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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 21. Metaphysical Idealism

In his next book, an unusually eloquent one entitled The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), the element of will rather than knowledge receives the greater emphasis. The Berkeleian analysis of the world as composed of ideas is taken for granted, and the emphasis is rather on the nature of the World Mind or Logos. Following Schopenhauer, he points out that even in the idealistic view of the world there is an irrational element, namely, the brute existence of just this kind of world. The great and tragic fact of experience is the fact of effort and passionate toil which never finds complete satisfaction. This eternal frustration of our ideals or will is an essential part of spiritual life, and enriches it just as the shadows enrich the picture or certain discords bring about richer harmony. The Absolute himself suffers our daily crucifixion, but his triumphant spiritual nature asserts itself in us through that very suffering. This profoundly consoling argument, which both elevates us and sinks our individual sorrows in a great cosmic drama, is, of course, an expression of the historical Christian wisdom of the beatitude of suffering. But it offended the traditional individualism which finds its theologic and metaphysical expression in the doctrine of free will. If each individual is a part of the divine self, how can we censure the poor wretch who fails to live up to the proper standard? It is significant of the unconventionality of Royce’s thought that he never attached great importance to the question of blame or the free and intentional nature of sin. The evils uppermost in his mind are those resulting from ignorance, from the clumsiness of inexperience rather than from wilful misdeeds; and, unlike most American philosophers, he rightly saw that the religious conscience of mankind has always regarded sin as something which happens to us even against our will. Against the complacent belief of the comfortable that no one suffers or succeeds except through his own sins or virtues, Royce opposes the view of St. Paul that we are all members of each other’s bodies and that “no man amongst us is wholly free from the consequences or from the degradation involved in the crimes of his less enlightened or less devoted neighbours, that the solidarity of mankind links the crimes of each to the sorrows of all.”

For the elaboration of the social nature of our intellectual as well as of our moral concepts, Royce was largely indebted to suggestions from Peirce. In his earliest books we find no direct reference to Peirce. We can only conjecture that he owed to that man of genius the emphasis on the social nature of truth and the formulation of the ethical imperative: Live in the light of all possible consequences. But with the publication of the two volumes of The World and the Individual (1901), Royce’s indebtedness to Peirce becomes explicit and steadily increases thereafter.

The main thesis of that book, the reconciliation of the existence of the Absolute Self with the genuine individuality of our particular selves, is effected by means of illustrations from the field of modern mathematics, especially by the use of the modern mathematical concept of the infinite as a collection of which a part may be similar to the whole. Peirce had done this before him in a remarkable article entitled The Law of Mind, in the second volume of The Monist. In generously acknowledging his obligation to Peirce, Royce rightly felt his fundamental idealistic position to be independent of that of Peirce; but it is noticeable that all Royce’s references to the logic of mathematics are in full agreement with Peirce’s view of the reality of abstract logical and mathematical universals, and it may well be questioned whether this can be harmonized with the nominalist or Berkeleian elements of Royce’s idealism.

His subsequent work falls into two distinct groups, the mathematical-logical and the ethical-religious. Of the former group, his essay on logic in The Encyclopædia of the Philosophical Sciences is philosophically the most important. Logic is there presented not as primarily concerned with the laws of thought or even with methodology but after the manner of Peirce as the most general science of objective order. In this as in other of his mathematical-logical papers Royce still professes adherence to his idealism, but this adherence in no way affects any of the arguments which proceed on a perfectly realistic basis. In his religio-ethical works he follows Peirce even more, and the Mind or Spirit of the Community replaces the Absolute. In his last important book, The Problem of Christianity (1913), all the concepts of Pauline Christianity are interpreted in terms of a social psychology, the personality of Christ being entirely left out except as an embodiment of the spirit of the beloved community.