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  • A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE -
    OF THE OPINIONS OF WILLIAM LAW


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    SOME readers possibly may wish to have a brief account of Law’s intellectual position. It changed very greatly as his life went on.

    At Cambridge he wrote a thesis on Malebranche and the Vision of all Things in God. From the first Mysticism had an attraction for him; but he was never a Platonist. Nor, indeed, though one of the keenest and most logical of men, was he ever a clear and consistent thinker on first principles.

    We see his early position best in his controversies with Mandeville and Tindal. In his criticism of the Fable of the Bees he insists on the “eternal fitness of actions.” But he immediately proceeds to explain this phrase away. Actions are fit or good when they promote that happiness which is “the perfection of every being” — “the only reasonable end of every being.”

    But upon what does happiness depend? We learn this from the Case of Reason, the reply to Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation.

    Happiness is relative to our condition, and depends on what we are. And what we are, both in mind and body, depends wholly on the will of God.

    No action is moral or immoral in itself. “To instance, in the case of Abraham, required to sacrifice his son, the killing of a man is neither good nor bad, considered absolutely in itself.” But, when God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac, the act became necessary to Abraham’s happiness, and therefore right.

    It is curious to notice that this is exactly the position of Duns Scotus. But it is more important to observe that we have here the key to the tremendous emphasis laid by Law, in the Serious Call, on the virtue of obedience. All duty resolves itself into a command of the Almighty, and we have no course but to submit. Virtue is, as Law expressed it in his Cambridge rule, not likeness to God, but “doing the will of God.”

    Again, “we know,” says Law, “our moral and social duties, which have their foundation in the conveniences of this life, and the several relations we bear to one another.” But our relation to God we do not know; “this is a question which God alone can resolve. Human reason cannot enter into it; it has no principle to proceed upon in it.”

    The Deists maintained that those who have reason do not want revelation, because reason teaches us our duty both to God and man. Further, that if revelation is not reason, reason cannot test, and therefore cannot accept it.

    Further, that the Bible revelation is bad, because the conduct of Abraham was not reasonable. These are the objections that Law had to meet, and he meets them by falling back upon the arbitrary will of God In effect, he replies Christianity is true because it is true. Obviously, it is not a satisfactory reply; but it is not even acute.

    Let the reader compare here the answer given by St Augustine. The same difficulty as to the Old Testament morality that was forced upon Law by the Deists was forced upon Augustine by the Manichees. Augustine replies (Conf. iii. 9) that all men have some knowledge of God, and that this is the criterion of right and wrong. This knowledge grows in the individual and in the world, and the law which it supplies is not capable of absolutely perfect expression in conduct. Hence we must distinguish motive from action, times earlier from times later; we must take account of history, and recognize the fact of moral evolution. Augustine admits that God may command “some strange and unexpected act,” but adds the significant words, “Blessed are they who know that Thou hast commanded.” Law confines the distinction of right and wrong to action, admits no criterion but that of happiness, and has no historical sense at all.

    As to revelation, Augustine would have answered that it is simply more reason; that it leads us higher, but on the same lines; that it sheds light on what we knew before, and brings completer harmony into previous experience: hence, that though we do not know beforehand what it will be, as Tindal fancied we ought, we can recognize it when it comes, as Newton recognized the lawn of motion when he had discovered them, or when they had been “revealed” to him. Law says, “The credibility of any external divine revelation with regard to human reason, rests wholly upon such external evidence as is a sufficient proof of the divine operation or interposition … I appeal, therefore, to the miracles and prophecies on which Christianity is founded.”

    Law, in fact, held a thoroughly empirical view of Reason, derived neither from Descartes nor from Malebranche, but from Locke. His intellectual position was Agnosticism. To this in his earlier days he added Authority; in his later Mysticism, or special revelation; but in both periods his creed was external — was, we may say, an appendix to his philosophy — and was not linked by any vital process to his theoretical opinions.

    The most fatal mistake a theologian can make is to set Will above Reason.

    The next worst is to set Love above Reason. Law fell out of one of these errors into the other. He never altered his views of Reason; indeed, in his later writings he speaks of it with a passionate scorn.

    Is theology a matter of temperament? Law was not wise, but he had a strong will and a tender heart, and when he found that his earlier views would not accord him the assurance that he needed, he threw himself into the arms of one who was even more tender-hearted than himself, Jacob Behmen, the illuminated cobbler of Gorlitz.

    Even before he wrote his reply to Tindal, Law was a diligent reader of mystical books. His special favorites appear to have been a Kempis, Ruysbroek, Tauler, and the Theologia Germanica, who all preach the religion of the heart. The French mystics of the seventeenth century — Madame de Guyon, Madame Bourignon, and the rest — he knew but did not like; there was too much hysteria about them to suit his manly temper.

    But somewhere about 1733 he fell in with Behmen, who took him by storm. Thus Law, who, in his Three Letters to Hoadly, had scornfully lumped together Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, and Socinians as “Enthusiasts,” became an enthusiast himself.

    Behmen’s works had existed in English since 1641. They gave birth to more than one mystical sect, and, in particular, inspired George Fox. They led also to a great increase in that love for alchemy, which, as we know from Aubrey’s Lives, was so common at the time. They induced Isaac Newton to waste three months in reaching for the philosopher’s stone, and suggested the line of inquiry which issued in the discovery of the Laws of Motion. It was the mystic belief in the unity of Nature that guided Newton in either case.

    In the eighteenth century Behmen was widely read. “In winter evenings,” says Rusticus in the Way to Divine Knowledge, “when John the shepherd comes out of the fields, his own eyes being bad, the old woman, his wife, puts on her spectacles, and reads about an hour to him, sometimes out of the Scriptures, and sometimes out of Jacob Behmen. I sat by him one evening, when my old dame, reading Behmen, had much ado to get on. “John,” said I, “do you understand all this?” “Ah,” says he, “God bless the heart of the dear man, I sometimes understand but little of him; and mayhap Betty does not always read aright; but that little which I often do understand does me so much good that I love him where I do not understand him” The truth is that it is not easy, nor, to be frank, is it possible to understand Behmen, who was rather Theosopher than Mystic. We can see that he was a man of gentle, loving disposition, and when he speaks of the sovereign goodness of God we can follow his meaning. But his visions and revelations are among those that have brought discredit on the name of Mystic — as if it signified a dreamer who is next door to a charlatan.

    To the true Mystic — Augustine is the most perfect type — Nature is the staircase by which we climb towards the knowledge of its Author. Reason is the candle of which Love or Faith is the flame. The Many lead on to the One, — the Visible to the Invisible Earth, in its beauty and intelligibility, is a shadow of heaven; matter guides us towards mind, and is in its turn explained by mind. Thus Mind and Matter, and the reasoning processes in which they meet — Ethics, Science, Art — receive their proper due, as parts of one ordered whole. This is what is often called the sacramental view of nature.

    But the false or bastard Mystic, of whom Behmen is a type, looks for God in his own soul — in a faculty specially imparted for this purpose, and not possessed by all men. There he finds God, and in God all knowledge. The One leads to the Many. The inner light teaches him at once all that there is to be known. Thus he discerns the nature and hidden virtues of things; the signatures of plants, and the diseases they will cure; the affinities of metals, and the method by which they may all be transmuted into gold. He casts away true knowledge and deludes himself with false.

    It will be seen that this stamp of Mysticism is the exact inversion of the first. Augustine exalts Reason and makes full use of it, Behmen abolishes Reason; Augustine regards the world as a stepping-stone to religion, to Behmen the world has no religious value at all. Hence, the invariable notes of what we call the bastard Mysticism are ignorance, presumption, and division. What the writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Henry More the Platonist, branded as Enthusiasm, is as different from true Mysticism as light from darkness. It produces Faustus, but not Augustine.

    Both Fox and Law turned away with English common-sense from the worst extravagances of Behmenism, though Fox was tempted for a moment to set up as a physician on the strength of the inner light. But both took from the Gorlitz cobbler the whole of his wild theory of the Fall and Redemption. Fox went boldly on to the logical consequence of Behmenism, and rejected all forms, including the sacraments. Behmen himself did not take this perilous step. Nor did Law. But Law adopted a whole set of idle fancies, which are best passed by in silence. Those who care to go further into this melancholy topic, may read his Grounds and Reason of Christian Regeneration. What is more serious still, Law completely severed his connection with history, which had never been strong. He remained a High Churchman, but without any sort of inner consistency.

    Yet what a strange thing Mysticism is, and what power and beauty attach even to its most perverted forms! Behmenism supplied a fruitful idea to Newton, and it made Law a better, a more lovable, and even a wiser man.

    In his earlier writings virtue appeared as reasonable self-love; in the later he recognizes that selfishness in any form is not religious. He had made far too much of mechanism and drill: now he insists that goodness must be “a living thing.” He had leant his whole weight on “evidences,” on the props and supports of revelation: now he sees that everything must be its own proof, and that life can be known only by life. He had maintained that goodness is mere utility: now he believes that there is but “one God, one Good, and one Goodness.”

    The Mystic treatises abound in fine sayings. Let us take a few almost at random. “Faith is the power by which a man gives himself up to anything,” whether it be to conduct, to science, to art, or even to politics or business. It follows from this profound definition that Reason is not to be regarded as the antithesis of Faith. “Truth, my friend, whatever you may think of it, is no less than the Savior and Redeemer of the world.” “See that your mind be free, universal, impartial.”

    In fact, a great change had come over Law, and in many ways it was conspicuously for the better. Some readers will think that he gave himself up too unrestrainedly to the worship of Love; that Love, unless guided by Wisdom, is not truly divine; and that here again Law’s fear of Reason had brought him to the verge of grave errors. But we have already been too critical. “Oh Academicus,” we hear Law saying, “forget your Scholarship, give up your Art and Criticism, be a plain man, and then the first rudiments of sense may teach you that there and there only can goodness be, where it comes forth as a Birth of Life, and is the free natural work and fruit of that which lives within us.” These are fine words; only we must not take them quite as Law intended them.

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