Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


The Influence of Scepticism on Character. Being the sixteenth Fernley Lecture.
By the Rev. William L. Watkinson. London: T. Woolmer.

John Wesley was a man of considerable force of mind and singular strength of character. But he was very unfortunate, to say the least of it, in his relations with women. His marriage was a deplorable misunion, and his latest biographer, who aims at presenting a faithful picture of the founder of Wesleyanism, has to dwell very largely on his domestic miseries. Wesley held patriarchal views on household matters, the proper subordination of the wife being a prime article of his faith. Mrs. Wesley, however, entertained different views. She is therefore described as a frightful shrew, and rated for her inordinate jealousy, although her husband's attentions to other ladies certainly gave her many provocations.

In face of these facts, it might naturally be thought that Wesleyans would say as little as possible about the domestic infelicities of Freethinkers. But Mr. Watkinson is not to be restrained by any such consideration. Although a Wesleyan (as we understand) he challenges comparisons on this point. He has read the biographies and autobiographies of several "leading Freethinkers," and he invites the world to witness how selfish and sensual they were in their domestic relations. He is a pulpit rhetorician, so he goes boldly and recklessly to work. Subtlety and discrimination he abhors as pedantic vices, savoring too much of "culture." His judgments are of the robustious order. Like Jesus Christ, he fancies that all men can be divided into sheep and goats. The good are good, and the bad are bad. And naturally the good are Christians and bad are Freethinkers.

The first half of Mr. Watkinson's book of 162 pages (it must have been a pretty long lecture!) is a preface to the second half, which contains his fling at Goethe, Mill, George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, Carlyle, and other offenders against the Watkinsonian code. We think it advisable, therefore, to follow him through his preface first, and through his "charges" afterwards.

Embedded in a lot of obscure or questionable matter in Mr. Watkinson's exordium is this sentence—"What we believe with our whole heart is of the highest consequence to us." True, but whether it is of the highest consequence to other people depends on what it is. Conviction is a good thing, but it cannot dispense with the criterion of truth. On the other hand, what passes for conviction may often be mere acquiescence. That term, we believe, would accurately describe the creed of ninety-nine out of every hundred, in every part of the world, whose particular faith is merely the result of the geographical accident of their birth. Assuredly we do not agree with Mr. Watkinson that "all reasonable people will acknowledge that the faith of Christian believers is to a considerable extent most real; nay, in tens of thousand of cases it is the most real thing in their life." Mr. Cotter Morison laboriously refutes this position in his fine volume on The Service of Man. Mill denied and derided it in a famous passage of his great essay On Liberty. Mr. Justice Stephen denies it in the Nineteenth Century. Carlyle also, according to Mr. Fronde, said that "religion as it existed in England had ceased to operate all over the conduct of men in their ordinary business, it was a hollow appearance, a word without force in it." These men may not be "reasonable" in Mr. Watkinson's judgment, but with most people their word carries a greater weight than his.

Mr. Watkinson contends—and what will not a preacher contend?—that "the denial of the great truths of the Evangelical faith can exert only a baneful influence on character." We quite agree with him. But evangelicalism, and the great truths of evangelicalism, are very different things. It is dangerous to deny any "great truth," but how many does evangelicalism possess? Mr. Watkinson would say "many." We should say "none." Still less, if that were possible, should we assent to his statement that "morals in all spheres and manifestations must suffer deeply by the prevalence of scepticism." Mr. Morison, asserts and proves that this sceptical age is the most moral the world has seen, and that as we go back into the Ages of Faith, vice and crime grow denser and darker.

If the appeal is to history, of which Mr. Watkinson's references do not betray a profound knowledge, the verdict will be dead against him.

Mr. Justice Stephen thinks morality can look after itself, but he doubts whether "Christian charity" will survive "Christian theology." This furnishes Mr. Watkinson with a sufficient theme for an impressive sermon. But his notion of "Christian charity" and Mr. Justice Stephen's are very different. The hard-headed judge means the sentimentalism and "pathetic exaggerations" of the Sermon on the Mount, which he has since distinctly said would destroy society if they were fully practised. "Morality," says Mr. Watkinson, "would suffer on the mystical side." Perhaps so. It might be no longer possible for a Louis the Fifteenth to ask God's blessing when he went to debauch a young girl in the Parc aux Cerfs, or for a grave philosopher like Mr. Tylor to write in his Anthropology that "in Europe brigands are notoriously church-goers." Yet morality might gain as much on the practical side as it lost on the mystical, and we fancy mankind would profit by the change.

Now for Mr. Watkinson's history, which he prints in small capitals, probably to show it is the real, unadulterated article. He tell us that "the experiment of a nation living practically a purely secular life has been tried more than once" with disastrous results. He is, however, very careful not to mention these nations, and we defy him to do so. What he does is this. He rushes off to Pompeii, whose inhabitants he thinks were Secularists! He also reminds us in a casual way that "they had crucified Christ a few years before," which again is news. Equally accurate is the statement that Pompeii was an "infamous" city, "full" of drunkenness, cruelty, etc. Probably Mr. Watkinson, like most good Christians who go to Pompeii, visited an establishment, such as we have thousands of in Christendom, devoted to the practical worship of Venus without neglecting Priapus. He has forgotten the immortal letter of Pliny, and the dead Roman sentinel at the post of duty. He acts like a foreigner who should describe London from his experience at a brothel.

Philosophy comes next. Mr. Watkinson puts in a superior way the clap-trap of Christian Evidence lecturers. If man is purely material, and the law of causation is universal, where, he asks, "is the place for virtue, for praise, for blame?" Has Mr. Watkinson never read the answer to these questions? If he has not, he has much to learn; if he has, he should refute them. Merely positing and repositing an old question is a very stale trick in religious controversy. It imposes on some people, but they belong to the "mostly fools."

"Morality is in as much peril as faith," cries Mr. Watkinson. Well, the clergy have been crying that for two centuries, yet our criminal statistics lessen, society improves, and literature grows cleaner. As for the "nasty nude figures" that offend Mr. Watkinson's eyes in the French Salon, we would remind him that God Almighty makes everybody naked, clothes being a human invention. With respect to the Shelley Society "representing the Cenci and other monstrous themes," we conclude that Mr. Watkinson does not know what he is talking about. There is incest in the Cenci, but it is treated in a high dramatic spirit as a frightful crime, ending in bloodshed and desolation. There is also incest in the Bible, commonplace, vulgar, bestial incest, recorded without a word of disapprobation. Surely when a Christian minister, who says the Bible is God's Word, knowing it contains the beastly story of Lot and his daughters, cries out against Shelley's Cenci as "monstrous," he invites inextinguishable Rabelaisian laughter. No other reply is fitting for such a "monstrous" absurdity, and we leave our readers to shake their sides at Mr. Watkinson's expense.

Mr. Watkinson asks whether infidelity has "produced new and higher types of character." Naturally he answers the question in the negative. "The lives of infidel teachers," he exclaims, "are in saddest contrast to their pretentious philosophies and bland assumptions." He then passes in review a picked number of these upstarts, dealing with each of them in a Watkinsonian manner. His rough-and-ready method is this. Carefully leaving out of sight all the good they did, and the high example of honest thought they set to the world, he dilates upon their failings without the least regard to the general moral atmosphere of their age, or the proportion of their defects to the entirety of their natures. Mr. Smith, the greengrocer, whose horizon is limited to his shop and his chapel, may lead a very exemplary life, according to orthodox standards; but his virtues, as well as his vices, are rather of a negative character, and the world at large is not much the better for his having lived in it. On the other hand a man like Mirabeau may be shockingly incontinent, but if in the crisis of a nation's history he places his genius, his eloquence, and his heroic courage at the service of liberty, and helps to mark a new epoch of progress, humanity can afford to pardon his sexual looseness in consideration of his splendid service to the race. Judgment, in short, must be pronounced on the sum-total of a man's life, and not on a selected aspect. Further, the faults that might be overwhelming in the character of Mr. Smith, the Methodist greengrocer, may sink into comparative insignificance in the character of a great man, whose intellect and emotions are on a mightier scale. This truth is admirably expressed in Carlyle's Essay on Burns.

"Not the few inches of deflection from the mathematical orbit, which are so easily measured, but the ratio of these to the whole diameter, constitutes the real aberration. This orbit may be a planet's, its diameter the breadth of the solar system; or it may be a city hippodrome; nay the circle of a ginhorse, its diameter a score of feet or paces. But the inches of deflection only are measured: and it is assumed that the diameter of the ginhorse, and that of the planet, will yield the same ratio when compared with them! Here lies the root of many a blind, cruel condemnation of Burnses, Swifts, Rousseaus, which one never listens to with approval. Granted, the ship comes into harbor with shrouds and tackle damaged; the pilot is blameworthy; he has not been all-wise and all-powerful: but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe, or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs."

We commend this fine passage to Mr. Watkinson's attention. It may make him a little more modest when he next applies his orthodox tape and callipers to the character of his betters.

Goethe is Mr. Watkinson's first infidel hero, and we are glad to see that he makes this great poet a present to Freethought. Some Christians claim Goethe as really one of themselves, but Mr. Watkinson will have none of him. "The actual life of Goethe," he tells us, "was seriously defective." Perhaps so, and the same might have been said of hundreds of Christian teachers who lived when he did, had they been big enough to have their lives written for posterity. Goethe's fault was a too inflammable heart, and with the license of his age, which was on the whole remarkably pious, he courted more than one pretty woman; or, if the truth must be told, he did not repel the pretty women who threw themselves at him. But there were thousands of orthodox men who acted in the same way. The distinctive fact about Goethe is that he kept a high artistic ideal always before him, and cultivated his poetic gifts with tireless assiduity. His sensual indulgences were never allowed to interfere with his great aim in life, and surely that is something. The result is that the whole world is the richer for his labors, and only the Watkinsons can find any delight in dwelling on the failings he possessed in common with meaner mortals. To say that Goethe should be "an object of horror to the whole self-respecting world" is simply to indulge in the twang of the tabernacle.

Carlyle is the next sinner; but, curiously, the Rock, while praising Mr. Watkinson's lecture, says that "Carlyle ought not to be classed with the sceptics." We dissent from the Rock however; and we venture to think that Carlyle's greatest fault was a paltering with himself on religious subjects. His intellect rejected more than his tongue disowned. Mr. Watkinson passes a very different criticism. Taking Carlyle as a complete sceptic, he proceeds to libel him by a process which always commends itself to the preachers of the gospel of charity. He picks from Mr. Froude's four volumes a number of tid-bits, setting forth Carlyle's querulousness, arrogance, and domestic storms with Mrs. Carlyle. Behold the man! exclaims Mr. Watkinson. Begging his pardon, it is not the man at all. Carlyle was morbidly sensitive by nature, he suffered horribly from dyspepsia, and intense literary labor, still further deranging his nerves, made him terribly irritable. But he had a fine side to his nature, and even a sunny side. Friends like Professor Tyndall, Professor Norton, Sir James Stephen, and Mrs. Gilchrist, saw Carlyle in a very different light from Mr. Froude's. Besides, Mrs. Carlyle made her own choice. She deliberately married a man of genius, whom she recognised as destined to make a heavy mark on his age. She had her man of genius, and he put his life into his books. And what a life! And what books! The sufficient answer to all the Watkinson tribe is to point to Carlyle's thirty volumes. This is the man. Such work implies a certain martyrdom, and those who stood beside him should not have complained so lustily that they were scorched by the fire. Carlyle did a giant's work, and he had a right to some failings. Freethinkers see them as well as Mr. Watkinson, but they are aware that no man is perfect, and they do not hold up Carlyle, or any other sceptic, as a model for universal imitation.

Mr. Watkinson's remarks on George Eliot are simply brutal. She was a "wanton." She "lived in free-love with George Henry Lewes." She had no excuse for her "license." She was "full of insincerity, cant, and hypocrisy." And so on ad nauseam. To call Mr. Watkinson a liar would be to descend to his level. Let us simply look at the facts. George Eliot lived with George Henry Lewes as his wife. She had no vagrant attachments. Her connection with Lewes only terminated with his death. Why then did they not marry? Because Lewes's wife was still living, and the pious English law would not allow a divorce unless all the household secrets were dragged before a gaping public. George Eliot consulted her own heart instead of social conventions. She became a mother to Lewes's children, and a true wife to him, though neither a priest nor a registrar blessed their union. She chose between the law of custom and the higher law, facing the world's frown, and relying on her own strength to bear the consequences of her act. To call such a woman a wanton and a kept mistress is to confess one's self devoid of sense and sensibility. Nor does it show much insight to assert that "infidelity betrayed and wrecked her life," and to speculate how glorious it might have been if she had "found Jesus." It will be time enough to listen to this strain when Mr. Watkinson can show us a more "glorious" female writer in the Christian camp.

William Godwin is the next Freethinker whom Mr. Watkinson calls up for judgment. All the brave efforts of the author of Political Justice in behalf of freedom and progress are quietly ignored. Mr. Watkinson comments, in a true vein of Christian charity, on the failings of his old age, censures his theoretical disrespect for the marriage laws, and inconsistently blames him for his inconsistency in marrying Mary Woolstonecraft. Of that remarkable woman he observes that scepticism "destroyed in her all that fine, pure feeling which is the glory of the sex." But the only proof he vouchsafes of this startling statement is a single sentence from one of her letters, which Mr. Watkinson misunderstands, as he misunderstands so many passages in Carlyle's letters, through sheer inability to comprehend the existence of such a thing as humor. He takes every jocular expression as perfectly serious, being one of those uncomfortable persons in whose society, as Charles Lamb said, you must always speak on oath. Mr. Watkinson's readers might almost exclaim with Hamlet, "How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us."

The next culprit is Shelley, who, we are told, "deserted his young wife and children in the most shameful and heartless fashion." It does not matter to Mr. Watkinson that Shelley's relations with Harriet are still a perplexing problem, or that when they parted she and the children were well provided for, Nor does he condescend to notice the universal consensus of opinion among those who were in a position to be informed on the subject, that Harriet's suicide, more than two years afterwards, had nothing to do with Shelley's "desertion." Instead of referring to proper authorities, Mr. Watkinson advises his readers to consult "Mr. Jeafferson's painstaking volumes on the Real Shelley." Mr. Jeafferson's work is truly painstaking, but it is the work of an advocate who plays the part of counsel for the prosecution. Hunt, Peacock, Hogg, Medwin, Lady Shelley, Rossetti, and Professor Dowden—these are the writers who should be consulted. Shelley was but a boy when Harriet Westbrook proposed to run away with him. Had he acted like the golden youth of his age, and kept her for a while as his mistress, there would have been no scandal. His father, in fact, declared that he would hear nothing of marriage, but he would keep as many illegitimate children as Shelley chose to get. It was the intense chivalry of Shelley's nature that turned a very simple affair into a pathetic tragedy. Mr. Watkinson's brutal methods of criticism are out of place in such a problem. He lacks insight, subtlety, delicacy of feeling, discrimination, charity, and even an ordinary sense of justice.

James Mill is another flagrant sinner. Mr. Watkinson goes to the length of blaming him because "his temper was constitutionally irritable," as though he constructed himself. Here, again, Mr. Watkinson's is a purely debit account. He ignores James Mill's early sacrifices for principle, his strenuous labor for what he considered the truth, and his intense devotion to the education of his children. His temper was undoubtedly austere, but it is more than possible that this characteristic was derived from his forefathers, who had been steeped in the hardest Calvinism.

John Stuart Mill was infatuated with Mrs. Taylor, whom he married when she became a widow. But Mr. Watkinson conceals an important fact. He talks of "selfish pleasure" and "indulgence," but he forgets to tell his readers that Mrs. Taylor was a confirmed invalid. It is perfectly obvious, therefore, that Mill was attracted by her mental qualities; and it is easy to believe Mill when he disclaims any other relation than that of affectionate friendship. No one but a Watkinson could be so foolish as to imagine that men seek sensual gratification in the society of invalid ladies.

Harriet Martineau is "one of the unloveliest female portraits ever traced." Mr. Watkinson is the opposite of a ladies' man. Gallantry was never his foible. He hates female Freethinkers with a perfect hatred. He pours out on Harriet Martineau his whole vocabulary of abuse. But it is, after all, difficult to see what he is in such a passion about. Harriet Martineau had no sexual sins, no dubious relations, no skeleton in the domestic cupboard. But, says Mr. Watkinson, she was arrogant and censorious. Oh, Watkinson, Watkinson! have you not one man's share of those qualities yourself? Is there not "a sort of a smack, a smell to" of them in your godly constitution?

We need not follow Mr. Watkinson's nonsense about "the domestic shrine of Schopenhauer," who was a gay and festive bachelor to the day of his death. As for Mr. Watkinson's treatment of Comte, it is pure Christian; in other words, it contains the quintessence of uncharitableness. Comte had a taint of insanity, which at one time necessitated his confinement. That he was troublesome to wife and friends is not surprising, but surely a man grievously afflicted with a cerebral malady is not to be judged by ordinary standards. Comte's genius has left its mark on the nineteenth century; he was true to that in adversity and poverty. This is the fact posterity will care to remember when the troubles of his life are buried in oblivion.

Mr. Watkinson turns his attention next to the French Revolution, which he considers "as much a revolt against morals as it was against despotism." If that is his honest opinion, he must be singularly ignorant. The moral tone of the Revolutionists was purity itself compared with the flagrant profligacy of the court, the aristocracy, and the clergy, while Freethinkers were imprisoned, and heretics were broken on the wheel. We have really no time to give Mr. Watkinson lessons in French history, so we leave him to study it at his leisure.

It was natural that Voltaire should come in for his share of slander. All Mr. Watkinson can see in him is that he wrote "an unseemly poem," by which we presume he means La Pucelle. But he ought to know that the grosser parts of that poem were added by later hands, as may be seen at a glance in any variorum edition. In any case, to estimate Voltaire's Pucelle by the moral standard of a century later is to show an absolute want of judgment. Let it be compared with similar works of his age, and it will not appear very heinous. But Voltaire did a great deal besides the composition of that poem. He fought despotism like a hero, he stabbed superstition to the heart, he protected the victims of ecclesiastical and political tyranny at the risk of his own life, he sheltered with exquisite generosity a multitude of orphans and widows, he assisted every genius who was trodden down by the age. These things, and the great mass of his brilliant writings, will live in the memory of mankind. Voltaire was not perfect; he shared some of the failings of his generation. But he fought the battle of freedom and justice for sixty years. Other men indulged in gallantry, other men wrote free verses. But when Calas was murdered by the priests, and his family desolated, it was Voltaire, and Voltaire alone, who faced the tyrants and denounced them in the name of humanity. His superb attitude on that critical occasion inspired the splendid eulogium of Carlyle, who was no friendly witness: "The whole man kindled into one divine blaze of righteous indignation, and resolution to bring help against the world."

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