THE HOUSE OF CARDS
Metaphysics.—1. Direction to the Binder.—2. Hoax of Andronicus Rhodius.—3. The Magic Song.—4. Pure Reason and Practical Reason.—5. The Annex of the Universe.
IDEALISM, as defined by the dictionary, the Idealism of the schools, the Idealism that is spelt with a capital I, is a system of metaphysical philosophy. Those are the words with which Latham begins his explanation. And the issue that they raise is one that cannot be escaped. Did the Testator use the word idealist in the technical sense of the professors? Did he intend this Prize for systems of metaphysical philosophy?
Berkeleyism did not end with Berkeley. His doctrine, or his language, was taken up by greater men. It was the greatest of them, Kant, who really stamped the word Idealism with this sense, and gave it currency. Since his time the term has almost replaced the term metaphysical. Among modern metaphysicians, Idealism is your only wear.
I have already said that Nobel's bequest seems to me a challenge to this sort of idealism, that is to say, a challenge to the science or mystery of Metaphysics. Brought face to face with this word in
[paragraph continues] Doctor Latham's explanation of idealism, I felt I had no choice but to examine it.
I approached this famous word with not a little dread, arising partly from my want of skill in Mediterranean languages, and partly from a well-known incident in its recent history.
In the last century there was formed in London a private debating club under the name of the Metaphysical Society. Its members were some of the ablest men of their generation, Tennyson the poet, Gladstone the statesman, Spencer the philosopher, Manning the churchman, Huxley the scientist. These distinguished men met and talked together for ten years, and at the end of that time they broke up the society, because, as one of them said, they had not yet agreed on the meaning of the word metaphysics.
I was not rash enough to hope I could succeed where such distinguished men had failed, but I was happy in the knowledge that I had not so hard a task as theirs. They had sought for a definition of metaphysics; I wanted merely a working sense, a sense that would enable me to judge if a metaphysical work came within the meaning of the Testator.
The word was Greek, to all appearance, but, like
idealist, it turned out to be one of those Greek words which the Greeks themselves were never fortunate enough to know. In the lexicon I could find only its two pieces, meta and phusikos.
Phusikos did not seem a word hard to translate. Natural, native, begotten, born—such were the meanings offered me by the Greek lexicon. But meta, on the other hand, proved to have the most variable meanings of any word I have ever met. It meant almost everything from inside to outside. With nothing but the Greek words to help me I might have groped for ever for the meaning of metaphysics among words like supernatural and unnatural, afterbirth and unborn.
I do not know how far it is the case in other languages, but in English, words like physical, material, real, natural and sensible all ring well; they suggest the true and useful. Whereas words like immaterial, unreal, unnatural and senseless all ring badly; they suggest the false and foolish. The prejudice against the study of metaphysics in English-speaking countries attaches to the very name of the science, which is, as nearly as I could make out, in the vulgar tongue—nonsense.
I was obliged to go once more to Doctor Latham, this time with the most encouraging result. For after explaining the word as "ontology, or the science of the affections of being in general," and adding that the science in question was generally branded as an impossible one, he showed me that
metaphysics is one of the few words whose beginning is known.
I shall have written most of the foregoing pages in vain if there is any need for me to insist on the difference this made to me. That the word was a Babu formation would matter no more than it had mattered in the case of dynamite, as soon as I could come to the mixture.
I quote Doctor Latham's authority, a distinguished writer on metaphysics, named Mansel.
"The term metaphysics, though originally employed to designate a treatise of Aristotle, was probably unknown to the philosopher himself. On the whole the weight of evidence appears to be in favour of the supposition which attributes the inscription ta meta ta phusika to Andronicus Rhodius, the first editor of Aristotle's collected works."
Andronicus Rhodius, it appears, like Columbus, added a new continent to the realms of knowledge by accident.
"The title, as given to the writings on the first philosophy, probably indicates only their place in the collection as coming after the physical treatises of the author."
And thus we see the word came into being as a direction to the binder.—The question is whether it has ever become anything more?
Among the wonderful beliefs of those old heathen men who, guessing where we count and measure, prophesied of all the lore to come, is none more wonderful than that which shines through the magic song of the Finns, the belief in the creative power of the uttered word. What else is the story of Andrónikos of Rhodes? He uttered, all unwittingly, his wizard spell; and lo! Professors of Metaphysics in all the Roman universities of Europe and America.
What, then, is the mixture of which Aristotle's editor furnished only the name? What is it that the professors have been professing for two thousand years?
If I turn for an answer to this question to a popular work of reference, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I find that the official teachers of the science of Andronicus Rhodius have been no more able to agree among themselves than the members of the Metaphysical Society. The history of metaphysics is the history of the attempt to supply a mixture to fit the name. The enchanted squirrels have toiled in the sorcerer's cage. They have written whole learned libraries; the Mediterranean words have gone round and round in imposing procession; but the writers have not gained an inch.
Wherein lies the mesmeric power of these Babu words? It is sheer repetition. By dint of saying them over and over again we make ourselves believe in them. Repetition is the secret of all enchantment. We find it in the magic spells buried beneath the dust of Akkad. We meet it in the lullaby that puts the child to sleep.
The learned Latham can suggest no parent for the word lull. No doubt the monks forgot to latinise it;—it does not happen to be found in any Anglo-Saxon manuscript. Meanwhile it is a word whose roots go down into the deepest soil of speech. It is, of course, the Swedish lulla,—laulu, the Finland word for song. It is of kin to the word lay, also a song. It looks at us out of the Roman legend. The Greek word lego meant to lull to sleep. It hides in words like logic and religion,—nay, in lexicography! It is the core of the word language. Perhaps it is the oldest and most widespread word that men have ever framed their lips to say.
There is only one way to break the spell, and that is to stop the magic song. We must interrupt the Mediterranean sorcerer, and ask him what he is saying. We must translate the Babu words.
One thing is clear already about the word metaphysics. The prime enchanter, Andronicus Rhodius, used meta in the sense of after, and not among. If
physics be the science of nature, then metaphysics should be the science of whatever is outside nature.
And so, indeed, the long toil of the metaphysicians has been a struggle to get out of the natural world, by getting inside themselves. And inside themselves they have found what they call The Mind, and in this very mind they have found the objects of the external world, the stones and trees, in short, nature all over again.
Now there may be a real science of mind. The study of how men think and reason ought to be the crowning study, the last word in any education worth the name, the last chapter of any but a parrot's grammar-book. But just because it is the crowning study it must rest on all the others. It is as natural as they are. And like them it must follow Bacon's rule—Learn from the things, and not from the words about the things.
I have likened the mind to a tree whose roots are feelings and whose leaves are words. The followers of Andronicus Rhodius have tried to learn about it only from the leaves. They have considered the mind (much as the philologists have considered words) as a cut flower, picked from somewhere outside the universe, and stuck inside us. They have studied only the leaves, and so they have not thoroughly understood even the leaves. They have used
shorthand by mistake for longhand. They have dealt in names to which there was no mixture.
The last great name among the slaves of this enchantment, the last great fore-Darwinian thinker, is Kant. His admirers tell us—(I am copying Carlyle)—that the grand characteristic of his philosophy is his distinction between the Understanding and the Reason—Verstand and Vernunft. Reason discerns truth itself, Absolute Truth, while Understanding discerns only relations, Relative Truth. Understanding is confined to material knowledge, and the practical issues of daily life; and it breaks down in the attempt to prove there is a God. That is a task reserved for Reason, which alone is able to deal with spiritual things.
Here, then, we have the Andronican science at its best; this is the grand result of studying the mind upside down. Let us see what the words mean.
I will not be too curious about the German, though I have my own doubts as to whether Vernunft has anything to do with Reason. With the Dutch, who spell it vernuft, it stands for wit, skill, genius; while one of my Swedish word-books translates Reason by both of Kant's words—förnuft and förstand.
The English words are fortunately as plain as words can be. We have seen already that understanding is simply a closer kind of watching; it is to learn by following what is going on, and so keeping it in mind. Reason is a book word, it is the French raison, the Latin ratio. But it is only a
glorified counting. The folk word for it is reckoning, the Swedish räkning.
What Andronican science has achieved has been to exchange the meanings of these plain words. It is Understanding that discerns things by themselves, the Absolute, and Reason that discerns relations, or, in homelier words, puts two and two together. Shall I confess that I think both words are better used by a forgotten poet writing on the immortality of the soul:—
"When she rates things, and moves from ground to ground,
The name of reason she obtains by this:
But when by reason she the truth hath found,
And standeth fast, she understanding is."
Here is a writer who has stopped to ask himself the meaning of the words he used. He does not talk as though reason were one thing, and understanding another independent thing. He sees that both are only names for the same inner power, called reason while she does her sum, and understanding while she sets down the amount.
And after all, it was Kant who called in Practical Reason to do the very thing that the poor practical Understanding was forbidden to do, and the Pure Reason had failed to do, namely to prove there is a God. The fool who said in his heart, There is no God, would have felt proud if he had lived to read the Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
In our time it has become plain that all that kind of thing must go to the scrap-heap whither Descartes and Bacon swept the rubbish of the medieval schoolmen. To-day, if we wish to learn anything about the mind, we begin by looking at the brain; we interpret words by feelings, and feelings by words; we watch the savage and the child as they begin to think and talk; we follow what is going on in nature, instead of trying to turn our backs on it; and so we make some little headway.
But we no longer call that study metaphysics. We call it Mind-lore, or, in Babu, Psychology.
For my part I have never been constrained to enter the revolving cage. I have a shield that shivers the enchanted weapons. It is my ignorance of the Babu tongue. As soon as I look at the Andronican hieroglyphs they change their shapes, and shrink down into the poor common words of daily life. That sublime pair of twins, subjective and objective, dwindle down to inside and outside; that mysterious consciousness shrivels into mere wakefulness; that pompous Ego is nothing better than myself,—and so the glittering Aladdin's palace melts before my eyes—
"And like an unsubstantial pageant faded,
Leaves not a rack behind."
In a French town I once saw a hotel called L’Univers, and over against it a building with the sign—Annexe de l’Univers. I know the architect of that building. His name is Andrónikos of Rhodes.
And it is a house of cards.