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Indeed, I am bound to add that very slight effort to discover the truth
would have convinced him that, as a matter of fact, the term arose
otherwise. lam loath to go over an old story once more; but more
than one object which I have in view will be served by telling it a
little more fully than it has yet been told.

Looking back nearly fifty years, I see myself as a boy, whose educa-
tion had been interrupted, and who, intellectually, was left, for some
years, altogether to his own devices. At that time I was a voracious
and omnivorous reader; a dreamer and speculator of the first water,
well endowed with that splendid courage in attacking any and every
subject which is the blessed compensation of youth and inexperience.
Among the books and essays, on all sorts of topics from metaphysics
to heraldry, which I read at this time, two left indelible impressions on
my mind. One was Guizot's "History of Civilization," the other was
Sir William Hamilton's essay "On the Philosophy of the Uncon-
ditioned," which I came upon, by chance, in an odd volume of the
' Edinburgh Review." The latter was certainly strange reading for a
boy, and I could not possibly have understood a great deal of it;*
nevertheless, I devoured it with avidity, and it stamped upon my
mind the strong conviction that, on even the most solemn and im-
p >rtant of questions, men are apt to take cunning phrases for answers;
and that the limitation of our faculties, in a great number of cases,
renders real answers to such questions not merely actually impossible,
but theoretically inconceivable.

Philosophy and history having laid hold of me in this eccentric
fashion, have never loosened their grip. I have no pretension to be
an expert in either subject ; but the turn for philosophical and his-
torical reading, which rendered Hamilton and Guizot attractive to
me, has not only filled many lawful leisure hours, and still more

* Yet I must somehow have laid hold of the pith of the matter, for, many years afterward,
when Dean Maxell's Bampton lectures were published, it eraed to me I already knew all that
this eminently agnostic thinker had to tell me.



sleepless ones, with the repose of changed mental occupation, but
has not unfrequently disputed my proper work-time with my liege
lady, Natural Science. In this way I have found it possible to cover
a good deal of ground in the territory of philosophy; and all the
more easily that I have never cared much about A's or B's opinions,
but have rather sought to know what answer he had to give to the
questions I had to put to him that of the limitation of possible
knowledge being the chief. The ordinary examiner, with his " State
the views of So-and-so," would have floored me at any time. If he
had said, " What do you think about any given problem ? " I might
have got on fairly well.

The reader who has had the patience to follow the enforced, but
unwilling, egotism of this veritable history (especially if his studies
have led him in the same direction), will now see why my mind
steadily gravitated toward the conclusions of Hume and Kant, so well
stated by the latter in a sentence, which I have quoted elsewhere :

"The greatest and perhaps the sole use of all philosophy of pure
reason is, after all, merely negative, since it serves not as an organon
for the enlargement [of knowledge], but as a discipline for its delimita-
tion ; and, instead ot discovering truth, has only the modest merit of
preventing error." *

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself
whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an
idealist ; a Christian or a freethinker I found that the more I learned
and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to
the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these
denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these
good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from
them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis"-
had, more or l*ss successfully, solved the problem of existence ; while
I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that
the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side,
I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.
Lake Dante

" Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per ana selva oscura," t

but, unlike Dante, I can not add

" Che la diritta via era smanita." $

On the contrary, I had, and have, the firmest conviction that I never
left the "verace via" the straight road ; and that this road led no-
where else but into the dark depths of a wild and tangled forest. And
though I have found leopards and lions in the path ; though I have
made abundant acquaintance with the hungry wolf, that with "privy
paw devours apace and nothing said," as another great poet says ot the
ravening beast ; and though no friendly specter has even yet offered
his guidance, I was, and am, minded to go straight on, until I either
come out on the other side of the wood, or find there is no other side
to it at least, none attainable by me.

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place
among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists,

* " Kritik der reinen Vernunft." Edit. Hartenstein, p. 356.
t [In the midway of this onr mortal life

I found me in a gloomy wood astray.]
$ [.Gone from the path direct.]


represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness ; most of
my colleagues were ists of one sort or another ; and, however kind
,nd friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to
cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings
Which must have beset the historical fx when, after leaving the trap
in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elon-
gated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived
to be the appropriate title of " agnostic." It came into my head as
suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who
professed to know so much about the very things of which I was
ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our
society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. To my
great satisfaction, the term took; and when the " Spectator" had
stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people
that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened, was, of course,
completely lulled.

That is the history of the origin of the terms "agnostic" and
"agnosticism"; and it will be observed that it does not quite agree
with the confident assertion of the reverend Principal of King's Col-
lege, that " the adoption of the term agnostic is only an attempt
to shift the issue, and that it involves a mere evasion " in relation to
the Church and Christianity.*

The last objection (I rejoice, as much as my readers must do, that it
is the last) which I have to take to Dr. Wace's deliverance before the
the Church Congress arises, I am sorry to say, on a question of morality.

"It is, and it ought to be," authoritatively declares this official
representative of Christian ethics, "an unpleasant thing for a man
to have to say plainly that he does not believe in Jesus Christ"
(L c., p. 254).

Whether it is so, depends, I imagine, a good deal on whether the
man was brought up in a Christian household or not. I do not see
why it should be " unpleasant " lor a Mohammedan or a Buddhist to
say so. But that "it ought to be" unpleasant fr any man to say
anything which he sinr-erely, and after due deliberation, believes, is,
to my mind, a proposition of the most profoundly immoral character.
I verily believe that the great good which has been effected in the
world by Christianity has been largely counteracted by the pestilent
doctrine on which all the churches have insisted, that honest disbe-
lief in their more or less astonishing creeds is a moral offense, indeed
a sin of the deepest dye, deserving and involving the same future
retribution as murder and robbery. If we could only see, in one
view, the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the
violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from
this source along the course of the history of Christian nations, our
worst imaginations of hell would pale beside the vision.

A thousand times, no! It ought not to be unpleasant to say that
which one honestly believes or disbelieves. That it so constantly is
painful to do so, is qui'e enough obstacle to the progress of mankind
in that most valuable of all qualities honesty of word orof deed, without
erecting a sad concomitant of human weakness into something to be
admired and cherished. The bravest of soldiers often, and very nat-
urally, "feel it unpleasant" to go into action; but a court martial

* Page 8.


which did its duty would make short work of the officer who promul-
gated the doctrine that his men ought to feel their duty unpleasant

I am very well aware, as I suppose most thoughtful people are in
these times, that the process of breaking away from old beliefs is
extremly unpleasant; and I am much disposed to think that the
encouragement, the consolation, and the peace afforded to earnest
believers in even the worst forms of Christianity are of great practical
advantage to them. What deductions must be made from this gain
on the score of the harm done to the citizen by the ascetic other-
vorldliness of logical Christianity; to the ruler, by the hatred, malice,
'nd all uncharitableness of sectarian bigotry; to the legislator, by the
'oirit of exclusiveness and domination of those that count themselves
nillars of orthodoxy; to the philosopher, by the restraints on the free-
Mom of learning and teaching which every church exercises, when it is
strong enough; to the conscientious soul, by the introspective hunting
after sins of the mint and cummin type, the fear of theological error,
and the overpowering terror of possible damnation, which have
accompanied the churches like their shadow, I need not now consider;
but they are assuredly not small. If agnostics lose heavily on the one
side, they gain a good deal on the other. People who talk about the
comforts of belief appear to forget its discomforts ; they ignore the
fact that the Christianity of the churches is something more than
faith in the ideal personality of Jesus, which they create for them-
selves,^?^ so much as can be carried into practice, without disorgan-
izing civil society, of the maxims of (he Sermon on the Mount. Trip
in morals or in doctrine (especially in doctrine), without due repent-
ance or retractation, or fail to get properly baptized before y-.u die, and
a plebiscite of the Christians of Europe, if they were true to their
creeds, would affirm your everlasting damnation by an immense ma-

Preachers, orthodox and heterodox, din into our ears that the
world can not get on without faith of some sort. There is a sense in
which that is as eminently as obviously true; there is another, in
which, in my judgment, it is as eminently as obviously false, and it
seems to me that the hortatory, or pulpit, mind is apt to oscillate
between the false and the true meanings, without being aware of the

It is quite true that the ground of every one of our actions, and the
validity of all our reasonings, rest upon the great act of faith, which
leads us to take the experience of the past as a safe guide in our deal-
ings with the "present and the future. From the nature of ratiocina-
tion it is obvious that the axioms on which it is based can not be
demonstrated by ratiocination. It is also a trite observation that, in
the business of life, we constantly take the most serious action upon
evidence of an utterly insufficient character. But it is surely plain
that faith is not necessarily entitled to dispense with ratiocination
because ratiocination can not dispense with faith as a starting-point;
and that because we are often obliged, by the pressure of events, to
act on very bad evidence, it does not follow that it is proper to act
on such evidence when the pressure is absent.

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews tells us that " faith is the
assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen/' In
the authorized version " substance " stands for " assurance," and " eri-



dence " for < the proving." ^The question of the exact meaning of the
two words, VTtoffTaffiSand. fkeyxof, affords a fine field of discussion for
the scholar and the metaphysician. But I fancy we shall be not far
from the mark if we take the writer to have had in his mind the pro-
found psychological truth that men constantly feel certain about
things for which they strongly hope, but have no evidence, in the
legal or logical sense of the word; and he calls this feeling "faith,"
I may have the most absolute faith that a friend has not committed
the crime of which he is accused. In the early days of English
history, if my friend could have obtained a few more compurgators of
like robust faith, he would have been acquitted. At the present day,
if I tendered myself as a witness on that score, the judge would tell
me to stand down, and the youngest barrister would smile at my sim-
plicity. Miserable indeed is the man who has not such faith in some
of his fellow men only less miserable than the man who allows him-
self to forget that such faith is not, strictly speaking, evidence; and
when his faith is disappointed, as will happen now and again, turns
Timon and blames the universe for his own blunders. And so, if a
man can can find a friend, the hypostasis of all his hopes, the mirror
of his ethical ideal, in the Jesus of any, or all, of the Gospels, let him
live by faith in that ideal. Who shall or can forbid him? But let
him not delude himself with the notion that his faith is evidence of
the objective reality of that in which he trusts. Such evidence is to
be obtained only by the use of the methods of science, as applied to
history and to literature, and it amounts at present to very little.

It appears that Mr. Gladstone, some time ago, asked Mr. Laing if
he could draw up a short summary of the negative creed; a body of
negative propositions, which have so far been adopted on the neg-
ative side as to be what the Apostles' and other accepted creeds are on
the positive; and Mr. Laing at once kindly obliged Mr. Gladstone
with the desired articles eight of them.

If any one had preferred this request to me, I should have replied
that, if he referred to agnostics, they have no creed; and, by the
nature of the case, can not have any. Agnosticism, in fact, is
not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorus
application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity ;
it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, " Try all things,
hold fast by that which is good"; it is the foundation of the Refor-
mation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be
able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great prin-
ciple of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science.
Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect,
follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any
other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do
not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated
or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man
keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the uni-
verse in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary
according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the
general condition of science. That which is unproved to-day may be
proved, by the help of new discoveries, to-morrow. The only nega-
tive fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demon-



strable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted
is to have the mind always open to conviction. Agnostics who never
fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other
people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicted.
But, if you were to meet with such a phoenix and to tell him that you
had discovered that two and two make five, he would patiently ask
you to state your reasons for that conviction, and express his readiness
to agree with you if he found them satisfactory. The apostolic
injunction to " suffer fools gladly," should be the rule of life of a true
agnostic. I am deeply conscious how far I myself fall short of this
ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics ought to be.

However, as I began by stating, I speak only lor myself; and I do
not dream of anathematizing and excommunicating Mr Laing. But,
when I consider his creed and compare it with the Athanasian, I
think I have, on the whole, a clearer conception of the meaning of the
latter. " Polarity " in Article viii, for example, is a word about which
I heard a good deal in my youth, when " Naturphilosophie" was in
fashion, and greatly did I suffer from it. For many years past, when-
ever I have met with "polarity" anywhere but in a discussion of some
purely physical topic, such as magnetism, I have shut the book. Mr.
Laing must excuse me if the force of habit was too much for me when
I read his eighth article.

And now, what is to be said to Mr. Harrison's remarkable deliver-
ance "On the future of agnosticism"?* I would that it were not
my business to say anything, for I am afraid that I can say nothing
which shall manifest my great personal respect for this able writer,
and for the zeal and energy with which he ever and anon galvanizes
the weakly frame of positivism until it looks more than ever like
John Bunyan's Pope and Pagan rolled into one. There is a story
often repeated, and I am afraid none the less mythical on that
aecount, of a valiant and loud-voiced corporal, in command of two
full privates, who falling in with a regiment of the enemy in the d irk,
orders it to surrender under pain of instant annihilation by his force;
and the enemy surrenders accordingly. I am always reminded of this
tale when I read the positivist commands to the forces of Christianity
and of Science; only the enemy show no more signs of intending to
obey now than they have done any time these forty years.

The allocution under consideration has the papal flavor which is
wont to hang about the utterances of the pontiffs of the Church of
Comte. Mr. Harrison speaks with authority, and not as one of the
common scribes of the period. He knows not only what agnosticism
is and how it has come about, but what will become of it. The agnos-
tic is to content himself with being the precursor of the positivist.
In his place, as a sort of navvy leveling the ground and cleansing it
of such poor stuff as Christianity, he is a useful creature who deserves
patting on the back, on condition that he does not venture beyond his
last. But let not these scientific Sanballats presume that they are
good enough to take part in the building of the temple they are
mere Samaritans, doomed to die out in proportion as the Religion of
Humanity is accepted by mankind. Well, if that is their fate, they
have time to be cheerful. But let us hear Mr. Harrison's pronounce-
ment of their doom :

* "Fortnightly Review," January, 1889.


" Agnosticism is a stage in the evolution of religion, an entirely
negative stage, the point reached oy physicists, a purely mental con-
clusion, with no relation to things social at all" (p. 154). I a rn quite
dazed by this declaration. Are there, then. any "conclnsioiiH" that
are not "purely mental"? Is there ''no relation to things social" in
"mental conclusions" which affect men's whole conception of life?
Was that prince of agnostics, David Hume, particularly imbned with
physical science? Supposing physical science to be non-existent
would not the agnostic principle, applied by the philologist and the
historian, lead to exactly the same results? Is the modern more or
less complete suspension of judgment as to the facts of the history of
regal Home, or the real origin of the Homeric poems, anything "but
agnosticism in history and in literature? And if so, how can agnosti-
cism be the " mere negation of the physicist" ?

" Agnosticism is a stage in the evolution of religion." No two peo-
ple agree as to what is meant by the term " religion " ; but if it means,
as I think it ought to mean, simply the reverence and love for the
ethical ideal, and the to realize that ideal in life, which every
man ought to feel then I say agnosticism has no more to do with
it than it has to do with music or painting. If, on the other hand,
Mr. Harrison, like most people, means by "religion" theology, then,
in my judgement, agnosticism can be said to be a stage in its evolu-
tion, only as death may be said to be the final stage in the evolution
of life.

When agnostic logic is simply one of the canons of thought, agnosticism, as a distinctive faith
will have spontaneously disappeared (p. 155).

I can but marvel that such sentences as this, and those already
quoted, should have proceeded from Mr. Harrison's pen. Does he
really mean to suggest that agnostics have a logic peculiar to them-
selves? Will he kindly help me out of my bewilderment when I try
to think of "logic" being anything else than the canon (which, I
believe means rule) of thought? As to agnosticism being a distinc-
tive faith, I have already shown that it can not possibly be anything
of the kind; unless perfect laith in logic is distinctive of agnostics,
which, after all, it may be.

Agnosticism as a religious philosophy per se rests on an almost total ignoring of history and
social evolution (p. 152).

But neither per se nor per aliud has agnosticism (if I know any-
thing about it) the least pretension to be a religious philosophy; so
far from resting on ignorance of history, and that social evolution of
which history is the account, it is and has been the inevitable result
of the strict adherence to scientific methods by historical investigators.
Our forefathers were quite confident about the existence of Romulus
and Kern us, of King Arthur, and of Hengst and Horsa. Most of us
have become agnostics in regard to the reality of these worthies. It is
a matter of notoriety, of which Mr. Harrison, who accuses us all so
freely of ignoring history, should not be ignorant., that the critical
process which has shattered the foundations of orthodox Christian
doctrines owes its origin, not to the devotees of physical science, but,
before all, to Richard Simon, the learned Krencli Oratorian, just two
hundred years ago. I can not find evidence that either Simon, or any
one of the great scholars and critics of the eighteeeth and nineteenth
centuries who have continued Simon's work, had any particular
acquaintance with physical science. I have already pointed out that



Hume was independent of it. And certainly one of the most potent
influences in the same direction, upon history in the present century,
that of Grote, did not come from the physical side. Physical science,
in fact, has had nothing directly to do with the criticism of the Gos-
pels; it is wholly incompetent to furnish demonstrative evidence that
any statement made in these histories is untrue. Indeed, modern
physiology can find parallels in nature for events of apparently the
most /eminently supernatural kind recounted in some of those

It is a comfort to hear, upon Mr. Harrison's authority, that the
laws of physical nature show no signs of becoming "less definite, less
consistent, or less popular as time goes on " (p. 154). How a law of
nature is to become indefinite, or "inconsistent," passes my poor
powers of imagination. But with universal suffrage and the coach-
dog theory of premiership in full view; the theory, I mean, that the
whole duty of a political chief is too look sharp for the way the social
coach is driving, and then run in front and bark loud as if being
the leading noise-maker and guiding were the same things it is
truly satisfactory to me to know that the laws of nature are increasing
in popularity. Looking at recent developments of the policy which
is said to express the great heart of the people, I have had my doubts

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