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things being done for man by God : the sending into the
world of His only Son that He might set an example of
a perfect life for us to follow, and utter precepts of conduct
which should shape our manner of living, which should
in other words enforce the idea of duty and raise it in-
finitely higher than it had ever been among Greeks or
Romans or even Jews. Am I right so far ?

D. Quite right. That is just where the ordinary
orthodox Christianity is so immeasurably better than the
pale nebulous .

B. Pardon me, pardon me. We are in danger of
straying from the point. I wish to ascertain how far
Christianity as you conceive of it gives warrant for some
ethical principles very commonly held ; among them,
especially, the very high estimate of Humility. Let us
test it in this way. You would say doubtless that it is
a highly objectionable trait in a man to be always com-
paring himself with others.

D. Decidedly.

B. But yet you will notice that the centre of your
religion is man's performance of his duty. I mean that
whatever you believe, leads up to that, is related to it as a


means to an end. To put it quite shortly, the stupendous
dogma that Christ was the Son of God affects your per-
sonal life. How ? Why, by giving a divine sanction
to the moral law, so that you may legitimately judge it
to be holy, majestic and inviolable.

D. I am not so sure of that. Your way of putting
it seems somehow rather to narrow it all down and cheapen
it, so to speak. You surely omit the great fact of the
divine Example of a perfect life and confine Christianity
too much to the teaching.

B. Yes. I was expecting you to say that. But the
inclusion of the divine Example in the Christian scheme
makes no difference to my criticism. It is only another
and more cogent way of increasing the burden of the
moral law.

D. I cannot conceive what you mean. Everybody
knows the marvellous power of stimulus in a living exam-
ple of virtue — that is, of course, if it is an attractive
example, as Christ's was undoubtedly.

B. I should say that is extremely dubious, considering
the way He was treated. But let me put my point by
an illustration. You would agree, I suppose, that men
do wrong not from ignorance nearly so much as from
weakness ; in other words, what we call wrongdoing is
sinning against the light ; not a blunder, but a choice of
what is evil knowing it to be evil.

D. Yes, I suppose so.

B. Then mankind may be compared to a man by a
roadside trying to lift a huge stone. The task is beyond
his strength and he knows it, but after a time a passer-by
sees him and urges him with copious exhortation, telling
him how very desirable it is that the stone should be
lifted and inciting him to spare no effort. What would



be the value of the exhortation, even if it were couched
in eloquent words ?

D. None whatever. I should say it was likely to be
supremely irritating in the circumstances described.

B. Suppose, then, the didactic pedestrian goes on his
way, and shortly there appears a mighty strong man, some
Sandow, who, seeing what is going on, bids the labouring
man stand aside and see how easily he with his vast
muscles can lift the stone. He does so. What is the
effect on the other ?

D. Well, clearly, if it does anything it will make him
despair at finding some one else so enormously stronger
than he is himself. Hitherto he has known himself
weak by comparison of his own powers with the task set
him. Now he knows it also by comparison between
himself and another.

B. That is clearly put ; and does it not make plain
the abortiveness of Christianity if it consists almost
entirely of the teaching and example of Christ ?

D. Well, I suppose that is so. Let me see. In the
illustration, the effect of the talk of one stronger and of
the showing off of the other would be to bring out, first,
the desirability of the thing being done, secondly, the
fact that it can be done, but not necessarily by the person
who is most anxious to do it. True. But what has all
this to do with Humility ?

B. Well, you notice that at first sight it looks as if it
would conduce to Humility in the labouring man. But
that is not at all the reason why I put the matter into a
figure. I did so to make plain in what sense it is true that
the main outcome of the Christian " orthodox " position
is that the severity of the moral law is immensely — indeed,
infinitely — enhanced by the law having been spoken


afresh and ratified afresh, and its provisions greatly ampli-
fied by One Whom you people profess to think of and to
worship as the Lord Almighty Himself, the Eternal Son
of the Eternal Father. Up till then there was a moral
law, but it was always possible — and, for Gentiles, in-
evitable — that it should be conceived of as largely man's
creation — only indirectly emanating from God, and
affected to a vast extent by mundane influences of all
sorts, environment, geographical facts, contact with other
peoples and so forth. But when it comes to a definite
record of precepts uttered by an adorable Person in a
language understood of His hearers and handed down
practically unimpaired to us to-day, the case is entirely

D. Well, what then ?

B. Does it not follow, then, that the dignity or rather
majesty of the moral law not only has been infinitely
enhanced, but according to your conception becomes
the one dominating fact in human life ? It is obviously
the paramount claim. Within you is the sacred voice,
as you call it, of conscience ; without, the wondrous
assertion of its innermost rulings, the corroboration of
its mandates by the divine Saviour of the world. Now,
this being so, there is an excellence towards which man
is bound to strive : the excellence of conformity to the
law which is hallowed by credentials so august, so
infinitely lofty, so irresistibly cogent. Is there not,
therefore, in this case, a test of comparative excellence in
man ? I mean is not each individual worthy of praise
exactly in proportion as he does conform to that law ?

D. I begin to see what you are at. You mean that
humility so far from being encouraged by this state of
things is, if anything, discountenanced.


B. Just so. The summum bonum for humanity is
conformity to certain moral precepts. How far in each
case that conformity is a fact can be seen and tested by
others. Hence individuals may be ranged in an ascending
scale. Everybody knows fairly accurately who is higher
than whom. What, then, is to prevent A, B and C from
looking down on D, E and F ? and where is your warrant
for saying that comparisons are odious, or that a self-
centred life is a life spoilt ?

D. That is a plain question and I think it admits of
a plain answer. Humility is plainly taught by Christ in
the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and in such
sayings as " He that humbleth himself shall be exalted,"
and in the commendation of the childlike nature. I pass
over various precepts in the Epistles. Now these sayings
and the divine example of humility constitute a claim
upon us which would anyhow be irresistible, but is
stronger than ever because they correspond with the
deepest and best instincts in men's minds on the subject
of ethics. What more can any one want ? God im-
planted the instinct and gave the command.

B. That answer requires to be weighed in two parts.
First, is it accurate to say God implanted the instinct ?
In whom ? What do you say to the Greek conception
of humility ? It is a virtue for which they have no name
anymore than the Romans have? If we judge from
Aristotle's famous portrait of his ideal man thev had even
less of a conception of it. I admit that you will find say-
ings in the Psalms and prophets which show that among a
very select circle of Jews there was some theoretical
notion of the thing, but, I fancy, very little practice of it.
Barring them, where would you look for your humble
men ?


D. It would be difficult to find them, no doubt ; but
it makes no difference. The instinct is in all of us now,
and that is all that is necessary to make my answer

B. Is that so indeed ? You have not considered, I think,
the great stress that is thus thrown on the teaching and
example of Christ and its consequences. Remember the
exact objection which you have to rebut. It is that as
long as your conception of Christianity is mainly legal,
you rather give encouragement than not to human con-
ceit. The more tremendous is the claim, the more august
its sanctions and undeniable its authority, the greater
becomes the justification for X to plume himself on his
achievement being better than that of Y. Now your
answer comes to this : that a Being of marvellous holiness
suddenly appears among mankind. Him you believe
to be the Son of God ; and He, by teaching and example,
enforces with a power previously unimagined, the claims
of the moral law. Well, then, apart from other con-
siderations, don't you see that if Christ adds to other
commands previously known the new one of Humility,
you are in danger of flouting your reason unless you can
give some other ground for this command being valid.

D. I don't see that at all. Why should my reason be
flouted if I obey the command of One acknowledged to
be Divine ?

B. Because you would be setting yourself most seri-
ously to fulfil certain injunctions uttered by the Founder
of your religion whom you worship as God, principally,
so I understand, because His teaching corresponds to the
rationally perceived inner law of our being ; not because
He arbitrarily lays down a law for us to obey, the meaning
of which is not rationally perceived at all. In other


words, it is incumbent on you if you believe reason to be
a divine gift, to bring it to bear on the moral teaching of
Christ. To make this clear, tell me first if you agree that
there was hardly any clear recognition of the virtue of
humility, widely interpreted, among either Greeks or

D. I don't think you should be very positive about
this. How about the stories of Miltiades and Pausanias ;
and what of Herodotus' comment on the defeat of the
Persians, that Heaven usually selects the highest and most
overweening among mankind to bring low, and the well-
known doctrine of Aeschylus and Sophocles that the surest
way to provoke Nemesis was to have the head turned by
prosperity ?

B. Doubtless as patriotic members of the Polis the
Greeks could not tolerate a man behaving with arrogant
presumption after meeting with great success. But of
course that has little or nothing to do with the spirit of
I Corinthians xiii. Similarly a character like Oedipus
makes a great figure in literature, not as a warning against
pride but because he exemplifies the essentially tragic
position of a great man apparently powerful and prosper-
ous but in reality doomed. I think you must admit that
all this hardly touches the matter in hand. Give it its
full weight, it yet remains true that the sudden and rapid
development of the idea of humility and the appearance
of the virtue as a characteristic of Christians is a pheno-
menon of the highest interest in the history of Ethics ;
further, that the embryonic conception of the quality
existing among Greeks and Romans is totally inadequate
to explain what happened, or to dispense with the neces-
sity of seeking an adequate explanation.

D. Very well. For the sake of argument, let it be so.


B. The question then comes to be this. If you reject
the theory of natural development ; if, that is, you recog-
nize a motive power in the direction of humility among
Christians, which clearly did not act among the heathen,
were the mere preaching and example of Christ sufficient
to supply that motive power ?

D. Yes, that is our question now.

B. What I affirm is that whoever is disposed to believe
that in that teaching and example you have the whole
explanation of the results, is assuming that a revolution
in human ethics, of the most unlikely kind, is the outcome
of a mere fiat of a preacher backed up by consistent
practice. In other words that the teaching and example
worked a change which cannot be rationally explained ;
and this is to flout reason. It is also to assume that Christ
Himself flouted reason in this one respect, though He
apparently observed it carefully in all other respects and
frequently urged His followers to do the same.

D. Wait a bit. Why do you say that this change
was of a most unlikely kind ?

B. Simply because even to conceive of humility as a
virtue is uncongenial to ordinary men ; and to practise
it is to snub all the most universal human instincts.
Further, there is a great deal to be said against it on
utilitarian grounds by any one who has at heart the
development of society.

D. You mean that self-assertion has been a great force
in all upward movements of society ?

B. Yes ; and also that the sentimental consideration
for the weak and poverty-stricken, the imbeciles, the
morally impotent, and so on, is productive of nothing
but harm. But more particularly in respect of indi-
viduals, I say that there is a kind of self-conquest in


humility which is by far the most difficult of all. Don't
misunderstand me. I have no admiration for self-
conquest per se. Simeon on his pillar is no hero for me,
any more than Diogenes in his tub. But, as a matter of
difficulty, all that such people went through was a trifle
compared to the change effected by such a man as Paul,
who succeeded in extirpating from a proud, ambitious
nature every single trace of self-seeking. Why, the
ordinary belief that ambition is the last infirmity of noble
minds is surely a warrant for holding that the conquest
of it is the supreme triumph of principle over inclination.

D. I see. You mean that in that day, as being more
fundamentally against ordinary human nature than
sobriety, purity, temperance, and so forth, the establish-
ment of this virtue among men was a greater achievement
than any other.

B. Just so. And more than that. You understand
that under the title Humility we are discussing all the
feeblenesses and contemptibilities which people ascribe
to the self-centred character. For my part I don't agree
with them, but I must admit a certain sympathy with
their point of view. But, at any rate, it is your point of
view, and I wish to insist on the difference which you must
recognize between such weaknesses and those which
manifest themselves in ordinary vice. There is something
objective and simple about such failings as drunkenness,
gluttony, avarice, ill-temper, even cruelty. To attack
those is to war against something which is, in a way, exter-
nal to the being of the sinner. But when you come to
the introspective, or profoundly cautious, selfish man, you
have to deal with folds in the character which only become
more intricate the more they are examined, and which,
if not examined, cannot be cured.


D. Yes, I suppose that is so. But illustrate your

B. Well, suppose a man who had been convinced by
the Sermon on the Mount that it is wrong to act with a
view to men's praise. In every one of his efforts towards
anything that is called good the poor fellow distrusts
his own motives and the result is not only feebleness,
vacillation, ineffectiveness generally, but profound spirit-
ual disquiet. He cannot refuse a game of Bridge to go
to a Committee meeting for the relief of suffering, without
being haunted by the fear that he is merely doing it
because a shallow-pat ed public approves it.

D. But, my good friend, if he is made miserable by
this introspection, of course he will give it up.

B. Easy to say, impossible to do, unless some power-
ful external interest is aroused which will take the man's
thoughts away from himself. His friends suggest this
or that. But whatever he tries, it is perpetually vitiated
by the question " Is this doing me any good ? " Now
my point is that there is this most baffling difficulty in-
herent in this kind of egoism, that it is proof against all
kinds of exhortation, even the appeal of a perfect example,
because the self-motive is impregnable ; the more it is
attacked the stronger it grows. But please observe that
I am insisting on this not to show the hopelessness of this
disease — that is another subject — but to support my con-
tention that between the time of Aristotle and that of
1 Corinthians xiii. (roughly from 333 B.C. to 57 a.d.) a
moral revolution was brought about in the very region
of men's being where it seems most inconceivable
that it ever should be ; and that it is futile to suppose
that this could have been done by exhortation and exam-
ple alone. In short, that your creed is wholly unequal


to the task set it : i.e. to suggest an adequate principle
for the common modern opinion, or to explain difficult
facts in the past.

D. It may be that you are right in saying that the
cure for introspection and morbidity of mind lies outside
my creed, the orthodox Christianity of to-day ; but
it lies outside of any religious creed as far as I know. I
think too you have confused two different tempers of
mind. There is the ambitious temper which craves for
glory, and the morbid which is self-conscious. Now
Christ preached against the first, but said nothing about
the second. I am inclined therefore to concede what
you have urged about the second, only remarking that
it is a point scored not only against orthodox Christians
but against all schools of thought, religious and ethical.
By their principles none of them can explain why self-
consciousness is such a serious disease, nor can they cure
it. But let us not make too much of this ; I look on it
as a temporary phenomenon due to certain phases of
modern thought, and symptomatic, as Seeley once re-
marked, more of the sickliness of adolescence than of
the decadence of old age. But what about ambition ?

B. Well, I will try to illustrate what I mean. You
and others go about saying that ambition is a bad thing,
and I grant that it is decried in the Gospels. But the
question is whether a few sayings against it can be fairly
supposed to have caused the immeasurable changes of
feeling shown by comparing Cicero's famous letter 1 with
some passages in Paul's letters, when all the time there
are very strong things to be said in favour of ambition

1 To Lucceius (Fam. v. 12), Cicero begs the historian to praise
his action in the civil war more heartily than he is inclined to,
and "just a little in excess of the truth" ("amorique nostro
plusculum etiam quam concedet Veritas largiare").


if it is combined with good taste and a reasonable con-
sideration for others. Now imagine a young man start-
ing life with good abilities and a fair income, untram-
melled by any profession and debating how to spend his
time. On the one side there is a pleasant programme :
a certain amount of travelling, big game in Africa, country
house visiting, golf and yachting, or, in the evening,
Bridge. If he is pleasant, nobody would upbraid him
with wasting a life so spent. But suppose he is keen
on securing the applause of his generation, and sees
that it can be done by a life lived on the lines of the
philanthropic Lord Shaftesbury, even though the penalty
to be paid would be a renunciation of pleasure and a
questionable monument after death. He will forego all
or nearly all of these pleasures to work strenuously and
persistently for the bettering of the plight of his fellow
men. His whole career will be one of public usefulness
and high endeavour, and instead of leaving no trace behind
him at the end, he will have wrought changes which bring
sunshine into many a darkened dwelling-place and smiles
to the tear-furrowed cheeks of scores of mourners. His
children will point to what he has done ; they will show
that where there used to be disease there is now health,
a fairly-ordered city-life in place of squalor, misery, and
conflict. Why has he done this ? Because he rated
high the joy of receiving the approval of good men ; not
the silly shouts of the vulgar, but the verdict of sound-
headed, high-minded citizens that he has not lived for
nought, but has left a region of the earth's surface a
happier place than he found it. Now you will notice
that, because of ambition, this person has done a vast
amount of good which, without ambition, would have
remained undone. That is on the profit side of the


account. On the loss side, what ? Can you point out
any drawback, either to himself or to others which is due
to his yielding to a noble ambition ?

D. Well, I confess I see none. And yet, there is
something puzzling about the matter perhaps.

B. What is puzzling is this. You, like a whole host
of other people, give way to an unaccountably irrational
feeling when you rate a character absolutely untouched by
ambition above one which responds to its noblest stimulus.

D. But do we ?

B. Certainly you do when you have the rare chance
of observing one. For my part I think the feeling a
mistake ; I prefer to guide my thoughts and preferences
by reason. But if you come across a man in high position
who wins the highest distinctions after scorning public
opinion for many years, and then shows that he cares
not a fig for the honour and glory, there is no doubt you
would reverence him far more than another who showed,
even discreetly, that he valued the " ribbon to stick in
his coat." I understand the feeling, but I try to suppress
it, as I cannot explain it. No more, it appears, can you.
Don't you see that the more I say in favour of the stimulus
of ambition the more difficult it is for you to show why
characters quite free from ambition, like that of Christ
Himself, are admired ? But not only is it more difficult,
but also more necessary, if you wish to claim that there
is reasonableness in your ethical and religious creed. I
give you strong reasons for rating ambition high. All
you can answer is that you and the world generally rate
the absence of it higher ; but when asked to explain why,
you say nothing at all.

D. I admit I have nothing quite to the point to say.
But you don't shake my conviction that the feeling which


makes us admire Humility is divinely implanted, and
hence when we see the virtue practised to the utmost
by saints and the like, we naturally reverence it.

B. Very good. That is exactly the point which I
reach always and never can go beyond. If your state-
ment is all that is needed it means that Christianity has
little or nothing to do with reason. That is, briefly, why
I am not a Christian. Reason is to me far too integral
a part of my higher faculties for me to lay it completely
on one side in so vital a matter. But there is another
of the fundamental convictions which you people seem
to share where the inadequacy of your orthodox creed is
still more manifest. Perhaps, however, you prefer to
postpone this to our next talk, which can be to-morrow.

D. Yes, let us do so.


The Discussion Continued

ON the next day the friends meet again. B begins :
You remember my saying yesterday that
a man trying to fulfil the precepts of the moral law
as expounded in the Gospel is like one by the roadside
striving to lift a stone too heavy for him, and that, for
the purpose he has in view, both teaching and example
are unavailing.

D. Yes. It was to show that these two agencies in
the Christian religion are not to be taken as sufficient
causes of the growth of humility in a short time, or of the
high estimation in which the quality is held.

B. Just so. Now you will observe that the same
illustration will serve us in an inquiry as to the basis of
hopefulness in the matter of moral progress. You people
think a vast deal of this quality of hopefulness. I suppose
that in bringing up children on moral lines you would
concern yourselves with the planting of the quality, and
would consider any character deficient without it.

D. Why, of course. It is one of the things which
bring illumination into life. Like a lovely sunbeam on
a river. . . .

B. Yes, yes ; I quite agree. But on what do you
base it ?

D. Base it ! Why, to be sure, one tells a child not
to give in ; in fighting temptation or curing a bad habit,

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 5 of 19)