GILBERT K. CHESTERTON
THIS book is meant to be a companion to “Heretics,”
and to put the positive side in addition to the negative.
Many critics complained of the book called “Heretics” because
it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any
alternative philosophy. This book is an attempt to answer the challenge.
It is unavoidably affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical.
The writer has been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as
that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced
to be egotistical only in order to be sincere. While everything else
may be different the motive in both cases is the same. It is the
purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether
the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally
has come to believe it. The book is therefore arranged upon
the positive principle of a riddle and its answer. It deals first
with all the writer’s own solitary and sincere speculations and then
with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied
by the Christian Theology. The writer regards it as amounting to
a convincing creed. But if it is not that it is at least
a repeated and surprising coincidence.
Gilbert K. Chesterton.
I. Introduction in Defence of Everything Else
II. The Maniac
III. The Suicide of Thought
IV. The Ethics of Elfland
V. The Flag of the World
VI. The Paradoxes of Christianity
VII. The Eternal Revolution
VIII. The Romance of Orthodoxy
IX. Authority and the Adventurer
I INTRODUCTION IN DEFENCE OF EVERYTHING ELSE
THE only possible excuse for this book is that it is an
answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he
accepts a duel. When some time ago I published a series of
hasty but sincere papers, under the name of “Heretics,”
several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect
(I may mention specially Mr. G.S.Street) said that it was all
very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory,
but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with
example. “I will begin to worry about my philosophy,”
said Mr. Street, “when Mr. Chesterton has given us his.”
It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person
only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.
But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book,
he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in its
pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of
mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions,
to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.
I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it.
God and humanity made it; and it made me.
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an
English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and
discovered England under the impression that it was a new
island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am
either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may
as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration.
There will probably be a general impression that the man
who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to
plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out
to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not
here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you
imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of
folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not
studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of
the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable
mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for.
What could be more delightful than to have in the same few
minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined
with all the humane security of coming home again? What could
be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa
without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could
be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover
New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears,
that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me
the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main
problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once
astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this
queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its
monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once
the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of
being our own town?
To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every
standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much
bigger book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of
argument; and this is the path that I here propose to follow.
I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this
double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the
familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named
romance. For the very word “romance” has in it the mystery and
ancient meaning of Rome. Any one setting out to dispute
anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute.
Beyond stating what he proposes to prove he should always state
what he does not propose to prove. The thing I do not propose
to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between
myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active
and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical
curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems
to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than
existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure,
then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.
If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly
all people I have ever met in this western society in which I
live would agree to the general proposition that we need this
life of practical romance; the combination of something that is
strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the
world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.
We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely
comfortable. It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall
chiefly pursue in these pages.
But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht,
who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht.
I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid
being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth)
how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me
from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant.
Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most
of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is
the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so
contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the
indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that
Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere
common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could
invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying;
because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is
cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless
he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same
intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely
because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had
ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because
I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with
a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is
another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and
then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.
One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively
the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book
with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who
hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know),
as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke.
For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am
the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been
discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what
follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains
how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then
found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in
pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more
ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here
of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story,
and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess
all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century.
I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance
of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in
advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred
years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully
juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was
punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my
truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths,
but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I
stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being
backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me,
that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing
all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of
civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the
first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe.
I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the
last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
It may be that somebody will be entertained by the account
of this happy fiasco. It might amuse a friend or an enemy to
read how I gradually learnt from the truth of some stray legend
or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that
I might have learnt from my catechism–if I had ever learnt it.
There may or may not be some entertainment in reading how
I found at last in an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple
what I might have found in the nearest parish church. If any
one is entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or
the phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the
pains of youth came together in a certain order to produce a
certain conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read
this book. But there is in everything a reasonable division of labour.
I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to
I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note
naturally should, at the beginning of the book. These essays
are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central
Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed)
is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not
intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different
question of what is the present seat of authority for the
proclamation of that creed. When the word “orthodoxy” is used
here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody
calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the
general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I
have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have
got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed
among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is
not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly
autobiography. But if any one wants my opinions about the
actual nature of the authority, Mr. G.S.Street has only to throw
me another challenge, and I will write him another book.
II THE MANIAC
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world;
they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not
true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher,
who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed,
almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once
too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.
The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes
in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen,
my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him,
“Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?
For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves
more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames
the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to
the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in
themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that
there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves
and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted,
“and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from
whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in
himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were
hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you
consulted your business experience instead of your ugly
individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in
himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who
can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay.
It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail,
because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not
merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.
Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious
belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it
has `Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on
that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this
very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe
in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I
replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that
question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
But I think this book may well start where our argument started
–in the neighbourhood of the mad-house. Modern masters of
science are much impressed with the need of beginning all
inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were
quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with
the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or
no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt
at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious
leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day
not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the
indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin,
which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too
fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they
cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny
human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest
saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as
the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it
certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in
skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one
of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God,
as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union
between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians
seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution
to deny the cat.
In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now
possible (with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our
fathers did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to
them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact
that has been specially diluted or denied. But though moderns
deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet
denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still
that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a
falling house. Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell.
For the purpose of our primary argument the one may very well stand
where the other stood. I mean that as all thoughts and
theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man
lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts
and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man
lose his wits.
It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity
as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that
if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease.
A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see
the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity
can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his
insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who
thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken.
A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a
bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes
him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see
the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only
because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in
Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people.
Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people
have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always
complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new
novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever.
The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his
adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal.
But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal;
the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail
to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can
make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a
dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man
will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day
discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and
fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey.
Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first
thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake.
There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially
mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance.
Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable;
and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels
in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history
utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets
have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if
Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much
the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity.
Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go
mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers;
but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen,
in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does
lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as
wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of
remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly
because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain.
Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was
poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess
was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full
of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the
black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere
black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is
this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper.
And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien
logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine;
poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget
the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism
dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of
the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by
John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming.
Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough;
it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters.
Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who
have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John
the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw
no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general
fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an
infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so
make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical
exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise,
to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires
exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet
only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician
who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head
It is a small matter, but not irrelevant, that this
striking mistake is commonly supported by a striking misquotation.
We have all heard people cite the celebrated line of Dryden as
“Great genius is to madness near allied.” But Dryden did not say
that great genius was to madness near allied. Dryden was a
great genius himself, and knew better. It would have been hard
to find a man more romantic than he, or more sensible.
What Dryden said was this, “Great wits are oft to madness near allied”;
and that is true. It is the pure promptitude of the intellect
that is in peril of a breakdown. Also people might remember of
what sort of man Dryden was talking. He was not talking of any
unworldly visionary like Vaughan or George Herbert. He was talking
of a cynical man of the world, a sceptic, a diplomatist, a great
practical politician. Such men are indeed to madness near allied.
Their incessant calculation of their own brains and other
people’s brains is a dangerous trade. It is always perilous to
the mind to reckon up the mind. A flippant person has asked
why we say, “As mad as a hatter.” A more flippant person might
answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure the human head.
And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally
true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was
engaged in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will,
that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy,
because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic
would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous
lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic’s,
can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation
can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my
purpose is to point out something more practical. It was
natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not
know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable
that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics.
Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics.
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions
are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless,
they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks;
slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing
his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things;
the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly
such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand;
for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much
cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial
significance into those empty activities. He would think that
the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property.
He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to
an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become
careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune
to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder,
knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail;
a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate
than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely
probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his
mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things
that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of
humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience.
He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.
Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a
misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.
The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete,
and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak
more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive,
is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the
two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance)
that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it
except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators;
which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation
covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is
the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say
that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were
King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing
authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ,
it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity;
for the world denied Christ’s.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error
in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.
Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this:
that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle
is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is
quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the
insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but
it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world,
but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality;
there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may
see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally
and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most
unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a
logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s
theory explains a large number of things, but it does not
explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were
dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be
chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air,
to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler
outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance,
it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were
the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him.
If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal
against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this:
“Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart,
and that many things do fit into other things as you say.
I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what
a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the
world except yours; and are all men busy with your business?
Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street
did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when
the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already.
But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these
people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be
if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really
look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you
could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness
and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested
in them, because they were not interested in you. You would
break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own
little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself
under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”
Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who
claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, “All right!
Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care?
Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and
look down on all the kings of the earth.” Or it might be the
third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said
what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer
of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little
heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies!
How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there
really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours;
and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh
must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much
more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash
your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you
in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”
And it must be remembered that the most purely practical
science does take this view of mental evil; it does not seek to
argue with it like a heresy but simply to snap it like a spell.
Neither modern science nor ancient religion believes in complete
free thought. Theology rebukes certain thoughts by calling
them blasphemous. Science rebukes certain thoughts by calling
them morbid. For example, some religious societies discouraged
men more or less from thinking about sex. The new scientific
society definitely discourages men from thinking about death;
it is a fact, but it is considered a morbid fact. And in
dealing with those whose morbidity has a touch of mania, modern
science cares far less for pure logic than a dancing Dervish.
In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should
desire truth; he must desire health. Nothing can save him but
a blind hunger for normality, like that of a beast. A man cannot
think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ
of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were,
independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment
his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will
go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-
class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the
Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous,
and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street. Decision is
the whole business here; a door must be shut for ever.
Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure.
Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is
casting out a devil. And however quietly doctors and psychologists
may go to work in the matter, their attitude is profoundly
intolerant–as intolerant as Bloody Mary. Their attitude is
really this: that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living.
Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation. If thy HEAD
offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter
the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile,
rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell
–or into Hanwell.
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner,
frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be
vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically.
But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even
aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of
one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without
healthy hesitation and healthy complexity. Now, as I explain
in the introduction, I have determined in these early chapters
to give not so much a diagram of a doctrine as some pictures
of a point of view. And I have described at length my vision of
the maniac for this reason: that just as I am affected by the
maniac, so I am affected by most modern thinkers. That unmistakable
mood or note that I hear from Hanwell, I hear also from half
the chairs of science and seats of learning to-day; and most of
the mad doctors are mad doctors in more senses than one. They all
have exactly that combination we have noted: the combination of
an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.
They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation
and carry it very far. But a pattern can stretch for ever
and still be a small pattern. They see a chess-board white on black,
and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black.
Like the lunatic, they cannot alter their standpoint; they
cannot make a mental effort and suddenly see it black on white.
Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an
explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity.
It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at
once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it
leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist,
as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this
unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything
does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete
in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller
than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of
the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the
large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real
things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers,
or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large,
and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the
smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation
of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation
to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question
of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.
I do not for the present attempt to prove to Haeckel that
materialism is untrue, any more than I attempted to prove to the man
who thought he was Christ that he was labouring under an error.
I merely remark here on the fact that both cases have the same
kind of completeness and the same kind of incompleteness.
You can explain a man’s detention at Hanwell by an indifferent
public by saying that it is the crucifixion of a god of whom the
world is not worthy. The explanation does explain. Similarly you
may explain the order in the universe by saying that all things,
even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding on
an utterly unconscious tree–the blind destiny of matter.
The explanation does explain, though not, of course, so completely
as the madman’s. But the point here is that the normal human mind
not only objects to both, but feels to both the same objection.
Its approximate statement is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God,
he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the
materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.
The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men;
and (according to Haeckel) the whole of life is something much
more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it.
The parts seem greater than the whole.
For we must remember that the materialist philosophy
(whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion.
In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow.
They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only
restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted.
He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian;
and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist.
But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which
materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism.
Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe
in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not
allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes
we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine.
The Christian is quite free to believe that there is
a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development
in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit
into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism
or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the
tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.
The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even
miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex.
The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of
the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay,
the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.
But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as
the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure
that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation,
just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure
that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen
never have doubts.
Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do
materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not
think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not
think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can
go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut. But the case
is even stronger, and the parallel with madness is yet more strange.
For it was our case against the exhaustive and logical theory of
the lunatic that, right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his
humanity. Now it is the charge against the main deductions
of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy
his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage,
poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when
materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does),
it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force.
It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom
when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists
come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the “chain”
of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being.
You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about
materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as
inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied
to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like,
that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is
surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg
he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette.
Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist
speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will.
But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free
to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish,
to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions,
to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you”
for the mustard.
In passing from this subject I may note that there is
a queer fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in
some way favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments
or punishments of any kind. This is startlingly the reverse of
the truth. It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity
makes no difference at all; that it leaves the flogger flogging
and the kind friend exhorting as before. But obviously if it
stops either of them it stops the kind exhortation. That the sins
are inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it prevents
anything it prevents persuasion. Determinism is quite as
likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice.
Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals.
What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment
of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or
encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not
believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in
changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner,
“Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it.
But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.
Considered as a figure, therefore, the materialist has the fantastic
outline of the figure of the madman. Both take up a position
at once unanswerable and intolerable.
Of course it is not only of the materialist that all this
is true. The same would apply to the other extreme of
speculative logic. There is a sceptic far more terrible than
he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible
to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself.
He doubts not the existence of angels or devils, but the existence
of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up
by himself. He created his own father and his own mother.
This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive
to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day. That publisher who
thought that men would get on if they believed in themselves,
those seekers after the Superman who are always looking for him
in the looking-glass, those writers who talk about impressing
their personalities instead of creating life for the world,
all these people have really only an inch between them and this
awful emptiness. Then when this kindly world all round the man
has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts,
and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man,
believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare,
then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him
in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness
of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from
his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his
cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, “He believes in
All that concerns us here, however, is to note that this
panegoistic extreme of thought exhibits the same paradox as
the other extreme of materialism. It is equally complete in theory
and equally crippling in practice. For the sake of simplicity,
it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe
that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be
no positive proof given to him that he is not in a dream,
for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might
not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London
and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast,
we should take him and put him with other logicians in a place
which has often been alluded to in the course of this chapter.
The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe
anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not
by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of
their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes,
painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out,
the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even
into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is
quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable,
just as a threepenny bit is infinitely circular. But there is
such a thing as a mean infinity, a base and slavish eternity.
It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether sceptics
or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol,
which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish
to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail
in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of
that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists,
the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the
supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is,
indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail,
a degraded animal who destroys even himself.
This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with
what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may
say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in
the void. The man who begins to think without the proper first
principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end. And for
the rest of these pages we have to try and discover what is the
right end. But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what
drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane? By the end of
this book I hope to give a definite, some will think a far too
definite, answer. But for the moment it is possible in the
same solely practical manner to give a general answer touching
what in actual human history keeps men sane. Mysticism keeps
men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you
destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always
been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.
He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in
earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself
free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free
also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth
than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to
contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the
contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic,
like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once
and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always
believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing
as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed
the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to
the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young
and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of
apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the
healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man
can understand everything by the help of what he does not
understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid,
and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic
allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and
then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid.
The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery;
but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a
sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in
a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with
abounding natural health. As we have taken the circle as the symbol
of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the
symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal,
but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the
circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed
for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller.
But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a
contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without
altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it
can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and
is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a
signpost for free travellers.
Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of
this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will
express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before
mankind. The one created thing which we cannot look at is the
one thing in the light of which we look at everything– Like
the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the
blaze of its own victorious invisibility– Detached intellectualism
is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine;
for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light,
reflected from a dead world. But the Greeks were right when
they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity;
for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing.
Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later.
But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily
much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of
it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both
shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the
circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent
and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard.
For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother
of lunatics and has given to them all her name.
III THE SUICIDE OF THOUGHT
THE phrases of the street are not only forcible but subtle:
for a figure of speech can often get into a crack too small for
a definition. Phrases like “put out” or “off colour” might
have been coined by Mr. Henry James in an agony of verbal
precision. And there is no more subtle truth than that of the
everyday phrase about a man having “his heart in the right place.”
It involves the idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain
function exist, but it is rightly related to other functions.
Indeed, the negation of this phrase would describe with peculiar
accuracy the somewhat morbid mercy and perverse tenderness of
the most representative moderns. If, for instance, I had to
describe with fairness the character of Mr. Bernard Shaw,
I could not express myself more exactly than by saying that he
has a heroically large and generous heart; but not a heart in
the right place. And this is so of the typical society of our time.
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern
world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues.
When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was
shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that
are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they
wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also;
and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more
terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian
virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have
been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.
Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless.
Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am
sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford
attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue:
the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity.
He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive
sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford
is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian
who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case
the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy.
He really is the enemy of the human race–because he is so human.
As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has
deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales
or in the healing of the heart. Torquemada tortured people
physically for the sake of moral truth. Zola tortured people
morally for the sake of physical truth. But in Torquemada’s
time there was at least a system that could to some extent make
righteousness and peace kiss each other. Now they do not even bow.
But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be
found in the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.
Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and
infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping
his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of
enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure,
he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.
Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large,
he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions,
the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility.
Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility.
Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations
of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them;
and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this
gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures
of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without
humility to enjoy anything–even pride.
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong
place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty
has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never
meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but
undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.
Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly
the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is
exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason.
Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature.
But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.
Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no
humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real
humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically
a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic.
The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping;
not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For
the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which
might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man
doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic
and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one
comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not
be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or
it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of
men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity
as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were
too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.
The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too
meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this
intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.
The last chapter has been concerned only with a fact of
observation: that what peril of morbidity there is for man
comes rather from his reason than his imagination. It was not
meant to attack the authority of reason; rather it is the
ultimate purpose to defend it. For it needs defence. The whole
modern world is at war with reason; and the tower already reels.
The sages, it is often said, can see no answer to the riddle
of religion. But the trouble with our sages is not that they
cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle.
They are like children so stupid as to notice nothing paradoxical
in the playful assertion that a door is not a door. The modern
latitudinarians speak, for instance, about authority in religion
not only as if there were no reason in it, but as if there had
never been any reason for it. Apart from seeing its
philosophical basis, they cannot even see its historical cause.
Religious authority has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable;
just as every legal system (and especially our present one) has been
callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack
the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modem critics of
religious authority are like men who should attack the police
without ever having heard of burglars. For there is a great
and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary.
Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly,
as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared
as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin.
That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.
Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the
next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea,
so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking
by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any
human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of
reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is
an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to
reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner
or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right;
even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as
misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain
of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have a right to
think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic,
says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to
think at all.”
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only
thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil
against which all religious authority was aimed. It only
appears at the end of decadent ages like our own: and already
Mr. H.G.Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written
a delicate piece of scepticism called “Doubts of the Instrument.”
In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavours to remove
all reality from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come.
But it was against this remote ruin that all the military
systems in religion were originally ranked and ruled. The creeds
and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions
were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression
of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of
reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things
were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.
The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes
to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify:
these were all only dark defences erected round one central
authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all–
the authority of a man to think. We know now that this is so;
we have no excuse for not knowing it. For we can hear scepticism
crashing through the old ring of authorities, and at the same
moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne. In so far as
religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the
same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of
proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of
destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely
destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do
a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have
attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has
come off with it.
Lest this should be called loose assertion, it is perhaps desirable,
though dull, to run rapidly through the chief modern fashions of thought
which have this effect of stopping thought itself. Materialism
and the view of everything as a personal illusion have some such effect;
for if the mind is mechanical, thought cannot be very exciting,
and if the cosmos is unreal, there is nothing to think about.
But in these cases the effect is indirect and doubtful. In some cases
it is direct and clear; notably in the case of what is generally
Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which,
if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either
an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things
came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack
upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does
not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply
means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly
into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the
most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things
slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were
outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that
there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as
a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such
thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that
is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not
upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are
no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not
separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think;
therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and
negatives the epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I
Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged
by Mr. H.G.Wells when he insists that every separate thing is
“unique,” and there are no categories at all. This also is
merely destructive. Thinking means connecting things, and stops
if they cannot be connected. It need hardly be said that this
scepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a man
cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when
Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere), “All chairs are quite different,”
he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms.
If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them
Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains
that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often
hear it said, for instance, “What is right in one age is wrong
in another.” This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is
a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times
and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant,
it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter
and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that
they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning
to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there
be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started
a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now
call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or
even falling short of them. How can you overtake Jones if you
walk in the other direction? You cannot discuss whether one
people has succeeded more in being miserable than another
succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing whether
Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat.
It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change
itself his object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself
becomes unchangeable. If the change-worshipper wishes to
estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal
of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony.
Progress itself cannot progress. It is worth remark, in passing,
that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner, welcomed
the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively
took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote–
“Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves
He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it
is. Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man
can get into.
The main point here, however, is that this idea of a
fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that
make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory
of a complete change of standards in human history does not
merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers;
it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure
of despising them.
This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our
time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism;
for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the
pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an
extreme application of it which involves the absence of all
truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree
with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the
whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe
the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say
that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth.
The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never
mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he
must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind
of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and
one of the first of human needs is to be something more than
a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman as
the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who,
to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes
nonsense of the human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist,
who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense of the human
sense of actual fact.
To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most
characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania,
but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked
his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it.
This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and
the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought.
What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is
the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain
for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things
will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course.
It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths
that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin.
We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has
questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city
in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot
fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if
there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy
more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by
the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the
absurd pretence that modern England is Christian. But it would
have reached the bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are
still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old
minority than because they are a new one. Free thought has
exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success.
If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn,
he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in
blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set.
If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the
darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him
in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, “Do not, I beseech
you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution.
You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.”
We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for
questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We
have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we
gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.
But one more word must be added. At the beginning of this
preliminary negative sketch I said that our mental ruin has
been wrought by wild reason, not by wild imagination. A man
does not go mad because he makes a statue a mile high, but he
may go mad by thinking it out in square inches. Now, one school
of thinkers has seen this and jumped at it as a way of renewing
the pagan health of the world. They see that reason destroys;
but Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say,
is in will, not in reason. The supreme point is not why a man
demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it. I have
no space to trace or expound this philosophy of Will. It came,
I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something that is
called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche
denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach anything is to
give it away. First, the egoist calls life a war without mercy,
and then he takes the greatest possible trouble to drill his
enemies in war. To preach egoism is to practise altruism.
But however it began, the view is common enough in current literature.
The main defence of these thinkers is that they are not thinkers;
they are makers. They say that choice is itself the divine thing.
Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw has attacked the old idea that men’s acts
are to be judged by the standard of the desire of happiness.
He says that a man does not act for his happiness, but from his will.
He does not say, “Jam will make me happy,” but “I want jam.”
And in all this others follow him with yet greater enthusiasm.
Mr. John Davidson, a remarkable poet, is so passionately excited
about it that he is obliged to write prose. He publishes
a short play with several long prefaces. This is natural enough
in Mr. Shaw, for all his plays are prefaces: Mr. Shaw is
(I suspect) the only man on earth who has never written any poetry.
But that Mr. Davidson (who can write excellent poetry) should
write instead laborious metaphysics in defence of this doctrine
of will, does show that the doctrine of will has taken hold of men.
Even Mr. H.G.Wells has half spoken in its language; saying that
one should test acts not like a thinker, but like an artist,
saying, “I FEEL this curve is right,” or “that line SHALL go thus.”
They are all excited; and well they may be. For by this
doctrine of the divine authority of will, they think they can
break out of the doomed fortress of rationalism. They think
they can escape.
But they cannot escape. This pure praise of volition ends
in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic.
Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of
thought itself, so the acceptation of mere “willing” really
paralyzes the will. Mr. Bernard Shaw has not perceived the
real difference between the old utilitarian test of pleasure
(clumsy, of course, and easily misstated) and that which he propounds.
The real difference between the test of happiness and the test of will
is simply that the test of happiness is a test and the other isn’t.
You can discuss whether a man’s act in jumping over a cliff was
directed towards happiness; you cannot discuss whether it was
derived from will. Of course it was. You can praise an action
by saying that it is calculated to bring pleasure or pain to
discover truth or to save the soul. But you cannot praise an
action because it shows will; for to say that is merely to say
that it is an action. By this praise of will you cannot really
choose one course as better than another. And yet choosing one
course as better than another is the very definition of the will
you are praising.
The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire
mere choice is to refuse to choose. If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes
up to me and says, “Will something,” that is tantamount to
saying, “I do not mind what you will,” and that is tantamount
to saying, “I have no will in the matter.” You cannot admire
will in general, because the essence of will is that it is particular.
A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John Davidson feels an irritation
against ordinary morality, and therefore he invokes will
–will to anything. He only wants humanity to want something.
But humanity does want something. It wants ordinary morality.
He rebels against the law and tells us to will something or anything.
But we have willed something. We have willed the law against
which he rebels.
All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson,
are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can
hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found
quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk
of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is
quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.
To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act
is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject
everything else. That objection, which men of this school used
to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.
Every act is an irrevocable selection exclusion. Just as when
you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take
one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you
become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in
Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive
life in Wimbledon. It is the existence of this negative or
limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the
anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense. For instance,
Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with “Thou
shalt not”; but it is surely obvious that “Thou shalt not” is
only one of the necessary corollaries of “I will.” “I will go
to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and thou shalt not stop me.”
Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for
no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and
not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence
of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must
draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you
hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will
really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment
you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.
You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from
the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger
from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not
free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him
from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue,
encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides.
If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a
lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”;
I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved,
they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case
with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most
decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations:
they constitute the THING he is doing. The painter is glad
that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is
In case the point is not clear, an historic example may
illustrate it. The French Revolution was really an heroic and
decisive thing, because the Jacobins willed something definite
and limited. They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also
all the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have votes and NOT
to have titles. Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin
or Robespierre as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes.
Therefore they have created something with a solid substance
and shape, the square social equality and peasant wealth of France.
But since then the revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe
has been weakened by shrinking from any proposal because of the
limits of that proposal. Liberalism has been degraded into liberality.
Men have tried to turn “revolutionise” from a transitive to an
intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system
he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system
he would NOT rebel against, the system he would trust. But the
new rebel is a Sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything.
He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist.
And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way
when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation
implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist
doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine
by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining
that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then
he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he
insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls
lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they
keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste
of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant,
and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the
peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage
as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for
treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then
blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away
that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting,
where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts;
then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting,
where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short,
the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always
engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics
he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics
he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man
in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt.
By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel
It may be added that the same blank and bankruptcy can be
observed in all fierce and terrible types of literature,
especially in satire. Satire may be mad and anarchic, but it
presupposes an admitted superiority in certain things over others;
it presupposes a standard. When little boys in the street
laugh at the fatness of some distinguished journalist, they are
unconsciously assuming a standard of Greek sculpture. They are
appealing to the marble Apollo. And the curious disappearance
of satire from our literature is an instance of the fierce things
fading for want of any principle to be fierce about. Nietzsche
had some natural talent for sarcasm: he could sneer, though he
could not laugh; but there is always something bodiless and
without weight in his satire, simply because it has not any mass
of common morality behind it. He is himself more preposterous
than anything he denounces. But, indeed, Nietzsche will stand
very well as the type of the whole of this failure of abstract violence.
The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook him was not
a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility,
Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation
and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not
have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism,
and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship
of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void.
Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately
in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing
and Nirvana. They are both helpless–one because he must not
grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything.
The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all
special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite’s will is quite equally
frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all
special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand
at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other
likes all the roads. The result is–well, some things are not
hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of
this book–the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin
to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which,
at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close this page,
is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose
–a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of
my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the
philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw,
as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon.
They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness
may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness;
and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass,
thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think.
So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will;
for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection
of almost everything. And as I turn and tumble over the clever,
wonderful, tiresome, and useless modern books, the title of one
of them rivets my eye. It is called “Jeanne d’Arc,” by Anatole France.
I have only glanced at it, but a glance was enough to remind me
of Renan’s “Vie de Jesus.” It has the same strange method of the
reverent sceptic. It discredits supernatural stories that have
some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation.
Because we cannot believe in what a saint did, we are to pretend
that we know exactly what he felt. But I do not mention either
book in order to criticise it, but because the accidental
combination of the names called up two startling images of Sanity
which blasted all the books before me. Joan of Arc was not
stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy,
or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and
went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to
think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or
Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.
I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in
plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth,
the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back.
Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she
endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only
a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I
thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche,
and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time.
I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger,
his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms.
Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference,
that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We KNOW that she
was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know,
was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was
the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.
She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was
more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she
was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they
are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that
the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had
perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.
And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure
of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts.
The same modern difficulty which darkened the subject-matter of
Anatole France also darkened that of Ernest Renan. Renan also
divided his hero’s pity from his hero’s pugnacity. Renan even
represented the righteous anger at Jerusalem as a mere nervous
breakdown after the idyllic expectations of Galilee. As if
there were any inconsistency between having a love for humanity
and having a hatred for inhumanity! Altruists, with thin,
weak voices, denounce Christ as an egoist. Egoists (with even
thinner and weaker voices) denounce Him as an altruist. In our
present atmosphere such cavils are comprehensible enough.
The love of a hero is more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant.
The hatred of a hero is more generous than the love of a philanthropist.
There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only
collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only
the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul
of Christ into silly strips, labelled egoism and altruism,
and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His
insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them,
and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was
without seam woven from the top throughout.
IV THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND
WHEN the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy,
it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one
is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles
in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds,
and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using
the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.”
Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their
honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since
then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic
old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly
the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should
lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians.
Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals
is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old
childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much
concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not
so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt
up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the
vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact.
It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did,
more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a
rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.
I take this instance of one of the enduring faiths because,
having now to trace the roots of my personal speculation,
this may be counted, I think, as the only positive bias.
I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy,
in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity.
If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only
pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy,
as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this:
that the things common to all men are more important than the
things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable
than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.
Man is something more awful than men; something more strange.
The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always
more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art,
or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be
felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more
startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than
death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than
having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the
essential things in men are the things they hold in common,
not the things they hold separately. And the second principle
is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of
these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is
more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic
contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a
thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry.
It is not something analogous to playing the church organ,
painting on vellum, discovering the Noah Pole (that insidious habit),
looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these
things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.
It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own
love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a
man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not
here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that
some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists,
and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses
blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize
these universal human functions, and that democracy classes
government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this:
that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary
men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young,
the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up
been able to understand. I have never been able to understand
where people got the idea that democracy was in some way
opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only
democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus
of common human voices rather than to some isolated or
arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian
against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance,
is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the
superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob.
It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to
be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is
generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane.
The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.
Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were
ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the
statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not
do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of
ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters,
there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing
with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension
of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most
obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of
the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and
arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident
of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the
accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good
man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to
neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at
any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition;
it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will
have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones;
these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and
official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are
marked with a cross.
I have first to say, therefore, that if I have had a bias,
it was always a bias in favour of democracy, and therefore of tradition.
Before we come to any theoretic or logical beginnings I am content
to allow for that personal equation; I have always been more
inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to
believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong.
I prefer even the fancies and prejudices of the people who see
life from the inside to the clearest demonstrations of the
people who see life from the outside. I would always trust the
old wives’ fables against the old maids’ facts. As long as wit
is mother wit it can be as wild as it pleases.
Now, I have to put together a general position, and I
pretend to no training in such things. I propose to do it,
therefore, by writing down one after another the three or four
fundamental ideas which I have found for myself, pretty much in
the way that I found them. Then I shall roughly synthesise them,
summing up my personal philosophy or natural religion; then I
shall describe my startling discovery that the whole thing had
been discovered before. It had been discovered by Christianity.
But of these profound persuasions which I have to recount in order,
the earliest was concerned with this element of popular tradition.
And without the foregoing explanation touching tradition and
democracy I could hardly make my mental experience clear.
As it is, I do not know whether I can make it clear, but I now
propose to try.
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with
unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally
learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and
star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition.
The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now,
are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the
entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared
with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them
religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is
abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is
nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth
that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at
least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that
criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had
tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was
certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition.
Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook;
but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists,
and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the
moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,”
because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not
tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance
on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from
being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail
I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from
them. There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”;
that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is
a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older
than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than
the Jacobite. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is
the same as that of the Magnificat–EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There
is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must
be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory
of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was
blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how
death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not
concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfand, but with
the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak,
and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a
certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the
fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.
It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences
or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are,
in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the
true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and
merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most
reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity.
For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella,
it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is
younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it.
Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases:
it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is
the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne:
and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses,
there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is
true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my
head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the
natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed
that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things
that happened–dawn and death and so on–as if THEY were
rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees
bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one
trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference
by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination.
You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can
easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them
growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton,
who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they
could not be got to see the distinction between a true law,
a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the
apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is
a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring
without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple
not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through
the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.
We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction
between the science of mental relations, in which there really
are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are
no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles,
but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk
climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our
convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the
nursery tales. The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and
the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea
really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says,
“Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does
not say it as if it were something in which the effect
obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the
advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall,
but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason.
She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary
mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the
scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a
necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree
and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if
they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth
connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of
two strange things physically connected them philosophically.
They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly
follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow
make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.
In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of
science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call
some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced
the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual
than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales;
while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the
nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we
have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets
shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable
mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of
picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why
we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot
say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say
why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg
and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear
and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken,
whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then,
that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we
should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales,
not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.”
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn,
we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if
Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes
fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC.
It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula.
It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically,
we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no
argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count
on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it;
we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as
we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.
We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle,
and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle,
and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books,
“law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual,
because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess.
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are
the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.”
They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.
A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill
because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical.
We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale
language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is
the only way I can express in words my clear and definite
perception that one thing is quite distinct from another;
that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs.
It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who
is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly
a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense,
that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has
so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there
must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas,
whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to
dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable
to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is
no connection, except that one has seen them together.
A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom,
because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of
his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals
his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark
association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples.
But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why,
in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips;
it sometimes does in his country.
This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy
derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of
the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love
tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like
astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient
instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when
we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only
need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven
is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.
But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened
a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales
–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about
the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel
could be read without boring him. This proves that even
nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest
and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to
refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.
They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one
wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this
is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this
point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance.
We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances,
the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man
walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything;
only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man
in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may
understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self more distant
than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou
shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity;
we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we
really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and
practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead
levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that
we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful
instant we remember that we forget.
But though (like the man without memory in the novel)
we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration,
still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not
only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element
of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked
on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter
about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect,
so far as they have one. Here am only trying to describe the
enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest
emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was
an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure
because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale
was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons
than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test
of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I
hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus
puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not
be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift
of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents
of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday
present of birth?
There were, then, these two first feelings, indefensible
and indisputable. The world was a shock, but it was not merely shocking;
existence was a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. In fact,
all my first views were exactly uttered in a riddle that stuck
in my brain from boyhood. The question was, “What did the
first frog say?” And the answer was, “Lord, how you made me jump!”
That says succinctly all that I am saying. God made the frog jump;
but the frog prefers jumping. But when these things are settled
there enters the second great principle of the fairy philosophy.
Any one can see it who will simply read “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”
or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang. For the pleasure
of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an “if”; according to elfin
ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance
always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire,
if you do not say the word `cow'”; or “You may live happily
with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.”
The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal
things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the
wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one
thing that is forbidden. Mr. W.B.Yeats, in his exquisite and
piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves as lawless; they plunge
in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses of the air–
“Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W.B.Yeats does not
understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman,
full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to
understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type
like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told.
Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of
his own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness,
rounded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against
something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of
fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all.
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an
incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out.
A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love
flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.
An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not
lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern
tyranny may think it liberty by comparison. People out of
Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study
will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.
Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers.
Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out
of nowhere, but she received a command–which might have come
out of Brixton–that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had
a glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so
common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle,
that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror;
they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones.
For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of
the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the
substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this
fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment
towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is
as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane;
and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can
remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos
with a crash.
Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as
to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant;
simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.
Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth;
the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at
any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you
should not do. Now, the point here is that to ME this did not
seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy,
“Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,”
the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that,
explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that
I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer,
“How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a
man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses,
he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity
of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth.
And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric
a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the
limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision
they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture.
The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as
startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and
terrible as the towering trees.
For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy)
I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they
called the general sentiment of REVOLT. I should have resisted,
let us hope, any rules that were evil, and with these and their
definition I shall deal in another chapter. But I did not feel
disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.
Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a
stick or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the
huge estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy.
It could not well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to
hold it at all. At this stage I give only one ethical instance
to show my meaning. I could never mix in the common murmur of
that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction
on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed,
like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain
that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on
fairy tales like Endymion’s) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to
one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman.
To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining
that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the
terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed,
not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility
to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden
by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization
of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind.
The aesthetes touched the last insane limits of language in
their eulogy on lovely things. The thistledown made them weep;
a burnished beetle brought them to their knees. Yet their
emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason,
that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any
sort of symbolic sacrifice. Men (I felt) might fast forty days
for the sake of hearing a blackbird sing. Men might go through
fire to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not
even keep sober for the blackbird. They would not go through
common Christian marriage by way of recompense to the cowslip.
Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.
Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could
not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay
for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.
Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery,
and I have not found any books so sensible since. I left the
nurse guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found
any modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative.
But the matter for important comment was here: that when I first
went out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world, I found
that the modern world was positively opposed on two points to my
nurse and to the nursery tales. It has taken me a long time to
find out that the modern world is wrong and my nurse was right.
The really curious thing was this: that modern thought
contradicted this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most
essential doctrines. I have explained that the fairy tales
rounded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild
and startling place, which might have been quite different,
but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness
and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest
limitations of so queer a kindness. But I found the whole
modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses;
and the shock of that collision created two sudden and
spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which,
crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.
First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism;
saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded
without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green
because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale
philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might
have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant
before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the
strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every
colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses
is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He
feels that something has been DONE. But the great determinists of
the nineteenth century were strongly against this native feeling that
something had happened an instant before. In fact, according to
them, nothing ever really had happened since the beginning of the
world. Nothing ever had happened since existence had happened; and
even about the date of that they were not very sure.
The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism,
for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to
ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition
in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere
repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational.
It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and
dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the
same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it
must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk
was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak
here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle.
But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition,
like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and
over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers
at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood.
The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences
of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation,
and I began to see an idea.
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind
rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is
supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead;
a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was
personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance.
This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the
variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life,
but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength
or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight
element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he
is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still.
But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of
going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the
Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life
would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning.
I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity,
but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase,
it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets
tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness,
but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance,
in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence,
of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they
are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated
and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up
person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people
are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is
strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says
every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening,
“Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that
makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately,
but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the
eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may
not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may
ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and
brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat,
or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal
fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy
has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries,
and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and
again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years,
by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on
the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his
positively last appearance.
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish
emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always
vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful:
now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they
were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises
of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world
involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious;
that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose,
there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if
there is a story there is a story-teller.
But modern thought also hit my second human tradition.
It went against the fairy feeling about strict limits and conditions.
The one thing it loved to talk about was expansion and largeness.
Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had
called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable
that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type.
He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar
system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a
man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale?
If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale
may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might
call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that
man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small
compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer, in his
headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some way been
conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe. He spoke about
men and their ideals exactly as the most insolent Unionist talks
about the Irish and their ideals. He turned mankind into
a small nationality. And his evil influence can be seen even in
the most spirited and honourable of later scientific authors;
notably in the early romances of Mr. H.G.Wells. Many moralists
have in an exaggerated way represented the earth as wicked. But
Mr. Wells and his school made the heavens wicked. We should lift
up our eyes to the stars from whence would come our ruin.
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this.
I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison;
in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it
singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large.
The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief.
The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation
could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance,
such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the
secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a
prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the
gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to
show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by
ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders
of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more
infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all
that is divine.
In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken,
for the definition of a law is something that can be broken.
But the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could
not be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery.
We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them.
The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can
neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.
The largeness of this universe had nothing of that freshness and
airy outbreak which we have praised in the universe of the poet.
This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast,
but it is not free. One went into larger and larger windowless rooms,
rooms big with Babylonian perspective; but one never found the
smallest window or a whisper of outer air.
Their infernal parallels seemed to expand with distance;
but for me all good things come to a point, swords for instance.
So finding the boast of the big cosmos so unsatisfactory to my
emotions I began to argue about it a little; and I soon found that
the whole attitude was even shallower than could have been expected.
According to these people the cosmos was one thing since it had one
unbroken rule. Only (they would say) while it is one thing it is
also the only thing there is. Why, then, should one worry
particularly to call it large? There is nothing to compare it with.
It would be just as sensible to call it small. A man may say,
“I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of
varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say,
“I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars
and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as
good as the other; they are both mere sentiments. It is mere sentiment
to rejoice that the sun is larger than the earth; it is quite as
sane a sentiment to rejoice that the sun is no larger than it is.
A man chooses to have an emotion about the largeness of the world;
why should he not choose to have an emotion about its smallness?
It happened that I had that emotion. When one is fond of
anything one addresses it by diminutives, even if it is an elephant
or a life-guardsman. The reason is, that anything, however huge,
that can be conceived of as complete, can be conceived of as small.
If military moustaches did not suggest a sword or tusks a tail,
then the object would be vast because it would be immeasurable.
But the moment you can imagine a guardsman you can imagine a
small guardsman. The moment you really see an elephant you can
call it “Tiny.” If you can make a statue of a thing you can make
a statuette of it. These people professed that the universe was
one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was
frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive.
I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth
I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed
by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about
infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of
the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness
and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt
a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than
extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence;
but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy
feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
These subconscious convictions are best hit off by the colour
and tone of certain tales. Thus I have said that stories of magic
alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a
kind of eccentric privilege. I may express this other feeling of
cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood,
“Robinson Crusoe,” which I read about this time, and which owes its
eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits,
nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small
rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing
in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck.
The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes
ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a
good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything,
the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be
to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island.
But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have
had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck.
Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely
birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light.
Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius:
and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been.
To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the
street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the
order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship.
That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there
were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none
should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added.
The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck:
and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been
overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as
if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden):
I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while
it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless,
of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without
peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.
Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the
unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life;
the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way
I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think:
that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly
recapitulate them now. I felt in my bones; first, that world does
not explain itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural explanation;
it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the
explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me,
will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard.
The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if
magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.
There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art;
whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this
purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects,
such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is
some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer
and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also,
an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest,
there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in
some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of
some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods:
he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave
me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even
thought of Christian theology.
V THE FLAG OF THE WORLD
WHEN I was a boy there were two curious men running about
who were called the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly
used the words myself, but I cheerfully confess that I never had
any very special idea of what they meant. The only thing which
might be considered evident was that they could not mean what they said;
for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought
this world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought it
as bad as it could be. Both these statements being obviously
raving nonsense, one had to cast about for other explanations.
An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and
nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling
everything right and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion
that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist,
and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.
It would be unfair to omit altogether from the list the mysterious
but suggestive definition said to have been given by a little girl,
“An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist is
a man who looks after your feet.” I am not sure that this is not
the best definition of all. There is even a sort of allegorical
truth in it. For there might, perhaps, be a profitable distinction
drawn between that more dreary thinker who thinks merely of our
contact with the earth from moment to moment, and that happier
thinker who considers rather our primary power of vision and of
choice of road.
But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist
and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises
this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being
shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world
from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss
whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage
of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance
the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view.
But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before
he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag,
and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted.
To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty
long before he has any admiration.
In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling
that this world is strange and yet attractive is best expressed
in fairy tales. The reader may, if he likes, put down the next stage
to that bellicose and even jingo literature which commonly comes next
in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality to the
penny dreadfuls. Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to
me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms
of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval.
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism.
It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house
at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable.
It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret,
and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point
is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love;
the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason
for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.
All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts
about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly,
optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico.
If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the
thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary.
It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he
will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly,
is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will
remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it
seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a
transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose
a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers
and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does
when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things:
but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child
a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl
a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children,
arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be
fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy.
I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact,
is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of
civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone
or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot
and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because
she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have been
exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far as they meant
that there is at the back of all historic government an idea of
content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right. But they really
were wrong in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at
order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests.
Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you
if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction.
There IS a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other
in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion.
They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found
they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness.
They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.
The history of the Jews is the only early document known to most Englishmen,
and the facts can be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments
which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely
military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a
certain ark across a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it
endangered the sanctity. And only when they made a holy day for God
did they find they had made a holiday for men.
If it be granted that this primary devotion to a place or thing
is a source of creative energy, we can pass on to a very peculiar fact.
Let us reiterate for an instant that the only right optimism is
a sort of universal patriotism. What is the matter with the pessimist?
I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot.
And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated,
without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend.
And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike
the rock of real life and immutable human nature.
I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is
simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back–
his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a
secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. This is certainly,
I think, what makes a certain sort of anti-patriot irritating to
healthy citizens. I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism
which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses;
that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that no
patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth
answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn
his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it. But there is an
anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is,
I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend;
the man who says, “I am sorry to say we are ruined,” and is not sorry
at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor;
for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen
the army, to discourage people from joining it. Because he is allowed
to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as
a recruiting sergeant. Just in the same way the pessimist (who is
the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors
to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only
facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is
his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are
down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by
some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some
common clergyman who wants to help the men.
The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men,
but that he does not love what he chastises–he has not this primary
and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil of the man
commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist,
wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible.
He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, “My cosmos, right or wrong.”
He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to
a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one
with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.
All this (which is true of a type of optimist) leads us to the one
really interesting point of psychology, which could not be explained
We say there must be a primal loyalty to life:
the only question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty?
If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an unreasonable loyalty?
Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing,
the weak defence of everything) comes in with the reasonable optimism.
Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism
that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more
the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin
the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason.
The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.
If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely),
he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself.
But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it
into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive;
I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo
self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason
for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England,
but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire,
we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos.
But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events:
for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also
only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose
patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being
English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England
for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy.
He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the
Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason–
because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military
will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for
being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what
the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox.
Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and
nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental
is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.
Perhaps the most everyday instance of this point is in the case
of women; and their strange and strong loyalty. Some stupid people
started the idea that because women obviously back up their own people
through everything, therefore women are blind and do not see anything.
They can hardly have known any women. The same women who are ready
to defend their men through thick and thin are (in their personal intercourse
with the man) almost morbidly lucid about the thinness of his excuses
or the thickness of his head. A man’s friend likes him but
leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to
turn him into somebody else. Women who are utter mystics in their
creed are utter cynics in their criticism. Thackeray expressed this well
when he made Pendennis’ mother, who worshipped her son as a god,
yet assume that he would go wrong as a man. She underrated his virtue,
though she overrated his value. The devotee is entirely free to criticise;
the fanatic can safely be a sceptic. Love is not blind; that is
the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound
the less it is blind.
This at least had come to be my position about all that was called
optimism, pessimism, and improvement. Before any cosmic act of reform
we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance. A man must be interested in life,
then he could be disinterested in his views of it. “My son
give me thy heart”; the heart must be fixed on the right thing:
the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand. I must pause
to anticipate an obvious criticism. It will be said that
a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil
with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is
exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective. It is, I know,
very common in this age; it was perfectly put in those quiet lines of
Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous than
the shrieks of Schopenhauer–
“Enough we live: –and if a life,
With large results so little rife,
Though bearable, seem hardly worth
This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth.”
I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch.
For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is
not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way
in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want
joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment;
we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel
the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as
our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world:
but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength
enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet
love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its
colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its
colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short,
be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist
and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world,
and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination,
I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational
optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe
for the sake of itself.
I put these things not in their mature logical sequence,
but as they came: and this view was cleared and sharpened by
an accident of the time. Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen,
an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder
one’s self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say
“poor fellow,” of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was
an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their
exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in
the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which
a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself
utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane.
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and
absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal
to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man,
kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men;
as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse
(symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage.
For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is
satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime.
He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City.
The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them.
But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it.
He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is
not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.
When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger
and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront.
Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act.
There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite.
But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things,
then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the
burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body,
than in Mr. Archer’s suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning
in burying the suicide apart. The man’s crime is different from
other crimes–for it makes even crimes impossible.
About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker:
he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy
of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the
opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for
something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.
A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him,
that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something
to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words,
the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world
or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life;
he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.
The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being:
he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.
And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact
that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide.
For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr.
Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason,
of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic.
The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness.
They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave
afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the
very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads
to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.
This was the first of the long train of enigmas with which Christianity
entered the discussion. And there went with it a peculiarity
of which I shall have to speak more markedly, as a note of all
Christian notions, but which distinctly began in this one.
The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what
is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree.
It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer
in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness
just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely
that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling
was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things
that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell.
One man flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones
could heal cities in pestilence. Another man flung away life;
he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s.
I am not saying this fierceness was right; but why was it so fierce?
Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were in
some beaten track. Christianity had also felt this opposition
of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the same reason?
Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express–
this need for a first loyalty to things, and then for a ruinous
reform of things? Then I remembered that it was actually the charge
against Christianity that it combined these two things which I was wildly
trying to combine. Christianity was accused, at one and the same time,
of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic
about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying
that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot
be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the
twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth.
You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays,
but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of
a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three,
but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends
upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century. If a man believes
in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age.
If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle
in any age. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we are concerned
with a case of thaumaturgic healing. A materialist of the twelfth century
could not believe it any more than a materialist of the twentieth century.
But a Christian Scientist of the twentieth century can believe it
as much as a Christian of the twelfth century. It is simply a matter
of a man’s theory of things. Therefore in dealing with any historical answer,
the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given
in answer to our question. And the more I thought about when and how
Christianity had come into the world, the more I felt that it had
actually come to answer this question.
It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay
quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if
there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came,
a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them.
They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was
that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint,
or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow
(whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity
was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity
was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar,
but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle,
not the last truism uttered after a long talk. Only the other day
I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone this remark,
that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma
(as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones),
turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light.
Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be
an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth.
The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who
did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness,
their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care
for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only
by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists,
as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone;
it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution.
He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living
the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism
is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or
giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most
intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist
is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable
forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light.
Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.
Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows
any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work.
That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean
that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon,
anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles,
if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.
Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence
that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards,
to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and
a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man
was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized
an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as
an army with banners.
All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship
the sun and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to
imitate them; to say, that because the sun burns insects alive,
he may burn insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people
sun-stroke, he may give his neighbour measles. He thinks that
because the moon is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad.
This ugly side of mere external optimism had also shown itself in
the ancient world. About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun
to show the weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the
ancients had begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism.
Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or,
in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan.
But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow
in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that
he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion
is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in
the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall,
if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty.
He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics,
yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood,
as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads
to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the
direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped.
Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are,
we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind,
we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane,
we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its
insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good
had become an orgy of everything that was bad.
On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented by
the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends
had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only
to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature,
and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not
enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it.
They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the ancient world
was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only people who really
enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up; and the virtuous people
did not care enough about them to knock them down. In this dilemma
(the same as ours) Christianity suddenly stepped in and offered
a singular answer, which the world eventually accepted as THE answer.
It was the answer then, and I think it is the answer now.
This answer was like the slash of a sword; it sundered; it did not
in any sense sentimentally unite. Briefly, it divided God from the cosmos.
That transcendence and distinctness of the deity which some
Christians now want to remove from Christianity, was really the
only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian. It was the whole point
of the Christian answer to the unhappy pessimist and the still more
unhappy optimist. As I am here only concerned with their particular problem,
I shall indicate only briefly this great metaphysical suggestion.
All descriptions of the creating or sustaining principle in things
must be metaphorical, because they must be verbal. Thus the pantheist
is forced to speak of God in all things as if he were in a box.
Thus the evolutionist has, in his very name, the idea of being
unrolled like a carpet. All terms, religious and irreligious,
are open to this charge. The only question is whether all terms
are useless, or whether one can, with such a phrase, cover a distinct IDEA
about the origin of things. I think one can, and so evidently does
the evolutionist, or he would not talk about evolution. And the root phrase
for all Christian theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist
is a creator. A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself
speaks of it as a little thing he has “thrown off.” Even in giving it forth
he has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation
is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as
the evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out.
A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation.
Birth is as solemn a parting as death.
It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that
this divorce in the divine act of making (such as severs the poet
from the poem or the mother from the new-born child) was the
true description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world.
According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it.
According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written,
not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect,
but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers,
who had since made a great mess of it. I will discuss the truth
of this theorem later. Here I have only to point out with what a
startling smoothness it passed the dilemma we have discussed in
this chapter. In this way at least one could be both happy and indignant
without degrading one’s self to be either a pessimist or an optimist.
On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without
deserting the flag of existence. One could be at peace with the universe
and yet be at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon,
however big the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger
than the mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills. If he were
as big as the world he could yet be killed in the name of the world.
St. George had not to consider any obvious odds or proportions in
the scale of things, but only the original secret of their design.
He can shake his sword at the dragon, even if it is everything;
even if the empty heavens over his head are only the huge arch of
its open jaws.
And then followed an experience impossible to describe.
It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with
two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without
apparent connection–the world and the Christian tradition.
I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow
find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must
love the word without being worldly. I found this projecting feature
of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence
that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself.
The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world–
it had evidently been meant to go there–and then the strange thing
began to happen. When once these two parts of the two machines had
come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in
with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all
the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief.
Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude,
as clock after dock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered
by doctrine after doctrine. Or, to vary the metaphor, I was like one
who had advanced into a hostile country to take one high fortress.
And when that fort had fallen the whole country surrendered and
turned solid behind me. The whole land was lit up, as it were,
back to the first fields of my childhood. All those blind fancies
of boyhood which in the fourth chapter I have tried in vain to
trace on the darkness, became suddenly transparent and sane.
I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice:
it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would
almost rather say that grass was the wrong colour than say it must
by necessity have been that colour: it might verily have been any other.
My sense that happiness hung on the crazy thread of a condition did mean
something when all was said: it meant the whole doctrine of the Fall.
Even those dim and shapeless monsters of notions which I have not
been able to describe, much less defend, stepped quietly into their places
like colossal caryatides of the creed. The fancy that the cosmos
was not vast and void, but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now,
for anything that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist;
to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds.
And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool
to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe’s ship–
even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise,
for, according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck,
the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning
of the world.
But the important matter was this, that it entirely reversed
the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made
it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket.
I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident
blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been
false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been
trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism
is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world.
I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal,
like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy,
for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right
in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse
and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic,
for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure
was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything
in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher
had told me again and again that I was in the right place,
and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard
that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy,
like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated
forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why
grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant,
and why I could feel homesick at home.
VI THE PARADOXES OF CHRISTIANITY
THE real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is
an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one.
The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable,
but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.
It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is;
its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden;
its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean.
Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up
the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about
it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right
exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was
an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and
one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side
the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes,
twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.
At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart
on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the
other. And just then, where he most felt he was right,
he would be wrong.
It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is
the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason
in the universe. An apple or an orange is round enough to get itself
called round, and yet is not round after all. The earth itself
is shaped like an orange in order to lure some simple astronomer
into calling it a globe. A blade of grass is called after the
blade of a sword, because it comes to a point; but it doesn’t.
Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable.
It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment.
From the grand curve of our earth it could easily be inferred that
every inch of it was thus curved. It would seem rational that as
a man has a brain on both sides, he should have a heart on both sides.
Yet scientific men are still organizing expeditions to find the North Pole,
because they are so fond of flat country. Scientific men are also
still organizing expeditions to find a man’s heart; and when they
try to find it, they generally get on the wrong side of him.
Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether
it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician
from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce
the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he
guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should
call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly
the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.
Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly
becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth.
It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so)
exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities,
and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth;
but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that
a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it)
the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose
in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel
there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find
that there is something odd in the truth.
I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that
such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age. Of course,
anything can be believed in any age. But, oddly enough,
there really is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all,
can be believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one.
If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually
clearer reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia.
For the more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be
a coincidence. If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart
of Midlothian, it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in
the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might
call it a miracle. It is exactly as of such a miracle that
I have since come to feel of the philosophy of Christianity.
The complication of our modern world proves the truth of the creed
more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith.
It was in Notting Hill and Battersea that I began to see that
Christianity was true. This is why the faith has that elaboration
of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire
Christianity without believing in it. When once one believes in a creed,
one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the
complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries.
If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right.
A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident.
But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock,
you know it is the right key.
But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult
to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth.
It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is
entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only
partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found
this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it.
But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds
that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds
that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds
pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly
to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man,
on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?”
he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only
be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . .
and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”
The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.
It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof
which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of
huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to
get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises,
oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin.
All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there.
In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that
I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another;
I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab. But if I am to be
at all careful about making my meaning clear, it will, I think,
be wiser to continue the current arguments of the last chapter,
which was concerned to urge the first of these mystical coincidences,
or rather ratifications. All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology
had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve,
and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand
any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself
so simple a question. I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for
a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity.
But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that,
even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics.
I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time–all of it,
at least, that I could find written in English and lying about;
and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other
note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read were indeed
in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity; but I did not know this
at the time. I never read a line of Christian apologetics.
I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer
and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology.
They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt.
Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the
free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly.
The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever;
and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting
(for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all.
As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures
the dreadful thought broke across my mind, “Almost thou persuadest me
to be a Christian.” I was in a desperate way.
This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts deeper
than their own might be illustrated in many ways. I take only one.
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts
of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression
grew gradually but graphically upon my mind–the impression that
Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only
(as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices,
but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which
seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides
and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist
demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated
with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west.
No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and
aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn
its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has
not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances
as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack.
I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.
Thus, for instance, I was much moved by the eloquent attack
on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought
(and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin.
Insincere pessimism is a social accomplishment, rather agreeable
than otherwise; and fortunately nearly all pessimism is insincere.
But if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely pessimistic
and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow up
St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the extraordinary thing is this.
They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction)
that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II.,
they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.
One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men,
by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in
the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men
with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.
One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough,
and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected
that Christian optimism, “the garment of make-believe woven by pious hands,”
hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that it was impossible
to be free. One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity
a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise.
This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not
at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask
on a black world. The state of the Christian could not be at once
so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable
that he was a fool to stand it. If it falsified human vision
it must falsify it one way or another; it could not wear both
green and rose-coloured spectacles. I rolled on my tongue
with a terrible joy, as did all young men of that time,
the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of the creed–
“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has
grown gray with Thy breath.”
But when I read the same poet’s accounts of paganism (as in “Atalanta”),
I gathered that the world was, if possible, more gray before
the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards. The poet maintained,
indeed, in the abstract, that life itself was pitch dark. And yet, somehow,
Christianity had darkened it. The very man who denounced Christianity
for pessimism was himself a pessimist. I thought there must be
something wrong. And it did for one wild moment cross my mind that,
perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation
of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one
nor the other.
It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that
the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced
that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder
than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices;
but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat
in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape.
At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of
the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in
the rationalistic mind.
Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong case
against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid,
monkish, and unmanly about all that is called “Christian,”
especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.
The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile.
Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way,
were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was
something weak and over patient about Christian counsels.
The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests
never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation
that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.
I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different,
I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different.
I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain
turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity
not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much.
Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged
the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian,
because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him
because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing
in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth
and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity
with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were
the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour
of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity
(somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight
and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told)
were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres
of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes.
What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always
forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature
of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight,
and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles
was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness?
The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.
I take a third case; the strangest of all, because it involves
the one real objection to the faith. The one real objection to
the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion.
The world is a big place, full of very different kinds of people.
Christianity (it may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to
one kind of people; it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped
with Europe. I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth,
and I was much drawn towards the doctrine often preached in
Ethical Societies–I mean the doctrine that there is one
great unconscious church of all humanity founded on the omnipresence
of the human conscience. Creeds, it was said, divided men;
but at least morals united them. The soul might seek the strangest
and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense.
It might find Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing
“Thou shalt not steal.” It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic
on the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would be
“Little boys should tell the truth.” I believed this doctrine
of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense,
and I believe it still– with other things. And I was thoroughly annoyed
with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages
and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason.
But then I found an astonishing thing. I found that the very people
who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were
the very people who said that morality had changed altogether,
and that what was right in one age was wrong in another. If I asked,
say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers
gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals.
But if I mildly pointed out that one of men’s universal customs
was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean round
and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstitions
of savages. I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity
that it was the light of one people and had left all others
to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast
for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people,
and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult
to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves,
and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their
relative insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan
or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion;
when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider
what absurd religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus,
because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet,
because ethics had changed. They changed in two hundred years,
but not in two thousand.
This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if Christianity
was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was
good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this
astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to
contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?
I saw the same thing on every side. I can give no further space to
this discussion of it in detail; but lest any one supposes that I have
unfairly selected three accidental cases I will run briefly through
a few others. Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of
Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women
to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes
and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced)
said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and
marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes
and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.
The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the
Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians to
show contempt for woman’s intellect. But I found that the anti-Christians
themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their
great sneer at the Church on the Continent that “only women” went to it.
Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits;
with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity
was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of
porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain
and for being too coloured. Again Christianity had always been
accused of restraining sexuality too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian
discovered that it restrained it too little. It is often accused
in the same breath of prim respectability and of religious extravagance.
Between the covers of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the
faith rebuked for its disunion, “One thinks one thing, and one another,”
and rebuked also for its union, “It is difference of opinion that
prevents the world from going to the dogs.” In the same conversation
a free-thinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity for despising Jews,
and then despised it himself for being Jewish.
I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now;
and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong.
I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong
indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but
that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers,
and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are men sensual
and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass of
mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty,
too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously
to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge,
a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed,
then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique.
For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such
exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was
in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals.
THEY gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness.
Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural.
It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope.
An historic institution, which never went right, is really
quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.
The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was
that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell.
Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me
like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind
another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of
by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said
he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness,
some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair.
One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that
he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation.
He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might
feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall.
Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out;
old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the
narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair
like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him
distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing
is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre.
Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics
that are mad–in various ways. I tested this idea by asking myself
whether there was about any of the accusers anything morbid that might
explain the accusation. I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock.
For instance, it was certainly odd that the modern world charged
Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp.
But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself
combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp.
The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor.
But then the modern man was really exceptional in history;
no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes.
The modern man found the church too simple exactly where modern life
is too complex; he found the church too gorgeous exactly where
modern life is too dingy. The man who disliked the plain fasts
and feasts was mad on entrees. The man who disliked vestments
wore a pair of preposterous trousers. And surely if there was
any insanity involved in the matter at all it was in the trousers,
not in the simply falling robe. If there was any insanity at all,
it was in the extravagant entrees, not in the bread and wine.
I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far.
The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians
and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained. It
was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity,
but a complication of diseases in Swinburne. The restraints of
Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist
than a healthy man should be. The faith of Christians angered him
because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be.
In the same way the Malthusians by instinct attacked Christianity;
not because there is anything especially anti-Malthusian about Christianity,
but because there is something a little anti-human about Malthusianism.
Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that
Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle.
There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy
which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism.
It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise,
but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and
respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might
balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce
and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency.
Now, it was just at this point of the speculation that I remembered
my thoughts about the martyr and the suicide. In that matter
there had been this combination between two almost insane positions
which yet somehow amounted to sanity. This was just such
another contradiction; and this I had already found to be true.
This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which sceptics found
the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right. Madly as Christians
might love the martyr or hate the suicide, they never felt these
passions more madly than I had felt them long before I dreamed
of Christianity. Then the most difficult and interesting part
of the mental process opened, and I began to trace this idea darkly
through all the enormous thoughts of our theology. The idea was
that which I had outlined touching the optimist and the pessimist;
that we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things
at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.
Here I shall only trace it in relation to ethics. But I need not
remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central
in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted
that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf,
nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur,
but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man
and very God. Now let me trace this notion as I found it.
All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium;
that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little.
Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress
and evolution which seeks to destroy the MESON or balance of Aristotle.
They seem to suggest that we are meant to starve progressively,
or to go on eating larger and larger breakfasts every morning for ever.
But the great truism of the MESON remains for all thinking men,
and these people have not upset any balance except their own.
But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in
with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem
which Paganism tried to solve: that was the problem which I think
Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way.
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance;
Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision
of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were
not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard
to hold simultaneously. Let us follow for a moment the clue
of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage.
No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the
definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost
a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life,
the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes.
It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers.
It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book.
This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly
or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life
if he will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping
within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is
to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with
a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life,
for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely
wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.
He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it;
he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle
with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.
But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it
in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance
between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for
the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European
lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage,
which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is
a disdain of life.
And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the
Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made
a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions.
Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between
mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average
agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself,
but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better
and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see
that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air;
but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and
rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against
the compromise between optimism and pessimism–the “resignation”
of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution
of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes
its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like
the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this.
On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse
the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not
(like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child,
who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up
and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be
Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud
and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same
strange expedient to save both of them.
It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both.
In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before;
in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before.
In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am
a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism,
that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny–
all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes
that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry
of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field.
Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence
over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast,
but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth,
as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth
as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of
the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed
like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time
it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man
that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission,
in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.
When one came to think of ONE’S SELF, there was vista and void enough
for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth.
There the realistic gentleman could let himself go–as long as he
let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for
the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself
short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call
himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic);
but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say
that a man , QUA man, can be valueless. Here, again in short,
Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites,
by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was
positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self.
One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.
Take another case: the complicated question of charity,
which some highly uncharitable idealists seem to think quite easy.
Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly,
charity certainly means one of two things–pardoning unpardonable acts,
or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did
in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject,
we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan
would say that there were some people one could forgive,
and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at;
a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed
even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable,
the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing;
but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice,
such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves
no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole
fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before.
It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another.
It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive
unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all.
It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and
partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before,
and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for
wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity,
the more I found that while it had established a rule and order,
the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.
Mental and emotional liberty are not so simple as they look.
Really they require almost as careful a balance of laws and conditions
as do social and political liberty. The ordinary aesthetic anarchist
who sets out to feel everything freely gets knotted at last in
a paradox that prevents him feeling at all. He breaks away from
home limits to follow poetry. But in ceasing to feel home limits
he has ceased to feel the “Odyssey.” He is free from national prejudices
and outside patriotism. But being outside patriotism he is
outside “Henry V.” Such a literary man is simply outside all literature:
he is more of a prisoner than any bigot. For if there is a wall
between you and the world, it makes little difference whether
you describe yourself as locked in or as locked out. What we want
is not the universality that is outside all normal sentiments;
we want the universality that is inside all normal sentiments.
It is all the difference between being free from them, as a man
is free from a prison, and being free of them as a man is free of a city.
I am free from Windsor Castle (that is, I am not forcibly detained there),
but I am by no means free of that building. How can man be approximately
free of fine emotions, able to swing them in a clear space without
breakage or wrong? THIS was the achievement of this Christian paradox
of the parallel passions. Granted the primary dogma of the war
between divine and diabolic, the revolt and ruin of the world,
their optimism and pessimism, as pure poetry, could be loosened
St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting
optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil,
could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free
because both were kept in their place. The optimist could pour out
all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets,
and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call
the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose
the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call
the fight hopeless. So it was with all the other moral problems,
with pride, with protest, and with compassion. By defining its main doctrine,
the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side,
but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of
artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists.
Meekness grew more dramatic than madness. Historic Christianity rose
into a high and strange COUP DE THEATRE of morality–
things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice.
The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms,
ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog
the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity
of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head
of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as well as composed.
This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has entirely vanished
with supernatural religion. They, being humble, could parade themselves:
but we are too proud to be prominent. Our ethical teachers write reasonably
for prison reform; but we are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury,
or any eminent philanthropist, go into Reading Gaol and embrace
the strangled corpse before it is cast into the quicklime.
Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires;
but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant,
publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.
Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing
nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light
on the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once
emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once
(if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely
for not having children. It has kept them side by side like
two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon
the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.
It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient
of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white
which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of
the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that
white is a colour: not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am
urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought
in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure.
It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like
a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in
the pattern of the cross.
So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges of the
anti-Christians about submission and slaughter. It IS true that
the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight;
and it IS true that those who fought were like thunderbolts
and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means
that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans.
There must be SOME good in the life of battle, for so many good men
have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be SOME good in the idea
of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers.
All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent
either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed
side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks,
simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of becoming a sect.
Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations
about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge.
But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run the whole world;
and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it.
The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas
or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure gentleness
and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox
of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis,
the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is
too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured, especially in our
Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb
the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism
on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion
instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is–
Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity?
THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.
This is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life.
This is knowing that a man’s heart is to the left and not in the middle.
This is knowing not only that the earth is round, but knowing exactly
where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life.
It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions.
Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy;
any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did.
But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe–
THAT was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one
wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.
Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy.
But to find out how far one MAY be quite miserable without making it
impossible to be quite happy– that was a discovery in psychology.
Any one might say, “Neither swagger nor grovel”; and it would have been
a limit. But to say, “Here you can swagger and there you can grovel”–
that was an emancipation.
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery
of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble,
upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like
a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its
pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences
exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were
all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support;
every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent
accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson,
and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got
the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got
the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than
the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab
outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart. But the balance
was not always in one man’s body as in Becket’s; the balance was
often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed
and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival
in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands
of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England.
This is what makes Christendom at once so much more perplexing
and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire; just as Amiens
Cathedral is not better but more interesting than the Parthenon.
If any one wants a modern proof of all this, let him consider
the curious fact that, under Christianity, Europe (while remaining a unity)
has broken up into individual nations. Patriotism is a perfect example
of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis.
The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, “You shall all be
Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent;
the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.” But the instinct of
Christian Europe says, “Let the German remain slow and reverent,
that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental.
We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity
called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.”
Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains
what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of
Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology,
the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word.
It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything
when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve
a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and
daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea
become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful.
It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading,
but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines,
each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and
lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically
for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through
a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins,
or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see,
need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.
The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean,
and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten
forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have to
speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake
were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness.
A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have
broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions
might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees
or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within
strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties.
The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen
into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy,
humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or
so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is
more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of
a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way
and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary
and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days
went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric
to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism.
She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles.
She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by
all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly.
The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism,
which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never
took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church
was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted
the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy,
in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit
of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic.
It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is
to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is
easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of
error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect
set along the historic path of Christendom– that would indeed
have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are
an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.
To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to
Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.
But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure;
and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages,
the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth
reeling but erect.
VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION
THE following propositions have been urged: First,
that some faith in our life is required even to improve it; second,
that some dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary
even in order to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary
content and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have
the obvious equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither
the gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain.
There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it.
The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin.
Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do–because they are Christian.
And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense)
frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied
the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and
respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs)
objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem.
He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus
the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces
and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones
If these things be conceded, though only for argument,
we may take up where we left it the thread of the thought of the
natural man, called by the Scotch (with regrettable familiarity),
“The Old Man.” We can ask the next question so obviously in front of us.
Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better. But what do
we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on this matter
is a mere argument in a circle–that circle which we have already made
the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism. Evolution is only good
if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution.
The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise on the elephant.
Obviously, it will not do to take our ideal from
the principle in nature; for the simple reason that (except for some
human or divine theory), there is no principle in nature.
For instance, the cheap anti-democrat of to-day will tell you solemnly
that there is no equality in nature. He is right, but he does not
see the logical addendum. There is no equality in nature;
also there is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality,
implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy
of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it.
Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying that
all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable.
But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice;
nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say
that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat
superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy
to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse
were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat
had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat
by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually
inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive.
Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence,
so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was
renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends
on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there is victory
or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine about what
things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat scores
unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say that
the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to be got.
We cannot, then, get the ideal itself from nature,
and as we follow here the first and natural speculation,
we will leave out (for the present) the idea of getting it from God.
We must have our own vision. But the attempts of most moderns
to express it are highly vague.
Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere passage
through time brought some superiority; so that even a man of the first
mental calibre carelessly uses the phrase that human morality is never
up to date. How can anything be up to date? — a date has
no character. How can one say that Christmas celebrations are not
suitable to the twenty-fifth of a month? What the writer meant,
of course, was that the majority is behind his favourite minority–
or in front of it. Other vague modern people take refuge in
material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief mark of vague modern people.
Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical
figures of speech without stint or shame, and, what is worst of all,
seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and
superior to the old morality. Thus they think it intellectual to talk
about things being “high.” It is at least the reverse of intellectual;
it is a mere phrase from a steeple or a weathercock. “Tommy was a good boy”
is a pure philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas.
“Tommy lived the higher life” is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.
This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche,
whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker.
No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker;
but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold.
He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words:
as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless
men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor,
like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because
he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or,
“more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors,
he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero,
he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or
“the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming.
He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from
acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker.
He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants
evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the
ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not
Then again, some people fall back on sheer submission
and sitting still. Nature is going to do something some day;
nobody knows what, and nobody knows when. We have no reason for acting,
and no reason for not acting. If anything happens it is right:
if anything is prevented it was wrong. Again, some people try to
anticipate nature by doing something, by doing anything. Because we
may possibly grow wings they cut off their legs. Yet nature may be
trying to make them centipedes for all they know.
Lastly, there is a fourth class of people who take whatever it is
that they happen to want, and say that that is the ultimate aim
of evolution. And these are the only sensible people.
This is the only really healthy way with the word evolution,
to work for what you want, and to call THAT evolution.
The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have among men,
is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make
the whole world like that vision. If you like to put it so,
the essence of the doctrine is that what we have around us is
the mere method and preparation for something that we have to create.
This is not a world, but rather the material for a world.
God has given us not so much the colours of a picture as the colours
of a palette. But he has also given us a subject, a model,
a fixed vision. We must be clear about what we want to paint.
This adds a further principle to our previous list of principles.
We have said we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it.
We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary)
in order to have something to change it to.
We need not debate about the mere words evolution or progress:
personally I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form.
It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image;
to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is
a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor
from merely walking along a road–very likely the wrong road.
But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means
that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape.
And we know what shape.
Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age.
We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things.
Progress should mean that we are always changing the world
to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always
changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure
in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we
are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy:
a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it.
Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem.
It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us.
We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal:
it is easier.
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted
a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have
no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task;
he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away
(in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures;
the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have
fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard,
that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view)
leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered
a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly.
But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all.
If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything
red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing
to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early
bad manner. This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker.
It will be said that this is avowedly a preposterous example.
But it is literally the fact of recent history. The great and grave changes
in our political civilization all belonged to the early nineteenth century,
not to the later. They belonged to the black and white epoch
when men believed fixedly in Toryism, in Protestantism, in Calvinism,
in Reform, and not unfrequently in Revolution. And whatever each man
believed in he hammered at steadily, without scepticism:
and there was a time when the Established Church might have fallen,
and the House of Lords nearly fell. It was because Radicals were
wise enough to be constant and consistent; it was because Radicals were
wise enough to be Conservative. But in the existing atmosphere
there is not enough time and tradition in Radicalism to pull anything down.
There is a great deal of truth in Lord Hugh Cecil’s suggestion
(made in a fine speech) that the era of change is over, and that ours
is an era of conservation and repose. But probably it would pain
Lord Hugh Cecil if he realized (what is certainly the case)
that ours is only an age of conservation because it is an age
of complete unbelief. Let beliefs fade fast and frequently,
if you wish institutions to remain the same. The more the life of the mind
is unhinged, the more the machinery of matter will be left to itself.
The net result of all our political suggestions, Collectivism,
Tolstoyanism, Neo-Feudalism, Communism, Anarchy, Scientific Bureaucracy–
the plain fruit of all of them is that the Monarchy and the House of
Lords will remain. The net result of all the new religions will be
that the Church of England will not (for heaven knows how long)
be disestablished. It was Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy,
Cunninghame Grahame, Bernard Shaw and Auberon Herbert,
who between them, with bowed gigantic backs, bore up the throne of
the Archbishop of Canterbury.
We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the
safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation
of the slave’s mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of
the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free,
and he will not free himself. Again, it may be said that this instance
is remote or extreme. But, again, it is exactly true of the men in
the streets around us. It is true that the negro slave, being a
debased barbarian, will probably have either a human affection of loyalty,
or a human affection for liberty. But the man we see every day–
the worker in Mr. Gradgrind’s factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind’s
office–he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept
quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his
place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian
one day, a Nietzscheite the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day;
and a slave every day. The only thing that remains after all the
philosophies is the factory. The only man who gains by all the
philosophies is Gradgrind. It would be worth his while to keep his
commercial helotry supplied with sceptical literature. And now I
come to think of it, of course, Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries.
He shows his sense. All modern books are on his side. As long as the
vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be
exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized,
or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change
his environment; for he will always change his mind.
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal
towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used
to make many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore
up twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times,
and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait.
So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity
fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.
But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal;
for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore
becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his
pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art?
How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always
satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait painter
will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking the natural
and more human course of throwing the sitter out of window?
A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also
necessary for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary
to any sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly
upon new ideas; but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am
merely to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic;
but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is
the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution.
They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality,
with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant.
There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a
slow movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement.
A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things
to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better
to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians,
such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat;
by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat,
and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day it may be
wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the question of
what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever is justice ought,
under given conditions, to be prompt justice. If an animal is wronged,
we ought to be able to rush to his rescue. But how can we rush if we are,
perhaps, in advance of our time? How can we rush to catch a train
which may not arrive for a few centuries? How can I denounce a man
for skinning cats, if he is only now what I may possibly become in
drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane Russian sect ran
about taking all the cattle out of all the carts. How can I pluck up
courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab, when I do not know whether
my evolutionary watch is only a little fast or the cabman’s a little slow?
Suppose I say to a sweater, “Slavery suited one stage of evolution.”
And suppose he answers, “And sweating suits this stage of evolution.”
How can I answer if there is no eternal test? If sweaters can be
behind the current morality, why should not philanthropists be in
front of it? What on earth is the current morality, except in its
literal sense– the morality that is always running away?
Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary
to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether
we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only
wish the king to be promptly executed. The guillotine has many sins,
but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it.
The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in the axe.
The Evolutionist says, “Where do you draw the line?” the Revolutionist
answers, “I draw it HERE: exactly between your head and body.”
There must at any given moment be an abstract right and wrong
if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal
if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all intelligible
human purposes, for altering things or for keeping things as they are,
for rounding a system for ever, as in China, or for altering it
every month as in the early French Revolution, it is equally necessary
that the vision should be a fixed vision. This is our first requirement.
When I had written this down, I felt once again the presence of
something else in the discussion: as a man hears a church bell above
the sound of the street. Something seemed to be saying,
“My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations
of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered;
for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you are going;
but you cannot alter the place from which you have come. To the orthodox
there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men
God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell
once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling
against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution;
for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a
blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam.
No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good
any thing but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have
had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful.
Men may have been under oppression ever since fish were under water;
still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may
seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does the
plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not,
if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all your history.
Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact.” I paused to note
the new coincidence of Christianity: but I passed on.
I passed on to the next necessity of any ideal of progress.
Some people (as we have said) seem to believe in an automatic and
impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no
political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is
natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active,
but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve,
we need not trouble to improve. The pure doctrine of progress is the
best of all reasons for not being a progressive. But it is to none
of these obvious comments that I wish primarily to call attention.
The only arresting point is this: that if we suppose improvement
to be natural, it must be fairly simple. The world might conceivably
be working towards one consummation, but hardly towards any particular
arrangement of many qualities. To take our original simile:
Nature by herself may be growing more blue; that is, a process so simple
that it might be impersonal. But Nature cannot be making a careful picture
made of many picked colours, unless Nature is personal.
If the end of the world were mere darkness or mere light it might come
as slowly and inevitably as dusk or dawn. But if the end of the world
is to be a piece of elaborate and artistic chiaroscuro,
then there must be design in it, either human or divine.
The world, through mere time, might grow black like an old picture,
or white like an old coat; but if it is turned into a particular piece
of black and white art–then there is an artist.
If the distinction be not evident, I give an ordinary instance.
We constantly hear a particularly cosmic creed from the modern humanitarians;
I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one
who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity.
They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and more humane,
that is to say, that one after another, groups or sections of beings,
slaves, children, women, cows, or what not, have been gradually admitted
to mercy or to justice. They say that we once thought it right to eat men
(we didn’t); but I am not here concerned with their history, which is
highly unhistorical. As a fact, anthropophagy is certainly
a decadent thing, not a primitive one. It is much more likely that
modern men will eat human flesh out of affectation than that
primitive man ever ate it out of ignorance. I am here only
following the outlines of their argument, which consists in maintaining
that man has been progressively more lenient, first to citizens,
then to slaves, then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants.
I think it wrong to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to
sit on a horse. Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit
on a chair. That is the drive of the argument. And for this argument
it can be said that it is possible to talk of it in terms of evolution
or inevitable progress. A perpetual tendency to touch fewer and fewer
things might–one feels, be a mere brute unconscious tendency,
like that of a species to produce fewer and fewer children.
This drift may be really evolutionary, because it is stupid.
Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot
be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition
of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel
or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals.
On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be
absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger
are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be
a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train
the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger.
But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger
reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.
If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to
the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur:
only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature.
The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion
is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother.
Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that
she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this:
that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.
We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father;
but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.
This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth
a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity.
Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele.
Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson.
But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert.
To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister:
a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
This, however, is hardly our main point at present;
I have admitted it only in order to show how constantly,
and as it were accidentally, the key would fit the smallest doors.
Our main point is here, that if there be a mere trend
of impersonal improvement in Nature, it must presumably be
a simple trend towards some simple triumph. One can imagine
that some automatic tendency in biology might work for giving us
longer and longer noses. But the question is, do we want to have
longer and longer noses? I fancy not; I believe that we most of us
want to say to our noses, “thus far, and no farther; and here shall
thy proud point be stayed:” we require a nose of such length
as may ensure an interesting face. But we cannot imagine
a mere biological trend towards producing interesting faces;
because an interesting face is one particular arrangement of eyes,
nose, and mouth, in a most complex relation to each other.
Proportion cannot be a drift: it is either an accident or a design.
So with the ideal of human morality and its relation to
the humanitarians and the anti-humanitarians. It is conceivable
that we are going more and more to keep our hands off things:
not to drive horses; not to pick flowers. We may eventually be bound
not to disturb a man’s mind even by argument; not to disturb
the sleep of birds even by coughing. The ultimate apotheosis
would appear to be that of a man sitting quite still, nor daring
to stir for fear of disturbing a fly, nor to eat for fear
of incommoding a microbe. To so crude a consummation as that we might
perhaps unconsciously drift. But do we want so crude a consummation?
Similarly, we might unconsciously evolve along the opposite
or Nietzschian line of development– superman crushing superman
in one tower of tyrants until the universe is smashed up for fun.
But do we want the universe smashed up for fun? Is it not quite clear
that what we really hope for is one particular management and proposition
of these two things; a certain amount of restraint and respect,
a certain amount of energy and mastery? If our life is ever really
as beautiful as a fairy-tale, we shall have to remember that
all the beauty of a fairy-tale lies in this: that the prince has a wonder
which just stops short of being fear. If he is afraid of the giant,
there is an end of him; but also if he is not astonished at the giant,
there is an end of the fairy-tale. The whole point depends upon
his being at once humble enough to wonder, and haughty enough to defy.
So our attitude to the giant of the world must not merely be
increasing delicacy or increasing contempt: it must be
one particular proportion of the two– which is exactly right.
We must have in us enough reverence for all things outside us to make
us tread fearfully on the grass. We must also have enough disdain
for all things outside us, to make us, on due occasion, spit at the stars.
Yet these two things (if we are to be good or happy) must be combined,
not in any combination, but in one particular combination.
The perfect happiness of men on the earth (if it ever comes)
will not be a flat and solid thing, like the satisfaction of animals.
It will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.
Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures,
and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.
This, then, is our second requirement for the ideal of progress.
First, it must be fixed; second, it must be composite. It must not
(if it is to satisfy our souls) be the mere victory of some one thing
swallowing up everything else, love or pride or peace or adventure;
it must be a definite picture composed of these elements in their best
proportion and relation. I am not concerned at this moment to deny
that some such good culmination may be, by the constitution of things,
reserved for the human race. I only point out that if this
composite happiness is fixed for us it must be fixed by some mind;
for only a mind can place the exact proportions of a composite happiness.
If the beatification of the world is a mere work of nature,
then it must be as simple as the freezing of the world,
or the burning up of the world. But if the beatification of the world
is not a work of nature but a work of art, then it involves an artist.
And here again my contemplation was cloven by the ancient voice which said,
“I could have told you all this a long time ago. If there is
any certain progress it can only be my kind of progress,
the progress towards a complete city of virtues and dominations
where righteousness and peace contrive to kiss each other.
An impersonal force might be leading you to a wilderness of perfect flatness
or a peak of perfect height. But only a personal God can possibly
be leading you (if, indeed, you are being led) to a city with just streets
and architectural proportions, a city in which each of you can contribute
exactly the right amount of your own colour to the many coloured
coat of Joseph.”
Twice again, therefore, Christianity had come in with the exact answer
that I required. I had said, “The ideal must be fixed,” and the Church
had answered, “Mine is literally fixed, for it existed before anything else.”
I said secondly, “It must be artistically combined, like a picture”;
and the Church answered, “Mine is quite literally a picture,
for I know who painted it.” Then I went on to the third thing, which,
as it seemed to me, was needed for an Utopia or goal of progress.
And of all the three it is infinitely the hardest to express.
Perhaps it might be put thus: that we need watchfulness even in Utopia,
lest we fall from Utopia as we fell from Eden.
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive
is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason
for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse.
The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive;
it is also the only argument against being conservative.
The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable
if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based
upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.
But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to
a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be
a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be
always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.
Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special
and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance
is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity
with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom
in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering
under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered
under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties
hardly twenty years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the
patriotic monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards)
went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First.
So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just after
it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored.
The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined.
So in the same way in England in the nineteenth century the Radical
manufacturer was entirely trusted as a mere tribune of the people,
until suddenly we heard the cry of the Socialist that he was a tyrant
eating the people like bread. So again, we have almost up to
the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion.
Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start)
that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are,
by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men.
We have not any need to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel
against novelty. It is the new rulers, the capitalist or the editor,
who really hold up the modern world. There is no fear that
a modern king will attempt to override the constitution; it is
more likely that he will ignore the constitution and work behind its back;
he will take no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that
he will take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that
he is free from criticism and publicity. For the king is
the most private person of our time. It will not be necessary for any one
to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press.
We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship
by the press.
This startling swiftness with which popular systems turn oppressive
is the third fact for which we shall ask our perfect theory of progress
to allow. It must always be on the look out for every privilege
being abused, for every working right becoming a wrong.
In this matter I am entirely on the side of the revolutionists.
They are really right to be always suspecting human institutions;
they are right not to put their trust in princes nor in any child of man.
The chieftain chosen to be the friend of the people becomes
the enemy of the people; the newspaper started to tell the truth
now exists to prevent the truth being told. Here, I say,
I felt that I was really at last on the side of the revolutionary.
And then I caught my breath again: for I remembered that
I was once again on the side of the orthodox.
Christianity spoke again and said: “I have always maintained
that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended
of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that
human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings,
especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution,
this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern)
call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher
you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin.
You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like;
I call it what it is–the Fall.”
I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword;
here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really
(when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left
that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured
or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists,
or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor
must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded.
I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men
not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor
healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened
to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination.
For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree
the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could
prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus
utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them.
But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them.
If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote,
then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote.
The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time
to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him
very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint
and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement
to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously
lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the
evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening
to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without
evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated,
had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had,
moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment,
one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that,
he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist,
with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences,
cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say,
“Very well, then, we won’t trust them,” and bang the door in his face.
On the basis of Mr. Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment,
the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes
and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present
at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air?
If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves,
why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit
to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter
is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our
vanguard in Utopia.
Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had
the best opportunities will probably be our best guides?
Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed
clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul?
As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity.
Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to
a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained
from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment,
but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of
a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all
is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture
has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle.
I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover
a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest,
or open the eye of the needle to its largest–if, in short, we assume
the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean,
His words must at the very least mean this–that rich men are not
very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down
is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum
of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.
For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption,
not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich
are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable.
You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers,
companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument
that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course,
that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already.
That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is
that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man,
spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.
There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said
with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich
is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably
un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice.
It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient
rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against
the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly
un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe
than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that
man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say,
as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank
would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that
any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma;
it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of
obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position”
would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity
into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of
Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia,
I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position
at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.
Much vague and sentimental journalism has been poured out
to the effect that Christianity is akin to democracy, and most of it
is scarcely strong or clear enough to refute the fact that the two things
have often quarrelled. The real ground upon which Christianity and
democracy are one is very much deeper. The one specially and peculiarly
un-Christian idea is the idea of Carlyle–the idea that the man should rule
who feels that he can rule. Whatever else is Christian, this is heathen.
If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this–
that the man should rule who does NOT think that he can rule.
Carlyle’s hero may say, “I will be king”; but the Christian saint must say
“Nolo episcopari.” If the great paradox of Christianity means anything,
it means this–that we must take the crown in our hands,
and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth
until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it.
Carlyle was quite wrong; we have not got to crown the exceptional man
who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man
who knows he can’t.
Now, this is one of the two or three vital defences of working democracy.
The mere machinery of voting is not democracy, though at present
it is not easy to effect any simpler democratic method. But even the
machinery of voting is profoundly Christian in this practical sense–
that it is an attempt to get at the opinion of those who would be
too modest to offer it. It is a mystical adventure; it is specially
trusting those who do not trust themselves. That enigma is
strictly peculiar to Christendom. There is nothing really humble
about the abnegation of the Buddhist; the mild Hindoo is mild,
but he is not meek. But there is something psychologically Christian
about the idea of seeking for the opinion of the obscure rather than
taking the obvious course of accepting the opinion of the prominent.
To say that voting is particularly Christian may seem somewhat curious.
To say that canvassing is Christian may seem quite crazy.
But canvassing is very Christian in its primary idea. It is encouraging
the humble; it is saying to the modest man, “Friend, go up higher.”
Or if there is some slight defect in canvassing, that is in its
perfect and rounded piety, it is only because it may possibly neglect
to encourage the modesty of the canvasser.
Aristocracy is not an institution: aristocracy is a sin;
generally a very venial one. It is merely the drift or slide of men
into a sort of natural pomposity and praise of the powerful,
which is the most easy and obvious affair in the world.
It is one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion of
modern “force” that the promptest and boldest agencies are also
the most fragile or full of sensibility. The swiftest things
are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft.
A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must
by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness.
The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force.
In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can
maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous
history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints
is their power of “levitation.” They might go further;
a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity.
Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the
instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented
all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies.
Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering
draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that
the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites.
Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages.
In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like
a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and
float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will
bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings
in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple
will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity
or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into
an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness;
but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into
a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue.
It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that
seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into
taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do.
It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than
a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally;
but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.
Satan fell by the force of gravity.
Now, it is the peculiar honour of Europe since it has been
Christian that while it has had aristocracy it has always
at the back of its heart treated aristocracy as a weakness–
generally as a weakness that must be allowed for. If any one wishes
to appreciate this point, let him go outside Christianity
into some other philosophical atmosphere. Let him, for instance,
compare the classes of Europe with the castes of India.
There aristocracy is far more awful, because it is far more intellectual.
It is seriously felt that the scale of classes is a scale
of spiritual values; that the baker is better than the butcher
in an invisible and sacred sense. But no Christianity,
not even the most ignorant or perverse, ever suggested
that a baronet was better than a butcher in that sacred sense.
No Christianity, however ignorant or extravagant, ever suggested
that a duke would not be damned. In pagan society there may have been
(I do not know) some such serious division between the free man
and the slave. But in Christian society we have always thought
the gentleman a sort of joke, though I admit that in some great crusades
and councils he earned the right to be called a practical joke.
But we in Europe never really and at the root of our souls
took aristocracy seriously. It is only an occasional non-European alien
(such as Dr. Oscar Levy, the only intelligent Nietzscheite)
who can even manage for a moment to take aristocracy seriously.
It may be a mere patriotic bias, though I do not think so,
but it seems to me that the English aristocracy is not only the type,
but is the crown and flower of all actual aristocracies;
it has all the oligarchical virtues as well as all the defects.
It is casual, it is kind, it is courageous in obvious matters;
but it has one great merit that overlaps even these. The great and
very obvious merit of the English aristocracy is that nobody could
possibly take it seriously.
In short, I had spelled out slowly, as usual, the need for an
equal law in Utopia; and, as usual, I found that Christianity
had been there before me. The whole history of my Utopia
has the same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of
my architectural study with plans for a new turret only to find it
sitting up there in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old.
For me, in the ancient and partly in the modern sense, God answered
the prayer, “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings.” Without vanity,
I really think there was a moment when I could have invented
the marriage vow (as an institution) out of my own head;
but I discovered, with a sigh, that it had been invented already.
But, since it would be too long a business to show how, fact by fact
and inch by inch, my own conception of Utopia was only answered
in the New Jerusalem, I will take this one case of the matter of marriage
as indicating the converging drift, I may say the converging crash
of all the rest.
When the ordinary opponents of Socialism talk about impossibilities
and alterations in human nature they always miss an important distinction.
In modern ideal conceptions of society there are some desires that are
possibly not attainable: but there are some desires that are not desirable.
That all men should live in equally beautiful houses is a dream
that may or may not be attained. But that all men should live
in the same beautiful house is not a dream at all; it is a nightmare.
That a man should love all old women is an ideal that may not be attainable.
But that a man should regard all old women exactly as he regards
his mother is not only an unattainable ideal, but an ideal which
ought not to be attained. I do not know if the reader agrees with me
in these examples; but I will add the example which has always
affected me most. I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia
which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care,
the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely
make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would
also make it impossible to have any fun. To take an obvious instance,
it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding.
The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality
but spoil sport. Now betting and such sports are only the stunted
and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure
and romance, of which much has been said in these pages.
And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure
must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare.
If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting.
If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging.
If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful,
or there is no fun in vowing. You could not even make a fairy tale
from the experiences of a man who, when he was swallowed by a whale,
might find himself at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or when he was
turned into a frog might begin to behave like a flamingo.
For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real;
results must be irrevocable. Christian marriage is the great example
of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject
and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance
of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively,
of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain,
to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia
to avenge my honour on myself.
All my modern Utopian friends look at each other rather doubtfully,
for their ultimate hope is the dissolution of all special ties.
But again I seem to hear, like a kind of echo, an answer
from beyond the world. “You will have real obligations,
and therefore real adventures when you get to my Utopia.
But the hardest obligation and the steepest adventure is to get there.”
VIII THE ROMANCE OF ORTHODOXY
IT is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness
of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is
a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness
is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case;
the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due
to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle
if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about.
Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous.
And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also
of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery
of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour
very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like
scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet
the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like
long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are
too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves.
It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express
any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say
“The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all
criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards
a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on
talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter
inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol
and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover,
with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think.
The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words
that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety
in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”
But these long comfortable words that save modern people
the toil of reasoning have one particular aspect in which they are
especially ruinous and confusing. This difficulty occurs
when the same long word is used in different connections to mean
quite different things. Thus, to take a well-known instance,
the word “idealist” has one meaning as a piece of philosophy and
quite another as a piece of moral rhetoric. In the same way the
scientific materialists have had just reason to complain of people
mixing up “materialist” as a term of cosmology with “materialist”
as a moral taunt. So, to take a cheaper instance, the man who
hates “progressives” in London always calls himself a “progressive”
in South Africa.
A confusion quite as unmeaning as this has arisen in connection
with the word “liberal” as applied to religion and as applied
to politics and society. It is often suggested that all Liberals
ought to be freethinkers, because they ought to love everything
that is free. You might just as well say that all idealists ought to be
High Churchmen, because they ought to love everything that is high.
You might as well say that Low Churchmen ought to like Low Mass, or
that Broad Churchmen ought to like broad jokes. The thing is
a mere accident of words. In actual modern Europe a freethinker
does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who,
having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions,
the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles,
the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of
these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas
are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show.
In the few following pages I propose to point out as rapidly as possible
that on every single one of the matters most strongly insisted on
by liberalisers of theology their effect upon social practice would be
definitely illiberal. Almost every contemporary proposal to bring
freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world.
For freeing the church now does not even mean freeing it in all directions.
It means freeing that peculiar set of dogmas loosely called scientific,
dogmas of monism, of pantheism, or of Arianism, or of necessity.
And every one of these (and we will take them one by one)
can be shown to be the natural ally of oppression. In fact, it is
a remarkable circumstance (indeed not so very remarkable when one
comes to think of it) that most things are the allies of oppression.
There is only one thing that can never go past a certain point in its
alliance with oppression–and that is orthodoxy. I may, it is true,
twist orthodoxy so as partly to justify a tyrant. But I can easily
make up a German philosophy to justify him entirely.
Now let us take in order the innovations that are the notes of
the new theology or the modernist church. We concluded the last chapter
with the discovery of one of them. The very doctrine which is called
the most old-fashioned was found to be the only safeguard of
the new democracies of the earth. The doctrine seemingly most unpopular
was found to be the only strength of the people. In short, we found
that the only logical negation of oligarchy was in the affirmation of
original sin. So it is, I maintain, in all the other cases.
I take the most obvious instance first, the case of miracles.
For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is
more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them.
Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me. For some
inconceivable cause a “broad” or “liberal” clergyman always means a
man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles;
it never means a man who wishes to increase that number.
It always means a man who is free to disbelieve that Christ
came out of His grave; it never means a man who is free to believe
that his own aunt came out of her grave. It is common to find trouble
in a parish because the parish priest cannot admit that St. Peter
walked on water; yet how rarely do we find trouble in a parish
because the clergyman says that his father walked on the Serpentine?
And this is not because (as the swift secularist debater would
immediately retort) miracles cannot be believed in our experience.
It is not because “miracles do not happen,” as in the dogma which
Matthew Arnold recited with simple faith. More supernatural things
are ALLEGED to have happened in our time than would have been possible
eighty years ago. Men of science believe in such marvels
much more than they did: the most perplexing, and even horrible,
prodigies of mind and spirit are always being unveiled in modern psychology.
Things that the old science at least would frankly have rejected
as miracles are hourly being asserted by the new science.
The only thing which is still old-fashioned enough to reject miracles
is the New Theology. But in truth this notion that it is “free”
to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them.
It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and
beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma,
of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve
in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him
to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism
did not allow him to believe it. Tennyson, a very typical
nineteenth century man, uttered one of the instinctive truisms
of his contemporaries when he said that there was faith in their
honest doubt. There was indeed. Those words have a profound and
even a horrible truth. In their doubt of miracles there was a faith
in a fixed and godless fate; a deep and sincere faith in the
incurable routine of the cosmos. The doubts of the agnostic were only
the dogmas of the monist.
Of the fact and evidence of the supernatural I will speak afterwards.
Here we are only concerned with this clear point; that in so far as
the liberal idea of freedom can be said to be on either side
in the discussion about miracles, it is obviously on the side of miracles.
Reform or (in the only tolerable sense) progress means simply
the gradual control of matter by mind. A miracle simply means
the swift control of matter by mind. If you wish to feed the people,
you may think that feeding them miraculously in the wilderness
is impossible–but you cannot think it illiberal. If you really want
poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot think it illiberal that
they should go there on flying dragons; you can only think it unlikely.
A holiday, like Liberalism, only means the liberty of man.
A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny
either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of
the liberal idea. The Catholic Church believed that man and God
both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the
freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism
binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse
chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe.
And those who assist this process are called the “liberal theologians.”
This, as I say, is the lightest and most evident case.
The assumption that there is something in the doubt of miracles
akin to liberality or reform is literally the opposite of the truth.
If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter;
he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable and logical,
which are much better things. But if he can believe in miracles,
he is certainly the more liberal for doing so; because they mean first,
the freedom of the soul, and secondly, its control over
the tyranny of circumstance. Sometimes this truth is ignored in
a singularly naive way, even by the ablest men. For instance,
Mr. Bernard Shaw speaks with hearty old-fashioned contempt for
the idea of miracles, as if they were a sort of breach of faith on
the part of nature: he seems strangely unconscious that miracles are
only the final flowers of his own favourite tree, the doctrine of
the omnipotence of will. Just in the same way he calls
the desire for immortality a paltry selfishness, forgetting that
he has just called the desire for life a healthy and heroic selfishness.
How can it be noble to wish to make one’s life infinite and yet mean
to wish to make it immortal? No, if it is desirable that man should
triumph over the cruelty of nature or custom, then miracles are
certainly desirable; we will discuss afterwards whether they are possible.
But I must pass on to the larger cases of this curious error;
the notion that the “liberalising” of religion in some way helps
the liberation of the world. The second example of it can be found
in the question of pantheism–or rather of a certain modern attitude
which is often called immanentism, and which often is Buddhism.
But this is so much more difficult a matter that I must approach it
with rather more preparation.
The things said most confidently by advanced persons to
crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact;
it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case.
There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again
at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions
of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same
in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact.
The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms;
they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say,
“Do not be misled by the fact that the CHURCH TIMES and the FREETHINKER
look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other
carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal;
read them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is,
of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that
they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton
looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon.
You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal
and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat
or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly
in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that
the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged
in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery.
It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every
great religion on earth works with the same external methods,
with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts.
They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is
the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists
would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both
have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other
both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other
both have guns.
The great example of this alleged identity of all human religions
is the alleged spiritual identity of Buddhism and Christianity.
Those who adopt this theory generally avoid the ethics of most other creeds,
except, indeed, Confucianism, which they like because it is not a creed.
But they are cautious in their praises of Mahommedanism,
generally confining themselves to imposing its morality only upon
the refreshment of the lower classes. They seldom suggest the Mahommedan
view of marriage (for which there is a great deal to be said),
and towards Thugs and fetish worshippers their attitude may even
be called cold. But in the case of the great religion of Gautama
they feel sincerely a similarity.
Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting
that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.
This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read
a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds:
resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity,
and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author
solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which
all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point
in which they are quite obviously different. Thus, as a case of
the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called
by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect
the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again,
it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a
singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet.
You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that
they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities
were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler
of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that
at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces
out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is
the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not
rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants
were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops.
It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between
the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder,
and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.
These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not
also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also
of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything.
That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say
that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is
not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove
in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings
disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism
and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false.
All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity
agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out,
I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe
which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.
Even when I thought, with most other well-informed,
though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike,
there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean
the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean
in its technical style of representation, but in the things that
it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be
more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and
a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists
at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that
the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint
always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and
harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep.
The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes
are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit
between forces that produced symbols so different as that.
Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of
the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce
such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with
a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with
a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily
we shall find some interesting things.
A short time ago Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay,
announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths
were only versions or perversions of it, and that she was quite prepared
to say what it was. According to Mrs. Besant this universal Church
is simply the universal self. It is the doctrine that we are really
all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality
between man and man. If I may put it so, she does not tell us
to love our neighbours; she tells us to be our neighbours.
That is Mrs. Besant’s thoughtful and suggestive description of
the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement.
And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more
violently disagree. I want to love my neighbour not because he is I,
but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world,
not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self,
but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.
If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love is
obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself,
but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does,
it must be a monotonous courtship. If the world is full of real selves,
they can be really unselfish selves. But upon Mrs. Besant’s principle
the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person.
It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism
and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side
of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality;
therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity
to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces,
because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say
“little children love one another” rather than to tell one large person
to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and
Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is
the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God,
the whole point of his cosmic idea. The world-soul of the Theosophists
asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it.
But the divine centre of Christianity actually threw man out of it
in order that he might love it. The oriental deity is like a giant
who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it;
but the Christian power is like some giant who in a strange generosity
should cut off his right hand, so that it might of its own accord
shake hands with him. We come back to the same tireless note
touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies
are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword
which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God
actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls.
But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between
God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God
it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved,
but a man to love him. All those vague theosophical minds
for whom the universe is an immense melting-pot are exactly the minds
which shrink instinctively from that earthquake saying of our Gospels,
which declare that the Son of God came not with peace but with
a sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered
as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real love
is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity
as a divine love; sham love ends in compromise and common philosophy;
but real love has always ended in bloodshed. Yet there is another
and yet more awful truth behind the obvious meaning of this utterance
of our Lord. According to Himself the Son was a sword separating
brother and brother that they should for an aeon hate each other.
But the Father also was a sword, which in the black beginning
separated brother and brother, so that they should love each other at last.
This is the meaning of that almost insane happiness in the eyes
of the mediaeval saint in the picture. This is the meaning of
the sealed eyes of the superb Buddhist image. The Christian saint
is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world;
he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment.
But why should the Buddhist saint be astonished at things?
–since there is really only one thing, and that being impersonal
can hardly be astonished at itself. There have been many pantheist poems
suggesting wonder, but no really successful ones. The pantheist
cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as really
distinct from himself. Our immediate business here, however,
is with the effect of this Christian admiration (which strikes outwards,
towards a deity distinct from the worshipper) upon the general need
for ethical activity and social reform. And surely its effect
is sufficiently obvious. There is no real possibility of
getting out of pantheism, any special impulse to moral action.
For pantheism implies in its nature that one thing is as good as another;
whereas action implies in its nature that one thing is greatly preferable
to another. Swinburne in the high summer of his scepticism tried
in vain to wrestle with this difficulty. In “Songs before Sunrise,”
written under the inspiration of Garibaldi and the revolt of Italy
he proclaimed the newer religion and the purer God which should wither up
all the priests of the world:
“What doest thou now
Looking Godward to cry
I am I, thou art thou,
I am low, thou art high,
I am thou that thou seekest to find him, find thou but thyself,
thou art I.”
Of which the immediate and evident deduction is that
tyrants are as much the sons of God as Garibaldis; and that
King Bomba of Naples having, with the utmost success, “found himself”
is identical with the ultimate good in all things. The truth is
that the western energy that dethrones tyrants has been directly due
to the western theology that says “I am I, thou art thou.”
The same spiritual separation which looked up and saw a good king
in the universe looked up and saw a bad king in Naples.
The worshippers of Bomba’s god dethroned Bomba. The worshippers
of Swinburne’s god have covered Asia for centuries and have never
dethroned a tyrant. The Indian saint may reasonably shut his eyes
because he is looking at that which is I and Thou and We and They and It.
It is a rational occupation: but it is not true in theory and not true
in fact that it helps the Indian to keep an eye on Lord Curzon.
That external vigilance which has always been the mark of Christianity
(the command that we should WATCH and pray) has expressed itself
both in typical western orthodoxy and in typical western politics:
but both depend on the idea of a divinity transcendent,
different from ourselves, a deity that disappears. Certainly the most
sagacious creeds may suggest that we should pursue God into deeper and
deeper rings of the labyrinth of our own ego. But only we of Christendom
have said that we should hunt God like an eagle upon the mountains:
and we have killed all monsters in the chase.
Here again, therefore, we find that in so far as we value democracy
and the self-renewing energies of the west, we are much more likely
to find them in the old theology than the new. If we want reform,
we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this matter (so much disputed
in the counsels of Mr. R.J.Campbell), the matter of insisting on
the immanent or the transcendent deity. By insisting specially
on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism,
social indifference–Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence
of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure,
righteous indignation–Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man,
man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man,
man has transcended himself.
If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned
we shall find the case the same. It is the same, for instance,
in the deep matter of the Trinity. Unitarians (a sect never to be mentioned
without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual dignity
and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the accident
that throws so many small sects into such an attitude. But there is
nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution
of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the
Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is
far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than
the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity
is not only a king but an Eastern king. The HEART of humanity,
especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied
by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea,
the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice,
the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in
the inmost chamber of the world. For Western religion has always
felt keenly the idea “it is not well for man to be alone.”
The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea
of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks.
So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable
even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity
be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion
than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it
with reverence)–to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed
a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough
to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here.
Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting
as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that
bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert,
from the dry places and, the dreadful suns, come the cruel children
of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand
have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.
Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of
the danger of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds.
To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that
their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not
specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and
creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody,
on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging
to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is
a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet.
Europe ought rather to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe
always has emphasized it. Here its highest religion is at one
with all its cheapest romances. To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist
existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way.
But to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way.
In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not
eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill
that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak)
be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man,
not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t.
In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”:
but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads.
The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug,
all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments.
The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take
this road or that? –that is the only thing to think about,
if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about,
any one can think about them. The instant is really awful:
and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant,
that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology
dealt much with hell. It is full of DANGER, like a boy’s book:
it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity
between popular fiction and the religion of the western people.
If you say that popular fiction is vulgar and tawdry, you only say
what the dreary and well-informed say also about the images in
the Catholic churches. Life (according to the faith) is very like
a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace)
“to be continued in our next.” Also, with a noble vulgarity,
life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment.
For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
But the point is that a story is exciting because it has in it
so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free-will.
You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story
how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus
there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover.
But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him
to Juliet’s old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom
has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted
on the theological free-will. It is a large matter and too much
to one side of the road to be discussed adequately here; but this is
the real objection to that torrent of modern talk about treating crime
as disease, about making a prison merely a hygienic environment
like a hospital, of healing sin by slow scientific methods.
The fallacy of the whole thing is that evil is a matter of active choice
whereas disease is not. If you say that you are going to cure a profligate
as you cure an asthmatic, my cheap and obvious answer is,
“Produce the people who want to be asthmatics as many people want
to be profligates.” A man may lie still and be cured of a malady.
But he must not lie still if he wants to be cured of a sin;
on the contrary, he must get up and jump about violently.
The whole point indeed is perfectly expressed in the very word
which we use for a man in hospital; “patient” is in the passive mood;
“sinner” is in the active. If a man is to be saved from influenza,
he may be a patient. But if he is to be saved from forging, he must be
not a patient but an IMPATIENT. He must be personally impatient with forgery.
All moral reform must start in the active not the passive will.
Here again we reach the same substantial conclusion.
In so far as we desire the definite reconstructions and
the dangerous revolutions which have distinguished European civilization,
we shall not discourage the thought of possible ruin; we shall rather
encourage it. If we want, like the Eastern saints, merely to contemplate
how right things are, of course we shall only say that they must go right.
But if we particularly want to MAKE them go right, we must insist
that they may go wrong.
Lastly, this truth is yet again true in the case of the common
modern attempts to diminish or to explain away the divinity of Christ.
The thing may be true or not; that I shall deal with before I end.
But if the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary.
That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than
we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall
is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the
only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete.
Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been
a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has
added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage
worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes
a breaking point and does not break. In this indeed I approach
a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss;
and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong
or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and
thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale
of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that
the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only
through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not
tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself;
and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane.
In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God.
He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism.
When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven,
it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross:
the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let
the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god
from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods
of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find
another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows
too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves
choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered
their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant
to be an atheist.
These can be called the essentials of the old orthodoxy,
of which the chief merit is that it is the natural fountain of revolution
and reform; and of which the chief defect is that it is obviously
only an abstract assertion. Its main advantage is that it is
the most adventurous and manly of all theologies. Its chief disadvantage
is simply that it is a theology. It can always be urged against it
that it is in its nature arbitrary and in the air. But it is not
so high in the air but that great archers spend their whole lives
in shooting arrows at it–yes, and their last arrows; there are men
who will ruin themselves and ruin their civilization if they may ruin also
this old fantastic tale. This is the last and most astounding fact
about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it,
the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn
their own homes. Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of
freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity
if only they may fight the Church. This is no exaggeration;
I could fill a book with the instances of it. Mr. Blatchford set out,
as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove that Adam was guiltless
of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to maintain this he admitted,
as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants, from Nero to King Leopold,
were guiltless of any sin against humanity. I know a man who has
such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence
after death that he falls back on the position that he has
no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls
fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to heaven
he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool. I have known people
who protested against religious education with arguments against
any education, saying that the child’s mind must grow freely or that
the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed
that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be
no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn
to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it;
any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were
the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire,
we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other.
But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred
of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to
the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar,
but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness
of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which
all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one
who never lived at all.
And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents
only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear.
They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political and
common courage sense. They do not prove that Adam was not responsible
to God; how could they prove it? They only prove (from their premises)
that the Czar is not responsible to Russia. They do not prove
that Adam should not have been punished by God; they only prove
that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men.
With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain
that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make certain
that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here.
With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong
they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it
a little harder to keep the books of Marshall and Snelgrove.
Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes
are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not
wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things,
if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven;
but they laid waste the world.
IX AUTHORITY AND THE ADVENTURER
THE last chapter has been concerned with the contention
that orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian
of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty,
innovation and advance. If we wish to pull down the prosperous oppressor
we cannot do it with the new doctrine of human perfectibility;
we can do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin. If we want to uproot
inherent cruelties or lift up lost populations we cannot do it with
the scientific theory that matter precedes mind; we can do it with
the supernatural theory that mind precedes matter. If we wish specially
to awaken people to social vigilance and tireless pursuit of practise,
we cannot help it much by insisting on the Immanent God and
the Inner Light: for these are at best reasons for contentment;
we can help it much by insisting on the transcendent God and the
flying and escaping gleam; for that means divine discontent.
If we wish particularly to assert the idea of a generous balance
against that of a dreadful autocracy we shall instinctively
be Trinitarian rather than Unitarian. If we desire European civilization
to be a raid and a rescue, we shall insist rather that souls
are in real peril than that their peril is ultimately unreal.
And if we wish to exalt the outcast and the crucified, we shall rather wish
to think that a veritable God was crucified, rather than a mere sage
or hero. Above all, if we wish to protect the poor we shall be in
favour of fixed rules and clear dogmas. The RULES of a club
are occasionally in favour of the poor member. The drift of a club
is always in favour of the rich one.
And now we come to the crucial question which truly concludes
the whole matter. A reasonable agnostic, if he has happened to
agree with me so far, may justly turn round and say, “You have found
a practical philosophy in the doctrine of the Fall; very well.
You have found a side of democracy now dangerously neglected
wisely asserted in Original Sin; all right. You have found a truth
in the doctrine of hell; I congratulate you. You are convinced
that worshippers of a personal God look outwards and are progressive;
I congratulate them. But even supposing that those doctrines
do include those truths, why cannot you take the truths and leave
the doctrines? Granted that all modern society is trusting
the rich too much because it does not allow for human weakness;
granted that orthodox ages have had a great advantage because
(believing in the Fall) they did allow for human weakness,
why cannot you simply allow for human weakness without believing in the Fall?
If you have discovered that the idea of damnation represents
a healthy idea of danger, why can you not simply take the idea of danger
and leave the idea of damnation? If you see clearly the kernel of
common-sense in the nut of Christian orthodoxy, why cannot you simply
take the kernel and leave the nut? Why cannot you (to use that
cant phrase of the newspapers which I, as a highly scholarly agnostic,
am a little ashamed of using) why cannot you simply take what is good
in Christianity, what you can define as valuable, what you can comprehend,
and leave all the rest, all the absolute dogmas that are
in their nature incomprehensible?” This is the real question;
this is the last question; and it is a pleasure to try to answer it.
The first answer is simply to say that I am a rationalist.
I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions.
If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience
to me to believe that he fell; and I find, for some odd
psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s
exercise of freewill if I believe that he has got it. But I am
in this matter yet more definitely a rationalist. I do not propose
to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics;
I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity
in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account
of my own growth in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark
that the more I saw of the merely abstract arguments against
the Christian cosmology the less I thought of them. I mean that
having found the moral atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense,
I then looked at the established intellectual arguments against
the Incarnation and found them to be common nonsense. In case the argument
should be thought to suffer from the absence of the ordinary apologetic
I will here very briefly summarise my own arguments and conclusions
on the purely objective or scientific truth of the matter.
If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question,
why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason
that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.”
I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence
in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really
in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation
of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed
because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy;
it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind.
I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy
from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape,
and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds
increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.
Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day
is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose
but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity
are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it.
For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths,
I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that
the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.
Let us take cases. Many a sensible modern man must have
abandoned Christianity under the pressure of three such
converging convictions as these: first, that men, with their shape,
structure, and sexuality, are, after all, very much like beasts,
a mere variety of the animal kingdom; second, that primeval religion
arose in ignorance and fear; third, that priests have blighted societies
with bitterness and gloom. Those three anti-Christian arguments
are very different; but they are all quite logical and legitimate;
and they all converge. The only objection to them (I discover)
is that they are all untrue. If you leave off looking at books
about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then
(if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic
or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not
how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is.
It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation.
That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that
being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock
and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting
to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does
next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin;
does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture
and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory
even in a roccoco style; camels do not paint even bad pictures,
though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes.
Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society
superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth
only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found
an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants?
Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old?
No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have
a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals;
but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out.
All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability
of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals;
man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk.
So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything,
a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off
that all religion begins.
It would be the same if I examined the second of the three
chance rationalist arguments; the argument that all that we call divine
began in some darkness and terror. When I did attempt to examine
the foundations of this modern idea I simply found that there were none.
Science knows nothing whatever about pre-historic man;
for the excellent reason that he is pre-historic. A few professors
choose to conjecture that such things as human sacrifice were once
innocent and general and that they gradually dwindled; but there is
no direct evidence of it, and the small amount of indirect evidence
is very much the other way. In the earliest legends we have,
such as the tales of Isaac and of Iphigenia, human sacrifice
is not introduced as something old, but rather as something new;
as a strange and frightful exception darkly demanded by the gods.
History says nothing; and legends all say that the earth was kinder
in its earliest time. There is no tradition of progress;
but the whole human race has a tradition of the Fall. Amusingly enough,
indeed, the very dissemination of this idea is used against its authenticity.
Learned men literally say that this pre-historic calamity cannot
be true because every race of mankind remembers it. I cannot keep pace
with these paradoxes.
And if we took the third chance instance, it would be the same;
the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the world
and simply discover that they don’t. Those countries in Europe
which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries
where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and
art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls;
but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is
the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism.
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some
tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round
the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game
and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls
were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice.
They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them
they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island;
and their song had ceased.
Thus these three facts of experience, such facts as go to make
an agnostic, are, in this view, turned totally round. I am left saying,
“Give me an explanation, first, of the towering eccentricity of man
among the brutes; second, of the vast human tradition of
some ancient happiness; third, of the partial perpetuation of
such pagan joy in the countries of the Catholic Church.”
One explanation, at any rate, covers all three: the theory that
twice was the natural order interrupted by some explosion or
revelation such as people now call “psychic.” Once Heaven came
upon the earth with a power or seal called the image of God,
whereby man took command of Nature; and once again (when in empire
after empire men had been found wanting) Heaven came to save mankind
in the awful shape of a man. This would explain why the mass of men
always look backwards; and why the only corner where they in any sense
look forwards is the little continent where Christ has His Church.
I know it will be said that Japan has become progressive.
But how can this be an answer when even in saying “Japan has
become progressive,” we really only mean, “Japan has become European”?
But I wish here not so much to insist on my own explanation as to insist
on my original remark. I agree with the ordinary unbelieving
man in the street in being guided by three or four odd facts
all pointing to something; only when I came to look at the facts
I always found they pointed to something else.
I have given an imaginary triad of such ordinary anti-Christian arguments;
if that be too narrow a basis I will give on the spur of the moment another.
These are the kind of thoughts which in combination create the impression
that Christianity is something weak and diseased. First, for instance,
that Jesus was a gentle creature, sheepish and unworldly,
a mere ineffectual appeal to the world; second, that Christianity arose
and flourished in the dark ages of ignorance, and that to these the Church
would drag us back; third, that the people still strongly religious or
(if you will) superstitious–such people as the Irish–are weak,
unpractical, and behind the times. I only mention these ideas
to affirm the same thing: that when I looked into them independently
I found, not that the conclusions were unphilosophical, but simply
that the facts were not facts. Instead of looking at books and pictures
about the New Testament I looked at the New Testament. There I found
an account, not in the least of a person with his hair parted
in the middle or his hands clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being
with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables,
casting out devils, passing with the wild secrecy of the wind
from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy;
a being who often acted like an angry god–and always like a god.
Christ had even a literary style of his own, not to be found, I think,
elsewhere; it consists of an almost furious use of the A FORTIORI.
His “how much more” is piled one upon another like castle upon castle
in the clouds. The diction used ABOUT Christ has been, and perhaps wisely,
sweet and submissive. But the diction used by Christ is quite
curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles
and mountains hurled into the sea. Morally it is equally terrific;
he called himself a sword of slaughter, and told men to buy swords
if they sold their coats for them. That he used other even wilder words
on the side of non-resistance greatly increases the mystery;
but it also, if anything, rather increases the violence.
We cannot even explain it by calling such a being insane;
for insanity is usually along one consistent channel. The maniac
is generally a monomaniac. Here we must remember the difficult
definition of Christianity already given; Christianity is
a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze
beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel language
that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who
from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that Christianity
belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading
modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history
I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages,
was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark.
It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.
If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery
the answer is simple: it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean
civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was
swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun,
when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true
that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary
that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross
still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did:
it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived
under the load of waters; after being buried under the debris of
dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome. If our faith
had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad
in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such
have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag.
But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also
the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting
how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch.
In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church
is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that
the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages?
The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.
I added in this second trinity of objections an idle instance
taken from those who feel such people as the Irish to be weakened
or made stagnant by superstition. I only added it because this is
a peculiar case of a statement of fact that turns out to be
a statement of falsehood. It is constantly said of the Irish
that they are impractical. But if we refrain for a moment from looking
at what is said about them and look at what is DONE about them,
we shall see that the Irish are not only practical, but quite
painfully successful. The poverty of their country, the minority
of their members are simply the conditions under which they were
asked to work; but no other group in the British Empire has done so much
with such conditions. The Nationalists were the only minority
that ever succeeded in twisting the whole British Parliament
sharply out of its path. The Irish peasants are the only poor men
in these islands who have forced their masters to disgorge.
These people, whom we call priest-ridden, are the only Britons who
will not be squire-ridden. And when I came to look at
the actual Irish character, the case was the same. Irishmen are best
at the specially HARD professions–the trades of iron, the lawyer,
and the soldier. In all these cases, therefore, I came back
to the same conclusion: the sceptic was quite right to go by the facts,
only he had not looked at the facts. The sceptic is too credulous;
he believes in newspapers or even in encyclopedias. Again the three
questions left me with three very antagonistic questions.
The average sceptic wanted to know how I explained the namby-pamby note
in the Gospel, the connection of the creed with mediaeval darkness
and the political impracticability of the Celtic Christians.
But I wanted to ask, and to ask with an earnestness amounting to urgency,
“What is this incomparable energy which appears first in one
walking the earth like a living judgment and this energy which can die
with a dying civilization and yet force it to a resurrection from the dead;
this energy which last of all can inflame a bankrupt peasantry
with so fixed a faith in justice that they get what they ask,
while others go empty away; so that the most helpless island of the Empire
can actually help itself?”
There is an answer: it is an answer to say that the energy
is truly from outside the world; that it is psychic, or at least
one of the results of a real psychical disturbance. The highest gratitude
and respect are due to the great human civilizations such as the old Egyptian
or the existing Chinese. Nevertheless it is no injustice for them to say
that only modern Europe has exhibited incessantly a power
of self-renewal recurring often at the shortest intervals and
descending to the smallest facts of building or costume.
All other societies die finally and with dignity. We die daily.
We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that there is in historic Christendom
a sort of unnatural life: it could be explained as a supernatural life.
It could be explained as an awful galvanic life working in what
would have been a corpse. For our civilization OUGHT to have died,
by all parallels, by all sociological probability, in the Ragnorak
of the end of Rome. That is the weird inspiration of our estate:
you and I have no business to be here at all. We are all REVENANTS;
all living Christians are dead pagans walking about. Just as Europe
was about to be gathered in silence to Assyria and Babylon,
something entered into its body. And Europe has had a strange life–
it is not too much to say that it has had the JUMPS–ever since.
I have dealt at length with such typical triads of doubt
in order to convey the main contention–that my own case for Christianity
is rational; but it is not simple. It is an accumulation of varied facts,
like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic. But the ordinary agnostic
has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for
a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because
the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren’t; because Darwinism
is demonstrated, but it isn’t; because miracles do not happen,
but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious;
because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful;
because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out
in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science
is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn’t, it is moving towards
the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.
But among these million facts all flowing one way there is,
of course, one question sufficiently solid and separate to be
treated briefly, but by itself; I mean the objective occurrence
of the supernatural. In another chapter I have indicated
the fallacy of the ordinary supposition that the world must be
impersonal because it is orderly. A person is just as likely to desire
an orderly thing as a disorderly thing. But my own positive conviction
that personal creation is more conceivable than material fate, is,
I admit, in a sense, undiscussable. I will not call it a faith
or an intuition, for those words are mixed up with mere emotion,
it is strictly an intellectual conviction; but it is a PRIMARY
intellectual conviction like the certainty of self of the good of living.
Any one who likes, therefore, may call my belief in God merely mystical;
the phrase is not worth fighting about. But my belief that miracles
have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all;
I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America.
Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires
to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea
has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly
and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection
with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers
in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence
for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly)
because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious,
democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she
bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman
when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course
is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far
as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant
he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both.
Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered
by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes
to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony
in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean
one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost
either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.
That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy,
or you affirm the main principle of materialism–the abstract impossibility
of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case
you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence–
it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained
to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed
in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles
of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that
they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always
argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest
certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer,
“But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what
they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that
they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,”
I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?”
the only answer is–that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible
because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only
stupid because they say they have seen Iceland. It is only fair to add
that there is another argument that the unbeliever may rationally use
against miracles, though he himself generally forgets to use it.
He may say that there has been in many miraculous stories
a notion of spiritual preparation and acceptance: in short,
that the miracle could only come to him who believed in it.
It may be so, and if it is so how are we to test it? If we are inquiring
whether certain results follow faith, it is useless to repeat wearily that
(if they happen) they do follow faith. If faith is one of the conditions,
those without faith have a most healthy right to laugh.
But they have no right to judge. Being a believer may be, if you like,
as bad as being drunk; still if we were extracting psychological facts
from drunkards, it would be absurd to be always taunting them
with having been drunk. Suppose we were investigating whether
angry men really saw a red mist before their eyes. Suppose sixty excellent
householders swore that when angry they had seen this crimson cloud:
surely it would be absurd to answer “Oh, but you admit you were angry
at the time.” They might reasonably rejoin (in a stentorian chorus),
“How the blazes could we discover, without being angry,
whether angry people see red?” So the saints and ascetics might
rationally reply, “Suppose that the question is whether believers
can see visions–even then, if you are interested in visions it is
no point to object to believers.” You are still arguing in a circle–
in that old mad circle with which this book began.
The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question
of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any
final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that
quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for
“scientific conditions” in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena.
If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living
it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which
no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate
with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves
the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness
disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say,
“I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or,
any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before
seventeen psychologists,” then I shall reply, “Very well,
if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth,
for she certainly will not say it.” It is just as unscientific as it is
unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere
certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that
I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough;
or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.
As a common-sense conclusion, such as those to which we come
about sex or about midnight (well knowing that many details must
in their own nature be concealed) I conclude that miracles do happen.
I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men
who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers,
but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious;
the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents
but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things
more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension
if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection
when it has thought of another word for it. I suggest the Regalvanisation.
But the strongest of all is the dilemma above mentioned,
that these supernatural things are never denied except on the basis either
of anti-democracy or of materialist dogmatism–I may say
materialist mysticism. The sceptic always takes one of the two positions;
either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event
must not be believed. For I hope we may dismiss the argument
against wonders attempted in the mere recapitulation of frauds,
of swindling mediums or trick miracles. That is not an argument at all,
good or bad. A false ghost disproves the reality of ghosts exactly
as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence of
the Bank of England–if anything, it proves its existence.
Given this conviction that the spiritual phenomena do occur
(my evidence for which is complex but rational), we then collide with
one of the worst mental evils of the age. The greatest disaster
of the nineteenth century was this: that men began to use the word
“spiritual” as the same as the word “good.” They thought that
to grow in refinement and uncorporeality was to grow in virtue.
When scientific evolution was announced, some feared that it would
encourage mere animality. It did worse: it encouraged mere spirituality.
It taught men to think that so long as they were passing from the ape
they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape
and go to the devil. A man of genius, very typical of
that time of bewilderment, expressed it perfectly. Benjamin Disraeli
was right when he said he was on the side of the angels. He was indeed;
he was on the side of the fallen angels. He was not on the side
of any mere appetite or animal brutality; but he was on the side
of all the imperialism of the princes of the abyss; he was on the side
of arrogance and mystery, and contempt of all obvious good.
Between this sunken pride and the towering humilities of heaven there are,
one must suppose, spirits of shapes and sizes. Man, in encountering them,
must make much the same mistakes that he makes in encountering
any other varied types in any other distant continent. It must be
hard at first to know who is supreme and who is subordinate.
If a shade arose from the under world, and stared at Piccadilly,
that shade would not quite understand the idea of an ordinary
closed carriage. He would suppose that the coachman on the box
was a triumphant conqueror, dragging behind him a kicking and
imprisoned captive. So, if we see spiritual facts for the first time,
we may mistake who is uppermost. It is not enough to find the gods;
they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods.
We must have a long historic experience in supernatural phenomena–
in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find
the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins,
quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that
the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research
to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important,
just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly
that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon
only our satellite. Believing that there is a world of spirits,
I shall walk in it as I do in the world of men, looking for the thing
that I like and think good. Just as I should seek in a desert
for clean water, or toil at the North Pole to make a comfortable fire,
so I shall search the land of void and vision until I find something fresh
like water, and comforting like fire; until I find some place in eternity,
where I am literally at home. And there is only one such place
to be found.
I have now said enough to show (to any one to whom
such an explanation is essential) that I have in the ordinary
arena of apologetics, a ground of belief. In pure records of experiment
(if these be taken democratically without contempt or favour)
there is evidence first, that miracles happen, and second that
the nobler miracles belong to our tradition. But I will not pretend
that this curt discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity
instead of taking the moral good of Christianity as I should take it
out of Confucianism.
I have another far more solid and central ground for
submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints
from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church
in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one.
It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly
teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape
of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape
of the mitre. One free morning I saw why windows were pointed;
some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you
a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image;
but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine
what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that
Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow,
or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with
a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes
to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and
Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see
some truth that he has never seen before. There is one only
other parallel to this position; and that is the parallel of
the life in which we all began. When your father told you,
walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet,
you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy.
When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence.
When the rose smelt sweet you did not say “My father is a rude,
barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths
that flowers smell.” No: you believed your father, because you
had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew
more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow,
as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father,
it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine,
to whom this book is dedicated. Now, when society is in a rather futile
fuss about the subjection of women, will no one say how much every man
owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact that they alone
rule education until education becomes futile: for a boy is only sent
to be taught at school when it is too late to teach him anything.
The real thing has been done already, and thank God it is
nearly always done by women. Every man is womanised, merely by being born.
They talk of the masculine woman; but every man is a feminised man.
And if ever men walk to Westminster to protest against this
female privilege, I shall not join their procession.
For I remember with certainty this fixed psychological fact;
that the very time when I was most under a woman’s authority,
I was most full of flame and adventure. Exactly because when my mother
said that ants bit they did bite, and because snow did come in winter
(as she said); therefore the whole world was to me a fairyland
of wonderful fulfilments, and it was like living in some Hebraic age,
when prophecy after prophecy came true. I went out as a child
into the garden, and it was a terrible place to me, precisely because
I had a clue to it: if I had held no clue it would not have been terrible,
but tame. A mere unmeaning wilderness is not even impressive.
But the garden of childhood was fascinating, exactly because
everything had a fixed meaning which could be found out in its turn.
Inch by inch I might discover what was the object of the ugly shape
called a rake; or form some shadowy conjecture as to why my parents
kept a cat.
So, since I have accepted Christendom as a mother and not merely
as a chance example, I have found Europe and the world once more
like the little garden where I stared at the symbolic shapes
of cat and rake; I look at everything with the old elvish ignorance
and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look as ugly and
extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience that such things
end somehow in grass and flowers. A clergyman may be apparently
as useless as a cat, but he is also as fascinating, for there must be
some strange reason for his existence. I give one instance
out of a hundred; I have not myself any instinctive kinship
with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has certainly been
a note of historic Christianity. But when I look not at myself
but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm is not only
a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note of high human nature
in many spheres. The Greeks felt virginity when they carved Artemis,
the Romans when they robed the vestals, the worst and wildest
of the great Elizabethan playwrights clung to the literal purity
of a woman as to the central pillar of the world. Above all,
the modern world (even while mocking sexual innocence) has flung itself
into a generous idolatry of sexual innocence–the great modern
worship of children. For any man who loves children will agree
that their peculiar beauty is hurt by a hint of physical sex.
With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority,
I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right;
or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal.
It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate.
But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates,
I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human
experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach.
Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told
the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.
This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting
the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths
out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely
told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as
a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things
that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again
said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.
Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive;
it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden.
Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea
like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results,
they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste.
For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend
to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously
unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results,
they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity;
for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and
distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit;
it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean
bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump
by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise
that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health.
It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root
of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace
is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity
turn out when examined to be the very props of the people.
The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations
and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find
the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men;
for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the
modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring
that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.
And its despair is this, that it does not really believe
that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope
to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man cannot expect
any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect
any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority.
One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man
will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of
doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied to its tail,
like the tools or pictures in my father’s house; for it is my father’s house.
I end where I began–at the right end. I have entered at last
the gate of all good philosophy. I have come into my second childhood.
But this larger and more adventurous Christian universe
has one final mark difficult to express; yet as a conclusion
of the whole matter I will attempt to express it. All the real argument
about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born
upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox
of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not
his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality.
That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall. In Sir Oliver Lodge’s
interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were:
“What are you?” and “What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?”
I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions;
but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers.
To the question, “What are you?” I could only answer, “God knows.”
And to the question, “What is meant by the Fall?” I could answer
with complete sincerity, “That whatever I am, I am not myself.”
This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never
in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves,
but even more natural to us than ourselves. And there is really
no test of this except the merely experimental one with which
these pages began, the test of the padded cell and the open door.
It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation.
But, in conclusion, it has one special application to the ultimate
idea of joy.
It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow;
it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and
Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere.
Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter
of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided.
And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was
(in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth,
but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of
the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus,
is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity.
But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin.
To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks
breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter
as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos
he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic,
sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly;
they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world
was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view
they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean
darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that
the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond
is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable
about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy
about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns,
were only miserable about everything–they were quite jolly about
everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages
were only at peace about everything–they were at war about everything else.
But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos,
then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody
streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden
of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides,
but he lived in a gayer universe.
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things,
but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly)
it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself,
man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him,
and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude,
a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent
pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday;
joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.
Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan
or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled.
Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted,
it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration;
but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through
an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down.
The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are
dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss.
To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth.
The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is
a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again
he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s
ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely
in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and
sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf
because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence
of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is
a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room.
We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy:
because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down
like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly
than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels.
So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter
of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret
of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again
the strange small book from which all Christianity came;
and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure
which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other,
above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall.
His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern,
were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears;
He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as
the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something.
Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining
their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down
the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected
to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something.
I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality
a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid
from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something
that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.
There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when
He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His