Essays and phantasies/On the Worth of Metaphysical Systems


May 1876.


A frivolous poet observes: "If it is hard to refrain from flippancy when writing mere prose, it is almost impossible when the subject is that broad burlesque, a system of philosophy or theology. Yet we are in general so imposed upon by weight of character and intellect as to regard such a system with serious respect if not adoration. Any despotic absolutism always finds abundant slavishness among men to respond to it, just as the rich always find parasites, mad prophets always daft believers, knaves always natural dupes."

In preaching a short sermon on this flippant text, let me begin by remarking that I throughout adhere to the sense in which the word system seems to be used by the said frivolous poet; meaning a system general and absolute, whether in pliilosophy or theology; a system which professes to expound the universe in its genesis or its eternity, its development, its final causes or want of the same, its essential relations to the human soul (whose essence is equally expounded), its essential relations to God if the system includes a God (when his essence is indicated if not expounded). Such a system is included in each of the great religions, and in nearly every great philosophy; the latest systems of the latter, those of the great Germans, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, being among the most elaborate and absolute ever constructed. There are other systems, rightly called philosophical, of a very different kind, being founded on experience not intuition, following Nature instead of trying to transcend her, consciously limited amidst the Illimitable. There is nothing metaphysical in the greater part of what is called the Idealism of Berkeley; the metaphysic comes when he brings in the Eternal and Infinite Mind to give permanence to the ideal world. There is nothing metaphysical in Kant's demonstration that time and space are but constant forms of our sensibility; the metaphysic comes in when beyond the phenomena of our perceptions he predicates noumena or things in themselves of which we know nothing. There is nothing metaphysical (save by lapse or oversight) in the great modern psychological systems, for these continually appeal to the test of experience, and are in general but working theories more or less comprehensive, always open to modification by new discoveries and to inclusion in wider formulas. And here we have the essential difference between the natural and the extra-natural or supernatural, between the relative and the absolute systems; the former as empirical are ever open to improvement and susceptible of transformations, the latter as imperious and unconditional cannot suffer change without being destroyed. Hence the former are continually advancing and extending, the latter are still where they commenced; the former have established much that is practically certain in their limits, the latter in their deepest depths are each and all as uncertain as ever.

What, then, is the worth of these absolute systems which have fascinated some of the profoundest intellects and noblest spirits among mankind? The fascination itself is not to be wondered at, for no fascination can be stronger to such intellects and such spirits than the hope of securing certitude beneath the transitory and illusive shows of this world and life. So intense, indeed, is this fascination that it has bewitched exceedingly able and good men, who despaired of attaining such certitude by rational inquiry, into abjuring their reason, strangling their doubts, and seeking peace in blind faith and abject submission to authority, mutilating their minds as Origen mutilated his body, as in the deplorable instance of J. H. Newman. But the builders of systems do not, or will not, despair. The subtlest of them recognise quite clearly the practical trustworthiness of what the natural or relative sciences have established within their limits; but they cannot endure the utter blank immeasurable beyond those strait limits, the formless void unfathomable beneath their thin surface. They see plainly what many of the triumphant and triumphing natural philosophers do not see at all, that even the most obvious and common-place so-called facts are undermined by deepest metaphysical doubts. Admitting the relative truth, they must seek the absolute basis; acknowledging the limited fact, they hunger for the universal law. They will build out of pure thought a faithful counterpart of the world, a microcosm the pefect image of the macrocosm; believing that the laws and processes of the human mind correspond with those of the universe. With gigantic self-sufficiency each labours at his task, in no wise daunted by the manifold and manifest failures of all who have hitherto made the same attempt, in no wise doubting that his mind is a true mirror of the world, though he sees that its reflections are more or less different from those of all other minds. Century after century, sometimes generation after generation, sees the selfsame attempt renewed, the building of a tower whose top shall reach unto heaven. When such a tower has been reared, many of the bystanders believe that its top does reach to heaven, for it is generally lost in the clouds, and, as Carlyle observes, what we cannot see over is infinite to us. But as men are removed from it in time, they perceive that its summit gradually sinks beneath the horizon, and they who visit it perceive that the structure announced everlasting is mouldering away and falling to ruin like the vulgarest building man erects for his sojourn. Then a new architect sets to work with the same sublime aspirations, the same indomitable self-sufficiency; a fresh metaphysical tower with a brand-new terminology loses its head in the clouds, to be regarded with awe and reverence by its bystanders, to crumble away and fall to ruin in its turn; for the legend of Babel and the confusion of tongues is the legend of system-building in all ages.

And now that we have seen in history so many such systems arise and disappear, all with the same assurance of plan, all with the same instability of structure, it is natural that we should ask the question I have put. What is their worth? To myself it appears that as systems their worth is, and always has been, little or nothing. The building and study of them has had a great educational worth in developing powers and skill which could scarcely have been called forth in their utmost energy by a hope less immense and sublime; and the study of them may be of great educational worth still. But examining any one of the great systems as a system, we seem to discern that its value consisted altogether in the value of some great thoughts or noble sentiments embodied in it, and that these were not improved but injured by the incorporation. When the structure into which they were built is a ruin, they remain as precious marbles, goodly for use in edifices less vast but less imperfect, more humble but more habitable; only to suit them to his purpose the ancient builder hacked and chipped them into forms inconvenient for anything else, and perchance kept them obscure for ages in sombre crypt or lofty dome. A man discovering some new truth or some new aspect of an old one, will probably only strain and distort it in trying to expand it into a complete system. For to him such truths are not as splendid jewels which he may cut and polish, and set in star or cross or circlet, as his taste may prefer; this is the work of the poet; the philosopher undertakes to cut and set them in the sole best form and order, harmonious with the form and order of sun and moon and stars, and failing in this he damages them for other use. Or, to vary the illustration, if from the depths of a forest we glimpse a fragment of the remote horizon, and mentally complete the circle in accordance with that arc, our ring will not even be the ring of the meeting of earth and sky encompassing our standpoint; ours will be all shipless sea or green valley-bottom, while the true horizon would be sea and shore, vale and river, wood and hill, abounding with various life.

But it is strange that we have to appeal to history to show the worthlessness of absolute systems. How can man, an infinitesimal atom in the infinite universe, embrace that infinity? How can man, whose life is an inappreciable moment in eternal time, comprehend the laws of that eternity? A critic may be very small, and a philosopher or theologian very great (according to our petty human standards), yet the former in relation to the latter must be immeasurably greater than the latter in relation to the universe he has the audacity to expound. Therefore even the most stupid of men is quite justified in rejecting decisively and without examination any universal system whether of theology or philosophy, for beyond doubt it is ludicrously inadequate. During many millenniums some of the best and wisest of our race have devoted themselves to teaching us all about God and our immortal souls, the origin and final causes of the world, and so forth; yet when one comes to reflect on the matter it is overwhelmingly certain that not one of these men has ever really known anything about any of these things, or whether they really exist or not. By studying the signs of the times and commonly recurring sequences, men may learn how (with due adroitness and agility) to pick up a living for their microscopical selves in this shoreless and fathomless ocean of being, of whose main currents they are perforce perfectly ignorant. Let us imagine a small colony of mice in a great cathedral, getting a poor livelihood out of Communion crumbs and taper-droppings. Could any of them by much deep speculation comprehend the origin, the plan, the purpose of the cathedral, the meaning of the altar, the significance of the ritual, the clashing of the bells, the ringing of the chants, the thunderous trepidations of the organ? Yet a mouse explaining the final causes of all these things would be incomparably less absurd than is a divine or sage expounding the mysteries of Nature or God. The discreeter mice would limit themselves to noticing and remembering that certain periods and ceremonies were marked by more numerous tapers burning, whence came more grease on the floor, and by noting the spots where grease did more abound. These would be the practical philosophers among the mice, positivists or utilitarians; and if while grease was to be had, other mice lost their time in demonstrating that the final cause of a great Church festival was to increase the harvest of taper-droppings for their species, these shrewder mice would not stay to dispute the point with them, but would be off to their jolly feast of Candlemas.

I have said that the absolute systems have fascinated some of the profoundest intellects and noblest spirits among mankind. On the other hand, they have equally repelled intellects not less profound and spirits not less noble. And these, it must be added, have been more sane than those, for there is always more or less of insanity in the fascination. As I have elsewhere had occasion to express it, such a creed or system is a little strait-waistcoat wrought by some little man, and in which he would fain confine Titanic Nature: she laughs with immense good-nature at the puny fellow at first, but if he seriously persists in attempting to force it on her, she inevitably makes him fit for a strait-waistcoat himself.