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Matthew, Morality & God


Some commentators have argued that Matthew mellowed in his old age, moving from a belligerent imperialism, confident in the moral right of the British Empire, to a more questioning outlook, unsure of the morality of war or even of the purpose of civilization. Others have suggested that Matthew moved from atheism in his youth to a belief in God in old age.

I don’t agree with this interpretation of Matthew’s views. I think the defining characteristic of Matthew was an unflinching conviction in the truth of his own views, and these views held steady more or less throughout his life. It’s true that some of these views were at odds with each other, but these opposing views are also seen in his earliest writings (i.e. in his 1831 book). He grappled with these contrasting views throughout his life, and attempted to reconcile them in various ways.

Below I review some of these contrasting views. I start with the question of whether he was an atheist or a theist. On this point, I don’t think there was an internal conflict. I think Matthew was a theist, albeit an unconventional (non-Christian) one.

Atheism vs theism?

It is true that Matthew never directly refers to a Creator or a Deity in his 1831 book. In contrast, Darwin did so in his Origin of Species (even in the first edition the word “Creator” appears three times, while additionally, and famously, the word appears in the final sentence of the second and subsequent editions).

Dempster (1983, 1996) also argues that Matthew never refers to the Bible in his 1831 book, but there is some wriggle room here. It’s true that there are no explicit references, but in his all-important “End-Appendix” he writes that the current era of geological and species stability “has existed during the last 40 centuries”, and this particular timing can only be explained as a reference to the Noachian Flood, calculated by Archbishop Ussher’s Biblical chronology to have happened in 2348BC, 41½ centuries before Mathew’s writing. But this is by the by. The bigger point is that Matthew does not directly refer to a Creator in his 1831 book.

This has led some writers, in particular Dempster (1983, 1996) and Sutton (2014), to argue that Matthew was an atheist when he wrote his 1831 book. I find this unlikely. I think that Matthew held unorthodox, non-Christian views, but I believe he had a deep-seated belief in a purposeful universe and in a God who designed it, which he held throughout his life. I believe that Matthew followed in the footsteps of the eighteenth century physical determinists (Hume, Laplace, etc.) who argued that the Universe was created, but thereafter there was no interference by the Creator (no miracles, in other words). Note that this philosophy, if strictly adhered to, is at odds with all the major religions, which in one way or another are predicated on the idea of a God or Gods who intervene in their Creation (e.g. via Jesus, in the Christian faith).

Certainly there is no doubt that Matthew held theist beliefs by the 1860’s, because he writes directly of a “Deity” (quoted in Hallier 1866). He also writes in 1860 of the self-regulating nature of natural selection as surpassing any other natural phenomenon for “showing grandeur of design — means to end — display of infinite wisdom” (Matthew 1860b).

At the same time, he clearly thought that organised religion, and in particular the Catholic religion, was a bad thing, and he says so in his 1831 book (see his footnote castigating Catholicism on p.131. Note also his swipe at Protestantism – the “Calvinistic priesthood” – on p.372: he notes a possible negative effect of people looking up to these priests with too much devout attention – their black robes may induce, via a form of inheritance of acquired characteristics, a darkness of imagination). Other notable anti-Church statements are in his 5th letter in Schleswig-Holstein (1864) and in his last known private letter to Darwin (1871) (“Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense”). We also know from a friend’s reminiscences that Matthew “was popularly credited with a belief in the transmigration of souls” (reincarnation), and also that it was said he “neither believed in God or Devil”. However, I think the latter could be interpreted to mean that the Christian God and Devil were man-made inventions, presiding over an invented Heaven and Hell (see also Matthew’s reference to the Parable of the Damascene Woman in his last known private letter to Darwin (1871): “with this [fire] I will burn heaven & with this water extinguish hell that man may worship God for his own sake & not as mercenary labourers”).

But is there evidence that Matthew was a theist before 1860? I think there is. In 1849 he wrote of competition having been “implanted in our nature for wise ends”. And in his 1839 book Emigration Fields, he refers to a “benevolent Providence” (with a capital P) having “designed for man” a world conducive for “improvement and happiness” (Emigration Fields p.4).

Most importantly, his 1831 book also contains some clues to theist beliefs:
1) His famous sentence describing natural selection as part of an even greater universal law of circumstance adaptation: “There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation”. It is striking that he uses the terms “beauty” and “unity of design” here, given that in his later writings he uses the existence of beauty as evidence for design, and given that he later proposed that the law of natural selection showed “grandeur of design” within a designed universe. Some people have interpreted “unity of design” to mean “similarity of body plan”, but I think Matthew’s later writings suggest he was referring to “unity of design, as purposed by a Designer”
2) His book section entitled “The apparent use of the infinite seedling varieties of plants”. Again, his use of the word “use” implies utility within a designed universe, where everything needs to have a purpose. Again, I appreciate that this kind of purposeful language crops up a lot in evolutionary language (e.g. “Trait X is ‘for’ doing Y”) but it is unusual to ascribe a purpose to variation itself, as Matthew does here.
3) On p.57, Matthew refers to a “design and utility in this fascination of peculiarity”. Matthew is referring both to the peculiarity of individuals (in the sense that everyone is unique) and the peculiarity of nations (different national characteristics). To Matthew, both these things have a “design”, because people wouldn’t be attracted to each other, or form strong communities, without it.
4) Matthew’s title for his Note D of his 1831 Appendix is “Use of the selfish passions”. Here again is the word “use”. Everything had to have a utility, including the selfish passions. Ironically, a modern evolutionary interpretation would be to say they need have no modern use, but rather are evolutionary relics from our ape-like ancestry. But to Matthew, everything needs to have a use right now, as part of a designed universe.

Ultimately, the evidence is too thin to be able to be absolutely sure about what Matthew believed in at the time he wrote his 1831 book. However, I think the “theist hypothesis” makes the most sense from the limited facts at hand. This interpretation also coincides with that of Wells (1973). See also here for a discussion between myself and Dr Mike Sutton on this issue.

Might is right?

On some other questions, I believe that Matthew was internally conflicted, and he remained so throughout his life. I start with his views on the use of physical force.

Matthew believed that the use of force was necessary if it served the greater good. He saw the British Empire as an example of the greater good, as to him Britain represented the pinnacle of civilization and the Empire was a vehicle for spreading this civilization throughout the world. In Note A of the Appendix to his 1831 book, he writes of the military advantages of a sea-borne empire like Britain’s, and ends by noting: “Were a popular system of colonial government adopted, many islands and inferior states would find it their interest to become incorporated as part of the Empire.”

But Matthew realised there was a conflict between “might is right” and the fact that aggression was a base human instinct, in opposition to finer human qualities like benevolence and gentleness. His way of resolving this (sketched in his Note D of the Appendix to his 1831 book) was to say that the positive and the negative, good and evil, were all part of the necessary scheme of the universe, in the same way that hot and cold were required to make steam engines work: “Life and death – good and evil – pleasure and pain, are the principles of impulse to the scheme or machine of nature, as heat and cold are to the steam-engine, thus moving in necessary alternate dependence. Our moral sense, our perception and love of good, could not exist without the knowledge of evil; yet, we shudder at the truth of evil being part and portion of nature.”

Matthew actively campaigned against the use of physical force when he was part of the Chartist movement. However, on national issues, especially when he thought there was a moral principle involved, he was all for physical force. Examples include his letters in favour of Britain retaliating over the “Trent Affair” (1861-62), and supporting Prussian military campaigns in the Second Schleswig War (1864) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870).

Civilization is good?

Matthew was, on the whole, a staunch imperialist who had a positive vision of the British Empire. So strong was his belief in the moral right of the British Empire to civilize the world that he argued that ‘savage’ races should be swept aside in order to make way for civilizing emigration (see, for example, the end of his fifth letter in Schleswig-Holstein).

However, Matthew harboured a contrasting view, one that questioned whether the progress of man was all for the good. At the end of his famous End-Appendix at the end of his 1831 book, he writes of mankind as an “engrossing anomaly” which has probably occasioned the destruction of many species in the past and which, if left unchecked, might overrun the entire planet “to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animated existence”. Then in a private letter to Darwin on 3 Dec 1862, he asks “What will become of man when all the great facts of material & vital science are pointed out?” His answer is that “man cannot advance much higher”, and that civilization will soon fall, as others have done in the past.

This positive and negative notion of man’s future seem to exist side by side in both in early and later writings. Mostly, Matthew’s outlook is positive, and one can only speculate on the reasons for his darker outlook.

Capitalism vs workers’ rights?

Matthew was a strong believer in free market economics. He saw competition as a great universal law of nature, as seen in natural selection, and this was a law that man could learn by.

But Matthew was also a great champion of workers’ rights, which came from a deep-seated desire for equal opportunity and fair treatment in society, hence his active involvement in the Chartist movement in 1838-39.

Matthew could also see that there was a conflict between these two ideas. He sought to reconcile this in his 1869 paper accepted for the Dundee meeting of the BAAS. As Matthew angrily noted in a letter of the Dundee Advertiser after the meeting, he was prevented from presenting his paper, ostensibly because the session ran out of time, but also, one suspects, because his contribution was considered unimportant. Fortunately, an abstract of his paper was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle. Matthew’s solution to the capitalism vs workers’ rights conundrum was to run businesses via workers’ cooperatives, as in the model employed on whaling ships.

Page created 10 August 2016
Last modified 17 September 2016

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