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Ch. 4: Pantheism II

The earlier Pantheists were misled by the endeavour to lay hold of two distinct ideas, the one of which was a reality that has since been grasped and is of inestimable value, the other a phantom which has misled all who have followed it. The reality is the unity of Life, the oneness of the guiding and animating spirit which quickens animals and plants, so that they are all the outcome and expression of a common mind, and are in truth one animal; the phantom is the endeavour to find the origin of things, to reach the fountain-head of all energy, and thus to lay the foundations on which a philosophy may be constructed which none can accuse of being baseless, or of arguing in a circle.

In following as through a thick wood after the phantom our forefathers from time to time caught glimpses of the reality, which seemed so wonderful as it eluded them, and flitted back again into the thickets, that they declared it must be the phantom they were in search of, which was thus evidenced as actually existing. Whereon, instead of mastering such of the facts they met with as could be captured easily-which facts would have betrayed the hiding-places of others, and these again of others, and so ad infinitum-they overlooked what was within their reach, and followed hotly through brier and brake after an imaginary greater prize.

Great thoughts are not to be caught in this way. They must present themselves for capture of their own free will, or be taken after a little coyness only. They are like wealth and power, which, if a man is not born to them, are the more likely to take him, the more he has restrained himself from an attempt to snatch them. They hanker after those only who have tamed their nearer thoughts. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to feel that the early Pantheists were true prophets and seers, though the things were unknown to them without which a complete view was unattainable. What does Linus mean, we ask ourselves, when he says :- "One sole energy governs all things" ? How can one sole energy govern, we will say, the reader and the chair on which he sits? What is meant by an energy governing a chair? If by an effort we have made ourselves believe we understand something which can be better expressed by these words than by any others, no sooner do we turn our backs than the ideas so painfully collected fly apart again. No matter how often we go in search of them, and force them into juxtaposition, they prove to have none of that innate coherent power with which ideas combine that we can hold as true and profitable.

Yet if Linus had confined his statement to living things, and had said that one sole energy governed all plants and animals, he would have come near both to being intelligible and true. For if, as we now believe, all animals and plants are descended from a single cell, they must be considered as cousins to one another, and as forming a single tree-like animal, every individual plant or animal of which is as truly one and the same person with the primordial cell as the oak a thousand years old is one and the same plant with the acorn out of which it has grown. This is easily understood, but will, I trust, be made to appear simpler presently.

When Linus says, "All things are unity, and each portion is All; for of one integer all things were born," it is impossible for plain people-who do not wish to use words unless they mean the same things by them as both they and others have been in the habit of meaning-to understand what is intended. How can each portion be all? How can one Londoner be all London? I know that this, too, can in a way be shown, but the resulting idea is too far to fetch, and when fetched does not fit in well enough with our other ideas to give it practical and commercial value. How, again, can all things be said to be born of one integer, unless the statement is confined to living things, which can alone be born at all, and unless a theory of evolution is intended, such as Linus would hardly have accepted?

Yet limit the "all things" to "all living things," grant the theory of evolution, and explain "each portion is All" to mean that all life is akin, and possesses the same essential fundamental characteristics, and it is surprising how nearly Linus approaches both to truth and intelligibility.

It may be said that the animate and the inanimate have the same fundamental substance, so that a chair might rot and be absorbed by grass, which grass might be eaten by a cow, which cow might be eaten by a man; and by similar processes the man might become a chair; but these facts are not presented to the mind by saying that "one energy governs all things"-a chair, we will say, and a man; we could only say that one energy governed a man and a chair, if the chair were a reasonable living person, who was actively and consciously engaged in helping the man to attain a certain end, unless, that is to say, we are to depart from all usual interpretation of words, in which case we invalidate the advantages of language and all the sanctions of morality.

"All things shall again become unity" is intelligible as meaning that all things probably have come from a single elementary substance, say hydrogen or what not, and that they will return to it; but the explanation of unity as being the "unity of multiplicity" puzzles; if there is any meaning it is too recondite to be of service to us.

What, again, is meant by saying that "the soul of the world is the Divine energy which interpenetrates every portion of the mass" ? The soul of the world is an expression which, to myself, and, I should imagine, to most people, is without propriety. We cannot think of the world except as earth, air, and water, in this or that state, on and in which there grow plants and animals. What is meant by saying that earth has a soul, and lives? Does it move from place to place erratically? Does it feed? Does it reproduce itself? Does it make such noises, or commit such vagaries as shall make us say that it feels? Can it achieve its ends, and fail of achieving them through mistake? If it cannot, how has it a soul more than a dead man has a soul, out of whom we say that the soul has departed, and whose body we conceive of as returning to dead earth, inasmuch as it is now soulless? Is there any unnatural violence which can be done to our thoughts by which we can bring the ideas of a soul and of water, or of a stone into combination, and keep them there for long together? The ancients, indeed, said they believed their rivers to be gods, and carved likenesses of them under the forms of men ; but even supposing this to have been their real mind, can it by any conceivable means become our own? Granted that a stone is kept from falling to dust by an energy which compels its particles to cohere, which energy can be taken out of it and converted into some other form of energy; granted (which may or may not be true) also, that the life of a living body is only the energy which keeps the particles which compose it in a certain disposition; and granted that the energy of the stone may be convertible into the energy of a living form, and that thus, after a long journey a tired idea may lag after the sound of such words as "the soul of the world." Granted all the above, nevertheless to speak of the world as having a soul is not sufficiently in harmony with our common notions, nor does it go sufficiently with the grain of our thoughts to render the expression a meaning one, or one that can be now used with any propriety or fitness, except by those who do not know their own meaninglessness. Vigorous minds will harbour vigorous thoughts only, or such as bid fair to become so; and vigorous thoughts are always simple, definite, and in harmony with everyday ideas.

We can imagine a soul as living in the lowest slime that moves, feeds, reproduces itself, remembers, and dies. The amoeba wants things, knows it wants them, alters itself so as to try and alter them, thus preparing for an intended modification of outside matter by a preliminary modification of itself. It thrives if the modification from within is followed by the desired modification in the external object; it knows that it is well, and breeds more freely in consequence. If it cannot get hold of outside matter, or cannot proselytise that matter and persuade it to see things through its own (the amoeba's) spectacles-if it cannot convert that matter, if the matter persists in disagreeing with it-its spirits droop, its soul is disquieted within it, it becomes listless like a withering flower-it languishes and dies. We cannot imagine a thing to live at all and yet be soulless except in sleep for a short time, and even so not quite soulless. The idea of a soul, or of that unknown something for which the word "soul" is our hieroglyphic, and the idea of living organism, unite so spontaneously, and stick together so inseparably, that no matter how often we sunder them they will elude our vigilance and come together, like true lovers, in spite of us. Let us not attempt to divorce ideas that have so long been wedded together.

I submit, then, that Pantheism, even as explained by those who had entered on the outskirts only of its great morass, nevertheless holds out so little hope of leading to any comfortable conclusion that it will be more reasonable to occupy our minds with other matter than to follow Pantheism further. The Pantheists speak of a person without meaning a person; they speak of a" him" and a "he" without having in their minds the idea of a living person with all its inevitable limitations. Pantheism is, therefore, as is said by Mr. Blunt in another article, "practically nothing else than Atheism; it has no belief in a personal deity overruling the affairs of the world, as Divine Providence, and is, therefore, Atheistic," and again, "Theism believes in a spirit superior to matter, and so does Pantheism; but the spirit of Theism is self-conscious, and therefore personal and of individual existence-a nature per se, and upholding all things by an active control; while Pantheism believes in spirit that is of a higher nature than brute matter, but is a mere unconscious principle of life, impersonal, irrational as the brute matter that it quickens."

If this verdict concerning Pantheism is true-and from all I can gather it is as nearly true as anything can be said to be which is predicated of an incoherent idea-the Pantheistic God is an attempt to lay hold of a truth which has nevertheless eluded its pursuers.

In my next chapter I will consider the commonly received, orthodox conception of God, and compare it with the Pantheistic. I will show that it, too, is Atheistic, inasmuch as, in spite of its professing to give us a conception of God, it raises no ideas in our minds of a person or Living Being-and a God who is not this is non-existent.

Samuel Butler

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