The Great Agnostic

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (1895)
Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought (1899)

[99] Professor Huxley has not lived to conclude his reply to Mr. Balfour's book on "The Foundations of Belief" in the Nineteenth Century for March. He had proposed to himself to conclude it in the month of April; but no sooner had his first indignant denial that his Agnosticism could properly be Identified with the "Naturalism" of Mr. Balfour's essay been completed, than he was struck down by the fatal illness which, though it often gave us hope of its passing away, has at length terminated that eager and opulent life. There has not often been an Englishman of more brilliant gifts, of richer energies, of higher courage, and more thoroughly English combativeness. He had in him, too, all the qualities of a leader of men, though his studies and researches led him into fields of knowledge where there were but few men to follow him with any discriminating judgment. Had he ever taken to the political field, he would have been as distinguished perhaps, as Mr. Gladstone himself, though distinguished as a benevolent Conservative rather than as a champion of democracy. He had much of the [100] charm of manner, of the ready humour, and almost tender loyalty to his friends, which makes a great captain. And he certainly possessed that gift for popular exposition and making plausible presumptions seem a great deal more adequate and satisfactory than they are, that gives life and confidence to those who attach themselves to a leader, and who desire to tread in his footsteps. He had a rich fund of humour, and a great resourcefulness in battle. And if there were any Church to which he could properly be said to belong, it was certainly a Church militant. But none the less, there was so much of human kindliness and geniality in him that he had many more eager friends than he had eager foes, and there were probably as many sincere English mourners when it was known that the long four months' illness had ended fatally, as there were when the last Poet Laureate died, and not a few of the same distinguished band. Indeed, it is curious that of the group which found the very unaccustomed medium of verse necessary to express their grief for Lord Tennyson's death, Professor Huxley himself was perhaps the most distinguished and the least unsuccessful, though it had been Tennyson's great purpose in life to teach :men that they might much more than "faintly trust the larger hope," while it was Professor Huxley's to persuade them that they should rather frankly utter and even foster the larger doubt. Yet strangely enough, it was Professor Huxley who eagerly proclaimed Tennyson's right to a place in that grand Abbey which had grown "stone by stone:"

"As the stormy brood
Of English blood
Has waxed and spread
[101] And filled the world
With sails unfurled;
With men that may not lie;
With thoughts that cannot die."

And yet the "thoughts that could not die" in Tennyson's great verse were certainly not the thoughts which were uppermost in Professor Huxley's mind. For he, though he denied being a champion of Naturalism in Mr. Balfour's sense, gloried in being an Agnostic. It was he, indeed, who first popularised the word, and made a sort of creedless creed of Agnosticism. He held, and held to the last, that though it is not the part of any true Agnostic to deny God's existence, it is certainly not his part to affirm it; that the dominant idea of Tennyson's poetry is as questionable as it is fascinating; and we conclude that he would have held that if Tennyson was great for having put the deepest human and even Christian faith into immortal words, he would have been still greater if he had made suspense of faith the true ideal of a lofty mind. Here is Professor Huxley's deliberate confession of faith in his own words,–words which are very divergent indeed from those which he had so warmly extolled in his friend,–

"As regards the extent to which the improvement of natural knowledge has remodelled and altered what may be termed the intellectual ethics of men,–what are among the moral convictions most fondly held by barbarous and semi-barbarous people? They are the convictions that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to a readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and scepticism a sin; that when good authority has pronounced what is to be believed, and faith has accepted it, reason has no further [102] duty. There are many excellent persons who yet hold by these principles, and it is not my present business, or intention, to discuss their views. All I wish to bring clearly before your minds is the unquestionable fact that the improvement of natural knowledge is effected by methods which directly give the lie to all these convictions, and assume the exact reverse of each to be true. The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. And it cannot be otherwise, for every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority, the cherishing of the keenest scepticism, the annihilation of the spirit of blind faith; and the most ardent votary of science holds his firmest convictions, not because the men he most venerates hold them; not because their verity is testified by portents and wonders; but because his experience teaches him that whenever he chooses to bring these convictions into contact with their primary source, Nature,–whenever he thinks fit to test them by appealing to experiment and to observation,– Nature will confirm them. The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification."

Professor Huxley, as he often and eagerly proclaimed, was no materialist or Atheist. He thought a mental origin of the universe a great possibility, but nothing more. The most celebrated passage in his most celebrated essay described human life as something like a great game of chess between men and a hidden player who always plays on the same rules, but who, as Huxley himself admitted, leaves men to find out by the use of their own wits what those rules are,–a kind of game at which no man, I suppose, would be willing to play without some sort of guidance and help from his unseen antagonist. The passage to which I refer is a very powerful and characteristic one; and it seems to me so memorable that, profoundly as I differ from its drift, I should like, now that we are mourning this great student's death, to recall it to the memory of its first readers, and bring it to the notice of a generation which may never have read it.

"Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game at chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight? Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth, that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our test, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated,– without haste, but without remorse. My metaphor will [104] remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture, a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win,–and I should accept it as an image of human life. Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game."

There you see Professor Huxley in his full force. But whence was that force derived? At least as much from the want of logic with which his emotions coloured his conceptions, as from the courageous scepticism in which that passage abounds. Professor Huxley professed to know that the hidden antagonist who does not even hesitate to checkmate his human opponent for not knowing the rules of a game which he has generally had no opportunity of learning, is "always fair, just, and patient." How could Professor Huxley be an "Agnostic" if he knew as much as that? Is it true Agnosticism to assume anything of the kind? What can be less like Agnosticism than to depict the unseen antagonist as "an angel who plays for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win." A clearer case of that faith which justifies without "verification," I cannot imagine. The whole idealism of the picture would have vanished if Professor Huxley had held to his Agnosticism, and had told us that we do not know whether the hidden player is a fair player or even a player at all, or only an automaton without a mind and without a purpose,–perhaps fair, just, and patient, but quite as probably incapable of so much as a thought or feeling of its own,–a thing to which fairness, justice, and patience are qualities as inapplicable as they would be to the stone wall against which a man breaks his head, or the prussic acid by which he stops the [105] action of his heart. Nothing seems to me clearer than that Professor Huxley borrowed from a religion which he thought wholly unproved, his description of the unseen player in this great game of life. And it was because he did so, in his heart, though not consciously, that he could welcome Tennyson's body to Westminster Abbey in those touching lines wherein he expressed his own secret sympathy with the leading thoughts of a poet against whose belief his criticisms had so often levelled the accusation that it was unproved and unprovable.

It was the same when, about twenty years earlier, Professor Huxley served on the London School Board, and acquiesced in the reading of the Bible as the best book for the moral education of the children. It is true, of course, that he was one of the most eager of the adversaries of any definite theological commentary on it. But how could the Bible itself be a proper influence for children if its greatest lesson, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind," were a leap in the dark which a true Agnostic could not so much as excused? In my belief, Professor Huxley had a half-unconscious craving, to which he thought it wrong to give way, for that passionate faith which he said that he desired to undermine in all cases in which there was, in his opinion, no possibility of what he termed verification. Indeed, his heart often rose up in insurrection against his scientific genius, and compelled him to feel what was entirely inconsistent with the logic of his thoughts. For he was a very lovable man, and no man is lovable who cannot deeply love. That he was a man of true scientific genius I do not doubt. All who [106] knew his career as a biologist agree that he added greatly not only to the exposition, but to the development, of Darwin's doctrine. But from that point of view, I cannot speak of him with the smallest authority. To me he is the great Agnostic who has tried, and, as I hold, tried in vain, to regard physical science as the one sure guide of life, and has yet betrayed in some of the most critical utterances and actions of his career, that his Agnostic creed did not cover the whole of the legitimate evidence, and that he coveted for the children of his country a kind of teaching which he nevertheless proudly rejected for himself.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University