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ARTICLE III.—THE FUNCTION OF THE WILL IN
[From the French of EDMOND DE PRESSENSÉ ; by Rev. J. B. CHASE,
THE CONDITIONS OF CERTAINTY.
The participation of the will is absolutely necessary not only for the establishment of moral certainty, but even for that which is purely intellectual. I do not now refer to that merely permissive act which takes place every time we put forth a conscious effort; but I speak of that positive determin. ation of the will in obedience to which the mind proceeds to the elaboration of knowledge, the object perhaps being entirely intellectual, and without consideration thus far of its moral truth properly so called. By this process alone can we attain to what can be worthily called knowledge. We attain the desired end through a degree of attention called reflection, and which implies both the concentration of our cognitive faculties, and the isolation through an effort of the mind of the object under contemplation. This effort puts the object under our direct mental vision, and sets up an energetic reaction against the dispersion of ideas by distractions from without.
2d. Every judgment which applies an attribute to any substance implies an act of the will; for the bestowal of this attri. bute implies comparison among other attributes and choice. There is no truth of any kind whatever that does not claim our assent before it can be appropriated or possessed. This assent or consent is more than a simple passive affirmation. +
* This extract is taken from chapter 1st of a work just published by Edmond de Pressensé, a name which has acquired some little renown in the modern struggles of French Protestantism. The book is entitled " Les Origines,” and contains five principal chapters, viz: I. The Problem of Knowledge ; II. The Cosmological Problem ; III. The Anthropological Problem; IV. The Origin of Morality and, Religion ; V. The Primitive Man. t Ollé-Laprune, “La Certitude Morale,” chap. II.
An error is always caused by negligence or slothfulness of mind, which has paused too soon in its researches. We must not confound this pause with the simple limitation of our knowledge. Error begins from the moment when by a hasty affirmation we have drawn too hasty conclusions from an incom. plete examination. Descartes makes some very wise remarks on this subject, showing the plane to which he descended to lay the foundations of liberty. “If,” says he, “I abstain from giving my judgment on anything when my acquaintance with it is not sufficiently decisive and clear, I evidently do right and make no mistake. But if I decide to affirm or deny it, then I do not use my free will as I ought. It is in the bad use of the free will that I find the hindrance which constitutes the framework of error."'*
Malebranche is no less explicit than Descartes concerning the moral defect implied by human errors. “We are free, says he, "in our false judgments as we are in our illicit loves. The human mind is not subject to error, merely because it is finite, and less extended thau the objects which it considers; it is also subject to error from its own fickleness. To understand the cause of this fickleness, we must recognize the fact that the will controls the action of the mind; that it directs the mind toward objects which it loves, itself remaining constantly active and restless." +
No one has written more truly and more profoundly on this subject than the great theologian Schleiermacher in his posthumous articles on the life of Jesus. ** Truth is man's natu. ral condition. His faculties in their normal state ought always to tend in that direction. A condition of ignorance or doubt is not error. Error begins when the mind arrives at a false conclusion. To do this the mind must have too soon desisted in its search after truth. In other words, the mind has not loved truth as truth ought to have been loved; or perhaps it had some selfish interest in accepting this or that incomplete result. It is therefore impossible to detect with absolute certainty a malicious error, and still less one which concerns the order of truths as they present themselves to the consciousness and soul." * Descartes, “Meditations." + Malebranche, vol. i., p. 30. Schleiermacher, “Leben Jesus," p. 118.
It is indeed for this kind of truths that the function of the will is specially important, for we must not overlook the fact that when traced back to their most general form, even to the categorical imperative of Kant, they come into conflict with all the lower tendencies of our nature. These truths are obli. gations before they appeal to the senses. They command obedience but do not impose themselves upon the thought with any such sort of dialectic necessity as comes from the absolute result of reasoning. Their very nature implies that they can cease to exercise influence. The first duty is to think of the duty. But the duty is such that one can escape from it, and by so escaping the duty becomes lost to view. Moral truth appeals to the intuitions; but since the intuitions make no outward demonstration nothing binders us from making our escape there.
It is in this wide-reaching domain especially that reasoning often destroys reason. Practical reason is defipitely accredited as pure reason by an à priori intuitive element of our nature beyond which we cannot go. Nothing is easier for us than to put ourselves out of condition, to grasp moral truth by simply allowing its delicate sense to become blunted. Nothing is easier than to suppress it entirely by substituting dialectics and its subtleties in the place of immediate intui. tion. Dialectics shuts up liberty, as it were, in a network of contradictions. And then liberty never can escape, except when the mind suddenly, by its own spontaneous energy, regains the lofty regions of intuition where consciousness lays down law without discussion--where duty has sovereign authority.
As soon as we pass from the realm of intuition, we meet determinism, for the only principles which escape the latter are the ultimate principles—those which lie as the foundation of all things.
Above them every thing is made captive and put into the hopper. These alone escape the fatal entanglement because they are fundamentals, which they would not be if they were links in the chain. Moreover these fundamentals are only perceived by intuition. As soon as we pass from that realm we find no trace of their existence. When we discuss moral truth, intuition is only rendered possible by purity of heart, or at least by an honest desire for it. Pure souls only see God. If we ascribe moral truth to God, it is because, as we have seen, it cannot depart from Him without losing its reality and sanction. To show the relationship of moral truth to God, we need only call to mind the point at which it surpasses our capacities, and indeed overwhelms us. We, as creatures, are not only imperfect, we are frail and attainted; and yet we have a perception of the higher good, of the ideal of perception. This is manifestly above us and not the product of our conceptions; for if we were shut up within ourselves we could not conceive of anything better than ourselves. This living characteristic of moral truth which binders us from comprehending it in a formula, and which in some sense gives it the grandeur of highest personality, is a new reason for giving a large place to the will and to the heart in its approbation.
"Thought can of itself grasp a formula; a personality escapes its grasp. It only lays hold of contours and limits; it can never attain to complete knowledge. It must love in order to know, and without harmony it is unintelligible. What shall be done then when we attempt to treat of a personality which is the Absolute Goodness ? Living truth presents an infinity of aspects to the honest student. It is too wide to be contained within any given formulas. Its formulas are at best only symbols."*
God is not known, according to Pascal's profound remark, except when He is manifest to the heart. “Moral truth that has been ignored or neglected is never thrust into the mind by the all-powerful virtue of a syllogism. Neither the excellence of the virtue nor the dignity of the soul could tolerate that. No, friendship demands something broader. And is it not a sublime and intimate association between the human soul and truth, when truth entreats the soul and gains its consent. It is an association, and at the same time it is a friendship. For in the moral order abstractions have only a provisional value. Behind the ideas there are genuine realities, and these realities are personal existences. At the very foundation every thing is included in this: God calls-man answers.
This constitutes all the moral life. “Listen," said Bossuet, "listen in your heart-listen in the place where truth makes itself heard, where pure and simple ideas are wont to congregate."*
* Ollé-Laprune, Ouvrage cit., p. 351.
Moral certainty, then, implies: 1st, the exercise of the moral faculties ; 2d, the firm decision of the will to submit to the categorical imperative, and to place the sacred intuition of duty above logical necessity. We cannot therefore avoid marking a decrease in moral power from the denial of any truth which consciousness has revealed ; although we should note the many inconsistencies by which a man sometimes in himself rises above or falls below his theory. In the same way there are atheists who by their virtues and nobility of character compel us to believe in God-men who are atheists merely because under the name of God they have comprehended a monstrous idol of human creation-and just so we see professed adorers of the divine who are really only wretched profaners of the same. When we speak of a true moral certainty, we mean that which is at once a theory and a practice; which is at once, if we may so say, a sight and a life of the divine. This, according to our view, is possible to every person who has desired to make a legitimate use of his moral faculties. On the other hand, in spite of our respect for the liberty of opinion, we are compelled to reckon the denial of moral truth as a manifest transgression by the will.
Skepticism, which often under the most brilliant exteriors contests the moral order, and admits only a curiosity on the part of the soul—that refined Epicurism which wishes always to enjoy and never to obey--is a disease of the soul. That it doubts proves no excuse, because its foundation lies in the will. It is not sufficient to say, "What is truth ?” to bring the soul into bondage to the uncertainties of unbelief. If one says it ironically, as Pilate did, he never gets an answer, or rather he does get just what he wanted, which is a denial. Skepticism proves no more against moral certainty than sickness proves against health, or the wilfully closed eyes against the sun. The world has long known that it is possible to have eyes without seeing, and ears without hearing.
"The action of the will is not centered upon a single moment of the moral life. Every one, in proportion as he has made a
* Ollé-Laprune, “De la Certitude Morale," p. 385.