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THE PURPOSE OF LIFE.
WHEN, therefore, we are told that the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life, the object proposed to us is not definite until this preliminary question is answered,-" What happiness?" Nor does it. suffice to answer-"The greatest happiness of the greatest number," for this definition is, itself, not less in need of explanation. And since happiness refers rather to the consequences of action than to its essential quality, we are required, by such an object, to form an estimate of consequences near and remote, with all that risk of error attached to a fallible reason and a limited foresight. But were these things not so, to set up the pursuit of happiness as the purpose of life lowers the standard that should measure the spiritual and moral stature of men. True it is that no one can be indifferent to the serene delight that goes with him, when goodness is the moving power and wisdom the guide. Were that absent it is possible that goodness might languish for want of its true satisfactions, and the eye of wisdom grow dim, if uncheered by the hues of glory which heaven sheds over all its path. But these delights are conditions resultant from love and wisdom not their objects; and we speak now of that which should be the dominant purpose of a true life, and not of the states of feeling which are its
It may, indeed, be true that genuine happiness constantly evades him who pursues it for its own sake; and that perfect bliss is impossible to one whose chief purpose it is to enjoy, and so to regulate his conduct that he may enjoy. The element of selfishness in such a principle of action even when a course of outward moral rectitude forms part of the means to the end, removes it to a point indefinitely below the Christianity which teaches "to do good hoping for nothing again." And the introduction of that element is a limitation by so much of the capacity of enjoyment. For only in the fullest and freest exercise of our noblest powers of volition and thought is the highest happiness possible. But what we give is the measure of our capacity to receive. And he who without a thought looking backward to himself, pours out his whole powers of affection, thought, and action for others, he it is who can receive in fullest measure a noble, vigorous and abounding life. In him the pulse of a pure and lofty joy bounds highest. He widens, indeed, the sphere of his sympathies, and adds force to the outflow of his life precisely in the ratio in which selfishness is diminished. His
THE PURPOSE OF LIFE.
spirit sends out tentaculæ, as it were, to an ever-widening circle; and if, in the sensitiveness which comes of his vivid life, he feels acutely the sorrows of others, yet is there the large compensation of being able to exult in their joy. He lives not alone his own life; he lives in a sort the lives of all with whom his own life is linked. This is so because, giving no thought to his own happiness, caring not to pursue that which ever flies and eludes the pursuer, he thinks only of the good to be cherished in him and to be done about him. But your hunters after happiness get weariness of soul for the wages of their labour. And this the more as the soul narrows under the cramping influence of that selfishness which is inherent in the principle prompting to this pursuit.
If, however, this new gospel which teaches that we are to seek as the object of life the greatest happiness of the greatest number is condensed into a word that word is "utility." That is to deliver us from the strife of creeds which by the smoke and dust of their conflict darken the ways of plain and honest men. This word is to be the infallible touchstone at once of religion, morals, politics, and law. But we again ask for a definition of this utility which is to indicate infallibly what we are to do and avoid. For to us it appears that the word will convey to various minds ideas of every extent of difference up to the point of absolute opposition. For the conception of the useful like that of happiness is dependent upon the condition of mind and heart; and the words service. and disservice, useful and useless, may stand for precisely the same set of acts and objects when employed by different men.
If an angel were to explain to us his conception of the useful he would, no doubt, express himself in language quite Utopian to the very practical men of our day. He would tell us, perhaps, that life was given that so the love of God might find its satisfaction in the growth of man into His own image and likeness. That man to be receptive of this character must put away all the hindrances which evil and error, in heart and mind, present to its acceptance. That he must cultivate that goodness of heart and honest reception of the truth which will help his development to the full stature he was designed to reach. That life and the things of life are of use to him as they help him not to will, think or do that which he ought not, and to will, think and do that which he ought. That his body, goods, honour, influence, and his whole outward life are only of use as they promote these objects. That all dignities and powers, all riches, health, and outward good, are worthless things if they lead not to this goal and help his progress thither. That life is not, in such case, the less a failure utter and disastrous though the irreparable ruin be hidden beneath the pomp and show of rank and
THE PURPOSE OF LIFE.
fortune. That poverty and pain, and all indignities, all the arduous toils and fruitless efforts of a struggling life are things of high utility if they lead us to the accomplishment of that great purpose. In fine, looking at the world of time from that other sphere to which this is but the short pathway, at the body and its surroundings from the imperishable soul, he calls things useful or hurtful as they make or mar the spirit for its eternal home.
Now take the idea of utility formed by your able, active man of business and pleasure, who rushes armed into the conflict of interests to clutch the prize that falls to strength or skill, and at intervals takes his ease amid the luxurious surroundings of modern life. His talk will be of schemes whereby money may be made; of railways, ships, commerce, trade; of stocks and shares, of wonderful projects started under high auspices and leading inevitably to fortune. He will tell you that the useful to him is that which means money, makes money, is money; that money commands everything else worth having in this world; and that the extent to which other things aid in its acquisition is the measure of their utility. Even the mind itself is valued by him according to its money-making worth; and the swift energy of character, keen perception, and rapid calculation of the chances of gain or loss which make up so large a part of the business character, are precisely those mental qualities which make the mind of any value to him. And if the body could live and make money without any soul at all, he would, probably, vote the soul a superfluity.
To some, again, the idea of utility is expressed by a world without flowers; and only those things that help to hew wood and draw water, to spin, weave, plough, sow and reap, bake and brew can lay fair claim to being solidly useful. Such people never can understand a rainbow, the advancing glory of the dawn, or the falling glory of the sunset; and Nature's living pictures of mountain and ocean, sky and clouds, woods, streams and lakes are not great works of art to them, but have wholly another meaning. Woods, for instance, are good for timber, streams give water, drive mills, and contain fish. They understand that solid work is done when something is excavated, hewn, built, or manufactured. But grace, beauty, art, poetry, and all refinement are to them interlopers in this world; and they view even the flowers with, diminished favour because they are not turnips or potatoes.
Nor could we venture upon a statement of all the interpretations which the deeds better than the words of men give to this term "utility.” The nature of man, in itself most various, and the education received from books and circumstances increasing the differences established by
THE PURPOSE OF LIFE.
nature, make it impossible that all should form the same idea of the meaning conveyed by this expression. And they who hope to introduce greater simplicity into morals and the conduct of life by making utility the standard of measurement for action will be disappointed. For the differences as to what is useful will certainly not be less than those which obtain as to the meaning of Scriptural texts; and the sects of utilitarianism will bid fair to rival in number if not in rancour their predecessors of the theological schools. For we shall have the utilitarian who believes that the undivided pursuit of mundane interests can alone secure the happiness of our race, and that religion, giving the supreme place to other interests and another world, must operate adversely to the well-being of mankind. We shall have those of the same school who affirm that religion may be made a very useful thing, not only in awing the vulgar, but in improving even the morals and manners of the better sort. Utilitarianism, in fact, will have its sects moral, social, and political, and its wordy warfare will not rage less loudly because it changes the battle-ground of human reason from the isms to the ologies. We do not think, therefore, that the utilitarians can make it one of their claims to attention that they will conclude by a lasting peace the bitter logomachy which has raged among the creeds for a thousand years.
We do not, however, mean to affirm that when a given act is right in the abstract, it is needless to ask whether it is useful to do it then, there, and under existing circumstances. For prudence performs a large part in human affairs; and if it has nothing to do with the essential principles of conduct, at least, it can so modify their expression in the matters of time, manner, and circumstance, as to get justice done with the smallest possible amount of disturbance and suffering. It is not against this wise reference to the utility of an action abstractly right that these remarks are directed; but against that doctrine which calls an action right or wrong as narrow views of expediency determine for or against it. We speak against that timid code of morality which has not faith enough to trust to the results of a great principle when they are hidden in darkness, and which puts even justice aside when it does not coincide with the immediately useful and politic. Nor is it an imaginary danger that when men measure all action by the standard of utility, they will too often forget that the temporary advantage of an injustice which appears to be sanctioned by expediency is invariably followed by disasters which indefinitely outweigh the deceptive benefits secured.
But this reference to utility, or the useful consequences of action, as the leading principle of morals, again puts man in the false position of
THE PURPOSE OF LIFE.
playing providence to himself and others. For the due performance of this part it need scarcely be said, he has no faculties. He has not foresight enough to trace the least of his acts to its ultimate consequences; nor can he determine in relation to himself, still less in relation to others, what may be the useful thing to do so far as the whole consequences of his acts are concerned. And in large and complex affairs the impossibility of estimating the consequences of action, except in the most vague and general manner, is still more apparent. And even these imperfect calculations of results are as variable, different, and opposite as are the mental and moral qualities and states of men. Why then should we prefer that doctrine of utility which is the morality of consequences, to that morality of principles which is based upon the eternal laws of right? The former demands powers which we have not, and must lead to conduct ever varying and conflicting; the latter supplements human weakness by the strength of a Divine Wisdom, and in following that, whether we see results or see them not, we can work on in the firm faith that they will be best.
Already men are prone enough to exaggerate their own powers, and to act as though their prudence could supersede Providence. But the doctrines to which we refer tend to destroy wholly that wise simplicity which can say, when the results are complicated and obscure," This is right; this will I do; the issues are hidden in darkness; but they will be best." He who thus speaks and acts falls back upon Providence and the eternal order and fitness of things, in the consciousness that the action which is at one with these, must issue in all good uses for himself and others. He is not a prey to the delusion that he grasps in his puny hand the whole complex of affairs in all their remotest consequences, and can determine from his estimate of these that which it is right or wrong to do. For he knows the limitations of his powers, accepts them, and is strong in the knowledge of his weakness, wise in the recognition of his ignorance. The disasters resulting from the want of this knowledge on the part of your exceedingly clever people are too numerous to be briefly told. They will form the subject matter of that great History of Mistakes yet to be written, from which it will appear how profound policy, astute expediency, and the careful calculation of consequences have led the world into an entangling network of blunders and crimes, from which extrication is only possible by a return to the principle, that God having made the world its affairs can only be well governed according to His laws.