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me to be a waste of time and to lead to nothing of any
use."

Now this defence may seem fairly adequate. But
there is a question to be asked which has not yet been
cleared up. A very awkward phenomenon concerning
conscience is that, if people are to be believed, it varies
very seriously in different individuals. I have heard a
lady in the train between Dover and London explaining
how she had defrauded the Customs at Dover of a con-
siderable sum of money by successful smuggling ; and
she added triumphantly, " And I don't think it is wrong ;
my conscience doesn't disturb me in the least." Here
we come across a common conception of conscience as if
it were a kind of voice within, which gives orders quite
independently of reason or experience or reflection, and
if they are not obeyed, causes a certain discomfort in the
inmost being. But if its admonitions are not justifiable
by reason and are not referred to any divine origin they
constitute a wholly unintelligible phenomenon.

We may then imagine such a pleader for conscience,
whom we will call A, being heckled by a selfish but refined
hedonist B, whose views as to virtue differ from those
of A. The latter has indulged in some strictures against
B for pursuing a purely self-centred life of travel, social
intercourse, dabbling in pictures, and occasionally read-



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 35

ing, but filling up odd times with golf. What distin-
guishes him from other people, is a total lack of interest
in the characters or concerns of his neighbours, beyond
what may be evinced by a casual attention now and then
to gossip. B makes rejoinder : —
B. You upbraid me with being self-centred. Why ?

A. Because your neighbours have a claim upon you,
and your conscience tells you you ought to try to make
their lives happier.

B. It does nothing of the kind. My neighbours don't
interest me and I dispute your contention that there is
any claim in the case. It is an affirmation on your part
which you can't support with a tittle of evidence. If
neighbours interest you, why on earth is that a reason
for their interesting me, any more than my liking golf
is a reason why you should like it ?

A. But if you only feel an interest in your self, you
will suffer the doom of all selfish men, viz. increasing
unhappiness as life goes on.

B. I doubt it. Such selfish men as are unhappy, are
so because they are perpetually disturbed by doubts
whether they have chosen the right way of life. I have
no such doubts. But if I had, and if I were what you
call unhappy because of my egoism, I cannot see why
that should worry you or move you to scold me.

A. Well, but without scolding let me show you how
mistaken you are. History shows that all societies of
mankind rise or fall according as there is union or dis-
union among the individuals or the groups who compose
them. Now there is no question that union is threatened
by such egoistic opinions as yours, and you surely cannot
contemplate being a cause of dissension and unhappiness
to others.



36 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

B. Dissension ? Why, if every one thought and
acted as I do there would be no such thing as a tiff even.
I never have collisions with any one, and you can't point
out a single action of mine which has caused any one
else unhappiness. Not that I should care a fig if it had,
provided that nobody knew it. And, mind you, it is
beyond anything difficult to make sure that any of this
fussing about poor people and sufferers and so forth really
does any good in the long run. It advances civilization
I dare say, but civilization is not at all the same thing as
happiness. Finally, even if you are right in saying that
it has " raised " society so far, that is not the smallest
reason why I should bother myself with trying to raise
it any further. My creed, in short, is perfectly rational.
I know what I like, and I follow it. I dislike quarrelling,
and so I leave other people alone, but that is not for
their sakes, but for my own. Now your creed is confused
with a lot of mystical dogma about higher and lower,
claims and conscience, and doesn't appeal to me one bit.

A. Mystical dogma ! Why, I have left religion
entirely on one side, and you and I have always agreed
about this.

B. Very likely. But what I call dogma includes the
unsupported affirmations which you try to thrust on me ;
and by mystical I mean something which no plain man
can understand and which evidently has nothing to do
with reason.

As with all dialogues, the reader will feel that the case
for A might be much better stated. So might the attack
of B doubtless. But it is not easy to see what reply to the
latter is possible so long as conscience and conscience alone
is held to be adequate as a guide of life. The inference
seems to be that A is all along drawing upon some instinc-



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 37

tive conviction that there is something high and holy in
conscience. But any such conviction is borrowed from
religion, with which we are so far not concerned. Before
passing on, we may notice that the argument is mainly
about interest in other people, which is only a very small
portion of what any one would call Humility. But the
case would be the same if any of the qualities enumerated,
such as Mercifulness or Self -forget fulness, had been
directly challenged.

We now pass to a group more avowedly concerned
with religion. The loyalty to conscience is, in their case,
based on Theism. They would profess a belief that
God has endowed man with a mysterious faculty, enab-
ling him not only to shun what is evil but to honour
what is good. Hence they revere the character of Christ
but hesitate to affirm anything definite as to His divi-
nity. Such affirmation would appear to them to savour
too much of " dogma." His teaching they would rate
above that of any prophet. They conceive that the
Christian law, so given and warranted by conscience, is
their guide in life, and vaguely they hope that obedience
to it will give them entry to the joys of life everlasting.
Meantime all good examples stimulate them ; and they
have little doubt that their sympathy with what is good
is all right and must be acted on zealously. As to the
demands made upon them, they are sure they are not
impossible and, though frequent failures mark their
progress in life, they do not look on sin as a reason for
despair, since it does not imply retrogression. In prac-
tical life their zeal takes the form of promoting the wel-
fare of others and insisting on reforms in institutions and
in customs. Or, it may be, if their temperaments are of
a different sort, they believe in conservation of that which



38 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

is traditional and works well. In either case they admit
a strong element of hopefulness into their view of things :
they have hope either in pulling up the tares at the cost
of some of the wheat, or in preserving the wheat even
at the cost of saving many tares.

This view of life and conduct is given, not because it
is deep or satisfying, but only because it is common.
As in the last case, there is a great deal that might be
said against it on the philosophical side, but here we will
deal only with the question how far it gives any warrant
for the view of virtue which is practically universal
among all seriously minded people ; viz. that its essence,
described negatively, is a freedom from egoism.

As before, then, it will be convenient to cast the argu-
ment in a dialogue form. Let the representative of the
Theistic moralists be denoted by C, and again the assail-
ant B, who is puzzled more hopelessly by each class
of moralist, according as they become more religious.
Such arguments as would apply, but have already been
used against A, are omitted.

B. I understand then that the cluster of virtues or
qualities which you sum up under the title of Humility
are to you preferable to all forms of egoism and distinc-
tively the sign of a high and noble character.

C. Certainly. So strong is my feeling on that score
that I have no hesitation in saying that the Deity has
implanted it in my being. For as you know I am a
strong Theist.

B. And do you go on to consider that gratitude is due
to the Deity for this gift ?

C. Well, no, I can't say that I do. You must under-
stand that I discard all dogma as far as possible — I
mean of course affirmations about mysteries which can-



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 39

not be proved — and the reason why I attribute this gift
to God is that there is no other way of accounting for it.
Evolution, as I believe you hold, goes a very little way in
explaining it ; and where evolution fails I bring in the
Deity.

B. I see. Where the machine breaks down the Au-
thor of the machine steps in and does the work. It may
be so. As you know, I never deny these things. But
what I am trying to get at is the basis of your belief
about Egoism. When you talk of God you mean, I sup-
pose, a Personal God ?

C. Yes ; though I should hesitate to press the term :
I doubt if we can rightly and definitely conceive of an
infinite Personality.

B. But you mean that man's personality is so far a
guide in the matter that we may suppose it has qualities
in common with the divine Personality.

C. Of course ; that is spiritually. I bar all anthro-
pomorphism.

B. Very well. Then you conceive of an all- wise and
infinitely-loving Person ?

C. To be sure. Otherwise I could not use the word
God.

B. Then this gift of a moral sense, this preference
for Humility over Egoism is something supremely good ;
because there is no doubt it is hard to acquire and often
highly unpleasant to practise.

C. Certainly.

B. How do you know it is supremely good ?

C. Why, it works. Society would perish without it.

B. But hold hard. Is not that tantamount to ad-
mitting evolution as the explanation ? If you are right
— which I cannot admit — why bring in the Deity ?



40 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

C. Ah ! well ; you have me there. I suppose the
utmost I could say would be that the feeling is in me and
I can no more help acting on it than I can help breathing.

B. Dear me ! A good many gentlemen I could name
seem to have surmounted your difficulty. But tell me.
Does not your God give man also the gift of reason ?

C. No doubt of it.

B. Then is it not rather odd that reason seems to
have nothing to say to this unspeakably important con-
ception of the very essence of virtue ? Because, so far
as we have gone, you have given me no reason whatever
for its existence, and indeed because you find it wholly
unintelligible, you ascribe its introduction into human
life to your God ; Whom yet you believe to be supremely
rational, the Author of all thought, the embodiment of
truth.

C. I admit it is not very satisfactory, this explanation
of mine. But can any one give a better ?

B. I don't believe they can ; that is the reason why
I throw this idea of Humility, self-forgetfulness, and the
rest, completely overboard. I doubt if it works ; that
is one thing ; and I am sure no one can justify it philo-
sophically. But permit me to point out another serious
fact in your creed.

C. Well, go ahead.

B. Have you ever reflected on the theory involved in
it of man's position in the Universe ? Why, you think
of yourself as being evolved by the working of most mar-
vellous laws into a position of dominating the animal
world in this planet and gaining more and more control
of nature. Why such a being should think himself bound
to be humble, I can't imagine. But when he goes on
to postulate a God of infinite power and wisdom, the



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 41

Eternal Creator of all things, interposing, so to speak,
in the even tenor of events and developments to give
the wondrous gift of a moral sense to certain individuals,
it is hard to see how these individuals are not bound to
think very highly of themselves.

C. I see your point. But still there must be a fallacy
somewhere. A man who conceives of a God as a Giver
of all good things is more likely to be humble than one
who does not. Take your own case. What motive
for humility have you got ?

B. None, my good friend, none ; but then I don't
act upon it, nor even believe in it. The difference be-
tween us is just this. I am as nearly godless as a man
can be, and egoism is my whole creed. You bring in a
whole lot of notions about a God whose whole concern
apparently is to minister to your welfare and exalt your
notions of your own importance, and yet you go about
saying that self-abasement, or anyhow self-forgetfulness,
sympathy for others, readiness to forgive and so on,
are of the essence of virtue. You postulate a God to
fill up the many lacunae in your philosophy, but omit to
notice that your conception of Him must, and does no
doubt, minister directly to human pride. In the days
when I went to church I used to hear of a man who gave
a silly young son of his a grand robe to put on and a
fatted calf to eat, when the youngster had only been
making a fool of himself on a considerable scale. I dare
say his previous experiences as a keeper of swine may have
forbidden him to think very highly of himself, but the
father's conduct seems likely to have taught him as much
conceit as was possible. How much more then if the
father were not an ordinary rich man, but the Eternal
God, Maker of all things in Heaven and Earth ?



42 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

C. There is something very unconvincing about all
this. Look at our mutual acquaintance G, a believer
in God if ever there was one, and certainly a humble man.

B. I grant it. But his conception of God is very
different from yours. He goes much further, and adds
a whole lot of notions about Christ which if true would
possibly alter the whole position and save from gross
inconsistency any believer who still maintained the
supreme beauty of humility of character. Of course
I think G is mistaken and his notions are spun out of
man's brain. But as a logical man I see the enormous
difference between them and yours.

C. Well, but show me wherein his creed encourages
humility better than mine.

B. Pardon me. I think you ought to ask G him-
self about it, as our present discussion only concerns your
creed and its inconsistency with your deepest convic-
tions about virtue. Moreover, let me remind you that
you are inclined now to hanker after some ideas about
God in the hope of repairing some holes in your own
mental equipment. Don't you see that you are still
treating yourself as the hub and centre of all things ?
You can't be easy without some warrant for your con-
victions about egoism and virtue. At present you have
got none. So you cast about for some new presentation
of Theism in order to make your spiritual interior more
comfortable. Is that your idea of humility ? A very
common course I admit, but preposterous. You can't
make your own needs the one justification for your
creed, when the matter in question is self-forgetfulness.
How can you forget self by remembering it more than
ever, and bending your idea of God wholly to conform
to your own spiritual needs ?



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 43

C. This goes rather too much into philosophy for me.
Explain further.

B. What I mean is simply this. I have a friend
much to be pitied who, from something wrong in his
mind, has got into a thoroughly morbid state. He has
everything that the world can give him, friends, income,
ability, health, opportunities and a good bringing up ;
everything except any objectivity in his view of life. As
his mind turns in more and more on itself he becomes
more unhappy and dyspeptic, a weakness from which
he was never wholly free. So his friends are advising
him to be actively unselfish in order to cure his trouble.
One of them tells him to write a biography of some simple-
hearted warrior ; another to become the secretary of a
hospital, or a schoolmaster. But all of them mean the
same absurd thing. Take up, they say to him, the active
love of your fellow-creatures as a cure for indigestion ;
the latter being the result of self-love. But charity
when treated as a spiritual pill is a form of self-love,
which many people would call profane. Similarly you
propose to readjust your view of the Deity simply to
give some colour to a kind of instinct which you cannot
explain. But this is not self -forget fulness but the very
opposite.

C. What then would you suggest ?

B. Ah ! that is a very different matter. Let us defer
it, if you please, to another occasion.

C. All right. But there is one more question. Hun-
dreds and thousands of Englishmen hold a religious and
ethical creed just like mine. They, too, conceive of the
essence of virtue very much as I do, as something quite
opposed to egoism in all its forms. How do you explain
this, if the theory is really so inadequate to furnish a



44 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

basis for such a prevalent conviction. Whence has the
conviction come ?

B. That too, with your leave, we will postpone.

We now proceed to the next group of moralists whose
religious creed would be ordinarily called orthodox.
They affirm their adhesion to all the clauses of the Apostles'
Creed, and have found no difficulty in believing the
crowning dogma of Christ's Divinity proved, as they
generally believe it to be, by the Resurrection. They
also profess to worship the Holy Spirit and join in the
services of Whitsunday, though with less of whole-hearted
zeal than they show at Christ mast ide. If asked what
difference their religious faith makes to their morals,
they would say that the Divinity of Christ makes all the
difference to the cogency of His teaching. He has given
us directions in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere
for the conduct of life, and of course for a Christian there
can be no appeal from His words. In addition to this
they would allow that some very stern and terrible words
were spoken by Jesus, in spite of His ordinarily showing
tenderness towards sinners, and as to the fate of impeni-
tent sinners after death they would feel inclined rever-
ently to draw the veil, but in regard to themselves they
would trust vaguely to the Redemption wrought by
Christ which, in some way that they do not try to under-
stand, gives them assurance of forgiveness. Broadly,
they feel that there is a great deal in the New Testament
and in many sermons which, to speak frankly, is to them
superfluous and might well be dispensed with, so long
as they have the priceless privilege of imitating Christ's
example and trying to obey His teaching. Further they
would insist that a great many people spin mystical



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 45

theories about God and Christ which have no bearing
on a plain man's life and its problems. So that in a
general sense they would sympathize with the last group
in preferring a simple form of Christianity. If Christ
really loved men, as it is plain He did, why should we
suppose that He gave them a whole mass of statements
which ordinary folk cannot understand ?

Such a position as this, or one very like it, is found
exemplified in the numerous horde of fairly well-brought-
up, serious-minded, upright men, hard at work in pro-
fessions and constituting what is often called the back-
bone of the country. Among them, as has been implied,
some of the finest examples of integrity, courage, honour
and self-devotion to noble causes are to be found.

Some readers would object to the principles professed
by this group being questioned at all. The plea would
be that where such tenets are sincerely held and lofti-
ness of character results, nothing but harm can be the
issue if the foundations of belief are probed. The pro-
cess must have a disturbing effect and tend to destroy
the simplicity of character which is the great strength
of the chief votaries of this creed. To this there is a
cogent answer to be given. If the peace of mind of cer-
tain individuals were all that is at stake, there would be
something to be said for letting sleeping dogs lie. But
the gravity of the whole discussion is due to the fact
that it concerns the nature of the message we intend to
hand on to the next generation. If the conception of
Christianity and its bearing on conduct, which is now
under review, is seriously defective, it is wrong to acquiesce
in its being taught far and wide to children. Nor is it to
be assumed that the majority of those who hold it are
content. If it contradicts the noblest instincts of ordi-



46 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

nary men it is doomed, and the sooner the contradiction
is exposed the better. Moreover (to anticipate what
will appear later), if there are current two different con-
ceptions of the deepest problems in life, and it is agreed
that both of them have come directly or indirectly from
God, it is puerile to talk fashionable Pragmatism and to
make the only test of either of them the question, does
it work ? There is a very much more vital and more
difficult question to be faced, one towards which we
are impelled by loyalty to truth and by a desire to
pass on to others what we have received, not so much
because it benefits them, but because it is God's will
and command.

It is to be noticed about the creed now under discussion
that, like the two which preceded it, its emphasis lies on
duty ; but, unlike the others, it gives a willing intellectual
assent to certain tremendous affirmations concerning
the manifestation of God's power among men, but at the
same time draws no particular inferences as to the further
beliefs involved in the affirmations. In other words, the
creed is not thought out. It seems at first to give a sound
warrant to man's deep instinct that before him lie many
tough tasks,|much renunciation of pleasure, and much
resisting of natural inclination. It seems to do this ; but
what we have to examine now is how far this appearance
is true in respect of certain deep convictions, not so much
as to duty to be done, as to character required of us. If
the conceptions as to the divine working on mankind are
limited in the way this statement of faith limits them,
they will be found to be not only inadequate to explain
our deepest beliefs but inconsistent with them.

In attempting to cast the argument into a dialogue
form I would ask the reader to notice that nearly all the



SOME OF THE PLAIN MAN'S PRINCIPLES 47

broad indictments brought against the previous religious
and ethical positions which have been under survey tell
against the so-called orthodox position; and some of
those now to be brought would have applied to the others,
but to avoid repetition have been reserved till now. The
interlocutors are B, the same person as we have heard
already, and D, an " orthodox " Christian of the type
described.

D. I have often wondered how you, B, get along at
all comfortably in this world of changing opinions and
uncertainties. It is such a blessing to me to feel that, in
spite of the difficulty of making one's conduct what it
ought to be, I have a warrant in the grand old religion
received from our forefathers, which you, I fear, find it
impossible to accept. I can't make out how you get along
at all.

B. I am afraid I get along in ways which it would
rather startle you if I described. If you will pardon me I
should prefer to leave my own position alone and look
at yours for a few minutes, because it has been borne in
upon me since I have known you that there is something
deep and essential which is wholly lacking in your religious
and ethical creed.

D. " Deep and essential ! " What in the world do
you mean ?

B. Merely this. That what you regard as the very
essence of virtue, what, if I may say so, you loyally prac-
tise, is something which lies outside your creed as far as
I understand your statement of it. I mean that the
qualities we sum up under the name Humility are the
most difficult of acquisition of any that we ever imagine,
and that yet no virtue, as you conceive virtue, can be
called the real thing without them.



48 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

D. You mean the absence of conceit. But why should
any one's religious or ethical creed embrace such an ele-
mentary matter as that ? Nobody likes a conceited
person, and there is an end of it.

B. Not at all. If your creed is what you claim that
it is, it surely ought to account for this deep and un-
assailable conviction in all right-thinking men that a
conceited person, one who thinks highly of himself in
comparison with his neighbours, is wrong-headed and
quite unlovable. Now please attend to this. Your
religious creed speaks of wonderful and unimaginable


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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 4 of 19)