Samuel Butler.

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

. (page 6 of 23)
Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 6 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

strongly under this impression without ourselves having good reason to
differ from him.

Again, it has been often and very truly said that it is not the conscious
and self-styled sceptic, as Shelley, for example, who is the true
unbeliever. Such a man as Shelley will, as indeed his life abundantly
proves, have more in common than not with the true unselfconscious
believer. Gallio again, whose indifference to religious animosities has
won him the cheapest immortality which, so far as I can remember, was
ever yet won, was probably, if the truth were known, a person of the
sincerest piety. It is the unconscious unbeliever who is the true
infidel, however greatly he would be surprised to know the truth. Mr.
Spurgeon was reported as having asked God to remove Lord Beaconsfield
from office "_as soon as possible_." There lurks a more profound
distrust of God's power in these words than in almost any open denial of
His existence.

In like manner, the most perfect humour and irony is generally quite
unconscious. Examples of both are frequently given by men whom the world
considers as deficient in humour; it is more probably true that these
persons are unconscious of their own delightful power through the very
mastery and perfection with which they hold it. There is a play, for
instance, of genuine fun in some of the more serious scientific and
theological journals which for some time past we have looked for in vain
in " - -"

The following extract, from a journal which I will not advertise, may
serve as an example:

"Lycurgus, when they had abandoned to his revenge him who had put out his
eyes, took him home, and the punishment he inflicted upon him was
sedulous instructions to virtue." Yet this truly comic paper does not
probably know that it is comic, any more than the kleptomaniac knows that
he steals, or than John Milton knew he was a humorist when he wrote a
hymn upon the circumcision, and spent his honeymoon in composing a
treatise on divorce. No more again did Goethe know how exquisitely
humorous he was when he wrote, in his Wilhelm Meister, that a beautiful
tear glistened in Theresa's right eye, and then went on to explain that
it glistened in her right eye and not in her left, because she had had a
wart on her left which had been removed - and successfully. Goethe
probably wrote this without a chuckle; he believed what a good many
people who have never read Wilhelm Meister believe still, namely, that it
was a work full of pathos - of fine and tender feeling; yet a less
consummate humorist must have felt that there was scarcely a paragraph in
it from first to last the chief merit of which did not lie in its

But enough has perhaps been said. As the fish in the sea, or the bird in
the air, so unreasoningly and inarticulately safe must a man feel before
he can be said to know. It is only those who are ignorant and
uncultivated who can know anything at all in a proper sense of the words.
Cultivation will breed in any man a certainty of the uncertainty even of
his most assured convictions. It is perhaps fortunate for our comfort
that we can none of us be cultivated upon very many subjects, so that
considerable scope for assurance will still remain to us; but however
this may be, we certainly observe it as a fact that those are the
greatest men who are most uncertain in spite of certainty, and at the
same time most certain in spite of uncertainty, and who are thus best
able to feel that there is nothing in such complete harmony with itself
as a flat contradiction in terms. For nature hates that any principle
should breed, so to speak, hermaphroditically, but will give to each an
help meet for it which shall cross it and be the undoing of it; as in the
case of descent with modification, of which the essence is that every
offspring resembles its parents, and yet, at the same time, that no
offspring resembles its parents. But for the slightly irritating
stimulant of this perpetual crossing, we should pass our lives
unconsciously as though in slumber.

Until we have got to understand that though black is not white, yet it
may be whiter than white itself (and any painter will readily paint that
which shall show obviously as black, yet it shall be whiter than that
which shall show no less obviously as white), we may be good logicians,
but we are still poor reasoners. Knowledge is in an inchoate state as
long as it is capable of logical treatment; it must be transmuted into
that sense or instinct which rises altogether above the sphere in which
words can have being at all, otherwise it is not yet incarnate. For
sense is to knowledge what conscience is to reasoning about light and
wrong; the reasoning must be so rapid as to defy conscious reference to
first principles, and even at times to be apparently subversive of them
altogether, or the action will halt. It must become automatic before we
are safe with it. While we are fumbling for the grounds of our
conviction, our conviction is prone to fall, as Peter for lack of faith
sinking into the waves of Galilee; so that the very power to prove at all
is an _a priori_ argument against the truth - or at any rate the practical
importance to the vast majority of mankind - of all that is supported by
demonstration. For the power to prove implies a sense of the need of
proof, and things which the majority of mankind find practically
important are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred above proof. The
need of proof becomes as obsolete in the case of assured knowledge, as
the practice of fortifying towns in the middle of an old and long-settled
country. Who builds defences for that which is impregnable or little
likely to be assailed? The answer is ready, that unless the defences had
been built in former times it would be impossible to do without them now;
but this does not touch the argument, which is not that demonstration is
unwise but that as long as a demonstration is still felt necessary, and
therefore kept ready to hand, the subject of such demonstration is not
yet securely known. _Qui s'excuse_, _s'accuse_; and unless a matter can
hold its own without the brag and self-assertion of continual
demonstration, it is still more or less of a parvenu, which we shall not
lose much by neglecting till it has less occasion to blow its own
trumpet. The only alternative is that it is an error in process of
detection, for if evidence concerning any opinion has long been deemed
superfluous, and ever after this comes to be again felt necessary, we
know that the opinion is doomed.

If there is any truth in the above, it follows that our conception of the
words "science" and "scientific" must undergo some modification. Not
that we should speak slightingly of science, but that we should recognise
more than we do, that there are two distinct classes of scientific
people, corresponding not inaptly with the two main parties into which
the political world is divided. The one class is deeply versed in those
sciences which have already become the common property of mankind;
enjoying, enforcing, perpetuating, and engraining still more deeply into
the mind of man acquisitions already approved by common experience, but
somewhat careless about extension of empire, or at any rate disinclined,
for the most part, to active effort on their own part for the sake of
such extension - neither progressive, in fact, nor aggressive - but quiet,
peaceable people, who wish to live and let live, as their fathers before
them; while the other class is chiefly intent upon pushing forward the
boundaries of science, and is comparatively indifferent to what is known
already save in so far as necessary for purposes of extension. These
last are called pioneers of science, and to them alone is the title
"scientific" commonly accorded; but pioneers, important to an army as
they are, are still not the army itself, which can get on better without
the pioneers than the pioneers without the army. Surely the class which
knows thoroughly well what it knows, and which adjudicates upon the value
of the discoveries made by the pioneers - surely this class has as good a
right or better to be called scientific than the pioneers themselves.

These two classes above described blend into one another with every shade
of gradation. Some are admirably proficient in the well-known
sciences - that is to say, they have good health, good looks, good temper,
common sense, and energy, and they hold all these good things in such
perfection as to be altogether without introspection - to be not under the
law, but so entirely under grace that every one who sees them likes them.
But such may, and perhaps more commonly will, have very little
inclination to extend the boundaries of human knowledge; their aim is in
another direction altogether. Of the pioneers, on the other hand, some
are agreeable people, well versed in the older sciences, though still
more eminent as pioneers, while others, whose services in this last
capacity have been of inestimable value, are noticeably ignorant of the
sciences which have already become current with the larger part of
mankind - in other words, they are ugly, rude, and disagreeable people,
very progressive, it may be, but very aggressive to boot.

The main difference between these two classes lies in the fact that the
knowledge of the one, so far as it is new, is known consciously, while
that of the other is unconscious, consisting of sense and instinct rather
than of recognised knowledge. So long as a man has these, and of the
same kind as the more powerful body of his fellow-countrymen, he is a man
of science though he can hardly read or write. As my great namesake said
so well, "He knows what's what, and that's as high as metaphysic wit can
fly." As is usual in cases of great proficiency, these true and thorough
knowers do not know that they are scientific, and can seldom give a
reason for the faith that is in them. They believe themselves to be
ignorant, uncultured men, nor can even the professors whom they sometimes
outwit in their own professorial domain perceive that they have been
outwitted by men of superior scientific attainments to their own. The
following passage from Dr. Carpenter's "Mesmerism, Spiritualism," &c.,
may serve as an illustration: -

"It is well known that persons who are conversant with the geological
structure of a district are often able to indicate with considerable
certainty in what spot and at what depth water will be found; and men _of
less scientific knowledge_, _but of considerable practical
experience_" - (so that in Dr. Carpenter's mind there seems to be some
sort of contrast or difference in kind between the knowledge which is
derived from observation of facts and scientific knowledge) - "frequently
arrive at a true conclusion upon this point without being able to assign
reasons for their opinions."

"Exactly the same may be said in regard to the mineral structure of a
mining district; the course of a metallic vein being often correctly
indicated by the shrewd guess of an _observant_ workman, when _the
scientific reasoning_ of the mining engineer altogether fails."

Precisely. Here we have exactly the kind of thing we are in search of:
the man who has observed and observed till the facts are so thoroughly in
his head that through familiarity he has lost sight both of them and of
the processes whereby he deduced his conclusions from them - is apparently
not considered scientific, though he knows how to solve the problem
before him; the mining engineer, on the other hand, who reasons
scientifically - that is to say, with a knowledge of his own knowledge - is
found not to know, and to fail in discovering the mineral.

"It is an experience we are continually encountering in other walks of
life," continues Dr. Carpenter, "that particular persons are guided - some
apparently by an original and others by _an acquired intuition_ - to
conclusions for which they can give no adequate reason, but which
subsequent events prove to have been correct." And this, I take it,
implies what I have been above insisting on, namely, that on becoming
intense, knowledge seems also to become unaware of the grounds on which
it rests, or that it has or requires grounds at all, or indeed even
exists. The only issue between myself and Dr. Carpenter would appear to
be that Dr. Carpenter, himself an acknowledged leader in the scientific
world, restricts the term "scientific" to the people who know that they
know, but are beaten by those who are not so conscious of their own
knowledge; while I say that the term "scientific" should be applied (only
that they would not like it) to the nice sensible people who know what's
what rather than to the professorial classes.

And this is easily understood when we remember that the pioneer cannot
hope to acquire any of the new sciences in a single lifetime so perfectly
as to become unaware of his own knowledge. As a general rule, we observe
him to be still in a state of active consciousness concerning whatever
particular science he is extending, and as long as he is in this state he
cannot know utterly. It is, as I have already so often insisted, those
who do not know that they know so much who have the firmest grip of their
knowledge: the best class, for example, of our English youth, who live
much in the open air, and, as Lord Beaconsfield finely said, never read.
These are the people who know best those things which are best worth
knowing - that is to say, they are the most truly scientific.

Unfortunately, the apparatus necessary for this kind of science is so
costly as to be within the reach of few, involving, as it does, an
experience in the use of it for some preceding generations. Even those
who are born with the means within their reach must take no less pains,
and exercise no less self-control, before they can attain the perfect
unconscious use of them, than would go to the making of a James Watt or a
Stephenson; it is vain, therefore, to hope that this best kind of science
can ever be put within the reach of the many; nevertheless it may be
safely said that all the other and more generally recognised kinds of
science are valueless except in so far as they minister to this the
highest kind. They have no _raison d'etre_ unless they tend to do away
with the necessity for work, and to diffuse good health, and that good
sense which is above self-consciousness. They are to be encouraged
because they have rendered the most fortunate kind of modern European
possible, and because they tend to make possible a still more fortunate
kind than any now existing. But the man who devotes himself to science
cannot - with the rarest, if any, exceptions - belong to this most
fortunate class himself. He occupies a lower place, both scientifically
and morally, for it is not possible but that his drudgery should somewhat
soil him both in mind and health of body, or, if this be denied, surely
it must let him and hinder him in running the race for unconsciousness.
We do not feel that it increases the glory of a king or great nobleman
that he should excel in what is commonly called science. Certainly he
should not go further than Prince Rupert's drops. Nor should he excel in
music, art, literature, or theology - all which things are more or less
parts of science. He should be above them all, save in so far as he can
without effort reap renown from the labours of others. It is a _lache_
in him that he should write music or books, or paint pictures at all; but
if he must do so, his work should be at best contemptible. Much as we
must condemn Marcus Aurelius, we condemn James I. even more severely.

It is a pity there should exist so general a confusion of thought upon
this subject, for it may be asserted without fear of contradiction that
there is hardly any form of immorality now rife which produces more
disastrous effects upon those who give themselves up to it, and upon
society in general, than the so-called science of those who know that
they know too well to be able to know truly. With very clever people - the
people who know that they know - it is much as with the members of the
early Corinthian Church, to whom St. Paul wrote, that if they looked
their numbers over, they would not find many wise, nor powerful, nor well-
born people among them. Dog-fanciers tell us that performing dogs never
carry their tails; such dogs have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and are
convinced of sin accordingly - they know that they know things, in respect
of which, therefore, they are no longer under grace, but under the law,
and they have yet so much grace left as to be ashamed. So with the human
clever dog; he may speak with the tongues of men and angels, but so long
as he knows that he knows, his tail will droop.

More especially does this hold in the case of those who are born to
wealth and of old family. We must all feel that a rich young nobleman
with a taste for science and principles is rarely a pleasant object. We
do not understand the rich young man in the Bible who wanted to inherit
eternal life, unless, indeed, he merely wanted to know whether there was
not some way by which he could avoid dying, and even so he is hardly
worth considering. Principles are like logic, which never yet made a
good reasoner of a bad one, but might still be occasionally useful if
they did not invariably contradict each other whenever there is any
temptation to appeal to them. They are like fire, good servants but bad
masters. As many people or more have been wrecked on principle as from
want of principle. They are, as their name implies, of an elementary
character, suitable for beginners only, and he who has so little mastered
them as to have occasion to refer to them consciously, is out of place in
the society of well-educated people. The truly scientific invariably
hate him, and, for the most part, the more profoundly in proportion to
the unconsciousness with which they do so.

If the reader hesitates, let him go down into the streets and look in the
shop-windows at the photographs of eminent men, whether literary,
artistic, or scientific, and note the work which the consciousness of
knowledge has wrought on nine out of every ten of them; then let him go
to the masterpieces of Greek and Italian art, the truest preachers of the
truest gospel of grace; let him look at the Venus of Milo, the
Discobolus, the St. George of Donatello. If it had pleased these people
to wish to study, there was no lack of brains to do it with; but imagine
"what a deal of scorn" would "look beautiful in the contempt and anger"
of the Venus of Milo's lip if it were suggested to her that she should
learn to read. Which, think you, knows most, the Theseus, or any modern
professor taken at random? True, learning must have a great share in the
advancement of beauty, inasmuch as beauty is but knowledge perfected and
incarnate - but with the pioneers it is _sic vos non vobis_; the grace is
not for them, but for those who come after. Science is like offences. It
must needs come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes; for there
cannot be much beauty where there is consciousness of knowledge, and
while knowledge is still new it must in the nature of things involve much

It is not knowledge, then, that is incompatible with beauty; there cannot
be too much knowledge, but it must have passed through many people who it
is to be feared must be both ugly and disagreeable, before beauty or
grace will have anything to say to it; it must be so diffused throughout
a man's whole being that he shall not be aware of it, or he will bear
himself under it constrainedly as one under the law, and not as one under

And grace is best, for where grace is, love is not distant. Grace! the
old Pagan ideal whose charm even unlovely Paul could not withstand, but,
as the legend tells us, his soul fainted within him, his heart misgave
him, and, standing alone on the seashore at dusk, he "troubled deaf
heaven with his bootless cries," his thin voice pleading for grace after
the flesh.

The waves came in one after another, the sea-gulls cried together after
their kind, the wind rustled among the dried canes upon the sandbanks,
and there came a voice from heaven saying, "Let My grace be sufficient
for thee." Whereon, failing of the thing itself, he stole the word and
strove to crush its meaning to the measure of his own limitations. But
the true grace, with her groves and high places, and troops of young men
and maidens crowned with flowers, and singing of love and youth and
wine - the true grace he drove out into the wilderness - high up, it may
be, into Piora, and into such-like places. Happy they who harboured her
in her ill report.

It is common to hear men wonder what new faith will be adopted by mankind
if disbelief in the Christian religion should become general. They seem
to expect that some new theological or quasi-theological system will
arise, which, _mutatis mutandis_, shall be Christianity over again. It
is a frequent reproach against those who maintain that the supernatural
element of Christianity is without foundation, that they bring forward no
such system of their own. They pull down but cannot build. We sometimes
hear even those who have come to the same conclusions as the destroyers
say, that having nothing new to set up, they will not attack the old. But
how can people set up a new superstition, knowing it to be a
superstition? Without faith in their own platform, a faith as intense as
that manifested by the early Christians, how can they preach? A new
superstition will come, but it is in the very essence of things that its
apostles should have no suspicion of its real nature; that they should no
more recognise the common element between the new and the old than the
early Christians recognised it between their faith and Paganism. If they
did, they would be paralysed. Others say that the new fabric may be seen
rising on every side, and that the coming religion is science. Certainly
its apostles preach it without misgiving, but it is not on that account
less possible that it may prove only to be the coming superstition - like
Christianity, true to its true votaries, and, like Christianity, false to
those who follow it introspectively.

It may well be we shall find we have escaped from one set of taskmasters
to fall into the hands of others far more ruthless. The tyranny of the
Church is light in comparison with that which future generations may have
to undergo at the hands of the doctrinaires. The Church did uphold a
grace of some sort as the _summum bonum_, in comparison with which all so-
called earthly knowledge - knowledge, that is to say, which had not passed
through so many people as to have become living and incarnate - was
unimportant. Do what we may, we are still drawn to the unspoken teaching
of her less introspective ages with a force which no falsehood could
command. Her buildings, her music, her architecture, touch us as none
other on the whole can do; when she speaks there are many of us who think
that she denies the deeper truths of her own profounder mind, and
unfortunately her tendency is now towards more rather than less
introspection. The more she gives way to this - the more she becomes
conscious of knowing - the less she will know. But still her ideal is in

The so-called man of science, on the other hand, seems now generally
inclined to make light of all knowledge, save of the pioneer character.
His ideal is in self-conscious knowledge. Let us have no more Lo, here,
with the professor; he very rarely knows what he says he knows; no sooner
has he misled the world for a sufficient time with a great flourish of
trumpets than he is toppled over by one more plausible than himself. He
is but medicine-man, augur, priest, in its latest development; useful it
may be, but requiring to be well watched by those who value freedom. Wait
till he has become more powerful, and note the vagaries which his conceit
of knowledge will indulge in. The Church did not persecute while she was
still weak. Of course every system has had, and will have, its heroes,
but, as we all very well know, the heroism of the hero is but remotely
due to system; it is due not to arguments, nor reasoning, nor to any
consciously recognised perceptions, but to those deeper sciences which
lie far beyond the reach of self-analysis, and for the study of which
there is but one schooling - to have had good forefathers for many

Above all things let no unwary reader do me the injustice of believing in
_me_. In that I write at all I am among the damned. If he must believe

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 6 of 23)