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Lesser And Greater Beliefs

( Originally Published 1915 )

THAT the various beliefs and faiths of men differ greatly in their weight and value is amply proved by our experience with them and by the language employed in describing them. This is true whether we take the individual or the racial and social point of view. In every person's estimate, grave distinctions are habitually made in the shadings of sunny confidence and the shadows of doubt which constantly pass over the fields of his mental life. On some of his own beliefs he himself looks with an amused curiosity, or with indifference and even, at times, with a sort of disgust. But others of them have so laid hold on the passive mind, or have been gripped with such a tenacious and fateful act of will, that to have them depart or be cast away would seem little less terrible than to have the soul itself torn asunder or cast out. Some of them, even when they are kept uninjured or apart from the scepticism or agnosticism, if not renunciation, which a search into their meaning and their causes would surely bring about, are allowed scanty practical influence on the con-duct of life. This is, indeed, the scandal of the moral and religious faiths of multitudes of men. But, on the other hand, certain beliefs, especially of the moral and religious order, which a more enlightened understanding or an increase of real knowledge has led the individual to desire to banish from his intellectual horizon, or to regard, perhaps, as a species of deceptive mirage, still loom great and strong in the clouds of sentiment, or threaten with mutterings of distant thunder to decide, in spite of the soul's efforts to dispel them, the very issues of life and death.

What is true of the individual person is true in a much more impressive and compelling way of society at large. It is even true of the historic development of the race. Mankind in general has always taken its different beliefs and faiths as differing in practical importance and ideal value. Some of the most persistent and ubiquitous of them have always seemed to lend themselves most readily to the merriment of the thoughtless, or to the despite and scorn of the caste of the "intelligents." Girls giggle and tremble at the same time, as they listen to tales of haunted houses and sheeted ghosts. The superstitious savage does the one thing before, and the other thing after, the actual appearance of the ghost. Learned professors investigate, to the end of putting no little "faith" in even the most vulgar of spiritualistic phenomena; while other no less learned professors jeer at their credulous comrades, and in the name of "Germanic culture" avow that they would not believe in a miracle, if they saw one with their own eyes; or in the resurrection of the body, "even though one rose from the dead," as its most visible and tangible demonstration. On the contrary, they who all their lives long "have been in bondage" to such a theory of mechanism as to destroy all faith in prayer, are not infrequently, on the deck of some sinking ship, discovered with blanched cheeks, bended knees, and uplifted hands.

But what about all this, -- except, perhaps, to prove the inconsistency of human nature, the limitations of human knowledge, the uncertainty and changeableness, and inefficiency of all human beliefs? They who claim to have had ample experience for a perfect induction, not infrequently profess to have found all men, and a fortiori all women, faithless; so that their practical maxim is to trust nobody implicitly, and (why should we not reverse it?) not to expect any one to trust them. But such persons do not consider that to carry out in practice so sweeping a system of unbelief would give the lie to all science, and would bring all human social and business intercourse to an untimely end. Of course, there could no longer be any talk of moral and religious ideals, or any obligation to particular forms and courses of conduct as based upon these ideals.

We cannot, however, dismiss off-hand our question, "What should I believe?" in this unsettled manner. To be sure, no promise has been made to inform any inquirer, much less to dictate to any anxious soul, just precisely what he must adopt as his system of scientific, social, moral, and religious beliefs. But we did hold out the hope that some guide-posts might be set up along the way of reasonable and practically useful beliefs. More especially, we discerned in the very manner of asking the question a hint that the mind which wills to believe, in a persistently honest and devoted way, may obtain some light on that path of faith which, if followed, leads more and more out into the "light of the perfect day." Thus one might reasonably hope to escape that "paralysis of the soul" through unbelief which Epictetus so long ago justly described as much more terrible than paralysis of the body.

The desirable end after which we are just now groping, can be attained only by making distinctions in human beliefs and faiths. They must be somehow measured as to their weight and their value. In this way only can we judge of the obligations under which they place us, and of the advantages which they offer to us. Especially does this making of distinctions seem necessary in the domain of human moral and religious ideals, and in the faiths or doubts with which men face these ideals.

All measurements of weight and value, how-ever, whether of things material or of things spiritual, require the application of some standard of measurement. How then shall we determine the weight and value of human beliefs and faiths? There are some standards which are obvious and convenient. They may have a certain degree of usefulness; but they are not absolute. They are subject to changes in circumstance, or to the growth of positive knowledge, or to the infinite individuality which is so valuable a characteristic of all the higher developments of personal life. Can we not, however, find some standard of measurement which inheres in the very substance of personal life; or, perhaps, in the very bones of the universe, so to say?

In practice, men are apt to estimate the weight and value of their beliefs and faiths by the degree of confidence which, at the moment, they repose in them. This kind of estimate is by no means wholly unreasonable. For just as "being sure" is a somewhat essential factor in all knowledge, so a certain amount of confidence is an indispensable factor in all kinds and degrees of belief. And further, just as there are degrees of knowledge, so are there degrees of belief. In no small degree, the quality and amount of our confidence measure the weight and the value of our beliefs. Even Kant proposed to decide debates of this character by the amount which he who held the confidence was willing to bet on the future issue which should test the "objective certainty" of the subjective state. This way of measuring such certainty, and as well the practical usefulness of the states of mind we call believing rather than knowing, has not yet gone out of date. Perhaps it never will; for, although to make the stake one of the laying down of money on the card-table or the table of roulette may be considered immoral, the very essence of morality compels us to stake interests more important than any amount of money, on the degree of confidence which distinguishes, for us, our momentary but practically indispensable belief.

The degrees of belief, as characterized by the subjective confidence which enters into them, vary all the way from that passionate conviction of the truth of certain judgments which we hold on account of the value they have for other interests than merely our intellectual satisfaction, to that kind of weakly but obstinate attachment which we yield toward certain conventions and dogmas that have conspicuously failed to satisfy the demand for reasons in their behalf. These degrees are not only in fact effective, but are also reasonably influential in the determination of the will to believe. But the degree of confidence in one's believing, even less than the being sure of what one assumes to know, affords no absolute, and not even any steady and relatively dependable, guaranty for the reasonableness of one's beliefs and faiths.

Neither can we fall back on demonstration, after the method of either so-called pure mathematics, or the empirical formulas of the positive sciences, to afford us a perfect measure of the weight and value of human beliefs and faiths. The embodiment of our ideals, the satisfaction of our sentiments, the securing of the impressions and habits for the life of conduct, enter too essentially into all the believing and trusting attitudes of the human soul. And these are values which cannot be calculated by algebra, or plotted in curves, or sufficiently weighed by laboratory methods. The only path if any there be to the discovery of these values is that of psychological analysis based on an ever broadening experience as to what is in the spirit of man, and helped out by constant appeal to history. Without this analytic and historical study of the human spirit, of the personality that every human being is "potentially," as the phrase is, or in embryo, we shall seek in vain for any even approximately correct standard by which to estimate the weight and the value of human beliefs and faiths. In a word, those beliefs and faiths are to be deemed the greater, in any comparison of fair values, which belong most essentially to the Substance of the Self; which have actually most weight and most value for promoting the permanent interests and contributing to the choicest developments of the personal life. In the market of faith, as in the market of pelf, it is "skin for skin"; but "all that a man hath will he give for his life."

It is scarcely necessary to illustrate the numerous lesser beliefs which operate with no little effectiveness to control the conduct of the daily life of every individual. One believes that it will rain or snow tomorrow; and on being asked to tell the reason why, one appeals to the look of the sky, the feel of the air or the feeling in one's bones, if not to the report of the weather-bureau; or else one confesses to an inability to assign any reason for such a distrustful attitude of mind. The state of tomorrow's weather, like the state tomorrow of a fluctuating market, affords unlimited opportunities for the opinions and guesses which are 'devoutly christened as articles in our lesser beliefs. But the importance to us as individuals merely, of any particular belief or form of trust, does not avail to raise it from the class of the trivial to the rank of beliefs that are great because of their supreme importance and value. The man who is ill, or even the man who is well, may say with sincerity : "I believe that I am going to die on such a date," or, "I do not believe that my friend will ever be well again." There are few whose hearts are not rent and their judgments confounded by finding that the men and women in whom they had most implicitly believed, to whom they had indeed most tightly "pinned their faith," have proved unworthy and deceitful. But important as such beliefs and faiths are for the individual, and valuable as they may be in influencing all that the individual holds most dear, they do not belong to the class which we have called "the greater," in the sense in which we are now employing the term.

We repeat, then, that judged by the truest and most enduring standards, only those beliefs and faiths are truly great, which, for their intrinsic importance and value, depend upon ` a valid conception of the constitution, course in development, and final issues, of personal life. They constitute the "substance of the Self."

Doubtless we shall be for the moment mis-understood if we reaffirm, that only those beliefs and faiths are really great which belong to the substance of the Self; and especially if we add, that of all these beliefs the central one, the root-belief, as it were, is the belief of the Self in Itself. We hasten, then, to do what is in the power of words appropriate to the present phase of our general theme, to remove this risk of misunderstanding. For we abhor the philosophy of Nietzsche; we are no admirers of the "Overman."

It needs only a modicum of reflection, how-ever, to see that the consciousness of being real, of being a self-directing will, and to some good degree an efficient centre of force producing more or less important effects, is the point of starting for all knowledge of, and all belief in, what we call real. The belief that any-thing else is real depends upon the belief that I am real. Strictly speaking, this conviction of the reality of the Self as active will is not a matter of knowledge, given bit by bit in items of sensuous perception or in brief periods of so-called self-consciousness. By use of the senses I have now this and now that presentation of an object arising in consciousness.

This instant I am "minding" a tree; the next a star; the next the face or the words of some friend. But unless all these different "mindings" evoked the fundamental belief in a reality not-myself, there would be for me no world of things and of men in which I might realize and develop my own personal life. And what do I get by way of items of knowlledge, when I, as the phrase now thought so old-fashioned is, "turn my thoughts in upon myself"? No envisagement of a reality that lasts beyond the phenomenon of seeming to catch for a fraction of a second only, the thought, the feeling, the sensuous experience, which immediately slips away from my conscious grasp. To the knowledge that comes bit by bit through self-consciousness, we are ourselves, if without faith,

"no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go";

and not less so is

"this Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show."

For it is this invincible belief in the reality of the Self, that in all personal life attaches itself to the being of the active will, in which all belief in the reality of the world of things and men has its fertile root. This fact that in every thing which the person does, or knows other objects of his knowledge, things or persons, to be doing, he "posits" his own reality and theirs, after the type of an active will, is the faith which Fichte wished to make the basis of his moral philosophy, as well as of his theory of the world, according to the passage quoted in the last chapter. It was some-what the same thought which Goethe had in mind when he uttered the meaningful sentence, "In the beginning was the deed," as the principle explanatory of all concrete existences. All existences depend for their reality, and all relations between them, for their actuality, on metaphysical beliefs. But the root of all these beliefs is the ontological faith of the Self in itself.

It follows from this truth as a hint toward the answer to the question, What should I believe? that every one who realizes the fullest possibilities of being a personal life, must believe in his own soul, its reality, its efficiency or power to count in the world of things, but especially in the conduct of its own life, and in its own supreme worth. Without this belief one cannot answer, cannot even raise for a rational answer, the question of Jesus : "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Without this faith, one may easily be led to bargain away one's soul for that which has no comparable value.

But bare will is not all of personal life and personal development which has value; nor is the belief of the Self in its own reality as a Will the only form of belief which belongs to its very substance (to use again the phrase that already has been partially explained and justified). The Self irresistibly believes in itself as capable of knowledge. It has faith in itself as a cognitive Self. One of the most important and fundamental of all human beliefs, and certainly the one which has most to do with making science possible, is the belief of the mind in its own capacity for knowledge. This is the faith that underlies and accompanies all that psychologists call "the cognitive consciousness." "Let us keep to that grand general conception," says the Duke of Argyll ("Philosophy of Belief," p. 25f.) "about which there can be no doubt whatever that we are born in, and out of, that natural system in which we live that we are children, not aliens in its domain partaking, in the highest degree, of all its highest adaptations to function, to work, to thought." But he at once goes on to add : "Nothing can give us so firm a trust that our faculties, when duly exercised and kept within the area of their adapted powers, do really catch and reflect the rays of eternal truth. All our knowledge implies nothing less than this." This confidence is, however, the contribution of trust to science; or, better said, it is the element of belief which enters into all human knowledge. It is the confidence of reason in itself, a confidence absolutely essential to the equipment and the development of all personal life. In this confidence, whether it be in matters of science or of so-called ordinary knowledge, reason is often for the time disappointed, but it is never utterly confounded.

Of the underlying intellectual beliefs which make all human knowledge possible, and which decide the forms and limitations of such knowledge in an irresistible and final way, we shall attempt no detailed analysis, or even enumeration. Only as they operate to give laws to the intellect, is knowledge of any sort possible; only as their valid application to the realities coming within the field of human science is taken on faith, is any guaranty of scientific truth attainable. As axioms and postulates incapable of demonstration by a series of logical steps, but irresistibly believed in, they underlie all mathematics and all the mathematical sciences. In the form of unquestioned assumptions, as to the truth of which common-sense considers it absurd to admit a doubt, they condition and control all the practical affairs of men, knowledge about which is the indispensable safeguard of their successful conduct. They reach out into the domain of abstract and speculative thinking, and compel the thinker to admit into his final explanation something besides the factors which derive from the senses and the inferences from their experiences. They demand a kind of reflective thinking which shall take due account of sentiment, of feeling, of intuition, and of faith, in philosophy's speculative construction of the World, and of its "Ground," and of our relations to it. Hence the persistent belief that human reason can grasp the supersensible in some form of "inner experience, which Fichte called intellectual, Schelling artistic, Schleiermacher religious," although the adjectives in this sentence quoted from Professor Thilly do not seem altogether well-chosen.

The man who will have none of faith mixing with his knowledge, and who, in his effort to get rid of all forms of belief that are contributory to the conception of an invisible and ideal Universe, and which thus explain the relations and doings of the visible complex of phenomena, thinks to accomplish his purpose by retreat to the positions of an uncompromising agnosticism, must virtually annihilate himself. Nothing that must be believed in shall be admitted so he is resolved into his universe. No play of sentiment, no construct of soaring imagination, no faith in mere ideals, shall tarnish the purity, or obscure the superficial clearness, of his theories of the world of things and of men. But such an attempt at suicide of the Self can never succeed. For such an agnostic takes with him in his retreat just the very same constitution of the Self, with just the same irresistible faiths and clinging beliefs, as are those which restrain his fellows, who refuse to accompany him in his sceptical flight. The rankest agnosticism is shot through and through with all the same fundamental intellectual beliefs, all the same inescapable rational faiths, about the reality of the Self, and about the validity of its knowledge. You cannot save science and destroy all faith. You cannot sit on the limb of the tree while you tear it up by the roots.

But something more than those beliefs which attach themselves to activity of the will, and to the work of the intellect, are necessary in order to constitute and to consecrate a truly personal life. The confident self-assertion of the Self, its belief in its own reality and power to produce effects, may become monstrous, as it actually has become in the philosophy of Nietzsche and the doctrine of the Overman; and in the political theory that might dominates right, so baleful in its influence upon a nation's thought and conduct. Add to this belief, the confidences of the most ambitious and towering intellects, and all the achievements of knowledge with which such intellects are crowned, multi-plied many fold, and you have not yet the making of a real man. For a "real man" is a person; and a person has moral and social beliefs. Indeed, in the strife over the conflicting conclusions of the intellect with regard to the nature and laws of the physical universe, the higher science recognizes its obligations to these moral beliefs. For in its sight the conclusions of the intellect are not just bare truth, but truth that has value because it is truth.

Otherwise, we could feel no glow of approbation at the words of the scientific and pious prelate Paul Gerlach:

"I rue no path on which my spirit entered
In science's service, solemnly and deep."

There is something more, then, than a superficial relation between the soul's faith in itself and faithfulness in conduct. The relation is constituted and enforced by a whole system of beliefs that belong to the most essential factors of the personal life. It is, moreover, illustrated by the experience of every individual and by the history of the race. For both the experience of the individual and the history of mankind evince the actual as well as logical connection between faith in the Self as a cognitive will, and the belief in the efficiency and value of faithful work. The lesson for the sower, of the "Parable of the Sower," is this; that, although only a fraction of his sowing brings fruit visible to the senses, he must still sow generously in faith and hope. From this point of view we cannot adopt the opinion of the "devout chemist," Michael Faraday, who wished to make an absolute distinction between a moral or religious belief and an "ordinary belief." "Ordinary belief!" what phrase can be more vague and indefensible? On the contrary, the very ordinariness of all fundamental moral and religious beliefs is prima facie evidence of the "soul of truth" that is in them.

That the very constitution and the development of personal life require an equipment of fundamental moral beliefs is a proposition which few would be inclined, when once they under-stand it correctly, ever to dispute. Morality is so obviously a matter of imagination, of senti-ment, of convictions that come we know not whence and offer to conduct us we cannot just see whither, as to make the prominence of its faiths an affair of universal experience. For these are the chief characteristics which separate off our beliefs and faiths, on the one hand from our guesses and our opinions, and on the other, from the domain of knowledge and the exact sciences. When we say, "I am fully convinced," or "I am perfectly sure," that this is right (morally) and that is wrong, we do not mean to appeal to a mathematical demonstration, or to a string of strictly logical inferences; or even to a quite clear insight into a series of consequences sure to follow our action. We appeal, the rather, to the spontaneous announcement of our moral consciousness. And moral consciousness is largely, is even chiefly, a collection of faiths attaching themselves to ideals of the imagination.

In another volume of this series of attempts to throw light on four questions of the greatest practical importance to all persons ("What Ought I to Do? ") we have shown how the sentiments of moral obligation, of moral approbation and disapprobation, and the judgments of merit and demerit, with the beliefs that accompany and support these sentiments, have developed from the feeling of"the ought" (Chapter II) ; how the sentiments of Moral Freedom and of the imputability of conduct, and the beliefs which consecrate the administration of every form of justice, arise from the feeling "I can" (Chapter V) ; and how it is only "Moral Tact," with its trained intuition and sensitiveness of sentiment, which enables even the most strong of will and learned in matters pertaining to all variations of the different alleged causal series, to pick one's way along the difficult and often cloudy path of duty to our-selves and to others. (Chapter X.) All this is only to say and to prove in another way, how much, in all matters of morality, we follow instinctive and blind beliefs until we can by reflection and a moral choice raise them to the dignity of rational faiths. But were it not for these convictions, and their binding and guiding power over the conduct of the personal life, there could be no moral development, and, indeed, no such thing as human society. Such essential and potent factors of personality, its constitution and its development, are the fundamental moral beliefs and faiths of humanity. They, too, are of the very substance of the Self. And for this reason they, too, are among the incomparably greater beliefs and faiths of the human race. More even than the intellectual beliefs, are these ethical beliefs the very life-blood of a vigorous and conquering personality, in the individual, in the nation, in the entire race.

We have already seen that the "greater beliefs" must be appealed to in every effort to vindicate the power of the intellect to penetrate into, and to interpret, the experience of objective reality. This process of penetrating and interpreting is all a species of personifying. It culminates in the scientific faith in the rational Unity of Nature; and in the religious belief in one rational Will, the personal Absolute, whom faith calls God. But neither of these faiths, in any of its attempts to establish define and defend itself, can escape the obligation to be reasonable; and in all attempts to bring about harmony between them, the same obligation must be laid upon the consciences of both. Willful self-assertion, the pretence of knowledge which goes way beyond the reality, controversy which conducts itself without supreme regard for the faiths of morality, or in stupid ignorance of these faiths, is as unseemly and futile in the one as in the other. In all their controversies, both science and faith are bound to be both reasonable and moral. For if science thinks it has a greater assurance of knowledge, it, too, cannot forget that its ultimate foundations and highest towers and steeples are laid in unproved but invincible beliefs. And religion need not be abashed, or less confident and joyful in its convictions, because they do not admit so freely of illustration, not to say confirmation, by the sensuous experiences of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. For, in general, the things of faith, whether we assign them to the department of science, or of morals, or of religion, are not to be got at, or under-stood, or appreciated, in this way. But we are anticipating what needs a fuller development.

From the practical point of view, the greatest and most effective, both upon the inner life of the soul and upon the life of conduct, of all human beliefs, is the faith in a Living God, or ever-active and immanent, perfect Ethical Spirit. This belief does not identify the world in which science believes, with God; but it refuses to vacate this world, or any part of it, of God. It also denies the adequacy of the mechanical explanation of the world; and it thus asserts that to understand and to interpret the phenomena with which experience makes us acquainted, whether phenomena of physical nature or of psychical nature, and their respective developments, something more than the facts and laws that constitute the body of the positive sciences is necessary. Only the belief in a Living God furnishes the explanatory and illumining principle necessary to understand the world. In the one World, room must be made for the ideals of the spirit and the realities of sense.

It remains just to notice in this connection, that the relation between the will to believe, and these different greater faiths which are all of them essential to the constitution and development of the personal life, is far from being in all cases exactly the same. Most of the intellectual beliefs continue to operate in a quasi-compulsory way, whether they are consciously accepted with confidence as guides to the will, or not. We have little or no choice as to whether we will believe, in some sort or to some extent, in the reality of our own Self and of other selves and of things; in the actual operation of the law of sufficient reason; in the actuality of the relation of cause and effect; and in other similar forms of belief. But our moral and religious faiths do not stand in precisely the same relation to the attitude of the choice, which seems to us and to others, to accept or to reject them. These faiths are more delicate, more complex, more subtle, more apparently escapable, so to say. But they are by no means gone from the unwilling soul, even when they seem to be so. The soul, even when "paralyzed" by the extremest "obstinacy of intellect" is never quite dead to the quickening power of its inalienable moral and religious beliefs and faiths. To lack them wholly would be to cease being a person in any true and valuable meaning of that term. To lose them completely and forever from the soul is to lose the soul.

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