Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

The Meaning of Good—A Dialogue online

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it or no."

"Well then," he said, impatiently, "what is the good of all this
discussion?"

"Clearly," I replied, "no good at all, if there be no Good, which is
the point to which you are always harking back. But you have surely
forgotten the basis of our whole argument?"

"What basis?"

"Why, that from the very beginning we have been trying to find out,
not so much what we know (for on that point I admit that we know
little enough), as what it is necessary for us to believe, if we are
to find significance in life."

"But how can we believe what we don't know?"

"Why," I replied, "we can surely adopt postulates, as indeed we always
do in practical life. Every man who is about to undertake anything
makes the assumption, in the first place, that it is worth doing, and
In the second place that it is possible to be done. He may be wrong in
both these assumptions, but without them he could not move a step. And
so with regard to the business of life, as a whole, it is necessary
to assume, if we are to make anything of it at all, both that there is
Good, and that we know something about it; and also, I think, that it
is somehow or other realizable; but I do not know that any of these
assumptions could be proved."

"But what right have we, then, to make such assumptions?"

"We have none at all, so far as knowledge is concerned. Indeed, to my
mind, it is necessary, if we are to be honest with ourselves, that we
should never forget that they are assumptions, so long as they have
not received definite proof. But still they are, I think, as I said,
assumptions we are bound to make, if we are to give any meaning to
life. We might perhaps call them 'postulates of the will'; and our
attitude, when we adopt them, that of faith."

"Faith!" protested Wilson, "that is a dangerous word!"

"It is," I agreed. "Yet I doubt whether we can dispense with it.
Only we must remember that to have 'faith' in a proposition is not to
affirm that it is true, but to live as we should do if it were. It
is, in fact, an attitude of the will, not of the understanding; the
attitude of the general going into battle, not of the philosopher in
his closet."

"But," he objected, "where we do not know, the proper attitude is
suspense of mind."

"In many matters, no doubt," I replied, "but surely not in those with
which we are dealing. For we must live or die; and if we are to choose
to do either, we must do so by virtue of some assumption about the
Good."

"But why should we choose to do either? Why should not we simply
wait?"

"But wait how? wait affirming or denying? active or passive? Is it
possible to wait without adopting an attitude? Is not waiting itself
an attitude, an acting on the assumption that it is good to wait?"

"But, at any rate, it does not involve assumptions as large as those
which you are trying to make us accept."

"I am not trying to make you do anything; I am only trying to discover
what you make yourself do. And do you, as a matter of fact, really
dispute the main conclusions to which we have come, or rather, if you
will accept my phrase, the main 'postulates of the will' which we have
elicited?"

"What are they? Let me have them again."

"Well," I said, "here they are. First, that Good has some meaning."

"Agreed!"

"Second, that we know something about that meaning."

"Doubtful!" said Dennis. "But it will be no use now to resume that
controversy."

"No," I replied, "only I thought I had shown that if we know nothing
about it, then, for us, it has no meaning; and so our first assumption
is also destroyed, and with it all significance in life."

"Well," he said, "go on. We can't go over all that again."

"Third," I continued, "that among our experiences the one which comes
nearest to Good is that which we called love."

"Possible!" said Dennis, "but a very tentative approximation."

"Certainly," I agreed, "and subject to constant revision."

"And after that?"

"Well," I said, "now comes the point Audubon raised. Is it necessary
to include also the postulate that Good can be realized?"

"But surely," objected Wilson, "here at least there is no room for
what you call faith. For whether or no the Good can be realized is a
question of knowledge."

"No doubt," I replied, "and so are all questions - if only we could
know. But I was assuming that this is one of the things we do not
know."

"But," he said, "it is one we are always coming to know. Every year we
are learning more and more about the course and destiny of mankind."

"Should you say, then," I asked, "that we are nearer to knowing
whether or no the soul is immortal?"

He looked at me in sheer amazement; and then, "What a question!" he
cried. "I should say that we have long known that it isn't"

"Then," I said, "if so, we know that the Good cannot be realized."

"What!" he exclaimed. "I had not understood that your conception of
the Good involved the idea of personal immortality."

"I am almost afraid it does," I replied, "but I am not quite sure.
We have already touched upon the point, if you remember, when we
were considering whether we must regard the Good as realizable in
ourselves, or only in some generation of people to come. And we
thought then that it must somehow be realizable in us."

"But we did not see at the time what that would involve, though I was
afraid all along of something of the kind."

"Well," I said, "for fear you should think you have been cheated, we
will reconsider the point; and first, if you like, we will suppose
that we mean by the Good of some future generation, still retaining
for Good the signification we gave to it. The question then of whether
or no the Good can be realized, will be the question whether or no it
is possible that at some future time all individuals should be knit
together in that ultimate relation which we called love."

"But," cried Leslie, "the love was to be eternal! So that _their_
souls at least would have to be immortal; and if theirs, why not
ours?"

I looked at Wilson; and "Well," I said, "what are we to say?"

"For my part," he replied, "I have nothing to say. I consider the
whole idea of immortality illegitimate."

"Yet on that," I said, "hangs the eternal nature of our Good. But may
we retain, perhaps, the all-comprehensiveness?"

"How could we!" cried Leslie, "for it is only the individuals who
happened to be alive who could be comprehended so long as they were
alive."

"Another glory shorn from our Good!" I said. "Still, let us hold fast
to what we may! Shall we say that if the Good is to be realized the
individuals then alive, so long as they are alive, will be bound
together in this relation?"

"You can say that if you like," said Wilson, "and something of that
kind I suppose one would envisage as the end. Only I'm not sure that I
very well know what you mean by love."

"Alas!" I cried, "is even that to go? Is nothing at all to be left of
my poor conception?"

"You, can say if you like," he replied, "and I suppose it comes
to much the same thing, that all individuals will be related in a
perfectly harmonious way."

"In other words," cried Ellis, "that you will have a society perfectly
definite, heterogeneous, and co-ordinate! 'There's glory for you!' as
Humpty Dumpty said."

"Well," I said, "this is something very different from what we defined
to be Good! But this, at any rate, you think, on grounds of positive
science, that it might be possible to realize?"

"Yes," replied Wilson; "or if not that, I think at any rate that
science may ultimately be in a position to decide whether or no it can
be realized."

"But," I said, "do you not think the same about personal immortality?"

"To be honest," he replied, "I do not think that the question of
personal immortality is one which science ought even to entertain."

"But," I urged, "I thought science was beginning to entertain it. Does
not the 'Society for Psychical Research' deal with such questions?"

"'The Society for Psychical Research!'" he exclaimed. "I do not call
that science."

"Well," I said, "at any rate there are men of a scientific turn of
mind connected with it" And I mentioned the names of one or two,
whereupon Wilson broke out into indignation, declaring with much
vehemence that the gentlemen in question were bringing discredit both
upon themselves and the University to which they belonged; and then
followed a discussion upon the proper objects and methods of science,
which I do not exactly recall. Only I remember that Wilson took up a
position which led Ellis, with some justice as I thought, to declare
that science appeared to be developing all the vices of theology
without any of its virtues - the dogmatism, the "index expurgatorius,"
and the whole machinery for suppressing speculation, without any of
the capacity to impose upon the conscience a clear and well-defined
scheme of life. This debate, however, was carried on in a tone too
polemic to elicit any really fruitful result; and as soon as I was
able I endeavoured to steer the conversation back into the smoother
waters from which it had been driven.

"Let us admit," I said, "if you like, for the sake of argument, that
on the question of the immortality of the soul we do not and cannot
know anything at all."

"But," objected Wilson, "I maintain that we do know that there is no
foundation at all for the idea. It is a mere reflection of our hopes
and fears, or of those of our ancestors."

"But," I said, "even if it be, that does not prove that it is not
true; it merely shows that we have no sufficient reason for thinking
it to be true."

"Well," he said, "put it so, if you like; that is enough to relegate
the notion to the limbo of centaurs and chimæras. What we have no
reason to suppose to be true, we have no reason to concern ourselves
with."

"Pardon me," I replied, "but I think we have, if the idea is one that
interests us, as Is the case with what we are discussing. We may not
know whether or no it is true, but we cannot help profoundly caring."

"Well," he said, "I may be peculiarly constituted, but, honestly, I do
not myself care in the least"

"But," I said, "perhaps you ought to, if you care about the Good;
and that is really the question I want to come back to. What is the
minimum we must believe if we are to make life significant? Is it
sufficient to believe in what you call the 'progress of the race'? Or
must we also believe in the progress of the individual, involving, as
it does, personal immortality?"

"Well," said Wilson, "I don't profess to take lofty views of
life - that I leave to the philosophers. But I must say it seems to me
to be a finer thing to work for a future in which one knows one will
not participate oneself than for one in which one's personal happiness
is involved. I have always sympathized with Comte, pedant as he was,
in the remark he made when he was dying."

"Which one?" interrupted Ellis. "'Quelle perte irréparable?' That
always struck me as the most humorous thing ever said."

"No," said Wilson, gravely, "but when he said that the prospect of
death would be to him infinitely less sublime, if it did not involve
his own extinction; the notion being, I suppose, that death is
the triumphant affirmation of the supremacy of the race over the
individual. And that, I think myself, is the sound and healthy and
manly view."

"My dear Wilson," cried Ellis, "you talk of lofty views; but this is
a pinnacle of loftiness to which I, for one, could never aspire.
Positively, to rejoice in the extinction of the individual with his
faculties undeveloped, his opportunities unrealized, his ambitions
unfulfilled - why it's sublime! its Kiplingese - there's no other word
for it! Shake hands, Wilson! you're a hero."

"Really," said Wilson, rather impatiently, "I see nothing strained
or high-faluting in the view. And as to what you say about faculties
undeveloped and the rest, that seems to me unreal and exaggerated!
Most men have a good enough time, and get pretty much what they
deserve. A healthy, normal man is ready to die - he has done what he
had it in him to do, and passed on his work to the next generation."

"I have often wondered," said Ellis, meditatively, "what 'normal'
means. Does it mean one in a million, should you say? Or perhaps that
is too large a proportion? Some people say, do they not, that there
never was a normal man?"

"By 'normal,'" retorted Wilson, doggedly, "I mean average, and I
include every one except a few decadents and faddists."

At this point, seeing that we were threatened with another digression,
I thought it best to intervene again.

"We are diverging," I said, "a little from the issue. Wilson's
position, as I understand him, is that the prospect of the future
Good of the race is sufficient to give significance to the life of the
individual, even though he realize no Good for himself."

"No," replied Wilson, "I don't say that; for I think he always does
realize sufficient Good for himself."

"But is it because of that Good which he realizes for himself that his
life has significance? Or because of the future Good of the race?"

"I don't know; both, I suppose."

"You do not think then that the future Good of the race is sufficient,
by itself, to give significance to the lives of individuals who are
never to partake in it?"

"I don't like that way of putting the question. What I believe is,
that in realizing his own Good a man is also contributing to that of
the race. There is no such antagonism between the two ends as you seem
to suggest."

"I don't say that there is an antagonism; but I do insist that there
is a distinction. And I cannot help feeling - and this is where we seem
to disagree - that in estimating the Good of individual lives we must
have regard to that which they realize in and for themselves, not
merely to that which they may be contributing to produce some day in
somebody else."

"These 'somebody elses,'" cried Ellis, "being after all nothing but
other individuals like themselves! so that you get an infinite series
of people doing Good to one another, and none of them getting any
Good for themselves, like the: islanders who lived by taking in one
another's washing!"

"Well, but," said Wilson, "supposing I consent, for the sake of
argument, to let you estimate the worth of life by the Good which
individuals realize in themselves. What follows then?"

"Why, then" I said, "it would, I think, be very hard to maintain that
we do most of us realize Good enough to make it seem worth while to
have lived at all, if indeed we are simply extinguished at death. At
any rate, if we set aside an exceptional few, and look frankly at the
mass of men and women, judging them not as means to something else,
but as ends in themselves, with reference not to happiness, or
content, or acquiescence, or indifference, but simply to Good - if we
look at them so, can we honestly say that there is enough significance
in their lives to justify the labour and expense of producing and
maintaining them?"

"I don't know," he replied, "they probably think themselves that there
is."

"Probably," I rejoined, "they do not think about it at all. But what I
should like to know is, what do you think?"

"I don't see," he objected, "how I can have any opinion; the problem
is too vast and indeterminate."

"Is it?" cried Audubon, intervening in his curious abrupt way, and
with more than his usual energy of protest "Well, indeterminate or no,
it's the one point on which I have no doubt. Most people are only fit
to have their necks broken, and it would be the kindest thing for them
if some one would do it."

"Well," I said, "at any rate that is a vigorous opinion. Does anyone
else share it?"

"I do," said Leslie, "on the whole. Most men, if they are not actually
bad, are at best indifferent - 'sacs merely, floating with open mouths
for food to slip in.'"

"Upon my word!" cried Bartlett, "it's wonderful how much you know
about them, considering how very little you've seen of them!"

"Oh!" I said, turning to him, "then you do not agree with this
estimate?"

"I!" he said. "Oh, no! I am not a superior person! Most men, I
suppose, are as good as we are, and probably a great deal better!"

"They might well be that," I replied, "without being particularly
good. But perhaps, as you seem to suggest, it might be better to
confine ourselves to our own experience and consider whether for
ourselves, so far as we can see, we should think life much worth
having, supposing death to be the end of it all."

"Oh, as to that, of course I should, for my part," cried Ellis, "and
so, I hope, should we all. In fact, I consider it rather monstrous to
ask the question at all."

"My dear Ellis," I protested, "you are really the most inconsistent of
men! Not a minute ago you were laughing at Wilson for his acquiescence
in the extinction of the individual 'with his opportunities
unrealized, his faculties undeveloped,' and all the rest of it. And
now you appear to be adopting precisely the same attitude yourself."

"I can't help it," he replied; "consistent or no, life's good enough
for me. And so it should be for you, you ungrateful ruffian!"

"I am not so sure," I said, "that it should be; not so sure as I was a
few years ago."

"Why, you Methuselah, what has age got to do with it?"

"Just this," I replied, "that up to a certain time of life all the
Good that we get we take to be prophetic of more Good to come. What
we actually realize we value less for itself than for something else
which it promises. The moments of good experience we expand till they
fill all infinity; the intervening tracts of indifferent or bad we
simply forget or ignore. Life is good, we say, because the universe
is good; and this goodness we expect to grasp in its entirety, not
to-day, perhaps, nor to-morrow, but at least the day after. And so,
like the proverbial ass, we are lured on by a wisp of hay. But being,
at bottom, intelligent brutes, we begin, in time, to reflect; we put
back our ears, and plant our feet stiff and rigid where we stand, and
refuse to budge an inch till we have some further information as to
the meaning of the journey into which we are being enticed. That,
at least, is the point that has been reached by this ass who is now
addressing you. I want to know something more about that bundle of
hay; and that is why I am interested in the question of personal
immortality."

"Which means - to drop the metaphor - - ?"

"Which means, that I have come to realize that I am not likely to get
more Good out of life than I have already had, and that I may very
likely get less; or if more in some respects, then less in others.
For, in the first place, the world, as it seems, is just as much bad
as good, and whether Good or Bad predominate I cannot say. And in the
second place, even of what Good there is - and I do not under-estimate
its worth - it is but an infinitesimal portion that I am capable of
realizing, so limited am I by temperament and circumstance, so
bound by the errors and illusions of the past, so hampered by the
disabilities crowding in from the future. For though, as I think, the
older I get the more clearly I recognize what is good, and the more I
learn to value and to perceive it, yet at the same time the less do I
become capable of making it my own, and must in the nature of things
become less and less so, in so far at least as Goods other than those
of the intellect are concerned. And this is a position which seems to
be involved in the mere fact of age and death frankly seen from
the naturalistic point of view; and so it has always been felt
and expressed from the time of the Greeks onwards, and not least
effectively, perhaps, by Browning in his 'Cleon' - you remember the
passage:

"'... Every day my sense of joy
Grows more acute, my soul (intensified
By power and insight) more enlarged, more keen;
While every day my hairs fall more and more,
My hand shakes, and the heavy years increase -
The horror quickening still from year to year,
The consummation coming past escape,
When I shall know most, and yet least enjoy -
When all my works wherein I prove my worth,
Being present still to mock me in men's mouths,
Alive still in the phrase of such as thou,
I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man,
The man who loved his life so over-much,
Shall sleep in my urn.'

"You see the point; indeed, it is so familiar, I have laboured it,
perhaps, too much. But the result seems to be, that while it is
natural enough that in youth, for those who are capable of Good,
life should seem to be pre-eminently worth the having, yet the last
judgment of age, for those who believe that death is the end, will be
a doubt, and perhaps more than a doubt, even in the case of those
most favoured by fortune, whether after all a life has been worth the
trouble of living which has unfolded such infinite promise only to
bury it fruitless in the grave."

"I think that's rather a morbid view!" said Parry.

"I do not know," I said, "whether it is morbid, nor do I very much
care; the question is, whether it is reasonable, and whether it is not
the position naturally and perhaps inevitably adopted not by the
worst but by the best men among those who have abandoned the belief in
personal immortality."

"That," interposed Wilson, "is surely not the case. One knows of
people who, though they have no belief in survival after death, yet
maintain a perfectly cheerful and healthy attitude towards life.
Harriet Martineau is one that occurs to me. To her, you may remember,
life appeared not less but more worth living when she had become
convinced of her own annihilation at death; and she awaited
with perfect equanimity and calm its imminent approach, not as
a deliverance from a condition which was daily becoming more
intolerable, but as a fitting crown and consummation to a career of
untiring and fruitful activity."

"That," exclaimed Parry with enthusiasm, "is what I call magnanimous!"

"I don't!" retorted Leslie, "I call it simply stupid and
unimaginative."

"Call it what you like," said Wilson; "anyhow it is a position which
can be and has been adopted."

"Yes," I agreed, "but one which, I think, a clearer analysis of the
facts, a franker survey and a more penetrating insight, would make it
increasingly difficult to sustain. And after all, an estimate which is
to endure must be not only magnanimous but reasonable."

"But to her, and to others like her, it did and does appear to be
reasonable. And you ought to admit, I think, that there are cases in
which life is well worth living quite apart from the hypothesis of
personal immortality."

"I am ready to admit," I replied, "that there are people to whom it
seems to be so, but I doubt whether they are very numerous, among
those, I mean, who have reflected on the subject, and whose opinions
alone we need consider. I, at any rate, have commonly found in talking
to people about death - supposing, which is unusual, that they are
willing to talk about it at all - that they adopt one of two views,
either of which presupposes the worthlessness of life, if life, as we
know it, be indeed all"

"What views do you mean?"

"Why, either they believe that death means annihilation, and rejoice
in the prospect as a deliverance from an intolerable evil; or they
hold that there is a life beyond, and that they will find there the
reason and justification for existence which they have never been able
to discover here."

"You forget, surely," said Wilson, "a third point of view, which I
should have thought was as common as either of the others, - that of
those who believe in a life after death, but look forward to it with
inexpressible fear of the possible evils which it may contain."

"True," I said, "but such fear, I suppose, is a reflex of actual
experience, and implies, does it not, a vivid sense of the evils of
existence as we know it? So that these people, too, I should maintain,
have not really found life satisfactory, or they would look forward
with hope rather than fear to the possibility of Its continuance."

"But in their case, at any rate, the hypothesis of personal
immortality is an aggravation, not a remedy, of the evil."

"No doubt; but I have been assuming throughout that the hypothesis
involves the realization of that Good which, without it, we recognize
to be unattainable; and it is only in that sense, and from that point
of view, that I have introduced it."

"Well," he persisted, "considering how improbable the hypothesis is,
I should be very loth to admit that it is one which it is practically


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