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Produced by Elliot S. Wheeler


By Samuel Butler

Prefatory Note

"GOD the Known and God the Unknown" first appeared in the form of a
series of articles which were published in "The Examiner" in May, June,
and July, 1879. Samuel Butler subsequently revised the text of his
work, presumably with the intention of republishing it, though he
never carried the intention into effect. In the present edition I have
followed his revised version almost without deviation. I have, however,
retained a few passages which Butler proposed to omit, partly because
they appear to me to render the course of his argument clearer, and
partly because they contain characteristic thoughts and expressions of
which none of his admirers would wish to be deprived. In the list of
Butler's works "God the Known and God the Unknown" follows "Life and
Habit," which appeared in 1877, and "Evolution, Old and New," which was
published in May, 1879. It is scarcely necessary to point out that the
three works are closely akin in subject and treatment, and that "God the
Known and God the Unknown" will gain in interest by being considered in
relation to its predecessors.




MANKIND has ever been ready to discuss matters in the inverse ratio of
their importance, so that the more closely a question is felt to touch
the hearts of all of us, the more incumbent it is considered upon
prudent people to profess that it does not exist, to frown it down, to
tell it to hold its tongue, to maintain that it has long been finally
settled, so that there is now no question concerning it.

So far, indeed, has this been carried through all time past that the
actions which are most important to us, such as our passage through the
embryonic stages, the circulation of our blood, our respiration, etc.
etc., have long been formulated beyond all power of reopening question
concerning them - the mere fact or manner of their being done at all
being ranked among the great discoveries of recent ages. Yet the analogy
of past settlements would lead us to suppose that so much unanimity was
not arrived at all at once, but rather that it must have been preceded
by much smouldering [sic] discontent, which again was followed by open
warfare; and that even after a settlement had been ostensibly arrived
at, there was still much secret want of conviction on the part of many
for several generations.

There are many who see nothing in this tendency of our nature but
occasion for sarcasm; those, on the other hand, who hold that the
world is by this time old enough to be the best judge concerning the
management of its own affairs will scrutinise [sic] this management with
some closeness before they venture to satirise [sic] it; nor will
they do so for long without finding justification for its apparent
recklessness; for we must all fear responsibility upon matters about
which we feel we know but little; on the other hand we must all
continually act, and for the most part promptly. We do so, therefore,
with greater security when we can persuade both ourselves and others
that a matter is already pigeon-holed than if we feel that we must use
our own judgment for the collection, interpretation, and arrangement
of the papers which deal with it. Moreover, our action is thus made to
appear as if it received collective sanction; and by so appearing it
receives it. Almost any settlement, again, is felt to be better than
none, and the more nearly a matter comes home to everyone, the more
important is it that it should be treated as a sleeping dog, and be let
to lie, for if one person begins to open his mouth, fatal developments
may arise in the Babel that will follow.

It is not difficult, indeed, to show that, instead of having reason to
complain of the desire for the postponement of important questions, as
though the world were composed mainly of knaves or fools, such fixity as
animal and vegetable forms possess is due to this very instinct. For if
there had been no reluctance, if there were no friction and vis inertae
to be encountered even after a theoretical equilibrium had been upset,
we should have had no fixed organs nor settled proclivities, but should
have been daily and hourly undergoing Protean transformations, and have
still been throwing out pseudopodia like the amoeba. True, we might have
come to like this fashion of living as well as our more steady-going
system if we had taken to it many millions of ages ago when we were
yet young; but we have contracted other habits which have become so
confirmed that we cannot break with them. We therefore now hate that
which we should perhaps have loved if we had practised [sic] it. This,
however, does not affect the argument, for our concern is with our likes
and dislikes, not with the manner in which those likes and dislikes have
come about. The discovery that organism is capable of modification
at all has occasioned so much astonishment that it has taken the most
enlightened part of the world more than a hundred years to leave off
expressing its contempt for such a crude, shallow, and preposterous
conception. Perhaps in another hundred years we shall learn to admire
the good sense, endurance, and thorough Englishness of organism in
having been so averse to change, even more than its versatility in
having been willing to change so much.

Nevertheless, however conservative we may be, and however much alive to
the folly and wickedness of tampering with settled convictions-no matter
what they are-without sufficient cause, there is yet such a constant
though gradual change in our surroundings as necessitates corresponding
modification in our ideas, desires, and actions. We may think that we
should like to find ourselves always in the same surroundings as our
ancestors, so that we might be guided at every touch and turn by
the experience of our race, and be saved from all self-communing or
interpretation of oracular responses uttered by the facts around us.
Yet the facts will change their utterances in spite of us; and we, too,
change with age and ages in spite of ourselves, so as to see the facts
around us as perhaps even more changed than they actually are. It has
been said, "Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis." The passage would
have been no less true if it had stood, "Nos mutamur et tempora mutantur
in nobis." Whether the organism or the surroundings began changing first
is a matter of such small moment that the two may be left to fight it
out between themselves; but, whichever view is taken, the fact will
remain that whenever the relations between the organism and its
surroundings have been changed, the organism must either succeed in
putting the surroundings into harmony with itself, or itself into
harmony with the surroundings; or must be made so uncomfortable as to
be unable to remember itself as subjected to any such difficulties, and
therefore to die through inability to recognise [sic] its own identity

Under these circumstances, organism must act in one or other of these
two ways: it must either change slowly and continuously with the
surroundings, paying cash for everything, meeting the smallest change
with a corresponding modification so far as is found convenient; or it
must put off change as long as possible, and then make larger and more
sweeping changes.

Both these courses are the same in principle, the difference being only
one of scale, and the one being a miniature of the other, as a ripple
is an Atlantic wave in little; both have their advantages and
disadvantages, so that most organisms will take the one course for one
set of things and the other for another. They will deal promptly
with things which they can get at easily, and which lie more upon the
surface; those, however, which are more troublesome to reach, and lie
deeper, will be handled upon more cataclysmic principles, being allowed
longer periods of repose followed by short periods of greater activity.

Animals breathe and circulate their blood by a little action many times
a minute; but they feed, some of them, only two or three times a day,
and breed for the most part not more than once a year, their breeding
season being much their busiest time. It is on the first principle that
the modification of animal forms has proceeded mainly; but it may be
questioned whether what is called a sport is not the organic expression
of discontent which has been long felt, but which has not been attended
to, nor been met step by step by as much small remedial modification as
was found practicable: so that when a change does come it comes by way
of revolution. Or, again (only that it comes to much the same thing),
a sport may be compared to one of those happy thoughts which sometimes
come to us unbidden after we have been thinking for a long time what to
do, or how to arrange our ideas, and have yet been unable to arrive at
any conclusion.

So with politics, the smaller the matter the prompter, as a general
rule, the settlement; on the other hand, the more sweeping the change
that is felt to be necessary, the longer it will be deferred.

The advantages of dealing with the larger questions by more cataclysmic
methods are obvious. For, in the first place, all composite things must
have a system, or arrangement of parts, so that some parts shall depend
upon and be grouped round others, as in the articulation of a skeleton
and the arrangement of muscles, nerves, tendons, etc., which are
attached to it. To meddle with the skeleton is like taking up the
street, or the flooring of one's house; it so upsets our arrangements
that we put it off till whatever else is found wanted, or whatever else
seems likely to be wanted for a long time hence, can be done at the same
time. Another advantage is in the rest which is given to the attention
during the long hollows, so to speak, of the waves between the periods
of resettlement. Passion and prejudice have time to calm down, and when
attention is next directed to the same question, it is a refreshed and
invigorated attention-an attention, moreover, which may be given
with the help of new lights derived from other quarters that were not
luminous when the question was last considered. Thirdly, it is more
easy and safer to make such alterations as experience has proved to be
necessary than to forecast what is going to be wanted. Reformers are
like paymasters, of whom there are only two bad kinds, those who pay too
soon, and those who do not pay at all.


I HAVE now, perhaps, sufficiently proved my sympathy with the reluctance
felt by many to tolerate discussion upon such a subject as the existence
and nature of God. I trust that I may have made the reader feel that he
need fear no sarcasm or levity in my treatment of the subject which I
have chosen. I will, therefore, proceed to sketch out a plan of what I
hope to establish, and this in no doubtful or unnatural sense, but by
attaching the same meanings to words as those which we usually attach to
them, and with the same certainty, precision, and clearness as anything
else is established which is commonly called known.

As to what God is, beyond the fact that he is the Spirit and the
Life which creates, governs, and upholds all living things, I can say
nothing. I cannot pretend that I can show more than others have done
in what Spirit and the Life consists, which governs living things and
animates them. I cannot show the connection between consciousness and
the will, and the organ, much less can I tear away the veil from the
face of God, so as to show wherein will and consciousness consist.
No philosopher, whether Christian or Rationalist, has attempted this
without discomfiture; but I can, I hope, do two things: Firstly, I can
demonstrate, perhaps more clearly than modern science is prepared to
admit, that there does exist a single Being or Animator of all living
things - a single Spirit, whom we cannot think of under any meaner name
than God; and, secondly, I can show something more of the persona or
bodily expression, mask, and mouthpiece of this vast Living Spirit than
I know of as having been familiarly expressed elsewhere, or as being
accessible to myself or others, though doubtless many works exist in
which what I am going to say has been already said.

Aware that much of this is widely accepted under the name of Pantheism,
I venture to think it differs from Pantheism with all the difference
that exists between a coherent, intelligible conception and an
incoherent unintelligible one. I shall therefore proceed to examine
the doctrine called Pantheism, and to show how incomprehensible and
valueless it is.

I will then indicate the Living and Personal God about whose existence
and about many of whose attributes there is no room for question; I will
show that man has been so far made in the likeness of this Person or
God, that He possesses all its essential characteristics, and that it is
this God who has called man and all other living forms, whether animals
or plants, into existence, so that our bodies are the temples of His
spirit; that it is this which sustains them in their life and growth,
who is one with them, living, moving, and having His being in them; in
whom, also, they live and move, they in Him and He in them; He being
not a Trinity in Unity only, but an Infinity in Unity, and a Unity in an
Infinity; eternal in time past, for so much time at least that our minds
can come no nearer to eternity than this; eternal for the future as long
as the universe shall exist; ever changing, yet the same yesterday, and
to-day, and for ever. And I will show this with so little ambiguity that
it shall be perceived not as a phantom or hallucination following upon
a painful straining of the mind and a vain endeavour [sic] to give
coherency to incoherent and inconsistent ideas, but with the same ease,
comfort, and palpable flesh-and-blood clearness with which we see those
near to us; whom, though we see them at the best as through a glass
darkly, we still see face to face, even as we are ourselves seen.

I will also show in what way this Being exercises a moral government
over the world, and rewards and punishes us according to His own laws.

Having done this I shall proceed to compare this conception of God with
those that are currently accepted, and will endeavour [sic] to show that
the ideas now current are in truth efforts to grasp the one on which
I shall here insist. Finally, I shall persuade the reader that the
differences between the so-called atheist and the so-called theist are
differences rather about words than things, inasmuch as not even the
most prosaic of modern scientists will be inclined to deny the existence
of this God, while few theists will feel that this, the natural
conception of God, is a less worthy one than that to which they have
been accustomed.


THE Rev. J. H. Blunt, in his "Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, etc.,"
defines Pantheists as "those who hold that God is everything, and
everything is God."

If it is granted that the value of words lies in the definiteness and
coherency of the ideas that present themselves to us when the words
are heard or spoken-then such a sentence as "God is everything and
everything is God" is worthless.

For we have so long associated the word "God" with the idea of a Living
Person, who can see, hear, will, feel pleasure, displeasure, etc., that
we cannot think of God, and also of something which we have not been
accustomed to think of as a Living Person, at one and the same time, so
as to connect the two ideas and fuse them into a coherent thought. While
we are thinking of the one, our minds involuntarily exclude the other,
and vice versa; so that it is as impossible for us to think of anything
as God, or as forming part of God, which we cannot also think of as a
Person, or as a part of a Person, as it is to produce a hybrid between
two widely distinct animals. If I am not mistaken, the barrenness of
inconsistent ideas, and the sterility of widely distant species or
genera of plants and animals, are one in principle-sterility of hybrids
being due to barrenness of ideas, and barrenness of ideas arising from
inability to fuse unfamiliar thoughts into a coherent conception. I have
insisted on this at some length in "Life and Habit," but can do so no
further here. (Note: Butler returned to this subject in "Luck, or
cunning?" which was originally published in 1887.}

In like manner we have so long associated the word "Person" with the
idea of a substantial visible body, limited in extent, and animated
by an invisible something which we call Spirit, that we can think of
nothing as a person which does not also bring these ideas before us. Any
attempt to make us imagine God as a Person who does not fulfil [sic] the
conditions which our ideas attach to the word "person," is ipso facto
atheistic, as rendering the word God without meaning, and therefore
without reality, and therefore non-existent to us. Our ideas are like
our organism, they will stand a vast amount of modification if it is
effected slowly and without shock, but the life departs out of them,
leaving the form of an idea without the power thereof, if they are
jarred too rudely.

Any being, then, whom we can imagine as God, must have all the
qualities, capabilities, and also all the limitations which are implied
when the word "person" is used.

But, again, we cannot conceive of "everything" as a person. "Everything"
must comprehend all that is to be found on earth, or outside of it,
and we know of no such persons as this. When we say "persons" we intend
living people with flesh and blood; sometimes we extend our conceptions
to animals and plants, but we have not hitherto done so as generally as
I hope we shall some day come to do. Below animals and plants we have
never in any seriousness gone. All that we have been able to regard as
personal has had what we can call a living body, even though that
body is vegetable only; and this body has been tangible, and has been
comprised within certain definite limits, or within limits which have at
any rate struck the eye as definite. And every part within these limits
has been animated by an unseen something which we call soul or spirit. A
person must be a persona - that is to say, the living mask and mouthpiece
of an energy saturating it, and speaking through it. It must be animate
in all its parts.

But "everything" is not animate. Animals and plants alone produce in us
those ideas which can make reasonable people call them "persons" with
consistency of intention. We can conceive of each animal and of each
plant as a person; we can conceive again of a compound person like the
coral polypes [sic], or like a tree which is composed of a congeries of
subordinate persons, inasmuch as each bud is a separate and individual
plant. We can go farther than this, and, as I shall hope to show,
we ought to do so; that is to say, we shall find it easier and more
agreeable with our other ideas to go farther than not; for we should
see all animal and vegetable life as united by a subtle and till lately
invisible ramification, so that all living things are one tree-like
growth, forming a single person. But we cannot conceive of oceans,
continents, and air as forming parts of a person at all; much less
can we think of them as forming one person with the living forms that
inhabit them.

To ask this of us is like asking us to see the bowl and the water in
which three gold-fish are swimming as part of the gold-fish. We cannot
do it any more than we can do something physically impossible. We can
see the gold-fish as forming one family, and therefore as in a way
united to the personality of the parents from which they sprang, and
therefore as members one of another, and therefore as forming a single
growth of gold-fish, as boughs and buds unite to form a tree; but we
cannot by any effort of the imagination introduce the bowl and the water
into the personality, for we have never been accustomed to think of such
things as living and personal. Those, therefore, who tell us that "God
is everything, and everything is God," require us to see "everything"
as a person, which we cannot; or God as not a person, which again we

Continuing the article of Mr. Blunt from which I have already quoted, I
read: -

"Linus, in a passage which has been preserved by Stobaeus, exactly
expresses the notion afterwards adopted by Spinoza: 'One sole energy
governs all things; all things are unity, and each portion is All; for
of one integer all things were born; in the end of time all things shall
again become unity; the unity of multiplicity.' Orpheus, his disciple,
taught no other doctrine."

According to Pythagoras, "an adept in the Orphic philosophy," "the soul
of the world is the Divine energy which interpenetrates every portion
of the mass, and the soul of man is an efflux of that energy. The world,
too, is an exact impress of the Eternal Idea, which is the mind of God."
John Scotus Erigena taught that "all is God and God is all." William
of Champeaux, again, two hundred years later, maintained that "all
individuality is one in substance, and varies only in its non-essential
accidents and transient properties." Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant
followed the theory out "into a thoroughgoing Pantheism." Amalric held
that "All is God and God is all. The Creator and the creature are one
Being. Ideas are at once creative and created, subjective and objective.
God is the end of all, and all return to Him. As every variety of
humanity forms one manhood, so the world contains individual forms
of one eternal essence." David of Dinant only varied upon this by
"imagining a corporeal unity. Although body, soul, and eternal substance
are three, these three are one and the same being."

Giordano Bruno maintained the world of sense to be "a vast animal having
the Deity for its living soul." The inanimate part of the world is
thus excluded from participation in the Deity, and a conception that
our minds can embrace is offered us instead of one which they cannot
entertain, except as in a dream, incoherently. But without such a view
of evolution as was prevalent at the beginning of this century, it was
impossible to see "the world of sense" intelligently, as forming "a vast
animal." Unless, therefore, Giordano Bruno held the opinions of Buffon,
Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, with more definiteness than I am
yet aware of his having done, his contention must be considered as a
splendid prophecy, but as little more than a prophecy. He continues,
"Birth is expansion from the one centre of Life; life is its
continuance, and death is the necessary return of the ray to the centre
of light." This begins finely, but ends mystically. I have not, however,
compared the English translation with the original, and must reserve a
fuller examination of Giordano Bruno's teaching for another opportunity.

Spinoza disbelieved in the world rather than in God. He was an Acosmist,
to use Jacobi's expression, rather than an Atheist. According to him,
"the Deity and the Universe are but one substance, at the same time
both spirit and matter, thought and extension, which are the only known
attributes of the Deity."

My readers will, I think, agree with me that there is very little of the
above which conveys ideas with the fluency and comfort which accompany
good words. Words are like servants: it is not enough that we should
have them-we must have the most able and willing that we can find, and
at the smallest wages that will content them. Having got them we must
make the best and not the worst of them. Surely, in the greater part of
what has been quoted above, the words are barren letters only: they do
not quicken within us and enable us to conceive a thought, such as we
can in our turn impress upon dead matter, and mould [sic] that matter
into another shape than its own, through the thought which has become
alive within us. No offspring of ideas has followed upon them, or, if
any at all, yet in such unwonted shape, and with such want of alacrity,
that we loathe them as malformations and miscarriages of our minds.
Granted that if we examine them closely we shall at length find them
to embody a little germ of truth-that is to say, of coherency with our
other ideas; but there is too little truth in proportion to the trouble
necessary to get at it. We can get more truth, that is to say, more
coherency-for truth and coherency are one-for less trouble in other

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