Professor Huxley's Hidden Chess Player

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator; January 11, 1868

[41] Professor Huxley has told the working-men of South London, in a very fine passage of his most masculine English, what seems to him the highest meaning of education. It is such a mastery of the laws of the great game which is always being played between the individual man or woman and an unseen player who plays the phenomena of the universe on fixed and more or less accessible rules, as will enable the human players to carry on the longest game with the most brilliant success. But we must not spoil by summarizing a passage which deserves to live in English literature, both for its vigour of style and the admirable, almost grand expression it gives to a particular creed which is gaining rapidly upon us, in spite of the desolation of its summit,–in spite of the stern, almost solemn, neglect with which it passes by our highest life:–

"Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would one day or other depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the State which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight? Now, it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess board is the world, the pieces the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. All we know is that his play is always fair, just and patient. But, also, that he never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated without haste, but without remorse. My metaphor will remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture a calm, strong angel who is playing for love as we say, and would rather lose than win, and I should accept it as an image of human life. Well, now what I mean by education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of nature; and the fashioning of the affections, and of the will, into harmony with those laws."

Surely Professor Huxley would have said "substitute for this mocking fiend,"–not "a calm strong angel," but the celebrated Automaton chess-player which at one time went about the world defeating every antagonist who ventured to cope with him. We do not mean that Professor Huxley denies in the least a large intelligence to his hidden player, but that he does mean expressly to affirm that his moves are not free, but automatic, in the sense of being divested of all personal reference to the individual character pitted against him in the contest. If the simile be accurate, indeed, there is no provision for a double bearing of every move, no analogy for the pity which manifests itself most when a piece is taken, for the flash of recognition between the earthly an the eternal player which so often begins with disaster, for the visionary joy which now and again illumines the face of the defeated player as he acknowledges the last awful announcement of checkmate. Mr. Huxley ignores, in his definition of education, all but the visible issues of the contest between the soul of the universe and the soul of man. It is true that at a late stage of his lecture he speaks of education as including "passions trained to come to heel, by a vigorous will–the servant of a tender conscience,"–and the noble training which teaches "to love all beauty, whether of nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself." And difficult as it seems to understand how such love as this could be learned out of the study of the game Professor Huxley had previously described, it seems clear that he so intends us to understand him. For he insists that moral low should be understood to be of the same self-executing kind as physical law; that "there lies in the nature of things a reason for every moral law as cogent and well defined as that which underlies every physical law; that stealing and lying are just as certain to be followed by evil consequences as putting your hand in the fire, or jumping out of a garret window." If this be indeed so, [42] then, of course the moral laws of the universe are as much elementary rules of the great game which Mr. Huxley has so finely described as the physical laws; and the player who has the subtlest knowledge of the former and follows them with the truest fidelity, as he who has the subtlest knowledge of the physical laws, and conforms to them with the truest fidelity. But we very much doubt if the thinking men among Mr. Huxley's audience will admit it to be so. If they want the maximum of tangible success in the great tussle with the mysterious Automaton who moves so silently and inexorably those pieces which Professor Huxley calls the phenomenon of nature, they will soon find that the only account they should take of moral laws, other than enlightened self-interest, is comprehended under the best average morality of their day. While a man who has pieced a new secret of physical nature will probably reap the greatest reward both in power and fame from his anticipation of other discoverers, the man who has entered into a new secret of moral or spiritual life, will in all probability reap little but neglect an embarrassment from his keen vision and his faithful application of his new principle. It is true enough, no doubt, that if Mr. Huxley includes in his "laws of the game" those highest of invisible phenomena which relate the spirit of the visible and earthly player to that of the invisible and eternal, there may turn out to be, to him who does not calculate upon it as part of his wages, infinitely more than adequate reward, as well for the vision of new moral truth as for the practical confession of it. But then the difficult of this higher view of "the game" is that it destroys the meaning of the metaphor altogether, since, in this sense, he may win the most who is soonest checkmated to mortal eyes; while he who carries on the struggle longest and with the most brilliant success, may wish, when the long evaded checkmate is pronounced at last, that it had preceded instead of following his most brilliant moves. In fact, the very essence of Professor Huxley's simile consists in the unknown character of the being within the Automaton, and the immutable character of the visible laws which determine his moves. Once admit a double bearing of each move,–a bearing on the free spiritual relation between the players, which may be (and often is), almost the converse of its bearing on the visible course of the game,–and the whole force of the illustration is gone. For then the greatest move of which the earthly player is capable may be one which leads directly to the checkmate; or it may be that a move which secures him the most brilliant position and protracts the inevitable defeat to the utmost verge of possibility, is, from that higher point of view, the most miserable of human blunders. If, then, the "laws of the game" are those the observance of which lead to visible and acknowledged success, or even which invariably preclude a visible and apparent failure, we think that any education which is satisfied with such a study may prove to have been of the poorest; while if, on the other hand, the "laws of the game" include all the moral and spiritual, no less than the visible and tangible issues of the struggle, we should utterly deny Mr. Huxley's principle that the invisible player "never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance," and that the man who plays ill is "checkmated without haste, but without remorse." It is obvious, we think, that Mr. Huxley is here carefully excluding the higher moral and spiritual issues of the various moves, and describing a game in which error is never beneficent except so far as it reaches the danger of error in future, in which suffering cannot be the minister of joy, nor failure the seed of triumph. If all the moral laws, the highest as well as the lowest, those not yet discerned and accepted by society, as well as those which are embodied in our existing system of things, were self-executing in the same sense as the physical laws,–if a man who was incapable (say) of the higher refinements, of scrupulous honour, or of glad self-sacrifice, were ipso facto the loser in this great game with the soul of nature by his want of knowledge, then Mr. Huxley's metaphor would be perfect. But the truth is that the loss in these cases is not a loss of success in the game (nay, often the reverse), but only a loss of mutual intelligence and love between the players; and of this Professor Huxley, by virtue of his assertion that the other player is unknown, can take no cognizance.

No account of education,–we do not mean here the education of schools and colleges, for, as we have often asserted, the highest education is barely ever attainable in schools and colleges at all,–but in that much larger sense in which Professor Huxley uses the term when he speaks of the education of life,–which does not take cognizance of the free spiritual relations between God and man, as well as the fixed physical relations between nature and man, is so much as half the truth. Mr. MacLeod Campbell, in the preface to his new edition of one of the deepest and noblest of modern contributions to theological study,1 says most profoundly:– "That place which the fixedness of law, as that which we may always assume, has in our practical relation to the reign of law,–the character of God as the hearer and answerer of prayer has in our practical relation to the kingdom of God. And as Science, in the largest sense of the word, is our practical light, under the reign of law, so is Christ the light of the kingdom of God." And if he were to adopt Professor Huxley's metaphor, Mr. Campbell would doubtless say that in order to prevent our regarding a thorough mastery of "the laws of the game" as the final aim of human existence, the unseen Will within the automatic system called Nature, has from time to time sent amongst us earthly players who cared for "the laws of the game" mainly as a discipline leading up to a knowledge of Him who constructed them,–and has sent One especially, who came but to show that an early and crushing defeat might well be consistent with a perfect knowledge of the Spirit of Him who inflicted that defeat, and so to reduce the petty successes and failures of future games to their true spiritual value, measuring them not by their apparent results, but by the sympathy engendered between the infinite and the finite player. We suspect that Mr. Huxley himself, little as he would assent to such a statement, would not be satisfied without laying down some conditions under which he himself would choose to regard defeat as virtual victory. When he tells us that the passions of an educated man must be trained, "by a firm will, under the guidance of a sensitive conscience, to come to heel" whenever required to do so by their owner, does he imagine that this result can ever be attained through mere study of "the rules of the game?" As we have said before, a "sensitive conscience" is no part of the apparatus for a successful playing of the game, though an average conscience might be. A "sensitive conscience" is a condition of obedience not to the laws of the game, but to the spirit of the hidden player, and not the only condition either. For a sensitive conscience will do little except to hamper both the game and the player, unless it be accompanied by a faith which can look beyond defeat, and a love which can transform defeat itself into triumph.

We do not believe that Professor Huxley, if pressed, would accept his own illustration of the significance of the highest education, without some assumption of spiritual conditions far higher than those "of the game," and which should often override them. Were there not indeed such conditions, and were there not also an indestructible faith that they will be fulfilled even more perfectly when the game is over and the board is cleared, than even while it is playing,–we do not doubt that the noblest of all our players would themselves court the checkmate by which all this, in that case, unmeaning craft, and toil, and skill would at length be ended.

1 The Nature of the Atonement.. By John Macleod Campbell. Second edition. London: Macmillan. 1867.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University