomas Aquinas cannot be charged with a tame and sluggish acquiescence in conclusions without troubling themselves to examine their connection with the premisses. The error of the schoolmen, in fact, consisted in the adoption of a defective scientific method—in the uninquiring acceptance of first principles false, indistinct, and unverified—and in reasoning deductively from propositions whose truth had not been established by the proper preliminary process. They received Aristotelic treatises as the sum of a perfect philosophical system, not as the provisional researches of a progressive science.’
This rather commonplace sentiment is developed at length in three pages and a half, to which I do not think it necessary to make any further reference, and with which the book concludes.
I have now, in deference to Mr. Gladstone, given a full abstract of the contents of that part of Sir George Lewis’s book which bears upon this subject, and I proceed to consider how far that work warrants either Mr. Grladstone’s account of its contents or the extension which he proposes to give to what he alleges to be its principles. The questions suggested by it are as follows:—
1. Did Sir George Lewis mean to assert the propositions ascribed to him by Mr. Gladstone?
2. Whether he did or not, are they consistent with the rest of his book?
3. In any case ought they to be extended in the manner proposed by Mr. Gladstone?
The question whether Sir George Lewis meant to assert the propositions ascribed to him by Mr. Gladstone is not free from difficulty. He no doubt says that all nations have agreed ‘in the substantial recognition of a Divine Power, superhuman and imperceptible by our senses,’ and that all civilised nations ‘have agreed in recognising some form of the Christian religion.’ But he does not express in terms the conviction ascribed to him by Mr. Gladstone, that this consent binds us in reason to the belief of those doctrines. He simply states facts, or what he alleges to be such. It may be said that he dwells upon and illustrates these alleged facts in such a manner that it is diflicult to say what other purpose he could have had in view than that of suggesting to his readers what most of them would regard as the natural inferences; and I think there is great force in this observation. It ought, however, to be accompanied by another. The consent of mankind may be one step towards the conclusion that there is a God, and the consent of civilised mankind one step towards the conclusion that some form of the Christian religion, or that some parts of it, are true, without our ‘being bound in reason to acknowledge’ these doctrines to be true solely because of that consent. Belief in such conclusions must rest upon various considerations; and my own conjecture would be that Sir George Lewis meant no more than that the consents referred to did in fact exist, and that they were, as far as they went, and to some extent, evidence in favour of the truth of the doctrines assented to. I also think that, in dealing with a subject on which people feel so intensely, he may not unnaturally have expressed himself in terms upon which Mr. Gladstone was entitled to put a- wider construction than they were intended by their author to bear. The matter, however, is one of little importance. More interest attaches to the question whether Mr. Gladstone’s view-of Sir George Lewis’s meaning is or is not consistent with the rest of Sir George Lewis’s book. Upon this I own I can feel no doubt whatever.
If Sir George Lewis really meant to say that ‘the consent of mankind binds us in reason to acknowledge the being of God,’ and that ‘the consent of civilised mankind similarly binds us to the acceptance of Christianity,’ he might at once be confronted with nearly every passage which I have quoted from his book. The qualifications of a trustworthy authority are, according to him, that a man should have devoted much study and thought to- the subject-matter on which he is to be an authority, that he should have mental power adequate to the task of comprehending the subject, and of the sort fitted to it, and that he should be exempt from all personal interest in the question, or so constituted as to be superior to the influence of any interest he may have. How many people can be said to fulfil any one of these conditions with regard either to the existence of God or the truth of the Christian religion? The number of persons who have ‘devoted much study and thought to’ either subject is small. The conclusions at which those few persons have arrived differ irreconcilably. They have proceeded by different methods and started from inconsistent assumptions. Suppose we say that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Paul, Seneca, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hume, Kant, Paley, and De Maistre all believed in God, can any person who has the commonest acquaintance with their writings draw any inference whatever from the fact? The Gods of Spinoza and Hume, for instance, have little resemblance to each other, and the words ‘ believe’ and ‘in’ also have different meanings in respect to many of these eminent men.
Moreover, Sir George Lewis carefully limits his assertion as to the agreement of all nations on this point to the recognition of a ‘Divine Power, superhuman and imperceptible by our senses;’ and he says on p.72 that ‘all questions concerning the nature of the Deity and his attributes’ fall beyond the range of consciousness, intuition, and the senses. Granting, for the sake of argument, a ‘consent of nations’ to believe that there is a superhuman imperceptible Being, coupled with interminable controversies on every question connected with the nature and attributes of that Being, is there really any consent at all? Three people agree that they distinctly saw something at a given time and place. One says it was a man, one that it was a horse, one that it was a bird. In what do they agree? Is not this exactly the case of three persons believing respectively in the Trinity, Allah, and Nirvana? Each believes in a ‘Divine ‘Power, superhuman and imperceptible by the senses’ (at least, if the Buddhist does not, Sir George Lewis’s statement is incorrect as to probably a third of the human race), but each belief excludes the other two.
Look again at Christianity. Paley, John Wesley, and De Maistre all ‘devoted much thought’ to the subject, and were all Christians, but their views of things human and divine, their ways of looking at life, their methods of thinking, their fundamental assumptions differed utterly. They were all Christians, as red, green, and orange are all colours; and to say that they agreed in any definite system is like saying that as red, green, and orange are all colours, they resemble each other.
The qualification, therefore, of having ‘devoted much study and thought ’ to the subject of religion is possessed by very few persons, and those who possess it disagree often in proportion to the amount of study and thought which they bestow on the subject.
The second qualification for an authority is that the person who is to be taken as such should ‘have mental power adequate to the task of comprehending the subject, and of the sort fitted to it.’ Surely the great question of the present day, the one upon which all religious controversies hang, is whether any human being whatever has either the faculties necessary for such inquiries, or the material upon which to exercise them.
Upon the whole, then, Sir George Lewis’s principles show that no one’s opinion can be regarded as an authority on any subject unless he possesses qualifications which, in regard to the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, are obviously possessed by very few persons, and which are frequently alleged not to be accessible to any person whatever. How, then, can any one say that Sir George Lewis thought, or at least that he was consistent in thinking, that the general consent of mankind or of civilised nations on these subjects had any weight whatever? Whoever seeks to extend Sir George Lewis’s principles to the leading doctrines of Christian theology, is bound to remember that by Sir George Lewis’s rule no man could be a competent authority as to the doctrine, e.g., of the Trinity unless ‘his mental powers were equal to the task of comprehending the subject,’ and were ‘of the sort fitted to it.’ He is also bound to show what class of persons fulfil this condition, and how those who rely upon the authority of such persons may be assured that they fulfil it.
The third qualification for authority is that the authoritative person should be disinterested, or superior to interest. Who, having devoted much time to the subject, and having a mind capable of comprehending it, is otherwise than deeply interested in the questions of the existence of God and the truth of Christianity? Two illustrations are as good as a thousand. Bossuet and Voltaire each lived to a great age, each devoted much time and attention to these subjects, each was a man of immense and varied knowledge, each was the greatest master of logic and rhetoric in his own time and country, each believed most sincerely in a God (though not in the same God); but to ascribe impartiality to either would be like ascribing impartiality in the conduct of a great war to the generals of the opposing armies. Impartiality, in the sense of indifference as to the result of inquiry, is unattainable in regard to matters which stir the deepest and strongest passions of human nature. Everyone is an advocate, and the most dexterous and artful of all are those who look most like judges. Butler’s writings, for instance, form one of the most ingenious arguments ever framed by man in defence of any cause, and no one can read them carefully without seeing that their intense gravity, and studied calmness, and moderation of statement add much to the impression which they produce.
It may be said that the authority of which Sir George Lewis speaks in the passages quoted by Mr. Gladstone is the ‘consent of nations,’ and that the qualifications to which I have referred are those which he requires of individuals. This is true, but it is also true that the whole of his sixth chapter goes to show that ‘the consent of nations’ can have no authority at all upon any subject whatever; and this certainly makes it surprising that Sir George Lewis should have written the passages in question. I cannot understand how the man who wrote of the ‘ consent of mankind’ in terms which could render it possible for Mr. Gladstone to suppose that he thought that it ‘ bound us in reason ’ to believe the fundamental doctrines of religion, could devote a whole chapter of his book to proving that ‘ the men of special information and experience, combined with the proper moral and intellectual qualifications, are the competent judges on each branch of knowledge;’ that ‘the opinion of the great bulk of the people, taken as a standard of truth and rectitude, is unworthy of consideration, and destitute of weight and authority;’ and that ‘this is equally the case whether the multitude agrees in opinion with the competent judges, or disagrees with them.’
Taking all these matters into consideration, and referring to the other passages already quoted, it seems to me that the two remarks on which Mr. Gladstone’s article depends were either not intended to bear the construction put upon them by Mr. Gladstone, or, if they were, are inconsistent with the rest of the book.
The last question is whether these principles ought to be extended to the other subjects mentioned by Mr. Gladstone. This question divides itself into two parts.
1. If Sir George Lewis had thought what, in my opinion, he did not think, would he have thought something else which Mr. Gladstone admits he did not say?
2. Leaving Sir George Lewis out of the question, is Mr. Gladstone’s theory true?
The first of these questions is too special and hypothetical to have much interest, but I may just observe that whatever Sir George Lewis’s views may have been as to the authority of the consent of mankind in general, or civilised nations in general, it is clear that he did not think that any trustworthy authority could be produced in favour of the doctrines specified by Mr. Gladstone. I do not say or think that he denied the truth of these doctrines, or the possibility of proving them by argument (which he expressly distinguishes from authority and evidence 5°), but I think he did deny that they could be proved by authority. I also think that several of the passages already referred to, and especially those which relate to the subject matter of religious inquiries and to the methods by which Christian theology was elaborated, show that he held views hard to be reconciled with the belief that any trustworthy authority at all on such subjects can be found.
The whole gist of his book is that the opinions of experts only are entitled to weight. The latter part of the fourth chapter consists of an elaborate proof that no general agreement of opinion prevails, or can be expected to prevail, about these doctrines amongst theological experts. In p.70 he ascribes the origin of Christian theology, ‘particularly in its more mysterious portions, such as the doctrine of the Trinity,’ &c., to the ‘ subtle, refined, and abstruse metaphysical philosophy’ of ‘the later Greeks,’ revised and remodelled by the scholastic philosophy, which, he says elsewhere, was ‘a set of unsound doctrines,’ the unsoundness being due to ‘the adoption of a defective scientific method,’ to ‘ the uninquiring acceptance of first principles, false, indistinct, and unverified,’ and to ‘reasoning deductively from propositions whose truth had not been established by proper preliminary processes.’ Nearly the whole of the fourth chapter is an expansion of the following remark:——‘Opinions on scientific matters, although they may spring from different sources and follow for a time distinct courses, at last flow together into one main stream, whereas the distinctive tenets of the several Christian Churches not only spring from different sources, but continue to run in ‘different channels.’
At pp.82-83 he comments on the rule of quod semper, &c., showing not merely, as Mr. Gladstone says, that it ‘is incapable of a strictly literal application,’ but that it involves a petitio principii whenever it is applied as a rule at all. ‘If,’ he says, ‘we call certain sects heretical and schismatical, and thus eliminate them from the aggregate body whose consent constitutes authority, then our reasoning proceeds in a circle. We begin by assuming as solved the very problem of which we are seeking the solution.’ In the latter part of the same page he expressly applies this to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, however, so very difficult and so uninteresting to inquire into the question what inferences a man would have drawn from premisses which the inquirer does not believe him to have held, that I shall not proceed with the discussion.
The really interesting question is as to the truth of Mr. Gladstone’s theory independently of the views of Sir George Lewis.
Upon this point I am not quite sure how far I agree or disagree with Mr. Gladstone, because I am not quite sure as to the nature of his conclusion. The language in which, following Sir George Lewis, he expresses his views, appears to me unsuitable to the subject for various reasons, and I think the most convenient plan will be to state my own views upon it. In the first place the word ‘authority’ seems to me to be an unfortunate, misleading, unnecessary word. Unfortunate, because it has a great variety of meanings. Misleading, because it is associated with the exercise of authority in the sense of coercive power. Unnecessary, because it expresses nothing which cannot be expressed in a way liable to no objection at all——by a word of which the meaning is (for this purpose at least) unequivocal. Authority, as understood by Sir George Lewis, is a name for a particular kind of evidence. The ‘principle of authority,’ he says, ‘means the principle of adopting the belief of others on a matter of opinion without reference to the particular grounds on which that belief may rest.’ The second definition, given near the end of the book, is to the same effect: ‘The influence which determines the belief without a comprehension of the proof.’ As I have put it above, A. is an authority to B., if from the fact that A. holds a given opinion B. draws the inference that that opinion is true.
Authority, in short, is only another name for the evidence of experts; and Sir George Lewis’s book might well have been entitled ‘An Essay on the extent to which our opinions depend on the evidence of experts, and on the conditions which render such evidence trustworthy.’
If such an inquiry is to be extended to the subjects enumerated by Mr. Gladstone, the question suggested, though I can hardly say it is actually discussed by him, would have to be stated in some such form as this: What inference ought to be drawn from the facts that certain forms of religious belief have been and are widely diffused, and are maintained and taught with various degrees of energy by numerous organised bodies of men, principally clergymen, in different parts of the world? In other words, to what sort of weight is the evidence of theological experts entitled when they assert the truth of theological propositions? The general answer to this question appears to me to be that their evidence is like the evidence of all other experts. An expert is a man who, having given a greater amount of study than his neighbours to some particular branch of knowledge, is specially acquainted with its practical application to matters of detail, and whose opinion upon such details is therefore more likely to be right than the opinion of common persons. In order, however, that his opinion may have any weight whatever, those to whom it is communicated must have some knowledge of the principles of the subject, and of the methods by which the expert proceeds. To an educated man the assertion of an astronomer that on such a day there will be a transit of Venus is weighty evidence, while the assertion of an astrologer that on such a day an eminent person will be born or die is a mere impertinence. To an utterly ignorant person each assertion will appear to stand on the same footing. This is because the educated man knows a good deal about the principles on which the science of astronomy rests, and probably about the methods by which astronomers arrive at their conclusions, whilst he is also aware that astrology rests upon no assignable principles at all. Even if he knows nothing else, he knows that both sets of predictions are continually made, and that the one set are constantly verified, and the other as constantly falsified, by the event. The exercise of a very moderate amount of curiosity and intelligence will enable him to understand the reasons of this difference, and he will thus give an assent to the detailed assertions of the astronomer which he denies to the detailed assertions of the astrologer, though each set of details are equally unintelligible to him.
The utterly ignorant man, on the other hand, knows only that one person tells him that on a given day there will be an eclipse, and that another tells him that on a given day there will be a birth or death. But, so far as I can see, he has no reason at all for believing either; at all events he has no reason for believing the one more than the other.
The value of the evidence of experts thus depends absolutely upon the degree to which those to whom it is addressed are convinced of the solidity of the basis on which it rests, and of the value of the method by which its detailed results are reached. It is the knowledge and not the ignorance of the person to whom such evidence is addressed which gives that evidence its value.
This applies to religious questions as well as to others. Before the evidence of theological experts can have any value at all with any person accustomed to judge of the weight of evidence, such a person must by some means or other be convinced that the fundamental assertions of theology are true, and that the method by which its more detailed assertions are arrived at is correct. He must be satisfied that theologians resemble astronomers and not astrologers.
The question which Mr. Gladstone’s article suggests, to me at least, is whether ‘the testimony of the ages,’ ‘the tradition of’ the human ‘race,’ ‘the consent of mankind,’ ‘they consent of civilised mankind,’ ‘bind us in reason’ to believe in God and in Christianity in general, and so lay a foundation for the evidence of theological experts as to the details of Christianity.
It would be impertinent in me to offer any opinion of my own on the truth of these doctrines. They are the great, I may say the awful, problems of the age, and no one ought to publish an opinion on either of them without qualifications which I do not claim. I do not, however, hesitate to say that the particular arguments in question appear to me to be radically fallacious. I do not think that the assertions on which they rest are true, or that there is any logdcal connection between the premiss that all men, or all civilised men, think thus and thus, and the conclusion, ‘therefore it is true.’ Mr. Gladstone says that Sir George Lewis thought otherwise, and that he (Mr. Gladstone) does not argue with those who do not agree with Sir George Lewis. Accordingly, what follows is not to be regarded as an answer to Mr. Gladstone’s article, but as an argument against opinions which he supposes (I think erroneously) to have been held by Sir George Lewis, and which he asserts on Sir George Lewis’s authority.
In part of Mr. Gladstone’s observations on Sir George Lewis I cordially agree. He appears to me to be perfectly justified in asserting that ‘belief in God implies much more than that he is superhuman and imperceptible.’ I think also that he is entitled to say of those who ‘profess Christianity, yet decline to say or think what it means,’ that ‘in such cases the general word, instead of indicating, like the title of an author’s works, a multitude of particulars, becomes a. blind which, on the one hand, excludes knowledge, and on the other leaves us imbued with the notion that we possess it.’ Our agreement does not stop here. I am willing to accept as proximately true—at all events for the purpose of this discussion—Mr. Gladstone’s statement of the particular beliefs denoted by the general phrases ‘belief in God’ and ‘belief in Christianity.’ Let it be conceded for the present purpose that belief in God means a belief in a Being superhuman, imperceptible, infinitely good, and the moral Governor of the world by mean of a distribution of good and evil to virtue and vice either in this or in some other world. Let it be further conceded that belief in Christianity means a belief ‘in the doctrine of revelation, the use of the sacraments, Christian ethics, the Creed, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.’
After making these concessions it is impossible not to ask how it can possibly be asserted that a belief in God is universal.
The God described by Mr. Gladstone is the God of Christianity, and perhaps (though to what extent may be a question) of Judaism. The Mohammedans believe in a God different, though not altogether dissimilar. The Buddhists believe not in God, but in the negation of all existence whatever. The deity or deities of the Hindoos are not moral beings at all, and are in many instances what we should call devils. [I may observe in passing that, from what I have heard from very careful observers, I believe the worship of the Hindoos to consist largely of attempts to flatter or propitiate beings as malevolent as they are powerful. I once asked a very clever moonshee how to translate into Hindustani ‘There is cholera in that village.’ ‘That,’ he said, ‘is not the native idiom. They would say “he (the cholera god or devil) reigns there."’] The educated Chinese hold exactly the same language about God as positivists. Confucius ‘would say nothing of the gods, for he knew nothing about them.’ As to the speculations of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, Cicero, de Naturâ Deorum, appears to me to prove first, that there was little if any connection between the speculations of the few and the belief of the many, and next, that the philosophers differed as much and as irreconcilably as the metaphysicians of our own days. The Epicurean Velleius enumerates in the first book a great number of opinions about the gods held by different philosophers, and gives the Epicurean view of the matter. Balbus, the Stoic, in the second, expresses and defends the views of his school. Cotta, the academician, in the third, argues that it is terribly impious to deny the existence of the gods, but absurd to try to prove it. ‘Inter omnes nisi admodum impios convenit, mihi quidem ex animo exuri non potest, esse deos. Id tamen ipsum quod mihi persuasum est auctoritate majorum, cur ita sit, nihil tu me doces.’ To Cotta it appeared that the consent of mankind, the ‘auctoritas majorum,’ conclusively proved ‘esse deos’——not Deum in any, and least of all in Mr. Gladstone’s, sense of the word—but that all arguments on the subject were worthless. In other words, he thought it wise to accept the established religion, true or false, because it was established.
I am at a loss to understand how, in the face of such notorious facts as these, it can be asserted that there is any ‘ consent of mankind’ to bind us in reason to any belief whatever on this subject, even if the truth of that belief could properly be inferred from the fact of its existence.
The difficulty is greatly increased when we pass from the belief of the vast multitude who simply accept the beliefs of their time and country to the beliefs of the few who have meditated deeply on the subject, and have so used what Mr. Gladstone calls ‘ the more normal, the more excellent way ’ of inquiry.
The bare names of Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, Descartes, Pascal, Bossuet, Voltaire, Comte, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Paley, Mill, are quite enough to show how much the deepest thought, the most brilliant talent, the most pious feeling, the shrewdest practical sagacity, the most earnest and scrupulous conscieutiousness have contributed to a practical agreement on this subject. If China, England, and India, Spinoza, Hume, and Pascal all agree on this matter, I should like to know who differ upon any matter. If they do not agree, where is the consent either of experts or of mankind at large?
With regard to the consent of all civilised nations as to Christianity in general, several observations occur. In the first place it is more correct to say that the nations which consented to Christianity became civilised than that the civilised nations consent to Christianity. In a way no doubt the Roman Empire was civilised, but the history of the Empire from the time of Constantine downwards is surely one of the most shameful and humiliating stories in the whole course of human history. To say that a doctrine can be traced to the disputes amongst the Greeks of the Lower Empire and their ‘subtle, refined, and abstruse metaphysical philosophy,’ as Sir George Lewis calls it, is, in my opinion, to pay it no compliment. The religious ancestors of Western Europe, however, are not the subjects of Constantine or Justinian, but the Northern barbarians who overturned the Empire and were converted to Christianity at various times, but in every instance whilst they were in a state of barbarism. Since their conversion, their descendants have had a long history, and some of them have become, and now are, the most civilised nations of the world, and no doubt Christianity has largely contributed to their civilisation. Can it, however, be asserted that civilisation has contributed to their Christianity, and in particular that it has contributed to an agreement in the doctrines to which Mr. Gladstone applies and confines that name? Is it not notorious that the increase of civilisation and knowledge led to religious divisions; that where coercive authority put a stop to such divisions (as in Spain and Italy) the progress of civilisation was arrested also; that where, on the other hand, the" minority got the better of coercive authority, and were able to take their own course, religious disputes grew and multiplied to such an extent as to produce the state of things which we now see all over Europe and the United States? These things appear to me to show that such religious unity as ever existed amongst Christian nations was only one stage in a long history, and that we must expect to see less and less of it as time goes on. A simple test on the subject may be suggested. Sir George Lewis published his book twenty-eight years ago. Many of us have attentively watched the course of thought and speculation on these subjects in this country since that time. Has it not been a period of immense progress in every form of civilisation? and has not the progress of religious discussion and of corresponding differences on religious questions been one of the most noticeable and characteristic parts of that progress? Mr. Gladstone has contributed more to this progress on the political side than any man of our generation. The progress of religious discussion and the corresponding growth of differences of opinion of the most fundamental kind on religious subjects are only the other side of the same movement. A man who for forty years together devotes splendid talents, unsurpassed energy and vigour, and all the moral influence of a pure, noble, and generous character to the task of pushing forward one side of the coach, must not be surprised to find that, whatever his own personal wishes and sympathies may be, he has, in point of fact, pushed along the other side as well.
Mr. Gladstone’s life, his policy, the weight of his example, have excited political discussion of every kind, and brought into prominence political differences which, but for him and other men of the same temper, might have slumbered for generations. I say this not by way of censure, but by way of paying_ a humble though sincere tribute to so eminent a man. But in doing so he has unavoidably, though it may be unconsciously, contributed to the production of analogous effects in the world of thought, and especially in the world of religious thought. He says that the common consent of civilised mankind binds us in reason to the acceptance of Christianity, and that Christianity means at least the six doctrines specified by him; but even Mr. Gladstone, I should think, would feel that he could not well amend this proposition so as to read as follows: ‘The consent of all educated Englishmen in the year 1877 binds all Englishmen to the acceptance of the six doctrines above referred to.’ Now, if the educated Englishmen of the present day are, as Sir George Lewis thought of their predecessors in 1849, ‘at the head of contemporary science and literature,’ and if they differ on all religious questions whatever to the extent shown, say, by the contents of this and some other periodicals, have I not a right to ask the author of the phrase quoted so often to remember his own admirable sentiment about general words which become blinds, on the one hand excluding knowledge, and on the other leaving us imbued with the notion that we possess it?
To pass, however, from the alleged facts as to these consents to the inference drawn from them, I must admit that to my mind there is absolutely no connection whatever between the propositions: ‘All mankind believe in God. Therefore there is a God. All civilised mankind believe in Christianity. Therefore Christianity is true.’ Try to convert these enthymemes into syllogisms by supplying a major proposition to each of them, and this becomes self-evident. The argument would stand thus:—
That which all mankind believe is true.If such an argument were sound, it would be useless; for unless the major premiss is false that argument could never be addressed to any human being who did not already agree with the conclusion.
But all mankind believe that there is a God.
Therefore it is true that there is a God.
If any less extensive major premiss were adopted, it would be impossible to prove the corresponding minor, to say nothing of the difficulty of proving the major itself. Thus, for instance, suppose the argument ran thus:—
That which two-thirds of the human race believe is true.or thus :—
But two-thirds of the human race believe &c.
That which all competent judges believe is true.It is obvious that in any such case the major premiss must either be merely fanciful, as in the first illustration, or illusory, as in the second, and that in each case the minor must be incapable of being proved.
But all competent judges believe &c.
I do not, however, wish to discuss the question on merely logical grounds, though they are not an inconvenient way of showing that the real question is, what do all mankind or all civilised mankind know about the matter?
The main objection to arguments of this kind is that they deal with a subject of immense importance and interest in a. crude superficial way. Great religious problems cannot be solved by voting upon them.
No inference worth anything at all can be drawn from the fact that a particular belief has been widely diffused for a length of time, or has been closely connected with civilisation, unless we go into the subject far more closely.
Before we can know what inference is to be drawn from the fact that the belief in God is widely diffused, and has exercised, and over-exercised (as no doubt is the case), an immense influence on whole nations for long periods of time, we ought to investigate the origin and trace the history of the belief. We ought to try to realise to our own imaginations the state of mind of the vast populations which have had no, or only fanciful, beliefs on religious subjects, and to examine the conditions under which many of them changed their views for such a creed, for instance, as Buddhism. We ought to ask and to try to answer such a question as this:—To what extent are the opinions of philosophers, ancient and modern, on this subject derived from their own reflections upon the world in which they lived, and to what extent are they merely a refined version of the popular beliefs of their time and country? We ought, in short, to apply to the study of religious questions the same historical method of inquiry which has been and is being applied with such fruitful results to so many other subjects—the study of language, of law, of political institutions and moral conceptions. When we know the history of religious ideas, the way in which religions grow, change, and sometimes die out, the different relations in which they may stand to morals, and many other matters of the same kind, we shall be in a position to draw inferences from the fact that particular religions prevailed in particular times and places. To call upon anyone to do so in the present state of our knowledge is like calling on a man who knows nothing of astronomy to draw an inference from the fact that at particular times the rings of Saturn cannot be distinguished.
The part of Mr. Gladstone’s article which has struck me with the greatest surprise is the use which he makes of the authority of which he has so much to say. He says: ‘Authority is the humble but useful substitute’ for inquiry. He quotes, with apparent approval, a passage in which Sir George Lewis speaks of ‘doubt, hesitation, suspense of the judgment, inquiry before decision, balancing of apparently opposite facts, followed perhaps by a qualified and provisional opinion,’ as processes foreign to the mind of pretenders to philosophy, and therefore, one may suppose, characteristic of the true philosopher. He tells us that ‘the knowledge referable to action which we obtain by inquiry is altogether or commonly probable knowledge; and authority is probable knowledge too.’ Near the end of the article he says authority ‘is a crutch, rather than a leg, but the natural energy of the leg is limited, and when the leg cannot work the crutch may.’ I suppose this means it may be worked by the other parts of the body, for a crutch cannot work itself; and this suggests, by the way, that as much intellectual exertion is wanted to work the crutch of authority as the leg of reason—perhaps more; or, to use my own language, that it is one of the greatest of intellectual efforts to decide upon the weight of evidence, and in particular the evidence of experts.
We are told that most men upon most subjects have to be content with ‘indirect accounts, or, as it were, rumours, of the results which writers and students have attained;’ and he adds, ‘It is safe to say that the largest part, even of civilised mankind, in the greater proportion of the subjects that pass through the mind, or touch the course of common action ’ (this must surely include religious belief), ‘have not even these, but have only a vague, unverified impression that the multitude or the best think so and so, and that they had better act and think accordingly. To some this may be an unwelcome announcement. The fact of their ignorance and its burden they have borne in patience, but it is less easy to bear equably the discovery how great that burden is.’ An analysis and exposition of this remark end thus: ‘While the naked exhibition of the amount of guidance found for us by authority is certainly unflattering, it has a moral use in the inculcation of much humility.’ What does all this mean? The natural inference from it is that the great mass of mankind are and must be content to remain in a. state of what may, for practical purposes, be described as absolute ignorance upon all religious subjects whatever. I can hardly suppose that Mr. Gladstone really wishes to establish this conclusion, but it appears to me to be the only one which can be logically connected with his premisses. His whole paper seems to lead up to some such proposition as this: Every one ought to believe and practise the religion in which he is brought up, Christian or not, because he has a vague unverified impression that somebody or other, who may perhaps have known something about it, believed it to be true, and this ought to make us all humble. Of course Mr. Gladstone has not said, and did not mean to say, either this or anything like it, but this is the only result which I am able to draw from his argument, considered as a whole.
I will in conclusion add a. few remarks of my own upon it.
It seems to me that the question, ‘What ought a man to believe as to religion?’ is one to which no general answer can be given. Mr. Gladstone thinks that no one ought to depart, ‘ except upon serious and humble examination as well as upon clear conviction, from the religion they have been brought up to profess, even though non-Christian, for it is the school of character and belief in which Providence has placed them.’ Surely this depends to some extent on the character of the creed. Who could look upon the worship of the goddess of murder, Bhowanee, as ‘a school of character and belief in which Providence has placed,’ or used to place, young Thugs? Who would not sympathise with a young Hindoo who, without ‘serious and humble examination,’ arrived upon the view—as a lawyer would say—at the conclusion that his caste rules were a mass of nonsense, and that the hideous lump of stone believed to be the goddess Kali, before which poor little goats have their heads chopped off', is a loathsome and disgusting object which as it stands is a disgrace to human nature? A rogue elephant the other day went about an Indian district killing the peasants in their huts. Many of them worshipped him as an incarnation of the elephant-headed god Ganesha. The district officer, with the assistance of certain native sceptics, put a rifle-ball through his head, and I think that any native who entered upon an examination into the question whether he really was Ganesha before shooting him would have been exceedingly silly. Seriousness and humility are noble qualities when they are employed upon suitable occasions; but I know not why what is in itself and on the face of it revolting to the common principles of morals and good sense should be treated seriously or with humility. There are cases in which ridicule and contempt are more appropriate.
The question what a man will, in fact, believe upon religious questions is much more easily answered. Every man will take as a starting-point the belief in which he is educated, and will, as he goes on in life, modify it more or less according to an infinity of circumstances. To ask whether this is right or wrong is like asking whether it is right or wrong to live and to grow from childhood to old age. The one process is as unavoidable as the other.
Taking this view of the subject, it seems to me that the question of duty arises at the point at which independent inquiry begins, nor do I see how the use of the word ‘authority’ makes any difference; for, unless authority means political power, believing on authority is only another phrase for considering the value of the evidence of experts, which is independent inquiry. In regard to the conduct of such inquiries I can see no distinction between a man’s duty in regard to religious inquiries and his duty in regard to other inquiries. He may have neither time nor aptitude for any inquiry at all. He may be in a position, and feel himself called upon, to devote his whole life to the subject, and he may be in any intermediate position. If he thinks at all upon such subjects, he ought to follow the ordinary rules which apply to thought on all subjects. He ought to be honest, courageous, modest, candid, ready to learn and at the same time determined to be taught and not to be put off with a pretence of teaching, and he ought not to expect to arrive at the end of what is really an endless journey. In all other subjects this is so well ascertained that there is no use in asserting it. Everyone admits that if a man studies history, or law, or politics, or anything else except religion, he must expect to make a thousand mistakes, to waste a great deal of time, and to learn at last only a minute part of a vast subject. Why should it be different with regard to religion? and why should it distress people to learn that in fact the case is just the same? The answer is, because an opinion prevails that there is a universal obligation incumbent on all mankind to have true opinions about a certain number, greater or less, of theological subjects; and this naturally leads to the further opinion that, inasmuch as hardly anyone is competent to distinguish between truth and falsehood in these matters, there is and must and shall be somewhere or other some easy means of solving a difficult question, some short cut to truth.
To those who, like myself, do not hold this opinion, the subject presents no particular difficulty. Of course, people are ignorant about religion as they are about other things. They usually have more to unlearn before they can begin to learn on that than on other subjects; but I do not see why they should be humiliated by their ignorance, or undervalue the knowledge which they may acquire by proper means, unless they begin with an arbitrary and irrational notion that it is their duty to make bricks without straw, to get firm and unhesitating convictions, as dear to them as life itself, and giving the colour to the whole of their life, out of ‘a vague unverified impression that the multitude or the best think so and so, and that they had better act and think accordingly.’
I have studiously confined myself throughout this article to the subjects touched upon by Mr. Gladstone, and I have therefore not even referred to other grounds of religious belief than argument upon evidence. I should be sorry to be supposed to be ignorant of the existence, or to deny the importance of such grounds of belief. All that I have to say about them here is that intuitive and mystical beliefs appear to me to move in a different plane, so to speak, from beliefs founded on evidence. A person who says that he in some sense or other sees God, and that by some analogous means he is intimately convinced that Christ was God incarnate, cannot be called unreasonable so long as he confines his assertion to himself, and does not go on to say or imply that those who say they cannot see what he says he can see are either telling a falsehood or are blind by their own fault, or are morally his inferiors.
Of course the fact that such assertions are made with intense seriousness and a profound conviction of their truth by a large number of persons is relevant to the question whether the matter asserted is true. But it does not prove it. When a number of people positively swore that a man standing before them was Tichborne and not Orton, the fact that such assertions were made was relevant to the question whether the person in question was or was not Tichborne, but they did not prove that he was Tichborne.
When many people assert that they have a direct intuitive perception of the truth of the fundamental propositions of religion, the assertion is a fact to be considered. It is, as a lawyer would say, evidence to go to a jury, but its weight and effect is quite another matter. The subject is too wide and important to be noticed here; and as Mr. Gladstone’s article passes it by, I will do so too, but with two short parables which need no explanation.
A blind man and a seeing man were once discussing the existence of sight. The seeing man told the blind man that he had a faculty by which he could perceive innumerable things which he could neither hear, touch, smell, nor taste, and which were at a great distance from him. The blind man challenged the seeing man to prove his assertions. ‘That,’ said the seeing man, ‘is easily done. Hold me by the hand. You perceive that I am standing by you. I affirm that if you will walk fifty steps along the side of this wall, which you can touch with your hand, so as to be sure that you are moving straight on, you will find such and such objects, which I specifically describe, and as to the existence of which you can satisfy yourself by your own fingers.’
The blind man admitted that the seeing man had proved his assertion.
Of two men with eyes, A. and B., A. declared that he could see what went on in the sun, moon, and fixed stars, and that when he said ‘see’ he meant not exactly common seeing, but a superior kind of seeing, very hard to describe to anyone who did not possess it, which he called ‘intueing.’ B. (who had a good pair of eyes of his own of the common kind) challenged A. to read the Times newspaper at a distance at which B. could not read it. A. failed to do so. ‘Why,’ said B., ‘should I believe that you can “intue” things in Sirius, when you cannot read small print on the other side of the room? If you want me to believe that you possess faculties of which I am destitute, you must prove yourself to be my superior by appealing to the faculties which we have in common.’
The Nineteenth Century, April 1877.