The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
Extracts from Letters
Extracts from Letters
I am quite aware of the mode in which the sacerdotalists deal with the promise and prophecy of Jesus that he would return in glory before that generation passed away. I know how, by a little hanky-panky, they deftly convert that terrible difficulty, that (one might have supposed) crushing disaster into a brilliant sham victory, with endless sham jubilations. But only sham, indeed. For it is simply not true that the Greek word genea, correctly rendered in the English version "generation," ever elsewhere bears the meaning of a "people" or "nation." No Sir—not in any Greek work extant—not in any Greek passage that can be found and quoted. Consult the highest Greek authority you can find, and (if he be not pledged to falsification by Ins métier) I think he will tell you that in no context elsewhere does genea signify anything but a generation of man. Most assuredly the companions and immediate followers of Jesus understood that he had pledged himself to return before all those who stood about him had tasted of death. "Were they not as likely as we to understand his meaning? Note, too, that in the passage (Matthew xxvi.) "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven," the precise meaning of the original Greek word is not hereafter but immediately.
Why, we should never have heard of Christianism but for the electrifying effect on the startled imaginations of the first converts produced by the positive announcement and daily expectation of the second advent and the end of all things. That was the sharp terror that gave first impetus to the new creed and set it rolling. At this time of day, however, it suits Christianists best to sing a palinode, and to explain that when Jesus said he would return before the death of that generation, while those about him were still alive, and immediately, he really only meant, "before the Jews ceased to exist as a separate people." And thereupon they burst into a gushing enthusiasm over the wonderful fulfilment of the word of our Lord. "Behold, say they, the unparalleled fact, the grand unmistakeable miracle of the continued existence of the Jews as a separate people, though scattered among all nations. They are a crushing evidence of the truth of Christianity and a continued pledge that the Lord Jesus is coming again." (By the way, former Christians thought it the holy thing to try to exterminate them.) Securely clothed inside and out "with self-deceit, they say all this and much more without blushing, without winking, in the face of the precisely parallel (miraculous?) facts—of the Parsees or Zoroastrians of Persia, scattered for some 1200 years among all the nations of India, yet keeping themselves as a distinct people even more rigidly than the Jews—of the gipsies, probably for nearly a thousand years—and, more remarkable than all, of the auchthonic aborigines of India, the Bhuls, Gonds, etc., who still preserve themselves distinct, with all their immemorial rites and customs, though the overflowing of India by the Hindoos (Aryan, Indo-Germanic race) occurred in times prehistoric.
Note that against Jesus' unfortunate unfulfilled prophecies of his immediate return Christianists had begun to hedge as early as the date of the writing of the gospel according to St. John (about A.D. 170), from, which all these predictions are carefully excluded, and in which occurs that most unpleasantly prevaricating passage in chapter xxi. 20-23—too obviously and transparently designed to quibble away the disconcerting puzzle-priest difficulty that John the last survivor of the apostles was dead, all "Divine" promises to the contrary notwithstanding.page 18
Some ingenious critics have defended the rendering of genea by "race" or "people" by appealing to the authority of our poet Pope, who, in his metaphrase of a passage in the Illiad (6th Book), has translated that word both "generation" and "race," thus:—
"Like leaves on trees the race of men is found,
Now green in youth, now withering on the ground;
Another race the following spring supplies,
They fall successive and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So nourish these when those have passed away!"
Here, however, it is plain enough that both Homer used and Pope understood the word in the sense of generation after generation, though the exigences of English verse made the monosyllable "race" more convenient.
In any ease, Alexander Pope was not Pope Alexander, and therefore not infallible.
Then, which of the Harmonists has been able to bridge over the well-known historical interval of ten years (hiatus valdé deflendus!) between the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus? Facts here seem too stubborn for them. For it is certain that St. Luke tells us that Jeaus was born at the time of the taxing of Judea and Syria by the Roman Governor Cyrenius (or Quirinus). It is equally certain that after the death of Herod his son Archelaus reigned some nine years, when he was banished by the Imperial Government, those provinces definitively absorbed into the Roman Empire, and Cyrenius (see Josephus, Book 18, chap, i) especially deputed from Rome to make registration of the people and their substance, and to put them under the general Imperial system of taxation. Josephus, the historian, who lived and wrote a.d. 37 to 97, and who was so intimately acquainted with all the minutiae of the affairs of Judea, had never heard of the remarkable event of the slaughter of the Innocents by a king who was dead ten years before the poor things could, as contemporaries of Jesus, have been born.
With regard to the so-called remarkable prophecy in Genesis xlix. 10, the most eminent modern Hebrew critics have come to the conclusion that the word Shiloh means a place—a place of tranquillity, and that the correct rendering of the passage is "until Shiloh be come to, and to it shall the gathering of the people be."—E.g., see Bunsen's (Gennan) Bible for the people.
But after all, what folly it is to waste time and brain-power in so futile an occupation as minute verbal study of the legends of the old Jew semi-barbarians! What can it signify to us what they said, or wrote, or thought, with their poor undeveloped uneducated minds?
The primà facie view of the Superstition has always been quite sufficient for me. If the Supreme Soul of the Universe had willed to speak to us, externally, otherwise than through our own nature, it is incredible that He would have sent in his Divine message in a hole-and-corner manner, from out of very dark places in very dark days—or through the medium of miserable savages wandering through Arabian deserts, or of unlettered Jew paupers in Palestine, or of human manuscripts. Or that He would have spoken to one generation and then have left the report of the rumour of his having spoken to be filtered down through thousands of succeeding generations until, by the ever-deepening mists left by the lapse of time and the imperfection of the very nature of human testimony, any semblance of trustworthiness that the report might have had should be gradually obscured and obliterated. Or that the reported Divine message should have been full of self-contradictions, absurdities, incredibilities, mistakes, misstatements, and gross immoralities, and altogether of so vague, grotesque and unintelligible a nature as to be capable of bearing a thousand different interpretations, and so ill adapted to its intended effect as to have failed to have the slightest influence on the vast majority of mankind. Why, any so-called Divine message is self-con-demned by the very fact of its being possible to question its authenticity.
But for one thing the wonder would ever grow that so many men of strong, sound, cultivated minds, and, in all other respects, of logical habits of thought, should habitually become utterly fatuous, irrational, and imbecile, the page 19 moment there falls upon them the glamour of the gruesome Idol .of Bibliolatry. And that one thing that solves the marvel is a due appreciation of the enormous influence over the dawning intellect of each individual man of the credulous, uncritical (or rather, imperfectly educated) female mind. Naturally, our childish minds are first moulded by our mothers and nurses, who press them into a particular shape. And but a few have sufficient innate strength to recover from the cramp and spring into natural form. So it comes to pass that so many strong fellows never get out into the light of day, but remain ever groping and wandering and puzzling among the gloomy, mouldering cloisters of a crumbling fetish. A fetish which always seems moribund, but still not to be utterly exploded while men continue to keep an esoteric doctrine of intellectual freedom and rationalism for themselves, and an exoteric doctrine of Old Mother Hubbard and spiritual moonshine for the women. As it is, it is only by the women that all the churches are upheld. Priests and parsons are right in cultivating them so sedulously.
We crusaders of the nineteenth century against the infidels—"The Pagans suckled in a creed outworn"—who deny the gospel of science, will never achieve our triumph, we shall never finally hurl down the grim idol of supernaturalism until we popularise the inner and profounder thoughts of the scientific mind, and reveal them to the people at large, in language they can understand; until, no longer limited as an esoteric doctrine to the coterie of the highly educated few, something of the spirit of science be made to penetrate the masses. We can never cast down this Dagon so long as the popular mind is still clutched fast by the implicit conviction that whatever else may be doubtful, it is at least certain, that there must have been one set of miracles and of special acts of divine creative power when organic life—that is, when tree, beast and man—appeared on earth. Here is the very root of the matter—which must be grubbed up.
For, one miracle granted, what bounds to the miraculous? One breach of the absolute reign of natural law, and, at a stroke, the reign of law is abrogated.
At present the popular mind is wholly unconscious of the fact that no such idea of sudden and violent creation is ever entertained by men of science; by any holding rank in the vanguard of thought. They hold—and this is what we philalethists must strive to pierce the stolid general mind with, by pegging away with incessant iteration in plain phrases—they, the men of advanced thought, all hold that nothing has come to pass, per saltum, by sudden jump, but that all things have ever been, as now, governed by orderly and immutable physical law; slow, gradual, working through aeons of ages; that organic life as it is now is the result of evolution and development—of evolution in humblest forms, out of the inorganic elements by natural processes, and development gradual through enormous periods from those first low types.
To use a metaphor—halting and imperfect indeed, yet roughly serving the turn—as we know that oxygen and hydrogen, mingled in certain proportions, filliped by an electric spark, vanish, coalescing into an equal weight of water, so we hypothesize that certain other inorganic matters in combination, under the stimulus of some force—it may be of magnetic currents in ocean depths—coalesce into protoplasm, the basis of physical life.
The theories of development, variation and natural selection, roughly explain the rest. Says Darwin (Descent of Man, vol. II, 385.)," The main conclusion arrived at in this work is that man is descended from some less highly organised form. The grounds on which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, both of high and of the most trifling importance,—the rudiments which he retains, and the abnormal reversions to which he is occasionally liable,—are facts which cannot be disputed. They have long been known, but page 20 until recently they told us nothing with respect to the origin of man. Now, when viewed by the light of our knowledge of the whole organic world, their meaning is unmistakeable. The great principle of evolution stands up clear and firm, when these groups of facts are considered in connection with others, such as the mutual affinities of the members of the same group, their geographical distribution in past and present times, and their geological succession. It is incredible that all these facts should speak falsely. He who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act af creation."
Among men in any degree imbued with the noble, because truthful, spirit of modern science, no other theory is tenable, tolerable, possible than that of the derivation of man from lower animal types, and through them in series long-drawn-out from the humblest organic forms, and thence from the inorganic elements. It may indeed be affirmed that there is no other competing theory now extant. For the fantastic goblin Miracle has been chased before the growing light of Science, as vanishes some poor clown's terror-drawn ghost before the realistic brightness of the morning.
To him whoso mistaken human pride still fights against this theory, two or three questions may be propounded: From what has he himself, as an individual, been derived? Has he not been developed from a minute germinal vesicle, from a minute ovule? an ovule in no respect distinguishable from that of any other mammal? Is it not an indisputable fact that in his embryonic stages he has progressively assumed the forms of a fish, of an amphibian, of a dog, of a monkey? If such a past career be not degrading to the individual, why so to the species?
To belong to an ever-improving and ascending series, or to the degenerate progeny of perfect parents—which is the more cheering and ennobling view?
In all nature we believe that there have never been any sudden, miraculous—that is, natural creations, nor any events not growing naturally out of their antecedents.
All the processes of nature resemble what we understand by the word growing. Black Topsy's blankly ignorant theory of her own existence—"Guess I grow'd"—is the summary of all that the highest knowledge and the profoundest thought can teach us. "We bud out of the earth, we are its efflorescence. The inorganic world teems forth organic life at every pore; most probably the process of so-called creation still goes on even to-day, of which the not unfrequent appearance of new forms of insect blights and fungoids may be a token.
Says Shelley:—"Infinity within, infinity without belie creation." Recognising that there is nothing strictly logical in-the objection, nevertheless. I have always felt some immense force in it. Look at the infinity of minuteness! Consider how all the living tissues of all animals are pervaded by hosts of parasites, and the bodies of those parasites by their parasites. How
"Great fleas have less fleas,
And they, other fleas to bite 'em,
And those fleas have their fleas,
And so ad infinitum
Whether do such things seem to bear the impress of intelligent creation, or of a spontaneity of organisation in the inorganic?
As, without definite boundary, the animal kingdom merges into the vegetable, so, doubtlessly, does the organic world into the inorganic. As we get more light, even to us does the distinction between those two worlds seem to lessen. We no longer regard the inorganic as inert matter; we know there is 110 such thing as inert matter; that all things are permeated by force; that even a granite rock is in a violent state of force, and we begin to surmise that the force which pervades the universe is one and constant. If we must have a god, we may regard that force as god. But, different to our old anthropomorphic idols, a god without attributes conceivable by us. The views of philosophical materialists are, vulgarly, much misconstructed. We page 21 are wrongly interpreted to deny that there is anything in space but Mattered Force. But if we so dogmatised about the Unknowable we should be no better than theologians. What we maintain is, that all phenomena whatsoever, of which the human mind is or can be cognizant, are the resultants of the molecular Forces of Matter. But surely we are not supposed to pretend that we know in the least what matter is. For all that Man can possibly know, Matter may be Divine—may be to us only a manifestation of a Divine Force filling Infinity. But such speculations are entirely beyond the limits of philosophic inquiry, and utterly futile and inane.
Contrariwise, for all we know, organic life may be the highest specialised outcome of Matter and Force.
The spring-blossoms on the tree of two thousand years growth, are but slight and ephemeral things compared with the great trunk which bears them aloft, yet they are far superior to it, of higher and finer organisation, of more vivid activities, more nearly approaching to the state of consciousness.
As they are to the trunk, so we may be to the inorganic cosmos.
You maintain that you plainly discern throughout the physical world, especially in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, innumerable wonderful evidences of intelligent design! My dear fellow, permit me to say that I think you here fall into the old, old logical error of mistaking inference for observation. What we really do see is, only innumerable and wonderful instances of the adaptation of things. That those adaptations are the product of design is what we cannot possibly see: that would be merely a metaphysical and speculative inference which might or might not be true.
You say the inference is a good one, and quite the same as if one seeing a watch for the first time—and never having hoard of a watch before—should infer that it was certainly the work of human hands and human intelligence. There I differ from you entirely; it is not the same; the two cases are in nowise parallel; in the latter case you know for a certainty that man exists, and you have seen many other works which you experientially know to be his; and it is some analogy with his other, known works that would lead you at once to recognise his handicraft in the watch.
But, in the other case, you don't know for a certainty, or at all, of the existence of God: at least you cannot assume his existence here, as that is just the theorem you are seeking to prove. To make the cases at all parallel, there ought to be many other worlds experientially known to you to be made by God; then, reasoning by analogy, you would have a right to say, I recognise here also the hand of the god who, I know, made those other worlds. But the mystery of the adaptations which have the appearance of design, is part of the mystery of the universe, which is unique, and cannot be approached by any analogy, or by any comparison. No doubt these adaptations are marvellous, but more marvellous still would be our hitting, in the infinitude, upon their one real cause and true raison d'≖tre.
It always strikes me as something very arrogant and presumptuous, to assert that we can plainly discern the proofs of divine design; it is rating the power of the human intellect too high, thus to claim for it the ability of sounding by the plummet of an inference the depths of the Infinite—Unknown. Rather let us be humble here, and call ourselves Agnostics.
This is a problem of which a conclusive solution is unattainable, still, one on which the human mind cannot easily cease to speculate. At present and provisionally, until we know more, we may accept the Darwinian—as of all theories—the most satisfactory. Any materialistic is better than a supernatural exegesis; anything better than calling in the aid of a vague indefinite deus whom we have to invent for the occasion.
As the light of knowledge has advanced, the boundary of the chaotic realm of the supernatural has ever been pushed back. Says Büohner (Man in the Present, Past and Future), "Every science, and especially every philosophy. page 22 that seeks reality instead of appearance, truth instead of pretence, must necessarily be free from supernaturalism; otherwise it blocks-up against itself the path to its end, the truth. As soon, then, as in a philosophic book the word "God" occurs, except in criticism or reference, one may confidently lay it aside; in it will be found nothing capable of promoting the real progress of knowledge. In properly scientific works the word will be seldom met with; for in scientific matters the word "God" is only another expression for our ignorance; in like manner as are also on more special occasions the words 'vital force,' 'instinct,' 'soul,' etc." "We may well believe that, were our knowledge absolute, the supernatural chimera would have vanished utterly into the inanities.
Præcipuum Naturæ bonum, Mors.—Pliny.
But how account for the fact that the idea of the immaterial soul, as distinct from the body and surviving it, has been conceived by all the people of the earth, by even the most barbarous tribes—otherwise than by assuming it to be an intuition—a divinely-implanted intuition of the human mind?
For the sake of argument, grant for a moment that, in point of fact, the soul is but an unreal figment; still, I think, a little consideration will show you that the idea must, nevertheless, have arisen, necessarily and naturally, in the minds of men everywhere. The illusions of the senses, the hallucinations resulting from abnormal and distempered conditions of the brain and nervous system, would inevitably have given birth to it. If an uneducated man, suffering from fever, has the sensation of seeing his dead friend or foe standing by his couch—of seeing him as distinctly as ever he saw him in life, and of hearing, perhaps, his voice and his words—must not the conviction at once be borne in upon him, that after dissolution of the body man still continues to exist in some indefinable condition? In his physiological ignorance to what other conclusion could he come? Then he relates his experiences and communicates his convictions to others; others corroborate them from their own similar experiences; the idea spreads, the dogma follows. On this dream-land basis has been reared the whole superstructure of the doctrine of a future life; what other foundation for it can you suggest? there is not only no proof, no evidence, but there can be none. All knowledge comes to us through the material organs of our senses, and by the reflections we make on what they teach us. It is impossible that any intimations of the immaterial should penetrate us through the portals of our material organs.
You know, they who are still in subjection to the Christian delusion, and the belief in divine messages and inspired papers, very generally admit, or assert, that the hope of eternal life depends wholly on the word of the Nazarene Jew. I think the opinion is common among them that he was the first to enunciate the doctrine; though, of course, it existed among many nations, or all nations, hundreds of years, perhaps thousands of years, before the date of the earliest Christian papers, which in this respect, did but emphasize popular opinions. Singularly enough, the old Hebrew scriptures contain nothing of the doctrine, but on the contrary, in many places, seem opposed to it. Still, there must have been some such idea among the old Hebrews, as among all other peoples in the world, for it springs naturally out of human infirmities. If you concede immortal souls to man, on what grounds can you refuse them to the ape, the dog, the horse, etc.? Do we differ from them in anything but our finer physical organisation and ampler development of brain?
There is the distinction that we have reason and they have not—is there? But I know you don't believe in that old-fashioned ignorant argument. Of course it is not true in its statement; the lower animals have their reasoning faculties as we have ours, but ours are transcendent in the ratio of our finer organisation and our ampler brain; there is no radical distinction, but only page 23 difference in degree. Have you ever heard any plausible answers to many questions such as this?—when a man is so far drowned that, unassisted, he would never move again, but, after an hour, or perhaps two, is restored to life by artificial means, what becomes of the soul in the interval of state which was virtually death? is the immortal soul, too, asphyxiated, or where is it? why can't it report, on return to the body?
No doubt the prospect of immortality is very gratifying to human pride and human tenacity of life, and very consolatory to the bereaved is the hope of meeting again the lost loved ones. But, before all things, the truth! Pleasant or unpleasant, give us the truth! Away with shams and unrealities and figments, however flattering they be! But let us inquire whether, upon the whole, the expectation of eternal life really makes mankind happier; does its consolation outweigh its oppression—the oppression it lays upon all our lives—of vague dread, distrust and avulsion? Were it possible to poll the real sentiments of mankind, do you think many would be found (besides a few enthusiasts and the impassioned by recent bereavement) who would not gladly forego their hope to get quit of their dread? who would not choose, had they free choice, rather to lie as the tree lies than chance a futurity of some undefinable, inconceivable mode of existence? Ask all your intimate friends, who are not too much encrusted with whitechokerism and Philistinism, to give you a conscientious answer, and they will reply, After life's fitful fever, let us lie as the tree lies! Why not? How can we really feel otherwise? How can we breathing terrestrials, children of our dear loveable and beloved mother earth, conceive of any existence away from her in the slightest degree desirable? Without our warm bodies, our passions, our appetites, our adventures—our struggles, or even our perils—without wooing, and marrying, and children, and home, and home-affections—without earth, ocean, air, and all their vicissitudes—without mountain and valley, and sea and cities—without loving, and eating and drinking, and riding and sailing? No! Better a thousand times to lie as the tree lies, than to exist sundered from all the surroundings we know and love. Remember the story of the old English farmer, whom, dying, the parson endeavoured to cheer with word-pictures of the joys and glories of heaven. "Ah! parson," said he, "all that you say about heaven is very fine and very true, no doubt—but, after all. Old England for my money!" That is the natural human sentiment—our dear earth or nothing—life as we know it, or nihility and dreamless peace! Pax vobiscum!
There is, upon the whole, an incompatibility between earthly happiness and the hope-with-fear of immortality. May not this incompatibility be in some measure a sign of its unveracity? But that is metaphysical moonshine to be taken for what it is worth. But let us also further inquire whether it would be for the advantage of mankind that the doctrine of a Future State should be true.
"Divines" are perfectly correct in maintaining that there is no logical via media between accepting what they call Revelation on the one hand and the abandonment of the dogma of the Immortality of the Soul on the other. Certainly there are no natural reasons (that are not merely fanciful) in favor of that theory—all natural reasons are emphatically opposed to it. If we accept it at all, it must be on the basis of the so-called Revelation. Now what does this Revelation teach us? That we are lost, degraded, ruined creatures, born into the world and living in the world under a divine curse. As the grave is the ultimate receptacle destined for the human body, so a place of endless and unspeakable torment is the natural receptacle destined for the human soul. If this be true, then the wildest imaginings of the most savage creeds are as sunlight compared with the horrors of our situation. Yet a gleam of light (it is but a gleam) is suffered to penetrate to this our dreary prison, in which we are penned up like so many cattle waiting for the shambles. In virtue of a mysterious transaction in Judea, a certain number of persons will be "saved," that is to say, will not only be rescued from the general fate, but will exchange it for a condition of endless happiness. These Scriptures lay it down very clearly that the number of the saved will be extremely small, and that a vast page 24 majority of us are destined by the Creator (of the theologians) to a fate at which imagination stands aghast.
Now, it is certainly not for the advantage of mankind that the great bulk of us should be thus doomed to eternal perdition, while only a few spiritual Aristocrats are nominated for eternal bliss. Therefore, it would not be to our advantage that, standing on the only possible basis on which it can stand, the doctrine of a future state should be true.—Q.E.D.
Even to wish it to be true is abominable. A sainted man, confident of his own election, wishing it to be true must be a monster of inhuman selfishness. For he wishes for his own eternal happiness bound up with the inevitable corollary of the eternal misery of nearly all the rest of our race. How he expects to be infinitely happy in the endless contemplation of the endless torments of the other billions of billions, including many of his own blood-relations, is hard to explain. Certainly some of us poor carnal unspiritual terrestrials are incapable of conceiving so grand a sublimity of cynical egotism.
Yet the "Divines" will upon us to hasten to embrace their "Revelation," seeing that the only other alternative is a "cold heart-withering negation too fearful to be contemplated!" Rather should the human heart expand with joy, and the human face glow with kindly gladness at having found sure relief from the crushing incubus of their accursed figments. For my part, I hope I am, above all else, a philanthropist, and I would do anything, sacrifice anything to help, taut soit pen, to bless my fellow men with the blessing of the "cold negation."
Death has lost all its terrors when we know it to be nothing but Cessation—nothing but the extinction of the Ego with the dissolution of the organism.
"That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast."—Eccles. III. 19.
Often have I thought how true an emblem of organic life is the great whirlwind-dust-column we frequently see solemnly stalking across the vast and arid Australian plains! Each is a specialised and individualised manifestation of force; each has a corpus constituted of particles which, ever as it marches, it assimilates and discards: a body, whose constituents are ever changing, upheld by a force preserving its identity and individuality. After a little while, the special differentiation of force ceases; the force flows away into the universal, and the dust falls back to the dust; the organisation has vanished—the column and the man have ceased for evermore!
Mind is but the product of organisation. Thought but the music of the organism swept by the current of impressions, as the Aeolian harp by the wind.
Can we reckon up the whole theory of moral philosophy, and of the nature of the moral sentiments and conscience, within the compass of a page or two? Why not? Does the attempt seem presumptuous? No need that it should; the whole matter is one of the extremest commonsense simplicity, which has only been confounded by the admission into the question of the ever confounding element of supernatural ism—of phantasms and of spiritual moonshine.
Single copies of the tomes that have been written on this subject, would freight a ship worthy to be one of the fleet which would be required to carry all the works on theology. That last mass of verbiage—what a subject for melancholy contemplation! All utterly inane and valueless, except as waste paper or manure for the fields! What hundreds of thousands of fine intellects—naturally fine, but distorted by superstition—have earnestly and fervently wasted all the bright days of their poor lives, and all the energies of their good brains, in endeavouring to
"distinguish and divide,
Hairs betwixt South and South-west-side!"
The hairs, alas! not being real and substantial hairs, but merely the shadowy etchings of dreams.
The moral law, as conceived by man, is purely subjective, relative to his own welfare; there is nothing in it mysterious, spiritual or divine; it is built on the material basis of self-preservation—on the well-being of self, or of our race. We call all moral actions in which the principle involved is such, according to our judgment, as to tend to promote the well-being of mankind, good or virtuous—all moral actions springing from a principle, as we judge, of an opposite character, bad or vicious. This is the concise but perfect definition of virtue and vice, of good and evil, as seen from the human standpoint; this is the formula by which the merit or demerit of all moral actions is tested. The desire of approbation, of being praised and liked by our fellows, and the desire of being respected and feared by our enemies, contained the first germs, the sufficing roots of all the moral feelings. Not a jot is there of the miraculous in conscience, or the so-called moral sense—that sense which seems to tell us instantaneously, without need of appeal to reason, that this action is good, that action vicious. Much the sacerdotalists and superstitionists have made of this faculty of quick discrimination between good and evil, parading it ever as a divinely-implanted intuition. Long and wordy has been the battle between the intuitionists and the derivativists (such are the hard words the metaphysicians use). But now we may safely regard the intuitive school as become merely an historical memorandum, or if it still anywhere survive, it is only in the fusty regions of priestly and senile old-fogeyism.
That so-called instinctive sense is derived partly from infantile impressions and partly from inherited memory. Just as the wonderful habits of the animals—usually vaguely called instinctive—are but due to the inherited remembrances of the experiences of millions of ancestral generations; so the human brain, subjected, generation after generation, to certain vivid moral impressions, acquires a modification which becomes hereditarily transmittable.
Other cerebral impressions there are, which plainly become hereditary—notably, proneness to superstition, and an abnormal facility of accepting particular forms of superstition, which, though primâ facie absurd and incredible, have nevertheless been believed in by along train of unenlightened ancestry. This instantaneously-acting moral sense is, among the children of an average-orderly and not uncivilised ancestry, a generally safe guide. But in other cases it is so unreliable, so varying, so grotesque, and so obviously subjective to human conditions and environments, that it is marvellous how any could have deemed it a divinely-implanted rule of conduct. It does not tell the young bandit-born that it is wrong to pillage and murder the people—only that cowardice and treachery to the band are heinous crimes. It tells the American Indian that it is meritorious and praiseworthy to tomahawk and scalp all who belong to other tribes than his own, and to torture his prisoners—that cowardice and treachery, within or against his tribe, are the only crimes. It does not tell the Hindoo that it is wrong to burn widows, nor a Thug that there is any moral delinquency in strangling the non-Thugs—nor priests that it is not good to burn those whose doxy is not their doxy. But one might fill volumes with instances of the diverse and perverse teachings of the "innate moral sense"—while among the children of the hereditary criminal classes, it is simply non-existent, a fact which makes the reclamation of them so difficult.
Educated intellect is the only trustworthy arbiter of right and wrong. It is for the Reason, cultivated and experienced, to decide whether any given class of moral actions is of such a nature as to be beneficial or prejudicial to man. Nor does she give uncertain responses; very clear she makes it, that if we would that this our world should be for us a habitable and not unhappy abode, our rule of life must be perfect probity, honesty and honour, truthfulness and trustworthiness; kindly, gentle, cheerful, sympathetic consideration for others; courage and vigour in the resistance and page 26 suppression of evil; and sternness, tempered by mercy, in dealing with evil-doers.
And though the rules of intersexual ethics are naturally, allowably conventional and shifting, varying with time, place, social states and circumstances, yet one unmistakeable law governs through every phase—to refrain from any act likely to be productive of misery to others.*
I don't think we educated sons of educated fathers and forefathers sufficiently realise the enormous mental disparity between ourselves and the uneducated descendants of forefathers from the beginning of things uneducated.
It requires some thoughtful study, much inquiry, questioning and probing to arrive at any just conception of their to-us-strange mental incapacity and impotence—of their lack of all the higher intellectual powers, especially of the logical faculty, and of the capability of discriminating between the probable and the improbable, the possible and the impossible, the natural and the preternatural.
The reasoning level of the average uneducated adult so descended, is probably scarcely as high as yours and mine was at seven or eight.
What a huge pity it seems to be that this important fact of the mental ineptitude of the unimproved is so generally overlooked, or insufficiently appreciated—when we consider that it has always been exclusively among such that every religion has first arisen! It was only poor twilight-blinking creatures of that sort before whom Joe Smith, Mahomet, Jesus, and Moses appeared.
Of people in that chrysalitic mental stage, the observations, the inferences, opinions and reports, are simply valueless—of no importance whatever. They can't understand what they see and hear, nor correctly report what they fancy they see and hear.
When we were children of seven or eight years, had some individual appeared to us of commanding stature, of singularly majestic and heroic presence, of unusual melodiousness of voice (as we know Joe Smith was, and may assume the others were), and had he asserted himself to be the Prophet, or the Son of God, or God himself, should we not probably have implicitly believed him, if left to ourselves, with none more enlightened around us? Just so; and not a whit wiser were the other first converts.
I know, of my own knowledge, of whole races of people whose mental development is yet in so rudimental a stage, that not unfrequently they lack the power of distinguishing between their own dreams and actual events.
When, in some far out-lying parts of Australia, I was first thrown into association with the aborigines, I was much surprised at the utter disregard with which reports made by them to us were often received by the old hands among us. "Why," I would say, "don't you hear what these blacks report?" "Oh," the reply would be, "we knows 'em! what they says goes in at one ear and out at t' other with us—they are such infernal liars!" "But," I would remonstrate, "they can have no possible interest in palming this story off on us, if it is false." "That says nothing," an old-hand would answer, "nobody can tell why, or how, they invent their lying yarns—seems page 27 to me they somehows believes 'em theirselves—you see, sir, they are not quite the same as human beings, and no one can make out their ways."
One time, some of the blacks belonging to the station, friendly and under protection, came to me to report a terrible event that had just occurred at a station about forty miles away, at which there were three white men. Two of them, they said, had been surprised and murdered by bush-blacks, and the third was defending himself inside the slab-hut and had shot many of the assailants—many details were added. "We could not learn from them exactly how they had heard all this, but were not surprised at that, knowing that there were bush-telegraphs, about whom they did not wish us to know anything, between our quiet station-blacks and others who were out in the bush and inclined to be hostile. On the strength of this narration, three of us rode over to the beleaguered station. There was not the slightest foundation for the report—no disturbance whatever had occurred!
On my return, I investigated the origin of the fable as closely as I could, and came to the conclusion that a woman in the camp had dreamt it, and given it out as fact to the others, who had implicitly accepted it.
Often afterwards, comparing notes on this subject with other experienced bushmen, I found they all agreed that such cases were common.
Lately I read in the papers of an expedition which, somewhere in South Australia, had been sent four hundred miles out to some place in the desert, where the blacks reported there were white men with large herds of cattle. Of course, when they got there, there was no sign that hoof had pressed the ground since the ground was formed. Had those South Australians known the niggers as well as I do, they would not have troubled themselves. So with all the aboriginals' reports about Leichhardt—utterly valueless.
It never necessarily follows, in these cases,' that the natives are wilfully lying, or that they don't really believe what they say, but the origin of their belief may always be in some dream. Their waking and mental states get jumbled up, and what anyone among them positively affirms, all the rest will believe, no proof required.
Think you, that the barbarous Hebrews, of Mosaic times, were not like these people—just about in the same mental stage? Or that the Jew paupers who were Christ's witnesses were any better?
For my part, of the three lots, I would soonest believe our own niggers, just because they are extant, and not dead two or three thousand years ago.
"Insomnia vana valete."
* I may assume that my readers are above the childish illogicality of objecting against the assertion of the subjectivity and absolute relativity to ourselves of the moral feelings, our revolting against cruelty to the lower animals, and our sympathising with their sufferings. The answer to such objections is obvious—that in any deed of cruelty we see in action one of the principles which we most dread, and that our sympathy is due to the imagination putting us in the place of the sufferers.
For the clearest exposition of the mode in which the moral sense has been derived from the social or gregarious instincts, consult Darwin's "Descent of Man."