Delivered at the Opening of the Wellington Citizens' Institute
By the President, James Edward Fitzgerald.
Wednesday, 8th November, 1893.
Wellington: Lyon & Blair, Printers, Lambton Quay,1893.
I think it is my first duty, on taking the Chair at this first formal meeting of the Citizens' Institute, to express my cordial thanks for the honour you have done me in appointing me to be the President of your Society; and although I may not perhaps be able to take a very active part in your proceedings, it has been thought fitting that I should say a few words, by way of introduction to our duties.
I understand those duties to be of a very general character. There are already societies of various kinds in this city, having special objects in view. There is a philosophical society, an academy of arts, a debating society, charitable societies, and, I believe, societies for the promotion of special opinions on matters of public interest. But I understand the objects of this Institute to be of a more general character; that it contemplates to afford its members, which it is hoped will comprise all classes of the citizens, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, the opportunity of meeting together for the purpose of hearing lectures and readings, and of discussing and conversing on all subjects which may tend to the improvement of the mind, and to the exchange of information and thought; and that upon all matters, not so much those which relate to our own local and temporary affairs, but rather to subjects of permanent and general interst—such as history, poetry, art, philosophy or science, politics or religion.
Meeting on a common platform we shall, I doubt not, be able to discuss such questions, not in a narrow and party spirit, but with the same respect for the opinions of others as that which we claim for our own; especially for such opinions as have been held by large sections of our fellow-men, and which we may therefore presume to have had their origin in, or to have been in sympathy with, some of the wants or aspirations of humanity.
I cannot conceive any association to be more useful than this, should it include persons of all classes and of all shades of opinion, in which those who differ from one another, no matter how widely, may become accustomed to discuss questions on which they differ, with page 4 mutual forbearance and respect; apart from Pharisaical contempt on the one hand, or scientific dogmatism on the other; but each recognising that, however clear and incontestable a proposition may appear to his own mind, the contrary may seem equally incontrovertible to a mind differently constituted and trained. Never let us forget the sternest lesson of history—that there has been no limit to the atrocities and cruelties into which men have been betrayed, who have once persuaded themselves, not only that they are the sole possessors of eternal truth, but that a moral or divine law demanded that they should compel others to agree with them.
That was a wise and Christian maxim laid down by one of the old fathers of the Church—"In necessaris unitas; in dubiis libertas; in omnibus charitas." And yet how often was the charitas wanting when the question was raised as to what were the necessaria.
One great advantage to be hoped for from such a society as ours is that it may tend to advance somewhat that movement, which is one distinct feature of our times, towards a closer social union between the different classes of society.
The separation of society into classes is a heritage from the remotest past. It appears in the initial organisation of society. It had its origin doubtless in war, in the conquest of the weaker by the stronger, the weaker being reduced to slavery; for the existence of slavery appears in the very earliest records of humanity. As time went on, wealth fell into the bands of the strongest, and wealth brought with it leisure, affording the opportunity for acquiring knowledge, whilst relief from the severe labour demanded by the struggle for existence promoted refinement of manners. Another cause for widening the severance of class from class may be found in the difference of language. The lowest class being mostly attached to the soil, handed down from generation to generation the tones and idioms of their forefathers, whilst the wealthier, even where they were of the same race and language, moving about their own and other countries, acquired a larger and more varied vocabulary, enriched in all European countries and in later times by the universal language in which the services of the Church were performed. Again, the laws which grew up as to the inheritance of land and of titles of honour had no small influence in stereotyping the distinction of class. For many centuries illustrious ancestry was the sole title to membership of the highest class, supported as it usually was by hereditary wealth. But wealth, as it increased by the increase of commerce, broke through the old barriers, and widened the circle within which the class of what were called gentlemen were enrolled. But we live in an age in which the tide is running strongly in the direction of obliterating class distinctions. page 5 On the one hand, members of the upper class are now compelled to engage in a multitude of occupations in which, a generation or two ago, they could not have engaged in without loss of caste; and, on the other, there has been a large and steady advance by the lower classes in education and refinement. The difference in language, too, is fast disappearing. It was only the other day I came across a sentence in a novel which is making some noise in the world, in which one of the characters is made to say, "My Lord the Duke's conversation differs very little from that of his groom":—not speaking of any particular duke, but as a critical comment on the manners of the day.
I remember a lady telling me a story—I regret to say it was some sixty years ago—of herself, or a friend, who was riding alone through the lanes in a county in England which was notorious for the unmannerliness of the rural population, and which, not to offend the susceptibility of any present, I will call Blankshire. She came to a gate across the lane on which a little boy was swinging. He jumped off and politely held it open for her, touching his hat. She said, "Thank you, my boy, I'm sure you're not a Blankshire boy." He looked up, and replied, "Thou'rt a liar, for I be." His action showed his real politeness. His speech was merely an inoffensive synonym, or rustic euphuism, for saying "I beg your pardon, ma'am, for I am." But I will undertake to say not a boy could now be found in that county who would use the same form of expression.
It will indeed be a happier world when the only title to honour and the only distinction of class will be found in rectitude of conduct, purity of morals, and gentleness of manners; and the phrase, "On the honour of a gentleman," will be exchanged for "On my honour as a man." And any such society as this will tend to anticipate a result which the civilised world will one day see.
I mentioned "politics" as one of the subjects which might profitably be discussed in your Society. I do not of course mean those narrow and local questions which are popularly supposed to comprise all that is included in the word politics; but rather those general principles as to the organisation of society and the government of communities, which have been the study of statesmen and philosophers in all ages and countries. Whatever view we may take of the doctrine that man is only a development of inferior forms of animated nature, I think it must be admitted that, in its earliest phase, government was based on force alone. As the strongest monkey no doubt got most nuts, so the man strongest in limb and brain got the most spoil; and with his spoil was able to purchase the aid of his weaker associates. Strength procured wealth, and wealth bought additional strength: and page 6 so arose the earliest form of government amongst men—government by personal and uncontrolled despotism. The origin of government was, in fact, the same as the origin of classes. Out of the mass of the people the bolder and stronger became warriors; the feebler were condemned to less exciting and more ignoble tasks; they became tillers of the soil, hewers of wood and drawers of water, serfs or slaves. But this despotism bore in itself the elements of popular government; for rivalry between despots evoked the need of purchasing or retaining popular support by consulting popular interests or complying with popular demands; and so arose popular assemblies.
Out of these rude beginnings arose the various and complicated systems of government of our own times; and hence the importance of the study of politics as a science; for we are all of us called on to exercise our political privileges, not only as a right, but as a duty; and, surely, those who are best acquainted with the laws and principles, under the operation of which so elaborate a machinery has been evolved out of such rude beginnings, will be best able to form a correct judgment upon any experiments we may be asked to make on it in the future.
Theoretically it may be presumed that a community would be best governed by its wisest and ablest men; and that the art of government is reduced to the task of selecting the wisest and ablest; and that the task of selecting the wisest and ablest to be chiefs could be most fitly entrusted to the wisest and ablest class of the citizens; in other words, that the best government would be government by a class. That might be true, if there were any means of selecting the wisest and ablest as a constituency; and, secondly, if any men could ever be found in any community so wise and so able as to guarantee that they would exercise their power with equal regard to the interests of all, and without any preference to their own or those of their class. But, unfortunately, human nature exhibits very few specimens of such. The history of government teaches us that even the best cannot safely be trusted with arbitrary power. The sad story of Lord Bacon's declining years is an epitomy of the weakness of all humanity; of how learning, and philosophy, and statesmanship of the highest, may fail in overcoming the inherent influence of self-interest. And what is true of individuals is true of classes. I think it may be said that a better educated or more generally enlightened and fair-dealing class of men does not exist in the world than the County Magistracy of England; and yet, the force of class interests is perpetually brought before us in the extreme severity with which they visit the most trifling infringement of the rights of property, compared with the punishments awarded by professional law-courts page 7 for Climes of even greater terpitude. Hence, the problem of government is not confined to the construction of machinery by which power shall be lodged in the hands of the ablest and wisest and most virtuous of the citizens; but security has to be taken that the element of self and class interests shall not operate to cloud the wisdom and intelligence of the rulers.
I think the history of the development of government in the most civilized communities in modem times will teach us that governments follow the same law as that which obtains in the development of all animated organisms; and that, as they advance towards a higher state, and as higher demands are made on them, their functions become differentiated, and their duties and powers are distributed amongst different parts of the machinery, developing the principle of what is termed a balance of power. Thus the several functions of wielding the executive power of the State and representing its unity and dignity; the power of creating written law; and the power of interpreting and applying the law—which, in earlier ages, were centered in a single person—became separated, and were lodged in independent authorities—the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. And at a later period the Executive became again differentiated in some communities, the Crown representing the unity and dignity of the State in its relations to other States; and the Executive presiding over the details of the administration of government, and advising the Crown in all its public conduct. This has been the case with States on the English model, where the headship of the State is hereditary in a single family, in all of which the separation of the legislative and executive functions has been, to some extent, incomplete, in that the members of the Executive arc still retained as a part of the legislative bodies. In some of those countries where the head of the State has become elective, such as the United States of America, the separation of the legislative and executive functions has been carried to its ultimate issue, the members of the Executive Government being altogether excluded from the deliberations of the Legislature.
It is a fair subject for speculative enquiry which of these two developments is likely to result, or has resulted, in the most effective government, and in producing harmonious action between the Government and the people at large. The independence of the executive and legislative functions in the State has ever been insisted on by writers on political science as one of the most important conditions of good government. It was specially insisted on by the framers of the Constitution of the United States. And it becomes an interesting subject for enquiry and discussion whether that condition has been page 8 sufficiently regarded in the English system, and still more in the development of that system in the outlying parts of the British Empire. The question is whether, under the system by which the members of the Executive hold their offices only at the pleasure of a majority of the popular chamber, there is not danger lest, on the one hand, the executive duties may be performed, not so much to satisfy the requirements of good government, as to secure majorities in the legislative chambers, on which their own tenure of office is made to depend; whilst on the other hand the legislative functions may be allowed, by the working of what is termed party government, to fall almost entirely into the hands of the executive. That such has been thought to be the case in some of the Colonies is evidenced by the fact that, in several instances, certain executive duties and powers have been taken out of the hands of the supreme Executive, and placed in those of independent Boards, which are not directly represented in the legislature. It will be a most interesting subject of enquiry, how it is that in England and her dependencies the direct responsibility of the Executive to the popular chamber is looked on as the keystone of popular government, whilst in the great American Republic, the most democratic country in the world, that security for the government being conducted in compliance with the popular will is entirely wanting, and is provided for in other ways, and that to the entire satisfaction of a community above all others jealous of popular rights.
The latest development of the English political system is that of government by parties. The influence of party in political history is a subject deserving the most careful study. All great movements have been made, all great reforms have been achieved, by party organisation. But it still remains an open question whether the members of the Executive should be elected on party lines, and with a view to party interests. The question of whether a Catholic or a Protestant king should sit on the throne of England was, 200 years ago, a most deadly party question; yet members of both parties sat in the same Cabinet till late in the last century. The Reform Bill, freetrade in food, the abolition of the slave trade, and other questions have been the work of parties: and probably party organisation will be the only means by which any great popular measures will ever be earned. But the point for consideration is, whether the identification of the executive government with a party is necessary to the passing of any measures which a party demands. Nay, more, whether great reforms might not be delayed by the necessity for such alliance; whether such questions as the female franchise, or the sale of liquor question, would not have found a much speedier solution had they not had to wait till an executive government could be formed holding the same page 9 opinions ou such matters; whether a country might not be better governed if men of recognised superior ability and administrative capacity were selected for office from amongst men of all parties and all shades of opinion, and such amendments as were desirable in the laws were left until the popular sense of their necessity had crystalised into a party strong enough to force them on the legislature. I offer no opinion on these points, but I submit them as matters which may usefully come under discussion in your Society.
But besides questions relating to the form of government, there are questions which come under the head of political—questions of portentous magnitude and of the greatest importance, affecting the whole organisation of society in all civilised countries at the present day—questions which are all summed up in the formula, The Capital and Labour question. It involves the question, not, What is the best form of government? but, What are the limits of the duties and responsibilities of government, of whatever form it may be? There is no subject on which it is of more importance that young men of the present day should seek to form sound views, for it is one which will determine, it may be in their lifetime, whether modern civilisation is to advance, or to decay as other civilisations, apparently as stable and enduring as ours, have decayed before.
What are the duties of government in respect to the organisation of labour, and in respect to the distribution of property amongst those subject to its rule? I think you will find in your discussions on this question that men are divided into two distinct parties, holding diametrically opposite views, and judging of all points submitted to them on principles fundamentally different; in short, men of two different classes of mind. They may be best described by the extremes on either side, of which the one are the strict political economists, and the other the socialists. In other words, those on the one hand who advocate the complete and uncontrolled freedom of all—the leaving everything to private enterprise: and, on the other, those who believe in the organisation of the property and labour of the whole community under the direction of its Government.
The first—the rigid economists—hold that the result of the action of individuals and of communities is a matter of fixed and irrevocable law; and that that result will follow sooner or later, no matter what steps are taken by individuals or governments to influence or direct the course of events; that supply will follow demand, and price will rise with demand and will fall with supply as certainly as the sun will rise on the morrow; and that no action taken by a Government or by individuals will affect the result. I think you will find that these extreme views are generally combined with a belief that all page 10 individual action is the outcome of mechanical law, and that the idea of free will is only a popular superstition There is, perhaps, a logical connection between these two articles of faith. But I think we may assume that, as the popular belief, as well as all public law, is based on the doctrine that a man is responsible for his actions; so all public policy rests on the theory that a Government is responsible, more or less, for the welfare of the community over which it presides. If we admit to its full extent the doctrine of the political economists, must we not say that such an event as the disappearance of one-third of the population of a country by starvation or expatriation, as in the case of the Irish famine of 1846-48, was a detail or incident which it was outside the duty of an enlightened Government to have averted, or rather to have tried to avert, by timely legislation?
The opposite principle is that which, in its extreme development, is Socialism. In its earlier phase, it believes that there are many things which can be more efficiently and profitably done by the united action of a whole community, acting through its Government, than by private enterprise—that is, by the action of only a part. It asks whether it is not the duty of Government to provide wages for that part of the community who live by daily labour, at all events, so far as to save them from starvation. This, you will observe, is only a partial application of the doctrine of Socialism. It assumes the right of the State to take a part of one man's property, by means of taxation, to give to another man. Socialism is based on the principle that all property belongs, not to the individual, but to the State. The question I am putting is, therefore, one only of degree, not of principle; because, if the State may of right take a part of a man's property, it may take all. It is only a question of expediency how much.
You will perceive that this question is wholly distinct from that of the general right of taxation. The latter assumes that the taxes are expended for the benefit of the whole community. The point we are now discussing is the right of the State to tax property-holders for the benefit of non-property-holders.
You will understand I am not suggesting any doubt as to the right in question. I am only directing your attention to it as one of the burning questions of the day, and for the future, in all countries.
It may be that in a full comprehension of socialistic philosophy, and a prudent application of its principles, may he the only road by which not only may the existing civilization which some nations have achieved be preserved from destruction and decay, but higher regions may be reached, especially with the aid of the improved physical conditions with which man is surrounding himself, than the wildest fanatic amongst us has yet dreamed of.page 11
The practical question for the moment is—to what extent is it right or wise for governments to engage in public undertakings which have hitherto been left to private enterprise. The school of political economists denounce the interference of Government in any matters which are capable of being achieved by private enterprise—none more strongly or eloquently than that brilliant essayist—Mr. Herbert Spencer; and yet, singularly enough, one of his most powerful essays is that "On Railway morals and Railway policy," in which he shows that the results of the private enterprise system in the English railways has been, that their nominal value—that is the interest paying capital—is by very many millions in excess of the sums actually spent in their construction; the difference being accounted for by the sums absorbed by jobbers and speculators, and the enormous law costs in the wars between rival companies, and the practical result being a totally unnecessary increase in the cost of travelling to the public. And to whatever extent this abuse has been carried in England, has it not been surpassed by our enterprising cousins in America? Is it not to the private enterprise system that men in the United States have been able to accumulate in a few years amounts of wealth exceeding that of the most rapacious despots of ancient times? Perhaps however France has now "taken the cake" from America in this line of business; for I suppose the Panama Canal Company may be said to have achieved the crowning triumph in the leave-it-to-private-enterprise policy.
As a contrast to these triumphs, may not we in New Zealand put forward our own modest achievements as an argument of some little weight on the opposite side, when we point to our own Government-made railway lines; which, if they were valued to-morrow by competent and independant engineers, would in all probability be estimated at an amount—and if put up for sale in the world's market, would fetch an amount—at least equal to the sums which we have borrowed and expended in their construction.
I mentioned, amongst other subjects which might profitably be brought under discussion in your Society, that of religion. I do not mean that it is desirable that your meetings should be made the occasion of discussing doctrinal points of difference between the professors of the Christian or any other form of belief; or that you should in any way offend the sensibilities of those who think that religious topics should be approached with exceptional reverence, and should not be introduced into discussion on temporal and secular matters. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that religion has ever been one of the most important factors in the organisation and growth of human society; that it meets our view at every page of history; that it page 12 has given its sanction to our laws has been assumed as the basis of our morals, and can therefore hardly be excluded from discussion in a Society which is formed to widen the information of its members on all matters affecting the interests of mankind.
Religion has been nobly and eloquently defined to be "the science which treats of the relations between the finite and the infinite." It is necessarily a part of the science of Psychology; for, if we were to accept the philosophy of the materialists, that the whole universe, together with all animated nature, including man, is only a piece of material mechanism, and that the idea of 'mind' or 'soul' is merely a chimera, there would be no room for any relations between finite and infinite spiritual beings which would have no existence except in the fictions of the imagination.
The first question then which must be answered, prior to the admission of any claim which can be made by religion, is this—Is it capable of absolute proof, to the satisfaction of the human intellect, that all human thought and action is the mechanical result of physical causes, and is due solely to the stimulation of the nervous system responding to surrounding material conditions? If this is answered in the affirmative, and if we can rely on the absolute correctness of our reasoning and of our observation of the phenomena on which it is based, then of course the whole ground on which religion stands disappears. But it may, I think, be stated broadly that, although this doctrine of the materialist is held by some, yet it is not admitted by physiologists as a whole that all the operations of the human mind can be traced to their origin in the material organisation. It is quite true that many of our bodily movements which were popularly supposed to result from mental action, have been proved to originate in the mechanical structure of our bodies—that we act, to a large extent from habit, automatically, whether consciously or unconsciously. But it has not been shown that all human action follows the same law, nor could such a theory be admitted without very distinct and incontrovertible evidence. There stands at present a wide and apparently impassable gulf between all merely automatic movements and the creative powers possessed by a human being—that creative faculty by which he calls into existence that which did not exist before—it may be a picture or a statue—that power by which he writes a poem, or composes a cantata, or elaborates a philosophical treatise. It is not of course intended to deny that the production of all work of art depends largely on the greater or less perfection of the nervous machinery by which the images of external objects are impressed on the eyesight and reproduced by the fingers. The power of expressing in art, as in language, is mechanical; but it has yet to be proved that page 13 the idea expressed is so. It is hard to believe, and the universal consensus of philosophers has not yet asked us to admit, that the powers of the mind displayed in such creations have the same sense, and none other, than that which makes the child cry out when it is hurt, or compels us to wink the eyelid when anything threatens the eye.
Now, the religionist bases his belief on the fact that, not only are there emotions internally in the mind itself, but that, externally, communications have been made to, and influences are being exerted upon, human minds, which cannot be accounted for by, or connected with, any material operations in his own organism, or m the natural world around; and that his own actions are determined, to a certain extent, by such communications and influences. The evidence of the truth of such spiritual relations must, of course, be a matter of individual consciousness. We cannot penetrate into the minds one of another; we can only know the inner mental experiences of those around us by what they tell us of them. Thus, all communications made by a Divine Being to mankind have been made, and must of necessity have been made, by some one who originally received them and conveyed them to the world at large by speech or writing. In other words, all religion comes to us by authority. And thus the contest going on in the world between the scientist and the religionist is one between scientific enquiry and divine authority. In this contest the scientist demands that nothing shall bo accepted as having divine authority which is inconsistent with the conclusions at which he has been compelled to arrive by the inexorable demands of a logical interpretation of the facts in Nature; whilst the religionist upholds that the intellect of man is in itself so fallible, that its conclusions cannot be relied upon as opposed to statements which, on other grounds, he has reason to believe bear the impress of divino authority. The religionist appeals to the consciousness of every man in support of the doctrine, for which he believes that he has divine authority, that man has a will, which, to some extent at all events governs his conduct, and makes him responsible for his actions. And to this the materialist can but reply: Man thinks he has a will; be is so constructed as to think so; but physiology proves that that is a mere delusion, for all bis actions are the result of immutable mechanical law. But may we not answer: Is man, then, so constructed that he is compelled to believe that which is untrue? Reason implies the faculty to choose between truth and error. Are we to believe that our conclusions are arrived at by mechanical law, and that we really make no choice at all? Do we, by a process of logical reasoning, prove that we have no reason? Is it the noblest triumph of intelligence to establish the fact that we have no intellect? And is page 14 not that the conclusion to which the theory of the rigid materialist leads us?
Pondering over the various phases in the controversy between science and authority, may we not say that demands are made on either side to which the other can hardly be asked in fairness to yield. If the religionist is asked to resign all bis most cherished convictions, because they conflict with conclusions at which the materialist has arrived from his study of physical phenomena—although those conclusions have not yet been admitted by the consensus of all philosophers, into the canons of established scientific truth—may not the materialist on the other hand complain that a superstitious reverence for the forms and phrases in which what are held to be divine truths have been conveyed, often leads the religionist to reject and despise the conclusions of the intellect, even on points on which their truth must be admitted unless all human reason is but a palace of falsehood. To despise or belittle the human intellect, is to mistrust that faculty in man by which alone he is able to comprehend the claims made by divine authority, or to understand the import of divine commands, which are put forward as entitled to supersede its authority and compel its judgment. How can the thing comprehended require us to ignore the power by which alone we comprehend it? If a communication from the spiritual world is presented to the human intellect, the right of the latter is thereby admitted to demand the credentials of the mission, and to ratify them by comparison with those other communications from the same divine authority, which are conveyed in the study of the physical world.
I said that religion has been defined as the science of the relations between the finite and the infinite. It is sometimes said that we cannot conceive "the infinite." Is it not rather true that our minds are so constituted that we are incapable of not conceiving the infinite? How can we conceive of anything, of time, space, or quality, without conceiving of it in the abstract as having no limit? If we speak of a beginning, does not the mind immediately ask—"What was there before that?" Can you conceive of a limit to space without asking—"What is on the other side?" There is a poetic phrase—"When time shall be no more": "And what then?" the mind immediately asks. Hence we conclude that the finite implies the infinite; that not only space and time, but every quality and attribute as applied to the finite implies the conception of the same in the infinite; and thus our own existence suggests or implies the existence of an infinite Being. And this is our true conception of God; and so, in all our descriptions of the Deity, we can but speak of him in terms which represent our own qualities and characters, mercy, goodness, truth, page 15 justice, and so on, in an infinite degree. Hence does not the phrase that man is made in the imago of God, seem to be the expression of a profound philosophic truth—that man is in the finite, that which God is in the infinite?
There is one subject involved in this controversy between science and religion which seems to me to have not received as much attention as it deserves, and a consideration of which may possibly do somewhat to form a link between the two. I mean the nature of the phenomenon of Force. We speak of various kinds of forces—the force of gravity, chemical force, muscular force, and so on; and it seems to be tacitly assumed by writers on physiology that force is a part of or an inherent property of matter. The philosophy of the materialists seems to be based on, and to assume, that force is not only a factor in the material universe, but is, as it were, itself material. But is that a legitimate assumption? What is force? Why should one particle of matter attract another? What right have we to assume that force is material? We cannot see it, or hear it, or touch it. What property has it in common with matter? We recognise its effect on matter; but it—itself—how can we call it material when it eludes all recognition by our senses? Is it not rather true that force is, in its nature, spiritual? and in this controversy between the materialist and religionist may not the latter claim that the phenomenon of force is not a material, but a spiritual manifestation?
True, the scientist will say. But force acts by law. It does not act like the will, to which you would liken it, in an arbitrary manner. It has no volition: Its effects on matter are uniform: It acts by known law, and its effects are measurable.
That is so—but is not the difference only one between the finite and the infinite? What is law but the process of infinite will—the outcome of the eternal consistency of infinite power with itself—the great balance-sheet of all the infinite possibilities—the attribute of one "in whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."?
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit,
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven thou art there,
If I make my bed in hell behold thou art there?
page 16 If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there shall thy right hand lead me
And thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say surely the darkness shall cover me;
Even the night shall be light about me,
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
But the night shineth as the day—
The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
We use the words omnipotence and omnipresence with a feeble and vague impression of their real significance, but they do seem to be brought somewhat within the range of our comprehension when science discloses to us the operation of that awful and mysterious energy, which at once sustains the circulation in the veins of the smallest insect, whose existence is only revealed to us by the most powerful microscopes, and at the same time sets in motion and sustains the vibrations of ether which convey the light to our eyes from the stars whose ascertained distance exceeds a million times a million of miles from our earth.
The religionist might shrink from the formula—That God is force; but would hardly object to the expression—Force is the manifestation of God in the material world.
There is another and very strong reason why questions relative to religion may occupy your attention in this association. It has become a distinctly political question. It has always, indeed, had in past times a close association with, and has widely influenced and helped to mould, political institutions. Religious parties have become identified with or hostile to political parties. But the tendency of free institutions in politics has been to eliminate religious feelings, or, rather, the expression of religious feeling, altogether from the political arena. Every man, it is said, should have equal rights of citizenship, no matter what his religious opinions may be. We all now accept that principle. But the question has been brought again into prominence by the new theory, that it is the duty of a State to educate the whole of its youth, and to supersede the ancient and natural parental authority in doing so.
No one can dispute the justice of the view that, where the State recognizes the right of all citizens to an equal share of power, it has a right to require that all its citizens shall be educated so far as to enable them to understand and to make use of the privileges they enjoy. Self preservation justifies this requirement on the part of the State. But it is certainly a very doubtful question in political ethics, whether it is right or just that the State should tax large classes of the citizens to pay for a system of education of which they are page 17 unable conscientiously to take advantage, and who are already, at their own cost, educating the youth of their own persuasion fully up to the standard rightly required by the State of all its youth.
Cognate to this question has arisen that of the reading of the Bible in the State schools. I confess it seems to me little short of a national misfortune that that one book should be wholly excluded from the instruction of our youth—the book on which so large a part of our civilisation has been based. It was said by the late Mr. Renan—notwithstanding that he shared none of what may be termed orthodox views as to the authority of the Scriptures—that, except the Greeks, the Jews were the only race who had done anything for the civilisation of the world. And if nought of Jewish history were left but the decalogue alone, surely the saying would be justified. So familiar are we with the language, do we ever consider the mystery, may I not say the divinity, which surrounds that brief epitome of human duty? Coming down to us from the remotest periods of human history, from the most ancient records of human thought, it declares the principles on which alone all human society could be built up, and the civilisation of which man was capable could be developed.
Consider for a moment the contents of this primeval statute. It declares the sanctity of human life—"Thou shalt do no murder." The sanctity of human property—"Thou shalt not steal." The sanctity of the parental relation. The sanctity of the marriage tie. The sanctity of truth—"Thou shalt not bear false witness." And of that purity of soul which would not oven desire to infringe the rights of others—"Thou shalt not covet or desire." Has any document ever been written by human hand—have the catacombs of Egypt, or the sand mounds of Assyria disclosed any fragments of writing on papyri, or inscription on marble or alabaster, which proclaim the fundamental duties of man in similar language—not argumentative but authoritative, not painfully elaborated, like the essays of Greek or Roman from introspective analysis of human mind and motives—but in words sonorous and majestic as the thunder which rolled—keen and incisive as the lightning which flashed around the crags of Sinai, when according to the tradition, historic or mythic—the lesson will be the same in either case—this first Statute book was delivered to mankind never to be revised or repealed till man should be no more?
Need we be surprised that there are numbers amongst us, not the least intelligent or least liberally minded of the community, who regret that our youth should be brought up in ignorance of the most precious historic monument of the foundation of all human law and duty.page 18
Again in teaching the rising generation something of the past history of mankind, is it altogether wise, is it philosophical to tell them of States which have arisen, of conquests which have been achieved, and systems which have flourished and have passed away, and to pass in silence over that mighty revolution in human thought and conduct which was first introduced into the world nearly 2,000 years ago by one—apparently a poor mechanic—who for three short years in an obscure province of the mighty Roman Empire, taught as an itinerant preacher, in tones scarce heard or noticed amidst the roar and turmoil of imperial triumph and conquest, and the excitement and enjoyment of the boundless wealth and luxury of the then civilised world; taught for only three short years a new faith, which supplanted all other creeds through more than half the world; a preacher whose name is now revered as a prophet or worshipped as a god by two-thirds of the human race? Is this, assuredly the most important event in the world's history, to be passed over in silence in our lessons in the history of the past?
At all events do those assent to this negative betrayal of historic truth who believe that in the philosophy of socialism lie the hopes of a loftier civilisation than the world has yet achieved? or do they fail to see that in the doctrine taught by Jesus of Nazareth—the doctrine of self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of our own interests to the interests of others—alone lies the hope of that change in the disposition of men which can convert the dream of the socialist into reality? The philosophy of the materialist and political economist, is that upon which our present civilisation is based, and our social organisation depends. It may be called the incarnation of selfishness: and its apostles and prophets preach that no other is possible to mankind. Nor perhaps is any other possible, until those other faculties which lie almost latent in the human soul awake into vigorous vitality and assume a prominent part in the government of his life and conduct.
For my own part, I cannot but hold that, of all the words which have ever been spoken by human voice or written by human hand, the most valuable—the most precious of all the records of the past—those which have exercised the largest influence on the destinies of the human race, and may yet exercise an influence more extensive than the boldest visionary can imagine, are those two charters of human rights and human duties—the first, which claims to have descended from the mountain mists of Sinai and laid the foundation of law; the second, which were spoken on a mount in Gallilee, and taught that "love is the fulfilling of the law."