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THE LIFE SORROW. - Harriet Martineau, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau 
Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography and Memorials of Harriet Martineau, ed. Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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THE LIFE SORROW.
“It is not wonderful, therefore, if the bonds of antiquity, authority, and unanimity have so enchained the power of man, that he is unable (as if bewitched) to become familiar with things themselves.”
— Bacon,Nov. Org., Aph. 84.
“It does not become the spirit which characterizes the present age distrustfully to reject every generalization of views, and every attempt to examine into the nature of things by the process of reason and induction.”
— Humboldt,Introduction to Cosmos.
“Atrocitata mansuetudo est remedium.”
One consequence of Harriet Martineau’s publication of “The Laws of Man’s Nature and Development” was to bring most painfully before the public eye the great sorrow of her whole life, hitherto so well concealed from all but those who were compelled by proximity to know it, that I never before suspected its existence, intimate as the relation of our minds had been.
Now I learned, in common with the rest of the beholders, how heavy and how steadily borne, for the sake of all it concerned, this long-standing burden of private suffering had been, which Mr. James Martineau now brought before the world.
When in June, 1851, I visited London during the great Exhibition, I found in that circle of society most nearly in connection with Unitarianism a little buzzing commotion over “The Letters.” It surprised me, both as coming from a class pledged by principle and taught by persecution to respect the rights of opinion, and because accompanied in so many instances by assurances that the speaker had not read the book, yet knew it to be so very bad a one as to make it a subject of the deepest regret that such a one should ever have been written. Not having myself seen it, I could only say in reply, that, at least until after reading, the character of the writer ought to be a sufficient voucher for a book. I was assured substantially by various persons in their various ways that so it would have been of course in an ordinary case; but this was a book which persons did not like to read, lest it should undermine their faith; besides being too foolish to waste time upon. It was blank atheism, and it removed all the barriers to vice and immorality by denying moral obligation. Moreover, it garbled and falsified Bacon, in order to bring the support of his great name to what he never dreamed of. It was Miss Martineau’s act, inasmuch as done by and under her sanction, for she had prefaced and presented the whole to the public; and what was not her own she had procured to be written by a very ignorant man, who had imposed upon her by mesmeric influence, — if there were such a thing, which they did not believe.
This mixture of falsehood and nonsense bearing to an unprejudiced mind its own refutation, it was not necessary for me to have read the book to be able, in talking with those equally ignorant, to deny every thing and call for the proof.
“O, it was in vain to deny it; it was only too true. Her own brother, the Rev. James Martineau, had published an article in which he affirmed all this; and what her own brother felt thus obliged to declare to the world must be true.”
I hastened to procure both the book and her brother’s review of it (“Prospective Review,” No. XXVI. Art. IV., “Mesmeric Atheism”). Ignorance, with a mingling of worldly and superstitious terror, is capable of any degree of misrepresentation; and I thought it quite possible that both book and review might have been misunderstood among those who were thus trusting to hearsay against their own better knowledge of Harriet Martineau. I carefully read both, and found nothing in the book to justify what report had given me as the substance of it. But the review had presented Miss Martineau and her associate to the world as atheists and reckless of moral obligation; and at a time when members of the medical faculty were labouring to brand mesmerism as immorality, the article was entitled “Mesmeric Atheism.” The review did present Mr. Atkinson, Miss Martineau’s friend and co-worker in the cause of philosophy and progress, as both knavish and foolish, both vain and ignorant. Miss Martineau and Mr. Atkinson had, in fine, “piled up a set of loose and shapeless assertions, serving to mark, but not to protect, the territory they open for all the black sheep of unbelief.” Further on, the review proceeds thus: —
“But enough of this hierophant of the new atheism. With grief we must say that we remember nothing in literary history more melancholy than that Harriet Martineau should be prostrated at the feet of such a master, should lay down at his bidding her early faith in moral obligation, in the living God, in the immortal sanctities; should glory in the infection of his blind arrogance and scorn, mistaking them for wisdom and pity, and meekly undertake to teach him grammar in return. Surely this inversion of the natural order of nobleness cannot last. If this be a specimen of mesmeric victories, such a conquest is more damaging than a thousand defeats.”
After this I came to know that Mr. Atkinson was a gentleman and a scholar, and a remarkably able, high-minded, and true-hearted man, esteemed by all who knew him, and spoken of with high respect as a devoted student of science, and also for his reverential tone of mind, by other reviews adverse to his opinions; and I learned, moreover, what all who saw for themselves already knew of Miss Martineau, that, so far from denying, he affirmed man’s moral obligation and the existence of a fundamental cause, eternal and immutable, — the last as incomprehensible to human nature, the first as the great business of life to ascertain and fulfil.
But so little do people understand themselves and their own creeds, that many who had plumed themselves upon their superiority to image-worshippers were as startled on reading this book as Tacitus tells us those Romans were at the siege of Jerusalem, who, bursting into the Holy of Holies, found the fane empty.
For “The Letters,” I found the book to be an inquiry or search after the best way of studying the faculties of man, in order to obtain a right understanding of his nature, place, business, and pleasure in the universe; and consequently not always within the comprehension of minds not previously familiar with the authors’ range of studies. For the review, I saw that it sometimes shared the general ignorance, and sometimes took advantage of it, to destroy the reputation of the authors of “The Letters.” But it was the review that had garbled and misquoted Bacon, in a vain endeavour to fix on them the charge of having done so: and it exposed itself to some keen remarks, by scoffing at Bacon’s first aphorism, unwittingly attributing it to Mr. Atkinson, while in the sequel misquoting Mr. Atkinson, to make him seem to the unread to be ignorantly censuring Bacon. “The Letters” had but represented Bacon as he really showed himself to be, — not latterly a theist; and being stronger in intellect than in moral principle, willing to advance his opinions at the expense of his sincerity, in times when persecution made men more prudent than true. The argument of “The Letters” is that what Bacon said about Christianity was poetical, and by way of accommodation, as seen, for example, in his “Christian Paradoxes.” It would seem that Bacon’s views were like those of every other thinker, — changing with time, and therefore very much a matter of dates.
I was astonished to find a Unitarian, whom the Catholic and Anglican churches consider no Christian, so wrathful against the “infidelity” of this book. The authors were faithful to themselves: were the Unitarians more? . . . .
“Could this reviewer possibly be a brother of Harriet Martineau?” I asked myself, and I felt confident it must be a mistake to think so. The curious public in its talkative carelessness is capable of almost any confusion of ideas, and surely, I thought, there must be a misunderstanding here. I carried my doubts to herself to be resolved, and asked her plainly, “Who is the author of that review?”
“It is my brother James; and you must not believe it, for it is not so.”
No possibility of believing it for any one who would read and compare; no risk of it for any one who knew her. I was too much afflicted to seek further conversation with herself at that time on a subject so distressing. The circumstances must needs compel so much denial, explanation, and self-defence, that I could not bear to add to such a pain even by expressions of sympathy. I saw instantly the estrangement that Mr. James Martineau’s course would make a duty to her cause, to the coadjutor whom she had associated with herself in its promotion, and to herself as the vowed servant of truth. Private insult to herself she might choose to overlook, but a threefold fidelity forbade her any further choice. If there be any thing established by the experience of mankind, it is this: while forgiving an enemy and doing him good, never to let him travel the world with your sanction affixed to his evil offices. It is the dictate alike of good sense, good feeling, and self-defence. No one proclaiming unpopular truth at every risk but is compelled by self-respect and self-preservation to take this course, — of letting the word “brother” on no enemy’s lips beat down this only effectual guard against the dagger-stroke aimed under the fifth rib.
So near and dear a friend as Harriet Martineau was to me, it became my duty to inquire carefully into this case; and every body talked freely. This excuse was occasionally offered for the reviewer, — that it was his duty as a Christian minister, and his duty to his God, to clear himself and Unitarianism of the burden of imputed heresy. He had not been able, it was said, to prevail on Mr. Thom and Mr. J. J. Tayler,* his co-editors, to do it for him, and so he was obliged to forget that he was a man and a brother, to discharge what seemed to him a higher duty.
But, as it would have been so much simpler, so much easier, so much more effectual a way, to have disclaimed all responsibility for “The Letters” by a note in the review to the effect that he had neither sanctioned the opinions nor approved of the publication, that part of the public which in such a case is amused with looking on drew the conclusion, from this otherwise incomprehensible course on the part of an advocate of free thought, that masculine terror, fraternal jealousy of superiority, with a sectarian and provincial impulse to pull down and crush a worldwide celebrity, had moved to this public outrage.
Happily for the authors of “The Letters,” British literary usage required no reply. Men did not construe silence as consent to the imputations of reviewers.
But in private it was not so. Miss Martineau was continually obliged to encounter these misrepresentations: sometimes in reply to direct inquiries of her friends; sometimes to counteract the actual mischief which the review had stimulated and set at work, and which threatened to put in peril her pecuniary affairs by exciting a panic among the publishers.
Of this sort of painful duty thus devolved upon Harriet Martineau by her brother’s course, it then seemed as if there could be no end but the ending of life.
It was pitiable to behold the distress this whole affair occasioned the short-sighted and the feeble, who wished to maintain undisturbed relations with both parties, without in the slightest degree appreciating Miss Martineau’s moral obligation to protect her cause and her associate from injury, — especially not to desert her associate; precluded by her relationship from defending himself against these calumnies.
As to the general desertion of friends on occasion of this publication, which Charlotte Brontë supposes,* it was not a fact, nor was Harriet Martineau one to grieve, if it had been so, over the sundering of false relations. It was the regard of those she really loved and honoured that she valued, and I am not aware of a single instance in which it was not ultimately increased by this renewed example of her fidelity to what she had ever esteemed the strongest moral obligation, — “the obligation of inquirers after truth to communicate what they obtain.”
Her friends outside of Unitarianism were not wrathful or distressed. I had the opportunity to see numbers of the representative men and women of the great world in London meeting her with undiminished cordiality when she came thither immediately afterwards, and her presence there speedily dispersed the momentary panic in which I had seen some of the Unitarian-trained, minister-worshipping minds.
Few are qualified by previous philosophical, anatomical, and phreno-mesmeric studies, any more than by love of truth and faith in it, to pronounce on such a book as “The Letters.” Numbers who had been troubled by its publication soon began to suspect as much. Some were fain to let the subject-matter drop, for fear of finding out things in contradiction to established usages. Some had not even understood what they were talking about when the conversation fell on the merits of the method recommended in the book. They had found it “sadly immethodical;” while other some pronounced this old method of question and answer not a successful one except in school-books. The advantage of scientific investigation and careful study and reasoning over taking for granted or taking on authority, was never the idea suggested to such by the word “method,” to which deeper thinkers sometimes begged their attention as the main thing in this book. It gave more offence for alleged want of reverence among minds of exclusively Unitarian training than among those of more liberal culture and biblical enrichment. Mr. Martineau, for example, seemed shocked as at blasphemy, that his sister should have given the words “supreme lawless will” as a definition of the Christian God; while at that very time Christian Britain was employed upon its tenth million of Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which “God’s mere pleasure,” “his arbitrary will restrained by no obligation,” is, as by all Calvinistic doctrinal teachers, insisted upon in every form of expression.
This is not the place for an analysis of “The Letters” or a refutation of the review. “The Letters” are republished; but there is no call for abuse and calumny against their authors.
To an intelligent and unprejudiced observer one of the most painful things at that time, as at all times, is to see persons mourning over what they should most exult in, — the confession and worship of what one believes to be the truth; blaming what they should most admire, — the consistent, upright course of a righteous heart in the consequent emergency. Although herself keenly alive to such griefs as these, whether springing from wickedness or weakness, Harriet Martineau was one in whom they wearied themselves down. Sustained by her alacrity of mind and her devotedness of heart, she outlived this, and kindred blows. Public outrage is absolution; and the cruelty of compelling her in this way to choose between science and sectarism, progress and pause, the scientific associate who was also a friend and the brother who was no friend, wrought deliverance from a life sorrow: her broken idol was removed from her path.
Although this is no place for analysis of “Letters” or review, yet one undertaking to throw light upon the life of Harriet Martineau cannot with truth or justice or common sense ignore the act by which “her own brother” placed himself in the same category with the defamers of old times whom she must never again meet.
So many mingled motives springing from the troubling of the affections, family pride, forgiveness, pain, and magnanimity, must needs arise in the heart of one so tried, that I am not surprised to find, in her Autobiography, so few words given to this great calamity of her life. But what in her is magnanimity in me would be unfaithfulness.
I ought not to close this passage without stating that, as I would never be guilty of the absurdity of showing a life overshadowed, and no object visible between it and the sun, so, when she asked of me this final service, I only consented at length (and in a sense reluctantly) on the understanding that I should nothing conceal or extenuate which, either for joy or sorrow, told strongly upon her life. Her reply, given thoughtfully, slowly, and at intervals, was, “When you speak of my brother James, be as gentle as you can.”
The mass of communications that the publication of the “H. M. Letters,” as they were called, brought upon her from self-styled friends and real friends after the misrepresentations of the “Prospective Review,” became at length utterly unmanageable, and she decided to address them all under one cover; for although the degrees of their friendship, the variety of their feelings, and the tone of their correspondence were so very different, yet in one thing almost all agreed, — regret that she had left the spot on which they had stood together; and the following is the letter which I received from her, with a request to send a copy to each of them, — knowing as she did in advance, what actually proved to be the fact, — that those to whose case it did not apply would make no personal application of it.
Ambleside, May 10, 1856.
My dear Friend,—
It appears to me that you can help me in a small embarrassment that I should like to get rid of, if I can do it without causing more trouble than the matter is worth. I call the embarrassment of slight consequence, because a short time must put an end to it; but the interest involved is not a trifle. You know how much I value the confidence and affection of my more intimate American friends; and you will not need to be assured by me that the recent letters I have had from several of them express the kindliest respect and regard, as well as interest in my departing condition. Yet these letters manifest so extraordinary a notion of my state of mind, and are so very wide of the mark as to our relation to each other (theirs and mine), that I feel as if it were wrong to let the mistakes pass in silence, while yet I have not strength to reply to each correspondent. Some believe that they have touched so lightly on what is evidently uppermost in their minds that they spare me all need to reply, and they would really regret having obliged me to answer; while the character of the light touch they do give is exactly what makes me feel some sort of reply a duty. It is true they will erelong see in my Autobiography (which I leave for posthumous publication) what my philosophy really is; but it would be hardly right to wait if, by writing one letter, I can enable them to understand me better while I am still among you.
In all the letters I refer to it is clear that the supreme association with me at present is, not my past life, present illness, or approaching death, but my “views” on theological subjects. Again, all the correspondents I am speaking of carefully and distinctly assure me that they do not hold my “views.” Most of them call me “sceptical” (even the phrase “the slough of scepticism” occurs in one letter), and others write of “unbelief,” “darkness,” “doubt,” &c. All this shows so entire an unacquaintance with even the first principles and main characteristics of positive philosophy as surprises me a good deal, after the progress which I have hoped and supposed it was making in your country. By positive philosophy I mean not any particular scheme propounded by any one author, but the philosophy of fact, as arising from the earliest true science, and rehabilitated by Bacon’s exposition of its principles. There must be thinking and educated men in all your cities who could tell my friends that positive philosophy is at the opposite pole to scepticism, that it issues in the most affirmative (not dogmatical) faith in the world, and excludes unbelief as absolutely as mathematical principles do; that there is no “darkness” in it, but all clear light, up to the well-defined line which separates knowledge from ignorance; that positive philosophy is, in short, the brightest, clearest, strongest, and only irrefragable state of conviction that the human mind has ever attained.
You see, my difficulty in speaking at all about this is that what I say of my philosophy will, almost inevitably, look like conceit and boasting about myself. I really must say that such an appearance should be laid to the charge of those who, while meaning to be affectionate and even respectful, write to me as to one somehow fallen or gone astray, or in some way in an inferior condition of faith to theirs. This conception is not true, — it is in fact the reverse of the truth; but you see how impossible it is to declare this without offending the feelings of persons who consider it a merit, rather than a weakness, to rest satisfied in ignorance of the basis of the notions or “views” they hold. If fidelity to the truth on which I take my stand must bring on me the charge of presumption, so be it! I cannot help it, and must bear it as the lesser evil of two.
You, and others of my friends, and I myself may well be tired of hearing questions or opinions about my “views.” “Views” is not the word for disciples of positive philosophy, but for those who are still within the dogmatic circle or the metaphysical wilderness. They may speak of the “views” of persons who see through the eyes of authority, like the dogmatic part of the theological world, or of those who make their own “consciousness” their point of view, and who therefore differ mutually as their consciousness differs. Among these — the metaphysical “believers” or speculators — the views are as various as would be those of the earth by the same number of persons, each in a balloon of his own, all wafted by different currents at different elevations, with no other mutual connection than travelling in the same atmosphere. The disciples of positive philosophy have no more variation of views than students of mathematics have in regard to the mathematical field already explored. The truth compels unanimous conviction in both cases. If difference of “views” arises, it is during the first attempts to conquer some fresh territory, which, when annexed, will, like all that has gone before, become unquestionable and leave no room for diversity of “views.” If, instead of the “views,” people asked about my point of view, that would be sensible and practical. The point of view is indeed the grand difference between the dogmatists, the metaphysical speculators, and the positive philosophers. The first take their stand on tradition, and the second on their own consciousness. Their point of view is in their own interior, from whence it is manifestly impossible, not only to understand the universe, but to see the true aspect of any thing whatever in it. We, seeing the total failure in the pursuit of truth consequent on this choice of a standpoint, try to get out of the charmed circle of illusion, and to plant our foot in the centre of the universe, as nearly as we can manage it, and, at all events, outside of ourselves. Copernicus has been the great benefactor of his race, in this matter; and by showing that our globe is not the centre of the universe, nor man its aim and object, he overthrew theology and metaphysics without knowing it. However, this would lead me too far. I must keep to my own correspondents and their “views.”
The first great function of Baconian philosophy is to separate indisputably the knowable from the unknowable; and the next is, to advance the pursuit of the knowable. It is obvious that the process of ascertainment first, and constant verification of knowledge afterwards, is destructive of “scepticism.” Scepticism is doubt; and the positive philosopher is in a position of direct antagonism to it. He may hold, and must hold, his decision in suspense, in the interval between the first conception and the verification of new truth; but “scepticism” about old propositions which he has duly attended to is impossible to him. In the same way there is no wandering in “darkness” for the positive philosopher. He walks in light as far as he goes. It is, to be sure, but a short way up to the blank wall of human ignorance; but we can separate, on our own side of that blank wall, what is actually known from what is becoming revealed; and both from what we never can know. I need not add that the wall itself is destined to be forced, and the limits of ignorance to be set perpetually farther back, while we can never be any nearer to knowing what our faculties are unable by their constitution to apprehend. While the disciples of dogma are living in a magic cavern, painted with wonderful shows, and the metaphysical philosophers are wandering in an enchanted wood, all tangle and bewilderment, the positive philosophers have emerged upon the broad, airy, sunny common of nature, with firm ground underfoot and unfathomable light overhead. So much for the “darkness,” “doubt,” falling away, “scepticism,” &c.
Among the unknowable things, the first we recognize is the nature or attributes of the First Cause; and this is why we are called atheists. We are atheists in the sense in which all reformers in essential matters have always been called atheists. Like the apostles, and the Lutheran reformers, and many more, the positive philosophers are called atheists, and for the same reason, — because they are disbelievers in the popular theology. For the same reason they are insolently compassionated and insultingly grieved over. The “interest” or corporation of the great Diana of the Ephesians pitied as well as vituperated the reformers, no doubt; pitied them for what they lost, they themselves being disqualified for estimating the gain. At the Reformation the Catholics sincerely, however insolently, pitied the Protestants for their loss of the old resources and consolations, the procurableness of indulgences, the comfort of absolution, the resource of the intercession of saints, and the protection of the Virgin. In the same way now Christians, who have no more authority from Scripture or reason for their personal fancies or general dogmas about a future life and an adaptation of the universe to the moral government of our world according to human notions than the Catholics for their special comforts, insolently pity us for what they consider loss, without asking themselves whether they are qualified to estimate our gain. The case is one of constant repetition, world without end. If disbelieving in the popular theology, therefore, is atheism, then we are atheists, but not in the philosophical and only permanent sense of the term “disbelief in a First Cause.” To us the only wonder is that men are so long in perceiving that they must be wrong in “realizing” (as you would say in America) the First Cause, more or less, in any mode or direction whatever. The form or constitution of the human mind requires the supposition of a First Cause. To go further than the supposition is to give an extension to Fetishism which the nineteenth century might be ashamed of, in its grown and educated men. Infant man — the race and the individual — instinctively (therefore constantly and necessarily) transfers his own consciousness or experience to every thing his senses encounter. Enlightenment constantly restricts this application till the individual or the race, which at first concluded that every thing in the universe had a life and a will of its own, arrives at the advanced stage of believing in one Supreme Being made up of human attributes in a highly magnified form. As Xenophanes described men making gods in their own image in his day, so we see men doing it still, for the same reason that Xenophanes gives, and whereby, “if oxen and lions had hands like our own, and fingers, then would horses, like unto horses, and oxen to oxen, paint and fashion their god-forms.” In this way has the God of monotheists been in a barbaric age a “Lord of Hosts” and a “God of Israel;” and is now, after a succession of phases, the Father of mankind, with the affections, powers, and intellect of man vastly magnified. He designs; he foresees and plans; he creates and preserves; he loves, pardons, gives laws and admits exceptions, — is, in short, altogether human in mind and ways. The positive point of view — that external to man — shows that this conception cannot possibly be true in any degree, no portion of the universe having, more or less, the characteristics of the Cause of the whole. Throughout the universe, again, nothing caused bears any resemblance to its cause, or can bear such resemblance, because the functions of the two are wholly different. What is knowable about a First Cause is simply this, — as any disciple of positive philosophy is fully aware, — that our mental constitution compels us to suppose a First Cause, and that that First Cause cannot be the God of theology.
I need not say how puerile, barbaric, and irreverent appear to us the “views” of Christian Fetishism in their whole extent, comprising that conception of a future life which is fetish in being a transference of our present experience to other conditions. It is not “another life” that people desire and expect, but the same life in another place. Once regarded from the higher (exterior) point of view, the folly and practical mischief of this superstition become evident to a degree which it would startle some of my friends exceedingly to become aware of. The belief was no doubt of use in its proper day, like every general belief, but its proper date is past; that which was a substantial faith (as when the early Christians looked for the Millennium) is now (whenever it goes beyond a limited dogma) a personal fancy, a bastard conception of unchastened imagination, and a sentimental egotism. The state of anticipation which religious people try to establish in themselves appears to us in its true colours, as a selfish egotism, like that of children who would have the universe ruled to gratify their fancies and desires. I need spend no words in showing that the conceptions of no two people in Protestant Christendom, as to a future life, can be made compatible, if thoroughly examined. Christians find it difficult (and most difficult in the most anxious moments) to make out what view of a future life can be right. Positive philosophy shows that there is no evidence that any are right, while there is strong presumptive evidence that all are wrong. As for the effect on our minds of this kind of recognition, I can no more hope to convey to theological believers any sense of our privileges of emancipation, than the Lutheran reformers could show their Romish friends why they were happier than when they believed in the absolution of their sins, the protection of the Virgin, and the intercession of saints. Whatever freedom my more liberal Christian friends have gained, that we possess in greater measure. Whatever sin and sorrow they see in the superstitions they have left behind, that we are in a yet greater measure thankful to have been delivered from. As for the sense of general health, intellectual and moral, the full and joyous liberty under the everlasting laws of nature, and the disappearance of incongruity, perplexity, and moral disturbance such as every theory of the government of the universe must cause to thoughtful minds, we can only enjoy these blessings in sympathy with our fellow-disciples. It is only by attaining them that the blessing of them can be understood. What Christians may know by observation, if they will, is that we who have gone through their experience (whereas they have not had ours) are healthier in mind, higher in views and conduct, and happier in life and the prospect of death, than we were before. Our old friends may wonder at it; but that is their affair. We know our own feelings; and the wonder to us is that inexperienced persons should pronounce upon them.
Perhaps my correspondents may now see how unnecessary is their careful and express declaration to me that they do not share my views. How should they, when they have not even attempted the requisite study? An astronomer calculating an eclipse needs no assurance from those who take the stars to be spangles, that they do not share his views. After having gone through the prior stages of dogmatic and metaphysical belief, it was through years of thought and study, under able guidance, that I attained my present standpoint; and to me, who know what the requisite labour is, and how gradual is the evolution of the way, my friends who have never pursued it at all think it necessary to explain that they do not stand by my side! I speak thus confidently about their not having pursued truth in this direction, because they entirely mistake my position and state of mind. If they understood either, they would feel and express something very unlike the innocent compassion and the well-meant insolence of their recent letters. It is impossible, and of course no matter of desire, that every body should engage in the pursuit of truth, which is the most laborious as it is the highest of human occupations; but those who decline the toil should be at least capable of respect towards those who achieve it. The whole matter will be easier to a future generation, who will have less to unlearn than we have. If it should be thought an objection to the faith which I hold that it takes long to attain, the obvious reply is that fresh truth is always hard of attainment, because of the requisite amount of unlearning; but that the hard acquisition of one generation becomes the easy inheritance of another. Thus, our Protestant world suffers nothing now from dogmas which it cost the early reformers much agony to expose; and thus, again, every child will hold convictions a century hence which it costs the wisest men of our time much toil and pains to attain. I say this, which cannot in a general way be new to any body, simply to guard against its being supposed that a life of scientific pursuit is always necessary to the attainment of truth. The chief part of the business is only temporary, — the unlearning of error, the discrimination of the knowable from the unknowable.
The deepest chasm, however, which yawns between my correspondents and me is an unbelief on their part which, while it lasts, renders impossible all mutual sympathy on the most important subjects of human thought and feeling. They are wholly indifferent to philosophy as vital truth. Reality is nothing to the superstitious, in comparison with the safety of their own dogmas and persuasions. Science is to them a mere word in its highest relation of all, — as the basis of all true belief. They approve of science and philosophy as mental exercise and an innocent pursuit; and, in a utilitarian sense, as conducive to human welfare in material conditions. But they do not recognize in it the special and crowning duty and boon of man’s life, — the source of all truth and the highway to all wisdom. They do not see in science the test of all other things, including beliefs, theological and other; and till they do recognize this, they will not see how philosophy — which is wisdom derived from science — is good enough to fulfil our most ardent desires, and holy enough to occupy our loftiest aspirations. The levity and presumption with which theological and metaphysical believers and speculators treat the holiest and loftiest aim and pursuit open to us, is so painful to my feelings of reverence, and discloses so broad a severance between us, that I hope for nothing more from this letter, or from any intercourse now possible on these topics, than to awaken some sense in my old friends that there may be more than they see in the great study of my life, and in its results, and possibly to fix the attention of one or another on the difference between an indulgence in the use of time-hallowed words and images and the bona fide pursuit of everlasting truth. Perhaps I may at least have checked the unconscious presumption with which those who rest upon tradition, or amuse themselves with speculation, are apt to treat labourers who deal with a toil which they have declined.
I hope, and in my own mind I feel sure, that there is nothing in what I have said incompatible with real and warm affection for my old friends, or with gratitude for the kindliness and efforts at respect with which they have written to me. I am as sensible of their interest and their fidelity (as far as their knowledge goes) as if our theological agreement was the same as of old, and they will feel, I am sure, that I could not appear, by silence, to acquiesce in the position they assign me, without betraying at once our mutual confidence and the philosophy which is the reverse of what they suppose. I believe they will not be offended. If they are, I cannot take the blame to myself. If they are not, how much better is frank explanation than concealment or silence!
I am, dear friend, yours ever,
[* ]These gentlemen declared he had never tried; they were aghast at the appearance of the article.
[* ]See Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë.