Front Matter: Prefaces.

Preface to the Fifth Edition.

I have been asked to say a few words of Preface to the new and cheaper edition of Green’s Prolegomena, the merits of which as an introduction to Ethics are generally recognised. The Prolegomena may be described as a new treatment of the fundamental questions of Ethics, from an idealistic point of view, somewhat modified from that of Kant. The problem from which Green, like Kant, tarts is the apparent opposition between the ordinary conception of the world, as a system of causally connected objects in space and time, which is presupposed by physical science, and what seem to be the fundamental ideas of morality and religion, the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality. If man, like all other objects of our empirical knowledge, is merely one part of the world of objects which act and react upon each other, according to fixed general laws, what room is left for the assertion of his moral freedom, or for any higher destiny which distinguishes him from the other creatures? and how can we regard him as other than a conditioned finite being, a link in the chain of conditioned being, or as having a direct living relation to a God who is not regarded as a part, but as the principle, source, and end of the whole system? Morality and religion seem to attribute to man an individual independence, and a relation to the absolute Being which no merely finite object could possess. If we follow out the ordinary methods of physical science, we seem reduced either to deny the moral responsibility of man and the existence of God, or to assert both on grounds which we should not admit in any other case. (Preface [1906] ¶1)

Now Green, like Kant, endeavours to show that in ordinary experience and in physical science we usually ignore or abstract from a principle which, nevertheless, is always present in all our knowledge, and that therefore such science does not deal with the ultimate reality of things, but only with phenomena; i.e. with things partially understood, or not apprehended in their whole reality. When, however, we detect this principle in relation to which all phenomena exist and are known, the result is both to vindicate the ways of knowing that characterise science and ordinary experience within their proper sphere, and at the same time to establish our right to apply the principles of morality and religion to the absolute reality. Hence, our ordinary experience and science rest upon a principle which, when recognised, carries us beyond such experience and science. Kant, indeed, maintains that it does not do this in the way of knowledge, but only opens the way for a faith which may guide us in practice. It can, in his view, prevent us from conceiving our experience as more than a knowledge of phenomena, but cannot enable us to change such partial knowledge into an apprehension of the real nature of things. Green, on the contrary, holds that when we see phenomenal objects in relation to their principles, we acquire a knowledge of what they are in themselves. Both, however, agree that our moral consciousness does take account of that principle, and that, as a consequence, we are entitled to postulate the moral freedom of man, and the existence of God, as primary truths on which we can base our existence as spiritual beings. And Green endeavours to work out the consequences of these principles in relation to morality. (Preface [1906] ¶2)

In the Second Book of the Prolegomena, therefore, he treats man’s practical life as a realisation of freedom, and endeavours to show in what sense freedom is realised, firstly, in man’s action generally; and secondly, in a narrower sense, in actions that are morally good. What is meant by saying that man is free in all his practical activity? and what is meant by saying that he is free only when his action conforms to the moral ideal? The first question is answered by showing that all action from motive is essentially free or self-determined action; the second, by showing that man is truly realising himself only when the motive of his action is the moral ideal. The moral ideal, it is then contended, is not truly represented by Hedonism as the sum of pleasures, either for the individual, or the greatest number. It involves, however, the complete realisation and satisfaction of the capacities of the individual, and it involves also the idea of a common good, in the attainment of which all moral beings may co-operate. After a full criticism and rejection of Hedonism in all its forms, Green proceeds to show the agreement of his own view of the moral ideal with that developed in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, both in their conception of virtuous activity as the chief good, and in their analysis of the special virtues; pointing out, however, that the conception of these virtues has been enlarged in modern times, under the influence of Christianity, and especially by the idea of the brotherhood of men. The Fourth and last Book of the Prolegomena discusses the practical value of moral philosophy, examining in particular the question how his own view enables us to deal with practical difficulties; how, in this point of view, it compares with other theories; and how, especially, it enables us to take account not only of the results, but of the motives of our actions. (Preface [1906] ¶3)

The difficulty which has been most felt by readers of the Prolegomena is that raised by the assertion that man must not be regarded merely as a result of certain previous conditions, but as a reproduction of itself by an eternal consciousness; in other words, that he is literally made in the image of God. And perhaps there are some valid objections to this way of stating the unity of the universal with the particular element in man’s being; or, in other words, maintaining that we are obliged to think of him not merely as an object who is a particular part of this partial world, but also to regard him as a being in whom the principle of unity that underlies all the differences in the world becomes conscious of itself. But we have to consider that any valid theory of human nature must somehow explain the union of these two aspects of man’s being, as, on the one hand, an individual object in the world, and on the other hand, a subject of knowledge and a moral being, who is capable of regarding and treating all objects, including himself, in relation to the whole to which he belongs. Thus, in knowledge and in morality, his point of view is not anthropocentric, but cosmocentric, or theocentric. For, in so far as he views the world from the point of view of his own individuality and acts with sole regard to it, his thought and action are illegitimate. Hence those who view human life in a comprehensive way are apt to describe it antithetically, alternately emphasizing the different aspects in which it presents itself. This dualistic way of describing humanity is especially characteristic of Pascal. Thus he declares, it is dangerous to let man see too clearly how he is on a level with the animals, without showing him his greatness. It is dangerous to let him see too clearly his greatness, without his meanness. If he boasts himself, I abuse him; if he abases himself, I exalt him. I contradict him continually, till he comprehends what an incomprehensible monster he is. (Preface [1906] ¶4)

Green’s work may be described as an attempt to explain this antagonism, and especially to show that the conception of man, sub specie aeternitatis, may be taken as the basis of our view of him sub specie temporis. But it is by no means easy to find a fit mode of expression for this unity: a mode of expression that does not fall into one of the opposite forms of error; a mysticism which loses man in God, or an individualism which forgets his relation both to God and to the world. Green at least has kept continually both of these aspects in view, and yet has been able to rise above the via media that remains perpetually in doubt whether to call him God or beast. (Preface [1906] ¶5)

Those who have a living remembrance of Green’s personality will always feel that he has a special right to be heard on the subject of ethics, seeing that he was specially characterised by the intimate blending in him of idealism and practicality. If there was a third quality by which he was distinguished, it was by an intensely democratic or Christian tone of feeling that could not tolerate the thought of privilege, and constantly desired for every class and individual a full share in all the great heritage of humanity. Of this sentiment many illustrations may be found in the following pages. The practical consequences of Green’s ethical principles are further developed in his Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation. (Preface [1906] ¶6)

E. Caird.
January, 1906.