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ticular virtue in the human breast, when their great master
himself not only failed to do so, but did not even try ; moreover,
1 Fam. v. 12.


saw no reason why he should try ? The truth is that to maintain
that their influence in this direction could have been powerful
enough to produce the result which was visible first in Jerusalem,
then in Greek- speaking cities, but only after the time of Christ,
would be a paradox too extravagant to be worth discussing.

Now in trying to estimate the effect of Greek philosophy in
its prime on the formation of character and the encouragement
of particular virtues, we may note certain tendencies in the teach-
ing of such men as Xenophanes, Heracleitus, Socrates and Plato ;
but not Artistotle, since his main principle seems to have been
that the human mind could embrace and reduce to a system all
forms of thought, outside of which there was nothing thinkable. 1
Even if this statement be disputed, we have enough evidence
to warrant our excluding him in the Ethics alone, in the character
of the high-souled or great-minded man.

In regard to the others named, it may briefly be said that if
their teaching culminated in Artistotle, it is impossible to trace
any effect of the kind desiderated. Plato's great successor had
no clear conception of what Humility meant ; therefore what-
ever may have been Plato's teaching on the subject it could not
have been of the creative, stimulating power required. But, on
the other hand, it is interesting to note that whenever any
doctrine rises above the ordinary philosophic teaching and
lifts up our hearts to the Deity, it encourages a set of notions
favourable to humbleness of mind, though it would be going too
far to say that it could lead to anything so vital as self-forget-
fulness. Thus, Xenophanes insisted on the truth that God must
be something higher than anthropomorphic teaching could
picture Him. In other words he would not recognize the power
of the finite to conceive the infinite. So far as it goes such teach-
ing is discouraging to man's pride. Pythagoras too " felt that
some living being not an abstraction, not a creation of his own
mind, must sustain his and every human polity." 2 Heracleitus,
again, uttered some very stringent things about the contempt-
ibility of the human soul ; and a fine saying of his was " Pride
or Insolence should be stifled more diligently than a fire." But
his notions were based not on the greatness or the nearness of
the Power over man, but on the fluid condition of all phenomena.
But yet it is said of him that he conceived of a " reality which he
could not comprehend, which he desired should comprehend
him." 3

1 Maurice's Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, Vol. i. p. 183.

2 lb., p. 109. 3 lb., p. 97.


No doubt a few other disjointed sporadic sayings might be
unearthed from the remains of the early philosophers, which
would indicate tendencies towards a state of opinion favourable
to the recognition of Humility of character. But apart from
the paucity of such utterances, the question is not only what
certain teachers taught, but how far their teaching was effective
in moulding the ethical conceptions of their generation ; and
a distinct light is shed on this question by the tone adopted by
the Sophists. In spite of much divergence of opinion among
scholars as to the bearing of the remarkable movement connected
with the names of Gorgias, Protagoras, Prodicus and others,
there would probably be few to dispute the assertion that their
object was to equip young Athenian citizens with the means of
acquiring power ; and it would be difficult to invent any purpose
or aim in life so antagonistic to the teaching of Humility. The
whole atmosphere, in short, which has gathered round the name
Sophist, the whole of the discussions which the interesting move-
ment has gendered, are steeped in questions wholly alien to our
subject. Men have disputed how far the Sophists were actuated
by patriotism, or by desire for gain ; whether the art of persuasion
was or was not a dangerous toy to put into a young man's hands :
whether Aristophanes was or was not out of date in denouncing
them, and whether he meant what he said ; but no one with any
acquaintance with the tone of Athens at the end of the fifth
century, B.C., would seriously propound the question whether
these teachers took money for inculcating precepts favourable
to the group of virtues we are considering.

Nor is it conceivable that the fascinating figure of Socrates
could be taken as a landmark in the history of this subject. It
may be contended, doubtless, that he left many of his youthful
questioners dissatisfied with their intellectual conceptions ;
they must have felt themselves baffled and perturbed by a dom-
inating personality quite free from ambition, careless of appear-
ances, and provokingly subtle in disputations. But these are
not the qualities, nor was Socrates' method the method, to encour-
age anything so deep as Humility of character. Supposing it
be conceded that there was something either about Christ's
teaching or His example, or His divine power which encouraged
Humility, it is at once extremely difficult to ascribe any such
result to Socrates, because there is nothing in common between
the influence of the Greek who perpetually convicted his ques-
tioners of ignorance and confusion of thought, and that of Christ,
Whose teaching was listened to with rapture, and Whose caxeer



caused a mighty revolution in human thought and ideals ; not
because His influence was destructive of old conceptions, but
because He filled men's minds with a vision of the bounty of God
and the grandeur of human life. If anything of an encourage-
ment to Humility is to be discerned in Christ's work, is it pos-
sible to conceive that the genial but exasperating banter of
Socrates had any similar effect ? On the whole, it seems justi-
fiable to wait for some moralist who will withhold from Christi-
anity any of the effect undoubtedly produced, and refer it all
to Socrates, before pursuing the subject any further.

In regard to Plato, much might be said bearing indirectly on
the matter in hand. There are passages in this sublime writer
which fill a sympathetic reader with something of the same
emotion as he experiences from portions of the Second Isaiah
or the Apocalypse ; and I would suggest as the reason for this
power, Plato's doctrine of Ideas. He conceived of true Being
in a more satisfying way than the Eleatics, since he kept the
objective and subjective in what must be their true relation to
each other. He labours to overthrow the doctrine that the
root of our knowledge is in ourselves, but recognizes that our
conceptions testify to the existence of the Idea. Hence the
difference between his thought and the Eleatic doctrine of True
Being made him feel the awe of one who was constantly in pres-
ence of a mystery ; and, through the greater part of his immortal
dialogues, we can detect the reverence and humility inspired
by the grandeur of his apprehension of Reality, and his utter
inability to suppose, any more than St. Paul did, that he " had
apprehended." Thus, his teachings has in it the essence of
humble-mindedness, in that it set forth that the part of the
human enquirer is not to snatch at Truth, or as he chose appro-
priate it, but to receive. So far as this goes, his attitude was
that of the early Christians.

A few quotations will show Plato's power of waking up the
idea of the godhead in man's mind, within the restricted sense
above indicated.

"As the sun," he says, "is not only the author of visibility
in all visible things, but of generation and nourishment and
growth, ... in like manner the good may be said to be not
only the author of knowledge in all things known, but of their
being an essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds
essence in dignity and power." x Now we can perceive that
teaching of this sort begins to tell on the human mind because
1 Republic, 508, 509.


it rescues the idea of God from the Deistic theory of a First
Cause, or God being simply an Originator of things, and places
Him plainly before us as the Sustainer of things as well. So
spiritual is the theory expounded that among " things " Plato
includes man's power of knowing ; God, in other words, is not
only the fashioner and upholder of the earth, sea and sky, but
the cause and quickener of all human understanding (to rijv
a\y)0uav irapeypv tols yiyvcocrKcr/xeVois). He is also the arranger
and controller and anything rather than " devoid of life and
mind, and remaining in awful unmeaningness, an everlasting
fixture " 1 but He " wished all things good and nothing bad
(poor, mean) as far as possible," and hence " brought all that
was visible . . . from disorder into order, thinking the latter
in every way better than the former." Here there emerges the
idea, rather faintly conceived, of God's beneficence, at any rate
in intention. The following passage indicates Plato's view of
the kinship between the human and the divine Spirit. " The
most divine part of the soul is that which deals with knowledge
and wisdom. . . . This then resembles the divine principle.
And the man who contemplates this and so learns to know the
whole divine principle would thus also best come to know himself. 2
" By acting justly and temperately you will act as is pleasing
to God . . . and you will so act by contemplating the divine
light." 3 " We ought to fly heavenward, and to fly thither is
to become like God as far as possible, holy and just and wise."
" In God is no unrighteousness at all — He is altogether righteous ;
and there is nothing more like Him than he of us who is the
most righteous." 4

These are great and beautiful sayings, and fill the mind with a
kind of awe when one remembers the age in which they first took
shape. So also " As the eye cannot turn from darkness to light
without the whole body, so too, when the eye of the soul is turned
round, the whole soul must be turned from the world of genera-
tion to that of being, and become able to endure the sight of
being, and of the brightest and best of being — that is to say of
the good. . . . And this is conversion . . . not implanting
eyes, for they exist already, but giving them a right direction
which they have not." 5

Looked at more closely, such teaching is seen to be, as far as

1 Soph. 249. See for these and other refs. Illingworth's Divine
Transcendence, ch. ii.

1 Alcib. i. 153. 3 Thaeaet., 176. « lb., 134. 6 Rep., 518.


it goes, the kind of teaching which encourages in the learner
the beginnings of Humility, in proportion as it brings the idea
of God near to man. The great defect of all Greek theorizing
on the Godhead is its aloofness ; and this defect Plato in his
best moments partially overcomes. That is to say, he draws
sublime pictures, not only of a Being Who can be said truly to
exist, though to do so was his main object, but of One Who busies
Himself with the deepest concerns of which we have experience,
namely the spiritual development of each one of us who chooses
to turn to Him in trustfulness for the gift of truth. It is as if
Plato's pure and illuminated soul were at times caught up into
a realization of that which is to us a fundamental and essential
verity of our religion, the truth that without God we can do
nothing ; but that all growth of mind and spirit is simply a
drawing upon His life and wisdom " for our great and endless
comfort." Plato gives the impression of having touched on this
side of truth almost unconsciously. He set himself to discuss
the nature of True Being ; he occasionally was uplifted beyond
his conscious quest into something of a perception of man's utter
dependence on God, Who deals with him as a beneficent and
all-powerful Father.

Speaking then from the psychological point of view, we may
say that Plato was successful in encouraging the virtue which
we see to be essential to the highest forms of human character,
in proportion as he uttered the truth of man's receptivity and
God's bounty. Why the insistence on this truth should be
favourable to the growth of Humility, can only be understood
if we conceive of Humility more as self-forgetfulness than as
self-depreciation. The latter is not essential to Humility, but
is found not unfrequently in combination with a spirit that is
really selfish and self-absorbed ; the former cannot be manifested
unless there is something present to the mind which dominates
and enthralls the imagination as well as convinces the reason.
How is it conceivable that man should forget his own personality,
even for a moment, except in presence of some display of some-
thing divine ? There is nothing higher than the personality of
man, except the personality of God ; and the nearer a teacher
can go to bringing home to men's hearts the sense of the person-
ality of God, the more likelihood there is of man being caught
up out of himself, as we say, into the contemplation of the divine.

But having said so much we are bound to recognize the immeasur-
able difference between the actual effect of Plato's teaching and
the work of Christ ; meaning by the latter expression, His teach-


ing, His moral example, and His death and Passion as interpreted
by the Church. The effect of Christ's work on human ethical
standards was that of some mighty dynamic shattering the
false and quickening the true ideals. Whereas of Plato we may
say that, however much we may attribute to him of intellectual
influence, however much we may grant that he gradually guided
human thought, and that after some centuries the nett result of
his teaching was favourable to the recognition of Humility ;
yet that all this gives him no claim whatever to have been the
teacher who transformed man's conception of virtue as it was
transformed between 330 b.c. and 60 a.d. Plato's influence, in
spite of the moral fervour of much of his writing, was in the in-
tellectual region taking most effect on the Christian Fathers,
just as the influence of his pupil Aristotle who was in accord
with his master's deepest principles, told most powerfully on
the Schoolmen. But there was an element in the force which
brought Humility into the forefront of human virtues, not only
quickening it into actuality, translating it, that is, into the conduct
of ordinary men and women, but making it into something like the
very essence of goodness as men understand it ; an element, I
say, which operated not as a slow solvent or as a quiet, persuasive
appeal to the reason, but as a life-giving power. It was a power
which may be thought of as an appealing power, in that it was
not coercive but persuasive, weaning man from his darling self-
esteem ; but it may also be thought of as a mighty and irresistible
force which, carrying all before it, in a few years secured that
mankind would never again fail to pay homage to Humility,
however grievously they may fail in achieving it.

We may now pass on to the famous description given by
Aristotle of the great-minded man. It may be prefaced by the
remark that whether or not it be strictly accurate to say that
it is the Greek philosopher's picture of his ideal man, it is cer-
tainly the picture of a character which he considered admirable.
Therefore, if such qualities as we designate as those of humility
are undeniably absent from the picture, it may safely be inferred
that Aristotle had no sufficient feeling for them to be an effective
preacher of humility to the men of his time. 1

" He is thought to be great -minded who values himself highly
and at the same time justly ; because he that does so without
grounds is foolish, and no virtuous character is foolish or sense-

1 The passage referred to is in the fourth book of the Ethics and
the translation is by Rev. D. P. Chase of Oriel.


less. Well, the character I have described is great-minded.
The man who estimates himself lowly, and at the same time
justly, is modest ; but not great-minded, since this latter quality
implies greatness, just as beauty implies a large bodily conforma-
tion, while small people are neat and well made but not beauti-
ful. . . . Since then he justly rates himself at a high or rather
at the highest possible rate, his character will have respect
specially to one thing . . . now honour answers to these descrip-
tions being the greatest of external goods. So the great-minded
man bears himself as he ought in respect of honour and dishon-
our. . . .

"Honour then and dishonour are specially the object matter of
the great-minded man ; and at such as is great and given by good
men, he will be pleased moderately as getting his own, or perhaps
somewhat less, for no honour can be quite adequate to perfect
virtue ; but still he will accept this because they have nothing
higher to give him. . . . He is the sort of man to do kindnesses,
but he is ashamed to receive them ; the former putting a man in
the position of superiority, the latter in that of inferiority. . . .
Such men seem likewise to remember those they have done kind-
nesses to, but not those from whom they have received them ;
because he who has received is inferior to him who has done the
kindness, and our friend wishes to be superior. . . . And again,
not to put himself in the way of honour, nor to go where others
are the chief men ; and to be remiss and dilatory except in the
case of some great honour or work ; and to be concerned in few
things, and those great and famous."

Many readers of this extract have felt that it is a peculiarly
unattractive description of a character which the writer felt to
be admirable. Indeed, here and there, one is almost inclined
to believe that Aristotle was deliberately humorous and indulging
for once in a vein of irony ; so incongruous to our notions is
the grave and persistent egoism of such a passage as "he who
has received is inferior to him who has done the kindness, and
our friend wishes to be superior " or " but still he will accept this
because they have nothing higher to give him." But on second
thoughts we are deterred from attributing to this Greek thinker
anything so un-Aristotelian as light, but subtle, irony, in a treatise
which gives countless opportunities for such humour, but ignores
them all. We are rather led to reflect that, our amazement at
what we find is a measure of the change which has been wrought
by Christianity in our view of each other, and in our estimate of
greatness. So vast and profound is this change that even in


sections of society where primitive paganism is apparently active,
and instincts which it is hard to trace to any theological doctrine
are allowed free play, such a character as is here described would
receive a rude welcome enough. Ignorant outcasts of society,
even professional criminals in modern Europe, would hardly
tolerate a character so steeped in self-esteem, and certainly Eng-
lish schoolboys, if once the disposition of the great-minded be-
came distinct to them, would, even in these tolerant days, take
active measures to modify it. They would attempt no analysis,
and would seek no excuse ; but would feel that there was some-
thing in such great-mindedness which called for immediate re-ad-
justment. Hence we infer (1) that whatever it was in Christianity
which brought into recognition the virtue of Humility and
branded with ineffaceable stigma its opposite, Egoism, was power-
ful enough to penetrate circles of the community which either
lie far from the centre of the Church's influence, or still are accus-
tomed to exhibit the primitive temper as to their dislikes, and
primitive methods of satisfying it ; and (2) that this influence
has been exercised so long that the obedience to it in modern
civilized communities is given unconsciously, in accordance with
a standard which no one any longer questions. The repellent
features of Aristotle's description form a strong argument as to
the greatness of the change which has been wrought in our
ordinary every day estimates of goodness ; and while it is fair to
say that sympathy and love are both desiderated in the picture,
the quality which is most glaringly conspicuous by its absence
is Humility.

The failure of Aristotle in this respect may then be taken as
an indication of the feebleness of the influence of both Socrates
and Plato towards the subjugation of the egoism inbred in us
all. Where the three greatest Greek teachers failed, it is not
worth while to investigate the doctrines of their followers, the
Stoics or the Epicureans, especially when we know enough of
the Roman mind at the time of Cicero to be sure that their teach-
ing had no appreciable effect upon it m this direction.


It may have been observed that the particular attack on
Prayer, put into the mouth of B (p. 65) not only assumes
that the ordinary objections to " prayer for rain " hold good,
but is directed with even greater vehemence against prayer for
spiritual benefits, the reasons for the latter being, not scientific,
but moral. In relation, not only to these difficulties, but to the
rational view of prayer generally, the following simple considera-
tions are important, but easily forgotten.

Certain bewilderments of thought are inseparable from the
fact of the relation between the finite and the infinite. Our
Lord in His teaching dealt with the problem in two principal
ways. First He discouraged His followers from troubling their
minds about matters that lay beyond their area of vision. Thus,
when asked by them if there were many who should be saved,
His reply was " Strive ye to enter the strait gate " (Luke xiii. 23).
Again, and perhaps more significantly, when He was told of the
savage cruelty of Pontius Pilate, and knowing that there was cur-
rent at the time an erroneous explanation of such tragedies, He set
it aside ; but it is noteworthy that He gives no other. He warns
His hearers against the dangerous moral view of sin to which
the erroneous theory might easily give encouragement ; but
as to an intellectual explanation of the occurrence, seemingly
permitted, of direful calamities, He says not a word (xiii. 1). This
attitude towards intellectual inquiry of a certain kind is all the
more striking when we remember the keen Socratic stimulus
which the Saviour habitually gave to honest thought, directed
towards subjects within its horizon. He often left His hearers
puzzled but almost forced to put two and two together, and at
least to recognize the narrowness of the prejudices to which
they had been subject. All the parables were of this quality ;
and twice at least He seized an opportunity of directly challeng-
ing thought. Once when He showed that a familiar Psalm
required a fresh interpretation (Matt. xxii. 41). Another time



He indicated with the utmost impressiveness that a refusal to
use the reasoning faculty with courage and honesty was made
a reason on His part for withholding further light (Mark xi. 33).
Clearly there must be some very special danger in the common
tendency to exercise oneself " in great matters which are too
high " for us. And it may be suggested that in this subject of
prayer there are questions which we may reasonably believe to
be for us, at present, unanswerable ; that is to say, such as
require data for answering which we have not got.

Or to put it differently : man is gifted not only with a power
of pursuing abstract questions for a certain way, but of knowing,
or at least shrewdly guessing, that there is a limit beyond which
he must not go, and yet that beyond that limit there is an answer.
The power of recognizing the limit to thought, combined with a
feeling that there is a beyond, is a wonderful gift, and Christ
has taught us that if we neglect the power of thinking up to the
limit, we suffer greatly ; but that we also run a very grave risk
if we try to go too far.

But more than that, He has given us a plain direction as to
such difficulties, which is almost inexhaustible in its rich sugges-
tiveness. We are to become as little children. This command
is given unreservedly, and is concerned not only with such matters
as the purity of childhood, its hopefulness, its dependence and
so forth, but may be applied without misgiving to the subject
of Prayer. Suppose we deal with the ordinary rational difficulties

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 18 of 19)