Among philosophers some have pretended that man might know every thing, — these are madmen; others that he could know nothing, — these men were not more wise: the former have given too much to man, the latter too little; both the one and the other have rushed into excess. Where then is wisdom? She consists in not believing that you know every thing — that is the attribute of God alone; in not pretending that you know nothing — that is the property of brutes: between these two extremes there is a medium which is appropriated for man — it is knowledge mixed up with darkness and tempered with ignorance.
When one admits that nothing is certain, one must, I think, also add that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that the or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise on is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.
All knowledge has an ultimate object. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is, say what you will, nothing but a dismal begging of the question. We learn something either for an immediate practical end, or in order to complete the rest of our knowledge. Even the knowledge that appears to us to be most theoretical — that is to say, of least immediate application to the non-intellectual necessities of life — answers to a necessity which is no less real because it is intellectual, to a reason of economy in thinking, to a principle of unity and continuity of consciousness. But just as a scientific fact has its finality in the rest of knowledge, so the philosophy that we would make our own has also its extrinsic object — it refers to our whole destiny, to our attitude in face of life and the universe. And the most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and the will. For it is on this rock that every philosophy that pretends to resolve the eternal and tragic contradiction, the basis of our existence, breaks to pieces.
In the recently published Life by Leslie Stephen of his brother, Fitz-James, there is an account of a school to which the latter went when he was a boy. The teacher, a certain Mr. Guest, used to converse with his pupils in this wise: ” Gurney, what is the difference between justification and sanctification? — Stephen, prove the omnipotence of God!” etc. In the midst of our Harvard freethinking and indifference we are prone to imagine that here at your good old orthodox College conversation continues to be somewhat upon this order; and to show you that we at Harvard have not lost all interest in these vital subjects, I have brought with me tonight something like a sermon on justification by faith to read to you, — I mean an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced. ‘The Will to Believe,’ accordingly, is the title of my paper.