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The Silent Isle - Chapter 6 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :847

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

There is one step of supreme importance from which a man must not shrink, however difficult it may seem to be; and that is to search and probe the depths of his soul, that he may find out what it is that he really and deeply and whole-heartedly and instinctively loves and admires and desires. Without this first step no progress is possible or conceivable, because whatever external revelations of God there may be, through nature, through beauty, through work, through love, there is always a direct and inner revelation from God to every individual soul; and, strange as it may appear, this is not always easy to discern, because of the influences, the ideas, the surroundings that have been always at work upon us, moulding us, for good and for evil, from our earliest days. We have been told that we ought to admire this and desire that, until very often our own inspiration, our true life, has been clumsily obscured. All these conventional beliefs we must discard; we may indeed resolve that it is better in some cases to comply with them to a certain extent for the sake of tranquillity, if they are widely accepted in the society in which we live; that is to say, we may decide to abstain from certain things which we do not believe to be wrong, because the world regards them as being wrong, and because to be misunderstood in such things may damage our relations with others. Thus, to use a familiar instance, we might think it unjust that a landowner should be permitted by the State to have the sole right of fishing in a certain river, and though one's conscience would not in the least rebuke one for fishing in that river, one might abstain from doing so because of the inconvenience which might ensue. Or, again, if society considers a certain practice to be morally meritorious, one might acquiesce in performing it even though one disbelieved in its advisability; thus a man might believe that a marriage ceremony was a meaningless thing, and that mutual love was a far higher consecration than the consecration of a priest; and yet he might rightly acquiesce in having his own wedding celebrated according to the rites of a particular church, for the sake of compliance with social traditions, and because no principle was involved in his standing out against it, or even because he thought it a seemly and beautiful thing. The only compliance which is immoral is the compliance with a practice which one believes to be immoral and which yet is sanctioned by society. Thus if a man believes hunting to be immoral, he must not take part in it for the sake of such enjoyment as he may find in it, or for the sake of friendly intercourse, simply because no penalty awaits him for doing what he knows to be wrong.

The only criterion in the matter is this: one must ask oneself what are the things that one is ashamed of doing, the things for which, when done, one's own conscience smites one in secret, even if they are accompanied by no social penalty whatever, even if they are forgiven and forgotten. These are not the things which one would simply dislike others to know that one has done. One might fear the condemnation of others, even though one did not believe that a particular act was in itself wrong; because of the misunderstandings and vexation and grief and derision that the knowledge of one's action might create. To take an absurd instance, a man might think it pleasant and even beneficial to sit or walk naked in the open air; but it would not be worth his while to do it, because he would be thought eccentric and indecent. There would be people who would condemn it as immoral; but it is not our duty, unless we believe it to be so, to convert others to a simpler kind of morality in wholly indifferent matters.

The sort of offences for which conscience condemns one, but to which no legal penalty is attached, are things like petty cruelty, unnecessary harshness, unkindness, introducing innocent people to evil thoughts and ideas, disillusioning others, disappointing them. A man may do these things and not only not be thought the worse of for them, but may actually be thought the better of, as a person of spirit and manliness; but if for any motive whatever, or even out of the strange duality of nature that besets us, he yields to these things, then he is living by the light of conventional morality and quenching his inner light, as deliberately as if he blew out for mere wantonness a lantern in a dark and precipitous place.

But if a man, looking narrowly and nearly into his own soul, says to himself in perfect candour, I do not desire truth; I do not admire self-sacrifice; I do not wish to be loved; I only wish to be healthy and rich and popular: what then? What if he says to himself in entire frankness that the only reason why he admires what are called virtues is because there seem to be enough people in the world to admire them to add to his credit if such virtues are attributed to him--what of his case? Well, I would have him look closer yet and see if there is not perhaps someone in the world, a mother, a sister, a child, whom he loves with an unselfish love, whom he would willingly please if he could, and would forbear to grieve though he could gain nothing by doing so or abstaining from doing so. I do not honestly think that there is any living being who would not discover this minimum of disinterestedness in his spirit, and upon this slender foundation he must try to build, for upon no other basis than genuine and native truth can any life be built at all.

But as a rule, in most hearts, however hampered by habit and material desires, there is a deep-seated desire to be worthier and better. And all who discern such a desire in their hearts should endeavour to fan it into flame, should warm their shivering hands at it, should frame it as a constant aspiration, should live as far as possible with the people and the books and the art which touches that frail desire into life and makes them feel their possibilities. They may fail a thousand times; but for all that, this is the seed of hope and love, the tree of life that grows in the midst of the garden. God will not let any of us stay where we are, and yet the growth and progress must be our own. We may delay it and hamper it, but we yet may dare to hope that through experiences we cannot imagine, through existences we cannot foresee, that little seed may grow into a branching tree, and fill the garden with shade and fragrance.

But if we are indeed desirous to do better, to grow in grace, and yet feel ourselves terribly weak and light-minded, what practical steps can we take to the goal that we see far off? The one thing that we can do in moments of insight is to undertake some little responsibility which we shall be ashamed to discard. We can look round our circle, and it will be strange if we cannot find at least one person whom we can help; and the best part of assuming such a responsibility is that it tends to grow and ramify; but in any case there is surely one person whom we can relieve, or encourage, or listen to, or make happier; if we can find the strength to come forward, to lead such a one to depend upon us, we shall have little inclination to desert or play false one whom we have encouraged to trust us. And thus we can take our first trembling step out of the mire.

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