The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Madame de Staël and the Philosophy of "L'Allemagne"

Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 641-650

"Les grandes pensées viennent du coeur." (The grandest thoughts come from the heart.)


All seems to attest the existence of a double nature in us. The influence of our senses and that of our soul divide our being, and according as philosophy inclines to one or the other, opinions and sentiments are diametrically opposed. The rule of the senses and that of the mind can also be designated in other terms. There is in man that which perishes with earthly existence, that which mere experience acquires, and that which moral instinct inspires, the finite and the infinite. But in whatever manner one may express oneself, it must always be agreed that there are two differing life principles in a creature subject to death, yet destined for immortality.

The tendency to spiritualism has always been very strongly manifested among the peoples of the north, and even before the introduction of Christianity this inclination is distinctly visible even amidst the violence of warlike passions.

The Greeks believed in external marvels, the Germanic nations in spiritual phenomena. All their poetry is filled with presentiments, omens, and heart-discerned prophecies; and whilst the Greeks sought their pleasure in union with nature, the races of the north raised themselves to their Creator by religious feelings. In the south, Paganism hallowed physical phenomena. In the north was an inclination to believe in magic, because it attributes to the spirit of man an unlimited power over the material world. The soul and nature, free-will and necessity, divide the domain of existence; according to whether we place the dominion in ourselves or external to us, we are the sons of heaven or the slaves of earth.

At the time of the Renaissance, some persons turned their attention to scholastic subtleties in metaphysics, others, to the superstitions of magic; the art of observation governed no longer the domain of the senses, nor enthusiasm, that of the soul. With few exceptions, there was neither experience nor observation to be found amongst the philosophers, when a giant arose in the person of [Francis] Bacon. Never have the morals of nature nor the experiences of thought been so well understood by so great an intellect. There is not a sentence in one of his writings that does not presuppose years of reflection and study. He vivifies metaphysics by the knowledge of the human heart. He can generalise facts through philosophy. In physical sciences he has created the art of experiment; but it does not follow, as some would have us believe, that he is an exclusive partisan of that system which bases all ideas on sensation. He admits inspiration in all that concerns the soul, and believes it even necessary to interpret physical phenomena on general principles. But in his time, there were still alchemists, diviners, and sorcerers. Religion was so little understood in the greater part of Europe that it was believed that this source of all truths forbade some truths. Bacon was struck with these errors. His century was prone to superstition as ours is to incredulity. In his time he sought to give honour to experimental philosophy; now he would feel the necessity to revive the internal source of morality, and to remind man that he exists in himself by feeling and will. When the times are superstitious, the spirit of observation is dulled, the physical world little known; when times are incredulous, enthusiasm no longer exists and there is no knowledge of the soul or of heaven.

At a season when the march of the human mind had no assured track, Bacon employed all his faculties to trace the road which experimental philosophy must follow, and his writings still serve as guides to those who wish to study Nature. As Secretary of State, he had been long occupied in administration and politics, and the strongest minds are those which unite the taste for meditation with business habits. Bacon was in both respects a prodigious intellect; but the same defect which showed itself in his character showed itself also in his philosophy. He was not sufficiently virtuous to feel entirely what man's moral liberty should be, although he can scarcely be compared to the materialists of the last century, and his successes have pushed his theory of experience far beyond his intention. He is far, I repeat, from attributing all our ideas to our sensations, and from considering investigation as the only method of discovery. He often follows a more adventurous course, and only employs experimental logic to put aside the prejudices which encumber his path. It is in the force of his genius alone that he trusts for advance.

Luther once said that the human mind was like a drunken peasant on horseback; when he is raised on one side he falls on the other. Thus man has been always balancing between his two natures. Either his thoughts are all abstracted from his sensations, or his sensations absorb all his thoughts, and he attributes everything alternately to the one or the other source. It seems to me that now the moment has arrived for a permanent doctrine, that metaphysics must submit to a revolution similar to that which Copernicus made in the system of the world. Our soul must be replaced in the centre, in like manner as the sun, round which external objects trace their course, and from which they borrow their light.

The genealogical tree of human knowledge, in which each science corresponds to a given faculty, is, doubtless, one of the titles of Bacon to the admiration of posterity. But his greatest glory is that he has proclaimed that it is impossible to separate one science from another, and that all are united in a general philosophy. He is not the author of that anatomical method which considers intellectual qualities each apart, and seems to misunderstand the admirable unity of the moral being. Feeling, imagination, reason, all help each other. Each of these faculties would be a disease, a weakness instead of a force, if it were not modified or completed by our whole nature. The arithmetical sciences need imagination at a certain height. Imagination, in its turn, must lean on an exact knowledge of nature. Reason appears the one of these faculties which could most easily dispense with the others, and yet if one were entirely devoid of imagination and feeling, one might, as it were, dry up, and become reason-mad, and, seeing nothing in life but calculation and material interests, deceive oneself as much in the characters and affections of men as would an enthusiast who fancied he saw everywhere disinterestedness and love.

A false system of education is followed when the endeavour is to develop exclusively one or another quality of the mind. To devote oneself to one faculty is to take up an intellectual profession. Milton truly says that education is useless unless it fits a man for every employment either of war or of peace. The true object of education is to make a man a man. Only to know of a science that which is peculiar to it, is to apply to liberal studies that mechanical labour which belongs only to mechanical arts. When we arrive at that height, when each science touches all the others in some points, then we are near the region of universal ideas, and the air which comes thence gives life to all our thoughts. The soul is a hearth whose warmth radiates through the senses. It is in this warmth that existence consists. All the observations and all the efforts of philosophers must be turned towards the ego, centre, and motor of our sentiments and of our ideas. Doubtless the incompleteness of language compels us to use erroneous expressions; one must repeat, according to custom, such a man has reason, or imagination, or feeling, but if one wanted to be comprehended in one word, one need only say, "He has soul, he has much soul." It is that divine breath which makes the complete man.

More is taught by love of the mysteries of the soul than by the most subtle metaphysics. One does not become attached to any given quality in the person preferred, and the poets only repeat a great philosophic truth when they say, I love, but know not why, for that indescribable wherefore is the completeness and harmony which we recognize by love, by admiration, and by all those sentiments which reveal to us all that is deepest and most secret in the heart of another.

Analysis, being only able to examine by dissection, can only apply to dead nature, but it is a clumsy instrument to investigate that which is alive; and if it is difficult to define in words the living conception, which represents things to us in their completeness, it is precisely because this conception is akin to the very being of these things. To divide for the purpose of understanding is, in philosophy, but a sign of weakness, as it is in politics to divide in order to rule.

Bacon held, more than has been thought, that philosophy of ideas which has constantly appeared under different forms from Plato downwards.

Nevertheless, the success of his analytical method in the exact sciences has necessarily had an influence on his system of metaphysics. Others have taken, in a sense more absolute than he had ever published it himself, his doctrine of sensation considered as the origin of ideas. We can see clearly the influence of this doctrine in the two schools it has produced, those of Hobbes and Locke.

Hobbes held absolutely that philosophy which derives all our ideas from the impressions of our senses. He did not shrink from the consequences, and says boldly that the soul is subject to necessity, even as society to despotism. He admits the necessity of sensation for thought, and that of force for action. He annihilates moral liberty, even as civil liberty, truly believing that the one depends on the other.

The cultus of noble and pure sentiment is so solidly founded in England by its political and religious institutions that mental speculations could never overthrow these imposing supports. Hobbes had few partisans in his own country, but the influence of Locke was more general. As his character was moral and religious, he did not allow himself any of those corrupting deductions which must necessarily be derived from his system of metaphysics, and the majority of his compatriots, in adopting it, have had, like himself, the noble inconsistency of separating results from principles; whilst Hume and the French philosophers, having admitted his system, applied it in a much more logical manner.

The metaphysics of Locke have had no other effect on minds in England but to dull a little of their natural originality. If even they have dried up the source of great philosophical thought, they cannot destroy the religious sentiment. But this system of metaphysics, received in the rest of Europe except Germany, has been one of the principal sources of the immorality which has been formulated as a theory in order the better to secure its practice.

Locke has particularly endeavoured to prove that there is nothing innate in the soul. He was right, in so far as he always mingled in the sense of the word idea a development created by experience. The ideas thus conceived are the result of the objects that excite them, of the comparisons which join them, and of the language which facilitates the combination. But it is not so with the sentiments, the dispositions, the faculties, which constitute the laws of the human understanding, as attraction and repulsion constitute those of physical nature.

One thing worthy of remark is the argument which Locke is obliged to employ to prove that what was in the soul comes to us through our senses. If this argument leads to truth, doubtless one must surmount the moral repugnance it inspires; but, as a general rule, one may believe this repugnance to be an infallible sign of what one has to avoid. Locke wished to demonstrate that the consciousness of good and evil was not innate in man, and that he only recognised right and wrong, like red and blue, by experience. He sought carefully to this end, accounts of countries where customs and laws honoured crime, those in which it was a duty to kill one's enemy, to despise marriage, to put to death your father when he is old. He collected attentively all that travellers have related of cruelties that become custom. What, then, can be a system which inspires a man as virtuous as Locke with a thirst for such knowledge?

It may be said, whether these facts are sad or not, the important thing is whether they are true. They may be true: but what does that signify? Do we not know from our own experience that circumstances--that is to say, external objects--affect our manner of interpreting our duties? Enlarge these circumstances and you will find the cause of the errors of nations. But are there nations or races which deny that there are duties? Has any one ever maintained that there is no signification in the idea of right and wrong? The explanation may differ, but the conviction of the principle is everywhere the same; and in that conviction consists the primitive impress that is found in all human beings.

When a savage kills his aged father he believes he is doing him a service. He does not do it in his own interest, but in that of his father. The act is horrible; but is nevertheless conscientious, and if he is deficient in enlightenment it does not follow that he is deficient in virtue. The senses, that is to say, the external objects that surround him, blind him. The secret instinct that constitutes the hatred of vice and the respect for virtue does not exist the less in him, though experience has deceived him as to the manner in which such instinct should be manifested in action. To prefer others to yourself, when virtue commands it, is precisely the essence of the highest morality, and this noble instinct of the soul, in direct opposition to physical instinct, is inherent in our nature. If it could be acquired it could also be lost, but it is immovable because it is innate. It is possible to do evil believing you are doing good; it is possible to be criminal, knowingly and willingly; but it is not possible to admit as truth a contradiction, justice as injustice.

Indifference to good and evil is usually the result of a petrified civilisation, and this indifference is a far stronger argument against an innate conscience than the gross errors of savages. But the most sceptical men, if they are in any way oppressed, appeal to justice as if they had believed in it all their lives; and if their affections are tyrannised over, they invoke the name of equity with as much force as the most austere moralists. As soon as enthusiasm, be it of indignation or love, takes possession of our soul, it causes the sacred writing of eternal law to reappear.

If the chances of birth or of education make a man what he is, how could we condemn his actions? If our whole will is but the result of external influences, each might appeal to his particular circumstances as a motive for his conduct; and often these circumstances differ as much between inhabitants of the same country, as between an Asiatic and a European. If, therefore, environment were to become the divinity of mortals, it would be fair for each man to have a morality, or rather an absence of morality of his own; and to prevent the harm that the senses might counsel, there could be no sound argument to oppose, but only public authority to punish.

Therefore, if public authority commanded wickedness, the question would be resolved; let ideas be the offspring of the senses, and the result would be the most complete depravity.

The proofs of the spirituality of the soul cannot be found in the empire of the senses which rule the visible world. But the invisible world cannot be subjected to them. If the doctrine of spontaneous ideas is not admitted, if thought and sentiment depend on the senses, how can the soul in such a slavery be immaterial? And if, as no one can deny, most of the facts transmitted by the senses are subject to error, what can a moral being be, who acts only when excited by external objects? and of objects, indeed, of which the appearance is often false.

A French philosopher says--using a very degrading expression--that thought is only a material product of the brain. This deplorable definition is the natural result of that philosophy which attributes to our senses the origin of all our ideas. If it is thus, it is reasonable to laugh at all that is spiritual, and to call incomprehensible what cannot be touched. If our soul is but attenuated matter, set in motion by other elements more or less coarse, amidst which it has also the disadvantage of being passive; if our impressions and recollections are but the prolonged vibrations of an instrument played on by chance; then there are but fibres in our brain, and physical forces in the world, and all can be explained according to natural law. There may remain some little difficulties as to the origin of things and the aim of our existence, but the question is simplified, and reason counsels us to suppress the longings and hopes that genius, love, and religion arouse in us. Man would be but another machine in the great mechanism of the universe. His faculties would be but driving-wheels, his morality, calculation, and his worship, success.

Locke, believing in the depth of his soul in the existence of God, establishes his belief, without perceiving it, on reasons which are all beyond the sphere of experience. He affirms there is an eternal principle, a first cause of all causes. He enters thus into the sphere of the infinite, and the infinite is beyond all experience. But Locke had, at the same time, such a fear that the idea of God should be considered innate in man; it seemed to him so absurd that the Creator should have condescended like a great artist, to have engraved His name on our soul, that he strove to discover in all the accounts of travellers some people who had no religious belief. It can, I think, be boldly affirmed that such a people does not exist. The motion that raises us to the supreme intelligence is found in the genius of Newton, and in the soul of the poor savage, who worships the stone on which he was reposed. No man has ever held to this world alone, and all have felt in the depth of their heart at some period of their life an indescribable attraction for the supernatural. But how comes it that a man so religious as Locke persists in changing the fundamental character of faith into an accidental knowledge that chance may give or take away? I repeat, the tendency of a doctrine must always be reckoned in the judgment we give on the truth of that doctrine, for in theory the good and the true are inseparable.

All that is visible speaks to man of beginning and end, of decay and destruction. A divine spark is our only indication of immortality. From which of our senses does it come? All our senses struggle against it, and yet it triumphs over all. What, may one say, do not the means, adapted to ends, the marvels of the universe, the splendour of the heavens, attest the magnificence and goodness of the Creator? The text of Nature contradicts itself. We see in it the indications of evil and of good in almost equal proportions, and this is so, to enable man to exercise his liberty of choice between opposing probabilities, between balanced fears and hopes. The starry heaven appears to us as the threshold of divinity, but the evils and vices of man dull the celestial fires. One only voice, without words, but not without harmony, weak but irresistible, proclaims God in the depth of our heart. All that is really beautiful in man is the fruit of what he experiences internally and spontaneously. Every heroic action is inspired by moral liberty: the act of devoting oneself to the Divine will, that act which all our senses combat, and which enthusiasm alone inspires, is so noble and so pure that the angels themselves, virtuous by nature, and without hindrance, might envy it to man.

That philosophy which displaces the centre of life by supposing that its impulse comes from outside, strips man of his liberty and destroys itself; for there is no spiritual nature when it is so intimately related to the physical nature, that it is only for the sake of human dignity that they are distinguished. This philosophy is only consistent when, as in France, it is the source of materialism founded on the senses; and of the morality founded on interest. The abstract theory of this system took birth in England, but its consequences were not recognised. France had not the glory of discovery, but truly that of the application. In Germany since Leibnitz, the system and its consequences have been resisted, and it is well worthy of enlightened and religious men in all countries to examine, whether principles of which the results are so disastrous should be considered as incontrovertible truths.

Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, Smith, Reid, Dugald-Stewart, have studied the operations of our intellect with rare sagacity; the works of Dugald-Stewart in particular comprise so perfect a theory of the intellectual faculties that it may be considered the natural history of the moral being. Each person must recognise in it some portion of himself; whatever opinion one may have adopted as to the origin of ideas, no one can deny the utility of a work which has as its aim their course and direction. But it is not enough to observe the development of our faculties, it is necessary to descend to their source, so as to understand the nature and the independence of the will of man.

It cannot be considered as an idle question, that which endeavours to know if the soul has the power of feeling and thinking of itself. It is the question of Hamlet, "To be, or not to be?"

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023