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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 5
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 5 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1364

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

How often in sermons we are exhorted to effort! How rarely are we told precisely how to begin! How glibly it is taken for granted that we are all equally capable of it. Yet energy itself is a quality, a gift of temperament. The man who, like Sir Richard Grenville, says "Fight on," when there is nothing left to fight with or to fight for, except that indefinable thing honour, or the man who, like Sir Andrew Barton, says:


"I'll but lie down and bleed awhile,
And then I'll rise and fight again;"--


they are people of heroic temper, and cannot be called a common species. "Do the next thing," says the old motto. But what if the next thing is one of many, none of them very important, and if at the same time one has a good book to read, a warm fire to sit by, an amusing friend to talk to? "He who of such delights can judge, and spare to interpose them oft, is not unwise," says Milton. Most of us have a certain amount of necessary work to do in the world, and it can by no means be regarded as established that we are also bound to do unnecessary work. Supposing that one's heart is overflowing with mercy, compassion, and charity, there are probably a hundred channels in which the stream can flow; but that is only because a good many hearts have no such abounding springs of love; and thus there is room for the philanthropist; but if all men were patient, laborious, and affectionate, the philanthropist's gifts would find comparatively little scope for their exercise; there might even be a _queue of benevolent people waiting for admission to any house where there was sickness or bereavement. Moreover, all sufferers do not want to be cheered; they often prefer to be left alone; and to be the compulsory recipient of the charity you do not require is an additional burden. A person who is always hungering and thirsting to exercise a higher influence upon others is apt to be an unmitigated bore. The thing must be given if it is required, not poured over people's heads, as Aristophanes says, with a ladle. To be ready to help is a finer quality than to insist on helping, because, after all, if life is a discipline, the aim is that we have to find the way out of our troubles, not that we should be lugged and hauled through them, "bumped into paths of peace," as Dickens says. Just as justice requires to be tempered by mercy, so energy requires to be tempered by inaction. But the difficulty is for the indolent, the dreamy, the fastidious, the loafer, the vagabond. Energy is to a large extent a question of climate and temperament. What of the dwellers in a rich and fertile country, where a very little work will produce the means of livelihood, and where the temperature does not require elaborate houses, carefully warmed, or abundance of conventional clothing? A dweller in Galilee at the time of the Christian era, a dweller in Athens at the time of Socrates--it was possible for each of these to live simply and comfortably without any great expenditure of labour; does morality require that one should work harder than one need for luxuries that one does not want? Neither our Lord nor Socrates seems to have thought so. Our Lord himself went about teaching and doing good; but there is no evidence that he began his work before he was thirty, and he interposed long spaces of reflection and solitude. If the Gospel of work were to be paramount, he would have filled his days with feverish energy; but from the beginning to the end there is abundance of texts and incidents which show that he thought excessive industry rather a snare than otherwise. He spoke very sternly of the bad effect of riches. He told his disciples not to labour for perishable things, not to indulge anxiety about food and raiment, but to live like birds and flowers; he rebuked a bustling, hospitable woman--he praised one who preferred to sit and hear him talk. His whole attitude was to encourage reflection rather than philanthropy, to invite people to think and converse about moral principles rather than to fling themselves into mundane activities. There is far more justification in the Gospel for a life of kindly and simple leisure than there is for what may be called a busy and successful career. The Christian is taught rather to love God and to be interested in his neighbour than to love respectability and to make a fortune. Indeed, to make a fortune on Christian lines is a thing which requires a somewhat sophistical defence.

And thus the old theory of accepting salvation rather than working for it is based not so much upon the theory that in the presence of absolute and infinite perfection there is little difference between the life of the entirely virtuous and the entirely vicious man, as upon the fact that if one's limitations of circumstance and heredity are the gift of God, one's salvation must be his gift also. We do not know to what extent our power of choice and our freedom of action is limited; it is quite obvious that it is to a certain extent limited by causes over which we have no control, and it is therefore best to trust God entirely in the matter, and to acquit him of injustice, if we can, though it must be a hard matter for the innocent child who is the victim of his ancestor's propensities to believe that the best has been done for him that it was possible to do.

And thus the question of effort is not a simple one, though it may be said roughly that as every one's ideal is at all events somewhat higher than his practice, it is a plain duty to make one's practice conform a little closer to one's ideal.

Sometimes one is bewildered by the sight of men who seem to have all the material for a good and useful and happy life ready to hand, but who yet attempt the wrong things, or are pushed into attempting them, by not taking the measure of their powers. Of course, there is a great nobleness about people who ardently undertake the impossible; but what can one make of the people, and they are very numerous, who have not the ardent quality in their souls? Is it possible to become ardent even if one does not happen to admire the quality? I fear not. But what ought to be possible for every one is to arrive at a sort of harmony of life, to have definite things that they want to do, definite regions in which they desire to advance. The people whom it is hard to fit into any scheme of benevolent creation are the vague, insignificant, drifting people, whose only rooted tendency is to do whatever is suggested to them. One who like myself has been a schoolmaster knows that the danger of school life is not that the wicked are numerous, but the weak; the boys who have little imagination, little prudence, and who cannot summon up an instinctive motive to protect them against yielding to any temptation that may fall in their way. These are the people who get so little sympathy and encouragement. Their stronger companions use them and despise them, treating them as a convenient audience, as the Greek heroes in the _Iliad treated the feeble, sheep-like soldiers, who ran hither and thither on the field of battle, well-meaning, ineffective, "strengthless heads." The brisk and virtuous master bullies them, calls them bolsters and puddings, loafers and ne'er-do-weels. What wonder if they do not easily discern their place in the scheme of things! Indeed, if it were not for tender fathers and mothers who believe in them and encourage them, their lot would be intolerable. How is such a boy to make an effort? His work wearies and puzzles him--it does not seem to lead him anywhere; he has no gift for games; he is neither amusing nor attractive; he gets no credit for anything, and indeed he deserves none; he ought really to be in a kind of moral sanatorium, guarded, guided, encouraged by wise and faithful and compassionate pastors. The worst feature of school life is that if it fortifies characters with some vigour about them, it implies that others must inevitably go under and be turned out moral and mental failures. It is the way of the world, says the philosopher, rough justice! It may be justice, but it is certainly rough; and I look forward to the time when we educators of the present generation will be considered incredibly hard-hearted, unconscientious, immoral, for acquiescing so contentedly in the ruthless sacrifice of the weak to the culture of the strong.

Ought we then, it may be asked, to decide that if people are incapable of sustained effort, no effort is to be expected of them? Are we to decline upon a genial determinism, and to sweep away all belief in moral responsibility? No! because even if we are determinists, we have to take into account the fact that society does for some reason advance. When we consider the fact that the rightness of humanitarian principles, of anti-slavery movements, of popular education, of Factory Acts, of public hospitals is universally admitted; when we compare the current principles of the nineteenth-century man with the current principles, say, of the fourteenth-century man, it is plain that there has been a remarkable rise of the moral temperature, and that our optimistic view of progress is a rational one.

The ordinary person is to-day quite as strongly convinced of the rights of other men as he is of their duties; and thus the determinist is bound to confess that there is an ameliorating and humanising principle at work, if not in the world at large, at least in the Western races. It is inconsistent to acquiesce in faulty practice and not to acquiesce in the growth of ideals, even though one may believe that the advance is due to some external cause and is not self-developed. If performance is always more or less straining after the ideal, the determinist is justified in expecting a higher standard of performance, and his fatalism may take the direction of removing the obstacles to further improvement. But in dealing with individuals the moralist does well to temper his hopes with a wise determinism, and not to be too much cast down if one to whom he has made clear the disastrous effects of yielding to temptation cannot at once harmonise his purpose and his practice. If it were true, as too many preachers take for granted, that we have all, whatever our difference of physical and mental equipment, an equal sense of moral responsibility, the result would be to plunge us into hopeless pessimism. The question is whether the moralist is justified in pretending, for the sake of the effort that it may produce, to the victim of some moral weakness, that he really has the power of conquering his fault. He may say to himself, "Some people have the power of self-mastery, and it is better to assume that all have, because it tends to produce a greater effort than if one merely tries to console a moral weakling for his deficiencies." But this is a dangerous and casuistical path to tread.

It may be justified perhaps on the medical theory that if you tell a man he will get well, even if you consider him to be doomed, he is more likely to get well than if you tell him that you consider him to be doomed. But it is surely wrong to display no more moral indignation in the case of a vigorous person who has perversely indulged some temptation which he might have resisted, than in the case of one who is hampered by inheritance with a violent predisposition to moral evil. Even the most ardent moralist ought to be true to what he knows to be the truth. The method of Christ seems here again to differ from the method of the Christian teacher. Christ reserved his denunciations for the complacency of virtuous people. We do not see him rebuking the sinner; his rebukes are rather heaped upon the righteous. He seems to have had nothing but compassion for the sins that brought their own obvious punishment, and to have been indignant only with the sins that brought material prosperity with them. He treated the outcast as his friend, the respectable as his enemy. He seems to have held that sin at least taught people to make allowances, to forgive, to love, and that this was the nearest way to the Father's heart. Christ was very critical, and relentlessly exposed those of whom he disapproved, but he was never critical of weakness.

But, we may say, the moral principles which we have won with such difficulty will collapse and fail if we do not make a resolute stand against gross faults and strike at them wherever they show their heads. It is true that we have not got on very fast, but may it not be that we have mistaken the right method? Perhaps we should have got on faster still if we had reserved our indignation for the right things--self-satisfaction, complacency, injustice, cruelty. What we have done is to fight against the faults of the weak, against the faults of which no defence is possible, rather than against the faults of the strong, who can resent and revenge themselves for our criticism. Christ himself seems not to have been afraid of the sins of the flesh, but to have shown his severity rather against the sins of the world. Would it be rash to follow his example? We can all see the havoc wrought by impurity and intemperance, and there are plenty of rich respectable people, chaste and moderate by instinct, who are ready to join in what are called crusades against them. But as long as sins do not menace health or prosperity or comfort, we easily and glibly condone them. As long as Christian teachers pursue wealth and preferment, indulge ambition, seek the society of the respectable, practise pharisaical virtues, we are not likely to draw much nearer to the ideals of Christ.

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