The Light of Nature Pursued (by Abraham Tucker, 1768-78)
There are in the world a certain number of remarkable books which have a reputation only in small but influential classes. They are, for the most part, books which are not on the popular side, which are rather powerful than attractive, and which, for some reason or other, lie out of the general current of literature. Henry's History of Britain, for instance, is an excellent book, but it never got anything like the reputation of Hume's. The same may be said of Carte, whose Jacobitism effectually obscured the reputation due to his great qualities; but it would be difficult to find a stronger illustration than is afforded by the book named at the head of this article.
Many people hardly know Tucker, even by name. Of those who do know him by name, few have read him; yet he exercised a deep influence over men whose writings have, in their turn, exercised a deep and wide influence over more generations than one. Paley, for instance, in the introduction to his Moral Philosophy, says: 'There is one work to which I owe so much, that it would be ungrateful not to confess the obligation. ... I have found in this writer more original thinking and observation than in any other, not to say in all others put together.' And Dr. Whately, if we are not mistaken, spoke hardly less strongly on the subject.
Tucker was a Surrey country gentleman of large property, who had been educated at Oxford, and had afterwards studied law, though without any intention of practising. He lived a very quiet life, and never appears to have taken an interest in politics, or in any other public pursuit. From his childhood he had always been fond of morals and metaphysics, and when he was upwards of fifty years of age he began to put the reflections of his life into shape. The undertaking occupied him for nearly twenty years, when he died. The result was the Light of Nature, some parts of which were published during his life. The complete work, so far as it is complete, was published by his daughter after his death. So little did literary ambition enter into the author's views that the fragments of the book published during his lifetime were published under a false name.
It certainly is by no means surprising that the Light of Nature should never have been a popular book. One edition of it fills six octavo volumes of a handsome size. Another, which is later and more economical, is compressed into two, but these two consist of no less than 1365 pages, of fifty-three lines to the page and thirteen words to the line. Few readers care so much about moral and theological inquiries as to attack such a piece de resistance as this, with anything like a serious intention of triumphing over its difficulties.
Nor is the enterprise in itself much worth undertaking, especially in the present day, except by a serious student of such subjects. The moral teaching of the book has passed into other forms, and is to be got in a condensed shape in Paley's Moral Philosophy. The metaphysics are little more than an expansion of Locke, with some special adaptations to Tucker's own mind; and the theology has never met with as much favour or notice as the good intentions of the author deserved. It relates to moral rather than to critical and historical inquiries. The style is very curious, though both powerful and picturesque. A gentle, innocent vein of gaiety runs through the whole of it, and bubbles over in a constant stream of good-natured old-gentlemanly gossip, not altogether unlike the style of Our Own Correspondent, or perhaps something between that and Montaigne. Notwithstanding all this, there are still reasons for reading Tucker's Light of Nature even in these days, and those who do discharge that task will get from the book itself something which they will hardly find anywhere else.
It has always been a favourite undertaking with men of a certain class to write, in some form or other, a good Religio Laici—that is to say, to contribute to the solution of the great question, What is the view which a sensible man ought to take of this life and the next, apart from and independently of the special professional influence of churches and clergymen? On what principles, and to what extent, ought people in general to allow their lives to be affected by the sacerdotal view of life? This has been the object with the writers of nearly all the theological books, lay or clerical, which have exercised a wide influence over the world. It is a formula which describes not only such a book as Tucker's, or the writings of De Maistre, but Butler's Analogy, Pascal's Pensees, Montaigne's Essays, and even Augustin's Confessions and the Civitas Dei. The common purpose of all these, and of many other writings which might be named, is to address themselves directly, and not on technical or special grounds, to topics open to large classes of men, and apprehended by them as really urgent.
The way in which Tucker conceived and handled this great problem, is the really remarkable feature of this book, and constitutes its true claim to be remembered. It might, perhaps, be described mathematically as a formula for giving Christianity in terms of Locke. Tucker's fundamental assumption is the truth of the doctrine of Experience, and he undertakes to think out, from that basis, all the great problems of morality and religion.
The immense elaboration of the book makes it a difficult task to give any notion of it in a reasonable compass, but its general plan is simple, and a few of its main positions may be readily indicated. Tucker seems to have viewed his immense undertaking as an attempt to answer the question, Why should men be moral and religious? This subdivided itself into three other inquiries, each of enormous extent. First, What is human nature, and how is it related to morality? Secondly, What is theology? Thirdly, How ought theology and morality put together to affect human conduct? The book is made up of answers to these vast questions.
The first question—What is human nature, and how is it related to morality? is answered by an elaborate analysis of the mechanism of thought and action. A most curious work it is, and one which it is hardly possible to exhibit on a small scale. The following, however, are some of its main features: The mind will be found, on careful examination, to possess one power — namely, will; one faculty—namely, imagination; and one capacity— understanding.
All mental operations may be resolved into one or other of these heads. Will is a mere power, and cannot, with propriety, be said to be either free or not, except in respect of being subject, or not subject, to external restraint. If you hold a man's hand down, he is not free to lift it; if you do not hold it down, he is free; but the choice whether or not he will lift it, is not, according to Tucker, a question for the will at all.
It is decided by the imagination, instructed by the understanding. Thus, imagination and understanding make up between them, the whole of that part of our mental processes which precedes the actual moment of action. In understanding, the mind is passive; it receives from without a variety of impressions, the relations and character of which it perceives. In imagination, it is active, calling up a variety of ideas (Tucker avoids Locke's confusion in relation to this word by using it consistently in the one sense of mental images), which, when called up, are as much materials for the understanding as the impressions made by external objects. The play of understanding and imagination produces a vast number of compound operations, such as 'discerning, remembering, thinking, studying, contemplating, and a multitude of others.'
Some of the most important of these Tucker examines, in several cases with great felicity of expression, always with a wonderful power of illustration, and always also with originality. He goes, in particular, into the question of the association of ideas, though he does so upon a plan, and with a phraseology, of his own, differing to some extent from those which are commonly in use upon the subject.
The most remarkable of his doctrines is as to the nature of knowledge, or rather as to the degree of knowledge which man can attain. His conclusion, which is in perfect and obvious consistency with the fundamental principles of his theories, is that 'absolute certainty was not made for man, but that man is so constituted as to do very well without it.' Though he does not say so in so many words, the legitimate inference from his views appears to be, that the last and highest assertion which human reason can make is, that a particular statement does, or does not, strikingly resemble the results of former experience, though there is no rule by which we may determine 'when the repugnancy of things to our common notions ought to make us reject them and when not.' He elsewhere observes, 'As well persuaded as I am that two and two make four, if I were to meet with a person of credit, candour, and understanding who should seriously call it in question, I would give him the hearing.'
Such are the ultimate results which can be produced by the play of imagination and understanding; but neither of them is born with us in its complete shape. Each is gradually acquired and brought to perfection by use; and each, as it grows up, and when it has grown up, is set to work, and kept at work, by external motives—the great dominant motive which is present always, and under every variety of shape, being that of obtaining satisfaction.
'Satisfaction' is one of the leading terms in Tucker's theory of human nature. It implies that the imagination is continually setting up one object or another —the removal of some uneasiness, the obtaining of some object of desire—and that this object is, for the time being, the guide of all our actions. But what kind of objects does the imagination set up? This, of course, involves the whole question of pains and pleasures, to use Bentham's terms, or, to speak more generally, the question, What are the objects which we desire or avoid?
These objects are our motives of conduct; that is to say, they are the considerations which tend to show that such and such courses will produce satisfaction. They are innumerable, but may be arranged under four principal heads—namely, Pleasure, Use, Honour, and Necessity. The introduction of these various motives to the understanding and imagination, and the play of those faculties which they occasion, produce habits and passions which, says Tucker, 'I take to be only a stronger sort of habits acquired early in our childhood.'
The description of these various passions and motives takes up many chapters, which consist of theories—always shrewd and pleasantly illustrated, but rather tedious—of the way in which imagination and understanding, stimulated by the various motives, and exerting themselves according to the courses described in the chapters on the association of ideas and the like, come to produce hope, love, hatred, grief, etc. The necessity of solving such questions, in order to support by synthesis the correctness of his analysis, lies upon all analytical writers on human nature. The resource of skipping is fortunately open to their readers, and, unless they care very specially for the verification of their teacher's views, they are likely to avail themselves of it.
Having thus explained to his own satisfaction the general mechanism of the mind, Tucker proceeds, by steps which Paley and Bentham have since his time rendered familiar to every one, to resolve morality into a calculation of consequences. It is needless to dwell upon this, as the steps of the process are now as familiar as any part of speculation.
A single extract of a few lines will give the reader a pretty clear insight into the gist of perhaps a hundred huge octavo pages. The question being asked, Upon what merely mundane grounds ought a man, who has persevered in virtuous habits all his life, to do a virtuous act at the point of death, although it is very disagreeable?—Tucker answers, in substance, that though such a man would be under no obligation (in his sense of the word) to be moral, he would nevertheless have become (to use a phrase of Mr. Herbert Spencer's) organically moral; or, to use Tucker's own words:
'It does not necessarily follow that a man must quit the practice of virtue when he sees his dissolution approaching, for this will depend upon the turn of mind he has already taken. . . . When the glass is almost run out it is too late to think of taking up a set of fresh inclinations, but every one must be left to make the most of those he already possesses. But this very consideration will engage the man who has spent his days in a virtuous course to persevere in it to the last; not, indeed, now from obligation or expedience, but for the ease and pleasure he finds in pursuing an habitual track.'What would Tucker have said to the case of a man in the full heat of passion and vigour, who knew he could not live for more than a very few years—too few to acquire the habit of virtue?
The second part of Tucker's work is devoted to theology. Are there any other considerations, drawn from a future state, which ought to affect our conduct here? The answer, of course, is that there are. For obvious reasons, we can notice only in the most summary way his views on this great subject, though the exposition of them undoubtedly forms by far the most curious and interesting part of the book.
He begins by a variety of physical arguments, which have now lost much of their interest, intended to prove that the 'mind has a being of its own distinct from that of all other things, and is a pure unmingled individual substance.' He then goes on to show that hence may be inferred its perpetual duration, and he argues for the existence of God on the usual grounds. He enters at great length, and with extreme ingenuity and precision of thought, into all the parts of the vast question, How must we suppose such a Being to be related to the world? and handles the subjects of Providence, the divine justice, free-will, the nature and duration of future punishments, and the like, in a manner which ought to be familiar to all who think seriously on such topics, though it would be too high a compliment to the general level of knowledge to suppose that it actually is familiar.
The general result of the whole is, that the facts within our observation lead us to believe in the existence of a God who governs the world, but that they also lead to the conclusion that the differences between the operations of such a Being and those of human creatures is so enormously great, especially in regard to their scale, that there are many points on which we must be contented with ignorance.
There is no great novelty in this, but there is much novelty and originality in the use made of it. Tucker suggests a variety of possible future states which, as he supposes, would solve the moral difficulties of life. Why, for instance, should not the soul dwell in a sort of infinitesimally small presence-chamber with which the nerves communicate, and which at death is detached from the body, retaining the character which the man has impressed upon it by his habits of life, and which would constitute its reward or punishment? Why should not this vehicle wear out after a course of ages, and the soul pass into a common receptacle of souls, called the mundane soul, forming a sort of connecting link between the Creator and the world? And why, after countless ages, should not its turn come round to go again upon active service in this or some other world, where it would again begin the round of action and passion? The way in which such fancies may be made to explain some of the difficulties of life is obvious enough, and the notion is worked out in an imaginary vision, with great power of fancy, and delicacy of expression and description.
Like most of the principal moral and religious writers of the last century, Tucker considered natural religion as the necessary foundation of a belief in revealed religion. He accordingly discusses all the great moral problems connected with religion, which the human mind can state and in a certain sense solve, without revelation, before he approaches the question of the truth of Christianity. This discussion forms the subject of the third part of the book. Its general doctrine is that the Christian revelation was intended for the use of the world at large, and was therefore expressed in popular language, which those who are by nature obliged to think with greater exactness, are not only at liberty, but are under an obligation, to translate into a more scientific shape.
'I take religion to be distinguished from philosophy by having its principal residence in the imagination; not that I mean to insinuate thereby that it is a thing imaginary, or the tenets of it arbitrary; but a man may lay up in mind the discoveries of his understanding, and continue to use them after he has utterly forgotten the foundations whereon they were grounded. So likewise the produce of sound and solid reasoning may be inculcated into another who has not capacity to judge of them himself, and to him they will be mere persuasions of the mind, nevertheless they may prove of excellent service and necessary use to his conduct. And when we consider that these persuasions are to be calculated for general benefit, as likewise how few there are who could enter into the grounds of them if laid open ever so carefully to their view, a man that has the good of others at heart will be content to find less of rational inference and connection than he would desire upon his own private account.'He then proceeds at immense length to examine all the great doctrines of the Christian scheme, and to show that each of them has, so to speak, a rational and philosophical aspect. Tucker by no means explains away Christianity, or converts it into a theory which might be discovered by purely human means. On the contrary, he expressly says: 'I can muster up no arguments even to persuade myself that' the great Christian doctrines 'could ever have been reached by the strongest efforts of human reason.' He all along takes the fact of a revelation as proved, and, making that assumption, he tries with intense perseverance, and a really marvellous exhibition of some very great mental qualities, to see whether the doctrines so revealed do not convey a message to the reason of the few, as well as to the imagination not only of the many, but of the few also.
The result is a series of speculations, of which some, no doubt, have lost their interest, but which, in the main, are well worth not merely reading, but careful study. There are, in particular, a chapter on the Christian scheme which presents in a moderate compass the most characteristic part of Tucker's religious belief, and a chapter on Divine Services, or external religion, which gives his practical inferences. By reading these two chapters—they fill only eighty-two very large and close octavo pages—any one may get a very fair general notion of the character of the whole book.
Such are the general objects of a book which, with greater energy and self-reliance on the part of its author, might have produced a most powerful effect on the world, and have won for him a high place amongst its instructors. The fault of it is that he worked at it too hard, thought over it too long, and was over-anxious to exhaust every conceivable collateral inquiry, and to anticipate every possible objection, before he took a single step in advance. The book was not begun till he was fifty-one years of age, and it was not finished when he died at sixty-nine. Only a few fragments were published during his lifetime.
The consequence is, that it is so hard to get at the kernel of the work that it is hardly known except to really studious persons. By severe compression, and rejection of collateral matters, it might have been reduced to the size of Butler's Analogy; and if it had been, there is great room for doubt whether it would not have been a book of the same sort of influence. Tucker is quite as profound as Butler, and uses language with at least as much precision, and he possessed a power of illustration of which Butler was altogether destitute. Indeed, it was this very power which diminished his influence. He wrote so well, and was so fond of writing, that he produced far too much. You cannot see the wood for the trees.
Paley called him diffuse, but it is in this sense only that he can fairly be called so. Each chapter by itself is thoroughly good, both in matter and in style. His diffuseness is rather unregulated luxuriance of thought than flabbiness. If he had been a clergyman, and had brought out his book in the form of sermons, he would have been as voluminous as Tillotson, and would have deserved and perhaps obtained as wide an influence. This is proved by the prodigious success of Paley's Moral Philosophy, which is nothing or little more than an adaptation of one limb of Tucker's book, and is cast, as all Paley's books are cast, in a far less satisfactory mould. It is far more technical, and fails to convey the impression which is derived from every page of Tucker's work—that it contains the real solution of real difficulties, which a real man found it necessary to his own peace of mind to remove.
If it be asked whether Tucker's solution of the great problems of morality and religion was either true or valuable, and whether the labour of his life did not leave such questions very much as it found them, the answer ought, we think, to be less discouraging than that which would usually be given. True as it certainly is that these great problems remain unchanged from millennium to millennium, it is by no means true that the thoughts of men respecting them remain unchanged. A progress as ceaseless, though not as fast, as that of physical science may be traced by attentive observers in moral and religious inquiries.
Even in the course of the eighty or ninety years which have passed since the Light of Nature was published, many of the matters discussed by Tucker have become obsolete. It would hardly be thought necessary in these days, by any writer on such subjects, to discuss the question of free-will, otherwise than in the most summary manner, or to devote many chapters to a discussion of the properties of substances, and to prove that the soul is an indiscerptible unit.
On the other hand, the whole question of the nature of the moral relations between God and man, and of the evidence on which, and the extent to which, religion is to be received and believed, is perhaps even more keenly debated now than it was then, and upon those subjects any one who has the necessary patience, may learn more from Tucker than from almost any subsequent writer. His views may be true or false, but they are always real and absolutely sincere. He was one of that very small number of men who are incapable of making intellectual compromises, and who utterly refuse to be satisfied with anything short of an explicit understanding with themselves. Whoever, therefore, turns his thoughts to the matters in reflecting on which Tucker spent his life, may be sure that he will find a view of the subject stated, which, whether true or not, is at all events perfectly intelligible, and which, as a matter of fact, did actually satisfy the moral and religious wants of a most honest, inquisitive, and able man eighty years ago, and did furnish him with a practical guide for his conduct. It is because, and in so far as, they have done this, that all great religious writers, from St. Augustin downwards, have had a hold on the world.
It must, however, be admitted that the sort of temperament which Tucker's book is likely to influence is a very rare one. In order to enjoy it thoroughly, a man must unite a deep and genuine sense of religion, to the most determined unflinching reliance on reason. He must, on the one hand, be so open to religious influences, as to be thoroughly determined on giving them their due weight in the course of his life; and, on the other, he must be so determined to tread on the solid ground, and not on mists however beautiful, as to examine every proposition submitted to him with a scrutiny as keen and impartial as that of the coolest man of science. This is perhaps the rarest of all tempers of mind, but when it does occur it is also perhaps the highest. Probably no one ever possessed it fully; but Tucker made a considerable approach to it, and the result is that he has worked out what may be called a reasonable religion, though it is so elaborate and so much qualified and guarded that hardly any one but himself would have the patience to understand and to hold it.
For common people, a far simpler, shorter, and more peremptory exposition of his principles would be required. If it could be made, with the modifications which the discoveries of the last century require, it would be one of the most useful and popular books in the world, for it would exhibit the outline of a system of religion at once rational, cheerful, and of practical use. In order to appreciate the importance of this, we have only to remember how often the views of religion presented to the world in the present day are either rose-coloured dreams, resting on no proof at all, except their conformity to the feelings of those who put them forward, or hideous nightmares, which we are told we must accept as true, though it is at least as likely that they are false, because they form the only refuge from an utter darkness, supposed to be more frightful still.
Saturday Review, November 12, 1864.