THE moral nature is that by which we transcend ourselves and enter into an ideal region. Science, with its methods of observation and experiment, is limited to the world as it is. Ethics is essentially the thought of what ought to be. It is not an account of man as he is, nor is it a transcript and summary abstract of the facts of society ; it declares the law after which man should act, and in obedience to which society should be constituted. Ethics, in a word, holds up the picture of our ideal selves, and gives us back society transfigured. For man has two sides to his nature, — one looking out on what is, the other on the better that might be. It is a meritorious task to analyze the body and brain and mind of man; to explore conscientiously and classify systematically the facts of human society. But psychology and sociology do not take the place of ethics, nor even give its indispensable foundation. In the strict sense of the word, science — the science of man as truly as any other — knows nothing of right and wrong, but only of what is ; of facts, and the law of their connection.
To the pure understanding, virtue and vice do not exist. These notions arise in virtue of our judgment upon facts ; and the organ of that judgment is other than that by which we learn of and explain the facts themselves : men call it Conscience. It pronounces upon the worth of facts ; for they may sometimes seem as firm as the earth and as constant as day and night, and yet have no moral right to be. Such are injustice, unscrupulous self-assertion, wrong, — though they may be continuous with the course of history; and all the laws and institutions created under their influence are without binding force or obligation.
The safety and sanity of life consist in keeping in mind the higher ends and laws of our existence. For man is not only to know, but to do and to achieve. Strange, is it not, that man should not be content with what he sees; that he should turn his back on the known and familiar in search of something better ; that he should stake his life sometimes on a hope or dream of his mind ? Yet this, too, belongs to man : it is the ideal ends of human life calling on him for their accomplishment; and he, simple and loyal, does not fail to hear.
Ethical religion would turn men's thoughts this way. It would inspire to a new confidence in ideas. It would be essentially a practical religion, — not practical and ideal, but practical because ideal. It would lay on men a burden, assign to them a task, — a burden the only relief from which is in action; a task which is unescapable till it be accomplished. Like an architect's plan, an idea means nothing in itself: it proposes a new form of life, as the plan involves a new structure. For as the artist, whose soul images some form of the beautiful, seizes the brush or the chisel to portray it; as the thinker's burning thoughts drive him to utterance, — so in the truly moral nature every idea of the good becomes a necessity, every thought of the higher a command; all that we dream of and that seems so far away becomes an end and goal for our action and our life. Yet how rarely is the full practical significance of the ideal side of human nature realized! In what illusions do men permit themselves in thinking of the ideal!
First, there is the aesthetic or sentimental mistake. Men wander into an ideal region to luxuriate there. The good is an object of delight; they contemplate it, love it, worship it, they say, — do everything but obey it. Much of the religion of our day, orthodox and other, is but a kind of spiritual revelling, wherein men allow themselves the use of all kinds of fine sentiments and phrases, yet after which life is as flat as ever. This is unpractical idealism, but only because it is false idealism. That ideas are but the pattern after which we are to fashion our lives is not realized; the element of respect for them is wanting. If a man is not in the mood to act, if he will not become better, let him not think the ideas of the better at all. It is a kind of profaning of them to face them, and not begin to act as they command.
Closely akin to this aesthetic or sentimental mistake is the philosophical mistake of regarding the ideal as another world alongside of the actual world. It is so easy to those who are accustomed to deal with ideas to think of them as real, substantial things. They become so familiar with them that the natural order of human thought is inverted; and the ideas are spoken of as real, and the actual world as an appearance. This seems to have been the Platonic view. Goodness, justice, — moral ideas, as well as all others, Plato looked at as self-existent, independent entities. The ideal world was another literal world like our own, only more perfect. If this were so, what should we have to do but to lift our thoughts to that ideal world, and there find the rest and peace that are denied to us here ?
That might be one kind of religion; but surely it would not be a practical religion. And what is more, it would be an illusory religion; for there is no such ideal world as Plato pictures. The Platonic world in its moral aspect is nothing more than the world as we should like to see it, the world as it ought to be. It is in truth nothing but an ideal for our world ; and to transform this actual order of our human life into an image of it would be the task of a practical religion. The truest word that could be addressed to us is, If thou wilt ever see the perfect, thou must create it; till that time, thou rangest over the earth or through the heavens in vain ! The idea only of perfection is in us; the perfect itself is to be. Men ask, Can we be satisfied with such a view; can we be content to regard all that is higher and better only as a thought of our minds ? But a noble mind does not first ask, What is satisfactory ? but, What is true ? And I am sure that one who has been caught up by the thought of the higher, and felt that the burden and the glory of accomplishing it rested upon him, would feel the richest satisfactions denied him if told that the higher was already real, and he had only to open some fancied spiritual eyes to discern it. What meaning, what significance, would there be in our lives, with grand thought and purpose stirred, to learn that that which we were to do is already accomplished ? " Certainly, cousin," said the gallant Earl of Pembroke, on coming up to the Earl of Derby before Auberoche, and finding the battle already won, "you have neither been courteous nor behaved honorably to fight my enemies without waiting for me, seeing that you had sent for me." That is an unsatisfactory view of life which leaves us nothing to do, which fixes on us no great responsibilities, which encircles us with no grand trusts. In truth, in our heart of hearts, we want to do, we want to dare; we do not care even to be assured of victory : there is a profound something in us which disdains the need of such assurances.