THE current views of morality are low and conventional. Even the churches, which should inspire us with an ideal view of life, talk of "mere morality." Morality is thought to be without mystery ;1 worship is contrasted with it.2 A celebrated English preacher says, "Sometimes, losing sight of divine and eternal things, Christianity becomes a moral discipline without the inspiration of religious awe and love and hope and fear." 3 Morality itself, then, is not one of those divine and eternal things; there is nothing about it to touch the soul with love or awe, with hope or fear! Yes, it is often said that morality cannot live save as it is grounded in religion; that it is but a branch from the vigorous root of religion.4
1 Natural Religion, p. 132 ; cf. the passage on p. 133: " At this point it is, at this disappointing identification of religion with morality, that the breach takes place. Can, then, religion mean no more than that we should pay our debts, keep our engagements, and not be too hard on our enemies?" (The italics are ours.) This is all then that morality means!
2 Ibid., p. 134.
8 R. W. Dale, Contemporary Review, April, 1883.
4 So Channing said, in early life (Life, A. U. A. ed., p. 74); but later he wrote, " To love God is to love morality in its most perfect form," and the office of religion is not to raise us " to something higher than morality," but to give us " sublime ideas of.
Now, in contrast with these conventional views I wish to bring out the ideal meaning of morality. I wish to show that it brings before us great thoughts, and thoughts touching the deep places of the soul. I wish to show that there is something in it which lays hold of eternity; that it may well, and does in all but the coarsest natures, stir awe and love and hope and fear. I wish to show that religion, the only true religion— though it nowhere exists now — is but the blossoming out of morality; that morality is its root, instead of being a branch from the root of religion. And I am particularly anxious to show this to the satisfaction of those who are not accustomed to what are called idealistic modes of thought.
Let me distinctly say at the outset that the ideal view of morality with which I am now concerned does not rest upon idealism in philosophy. There is no reason why the philosophical materialist should not join me in what I shall say of morality. As matter of fact, there seems to be as much moral idealism among those who call themselves materialists as among any other class of people. Think for a moment of the revolutionists in Eussia,—most of them young men and women, to whom, it is said, you could not offer greater affront than to call them idealists.1 They are materialists; they do not believe in a God or a future life; the world of the senses is alone real to them. Yet where do they place their hope ? In what they see, in what their senses can lay hold of, in the actual order of social and political life that forever confronts them ? No; but in something they do not see, in something that is not and never has been in Russia, — an era of freedom, an era of democracy, an era of brotherhood. So long as this era is not, it is but a possibility, an idea. And for that possibility, for that idea, they leave sometimes high rank and station, become almost ascetics in their mode of life, and are ready to go to Siberia or the scaffold. Nothing, not life itself, is so dear to them as the idea, the dream, of their imaginations and their hearts.
Morality" (Life, pp. 230, 231). The conventional view is well brought out in " Something above Morality," by Rev. Richard Metcalf, — a tract published by the American Unitarian Association, Boston.
1 M. Leroy-Beaulieu in Lalor's Cyclopœdia of Political Science, article "Nihilism".
Nor is moral idealism inconsistent with the utilitarian theory of the origin and sanction of our moral ideas. Utilitarianism says that our notions of right and wrong do not come from some magical intuition or revelation, but arise in the natural course of human experience and development; and that morality has its ultimate sanction in its tendency to promote the general good, the universal happiness. I am not concerned with this or any other theory to-day, but with the content of morality, the ideal nature of which is often so faintly realized. As matter of fact, utilitarians are as often idealists, in the sense in which I am now using the word, as the advocates of any other theory of morality are. Jeremy Bentham is called the father of modern utilitarianism ; yet what greater reformer has England had during the last hundred years in legislation, politics, prison discipline, and education, than Bentham ? Of him and James Mill it has been well said, that "believing that theory was all-powerful, that no hard and fast line could be drawn between the theoretically sound and the practically feasible, and that every simple and intelligible system only required energy and determination to convert it at once into a body of maxims and motives, they set to work in all directions with undaunted applications of their brand new doctrines to the crude material of fact."1 This is the very spirit of idealism, as I am concerned with it at this time. Reform is essentially idealistic. Every reformer takes his stand not with what is, but with what he conceives ought to be ; not with the customs and traditions and institutions that have come down from the past, but with the ideas that he believes must rule in the future. Successful reform means, indeed, conquering a fact by an idea.
Nor, in speaking of the ideal meaning of morality, in trying to show that it calls us away from what we see and know to what we can only think of, let me be understood as endeavoring to transcend the realm of the human mind. Shakspeare is involved in the same apparent contradiction when he speaks of "... thoughts beyond the readies of our souls." 2
But moral ideas, however much they may contrast with reality, are thoughts of the human mind. To win them and to live in them is not to lose ourselves, but to enlarge ourselves. We are not merely so much space as is covered by our bodies, but minds that can take in the past and the future, that can wander over the earth and climb to the stars, that can muse on what is and think of the better that might be. There is no outside to the mind; the grandest, divinest, most perfect things are simply thoughts of what may be.
1 G. S. Bower's Hartley and James Mill, p. 227. See also Maine's Ancient Law, p. 75.
2 Hamlet, act i. scene 4.