14th October 1910
The Soul of a People
An Address delivered to the Students of the University College of Wales, at Aberystwth
Published in ‘UNIVERSITIES and NATIONAL LIFE: Four Addresses to Students’,
Viscount Haldane, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1911
You are students of the University of Wales, and I am a Scotsman whom you have invited here as being not unfamiliar with the conditions of University life. It is in the main with what University life can mean that I shall concern myself in this address. Of the general affairs of Wales and of Scotland I shall not speak. They remain to be topics of discourse by those, and they are numerous, who are well qualified to deal with them. I wish to direct your attention to something which seems to me to touch the foundations of national affairs at an even deeper level than that of ordinary politics.
There is a characteristic which the people of Wales and the people of Lowland Scotland, differing profoundly in other respects, appear to possess in common. They are both idealist in their cast of mind. You of Wales have the gift of imagination. It has enabled you to strike out some distinctive lines for yourselves in your higher education and in your religion. You are not easily daunted by difficulties, and you act together with an enthusiasm which penetrates to the humblest classes of the community. The common effort made to develop your higher schools and University Colleges has been an effort which in reality owed much of its success to the response of those who work with their hands. In the soul of your people there is what George Buchanan called a praefervidum ingenium, a fire which is more Celtic than it is Saxon.
We Lowland Scotsmen are also at heart idealist, but our idealism is of a different kind. Our temperament is reflective rather than imaginative. We move easily in the current of abstract discussion, and we are tenacious of intellectual purpose. The Treatise of Human Nature, the Wealth of Nations, and Sartor Resartus are books typical of a characteristic form of Scottish idealism. Probably no other part of the United Kingdom could have produced writers of this type, and, along with them, men like John Knox, and the Covenanters, and Dr. Chalmers. I think those to whom I have referred are at least as distinctively representative of Scottish habits of mind as are Burns and Scott. For they are the spiritual children of a race which loves abstract speculation as you love music and verse. In the case of both races there is present the spirit of idealism—idealism which when it comes to the surface flows in different channels, but is not the less on that account idealism.
To Ireland I can only allude in passing. It seems to me that in reality we study the Irish people too little to appreciate properly what the British nation has owed and to day owes to that strain of Celtic blood. Differences of religion and habit of mind, and irritation over friction in the machinery of Government, have encouraged the Anglo-Saxon community in these islands to give the rein in the case of Ireland to our national habit of not taking the trouble that is necessary to understand those who have great gifts, but gifts that are not like our own.
Now I come to England, and here my patriotism lays me under no illusion. The Welsh, the Irish, and the Scots have this in common, that in different ways they have had much to complain of in the attitude towards them of the English. Even when civilisation in England was a long way ahead of civilisation in other parts of the United Kingdom—as it was, for instance, when Sir Robert Walpole was the real ruler of the country—we can gather from the not too sympathetic pages of Macaulay how the English habit of mind worried and galled Celt and Scot alike. And yet, speaking for myself and as a Scotsman, I most genuinely admire this dominant race, even in their Philistinism. They think ahead but little. They are worse at organising for the fulfilment of definite ends beyond those of the moment than almost any of their rivals. And yet they hold their own in the world, and I see no indication that they are in the least degree failing to hold it. They are almost always late in coming on the ground, but when they do come they set to work silently and with courage. They proceed with marvellous initiative to repair their errors of omission, and they drop their practice of saying depressing things about themselves and their institutions until they see themselves again on the top. When a new invention, like the submarine or the motor, comes to light, the Englishman is usually behind. Give him a few years and he has not only taken care of himself in the meantime, but is generally leading. As it was with these inventions, so I suspect it will prove to be with aircraft.
Being at present charged with some part of the endeavour to see that we catch up other nations in matters of science applied to defence, I have experience of what happens when the British people are exhorted to make efforts in times of tranquillity. The reply is invariably that there is no necessity to worry them, and that the one thing needful is for the Government to spend the taxes plentifully, and to damn the differential calculus emphatically. Yet this very people, when it was caught unprepared and threatened with defeat a few years ago in South Africa, calmly put its shoulder to the wheel, and without a groan set itself to get through a situation which would have appalled a nation with a more nervous temperament.
Well, the English are good partners for you Celts and for us Lowland Scots in our common business enterprises. All we need ask of them is to leave us to manage our purely domestic affairs and to conduct our family worship in our own fashion. They are on these conditions valuable comrades. And let us remember that they go on periodically producing from among themselves individualities of very great power, individualities that could only spring from a very great race. Shakespeare and Milton, Cromwell (whom I hold to have been in spirit, at all events, a most genuine English man, though I know you claim him as Welsh), Chatham, Nelson and Wellington, Newton and Darwin, these are indicative of a rich soil, a soil which I believe to be as rich and productive to-day as it ever has been.
The real question is how, in this remarkable partnership, we may best help each other through the medium of our special aptitudes, and develop not only the partnership but ourselves. Now the Englishman is short of ideas, so it seems to me, more than of anything else, and it is just ideas that we two races, in our different fashions, can put into the common stock. By ideas I mean large permeating ideas—ideas such as have been the origin of the remarkable power which the Welsh and Scottish Universities are showing to-day of penetrating the people around them with the influence of the higher learning. And in the rest of this address I propose to confine myself to the very illustration which the higher education affords, because I believe that this is an illustration which throws light on every other part of the field of work. The development of the true spirit of the University among a people is a good measure of the development of its soul, and consequently of its civilisation.
I have taken as the title of this discourse, “The Soul of a People.” The expression “soul” has a pretty definite meaning. It does not signify to-day a sort of thing existing apart from the body, the “animula, vagula, blandula” of the Emperor Hadrian's famous verses. Nor has it its seat in any particular place in the body corporate. And just as this is true of the physical organism, so it is true of the State. The soul of a people is to be looked for in no one class or institution. The soul of a human being is the highest form of his activity, what permeates the members and makes their life consist in belonging to the whole of which they form parts. Separated from that whole they cannot live. Although it is nothing outside or detached from these parts or members of itself, it is everywhere present in them. It is their formative principle their ideal, the end which they fulfil, and which determines them, not as a cause operating from without, but as a purpose working itself out within their course of development from birth to death. It preserves the unity of the organism and guides it along that course, notwithstanding that the material of that organism does not remain the same but is constantly changing. It is the higher and intelligent life of the organism without which it could not be a human being. More than two thousand years ago Aristotle discovered this truth, and called the soul the “entelechy” of the body.
Now what is true of the human organism is true of the State. The soul of a people is just its entelechy, and the higher manifestations of its soul afford a test of the standard of civilisation to which that people has attained. The capacity for learning and the consequent development of the University spirit are of course no exclusive test. Literature and art, science and religion, may advance independently of Universities. But on the whole and as a rule, the development proceeds pari passu. And to maintain the Universities of the country at a high level is thus an act of high patriotism on the part of the citizens.
But not only the citizen but the student himself has a deep responsibility here. When the latter goes to the University, he is an adult and is treated as being such. He has consequently not only rights as a member of the University, but duties towards the institution to which he belongs. It is his privilege to be called on to keep high the level of its tone, and to contribute ideas for its development. To each student comes the opportunity for influencing those around him; in other words, for leadership. Moving his fellow-students individually he moves the University, and so in the end moves the State itself. Therefore I would impress on you who are here before me the reality of your duty and of its importance. Your way is clear—to get the best you can for yourselves in this generally unique period of your lives, and to strive with all your power to make the fullest use of what you have got, and to impart it to those around you. It is so that you will begin to fulfil the duty you have to discharge now, and will have to discharge still more later on in life—of striving to develop the soul of the people to whom you belong.
To the question how you may best equip yourselves for this endeavour, my answer is an old one—By getting ideas, ideas which, as has been said, have hands and feet, ideas which not only transform that on which they are brought to bear, but in doing so expand themselves and their meaning. For nothing is so expansive as the train of thought suggested by an idea that is really great; and, if it has once been fully grasped, nothing transforms the whole outlook in the fashion that its suggestive power does. Now, to get great ideas we require great teachers. These teachers may be living persons with whom we come in daily contact, or they may be dead and yet teach us through great books which they have given to the world. In whichever way it comes, the teaching required is that which guides to a large outlook and to none but a large outlook. Yet after all it is only to a limited extent that the teacher, be he living or one who though dead yet speaks, can mould his student. There is no royal road to learning. The higher it is the harder is the toil of the spirit that is required for its attainment. But this toil brings with it happiness. As we advance along the path we see more and more new territory to traverse, new heights to scale, heights which are accessible only by patient labour, but the scaling of which promises us a new sense of possession. In all this there is much of the sweet in sad and the sad in sweet. Yet the mere endeavour, even apart from the result, brings its reward. There is a passage in Romola in which George Eliot describes this kind of experience of the scholar:— “We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man—by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good.”
For him who seeks to live at the higher levels of life, be it in learning or in art or in conduct, adversity has its uses. It detaches his mind, and develops in it the sense of that freedom that can only come when the spirit is tied to no one particular possession, but has grown everywhere capable of rising to freedom. It is hard for the rich man, who cannot free himself from the obsession of his riches and treat them as a means to an end, to reach the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, the mind that is really free is the mind that chooses to submit itself to toil and discipline, to renounce much, and to pursue its course, not as an arbitrary course, but as one of self-development in accordance with law and principle. If we would succeed, nay, if we would be free from what is the worst burden of all, slavery to an arbitrary will which seeks only the gratification of its immediate impulses, we must learn to renounce and to limit ourselves.
We must accept the negative, not to sit down helpless before it, but to rise above it to a larger outlook brought about by what we started from being enriched by its incorporation. Just as the body grows by assimilating inorganic and foreign material from the environment and transforming it to its own uses, just as the social organism develops in proportion as it gives rights to new classes of citizens and brings within itself and raises to a higher level and sense of responsibility those who in a previous generation would have been treated as unworthy of civil rights, so the mind of the scholar grows. It grows in strength and breadth as it assimilates what it costs a hard struggle and much renunciation of passing pleasure to grasp. But what is thus grasped is, in the process of being so grasped, transcended and freed from the appearance of being foreign and uninteresting. This is the meaning of the conquest of the negative, and without the conquest of the negative there is no real growth, intellectual or moral.
If I may presume to suggest something to those of my hearers who are students, it is to acquire as early in life as you can a business-like habit of concentration. There are people who say that youth is the time to enjoy life, and that therefore much of youth should be reserved for enjoyment while that is still possible. Now I am far from suggesting to you that you should cut yourselves off from the resources of amusement. On the contrary, I think that capacity for these forms a part of the widest life. What is called recreation has a detaching and enlarging quality. But do not jump from this to the conclusion that apolausticism is a safe philosophy of conduct. In these days everything is so specialised and so difficult that nothing short of concentration of a close kind is enough. No one can in our time accomplish the production of any solid contribution to the common stock of ideas unless he is prepared to devote years to preparing himself and his whole soul for work which will be his chief interest and chief amusement. I do not mean that he will look on golf as a penance, but equally he will not feel it to be a temptation. These diversions had better not be left to become ends in themselves. They are apt to take a very firm hold on us Britons, a race peculiarly qualified to identify life with sport. But life is short, and there is too much to be got into it, if it is to be fully lived, to admit of anything being made its chief end, consciously or unconsciously, except that which weighs most when put into the ultimate balance. It 1s quality as well as quality that counts.
What we have really got to do, all of us, is to keep keen our sense of fine quality. This sense is easily blunted. And we cannot rely on abstract maxims as to what we can, safely look to keep it whetted. Prigs are easily manufactured, and so are pedants, and each sort is apt to pass with itself and with none other for genuine. The surest way is to select, and concentrate on what is selected, and then to follow up that concentration by trying to work with passion. Without passion, said a famous critic of life, nothing great has ever been accomplished. It is no very different saying from one which is better known, that genius is “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” Of course, in talking to you who are here, when I speak of selecting an object of study and concentrating on it with passion, I do not mean any object. I mean one which, being your free choice, is high enough in quality to admit of the dedication of life to it—for a time or indefinitely.
And here there is another snare to be avoided. Narrow and abstract views, alike in the selection of the object and in the pursuit of its study, have to be avoided. The sense of proportion must be present in the mind of the most faithful of students, if he is not to be preyed on by the imps of Comedy. That is why it is good to have before one's mind the figure of some great man who has been above this kind of criticism, in that his life and his study have been so simple and transparent that we are compelled not only to admire but even to reverence them. A Berkeley, a Newton, or a Darwin gives one this sense. Their striving seems so genuine as to suggest unconsciousness not only of any personal ambition but even of self. It is figures like these that inspire the University student, and that suggest to him great ideas. In the books they have written, and in the traditions of their personal lives, he finds leadership. In close spiritual contact with such figures he gains the inspiration which will in his own way make him a leader in some circle which may be great or may be small, but which will look to him who is thus inspired as a leader. By such examples, and through the training which close spiritual contact with such examples gives, the soul of a people grows.
In the pursuit of learning, not less than in the management of the affairs of nations, stress ought to be laid on hero-worship. Nothing is more stimulating to him who is striving to learn, nothing increases his faith in what is possible, so much as reverence, though it may come only through books, for the personality of a great intellectual and moral hero. Of those heroic leaders there are different kinds, and their common quality is the possession of some kind of genius. An Alexander and an Aristotle, a Napoleon and a Goethe, are super-men, but super-men in virtue of wholly different gifts from above. The characters of its greatest men are the greatest books the world possesses, and we do well to be constantly reading in them. Such records always stimulate, and sometimes inspire. They are priceless for the true student, for they are his best guides in the search for ideas. Some names come into my mind as typical of what I meant when I was speaking to you of idealism, idealism of the special kind which can bring to unity faith and thought, religion, morality, and art. There are men who have consecrated their souls to this great endeavour, and, if the finiteness which is of the essence of humanity has made it necessary that we should pass beyond their modes of expression, they have none the less succeeded in carrying the advance of the Spirit towards truth a stage further. None of us can read the account of the last hours of Socrates which Plato puts into the lips of Phaedo, without recognising that here was one whose words are a permanent possession for mankind. He lived in constant striving to reach the truth, and for what he held against the Athenian citizens to be the truth he suffered death at their hands.
When the hour of sunset was near, so Plato tells us, the jailer came to him to announce to him that now he must die, and made this speech:— “To you, O Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid men drink the poison—indeed I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what needs must be; you know my errand.” Then bursting into tears, he turned away and went out. Socrates looked at him and said: “I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid!” Then turning to us, he said: “How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows for me-but we must do as he says; Crito, let the cup be brought.” “Yet,” said Crito, “the sun is still on the hilltops, and I know that many an one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hasten then, there is still time.” Socrates replied: “Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doing thus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right in not doing thus, for I do not think that I would gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be sparing and saving a life which is already gone, and could only despise myself for this.” —Phaedo tells of the final scene, and how Socrates alone was calm. And he concluded: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.”
Another great figure is that of Immanuel Kant. One thinks of him as one of the most conscientious searchers after the truth that the world has ever seen. The moral law dominated in him both heart and brain. I have been in Konigsberg, and have stood by the grave where he was laid, and have tried to realise something of the personality and surroundings of one who lived a life concentrated on a single end—the search after truth. It is difficult at this distance of time to recall the tremendous impression which Kant made on contemporary Europe—Schiller tells us that a new light was kindled for mankind. Pilgrims came from great distances to gaze on the features of their revered teacher, himself the most modest and retiring of men. One enthusiast, a philosopher of some distinction, declared that in a hundred years Kant would have the reputation of Jesus Christ. But when we forget these extravagances, and look at the figure of Kant in the dry light of the judgment of posterity, it still stands out as deeply impressive.
Whether one turns to the theoretical or to the practical side of his system, his writing seems to have a quality which is described in his own words when defending himself in the closing years of his life against a narrow-minded minister of Frederick William, King of Prussia: “I have always conceived the Judge in myself as standing by my side during the composition of my writings, so as to keep myself free, not only from every soul-destroying error, but even from every carelessness in expression which might cause offence.” He left the world a stage farther on in the deeper sort of knowledge than he found it. In the words of one of his biographers: “For those who have learned Kant, many questions have ceased to trouble; many are bright with a light unknown before; and others are at least placed in a fair way for further solution.”
I will try to sketch for you another of those “Saints of Rationalism,” to use a phrase which Mr. Gladstone employed about John Mill. And this time I will take the figure of one who lived down to our own time and whom I myself knew well, a figure not of the very first order, it may be, but yet that of a great man, one who, himself a German, was able to call a halt to the powerful movement of German Idealism, and to force its advocates to subject their principles to a fresh and searching scrutiny. Hermann Lotze has become very well known in this country, partly by direct study, and not a little by the book written on his philosophy by Professor Henry Jones, one of the most brilliant thinkers whom your higher learning in Wales has produced. Lotze's doctrine was that abstract thought is by itself powerless to penetrate to the inner kernel of reality, and that the ultimate criterion of truth must be looked for in the highest forms of emotion, and in the faith which has its origin in that emotion. He sought to limit the region in which the power of mere logical reasoning can give results. He led the revolt, an almost passionate revolt, against what he believed, I think wrongly, to be the outrage committed by Hegel and his disciples against the riches and warmth of reality. “Du hast sie zerstort, die schone Welt,” cried out the chorus of Spirits to Faust, and to the apostles of Wissenschaft and Wissenschaft alone Lotze cried it out not less vehemently.
He refused to identify reality with thought, or to reduce the world to what Mr. Bradley has called an “unearthly ballet of bloodless categories.” On the positive side he asserted that feeling was the source of the ideal of knowledge, and that, with no other powers than those of mere intellect, we should not reach that ideal or even seek it. The good is a higher category than the true, and comprehends and exhausts its meaning.
I will quote the words in which he sums up in the concluding paragraphs of his Mikrokosmus the results of his investigations: “It has seemed to us that everywhere the universal was inferior as compared with the particular, the class as compared with the individual, any state of things insignificant as compared with the good arising from its enjoyment. For the universal, the class, and the state of things belong to the mechanism into which the Supreme articulates itself; the true reality that is and ought to be is not matter and is still less Idea, but is the living personal Spirit of God and the world of personal Spirits which He has created. They only are the place in which Good and good things exist; to them alone does there appear an extended material world, by the forms and movements of which the thought of the Cosmic whole makes itself intelligible through intuition to every finite mind.”
Knowledge finds its goal in Truth, Feeling in the Good, or Supreme worth. “Taking Truth,” he says, “as a whole, we are not justified in regarding it as a mere self-centred splendour, having no necessary connection with those stirrings of the soul from which, indeed, the impulse to seek it first proceeded. On the contrary, whenever any scientific revolution has driven out old modes of thought, the new views that take their place must justify themselves by the permanent and increasing satisfaction which they are capable of affording to those spiritual demands, which cannot be put off or ignored.” “Rather let us admit that in the obscure impulse to treat higher aspects of things which we sometimes glory in, and sometimes feel incapable of rising to, there is yet a dim consciousness of the right path, and that every objection of science to which we attend does but disperse some deceptive light cast upon the one immutable goal of our longings by the changing standpoints of growing experience.”
Every man, said Emerson, is born to be either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Every man has a tendency either towards Idealism or towards a Realism which may or may not be such as the Realism of Lotze. He has produced a deep effect on German thought, and his influence has crossed the seas to Britain and America. The theological teaching of his fellow-professor Ritschl, and of Harnack later on, seems to me to be in a large part the outcome of the principles of Lotze. They turned away from the controversies about the Gospels and the investigations of the Tubingen School, to seek in the origins of Christianity for a foundation which should require no metaphysical assistance, but should be its own witness. Whether they have succeeded time will show. It may be that they, and Lotze too, will turn out only to have opened anew the door to scientific doubt. But their work has been a great work, alike in the extent of its influence and in the spirit in which it was conceived.
I have spoken to you of Lotze—not merely because he was a notable figure, representative of some of the finest qualities of the soul of the great German people. He was great as a teacher, whether or not his thinking was more than that of a profound critic of other systems. He was great equally as a moral figure, a personality with which none could be in contact without being influenced by it. Thirty-six years ago I was bidden to choose for myself whether I would go to Oxford or to a German University, and I chose Gottingen because Lotze was there. I was only seventeen, little more than a boy. I remember vividly how spiritually as well as intellectually anchorless I felt in the early days of my residence in the old University town where lay the Hanoverian centre of learning.
Gottingen was in those days full of great men. Gauss and Riemann and Weber were dead, but Wohler was there, and Benfey and Sauppe and von Jhering and Ritschl— names that stood in the “seventies” for what was highest in Germany in science and classical learning and jurisprudence and theology. Yet the figure that stood out above all the others was that of my old master, Hermann Lotze. I had the privilege, boy as I was, of seeing him often in his study as well as of listening in his lecture-room, and to the end of my life I shall hold the deep impression he made on me—of a combination of intellectual power and the highest moral stature. It seems to me but yesterday that he used quietly to enter the lecture-room where we students sat expectant, and, taking his seat, fix his eyes on space as though he were looking into another world remote from this one. The face was worn with thought, and the slight and fragile figure with the great head looked as though the mind that tenanted it had been dedicated to thought and to nothing else. The brow and nose were wonderfully chiselled, the expression was a combination of tolerance with power. The delivery was slow and exact, but the command of language was impressive. Our feeling towards him as we sat and listened was one of reverence mingled with affection.
Such was Hermann Lotze as I knew him. I have often wondered whether Browning had not visited Gottingen before he wrote his Christmas Eve, and whether it was Lotze he had in his mind when he describes how the spirit took him from place to place, until at last—
“Alone by the entrance-door
Of a sort of temple—perhaps a college,
Like nothing I ever saw before
At home in England to my knowledge.
The tall, old, quaint, irregular town—
It may be—though which, I can't
Of the famous middle-age towns of Germany;
Is it Halle, Weimar, Cassel, Frankfort
Or Gottingën, I have to thank for ‘t?
It may be Gottingën—most likely.”
Then he describes how he enters the lecture room and sits down among the students, and a professor comes in:—
“I felt at once as if there ran
A shoot of love from my heart to the man,
Who stood surveying his auditory
With a wan pure look, well-nigh celestial,
Those blue eyes had survived so much,
While under the foot they could not smutch
Lay all the fleshly and bestial.”
The figure of Socrates is typical of the soul of the people of ancient Greece. The figures of Kant and of Lotze are typical of much that has been distinctive in the soul of modern Germany, of its idealism and of its culture. We do well to study such typical figures and to hold them in reverence. Especially do they represent much of what counts for the highest in University life in all countries. And it is in the Universities, with their power over the mind, greater in the end than the power of any government or of any church, that we see how the soul of a people at its mirrors itself. Your University life in this country of Wales is but young. We do not yet see how far it will develop. But what I know of the spirit of your people gives me the sense that the soil in which that young life has taken root is fertile in a high degree.
I will close this address with the words in which Fichte, a hundred and five years since, took leave of his hearers at the University of Erlangen on an occasion like this:—
“If a thought of mine have entered into any now present, and shall abide there as a guide to higher truth, perhaps it may sometimes awaken the memory of this discourse and of me—and only in this way do I desire to live in your recollection!”