Paper read before the Metaphysical Society, May 11th, 1875.[23]

175. It has always seemed to me that Societies like this of ours, happy in including members not a little diverse in thought and various in knowledge, might be more useful to the public than perhaps they can fairly be said to have approved themselves hitherto, by using their variety of power rather to support intellectual conclusions by concentric props, than to shake them with rotatory storms of wit; and modestly endeavouring to initiate the building of walls for the Bridal city of Science, in which no man will care to identify the particular stones he lays, rather than complying farther with the existing picturesque, but wasteful, practice of every knight to throw up a feudal tower of his own opinions, tenable only by the most active pugnacity, and pierced rather with arrow-slits from which to annoy his neighbours, than windows to admit light or air.

176. The paper read at our last meeting was unquestionably, within the limits its writer had prescribed to himself, so logically sound, that (encouraged also by the suggestion of some of our most influential members), I shall endeavour to make the matter of our to-night's debate consequent upon it, and suggestive of possibly further advantageous deductions.

It will be remembered that, in reference to the statement in the Bishop of Peterborough's Paper, of the moral indifference of certain courses of conduct on the postulate of the existence only of a Mechanical base of Morals, it was observed by Dr. Adam Clarke that, even on such mechanical basis, the word "moral" might still be applied specially to any course of action which tended to the development of the human race. Whereupon I ventured myself to inquire, in what direction such development was to be understood as taking place; and the discussion of this point being then dropped for want of time, I would ask the Society's permission to bring it again before them this evening in a somewhat more extended form; for in reality the question respecting the development of men is twofold,—first, namely, in what direction; and secondly, in what social relations, it is to be sought.

I would therefore at present ask more deliberately than I could at our last meeting,—first, in what direction it is desirable that the development of humanity should take place? Should it, for instance, as in Greece, be of physical beauty,—emulation, (Hesiod's second Eris),—pugnacity, and patriotism? or, as in modern England, of physical ugliness,—envy, (Hesiod's first Eris),—cowardice, and selfishness? or, as by a conceivably humane but hitherto unexampled education might be attempted, of physical beauty, humility, courage, and affection, which should make all the world one native land, and πασα γη τἁφος?

177. I do not doubt but that the first automatic impulse of all our automatic friends here present, on hearing this sentence, will be strenuously to deny the accuracy of my definition of the aims of modern English education. Without attempting to defend it, I would only observe that this automatic development of solar caloric in scientific minds must be grounded on an automatic sensation of injustice done to the members of the School Board, as well as to many other automatically well-meaning and ingenious persons; and that this sense of the injuriousness and offensiveness of my definition cannot possibly have any other basis (if I may be permitted to continue my professional similitudes) than the fallen remnants and goodly stones, not one now left on another, but still forming an unremovable cumulus of ruin, and eternal Birs Nimroud, as it were, on the site of the old belfry of Christian morality, whose top looked once so like touching Heaven.

For no offence could be taken at my definition, unless traceable to adamantine conviction,—that ugliness, however indefinable, envy, however natural, and cowardice, however commercially profitable, are nevertheless eternally disgraceful; contrary, that is to say, to the grace of our Lord Christ, if there be among us any Christ; to the grace of the King's Majesty, if there be among us any King; and to the grace even of Christless and Kingless Manhood, if there be among us any Manhood.

To this fixed conception of a difference between Better and Worse, or, when carried to the extreme, between good and evil in conduct, we all, it seems to me, instinctively and, therefore, rightly, attach the term of Moral sense;—the sense, for instance, that it would be better if the members of this Society who are usually automatically absent were, instead, automatically present; or better, that this Paper, if (which is, perhaps, too likely) it be thought automatically impertinent, had been made by the molecular action of my cerebral particles, pertinent.

178. Trusting, therefore, without more ado, to the strength of rampart in this Old Sarum of the Moral sense, however subdued into vague banks under the modern steam-plough, I will venture to suppose the first of my two questions to have been answered by the choice on the part at least of a majority of our Council, of the third direction of development above specified as being the properly called "moral" one; and will go on to the second subject of inquiry, both more difficult and of great practical importance in the political crisis through which Europe is passing,—namely, what relations between men are to be desired, or with resignation allowed, in the course of their Moral Development?

Whether, that is to say, we should try to make some men beautiful at the cost of ugliness in others, and some men virtuous at the cost of vice in others,—or rather, all men beautiful and virtuous in the degree possible to each under a system of equitable education? And evidently our first business is to consider in what terms the choice is put to us by Nature. What can we do, if we would? What must we do, whether we will or not? How high can we raise the level of a diffused Learning and Morality? and how far shall we be compelled, if we limit, to exaggerate, the advantages and injuries of our system? And are we prepared, if the extremity be inevitable, to push to their utmost the relations implied when we take off our hats to each other, and triple the tiara of the Saint in Heaven, while we leave the sinner bareheaded in Cocytus?

179. It is well, perhaps, that I should at once confess myself to hold the principle of limitation in its utmost extent; and to entertain no doubt of the rightness of my ideal, but only of its feasibility. I am ill at ease, for instance, in my uncertainty whether our greatly regretted Chairman will ever be Pope, or whether some people whom I could mention, (not, of course, members of our Society,) will ever be in Cocytus.

But there is no need, if we would be candid, to debate the principle in these violences of operation, any more than the proper methods of distributing food, on the supposition that the difference between a Paris dinner and a platter of Scotch porridge must imply that one-half of mankind are to die of eating, and the rest of having nothing to eat. I will therefore take for example a case in which the discrimination is less conclusive.

180. When I stop writing metaphysics this morning it will be to arrange some drawings for a young lady to copy. They are leaves of the best illuminated MSS. I have, and I am going to spend my whole afternoon in explaining to her what she is to aim at in copying them.

Now, I would not lend these leaves to any other young lady that I know of; nor give up my afternoon to, perhaps, more than two or three other young ladies that I know of. But to keep to the first-instanced one, I lend her my books, and give her, for what they are worth, my time and most careful teaching, because she at present paints butterflies better than any other girl I know, and has a peculiar capacity for the softening of plumes and finessing of antennæ. Grant me to be a good teacher, and grant her disposition to be such as I suppose, and the result will be what might at first appear an indefensible iniquity, namely, that this girl, who has already excellent gifts, having also excellent teaching, will become perhaps the best butterfly-painter in England; while myriads of other girls, having originally inferior powers, and attracting no attention from the Slade Professor, will utterly lose their at present cultivable faculties of entomological art, and sink into the vulgar career of wives and mothers, to which we have Mr. Mill's authority for holding it a grievous injustice that any girl should be irrevocably condemned.

181. There is no need that I should be careful in enumerating the various modes, analogous to this, in which the Natural selection of which we have lately heard, perhaps, somewhat more than enough, provokes and approves the Professorial selection which I am so bold as to defend; and if the automatic instincts of equity in us, which revolt against the great ordinance of Nature and practice of Man, that "to him that hath, shall more be given," are to be listened to when the possessions in question are only of wisdom and virtue, let them at least prove their sincerity by correcting, first, the injustice which has established itself respecting more tangible and more esteemed property; and terminating the singular arrangement prevalent in commercial Europe that to every man with a hundred pounds in his pocket there shall annually be given three, to every man with a thousand, thirty, and to every man with nothing, none.

182. I am content here to leave under the scrutiny of the evening my general statement, that as human development, when moral, is with special effort in a given direction, so, when moral, it is with special effort in favour of a limited class; but I yet trespass for a few moments on your patience in order to note that the acceptance of this second principle still leaves it debatable to what point the disfavour of the reprobate class, or the privileges of the elect, may advisably extend. For I cannot but feel for my own part as if the daily bread of moral instruction might at least be so widely broken among the multitude as to preserve them from utter destitution and pauperism in virtue; and that even the simplest and lowest of the rabble should not be so absolutely sons of perdition, but that each might say for himself,—"For my part—no offence to the General, or any man of quality—I hope to be saved." Whereas it is, on the contrary, implied by the habitual expressions of the wisest aristocrats, that the completely developed persons whose Justice and Fortitude—poles to the Cardinal points of virtue—are marked as their sufficient characteristics by the great Roman moralist in his phrase, "Justus, et tenax propositi," will in the course of nature be opposed by a civic ardour, not merely of the innocent and ignorant, but of persons developed in a contrary direction to that which I have ventured to call "moral," and therefore not merely incapable of desiring or applauding what is right, but in an evil harmony, prava jubentium, clamorously demanding what is wrong.

183. The point to which both Natural and Divine Selection would permit us to advance in severity towards this profane class, to which the enduring "Ecce Homo," or manifestation of any properly human sentiment or person, must always be instinctively abominable, seems to be conclusively indicated by the order following on the parable of the Talents,—"Those mine enemies, bring hither, and slay them before me." Nor does it seem reasonable, on the other hand, to set the limits of favouritism more narrowly. For even if, among fallible mortals, there may frequently be ground for the hesitation of just men to award the punishment of death to their enemies, the most beautiful story, to my present knowledge, of all antiquity, that of Cleobis and Bito, might suggest to them the fitness on some occasions, of distributing without any hesitation the reward of death to their friends. For surely the logical conclusion of the Bishop of Peterborough, respecting the treatment due to old women who have nothing supernatural about them, holds with still greater force when applied to the case of old women who have everything supernatural about them; and while it might remain questionable to some of us whether we had any right to deprive an invalid who had no soul, of what might still remain to her of even painful earthly existence; it would surely on the most religious grounds be both our privilege and our duty at once to dismiss any troublesome sufferer who had a soul, to the distant and inoffensive felicities of heaven.

184. But I believe my hearers will approve me in again declining to disturb the serene confidence of daily action by these speculations in extreme; the really useful conclusion which, it seems to me, cannot be evaded, is that, without going so far as the exile of the inconveniently wicked, and translation of the inconveniently sick, to their proper spiritual mansions, we should at least be certain that we do not waste care in protracting disease which might have been spent in preserving health; that we do not appease in the splendour of our turreted hospitals the feelings of compassion which, rightly directed, might have prevented the need of them; nor pride ourselves on the peculiar form of Christian benevolence which leaves the cottage roofless to model the prison, and spends itself with zealous preference where, in the keen words of Carlyle, if you desire the material on which maximum expenditure of means and effort will produce the minimum result, "here you accurately have it."

185. I cannot but, in conclusion, most respectfully but most earnestly, express my hope that measures may be soon taken by the Lords Spiritual of England to assure her doubting mind of the real existence of that supernatural revelation of the basis of morals to which the Bishop of Peterborough referred in the close of his paper; or at least to explain to her bewildered populace the real meaning and force of the Ten Commandments, whether written originally by the finger of God or Man. To me personally, I own, as one of that bewildered populace, that the essay by one of our most distinguished members on the Creed of Christendom seems to stand in need of explicit answer from our Divines; but if not, and the common application of the terms "Word of God" to the books of Scripture be against all question tenable, it becomes yet more imperative on the interpreters of that Scripture to see that they are not made void by our traditions, and that the Mortal sins of Covetousness, Fraud, Usury, and contention be not the essence of a National life orally professing submission to the laws of Christ, and satisfaction in His Love.

J. Ruskin.

"Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of Competition."
Arthur Clough.