But now, after all we have been saying of the pre-eminency of righteousness, we remember what we have said formerly in praise of culture and of Hellenism, and against too much Hebraism, too exclusive a pursuit of the 'one thing needful,' as people call it. And we cannot help wondering whether we shall not be reproached with inconsistency, and told that we ought at least to sing, as the Greeks said, a palinode; and whether it may not really be so, and we ought. And, certainly, if we had ever said that Hellenism was three-fourths of human life, and conduct or righteousness but one-fourth, a palinode, as well as an unmusical man may, we would sing. But we have never said it. In praising culture, we have never denied that conduct, not culture, is three-fourths of human life.
Only it certainly appears, when the thing is examined, that conduct comes to have relations of a very close kind with culture. And the reason seems to be given by some words of our Bible, which, though they may not be exactly the right rendering of the original in that place, yet in themselves they explain the connection of culture with conduct very well. 'I have seen the travail,' says the Preacher, 'which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it; he hath made everything beautiful in his time; also, he hath set the world in their heart.' He hath set the world in their heart!—that is why art and science, and what we call culture, are necessary. They may be only one-fourth of man's life, but they are there, as well as the three-fourths which conduct occupies. 'He hath set the world in their heart.' And, really, the reason which we hence gather for the close connection between culture and conduct, is so simple and natural that we are almost ashamed to give it; but we have offered so many simple and natural explanations in place of the abstruse ones which are current, that our hesitation is foolish.
Let us suggest then, that, having this one-fourth of their nature concerned with art and science, men cannot but somehow employ it. If they think that the three-fourths of their nature concerned with conduct are the whole of their nature, and that this is all they have to attend to, still the neglected one-fourth is there, it ferments, it breaks wildly out, it employs itself all at random and amiss. And hence no doubt, our hymns and our dogmatic theology. What is our dogmatic theology, except the mis-attribution to the Bible,—the Book of conduct,—of a science and an abstruse metaphysic which is not there, because our theologians have in themselves a faculty for science, for it makes one-eighth of them? But they do not employ it on its proper objects; so it invades the Bible, and tries to make the Bible what it is not, and to put into it what is not there. And this prevents their attending enough to what is in the Bible, and makes them battle for what is not in the Bible, but they have put it there!—battle for it in a manner clean contrary, often, to the teaching of the Bible. So has arisen, for instance, all religious persecution. And thus, we say, has conduct itself become impaired.
So that conduct is impaired by the want of science and culture; and our theologians really suffer, not from having too much science, but from having too little. Whereas, if they had turned their faculty for abstruse reasoning towards the proper objects, and had given themselves, in addition, a wide and large acquaintance with the productions of the human spirit and with men's way of thinking and of using words, then, on the one hand, they would not have been tempted to misemploy on the Bible their faculty for abstruse reasoning, for they would have had plenty of other exercise for it; and, on the other hand, they would have escaped that literary inexperience which now makes them fancy that the Bible-language is scientific, and fit matter for the application of their powers of abstruse reasoning to it, when it is no such thing. Then they would have seen the fallacy of confounding the obscurity attaching to the idea of God,—that vast not ourselves which transcends us,—with the obscurity attaching to the idea of their Trinity, a confused metaphysical speculation which puzzles us. The one, they would have perceived, is the obscurity of the immeasurable depth of air, the other is the obscurity of a fog. And fog, they would have known, has no proper place in our conceptions of God; since whatever our minds can possess of God they know clearly, for no man, as Goethe says, possesses what he does not understand; but they can possess of Him but a very little. All this our dogmatic theologians would have known, if they had had more science and more literature. And therefore, simple as the Bible and conduct are, still culture seems to be required for them,—required to prevent our mis-handling and sophisticating them.
Culture, then, and science and literature are requisite, in the interest of religion itself, even when, taking nothing but conduct into account, we rightly make the God of the Bible, as Israel made him, to be simply and solely 'the Eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.' For we are not to forget, that, grand as this conception of God is, and well as it meets the wants of far the largest part of our being, of three-fourths of it, yet there is one-fourth of our being of which it does not strictly meet the wants, the part which is concerned with art and science; or, in other words, with beauty and exact knowledge.
For the total man, therefore, the truer conception of God is as 'the Eternal Power, not ourselves, by which all things fulfil the law of their being;' by which, therefore, we fulfil the law of our being so far as our being is æsthetic and intellective, as well as so far as it is moral. And it is evident, as we have before now remarked, that in this wider sense God is displeased and disserved by many things which cannot be said, except by putting a strain upon words, to displease and disserve him as the God of righteousness. He is displeased and disserved by men uttering such doggerel hymns as: Sing glory, glory, glory to the great God Triune! and: Out of my stony griefs Bethels I'll raise! and: My Jesus to know, and feel his blood flow, 'tis life everlasting, 'tis heaven below!—or by theologians uttering such pseudo-science as their blessed truth that the God of the universe is a person. But it would be harsh to give, at present, this turn to our employment of the phrases, pleasing God, displeasing God.
And yet, as man makes progress, we shall surely come to doing this. For, the clearer our conceptions in science and art become, the more will they assimilate themselves to the conceptions of duty in conduct, will become practically stringent like rules of conduct, and will invite the same sort of language in dealing with them. And so far let us venture to poach on M. Emile Burnouf's manor, and to talk about the Aryan genius, as to say, that the love of art and science, and the energy and honesty in the pursuit of art and science, in the best of the Aryan races, do seem to correspond in a remarkable way to the love of conduct, and the energy and honesty in the pursuit of conduct, in the best of the Semitic. To treat science and art with the same kind of seriousness as conduct, does seem, therefore, to be a not impossible thing for the Aryan genius to come to.
But for all this, however, man is hardly yet ripe. For our race, as we see it now and as ourselves we form a part of it, the true God is and must be pre-eminently the God of the Bible, the Eternal who makes for righteousness, from whom Jesus came forth, and whose Spirit governs the course of humanity. Only, we see that even for apprehending this God of the Bible rightly and not wrongly, science, and what so many people now disparage, letters, and what we call, in general, culture, seem to be necessary.
And meanwhile, to prevent our at all pluming ourselves on having apprehended what so much baffles our dogmatic friends (although indeed it is not so much we who apprehend it as the 'Zeit-Geist' who discovers it to us), what a chastening and wholesome reflection for us it is, that it is only to our natural inferiority to these ingenious men that we are indebted for our advantage over them! For while they were born with talents for metaphysical speculation and abstruse reasoning, we are so notoriously deficient in everything of that kind, that our adversaries often taunt us with it, and have held us up to public ridicule as being 'without a system of philosophy based on principles interdependent, subordinate, and coherent.' And so we were thrown on letters; thrown upon reading this and that,—which anybody can do,—and thus gradually getting a notion of the history of the human mind, which enables us (the 'Zeit-Geist' favoring) to correct, in reading the Bible, some of the mistakes into which men of more metaphysical talents than literary experience have fallen. Cripples in like manner have been known, now and then, to be cast by their very infirmity upon some mental pursuit which has turned out happily for them; and a good fortune of this kind has perhaps been ours.
But we do not forget that this good fortune we owe to our weakness, and that the natural superiority remains with our adversaries. And some day, perhaps, the nature of God may be as well known as the nature of a cone or a triangle; and then our two bishops may deduce its properties with success, and make their brilliant logical play about it,—rightly, instead of as now, wrongly; and will resume all their advantage. But this will hardly be in our time. So that the superiority of this pair of distinguished metaphysicians will never perhaps, after all, be of any real advantage to them, but they will be deluded and be mocked by it until they die.
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More Articles by This Author Matthew Arnold
- English poet and cultural critic
- Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888