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ESSAY ON PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL
The difficulty of necessity and free will is not peculiar to Christianity. It enters into all religions at a certain stage of their progress; it reappears in philosophy and is a question not only of speculation but of life. Wherever man touches nature, wherever the stream of thought which flows within, meets and comes into conflict with scientific laws, reflecting on the actions of an individual in relation to his antecedents, considering the balance of human actions in many individuals; when we pass into the wider field of history, and trace the influence of circumstances on the course of events, the sequence of nations and states of society, the physical causes that lie behind all; in the region of philosophy, as we follow the order of human thoughts, and observe the seeming freedom and real limitation of ideas and systems; lastly in that higher world of which religion speaks to us, when we conceive man as a finite being, who has the witness in himself of his own dependence on God, whom theology too has made the subject of many theories of grace, new forms appear of that famous controversy which the last century discussed under the name of necessity and free will.
I shall at present pursue no further the train of reflections which are thus suggested. My first object is to clear the way for the consideration of the subject within the limits of Scripture. Some preliminary obstacles offer themselves, arising out of the opposition which the human mind everywhere admits in the statement of this question. These will be first examined. We may afterwards return to the modern aspects of the contradiction and of the reconcilement.
In the relations of God and man, good and evil, finite and infinite, there is much that must ever be mysterious. Nor can any one exaggerate the weakness and feebleness of the human mind in the attempt to seek for such knowledge. But although we acknowledge the feebleness of man’s brain and the vastness of the subject, we should also draw a distinction between the original difficulty of our own ignorance, and the puzzles and embarrassments which false philosophy or false theology have introduced. The impotence of our faculties is not a reason for acquiescing in a metaphysical fiction. Philosophy has no right to veil herself in mystery at the point where she is lost in a confusion of words. That we know little is the real mystery; not that we are caught in dilemmas or surrounded by contradictions. These contradictions are involved in the slightest as well as in the most serious of our actions, which is a proof of their really trifling nature. They confuse the mind but not things. To trace the steps by which mere abstractions have acquired this perplexing and constraining power, though it cannot meet the original defect, yet may perhaps assist us to understand the misunderstanding, and to regard the question of predestination and free will in a simpler and more natural light.
A subject which claims to be raised above the rules and requirements of logic, must give a reason for the exemption, and must itself furnish some other test of truth to which it is ready to conform. The reason is that logic is inapplicable to the discussion of a question which begins with a contradiction in terms: it can only work out the opposite aspects or principles of such a question on one side or the other, but is inadequate to that more comprehensive conception of the subject which embraces both. We often speak of language as an imperfect instrument for the expression of thought. Logic is even more imperfect; it is wanting in the plastic and multiform character of language, yet deceives us by the appearance of a straight rule and necessary principle. Questions respecting the relation of God and man, necessity and free will, the finite and the infinite—perhaps every question which has two opposite poles of fact and idea—are beyond the sphere of its art. But if not logic, some other test must be found of our theories or reasonings, on these and the like metaphysical subjects. This can only be their agreement with facts, which we shall the more readily admit if the new form of expression or statement of them be a real assistance to our powers of thought and action.
The difficulties raised respecting necessity and free will partake, for the most part, of the same nature as the old fallacies respecting motion and space of Zeno and the Eleatics, and have their ‘solvitur ambulando’ as well. This is the answer of Bishop Butler, who aims only at a practical solution. But as it is no use to say to the lame man, ‘rise up and walk,’ without a crutch or helping hand, so it is no use to offer these practical solutions to a mind already entangled in speculative perplexities. It reforts upon you—‘I cannot walk: if my outward actions seem like other men’s; if I do not throw myself from a precipice, or take away the life of another under the fatal influence of the doctrine of necessity, yet the course of thought within me is different. I look upon the world with other eyes, and slowly and gradually, differences in thought must beget differences also in action.’ But if the mind, which is bound by this chain, could be shown that it was a slave only to its own abstract ideas—that it was below where it ought to be above them—that, considering all the many minds of men as one mind, it could trace the fiction—this world of abstractions would gradually disappear, and not merely in a Christian, but in a philosophical sense, it would receive the kingdom of Heaven as a little child, seeking rather for some new figure under which conflicting notions might be represented, than remaining in suspense between them. It may be as surprising to a future generation that the nineteenth century should have been under the influence of the illusion of necessity and free will, or that it should have proposed the law of contradiction as an ultimate test of truth, as it is to ourselves that former ages have been subjected to the fictions of essence, substance, and the like.
The notion that no idea can be composed of two contradictory conceptions, seems to arise out of the analogy of the sensible world. It would be an absurdity to suppose that an object should be white and black at the same time; that a captive should be in chains and not in chains at the same time, and so on. But there is no absurdity in supposing that the mental analysis even of a matter of fact or an outward object should involve us in contradictions. Objects, considered in their most abstract point of view, may be said to contain a positive and a negative element: everything is and is not; is in itself, and is not, in relation to other things. Our conceptions of motion, of becoming, or of beginning, in like manner involve a contradiction. The old puzzles of the Eleatics are merely an exemplification of the same difficulty. There are objections, it has been said, against a vacuum, objections against a plenum, though we need not add, with the writer who makes the remark, ‘Yet one of these must be true.’ How a new substance can be formed by chemical combination out of two other substances may seem also to involve a contradiction, e. g. water is and is not oxygen and hydrogen. Life, in like manner, has been defined as a state in which every end is a means, and every means an end. And if we turn to any moral or political subject, we are perpetually coming across different and opposing lines of argument, and constantly in danger of passing from one sphere to another; of applying, for example, moral or theological principles to politics, and political principles to theology. Men form to themselves first one system, then many, as they term them different, but in reality opposite to each other. Just as that nebulous mass, out of which the heavens have been imagined to be formed, at last, with its circling motion, subsides into rings, and embodies the ‘stars moving in their courses,’ so also in the world of mind there are so many different orbits which never cross or touch each other, and yet which must be conceived of as the colours of the rainbow, the result of a single natural phenomenon.
It is at first sight strange that some of these contradictions should seem so trivial to us, while others assume the appearance of a high mystery. In physics or mathematics we scarcely think of them, though speculative minds may sometimes be led by them to seek for higher expressions, or to embrace both sides of the contradiction in some conception of flux or transition, reciprocal action, process by antagonism, the Hegelian vibration of moments, or the like. In common life we acquiesce in the contradiction almost unconsciously, merely remarking on the difference of men’s views, or the possibility of saying something on either side of a question. But in religion the difficulty appears of greater importance, partly from our being much more under the influence of language in theology than in subjects which we can at once bring to the test of fact and experiment, and partly also from our being more subject to our own natural constitution, which leads us to one or the other horn of the dilemma, instead of placing us between or above both. As in heathen times it was natural to think of extraordinary phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, as the work of gods rather than as arising from physical causes, so it is still to the religious mind to consider the bewilderments and entanglements which it has itself made as a proof of the unsearchableness of the Divine nature.
The immoveableness of these abstractions from within will further incline us to consider the metaphysical contradiction of necessity and free will in the only rational way; that is, ‘historically.’ To say that we have ideas of fate or freedom which are innate, is to assume what is at once disproved by a reference to history. In the East and West, in India and in Greece, in Christian as well as heathen times, whenever men have been sufficiently enlightened to form a distinct conception of a single Divine power or overruling law, the question arises, How is the individual related to this law? The first answer to this question is Pantheism; in which the individual, dropping his proper qualities, abstracts himself into an invisible being, indistinguishable from the Divine. God overpowers man; the inner life absorbs the outer; the ideal world is too much for this. The second answer, which the East has also given to this question, is Fatalism; in which, without abstraction, the individual identifies himself, soul and body, in deed as well as thought, with the Divine will. The first is the religion of contemplation; the second, of action. Only in the last, as the world itself alters, the sense of the overruling power weakens; and faith in the Divine will, as in Mahometan countries at the present day, shows itself, not in a fanatical energy, but in passive compliance and resignation.
The gradual emergence of the opposition is more clearly traceable in the Old Testament Scriptures or in Greek poetry or philosophy. The Israelites are distinguished from all other Eastern nations—certainly from all contemporary with their early history—by their distinct recognition of the unity and personality of God. God, who is the Creator and Lord of the whole earth, is also in a peculiar sense the God of the Jewish people whom He deals with according to His own good pleasure, which is also a law of truth and right. He is not so much the Author of good as the Author of all things, without whom nothing either good or evil can happen; not only the permitter of evil, but in a few instances, in the excess of His power, the cause of it also. With this universal attribute He combines another, ‘the Lord our God, who brought us out of the land of bondage.’ The people have one heart and one soul with which they worship God and have dealings with Him. Only a few individuals among them, as Moses or Joshua, draw near separately to Him. In the earliest ages they do not pray each one for himself. There is a great difference in this respect between the relation of man to God which is expressed in the Psalms and in the Pentateuch. In the later Psalms, certainly, and even in some of those ascribed to David, there is an immediate personal intercourse between God and His servants. At length in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, the human spirit begins to strive with God, and to ask not only, how can man be just before God? but also, how can God be justified to man? There was a time when the thought of this could never have entered into their minds; in which they were only, as children with a father, doing evil, and punished, and returning once more to the arms of His wisdom and goodness. The childhood of their nation passed away, and the remembrance of what God had done for their fathers was forgotten; religion became the religion of individuals, of Simeon and Anna, of Joseph and Mary. On the one hand, there was the proud claim of those who said, ‘We have Abraham to our Father;’ on the other hand, the regretful feeling ‘that God was casting off Israel,’ which St. Paul in the manner of the Old Testament rebukes with the words, ‘Who art thou, O man?’ and ‘We are the clay, and He the potter.’
We may briefly trace the progress of a parallel struggle in Grecian mythology. It presents itself, however, in another form, beginning with the Fates weaving the web of life, or the Furies pursuing the guilty, and ending in the pure abstraction of necessity or nature. Many changes of feeling may be observed between the earlier and later of these two extremes. The Fate of poetry is not like that of philosophy, the chain by which the world is held together; but an ever-living power or curse—sometimes just, sometimes arbitrary—specially punishing impiety towards the Gods or violations of nature. In Homer, it represents also a determination already fixed, or an ill irremediable by man; in one aspect it is the folly which ‘leaves no place for repentance.’ In Pindar it receives a nobler form, ‘Law the king of all.’ In the tragedians, it has a peculiar interest, giving a kind of measured and regular movement to the whole action of the play. The consciousness that man is not his own master, had deepened in the course of ages; there had grown up in the mind a sentiment of overruling law. It was this half-religious, half-philosophical feeling, which Greek tragedy embodied; whence it derived not only dramatic irony or contrast of the real and seeming, but also its characteristic feature—repose. The same reflective tone is observable in the ‘Epic’ historian of the Persian war; who delights to tell, not (like a modern narrator) of the necessary connexion of causes and effects, but of effects without causes, due only to the will of Heaven. A sadder note is heard at intervals of the feebleness and nothingness of man; πα̑ν ἐστιν ἄνθρωπος συμϕορή. In Thucydides, (who was separated from Herodotus by an interval of about twenty years) the sadness remains, but the religious element has vanished. Man is no longer in the toils of destiny, but he is still feeble and helpless. Fortune and human enterprise divide the empire of life.
Such conceptions of fate belong to Paganism, and have little in common with that higher idea of Divine predestination of which the New Testament speaks. The Fate of Greek philosophy is different from either. The earlier schools expressed their sense of an all-pervading law in rude, mythological figures. In time this passed away, and the conceptions of chance, of nature, and necessity became matters of philosophical inquiry. By the Sophists first the question was discussed, whether man is the cause of his own actions; the mode in which they treated of the subject being to identify the good with the voluntary, and the evil with the involuntary. It is this phase of the question which is alone considered by Aristotle. In the chain of the Stoics the doctrine has arrived at a further stage, in which human action has become a part of the course of the world. How the free will of man was to be reconciled either with Divine power, or Divine foreknowledge, was a difficulty pressed upon the Stoical philosopher equally as upon the metaphysicians of the last century; and was met by various devices, such as that of the confatalism of Chrysippus, which may be described as a sort of identity of fate and freedom, or of an action and its conditions.
Our inquiry has been thus far confined to an attempt to show, first, that the question of predestination cannot be considered according to the common rules of logic; secondly, that the contradictions which are involved in this question, are of the same kind as many other contrasts of ideas; and, thirdly, that the modern conception of necessity was the growth of ages, whether its true origin is to be sought in the Scriptures, or in the Greek philosophy, or both. If only we could throw ourselves back to a prior state of the world, and know no other modes of thought than those which existed in the infancy of the human mind, the opposition would cease to have any meaning for us; and thus the further reflection is suggested, that if ever we become fully conscious that the words which we use respecting it are words only, it will again become unmeaning. Historically we know when it arose, and whence it came. Already we are able to consider the subject in a simpler way, whether presented to us (1) in connexion with the statements of Scripture, or (2) as a subject of theology and philosophy.
Two kinds of predestination may be distinguished in the writings of St. Paul, as well as in some parts of the Old Testament. First, the predestination of nations; secondly, of individuals. The former of these may be said to flow out of the latter, God choosing at once the patriarchs and their descendants. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses it, ‘By faith Abraham offered up Isaac; and therefore sprang there of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude.’ The life of the patriarchs was the type or shadow of the history of their posterity, for evil as well as good. ‘Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations; Joseph is a goodly bough;’ Moab and Ammon are children of whoredom; Ishmael is a wild man, and so on. There is also the feeling that whatever extraordinary thing happens in Jewish history is God’s doing, not of works nor even of faith, but of grace and choice: ‘He took David from the sheep-folds, and set him over His people Israel.’ So that a double principle is discernible: first, absolute election; and, secondly, the fulfilment of the promises made to the fathers, or the visitation of their sins upon the children.
The notion of freedom is essentially connected with that of individuality. No one is truly free who has not that inner circle of thoughts and actions in which he is wholly himself and independent of the will of others. A slave, for example, may be in this sense free, even while in the service of his lord; constraint can apply only to his outward acts, not to his inward nature. But if, in the language of Aristotle, he were a natural slave, whose life seemed to himself defective and imperfect, who had no thoughts or feelings of his own, but only instincts and impulses, we could no more call him free than a domestic animal which attaches itself to a master. So, in that stage of society in which the state is all in all, the idea of the individual has a feeble existence. In the language of philosophy the whole is free, and the parts are determined by the whole. So the theocracy of the Old Testament seems to swallow up its members. The Jewish commonwealth is governed by God himself; this of itself interferes with the personal relation in which He stands to the individuals who compose it. Through the law only, in the congregation, at the great feasts, through their common ancestors, the people draw near to God; they do not venture to think severally of their separate and independent connexion with Him. They stand or fall together; they go astray or return to Him as one man. It is this which makes so much of their history directly applicable to the struggle of Christian life. Religion, which to the believer in Christ is an individual principle, is with them a national one.
The idea of a chosen people passes from the Old Testament into the New. As the Jews had been predestined in the one, so it appeared to the Apostle St. Paul that the Gentiles were predestined in the other. In the Old Testament he observed two sorts of predestination; first, that more general one, in which all who were circumcised were partakers of the privilege—which was applicable to all Israelites as the children of Abraham; secondly, the more particular one, in reference to which he says, ‘All are not Israel who are of Israel.’ To the eye of faith ‘all Israel were saved;’ and yet within Israel, there was another Israel chosen in a more special sense. The analogy of this double predestination the Apostle transfers to the Christian society. All alike were holy, even those of whom he speaks in the strongest terms of reprobation. The Church, like Israel of old, presents to the Apostle’s mind the conception of a definite body, consisting of those who are sealed by baptism and have received ‘the first fruits of the Spirit.’ They are elect according to the foreknowledge or predisposition of God; sealed by God unto the day of redemption; a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, taken alike from Jews and Gentiles. The Apostle speaks of their election as of some external fact. The elect of God have an offence among them not even named among the Gentiles, they abuse the gifts of the Spirit, they partake in the idol’s temple, they profane the body and blood of Christ. And yet, as the Israelites of old, they bear on their foreheads the mark that they are God’s people, and are described as ‘chosen saints,’ ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus.’
Again, the Apostle argues respecting Israel itself, ‘Hath God cast off his people whom he foreknew?’ or rather, whom He before appointed. They are in the position of their fathers when they sinned against Him. If we read their history we shall see, that what happened to them in old times is happening to them now; and yet in the Old Testament as well as the New the overruling design was not their condemnation but their salvation—‘God concluded all under sin that he might have mercy upon all.’ They stumbled and rose again then; they will stumble and rise again now. Their predestination from the beginning is a proof that they cannot be finally cast off; beloved as they have been for their father’s sakes, and the children of so many promises. There is a providence which, in spite of all contrary appearance, in spite of the acceptance of the Gentiles, or rather so much the more in consequence of it, makes all things work together for good to the chosen people.
In this alternation of hopes and fears, in which hope finally prevails over fear, the Apostle speaks in the strongest language of the right of God to do what He will with His own; if any doctrine could be established by particular passages of Scripture, Calvinism would rest immoveable on the ninth chapter of the Romans. It seemed to him no more unjust that God should reject than that He should accept the Israelites; if, at that present time He cut them short in righteousness, and narrowed the circle of election, He had done the same with the patriarchs. He had said of old, ‘Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated:’ and this preference, as the Apostle observes, was shown before either could have committed actual sin. In the same spirit He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ And to Pharaoh, ‘For this cause have I raised thee up.’ Human nature, it is true, rebels at this, and says, ‘Why does he yet find fault?’ To which the Apostle only replies, ‘Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay?’ Some of the expressions which have become the most objectionable watchwords of predestinarian theology, such as ‘vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy,’ are in fact taken from the same passage in the Epistle to the Romans.
It is answered by the opponents of Calvinism, that the Apostle is here speaking not of individual but of national predestination. From the teaching of the Old Testament respecting the election of the Jewish people we can infer nothing respecting the Divine economy about persons. To which in turn it may be replied, that if we admit the principle that the free choice of nations is not inconsistent with Divine justice, we cannot refuse to admit the free choice of persons also. A little more or a little less of the doctrine cannot make it more or less reconcilable with the perfect justice of God. Nor can we argue that the election of nations is a part of the Old Testament dispensation, which has no place in the New; because the Apostle speaks of election according to the purpose of God as a principle which was at that time being manifested in the acceptance of the Gentiles.
Yet the distinction is a sound one if stated a little differently, that is to say, if we consider that the predestination of Christians is only the continuance of the Old Testament in the New. It is the feeling of a religious Israelite respecting his race; this the Apostle enlarges to comprehend the Gentiles. As the temporal Israel becomes the spiritual Israel, the chosen people are transfigured into the elect. Why this is so is only a part of the more general question, ‘why the New Testament was given through the Old?’ It was natural it should be so given; humanly speaking, it could not have been otherwise. The Gospel would have been unmeaning, if it had been ‘tossed into the world’ separated from all human antecedents; if the heaven of its clearness had been beyond the breath of every human feeling. Neither is there any more untruthfulness in St. Paul’s requiring us to recognize the goodness of God in the election of some and the rejection of others, than in humility or any act of devotion. The untruth lies not in the devout feeling, but in the logical statement. When we humble ourselves before God, we may know, as a matter of common sense, that we are not worse than others; but this, however true (‘Father, I thank thee I am not as other men’), is not the temper in which we kneel before Him. So in these passages, St. Paul is speaking, not from a general consideration of the Divine nature, but with the heart and feelings of an Israelite. Could the question have been brought before him in another form—could we have been asked whether God, according to His own pleasure, chose out individual souls, so that some could not fail of being saved while others were necessarily lost—could he have been asked whether Christ died for all or for the chosen few—whether, in short, God was sincere in his offer of salvation—can we doubt that to such suggestions he would have replied in his own words, ‘God forbid! for how shall God judge the world?’
It has been said that the great error in the treatment of this subject consists in taking chap. ix. separated from chaps. x. xi. We may say more generally, in taking parts of Scripture without the whole, or in interpreting either apart from history and experience. In considering the question of predestination, we must not forget that at least one-half of Scripture tells not of what God does, but of what man ought to do; not of grace and pardon only, but of holiness. If, in speaking of election, St. Paul seems at times to use language which implies the irrespective election of the Jews as a nation; yet, on the other hand, what immediately follows shows us that conditions were understood throughout, and that, although we may not challenge the right of God to do what He would with His own, yet that in all His dealings with them the dispensation was but the effect of their conduct. And although the Apostle is speaking chiefly of national predestination, with respect to which the election of God is asserted by him in the most unconditional terms; yet, as if he were already anticipating the application of his doctrine to the individual, he speaks of human causes for the rejection of Israel; ‘because they sought not righteousness by the way of faith;’ ‘because they stumble at the rock of offence.’ God accepted and rejected Israel of His own good pleasure; and yet it was by their own fault. How are we to reconcile these conflicting statements? They do not need reconciliation; they are but the two opposite expressions of a religious mind, which says at one moment, ‘Let me try to do right,’ and at another, ‘God alone can make me do right.’ The two feelings may involve a logical contradiction, and yet exist together in fact and in the religious experience of mankind.
In the Old Testament the only election of individuals is that of the great leaders or chiefs, who are identified with the nation. But in the New Testament, where religion has become a personal and individual matter, it follows that election must also be of persons. The Jewish nation knew, or seemed to know, one fact, that they were the chosen people. They saw, also, eminent men raised up by the hand of God to be the deliverers of His servants. It is not in this ‘historical’ way that the Christian becomes conscious of his individual election. From within, not from without, he is made aware of the purpose of God respecting himself. Living in close and intimate union with God, having the mind of the Spirit and knowing the things of the Spirit, he begins to consider with St. Paul, ‘When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, to reveal his Son in me.’ His whole life seems a sort of miracle to him; supernatural, and beyond other men’s in the gifts of grace which he has received. If he asks himself, ‘Whence was this to me?’ he finds no other answer but that God gave them ‘because he had a favour unto him.’ He recalls the hour of his conversion, when, in a moment, he was changed from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. Or, perhaps, the dealings of God with him have been insensible, yet not the less real; like a child, he cannot remember the time when he first began to trust the love of his parent. How can he separate himself from that love or refuse to believe that He who began the good work will also accomplish it unto the end? At which step in the ladder of God’s mercy will he stop? ‘Whom he did foreknow, them he did predestinate; whom he did predestinate, them he also called; whom he called, them he justified; whom he justified, them he also glorified.’
A religious mind feels the difference between saying, ‘God chose me; I cannot tell why; not for any good that I have done; and I am persuaded that he will keep me unto the end;’ and saying, ‘God chooses men quite irrespective of their actions, and predestines them to eternal salvation;’ and yet more, if we add the other half of the doctrine, ‘God refuses men quite irrespective of their actions, and they become reprobates, predestined to everlasting damnation.’ Could we be willing to return to that stage of the doctrine which St. Paul taught, without comparing contradictory statements or drawing out logical conclusions—could we be content to rest our belief, as some of the greatest, even of Calvinistic divines have done, on fact and experience, theology would be no longer at variance with morality.
‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you both to do and to will of his good pleasure,’ is the language of Scripture, adjusting the opposite aspects of this question. The Arminian would say, ‘Work out your own salvation;’ the Calvinist, ‘God worketh in you both to do and to will of his good pleasure.’ However contradictory it may sound, the Scripture unites both; work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
I. We have been considering the question thus far within the limits of Scripture. But it has also a wider range. The primary relations of the will of man to the will of God are independent of the Christian revelation. Natural religion, that is to say, the Greek seeking after wisdom, the Indian wandering in the expanse of his own dreamlike consciousness, the Jew repeating to himself that he is Abraham’s seed; each in their several ways at different stages of the world’s history have asked the question, ‘How is the freedom of the human will consistent with the infinity and omnipotence of God?’ These attributes admit of a further analysis into the power of God and the knowledge of God. And hence arises a second form of the inquiry, ‘How is the freedom of the human will reconcilable with Divine omniscience or foreknowledge?’ To which the Christian system adds a third question, ‘How is the freedom of the human will reconcilable with that more immediate presence of God in the soul which is termed by theologians Divine grace?’
(1) God is everywhere; man is nowhere. Infinity exists continuously in every point of time; it fills every particle of space. Or rather, these very ideas of time and space are figures of speech, for they have a ‘here’ and a ‘there,’ a future and a past—which no effort of human imagination can transcend. But in God there is no future and no past, neither ‘here nor there;’ He is all and in all. Where, then, is room for man? in what open place is he permitted to live and move and have his being?
God is the cause of all things; without Him nothing is made that is made. He is in history, in nature, in the heart of man. The world itself is the work of His power; the least particulars of human life are ordained by Him. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for one farthing, and yet your heavenly Father feedeth them;’ and ‘the hairs of your head are all numbered.’ Is there any point at which this Divine causalty can stop? at which the empire of law ceases? at which the human will is set free?
The answer is the fact; not the fact of consciousness as it is sometimes termed, that we are free agents, which it is impossible to see or verify; but the visible tangible fact that we have a place in the order of nature, and walk about on the earth, and are ourselves causes drawing effects after them. Does any advocate of freedom mean more than this? Or any believer in necessity less? No one can deny of himself the restrictions which he observes to be true of others; nor can any one doubt that there exists in others the same consciousness of freedom and responsibility which he has himself. But if so, all these things are as they were before; we need not differ about the unseen foundation whether of necessity or free will, spirit or body, mind or matter, upon which the edifice of human life is to be reared. Just as the theory of the ideality of matter leaves the world where it was—they do not build houses in the air who imagine Bishop Berkeley to have dissolved the solid elements into sensations of the mind—so the doctrine of necessity or predestination leaves morality and religion unassailed, unless it intrude itself as a motive on the sphere of human action.
It is remarkable that the belief in predestination, both in modern and in ancient times, among Mahometans as well as Christians, has been the animating principle of nations and bodies of men, equally, perhaps more than of individuals. It is characteristic of certain countries, and has often arisen from sympathy in a common cause. Yet it cannot be said to have been without a personal influence also. It has led to a view of religion in which man has been too much depressed to form a true conception of God himself. For it is not to be supposed that the lower we sink human nature in the scale of being, the higher we raise the Author of being; worthy notions of God imply worthy notions of man also.
‘God is infinite.’ But in what sense? Am I to conceive a space without limit, such as I behold in the immeasurable ether, and apply this viewless form to the thought of the Almighty? Any one will admit that here would be a figure of speech. Yet few of us free our notions of infinity from the imagery of place. It is this association which gives them their positive, exclusive character. But conceive of infinity as mere negation, denying of God the limits which are imposed upon finite beings, meaning only that God is not a man or comprehensible by man, without any suggestion of universal space, and the exclusiveness disappears; there is room for the creature side by side with the Creator. Or again, press the idea of the infinite to its utmost extent, till it is alone in the universe, or rather is the universe itself, in this heaven of abstraction, nevertheless, a cloud begins to appear; a limitation casts its shadow over the formless void. Infinite is finite because it is infinite. That is to say, because infinity includes all things, it is incapable of creating what is external to itself. Deny infinity in this sense, and the being to whom it is attributed receives a new power; God is greater by being finite than by being infinite. Proceeding in the same train of thought, we may observe that the word finite is the symbol, to our own minds as to the Greek, of strength and reality and truth. It cannot be these which we intend to deny of the Divine Being. Lastly, when we have freed our minds from associations of place and from those other solemn associations which naturally occur to us from its application to the Almighty, are we sure that we intend anything more by the ‘Infinite’ than mere vacancy, the ‘indefinite,’ the word ‘not?’
It is useful to point out the ambiguities and perplexities of such terms. Logic is not to puzzle us with inferences about words which she clothes in mystery; at any rate, before moving a step she should explain their meaning. She must admit that the infinite overreaches itself in denying the existence of the finite, and that there are some ‘limitations,’ such as the impossibility of evil or falsehood, which are of the essence of the Divine nature. She must inquire whether it be conceivable to reach a further infinite, in which the opposition to the finite is denied, which may be a worthier image of the Divine Being. She must acknowledge that negative ideas, while they have often a kind of solemnity and mystery, are the shallowest and most trifling of all our ideas.
So far the will may be free unless we persist in an idea of the Divine which logic and not reason erroneously requires, and which is the negative not only of freedom but of all other existence but its own. More serious consequences may seem to flow from the attribute of omnipotence. For if God is the Author of all things, must it not be as a mode of Divine operation that man acts? We can get no further than a doctrine of emanation or derivation. Again, we are caught unwittingly in the toils of an ‘illogical’ logic. For why should we assume that because God is omnipotent He cannot make beings independent of himself? A figure of speech is not generally a good argument; but in this instance it is a sufficient one, what is needed being not an answer but only an image or mode of conception. (For in theology and philosophy it constantly happens that while logic is working out antinomies, language fails to supply an expression of the intermediate truth.) The carpenter makes a chair, which exists detached from its maker; the mechanician constructs a watch, which is wound up and goes by the action of a spring or lever; he can frame yet more complex instruments, in which power is treasured up for other men to use. The greater the skill of the artificer the more perfect and independent the work. Shall we say of God only that He is unable to separate His creations from himself? That man can produce works of imagination which live for ages after he is committed to the dust; nay, that in the way of nature he can bring into existence another being endowed with life and consciousness to perpetuate His name? But that God cannot remove a little space to contemplate His works? He must needs be present in all their movements, according to the antiquated error of natural philosophers, ‘that no body can act where it is not.’
(2) Yet although the freedom of the will may be consistent with the infinity and omnipotence of God, when rightly understood and separated from logical consequences, it may be thought to be really interfered with by the Divine omniscience. ‘God knows all things; our thoughts are His before they are our own; what I am doing at this moment was certainly foreseen by Him; what He certainly foresaw yesterday, or a thousand years ago, or from everlasting, how can I avoid doing at this time? To-day He sees the future course of my life. Can I make or unmake what is already within the circle of His knowledge? The imperfect judgement of my fellow-creatures gives me no disquietude—they may condemn me, and I may reverse their opinion. But the fact that the unerring judgement of God has foreseen my doom renders me alike indifferent to good and evil.’
What shall we say to this? First, that the distinction between Divine and human judgements is only partially true. For as God sees with absolute unerringness, so a wise man who is acquainted with the character and circumstances of others may foretell and assure their future life with a great degree of certainty. He may perceive intuitively their strength and weakness, and prophesy their success or failure. Now, here it is observable, that the fact of our knowing the probable course of action which another will pursue has nothing to do with the action itself. It does not exercise the smallest constraint on him; it does not produce the slightest feeling of constraint. Imagine ourselves acquainted with the habits of some animal; as we open the door of the enclosure in which it is kept, we know that it will run up to or away from us; it will show signs of pleasure or irritation. No one supposes that its actions, whatever they are, depend on our knowledge of them. Let us take another example, which is at the other end of the scale of freedom and intelligence. Conceive a veteran statesman casting his eye over the map of Europe, and foretelling the parts which nations or individuals would take in some coming struggle, who thinks the events when they come to pass are the consequences of the prediction? Every one is able to distinguish the causes of the events from the knowledge which foretells them.
There are degrees in human knowledge or foreknowledge proceeding from the lowest probability, through increasing certainty, up to absolute demonstration. But as faint presumptions do not affect the future, nor great probability, so neither does scientific demonstration. Many natural laws cannot be known more certainly than they are; but we do not therefore confuse the fact with our knowledge of the fact. The time of the rising of the sun, or of the ebb and flow of the tide, are foretold and acted upon without the least hesitation. Yet no one has imagined that these or any other natural phenomena are affected by our previous calculations about them.
Why, then, should we impose on ourselves the illusion that the unerring certainty of Divine knowledge is a limit or shackle on human actions? The foreknowledge which we possess ourselves in no way produces the facts which we foresee; the circumstance that we foresee them in distant time has no more to do with them than if we saw them in distant space. So, once more, we return from the dominion of ideas and trains of speculative consequences to rest in experience. God sits upon the circle of the heavens, present, past, and future in a figure open before Him, and sees the inhabitants of the earth like grasshoppers, coming and going, to and fro, doing or not doing their appointed work: His knowledge of them is not the cause of their actions. So might we ourselves look down upon some wide prospect without disturbing the peaceful toils of the villagers who are beneath. They do not slacken or hasten their business because we are looking at them. In like manner God may look upon mankind without thereby interfering with the human will or influencing in any degree the actions of men.
(3) But the difficulty with which Christianity surrounds, or rather seems to surround us, winds yet closer; it rests also on the Christian consciousness. The doctrine of grace may be expressed in the language of St. Paul: ‘I can do nothing as of myself, but my sufficiency is of God:’ that which is truly self, which is peculiarly self, is yet in another point of view not self but God. He who has sought most earnestly to fulfil the will of God refers his efforts to something beyond himself; he is humble and simple, seeming to fear that he will lose the good that he has, when he makes it his own.
This is the mind of Christ which is formally expressed in theology by theories of grace. Theories of grace have commonly started from the transgression of Adam and the corruption of human nature in his posterity. Into the origin of sin it is not necessary for us to inquire; we may limit ourselves to the fact. All men are very far gone from original righteousness, they can only return to God by His grace preventing them; that is to say, anticipating and co-operating with the motions of their will. (1) God wills that some should be saved, whom He elects without reference to their deserts; (2) God wills that some should be saved, and implants in them the mind of salvation; (3) God calls all men, but chooses some out of those whom He calls; (4) God chooses all alike, and shows no preference to any; (5) God calls all men, even in the heathen world, and some hear His voice, not knowing whom they obey. Such are the possible gradations of the question of election. In the first of them grace is a specific quality distinct from holiness or moral virtue; in the second it is identical with holiness and moral virtue, according to a narrow conception of them which denies their existence in those who have not received a Divine call; in the third an attempt is made to reconcile justice to all men with favour to some; in the fourth the justice of God extends equally to all Christian men; in the fifth we pass the boundaries of the Christian world and expression is given to the thought of the Apostle, ‘Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feareth God is accepted of him.’
All these theories of grace affect at various points the freedom of the will, the first seeming wholly to deny it, while all the others attempt some real or apparent reconcilement of morality and religion. The fourth and fifth meet the difficulties arising out of our ideas of the justice of God, but fall into others derived from experience and fact. Can we say that all Christians, nominal and real, nay, that the most degraded persons among the heathen, are equally the subjects of Divine grace? Then grace is something unintelligible; it is a word only, to which there is no corresponding idea. Again, how upon any of these theories is grace distinguishable from the better consciousness of the individual himself? Can any one pretend to say where grace ends and the movement of the will begins? Did any one ever recognize in himself those lines of demarcation of which theology sometimes speaks?
These are difficulties in which we are involved by ‘oppositions of knowledge falsely so called.’ The answer to them is simple—a return to fact and nature. When, instead of reading our own hearts, we seek, in accordance with a preconceived theory, to determine the proportions of the divine and human—to distinguish grace and virtue, the word of God and man—we know not where we are, the difficulty becomes insuperable, we have involved ourselves in artificial meshes, and are bound hand and foot. But when we look by the light of conscience and Scripture on the facts of human nature, the difficulty of itself disappears. No one doubts that he is capable of choosing between good and evil, and that in making this choice he may be supported, if he will, by a power more than earthly. The movement of that Divine power is not independent of the movement of his own will, but coincident and identical with it. Grace and virtue, conscience and the Spirit of God, are not different from each other, but in harmony. If no man can do what is right without the aid of the Spirit, then every one who does what is right has the aid of the Spirit.
Part of the difficulty originates in the fact that the Scripture regards Christian truth from a Divine aspect, ‘God working in you,’ while ordinary language, even among religious men in modern times, deals rather with human states or feelings. Philosophy has a third way of speaking which is different from either. Two or more sets of words and ideas are used which gradually acquire a seemingly distinct meaning; at last comes the question—in what relation they stand to one another? The Epistles speak of grace and faith at the same time that heathen moralists told of virtue and wisdom, and the two streams of language have flowed on without uniting even at our own day. The question arises, first, whether grace is anything more than the objective name of faith and love; and again, whether these two latter are capable of being distinguished from virtue and truth? Is that which St. Paul called faith absolutely different from that which Seneca termed virtue or morality? Is not virtue, πρὸς θεόν, faith? Is faith anything without virtue? But if so, they are not opposed at all, or opposed only as part and whole. Christianity is not the negative of the religions of nature or the heathen; it includes and purifies them.
Instead, then, of arranging in a sort of theological diagram the relations of the human will to Divine grace, we deny the possibility of separating them. In various degrees, in many ways, more or less consciously in different cases, the Spirit of God is working in the soul of man. It is an erroneous mode of speaking, according to which the free agency of man is represented as in conflict with the Divine will. For the freedom of man in the higher sense is the grace of God; and in the lower sense (of mere choice) is not inconsistent with it. The real opposition is not between freedom and predestination, which are imperfect and in some degree misleading expressions of the same truth, but between good and evil.
II. Passing out of the sphere of religion, we have now to examine the question of free agency within the narrower limits of the mind itself. It will confirm the line of argument hitherto taken, if it be found that here too we are subject to the illusions of language and the oppositions of logic.
(1) Every effect has a cause; every cause an effect. The drop of rain, the ray of light does not descend at random on the earth. In the natural world though we are far from understanding all the causes of phenomena, we are certain from that part which we know, of their existence in that part which we do not know. In the human mind we perceive the action of many physical causes; we are therefore led to infer, that only our ignorance of physiology prevents our perceiving the absolute interdependence of body and soul. So indissolubly are cause and effect bound together, that there is a mental impossibility in conceiving them apart. Where, then in the endless chain of causes and effect can the human will be inserted, or how is the insertion of the will, as one cause out of many, consistent with the absolute freedom which we ascribe to it?
The author of the Critic of pure Reason is willing to accept such a statement as has been just made, and yet believes himself to have found out of time and space, independent of the laws of cause and effect, a transcendental freedom. Our separate acts are determined by previous causes; our whole life is a continuous ‘effect,’ yet in spite of this mechanical sequence, freedom is the overruling law which gives the form to human action. It is not necessary to analyze the steps by which Kant arrived at this paradoxical conclusion. Only by adjusting the glass so as to exclude from the sight everything but the perplexities of previous philosophers, can we conceive how a great intellect could have been led to imagine the idea of a freedom from which the notion of time is abstracted, of which nevertheless we are conscious in time. For what is that freedom which does not apply to our individual acts, hardly even to our lives as a whole, like a point which has neither length nor breadth, wanting both continuity and succession?
Scepticism proceeds by a different path in reference to our ideas of cause and effect; it challenges their validity, it denies the necessity of the connexion, or even doubts the ideas themselves. There was a time when the world was startled out of its propriety at this verbal puzzle, and half believed itself a sceptic. Now we know that no innovation in the use of words or in forms of thought can make any impression on solid facts. Nature and religion, and human life remain the same, even to one who entirely renounces the common conceptions of cause and effect.
The sceptic of the last century, instead of attempting to invalidate the connexion of fact which we express by the terms cause and effect, should rather have attacked language as ‘unequal to the subtlety of nature.’ Facts must be described in some way, and therefore words must be used, but always in philosophy with a latent consciousness of their inadequacy and imperfection. The very phrase, ‘cause and effect,’ has a dire influence in disguising from us the complexity of causes and effects. It is too abstract to answer to anything in the concrete. It tends to isolate in idea some one antecedent or condition from all the rest. And the relation which we deem invariable is really a most various one. Its apparent necessity is only the necessity of relative terms. Every cause has an effect, in the same sense that every father has a son. But while in the latter case the relation is always the same, the manifold application of the terms, cause and effect, to the most different phenomena has led to an ambiguity in their use. Our first impression is, that a cause is one thing and an effect another, but soon we find them doubling up, or melting into one. The circulation of the blood is not the cause of life, in the same sense that a blow with the hammer may be the cause of death; nor is virtue the cause of happiness, in precisely the same sense that the circulation of the blood is the cause of life. Everywhere, as we ascend in the scale of creation, from mechanics to chemistry, from chemistry to physiology and human action, the relative notion is more difficult and subtle, the cause becoming inextricably involved with the effect, and the effect with the cause, ‘every means being an end, and every end a means.’
Hence, no one who examines our ideas of cause and effect will believe that they impose any limit on the will; they are an imperfect mode in which the mind imagines the sequence of nature or moral actions; being no generalization from experience, but a play of words only. The chain which we are wearing is loose, and when shaken will drop off. External circumstances are not the cause of which the will is the effect; neither is the will the cause of which circumstances are the effect. But the phenomenon intended to be described by the words ‘cause and effect’ is itself the will, whose motions are analyzed in language borrowed from physical nature.
The same explanation applies to another formula: ‘the strongest motive.’ The will of every man is said to be only determined by the strongest motive: what is this but another imaginary analysis of the will itself? For the motive is a part of the will, and the strongest motive is nothing more than the motive which I choose. Nor is it true as a fact that we are always thus determined. For the greater proportion of human actions have no distinct motives; the mind does not stand like the schoolmen’s ass, pondering between opposite alternatives. Mind and will, and the sequence of cause and effect, and the force of motives, are different ways of speaking of the same mental phenomena.
So readily are we deceived by language, so easily do we fall under the power of imaginary reasonings. The author of the Novum Organum has put men upon their guard against the illusions of words in the study of the natural sciences. It is true that many distinctions may be drawn between the knowledge of nature, the facts of which are for the most part visible and tangible, and morality and religion, which run up into the unseen. But is it therefore to be supposed that language, which is the source of half the exploded fallacies of chemistry and physiology, is an adequate or exact expression of moral and spiritual truths? It is probable that its analysis of human nature is really as erring and inaccurate as its description of physical phenomena, though the error may be more difficult of detection. Those ‘inexact natures’ or substances of which Bacon speaks exist in moral philosophy as in physics; their names are not heat, moisture, form, matter and the like, but necessity, free will, predestination, grace, motive, cause, which rest upon nothing and yet become the foundation-stones of many systems. Logic, too, has its parallels, and conjugates, and differences of kind, which in life and reality are only differences of degree, and remote inferences lending an apparent weight to the principle on which they really drag, which spread themselves over every field of thought and are hardly corrected by their inconsistency with the commonest facts.
III. Difficulties of this class belong to the last generation rather than to the present; they are seldom discussed now by philosophical writers. Philosophy in our own age is occupied in another way. Her foundation is experience, which alone she interrogates respecting the limits of human action. How far is man a free agent? is the question still before us. But it is to be considered from without rather than from within, as it appears to others or ourselves in the case of others, and not with reference to our internal consciousness of our own actions.
The conclusions of philosophers would have met with more favour at the hands of preachers and moralists, had they confined themselves to the fact. Indeed, they would have been irresistible, like the conclusions of natural science, for who can resist evidence that any one may verify for himself? But the taint of language has clung to them; the imperfect expression of manifest truths has greatly hindered the general acceptance of them even among the most educated. It was not understood that those who spoke of necessity meant nothing which was really inconsistent with free will; when they assumed a power of calculating human actions, it was not perceived that all of us are every day guilty of this imaginary impiety. The words, character, habit, force of circumstances, temperament and constitution imply all that is really involved in the idea that human action is subject to uniform laws. Neither is it to be denied that expressions have been used equally repugnant to fact and morality; instead of regularity, and order, and law, which convey a beneficent idea, necessity has been set up as a constraining power tending to destroy, if not really destroying, the accountability of man. History, too, has received an impress of fatalism, which has doubtless affected our estimate of the good and evil of the agents who have been regarded as not really responsible for actions which the march of events forced upon them.
According to a common way of considering this subject, the domain of necessity is extending every day, and liberty is already confined to a small territory not yet reclaimed by scientific inquiry. Mind and body are in closer contact; there is increasing evidence of the interdependence of the mental and nervous powers. It is probable, or rather certain, that every act of the mind has a cause and effect in the body, that every act of the body has a cause and effect in the mind. Given the circumstances, parentage, education, temperament of each individual; we may calculate, with an approximation to accuracy, his probable course of life. Persons are engaged every day in making such observations; and whatever uncertainty there may be in the determination of the future of any single individual, this uncertainty is eliminated when the inquiry is extended to many individuals or to a whole class. We have as good data for supposing that a fixed proportion of a million persons in a country will commit murder or theft as that a fixed proportion will die without reaching a particular age and of this or that disease under given circumstances. And it so happens that we have the power of testing this order or uniformity in the most trifling of human actions. Nor can we doubt that were it worth while to make an abstract of human life, arranging under heads the least minutiae of action, all that we say and do would be found to conform to numerical laws.
So, again, history is passing into the domain of philosophy. Nations, like individuals, are moulded by circumstances; in their first rise, and ever after in their course, they are dependent on country and climate, like plants or animals, embodying the qualities which have dropped upon them from surrounding influences in national temperament; in their later stages seeming to react upon these causes, and coming under a new kind of law, as the earth discloses its hidden treasures, or the genius of man calls forth into life and action the powers which are dormant in matter. Nature, which is, in other words, the aggregate of all these causes, stamps nations and societies, and creates in them a mind, that is to say, ideas of order, of religion, of conquest, which they maintain, often unimpaired by the changes in their physical condition. She infuses among the mass a few great intellects, according to some law unknown to us, to ‘instrument this lower world.’ Here is a new power which is partially separated from the former, and yet combines with it in national existence, like body and soul in the existence of man. Partly isolated from their age and nation, partly also identified with them, it is a curious observation respecting great men that while they seem to have more play and freedom than others, in themselves they are often more enthralled, being haunted with the sense of a destiny which controls them. The ‘heirs of all the ages’ who have subjected nature to the dominion of science are also nature’s subjects; the conquerors who have poured over the earth have only continued some wave or tendency in the history of the times which preceded them. From the thin vapour which first floated, as some believe, in the azure vault, up to that miracle of complexity which we call man, and again from man the individual to the whole human race, with its languages and religions, and other national characteristics, and backwards to the beginning of human history, in the works of mind too as well as in the material universe, there is not always development, but order, and uniformity, and law.
It is a matter of some importance in what way this connexion or order of nature is to be expressed. For although words cannot alter facts, the right use of them greatly affects the readiness with which facts are admitted or received. Now the world may be variously imagined as a vast machine, as an animal or living being, as a body endowed with a rational or divine soul. All these figures of speech, and the associations to which they give rise, have an insensible influence on our ideas. The representation of the world as a machine is a more favourite one, in modern times, than the representation of it as a living being; and with mechanism is associated the notion of necessity. Yet the machine is, after all, a mere barren unity, which gives no conception of the endless fertility of natural or of moral life. So, again, when we speak of a ‘soul of the world,’ there is no real resemblance to a human soul; there is no centre in which this mundane life or soul has its seat, no individuality such as characterizes the soul of man. But the use of the word invariably recalls thoughts of Pantheism:
‘deum namque ire per omnes terrasque tractusque maris, coelumque profundum.’
So the term ‘law’ carries with it an association, partly of compulsion, partly of that narrower and more circumscribed notion of law, in which it is applied to chemistry or mechanics. So again the word ‘necessity’ itself always has a suggestion of external force.
All such language has a degree of error, because it introduces some analogy which belongs to another sphere of thought. But when, laying aside language, we consider facts only, no appearance of external compulsion arises, whether in nature, or in history, or in life. The lowest, and therefore the simplest idea, that we are capable of forming of physical necessity, is of the stone falling to the ground. No one imagines human action to be necessary in any such sense as this. If this be our idea of necessity, the meaning of the term must be enlarged when it is applied to man. If any one speaks of human action as the result of necessary laws, to avoid misunderstanding, we may ask at the outset of the controversy, ‘In what degree necessary?’ And this brings us to an idea which is perhaps the readiest solution of the apparent perplexity—that of degrees of necessity. For, although it is true, that to the eye of a superior or divine being the actions of men would seem to be the subject of laws quite as much as the falling stone, yet these laws are of a far higher or more delicate sort; we may figure them to ourselves truly, as allowing human nature play and room within certain limits, as regulating only and not constraining the freedom of its movements.
How degrees of necessity are possible may be illustrated as follows: The strongest or narrowest necessity which we ever see in experience is that of some very simple mechanical fact, such as is furnished by the law of attraction. A greater necessity than this is only an abstraction; as, for example, the necessity by which two and two make four, or the three angles of a triangle equal two right angles. But any relation between objects which are seen is of a much feebler and less absolute kind; the strongest which we have ever observed is that of a smaller body to a larger. The physiology even of plants opens to our minds freer and nobler ideas of law. The tree with its fibres and sap, drawing its nourishment from many sources, light, air, moisture, earth, is a complex structure: rooted to one particular spot, no one would think of ascribing to it free agency, yet as little should we think of binding it fast in the chains of a merely mechanical necessity. Animal life partaking with man of locomotion is often termed free; its sphere is narrowed only by instinct; indeed the highest grade of irrational being can hardly be said, in point of freedom, to differ from the lowest type of the human species. And in man himself are many degrees of necessity or freedom, from the child who is subject to its instincts, or the drunkard who is the slave of his passions, up to the philosopher comprehending at a glance the wonders of heaven and earth, the freeman ‘whom the truth makes free,’ or the Christian devoting himself to God, whose freedom is ‘obedience to a law;’ that law being ‘the law of the Spirit of life,’ as the Apostle expresses it; respecting which, nevertheless, according to another mode of speaking (so various is language on this subject), ‘necessity is laid upon him.’ And between these two extremes are many half freedoms, or imperfect necessities: one man is under the influence of habit, another of prejudice, a third is the creature of some superior will; of a fourth it is said, that it was ‘impossible for him to act otherwise;’ a fifth does by effort what to another is spontaneous; while in the case of all, allowance is made for education, temperament, and the like.
The idea of necessity has already begun to expand; it is no longer the negative of freedom, they almost touch. For freedom, too, is subject to limitation; the freedom of the human will is not the freedom of the infinite, but of the finite. It does not pretend to escape from the conditions of human life. No man in his senses imagines that he can fly into the air, or walk through the earth; he does not fancy that his limbs will move with the expedition of thought. He is aware that he has a less, or it may be a greater, power than others. He learns from experience to take his own measure. But this limited or measured freedom is another form of enlarged necessity. Beginning with an imaginary freedom, we may reduce it within the bounds of experience; beginning with an abstract necessity, we may accommodate it to the facts of human life.
Attention has been lately called to the phenomena (already noticed) of the uniformity of human actions. The observation of this uniformity has caused a sort of momentary disturbance in the moral ideas of some persons, who seem unable to get rid of the illusion, that nature compels a certain number of individuals to act in a particular way, for the sake of keeping up the average. Their error is, that they confuse the law, which is only the expression of the fact, with the cause; it is as though they affirmed the universal to necessitate the particular. The same uniformity appears equally in matters of chance. Ten thousand throws of the dice, ceteris paribus, will give about the same number of twos, threes, sixes: what compulsion was there here? So ten thousand human lives will give a nearly equal number of forgeries, thefts, or other extraordinary actions. Neither is there compulsion here; it is the simple fact. It may be said, Why is the number uniform? In the first place, it is not uniform, that is to say, it is in our power to alter the proportions of crime by altering its circumstances. And this change of circumstances is not separable from the act of the legislator or private individual by which it may be accomplished, which is in turn suggested by other circumstances. The will or the intellect of man still holds its place as the centre of a moving world. But, secondly, the imaginary power of this uniform number affects no one in particular; it is not required that A, B, C, should commit a crime, or transmit an undirected letter, to enable us to fill up a tabular statement. The fact exhibited in the tabular statement is the result of all the movements of all the wills of the ten thousand persons who are made the subject of analysis.
It is possible to conceive great variations in such tables; it is possible, that is, to imagine, without any change of circumstances, a thousand persons executed in France during one year for political offences, and none the next. But the world in which this phenomenon was observed would be a very different sort of world from that in which we live. It would be a world in which ‘nations, like individuals, went mad;’ in which there was no habit, no custom; almost, we may say, no social or political life. Men must be no longer different, and so compensating one another by their excellencies and deficiencies, but all in the same extreme; as if the waves of the sea in a storm instead of returning to their level were to remain on high. The mere statement of such a speculation is enough to prove its absurdity. And, perhaps, no better way could be found of disabusing the mind of the objections which appear to be entertained to the fact of the uniformity of human actions, than a distinct effort to imagine the disorder of the world which would arise out of the opposite principle.
But the advocate of free will may again return to the charge, with an appeal to consciousness. ‘Your freedom,’ he will say, ‘is but half freedom, but I have that within which assures me of an absolute freedom, without which I should be deprived of what I call responsibility.’ No man has seen facts of consciousness, and therefore it is at any rate fair that before they are received they shall be subjected to analysis. We may look at an outward object which is called a table; no one would in this case demand an examination into the human faculties before he admitted the existence of the table. But inward facts are of another sort; that they really exist, may admit of doubt; that they exist in the particular form attributed to them, or in any particular form, is a matter very difficult to prove. Nothing is easier than to insinuate a mere opinion, under the disguise of a fact of consciousness.
Consciousness tells, or seems to tell, of an absolute freedom; and this is supposed to be a sufficient witness of the existence of such a freedom. But does consciousness tell also of the conditions under which this freedom can be exercised? Does it remind us that we are finite beings? Does it present to one his bodily, to another his mental constitution? Is it identical with self-knowledge? No one imagines this. To what then is it the witness? To a dim and unreal notion of freedom, which is as different from the actual fact as dreaming is from acting. No doubt the human mind has or seems to have a boundless power, as of thinking so also of willing. But this imaginary power, going as it does far beyond experience, varying too in youth and age, greatest often in idea when it is really least, cannot be adduced as a witness for what is inconsistent with experience.
The question, How is it possible for us to be finite beings, and yet to possess this consciousness of freedom which has no limit? may be partly answered by another question: How is it possible for us to acquire any ideas which transcend experience? The answer is, only, that the mind has the power of forming such ideas; it can conceive a beauty, goodness, truth, which has no existence on earth. The conception, however, is subject to this law, that the greater the idealization the less the individuality. In like manner that imperfect freedom which we enjoy as finite beings is magnified by us into an absolute idea of freedom, which seems to be infinite because it drops out of sight the limits with which nature in fact everywhere surrounds us; and also because it is the abstraction of self, of which we can never be deprived, and which we conceive to be acting still when all the conditions of action are removed.
Freedom is absolute in another sense, as the correlative of obligation. Men entertain some one, some another, idea of right, but all are bound to act according to that idea. The standard may be relative to their own circumstances, but the duty is absolute; and the power is also absolute of refusing the evil and choosing the good, under any possible contingency. It is a matter (not only of consciousness but) of fact, that we have such a power, quite as much as the facts of statistics, to which it is sometimes opposed, or rather, to speak more correctly, is one of them. And when we make abstraction of this power, that is, when we think of it by itself, there arises also the conception of an absolute freedom.
So singularly is human nature constituted, looking from without on the actions of men as they are, witnessing inwardly to a higher law. ‘You ought to do so; you have the power to do so,’ is consistent with the fact, that in practice you fail to do so. It may be possible for us to unite both these aspects of human nature, yet experience seems to show that we commonly look first at one and then at the other. The inward vision tells us the law of duty and the will of God; the outward contemplation of ourselves and others shows the trials to which we are most subject. Any transposition of these two points of view is fatal to morality. For the proud man to say, ‘I inherited pride from my ancestors;’ or for the licentious man to say, ‘It is in the blood;’ for the weak man to say, ‘I am weak, and will not strive;’ for any to find the excuses of their vices in their physical temperament or external circumstances, is the corruption of their nature.
Yet this external aspect of human affairs has a moral use. It is a duty to look at the consequences of actions, as well as at actions themselves; the knowledge of our own temperament, or strength, or health, is a part also of the knowledge of self. We have need of the wise man’s warning, about ‘age which will not be defied’ in our moral any more than in our physical constitution. In youth, also, there are many things outward and indifferent, which cannot but exercise a moral influence on after life. Often opportunities of virtue have to be made, as well as virtuous efforts; there are forms of evil, too, against which we struggle in vain by mere exertions of the will. He who trusts only to a moral or religious impulse, is apt to have aspirations, which never realize themselves in action. His moral nature may be compared to a spirit without a body, fluttering about in the world, but unable to comprehend or grasp any good.
Yet more, in dealing with classes of men, we seem to find that we have greater power to shape their circumstances than immediately to affect their wills. The voice of the preacher passes into the air; the members of his congregation are like persons ‘beholding their natural face in a glass;’ they go their way, forgetting their own likeness. And often the result of a long life of ministerial work has been the conversion of two or three individuals. The power which is exerted in such a case may be compared to the unaided use of the hand, while mechanical appliances are neglected. Or to turn to another field of labour, in which the direct influence of Christianity has been hitherto small, may not the reason why the result of missions is often disappointing be found in the circumstance, that we have done little to improve the political or industrial state of those among whom our missionaries are sent? We have thought of the souls of men, and of the Spirit of God influencing them, in too naked a way; instead of attending to the complexity of human nature, and the manner in which God has ever revealed himself in the history of mankind.
The great lesson, which Christians have to learn in the present day, is to know the world as it is; that is to say, to know themselves as they are; human life as it is; nature as it is; history as it is. Such knowledge is also a power, to fulfil the will of God and to contribute to the happiness of man. It is a resting-place in speculation, and a new beginning in practice. Such knowledge is the true reconcilement of the opposition of necessity and free will. Not that spurious reconcilement which places necessity in one sphere of thought, freedom in another; nor that pride of freedom which is ready to take up arms against plain facts; nor yet that demonstration of necessity in which logic, equally careless of facts, has bound fast the intellect of man. The whole question, when freed from the illusions of language, is resolvable into experience. Imagination cannot conquer for us more than that degree of freedom which we truly have; the tyranny of science cannot impose upon us any law or limit to which we are not really subject; theology cannot alter the real relations of God and man. The facts of human nature and of Christianity remain the same, whether we describe them by the word ‘necessity’ or ‘freedom,’ in the phraseology of Lord Bacon and Locke, or in that of Calvin and Augustine.
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