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He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at
the first ; that she had seen many seas and climes, and
often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested
to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These
doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy ;
he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly
overhauled and refitted, ev r en though this should put
him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however,
he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflec-
tions. He said to himself that she had gone safely
through so many voyages and weathered so many
storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come
safely home from this trip also. He would put his
trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect
all these unhappy families that were leaving their
fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He
would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions
about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such
ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction
that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy ; he
watched her departure with a light heart, and benevo-
lent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange



VOL. II.



Contemporary Review, January, 1877.
N



178 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

new home that was to be ; and he got his insurance-
money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no
tales.

What shall we say of him ? Surely this, that he
was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is
admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness
of his ship ; but the sincerity of his conviction can in
no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on
such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his
belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation,
but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he
may have felt so sure about it that he could not think
otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and will-
ingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must
be held responsible for it.

Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the
ship was not unsound after all ; that she made her voy-
age safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish
the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action
is once done, it is right or wrong for ever ; no accidental
failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.
The man would not have been innocent, he would only
have been not found out. The question of right or
wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the
matter of it ; not what it was, but how he got it ; not
whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether
he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before
him.

There was once an island in which some of the
inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither the
doctrine of original sin nor that of eternal punishment.
A suspicion got abroad that the professors of this



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 179

religion had made use of unfair means to get their
doctrines taught to children. They were accused of
wresting the law o their country in such a way as to
remove children from the care of their natural and
legal guardians ; and even of stealing them away and
keeping them concealed from their friends and relations.
A certain number of~lhen formed themselves into a
society for the purpose of agitating the public about
this matter. They published grave accusations against
individual citizens of the highest position and character,
and did all in their power to injure these citizens in the
exercise of their professions. So great was the noise
they made, that a Commission was appointed to investi-
gate the facts ; but after the Commission had carefully
inquired into all the evidence that could be got, it
appeared that the accused were innocent. Not only
had they been accused on insufficient evidence, but the
evidence of their innocence was such as the agitators
might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a
fair inquiry. After these disclosures the inhabitants of
that country looked upon the members of the agitating
society, not only as persons whose judgment was to be
distrusted, but also as no longer to be counted honour-
able men. For although they had sincerely and con-
scientiously believed in the charges they had made,
yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was
before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being
honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by
"i sterling to the voice of prejudice and passion.

Let us vary this case also, and suppose, other things
remaining as before, that a still more accurate investi-
gation proved the accused to have been really guilty.



380 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

Would this make any difference in the guilt of the
accusers ? Clearly not ; the question is not whether^
their belief was true or false, but whether they enter-
tained it on wrong grounds. They would no doubt
say, ' Now you see that we were right after all ; next
time perhaps }^ou will believe us.' And they might
be believed, but they would not thereby become
honourable men. They would not be innocent, they
would only be not found out. Every one of them, if
he chose to examine himself in foro cohscientice* would
know that he had acquired and nourished a belief,
when he had no right to believe on such evidence as
was before him ; and therein he would know that he
had done a wrong thing.

It may be said, however, that in both of these
supposed cases it is not the belief which is judged
to be wrong, but the action following upon it. The
shipowner might say, 4 1 am perfectly certain that my
ship is sound, but still I feel it my duty to have her
examined, before trusting the lives of so many people
to her.' And it might be said to the agitator,
' However convinced you were of the justice of your
cause and the truth of your convictions, you ought
not to have made a public attack upon any man's
character until you had examined the evidence on both
sides with the utmost patience and care.'

In the first place, let us admit that, so far as it
goes, this view of the case is right and necessary ; right,
because even when a man's belief is so fixed that he
cannot think otherwise, he still has a choice in regard
to the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the
duty of investigating on the ground of the strength



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 181

of his convictions ; and necessary, because those who
are not yet capable of controlling their feelings and
thoughts must have a plain rule dealing with overt
acts.

But this being premised as necessary, it becomes
clear that it is not sufficient, and that our previous
judgment is required to supplement it. For it is not
possible so to sever the belief from the action it
suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the
other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a
question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side,
can investigate it with such fairness and completeness
as if he were really in doubt and unbiassed ; so that
the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry
unfits a man for the performance of this necessary
duty.

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some
influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He
who truly beli eves that which prompts him to an action
has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has
committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not
realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for
the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part,
of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between
sensation and action at every moment of all our lives,
and which is so organized and compacted together that
no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every
new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No
real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may
seem, is ever truly insignificant ; it prepares us to
receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled
it before, and weakens others ; and so gradually it lays



182 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may
some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp
upon our character for ever.

And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter j
which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by
that general conception of the course of things which
has been created by society for social purposes. Our
words 1 _our j)hras_es, our forms and processes and modes
of thought, are common property, fashioned and per-
fected from age to age ; an heirloom which every suc-
ceeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a
sacred trust to be handed on to the next one, not un-
changed but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks
of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is
woven every belief of every man who has speech of his
fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility ,(
that we should help to create the world in whicl^l
posterity will live.

/.In the two supposed cases which have been con-
sidered, it has been judged wrong to believe on
insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing
doubts and avoiding investigation.^. The reason of this
judgment is not far to seek : it is that in both these
cases the belief held by one man was of great im-
portance to other men. But forasmuch as no belief
held by one man, however seemingly trivial the
belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever
actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of
mankind, we have no choice but to extend our judgment
to all cases of belief wh ate ver.jf Belief, that sacred
faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and
knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 183

of our being, is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.
It is rightly used on truths which have been established
by long experience and waiting toil, and which have
stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning.
Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen
and direct their common action. It is desecrated
given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the
solace and private pleasure of the believer ; to add a
tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life
and display a bright mirage beyond it ; or even to
drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-
deception which allows them not only to cast down, but
also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his
fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his
belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any
time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a
stain which can never be wiped away.

It is not only the leader of men, statesman, philo-
sopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to man-
kind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse III
his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep W
alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every
hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her
children beliefs which shall knit society together, or
rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of
station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all
that we believe.

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt
which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It
leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we
were safe and strong. To know all about anything is /
to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. \



184 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

We feel much happier and more secure when we think
we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens,
than when we have lost our way and do not know where
to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves to know
all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is
fit in regard to it, we naturally do not like to find that
we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to
begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the
thing is and how it is to be dealt with if indeed any-
thing can be learnt about it. It is the sense of power |
attached to a sense of knowledge that makes menj
desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.

This sense of power is the highest and best of
pleasures when the belief on which it is founded is a
true belief, and has been fairly earned by investigation.
For then we may justly feel that it is common property,
and holds good for others as well as for ourselves. Then
we may be glad, not that / have learned secrets by
which I am safer and stronger, but that we men have
got mastery over more of the world ; and we shall be
strong, not for ourselves, but in the name of Man and
in his strength. But if the belief has been accepted or/
insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. '"Not
only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of
power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful,
because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind,]
That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as
from a pestilence, which may shortly master our own
body and then spread to the rest of the town. What
would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet
fruit, should deliberately run the risk of bringing a
plague upon his family and his neighbours ?



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. ((&?}

And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only
which has to be considered ; for a bad action is always
bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens
afterwards. Every time we let ourselves believe for >
unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control,
of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. ,
We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and
support of false beliefs and the fataUy wrong actions
which they lead to, and the evil born when one such
belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater
and wider evil arises when the credulous character is
maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for
unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent. If
I steal money from any person, there may be no harm
done by the mere transfer of possession ; he may not
feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the
money badly. But I cannot help doing this great
wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest.
What hurts society is not that it should lose its property,
but that it should become a den of thieves ; for then it
must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to
do evil that good may come ; for at any rate this great
evil has come, that we have done evil and are made
wicked thereby. In like manner, if I let myself believe
anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great
harm done by the mere belief ; it may be true after all,
or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward
acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards
Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to
society is not merely that it should believe wrong things,
though that is great enough ; but that it should be-
come credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and I



186 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

inquiring into them ; for then it must sink back into

i savagery.

The harm which* is done ,by credulity in a man is
not confined to the fostering of a credulous character
in others, and consequent support of false beliefs.
Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to I
habitual want of care in others about the truth of whatl
is told to me. Men speak the truth to one another
when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in
the other's mind ; but how shall my friend revere the
truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it,
when I believe things because I want to believe them,
and because they are comforting and pleasant ? Will
he not learn to cry, ' Peace,' to me, when there is no
peace ? By such a course I shall surround myself with
a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that
I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-
castle of sweet illusions and darling lies ; but it matters
much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready
to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and

/-" the cheat ; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and

\ it is no marvel if he should become even as they are.

*x So closely are our duties knit together, that whoso shall
/ keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is
^guilty of all.

To sum up : it is wrong always, everywhere, and
for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evi-
dence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in
childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and
pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his
mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 187

company of men that call in question or discuss it, and
regards as impious those questions which cannot easily \
be asked without disturbing it the life of that man is j
one long sin against mankind. /

If this judgment seems harsh when applied to those
simple souls who have never known better, who have
been brought up from the cradle with a horror of doubt,
and taught that their eternal welfare depends on what
they believe, then it leads to the very serious question,
Who hath made Israel to sin ?

It may be permitted me to fortify this judgment
with the sentence of Milton 1

' A man may be a heretic in the truth ; and if he
believe things only because his pastor says so, or the
assembly so determine, without knowing other reason,
though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds
becomes his heresy.'

And with this famous aphorism of Coleridge 2

' He who begins by loving Christianity better than
Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church
better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better
than all.'

Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be
made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It 1
is never lawful to stifle a doubt ; for either it can be
honestly answered by means of the inquiry already
made, or else it proves that the inquiry Avas not com-
plete.

6 But,' says one, ' I am a busy man ; I have no time
for the long course of study which would be necessary
to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain

1 Areopagiticct. 2 Aids to Reflection.



188 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

questions, or even able to understand the nature of
the arguments.' Then he should have no time to
believe.

IT. The Weight of Authority.

Are we then to become universal sceptics, doubting
everything, afraid always to put one foot before the
other until we have personally tested the firmness of the
road ? Are we to deprive ourselves of the help and
guidance of that vast body of knowledge which is daily
growing upon the world, because neither we nor any
other one person can possibly test a hundredth part of it
by immediate experiment or observation, and because it
would not be completely proved if we did ? Shall we
steal and tell lies because we have had no personal ex-
perience wide enough to justify the belief that it is
wrong to do so ?

There is no practical danger that such consequences
will ever follow from scrupulous care and self-control in
the matter of belief. Those men who have most nearly
done their duty in this respect have found that certain
great principles, and these most fitted for the guidance
of life, have stood out more and more clearly in propor-
tion to the care and honesty with which they were
tested, and have acquired in this way a practical
certainty. The beliefs about right and wrong which
guide our actions in dealing with men in society, and
the beliefs about physical nature which guide our
actions in dealing with animate and inanimate bodies,
these never suffer from investigation they can take
care of themselves, without being propped up by



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 189

'acts of faith,' the clamour of paid advocates, or the
suppression of contrary evidence. Moreover there are
many cases in which it is our duty to act upon proba-
bilities, although the evidence is not such as to justify
present belief ; because it is precisely by such action,
and by observation of its fruits, that evidence is got
whicli may justify future belief. So that we have no
reason to fear lest a habit of conscientious inquiry
should paralyse the actions of our daily life.

But because it is not enough to say, ' It is wrong to
believe on unworthy evidence,' without saying also what
evidence is worthy, we shall now go on to inquire
under what circumstances it is lawful to believe on the
testimony of others ; and then, further, we shall inquire
more generally when and why we may believe that
which goes beyond our own experience, or even beyond
the experience of mankind.

In what cases, then, let us ask in the first place, is
the testimony of a man unworthy of belief? He may
say that which is untrue either knowingly or unknow-
ingly. In the first case he is lying, and his moral
character is to blame ; in the second case he is ignorant
or mistaken, and it is only his knowledge or his judg-
ment which is in fault. In order that we may have the
right to accept his testimony as ground for believing
what he says, we must have reasonable grounds for
trusting his veracity, that he is really trying to speak
the truth so far as he knows it ; his knowledge, that he
has had opportunities of knowing the truth about this
matter ; and his judgment, that he has made proper use
of those opportunities in coming to the conclusion which
he affirms.



190 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

However plain and obvious these reasons may be, so
that no man of ordinary intelligence, reflecting upon the
matter, could fail to arrive at them, it is nevertheless
true that a great many persons do habitually disregard
them in weighing testimony. Of the two questions,
equally important to the trustworthiness of a witness,
'Is he dishonest?' and 'May he be mistaken ? '~ the
majority of mankind are perfectly satisfied if one can,
with some show of probability, be answered in the nega-
tive. The excellent moral character of a man is alleged
as ground for accepting his statements about things
which he cannot possibly have known. A Mohammedan,
for example, will tell us that the character of his
Prophet was so noble and majestic that it commands
the reverence even of those who do not believe in his
mission. So admirable was his moral teaching, so
wisely put together the great social machine which
he created, that his precepts have not only been
accepted by a great portion of mankind, but have
actually been obeyed. His institutions have on the one
hand rescued the negro from savagery, and on the other
hand have taught civilization to the advancing West ;
and although the races which held the highest forms of
his faith, and most fully embodied his mind and thought,
have all been conquered and swept away by barbaric
tribes, yet the history of their marvellous attainments
remains as an imperishable glory to Islam. Are we to
doubt the word of a man so great and so good ? Can
we suppose that this magnificent genius, this splendid
moral hero, has lied to us about the most solemn and
sacred matters ? The testimony of Mohammed is clear,
that there is but one God, and that he, Mohammed, is his



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 191

prophet ; that if we believe in him we shall enjoy
everlasting felicity, but that if we do not we shall
be damned. This testimony rests on the most awful
of foundations, the revelation of heaven itself; for was
he not visited by the angel Gabriel, as he fasted and
prayed in his desert cave, and allowed to enter into the
blessed fields of Paradise ? Surely God i^ God and
Mohammed is the Prophet of God.

What should we answer to this Mussulman ? ^ First,
no doubt, we should be tempted to take exception
against his view of the character of the Prophet and
the uniformly beneficial influence of Islam : before we
could go with him altogether in these matters it might
seem that we should have to forget many terrible things
of which we have heard or read. But if we chose to
grant him all these assumptions, for the sake of argu-
ment, and because it is difficult both for the faithful and
for infidels to discuss them fairly and without passion,
still we should have something to say which takes away
the ground of his belief, and therefore shows that it is
wrong to entertain it. Namely this : the character of
Mohammed is excellent evidence that he was honest
and spoke the truth so far as he knew it ; but it is
no evidence at all that he knew what the truth was.
What means could he have of knowing that the form
which appeared to him to be the angel Gabriel was not
a hallucination, and that his apparent visit to Paradise
was not a dream ? Grant that he himself was fully per-


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 13 of 22)