Lord Beaconsfield, treating Hellenic things with the scornful negligence natural to a Hebrew, said in a well-known book that our aristocratic class, the polite flower of the nation, were truly Hellenic in this respect among others,—that they cared nothing for letters and never read. Now, there seems to be here some inaccuracy, if we take our standard of what is Hellenic from Hellas at its highest pitch of development. For the latest historian of Greece, Dr. Curtius, tells us that in the Athens of Pericles 'reading was universally diffused;' and again, that 'what more than anything distinguishes the Greeks from the Barbarians of ancient and modern times, is the idea of a culture comprehending body and soul in an equal measure.' And I have myself called our aristocratic class Barbarians, which is the contrary of Hellenes, from this very reason: because, with all their fine, fresh appearance, their open-air life, and their love of field-sports, for reading and thinking they have in general no great turn. But no doubt Lord Beaconsfield was thinking of the primitive Hellenes of north-western Greece, from among whom the Dorians of Peloponnesus originally came, but who themselves remained in their old seats and did not migrate and develop like their more famous brethren. And of these primitive Hellenes, of Greeks like the Chaonians and Molossians, it is probably a very just account to give, that they lived in the open air, loved field-sports, and never read. And, explained in this way, Lord Beaconsfield's parallel of our aristocratic class with what he somewhat misleadingly calls the old Hellenic race appears ingenious and sound. To those lusty northerners, the Molossian or Chaonian Greeks,—Greeks untouched by the development which contradistinguishes the Hellene from the barbarian,—our aristocratic class, as he exhibits it, has a strong resemblance. At any rate, this class,—which from its great possessions, its beauty and attractiveness, the admiration felt for it by the Philistines or middle-class, its actual power in the nation, and the still more considerable destinies to which its politeness, in Mr. Carlyle's opinion, entitles it, cannot but attract our notice pre-eminently,—shows at present a great and genuine disregard for letters.
And perhaps, if there is any other body of men which strikes one, even after looking at our aristocratic class, as being in the sunshine, as exercising great attraction, as being admired by the Philistines or middle-class, and as having before it a future still more brilliant than its present, it is the friends of physical science. Now, their revolt against the tyranny of letters is notorious. To deprive letters of the too great place they have hitherto filled in men's estimation, and to substitute other studies for these, is the object of a sort of crusade with a body of people important in itself, but still more important because of the gifted leaders who march at its head.
Religion has always hitherto been a great power in England; and on this account, perhaps, whatever humiliations may be in store for religion in the future, the friends of physical science will not object to our saying, that, after them and the aristocracy, the leaders of the religious world fill a prominent place in the public eye even now, and one cannot help noticing what their opinions and likings are. And it is curious how the feeling of the chief people in the religious world, too, seems to be just now against letters, which they slight as the vague and inexact instrument of shallow essayists and magazine-writers; and in favor of dogma, of a scientific and exact presentment of religious things, instead of a literary presentment of them. 'Dogmatic theology,' says the Guardian, speaking of our existing dogmatic theology,—'Dogmatic theology, that is, precision and definiteness of religious thought.' 'Maudlin sentimentalism,' says the Dean of Norwich, 'with its miserable disparagements of any definite doctrine; a nerveless religion, without the sinew and bone of doctrine.' The distinguished Chancellor of the University of Oxford thought it needful to tell us on a public occasion lately, that 'religion is no more to be severed from dogma than light from the sun.' Everyone, again, remembers the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester making in Convocation their remarkable effort 'to do something,' as they said, 'for the honor of Our Lord's Godhead,' and to mark their sense of 'that infinite separation for time and for eternity which is involved in rejecting the Godhead of the Eternal Son.' In the same way: 'To no teaching,' says one champion of dogma, 'can the appellation of Christian be truly given which does not involve the idea of a Personal God.' Another lays like stress on correct ideas about the Personality of the Holy Ghost. 'Our Lord unquestionably,' says a third, 'annexes eternal life to a right knowledge of the Godhead,'—that is, to a right speculative, dogmatic knowledge of it. A fourth appeals to history and human nature for proof that 'an undogmatic Church can no more satisfy the hunger of the soul, than a snowball, painted to look like fruit, would stay the hunger of the stomach.' And all these friends of theological science are, like the friends of physical science, though from another cause, severe upon letters. Attempts made at a literary treatment of religious history and ideas they call 'a subverting of the faith once delivered to the saints.' Those who make them they speak of as 'those who have made shipwreck of the faith;' and when they talk of 'the poison openly disseminated by infidels,' and describe the 'progress of infidelity,' which more and more, according to their account, 'denies God, rejects Christ, and lets loose every human passion,' though they have the audaciousness of physical science most in their eye, yet they have a direct aim, too, at the looseness and dangerous temerity of letters.
Keeping in remembrance what Scripture says about the young man who had great possessions, to be able to work a change of mind in our aristocratic class we never have pretended, we never shall pretend. But to the friends of physical science and to the friends of dogma we do feel emboldened, after giving our best consideration to the matter, to say a few words on behalf of letters, and in deprecation of the slight which, on different grounds, they both put upon them. But particularly in reply to the friends of dogma do we wish to insist on the case for letters, because of the great issues which seem to us to be here involved. Therefore of the relation of letters to religion we are going now to speak; of their effect upon dogma, and of the consequences of this to religion. And so the subject of the present volume will be literature and dogma.
It is clear that dogmatists love religion; for else why do they occupy themselves with it so much, and make it, most of them, the business, even the professional business, of their lives? And clearly religion seeks man's salvation. How distressing, therefore, must it be to them, to think that 'salvation is unquestionably annexed to a right knowledge of the Godhead,' and that a right knowledge of the Godhead depends upon reasoning, for which so many people have not much aptitude; and upon reasoning from ideas or terms such as substance, identity, causation, design, about which there is endless disagreement! It is true, a right knowledge of geometry also depends upon reasoning, and many people never get it; but then, in the first place, salvation is not annexed to a right knowledge of geometry; and in the second, the ideas or terms such as point, line, angle, from which we reason in geometry, are terms about which there is no ambiguity or disagreement. But as to the demonstrations and terms of theology we cannot comfort ourselves in this manner. How must this thought mar the Archbishop of York's enjoyment of such a solemnity as that in which, to uphold and renovate religion, he lectured lately to Lord Harrowby, Dean Payne Smith, and other kindred souls, upon the theory of causation! And what a consolation to us, who are so perpetually being taunted with our known inaptitude for abstruse reasoning, if we can find that for this great concern of religion, at any rate, abstruse reasoning does not seem to be the appointed help; and that as good or better a help,—for indeed there can hardly, to judge by the present state of things, be a worse,—may be something which is in an ordinary man's power!
For the good of letters is, that they require no extraordinary acuteness such as is required to handle the theory of causation like the Archbishop of York, or the doctrine of the Godhead of the Eternal Son like the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester. The good of letters may be had without skill in arguing, or that formidable logical apparatus, not unlike a guillotine, which Professor Huxley speaks of somewhere as the young man's best companion;—and so it would be his best companion, no doubt, if all wisdom were come at by hard reasoning. In that case, all who could not manage this apparatus (and only a few picked craftsmen can manage it) would be in a pitiable condition.
But the valuable thing in letters,—that is, in the acquainting oneself with the best which has been thought and said in the world,—is, as we have often remarked, the judgment which forms itself insensibly in a fair mind along with fresh knowledge and this judgment almost anyone with a fair mind, who will but trouble himself to try and make acquaintance with the best which has been thought and uttered in the world, may, if he is lucky, hope to attain to. For this judgment comes almost of itself; and what it displaces it displaces easily and naturally, and without any turmoil of controversial reasonings. The thing comes to look differently to us, as we look at it by the light of fresh knowledge. We are not beaten from our old opinion by logic, we are not driven off our ground;—our ground itself changes with us.
Far more of our mistakes come from want of fresh knowledge than from want of correct reasoning; and, therefore, letters meet a greater want in us than does logic. The idea of a triangle is a definite and ascertained thing, and to deduce the properties of a triangle from it is an affair of reasoning. There are heads unapt for this sort of work, and some of the blundering to be found in the world is from this cause. But how far more of the blundering to be found in the world comes from people fancying that some idea is a definite and ascertained thing, like the idea of a triangle, when it is not; and proceeding to deduce properties from it, and to do battle about them, when their first start was a mistake! And how liable are people with a talent for hard, abstruse reasoning, to be tempted to this mistake! And what can clear up such a mistake except a wide and familiar acquaintance with the human spirit and its productions, showing how ideas and terms arose, and what is their character? and this is letters and history, not logic.
So that minds with small aptitude for abstruse reasoning may yet, through letters, gain some hold on sound judgment and useful knowledge, and may even clear up blunders committed, out of their very excess of talent, by the athletes of logic.
More from Matthew Arnold
- English poet and cultural critic
- Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888