IF HISTORY had to deal with external phenomena, the establishment of this simple and obvious law would be sufficient, and our argument would be at an end. But the law of history relates to man. A particle of matter cannot tell us that it does not feel the inevitability of attraction and repulsion, and that the law is not true. Man, who is the subject of history, bluntly says: I am free, and so I am not subject to law.
The presence of the question of the freedom of the will, if not openly expressed, is felt at every step in history.
All seriously thinking historians are involuntarily led to this question. All the inconsistencies, and the obscurity of history, and the false path that science has followed, is due to that unsolved question.
If the will of every man were free, that is, if every man could act as he chose, the whole of history would be a tissue of disconnected accidents.
If one man only out of millions once in a thousand years had the power of acting freely, that is, as he chose, it is obvious that a single free act of that man in opposition to the laws governing human action would destroy the possibility of any laws whatever governing all humanity.
If there is but one law controlling the actions of men, there can be no free will, since men's will must be subject to that law.
In this contradiction lies the question of the freedom of the will, which from the most ancient times has occupied the best intellects of mankind, and has from the most ancient times been regarded as of immense importance.
Looking at man as a subject of observation from any point of view—theological, historical, ethical, philosophical—we find a general law of necessity to which he is subject like everything existing. Looking at him from within ourselves, as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves free.
This consciousness is a source of self-knowledge utterly apart and independent of reason. Through reason man observes himself; but he knows himself only through consciousness.
Apart from consciousness of self, any observation and application of reason is inconceivable.
To understand, to observe, to draw conclusions, a man must first of all be conscious of himself as living. A man knows himself as living, not otherwise than as willing, that is, he is conscious of his free will. Man is conscious of his will as constituting the essence of his life, and he cannot be conscious of it except as free.
If subjecting himself to his own observation, a man perceives that his will is always controlled by the same law (whether he observes the necessity of taking food, or of exercising his brain, or anything else), he cannot regard this never-varying direction of his will otherwise than as a limitation of it. If it were not free, it could not be limited. A man's will seems to him to be limited just because he is not conscious of it except as free. You say: I am not free. But I have lifted and dropped my hand. Everybody understands that this illogical reply is an irrefutable proof of freedom.
This reply is an expression of a consciousness not subject to reason.
If the consciousness of freedom were not a separate source of self-knowledge apart from reason, it would be controlled by reasoning and experience. But in reality such control never exists, and is inconceivable.
A series of experiments and arguments prove to every man that he, as an object of observation, is subject to certain laws, and the man submits to them, and never, after they have once been pointed out to him, controverts the law of gravity or of impenetrability. But the same series of experiments and arguments proves to him that the complete freedom of which he is conscious in himself is impossible; that every action of his depends on his organisation, on his character, and the motives acting on him. But man never submits to the deductions of these experiments and arguments.
Learning from experience and from reasoning that a stone falls to the ground, a man unhesitatingly believes this; and in all cases expects the law he has learnt to be carried out.
But learning just as incontestably that his will is subject to laws, he does not, and cannot, believe it.
However often experience and reasoning show a man that in the same circumstances, with the same character, he does the same thing as before, yet on being led the thousandth time in the same circumstances, with the same character, to an action that always ends in the same way, he feels just as unhesitatingly convinced that he can act as he chooses, as ever. Every man, savage and sage alike, however incontestably reason and experience may prove to him that it is impossible to imagine two different courses of action under precisely the same circumstances, yet feels that without this meaningless conception (which constitutes the essence of freedom) he cannot conceive of life. He feels that however impossible it may be, it is so; seeing that, without that conception of freedom, he would be not only unable to understand life, but could not live for a single instant.
He could not live because all men's instincts, all their impulses in life, are only efforts to increase their freedom. Wealth and poverty, health and disease, culture and ignorance, labour and leisure, repletion and hunger, virtue and vice, are all only terms for greater or less degrees of freedom.
To conceive a man having no freedom is impossible except as a man deprived of life.
If the idea of freedom appears to the reason a meaningless contradiction, like the possibility of doing two actions at a single moment of time, or the possibility of an effect without a cause, that only proves that consciousness is not subject to reason.
That unwavering, irrefutable consciousness of freedom, not influenced by experience and argument, recognised by all thinkers, and felt by all men without exception, that consciousness without which no conception of man is reliable, constitutes the other side of the question.
Man is the creation of an Almighty, All-good, and All-wise God. What is sin, the conception of which follows from man's consciousness of freedom? That is the question of theology.
Men's actions are subject to general and invariable laws, expressed in statistics. What is man's responsibility to society, the conception of which follows from his consciousness of freedom? That is the question of jurisprudence.
A man's actions follow from his innate character and the motives acting on him. What is conscience and the sense of right and wrong in action that follows from the consciousness of freedom? That is the question of ethics.
Man in connection with the general life of humanity is conceived as governed by the laws that determine that life. But the same man, apart from that connection, is conceived of as free. How is the past life of nations and of humanity to be regarded—as the product of the free or not free action of men? That is the question of history.
Only in our conceited age of the popularisation of knowledge, thanks to the most powerful weapon of ignorance—the diffusion of printed matter—the question of the freedom of the will has been put on a level, on which it can no longer be the same question. In our day the majority of so-called advanced people—that is, a mob of ignoramuses—have accepted the result of the researches of natural science, which is occupied with one side only of the question, for the solution of the whole question.
There is no soul and no free will, because the life of man is expressed in muscular movements, and muscular movements are conditioned by nervous activity. There is no soul and no free will, because at some unknown period of time we came from apes, they say, and write, and print. Not at all suspecting that thousands of years ago all religions and all thinkers have admitted—have never, in fact, denied—that same law of necessity, which they are now so strenuously trying to prove by physiology and comparative zoology. They do not see that natural science can do no more in this question than serve to illumine one side of it. The fact that, from the point of view of observation, the reason and the will are but secretions of the brain, and that man, following the general law of development, may have developed from lower animals at some unknown period of time, only illustrates in a new aspect the truth, recognised thousands of years ago by all religious and philosophic theories, that man is subject to the laws of necessity. It does not advance one hair's-breadth the solution of the question, which has another opposite side, founded on the consciousness of freedom.
If men have descended from apes at an unknown period of time, that is as comprehensible as that they were fabricated out of a clod of earth at a known period of time (in the one case the date is the unknown quantity, in the other the method of fabrication); and the question how to reconcile man's consciousness of free will with the law of necessity to which he is subject cannot be solved by physiology and zoology, seeing that in the frog, the rabbit, and the monkey we can observe only muscular and nervous activity, while in man we find muscular and nervous activity plus consciousness.
The scientific men and their disciples who suppose they are solving this question are like plasterers set to plaster one side of a church wall, who, in the absence of the chief superintendent of their work, should in the excess of their zeal plaster over the windows, and the holy images, and the woodwork, and the scaffolding, and rejoice that from the plasterers' point of view everything was now so smooth and even.