[Letter of James Martineau to Francis William Newman.]
May 14, 1852
My dear Newman,
If you are not a Christian, you have more Christian virtues than all the saints in the calendar, that you can so easily forgive me my sins of omission. That "Moses was the meekest of men" is no longer an historical any more than it is a moral truth. To say nothing, however of my own doings, positive or negative, I am truly rejoiced to hear of the projected new edition of "The Soul." It is one of the two or three books which I love with a feeling of measureless gratitude, and that stand off, at long intervals in my memory, as milestones, marking great stages in my spiritual life. How you, with your clear and wide vision, can ever have found any use in my poor glasses—that leave so much still dim to my own view—I cannot imagine. But if each will but honestly report what he sees, we can hardly fail, I suppose, to be of some help to one another.
I think you can scarcely improve the Introductory Remarks, which appear to me to present, briefly and forcibly, a summary of the most important principles involved in the doctrines of the book. An opponent will have no excuse for the further misunderstanding of your fundamental positions, and may lay his finger on the particular point which he thinks proper to attack. The part which, with a view to the Atkinson and (I should think) the Holyoake doctrine, I should like to see a little strengthened, is the statement in No. 7 of the ultimate ground of Moral Truth. These objectors recognise no Science of Consciousness, and either avowedly or virtually reduce us to evidence of Perceptions and the intellectual rules applicable to it. Hence their notions of "Morality" begin with external actions as observed in other men, and traced in their physical consequences; and results in a scheme of eudæmonist policy, which never reaches the living centre and source of obligation. The right to proceed in the opposite direction and find the elements and interpretation of moral truth within us in reflexion on our own acts requires, perhaps, a word of vindication. The controversy is really one between Physics, which the objector would advance to universal empire, and Morals, for which we would claim a separate province and jurisdiction. Unless the feeling can be brought home to Mr. Holyoake that the Sentiment and Belief of Obligation are indispensable to Morals, and make all the difference between the breaking-in of a horse and the training of a man, it will be impossible to convince him of the unfavourable tendency of his doctrine, which does actually leave "motives" and interests undisturbed, and leaves room for rules of conduct, while annihilating Duty altogether.
I do not think you concede at all too much respecting the relation of Law and Will. Free-will, it appears to me, is so far from excluding Law, that were Law shut out as an impossibility, Free-will must go too. If I can determine myself in a single instance, I can do no less in any number of analogous cases; and am as little precluded from establishing a habit as from performing an insulated act. This habit is a Law which I make for myself; and an observer, after watching for a while, can predict my procedure. Nothing but the absence of Free-will could deny this possibility to me. It remains, however, always open to me to break away from the analogy hitherto given out, and disappoint the observer's prediction. A free mind, in short, is as able to bind as to loose itself, and leaves indefinite scope for Law and prediction, only with the perpetual reserve of potential variation. The certainty arising from such law may evidently range over every degree of probability, but can never become absolute. There is no possible proof that Law exists, in any more stringent sense than this, in Nature, whose uniformities are perfectly explicable to us as the continuous self-determinations of God, always open to possible change of direction, however kept steady by faithfulness of purpose. Necessity can never be proved on the mere evidence of Law, unless, indeed, the Law be of the à priori kind, reached, not by inductive method, but by a deduction from some primary axioms of thought. The German Pantheists do attribute this geometrical character to Science, and are accordingly, as it seems to me, the only consistent Necessarians; Law and Necessity being synonymous with them. But our English Necessarians are invariably Inductive people, hostile to all à priori claims in Physical Knowledge; thus uniting, with inconsistency the most manifest, a Logic of Science which withholds Law from ever becoming tantamount to Necessity, and a Logic of Religion, which assumes the identity of the two.
Would it not be possible to show Holyoake that, in arguing from Necessity to Atheism, he tacitly concedes Free-will? "Nature," he says, "reveals no God; there is no trace of a directing Mind being present there; for only see! everything happens by inexorable rule; nothing can be other than it is; there is no God!" In this reasoning the presence of Necessity is taken as a mark of the absence of Mind; and we are virtually told that we must get this necessity out of the way, or reclaim some province from it, before we can expect men to recognise the possibility of a living Mind. Can there be a plainer confession than this, that the ideas of Necessity and of Mind are felt to be incompatible? How else should the one be thrust before us as a stumbling-block to bar our way to the other? Thus the atheist of this class demands, as an indispensable mark of a Divine Mind, the very Freedom which at the same time he pronounces not only absent from the human but impossible to any Mind.
I observe that you adopt the Aristotelian mode of describing moral phænomena,—as a choice of Ends. Perhaps it is best to do, considering the superior clearness of this objective language, especially where it is so close upon the truth as here. Otherwise this phraseology affects me with a slight feeling of psychological inaccuracy. In a case of moral conflict, I should rather say we choose which principle of action we will follow, than which end we will secure. And I fancy there is an advantage in this form of expression, because the principles in the mind are comparatively few, and admit of easy enumeration as a list of impulses; while the ends, entangling themselves with external conditions in countless combinations, are irreducible to definition, and involve us, when we try to estimate them, in exercises of mere rational judgment and consideration of possibility and expediency, very proper in the concrete cases, but foreign to the problem, quâ moral. But for the purposes of a condensed exposition, I incline to believe your phraseology the best. Could you not, however, describe the effects of these "Ends" upon us by some other epithet than "pleasing"? It seems too much to keep out of view the feeling of higher worth and authority which may often be the only attraction towards an end which we are under sharp temptation to abandon.
Is it quite a satisfactory account of the relation of the Mind to Truth to call the Mind the Test of Truth? It is only the phrase—not, of course, the thought—that stopped me as I read. The word "Test" is objective and implies something used by the Mind as Tester; and though the Mind may undoubtedly use itself in this way,—reflectively consulting its own consciousness,—yet it would be well, perhaps, to distinguish in the phraseology the consulting and the consulted mind, by saying, e.g., that the Mind, in its quest of truth, can have no appeal from its own intuitive judgments, or from the beliefs involved in the exercise of its own faculties. Nothing can be more just and forcible than your detaching Moral and Historical truth (No. 8). Only is there not the qualifying side, that though nothing which happens in history can constitute right and wrong absolutely, it may reveal them relatively, by presenting higher conceptions and enlarging the depth of moral experience; and so quite alter the concrete obligations by altering the development of subsequent persons. Thus the cancelling from history now of any portion of the past is not to be regarded as morally the same thing for the world, as if its personages and events had never come upon the field, or been, at least, set there by human belief. You do not in the least intend to deny the action of historical personages on the morals of mankind; but stupid people may pervert your meaning in some such way.
With these trifling reservations you carry me altogether with you in your exposition.
I am longing to open your "Regal Rome," but am afraid I cannot get at its interior till after midsummer, when possibly some little leisure may be attainable. I want much also to see your Address to the Italian Society; especially as I hear it lays down the Ethics of International Sympathy. I have no hope from any European Revolution except Mazzini's.
Ever affectionately yours,