One may begin the perusal of the life of with a feeling of repulsion for the man, -- at least that, I confess, was my own experience, -- but one can scarcely lay it down without pity for his tragic failures, and without something like admiration for his reckless devotion to ideas. And all through the reading one is impressed by the truth which his ardent worshipper, Fraulein von Salis-Marschlins, has made the keynote of her characterization: "He -- and this is the salient point -- condemned a whole class of feelings in their excess, not because he did not have them, but just because he did have them and knew their danger." That truth is as important for judging the man as for understanding his philosophy. He was a man terribly at war with himself, and in this very breach in his nature lies the attraction -- power -- fully felt but not always clearly understood -- of his works for the modern world. No doubt, if we look into the causes of his growing popularity, we shall find that a considerable part of his writing is just the sort of spasmodic commonplace that enraptures the half-cultured and flatters them with thinking they have discovered a profound philosophical basis for their untutored emotions. But withal he cannot be quite so easily disposed of. He may be, like Poe, "three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths mere fudge;" but the inspired part of him is the provocative and, it might be said, final expression of one side of the contest between the principles of egotism and sympathy that for two centuries and more has been waging for the polity and morals of the world. We cannot rightly understand unless we find his place in this long debate, and to do this we must take a rapid glance backward.

The problem to which gives so absolute an answer was definitely posed in the eighteenth century, but its peculiarity is best shown by comparing it with the issue -- different in substance though somewhat similar in terms -- of the preceding age. To the dominant moralists of the seventeenth century the basis of human nature was a pure egotism. La Rochefoucauld gave the most finished expression to this belief in his doctrine of amour-propre, displaying itself in a vanity that takes pleasure in the praise of ourselves and a jealousy that takes umbrage at the praise of others. In England the motive of egotism had already been developed by Hobbes into a complete philosophy of the state. "In the first place," said Hobbes, "I put forth, for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death." The natural condition of mankind, therefore, is that every man's hand should be against every other man, and society is the result of a compact by which individuals, since each is unable to defend himself alone against the passions of all others, are driven to mutual concessions. The contrary principle of natural sympathy was involved in the political theories of Grotius and his followers. It is even more fully implied in the vagaries of certain of the sects commonly called Levellers, underlying, for example, the protest of the fanatic company of Diggers who, when arrested for starting a communistic settlement in Surrey, declared that "the time of deliverance was at hand; and God would bring His People out of slavery, and restore them to their freedom in enjoying the fruits and benefits of the Earth.... That their intent is to restore the Creation to its former condition.... That the times will suddenly be, when all men shall willingly come and give up their lands and estates, and submit to this Community of Goods."

In this opposition of Hobbes's notion of the natural condition of man as one of warfare, with the humble effort of the Diggers to restore mankind to a primitive state of equality and fraternity, one may see foreshadowed the ethical theories of self-interest and benevolence which were to be developed in the next century. But there was an element in the theorizing of the seventeenth century which quite separates these men from their successors. Above the idea of nature hovered, more or less distinctly, the idea of a supernatural power. Even Hobbes, though he was repudiated by his own party as an atheist, completes his conception of the civil commonwealth dependent on the law of nature with a Christian commonwealth based on supernatural revelation and the will of God. So, on the other hand, the political schemes of fraternity were almost universally subordinate to notions of theocratic government. Of purely natural sympathy, as it was later to be developed into the sole source of virtue, the epoch had comparatively little thought. This distinction is of the utmost importance in the history of ethics, and may be rendered more precise by consideration of a few lines from that erudite scholar, but crabbed poet, Dr. Henry More. In his Cupid's Conflict the Platonist becomes almost lyrical when this theme is touched:--

When I my self from mine own self do quit
And each thing else; then an all-spreaden love
To the vast Universe my soul doth fit,
Makes me half equall to All-seeing Jove.
My mightie wings high stretch'd then clapping light
I brush the starres and make them shine more bright.
Then all the works of God with close embrace
I dearly hug in my enlarged arms,
All the hid paths of heavenly Love I trace
And boldly listen to his secret charms.

The same idea occurs more than once in the mystical doctor's prose, which was, if truth be told, a good deal more poetical than his verse. "And even the more Miserable Objects in this present Scene of things," he somewhere writes, "cannot divest him of his Happiness, but rather modifie it; the Sweetness of his Spirit being melted into a kindly compassion in the behalf of Others: Whom if he be able to help, it is a greater Accession to his joy; and if he cannot, the being Conscious to himself of so sincere,a compassion, and so harmonious and suitable to the present State of things, carries along with it some degree of Pleasure, like Mournful Notes of Musick exquisitely well fitted to the Sadness of the Ditty."

It is clear that this sense of compassion is a motive utterly different in kind from the sympathy which meant so much to the next age; to pass from one to the other a great principle had to be eliminated from the philosophy of human conduct, and this principle was manifestly the sense of the divine, of the infinite which stood apart from mortal passions and of which some simulacrum resided in the human breast. The man who effectcd this revolution, partly by virtue of his own genius and partly as spokesman of his time, was John Locke, whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690 as the result of eighteen years of reflection, became the bible, so to speak, of the next century. Locke did not expressly deny the existence of a supernatural world. To explain our sense of morality he still had recourse to a law of God imposed upon man by decree and without any corresponding law in nature; and he began his philosophical discussion by a kind of apology, declaring that "God having endued man with those faculties of knowing which he hath, was no more obliged by His Goodness to plant those innate notions in his mind, than that, having given him reason, hands, and materials, He should build him bridges or houses." But, having thus apologetically cleared the field, Locke proceeded to elaborate a theory of sensations and ideas which really leaves no place in the human soul for anything outside of the phenomenal laws of nature.

One of the first and strangest fruits of this new naturalism was Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, which undertakes to show by the apologue of a hive of bees that the welfare of a State is the result of the counterbalancing of the passions of its individual citizens, that, in a word, private vices are public virtues:--

Thus every Part was full of Vice, Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.

The poem in itself was not much more than a clever jeu d'esprit, but the Remarks and the Inquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, which he published in defence of his thesis, are among the acutest psychological tracts of the age. "I believe man," he says, "(besides skin, flesh, bones, etc., that are obvious to the eye) to be a compound of various passions, that all of them, as they are provoked and come uppermost, govern him by turns, whether he will or no." The passions which produce the effect of virtue are those that spring from pride and the sense of power and the desire of luxury. "Pity," he adds, "though it is the most gentle and the least mischievous of all our passions, is yet as much a frailty of our nature, as anger, pride,or fear. The weakest minds have generally the greatest share of it, for which reason none are more compassionate than women and children." Such a theory of the passions is a legitimate, if onesided, deduction from the naturalistic philosophy as it left the hands of Locke; the ethical conclusions, it will be observed, have a curious similarity with the later system of Nietzsche. The theory of Mandeville was too violently in opposition to the common sense of mankind to produce much direct influence, but it remained as a great scandal of letters. It brought the author an indictment before the grand jury of Middlesex for impiety; and as late as 1765 Diderot, in his criticism of a large and inartistic painting, could be understood when he exclaimed: "What shall we do with such a thing? You who defend the Fable of the Bees will no doubt say to me that it brings money to the sellers of paints and canvas. To the devil with sophists! With them good and evil no longer exist!"

The real exegete of Locke's Scripture, he who made naturalism current by finding within it, without recourse to any extrinsic law, a sufficient principle of moral conduct, was David Hume. Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739 and 1740, fell dead from the press, and was in part repudiated when, in 1751, he put forth his shorter Inquiry into the Principles of Morals. Yet there is in reality no fundamental difference between his earlier and later theories, and the doctrines which passed to Rousseau and Kant were fully and definitely pronounced in the Treatise written before the author had completed his twenty-ninth year. Those doctrines had been foreshadowed, so to speak, by Shaftesbury, but Shaftesbury, though one of the leading influences of the age, was too confused or indolent a thinker to clear his ideas of the gorgeous rhetoric that involved them. With Hume rhetoric was supplanted by an insatiable desire of analysis. He begins by resolving the world into an absolute flux, wherein the only reality for us is a succession of sensations, beyond which all is a fiction of the imagination. I enter a room and perceive a certain chair; if after an interval of time I return to the room and perceive the same chair, the feeling that this object of perception and the former are identical is merely created by my "propensity to feign." Our notion of cause and effect is likewise a fiction, due to the fact that we have perceived a certain sequence of phenomena a number of times, and have come to associate them together; we have no real assurance that a similar sequence will happen another time.

And human nature is equally a flux, without any element of unity or identity. An idea is nothing more than a reproduced and fainter sensation, and all knowledge is nothing more than probability. There is no persistent self, but only a "succession of related ideas and impressions, of which we have an intimate memory and consciousness." In this flood of sensations pleasure and pain alone can be the motives of action, and to pleasure and pain alone our notion of virtue and vice must be ultimately reduced.

In his analysis of the moral sense Hume begins with the conception of property, upon which he raises the superstructure of society. Self-interest is fundamentally opposed to admitting the claims of others to possession, but the only way I can be assured of retaining what I possess is by allowing my neighbor to retain what he possesses. Justice, then, is a mutual concession of self-interests for the advantage of each. A just act is an act that is useful at once to society and the individual by strengthening the security of property. But a just act is not in itself virtuous -- the sense of virtue is the agreeable emotion, or passion, as Hume calls it, that comes to us when we perceive a man perform an act of justice which, by the power of throwing ourselves sympathetically into the position of others, we feel to be indirectly useful to ourselves. The pleasurable emotion of self-interest is the motive of just action, the pleasurable emotion of sympathy with an act of justice in which we are not immediately concerned is the sense of virtue.

Besides this passion of justice which is necessary for the very existence of society, Hume recognized certain minor passions, such as benevolence, which are not instigated by mutual self-interest, but spring directly from the inherent tendency of man to sympathize with his fellows. Manifestly there are serious difficulties in this reduction of virtue and vice to agreeable and disagreeable passions. It leaves no motive for virtue when the individual has become conscious of the basis of justice in the mutual concessions of self-interest, and asks why he should not foster this concession by the appearance of surrendering his native rights while secretly grasping all in his power; it furnishes no clear difference between the passions which actuate the hero and the gourmet, a Nathan Hale uttering his regret that he had only one life to give for his country and a Talleyrand saying placidly, "Fate cannot harm me; I have dined." The lacunae point to some vital error in Hume's philosophy, but his theory of self-interest and sympathy was none the less the first clear expression of a revolutionary change in thought and morals.

Twenty years after the date of Hume's Treatise his friend Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which the doctrine of sympathy was carried a long step forward. Utility is still the measure of virtue and vice, but a man now not only has the sense of virtue from sympathy with an act of justice, but is himself led to act justly through a sense of sympathy with the feelings that his conduct will arouse in others. Furthermore, through the habit of reflection we come to harbor a kind of impersonal sympathy with, or antipathy to, our own acts similar to that which we feel for the acts of others. "It is not" says Smith, "the love of our neighbor, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters." Thus in the system of Adam Smith sympathy becomes the actuating cause of virtue and is even able to transform self-love into a motive wearing the mask of absolute virtue.

Part III

Revised February 3, 2001