Edward Lyttelton.

Character and religion online

. (page 2 of 19)
Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 2 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


more reasons than one, the investigation into the points
of contact between religion and the practical needs of
the hour is more eager than it has ever been ; and the
eagerness shows no signs of diminishing.

For this reason it would seem to be superfluous to
apologize for making one more attempt to explain the
nature of the relation between Conduct and Religion.
But an additional excuse for dealing with the subject has
lately been furnished by the holding of an International
Moral Congress with the object of promoting a movement
in favour of teaching definite moral principles in schools
in a systematic fashion. The object of the leaders of
this movement is not anti-religious. They have given
sensible reasons for thinking that as the complexity
of life increases, duty becomes more difficult to discern,
while remaining quite as difficult to do as it ever
was. Hence various claims in the matter of conduct
have to be explained to the young, and, it is thought,
there need be no antagonism between the Moralists
and the Religionists. If the latter think that a religious
basis is necessary, by all means let them supply it ; but
as they themselves resort to definite moral instruction
in such matters as chastity, truthfulness, patriotism,
etc., it would seem that the two great parties are not
so widely sundered after all.

There is much in this which seems likely to allay dis-
quiet. None the less, the significance of the movement
lies in the fact that, as regards England, it is the first



6 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

attempt yet made to secure public support for a form of
character training in which religion is a negligible quan-
tity. No provision is made for religion ; and, in short,
the movement bears the appearance of being an attempt
for the first time to solve the problem of the children by
leaving the religious principles in the training of the young
to shift for themselves, while all possible attention is to
be paid to conduct. Hitherto we have striven to reach
some common understanding as to how to teach religion.
It is a new thing if our discussions are in future to be con-
cerned with morality alone.

Yet it hardly admits of a doubt that if, on a large scale,
moral training by itself were to produce satisfactory
results, there would be a tendency in one party to rejoice,
and among the others to think, that something disastrous
had happened. As long as there is any such danger, it
is clear that the subject requires further investigation.
It is an absurdity that good moral results should be
thought of with dismay by any one professing any form
of Christianity ; or that there should be the slightest
inclination to belittle those results. On the other hand,
is there not something questionable about the assumption,
frequently made, that a religious creed may be treated
solely as a means of producing the type of conduct which
we agree, to some extent, in calling good ? For it will be
admitted that as soon as this assumption is allowed, the
Moralists are perfectly consistent in the policy they have
adopted. They have tried religion, so they would aver, in
obedience to what seems a universal instinct among
children. But because of the discussions produced and
of the meagreness of the moral results obtained, they
seem to have come to the conclusion that, as a means to
an end, religion, may safely be abandoned; not definitely



INTRODUCTION 7

and compulsorily cut out of the programme, but treated
as if it could reasonably be permitted to any one who
happened to have the taste for it.

But among the questions stirred by this contention is
the very grave one whether such an attitude towards
religion does not make it impossible to test its power at
all, and does not rather indicate a petitio principii, since
the idea that religion, so far from being indispensable, is
only an accessory to life and sometimes useful, is tanta-
mount simply to the conviction that it is untrue. More-
over, if this position is to be considered, it will be necessary
to make clear in what sense the word religion is used :
that is to say, whether it means pure Theism or Chris-
tianity ; and in that arguing is involved the doubt whether
the latter word means more than the popular interpre-
tation of it, or extends to what may rightly be called the
New Testament interpretation of the work of Christ,
there being no doubt as to a marked divergence between
the two. Such are some of the questions to be considered
in the following chapters.

At the same time I am not without the hope that the
aim of this inquiry may be seen at once to be strictly
uncontroversial, in that it is to substantiate the thesis
that the agreement between Moralists and Religionists
is in reality fundamental. Often, and I think far too
often, the attempt has been made by convinced Christians
to show that what they believe to be a truncated and
shallow view of life, that of pure morality, must result
in an undermining of morality itself and prove to be a
sheer deception, a conscientious form of impiety. My
opinion is, and I will try to support it, that it would
better be described as an unconscious form of piety, that
every single postulate made by moralists as the motive



8 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

principle of their action, not only is borrowed from Chris-
tianity, but is meaningless except as an expression of
strictly Christian Ethics : that is to say of principles of
conduct mainly based on Christian doctrine, which is
itself wholly based on the facts reported in the New Testa-
ment or otherwise handed down by the Church. To
advance arguments in support of this contention will
mean a consideration in the first place of some features
of the character legitimately called the Christian character,
and their correspondence with the character ordinarily
called virtuous, or excellent by Moralists.



CHAPTER II

The Essence of Virtue

IT is sometimes said, and quite sincerely, that the
famous thirteenth chapter of the first Epistle to
the Corinthians contains the essence of virtue. Men
range it in their ordinary estimation along with the Sermon
on the Mount as an unapproachable statement of that
which is a vital ingredient of the highest type of char-
acter that we know. Moral training means training up
a young unformed character so as to imbue it with the
principles stated in this chapter and in the Sermon. If
we consider some of the most appealing of the sayings
we shall easily discover the central conception of virtue
inculcated.

" Charity suffereth long " : this is the beautiful virtue
of forbearance. When things go well it is not difficult
to feel genially towards our neighbours. But when our
lives appear to be in a fair way to be spoilt by adversity
and the failure of hopes, and when we know that the
upset has been caused by the malignity of a friend, and
further when we find that in spite of our self-command
and readiness to make allowance, the malignity persists,
then if we are able to go on hoping for good, we are show-
ing forbearance. " Charity hopeth all things." To
be able to manifest the saving power of hope in goodness
in presence of crushing evidence that it is useless ; to



io CHARACTER AND RELIGION

believe in a fellow-man when it only seems to make him
worse ; this is a triumph of virtue rare, doubtless, but
extolled in proportion as it begins by provoking ridicule.
" Charity seeketh not her own " ; is free from all taint
of selfishness. One of the widest expressions of encomium
possible. And so on through the glorious simple words
we get a clear picture of that which every right-thinking
man approves. Perhaps one detail is apparently omitted ;
not in reality however. It might be thought possible
for a man to be all that St. Paul describes and yet inclined
to be keen-sighted and somewhat censorious towards his
neighbour. We would add then the great passage in the
Sermon about the mote and the beam, and then we
must ask what is the dominant secret of the character
thus sketched ?

It is absence of egoism or what we broadly call Humility.
This is a word which is seldom heard in the conversations
of worldly-minded people. The ideas it connotes are com-
plex, and the virtue it is supposed to stand for has suffered
in ordinary estimation because it is often counterfeited.
But a great many men of the world would be astonished
if they could realize how immensely they esteem and
reverence the qualities which are fairly included in the
term.

For in point of fact, as has often been remarked, all
wrongdoing, that is, not mistaken action but acting
from the wrong motive, is action based on egoism.
As soon as ever egoism is discerned, and in proportion as
it is discerned, admiration for the character dwindles.
A statesman or other public man may do inestimably
useful work for the country, and many may be the memor-
ials of him that are ultimately set up ; but if his main
governing motive is believed all along to have been love



THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE n

of fame, or desire for applause, or merely the satisfaction
of his own unusual energy, men subscribe to the memo-
rials and say nothing much in disparagement of their
eminent countrymen, but they do not reverence him,
nor can they love him. How much more, then, if the
motive has been more coarsely selfish ? If it is objected
that the desire for honour is canonized by Shakespeare
in his delineation of his favourite hero Henry V, the an-
swer would be that Henry almost apologizes for his frank
recognition and avowal of the motive ; and that if he
does not, there is much to excuse him in the fact that he
is appealing to common instincts of common soldiers
before a battle, and it does not do on those occasions to
be fastidious about motives for action. Again, it will
be remembered that Macaulay notices in the great Chat-
ham a certain want of simplicity, a love of display quite
exceptional among really eminent men. But the his-
torian meant and quite truly that Chatham's greatness
was extraordinary in that it overcame the foible which in
ordinary cases would have been fatal to it. Again, it
was said of Bishop Lightfoot that his holiness was sin-
gular in one respect. He had no enemies, no detractors ;
and the reason given was that he was a profoundly humble
man. Countless instances might be added. It remains
undeniably true that in public life, however useful and
however common may be the desire for honour, that is,
the approval of the best men, the good opinion of the best
historians, and so forth, the manifestation of the motive
instantly provokes criticism, and strips the character of
all claim to anything so high as reverence.

But if this remark is true of public life, it is more evi-
dently so in private life, in such intercourse of man with
man as forms the larger portion of most men's activities.



12 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

Scores of illustrations occur to the mind. Self-forget ful-
ness is a beautiful quality wherever it is noticed, even if
it causes waste and injury. It was remarked of a great
public speaker that he was so undisciplined in his way of
speaking that he lost control of his voice and spoilt a
fine organ by misuse. The comment was that X. would
not be X. if he could think of such a thing on the plat-
form. This does not mean that an ugly voice is a good
thing, or that spoiling a voice is not a pity, but that self-
forgetfulness is such an admirable trait in any one that
a heavy cost is not too much to pay for it. And true
humility includes self-forgetfulness, at least in the sense
in which it is here being discussed. Unselfconsciousness
is another word for the same thing. It may safely be said
that this quality wins not only the highest esteem but
the utmost interest from others. It was one secret of
Mr. Gladstone's astonishing charm as a personality. To
talk to him about himself would have bored him. One
felt that it would probably offend him, and as far as I
know it was very rarely attempted ; ] but, if it had been,
the topic evidently possessed no interest for him. An-
other great man singular in the same way was Archbishop
Temple. In him the trait was generally noted as sim-
plicity, a word extremely difficult to define, but certainly
connoting the absence of folds in the character which
are the result of the egoistic and altruistic motives in
conflict. Carlyle, in his essay on Characteristics, notes
another symptom of this quality of self-consciousness,
its weakness. It is indisputable that, in respect of effec-
tive action of any sort, what we roughly call single-
mindedness is among the very first essentials to success.
But the main point here to be considered is rather its
attractiveness, its winsome charm, redolent of the most



THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE 13

irresistible qualities in the childlike nature, and able to
ensure agreement with Christ's teaching that the King-
dom of Heaven is received as by little children or not at
all.

There is much in all this that may be thought plati-
tudinous. But the subject of egoism presents many
mysteries of a singularly baffling description. It would
be very difficult to explain why, on the one hand, per-
sonality is by far the most interesting object of study,
no two persons being quite the same, and yet that as
soon as a writer or talker takes his own personality as
his theme, he achieves the striking combination of being
both offensive and dull. There is something downright
repulsive in the fact of a man turning his own spiritual
being inside out, but if the spectators of this process can
by force of habit overcome the feeling of repulsion,
nothing remains but boredom. Yet we are told with
truth that the study of character, i.e. of personalities, is
so interesting as to go far to explain why more than
five novels are published in this country every day of
the year on an average ; and the reason why so many of
them deal with the passion of love is that that passion
reveals character more effectively and rapidly than any
other. 1 Now this being so, one would suppose that any
manifestation of personality, even if it left an unpleasant
impression behind, could hardly fail to be deeply
interesting to readers and hearers. It would be a dis-
closure of something in its very essence interesting,
mysterious, and different from anything else in the uni-
verse. Moreover, the information concerning it would
come from no second-hand quarter but from the actual
owner of the personality, the very person who fulfils the
1 Suggested by M. Bourzet.



14 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

first conditions of winning acceptance for what he has
to say. Not only does he presumably know far more
than any one else about the subject, but his own interest
in it is so powerful that, in spite of a certain etiquette
which enjoins reticence, he cannot help talking of it.
It seems as if nothing were wanting to guarantee success
in obtaining a favourable hearing. But it is not so.
An introspective writer must conceal his introspection,
or he will not be read.

But we must leave on one side all the fascinating
questions which this phenomenon suggests. The observa-
tion has only been made to draw attention to a subsidiary
fact bearing on what has been said about humility.
Humility includes self-forgetfulness, and if a human
being offends against the law enjoining self-forgetfulness
he becomes to his fellows not only dull — a very curious
fact which we need not further discuss here — but repellent.
Now, considerations like these entitle us to raise the
question in relation to the position and creed of those
whom I term moralists. Does not living on moral
principles alone, and training the young on them alone,
mean that this virtue broadly called Humility has to be
included in the creed by which life has to be lived ?
And will not the training of our children mean a teach-
ing of self-forgetfulness ?

The answers must be in the affirmative, because ulti-
mately people, even young people, demand a central
principle by the light of which they can walk. Unless
a very firm attitude is taken up in regard to egoism,
nothing is done or settled at all. No parent could quietly
contemplate his son growing up to be a sagacious and
zealous town councillor with the motive of securing an
encomium in the local newspaper as his only inspiration



THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE 15

and stimulus, or entering on a military career with no
hope of any kind within him except that of decorations ;
though this hope is higher than the other, in that the
authority which decorates is a constitutional authority
to whom the right of decorating has been deliberately
given. Or — to put the matter more conclusively — let
us consider the matter not in the light of a prospective
hope, but in that of a success won. What right-minded
man would allow in later life, when the recognition and
the applause and the medals and the letters after the
name had been all secured, that he had grasped the
summum bonum, or indeed anything particularly worth
having ? The nobler the character, the less he cares
for such gains. As a young boy Frederick Temple felt
elated at the prospect of greatness. But, later, he
said that now that it was won he cared nothing for it.
Again, when Cicero in middle life wrote his celebrated
letter to his friend the historian begging for a panegyric
of his consulship, even at the cost if need be of accurate
statement, what we feel is not so much indignation at
the suggestion, nor pity at the heathenish poverty of
idea, but wonder that a man in mature life could be such
a simpleton. Our bookshelves groan with testimonies
from writers of all ages and countries that fame is a
supremely powerful motive in prospect, but when achieved
is more like dust and ashes in the hand.

So much then we must assume : that in so far as we
are any of us in a position to suggest to others in any
way dependent on our counsel, a rule of life, we cannot
in honesty pretend that we are giving them anything
valuable if we can only suggest the working for fame,
whether contemporary or posthumous. So far as that
1 Ad Fam. v. 12.



16 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

part of the subject is concerned, we set ourselves to
impart some motive which could be fairly included in
the idea of Humility : not anything by itself so antago-
nistic to Humility as an ordinary ambition ; though, with
a capacity for inconsistency which has at all times marked
humanity, we allow all our words and most of our actions
to urge in that one direction, towards Fame, and that
one alone.

But we must look a little deeper. In reality, and in
all those moments of life when we can fairly claim the
attribute of sanity, we require of one another not only
humility in the main motive of life, but humility " in the
inward parts," that is self- forget fulness in the ordinary
current of the daily thoughts and doings. This reflection
leads to something more important than has yet been
noticed.

The power and attractiveness of Humility consist in
its persuasiveness when it is a deeply rooted quality of
the character. It must pervade every thought to be as
potent as it has been in a few human lives. That is to
say, the question is far more than a matter of a motive
for action. It concerns the very central essence of that
in another, which we admire. It must be a permanent
quality not a stimulus occasionally employed. Though
it may satisfy us for a time to believe that the instinct
which favours this quality is universal and is implanted
in man, we do not know how or under what influence,
we are not constituted to be content with this very
nebulous creed all through life, nor do we find in training
young characters that it supplies a working hypothesis.
There may be, and undoubtedly is, a deep instinct which
recognizes the beauty of self-forgetfulness, but the
tendency to remember self is very deep too ; and we



THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE 17

must surely be careful to see that in demanding self-
forgetfulness of one another as a condition of our
love and admiration, we are not asking for bricks with-
out straw.

For the truth is that though self-forgetfulness is gener-
ally very attractive, it is not a useful quality. It is com-
patible with, and seems almost favourable to, a good deal
of forgetfulness of others, or at least to that kind of
ignorance of what their needs are which leads to a com-
plete blindness to the commonsense ways of satisfying
them. Again, it often means forgetfulness of the plain
needs of self, and has been the cause of much ruin of
health. For these reasons it may easily be conceived
as a quality not indispensable to the kind of character
which wins success.

In this respect it is like other qualities which we range
under the title of Humility. Take, for instance, self-
dissatisfaction. Why is the opposite so generally recog-
nized as an unamiable quality, when not only the Greek
idea of the perfect man included it, but it seems in many
cases to have been a necessary ingredient in the characters
of the greatest men in history. A strong case could
be made out for the theory that such men as Julius
Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Bismarck, could not
have accomplished what they did accomplish had they
been forced by dissatisfaction with their own characters
to be less positive as to their aims and less certain that
their motives were right. Contentment with one's own
qualities may not be a lovable trait, but it is apparently
necessary to many forms of energy. This fact makes
the high estimation of what has been called " divine
discontent " all the more remarkable.

Such discontent, too, besides being a solvent of much



18 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

useful strength, is not a comfortable fact about any one.
It is a perpetual menace to routine — one of the first
conditions of comfort to many minds — and it is sure to
intrude on our peace just as we are thinking of settling
for a time on our lees. Yet it is difficult to conceive
of a civilized modern society in which the term self-
satisfied would be anything but a reproach, or in which
Aristotle's delineation 1 of the great-souled man would
be thought attractive.

Lastly, it must be noticed that another fact, one
would think, would have told with great force on the
high estimation in which Humility is held. We require
a good deal of it from each other and we submit to its
claims, anyhow ostensibly, ourselves. Yet it is impossible
to acknowledge these claims in ordinary social life, even
to the extent worldlings insist on them, without a great
deal of painful self-conquest. Society requires every one
to be at least moderate in talking of himself, but to
many people the effort to conform is obviously uncon-
genial. To many, again, nothing is more acutely dis-
agreeable than to admit themselves ignorant of what
has just been spoken of as knowledge common to every
educated man. But, if this is done naturally, it excites
warm approval, and again isie effort to conform, very
fitful and insincere though it generally is, is certainly
disquieting. Yet we make no effort to alter or criticize
the state of opinion which demands this effort. We
know somehow that it is right.

It may be taken then as true that though Humility
may include some qualities which good men of the world
are willing to ignore, yet the greater part of the character-

1 See Excursus on Influence of Greek Philof30phy, p. 229.



THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE 19

istics covered by the word are not only approved of by
moralists and others who, without being religious, are
sane and sensible men, but are held in actual reverence. It
now remains to inquire how far the principles ordinarily
professed by moralists and serious-minded men of the
world will account for this striking phenomenon.



CHAPTER III

Some of the Plain Man's Principles

BY the expresson " plain man," I mean to denote
what we try to conceive of as the average man
in matters of fundamental belief. It is more than doubt-
ful if there is any such thing. Beliefs, of course, differ
in each individual in untraceable complexity, and a vast
number of educated men keep theirs to themselves, so
that the assumption that there is, so to speak, a cluster
of somewhat similar beliefs somewhere in the centre of
a series — which cluster may be taken to be represented
by the opinions most frequently expressed in magazine
articles, in conversation, in letters to the newspapers,
etc. — is an assumption resting on no good evidence.
But it is possible, without quarrelling over statistics, to
note certain opinions which, whether they be held by
the largest number of educated men and women or not,


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 2 of 19)