Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, first baronet

Thomas E. Schneider (ed.), Selected Writings of James Fitzjames Stephen: On Society, Religion, and Government

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pg 41'Christian Optimism'(Saturday Review, 1860)

This essay is taken—as are the following two, 'The End of the World' and 'Christianity in India'—from the anonymously published Essays by a Barrister. Leslie Stephen quotes from 'Christian Optimism', along with 'End of World', as indicating the Essays' 'most characteristic vein of thought' (Life, 180–2).

The term optimism, popularized by Voltaire's satire Candide, ou l'Optimisme (1759), had been coined in reference to the view associated with the philosopher Leibniz, that under God's providence our world must be the best of all possible worlds. By the nineteenth century, as JFS's essay makes clear, the term had come rather to connote the view that the world is on the way to becoming the best possible.

Christian Optimism

It is not easy to find a perfectly common-place man or book. Even in these days, in which the decay of individual types of character is engaging the attention of some of our most remarkable writers,1 people are almost always distinguished, if by nothing better, at least by crotchets, from their fellow-creatures. To have reproduced, without any variation whatever, the very commonest of all types—to have adopted, with absolute satisfaction, the exact set of phrases which ninety-nine people out of every hundred are repeating all day long—is, as times go, not an inconsiderable feat. It has been achieved with rare success by a man who is, in other ways, entitled to be considered as in some degree deserving of notice; and the result is, for several reasons, worthy of attention. Mr. W. E. Baxter, the member for Montrose, has attracted some attention in Parliament, and has made one or two speeches which have afforded some indications of future distinction; but, amongst other things, he has taken a fancy to publish an "unpretending work," consisting of notes of ten lectures delivered at various religious and literary societies, and composed "during the leisure hours of two winters." They "do not pretend to be exhaustive"; and as they consist, to a great extent, of quotations from familiar books, they do not "lay any claim to great originality." They are not the less worthy of attention, inasmuch as they exactly reach the level to which a large proportion of English written words—for they cannot be called thoughts—rise in the present day. If a man could be conceived to have no other pg 42intellectual nourishment whatever than the sentiments usually professed at Young Men's Associations2—and if he were so constituted that he should not only have no mental digestion at all, but should not even feel the necessity or comfort of keeping the contradictory parts of his miscellaneous remarks at such a distance from each other, that one might begin to be forgotten before the other was brought forward—he would write just such a little book as Mr. Baxter's Hints to Thinkers.3 The first sentence of the book is as good a specimen of it as any other. "It is curious to observe how many sages and moralists—to say nothing of literary men" (who, of course, are never sages nor moralists) "and poets—have in all ages of the world's history mourned over the degeneracy of the times in which they lived. Greek and Roman writers have handed down to us eloquent descriptions of the cloudless skies, the sea," 'c. 'c., of past times. Wonderful, however, as it may appear, this is not the case—the former times were not better than these. Next comes superstition, which is a very bad thing; and, though it flourishes greatly in our days, as spirit-rapping and table-turning testify, "it is hardly necessary to state that ignorance is its mother." The pleasures of literature, political liberty, an over-ruling Providence, mental improvement, priest-craft, national armaments, narrow-mindedness, and religious persecution, are each handled successively in the same style; and when the end of the book is reached, the reader has a perfect specimen of the apologies for opinions upon these immense subjects which people in these days accept, as a mere matter of course, without examination or inquiry. That Mr. Baxter's views were taken up in this way is evident from the manner in which they are expressed. From one end of the book to the other there is not a vestige of an attempt at thought. Everything which has a reasonable title to be considered common-place is put down, although the very next page may contradict it. We are told, for example, that superstition is "gradually disappearing before the advance of intelligence," and in the next page that it abounds in England and America, amongst "well-informed and enlightened men and women." So we are informed that, "as a general rule, persecution is an inefficacious means of putting down opinion." Two pages before it is stated that in France, Spain, Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria, the persecution of opinions puts them down effectually. A saving clause is added—to avoid the trouble of thought—that "these cases may perhaps be regarded as exceptional." When there is a common-place each way, it is a good plan to state both, and affirm of the less popular of the two that it constitutes an exception to the other.

If it be asked why so much notice should be given to a volume which certainly makes as few pretensions as it sustains, the answer is, that hardly any other represents so completely a considerable and important body of opinion. It explains, all the more clearly because it is illogical and purely instinctive, the state of mind of a man who is passive in the hands of the age in which he lives, and receives its stamp without a struggle or a murmur. The book is pervaded by an infantine satisfaction with things as they are going to be. We live in a world just imperfect enough to be interesting. Once there were superstitions, and some of them still remain, but they are fading away pg 43before the advance of intelligence. Once there was much of religious bigotry and persecution, and there is still a good deal of both in a small way, but ("though it may be necessary to put in a caveat against latitudinarian indifference") the advance of intelligence will put an end to both. Confidence in the advance of intelligence, with an indistinct belief in an over-ruling Providence, and a general impression that the human race is always to go on making a series of safe investments for both worlds, make up the general mental furniture of the greater part of mankind.

The place which religious belief occupies in minds which are in this frame is one of the most curious of common phenomena. Habitually, and without any apparent consciousness of difficulty or contradiction, they persuade themselves that the gist of Christianity is that it gives a supernatural warrant and extension to the unquestioning optimism with which they regard the present state of things. Progress and civilization carry them by easy and agreeable stages to the grave, and they seem to assimilate just as much theology as is capable of carrying them a step further in the same direction. Their advice to mankind is—Behave well, in order that your friends and yourselves may be comfortable, and may be provided here, and probably hereafter, with rational amusement and healthy occupation. All things which either do, or once did, seriously disturb the normal comfort and repose of mankind are either extravagancies or superstitions, which you will rather avoid and explain away than condemn; but be careful, above all things, to maintain and propagate a certain easy-going level of quiet satisfaction—moral, physical, and mental. Never make the effort of thinking out any subject whatever. Repeat the obvious and usual observations about it; and if any difficulty presents itself put it out of the way with some such phrases as—"Here we must be on our guard against an undue adherence to the principle which has been stated." "There are, of course, exceptions to this." "We must carefully guard against exaggeration," &c. &c.

Some such meaning as this lies at the bottom of almost all that ordinary people understand by such words as "Christian civilization." It would be strange that any one should really take such a view of life if we did not know that all language acquires with wonderful rapidity a set of conventional meanings, which vary to any required extent from its original signification. A man who seriously maintains that the New Testament is an optimist book, and that its characteristic feature is faith in human progress, is beyond the reach of argument; and though, of course, any one is at full liberty to throw its teaching aside, or to deny its authority, it is singular that men like Mr. Baxter should show, in all they write, that they consider their views as Christian in the highest degree, and upon the most improved principles. Imagine such a sentence as the following put before the writer of the Apocalypse:—"The same law of progressive improvement is in operation with respect to the mental, material, moral, and religious condition of mankind. Advancement is surely the universal rule." This may be quite true, but what is to be said about the second death and the lake burning for ever with fire and brimstone, which were such conspicuous features in St. John' view of the law of progressive improvement?4 So long as the Christian creed includes belief in a Day of Judgment, with the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the pg 44left, the wheat gathered into the barn and the tares cast into the fire, we may make as many comfortable theories as we please about the world, but we had better not say too much about their Christianity.5

This is not the place for theological controversy, but if we view such speculations as Mr. Baxter' on narrower and more familiar grounds, it is impossible not to feel a degree of dissatisfaction with them which amounts to something not unlike indignation. Could any one really be satisfied with the attainment and diffusion of any conceivable amount of comfort? Or do the whole series of influences which the popular sentiment almost deifies really affect deeply the standing calamities and complaints of life? It is easy to bring the question to a fair test. If all the causes which we see at work around us were to continue to operate for an indefinite length of time in the utmost vigour, they would probably not raise the average standard of comfort for the whole population above the point at which the average of the better-paid professional classes stands at present. The wildest dreams of the most sanguine believer in progress on Christian principles would be more than realized if he ever saw ordinary day-labourers as well off and as intelligent as ordinary lawyers, doctors, and merchants are at present. Take, then, one reasonably prosperous person of this kind, and see whether he is in an entirely satisfactory condition. It is clear that he is not. He neither knows whence he comes nor whither he is going, nor for what purpose he lives; at least his knowledge upon these subjects is so indefinite, so much involved in metaphors and mysteries, that it is little more than enough to make visible the darkness in which he stands.6 He passes his life in a round of occupations which often fatigue and hardly ever satisfy his mind; and the very comforts which have been provided for him by an indefinite multiplicity of social devices, as often as not operate to choke and strangle his energies. It is needless to detail the features of a familiar picture. Every one ought to know the gloomy side of life, and though it is not the whole truth, it is right that its existence should be recognized. It is an insulting affectation to keep it out of sight, and to persist in crying up progress and improvement as if there was no undying worm and unquenchable fire.7

The condition of our life is that we stand on a narrow strip of the shore, waiting till the tide, which has washed away hundreds of millions of our fellows, shall wash away us also into a country of which there are no charts, and from which there is no return.8 What little we have reason to believe about that unseen world is that it exists, that it contains extremes of good and evil, awful and mysterious beyond human conception, and that those tremendous possibilities are connected with our conduct here. It is surely wiser and more manly to walk silently by the shore of that silent sea than to boast with puerile exultation over the little sand-castles which we have employed our short leisure in building up. Life can never be matter of exultation, nor can the progress of arts and sciences ever fill the heart of a man who has a heart to be filled. In their relation to what is to be hereafter, all human occupations are no doubt awful and pg 45sacred, for they are the work which is here given us to do—our portion in the days of our vanity.9 But their intrinsic value is like that of schoolboys' lessons. They are worth just nothing at all, except as a discipline and a task. It is right that man should rejoice in his own works, but it is wrong to allow them for an instant to obscure that eternity from which they derive their only importance. Steam-engines and cotton-mills have their greatness, but life and death are greater and older. Men lived, and died, and sorrowed, and rejoiced before these things were known, and could do so again if they were forgotten. Why mankind was created at all, why we still continue to exist, what has become of that vast multitude which has passed, with more or less sin and misery, through this mysterious earth, and what will become of those vaster multitudes which are treading, and will tread the same wonderful path?—these are the great insoluble problems which ought to be seldom mentioned, but never forgotten. Strange as it may appear to popular lecturers, they do make it seem rather unimportant whether, on an average, there is or is not a little more or less good nature, a little more or less comfort, and a little more or less knowledge in the world. Men live and die in India, and China, and Africa, as well as in England and France; and where there are life and death there are the essentials of existence, and the eternal problems which they involve.

Notes Settings

Notes

Editor’s Note
1 JFS was probably thinking of On Liberty, which he had reviewed the previous year (Sat. Rev., 13, 19 Feb. 1859). Europe, Mill wrote, 'is decidedly advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike. M. de Tocqueville, in his last important work, remarks how much more the Frenchmen of the present day resemble one another, than did those even of the last generation. The same remark might be made of Englishmen in a far greater degree.'
Editor’s Note
2 The Young Men's Christian Association was founded in London in 1844 by George Williams. For an indication of the sort of material presented there, see 'Gurney's Hist. Sketches'.
Editor’s Note
3 W. E. Baxter, Hints to Thinkers; or, Lectures for the Times (London, 1860).
Editor’s Note
4 Rev. 20:12–15
Editor’s Note
5 Matt. 25:31–46; 13:24–30, 36–43.
Editor’s Note
6 Cf. Milton' description of hell in Paradise Lost (bk. 1, ll. 62–3): 'one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames / No light; but rather darkness visible'.
Editor’s Note
7 Mark 9:43–8.
Editor’s Note
8 Cf. Hamlet (act 3, scene 1): 'death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns'.
Editor’s Note
9 Cf. Eccles. 9:9–10.
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