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if he is not hopeful he has a very poor chance.


B. Very. But are you content to go on telling
children to be hopeful when the evidence seems to point
pretty steadily in the opposite direction ?

D. Why not ? They generally act on the advice as
far as one can tell.

B. Then let us take the case of boys and girls in their
teens. There is no doubt that they have temptations
to meet, and they have a very strong consciousness of
the moral law. How are you, on your creed, going to
give them hope in the moral struggle ?

D. Oh well, I should say they are naturally hopeful.

B. Perhaps so. But many of them are naturally
greedy. This you try to check because it leads speedily
to awkward consequences. But they nearly all are ab-
surdly credulous and unable to weigh evidence, and if
you put them in a fair way to outgrow this weakness for
the sake of their intellectual health, how can you acquiesce
in their being buoyed up for years on a fallacious expecta-
tion with regard to their moral health ?

D. Fallacious ! That word begs the question.

B. I use it because I have been challenging you to
show any evidence that moral improvement is within
the reach of young human beings, and you fail to do so.
I should say old human beings also, only they are not
being perpetually exhorted like young people, except
perhaps from pulpits, which hardly counts.

D. But, look here, do you mean to say you have never
heard of the thing happening ? Ridiculous! Young people
often, and older ones sometimes, visibly and obviously
improve. This fact knocks all your theories on the head.

B. Hold hard a moment. I admit the fact, and I
also admit that I can't explain it. But I am not bound
to explain it. I am not a schoolmaster or a parson, and


so I leave the business of exhortation to those who like
it. But if you have any claim to be called a reasonable
being, you are bound to explain it. You are constantly
exhorting yourself. You belong to a huge organization
which exists by and for exhortation — what you call the
Church. You pride yourself on your orthodoxy, that is,
on holding a certain set of notions about the Divinity of
Christ and a Judgment to come, and so on, and so on.
Such persons, 'and all who are like you in their beliefs,
are bound to show that all the good advice you give is
not sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. I know you
can't ; and if you could, here is another consideration
hard to meet. You agree, I suppose, that most people
have what you call a besetting sin, what I should call a
tendency to one sort of undesirable conduct ?

D. Yes.

B. And that the faculty or organ within us which
resists a temptation is the will, so that a strong-willed
man resists where a weak-willed man^gives3way ?

D. Certainly.

B. Now what happens to the will when the individual
succumbs to a temptation ?

D. It becomes weaker, I suppose.

B. And the temptation ?

D. (uneasily). It becomes stronger. 1

B. That is to say, the more you know about the laws
of our mental and spiritual being, the less hopeful the
prospect becomes. It is like a warfare between two
armies consisting of 10,000 men each at first ; but after
the defeat of one, 1,000 men desert from it to the enemy,

1 This I am assuming to be the case in sins of the flesh. In
others, an increasing predisposition seems not impossible, but
cannot be called certain.


so that the second battle is between two forces, one of
which is weakened by a loss identical with the gain of
the other. Where is the warrant for expecting success
at any time for the weaker of the two ?

D. After all, you cannot compare a mysterious
spiritual struggle with anything so concrete as a battle,
though even in the latter case the issues are strangely
uncertain. But I should prefer to fall back on the doc-
trine that God teaches us to pray and gives us help against

B. As to the first part of your rejoinder, please note
that you cannot invalidate the comparison by a mere
affirmation. Of course it is not perfectly accurate ; but
it gives an indication of what must go on, and I don't see
what other indication you have by which to go. But as
to what you say about prayer, I thought you prided your-
self on not having recourse to mysticism. What is this
but mysticism. If you really stick to what you have
said there is much to say in answer. If not, let us
leave it.

D. No ; for the sake of argument, at least, I hold to it.

B. Very well. Then of course you are prepared to
face the time-honoured bombardment as to the irrational-
ity of prayer. You assume a beneficent and all-powerful
God, and then go on to say that He must be asked before
He will help. In other words, He prefers to look on at
one of His creatures sinking into irretrievable degradation
rather than help, if the unfortunate man has never
been taught to pray. Prayer for rain or for the cure of
disease or the alleviation is to my mind superstition
rank enough. But after all, it only impugns the validity
of the laws of nature which God established. Your peti-
tions, on the other hand, for spiritual strength are an


insult to His character. Of all fatuous utterances that
proceeded from the days of the triumph of Science over
men's common sense, in the seventies of last century, the
most absurd was the contention that it was silly to pray
for rain or material benefits, but quite right to ask for
spiritual help.

D. H'm, well, suppose we leave that, 1 as I freely con-
fess I have always felt that prayer of any sort is a great
difficulty. Why not conceive then, of God helping His
creatures in their moral struggles whether they ask for
it or not ?

B. Dear me ! a very singular view of an Almighty
Deity ! Are we to conceive of Him doling out spiritual
strength in a curiously economical fashion and yet with
wasteful abundance in some few cases ? Indeed, one may
say the doling is nearly all waste. There are thousands
of instances of some force of character, some power of
will and aspirations after a better life being gradually
undermined by vicious indulgence or inordinate content-
ment with circumstances. If your omniscient God gives
without waiting to be asked, He injures the moral fibre
of the recipient, as the result abundantly shows, though
not in every case. If He does wait to be asked you
are no better off. He is still a Being Who acts on

D. I call this something like quibbling ! The facts
are patent. Drunkards do sometimes become sober
men ; why they don't always do so, I can't say.

B. You are taking refuge in a rather cheap Agnosti-
cism. But I have no objection to your admission of

1 As it would break the sequence of the argument here to
deal with the difficulties as to prayer — these have been separately
dealt with in Excursus iii.


ignorance ; my difficulty is that you admit knowledge
of certain facts and then suggest an explanation which
on being pressed you abandon. Granting the facts, what
connexion do you see or imagine between them and God ?
I have put the dilemma. Why not answer it ?

D. Perhaps there is no connexion at all.

B. Perhaps not. But do let me recall you to the
question in hand. I say I see no evidence in human life
on which you can base your exhortations to young people
to cultivate a hopeful temper. Your reply was that your
belief in God made it all plain to you, because He gives
the necessary spiritual strength. Now you are ready to
abandon that explanation in toto. You may be quite
right, but, don't you see, it leaves your estimate of hope-
fulness without any bottom to it which you can put into
words. You reduce the foundation for it to something
purely secular or scientific, and, in short, it comes out,
as I said it would, in exactly the same plight as the virtue
of Humility. For my part, I believe that many other
so-called virtues are just as baseless, but we haven't time
to discuss them now.

D. It seems to me that for the sake of intellectual
consistency you are prepared to sacrifice a good deal.

B. If I do, I have enough behind, and it is a blessing
not to have to pretend. The only thing I understand is
a discreetly veiled egoism. I like other people to think
well of me, and the only way I can ensure it is by being
fairly pleasant to them. But I take care it is well within
limits. I think about myself as long as the subject
interests me, and then I stop. Forgiveness of others is
fortunately seldom required. I molest nobody, and
nobody seems to want to molest me. Anyhow they


The Rector's Guest

THE disputant who has been called B has brought
his interlocutors one by one to the point of being
silenced, if not convinced. We have seen how the rational
justification for our instinctive feelings in favour of
Humility as against Egoism cannot be supplied either by
the secular moralist or by either of two typically con-
ventional people, the Theist, or the Christian who looks
on the Gospel message mainly as a definition of duty.
These persons had also failed to make anything of hope,
though B had only challenged the last speaker on this
subject, feeling that the others would certainly fail if D

But his victories were Pyrrhic in the sense that they
left him face to face with some awkward questions bearing
on his own position. He had been somewhat combative
perhaps in conversation on the subject of his own con-
sistency and the thoroughness of his own egoism ; so none
of the others had ventured to assail him directly, but they
had contented themselves with halting attempts at self-
defence. But none the less B left the last interview
with an unquiet misgiving that in spite of his vaunted
self-consistency he was really nearly as bad as other people
in one important respect. Let us note what his general
position was.



B was enough of a thinker to reverence Reason. If
his reason did not sanction a particular course of conduct,
he thought himself not only justified but actually bound
to treat that course of conduct as a perfectly open matter,
free that is from any claim on his allegiance. For in-
stance, he had never found any one who could justify
him in being hopeful either as to his own future or that
of other people, though he admitted that in a small
minority of cases there were characters which seemed to
him to be improving, if he used the word in a conventional
sense. Therefore he did not bother himself to cultivate
a hopeful spirit, nor was he able to mind very much if
the evidence before him pointed, on the whole, towards
a general decline of society. Moreover, on the subject
of Egoism he was not disturbed to find that he followed
his own inclinations ; no one having convinced him that
there was any other guide. But he was too discerning
not to see that his principle (which in his case worked
fairly well, that is, in allowing him to get on in a peaceable
fashion with other people) was too insecure to recommend
for general adoption. B was a man of tame passions,
and naturally of a tactful, considerate temper. It
would have been more of a nuisance to him to violate
the ordinary canons of society than to obey them. But
there were men and women living round the corner in
B's country town, whose inclinations were of a less refined
type than B's, and far more restive under control. Such
was, for example, Mr. P., the veterinary surgeon,
whose face made it obvious that drink was his bane,
even if a cob which B had recently bought from him
did not set the question at rest by stopping automatically
at every public-house in the neighbourhood. There was
Miss Q., the architect's second daughter, who seemed quite


unable to withstand the attractions of any man under forty
years of age, no matter what his station in life or educa-
tion had been ; and finally S, a successful Accountant
whose egotism had reached an intolerable pitch, so that
the local tea-parties were boycotting him unanimously.
Now B felt that he and others who thought like him,
were wholly unable to object on principle to the behaviour
of such individuals, when once it had become clear
that they were egoists as far as was convenient. It was,
of course, possible to avoid such people : but B saw
plainly that such a line practically committed him to
acquiesce in a dismemberment of society ; and this he
was not prepared to do.

Further, B was a married man and the father of four
young children. The eldest, a boy, evinced a very vigorous
talent for self-assertion, in spite of his mother's sup-
pressive management, and repeatedly it had been on
B's lips to utter some scathing reproof to the young
nursery tyrant, when he remembered that he really had
no warrant in his own creed for interfering. True, if he
could be sure that the reproof would be effectual, he would
not stickle at administering it, as it galled him, he must
confess, to see the boy bullying his sisters and never
failing to get more than his share of lollipops. Nor could
he look on at the increasingly vivid evidence of his son's
rampant greediness without a growing disquiet of mind.
But the difficulty was that his reproofs entirely failed of
their effect. They induced Harry to veil his selfishness
a little bit, but substantially he gained his point always,
and happiness began to disappear from the nursery and
the schoolroom. But B had persuaded himself that his
misgivings at this state of things were not to be encour-
aged. They rested on no sound principle. If he fol-


lowed his own inclinations as to how far it was well to be
egoistic, how could he, rationally, interfere with the
child ? So he adopted the not uncommon device of leaving
the problem to his wife, markedly clear though it was
that, singlehanded, she was incapable of coping with it.
But, at least, B had saved his intellectual consistency.
When he was out of doors, alone, it was a relief to be able
to say, " After all, the people who live in these villas here
have never thought why they do as they do. There
isn't one among them who acts on any ethical principle
whatever, except those handed down by tradition, nobody
knows whence or with what object in view. Yet I cannot
help wishing that I could hit upon some principle which
was capable of being taught to others. Besides all this
matter of egoism, there is hopefulness, and I rather think
perseverance also, which I should find it awkward to
forego entirely, but which, certainly, I cannot justify so
far. If there were only myself to look after, the thing
might be pretty simple. I could rub along knowing that
the foundations of my creed had never been laid, but when
it comes to teaching children — why on earth are children
so queer ? Yet I cannot help feeling that there was
something rather sublime and true about those words
* Except ye be converted, and become as little children,
ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven '. If I could get
some points cleared up a little I think it is still possible
I might find there is more in Christianity than I thought.
But till I do find it, I will stick to my egoism. Nobody
can say that is dishonest anyhow."

In this frame of mind B happened to meet the Rector
of the country town where he lived, who said he was
expecting a very interesting guest for a short visit. It
was an elderly acquaintance of his who, as a young man,


had done some casual teaching work, but gave it up to
give himself time for philosophy and theology, supporting
himself meantime by literary work, reviewing for news-
papers and manifold odd jobs. He was an old bachelor
with very few wants, and as his conversation was a treat
to his friends, they often put him up and so he was able
to live. Nobody quite knew how he filled up his day,
as he spent hours, apparently, in nothing but musing.
Whatever he did, it brought him happiness, and it
would be difficult to find a more serene and tranquil

B was asked to meet him and at first sight was charmed.
The stranger E was short and spare in person, a little
over 60 years old but vivacious, not a bit deaf and full
of quick sympathy. Under his shaggy white eyebrows
his kindly eyes twinkled with humour or seemed gravely
intent on some far off thoughts, and B soon found that
he had fallen in with a mind very unlike the common
run either in that country town or any other. He found
no difficulty in getting rapidly to the heart of something

B. Mr. E, you must have found something to think
about in that curious book of Mrs. Eddy's called Science
and Health ?

E. I am afraid I found less to be interested in than
to be irritated about.

B. Oh well ! of course everybody finds the style
very obscure, and that there are a good many contradic-
tions and illogicalities throughout.

E. I could put up with them, without much trouble.
But there is something far more serious in the way the
book evades the greatest question that has ever been
presented to man for his decision.


B. Do you mean the question whether the body
really can be cured through the mind ? I should have

E. No, pardon me. The question which Mrs. Eddy
constantly touches without answering is " What think
ye of Christ ? Whose Son is He ? "

B. You surprise me. It would never have occurred
to me to speak of that particular question in such terms.
Curiously enough, a week or two ago, I met with two or
three men interested in ethics and religion and we had
long conversations. But it occurred to me afterwards
how slightly, if at all, this question of the Divinity of
Christ was broached.

E. And were you dealing with subjects unconnected
with Him ?

B. No doubt that was the explanation. Our topics
were very interesting all the same. You may have
heard from our mutual friend the Rector that I am not
a Christian, my reason in the main being that I have
never heard any doctrine of Christianity which seemed
to me to justify the ordinary principles of ethics. One
of the disputants to whom I allude is a regular orthodox
Christian, but he was totally unable to explain why we,
or most of us, hold in high estimation the virtues ranked
under the title of Humility. Now I see this inability
and others do not. So I content myself with not ban-
ning egoism any more than altruism. There really is no
reason for preferring one to the other : and when once
this is plain, clearly I, and others who see it, have no choice
but to throw ourselves on a life of inclination, or else
live without any principle at all, which I for one am
unable to do.

E. Do I understand that, finding Christianity as you


apprehend it, or, to put it differently, the dogma of
the Divinity of Christ, fails, in your judgment, to justify
the high estimation in which certain virtues are held,
you discard those virtues and give your attention to
others ?

B. Certainly ; unless that is, I see reason to hold
that any particular virtue has some other foundation ;
and then of course I rate it highly.

E. Would you mind giving an illustration ?

B. Well, take considerateness towards others. I
can't deny that the practice of this virtue is good up to
a certain point. It gives pleasure to me and to others too.
But it is plain to me that when it is pushed beyond that
point, it lacks warrant and is a mistake. So I practise
it just as far as is agreeable to myself. If this is called
rank Egoism, then I freely confess myself an Egoist.

E. Do I infer rightly, then, that you would say Christ
was mistaken in pushing this virtue too far ?

B. Certainly ; Christ and all other saints, too. You
see there really is no evidence that such conduct has ever
done any good to any one. To die a martyr's death at
thirty-three is obviously bad for the martyr. Who else
is benefited ? I am stiffened in my opinion by having
examined many of the so-called Christian forms of belief,
my conclusion being that those who profess them are
unable to bring them to bear on their conduct, and are
consequently in the same position as I am ; they prac-
tise Humility, etc., just as far as is convenient, and all the
time laud a Gospel which goes infinitely further than
that. This is a ridiculous position for any one who has
a high idea of reason.

E. It is indeed. I am glad to come across any one who
is prepared to speak up for Reason. Some defenders


of Christianity have been strangely ready to belittle
her. But let me look into one matter a little more closely.
Egoism means, presumably, one thing to you, and a
very different thing to a footpad, or a fraudulent but
necessitous solicitor ?

B. No doubt. I fully admit that my creed is a very
difficult one to preach. Indeed if I were turned loose
to reform vain and fashionable society or Bill Sykes of
Hounsditch, I should cut a very poor figure.

E. Yes, but you nevertheless uphold our institutions
for the discouragement of footpads ; — police courts and
the like ?

B. Of course ; because life would otherwise be un-
pleasant to me and mine. That is all. Civilization
on the whole makes for comfort. I fancy I agree pretty
well with my orthodox neighbours on this sort of ques-
tion. Where I differ from them all is in discarding alto-
gether the namby-pamby virtues, sympathy, humility,
meekness, and the stuff that is talked about a man losing
his life to gain it. I cannot see that any of them really
practise these virtues further than to make pleasant
conversation at tea and so forth. At any rate I keep
myself free from hypocrisy. If I see no reason to be-
lieve in this sentimental altruism, I say so and wash my
hands of it.

E. This loyalty to reason, then, leads you to object
to certain vices — gross sensuality, gluttony, drunkenness,
ill-temper and the like, for the one reason which you ap-
prove, viz., that they make life unpleasant to you.
Whereas in the case of self-assertion, egoism, pride and
so on, you feel no such repulsion and therefore let them
alone. But you admit that if your neighbour chooses
to draw the line lower down or higher up, you have nothing


to object. If, for instance, he affirms that a weekly
drunken fit, or a certain decorous indulgence of the sexual
passion does not disgust him but on the contrary gives
him some satisfaction, you are bound by your loyalty to
reason to say that he is not only acting innocently but
rightly, in accordance with the highest law. Granting
his affirmation, are you not bound to exhort him to
behave in some such fashion ?

B {uneasily) . I have said that I am of no use at exhort-
ation of any kind : and, besides, if such behaviour dis-
gusts me, I certainly shall not exhort any one to practise

E. Possibly not. But don't you see that as egoism
forbids you to practise these " vices," so you must in
reason concede to your neighbour that his egoism makes
the practice of them a duty ? Surely you don't mean
that the principle you have found so satisfactory in your
case is to be debarred from your neighbour ?

B. No, I suppose not. But anyhow I could insist,
that as far as I and others like me are concerned, he should
keep these indulgences entirely out of sight and not in
any way obtrude them on our notice.

E. No doubt you could. But did I not understand
you to say just now that you congratulated yourself on
being free from hypocrisy ? On what grounds then do
you think yourself justified not only in allowing but in
insisting that your neighbour should dissemble ? You
observe that you approve of certain kinds of behaviour
of an egoistic sort, though many people are shocked at
them : blatant self-assertion, studied selfishness, refusal
to sympathize beyond a certain point, etc. As to these
you don't mind letting people know your views and
your conduct, and hypocrisy is to you a deadly sin.


But on the other side of the line are the gross vices, and
they are on the other side because they disgust you.
But on the principle of egoism your neighbour rightly
draws the line below these vices, not, as you do, above
them. How then can you forbid him the right to avow
them openly, when his avowal is nothing but the renun-
ciation of the hypocrisy which you pride yourself on
hating ?

B. Well, I am afraid I must admit that where dis-
gust comes in I am not very consistent. But at any
rate in regard to humility and the like I hope I have
made my position plain.

E. Certainly ; and as you have been so frank with

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 6 of 19)