In the spirit of pious resignation Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Meddle not with things that be too high for thee, but study such things as yield compunction to the heart rather than elevation to the head.” I like to put alongside this the delightful passage from Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio": “I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ’Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection.” Recreation is great!
Like Sir Thomas Browne I have always meddled with things that are too high for me, not, certainly, as a recreation, but as a result of intense intellectual discomfort. I find a sulky delight in pulverizing the intellect by thinking on the time for example it takes for light to travel from the sun to the earth, upon the number of stars in the Milky Way, upon the infinite divisibility of matter, upon Sir Oliver Lodge’s dictum that there are more atoms in a thimble-full of water than there are thimble-fulls of water in the Atlantic Ocean. When a geologist speaks of the Cambrian, I want to cross myself; when great formulas like “intrastellar space” or “secular time” thunder in my ears, I want to crawl away like a rat into a hole and die.
I have always meddled with things that are too high for me, my first adventure being Berkeley at the age of fifteen, a philosopher who captured my amazement over a period of many months. Like a little London gamin, I run about the great city of the mind and hang on behind the big motor lorries of thought. “Looked at from the point of view of multiplicity, duration disintegrates into a powder of moments, none of which endures, each being an instantaneity.” No matter if I do not understand Bergson: in a sentence like that I catch at least the rumour of some tremendous thought. Again under the heading “Wall Street": “Some securities showed the effects of distribution under cover of an advance in volatile issues.” It is like putting one’s ear to a telegraph pole on top of a wind-swept heath… . Then there is William James and Schiller, Pragmatism and Humanism, those other grand peut-êtres.
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It may be that ultimately all speculation and belief will become extinguished by one universal certainty. Man’s mind that animates this globe may continue to ripen and develop into complete knowledge able to wing its way throughout the universe. Mental telepathy will dispense with our present clumsy means of intercourse; the Spiritualists perhaps, will investigate the next world as exactly as the scientific men will have done this; all disease be vanquished and all perfection attained by easy miracles (vide the Christian Scientists), and even God Himself a familiar figure walking abroad upon the earth, the well-pleased captain of the planet. In other words, a cosmic enterprise brought to a thoroughly successful conclusion by the triumph of infinite mind over matter.