Book III: The Moral Ideal and Moral Progress.

Chapter II: Characteristics of the Moral Ideal.

§ 183.

This consideration has an important bearing upon certain ways of thinking or speaking in which we are apt to take refuge when, having adopted a theory of the moral life as the fulfilment in the human spirit of some divine idea, we are called upon to face the difficulty of stating whether and how the fulfilment is really achieved. Any life which they individual can possibly live is at best so limited by the necessities of his position, that it seems impossible, on supposition that a divine self-realising principle is at work in it, that it should be an adequate expression of such a principle. Granted the most entire devotion of man to the attainment of objects contributory to human perfection, the very condition of his effectually promoting that end is that the objects in which he is actually interested, and upon which he really exercises himself, should be of limited range. The idea, unpressed and inexpressible, of some absolute and all-embracing end is, no doubt, the source of such devotion, but it can only take effect in the fulfilment of some particular function in which it finds but restricted utterance. It is in fact only so far as we are members of a society, of which we can conceive the common good as our own, that the idea has any partical hold on us at all, and this very membership implies confinement in our individual realisation of the idea. Each has primarily to fulfil the duties of his station. His capacity for action beyond the range of those duties is definitely bounded, and with it is definitely bounded also his sphere of personal interests, his character, his realised possibility. No one so confined, it would seem, can exhibit all that the Spirit, working through and in him, properly and potentially is. Yet is not such confinement the condition of the only personality that we know? It is the condition of social life, and social life is to personality what language is to thought. Language presupposes thought as a capacity, but in us the capacity of thought is only actualised in language. So human society presupposes persons in capacity—subjects capable each of conceiving himself and the bettering of his life as an end to himself—but it is only in the intercourse of men, each recognised by each as an end, not merely a means, and thus as having reciprocal claims, that the capacity is actualised and that we really live as persons. If society then (as thus appears) is the condition of all development of our personality, and if the necessities of social life, as alone we know or can conceive it, puts limits to our personal development, can we suppose it to be in persons that the spirit operative in men finds its full expression and realisation? (§ 183 ¶ 1)