Editor's comment

This chapter of Irwin Edman's book gracefully and clearly lays out the position of philosophical naturalism.


Edman, Irwin, Four Ways of Philosophy, Henry Holt, New York 1937
[Chapter 4 – 18,600 words]

Chapter Four

All philosophers, of course, think of themselves as understanding nature, and regard their philosophies as the faithful translation into the syntax of discourse of the syntax of things. “The order of ideas,” said Spinoza, “and the order of nature are one.” “The order of my ideas and the order of nature,” each philosopher also happily assumes, “are one.” Thinkers have claimed this even when they have made a system of ideas out of their desires, or their hopes, or when they have read into nature an imagined world beyond it, when they have made the rhetoric of their own enthusiasms the alleged grammar of the cosmos, or identified some deep private feeling with the depths of nature itself.

But there is a tradition coming from the Greeks which has possibly a little more claim to the distinction of being simply nature understood. There is a stream of thought beginning with Democritus that has sedulously eschewed going beyond the world of phenomena, that has tried scrupulously to remain within the circle of experienced objects and events and their discoverable relations. This philosophy has tried to refrain from going to a world beyond the world, to a friend behind phenomena, to a system alleged beyond the system found, from a verifiable experience to an alleged reality beyond it.

Naturalism is the name generally attached to that point view in the history of thought which tries with intellectual modesty and moral candor to frame a systematic vision of things in terms of what critical knowledge and effective human practice reveal them to be. Philosophers so minded have called nature that circle of objects and events with which men are initially familiar, which they fruitfully explore, and which, in their lives rather than simply in the rhetoric of their words, they are constrained to respect and to understand as both the instrument and the obstacle to their desires.

To be the mouthpiece of nature, and to describe without illusion man’s place in it, is certainly the highest ambition of a philosopher. To be such requires, in the first place, abstemiousness and courage. It requires abstention from all allegations, high and soothing, of nature’s providential arrangements for man’s purposes, and courage to follow the lineaments of nature in understanding, no matter what such following may mean in the abandonment of hopes and wishes. It requires an eye disciplined and steady, fixed on all things in their order and worth. It is generally conceded that no race ever succeeded in achieving all this in general outline more than did the Greeks.


A certain rough and ready naturalism has always been imposed upon men, whatever they may say in their books—a recognition of nature in the characteristic traits of the environment with which they have to deal, in the habits and impulses of their own bodies and in the practical necessities imposed upon them by things and by their impulses toward and their need for things. The facts of food and of hunger and the relation between them have made men naturalists in practice long before they made theories about nature, and long after their theories have fairly expressed or flagrantly contradicted nature. However fantastic the mythologies their poets and soothsayers may have passed off as truth, men have early learned to be realistic in dealing with fire and food and hunger, with their means of sustenance and with their desires.

The arts of agriculture preceded theories about the gods of the soil and of fertility, and continued, often in contradiction to those theories or along with them when these did arise. Nature was and continues to be saluted and respected in fact, whatever dialectic devices be developed to explain it away. The recurrence of the seasons, the cycle of births and of deaths, the habits of animals, the growth of plants, the ways of men in love and hate, in peace and war, have all impressed men with a primitive urgency, and first and last have compelled some honesty, precision and common sense in dealing with them. A peasant sense for nature persists below any grandiose or sentimental gloss upon it.

Beyond a certain margin, it is impossible to deny the body and its demands, things and their imperious and stubborn presence and relations. The mystic and the idealist may say what they will; but even in them there is an irreducible observance of the nature by which they are constrained, a respect and realization which they share with the farmer and the builder, the journeyman and the cook. Common sense has been a persistent philosophy in all ages, although it has not always been the most fashionable, or the most articulate or the officially acknowledged one.


But theories of nature did arise very early. The moment men or societies had leisure philosophies of nature arose. Facts are not dealt with simply in terms of hard necessity, clearly faced and fathomed. The presence of facts provokes imagination, dreams arise in the minds of poets and are conventionalized into the myths of a religion. The dreaming mind is itself a fact in nature, and the history of religion is filled with private glosses, the phantasies, grateful and comforting, which men have made upon the objects and events which they have encountered, and among and by which they must live. The history of thought might almost be written as the history of an imagination disciplined, in some fortunate cases, to understanding the very facts by which imagination is first stimulated.

The dream untamed generates pictures of a world beyond the world. The dream tamed (what Santayana calls Normal Madness) is the attempt to find symbols more directly representative of the conditions men must face and the context in which, if anywhere, human hopes may be realized, the complex of instruments by which human aspirations may be achieved. The intellectual eye turns inward and spins phantasies, or it turns outward and tries to look steadily upon the world of which it discovers its inner dream to be a product and a derivation. Greek philosophy may almost summarily be described as the intellectual eye turned outward, intently and unflinchingly, upon the world.

Theory, in the Greek language, is identical with vision, and somewhere about the sixth century BC in the Greek islands of Asia Minor, there seemed to have been sufficient leisure and sufficient speculative interest to generate on the part of a number of thinkers (whom, from their few written remains, students have come to think of as thinking in fragments) attempts to think the fragments of their experience into a consistent and single whole. For it very early occurred to thinkers, as it very early occurs to any reflective person, that, whatever be the confusion and chaos or miscellany of things, we are after all living in one universe, and that if we could penetrate surfaces sufficiently, all the variety of things might be found to be variations of one substance, changes effected somehow in one fundamental and essentially changeless stuff. It is natural enough to assume, as did the early cosmologists of the Greek Mediterranean world, some matter of which all things are somehow transformations.

The earliest philosopher known to us—and only just known—is Thales, who, legend has it, gazing upon all the things spread before his eyes, said that all was water. That familiar fluid element seemed ubiquitous enough, and it seemed easy to believe that all things were in some way or other freezings or compressions or vaporizings of it. There were other guesses: that of Anaximenes, who imagined that all things were air; that of Anaximander, who thought they were made out of something he called the Boundless or Infinite; that of Empedocles (celebrated in Matthew Arnold’s poem for his suicide on Mount Aetna), who asserted that all things were combinations of earth, air, fire and water. We smile a little at these guesses and wonder how the so much bruited Greek genius could arrive at hypotheses so childish. Yet, the nature of the intention rather than the substance of the guess is important.

These early Greek thinkers were making one of the most audacious and fruitful leaps of human imagination. They were the first to realize that all substance might be variations of one substance, and hit at once upon the fact that where there is change, so patent in our experience, those changes might be changes of one material. They hit upon the central idea of Substance, and, in thinking of all things as forms of one stuff, hit at the same time upon the general principles of persistence amid transformation.


In any age in any experience, the twin and inescapable poles of experience are permanence and change. To the eye of the poet, to the sensibility of the ordinary man, one of the most immediate facts of experience is change, continuous and unmitigable.“One cannot step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, who made of change itself a philosophy. He might have added, One cannot step into it twice, because one is not the same twice. The outer world of things, the inner world of consciousness, are in perpetual flux. The simplest explanation, unless mutability itself be made, as it was made by Heraclitus, into a reality, is that all things are qualifications of one omnipresent substance, stuff, matter; water, air, earth, fire, the last itself so much the warm and dancing incarnation of change; or some combination of the elements water, air, earth, fire.

But patent as is variation, no less obvious to direct and naive perception is permanence. Something there is that persists among changes; something there is which changes. The fire burns and ashes remain; the food is consumed and the body is nourished. The miracle of transubstantiation is an everyday wonder, familiar and undeniable. Though men and flowers die, men and flowers remain, and the earth, too, upon which the former tread and the latter blossom. Things change, but something endures; things vanish but things recur, and the cycle of change is no less obvious than change itself.

But the guess at a single substance was not enough to be intellectually satisfying. For it left unanswered the question, Why the transformation? Why should air or water become the myriad forms of life and plants and animals, of cabbages and kings? Why should there be cycles of recurrence? Why should there be an order in change itself? Nor did a single element or a single combination of elements seem enough to explain the incredible variety of appearances which the underlying substance seemed to have, or how these appearances arose.

Philosophies in Greece, as elsewhere, have diverged from one another in the emphasis placed upon permanence and upon change. Heraclitus, familiar to us only in a few epigrams, dark and scattered, emphasized by sheer utterance the fact of change. Parmenides (about whom we know even less, since the book in which he fully revealed himself is not only lost but was originally supposed to be a doctrine secret to the initiated) seized upon the gross and ultimate fact of permanence. Only Being could be, said Parmenides in effect, and that which was in mutation was not Being, but merely becoming. That which alone was Being could never be qualified, and therefore never changed without ceasing to be itself. Therefore, change was simply illusion, and what was in constant change could not possibly be known or grasped. True knowledge was that of changeless Being, and only the One was or was to be known.

Now, one cannot banish change out of experience by dialectic, any more than any mere utterance of the immediate can obscure the fact that change must be the change of something, that transformations must be of something, that changes occur and are discernible only where something remains unchanged. The genius of Democritus, whose wisdom was immortalized and extended by Lucretius, tried by a simple and intelligible system of thought to account for both the changing and the permanent. His conception of mechanism is, in one form or another, still the technique if not the ideal of most naturalistic philosophies. One may say he divided Parmenides’ Being into little particles of being, neutral atoms, the ultimate elements of the universe. Colorless, of various sizes and forms, they constituted the irreducible permanent substance of things. All the variety of things consisted in combinations of atoms, but the combinations were according to regular though blind motions. The world was rendered intelligible in terms of “constant parts and constant laws.”


The ideal of mechanism received celebration and even exaltation at the hands of Lucretius in the ancient world. From then on, it remained for the most part buried until the rise of modern science. The point of Democritean physics is not its detailed truth; it had few details. It lies in the fact that it rendered it possible to express and deal intellectually with the basic data of substance and movement. The permanence of the world lay in its elements; the intelligibility of its changes lay in the regularity, the constancy of its combinations. Matter in motion remains the essential formula and the persistent insight of mechanism. It came to be unnecessary to look beyond atoms in motion for principles of explanation. Chance and caprice, supernatural interference, chaos and Providence were all removed from the universe.

It is hard to appreciate how great a leap forward and how great an emancipation mechanism is as an intellectual ideal. Men had hitherto regarded the universe as the handiwork and theater of friendly and alien powers. The notion of a stable orderly cosmos in which, given elements and their combinations, one could make dependable predictions, in which given causes could plausibly be expected to have given effects, provided the clarity and the peace that comes with understanding. All facts have consequences; all things and all events are seen as the consequences or the antecedents of facts thus studied. Mechanism in its most general form is the indispensable correlate to a belief in causality in the sphere of life and practice. To believe that all effects have discoverable causes, all causes discoverable or calculable effects, is the irreducible “animal faith.” Without it men could not and would not plant seeds, roast meat, build boats, found schools, or establish or maintain governments.

The Democritean physics seems simple, almost simple-minded now, but the analytic ideal of mechanism was revived in modern times with the rise of Newtonian science and in the thought of Descartes in philosophy. Nature was conceived as a great machine, though for various reasons, including the theological, Descartes himself felt it necessary to exclude the soul of man from that mathematically calculable system. The laws of physics, earthly and celestial (for the line between things below and above the moon was rendered obsolete by Copernican astronomy), made it seem that everything on earth and indeed in the whole solar system happened according to mathematically definable regularities, another name for mechanical laws.
By the eighteenth century this had become so favorite a way of conceiving the universe that one French philosopher, La Mettrie, could write a book, immensely popular in the salons, called Man a Machine, which attempted to show that all the operations of human emotion and thought as well as all the physiological activities of the human body could be explained in terms of the laws of mechanical motion.

Deists could say that the perfect machine of nature had been set in motion by God (as “natural reason” clearly revealed) or that the very conception of so perfect a machine implied an intelligent designer. A universal mechanical system could be used as an argument that that order was itself God. Spinoza said just that, and said that the true love of God was the intellectual understanding of the order of nature. Or the notion of the blind regularity of nature could be used as an argument against the presence within it of anything like a general purpose or a general directing mind.

For the God of the Hebraic-Christian tradition was the personal monarch of a system of which the earth was the center. Morally man and his fate were the center of the universe, for man’s salvation was God’s tender and constant preoccupation and God’s intention from the beginning, and even the whole purpose of his having created the heavens and the earth and man himself. The reader needs only to be reminded that Copernican astronomy and Newtonian science (despite Newton’s own pious conclusions) had radically altered the picture. Not only did the earth no longer appear to be the center of a closed and finite universe, it became a star among an infinity of stars of which the sun was the center in an infinite realm of space.
But more than that. An infinite system in which mere blind mechanical regularity ruled throughout seemed to rule out the notion of a kind and just cosmic Father whose special purpose and concern were his children, those human beings whom La Mettrie could speak of as machines, incidental mechanisms in the vast mechanism of the solar system and in no sense with any privileged status in it.

By the nineteenth century the sway of mechanical law was extended to the field of physiology and psychology, until by the twentieth century there arose psychologies, still fashionable, which could insist that all human behavior, that of a poet writing a sonnet or a thinker arriving at his conclusions, could be completely and exhaustively described and explained in purely mechanical terms.


Naturalism until the twentieth century oscillated between emphasis on the stuff of the universe, matter, however minutely subdivided, and emphasis on operations according to mechanical regularities which could be exactly described and clearly understood in measurable quantities and through mathematical concepts. But generally speaking mechanism has been more emphasized than materialism; -not what the stuff of things is but how they operate has been studied.

The system of mathematico-physical notions has yielded both practical and intellectual fruits. On the practical side the whole of modern technology, industry, and transportation have been its fruits. The conception of mechanism meant the possibility of calculation, calculation meant predictability and predictability meant control. The order of nature was not something to gape at in awe and admiration, as did Pope, or to become mystically inflamed with, as was Giordano Bruno, or re-signed to, as was Spinoza. The order of nature was the order of possible operations, and to understand specific facts and their specific consequences was to be put, within limits, in control of those consequences. The whole of human progress seemed to lie within the grasp of men if they would only sufficiently explore the conditions, that is to say the mechanical relations, of the objects and events among which they lived.

“Knowledge is power, Bacon had said, and three centuries of mechanical and medical triumph have confirmed his boast. By the middle of the nineteenth century the idea had widely spread (in England under the leadership of John Stuart Mill, in France stimulated by the propaganda of Auguste Comte, the positivist) that the method of physical science applied to human affairs could be as effective in solving the problems of human relations, of government, industry, society and social institutions as it had been in the field of physical and physiological control. The method of intelligence and the mathematico-physical concept of nature seemed to go hand in hand. What had been so powerful an instrument in the control of physical things might be equally effective in human relations, social affairs and social passions.

The psychologist moved from his study into the laboratory; his language and his point of view became, as they still are in many quarters today, those of the mathematically exact worker in the field of the physical sciences. Our relative incompetence in reducing the study of social affairs and human relations to mechanical terms may have profounder reasons, but the simple reason given is that we do not as yet know enough, have not explored thoroughly enough, to measure as exactly, to define as precisely, to think as tightly in social matters as in physical ones. These younger studies are of facts more complex but in no way different in kind from those with which the physical scientist deals. The hope still lingers among many that eventually everything from the movements of the stars to the movement of ideas in the mind of a philosopher may be reduced to mechanico-mathematical terms. Psychology itself, it is piously hoped, may eventually simply be a branch of physics, as astronomy is a cosmic yet special case of it. And in the laboratory we may some day—who knows? —cure men of all their psychical ills or even chemically produce men at will.

Intellectually the mechanical conceptions of nature have been somewhat multiform and contradictory. On the positive side, the mechanical theory of nature has reduced the element of mystery in the universe and substituted as an instrument of understanding something as clear as mathematical relations are to the mathematician, has given as an object of knowledge a universe as cogent as a mathematical demonstration or a lucid and verified statistical analysis. To understand the objects and events of our experience, it certainly seems unnecessary to pass beyond those objects and events themselves, or to seek for their understanding anything more recondite or mysterious than exact observation and sustained mathematical demonstration.
Wisdom seems to lie in the hands of the separate sciences joined. For in each the ideal of observation and analysis is the same, and it is the same world they are endeavoring to understand, the world of matter (however subtly subdivided) in motion.

The laws of nature are inexorably what they are, and what they are is open to observation and understanding. Exactness of measurement and clarity of analysis are all that is required, and for these, precise instruments and mathematical deductions together seem to provide all the technique required.

The cogency of naturalism as a point of view has been lately called into question. Both the stuff of nature, matter, and the billiard-ball physics of nineteenth century mechanism have recently been called into question in the fields of the sciences themselves. Matter has dissolved into centers of force or foci of energy; matter itself is simply known by what it does; in itself it is, as Herbert Spencer said, the unknowable. The scientist turns out to be dealing with the relation of events; he never deals immediately with any gross palpable stuff called matter. The simple atoms of Democritus seem absurd to the modern biochemist. The sciences of life have moreover emphasized the habits of growth, the “tropes” of development in nature, in which an inert and dead matter, made up of static, inert and lifeless atoms, seems irrelevant.

There seem, furthermore, to be elements in life and in mind not reducible to matter in motion. The phenomena of purpose, for instance, and the total reaction of an organism are not analyzable in terms of mechanical physics. The new physics itself, moreover, has reduced the whole conception of mechanism to that of a convenient system of “pointer readings.” The world that the physicist used to think of as basically real turns out to be simply the “world” of laboratory measurements and mathematical deductions, marvelously fertile in practical use, and fascinating to the intellectual virtuoso. But it is hardly nature itself in its absoluteness. No, the mechanical description of nature has no more right to call itself nature than a ticket of admission has a right to call itself the concert or a key to call itself a door. The identification of the reality of nature with the description of it in mechanical terms has certainly become suspect. “Nature is no system but that to which all our systems refer.”

But all this is far from being tantamount to saying that the naturalistic point of view has broken down. For the faith of the philosophical (not biological) naturalist is simply that there is something substantial, not our own invention, not to be wholly described by our descriptions or any descriptions of it, with which we must deal. It holds further there are no breaks in the order of events; everything that happens has consequences, and to learn to discern those causes and consequences is to understand nature.


For the naturalist the conception of philosophy simply as nature understood has been fortified rather than undermined by the growth of the biological sciences and the biological point of view toward experience and knowledge. The existence of an order of nature is confirmed not by a theory of physics, nor for that matter by a theory of biology, but by the fact that human beings, in their unsophisticated and in their sophisticated experience, find themselves in a world marked by the presence of an obdurate but flexible something, that for want of a better word we may call matter. They find also that the world in which they live has its nature disclosed by the traits which individuals in their isolation and in their lives together find experience itself to have.

It is, of course, easy to say that a philosophy is based on experience without indicating what one means by that. Experience has a pleasant matter-of-fact sound, as when a politician says he is not talking in vague generalities but in terms of “hard realities and long, bitter experience.” In philosophy, however, even in the so-called empirical tradition, experience has been a quite sophisticated term, different in character from what the ordinary man means by it. At the same time, in philosophies that pride themselves on relying on “reason,” there has been a tendency to discount “experience” as being “merely experience” and hence, because experience lacks the a priori certainty of reason, not quite trustworthy.

Both those who have praised and those who have discounted experience as the way to philosophical knowledge and the basis for moral and logical metaphysical judgment, have meant the same thing by it. They have referred almost exclusively to impressions, sensations, perceptions, data received through the senses. Experience was thus supposed and admitted to veil as much as it disclosed of reality. For, as the reader of the chapter on Idealism will recall, once you reduce experience to what the senses reveal, you have no ground for assuming that things as they are are in any way like what they appear on the evidence and through the agencies of the senses to be.

When a contemporary thinker like John Dewey refers to the term experience he means practically something much closer to what the common man means by it, and theoretically something that takes its meaning from the biological rather than the logical approach to knowledge. Practically speaking, to have experience of anything means to know what one may expect from it, to know what to count on, what may be done with it, what its possibilities are. To have had experience with persons and with things is not to have had acquaintance with some static image of them. It is to have some fairly secure and verified anticipations of what under given circumstances they will do or what may be done to them. The reason the term “theoretical” is so often used as a term of dispraise in politics and affairs is that men substitute sentimental images or dialectical stereotypes for a “working knowledge” of what will specifically happen under certain given conditions, or what under given conditions may be accomplished.

Now when it is said that the traits of experience disclose nature, several things are meant. The first is that experience uberhaupt is simply the name for all kinds of experiences. Secondly, all kinds of experience show certain common traits. These are the traits which characterize the behavior of men, the traits which characterize and determine what they do, feel, suffer, think and believe. They are traits of all possible experiences because they are traits of the nature with which men must deal and of which their own nature is a derivation. Thirdly, the most subtilized and refined forms of scientific inquiry and technical control start with the kind of experiences common to all men in their ordinary pursuits and perplexities. Fourthly, the methods of science and of philosophy are simply refinements upon, disciplined forms of, that method of exploration and hypothesis, guess and verification and testing, which we all practice in finding our way to a house never before visited, which the artist practices in his work, the statesman when he plans, the cook when he prepares a dinner.

“Lyell revolutionized geology by perceiving that the sort of thing that can be experienced now in the operations of fire, water, pressure, is the sort of thing by which the earth took on its present structural forms.” Darwin began with the pigeons, cattle and plants of breeders and gardeners. And the most highly elaborate methods of reflection of an Einstein are tested in “crude, primary experience.” Experience, so far from being a term to denote “intellectual acquaintance,” is merely the generalized name for all that men do and suffer. To all this disciplined scientific inquiry and control, refined intellectual speculations refer, and of all this they are a late and complex development of technique, as consciously controlled experience is a late and complex development in the aeon-long history of the doings and sufferings of men.

On the theoretical side, the conception of “experience” and of the nature which critical and circumspect experience discloses stems from the approach to both that biology since Darwin has afforded. It is difficult now to think of the problem of philosophical truth as that of a static and bodiless mind, disinterestedly mirroring a timeless and changeless universe. For man is shown to be an animal living precariously, with the help of an exploring intelligence, in a process of events itself a mixture of stability and change. The world in which man lives and of which he is a part is, like himself, changing, a process of growth. Nature, far from being like a machine, is like an organism, like a plant or animal, and man is one among its flora and fauna. He happens to be so complicated an organic creature that he can think, that is, experimentally explore, imagine consequences and verify them.

The world is not a thing but a process: thinking is not a static contemplation but a process of experimental control, a process central and directive, but itself a process among the other processes of nature. The whole system of mechanical science which has proved so practically useful and intellectually absorbing is simply a highly refined and effective form of the same kind of thinking which goes on in the most ordinary involvement in the processes of life and nature. Physics in recent times has come nearer to biology than vice versa. It is the logic of operations and operations are changes. Nature itself turns out to be processes, objects become events, and space almost a function of time. The naturalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seems now almost a form of rationalism. It was dominated by the idea of mathematics.

The naturalism of the twentieth, however, much as it may use the language of mathematics, is dominated in both its description of the world and its description of the thinker by biology. And above all the thinker and the world are no longer to be regarded as separated, but as phases of a common process which is substance or matter. Nature is experienced, but it is in general what it is experienced as, and the bearer or agent of that experience is one with the processes of that nature whose possibilities he explores and of whose qualities he is aware.

What are the traits of experience which, critically followed through, turn out to be traits of nature which experience involves and in which it is involved? The first, common to all experiences, is permanence and change, which by earlier philosophies were hypostatized into ultimates of being. In one sense they are ultimate, but not in the way Par-menides and Heraclitus made them out to be. John Dewey states the facts that are closer to common observation and realization.

Against [this] common identification of reality with what is sure, regular and finished, experience in unsophisticated forms gives evidence of a different world and points to a different metaphysics. We live in a world which is an impressive and irresistible mixture of sufficiencies, tight completeness, order, recurrences which make possible prediction and control, and singularities, ambiguities, uncertain possibilities, processes going on to consequences as yet undeterminate. A world that was wholly risky would be a world in which adventure is impossible, and only a living world can include death.

All is change, said Heraclitus, but changes are plural, flexible, diverse. Nature is not one but many processes, and those processes are histories. Those histories are developments; they come or may come to fulfillment, and the office of intelligence is the direction of changes so that what is uncertain and insecure and problematic may be realized and enjoyed with security and certainty. The whole function of scientific mechanism is simply a formulation and systematizing in discourse and for purposes of action of stabilities and recurrences in nature.

Some of these may be utilized in the interest of human enjoyments and fruitions. The presence of change in our experience has long been the subject of threnody and the occasion for sadness. But only where change is possible can anything be improved. A thoroughly unchanging world would be a fatal one in which resignation were the only possible rational attitude. A constantly changing universe, on the other hand, would give us no foothold to make changes, nothing stable or understandable to make changes upon. A silk purse cannot be made out of a sow’s ear, but a silk purse can be made out of silk. Experience is full of recognizable recurrences; it is full of stabilities upon which action may be based. It is full of these because nature is.

Common experience is, furthermore, filled with meanings and suggestions. One thing stands for another. The cloud portends rain; the fever indicates illness; the footprints suggest a man. Out of these suggestions generated by perception arise all the possibilities of disciplined thought. But unless nature were a field of possibilities, of possible growths, these inferences would be misleading (as, uncritically taken —e.g., a mirage seen in a desert—they often are). Thinking is possible because it occurs in a thinkable world. Experience constantly tempts us with a house to build or build over, a view to clear, a business to be developed, a book to be written, a marriage to be arranged. It could not do so unless nature were full of potentialities, some of which may be furthered by exploration and thought. Such explorations are fruitful because of the stabilities recognized among changes, and the fact that a choice may be made of the changes to be furthered by the stabilities used.

Experience, again, is filled with sharing and communication. This is so in no small part because we live naturally in a world where sharing and communication are traits of human nature, itself one of the processes of the natural world. Experience is pregnant with dreams to the imagination, and imagination itself is a natural trait of human nature. Experience is what it is because existence is what it is. There is no radical, there could be no fundamental dichotomy between the two.


This whole view of the relation of nature and experience profoundly modifies the moral consequences and the esthetic and spiritual overtones to the naturalistic point of view. Naturalism in the nineteenth century and earlier left many of those intellectually convinced of its truth morally at sea, spiritually in despair, and esthetically in a minor key. For the picture of nature given in the mathematico-physical“structure” of it left not only much to be desired, but made desire and the objects of desire themselves seem to be illusions. The “world of nature,” in terms of the Newtonian and Cartesian world scheme, of matter in motion, left out precisely those qualities which in human experience are most precious. It left out God and robbed man of comfortable providential illusions. It made man a trivial and tremulous cloud of stardust in infinite astronomical space. It rendered fantastic any alleged meaning of the universe, and made it impossible to explain all events (of which earthly events were a very small portion) in terms of the salvation of man.

Moreover it did something far worse. It made love and all other values unreal. For all that was real was only the movement of particles of matter in blind regularities in the infinite spaces of the solar system. All color, quality and value were removed from the “scientifically” real universe. Nature was an alien world, unduly foreign to everything that men held beautiful or good. God was a myth or an unnecessary or confused hypothesis. Moral values were a farce in an unmoral cosmic machine; even the colors, so familiar in experience, the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, the tastes and odors of food were subjective and “secondary” qualities.

From the time of Epicurus down, therefore, naturalism has repeatedly had about it a kind of sunset glow, as well as a nostalgia for a world that might have been, and by all moral and human standards should have been, different. Men, however realistic they might be in practice, had for centuries nourished and comforted themselves on the supernatural. The martyr thinks of the flame of God’s love even while the physical flames flicker around his tortured feet. Job trusts in God though God afflict and seem about to slay him. For the supernatural picture gives a compensatory ideal world in which the brusque crudities and cruelties of this one will be forgotten or adjusted. The naturalistic world-view seemed (and still does seem) cold to those brought up on the warm comfort of providential myths.

Everything precious and individual has seemed shadowy compared with the “realities” of the bare mathematico-physical universe. The water, sparkling in the sun, cool to the touch, refreshing to the parched throat, is H20. The most cherished and irreplaceable person is simply one among millions of biochemical objects, a body among other bodies.

All human aspirations, all apparent meaning in the universe, seemed to be rendered nugatory by the vast meaninglessness of the “blind march of matter on its relentless way.” Everything that seemed distinctively human—hope and faith and charity, spiritual ends and esthetic raptures, the colors of the sea and the sky, and the complexion of one’s friends—threatened to vanish in the scientific picture of the world. Man was an accident, an incident, a casualty, helpless and hopeless, in the relentless movement of matter in motion. It was not one against the gods, but man against nature. The latter seemed by a conspiracy of indifference to be the enemy of man, or his ironic destroyer, not even aware of the values of what it was destroying.

There is a scene, neat in its horror, in one of Chekov’s stories. A poor naive soldier is dying while being invalided home on a transport from the Crimea. His faith has been undimmed; his hopes of seeing his loved ones again unbroken. He dies and is buried at sea. Chekov describes how the sharks swarm around the sack in which he is lowered, and far below the surface of the sea tear it with their teeth and pierce with the latter into the still warm flesh. Meanwhile the sun sets in opalescent splendor overhead while the glinting surface of the water is a serene, unrippled calm. Thomas Hardy, at the end of the brutal execution of hapless Tess in Tess of the D’ Urbervilles, remarks with grim quietude that when the black flag flew to signify the execution, the President of the Immortals saw that justice had been done. Thus have men of letters, especially toward the close of the nineteenth century, commented on the brutally casual indifference to human good of the blind regularities of nature, and the routine of blind injustice of men in their natures one with the beasts.

Consciousness in a world thus conceived is a blind brief flicker between two oblivions, that before birth, and that after death. For there can be no immortality if the soul is simply a fortuitous combination of atoms destined like all other such combinations to dissolution. The most that can be hoped for is to crowd those fated few moments with pleasure, to escape during that short interlude of consciousness from pain. A timid temperance or an occasional orgy of intense pleasure is the most that life can provide in a meaningless world. The gross can find their pleasures in the grosser intensities of the senses, in food and drink and sex. The refined Epicurean can find them in those subtleties of the senses which are fulfilled in works of art, in those finesses of emotion which are gratified in friendship and in affection, or for rare minds in the spectacle, ironic in its amusement, multiform, miscellaneous, evanescent, and recurrent, of nature itself.

Even the fact that things recur in nature, that death is replaced by birth, can afford only a subject for laughter. For a cycle of this sort is meaningless, and the new flower is doomed to perish quite like the old. One can hardly think of a philosophy of pleasure that is not crossed with the sense of its transiency, its precariousness, its emptiness. Those who gather the flowers die almost as soon as the flowers they have gathered, and it is only a faint consolation to know that another lover will be born to find another creature, passing and perishing, whom he may embrace.

Nor is it simply the brevity of life, the transiency of pleasure, that have produced the “sick soul” which, as James points out, was bred by late nineteenth century cosmological speculation. To the sensitive spirit of a philosophical temper, perhaps the greatest sting of all has been the apparent meaninglessness of life and nature. Nature seems not only casual but in the profoundest sense irrational. For it has seemed to those who gaze at the picture of mechanism that unless all meanings can be given some meaning, nothing can have any meaning. No “why” can be answered unless the ultimate “why” is replied to. Mechanism gives no answer to the ultimate“why.” The universe, like the sun in W. S. Gilbert’s ballad, simply rolls on. Incidental pleasures pall, or become absurd. “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action.” And all other pleasures fulfilled seem an equal waste. The best men die eventually like the worst, if not earlier. And the best life, where there is no standard of meaning, seems to have no more meaning than the worst.

John Stuart Mill could say “better a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” in grading pleasures, for pleasure was his criterion of happiness. But where there is no standard beyond pleasure, one pleasure is as good as another, and if the pig’s pleasure is only a grunt, the grunt is as convincing to it as Socrates’ arguments are to him or to his hearers. And if, as some astronomers predict, the earth itself is to grow cold, and we are to crash into a sun and be burned in a great cosmic conflagration, what is the purpose for which human suffering and heroism and genius have persisted? “I stand on a whirling planet carefully combing my hair.” Why? The whirling planet has no answer, no interest. Indeed it has not even heard. In nature thus pictured, Socrates is no more convincing than the pig.

Sensitive spirits have been deeply hurt by the fact that all that constitutes human value and dignity finds no support, no guarantee, no moral status in the universe. The most poignant playing of unearthly music by a violinist gifted beyond earthly canons, is simply “horse’s hair drawn over cat’s guts.” The lover’s rapture is in point of fact simply a glandular secretion. The saint’s devotion or the poet’s afflatus are simply sex sublimated or a flight from personal insecurity or social conflict. The sacrificial fervor of a nation at war is simply the herd instinct on dress parade, or sadism en masse. Morality, sublimity and spirituality have come to seem the fancy pet names human beings give their rationalized animal impulses. At heart man is a brute in a nature brutal to all that he has cared or has thought he cared most about.

Whatever of beauty life may produce or nature exhibit is not only brief but thoroughly accidental, and nature has its own short way with human attempts at dignity, logic, grandeur or ecstasy.
And so we sit in blissful calm,
Quietly sweating, palm to palm,

writes Aldous Huxley at the end of a poem that until its close looks like the conventional romantic love lyric. A bloody birth and a worm-infested grave bound the career of the most cogent dialectician.

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discussed
Of the Two Worlds so wisely—they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scattered, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

Pain, we are reminded, makes a whimpering child of the most august philosopher; to nature and to smirking human observation the physiological processes of a bishop are all one with those of a crossing sweeper. The very standards of goodness and probity which have been slowly evolved in the generations since Cro-Magnon man are made laughingstocks by nature which violates such flimsy canons all the time, and convicts them of sentimentalism. By any human standards nature, on the mechanistic assumption, is a villain without feeling, a cutthroat without respect or consideration, and, as Mill points out, it murders every man once. The practice of that which is ethically best, Thomas Henry Huxley reminds us, what we call goodness and virtue, “involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposite to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. . . . Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” Mechanism applied to the processes of evolution is called the survival of the fittest. The latter is simply a euphemistic name for the mechanical and quite amoral elimination of the weak or the unfit. Nor is unfit as exhibited in natural selection determined by any canons save the crude one of adaptation to the tooth and claw necessities of the animal world.

Moreover, whatever of achievement against the indifference of the natural world man might make, the total upshot of it is rendered almost fantastically negligible and ironic. Arthur Balfour in Foundations of Belief sums the matter up with simple force:
Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes which first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science, indeed, as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses of the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past, and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which for a moment has disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. “Imperishable monuments” and “immortal deeds,” death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been. Nor will anything that is be better or be worse for all that the labor, genius, devotion, and suffering of man have striven through countless ages to effect.

Now, as we shall see presently, the division between man and nature is made more absolute in such a picture than it actually is. All man’s achievements are in a large sense nature’s too. It needs also to be pointed out that much of the sadness in the presence of the mechanistic picture of the world is a piece of romantic impertinence on the part of those who have it.

Human beings tend to be babies bursting into tears because the whole cosmos is not paying them concentrated attention and is not arranged to set up their egos. It is well to remember that the mathematico-mechanistic evolutionary picture of the world had its impact on imaginations nurtured on romantic poetry and on a religious tradition which pictured the whole history of the cosmos as the romantic story of man’s salvation through the grace of God who had specially created him.

But to call romantic the despair induced by nineteenth century naturalism is not sufficient to close the matter. There is a deeper issue involved than merely a sulkiness arising from the disillusioning recognition that we are born into a world which was not made for us but in which we must willy-nilly grow. The poetic, the sensitive, the morally serious are Platonists at heart. It has hurt them deeply to realize that the True, the Good and the Beautiful are simply illusions, the shadows of desire cast upon the walls of that Heartbreak House which is the universe mechanistically conceived. It is depressing to have to face the apparent fact that Platonism itself is a dream of eternal things by a creature whose very birth is a sentence to extinction. There is, for all their solemnities, a pathetic incapacity in men to take themselves or their moral standards seriously unless somebody else does, unless ultimately it can be proved that the cosmos takes them seriously.

What men call good they have wished to see inscribed on the tablets of eternity as good, and as constituting the substance of reality itself. The tender-minded brought face to face with such a picture as that quoted from Arthur Balfour have occasionally fled to idealistic and Platonic realms and persuaded themselves by a dialectic expressive of their own desires that the Good and nature were one. More frequently of late, they have taken the path of the Stoic, holding to the fortress of their own ideals in the face of a contradictory world. Or they have taken the path of a despair, more or less dainty, like that of the esthetes of the late nineteenth century, or of an orgy of forgetfulness in sensual and sexual excesses, desperate raptures upon the eve of doom. Or they have resigned themselves to an unflinching contemplation, while life lasts, of the disillusioning order of things as they are. The pleasures, brief and fevered, of the flesh, the delights, momentary and exquisite, of the arts, the melancholy enjoyment of the cosmic spectacle in its mocking variety and its fatal order, finally Promethean defiance—all these have been typical responses to the world as physical science and biology at the end of the nineteenth century described it, and as philosophies based upon them judged it.

There has, of course, been a more optimistic note, the one earlier mentioned, of the happiness possible to man through scientific control, the brave new world achievable through scientific understanding. If natural processes are mechanistic, these mechanisms can be made the basis of human operations and serve human interests. The same romantic impulse which despairs of the “alien world” that does not center around human desires, goes into the faith, far from dead, that scientific control, through understanding the processes of nature, can abolish unhappiness, disease and discontent and can further human enjoyment and power. There lurks even in this optimistic faith in control a sense of “man the machine” as La Mettrie described it in the eighteenth century, and a belief that the techniques and methods of the physical laboratory, applicable to inanimate things, are applicable to the most subtle of human concerns.

Mechanistic concepts have come to seem inadequate in the sphere of life; the mind, purpose, and individuality demand categories not present in a purely mechanical hypothesis of nature. But this has not qualified the ardor of those with blueprints for a new race in a new Heaven-on-earth. Nor for that matter has the very fact of the mechanical character of orthodox social science failed to alienate those who think that the goods of life, the sources of distinctively human powers and distinctively human enjoyment, lie in another dimension than those recognized in the formulas of the physical scientist, in his test tubes and his measurements.

Thinkers, noting what the mechanical ideal of control and understanding has accomplished in the field of things, rely on analogous techniques for improving the relations of men, their institutions and their arts, and for understanding their mythologies, religions, and passions, their fears and hopes, and through such understanding to engineer their happiness. The romantically hopeful scientific idealist is represented at his best and in some ways at his most naive by H. G. Wells. It is ironic to remember that it was just before the outbreak of the World War that the gospel of salvation through science was most persuasively preached by Wells in his novels and tracts for the times. If the realm of human relations could be controlled and organized in strictly mechanical terms, it might still leave something to be desired, as has been hilariously and bitterly brought out by Mr. Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World. It might be possible to eat food efficiently in tablets, produce children in factories, nurse them in regiments, but, as Plato long ago admitted, in such a perfectly functioning state no one might be happy.

There are several grounds for dismissing as dubious and romantic the hope of salvation through the mechanical control of life. The purely mechanical ideal hardly applies to social relations; the mere complexity of the phenomena introduces categories that the physicochemical formulation leaves out. Secondly, if a scientific ideal is to be workable in the sphere of human relations it must follow the biological approach rather than the traditional analysis of mechanical physics. Thirdly, whatever be the beneficent changes measurement and control may make in human relations, something there is that eludes such controls.

The prerequisites of human happiness and misery can be furthered, the causes of human misery can be reduced, by the arrangement of the mechanical conditions of life. The spiritual life is helped, not hindered, by physical health, and sanitation is no enemy of the sublime. It is true, moreover, that we are still infants in arms in applying the methods of disciplined inquiry to the human factors in our environment. In the sphere of politics, we are still the victims of our passions and prejudices. But physical objects do not have passions and prejudices, and the presence of these in human beings must affect our understanding of how to deal with the latter.

We have already more than the beginnings of social science and psychological therapeutics. We see the evidence of their values in progressive schools, in municipal planning, and in psychiatric clinics. But not even the most sanguine in those fields believe that understanding in the mechanical sense is enough or that mere technical understanding is adequate. It is doubtful whether the most expert control will transform human nature or the world in which it lives so that those sources of happiness and misery familiar from the Book of Job, from Buddha, from Ecclesiastes down will be altogether reduced and removed. Men are more expert in inventing poison gas than in creating the conditions of peace. In peace they are better at inventing new means of production and transportation and communication than they are at organizing the conditions of their joint happiness. They are better at planning the conditions of happiness than they ever could be at administering or certainly at insuring it. For while the grosser evils may be removed from a scientifically planned and governed society, the simpler and the subtler forms of happiness and unhappiness are not within the purview of organization. Heartaches are not disposable by a five-year plan, and death and an ultimate sense of futility are not confined to the unfortunates or the exploited in an economically disordered commonwealth.


The purely mechanical ideal, however, on which earlier scientific Utopias have been based, is itself vanishing from science and scientific method. The despair of esthetic or ascetic flight, of resigned contemplation, of mechanical remaking of society, have all been posited on a set of assumptions about the nature of science and scientific method which have of late come seriously into question. Many mystics and idealists have pointed to the breakdown of the reign of mechanism in science as a sign of the correlative breakdown of naturalism as a philosophy. Nothing could be further from the facts.

Naturalism is far from being dependent on the picture, almost as mythical as the theological one, of the billiard-ball physics of the nineteenth century. Naturalism is simply a faith in the unity of nature or substance, of which all life is a derivation, upon which all action is posited, and within which the structure of mechanism is seen to be simply a systematized technique of practice and of economical understanding. It is faith in causality, not in any alleged nexus of necessary causes, but in the repeatedly verified experience that facts have consequences. The structure of mechanism is something developed in the course of experimental inquiry and the development of ideas through disciplined deductive thinking. It is an order of hypothesis, suggested by observed facts, verified in the facts again at the end of experiment and deductive elaboration.

The naturalist in philosophy does not assert that the relations of facts and consequences established in experimental inquiry are “reality.” He does not deny or affirm the “necessity” of causal relations. He simply assumes, inferring from common experience, from the problems there found and the methods there used for solution, that nature is for practical purposes one homogeneous system. He assumes that the mechanisms disclosed or assumed in inquiry and in practice are efficacious in dealing with those problems which experience generates and those securities and enjoyments which nature thus understood may support and make possible. He assumes that it is not necessary to go beyond the discernible order of relations and objects; that these constitute one system, not of reality but of practice and of understanding. He assumes his body, other bodies, other minds, a structure he calls mechanism and a technique of thinking he calls hypothesis, demonstration and verification. He makes no metaphysical generalizations or judgments. If the world of efficacious operations is a dream, it is a fantasy curiously steady and rewarding. If it is a madness it is, as Santayana calls it, a “normal madness,” and can be normally treated as a waking as well as a working hypothesis.

All that the naturalist means by science is a habit of mind which has proved effective in common practice, and may prove unprecedentedly fruitful in the future, the habit of experimental inquiry. All that he means by nature is that which in experience he finds: a dynamic substance manifesting itself in action in a thousand forms which he constantly recognizes. It is the life coursing within him and in others, it is the complex of materials he must and can deal with; it is the source of his problems and the field of their possible solution; it is the theater of his enjoyments, the impulsion out of which arise his dreams, his ideals and his arts.

Reason consists in a disciplined acquaintance with the habits, the growths, the forms in which this dynamic substance appears, the cycles and recurrences of ways in which it manifests itself. Reason is not a dialectic man willfully imposes upon nature; it is his name for a sober and studious technique of reading those habits of substance, of modifying them where they are susceptible of modification, and of harmonizing his own impulses, themselves “habits” of nature, in accordance with them.

The life of reason is simply life understanding its own conditions. The way of so doing is the habit of imagination in man which, become critical and circumspect, relies on observation, on clear explication of intent, on empirical verification. Dialectic, in terms of the human animal who uses it, is simply a clarification in theoretical comprehension of what is observed and desired. The error of dialecticians lies not in following the cogency of their own thinking. Their error lies in beginning in the middle; in making assumptions without first inquiring into their relevancy to the facts, and stopping before the end without finding out what reference the conclusions arrived at dialectically have to the facts open to honest observation and critical verification.


The naturalistic faith as above described is not so much a conception as the expression of a faith that animates most human practice and must always to some degree have animated it, or human life would long ago have come to an end. Whatever they say theoretically, men do recognize a something not themselves with which they must reckon. They do in action acknowledge that in some way their own nature is a phase of that larger nature which generates all the processes of things with which they must deal. They do recognize objects, whatever metaphysical status or dubiousness be attached to those objects in philosophical theory. They do discern other minds, through gestures and expressions and actions, whatever miracle of divination be supposed to be necessary to guess or to be sure that other mlnds exist.

Men act with respect to a future which they cannot do more than assume and a past which they cannot do more than remember. On the basis of their memories and hopes and anticipations, of their pleasures and pains, they credit themselves with being selves. They may bring all the canny ingenuity of a David Hume to prove that there is no necessity in causal relations; fire must not burn nor poison kill, but it has repeatedly in the history of the race been found well to act as if they did. For men have discovered that, whatever the books of the metaphysician say, given things behave in given ways. Men act as if, given the same conditions, the same consequences would occur. Scientific procedure is simply an elaborate technique, developed out of the natural guessing of men, for studying the uniformities of things, the practical universality of cause and effect. This order men call the order of nature, and the following of it as studiously and honestly as possible may be called nature understood.

Men have also felt nature so understood to be one, and man one with nature. The most airy theory of the soul has not quite blinded even those who held it to the obvious ways in which the soul or the “psyche” is the sum total, the entelechy, the summary expression of the body’s activities. The soul bears the same relation to the body that the flame does to the candle, that seeing does to the eye. The violent despair that arose in the nineteenth century, therefore, as to the conflict between man and nature seems an invented sadness based on artificial dividing of what is in fact unified.

The same substance that flowers into corn or into roses blossoms into man, and in him into imagination, thinking, feeling and thought. The same vitality that generates mastodons, breeds poets and poetry. The symphonies of Beethoven are just as natural as flowers or snakes. The picture of man over against nature is a contradiction in terms. Man is one of the forms and habits of nature. The notion that man’s highest ideals are somehow pathetic oppositions to nature neglects the important fact that those ideals are themselves generated in the imagination and mind of a creature to whom thinking and imagination are themselves natural. And if one means that there is nothing in any other part or phase of nature that exhibits such ideals or gives them sustenance, even here one must pause before so declaring. For gregariousness and sympathy are present in the animal kingdom and the highest vision of a just society has its roots partly in these traits. Nor would it follow, if man alone generated such values as we call specifically human, that nature is their enemy or that nature gives them no support. The impulses that sustain these values and the materials which make it possible for some of them to come to fruition are in exactly the same world; man’s preferences and standards originate where everything else does, in the universal, fertile flux of natural processes.


There have been idealistic metaphysicians and even mystics ready to grant the adequacy for practical purposes of the belief in nature as marked by regularities and potentialities. It has been readily granted that pragmatically men can in such wise think auspiciously and affect through intelligence, itself a form of nature, all other forms of it. But idealists insist that in the realm of goods and values, naturalism is a blind alley or worse, reducing all human aspirations and standards to anarchy, confusion and nothingness. The chief reason assigned for such an allegation is that nothing can have any value save in terms of a standard beyond itself. From this point of view, it is said, naturalism may lay claims to be anything but a moral philosophy. The indictment is serious.

One of the reasons that thinkers deeply concerned with “morality” look askance at a naturalistic point of view is that nearly everything that the classical tradition has identified with morals has supernatural sources. Morality has been a pendant to religion, and religion has in its metaphysical basis been transcendental and otherworldly. Morality has connoted obligation, and the imperious demands of obligation display a quality that seems hardly explicable by an analysis of physical origin or social pressure. The voice of duty has seemed too stern to be anything other or less than the voice of God. Secondly, morality has involved judgment, and to declare anything good seems to involve a standard of goodness, which standard of goodness must in turn be referred to another standard, until some absolute good or principle of goodness is reached, which gives meaning and coherence to all the rest.

The choice seems to be between an absolute standard of goodness, and anarchy or nihilism, where anybody’s good (or evil) is as good as anybody else’s. Good on any lesser certification means simply a convention that a change of conventions would render evil. Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic states the case when he brusquely insists that, say what noble or disingenuous nonsense one will, justice is simply the right of the stronger. Nietzsche made the same point when he said that Christian morality was the morality that the strong made to prevail among the weak.

Those who take their morals seriously feel that on a purely naturalistic basis morals become simply frivolous or worse. Very early in the European tradition it was considered accurate enough to speak of the Epicurean moral ideal as the Epicurean sty. For it is easy to dismiss a naturalistic morality as not only trivial but as nasty and brutish as, on a mechanical assumption, life is short. What else than sensual excitement can those hold as good who claim that the soul is merely the function of the body, perception and thought a chemistry of the nerves and brain? What indeed do they mean by goodness at all who have no standard by which anything alleged to be good can be finally and fundamentally measured? The quarrel is an extremely grave one. It raises the fundamental issue as to whether, unless there is such a thing as value woven into the very texture of the universe, there can be such a thing as good or value at all. The naturalist in philosophy says that there can be, and we must examine why.

The good, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, must be the good for some creature; a value must be valuable to somebody. The good that moralists speak of is obviously the good for man, and unless one is merely making a solemn hypocritical face about it (or unless one has a theological ax to grind) the good is generally acknowledged to consist in human happiness. When the promise of a future life is to say the least problematic, happiness in this world is clearly meant. But to understand what happiness for man consists in, one must examine realistically the capacities human beings have, the desires they exhibit, and the conditions of their possible satisfaction. Happiness would, at least at first blush, seem to consist in the fulfillment of desire and the exercise of capacity. That indeed is where most human beings would place it; not in the fulfillment of one desire or capacity, but in the harmonious satisfaction of them all, in so far as that is possible.

Happiness has, however, been an ideal of which even unsophisticated people have been suspicious or afraid. Even when in their hearts they knew that was what they wanted, some relic of superstition, some unconscious fear of a jealousy of the gods, some inherited dread of what the Greeks called Nemesis, has made them distrust happiness when they thought they had it, or find it empty when it came, or not enough, or not secure enough, or not morally respectable. One of the causes for the disdain moralists and others have had for happiness has lain in the identification of it with momentary pleasures, especially those of the senses. These are notoriously evanescent, frequently disastrous in their consequences or productive of revulsion as their aftermath.

Yet in any honest inventory of the elements of happiness one must begin with the satisfaction of sensuous impulses, in which the most subtle refinements of esthetic insight and spiritual exaltation have their roots. That sensuous fulfillments are natural ingredients of happiness is patent in the fact that impulses whose satisfaction is pleasant are themselves natural developments in the human economy and that nature is filled with objects which satisfy these impulses. Hunger, food and the possibility of digestion are all phases and fulfillments of nature; so are sex desires and the physiological conditions by which these may be fulfilled. The sour moralist may still look down on physical pleasures as merely sensuous, but he fails to realize, in so doing, as modern psychologists do not fail to remind him, that these sensuous satisfactions enter into the most exquisite and “creditable” of impulses. The most spiritual music is heard with ears as carnal as those that listen to obscenities; and even the mystic rapture has qualities of warmth and intensity that it borrows from the sexual organization subtly stirred. The danger of sensuous pleasures is that they may become obsessions rather than fulfillments, that they may narrow sensibility and capacity or entirely disorganize a life.

From its own point of view, each impulse is an autocrat and absolutist, utterly innocent; to itself it needs no justification; it is what it is, and seeks what it loves. As well might one criticize a fish for being at home in water, or condemn birds because they fly. He ignores the very constitution of happiness, the elements of which it is composed, who leaves out the impulses which enter into it. He fails to note that the quality of a happiness the most complex in its conditions is like that of the simplest pleasure: a sense of joy and a sense of power. If the life of a human being were as simple as that of an insect buzzing in the sun, his happiness itself might be— what the feeling tone of the most complicated felicity indeed is—simple well-being. If a knife cutting well could be conscious of its cutting, in that sharp clean incision its happiness would both be and be felt.

The only reason desires require the discipline of reason is that human life endures longer than the life of an insect, that the organization of living is more complex than that of a knife cutting. Though desires and capacities are each what they are, they function in relation to each other. One desire run wild will narrow, distort or frustrate others, or destroy life itself, or interfere with the desires of others, or altogether destroy their lives. An orgy may mean disease or pain or regret tomorrow, or no tomorrow at all. A series of orgies may blunt the very senses they are intended intensely to satisfy, or blunt all other capacities or desires or their possible satisfaction. It may limit the range of happiness, or dull the elements of which it is composed, or kill the individual whose happiness is involved. It may also interfere with other men or be at their expense. A man may celebrate the glory of the grape, but a drunken driver is a public menace.

The impulses of an individual are in themselves a little society whose differences and conflicts must be adjusted. Among these impulses are the gregarious ones which along with sheer physical necessity compel people to live together, and lead them to seek and to enjoy a shared life. The social desires and capacities of men are no less natural and urgent than the physical ones, and the conflict of impulses among men living together demands adjustment. Discipline is rendered essential in the interests of that internal society which is the complex of impulses in the individual as a whole, and of that society which consists of men living together.
The religious traditions of the past have not preached renunciation for nothing, nor could the gospel of renunciation have elicited so wide and deep a note of response among millions if the morality of renunciation did not itself have a natural basis. To live at all some negation is necessary; even the simplest act of attention is a form, the psychologists assure us, of inhibition, of inattention to irrelevant objects and distracting desires. The facts of physical, physiological and social necessity compel a modicum of control. If one is to have anything one cannot have everything; one cannot, in any case, have everything at once. Children learn this early and bitterly, and parents try to teach them these things soon, and thus spare them later bitterness.

Morality has always had about it as a matter of fact a parental quality, the negative precepts of caution and prudence handed down in the form of injunctions from one generation to the next: the “wisdom” of age to the inexperience of youth. But these cautions and prohibitions have their justification (where they are justified and are not merely censoriousness or officiousness on the part of the old) in the interest of affirmation, of a life more abundant. One cannot have everything at once, and there are certain things which the conditions of life in a natural world make impossible altogether. Maturity consists in understanding what is possible to one’s own nature, given the nature of things.

One cannot live long or well if one is to act as if a moment were a life, as if one impulse were all impulses, as if one could or would wish to live alone, or as if the processes of nature were regulated in the interest of satisfying the human longing for endless ecstasy in an unflecked Heaven. The confederacy of impulses in an individual, the involvements of men with each other, the mixture of potential goods and evils, of things enjoyable and things destructive in nature, the facts of accident, disease and death, all these mark out the need and define the sphere of moral reflection and moral obligation. Maturity consists in trying to discover the conditions by which men may make the most of what is given. As John Erskine once put it, there is “a moral obligation to be intelligent”; that obligation is imposed not by a capricious god, or spoken by an imperious (though vague) inner voice; it is simply the voice of nature reproduced accurately in the words of wise men. The obligation may be disregarded, and the price must then, in consequences, be paid.

It is not necessary to deny to life more than life and nature themselves make it necessary to deny. More renunciation than is necessary is sheer sadism or sentimentalism. These principles were early discerned among the ancients, whose conception of morality was far from being that of a “sty.” For to Epicurus himself, as reflected in his Golden Sayings, or the version of him given by Lucretius, the good life, was a decent, tempered benefiting by the goods that nature provided: the pleasures of the senses, the genial and tolerant companionship of friends, the contemplation of that nature which itself made these simple pleasures possible and in its endless cycles brought birth and death, growth and decay, grief and joy. There have been modern Epicureans, like Walter Pater, who have made a cult of the exquisite moment in a fleeting life; preached, in a vanishing world, the cult of pleasures both fastidious and intense; formulated the secular religion of esthetic rapture.

There are probably few who will deny that the simple goods of life are what they are, that these constitute the fulfillment of honestly acknowledged human desires. There are few likewise who will be prepared to deny that a good in excess may become an evil. Food is a good, but gorging is an evil; sexual enjoyment is a good, but nymphomania is a disease. Impulses, themselves innocent enough in the tempered context of a life, turn into evils when they make men their slaves.

Spinoza believed that understanding would free men from the “bondage” of passions, tense, narrow and destructive, which destroyed their powers and prevented life-giving union, wide and deep, with the movement of nature itself. Such a union was for him the greatest of passions, the amor dei intellectualis, but this passion alone gave at once power and peace. Modern psychiatrists who try to teach us to know ourselves honestly and live in consonance with reality are, in other terms, speaking Spinoza’s doctrine. They are teaching joy through the power and peace which come through understanding.

The failure of Epicureanism, ancient or modern, lies not in the elements of happiness it notes, but in its analysis of their operation. A realistic theory of the good tries to find a framework in the natural processes of which life is one. It can hardly neglect the pleasures of the senses, of love and friendship, of the arts and, for those capable of it, of thought— the most exigent and the most rewarding of the arts, both in the power and the vistas it gives. But the conception of life as the passive reception of pleasures seems fantastic to those who have come to realize that man is an animal, and life a natural process. Pleasures are not things but phases of activity, the echoes of good functioning in good feeling.

Happiness is the name for that architectonic good feeling present when the whole of a man, not simply one capacity or impulse, is functioning well. The moral ideal of the naturalist may be fitly compared to that of an orchestra which might wish to sound well not in one choir or section, or even in its virtuoso first violin, but to sound well entire, to function well as an orchestra. The soul of an orchestra is not something that enters into it from the outside, like a brownie in a fairy tale. Its soul and spirit are what it does, the functioning of all the instruments in it. If that complex had awareness as the human organism does, that awareness of playing well would be its happiness. Happiness is, as Aristotle insisted, a living and a doing well; it is the functioning of a whole life, not one aspect of it; it is the realization of a human nature, complex, various and whole.

The critic of this-worldly moralities is quite shrewd in pointing out that a series of incidental and casual pleasures is not happiness. The lives of the economically free, the bored rich, may be cited in illustration. They have been so cited repeatedly. Night clubs and pleasure resorts, even the atomic life of those connoisseurs of the arts who have no other continuity of habit or career, may be adduced. But the lives of saints and philosophers dedicated to a single impulse, that of devotion or contemplation, may be found wanting also. Monotony is as great an enemy of the good as incoherence. The good life can, no more than good music, be simply notes struck at random, or one note, however clear and pure, fanatically sustained. There must be some clear residiuum of good beneath the “incidental glitter of pleasure and success.” Otherwise all seems or in the long run comes to seem futile. Where, it is asked of those who seek to define happiness in terms of the goods of this world and the fulfillments of this life, is that clear residuum? What has the naturalist to offer as the final good?


There are two reasons why this final good is insisted upon. The first is psychological: life seems trivial and scattered if it does not somehow cohere, gather itself together, lead to something. The sudden or gradual emptiness which comes to many lives, even the most gay or successful, the sense that one is merely making the wheels go around, or marking time or killing it, is a phenomenon familiar and depressing. It is the theme of countless poets, brooding on the vanity both of human wishes and of their gratification. It comes both to those who have nothing particular to do and to those who have been doing one thing or a miscellany of things too long. But there is or is held to be a logical ground for seeking a final good. It is that unless such a final good can be found, no other lesser goods can be shown to be good at all. They may be pleasant, like the delights of the senses, but unless they can be proved to be good, there is no sense in them.

Otherworldly philosophies have had resources, at least of words, for finding such a final good: the vision of God, the fulfillment of duty, service to others, or even complete escape into Nirvana. (If all is dust and disillusion, at least escape from illusion into nothingness may be argued to be a good.) Buddhism makes quietus the end and the aim of all striving. Christianity places it in salvation, a world beyond death to which those who have lived righteously will come. Kant placed the final good in the fulfillment, at least in eternity, of the categorical imperative, that duty which in the world of phenomena could never be completely fulfilled. The utilitarians placed it in working for the greatest happiness for the greatest number; the communist today in working for the Revolution.

The conception of such a final good has twin values for those who have it. The privation of lesser goods is compensated for by the sense of a final good toward which one’s life moves. “There may be weeping in the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Secondly, lesser goods may be enjoyed with conscientiousness because they can be “justified” as steps to a final good, as one might demonstrate that an enjoyable swim was good because it built up one’s physique, and building up one’s physique made one a better “athlete of God,”or fitter for the next righteous war or for the class struggle.

But there may very well be an error in that conception of final good upon which all these philosophies of the purpose of the universe and meaning of life are posited. The very emphasis on man as one of the living movements among the living movements of nature may be a reminder of this error. That reminder may serve to redefine the nature of goods, intrinsic, instrumental and final.

There are obviously goods in themselves, intrinsic, self-justifying. In experiencing them one does not ask, as did the legendary French mathematician at the conclusion of a tragedy, Qu’est-ce que cela prouve? Music itself delightful, food itself delicious, sexual relations themselves enjoyable—the proof of these things lies in themselves, or rather they do not provoke questions or proofs.

There are, further, instrumental goods: the fork which is used to eat with; the food which is eaten for nourishment; the bridge to cross a river; the road to arrive at a destination; the piano to play on. Generally in our experience these things are both instrumental and final. The fork may be a thing of formal beauty and of lustrous silver, pleasant to the eye of the beholder, the piano may be handsome as a piece of furniture, the bridge a monument of grace and strength, the road a landscape. Food nourishes as well as tastes good; music may be used to promote strength or courage or solidarity; sexual intercourse produces children as well as rapture.

But final good as the traditional moralist conceives it is another story. It means one final, one ultimate justification; one climactic purpose which gives all subsidiary purposes and immediate, intrinsic enjoyments meaning and significance. There is a purpose toward which all life is a preparation, a far-off, divine event or fulfillment toward which not only life but the whole of creation moves.

It is highly questionable on the basis of observation that there is such a final cause toward which nature is of itself or by fiat moving. Such a final good in life may be seized upon by a fanatic, but only by excluding other goods which life itself generates, suggests and sustains. A man may achieve one end in his career, but often at the cost of having prevented other equally real possibilities in him from coming to fruition. “The philosopher and the lady-killer,” William James remarks somewhere in his Psychology, “cannot keep house in the same tenement of clay.” But they are both its legitimate tenants. Nature itself seems to be a plurality of developments. Acorns grow into oaks, boys into men, tadpoles into frogs; crude surveying into engineering, grunts into speech, speech into poetry and logic. It is only by deliberate abstraction of one process of nature and deification of the fulfillment toward which that moves, that nature can be said to be moving toward a single end.

The plural ends of nature are furthermore not prescribed in advance. They are flowerings, not a priori specifications; they are potentialities of which (through an understanding of uniformities and sequences of causes and effects) some may be furthered, some diverted or modified. The intellectual tool of mechanism makes it possible for men to choose which ends, of all those potential in nature, shall be realized, and to find the instrumentalities for their realization. Even the species of animals, once regarded as eternal forms, are seen to be changing types, merging into one another, deriving from one another, and even modifiable by man, as the practice of breeding and crossbreeding alone would prove.

What holds true of natural processes holds equally true of that human nature which is nature in one of its most complex forms, a form which through intelligence may immensely transform all the other processes going on in nature, and itself as well. The good life, too, is not a prescription but a process and a stream of constantly expanding possibilities. The ends of life are as various as those lives themselves. A single end or purpose to life is found, like the finding of a single end in nature, only by a deliberate abstraction, a fanatic exclusion of all other tendencies, natural or acquired, going on in the life of a given human being. Not only are there many ends or potentialities in an individual, but these ends change with the process of living.

The values of youth and age are notoriously different, and education and experience broaden, while they help to clarify, the ends pursued, the goods found and the goods cherished. Morally speaking, there is not only more in Heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy, but unless Horatio is an unlearning fool, there daily will be more in his philosophy. The Horatios as well as the Hamlets of this world learn by bitter—and by sweet—experience. There are heroic instances of dedication to a single end, that of the saint or the reformer or the artist.

But even one narrow intense purpose undergoes modification; the reformer becomes an administrator, and sees revised ends and other means; the artist modifies his plan in its developing incarnation. For the run of men, the ends of life are as pluralistic as the capacities and impulses they possess, as the variety of nature, and those aspects of nature which they identify as society and themselves. The only general end that can be indicated when no single end or fixed group of ends is laid down in advance is the fulfillment of desires and capacities: realization. The only general criterion with respect to the fulfillment of any capacity or desire is the principle that there should be, as far as may be, a harmonious fulfillment of them all.


To say that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good, seems to a good many reflective men and sober moralists to rob life of any and of all significance of ideality. To be idealistic, from the standpoint of traditional moralists, is to obey a prescription laid up from and for eternity; it is to conform to a set of values issuing from some supernal realm, emanating as commands from a governor or creator of the universe. Conduct is to be regulated by a demand for “coming up” to certain eternal a priori standards. Save for these standards, we are asked to believe, all standards become nonsensical and all ideals Pickwickian.

The empirical observation of the formation of standards of conduct and of human ideals in general belies the traditional conception. For standards turn out to be the intellectualized forms of preferences. Values are the formulation of desires. The traditional moral codes found or alleged to find standards and values in some transcendental world beyond appearance, and imposed them upon human beings, living and inextricably involved in the flux of things. It generally turns out upon examination that these eternal values, or the highest good, are simply the current social and economic prepossessions of an influential class, local cliches, written, as it were, across the sky.

The highest good has a strange way of changing from generation to generation. The voice of duty speaks differently to Savonarola, to Cromwell, to Calvin, to Kant and to the contemporary communist or fascist. It speaks differently to different men in the same society, exposed to the different mores of different groups. It was in the interest of the highest good, and on the grounds of conscience clearly and immitigably speaking, that during the World War one man served in prison as a conscientious objector and another went to die on the battlefields of France. Such works as Westermarck’s Morals in Evolution, or Lecky’s History of European Morals, or Trotter’s The Herd Instinct in Peace and War seem to rob standards and ideals of any credible status as unvarying dictates from an eternal world.

Standards of conduct are always human, all too human ideals. They are the expression of the conditions under which human nature operates, the desires and capacities which at a given time under given physical and social circumstances, come to expression. The physical conditions are themselves modifiable by intelligence. The process of education and propaganda proves that the social desires and capacities of men are likewise immensely susceptible of control.
One does not need a certificate from another world to justify an ideal in this one. The ideal itself is human and natural and the grounds of its certification are human and natural, too. Ideals have in the past been obligations supposedly coming from some transcendent realm, or they have been dreams of happiness in another world to which men have fled from the conflicts and uncertainties generated by the contingencies of this one.

To say that an ideal is the expression of human preferences is not to take away its essentially moral character. An ideal is a hypothesis for action, and it may be and must be tested there as are all hypotheses. Some ideals on examination narrow the field of human possibility; some appear to liberate and further it. Some seem to have nothing to do with human nature at all but to be books of etiquette for gods, or the delusive breviaries of neurotics. The ideal of harmony is in the sphere of morals what the ideal of health is in physical life; the ideal of realization is the moral equivalent of growth in a biological sense. The morality of man conceived as of and in nature is indeed precisely the ideal of health and growth. Thus harmony itself is seen not to be an end once for all arrived at, the static composure of a petrified angel in a paralyzed Heaven, but the moving equilibrium of a human being living adventurously and alertly in a changing world. That moving equilibrium is a continuous achievement; it is achieved through the discovery of constancies among changes, uniformities that men use to direct the course of change itself.

Moral idealism considered in some such terms as these is simply the sober envisaging of the discoverable possibilities of nature. Shocking though it may sound to say so, it is profoundly more serious than the traditional statements of moral idealism. For these define morals in terms of a conformity to prescriptions divinely or eternally ordained. This on several assignable counts is nothing less than pernicious. It tends to force life (or try to force it) into a pattern which life, by the mere fact of its changing course and conditions, continues to break through. It sets bounds derived from the past to determine the course of the always novel future. If standards are imposed from outside the actual movements and forces of life and society, the moral ideal is simply that of a lesson learned by unwilling rote, a set of exercises imitated from an outmoded codebook. As well teach a composer to be original by a book of rules or acquire happiness by following a manual of arms. Moreover, any fixed set of standards can never actually be imposed. If it too far outrages natural tendencies it is evaded by secret violation, honored in the breach, or in the letter only. Or, a Jesuitical distinction is drawn when the standards supposed to be sacrosanct and eternal in the universe (however admirable to human aspiration and sentiment) are impossible of fulfillment.

Ideals, it is said, can never be realized in this world, but there is a world of eternity in which they are constantly actualized. Ideals become the escape mechanism of those with neither the courage to seek ways of bringing ideals to fulfillment in the lives of men, nor the candor to realize that some alleged goals have no more to do with men in action and living together than swimming has relevance to birds. Moral idealism (in the past frequently though not always associated with metaphysical idealisms) has been a set of ordinances or a set of dreams.

From the point of view of man understood in terms of his place in nature, it has both a more modest and a more promising function. Ideals are projections of what the human creature sees in imagination (the latter itself a process in nature) of what may be made of things as at any given junction of events they are. Nature’s movements are man’s resources. The conditions found in nature prompt man to improve them. Nature provides him both with opportunities for enjoyment (and destruction) and challenges him to choose among nature’s uniformities for the furtherance of the goods he forecasts. Professor Sterling P. Lamprecht of Amherst College has put the matter summarily:
The plural potentialities of nature are the significant basis of human choice. It is insufficient to argue because things are as they are, they will be as they will be. Rather because things are as they are, an agent who imaginatively forecasts the diverse potentialities of things may choose freely within given limits.

Morality thus conceived is inquiring and exploratory. It realizes that the good life is many kinds of lives. There is an almost infinite diversity and variety of goods to be enjoyed, of activities to be participated in. But it is necessary to find the means for producing those goods for man (bread does not grow on trees or clothes on bushes), and in the inquiry into the means for producing certain goods, other goods occur to man as desirable and possible. Refinements of technique develop variety in goods, and new means generate new ends. Capacities and desires are present in man, but arrangements must be devised for liberating and releasing them. One cannot create poets at will, but one can devise conditions for nourishing their bodies and imaginations. In the very inquiry into the rearrangement of the conditions of social life, new goals and ends will emerge.


The idealistic metaphysicians have had a great disdain for nature which, as “mere” experience discloses it, is declared to lack and indeed to be inimical to ideals. But idealism is used by such critics in a quite ambiguous sense. Even the honorific terms used about “Reality” by idealists come to have a hollow sound, almost as much as the abuses heaped upon nature for being what it is. There is nothing bleak or alien about nature per se. The drab picture of the meaning for man of the mechanical aspect of nature is a piece of fancywork. In the first place, nature is something more than mechanism. Mechanism is only one aspect of nature, one which has been immensely useful to man in his realization of his ends, and which is itself in its order and stability a not unpleasant intellectual landscape.

But the so-called spiritual and moral interests and even the religious interests of man are quite as much a part and product of nature as are the brutalities of the animal kingdom or the brutalities and stupidities of men. It is only by abstractly calling the whole of nature mechanical (because the mechanical aspect is of such immense practical importance and intellectual delight) that it is possible to deny ideality to it, and insist that all its ideal aspects are somehow happy intrusions from a world beyond nature, a supernatural realm of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
These last named, the stock in trade of the traditional moralist and metaphysician, also have their roots in nature and men’s operations and aspirations in it. Truth is a canon developed by men thinking in a world where thinking is as much a fact as breathing, and where the conditions of thinking are equally present with the conditions of breathing and digestion. Goodness is the name men have summarily given to things and modes of living and persons they cherish and enjoy. Beauty is the summary name men have given to those forms, produced by themselves or occasionally found as the happy and incidental byproducts of natural processes, which satisfy their senses and their hearts and their intellectual love of symmetry and order.

It is nature in its fertile sweep and movement—not any system of physics—that generates men who, within the limits of their understanding, turn nature itself to ideal uses. They love truth, “an intense and an unclouded vision,” following with fearlessness what they find; they love goods, the perfections which experience suggests to imagination and which imagination tamed may find the ways of realizing in existence; they love beauties made by them out of natural materials or which, found by them fortuitously and felicitously present in nature, humble or exalt them. Truth, Goodness and Beauty are not visitations or glints from an empyrean, though men enraptured have called them so. They are fruits of this world, roses among its thorns, goods among its evils, occasional triumphs among its disappointments, triumphs that prompt love and provoke celebration.

Once it is possible to find a logical and moral citizenship for the things men cherish in the nature in which they live, one disposes of the indictment that nature, conceived in its own terms, is brutal and sordid in comparison with those versions of a spiritual order given by traditional theology and metaphysics. The idealist and theist point to those aspects of life and mind, of purpose and value, which are not exhaustively definable, or distinctively definable in terms of mechanical structures. The truth of a proposition is something other than neural changes in the brain of a logician assenting to it or proving it; nor is it these by which the latter is convinced. The beauty of the rose is something other and something more, esthetically, than the physical properties of it.

The urgent quality of a thing or a person loved is not defined by what the psychologist can say about them. The traditional theologian and metaphysician, therefore, insist that these goods, truths, beauties are the evidences in this world of a transcendent realm of value which alone is really real. The arguments for this position have been surveyed in the chapter on “Philosophy as Logical Faith,” which is also philosophy as moral faith. For it is faith that the universe is in its essence and substance through and through rational and good, which nature as we experience it clearly cannot be said to be. The latter is full of surds, opaqueness, obduracy. It is recalcitrant at crucial points to intelligence and destructive or fatal to specific hopes. It is shot through with potential evils as well as goods. Birth portends death as well as life. Weeds grow as well as flowers.


Traditional theology provides human beings, harassed and wearied by evils, with the version of a universe which makes these evils, at least in words, only transient or illusory or the consequence of imperfect understanding. The long hold religion has had on the imaginations and over the conduct of men shows that in this picture of a cosmos compact of good and truth and beauty, men have sought and have found surcease and joy.

The naturalist in philosophy admits, and even claims, some religious impulse in man. The super-naturalist insists that this impulse which nature generates cannot be satisfied by nature save as seen in a supernatural context. To which the naturalist retorts that nature generates some impulses, possibly, which cannot be satisfied, as a man may be hungry without proving thereby that food is in his neighborhood or his reach.

Many of those committed to an explanation and an understanding of the world in terms that do not go beyond nature, have tried to explain away the religious impulse. Fear, said Lucretius, created the gods, and with understanding of the regularities of natural processes, he and other materialists since his day have hoped that fear would disappear, along with the mythical gods projected by it.

But the religious tradition and the religious passions of men are too enduring, the longings which have found their expression in religion are too recurrent to be attributed to a single impulse, fear or need or a sense of the unseen or any other impulse or feeling. One can at any rate tell something about those longings commonly called religious by the pictures of the cosmos that have arisen in response to them. The nature of religious aspiration is at least partly defined by the objects which it has imaginatively generated. The pictures of Heaven and the stories of the gods tell more about the psychology of religion than the psychologists of religion do.

If we examine the religious traditions we find that in one form or another, in their general philosophical statements, they are presentations or attempted proofs of a world of complete harmony and realization, “where falls not rain nor hail nor any snow,” precisely the kind of world of which there are hints in nature, which life occasionally achieves or hits upon, but which is never completely or clearly exemplified there. From partial cases of good and happiness men imagine a Heaven which is compacted of these.

The theologian tells us with elaborate demonstration or dogmatic faith that such a world does exist. The naturalist tells us that it does not, and that when with adult eyes we become accustomed to see daylight we shall not miss the night of myth, the Heaven that appears as a dream, and the gods created by desire.

But naturalists are often as dogmatic in asserting that religious longings will disappear with understanding, as the theologians are in telling us that in some world beyond the stars those longings are fulfilled. They suppose that all that there is to religion is the theory of the universe that has been associated with it, as if it were not patent that those theories themselves arose in response to human need and as an expression of human aspiration and human feeling. The truths which religion expresses (rather than the reality to which it points) may be quite independent of the literal acceptance of the theology or logic used to buttress them.

The religious traditions have formulated certain aspects of man’s relation to nature which naturalists themselves do ill to forget or ignore. There have been many attempts to analyze the human impulses that go into man’s enduring religious temper. We may waive the question of psychological origins, since the value of anything may far transcend its origin, as Shakespeare’s sonnets are more than the ink with which and the paper on which they are written.

It is well to examine the moral function of religious aspirations for a philosophy that insists on not going beyond that nature of which this philosophy itself aims merely to be an attempt at comprehension. However complex the religious temper, it is among other things a longing for spiritual peace. Religion indeed may be defined as the peace a man makes with the ultimate. Even those seek such a peace who pride themselves on their candid recognition that they are biological animals living in a world of change, of movement tending, from the human point of view, to both good and evil. Even these will need to formulate some religion. For them the ultimate, however, is here and now, in the world that experience discloses, and not in some veiled Heaven beyond experience, and a reflective mind and sensitive spirit will need to come to terms with it.

A man does not love less because he has studied glandular secretions; any more than he breathes less because he has studied air conditioning and the respiratory system, nor digest less because he has made a specialty of enzymes. He will not feel any the less the need for making his ultimate peace with the world because he cannot in honesty move beyond the circle of objects and events, of process and fruitions, which his experience reveals. Men seek peace even though they no longer hope to find it in a shining cosmos of Truth, Goodness and Being or God which may be proved, in the face of disillusion and suffering, really and truly to be.

Peace with the ultimate we have defined as man’s religion. But the ultimate has two poles, when nature and human nature are conceived as phases of the same process. There must be peace with our origins, through honest recognition of them, and peace with our ends through clarifying what they are. One way to peace with nature is that of such mystical lovers of Nature Absolute as Giordano Bruno. That poet-philosopher of early modern naturalism found peace, as pantheistic poets have found it since his time, by a mystical identification with the vast vital movement of the life of things.

Similarly Lucretius suggests such a delighted swimming in the stream of nature itself, when he begins with an invocation to Venus, the principle of growth and creation in nature. The spectacle of birth and death, the variety and marvelous inventiveness of nature, the infinite forms which substance assumes, might well give a man both exaltation and rest. He might come as Spinoza did to find his content in marching intellectually with the march of things, and find even death and destruction, intellectually comprehended, part of the divinity with which through intellectual passion he felt himself one. Bruno emphasized the creativity of nature and found beatitude. Spinoza emphasized its necessity and found in the acknowledgment of it the avenue to resignation. Certainly all that is or may be is from nature, the universal mother. It is man’s source, his nourishment, his material, his reliance. It defines and sets the limits of his power. Man is umbilical to earth, says Aldous Huxley. He is umbilical to the whole movement of things. Such realization is the basis of the natural and cosmic pieties that even the most “irreligious” have felt.

But in the procedure of thinking and imagination, man thinks of goals not realized, ends not attained, imagines a world better than he has ever known and lavishes his love upon that world of his own imagings. The devotion to what men at their best may be, to what at their best they make of the world, constitutes a love that is nothing less than religious.

Man stands at the pinnacle of nature and looks beyond it to a world of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, not as a second shadow world, a super-nature, but as this world’s still unrealized, never completely to be realized, good. That vision of the best is itself a natural development, and so is the love of it which accompanies the vision:
Experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever as I move.