Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/545

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THE PLACE OF CONSCIENCE IN EVOLUTION.

Mr. Herbert Spencer finds the origin of the sense of justice to self in the egoistic sentiment known as the love or instinct of personal freedom. Carry the analysis one step further back, to the innate demand for personal existence, and, like finding a diamond in a coal-mine, we come upon just that element of absolute, all-pervading, essential lightness for which we might otherwise search in vain.

No wonder, then, that men have almost deified the power they possess of discerning right and wrong, to which they owe in the last resort the possession of themselves. But, unhappily, egoism is easily overdone, and egoism, identifying itself with liberty and duty, is liable to all kinds of mischievous exaggerations and delusions. Conscience comes to be regarded as a special faculty instead of being an ordinary operation of thought directed to special objects. It is ascribed to a divine origin and erected into a test of religion and truth. The chief stress of practical exhortation is laid not upon finding out the right, but upon doing what we believe to be right, very often irrespective of advice, common-sense, and obvious consequences. Nay, men go so far as to assign to conscience a sort of lordship or supremacy over themselves, and so, by a roundabout way, only end at last in doing what they please. Like Arthur, they "reverence their conscience as their king," and, like that excellent but unprosperous monarch, they contrive, with the best intentions in the world, to make a bad business of life. In short, they glorify not the sun which gives the light, but the eye which perceives it, and thus give rise to a reaction against the pretensions, nay, the very existence of conscience, which causes whole volumes of philosophy to be written with barely so much as the mention of its name. To redress the balance, recourse must be had to the good genius of philosophy—evolution.

7. The Religious Stage. I have placed this stage last because the association, much more the identification, of religion with morality comes so late in the history of man, that religion has but little to do with the conscience in its elementary state. Among savages, religion can hardly be called moral at all, although the gods might, on the whole, be believed to be on the side of what the tribe thought to be right—subject, however, to the very important qualification that the gods of another tribe held different views. Still, so far as primitive man believed that the gods would visit him with rewards and punishments by an exercise of superhuman power, to that extent there was added to the conscience a feeling of responsibility and solemnity together with an awful imperativeness which must have considerably modified his moral constitution. Moreover, by calling attention to a will external to our own, something was done to counteract the egoistic tendency which I have just described. And so it was that morality did not take final refuge in stoicism until religious belief had died away.

The truth, of course, is that religion can and does become definitely moral when the human mind rises to a belief in one Almighty God with