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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 25
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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 25 Post by :Prd2BHawn Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2507

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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV.

I returned, as I said, with a sense of serene pleasure and security to my work; but that serenity did not last long. What I had seen with Amroth, on that day of wandering, filled me with a strange restlessness, and a yearning for I knew not what. I plunged into my studies with determination rather than ardour, and I set myself to study what is the most difficult problem of all--the exact limits of individual responsibility. I had many conversations on the point with one of my teachers, a young man of very wide experience, who combined in an unusual way a close scientific knowledge of the subject with a peculiar emotional sympathy. He told me once that it was the best outfit for the scientific study of these problems, when the heart anticipated the slower judgment of the mind, and set the mind a goal, so to speak, to work up to; though he warned me that the danger was that the mind was often reluctant to abandon the more indulgent claims of the heart; and he advised me to mistrust alike scientific conclusions and emotional inferences.

I had a very memorable conversation with him on the particular question of responsibility, which I will here give.

"The mistake," I said to him, "of human moralists seems to me to be, that they treat all men as more or less equal in the matter of moral responsibility. How often," I added, "have I heard a school preacher tell boys that they could not all be athletic or clever or popular, but that high principle and moral courage were things within the reach of all. Whereas the more that I studied human nature, the more did the power of surveying and judging one's own moral progress, and the power of enforcing and executing the dictates of the conscience, seem to me faculties, like other faculties. Indeed, it appears to me," I said, "that on the one hand there are people who have a power of moral discrimination, when dealing with the retrospect of their actions, but no power of obeying the claims of principle, when confronted with a situation involving moral strain; while on the other hand there seem to me to be some few men with a great and resolute power of will, capable of swift decision and firm action, but without any instinct for morality at all."

"Yes," he said, "you are quite right. The moral sense is in reality a high artistic sense. It is a power of discerning and being attracted by the beauty of moral action, just as the artist is attracted by form and colour, and the musician by delicate combinations of harmonies and the exquisite balance of sound. You know," he said, "what a suspension is in music--it is a chord which in itself is a discord, but which depends for its beauty on some impending resolution. It is just so with moral choice. The imagination plays a great part in it. The man whose morality is high and profound sees instinctively the approaching contingency, and his act of self-denial or self-forgetfulness depends for its force upon the way in which it will ultimately combine with other issues involved, even though at the moment that act may seem to be unnecessary and even perverse."

"But," I said, "there are a good many people who attain to a sensible, well-balanced kind of temperance, after perhaps a few failures, from a purely prudential motive. What is the worth of that?"

"Very small indeed," said my teacher. "In fact, the prudential morality, based on motives of health and reputation and success, is a thing that has often to be deliberately unlearnt at a later stage. The strange catastrophes which one sees so often in human life, where a man by one act of rashness, or moral folly, upsets the tranquil tenor of his life--a desperate love-affair, a passion of unreasonable anger, a piece of quixotic generosity--are often a symptom of a great effort of the soul to free itself from prudential considerations. A good thing done for a low motive has often a singularly degrading and deforming influence on the soul. One has to remember how terribly the heavenly values are obscured upon earth by the body, its needs and its desires; and current morality of a cautious and sensible kind is often worse than worthless, because it produces a kind of self-satisfaction, which is the hardest thing to overcome."

"But," I said, "in the lives of some of the greatest moralists, one so often sees, or at all events hears it said, that their morality is useless because it is unpractical, too much out of the reach of the ordinary man, too contemptuous of simple human faculties. What is one to make of that?"

"It is a difficult matter," he replied; "one does indeed, in the lives of great moralists, see sometimes that their work is vitiated by perverse and fantastic preferences, which they exalt out of all proportion to their real value. But for all that, it is better to be on the side of the saints; for they are gifted with the sort of instinctive appreciation of the beauty of high morality of which I spoke. Unselfishness, purity, peacefulness seem to them so beautiful and desirable that they are constrained to practise them. While controversy, bitterness, cruelty, meanness, vice, seem so utterly ugly and repulsive that they cannot for an instant entertain even so much as a thought of them."

"But if a man sees that he is wanting in this kind of perception," I said, "what can he do? How is he to learn to love what he does not admire and to abhor what he does not hate? It all seems so fatalistic, so irresistible."

"If he discerns his lack," said my teacher with a smile, "he is probably not so very far from the truth. The germ of the sense of moral beauty is there, and it only wants patience and endeavour to make it grow. But it cannot be all done in any single life, of course; that is where the human faith fails, in its limitations of a man's possibilities to a single life."

"But what is the reason," I said, "why the morality, the high austerity of some persons, who are indubitably high-minded and pure-hearted, is so utterly discouraging and even repellent?"

"Ah," he said, "there you touch on a great truth. The reason of that is that these have but a sterile sort of connoisseur-ship in virtue. Virtue cannot be attained in solitude, nor can it be made a matter of private enjoyment. The point is, of course, that it is not enough for a man to be himself; he must also give himself; and if a man is moral because of the delicate pleasure it brings him--and the artistic pleasure of asceticism is a very high one--he is apt to find himself here in very strange and distasteful company. In this, as in everything, the only safe motive is the motive of love. The man who takes pleasure in using influence, or setting a lofty example, is just as arid a dilettante as the musician who plays, or the artist who paints, for the sake of the applause and the admiration he wins; he is only regarding others as so many instruments for registering his own level of complacency. Every one, even the least complicated of mankind, must know the exquisite pleasure that comes from doing the simplest and humblest service to one whom he loves; how such love converts the most menial office into a luxurious joy; and the higher that a man goes, the more does he discern in every single human being with whom he is brought into contact a soul whom he can love and serve. Of course it is but an elementary pleasure to enjoy pleasing those whom we regard with some passion of affection, wife or child or friend, because, after all, one gains something oneself by that. But the purest morality of all discerns the infinitely lovable quality which is in the depth of every human soul, and lavishes its tenderness and its grace upon it, with a compassion that grows and increases, the more unthankful and clumsy and brutish is the soul which it sets out to serve."

"But," I said, "beautiful as that thought is--and I see and recognise its beauty--it does limit the individual responsibility very greatly. Surely a prudential morality, the morality which is just because it fears reprisal, and is kind because it anticipates kindness, is better than none at all? The morality of which you speak can only belong to the noblest human creatures."

"Only to the noblest," he said; "and I must repeat what I said before, that the prudential morality is useless, because it begins at the wrong end, and is set upon self throughout. I must say deliberately that the soul which loves unreasonably and unwisely, which even yields itself to the passion of others for the pleasure it gives rather than for the pleasure it receives--the thriftless, lavish, good-natured, affectionate people, who are said to make such a mess of their lives--are far higher in the scale of hope than the cautiously respectable, the prudently kind, the selfishly pure. There must be no mistake about this. One must somehow or other give one's heart away, and it is better to do it in error and disaster than to treasure it for oneself. Of course there are many lives on earth--and an increasing number as the world develops--which are generous and noble and unselfish, without any sacrifice of purity or self-respect. But the essence of morality is giving, and not receiving, or even practising; the point is free choice, and not compulsion; and if one cannot give _because one loves, one must give _until one loves."

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