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swords. From Bagdad to Cordova, in the great days of
the Caliphate, the best minds had faith in human pro-
gress to be made by observation of the order of nature.
Here again the true culture was overridden and de-
stroyed by the development of the Mohammedan reli-
gion ; but not until the sacred torch had been safely
handed on to the new nations of convalescent Europe.

If the singer of the Golden Verses could have con-
templated on these lines the history of the two thou-
sand years that were to succeed him 5 he would have
seen an uninterrupted succession of naturalists and phy-
sicians, philosophers and statesmen, all steadily reaching
forward to the good things that were before, never
losing hold of what had already been attained. And
we, looking back, may see that through overwhelming
difficulties and dangers and diseases holy Nature has
indeed been leading onward the kindred of the Gods,
slowly but surely unfolding to them the roll of the
heavenly mysteries.

Of course, if we restrict our view to Europe itself,
we meet with a far more complex and difficult problem ;
a problem of pathology as opposed to one of healthy
growth. We have to explain- the apparent anomaly of
two epochs of comparative sanity and civilization sepa-
rated by the disease and delirium of the Catholic

Just as the traveller, who has been worn to the bone


by years of weary striving among men of another skin,
suddenly gazes with doubting eyes upon the white face
of a brother, so, if we travel backwards in thought over
the darker ages of the history of Europe, we at length
reach back with such bounding of heart to men who
had like hopes with ourselves ; and shake hands across
that vast with the singers of the Golden Verses, our own
true spiritual ancestors.

Well may Greece sing to the earth her mother, in
the Litany of Nations :

I am she that made thee lovely with my beauty

From north to south :
Mine, the fairest lips, took first the fire of duty

From thine own mouth.
Mine, the fairest eyes, sought first thy laws and knew them

Truths undefined ;
Mine, the fairest hands, took freedom first into them,

A weanling child. *

Let us now put together the view of Nature and of
Life which is presented to us by the Golden Verses, with
a view to considering its fitness for cosmic emotion. We
are taught therein to look upon Nature as a divine
Order or Cosmos, acting uniformly in all of its diverse
parts ; which order, by means of its uniformity, is con-
tinually educating us and teaching us to act rightly.
The ideal character, that which is best fitted to receive
the teaching of Nature, is one which has Conscience for
its motive power and Eeason for its guide. The main
point to be observed is that the two kinds of cosmic
emotion run together and become one. The macrocosm
is viewed only in relation to human action ; nature is
presented to the emotions as the guide and teacher of

1 Swinburne, Songs before Sunrise.


humanity. And the microcosm is viewed only as
tending to complete correspondence with the external ;
human conduct is a subject for reverence only in so far
as it is consonant to the demiurgic law, in harmony
with the teaching of divine Nature. This union of the
two sides of cosmic emotion belongs to the essence of
the philosophic life, as the corresponding intellectual
conception is of the essence of the scientific view of

There were other parts of the Pythagorean concep-
tion of Nature and Man which we cannot at present so
easily accept. And even so much as is here suggested
we cannot hold as the Pythagoreans held it, because
there are the thoughts and the deeds of two thousand
years between. These ideas fall in very well with the
furniture of our minds ; but a great deal of the furniture
is new since their time, and changes their place and
importance. Of the detailed machinery of the Pytha-
gorean creed these verses say nothing. Of the sacred
fire, the hearth of the universe, with sun and planets
and the earth's double antichthon revolving round it,
the whole enclosed in a crystal globe with nothing out-
side of the ' Great Age ' of the world, after which
everything occurs over again in exactly the same order
of the mystic numbers, and so forth, we find no men-
tion in these verses, and they do not lose much by it,
though on that account Zeller calls them ' colourless.'
But a remembrance of these doctrines will help us to
appreciate the change that has come over our view of
the world.

First, then, the cosmos that we have to do with is
no longer a definite whole including absolutely all


existence. The old cosmos had a boundary in space, a
finite extent in time ; for the Great Age might be regarded
as a circle, on which you return to the same point after
going once round. Beyond the crystal sphere of the
fixed stars was nothing ; outside that circle of time no
history. But now the real universe extends at least far i
beyond the cosmos, the order that we actually know of. /
The sum total of our experience and of the inferences
that can fairly be drawn from it is only, after all, a part
of something larger. So sings one whom great poets
revere as a poet, but to whom writers of excellent prose,
and even of leading articles, refuse the name :

I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see, multiplied as high as I can cipher, edge but the rim
of the farther systems.

Wider and wider they spread, expanding always expanding,
Outward and outward, and for ever outward.

There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage ;

If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces,
were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in
the long run ;

We should surely bring up again where we now stand,

And as surely go as much farther and then farther and farther.

A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not
hazard the span, or make it impatient ;

They are but parts anything is but a part.

See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that ;

Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that. 1

Whatever conception, then, we can form of the ex-
ternal cosmos must be regarded as only provisional and
not final, as waiting revision when we shall have pushed
the bounds of our knowledge further away into time |
and space. It must always, therefore, have a character

1 Whitman, Leaves of Grass.


of incompleteness about it, a want, a stretching out for
something better to come, the expectation of a further
lesson from the universal teacher, Experience. And
this not only by way of extension of space and time,
but by increase of our knowledge even about this part
that we know of. Our conception of the universe is for
us, and not for our children, any more than it was for
our fathers.

But again, this incompleteness does not belong to our
conception of the external cosmos alone, but to that of
the internal cosmos also. Human nature is fluent, it is
constantly though slowly changing, and the universe
of human action is changing also. Whatever general
conception we may form of good actions and bad ones,
we must regard it as quite valid only for ourselves ; the
next generation will have a slightly modified form of it,
but not the same thing. The Kantian universality is no
longer possible. No maxim can be valid at all times
and places for all rational beings ; a maxim valid for us
can only be valid for such portions of the human race
as are practically identical with ourselves.

Here then we have two limitations to keep in mind
when we form our cosmic conceptions. On both sides
they are provisional ; instead of picturing to ourselves
a universe, we represent only a changing part ; instead
of contemplating an eternal order, and absolute right,
we find only a changing property of a shifting organ-

Are we then to be disappointed ? I think not ; for
if we consider these limitations a little more closely, we
shall perceive an advantage in each of them.

First, of the external cosmos. Our conception is


limited to a part of things. But to what part ? Why,
precisely to the part that concerns us. The universe we
have to consider is the whole of that knowledge which can
rightly influence human action. For, wherever there is
a question of guiding human action, there is a possibility
of profiting by experience on the assumption that nature
is uniform ; that is, there is room for the application of
science. All practical quesJJQns, therefore*- ace - within
the domain of science. And we may show conversely
that all questions in the domain of science, all questions,
that is, which have a real intelligible meaning, and
which may be answered either now or at some future
time by inferences founded on the uniformity of nature,
are practical questions in a very real and important
sense. For the interrogation of nature, without and
within him, is a most momentous part of the work of
man on this earth, seeing how all his progress has de-
pended upon conscious or unconscious labour at this
task. And although the end of all knowledge is action,
and it is only for the sake of action that knowledge is
sought by the human race, yet, in order that it may be
gained in sufficient breadth and depth, it is necessary
that the individual should seek knowledge for its own
sake. The seeking of knowledge for its own sake is a
practical pursuit of incalculable value to humanity. The
pretensions of those who would presume to clothe genius
in a strait-waistcoat, who would forbid it to attempt
this task because Descartes failed in it, and that one
because Comte knew nothing about it, would be fatally
mischievous if they could be seriously considered by
those whom they might affect. No good work in
science has ever been done under such conditions ; and


no good worker can fail to see the utter futility and
short-sightedness of those who advocate them. For
there is no field of inquiry, however apparently insigni-
ficant, that does not teach the worker in it to distrust
his own powers of prevision as to what he is likely to
find ; to expect the unexpected ; to be suspicious of his
own accuracy if everything comes out quite as it ' ought
to ; ' but not to hazard the shadow of a guess about the
degree of ' utility ' that may result from his investiga-
tions. Man's creative energy may be checked and
hindered, or perverted from the truth ; but it is not to
be regulated by a pedantic schoolmaster who thought
he could whip the centuries with his birch broom.

The cosmos, then, which science now presents to our
minds, is only a part of something larger which includes
it. But at the same time it is the whole of what
concerns us, and no more than what concerns us.
Wherever human knowledge establishes itself, that
point becomes thenceforward a centre of practical human
interest. It, and whatever valid inference can be con-
nected with it, is the business of all mankind.

So also, if we consider the limitation imposed on our
idea of the internal cosmos by the changing character
of human nature, we shall find that we have gained
more than we have lost by it. It is true that we can no
longer think of conscience and reason as testifying to us
of things eternal and immutable. Human nature is no
longer there, a definite thing from age to age, persisting
unaltered through the vicissitudes of cities and peoples.
Very nearly constant it is, practically constant for so
many centuries ; but not constant through that range of
time which it practically concerns us to know about and


to ponder. But, on the other side, what a flood of light
is let in by this very fact, not only on human nature,
but on the whole world ! It_isjmpossible to exaggerate

of the doctrine of evolution on our conception

of man and of nature. Suppose all moving things to be
suddenly stopped at some instant, and that we could be
brought fresh, without any previous knowledge, to look
at this petrified scene. The spectacle would be in-
ensely absurd. Crowds of people would be senselessly
standing on one leg in the street, looking at one another's
backs ; others would be wasting their time by sitting in
a train in a place difficult to get at, nearly all with their
mouths open and their bodies in some contorted, unrest-
ful posture. Clocks would stand with their pendulums
on one side. Everthing would be disorderly, conflicting,
in its wrong place. But once remember that the world
is in motion, is going somewhere, and everything will be
accounted for and found just as it should be. Just so
great a change of view, just so complete an explanation,
is given to us when we recognize that the nature of man
and beast and of all the world is changing, is going
somewhere. The silly maladaptations in organic nature
are seen to be steps towards the improvement or dis-
carding of imperfect organs. The baneful strife which \
lurketh inborn in us, and goeth on the way with us to hurt I
us, is found to be the relic of a time of savage or even j
lower condition.

It is probable that the doctrine of evolution fills a
somewhat larger space in our attention than belongs to
its ultimate influence. In the next century, perhaps,
men will not think so much about it ; they will be
paying a new attention to some new thing. But it will



have seized upon their minds, and will dominate all
their thoughts to an extent that we cannot as yet con-
ceive. When the sun is rising we pay special attention
to him and admire his glories ; but when he is well
risen we forget him, because we are busy walking about
in his light.

Meanwhile, the doctrine of evolution may be made
to compensate us for the loss of the immutable and
eternal verities by supplying us with a general concep-
tion of a good action, in a wider sense than the ethical

If I have evolved myself out of something like an
amphioxus, it is clear to me that I have become better
by the change ; I have risen in the organic scale ; I
have become more organic. Of all the changes that I
have undergone, the greater part must have been
changes in the organic direction ; some in the opposite
direction, some perhaps neutral. But if I could only
find out which, I should say that those changes which
have tended in the direction of greater organization
were good, and those which tended in the opposite
direction bad. Here there is no room for proof; the
words ' good ' and ' bad ' belong to the practical reason,
and if they are defined, it is by pure choice. I choose
that definition of them which must on the whole cause
those people who act upon it to be selected for survival.
The good action, then, is a mode of action which
distinguishes organic from inorganic things, and which
makes an organic thing more organic, or raises it in the
scale. I shall try presently to determine more pre-
cisely what is the nature of this action ; we must now
merely remember that my actions are to be regarded as


good or bad according as they tend to improve me as
an organism, to make me move further away from those
intermediate forms through which my race has passed,
or to make me retrace these upward steps and go down
again. Here we have our general principle for the
internal cosmos, the world of our own actions.

What now is our principle for the external cosmos ?
We consider here again not a statical thing, but a vast
series of events. We want to contemplate not the
nature of the external universe as it now is, but the
history of its changes ; not a perpetual cycle of similar
events, with nothing new under the sun, but a drama,
whose beginning is different from its middle, and the
middle from the end. For practical purposes, which are
what concern us, the solar system is a quite sufficient
cosmos. We have certainly a history of it, furnished
to us by the nebular hypothesis ; and the truth of
this hypothesis is a matter of practical interest, be-
cause the failure of the inferences on which it is
founded would modify our actions very considerably.
Still the great use is to show that the life upon the
earth must have been evolved from inorganic matter ;
for the evolution of life is that part of the history of the
cosmos which directly concerns us. Now here we have
the enormous series of events which bridges over the
gulf between the smallest piece of colloid matter and
the human organism ; this is our external cosmos.
Must we leave it as a series of events ? or can we find a
general principle by which the series shall be represented
as a single event constantly going on ? Clearly we can,
for the single event is a mode of action which distin-
guishes organic from inorganic things, and which makes

T '2


organic things more organic. We may regard this
mode of action as the generating principle which has
produced all the life upon the earth.

We arrive thus at a common principle, which at
once distinguishes good actions from bad in the internal
world, and which has created the external world, so far
as it is living. This principle is, then, a fit object for
cosmic emotion if we can only get rid of the vagueness
of its definition. And it has this great advantage, that
it does not need to be personified for poetical purposes.
For we may regard the result of this mode of action, ex-
tended over a great length of time, as in some way an
embodiment of the action itself. In this way the human
race embodies in itself all the ages of organic action
that have gone to its evolution. The nature of organic
action, then, is to personify itself, and it has personified
itself most in the human race.

But before we go further two things must be
remarked. First, the very great influence of life in
modifying the surface of the earth, so great as in many
cases to be comparable to the effects of far ruder
changes. Thus we have rocks composed entirely of
organic remains, and climate changed by the presence
or absence of forests. Secondly, although we have re-
stricted our cosmos to the earth in space, and to the
history of life upon it in time, there is no necessity to
maintain the restriction. For we must suppose that
organic action will always take place when the elements
which are capable of it are present under the requisite
physical conditions of temperature, light, and environ-
ment. It is therefore in the last degree improbable
that it is confined to our own planet.


In this principle, therefore, we must recognize
the mother of life, and -especially of human life ;
powerful enough to subdue the elements, and yet
always working gently against them ; biding her time
in the whole expanse of heaven, to make the highest
cosmos out of inorganic chaos ; the actor, not of all the
actions of living things, but only of the good actions ;
for a bad action is one by which the organism tends to
become less organic, and acts for the time as if inorganic.

To this mother of life, personifying herself in the
good works of humanity, it seems to me that we may
fitly address a splendid hymn of Mr. Swinburne's, whose
meaning if I mar or mistake by such application, let the
innocency of my intent plead for pardon with one into
whose work it is impossible to read more or more
fruitful meaning than he meant in the writing of it :

Mother of man's time-travelling generations,
Breath of his nostrils, heart-blood of his heart,

God above all Gods worshipped of all nations,
Light above light, law beyond law, thou art.

Thy face is as a sword smiting in sunder

Shadows and chains and dreams and iron things ;

The sea is dumb before thy face, the thunder
Silent, the skies are narrower than thy wings.

All old grey histories hiding thy clear features,
secret spirit and sovereign, all men's tales,

Creeds woven of men thy children and thy creatures,
They have woven for vestures of thee and for veils.

Thine hands, without election or exemption,
Feed all men fainting from false peace or strife,

thou, the resurrection and redemption,
The godhead and the manhood and the life. 1

1 Songs before Sunrise.



Still our conception is very vague. We have only
said ' good action has created the life of the world, and
in so doing has personified itself as humanity ; so we
call it the mother of life and of man.' And we have
defined good action to be that which makes an organism
more organic. We want, therefore, to know something
more definite about the kind of action which makes an
organism more organic.

This we can find, and of a nature suitable for cosmic
emotion, by paying attention to the difference between
molar and molecular movement. We know that the
particles even of bodies which appear to be at rest are
really in a state of very rapid agitation, called mole-
cular motion, and that heat and nerve-discharge are
cases of such motion. But molar motion is the move-
ment in one piece of masses large enough to be seen.

Now the peculiarity of living matter is that it is
capable of combining together molecular motions,
which are invisible, into molar motions, which can be
seen. It therefore appears to have the property of
moving spontaneously, without help from anything else.
So it can for a little while ; but it is then obliged to
take molecular motion from the surrounding things if
it is to go on moving. So that there is no real spon-
taneity in the case. But still its changes of shape, due
to aggregation of molecular motion, may fairly be called
action from within, because the energy of the motion is
supplied by the substance itself, and not by any external
thing. If we suppose the same thing to be true for a
complex organism that is true for a small speck of
living matter that those changes in it which are
directly initiated by the living part of the organism are


ie ones which distinguish it from inorganic things, and
tend to make it more organic then we shall have here
the nearer definition of organic action. It is probable
that the definition as I have stated it is rather too
precise that the nature of the action, in fact, varies
with circumstances in the complex organism, but is
always nearly as stated.

Let us consider what this means from the internal
point of view. When I act from within, or in an or-
ganic manner, what seems to me to happen ? I must
appear to be perfectly free, for, if I did not, I must be
made to act by something outside of me. ' We think
ourselves free,' says Spinoza, ' being conscious of our
actions, and not of the causes which determine them/
But we have seen reason to believe that although there is
no physical spontaneity, yet the energy for such an action
is taken out of myself i.e. out of the living matter in
my body. As, therefore, the immediate origin of my
action is in myself, I really am free in the only useful
sense of the word. ' Freedom is such a property of the \
will/ says Kant, ' as enables living agents to originate /
events independently of foreign determining causes.'

The character of an organic action, then, is freedom
that is to say, action from within. The action which
has its immediate antecedents within the organism has a
tendency, in so far as it alters the organism, to make it
more organic, or to raise it in the scale. The action
which is determined by foreign causes is one in regard
to which the organism acts as if inorganic, and in so far
as the action tends to alter it, it tends also to lower it
in the scale.

It is important to remember that only a part of the


body of a complex organism is actually living matter.
This living matter carries about a quantity of formed or
dead stuff; as Epictetus says, ^v^apiov el Pacrratpv
vtKpov ' a little soul for a little bears up this corpse
which is man.' 1 Only actions originating in the living
part of the organism are to be regarded as actions from
within ; the dead part is for our purposes a portion of
the external world. And so, from the internal point of
view, there are rudiments and survivals in the mind
which are to be excluded from that me, whose free
action tends to progress ; that baneful strife which
lurketh inborn in us is the foe of freedom this let not a
man stir up, but avoid and flee.

The way in which freedom, or action from within,
has effected the evolution of organisms, is clearly brought
out by the theory of Natural Selection. For the im-
provement of a breed depends upon the selection of

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 19 of 22)