What We All Mean
The Speaker, February 16, 1901
The Meaning Of Good. By G. Lowes Dickinson. Glasgow James Maclehose and Sons.
In this striking Platonic dialogue Mr. Lowes Dickinson presents, in his own personality, quite apart from all logical fencing, a deep and curious problem as to the uses and limits of philosophy. He discusses the idea of good and shows that this fundamental idea may be defined variously as an instinct, a compromise, a discipline, an indulgence, a truth, an illusion, a science or an art. At first sight this would seem like speaking of an object in front of our eyes and discussing, with some heat, whether it was a tree, a dog, a hat, a cloud, a problem of Euclid, a cathedral, a broomstick or a Conservative M.P. If a discussion about this latter point really occurred, there would undoubtedly arise a reasonable doubt as to the existence of the object and the personal sobriety of the philosopher. But the remarkable fact is, and it goes to the roots of the nature of verbal philosophy, that any one who reads between the lines can see that Mr. Lowes Dickinson never has at any moment any shadow of real doubt as to the existence of good in the most supreme and spiritual sense. He answers and inquires calmly and fearlessly, he canvasses the most heaven-shaking hypotheses with the bland toleration of a sceptic; but all the time we have an abiding consciousness that he believes in a supreme good for the same reason that we do- i.e., that he could not by any effort of his being do anything else.
This is no mere personality, it is a most interesting question. Mr. Lowes Dickinson is certainly neither a mystic nor a sentimentalist; he has none of that cheap contempt for logic and philosophy- that kind of contempt, as some one wittily said, which is not bred by familiarity. He treats all the wildest doubts of his interlocutors with sincere respect. But when all is said and done he suggests and, in fact, almost confesses, the truth of the conclusion of which we speak- that he is a man perfectly willing to discuss the possibility of tobacco if he may smoke all the while.
In a philosopher so acute and stringent as Mr. Dickinson this apparent contradiction must go down into the deeps of philosophy. And we must admit that to our mind there runs through the whole of the discussion in this book one initial and most simple difficulty, the difficulty of human language. Human language has been wrought by centuries of poets and orators into so fluid and searching a medium that we are apt to forget that it is only a code of signs and a crude one at that. That a man can give no reason for the faith that is in him is not necessarily the fault of the faith; it may be the fault of the tongue he speaks. We talk of our language, but we forget that we have many languages in various stages of advance. For example, railway signals constitute a language; but it is a language at so primitive a stage that it has not yet got beyond the two primal ideas- good and evil, yes and no, safe and unsafe. Any one who chooses may imagine the language of railway signals developed into delicacy and variety as the language of the tongue has developed. A particular tint of peacock green in the night signals might mean "The chairman of the board is recovering from influenza," a certain tinge of purple in the red light might convey "An old gentleman wearing white spats has just fallen out of the train." But to whatever extent the language of signals might be amplified, it is obvious, from their nature, that sooner or later a crisis might arise, an unprecedented event might happen, such, let us say, as the engine-driver going mad and thinking he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the symbols for which were not down in the code, and which, therefore, however obvious it might be, it would be impossible to signal down the line. Now it is surely equally possible that something might happen in the human soul which was simply not down in the old code of language: to ask a man to tell you what had happened would simply be absurd; to ask him to think it had not happened, much more so. Unless we are very much mistaken, Mr. Lowes Dickinson and every other man has precisely such a dumb certainty in his soul and the only name we can give to it is "the universal good."
Whether Mr. Dickinson agrees with our view of language or no, it is very remarkable that he acts in this philosophic drama of his in strict accordance with it. If logical language be abandoned as an ancient and clumsy machinery, the one thing left to check it by is practical action. If a man acts persistently and cheerfully in defiance of his philosophic summary of life, it is not unreasonable to infer that some alien and contrary force has arisen in him somehow; if a train, when everything signals it as stopped, still runs on at full speed, it is not unreasonable to trace in it the individuality of some such person as our engine-driver, engaged at the moment in discharging archiepiscopal functions. It is precisely this test of action that Mr. Lowes Dickinson applies with that polished and quiet shrewdness which marks all his progress through this intricate maze of cobwebs. He says (if we may associate him with the first person in the narrative) to the debater who denies altogether any validity in our individual conceptions of good, "But do you not yourself act systematically on the assumption that your good is really good?" The man cannot deny that he does. To the man who admits individual ideas of good, but denies that there is any common or general good, he says, "But do not you in speaking, voting, supporting charities, in fact act on the assumption that there is a general good?" The man cannot deny that he does. To some this may seem a mere argumentum ad hominem; to us it appears, properly considered, exceedingly to the point. The truth is that there is a force in all of them, either below or above language, which is vaguely expressed by the general drift of action. The entertaining young men who discuss this matter with Mr. Dickinson deal with all these points lightly, demur and quibble and elude pursuit in a very charming way. But if one of them had suddenly spoken out exactly what he really felt and knew, we fancy they would have all started at the strange and new voice. He might have said suddenly- "It is no good. Something has happened inside me: something has happened, I think, inside all of us. We do believe in a general good, only that is a silly name. I cannot tell you why I believe in good, because the signals all say the wrong things: they say old things and this is a new thing- perhaps only eighteen hundred years old. But we have emerged into an air and world where we cannot be solitary or selfish. All laws apart, I should no more torment or oppress another man than I should dye my beard blue or do anything else that I knew in my soul to be silly. No, there is something inside me. We cannot be utterly evil, even if we try. The kingdom of heaven is within us."
If this view be correct and the universal good be essentially a new and nameless thing, we can easily explain the diverse and contradictory definitions of good which Mr. Dickinson's friends give in turn. One man finds good in science, and says therefore that goodness is a science; another finds it in instincts, and says therefore that goodness is an instinct. If a man could possibly remember nothing at all except a tame elephant that had saved his life, he would say that goodness was an elephant. So it is, among other things.
Mr. Lowes Dickinson states all the various points of view with conspicuous eloquence and justice. If there is one point that we should be inclined to criticise it is his stricture upon Walt Whitman, when he quotes him as an example of the untenable optimism which equalises all things. Walt Whitman has been singularly misunderstood on this point. Surely no one imagines that he really thought that all distinctions were unmeaning, that he drank coffee and arsenic in idle alternation, and went to bed on the kitchen fire as a change from his bedstead. What he did say and mean was that there was one plane on which all things were equal, one point from which everything was the same, the point of view of unfathomable wonder at the energy of Being, the power of God. There is no inconsistency in ranking things in ascending order on the practical plane and equalising them on the religious plane.
We may take a familiar parallel. There is nothing inconsistent in saying, "For what we are about to receive the Lord make us truly thankful," and then complaining that the champagne is corked or the mutton raw. There is such a thing as a bad dinner and such a thing as a good one, and criticism is quite justified in comparing one with the other: but it remains true that both become good the moment we compare them with the hypothesis of no dinner at all. So it was with Whitman, good and bad lives became equal to him in relation to the hypothesis of no life at all. A man, let us say a soldier of the Southern Confederacy, was considered as a man, a miracle that swallowed up all moral distinctions, in the realm of religion. But in the realm of criticism, otherwise called the Battle of Gettysburg, Whitman would strain every nerve to blow the man into a thousand pieces.
We hope we shall hear more from the author of The Greek View of Life. We think the present volume a singularly good one, and, as we have explained above, we have an arrogant conviction that we know the Meaning of Good.