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Ch. 3: Pantheism I

The Rev. J. H. Blunt, in his "Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, etc.," defines Pantheists as "those who hold that God is everything, and everything is God."

If it is granted that the value of words lies in the definiteness and coherency of the ideas that present themselves to us when the words are heard or spoken-then such a sentence as "God is everything and everything is God" is worthless.

For we have so long associated the word "God" with the idea of a Living Person, who can see, hear, will, feel pleasure, displeasure, etc., that we cannot think of God, and also of something which we have not been accustomed to think of as a Living Person, at one and the same time, so as to connect the two ideas and fuse them into a coherent thought. While we are thinking of the one, our minds involuntarily exclude the other, and vice versa; so that it is as impossible for us to think of anything as God, or as forming part of God, which we cannot also think of as a Person, or as a part of a Person, as it is to produce a hybrid between two widely distinct animals. If I am not mistaken, the barrenness of inconsistent ideas, and the sterility of widely distant species or genera of plants and animals, are one in principle-sterility of hybrids being due to barrenness of ideas, and barrenness of ideas arising from inability to fuse unfamiliar thoughts into a coherent conception. I have insisted on this at some length in "Life and Habit," but can do so no further here. (Footnote: Butler returned to this subject in "Luck, or cunning?" which was originally published in 1887.

In like manner we have so long associated the word "Person" with the idea of a substantial visible body, limited in extent, and animated by an invisible something which we call Spirit, that we can think of nothing as a person which does not also bring these ideas before us. Any attempt to make us imagine God as a Person who does not fulfil the conditions which our ideas attach to the word "person," is ipso facto atheistic, as rendering the word God without meaning, and therefore without reality, and therefore non-existent to us. Our ideas are like our organism, they will stand a vast amount of modification if it is effected slowly and without shock, but the life departs out of them, leaving the form of an idea without the power thereof, if they are jarred too rudely.

Any being, then, whom we can imagine as God, must have all the qualities, capabilities, and also all the limitations which are implied when the word "person" is used.

But, again, we cannot conceive of "everything" as a person. "Everything" must comprehend all that is to be found on earth, or outside of it, and we know of no such persons as this. When we say "persons" we intend living people with flesh and blood; sometimes we extend our conceptions to animals and plants, but we have not hitherto done so as generally as I hope we shall some day come to do. Below animals and plants we have never in any seriousness gone. All that we have been able to regard as personal has had what we can call a living body, even though that body is vegetable only; and this body has been tangible, and has been comprised within certain definite limits, or within limits which have at any rate struck the eye as definite. And every part within these limits has been animated by an unseen something which we call soul or spirit. A person must be a persona- that is to say, the living mask and mouthpiece of an energy saturating it, and speaking through it. It must be animate in all its parts.

But "everything" is not animate. Animals and plants alone produce in us those ideas which can make reasonable people call them "persons" with consistency of intention. We can conceive of each animal and of each plant as a person; we can conceive again of a compound person like the coral polypes, or like a tree which is composed of a congeries of subordinate persons, inasmuch as each bud is a separate and individual plant. We can go farther than this, and, as I shall hope to show, we ought to do so; that is to say, we shall find it easier and more agreeable with our other ideas to go farther than not; for we should see all animal and vegetable life as united by a subtle and till lately invisible ramification, so that all living things are one tree-like growth, forming a single person. But we cannot conceive of oceans, continents, and air as forming parts of a person at all; much less can we think of them as forming one person with the living forms that inhabit them.

To ask this of us is like asking us to see the bowl and the water in which three gold-fish are swimming as part of the gold-fish. We cannot do it any more than we can do something physically impossible. We can see the gold-fish as forming one family, and therefore as in a way united to the personality of the parents from which they sprang, and therefore as members one of another, and therefore as forming a single growth of gold-fish, as boughs and buds unite to form a tree; but we cannot by any effort of the imagination introduce the bowl and the water into the personality, for we have never been accustomed to think of such things as living and personal. Those, therefore, who tell us that "God is everything, and everything is God," require us to see "everything" as a person, which we cannot; or God as not a person, which again we cannot.

Continuing the article of Mr. Blunt from which I have already quoted, I read :-

"Linus, in a passage which has been preserved by Stobaeus, exactly expresses the notion afterwards adopted by Spinoza: 'One sole energy governs all things; all things are unity, and each portion is All; for of one integer all things were born; in the end of time all things shall again become unity; the unity of multiplicity.' Orpheus, his disciple, taught no other doctrine."

According to Pythagoras, "an adept in the Orphic philosophy," "the soul of the world is the Divine energy which interpenetrates every portion of the mass, and the soul of man is an efflux of that energy. The world, too, is an exact impress of the Eternal Idea, which is the mind of God." John Scotus Erigena taught that "all is God and God is all." William of Champeaux, again, two hundred years later, maintained that "all individuality is one in substance, and varies only in its non-essential accidents and transient properties." Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant followed the theory out "into a thoroughgoing Pantheism." Amalric held that "All is God and God is all. The Creator and the creature are one Being. Ideas are at once creative and created, subjective and objective. God is the end of all, and all return to Him. As every variety of humanity forms one manhood, so the world contains individual forms of one eternal essence." David of Dinant only varied upon this by "imagining a corporeal unity. Although body, soul, and eternal substance are three, these three are one and the same being."

Giordano Bruno maintained the world of sense to be "a vast animal having the Deity for its living. soul." The inanimate part of the world is thus excluded from participation in the Deity, and a conception that our minds can embrace is offered us instead of one which they cannot entertain, except as in a dream, incoherently. But without such a view of evolution as was prevalent at the beginning of this century, it was impossible to see "the world of sense" intelligently, as forming "a vast animal." Unless, therefore, Giordano Bruno held the opinions of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, with more definiteness than I am yet aware of his having done, his contention must be considered as a splendid prophecy, but as little more than a prophecy. He continues, "Birth is expansion from the one centre of Life; life is its continuance, and death is the necessary return of the ray to the centre of light." This begins finely, but ends mystically. I have not, however, compared the English translation with the original, and must reserve a fuller examination of Giordano Bruno's teaching for another opportunity.

Spinoza disbelieved in the world rather than in God. He was an Acosmist, to use Jacobi's expression, rather than an Atheist. According to him, "the Deity and the Universe are but one substance, at the same time both spirit and matter, thought and extension, which are the only known attributes of the Deity."

My readers will, I think, agree with me that there is very little of the above which conveys ideas with the fluency and comfort which accompany good words. Words are like servants: it is not enough that we should have them-we must have the most able and willing that we can find, and at the smallest wages that will content them. Having got them we must make the best and not the worst of them. Surely, in the greater part of what has been quoted above, the words are barren letters only: they do not quicken within us and enable us to conceive a thought, such as we can in our turn impress upon dead matter, and mould that matter into another shape than its own, through the thought which has become alive within us. No offspring of ideas has followed upon them, or, if any at all, yet in such unwonted shape, and with such want of alacrity, that we loathe them as malformations and miscarriages of our minds. Granted that if we examine them closely we shall at length find them to embody a little germ of truth-that is to say, of coherency with our other ideas; but there is too little truth in proportion to the trouble necessary to get at it. We can get more truth, that is to say, more coherency-for truth and coherency are one-for less trouble in other ways.

But it may be urged that the beginnings of all tasks are difficult and unremunerative, and that later developments of Pantheism may be more intelligible than the earlier ones. Unfortunately, this is not the case. On continuing Mr. Blunt's article, I find the later Pantheists a hundredfold more perplexing than the earlier ones. With Kant, Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel, we feel that we are with men who have been decoyed into a hopeless quagmire; we understand nothing of their language-we doubt whether they understand themselves, and feel that we can do nothing with them but look at them and pass them by.

In my next chapter I propose to show the end which the early Pantheists were striving after, and the reason and naturalness of their error.


Samuel Butler

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