CHAPTER VI – Except We Become …

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER VI – Except We Become …

In this chapter we shall concern ourselves with a number of personalities from the more or less recent past of the cultural life of Britain, each of whom was a spiritual kinsman of Goethe, and so a living illustration of the fact that the true source of knowledge in man must be sought, and can be found, outside the limits of his modern adult consciousness. Whilst none of them was a match for Goethe as regards universality and scientific lucidity, they are all characteristic of an immediacy of approach to certain essential truths, which in the sense we mean is not found in Goethe. It enabled them to express one or the other of these truths in a form that makes them suitable as sign-posts on our own path of exploration. We shall find repeated opportunity in the later pages of this book to remember just what these men saw and thought.

The first is Thomas Reid (1710-96), the Scottish philosopher and advocate of common sense as the root of philosophy.1 After having served for some years as a minister in the Church of Scotland, Reid became professor of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, whence he was called to Glasgow as the successor of Adam Smith. Through his birth in Strachan, Kincardine, he belonged to the same part of Scotland from which Kant’s ancestors had come. Two brief remarks of Goethe show that he knew of the Scotsman’s philosophy, and that he appreciated his influence on contemporary philosophers.2

Reid, like his contemporary Kant, felt his philosophical conscience stirred by Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, and, like Kant, set himself the task of opposing it. Unlike Kant, however, whose philosophic system was designed to arrest man’s reason before the abyss into which Hume threatened to cast it, Reid contrives to detect the bridge that leads safely across this abyss. Even though it was not granted to him actually to set foot on this bridge (this, in his time, only Goethe managed to do), he was able to describe it in a manner especially helpful for our own purpose.

The first of the three books in which Reid set out the results of his labours appeared in 1764 under the title, Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. The other two, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man and Essays on the Active Powers of Man, appeared twenty years later. In these books Reid had in view a more all-embracing purpose than in his first work. The achievement of this purpose, however, required a greater spiritual power than was granted to him. Comparing his later with his earlier work, Reid’s biographer, A. Campbell Fraser, says:

‘Reid’s Essays form, as it were, the inner court of the temple of which the Aberdonian Inquiry is the vestibule. But the vestibule is a more finished work of constructive skill than the inner court, for the aged architect appears at last as if embarrassed by accumulated material. The Essays, greater in bulk, perhaps less deserve a place among modern philosophical classics than the Inquiry, notwithstanding its narrower scope, confined as it is to man’s perception of the extended world, as an object lesson on the method of appeal to common sense.’

Whilst the ideas of Kant, by which he tried in his way to oppose Hume’s philosophy, have become within a short space of time the common possession of men’s minds, it was the fate of Reid’s ideas to find favour among only a restricted circle of friends. Moreover, they suffered decisive misunderstanding and distortion through the efforts of well-meaning disciples. This was because Kant’s work was a late fruit of an epoch of human development which had lasted for centuries and in his time began to draw to its close, while Reid’s work represents a seed of a new epoch yet to come. Here lies the reason also for his failure to develop his philosophy beyond the achievements contained in his first work. It is on the latter, therefore, that we shall chiefly draw for presenting Reid’s thoughts.


The convincing nature of Hume’s argumentation, together with the absurdity of the conclusions to which it led, aroused in Reid a suspicion that the premises on which Hume’s thoughts were built, and which he, in company with all his predecessors, had assumed quite uncritically, contained some fundamental error. For both as a Christian, a philosopher, and a man in possession of common sense, Reid had no doubt as to the absurdity and destructiveness of the conclusions to which Hume’s reasoning had led him.

‘For my own satisfaction, I entered into a serious examination of the principles upon which this sceptical system is built; and was not a little surprised to find that it leans with its whole weight upon a hypothesis, which is ancient indeed, and hath been very generally received by philosophers, but of which I could find no solid proof. The hypothesis I mean is, That nothing is perceived but what is in the mind which perceives it: That we do not really perceive the things that are external, but only certain images and pictures of them imprinted upon the mind, which are called impressions and ideas.

‘If this be true, supposing certain impressions and ideas to exist presently in my mind, I cannot, from their existence, infer the existence of anything else; my impressions and ideas are the only existences of which I can have any knowledge or conception; and they are such fleeting and transitory beings, that they can have no existence at all, any longer than I am conscious of them. So that, upon this hypothesis, the whole universe about me, bodies and spirits, sun, moon, stars, and earth, friends and relations, all things without exception, which I imagined to have a permanent existence whether I thought of them or not vanish at once:

‘And, like the baseless fabric of this vision … Leave not a rack behind.

‘I thought it unreasonable, upon the authority of philosophers, to admit a hypothesis which, in my opinion, overturns all philosophy, all religion and virtue, and all common sense: and finding, that all the systems which I was acquainted with, were built upon this hypothesis, I resolved to enquire into this subject anew, without regard to any hypothesis.’

The following passage from the first chapter of the Inquiry reveals Reid as a personality who was not dazzled to the same extent as were his contemporaries by the brilliance of the onlooker-consciousness:

‘If it [the mind] is indeed what the Treatise of Human Nature makes it, I find I have been only in an enchanted castle, imposed upon by spectres and apparitions. I blush inwardly to think how 1 have been deluded; I am ashamed of my frame, and can hardly forbear expostulating with my destiny: Is this thy pastime, O Nature, to put such tricks upon a silly creature, and then to take off the mask, and show him how he hath been befooled? If this is the philosophy of human nature, my soul enter thou not into her secrets. It is surely the forbidden tree of knowledge; I no sooner taste it, than I perceive myself naked, and stript of all things – yea even of my very self. I see myself, and the whole frame of nature, shrink into fleeting ideas, which, like Epicurus’s atoms, dance about in emptiness.

‘But what if these profound disquisitions into the first principles of human nature, do naturally and necessarily plunge a man into this abyss of scepticism? May we not reasonably judge from what hath happened? Des Cartes no sooner began to dig in this mine, than scepticism was ready to break in upon him. He did what he could to shut it out. Malebranche and Locke, who dug deeper, found the difficulty of keeping out this enemy still to increase; but they laboured honestly in the design. Then Berkeley, who carried on the work, despairing of securing all, bethought himself of an expedient: By giving up the material world, which he thought might be spared without loss, and even with advantage, he hoped by an impregnable partition to secure the world of spirits. But, alas! the Treatise of Human Nature wantonly sapped the foundation of this partition and drowned all in one universal deluge.’ (Chapter I, Sections vi-vii.)

What Reid so pertinently describes here as the ‘enchanted castle’ is nothing else than the human head, which knows of no occurrence beyond its boundaries, because it has forgotten that it is only the end-product of a living existence outside of, and beyond, itself. We see here that Reid is gifted with the faculty of entering this castle without forfeiting his memory of the world outside; and so even from within its walls, he could recognize its true nature. To a high degree this helped him to keep free of those deceptions to which the majority of his contemporaries fell victim, and to which so many persons are still subject to-day.

It is in this way that Reid could make it one of the cardinal principles of his observations to test all that the head thinks by relating it to the rest of human nature and to allow nothing to stand, which does not survive this test. In this respect the argument he sets over against the Cartesian, ‘cogito ergo sum’ is characteristic: ‘ “I am thinking,” says he, “therefore I am”: and is it not as good reasoning to say, I am sleeping, therefore I am? If a body moves, it must exist, no doubt; but if it is at rest, it must exist likewise.’

The following summarizes the position to which Reid is led when he includes the whole human being in his philosophical inquiries.

Reid admits that, when the consciousness that has become aware of itself surveys that which lies within its own horizon, it finds nothing else there but transient pictures. These pictures in themselves bring to the mind no experience of a lasting existence outside itself. There is no firm evidence of the existence of either an outer material world to which these pictures can be related, or of an inner spiritual entity which is responsible for them. To be able to speak of an existence in either realm is impossible for a philosophy which confines its attention solely to the mere picture-content of the waking consciousness.

But man is not only a percipient being; he is also a being of will, and as such he comes into a relationship with the world which can be a source of rich experience. If one observes this relationship, one is bound to notice that it is based on the self-evident assumption that one possesses a lasting individuality, whose actions deal with a lasting material world. Any other way of behaviour would contradict the common sense of man; where we meet with it we are faced with a lunatic.

Thus philosophy and common sense seem to stand in irreconcilable opposition to each other. But this opposition is only apparent. It exists so long as philosophy thinks it is able to come to valid conclusions without listening to the voice of common sense, believing itself to be too exalted to need to do so. Philosophy, then, does not realize ‘that it has no other root but the principles of Common Sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishment from them: severed from this root, its honours wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots.’ (I, 5.)

At the moment when the philosophical consciousness ceases to regard itself as the sole foundation of its existence and recognizes that it can say nothing about itself without considering the source from which it has evolved, it attains the possibility of seeing the content of its experience in a new light. For it is no longer satisfied with considering this content in the completed form in which it presents itself. Rather does it feel impelled to investigate the process which gives rise to this content as an end-product (the ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’ of Hume and his predecessors).

Reid has faith in the fact – for his common sense assures him of it – that a lasting substantiality lies behind the world of the senses, even if for human consciousness it exists only so long as impressions of it are received via the bodily senses. Similarly, he has faith in the fact that his consciousness, although existing but intermittently, has as its bearer a lasting self. Instead of allowing this intuitively given knowledge to be shaken by a mere staring at fugitive pictures, behind which the real existence of self and world is hidden, he seeks instead in both directions for the origin of the pictures and will not rest until he has found the lasting causes of their transient appearances.

In one direction Reid finds himself led to the outer boundary of the body, where sense perception has its origin. This prompts him to investigate the perceptions of the five known senses: smelling, tasting, hearing, touching and seeing, which he discusses in this order. In the other direction he finds himself led – and here we meet with a special attribute of Reid’s whole philosophical outlook – to the realm of human speech. For speech depends upon an inner, intelligent human activity, which, once learnt, becomes a lasting part of man’s being, quite outside the realm of his philosophizing consciousness, and yet forming an indispensable instrument for this consciousness.

The simplest human reasoning, prompted only by common sense, and the subtlest philosophical thought, both need language for their expression. Through his ability to speak, man lifts himself above an instinctive animal existence, and yet he develops this ability at an infantile stage, when, in so far as concerns the level of his consciousness and his relationship to the world, he hardly rises above the level of the animal. It requires a highly developed intelligence to probe the intricacies of language, yet complicated tongues were spoken in human history long before man awoke to his own individual intelligence. Just as each man learns to think through speaking, so did humanity as a whole. Thus speech can become a means for acquiring insight into the original form of human intelligence. For in speech the common sense of man, working unconsciously within him, meets the fully awakened philosophical consciousness.3

The way in which the two paths of observation have here been set out must not give rise to the expectation that they are discussed by Reid in a similarly systematic form. For this, Reid lacked the sufficient detachment from his own thoughts. As he presents his observations in the Inquiry they seem to be nothing but a systematic description of the five senses, broken into continually by linguistic considerations of the kind indicated above. So, for example, many of his more important statements about language are found in his chapter on ‘Hearing’.

Our task will be to summarize Reid’s work, taking from his description, so often full of profound observations, only what is essential to illustrate his decisive discoveries. This requires that (keeping to Mr. Eraser’s picture) we consider separately the two pillars supporting the roof of the temple’s forecourt: speech and sense-impressions. We will start with speech.


Reid notes as a fundamental characteristic of human language that it includes two distinct elements: first, the purely acoustic element, represented by the sheer succession of sounds, and secondly the variety of meanings represented by various groups of sounds, meanings which seem to have nothing to do with the sounds as such. This state of language, where the sound-value of the word and its value as a sign to denote a thing signified by it, have little or nothing to do with one another, is certainly not the primeval one. In the contemporary state of language, which Reid calls artificial language, we must see a development from a former condition, which Reid calls natural language. So long as this latter condition obtained, man expressed in the sound itself what he felt impelled to communicate to his fellows. In those days sound was not merely an abstract sign, but a gesture, which moreover was accompanied and supported by the gestures of the limbs.

Even to-day man, at the beginning of his life, still finds himself in that relationship to language which was natural to all men in former times. The little child acquires the ability to speak through the imitation of sounds, becoming aware of them long before it understands the meaning accorded to the various groups of sounds in the artificial state of contemporary adult speech. That the child’s attention should be directed solely to the sound, and not to the abstract meaning of the individual words, is indeed the prerequisite of learning to speak. If, says Reid, the child were to understand immediately the conceptual content of the words it hears, it would never learn to speak at all.

When the adult of to-day uses language in its artificial state, words are only signs for things signified by them. As he speaks, his attention is directed exclusively towards this side of language; the pure sound of the words he uses remains outside the scope of his awareness. The little child, on the other hand, has no understanding of the meaning of words and therefore lives completely in the experience of pure sound. In the light of this, Reid comes to the conclusion, so important for what follows, that with the emergence of a certain form of consciousness, in this case that of the intellectual content of words, another form submerges, a form in which the experience of the pure sound of words prevails. The adult, while in one respect ahead of the child, yet in another is inferior, for the effect of this change is a definite impoverishment in soul-experience. Reid puts this as follows:

‘It is by natural signs chiefly that we give force and energy to language; and the less language has of them, it is the less expressive and persuasive. … Artificial signs signify, but they do not express; they speak to the understanding, as algebraic characters may do, but the passions and the affections and the will hear them not: these continue dormant and inactive, till we speak to them in the language of nature, to which they are all attention and obedience.’

We have followed Reid so far in his study of language, because it is along this way that he came to form the concepts that were to serve him as a key for his all-important findings in the realm of sense-experience. These are the concepts which bear on the connexion between the sign and the thing signified; the distinction between the artificial and the natural state of language; and the disappearance of certain primeval human capacities for experience, of which Reid says that they are brought by the child into the world, but fade as his intellectual capacities develop.


As soon as one begins to study Reid’s observations in the realm of sense-experience, one meets with a certain difficulty, noticeable earlier but not so strikingly. The source of it is that Reid was obliged to relate the results of his observations only to the five senses known in his day, whereas in fact his observations embrace a far greater field of human sense-perception. Thus a certain disharmony creeps into his descriptions and makes his statements less convincing, especially for someone who does not penetrate to its real cause.

However this may be, it need not concern us here; what matter to us are Reid’s actual observations. For these led him to the important distinction between two factors in our act of acquiring knowledge of the outer world, each of which holds an entirely different place in ordinary consciousness. Reid distinguishes them as ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’. It is through the latter that we become aware of the object as such. But we are mistaken if we regard the content of this perception as identical with the sum total of the sensations which are caused in our consciousness by the particular object. For these sensations are qualitatively something quite different, and, although without them no perception of the object is possible, they do not by themselves convey a knowledge of the thing perceived. Only, because our attention is so predominantly engaged by the object under perception, we pay no heed to the content of our sensation.

To take an example, the impressions of roundness, angularity, smoothness, roughness, colour, etc., of a table contain, all told, nothing that could assure us of the existence of the object ‘table’ as the real content of an external world. How, then, do we receive the conviction of the latter’s existence? Reid’s answer is, by entering into an immediate intuitive relationship with it. It is true that to establish this relationship we need the stimuli coming from the impressions which our mind receives through the various senses. Yet this must not induce us to confuse the two.

When nature speaks to man through his senses, something occurs exactly analogous to the process when man communicates with man through the spoken word. In both cases the perception, that is, the result of the process of perception, is something quite other than the sum of sensations underlying it. Per-ceiving by means of the senses is none other than a re-ceiving of nature’s language; and this language, just like human language, bears two entirely different elements within it. According as one or the other element prevails in man’s intercourse with nature, this intercourse will be either ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ – to use the terms by which Reid distinguished the two stages of human speech.

Just as every human being must once have listened only to the pure sound of the spoken word on a wholly sentient level in order to acquire the faculty of speaking, so also, in order to learn nature’s language, the soul must once have been totally surrendered to the pure impressions of the senses. And just as with time the spoken word becomes a symbol for that which is signified by it, the consciousness turning to the latter and neglecting the actual sound-content of the word, so also in its intercourse with nature the soul, with its growing interest in the thing signified, turns its attention more and more away from the actual experiences of the senses.

From this it follows that a philosophy which seeks to do justice to man’s whole being must not be satisfied with examining the given content of human consciousness, but must strive to observe the actual process to which this content owes its emergence. In practice this means that a philosopher who understands his task aright must strive to reawaken in himself a mode of experience which is naturally given to man in his early childhood. Reid expresses this in the Inquiry in the following way:

‘When one is learning a language, he attends to the sounds, but when he is master of it, he attends only to the sense of what he would express. If this is the case, we must become as little children again, if we will be philosophers: we must overcome habits which have been gathering strength ever since we began to think; habits, the usefulness of which atones for the difficulty it creates for the philosopher in discovering the first principles of the human mind.’

‘We must become as little children again, if we will be philosophers!’ The phrase appears here almost in passing, and Reid never came back to it again. And yet in it is contained the Open Sesame which gives access to the hidden spirit-treasures of the world. In this unawareness of Reid’s of the importance of what he thus had found we must see the reason for his incapacity to develop his philosophy beyond its first beginnings. This handicap arose from the fact that in all his thinking he was guided by a picture of the being of man which – as a child of his time, dominated by the contemporary religious outlook – he could never realize distinctly. Yet without a clear conception of this picture no justice can be done to Reid’s concept of common sense. Our next task, therefore, must be to evoke this picture as clearly as we can

The following passage in Reid’s Inquiry provides a key for the understanding of his difficulty in conceiving an adequate picture of man’s being. In this passage Reid maintains that all art is based on man’s experience of the natural language of things, and that in every human being there lives an inborn artist who is more or less crippled by man’s growing accustomed to the state of artificial language in his intercourse with the world. In continuation of the passage quoted on page 99 Reid says:

‘It were easy to show, that the fine arts of the musician, the painter, the actor, and the orator, so far as they are expressive; although the knowledge of them requires in us a delicate taste, a nice judgment, and much study and practice; yet they are nothing else but the language of nature, which we brought into the world with us, but have unlearned by disuse and so find the greatest difficulty in recovering it.

‘Abolish the use of articulate sounds and writing among mankind for a century, and every man would be a painter, an actor, and an orator. We mean not to affirm that such an expedient is practicable; or if it were, that the advantage would counterbalance the loss; but that, as men are led by nature and necessity to converse together they will use every means in their power to make themselves understood; and where they cannot do this by artificial signs, they will do it as far as possible by natural ones: and he that understands perfectly the use of natural signs, must be the best judge in all expressive arts.’

When Reid says that there are certain characteristics – and these just of the kind whose development truly ennobles human life – which the soul brings with it into the world, a picture of man is evoked in us in which the supersensible part of his being appears as an entity whose existence reaches further back than the moment of birth and even the first beginnings of the body. Now such a conception of man is in no way foreign to humanity, in more ancient times it was universally prevalent, and it still lives on to-day, if merely traditionally, in the eastern part of the world. It is only in the West that from a certain period it ceased to be held. This was the result of a change which entered into human memory in historical times, just as the re-dawning of the old knowledge of man’s pre-existence, of which Reid is a symptom, is a result of another corresponding alteration in the memory-powers of man in modern times.

For men of old it was characteristic that alongside the impressions they received in earthly life through the senses (which in any case were far less intense than they are to-day), they remembered experiences of a purely supersensible kind, which gave them assurance that before the soul was knit together with a physical body it had existed in a cosmic state purely spiritual in nature. The moment in history when this kind of memory disappeared is that of the transition from the philosophy of Plato to that of Aristotle. Whereas Plato was convinced by clear knowledge that the soul possesses characteristics implanted in it before conception, Aristotle recognized a bodiless state of the soul only in the life after death. For him the beginning of the soul’s existence was identical with that of the body.

The picture of man, taught for the first time by Aristotle, still required about twice four hundred years – from the fourth pre-Christian to the fourth post-Christian century – before it became so far the common possession of men that the Church Father Augustine (354-430) could base his teaching on it – a teaching which moulded man’s outlook on himself for the coming centuries right up to our own time.

The following passage from Augustine’s Confessions shows clearly how he was compelled to think about the nature of the little child:

‘This age, whereof I have no remembrance, which I take on others’ words, and guess from other infants that I have passed, true though the guess be, I am yet loath to count in this life of mine which I live in this world. For no less than that which I lived in my mother’s womb, is it hid from me in the shadows of forgetfulness. But if I was shapen in iniquity and in sin my mother did conceive me, where, I beseech thee, O my God, where, Lord, or when, was I thy servant guiltless? But lo! that period I pass by; and what have I to do with that of which I can recall no vestige?’4

On the grounds of such experience, Augustine was unable to picture man’s being in any other way than by seeing him, from the first moment of his life, as subject to the condition of the human race which resulted from the Fall. Thus he exclaims in his Confessions: ‘Before Thee, O God, no-one is free from sin, not even the child which has lived but a single day on the earth.’ In so far as there was any question of the soul’s arising from this fallen state, it was deemed unable to attain this by any effort of its own, but to depend on the gifts of grace which the Church was able to dispense through the Sacraments.

Compare with this the present-day scientific conception of human nature, as it dominates the thought of specialist and layman alike. Here man appears, both in body and soul, as a sum of inherited characteristics, of characteristics, that is to say, which have been passed on by way of sexual propagation and gradually emerge into full manifestation as the individual grows up. Apart from this inherited predestination the soul is held to present itself, in Locke’s classical phrase, as a tabula rasa upon which are stamped all manner of external impressions.

The similarity between this modern picture of man and the earlier theological one is striking. In both cases the central assumption is that human development from child to man consists in the unfolding of certain inherited characteristics which are capable of further specific modification under influences proceeding from outside. The only difference between the two pictures is that in the modern one the concepts of heredity and adaptation have been formed without special application to the ethical characteristics of the soul.

It is clear that from both Augustine’s and the modern scientific viewpoint there is no sense in requiring – as Reid did – those who seek the truth about themselves and the world to recover a condition which had been theirs as children. Nor from this point of view is there any justification to call on a Common Sense, innate in man, to sit in judgment on the philosophical efforts of the adult reason.


That even in the days of Augustine the original conception of human nature had not disappeared entirely, is shown by the appearance of Augustine’s opponent Pelagius, called the ‘arch-heretic’. To consider him at this point in our discussion will prove helpful for our understanding of Reid’s historic position in the modern age.

What interests us here in Pelagius’s doctrine (leaving aside all questions concerning the meaning of the Sacraments, etc.), is the picture of man which must have lived in him for him to teach as he did.

Leaving his Irish-Scottish homeland and arriving about the year 400 in Rome, where on account of the unusual purity of his being he soon came to be held in the highest esteem, Pelagius found himself obliged to come out publicly against Augustine, for he felt that Augustine’s teachings denied all free will to man. In the purely passive surrender of man to the will of God, as Augustine taught it, he could not but see danger for the future development of Christian humanity. How radically he diverged from Augustine in his view of man we may see from such of his leading thoughts as follow:

‘Each man begins his life in the same condition as Adam.’

‘All good or evil for which in life we are deserving of praise or blame is done by ourselves and is not born with us.’

‘Before the personal will of man comes into action there is nothing in him but what God has placed there.’

‘It is therefore left to the free will of man whether he falls into sin, as also whether through following Christ he raises himself out of it again.’

Pelagius could think in this way because he came from a part of Europe where the older form of human memory, already at that time almost extinct in the South, was in some degree still active. For him it was therefore a matter of direct experience that the development of man from childhood onwards was connected with a diminution of certain original capacities of the soul. Yet he was so far a child of his age as to be no longer capable of seeing whence these capacities originated.

To provide the necessary corrective to Augustine’s doctrine of inheritance, Pelagius would have had to be able to see in the first years of life both a beginning of the earthly and a termination of the pre-earthly existence of the soul. The imperfections of his picture of man, however, led him to underestimate, even to deny, the significance of heredity and so of original sin in human life. For an age which no longer had any direct experience of the soul’s pre-natal life, the doctrines of Augustine were undoubtedly more appropriate than those of Pelagius; Augustine was in fact the more modern of the two.

And now, if we move forward a dozen centuries and compare Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant from this same point of view, we find the same conception of man again triumphant. But there is an essential difference: Kant carried all before him because he based himself on an age-old view of human nature, whereas Reid, uncomprehended up to our own day, pointed to a picture of man only just then dawning on the horizon of the future. Just as through Pelagius there sounded something like a last call to European humanity not to forget the cosmic nature of the soul, so through Reid the memory of this nature announced its first faint renewal. It is common to both that their voices lacked the clarity to make themselves heard among the other voices of their times; and with both the reason was the same: neither could perceive in fullness – the one no longer, the other not yet – the picture of man which ensouled their ideas.

The certainty of Reid’s philosophical instinct, if such an expression be allowed, and at the same time his tragic limitations, due to an inability fully to understand the origin of this instinct, come out clearly in the battle he waged against the ‘idea’ as his immediate predecessors understood it. We know that Plato introduced this word into the philosophical language of mankind. In Greek ιδέα (from ιδεá¿Î½, to see) means something of which one knows that it exists, because one sees it. It was therefore possible to use the word ‘to see’ as Plato did, because in his day it covered both sensible and supersensible perception. For Plato, knowing consisted in the soul’s raising itself to perceiving the objective, world-forming IDEAS, and this action comprised at the same time a recollection of what the soul had seen while it lived, as an Idea among Ideas, before its appearance on earth.

As long as Plato’s philosophy continued to shape their thought, men went on speaking more or less traditionally of Ideas as real supersensible beings. When, however, the Aristotelian mode of thinking superseded the Platonic, the term ‘Idea’ ceased to be used in its original sense; so much so that, when Locke and other modern philosophers resorted to it in order to describe the content of the mind, they did so in complete obliviousness of its first significance.

It is thus that in modern philosophy, and finally in ordinary modern usage, ‘idea’ came to be a word with many meanings. Sometimes it signifies a sense-impression, sometimes a mental representation, sometimes the thought, concept or essential nature of a thing. The only thing common to these various meanings is an underlying implication that an idea is a purely subjective item in human consciousness, without any assured correspondence to anything outside.

It was against this view of the idea that Reid took the field, going so far as to label the philosophy holding it the ‘ideal system’. He failed to see, however, that in attacking the abstract use of the term he was actually in a position to restore to it its original, genuine meaning. If, instead of simply throwing the word overboard, he had been able to make use of it in its real meaning, he would have expressed himself with far greater exactitude and consistency.5 He was prevented from doing this by his apparent ignorance of the earlier Greek philosophers, Plato included. All he seems to have known of their teachings came from inferior, second-hand reports of a later and already decadent period.

* * *

There are two historic personalities, both in England, who witness to the fact that the emergence of Reid’s philosophy on the stage of history was by no means an accidental event but that it represents a symptom of a general reappearance of the long-forgotten picture of man, in which birth no more than death sets up an absolute limit to human existence. They are Thomas Traherne (1638-74) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Wordsworth’s work and character are so well known that there is no need to speak of them here in detail.6 For our purpose we shall pay special attention only to his Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, where he shows himself in possession of a memory (at any rate at the time when he wrote the poem) of the pre-natal origin of the soul, and of a capacity for experiencing, at certain moments, the frontier which the soul crosses at birth.

If, despite the widespread familiarity of the Ode, we here quote certain passages from it, we do so because, like many similar things, it has fallen a victim to the intellectualism of our time in being regarded merely as a piece of poetic fantasy. We shall take the poet’s words as literally as he himself uttered them. We read:

‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended.”

And later:

‘Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”

The fact that Wordsworth in his later years gave no further indication of such experiences need not prevent us from taking quite literally what he says here. The truth is that an original faculty faded away with increasing age, somewhat as happened with Reid when he could no longer continue his philosophical work along its original lines. Wordsworth’s Ode is the testament of the childhood forces still persisting but already declining within him; it is significant that he set it down in about the same year of life (his thirty-sixth) as that in which Traherne died and in which Goethe, seeking renewal of his being, took flight to Italy.7


Of Traherne, too, we shall say here only as much as our present consideration and the further aims of this book require. We cannot concern ourselves with the remarkable events which led, half a century ago, to the discovery and identification of his long-lost writings by Bertram Dobell. Nor can we deal with the details of the eventful life and remarkable spiritual development of this contemporary of the Civil War. These matters are dealt with in Dobell’s introduction to his edition of Traherne’s poems, as also by Gladys I. Wade in her work, Thomas Traherne. Our gratitude for the labours of these two writers by which they have provided mankind with the knowledge of the character and the work of this unique personality cannot hinder us, however, from stating that both were prevented by the premises of their own view of the world from rightly estimating that side of Traherne which is important for us in this book, and with which we shall specially concern ourselves in the following pages.

Later in this chapter we shall discuss Dobell’s philosophical misinterpretation of Traherne, to which he fell victim because he maintained his accustomed spectator standpoint in regard to his object of study. Miss Wade has, indeed, been able to pay the right tribute to Traherne, the mystic, whose inner (and also outer) biography she was able to detect by taking seriously Traherne’s indications concerning his mystical development. Her mind, however, was too rigidly focused on this side of Traherne’s life – his self-training by an iron inner discipline and his toilsome ascent from the experience of Nothingness to a state of Beatific Vision. This fact, combined with her disinclination to overcome the Augustinian picture of man in herself, prevented her from taking Traherne equally seriously where he speaks as one who is endowed with a never interrupted memory of his primeval cosmic consciousness – notwithstanding the fact that Traherne himself has pointed to this side of his nature as the most significant for his fellow-men.

Of the two works of Traherne which Dobell rescued from oblivion, on both of which we shall draw for our exposition, one contains his poems, the other his prose writings. The title of the latter is Centuries of Meditations. The title page of one of the two manuscripts containing the collection of the poetical writings introduces these as Poems of Felicity, Containing Divine Reflections on the Native Objects of an Infant-Eye. As regards the title ‘Centuries of Meditations’ we are ignorant of the meaning Traherne may have attached to it, and what he meant by calling the four parts of the book, ‘First’, ‘Second’, etc., Century. The book itself represents a manual of devotion for meditative study by the reader.

Let our first quotation be one from the opening paragraph of the third ‘Century’ in which Traherne introduces himself as the bearer of certain uncommon powers of memory and, arising from these powers, a particular mission as a teacher:

‘Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now. Verily they seem the greatest gifts His wisdom could bestow, for without them all other gifts had been dead and vain. They are unattainable by books, and therefore I will teach them by experience.’ (Ill, 1.)

The picture thus remaining with him of his nature of soul in his earliest years on earth he describes as follows:

‘Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostacy, I collected again by the highest reason. I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me. All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be the heir of the whole world, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?’ (Ill, 1, 2.)

In a different form the same experience comes to expression in the opening lines of Traherne’s poem, Wonder:

‘How like an Angel came I down!
How bright are all things here I
When first among his Works I did appear

O how their GLORY did me crown!
The World resembled his ETERNITIE,

In which my Soul did Walk;
And evry Thing that I did see
Did with me talk

The picture of man thus sketched by Traherne is as close to Reid’s as it is remote from Augustine’s. This remoteness comes plainly to expression in the way Traherne and Augustine regard the summons of Christ to His disciples to become as little children, a summons to which Reid was led, as we have seen, on purely philosophical grounds. Let us first of all recall the words of Christ as recorded by Matthew in his 18th and 19th chapters:

‘And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said: Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.’ (xviii, 2-4.)

‘Suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’ (xix, 14.)

Augustine refers to these words when he concludes that examination of his childhood memories which he undertook in order to prove the depravity of the soul from its first day on earth. He says: ‘In the littleness of children didst Thou, our king, give us a symbol of humility when Thou didst say: Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’

If we glance back from what Augustine says here to the original passages in the Gospel just quoted, we see what a remarkable alteration he makes. Of the first passage only the last sentence is taken, and this in Augustine’s mind is fused into one with the second passage. Thereby the admonition of Christ through one’s own effort to become as one once was as a child disappears completely. The whole passage thus takes on a meaning corresponding to that passive attitude to the divine will inculcated by Augustine and opposed by Pelagius, and it is in this sense that the words of Christ have sunk into the consciousness of Western Christianity and are usually taken to-day.

We may see how differently this injunction of Christ lived in Traherne’s consciousness from the following passage out of his Centuries:

‘Our Saviour’s meaning, when He said, ye must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, is deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended.’ (Ill, 5.)

With Traherne also the passage in question has been fused together with another utterance of Christ, from John’s account of Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ (John iii, 3.)

What conception of the infant condition of man must have existed in a soul for it to unite these two passages from the Gospels in this way? Whereas for Augustine it is because of its small stature and helplessness that the child becomes a symbol for the spiritual smallness and helplessness of man as such, compared with the overwhelming power of the divine King, for Traherne it is the child’s nearness to God which is most present to him, and which must be regained by the man who strives for inner perfection.

Traherne could bear in himself such a picture of man’s infancy because, as he himself emphasizes, he was in possession of an unbroken memory of the experiences which the soul enjoys before it awakens to earthly sense-perception. The following passage from the poem, My Spirit, gives a detailed picture of the early state in which the soul has experiences and perceptions quite different from those of its later life. (We may recall Reid’s indication of how the child receives the natural language of things.)

‘An Object, if it were before
Mine Ey, was by Dame Nature’s Law

Within my Soul: Her Store
Was all at once within me; all her Treasures
Were my immediat and internal Pleasures;
Substantial Joys, which did inform my Mind.

‘… I could not tell
Whether the Things did there

Themselvs appear,
Which in my Spirit truly seem’d to dwell:
Or whether my conforming Mind
Were not ev’n all that therein shin’d.’

Further detail is added to this picture by the description, given in the poem The Praeparative, of the soul’s non-experience of the body at that early stage. The description is unmistakably one of an experience during the time between conception and birth.

‘My Body being dead, my Limbs unknown;
Before I skill’d to prize
Those living Stars, mine Eys;
Before or Tongue or Cheeks I call’d mine own,
Before I knew these Hands were mine,

Or that my Sinews did my Members join;
When neither Nostril, Foot, nor Ear,

As yet could be discerned or did appear;
I was within

A House I knew not; newly cloath’d with Skin.

Then was my Soul my only All to me,
A living endless Ey,
Scarce bounded with the Sky,
Whose Power, and Act, and Essence was to see;

I was an inward Sphere of Light,
Or an interminable Orb of Sight,

Exceeding that which makes the Days,
vital Sun that shed abroad its Rays:
All Life, all Sense,
A naked, simple, pure Intelligence.”

In the stanza following upon this, Traherne makes a statement which is of particular importance in the context of our present discussion. After some additional description of the absence of all bodily needs he says:

Without disturbance then I did receiv
The tru Ideas of all Things’

The manuscript of this poem shows a small alteration in Traherne’s hand in the second of these two lines. Where we now read ‘true Ideas’, there originally stood ‘fair Ideas’. ‘Fair’ described Traherne’s experience as he immediately remembered it; the later alteration to ‘true’ shows how well aware he was that his contemporaries might miss what he meant by ‘Idea’, through taking it in the sense that had already become customary in his time, namely, as a mere product of man’s own mental activity.

This precaution, however, has not saved Traherne from being misinterpreted in our own day in precisely the way he feared – indeed, by no less a person than his own discoverer, Dobell. It is the symptomatic character of this misinterpretation which prompts us to deal with it here.


In his attempt to classify the philosophical mode of thought behind Traherne’s writings, Dobell, to his own amazement, comes to the conclusion that Traherne had anticipated Bishop Berkeley (1684-1753). They seemed to him so alike that he does not hesitate to call Traherne a ‘Berkeleyan before Berkeley was born’. In proof of this he refers to the poems, The Praeparative and My Spirit, citing from the latter the passage given above (page 112), and drawing special attention to its two concluding lines. Regarding this he says: ‘I am much mistaken if the theory of non-existence of independent matter, which is the essence of Berkeley’s system, is not to be found in this poem. The thought that the whole exterior universe is not really a thing apart from and independent of man’s consciousness of it, but something which exists only as it is perceived, is undeniably found in My Spirit:

The reader who has followed our exposition in the earlier parts of this chapter can be in no doubt that, to find a philosophy similar to Traherne’s, he must look for it in Reid and not in Berkeley. Reid himself rightly placed Berkeley amongst the representatives of the ‘ideal system’ of thought. For Berkeley’s philosophy represents an effort of the onlooker-consciousness, unable as it was to arrive at certainty regarding the objective existence of a material world outside itself, to secure recognition for an objective Self behind the flux of mental phenomena. Berkeley hoped to do this by supposing that the world, including God, consists of nothing but ‘idea’-creating minds, operating like the human mind as man himself perceives it. His world picture, based (as is well known) entirely on optical experiences, is the perfect example of a philosophy contrived by the one-eyed, colourblind world-spectator.

We shall understand what in Traherne’s descriptions reminded Dobell of Berkeley, if we take into account the connexion of the soul with the body at the time when, according to Traherne, it still enjoys the untroubled perception of the true, the light-filled, Ideas of things.

In this condition the soul has only a dim and undifferentiated awareness of its connexion with a spatially limited body (‘I was within a house I knew not, newly clothed with skin’) and it certainly knows nothing at all of the body as an instrument, through which the will can be exercised in an earthly-spatial way (‘My body being dead, my limbs unknown’). Instead of this, the soul experiences itself simply as a supersensible sense-organ and as such united with the far spaces of the universe (‘Before I skilled to prize those living stars, mine eyes. … Then was my soul my only All to me, a living endless eye, scarce bounded with the sky’).

At the time when the soul has experiences of the kind described by Traherne, it is in a condition in which, as yet, no active contact has been established between itself and the physical matter of the body and thereby with gravity. Hence there is truth in the picture which Traherne thus sketches from actual memory. The same cannot be said of Berkeley’s world-picture. The fact that both resemble each other in certain features need not surprise us, seeing that Berkeley’s picture is, in its own way, a pure ‘eye-picture’ of the world. As such, however, it is an illusion – for it is intended for a state of man for which it is not suited, namely for adult man going upright on the earth, directing his deeds within its material realm, and in this way fashioning his own destiny.

Indeed, compared with Berkeley’s eye-picture of the world, that of Reid is in every respect a ‘limb-picture’. For where he seeks for the origin of our naïve assurance that a real material world exists, there he reverts – guided by his common sense – to the experiences available to the soul through the fact that the limbs of the body meet with the resistant matter of the world. And whenever he turns to the various senses in his search, it is always the will-activity of the soul within the sense he is investigating – and so the limb-nature within it – to which he first turns his attention. Because, unlike Berkeley, he takes into account the experiences undergone by the soul when it leaves behind its primal condition, Reid does not fall into illusion, but discovers a fundamental truth concerning the nature of the world-picture experienced by man in his adult age. This, in turn, enables him to discover the nature of man’s world picture in early childhood and to recognize the importance of recovering it in later life as a foundation for a true philosophy.

Assuredly, the philosopher who discovered that we must become as little children again if we would be philosophers, is the one to whom we may relate Traherne, but not Berkeley. And if we wish to speak of Traherne, as Dobell tried to do, we speak correctly only if we call him a ‘Reidean before Reid was born’.

* * *

A little more than a hundred years after Thomas Traherne taught his fellow-men ‘from experience’ that there is an original condition of man’s soul, before it is yet able to prize ‘those living stars, mine eyes’, in which it is endowed with the faculty to see ‘the true (fair) Ideas of all things’, Goethe was led to the realization that he had achieved the possibility of ‘seeing Ideas with the very eyes’. Although he was himself not aware of it, the conception of the Idea was at this moment restored through him to its true and original Platonic significance.

The present chapter has shown us how this conception of the Idea is bound up with the view that is held of the relationship between human nature in early childhood and human nature in later life. We have seen that, when Plato introduced the term Idea as an expression for spiritual entities having a real and independent existence, men were still in possession of some recollection of their own pre-earthly existence. We then found Traherne saying from his recollections that in the original form of man’s consciousness his soul is endowed with the faculty of seeing ‘true’ Ideas, and we found Reid on similar grounds fighting the significance which the term ‘idea’ had assumed under his predecessors. By their side we see Goethe as one in whom the faculty of seeing Ideas appears for the first time in adult man as a result of a systematic training of observation and thought.

If our view of the interdependence of the Platonic conception of the Idea with the picture man has of himself is seen rightly, then Goethe must have been the bearer of such a picture. Our expectation is shown to be right by the following two passages from Goethe’s autobiography, Truth and Fiction.

In that part of his life story where Goethe concludes the report of the first period of his childhood (Book II), he writes:

‘Who is able to speak worthily of the fullness of childhood? We cannot behold the little creatures which flit about before us otherwise than with delight, nay, with admiration; for they generally promise more than they perform and it seems that nature, among the other roguish tricks that she plays us, here also especially designs to make sport of us. The first organs she bestows upon children coming into the world, are adapted to the nearest immediate condition of the creature, which, unassuming and artless, makes use of them in the readiest way for its present purposes. The child, considered in and for itself, with its equals, and in relations suited to its powers, seems so intelligent and rational, and at the same time so easy, cheerful and clever, that one can hardly wish it further cultivation. If children grew up according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses.’9

We find further evidence in Goethe’s account of an event in his seventh year, which shows how deeply his soul was filled at that time with the knowledge of its kinship with the realm from which nature herself receives its existence. This knowledge led him to approach the ‘great God of Nature’ through an act of ritual conceived by himself. The boy took a four-sectioned music stand and arranged on it all kinds of natural specimens, minerals and the like, until the whole formed a kind of pyramidal altar. On the top of this pyramid he placed some fumigating candles, the burning of which was to represent the ‘upward yearning of the soul for its God’. In order to give nature herself an active part in the ritual, he contrived to kindle the candles by focusing upon them through a magnifying-glass the light of the rising sun. Before this symbol of the unity of the soul with the divine in nature the boy then paid his devotions.

‘Unity of the soul with the divine in nature’ – this was what lived vividly as a conviction in the seven-year-old boy, impelling him to act as ‘nature’s priest’ (Wordsworth). The same impulse, in a metamorphosed form, impelled the adult to go out in quest of an understanding of nature which, as Traherne put it, was to bring back through highest reason what once had been his by way of primeval intuition.

1 The present writer’s interest in Reid was first aroused by a remark of Rudolf Steiner, in his book A Theory of ‘Knowledge according to Goethe’s World Conception.

2 In a comment on a letter Carlyle had written to him, and in a note dealing with the contemporary philosophy in Germany.

3 This observation of Reid’s shows that the origin of language is very different from what the evolutionists since Darwin have imagined it to be.

4 Confessions, Book I, Chapter 8.

5 As we have seen, the word had better luck with Goethe.

6 Wordsworth, with all his limitations, had a real affinity with Goethe in his view of nature. Mr. Norman Lacey gives some indication of this in his recent book, Wordsworth’s View of Nature.

7 This same period of life played a decisive part in the spiritual evolution of Rudolf Steiner, as may be seen in his autobiography, The Story of My Life.

8 The difference in spelling between the prose and poetry excerpts arises from the fact that whereas we can draw on Miss Wade’s new edition of the poems for Traherne’s original spelling, we have as yet only Dobell’s edition of the Centuries, in which the spelling is modernized.

9 Oxenford’s translation.