Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 5 of 23)
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unburied for three days and a half we were to come to life again; and
finally, that we should conspicuously ascend to heaven, in front,
perhaps, of the Foundling Hospital.

She was not herself indeed to share either our martyrdom or our
glorification, but was to survive us many years on earth, living in an
odour of great sanctity and reflected splendour, as the central and most
august figure in a select society. She would perhaps be able indirectly,
through her sons' influence with the Almighty, to have a voice in most of
the arrangements both of this world and of the next. If all this were to
come true (and things seemed very like it), those friends who had
neglected us in our adversity would not find it too easy to be restored
to favour, however greatly they might desire it - that is to say, they
would not have found it too easy in the case of one less magnanimous and
spiritually-minded than herself. My mother said but little of the above
directly, but the fragments which occasionally escaped her were pregnant,
and on looking back it is easy to perceive that she must have been
building one of the most stupendous aerial fabrics that have ever been

I have given the above in its more amusing aspect, and am half afraid
that I may appear to be making a jest of weakness on the part of one of
the most devotedly unselfish mothers who have ever existed. But one can
love while smiling, and the very wildness of my mother's dream serves to
show how entirely her whole soul was occupied with the things which are
above. To her, religion was all in all; the earth was but a place of
pilgrimage - only so far important as it was a possible road to heaven.
She impressed this upon both of us by every word and action - instant in
season and out of season, so that she might but fill us more deeply with
a sense of the things belonging to our peace.

But the inevitable consequences happened; my mother had aimed too high
and had overshot her mark. The influence indeed of her guileless and
unworldly nature remained impressed upon my brother even during the time
of his extremest unbelief (perhaps his ultimate safety is in the main
referable to this cause, and to the happy memories of my father, which
had predisposed him to love God), but my mother had insisted on the most
minute verbal accuracy of every part of the Bible; she had also dwelt
upon the duty of independent research, and on the necessity of giving up
everything rather than assent to things which our conscience did not
assent to. No one could have more effectually taught us to try _to
think_ the truth, and we had taken her at her word because our hearts
told us that she was right. But she required three incompatible things.
When my brother grew older he came to feel that independent and
unflinching examination, with a determination to abide by the results,
would lead him to reject the point which to my mother was more important
than any other - I mean the absolute accuracy of the Gospel records. My
mother was inexpressibly shocked at hearing my brother doubt the
authenticity of the Epistle to the Hebrews; and then, as it appeared to
him, she tried to make him violate the duties of examination and candour
which he had learnt too thoroughly to unlearn. Thereon came pain and an
estrangement which was none the less profound for being mutually
concealed. It seemed to my mother that he would not give up the
wilfulness of his own opinions for her and for his Redeemer's sake. To
him it seemed that he was ready to give up not only his mother but Christ
Himself for Christ's sake.

This estrangement was the gradual work of some five or six years, during
which my brother was between eleven and seventeen years old. At
seventeen, I am told that he was remarkably well informed and clever. His
manners were, like my father's, singularly genial, and his appearance
very prepossessing. He had as yet no doubt concerning the soundness of
any fundamental Christian doctrine, but his mind was already too active
to allow of his being contented with my mother's childlike faith. There
were points on which he did not indeed doubt, but which it would none the
less be interesting to consider; such for example as the perfectibility
of the regenerate Christian, and the meaning of the mysterious central
chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. He was engaged in these
researches though still only a boy, when an event occurred which gave the
first real shock to his faith.

He was accustomed to teach in a school for the poorest children every
Sunday afternoon, a task for which his patience and good temper well
fitted him. On one occasion, however, while he was explaining the effect
of baptism to one of his favourite pupils, he discovered to his great
surprise that the boy had never been baptized. He pushed his inquiries
further, and found that out of the fifteen boys in his class only five
had been baptized, and, not only so, but that no difference in
disposition or conduct could be discovered between the regenerate boys
and the unregenerate. The good and bad boys were distributed in
proportions equal to the respective numbers of the baptized and
unbaptized. In spite of a certain impetuosity of natural character, he
was also of a matter-of-fact and experimental turn of mind; he therefore
went through the whole school, which numbered about a hundred boys, and
found out who had been baptized and who had not. The same results
appeared. The majority had not been baptized; yet the good and bad
dispositions were so distributed as to preclude all possibility of
maintaining that the baptized boys were better than the unbaptized.

The reader may smile at the idea of any one's faith being troubled by a
fact of which the explanation is so obvious, but as a matter of fact my
brother was seriously and painfully shocked. The teacher to whom he
applied for a solution of the difficulty was not a man of any real power,
and reported my brother to the rector for having disturbed the school by
his inquiries. The rector was old and self-opinionated; the difficulty,
indeed, was plainly as new to him as it had been to my brother, but
instead of saying so at once, and referring to any recognised theological
authority, he tried to put him off with words which seemed intended to
silence him rather than to satisfy him; finally he lost his temper, and
my brother fell under suspicion of unorthodoxy.

This kind of treatment did not answer with my brother. He alludes to it
resentfully in the introductory chapter of his book. He became
suspicious that a preconceived opinion was being defended at the expense
of honest scrutiny, and was thus driven upon his own unaided
investigation. The result may be guessed: he began to go astray, and
strayed further and further. The children of God, he reasoned, the
members of Christ and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, were no more
spiritually minded than the children of the world and the devil. Was
then the grace of God a gift which left no trace whatever upon those who
were possessed of it? A thing the presence or absence of which might be
ascertained by consulting the parish registry, but was not discernible in
conduct? The grace of man was more clearly perceptible than this.
Assuredly there must be a screw loose somewhere, which, for aught he
knew, might be jeopardising the salvation of all Christendom. Where then
was this loose screw to be found?

He concluded after some months of reflection that the mischief was caused
by the system of sponsors and by infant baptism. He, therefore, to my
mother's inexpressible grief, joined the Baptists, and was immersed in a
pond near Dorking. With the Baptists he remained quiet about three
months, and then began to quarrel with his instructors as to their
doctrine of predestination. Shortly afterwards he came accidentally upon
a fascinating stranger who was no less struck with my brother than my
brother with him, and this gentleman, who turned out to be a Roman
Catholic missionary, landed him in the Church of Rome, where he felt sure
that he had now found rest for his soul. But here, too, he was mistaken;
after about two years he rebelled against the stifling of all free
inquiry; on this rebellion the flood-gates of scepticism were opened, and
he was soon battling with unbelief. He then fell in with one who was a
pure Deist, and was shorn of every shred of dogma which he had ever held,
except a belief in the personality and providence of the Creator.

On reviewing his letters written to me about this time, I am painfully
struck with the manner in which they show that all these pitiable
vagaries were to be traced to a single cause - a cause which still exists
to the misleading of hundreds of thousands, and which, I fear, seems
likely to continue in full force for many a year to come - I mean, to a
false system of training which teaches people to regard Christianity as a
thing one and indivisible, to be accepted entirely in the strictest
reading of the letter, or to be rejected as absolutely untrue. The fact
is, that all permanent truth is as one of those coal measures, a seam of
which lies near the surface, and even crops up above the ground, but
which is generally of an inferior quality and soon worked out; beneath it
there comes a labour of sand and clay, and then at last the true seam of
precious quality, and in virtually inexhaustible supply. The truth which
is on the surface is rarely the whole truth. It is seldom until this has
been worked out and done with - as in the case of the apparent flatness of
the earth - that unchangeable truth is discovered. It is the glory of the
Lord to conceal a matter: it is the glory of the king to find it out. If
my brother, from whom I have taken the above illustration, had had some
judicious and wide-minded friend, to correct and supplement the mainly
admirable principles which had been instilled into him by my mother, he
would have been saved years of spiritual wandering; but, as it was, he
fell in with one after another, each in his own way as literal and
unspiritual as the other - each impressed with one aspect of religious
truth, and with one only. In the end he became perhaps the widest-minded
and most original thinker whom I have ever met; but no one from his early
manhood could have augured this result; on the contrary, he showed every
sign of being likely to develop into one of those who can never see more
than one side of a question at a time, in spite of their seeing that side
with singular clearness of mental vision. In after life, he often met
with mere lads who seemed to him to be years and years in advance of what
he had been at their age, and would say, smiling, "With a great sum
obtained I this freedom; but thou wast free-born."

Yet when one comes to think of it, a late development and laborious
growth are generally more fruitful than those which are over early
luxuriant. Drawing an illustration from the art of painting, with which
he was well acquainted, my brother used to say that all the greatest
painters had begun with a hard and precise manner, from which they had
only broken after several years of effort; and that in like manner all
the early schools were founded upon definiteness of outline to the
exclusion of truth of effect. This may be true; but in my brother's case
there was something even more unpromising than this; there was a
commonness, so to speak, of mental execution, from which no one could
have foreseen his after-emancipation. Yet in the course of time he was
indeed emancipated to the very uttermost, while his bonds will, I firmly
trust, be found to have been of inestimable service to the whole human

For although it was so many years before he was enabled to see the
Christian scheme _as a whole_, or even to conceive the idea that there
was any whole at all, other than each one of the stages of opinion
through which he was at the time passing; yet when the idea was at length
presented to him by one whom I must not name, the discarded fragments of
his faith assumed shape, and formed themselves into a consistently
organised scheme. Then became apparent the value of his knowledge of the
details of so many different sides of Christian verity. Buried in the
details, he had hitherto ignored the fact that they were only the
unessential developments of certain component parts. Awakening to the
perception of the whole after an intimate acquaintance with the details,
he was able to realise the position and meaning of all that he had
hitherto experienced in a way which has been vouchsafed to few, if any
others. Thus he became truly a broad Churchman. Not broad in the
ordinary and ill-considered use of the term (for the broad Churchman is
as little able to sympathise with Romanists, extreme High Churchmen and
Dissenters, as these are with himself - he is only one of a sect which is
called by the name of broad, though it is no broader than its own base),
but in the true sense of being able to believe in the naturalness,
legitimacy, and truth _qua_ Christianity even of those doctrines which
seem to stand most widely and irreconcilably asunder.



It will be our business in the following chapters to consider whether the
unconsciousness, or quasi-unconsciousness, with which we perform certain
acquired actions, throws any light upon Embryology and inherited
instincts, and otherwise to follow the train of thought which the class
of actions above mentioned may suggest. More especially I propose to
consider them in so far as they bear upon the origin of species and the
continuation of life by successive generations, whether in the animal or
vegetable kingdoms.

Taking then, the art of playing the piano as an example of the kind of
action we are in search of, we observe that a practised player will
perform very difficult pieces apparently without effort, often, indeed,
while thinking and talking of something quite other than his music; yet
he will play accurately and, possibly, with much expression. If he has
been playing a fugue, say in four parts, he will have kept each part well
distinct, in such a manner as to prove that his mind was not prevented,
by its other occupations, from consciously or unconsciously following
four distinct trains of musical thought at the same time, nor from making
his fingers act in exactly the required manner as regards each note of
each part.

It commonly happens that in the course of four or five minutes a player
may have struck four or five thousand notes. If we take into
consideration the rests, dotted notes, accidentals, variations of time,
&c., we shall find his attention must have been exercised on many more
occasions than when he was actually striking notes: so that it may not be
too much to say that the attention of a first-rate player has been
exercised - to an infinitesimally small extent - but still truly
exercised - on as many as ten thousand occasions within the space of five
minutes, for no note can be struck nor point attended to without a
certain amount of attention, no matter how rapidly or unconsciously

Moreover, each act of attention has been followed by an act of volition,
and each act of volition by a muscular action, which is composed of many
minor actions; some so small that we can no more follow them than the
player himself can perceive them; nevertheless, it may have been
perfectly plain that the player was not attending to what he was doing,
but was listening to conversation on some other subject, not to say
joining in it himself. If he has been playing the violin, he may have
done all the above, and may also have been walking about. Herr Joachim
would unquestionably be able to do all that has here been described.

So complete may be the player's unconsciousness of the attention he is
giving, and the brain power he is exerting, that we may find it difficult
to awaken his attention to any particular part of his performance without
putting him out. Indeed we cannot do so. We observe that he finds it
hardly less difficult to compass a voluntary consciousness of what he has
once learnt so thoroughly that it has passed, so to speak, into the
domain of unconsciousness, than he found it to learn the note or passage
in the first instance. The effort after a second consciousness of detail
baffles him - compels him to turn to his music or play slowly. In fact it
seems as though he knows the piece too well to be able to know that he
knows it, and is only conscious of knowing those passages which he does
not know so thoroughly.

At the end of his performance, his power of recollecting appears to be no
less annihilated than was his consciousness of attention and volition.
For of the thousands of acts requiring the exercise of both the one and
the other, which he has done during the five minutes, we will say, of his
performance, he will remember hardly one when it is over. If he calls to
mind anything beyond the main fact that he has played such and such a
piece, it will probably be some passage which he has found more difficult
than the others, and with the like of which he has not been so long
familiar. All the rest he will forget as completely as the breath which
he has drawn while playing.

He finds it difficult to remember even the difficulties he experienced in
learning to play. A few may have so impressed him that they remain with
him, but the greater part will have escaped him as completely as the
remembrance of what he ate, or how he put on his clothes, this day ten
years ago; nevertheless, it is plain he does in reality remember more
than he remembers remembering, for he avoids mistakes which he made at
one time, and his performance proves that all the notes are in his
memory, though if called upon to play such and such a bar at random from
the middle of the piece, and neither more nor less, he will probably say
that he cannot remember it unless he begins from the beginning of the
phrase which leads to it.

In spite, however, of the performer's present proficiency, our experience
of the manner in which proficiency is usually acquired warrants us in
assuming that there must have been a time when what is now so easy as to
be done without conscious effort of the brain was only done by means of
brain work which was very keenly perceived, even to fatigue and positive
distress. Even now, if the player is playing something the like of which
he has not met before, we observe he pauses and becomes immediately
conscious of attention.

We draw the inference, therefore, as regards pianoforte or violin
playing, that the more the familiarity or knowledge of the art, the less
is there consciousness of such knowledge; even so far as that there
should be almost as much difficulty in awakening consciousness which has
become, so to speak, latent, - a consciousness of that which is known too
well to admit of recognised self-analysis while the knowledge is being
exercised - as in creating a consciousness of that which is not yet well
enough known to be properly designated as known at all. On the other
hand, we observe that the less the familiarity or knowledge, the greater
the consciousness of whatever knowledge there is.

* * * * *

To sum up, then, briefly. It would appear as though perfect knowledge
and perfect ignorance were extremes which meet and become
indistinguishable from one another; so also perfect volition and perfect
absence of volition, perfect memory and perfect forgetfulness; for we are
unconscious of knowing, willing, or remembering, either from not yet
having known or willed, or from knowing and willing so well and so
intensely as to be no longer conscious of either. Conscious knowledge
and volition are of attention; attention is of suspense; suspense is of
doubt; doubt is of uncertainty; uncertainty is of ignorance; so that the
mere fact of conscious knowing or willing implies the presence of more or
less novelty and doubt.

It would also appear as a general principle on a superficial view of the
foregoing instances (and the reader may readily supply himself with
others which are perhaps more to the purpose), that unconscious knowledge
and unconscious volition are never acquired otherwise than as the result
of experience, familiarity, or habit; so that whenever we observe a
person able to do any complicated action unconsciously, we may assume
both that he must have done it very often before he could acquire so
great proficiency, and also that there must have been a time when he did
not know how to do it at all.

We may assume that there was a time when he was yet so nearly on the
point of neither knowing nor willing perfectly, that he was quite alive
to whatever knowledge or volition he could exert; going further back, we
shall find him still more keenly alive to a less perfect knowledge;
earlier still, we find him well aware that he does not know nor will
correctly, but trying hard to do both the one and the other; and so on,
back and back, till both difficulty and consciousness become little more
than "a sound of going," as it were, in the brain, a flitting to and fro
of something barely recognisable as the desire to will or know at
all - much less as the desire to know or will definitely this or that.
Finally they retreat beyond our ken into the repose - the inorganic
kingdom - of as yet unawakened interest.

In either case - the repose of perfect ignorance or of perfect
knowledge - disturbance is troublesome. When first starting on an
Atlantic steamer, our rest is hindered by the screw; after a short time,
it is hindered if the screw stops. A uniform impression is practically
no impression. One cannot either learn or unlearn without pains or pain.


Certain it is that we know best what we are least conscious of knowing,
or at any rate least able to prove; as, for example, our own existence,
or that there is a country England. If any one asks us for proof on
matters of this sort, we have none ready, and are justly annoyed at being
called to consider what we regard as settled questions. Again, there is
hardly anything which so much affects our actions as the centre of the
earth (unless, perhaps, it be that still hotter and more unprofitable
spot the centre of the universe), for we are incessantly trying to get as
near it as circumstances will allow, or to avoid getting nearer than is
for the time being convenient. Walking, running, standing, sitting,
lying, waking, or sleeping, from birth till death it is a paramount
object with us; even after death - if it be not fanciful to say so - it is
one of the few things of which what is left of us can still feel the
influence; yet what can engross less of our attention than this dark and
distant spot so many thousands of miles away?

The air we breathe, so long as it is neither too hot nor cold, nor rough,
nor full of smoke - that is to say, so long as it is in that state with
which we are best acquainted - seldom enters into our thoughts; yet there
is hardly anything with which we are more incessantly occupied night and

Indeed, it is not too much to say that we have no really profound
knowledge upon any subject - no knowledge on the strength of which we are
ready to act at moments unhesitatingly without either preparation or
after-thought - till we have left off feeling conscious of the possession
of such knowledge, and of the grounds on which it rests. A lesson
thoroughly learned must be like the air which feels so light, though
pressing so heavily against us, because every pore of our skin is
saturated, so to speak, with it on all sides equally. This perfection of
knowledge sometimes extends to positive disbelief in the thing known, so
that the most thorough knower shall believe himself altogether ignorant.
No thief, for example, is such an utter thief - so _good_ a thief - as the
kleptomaniac. Until he has become a kleptomaniac, and can steal a horse
as it were by a reflex action, he is still but half a thief, with many
unthievish notions still clinging to him. Yet the kleptomaniac is
probably unaware that he can steal at all, much less that he can steal so
well. He would be shocked if he were to know the truth. So again, no
man is a great hypocrite until he has left off knowing that he is a
hypocrite. The great hypocrites of the world are almost invariably under
the impression that they are among the very few really honest people to
be found; and, as we must all have observed, it is rare to find any one

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 5 of 23)