The absoluteness of morality does not mean that man has always had a conscience, or that he has always approved the highest things; if it did, there would be nothing absolute about morality. Man has grown into his knowledge of right and wrong; there must have been a time when he had no such knowledge, — just as he has grown into a knowledge of the world about him, and there was a time when he knew nothing but what his imperfectly trained senses immediately gave him. No truth of science is invalidated because it was not always known, or because when people first sought for truth they only imperfectly grasped it; it is enough that they found it in some measure when they sought for it, that the understanding is not hopelessly involved in illusion. So it is enough that when men have sought the right, they have in some measure found it; and as for those opinions and customs that were formed irrespective of such an aim, I do not see that the defender of absolute morality need be anywise concerned about them. I have only mentioned these instances from what Professor Jowett has so happily called the " ages before morality," or from savage life to-day, to bring out what I do not mean by the absoluteness of morality; that is, to clear up the confusion and misunderstanding that lie at the threshold of our subject.
Have men, with the supreme thought to do what was right, ever approved what was wrong?—that is the only question of significance to the defender of absolute morality. Opinions that have grown up by chance, or are simply due to passion or self-interest, or even the interest of the family or tribe with which any individual's interest may be inevitably bound up, — these are not morality, and are of no concern to the moral teacher. Morality is what we do under the pressure of the thought of what we ought to do ; and I doubt if there was ever an instance of a person's rising into this higher zone of his being who did not, in some measure, do what was right.
The cases of most difficulty are those in connection with religion. Religion seems to make sacred all that it commands. The follower of any religion is apt to take as his supreme law whatever that religion enjoins upon him. Now, there certainly have been instances where religions have commanded their followers to do what was wrong, and the followers have obeyed, with a feeling that they were doing (in this sense) their duty. I have recounted so many barbarous things that it is no pleasant task to add to their number, but a few instances must be given. There is a sect in India called Thugs, who regard assassination as a religious act. The Israelitish tribes, under the leadership of their battle-god Jahveh, enacted numberless massacres among the tribes of Canaan; and sometimes a general like Moses, acting under a commission from this god, would ask reproachfully, after a barbarous victory, " Have ye saved the women alive ?" and then command all the wives and mothers to be killed, and the remaining women to be divided among the warriors.1 Jesus knew that the time would come when those who should kill his disciples would think they were doing God service;2 and Paul, before his conversion, verily thought that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.3 What need to rehearse the wrongs and cruelties practised by the Christian Church itself on heretics and unbelievers, all with the thought of doing God service ? The Frankish King Clovis, after his conversion, incited Sigibert's son to kill his father, then had the son killed, and himself killed many other kings, even some among his nearest relatives ; and the Bishop Gregory writes of him : " Every day God caused his enemies to fall into his hands and augmented his kingdom, because he walked with an upright heart before God, and did the things that were pleasing in his sight."4 What need to refer to the massacre of the Albigenses, to the Inquisition ? There is hardly a crime or an act of treachery that has not been made sacred by the Church; popes have repeatedly said that there is no obligation to keep faith with an infidel.
The question, however, arises in all these cases,
1 Numbers, xxxi. 15-18. 2 John, xvi. 2.
3 Acts, xxvi. 9.
4 Guizot's History of Civilization, i. 41, 42.
What was the dominant thought ? Was it to do simply what was right, irrespective of any motive of interest or fear or favor, or has it been to please some person, to serve some private or class interest ? Or, going deeper, we may ask, What is the origin of religion ? Was religion, at the start, simply man's thought of what ought to be, idealized or personified, or was it an arrangement by which he hoped to further his own interest? I think nothing can be clearer to the student of the early history of man than that religion and morality were altogether distinct in their origin ; and that religion was simply a contrivance to ward off danger or win advantage for one's self or for one's tribe. " It is very clear," says Lubbock, " that religion, except in advanced races, has no moral aspect or influence." The deities are often evil rather than good beings; religion is a means of propitiating them and getting their favor, and whatever was necessary to that end believers inclined to do. The Thugs probably believed that their deity could be satisfied only with the murder of those who did not worship him. The same feelings, doubtless, inspired the tribes of Israel in their wars upon the Canaanites, in conjunction with their natural hostility to those in possession of the land which they coveted. I doubt if Moses, or one of the heroes of Israelitish legend, ever seriously asked himself, What is right ? How ought I, regardless of any interests of my own, to treat my fellow beings ? I doubt if they ever had a thought of justice outside of tribal limits, or ever sinned against that thought. In all likelihood they simply had in mind the interests of their own people, and by hook or crook, by all natural and all supernatural means, they were ready to further those interests. When Paul thought he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus, his thought was of loyalty to that old tribal god, who had, it is true, been enlarged and moralized to a certain extent under the influence of the teaching of the prophets, but plainly not moralized completely, since he sanctioned the persecution of the followers of a new form of faith. It is barely possible that the conversion of Paul was ultimately due to a rising of his sense of right in opposition to mere loyalty to a tribal religion. Can you once imagine King Clovis, or the instigators of the Inquisition, sitting down to ask themselves in a calm and serious spirit, What ought we to do ? Do we not know that in the one case it was simply passion for power, and in the other case passion for the Church and the God of the Church that dictated the action ? If they did not persecute, they knew that they should offend their God ; and if they offended their God there would be, forsooth, no safety for themselves here or hereafter. If ever the slumbering conscience of one of those Catholic Inquisitors arose, it was probably shown not in any justification he made of his conduct, but in the simple fact of his attempting to justify it. Many a time the only way a man's conscience shows itself is not in anything that he does, but in a lurking suspicion that he has done wrong, and in some kind of an attempt to make it appear that he did right. And sometimes, perhaps, a man's conscience never does arise ; it is swallowed up in some enormous religious or patriotic zeal. For a man's religion is often like his patriotism: as the patriotic fanatic says "My country, right or wrong," so the religious fanatic, "My religion, right or wrong." Both are at an equal distance from that clear, calm, undisturbed, and undis-turbable condition of the mind, in which one only asks what is right and what is wrong. How different an ethical religion would be from religion as it is ordinarily understood ! Religion to most persons still means getting the favor of God. Some religions, it is true, happen to have been more or less affected by morality, and so they give us a God worthy of reverence. But an ethical religion would grow out of a totally different motive ; the first thought in the breast of every follower of it would be, What ought I to do in accordance with the widest and most perfect right ? And its God, if the nameless Power that " infects the world " should ever again receive that particular designation, would simply be the ultimate supreme Reality, in virtue of which man and all finite things exist.