“A truly sane thing”

There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice.  And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. . . All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour, announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.

The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 10:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Poets Laureate

It is tenable that there is a sort of implied obligation in a people to sustain, in no illiberal spirit, the poets who express the people.  But surely there is also an implied obligation in the poets that they shall express the people.  The contract is rightly kept vague and elastic: we will not dictate the poetry, nor should the poet dictate the pension.  But the contract, though unwritten, is fundamental.  Because I cannot express my feelings when I am in love with a woman, I owe gratitude and help to Robert Burns, who can express them for me.  But because I pay Burns for expressing his love for a woman (which I feel, but cannot express), it does not folow that I need pay him if he expresses his love for a she-rhinoceros, a sentiment which I do not feel, and do not even wish to feel.  I admire the sky spangled with stars, but I cannot praise it: Shelley can do it for me.  But if Shelley takes to praising the skin spotted with small-pox, then I have to tell him, gently but firmly, that I not only cannot praise, but do not admire.  The breach between the people and the poets has been bad for both: the people have gone without inspiration and the poets without applause.  But the error was in the poets as well as the people.

The Illustrated London News, 22 May 1909.

Published in: on November 18, 2009 at 6:27 am  Leave a Comment  

A man of his time?

The freethinker frequently says that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of his time, even if he was in advance of his time; and that we cannot accept his ethics as final for humanity. The freethinker then goes on to criticise his ethics, saying plausibly enough that men cannot turn the other cheek, or that they must take thought for the morrow, or that the self-denial is too ascetic or the monogamy too severe. But the Zealots and the Legionaries did not turn the other cheek any more than we do, if so much.  The Jewish traders and Roman tax-gatherers took thought for the morrow as much as we, if not more.  We cannot pretend to be abandoning the morality of the past for one more suited to the present. It is certainly not the morality of another age, but it might be of another world.

In short, we can say that these ideals are impossible in themselves. Exactly what we cannot say is that they are impossible for us. They are rather notably marked by a mysticism which, if it be a sort of madness, would always have struck the same sort of people as mad. Take, for instance, the case of marriage and the relations of the sexes. It might very well have been true that a Galilean teacher taught things natural to a Galilean environment; but it is not. It might rationally be expected that a man in the time of Tiberius would have advanced a view conditioned by the time of Tiberius; but he did not. What he advanced was something quite different; something very difficult; but something no more difficult now than it was then.  When, for instance, Mahomet made his polygamous compromise we may reasonably say that it was conditioned by a polygamous society.  When he allowed a man four wives he was really doing something suited to the circumstances, which might have been less suited to other circumstances. Nobody will pretend that the four wives were like the four winds, something seemingly a part of the order of nature; nobody will say that the figure four was written for ever in stars upon the sky. But neither will anyone say that the figure four is an inconceivable ideal; that it is beyond the power of the mind of man to count up to four; or to count the number of his wives and see whether it amounts to four. It is a practical compromise carrying with it the character of a particular society.  If Mahomet had been born in Acton in the nineteenth century, we may well doubt whether he would instantly have filled that suburb with harems of four wives apiece. As he was born in Arabia in the sixth century, he did in his conjugal arrangements suggest the conditions of Arabia in the sixth century. But Christ in his view of marriage does not in the least suggest the conditions of Palestine of the first century.  He does not suggest anything at all, except the sacramental view of marriage as developed long afterwards by the Catholic Church.  It was quite as difficult for people then as for people now.  It was much more puzzling to people then than to people now.  Jews and Romans and Greeks did not believe, and did not even understand enough to disbelieve, the mystical idea that the man and the woman had become one sacramental substance. We may think it an incredible or impossible ideal; but we cannot think it any more incredible or impossible than they would have thought it. In other words, whatever else is true, it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time.  Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Whom neither kings nor mobs can cow”

Many must have quoted the stately tag from Virgil which says, “Happy were he who could know the causes of things,” without remembering in what context it comes.  Many have probably quoted it because the others have quoted it.  Many, if left in ignorance to guess whence it comes, would probably guess wrong.  Everybody knows that Virgil, like Homer, ventured to describe boldly enough the most secret councils of the gods. Everybody knows that Virgil, like Dante, took his hero into Tartarus and the labyrinth of the last and lowest foundations of the universe. Every one knows that he dealt with the fall of Troy and the rise of Rome, with the laws of an empire fitted to rule all the children of men, with the ideals that should stand like stars before men committed to that awful stewardship.  Yet it is in none of these connections, in none of these passages, that he makes the curious remark about human happiness consisting in a knowledge of causes.  He says it, I fancy, in a pleasantly didactic poem about the rules for keeping bees. Anyhow, it is part of a series of elegant essays on country pursuits, in one sense, indeed, trivial, but in another sense almost technical. It is in the midst of these quiet and yet busy things that the great poet suddenly breaks out into the great passage, about the happy man whom neither kings nor mobs can cow; who, having beheld the root and reason of all things, can even hear under his feet, unshaken, the roar of the river of hell.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 8:07 am  Leave a Comment