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fear of any consequences for life. “Some,” he says, “have held that Snow is black, that the earth moves, that the Soul is air, fire, water; but all this is Philosophy, and there is no delirium.”i A recent writer tells us that “all men who have lived to a certain age have learnt that there are certain facts, certain experiences not at all connected with the supernatural, which they dare not tell of for fear of being put down as inventors. . . . Just as the old woman was ready to accept her travelled son's yarns of rivers of milk and islands of cheese; but when he deviated into the truth she stopped. "Na, na!' she said, 'that the anchor fetched up one of Pharaoh's chariot wheels out of the Red Sea, I can believe; but that fish fly! 'Na, na! dinna come any o' your lies over yer mither.'”.
But it is worthy of remark that common sense is not to be conjured with as it once was. We have grown first accustomed to absurdities, and then fond of them. I am not sure that in our day the burden of proof does not lie with the familiar fact. We expect to be surprised, and are suspicious of a theory that lacks novelty. This has doubtless always been the case with intellectual radicals, but it is fast becoming a general state of mind. Many reasons may be offered for the change. First of all, it is due to the high conductivity of modern society. The mood of one individual is transmitted with incredible rapidity to the entire community. The doubts, conjectures, and conclusions of theorists are promptly communicated to the public, which straightway itself strikes a theoretical attitude. Again, the general triumph of democratic principles has made a difference here. Intellectual exclusiveness does not suit the temper of liberal societies. It must be share and share alike with knowledge as with other commodities. The best is none too good for every man; hence there can be no living on the paternalistic bounty of a class of wise men. It was once thought that if the eyes of a few were
Sir Thomas Browne: Religio Medici (1646), Temple Edition, p. 115. · H. Fielding: Hearts of Men, pp. 274–275.
opened they might lead the rest; but now none consent to remain blind. And, finally, the humanitarian and utilitarian sentiment requires that all knowledge shall promptly be put to use. In order that men may be saved by it, or the conditions of life bettered, or mankind be brought a step forward, knowledge must be instantly worked into life and made to serve.
All these and other tendencies of the day conspire to produce an impatience and over-haste in belief. We suffer from a new kind of credulity. It was once complained that men are too easily inclined to believe what their fathers believed, that men lack originality and independence. But there is now reason to fear that men may too easily believe what no one has ever believed before. Men with settled convictions may become as rare as were free-thinkers in an earlier time. And the consequences must be scarcely less detrimental to social welfare than the consequences of the earlier complacency and narrow-mindedness. For inquisitiveness and fluidity of mind, though they condition the discovery of new truth, are intolerable in society at large. Theory must correct and enlighten belief, but it cannot, consistently with the conduct of any considerable enterprise, replace belief.
$ 8. I cannot hope to offer any general solution of what appears to be a recurrent and inevitable problem. It is of
the very essence of life that it should be both The Need of Mediation be conserved and changed. To belief, society owes tween Theory its cohesiveness and stability; to theory, it
owes its chance of betterment. And since every human motive is liable to exaggeration, society will always suffer harm on the one hand from complacency and tyranny, and on the other hand from reckless innovation. Conflict between the mood of theory and the mood of belief, or between the party of theory and the party of belief, will doubtless remain to the end a source of confusion and waste.
And this conflict will be most bitter where the most is at stake; respecting those ideas, namely, in
which society is most deeply involved. But I think that we are justified in drawing certain inferences that are not wholly insignificant.
In the first place, since there is a virtue in belief that has no equivalent in theory, it is wise to surrender belief reluctantly. A due recognition of the gravity of such a crisis permits no other course. Some degree of stolidity and inertia is a mark of moral poise. Nor is this incompatible with intellectual alertness and curiosity. It requires only that one shall acquire reserve, and refuse to admit strange theories at once to the circle of one's dear convictions. Similarly, conservatism in social action is not incompatible with the liveliest and most serious speculation concerning human institutions; but if this is to be possible, society must act more slowly than the curious-minded speculate, and insist that ideas be long tested, and gradually absorbed.
There is also a certain obligation in this matter that rests with theorists, and more especially with those who are devoted to the examination of the most fundamental ideas. It happens, doubtless because these ideas have not as yet permitted of exact treatment, that there is here the least barrier between theory and belief. Political, social, and philosophical theory speak the language of common sense, using terms that suggest the objects of daily life. It is as though the anthropologist were to allude to his personal friends. But there can never be any exact correspondence between the terms of theory and the terms of belief, because they are defined by different contexts, and belong to different systems. All the more reason, then, why different symbols should be employed, and the layman be spared the needless fear that his bread or soul's salvation hangs on the fortunes of an argument. to What I have said applies with peculiar force to the philosopher.
No one else debates such grave issues; nor is there any other region of theoretical inquiry in which differences and fluctuations of opinion are so marked. And I refer here, not especially to those who proclaim themselves metaphysicians, but to all theoretically-minded persons, including scientists and moralists, who busy themselves with ultimate questions. It would seem to follow that society is in special need of avoiding a hasty assimilation of such theory. And yet the words which it ordinarily employs are words which symbolize to mankind their most trusted and cherished objects of belief. No one has taken the name of the Lord his God in vain so frequently and so unconcernedly as the philosopher. While philosophers dispute, believers witness with dismay the apparent dissolution, not only of God, but of immortality, freedom, marriage, and democracy as well. I wish that philosophy, for theoretical purposes, might speak a language of its own, and settle its disputes in a vernacular that does not arrest the attention of the community. If this were possible, philosophy would be better entitled to the full benefit of that immunity from direct social responsibility which is most conducive to clear seeing and straight thinking. And society could afford to wait for the application of a more refined and better-tested truth.
No theorist is under obligation immediately to give society the benefit of his theorizing. It was said of Samuel Clarke, who sought to overthrow atheism by scientific argument, that no one had really doubted the existence of God until he undertook to prove it. There will always be an absolute difference between rational assent on theoretical grounds, and implicit belief. The theoretical mood, even when a conclusion is reached, is a state of practical doubt. When the transition is made from believing to theorizing, the loss is certain; and he who lightly encourages such a transition is guilty of recklessness and irresponsibility. It is a grave matter to substitute one's own theory, however well-reasoned, for another man's belief. For the belief is a part of the believer's life, a condition of the confidence and hopefulness of his action. It is a mistaken idea that honesty compels every theorist to be a propagandist; it is true, rather, that in the great majority of instances, the sentiment of humanity, and a serious regard for the well-being of society, require that he shall
The task of mediating between theory and life is perhaps the most delicate and responsible task which it falls to the lot of any man to perform. And it cannot be denied that the theoretical habit of mind tends to disqualify one for undertaking it. For the investigator is trained to neglect every consideration but such present evidence as he can obtain. The human probability that his conclusions will some day, perhaps tomorrow, be over-ruled by new evidence, he properly excludes from his consideration. It is not relevant to his problem. But while theories may be changed with little cost and with certain gain, this is not true of beliefs. Here the cost is more certain than the gain. And the very consideration which the theorist is trained to neglect, and must neglect if his mind is to be free, is here of paramount importance. He who is to advise men must be the friend of men. He must understand their hopes and share their responsibilities. Hence he must regard every idea with reference to its effect on that present, concrete, human state of mind, from which all social action must proceed. No one has proclaimed more eloquently than Francis Bacon that it is to knowledge that man owes his triumph over nature and his advancement in all noble arts. But he would willingly, I think, have said of established belief, what he said of antiquity, that it “deserveth that reverence, that men should make a stand thereupon and discover what is the best way; but when the discovery is well taken, then to make progression.”