AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Truths That Men Forget.

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. & S., I.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 291

If the world has reason at its core, if it is not a product of blind "Force" or "Will," nor the outcome of the interminable clashing of mechanical atoms, the end towards which its process moves must have lain as a determining purpose at the beginning. Mr. Edward Clodd sums up the process as "the evolution of gas into genius"; but, for the ReasonWill-Cause of the world, "genius" was with "gas" at the beginning, and doubtless also there was there an end for genius that it has not yet entered into the heart of Mr. Clodd to conceive.

"Let us make man in Our image"; and from the dust of the ground man grows to his perfecting: shall we call the dust of the ground his beginning? Mr. Clodd puts "gas" for dust, but he means the same thing; it is our trick of thought and speech: but the trick is new and we have somehow learnt it, and the way we have learnt it is a chapter in our history that is just drawing to a close, just becoming quite easy to read and understand.

There is a charming picture in that treasury of graphic wisdomthe old volumes of Punchin which a curate at a dog show is pointing out the beneficent arrangement that enables the bull-dog to breathe comfortably through his nostrassi nose while keeping his jaws clenched in his victim's throat. The doctrine expounded by the curate is that doctrine of ‘final causation' which our scientific and philosophical ancestors very reasonably cast aside. Unfortunately our ancestors, like ourselves, were in the habit of throwing away the baby with the bath, so they threw away with those final causes which Bacon denounced as barren of all knowledge, every thought of purpose and meaning as determining the course of nature and of man. They set the whole problem before them as a mechanical chain of antecedents and consequents, likely to be best interpreted in terms of its earliest and simplest links if those links could be explored. When they were believers in a God those 18th and 19th century men were for the most part Deists, and their God was a Great First Cause, manufacturing the first link in the chainan impelling extra-mundane Power setting going once for all the succession of ‘secondary' causes which were ever afterwards to go on of themselves, unless, as on certain rare occasions might be, the Power remote thought fit to ‘interfere with' them in a miraculous dislocation of order and of law.

When they did not believe in a God these intellectual ancestors of ours pretty often believed in chance and the blessed possibilities of combination among an indefinitely large number of atoms from which the automatic machinery of the world had built itself up. There is a threadbare story of a philosopher who endeavoured to prove to his wife that the concourse of atoms must somehow some day turn out a salad. The Hausfrau, respectful but unconvinced, accepts the theory, but declines to believe that such a salad could be as "good" as the one she had just prepared for her lord and master's delight. In this story wisdom is with the Frau: the end of that "good" salad surely lay at its beginning in her good purpose: it would not have been good, any more than man issuing from the dust of the ground would have been good, through any chance clashing of undirected atoms through immeasurable time.

The idea of a real whole is prior, in any rational scheme, to the idea of its parts; and the end includes all the means. The earliest of those means is a temporal succession has no claim to special dignity as either causal or interpretative, it is only a partand a small partof the great whole and end in which alone it has a meaning and fulfilment.

The mechanists of interpretation did their best to turn meaning out of doors with the bull-dog doctrine of final causation; but, oddly enough as it would have seemed to them, the branch of science which actually completed the work of dismissing that doctrine to the limbo of our historical museum is sending after it the mechanical theory itself. "The doctrine of evolution," says Fiske, "replaces as much teleology as it destroys"; he might have said it does more, for the bull-dog teleology, the teleology which saw an end only what seemed immediately useful in relation to the instant wants and wishes of man or beast, was a poor and scrappy thing indeed compared with the all-embracing vastness of that which has ousted both it and the mechanical routine that proved so short-lived a substitute. Biological science, by establishing the fact of the evolution of species, has pointed resolutely towards what is at the least and lowest "a dramatic tendency" in the developmental process of the world. The conception of purpose and of arrangement of means towards predetermined end is coming back upon us on a great scale and with force which is resisted only because we ourselves determine in large measure our own state of enlightenment and belief.

At first these indications were generally ignored, and it was fashionable to interpret the later stages of evolution in terms of the earlier ones, to estimate man as a larger and more complicated amœba, to insinuate, in fact, the method of mechanics into the sphere of organic operation. In consequence of the long use of such categories of interpretation we are still capable of being surprised when we hear that ‘the end is the beginning,' although the Philosopher said it two thousand years ago, and it has never ceased to be true; it is only lately that teleology has come to the front as something of which every serious student at least must take account, only lately that we have had ground for hope that before long the change will make itself felt in our popular forms of speaking and reflective thought.

A strong teleological current runs through some of our best psychology. Since the evolutionary hypothesis has become established it has grown more and more difficult to believe that human self-consciousness has no active value, no useful function to serve in human lifethat so conspicuous and constant a feature is an accidental by-product or a passive accompaniment of the changes in brain-substance with which it is so strangely and significantly associated.

The work of such men as James, Stout, Hyslop and McDougall goes to show that the selectiveness of consciousness in relation to novel processes must be recognised as an energetic or determining factoras the means by which every man serves an end which is his, and becomes owner and maker of a character for which he may with justice be called to account. Of man as a mere automation or a product of natural forces it would not be true to say that he possessed an end or could select means for its realization; there would be no end of his at all, although there might even probably be an end of him. We may say other things that come so much the same of an automatic world; a perpetual flux or a recurrent cycle demands neither end nor beginning, any more than does the ring of a squirrel's cage; and if it was the Deist's Great First Cause that set the material universe a-spinning what is that to us who are shut up inside it? Who knows whether the big top has any end but spinning, sinceor so it seemsif ever its Cause ‘interfered' with it, the interferences, as Matthew Arnold said, "do not happen" now.

From all such speculative bogies evolutionary science has come to set us free. The world is not a perpetual flux, nor are its changes a recurrent cycle of events; it is a process of becoming, which at least looks as if it has a meaning, and that meaning great. Through scientific investigation into Nature we have come to be unable, as Aubrey Moore said, if we believe in a God at all, to look upon Him as "an occasional Visitor," or a fortiori, as the remote First Cause of an independently self-acting series of secondary causes which have carried on the work of the world ever since. Purposethe end in the beginningis the key to knowledge which the wisest are now seeking; and it is the key upon which Darwin laid his hand forty years ago, when he set up ‘Natural Selection' as the root-principle of his hypothesis about the origin of species. ‘Conscious Selection' by man is, we are told, replacing for the human race and indeed for many subordinate races too, the selection by which the world was brought to fitness for its biological crown; conscious selection is ordering society and the individual, is preserving the weak and helpless, conserving knowledge and skill in the use of the powers of nature, building up civilization and, may be, moralising the world. Personal selection in each man's inner life, selection by himself among his physical possibilities of action and reaction, makes each man what he really and enduringly is, and puts into his own right and his own charge that which he shall become.

All points towards purpose and meaning. With the collapse of the mechanical theory a change has come over our ways of thought. The organic theory of evolutionary process demands, or at least suggests, an ever-acting indwelling principle of causation instead of an external power, and almost without seeing what we were doing, we have either followed out the suggestion or acceded to the demand. Our attitude of criticism, too, has changed. To ask, as James Mill asked, "Who made God!" is reasonable only when God is thought of as the Starter, at some remote period of time, of a mechanical world. Mill himself would have been incapable of applying this criticism to a principle manifest in a developing process. "What does this drama mean!" is the question of to-day. "What is that end which was its beginningthe secret in which we ourselves must surely play so great a part?"

One might think that to ask these questions in this century after Christ is to answer them, but it is not. The greatest truths are never blazoned in letters that men must read. Obviously, if they were, their acceptance would have no moral value in men. There is no uplifting in the belief that two and two make four, and that apples usually fall to the ground instead of flying in the air like birds; no man's character is bettered because he accepts these propositions, or any other proposition, however importantsay, that God exists, or that man is immortalif for him it is backed up by evidence his intellect cannot resist and he accepts it only on that account. The appeal of all supremely great truth is to the whole man, not to the lumen siccum of a sense-bounded intelligence.

So it remains that men who ask penetrating questions about the meaning of a world of life do not always find right answers to those questions, do not always learn to perceive the inner abiding principle of that world as the indwelling but also overpassing and all-including personal God, nor see that in the drama of the universe the end He wills lay in the beginning of the process through which His will and love must come to be fulfilled.