Page images

[i.e. moral rectitude] or any other pursuit, till we are convinced that it will be for our happiness, or at least not contrary to it.

But, even if we disregard the 'let it be allowed' that introduces the admission, the single sentence is hardly sufficient to justify the assertion that Butler held the authority of self-love to be equal to, or higher than, that of conscience. The passage is, rather, a momentary concession to the selfish spirit of the age; and it has to be interpreted in the light of his frequent assertions of the natural superiority of conscience. "To preside and govern, from the very economy and constitution of man, belongs to it,' he says. 'Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.'

Since the essence of human nature is expressed in this spiritual principle, Butler is able to justify the assertion that man is adapted to virtue. But here his ethics may be said, almost, to stop short. He does not explain further the nature of conscience in relation to reason and will, or derive from it, in any systematic way, the content of morality. He was distrustful of any attempt at a complete philosophy, and resigned to accept probability as the guide of life.

The same fundamental conception and the same limitation reappear in Butler's still more famous work, The Analogy. The world is a system-'a scheme in which means are made use of to accomplish ends, and which is carried on by general laws.' It is neglect of this truth which makes men think that particular instances of suffering virtue or successful vice are inconsistent with 'the wisdom, justice, and goodness of the constitution of nature.' In the constitution and government of the world, nature and morality are so closely connected as to form a single scheme, in which 'it is highly probable that the first is formed and carried on merely in subserviency to the latter.' The imperfections of our knowledge make it impossible to demonstrate this in detail. But grant, as the deists granted, that God is the author of nature, and it can be shown that there is no difficulty in the doctrines of religion, whether natural or revealed, which has not a parallel difficulty in the principle common to both sides in the argument. This is the analogy to the establishment of which in detail Butler's reasonings are directed. They are so exhaustive, so thorough and so candid, that critics of all schools are agreed in regarding his as the final word in a great controversy.



To speak of mystical thought in the first half of the eighteenth century in England seems almost a contradiction in terms; for the predominating character of that age, its outlook on life and its mind as expressed in philosophy, religion and literature, was in every way opposed to what is understood by mystical. In literature, shallowness of thought is often found combined with unrivalled clearness of expression; in general outlook, the conception of a mechanical world made by an outside Creator; in religion and philosophy, the practically universal appeal to 'rational' evidence as supreme arbiter. In no age, it would seem, have men written so much about religion, while practising it so little. The one quality in Scripture which interests writers and readers alike is its credibility, and the impression gathered by the student of the religious controversies of the day is that Christianity was held to exist, not to be lived, but, like a proposition in Euclid, only to be proved.

This view, however, of the main tendency of the time, though representative, is not complete. There is also an undercurrent of thought of a kind that never quite disappears and that helps to keep the earth green during the somewhat dry and arid seasons when rationalism or materialism gains the upper hand.

This tendency of thought is called mysticism, and it may be described in its widest sense as an attitude of mind founded upon an intuitive or experienced conviction of fundamental unity, of alikeness in all things. All mystical thought springs from this as base. The poet mystic, looking out on the natural world, rejoices in it with a purer joy and studies it with a deeper reverence than other men, because he knows it is not something called 'matter' and alien to him, but that it is-as he is-spirit itself made visible. The mystic philosopher, instead of attempting to reason or analyse or deduce, seeks merely to tell of his vision; whereupon, words

E. L. IX. CH. XII.


generally fail him, and he becomes obscure. The religious mystic has for goal the union of himself with God, the actual contact with the Divine Presence, and he conceives this possible because man is 'a God though in the germ,' and, therefore, can know God through that part of his nature which is akin to Him.

There were many strains of influence which, in the seventeenth century, tended to foster this type of thought in England. The little group of Cambridge Platonists gave new expression to great neo-Platonic ideas, the smouldering embers of which had been fanned to flame in the ardent forge of the Florentine renascence1; but, in addition to this older thought, there were not only new influences from without but, also, new conditions within which must be indicated.

A strong vein of mysticism had been kept alive in Amsterdam, whither the first body of exiled separatists had gone in 1593. Elizabeth, thinking to quell independent religious thought at home, had planted nurseries of freedom in Holland, which waxed strong and sent back over seas in the next century a persistent stream of opinion and literature2. To this can be traced the root-ideas which animated alike quakers, seekers, Behmenists, anabaptists, familists and numberless other sects which embodied a reaction against forms and ceremonies that, in ceasing to be understood, had become lifeless. They all agreed in deeming it more important to spiritualize this life than to dogmatize about the life to come. They all believed in the 'inner light,' in the immediate revelation of God within the soul as the supreme and all-important experience. They all held that salvation was the effect of a spiritual principle, a seed quickened invisibly by God, and, consequently, they considered learning useless, or even mischievous, in dealing with the things of the spirit. So far, these various sects were mystical in thought; though, with the exception of familists, Behmenists and seekers, they cannot unreservedly be classed as mystics. Large numbers of these three sects, however, became 'children of light,' thus helping to give greater prominence to the strong mystical element in early quakerism.

It only needed the release from the crushing hand of Laud, and the upheaval of the civil war, to set free the religious revival

1 See vol. VIII, chap. x.

2 For an interesting detailed account of this phase of religious life, with full references to original documents, see Studies in Mystical Religion, 1909, by Jones, R. M., chaps. XVI and XVII.


which had long been seething, and to distract England, for a time, with religious excitement. Contemporary writers refer with horror to the swarm of 'sects, heresies and schisms' which now came into being1, and Milton alone seems to have understood that the turmoil was but the outward sign of a great spiritual awakening 2. Unhappily, there were few who, with him, could perceive that the 'opinion of good men is but knowledge in the making,' and that these many sects were but various aspects of one main movement towards freedom and individualism, towards a religion of the heart rather than of the head. The terrible persecutions of the quakers under Charles II3 tended to withdraw them from active life, and to throw them in the direction of a more personal and introspective religion. It was then that the writings of Antoinette Bourignon, Madame Guyon and Fénelon became popular, and were much read among a certain section of thinkers, while the teachings of Jacob Boehme, whose works had been put into English between the years 1644 and 1692, bore fruit in many ways". Whether directly or indirectly, they permeated the thought of the founders of the Society of Friends, they were widely read both in cottage and study' and they produced a distinct Behmenite sect3. Their influence can be seen in the writings of Thomas Tryon, John Pordage, George Cheyne, Francis Lee, Jane Lead, Thomas Bromley, Richard Roach and others; in the foundation and transactions of the

1 See, for instance, Pagitt's Heresiography, 1645, dedication to the lord mayor; or Edwards, who, in his Gangraena, 1646, names 176, and, later, 23 more, 'errors, heresies, blasphemies.'

2 Areopagitica, 1644.

3 13,562 Friends suffered imprisonment during the years 1661-97, while 198 were transported overseas and 338 died in prison or of their wounds. See Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, by Barclay, pp. 474–8.

4 For further observations on early quakerism in its connection with literature, see vol. VIII, chap. IV.

5 Charles I, who, shortly before his death, read Boehme's Forty Questions, just then translated into English, much admired it. See a most interesting MS letter in Latin from Francis Lee to P. Poiret in Dr Williams's library, C 5 . 30.

6 Jacob Behmont's Books were the chief books that the Quakers bought, for there is the Principle or Foundation of their Religion.' A Looking Glass for George Fox, 1667, p. 5. But Boehme was not wholly approved of even among the early quakers; see Inner Life of the Religious Societies, p. 479. For the influence of Boehme on Fox and Winstanley, see Studies in Mystical Religion, pp. 494—5; cf., also, Fox's Journal for 1648, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 28-9, with Boehme's Three Principles, chap. xx, §§ 39-42; also, life of J. B. in 'Law's edition,' vol. 1, p. xiii, or the Signatura Rerum. 7 See Way to Divine Knowledge, Law's Works, vol. v11, pp. 84, 85; Byrom's Journal, vol. 1, part 2, pp. 560, 598; vol. II, part 2, pp. 193, 216, 236, 285, 310—11, 328, 377, 380.

8 See Richard Baxter's Autobiography, Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1696, part 1, p. 77.

Philadelphian society; in the gibes of satirists1; in forgotten tracts; in the increase of interest in alchemy2; in the voluminous MS commentaries of Freher, or even in Newton's great discovery; for it is almost certain that the idea of the three laws of motion first reached Newton through his eager study of Boehme.

The tracing of this mystical thought, however, during the period under discussion and later, mainly among obscure sects and little-known thinkers, would not form part of a history of English literature, were it not that our greatest prose mystic lived and wrote in the same age.

William Law had a curiously paradoxical career. After graduating as B.A. and M.A. at Cambridge, in 1708 and 1712, and being, in 1711, ordained and elected fellow of his college (Emmanuel), he refused to take the oaths of allegiance to George I, and thus lost his fellowship and vocation. Though an ardent high churchman, he was the father of methodism. Though deprived of employment in his church, he wrote the book which, of all others for a century to come, had the most profound and far-reaching influence upon the religious thought of his country. Though a sincere, and, so he believed, an orthodox Christian, he was the classic exponent of Boehme, a thinker abhorred and mistrusted alike by eighteenth century divines and by Wesleyan leaders.

About the year 1727, Edward Gibbon selected Law as tutor for his only son, the father of the historian, and, in 1730, when his pupil went abroad, Law lived on with the elder Gibbon in the 'spacious house with gardens and land at Putney,' where he was 'the much honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family3.'

During these years at Putney, Law's reputation as a writer became assured. He was already known as the ablest defender of nonjuror principles; the publication of A Serious Call in 1729 had brought him renown, and he was revered and consulted by an admiring band of disciples. His later life was spent at his birthplace, King's Cliffe, near Stamford. He settled there in 1737 or 1740, and was joined by Hester Gibbon, the historian's aunt, and Mrs Hutcheson, a widow with considerable means. This oddly assorted trio gave themselves to a life of retirement and good deeds, the whole being regulated by Law. With a united income of over £3000 a year, they lived in the simplest fashion. 'He Anthroposophus and Floud, And Jacob Behmen understood.'


Hudibras, 1, canto 1, cf. A Tale of a Tub, sect. v, and Martinus Scriblerus, end of chap. I.

2 See Aubrey's Lives.

3 Gibbon's Memoirs, ed. Hill, G. B., 1900, p. 24.

« PreviousContinue »