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Mill's Essays on Religion by Lawrence Turnbull

An interest attaches to Mr. Mill's posthumous Essays on Religion which is quite independent of their intrinsic value or importance. The position of their author at the head of an active school of thinkers gives them to a certain extent a representative character, while, in connection with the curious account of his mental training presented in his autobiography, they merit perhaps still closer attention as a subject of psychological study. It is not, however, in this latter light that we can undertake to examine them here. Our object is merely to point out some of the fallacies and contradictions which might escape the notice of a cursory reader, and which show with how uncertain a step a philosopher who piqued himself on the clearness and severity of his logic moves on ground where a stronger light than that of reason was needed to irradiate his path.

The first essay is devoted to an examination of the ways of Nature as unmodified by the voluntary agency of man. These the author finds worthy of all abhorrence; and Nature in its purely physical aspect he considers to be full of blemishes, which are patent to the eye of modern science, and which "all but monkish quietists think it a religious duty to amend." A competent master-workman with good materials would not have turned out a world so "bunglingly" made, with great patches of poisonous morass and arid desert unfit for human habitation, with coal and other requisites for man's comfort stored away out of sight, with the rivers all unbridged, and mountains and other impediments thrown in the way of free locomotion. So far, then, from its being man's duty to imitate Nature, as some have thought it was, it is incumbent upon him to oppose her with all his powers, because of her gross injustice in the realm of morals, and to remedy her physical defects as far as lies in his power. On this view of Nature our fathers were wiser in their generation than we when they trimmed their trees into grotesque shapes and laid out their landscapes in geometric lines; when in medicine they substituted the lancet and unlimited mercury for the vis medicatrix naturae; when in philosophy they dictated to Nature from their internal consciousness, before Bacon introduced the heresy of induction; when in politics they had a profound faith in statutes and none at all in statistics; when in education they conscientiously rammed down the ologies at the point of the ferule, in blissful ignorance of psychology. If Mr. Mill finds it necessary to rail at Nature because she did not put coal on the top of the ground and build bridges and dig wells for man's convenience, why not call her a jade at once because she does not grow ready-made clothing of the latest mode in sizes to suit, because the trees do not bear hot rolls and coffee, and because Mr. Mill's philosophy is not an intuition of the mind? He is less restrained in speaking of the moral enormities of Nature. Altogether the most striking passage in the book is his indictment of the Author of Nature, which is truly Satanic in its audacity and hardly to be paralleled in literature for its impiety; for it is impious even from Mr. Mill's standpoint, since he admits that the weight of evidence tends to prove that Nature's Author is both wise and good. We transcribe only some of his expressions: "Nearly all things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are Nature's every-day performances;" she "has a hundred hideous deaths" reserved for her victims, "such as the ingenious cruelty of a Nabis or a Domitian never surpassed," which "she uses with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and justice;" "she inflicts torture in apparent wantonness;" "everything which the worst men commit against life and property is perpetrated on a larger scale by natural agents;" "Nature has noyades more fatal than those of Carrier: her plague and cholera far surpass the poison-cups of the Borgias." Such are a few of the impassioned and presumptuous expressions which Mr. Mill allows himself to use in speaking of the great mystery of human suffering, which others touch with reverence, and do not dare to reprobate, since they cannot understand. His words are as false as they are bold. Fierce and terrible as Nature is in some of her aspects, it is not true that her prevailing attitude is, as here indicated, one of bitter hostility to the race she nourishes on her bosom. If she were the monster here described, mankind would long ago have perished under her persistent cruelties, and Mr. Mill's profane cry would never have gone up to Heaven. Men will always regard the world subjectively, and adjudge it happy or the reverse according to their temperament or passing humor; but, if it be conceded—as it is by Mr. Mill through his whole argument—that man is a moral creature, with a true power of self-determination within certain limits, and with sufficient intelligence to discern the laws of Nature, and that therefore all the pain that man brings upon himself by voluntary violation of discovered law is to be deducted from the sum-total of human suffering to arrive at the amount that is attributable to Nature, most men, if they are honest, will on reflection admit that Nature brings to the great body of the human family immeasurably more comfort, if not pleasure, than she does pain. Take the senses, which are the sources of physical pleasure. How seldom, comparatively, the eye is pained, while it rests with habitual gratification upon the sky and landscape, and on the human form divine when unmarred by vice! How rarely the taste is offended or the appetite starved, while every meal, be it ever so simple, yields enjoyment to the palate! The ear is regaled with the perpetual music of wind and ocean and feathered minstrelsy, of childhood's voice and the sweet converse of friends. So, too, Nature is a great laboratory of delicate odors: the salt breath of the sea is like wine to the sense; the summer air is freighted with delights, and every tree and flower exhales fragrance: only where danger lurks does Nature assault the nostrils with kindly warning. If it be objected that vast numbers of the race live in cities where every sense is continually offended, it is to be remembered that "man made the town," and is to be held responsible for the unhappiness there resulting from his violations of natural law. But even in cities Nature is more kind to man than he is to himself, and dulls his faculties against the deformities and discords of his own creating. From the sense of feeling it is probable we receive more pain than pleasure, but by no means so much more as to overbalance the great preponderance of delights coming through the other avenues: a great part of such pain is cautionary, and much can be avoided by voluntary action; and the stimulus thus given by the wise severity of Nature begets that activity of the moral life from which results the highest form of happiness. When we attempt to estimate our mental and moral sufferings, it is impossible even to approximate the proportion of them that are due to our voluntary infringement of law; but, adding together all that spring from natural sources and all that men bring upon themselves, the suffering is still outweighed by the pleasure among the great mass of men.

But, however unfavorable a view we take of the condition of humanity, it is gross exaggeration to say, "There is no evidence whatever in Nature for Divine justice, whatever standard of justice our ethical opinions may lead us to recognize: ... there is no shadow of justice in the general arrangements of Nature." Though many of Nature's dealings with man appear to be unjust, by far the larger proportion of them are graduated according to what seems, even to us, a standard of strict equity. As Matthew Arnold puts it, there is a power in Nature "which makes for righteousness." And every generation verifies the words of the Preacher: "The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth—much more the wicked and the sinner;" "as righteousness tendeth to life, so he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death." It was the reverent saying of that noblest of pagans, Marcus Aurelius, that "if a man should have a feeling and a deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly anything that comes in the course of Nature which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure." When that "deeper insight" comes, and the eyes of man's spiritual understanding are opened, all appearance of injustice in Nature will probably vanish.

If men were indeed as wretched as Mr. Mill describes them to be, and had no fear of judgment and immortality—which Mr. Mill informs us are probably but figments of the brain—why should they continue to endure "the calamity of so long life"?

'Twere best at once to sink to peace,

Like birds the charming serpent draws—

To drop head-foremost in the jaws

Of vacant darkness, and to cease.

So men would begin to reason if this dark gospel of despair were ever to gain currency; but, fortunately, it is only the morbid dream of a closet philosopher, who fancied the world was upside down because he could not unriddle it with his logical Rule of Three.

This representation of Nature is not only at variance with facts, but inconsistent with Mr. Mill's own conclusions, as he reasons from natural phenomena that the Creator is both wise and beneficent, but that He is in some way hindered from fully accomplishing His kind purposes. But if "there is no evidence whatever for Divine justice, and no shadow of justice in the general arrangements of Nature," the reasonable inference is that its author is a being of infinite malignity who is in some mysterious manner, for the present, prevented from wreaking the full measure of his wrath upon mankind. From this horrible thought Mr. Mill recoils, and, giving logic to the winds, he trusts that

God is love indeed,

And love Creation's final law,

Though Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravin, shrieks against his creed.

In the second essay Mr. Mill undertakes to prove the uselessness and harmfulness of supernatural religion both to society and individuals, and the sufficiency of human authority, of education and public opinion to accomplish all the beneficial results usually accredited to faith in a Divine Being. "Religion," he says, "by its intrinsic force, ... without the sanction superadded by public opinion, ... has never, save in exceptional characters or in peculiar moods of mind, exercised a very potent influence after the time had gone by in which Divine agency was supposed habitually to employ temporal rewards and punishments." Whatever application this statement may have to other religions claiming a divine origin, it is entirely false of Christianity. In its origin, it certainly held out no temporal bribes of any character. Its Founder expressly said to His disciples, "In this world ye shall have tribulation." "Behold," He says, "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves"; "ye shall be hated of all men for My sake"; "if any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me." His own life was one of unparalleled contumely, and He told them they must not expect to fare better than their Master. Nor did they. The majority of the apostles met cruel deaths after lives of suffering. Paul, describing his experience, speaks of his beatings and his perils among his countrymen and the heathen, of his hunger and thirst and his cold and nakedness. And his was only an extreme example of the common lot of the early generations of Christians. Yet in the face of the hostility of the whole Roman and Jewish world, manifested in the most cruel persecutions, Christianity rapidly grew, gaining its most signal triumphs, laying hold of the consciences and transforming the lives of men. It was only when it came under the patronage of the civil government, and the public opinion of the world was thrown in its favor, and its peculiar doctrines became diluted with worldly policy, that it began to lose its reforming influence—a fact which Mr. Mill himself alludes to in his essay On Liberty. This experience has been frequently repeated since the days of Constantine; so that history fairly proves that Christianity does its peculiar work more effectually when it is dissociated from all human sanctions, and left to act solely by its intrinsic force. This is true not only of the Church at large, but of individuals. Paul, Luther, à Kempis drew their inspiration from the simple words of Christ, and owed next to nothing to the opinions of the world about them. It has always been direct contact with the life and precepts of the Founder of Christianity that has fired the hearts and braced the spiritual energies of the noblest Christians, who have been the reformers of their times, braving the enmity of the world to instill a purer and a loftier morality.

The illustrations, suggested first by Bentham, which Mr. Mill cites to prove the worthlessness of the religious sanction—viz., the almost universal breach of oaths where not enforced by law, and the prevalence of male unchastity and the practice of dueling among Christian communities—have no pertinency whatever to his argument, since they only prove the predominance of religious infidelity and indifference in countries nominally Christian, which no one denies; while the exceptions to this rule, which occur almost wholly among Christians, prove the very view he controverts. It is Christian opinion making itself felt through legislation that is gradually circumscribing the area of these vices.

Again, says Mr. Mill. "Because when men were still savage they would not have received either moral or scientific truths unless they had supposed them supernaturally imparted, does it follow they would now give up moral truths any more than scientific because they believed them to have no other origin than wise and noble human hearts?" Overlooking the adroit introduction here of scientific truths as having originally been on the same footing with moral truths—for which we do not think there is any sufficient historic evidence—it is competent to reply that the great mass of mankind are still in the earlier stages of intellectual and moral development, even in the most advanced countries; so that on grounds of utility it is important to prolong, if possible, the supernatural sanctions of religion. Although, as Mr. Mill believes, a moral truth once in the possession of humanity may never be lost, it may yet have its influence suspended through many generations, as in the Dark Ages, and thus the advance of civilization be indefinitely retarded; and therefore the office of religion in keeping morality operative among men is not to be discarded. It is doubtless impossible to estimate with entire correctness the relative value of the different forces that advance or retard civilization, but we believe the weight of historic evidence goes to prove that religious skepticism was the actual cause, as it has always been the inevitable precursor, of national decay. Coleridge in The Friend quotes the historian Polybius as attributing the strength of the Roman republic to the general reverence of the invisible powers, and the consequent horror in which the breaking of an oath was held. This he thought the causa causarum of Roman grandeur; and he attributed the ruin of the Greek states to the frequency of perjury resulting from the atheism taught by the Sophists. Goethe says somewhere that "all epochs in which faith has prevailed have been the most heart-stirring and fruitful both as regard contemporaries and posterity; whereas all epochs in which unbelief obtains its miserable triumphs, even when they boast of some apparent brilliancy, are not less surely doomed to speedy oblivion." This assertion is notably true of the histories of Judea, Greece, Rome, and Spain. And, a priori, it might be argued that the only possible ground for that cordial unanimity of society upon fundamental questions which is essential to a stable and highly developed civilization is a common faith in some central rightful authority competent to demand and enforce equal obedience from all classes; in other words, faith in God. A band of savages might be held in a lax social union by the common fear of some brawny chief, but in civilized communities it is the real divinity that doth hedge about the king or other civil head that gives cohesion to the social mass. As a political force, therefore, religion cannot be dispensed with.

Religion is not only useless, Mr. Mill proceeds, but "there is a very real evil consequent on ascribing a supernatural origin to the received maxims of morality. That origin consecrates the whole of them, and protects them from being discussed and criticised." Such an objection hardly comes with good grace from Mr. Mill, who spends his strength to prove that a divine sanction has no efficacy when not backed by human authority. Nor has such an objection, if it were true, any application to the case till it is absolutely proved that all religions are of human origin, or else that more harm results from believing human systems divine than from believing one divine system to be of human growth. Neither of these alternatives does he attempt to establish, and he explicitly admits it is impossible to prove the former. But the objection is not true. Human criticism has never been backward to attack all systems of morality, despite the popular faith in their divine origin. Christianity especially has had its historic and intellectual and moral foundations attacked by able critics in every century since its introduction on earth. But in the face of every form of opposition it has made a steady progress, and strengthened its hold upon the human heart and conscience as the world has advanced in culture. It is to-day professed by a larger number of disciples and with a more intelligent faith than at any other period of its history. It is the dominant religion in those countries which are in the van of human progress, whose political institutions are the freest in the world, and whose inhabitants are the happiest and most virtuous. And despite its insoluble mysteries it has always received the assent of the highest intelligence to its divine origin. "My faith," said De Quincey, "is that though a great man may, by a rare possibility, be an infidel, an intellect of the highest order must build on Christianity." And Bacon's testimony is to the same effect. "It is only," he says, "when superficially tested that philosophy leads away from God: deeper draughts of a thorough and real philosophy bring us back to Him." And poor Tyndall, standing afar off in the outer regions of pure intellect, hard by the

ever-breaking shore

That tumbles in the godless deep,

has recently been heard to murmur that in his loftiest moments the promise and potency of matter give no response to the deepest cry of the soul. And along the centuries stand the princes of thought, Paul, Augustine, Bacon, Luther, Milton, Pascal, Kepler, Newton, Coleridge, Faraday, Herschel, testifying to the impregnability of the intellectual foundation of the Christian faith.

If Mr. Mill's arguments to prove the worthlessness of Christianity are open to many objections, the reasons he offers for accepting his substitute, the Religion of Humanity, are utterly baseless and delusive. For faith in God he would have us adopt an ideal conception of what human life can be made in the future, and sacrifice all our present enjoyment to secure a realization of that conception ages hence. This, says he, is a better religion than any belief respecting the unseen powers. "If individual life is short, the life of the human species is not." How does he know this? The dark demon of Nature he has so vividly described may sweep away the puny race to-morrow by some fell cataclysm; and it would be a blessing if she did in his view. "If such an object," he continues, "appears small to a mind accustomed to dream of infinite and eternal beatitudes, it will expand into far other dimensions when these baseless fancies shall have receded into the past." But if we must feed our moral natures on "baseless fancies," most men will prefer the Christian dogmas of immortality, the infinite capacity of development of the human soul, the brotherhood of the race and its vital union with its Creator, and its perfectibility of human institutions and social conditions in this life under the leavening influence of Christian principle, although Mr. Mill may stigmatize them as grandiose and enervating dreams, to his beggarly improved substitute, which appeals neither to our common sense nor to our moral intuitions. Taking his own criterion, utility, as the test of truth, his religion of humanity fails to establish itself, for it postpones the happiness of each existing generation to the fancied good of future generations which may never be born, and this ad infinitum. On this part of his subject Mr. Mill is simply fatuous, as when he speaks of our being sustained in this faith by the approbation of the dead whom we venerate. But if Socrates and Howard and Washington and Christ and Antoninus and Mrs. Mill are turned to clay, as he says they probably are, it is nonsense to assert that he is strengthened in the path of duty by a feeling that they would sympathize with him if alive. It is the unconfessed hope of their immortality that quickens him, if he is affected at all. Mr. Mill's idolatry of his wife, like Buckle's love for his mother, was an argument for the immortality of the soul which he does not seem to have been able entirely to reject.

Mr. Mill never tires of calling Christianity a selfish religion, and glorifies his substitute as free from this defect. But Mr. Fitzjames Stephen, in his work entitled Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, has clearly pointed out that Mr. Mill has only succeeded in duping himself on this point. A man cannot free himself from self-consideration. Christianity indeed appeals to the innate desire of happiness, but condemns the overweening and blind self-regard which cannot see that the highest happiness of self flows from a just respect to the selfhood of others and from the cultivation of the spiritual nature. Love your neighbor as yourself is the Christian precept; and it has the advantage of being practicable, which Mr. Mill's has not.

Mr. Mill considerately says he will forbear to urge the moral difficulties and perversions of the Christian revelation, "the recognition, for example, of the object of highest worship in a being who could make a hell." "Is it possible," he asks, "to adore such a one without a frightful distortion of the standard of right and wrong?" "Any other of the outrages to the most ordinary justice and humanity involved in the common Christian conception of the moral character of God sinks into insignificance beside this dreadful idealization of wickedness. Most of them, too, are happily not so unequivocally deducible from the very words of Christ." Yet this very Personage, who, Mr. Mill says, implicitly believed and taught this awful doctrine, presents, he confesses, the highest type of pure morality the world has ever seen. Arguing from this phenomenon, the more hideous the creed and the more torpid or sophisticated the intellect, the higher the morality is likely to be.

In the last essay, On Theism, Mr. Mill examines the evidences in Nature for the existence of God and for the immortality of the soul. The argument from design he thinks establishes the probability of the existence of an intelligent Creator of limited power; for "who," he asks, "would have recourse to means if to attain his end his mere word were sufficient?" It may be replied to this that it is as open to an omnipotent being to accomplish his will through a long chain of causes as by a fiat acting immediately. The recourse to intermediate means does not of necessity prove a limitation of power. If the means actually chosen are defective or bad, it may imply limitation of wisdom or moral obliquity just as much as defect of power, and any choice between these alternatives is entirely arbitrary from a logical standpoint.

Monotheism, Mr. Mill asserts, is a natural product, requiring a considerable amount of intellectual culture, but always appearing at a certain stage of natural development. How, then, did it originate among the Hebrews before they had emerged from barbarism, and fail to appear among their highly civilized contemporaries, the Egyptians and Assyrians? Christlieb is more correct than Mr. Mill, we think, when he says that neither in ancient nor in modern times has it been possible to find a nation which by its own unaided powers of thought has arrived at a definite belief in one personal living God. And the latest researches of ethnologists, as they may be found admirably compiled by Mr. Tyler (himself an advocate of the development hypothesis) in his Primitive Culture, substantiate this assertion.

Mr. Mill, in dealing with Kant's dictum, that the intuition of duty implies a God of necessity, is foolish enough to say "that this feeling of obligation rather excludes than compels the belief in a divine legislator;" which is a very discreditable piece of sophistry.

In closing this short review of these interesting essays we may be permitted to quote a few of Mr. Mill's admissions, which, taken together, almost amount to a confession of faith in the Christian system, and which leave upon the mind the impression that this painful groping of an earnest inquirer after the truth, and the closer approximation he continually made to Christian dogma, would have resulted, had he lived longer, in his adoption of that faith as offering the hypothesis that best explains the perplexing phenomena of the moral world.

"Experience," he says, "has abated the ardent hopes once entertained of the regeneration of the human race by merely negative doctrine, by the destruction of superstition." Here is a declaration of the need of a system of positive truth.

Again, of the Christian revelation he says: "The sender of the alleged message is not a sheer invention: there are grounds independent of the message itself for belief in His reality.... It is moreover much to the purpose to take notice that the very imperfection of the evidences which natural theology can produce of the divine attributes removes some of the chief stumbling-blocks to the belief of revelation." Here is the raison d'être of revelation.

This revelation, it should be borne in mind, in its method and character bears a striking similarity to the natural world, from whose Author it professes to come, as was long ago pointed out by Bishop Butler, and recently with great cogency by Mr. Henry Rogers in his most forcible work on the Superhuman Origin of the Bible.

Again: "A revelation cannot be proved unless by external evidence—that is, by the evidence of supernatural facts." Here is an assertion of the necessity of miracles.

Again: "Science contains nothing repugnant to the supposition that every event which takes place results from a specific volition of the presiding Power, provided this Power adheres in its particular volitions to general laws laid down by itself;" which is the biblical representation of the divine mode of action.

Again: "All the probabilities in case of a future life are that such as we have been made, or have made ourselves before the change, such we shall enter into the life hereafter;" which is the exact declaration of Scripture.

Mr. Mill further helps the Christian cause by pointing out two flaws in Hume's argument against miracles—viz., that the evidence of experience to which its appeal is made is only negative evidence; which is not conclusive, since facts of which there had been no previous experience are often discovered and proved by positive experience to be true; and secondly, the argument assumes that the testimony of experience against miracles is undeviating and indubitable, whereas the very thing asserted on the other side is that there have been miracles, and that the testimony is not wholly on the negative side.

No Christian can read the following tribute to the character of Christ without sadness that the joy of a larger faith was rejected by its author: "Whatever else may be taken away from us by rational criticism, Christ is still left—a unique figure, not more unlike all his precursors than all his followers, even those who had the direct benefit of his teaching. About the life and sayings of Jesus there is a stamp of personal originality, combined with profundity of insight, ... which must place the Prophet of Nazareth, even in the estimation of those who have no belief in his inspiration, in the very first rank of the men of sublime genius of whom our species can boast. When this pre-eminent genius is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral reformer and martyr to that mission who ever existed upon earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching upon this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity; nor even now would it be easy even for an unbeliever to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete than to endeavor so to live that Christ would approve our life.... When to this we add that to the conception of the rational critic it remains a possibility that Christ actually was what he supposed himself to be, ... we may well conclude that the influences of religion on the character which will remain after rational criticism has done its utmost against the evidences of religion are well worth preserving, and what they lack in direct strength as compared with those of a firmer belief is more than compensated by the greater truth and rectitude of the morality they sanction." The confession of these last few lines refutes the whole of Mr. Mill's elaborate argument on the worthlessness and immorality of that religion which from his grave he lifts his sad and hollow voice to overthrow.