07 Apr The Arc of the Moral Universe | Spirituality Podcasts
Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the book 10 Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, published in 1853.
Everywhere in the world there is a natural law: that is, a constant mode of action which seems to belong to the nature of things, to the constitution of the universe. This fact is universal.
This mode of action is referred to by different names, such as the law of Matter, the law of Mind, the law of Morals, and the like. In other words, it means a certain mode of action which belongs to the material, mental, or moral forces (the mode in which commonly these forces are seen to act, and in which it is their ideal to act always).
The ideal laws of matter we only know from the fact that they are always obeyed. To us the actual obedience is the only witness of the ideal rule—for with respect to the conduct of the material world, the ideal and the actual are the same.
The laws of matter we can learn only by observation and experience. We cannot divine them and anticipate (or know them at all) unless experience supplies the facts of observation.
For example, before experience of the fact, no person could tell that a falling body would descend sixteen feet the first second, twice that the next, four times the third, and sixteen times the fourth. The law of falling bodies is purely objective to us. No mode of action in our consciousness anticipates this rule of action in the outer world. The same is true of all the laws of matter.
The ideal law is known because it is a fact. The law is imperative; it must be obeyed, without hesitation. In the solar system, or the composition of a diamond, no margin is left for any oscillation of disobedience. Margins of oscillation there always are, but only for vibration as a function, not as the refusal of a function. Only the primal will of Nature works in the material world, no secondary finite will.
In Nature, the world spreads out before the senses—grouping many specific modes of action about a single generic force. And we see that there is a great general law of Attraction, which binds atom to atom in a grain of sand, orb to orb, system to system, gives unity to the world of things, and rounds these worlds of systems to a universe.
At first there seems to be exceptions to this law of attraction — such as in growth and decomposition, and in the repulsions of electricity. But when studied at length, all these are found to be situational cases of the great law of attraction acting in various modes.
We name the attraction by its several modes of application: cohesion in small masses, and gravitation in large ones. When the relation seems a little more intimate, we call it affinity, as in the atomic union of molecules of matter.
Other modes we name electricity, and magnetism. When the relation is yet more close and intimate, we call it vegetation in plants, vitality in animals. But for our present purposes, all these may be classed under the general term Attraction, which acts in various modes of cohesion, gravitation, affinity, vegetation, and vitality.
This power gives unity to the material world, keeps it whole. Yet, acting under such various forms, gives variety at the same time. The variety of effect surprises the senses at first. But in the end, it is the unity of cause that astonishes the cultivated mind.
Looked at in reference to this earthly globe of ours, an earthquake is no more than a chink that opens in a garden-walk on a dry summer’s day. A sponge is porous, having small spaces between the solid parts; the solar system is only more porous, having larger room between the several orbs; the universe yet more so, with vast spaces between the systems.
It is the law of attraction that keeps together the sponge, the system, and the universe. Every particle of matter in the world is related to each and all the other particles thereof; attraction is the common bond.
In the spiritual world, the world of human consciousness, there is also a law, an ideal mode of action for the spiritual forces. To take only the moral part of this sphere of consciousness, we find the phenomenon called Justice, the law of right. Viewed as a force, justice bears the same relation in the world of conscience that attraction bears in the world of sense. What I mean is that justice is the normal relation of people, and its force is equally felt among moral atoms (individual men and women); moral masses (that is, nations); and the moral whole, which is all of humanity. And that this force appears in a variety of forms no less striking than the force of attraction which controls material atoms, masses, and the material world as a whole.
However, unlike attraction, justice does not work free from all hindrance. It develops itself through conscious agents that continually change and pass (by experiment from low to high degrees of life and development) to higher forms of justice.
There is a certain private force, personal and peculiar to each one of us, controlled by the individual will. This force may act along the same line as the great normal force of justice, or it may conflict for a time with the general law of the universe—having private mutations, oscillations, and aberrations, personal or national.
But these minor forces, after a while, are sure to be overcome by the great general moral force, pass into the current, and be borne along in the moral stream of the universe.
What a variety of men and women are there in the world. Over 7 billion persons, and no two alike in form and composition. In character and being, how unlike. How very different as phenomena and facts. What an immense variety of wish, of will, in these thousands of millions of individuals, of their plans, which now rise up in the little personal bubble that we call a reputation or a great fortune, or in the great national bubble which we call a State.
For bubbles they are, judging by the space and time they occupy in this great and age-outlasting sea of human kind. But underneath all these bubbles, great and little, resides the same eternal force which they shape into this or the other special form. And over all of this, the same hand of Providence presides, and keeps eternal watch above the little and the great, producing variety of effects from unity of its force.
This Providence allows the little bubbles of our childhood caprice, humors us in forming them; gives us time and space for that, understands our little whims and lets us carry them out awhile. But Providence itself, with no whim and no caprice, rules there as universal justice, omniscient and all-powerful.
Out of Nature’s sea these bubbles rise; by Nature’s force they rise; by Nature’s law they have their consistency; and the private personal will (which gives them size or littleness and a normal or abnormal shape) has its limitation of error marked out for it, which cannot be passed by.
In this human world there is a wide margin for oscillation; refusal to perform the ideal function that has been provided for us. Checks and balances are provided for every human deficiency and abnormal action of the will.
Viewed as an object outside of humankind, justice is the constitution or fundamental law of the moral universe, the law of right, a rule of conduct for men and women in all our moral relations. Accordingly, all human affairs must be subject to this paramount law. What is right agrees therewith and stands; what is wrong conflicts and falls. Private cohesions of self-love, of friendship, or of patriotism, must all be subordinate to this universal gravitation towards what is eternally right.
We learn the laws of matter, that of attraction, for example, by observation and reflection; what we know thereof is the result of long experience — the experienced sight and the experienced thought of many a thousand years.
We might learn something of the moral law of justice, the law of right, in the same way, as merely an external thing. Then we should know it as a phenomenon, as we know attraction; as a fact so general, that we can call it universal and a law of nature.
Still it would be deemed only an arbitrary law: over us, indeed, but not in us (or in our elements, but not our consciousness), one which we must be subordinate to, but could not coordinate with; a law like that of falling bodies, which has no natural relation with us, which we could not anticipate or divine by our nature, but only learn by our history.
We should not know why Providence made the world after the pattern of justice, and not injustice, any more than we now know why a photon can act as both a particle and a wave.
But Nature has given us a moral faculty, the conscience, which is able to perceive this law directly and immediately, by intuitive perception thereof, without experience of the external consequences of keeping or violating it, and more perfectly than such experience can ever disclose it.
For the facts of human history do not fully represent the faculties of human nature, as the history of matter represents the qualities of matter. Humankind, though finite, is indefinitely progressive, continually unfolding the qualities of our nature. Our history, therefore, is not the whole book of humanity, but only the portion thereof which has been opened and publicly read.
So our history never completely represents our nature; and a law derived merely from the facts of observation by no means describes the normal rule of action which belongs to human nature. The laws of matter are known to us because they are kept. There, the ideal and actual are the same.
But humanity has in its nature a rule of conduct higher than what we have come up to—an ideal of nature which shames our actual history. Observation and reflection only give us the reality of morals. Conscience, by gradual and successive intuition, presents us the ideal of morals.
On condition that we use this faculty in its normal activity, and in proportion as we develop it and all its kindred powers, we learn justice, the law of right, the divine rule of conduct for human life. We see it, not as an external fact which might as well not be at all, or be supplanted by its opposite, but we see it as a mode of action which belongs to the infinitely perfect nature of divine Providence. And it belongs also to my own nature, and so it is not over me, but in me, of me, and for me.
I can thus coordinate with it, and not merely be subordinate thereto. Indeed, I find a deep, permanent, and instinctive delight in justice, not only in the outward effects, but in the inward cause, and by my nature I love this law of right, this rule of conduct, this justice, with a deep and abiding love.
I find that justice is the object of my conscience, fitting that, as light the eye and truth the mind. There is a perfect agreement between the moral object and the moral subject. Finding it fits me thus, I know that justice will work for my welfare and that of all humankind.
Look at the facts of the world. And you will see a slow but continual and progressive triumph of what is right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one; my eye reaches but a little way. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight. But I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.
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