“Explanations from the disputed”

I read the other day in some philosophical magazine or other that some Professor whose name I forget (why not say Posh?) was the most conscientious and thorough investigator of ethical origins; and that Posh had come to the conclusion that the old doctrine of a definite thing called the conscience could not be maintained.  If I were to say that I had swum to an island where I learnt that there was no such thing as swimming, you would think it a rather odd remark.  If I told you that I had read a book which conclusively proved to me that I could not read, your lips might murmur faintly the word “paradox”.  If I were to say that I had seen a diagram which distinctly proved me to be blind, it is barely possible that you would not believe me.  Yet I wonder how many mild but intelligent modern mortals would have read or have read that phrase in the philosophical magazine, and not seen anything absurd in the idea of a man conscientiously discovering that he has no conscience.

This is the most irritating of all the modern illogicalities.  I mean the habit of beginning with something of which we are doubtful and expounding (or even denying) in the light of it that of which we are certain.  Superficially and to start with, it is obvious that the world around us may be almost anything; it may be anarchy or Providence or inevitable progress, or mere natural routine; there is something to be said for its being Hell.  The thing of which we are certain is ourselves, and the existence or non-existence in us of such things as a moral sense or the art of swimming.  That is the first situation; the origin of all religion and all irreligion.  But these extraordinary Professors ask me to begin with evolution and all sorts of things that may never even have occurred; and in the light of them discuss whether my own experiences have occurred.  They light up the certain with explanations from the disputed.  Now I am not passionately anxious to be explained; and I resolutely refuse to be explained away.  Drive me away, if I sufficiently submissive.  Carry me away, if I am sufficiently portable.  But do not imagine that you can explain me away and that I shall accept the explanation in a gentlemanly spirit;  do not suppose that you can either browbeat or persuade me out of the mystic and primordial certainty that I am that I am.  The point is very obvious; and yet the missing of it is responsible for a forest of mistakes that are growing round us on every side and in every question.  Generalizations absorb and employ details, but they cannot abolish them.  General knowledge may prove that your experience is general, or it may prove that it is not general; but it cannot prove that it is not genuine.  And yet in almost every one of the practical points in dispute in our society, people are being worried and poisoned and misled by this quite infantile fallacy.

The Illustrated London News, 20 February 1909.

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 8:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Comparative religion

Comparative religion is very comparative indeed.  That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare. When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.  We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.  We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius.  But in truth this is only a trick, another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight. Those religions and religious founders, or rather those whom we choose to lump together as religions and religious founders, do not really show any common character.  The illusion is partly produced by Islam coming immediately after Christianity in the list; as Islam did come after Christianity and was largely an imitation of Christianity.  But the other eastern religions, or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.  When we come to Confucianism at the end of the list, we come to something in a totally different world of thought. To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American.  Confucianism may be a civilisation but it is not a religion.

In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel; and here there is no parallel.  It is not easy, therefore, to expose the fallacy by which a false classification is created to swamp a unique thing, when it really is a unique thing. As there is nowhere else exactly the same fact, so there is nowhere else exactly the same fallacy.  But I will take the nearest thing I can find to such a solitary social phenomenon, in order to show how it is thus swamped and assimilated. I imagine most of us would agree that there is something unusual and unique about the position of the Jews.  There is nothing that is quite in the same sense an international nation; an ancient culture scattered in different countries but still distinct and indestructible.  Now this business is like an attempt to make a list of Nomadic Nations in order to soften the strange solitude of the Jew.  It would be easy enough to do it, by the same process of putting a plausible approximation first, and then tailing off into totally different things thrown in somehow to make up the list.  Thus in the new list of nomadic nations the Jews would be followed by the Gypsies; who at least are really nomadic if they are not really national. Then the professor of the new science of Comparative Nomadics could pass easily on to something different; even if it was very different. He could remark on the wandering adventure of the English who had scattered their colonies over so many seas; and call them nomads. It is quite true that a great many Englishmen seem to be strangely restless in England.  It is quite true that not all of them have left their country for their country’s good. The moment we mention the wandering empire of the English, we must add the strange exiled empire of the Irish.  For it is a curious fact, to be noted in our imperial literature, that the same ubiquity and unrest which is a proof of English enterprise and triumph is a proof of Irish futility and failure. Then the professor of Nomadism would look round thoughtfully and remember that there was great talk recently of German waiters, German barbers, German clerks, Germans naturalising themselves in England and the United States and the South American republics. The Germans would go down as the fifth nomadic race; the words Wanderlust and Folk-Wandering would come in very useful here. For there really have been historians who explained the Crusades by suggesting that the Germans were found wandering (as the police say) in what happened to be the neighbourhood of Palestine.  Then the professor, feeling he was now near the end, would make a last leap in desperation.  He would recall the fact that the French army has captured nearly every capital in Europe, that it marched across countless conquered lands under Charlemagne or Napoleon; and that would be wanderlust and that would be the note of a nomadic race.  Thus he would have his six nomadic nations all compact and complete, and would feel that the Jew was no longer a sort of mysterious and even mystical exception. But people with more common sense would probably realise that he had only extended nomadism by extending the meaning of nomadism, and that he had extended that until it really had no meaning at all.  It is quite true that the French soldier has made some of the finest marches in all military history. But it is equally true, and far more self-evident, that if the French peasant is not a rooted reality there is no such thing as a rooted reality in the world; or in other words, if he is a nomad there is nobody who is not a nomad.

Now that is the sort of trick that has been tried in the case of comparative religion and the world’s religious founders all standing respectably in a row.  It seeks to classify Jesus as the other would classify Jews, by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies.  I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great peoples, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies.  But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 7:21 am  Comments (3)  

The Nativity

“For unto us a child is born.” — Isaiah

The thatch of the roof was as golden,
Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind was a peal as of trumpets,
Though barren and blowing and cold:
The mother’s hair was a glory,
Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming —
A child was born.

O, if a man sought a sign in the inmost
That God shaketh broadest his best,
That things fairest are oldest and simplest,
In the first days created and blest:
Far flush all the tufts of the clover,
Thick mellows the corn,
A cloud shapes, a daisy is opened —
A child is born.

With raw mists of the earth-rise about them,
Risen red from the ribs of the earth,
Wild and huddled, the man and the woman,
Bent dumb o’er the earliest birth;
Ere the first roof was hammered above them.
The first skin was worn,
Before code, before creed, before conscience —
A child was born.

What know we of aeons behind us,
Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires like dreams unremembered,
Dread epics of glory and woe?
This we know, that with blight and with blessing,
With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them —
“A child is born.”

And to us, though we pore and unravel
Black dogmas that crush us and mar,
Through parched lips pessimistic dare mutter
Hoarse fates of a frost-bitten star;
Though coarse strains and heredities soil it,
Bleak reasoners scorn,
To us too, as of old, to us also —
A child is born.

Though the darkness be noisy with systems,
Dark fancies that fret and disprove;
Still the plumes stir around us, above us,
The tings of the shadow of love.
Still the fountains of life are unbroken,
Their splendour unshorn;
The secret, the symbol, the promise —
A child is born.

Have a myriad children been quickened,
Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides in a terrible patience,
Unangered, unworn,
And again for the child that was squandered —
A child is born.

In the time of dead things it is living,
In the moonless grey night is a gleam,
Still the babe that is quickened may conquer,
The life that is new may redeem.
Ho, princes and priests, have you heard it?
Grow pale through your scorn.
Huge dawns sleep before us, stern changes —
A child is born.

More than legions that toss and that trample,
More than choirs that bend Godward and sing,
Than the blast of the lips of the prophet,
Than the sword in the hands of the King,
More strong against Evil than judges
That smite and that scorn,
The greatest, the last, and the sternest —
A child is born.

And the rafters of toil still are gilded
With the dawn of the star of the heart,
And the Wise Men draw near in the twilight,
Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened,
His spirit is torn,
For a new King is throned of a nation —
A child is born.

And the mother still joys for the whispered
First stir of unspeakable things;
Still feels that high moment unfurling,
Red glories of Gabriel’s wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, annointed —
A child is born.

To the rusty barred doors of the hungry,
To the struggle for life and the din,
Still, with brush of bright plumes and with knocking,
The Kingdom of God enters in.
To the daughters of patience that labour
That weep and are worn,
One moment of love and of laughter —
A child is born.

To the last dizzy circles of pleasure,
Of fashion and song-swimming nights,
Comes yet hope’s obscure crucifixion,
The birth fire that quickens and bites,
To the daughters of fame that are idle,
That smile and that scorn,
One moment of darkness and travail —
A child is born.

And till man and his riddle be answered,
While earth shall remain and desire,
While the flesh of a man is as grass is,
The soul of a man as a fire,
While the daybreak shall come with its banner,
The moon with its horn,
It shall rest with us that which is written —
“A child is born.”

And for him that shall dream that the martyr
Is banished, and love but a toy,
That life lives not through pain and surrender,
Living only through self and its joy,
Shall the Lord God erase from the body
The oath he has sworn?
Bend back to thy work, saying only —
“A child is born.”

And Thou that art still in the cradle,
The sun being crown for Thy brow,
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer.
Say whence art Thou come? Who art Thou?
Art Thou come back on earth for our teaching,
To train or to warn?
Hush! How may we know, knowing only —
A child is born?

— c.1893

The Hebdomadarian is aware, of course, that the season is presently that of Easter, not Christmas.  This poem appears today, however, in thanksgiving for the birth of my firstborn, a daughter, last week.

(Thanks to Nick Milne at The Daily Kraken for the poem.)

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 7:10 am  Comments (4)  

The Song of the Strange Ascetic

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight —
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Poems (1913).

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 7:49 am  Comments (4)