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- The Nature of Goodness - 20/23 -

With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action."

And such is our experience. We, too, have purposed all manner of important and serviceable acts; but just as we were setting them in execution, consideration fell upon us. We asked whether it was the proper moment, whether he to whom it was to be done was really needy, or were we the fit doer, or should it be done in this way or that. We hesitated, and the moment was gone. Self-consciousness had again demonstrated its incompetence for superintending a task. Many of us, far from regarding self-consciousness as a ground of goodness, are disposed to look upon it as a curse.


Before, however, attempting to discover whether our theoretic conclusions may he drawn into some sort of living accord with these results of experience, let us probe a little more minutely into these latter, and try to learn what reasons there may be for this very general distrust of self-consciousness as a guide. Hitherto I have exhibited that distrust as a fact. We always find it so; our neighbors find it so, the ages have found it so. But why? I have not pointed out precisely the reasons for the continual fact. Let me devote a page or two to rational diagnosis.

To begin with, I suppose it will be conceded that we really cannot guide ourselves through and through. There are certain large tracts of life totally unamenable to consciousness.

Of our two most important acts, and those by which the remaining ones are principally affected, birth and death, the one is necessarily removed from conscious guidance, and the other is universally condemned if so guided. We do not--as we have previously seen--happen to be present at our birth, and so are quite cut off from controlling that. Yet the conditions of birth very considerably shape everything else in life. We cannot, then, be purely spiritual; it is impossible. We must be natural beings at our beginning; and at the other end the state of things is largely similar, for we are not allowed to fix the time of our departure. The Stoics were. "If the house smokes," they said, "leave it." When life is no longer worth while, depart. But Christianity will not allow this. Death must be a natural affair, not a spiritual. I am to wait till a wandering bacillus alights in my lung. He will provide a suitable exit for me. But neither I nor my neighbors must decide my departure. Let laws of nature reign.

And if these two tremendous events are altogether removed from conscious guidance, many others are but slightly amenable to it. The great organic processes both of mind and body are only indirectly, or to a partial extent, under the control of consciousness. A few persons, I believe, can voluntarily suspend the beating of their hearts. They are hardly to be envied. The majority of us let our hearts alone, and they work better than if we tried to work them. Though it is true that we can control our breathing, and that we occasionally do so, this also in general we wisely leave to natural processes. A similar state of affairs we find when we turn to the mind itself. The association of ideas, that curious process by which one thought sticks to another and through being thus linked draws after it material for use in all our intellectual constructions, goes on for the most part unguided. It would be plainly useless, therefore, to treat our great distinction as something hard and fast. Nature and spirit may be contrasted; they cannot be sundered. Spirit removed from nature would become impotent, while nature would then proceed on a meaningless career.

Then too there are all sorts of degrees in consciousness. No man was ever so conscious of himself and his acts that he could not be more so. When introspection is causing us our sharpest distress, it may still be rendered more minute. That is one cause of its peculiar anguish. We are always uncertain whether our troubles have not arisen from too little self-consciousness, and we whip ourselves into greater nicety and elaborateness of personal observation. Varying through a multitude of degrees, the fullness of consciousness is never reached. A more thorough exercise of it is always possible. At the last, nature must be admitted as a partner in the control of our lives, and her share in that partnership the present age believes to be a large one.


For could we always consciously steer our conduct, we should be unwise to do so. Consciousness hinders action. Acts are excellent in proportion as they are sure, swift, and easy. When we undertake anything, we seek to do exactly that thing, reach precisely that end, and not merely to hit something in the neighborhood. Occasions, too, run fast, and should be seized on the minute. Action is excellent only when it meets the urgent and evasive demands of life. Faltering and hesitation are fatal. Nor must action unduly weary. Good conduct effects its results with the least necessary expenditure of effort. When there are so many demands pressing upon us, we should not allow ourselves to become exhausted by a single act, but should keep ourselves fresh for further needs. Efficient action, then, is sure, swift, and easy.

Now the peculiarity of self-consciousness is that it hinders all this and makes action inaccurate, slow, and fatiguing. Inaccuracy is almost certain. When we study how something is to be done, we are apt to lay stress on certain features of the situation, and not to bring others into due prominence. It is difficult separately to correlate the many elements which go to make up a desired result. Sometimes we become altogether puzzled and for the moment the action ceases. When I have had occasion to drive a screw in some unusual and inconvenient place, after setting the blade of the screw-driver into the slot I have asked myself, "In which direction does this screw turn?" But the longer I ask, the more uncertain I am. My only solution lies in trusting my hand, which knows a great deal more about the matter than I. When we once begin to meditate how a word is spelled, how helpless we are! It is better to drop the question, and pick up the dictionary. In all such cases consideration tends to confuse.

It tends to delay, too, as everybody knows. To survey all the relations in which a given act may stand, to balance their relative gains and losses, and with full sight to decide on the course which offers the greatest profit, would require the years of Methuselah. But at what point shall we cut the process short? To obtain full knowledge, we should pass in review all that relates to the act we propose; should inquire what its remoter consequences will be, and how it will affect not merely myself, my cousin, my great-grandchild, but the man in the next street, city, or state. There is no stopping. To carry conscious verification over a moderate range is slow business. If on the impulse of occasion we dash off an action unreflectingly, life will be swift and simple. If we try to anticipate all consequences of our task it will be slow and endless.

Nor need I dwell on the fatigue such conscious work involves. In writing a letter, we usually sit down before our paper, our minds occupied with what we would say. We allow our fingers to stroll of themselves across the page, and we hardly notice whether they move or not. If anybody should ask, "How did you write the letter _s?_" we should be obliged to look on the paper to see. But suppose, instead of writing in this way, I come to the task to-morrow determined to superintend all the work consciously. How shall I hold my pen in the best possible manner? How shape this letter so that each of its curves gets its exact bulge? How give the correct slant to what is above or below the line? I will not ask how long a time a letter prepared in this fashion would require, or whether when written it would be fit to read, for I wish to fix attention on the exhaustion of the writer. He certainly could endure such fatigue for no more than a single epistle. The schoolboy, when forced to it, seldom holds out for more than half a page, though he employs every contortion of shoulder, tongue, and leg to ease and diversify the struggle.

A dozen years ago some nonsense verses were running through the papers,--verses pointing out with humorous precision the very infelicities of conscious control to which I am now directing attention. They put the case thus:--

"The centipede was happy, quite, Until the toad for fun Said, 'Pray which leg comes after which?' This worked her mind to such a pitch She lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run."

And no wonder! Problems so complex as this should be left to the disposal of nature, and not be drawn over into the region of spiritual guidance. But the complexities of the centipede are simple matters when compared with the elaborate machinery of man. The human mind offers more alternatives in a minute than does the centipede in a lifetime. If spiritual guidance is inadequate to the latter, and is found merely to hinder action, why is not the blind control of nature necessary for the former also? Our age believes it is and, ever disparaging the conscious world, attaches steadily greater consequence to the unconscious. "It is the unintelligent me," writes Dr. O. W. Holmes, "stupid as an idiot, that has to try a thing a thousand times before he can do it and then never knows how he does it, that at last does it well. We have to educate ourselves through the pretentious claims of intellect into the humble accuracy of instinct; and we end at last by acquiring the dexterity, the perfection, the certainty which those masters of arts, the bee and the spider, inherit from nature."


Green's Prolegomena, Section 297.

Dewey's Study of Ethics, Section xli.

Seth's Study of Ethical Principles, pt. i. ch. 3, Section 6.

Alexander's Moral Order and Progress, bk. i. ch. i. Section iii.

Earle's English Prose, p. 490-500.

Palmer in The Forum, Jan. 1893.




The Nature of Goodness - 20/23

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