“An immoral moral”

Let us talk about the comet.

Keep your seats; do not give way to panic.  Have no fear that I am going to moralise about the smallness of man’s petty struggles in the presence of the colossal starry scheme.  I have no intention of drawing a moral about those

Who shriek and sweat in pigmy wars
Before the stony face of Time
And looked at by the silent stars.

I refrain, from the simple reason that to do this is not to moralise, but to immoralise — or, to use the more lucid word, to demoralise.  The moral of the paltriness of mankind is an immoral moral.  Tennyson was quite wrong in this, and “the petty fools of rhyme” were quite right.  People do not look very wise, perhaps, when they shriek and sweat; but they would look a deal sillier if they all held their tongues and did nothing merely because the stars were silent.  If the morning stars never sang together, we can only congratulate ourselves on having inaugurated choir-practice; and if the sons of God did not shout for joy, the sons of men may just as well do so.  And as for the stony face of Time, one guileless journalist, at least, will undertake to shriek and sweat in its presence with considerable nonchalance.  Time is a category to be controlled and kept in its place; and the true philosophy is not so much to take Time by the forelock as to take him by the nose.  The true philosophy, in short, is to kill time and so create eternity — if only for ten minutes.

No; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree.  I might be physically terrified of a man fifty feet high if I saw him walking about my garden, but even in my terror I should have no reason for supposing that he was vitally more important than I am, or higher in the scale of being, or nearer to God, or nearer to whatever is the truth.  The sentiment of an overpowering cosmos is a babyish and hysterical sentiment, though a very human and natural one.  But if we are seriously debating whether man is the moral centre of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal.   Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral centre the same, “the vertigo of the infinite” has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon.

The Illustrated London News, 19 February 1910.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 5:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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