The Word Is Nigh Thee

By Thomas Hill Green

This work is the fragment of an address on the texts of Romans 10:8 and Deuteronomy 30:14

It has been sometimes remarked that if all the New Testament had been lost to us except some half-dozen texts, the essence of Christianity would have been preserved in these, so that out of them everything in it that is of permanent moral value might have been developed; and if there can be an essence within the essence of Christianity, it is the thought embodied in the text I have read; the thought of God, not as 'far off' but 'nigh,' not as a master but as a father, not as a terrible outward power, forcing us we know not whither, but as one of whom we may say that we are reason of his reason and spirit of his spirit; who lives in our moral life, and for whom we live in living for the brethren, even as in so living we live freely, because in obedience to a spirit which is our self; in communion with whom we triumph over death, and have assurance of eternal life. In this thought to St. Paul, as to us, lay the one sole and sufficient evidence for religion, or, more properly, it constituted a religion which was its own evidence. The belief in miracle was not its source but a mode, to him a natural mode, in which it found expression.

Theologians, scarcely able to compass the thought, have tried to find in this expression of it a proof of its truth, and the inevitable failure of this procedure has combined with that misinterpretation of the connection between the natural and moral, which has hitherto accompanied the growth of physical science, to diffuse a suspicion that the thought itself is unwarranted or unmeaning. Even those who resist the suspicion, yet prove its influence by seeking shelter in authority, 'emotion,' or possible unknown secrets of nature, for a belief which has no real defence but its intrinsic truth. I propose -222- therefore to consider whether we are rationally entitled to the conception which was the kernel of St. Paul's Christianity and which still seems the only foundation for a religious morality. In doing so it is best to avoid taking advantage of the language which has grown out of the conception for the purpose of commending the conception itself; or at any rate not to allow ourselves in the use of it till we have found whether prevalent ways of thinking, which logically render it unmeaning, have reason on their side or no.

Of late years philosophical controversy has taken a direction which brings it more closely home than ever before to the practical, personal life of those within the range of its influence. It is quite true that men who would express their theological beliefs in seemingly almost contradictory ways may yet be morally and spiritually at one, nor is anything more mischievous than the tendency to turn a moral terror to account for the purpose of interfering with or hindering the natural course of philosophical opinion. But when the old questions about God, freedom, and immortality are being put by each man to himself in the direct and popular form which they have now assumed, as questions bearing upon his own life, it is idle to deny that he is a different man according to the answer which he gives to them.

Is there a character which he may and ought to form for himself, irrespectively alike of what he is inclined to, and of what is expected of him? is there a God with whom, as the imperfect with the perfect, yet as spirit with spirit, he may converse? is he partaker of an eternal life, so that what he is, and not merely what he has done, is untouched by physical death? these are questions which a man may perhaps answer affirmatively with little practical result, but which he can scarcely answer in the negative without serious effect, not necessarily on his outward course of action or on the character which he presents to other men, but in the long run on the inner life, on the character which he would present to one who could see it from within, and which he can scarcely help regarding, in spite of his creed, as alone of eternal value. Yet the arguments in favour of the negative answer are, it must be admitted, more obvious and readily apprehensible than those on the other side. A writer who would meet them satisfactorily has to go farther back than men without leisure or faculty for much consecutive thinking are able to go with -223- him.

Hence on the part of some, to whom their practical acceptance seems to empty human life of what is highest and most beautiful in it, we find a tendency to trust merely to authority for their resistance; a fatal mistake if the authority is external, the authority of a book or a person or convention, for once let the conflict be presented as one between reason and authority, and just those nobler elements of character which it is feared that popular materialism will undermine will be enlisted in its defence. Yet there is a certain sort of authority to which, for a man who has not time to be a philosopher, when the question is one which touches the theoretic foundation of his practical creed, the appeal must lie. It is the authority of what he is apt to call his conscience, the authority of his own moral nature. Of this, however incompletely it may be actualised in himself, he in a sense feels the possibilities, unless selfish interests have closed the avenues of his heart, through sympathy with the higher life of society about him. It is an ultimate fact of which the true interpretation is all-important, while an explanation of it, in the sense of a reason why it is so, is sought to no purpose. Yet it is not like a fact in nature, which remains the same, interpret it how we will. The danger is lest a false or misapplied philosophy should teach us to interpret it amiss. It is rather like such power over nature as is dependent on our understanding it aright. Or, more precisely, it is a fact which in each of us exists as a possibility of which the full realisation is impeded by a false interpretation of it. Hence the practical danger, and the need of so much, and only so much true philosophy as will enable us, while giving the methods of physical science their due, to understand what there is to which they do not apply.

There is a conception to which every one who thinks about himself as a moral agent almost instinctively finds himself resorting, the conception variously expressed as that of the 'better,' the 'higher,' the 'true' self. This conception, I believe, points the way to that true interpretation of our moral nature, which is also the only source of a true theology. All systems of ethics either directly or indirectly depend upon it. They either recognise it as their governing idea, or avail themselves of it where it has been ostensibly ignored or set aside. They cannot do otherwise without ignoring what is distinctive in that of which they seek to -224- form a theory. For what is a moral action? Whatever else it may be, it is at least an action determined by desire for an object which is not merely presented to the agent, but which he presents to himself as his own end. The action of a machine or an animal is neither moral nor immoral, because on the part of the agent there is either no consciousness of an end or no consciousness of a self which makes the end its own. The same is true of actions done by a man either under compulsion, or instinctively, except so far as through some action properly moral or immoral he is accountable for subjection to the compulsion, or for the formation of the instinct. Now to act for an object which I present to myself, or make my object, is to identify myself with it, and thus to desire to be something which I am not, but which I conceive myself as able to become. Moral action, then, as determined by such desire, is an expression at once of conscious contrast between an actual and possible self, and of an impulse to make that possible self real; or, as it is sometimes put, it is a process of self-realisation, i.e. of making a possible self real.

There may probably at first seem to be something offensive in the doctrine that the 'possible self,' the realisation of which is the source of all action that can properly be called moral or immoral, is God, and that in our identity with it lies the true unity with God. Before it is rejected, however, let it be understood. On a first hearing it may seem to imply thatGod does not actually exist at all, but is a mere name for an empty ideal of what each of us would like to become. This is a misapprehension, which a better understanding of the relation between actual and possible will remove. That which from the point of view given by our ignorance and want is merely possible, from a truer point of view is actual; and commonly that which to us is real, is in truth only the possibility relative to what, if we knew more, we should know to be real.

The present reality of the self, when we speak of trying to become something which we are not, with which its possibility, as a subject of desire, is contrasted, consists in what each of us in any stage of development happens to be. Only so far as my present condition is thought of as reality, does that which I seek to become appear a mere possibility. From another point of view the present condition is the possibility, to which the correlative reality is the more perfect man resulting. To anyone who understands a -225- process of development, the result being developed is the reality, and it is in its ability to become this that the subject undergoing development has its true nature. The actual at any stage of the process is not; while that which at any stage is, we have to call the possibility of that which is not.

Thus if the ever new desire to be something other than I yet am, which is the source of the moral life, is determined by laws, different indeed from those of nature but not less definite and inviolable, the end to which it is relative, though in contrast with any stage of the moral life it as yet is not, is still the truly real, while the apparently real is no more than its possibility.

To say then that God is the final cause of the moral life, the ideal self which no one, as a moral agent, is, but which everyone, as such an agent, is however blindly seeking to become, is not to make him unreal. It is, however (and this may seem at once more presumptuous and less reasonable) in a certain sense to identify him with man; and that not with an abstract or collective humanity but with the individual man. Let us consider in what sense. An assertion of identity, it must be remembered, not only admits of but implies difference or change. There is no meaning in the statement that the pen I now hold in my hand is identical with that which I observed some minutes before, unless reference is made to the difference between the times of observation. When we speak of the identity of the body in youth and age, we have in view the sameness of organisation determining a constant flux of material. Wherever unity of principle or law runs through any process of change, there the different objects which result from the process at its several stages have a real identity with each other, though they be as different as the oak from the acorn or the complete animal from the embryo; and on the recognition of the difference depends the significance of the assertion of identity. We need not be frightened then from the doctrine that man is identical with God on the ground that it makes God 'no more than' man. On the contrary, such identity, unless further specified, would be compatible with God's being so far more and other than man as to be of no more concern to him than Epicurus held his Gods to be. The whole force of the doctrine lies in the interpretation of the identity claimed for man with God as an identity of self with self.

The acorn -226- is in possibility identical with the oak, but the oak is nothing to the acorn. That is, the acorn has no consciousness which its virtual identity with the oak affects. The identity exists, not for it, but for a consciousness to which oak and acorn are alike relative. But in the process constituting the moral life according to our interpretation of it, the germ and the development, the possibility and its actualisation, are one and the same consciousness of self. That in virtue of which I am I, and can in consequence so set before myself the realisation of my own possibilities as to be a moral agent, is that in virtue of which I am one with God. Does not this, it may be said, imply the ascription to God, not indeed of merely animal passions, for unless the animal consciousness is a self-consciousness, the animal is not identical with God in the sense in which man is, but of what is worse, human selfishness and sin? Undoubtedly it implies that but for the identity of consciousness between man and God, man would not be a sinner, for the condition of sin is that consciousness of self in which this identity consists. But the source of selfishness and sin is also the source of that which overcomes sin. Sin is the effort to actualise one's possibilities in that in which they cannot be actualised, viz. in pleasure. It is gradually being overcome, while perhaps it seems to be gaining strength, in the moral discipline which directs the same effort after self-realisation into a truer way of attaining its end; and this discipline lies in the perpetual sense of failure and disappointment, in the remorse and despair, in the self-contempt and self-reproach, of which only a self-seeking subject is susceptible.

Thus through 'mortal yearnings' we ascend towards a higher object; through influences born of self-consciousness the presentation of a self satisfied by that which cannot satisfy is superseded as the moral motive by that of a self actualised in a life like itself eternal. Sin then, in itself, though not for the consciousness of the sinner, is no final reality, but only the possibility of this adequate actualisation of self in which it is overcome; and in saying that God is this adequate actualisation, the final reality to which all our possibilities are relative, we have said that in him sin as sin is not, but only sin as overcome. At the same time (and this truth is complementary of the other), but for his communication of himself to us in possibility, as our self, we could not be sinners. -227-

Our formula then is that God is identical with the self of every man in the sense of being the realisation of its determinate possibilities, the completion of that which, as merely in it, is incomplete and therefore unreal; that in being conscious of himself man is conscious of God, and thus knows that God is, but knows what he is only so far as he knows what he himself really is. Before we approach the consequences of such a doctrine, certain inevitable objections to it must be met. It will be said in the first place that the self of which we speak is a mere fiction of speech, a verbal abstraction mistaken for a reality. The reality is a thread of consciousness, i.e. a succession of feelings. Among these are included some of a particular kind, derived perhaps from experiences of resistance, at any rate having a psychological history, which we call states of self-consciousness. By a familiar process of logical abstraction we detach one factor of these states from the rest, and call it the self. Meanwhile a like logical process has brought us to think of there being one substance to which all the phenomena of feeling may be referred as attributes, and we find a designation for this abstract substance in the self, which is in fact a residuum from our descriptions of one sort of these phenomena. Those again who would not admit that our personality can thus be explained away, would yet protest against what they would call the false anthropomorphism of ascribing to it an existence beyond the limits of the human experience which is our only warrant for saying that there is such a thing. They find it indeed to be characteristic of our inner life that it is not a mere succession of feelings, but that its present state is what at any moment it is only in virtue of being consciously a modification of the same subject as its past. This, they would say, is a primary fact of human experience, just as on the other hand the existence of matter or force is a primary fact in our knowledge of nature, and, because primary, inexplicable. But though we cannot explain it, they would add, we know what it is not.

Personality is a characteristic of the limited, relative, antagonistic life of each of us. To talk of a universal self, even of mankind, is only legitimate so long as we understand that it is an abstraction of what is alike in the infinitely various personalities of separate men; and if there really were such a self, to identify it with God would be as absurd as to hold that man, the creature of a day, is the -228- universe. We might with at least as much reason say that matter is God, and with so much more plausibility as there is a better case for deriving personality from matter than matter from personality. In fact our most searching inquiries leave personality and matter over against each other, each irreducible to the other. To identify God with either would be to leave the other as a limitation on his being. The only course which does not land us in contradictions is to admit that we have no reason to suppose, or rather that we cannot suppose, though we may talk of doing so, any personality but that with which our individual experience makes us acquainted, and of which the attributes are as incompatible with an absolute being as are those which experience of nature reveals to us. We may amuse ourselves with guesses about a great personal demon, as about a single primitive force; but God, if he is to be God, can neither be such a demon nor such a force. Either there is no God, or God is the unknown.

There is much in this language which represents a lower stage of reflection on our knowledge of the world than that which modern philosophy may fairly claim to have reached. To say so offhand indeed may naturally seem presumptuous, while fully to justify the statement would involve an inquiry beyond our present limits. All that can be here attempted is a summary view of the position from which any inheritor of Kant's inquiries may deem himself entitled to start. It has become a commonplace among us that all which we know consists of phenomena and their relations, but the true import of this doctrine is seldom realised. In its common application, it tends rather to hinder us from recognising the function of thought in the constitution of the known world, than to deliver us from oppression by the outsideness and beyondness under which we have learnt to figure the relation of that world to ourselves. Yet if it means anything, it means that the world, which alone we know or can know, consists in relations to consciousness and in relations of those relations.

Space, time, matter, motion, force, are not indeed modes of consciousness, but apart from consciousness they would not be. We use words without meaning when we talk of a time when as yet consciousness was not, of an endless space without a mind, for time and space alike are abstractions from relations between phenomena. They are creatures of reflection upon related presentations to consciousness which can -229- be related to each other only in virtue of their equal relation to a single subject of the presentation. Neither the relations of succession and externality, nor the empty forms which we construct by abstraction and substantiation of them, are possible except as resulting from the unity of a thinking consciousness. To speak of a time before such consciousness, of a space outside it, is to say of it what can only be said of a phenomenon related to other phenomena in time and space; and if it were such a phenomenon, there could be no phenomena so related, for the condition of their relation is such an equal presence of thought to each, as is incompatible with its being here not there, there not here, after or before any of the elements which it combines as successive. …

Unfinished ay Green's Demise

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Thomas Hill Green
British philosopher and social theorist,
an early leader of the British Idealists.
Elected a Fellow of Balliol College, Uiversity of Oxford, 1860, Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy, 1878, he died at the young age of 45.



Green, Thomas Hill. Works of Thomas Hill Green, "Miscellanies and Memoir," vol. 3 of 3. K. L. Nettleship, ed., London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888 pp. 221-229.