Harriet Martineau

Experience and progress

After a what I have said of my Sick-room Essays, which were written only the year before my recovery, it may seem strange to say that my mind made a progress worth noting during the five heavy years from 1839 to 1844: but, small as my achievements now appear to me, there was achievement. A large portion of the transition from religious inconsistency and irrationality to free-thinking strength and liberty was gone over during that period. Not only had I abundant leisure for thought, and undiminished faculty of thought, but there was abundance of material for that kind of meditation which usually serves as an introduction to a higher. I was not yet intellectually capable of a wide philosophical survey, nor morally bold enough for a deep investigation in regard to certain matters which I had always taken for granted: but the old and desultory questions—such as that of “a divine government,” “a future life,”—and so on were pressed upon me by the events and experiences of those years. At the outset of the period, my revered and beloved friend, Dr. Follen, was lost by the burning of the Lexington steam-packet, under circumstances which caused anguish to all who heard the story. Just about the same time, my old instructor, who had for years of my youth been my idol, Dr. Carpenter, perished in a singularly impressive manner,—by being thrown overboard, no doubt by a lurch of the steamer in which he was traversing the Mediterranean. The accident happened in the evening, so that he was not missed till the morning. The hour was shown by the stopping of his watch,—his body being afterwards cast upon the Italian coast. A strange and forlorn mode of death for a minister, the idol of a host of disciples, and for a family-man whose children would thankfully, any one of them, have given their lives to prolong his!—During that period, my grandmother, the head of one side of our house, died; and, on the other, the beloved old aunt who had lived with us, and the old uncle whose effectual sympathy in my great enterprise of the Political Economy series I described in its place; and three cousins of my own generation; and a nephew of the generation below. Several friends of my father and mother, to whom I had looked up during my childhood and youth, slipped away during the period when I was lying waiting for death as my release from dreary pain: and also a whole group of my political friends, acquired since I entered the world of literature. Lord and Lady Durham died, after having sympathised with me in my illness; and Lord Sydenham, who had made me known to them in my writings: and Lord Congleton: and Thomas Drummond, who had been the medium of some of my communications with Lord Grey’s government: and Lord Henley, who had suggested and determined my going to America: and old Lord Leicester, who had been, under the name of Mr. Coke, my early ideal of the patriot gentleman of England; and others of less note, or a remoter interest to myself. Most various and impressive had been the modes of their death. Some few by mere old age and ordinary disease; but others by heart-break, by over-anxious toil in the public service, by suicide, and by insanity! Then, among my American friends, there were several whom I had left not long before, in the full exercise of important functions, and in the bright enjoyment of life;—Judge Porter of Louisiana, one of the leading Senators of the United States, and perhaps the most genial and merry of my American friends; Dr. Henry Ware, the model of a good clergyman; and Dr. Channing, who had just cheered me by his fervent blessing on my portraiture of Toussaint L’Ouverture. And then again, there were literary men who were much connected with the last preceding phase of my life;—Southey, after his dreary decline, and Campbell; and Dr. Dalton, who remains a venerable picture in my memory; and John Murray who had refused (with hesitation) to publish “Deerbrook,” and had found the refusal a mistake. And there were others who were living influences to me, as they were to multitudes more, who had never seen them,—as Grace Darling, of whom every storm of that same sea reminded me. The departure of these and many more kept the subject of death vividly before me, and compelled me to reduce my vague and fanciful speculations on “the divine government” and human destiny to a greater precision and accuracy. The old perplexity about the apparent cruelty and injustice of the scheme of “divine government” began at last to suggest the right issue. I had long perceived the worse than uselessness of enforcing principles of justice and mercy by an appeal to the example of God. I had long seen that the orthodox fruitlessly attempt to get rid of the difficulty by presenting the two-fold aspect of God,—the Father being the model of justice, and the Son of love and mercy,—the inevitable result being that he who is especially called God is regarded as an unmitigated tyrant and spontaneous torturer, while the sweeter and nobler attributes are engrossed by the man Jesus,—whose fate only deepens the opprobrium of the Divine cruelty: while the heretics whose souls recoil from such a doctrine, and who strive to explain away the recorded dogmas of tyranny and torture, in fact give up the Christian revelation by rejecting its essential postulates. All this I had long seen: and I now began to obtain glimpses of the conclusion which at present seems to me so simple that it is a marvel why I waited for it so long;—that it is possible that we human beings, with our mere human faculty, may not understand the scheme, or nature, or fact of the universe! I began to see that we, with our mere human faculty, are not in the least likely to understand it, any more than the minnow in the creek, as Carlyle has it, can comprehend the perturbations caused in his world of existence by the tides. I saw that no revelation can by possibility set men right on these matters, for want of faculty in man to understand anything beyond human ken; as all instruction whatever offered to the minnow must fail to make it comprehend the action of the moon on the oceans of the earth, or receive the barest conception of any such action. Thus far I began to see now. It was not for long after I that perceived further that the conception itself of moral government, of moral qualities, of the necessity of a preponderance of happiness over misery, must be essentially false beyond the sphere of human action, because it relates merely to human faculties. But this matter,—of a truer stand-point,—will be better treated hereafter, in connexion with the period in which I perceived it within my horizon. As to death and the question of a future life,—I was some time in learning to be faithful to my best light,—faint as it yet was. I remember asserting to a friend who was willing to leave that future life a matter of doubt, that we were justified in expecting whatever the human race had agreed in desiring. I had long seen that the “future life” of the New Testament was the Millennium looked for by the apostles, according to Christ’s bidding,—the glorious reign of 1,000 years in Judea, when the Messiah should be the Prince, and his apostles his councillors and functionaries, and which was to begin within the then existing generation. I had long given up, in moral disgust, the conception of life after death as a matter of compensation for the ills of humanity, or a police and penal resource of “the divine government.” I had perceived that the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body were incompatible; and that, while the latter was clearly impossible, we were wholly without evidence of the former. But I still resorted, in indolence and prejudice, to the plea of instinct,—the instinctive and universal love of life, and inability to conceive of its extinction. My Sick-room book shows that such was my view when I wrote those essays: but I now feel pretty certain that I was not, even then, dealing truly with my own mind,—that I was unconsciously trying to gain strength of conviction by vigour of assertion. It seems to me now that I might then have seen how delusive, in regard to fact, are various genuine and universal instincts; and, again, that this direction of the instinct in question is by no means so universal and so uniform as I declared it to be. I might then have seen, if I had been open-minded, that the instinct to fetishism, for instance, is more general,—is indeed absolutely universal, while it is false in regard to fact; and that it is, in natural course, overpowered and annihilated by higher instincts, leading to true knowledge.

In such progress as I did make, I derived great assistance from the visits of a remarkable variety of friends, and from the confidence reposed in me during tête-à-tête conversations, such as could hardly have occurred under any other circumstances. Some dear old friends came, one at a time, and established themselves at the inn or in lodgings near, for weeks together, and spent with me such hours of the day as I could render (by opiates) fit for converse with them. Others stopped at Tynemouth, in the midst of a journey, and gave me a day or two; and with many I had a single interview which was afterwards remembered with pleasure. During many a summer evening, while I lay on my window-couch, and my guest of the day sat beside me, overlooking the purple sea, or watching for the moon to rise up from it, like a planet growing into a sun, things were said, high and deep, which are fixed into my memory now, like stars in a dark firmament. Now a philosopher, now a poet, now a moralist, opened to me speculation, vision, or conviction; and, numerous as all the speculations, visions and convictions together, were the doubts confided to my meditation and my discretion. I am not going to violate any confidence here, of course, which I have considered sacred in life. I refer to these conversations with the thoughtful and the wise merely to acknowledge my obligations to them, and to explain certain consequences to myself which may perhaps be best conveyed by an anecdote.—During the latter part of my Tynemouth sojourn, a friend, who could minister to me in all manner of ways except philosophy, was speaking of the indispensableness of religion, and of her mode of religion especially, to a good state of mind. Not at all agreeing with her, I told her I had had a good deal of opportunity of knowing states of mind since I lay down on that sofa; and that what I had seen had much deepened the impression which I had begun to have long before,—that the best state of mind was to be found, however it might he accounted for, in those who were called philosophical atheists. Her exclamation of amazement showed me that I had said something very desperate: but the conversation had gone too far to stop abruptly. She asked me what on earth I could mean: and I was obliged to explain. I told her that I knew several of that class,—some avowed and some not; and that I had for several years felt that they were among my most honoured acquaintances and friends; and that now that I knew them more deeply and thoroughly, I must say that, for conscientiousness, sincerity, integrity, seriousness, effective intellect, and the true religious spirit, I knew nothing like them. She burst out a laughing, and said she could conceive how, amidst fortunate circumstances, they might have been trained to morality; but how they could have the religious spirit, she could in no way conceive. It seemed to her absolute nonsense. I explained what I meant, being very careful, according to my state of mind at that time, to assure her that I was not of their way of thinking: nevertheless, it did seem to me, I said, that the philosophical atheists were the most humble-minded in the presence of the mysteries of the universe, the most equable in spirit and temper amidst the affairs of life, the most devout in their contemplation of the unknown, and the most disinterested in their management of themselves, and their expectations from the human lot;—showing, in short, the moral advantages of knowledge (however limited) and of freedom (however isolated and mournful) over superstition as shared by the multitude. I have reason to believe that, amazed as my visitor was, she was not so struck as to derive benefit from the statement of an unusual experience like mine, in my sudden translation from the vividness of literary and political life in London to the quietness of the sick-room and its converse. She had not forgotten the conversation many years afterwards; but it had not borne fruit to her. On the contrary, she was so shocked at my opinions, as avowed in the “Letters on Man’s Nature and Development” as to be one of the very few who retreated from intercourse with me on account of them. There was a pretext or two for ceasing to correspond; but I believe there is no doubt that my heresies were the cause. What I said to her I said to several other people; and I doubt whether any one of them was unprepared for what was pretty certain to be the result when I had once attained to the estimate of the free-thinkers of my acquaintance which I have just recorded.


MLA Citation

Martineau, Harriet. “Experience and progress.” 1877. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Feb 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/martineau/experience_and_progress/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“Thoughts and guesses on human nature”

Leigh Hunt

Death serves to make us think, not of itself, but of what is about us.

“Crabbed age and youth”

Jane Ellen Harrison

Youth is naturally and necessarily egocentric, Crabbed Age by compulsion altruistic; they stand, it seems, for the two integral factors of our morality--self and the other.

“The keepers of the swine”

Thomas Henry Huxley

Truly, the hatchet is hardly a weapon of precision, but would seem to have rather more the character of the boomerang, which returns to damage the reckless thrower.

“Of experience”

Michel de Montaigne

There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience, more weak and cheap; but truth is so great a thing that we ought not to disdain any mediation that will guide us to it.


Arthur Benson

We sit in our quiet rooms, feeling safe, serene, even chilly, yet everywhere about us, peacefully confined in all our furniture and belongings, is a mass of inflammability.