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amplification of moral codes, for the simple reason that moral
codes are substantially not susceptible of amplification. The
elements of the moral law are very much the same at one time
as at another. ' To do good to others ; to sacrifice for their
benefit your own wishes ; to love your neighbour as yourself ;
to forgive your enemies ; to restrain your passions ; to respect
those who are set over you ; — these, and a few others, are the
sole essentials of morals ; but they have been known for thou-
sands of years, and not one jot or- tittle has been added to them
by all the sermons, homilies, and text-books which moralists
and theologians have been able to produce.' To this the writer
(1) No. XCV. 1868.


in the North British Review replies, with the greatest anxiety,
it should be said, to do Ml justice to his opponent, that
morality does advance, just as knowledge advances. The lead-
ing principle of scientific inquiry, to investigate nature, to
interrogate facts, was perfectly well known to such a man as
Aristotle ; scientific advance consists, less in the improved state-
ment of formal methods of research, than in their improved
application and development. So with Morals. The general
statement of a primary moral precept may be now much what
it was thousands of years ago. Moral advance consists in the
improved interpretation, the ever-widening application, of the
primary maxim. Morals ' develop quickly under the influence
of two causes ; first, the circumstances of the time, which are
ever changing, and ever bringing up new cases for judgment
at the bar of conscience : and, secondly, those leanings towards
particular ways of thinking, which are the net result of all the
forces, moral, intellectual, and physical, that act on each age.'
The science and practice of Casuistry imparts to the original
code of morals a new scope, and previously unimagined mean-
in »•. As thousands of cases come up for judgment, it fills in
the scheme of the moralist, and proves the fertility of great
ethical precepts, by showing how, as human nature grows, and
human circumstances become more complex, they grow too,
and manifest fresh energies. Take slavery, for example. The
founder of Christian morality did not condemn slavery, but he
laid down a general system with which we have now discovered
that slavery is wholly incompatible. Is not such a discovery
as this a distinctly moral advance, and is it not a disproof of
the alleged stationariness of ethical systems ? The writer's
position, therefore, as against Mr. Buckle, comes to this : — it is
only the leading principles of morality that have anything like
a stationary character ; the leading principles of science are not


less stationary ; the progress of science mainly results from the
application of its fundamental canons to practice ; finally, the
application of the fundamental canons of morality leads to a
corresponding advancement.

The too unqualified and even crude manner, in which Mr.
Buckle stated his doctrine, has indisjjutably left Jiim open to a
decisive refutation of this sort. But the completeness and ease
of his triumph may perhaps have suggested to so acute and fair
a critic as the author of the article, the suspicion that Mr.
Buckle coidd hardly have meant that the morality of England
to-day, for example, is precisely the same as that of Athens in
the time of Plato. Men of the highest moral elevation in
Athens thought that it was a good, or at least a perfectly harm-
less, thing to expose a new-born child, which it would have
been inconvenient for them to rear ; they saw equally little
harm, indeed they saw some indirect virtue, in friendshijis
which to us appear too vile and abominable to be even named.
An Athenian might be unimpeachably moral, and yet pursue a
course which with us would, not only subject him to the extreme
legal penalty, but would stamp him as a depraved and inhuman
monster. This variability of moral practice is now a common-
place. Of course, therefore, nobody of Mr. Buckle's calibre
could seriously maintain that morals are stationary, in the
sense that the same actions either really are moral or immoral,
or are thought to be so, in one generation as in another. All
that could be meant by such an assertion as Mr. Buckle's is
conceded by the critic himself at the close of his essay, where
he expressly declares his belief in the unchangeable character
of moral truth.^ * Moral truth,' he says, ' is immutable, but

(1) It seems to be a matter for regret, that a writer whoso essay is so remark-
able an illustration of the rapidity with which the historical is superseding the
metaphysical method, should have thought it worth while to ofifer a pinch of
incense to the old gods. ' Moral truth ' is only a sot of individual propositions,



the circumstances of the age determine the nature and range of
its application.' Or, as he has put it elsewhere, * Moral pro-
gress consists in giving a grander sweep to the application of
tenets which the old world knew, not in finding new tenets
out.* The real question, therefore, is not, after all, whether
there is a movement in morality, but entirely turns upon the
agencies by which that movement is furthered. In what way
do the circumstances of an age determine the evolution of the
moral maxims which prevailed in it ? "What directs the
course of development from the morality of one age to that of
another ?

The history of human advancement may be said to consist
of two main processes, first the progressive elevation of what is
technically called Deontology, or morality as it ought to be ;
next the continuous transfer of maxims which are accepted in
Deontology, into the codes of positive morality, or morality as
it is. In other words, human progress means, first, the multi-
plication and elevation of types of virtuous character ; and next,
the practical acceptance of these types by the general senti-
ment ; — first, a constant raising and purifying of the ideals of
virtue ; next, their realisation in conduct. That is to say,

and there is not one of these propositions which any rational person now holds
to be, and to have been, of universal obligation upon all persons under all
circumstances at all times. We may believe that moral truth is immutable, as
soon as we have found any one moral precept immutable, and not before. The
writer will say, that in the most primitive time there was such a crime as
murder, for instance ; that even then there was a moral precept against killing
persons standing in some relation to one. But he would admit that the precept,
' Thou shalt not kill,' is meaningless until the question has been answered, ' Thou
shalt not kill whom V Now nobody can say that the answer to this question is
always the same. So that the only immutable part of the precept is that which
is meaningless. Clos-ely examined, people can only mean by the immutability of
moral truth, that under all circumstances there is such a thine/ as Duty, some
obligation incumbent on everj^ member of a society.


moral advance in a community or a number of communities
depends upon tlie perpetual improvement of the conception of
duty, in tlie first place, and, in the second, upon the constant
■willingness of most of the members of the community to obey
their conception of duty, in however rudimentary or however
complex a stage it may happen to be. It is of the highest
importance, in considering the natural history of Morals, to
separate these two very distinct aspects and parts of morality ;
for the process by which one of them arises may well be very
difierent from that which creates the other ; and a good deal of
the controversy has had its origin in a persistent confusion
and identification of two barely connected sets of moral

It is obvious to anybody who thinks about it, that in criti-
cising the morality of a man's character, we consider, or at any
rate we ought to consider, both the comparative elevation of his
standard, and the sincerity and constancy of his efibrts to con-
form to it. If his notions of duty are low, relatively to the
average notions of his time, then the circumstance of his
fidelity to this standard entitles him to no approbation. And
if, on the other hand, his avowed standard is high, while he
makes no proportionately strenuous endeavour to reach it in
his conduct, then he not only wins no approval, but incm-s cen-
sure. Of these two factors in a high moral character — a high
ideal of duty, and an unhesitating willingness to sacrifice all
other interests in striving to reach such an ideal — it is some-
how felt, and all language testifies to the existence of the
feeling, that the latter, the willingness to prefer duty, to prac-
tise the self-denial involved in its performance, to follow what
seems to be right because it is right, is the more distinctively
and peculiarly moral. Men are sensible (as indeed how could
tliey fail to be ?) that there is a radical distinction between the

A a2


kind of conditions wliicli produce this willingness to obey duty,
and the kind of conditions which lead to an enlightened and
elevated idea of what duty is. If it were otherwise, we should
never be able, as we clearly are able, to forgive or even to
praise the agent while condemning the action ; to admit the
morality of the motive, while pronouncing on the immorality of
the action which sprang from it. For the latter depends upon
the consequences of the action, and to be able justly to estimate
them is felt not to be a^result of virtue merely, but of wisdom,
which is virtue and something besides.

The inquiry, therefore, which has been usually treated as
one, is in reality twofold. The single question, by what pro-
cess man's moral nature is modified, would be better studied as
two questions. First, how do ethical systems arise ? by what
process do moral ideas expand and acquire their complexity
and comprehensiveness ? By what sort of process — mark, not
for what reason — is it that certain, things come to be regarded
as right, and certain other things as wrong ? Second, by what
sort of process does the presiding general idea of Duty or Virtue
acquire its high place ? First, what agencies contribute to
correctness and elevation in the precepts enjoined in any moral
code ? And, second, what agencies contribute to the growth
of a very high degree of sensitiveness to the claims of duty in
the persons to whom the code is delivered ?

The first of these questions is much simpler than the
other, and Mr. Buckle's critic has treated it very ably — in
some points, indeed, which space will not allow us to discuss,
very originally, — showing that social circumstances give rise
to types of character, or, as it would perhaps be better to say,
rules of conduct, some of which are exclusively local, while
others are of more universal fitness ; that the last survive, while
the former pass away with the peculiar conditions from which


they arose ; in short, that ' the Natural History of Morals is
the history of social conditions.' . But surely this is a moral
movement, which follows after, and depends upon, a purely
intellectual energy. Morals, it may safely be said, are in the
first instance the products of positive institutions, and these
positive institutions, in turn, are the products of an intellectual
discernment, in the chief or lawgiver, of the requirements of the
circumstances in which his society is placed, of the conse-
quences of certain kinds of conduct. The lawgiver forbids or
enjoins given actions, and then public opinion gradually asso-
ciates the ideas of praise and blame, virtue and vice, the idea
of Duty, in a word, with his injunctions or prohibitions. In
rude societies, right and wrong only mean what is permitted
and what is forbidden by the strongest, whether the resource of
the strongest be the thunders of Sinai, or the rope of a Vigi-
lance Committee. It is not necessary that there should be a
personal lawgiver, or written laws. If certain acts are not
tolerated by a portion of the community with sufficient strength
to put them down, that is enough, first of all, to generate the
idea of Law, and by-and-by to generate further the idea of
Duty. We may see the process actually going on under our
eyes on the unsettled western frontier of the United States.
In Texas, or Nevada, or Nebraska, you may watch the growth
of the ideas of Law and Duty just as if they were plants. The
process is just the same as in the old primitive societies, with
the pregnant and instructive diiference that no Divine sanction
is appealed to. Lawless desperadoes in these frontier settle-
ments find, after a certain experience of savagery, that on the
whole it is more convenient, in the long run, not to rob and
murder. A public opinion grows up that is hostile to these
malpractices, and a willingness to unite to repress them. Then
a Vigilance Committee puts theft and excessive murder down


by hanging anybody who takes anotber man's life or anotber
man's property. And so, as population increases, and men's
relations to one anotber become botb closer and more extensive,
otber kinds of acts are put along witb robbery and bomicide as
tbings tbat will not be endured. A legal code grows first, and
tbe etbical code follows steadily behind it. By-and-by the
ethical code expands in directions of its own; ideas begin to
occupy a place in it, which are not embodied in positive law ;
but they win their place by the same process which preceded
the earliest enactments ; a process, that is, of regard, more or
less conscious and deliberate, to the consequences of given,
pieces of conduct to everybody concerned, not excluding the
character of the doer. In inquiring, therefore, into the growth
of 'the complexity and majesty of moral codes,' should we not
be principally engaged in observing an intellectual operation —
the acquisition of a wider knowledge of effects, a keener insight
into consequences, a greater power of reasoning correctly about
them ? Just as primitive morality grows out of consulting con-
venience, in its narrow sense, so later morality is the outcome
of some man's mind who consults convenience, or fittingness, in
its loftiest and noblest sense. The great moral reformer is
simply the man who brings the healthiest and strongest intel-
lect into questions of conduct and character, instead of into
chemistry, physiology, or any other science. He is empha-
tically the possessor of Vision, and Vision is not the less a
quality of the intelligence for being directed to moral subjects.
It is the difference in the subjects on which they bring their
powers to bear, not in the kind of powers employed, that makes
the distinction between the man who ^augments the treasures of
science, and the man who gives new meanings to Duty and

One of the most impressive proofs of the dependence of this


side of morality upon iutoUectual movemeut is tlie fact that,
where the latter does not exist, the former is stationary too.
The conceijtion of the ingredients of duty alters least where
there is least intellectual activity, where there are least addi-
tions to the stock of knowledge. Other conditions, besides
stationariness of knowledge, enter into stationariness of a moral
system. But it is remarkably significant that where, as in
Spain or in Turkej^, the intellect lies very stagnant, the articles
in the current ethical code remain in a similar degree unmoved
and rmamended. And, on the other side, when has there been
a great stir in the region of knowledge which has not been
followed by a stir in the region of duty ? When have men
known more about other things, without subsequently knowing
more about duty also ? The revival of learning preceded the
Reformation, the latter being, in substance, quite as much a
moral as a theological movement. The wonderful additions to
human knowledge, which took place in France in the last
century, preceded the ethical development which so amazingly
distinguished the close of the century — a development to which,
among other gifts, modern society is indebted for the important
idea that the life of a man is of value to his fellows. In these
and other cases, where mental progress has advanced by an
immense stride, enlightenment in morals has followed en-
lightenment in scientific and literary knowledge. Moral
dogmas do thus advance, but it is by intellectual processes.
The articles of moral systems become refined and elevated, if
not in their formal statement, still in their interpretation and
ajjplication to practice. But the instruments by which this
improving operation is conducted are the usual instruments of
the intelligence, bent to ideas of character and conduct, instead
of to the themes of art, phj'sics, history, or any of the other
objects of understanding.


But let US turn to the other side of morality. If it is as
clear as Mr. Buckle lield it to be, and as iiis critic's theory of
the natural history of morals equally implies, that it is by
intellectual deliberation, by rational argument, by all the
agencies of an instructed understanding, that the objects of
moral conviction become purer, loftier, more conformable to the
requirements of contemporary circumstance, it is certainly not
by these agencies also, not by them only, that a corresponding
quickening of moral sensitiveness takes place. In this region,
to instruct the understanding is to do very little. Arguments
are not adequate to the task of making men more willing to do
their duty. Eeasoning is never strong enough of itself to
beget a love of virtue. The scales fall from the eyes of him
who has been blind to Duty by what is, to mere intelligence, a
miracle. The philosopher who adds new aims to the moral
creed raises them by means of the width and fulness of his
vision. To him right and wrong is a distinction of the intelli-
gence. To the many it is a distinction of feelings, aflPections,
sympathies. Duty is a growth of that part of their nature, in
which the rays of reason, when they penetrate into it, are
softened and suffused by a thousand elements of prejudice,
sympathy, and association. The love of duty, virtue, holiness,
or by whatever name we call this powerful sentiment, exists
independently of argument. St. Bernard was in instruction of
understanding very inferior to Abelard, yet he stirred the love
of duty, as duty was then conceived, in the breast of every one
who came within his influence, and filled his age with moral
heroism. And so at most times, the preacher who is most
powerfully able to excite the love of virtue, is least competent
to enlarge the ingredients and elevate the standard of virtue.
The aims which St. Bernard extolled as virtuous, and the
obligations which he imposed, were not new. Other great


saints had proclaimed exactly the same moral convictions. lie
did nothing to advance the theory of conduct. His contribu-
tion, and the contribution of men of his type, consists in
stimulating men to more enthusiastic willingness to rise in
practice to the requirements of the theory they accept. There
have been men, like Plato, endowed enough both with the
intellectual quality of vision to add new discoveries to the
theory of right conduct, and at the same time with delicate and
sympathetic ^^o?, to communicate to every listener, with the
faintest susceptibility to moral impressions, a new and ener-
getic impulse in the direction of virtue and duty. Alas the
great teachers of this class are too soon numbered.

The scientific historian of civilisation commits a stupendous
error who leaves out of his account, among the potent agencies
of mental progress, both this non-intellectual capacity in the
teacher of quickening and exalting the love of virtue, and this
non-intellectual sensibility to virtuous aspirations. Yet, in one
sense, it might obviously be said of this moral element, that it
is stationary. It is stationary in quality. Strong spiritual
emotion is just the same mood in kind at one time as at another.
It is just the same thing in Plato as in St. Paul ; in the
Corinthian husbandman, who was struck with such admiration
at the Gorgias, that he abandoned his fields and his vines to sit
at the feet of its author, as in Cornelius, who sent for Simon
Peter to teach him and his household. A virtuous Homan was
as solicitous to do his duty as a virtuous Frenchman is ; that
the precise objects of their solicitude should vary, makes no
diflierence in the essential character, does not afiect the sub-
stantial identity of their solicitude. But, in another sense, this
moral element is so far from being stationary that its fluctua-
tions mark the most decisive conditions of the decline and
advance of human civilisation and happiness. Always the


same in quality, sense of duty is constantly changing in quantity.
The amount of it in different communities, or in the same com-
munity at different periods, varies infinitely ; sometimes we
may contemplate a whole nation of heroes, at another we may
behold it sunk in corruption. The difference between the two
stao-es measures the distance between the maximum and the
minimum amounts of moral enthusiasm. The immediate cause
of the decline of a people is nearly always a decline in the
quantity of its conscience, not a depravation of its theoretical
ethics. The Greeks became corrupt and enfeebled, not for lack
of ethical science, but through the decay in the proportion of
those, who were actually sensible of the reality and force of
ethical obligations. The Mahometans Avere triumphant over
Christians at Constantinople and in Spain, not because their
scheme of duty was more elevated or comprehensive, but
because their respect for duty was more strenuous and fervid.
Hence, when we are told that ' low moral types are constantly
making room for high,' it can only be accepted in the sense of
a low or high degree of subjective sincerity, not of objective

Viewed in this light, we may notice parenthetically, the
much vaunted triumph of justice in human affairs is seen to be
something very like a truism. That ' wrong-doing brings ruin '
is self-evident, as soon as we have agreed that wrong is non-
conformity to the requirements of the surrounding conditions.
There is nothing morally penal, no retributive justice, in the
sufferings of the children for the sins of the parent. Indeed,
to call this vicarious visitation of the offences of the guilty upon
the heads of the innocent by the name of justice, retributive or
otherwise, is about as strange a twist of a moral idea to suit a
theological anachronism, as one may find in the history of
thought. Define the high moral type as that which best meets


the requirements of the situation, and it flows from the very
definition that the low moral type will fall before it, and be visited
by ruin. Inferior morals, arising either from inferior vision of
what social circumstances demand, or else from an indifference
in the heart to the lessons of sight, must inevitably subject a
man at least to the risk of a fatal clash. But when people say
that God is not a God that hideth himself, that justice is
supreme on the earth, that in the long-run even here it is well
with the good and ill with the wicked, is this all that they
mean, and all that they want us to believe ?

To sum up. The amount of respect for duty being not
a stationary, but a A^ery constantly fluctuating element in
mental progress, in order to judge whether morals as a whole
are as stationary as has been alleged, one has only to consider
whether this element of desire to do what seems right, equally
with the other element of power in finding out what is right,
only moves secondarily to, and in dependence upon, the intel-
lectual element. We soon perceive that this is not so. Some
of our feelings seem to move in an orbit of their own. Sen-
sitiveness of conscience, lively impressionableness to considera-
tions of duty, the capacity of quick and full response to a
vigorous appeal — the quantity of this in a community varies
without reference to v^ariations in instructed intelligence. And
again, the possibility of the appearance of a teacher, with the

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 28 of 29)