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must have been in early times, for many reasons ; but
not so very much more rapid as to constitute an entirely
different state of things. And it does seem to me in
like manner that a wider and more rational view of his-
tory will recognize more and more of the permanent, and
less and less of the changeable, element in human nature.
No doubt our ancestors of a thousand generations back
were very different beings from ourselves ; perhaps fifty
thousand generations back they were not men at all.
But the historic period is hardly to be stretched beyond
two hundred generations ; and it seems unreasonable to


expect that in such a tiny page of our biography we can
trace with clearness the growth and progress of a long
life. Compare Egypt in the time of King Menes, say
six thousand years ago, with Spain in this present cen-
tury, before Englishmen made any railways there : I
suppose the main difference is that the Egyptians washed
themselves. It seems more analogous to what we find
in other fields of inquiry to suppose that there are cer-
tain great broad principles of human life which have
been true all along ; that certain conditions have always
been favourable to the health of society, and certain
other conditions always hurtful.

Now, although I have many times asked for it from
those who said that somewhere and at some time man-
kind had derived benefits from a priesthood laying claim
to a magical character and powers, I have never been
able to get any evidence for their statement. Nobody
will give me a date, and a latitude and longitude, that I
may examine into the matter. 4 In the Middle Ages
the priests and monks were the sole depositaries of
learning.' Quite so ; a man burns your house to the
ground, builds a wretched hovel on the ruins, and then
takes credit for whatever shelter there is about the
place. In the Middle Ages nearly all learned men were
obliged to become priests and monks. ' Then again,
the bishops have sometimes acted as tribunes of the
people, to protect them against the tyranny of kings/
No doubt, when Pope and Csesar fall out, honest men
may come by their own. If two men rob you in a dark
lane, and then quarrel over the plunder, so that you
get a chance to escape with your life, you will of course
be very grateful to each of them for having prevented


the other from killing you ; but you would be much
more grateful to a policeman who locked them both up.
Two powers have sought to enslave the people, and
have quarrelled with each other ; certainly we are very
much obliged to them for quarrelling, but a condition
of still greater happiness and security would be the
non-existence of both.

I can find no evidence that seriously militates against
the rule that the priest is at all times and in all places
the enemy of all men Sacerdos semper, ubique, et omni-
bus inimicus. I do not deny that the priest is very often
a most earnest and conscientious man, doing the very
best that he knows of as well as he can do it. Lord
Amberley is quite right in saying that the blame rests
more with the laity than with the priesthood ; that it
has insisted on magic and mysteries, and has forced the
priesthood to produce them. But then, how dreadful
is the system that puts good men to such uses !

And although it is true that in its origin a priest-
hood is the effect of an evil already existing, a symptom
of social disease rather than a cause of it, yet, once
being created and made powerful, it tends in many ways
to prolong and increase the disease which gave it birth.
One of these ways is so marked and of such practical
importance that we are bound to consider it here : I
m ean the education of children. If there is one lesson
which history forces upon us in every page, it is this :
Keep your children away from the priest, or he will make
them the enemies of mankind. It is not the Catholic
clergy and those like them who are alone to be dreaded
in this matter ; even the representatives of apparently
harmless religions may do incalculable mischief if they


get education into their hands. To the early Moham-
medans the mosque was the one public building in every
place where public business could be transacted ; and
so it was naturally the place of primary education, which
they held to be a matter of supreme importance. By-
and-by, as the clergy grew up, the mosque was gradu-
ally usurped by them, and primary education fell into
their hands. Then ensued a ' revival of religion ; '
religion became a fanaticism : books were burnt and
universities were closed ; the empire rotted away in
East and West, until it was conquered by Turkish
savages in Asia and by Christian savages in Spain.

The labours of students of the early history of institu-
tions notably Sir Henry Maine and M. de Laveleye
have disclosed to us an element of society which appears
to have existed in all times and places, and which is the
basis of our own social structure. The village commu-
nity, or commune, or township, found in tribes of the
most varied race and time, has so modified itself as to
get adapted in one place or another to all the different
conditions of human existence. \ This union of men to
work for a common object has transformed them from
wild animals into tame ones.\ Century by century the
educating process of the social life has been working at
human nature ; it has built itself into our inmost soul.
Such as we are moral and rational beings thinking
and talking in general conceptions about the facts that
make up our life, feeling a necessity to act, not for our-
selves, but for Ourself. for the larger life of Man in
which we are elements ; such moral and rational beings,
I say, Man has made us. By Man I mean men organized
jnto a society, which fights for its life, not only as a mere


collection of men who must separately be kept alive, but
as a society. It must fight, not only against external
enemies, but against treason and disruption within it.
Hence comes the unity of interest of all its members ;
each of them has to feel that he is not himself only but
a part of all the rest. Conscience the sense^of right
a^nd wrong springs out of the habit of judging things
from the point of view of all and not of one. It is Our-
self, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.

The codes of morality, then, which are adopted into
various religions, and afterwards taught as parts of reli-
gious systems, are derived from secular sources. The
most ancient version of the Ten Commandments, what-
ever the investigations of scholars may make it out to
be, originates, not in the thunders of Sinai, but in the
peaceful life of men on the plains of Chaldgea. Con- y
science is the voice of Man ingrained into our heartsj
commanding us to work for Man.

Eeligions differ in the treatment which they give to
this most sacred heirloom of our past history. Some-
times they invert its precepts telling men to be sub-
missive under oppression because the powers that be
are ordained of God ; telling them to believe where they
have not seen, and to play with falsehood in order that
a particular doctrine may prevail, instead of seeking for
truth whatever it may be ; telling them to betray their
country for the sake of their church. But there is one
great distinction to which I wish, in conclusion, to call
special attention a distinction between two kinds of
religious emotion which bear upon the conduct of men.

We said that conscience is the voice of Man within
us, commanding us to work for Man. We do not know


this immediately by our own experience ; we only know
that something within us commands us to work for Man.
This fact men have tried to explain; and they have
thought, for the most part, that this voice was the voice
of a God. But the explanation takes two different forms :
the God may speak in us for Man's sake, or for his own
sake. If he speaks for his own sake and this is what
generally happens when he has priests who lay claim to
a magical character and powers our allegiance is apt
to be taken away from Man, and transferred to the God.
When we love our brother for the sake of our brother,
we help all men to grow in the right ; but when we
love our brother for the sake of somebody else, who is
very likely to damn our brother, it very soon comes to
burning him alive for his soul's health. When men
respect human life for the sake of Man, tranquillity,
order, and progress go hand in hand ; but those who
only respected human life because God had forbidden
murder have set their mark upon Europe in fifteen
centuries of blood and fire.

These are only two examples of a general rule.
Wherever the allegiance of men has been diverted from
Man to some divinity who speaks to men for his own
sake and seeks his own glory, one thing has happened.
The right precepts might be enforced, but they were
enforced upon wrong grounds, and they were not
obeyed. But right precepts are not always enforced ;
the fact that the fountains of morality have been poisoned
makes it easy to substitute wrong precepts for right

To this same treason against humanity belongs the
claim of the priesthood to take away the guilt of a sinner


after confession has been made to it. The Catholic
priest professes to act as an ambassador for his God, and
to absolve the guilty man by conveying to him the for-
giveness of heaven. If his credentials were ever so sure,
if he were indeed the ambassador of a superhuman
power, the claim would be treasonable. Can the favour
of the Czar make guiltless the murderer of old men and
women and children in Circassian valleys ? Can the
pardon of the Sultan make clean the bloody hands of a
Pasha ? As little can any God forgive sins committed
against man. When men think he can, they compound
for old sins which the God did not like by committing
new ones which he does like. Many a remorseful despot
has atoned for the levities of his youth by the persecu-
tion of heretics in his old age. That frightful crime,
the adulteration of food, could not possibly be so com-
mon amongst us if men were not taught to regard it as
merely objectionable because it is remotely connected
with stealing, of which God has expressed his disapproval
in the Decalogue ; and therefore as quite naturally set
right by a punctual attendance at church on Sundays.
When a Kitualist breaks his fast before celebrating the
Holy Communion, his deity can forgive him if he likes,
for the matter concerns nobody else ; but no deity can
forgive him for preventing his parishioners from setting
up a public library and reading-room for fear they
should read Mr. Darwin's works in it, That sin is com-
mitted against the people, and a God cannot take it

I call those religions which undermine the supreme
allegiance of the conscience to Man ultramontane re-
ligions, because they seek their springs of action ultra



monies, outside of the common experience and daily life
of man. And I remark about them that they are espe-
cially apt to teach wrong precepts, and that even when
they command men to do the right things they put the
command upon wrong motives, and do not get the
things done.

But there are forms of religious emotion which do
not thus undermine the conscience. Far be it from me
to undervalue the help and strength which many of the
bravest of our brethren have drawn from the thought
of an unseen helper of men. He who, wearied or
stricken in the fight with the powers of darkness, asks
himself in a solitary place, ' Is it all for nothing ? shall
we indeed be overthrown ? ' he does find something
which may justify that thought. In such a moment of
utter sincerity, when a man has bared his own soul
before the immensities and the eternities, a presence in
which his own poor personality is shrivelled into no-
thingness arises within him, and says, as plainly as
words can say, ' I am with thee, and I am greater than
thou.' Many names of Gods, of many shapes, have men
given to this presence ; seeking by names and pictures
to know more clearly and to remember more continually
the guide and the helper of men. No such comradeship
with the Great Companion shall have anything but
reverence from me, who have known the divine gentle-
ness of Denison Maurice, the strong and healthy practi-
cal instinct of Charles Kingsley, and who now revere
with all my heart the teaching of James Martineau.
They seem to me, one and all, to be reaching forward
with loving anticipation to a clearer vision which is yet
to come tendentesque manus ripce ulterioris amore.


For, after all, such a helper of men, outside of humanity,
the truth will not allow us to see. The dim and ^
shadowy outlines of the superhuman deity fade slowly
away from before us ; and as the mist of his presence
floats aside, we perceive with greater and greater clear-
ness the shape of a yet grander and nobler figure of
Him who made all Gods and shall unmake them. From
the dim dawn of history, and from the inmost depth of
every soul, the face of our father Man looks out upon
us with the fire of eternal youth in his eyes, and says, \
' Before Jehovah was, I am ! '

* 2




(In No. 2 of < The Nineteenth Century.' )

IN the third of the preceding discourses 1 there is so
much which I can fully and fervently accept, that I
should find it far more grateful to rest in that feeling of
admiration and sympathy than to attend to points of
difference which seem to me to be of altogether second-
ary import. But for the truth's sake this must first be
done, because it will then be more easy to point out
some of the bearings of the position held in that dis-
course upon the question which is under discussion.

That the sense of duty in a man is the prompting of
a self other than his own, is the very essence of it. Not
only would morals not be self-sufficing, if there were no
such prompting of a wider self, but they could not
exist : one might as well suppose a fire without heat.
Not only is a sense of duty inherent in the constitution
of our nature, but the prompting of a wider self than
that of the individual is inherent in a sense of duty. It
is no more possible to have the right without unsel-
fishness than to have man without a feeling for the

We may explain or account for these facts in various

1 Bv Dr. Martineau.


ways, but we shall not thereby alter the facts. No
theories about heat and light will ever make a cold fire.
And no doubt or disproof of any existing theory can
any more extinguish that self other than myself, which
speaks to me in the voice of conscience, than doubt or
disproof of the wave-theory of light can put out the
noonday sun.

One such theory is defended in the discourse here
dealt with, and, if I may venture to say so, is not
quite sufficiently distinguished from the facts which it
is meant to explain. The theory is this : that the voice "^
of conscience in my mind is the voice of a conscious
being external to me and to all men, who has made us
and all the world. When this theory is admitted, the
observed discrepancy between our moral sense and the
government of the world as a whole makes it necessary
to suppose another world and another life in it for men,
whereby this discord shall be resolved in a final \

I fully admit that the theistic hypothesis, so
grounded, and considered apart from objections other-
wise arising, is a reasonable hypothesis and an explana -
tion of the facts. The idea of an external conscious be-
ing is unavoidably suggested, as it seems to me, by the
categorical imperative of the moral sense ; and more-
over, in a way quite independent, by the aspect of
nature, which seems to answer to our questionings with
an intelligence akin to our own. It is more reasonable
to assume one consciousness than two, if by that one
assumption we can explain two distinct facts ; just as if
we had been led to assume an ether to explain light,
and an ether to explain electricity, we might have run


before experiment and guessed that these two ethers
were but one. But since there is a discordance between
nature and conscience, the theory of their common
origin in a mind external to humanity has not met with
such acceptance as that of the divine origin of each. A
large number of theists have rejected it, and taken
refuge in ManichaBism and the doctrine of the Demiurgus
in various forms ; while others have endeavoured, as
aforesaid, to redress the balance of the old world by
calling into existence a new one.

It is, however, a very striking and significant fact
that the great majority of mankind who have thought
about these questions at all, while acknowledging
the existence of divine beings and their influence in
the government of the world, have sought for the
spring and sanction of duty in something above and
beyond the Gods. The religions of Brahmanism and of
Buddhism, and the moral system of Confucius, have
together ruled over more than two-thirds of the human
race during the historic period ; and in all of these the
moral sense is regarded as arising indeed out of a
universal principle, but not as personified in any con-
scious being. This vast body of dissent might well, it
should seem, make us ask if there is not something
unsatisfying in the theory which represents the voice of
conscience as the voice of a God.

Although, as I have said, the idea of an external
conscious being is unavoidably suggested by the moral
sense, yet, if this idea should be found untrue, it does
not follow that nature has been fooling us. The idea
is not in the facts, but in our inference from the
facts. A mirror unavoidably suggests the idea of a


room behind it ; but it is not our eyes that deceive
us, it is only the inference we draw from their testimony.
Further consideration may lead to a different inference
of far greater practical value.

Now, whether or no it be reasonable and satisfying
to the conscience, it cannot be doubted that theistic
belief is a comfort and a solace to those who hold it, and
that the loss of it is a very painful loss. It cannot be
doubted, at least, by many of us in this generation, who
either profess it now, or received it in our childhood and
have parted from it since with such searching trouble
as only cradle-faiths can cause. We have seen the
spring sun shine out of an empty heaven, to light up a
soulless earth ; we have felt with utter loneliness that
the Great Companion is dead. Our children, it may be
hoped, will know that sorrow only by the reflex light
of a wondering compassion. But to say that theistic
belief is a comfort and a solace, and to say that it is
the crown or coping of morality, these are different

For in what way shall belief in God strengthen my
sense of duty ? He is a great one working for the right
But I already know so many, and I know these so well.
His righteousness is unfathomable ; it transcends all ideals.
But I have not yet fathomed the goodness of living men
whom I know : still less of those who have lived, and
whom I know. And the goodness of all these is a
striving for something better ; now it is not the goal,
but the striving for it, that matters to me. The essence
of their goodness is the losing of the individual self in
another and a wider self ; but God cannot do this ; his
goodness must be something different. He is infinitely


great and powerful, and he lives for ever. I do not
understand this mensuration of goodness by foot-pounds
and seconds and cubic miles. A little field-mouse,
which busies itself in the hedge, and does not mind my
company, is more to me than the longest ichthyosaurus
that ever lived, even if he lived a thousand years. When
we look at a starry sky, the spectacle whose awfulness
Kant compared with that of the moral sense, does it
help out our poetic emotion to reflect that these specks
are really very very big, and very very hot, and very
very far away ? Their heat and their bigness oppress
us ; we should like them to be taken still farther away,
the great blazing lumps. But when we think of the
unseen planets that surround them, of the wonders of
life, of reason, of love that may dwell therein, then
indeed there is something sublime in the sight. Fitness
and kinship ; these are the truly great things for us,
not force and massiveness and length of days.

Length of days, said the old Eabbi, is measured not
by their number, but by the work that is done in them.
We are all to be swept away in the final ruin of the
earth. The thought of that ending is a sad thought ;
there is no use in trying to deny this. But it has
nothing to do with right and wrong ; it belongs to
another subject. Like All-father Odin, we must ride
out gaily to do battle with the wolf of doom, even
if there be no Balder to come back and continue our
work. At any rate the right will have been done ; and
the past is safer than all storehouses.

The conclusion of the matter is that belief in God
and in a future life is a source of refined and elevated
pleasure to those who can hold it. But the foregoing


of a refined and elevated pleasure, because it

that we have no right to indulge in it, is not in itself,

and cannot produce as its consequence, a decline of


There is another theory of the facts of the moral
sense set forth in the succeeding discourse, 1 and this seems
to me to be the true one. The voice of conscience is ,
the voice of our Father Man who is within us ; the
accumulated instinct of the race is poured into each one
of us, and overflows us, as if the ocean were poured into a
cup. 2 Our evidence for this explanation is that the cause
assigned is a vera causa, it undoubtedly exists ; there
is no perhaps about that. And those who have tried
tell us that it is sufficient : the explanation, like the
fact, 'covers the whole voluntary field.' The lightest
and the gravest action may be consciously done in and
for Man. And the sympathetic aspect of nature is
explained to us ,in the same way. In so far as our con-
ception of nature is akin to our minds that conceive it,
Man made it ; and Man made us, with the necessity
to conceive it in this way. 3

I do not, however, suppose that morality would
practically gain much from the wide acceptance of true
views about its nature, except in a way which I shall
presently suggest. I neither admit the moral influence
of theism in the past, nor look forward to the moral
influence of humanism in the future. Virtue is a habit,

1 By Mr. Frederic Harrison.

2 Schopenhauer. There is a most remarkable article on the ' Natural
History of Morals ' in the North British Review, Dec. 1867.

3 For an admirable exposition of the doctrine of the social origin of our
conceptions, see Professor Croom Robertson's paper, 'How we come by our
Knowledge,' in the first number of the Nineteenth Century.


not a sentiment or an -ism. The doctrine of total de-
pravity seems to have been succeeded by a doctrine of
partial depravity, according to which there is hope for
human affairs, but still men cannot go straight unless
some tremendous all-embracing theory has a finger in
the pie. Theories are most important and excellent
things when they help us to see the matter as it really
is, and so to judge what is the right thing to do in
regard to it. They are the guides of action, but not the
springs of it. Now the spring of virtuous action is the
social instinct, which is set to work by the practice of
comradeship. The union of men in a common effort
for a common object band-work, if I may venture to
translate co-operation into English this is and always
has been the true school of character. Except in times
of severe struggle for national existence, the practice of
virtue by masses of men has always been coincident with
municipal freedom, and with the vigour of such unions
as are not large enough to take from each man his con-
scious share in the work and in the direction of it.

What really affects morality is not religious belief,
but a practice which, in some times and places, is
thought to be religious namely, the practice of sub-

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 17 of 22)