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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——IDEALS AND TESTS

My dear ——,

Let us now return to the consideration of the “knowledge of persons.” How do we gain knowledge of a human being, that is to say of his motives? “By observing his actions in many different circumstances, especially in extremities of joy, sorrow, fear, temptation, and then by comparing his actions with what we, or others, have done in the same circumstances?” But this is a very difficult and delicate business, especially that part of it which involves comparison. Here we may easily go wrong; and we therefore naturally ask what test have we that our knowledge is correct. One test of any useful knowledge of a machine would be, not our power to discourse fluently about it, but our power to “work” it, i.e. to make it perform the work for which it is intended: and similarly one test of useful knowledge of a human being must be our power to “work” him, i.e. to make him perform the work for which he is intended. A perfectly selfish man of the world may have considerable knowledge of men and “work” them cleverly in a certain sense: he is not cheated by them; he is perhaps obeyed by some, not thwarted by others; he knows the weak points of all, jostles down one, persuades another to lift him up, gets something out of every one, and is, in a word, largely successful in making men help him to do what he intends. But this is a very poor kind of “working,” as compared with that which has been practised by the lawgivers, poets, philosophers, and founders of religion; who have moulded and fashioned great masses of men so as to be better able than they were before to do the noblest works that men can do, the works for which they are intended. Now I think it will not be denied that the men who, in this sense, have “worked” mankind have had great ideas of what men could do and ought to do. Sometimes they have had ideas so high that they have seemed impossible of attainment and almost absurd, even as ideas. Yet these are the men, these idealizers of humanity, who have most helped mankind on the path of progress. And this would lead us to the conclusion that the men who have “worked” mankind best have been those who have refused to accept men as they are. Constrained by the Imagination, they have kept before their eyes an Ideal of humanity, towards which they have aspired and laboured with sanguine enthusiasm.

To the same effect tends our observation of mankind in smaller groups, and especially in that smallest of groups called the family. It is generally the parents who have most influence over their child, most power to “work” him; and we can often see that the reason of their influence does not arise from the power to reward or punish, but from their affection for him, and from their faith in him. Especially do we perceive this in the familiar but mysterious process called forgiving. We see parents, yes even wise parents, constantly placing faith in a child beyond what seems to a dispassionate observer to be warranted by facts, treating him as though he were better than he has shewn himself to be, better than he appears to us likely ever to become. And, strange to say, this imaginative system has on the whole proved more successful than the impartial and dispassionate disposition which would take a human being exactly for what he is, and treat him as being that and no more. I do not mean to say that there have not been blind and fond parents in abundance who—having no high moral standard and being merely desirous to see comfort and bright faces around them—have done their children harm by ignoring their faults and regarding them as perfect: but on the other hand, I call on you to admit the paradox that just, wise, and righteous parents, who have had a high moral standard, have been most successful in enabling their child to rise to that standard, by treating him as though he were better than he really has been. Further, I say that this system has been pursued by all those who have forgiven others, and by Him above all others who has done most to make forgiveness “current coin” among mankind.

I can understand a man of cold-blooded and dispassionate temperament objecting to any such idealization of humanity. “The whole theory,” he might say, “is radically unfair and unreasonable. You argue that you ought to love a man and ignore his faults if you wish to know him and move him. You might just as well argue that you ought to hate a man and ignore his virtues for the same purpose. Hate is as keen-eyed as love. Hate spies out the least defects, anticipates each false step, predicts each hasty word, and caricatures beforehand each hasty gesture. Hate makes a study of its objects: hate, therefore, as well as love, might be said to stimulate us to know others. But the right course is neither to hate, nor to love, but to judge. As hate blinds us to virtues, so love blinds us to vices. We ought to be blind to nothing, to extenuate nothing, to ignore nothing, but to be purely and reasonably critical. Thus we shall know humanity as it is.”

The answer to this very plausible theory is extremely simple: “Your theory appears to be just and wise upon a cursory and unscientific view of human nature: but it has not endured the scientific test of experiment; it has not worked. I believe the reason why it does not work is, that it ignores some faintly discernible but growing tendencies in human nature which are not to be discerned without more sympathy than you appear to possess: no human being can be understood in the daylight of Reason alone; affection and Imagination are needed to transport us as it were into the heart of a fellow-creature, to enable us to realize him as we realize ourselves, and to treat him as we would ourselves be treated; faith also in the possibilities of humanity is a very powerful help not only towards discerning the best and noblest that men can do, but also towards developing their power of doing it. But in any case, whatever may be the reasons for its failure, your theory does not ‘work,’ and must therefore be given up.

“By ‘failure,’ I do not mean that your theory will prevent you from getting on and making your way in the world, but that it will prevent you from operating on yourself and on mankind, so that you and they may do the work which you are intended to do. You say the business of a student of men is to be critical. I say that such a student is a mere pedant, a book-philosopher: but the scientific student of men is he who knows how to ‘work’ them: and those who have in the true sense of the term ‘worked’ men, have not been of the critical temperament which you eulogize, but often quite uncritical, wondrously uncritical, but full of a fervent faith in a high ideal of humanity, and in a destiny that would ultimately conform humanity to its ideal. If you aim at exerting no social ennobling influence of this kind, if you are content, while leading the life of a man of the world, to abide, spiritually speaking, in the cave of a recluse, then keep on your present course. Criticize men dispassionately to your heart’s content. Try to persuade yourself that you know them. But you will never succeed—you will never persuade even yourself that you have succeeded—in making a single human being the better for your influence.

“In morals as in mathematics nothing can be done without faith in the Ideal. If you want to operate scientifically upon imperfect men you must keep constantly before your mind the image of the Perfect Man. We have seen that, before we can attain to ‘applied mathematics,’ which constitute the basis of those sciences by which we dominate the material world, we have to begin with ‘pure mathematics.’ In that region of study we have to idealize and speak of things, not as they are in our experience, but as they might be if certain tendencies that we see around us could be infinitely—yes, and we must add, impossibly—extended. Yet in the end, if we go patiently onward, we find that our ‘pure mathematics’ lead us to conclusions of immense practical importance.

“It is precisely the same in the science of humanity, which we may call anthropology. In order to prepare the way for ‘applied anthropology’ whereby we may dominate the immaterial world, the minds and tempers of men, we must begin with ‘pure anthropology’; that is to say, we must idealize and speak of man not as he is but as he would be if certain tendencies which we see in him, conducive to social order and individual development, could be infinitely—yes, and we must add, if we limit our horizon to this present life, impossibly—extended. In the end, if we go patiently onward, we shall find that ‘pure anthropology’ will be of immense practical importance in helping us to control and develop ourselves and individuals around us and all communities of men. This ‘pure anthropology,’ having to do with the Ideal of humanity, is necessarily associated or identified with the conception of God; and some would call it ‘theology’ or ‘Christianity.’ But that is a mere matter of names. Call it by whatever name you please, but study it you must. You will never ‘work’ mankind—that is to say you will never make men do the work for which they are intended—till you have studied the Ideal Man.”

You may reply, and with some justice, that there is a danger in this repeated appeal to the test of “working.” “What,” you may ask, “about the Buddhist and the Mohammedan, the one with his peaceful missions, the other with his victorious sword? Cannot both make the same appeal? In advocating the invariable appeal to ‘working,’ do we not come dangerously near urging the acceptance of any doctrine that will afford good leverage to moral effort, regardless of its truth or falsehood? Ought not, after all, the harmony of the doctrine with Reason (in the highest sense—not only syllogistic, but intuitive, imaginative, or whatever you choose to call it) to be the ultimate criterion?”

I suppose there is a “danger” in every means of attaining truth, a danger in observation, a danger in experiment, a danger in inductive, a danger in deductive, reasoning: but it does not follow that any of these means are to be discarded, only that they are to be carefully used. If the Buddhist can appeal to the successes of centuries, that proves, I should say, that there is some element of genuine truth in his religion; if the Mohammedan points to conversions, in India and elsewhere, far more rapid than those made by Christianity and not dependent on “the victorious sword,” that also proves that in some important respects for example in the practical recognition of the equality of all believers without respect to rank or race—Mohammedans have been far more faithful to their teacher than we have been to ours. And generally, any religion that succeeds in making men better with it than they were without it, must be admitted (I think) to contain (so far as it succeeds) some element of divine revelation. And therefore, while admitting the appeal to Reason, I cannot reject the appeal to Experience as well. Do not think that, in laying so much stress on “working,” I ignore the difference between the propositions of Natural Science and those of Religion, or forget how much more ready and convincing verification is in the former than in the latter. The means of verifying may differ in different ages: why not? In the earliest period of Christianity, men had, as a test, the contrast between the heathen and the Christian life; the burning zeal of the freshly imparted Spirit of Christ; and the “mighty works” wrought by the Apostles and perhaps by some of their successors. Now, for us in Christendom, the proof from “contrast” is less obvious, and we have lost also something of the fresh and fiery zeal—must we not add the occasionally misguided zeal?—of the first Christians: but by way of compensation, we have, besides our individual experiences, the collective evidence of many generations shewing what Christ’s Spirit can do to help us when we obey it, to chasten us when we disobey. Are we wrong then in inferring that one test of religions is the same which our Lord appointed for testing men: “By their fruits ye shall know them”?

There is undoubtedly a great difference between proof in Science and proof in matters of Religion: and Religion depends, far more than Science, upon Imagination. But I have not ignored this difference. On the contrary, I have attempted to show that, since Religion depends far more than Science upon Imagination; and since Science itself depends largely upon Imagination; therefore Religion must depend very largely upon Imagination, and especially upon that form of Imagination to which we give the name of Faith.

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