THE HUMOURS OF METAPHYSICS.
ONE of the most remarkable characteristics of Dr. Mar- tineau's metaphysics is the humour with which he treats the fundamental issues, wherever they are not involved with matters too grave to admit of such treatment. It has often been so with the greater thinkers. Plato's dialogues are often full of humour, and of humour of the most genuine kind ; and so far is it from being a quality alien to the discussion of the ultimate issues of the thinker, that there is probably no world in which there is a deeper insight given into the springs of those sudden meta- morphoses of attitude and feeling in the apt variations on which humour consists, than the world of the deeper psychology and metaphysics. Thus, when Socrates is trying to explain the mysteries of implicit and explicit knowledge, and to discover how it is that a man may blunder about that to the accurate knowledge of which he has a sure clue in the resources of his own mind, Plato describes him as suggesting that though he possesses the knowledge, in the sense of having access to it, he has not positively got it till he lays his apprehensive mind upon it, and that even in doing so, he may lay it some- times upon the wrong item, and so, instead of catching the bit of knowledge of which he is in search, catch something of which he is not at all in search ; and Socrates likens such a man to the possessor of an aviary of all sorts of birds, some in flocks, some in small groups, some solitary, who, when he is in search of a particular pigeon, gets hold instead of a ring-dove, and so proves that a winged thing which he in some sense possesses, is yet not absolutely his,—that though he knows what he wants, he does not know it well enough to fix upon it without first capturing something which he mistakes for that of which he is in search. This imaginary aviary of Plato's, in which false and true opinions are flying about like ring-doves and pigeons and other more solitary birds, with an owner close at hand, but without a master sufficiently intimate
with them to discriminate them infallibly the one from the other, is a humorous enough symbol of almost all metaphysical and psychological systems, where the most experienced thinkers are always putting out their hands for a lark and catching a pigeon, or putting out their hands for a dove and catching, perhaps, an ill-omened. raven. Hence, dry as the deeper subjects of philosophy are usually held to be, it is very common to find humonrists of the truest kind amongst those who are able to treat them with the greatest power. Pascal was such a one; so was Coleridge; so in our own day have been the late Dr. Ward, Dr. Martineau, and Cardinal Newman.
In the volumes just published by Dr. Martineau on "A Study of Religion," there are, we need hardly say, innumerable discus- sions in which the more solemn theme is not directly involved, so that the thinker is able to treat the outlying provinces of philosophy with that comprehensiveness and ease which afford room for the evidence of the humour to which we refer. For example, in dealing with Mr. J. S. Mill's explanation of his view as to the belief in an external world, Dr. Martineau remarks that Mr. Mill relies in part on the fact that every thinker finds himself confirmed by others in this belief,—though the very question at issue is whether there is any satisfactory evidence to take him beyond the circuit of his own inner consciousness ; whereupon Dr. Martineau comments that "till we have got the door open out of our own egoistic chamber and found that there is a field beyond, it is premature to serve a summons on inconceivable people there to come and bear witness to its existence." And again, Mr. Mill having as yet found no bridge over the chasm from the thinking subject to any real world outside, Dr. Martineau notices that though he does not bridge the chasm, he leaps it, "but does not tell us how he managed to leave himself behind him,"—a feat without the achievement of which Mr. J. S. Mill would, of course, still have remained like every pure idealist imprisoned (theoretically) in himself. Again, what can be happier than Dr. Martineau's criticism on those philosophers who regard every object as constituted of qualities without a substance P It is impossible, he says, to think of a thing as a mere "public meeting" of its attributes, however often the assembly may be called. Once more, take this commentary on the use which the empirical thinkers,—such as Dr. Bain,—always make of the baby in whose imagined history they hide away all the most marvellous secrets of our intellectual growth ?— " I do not question the value within certain limits of such careful study as Bain has devoted to human infancy, and even newly dropped lambs and staggering calves ; but the psychological baby that he is so fond of dandling seems to me to become a sort of fetish to him, from which he expects and wrings, oracles it was never meant to give. As it cannot con- tradict him, he has it all his own way ; and can so tell the story of what is going on within, when it sprawls and springs and laughs and turns and fumbles with the hands, as to lead up to a foregone conclusion. A large part of his characteristic psychology appears to me to consist of misleading inferences correctly drawn from the contents of a hypothetical infant." Still more striking in its way is the criticism on those pantheistic thinkers who hold it as proving any doctrine concerning the universe false, to show that it is anthro- pomorphic,—in. other words, a • doctrine constructed from the human point of view. "Our thought," says Dr. Mar- tineau, necessarily "holds on to a locus whence its survey is taken of all else ; it sails in its little skiff and looks forth on the illimitable sea and the great arch of the sky, and finds two things alone with one another, the universe and itself ; the metaphysicians who, in their impatience of distinction, insist on taking the sea on board the boat, swamp not only it but the thought it holds, and leave an infinitude which, as it can look into no eye and whisper into no ear, they contradict in the very act of affirming." In all these instances,—and we could give many others,—Dr. Martineau seems to us to make humour in the truest sense serviceable to his thought, by bringing out through its help the very essence of some huge philosophical miscarriage. What can describe more accurately the fruitless aspiration of all pantheism than this description of it as an attempt "to take the sea on bpard the boat."
Humour, according to Carlyle, who, however, did not accom- modate his own humoristic practice to his definition, delights rather in taking up the littleness of life and saturating it with what is sublime, than in bringing down what is good in life and showing its kinship to that which is petty. In fact, true humour may be shown in both ways,—in the former way, by a deeper study of what is only apparently insignificant, so bringing out its deeper significance ; in the latter way, by a study of what is really pretentious, so bringing out its deeper hollow- ness. The greater philosophical humourists, from Plato down- wards, have used their humour with the utmost freedom in both ways. But Dr. Martineau uses it even more in the fashion which Carlyle regards as its normal function, and we can hardly give a nobler example of it in its higher imaginative type, than the fine passage in which he humorously replies to the foolish physical criticisms on our planet which the various devil's advocates, from Lucretius downwards, have pressed in the hope of disproving what is called the argument "from design," and of showing that our earth is a mere physical accident, and not the product of any wise and provident purpose :—
"Complaint is made of several useless and unmeaning arrangements. Even in the inorganic world, faults have been freely pointed out by scientific critics from the time of Empedooles to that of Comte and Mill :—on our earth, the surrender of the polar regions to ice that never melts and of the equatorial to heats that never cease to parch ; and of enormous areas between, to barren deserts and inhospitable seas ; the recurring desolation of fertile lands by earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurrioames ; in the moon, the absence of atmosphere and water, its one-sided gaze upon the earth, its awkward periodic time, tantalising us with scanty glimpses of its face ; in the solar system, the great gap between Mars and Jupiter, given up to petty asteroids, of which you could survey a sample in a day's walk, and half a dozen, if they were worth anything, might be sold in an auction. room in a single lot; the excessive heat of Mercury and cold of Neptune • the fifteen years of alternate night and day near Saturn's poles ; the progressive cooling, contraction and resistance which must reduce the whole to a dead mass ; and, throughout the stellar regions, the enormous waste of space unclaimed by worlds, and of light diluting itself through vacancy Facts of this kind may fairly enough be called unmeaning, if no more is intended by the phrase than that we do not know their raison d'être ; and useless, if, in order to try them, a purpose is assumed which they fail to serve. On the supposition that the arctic and antarctic latitudes, that the Sahara, that the Pacific regions, were intended for the residence of man, no doubt the ice, the sand, and the salt flood are so many blunders. If the laws of heat which determine the currents of the atmosphere and work in sub- terranean depths, have no end but to secure the tiller of the soil in his dwelling and his crops, they certainly incur a failure in every out- burst of Etna or Boreas. Are the satellites to be criticised as lamps alone ? then' it must be admitted, they might, by dispensing with their phases, have given more light. Bat by what right do we judge a solar system from a mere geocentric, nay, from a purely humanistic point of view ? Look at its age, its scope, its history, its relations to innumerable systems vaster than itself; and say whether the last comer on one of its planets is entitled to measure the ends which it embraces by his particular needs. Included though they be in the whole, what part of it are they likely to occupy ? If it be anthropo- morphic to admire an arrangement of Nature because it is useful to man, is it less anthropomorphic to condemn one because it is useless to him ? No considerate Theist imagines Man to be the central object of the universe, by the standard of whose requirements all things are to be judged : even if he did apply this narrow rule to the constitution of the globe on which he lives, he need hardly be mach disturbed by Lucretius' bad opinion of the equator and the poles. The Roman poet, it seems, would have preferred a human estate all under culture, compact and occupied, uniform in temperature, and with no more water than was needed for irrigation and for drink ; with no moor and mountain to part the fields, no freshening play of ocean and air where man is not, no refrigerating winds to fling a wreath of snow, no African glow to cross over and move the Alpine glaciers ; but a snug little planet, without a waste place or a wild beast, and so comfortable that it would soon swarm like a Chinese empire or an ant hill, and no 'one could be alone on all the earth.' This is the landscape-gardening of philosophy ; from which, for my part, I gladly escape back to the wild forest or the open sea, or even the stern wonders of the icebergs and the northern lights. On Comte's proposal for improving the moon by having it fall every night, I can pass no mathematical judgment : his scientific critics say it would be fatal to the satellite's equilibrium ; but I confess to such a love of the monthly story of her orb from the first crescent to the last decrescent phase, that, to save it, I would accept a gaslight or even carry a lantern on dark nights."
The truth is, we suppose, that Lucretius did not sufficiently discern how utterly unsuitable such a planet as he conceived likely to promote human comfort most, would be to the nature of man, which has so much in it that is wild and desolate and incapable of being " cabined, cribbed, confined" in any home like that which he conceived. His failure consisted rather in not having measured the scope of man's evil and his good, in not seeing man's relation to what is truly infinite, than in his con- tempt for that misreading of the earth which assumed that it is precisely such a dwelling-place for human nature as a " magnified " man would have devised if he had been asked for a minute specification of a planet adjusted to a civilised Roman's tastes and wants. But Lucretius, though a true poet, was certainly not a humourist as well.