The Growth of Thought as Affecting the Progress of Society
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Title: The Growth of Thought As Affecting the Progress of Society
Author: William Withington
Release Date: April 18, 2006 [EBook #18202]
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THE GROWTH OF THOUGHTAS AFFECTING THE PROGRESS OF SOCIETY.
By William Withington.
Life Defined. Intellectual Culture and Intellectual Life,Distinguished. Human Life, a Problem. The Evil to be Managed.Self-Love Considered under a Three-fold Aspect. Three Agencies formeliorating the Human Condition. The Growth of Thought, Slow; and oftmost in unexpected quarter.
Welfare as dependent on the Social Institutions. Limited Aim of theReceived Political Economy. An Enlightened Policy but the EffectiveAim at managing Self-Love, directed towards Present Goods, vulgarlyunderstood. The Political Fault of the Papacy. Its SubstantialCorrection by the Reformation. Republicanism carried from Religioninto Legislation; still without a clear perception of its Principle.Its Progress accordingly Slow.
Philosophy the Second Agency for promoting General Welfare, as the
Educator of Self-Love; the Corrector of mistaken apprehensions of
Temporal Good; the Revealer of the ties which bind the Members of the
Human Family to One Lot, to suffer or rejoice together. Progress in
Mightier Influences yet needed, to contend with the Powers of Evil.
Supplied by Man's recognizing the whole of his Being; the extent of his
Duties; the Duration of his Existence. Religion, supplying the defects
of the preceding Agencies; Considered in nine particulars.
Recapitulation. Suggestions to Christian Ministers.
A contemporary thus reveals the state of mind, through which he hascome to the persuasion of great insight into the realities, which standbehind the veil: "What more natural, more spontaneous, more imperative,than that the conditions of his future being should press themselves onhis anxious thought! Should we not suppose, the 'every third thoughtwould be his grave,' together with the momentous realities that liebeyond it? If man is indeed, as Shakespeare describes him, 'a being oflarge discourse, looking before and after,' we could scarcely resistthe belief, that, when once assured of the possibility of informationon his head, he would, as it were, rush to the oracle, to have hisabsorbing problems solved, and his restless heart relieved of its loadof uncertain forebodings."* [Bush's Statement of Reasons, &c.,p. 12.]
Not less frequently or intensely, the writer's mind has turned to theproblem of applying know truth to the present, reconciling self-lovewith justice and benevolence, and vindicating to godliness, the promiseof the life that now is. If, meanwhile, he has been "intruding intothose things which he hath not seen," like affecting an angelicreligion,—then it were hardly possible but that he should mistakefancy for fact. But if his inquiries have been into what it isgiven to know, then he cannot resist the belief, that some may deriveprofit from the results of many fearfully anxious years, herecompressed within a few pages. He might have further compressed, justsaying: Mainly, political wisdom is the management of self-love;civilization is the cultivation of self-love; the excrescenses ofcivilization are the false refinements of self-love; while unselfishlove is substantial virtue,—the end of the commandments,—thefulfilling of the law: Or, he might have enlarged indefinitely; moreespecially might have been written on practically applying theprinciples to the advancement of society. He may yet produce somethingof the kind. Of the substance of the following pages he has only tosay, that, if false, the falsehood has probably become too much a partof his nature to be ever separated. As to such minor considerations,as logical arrangement and the niceties of style, he asks only thecriticism due to one, whose hands have been necessitated to guide theplough oftener than the pen, through the best years of life.
The Growth of Thought, As Affecting the Progress of Society.
The meditation on human life—on the contrast between what is, andwhat might be, on supposing a general concurrence to make the best ofthings-yields emotions both painful and pleasing;—painful for thedemonstrations every where presented, of a love of darkness, ratherthan light; pleasing, that the worst evils are seen to be soremediable; and so clear the proofs of a gradual, but sure progresstowards the remedy.
The writer is not very familiar with those authors, who have so much tosay on the problem of life—the question, What is life? He supposesthem to follow a train of thought, something like this: The life of acreature is that perfection and flourish of its faculties, of which itsconstitution is capable, and which some of the race are destined toreach. Thus, the life of the lion is realized, when the animal rangesundisputed lord of the sunny desert; finds sufficiency of prey forhimself and offspring, which he raises to inherit dominion; lives thenumber of years he is capable of enjoying existence, and then closesit, without excessive pains, lingering regrets, or fearfulanticipations.
Life differs from happiness. It is supposable, that the lion, tamedand petted, trained to feed somewhat after man's chosen manner, may beas happy as if at liberty in his native range. But such happiness isnot the animal's life; since this implies the kind of happiness properto the creature's constitution, in distinction from that induced byforced habits.
To happiness add knowledge and intellectual culture, and all togetherdo not realize the idea of life. The tame lion may be taught manyarts, assimilating him to the intelligence of man; but these remove himso much further from his appropriate life. Thus there may be acultivated intelligence, which constitutes no part of the creature'slife; and this without considering the same as a moral agent.
Macauley remarks, that the Jesuits seem to have solved the problem, howfar intellectual culture may be carried, without producing intellectualemancipation. I suppose it would be only varying the expression of histhought to say, Jesuitical education strikingly exemplifies, how muchintellectual culture may be superinduced upon the mind, withoutawakening intellectual life—without developing a spontaneous aptnessto appreciate, seek, find, embrace the truth. The head is filled withthe thoughts of others-many ascertained facts and just conclusions. Itcan reason aright in the circles of thought, where it has been trainedto move; but elsewhere, no spontaneous activity—no self-directed powerof thinking justly on new emergencies and questions not yet settled byrule—no spring within, from which living waters flow.
The difference between intellectual culture and intellectual lifeappears in the fact, that in regard to those mastering ideas, which toafter times mark one age as in advance of the preceding, the classicalscholars, the scientific luminaries, the constitutional expounders ofthe day, are quite as likely to be behind the general sense of the age,as to be in advance.
The question, What is human life? arises on a contemplation like this:There is no difficulty in determining the life of all the other tenantsof earth; unless, indeed, those which man has so long and souniversally subjected to his purposes, that the whereabouts, or indeedthe existence of the original stock, remains in doubt. The inferioranimals, left to themselves in favorable circumstances, manifest onedevelopment, attain to one flourish, live the same life, fromgeneration to generation. Man may superinduce upon them what hecalls improvements, because they better fit them for his purposes.But said improvements are never transmitted from generation to itssuccessor; left to itself, the race reverts to proper life, the same ithas lived from the beginning.
Man here presents a singular exception to the general rule of earth'sinhabitants. The favorite pursuits of one age are abandoned in thenext. This generation looks back on the earnest occupations of apreceding, as the adult looks back on the sports and toys of childhood.It is more than supposable, that the planning for the chances ofoffice, the competition for making most gain out of the leastproductiveness—these earnest pursuits of the men of this age—in thenext will be resigned to the children of larger growth; just as arenow resigned the trappings of military glory. Where then is the humanmind ultimately to fix? Where is man to find so essentially his good,as to fix his earnest pursuit in one direction, in which the race isstill to hold on? Such seems to be the question, What is life?
The elements of that darkness, which excludes the light of life, may beconsidered as these three: First, the excessive preponderance ofself-love, as the ruling motive of human conduct. Secondly, theshort-sightedness of self-love, in magnifying the present, at the costof the distant future. And, Thirdly, the grossness of self-love, inpreferring of present goods the vulgar and the sensible, to the refinedand more exquisitely satisfactory. And there are three ways, in whichwe may attempt the abatement of existing evils; or, there are threeagencies we may call in for this purpose.
In the first place, leaving individuals to the operation of the commonmotives, we may labor at the social institutions, to adjust them to therule, that, each seeking his own, after the common apprehension ofpresent interests, may do so consistently with acting the part of agood citizen—contributing something to the general welfare; or, atleast, not greatly detracting therefrom. Here, the agency employed,the Greeks would have called by a name, from which we have derived theword politics; which word, from abuse, has well nigh lost itsoriginal sense, The science of social welfare. Policy, we mightsay, for want of an exacter word.
The second way, in which we may seek the same result, is, to inculcatejuster apprehensions of present good—to inform and refine self-love;to show, that the purest of present enjoyments, are like the loaves andfishes distributed by divine hands, multiplying by division andparticipation—the best of all being such as none can enjoy fully, tillthey become the common property of the race. For want of a moreaccurately defined term, the agent here introduced may be calledPhilosophy; understanding by the term, the search, what would be theconduct and preferences of a truly wise man, dispassionately seekingfor himself the best enjoyment of this life, uninformed of another tofollow.
Or, thirdly, we may seek to infuse a nobler principle than self-love,however refined—even the charity, whose essence is, to love one'sneighbor as one's self; while, at the same time, this life beingearnestly contemplated as but the introductory part of an immensewhole, additional security is provided for the coincidence of interestwith duty. In a word, the third agency to be employed is Religion.
The whole subject thus sketched is one of which the writer is notaware, that it has been distinctly defined, as a field for thought andinvestigation. He has little to learn from the successes or thefailures of predecessors. Be this his excuse for seeming prosy anddull; possibly for mistakes and crudities. He has the doublydifficulty of attempting to turn thought into trains to which it isnot accustomed; and yet of offering no results so profound as to haveescaped other observers; or so sublime as to be the due prize ofgenius, venturing where few can soar. If he offers any thoughts new,just, and important, they have rather been overlooked for theirsimplicity and obviousness. One may dive too deep for that whichfloats on the surface. Here are to be expected none of the splendidresults, which dazzle in the popular sciences. The cultivator of thisfield can hope only to favor, imperceptibly it may be, the growth ofthoughts and sentiments, tending slowly to work out a better conditionof the human family. And he begs to commend that advice of Lacon,which himself has found so profitable: "In the pursuit of knowledge,follow it, wherever it is to be found; like fern,