SOME INSTRUCTORS OF CONSCIENCE: HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY
History.—History, including the lives of historical personages, approaches us on the other ground. The passion of patriotism, the bond of citizenship, are dominant in our age, perhaps because the new imperial idea has taken hold of us; but still more, perhaps, because we are in the rebound from the individualism of the preceding generation. Let us be thankful that we are moved by these strong forces; but their very strength may hurry us into presumptuous sins, unless we recognise our position with regard to country and city, and labour for the instructed conscience.
The Informed Patriot.—We must read our newspaper, of course—newspapers on both sides; but he who founds upon his newspaper is an ignorant patriot and an illiberal citizen. His opinions are no more than parrot-like repetitions of other men’s sayings; whereas he who dwells with dutiful interest upon the history of his own country, distressed over her ignominies, proud when she has shown herself great; who has pondered the history of another great empire—admiring the temperate justice with which its
distant colonies were administered, and scrutinising the causes of its fall—he gradually acquires some insight as to the meaning of national life. He is able to express an opinion which is not a mere echo, and gains convictions which will certainly be of use to his country, even if they are known only to the people about his own fireside.
He learns to esteem Xerxes as a great gardener, a planter, whose aim it was that every man should have his little ‘paradise.’ Lycurgus is to him more than a lawgiver, he is a hero able to keep the laws he made. Such a person regards, with half-envious interest, the records of those small yet great republics, distinguished in the arts of peace and war, in whose open schools every man picked up philosophy, and the best men made it the study of a lifetime.
He who reads history in this way, not to pass examinations, nor to obtain culture, nor even for his own pleasure (delightful as such reading is), but because he knows it to be his duty to his country to have some intelligent knowledge of the past, of other lands as well as of his own, must add solid worth to the nation that owns him. It is something to prepare for the uses of the State a just, liberal, and enlightened patriotism in the breast of a single citizen.
Philosophy.—Philosophy lays her hand upon us, as upon the youth of Athens, with an absolute claim. We are remarkable among the civilized peoples for our ignorance of what has been already thought in the world, has been given up as futile, or has passed into common knowledge. For five thousand years, at least, philosophers have been in search of a single principle which shall cover, to put it crudely, matter
and mind. We think, to-day, that we have found this principle in evolution. It may be so; but we allow ourselves to come to the conclusion without due knowledge of what has been already thought, without even taking in the fact that, if we accept the doctrine as including the evolution of mind, we give up the idea that there is any life here or hereafter excepting physical life, any existence beyond a physical existence. I do not propose to discuss this thesis; all I say is, that we should not lay ourselves open blind-fold to such far-reaching conclusions, in the belief that things must be thus and thus because another man’s reason has found them so; our own reason, taking his lead, finding them so too. Let us perceive and know with certainty that the function of reason is to bring us to the logical conclusion of any premises we think it well to receive.
Then we shall see that it rests with us to choose the notions which we are willing to admit to reasonable proof; and to make this choice, conscience must be instructed. The history of thought will bring us abundant evidence of the fallibility of reason; therefore, there is no certainty that what proves itself to us must be right. Approximate certainty lies in two directions—in a knowledge of the history of the thought of the past, and in a carefully calculated forecast of the issues. We must reach our convictions, not through our own reasoning, or another man’s, however conclusive; but reason must work upon knowledge, and be instructed by a wide survey of all that is involved. The person who refuses to be influenced by what has gone before and what will follow, embraces what he calls ‘the truth’ in a spirit of ignorant partisanship.
Columbus, we know, received an idea that was, no doubt, floating in the air, the idea of a western passage to the Indies. After attempts in other quarters, he brought his idea to Ferdinand and Isabella; they gave it generous reception, and provided him with ships and money. But he would have been a mere adventurer had he come with no more than a notion that proved itself to his own understanding. He was armed with the history of the voyages of the past, which showed that his particular adventure had not been accomplished; with a knowledge of geographical principles, which proved his notion tenable; with a forecast of the results of his discovery, should he succeed; that is, he was able conscientiously to lay his scheme before the Spanish monarchs, and the result justified him.
We cannot escape from the necessity for knowledge, especially in this realm of ideas. The thousand quack philosophies of the day—as of all past days—have their birth in minds ignorant of the thought of the past, and unaware of the fact when they are offering a patched-up version of ideas and principles which have already been found wanting.
A ‘Message.’—Many men believe that they have a message, become fanatics for their message, and make—nothing is so easy—innumerable converts. But not every notion is a message. Such indications come, as Coleridge has finely said, to minds “already prepared to receive them by a higher Power than Nature herself.” As for the preparation,—knowledge, insight, foresight, and the meekness of wisdom, the gentleness of one under guidance,—these are signs by which we can discern, each for himself, if we, indeed, have a message, or (for this also is a mission)
are prepared to take up and carry forward a message. The messages are manifold, the messengers are many; but few things hinder the progress of the world more than the wilful and fanatical adoption of notions because they appeal to us, and because our own reason proves them right. The secret of safety in matters of philosophy, as well as in all practical matters of life, is to know that we are capable of being convinced of anything, however wrong of foolish, unless we are able to bring an instructed conscience to the consideration of the acceptable notion.