Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(February, 1880.)

Bishops should speak as men having authority, and not as the Scribes and Pharisees. Even the smallest of them should be a great man. An archbishop, with fifteen thousand a year, ought to possess a transcendent intellect, almost beyond comprehension; while the worst paid of all the reverend fathers of the Church, with less than a fifth of that salary, ought to possess no common powers of mind. The Bishop of Carlisle is not rich as bishops go, but he enjoys a yearly income of 4,500, besides the patronage of forty-nine livings. Now this quite equals the salary of the Prime Minister of the greatest empire in the world, and the Bishop of Carlisle should therefore be a truly great man. We regret however, to say that he is very much the reverse, if we may judge from a newspaper report which has reached us of his lecture on "Man's Place in Nature," recently delivered before the Keswick Scientific and Literary Society. Newspaper reports, we know, are often misleading in consequence of their summary character; nevertheless two columns of small type must give some idea of a discourse, however abstruse or profound; here and there, if such occured, a fine thought or a shrewd observation would shine through the densest veil. Yet, unless our vision be exceptionally obtuse, nothing of the kind is apparent in this report of the Bishop's lecture. Being, as his lordship confessed, the development of "a sermon delivered to the men at the Royal Agricultural Society's Show last summer," the lecture was perhaps, like the sermon, adapted to the bucolic mind, and thus does meagre justice to the genius of its author. His lordship, however, chose to read it before a society with some pretentions to culture, and therefore such a plea cannot avail. As the case stands, we are constrained to accuse the bishop of having delivered a lecture on a question of supreme importance, which would do little credit to the president of a Young Men's Christian Association; and when we reflect that a parson occupied the chair at the meeting, and that the vote of thanks to the episcopal lecturer was moved by a canon, who coupled with it some highly complimentary remarks, we are obliged to think the Church more short of brains than even we had previously believed, and that Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin has already been written on its temple walls by the finger of doom.

Very early in his lecture the Bishop observed that "the Scriptures are built on the hypothesis of the supreme and unique position of man." Well, there is nothing novel in this statement. What we want is some proof of the hypothesis. His lordship's way of supplying this need is, to say the least, peculiar. After saying that "he would rather trust the poet as an exponent of man than he would a student of natural history," he proceeds to quote from Shakespeare, Pope and Plato, and ends that part of his argument with a rhetorical flourish, as though he had thus really settled the whole case of Darwin versus Moses. Our reverence of great poets is probably as deep and sincere as the Bishop's, but we never thought of treating them as scientific authorities, or as witnesses to events that happened hundreds of thousands of years before their birth. Poets deal with subjective facts of consciousness, or with objective facts as related to these. The dry light of the intellect, radiated from the cloudless sun of truth, is not their proper element, but belongs exclusively to the man of science. They move in a softer element suffused with emotion, whose varied clouds are by the sun of imagination touched to all forms of beauty and splendor. The scientific man's description of a lion, for instance, would be very different from a poet's; because the one would describe the lion as it is in itself, and the other as it affects us, a living whole, through our organs of sight and sound. Both are true, because each is faithful to its purpose and expresses a fact; yet neither can stand for the other, because they express different facts and are faithful to different purposes. Shakespeare poetically speaks of "the ruddy drops that visit this sad heart," but the scientific truth of the circulation of the blood had to await its Harvey. In like manner, it was not Milton but Newton who expounded the Cosmos; the great poet, like Dante before him, wove pre-existent cosmical ideas into the texture of his sublime epic, while the great scientist wove all the truth of them into the texture of his sublime theory. Let each receive his meed of reverent praise, but do not let us appeal to Newton on poetry or to Milton on physics. And when a Bishop of Carlisle, or other diocese, complains that "the views advanced by scientific men tend painfully to degrade the views of poets and philosophers," let us reply that in almost every case the great truths of science have been found to transcend infinitely the marvels of theology, and that the magnificence of song persists through all fluctuations of knowledge, because its real cause lies less in the subject than in the native grandeur of the poet's mind.

Man's place in nature is, indeed, a great question, and it can be settled only by a wide appeal to past and present facts. And those facts, besides being objective realities, must be treated in a purely scientific, and not in a poetic or didactic spirit. Let the poet sing the beauty of a consummate flower; and, if such things are required, let the moralist preach its lessons. But neither should arrogate the prerogative of the botanist, whose special function it is to inform us of its genesis and development, and its true relations to other forms of vegetable life. So with man. The poet may celebrate his passions and aspirations, his joys and sorrows, his laughter and tears, and ever body forth anew the shapes of things unseen; the moralist may employ every fact of his life to illustrate its laws or to enforce its duties; but they must leave it to the biologist to explain his position in the animal economy, and the stages by which it has been reached. With regard to that, Darwin is authoritative, while Moses is not even entitled to a hearing.

Although the Bishop is very ready to quote from the poets, he is not always ready to use them fairly. For instance, he cites the splendid and famous passage in "Hamlet:"—"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" There his lordship stops, and then exclaims, "Shakespeare knew nothing of the evolution of man from inferior forms." But why did he not continue the quotation? Hamlet goes on to say, "And yet, what to me is this quintessence of dust?" How now, your lordship? We have you on the hip! "Quintessence of dust" comes perilously near to evolution. Does not your lordship remember, too, Hamlet's pursuing the dust of Csar to the ignominious bunghole? And have you never reflected how the prescient mind of Shakespeare created an entirely new and wonderful figure in literature, the half-human, half-bestial Caliban, with his god Setebos—a truly marvellous resuscitation of primitive man, that in our day has inspired Mr. Browning's "Caliban on Setebos," which contains the entire essence of all that Tylor and other investigators in the same field have since written on the subject of Animism? It seems that the Lord Bishop of Carlisle reads even the poets to small purpose.

Haughtily waving the biologists aside, his lordship proceeds to remark that "man's superiority is not the same that a dog would claim over a lobster, or an eagle over a worm;" the difference between man and other animals being "not one of degree, but of kind." Such a statement, without the least evidence being adduced to support it, places the Bishop almost outside the pale of civil discussion. When will these lordly ecclesiastics learn that the time for dogmatic assertion is past, and that the intellectual temper of the present age can be satisfied only by proof? We defy the Bishop of Carlisle to indicate a single phase of man's nature which has no parallel in the lower animals. Man's physical structure is notoriously akin to theirs, and even his brain does not imply a distinction of kind, for every convolution of the brain of man is reproduced in the brain of the higher apes. His lordship draws a distinction between instinct and reason, which is purely fanciful and evinces great ignorance of the subject. That, however, is a question we have at present no room to discuss; nor, indeed, is there any necessity to do so, since his lordship presently admits that the lower animals share our "reason" to some extent, just as to a much larger extent we share their "instinct," and thus evacuates the logical fortress he took such pains to construct.

Quitting that ground, which proves too slippery for his feet, the Bishop goes on to notice the moral and aesthetic difference between man and the lower animals. No animal, says his lordship, shows "anything approaching to a love of art." Now we are quite aware that no animal except man ever painted a picture or chiselled a statue, for these things involve a very high development of the artistic faculty. But the appreciation of form and color, which is the foundation of all fine art, is certainly manifested by the lower animals, and by some fathem to an extreme degree. If his lordship doubts this, let him study the ways of animals for himself; or, if he cannot do that, let him read the chapters in Mr. Darwin's "Descent of Man" on sexual selection among birds. If he retains any doubt after that, we must conclude that his head is too hard or too soft to be influenced, in either of which cases he is much to be pitied.

His lordship thinks that the moral sense is entirely absent in the lower animals. This, however, is absurdly untrue; so much so, indeed, that we shall not trouble to refute it Good and noble, he avers, are epithets inapplicable to animals, even to the horse or dog. What vain creatures men are to talk thus! Does his lordship remember Byron's epitaph on his Newfoundland dog, and the very uncomplimentary distinction drawn therein between dogs and men? Look at that big pet with the lordly yet tender eye! How he submits to the boisterous caresses of children, because he knows their weakness and shares their spirit of play! Let their elders do the same, and he will at once show resentment. See him peril his life ungrudgingly for those he loves, or even for comparative strangers! And shall we deny him the epithet of noble or good? Whatever theologians may say, the sound heart of common men and women will answer No!

Lastly, we are told that "the religious sentiment is characteristically and supremely human." But here again we must complain of his lordship's mental confusion. The religious sentiment is not a simple but a highly complex emotion. Resolve it into its elemental feelings, and it will be found that all these are possessed in some degree by lower animals. The feeling of a dog who bays the moon is probably very similar to that of the savage who cowers and moans beneath an eclipse; and if the savage has superstitious ideas as well as awesome feelings, it is only because he possesses a higher development of thought and imagination.

Canon Battersby, who moved the vote of thanks to the Bishop, ridiculed the biologists, and likened them to Topsy who accounted for her existence by saying "Specs I growed." Just so. That is precisely how we all did come into existence. Growth and not making is the law for man as well as for every other form of life. Moses stands for manufacture and Darwin stands for growth. And if the great biologist finds himself in the company of Topsy, he will not mind. Perhaps, indeed, as he is said to enjoy a joke and to be able to crack one, might he jocularly observe to "tremendous personages" like the Bishop of Carlisle, that this is not the first instance of truths being hidden from the "wise" and revealed unto babes.

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