AGNOSTICISM, AND OTHER SERMONS.*
Tins is a collection of sermons of very unequal merit, dealing with three distinct classes of subject-matter. The first and largest division treats of agnosticism,—or more properly, of those philosophical principles which generally go hand-in-hand with agnosticism in the present day ; the second division, consisting of some ten sermons, is a commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes ; and the concluding portion of the book contains some good practical discourses on the "common duties" of life. The first of these divisions, which gives the book its name, is undoubtedly the most important, and exhibits most clearly both the merits and the defects of the writer's method. It is with Mr. Momerie as with so many writers on modern agnosticism,—his critical treatment of the representatives of the school he is dealing with is far abler and more thorough than his positive and constructive philosophy. He deals admirably with Herbert Spencer's assertion that a knowledge of our own personality, as distinguished from a knowledge of mere states of consciousness, is invalid ; he develops the design argument as modified by the doctrine of evolution with subtlety and ability, showing how completely the evolutionists have failed to overthrow its root-principle ; he places the absurdity of the fundamental agnostic doctrine, that there is no knowledge save of mental experience, either in the individual or in the race, in a clear and impressive light ; but when he comes to deal positively with the existence of God and with personal immortality, his treatment is not only imperfect, but radically defective. To begin with, he is ready to part with the argument urged recently with so much force by the Bishop of Exeter in his Bampton Lectures against the possibility of accounting for life without some special interposition outside the forces at work in the evolution of the inorganic world ; and his main proof of God's sanctity seems to consist in a belief— optimistic to the verge of Positivism—that things in general are making for righteousness. The vivid contrast concerning which Cardinal Newman has spoken, of the voice of God within the conscience, and the apparently aimless and chaotic course of human events, only to be accounted for, the Cardinal considers, by the doctrine that the all-holy Creator has in some sense disowned his creatures, is left entirely out of sight. We get, indeed, a glimpse of it incidentally later on in another section of the volume, and along with this glimpse we have an argument somewhat at variance with that of which we are now speaking ; and this impresses us all the more with the notion that in the constructive part of his philosophy the writer has not thought carefully or maturely.
Perhaps the best specimen of our author's critical powers is his treatment of Herbert Spencer's denial of human personality as an object of absolute knowledge. It is in reality only the resetting of the argument to be found in such works as McCosh's Intuitions of the Mind, or Dr. Ward's Philosophy of Theism, and its adaptation to the evolutionist agnosticism instead of the pure phenomenism of John Mill, against which the works we refer to were originally directed. Spencer argues that though we cannot rid ourselves of a belief in our own personality as something apart from mere states of consciousness, nevertheless this is a belief " which reason, when pressed for a distinct answer, rejects." And the ground for this view is thus stated by him : — "The mental act in which self is known implies, like every other mental act, a perceiving subject and an object perceived. If then the object perceived is self, what is the subject that perceives ? Or if it be the true self which thinks, what other self can be thought of ? Clearly the true cognisance of self implies a state in which the knowing and the known are one, in which subject and object are identified ; and this is the annihilation of both. So that the personality of which each is conscious, and of which the existence is to each a fact beyond all others most certain, is yet a thing which cannot be known at all ; knowledge of it is forbidden by the very nature of thought." To this Mr. Momerie's reply is forcible, and indeed unanswerable, and amounts to this :—By what right is it asserted to be a primary law of thought that the same thing can not be at once the subject and the object of thought, when our own selfconsciousness tells us not only that it can be, but that it is ? It is the old case of solvitur anibulando. Or it may be compared to the well-known story of the man who was shut up in the Bodleian Library, having forgotten to leave before the doors were closed. He cried out to a logician who was passing outside the window to let him out. The logician's answer was :—" No man is in the Bodleian after four; it is now after four, therefore no man is in the Bodleian. No man is now in the Bodleian [conclusion of the first syllogism]; but you are a man, therefore you are not now in the Bodleian." And he walked on. As a rule no one was in the Bodleian at the time in question, and as a rule, the object and subject of knowledge are not identical; but in each case there are exceptions. Here is Mr. Momerie's reply :
" There is a certain law of thought, then, according to Herbert Spencer, which prevents us from knowing ourselves. Now this law, let me ask you carefully to notice, he virtually gives us in the passage I have already quoted, under two different forms. First, thus : all knowledge involves the relation of subject and object. Second, thus : the object must always be something different from the subject.. Now these two modes of statement are not, as be imagines, different ways of expressing the same law ; they are totally different laws. The one is a law of Nature, the other is only a law of his own. To say that knowledge involves the relation of subject and object, is merely to say that the term knowledge, just like the term sensation, is a single word standing for a double fact, and means something known by someone. There can be no knowledge where there is noone to know ; and, contrariwise, no one can know, and at the same time know nothing. This is, of course, a self-evident truth, involved in the very nature of thought. But to say that the object must. always be something different from the subject—in other words, that the subject can never become an object to itself—is to make a totally different assertion,—an assertion which, so far from being self-evidently true, is evidently, is not selfevidently, false. It is false because, Spencer himself being witness, it is contradicted by experience Perhaps a parody of Spencer's reasoning may make its fallaciousness more evident. Just as he tries to show the impossibility of self-knowledge, let ustry to show the impossibility of self-love. We might say, ' The fundamental condition of all love is the antithesis of subject and object. If, then, the object loved be solf, what if the subject that loves ? or if it be the true self that loves, what other self can it be that is loved ? Self-love implies the identity of subject and object,_ but by hypothesis they mast always be different ; therefore, no man can love himself.' Now, since in point of fact most persons do love themselves, there is manifestly something wrong about this argument. The flaw lies in the hypothesis. It is an arbitrary and false assumption that the object must always be different from the subject. The fallacy is a case of petitio principii—the assumption containing by implication the point to be proved."
The question may seem at first sight of trivial importance, but
it is really radical and fundamental; and it is to Mr. Momerie's credit that he has clearly seen how much in the way of principle is involved in what may for a moment appear simple and obvious. Human personality is one of those mysteries—certain, yet inexplicable—which it is of the utmost importance to recog
nise, for the very reason that they are at once mysterious and certain. Modern agnosticism in its more dogmatic form insists
constantly in one shape or another that mind is a growth from below; that knowledge is an accretion of experiences ever growing, and inherited by each successive generation—growing, that is, in the life of the race, and not of the individual. The radical conception of the human mind which the Theist has is directly opposed to this. He reverently studies the mental and moral nature of mankind much as the scientific explorer studies Nature. The scientific mau knows that there is order and there is purpose in Nature ; and he tries not to impose his own laws upon her, or to interpret her in accordance with his own mind, but to find out, if we may so speak, the mind of Nature herself. What is the proportion in which such elements combine ? What is the law of attraction between such bodies ? His one object is to ascertain the nature of the order, purpose, and so forth which he knows are there. He has no hope of doing this completely; but he feels the vast physical universe to be the exhibition of a power and intelligence infinitely above him,—however he may express this conviction,—and his one object is to penetrate further, though he can never completely penetrate, into the designs and works of that power. So, too, the Theist, who believes that mind comes from above and not from below, takes such conceptions as personality, time, space, cause, necessary truth. He bolds that the very inability of the human mind to deal completely with them, and yet the immediate perception we have of their existence, tally completely with the conception of the human soul and all its faculties, as derived from something beyond and above us ; and directly give the lie to a theory which evolves the soul from below. How can the experience of men give rise to ideas which it has afterwards to reject as being beyond the hen of experience ? This theme would carry us too far, were we to develop it as we could wish; but we have, we trust, said enough to indicate what appears to us to be the great and chief importance of the question raised in the book before us.
For the rest, we must content ourselves with saying briefly that the proof of God's existence is sketched so lightly and with such slight insistence on the argument from the " sense of law," as to appear to us very unsatisfactory. Indeed, most proofs, which call themselves proofs, of the Divine existence, are more or less inadequate. The knowledge of God is conveyed by innumerable considerations and experiences in the individual soul ; and as these are indispensable to the proof on the one hand, and on the other cannot be fully recorded, any profession of argumentative completeness in an essay on the subject makes us rather feel the weak points of such an essay than the strong. The effect on the present writer of Mr. Momerie's sermon concerning the proof of God was to recall—though without full assent to its implied purport—the pathetic lines of Mr. Alfred Austin :—
" Oh, give us spirits' wings, or:kindly leave
Us clay alone ! or pinions, or repose! More light! more light ! we cry, and sob and grieve ; More light ! more light ! and still it dimmer grows, Save where anon burst flashes to retrieve Our utter dark, and tantalise our woes.
Again we start, again proclaim the dawn ; The curtain drops, the glimpses are withdrawn."
In conclusion, we will cite an eloquent passage from the section which deals with the Book of Ecclesiastes, which seems to us far more suggestive on the subject of personal immortality than the sermon which expressly treats of that subject in the earlier part of the book :—
" Mr. Frederic Harrison and his school attempt to gloss over the horrors of annihilation by dwelling upon what they call subjective immortality,—that is, upon our survival in the memory of our fellow. men, and in their increasing happiness, which we had helped to further. But if we are unconscious of our own survival—as, according to Mr. Harrison and his school, we shall be—what does it avail us ? Such a survival is, for the individual, indistinguishable from annihilation. I would ask you therefore—especially those of you who may have been influenced by the deadly spells of modern negative science —I would ask you to ponder over Koheleth's philosophy, which is a strictly logical deduction from the denial of immortality. If this life be our only life, human history is correctly summed. up in the phrase, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' Now I say, if we are to believe each a creed as this, we must have evidence for it little if at all short of certainty. And when we ask the English school of philosophers for their proofs, what do they offer us ? Why, they say we cannot imagine how consciousness continues to exist after death ; which piece of evidence, if it is good for anything, would disprove the present life as well as the future. We cannot imagine how consciousness exists at all. What it is, and what it depends on, we have not the faintest notion. Whereas, in favour of the doctrine of immortality, we may urge the argument which is commonly advanced in favour of the theory of evolution, viz., it explains phenomena which are otherwise inexplicable. It solves the riddle of life. We find within ourselves a thirst for happiness, and yet we are never happy. We find within ourselves a yearning for moral perfectness, and yet we are miserably imperfect. We find within ourselves a sentiment of justice, and yet this sentiment is being for ever violated by the fortunes and misfortunes of our neighbours. Immortality, and immortality alone, can harmonise these strange contradictions. And immortality not only solves the problem of life, but solves it satisfactorily. To Koheleth and to those who disbelieve in a future state, our gladdest joy is but a transient ray of light darting athwart the dismal passage to the tomb. To St. Paul and those who believe in a future life, our direst affliction is but a passing cloud as necessary to our welfare as the sunshine which for the moment it conceals ; it is but one of the all things' working together for our good—working out for us a far more exceeding and an eternal weight of glory."