Christianity As The Result Of Pre-Established Harmony by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

If you are one that upon meditative grounds have come sincerely to perceive the philosophic value of this faith; if you have become sensible that as yet Christianity is but in its infant stages–after eighteen centuries is but beginning to unfold its adaptations to the long series of human situations, slowly unfolding as time and change move onwards; and that these self-adapting relations of the religion to human necessities, this conformity to unforeseen developments, argues a Leibnitzian pre-establishment of this great system as though it had from the first been a mysterious substratum laid under ‘the dark foundations’ of human nature; holding or admitting such views of the progress awaiting Christianity–you will thank us for what we are going to say. You may, possibly for yourself, when reviewing the past history of man, have chanced to perceive the same–we are not jealous of participation in a field so ample–but even in such a case, if the remark (on which we are now going to throw a ray of light) should appeal to you in particular, with less of absolute novelty, not the less you will feel thankful to be confirmed in your views by independent testimony. We, for ourselves, offer the remark as new; but, in an age teeming with so much agility of thought, it is rare that any remark can have absolutely evaded all partial glimpses or stray notices of others, even when aliud agentes, men stumble upon truths, to which they are not entitled by any meritorious or direct studies. However, whether absolutely original or not, the remark is this–Did it ever strike you, reader, as a most memorable phenomenon about Christianity, as one of those contradictory functions which, to a thing of human mechanism, is impossible, but which are found in vital agencies and in all deep-laid systems of truth–that the same scheme of belief which is the most settling, freezing, tranquillizing for one purpose, is the most unbinding, agitating, revolutionary in another? Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations. Whilst all false religions neither as a matter of fact have produced–nor as a matter of possibility could have produced–a philosophy, it is a most significant distinction of Christianity, and one upon which volumes might be written, that simply by means of the great truths which that faith has fixed when brought afterwards into collision with the innumerable questions which that faith has left undetermined (as not essential to her own final purposes), Christianity has bred, and tempted, and stimulated a vast body of philosophy on neutral ground; ground religious enough to create an interest in the questions, yet not so religious as to react upon capital truths by any errors that may be committed in the discussion. For instance, on that one sea-like question of free agency, besides the explicit philosophy that Christianity has bred amongst the Schoolmen, and since their time, what a number of sects, heresies, orthodox churches have implicitly couched and diffused some one view or other of this question amongst their characteristic differences; and without prejudice to the integrity of their Christian views or the purity of their Christian morals. Whilst, on the other hand, the very noblest of false religions (the noblest as having stolen much from Christianity), viz., Islamism, has foreclosed all philosophy on this subject by the stupid and killing doctrine of fatalism. This we give as one instance; but in all the rest it is the same. You might fancy that from a false religion should arise a false philosophy–false, but still a philosophy. Is it so? On the contrary: the result of false religion is no philosophy at all.

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Paganism produced none: the Pagans had a philosophy; but it stood in no sort of relation, real or fancied relation, to their mythology or worship. And the Mahometans, in times when they had universities and professors’ chairs, drew the whole of their philosophic systems from Greece, without so much as ever attempting to connect these systems with their own religious creed. But Christianity, on the other hand, the only great doctrinal religion, the only religion which ties up–chains–and imprisons human faith, where it is good for man’s peace that he should be fettered, is also the only religion which places him in perfect liberty on that vast neutral arena where it is good for him to exercise his unlimited energies of mind. And it is most remarkable, that whilst Christianity so far shoots her rays into these neutral questions as to invest them with grandeur, she keeps herself uncommitted and unpledged to such philosophic problems in any point where they might ally themselves with error. For instance, St. Austin’s, or Calvin’s doctrine on free agency is so far Christian, that Christian churches have adopted it into their articles of faith, or have even built upon it as a foundation. So far it seems connected with Christian truth. Yet, again, it is so far separate from Christian truth, that no man dares to pronounce his brother heretical for doubting or denying it. And thus Christianity has ministered, even in this side-chapel of its great temple, to two great necessities: it has thrown out a permanent temptation to human activity of intellect, by connecting itself with tertiary questions growing out of itself derivatively and yet indifferent to the main interests of truth. In this way Christianity has ministered to a necessity which was not religious, but simply human, through a religious radiation in a descending line. Secondly, it has kept alive and ventilated through every age the direct religious interest in its own primary truths, by throwing out secondary truths, that were doubtfully related to the first, for polemical agitation. Foolish are they who talk of our Christian disputes as arguments of an unsound state, or as silent reproaches to the sanity or perfect development of our religion. Mahometans are united, because the only points that could disunite them relate generally to fact and not to doctrinal truths. Their very national heresies turn only on a ridiculous piece of gossip–Was such a man’s son-in-law his legitimate successor? Upon a point so puerile as this revolves the entire difference between the heterodoxy of Persia and the orthodoxy of Turkey. Or, if their differences go deeper, in that case they tend to the utter extinction of Islamism; they maintain no characteristic or exclusive dogma; as amongst the modern Sikhs of Hindostan, who have blended the Brahminical and Mahometan creeds by an incoherent syncretismus; or, as amongst many heretics of Persia and Arabia, who are mere crazy freethinkers, without any religious determination, without any principle of libration for the oscillating mind. Whereas our differences, leaving generally all central truths untouched, arise like our political parties, and operate like them; they grow out of our sincerity, and they sustain our sincerity. That interest must be unaffected which leads men into disputes and permanent factions, and that truth must be diffusive as life itself, which is found to underlay a vast body of philosophy. It is the cold petrific annihilation of a moral interest in the subject, by substituting a meagre interest of historical facts, which stifles all differences; stifles political differences under a despotism, from utter despair of winning practical value to men’s opinions; stifles religious differences under a childish creed of facts or anecdotes, from the impossibility of bringing to bear upon the [Greek: to] positive of an arbitrary legend, or the mere conventional of a clan history–dead, inert letters–any moral views this way or that, and any life of philosophical speculation. Thence comes the soul-killing monotony (unity one cannot call it) of all false religions. Attached to mere formal facts, they provoke no hostility in the inner nature. Affirming nothing as regards the life of truth, why should they tempt any man to contradict? Lying, indeed, but lying only as a false pedigree lies, or an old mythological legend, they interest no principle in man’s moral heart; they make no oracular answers, put forth no secret agitation, they provoke no question. But Christianity, merely by her settlements and fixing of truths, has disengaged and unfixed a world of other truths, for sustaining or for tempting an endless activity of the intellect. And the astonishing result has thus been accomplished–that round a centre, fixed and motionless as a polar tablet of ice, there has been in the remote offing a tumbling sea of everlasting agitation. A central gravitation in the power of Christianity has drawn to one point and converged into one tendency all capital agencies in all degrees of remoteness, making them tend to rest and unity; whilst, again, by an antagonist action, one vast centrifugal force, measured against the other, has so modified the result as to compel the intellect of man into divergencies answering to the line of convergence; balancing the central rest for man’s hopes by everlasting motion for his intellect, and the central unity for man’s conscience by everlasting progress for his efforts.

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Now, the Scholastic philosophy meddled chiefly with those tertiary or sub-dependent truths; such, viz., as are indifferent to Christianity by any reaction which they can exert from error in their treatment, but not indifferent as regards their own original derivation. Many people connect Scholasticism with a notion of error and even of falsehood, because they suppose it to have arisen on the incitement of Popery. And it is undeniable that Popery impressed a bias or clinamen upon its movement. It is true also that Scholasticism is not only ministerial to Popery, but in parts is consubstantial with Popery. Popery is not fully fleshed and developed apart from the commentaries or polemical apologies of Aquinas. But still we must remember that Popery had not yet taken up the formal position of hostility to truth, seeing that as yet Protestantism was only beginning its first infant struggles. Many Popish errors were hardened and confirmed in the very furnace of the strife. And though perilous errors had intermingled themselves with Popery, which would eventually have strangled all the Christian truth which it involved, yet that truth it was which gave its whole interest to the Reformation. Had the Reformation fought against mere unmixed error, it could not have been viewed as a reforming process, but as one entirely innovating. So that even where it is most exclusively Popish, Scholasticism has often a golden thread of truth running through its texture; often it is not Popish in the sense of being Anti-Protestant, but in the elder sense of being Anti-Pagan. However, generally speaking, it is upon the neutral ground common to all modes of Christianity that this philosophy ranges. That being so, there was truth enough of a high order to sustain the sublimer motives of the Schoolmen; whilst the consciousness of supporting the mixed interests, secular and spiritual, of that mighty Christian church which at that time was co-extensive with Christianity in the West, gave to the Schoolmen a more instant, human, and impassioned interest in the labours of that mysterious loom which pursued its aerial web through three centuries.

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As a consequence from all this, we affirm that the parallel is complete between the situation on the one side of the early Greek authors, the creators of Greek literature in the age of Pericles, and, on the other side, of the Christian Schoolmen; (1) the same intense indolence, which Helvetius fancied to be the most powerful stimulant to the mind under the reaction of ennui; (2) the same tantalizing dearth of books–just enough to raise a craving, too little to meet it; (3) the same chilling monotony of daily life and absence of female charities to mould social intercourse–for the Greeks from false composition of society and vicious sequestration of women–for the scholastic monks from the austere asceticism of their founders and the ‘rule’ of their order; (4) finally the same (but far different) enthusiasm and permanent elevation of thought from disinterested participation in forwarding a great movement of the times–for the one side tending to the unlimited aggrandisement of their own brilliant country; for the other, commensurate with what is conceivable in human grandeur.

This sketch of Christianity as it is mysteriously related to the total body of Philosophy actual or possible, present or in reversion, may seem inadequate. In some sense it is so. But call it a note or ‘excursus,’ which is the scholarlike name for notes a little longer than usual, and all will be made right. What we have in view, is to explain the situation of the Greeks under Pericles by that of the Schoolmen. We use the modern or Christian case, which is more striking from its monastic peculiarity, as a reflex picture of the other. We rely on the moulding circumstances of Scholasticism, its awakened intellect, its famishing eagerness from defect of books, its gloom from the exile of all feminine graces, and its towering participation in an interest the grandest of the age, as a sort of camera obscura for bringing down on the table before us a portraiture essentially the same of early Greek society in the rapturous spring-time of Pericles.

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If the governing circumstances were the same in virtue, then probably there would be a virtual sameness in some of the results: and amongst these results would be the prevailing cast of thinking, and therefore to some extent the prevailing features of style. It may seem strange to affirm any affinities between the arid forms of Scholastic style and the free movement of the early Grecian style. They seem rather to be repelling extremes. But extremes meet more often than is supposed. And there really are some remarkable features of conformity even as to this point between the tendencies of Christian monachism and the unsocial sociality of Paganism. However, it is not with this view that we have pressed the parallel. Not by way of showing a general affinity in virtues and latent powers, and thence deducing a probable affinity in results, but generally for the sake of fixing and illustrating circumstances which made it physically impossible that the movement could have been translated by contagion from one country to the others. Roads were too bad, cities too difficult of access, travellers too rare, books too incapable of transmission, for any solution which should explain the chain of coincidences into a chain of natural causations. No; the solution was, that Christianity had everywhere gone ahead spontaneously with the same crying necessities for purification, that is, for progress. One deep, from North to South, called to another; but the deeps all alike, each separately for itself, were ready with their voices, ready without collusion to hear and to reverberate the cry to God. The light, which abides and lodges in Christianity, had everywhere, by measured steps and by unborrowed strength, kindled into mortal antagonism with the darkness which had gathered over Christianity from human corruptions. But in science this result is even more conspicuous. Not only by their powers and energies the parallel currents of science in different lands enter into emulations that secure a general uniformity of progress, run neck and neck against each other, so as to arrive at any killing rasper of a difficulty pretty nearly about the same time; not only do they thus make it probable that coincidences of victory will continually occur through the rivalships of power; but also through the rivalships of weakness. Most naturally for the same reason that they worshipped in spirit and in truth, for the same reason that led them to value such a worship, they valued its distant fountain-head. Hence their interest in the Messiah. Hence their delegation.

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