In the 1850's John Stuart Mill wrote an essay titled "The Utility of Religion" --- marred in places by too-strident attacks on conventional systems of faith, but containing much positive and worthwhile thought. Along the way Mill grapples with life and the roots of its meaning. He observes rather poetically:
Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination.
As for the mystical dimensions of belief, and the possibility of religion without them, Mill then argues:
The value, therefore, of religion to the individual, both in the past and present, as a source of personal satisfaction and of elevated feelings, is not to be disputed. But it has still to be considered, whether in order to obtain this good, it is necessary to travel beyond the boundaries of the world which we inhabit; or whether the idealization of our earthly life, the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made, is not capable of supplying a poetry, and, in the best sense of the word, a religion, equally fitted to exalt the feelings, and (with the same aid from education) still better calculated to ennoble the conduct, than any belief respecting the unseen powers.
Mill postulates a system devoted to great and real things, such as humanity writ large. (Elements of his description perhaps echo in Larry Niven's science-fiction novel Protector.) Mill suggests that:
The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object, recognized as of the highest excellence, and as rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire. This condition is fulfilled by the Religion of Humanity in as eminent a degree, and in as high a sense, as by the supernatural religions even in their best manifestations, and far more so than in any of their others.
In a discussion of the theory that the universe is a battleground between Good and Evil --- a belief which he finds intellectually and morally acceptable in spite of its mystical elements --- Mill's comments are reminiscent of George Eliot's stirring philosophy expressed in her novel Middlemarch. Mill writes:
A virtuous human being assumes in this theory the exalted character of a fellow-laborer with the Highest, a fellow combatant in the great strife; contributing his little, which by the aggregation of many like himself becomes much, towards that progressive ascendancy, and ultimately complete triumph of good over evil, which history points to, and which this doctrine teaches us to regard as planned by the Being to whom we owe all the benevolent contrivance we behold in Nature.
As Mill says, a "... pleasing and encouraging thought ..."!
(See Cardinal Newman's "Definition of a Gentleman" (1852, http://www.his.com/~z/gentleman.html ), JohnsonCondolences = Samuel Johnson's "Letter of Condolence" (1750, http://www.his.com/~z/johnson.html ), and ^zhurnal notes re George Eliot (My Religion, 6 November 2000 and RememberMe, 21 May 1999), Albert Schweitzer (23 July 2000), and Mary Midgley (3 July 2001) and previous posts, TopicMidgley.)
Sunday, July 08, 2001 at 19:44:58 (EDT) = Datetag20010708