Studies in Hegelian Cosmology. John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart 1901
161. Hegel’s doctrine of Sin is complicated, and cannot be found in any single place in his writings. It may, I believe, be accurately summed up as follows. Innocence, Sin, and Virtue are respectively the Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis of a triad. Sin, again, may be analysed into three subordinate terms, which also form a triad – Sin proper, Retribution, and Amendment. There is. therefore, if this theory is correct, something in the nature of Innocence which spontaneously produces Sin, in Sin, which produces Retribution, in Retribution which produces Amendment, and in Amendment which produces Virtue.
Sin, then, is the Thesis in a triad which forms the Antithesis of a larger triad. It is thus both positive and negative – positive within a limited sphere, but negative in-as-much as that whole sphere is negative.
And this does justice to the double nature of sin. All sin is in one sense positive, for it is an affirmation of the sinner’s nature. When I sin, I place my own will in a position of supremacy. This shall be so, because I will it to be so, regardless of the right. But this right, which my sin violates, is itself a far deeper and truer reality than my sinful will. Indeed it is the true reality of that will itself. The fact that I sin implies that I am amenable to the moral law. And that means that it is my nature to be virtuous. If I did not violate the deepest law of my own nature by sinning, it would not be sin. And thus my sin while from one point of view an affirmation of my own nature, is from a more comprehensive standpoint a denial of it. No theory of sin can account for all the facts unless it allows for both these aspects.
162. Before we consider the theory in detail, let us enquire of what species of proof it is susceptible. An a priori proof is impossible. For the subject matter to be dealt with is not exclusively a priori. It contains empirical elements. And therefore the proof must itself be empirical.
We must not, then, demand for these triads a demonstration of the same nature as the demonstrations of the triads of the Logic. For there the terms were a priori, and so were the demonstrations. Moreover the dialectic method, as Hegel uses it in the Logic, could not bring out the results required here. For the result of each of those demonstrations is to prove the lower steps of the process to be inadequate representations of the truth, and so to deprive them of any absolute validity whatever, and reduce them to moments of the higher term which transcends them.
Now Hegel’s object is not to prove that Innocence and Sin are inadequate expressions for a reality for which Virtue is an adequate expression.
He is here speaking of a process in time, and his assertion is that Innocence produces Sin, and Sin produces Virtue. Each of them is a separate phenomenon’ in time, and, front that point of view, one is as real as the other. All temporal processes, no doubt, are based for Hegel on a non-temporal reality, but here he is confining himself to the temporal process. And therefore the Synthesis, though it proceeds from the lower terms, and has a greater significance than they have, is not the sole reality of those terms, as is the case in the transitions of the Logic, which, according to Hegel, go deeper into the truth of things.
All that Hegel has demonstrated a priori is the general nature of reality. His explanations of any empirical fact, such as Sin, must depend on the degree in which they succeed in accounting for the phenomena.
We know that Innocence, Sin, and Virtue exist. In some way or another they must spring from the general nature of reality, as deduced in the Logic. In so far as Hegel’s theory of Sin agrees both with the empirical facts, and with the conclusions of the Logic, we shall have reason to think it true.
It is clear that all the evidence which can support such an argument falls very far short of demonstration. But there is no reason to suppose that Hegel did not see this. As I have pointed out elsewhere there is no trace of any belief on Hegel’s part that the application which he made of his Logic shared the demonstrative certainty which he unquestionably attributed to the Logic itself. He may have been too sanguine as to the degree of certainty which could be attributed to his theories of ethics, of history, and of religion, but we find no assertion that their certainty is of the same nature as that which is possessed by the process of categories leading on to the Absolute Idea.
Before proceeding further, we must notice two points which will be discussed more fully later on. In the first place the triad of Innocence, Sin and Virtue is put forward by Hegel as the sufficient explanation of Sin, but not as the sufficient explanation of Virtue. Sin never occurs except as the Antithesis of such a triad, but Virtue, as we shall see, can occur in other circumstances, and not only as the Synthesis of Innocence and Sin. In the second place, Hegel does not commit himself to the statement that, wherever Innocence is found, the other terms must follow, but only says that there is something in the nature of each term which tends to bring on its successor. What is the precise meaning of such a tendency is a question which must be deferred.
163. The statement of the principal triad – of Innocence, Sin and Virtue – is to be found in the Philosophy of Religion. The third part of this deals with the Absolute Religion, and is divided into three sections, the second of which deals with the “Kingdom of the Son.” This is again subdivided, the third division being entitled “Bestimmung des Menschen.” It is in the first half of this division that Hegel considers the question now before us.
The exposition is too condensed to admit of further abbreviation, but the following passages strike the key-note: – “The primary condition of Man, which is superficially represented as a state of innocence, is the state of nature, the animal state. Man must (soll) be culpable; in so far as he is good, he must not be good as any natural thing is good, but his guilt, his will, must come into play, it must be possible to impute moral acts to him. Guilt really means the possibility of imputation.
“The good man is good along with and by means of his will, and to that extent because of his guilt (Schuld). Innocence (Unschuld) implies the absence of will, the absence of evil, and consequently the absence of goodness. Natural things and the animals are all good, but this is a kind of goodness which cannot be attributed to Man; in so far as be is good, it must be by the action and consent of his will." “The animal, the stone, the plant is not evil; evil is first present within the sphere of knowledge; it is the consciousness of independent Being, or Being-for-self relatively to an Other, but also relatively to an Object which is inherently universal in the sense that it is the Notion, or rational will It is only by means of this separation that I exist independently, for myself, and it is in this that evil lies. To be evil means, in an abstract sense, to isolate myself; the isolation which separates me from the Universal represents the element of rationality, the laws, the essential characteristics of Spirit. But it is along with this separation that Being-for-self originates, and it is only when it appears that we have the Spiritual as something universal, as Law, what ought to be." “The deepest need of Spirit consists in the fact that the opposition in the subject itself has attained its universal, i.e., its most abstract extreme.
This is the division, the sorrow, referred to. That these two sides are not mutually exclusive, but constitute this contradiction in one, is what directly proves the subject to be an infinite force of unity; it can bear this contradiction. This is the formal, abstract, but also infinite energy of the unity which it possesses.
“That which satisfies this need is the consciousness of reconcilement, the consciousness of the abolition, of the nullity of the opposition, the consciousness that this opposition is not the truth, but that, on the contrary, the truth consists in reaching unity by the negation of this opposition, i.e., the peace, the reconciliation which this need demands.
Reconciliation is the demand of the subject’s sense of need, and is inherent in it as being what is infinitely one, what is self-identical.
“This abolition of the opposition has two sides. The subject must come to be conscious that this opposition is not something implicit or essential, but that the truth, the inner reality (das Innere), implies the abolition and absorption of this opposition. Accordingly, .just because it is implicitly, and from the point of truth, done away with in something higher, the subject as such in its Being-for-self can reach and arrive at the abolition of this opposition, that is to say, can attain to peace or reconciliation."
164. Innocence, says Hegel, “implies the absence of will.” This must be taken as a limit only. If Innocence is used as an attribute of conscious beings, it cannot involve the complete absence of will. To suppose that knowledge could exist entirely separated from will would be a mistake of a kind. completely alien to Hegel’s system. But Innocence, as it is used by Hegel, is clearly a matter of degree, and so we can say that, in proportion as a conscious being is innocent, he is devoid of will.
Now whatever is devoid of will is in harmony with the universe. It is only purposes which can be real, and yet out of harmony with all other reality. All facts (including, of course, the existence of purposes, regarded as mental events) must be compatible with one another. If two asserted facts would be incompatible, we are certain that one at least of them is unreal. Every fact therefore is compatible with every other, and so with the universe, which is the unity of which all these facts are differentiations. And there is no meaning in saying that two compatible facts are inharmonious, unless one of them is, or includes, a purpose which the other prevents it from realising.
Whatever is innocent, then, is in harmony with the universe. But this involves, for Hegel, that it is good. For the universe as a whole is most emphatically good for Hegel. He has told us that the real is rational, and the rational is real. Thus he says that “natural things and the animals are all good.” Yet he also says that innocence “implies the absence of goodness.” In this he refers no longer to natural things, but to man. It is evident that a goodness which has nothing to do with the will is not moral goodness.
And a man is not properly called good unless he is morally good. A stone or a cabbage have no possibility of will, and it would be unreasonable to deny their harmony with the universe the name of goodness, on the ground that they do not possess a good will. But a man has a will, and so the possibility of moral goodness. He is therefore to be judged by a more exacting standard, and Hegel will not call him good if he only possesses that harmony which forms the goodness of beings without will.
165. When a man is virtuous, he wills to follow certain principles. These principles, according to Hegel’s idealism, are the same as those in conformity to which the universe works. And, this being so, the virtuous man, like the innocent being, is in harmony with the universe – but this time in a deeper harmony. He is in harmony with it, not merely as a part which cannot be out of harmony, but as an individual who can propose to himself an end, and who has proposed to himself an end which is good, and therefore, since the universe is good, in harmony with the universe. The will is, of course, part of the universe, but it need not be in harmony with it. For that is the nature of will – it is a fact, and causally determined by the world of reality, and yet it may be so determined as to postulate what the world of reality forbids, and to condemn what the world of reality insists on. Where there is will, there can be discord. But between a virtuous will and a righteous universe there is harmony.
Innocence and Virtue agree, then, in the fact that the nature of each of them is good. But Innocence is merely blindly determined to good from the outside. Virtue, on the other hand, freely determines itself to goodness. (It is scarcely necessary to repeat that Hegel’s use of the words Freedom and Self-determination has nothing to do with what is generally called Free-will, but refers simply to the unthwarted development of the internal nature of the agent.) The element which Virtue has, and which Innocence lacks, is the individual and his self-determination.
166. There can be no doubt, for a philosophy like Hegel’s, which finds all reality to be Spirit, that Virtue is higher than Innocence. And, in that case, there will be sub specie temporis a process from one to the other. In what manner may we expect that this will happen? We may reasonably hope that we shall be able to trace in it a dialectic triad. We cannot, for reasons which I have pointed out elsewhere, be certain that we shall be able to do so. But it is at any rate worth trying. All process is, if Hegel’s philosophy is right, of a dialectic nature, and, in spite of the complexity of all concrete phenomena, we may be able to perceive it in this particular case.
The nature of Virtue suggests very strongly that it may turn out to be a Synthesis of Innocence with some other term, since it combines in its unity an element which Innocence possesses, and one in which Innocence is deficient. In that case the other term will emphasise the element in which Innocence is deficient, while it will unduly ignore the element which is specially characteristic of Innocence.
Even apart from the dialectic, this would not be an improbable method of progress. Whether Hegel’s Logic be correct or not, we have only to look round us to see many cases where progress can only be made by successively overestimating each of two complementary and partial truths. Not until the falsity of the first of these, taken in isolation, has driven us on to the second, and that also has proved unsatisfactory by itself, are we in a position to combine both in a really adequate manner.
167. Now if there is such a dialectic process to be traced in this case, the complementary extreme will be the self-determination of the individual regardless of the relation which that determination bears to the good. And thus we get Sin as the remaining term of the triad. For although this random self-determination may sometimes cause me to will something, which it is, more or less, desirable that I should will, the position would still be morally wrong. It is, indeed, the essence of all moral wrong, because it denies all difference between the wrong and the right. Not only do I do what I will – which is a tautology when we are dealing with voluntary action – but this ends the matter. There is no other criterion of action except that I will it. And since all my voluntary actions satisfy this test, all distinctions of good and evil are swept away.
This position is involved in all Sin. It is true that a man often acts sinfully with a perfectly clear intellectual conviction that there is a moral law, and that he is breaking it. But in committing the sin, he rejects the moral law practically, if not theoretically, and the question is one of practice. He decides that for him, at any rate at that minute, the will to do the action shall be its sufficient justification.
By saying that this is of the essence of Sin, we do not imply that nothing can be virtuous, unless it is done from the motive of being virtuous.
It is quite possible to hold that actions from other motives are also virtuous. The position of Sin lies in the assertion – or rather in the practical adoption – of the maxim that my motives need no other justification than the fact that they are my motives.
It should be noted in passing that such self-determination as this can never issue in conduct exactly like that which would be the result of virtue. A sinful motive may result, no doubt, in action which resembles very closely the action which would be taken in similar circumstances by an agent who was acting virtuously. A dishonest judge may condemn for a bribe a man who really deserves condemnation. A subscription to a charity, which was given to catch a title, may be used for the effective relief of real misery. But content and form are never without some influence on one another. And an action inspired by a sinful motive will never exactly resemble an action inspired by a virtuous motive, though they may, of course, share some particular characteristic, which from some particular point of view may be the only important one.
Sin, then, is the complementary moment to Innocence. And it is clear that Innocence precedes Sin, and does not follow it. Innocence is therefore the Thesis, and Sin the Antithesis.
168. This stage is the most novel, and the most paradoxical, of the whole theory. The arguments for it, as was remarked above, rely on the fact that it is consistent with the general nature of reality, as demonstrated by Hegel in the Logic, and that it is able to explain, on the basis of that general nature, the existence of Sin. But we are now in a position to notice that it is only able to explain the existence of Sin on the assumption of the existence of Evil.
Evil is, of course, a much wider conception than Sin, which implies a conscious acceptance of Evil. Whatever is imperfect is evil. Innocence is therefore evil as much as Sin is. Indeed, it is in one sense more evil, for it is further from Virtue. Now Hegel’s explanation of Sin is that it is the inevitable transition from Innocence to Virtue. But this leaves unexplained the necessity of any progress towards Virtue at all. Why is the first step in the time-process anything so imperfect, and therefore so evil, as Innocence? If Virtue is the perfect state, why, in a rational universe, were we not all virtuous all along? Why do we find ourselves in such a position that we have to climb up to Virtue by means of Sin? This is part of the general question of the origin of Evil. Hegel’s treatment of this subject does not fall within the scope of this chapter.
169. It is clear from the sections of the Philosophy of Religion to which I have referred that Hegel regards the movement from Innocence to Sin as followed and completed by a movement from Sin to Virtue.
But the details of this are not given by him here. When, however, he deals, in the Philosophy of Law, with the. action of the state as regards crime, he does, as we have seen, give a triad, which in this special case leads from Sin to Virtue. We have, first, Sin. Then, as the Antithesis, comes Punishment. The result, in which both the assertion of self in Sin, and the suppression of self in Punishment, are contained, is Repentance. The relation of Punishment and Repentance to Sin is not regarded by Hegel as invented by society for its own advantage, but as due to the inherent nature of Sin. It is not, I think, an unreasonable inference to conclude that an analogous process is to be found in the case of those other transitions from Sin to Virtue which are not due to the punishments deliberately inflicted by other human beings, acting as conscious guardians of right. Hegel, so far as I know, does not state this view anywhere. But his emphasis, in the Philosophy of Law, on the inevitability of the relation is so strong that I think we are justified in holding that he believed some such relation to exist in every case of Sin.
170. In every case of Sin, then, there would follow suffering consequent on it, and tending to repress the self-assertion in which the sin consisted. And when this had been effected, the agent would be in a condition in which he was freed from his sin. It would, however, be inconvenient to use in all cases the terms Punishment and Repentance.
The common use of Punishment confines it to cases of suffering inflicted by a conscious being with the explicit motive of counteracting the sin in some way. And we do not usually speak of the effect of Punishment on a man except in cases where the suffering is realised by him to have been inflicted because of a belief that he had sinned. The effect of a penalty which was not recognized to be meant as a penalty would scarcely be called the effect of Punishment.
Now if we are speaking of suffering which always follows Sin, we shall have to exclude these two elements. It may be true that it always does follow. But it certainly is not always inflicted by other men as a punishment for the sin, nor is it always recognized by the sinner as the consequence of his action. The word Punishment is therefore rather inappropriate, and, for this wider meaning, it might be more suitable to use Retribution.
In the same way, Repentance is not used except in cases where the sin is remembered, and explicitly regretted. In this sense Repentance cannot be an invariable step between Sin and Virtue, for there are many cases where our recovery from a past fault simply consists in the gradual development of a more healthy character, and where we cannot repent of the sin, because it is not remembered – perhaps, indeed, was never recognized as a sin at all. Here too, therefore, we shall require a fresh term. Now the word Amendment is not, I think, limited, like Repentance, to a process of whose ethical meaning the agent is conscious, and thus it will be suitable for our present purpose.
The sub-triad of Sin, then, will be made up of the following members, Sin proper, Retribution, and Amendment. And in this way, as I remarked at the beginning of the chapter, Hegel does justice both to the positive and the negative aspects of Sin. It is negative as against Innocence and Virtue. For it consists in opposition to that order of the universe which Innocence blindly obeys and Virtue freely accepts. But from another point of view Sin, as the assertion of the ultimate value of the particular individual in his particularity, is just the unbridled positive, which requires checking and moderating. Both these characteristics are accounted for by taking Sin as the Thesis in a triad which is itself an Antithesis.
171. But why, it may be asked, does Retribution follow, or at all events tend to follow, every act of Sin, independently of the conscious efforts of mankind to inflict Punishment? The answer is that the universe agrees with the ideals of morality. In so far, therefore, as any man seeks his good in ends which are incompatible with those ideals, he is placing his will in opposition to the principles which regulate the world as a whole, and which are the deeper truth of his own nature. And thus he must be baffled – either by external things, or, if that should not happen, by the internal discord which his action will produce in himself.
It is in this second form that the inevitability of Retribution, and its intrinsic connection with sin, are most clearly shown. The whole position of Sin is contradictory, in a way which Hegel’s system brings out, perhaps, with greater clearness than any other. For Sin depends on the emphasis laid on the self. The attitude of the sinner is that what he wants is of supreme importance. And he is so far right, that every self is of supreme importance, and that its claim to be treated as an end is entirely justifiable. But, while the sinner is right in treating himself as of supreme importance, he is wrong in his conception of his nature. The true self of any man is not something which exists in particularity and isolation, and which finds its satisfaction in the gratification of desires arising from its particular and isolated nature. On the contrary it only exists in its individuality by reason of its necessary and vital unity with all other selves, and it can only find satisfaction in so far as it places its good in the realisation, by means of its individual nature, of that unity.
The only true peace for the self is to be found in its free self-determination to carry out the purpose of the universe, since that purpose is its own deepest nature; and the purpose of the universe – the universe which has been demonstrated to be rational – is in accordance with the principles of Virtue.
Thus Sin is a contradiction, since it at once asserts the supreme value of the self, and seeks satisfaction in that which – just because the self has supreme value – can never satisfy. To commit sin is very like drinking sea-water to quench thirst. And, like the drinking of sea-water, it requires no external retribution, but brings about its own.
172. From Retribution follows Amendment. If what has been said above is correct, it follows that in the long run sin must always disgust the person who commits it. You have only got to go on sinning long enough to have it borne in on you with ever increasing force that it is not in this way that true self-satisfaction is to be found. With a pessimistic theory of the universe, indeed, it might be possible to condemn certain conduct as sinful, and yet to maintain that it yielded all the satisfaction which could be got in such a very imperfect world. Or again, another theory might hold that there was in this respect some fundamental and original difference between one man and another, so that some of them would find their true satisfaction in sin, and would never be deterred from it simply by experience of it. But neither of these views is possible for Hegel. The true nature of every self, he maintains, is such that it can only find satisfaction in its own free co-operation with the purpose of the universe. And so experience will bring home to it inevitably that it cannot find satisfaction in sin.
But is this conviction properly to be called Amendment? We took this term to designate a state analogous to Repentance and indicating a moral improvement. Can what we have reached be called a moral improvement, or is it simply the correction of a miscalculation? Is it anything more than a discovery that sin does not pay, and can that be called a moral advance? There would, certainly, be no moral significance in a discovery that sin would fail to produce satisfaction because of some external circumstance which has been arbitrarily attached to it. But then this is not what happens. It is the sin itself which, in the process of Retribution, loses the charm which it had hitherto possessed. It had been committed because the agent imagined that he could find satisfaction in it. It is abandoned because he learns that he cannot – just because it is sin.
Now this is a moral change. The difference between a vicious man and a virtuous man is precisely that the former finds his satisfaction in sin, and the latter in virtue. It is impossible to eliminate so much reference to self as is implied in this. A man need not act for his own pleasure, but he must always act for his own satisfaction. And thus no more fundamental expression could be found for a moral change than the realisation that sin did not and could not satisfy the sinner. To stop sinning because some of the consequences of sin are unsatisfactory is simply prudence. But to stop sinning because sin itself has become unsatisfactory is to become virtuous.
To realise that sin cannot give satisfaction is, in itself, only a negative result. Taken by itself, it might teach us not to sin, but could scarcely teach us to do anything else. But then it is not taken by itself. It is only an incident in the development of a self which is implicitly moral all through, though it requires to be made explicitly so. In passing to Sin from Innocence a man is so far right – that he realises the supreme importance of himself. He has only mistaken what his self really is. And when that mistake is corrected, there remains the perception that the self has to be satisfied, coupled with the new perception that nothing will satisfy us that is not virtuous.
173. All this, it may be objected, is not very like the Repentance brought about by Punishment, of which Hegel speaks in the Philosophy of Law. For there the Punishment is not an inevitable and inherent consequence of the crime, but is something which is affixed to it by the decision of the law-givers. Their decision indeed is not arbitrary, but does not arise spontaneously out of the crime. And, besides, the Punishment is not the failure of the crime to produce the satisfaction sought for, but a distinct and independent evil annexed to it.
But we must remember that the effect of punishment, in the triad described in the last chapter, does not arise from the fact that it is something unpleasant which balances the satisfaction to be expected from the crime. For if this were the effective element, it is clear that the result could only be deterrent, and not that which I have called purifying. Now it is the purifying effect of which Hegel is speaking. And the work of Punishment in producing this result is simply to force on the attention of the criminal the fact that his crime is condemned by some moral authority which he is not prepared explicitly to reject. The work of Punishment is thus to crush the false independence of the subject, so as to give a chance to the true independence to manifest itself. And this is just what is done by the inherent collapse of Sin, which I have called Retribution.
Their functions are thus analogous. It is only in so far as this analogy arises that Hegel is interested in Punishment at all – in so far, that is, as Punishment reveals to the criminal that the crime is not the outcome of his deepest nature. When the effect is preventive, or merely deterrent, or merely vindictive, Hegel finds no philosophical meaning in it.
174. From Amendment we now pass to Virtue. In the larger triad Virtue is the Synthesis of Innocence and Sin. That it is in its right place here will be seen from what has been already said. Innocence has the positive quality of being in harmony with the good. But it has the defect of not being a free self-determination of the individual. And thus it is not really in harmony with the good, because it is not in harmony with it in the way which is appropriate to a conscious being. A conscious being, who imitates the goodness of a stone, is not good, but bad. On the other hand Sin has the positive quality of being a self-determination. But then it is not in harmony with the good. And the good is the essential nature of every conscious being. And so Sin turns out not to be really an assertion, but a negation of the true individuality of the sinner.
Thus each of the two terms is found, by means of its defects, to involve a contradiction. Because Innocence is only good, it is not good but bad. Because Sin only asserts Individuality, it does not assert, but rather negates it. But Virtue transcends these imperfections, and therefore resolves these contradictions. It is really good, because it is really self-determination. It is really self-determination, because it is really good.
175. If we take into account the sub-triad of Sin, the immediate transition to Virtue will be from Amendment, which is the Synthesis of the sub-triad. The relation which exists between the Synthesis of one triad and the commencement of the next is expressed by Hegel in the formula that, in passing from the one to the other, the notion “collapses into immediacy.” It would be difficult perhaps to find a clearer example of such a collapse into immediacy than the transition from Amendment to Virtue.
The phrase means, I think, that whereas in the Synthesis the result gained is looked at as the result of a process, as having overcome the contradictions which had been developed in the lower terms, in the new Thesis it is looked on as the starting-point of a new process, as something which leaves the old contradictions and its victories over them behind it, which asserts itself as the absolute truth, and which consequently lays itself open – except in the case of the Absolute Idea – to the demonstration that it is still imperfect, and will therefore develop fresh contradictions.
It may be said that the idea looks, before the collapse, to the past, and, after it, to the future.
Such a time-reference must of course be merely metaphorical when we are dealing with the transitions of the Logic itself. But when we come to the applications of the dialectic to events in the time-process, we may expect to find it more than a metaphor. And this is just what we do find in this particular case. Amendment – as we see clearly in that special variety which is called Repentance – can only be defined with reference to the past. My nature is amended in so far as I have got rid of a sin which I previously committed. In so far as this amendment has taken place I am virtuous. But it is possible to define Virtue without reference to past Sin. It is the positive good content, taken not as a rejection of Sin, but as a simple fact.
176. We have thus gone through the entire dialectic process which leads from Innocence to Virtue. It is not, however, a process which occurs only once in each man. For Innocence and Virtue are not single and indivisible qualities. They have many aspects. And therefore a man may have passed out of the stage of Innocence in respect of one of his qualities, and not in respect of another, and the dialectic movement may therefore have to be repeated again, in respect of this latter. It is a matter of every-day observation that a man may be in a state of childlike submission to one element of morality, of explicit revolt against a second, and of free and reasoned acquiescence in a third.
And not only have Innocence and Virtue many aspects, but they are also capable of different degrees. For we saw above that a man could only be more or less innocent, since complete Innocence would require complete absence of will, and would therefore be impossible for any conscious being. It is therefore possible that the processes should only be partial. The revolt in Sin, and consequently the reconciliation in Virtue, may leave a certain residuum of the blind submission of mere Innocence, which will require to be removed by a repetition of the process.
177. We have now to consider two qualifications to the universality of the formula we have established. They were mentioned earlier in the chapter. The first of these lies in the fact that Virtue can be increased otherwise than through Sin and Amendment. It often happens that a man becomes conscious of some imperfection or defect in his morality, and forthwith amends it, so passing to a higher stage of Virtue. Indeed, this is often done unconsciously. With no deliberate resolve, with no knowledge of the process, a man rises, through the practice of virtue, to some higher level than that to which he had previously attained. Thus revolt and reconciliation are not the only road of moral advance.
This, however, does not at all conflict with Hegel’s theory. Indeed it might have been anticipated. For he points out in his Logic that the form of the dialectic changes gradually as we move from the beginning to the end of the process. The Antithesis becomes less and less the contrary of the Thesis, and more and more a union of the Thesis with its complementary element, so that its relation to the Thesis comes to resemble more and more closely the relation of a Synthesis. The advance from some particular imperfection no longer takes place by first emphasising the complementary imperfection, and then rising to a higher idea which transcends both. This is replaced by a direct advance from the original imperfection to the transcending idea. The process may be said to come nearer and nearer to a straight line, though it never actually becomes one.
We may therefore anticipate, on a priori grounds, what we have seen actually happens. At first, when Innocence is nearly complete, the advance can only be upon the model of the transitions in the Doctrine of Being. From Innocence we must advance to Sin – its direct contrary.
Only after passing through Sin can we arrive at Virtue. But as the general moral advance – or possibly the advance in some particular field of morality – progresses, the situation changes, and the transitions resemble those which are to be found in the Doctrine of the Notion. The man has attained to fuller self-consciousness. He can recognise the imperfection of the degree of Virtue to which he has attained by simple reflection. He does not require to have its imperfection driven home by the inability of that standpoint to keep from passing over into its opposite. He can see that it is imperfect even while he occupies it, and is therefore able to pass directly from it to a higher one which transcends it. It is, therefore, only when the position of the Thesis is relatively close to absolute Innocence that the process which we have sketched takes place. In proportion as the Thesis, in a later stage, sums up many advances of the past, and so is more virtuous than innocent, further transitions can be made without Sin and Amendment.
178. The inherent necessity of the process, then, is not for Virtue, since Virtue can be increased (though not indeed in the earlier stages) without it. Hegel does regard the process as inherently necessary, but only for the other members. Where there is Innocence there must necessarily follow Sin, and where there is Sin there must necessarily follow Retribution, Amendment, and Virtue.
179. But is even this in accordance with the facts? And this question brings us to the second qualification which we have to make. It is quite clear, if we only take individual cases, as we see them in this world between birth and death, that, though the process often does take place, it often does not. We have only to look round us to see instances of Innocence which does not pass into Sin, of Sin which does not meet with Retribution, of Retribution which does not lead to Amendment. It is impossible to suppose that Hegel had forgotten this. Whatever the philosophical importance which he attributed to the facts of everyday life, his knowledge of them was profound, and his practical interest in them was acute. What then are we to suppose that he believed about these apparent exceptions to his theory? It seems clear that he did not believe in a mere tendency which would work itself out if not checked, but which might be checked so that it could not work itself out. His language indicates that he was dealing with a process which we were entitled to say not only might take place but would take place. Two alternatives remain.
180. He may have considered that there was not only a tendency, but an actual and inevitable process, in the race or the universe, while in the case of particular individuals there was merely a tendency, which might possibly be counteracted. The passages quoted above, and the rest of that part of the Philosophy of Religion from which they are taken, bear out this view, since Hegel’s attention seems devoted to the progress of the race as a whole, and not of the individuals. Indeed, he shows everywhere a strong inclination to treat ethical problems as matters for mankind, and not for this or that man. He is not far from the belief – a belief it might be difficult to defend – that, when mankind has conquered a moral difficulty in one generation, all succeeding generations will enjoy the fruits of the victory as fully as each man does those of his own past struggles. Here, as elsewhere, the indifference to the individual shown in the applications of the Logic stands in striking contrast to the emphasis laid on individuality in the Logic itself.
181. But there is another way in which this difficulty might be avoided. Hegel believed in immortality. And he might therefore have explained the apparent incomplete moral processes by asserting that it was our field of vision which was incomplete. All the transitions in the process require time. And it is only because death has intervened too soon that, in some cases, Innocence does not lead to Sin, Sin to Retribution, Retribution to Amendment, or Amendment to Virtue. But death only stops our observation of the process. It does not stop the process itself. The Innocence which we see in one life may pass into Sin in the next, and the Retribution which seems fruitless here may produce Amendment hereafter.
It would not be necessary, for the validity of this explanation, that the events of one life should be remembered in the next. For Retribution, in the sense in which it has been used here, does not depend for its efficiency on remembrance of the Sin, nor does Amendment depend on the remembrance of Retribution. All that is required is that actions done on one side of death shall affect the character on the other. And this must be so. If it were not, there would be no identity of the two existences, and, therefore, no immortality.
It is difficult to say which of these two alternatives Hegel would have adopted. It is especially difficult to know what he would have thought of the second, for, as has been remarked in Chapter II, he always declines to take the slightest account of the immortality in which he professes to believe. On the whole, it appears to me more probable that he would have adopted the first alternative, and admitted that there was only a tendency in the individual, while there was an inevitable process in the race. At the same time, I cannot help thinking that the other alternative might provide a better solution in the hands of any Hegelian who did not share his master’s objection to taking immortality seriously.
182. We have now seen what Hegel’s theory of Sin is, and we have seen on what basis a belief in that theory must rest. We have before us the fact of Sin – the fact that a being who forms part of the universe can put himself in opposition to the principles which underlie the true nature of that universe, and of himself in particular. And we have also before us the fact that such a being is yet, from the point of view of the very morality to which he opposes himself, a higher object in the scale of values than the stone or tree which is a perfectly submissive instrument to the general purpose. And besides these facts we have the conclusions as to the general nature of reality which are demonstrated by the Logic.
Our present theory rests (a) on the consideration that it is not only compatible with the conclusions of the Logic, but is one which those conclusions would by themselves render probable though not certain. Its further support is more or less negative, since it consists in (b) its claim to explain the facts better than any other explanation that has been put forward which is compatible with the conclusions of the Logic.
183. The peculiarity of this theory is the relatively high place which it gives to Sin. There are two other theories, with which it may be confounded, but it goes further than either of them. The first is the doctrine, which is so prominent in the philosophy of Leibniz, that evil is the condition of good, since it is impossible that good should exist unless evil existed also. The second is the doctrine that sin may be made an instrument of a greater good than would have existed without it – that men may rise, not only in spite of their repented sins, but by means of them.
Hegel’s position differs from the first of these in making Sin not only a necessary concomitant of Virtue, but a necessary element in it.
All Virtue is based on transcended Sin, for although, as we have seen, Virtue can advance in other ways than through Sin, this is only in the higher and later stages. The beginning of it must always be by such a process as that which has been described in this chapter. In thus making transcended Sin an element in Virtue, Hegel’s position resembles the second theory mentioned above. But it differs from it in making the process universal and necessary. It is not merely that Sin may lead to increase of Virtue, and that Virtue may be based on Sin. Hegel’s view is that Sin must lead to increase of Virtue, and that there is no Virtue which is not based on Sin.
184. The result of this is that moral evil and moral good are not absolutely opposed for Hegel, as they are for many philosophers. There can be no absolute opposition – however important the relative opposition may be for practical purposes – between two terms, one of which is the Synthesis of the other. And again, which is perhaps the most paradoxical part of the system, a man draws nearer to Virtue when he commits a sin. For Sin, as the second in time of the two stages, has the advantage over Innocence. In passing to Sin from Innocence the sinner has taken a step on the only road which can lead him to Virtue, and morality has therefore gained.
Ordinary morality has accepted the position that even a sinful man is higher than a stone, which cannot commit sin. But many people would regard the view that a sinful man was higher than an innocent man as a dangerous falsehood.
Even if Hegel’s position were detrimental to ordinary morality, it would not he thereby refuted. It is true that his system leads us to the conclusion that all reality is rational and righteous, and that it would be inconsistent if any part of the system led us to a contrary conclusion.
But to say that it is righteous is one thing, and to say that it agrees with our previous conceptions of morality is another. If it did not do so, the fault might lie in those conceptions, and not in reality. I do not, however, believe that in the acceptance of Hegel’s doctrine of Sin any change in the ordinary canons of morality would be logically involved, or that any logical ground would arise for disobedience to those canons.
185. It may be said, perhaps, that the consideration that a sin marks a moral advance on the state of innocence would be a ground for disregarding the sinful nature of an act to the commission of which we were tempted. But an argument of this nature would, I think, be sophistical. It is not true that under all circumstances a sin would mark a moral advance.
It would not do so in any case in which the result – the state of Virtue – had been already reached, or in which we could reach it without sinning. It is only when we are in such a stage of relatively rudimentary Innocence that we cannot advance except by negation, that the sin is indispensable to the gaining of Virtue, and so is a moral advance.
Now how can I know that I am, at a particular time, and with regard to a particular virtue, in such a state? It seems to me that I could know it only by experience. I cannot be certain that I am unable to resist temptation except by finding that, in fact, I do not resist it. Thus it follows that, until my sin has been committed, I can never know it to be a necessary step to virtue, and therefore to be a moral advance. And thus the knowledge that it would be a moral advance can never be a factor in determining me to commit it.
And, again, in proportion as my knowledge of my own character showed me a probability more or less approximating to a certainty that advance in the case in question was only possible through sin, what would this amount to? To a belief, more or less certain, that I could not resist the temptation. For, if I could resist it, it would prove that I was no longer on the level of mere Innocence, but had risen to Virtue. I should therefore only have ground to believe that it would be good to commit the sin, in proportion as I was convinced it was inevitable that I should commit it. And thus our theory could have no effect in deciding my action, since it could only make me regard a sin as an advance in a case in which I considered my action as already certain.
On this theory, indeed, I can always say to myself, when tempted, “If I yield to this temptation, my sin will be a moral advance.” But it will be equally true to say, “If I do not yield to it, then my resistance will be a moral advance.” And thus there is no ground here for choosing either course. To suppose that there was a ground for either would be to fall into the same fallacy as that which asserts that Determinism must destroy all resistance to temptation, because a Determinist believes that, if he did commit the sin, it would be eternally necessary that he should commit it.
186. Thus Hegel’s theory offers no logical ground for choosing sin rather than virtue. And it must also be remembered that it is not sin alone which forms the moral advance, but sin which is followed by retribution and amendment. This makes a considerable difference in the psychological effect of the belief. Should a schoolboy be convinced that, if he played truant, playing truant would be morally healthy for him, it would be illogical, but perhaps not unnatural, that he should take this as an argument for doing so. But if he were told that his moral advantage would consist in the fact that the offence would bring on a punishment sufficiently effective to cure him of any tendency to repeat the fault, it is not probable that the theory would make the temptation any greater than it had been before the metaphysical question was raised.
187. It is true that this theory does not lend itself to the deification of Virtue – it would scarcely be Hegel’s if it did. It does not permit us to regard the difference between Virtue and Sin as the fundamental difference of the universe, for there are conditions much worse than Sin. Nor is it an ultimate difference, for the whole meaning of Sin is that it is a stage which leads on to Virtue, and a moment which is transcended in it.
Hegel goes even further than this. For even Virtue is only a moment in a still higher perfection. And again, whatever does happen to a moral being, whether it be Sin or Virtue, is, when it happens, a moral advance.
Such results are not adapted for moral declamations, but it may be doubted if they have any more serious defect. If a man feels Virtue to be a greater good for him than Sin, he will choose Virtue and reject Sin, even though he should think that Sin is not wholly bad, nor the worst possible state. All that is required of a theory of Sin, therefore, in order that it may be harmless to morality, is that it should not deny the difference between Virtue and Sin, or assert that Sin is the greater good of the two. Hegel’s theory does not do either. To go further, and to condemn Sin as absolutely and positively bad, is useless to morality, and fatal to religion.
188. We may notice that this theory provides a justification for a belief which has flourished for a long period, especially in the English race, without any metaphysical support. It has very commonly been held that it is desirable that children should do certain things, for which, when they have done them, it is desirable that they should be punished.
On most ethical theories this appears to be hopelessly unreasonable.
Either, it is said, an act deserves punishment, and then it ought not to be done, or else it ought to be done, and then it cannot deserve punishment.
Some systems of education accept the first alternative, and some the second, but they agree in rejecting the hypothesis that both the acts and their punishment could be desirable. In spite of this, however, the old view continues to be held, and to be acted on, perhaps, by some who do not explicitly hold it.
If we follow Hegel, we may come to the conclusion that the unreflective opinion of the race has, either by chance or by a judicious common sense, grasped the truth with more success than its critics. For it is evident that children, in relation to the morality of adults, are very often exactly in the position which Hegel calls Innocence. And it may therefore be anticipated that, in the majority of cases, they will rise to that morality most simply and completely by the process of alternate defiance and suppression.
Such words as Sin, Retribution, and Amendment seem, no doubt, unduly serious and pompous in this connection. But it must be remembered that we are watching the process from the standpoint of the Synthesis in a way which is seldom, if ever, possible when we are observing the struggles of our fellow adults. (It is to this exceptional point of observation, I suppose, that we must ascribe the fact that many people who would shrink from recognizing a moral advance in a night’s drunkenness are quite able to see a moral advance in a forbidden pillow-fight.) To one who fully comprehends the facts, Sin would always appear too futile to be taken seriously. It is necessary, no doubt, to take our own sins and those of our neighbours very seriously, but that is because we do not fully comprehend. For those who do, if there are such, the most atrocious of our crimes may reveal themselves to have the same triviality which even we can perceive in a schoolboy’s surreptitious cigarette.
In heaven “they whistle the devil to make them sport who know that sin is vain." It would seem, then, that in this matter a system of education cannot be judged by the same tests as a system of government. The punishments of the state can scarcely hope to be anything more than deterrent and preventive, and, since this is so, that state is in the most healthy condition in which the fewest punishments are deserved. But if punishment has, in education, the higher function of a stage in a necessary moral process, it would follow that a system of education is none the worse because it does not prevent children from deserving punishment – provided, of course, that it affords a reasonable probability that they will get what they deserve.