The three following Essays on Religion were written at considerable intervals of time, without any intention of forming a consecutive series, and must not therefore be regarded as a connected body of thought, excepting in so far as they exhibit the Author's deliberate and exhaustive treatment of the topics under consideration.
The two first of these three Essays were written between the years 1850 and 1858, during the period which intervened between the publication of the Principles of Political Economy, and that of the work on Liberty; during which interval three other Essays---on Justice, on Utility, and on Liberty---were also composed. Of the five Essays written at that time, three have already been given to the public by the Author. That on Liberty was expanded into the now well-known work bearing the same title. Those on Justice and Utility were afterwards incorporated, with some alterations and additions, into one, and published under the name of Utilitarianism. The remaining two---on Nature and on the Utility of Religion--are now given to the public, with the addition of a third---on Theism---which was produced at a much later period. In these two first Essays indications may easily be found of the date at which they were composed; among which indications may be noted the absence of any mention of the works of Mr. Darwin and Sir Henry Maine in passages where there is coincidence of thought with those writers, or where subjects are treated which they have since discussed in a manner to which the Author of these Essays would certainly have referred had their works been published before these were written.
The last Essay in the present volume belongs to a different epoch; it was written between the years 1868 and 1870, but it was not designed as a sequel to the two Essays which now appear along with it, nor were they intended to appear all together. On the other hand it is certain that the Author considered the opinions expressed in these different Essays, as fundamentally consistent. The evidence of this lies in the fact that in the year 1873, after he had completed his Essay on Theism, it was his intention to have published the Essay on Nature at once, with only such slight revision as might be judged necessary in preparing it for the press, but substantially in its present form. From this it is apparent that his manner of thinking had undergone no substantial change. Whatever discrepancies, therefore, may seem to remain after a really careful comparison between different passages, may be set down either to the fact that the last Essay had not undergone the many revisions which it was the Author's habit to make peculiarly searching and thorough; or to that difference of tone, and of apparent estimate of the relative weight of different considerations, which results from taking a wider view and including a larger number of considerations in the estimate of the subject as a whole, than in dealing with parts of it only.
The fact that the Author intended to publish the Essay on Nature in 1873 is sufficient evidence, if any is needed, that the volume now given to the public was not withheld by him on account of reluctance to encounter whatever odium might result from the free expression of his opinions on religion. That he did not purpose to publish the other two Essays at the same time, was in accord with the Author's habit in regard to the public utterance of his religious opinions. For at the same time that he was peculiarly deliberate and slow in forming opinions, he had a special dislike to the utterance of half-formed opinions. He declined altogether to be hurried into premature decision on any point to which he did not think he had given sufficient time and labour to have exhausted it to the utmost limit of his own thinking powers. And, in the same way, even after he had arrived at definite conclusions, be refused to allow the curiosity of others to force him to the expression of them before be had bestowed all the elaboration in his power upon their adequate expression, and before, therefore, he had subjected to the test of time, not only the conclusions themselves, but also the form into which he had thrown them. The same reasons, therefore, that made him cautious in the spoken utterance of his opinion in proportion as it was necessary to be at once precise and comprehensive in order to be properly understood, which in his judgment was pre-eminently the case in religious speculation, were the reasons that made him abstain from publishing his Essay on Nature for upwards of fifteen years, and might have led him still to withhold the others which now appear in the same volume.
From this point of view it will be seen that the Essay on Theism has both greater value and less than any other of the Author's works. The last considerable work which he completed, it shows the latest state of the Author's mind, the carefully balanced result of the deliberations of a lifetime. On the other hand, there had not been time for it to undergo the revision to which from time to time he subjected most of his writings before making them public. Not only therefore is the style less polished than that of any other of his published works, but even the matter itself, at least in the exact shape it here assumes, has never undergone the repeated examination which it certainly would have passed through before he would himself have given it to the world.
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