Edward Lyttelton.

Character and religion online

. (page 3 of 19)
Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 3 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

are certainly held by a very large number and are there-
fore worth discussion. They are opinions which seem
to follow easily from certain principles undoubtedly
imbedded in many minds and partly to be accounted
for by the influence of popular scientific teaching. They
are, moreover, such opinions as may be formed and held
with very little intellectual effort ; and herein is an
argument for their being the opinions of a majority of
our fellow-countrymen, in whom the appetite for weighing


and probing beliefs in abstract subjects is remarkably
the reverse of robust.

Opinions of this sort, then, on the greatest subjects
connected with morals and religion have to be examined
with one object only : viz. to ascertain how far they
give a justification for prevailing feelings and thoughts
on the subject of virtue, especially that ingredient in
virtue which we call Humility. We find that feelings
as to the claims of Humility — widely interpreted — are
practically universal. If it should appear that there
is nothing in the commonly received opinions as to the
basis of religious and moral beliefs to justify these feelings,
the position we are in becomes interesting and calls for
further inquiry.

Now it is often said that the scientific teaching con-
nected with the name of Darwin has profoundly modified
our fundamental beliefs in ethics and religion by intro-
ducing the theory of evolution or development. It is not
improbable that the claim for the degree and permanence
of this influence has been exaggerated, but that is not
the question now. It cannot be denied that a great many
minds respond favourably to the suggestion of the evolu-
tion of our deepest ideas on things : that is to say, in a
rough and unprecise fashion they conceive of these ideas
as having been evolved in the course of centuries by the
influence of environment acting on the peculiarly consti-
tuted human mind ; and the inference from this conception
is that the history of each one of our deepest beliefs is
the history of a process which might be called natural,
and almost mechanical ; and that, once admitting that
a sentiment or conviction in morals has been evolved,
there is no reason to suppose that any further explanation
of its existence is required ; that it has, in short, been


accounted for as fully and as satisfactorily as the mechan-
ism of the human hand. It may be the case that a great
many people who hold strong views as to the deep need
of humility in character, account to themselves vaguely
for their convictions by some such rough and ready refer-
ence to evolution.

It may be so ; but more probably the number is not
very large at present. Indeed, the difficulty in dealing
satisfactorily with this question is to gauge the degree
in which the mass of our educated countrymen think
out the reason for their opinions, and how far those
who do think, influence those who do not. Possibly the
evolutionary hypothesis has only a slight influence on
the matter : that is, a slight conscious influence. But it
may be true that the law we call evolution has developed
the convictions we hold as to the main essence of virtue
without our being aware of its working. So that, no
matter if the number who would so explain their con-
victions be large or small, it will be as well to consider if
such an explanation is sound.

A moment's reflection will convince any one that it
is not.

The evolutionary hypothesis requires that whatever
quality has been developed by the action of environment
should be, in the majority of cases, useful in the struggle
for existence. Hence it is supposed, with some plausibi-
lity, that bravery in combat is rated high because all
living people are the descendants of those who have
been brave enough to survive in the clashing and collision
of peoples. But how can any such plea be advanced
for our admiration of the virtue of Humility? If the
word is interpreted in the wide sense in which it is here
used, some thinkers would include in it some few qualities,


perhaps, which in a certain sense might be held to be
useful in competition. Conceivably the form of self-
forgetfulness which allows a man to give his individual
attention to some effort of dexterity such as rifle shooting
or public speaking, absence of nervousness in short,
may be a modern form of the single-mindedness useful
in war at the time, say, of Hengist and Horsa. But it
is necessary for this theory that not only should the
quality be admired, but that it be a hereditary profession,
and also the result of training. It may be granted that
such a community as the Spartans deliberately trained
their youths in habits useful to their existence, and we
may allow for the sake of argument that the characters
so trained were inherited, most dubious though the
admission be. But who ever heard of self-forgetfulness
being trained ? It is the one quality which cannot be
taught, though it is easy to teach its opposite ; and
parents and teachers have long ago discovered that if
you wish a young person to be simple-minded it is fatal
to tell him so. To deal with the matter more broadly,
it seems quite clear that in all kinds of competition the
one quality essential to success is self-assertion. The
quality we revere under the guise of humility is, it is true,
associated with individuals not with nations, and possibly
it might be held that what is supremely attractive in
an individual would be fatal if translated into the inter-
course of one nation with another. But national qualities
are after all the qualities of the individuals in the nation ;
and the utmost that can be conceded to the objection is
that it takes a long time for a quality to begin with indi-
viduals and pervade a community. But the concession,
besides being trifling in itself, hardly applies to a state
of things when nations were small ; still less to one when


it was a matter of tribe against tribe. For it must be
remembered that it is idle to postulate such a process
as the evolution of a quality in character without giving
it ample time. Suppose the minimum time required is
1,000 years, and it could hardly be less, we are taken
back to periods when the virtues required for successful
competition were more decidedly those of aggressive
self-assertion than perhaps they might appear to be
to-day. In other words, we have to imagine the formative
influences in the early history of the quality under
discussion to have been just those least likely to produce

Many other considerations might be brought forward
to show how little the evolutionary theory can possibly
contribute towards a solution of the immediate question
as to the underlying principle of our estimate of Humility ;
and there is much to be said in opposition to the grossly
unphilosophical idea that when once development is
postulated as the explanation of a phenomenon — especi-
ally a mental or spiritual one — all mystery concerning it
disappears. But these matters lie off the main track of
our inquiry. It is time now to raise the next question,
assuming that what has been said allows us to reject
the explanation — thought to be so simple — of evolution.

Obviously if we are unable to believe that Natural
Selection accounts for our idea of a certain virtue, we
are thrown back upon something more spiritual if we
wish to explain it at all. It is, of course, open to any
one to hold that no explanation is required. But there
are grave objections to acting on that principle, the
chief one being that we are bound to remember the educa-
tional aspect of this whole inquiry, which has been brought
into relief by the attitude of the moralists of to-day.


The claim has been put forward that morality can be
taught effectively without religion being treated as its
foundation. Those who agree with that contention as
well as those who disagree, are bound to think first whether
the ordinary ideas of virtue are sound ; secondly, if so,
upon what, which can be imparted to the young, do
they rest ; thirdly, if they rest on nothing, can they be
imparted at all, and are they worth imparting ? My
hope is that the further the inquiry is pushed, the more
decisive the answer becomes, and the more interesting
become the inferences to be drawn.

Our task, therefore, is to consider some spiritual prin-
ciples which are widely, though often very vaguely, held ;
and to see if any of them furnish the foundation we are
seeking. But, at this stage, it will be well to characterize
somewhat more definitely the quality or qualities included
under the term Humility.

I am desirous of including as many as may be legitimate,
prefacing what there is to be said by the admission that
a strict analysis might easily relegate some of the qualities
mentioned to some other class. But it is not in any
way necessary to be scientifically precise in this classifica-
tion. Supposing under the term Humility I include
some qualities which might more correctly be said to
belong to Charity, no harm is done. They equally require
explaining, so long as they are allowed to be such as
provoke admiration. They may be better described as
a cluster of virtues than as a single one. They would
include naturally such fundamental qualities as Meek-
ness, Modesty, Considerateness, Mercifulness, Sympathy.
Roughly, they may be said to be especially those which
were not rated highly, perhaps not observed at all, except
occasionally, by the Greeks and Romans, but which have


been generally allowed to be the outcome of Christianity,
and, more definitely, to have been learnt from some of
the most powerful passages in Christ's teaching,
j § Perhaps a few instances may make the matter clearer.
Self-assertion in modern life takes the form not so much
of encroaching on our neighbour's rights or spoiling
his goods as of trying to induce him to recognize our
merits. The humble man does not care about this. To
John Keble the praise of other men seems literally to
have been painful, no matter how well deserved. Now,
in such a case, the feeling would certainly inspire wonder
and admiration. It would be felt to be drawn from an
intense consciousness of the ideal : whatever he achieved
Keble felt that it was nothing compared to what he had
aimed at ; and when others treated his performance as
adequate or excellent, it was to him merely a proof of
their insensibility to the higher life. But supposing
there had been any indication of " pose " in the saintly
man's attitude, at once our admiration for him would
have been swallowed up in contempt : what was thought
to be admirable would have become grotesque. Why ?
Because the self -regarding instinct in him would have
suddenly been manifested in a peculiarly detestable
form, and we would far sooner he had expressed what
we should call a natural satisfaction at the commendation
of others, than affect to deprecate it in order to win a
higher commendation still. We should feel that the
former, though tinged with self-love, was genuine ; the
latter so selfish as to turn a beautiful thing into a sham.
Among instances of effective humility, it was reported
of Canon Liddon that he had occasion once to interview
a lady on a matter of business and persuade her to a
course of action to which she was strongly disinclined.


In doing this it was impossible for him not to indicate
clearly that he and others thought she had been acting
foolishly. The conversation issued in a triumph for
Liddon's " sweetness " of character, gentleness and humi-
lity. The lady was all on the defensive, repeatedly
implying that the fault rested not with her but with
those who were moving in the matter, including, of course,
Liddon himself. But by degrees it became clear to her
that no amount of asperity on her part made the slightest
difference to Liddon's superb courtesy and evident desire
to put the matter in a perfectly true light. Again, we
see that that effectiveness which depends on a certain
winning quality, is really bound up with the absence of
egoism. Liddon had abundant excuse for being offended ;
but as it became evident that he felt no interest in the
question whether he himself was right or not, but was
intensely occupied only with the truth of the matter in
hand, his interlocutor too was gradually lifted into this
higher region in which she could instinctively feel con-
troversy had no place. The interview illustrated Lacor-
daine's words, " La douceur est une force. "

Yet as soon as this is clearly stated, a certain misgiving
arises in us, suggesting that any virtue which could be
indicated by the word " douceur " is only commendable
at certain times in the history of a society ; in times,
that is, of tranquillity. There is, it may be thought,
something in it which requires a refined and cloistered
atmosphere, when it can count on protection against
rude shocks and against haste and stress of all kinds.
But in times of war, and indeed of severe competition
of any kind, if you once grant that self-defence is allow-
able you must forego all kinds of self-effacement. Meekly
to put up with affronts is to court ruin. In commercial


rivalries, for instance, the modern form of warfare, as
we have often been reminded lately, we cannot afford to
submit to loss ; to " take it lying down " ; but national
spirit requires of us to retaliate if we would not

[It would be interesting to probe into the facts of early
Christian history to determine how far we in modern
England are wandering from the spirit of the words
" Blessed are the meek : for they shall inherit the earth."
No one can say that the first three centuries were times
of untroubled tranquillity for the Christian communities
on the Mediterranean seaboard ; and yet something
which may be correctly described as " possessing the
earth " was undoubtedly in progress between a.d. 33
and 325, and the power of this progress is intimately
connected with the meekness and humility shown, for
the first time perhaps, by the persecuted and misunder-
stood Christian societies. A further question of deepest
interest would be to what extent and under what condi-
tions would the application of the principles of the Sermon
on the Mount be possible between nations, even if we
grant that they are possible, though very difficult, between
individuals. But such an inquiry would carry us very
far afield.]

So plain indeed is this, that as we consider it we are
inclined to doubt if after all we have not overstated
the case for Humility. May it not be, really, a virtue
attractive in tranquil times of advanced civilization,
but something of a social luxury which adds to the refine-
ments of life, and oils the wheels of man's intercourse
with his fellows in days free from stress and conflict ;
something which is quite out of place when competition
presses hard on the community, and clouds are low on


the political horizon ? It will be well, therefore, to con-
sider one or two other instances of the quality, with a
view to determining its claim to admiration.

The truth is that there is nothing unfavourable to the
growth of humility in an age of conflict and competition,
provided that it has passed out of the early stage of
arbitrament by the sword. The antagonism between
the quality we are considering and the atmosphere of a
fighting age is, as already remarked, that no encourage-
ment can be given to the former because at present it is
apparently not wanted. For its encouragement, or
rather for an atmosphere in which it can show itself, we
have to wait for the age of discussion to succeed that
of fighting. In the Iliad of Homer, an opportunity for
humility is given to Achilles and Agamemnon, as soon
as they have recourse to angry discussion in the matter
of the captive Briseis. It cannot be said that they took
advantage of the opportunity ; but if one of the dis-
putants had shown that he was ready to waive all per-
sonal feelings, to ignore affronts, as Liddon did, in his
eager loyalty to a principle of justice, the effect on his
adversary would have been bewildering, like that of the
young Englishman's scorn at the offering of a huge bribe
made by a claimant to a native sovereignty in India.
It was the utterance of a moral standard of which the
hearer could form no conception except that it was
higher than his own ; and the native prince left the
room dazed and awed at the manifestation of a mystery
of the spiritual world. It is hardly possible to conceive
the effect on his audience if Achilles had suddenly
sunk the claims of self, and in some sense it would have
even been a marring of the epic to introduce into it so
marked an anachronism.


In this group of qualities, then, there are certain special
characteristics. They share with others that of being
inimical to what we call our lower natures, in that the
exercise of them demands a more or less decisive refusal
of our ordinary inclinations. But that which is specially
to be predicated of them is that they belong to the gentler
side of conduct, not to the virtues which indicate self-
assertion ; they are remote from any temper which could
be called proud. The utilitarian arguments for them
are, for the most part, weak, especially in the result,
often deplored by social reformers, of the preservation
of the unfit members of society. There must be some
deep and widely-recognized principle strong enough to
maintain the high estimate in which these virtues are
regarded, in the face of arguments, far from trivial, now
ranged against them. Can this principle be determined ?
Does it belong to the most commonly professed creed
of the " man in the street " ?

A brief statement of the creed in question is here
desirable. It will be well to include the common view
of Christianity on the one hand, with the opinions held,
as far as we can tell, by the prevailing type of non-
religious man, who is yet zealous and upright in his
relations to his fellow-men. The description will be
enlarged so as to include many sincere moralists who
are practically Agnostics in religion.

We are often told, and I think truly, that such a thing
as a downright positive Atheist hardly exists. It would
be interesting to examine the statement ; but for the
present purpose it will be better to put on one side all
those who, apparently, are almost entirely self-indulgent
in morals, and in religion only conform to prevailing
customs from motives of convenience.


The next group which comes within our area of dis-
cussion embraces those who make efforts to live up to
a standard of morals, and yet ignore religion entirely.
Their moral standard would be mainly negative, comprised
probably in an eclectic and very simple interpretation
of the Ten Commandments with a certain amount of
modern etiquette added.

Next would come those who, far more strenuous than
the last in matters of moral conduct, that is with a far
higher standard not born from convention but from
independent thought, yet maintain that their creed,
which includes allegiance to conscience, needs no supple-
menting from the side of dogma. They would admit
that they attribute something divine to the phenomenon
of conscience, at least to its origin, but they apparently
feel only slightly concerned with any inference which
they may be invited to draw from this admission. It
may be said that to adhere to this opinion means a singular
reluctance to look into first principles. Certainly it
means a reluctance, but we have no right in England
at any rate to call it singular. The position is very
commonly held, and among those who hold it may be
found strong characters and often a real loftiness of life.

Varying more towards orthodoxy, the next group
consists of those whose loyalty to the voice of conscience
is no less praiseworthy than that of the last, but they
look for a basal principle in the Gospel narrative, or in
what they would speak of as Christian teaching. If
pressed, they would specify certain portions of the Gos-
pel teaching such as the Sermon on the Mount and the
Parables as being the source of illumination to the human
conscience. If asked further about any of the chief
religious dogmas, they would probably say that they regard


them as outside man's ken and not very important ;
but they would acknowledge that, next to His teaching,
the example given by Christ was to them the great inspira-
tion of their lives.

Lastly, we come to those who would be called ortho-
dox in their religious tenets. They hold firmly to every
article of the Apostles' Creed, and if asked what differ-
ence it made to their conduct in presence of the problems
of life, they would answer that the Resurrection, for
instance, proved Christ to be divine, and therefore His
teaching on conduct must be implicitly received and
acted upon.

Such I conceive to be the principles of a great deal of
modern religious and moral belief, in so far as they would
be professed by those who hold them. It is not to the
purpose to inquire how far they are thought out, or
metaphysically free from contradiction. Later, we shall
have to enquire whether there are not some necessary
inferences to be drawn from them, which in ordinary
life and by plain people are not drawn, nor indeed appre-
hended, to the grievous loss of our common life. But
the immediate question is how far do they give any war-
rant for man's unanimous estimate of such virtues as I
include broadly under the title Humility, an estimate
which indisputably forms the centre of the modern view
of Ethics, and is the fundamental postulate of every

Humility as here used is, in other words, freedom from
egoism. The contention is that egoism is a quality
deeply and inevitably intertwined with the inmost char-
acter of every human being. It is a perversion or exag-
geration of an instinct absolutely necessary to the preser-
vation of the race and to growth in mental and spiritual


power. The desire to get and to appropriate is at the
bottom of all progress. True it may be, and has often
been, pointed out that unless egoism is subordinated to
altruism, disaster and ruin impend inevitably; but, none
the less, the supreme and vital importance of instincts
and qualities which may justly be called egoistic, is a
truth too palpable to need labouring. We have learnt
enough of ourselves to know that, from the first activities
of a human infant down to the day of the old man's
departure from this life, all acquisition of knowledge, all
healthy growth of body, all sound and useful exercise
of faculties, all good living, in short, may be described
as the outcome of the desire to benefit the Ego, and are
certainly accompanied by a pleasure so comely, clean
and wholesome, that to make such pleasure the first aim
in life seems to us to be not only a natural but an
entirely laudable aim. Yet, quite as deep down in our
being as the emotions and sensations which indicate this
fact, there is the incontrovertible ethical principle that
unless egoism is dominated by something else, it not only
becomes unlovely but wholly impotent to attain its own
end. What is this other thing ? Is it given to us, or
even suggested, by any of the ethical and religious prin-
ciples enumerated above ?

An answer may be given to a portion of this question
at once. Unless the ethical principles are at least Theis-
tic there can be no warrant for rating Humility above
Egoism. This statement however is far from carrying
conviction at first, and requires some testing.

Perhaps it will clear the ground if we assume a serious-
minded believer in Conscience defending his position.
He would say " I admit that the monitions of what we
call Conscience are supremely mysterious, but those


which disallow Egoism are just as imperious as any others
and not more mysterious. If therefore I find myself
impelled by Conscience not to degrade myself by sins of
the flesh, though to a certain extent they seem harmless,
nor by perpetually thinking about my superiority to A,
B, and C, I obey the monitions as well as I can, but my
creed is not to trouble my head further about the origin
or history of the organ called Conscience. It seems to

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 3 of 19)