Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
Author: Jones, Henry, Sir, 1852-1922
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

RELIGIOUS TEACHER***


BROWNING AS A PHILOSOPHICAL AND RELIGIOUS TEACHER

by

HENRY JONES

Professor of Philosophy in the University of Glasgow



[Illustration: ROBERT BROWNING.]



THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO
MY DEAR FRIENDS

MISS HARRIET MACARTHUR
AND
MISS JANE MACARTHUR.



PREFACE


The purpose of this book is to deal with Browning, not simply as a poet,
but rather as the exponent of a system of ideas on moral and religious
subjects, which may fairly be called a philosophy. I am conscious that
it is a wrong to a poet to neglect, or even to subordinate, the artistic
aspect of his work. At least, it would be a wrong, if our final judgment
on his poetry were to be determined on such a method. But there is a
place for everything; and, even in the case of a great poet, there is
sometimes an advantage in attempting to estimate the value of what he
has said, apart from the form in which he has said it. And of all modern
poets, Browning is the one who most obviously invites and justifies such
a method of treatment. For, in the first place, he is clearly one of
that class of poets who are also prophets. He was never merely "the idle
singer of an empty day," but one for whom poetic enthusiasm was
intimately bound up with religious faith, and who spoke "in numbers,"
not merely "because the numbers came," but because they were for him the
necessary vehicle of an inspiring thought. If it is the business of
philosophy to analyze and interpret all the great intellectual forces
that mould the thought of an age, it cannot neglect the works of one who
has exercised, and is exercising so powerful an influence on the moral
and religious life of the present generation.

In the second place, as will be seen in the sequel, Browning has himself
led the way towards such a philosophical interpretation of his work.
For, even in his earlier poems, he not seldom crossed the line that
divides the poet from the philosopher, and all but broke through the
strict limits of art in the effort to express--and we might even say to
preach--his own idealistic faith. In his later works he did this almost
without any disguise, raising philosophical problems, and discussing all
the _pros_ and _cons_ of their solution, with no little subtlety and
dialectical skill. In some of these poems we might even seem to be
receiving a philosophical lesson, in place of a poetic inspiration, if
it were not for those powerful imaginative utterances, those winged
words, which Browning has always in reserve, to close the ranks of his
argument. If the question is stated in a prosaic form, the final answer,
as in the ancient oracle, is in the poetic language of the gods.

From this point of view I have endeavoured to give a connected account
of Browning's ideas, especially of his ideas on religion and morality,
and to estimate their value. In order to do so, it was necessary to
discuss the philosophical validity of the principles on which his
doctrine is more or less consciously based. The more immediately
philosophical chapters are the second, seventh, and ninth; but they will
not be found unintelligible by those who have reflected on the
difficulties of the moral and religious life, even although they may be
unacquainted with the methods and language of the schools.

I have received much valuable help in preparing this work for the press
from my colleague, Professor G.B. Mathews, and still more from Professor
Edward Caird. I owe them both a deep debt of gratitude.

HENRY JONES.

1891.



CONTENTS.


CHAPTER I.
INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER II.
ON THE NEED OF A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE

CHAPTER III.
BROWNING'S PLACE IN ENGLISH POETRY

CHAPTER IV.
BROWNING'S OPTIMISM

CHAPTER V.
OPTIMISM AND ETHICS: THEIR CONTRADICTION

CHAPTER VI.
BROWNING'S TREATMENT OF THE PRINCIPLE
OF LOVE

CHAPTER VII.
BROWNING'S IDEALISM, AND ITS PHILOSOPHICAL
JUSTIFICATION

CHAPTER VIII.
BROWNING'S SOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM
OF EVIL

CHAPTER IX.
A CRITICISM OF BROWNING'S VIEW OF
THE FAILURE OF KNOWLEDGE

CHAPTER X.
THE HEART AND THE HEAD.--LOVE AND
REASON

CHAPTER XI.
CONCLUSION



ROBERT BROWNING.



CHAPTER I.

INTRODUCTION.


  "Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
  Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum." (_Faust_.)

There is a saying of Hegel's, frequently quoted, that "a great man
condemns the world to the task of explaining him." The condemnation is a
double one, and it generally falls heaviest on the great man himself,
who has to submit to explanation; and, probably, the last refinement of
this species of cruelty is to expound a poet. I therefore begin with an
apology in both senses of the term. I acknowledge that no commentator on
art has a right to be heard, if he is not aware of the subordinate and
temporary nature of his office. At the very best he is only a guide to
the beautiful object, and he must fall back in silence so soon as he has
led his company into its presence. He may perhaps suggest "the line of
vision," or fix the point of view, from which we can best hope to do
justice to the artist's work, by appropriating his intention and
comprehending his idea; but if he seeks to serve the ends of art, he
will not attempt to do anything more.

In order to do even this successfully, it is essential that every
judgment passed should be exclusively ruled by the principles which
govern art. "Fine art is not real art till it is free"; that is, till
its value is recognized as lying wholly within itself. And it is not,
unfortunately, altogether unnecessary to insist that, so far from
enhancing the value of an artist's work, we only degrade it into mere
means, subordinate it to uses alien, and therefore antagonistic to its
perfection, if we try to show that it gives pleasure, or refinement, or
moral culture. There is no doubt that great poetry has all these uses,
but the reader can enjoy them only on condition of forgetting them; for
they are effects that follow the sense of its beauty. Art, morality,
religion, is each supreme in its own sphere; the beautiful is not more
beautiful because it is also moral, nor is a painting great because its
subject is religious. It is true that their spheres overlap, and art is
never at its best except when it is a beautiful representation of the
good; nevertheless the points of view of the artist and of the ethical
teacher are quite different, and consequently also the elements within
which they work and the truth they reveal.

In attempting, therefore, to discover Robert Browning's philosophy of
life, I do not pretend that my treatment of him is adequate. Browning
is, first of all, a poet; it is only as a poet that he can be finally
judged; and the greatness of a poet is to be measured by the extent to
which his writings are a revelation of what is beautiful.

I undertake a different and a humbler task, conscious of its
limitations, and aware that I can hardly avoid doing some violence to
the artist. What I shall seek in the poet's writings is not beauty, but
truth; and although truth is beautiful, and beauty is truth, still the
poetic and philosophic interpretation of life are not to be confused.
Philosophy must separate the matter from the form. Its synthesis comes
through analysis, and analysis is destructive of beauty, as it is of all
life. Art, therefore, resists the violence of the critical methods of
philosophy, and the feud between them, of which Plato speaks, will last
through all time. The beauty of form and the music of speech which
criticism destroys, and to which philosophy is, at the best,
indifferent, are essential to poetry. When we leave them out of account
we miss the ultimate secret of poetry, for they cling to the meaning and
penetrate it with their charm. Thought and its expression are
inseparable in poetry, as they never are in philosophy; hence, in the
former, the loss of the expression is the loss of truth. The pure idea
that dwells in a poem is suffused in the poetic utterance, as sunshine
breaks into beauty in the mist, as life beats and blushes in the flesh,
or as an impassioned thought breathes in a thinker's face.

But, although art and philosophy are supreme, each in its own realm, and
neither can be subordinated to the uses of the other, they may help each
other. They are independent, but not rival powers of the world of mind.
Not only is the interchange of truth possible between them; but each may
show and give to the other all its treasures, and be none the poorer
itself. "It is in works of art that some nations have deposited the
profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts." Job and Isaiah,
Æschylus and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Goethe, were first of all poets.
Mankind is indebted to them in the first place for revealing beauty; but
it also owes to them much insight into the facts and principles of the
moral world. It would be an unutterable loss to the ethical thinker and
the philosopher, if this region were closed against them, so that they
could no longer seek in the poets the inspiration and light that lead to
goodness and truth. In our own day, almost above all others, we need the
poets for these ethical and religious purposes. For the utterances of
the dogmatic teacher of religion have been divested of much of their
ancient authority; and the moral philosopher is often regarded either as
a vendor of commonplaces or as the votary of a discredited science,
whose primary principles are matter of doubt and debate. There are not a
few educated Englishmen who find in the poets, and in the poets alone,
the expression of their deepest convictions concerning the profoundest
interests of life. They read the poets for fresh inspiration, partly, no
doubt, because the passion and rapture of poetry lull criticism and
soothe the questioning spirit into acquiescence.


But there are further reasons; for the poets of England are greater than
its moral philosophers; and it is of the nature of the poetic art that,
while eschewing system, it presents the strife between right and wrong
in concrete character, and therefore with a fulness and truth impossible
to the abstract thought of science.

                "A poet never dreams:
  We prose folk do: we miss the proper duct
  For thoughts on things unseen."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, lxxxviii.]

It is true that philosophy endeavours to correct this fragmentariness by
starting from the unity of the whole. But it can never quite get rid of
an element of abstraction and reach down to the concrete individual.

The making of character is so complex a process that the poetic
representation of it, with its subtle suggestiveness, is always more
complete and realistic than any possible philosophic analysis. Science
can deal only with aspects and abstractions, and its method becomes more
and more inadequate as its matter grows more concrete, unless it
proceeds from the unity in which all the aspects are held together. In
the case of life, and still more so in that of human conduct, the whole
must precede the part, and the moral science must, therefore, more than
any other, partake of the nature of poetry; for it must start from
living spirit, go from the heart outwards, in order to detect the
meaning of the actions of man.

On this account, poetry is peculiarly helpful to the ethical
investigator, because it always treats the particular thing as a
microcosm. It is the great corrective of the onesidedness of science
with its harsh method of analysis and distinction. It is a witness to
the unity of man and the world. Every object which art touches into
beauty, becomes in the very act a whole. The thing that is beautiful is
always complete, the embodiment of something absolutely valuable, the
product and the source of love; and the beloved object is all the world
for the lover--beyond all praise, because it is above all comparison.

  "Then why not witness, calmly gazing,
  If earth holds aught--speak truth--above her?
  Above this tress, and this, I touch
  But cannot praise, I love so much!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Song_ (Dramatic Lyrics).]

This characteristic of the work of art brings with it an important
practical consequence, because being complete, it appeals to the whole
man.

"Poetry," it has been well said, is "the idealized and monumental
utterance of the deepest feelings." And poetic feelings, it must not be
forgotten, _are_ deepest; that is, they are the afterglow of the
fullest activity of a complete soul, and not shallow titillations, or
surface pleasures, such as the palate knows. Led by poetry, the
intellect so sees truth that it glows with it, and the will is stirred
to deeds of heroism. For there is hardly any fact so mean, but that when
intensified by emotion, it grows poetic; as there is hardly any man so
unimaginative, but that when struck with a great sorrow, or moved by a
great passion, he is endowed for a moment with the poet's speech. A
poetic fact, one may almost say, is just any fact at its best. Art, it
is true, looks at its object through a medium, but it always seems its
inmost meaning. In Lear, Othello, Hamlet, in Falstaff and Touchstone,
there is a revelation of the inner truth of human life beyond the power
of moral science to bestow. We do well to seek philosophy in the poets,
for though they teach only by hints and parables, they nevertheless
reflect the concrete truth of life, as it is half revealed and half
concealed in facts. On the other hand, the reflective process of
philosophy may help poetry; for, as we shall show, there is a near
kinship between them. Even the critical analyst, while severing element
from element, may help art and serve the poet's ends, provided he does
not in his analysis of parts forget the whole. His function, though
humble and merely preliminary to full poetic enjoyment, is not
unimportant. To appreciate the grandeur of the unity of the work of art,
there must be knowledge of the parts combined. It is quite true that the
guide in the gallery is prone to be too talkative, and there are many
who can afford to turn the commentator out of doors, especially if he
moralizes. But, after all, man is not pure sensibility, any more than he
is pure reason. And the aesthete will not lose if he occasionally allows
those whom he may think less sensitive than himself to the charm of
rhythmic phrase, to direct sober attention to the principles which lie
embedded in all great poetry. At the worst, to seek for truth in poetry
is a protest against the constant tendency to read it for the sake of
the emotions which it stirs, the tendency to make it a refined amusement
and nothing more. That is a deeper wrong to art than any which the
theoretical moralist can inflict. Of the two, it is better to read
poetry for ethical doctrines than for fine sensations; for poetry
purifies the passions only when it lifts the reader into the sphere of
truths that are universal.

The task of interpreting a poet may be undertaken in different ways. One
of these, with which we have been made familiar by critics of
Shakespeare and of Browning himself, is to analyze each poem by itself
and regard it as the artistic embodiment of some central idea; the other
is to attempt, without dealing separately with each poem, to reach the
poet's own point of view, and to reveal the sovereign truths which rule
his mind. It is this latter way that I shall try to follow.

Such dominant or even despotic thoughts it is possible to discover in
all our great poets, except perhaps Shakespeare, whose universality
baffles every classifier. As a rule, the English poets have been caught
up, and inspired, by the exceeding grandeur of some single idea, in
whose service they spend themselves with that prodigal thrift which
finds life in giving it. Such an idea gives them a fresh way of looking
at the world, so that the world grows young again with their new
interpretation. In the highest instances, poets may become makers of
epochs; they reform as well as reveal; for ideas are never dead things,
"but grow in the hand that grasps them." In them lies the energy of a
nation's life, and we comprehend that life only when we make clear to
ourselves the thoughts which inspire it. It is thus true, in the deepest
sense, that those who make the songs of a people make its history. In
all true poets there are hints for a larger philosophy of life. But, in
order to discover it, we must know the truths which dominate them, and
break into music in their poems.

Whether it is always possible, and whether it is at any time fair to a
poet to define the idea which inspires him, I shall not inquire at
present. No doubt, the interpretation of a poet from first principles
carries us beyond the limits of art; and by insisting on the unity of
his work, more may be attributed to him, or demanded from him, than he
properly owns. To make such a demand is to require that poetry should be
philosophy as well, which, owing to its method of intuition, it can
never be. Nevertheless, among English poets there is no one who lends
himself so easily, or so justly, to this way of treatment as Browning.
Much of his poetry trembles on the verge of the abyss which is supposed
to separate art from philosophy; and, as I shall try to show, there was
in the poet a growing tendency to turn the power of dialectic on the
pre-suppositions of his art. Yet, even Browning puts great difficulties
in the way of a critic, who seeks to draw a philosophy of life from his
poems. It is not by any means an easy task to lift the truths he utters
under the stress of poetic emotion into the region of placid
contemplation, or to connect them into a system, by means of the
principle from which he makes his departure.

The first of these difficulties arises from the extent and variety of
his work. He was prodigal of poetic ideas, and wrote for fifty years on
nature, art, and man, like a magnificent spendthrift of spiritual
treasures. So great a store of knowledge lay at his hand, so real and
informed with sympathy, that we can scarcely find any great literature
which he has not ransacked, any phase of life which is not represented
in his poems. All kinds of men and women, in every station in life, and
at every stage of evil and goodness, crowd his pages. There are few
forms of human character he has not studied, and each individual he has
so caught at the supreme moment of his life, and in the hardest stress
of circumstance, that the inmost working of his nature is revealed. The
wealth is bewildering, and it is hard to follow the central thought,
"the imperial chord, which steadily underlies the accidental mists of
music springing thence."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_.]

A second and still graver difficulty lies in the fact that his poetry,
as he repeatedly insisted, is "always dramatic in principle, and so many
utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine."[B] In his earlier
works, especially, Browning is creative rather than reflective, a Maker
rather than a Seer; and his creations stand aloof from him, working out
their fate in an outer world. We often lose the poet in the imaginative
characters, into whom he penetrates with his keen artistic intuition,
and within whom he lies as a necessity revealing itself in their actions
and words. It is not easy anywhere to separate the elements, so that we
can say with certainty, "Here I catch the poet, there lies his
material." The identification of the work and worker is too intimate,
and the realization of the imaginary personage is too complete.

[Footnote B: Pref. to _Pauline_, 1888.]

In regard to the dramatic interpretation of his poetry, Browning has
manifested a peculiar sensitiveness. In his Preface to _Pauline_ and in
several of his poems--notably _The Mermaid_, the _House_, and the
_Shop_--he explicitly cuts himself free from his work. He knew that
direct self-revealment on the part of the poet violates the spirit of
the drama. "With this same key Shakespeare unlocked his heart," said
Wordsworth; "Did Shakespeare?" characteristically answers Browning, "If
so, the less Shakespeare he!" And of himself he asks:

  "Which of you did I enable
    Once to slip inside my breast,
  There to catalogue and label
    What I like least, what love best,
  Hope and fear, believe and doubt of,
    Seek and shun, respect--deride?
  Who has right to make a rout of
    Rarities he found inside?"[A]

[Footnote A: _At the Mermaid_.]

He repudiates all kinship with Byron and his subjective ways, and
refuses to be made king by the hands which anointed him. "He will not
give his woes an airing, and has no plague that claims respect." Both as
man and poet, in virtue of the native, sunny, outer-air healthiness of
his character, every kind of subjectivity is repulsive to him. He hands
to his readers "his work, his scroll, theirs to take or leave: his soul
he proffers not." For him "shop was shop only"; and though he dealt in
gems, and throws

  "You choice of jewels, every one,
  Good, better, best, star, moon, and sun,"[A]

[Footnote A: _Shop_.]

he still _lived_ elsewhere, and had "stray thoughts and fancies
fugitive" not meant for the open market. The poems in which Browning has
spoken without the disguise of another character are very few. There are
hardly more than two or three of much importance which can be considered
as directly reflecting his own ideas, namely, _Christmas Eve_ and
_Easter Day, La Saisiaz_, and _One Word More_--unless, spite of the
poet's warning, we add _Pauline_.

But, although the dramatic element in Browning's poetry renders it
difficult to construct his character from his works, while this is
comparatively easy in the case of Wordsworth or Byron; and although it
throws a shade of uncertainty on every conclusion we might draw as to
any specific doctrine held by him, still Browning lives in a certain
atmosphere, and looks at his characters through a medium, whose subtle
influence makes all his work indisputably _his_. The light he throws on
his men and women is not the unobtrusive light of day, which reveals
objects, but not itself. Though a true dramatist, he is not objective
like Shakespeare and Scott, whose characters seem never to have had an
author. The reader feels, rather, that Browning himself attends him
through all the sights and wonders of the world of man; he never escapes
the sense of the presence of the poet's powerful personality, or of the
great convictions on which he has based his life. Browning has, at
bottom, only one way of looking at the world, and one way of treating
his objects; one point of view, and one artistic method. Nay, further,
he has one supreme interest, which he pursues everywhere with a
constancy shown by hardly any other poet; and, in consequence, his works
have a unity and a certain originality, which make them in many ways a
unique contribution to English literature.

This characteristic, which no critic has missed, and which generally
goes by the name of "the metaphysical element" in his poetry, makes it
the more imperative to form a clear view of his ruling conceptions. No
poet, least of all a dramatic poet, goes about seeking concrete vehicles
for ready-made ideas, or attempts to dress a philosophy in metaphors;
and Browning, as an artist, is interested first of all in the object
which he renders beautiful for its own sole sake, and not in any
abstract idea it illustrates. Still, it is true in a peculiar sense in
his case, that the eye of the poet brings with it what it sees. He is,
as a rule, conscious of no theory, and does not construct a poem for its
explication; he rather strikes his ideas out of his material, as the
sculptor reveals the breathing life in the stone. Nevertheless, it may
be shown that a theory rules him from behind, and that profound
convictions arise in the heart and rush along the blood at the moment of
creation, using his soul as an instrument of expression to his age and
people.

Of no English poet, except Shakespeare, can we say with approximate
truth that he is the poet of all times. The subjective breath of their
own epoch dims the mirror which they hold up to nature. Missing by their
limitation the highest universality, they can only be understood in
their setting. It adds but little to our knowledge of Shakespeare's work
to regard him as the great Elizabethan; there is nothing temporary in
his dramas, except petty incidents and external trappings--so truly did
he dwell amidst the elements constituting man in every age and clime.
But this cannot be said of any other poet, not even of Chaucer or
Spenser, far less of Milton, or Pope or Wordsworth. In their case, the
artistic form and the material, the idea and its expression, the beauty
and the truth, are to some extent separable. We can distinguish in
Milton between the Puritanic theology which is perishable, and the art
whose beauty can never pass away. The former fixes his kinship with his
own age, gives him a definite place in the evolution of English life;
the latter is independent of time, a thing which has supreme worth in
itself.

Nor can it be doubted that the same holds good of Browning. He also is
ruled by the ideas of his own age. It may not be altogether possible for
us, "who are partners of his motion and mixed up with his career," to
allow for the influence of these ideas, and to distinguish between that
which is evanescent and that which is permanent in his work; still I
must try to do so; for it is the condition of comprehending him, and of
appropriating the truth and beauty he came to reveal. And if his
nearness to ourselves makes this more difficult, it also makes it more
imperative. For there is no doubt that, with Carlyle, he is the
interpreter of our time, reflecting its confused strength and chaotic
wealth. He is the high priest of our age, standing at the altar for us,
and giving utterance to our needs and aspirations, our fears and faith.
By understanding him, we shall, to some degree, understand ourselves and
the power which is silently moulding us to its purposes.

It is because I thus regard Browning as not merely a poet but a prophet,
that I think I am entitled to seek in him, as in Isaiah or Aeschylus, a
solution, or a help to the solution, of the problems that press upon us
when we reflect upon man, his place in the world and his destiny. He has
given us indirectly, and as a poet gives, a philosophy of life; he has
interpreted the world anew in the light of a dominant idea; and it will
be no little gain if we can make clear to ourselves those constitutive
principles on which his view of the world rests.



CHAPTER II.

ON THE NEED OF A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE.

  "Art,--which I may style the love of loving, rage
  Of knowing, seeing, feeling the absolute truth of things
  For truth's sake, whole and sole, not any good, truth brings
  The knower, seer, feeler, beside,--instinctive Art
  Must fumble for the whole, once fixing on a part
  However poor, surpass the fragment, and aspire
  To reconstruct thereby the ultimate entire."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, xliv.]

No English poet has spoken more impressively than Browning on the
weightier matters of morality and religion, or sought with more
earnestness to meet the difficulties which arise when we try to
penetrate to their ultimate principles. His way of poetry is, I think,
fundamentally different from that of any other of our great writers. He
often seems to be roused into speech, rather by the intensity of his
spiritual convictions than by the subtle incitements of poetic
sensibility. His convictions caught fire, and truth became beauty for
him; not beauty, truth, as with Keats or Shelley. He is swayed by ideas,
rather than by sublime moods. Beneath the endless variety of his poems,
there are permanent principles, or "colligating conceptions," as science
calls them; and although these are expressed by the way of emotion, they
are held by him with all the resources of his reason.

His work, though intuitive and perceptive as to form, "gaining God by
first leap" as all true art must do, leaves the impression, when
regarded as a whole, of an articulated system. It is a view of man's
life and destiny that can be maintained, not only during the impassioned
moods of poetry, but in the very presence of criticism and doubt. His
faith, like Pompilia's, is held fast "despite the plucking fiend." He
has given to us something more than intuitive glimpses into, the
mysteries of man's character. Throughout his life he held up the steady
light of an optimistic conception of the world, and by its means
injected new vigour into English ethical thought. In his case,
therefore, it is not an immaterial question, but one almost forced upon
us, whether we are to take his ethical doctrine and inspiring optimism
as valid truths, or to regard them merely as subjective opinions held by
a religious poet. Are they creations of a powerful imagination, and
nothing more? Do they give to the hopes and aspirations that rise so
irrepressibly in the heart of man anything better than an appearance of
validity, which will prove illusory the moment the cold light of
critical inquiry is turned upon them?

It is to this unity of his work that I would attribute, in the main, the
impressiveness of his deliverances on morality and religion. And this
unity justifies us, I think, in applying to Browning's view of life
methods of criticism that would be out of place with any other English
poet. It is one of his unique characteristics, as already hinted, that
he has endeavoured to give us a complete and reasoned view of the
ethical nature of man, and of his relation to the world--has sought, in
fact, to establish a philosophy of life. In his case, not without
injustice, it is true, but with less injustice than in the case of any
other poet, we may disregard, _for our purposes_, the artistic method of
his thought, and lay stress on its content only. He has a right to a
place amongst philosophers, as Plato has to a place amongst poets. There
is such deliberate earnestness and systematic consistency in his
teaching, that Hegel can scarcely be said to have maintained that "The
Rational is the Real" with greater intellectual tenacity, than Browning
held to his view of life. He sought, in fact, to establish an Idealism;
and that Idealism, like Kant's and Fichte's, has its last basis in the
moral consciousness.

But, even if it be considered that it is not altogether just to apply
these critical tests to the poet's teaching, and to make him pay the
penalty for assuming a place amongst philosophers, it is certain that
what he says of man's spiritual life cannot be rightly valued, till it
is regarded in the light of his guiding principles. We shall miss much
of what is best in him, even as a poet, if, for instance, we regard his
treatment of love merely as the expression of elevated passion, or his
optimism as based upon mere hope. Love was to him rather an indwelling
element in the world, present, like power, in everything.

  "From the first, Power was--I knew.
    Life has made clear to me
  That, strive but for closer view,
    Love were as plain to see."[A]

[Footnote: A _Reverie--Asolando_.]

Love yielded to him, as Reason did to Hegel, a fundamental exposition of
the nature of things. Or, to express the same thing in another way, it
was a deliberate hypothesis, which he sought to apply to facts and to
test by their means, almost in the same manner as that in which natural
science applies and tests its principles.

That Browning's ethical and religious ideas were for him something
different from, and perhaps more than, mere poetic sentiments, will, I
believe, be scarcely denied. That he held a deliberate theory, and held
it with greater and greater difficulty as he became older, and as his
dialectical tendencies grew and threatened to wreck his artistic
freedom, is evident to any one who regards his work as a whole. But it
will not be admitted so readily that anything other than harm can issue
from an attempt to deal with him as if he were a philosopher. Even if it
be allowed that he held and expressed a definite theory, will it retain
any value if we take it out of the region of poetry and impassioned
religious faith, into the frigid zone of philosophical inquiry? Could
any one maintain, apart from the intoxication of religious and poetic
sentiment, that the essence of existence is love? As long as we remain
within the realm of imagination, it may be argued, we may find in our
poet's great sayings both solacement and strength, both rest and an
impulse towards higher moral endeavour; but if we seek to treat them as
theories of facts, and turn upon them the light of the understanding,
will they not inevitably prove to be hallucinations? Poetry, we think,
has its own proper place and function. It is an invaluable anodyne to
the cark and care of reflective thought; an opiate which, by steeping
the critical intellect in slumber, sets the soul free to rise on the
wings of religious faith. But reason breaks the spell; and the world of
poetry, and religion--a world which to them is always beautiful and good
with God's presence--becomes a system of inexorable laws, dead,
mechanical, explicable in strict truth, as an equipoise of constantly
changing forms of energy.

There is, at the present time, a widespread belief that we had better
keep poetry and religion beyond the reach of critical investigation, if
we set any store by them. Faith and reason are thought to be finally
divorced. It is an article of the common creed that every attempt which
the world has made to bring them together has resulted in denial, or at
the best in doubt, regarding all supersensuous facts. The one condition
of leading a full life, of maintaining a living relation between
ourselves and both the spiritual and material elements of our existence,
is to make our lives an alternating rhythm of the head and heart, to
distinguish with absolute clearness between the realm of reason and that
of faith.

Now, such an assumption would be fatal to any attempt like the present,
to find truth in poetry; and I must, therefore, try to meet it before
entering upon a statement and criticism of Browning's view of life. I
cannot admit that the difficulties of placing the facts of man's
spiritual life on a rational basis are so great as to justify the
assertion that there is no such basis, or that it is not discoverable by
man. Surely, it is unreasonable to make intellectual death the condition
of spiritual life. If such a condition were imposed on man, it must
inevitably defeat its own purpose; for man cannot possibly continue to
live a divided life, and persist in believing that for which his reason
knows no defence. We must, in the long run, either rationalize our faith
in morality and religion, or abandon them as illusions. And we should at
least hesitate to deny that reason--in spite of its apparent failure in
the past to justify our faith in the principles of spiritual life--may
yet, as it becomes aware of its own nature and the might which dwells in
it, find beauty and goodness, nay, God himself, in the world. We should
at least hesitate to condemn man to choose between irreflective
ignorance and irreligion, or to lock the intellect and the highest
emotions of our nature and principles of our life, in a mortal struggle.
Poetry and religion may, after all, be truer then prose, and have
something to tell the world that science, which is often ignorant of its
own limits, cannot teach.

The failure of philosophy in the past, even if it were as complete as is
believed by persons ignorant of its history, is no argument against its
success in the future. Such persons have never known that the world of
thought like that of action makes a stepping stone of its dead self. He
who presumes to decide what passes the power of man's thought, or to
prescribe absolute limits to human knowledge, is rash, to say the least;
and he has neither caught the most important of the lessons of modern
science, nor been lifted to the level of its inspiration. For science
has done one thing greater than to unlock the secrets of nature. It has
revealed something of the might of reason, and given new grounds for the
faith, which in all ages has inspired the effort to know,--the faith
that the world is an intelligible structure, meant to be penetrated by
the thought of man. Can it be that nature is an "open secret," but that
man, and he alone, must remain an enigma? Or does he not rather bear
within himself the key to every problem which he solves, and is it not
_his_ thought which penetrates the secrets of nature? The success of
science, in reducing to law the most varied and apparently unconnected
facts, should dispel any suspicion which attaches to the attempt to
gather these laws under still wider ones, and to interpret the world in
the light of the highest principles. And this is precisely what poetry
and religion and philosophy do, each in its own way. They carry the work
of the sciences into wider regions, and that, as I shall try to show, by
methods which, in spite of many external differences, are fundamentally
at one with those which the sciences employ.

There is only one way of giving the quietus to the metaphysics of poets
and philosophers, and of showing the futility of a philosophy of life,
or of any scientific explanation of religion and morals. It is to show
that there is some radical absurdity in the very attempt. Till this is
done, the human mind will not give up problems of weighty import,
however hard it may be to solve them. The world refused to believe
Socrates when he pronounced a science of nature impossible, and
centuries of failure did not break man's courage. Science, it is true,
has given up some problems as insoluble; it will not now try to
construct a perpetually moving machine, or to square the circle. But it
has given them up, not because they are difficult, but because they are
unreasonable tasks. The problems have a surd or irrational element in
them; and to solve them would be to bring reason into collision with
itself.

Now, whatever may be the difficulties of establishing a theory of life,
or a philosophy, it has never been shown to be an unreasonable task to
attempt it. One might, on the contrary, expect, _prima facie_, that in
a world progressively proved to be intelligible to man, man himself
would be no exception. It is impossible that the "light in him should be
darkness," or that the thought which reveals the order of the world
should be itself chaotic.

The need for philosophy is just the ultimate form of the need for
knowledge; and the truths which philosophy brings to light are implied
in every rational explanation of things. The only choice we can have is
between a conscious metaphysics and an unconscious one, between
hypotheses which we have examined and whose limitations we know, and
hypotheses which rule us from behind, as pure prejudices do. It is
because of this that the empiric is so dogmatic, and the ignorant man so
certain of the truth of his opinion. They do not know their postulates,
nor are they aware that there is no interpretation of an object which
does not finally point to a theory of being. We understand no joint or
ligament, except in relation to the whole organism, and no fact, or
event, except by finding a place for it in the context of our
experience. The history of the pebble can be given, only in the light of
the story of the earth, as it is told by the whole of geology. We must
begin very far back, and bring our widest principles to bear upon the
particular thing, if we wish really to know what it is. It is a law that
explains, and laws are always universal. All our knowledge, even the
most broken and inconsistent, streams from some fundamental conception,
in virtue of which all the variety of objects constitute one world, one
orderly kosmos, even to the meanest mind. It is true that the central
thought, be it rich or poor, must, like the sun's light, be broken
against particular facts. But there is no need of forgetting the real
source of knowledge, or of deeming that its progress is a synthesis
without law, or an addition of fact to fact without any guiding
principles.

Now, it is the characteristic of poetry and philosophy that they keep
alive our consciousness of these primary, uniting principles. They
always dwell in the presence of the idea which makes their object _one_.
To them the world is always, and necessarily, a harmonious whole, as it
is also to the religious spirit. It is because of this that the universe
is a thing of beauty for the poet, a revelation of God's goodness to the
devout soul, and a manifestation of absolute reason to the philosopher.
Art, religion, and philosophy fail or flourish together. The age of
prose and scepticism appears when the sense of the presence of the whole
in the particular facts of the world and of life has been dulled. And
there is a necessity in this; for if the conception of the world as a
whole is held to be impossible, if philosophy is a futility, then
poetry will be a vain sentiment and religion a delusion.

Nor will the failure of thought, when once demonstrated in these upper
regions, be confined to them. On the contrary, it will spread downwards
to science and ordinary knowledge, as mountain mists blot out the
valleys. For every synthesis of fact to fact, every attempt to know,
however humble and limited, is inspired by a secret faith in the unity
of the world. Each of the sciences works within its own region, and
colligates its details in the light of its own hypothesis; and all the
sciences taken together presuppose the presence in the world of a
principle that binds it into an orderly totality. Scientific explorers
know that they are all working towards the same centre. And, ever and
anon, as the isolated thinker presses home his own hypothesis, he finds
his thought beating on the limits of his science, and suggesting some
wider hypothesis. The walls that separate the sciences are wearing thin,
and at times light penetrates from one to the other. So that to their
votaries, at least, the faith is progressively justified, that there is
a meeting point for the sciences, a central truth in which the dispersed
rays will again be gathered together. In fact, all the sciences are
working together under the guidance of a principle common to them all,
although it may not be consciously known and no attempt is made to
define it. In science, as in philosophy and art and religion, there is a
principle of unity, which, though latent, is really prior to all
explanation of particular matters of fact.

In truth, man has only one way of knowing. There is no fundamental
difference between scientific and philosophic procedure. We always light
up facts by means of general laws. The fall of the stone was a perfect
enigma, a universally unintelligible bit of experience, till the
majestic imagination of Newton conceived the idea of universal
gravitation. Wherever mind successfully invades the realm of chaos,
poetry, the sense of the whole, comes first. There is the intuitive
flash, the penetrative glimpse, got no one knows exactly whence--though
we do know that it comes neither from the dead facts nor from the vacant
region of _a priori_ thought, but somehow from the interaction of both
these elements of knowledge. After the intuitive flash comes the slow
labour of proof, the application of the principle to details. And that
application transforms both the principle and the details, so that the
former is enriched with content and the latter are made intelligible--a
veritable conquest and valid possession for mankind. And in this labour
of proof, science and philosophy alike take their share.

Philosophy may be said to come midway between poetry and science, and to
partake of the nature of both. On the one side it deals, like poetry,
with ideals of knowledge, and announces truths which it does not
completely verify; on the other, it leaves to science the task of
articulating its principles in facts, though it begins the articulation
itself. It reveals subsidiary principles, and is, at the same time, a
witness for the unity of the categories of science. We may say, if we
wish, that its principles are mere hypotheses. But so are the ideas
which underlie the most practical of the sciences; so is every forecast
of genius by virtue of which knowledge is extended; so is every
principle of knowledge not completely worked out. To say that philosophy
is hypothetical implies no charge, other than that which can be
levelled, in the same sense, against the most solid body of scientific
knowledge in the world. The fruitful question in each case alike is, how
far, if at all, does the hypothesis enable us to understand particular
facts.

The more careful of our scientific thinkers are well aware of the limits
under which they work and of the hypothetical character of their
results. "I take Euclidean space, and the existence of material
particles and elemental energy for granted," says the physicist; "deny
them, and I am helpless; grant them, and I shall establish quantitative
relations between the different forms of this elemental energy, and make
it tractable and tame to man's uses. All I teach depends upon my
hypothesis. In it is the secret of all the power I wield. I do not
pretend to say what this elemental energy is. I make no declaration
regarding the actual nature of things; and all questions as to the
ultimate origin or final destination of the world are beyond the scope
of my inquiry. I am ruled by my hypothesis; I regard phenomena _from my
point of view_; and my right to do so I substantiate by the practical
and theoretical results which follow." The language of geology,
chemistry, zoology, and even mathematics is the same. They all start
from a hypothesis; they are all based on an imaginative conception, and
in this sense their votaries are poets, who see the unity of being throb
in the particular fact.

Now, so far as the particular sciences are concerned, I presume that no
one will deny the supreme power of these colligating ideas. The sciences
do not grow by a process of empiricism, which rambles tentatively and
blindly from fact to fact, unguided of any hypothesis. But if they do
not, if, on the contrary, each science is ruled by its own hypothesis,
and uses that hypothesis to bind its facts together, then the question
arises, are there no wider colligating principles amongst these
hypotheses themselves? Are the sciences independent of each other, or
is their independence only surface appearance? This is the question
which philosophy asks, and the sciences themselves by their progress
suggest a positive answer to it.

The knowledge of the world which the sciences are building is not a
chaotic structure. By their apparently independent efforts, the outer
kosmos is gradually reproduced in the mind of man, and the temple of
truth is silently rising. We may not as yet be able to connect wing with
wing, or to declare definitely the law of the whole. The logical order
of the hypotheses of the various sciences, the true connection of these
categories of constructive thought, may yet be uncertain. But, still,
there _is_ such an order and connection: the whole building has its
plan, which becomes more and more intelligible as it approaches to its
completion. Beneath all the differences, there are fundamental
principles which give to human thought a definite unity of movement and
direction. There are architectonic conceptions which are guiding, not
only the different sciences, but all the modes of thought of an age.
There are intellectual media, "working hypotheses," by means of which
successive centuries observe all that they see; and these far-reaching
constructive principles divide the history of mankind into distinct
stages. In a word, there are dynasties of great ideas, such as the idea
of development in our own day; and these successively ascend the throne
of mind, and hold a sway over human thought which is well-nigh absolute.

Now, if this is so, is it certain that all _knowledge_ of these ruling
conceptions is impossible? In other words, is the attempt to construct a
philosophy absurd? To say that it is, to deny the possibility of
catching any glimpse of those regulative ideas, which determine the main
tendencies of human thought, is to place the supreme directorate of the
human intelligence in the hands of a necessity which, _for us_, is
blind. For, an order that is hidden is equivalent to chance, so far as
knowledge is concerned; and if we believe it to exist, we do so in the
face of the fact that all we see, and all we _can_ see, is the opposite
of order, namely lawlessness. Human knowledge, on this view, would be
subjected to law in its details and compartments, but to disorder as a
whole. Thinking men would be organized into regiments; but the regiments
would not constitute an army, nor would there be any unity of movement
in the attack on the realm of ignorance.

But, such is not the conclusion to which the study of human history
leads, especially when we observe its movements on a large scale. On the
contrary, it is found that history falls into great epochs, each of
which has its own peculiar characteristics. Ages, as well as nations and
individuals, have features of their own, special and definite modes of
thinking and acting. The movement of thought in each age has its own
direction, which is determined by some characteristic and fundamental
idea, that fulfils for it the part of a working hypothesis in a
particular science. It is the prerogative of the greatest leaders of
thought in an age to catch a glimpse of this ruling idea when it first
makes its appearance; and it is their function, not only to discover it,
but also to reveal it to others. And, in this way, they are at once the
exponents of their time, and its prophets. They reveal that which is
already a latent but active power--"a tendency"; but they reveal it to a
generation which will see the truth for itself, only after the potency
which lies in it has manifested itself in national institutions and
habits of thought and action. _After_ the prophets have left us, we
believe what they have said; as long as they are with us, they are
voices crying in the wilderness.

Now, these great ideas, these harmonies of the world of mind, first
strike upon the ear of the poet. They seem to break into the
consciousness of man by the way of emotion. They possess the seer; he is
divinely mad, and he utters words whose meaning passes his own calmer
comprehension. What we find in Goethe, we find also in a manner in
Browning: an insight which is also foresight, a dim and partial
consciousness of the truth about to be, sending its light before it, and
anticipating all systematic reflection. It is an insight which appears
to be independent of all method; but it is in nature, though not in
sweep and expanse, akin to the intuitive leap by which the scientific
explorer lights upon his new hypothesis. We can find no other law for
it, than that sensitiveness to the beauty and truth hidden in facts,
which much reflection on them generates for genius. For these great
minds the "muddy vesture" is worn thin by thought, and they hear the
immortal music.

The poet soon passes his glowing torch into the hands of the
philosopher. After Aeschylus and Sophocles, come Plato and Aristotle.
The intuitive flash grows into a fixed light, which rules the day. The
great idea, when reflected upon, becomes a system. When the light of
such an idea is steadily held on human affairs, it breaks into endless
forms of beauty and truth. The content of the idea is gradually evolved;
hypotheses spring out of it, which are accepted as principles, rule the
mind of an age, and give it its work and its character. In this way,
Hobbes and Locke laid down, or at least defined, the boundaries within
which moved the thought of the eighteenth century; and no one acquainted
with the poetic and philosophic thought of Germany, from Lessing to
Goethe and from Kant to Hegel, can fail to find therein the source and
spring of the constitutive principles of our own intellectual, social,
political, and religious life. The virtues and the vices of the
aristocracy of the world of mind penetrate downwards. The works of the
poets and philosophers, so far from being filled with impracticable
dreams, are repositories of great suggestions which the world adopts for
its guidance. The poets and philosophers lay no railroads and invent no
telephones; but they, nevertheless, bring about that attitude towards
nature, man and God, and generate those moods of the general mind, from
which issue, not only the scientific, but also the social, political and
religious forces of the age.

It is mainly on this account that I cannot treat the supreme utterances
of Browning lightly, or think it an idle task to try to connect them
into a philosophy of life. In his optimism of love, in his supreme
confidence in man's destiny and sense of the infinite height of the
moral horizon of humanity, in his courageous faith in the good, and his
profound conviction of the evanescence of evil, there lies a vital
energy whose inspiring power we are yet destined to feel. Until a spirit
kindred to his own arises, able to push the battle further into the same
region, much of the practical task of the age that is coming will
consist in living out in detail the ideas to which he has given
expression.

I contend, then, not merely for a larger charity, but for a truer view
of the facts of history than is evinced by those who set aside the poets
and philosophers as mere dreamers, and conceive that the sciences alone
occupy the region of valid thought in all its extent. There is a
universal brotherhood of which all who think are members. Not only do
they all contribute to man's victory over his environment and himself,
but they contribute in a manner which is substantially the same. There
are many points of superficial distinction between the processes of
philosophy and science, and between both and the method of poetry; but
the inner movement, if one may so express it, is identical in all. It is
time to have done with the notion that philosophers occupy a
transcendent region beyond experience, or spin spiritual cocoons by _a
priori_ methods, and with the view that scientific men are mere
empirics, building their structures from below by an _a posteriori_ way
of thought, without the help of any ruling conceptions. All alike
endeavour to interpret experience, but none of them get their principles
from it.

                           "But, friends,
  Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
  From outward things, whate'er you may believe."

There is room and need for the higher synthesis of philosophy and
poetry, as well as for the more palpable and, at the same time, more
narrow colligating conceptions of the systematic sciences. The
quantitative relations between material objects, which are investigated
by mathematics and physics, do not exhaust the realm of the knowable, so
as to leave no place for the poet's, or the philosopher's view of the
world. The scientific investigator who, like Mr. Tyndall, so far forgets
the limitations of his province as to use his natural data as premises
for religious or irreligious conclusions, is as illogical as the popular
preacher, who attacks scientific conclusions because they are not
consistent with his theological presuppositions. Looking only at their
primary aspects, we cannot say that religious presuppositions and the
scientific interpretation of facts are either consistent or
inconsistent: they are simply different. Their harmony or discord can
come only when the higher principles of philosophy have been fully
developed, and when the departmental ideas of the various sciences are
organized into a view of the world as a whole. And this is a task which
has not as yet been accomplished. The forces from above and below have
not met. When they do meet, they will assuredly find that they are
friends, and not foes. For philosophy can articulate its supreme
conception only by interaction with the sciences; and, on the other
hand, the progress of science, and the effectiveness of its division of
labour, are ultimately conditioned by its sensitiveness to the hints,
given by poets and philosophers, of those wider principles in virtue of
which the world is conceived as a unity. There are many, indeed, who
cannot see the wood for the trees, as there are others who cannot see
the trees for the wood. Carlyle cared nothing though science were able
to turn a sunbeam on its axis; Ruskin sees little in the advance of
invention except more slag-hills. And scientific men have not been slow
to return with interest the scorn of the moralists. But a more
comprehensive view of the movement of human knowledge will show that
none labour in vain. For its movement is that of a thing which _grows_!
and in growth there is always movement towards both unity and
difference. Science, in pursuing truth into greater and greater detail,
is constrained by its growing consciousness of the unlimited wealth of
its material, to divide and isolate its interests more and more; and
thus, at the same time, the need for the poets and philosophers is
growing deeper, their task is becoming more difficult of achievement,
and a greater triumph in so far as it is achieved. Both science and
philosophy are working towards a more concrete view of the world as an
articulated whole. If we cannot quite say with Browning that "poets
never dream," we may yet admit with gratitude that their dreams are an
inspiration.

  "Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear.
    Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
  But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
    The rest may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know."[A]

[Footnote A: _Abt Vogler_.]

And side by side with the poetry that grasps the truth in immediate
intuition, there is also the uniting activity of philosophy, which,
catching up its hints, carries "back our scattered knowledge of the
facts and laws of nature to the principle upon which they rest; and, on
the other hand, develops that principle so as to fill all the details of
knowledge with a significance which they cannot have in themselves, but
only as seen _sub specie aeternitatis_."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time_, by
Professor Caird.]

So far we have spoken of the function of philosophy in the
interpretation of the phenomena of the outer world. It bears witness to
the unity of knowledge, and strives by the constructive criticism of the
categories of science to render that unity explicit. Its function is, no
doubt, valid and important, for it is evident that man cannot rest
content with fragmentary knowledge. But still, it might be objected that
it is premature at present to endeavour to formulate that unity.
Physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences, while they
necessarily presuppose the unity of knowledge, and attempt in their own
way and in their own sphere to discover it, are making very satisfactory
headway without raising any of the desperate questions of metaphysics as
to its ultimate nature. For them it is not likely to matter for a long
time to come whether Optimism or Pessimism, Materialism or Idealism, or
none of them, be true. In any case the principles they establish are
valid. Physical relations always remain true; "ginger will be hot i' the
mouth, and there will be more cakes and ale." It is only when the
sciences break down beneath the weight of knowledge and prove themselves
inadequate, that it becomes necessary or advantageous to seek for more
comprehensive principles. At present is it not better to persevere in
the way of science, than to be seduced from it by the desire to solve
ultimate problems, which, however reasonable and pressing, seem to be
beyond our power to answer?

Such reasonings are not convincing; still, so far as natural science is
concerned, they seem to indicate that there might be no great harm in
ignoring, for a time, its dependence on the wider aspects of human
thought. There is no department of nature so limited, but that it may
more than satisfy the largest ambition of the individual for knowledge.
But this attitude of indifference to ultimate questions is liable at any
moment to be disturbed.

  "Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
  A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
  A chorus-ending from Euripides,--
  And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
  As old and new at once as nature's self,
  To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
  Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
  Round the ancient idol, on his base again,--
  The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly.
  There the old misgivings, crooked questions are."[A]

[Footnote A: _Bishop Blougram's Apology._]

Amongst the facts of our experience which cry most loudly for some kind
of solution, are those of our own inner life. We are in pressing need of
a "working hypothesis" wherewith to understand ourselves, as well as of
a theory which will explain the revolution of the planets, or the
structure of an oyster. And this self of ours intrudes everywhere. It is
only by resolutely shutting our eyes, that we can forget the part it
plays even in the outer world of natural science. So active is it in the
constitution of things, so dependent is their nature on the nature of
our knowing faculties, that scientific men themselves admit that their
surest results are only hypothetical. Their truth depends on laws of
thought which natural science does not investigate.

But quite apart from this doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, which
is generally first acknowledged and then ignored, every man, the worst
and the best alike, is constrained to take some _practical_ attitude
towards his fellows. Man is never alone with nature, and the connections
with his fellows which sustain his intelligent life, are liable to bring
him into trouble, if they are not to some degree understood.

  "There's power in me," said Bishop Blougram, "and will to dominate
  Which I must exercise, they hurt me else."

The impulse to know is only a phase of the more general impulse to act
and to be. The specialist's devotion to his science is his answer to a
demand, springing from his practical need, that he realize himself
through action. He does not construct his edifice of knowledge, as the
bird is supposed to build its nest, without any consciousness of an end
to be attained thereby. Even if, like Lessing, he values the pursuit of
truth for its own sake, still what stings him into effort is the sense
that in truth only can he find the means of satisfying and realizing
himself. Beneath all man's activities, as their very spring and source,
there lies some dim conception of an end to be attained. This is his
moral consciousness, which no neglect will utterly suppress. All human
effort, the effort to know like every other, conceals within it a
reference to some good, conceived at the time as supreme and complete;
and this, in turn, contains a theory both of man's self and of the
universe on which he must impress his image. Every man must have his
philosophy of life, simply because he must act; though, in many cases,
that philosophy may be latent and unconscious, or, at least, not a
definite object of reflection. The most elementary question directed at
his moral consciousness will at once elicit the universal element. We
cannot ask whether an action be right or wrong without awakening all the
echoes of metaphysics. As there is no object on the earth's surface
whose equilibrium is not fixed by its relation to the earth's centre, so
the most elementary moral judgment, the simplest choice, the most
irrational vagaries of a will calling itself free and revelling in its
supposed lawlessness, are dominated by the conception of a universal
good. Everything that a man does is an attempt to articulate his view of
this good, with a particular content. Hence, man as a moral agent is
always the centre of his own horizon, and stands right beneath the
zenith. Little as he may be aware of it, his relation between himself
and his supreme good is direct. And he orders his whole world from his
point of view, just as he regards East and West as meeting at the spot
on which he stands. Whether he will or not, he cannot but regard the
universe of men and objects as the instrument of his purposes. He
extracts all its interest and meaning from himself. His own shadow falls
upon it all. If he is selfish, that is, if he interprets the self that
is in him as vulturous, then the whole outer world and his fellow-men
fall for him into the category of carrion, or not-carrion. If he knows
himself as spirit, as the energy of love or reason, if the prime
necessity he recognizes within himself is the necessity to be good, then
the universe becomes for him an instrument wherewith moral character is
evolved. In all cases alike, his life-work is an effort to rob the world
of its alien character, and to translate it into terms of himself.

We are in the habit of fixing a chasm between a man's deeds and his
metaphysical, moral, and religious creed; and even of thinking that he
can get on "in a sufficiently prosperous manner," without any such
creed. Can we not digest without a theory of peptics, or do justice
without constructing an ideal state? The truest answer, though it is an
answer easily misunderstood, is that we cannot. In the sphere of
morality, at least, action, depends on knowledge: Socrates was right in
saying that virtuous conduct ignorant of its end is accidental. Man's
action, so far as it is good or evil, is shot through and through with
his intelligence. And once we clearly distinguish between belief and
profession, between the motives which really impel our actions and the
psychological account of them with which we may deceive ourselves and
others, we shall be obliged to confess that we always act our creed. A
man's conduct, just because he is man, is generated by his view of
himself and his world. He who cheats his neighbour believes in
tortuosity, and, as Carlyle says, has the Supreme Quack for his God. No
one ever acted without some dim, though perhaps foolish enough,
half-belief that the world was at his back; whether he plots good or
evil he always has God as an accomplice. And this is why character
cannot be really bettered by any peddling process. Moralists and
preachers are right in insisting on the need of a new life, that is, of
a new principle, as the basis of any real improvement; and such a
principle necessarily carries in it a new attitude towards men, and a
new interpretation of the moral agent himself and of his world.

Thus, wherever we touch the practical life of man, we are at once
referred to a metaphysic. His creed is the heart of his character, and
it beats as a pulse in every action. Hence, when we deal with moral
life, we _must_ start from the centre. In our intellectual life, it is
not obviously unreasonable to suppose that there is no need of
endeavouring to reach upward to a constructive idea, which makes the
universe one, but when we act, such self-deception is not possible. As a
moral agent, and a moral agent man always is, he not only may, but must
have his working hypothesis, and that hypothesis must be all-inclusive.
As there are natural laws which connect man's physical movements with
the whole system of nature, so there are spiritual relations which
connect him with the whole spiritual universe; and spiritual relations
are always direct.

Now it follows from this, that, whenever we consider man as a moral
agent, that is, as an agent who converts ideas into actual things, the
need of a philosophy becomes evident. Instead of condemning ideal
interpretations of the universe as useless dreams, the foolish products
of an ambition of thought which refuses to respect the limits of the
human intellect, we shall understand that philosophers and poets are
really striving with greater clearness of vision, and in a more
sustained manner, to perform the task which all men are obliged to
perform in some way or other. Man subsists as a natural being only on
condition of comprehending, to some degree, the conditions of his
natural life, and the laws of his natural environment. From earliest
youth upwards, he is learning that fire will burn and water drown, and
that he can play with the elements with safety only within the sphere
lit up by his intelligence. Nature will not pardon the blunders of
ignorance, nor tamely submit to every hasty construction. And this truth
is still more obvious in relation to man's moral life. Here, too, and in
a pre-eminent degree, conduct waits on intelligence. Deep will only
answer unto deep; and great characters only come with much meditation on
the things that are highest. And, on the other hand, the misconstruction
of life's meaning flings man back upon himself, and makes his action
nugatory. Byronism was driven "howling home again," says the poet. The
universe will not be interpreted in terms of sense, nor be treated as
carrion, as Carlyle said. There is no rest in the "Everlasting No,"
because it is a wrong view of man and of the world. Or rather, the
negative is not everlasting; and man is driven onwards by despair,
through the "Centre of Indifference," till he finds a "Universal Yea"--a
true view of his relation to the universe.

There is given to men the largest choice to do or to let alone, at every
step in life. But there is one necessity which they cannot escape,
because they carry it within them. They absolutely must try to make the
world their home, find some kind of reconciling idea between themselves
and the forces amidst which they move, have some kind of working
hypothesis of life. Nor is it possible to admit that they will find rest
till they discover a true hypothesis. If they do not seek it by
reflection--if, in their ardour to penetrate into the secrets of nature,
they forget themselves; if they allow the supreme facts of their moral
life to remain in the confusion of tradition, and seek to compromise the
demands of their spirit by sacrificing to the idols of their childhood's
faith; if they fortify themselves in the indifference of
agnosticism,--they must reap the harvest of their irreflection.
Ignorance is not harmless in matters of character any more than in the
concerns of our outer life. There are in national and in individual
history seasons of despair, and that despair, when it is deepest, is
ever found to be the shadow of moral failure--the result of going out
into action with a false view of the purpose of human life, and a wrong
conception of man's destiny. At such times, the people have not
understood themselves or their environment, and, in consequence, they
come into collision with their own welfare. There is no experiment so
dangerous to an age or people, as that of relegating to the common
ignorance of unreasoning faith the deep concerns of moral conduct; and
there is no attitude more pitiable than that which leads it to turn a
deaf ear and the lip of contempt towards those philosophers who carry
the spirit of scientific inquiry into these higher regions, and
endeavour to establish for mankind, by the irrefragable processes of
reason, those principles on which rest all the great elements of man's
destiny. We cannot act without a theory of life; and to whom shall we
look for such a theory, except to those who, undaunted by the
difficulties of the task, ask once more, and strive to answer, those
problems which man cannot entirely escape, as long as he continues to
think and act?



CHAPTER III.

BROWNING'S PLACE IN ENGLISH POETRY.


    "But there's a great contrast between him and me. He seems
    very content with life, and takes much satisfaction in the
    world. It's a very strange and curious spectacle to behold
    a man in these days so confidently cheerful." (_Carlyle_.)

It has been said of Carlyle, who may for many reasons be considered as
our poet's twin figure, that he laid the foundations of his world of
thought in _Sartor Resartus_, and never enlarged them. His _Orientirung_
was over before he was forty years old--as is, indeed, the case with
most men. After that period there was no fundamental change in his view
of the world; nothing which can be called a new idea disturbed his
outline sketch of the universe. He lived afterwards only to fill it in,
showing with ever greater detail the relations of man to man in history,
and emphasizing with greater grimness the war of good and evil in human
action. There is evidence, it is true, that the formulae from which he
more or less consciously set forth, ultimately proved too narrow for
him, and we find him beating himself in vain against their limitations;
still, on the whole, Carlyle speculated within the range and influence
of principles adopted early in life, and never abandoned for higher or
richer ideas, or substantially changed.

In these respects, there is considerable resemblance between Carlyle and
Browning. Browning, indeed, fixed his point of view and chose his
battleground still earlier; and he held it resolutely to his life's
close. In his _Pauline_ and in his Epilogue to _Asolando_ we catch the
triumphant tone of a single idea, which, during all the long interval,
had never sunk into silence. Like

  "The wise thrush, he sings each song twice over,
  Lest you should think he never could recapture
  The first fine careless rapture!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Home Thoughts from Abroad_.]

Moreover, these two poets, if I may be permitted to call Carlyle a poet,
taught the same truth. They were both witnesses to the presence of God
in the spirit of man, and looked at this life in the light of another
and a higher; or rather, they penetrated through the husk of time and
saw that eternity is even here, a tranquil element underlying the noisy
antagonisms of man's earthly life. Both of them, like Plato's
philosopher, made their home in the sunlight of ideal truth: they were
not denizens of the cave taking the things of sense for those of
thought, shadows for realities, echoes for the voices of men.

But, while Carlyle fought his way into this region, Browning found
himself in it from the first; while Carlyle bought his freedom with a
great sum, the poet "was free born." Carlyle saw the old world faith
break up around him, and its fragments never ceased to embarrass his
path. He was _at_ the point of transition, present at the collision of
the old and new, and in the midst of the confusion. He, more than any
other English writer, was the instrument of the change from the Deism of
the eighteenth century and the despair which followed it, into the
larger faith of our own. But, for Browning, there was a new heaven and a
new earth, and old things had passed away. This notable contrast between
the two men, arising at once from their disposition and their moral
environment, had far-reaching effects on their lives and their writings.
But their affinity was deeper than the difference, for they are
essentially heirs and exponents of the same movement in English thought.

The main characteristic of that movement is that it is both moral and
religious, a devotion to God and the active service of man, a
recognition at once of the rights of nature and of spirit. It does not,
on the one hand, raise the individual as a natural being to the throne
of the universe, and make all forces social, political, and spiritual
stoop to his rights; nor does it, on the other hand, deny these rights,
or make the individual a mere instrument of society. It at least
attempts to reconcile the fundamental facts of human nature, without
compromising any of them. It cannot be called either individualistic or
socialistic; but it strives to be both at once, so that both man and
society mean more to this age than they ever did before. The narrow
formulae that cramped the thought of the period which preceded ours have
been broken through. No one can pass from the hedonists and
individualists to Carlyle and Browning without feeling that these two
men are representatives of new forces in politics, in religion, and in
literature,--forces which will undoubtedly effect momentous changes
before they are caught again and fixed in creeds.

That a new epoch in English thought was veritably opened by them is
indicated by the surprise and bewilderment they occasioned at their
first appearance. Carlyle had Emerson to break his loneliness and
Browning had Rossetti; but, to most other men at that day, _Sartor_ and
_Pauline_ were all but unintelligible. The general English reader could
make little of the strange figures that had broken into the realm of
literature; and the value and significance of their work, as well as its
originality, will be recognized better by ourselves if we take a hurried
glance at the times which lay behind them. Its main worth will be found
to lie in the fact that they strove to bring together again certain
fundamental elements, on which the moral life of man must always rest,
and which had fallen asunder in the ages which preceded their own.

The whole-hearted, instinctive life of the Elizabethan age was narrowed
and deepened into the severe one-sidedness of Puritanism, which cast on
the bright earth the sombre shadow of a life to come. England was given
up for a time to a magnificent half-truth. It did not

    "Wait
  The slow and sober uprise all around
  O' the building,"

but

    "Ran up right to roof
  A sudden marvel, piece of perfectness."[A]

[Footnote A:_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

After Puritanism came Charles the Second and the rights of the flesh,
which rights were gradually clarified, till they contradicted themselves
in the benevolent self-seeking of altruistic hedonism. David Hume led
the world out of the shadow of eternity, and showed that it was only an
object of the five senses; or of six, if we add that of "hunger." The
divine element was explained away, and the proper study of mankind was,
not man, as that age thought, but man reduced to his beggarly
elements--a being animated solely by the sensuous springs of pleasure
and pain, which should properly, as Carlyle thought, go on all fours,
and not lay claim to the dignity of being moral. All things were reduced
to what they seemed, robbed of their suggestiveness, changed into
definite, sharp-edged, mutually exclusive particulars. The world was an
aggregate of isolated facts, or, at the best, a mechanism into which
particulars were fitted by force; and society was a gathering of mere
individuals, repelling each other by their needs and greed, with a ring
of natural necessity to bind them together. It was a fit time for
political economy to supplant ethics. There was nowhere an ideal which
could lift man above his natural self, and teach him, by losing it, to
find a higher life. And, as a necessary consequence, religion gave way
to naturalism and poetry to prose.

After this age of prose came our own day. The new light first flushed
the modern world in the writings of the philosopher-poets of Germany:
Kant and Lessing, Fichte and Schiller, Goethe and Hegel. They brought
about the Copernican change. For them this world of the five senses, of
space and time and natural cause, instead of being the fixed centre
around which all things revolved, was explicable only in its relation to
a system which was spiritual; and man found his meaning in his
connection with society, the life of which stretched endlessly far back
into the past and forward into the future. Psychology gave way to
metaphysics. The universal element in the thought of man was revealed.
Instead of mechanism there was life. A new spirit of poetry and
philosophy brought God back into the world, revealed his incarnation in
the mind of man, and changed nature into a pellucid garment within which
throbbed the love divine. The antagonism of hard alternatives was at an
end; the universe was spirit-woven and every smallest object was "filled
full of magical music, as they freight a star with light." There were no
longer two worlds, but one; for "the other" world penetrated this, and
was revealed in it: thought and sense, spirit and nature, were
reconciled. These thinkers made room for man, as against the Puritans,
and for God, as against their successors. Instead of the hopeless
struggle of ascetic morality, which divides man against himself, they
awakened him to that sense of his reconciliation with his ideal which
religion gives: "Psyche drinks its stream and forgets her sorrows."

Now, this is just the soil where art blooms. For what is beauty but the
harmony of thought and sense, a universal meaning caught and tamed in
the particular? To the poet each little flower that blooms has endless
worth, and is regarded as perfect and complete; for he sees that the
spirit of the whole dwells in it. It whispers to him the mystery of the
infinite; it is a pulse in which beats the universal heart. The true
poet finds God everywhere; for the ideal is actual wherever beauty
dwells. And there is the closest affinity between art and religion, as
its history proves, from Job and Isaiah, Homer and Aeschylus, to our own
poet; for both art and religion lift us, each in its own way, above
one-sidedness and limitation, to the region of the universal. The one
draws God to man, brings perfection _here_, and reaches its highest form
in the joyous life of Greece, where the natural world was clothed with
almost supernatural beauty; the other lifts man to God, and finds this
life good because it reflects and suggests the greater life that is to
be. Both poetry and religion are a reconciliation and a satisfaction;
both lift man above the contradictions of limited existence, and place
him in the region of peace--where,

    "with an eye made quiet by the power
  Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
  He sees into the life of things."[A]

[Footnote A: _Tintern Abbey._]

In this sense, it will be always true of the poet, as it is of the
religious man, that

    "the world,
  The beauty and the wonder and the power,
  The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
  Changes, surprises,"[A]

[Footnote A: _Fra Lippo Lippi_.]

lead him back to God, who made it all.

He is essentially a witness to the divine element in the world.

It is the rediscovery of this divine element, after its expulsion by the
age of Deism and doubt, that has given to this century its poetic
grandeur. Unless we regard Burke as the herald of the new era, we may
say that England first felt the breath of the returning spirit in the
poems of Shelley and Wordsworth.

  "The One remains, the many change and pass;
    Heaven's light for ever shines, earth's shadows fly;
  Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
    Stains the white radiance of eternity,
    Until death tramples it to fragments."[B]

[Footnote B: _Adonais_.]

"And I have felt," says Wordsworth,

  "A presence that disturbs me with the joy
  Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
  Of something far more deeply interfused,
  Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
  And the round ocean and the living air,
  And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
  A motion and a spirit, that impels
  All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
  And rolls through all things."[C]

[Footnote C: _Tintern Abbey_.]

Such notes as these could not be struck by Pope, nor be understood by
the age of prose. Still they are only the prelude of the fuller song of
Browning. Whether he be a greater poet than these or not,--a question
whose answer can benefit nothing, for each poet has his own worth, and
reflects by his own facet the universal truth--his poetry contains in it
larger elements, and the promise of a deeper harmony from the harsher
discords of his more stubborn material. Even where their spheres touch,
Browning held by the artistic truth in a different manner. To Shelley,
perhaps the most intensely spiritual of all our poets,

  "That light whose smile kindles the universe,
  That beauty in which all things work and move,"

was an impassioned sentiment, a glorious intoxication; to Browning it
was a conviction, reasoned and willed, possessing the whole man, and
held in the sober moments when the heart is silent. "The heavy and the
weary weight of all this unintelligible world" was lightened for
Wordsworth, only when he was far from the haunts of men, and free from
the "dreary intercourse of daily life"; but Browning weaved his song of
hope right amidst the wail and woe of man's sin and wretchedness. For
Wordsworth "sensations sweet, felt in the blood and felt along the
heart, passed into his purer mind with tranquil restoration," and issued
"in a serene and blessed mood"; but Browning's poetry is not merely the
poetry of the emotions however sublimated. He starts with the hard
repellent fact, crushes by sheer force of thought its stubborn rind,
presses into it, and brings forth the truth at its heart. The greatness
of Browning's poetry is in its perceptive grip: and in nothing is he
more original than in the manner in which he takes up his task, and
assumes his artistic function. In his postponement of feeling to thought
we recognize a new poetic method, the significance of which we cannot
estimate as yet. But, although we may fail to apprehend the meaning of
the new method he employs, we cannot fail to perceive the fact, which is
not less striking, that the region from which he quarries his material
is new.

And yet he does not break away abruptly from his predecessors. His
kinship with them, in that he recognizes the presence of God in nature,
is everywhere evident. We quote one passage, scarcely to be surpassed by
any of our poets, as indicative of his power of dealing with the
supernaturalism of nature.

  "The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth,
  And the earth changes like a human face;
  The molten ore burst up among the rocks,
  Winds into the stone's heart, outbranches bright
  In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds,
  Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask--
  God joys therein. The wroth sea's waves are edged
  With foam, white as the bitter lip of hate,
  When, in the solitary waste, strange groups
  Of young volcanos come up, cyclops-like,
  Staring together with their eyes on flame--
  God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride.
  Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod:
  But spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes
  Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure
  Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between
  The withered tree-roots and the cracks of frost,
  Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark
  Soars up and up, shivering for very joy;
  Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing gulls
  Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe
  Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek
  Their loves in wood and plain--and God renews
  His ancient rapture. Thus He dwells in all,
  From life's minute beginnings, up at last
  To man--the consummation of this scheme
  Of being, the completion of this sphere of life."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus._]

Such passages as these contain neither the rapt, reflective calm of
Wordsworth's solemn tones, nor the ethereal intoxication of Shelley's
spirit-music; but there is in them the same consciousness of the
infinite meaning of natural facts. And beyond this, there is also, in
the closing lines, a hint of a new region for art. Shelley and
Wordsworth were the poets of Nature, as all truly say; Browning was the
poet of the human soul. For Shelley, the beauty in which all things work
and move was well-nigh "quenched by the eclipsing curse of the birth of
man"; and Wordsworth lived beneath the habitual sway of fountains,
meadows, hills and groves, while he kept grave watch o'er man's
mortality, and saw the shades of the prison-house gather round him. From
the life of man they garnered nought but mad indignation, or mellowed
sadness. It was a foolish and furious strife with unknown powers fought
in the dark, from which the poet kept aloof, for he could not see that
God dwelt amidst the chaos. But Browning found "harmony in immortal
souls, spite of the muddy vesture of decay." He found nature crowned in
man, though man was mean and miserable. At the heart of the most
wretched abortion of wickedness there was the mark of the loving touch
of God. Shelley turned away from man; Wordsworth paid him rare visits,
like those of a being from a strange world, made wise and sad with
looking at him from afar; Browning dwelt with him. He was a comrade in
the fight, and ever in the van of man's endeavour bidding him be of good
cheer. He was a witness for God in the midmost dark, where meet in
deathless struggle the elemental powers of right and wrong. For God is
present for him, not only in the order and beauty of nature, but in the
world of will and thought. Beneath the caprice and wilful lawlessness of
individual action, he saw a beneficent purpose which cannot fail, but
"has its way with man, not he with it."

Now this was a new world for poetry to enter into; a new depth to
penetrate with hope; and Browning was the first of modern poets to

                              "Stoop
  Into the vast and unexplored abyss,
                 Strenuously beating
  The silent boundless regions of the sky."

It is also a new world for religion and morality; and to understand it
demands a deeper insight into the fundamental elements of human life.

To show this in a proximately adequate manner, we should be obliged, as
already hinted, to connect the poet's work, not merely with that of his
English predecessors, but with the deeper and more comprehensive
movement of the thought of Germany since the time of Kant. It would be
necessary to indicate how, by breaking a way through the narrow creeds
and equally narrow scepticism of the previous age, the new spirit
extended the horizon of man's active and contemplative life, and made
him free of the universe, and the repository of the past conquests of
his race. It proposed to man the great task of solving the problem of
humanity, but it strengthened him with its past achievement, and
inspired him with the conviction of its boundless progress. It is not
that the significance of the individual or the meaning of his endeavour
is lost. Under this new view, man has still to fight for his own hand,
and it is still recognized that spirit is always burdened with its own
fate and cannot share its responsibility. Morality does not give way to
religion or pass into it, and there is a sense in which the individual
is always alone in the sphere of duty.

But from this new point of view the individual is re-explained for us,
and we begin to understand that he is the focus of a light which is
universal, "one more incarnation of the mind of God." His moral task is
no longer to seek his own in the old sense, but to elevate humanity; for
it is only by taking this circuit that he can come to his own. Such a
task as this is a sufficiently great one to occupy all time; but it is
to humanity in him that the task belongs, and it will therefore be
achieved. This is no new one-sidedness. It does not mean, to those who
comprehend it, the supplanting of the individual thought by the
collective thought, or the substitution of humanity for man. The
universal is _in_ the particular, the fact _is_ the law. There is no
collision between the whole and the part, for the whole lives in the
part. As each individual plant has its own life and beauty and worth,
although the universe has conspired to bring it into being; so also, and
in a far higher degree, man has his own duty and his own dignity,
although he is but the embodiment of forces, natural and spiritual,
which have come from the endless past. Like a letter in a word, or a
word in a sentence, he gets his meaning from his context; _but the
sentence is meaningless without him_. "Rays from all round converge in
him," and he has no power except that which has been lent to him; but
all the same, nay, all the more, he must

  "Think as if man never thought before!
  Act as if all creation hung attent
  On the acting of such faculty as his."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

His responsibility, his individuality, is not less, but greater, in that
he can, in his thought and moral action, command the forces that the
race has stored for him. The great man speaks the thought of his people,
and his invocations as their priest are just the expression of their
dumb yearnings. And even the mean and insignificant man is what he is,
in virtue of the humanity which is blurred and distorted within him; and
he can shed his insignificance and meanness, only by becoming a truer
vehicle for that humanity.

Thus, when spirit is spiritually discerned, it is seen that man is bound
to man in a union closer than any physical organism can show; while "the
individual," in the old sense of a being _opposed_ to society and
_opposed_ to the world, is found to be a fiction of abstract thought,
not discoverable anywhere, because not real. And, on the other hand,
society is no longer "collective," but so organic that the whole is
potentially in every part--an organism _of_ organisms.

The influence of this organic idea in every department of thought which
concerns itself with man is not to be measured. It is already fast
changing all the practical sciences of man--economics, politics, ethics
and religion. The material, being newly interpreted, is wrought into a
new purpose, and revelation is once more bringing about a reformation.
But human action in its ethical aspect is, above all, charged with a new
significance. The idea of duty has received an expansion almost
illimitable, and man himself has thereby attained new worth and
dignity--for what is duty except a dignity and opportunity, man's chance
of being good? When we contrast this view of the life of man as the life
of humanity in him, with the old individualism, we may say that morality
also has at last, in Bacon's phrase, passed from the narrow seas into
the open ocean. And after all, the greatest achievement of our age may
be not that it has established the sciences of nature, but that it has
made possible the science of man. We have, at length, reached a point of
view from which we may hope to understand ourselves. Law, order,
continuity, in human action--the essential pre-conditions of a moral
science--were beyond the reach of an individualistic theory. It left to
ethical writers no choice but that of either sacrificing man to law, or
law to man; of denying either the particular or the universal element in
his nature. Naturalism did the first. Intuitionism, the second. The
former made human action the _re_action of a natural agent on the
incitement of natural forces. It made man a mere object, a _thing_
capable of being affected by other things through his faculty of being
pained or pleased; an object acting in obedience to motives that had an
external origin, just like any other object. The latter theory cut man
free from the world and his fellows, endowed him with a will that had no
law, and a conscience that was dogmatic; and thereby succeeded in
stultifying both law and morality.

But this new consciousness of the relation of man to mankind and the
world takes him out of his isolation and still leaves him free. It
relates men to one another in a humanity, which is incarnated anew in
each of them. It elevates the individual above the distinctions of time;
it treasures up the past in him as the active energy of his knowledge
and morality in the present, and also as the potency of the ideal life
of the future. On this view, the individual and the race are possible
only through each other.

This fundamental change in our way of looking at the life of man is
bound to abolish the ancient landmarks and bring confusion for a time.
Out of the new conception, _i.e.,_ out of the idea of evolution, has
sprung the tumult as well as the strength of our time. The present age
is moved with thoughts beyond the reach of its powers: great aspirations
for the well-being of the people and high ideals of social welfare flash
across its mind, to be followed again by thicker darkness. There is
hardly any limit to its despair or hope. It has a far larger faith in
the destiny of man than any of its predecessors, and yet it is _sure_ of
hardly anything--except that the ancient rules of human life are false.
Individualism is now detected as scepticism and moral chaos in disguise.
We know that the old methods are no longer of use. We cannot now cut
ourselves free of the fate of others. The confused cries for help that
are heard on every hand are recognized as the voices of our brethren;
and we now know that our fate is involved in theirs, and that the
problem of their welfare is also ours. We grapple with social questions
at last, and recognize that the issues of life and death lie in the
solution of these enigmas. Legislators and economists, teachers of
religion and socialists, are all alike social reformers. Philanthropy
has taken a deeper meaning; and all sects bear its banner. But their
forces are beaten back by the social wretchedness, for they have not
found the sovereign remedy of a great idea; and the result is in many
ways sad enough. Our social remedies often work mischief; for we degrade
those whom we would elevate, and in our charity forget justice. We
insist on the rights of the people and the duties of the privileged
classes, and thereby tend to teach greed to those for whom we labour,
and goodness to those whom we condemn. The task that lies before us is
plain: we want the welfare of the people as a whole. But we fail to
grasp the complex social elements together, and our very remedies tend
to sunder them. We know that the public good will not be obtained by
separating man from man, securing each unit in a charmed circle of
personal rights, and protecting it from others by isolation. We must
find a place for the individual within the social organism, and we know
now that this organism has not, as our fathers seemed to think, the
simple constitution of a wooden doll. Society is not put together
mechanically, and the individual cannot be outwardly attached to it, if
he is to be helped, He must rather share its life, be the heir of the
wealth it has garnered for him in the past, and participate in its
onward movement. Between this new social ideal and our attainment,
between the magnitude of our social duties and the resources of
intellect and will at our command, there lies a chasm which we despair
of bridging over.

The characteristics of this epoch faithfully reflect themselves in the
pages of Carlyle, with whose thoughts those of Browning are immediately
connected. It was Carlyle who first effectively revealed to England the
continuity of human life, and the magnitude of the issues of individual
action. Seeing the infinite in the finite, living under a continued
sense of the mystery that surrounds man, he flung explosive negations
amidst the narrow formulae of the social and religious orthodoxy of his
day, blew down the blinding walls of ethical individualism, and, amidst
much smoke and din, showed his English readers something of the
greatness of the moral world. He gave us a philosophy of clothes,
penetrated through symbols to the immortal ideas, condemned all
shibboleths, and revealed the soul of humanity behind the external modes
of man's activity. He showed us, in a word, that the world is spiritual,
that loyalty to duty is the foundation of all human good, and that
national welfare rests on character. After reading him, it is impossible
for any one who reflects on the nature of duty to ask, "Am I my
brother's keeper?" He not only imagined, but knew, how "all things the
minutest that man does, minutely influence all men, and the very look of
his face blesses or curses whom-so it lights on, and so generates ever
new blessing or new cursing. I say, there is not a Red Indian, hunting
by Lake Winnipeg, can quarrel with his squaw, but the whole world must
smart for it: will not the price of beaver rise? It is a mathematical
fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of
gravity of the universe." Carlyle dealt the deathblow to the
"laissez-faire" theory rampant in his day, and made each individual
responsible for the race. He has demonstrated that the sphere of duty
does not terminate with ourselves and our next-door neighbours. There
will be no pure air for the correctest Levite to breathe, till the laws
of sanitation have been applied to the moral slums. "Ye are my
brethren," said he, and he adds, as if conscious of his too denunciatory
way of dealing with them, "hence my rage and sorrow."

But his consciousness of brotherhood with all men brought only despair
for him. He saw clearly the responsibility of man, but not the dignity
which that implies; he felt the weight of the burden of humanity upon
his own soul, and it crushed him, for he forgot that all the good of the
world was there to help him bear it, and that "One with God is a
majority." He taught only the half-truth, that all men are united on the
side of duty, and that the spiritual life of each is conditional on
striving to save all. But he neglected the complement of this truth, and
forgot the greatness of the beings on whom so great a duty could be
laid. He therefore dignifies humanity only to degrade it again. The
"twenty millions" each must try to save "are mostly fools." But how
fools, when they can have such a task? Is it not true, on the contrary,
that no man ever saw a duty beyond his strength, and that "man can
because he ought" and ought only because he can? The evils an individual
cannot overcome are the moral opportunities of his fellows. The good are
not lone workers of God's purposes, and there is no need of despair.
Carlyle, like the ancient prophet, was too conscious of his own mission,
and too forgetful of that of others. "I have been very jealous for the
Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forgotten Thy
covenant, thrown down Thine alters, and slain Thy prophets, and I, even
I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." He needed,
beside the consciousness of his prophetic function, a consciousness of
brotherhood with humbler workers. "Yet I have left Me seven thousand in
Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth
which hath not kissed him." It would have helped him had he remembered,
that there were on all sides other workers engaged on the temple not
made with hands, although he could not hear the sound of their hammers
for the din he made himself. It would have changed his despair into joy,
and his pity into a higher moral quality, had he been able to believe
that, amidst all the millions against whom he hurled his anathemas,
there is no one who, let him do what he will, is not constrained to
illustrate either the folly and wretchedness of sin, or the glory of
goodness. It is not given to any one, least of all to the wicked, to
hold back the onward movement of the race, or to destroy the impulse for
good which is planted within it.

But Carlyle saw only one side of the truth about man's moral nature and
destiny. He knew, as the ancient prophets did, that evil is potential
wreck; and he taxed the power of metaphor to the utmost to indicate, how
wrong gradually takes root, and ripens into putrescence and
self-combustion, in obedience to a necessity which is absolute. That
morality is the essence of things, that wrong _must_ prove its
weakness, that right is the only might, is reiterated and illustrated on
all his pages; they are now commonplaces of speculation on matters of
history, if not conscious practical principles which guide its makers.
But Carlyle never inquired into the character of this moral necessity,
and he overlooked the beneficence which places death at the heart of
sin. He never saw wrong except on its way to execution, or in the death
throes; but he did not look in the face of the gentle power that led it
on to death. He saw the necessity which rules history, but not the
beneficent character of that necessity.

The same limitations marred his view of duty, which was his greatest
revelation to his age. He felt its categorical authority and its binding
force. But the power which imposed the duty was an alien power, awful in
majesty, infinite in might, a "great task-master"; and the duty itself
was an outer law, written in letters of flame across the high heavens,
in comparison with which man's action at its best sank into failure. His
only virtue is obedience, and his last rendering even of himself is
"unprofitable servant." In this he has much of the combined strength and
weakness of the old Scottish Calvinism. "He stands between the
individual and the Infinite without hope or guide. He has a constant
disposition to crush the human being by comparing him with God," said
Mazzini, with marvellous penetration. "From his lips, at times so
daring, we seem to hear every instant the cry of the Breton Mariner--'My
God protect me! My bark is so small, and Thy ocean so vast.'" His
reconciliation of God and man was incomplete: God seemed to him to have
manifested Himself _to_ man but not _in_ man. He did not see that "the
Eternity which is before and behind us is also within us."

But the moral law which commands is just the reflection of the
aspirations of progressive man, who always creates his own horizon. The
extension of duty is the objective counterpart of man's growth; a proof
of victory and not of failure, a sign that man is mounting upwards. And,
if so, it is irrational to infer the impossibility of success from the
magnitude of the demands of a moral law, which is itself the promise of
a better future. The hard problems set for us by our social environment
are recognized as set by ourselves; for, in matters of morality, the eye
sees only what the heart prompts. The very statement of the difficulty
contains the potency of its solution; for evil, when understood, is on
the way towards being overcome, and the good, when seen, contains the
promise of its own fulfilment. It is ignorance which is ruinous, as when
the cries of humanity beat against a deaf ear; and we can take a
comfort, denied to Carlyle, from the fact that he has made us awake to
our social duties. He has let loose the confusion upon us, and it is
only natural that we should at first be overcome by a sense of
bewildered helplessness. But this very sense contains the germ of hope,
and England is struggling to its feet to wrestle with its wrongs.
Carlyle has brought us within sight of our future, and we are now taking
a step into it. He has been our guide in the wilderness; but he died
there, and was denied the view from Pisgah.

Now, this view was given to Robert Browning, and he broke out into a
song of victory, whose strains will give strength and comfort to many in
the coming time. That his solution of the evils of life is not final,
may at once be admitted. There are elements in the problem of which he
has taken no account, and which will force those who seek light on the
deeper mysteries of man's moral nature, to go beyond anything that the
poet has to say. Even the poet himself grows, at least in some
directions, less confident of the completeness of his triumph as he
grows older. His faith in the good does not fail, but it is the faith of
one who confesses to ignorance, and links himself to his finitude.
Still, so thorough is his conviction of the moral purpose of life, of
the certainty of the good towards which man is moving, and of the
beneficence of the power which is at work everywhere in the world, that
many of his poems ring like the triumphant songs of Luther.



CHAPTER IV.

BROWNING'S OPTIMISM.


  "Gladness be with thee, Helper of the World!
  I think this is the authentic sign and seal
  Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad,
  And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts
  Into a rage to suffer for mankind,
  And recommence at sorrow."[A]

[Footnote A: _Balaustion's Adventure_.]

I have tried to show that one of the distinctive features of the present
era is the stress it lays on the worth of the moral life of man, and the
new significance it has given to that life by its view of the continuity
of history. This view finds expression, on its social and ethical side,
in the pages of Carlyle and Browning: both of whom are interested
exclusively, one may almost say, in the evolution of human character;
and both of whom, too, regard that evolution as the realization by man
of the purposes, greater than man's, which rule in the world. And,
although neither of them developed the organic view of humanity, which
is implied in their doctrines, into an explicit philosophy, still the
moral life of the individual is for each of them the infinite life in
the finite. The meaning of the universe is moral, its last might is
rightness; and the task of man is to catch up that meaning, convert it
into his own motive, and thereby make it the source of his actions, the
inmost principle of his life. This, fully grasped, will bring the finite
and the infinite, morality and religion, together, and reconcile them.

But the reconciliation which Carlyle sought to effect was incomplete on
every side--even within the sphere of duty, with which alone, as
moralist, he specially concerned himself. The moral law was imposed upon
man by a higher power, in the presence of whom man was awed and crushed;
for that power had stinted man's endowment, and set him to fight a
hopeless battle against endless evil. God was everywhere around man, and
the universe was just the expression of His will--a will inexorably bent
on the good, so that evil could not prevail; but God was not _within_
man, except as a voice of conscience issuing imperatives and threats. An
infinite duty was laid upon a finite being, and its weight made him
break out into a cry of despair.

Browning, however, not only sought to bring about the reconciliation,
but succeeded, in so far as that is possible _in terms of mere feeling_.
His poetry contains suggestions that the moral will without is also a
force within man; that the power which makes for righteousness in the
world has penetrated into, or rather manifests itself _as_, man.
Intelligence and will, the reason which apprehends the nature of things,
and the original impulse of self-conscious life which issues in action,
are God's power in man; so that God is realizing Himself in the deeds of
man, and human history is just His return to Himself. Outer law and
inner motive are, for the poet, manifestations of the same beneficent
purpose; and instead of duty in the sense of an autocratic imperative,
or beneficent tyranny, he finds, deep beneath man's foolishness and sin,
a constant tendency towards the good which is bound up with the very
nature of man's reason and will. If man could only understand himself he
would find without him no limiting necessity, but the manifestation of a
law which is one with his own essential being. A beneficent power has
loaded the dice, according to the epigram, so that the chances of
failure and victory are not even; for man's nature is itself a divine
endowment, one with the power that rules his life, and man must finally
reach through error to truth, and through sin to holiness. In the
language of theology, it may be said that the moral process is the
spiritual incarnation of God; it is God's goodness as love, effecting
itself in human action. Hence Carlyle's cry of despair is turned by
Browning into a song of victory. While the former regards the struggle
between good and evil as a fixed battle, in which the forces are
immovably interlocked, the latter has the consciousness of battling
against a retreating foe; and the conviction of coming triumph gives
joyous vigour to every stroke. Browning lifted morality into an
optimism, and translated its battle into song. This was the distinctive
mark and mission which give to him such power of moral inspiration.

In order, however, to estimate the value of this feature of the poet's
work, it is necessary to look more closely into the character of his
faith in the good. Merely to attribute to him an optimistic creed is to
say very little; for the worth, or worthlessness, of such a creed
depends upon its content--upon its fidelity to the facts of human life,
the clearness of its consciousness of the evils it confronts, and the
intensity of its realism.

There is a sense, and that a true one, in which it may be said that all
men are optimists; for such a faith is implied in every conscious and
deliberate action of man. There is no deed which is not an attempt to
realize an ideal; whenever man acts he seeks a good, however ruinously
he may misunderstand its nature. Final and absolute disbelief in an
ultimate good in the sphere of morals, like absolute scepticism in the
sphere of knowledge, is a disguised self-contradiction, and therefore an
impossibility in fact. The one stultifies action, and asserts an effect
without any cause, or even contrary to the cause; the other stultifies
intellectual activity: and both views imply that the critic has so
escaped the conditions of human life, as to be able to pass a
condemnatory judgment upon them. The belief that a harmonious relation
between the self-conscious agent and the supreme good is possible,
underlies the practical activity of man; just as the belief in the unity
of thought and being underlies his intellectual activity. A moral
order--that is, an order of rational ends--is postulated in all human
actions, and we act at all only in virtue of it,--just as truly as we
move and work only in virtue of the forces which make the spheres
revolve, or think by help of the meaning which presses upon us from the
thought-woven world, through all the pores of sense. A true ethics, like
a true psychology, or a true science of nature, must lean upon
metaphysics, and it cannot pretend to start _ab initio_. We live in the
Copernican age, which puts the individual in a system, in obedience to
whose laws he finds his welfare. And this is simply the assertion of an
optimistic creed, for it implies a harmonious world.

But, though this is true, it must be remembered that this faith is a
prophetic anticipation, rather than acquired knowledge. We are only on
the way towards reconstructing in thought the fact which we are, or
towards bringing into clear knowledge the elemental power which
manifests itself within us as thought, desire, and deed. And, until this
is achieved, we have no full right to an optimistic creed. The
revelation of the unity which pervades all things, even in the natural
world, will be the last attainment of science; and the reconciliation of
nature and man and God is still further in the future, and will be the
last triumph of philosophy. During all the interval the world will be a
scene of warring elements; and poetry, religion, and philosophy can only
hold forth a promise, and give to man a foretaste of ultimate victory.
And in this state of things even _their_ assurance often falters. Faith
lapses into doubt, poetry becomes a wail for a lost god, and its votary
exhibits, "through Europe to the AEtolian shore, the pageant of his
bleeding heart." The optimistic faith is, as a rule, only a hope and a
desire, a "Grand Perhaps," which knows no defence against the critical
understanding, and sinks dumb when questioned. If, in the form of a
religious conviction, its assurance is more confident, then, too often,
it rests upon the treacherous foundations of authoritative ignorance,
which crumble into dust beneath the blows of awakened and liberated
reason. Nay, if by the aid of philosophy we turn our optimism into a
faith held by reason, a fact before which the intellect, as well as the
heart, worships and grows glad, it still is for most of us only a
general hypothesis, a mere leap to God which spurns the intermediate
steps, a universal without content, a bare form that lacks reality.

Such an optimism, such a plunge into the pure blue and away from facts,
was Emerson's. Caroline Fox tells a story of him and Carlyle which
reveals this very pointedly. It seems that Carlyle once led the serene
philosopher through the abominations of the streets of London at
midnight, asking him with grim humour at every few steps, "Do you
believe in the devil _now_?" Emerson replied that the more he saw of the
English people the greater and better he thought them. This little
incident lays bare the limits of both these great men. Where the one
saw, the other was blind. To the one there was the misery and the
universal mirk; to the other, the pure white beam was scarcely broken.
Carlyle believed in the good, beyond all doubt: he fought his great
battle in its strength and won, but "he was sorely wounded." Emerson was
Sir Galahad, blind to all but the Holy Grail, his armour spotless-white,
his virtue cloistered and unbreathed, his race won without the dust and
heat. But his optimism was too easy to be satisfactory. His victory was
not won in the enemy's citadel, where sin sits throned amidst the chaos,
but in the placid upper air of poetic imagination. And, in consequence,
Emerson can only convince the converted; and his song is not heard in
the dark, nor does it cheer the wayfarer on the muddy highway, along
which burthened humanity meanly toils.

But Browning's optimism is more earnest and real than any pious hope, or
dogmatic belief, or benevolent theory held by a placid philosopher,
protected against contact with the sins and sorrows of man as by an
invisible garment of contemplative holiness. It is a conviction which
has sustained shocks of criticism and the test of facts; and it
therefore, both for the poet and his readers, fulfils a mission beyond
the reach of any easy trust in a mystic good. Its power will be felt and
its value recognized by those who have themselves confronted the
contradictions of human life and known their depths.

No lover of Browning's poetry can miss the vigorous manliness of the
poet's own bearing, or fail to recognize the strength that flows from
his joyous, fearless personality, and the might of his intellect and
heart. "When British literature," said Carlyle of Scott and Cobbett,
"lay all puking and sprawling in Wertherism, Byronism and other
Sentimentalisms, nature was kind enough to send us two healthy men." And
he breaks out into a eulogy of mere health, of "the just balance of
faculties that radiates a glad light outwards, enlightening and
embellishing all things." But he finds it easy to account for the health
of these men: they had never faced the mystery of existence. Such
healthiness we find in Browning, although he wrote with Carlyle at his
side, and within earshot of the infinite wail of this moral fatalist.
And yet, the word health is inadequate to convey the depth of the joyous
meaning which the poet found in the world. His optimism was not a
constitutional and irreflective hopefulness, to be accounted for on the
ground that "the great mystery of existence was not great to him: did
not drive him into rocky solitudes to wrestle with it for an answer, to
be answered or to perish." There are, indeed, certain rash and foolish
persons who pretend to trace Browning's optimism to his mixed descent;
but there is a "pause in the leading and the light" of those wiseacres,
who pretend to trace moral and mental characteristics to physiological
antecedents. They cannot quite catch a great man in the making, nor,
even by the help of evolution, say anything wiser about genius than that
"the wind bloweth where it listeth." No doubt the poet's optimism
indicates a native sturdiness of head and heart. He had the invaluable
endowment of a pre-disposition to see the sunny side of life, and a
native tendency to revolt against that subjectivity, which is the root
of our misery in all its forms. He had little respect for the
_Welt-schmerz,_ and can scarcely be civil to the hero of the bleeding
heart.

  "Sinning, sorrowing, despairing,
    Body-ruined, spirit-wrecked--
  Should I give my woes an airing,--
    Where's one plague that claims respect?

  "Have you found your life distasteful?
    My life did, and does, smack sweet.
  Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
    Mine I saved and hold complete.
  Do your joys with age diminish?
    When mine fail me I'll complain.
  Must in death your daylight finish?
    My sun sets to rise again.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "I find earth not grey but rosy,
    Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
  Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
    Do I stand and stare? All's blue."[A]

[Footnote A: _At the Mermaid_.]

Browning was no doubt least of all men inclined to pout at his "plain
bun"; on the contrary, he was awake to the grandeur of his inheritance,
and valued most highly "his life-rent of God's universe with the tasks
it offered and the tools to do them with." But his optimism sent its
roots deeper than any "disposition"; it penetrated beyond mere health
of body and mind, as it did beyond a mere sentiment of God's goodness.
Optimisms resting on these bases are always weak; for the former leaves
man naked and sensitive to the evils that crowd round him when the
powers of body and mind decay, and the latter is, at best, useful only
for the individual who possesses it, and it breaks down under the stress
of criticism and doubt. Browning's optimism is a great element in
English literature, because it opposes with such strength the shocks
that come from both these quarters. His joyousness is the reflection _in
feeling_ of a conviction as to the nature of things, which he had
verified in the darkest details of human life, and established for
himself in the face of the gravest objections that his intellect was
able to call forth. In fact, its value lies, above all, in this,--that
it comes after criticism, after the condemnation which Byron and Carlyle
had passed, each from his own point of view, on the world and on man.

The need of an optimism is one of the penalties which reflection brings.
Natural life takes the goodness of things for granted; but reflection
disturbs the placid contentment and sets man at variance with his world.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge always reveals his nakedness to man;
he is turned out of the paradise of unconsciousness and doomed to force
Nature, now conceived as a step-dame, to satisfy needs which are now
first felt. Optimism is the expression of man's new reconciliation with
his world; as the opposite doctrine of pessimism is the consciousness of
an unresolved contradiction. Both are a judgment passed upon the world,
from the point of view of its adequacy or inadequacy to meet demands,
arising from needs which the individual has discovered in himself.

Now, as I have tried to show, one of the main characteristics of the
opening years of the present era was its deeper intuition of the
significance of human life, and, therefore, by implication, of its wants
and claims. The spiritual nature of man, lost sight of during the
preceding age, was re-discovered; and the first and immediate
consequence was that man, as man, attained infinite worth. "Man was born
free," cried Rousseau, with a conviction which swept all before it; "he
has original, inalienable, and supreme rights against all things which
can set themselves against him." And Rousseau's countrymen believed him.
There was not a _Sans-culotte_ amongst them all but held his head high,
being creation's lord; and history can scarcely show a parallel to their
great burst of joy and hope, as they ran riot in their new-found
inheritance, from which they had so long been excluded. They flung
themselves upon the world, as if they would "glut their sense" upon it.

                  "Expend
  Eternity upon its shows,
  Flung them as freely as one rose
  Out of a summer's opulence."[A]

[Footnote A:_Easter Day_.]

But the very discovery that man is spirit, which is the source of all
his rights, is also an implicit discovery that he has outgrown the
resources of the natural world. The infinite hunger of a soul cannot be
satisfied with the things of sense. The natural world is too limited
even for Carlyle's shoe-black; nor is it surprising that Byron should
find it a waste, and dolefully proclaim his disappointment to
much-admiring mankind. Now, both Carlyle and Browning apprehended the
cause of the discontent, and both endured the Byronic utterance of it
with considerable impatience. "Art thou nothing other than a vulture,
then," asks the former, "that fliest through the universe seeking after
somewhat _to eat,_ and shrieking dolefully because carrion enough is not
given thee? Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe."

                                 "Huntsman Common Sense
  Came to the rescue, bade prompt thwack of thong dispense
  Quiet i' the kennel: taught that ocean might be blue,
  And rolling and much more, and yet the soul have, too,
  Its touch of God's own flame, which He may so expand
  'Who measured the waters i' the hollow of His hand'
  That ocean's self shall dry, turn dew-drop in respect
  Of all-triumphant fire, matter with intellect
  Once fairly matched."[A]

[Footnote A:_Fifine at the Fair_, lxvii.]

But Carlyle was always more able to detect the disease than to suggest
the remedy. He had, indeed, "a glimpse of it." "There is in man a Higher
than love of Happiness: he can do without Happiness, and instead thereof
find Blessedness." But the glimpse was misleading, for it penetrated no
further than the first negative step. The "Everlasting Yea" was, after
all, only a deeper "No!" only _Entsagung_, renunciation: "the fraction
of life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your
numerator as by lessening your denominator." Blessed alone is he that
expecteth nothing. The holy of holies, where man hears whispered the
mystery of life, is "the sanctuary of sorrow." "What Act of Legislature
was there that _thou_ shouldst be Happy? A little while ago thou hadst
no right to _be_ at all. What if thou wert born and predestined not to
be Happy, but to be Unhappy? Nay, is not 'life itself a disease,
knowledge the symptom of derangement'? Have not the poets sung 'Hymns to
the Night' as if Night were nobler than Day; as if Day were but a small
motley-coloured veil spread transiently over the infinite bosom of
Night, and did but deform and hide from us its pure transparent eternal
deeps." "We, the whole species of Mankind, and our whole existence and
history, are but a floating speck in the illimitable ocean of the All
... borne this way and that way by its deep-swelling tides, and grand
ocean currents, of which what faintest chance is there that we should
ever exhaust the significance, ascertain the goings and comings? A
region of Doubt, therefore, hovers for ever in the back-ground.... Only
on a canvas of Darkness, such is man's way of being, could the
many-coloured picture of our Life paint itself and shine."

In such passages as these, there is far deeper pessimism than in
anything which Byron could experience or express. Scepticism is directed
by Carlyle, not against the natural elements of life--the mere sensuous
outworks, but against the citadel of thought itself. Self-consciousness,
or the reflecting interpretation by man of himself and his world, the
very activity that lifts him above animal existence and makes him man,
instead of being a divine endowment, is declared to be a disease, a
poisonous subjectivity destructive of all good. The discovery that man
is spirit and no vulture, which was due to Carlyle himself more than to
any other English writer of his age, seemed, after all, to be a great
calamity; for it led to the renunciation of happiness, and filled man
with yearnings after a better than happiness, but left him nothing
wherewith they might be satisfied, except "the duty next to hand." And
the duty next to hand, as interpreted by Carlyle, is a means of
suppressing by action, not idle speech only, but thought itself. But, if
this be true, the highest in man is set against itself. And what kind of
action remains possible to a "speck on the illimitable ocean, borne this
way and that way by its deep-swelling tides"? "Here on earth we are
soldiers, fighting in a foreign land; that understand not the plan of
the campaign, and have no need to understand it, seeing what is at our
hand to be done." But there is one element of still deeper gloom in this
blind fighting; it is fought for a foreign cause. It is God's cause and
not ours, or ours only in so far as it has been despotically imposed
upon us; and it is hard to discover from Carlyle what interest we can
have in the victory. Duty is to him a menace--like the duty of a slave,
were that possible. It lacks the element which alone can make it
imperative to a free being, namely, that it be recognized as _his_ good,
and that the outer law become his inner motive. The moral law is rarely
looked at by Carlyle as a beneficent revelation, and still more rarely
as the condition which, if fulfilled, will reconcile man with nature and
with God. And consequently, he can draw little strength from religion;
for it is only love that can cast out fear.

To sum up all in a word, Carlyle regarded evil as having penetrated into
the inmost recesses of man's being. Thought was disease; morality was
blind obedience to a foreign authority; religion was awe of an
Unknowable, with whom man can claim no kinship. Man's nature was
discovered to be spiritual, only on the side of its Wants. It was an
endowment of a hunger which nothing could satisfy--not the infinite,
because it is too great, not the finite, because it is too little; not
God, because He is too far above man, not nature, because it is too far
beneath him. We are unable to satisfy ourselves with the things of
sense, and are also "shut out of the heaven of spirit." What have been
called, "the three great terms of thought"--the World, Self, and
God--have fallen asunder in his teaching. It is the difficulty of
reconciling these which brings despair, while optimism is evidently the
consciousness of their harmony.

Now, these evils which reflection has revealed, and which are so much
deeper than those of mere sensuous disappointment, can only be removed
by deeper reflection. The harmony of the world of man's experience,
which has been broken by "the comprehensive curse of sceptical despair,"
can, as Goethe teaches us, be restored only by thought--

  "In thine own soul, build it up again."

The complete refutation of Carlyle's pessimistic view can only come, by
reinterpreting each of the contradicting terms in the light of a higher
conception. We must have a deeper grasp and a new view of the Self, the
World, and God. And such a view can be given adequately only by
philosophy. Reason alone can justify the faith that has been disturbed
by reflection, and re-establish its authority.

How, then, it may be asked, can a poet be expected to turn back the
forces of a scepticism, which have been thus armed with the weapons of
dialectic? Can anything avail in this region except explicit
demonstration? A poet never demonstrates, but perceives; art is not a
process, but a result; truth for it is immediate, and it neither admits
nor demands any logical connection of ideas. The standard-bearers and
the trumpeters may be necessary to kindle the courage of the army and to
lead it on to victory, but the fight must be won by the thrust of sword
and pike. Man needs more than the intuitions of the great poets, if he
is to maintain solid possession of the truth.

Now, I am prepared to admit the force of this objection, and I shall
endeavour in the sequel to prove that, in order to establish optimism,
more is needed than Browning can give, even when interpreted in the most
sympathetic way. His doctrine is offered in terms of art, and it cannot
have any demonstrative force without violating the limits of art. In
some of his poems, however,--for instance, in _La Saisiaz, Ferishtatis
Fancies_ and the _Parleyings_, Browning sought to advance definite
proofs of the theories which he held. He appears before us at times
armed _cap-à-pie,_ like a philosopher. Still, it is not when he argues
that Browning proves: it is when he sees, as a poet sees. It is not by
means of logical demonstrations that he helps us to meet the despair of
Carlyle, or contributes to the establishment of a better faith.
Browning's proofs are least convincing when he was most aware of his
philosophical presuppositions; and a philosophical critic could well
afford to agree with the critic of art, in relegating the demonstrating
portions of his poems to the chaotic limbo lying between philosophy and
poetry.

When, however, he forgets his philosophy, and speaks as poet and
religious man, when he is dominated by that sovereign thought which gave
unity to his life-work, and which, therefore, seemed to lie deeper in
him than the necessities of his art and to determine his poetic
function, his utterances have a far higher significance. For he so lifts
the artistic object into the region of pure thought, and makes sense and
reason so to interpenetrate, that the old metaphors of "the noble lie"
and "the truth beneath the veil" seem no longer to help. He seems to
show us the truth so vividly and simply, that we are less willing to
make art and philosophy mutually exclusive, although their methods
differ. Like some of the greatest philosophers, and notably Plato and
Hegel, he constrains us to doubt, whether the distinction penetrates low
beneath the surface; for philosophy, too, when at its best, is a
thinking of things together. In their light we begin to ask, whether it
is not possible that the interpretation of the world in terms of spirit,
which is the common feature of both Hegel's philosophy and Browning's
poetry, does not necessarily bring with it a settlement of the ancient
feud between these two modes of thought.

But, in any case, Browning's utterances, especially those which he makes
when he is most poet and least philosopher, have something of the
convincing impressiveness of a reasoned system of optimism. And this
comes, as already suggested, from his loyalty to a single idea, which
gives unity to all his work. That idea we may, in the end, be obliged to
treat not only as a hypothesis--for all principles of reconciliation,
even those of the sciences, as long as knowledge is incomplete, must be
regarded as hypotheses--but also as a hypothesis which he had no right
to assume. It may be that in the end we shall be obliged to say of him,
as of so many others--

  "See the sage, with the hunger for the truth,
  And see his system that's all true, except
  The one weak place, that's stanchioned by a lie!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

It may be that the religious form, through which he generally reaches
his convictions, is not freed from a dogmatic element, which so
penetrates his thought as to vitiate it as a philosophy. Nevertheless,
it answered for the poet all the uses of a philosophy, and it may do the
same for many who are distrustful of the systems of the schools, and who
are "neither able to find a faith nor to do without one." It contains
far-reaching hints of a reconciliation of the elements of discord in our
lives, and a suggestion of a way in which it may be demonstrated, that
an optimistic theory is truer to facts than any scepticism or
agnosticism, with the despair that they necessarily bring.

For Browning not only advanced a principle, whereby, as he conceived,
man might again be reconciled to the world and God, and all things be
viewed as the manifestation of a power that is benevolent; he also
sought to apply his principle to the facts of life. He illustrates his
fundamental hypothesis by means of these facts; and he tests its
validity with the persistence and impressive candour of a scientific
investigator. His optimism is not that of an eclectic, who can ignore
inconvenient difficulties. It is not an attempt to justify the whole by
neglecting details, or to make wrong seem right by reference to a
far-off result, in which the steps of the process are forgotten. He
stakes the value of his view of life on its power to meet _all_ facts;
one fact, ultimately irreconcilable with his hypothesis, will, he knows,
destroy it.


                     "All the same,
  Of absolute and irretrievable black,--black's soul of black
  Beyond white's power to disintensify,--
  Of that I saw no sample: such may wreck
  My life and ruin my philosophy
  Tomorrow, doubtless."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean Stripe_--_Ferishtah's Fancies_.]

He knew that, to justify God, he had to justify _all_ His ways to man;
that if the good rules at all, it rules absolutely; and that a single
exception would confute his optimism.

  "So, gazing up, in my youth, at love
  As seen through power, ever above
  All modes which make it manifest,
  My soul brought all to a single test--
  That He, the Eternal First and Last,
  Who, in His power, had so surpassed
  All man conceives of what is might,--
  Whose wisdom, too, showed infinite,
  --Would prove as infinitely good;
  Would never, (my soul understood,)
  With power to work all love desires,
  Bestow e'en less than man requires."[B]

[Footnote B: _Christmas Eve_.]

  "No: love which, on earth, amid all the shows of it,
  Has ever been seen the sole good of life in it,
  The love, ever growing there, spite of the strife in it,
  Shall arise, made perfect, from death's repose of it.
  And I shall behold Thee, face to face,
  O God, and in Thy light retrace
  How in all I loved here, still wast Thou!"[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

We can scarcely miss the emphasis of the poet's own conviction in these
passages, or in the assertion that,--

      "The acknowledgment of God in Christ
  Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
  All questions in the earth and out of it,
  And has so far advanced thee to be wise."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

Consequently, there is a defiant and aggressive element in his attitude.
Strengthened with an unfaltering faith in the supreme Good, this knight
of the Holy Spirit goes forth over all the world seeking out wrongs. "He
has," said Dr. Westcott, "dared to look on the darkest and meanest forms
of action and passion, from which we commonly and rightly turn our eyes,
and he has brought back for us from this universal survey a conviction
of hope." I believe, further, that it was in order to justify this
conviction that he set out on his quest. His interest in vice--in
malice, cruelty, ignorance, brutishness, meanness, the irrational
perversity of a corrupt disposition, and the subtleties of philosophic
and aesthetic falsehood--was no morbid curiosity. Browning was no
"painter of dirt"; no artist can portray filth for filth's sake, and
remain an artist. He crowds his pages with criminals, because he sees
deeper than their crimes. He describes evil without "palliation or
reserve," and allows it to put forth all its might, in order that he
may, in the end, show it to be subjected to God's purposes. He confronts
evil in order to force it to give up the good, which is all the reality
that is in it. He conceives it as his mission to prove that evil is
"stuff for transmuting," and that there is nought in the world.


  "But, touched aright, prompt yields each particle its tongue
  Of elemental flame--no matter whence flame sprung,
  From gums and spice, or else from straw and rottenness."

All we want is--

        "The power to make them burn, express
  What lights and warms henceforth, leaves only ash behind,
  Howe'er the chance."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_.]

He had Pompilia's faith.

  "And still, as the day wore, the trouble grew,
  Whereby I guessed there would be born a star."

He goes forth in the might of his faith in the power of good, as if he
wished once for all to try the resources of evil at their uttermost, and
pass upon it a complete and final condemnation. With this view, he seeks
evil in its own haunts. He creates Guido, the subtlest and most powerful
compound of vice in our literature--except Iago, perhaps--merely in
order that we may see evil at its worst; and he places him in an
environment suited to his nature, as if he was carrying out an
_experimentum crucis_. The

        "Midmost blotch of black
  Discernible in the group of clustered crimes
  Huddling together in the cave they call
  Their palace."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 869-872.]

Beside him are his brothers, each with his own "tint of hell"; his
mistress, on whose face even Pompilia saw the glow of the nether pit
"flash and fade"; and his mother--

  "The gaunt grey nightmare in the furthest smoke,
  The hag that gave these three abortions birth,
  Unmotherly mother and unwomanly
  Woman, that near turns motherhood to shame,
  Womanliness to loathing"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 911-915.]

Such "denizens o' the cave now cluster round Pompilia and heat the
furnace sevenfold." While she

              "Sent prayer like incense up
  To God the strong, God the beneficent,
  God ever mindful in all strife and strait,
  Who, for our own good, makes the need extreme,
  Till at the last He puts forth might and saves."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book_--_Pompilia_, 1384-1388.]

In these lines we feel the poet's purpose, constant throughout the whole
poem. We know all the while that with him at our side we can travel
safely through the depths of the Inferno--for the flames bend back from
him; and it is only what we expect as the result of it all, that there
should come

  "A bolt from heaven to cleave roof and clear place,
                   . . . . then flood
  And purify the scene with outside day--
  Which yet, in the absolutest drench of dark,
  Ne'er wants its witness, some stray beauty-beam
  To the despair of hell."[C]

[Footnote C: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 996-1003.]

The superabundant strength of Browning's conviction in the supremacy of
the good, which led him in _The Ring and the Book_ to depict criminals
at their worst, forced him later on in his life to exhibit evil in
another form. The real meaning and value of such poems as _Fifine at the
Fair, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Red Cotton Nightcap Country,
Ferishtah's Francies_, and others, can only be determined by a careful
and complete analysis of each of them. But they have one characteristic
so prominent, and so new in poetry, that the most careless reader cannot
fail to detect it. Action and dramatic treatment give place to a
discussion which is metaphysical; instead of the conflict of motives
within a character, the stress and strain of passion and will in
collision with circumstances, there is reflection on action after it has
passed, and the conflict of subtle arguments on the ethical value of
motives and ways of conduct, which the ordinary moral consciousness
condemns without hesitation. All agree that these poems represent a new
departure in poetry, and some consider that in them the poet, in thus
dealing with metaphysical abstractions, has overleapt the boundaries of
the poetic art. To such critics, this later period seems the period of
his decadence, in which the casuistical tendencies, which had already
appeared in _Bishop Blougram's Apology, Mr. Sludge the Medium_, and
other poems, have overwhelmed his art, and his intellect, in its pride
of strength, has grown wanton. _Fifine at the Fair is_ said to be "a
defence of inconstancy, or of the right of experiment in love." Its
hero, who is "a modern gentleman, a refined, cultured, musical, artistic
and philosophic person, of high attainments, lofty aspirations, strong
emotions, and capricious will," produces arguments "wide in range, of
profound significance and infinite ingenuity," to defend and justify
immoral intercourse with a gipsy trull. The poem consists of the
speculations of a libertine, who coerces into his service truth and
sophistry, and "a superabounding wealth of thought and imagery," and
with no further purpose on the poet's part than the dramatic delineation
of character. _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ is spoken of in a similar
manner as the justification, by reference to the deepest principles of
morality, of compromise, hypocrisy, lying, and a selfishness that
betrays every cause to the individual's meanest welfare. The object of
the poet is "by no means to prove black white, or white black, or to
make the worse appear the better reason, but to bring a seeming monster
and perplexing anomaly under the common laws of nature, by showing how
it has grown to be what it is, and how it can with more or less
self-delusion reconcile itself to itself."

I am not able to accept this as a complete explanation of the intention
of the poet, except with reference to _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._ The
_Prince_ is a psychological study, like _Mr. Sludge the Medium,_ and
_Bishop Blougram_. No doubt he had the interest of a dramatist in the
hero of _Fifine at the Fair_ and in the hero of _Red Cotton Nightcap
Country;_ but, in these poems, his dramatic interest is itself
determined by an ethical purpose, which is equally profound. His meeting
with the gipsy at Pornic, and the spectacle of her unscrupulous audacity
in vice, not only "sent his fancy roaming," but opened out before him
the fundamental problems of life. What I would find, therefore, in
_Fifine at the Fair_ is not the casuistic defence of an artistic and
speculative libertine, but an earnest attempt on the part of the poet to
prove,

  "That, through the outward sign, the inward grace allures,
  And sparks from heaven transpierce earth's coarsest covertures,--
  All by demonstrating the value of Fifine."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, xxviii.]

Within his scheme of the universal good he seeks to find a place even
for this gipsy creature, who traffics "in just what we most pique us
that we keep." Having, in the _Ring and the Book_, challenged evil at
its worst as it manifests itself practically in concrete characters and
external action, and having wrung from it the victory of the good, in
_Fifine_ and in his other later poems he meets it again in the region of
dialectic. In this sphere of metaphysical ethics, evil has assumed a
more dangerous form, especially for an artist. His optimistic faith has
driven the poet into a realm into which poetry never ventured before.
His battle is now, not with flesh and blood, but with the subtler powers
of darkness grown vocal and argumentative, and threatening to turn the
poet's faith in good into a defence of immorality, and to justify the
worst evil by what is highest of all. Having indicated in outward fact
"the need," as well as the "transiency of sin and death," he seeks here
to prove that need, and seems, thereby, to degrade the highest truth of
religion into a defence of the worst wickedness.

No doubt the result is sufficiently repulsive to the abstract moralist,
who is apt to find in _Fifine_ nothing but a casuistical and shameless
justification of evil, which is blasphemy against goodness itself. We
are made to "discover," for instance, that

                           "There was just
  Enough and not too much of hate, love, greed and lust,
  Could one discerningly but hold the balance, shift
  The weight from scale to scale, do justice to the drift
  Of nature, and explain the glories by the shames
  Mixed up in man, one stuff miscalled by different names."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, cviii.]

We are told that--

  "Force, guile were arms which earned
  My praise, not blame at all."

Confronted with such utterances as these, it is only natural that,
rather than entangle the poet in them, we should regard them as the
sophistries of a philosophical Don Juan, powerful enough, under the
stress of self-defence, to confuse the distinctions of right and wrong.
But, as we shall try to show in the next chapter, such an apparent
justification of evil cannot be avoided by a reflective optimist; and it
is implicitly contained even in those religious utterances of _Rabbi Ben
Ezra, Christmas Eve_, and _A Death in the Desert_, with which we not
only identify the poet but ourselves, in so far as we share his faith
that

  "God's in His heaven,--
  All's right with the world."

The poet had far too much speculative acumen to be ignorant of this, and
too much boldness and strength of conviction in the might of the good,
to refuse to confront the issues that sprang from it. In his later
poems, as in his earlier ones, he is endeavouring to justify the ways of
God to man; and the difficulties which surround him are not those of a
casuist, but the stubborn questionings of a spirit, whose religious
faith is thoroughly earnest and fearless. To a spirit so loyal to the
truth, and so bold to follow its leading, the suppression of such
problems is impossible; and, consequently, it was inevitable that he
should use the whole strength of his dialectic to try those fundamental
principles, on which the moral life of man is based. And it is this, I
believe, which we find in _Fifine_, as in _Ferishtah's Fancies_ and the
_Parleyings_; not an exhibition of the argumentative subtlety of a mind
whose strength has become lawless, and which spends itself in
intellectual gymnastics, that have no place within the realm of either
the beautiful or the true.



CHAPTER V.

OPTIMISM AND ETHICS: THEIR CONTRADICTION.


  "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
  Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
  Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
  Our slow designs, when we ourselves are dull.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "But most it is presumption in us, when
  The help of heaven we count the act of men."[A]

[Footnote A: _All's Well that Ends Well_.]

I have tried to show that one of the ruling conceptions of Browning's
view of life is that the Good is absolute, and that it reveals itself in
all the events of human life. By means of this conception, he
endeavoured to bring together the elements which had fallen asunder in
the sensational and moral pessimism of Byron and Carlyle. In other
words, through the re-interpreting power which lies in this fundamental
thought when it is soberly held and fearlessly applied, he sought to
reconcile man with the world and with God, and thereby with himself. And
the governing motive, whether the conscious motive or not, of Browning's
poetry, the secret impulse which led him to dramatise the conflicts and
antagonisms of human life, was the necessity of finding in them evidence
of the presence of this absolute Good.

Browning's optimism was deep and comprehensive enough to reject all
compromise. His faith in the good seemed to rise with the demands that
were made upon it by the misery and wickedness of man, and the
apparently purposeless waste of life and its resources. There was in it
a deliberate earnestness which led him to grapple, not only with the
concrete difficulties of individual life, but with those also that
spring from reflection and theory.

The test of a philosophic optimism, as of any optimism which is more
than a pious sentiment, must finally lie in its power to reveal the
presence of the good in actual individual evils. But there are
difficulties still nearer than those presented by concrete facts,
difficulties arising out of the very suggestion that evil is a form of
good. Such speculative difficulties must be met by a reflective mind,
before it can follow out the application of an optimistic theory to
particular facts. Now, Browning's creed, at least as he held it in his
later years, was not merely the allowable exaggeration of an ecstatic
religious sentiment, the impassioned conviction of a God-intoxicated
man. It was deliberately presented as a solution of moral problems, and
was intended to serve as a theory of the spiritual nature of things. It
is, therefore, justly open to the same kind of criticism as that to
which a philosophic doctrine is exposed. The poet deprived himself of
the refuge, legitimate enough to the intuitive method of art, when, in
his later works, he not only offered a dramatic solution of the problem
of life, but definitely attempted to meet the difficulties of
speculative ethics.

In this chapter I shall point out some of these difficulties, and then
proceed to show how the poet proposed to solve them.

A thorough-going optimism, in that it subdues all things to the idea of
the supreme Good, and denies to evil the right even to dispute the
absoluteness of its sway, naturally seems to imply a pantheistic theory
of the world. And Browning's insistence on the presence of the highest
in all things may easily be regarded as a mere revival of the oldest and
crudest attempts at finding their unity in God. For if _all_, as he
says, is for the best, there seems to be no room left for the
differences apparent in the world, and the variety which gives it beauty
and worth. Particular existences would seem to be illusory and
evanescent phenomena, the creations of human imagination, itself a
delusive appearance. The infinite, on this view, stands over against the
finite, and it overpowers and consumes it; and the optimism, implied in
the phrase that "God is all," turns at once into a pessimism. For, as
soon as we inquire into the meaning of this "all," we find that it is
only a negation of everything we can know or be. Such a pantheism as
this is self-contradictory; for, while seeming to level all things
upwards to a manifestation of the divine, it really levels all downwards
to the level of mere unqualified being, a stagnant and empty unknowable.
It leaves only a choice between akosmism and atheism, and, at the same
time, it makes each of the alternatives impossible. For, in explaining
the world it abolishes it, and in abolishing the world it empties itself
of all signification; so that the Godhood which it attempts to establish
throughout the whole realm of being, is found to mean nothing. "It is
the night, in which all cows are black."

The optimistic creed, which the poet strove to teach, must, therefore,
not only establish the immanence of God, but show in some way how such
immanence is consistent with the existence of particular things. His
doctrine that there is no failure, or folly, or wickedness, or misery,
but conceals within it, at its heart, a divine element; that there is no
incident in human history which is not a pulsation of the life of the
highest, and which has not its place in a scheme of universal good, must
leave room for the moral life of man, and all the risks which morality
brings with it. Otherwise, optimism is impossible. For a God who, in
filling the universe with His presence, encroaches on the freedom and
extinguishes the independence of man, precludes the possibility of all
that is best for man--namely, moral achievement. Life, deprived of its
moral purpose, is worthless to the poet, and so, in consequence, is all
that exists in order to maintain that life. Optimism and ethics seem
thus to come into immediate collision. The former, finding the presence
of God in all things, seems to leave no room for man; and the latter
seems to set man to work out his own destiny in solitude, and to give
him supreme and absolute authority over his own life; so that any
character which he forms, be it good or bad, is entirely the product of
his own activity. So far as his life is culpable or praiseworthy, in
other words, so far as we pass any moral judgment upon it, we
necessarily think of it as the revelation of a self, that is, of an
independent will, which cannot divide its responsibility. There may be,
and indeed there always is for every individual, a hereditary
predisposition and a soliciting environment, tendencies which are his
inheritance from a remote past, and which rise to the surface in his own
life; in other words, the life of the individual is always led within
the larger sweep of the life of humanity. He is part of a whole, and has
his place fixed, and his function predetermined, by a power which is
greater than his own. But, if we are to call him good or evil, if he is
to aspire and repent and strive, in a word, if he is to have any _moral_
character, he cannot be merely a part of a system; there must be
something within him which is superior to circumstances, and which
makes him master of his own fate. His natural history may begin with the
grey dawn of primal being, but his moral history begins with himself,
from the time when he first reacted upon the world in which he is
placed, and transformed his natural relations into will and character.
For who can be responsible for what he did not will? What could a moral
imperative mean, what could an "ought" signify, to a being who was only
a temporary embodiment of forces, who are prior to, and independent of
himself? It would seem, therefore, as if morality were irreconcilable
with optimism. The moral life of man cannot be the manifestation of a
divine benevolence whose purpose is necessary; it is a trust laid upon
himself, which he may either violate or keep. It surpasses divine
goodness, "tho' matched with equal power" to _make_ man good, as it has
made the flowers beautiful. From this point of view, spiritual
attainment, whether intellectual or moral, is man's own, a spontaneous
product. Just as God is conceived as all in all in the universe, so man
is all in all within the sphere of duty; for the kingdom of heaven is
within. In both cases alike, there is absolute exclusion of external
interference.

For this reason, it has often seemed both to philosophers and
theologians, as if the world were too confined to hold within it both
God and man. In the East, the consciousness of the infinite seemed at
times to leave no room for the finite; and in the West, where the
consciousness of the finite and interest therein is strongest, and man
strives and aspires, a Deism arose which set God at a distance, and
allowed Him to interfere in the fate of man only by a benevolent
miracle. Nor is this collision of pantheism and freedom, nay of religion
and morality, confined to the theoretical region. This difficulty is not
merely the punishment of an over-bold and over-ambitious philosophy,
which pries too curiously into the mystery of being. It lies at the very
threshold of all reflection on the facts of the moral life. Even
children feel the mystery of God's permitting sin, and embarrass their
helpless parents with the contradiction between absolute benevolence and
the miseries and cruelties of life. "A vain interminable controversy,"
says Teufels-dröckh, "which arises in every soul since the beginning of
the world: and in every soul, that would pass from idle suffering into
actual endeavouring, must be put an end to. The most, in our own time,
have to go content with a simple, incomplete enough Suppression of this
controversy: to a few Solution of it is indispensable."

Solution, and not Suppression, is what Browning sought; he did, in fact,
propound a solution, which, whether finally satisfactory or not, at
least carries us beyond the easy compromises of ordinary religious and
ethical teaching. He does not deny the universality of God's beneficence
or power, and divide the realm of being between Him and the adversary:
nor, on the other hand, does he limit man's freedom, and stultify ethics
by extracting the sting of reality from sin. To limit God, he knew, was
to deny Him; and, whatever the difficulties he felt in regarding the
absolute Spirit as realising itself in man, he could not be content to
reduce man into a temporary phantom, an evanescent embodiment of
"spiritual" or natural forces, that take a fleeting form in him as they
pursue their onward way.

Browning held with equal tenacity to the idea of a universal benevolent
order, and to the idea of the moral freedom of man within it. He was
driven in opposite directions by two beliefs, both of which he knew to
be essential to the life of man as spirit, and both of which he
illustrates throughout his poems with an endless variety of poetic
expression. He endeavoured to find God in man and still to leave man
free. His optimistic faith sought reconciliation with morality. The
vigour of his ethical doctrine is as pre-eminent, as the fulness of his
conviction of the absolute sway of the Good. Side by side with his
doctrine that there is no failure, no wretchedness of corruption that
does not conceal within it a germ of goodness, is his sense of the evil
of sin, of the infinite earnestness of man's moral warfare, and of the
surpassing magnitude of the issues at stake for each individual soul. So
powerful is his interest in man as a moral agent, that he sees nought
else in the world of any deep concern. "My stress lay," he said in his
preface to _Sordello_ (1863), "on the incidents in the development of a
soul: little else is worth study. I, at least, always thought so--you,
with many known and unknown to me, think so--others may one day think
so." And this development of a soul is not at any time regarded by the
poet as a peaceful process, like the growth of a plant or animal.
Although he thinks of the life of man as the gradual realization of a
divine purpose within him, he does not suppose it to take place in
obedience to a tranquil necessity. Man advances morally by fighting his
way inch by inch, and he gains nothing except through conflict. He does
not become good as the plant grows into maturity. "The kingdom of heaven
suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."

  "No, when the fight begins within himself,
  A man's worth something. God stoops o'er his head,
  Satan looks up between his feet,--both tug--
  He's left, himself, i' the middle: the soul awakes
  And grows. Prolong that battle through this life!
  Never leave growing till the life to come."[A]

[Footnote A: _Bishop Blougram_.]

Man is no idle spectator of the conflict of the forces of right and
wrong; Browning never loses the individual in the throng, or sinks him
into his age or race. And although the poet ever bears within him the
certainty of victory for the good, he calls his fellows to the fight as
if the fate of all hung on the valour of each. The struggle is always
personal, individual like the duels of the Homeric heroes.

It is under the guise of warfare that morality always presents itself to
Browning. It is not a mere equilibrium of qualities--the measured,
self-contained, statuesque ethics of the Greeks, nor the asceticism and
self-restraint of Puritanism, nor the peaceful evolution of Goethe's
artistic morality: it is valour in the battle of life. His code contains
no negative commandments, and no limitations; but he bids each man let
out all the power that is within him, and throw himself upon life with
the whole energy of his being. It is better even to seek evil with one's
whole mind, than to be lukewarm in goodness. Whether you seek good or
evil, and play for the counter or the coin, stake it boldly!

  "Let a man contend to the uttermost
  For his life's set prize, be it what it will!

  "The counter our lovers staked was lost
  As surely as if it were lawful coin:
  And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost

  "Is, the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin
  Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.
  You, of the virtue (we issue join)
  How strive you?--'_De te fabula!_'"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Statue and the Bust_.]

Indifference and spiritual lassitude are, to the poet, the worst of
sins. "Go!" says the Pope to Pompilia's pseudo-parents,

  "Never again elude the choice of tints!
  White shall not neutralize the black, nor good
  Compensate bad in man, absolve him so:
  Life's business being just the terrible choice."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1235-1238.]

In all the greater characters of _The Ring and the Book_, this intensity
of vigour in good and evil flashes out upon us. Even Pompilia, the most
gentle of all his creations, at the first prompting of the instinct of
motherhood, rises to the law demanding resistance, and casts off the old
passivity.

  "Dutiful to the foolish parents first,
  Submissive next to the bad husband,--nay,
  Tolerant of those meaner miserable
  That did his hests, eked out the dole of pain ";[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_., 1052-1055.]

she is found

  "Sublime in new impatience with the foe."

  "I did for once see right, do right, give tongue
  The adequate protest: for a worm must turn
  If it would have its wrong observed by God.
  I did spring up, attempt to thrust aside
  That ice-block 'twixt the sun and me, lay low
  The neutralizer of all good and truth."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--Pompilia_, 1591-1596.]

  "Yet, shame thus rank and patent, I struck, bare,
  At foe from head to foot in magic mail,
  And off it withered, cobweb armoury
  Against the lightning! 'Twas truth singed the lies
  And saved me."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_., 1637-1641.]

Beneath the mature wisdom of the Pope, amidst the ashes of old age,
there sleeps the same fire. He is as truly a warrior priest as
Caponsacchi himself, and his matured experience only muffles his vigour.
Wearied with his life-long labour, we see him gather himself together
"in God's name," to do His will on earth once more with concentrated
might.

                                    "I smite
  With my whole strength once more, ere end my part,
  Ending, so far as man may, this offence."[C]

[Footnote C: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1958-1960.]

Nor, spite of doubts, the promptings of mercy, the friends plucking his
sleeve to stay his arm, does he fear "to handle a lie roughly"; or
shrink from sending the criminal to his account, though it be but one
day before he himself is called before the judgment seat. The same
energy, the same spirit of bold conflict, animates Guido's adoption of
evil for his good. At all but the last moment of his life of monstrous
crime, just before he hears the echo of the feet of the priests, who
descend the stair to lead him to his death, "he repeats his evil deed in
will."

  "Nor is it in me to unhate my hates,--
  I use up my last strength to strike once more
  Old Pietro in the wine-house-gossip-face,
  To trample underfoot the whine and wile
  Of beast Violante,--and I grow one gorge
  To loathingly reject Pompilia's pale
  Poison my hasty hunger took for food."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_Guido_, 2400-2406.]

If there be any concrete form of evil with which the poet's optimism is
not able to cope, any irretrievable black "beyond white's power to
disintensify," it is the refusal to take a definite stand and resolute
for either virtue or vice; the hesitancy and compromise of a life that
is loyal to nothing, not even to its own selfishness. The cool self-love
of the old English moralists, which "reduced the game of life to
principles," and weighed good and evil in the scales of prudence, is to
our poet the deepest damnation.

  "Saint Eldobert--I much approve his mode;
  With sinner Vertgalant I sympathize;
  But histrionic Sganarelle, who prompts
  While pulling back, refuses yet concedes,--

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Surely, one should bid pack that mountebank!"

In him, even

               "thickheads ought to recognize
  The Devil, that old stager, at his trick
  Of general utility, who leads
  Downward, perhaps, but fiddles all the way!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Red Cotton Nightcap Country._]

For the bold sinner, who chooses and sustains his part to the end, the
poet has hope. Indeed, the resolute choice is itself the beginning of
hope; for, let a man only give _himself_ to anything, wreak _himself_ on
the world in the intensity of his hate, set all sail before the gusts of
passion and "range from Helen to Elvire, frenetic to be free," let him
rise into a decisive self-assertion against the stable order of the
moral world, and he cannot fail to discover the nature of the task he
has undertaken, and the meaning of the power without, against which he
has set himself. If there be sufficient strength in a man to vent
himself in action, and "try conclusions with the world," he will then
learn that it has another destiny than to be the instrument of evil.
Self-assertion taken by itself is good; indeed, it is the very law of
every life, human and other.

                                      "Each lie
  Redounded to the praise of man, was victory
  Man's nature had both right to get and might to gain."[B]

[Footnote B: _Fifine at the Fair_, cxxviii.]

But it leads to the revelation of a higher law than that of selfishness.
The very assertion of the self which leads into evil, ultimately leaves
the self assertion futile. There is the disappointment of utter failure;
the sinner is thrown back upon himself empty-handed. He finds himself
subjected, even when sinning,

                                         "To the reign
  Of other quite as real a nature, that saw fit
  To have its way with man, not man his way with it."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, cxxviii.]

  "Poor pabulum for pride when the first love is found
  Last also! and, so far from realizing gain,
  Each step aside just proves divergency in vain.
  The wanderer brings home no profit from his quest
  Beyond the sad surmise that keeping house were best
  Could life begin anew."[B]

[Footnote B:_Ibid_. cxxix.]

The impossibility of living a divided life, of enjoying at once the
sweets of the flesh on the "Turf," and the security of the "Towers," is
the text of _Red Cotton Nightcap Country_. The sordid hero of the poem
is gradually driven to choose between the alternatives. The best of his
luck, the poet thinks, was the

  "Rough but wholesome shock,
  An accident which comes to kill or cure,
  A jerk which mends a dislocated joint!"[C]

[Footnote C: _Red Cotton Nightcap Country_.]

The continuance of disguise and subterfuge, and the retention of "the
first falsehood," are ultimately made impossible to Léonce Miranda:

  "Thus by a rude in seeming--rightlier judged
  Beneficent surprise, publicity
  Stopped further fear and trembling, and what tale
  Cowardice thinks a covert: one bold splash
  Into the mid-shame, and the shiver ends,
  Though cramp and drowning may begin perhaps."[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

In the same spirit he finds Miranda's suicidal leap the best deed
possible for _him_.

                       "'Mad!' 'No! sane, I say.
  Such being the conditions of his life,
  Such end of life was not irrational.
  Hold a belief, you only half-believe,
  With all-momentous issues either way,--
  And I advise you imitate this leap,
  Put faith to proof, be cured or killed at once!'"[A]

[Footnote A: _Red Cotton Nightcap Country_.]

Thus it is the decisive deed that gains the poet's approval. He finds
the universe a great plot against a pied morality. Even Guido claims
some kind of regard from him, since "hate," as Pompilia said, "was the
truth of him." In that very hate we find, beneath his endless
subterfuges, something real, at last. And since, through his hate, he is
frankly measuring his powers against the good at work in the world,
there cannot remain any doubt of the issue. To bring the rival forces
face to face is just what is wanted.

      "I felt quite sure that God had set
  Himself to Satan; who would spend
  A minute's mistrust on the end?"[B]

[Footnote B:_Count Gismond_.]

It is the same respect for strenuous action and dislike of compromise,
that inspired the pathetic lines in which he condemns the Lost Leader,
who broke "From the van and the free-men, and sunk to the rear and the
slaves." For the good pursues its work without him.

  "We shall march prospering,--not thro' his presence;
    Songs may inspirit us,--not from his lyre;
  Deeds will be done,--while he boasts his quiescence,
    Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
  _Blot out his name_, then, record one lost soul more,
    One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
  One more devil's triumph and sorrow for angels,
    One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!"[A]

[Footnote A: _The List Leader_.]

Everywhere Browning's ethical teaching has this characteristic feature
of vigorous decisiveness. As Dr. Westcott has said, "No room is left for
indifference or neutrality. There is no surrender to an idle optimism. A
part must be taken and maintained. The spirit in which Luther said
'_Pecca fortiter_' finds in him powerful expression." Browning is
emphatically the poet-militant, and the prophet of struggling manhood.
His words are like trumpet-calls sounded in the van of man's struggle,
wafted back by the winds, and heard through all the din of conflict by
his meaner brethren, who are obscurely fighting for the good in the
throng and crush of life. We catch the tones of this heart-strengthening
music in the earliest poems he sung: nor did his courage fail, or vigour
wane, as the shades of night gathered round him. In the latest of all
his poems, he still speaks of

  "One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
    Never doubted clouds would break,
  Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
    Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
      Sleep to wake."

  "No, at noon-day in the bustle of man's work-time
    Greet the unseen with a cheer!
  Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
    'Strive and thrive'! cry 'Speed!--fight on, fare ever
      There as here.'"[A]

[Footnote A: Epilogue to _Asolande_.]

These are fit words to close such a life. His last act is a kind of
re-enlistment in the service of the good; the joyous venturing forth on
a new war under new conditions and in lands unknown, by a heroic man who
is sure of himself and sure of his cause.

But now comes the great difficulty. How can the poet combine such
earnestness in the moral struggle with so deep a conviction of the
ultimate nothingness of evil, and of the complete victory of the good?
Again and again we have found him pronounce such victory to be
absolutely necessary and inevitable. His belief in God, his trust in His
love and might, will brook no limit anywhere. His conviction is that the
power of the good subjects evil itself to its authority.

    "My own hope is, a sun will pierce
  The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
    That, after Last, returns the First,
  Though a wide compass round be fetched;
    That what began best, can't end worst.
    Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst."[B]

[Footnote B: _Apparent Failure_.]

It is the poet himself and not merely the sophistic aesthete of _Fifine_
that speaks:--

  "Partake my confidence! No creature's made so mean
  But that, some way, it boasts, could we investigate,
  Its supreme worth: fulfils, by ordinance of fate,
  Its momentary task, gets glory all its own,
  Tastes triumph in the world, pre-eminent, alone."

       *       *       *       *       *

  "As firm is my belief, quick sense perceives the same
  Self-vindicating flash illustrate every man
  And woman of our mass, and prove, throughout the plan,
  No detail but, in place allotted it, was prime
  And perfect."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, xxix.]

But if so,--if Helen, Fifine, Guido, find themselves within the plan,
fulfilling, after all, the task allotted to them in the universal
scheme, how can we condemn them? Must we not plainly either modify our
optimism and keep our faith in God within bounds, or, on the other hand,
make every failure "apparent" only, sin a phantom, and the distinction
between right and wrong a helpful illusion that stings man to
effort--but an illusion all the same?

  "What but the weakness in a Faith supplies
  The incentive to humanity, no strength
  Absolute, irresistible comforts.
  How can man love but what he yearns to help?"[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1649-1652.]

Where is the need, nay, the possibility, of self-sacrifice, except where
there is misery? How can good, the good which is highest, find itself,
and give utterance and actuality to the power that slumbers within it,
except as resisting evil? Are not good and evil relative? Is not every
criminal, when really known, working out in his own way the salvation of
himself and the world? Why cannot he, then, take his stand on his right
to move towards the good by any path that best pleases himself: since
move he must. It is easy for the religious conscience to admit with
Pippa that

  "All service ranks the same with God--
  With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
  Are we: there is no last or first."[A]

[Footnote A: _Pippa Passes_.]

But, if so, why do we admire her sweet pre-eminence in moral beauty, and
in what is she really better than Ottima? The doctrine that

  "God's in His heaven--
  All's right with the world!"[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

finds its echo in every devout spirit from the beginning of the world:
it is of the very essence of religion. But what of its moral
consequences? Religion, when thoroughly consistent, is the triumphant
reconciliation of all contradictions. It is optimism, the justification
of things as the process of evolving the good; and its peace and joy are
just the outcome of the conviction, won by faith, that the ideal is
actual, and that every detail of life is, in its own place, illumined
with divine goodness. But morality is the condemnation of things as they
are, by reference to a conception of a good which ought to be. The
absolute identification of the actual and ideal extinguishes morality,
either in something lower or something higher. But the moral ideal, when
reached, turns at once into a stepping-stone, a dead self; and the good
formulates itself anew as an ideal in the future. So that morality is
the sphere of discrepancy, and the moral life a progressive realization
of a good that can never be complete. It would thus seem to be
irreconcilably different from religion, which must, in some way or
other, find the good to be present, actual, absolute, without shadow of
change, or hint of limit or imperfection.

How, then, does the poet deal with the apparently fundamental
discrepancy between religion, which postulates the absolute and
universal supremacy of God, and morality, which postulates the absolute
supremacy of man within the sphere of his own action, in so far as it is
called right or wrong?

This difficulty, in one or other of its forms, is, perhaps, the most
pressing in modern philosophy. It is the problem of the possibility of
rising above the "Either, Or" of discrepant conceptions, to a position
which grasps the alternatives together in a higher idea. It is at bottom
the question, whether we can have a philosophy at all; or whether we
must fall back once more into compromise, and the scepticism and despair
which it always brings with it.

It is just because Browning does not compromise between the contending
truths that he is instructive. The value of his solution of the problem
corresponds accurately to the degree in which he holds both the
absoluteness of God's presence in history, and the complete independence
of the moral consciousness. He refused to degrade either God or man. In
the name of religion, he refuses to say that "a purpose of reason is
visible in the social and legal structures of mankind"--_only_ "on the
whole "; and in the name of morality, he refuses to "assert the
perfection of the actual world" as it is, and by implication to stultify
all human endeavour. He knew the vice of compromising, and strove to
hold both the truths in their fulness.

That he did not compromise God's love or power, and make it dominant
merely "on the whole," leaving within His realm, which is universal, a
limbo for the "lost," is evident to the most casual reader.

  "This doctrine, which one healthy view of things,
  One sane sight of the general ordinance--
  Nature,--and its particular object,--man,--
  Which one mere eyecast at the character
  Of Who made these and gave man sense to boot,
  Had dissipated once and evermore,--
  This doctrine I have dosed our flock withal.
  Why? Because none believed it."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Inn Album_.]

"O'er-punished wrong grows right," Browning says. Hell is, for him, the
consciousness of opportunities neglected, arrested growth; and even
that, in turn, is the beginning of a better life.

  "However near I stand in His regard,
  So much the nearer had I stood by steps
  Offered the feet which rashly spurned their help.
  That I call Hell; why further punishment?"[B]

[Footnote B: _A Camel-Driver._]

Another ordinary view, according to which evil is self-destructive, and
ends with the annihilation of its servant, he does not so decisively
reject. At least, in a passage of wonderful poetic and philosophic
power, which he puts into the mouth of Caponsacchi, he describes Guido
as gradually lapsing towards the chaos, which is lower then created
existence. He observes him

  "Not to die so much as slide out of life,
  Pushed by the general horror and common hate
  Low, lower,--left o' the very ledge of things,
  I seem to see him catch convulsively,
  One by one at all honest forms of life,
  At reason, order, decency and use,
  To cramp him and get foothold by at least;
  And still they disengage them from _his_ clutch.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "And thus I see him slowly and surely edged
  Off all the table-land whence life upsprings
  Aspiring to be immortality."

There he loses him in the loneliness, silence and dusk--

  "At the horizontal line, creation's verge.
  From what just is to absolute nothingness."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--Giuseppe Caponsacchi_, 1911-1931.]

But the matchless moral insight of the Pope leads to a different
conclusion, and the poet again retrieves his faith. The Pope puts his
first trust "in the suddenness of Guido's fate," and hopes that the
truth may "be flashed out by the blow of death, and Guido see one
instant and be saved." Nor is his trust vain. "The end comes," said Dr.
Westcott. "The ministers of death claim him. In his agony he summons
every helper whom he has known or heard of--

  "'Abate,--Cardinal,--Christ,--Maria,--God--'

"and then the light breaks through the blackest gloom:

  "'Pompilia! will you let them murder me?'

"In this supreme moment he has known what love is, and, knowing it, has
begun to feel it. The cry, like the intercession of the rich man in
Hades, is a promise of a far-off deliverance."

But even beyond this hope, which is the last for most men, the Pope had
still another.

  "Else I avert my face, nor follow him
  Into that sad obscure sequestered state
  Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
  He else made first in vain: _which must not be_."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 2129-2132.]

This phrase, "which must not be," seems to me to carry in it the
irrefragable conviction of the poet himself. The same faith in the
future appears in the words in which Pompilia addresses her priest.

  "O lover of my life, O soldier-saint,
  No work begun shall ever pause for death!
  Love will be helpful to me more and more
  I' the coming course, the new path I must tread,
  My weak hand in thy strong hand, strong for that!"[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Seek--Pompilia_, 1786-1790.]

For the poet, the death of man brings no change in the purpose of God;
nor does it, or aught else, fix a limit to His power, or stultify by
failure the end implied in all God's work, nature no less than man
himself--to wit, that every soul shall learn the lesson of goodness, and
reflect the devine life in desire, intelligence, and will.

Equally emphatic, on some sides at least, is Browning's rejection of
those compromises, with which the one-sided religious consciousness
threatens the existence of the moral life. At times, indeed, he seems to
teach, as man's best and highest, a passive acquiescence in the divine
benevolence; and he uses the dangerous metaphor of the clay and potter's
wheel. _Rabbi Ben Ezra_ bids us feel

  "Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay";

and his prayer is,

  "So, take and use Thy work:
  Amend what flaws may lurk,
  What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
  My times be in Thy hand!
  Perfect the cup as planned!
  Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Rabbi Ben Ezra_.]

But this attitude of quiescent trust, which is so characteristic of
religion, is known by the poet to be only a phase of man's best life. It
is a temporary resting-place for the pilgrim: "the country of Beulah,
whose air is very sweet and pleasant, where he may solace himself for a
season." But, "the way lies directly through it," and the pilgrim,
"being a little strengthened and better able to bear his sickness," has
to go forward on his journey. Browning's characteristic doctrine on this
matter is not acquiescence and resignation. "Leave God the way" has, in
his view, its counterpart and condition--"Have you the will!"

               "For a worm must turn
  If it would have its wrong observed by God."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book--Pompilia,_ 1592-1593.]

The root of Browning's joy is in the need of progress towards an
infinitely high goal. He rejoices

           "that man is hurled
  From change to change unceasingly,
  His soul's wings never furled."

The bliss of endeavour, the infinite worth of the consciousness of
failure, with its evidence of coming triumph, "the spark which disturbs
our clod," these are the essence of his optimistic interpretation of
human life, and also of his robust ethical doctrine.

  "Then, welcome each rebuff
  That turns earth's smoothness rough,
  Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
  Be our joys three-parts pain!
  Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
  Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Rabbi Ben Ezra._]

And he prolongs the battle beyond time, for the battle is the moral life
and man's best, and therefore God's best in man. The struggle upward
from the brute, may, indeed end with death. But this only means that man
"has learned the uses of the flesh," and there are in him other
potencies to evolve:

  "Other heights in other lives, God willing."

Death is the summing up of this life's meaning, stored strength for new
adventure.

"The future I may face now I have proved the past;" and, in view of it,
Browning is

  "Fearless and unperplexed
  When I wage battle next,
  What weapons to select, what armour to indue."

He is sure that it will be a battle, and a winning one. There is no
limiting here of man's possibility, or confining of man's endeavour
after goodness.

  "Strive and Thrive! cry 'Speed,' fight on, fare ever
  There as here,"

are the last words which came from his pen.

Now, it may fairly be argued that these allusions to what death may
mean, and what may lie beyond death, valuable as they may be as poetry,
cannot help in philosophy. They do not solve the problem of the relation
between morality and religion, but merely continue the antagonism
between them into a life beyond, of which we have no experience. If the
problem is to be solved, it must be solved as it is stated for us in the
present world.

This objection is valid, so far as it goes. But Browning's treatment is
valuable all the same, in so far as it indicates his unwillingness to
limit or compromise the conflicting truths. He, by implication, rejects
the view, ordinarily held without being examined, that the moral life is
preliminary to the joy and rest of religion; a brief struggle, to be
followed by a sudden lift out of it into some serene sphere, where man
will lead an angel's life, which knows no imperfection and therefore no
growth. He refuses to make morality an accident in man's history and "to
put man in the place of God," by identifying the process with the ideal;
he also refuses to make man's struggle, and God's achievement within
man, mutually exclusive alternatives. As I shall show in the sequel,
movement towards an ideal, actualizing but never actualized, is for the
poet the very nature of man. And to speak about either God or man (or
even the absolute philosopher) as "the last term of a development" has
no meaning to him. We are not first moral and then religious, first
struggling with evil and then conscious of overcoming it. God is with us
in the battle, and the victory is in every blow.

But there lies a deeper difficulty than this in the way of reconciling
morality and religion, or the presence of both God and man in human
action. Morality, in so far as it is achievement, might conceivably be
immediately identified with the process of an absolute good; but
morality is always a consciousness of failure as well. Its very essence
and verve is the conviction that the ideal is not actual. And the higher
a man's spiritual attainment, the more impressive is his view of the
evil of the world, and of the greatness of the work pressing to be done.
"Say not ye, there are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? Behold
I say unto you, 'Lift up your eyes and look on the fields; for they are
white already to harvest.'" It looks like blasphemy against morality to
say "that God lives in eternity and has, therefore, plenty of time."
Morality destroys one's contentment with the world; and its language
seems to be, "God is not here, but there; the kingdom is still to come."

Nor does it rest with condemning the world. It also finds flaws in its
own highest achievement; so that we seem ever "To mock ourselves in all
that's best of us." The beginning of the spiritual life seems just to
consist in a consciousness of complete failure, and that consciousness
ever grows deeper.

This is well illustrated in Browning's account of Caponsacchi; from the
time when Pompilia's smile first "glowed" upon him, and set him--

    "Thinking how my life
  Had shaken under me--broken short indeed
  And showed the gap 'twixt what is, what should be--
  And into what abysm the soul may slip"--[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_Giuseppe Caponsacchi_, 485-488.]

up to the time when his pure love for her revealed to him something of
the grandeur of goodness, and led him to define his ideal and also to
express his despair.

  "To have to do with nothing but the true,
  The good, the eternal--and these, not alone
  In the main current of the general life,
  But small experiences of every day,
  Concerns of the particular hearth and home:
  To learn not only by a comet's rush
  But a rose's birth--not by the grandeur, God,
  But the comfort, Christ. _All this_ how _far away_
  Mere delectation, meet for a minute's dream!"[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid._ 2089-2097.]

So illimitably beyond his strength is such a life, that he finds himself
like the drudging student who

                           "Trims his lamp,
  Opens his Plutarch, puts him in the place
  Of Roman, Grecian; draws the patched gown close,
  Dreams, 'Thus should I fight, save or rule the world!'--
  Then smilingly, contentedly, awakes
  To the old solitary nothingness."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_Giuseppe Caponsacchi_, 2098-2103.]

The moral world with its illimitable horizon had Opened out around him,
the voice of the new commandment bidding him "be perfect as his Father
in heaven is perfect" had destroyed his peace, and made imperative a
well nigh hopeless struggle; and, as he compares himself at his best
with the new ideal, he breaks out into the cry,

  "O great, just, good God! Miserable Me!"

This humility and contrition, this discontent verging on hopelessness,
constituted, as we have seen, the characteristic attitude of Carlyle;
and it represents a true and, in fact, an indispensable element of man's
moral life.

But this self-condemnation in the face of the moral law is nothing more
than an element, and must not be taken either for the whole truth or for
the most fundamental one. It is because it is taken as fundamental and
final that the discrepancy between morality and religion is held to be
absolute, and the consciousness of evil is turned against faith in the
Good. It is an abstract way of thinking that makes us deduce, from the
transcendent height of the moral ideal, the impossibility of attaining
goodness, and the failure of God's purpose in man. And this is what
Carlyle did. He stopped short at the consciousness of imperfection, and
he made no attempt to account for it. He took it as a complete fact, and
therefore drew a sharp line of distinction between the human and the
divine. And, so far, he was right; for, if we look no further than this
negative side, it is emphatically absurd to identify man, be he
"philosopher" or not, with the Absolute. "Why callest thou Me good?
there is none good save One, that is God." The "ought" _must_ stand
above _all_ human attainment, and declare that "whatever is, is wrong."
But whence comes the ought itself, the ideal which condemns us? Is it
not also immanent in the fact it condemns?

"Who is not acute enough," asks Hegel, "to see a great deal in his
surroundings which is really far from being what it ought to be?" And
who also, we may add, has not enough of the generalizing faculty, often
mistaken for a philosophical one, to extend this condemnation over the
whole of "this best of all possible worlds"? But what is this
"ought-to-be," which has such potency in it that all things confronted
with it lose their worth?

The first answer is, that it is an idea which men, and particularly good
men, carry with them. But a little consideration will show that it
cannot be a mere idea. It must be something more valid than a capricious
product of the individual imagination. For we cannot wisely condemn
things because they do not happen to answer to any casual conception
which we may choose to elevate into a criterion. A criterion must have
objective validity. It must be an idea _of_ something and not an empty
notion; and that something must, at the worst, be possible. Nay, when we
consider all that is involved in it, it becomes obvious that a true
ideal--an ideal which is a valid criterion--must be not only possible
but real, and, indeed, more real than that which is condemned by
reference to it. Absolute pessimism has in it the same contradiction as
absolute scepticism has,--in fact, it is only its practical counterpart;
for both scepticism and pessimism involve the assumption that it is
possible to reach a position outside the realm of being, from which it
may be condemned as a whole. But the rift between actual and ideal must
fall within the real or intelligible world, do what the pessimists will;
and a condemnation of man which is not based on a principle realized by
humanity, is a fiction of abstract thought, which lays stress on the
actuality of the imperfect and treats the perfect as if it were as good
as nothing, which it cannot be. In other words, this way of regarding
human life isolates the passing phenomenon, and does not look to that
which reveals itself in it and causes it to pass away. Confining
ourselves, however, for the present, to the ideal in morality, we can
easily see that, in that sphere at least, the actual and ideal change
places; and that the latter contrasts with the former as the real with
the phenomenal. For, in the first place, the moral ideal is something
more than a mere idea not yet realized. It is more even than a _true_
idea; for no mere knowledge, however true, has such intimate relation to
the self-consciousness of man as his moral ideal. A mathematical axiom,
and the statement of a physical law, express what is true; but they do
not occupy the same place in our mind as a moral principle. Such a
principle is an ideal, as well as an idea. It is an idea which has
causative potency in it. It supplies motives, it is an incentive to
action, and, though in one sense a thing of the future, it is also the
actual spring and source of present activity. In so far as the agent
acts, as Kant put it, not according to laws, but according to an _idea_
of law (and a responsible agent always acts in this manner), the ideal
is as truly actualized in him as the physical law is actualized in the
physical fact, or the vegetable life in the plant. In fact, the ideal of
a moral being is his life. All his actions are its manifestations. And,
just as the physical fact is not seen as it really is, nor its reality
proved, till science has penetrated through the husk of the sensuous
phenomenon, and grasped it in thought as an instance of a law; so an
individual's actions are not understood, and can have no moral meaning
whatsoever, except in the light of the purpose which gave them being. We
know the man only when we know his creed. His reality is what he
believes in; that is, it is his ideal.

It is the consciousness that the ideal is the real which explains the
fact of contrition. To become morally awakened is to become conscious of
the vanity and nothingness of the past life, as confronted with the new
ideal implied in it. The past life is something to be cast aside as
false show, just because the self that experienced it was not realized
in it. It is for this reason that the moral agent sets himself against
it, and desires to annihilate all its claims upon him by undergoing its
punishment, and drinking to the dregs its cup of bitterness. Thus his
true life lies in the realization of his ideal, and his advance towards
it is his coming to himself. Only in attaining to it does he attain
reality, and the only realization possible for him in the present is
just the consciousness of the potency of the ideal. To him to live is to
realize his ideal. It is a power that irks, till it finds expression in
moral habits that accord with its nature, _i.e._, till the spirit has,
out of its environment, created a body adequate to itself.

The condemnation of self which characterizes all moral life and is the
condition of moral progress, must not, therefore, be regarded as a
complete truth. For the very condemnation implies the actual presence of
something better. Both of the terms--both the criterion and the fact
which is condemned by it--fall within the same individual life. Man
cannot, therefore, without injustice, condemn himself in all that he is;
for the condemnation is itself a witness to the activity of that good of
which he despairs. Hence, the threatening majesty of the moral
imperative is nothing but the shadow of man's own dignity; and moral
contrition, and even the complete despair of the pessimistic theory,
when rightly understood, are recognized as unwilling witnesses to the
authority and the actuality of the highest good. And, on the other hand,
the highest good cannot be regarded as a mere phantom, without
nullifying all our condemnation of the self and the world.

The legitimate deduction from the height of man's moral ideal is thus
found to be, not, as Carlyle thought, the weakness and worthlessness of
human nature, but its promise and native dignity: and in a healthy moral
consciousness it produces, not despair, but faith and joy. For, as has
been already suggested in a previous chapter, the authority of the moral
law over man is rooted in man's endowment. Its imperative is nothing but
the voice of the future self, bidding the present self aspire, while its
reproof is only the expression of a moral aspiration which has
misunderstood itself. Contrition is not a bad moral state which should
bring despair, but a good state, full of promise of one that is still
better. It is, in fact, just the first step which the ideal takes in its
process of self-realization: "the sting that bids nor sit, nor stand,
but go!"

The moral ideal thus, like every other ideal, even that which we regard
as present in natural life, contains a certain guarantee of its own
fulfilment. It is essentially an active thing, an energy, a movement
upwards. It may, indeed, be urged that the guarantee is imperfect.
Ideals tend to self-realization, but the tendency may remain
unfulfilled. Men have some ideals which they never reach, and others
which, at first sight at least, it were better for them not to reach.
The goal may never be attained, or it may prove "a ruin like the rest."
And, as long as man is moral, the ideal is not, and cannot be, fully
reached, Morality necessarily implies a rift within human nature, a
contradiction between what is and what ought to be; although neither the
rift nor the contradiction is absolute. There might seem for this reason
to be no way of bringing optimism and ethics together, of reconciling
what is and what ought to be.

My answer to these difficulties must at this stage be very brief and
incomplete. That the moral good, if attained, should itself prove vain
is a plain self-contradiction. For moral good has no meaning except in
so far as it is conceived as the highest good. The question. "Why should
I be moral," has no answer, because it is self-contradictory. The moral
ideal contains its justification in itself, and requires to lean on
nothing else.

But it is not easy to prove that it is attainable. In one sense it is
not attainable, at least under the conditions of human life which fall
within our experience, from which alone we have a right to speak. For,
as I shall strive to show in a succeeding chapter, the essence of man's
life as spiritual, that is as intelligent and moral, is its
self-realizing activity. Intellectual and moral life is progress,
although it is the progress of an ideal which is real and complete, the
return of the infinite to itself through the finite. The cessation of
the progress of the ideal in man, whereby man interprets the world in
terms of himself and makes it the instrument of his purposes, is
intellectual and moral death. From one point of view, therefore, this
spiritual life, or moral and intellectual activity, is inspired at every
step by the consciousness of a "beyond" not possessed, of an unsolved
contradiction between the self and the not-self, of a good that ought to
be and is not. The last word, or rather the last word _but one_,
regarding man is "failure."

But failure is the last word but one, as the poet well knew. "What's
come to perfection perishes," he tells us. From this point of view the
fact that perfection is not reached, merely means that the process is
not ended. "It seethes with the morrow for us and more." The recognition
of failure implies more effort and higher progress, and contains a
suggestion of an absolute good, and even a proof of its active presence.
"The beyond," for knowledge and morality, is the Land of Promise. And
the promise is not a false one; for the "land" is possessed. The
recognition of the fact to be known, the statement of the problem, is
the first step in its solution; and the consciousness of the moral ideal
not attained is the first step in its self-actualizing progress. Had man
not come so far, he would not have known the further difficulty, or
recognized the higher good. To say that the moral ideal is never
attained, is thus only a half-truth. We must add to it the fact that it
is always being attained; nay, that it is always present as an active
reality, attaining itself, evolving its own content. Or, to return to
the previous metaphor, the land of promise is possessed, although the
possession always reveals a still better beyond, which is again a land
of promise.

While, therefore, it must always remain true that knowledge does not
reach absolute reality, nor morality absolute goodness, this cannot be
used as an argument against optimism, except on the presupposition that
mental and moral activity are a disease. And this is a contradiction in
terms. If the ideal is in itself good, the process whereby it is
attained is good; if the process in itself is evil, the ideal it seeks
is evil, and therefore the condemnation of the actual by reference to it
is absurd. And, on the other hand, to postulate as best the identity of
ideal and actual, so that no process is necessary, is to assume a point
of view where both optimism and pessimism are meaningless, for there is
no criterion. As Aristotle teaches us, we have no right either to praise
or to blame the highest. A process, such as morality is, which is not
the self-manifestation of an actual idea, and an ideal which does not
reveal its potencies in its passing forms, are both fictions of
one-sided thought. The process is not the ideal, but its manifestation;
and the ideal is not the process, but the principle which is its source
and guide.

But if the process cannot be thus immediately identified with the ideal,
or "man take the place of God," or "human self-consciousness be confused
with the absolute self-consciousness," far less can they be separated.
The infinitely high ideal of perfect knowledge and perfect goodness,
implied in the Christian command, "Be ye perfect as your Father in
heaven is perfect," is an ideal, just because the unity of what is and
what ought to be is deeper than their difference. The recognition of the
limit of our knowledge, or the imperfection of our moral character, is a
direct witness to the fact that there is more to be known and a better
to be achieved. The negative implies the affirmative, and is its effect.
Man's confession of the limitation of his knowledge is made on the
supposition that the universe of facts, in all its infinitely rich
complexity, is meant to be known; and his confession of moral
imperfection is made by reference to a good which is absolute, and which
yet may be and ought to be his. The good in morality is necessarily
supreme and perfect. A good that is "merely human," "relative to man's
nature," in the sense of not being true goodness, is a phantom of
confused thinking. Morality demands "_the_ good," and not a simulacrum
or make-shift. The distinction between right and wrong, and with it all
moral aspiration, contrition, and repentance, would otherwise become
meaningless. What can a seeming good avail to a moral agent? There is no
better or worse among merely apparent excellencies, and of phantoms it
matters not which is chosen. And, in a similar way, the distinction
between true and false in knowledge, and the common condemnation of
human knowledge as merely of phenomena, implies the absolute unity of
thought and being, and the knowledge of that unity as a fact. There is
no true or false amongst merely apparent facts.

But, if the ideal of man as a spiritual being is conceived as perfect,
then it follows not only that its attainment is possible, but that it is
necessary. The guarantee of its own fulfilment which an ideal carries
with it as an ideal, that is, as a potency in process of fulfilment,
becomes complete when that ideal is absolute. "If God be for us, who can
be against us?" The absolute good, in the language of Emerson, is "too
good not to be true." If such an ideal be latent in the nature of man,
it brings the order of the universe over to his side. For it implies a
kinship between him, as a spiritual being, and the whole of existence.
The stars in their courses fight for him. In other words, the moral
ideal means nothing, if it does not imply a law which is universal. It
is a law which exists already, whether man recognizes it or not; it is
the might in things, a law of which "no jot or tittle can in any wise
pass away." The individual does not institute the moral law; he finds it
to be written both within and without him. His part is to recognize, not
to create it; to make it valid in his own life and so to identify
himself with it, that his service of it may be perfect freedom.

We thus conclude that morality, and even the self-condemnation,
contrition, and consciousness of failure which it brings with it as
phases of its growth, are witnesses of the presence, and the actual
product of an absolute good in man. Morality, in other words, rests
upon, and is the self-evolution of the religious principle in man.

A similar line of proof would show that religion implies morality. An
absolute good is not conceivable, except in relation to the process
whereby it manifests itself. In the language of theology, we may say
that God must create and redeem the world in order to be God; or that
creation and redemption,--the outflow of the universe from God as its
source, and its return to Him through the salvation of mankind,--reveal
to us the nature of God. Apart from this outgoing of the infinite to the
finite and its return to itself through it, the name God would be an
empty word, signifying a something unintelligible dwelling in the void
beyond the realm of being. But religion, as we have seen, is the
recognition not of an unknown but of the absolute good as real; the
joyous consciousness of the presence of God in all things. And morality,
in that it is the realization of an ideal which is perfect, is the
process whereby the absolute good actualizes itself in man. It is true
that the ideal cannot be identified with the process; for it is the
principle of the process, and therefore more than it. Man does not reach
"the last term of development," for there is no last term to a being
whose essence is progressive activity. He does not therefore take the
place of God, and his self-consciousness is never the absolute
self-consciousness. But still, in so far as his life is a progress
towards the true and good, it is the process of truth and goodness
within him. It is the activity of the ideal. It is God lifting man up to
Himself, or, in the language of philosophy, "returning to Himself in
history." And yet it is at the same time man's effort after goodness.
Man is not a mere "vessel of divine grace," or a passive recipient of
the highest bounty. All man's goodness is necessarily man's achievement.
And the realization by the ideal of itself is man's achievement of it.
For it is his ideal. The law without is also the law within. It is the
law within because it is recognized as the law without. Thus, the moral
consciousness passes into the religious consciousness. The performance
of duty is the willing service of the absolute good; and, as such, it
involves also the recognition of a purpose that cannot fail. It is both
activity and faith, both a struggle and a consciousness of victory, both
morality and religion. We cannot, therefore, treat these as alternative
phases of man's life. There is not first the pain of the moral struggle,
and then the joy and rest of religion. The meat and drink is "to do the
will of Him that sent Me, to finish His work." Heaven is the service of
the good. "There is nothing in the world or out of it that can be called
unconditionally good, except the good will." The process of willing--the
moral activity--is its own reward; "the only jewel that shines in its
own light."

It may seem to some to be presumptuous thus to identify the divine and
the human; but to separate them makes both morality and religion
impossible. It robs morality of its ideal, and makes God a mere name for
the "unknown." Those who think that this identification degrades the
divine, misapprehend the nature of spirit; and forget that it is of its
essence to communicate itself. And goodness and truth do not become less
when shared; they grow greater. Spiritual possessions imply community
wherein there is no exclusion; and to the Christian the glory of God is
His communication of Himself. Hence the so-called religious humility,
which makes God different in nature from His work, really degrades the
object of its worship. It puts mere power above the gifts of spirit, and
it indicates that the worshipper has not been emancipated from the
slavishness, which makes a fetish of its God. Such a religion is not
free, and the development of man destroys it.

  "I never realized God's birth before--
  How He grew likest God in being born."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--Pompilia_, 1690-1691.]

The intense love of the young mother drew the divine and the human
together, and set at nought the contrast which prose ever draws between
them. This thought of the unity of God and man is one which has frequent
utterance from the poet when his religious spirit is most deeply moved;
for it is the characteristic of religious feeling that it abolishes all
sense of separation. It removes all the limitations of finitude and
lifts man into rapturous unity with the God he adores; and it gives such
completeness to his life that it seems to him to be a joyous pulse of
the life that is absolute. The feeling of unity may be an illusion. This
we cannot discuss here; but, in any case, it is a feeling essential to
religion. And the philosophy which seeks to lift this feeling into clear
consciousness and to account for its existence, cannot but recognize
that it implies and presupposes the essential affinity of the divine
nature with the nature of man.

Thus, both from the side of morality and from that of religion, we are
brought to recognize the unity of God with man as a spiritual being. The
moral ideal is man's idea of perfection, that is, his idea of God. While
theology and philosophy are often occupied with the vain task of
bridging a chasm between the finite and the infinite, which they assume
to be separated, the supreme facts of the life of man as a spirit spring
from their unity. In other words, morality and religion are but
different manifestations of the same principle. The good that man
effects is, at the same time, the working of God within him. The
activity that man is,

                                "tending up,
  Holds, is upheld by, God, and ends the man
  Upward in that dread point of intercourse
  Nor needs a place, for it returns to Him."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

                              "God, perchance,
  Grants each new man, by some as new a mode,
  Inter-communication with Himself
  Wreaking on finiteness infinitude."[B]

[Footnote B: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

And while man's moral endeavour is thus recognized as the activity of
God within him, it is also implied that the divine being can be known
only as revealed, and incarnated, if one may so say, in a perfect human
character. It was a permanent conviction of Browning, that

      "the acknowledgment of God in Christ
  Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
  All questions in the earth and out of it."

So far from regarding the Power in the world which makes for
righteousness, as "not-ourselves," as Matthew Arnold did in his haste,
that Power is known to be the man's true self and more, and morality is
the gradual process whereby its content is evolved. And man's state of
perfection, which is symbolized for the intelligent by the term Heaven,
is, for Browning,

  "The equalizing, ever and anon,
  In momentary rapture, great with small,
  Omniscience with intelligency, God
  With man--the thunder glow from pole to pole
  Abolishing, a blissful moment-space,
  Great cloud alike and small cloud, in one fire--
  As sure to ebb as sure again to flow
  When the new receptivity deserves
  The new completion."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_.]

Thus, therefore, does the poet wed the divine strength with human
weakness; and the principle of unity, thus conceived, gives him at once
his moral strenuousness and that ever present foretaste of victory,
which we may call his religious optimism.

Whether this principle receives adequate expression from the poet, we
shall inquire in the next chapter. For on this depends its worth as a
solution of the enigma of man's moral life.



CHAPTER VI.

BROWNING'S TREATMENT OF THE PRINCIPLE OF LOVE.


  "God! Thou art Love! I build my faith on that!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_]

It may be well before going further to gather together the results so
far reached.

Browning was aware of the conflict of the religious and moral
consciousness, but he did not hesitate to give to each of them its most
uncompromising utterance. And it is on this account that he is
instructive; for, whatever may be the value of compromise in practical
affairs, there is no doubt that it has never done anything to advance
human thought. His religion is an optimistic faith, a peaceful
consciousness of the presence of the highest in man, and therefore in
all other things. Yet he does not hesitate to represent the moral life
as a struggle with evil, and a movement through error towards a highest
good which is never finally realized. He sees that the contradiction is
not an absolute one, but that a good man is always both moral and
religious, and, in every good act he does, transcends their difference.
He knew that the ideal apart from the process is nothing, and that "a
God beyond the stars" is simply the unknowable. But he knew, too, that
the ideal is not _merely_ the process, but also that which starts the
process, guides it, and comes to itself through it. God, emptied of
human elements, is a mere name; but, at the same time, the process of
human evolution does not exhaust the idea of God. The process by itself,
_i.e._, mere morality, is a conception of a fragment, a fiction of
abstract thought; it is a movement which has no beginning or end; and in
it neither the head nor the heart of man could find contentment. He is
driven by ethics into philosophy, and by morality into religion.

It was in this way that Browning found himself compelled to trace back
the moral process to its origin, and to identify the moral law with the
nature of God. It is this that gives value to his view of moral
progress, as reaching beyond death to a higher stage of being, for which
man's attainments in this life are only preliminary.

  "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes,
  Man has Forever."[A]

[Footnote A: _Grammarian's Funeral_.]

There are other "adventures brave and new" for man, "more lives yet,"
other ways of warfare, other depths of goodness and heights of love. The
poet lifts the moral ideal into infinitude, and removes all limits to
the possibility and necessity of being good. Nay, the process itself is
good. Moral activity is its own bountiful reward; for moral progress,
which means struggle, is the best thing in the world or out of it. To
end such a process, to stop that activity, were therefore evil. But it
cannot end, for it is the self-manifestation of the divine life. There
is plenty of way to make, for the ideal is absolute goodness. The
process cannot exhaust the absolute, and it is impossible that man
should be God. And yet this process is the process of the absolute, the
working of the ideal, the presence of the highest in man as a living
power realizing itself in his acts and in his thoughts. And the absolute
cannot fail; not in man, for the process is the evolution of his
essential nature; and not in the world, for that is but the necessary
instrument of the evolution. By lifting the moral ideal of man to
infinitude, the poet has identified it with the nature of God, and made
it the absolute law of things.

Now, this idea of the identity of the human and the divine is a
perfectly familiar Christian idea.

  "Thence shall I, approved
  A man, for aye removed
  From the developed brute; a God though in the germ."[A]

[Footnote A: _Rabbi Ben Ezra._]

This idea is involved in the ordinary expressions of religious thought.
But, nevertheless, both theology and philosophy shrink from giving to it
a clear and unembarrassed utterance. Instead of rising to the sublime
boldness of the Nazarene Teacher, they set up prudential differences
between God and man--differences not of degree only but of nature; and,
in consequence, God is reduced into an unknowable absolute, and man is
made incapable not only of moral, but also of intellectual life. The
poet himself has proved craven-hearted in this, as we shall see. He,
too, sets up insurmountable barriers between the divine and the human,
and thereby weakens both his religious and his moral convictions. His
moral inspiration is greatest just where his religious enthusiasm is
most intense. In _Rabbi Ben Ezra, The Death in the Desert_, and _The
Ring and the Book_, there prevails a constant sense of the community of
God and man within the realm of goodness; and the world itself, "with
its dread machinery of sin and sorrow," is made to join the great
conspiracy, whose purpose is at once the evolution of man's character,
and the realization of the will of God.

  "So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too--
  So, through the thunder comes a human voice
  Saying, 'O heart I made, a heart beats here!
  Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
  Thou hast no power nor may'st conceive of mine,
  But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
  And thou must love Me who have died for thee.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _An Epistle from Karshish_.]

But, if we follow Browning's thoughts in his later and more reflective
poems, such as _Ferishtah's_ _Fancies_ for instance, it will not be
possible to hold that the poet altogether realized the importance for
both morality and religion alike, of the idea of the actual immanence of
God in man. In these poems he seems to have abandoned it in favour of
the hypotheses of a more timid philosophy. But, if his religious faith
had not been embarrassed by certain dogmatic presuppositions of which he
could not free himself, he might have met more successfully some of the
difficulties which later reflection revealed to him, and might have been
able to set a true value on that "philosophy," which betrayed his faith
while appearing to support it.

But, before trying to criticize the principle by means of which Browning
sought to reconcile the moral and religious elements of human life, it
may be well to give it a more explicit and careful statement.

What, then, is that principle of unity between the divine and the human?
How can we interpret the life of man as God's life in man, so that man,
in attaining the moral ideal proper to his own nature, is at the same
time fulfilling ends which may justly be called divine?

The poet, in early life and in late life alike, has one answer to this
question--an answer given with the confidence of complete conviction.
The meeting-point of God and man is love. Love, in other words, is, for
the poet, the supreme principle both of morality and religion. Love,
once for all, solves that contradiction between them which, both in
theory and in practice, has embarrassed the world for so many ages. Love
is the sublimest conception attainable by man; a life inspired by it is
the most perfect form of goodness he can conceive; therefore, love is,
at the same moment, man's moral ideal, and the very essence of Godhood.
A life actuated by love is divine, whatever other limitations it may
have. Such is the perfection and glory of this emotion, when it has been
translated into a self-conscious motive, and become the energy of an
intelligent will, that it lifts him who owns it to the sublimest height
of being.

  "For the loving worm within its clod,
  Were diviner than a loveless God
  Amid his worlds, I will dare to say."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas Eve_.]

So excellent is this emotion that, if man, who has this power to love,
did not find the same power in God, then man would excel Him, and the
creature and Creator change parts.

  "Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
  That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift?
  Here, the creature surpass the Creator,--the end what Began?"[B]

[Footnote B: _Saul_.]

Not so, says David, and with him no doubt the poet himself. God is
Himself the source and fulness of love.

        "Tis Thou, God, that givest, 'tis I who receive:
  In the first is the last, in Thy will is my power to believe.
  All's one gift."

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Would I suffer for him that I love? So would'st Thou,--so wilt Thou!
  So shall crown Thee, the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown--
  And Thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down
  One spot for the creature to stand in!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Saul_.]

And this same love not only constitutes the nature of God and the moral
ideal of man, but it is also the purpose and essence of all created
being, both animate and inanimate.

                          "This world's no blot for us,
  Nor blank; it means intensely and means good."[B]

[Footnote B: _Fra Lippo Lippi_.]

  "O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
  And knowing this is love, and love is duty,
  What further may be sought for or declared?"

In this world then "all's love, yet all's law." God permits nothing to
break through its universal sway, even the very wickedness and misery of
life are brought into the scheme of good, and, when rightly understood,
reveal themselves as its means.

  "I can believe this dread machinery
  Of sin and sorrow, would confound me else,
  Devised--all pain, at most expenditure
  Of pain by Who devised pain--to evolve,
  By new machinery in counterpart,
  The moral qualities of man--how else?--
  To make him love in turn and be beloved,
  Creative and self-sacrificing too,
  And thus eventually Godlike."[C]

[Footnote C: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1375-1383.]

The poet thus brings the natural world, the history of man, and the
nature of God, within the limits of the same conception. The idea of
love solves for Browning all the enigmas of human life and thought.

          "The thing that seems
  Mere misery, under human schemes,
  Becomes, regarded by the light
  Of love, as very near, or quite
  As good a gift as joy before."[A]

[Footnote A: _Easter Day_.]

Taking Browning's work as a whole, it is scarcely possible to deny that
this is at once the supreme motive of his art, and the principle on
which his moral and religious doctrine rests. He is always strong and
convincing when he is dealing with this theme. It was evidently his own
deepest conviction, and it gave him the courage to face the evils of the
world, and the power as an artist to "contrive his music from its
moans." It plays, in his philosophy of life, the part that Reason fills
for Hegel, or the Blind Will for Schopenhauer; and he is as fearless as
they are in reducing all phenomena into forms of the activity of his
first principle. Love not only gave him firm footing amid the wash and
welter of the present world, where time spins fast, life fleets, and all
is change, but it made him look forward with joy to "the immortal
course"; for, to him, all the universe is love-woven. All life is but
treading the "love-way," and no wanderer can finally lose it. "The
way-faring men, though fools, shall not err therein."

Since love has such an important place in Browning's theory of life, it
is necessary to see what he means by it. For love has had for different
individuals, ages and nations, a very different significance; and almost
every great poet has given it a different interpretation. And this is
not unnatural. For love is a passion which, beginning with youth and the
hey-day of the blood, expands with the expanding life, and takes new
forms of beauty and goodness at every stage. And this is equally true,
whether we speak of the individual or of the human race.

Love is no accident in man's history, nor a passing emotion. It is
rather a constitutive element of man's nature, fundamental and necessary
as his intelligence. And, like everything native and constitutive, it is
obedient to the law of evolution, which is the law of man's being; and
it passes, therefore, through ever varying forms. To it--if we may for
the moment make a distinction between the theoretical and practical
life, or between ideas and their causative potency--must be attributed
the constructive power which has built the world of morality, with its
intangible but most real relations which bind man to man and age to age.
It is the author of the organic institutions which, standing between the
individual and the rudeness of nature, awaken in him the need, and give
him the desire and the faculty, of attaining higher things than physical
satisfaction. Man is meant to act as well as to think, to be virtuous as
well as to have knowledge. It is possible that reverence for the
intellect may have led men, at times, to attribute the evolution of the
race too exclusively to the theoretic consciousness, forgetting that,
along with reason, there co-operates a twin power in all that is wisest
and best in us, and that a heart which can love, is as essential a
pre-condition of all worthy attainment, as an intellect which can see.
Love and reason[A] are equally primal powers in man, and they reflect
might into each other: for love increases knowledge, and knowledge love.
It is their combined power that gives interest and meaning to the facts
of life, and transmutes them into a moral and intellectual order. They,
together, are lifting man out of the isolation and chaos of subjectivity
into membership in a spiritual kingdom, where collision and exclusion
are impossible, and all are at once kings and subjects.

[Footnote A: It would be more correct to say the reason that is loving
or the love that is rational; for, though there is distinction, there is
no dualism.]

And, just as reason is present as a transmuting power in the sensational
life of the infancy of the individual and race, so is love present
amidst the confused and chaotic activity of the life that knows no law
other than its own changing emotions. Both make for order, and both grow
with it. Both love and reason have travelled a long way in the history
of man. The patriot's passion for his country, the enthusiasm of pity
and helpfulness towards all suffering which marks the man of God, are as
far removed from the physical attraction of sex for sex, and the mere
liking of the eye and ear, as is the intellectual power of the sage from
the vulpine cunning of the savage. "For," as Emerson well said, "it is a
fire that, kindling its first embers in the narrow nook of a private
bosom, caught from a wandering spark out of another heart, glows and
enlarges until it warms and beams upon multitudes of men and women, upon
the universal heart of all, and so lights up the world and all nature
with its generous flames." Both love and reason alike pass through stage
after stage, always away from the particularity of selfishness and
ignorance, into larger and larger cycles of common truth and goodness,
towards the full realization of knowledge and benevolence, which is the
inheritance of emancipated man. In this transition, the sensuous play of
feeling within man, and the sensitive responses to external stimuli, are
made more and more organic to ends which are universal, that is, to
spiritual ends. Love, which in its earliest form, seems to be the
natural yearning of brute for brute, appearing and disappearing at the
suggestion of physical needs, passes into an idealized sentiment, into
an emotion of the soul, into a principle of moral activity which
manifests itself in a permanent outflow of helpful deeds for man. It
represents, when thus sublimated, one side at least of the expansion of
the self, which culminates when the world beats in the pulse of the
individual, and the joys and sorrows, the defeats and victories of
mankind are felt by him as his own. It is no longer dependent merely on
the incitement of youth, grace, beauty, whether of body or character; it
transcends all limitations of sex and age, and finds objects on which it
can spend itself in all that God has made, even in that which has
violated its own law of life and become mean and pitiful. It becomes a
love of fallen humanity, and an ardour to save it by becoming the
conscious and permanent motive of all men. The history of this evolution
of love has been written by the poets. Every phase through which this
ever-deepening emotion has passed, every form which this primary power
has taken in its growth, has received from them its own proper
expression. They have made even the grosser instincts lyric with beauty;
and, ascending with their theme, they have sung the pure passion of soul
for soul, its charm and its strength, its idealism and heroism, up to
the point at which, in Browning, it transcends the limits of finite
existence, sheds all its earthly vesture, and becomes a spiritual
principle of religious aspiration and self-surrender to God.

Browning nowhere shows his native strength more clearly than in his
treatment of love. He has touched this world-old theme--which almost
every poet has handled, and handled in his highest manner--with that
freshness and insight, which is possible only to the inborn originality
of genius. Other poets have, in some ways, given to love a more
exquisite utterance, and rendered its sweetness, and tenderness, and
charm with a lighter grace. It may even be admitted that there are poets
whose verses have echoed more faithfully the fervour and intoxication of
passion, and who have shown greater power of interpreting it in the
light of a mystic idealism. But, in one thing, Browning stands alone. He
has given to love a moral significance, a place and power amongst those
substantial elements on which rest the dignity of man's being and the
greatness of his destiny, in a way which is, I believe, without example
in any other poet. And he has done this by means of that moral and
religious earnestness, which pervades all his poetry. The one object of
supreme interest to him is the development of the soul, and his
penetrative insight revealed to him the power to love as the paramount
fact in that development. To love, he repeatedly tells us, is the sole
and supreme object of man's life; it is the one lesson which he has to
learn on earth; and, love once learnt, in what way matters little, "it
leaves completion in the soul." Love we dare not, and, indeed, cannot
absolutely miss. No man can be absolutely selfish and be man.

  "Beneath the veriest ash, there hides a spark of soul
  Which, quickened by love's breath, may yet pervade the whole
  O' the grey, and, free again, be fire; of worth the same,
  Howe'er produced, for, great or little, flame is flame."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, xliii.]

Love, once evoked, once admitted into the soul,

                          "adds worth to worth,
  As wine enriches blood, and straightway sends it forth,
  Conquering and to conquer, through all eternity,
  That's battle without end."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_. liv.]

This view of the significance of love grew on Browning as his knowledge
of man's nature and destiny became fuller and deeper, while, at the same
time, his trust in the intellect became less. Even in _Paracelsus_ he
reveals love, not as a sentiment or intoxicating passion, as one might
expect from a youthful poet, but as one of the great fundamental
"faculties" of man. Love, "blind, oft-failing, half-enlightened,
often-chequered trust," though it be, still makes man

  "The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false."

In that poem, love is definitely lifted by the poet to the level of
knowledge. Intellectual gain, apart from love, is folly and futility,
worthless for the individual and worthless to the race. "Mind is nothing
but disease," Paracelsus cries in the bitterness of his disappointment,
"and natural health is ignorance"; and he asks of the mad poet who
"loved too rashly,"

  "Are we not halves of one dissevered world,
  Whom this strange chance unites once more? Part? Never!
  Till thou the lover, know; and I, the knower,
  Love--until both are saved."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

And, at the end of the poem, Paracelsus, coming to an understanding with
himself as to the gain and loss of life, proclaims with his last
strength the truth he had missed throughout his great career, namely,
the supreme worth of love.

  "I saw Aprile--my Aprile there!
  And as the poor melodious wretch disburthened
  His heart, and moaned his weakness in my ear,
  I learned my own deep error; love's undoing
  Taught me the worth of love in man's estate,
  And what proportion love should hold with power
  In his right constitution; love preceding
  Power, and with much power, always much more love;
  Love still too straitened in his present means,
  And earnest for new power to set love free."

As long as he hated men, or, in his passionate pursuit of truth, was
indifferent to their concerns, it was not strange that he saw no good in
men and failed to help them. Knowledge without love is not _true_
knowledge, but folly and weakness.

But, great as is the place given to love in _Paracelsus_, it is far less
than that given to it in the poet's later works. In _Ferishtah's
Fancies_ and _La Saisiaz_ it is no longer rivalled by knowledge; nor
even in _Easter Day_, where the voice beside the poet proclaiming that

  "Life is done,
  Time ends, Eternity's begun,"

gives a final pronouncement upon the purposes of the life of man. The
world of sense--of beauty and art, of knowledge and truth, are given to
man, but none of them satisfy his spirit; they merely sting with hunger
for something better. "Deficiency gapes every side," till love is known
as the essence and worth of all things.

                  "Is this thy final choice?
  Love is the best? 'Tis somewhat late!
  And all thou dost enumerate
  Of power and beauty in the world,
  The righteousness of love was curled
  Inextricably round about.
  Love lay within it and without,
  To clasp thee,--but in vain! Thy soul
  Still shrunk from Him who made the whole,
  Still set deliberate aside
  His love!--Now take love! Well betide
  Thy tardy conscience!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Easter Day._]

In his later reflective poems, in which he deals with the problems of
life in the spirit of a metaphysician, seeking a definite answer to the
questions of the intelligence, he declares the reason for his preference
of love to knowledge. In _La Saisiaz_ he states that man's love is God's
too, a spark from His central fire; but man's knowledge is man's only.
Knowledge is finite, limited and tinged with sense. The truth we reach
at best is only truth _for us_, relative, distorted. We are for ever
kept from the fact which is supposed to be given; our intellects play
about it; sense and even intellect itself are interposing media, which
we must use, and yet, in using them, we only fool ourselves with
semblances. The poet has now grown so cautious that he will not declare
his own knowledge to be valid for any other man. David Hume could
scarcely be more suspicious of the human intellect; nor Berkeley more
surely persuaded of the purely subjective nature of its attainments. In
fact, the latter relied on human knowledge in a way impossible to
Browning, for he regarded it as the language of spirit speaking to
spirit. Out of his experience, Browning says,

                            "There crowds conjecture manifold.
  But, as knowledge, this comes only,--things may be as I behold
  Or may not be, but, without me and above me, things there are;
  I myself am what I know not--ignorance which proves no bar
  To the knowledge that I am, and, since I am, can recognize
  What to me is pain and pleasure: this is sure, the rest--surmise."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

Thought itself, for aught he knows, may be afflicted with a kind of
colour-blindness; and he knows no appeal when one affirms "green as
grass," and another contradicts him with "red as grass." Under such
circumstances, it is not strange that Browning should decline to speak
except for himself, and that he will

  "Nowise dare to play the spokesman for my brothers strong or weak,"

or that he will far less presume to pronounce for God, and pretend that
the truth finds utterance from lips of clay--

  "Pass off human lisp as echo of the sphere-song out of reach."

  "Have I knowledge? Confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare!
  Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!

       *       *       *       *       *

  "And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew
  (With that stoop of the soul, which in bending upraises it too)
  The submission of man's nothing-perfect to God's all-complete,
  As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to His feet."[B]

[Footnote B: _Saul_, III.]

But David finds in himself one faculty so supreme in worth that he keeps
it in abeyance--

  "Lest, insisting to claim and parade in it, wot ye, I worst
  E'en the Giver in one gift.--Behold, I could love if I durst!
  But I sink the pretension as fearing a man may o'ertake
  God's own speed in the one way of love: I abstain for love's sake."[A]

[Footnote A: _Saul_, III.]

This faculty of love, so far from being tainted with finitude, like
knowledge; so far from being mere man's, or a temporary and deceptive
power given to man for temporary uses, by a Creator who has another
ineffably higher way of loving, as He has of truth, is itself divine. In
contrast with the activity of love, Omnipotence itself dwindles into
insignificance, and creation sinks into a puny exercise of power. Love,
in a word, is the highest good; and, as such, it has all its worth in
itself, and gives to all other things what worth they have. God Himself
gains the "ineffable crown" by showing love and saving the weak. It is
the power divine, the central energy of God's being.

Browning never forgets this moral or religious quality of love. So pure
is this emotion to the poet, "so perfect in whiteness, that it will not
take pollution; but, ermine-like, is armed from dishonour by its own
soft snow." In the corruptest hearts, amidst the worst sensuality, love
is still a power divine, making for all goodness. Even when it is
kindled into flame by an illicit touch, and wars against the life of the
family, which is its own product, its worth is supreme. He who has
learned to love in any way, has "caught God's secret." How he has caught
it, whom he loves, whether or not he is loved in return, all these
things matter little. The paramount question on which hangs man's fate
is, has he learned to love another, any other, Fifine or Elvire. "She
has lost me," said the unloved lover; "I have gained her. Her soul's
mine."

The supreme worth of love, the mere emotion itself, however called into
activity, secures it against all taint. No one who understands Browning
in the least, can accuse him of touching with a rash hand the sanctity
of the family; rather he places it on the basis of its own principle,
and thereby makes for it the strongest defence. Such love as he speaks
of, however irregular its manifestation or sensuous its setting, can
never be confounded with lust--"hell's own blue tint." It is further
removed from lust even than asceticism. It has not even a negative
attitude towards the flesh; but finds the flesh to be "stuff for
transmuting," and reduces it to the uses of the spirit. The love which
is sung by Browning is more pure and free, and is set in a higher
altitude than anything that can be reached by the way of negation. It is
a consecration of the undivided self, so that "soul helps not flesh
more, than flesh helps soul." It is not only a spiritual and divine
emotion, but it also "shows a heart within blood-tinctured with a veined
humanity."

  "Be a God and hold me
    With a charm!
  Be a man and hold me
    With thine arm!

  "Teach me, only teach, Love!
    As I ought
  I will speak thy speech, Love!
    Think thy thought--

  "Meet, if thou require it,
    Both demands,
  Laying flesh and spirit
    In thy hands."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Woman's Last Word_.]

True love is always an infinite giving, which holds nothing back. It is
a spendthrift, magnificent in its recklessness, squandering the very
essence of the self upon its object, and by doing so, in the end
enriching the self beyond all counting. For in loving, the individual
becomes re-impersonated in another; the distinction of Me and Thee is
swept away, and there pulses in two individuals one warm life.

  "If two lives join, there is oft a scar
    They are one and one with a shadowy third;
  One near one is too far.

  "A moment after, and hands unseen
    Were hanging the night around us fast;
  But we knew that a bar was broken between
    Life and life: we were mixed at last
  In spite of the mortal screen."[B]

[Footnote B: _By the Fireside_.]

The throwing down of the limits that wall a man within himself, the
mingling of his own deepest interests with those of others, always marks
love; be it love of man for maid, parent for child, or patriot for his
country. It opens an outlet into the pure air of the world of objects,
and enables man to escape from the stuffed and poisonous atmosphere of
his narrow self. It is a streaming outwards of the inmost treasures of
the spirit, a consecration of its best activities to the welfare of
others. And when this is known to be the native quality and quintessence
of love, no one can regard it anywhere, or at any time, as out of place.
"Prize-lawful or prize-lawless" it is ever a flower, even though it
grow, like the love of the hero of _Turf and Towers_, in slime. Lust,
fleshly desire, which has been too often miscalled love, is its worst
perversion. Love spends itself for another, and seeks satisfaction only
in another's good. But last uses up others for its own worst purposes,
wastes its object, and turns the current of life back inwards, into the
slush and filth of selfish pleasure. The distinction between love and
its perversion, which is impossible in the naive life of an animal,
ought to be clear enough to all, and probably is. Nor should the sexual
impulse in human beings be confused with fleshly desire, and treated as
if it were merely natural, "the mere lust of life" common to all living
things,--"that strive," as Spinoza put it, "to persevere in existing."
For there is no purely natural impulse in man; all that he is, is
transfused with spirit, whether he will or no. He cannot act as a mere
animal, because he cannot leave his rational nature behind him.

He cannot desire as an innocent brute desires: his desire is always love
or lust. We have as little right to say that the wisdom of the sage is
_nothing but_ the purblind savagery of a Terra del Fuegian, as we have
to assert that love is _nothing but_ a sexual impulse. That impulse
rather, when its potency is set free, will show itself, at first
confusedly, but with more and more clearness as it expands, to be the
yearning of soul for soul. It puts us "in training for a love which
knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality; but which seeks virtue and
wisdom everywhere, to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom." The
height to which this passion lifts man, is just what makes possible the
fall into a sensuality and excess of brutishness, in comparison with
which animal life is a paradise of innocence.

If this is clearly recognized, many of the idle questions of casuistry
that are sometimes raised regarding sexual love and marriage will cease
to trouble. For these questions generally presuppose the lowest possible
view of this passion. Browning shows us how to follow with serene
security the pure light of the emotion of love, amidst all the confused
lawlessness of lustful passion, and through all the intricacies of human
character. Love, he thinks, is never illicit, never unwise, except when
it is disloyal to itself; it never ruins, but always strives to enrich
its object. Bacon quotes with approval a saying "That it is impossible
to love, and to be wise." Browning asserts that it is impossible to love
and _not_ be wise. It is a power that, according to the Christian idea
which the poet adopts, has infinite goodness for its source, and that,
even in its meanest expression, is always feeling its way back to its
origin, flowing again into the ocean whence it came.

So sparklingly pure is this passion that it could exorcise the evil and
turn old to new, even in the case of Léonce Miranda. At least Browning,
in this poem, strives to show that, being true love, though the love of
an unclean man for an unclean woman, it was a power at war with the
sordid elements of that sordid life. Love has always the same potency,
flame is always flame,

      "no matter whence flame sprung,
  From gums and spice, or else from straw and rottenness."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, lv.]

      "Let her but love you,
  All else you disregard! what else can be?
  You know how love is incompatible
  With falsehood--purifies, assimilates
  All other passions to itself."[B]

[Footnote B: _Colombe's Birthday._]

  "Ne'er wrong yourself so far as quote the world
  And say, love can go unrequited here!
  You will have blessed him to his whole life's end--
  Low passions hindered, baser cares kept back,
  All goodness cherished where you dwelt--and dwell."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

But, while love is always a power lifting a man upwards to the level of
its own origin from whatever depths of degradation, its greatest potency
can reveal itself only in characters intrinsically pure, such as
Pompilia and Caponsacchi. Like mercy and every other spiritual gift, it
is mightiest in the mighty. In the good and great of the earth love is
veritably seen to be God's own energy;

    "Who never is dishonoured in the spark
  He gave us from His fire of fires, and bade
  Remember whence it sprang, nor be afraid
      While that burns on, though all the rest grow dark."[A]

[Footnote A: _Any Wife to Any Husband_, III.]

It were almost an endless task to recount the ways in which Browning
exhibits the moralizing power of love: how it is for him the
quintessence of all goodness; the motive, and inspiring cause, of every
act in the world that is completely right; and how, on that account, it
is the actual working in the man of the ideal of all perfection. This
doctrine of love is, in my opinion, the richest vein of pure ore in
Browning's poetry.

But it remains to follow briefly our poet's treatment of love in another
direction--as a principle present, not only in God as creative and
redeeming Power, and in man as the highest motive and energy of the
moral life, but also in the outer world, in the "material" universe. In
the view of the poet, the whole creation is nothing but love incarnate,
a pulsation from the divine heart. Love is the source of all law and of
all beauty. "Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night speaketh
knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not
heard." And our poet speaks as if he had caught the meaning of the
language, and believes that all things speak of love--the love of God.

"I think," says the heroine of the _Inn Album_,

  "Womanliness means only motherhood;
  All love begins and ends there,--roams enough,
  But, having run the circle, rests at home."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Inn Album_.]

And Browning detects something of this motherhood everywhere. He finds
it as

                          "Some cause
  Such as is put into a tree, which turns
  Away from the north wind with what nest it holds."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book_--_Canon Caponsacchi_, 1374-1376.]

The Pope--who, if any one, speaks for Browning--declares that

      "Brute and bird, reptile and the fly,
  Ay and, I nothing doubt, even tree, shrub, plant
  And flower o' the field, are all in a common pact
  To worthily defend the trust of trusts,
  Life from the Ever Living."[C]

[Footnote C: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1076-1081.]

"Because of motherhood," said the minor pope in _Ivàn Ivànovitch_,

                                  "each male
  Yields to his partner place, sinks proudly in the scale:
  His strength owned weakness, wit--folly, and courage--fear,
  Beside the female proved males's mistress--only here
  The fox-dam, hunger-pined, will slay the felon sire
  Who dares assault her whelp."

The betrayal of the mother's trust is the "unexampled sin," which scares
the world and shames God.

  "I hold that, failing human sense,
  The very earth had oped, sky fallen, to efface
  Humanity's new wrong, motherhood's first disgrace."[A]

[Footnote A: _Ivàn Ivànovitch_.]

This instinct of love, which binds brute-parent to brute-offspring, is a
kind of spiritual law in the natural world: it, like all law, guarantees
the continuity and unity of the world, and it is scarcely akin to merely
physical attraction. No doubt its basis is physical; it has an organism
of flesh and blood for its vehicle and instrument: but mathematical
physics cannot explain it, nor can it be detected by chemical tests.
Rather, with the poet, we are to regard brute affection as a kind of
rude outline of human love; as a law in nature, which, when understood
by man and adopted as his rule of conduct, becomes the essence and
potency of his moral life.

Thus Browning regards love as an omnipresent good. There is nothing, he
tells us in _Fifine_, which cannot reflect it; even moral putridity
becomes phosphorescent, "and sparks from heaven transpierce earth's
coarsest covertures."

  "There is no good of life but love--but love!
  What else looks good, is some shade flung from love,
  Love gilds it, gives it worth."[B]

[Footnote B: _In a balcony_.]

There is no fact which, if seen to the heart, will not prove itself to
have love for its purpose, and, therefore, for its substance. And it is
on this account that everything finds its place in a kosmos and that
there is

  "No detail but, in place allotted it, was prime
  And perfect."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_. xxxi.]

Every event in the history of the world and of man is explicable, as the
bursting into new form of this elemental, all-pervading power. The
permanence in change of nature, the unity in variety, the strength which
clothes itself in beauty, are all manifestations of love. Nature is not
merely natural; matter and life's minute beginnings, are more than they
seem. Paracelsus said that he knew and felt

                 "What God is, what we are,
  What life is--how God tastes an infinite joy
  In finite ways--one everlasting bliss,
  From whom all being emanates, all power
  Proceeds: in whom is life for evermore,
  Yet whom existence in its lowest form
  Includes."[B]

[Footnote B: _Paracelsus_.]

The scheme of love does not begin with man, he is rather its
consummation.

  "Whose attributes had here and there
  Been scattered o'er the visible world before,
  Asking to be combined, dim fragments meant
  To be united in some wondrous whole,
  Imperfect qualities throughout creation,
  Suggesting some one creature yet to make,
  Some point where all those scattered rays should meet
  Convergent in the faculties of man.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Hints and previsions of which faculties,
  Are strewn confusedly everywhere about
  The inferior natures, and all lead up higher,
  All shape out divinely the superior race,
  The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false,
  And man appears at last."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

Power, knowledge, love, all these are found in the world, in which

            "All tended to mankind,
  And, man produced, all has its end thus far:
  But, in completed man begins anew
  A tendency to God."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

For man, being intelligent, flings back his light on all that went
before,

  "Illustrates all the inferior grades, explains
  Each back step in the circle."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_. 189.]

He gives voice to the mute significance of Nature, and lets in the light
on its blind groping.

    "Man, once descried, imprints for ever
  His presence on all lifeless things."

And how is this interpretation achieved? By penetrating behind force,
power, mechanism, and even intelligence, thinks the poet, to a purpose
which is benevolent, a reason which is all embracing and rooted in love.
The magnificent failure of Paracelsus came from missing this last step.
His transcendent hunger for knowledge was not satisfied, not because
human knowledge is essentially an illusion or mind disease, but because
his knowledge did not reach the final truth of things, which is love.
For love alone makes the heart wise, to know the secret of all being.
This is the ultimate hypothesis in the light of which alone man can
catch a glimpse of the general direction and intent of the universal
movement in the world and man. Dying, Paracelsus, taught by Aprile,
caught a glimpse of this elemental "love-force," in which alone lies the
clue to every problem, and the promise of the final satisfaction of the
human spirit. Failing in this knowledge, man may know many things, but
nothing truly; for all such knowledge stays with outward shows. It is
love alone that puts man in the right relation to his fellows and to the
world, and removes the distortion which fills life with sorrow, and
makes it

            "Only a scene
  Of degradation, ugliness and tears,
  The record of disgraces best forgotten,
  A sullen page in human chronicles
  Fit to erase."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

But in the light of love, man "sees a good in evil, and a hope in ill
success," and recognizes that mankind are

  "All with a touch of nobleness, despite
  Their error, upward tending all though weak;
  Like plants in mines which never saw the sun,
  But dream of him, and guess where he may be,
  And do their best to climb and get to him."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

"All this I knew not," adds Paracelsus, "and I failed. Let men take the
lesson and press this lamp of love, 'God's lamp, close to their
breasts'; its splendour, soon or late, will pierce the gloom," and show
that the universe is a transparent manifestation of His beneficence.



CHAPTER VII.

BROWNING'S IDEALISM, AND ITS PHILOSOPHICAL JUSTIFICATION.


  "Master, explain this incongruity!
  When I dared question, 'It is beautiful,
  But is it true?' thy answer was, 'In truth
  Lives Beauty.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _Shah Abbas_.]

We have now seen how Browning sought to explain all things as
manifestations of the principle of love; how he endeavoured to bring all
the variety of finite existence, and even the deep discrepancies of good
and evil, under the sway of one idea. I have already tried to show that
all human thought is occupied with the same task: science, art,
philosophy, and even the most ordinary common-sense, are all, in their
different ways, seeking for constant laws amongst changing facts. Nay,
we may even go so far as to say that all the activity of man, the
practical as well as the theoretical, is an attempt to establish a
_modus vivendi_ between his environment and himself. And such an attempt
rests on the assumption that there is some ground common to both of the
struggling powers within and without, some principle that manifests
itself both in man and in nature. So that all men are philosophers to
the extent of postulating a unity, which is deeper than all differences;
and all are alike trying to discover, in however limited or ignorant a
way, what that unity is. If this fact were more constantly kept in view,
the effort of philosophers to bring the ultimate colligating principles
of thought into clear consciousness would not, at the outset at least,
be regarded with so much suspicion. For the philosopher differs from the
practical man of the world, not so much in the nature of the task which
he is trying to accomplish, as in the distinct and conscious purpose
with which he enters upon it.

Now, I think that those, who, like Browning, offer an explicitly
optimistic idea of the relation between man and the world, have a
special right to a respectful hearing; for it can scarcely be denied
that their optimistic explanation is invaluable, _if it is true_--

  "So might we safely mock at what unnerves
  Faith now, be spared the sapping fear's increase
  That haply evil's strife with good shall cease
  Never on earth."[A]

[Footnote A: _Bernard de Mandeville_.]

Despair is a great clog to good work for the world, and pessimists, as a
rule, have shown much more readiness than optimists to let evil have its
unimpeded way. Having found, like Schopenhauer, that "Life is an awkward
business," they "determine to spend life in reflecting on it," or at
least in moaning about it. The world's helpers have been men of another
mould; and the contrast between Fichte and Schopenhauer is suggestive of
a general truth:--"Fichte, in the bright triumphant flight of his
idealism, supported by faith in a moral order of the world which works
for righteousness, turning his back on the darker ethics of self-torture
and mortification, and rushing into the political and social fray,
proclaiming the duties of patriotism, idealizing the soldier,
calling to and exercising an active philanthrophy, living with
his nation, and continually urging it upwards to higher levels of
self-realization--Schopenhauer recurring to the idea of asceticism,
preaching the blessedness of the quiescence of all will, disparaging
efforts to save the nation or elevate the masses, and holding that each
has enough to do in raising his own self from its dull engrossment in
lower things to an absorption in that pure, passionless being which lies
far beyond all, even the so-called highest, pursuits of practical
life."[A]

[Footnote A: _Schopenhauer_, by Prof. Wallace.]

A pessimism, which is nothing more than flippant fault-finding,
frequently gains a cheap reputation for wisdom; and, on the other hand,
an optimism, which is really the result of much reflection and
experience, may be regarded as the product of a superficial spirit that
has never known the deeper evils of life. But, if pessimism be true, it
differs from other truths by its uselessness; for, even if it saves man
from the bitterness of petty disappointments, it does so only by making
the misery universal. There is no need to specify, when "_All_ is
vanity." The drowning man does not feel the discomfort of being wet. But
yet, if we reflect on the problem of evil, we shall find that there is
no neutral ground, and shall ultimately be driven to choose between
pessimism and its opposite. Nor, on the other hand, is the suppression
of the problem of evil possible, except at a great cost. It presents
itself anew in the mind of every thinking man; and some kind of solution
of it, or at least some definite way of meeting its difficulty, is
involved in the attitude which every man assumes towards life and its
tasks.

It is not impossible that there may be as much to be said for Browning's
joy in life and his love of it, as there is for his predecessor's rage
and sorrow. Browning certainly thought that there was; and he held his
view consistently to the end. We cannot, therefore, do justice to the
poet without dealing critically with the principle on which he has based
his faith, and observing how far it is applicable to the facts of human
life. As I have previously said, he strives hard to come into fair
contact with the misery of man in all its sadness; and, after doing so,
he claims, not as a matter of poetic sentiment, but as a matter of
strict truth, that good is the heart and reality of it all. It is true
that he cannot demonstrate the truth of his principle by reference to
all the facts, any more than the scientific man can justify his
hypothesis in every detail; but he holds it as a faith which reason can
justify and experience establish, although not in every isolated
phenomenon. The good may, he holds, be seen actually at work in the
world, and its process will be more fully known, as human life advances
towards its goal.

                    "Though Master keep aloof,
  Signs of His presence multiply from roof
  To basement of the building."[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

Thus Browning bases his view upon experience, and finds firm footing for
his faith in the present; although he acknowledges that the "profound of
ignorance surges round his rockspit of self-knowledge."

                              "Enough that now,
  Here where I stand, this moment's me and mine,
  Shows me what is, permits me to divine
  What shall be."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

"Since we know love we know enough"; for in love, he confidently thinks
we have the key to all the mystery of being.

Now, what is to be made of an optimism of this kind, which is based upon
love and which professes to start from experience, or to be legitimately
and rationally derived from it?

If such a view be taken seriously, as I propose doing, we must be
prepared to meet at the outset with some very grave difficulties. The
first of these is that it is an interpretation of facts by a human
emotion. To say that love blushes in the rose, or breaks into beauty in
the clouds, that it shows its strength in the storm, and sets the stars
in the sky, and that it is in all things the source of order and law,
may imply a principle of supreme worth both to poetry and religion; but
when we are asked to take it as a metaphysical explanation of facts, we
are prone, like the judges of Caponsacchi, not to "levity, or to
anything indecorous"--

  "Only--I think I apprehend the mood:
  There was the blameless shrug, permissible smirk,
  The pen's pretence at play with the pursed mouth,
  The titter stifled in the hollow palm
  Which rubbed the eye-brow and caressed the nose,
  When I first told my tale; they meant, you know--
  'The sly one, all this we are bound believe!
  Well, he can say no other than what he says.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--Canon Caponsacchi_, 14-20.]

We are sufficiently willing to let the doctrine be held as a pious
opinion. The faith that "all's love yet all's law," like many another
illusion, if not hugged too closely, may comfort man's nakedness. But if
we are asked to substitute this view for that which the sciences
suggest,--if we are asked to put "Love" in the place of physical energy,
and, by assuming it as a principle, to regard as unreal all the infinite
misery of humanity and the degradation of intellect and character from
which it arises, common-sense seems at once to take the side of the
doleful sage of Chelsea. When the optimist postulates that the state of
the world, were it rightly understood, is completely satisfactory,
reason seems to be brought to a stand; and if poetry and religion
involve such a postulate, they are taken to be ministering to the
emotions at the expense of the intellect.

Browning, however, was not a mere sentimentalist who could satisfy his
heart without answering the questions of his intellect. Nor is his view
without support--at least, as regards the substance of it. The presence
of an idealistic element in things is recognized even by ordinary
thought; and no man's world is so poor that it would not be poorer still
for him, if it were reduced by the abstract sciences of nature into a
mere manifestation of physical force. Such a world Richter compares to
an empty eye-socket.

The great result of speculation since the time of Kant is to teach us to
recognize that objects are essentially related to mind, and that the
principles which rule our thought enter, so to speak, into the
constitution of the things we know. A very slight acquaintance with the
history even of psychology, especially in modern times, shows that facts
are more and more retracted into thought. This science, which began with
a sufficiently common-sense view, not only of the reality and solidity
of the things of the outer world, but of their opposition to, or
independence of thought, is now thinning that world down into a mere
shadow--a something which excites sensation. It shows that external
things as we know them, and we are not concerned in any others, are, to
a very great extent, the product of our thinking activities. No one will
now subscribe to the Lockian or Humean view, of images impressed by
objects on mind: the object which "impresses" has first to be made by
mind, out of the results of nervous excitation. In a word, modern
psychology as well as modern metaphysics, is demonstrating more and more
fully the dependence of the world, as it is known, on the nature and
activity of man's mind. Every explanation of the world is found to be,
in this sense, idealistic; and in this respect, there is no difference
whatsoever between the interpretation given by science and that of
poetry, or religion, or philosophy. If we say that a thing is a
"substance," or has "a cause"; if, with the physicist, we assert the
principle of the transmutation of energy, or make use of the idea of
evolution with the biologist or geologist; nay, if we speak of time and
space with the mathematician, we use principles of unity derived from
self-consciousness, and interpret nature in terms of ourselves, just as
truly as the poet or philosopher, who makes love, or reason, the
constitutive element in things. If the practical man of the world
charges the poet and philosopher with living amidst phantoms, he can be
answered with a "_Tu quoque_." "How easy," said Emerson, "it is to show
the materialist that he also is a phantom walking and working amid
phantoms, and that he need only ask a question or two beyond his daily
questions to find his solid universe proving dim and impalpable before
his sense."

"Sense," which seems to show directly that the world is a solid reality,
not dependent in any way on thought, is found not to be reliable. All
science is nothing but an appeal to thought from ordinary sensuous
opinion. It is an attempt to find the reality of things by thinking
about them; and this reality, when it is found, turns out to be a law.
But laws are ideas; though, if they are true ideas, they represent not
merely thoughts in the mind, but also real principles, which manifest
themselves in the objects of the outer world, as well as in the
thinker's mind.

It is not possible in such a work as this, to give a carefully reasoned
proof of this view of the relation of thought and things, or to repeat
the argument of Kant. I must be content with merely referring to it, as
showing that the principles in virtue of which we think, are the
principles in virtue of which objects as we know them exist; and we
cannot be concerned with any other objects. The laws which scientific
investigation discovers are not only ideas that can be written in books,
but also principles which explain the nature of things. In other words,
the hypotheses of the natural sciences, or their categories, are points
of view in the light of which the external world can be regarded as
governed by uniform laws. And these constructive principles, which lift
the otherwise disconnected world into an intelligible system, are
revelations of the nature of intelligence, and only on that account
principles for explaining the world.

                           "To know,
  Rather consists in opening out a way
  Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
  Than in effecting entry for a light
  Supposed to be without."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

In this sense, it may be said that all knowledge is anthropomorphic; and
in this respect there is no difference between the physics, which speaks
of energy as the essence of things, and the poetry, which speaks of love
as the ultimate principle of reality. Between such scientific and
idealistic explanations there is not even the difference that the one
begins without and the other within, or that the one is objective and
the other subjective. The true distinction is that the principles upon
which the latter proceed are less abstract than those of science.
"Reason" and "love" are higher principles for the explanation of the
nature of things than "substance" or "cause"; but both are forms of the
unity of thought. And if the latter seem to have nothing to do with the
self, it is only because they are inadequate to express its full
character. On the other hand, the higher categories, or ideas of reason,
seem to be merely anthropomorphic, and, therefore, ill-suited to explain
nature, because the relation of nature to intelligence is habitually
neglected by ordinary thought, which has not pressed its problems far
enough to know that such higher categories can alone satisfy the demand
for truth.

But natural science is gradually driven from the lower to the higher
categories, or, in other words, it is learning to take a more and more
idealistic view of nature. It is moving very slowly, because it is a
long labour to exhaust the uses of an instrument of thought; and it is
only at great intervals in the history of the human intellect, that we
find the need of a change of categories. But, as already hinted, there
is no doubt that science is becoming increasingly aware of the
conditions, under which alone its results may be held as valid. At
first, it drove "mind" out of the realm of nature, and offered to
explain both it and man in physical and mathematical terms. But, in our
day, the man of science has become too cautious to make such rash
extensions of the principles he uses. He is more inclined to limit
himself to his special field, and he refuses to make any declaration as
to the ultimate nature of things. He holds himself apart from
materialism, as he does from idealism. I think I may even go further,
and say that the fatal flaw of materialism has been finally detected,
and that the essential relativity of all objects to thought is all but
universally acknowledged.

The common notion that science gives a complete view of truth, to which
we may appeal as refuting idealism, is untenable. Science itself will
not support the appeal, but will direct the appellant to another court.
Perhaps, rather, it would be truer to say that its attitude is one of
doubt whether or not any court, philosophical or other, can give any
valid decision on the matter. Confining themselves to the region of
material phenomena, scientific men generally leave to common ignorance,
or to moral and theological tradition, all the interests and activities
of man, other than those which are physical or physiological. And some
of them are even aware, that if they could find the physical equation of
man, or, through their knowledge of physiology, actually produce in man
the sensations, thoughts, and notions now ascribed to the intelligent
life within him, the question of the spiritual or material nature of man
and the world, would remain precisely where it was. The explanation
would still begin with mind and end there. The principles of the
materialistic explanation of the world would still be derived from
intelligence; mind would still underlie all it explained, and completed
science would still be, in this sense, anthropomorphic. The charge of
anthropomorphism thus falls to the ground, because it would prove too
much. It is a weapon which cuts the hand that wields it. And, as
directed against idealism, it only shows that he who uses it has
inadequate notions both of the nature of the self and of the world, and
is not aware that each gets meaning, only as an exponent of the other.

On the whole, we may say that it is not men of science who now assail
philosophy, because it gives an idealistic explanation of the world, so
much as unsystematic dabblers in matters of thought. The best men of
science, rather, show a tendency to acquiesce in a kind of dualism of
matter and spirit, and to leave morality and religion, art and
philosophy to pursue their own ends undisturbed. Mr. Huxley, for
instance, and some others, offer two philosophical solutions, one
proceeding from the material world and the other from the sensations and
other "facts of consciousness." They say that we may either explain man
as a natural phenomenon, or the world as a mental one.

But it is a little difficult not to ask which of these explanations is
true. Both of them cannot well be, seeing that they are different. And
neither of them can be adopted without very serious consequences. It
would require considerable hardihood to suggest that natural science
should be swept away in favour of psychology, which would be done if the
one view held by Mr. Huxley were true. And, in my opinion, it requires
quite as much hardihood to suggest the adoption of a theory that makes
morality and religion illusory, which would be done were the other view
valid.

As a matter of fact, however, such an attitude can scarcely be held by
any one who is interested _both_ in the success of natural science and
in the spiritual development of mankind. We are constrained rather to
say that, if these rival lines of thought lead us to deny either the
outer world of things, or the world of thought and morality, then they
must both be wrong. They are not "explanations" but false theories, if
they lead to such conclusions as these. And, instead of holding them up
to the world as the final triumph of human thought, we should sweep them
into the dust-bin, and seek for some better explanation from a new point
of view.

And, indeed, a better explanation is sought, and sought not only by
idealists, but by scientific men themselves,--did they only comprehend
their own main tendency and method. The impulse towards unity, which is
the very essence of thought, if it is baulked in one direction by a
hopeless dualism, just breaks out in another. Subjective idealism, that
is, the theory that things are nothing but phenomena of the individual's
consciousness, that the world is really all inside the philosopher, is
now known by most people to end in self-contradiction; and materialism
is also known to begin with it. And there are not many people sanguine
enough to believe with Mr. Huxley and Mr. Herbert Spencer, that, if we
add two self-contradictory theories together, or hold them alternately,
we shall find the truth. Modern science, that is, the science which does
not philosophize, and modern philosophy are with tolerable unanimity
denying this absolute dualism. They do not know of any thought that is
not of things, or of any things that are not for thought. It is
necessarily assumed that, in some way or other, the gap between things
and thought is got over by knowledge. How the connection is brought
about may not be known; but, that there is the connection between real
things and true thoughts, no one can well deny. It is an ill-starred
perversity which leads men to deny such a connection, merely because
they have not found out how it is established.

A new category of thought has taken possession of the thought of our
time--a category which is fatal to dualism. The idea of development is
breaking down the division between mind and matter, as it is breaking
down all other absolute divisions. Geology, astronomy, and physics at
one extreme, biology, psychology, and philosophy at the other, combine
in asserting the idea of the universe as a unity which is always
evolving its content, and bringing its secret potencies to the light. It
is true that these sciences have not linked hands as yet. We cannot get
from chemistry to biology without a leap, or from physiology to
psychology without another. But no one will postulate a rift right
through being. The whole tendency of modern science implies the opposite
of such a conception. History is striving to trace continuity between
the civilized man and the savage. Psychology is making towards a
junction with physiology and general biology, biology with chemistry,
and chemistry with physics. That there is an unbroken continuity in
existence is becoming a postulate of modern science, almost as truly as
the "universality of law" or "the uniformity of nature." Nor is the
postulate held less firmly because the evidence for the continuity of
nature is not yet complete. Chemistry has not yet quite lapsed into
physics; biology at present shows no sign of giving up its
characteristic conception of life, and the former science is as yet
quite unable to deal with that peculiar phenomenon. The facts of
consciousness have not been resolved into nervous action, and, so far,
mind has not been shown to be a secretion of brain. Nevertheless, all
these sciences are beating against the limits which separate them, and
new suggestions of connection between natural life and its inorganic
environment are continually discovered. The sciences are boring towards
each other, and the dividing strata are wearing thin; so that it seems
reasonable to expect that, with the growth of knowledge, an unbroken way
upwards may be discovered, from the lowest and simplest stages of
existence to the highest and most complex forms of self-conscious life.

Now, to those persons who are primarily interested in the ethical and
religious phenomena of man's life, the idea of abolishing the chasm
between spirit and nature is viewed with no little apprehension. It is
supposed that if evolution were established as a universal law, and the
unity of being were proved, the mental and moral life of man would be
degraded into a complex manifestation of mere physical force. And we
even find religious men rejoicing at the failure of science to bridge
the gap between the inorganic and the organic, and between natural and
self-conscious life; as if the validity of religion depended upon the
maintenance of their separating boundaries. But no religion that is free
from superstitious elements has anything to gain from the failure of
knowledge to relate things to each other. It is difficult to see how
breaks in the continuity of being can be established, when every living
plant confutes the absolute difference between the organic and
inorganic, and, by the very fact of living, turns the latter into the
former; and it is difficult to deny the continuity of "mind and matter,"
when every human being is relating himself to the outer world in all his
thoughts and actions. And religion is the very last form of thought
which could profit from such a proof of absolute distinctions, were it
possible. In fact, as we have seen, religion, in so far as it demands a
perfect and absolute being as the object of worship, is vitally
concerned in maintaining the unity of the world. It must assume that
matter, in its degree, reveals the same principle which, in a higher
form, manifests itself in spirit.

But closer investigation will show that the real ground for such
apprehension does not lie in the continuity of existence, which
evolution implies; for religion itself postulates the same thing. The
apprehension springs, rather, from the idea that the continuity asserted
by evolution, is obtained by resolving the higher forms of existence
into the lower. It is believed that, if the application of development
to facts were successfully carried out, the organic would be shown to be
nothing but complex inorganic forces, mental life nothing but a
physiological process, and religion, morality, and art, nothing but
products of the highly complex motion of highly complex aggregates of
physical atoms.

It seems to me quite natural that science should be regarded as tending
towards such a materialistic conclusion. This is the view which many
scientific investigators have themselves taken of their work; and some
of their philosophical exponents, notably Mr. Herbert Spencer, have,
with more or less inconsistency, interpreted the idea of evolution in
this manner. But, it may be well to bear in mind that science is
generally far more successful in employing its constructive ideas, than
it is in rendering an account of them. In fact, it is not its business
to examine its categories: that task properly belongs to philosophy, and
it is not a superfluous one. But, so long as the employment of the
categories in the special province of a particular science yields valid
results, scientific explorers and those who attach, and rightly attach,
so much value to their discoveries, are very unwilling to believe that
these categories are not valid universally. The warning voice of
philosophy is not heeded, when it charges natural science with applying
its conceptions to materials to which they are inadequate; and its
examination of the categories of thought is regarded as an innocent, but
also a useless, activity. For, it is argued, what good can arise from
the analysis of our working ideas? The world looked for causes, and
found them, when it was very young; but, up to the time of David Hume,
no one had shown what causality meant, and the explanation which he
offered is now rejected by modern science, as definitely as it is
rejected by philosophy. Meantime, while philosophy is still engaged in
exposing the fallacies of the theory of association as held by Hume,
science has gone beyond this category altogether; it is now establishing
a theory of the conservation of energy, which supplants the law of
causality by tracing it into a deeper law of nature.

There is some force in this argument, but it cuts both ways. For, even
if it be admitted that the category was successfully applied in the
past, it is also admitted that it was applied without being understood;
and it cannot now be questioned that the philosophers were right in
rejecting it as the final explanation of the relation of objects to each
other, and in pointing to other and higher connecting ideas. And this
consideration should go some way towards convincing evolutionists that,
though they may be able successfully to apply the idea of development to
particular facts, this does not guarantee the soundness of their view of
it as an instrument of thought, or of the nature of the final results
which it is destined to achieve. Hence, without any disparagement to the
new extension which science has received by the use of this new idea, it
may be maintained that the ordinary view of its tendency and mission is
erroneous.

"The prevailing method of explaining the world," says Professor Caird,
"may be described as an attempt to level 'downwards.' The doctrine of
development, interpreted as that idea usually is interpreted, supports
this view, as making it necessary to trace back higher and more complex
to lower or simpler forms of being; for the most obvious way of
accomplishing this task is to show analytically that there is really
nothing more in the former than in the latter."[A] "Divorced from
matter," asks Professor Tyndall, "where is life to be found? Whatever
our _faith_ may say our _knowledge_ shows them to be indissolubly
joined. Every meal we eat, and every cup we drink, illustrates the
mysterious _control of Mind by Matter_. Trace the line of life backwards
and see it approaching more and more to what we call the _purely
physical condition_."[B] And then, rising to the height of his subject,
or even above it, he proclaims, "By an intellectual necessity I cross
the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter
which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our
professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with
opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life."[C] A
little further on, speaking in the name of science, and on behalf of his
scientific fellow-workers (with what right is a little doubtful), he
adds--"We claim, and we shall wrest, from theology, the entire domain of
cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon
the domain of science, must, _in so far as they do this,_ submit to its
control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it." But if science
is to control the knowable world, he generously leaves the remainder for
religion. He will not deprive it of a faith in "a Power absolutely
inscrutable to the intellect of man. As little in our days as in the
days of Job can a man by searching find this Power out." And, now that
he has left this empty sphere of the unknown to religion, he feels
justified in adding, "There is, you will observe, no very rank
materialism here."

[Footnote A: _The Critical Philosophy of Kant_, Vol. I. p. 34]

[Footnote B: _Address to the British Association_, 1874, p. 54.]

[Footnote C: _Belfast Address_, 1874.]

  "Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out
  of the way,
  With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing
  to sway."[A]

[Footnote A: Clerk Maxwell: "_Notes of the President's Address,_"
British Association, 1874.]

Now these declarations of Mr. Tyndall are, to say the least, somewhat
ambiguous and shadowy. Yet, when he informs us that eating and drinking
"illustrate the control of mind by matter," and "that the line of life
traced backwards leads towards a purely physical condition," it is a
little difficult to avoid the conclusion that he regards science as
destined.

  "To tread the world
  Into a paste, and thereof make a smooth
  Uniform mound, whereon to plant its flag."[B]

[Footnote B: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

For the conclusion of the whole argument seems to be, that all _we know
as facts_ are mere forms of matter; although the stubborn refusal of
consciousness to be resolved into natural force, and its power of
constructing for itself a world of symbols, gives science no little
trouble, and forces it to acknowledge complete ignorance of the nature
of the power from which all comes.

  "So roll things to the level which you love,
  That you could stand at ease there and survey
  The universal Nothing undisgraced
  By pert obtrusion of some old church-spire
  I' the distance! "[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_.]

Some writers on ethics and religion have adopted the same view of the
goal of the idea of evolution. In consistency with this supposed
tendency of science, to resolve all things into their simplest, and
earliest forms, religion has been traced back to the superstition and
ghost-worship of savages; and then it has been contended that it is, in
essence, nothing more than superstition and ghost-worship. And, in like
manner, morality, with its categorical imperative of duty, has been
traced back, without a break, to the ignorant fear of the vengeance of a
savage chief. A similar process in the same direction reduces the love
divine, of which our poet speaks, into brute lust; somewhat sublimated,
it is true, in its highest forms, but not fundamentally changed.

  "Philosophers deduce you chastity
  Or shame, from just the fact that at the first
  Whoso embraced a woman in the field,
  Threw club down and forewent his brains beside;
  So, stood a ready victim in the reach
  Of any brother-savage, club in hand.
  Hence saw the use of going out of sight
  In wood or cave to prosecute his loves."[B]

[Footnote B: _Bishop Blouhram's Apology_.]

And when the sacred things of life are treated in this manner--when
moral conduct is showed to be evolved by a continuous process from
"conduct in general," the conduct of an "infusorium or a cephalopod," or
even of wind-mills or water-wheels, it is not surprising if the
authority of the moral law seems to be undermined, and that "devout
souls" are apprehensive of the results of science. "Does law so analyzed
coerce you much?" asks Browning.

The derivation of spiritual from natural laws thus appears to be fatal
to the former; and religious teachers naturally think that it is
necessary for their cause to snap the links of the chain of evolution,
and, like Professor Drummond, to establish absolute gaps, not only
between the inorganic and the organic worlds, but also between the
self-conscious life of man and the mysterious, spiritual life of Christ,
or God. But it seems to me that, in their antagonism to evolution,
religious teachers are showing the same incapacity to distinguish
between their friends and their foes, which they previously manifested
in their acceptance of the Kantian doctrine of "things in
themselves,"--a doctrine which placed God and the soul beyond the power
of speculative reason either to prove or disprove. It is, however,
already recognized that the attempt of Mansel and Hamilton to degrade
human reason for the behoof of faith was really a veiled agnosticism;
and a little reflection must show that the idea of evolution, truly
interpreted, in no wise threatens the degradation of man, or the
overthrow of his spiritual interests. On the contrary, this idea is, in
all the history of thought, the first constructive hypothesis which is
adequate to the uses of ethics and religion. By means of it, we may hope
to solve many of the problems arising from the nature of knowledge and
moral conduct, which the lower category of cause turned into pure
enigmas. It seems, indeed, to contain the promise of establishing the
science of man, as intelligent, on a firm basis; on which we may raise a
superstructure, comparable in strength and superior in worth, to that of
the science of nature. And, even if the moral science must, like
philosophy, always return to the beginning--must, that is, from the
necessity of its nature, and not from any complete failure--it will
still begin again at a higher level now that the idea of evolution is in
the field.

It now remains to show in what way the idea of evolution leaves room for
religion and morality; or, in other words, to show how, so far from
degrading man to the level of the brute condition, and running life down
into "purely physical conditions," it contains the promise of
establishing that idealistic view of the world, which is maintained by
art and religion.

In order to show this, it is necessary that the idea of evolution should
be used fearlessly, and applied to all facts that can in any way come
under it. It must, in other words, be used as a category of thought,
whose application is universal; so that, if it is valid at all as a
theory, it is valid of all finite things. For the question we are
dealing with is not the truth of the hypothesis of a particular science,
but the truth of a hypothesis as to the relation of all objects in the
world, including man himself. We must not be deterred from this
universal application by the fact that we cannot, as yet, prove its
truth in every detail. No scientific hypothesis ever has exhausted its
details. I consider, therefore, that Mr. Tyndall had a complete right to
"cross the boundary of the experimental evidence by an intellectual
necessity"; for the necessity comes from the assumption of a possible
explanation by the aid of the hypothesis. It is no argument against such
a procedure to insist that, as yet, there is no proof of the absolute
continuity of matter and physical life, or that the dead begets the
living. The hypothesis is not disproved by the absence of evidence; it
is only not proved. The connection may be there, although we have not,
as yet, been able to find it. In the face of such difficulties as these,
the scientific investigator has always a right to claim more time; and
his attitude is impregnable as long as he remembers, as Mr. Tyndall did
on the whole, that his hypothesis is a hypothesis.

But Mr. Tyndall has himself given up this right. He, like Mr. Huxley,
has placed the phenomena of self-consciousness outside of the developing
process, and confined the sphere in which evolution is applicable, to
natural objects. Between objects and the subject, even when both subject
and object are man himself, there lies "an impassable gulf."

Even to try "to comprehend the connection between thought and thing is
absurd, like the effort of a man trying to lift himself by his own
waist-band." Our states of self-consciousness are symbols only--symbols
of an outside entity, whose real nature we can never know. We know only
these states; we only _infer_ "that anything answering to our
impressions exists outside of ourselves." And it is impossible to
justify even that inference; for, if we can only know states of
consciousness, we cannot say that they are symbols of anything, or that
there is anything to be symbolized. The external world, on this theory,
ceases to exist even as an unknown entity. In triumphantly pointing out
that, in virtue of this psychological view, "There is, you will observe,
no very rank materialism here," Mr. Tyndall forgets that he has
destroyed the basis of all natural science, and reduced evolution into a
law of "an outside entity," of which we can never know anything, and any
inference regarding which violates every law of thought.

It seems to me quite plain that either this psychological theory, which
Mr. Tyndall has mistaken for a philosophy, is invalid; or else it is
useless to endeavour to propound any view regarding a "nature which is
the phantom of the individual's mind." I prefer the science of Mr.
Tyndall (and of Mr. Huxley, too) to his philosophy; and he would have
escaped materialism more effectively, if he had remained faithful to his
theory of evolution. It is a disloyalty, not only to science, but to
thought, to cast away our categories when they seem to imply
inconvenient consequences. They must be valid universally, if they are
valid at all.

Mr. Tyndall contends that nature makes man, and he finds evidence in the
fact that we eat and drink, "of the control of mind by matter." Now, it
seems to me, that _if_ nature makes man, then nature makes man's
thoughts also. His sensations, feelings, ideas, notions, being those of
a naturally-evolved agent, are revelations of the potency of the primal
matter, just as truly as are the buds, flowers, and fruits of a tree. No
doubt, we cannot as yet "comprehend the connection" between nervous
action and sensation, any more than we can comprehend the connection
between inorganic and organic existence. But, if the absence of
"experimental evidence" does not disprove the hypothesis in the one
case, it can not disprove it in the other. There are two crucial points
in which the theory has not been established.

But, in both cases alike, there is the same kind of evidence that the
connection exists; although in neither case can we, as yet, discover
what it is. Plants live by changing inorganic elements into organic
structure; and man is intelligent only in so far as he crosses over the
boundary between subject and object, and knows the world without him.
There is no "impassable gulf separating the subject and object"; if
there were we could not know anything of either. There are not two
worlds--the one of thoughts, the other of things--which are absolutely
exclusive of each other, but one universe in which thought and reality
meet. Mr. Tyndall thinks that it is an inference (and an inference over
an impassable gulf!) that anything answering to our impressions exists
outside ourselves. "The question of the external world is the great
battleground of metaphysics," he quotes approvingly from Mr. J.S. Mill.
But the question of the external world is not whether that world exists;
it is, how are we to account for our knowledge that it does exist. The
inference is not from thoughts to things, nor from things to thoughts,
but from a partially known world to a systematic theory of that world.
Philosophy is not engaged on the foolish enterprise of trying to
discover whether the world exists, or whether we know that it exists;
its problem is how to account for our knowledge. It asks what must the
nature of things be, seeing that they are known; and what is the nature
of thought, seeing that it knows facts?

There is no hope whatsoever for ethics, or religion, or philosophy--no
hope even for science--in a theory which would apply evolution all the
way up from inorganic matter to life, but which would postulate an
absolute break at consciousness. The connection between thought and
things is there to begin with, whether we can account for it or not; if
it were not, then natural science would be impossible. It would be
palpably irrational even to try to find out the nature of things by
thinking. The only science would be psychology, and even that would be
the science of "symbols of an unknown entity." What symbols of an
unknown can signify, or how an unknown can produce symbols of itself
across an impassable gulf--Mr. Spencer, Mr. Huxley, and Mr. Tyndall have
yet to inform us.

It is the more necessary to insist on this, because the division between
thought and matter, which is admitted by these writers, is often grasped
at by their opponents, as a means of warding off the results which they
draw from the theory of evolution. When science breaks its sword,
religion assails it, with the fragment. It is not at once evident that
if this chasm were shown to exist, knowledge would be a chimera; for
there would be no outer world at all, not even a phenomenal one, to
supply an object for it. We _must_ postulate the ultimate unity of all
beings with each other and with the mind that knows them, just because
we are intellectual and moral beings; and to destroy this unity is to
"kill reason itself, as it were, in the eye," as Milton said.

Now, evolution not only postulates unity, or the unbroken continuity of
all existence, but it also negates all differences, except those which
are expressions of that unity. It is not the mere assertion of a
substratum under qualities; but it implies that the substratum
penetrates into the qualities, and manifests itself in them. That which
develops--be it plant, child, or biological kingdom--is, at every stage
from lowest to highest, a concrete unity of all its differences; and in
the whole history of its process its actual content is always the same.
The environment of the plant evokes that content, but it adds nothing to
it. No addition of anything absolutely new, no external aggregation, no
insertion of anything alien into a growing thing, is possible. What it
is now, it was in the beginning; and what it will be, it is now.
Granting the hypothesis of evolution, there can be no quarrel with the
view that the crude beginnings of things, matter in its most nebulous
state, contains potentially all the rich variety of both natural and
spiritual life.

But this continuity of all existence may be interpreted in two very
different ways. It may lead us either to radically change our notions of
mind and its activities, or "to radically change our notions of matter."
We may take as the principle of explanation, either the beginning, or
the end of the process of development. We may say of the simple and
crass, "There is all that your rich universe really means"; or we may
say of the spiritual activities of man, "This is what your crude
beginning really was." We may explain the complex by the simple, or the
simple by the complex. We may analyze the highest back into the lowest,
or we may follow the lowest, by a process of synthesis, up to the
highest.

And one of the most important of all questions for morality and religion
is the question, which of these two methods is valid. If out of crass
matter is evolved all animal and spiritual life, does that prove life to
be nothing but matter; or does it not rather show that what we, in our
ignorance, took to be mere matter was really something much greater? If
"crass matter" contains all this promise and potency, by what right do
we still call it "crass"? It is manifestly impossible to treat the
potencies, assumed to lie in a thing that grows, as if they were of no
significance; first, to assert that such potencies exist, in saying that
the object develops; and then, to neglect them, and to regard the effect
as constituted merely of its simplest elements. Either these potencies
are not in the object, or else the object has in it, and is, at the
first, more than it appears to be. Either the object does not grow, or
the lowest stage of its being is no explanation of its true nature.

If we wish to know what the forms of natural life mean, we look in vain
to their primary state. We must watch the evolution and revelation of
the secret hid in natural life, as it moves through the ascending cycles
of the biological kingdom. The idea of evolution, when it is not
muddled, is synthetic--not analytic; it explains the simplest in the
light of the complex, the beginning in the light of the end, and not
_vice versa_. In a word, it follows the ways of nature, the footsteps of
fact, instead of inventing a wilful backward path of its own. And nature
explains by gradually expanding. If we hearken to nature, and not to the
voice of illusory preconceptions, we shall hear her proclaim at the last
stage, "Here is the meaning of the seedling. Now it is clear what it
really was; for the power which lay dormant has pushed itself into
light, through bud and flower and leaf and fruit." The reality of a
growing thing is its highest form of being. The last explains the first,
but not the first the last. The first is abstract, incomplete, not yet
actual, but mere potency; and we could never know even the potency,
except in the light of its own actualization.

From this correction of the abstract view of development momentous
consequences follow. If the universe is, as science pronounces, an
organic totality, which is ever converting its promise and potency into
actuality, then we must add that the ultimate interpretation even of
the lowest existence in the world cannot be given except on principles
which are adequate to explain the highest. We must "level up and not
level down": we must not only deny that matter can explain spirit, but
we must say that even matter itself cannot be fully understood, except
as an element in a spiritual world."[A]

[Footnote A: Professor Caird, _The Critical Philosophy of Kant_, p. 35.]

That the idea of evolution, even when applied in this consistent way,
has difficulties of its own, it is scarcely necessary to say. But there
is nothing in it which imperils the ethical and religious interests of
humanity, or tends to reduce man into a natural phenomenon. Instead of
degrading man, it lifts nature into a manifestation of spirit. If it
were established, if every link of the endless chain were discovered and
the continuity of existence were irrefragably proved, science would not
overthrow idealism, but it would rather vindicate it. It would justify
_in detail_ the attempt of poetry and religion and philosophy, to
interpret all being as the "transparent vesture" of reason, or love, or
whatever other power in the world is regarded as highest.

I have now arrived at the conclusion that was sought. I have tried to
show, not only that the attempt to interpret nature in terms of man is
not a superstitious anthropomorphism, but that such an interpretation is
implied in all rational thought. In other words, self-consciousness is
the key to all the problems of nature. Science, in its progress, is
gradually substituting one category for the other, and every one of
these categories is at once a law of thought and a law of things as
known. Each category, successively adopted, lifts nature more to the
level of man; and the last category of modern thought, namely,
development, constrains us so to modify our views of nature, as to
regard it as finally explicable only in the terms of spirit. Thus, the
movement of science is towards idealism. Instead of lowering man, it
elevates nature into a potency of that which is highest and best in man.
It represents the life of man, in the language of philosophy, as the
return of the highest to itself; or in the language of our poet, and of
religion, as a manifestation of infinite love. The explanation of nature
from the principle of love, if it errs, errs "because it is not
anthropomorphic enough," not because it is too anthropomorphic; it is
not too high and concrete a principle, but too low and abstract.

It now remains to show that the poet, in employing the idea of
evolution, was aware of its upward direction. I have already quoted a
few passages which indicate that he had detected the false use of it. I
shall now quote a few others in which he shows a consciousness of its
true meaning:

  "'Will you have why and wherefore, and the fact
  Made plain as pike-staff?' modern Science asks.
  'That mass man sprung from was a jelly-lump
  Once on a time; he kept an after course
  Through fish and insect, reptile, bird and beast,
  Till he attained to be an ape at last,
  Or last but one. And if this doctrine shock
  In aught the natural pride.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

"Not at all," the poet interrupts the man of science: "Friend, banish
fear!"

  "I like the thought He should have lodged me once
  I' the hole, the cave, the hut, the tenement,
  The mansion and the palace; made me learn
  The feel o' the first, before I found myself
  Loftier i' the last."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

This way upward from the lowest stage through every other to the
highest, that is, the way of development, so far from lowering us to the
brute level, is the only way for us to attain to the true highest,
namely, the all-complete.

  "But grant me time, give me the management
  And manufacture of a model me,
  Me fifty-fold, a prince without a flaw,--
  Why, there's no social grade, the sordidest,
  My embryo potentate should brink and scape.
  King, all the better he was cobbler once,
  He should know, sitting on the throne, how tastes
  Life to who sweeps the doorway."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

But then, unfortunately, we have no time to make our kings in this way,

            "You cut probation short,
  And, being half-instructed, on the stage
  You shuffle through your part as best you can."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

God, however, "takes time." He makes man pass his apprenticeship in all
the forms of being. Nor does the poet

            "Refuse to follow farther yet
  I' the backwardness, repine if tree and flower,
  Mountain or streamlet were my dwelling-place
  Before I gained enlargement, grew mollusc."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

It is, indeed, only on the supposition of having been thus evolved from
inanimate being that he is able to account

            "For many a thrill
  Of kinship, I confess to, with the powers
  Called Nature: animate, inanimate,
  In parts or in the whole, there's something there
  Man-like that somehow meets the man in me."[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

These passages make it clear that the poet recognized that the idea of
development "levels up," and that he makes an intelligent, and not a
perverted and abstract use of this instrument of thought. He sees each
higher stage carrying within it the lower, the present storing up the
past; he recognizes that the process is a self-enriching one. He knows
it to be no degradation of the higher that it has been in the lower; for
he distinguishes between that life, which is continuous amidst the
fleeting forms, and the temporary tenements, which it makes use of
during the process of ascending.

  "From first to last of lodging, I was I,
  And not at all the place that harboured me."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

When nature is thus looked upon from the point of view of its final
attainment, in the light of the self-consciousness into which it
ultimately breaks, a new dignity is added to every preceding phase. The
lowest ceases to be lowest, except in the sense that its promise is not
fulfilled and its potency not actualized; for, throughout the whole
process, the activity streams from the highest. It is that which is
about to be which guides the growing thing and gives it unity. The final
cause is the efficient cause; the distant purpose is the ever-present
energy; the last is always first.

Nor does the poet shrink from calling this highest, this last which is
also first, by its highest name,--God.

            "He dwells in all,
  From, life's minute beginnings, up at last
  To man--the consummation of this scheme
  Of being, the completion of this sphere
  Of life."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

"All tended to mankind," he said, after reviewing the whole process of
nature in _Paracelsus_,

  "And, man produced, all has its end thus far:
  But in completed man begins anew
  A tendency to God."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

There is nowhere a break in the continuity. God is at the beginning, His
rapturous presence is seen in all the processes of nature, His power and
knowledge and love work in the mind of man, and all history is His
revelation of Himself.

The gap which yawns for ordinary thought between animate and inanimate,
between nature and spirit, between man and God, does not baffle the
poet. At the stage of human life, which is "the grand result" of
nature's blind process,

  "A supplementary reflux of light,
  Illustrates all the inferior grades, explains
  Each back step in the circle."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

Nature is retracted into thought, built again in mind.

    "Man, once descried, imprints for ever
  His presence on all lifeless things."[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

The self-consciousness of man is the point where "all the scattered rays
meet"; and "the dim fragments," the otherwise meaningless manifold, the
dispersed activities of nature, are lifted into a kosmos by the activity
of intelligence. In its light, the forces of nature are found to be, not
blind nor purposeless, but "hints and previsions"

  "Strewn confusedly everywhere about
  The inferior natures, and all lead up higher,
  All shape out dimly the superior race,
  The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false,
  And man appears at last."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

In this way, and in strict accordance with the principle of evolution,
the poet turns back at each higher stage to re-illumine in a broader
light what went before,--just as we know the seedling after it is grown;
just as, with every advance in life, we interpret the past anew, and
turn the mixed ore of action into pure metal by the reflection which
draws the false from the true.

  "Youth ended, I shall try
  My gain or loss thereby;
  Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
  And I shall weigh the same,
  Give life its praise or blame:
  Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old."[B]

[Footnote B: _Rabbi Ben Ezra_.]

As youth attains its meaning in age, so does the unconscious process of
nature come to its meaning in man And old age,

    "Still within this life
  Though lifted o'er its strife,"

is able to

  "Discern, compare, pronounce at last,
  This rage was right i' the main,
  That acquiescence vain";[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

so man is able to penetrate beneath the apparently chaotic play of
phenomena, and find in them law, and beauty, and goodness. The laws
which he finds by thought are not his inventions, but his discoveries.
The harmonies are in the organ, if the artist only knows how to elicit
them. Nay, the connection is still more intimate. It is in the thought
of man that silent nature finds its voice; it blooms into "meaning,"
significance, thought, in him, as the plant shows its beauty in the
flower. Nature is making towards humanity, and in humanity it finds
_itself_.

  "Striving to be man, the worm
  Mounts through all the spires of form."[A]

[Footnote A: _Emerson_.]

The geologist, physicist, chemist, by discovering the laws of nature, do
not bind unconnected phenomena; but they refute the hasty conclusion of
sensuous thought, that the phenomena ever were unconnected. Men of
science do not introduce order into chance and chaos, but show that
there never was chance or chaos. The poet does not make the world
beautiful, but finds the beauty that is dwelling there. Without him,
indeed, the beauty would not be, any more than the life of the tree is
beautiful until it has evolved its potencies into the outward form.
Nevertheless, he is the expression of what was before, and the beauty
was there in potency, awaiting its expression. "Only let his thoughts be
of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture," said Emerson.

            "The winds
  Are henceforth voices, wailing or a shout,
  A querulous mutter, or a quick gay laugh,
  Never a senseless gust now man is born.
  The herded pines commune and have deep thoughts,
  A secret they assemble to discuss
  When the sun drops behind their trunks.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "The morn has enterprise, deep quiet droops
  With evening, triumph takes the sunset hour,
  Voluptuous transport ripens with the corn
  Beneath a warm moon like a happy face."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

Such is the transmuting power of imagination, that there is "nothing but
doth suffer change into something rich and strange"; and yet the
imagination, when loyal to itself, only sees more deeply into the truth
of things, and gets a closer and fuller hold of facts.

But, although the human mind thus heals the breach between nature and
spirit, and discovers the latter in the former, still it is not in this
way that Browning finally establishes his idealism. For him, the
principle working in all things is not reason, but love. It is from love
that all being first flowed; into it all returns through man; and in all
"the wide compass which is fetched," through the infinite variety of
forms of being, love is the permanent element and the true essence.
Nature is on its way back to God, gathering treasure as it goes. The
static view is not true to facts; it is development that for the poet
explains the nature of things; and development is the evolution of love.
Love is for Browning the highest, richest conception man can form. It is
our idea of that which is perfect; we cannot even imagine anything
better. And the idea of evolution necessarily explains the world as the
return of the highest to itself. The universe is homeward bound.

Now, whether love is the highest principle or not, I shall not inquire
at present. My task in this chapter has been to try to show that the
idea of evolution drives us onward towards some highest conception, and
then uses that conception as a principle to explain all things. If man
is veritably higher as a physical organism than the bird or reptile,
then biology, if it proceeds according to the principles of evolution,
_must_ seek the meaning of the latter in the former, and make the whole
kingdom of life a process towards man. "Man is no upstart in the
creation. His limbs are only a more exquisite organization--say rather
the finish--of the rudimental forms that have already been sweeping the
sea and creeping in the mud." And the same way of thought applies to man
as a spiritual agent. If spirit be higher than matter, and if love be
spirit at its best, then the principle of evolution leaves no option to
the scientific thinker, but to regard all things as potentially spirit,
and all the phenomena of the world as manifestations of love. Evolution
necessarily combines all the objects to which it is applied into a
unity. It knits all the infinite forms of natural life into an organism
of organisms, so that it is a universal life which really lives in all
animate beings. "Each animal or vegetable form remembers the next
inferior and predicts the next higher. There is one animal, one plant,
one matter, and one force." In its still wider application by poetry and
philosophy, the idea of evolution gathers all being into one
self-centred totality, and makes all finite existence a movement within,
and a movement of, that final perfection which, although last in order
of time, is first in order of potency,--the _prius_ of all things, the
active energy _in_ all things, and the _reality_ of all things. It is
the doctrine of the immanence of God; and it reveals "the effort of God,
of the supreme intellect, in the extreme frontier of His universe."

In pronouncing, as Browning frequently does, that "after last comes
first" and "what God once blessed cannot prove accursed"; in the
boldness of the faith whereby he makes all the inferior grades of being
into embodiments of the supreme good; in resolving the evils of human
life, the sorrow, strife, and sin of man into means of man's promotion,
he is only applying, in a thorough manner, the principle on which all
modern speculation rests. His conclusions may shock common-sense; and
they may seem to stultify not only our observation of facts, but the
testimony of our moral consciousness. But I do not know of any principle
of speculation which, when elevated into a universal principle of
thought, will not do the same; and this is why the greatest poets and
philosophers seem to be touched with a divine madness. Still, if this be
madness, there is a method in it. We cannot escape from its logic,
except by denying the idea of evolution--the hypothesis by means of
which modern thought aims, and in the main successfully aims, at
reducing the variety of existence, and the chaos of ordinary experience,
into an order-ruled world and a kosmos of articulated knowledge.

The new idea of evolution differs from that of universal causation, to
which even the ignorance of our own day has learnt to submit, in this
mainly--it does not leave things on the level on which it finds them.
Both cause and evolution assert the unity of being, which, indeed, every
one must assume--even sceptics and pessimists; but development
represents that unity as self-enriching; so that its true nature is
revealed, only in the highest form of existence which man can conceive.
The attempt of poets and philosophers to establish a universal synthesis
by means of evolution, differs from the work which is done by men of
science, only in the extent of its range and the breadth of its results.
It is not "idealism," but the scepticism which, in our day, conceals its
real nature under the name of dualism or agnosticism, that is at war
with the inner spirit of science. "Not only," we may say of Browning as
it was said of Emerson by Professor Tyndall, "is his religious sense
entirely undaunted by the discoveries of science; but all such
discoveries he comprehends and assimilates. By him scientific
conceptions are continually transmuted into the finer forms and warmer
hues of an ideal world." And this he does without any distortion of the
truth. For natural science, to one who understands its main tendency,
does not militate against philosophy, art, and religion; nor threaten to
overturn a metaphysic whose principle is truth, or beauty, or goodness.
Rather, it is gradually eliminating the discord of fragmentary
existence, and making the harmony of the world more and more audible to
mankind. It is progressively proving that the unity, of which we are all
obscurely conscious from the first, actually holds in the whole region
of its survey. The idea of evolution is reconciling science with art and
religion, in an idealistic conception of the universe.



CHAPTER VIII.

BROWNING'S SOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM OF EVIL.


    "Let him, therefore, who would arrive at knowledge of
    nature, train his moral sense, let him act and conceive in
    accordance with the noble essence of his soul; and, as if
    of herself, nature will become open to him. Moral action
    is that great and only experiment, in which all riddles of
    the most manifold appearances explain themselves."[A]

[Footnote A: _Novalis_.]

In the last chapter, I tried to set forth some considerations that
justify the attempt to interpret the world by a spiritual principle. The
conception of development, which modern science and philosophy assume as
a starting-point for their investigation, was shown to imply that the
lowest forms of existence can be explained, only as stages in the
self-realization of that which is highest. This idea "levels upwards,"
and points to self-consciousness as the ultimate truth of all things. In
other words, it involves that all interpretation of the world is
anthropomorphic, in the sense that what constitutes thought constitutes
things, and, therefore, that the key to nature is man.

In propounding this theory of love, and establishing an idealism,
Browning is in agreement with the latest achievement of modern thought.
For, if the principle of evolution be granted, love is a far more
adequate hypothesis for the explanation of the nature of things, than
any purely physical principle. Nay, science itself, in so far as it
presupposes evolution, tends towards an idealism of this type. Whether
love be the best expression for that highest principle, which is
conceived as the truth of being, and whether Browning's treatment of it
is consistent and valid, I do not as yet inquire. Before attempting that
task, it must be seen to what extent, and in what way, he applies the
hypothesis of universal love to the particular facts of life. For the
present, I take it as admitted that the hypothesis is legitimate, as an
hypothesis; it remains to ask, with what success, if any, we may hope,
by its means, to solve the contradictions of life, and to gather its
conflicting phenomena into the unity of an intelligible system. This
task cannot be accomplished within our limits, except in a very partial
manner. I can attempt to meet only a few of the more evident and
pressing difficulties that present themselves, and I can do that only in
a very general way.

The first of these difficulties, or, rather, the main difficulty from
which all others spring, is that the hypothesis of universal love is
incompatible with the existence of any kind of evil, whether natural or
moral. Of this, Browning was well aware. He knew that he had brought
upon himself the hard task of showing that pain, weakness, ignorance,
failure, doubt, death, misery, and vice, in all their complex forms, can
find their legitimate place in a scheme of love. And there is nothing
more admirable in his attitude, or more inspiring in his teaching, than
the manly frankness with which he endeavours to confront the manifold
miseries of human life, and to constrain them to yield, as their
ultimate meaning and reality, some spark of good.

But, as we have seen, there is a portion of this task in the discharge
of which Browning is drawn beyond the strict limits of art. Neither the
magnificent boldness of his religious faith, nor the penetration of his
artistic insight, although they enabled him to deal successfully with
the worst samples of human evil, as in _The Ring and the Book_, could
dissipate the gloom which reflection gathers around the general problem.
Art cannot answer the questions of philosophy. The difficulties that
critical reason raises reason alone can lay. Nevertheless, the poet was
forced by his reflective impulse, to meet that problem in the form in
which it presents itself in the region of metaphysics. He was conscious
of the presuppositions within which his art worked, and he sought to
justify them. Into this region we must now follow him, so as to examine
his theory of life, not merely as it is implied in the concrete
creations of his art, but as it is expressed in those later poems, in
which he attempts to deal directly with the speculative difficulties
that crowd around the conception of evil.

To the critic of a philosophy, there is hardly more than one task of
supreme importance. It is that of determining the precise point from
which the theory he examines takes its departure; for, when the central
conception is clearly grasped, it will be generally found that it rules
all the rest. The superstructure of philosophic edifices is usually put
together in a sufficiently solid manner--it is the foundation that gives
way. Hence Hegel, who, whatever may be thought of his own theory, was
certainly the most profound critic of philosophy since Aristotle,
generally concentrates his attack on the preliminary hypothesis. He
brings down the erroneous system by removing its foundation-stone. His
criticism of Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling may almost be said to
be gathered into a single sentence.

Browning has made no secret of his central conception. It is the idea of
an immanent or "immundate" love. And that love, we have shown, is
conceived by him as the supreme moral motive, the ultimate essence and
end of all self-conscious activity, the veritable nature of both man and
God.

  "Denn das Leben ist die Liebe,
  Und des Lebens Leben Geist."

His philosophy of human life rests on the idea that it is the
realization of a moral purpose, which is a loving purpose. To him there
is no supreme good, except good character; and the foundation of that
character by man and in man is the ultimate purpose, and, therefore, the
true meaning of all existence.

            "I search but cannot see
  What purpose serves the soul that strives, or world it tries
  Conclusions with, unless the fruit of victories
  Stay, one and all, stored up and guaranteed its own
  For ever, by some mode whereby shall be made known
  The gain of every life. Death reads the title clear--
  What each soul for itself conquered from out things here:
  Since, in the seeing soul, all worth lies, I assert."[A]

[Footnote A: _Fifine at the Fair_, lv.]

In this passage, Browning gives expression to an idea which continually
reappears in his pages--that human life, in its essence, is movement to
moral goodness through opposition. His fundamental conception of the
human spirit is that it is a process, and not a fixed fact. "Man," he
says, "was made to grow not stop."

  "Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
  Because he lives, which is to be a man,
  Set to instruct himself by his past self."[B]

[Footnote B: _A Death in the Desert_.]

             "By such confession straight he falls
  Into man's place, a thing nor God nor beast,
  Made to know that he can know and not more:
  Lower than God who knows all and can all,
  Higher than beasts which know and can so far
  As each beast's limit, perfect to an end,
  Nor conscious that they know, nor craving more;
  While man knows partly but conceives beside,
  Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
  And in this striving, this converting air
  Into a solid he may grasp and use,
  Finds progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
  Not God's and not the beasts': God is, they are,
  Man partly is and wholly hopes to be."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

It were easy to multiply passages which show that his ultimate
deliverance regarding man is, not that he is, nor that he is not, but
that he is ever becoming. Man is ever at the point of contradiction
between the actual and ideal, and moving from the latter to the former.
Strife constitutes him. He is a war of elements; "hurled from change to
change unceasingly." But rest is death; for it is the cessation of the
spiritual activity, whose essence is acquirement, not mere possession,
whether in knowledge or in goodness.

            "Man must pass from old to new,
  From vain to real, from mistake to fact,
  From what once seemed good, to what now proves best."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

Were the movement to stop, and the contradiction between the actual and
ideal reconciled, man would leave man's estate, and pass under "angel's
law."

  "Indulging every instinct of the soul
  There, where law, life, joy, impulse are one thing."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

But as long as he is man, he has

  "Somewhat to cast off, somewhat to become."

In _Paracelsus_, _Fifine at the Fair_, _Red Cotton Nightcap Country_,
and many of his other poems, Browning deals with the problem of human
life from the point of view of development. And it is this point of
view, consistently held, which enables him to throw a new light on the
whole subject of ethics. For, if man be veritably a being in process of
evolution, if he be a permanent that always changes from earliest
childhood to old age, if he be a living thing, a potency in process of
actualization, then no fixed distinctions made with reference to him can
be true. If, for instance, it be asked whether man is rational or
irrational, free or bound, good or evil, God or brute, the true answer,
if he is veritably a being moving from ignorance to knowledge, from
wickedness to virtue, from bondage to freedom, is, that he is at once
neither of these alternatives and both. All hard terms of division, when
applied to a subject which grows, are untrue. If the life of man is a
self-enriching process, if he is _becoming_ good, and rational, and
free, then at no point in the movement is it possible to pass fixed and
definite judgments upon him. He must be estimated by his direction and
momentum, by the whence and whither of his life. There is a sense in
which man is from the first and always good, rational and free; for it
is only by the exercise of reason and freedom that he exists as man. But
there is also a sense in which he is none of these; for he is at the
first only a potency not yet actualized. He is not rational, but
becoming rational; not good, but becoming good; not free, but aspiring
towards freedom. It is his prayer that "in His light, he may see light
truly, and in His service find perfect freedom."

In this frank assumption of the point of view of development. Browning
suggests the question whether the endless debate regarding freedom, and
necessity, and other moral terms, may not spring from the fact, that
both of the opposing schools of ethics are fundamentally unfaithful to
the subject of their inquiry. They are treating a developing reality
from an abstract point of view, and taking for granted,--what cannot be
true of man, if he grows in intellectual power and moral goodness--that
he is _either_ good or evil, _either_ rational or irrational, _either_
free or bond, at every moment in the process. They are treating man from
a static, instead of from a kinetic point of view, and forgetting that
it is his business to acquire the moral and intellectual freedom, which
he has potentially from the first--

            "Some fitter way express
  Heart's satisfaction that the Past indeed
  Is past, gives way before Life's best and last,
  The all-including Future!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Gerard de Lairesse_.]

But, whether or not the new point of view renders some of the old
disputations of ethics meaningless, it is certain that Browning viewed
moral life as a growth through conflict.

            "What were life
  Did soul stand still therein, forego her strife
  Through the ambiguous Present to the goal
  Of some all-reconciling Future?"[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

To become, to develop, to actualize by reaction against the natural and
moral environment, is the meaning both of the self and of the world it
works upon. "We are here to learn the good of peace through strife, of
love through hate, and reach knowledge by ignorance."

Now, since the conception of development is a self-contradictory one,
or, in other words, since it necessarily implies the conflict of the
ideal and actual in all life, and in every instant of its history, it
remains for us to determine more fully what are the warring elements in
human nature. What is the nature of this life of man, which, like all
life, is self-evolving; and by conflict with what does the evolution
take place? What is the ideal which condemns the actual, and yet
realizes itself by means of it; and what is the actual which wars
against the ideal, and yet contains it in potency, and reaches towards
it? That human life is conceived by Browning as a moral life, and not a
more refined and complex form of the natural life of plants and
animals--a view which finds its exponents in Herbert Spencer, and other
so-called evolutionists--it is scarcely necessary to assert. It is a
life which determines itself, and determines itself according to an idea
of goodness. That idea, moreover, because it is a _moral ideal_, must be
regarded as the conception of perfect and absolute goodness. Through the
moral end, man is ideally identified with God, who, indeed, is
necessarily conceived as man's moral ideal regarded as already and
eternally real. "God" and the "moral ideal" are, in truth, expressions
of the same idea; they convey the conception of perfect goodness from
different standpoints. And perfect goodness is, to Browning, limitless
love. Pleasure, wisdom, power, and even the beauty which art discovers
and reveals, together with every other inner quality and outer state of
being, have only relative worth. "There is nothing either in the world
or out of it which is unconditionally good, except a good will," said
Kant; and a good will, according to Browning, is a will that wills
lovingly. From love all other goodness is derived. There is earnest
meaning, and not mere sentiment, in the poet's assertion that

  "There is no good of life but love--but love!
  What else looks good, is some shade flung from love.
  Love gilds it, gives it worth. Be warned by me,
  Never you cheat yourself one instant! Love,
  Give love, ask only love, and leave the rest!"[A]

[Footnote A: _In a Balcony_.]

"Let man's life be true," he adds, "and love's the truth of mine." To
attain this truth, that is, to constitute love into the inmost law of
his being, and permanent source of all his activities, is the task of
man. And Browning defines that love as

            "Yearning to dispense,
  Each one its own amount of gain thro' its own mode
  Of practising with life."

There is no need of illustrating further the doctrine, so evident in
Browning, that "love" is the ideal which in man's life makes through
conflict for its own fulfilment. From what has been already said, it is
abundantly plain that love is to him a divine element, which is at war
with all that is lower in man and around him, and which by reaction
against circumstance converts its own mere promise into fruition and
fact. Through love man's nature reaches down to the permanent essence,
amid the fleeting phenomena of the world, and is at one with what is
first and last. As loving he ranks with God. No words are too strong to
represent the intimacy of the relation. For, however limited in range
and tainted with alien qualities human love may be, it is still "a
pin-point rock of His boundless continent." It is not a semblance of the
divine nature, an analogon, or verisimilitude, but the love of God
himself in man: so that man is in this sense an incarnation of the
divine. The Godhood in him constitutes him, so that he cannot become
himself, or attain his own ideal or true nature, except by becoming
perfect as God is perfect.

But the emphasis thus laid on the divine worth and dignity of human love
is balanced by the stress which the poet places on the frailty and
finitude of every other human attribute. Having elevated the ideal, he
degrades the actual. Knowledge and the intellectual energy which
produces it; art and the love of beauty from which it springs: every
power and every gift, physical and spiritual, other than love, has in it
the fatal flaw of being merely human. All these are so tainted with
creatureship, so limited and conditioned, that it is hardly too much to
say that they are, at their best, deceptive endowments. Thus, the life
of man regarded as a whole is, in its last essence, a combination of
utterly disparate elements. The distinction of the old moralists between
divinity and dust; the absolute dualism of the old ascetics between
flesh and spirit, sense and reason, find their accurate parallel in
Browning's teachings. But he is himself no ascetic, and the line of
distinction he draws does not, like theirs, pass between the flesh and
the spirit. It rather cleaves man's spiritual nature into two portions,
which are absolutely different from each other. A chasm divides the head
from the heart, the intellect from the emotions, the moral and practical
from the perceptive and reflective faculties. And it is this absolute
cleavage that gives to Browning's teaching, both on ethics and religion,
one of its most peculiar characteristics. By keeping it constantly in
sight, we may hope to render intelligible to ourselves the solution he
offers of the problem of evil, and of other fundamental difficulties of
the life of man. For, while Browning's optimism has its original source
in his conception of the unity of God and man, through the Godlike
quality of love--even "the poorest love that was ever offered"--he finds
himself unable to maintain it, except at the expense of degrading man's
knowledge. Thus, his optimism and faith in God is finally based upon
ignorance. If, on the side of love, he insists, almost in the spirit of
a Spinozist, on God's communication of His own substance to man; on the
side of knowledge he may be called an agnostic, in spite of stray
expressions which break through his deliberate theory. While "love gains
God at first leap,"

            "Knowledge means
  Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
  That victory is somehow still to reach."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Pillar at Sebzevar_.]

A radical flaw runs through our knowing faculty. Human knowledge is not
only incomplete--no one can be so foolish as to deny that--but it is, as
regarded by Browning, essentially inadequate to the nature of fact, and
we must "distrust it, even when it seems demonstrable." No professed
agnostic can condemn the human intellect more utterly than he does. He
pushes the limitedness of human knowledge into a disqualification of it
to reach truth at all; and makes the conditions according to which we
know, or seem to know, into a deceiving necessity, which makes us know
wrongly.

            "To know of, think about,--
  Is all man's sum of faculty effects
  When exercised on earth's least atom, Son!
  What was, what is, what may such atom be?
  No answer!"[B]

[Footnote B: _A Bean-Stripe_.]

Thought plays around facts, but never reaches them. Mind intervenes
between itself and its objects, and throws its own shadow upon them; nor
can it penetrate through that shadow, but deals with it as if it were
reality, though it knows all the time that it is not.

This theory of knowledge, or rather of nescience or no-knowledge, he
gives in _La Saisiaz_, _Ferishtah's Fancies, The Parleyings_, and
_Asolando_--in all his later and more reflective poems, in fact. It
must, I think, be held to be his deliberate and final view--and all the
more so, because, by a peculiar process, he gets from it his defence of
his ethical and religious faith.

In the first of these poems, Browning, while discussing the problem of
immortality in a purely speculative spirit, and without stipulating,
"Provided answer suits my hopes, not fears," gives a tolerably full
account of that which must be regarded as the principles of his theory
of knowledge. Its importance to his ethical doctrine justifies a
somewhat exhaustive examination of it.

He finds himself to be "a midway point, between a cause before and an
effect behind--both blanks." Within that narrow space, of the self
hemmed in by two unknowns, all experience is crammed. Out of that
experience crowds all that he knows, and all that he misknows. There
issues from experience--

            "Conjecture manifold,
  But, as knowledge, this comes only--things may be as I behold,
  Or may not be, but, without me and above me, things there are;
  I myself am what I know not--ignorance which proves no bar
  To the knowledge that I am, and, since I am, can recognize
  What to me is pain and pleasure: this is sure, the rest--surmise.
  If my fellows are or are not, what may please them and what pain,--
  Mere surmise: my own experience--that is knowledge once again."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

Experience, then, within which he (and every one else) acknowledges that
all his knowledge is confined, yields him as certain facts--the
consciousness that he is, but not what he is: the consciousness that he
is pleased or pained by things about him, whose real nature is entirely
hidden from him: and, as he tells us just before, the assurance that God
is the thing the self perceives outside itself,

                  "A force
  Actual e'er its own beginning, operative thro' its course,
  Unaffected by its end."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

But, even this knowledge, limited as it is to the bare existence of
unknown entities, has the further defect of being merely subjective. The
"experience" from which he draws his conclusions, is his own in an
exclusive sense. His "thinking thing" has, apparently, no elements in
common with the "thinking things" of other selves. He ignores the fact
that there may be general laws of thought, according to which his mind
must act in order to be a mind. Intelligence seems to have no nature,
and may be anything. All questions regarding "those apparent other
mortals" are consequently unanswerable to the poet. "Knowledge stands on
my experience"; and this "my" is totally unrelated to all other Mes.

            "All outside its narrow hem,
  Free surmise may sport and welcome! Pleasures, pains affect mankind
  Just as they affect myself? Why, here's my neighbour colour-blind,
  Eyes like mine to all appearance: 'green as grass' do I affirm?
  'Red as grass' he contradicts me: which employs the proper term?"[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

If there were only they two on earth as tenants, there would be no way
of deciding between them; for, according to his argument, the truth is
apparently decided by majority of opinions. Each individual, equipped
with his own particular kind of senses and reason, gets his own
particular experience, and draws his own particular conclusions from it.
If it be asked whether these conclusions are true or not, the only
answer is that the question is absurd; for, under such conditions, there
cannot be either truth or error. Every one's opinion is its own
criterion. Each man is the measure of all things; "His own world for
every mortal," as the poet puts it.

  "To each mortal peradventure earth becomes a new machine,
  Pain and pleasure no more tally in our sense than red and green."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

The first result of this subjective view of knowledge is clearly enough
seen by the poet. He is well aware that his convictions regarding the
high matters of human destiny are valid only for himself.

            "Only for myself I speak,
  Nowise dare to play the spokesman for my brothers strong and weak."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

Experience, as he interprets it, that is, present consciousness, "this
moment's me and mine," is too narrow a basis for any universal or
objective conclusion. So far as his own inner experience of pain and
pleasure goes,

  "All--for myself--seems ordered wise and well
  Inside it,--what reigns outside, who can tell?"[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

But as to the actual world, he can have no opinion, nor, from the good
and evil that apparently play around him, can he deduce either

  "Praise or blame of its contriver, shown a niggard or profuse
  In each good or evil issue."[B]

[Footnote B: _La Saisiaz_.]

The moral government of the world is a subject, regarding which we are
doomed to absolute ignorance. A theory that it is ruled by the "prince
of the power of the air" has just as much, and just as little, validity
as the more ordinary view held by religious people. Who needs be told

            "The space
  Which yields thee knowledge--do its bounds embrace
  Well-willing and wise-working, each at height?
  Enough: beyond thee lies the infinite--
  Back to thy circumscription!"[C]

[Footnote C: _Francis Furini_.]

And our ignorance of God, and the world, and ourselves is matched by a
similar ignorance regarding moral matters.

  "Ignorance overwraps his moral sense,
  Winds him about, relaxing, as it wraps,
  So much and no more than lets through perhaps
  The murmured knowledge--' Ignorance exists.'"[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

We cannot be certain even of the distinction and conflict of good and
evil in the world. They, too, and the apparent choice between them to
which man is continually constrained, may be mere illusions--phenomena
of the individual consciousness. What remains, then? Nothing but to
"wait."

  "Take the joys and bear the sorrows--neither with extreme concern!
  Living here means nescience simply: 'tis next life that helps to
        learn."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

It is hardly necessary to enter upon any detailed criticism of such a
theory of knowledge as this, which is proffered by the poet. It is well
known by all those who are in some degree acquainted with the history of
philosophy--and it will be easily seen by all who have any critical
acumen--that it leads directly into absolute scepticism. And absolute
scepticism is easily shown to be self-contradictory. For a theory of
nescience, in condemning all knowledge and the faculty of knowledge,
condemns itself. If nothing is true, or if nothing is known, then this
theory itself is not true, or its truth cannot be known. And if this
theory is true, then nothing is true; for this theory, like all others,
is the product of a defective intelligence. In whatsoever way the matter
is put, there is left no standing-ground for the human critic who
condemns human thought. And he cannot well pretend to a footing in a
sphere above man's, or below it. There is thus one presupposition which
every one must make, if he is to propound any doctrine whatsoever, even
if that doctrine be that no doctrine can be valid; it is the
presupposition that knowledge is possible, and that truth can be known.
And this presupposition fills, for modern philosophy, the place of the
_Cogito ergo sum_ of Descartes. It is the starting-point and criterion
of all knowledge.

It is, at first sight, a somewhat difficult task to account for the
fact, that so keen an intellect as the poet's did not perceive the
conclusion to which his theory of knowledge so directly and necessarily
leads. It is probable, however, that he never critically examined it,
but simply accepted it as equivalent to the common doctrine of the
relativity of knowledge, which, in some form or other, all the schools
of philosophy adopt. But the main reason will be found to lie in the
fact that knowledge was not, to Browning, its own criterion or end. The
primary fact of his philosophy is that human life is a moral process.
His interest in the evolution of character was his deepest interest, as
he informs us; he was an ethical teacher rather than a metaphysician. He
is ever willing to asperse man's intelligence. But that man is a moral
agent he will in no wise doubt. This is his

            "Solid standing-place amid
  The wash and welter, whence all doubts are bid
  Back to the ledge they break against in foam."[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

His practical maxim was

  "Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
  As wholly love allied to ignorance!
  There lies thy truth and safety."[B]

[Footnote B: _A Pillar of Sebzevar_.]

All phenomena must, in some way or other, be reconciled by the poet with
the fundamental and indubitable fact of the progressive moral life of
man. For the fundamental presupposition which a man makes, is
necessarily his criterion of knowledge, and it determines the truth or
illusoriness of all other opinions whatsoever.

Now, Browning held, not only that no certain knowledge is attainable by
man, but also that such certainty is incompatible with moral life.
Absolute knowledge would, he contends, lift man above the need and the
possibility of making the moral choice, which is our supreme business on
earth. Man can be good or evil, only on condition of being in absolute
uncertainty regarding the true meaning of the facts of nature and the
phenomena of life.

This somewhat strange doctrine finds the most explicit and full
expression in _La Saisiaz_. "Fancy," amongst the concessions it demands
from "Reason," claims that man should know--not merely surmise or
fear--that every action done in this life awaits its proper and
necessary meed in the next.

                "I also will that man become aware
  Life has worth incalculable, every moment that he spends
  So much gain or loss for that next life which on this life depends."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

But Reason refuses the concession, upon the ground that such sure
knowledge would be destructive of the very distinction between right and
wrong, which the demand implies. The "promulgation of this decree," by
Fancy, "makes both good and evil to cease." Prior to it "earth was man's
probation-place"; but under this decree man is no longer free; for
certain knowledge makes action necessary.

  "Once lay down the law, with Nature's simple 'Such effects succeed
  Causes such, and heaven or hell depends upon man's earthly deed
  Just as surely as depends the straight or else the crooked line
  On his making point meet point or with or else without incline,'
  Thenceforth neither good nor evil does man, doing what he must."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_, 195.]

If we presuppose that "man, addressed this mode, be sound and sane" (and
we must stipulate sanity, if his actions are to be morally judged at
all)--then a law which binds punishment and reward to action in a
necessary manner, and is known so to bind them, would "obtain prompt and
absolute obedience." There are some "edicts, now styled God's own
nature's," "which to hear means to obey." All the laws relating to the
preservation of life are of this character. And, if the law--"Would'st
thou live again, be just"--were in all ways as stringent as the other
law--

  "Would'st thou live now, regularly draw thy breath!
  For, suspend the operation, straight law's breach results in death"--[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

then no one would disobey it, nor could. "It is the liberty of doing
evil that gives the doing good a grace." And that liberty would be taken
away by complete assurance, that effects follow actions in the moral
world with the necessity seen in the natural sphere. Since, therefore,
man is made to grow, and earth is the place wherein he is to pass
probation and prove his powers, there must remain a certain doubt as to
the issues of his actions; conviction must not be so strong as to carry
with it man's whole nature. "The best I both see and praise, the worst I
follow," is the adage rife in man's mouth regarding his moral conduct.
But, spite of his seeing and praising,

            "he disbelieves
  In the heart of him that edict which for truth his head receives."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

He has a dim consciousness of ways whereby he may elude the consequences
of his wickedness, and of the possibility of making amends to law.

  "And now, auld Cloots, I ken ye're thinkin',
  A certain Bardie's rantin', drinkin',
  Some luckless hour will send him linkin'
    To your black pit;
  But, faith, he'll turn a corner jinkin',
    And cheat you yet."

The more orthodox and less generous individual is prone to agree, as
regards himself, with Burns; but, he sees, most probably, that such an
escape is impossible to others. He has secret solacement in a latent
belief that he himself is an exception. There will be a special method
of dealing with him. He is a "chosen sample"; and "God will think twice
before He damns a man of his quality." It is just because there is such
doubt as to the universality and necessity of the law which connects
actions and consequences in the moral sphere, that man's deeds have an
ethical character; while, to disperse doubt and ignorance by the
assurance of complete knowledge, would take the good from goodness and
the ill from evil.

In this ingenious manner, the poet turns the imperfect intellect and
delusive knowledge of man to a moral use. Ordinarily, the intellectual
impotence of man is regarded as carrying with it moral incapacity as
well, and the delusiveness of knowledge is one of the strongest
arguments for pessimism. To persons pledged to the support of no theory,
and to those who have the _naïveté_, so hard to maintain side by side
with strong doctrinal convictions, it seems amongst the worst of evils
that man should be endowed with fallacious faculties, and cursed with a
futile desire for true knowledge which is so strong, that it cannot be
quenched even in those who believe that truth can never be attained. It
is the very best men of the world who cry

            "Oh, this false for real,
  This emptiness which feigns solidity,--
  Ever some grey that's white, and dun that's black,--
  When shall we rest upon the thing itself,
  Not on its semblance? Soul--too weak, forsooth,
  To cope with fact--wants fiction everywhere!
  Mine tires of falsehood: truth at any cost!"[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean-Stripe_.]

The poet himself was burdened in no small degree with this vain desire
for knowing the truth; and he recognized, too, that he was placed in a
world which seems both real and beautiful, and so well worth knowing.
Yet, it is this very failure of knowledge--a failure which, be it
remembered, is complete and absolute, because, as he thinks, all facts
must turn into phantoms by mere contact with our "relative
intelligences,"--which he constitutes into the basis of his optimistic
faith.

So high is the dignity and worth of the moral life to Browning, that no
sacrifice is too great to secure it. And, indeed, if it were once
clearly recognized that there is no good thing but goodness, nothing of
supreme worth, except the realization of a loving will, then doubt,
ignorance, and every other form of apparent evil would be fully
justified--provided they were conditions whereby this highest good is
attained. And, to Browning, ignorance was one of the conditions. And
consequently, the dread pause in the music which agnosticism brings, is
only "silence implying sound"; and the vain cry for truth, arising from
the heart of the earth's best men, is only a discord moving towards
resolution into a more rapturous harmony.

I do not stay here to inquire whether sure knowledge would really have
this disastrous effect of destroying morality, or whether its failure
does not rather imply the impossibility of a moral life. I return to the
question asked at the beginning of this chapter, and which it is now
possible to answer. That question was: How does Browning reconcile his
hypothesis of universal love with the natural and moral evils existing
in the world?

His answer is quite explicit. The poet solves the problem by casting
doubt upon the facts which threaten his hypothesis. He reduces them into
phenomena, in the sense of phantoms begotten by the human intellect upon
unknown and unknowable realities.

  "Thus much at least is clearly understood--
  Of power does Man possess no particle:
  Of knowledge--just so much as shows that still
  It ends in ignorance on every side."[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

He is aware of the phenomena of his own consciousness,

  "My soul, and my soul's home,
  This body ";

but he knows not whether "things outside are fact or feigning." And he
heeds little, for in either case they

            "Teach
  What good is and what evil,--just the same,
  Be feigning or be fact the teacher."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

It is the mixture, or rather the apparent mixture, of shade and light in
life, the conflict of seeming good with seeming evil in the world, that
constitutes the world a probation-place. It is a kind of moral
gymnasium, crowded with phantoms, wherein by exercise man makes moral
muscle. And the vigour of the athlete's struggle is not in the least
abated by the consciousness that all he deals with are phantoms.

 "I have lived, then, done and suffered, loved and hated, learnt and taught
  This--there is no reconciling wisdom with a world distraught,
  Goodness with triumphant evil, power with failure in the aim,
  If--(to my own sense, remember! though none other feel the same!)--
  If you bar me from assuming earth to be a pupil's place,
  And life, time--with all their chances, changes,--just probation-space,
  Mine, for me."[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

And the world would not be such a probation-space did we once penetrate
into its inmost secret, and know its phenomena as veritably either good
or evil. There is the need of playing something perilously like a trick
on the human intellect if man is to strive and grow.

            "Here and there a touch
  Taught me, betimes, the artifice of things--
  That all about, external to myself,
  Was meant to be suspected,--not revealed
  Demonstrably a cheat--but half seen through."[B]

[Footnote B: _A Bean-Stripe._]

To know objects as they veritably are, might reveal all things as locked
together in a scheme of universal good, so that "white would rule
unchecked along the line." But this would be the greatest of disasters;
for, as moral agents, we cannot do without

            "the constant shade
  Cast on life's shine,--the tremor that intrudes
  When firmest seems my faith in white."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

The intellectual insight that would penetrate through the vari-colour of
events into the actual presence of the incandescent white of love, which
glows, as hope tells us, in all things, would stultify itself, and lose
its knowledge even of the good.

                                "Think!
  Could I see plain, be somehow certified
  All was illusion--evil far and wide
  Was good disguised,--why, out with one huge wipe
  Goes knowledge from me. Type needs antitype:
  As night needs day, as shine needs shade, so good
  Needs evil: how were pity understood
  Unless by pain? "[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

Good and evil are relative to each other, and each is known only through
its contrary.

                                    "For me
  (Patience, beseech you!) Knowledge can but be
  Of good by knowledge of good's opposite--
  Evil."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

The extinction of one of the terms would be the extinction of the other.
And, in a similar manner, clear knowledge that evil is illusion and that
all things have their place in an infinite divine order would paralyze
all moral effort, as well as stultify itself.

            "Make evident that pain
  Permissibly masks pleasure--you abstain
  From out-stretch of the finger-tip that saves
  A drowning fly."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

Certainty on either side, either that evil is evil for evermore,
irredeemable and absolute, a drench of utter dark not illuminable by
white; or that it is but mere show and semblance, which the good takes
upon itself, would alike be ruinous to man. For both alternatives would
render all striving folly. The right attitude for man is that of
ignorance, complete uncertainty, the equipoise of conflicting
alternatives. He must take his stand on the contradiction. Hope he may
have that all things work together for good. It is right that he should
nourish the faith that the antagonism of evil with good in the world is
only an illusion; but that faith must stop short of the complete
conviction that knowledge would bring. When, therefore, the hypothesis
of universal love is confronted with the evils of life, and we ask how
it can be maintained in the face of the manifold miseries everywhere
apparent, the poet answers, "You do not know, and cannot know, whether
they are evils or not. Your knowledge remains at the surface of things.
You cannot fit them into their true place, or pronounce upon their true
purpose and character; for you see only a small arc of the complete
circle of being. Wait till you see more, and, in the meantime, hope!"

  "Why faith--but to lift the load,
    To leaven the lump, where lies
  Mind prostrate through knowledge owed
    To the loveless Power it tries
  To withstand, how vain!"[A]

[Footnote A: _Reverie_--_Asolando_.]

And, if we reply in turn, that this necessary ignorance leaves as little
room for his scheme of love as it does for its opposite, he again
answers: "Not so! I appeal from the intellect, which is detected as
incompetent, to the higher court of the moral consciousness. And there I
find the ignorance to be justified: for it is the instrument of a higher
purpose, a means whereby what is best is gained, namely, _Love_."

    "My curls were crowned
  In youth with knowledge,--off, alas, crown slipped
  Next moment, pushed by better knowledge still
  Which nowise proved more constant; gain, to-day,
  Was toppling loss to-morrow, lay at last
  --Knowledge, the golden?--lacquered ignorance!
  As gain--mistrust it! Not as means to gain:
  Lacquer we learn by: ...
  The prize is in the process: knowledge means
  Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
  That victory is somehow still to reach,
  But love is victory, the prize itself:
  Love--trust to! Be rewarded for the trust
  In trust's mere act."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Pillar at Sebzevar_.]

Now, in order to complete our examination of this theory, we must follow
the poet in his attempt to escape from the testimony of the intellect to
that of the heart. In order to make the most of the latter, we find that
Browning, especially in his last work, tends to withdraw his accusation
of utter incompetence on the part of the intellect. He only tends to do
so, it is true. He is tolerably consistent in asserting that we know our
own emotions and the phenomena of our own consciousness; but he is not
consistent in his account of our knowledge, or ignorance, of external
things. On the whole, he asserts that we know nothing of them. But in
_Asolando_ he seems to imply that the evidence of a loveless power in
the world, permitting evil, is irresistible.[A] To say the least, the
testimony of the intellect, such as it is, is more clear and convincing
with regard to evil than it is with regard to good. Within the sphere of
phenomena, to which the intellect is confined, there seems to be,
instead of a benevolent purpose, a world ruled by a power indifferent to
the triumph of evil over good, and either "loveless" or unintelligent.

[Footnote A: _See passage just quoted._]

            "Life, from birth to death,
  Means--either looking back on harm escaped,
  Or looking forward to that harm's return
  With tenfold power of harming."[B]

[Footnote B: _A Bean-Stripe._]

And it is not possible for man to contravene this evidence of faults and
omissions: for, in doing so, he would remove the facts in reaction
against which his moral nature becomes active. What proof is there,
then, that the universal love is no mere dream? None! from the side of
the intellect, answers the poet. Man, who has the will to remove the
ills of life,

  "Stop change, avert decay,
  Fix life fast, banish death,"[C]

[Footnote C: _Reverie_--_Asolando_.]

has not the power to effect his will; while the Power, whose
limitlessness he recognizes everywhere around him, merely maintains the
world in its remorseless course, and puts forth no helping hand when
good is prone and evil triumphant. "God does nothing."

              "'No sign,'--groaned he,--
  No stirring of God's finger to denote
  He wills that right should have supremacy
  On earth, not wrong! How helpful could we quote
  But one poor instance when He interposed
  Promptly and surely and beyond mistake
  Between oppression and its victim, closed
  Accounts with sin for once, and bade us wake
  From our long dream that justice bears no sword,
  Or else forgets whereto its sharpness serves.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _Bernard de Mandeville._]

But he tells us in his later poems, that there is no answer vouchsafed
to man's cry to the Power, that it should reveal

       "What heals all harm,
  Nay, hinders the harm at first,
  Saves earth."[B]

[Footnote B: _Reverie--Asolando._]

And yet, so far as man can see, there were no bar to the remedy, if
"God's all-mercy" did really "mate His all-potency."

  "How easy it seems,--to sense
    Like man's--if somehow met
  Power with its match--immense
    Love, limitless, unbeset
  By hindrance on every side!"[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

But that love nowhere makes itself evident. "Power," we recognize,

                 "finds nought too hard,
    Fulfilling itself all ways,
  Unchecked, unchanged; while barred,
    Baffled, what good began
  Ends evil on every side."[A]

[Footnote A: _Reverie--Asolando_.]

Thus, the conclusion to which knowledge inevitably leads us is that mere
power rules.

  "No more than the passive clay
    Disputes the potter's act,
  Could the whelmed mind disobey
    Knowledge, the cataract."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

But if the intellect is thus overwhelmed, so as to be almost passive to
the pessimistic conclusion borne in upon it by "resistless fact," the
heart of man is made of another mould. It revolts against the conclusion
of the intellect, and climbs

  "Through turbidity all between,
    From the known to the unknown here,
  Heaven's 'Shall be,' from earth's 'Has been.'"[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

It grasps a fact beyond the reach of knowledge, namely, the possibility,
or even the certainty, that "power is love." At present there is no
substantiating by knowledge the testimony of the heart; and man has no
better anchorage for his optimism than faith. But the closer view will
come, when even our life on earth will be seen to have within it the
working of love, no less manifest than that of power.

  "When see? When there dawns a day,
    If not on the homely earth,
  Then, yonder, worlds away,
    Where the strange and new have birth,
  And Power comes full in play."[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

Now, what is this evidence of the heart, which is sufficiently cogent
and valid to counterpoise that of the mind; and which gives to "faith,"
or "hope," a firm foothold in the very face of the opposing "resistless"
testimony of knowledge?

Within our experience, to which the poet knows we are entirely confined,
there is a fact, the significance of which we have not as yet examined.
For, plain and irresistible as is the evidence of evil, so plain and
constant is man's recognition of it as evil, and his desire to annul it.
If man's mind is made to acknowledge evil, his moral nature is made so
as to revolt against it.

    "Man's heart is _made_ to judge
  Pain deserved nowhere by the common flesh
  Our birth-right--bad and good deserve alike
  No pain, to human apprehension."[A]

[Footnote A: _Mihrab Shah_--_Ferishtah's Fancies_.]

Owing to the limitation of our intelligence, we cannot deny but that

            "In the eye of God
  Pain may have purpose and be justified."

But whether it has its purpose for the supreme intelligence or not,

  "Man's sense avails to only see, in pain,
  A hateful chance no man but would avert
  Or, failing, needs must pity."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

Man must condemn evil, he cannot acquiesce in its permanence, but is,
spite of his consciousness of ignorance and powerlessness, roused into
constant revolt against it.

  "True, he makes nothing, understands no whit:
  Had the initiator-spasm seen fit
  Thus doubly to endow him, none the worse
  And much the better were the universe.
  What does Man see or feel or apprehend
  Here, there, and everywhere, but faults to mend,
  Omissions to supply,--one wide disease
  Of things that are, which Man at once would ease
  Had will but power and knowledge?"[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

But the moral worth of man does not suffer the least detraction from his
inability to effect his benevolent purpose. "Things must take will for
deed," as Browning tells us. David is not at all distressed by the
consciousness of his weakness.

            "Why is it I dare
  Think but lightly of such impuissance? What stops my despair?
  This;--'tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do."[B]

[Footnote B: _Saul_.]

The fact that "his wishes fall through," that he cannot, although
willing, help Saul, "grow poor to enrich him, fill up his life by
starving his own," does not prevent him from regarding his "service as
perfect." The will was there, although it lacked power to effect itself.
The moral worth of an action is complete, if it is willed; and it is
nowise affected by its outer consequences, as both Browning and Kant
teach. The loving will, the inner act of loving, though it can bear no
outward fruit, being debarred by outward impediment, is still a complete
and highest good.

  "But Love is victory, the prize itself:
  Love--trust to! Be rewarded for the trust
  In trust's mere act. In love success is sure,
  Attainment--no delusion, whatso'er
  The prize be: apprehended as a prize,
  A prize it is."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Pillar at Sebzevar_.]

Whatever the evil in the world and the impotence of man, his duty and
his dignity in willing to perform it, are ever the same. Though God
neglect the world

            "Man's part
  Is plain--to send love forth,--astray, perhaps:
  No matter, he has done his part."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Sun_.]

Now, this fact of inner experience, which the poet thinks
incontrovertible--the fact that man, every man, necessarily regards
evil, whether natural or moral, as something to be annulled, were it
only possible--is an immediate proof of the indwelling of that which is
highest in man. On this basis, Browning is able to re-establish the
optimism which, from the side of knowledge, he had utterly abandoned.

The very fact that the world is condemned by man is proof that there
dwells in man something better than the world, whose evidence the
pessimist himself cannot escape. All is not wrong, as long as wrong
_seems_ wrong. The pessimist, in condemning the world, must except
himself. In his very charge against God of having made man in His anger,
there lies a contradiction; for he himself fronts and defies the
outrage. There is no depth of despair which this good cannot illumine
with joyous light, for the despair is itself the reflex of the good.

            "Were earth and all it holds illusions mere,
  Only a machine for teaching love and hate, and hope and fear,

            "If this life's conception new life fail to realize--
  Though earth burst and proved a bubble glassing hues of hell, one huge
  Reflex of the devil's doings--God's work by no subterfuge,"[A]

[Footnote A: _La Saisiaz_.]

still, good is good, and love is its own exceeding great reward. Alone,
in a world abandoned to chaos and infinite night, man is still not
without God, if he loves. In virtue of his love, he himself would be
crowned as God, as the poet often argues, were there no higher love
elsewhere.

            "If he believes
  Might can exist with neither will nor love,
  In God's case--what he names now Nature's Law--
  While in himself he recognizes love
  No less than might and will,"[B]

[Footnote B: _Death in the Desert_.]

man takes, and rightly takes, the title of being "First, last, and best
of things."

  "Since if man prove the sole existent thing
  Where these combine, whatever their degree,
  However weak the might or will or love,
  So they be found there, put in evidence--
  He is as surely higher in the scale
  Than any might with neither love nor will,
  As life, apparent in the poorest midge,
  Is marvellous beyond dead Atlas' self,
  Given to the nobler midge for resting-place!
  Thus, man proves best and highest--God, in fine."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

To any one capable of spiritually discerning things, there can be no
difficulty in regarding goodness, however limited and mated with
weakness, as infinitely above all natural power. Divinity will be known
to consist, not in any senseless might, however majestic and miraculous,
but in moral or spiritual perfection. If God were indifferent to the
evil of the world, acquiesced in it without reason, and let it ripen
into all manner of wretchedness, then man, in condemning the world,
though without power to remove the least of its miseries, would be
higher than God. But we have still to account for the possibility of
man's assuming an attitude implied in the consciousness that, while he
is without power, God is without pity, and in the despair which springs
from his hate of evil. How comes it that human nature rises above its
origin, and is able--nay, obliged--to condemn the evil which God
permits? Is man finite in power, a mere implement of a mocking will so
far as knowledge goes, the plaything of remorseless forces, and yet
author and first source of something in himself which invests him with a
dignity that God Himself cannot share? Is the moral consciousness which,
by its very nature, must bear witness against the Power, although it
cannot arrest its pitiless course, or remove the least evil,

  "Man's own work, his birth of heart and brain,
  His native grace, no alien gift at all?"

We are thus caught between the horns of a final dilemma. Either the pity
and love, which make man revolt against all suffering, are man's own
creation; or else God, who made man's heart to love, has given to man
something higher than He owns Himself. But both of these alternatives
are impossible.

  "Here's the touch that breaks the bubble."

The first alternative is impossible, because man is by definition
powerless, a mere link in the endless chain of causes, incapable of
changing the least part of the scheme of things which he condemns, and
therefore much more unable to initiate, or to bring into a loveless
world abandoned to blind power, the noble might of love.

            "Will of man create?
  No more than this my hand, which strewed the beans
  Produced them also from its finger-tips."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean-Stripe_.]

All that man is and has is a mere loan; his love no less than his finite
intellect and limited power, has had its origin elsewhere.

  "Back goes creation to its source, source prime
  And ultimate, the single and the sole."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

The argument ends by bringing us back

    "To the starting-point,--
  Man's impotency, God's omnipotence,
  These stop my answer."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean-Stripe_.]

I shall not pause at present to examine the value of this new form of
the old argument, "_Ex contingentia mundi_." But I may point out in
passing, that the reference of human love to a divine creative source is
accomplished by means of the idea of cause, one of the categories of the
thought which Browning has aspersed. And it is a little difficult to
show why, if we are constrained to doubt our thought, when by the aid of
causality it establishes a connection between finite and finite, we
should regard it as worthy of trust when it connects the finite and the
infinite. In fact, it is all too evident that the poet assumes or denies
the possibility of knowledge, according as it helps or hinders his
ethical doctrine.

But, if we grant the ascent from the finite to the infinite and regard
man's love as a divine gift--which it may well be although the poet's
argument is invalid--then a new light is thrown upon the being who gave
man this power to love. The "necessity," "the mere power," which alone
could be discerned by observation of the irresistible movement of the
world's events, acquires a new character. Prior to this discovery of
love in man as the work of God--

  "Head praises, but heart refrains
    From loving's acknowledgment.
  Whole losses outweigh half-gains:
    Earth's good is with evil blent:
  Good struggles but evil reigns."[A]

[Footnote A: _Reverie_--_Asolando_.]

But love in man is a suggestion of a love without; a proof, in fact,
that God is love, for man's love is God's love in man. The source of the
pity that man shows, and of the apparent evils in the world which excite
it, is the same. The power which called man into being, itself rises up
in man against the wrongs in the world. The voice of the moral
consciousness, approving the good, condemning evil, and striving to
annul it, is the voice of God, and has, therefore, supreme authority. We
do wrong, therefore, in thinking that it is the weakness of man which is
matched against the might of evil in the world, and that we are fighting
a losing battle. It is an incomplete, abstract, untrue view of the facts
of life which puts God as irresistible Power in the outer world, and
forgets that the same irresistible Power works, under the higher form of
love, in the human heart.

  "Is not God now i' the world His power first made?
  Is not His love at issue still with sin,
  Visibly when a wrong is done on earth?
  Love, wrong, and pain, what see I else around?"[B]

[Footnote B: _A Death in the Desert_.]

In this way, therefore, the poet argues back from the moral
consciousness of man to the goodness of God. And he finds the ultimate
proof of this goodness in the very pessimism and scepticism and despair,
that come with the view of the apparently infinite waste in the world
and the endless miseries of humanity. The source of this despair,
namely, the recognition of evil and wrong, is just the Godhood in man.
There is no way of accounting for the fact that "Man hates what is and
loves what should be," except by "blending the quality of man with the
quality of God." And "the quality of God" is the fundamental fact in
man's history. Love is the last reality the poet always reaches. Beneath
the pessimism is love: without love of the good there were no
recognition of evil, no condemnation of it, and no despair.

But the difficulty still remains as to the permission of evil, even
though it should prove in the end to be merely apparent.

  "Wherefore should any evil hap to man--
  From ache of flesh to agony of soul--
  Since God's All-mercy mates All-potency?
  Nay, why permits He evil to Himself--
  Man's sin, accounted such? Suppose a world
  Purged of all pain, with fit inhabitant--
  Man pure of evil in thought, word, and deed--
  Were it not well? Then, wherefore otherwise?"[A]

[Footnote A: _Mihrab Shah_.]

The poet finds an answer to this difficulty in the very nature of moral
goodness, which, as we have seen, he regards as a progressive
realization of an infinitely high ideal. The demand for a world purged
of all pain and sin is really, he teaches us, a demand for a sphere
where

            "Time brings
  No hope, no fear: as to-day, shall be
  To-morrow: advance or retreat need we
  At our stand-still through eternity?"[A]

[Footnote A: _Rephan_--_Asolando_.]

What were there to "bless or curse, in such a uniform universe,"

            "Where weak and strong,
  The wise and the foolish, right and wrong,
  Are merged alike in a neutral Best."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

There is a better way of life, thinks Browning, than such a state of
stagnation.

  "Why should I speak? You divine the test.
  When the trouble grew in my pregnant breast
  A voice said, So would'st thou strive, not rest,

  "Burn and not smoulder, win by worth,
  Not rest content with a wealth that's dearth,
  Thou art past Rephan, thy place be Earth."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid_.]

The discontent of man, the consciousness of sin, evil, pain, is a symbol
of promotion. The peace of the state of nature has been broken for him;
and, although the first consequence be

  "Brow-furrowed old age, youth's hollow cheek,--
  Diseased in the body, sick in soul,
  Pinched poverty, satiate wealth,--your whole
  Array of despairs,"[D]

[Footnote D: _Ibid_.]

still, without them, the best is impossible. They are the conditions of
the moral life, which is essentially progressive. They are the
consequences of the fact that man has been "startled up"

            "by an Infinite
  Discovered above and below me--height
  And depth alike to attract my flight,

  "Repel my descent: by hate taught love.
  Oh, gain were indeed to see above
  Supremacy ever--to move, remove,

  "Not reach--aspire yet never attain
  To the object aimed at."[A]

[Footnote A: _Rephan_--_Asolando_.]

He who places rest above effort, Rephan above the earth, places a
natural good above a moral good, stagnation above progress. The demand
for the absolute extinction of evil betrays ignorance of the nature of
the highest good. For right and wrong are relative. "Type need
antitype." The fact that goodness is best, and that goodness is not a
stagnant state but a progress, a gradual realization, though never
complete, of an infinite ideal, of the perfection of God by a finite
being, necessarily implies the consciousness of sin and evil. As a moral
agent man must set what should be above what is. If he is to aspire and
attain, the actual present must seem to him inadequate, imperfect,
wrong, a state to be abolished in favour of a better. And therefore it
follows that

            "Though wrong were right
  Could we but know--still wrong must needs seem wrong
  To do right's service, prove men weak or strong,
  Choosers of evil or good."[B]

[Footnote B: _Francis Furini_.]

The apparent existence of evil is the condition of goodness. And yet it
must only be apparent. For if evil be regarded as veritably evil, it
must remain so for all that man can do; he cannot annihilate any fact
nor change its nature, and all effort would, therefore, be futile. And,
on the other hand, if evil were known as unreal, then there were no need
of moral effort, no quarrel with the present and therefore no
aspiration, and no achievement. That which is man's highest and
best,--namely, a moral life which is a progress--would thus be
impossible, and his existence would be bereft of all meaning and
purpose. And if the highest is impossible then all is wrong, "the goal
being a ruin, so is all the rest."

The hypothesis of the moral life as progressive is essential to
Browning.

But if this hypothesis be granted, then all difficulties disappear. The
conception of the endless acquirement of goodness at once postulates the
consciousness of evil, and the consciousness of it as existing in order
to be overcome. Hence the consciousness of it as illusion comes nearest
to the truth. And such a conception is essentially implied by the idea
of morality. To speculative reason, however, it is impossible, as the
poet believes, that evil should thus be at the same time regarded as
both real and unreal. Knowledge leads to despair on every side; for,
whether it takes the evil in the world as seeming or actual, it
stultifies effort, and proves that moral progress, which is best of all
things, is impossible. But the moral consciousness derives its vitality
from this contradiction. It is the meeting-point and conflict of actual
and ideal; and its testimony is indisputable, however inconsistent it
may be with that of knowledge. Acknowledging absolute ignorance of the
outer world, the poet has still a retreat within himself, safe from all
doubt. He has in his own inner experience irrefragable proof

    "How things outside, fact or feigning, teach
  What good is and what evil--just the same,
  Be feigning or be fact the teacher."[A]

[Footnote A: _Francis Furini_.]

The consciousness of being taught goodness by interaction with the
outside unknown is sufficient; it is "a point of vantage" whence he will
not be moved by any contradictions that the intellect may conjure up
against it. And this process of learning goodness, this gradual
realization by man of an ideal infinitely high and absolute in worth,
throws back a light which illumines all the pain and strife and despair,
and shows them all to be steps in the endless "love-way." The
consciousness of evil is thus at once the effect and the condition of
goodness. The unrealized, though ever-realizing good, which brings
despair, is the best fact in man's history; and it should rightly bring,
not despair, but endless joy.



CHAPTER IX.

A CRITICISM OF BROWNING'S VIEW OF THE FAILURE OF KNOWLEDGE.


    "Der Mensch, da er Geist ist, darf und soll sich selbst
    des höchsten würdig achten, von der Grösse und Macht
    seines Geistes kann er nicht gross genug denken; und mit
    diesem Glauben wird nichts so spröde und hart seyn, das
    sich ihm nicht eröffnete. Das zuerst verborgene und
    verschlossene Wesen des Universums hat keine Kraft, die
    dem Muthe des Erkennens Widerstand leisten könnte: es muss
    sich vor ihm aufthun, und seinen Reichthum und seine
    Tiefen ihm vor Augen legen und zum Genusse geben."[A]

[Footnote A: _Hegel's Inaugural Address at Heidelberg_.]

Before entering upon a criticism of Browning's theory, as represented in
the last chapter, it may be well to give a brief summary of it.

The most interesting feature of Browning's proof of his optimistic faith
is his appeal from the intelligence to the moral consciousness. To show
theoretically that evil is merely phenomenal is, in his view, both
impossible and undesirable. It is impossible, because the human
intellect is incapable of knowing anything as it really is, or of
pronouncing upon the ultimate nature of any phenomenon. It is
undesirable, because a theoretical proof of the evanescence of evil
would itself give rise to the greatest of all evils. The best thing in
the world is moral character. Man exists in order to grow better, and
the world exists in order to help him. But moral growth is possible only
through conflict against evil, or what seems to be evil; hence, to
disprove the existence of evil would be to take away the possibility of
learning goodness, to stultify all human effort, and to deprive the
world of its meaning.

But, if an optimistic doctrine cannot be reached by way of speculative
thought, if the intellect of man cannot see the good in things evil, his
moral consciousness guarantees that all is for the best, and that "the
good is all in all." For, in distinguishing between good and evil, the
moral consciousness sets up an ideal over against the actual. It
conceives of a scheme of goodness which is not realized in the world,
and it condemns the world as it is. Man, as moral being, is so
constituted that he cannot but regard the evil in the world as something
to be annulled. If he had only the power, there would be no pain, no
sorrow, no weakness, no failure, no death. Is man, then, better than the
Power which made the world and let woe gain entrance into it? No!
answers the poet; for man himself is part of that world and the product
of that Power. The Power that made the world also made the moral
consciousness which condemns the world; if it is the source of the evil
in the world, it is also the source of that love in man, which, by
self-expenditure, seeks to remedy it. If the external world is merely an
expression of a remorseless Power, whence comes the love which is the
principle of the moral life in man? The same Power brings the antidote
as well as the bane. And, further, the bane exists for the sake of the
antidote, the wrong for the sake of the remedy. The evil in the world is
means to a higher good, and the only means possible; for it calls into
activity the divine element in man, and thereby contributes to its
realization in his character. It gives the necessary opportunity for the
exercise of love.

Hence, evil cannot be regarded as ultimately real. It is real only as a
stage in growth, as means to an end; and the means necessarily perishes,
or is absorbed in, the attainment of the end. It has no significance
except by reference to that end. From this point of view, evil is the
resistance which makes progress possible, the negative which gives
meaning to the positive, the darkness that makes day beautiful. This
must not, however, be taken to mean that evil is nothing. It is
resistance; it is negative; it does oppose the good; although its
opposition is finally overcome. If it did not, if evil were unreal,
there would be no possibility of calling forth the moral potency of man,
and the moral life would be a figment. But these two conditions of the
moral life--on the one hand, that the evil of the world must be capable
of being overcome and is there for the purpose of being overcome, and
that it is unreal except as a means to the good; and, on the other hand,
that evil must be actually opposed to the good, if the good is to have
any meaning,--cannot, Browning thinks, be reconciled with each other. It
is manifest that the intellect of man cannot, at the same time, regard
evil as both real and unreal. It must assert the one and deny the other;
or else we must regard its testimony as altogether untrustworthy. But
the first alternative is destructive of the moral consciousness. Moral
life is alike impossible whether we deny or assert the real existence of
evil. The latter alternative stultifies knowledge, and leaves all the
deeper concerns of life--the existence of good and evil, the reality of
the distinction between them, the existence of God, the moral governance
of the world, the destiny of man--in a state of absolute uncertainty. We
must reject the testimony either of the heart or of the head.

Browning, as we have seen, unhesitatingly adopts the latter alternative.
He remains loyal to the deliverances of his moral consciousness and
accepts as equally valid, beliefs which the intellect finds to be
self-contradictory: holding that knowledge on such matters is
impossible. And he rejects this knowledge, not only because our thoughts
are self-contradictory in themselves, but because the failure of a
speculative solution of these problems is necessary to morality. Clear,
convincing, demonstrative knowledge would destroy morality; and the fact
that the power to attain such knowledge has been withheld from us is to
be regarded rather as an indication of the beneficence of God, who has
not held even ignorance to be too great a price for man to pay for
goodness.

Knowledge is not the fit atmosphere for morality. It is faith and not
reason, hope and trust but not certainty, that lend vigour to the good
life. We may believe, and rejoice in the belief, that the absolute good
is fulfilling itself in all things, and that even the miseries of life
are really its refracted rays--the light that gains in splendour by
being broken. But we must not, and, indeed, cannot ascend from faith to
knowledge. The heart may trust, and must trust, if it faithfully listens
to its own natural voice; but reason must not demonstrate. Ignorance on
the side of intellect, faith on the side of the emotions; distrust of
knowledge, absolute confidence in love; such is the condition of man's
highest welfare: it is only thus that the purpose of his life, and of
the world which is his instrument, can be achieved.

No final estimate of the value of this theory of morals and religion can
be made, without examining its philosophical presuppositions. Nor is
such an examination in any way unfair; for it is obvious that Browning
explicitly offers us a philosophical doctrine. He appeals to argument
and not to artistic intuition; he offers a definite theory to which he
claims attention, not on account of any poetic beauty that may lie
within it, but on the ground that it is a true exposition of the moral
nature of man. Kant's _Metaphysic of Ethics_ is not more metaphysical in
intention than the poet's later utterances on the problems of morality.
In _La Saisiaz_, in _Ferishtah's Fancies_, in the _Parleyings_, and,
though less explicitly, in _Asolando_, _Fifine at the Fair_, and _Red
Cotton Nightcap Country_, Browning definitely states, and endeavours to
demonstrate a theory of knowledge, a theory of the relation of knowledge
to morality, and a theory of the nature of evil; and he discusses the
arguments for the immortality of the soul. In these poems his artistic
instinct avails him, not as in his earlier ones, for the discovery of
truth by way of intuition, but for the adornment of doctrines already
derived from a metaphysical repository. His art is no longer free, no
longer its own end, but coerced into an alien service. It has become
illustrative and argumentative, and in being made to subserve
speculative purposes, it has ceased to be creative. Browning has
appealed to philosophy, and philosophy must try his cause.

Such, then, is Browning's theory; and I need make no further apology for
discussing at some length the validity of the division which it involves
between the intellectual and the moral life of man. Is it possible to
combine the weakness of man's intelligence with the strength of his
moral and religious life, and to find in the former the condition of the
latter? Does human knowledge fail, as the poet considers it to fail? Is
the intelligence of man absolutely incapable of arriving at knowledge of
things as they are? If it does, if man cannot know the truth, can he
attain goodness? These are the questions that must now be answered.

It is one of the characteristics of recent thought that it distrusts its
own activity: the ancient philosophical "Scepticism" has been revived
and strengthened. Side by side with the sense of the triumphant progress
of natural science, there is a conviction, shared even by scientific
investigators themselves, as well as by religious teachers and by many
students of philosophy, that our knowledge has only limited and relative
value, and that it always stops short of the true nature of things. The
reason of this general conviction lies in the fact that thought has
become aware of its own activity; men realize more clearly than they did
in former times that the apparent constitution of things depends
directly on the character of the intelligence which apprehends them.

This relativity of things to thought has, not unnaturally, suggested the
idea that the objects of our knowledge are different from objects as
they are. "That the real nature of things is very different from what we
make of them, that thought and thing are divorced, that there is a
fundamental antithesis between them," is, as Hegel said, "the hinge on
which modern philosophy turns." Educated opinion in our day has lost its
naive trust in itself. "The natural belief of man, it is true, ever
gives the lie" to the doctrine that we do not know things. "In common
life," adds Hegel, "we reflect without particularly noting that this is
the process of arriving at the truth, and we think without hesitation
and in the firm belief that thought coincides with things."[A] But, as
soon as attention is directed to the process of thinking, and to the way
in which the process affects our consciousness of the object, it is at
once concluded that thought will never reach reality, that things are
not given to us as they are, but distorted by the medium of sense and
our intelligence, through which they pass. The doctrine of the
relativity of knowledge is thus very generally regarded as equivalent to
the doctrine that there is no true knowledge whatsoever. We know only
phenomena, or appearances; and it is these, and not veritable facts,
that we systematize into sciences. "We can arrange the appearances--the
shadows of our cave--and that, for the practical purposes of the cave,
is all that we require."[B] Not even "earth's least atom" can ever be
known to us as it really is; it is for us, at the best,

[Footnote A: Wallace's _Translation of Hegel's Logic_, p. 36.]

[Footnote B: Caird's _Comte_.]

  "An atom with some certain properties
  Known about, thought of as occasion needs."[C]

[Footnote C: _A Bean-Stripe_.]

In this general distrust of knowledge, however, there are, as might be
expected, many different degrees. Its origin in modern times was, no
doubt, the doctrine of Kant. "This divorce of thing and thought," says
Hegel, "is mainly the work of the critical philosophy and runs counter
to the conviction of all previous ages." And the completeness of the
divorce corresponds, with tolerable accuracy, to the degree in which the
critical philosophy has been understood; for Kant's writings, like those
of all great thinkers, are capable of many interpretations, varying in
depth with the intelligence of the interpreters.

The most common and general form of this view of the limitation of the
human intelligence is that which places the objects of religious faith
beyond the reach of human knowledge. We find traces of it in much of the
popular theology of our day. The great facts of religion are often
spoken of as lying in an extra-natural sphere, beyond experience, into
which men cannot enter by the native right of reason. It is asserted
that the finite cannot know the infinite, that the nature of God is
unknowable--except by means of a supernatural interference, which gives
to men a new power of spiritual discernment, and "reveals" to them
things which are "above reason," although not contrary to it. The
theologian often shields certain of his doctrines from criticism, on the
ground, as he contends, that there are facts which we must believe, but
which it would be presumptuous for us to pretend to understand or to
demonstrate. They are the proper objects of "faith."

But this view of the weakness of the intelligence when applied to
supersensuous facts, is held along with an undisturbed conviction of the
validity of our knowledge of ordinary objects. It is believed, in a
word, that there are two kinds of realities,--natural and supernatural;
and that the former is knowable and the latter not.

It requires, however, no great degree of intellectual acumen to discover
that this denial of the validity of our knowledge of these matters
involves its denial in all its applications. The ordinary knowledge of
natural objects, which we begin by regarding as valid, or, rather, whose
validity is taken for granted without being questioned, depends upon our
ideas of these supersensible objects. In other words, those fundamental
difficulties which pious opinion discovers in the region of theology,
and which, as is thought, fling the human intellect back upon itself
into a consciousness of frailty and finitude, are found to lurk beneath
our ordinary knowledge. Whenever, for instance, we endeavour to know any
object, we find that we are led back along the line of its conditions to
that which unconditionally determines it. For we cannot find the reason
for a particular object in a particular object. We are driven back
endlessly from one to another along the chain of causes; and we can
neither discover the first link nor do without it. The first link must
be a cause of itself, and experience yields none such. Such a cause
would be the unconditioned, and the unconditioned we cannot know. The
final result of thinking is thus to lead us to an unknown; and, in
consequence, all our seeming knowledge is seen to have no intelligible
basis, and, therefore, to be merely hypothetical. If we cannot know God,
we cannot know anything.

This view is held by the Positivists, and the most popular English
exponent of it is, perhaps, Mr. Herbert Spencer. Its characteristic is
its repudition of both theology and metaphysics as pseudo-sciences, and
its high esteem for science. That esteem is not disturbed by the
confession that "noumenal causes,"--that is, the actual reality of
things,--are unknown; for we can still lay claim to valid knowledge of
the laws of phenomena. Having acknowledged that natural things as known
are merely phenomena, positivism treats them in all respects as if they
were realities; and it rejoices in the triumphant progress of the
natural sciences as if it were a veritable growth of knowledge. It does
not take to heart the phenomenal nature of known objects. But, having
paid its formal compliments to the doctrine of the relativity of all
knowledge, it neglects it altogether.

Those who understand Kant better carry his scepticism further, and they
complete the divorce between man's knowledge and reality. The process of
knowing, they hold, instead of leading us towards facts, as it was so
long supposed to do, takes us away from them: _i.e._, if either
"towards" or "away from" can have any meaning when applied to two realms
which are absolutely severed from one another. Knowledge is always
concerned with the relations between things; with their likeness, or
unlikeness, their laws, or connections; but these are universals, and
things are individuals. Science knows the laws of things, but not the
things; it reveals how one object affects another, how it is connected
with it; but what are the things themselves, which are connected, it
does not know. The laws are mere forms of thought, "bloodless
categories," and not facts. They may somehow be regarded as explaining
facts, but they must not be identified with the facts. Knowledge is the
sphere of man's thoughts, and is made up of ideas; real things are in
another sphere, which man's thoughts cannot reach. We must distinguish
more clearly than has hitherto been done, between logic as the science
of knowledge, and metaphysics as a science which pretends to reveal the
real nature of things. In a word, we can know thoughts or universals,
but not things or particular existences. "When existence is in question
it is the individual, not the universal, that is real; and the real
individual is not a composite of species and accidents, but is
individual to the inmost fibre of its being." Each object keeps its own
real being to itself. Its inmost secret, its reality, is something that
cannot appear in knowledge. We can only know its manifestations; but
these manifestations are not its reality, nor connected with it. These
belong to the sphere of knowledge, they are parts in a system of
abstract thoughts; they do not exist in that system, or no-system, of
individual realities, each of which, in its veritable being, is itself
only, and connected with nought beside.

Now, this view of the absolute impossibility of knowing any reality, on
account of the fundamental difference between things and our thoughts
about things, contains a better promise of a true view both of reality
and of knowledge, than any of the previously mentioned half-hearted
theories. It forces us explicitly either to regard every effort to know
as futile, or else to regard it as futile _on this theory of it_. In
other words, we must either give up knowledge or else give up the
account of knowledge advanced by these philosophers. Hitherto, however,
every philosophy that has set itself against the possibility of the
knowledge of reality has had to give way. It has failed to shake the
faith of mankind in its own intellectual endowment, or to arrest, even
for a moment, the attempt by thinking to know things as they are. The
view held by Berkeley, that knowledge is merely subjective, because the
essence of things consists in their being perceived by the individual,
and that they are nothing but his ideas, was refuted by Kant, when he
showed that the very illusion of seeming knowledge was impossible on
that theory. And this later view, which represents knowledge as merely
subjective, on the ground that it is the product of the activity of the
thought of mankind, working according to universal laws, is capable of
being refuted in the same manner. The only difference between the
Berkeleian and this modern speculative theory is that, on the former
view, each individual constructed his own subjective entities or
illusions; while, on the latter, all men, by reason of the universality
of the laws of thought governing their minds, create the same illusion,
the same subjective scheme of ideas. Instead of each having his own
private unreality, as the product of his perceiving activity, they have
all the same, or at least a similar, phantom-world of ideas, as the
result of their thinking. But, in both cases alike, the reality of the
world without is out of reach, and knowledge is a purely subjective
apprehension of a world within. Thoughts are quite different from
things, and no effort of human reason can reveal any community between
them.

Now, there are certain difficulties which, so far as I know, those who
hold this view have scarcely attempted to meet. The first of these lies
in the obvious fact, that all men at all times consider that this very
process of thinking, which the theory condemns as futile, is the only
way we have of finding out what the reality of things is. Why do we
reflect and think, except in order to pass beyond the illusions of
sensuous appearances to the knowledge of things as they are? Nay, why do
these philosophers themselves reflect, when reflection, instead of
leading to truth, which is knowledge of reality, leads only to ideas,
which, being universal, cannot represent the realities that are said to
be "individual."

The second is, that the knowledge of "the laws" of things gives to us
practical command over them; although, according to this view, laws are
not things, nor any part of the reality of things, nor even true
representations of things. Our authority over things seems to grow _pari
passu_ with our knowledge. The natural sciences seem to prove by their
practical efficiency, that they are not building up a world of
apparitions, like the real world; but gradually getting inside nature,
learning more and more to wield her powers, and to make them the
instruments of the purposes of man, and the means of his welfare. To
common-sense,--which frequently "divines" truths that it cannot prove,
and, like ballast in a ship, has often given steadiness to human
progress although it is only a dead weight,--the assertion that man
knows nothing is as incredible as that he knows all things. If it is
replied, that the "things" which we seem to dominate by the means of
knowledge are themselves only phenomena, the question arises, what then
are the real things to which they are opposed? What right has any
philosophy to say that there is any reality which no one can in any
sense know? The knowledge that such reality is, is surely a relation
between that reality and consciousness, and, if so, the assertion of an
unknowable reality is self-contradictory. For the conception of it is
the conception of something that is, and at the same time is not, out of
relation to consciousness.

To say what kind of thing reality is, is a still more remarkable feat,
if reality is unknowable. Reality, being beyond knowledge, why is it
called particular or individual, rather than universal? How is it known
that the true being of things is different from ideas? Surely both of
the terms must be regarded as known to some extent, if they are called
like or unlike, contrasted or compared, opposed or identified.

But, lastly, this theory has to account for the fact that it constitutes
what is not only unreal, but impossible, into the criterion of what is
actual. If knowledge of reality is altogether different from human
knowledge, how does it come to be its criterion? That knowledge is
inadequate or imperfect can be known, only by contrasting it with its
own proper ideal, whatever that may be. A criticism by reference to a
foreign or irrelevant criterion, or the condemnation of a theory as
imperfect because it does not realize an impossible end, is
unreasonable. All true criticism of an object implies a reference to a
more perfect state of itself.

We must, then, regard the knowledge of objects as they are, which is
opposed to human knowledge, as, only a completer and fuller form of that
knowledge; or else we must cease to contrast it with our human
knowledge, as valid with invalid, true with phenomenal. Either knowledge
of reality is complete knowledge, or else it is a chimera. And, in
either case, the sharp distinction between the real and the phenomenal
vanishes; and what remains, is not a reality outside of consciousness,
or different from ideas, but a reality related to consciousness, or, in
other words, a knowable reality. "The distinction of objects into
phenomena and noumena, _i.e._, into things that for us exist, and things
that for us do not exist, is an Irish bull in philosophy," said Heine.
To speak of reality as unknowable, or to speak of anything as
unknowable, is to utter a direct self-contradiction; it is to negate in
the predicate what is asserted in the subject. It is a still more
strange perversion to erect this knowable emptiness into a criterion of
knowledge, and to call the latter phenomenal by reference to it.

These difficulties are so fundamental and so obvious, that the theory of
the phenomenal nature of human knowledge, which, being interpreted,
means that we know nothing, could scarcely maintain its hold, were it
not confused with another fact of human experience, that is apparently
inconsistent with the doctrine that man can know the truth. Side by side
with the faith of ordinary consciousness, that in order to know anything
we must think, or, in other words, that knowledge shows us what things
really are, there is a conviction, strengthened by constant experience,
that we never know things fully. Every investigation into the nature of
an object soon brings us to an enigma, a something more we do not know.
Failing to know this something more, we generally consider that we have
fallen short of reaching the reality of the object. We recognize, as it
has been expressed, that we have been brought to a stand, and we
therefore conclude that we are also brought to the end. We arrive at
what we do not know, and we pronounce that unknown to be unknowable;
that is, we regard it as something different in nature from what we do
know. So far as I can see, the attitude of ordinary thought in regard to
this matter might be fairly represented by saying, that it always begins
by considering objects as capable of being known in their reality, or as
they are, and that experience always proves the attempt to know them as
they are to be a failure. The effort is continued although failure is
the result, and even although that failure be exaggerated and
universalized into that despair of knowledge which we have described. We
are thus confronted with what seems to be a contradiction; a trust and
distrust in knowledge. It can only be solved by doing full justice to
both of the conflicting elements; and then, if possible, by showing that
they are elements, and not the complete, concrete fact, except when held
together.

From one point of view, it is undeniable that in every object of
perception, we come upon problems that we cannot solve. Science at its
best, and even when dealing with the simplest of things, is forced to
stop short of its final secret. Even when it has discovered its law,
there is still apparently something over and above which science cannot
grasp, and which seems to give to the object its reality. All the
natural sciences concentrated on a bit of iron ore fail to exhaust the
truth in it: there is always a "beyond" in it, something still more
fundamental which is not yet understood. And that something beyond, that
inner essence, that point in which the laws meet and which the sciences
fail to lift into knowledge, is regarded as just the reality of the
thing. Thus the reality is supposed, at the close of every
investigation, to lie outside of knowledge; and conversely, all that we
do know, seeing that it lacks this last element, seems to be only
apparent knowledge, or knowledge of phenomena.

In this way the process of knowing seems always to stop short at the
critical moment, when the truth is just about to be reached. And those
who dwell on this aspect alone are apt to conclude that man's intellect
is touched with a kind of impotence, which makes it useless when it gets
near the reality. It is like a weapon that snaps at the hilt just when
the battle is hottest. For we seem to be able to know everything but the
reality, and yet apart from the real essence all knowledge seems to be
merely apparent. Physical science penetrates through the outer
appearances of things to their laws, analyzes them into forms of energy,
calculates their action and predicts their effects with certainty. Its
practical power over the forces of nature is so great that it seems to
have got inside her secrets. And yet science will itself acknowledge
that in every simplest object there is an unknown. Its triumphant course
of explaining seems to be always arrested at the threshold of reality.
It has no theory, scarcely an hypothesis, of the actual nature of
things, or of what that is in each object, which constitutes it a real
existence. Natural science, with a scarcely concealed sneer, hands over
to the metaphysician all questions as to the real being of things; and
itself makes the more modest pretension of showing how things behave,
not what they are; what effects follow the original noumenal causes, but
not the veritable nature of these causes. Nor can the metaphysician, in
his turn, do more than suggest a hypothesis as to the nature of the
ultimate reality in things. He cannot detect or demonstrate it in any
particular fact. In a word, every minutest object in the world baffles
the combined powers of all forms of human thought, and holds back its
essence or true being from them. And as long as this true being, or
reality is not known, the knowledge which we seem to have cannot be held
as ultimately true, but is demonstrably a makeshift.

Having made this confession, there seems to be no alternative but to
postulate an utter discrepancy between human thought and real existence,
or between human knowledge and truth, which is the correspondence of
thing and thought. For, at no point is knowledge found to be in touch
with real being; it is everywhere demonstrably conditioned and relative,
and inadequate to express the true reality of its objects. What remains,
then, except to regard human knowledge as completely untrustworthy, as
merely of phenomena? If we cannot know _any_ reality, does not knowledge
completely fail?

Now, in dealing with the moral life of man, we saw that the method of
hard alternatives is invalid. The moral life, being progressive, was
shown to be the meeting--point of the ideal and the actual; and the
ideal of perfect goodness was regarded as manifesting itself in actions
which, nevertheless, were never adequate to express it. The good when
achieved was ever condemned as unworthy, and the ideal when attained
ever pressed for more adequate expression in a better character. The
ideal was present as potency, as realizing itself, but it was never
completely realized. The absolute good was never reached in the best
action, and never completely missed in the worst.

The same conflict of real and unreal was shown to be essential to every
natural life. As long as anything grows it neither completely attains,
nor completely falls away from its ideal. The growing acorn is not an
oak tree, and yet it is not a mere acorn. The child is not the man; and
yet the man is in the child, and only needs to be evolved by interaction
with circumstances. The process of growth is one wherein the ideal is
always present, as a reconstructive power gradually changing its whole
vehicle, or organism, into a more perfect expression of itself. The
ideal is reached in the end, just because it is present in the
beginning; and there is no end as long as growth continues.

Now, it is evident that knowledge, whether it be that of the individual
man or of the human race, is a thing that grows. The process by means of
which natural science makes progress, or by which the consciousness of
the child expands and deepens into the consciousness of the man, is best
made intelligible from the point of view of evolution. It is like an
organic process, in which each new acquirement finds its place in an old
order, each new fact is brought under the permanent principles of
experience, and absorbed into an intellectual life, which itself, in
turn, grows richer and fuller with every new acquisition. No knowledge
worthy of the name is an aggregation of facts. Wisdom comes by growth.

Hence, the assertion that knowledge never attains reality, does not
imply that it always misses it. In morals we do not say that a man is
entirely evil, although he never, even in his best actions, attains the
true good. And if the process of knowing is one that presses onward
towards an ideal, that ideal is never completely missed even in the
poorest knowledge. If it grows, the method of fixed alternatives must be
inapplicable to it. The ideal, whatever it may be, must be considered as
active in the present, guiding the whole movement, and gradually
manifesting itself in each of the passing forms, which are used up as
the raw material of new acquirement; and yet no passing form completely
expresses the ideal.

Nor is it difficult to say what that ideal of knowledge is, although we
cannot define it in any adequate manner. We know that the end of
morality is the _summum bonum_, although we cannot, as long as we are
progressive, define its whole content, or find it fully realized in any
action. Every failure brings new truth, every higher grade of moral
character reveals some new height of goodness to be scaled; the moral
ideal acquires definiteness and content as humanity moves upwards. And
yet the ideal is not entirely unknown even at the first; even to the
most ignorant, it presents itself as a criterion which enables him to
distinguish between right and wrong, evil and goodness, and which guides
his practical life. The same truth holds with regard to knowledge. Its
growth receives its impulse from, and is directed and determined by,
what is conceived as the real world of facts. This truth, namely, that
the ideal knowledge is knowledge of reality, the most subjective
philosopher cannot but acknowledge. It is implied in his condemnation of
knowledge as merely phenomenal, that there is possible a knowledge of
real being. That thought and reality can be brought together, or rather,
that they are always together, is presupposed in all knowledge and in
all experience. The effort to know is the effort to _explain_ the
relation of thought and reality, not to create it. The ideal of perfect
knowledge is present from the first; it generates the effort, directs
it, distinguishes between truth and error. And that which man ever aims
at, whether in the ordinary activities of daily thought, or through the
patient labour of scientific investigation, or in the reflective
self-torture of philosophic thought, is to know the world as it is. No
failure damps the ardour of this endeavour. Relativists, phenomenalists,
agnostics, sceptics, Kantians or Neo-Kantians--all the crowd of thinkers
who cry down the human intellect, and draw a charmed circle around
reality so as to make it unapproachable to the mind of man--ply this
useless labour. They are seeking to penetrate beneath the shows of sense
and the outer husk of phenomena to the truth, which is the meeting-point
of knowledge and reality; they are endeavouring to translate into an
intellectual possession the powers that play within and around them; or,
in other words, to make these powers express themselves in their
thoughts, and supply the content of their spiritual life. The irony,
latent in their endeavour, gives them no pause; they are in some way
content to pursue what they call phantoms, and to try to satisfy their
thirst with the waters of a mirage. This comes from the presence of the
ideal within them, that is, of the implicit unity of reality and
thought, which seeks for explicit and complete manifestation in
knowledge. The reality is present in them as thinking activity, working
towards complete revelation of itself by means of knowledge. And its
presence is real, although the process is never complete.

In knowledge, as in morals, it is necessary to remember both of the
truths implied in the pursuit of an ideal--that a growing thing not only
always fails to attain, but also always succeeds. The distinction
between truth and error in knowledge is present at every stage in the
effort to attain truth, as the distinction between right and wrong is
present in every phase of the moral life. It is the source of the
intellectual effort. But that distinction cannot be drawn except by
reference to a criterion of truth, which condemns our actual knowledge;
as it is the absolute good, which condemns the present character. The
ideal may be indefinite, and its content confused and poor; but it is
always sufficient for its purpose, always better than the actual
achievement. And, in this sense, reality, the truth, the veritable being
of things, is always reached by the poorest knowledge. As there is no
starved and distorted sapling which is not the embodiment of the
principle of natural life, so the meanest character is the product of an
ideal of goodness, and the most confused opinion of ignorant mankind is
an expression of the reality of things. Without it there would not be
even the semblance of knowledge, not even error and untruth.

Those who, like Browning, make a division between man's thought and real
things, and regard the sphere of knowledge as touching at no point the
sphere of actual existence, are attributing to the bare human intellect
much more power than it has. They regard mind as creating its phenomenal
knowledge, or the apparent world. For, having separated mind from
reality, it is evident that they cannot avail themselves of any doctrine
of sensations or impressions as a medium between them, or postulate any
other form of connection or means of communication. Connection of any
kind must, in the end, imply some community of nature, and must put the
unity of thought and being--here denied--beneath their difference.
Hence, the world of phenomena which we know, and which as known, does
not seem to consist of realities, must be the product of the unaided
human mind. The intellect, isolated from all real being, has
manufactured the apparent universe, in all its endless wealth. It is a
creative intellect, although it can only create illusions. It evolves
all its products from itself.

But thought, set to revolve upon its own axis in an empty region, can
produce nothing, not even illusions. And, indeed, those who deny that it
is possible for thought and reality to meet in a unity, have,
notwithstanding, to bring over "something" to the aid of thought. There
must be some effluence from the world of reality, some manifestations of
the thing (though they are not the reality of the thing, nor any part of
the reality, nor connected with the reality!) to assist the mind and
supply it with data. The "phenomenal world" is a hybrid, generated by
thought and "something"--which yet is not reality; for the real world is
a world of things in themselves, altogether beyond thought. By bringing
in these data, it is virtually admitted that the human mind reaches down
into itself in vain for a world, even for a phenomenal one.

Thought apart from things is quite empty, just as things apart from
thought are blind. Such thought and such reality are mere abstractions,
hypostasized by false metaphysics; they are elements of truth rent
asunder, and destroyed in the rending. The dependence of the
intelligence of man upon reality is direct and complete. The foolishest
dream, that ever played out its panorama beneath a night-cap, came
through the gates of the senses from the actual world. Man is limited to
his material in all that he knows, just as he is ruled by the laws of
thought. He cannot go one step beyond it. To transcend "experience" is
impossible. We have no wings to sustain us in an empty region, and no
need of any. It is as impossible for man to create new ideas, as it is
for him to create new atoms. Our thought is essentially connected with
reality. There is no _mauvais pas_ from thought to things. We do not
need to leap out of ourselves in order to get into the world. We are in
it from the first, both as physical and moral agents, and as thinking
beings. Our thoughts are expressions of the real nature of things, so
far as they go. They may be and are imperfect; they may be and are
confused and inadequate, and express only the superficial aspects and
not "the inmost fibres"; still, they are what they are, in virtue of
"the reality," which finds itself interpreted in them. Severed from that
reality, they would be nothing.

Thus, the distinction between thought and reality is a distinction
within a deeper unity. And that unity must not be regarded as something
additional to both, or as a third something. It _is_ their unity. It is
both reality and thought: it is existing thought, or reality knowing
itself and existing through its knowledge of self; it is
self-consciousness. The distinguished elements have no existence or
meaning except in their unity. Like the actual and ideal, they have
significance and being, only in their reference to each other.

There is one more difficulty connected with this matter which I must
touch upon, although the discussion may already be regarded as prolix.
It is acknowledged by every one that the knowledge of the individual,
and his apparent world of realities, grow _pari passu_. Beyond his
sphere of knowledge there is no reality _for him_, not even apparent
reality. But, on the other hand, the real world of existing things
exists all the same whether he knows it or not. It did not begin to be
with any knowledge he may have of it, it does not cease to be with his
extinction, and it is not in any way affected by his valid, or invalid,
reconstruction of it in thought. The world which depends on his thought
is his world, and not the world of really existing things. And this is
true alike of every individual. The world is independent of all human
minds. It existed before them, and will, very possibly, exist after
them. Can we not, therefore, conclude that the real world is independent
of thought, and that it exists without relation to it?

A short reference to the moral consciousness may suggest the answer to
this difficulty. In morality (as also is the case in knowledge) the
moral ideal, or the objective law of goodness, grows in richness and
fulness of content with the individual who apprehends it. _His_ moral
world is the counterpart of _his_ moral growth as a character. Goodness
_for him_ directly depends upon his recognition of it. Animals,
presumably, have no moral ideal, because they have not the power to
constitute it. In morals, as in knowledge, the mind of man constructs
its own world. And yet, in both alike, the world of truth or of goodness
exists all the same whether the individual knows it or not. He does not
call the moral law into being, but finds it without, and then realizes
it in his own life. The moral law does not vanish and reappear with its
recognition by mankind. It is not subject to the chances and changes of
its life, but a good in itself that is eternal.

Is it therefore independent of all intelligence? Can goodness be
anything but the law of a self-conscious being? Is it the quality or
motive or ideal of a mere thing? Manifestly not. Its relation to
self-consciousness is essential. With the extinction of
self-consciousness all moral goodness is extinguished.

The same holds true of reality. The question of the reality or unreality
of things cannot arise except in an intelligence. Animals have neither
illusions nor truths--unless they are self-conscious. The reality, which
man sets over against his own inadequate knowledge, is posited by him;
and it has no meaning whatsoever except in this contrast. And to
endeavour to conceive a reality which no one knows, is to assert a
relative term without its correlative, which is absurd; it is to posit
an ideal which is opposed to nothing actual.

In this view, so commonly held in our day, that knowledge is subjective
and reality unknowable, we have another example of the falseness and
inconsistency of abstract thinking. If this error be committed, there is
no fundamental gain in saying with Kant, that things are relative to the
thought of all, instead of asserting, with Berkeley or Browning, that
they are relative to the thought of each. The final result is the same.
Things as known, are reduced into mere creations of thought; things as
they are, are regarded as not thoughts, and as partaking in no way of
the nature of thought. And yet "reality" is virtually assumed to be
given at the beginning of knowledge; for the sensations are supposed to
be emanations from it, or roused in consciousness by it. These
sensations, it is said, man does not make, but receives, and receives
from the concealed reality. They flow from it, and are the
manifestations of its activity. Then, in the next moment, reality is
regarded as not given in any way, but as something to be discovered by
the effort of thought; for we always strive to know things, and not
phantoms. Lastly, the knowledge thus acquired being regarded as
imperfect, and experience showing to us continually that every object
has more in it than we know, the reality is pronounced to be unknowable,
and all knowledge is regarded as failure, as acquaintance with mere
phantoms. Thus, in thought, as in morality, the ideal is present at the
beginning, it is an effort after explicit realization, and its process
is never complete.

Now, all these aspects of the ideal of knowledge, that is, of reality,
are held by the unsophisticated intelligence of man; and abstract
philosophy is not capable of finally getting rid of any one of them. It,
too, holds them _alternately_. Its denial of the possibility of knowing
reality is refuted by its own starting-point; for it begins with a given
something, regarded as real, and its very effort to know is an attempt
to know that reality by thinking. But it forgets these facts, when it is
discovered that knowledge at the best is incomplete. It is thus tossed
from assertion to denial, and from denial to assertion; from one
abstract or one-sided view of reality, to the other.

When these different aspects of truth are grasped together from the
point of view of evolution, there seems to be a way of escaping the
difficulties to which they give rise. For the ideal must be present at
the beginning, and cannot be present in its fulness till the process is
complete. What is here required is to lift our theory of man's knowledge
to the level of our theory of his moral life, and to treat it frankly as
the process whereby reality manifests itself in the mind of man. In that
way, we shall avoid the absurdities of both of the abstract schools of
philosophy, to both of which alike the native intelligence of man gives
the lie. We shall say neither that man knows nothing, nor that he knows
all; we shall regard his knowledge, neither as purely phenomenal and out
of all contact with reality, nor as an actual identification with the
real being of things in all their complex variety. For, in morality, we
do not say either that the individual is absolutely evil, because his
actions never realize the supreme ideal of goodness; nor, that he is at
the last term of development, and "taking the place of God," because he
lives as "ever in his great Taskmaster's eye." Just as every moral
action, however good, leaves something still to be desiderated,
something that may become a stepping-stone for new movement towards the
ideal which it has failed to actualize; so all our knowledge of an
object leaves something over that we have not apprehended, which is
truer and more real than anything we know, and which in all future
effort we strive to master. And, just as the very effort, to be good
derives its impulse and direction from the ideal of goodness which is
present, and striving for realization; so the effort to know derives its
impulse and direction from the reality which is present, and striving
for complete realization in the thought of man. We know reality
confusedly from the first; and it is because we have attained so much
knowledge, that we strive for greater clearness and fulness. It is by
planting his foot on the world that man travels. It is by opposing his
power to the given reality that his knowledge grows.

When once we recognize that reality is the ideal of knowledge, we are
able to acknowledge all the truth that is in the doctrine of the
phenomenalists, without falling into their errors and contradictions. We
may go as far as the poet in confessing intellectual impotence, and
roundly call the knowledge of man "lacquered ignorance." "Earth's least
atom" does veritably remain an enigma. Man is actually flung back into
his circumscribed sphere by every fact; and he will continue to be so
flung to the end of time. He will never know reality, nor be able to
hold up in his hand the very heart of the simplest thing in the world.
For the world is an organic totality, and its simplest thing will not be
seen, through and through, till everything is known, till every fact and
event is related to every other under principles which are universal:
just as goodness cannot be fully achieved in any act, till the agent is
in all ways lifted to the level of absolute goodness. Physics cannot
reveal the forces which keep a stone in its place on the earth, till it
has traced the forces that maintain the starry systems in their course.
No fact can be thoroughly known, _i.e._, known in its reality, till the
light of the universe has been focussed upon it: and, on the other hand,
to know any subject through and through would be to explain all being.
The highest law and the essence of the simple fact, the universal and
the particular, can only be known together, in and through one another.
"Reality" in "the least atom" will be known, only when knowledge has
completed its work, and the universe has become a transparent sphere,
penetrated in every direction by the shafts of intelligence.

But this is only half the truth. If knowledge is never complete, it is
always _completing_; if reality is never known, it is ever _being
known_; if the ideal is never actual, it is always _being actualized_.
The complete failure of knowledge is as impossible as its complete
success. It is at no time severed from reality; it is never its mere
adumbration, nor are its contents mere phenomena. On the contrary, it is
reality partially revealed, the ideal incompletely actualized. Our very
errors are the working of reality within us, and apart from it they
would be impossible. The process towards truth by man is the process of
truth _in_ man; the movement of knowledge towards reality is the movement
of reality into knowledge. A purely subjective consciousness which knows,
such as the poet tried to describe, is a self-contradiction: it would be
a consciousness at once related, and not related, to the actual world.
But man has no need to relate himself to the world. He is already
related, and his task is to understand that relation, or, in other words,
to make both its terms intelligible. Man has no need to go out from
himself to facts; his relation to facts is prior to his distinction from
them. The truth is that he cannot entirely lift himself away from them,
nor suspend his thoughts in the void. In his inmost being he is
creation's voice, and in his knowledge he confusedly murmurs its deep
thoughts.

Browning was aware of this truth in its application to man's moral
nature. In speaking of the principle of love, he was not tempted to
apply fixed alternatives. On the contrary, he detected in the "poorest
love that was ever offered" the veritable presence of that which is
perfect and complete, though never completely actualized. His interest
in the moral development of man, and his penetrative moral insight,
acting upon, and guided by the truths of the Christian religion, warned
him, on this side, against the absolute separation of the ideal and
actual, the divine and human. Human love, however poor in quality and
limited in range, was to him God's love in man. It was a wave breaking
in the individual of that First Love, which is ever flowing back through
the life of humanity to its primal source. To him all moral endeavour is
the process of this Primal Love; and every man, as he consciously
identifies himself with it, may use the language of Scripture, and say,
"It is not I that live, but Christ lives in me."

But, on the side of knowledge, he was neither so deeply interested, nor
had he so good a guide to lean upon. Ignorant, according to all
appearances, of the philosophy which has made the Christian maxim, "Die
to live,"--which primarily is only a principle of morality--the basis of
its theory of knowledge, he exaggerated the failure of science to reach
the whole truth as to any particular object, into a qualitative
discrepancy between knowledge and truth. Because knowledge is never
complete, it is always mere lacquered ignorance; and man's apparent
intellectual victories are only conquests in a land of unrealities, or
mere phenomena. He occupies in regard to knowledge, a position strictly
analogous to that of Carlyle, in regard to morality; his intellectual
pessimism is the counterpart of the moral pessimism of his predecessor,
and it springs from the same error. He forgot that the ideal without is
also the power within, which makes for its own manifestation in the mind
of man.

He opposed the intellect to the world, as Carlyle opposed the weakness
of man to the law of duty; and he neglected the fact that the world was
there for him, only because he knew it, just as Carlyle neglected the
fact that the duty was without, only because it was recognized within.
He strained the difference between the ideal and actual into an absolute
distinction; and, as Carlyle condemned man to strive for a goodness
which he could never achieve, so Browning condemns him to pursue a truth
which he can never attain. In both, the failure is regarded as absolute.
"There is no good in us," has for its counterpart "There is no truth in
us." Both the moralist and the poet dwell on the _negative_ relation of
the ideal and actual, and forget that the negative has no meaning,
except as the expression of a deeper affirmative. Carlyle had to learn
that we know our moral imperfection, only because we are conscious of a
better within us; and Browning had to learn that we are aware of our
ignorance, only because we have the consciousness of fuller truth with
which we contrast our knowledge. Browning, indeed, knew that the
consciousness of evil was itself evidence of the presence of good, that
perfection means death, and progress is life, on the side of morals; but
he has missed the corresponding truth on the side of knowledge. If he
acknowledges that the highest revealed itself to man, on the practical
side, as love; he does not see that it has also manifested itself to
man, on the theoretical side, as reason. The self-communication of the
Infinite is incomplete love is a quality of God, intelligence a quality
of man; hence, on one side, there is no limit to achievement, but on the
other there is impotence. Human nature is absolutely divided against
itself; and the division, as we have already seen, is not between flesh
and spirit, but between a love which is God's own and perfect, and an
intelligence which is merely man's and altogether weak and deceptive.

This is what makes Browning think it impossible to re-establish faith in
God, except by turning his back on knowledge; but whether it is possible
for him to appeal to the moral consciousness, we shall inquire in the
next chapter.



CHAPTER X.

THE HEART AND THE HEAD.--LOVE AND REASON.


    "And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to
    play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do
    injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her
    strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew
    truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter."[A]

[Footnote A: Milton's _Areopagitica_.]

It has been shown that Browning appeals, in defence of his optimistic
faith, from the intellect to the heart. His theory rests on three main
assumptions:--namely (1) that knowledge of the true nature of things is
impossible to man, and that, therefore, it is necessary to find other
and better evidence than the intellect can give for the victory of good
over evil; (2) that the failure of knowledge is a necessary condition of
the moral life, inasmuch as certain knowledge would render all moral
effort either futile or needless; (3) that after the failure of
knowledge there still remains possible a faith of the heart, which can
furnish a sufficient objective basis to morality and religion. The first
of these assumptions I endeavoured to deal with in the last chapter. I
now turn to the remaining two.

Demonstrative, or certain, or absolute knowledge of the actual nature of
things would, Browning asserts, destroy the very possibility of a moral
life.[A] For such knowledge would show either that evil is evil, or that
evil is good; and, in both cases alike, the benevolent activity of love
would be futile. In the first case, it would be thwarted and arrested by
despair; for, if evil be evil, it must remain evil for aught that man
can do. Man cannot effect a change in the nature of things, nor create a
good in a world dominated by evil. In the second case, the saving effect
of moral love would be unnecessary; for, if evil be only seeming, then
all things are perfect and complete, and there is no need of
interference. It is necessary, therefore, that man should be in a
permanent state of doubt as to the real existence of evil; and, whether
evil does exist or not, it must seem, and only seem to exist to man, in
order that he may devote himself to the service of good.[B]

[Footnote A: See Chapter VIII., p. 255.]

[Footnote B: _Ibid_.]

Now, if this view of the poet be taken in the strict sense in which he
uses it in this argument, it admits of a very easy refutation. It takes
us beyond the bounds of all possible human experience, into an imaginary
region, as to which all assertions are equally valueless. It is
impossible to conceive how the conduct of a being who is moral would be
affected by absolute knowledge; or, indeed, to conceive the existence of
such a being. For morality, as the poet insists, is a process in which
an ideal is gradually realized through conflict with the actual--an
actual which it both produces and transmutes at every stage of the
progress. But complete knowledge would be above all process. Hence we
would have, on Browning's hypothesis, to conceive of a being in whom
perfect knowledge was combined with an undeveloped will. A being so
constituted would be an agglomerate of utterly disparate elements, the
interaction of which in a single character it would be impossible to
make intelligible.

But, setting aside this point, there is a curious flaw in Browning's
argument, which indicates that he had not distinguished between two
forms of optimism which are essentially different from each
other,--namely, the pantheistic and the Christian.

To know that evil is only apparent, that pain is only pleasure's mask,
that all forms of wickedness and misery are only illusions of an
incomplete intelligence, would, he argues, arrest all moral action and
stultify love. For love--which necessarily implies need in its
object--is the principle of all right action. In this he argues justly,
for the moral life is essentially a conflict and progress; and, in a
world in which "white ruled unchecked along the line," there would be
neither the need of conflict nor the possibility of progress. And, on
the other hand, if the good were merely a phantom, and evil the reality,
the same destruction of moral activity would follow. "White may not
triumph," in this absolute manner, nor may we "clean abolish, once and
evermore, white's faintest trace." There must be "the constant shade
cast on life's shine."

All this is true; but the admission of it in no way militates against
the conception of absolutely valid knowledge; nor is it any proof that
we need live in the twilight of perpetual doubt, in order to be moral.
For the knowledge, of which Browning speaks, would be knowledge of a
state of things in which morality would be really impossible; that is,
it would be knowledge of a world in which all was evil or all was good.
On the other hand, valid knowledge of a world in which good and evil are
in conflict, and in which the former is realized through victory over
the latter, would not destroy morality. What is inconsistent with the
moral life is the conception of a world where there is no movement from
evil to good, no evolution of character, but merely the stand-still life
of "Rephan." But absolutely certain knowledge that the good is at issue
with sin in the world, that there is no way of attaining goodness except
through conflict with evil, and that moral life, as the poet so
frequently insists, is a process which converts all actual attainment
into a dead self, from which we can rise to higher things--a self,
therefore, which is relatively evil--would, and does, inspire morality.
It is the deification of evil not negated or overcome, of evil as it is
in itself and apart from all process, which destroys morality. And the
same is equally true of a pantheistic optimism, which asserts that all
things _are_ good. But it is not true of a Christian optimism, which
asserts that all things are _working together for_ good. For such
optimism implies that the process of negating or overcoming evil is
essential to the attainment of goodness; it does not imply that evil, as
evil, is ever good. Evil is unreal, only in the sense that it cannot
withstand the power which is set against it. It is not _mere_ semblance,
a mere negation or absence of being; it is opposed to the good, and its
opposition can be overcome, only by the moral effort which it calls
forth. An optimistic faith of this kind can find room for morality; and,
indeed, it furnishes it with the religious basis it needs. Browning,
however, has confused these two forms of optimism; and, therefore, he
has been driven to condemn knowledge, because he knew no alternative but
that of either making evil eternally real, or making it absolutely
unreal. A third alternative, however, is supplied by the conception of
moral evolution. Knowledge of the conditions on which good can be
attained--a knowledge that amounts to conviction--is the spring of all
moral effort; whereas an attitude of permanent doubt as to the
distinction between good and evil would paralyse it. Such a doubt must
be solved before man can act at all, or choose one end rather than
another. All action implies belief, and the ardour and vigour of moral
action can only come from a belief which is whole-hearted.

The further assertion, which the poet makes in _La Saisiaz_, and repeats
elsewhere, that sure knowledge of the consequences that follow good and
evil actions would necessarily lead to the choice of good and the
avoidance of evil, and destroy morality by destroying liberty of choice,
raises the whole question of the relation of knowledge and conduct, and
cannot be adequately discussed here. It may be said, however, that it
rests upon a confusion between two forms of necessity: namely, natural
and spiritual necessity. In asserting that knowledge of the consequences
of evil would determine human action in a necessary way, the poet
virtually treats man as if he were a natural being. But the assumption
that man is responsible and liable to punishment, involves that he is
capable of withstanding all such determination. And knowledge does not
and cannot lead to such necessary determination. Reason brings freedom;
for reason constitutes the ends of action.

It is the constant desire of the good to attain to such a convincing
knowledge of the worth and dignity of the moral law that they shall be
able to make themselves its devoted instruments. Their desire is that
"the good" shall supplant in them all motives that conflict against it,
and be the inner principle, or necessity, of all their actions. Such
complete devotion to the good is expressed, for instance, in the words
of the Hebrew Psalmist: "Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for
ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined mine heart
to perform Thy statutes alway, even unto the end. I hate vain thoughts,
but Thy law do I love." "Nevertheless I live," said the Christian
apostle, "yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now
live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God." In these words
there is expressed that highest form of the moral life, in which the
individual is so identified in desire with his ideal, that he lives only
to actualize it in his character. The natural self is represented as
dead, and the victory of the new principle is viewed as complete. This
full obedience to the ideal is the service of a necessity; but the
necessity is within, and the service is, therefore, perfect freedom. The
authority of the law is absolute, but the law is self-imposed. The whole
man is convinced of its goodness. He has acquired something even fuller
than a mere intellectual demonstration of it; for his knowledge has
ripened into wisdom, possessed his sympathies, and become a disposition
of his heart. And the fulness and certainty of his knowledge, so far
from rendering morality impossible, is its very perfection. To bring
about such a knowledge of the good of goodness and the evil of evil, as
will engender love of the former and hatred of the latter, is the aim of
all moral education. Thus, the history of human life, in so far as it is
progressive, may be concentrated in the saying that it is the ascent
from the power of a necessity which is natural, to the power of a
necessity which is moral. And this latter necessity can come only
through fuller and more convincing knowledge of the law that rules the
world, and is also the inner principle of man's nature.

There remains now the third element in Browning's view,--namely, that
the faith in the good, implied in morality and religion, can be firmly
established, after knowledge has turned out deceptive, upon the
individual's consciousness of the power of love within himself. In other
words, I must now try to estimate the value of Browning's appeal from
the intellect to the heart.

Before doing so, however, it may be well to repeat once more that
Browning's condemnation of knowledge, in his philosophical poems, is not
partial or hesitating. On the contrary, he confines it definitely to the
individual's consciousness of his own inner states.

            "Myself I solely recognize.
  They, too, may recognize themselves, not me,
  For aught I know or care."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean-Stripe_. See also _La Saisiaz_.]

Nor does Browning endeavour to correct this limited testimony of the
intellect as to its own states, by bringing in the miraculous aid of
revelation, or by postulating an unerring moral faculty. He does not
assume an intuitive power of knowing right from wrong; but he maintains
that ignorance enwraps man's moral sense.[B]

[Footnote B: See Chapter VIII.]

And, not only are we unable to know the rule of right and wrong in
details, but we cannot know whether there _is_ right or wrong. At times
the poet seems inclined to say that evil is a phenomenon conjured up by
the frail intelligence of man.

    "Man's fancy makes the fault!
  Man, with the narrow mind, must cram inside
  His finite God's infinitude,--earth's vault
  He bids comprise the heavenly far and wide,
  Since Man may claim a right to understand
  What passes understanding."[A]

[Footnote A: _Bernard de Mandeville_.]

God's ways are past finding out. Nay, God Himself is unknown. At times,
indeed, the power to love within man seems to the poet to be a clue to
the nature of the Power without, and God is all but revealed in this
surpassing emotion of the human heart. But, when philosophizing, he
withdraws even this amount of knowledge. He is

  "Assured that, whatsoe'er the quality
  Of love's cause, save that love was caused thereby,
  This--nigh upon revealment as it seemed
  A minute since--defies thy longing looks,
  Withdrawn into the unknowable once more."[B]

[Footnote B: _A Pillar at Sebzevar_.]

Thus--to sum up Browning's view of knowledge--we are ignorant of the
world; we do not know even whether it is good, or evil, or only their
semblance, that is presented to us in human life; and we know nothing of
God, except that He is the cause of love in man. What greater depth of
agnosticism is possible?

When the doctrine is put in this bald form, the moral and religious
consciousness of man, on behalf of which the theory was invented,
revolts against it.

Nevertheless, the distinction made by Browning between the intellectual
and emotional elements of human life is very common in religious
thought. It is not often, indeed, that either the worth of love, or the
weakness of knowledge receives such emphatic expression as that which is
given to them by the poet; but the same general idea of their relation
is often expressed, and still more often implied. Browning differs from
our ordinary teachers mainly in the boldness of his affirmatives and
negatives. They, too, regard the intellect as merely human, and the
emotion of love as divine. They, too, shrink from identifying the reason
of man with the reason of God; even though they may recognize that
morality and religion must postulate some kind of unity between God and
man. They, too, conceive that human knowledge differs _in nature_ from
that of God, while they maintain that human goodness is the same in
nature with that of God, though different in degree and fulness. There
are two _kinds_ of knowledge, but there is only one kind of justice, or
mercy, or loving-kindness. Man must be content with a semblance of a
knowledge of truth; but a semblance of goodness, would be intolerable.
God really reveals Himself to man in morality and religion, and He
communicates to man nothing less than "the divine love." But there is no
such close connection on the side of reason. The religious life of man
is a divine principle, the indwelling of God in him; but there is a
final and fatal defect in man's knowledge. The divine love's
manifestation of itself is ever incomplete, it is true, even in the best
of men; but there is no defect in its nature.

As a consequence of this doctrine, few religious opinions are more
common at the present day, than that it is necessary to appeal, on all
the high concerns of man's moral and religious life, from the intellect
to the heart. Where we cannot know, we may still feel; and the religious
man may have, in his own feeling of the divine, a more intimate
conviction of the reality of that in which he trusts, than could be
produced by any intellectual process.

              "Enough to say, 'I feel
  Love's sure effect, and, being loved, must love
  The love its cause behind,--I can and do.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _A Piller at Sebzevar_.]

Reason, in trying to scale the heights of truth, falls-back, impotent
and broken, into doubt and despair; not by that way can we come to that
which is best and highest.

  "I found Him not in world or sun,
    Or eagle's wing, or insect's eye;
    Nor thro' the questions men may try,
  The petty cobwebs we have spun."[B]

[Footnote B: _In Memoriam_.]

But there is another way to find God and to conquer doubt.

  "If e'er when faith had fall'n asleep,
    I heard a voice 'believe no more,'
    And heard an ever-breaking-shore
  That tumbled in the Godless deep;

  "A warmth within the breast would melt
    The freezing reason's colder part,
    And like a man in wrath the heart
  Stood up and answer'd 'I have felt.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _In Memoriam_.]

What, then, I have now to ask, is the meaning and value of this appeal
to emotion? Can love, or emotion in any of its forms, reveal truths to
man which his intellect cannot discover? If so, how? If not, how shall
we account for the general conviction of good men that it can? We have,
in a word, either to justify the appeal to the heart, by explaining how
the heart may utter truths that are hidden from reason; or else to
account for the illusion, by which religious emotion seems to reveal
such truths.

The first requirement is shown to be unreasonable by the very terms in
which it is made. The intuitive insight of faith, the immediate
conviction of the heart, cannot render, and must not try to render, any
account of itself. Proof is a process; but there is no process in this
direct conviction of truth. Its assertion is just the denial of process;
it is a repudiation of all connections; in such a faith of feeling there
are no cob-web lines relating fact to fact, which doubt could break.
Feeling is the immediate unity of the subject and object. I am pained,
because I cannot rid myself of an element which is already within me; I
am lifted into the emotion of pleasure, or happiness, or bliss, by the
consciousness that I am already at one with an object that fulfils my
longings and satisfies my needs. Hence, there seems to be ground for
saying that, in this instance, the witness cannot lie; for it cannot go
before the fact, as it is itself the effect of the fact. If the emotion
is pleasurable it is the consciousness of the unity within; if it is
painful, of the disunity. In feeling, I am absolutely with myself; and
there seems, therefore, to be no need of attempting to justify, by means
of reason, a faith in God which manifests itself in emotion. The emotion
itself is its own sufficient witness, a direct result of the intimate
union of man with the object of devotion. Nay, we may go further, and
say that the demand is an unjust one, which betrays ignorance of the
true nature of moral intuition and religious feeling.

I am not concerned to deny the truth that lies in the view here stated;
and no advocate of the dignity of human reason, or of the worth of human
knowledge, is called upon to deny it. There is a sense in which the
conviction of "faith" or "feeling" is more intimate and strong than any
process of proof. But this does not in any wise justify the contention
of those who maintain that we can feel what we do not in any sense know,
or that the heart can testify to that of which the intellect is
absolutely silent.

  "So let us say--not 'Since we know, we love,'
  But rather, 'Since we love, we know enough.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _A Pillar at Sebzevar_.]

In these two lines there are combined the truth I would acknowledge, and
the error I would confute. Love is, in one way, sufficient knowledge;
or, rather, it is the direct testimony of that completest knowledge, in
which subject and object interpenetrate. For, where love is, all foreign
elements have been eliminated. There is not "one and one with a shadowy
third"; but the object is brought within the self as constituting part
of its very life. This is involved in all the great forms of human
thought--in science and art, no less than in morality and religion. It
is the truth that we love, and only that, which is altogether ours. By
means of love the poet is

  "Made one with Nature. There is heard
  His voice in all her music, from the moan
  Of thunder to the song of night's sweet bird ";

and it is because he is made one with her that he is able to reveal her
inmost secrets. "Man," said Fichte, "can will nothing but what he loves;
his love is the sole and at the same time the infallible spring of his
volition, and of all his life's striving and movement." It is only when
we have identified ourselves with an ideal, and made its realization our
own interest, that we strive to attain it. Love is revelation in
knowledge, inspiration in art, motive in morality, and the fulness of
religious joy.

But, although in this sense love is greater than knowledge, it is a
grave error to separate it from knowledge. In the life of man at least,
the separation of the emotional and intellectual elements extinguishes
both. We cannot know that in which we have no interest. The very effort
to comprehend an object rests on interest, or the feeling of ourselves
in it; so that knowledge, as well as morality, may be said to begin in
love. We cannot know except we love; but, on the other hand, we cannot
love that which we do not in some degree know. Wherever the frontiers of
knowledge may be it is certain that there is nothing beyond them which
can either arouse feeling, or be a steadying centre for it. Emotion is
like a climbing plant. It clings to the tree of knowledge, adding beauty
to its strength. But, without knowledge, it is impossible for man. There
is no feeling which is not also incipient knowledge; for feeling is only
the subjective side of knowledge--that face of the known fact which is
turned inwards.

If, therefore, the poet's agnosticism were taken literally, and, in his
philosophical poems he obviously means it to be taken literally, it
would lead to a denial of the very principles of religion and morality,
which it was meant to support. His appeal to love would then, strictly
speaking, be an appeal to the love of nothing known, or knowable; and
such love is impossible. For love, if it is to be distinguished from the
organic, impulse of beast towards beast, must have an object. A mere
instinctive activity of benevolence in man, by means of which he
lightened the sorrows of his brethren, if not informed with knowledge,
would have no more moral worth than the grateful warmth of the sun. Such
love as this there may be in the animal creation. If the bird is not
rational, we may say that it builds its nest and lines it for its brood,
pines for its partner and loves it, at the bidding of the returning
spring, in much the same way as the meadows burst into flower. Without
knowledge, the whole process is merely a natural one; or, if it be more,
it is so only in so far as the life of emotion can be regarded as a
foretaste of the life of thought. But such a natural process is not
possible to man. Every activity in him is relative to his
self-consciousness, and takes a new character from that relation. His
love at the best and worst is the love of something that he knows, and
in which he seeks to find himself made rich with new sufficiency. Thus
love can not "ally" itself with ignorance. It is, indeed, an impulse
pressing for the closer communion of the lover with the object of his
love.

      "Like two meteors of expanding flame,
  Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
  Touch, mingle, are transfigured; ever still
  Burning, yet ever inconsumable;
  In one another's substance finding food."[A]

[Footnote A: Shelley's _Epipsychidion_.]

But, for a being such as Browning describes, who is shut up within the
blind walls of his own self, the self-transcending impulse of love would
be impossible. If man's inner consciousness is to be conceived as a dark
room shutting out the world, upon whose shadowy phenomena the candle of
introspection throws a dim and uncertain light, then he can have no
interest outside of himself; nor can he ever take that first step in
goodness, which carries him beyond his narrow individuality to seek and
find a larger self in others. Morality, even in its lowest form, implies
knowledge, and knowledge of something better than "those _apparent_
other mortals." With the first dawn of the moral life comes the
consciousness of an ideal, which is not actual; and such a break with
the natural is not possible except to him who has known a better and
desired it. The ethical endeavour of man is the attempt to convert ideas
into actuality; and all his activity as moral agent takes place within
the sphere that is illumined by the light of knowledge. If knowledge
breaks down, there is no law of action which he can obey. The moral law
that must be apprehended, and whose authority must be recognized by man,
either sinks out of being or becomes an illusive phantom, if man is
doomed to ignorance or false knowledge. To extinguish truth is to
extinguish goodness.

In like manner, religion, which the poet would fain defend for man by
means of agnosticism, becomes impossible, if knowledge be denied.
Religion is not blind emotion; nor can mere feeling, however ecstatic,
ascend to God. Animals feel, but they are not, and cannot be,
religious--unless they can know. The love of God implies knowledge. "I
know Him whom I have believed" is the language of religion. For what is
religion but a conscious identification of the self with One who is
known to fulfil its needs and satisfy its aspirations? Agnosticism is
thus directly destructive of it. We cannot, indeed, prove God as the
conclusion of a syllogism, for He is the primary hypothesis of all
proof. But, nevertheless, we cannot reach Him without knowledge. Emotion
reveals no object, but is consequent upon the revelation of it; feeling
yields no truth, but is the witness of the worth of a truth for the
individual. If man were shut up to mere feeling, even the awe of the
devout agnostic would be impossible. For the Unknowable cannot generate
any emotion. It appears to do so, only because the Unknowable of the
agnostic is not altogether unknown to him; but is a vast, abysmal
"Something," that has occupied with its shadowy presence the field of
his imagination. It is paganism stricken with the plague, and philosophy
afflicted with blindness, that build altars to an unknown God. The
highest and the strongest faith, the deepest trust and the most loving,
come with the fullest knowledge. Indeed, the distinction between the awe
of the agnostic, which is the lowest form of religion, and that highest
form in which perfect love casteth out fear, springs from the fuller
knowledge of the nature of the object of warship, which the latter
implies. Thus, religion and morality grow with the growth of knowledge;
and neither has a worse enemy than ignorance. The human spirit cannot
grow in a one-sided manner. Devotion to great moral ends is possible,
only through the deepening and widening of man's knowledge of the nature
of the world. Those who know God best, render unto Him the purest
service.

So evident is this, that it seems at first sight to be difficult to
account for that antagonism to the intellect and distrust of its
deliverances, which are so emphatically expressed in the writings of
Browning, and which are marked characteristics of the ordinary religious
opinion of our day. On closer examination, however, we shall discover
that it is not pure emotion, or mere feeling, whose authority is set
above that of reason, but rather the emotion which is the result of
knowledge. The appeal of the religious man from the doubts and
difficulties, which reason levels against "the faith," is really an
appeal to the character that lies behind the emotion. The conviction of
the heart, that refuses to yield to the arguments of the understanding,
is not _mere_ feeling; but, rather, the complex experience of the past
life, that manifests itself in feeling. When an individual, clinging to
his moral or religious faith, says, "I have felt it," he opposes to the
doubt, not his feeling as such, but his personality in all the wealth of
its experience. The appeal to the heart is the appeal to the unproved,
but not, therefore, unauthorized, testimony of the best men at their
best moments, when their vision of truth is clearest. No one pretends
that "the loud and empty voice of untrained passion and prejudice" has
any authority in matters of moral and religious faith; though, in such
cases, "feeling" may lack neither depth nor intensity. If the "feelings"
of the good man were dissociated from his character, and stripped bare
of all the significance they obtain therefrom, their worthlessness would
become apparent. The profound error of condemning knowledge in order to
honour feeling, is hidden only by the fact that the feeling is already
informed and inspired with knowledge. Religious agnosticism, like all
other forms of the theory of nescience, derives its plausibility from
the adventitious help it purloins from the knowledge which it condemns.

That it is to such feeling that Browning really appeals against
knowledge becomes abundantly evident, when we bear in mind that he
always calls it "love." For love in man is never ignorant. It knows its
object, and is a conscious identification of the self with it. And to
Browning, the object of love, when love is at its best--of that love by
means of which he refutes intellectual pessimism--is mankind. The revolt
of the heart against all evil is a desire for the good of all men. In
other words, his refuge against the assailing doubts which spring from
the intellect, is in the moral consciousness. But that consciousness is
no mere emotion; it is a consciousness which knows the highest good, and
moves in sympathy with it. It is our maturest wisdom; for it is the
manifestation of the presence and activity of the ideal, the fullest
knowledge and the surest. Compared with this, the emotion linked to
ignorance, of which the poet speaks in his philosophic theory, is a very
poor thing. It is poorer than the lowest human love.

Now, if this higher interpretation of the term "heart" be accepted, it
is easily seen why its authority should seem higher than that of reason;
and particularly, if it be remembered that, while the heart is thus
widened to take in all direct consciousness of the ideal, "the reason"
is reduced to the power of reflection, or mental analysis. "The heart,"
in this sense, is the intensest unity of the complex experiences of a
whole life, while "the reason" is taken merely as a faculty which
invents arguments, and provides grounds and evidences; it is what is
called, in the language of German philosophy, the "understanding." Now,
in this sense, the understanding has, at best, only a borrowed
authority. It is the faculty of rules rather than of principles. It is
ever dogmatic, assertive, repellent, hard; and it always advances its
forces in single line. Its logic never convinced any one of truth or
error, unless, beneath the arguments which it advanced, there lay some
deeper principle of concord. Thus, the opposition between "faith and
reason," rightly interpreted, is that between a concrete experience,
instinct with life and conviction, and a mechanical arrangement of
abstract arguments. The quarrel of the heart is not with reason, but
with reasons. "Evidences of Christianity?" said Coleridge; "I am weary
of the word." It is this weariness of evidence, of the endless arguments
_pro_ and _con_, which has caused so many to distrust reason and
knowledge, and which has sometimes driven believers to the dangerous
expedient of making their faith dogmatic and absolute. Nor have the
opponents of "the faith" been slow to seize the opportunity thus offered
them. "From the moment that a religion solicits the aid of philosophy,
its ruin is inevitable," said Heine. "In the attempt at defence, it
prates itself into destruction. Religion, like every absolutism, must
not seek to justify itself. Prometheus is bound to the rock by a silent
force. Yea, Aeschylus permits not personified power to utter a single
word. It must remain mute. The moment that a religion ventures to print
a catechism supported by arguments, the moment that a political
absolutism publishes an official newspaper, both are near their end. But
therein consists our triumph: we have brought our adversaries to speech,
and they must reckon with us."[A] But, we may answer, religion is _not_
an absolutism; and, therefore, it is _not_ near its end when it ventures
to justify itself. On the contrary, no spiritual power, be it moral or
religious, can maintain its authority, if it assumes a despotic
attitude; for the human spirit inevitably moves towards freedom, and
that movement is the deepest necessity of its nature, which it cannot
escape. "Religion, on the ground of its sanctity, and law, on the ground
of its majesty, often resist the sifting of their claims. But in so
doing, they inevitably awake a not unjust suspicion that their claims
are ill-founded. They can command the unfeigned homage of man, only when
they have shown themselves able to stand the test of free inquiry."

[Footnote A: _Religion and Philosophy in Germany_.]

And if it is an error to suppose, with Browning, that the primary truths
of the moral and religious consciousness belong to a region which is
higher than knowledge, and can, from that side, be neither assailed nor
defended; it is also an error to suppose that reason is essentially
antagonistic to them. The facts of morality and religion are precisely
the richest facts of knowledge; and that faith is the most secure which
is most completely illumined by reason. Religion at its best is not a
dogmatic despotism, nor is reason a merely critical and destructive
faculty. If reason is loyal to the truth of religion on which it is
exercised, it will reach beneath all the conflict and clamour of
disputation, to the principle of unity, on which, as we have seen, both
reason and religion rest.

The "faith" to which religious spirits appeal against all the attacks of
doubt, "the love" of Browning, is really implicit reason; it is
"abbreviated" or concentrated knowledge; it is the manifold experiences
of life focussed into an intense unity. And, on the other hand, the
"reason" which they condemn is what Carlyle calls the logic-chopping
faculty. In taking the side of faith when troubled with difficulties
which they cannot lay, they are really defending the cause of reason
against that of the understanding. For it is quite true that the
understanding, that is, the reason as reflective or critical, can never
bring about either a moral or religious life. It cannot create a
religion, any more than physiology can produce men. The reflection which
brings doubt is always secondary; it can only exercise itself on a given
material. As Hegel frequently pointed out, it is not the function of
moral philosophy to create or to institute a morality or religion, but
to understand them. The facts must first be given; they must be actual
experiences of the human spirit. Moral philosophy and theology differ
from the moral or religious life, in the same way as geology differs
from the earth, or astronomy from the heavenly bodies. The latter are
facts; the former are theories about the facts. Religion is an attitude
of the human spirit towards the highest; morality is the realization of
character; and these are not to be confused with their reflective
interpretations. Much of the difficulty in these matters comes from the
lack of a clear distinction between _beliefs_ and _creeds_.

Further, not only are the utterances of the heart prior to the
deliverances of the intellect in this sense, but it may also be admitted
that the latter can never do full justice to the contents of the former.
So rich is character in content and so complex is spiritual life, that
we can never, by means of reflection, lift into clear consciousness all
the elements that enter into it. Into the organism of our experience,
which is our faith, there is continually absorbed the subtle influences
of our complex natural and social environment. We grow by means of them,
as the plant grows by feeding on the soil and the sunshine and dew. It
is as impossible for us to set forth, one by one, the truths and errors
which we have thus worked into our mental and moral life, as it is to
keep a reckoning of the physical atoms with which the natural life
builds up the body. Hence, every attempt to justify these truths seems
inadequate; and the defence which the understanding sets up for the
faith, always seems partial and cold. Who ever fully expressed his
deepest convictions? The consciousness of the dignity of the moral law
affected Kant like the view of the starry firmament, and generated a
feeling of the sublime which words could not express; and the religious
ecstasy of the saints cannot be confined within the channels of speech,
but floods the soul with overmastering power, possessing all its
faculties. In this respect, it will always remain true that the greatest
facts of human experience reach beyond all knowledge. Nay, we may add
further, that in this respect the simplest of these facts passes all
understanding. Still, as we have already seen, it is reason that
constitutes them; that which is presented to reason for explanation, in
knowledge and morality and religion, is itself the product of reason.
Reason is the power which, by interaction with our environment, has
generated the whole of our experience. And, just as natural science
interprets the phenomena given to it by ordinary opinion, _i.e._,
interprets and purifies a lower form of knowledge by converting it into
a higher; so the task of reason when it is exercised upon morality and
religion, is simply to evolve, and amplify the meaning of its own
products. The movement from morality and religion to moral philosophy
and the philosophy of religion, is thus a movement from reason to
reason, from the implicit to the explicit, from the germ to the
developed fulness of life and structure. In this matter, as in all
others wherein the human spirit is concerned, that which is first by
nature is last in genesis--[Greek: nika d' ho prôtos kai teleutaios
dramôn.] The whole history of the moral and religious experience of
mankind is comprised in the statement, that the implicit reason which we
call "faith" is ever developing towards full consciousness of itself;
and that, at its first beginning, and throughout the whole ascending
process of this development, the highest is present in it as a
self-manifesting power.

But this process from the almost instinctive intuitions of the heart
towards the morality and religion of freedom, being a process of
evolution, necessarily involves conflict. There are men, it is true, the
unity of whose moral and religious faith is never completely broken by
doubt; just as there are men who are not forced by the contradictions in
the first interpretation of the world by ordinary experience to attempt
to re-interpret it by means of science and philosophy.

Throughout their lives they may say like Pompilia--

        "I know the right place by foot's feel,
  I took it and tread firm there; wherefore change?"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1886-1887.]

Jean Paul Richter said that he knew another way of being happy, beside
that of soaring away so far above the clouds of life, that its miseries
looked small, and the whole external world shrunk into a little child's
garden. It was, "Simply to sink down into this little garden; and there
to nestle yourself so snugly, so homewise, in some furrow, that in
looking out from your warm lark-nest, you likewise can discern no
wolf-dens, charnel-houses, or thunder-rods, but only blades and ears,
every one of which, for the nest-bird, is a tree, and a sun-screen, and
rain-screen." There is a similar way of being good, with a goodness
which, though limited, is pure and perfect in nature. Nay, we may even
admit that such lives are frequently the most complete and beautiful,
just as the fairest flowers grow, not on the tallest trees, but on the
fragile plants at their foot. Nevertheless, even in the case of those
persons who have never broken from the traditional faith of the past, or
felt it to be inadequate, that faith has been silently reconstructed in
a new synthesis of knowledge. Spiritual life cannot come by inheritance;
but every individual must acquire a faith for himself, and turn his
spiritual environment into personal experience. "A man may be a heretic
in the truth," said Milton, "and if he believe things only because his
pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other
reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes
his heresy." It is truth to another but tradition to him; it is a creed
and not a conviction. Browning fully recognizes the need of this
conflict--

  "Is it not this ignoble confidence,
  Cowardly hardihood, that dulls and damps,
  Makes the old heroism impossible?"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1848-1850.]

asks the Pope. The stream of truth when it ceases to flow onward,
becomes a malarious swamp. Movement is the law of life; and knowledge of
the principles of morality and religion, as of all other principles,
must, in order to grow, be felt from time to time as inadequate and
untrue. There are men and ages whose mission is--

                  "to shake
  This torpor of assurance from our creed,
  Re-introduce the doubt discarded, bring
  That formidable danger back, we drove
  Long ago to the distance and the dark."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid._, 1853-1856.]

Such a spirit of criticism seems to many to exercise a merely
destructive power, and those who have not felt the inadequacy of the
inherited faith defend themselves against it, as the enemy of their
lives. But no logic, or assailing doubt, could have power against the
testimony of "the heart," unless it was rooted in deeper and truer
principles than those which it attacked. Nothing can overpower truth
except a larger truth; and, in such a conflict, the truth in the old
view will ultimately take the side of the new, and find its subordinate
position within it. It has happened, not infrequently, as in the case of
the Encyclopædists, that the explicit truths of reason were more
abstract, that is, less true, than the implicit "faith" which they
assailed. The central truths of religion have often proved themselves to
possess some stubborn, though semi-articulate power, which could
ultimately overcome or subordinate the more partial and explicit truths
of abstract science. It is this that gives plausibility to the idea,
that the testimony of the heart is more reliable than that of the
intellect. But, in this case also, it was really reason that triumphed.
It was the truth which proved itself to be immortal, and not any mere
emotion. The insurrection of the intellect against the heart is quelled,
only when the untruth, or abstract character, of the principle of the
assailants has been made manifest, and when the old faith has yielded up
its unjust gains, and proved its vitality and strength by absorbing the
truth that gave vigour to the attack. Just as in morality it is the
ideal, or the unity of the whole moral life, that breaks up into
differences, so also here it is the implicit faith which, as it grows,
breaks forth into doubts. In both cases alike, the negative movement
which induces despair, is only a phase of a positive process--the
process of reason towards a fuller, a more articulate and complex,
realization of itself.

Hence it follows that the value and strength of a faith corresponds
accurately to the doubts it has overcome. Those who never went forth to
battle cannot come home heroes. It is only when the earthquake has tried
the towers, and destroyed the sense of security, that

  "Man stands out again, pale, resolute,
  Prepared to die,--that is, alive at last.
  As we broke up that old faith of the world,
  Have we, next age, to break up this the new--
  Faith, in the thing, grown faith in the report--
  Whence need to bravely disbelieve report
  Through increased faith i' the thing reports belie?"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1862-1868.]

"Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrive
by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion."

It was, thus, I conclude, a deep speculative error into which Browning
fell, when, in order to substantiate his optimistic faith, he
stigmatized human knowledge as merely apparent. Knowledge does not fail,
except in the sense in which morality also fails; it does not at any
time attain to the ultimate truth, any more than the moral life is in
any of its activities[B] a complete embodiment of the absolute good. It
is not given to man, who is essentially progressive, to reach the
ultimate term of development. For there is no ultimate term: life never
stands still. But, for the same reason, there is no ultimate failure.
The whole history of man is a history of growth. If, however, knowledge
did fail, then morality too must fail; and the appeal which the poet
makes from the intellect to the heart, would be an appeal to mere
emotion. Finally, even if we take a generous view of the poet's meaning,
and put out of consideration the theory he expresses when he is
deliberately philosophizing, there is still no appeal from the reason to
an alien and higher authority. The appeal to "the heart" is, at best,
only an appeal from the understanding to the reason, from a conscious
logic to the more concrete fact constituted by reason, which reflection
has failed to comprehend in its completeness; at its worst, it is an
appeal from truth to prejudice, from belief to dogma.

[Footnote B: See Chapter IX., p. 291.]

And in both cases alike, the appeal is futile; for, whether "the heart
be wiser than the head," or not, whether the faith which is assailed be
richer or poorer, truer or more false, than the logic which is directed
against it, an appeal to the heart cannot any longer restore the unity
of the broken life. Once reflection has set in, there is no way of
turning away its destructive might, except by deeper reflection. The
implicit faith of the heart must become the explicit faith of reason.
"There is no final and satisfactory issue from such an endless internal
debate and conflict, until the 'heart' has learnt to speak the language
of the head--_i.e._, until the permanent principles, which underlay and
gave strength to faith, have been brought into the light of distinct
consciousness."[A]

[Footnote A: Caird's _Comte_.]

I conclude, therefore, that the poet was right in saying that, in order
to comprehend human character,

  "I needs must blend the quality of man
  With quality of God, and so assist
  Mere human sight to understand my Life."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Bean-Stripe_--_Ferishtah's Fancies_.]

But it was a profound error, which contained in it the destruction of
morality and religion, as well as of knowledge, to make "the quality of
God" a love that excludes reason, and the quality of man an intellect
incapable of knowing truth. Such in-congruous elements could never be
combined into the unity of a character. A love that was mere emotion
could not yield a motive for morality, or a principle of religion. A
philosophy of life which is based on agnosticism is an explicit
self-contradiction, which can help no one. We must appeal from Browning
the philosopher to Browning the poet.



CHAPTER XI.

CONCLUSION.


  "Well, I can fancy how he did it all,
  Pouring his soul, with kings and popes to see,
  Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
  Above and through his art--for it gives way;
  That arm is wrongly put--and there again--
  A fault to pardon in the drawing's lines,
  Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
  He means right--that, a child may understand."[A]

[Footnote A: _Andrea del Sarto_.]

I have tried to show that Browning's theory of life, in so far as it is
expressed in his philosophical poems, rests on agnosticism; and that
such a theory is inconsistent with the moral and religious interests of
man. The idea that truth is unattainable was represented by Browning as
a bulwark of the faith, but it proved on examination to be treacherous.
His optimism was found to have no better foundation than personal
conviction, which any one was free to deny, and which the poet could in
no wise prove. The evidence of the heart, to which he appealed, was the
evidence of an emotion severed from intelligence, and, therefore,
without any content whatsoever. "The faith," which he professed, was not
the faith that anticipates and invites proof, but a faith which is
incapable of proof. In casting doubt upon the validity of knowledge, he
degraded the whole spiritual nature of man; for a love that is ignorant
of its object is a blind impulse, and a moral consciousness that does
not know the law is an impossible phantom--a self-contradiction.

But, although Browning's explicitly philosophical theory of life fails,
there appears in his earlier poems, where his poetical freedom was not
yet trammelled, nor his moral enthusiasm restrained by the stubborn
difficulties of reflective thought, a far truer and richer view. In this
period of pure poetry, his conception of man was less abstract than in
his later works, and his inspiration was more direct and full. The
poet's dialectical ingenuity increased with the growth of his reflective
tendencies; but his relation to the great principles of spiritual life
seemed to become less intimate, and his expression of them more halting.
What we find in his earlier works are vigorous ethical convictions, a
glowing optimistic faith, achieving their fitting expression in
impassioned poetry; what we find in his later works are arguments,
which, however richly adorned with poetic metaphors, have lost the
completeness and energy of life. His poetic fancies are like chaplets
which crown the dead. Lovers of the poet, who seek in his poems for
inspiring expressions of their hope and faith, will always do well in
turning from his militant metaphysics to his art.

In his case, as in that of many others, spiritual experience was far
richer than the theory which professed to explain it. The task of
lifting his moral convictions into the clear light of conscious
philosophy was beyond his power. The theory of the failure of knowledge,
which he seems to have adopted far too easily from the current doctrine
of the schools, was fundamentally inconsistent with his generous belief
in the moral progress of man; and it maimed the expression of that
belief. The result of his work as a philosopher is a confession of
complete ignorance and the helpless asseveration of a purely dogmatic
faith.

The fundamental error of the poet's philosophy lies, I believe, in that
severance of feeling and intelligence, love and reason, which finds
expression in _La Saisiaz_, _Ferishtah's Fancies_, _The Parleyings_, and
_Asolando_. Such an absolute division is not to be found in
_Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day_, _Rabbi Ben Ezra_, _A Death in the
Desert_, or in _The Ring and the Book_; nor even in _Fifine at the
Fair_. In these works we are not perplexed by the strange combination of
a nature whose principle is love, and which is capable of infinite
progress, with an intelligence whose best efforts end in ignorance.
Rather, the spirit of man is regarded as one, in all its manifestations;
and, therefore, as progressive on all sides of its activity. The
widening of his knowledge, which is brought about by increasing
experience, is parallel with the deepening and purifying of his moral
life. In all Browning's works, indeed, with the possible exception of
_Paracelsus_, love is conceived as having a place and function of
supreme importance in the development of the soul. Its divine origin and
destiny are never obscured; but knowledge is regarded as merely human,
and, therefore, as falling short of the truth. In _Easter-Day_ it is
definitely contrasted with love, and shown to be incapable of satisfying
the deepest wants of man. It is, at the best, only a means to the higher
purposes of moral activity, and, except in the _Grammarian's Funeral_,
it is nowhere regarded as in itself a worthy end.

  "'Tis one thing to know, and another to practise.
  And thence I conclude that the real God-function
  Is to furnish a motive and injunction
  For practising what we know already."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day_.]

Even here, there is implied that the motive comes otherwise than by
knowledge; still, taking these earlier poems as a whole, we may say that
in them knowledge is regarded as means to morality and not as in any
sense contrasted with or destructive of it. Man's motives are rational
motives; the ends he seeks are ends conceived and even constituted by
his intelligence, and not purposes blindly followed as by instinct and
impulse.

                        "Why live,
  Except for love--how love, unless they know?"[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1327-1328.]

asks the Pope. Moral progress is not secured apart from, or in spite of
knowledge. We are not exhorted to reject the verdict of the latter as
illusive, in order to confide in a faith which not only fails to receive
support from the defective intelligence, but maintains its own integrity
only by repudiating the testimony of the reason. In the distinction
between knowledge as means and love as end, it is easy, indeed, to
detect a tendency to degrade the former into a mere temporary expedient,
whereby moral ends may be served. The poet speaks of "such knowledge as
is possible to man." The attitude he assumes towards it is apologetic,
and betrays a keen consciousness of its limitation, and particularly of
its utter inadequacy to represent the infinite. In the speech of the
Pope---which can scarcely be regarded otherwise than as the poet's own
maturest utterance on the great moral and religious questions raised by
the tragedy of Pompilia's death--we find this view vividly expressed:--

  "O Thou--as represented here to me
  In such conception as my soul allows,--
  Under Thy measureless, my atom width!--
  Man's mind, what is it but a convex glass
  Wherein are gathered all the scattered points
  Picked out of the immensity of sky,
  To reunite there, be our heaven for earth,
  Our known unknown, our God revealed to man?"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1308-1315.]

God is "appreciable in His absolute immensity solely by Himself," while,
"by the little mind of man, He is reduced to littleness that suits man's
faculty." In these words, and others that might be quoted, the poet
shows that he is profoundly impressed with the distinction between human
knowledge, and that knowledge which is adequate to the whole nature and
extent of being. And in _Christmas-Eve_ he repudiates with a touch of
scorn, the absolute idealism, which is supposed to identify altogether
human reason with divine reason; and he commends the German critic for
not making

           "The important stumble
  Of adding, he, the sage and humble,
  Was also one with the Creator."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas-Eve_.]

Nowhere in Browning, unless we except _Paracelsus_, is there any sign of
an inclination to treat man's knowledge in the same spirit as he deals
with man's love--namely, as a direct emanation from the inmost nature of
God, a divine element that completes and crowns man's life on earth. On
the contrary, he shows a persistent tendency to treat love as a power
higher in nature than reason, and to give to it a supreme place in the
formation of character; and, as he grows older, that tendency grows in
strength. The philosophical poems, in which love is made all in all, and
knowledge is reduced to nescience follow by logical evolution from
principles, the influence of which we can detect even in his earlier
works. Still, in the latter, these principles are only latent, and are
far from holding undisputed sway. Browning was, at first, restrained
from exclusive devotion to abstract views, by the suggestions which the
artistic spirit receives through its immediate contact with the facts of
life. That contact it is very difficult for philosophy to maintain as it
pursues its effort after universal truth. Philosophy is obliged to
analyze in order to define, and, in that process, it is apt to lose
something of that completeness of representation, which belongs to art.
For art is always engaged in presenting the universal in the form of a
particular object of beauty. Its product is a "known unknown," but the
unknown is the unexhausted reality of a fact of intuition. Nor can
analysis ever exhaust it; theory can never catch up art, or explain all
that is in it. On similar grounds, it may be shown that it is impossible
for reason to lay bare all the elements that enter into its first
complex product, which we call faith. In religion, as in art, man is
aware of more than he knows; his articulate logic cannot do justice to
all the truths of the "heart." "The supplementary reflux of light" of
philosophy cannot "illustrate all the inferior grades" of knowledge. Man
will never completely understand himself.

  "I knew, I felt, (perception unexpressed,
  Uncomprehended by our narrow thought,
  But somehow felt and known in every shift
  And change in the spirit,--nay, in every pore
  Of the body, even,)--what God is, what we are,
  What life is--how God tastes an infinite joy
  In infinite ways--one everlasting bliss,
  From whom all being emanates, all power
  Proceeds."[A]

[Footnote A: _Paracelsus_.]

I believe that it is possible, by the help of the intuitions of
Browning's highest artistic period, to bring together again the elements
of his broken faith, and to find in them suggestions of a truer
philosophy of life than anything which the poet himself achieved.
Perhaps, indeed, it is not easy, nor altogether fair, to press the
passionate utterances of his religious rapture into the service of
metaphysics, and to treat the unmeasured language of emotion as the
expression of a definite doctrine. Nevertheless, rather than set forth a
new defence of the faith, which his agnosticism left exposed to the
assaults of doubt and denial, it is better to make Browning correct his
own errors, and to appeal from the metaphysician to the poet, from the
sobriety of the logical understanding to the inspiration of poetry.

I have already indicated what seems to me to be the defective element in
the poet's philosophy of life. His theory of knowledge is in need of
revision; and what he asserts of human love, should be applied point by
point to human reason. As man is ideally united with the absolute on the
side of moral emotion (if the phrase may be pardoned), so he is ideally
united with the absolute on the side of the intellect. As there is no
difference of _nature_ between God's goodness and man's goodness, so
there is no difference of nature between God's truth and man's truth.
There are not two kinds of righteousness or mercy; there are not two
kinds of truth. Human nature is not "cut in two with a hatchet," as the
poet implies that it is. There is in man a lower and a higher element,
ever at war with each other; still he is not a mixture, or agglomerate,
of the finite and the infinite. A love perfect in nature cannot be
linked to an intelligence imperfect in nature; if it were, the love
would be either a blind impulse or an erring one. Both morality and
religion demand the presence in man of a perfect ideal, which is at war
with his imperfections; but an ideal is possible, only to a being
endowed with a capacity for knowing the truth. In degrading human
knowledge, the poet is disloyal to the fundamental principle of the
Christian faith which he professed--that God can and does manifest
himself in man.

On the other hand, we are not to take the unity of man with God, of
man's moral ideal with the All-perfect, as implying, on the moral side,
an absolute identification of the finite with the infinite; nor can we
do so on the side of knowledge. Man's moral life and rational activity
in knowledge are the process of the highest. But man is neither first,
nor last; he is not the original author of his love, any more than of
his reason; he is not the divine principle of the whole to which he
belongs, although he is potentially in harmony with it. Both sides of
his being are equally touched with imperfection--his love, no less than
his reason. Perfect love would imply perfect wisdom, as perfect wisdom,
perfect love. But absolute terms are not applicable to man, who is ever
_on the way_ to goodness and truth, progressively manifesting the power
of the ideal that dwells in him, and whose very life is conflict and
acquirement.

  "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
  Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey
  Placid and perfect with my art: the worse."[A]

[Footnote A: _Andrea del Sarto_.]

Hardly any conception is more prominent in Browning's writings than
this, of endless progress towards an infinite ideal; although he
occasionally manifests a desire to have done with effort.

            "When a soul has seen
    By the means of Evil that Good is best,
  And, through earth and its noise, what is heaven's serene,--
    When our faith in the same has stood the test--
  Why, the child grown man, you burn the rod,
    The uses of labour are surely done,
  There remaineth a rest for the people of God,
    And I have had troubles enough, for one."[B]

[Footnote B: _Old Pictures in Florence_.]

It is the sense of endless onward movement, the outlook towards an
immortal course, "the life after life in unlimited series," which is so
inspiring in his early poetry. He conceives that we are here, on this
lower earth, just to learn one form, the elementary lesson and alphabet
of goodness, namely, "the uses of the flesh": in other lives, other
achievements. The separation of the soul from its instrument has very
little significance to the poet; for it does not arrest the course of
moral development.

  "No work begun shall ever pause for death."

The spirit pursues its lone way, on other "adventures brave and new,"
but ever towards a good which is complete.

  "Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
    Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
  Much is to learn, much to forget
    Ere the time be come for taking you."[A]

[Footnote A: _Evelyn Hope_.]

Still the time will come when the awakened need shall be satisfied; for
the need was created in order to be satisfied.

  "Wherefore did I contrive for thee that ear
  Hungry for music, and direct thine eye
  To where I hold a seven-stringed instrument,
  Unless I meant thee to beseech me play?"[B]

[Footnote B: _Two Camels_.]

The movement onward is thus a movement in knowledge, as well as in every
other form of good. The lover of Evelyn Hope, looking back in
imagination on the course he has travelled on earth and after,
exclaims--

  "I have lived (I shall say) so much since then,
    Given up myself so many times,
  Gained me the gains of various men,
    Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes."[C]

[Footnote C: _Evelyn Hope_.]

In these earlier poems, there is not, as in the later ones, a maimed, or
one-sided, evolution--a progress towards perfect love on the side of the
heart, and towards an illusive ideal on the side of the intellect.
Knowledge, too, has its value, and he who lived to settle "_Hoti's_
business, properly based _Oun_," and who "gave us the doctrine of the
enclitic _De_," was, to the poet,

  "Still loftier than the world suspects,
    Living and dying.

  "Here's the top-peak; the multitude below
    Live, for they can, there:
  This man decided not to Live but Know--
    Bury this man there?
  Here--here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
    Lightnings are loosened,
  Stars come and go."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Grammarian's Funeral_.]

No human effort goes to waste, no gift is delusive; but every gift and
every effort has its proper place as a stage in the endless process. The
soul bears in it _all_ its conquests.

  "There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
    The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
  What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, _so_ much good more;
    On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round."[B]

[Footnote B: _Abt Vogler_.]

The "apparent failure" of knowledge, like every apparent failure, is "a
triumph's evidence for the fulness of the days." The doubts that
knowledge brings, instead of implying a defective intelligence doomed to
spend itself on phantom phenomena, sting to progress towards the truth.
He bids us "Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe."

  "Rather I prize the doubt
  Low kinds exist without,
  Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark."[A]

[Footnote A: _Rabbi Ben Ezra_.]

Similarly, defects in art, like defects in character, contain the
promise of further achievement.

  "Are they perfect of lineament, perfect of stature?
    In both, of such lower types are we
  Precisely because of our wider nature;
    For time, their's--ours, for eternity.

  "To-day's brief passion limits their range;
    It seethes with the morrow for us and more.
  They are perfect--how else? They shall never change:
    We are faulty--why not? We have time in store."[B]

[Footnote B: _Old Pictures in Florence_.]

Prior to the period when a sceptical philosophy came down like a blight,
and destroyed the bloom of his art and faith, he thus recognized that
growing knowledge was an essential condition of growing goodness.
Pompilia shone with a glory that mere knowledge could not give (if there
were such a thing as _mere_ knowledge).

                "Everywhere
  I see in the world the intellect of man,
  That sword, the energy his subtle spear,
  The knowledge which defends him like a shield--
  Everywhere; but they make not up, I think,
  The marvel of a soul like thine, earth's flower
  She holds up to the softened gaze of God."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1013-1019.]

But yet she recognized with patient pain the loss she had sustained for
want of knowledge.

  "The saints must bear with me, impute the fault
  To a soul i' the bud, so starved by ignorance,
  Stinted of warmth, it will not blow this year
  Nor recognize the orb which Spring-flowers know."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book_--_Pompilia_, 1515-1518.]

Further on in the Pope's soliloquy, the poet shows that, at that time,
he fully recognized the risk of entrusting the spiritual interests of
man to the enthusiasm of elevated feeling, or to the mere intuitions of
a noble heart. Such intuitions will sometimes guide a man happily, as in
the case of Caponsacchi:

              "Since ourselves allow
  He has danced, in gaiety of heart, i' the main
  The right step through the maze we bade him foot."[C]

[Footnote C: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1915-1917.]

But, on the other hand, such impulses, not instructed by knowledge of
the truth, and made steadfast to the laws of the higher life by a
reasoned conviction, lead man rightly only by accident. In such a career
there is no guarantee of constancy; other impulses might lead to other
ways of life.

  "But if his heart had prompted to break loose
  And mar the measure? Why, we must submit,
  And thank the chance that brought him safe so far.
  Will he repeat the prodigy? Perhaps.
  Can he teach others how to quit themselves,
  Show why this step was right while that were wrong?
  How should he? 'Ask your hearts as I asked mine,
  And get discreetly through the morrice too;
  If your hearts misdirect you,--quit the stage,
  And make amends,--be there amends to make.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1916-1927.]

If the heart proved to Caponsacchi a guide to all that is good and
glorious, "the Abate, second in the suite," puts in the testimony of
another experience: "His heart answered to another tune."

  "I have my taste too, and tread no such step!
  You choose the glorious life, and may for me!
  I like the lowest of life's appetites,--
  So you judge--but the very truth of joy
  To my own apprehension which decides."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid._, 1932-1936.]

Mere emotion is thus an insecure guide to conduct, for its authority can
be equally cited in support of every course of life. No one can say to
his neighbour, "Thou art wrong." Every impulse is right to the
individual who has it, and so long as he has it. _De gustibus non
disputandum_. Without a universal criterion there is no praise or blame.

  "Call me knave and you get yourself called fool!
  I live for greed, ambition, lust, revenge;
  Attain these ends by force, guile: hypocrite,
  To-day, perchance to-morrow recognized
  The rational man, the type of common-sense."[C]

[Footnote C: _Ibid._, 1937-1941.]

This poem which, both in its moral wisdom and artistic worth, marks the
high tide of Browning's poetic insight, while he is not as yet concerned
with the defence of any theory or the discussion of any abstract
question, contrasts strongly with the later poems, where knowledge is
dissembling ignorance, faith is blind trust, and love is a mere impulse
of the heart. Having failed to meet the difficulties of reflection, the
poet turned upon the intellect. Knowledge becomes to him an offence, and
to save his faith he plucked out his right eye and entered into the
kingdom maimed. In _Rabbi Ben Ezra_ the ascent into another life is
triumphant, like that of a conqueror bearing with him the spoils of
earth; but in the later poems he escapes with a bare belief, and the
loss of all his rich possessions of knowledge, like a shipwrecked
mariner whose goods have been thrown overboard. His philosophy was a
treacherous ally to his faith.

But there is another consideration which shows that the poet, as artist,
recognized the need of giving to reason a larger function than seems to
be possible according to the theory in his later works. In the early
poems there is no hint of the doctrine that demonstrative knowledge of
the good, and of the necessity of its law, would destroy freedom. On the
contrary, there are suggestions which point to the opposite doctrine,
according to which knowledge is the condition of freedom.

While in his later poems the poet speaks of love as an impulse--either
blind or bound to erring knowledge--and of the heart as made to love, in
his earlier ones he seems to treat man as free to work out his own
purposes, and act out his own ideals. Browning here finds himself able
to maintain the dependence of man upon God without destroying morality.
He regards man's impulses not as blind instincts, but as falling
_within_ his rational nature, and constituting the forms of its
activity. He recognizes the distinction between a mere impulse, in the
sense of a tendency to act, which is directed by a foreign power, and an
impulse informed, that is, directed by reason. According to this view,
it is reason which at once gives man the independence of foreign
authority, which is implied in morality, and constitutes that affinity
between man and God, which is implied by religion. No doubt, the impulse
to know, like the impulse to love, was put into man: his whole nature is
a gift, and he is therefore, in this sense, completely dependent upon
God--"God's all, man's nought." But, on the other hand, it _is_ a
rational nature which has been put into him, and not an irrational
impulse. Or, rather, the impulse that constitutes his life as man, is
the self-evolving activity of reason.

  "Who speaks of man, then, must not sever
  Man's very elements from man."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas-Eve_.]

However the rational nature of man has come to be, whether by emanation
or creation, it necessarily brings freedom with it, and all its risks
and possibilities. It is of the very essence of reason that it should
find its law within itself.

         "God's all, man's nought:
  But also, God, whose pleasure brought
  Man into being, stands away
  As it were a hand-breadth off, to give
  Room for the newly-made to live,
  And look at Him from a place apart,
  And use his gifts of brain and heart,
  Given, indeed, but to keep for ever."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas-Eve_.]

Thus, while insisting on the absolute priority of God, and the original
receptivity of man; while recognizing that love, reason, and every inner
power and outer opportunity are lent to man, Browning does not forget
what these powers are. Man can only act as man; he must obey his nature,
as the stock or stone or plant obeys its nature. But to act as man is to
act freely, and man's nature is not that of a stock or stone. He is
rational, and cannot but be rational. Hence he can neither be ruled, as
dead matter is ruled, by natural law; nor live, like a bird, the life of
innocent impulse or instinct. He is placed, from the very first, on "the
table land whence life upsprings aspiring to be immortality." He is a
spirit,--responsible because he is free, and free because he is
rational.

  "Man, therefore, stands on his own stock
  Of love and power as a pin-point rock,
  And, looks to God who ordained divorce
  Of the rock from His boundless continent."[B]

[Footnote B: _Ibid._]

The divorce is real, although ordained, but it is possible only in so
far as man, by means of reason, constitutes his own ends of action.
Impulse cannot bring it about. It is reason that enables man to free
himself from the despotic authority of outer law, to relate himself to
an inner law, and by reconciling inner and outer to attain to goodness.
Thus reason is the source of all morality. And it also is the principle
of religion, for it implies the highest and fullest manifestation of the
absolute.

Although the first aspect of self-consciousness is its independence,
which is, in turn, the first condition of morality, still this is only
the first aspect. The rational being plants himself on his own
individuality, stands aloof and alone in the rights of his freedom, _in
order that_ he may set out from thence to take possession, by means of
knowledge and action, of the world in which he is placed. Reason is
potentially absolute, capable of finding itself everywhere. So that in
it man is "honour-clothed and glory-crowned."

  "This is the honour,--that no thing I know,
  Feel or conceive, but I can make my own
  Somehow, by use of hand, or head, or heart."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau._]

Man, by his knowledge, overcomes the resistance and hostility of the
world without him, or rather, discovers that there is not hostility, but
affinity between it and himself.

  "This is the glory,--that in all conceived,
  Or felt or known, I recognize a mind
  Not mine but like mine,--for the double joy,--
  Making all things for me and me for Him."[A]

[Footnote A: _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_.]

That which is finite is hemmed in by other things, as well as determined
by them; but the infinite is all-inclusive. There exists for it no other
thing to limit or determine it. There is nothing finally alien or
foreign to reason. Freedom and infinitude, self-determination and
absoluteness, imply each other. In so far as man is free, he is lifted
above the finite. It was God's plan to make man on His own image:--

        "To create man and then leave him
  Able, His own word saith, to grieve Him,
  But able to glorify Him too,
  As a mere machine could never do,
  That prayed or praised, all unaware
  Of its fitness for aught but praise or prayer,
  Made perfect as a thing of course."[B]

[Footnote B: _Christmas-Eve_.]

Man must find his law within himself, be the source of his own activity,
not passive or receptive, but outgoing and effective.

  "Rejoice we are allied
  To That which doth provide
  And not partake, effect and not receive!
  A spark disturbs our clod;
  Nearer we hold of God
  Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe."[C]

[Footnote C: _Rabbi Ben Ezra_.]

This near affinity between the divine and human is just what Browning
seems to repudiate in his later poems, when he speaks as if the
absolute, in order to maintain its own supremacy over man, had to stint
its gifts and endow him only with a defective reason. In the earlier
period of the poet there is far less timidity. He then saw that the
greater the gift, the greater the Giver; that only spirit can reveal
spirit; that "God is glorified in man," and that love is at its fullest
only when it gives itself.

In insisting on such identity of the human spirit with the divine, our
poet does not at any time run the risk of forgetting that the identity
is not absolute. Absolute identity would be pantheism, which leaves God
lonely and loveless, and extinguishes man, as well as his morality.

  "Man is not God, but hath God's end to serve,
  A Master to obey, a course to take,
  Somewhat to cast off, somewhat to become."[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

Man, at best, only moves _towards_ his ideal: God is conceived as the
ever-existing ideal. God, in short, is the term which signifies for us
the Being who is eternally all in all, and who, therefore, is hidden
from us who are only moving _towards_ perfection, in the excess of the
brightness of His own glory. Nevertheless, as Browning recognizes, the
grandeur of God's perfection is just His outflowing love. And that love
is never complete in its manifestation, till it has given itself. Man's
life, as spirit, is thus one in nature with that of the absolute. But
the unity is not complete, because man is only potentially perfect. He
is the process _of_ the ideal; his life is the divine activity within
him. Still, it is also man's activity. For the process, being the
process of spirit, is a _free_ process--one in which man himself
energizes; so that, in doing God's will, he is doing his own highest
will, and, in obeying the law of his own deepest nature, he is obeying
God. The unity of divine and human within the spiritual life of man is a
real unity, just because man is free; the identity manifests itself
through the difference, and the difference is possible through the
unity.

Thus, in the light of an ideal which is moral, and therefore perfect--an
ideal gradually realizing itself in a process which is endless--the poet
is able to maintain at once the community between man and God, which is
necessary to religion, and their independence, which is necessary to
morality. The conception of God as giving, which is the main doctrine of
Christianity, and of man as akin with God, is applied by him to the
whole spiritual nature of man, and not merely to his emotion. The
process of evolution is thus a process towards truth, as well as
goodness; in fact, goodness and truth are known as inseparable.
Knowledge, too, is a Divine endowment. "What gift of man is not from God
descended?" What gift of God can be deceptive?

  "Take all in a word: the truth in God's breast
  Lies trace for trace upon ours impressed:
  Though He is so bright and we so dim,
  We are made in His image to witness Him."[A]

[Footnote A: _Christmas-Eve_.]

The Pope recognizes clearly the inadequacy of human knowledge; but he
also recognizes that it has a Divine source.

  "Yet my poor spark had for its source, the sun;
  Thither I sent the great looks which compel
  Light from its fount: all that I do and am
  Comes from the truth, or seen or else surmised,
  Remembered or divined, as mere man may."[B]

[Footnote B: _The Ring and the Book_--_The Pope_, 1285-1289.]

The last words indicate a suspicion of a certain defect in knowledge,
which is not recognized in human love; nevertheless, in these earlier
poems, the poet does not analyze human nature into a finite and
infinite, or seek to dispose of his difficulties by the deceptive
solvent of a dualistic agnosticism. He treats spirit as a unity, and
refuses to set love and reason against each other. Man's _life_, for the
poet, and not merely man's love, begins with God, and returns back to
God in the rapt recognition of God's perfect being by reason, and in the
identification of man's purposes with His by means of will and love.

  "What is left for us, save, in growth
  Of soul, to rise up, far past both,
  From the gift looking to the giver,
  And from the cistern to the river,
  And from the finite to infinity
  And from man's dust to God's divinity?"[C]

[Footnote C: _Christmas-Eve_.]

It is this movement of the absolute in man, this aspiration towards the
full knowledge and perfect goodness which can never be completely
attained, that constitutes man.

  "Man, therefore, thus conditioned, must expect
  He could not, what he knows now, know at first:
  What he considers that he knows to-day,
  Come but to-morrow, he will find mis-known;
  Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
  Because he lives, which is to be a man,
  Set to instruct himself by his past self:
  First, like the brute, obliged by facts to learn,
  Next, as man may, obliged by his own mind,
  Bent, habit, nature, knowledge turned to law.
  God's gift was that man shall conceive of truth
  And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake,
  As midway help till he reach fact indeed?"[A]

[Footnote A: _A Death in the Desert_.]

"Progress," the poet says, is "man's distinctive mark alone." The
endlessness of the progress, the fact that every truth known to-day
seems misknown to-morrow, that every ideal once achieved only points to
another and becomes itself a stepping stone, does not, as in his later
days, bring despair to him. For the consciousness of failure is possible
in knowledge, as in morality, only because there has come a fuller
light. Browning does not, as yet, dwell exclusively on the negative
element in progress, or forget that it is possible only through a deeper
positive. He does not think that, because we turn our backs on what we
have gained, we are therefore not going forward; nay, he asserts the
contrary. Failure, even the failure of knowledge, is triumph's evidence
in these earlier days; and complete failure, the unchecked rule of evil
in any form, is therefore impossible. We deny

  "Recognized truths, obedient to some truth
  Unrecognized yet, but perceptible,--
  Correct the portrait by the living face,
  Man's God, by God's God in the mind of man."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1871-1874.]

Thus the poet ever returns to the conception of God in the mind of man.
God is the beginning and the end; and man is the self-conscious worker
of God's will, the free process whereby the last which is first, returns
to itself. The process, the growth, is man's life and being; and it
falls within the ideal, which is eternal and all in all. The spiritual
life of man, which is both intellectual and moral, is a dying into the
eternal, not to cease to be in it, but to live in it more fully; for
spirits necessarily commune. He dies to the temporal interests and
narrow ends of the exclusive self, and lives an ever-expanding life in
the life of others, manifesting more and more that spiritual principle
which is the life of God, who lives and loves in all things. "God is a
being in whom we exist; with whom we are in principle one; with whom the
human spirit is identical, in the sense that He _is_ all which the human
spirit is capable of becoming."[B]

[Footnote B: Green's _Prolegomena to Ethics_, p. 198.]

From this point of view, and in so far as Browning is loyal to the
conception of the community of the divine and human, he is able to
maintain his faith in God, not in spite of knowledge, but through the
very movement of knowledge within him. He is not obliged, as in his
later works, to look for proofs, either in nature, or elsewhere; nor to
argue from the emotion of love in man, to a cause of that emotion. He
needs no syllogistic process to arrive at God; for the very activity of
his own spirit as intelligence, as the reason which thinks and acts, is
the activity of God within him. Scepticism, is impossible, for the very
act of doubting is the activity of reason, and a profession of the
knowledge of the truth.

                                "I
  Put no such dreadful question to myself,
  Within whose circle of experience burns
  The central truth, Power, Wisdom, Goodness,--God:
  I must outlive a thing ere know it dead:
  When I outlive the faith there is a sun,
  When I lie, ashes to the very soul,--
  Someone, not I, must wail above the heap,
  'He died in dark whence never morn arose.'"[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1631-1639.]

And this view of God as immanent in man's experience also forecloses all
possibility of failure. Beneath the failure, the possibility of which is
involved in a moral life, lies the divine element, working through
contradiction to its own fulfilment. Failure is necessary for man,
because he grows: but, for the same reason, the failure is not final.
Thus, the poet, instead of denying the evidence of his intellect as to
the existence of evil, or casting doubt on the distinction between right
and wrong, or reducing the chequered course of human history into a
phantasmagoria of mere mental appearances, can regard the conflict
between good and evil as real and earnest. He can look evil in the face,
recognize its stubborn resistance to the good, and still regard the
victory of the latter as sure and complete. He has not to reduce it into
a phantom, or mere appearance, in order to give it a place within the
divine order. He sees the night, but he also sees the day succeed it.
Man falls into sin, but he cannot rest in it. It is contradictory to his
nature, he cannot content himself with it, and he is driven through it.
Mephistopheles promised more than he could perform, when he undertook to
make Faust declare himself satisfied. There is not within the kingdom of
evil what will satisfy the spirit of man, whose last law is goodness,
whose nature, however obscured, is God's gift of Himself.

  "While I see day succeed the deepest night--
  How can I speak but as I know?--my speech
  Must be, throughout the darkness. It will end:
  'The light that did burn, will burn!' Clouds obscure--
  But for which obscuration all were bright?
  Too hastily concluded! Sun--suffused,
  A cloud may soothe the eye made blind by blaze,--
  Better the very clarity of heaven:
  The soft streaks are the beautiful and dear.
  What but the weakness in a faith supplies
  The incentive to humanity, no strength
  Absolute, irresistible, comports?
  How can man love but what he yearns to help?
  And that which men think weakness within strength,
  But angels know for strength and stronger yet--
  What were it else but the first things made new,
  But repetition of the miracle,
  The divine instance of self-sacrifice
  That never ends and aye begins for man?
  So, never I miss footing in the maze,
  No,--I have light nor fear the dark at all."[A]

[Footnote A: _The Ring and the Book--The Pope_, 1640-1660.]

[Illustration]





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home