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On Compromise By John Morley Characters: 47101

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Das Wahre f?rdert; aus dem Irrthum entwickelt

sich nichts, er verwickeltuns nur.-


At the outset of an inquiry how far existing facts ought to be allowed to overrule ideas and principles that are at variance with them, a preliminary question lies in our way, about which it may be well to say something. This is the question of a dual doctrine. In plainer words, the question whether it is expedient that the more enlightened classes in a community should upon system not only possess their light in silence, but whether they should openly encourage a doctrine for the less enlightened classes which they do not believe to be true for themselves, while they regard it as indispensably useful in the case of less fortunate people. An eminent teacher tells us how after he had once succeeded in presenting the principle of Necessity to his own mind in a shape which seemed to bring with it all the advantages of the principle of Free Will, he 'no longer suffered under the burden so heavy to one who aims at being a reformer in opinions, of thinking one doctrine true, and the contrary doctrine morally beneficial.'[5] The discrepancy which this writer thought a heavy burden has struck others as the basis of a satisfactory solution.

Nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere

Edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,

Despicere unde queas alios passimque videre

Errare atque viam palantes quaerere vitae.

The learned are to hold the true doctrine; the unlearned are to be taught its morally beneficial contrary. 'Let the Church,' it has been said, 'admit two descriptions of believers, those who are for the letter, and those who hold by the spirit. At a certain point in rational culture, belief in the supernatural becomes for many an impossibility; do not force such persons to wear a cowl of lead. Do not you meddle with what we teach or write, and then we will not dispute the common people with you; do not contest our place in the school and the academy, and then we will surrender to your hands the country school.'[6] This is only a very courageous and definite way of saying what a great many less accomplished persons than M. Renan have silently in their hearts, and in England quite as extensively as in France. They do not believe in hell, for instance, but they think hell a useful fiction for the lower classes. They would deeply regret any change in the spirit or the machinery of public instruction which would release the lower classes from so wholesome an error. And as with hell, so with other articles of the supernatural system; the existence of a Being who will distribute rewards and penalties in a future state, the permanent sentience of each human personality, the vigilant supervision of our conduct, as well as our inmost thoughts and desires, by the heavenly powers; and so forth.

Let us discuss this matter impersonally, without reference to our own opinions and without reference to the evidence for or against their truth. I am not speaking now of those who hold all these ideas to be certainly true, or highly probable, and who at the same time incidentally insist on the great usefulness of such ideas in confirming morality and producing virtuous types of character. With such persons, of course, there is no question of a dual doctrine. They entertain certain convictions themselves, and naturally desire to have their influence extended over others. The proposition which we have to consider is of another kind. It expresses the notions of those who-to take the most important kind of illustration-think untrue the popular ideas of supernatural interference in our obscure human affairs; who think untrue the notion of the prolongation of our existence after death to fulfil the purpose of the supernatural powers; or at least who think them so extremely improbable that no reasonable man or woman, once awakened to a conviction of this improbability, would thenceforth be capable of receiving effective check or guidance from beliefs, that would have sunk slowly down to the level of doubtful guesses. We have now to deal with those who while taking this view of certain doctrines, still declare them to be indispensable for restraining from anti-social conduct all who are not acute or instructed enough to see through them. In other words, they think error useful, and that it may be the best thing for society that masses of men should cheat and deceive themselves in their most fervent aspirations and their deepest assurances. This is the furthest extreme to which the empire of existing facts over principles can well be imagined to go. It lies at the root of every discussion upon the limits which separate lawful compromise or accommodation from palpable hypocrisy.

It will probably be said that according to the theory of the school of which M. Renan is the most eloquent representative, the common people are not really cheating themselves or being cheated. Indeed M. Renan himself has expatiated on the charm of seeing figures of the ideal in the cottages of the poor, images representing no reality, and so forth. 'What a delight,' he cries, 'for the man who is borne down by six days of toil to come on the seventh to rest upon his knees, to contemplate the tall columns, a vault, arches, an altar; to listen to the chanting, to hear moral and consoling words!'[7] The dogmas which criticism attacks are not for these poor people 'the object of an explicit affirmation,' and therefore there is no harm in them; 'it is the privilege of pure sentiment to be invulnerable, and to play with poison without being hurt by it.' In other words, the dogmas are false, but the liturgy, as a performance stirring the senses of awe, reverence, susceptibility to beauty of various kinds, appeals to and satisfies a sentiment that is both true and indispensable in the human mind. More than this, in the two or three supreme moments of life to which men look forward and on which they look back,-at birth, at the passing of the threshold into fulness of life, at marriage, at death,-the Church is present to invest the hour with a certain solemn and dignified charm. That is the way in which the instructed are to look at the services of a Church, after they have themselves ceased to believe its faith, us a true account of various matters which it professes to account for truly.

It will be perceived that this is not exactly the ground of those who think a number of what they confess to be untruths, wholesome for the common people for reasons of police, and who would maintain churches on the same principle on which they maintain the county constabulary. It is a psychological, not a political ground. It is on the whole a more true, as well as a far more exalted position. The human soul, they say, has these lovely and elevating aspirations; not to satisfy them is to leave man a dwarfed creature. Why quarrel with a system that leaves you to satisfy them in the true way, and does much to satisfy thorn in a false but not very harmful way among those who unfortunately have to sit in the darkness of the outer court?

This is not a proper occasion for saying anything about the adequateness of the catholic, or any other special manner of fostering and solacing the religious impulses of men. We have to assume that the instructed class believe the catholic dogmas to be untrue, and yet wishes the uninstructed to be handed over to a system that reposes on the theory that these dogmas are superlatively true. What then is to be said of the tenableness of such a position? To the plain man it looks like a deliberate connivance at a plan for the propagation of error-assuming, as I say, for the moment, that these articles of belief are erroneous and contrary to fact and evidence. Ah, but, we are told, the people make no explicit affirmation of dogma; that does nothing for them; they are indifferent to it. A great variety of things might be said to this statement. We might ask, for instance, whether the people ever made an explicit affirmation of dogma in the past, or whether it was always the hazy indifferent matter which it is supposed to be now. If so, whether we shall not have to re-cast our most fundamental notions of the way in which Christian civilisation has been evolved. If not, and if people did once explicitly affirm dogma, when exactly was it that they ceased to do so?

The answers to these questions would all go to show that at the time when religion was the great controlling and organising force in conduct, the prime elemental dogmas were accepted with the most vivid conviction of reality. I do not pretend that the common people followed all the inferences which the intellectual subtlety of the master-spirits of theology drew so industriously from the simple premisses of scripture and tradition. But assuredly dogma was at the foundation of the whole structure. When did it cease to be so? How was the structure supported, after you had altered this condition of things?

Apart from this historic issue, the main question one would like to put to the upholder of duality of religion on this plea, is the simple one, whether the power of the ceremonial which charms him so much is not actually at this moment drawn wholly from dogma and the tradition of dogma; whether its truth is not explicitly affirmed to the unlettered man, and whether the inseparable connection between the dogma and the ceremonial is not constantly impressed upon him by the spiritual teachers to whom the dual system hands him and his order over for all time? If any one of those philosophic critics will take the trouble to listen to a few courses of sermons at the present day, and the remark applies not less to protestant than to catholic churches, he will find that instead of that 'parole morale et consolante' which is so soothing to think of, the pulpit is now the home of fervid controversy and often exacerbated declamation in favour of ancient dogma against modern science. We do not say whether this is or is not the wisest line for the clergy to follow. We only press the fact against those who wish us to believe that dogma counts for nothing in the popular faith, and that therefore we need not be uneasy as to its effects.

Next, one would say to those who think that all will go well if you divide the community into two classes, one privileged to use its own mind, the other privileged to have its mind used by a priesthood, that they overlook the momentous circumstance of these professional upholders of dogmatic systems being also possessed of a vast social influence in questions that naturally belong to another sphere. There is hardly a single great controversy in modern politics, where the statesman does not find himself in immediate contact with the real or supposed interests, and with the active or passive sentiment, of one of these religious systems. Therefore if the instructed or intellectually privileged class cheerfully leave the field open to men who, ex hypothesi, are presumed to be less instructed, narrower, more impenetrable by reason, and the partisans of the letter against the spirit, then this result follows. They are deliberately strengthening the hands of the persons least fitted by judgment, experience, and temper, for using such power rightly. And they are strengthening them not merely in dealing with religious matters, but, what is of more importance, in dealing with an endless variety of the gravest social and political matters. It is impossible to map out the exact dimensions of the field in which a man shall exercise his influence, and to which he is to be rigorously confined. Give men influence in one matter, especially if that be such a matter as religious belief and ceremonial, and it is simply impossible that this influence shall not extend with more or less effect over as much of the whole sphere of conduct as they may choose surrendering the common people without dispute or effort to organised priesthoods for religious purposes, you would be inevitably including a vast number of other purposes in the self-same destination. This does not in the least prejudice practical ways of dealing with certain existing circumstances, such as the propriety or justice of allowing a catholic people to have a catholic university. It is only an argument against erecting into a complete and definite formula the division of a society into two great castes, the one with a religion of the spirit, the other with a creed of the letter.

Again, supposing that the enlightened caste were to consent to abandon the common people to what are assumed to be lower and narrower forms of truth,-which is after all little more than a fine phrase for forms of falsehood,-what can be more futile than to suppose that such a compromise will be listened to for a single moment by a caste whose first principle is that they are the possessors and ministers, not of an inferior or superior form of truth, but of the very truth itself, absolute, final, complete, divinely sent, infallibly interpreted? The disciples of the relative may afford to compromise. The disciples of the absolute, never.

We shall see other objections as we go on to this state of things, in which a minority holds true opinions and abandons the majority to false ones. At the bottom of the advocacy of a dual doctrine slumbers the idea that there is no harm in men being mistaken, or at least only so little harm as is more than compensated for by the marked tranquillity in which their mistake may wrap them. This is not an idea merely that intellectual error is a pathological necessity of the mind, no more to be escaped than the pathological necessities which afflict and finally dissolve the body. That is historically true. It is an idea that error somehow in certain stages, where there is enough of it, actually does good, like vaccination. Well, the thesis of the present chapter is that erroneous opinion or belief, in itself and as such, can never be useful. This may seem a truism which everybody is willing to accept without demur. But it is one of those truisms which persons habitually forget and repudiate in practice, just because they have never made it real to themselves by considering and answering the objections that may be brought against it. We see this repudiation before our eyes every day. Thus for instance, parents theoretically take it for granted that error cannot be useful, while they are teaching or allowing others to teach their children what they, the parents, believe to be untrue. Thus husbands who think the common theology baseless and unmeaning, are found to prefer that their wives shall not question this theology nor neglect its rites. These are only two out of a hundred examples of the daily admission that error may be very useful to other people. I need hardly say that to deny this, as the commonplace to which this chapter is devoted denies it, is a different thing from denying the expediency of letting errors alone at a given time. That is another question, to be discussed afterwards. You may have a thoroughly vicious and dangerous enemy, and yet it may be expedient to choose your own hour and occasion for attacking him. 'The passage from error to truth,' in the words of Condorcet, 'may be accompanied by certain evils. Every great change necessarily brings some of these in its train; and though they may be always far below the evil you are for destroying, yet it ought to do what is possible to diminish them. It is not enough to do good; one must do it in a good way. No doubt we should destroy all errors, but as it is impossible to destroy them all in an instant, we should imitate a prudent architect who, when obliged to destroy a building, and knowing how its parts are united together, sets about its demolition in such a way as to prevent its fall from being dangerous.'[8]

Those, let us note by the way, who are accustomed to think the moral tone of the eighteenth century low and gross compared with that of the nineteenth, may usefully contrast these just and prudent word? of caution in extirpating error, with M. Renan's invitation to men whom he considers wrong in their interpretation of religion, to plant their error as widely and deeply as they can; and who are moreover themselves supposed to be demoralised, or else they would not be likely to acquiesce in a previous surrender of the universities to men whom they think in mortal error. Apart however from M. Renan, Condorcet's words merely assert the duty of setting to work to help on the change from false to true opinions with prudence, and this every sensible man admits. Our position is that in estimating the situation, in counting up and balancing the expediencies of an attack upon error at this or that point, nothing is to be set to the credit of error as such, nor is there anything in its own operations or effects to entitle it to a moment's respite. Every one would admit this at once in the case of physical truths, though there are those who say that some of the time spent in the investigation of physical truths might be more advantageously devoted to social problems. But in the case of moral and religious truths or errors, people, if they admit that nothing is to be set to the credit of error as such, still constantly have a subtle and practically mischievous confusion in their minds between the possible usefulness of error, and the possible expediency of leaving it temporarily undisturbed. What happens in consequence of such a confusion is this. Men leave error undisturbed, because they accept in a loose way the proposition that a belief may be 'morally useful without being intellectually sustainable,' They disguise their own dissent from popular opinions, because they regard such opinions as useful to other people. We are not now discussing the case of those who embrace a creed for themselves, on the ground that, though they cannot demonstrate its truth to the understanding, yet they find it pregnant with moralising and elevating characteristics. We are thinking of a very different attitude-that, namely, of persons who believe a creed to be not more morally useful than it is intellectually sustainable, so far as they themselves are concerned. To them it is pure and uncompensated error. Yet from a vague and general idea that what is useless error to them may be useful to others, they insist on doing their best to perpetuate the system which spreads and consecrates the error. And how do they settle the question? They reckon up the advantages, and forget the drawbacks. They detect and dwell on one or two elements of utility in the false belief or the worn-out institution, and leave out of all account the elements that make in the other direction.

Considering how much influence this vague persuasion has in encouraging a well-meaning hypocrisy in individuals, and a profound stagnation in societies, it may be well to examine the matter somewhat generally. Let us try to measure the force of some of the most usual pleas for error.

I. A false opinion, it may be said, is frequently found to have clustering around it a multitude of excellent associations, which do far more good than the false opinion that supports them, does harm. In the middle ages, for instance, there was a belief that a holy man had the gift of routing demons, of healing the sick, and of working divers other miracles. Supposing that this belief was untrue, supposing that it was an error to attribute the sudden death of an incredible multitude of troublesome flies in a church to the fact of Saint Bernard having excommunicated them, what then? The mistaken opinion was still associated with a deep reverence for virtue and sanctity, and this was more valuable, than the error of the explanation of the death of the flies was noxious or degrading.

The answer to this seems to be as follows. First, in making false notions the proofs or close associates of true ones, you are exposing the latter to the ruin which awaits the former. For example, if you have in the minds of children or servants associated honesty, industry, truthfulness, with the fear of hell-fire, then supposing this fear to become extinct in their minds,-which, being unfounded in truth, it is in constant risk of doing-the virtues associated with it are likely to be weakened exactly in proportion as that association was strong.

Second, for all good habits in thought or conduct there are good and real reasons in the nature of things. To leave such habits attached to false opinions is to lessen the weight of these natural or spontaneous reasons, and so to do more harm in the long run than effacement of them seems for a time to do good. Most excellences in human character have a spontaneous root in our nature. Moreover if they had not, and where they have not, there is always a valid and real external defence for them. The unreal defence must be weaker than the real one, and the substitution of a weak for a strong defence, where both are to be had, is not useful but the very opposite.

II. It is true, the objector would probably continue, that there is a rational defence for all excellences of conduct, as there is for all that is worthy and fitting in institutions. But the force of a rational defence lies in the rationality of the man to whom it is proffered. The arguments which persuade one trained in scientific habits of thought, only touch persons of the same kind. Character is not all pure reason. That fitness of things which you pronounce to be the foundation of good habits, may be borne in upon men, and may speak to them, through other channels than the syllogism. You assume a community of highly-trained wranglers and proficient sophisters. The plain fact is that, for the mass of men, use and wont, rude or gracious symbols, blind custom, prejudices, superstitions,-however erroneous in themselves, however inadequate to the conveyance of the best truth,-are the only safe guardians of the common virtues. In this sense, then, error may have its usefulness.

A hundred years ago this apology for error was met by those high-minded and interesting men, the French believers in human perfectibility, with their characteristic dogma,-of which Rousseau was the ardent expounder,-that man is born with a clear and unsophisticated spirit, perfectly able to discern all the simple truths necessary for common conduct by its own unaided light. His motives are all pure and unselfish and his intelligence is unclouded, until priests and tyrants mutilate the one and corrupt the other. We who have the benefit of the historic method, and have to take into account the medium that surrounds a human creature the moment it comes into the world, to say nothing of all the inheritance from the past which it brings within it into the world at the same moment, cannot take up this ground. We cannot maintain that everybody is born with light enough to see the rational defences of things for himself, without the education of institutions. What we do maintain is-and this is the answer to the plea for error at present under consideration-that whatever impairs the brightness of such light as a man has, is not useful but hurtful. Our reply to those who contend for the usefulness of error on the ground of the comparative impotence of rationality over ordinary minds, is something of this kind. Superstition, blind obedience to custom, and the other substitutes for a right and independent use of the mind, may accidentally and in some few respects impre

ss good ideas upon persons who are too darkened to accept those ideas on their real merits. But then superstition itself is the main cause of this very darkness. To hold error is in so far to foster erroneous ways of thinking on all subjects; is to make the intelligence less and less ready to receive truth in all matters whatever. Men are made incapable of perceiving the rational defences, and of feeling rational motives, for good habits,-so far as they are thus incapable,-by the very errors which we are asked silently to countenance as useful substitutes for right reason. 'Erroneous motives,' as Condorcet has expressed this matter, 'have an additional drawback attached to them, the habit which they strengthen of reasoning ill. The more important the subject on which you reason ill, and the more you busy yourself about it, by so much the more dangerous do the influences of such a habit become. It is especially on subjects analogous to that on which you reason wrongly, or which you connect with it by habit, that such a defect extends most powerfully and most rapidly. Hence it is extremely hard for the man who believes himself obliged to conform in his conduct to what he considers truths useful to men, but who attributes the obligation to erroneous motives, to reason very correctly on the truths themselves; the more attention he pays to such motives, and the more importance he comes to attach to them, the more likely he will be to go wrong.'[9] So, in short, superstition does an immense harm by enfeebling rational ways of thinking; it does a little good by accidentally endorsing rational conclusions in one or two matters. And yet, though the evil which it is said to repair is a trifle beside the evil which it is admitted to inflict, the balance of expediencies is after all declared to be such as to warrant us in calling errors useful!

III. A third objection now presents itself to me, which I wish to state as strongly as possible. 'Even if a false opinion cannot in itself be more useful than a true one, whatever good habits may seem to be connected with it, yet,' it may be contended, 'relatively to the general mental attitude of a set of men, to their other notions and maxims, the false opinion may entail less harm than would be wrought by its mere demolition. There are false opinions so intimately bound up with the whole way of thinking and feeling, that to introduce one or two detached true opinions in their stead, would, even if it were possible, only serve to break up that coherency of character and conduct which it is one of the chief objects of moralists and the great art of living to produce. For a true opinion does not necessarily bring in its train all the other true opinions that are logically connected with it. On the contrary, it is only too notorious a fact in the history of belief, that not merely individuals but whole societies are capable of holding at one and the same time contradictory opinions and mutually destructive principles. On the other hand, neither does a false opinion involve practically all the evil consequences deducible from it. For the results of human inconsistency are not all unhappy, and if we do not always act up to virtuous principle, no more do we always work out to its remotest inference every vicious principle. Not insincerity, but inconsistency, has constantly turned the adherents of persecuting precepts into friends of tolerant practice.'

'It is a comparatively small thing to persuade a superstitious person to abandon this or that article of his superstition. You have no security that the rejection of the one article which you have displaced will lead to the rejection of any other, and it is quite possible that it may lead to all the more fervid an adhesion to what remains behind. Error, therefore, in view of such considerations may surely be allowed to have at least a provisional utility.'

Now undoubtedly the repudiation of error is not at all the same thing as embracing truth. People are often able to see the force of arguments that destroy a given opinion, without being able to see the force of arguments for the positive opinion that ought to replace it. They can only be quite sure of seeing both, when they have acquired not merely a conviction that one notion is false and another true, but have furthermore exchanged a generally erroneous way of thinking for a generally correct way. Hence the truly important object with every one who holds opinions which he deems it of the highest moment that others should accept, must obviously be to reach people's general ways of thinking; to stir their love of truth; to penetrate them with a sense of the difference in the quality of evidence; to make them willing to listen to criticism and new opinion; and perhaps above all to teach them to take ungrudging and daily trouble to clear up in their minds the exact sense of the terms they use.

If this be so, a false opinion, like an erroneous motive, can hardly have even a provisional usefulness. For how can you attack an erroneous way of thinking except in detail, that is to say through the sides of this or that single wrong opinion? Each of these wrong opinions is an illustration and type, as it is a standing support and abettor, of some kind of wrong reasoning, though they are not all on the same scale nor all of them equally instructive. It is precisely by this method of gradual displacement of error step by step, that the few stages of progress which the race has yet traversed, have been actually achieved. Even if the place of the erroneous idea is not immediately taken by the corresponding true one, or by the idea which is at least one or two degrees nearer to the true one, still the removal of error in this purely negative way amounts to a positive gain. Why? For the excellent reason that it is the removal of a bad element which otherwise tends to propagate itself, or even if it fails to do that, tends at the best to make the surrounding mass of error more inveterate. All error is what physiologists term fissiparous, and in exterminating one false opinion you may be hindering the growth of an uncounted brood of false opinions.

Then as to the maintenance of that coherency, interdependence, and systematisation of opinions and motives, which is said to make character organic, and is therefore so highly prized by some schools of thought. No doubt the loosening of this or that part of the fabric of heterogeneous origin, which constitutes the character of a man or woman, tends to loosen the whole. But do not let us feed ourselves upon phrases. This organic coherency, what does it come to? It signifies in a general way, to describe it briefly, a harmony between the intellectual, the moral, and the practical parts of human nature; an undisturbed cooperation between reason, affection, and will; the reason prescribing nothing against which the affections revolt, and proscribing nothing which they crave; and the will obeying the joint impulses of these two directing forces, without liability to capricious or extravagant disturbance of their direction. Well, if the reason were perfect in information and method, and the affections faultless in their impulse, then organic unity of character would be the final consummation of all human improvement, and it would be criminal, even if it were possible, to undermine a structure of such priceless value. But short of this there can be no value in coherency and harmonious consistency as such. So long as error is an element in it, then for so long the whole product is vitiated. Undeniably and most fortunately, social virtues are found side by side with speculative mistakes and the gravest intellectual imperfections. We may apply to humanity the idea which, as Hebrew students tell us, is imputed in the Talmud to the Supreme Being. God prays, the Talmud says; and his prayer is this,-'Be it my will that my mercy overpower my justice.' And so with men, with or without their will, their mercifulness overpowers their logic. And not their mercifulness only, but all their good impulses overpower their logic. To repeat the words which I have put into the objector's mouth, we do not always work out every vicious principle to its remotest inference. What, however, is this but to say that in such cases character is saved, not by its coherency, but by the opposite; to say not that error is useful, but what is a very different thing, that its mischievousness is sometimes capable of being averted or minimised?

The apologist may retort that he did not mean answer to the argument from coherency of conduct. In measuring utility you have to take into account not merely the service rendered to the objects of the present hour, but the contribution to growth, progress, and the future. From this point of view most of the talk about unity of character is not much more than a glorifying of stagnation. It leaves out of sight the conditions necessary for the continuance of the unending task of human improvement. Now whatever ease may be given to an individual or a generation by social or religious error, such error at any rate can conduce nothing to further advancement That, at least, is not one of its possible utilities.

This is also one of the answers to the following plea. 'Though the knowledge of every positive truth is an useful acquisition, this doctrine cannot without reservation he applied to negative truth. When the only truth ascertainable is that nothing can be known, we do not, by this knowledge, gain any new fact by which to guide ourselves.'[10] But logical coherency, but a kind of practical everyday coherency, which may be open to a thousand abstract objections, yet which still secures both to the individual and to society a number of advantages that might be endangered by any disturbance of opinion or motive. No doubt, and the method and season of chasing erroneous opinions and motives out of the mind must always be a matter of much careful and far-seeing consideration. Only in the course of such consideration, let us not admit the notion in any form that error can have even provisional utility. For it is not the error which confers the advantages that we desire to preserve, but some true opinion or just motive or high or honest sentiment, which exists and thrives and operates in spite of the error and in face of it, springing from man's spontaneous and unformulated recognition of the real relations of things. This recognition is very faint in the beginnings of society. It grows clearer and firmer with each step forward. And in a tolerably civilised age it has become a force on which you can fairly lean with a considerable degree of assurance.

And this leads to the central point of the the negative truth that nothing can be known is in fact a truth that guides us. [Transcriber's note: sic.] It leads us away from sterile and irreclaimable tracts of thought and emotion, and so inevitably compels the energies which would otherwise have been wasted, to feel after a more profitable direction. By leaving the old guide-marks undisturbed, you may give ease to an existing generation, but the present ease is purchased at the cost of future growth. To have been deprived of the faith of the old dispensation, is the first condition of strenuous endeavour after the new.

No doubt history abounds with cases in which a false opinion on moral or religious subjects, or an erroneous motive in conduct, has seemed to be a stepping-stone to truth. But this is in no sense a demonstration of the utility of error. For in all such cases the erroneous opinion or motive was far from being wholly erroneous, or wholly without elements of truth and reality. If it helped to quicken the speed or mend the direction of progress, that must have been by virtue of some such elements within it. All that was error in it was pure waste, or worse than waste. It is true that the religious sentiment has clothed itself in a great number of unworthy, inadequate, depressing, and otherwise misleading shapes, dogmatic and liturgic. Yet on the whole the religious sentiment has conferred enormous benefits on civilisation. This is no proof of the utility of the mistaken direction which these dogmatic or liturgic shapes imposed upon it. On the contrary, the effect of the false dogmas and enervating liturgies is so much that has to be deducted from the advantages conferred by a sentiment in itself valuable and of priceless capability.[11]

Yes, it will be urged, but from the historic conditions of the time, truth could only be conveyed in erroneous forms, and motives of permanent price for humanity could only be secured in these mistaken expressions. Here I would again press the point of this necessity for erroneous forms and mistaken expressions being, in a great many of the most important instances, itself derivative, one among other ill consequences of previous moral and religious error. 'It was gravely said,' Bacon tells us, 'by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrines of the Schoolmen have great sway; that the schoolmen were like Astronomers, which did faigne Eccentricks and Epicycles and Engines of Orbs to save the Phenomena; though they know there were no such Things; and in like manner that the Schoolmen had framed a number of subtile and intricate Axioms and Theorems, to save the practice of the Church.' This is true of much else besides scholastic axioms and theorems. Subordinate error was made necessary and invented, by reason of some pro-existent main stock of error, and to save the practice of the Church. Thus we are often referred to the consolation which this or that doctrine has brought to the human spirit. But what if the same system had produced the terror which made absence of consolation intolerable? How much of the necessity for expressing the enlarged humanity of the Church in the doctrine of purgatory, arose from the existence of the older unsoftened doctrine of eternal hell?

Again, how much of this alleged necessity of error, as alloy for the too pure metal of sterling truth, is to be explained by the interest which powerful castes or corporations have had in preserving the erroneous forms, even when they could not resist, or did not wish to resist, their impregnation by newer and better doctrine? This interest was not deliberately sinister or malignant. It may be more correctly as well as more charitably explained by that infirmity of human nature, which makes us very ready to believe what it is on other grounds convenient to us to believe. Nobody attributes to pure malevolence the heartiness with which the great corporation of lawyers, for example, resist the removal of superfluous and obstructive forms in their practice; they have come to look on such forms as indispensable safeguards. Hence powerful teachers and preachers of all kinds have been spontaneously inclined to suppose a necessity, which had no real existence, of preserving as much as was possible of what we know to be error, even while introducing wholesome modification of it. This is the honest, though mischievous, conservatism of the human mind. We have no right to condemn our foregoers; far less to lavish on them the evil names of impostor, charlatan, and brigand, which the zealous unhistoric school of the last century used so profusely. But we have a right to say of them, as we say of those who imitate their policy now, that their conservatism is no additional proof of the utility of error. Least of all is it any justification for those who wish to have impressed upon the people a complete system of religious opinion which men of culture have avowedly put away. And, moreover, the very priests must, I should think, be supposed to have put it away also. Else they would hardly be invited deliberately to abdicate their teaching functions in the very seats where teaching is of the weightiest and most far-spreading influence.

Meanwhile our point is that the reforms in opinion which have been effected on the plan of pouring the new wine of truth into the old bottles of superstition-though not dishonourable to the sincerity of the reformers-are no testimony to even the temporary usefulness of error. Those who think otherwise do not look far enough in front of the event. They forget the evil wrought by the prolonged duration of the error, to which the added particle of truth may have given new vitality. They overlook the ultimate enervation that is so often the price paid for the temporary exaltation.

Nor, finally, can they know the truths which the error thus prolonged has hindered from coming to the birth. A strenuous disputant has recently asserted against me that 'the region of the might have been lies beyond the limits of sane speculation.'[12] It in surely extending optimism too far to insist on carrying it back right through the ages. To me at any rate the history of mankind is a huge pis-aller, just as our present society is; a prodigious wasteful experiment, from which a certain number of precious results have been extracted, but which is not now, nor ever has been at any other time, a final measure of all the possibilities of the time. This is not inconsistent with the scientific conception of history; it is not to deny the great law that society has a certain order of progress; but only to urge that within that, the only possible order, there is always room for all kinds and degrees of invention, improvement, and happy or unhappy accident. There is no discoverable law fixing precisely the more or the less of these; nor how much of each of them a community shall meet with, nor exactly when it shall meet with them. We have to distinguish between possibility and necessity. Only certain steps in advance are possible at a given time; but it is not inevitable that those potential advances should all be realised. Does anybody suppose that humanity has had the profit of all the inventive and improving capacity born into the world? That Turgot, for example, was the only man that ever lived who might have done more for society than he was allowed to do, and spared society a cataclysm? No,-history is a pis-aller. It has assuredly not moved without the relation of cause and effect; it is a record of social growth and its conditions; but it is also a record of interruption and misadventure and perturbation. You trace the long chain which has made us what we are in this aspect and that. But where are the dropped links that might have made all the difference? Ubi sunt eorum tabulae qui post vota nuncupate perierunt? Where is the fruit of those multitudinous gifts which came into the world in untimely seasons? We accept the past for the same reason that we accept the laws of the solar system, though, as Comte says, 'we can easily conceive them improved in certain respects.' The past, like the solar system, is beyond reach of modification at our hands, and we cannot help it. But it is surely the mere midsummer madness of philosophic complacency to think that we have come by the shortest and easiest of all imaginable routes to our present point in the march; to suppose that we have wasted nothing, lost nothing, cruelly destroyed nothing, on the road. What we have lost is all in the region of the 'might have been,' and we are justified in taking this into account, and thinking much of it, and in trying to find causes for the loss. One of them has been want of liberty for the human intelligence; and another, to return to our proper subject, has been the prolonged existence of superstition, of false opinions, and of attachment to gross symbols, beyond the time when they might have been successfully attacked, and would have fallen into decay but for the mistaken political notion of their utility. In making a just estimate of this utility, if we see reason to believe that these false opinions, narrow superstitions, gross symbols, have been an impediment to the free exercise of the intelligence and a worthier culture of the emotions, then we are justified in placing the unknown loss as a real and most weighty item in the account against them.

In short, then, the utmost that can be said on behalf of errors in opinion and motive, is that they are inevitable elements in human growth. But the inevitable does not coincide with the useful. Pain can be avoided by none of the sons of men, yet the horrible and uncompensated subtraction which it makes from the value and usefulness of human life, is one of the most formidable obstacles to the smoother progress of the world. And as with pain, so with error. The moral of our contention has reference to the temper in which practically we ought to regard false doctrine and ill-directed motive. It goes to show that if we have satisfied ourselves on good grounds that the doctrine is false, or the motive ill directed, then the only question that we need ask ourselves turns solely upon the possibility of breaking it up and dispersing it, by methods compatible with the doctrine of liberty. Any embarrassment in dealing with it, due to a semi-latent notion that it may be useful to some one else is a weakness that hinders social progress.



Mill's Autobiography p. 170.


M. Renan's Réforme Intellectuelle et Morale de la France, p. 98.


Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse, Preface, p. xvi.


In 1779 the Academy of Prussia announced this as the question for their annual prize essay:-'S'il est utile au peuple d'être trompé.' They received thirty-three essays; twenty showing that it is not useful, thirteen showing that it is. The Academy, with an impartiality that caused much amusement in Paris and Berlin, awarded two prizes, one to the best proof of the negative answer, another to the best proof of the affirmative. See Bartholmess, Hist. Philosophique de l'Académie de Prusse, i. 281, and ii. 278. Condorcet did not actually compete for the prize, but he wrote a very acute piece, suggested by the theme, which was printed in 1790. Oeuv. v. 343.

To illustrate the common fact of certain currents of thought being in the air at given times, we may mention that in 1770 was published the posthumous work of another Frenchman, Chesneau du Marsais (1676-1756) entitled:-'Essai sur les Préjugés; ou de l'influence des Opinions sur les Moeurs et sur le Bonheur des Hommes.' The principal prejudices to which he refers are classed under Antiquity-Ancestry-Native Country-Religion-Respect for Wealth. Some of the reasoning is almost verbally identical with Condorcet's. For an account of Du Marsais, see D'Alembert, Oeuv. iii 481.


Oeuv. v. 354.


Mill's Three Essays on Religion, p.73. I have offered some criticisms on the whole passage in Critical Miscellanies, Second Series, pp. 300-304.


'Enfin, supposons pour un instant que le dogme de l'autre vie soit de quelqu'utilité, et qu'il retienne vraiment un petit nombre d'individus, qu'est-ce que ces foibles avantages comparés à la foule de maux que l'on en voir découler? Contre un homme timide que cette idée contient, il en est des millions qu'elle ne peut contenir; il en des millions qu'elle rend insensés, farouches, fanatiques, inutiles et méchants; il en est des millions qu'elle détourne de leurs devoirs envers la société; il en est une infinité qu'elle afflige et qu'elle trouble, sans aucun bien réel pour leurs associés.-Système de la Nature, i. xiii.


Sir J.F. Stephen's Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, 2d. ed., p. 19, note.

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