GILBERT K. CHESTERTON
This book is meant to be a companion to "Heretics," and to
put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics
complained of the book called "Heretics" because it merely criticised
current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy.
This book is an attempt to answer the challenge. It is unavoidably
affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical. The writer has
been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset
Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical
only in order to be sincere. While everything else may be different
the motive in both cases is the same. It is the purpose of the writer
to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can
be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.
The book is therefore arranged upon the positive principle of a riddle
and its answer. It deals first with all the writer's own solitary
and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in
which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.
The writer regards it as amounting to a convincing creed. But if
it is not that it is at least a repeated and surprising coincidence.
Gilbert K. Chesterton.
I. Introduction in Defence of Everything Else
II. The Maniac
III. The Suicide of Thought
IV. The Ethics of Elfland
V. The Flag of the World
VI. The Paradoxes of Christianity
VII. The Eternal Revolution
VIII. The Romance of Orthodoxy
IX. Authority and the Adventurer
I INTRODUCTION IN DEFENCE OF EVERYTHING ELSE
THE only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer
to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.
When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers,
under the name of "Heretics," several critics for whose intellect
I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G.S.Street)
said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm
his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my
precepts with example. "I will begin to worry about my philosophy,"
said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his."
It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person
only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.
But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book,
he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in
its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set
of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state
the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it
my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it;
and it made me.
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English
yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England
under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.
I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to
write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes
of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general
impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking
by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which
turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.
I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you
imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly
was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied
with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero
of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake;
and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could
be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the
fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane
security of coming home again? What could be better than to have
all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting
necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to
brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize,
with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.
This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is
in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive
to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?
How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens,
with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us
at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour
of being our own town?
To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every
standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much bigger
book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of argument;
and this is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set
forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need,
the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar
which Christendom has rightly named romance. For the very word
"romance" has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome.
Any one setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by
saying what he does not dispute. Beyond stating what he proposes
to prove he should always state what he does not propose to prove.
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take
as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this
desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full
of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always
seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better
than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure,
then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.
If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all
people I have ever met in this western society in which I live
would agree to the general proposition that we need this life
of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange
with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to
combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be
happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in
But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in
a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht.
I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid
being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth)
how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me from
the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant.
Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of
all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing
of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible
as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible.
If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived
upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire;
for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every
six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying.
The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the
fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.
I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life
said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course,
I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny
because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview
with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist.
It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist
and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't.
One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively
the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book with the
heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write,
and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor
clowning or a single tiresome joke.
For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me.
I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been
discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows,
the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I
was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last.
It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.
No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself;
no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him:
I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from
my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end
of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys,
try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten
minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen
hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully
juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished
in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths:
but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that
they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really
in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom.
It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original;
but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy
of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from
the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was
the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own;
and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it
It may be that somebody will be entertained by the account
of this happy fiasco. It might amuse a friend or an enemy to
read how I gradually learnt from the truth of some stray legend
or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that I
might have learnt from my catechism—if I had ever learnt it.
There may or may not be some entertainment in reading how I
found at last in an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple what I
might have found in the nearest parish church. If any one is
entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or the
phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the pains
of youth came together in a certain order to produce a certain
conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read this book.
But there is in everything a reasonable division of labour.
I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to read it.
I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note
naturally should, at the beginning of the book. These essays are
concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian
theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the
best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended
to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question
of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation
of that creed. When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means
the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself
Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic
conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by
mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed;
I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians,
of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise
but a sort of slovenly autobiography. But if any one wants my
opinions about the actual nature of the authority, Mr. G.S.Street
has only to throw me another challenge, and I will write him another book.
II THE MANIAC
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world;
they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.
Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made
a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a
motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often,
and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher
said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."
And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught
an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell." I said to him,
"Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?
For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more
colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed
star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of
the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in
lunatic asylums." He said mildly that there were a good many men after
all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums.
"Yes, there are," I retorted, "and you of all men ought to know them.
That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy,
he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from
whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself.
If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly
individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself
is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can't
act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would
be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he
believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin;
complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one's
self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in
Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has `Hanwell' written on his
face as plain as it is written on that omnibus." And to all this
my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply,
"Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"
After a long pause I replied, "I will go home and write a book in answer
to that question." This is the book that I have written in answer
But I think this book may well start where our argument started—
in the neighbourhood of the mad-house. Modern masters of science are
much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact.
The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with
that necessity. They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical
as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous
waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.
But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists,
have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water,
but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute
original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can
really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in
their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness,
which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially
deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest
saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the
starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is)
that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat,
then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions.
He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he
must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do.
The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution
to deny the cat.
In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible
(with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did,
with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me)
as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially
diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin,
I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a
lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of
the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell,
but not, as yet, Hanwell. For the purpose of our primary argument
the one may very well stand where the other stood. I mean that as
all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended
to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern
thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make
a man lose his wits.
It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity
as in itself attractive. But a moment's thought will show that if
disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else's disease.
A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see
the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can
only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is
quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself
a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks
he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass.
It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which
makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea
that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see
the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short,
oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike
odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time;
while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.
This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old
fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero
a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling;
they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern
psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central.
Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately,
and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero
among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy
tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober
realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will
do in a dull world.
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic
inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are
to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the
matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion
adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination,
is dangerous to man's mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as
psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association
between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it.
Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very
great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like;
and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much
the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity.
Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad;
but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers;
but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen,
in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does
lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as
wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark
that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had
some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance,
really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he
was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him;
he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles,
like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts,
because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.
Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English
poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic,
by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not
the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health.
He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his
hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and
the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin;
he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men
do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets.
Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him
into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only
some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.
And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in
his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats
easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea,
and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion,
like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything
is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only
desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in.
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician
who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head
It is a small matter, but not irrelevant, that this striking
mistake is commonly supported by a striking misquotation. We have
all heard people cite the celebrated line of Dryden as "Great genius
is to madness near allied." But Dryden did not say that great genius
was to madness near allied. Dryden was a great genius himself,
and knew better. It would have been hard to find a man more romantic
than he, or more sensible. What Dryden said was this, "Great wits
are oft to madness near allied"; and that is true. It is the pure
promptitude of the intellect that is in peril of a breakdown.
Also people might remember of what sort of man Dryden was talking.
He was not talking of any unworldly visionary like Vaughan or
George Herbert. He was talking of a cynical man of the world,
a sceptic, a diplomatist, a great practical politician. Such men
are indeed to madness near allied. Their incessant calculation
of their own brains and other people's brains is a dangerous trade.
It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind. A flippant
person has asked why we say, "As mad as a hatter." A more flippant
person might answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure
the human head.
And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true
that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged
in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will,
that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy,
because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic
would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse
in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic's,
can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of
causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man.
But my purpose is to point out something more practical.
It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not
know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that
a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics.
Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics.
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions
are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless,
they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks;
slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing
his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things;
the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such
careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand;
for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause
in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance
into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping
of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think
that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice.
If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would
become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people
in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their
most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting
of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.
If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will
get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker
for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment.
He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb
certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain
sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this
respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost
his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often
in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly,
the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable;
this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds
of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy
against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men
deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators
would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.
Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no
complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad;
for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the
existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ,
it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity;
for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error
in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.
Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this:
that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle
is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite
as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation
is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.
A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world.
There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such
a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many
modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically,
we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness
is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual
contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things,
but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you
or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be
chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air,
to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside
the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance,
it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were
the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him.
If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal
against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this:
"Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart,
and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit
that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it
leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours;
and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details;
perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was
only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it
was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would
be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you!
How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller
in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity
and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their
sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin
to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.
You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your
own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself
under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers."
Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who
claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, "All right!
Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care?
Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look
down on all the kings of the earth." Or it might be the third case,
of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt,
we should say, "So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world:
but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit,
with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God;
and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love
more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful
pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be,
how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God
could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles,
and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well
And it must be remembered that the most purely practical science
does take this view of mental evil; it does not seek to argue with it
like a heresy but simply to snap it like a spell. Neither modern
science nor ancient religion believes in complete free thought.
Theology rebukes certain thoughts by calling them blasphemous.
Science rebukes certain thoughts by calling them morbid. For example,
some religious societies discouraged men more or less from thinking
about sex. The new scientific society definitely discourages men from
thinking about death; it is a fact, but it is considered a morbid fact.
And in dealing with those whose morbidity has a touch of mania,
modern science cares far less for pure logic than a dancing Dervish.
In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth;
he must desire health. Nothing can save him but a blind hunger
for normality, like that of a beast. A man cannot think himself
out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has
become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can
only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves,
it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his
logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner
Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs
the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.
Decision is the whole business here; a door must be shut for ever.
Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure.
Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting
out a devil. And however quietly doctors and psychologists may go
to work in the matter, their attitude is profoundly intolerant—
as intolerant as Bloody Mary. Their attitude is really this:
that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living.
Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation. If thy HEAD
offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter
the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile,
rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell—
or into Hanwell.
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner,
frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished
in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can
be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.
He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is
sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation
and healthy complexity. Now, as I explain in the introduction,
I have determined in these early chapters to give not so much
a diagram of a doctrine as some pictures of a point of view. And I
have described at length my vision of the maniac for this reason:
that just as I am affected by the maniac, so I am affected by most
modern thinkers. That unmistakable mood or note that I hear
from Hanwell, I hear also from half the chairs of science and seats
of learning to-day; and most of the mad doctors are mad doctors
in more senses than one. They all have exactly that combination we
have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason
with a contracted common sense. They are universal only in the
sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far.
But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern.
They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved
with it, it is still white on black. Like the lunatic, they cannot
alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly
see it black on white.
Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation
of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has
just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense
of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.
Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance,
Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation.
He understands everything, and everything does not seem
worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet
and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.
Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious
of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth;
it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting
peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.
The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small.
The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation
of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation
to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of
objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.
I do not for the present attempt to prove to Haeckel that materialism
is untrue, any more than I attempted to prove to the man who thought
he was Christ that he was labouring under an error. I merely remark
here on the fact that both cases have the same kind of completeness
and the same kind of incompleteness. You can explain a man's
detention at Hanwell by an indifferent public by saying that it
is the crucifixion of a god of whom the world is not worthy.
The explanation does explain. Similarly you may explain the order
in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men,
are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree—
the blind destiny of matter. The explanation does explain,
though not, of course, so completely as the madman's. But the point
here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both,
but feels to both the same objection. Its approximate statement
is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much
of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the
real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk.
The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel)
the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial
than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than
For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether
true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion.
In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow.
They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only
restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted.
He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian;
and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be
an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense
in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism.
Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe
in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not
allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we
shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine.
The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable
amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe.
But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine
the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe
is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be
hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is
manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he
is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast,
a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen.
Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.
But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as
the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure
that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation,
just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that
he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never
Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do
materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think
about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it.
In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like;
in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger,
and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our
case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that,
right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge
against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong,
they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness,
I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.
For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it
generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense
a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially
advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will.
The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call
their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever
fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty,
if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this
is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when
applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like,
that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is
surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg
he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette.
Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist
speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will.
But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not
free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish,
to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions,
to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you"
for the mustard.
In passing from this subject I may note that there is a queer
fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way
favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments or
punishments of any kind. This is startlingly the reverse of the truth.
It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no difference
at all; that it leaves the flogger flogging and the kind friend
exhorting as before. But obviously if it stops either of them it
stops the kind exhortation. That the sins are inevitable does not
prevent punishment; if it prevents anything it prevents persuasion.
Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain
to lead to cowardice. Determinism is not inconsistent with the
cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent
with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to
their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle.
The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does
believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner,
"Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he
can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.
Considered as a figure, therefore, the materialist has the fantastic
outline of the figure of the madman. Both take up a position
at once unanswerable and intolerable.
Of course it is not only of the materialist that all this is true.
The same would apply to the other extreme of speculative logic.
There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that
everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic
who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the
existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows.
For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself.
He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible
fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat
mystical egoism of our day. That publisher who thought that men
would get on if they believed in themselves, those seekers after
the Superman who are always looking for him in the looking-glass,
those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead
of creating life for the world, all these people have really only
an inch between them and this awful emptiness. Then when this
kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie;
when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail;
then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone
in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall
be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots
in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only
a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell.
But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, "He believes
All that concerns us here, however, is to note that this
panegoistic extreme of thought exhibits the same paradox as the
other extreme of materialism. It is equally complete in theory
and equally crippling in practice. For the sake of simplicity,
it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe
that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive
proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason
that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream.
But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper
would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him
with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in
the course of this chapter. The man who cannot believe his senses,
and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane,
but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument,
but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both
locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun
and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the
health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health
and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable;
nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny
bit is infinitely circular. But there is such a thing as a mean
infinity, a base and slavish eternity. It is amusing to notice
that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken
as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol
of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity,
they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is
a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal.
The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the
eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists
and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented
by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself.
This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what
actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say
in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void.
The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad;
he begins to think at the wrong end. And for the rest of these pages
we have to try and discover what is the right end. But we may ask
in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps
them sane? By the end of this book I hope to give a definite,
some will think a far too definite, answer. But for the moment it
is possible in the same solely practical manner to give a general
answer touching what in actual human history keeps men sane.
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health;
when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has
always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.
He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth
and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt
his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe
in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.
If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other,
he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.
His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight:
he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better
for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing
as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed
that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless
ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth
because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly
this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole
buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this:
that man can understand everything by the help of what he does
not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid,
and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows
one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear,
and then finds that he cannot say "if you please" to the housemaid.
The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because
of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and
crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness;
but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness,
we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and
of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal:
it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature;
but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger
or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision
and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without
altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can
grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound.
The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free
Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this
deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express
sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind.
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in
the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday,
mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own
victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the
exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light
without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.
But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of
imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry
and the patron of healing. Of necessary dogmas and a special creed
I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men
live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky.
We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion;
it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and
a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable,
as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard.
For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother
of lunatics and has given to them all her name.
III THE SUICIDE OF THOUGHT
The phrases of the street are not only forcible but subtle:
for a figure of speech can often get into a crack too small for
a definition. Phrases like "put out" or "off colour" might have
been coined by Mr. Henry James in an agony of verbal precision.
And there is no more subtle truth than that of the everyday phrase
about a man having "his heart in the right place." It involves the
idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain function exist,
but it is rightly related to other functions. Indeed, the negation
of this phrase would describe with peculiar accuracy the somewhat morbid
mercy and perverse tenderness of the most representative moderns.
If, for instance, I had to describe with fairness the character
of Mr. Bernard Shaw, I could not express myself more exactly
than by saying that he has a heroically large and generous heart;
but not a heart in the right place. And this is so of the typical
society of our time.
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern
world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues.
When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered
at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose.
The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage.
But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander
more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern
world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues
have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other
and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth;
and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care
for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad
on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational
virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it
easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.
Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only
early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions.
For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy
would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race—
because he is so human. As the other extreme, we may take
the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all
human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart.
Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth.
Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth.
But in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could
to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Now they do not even bow. But a much stronger case than these two of
truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.
Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance
and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping
his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power
of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure,
he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.
Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large,
he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions,
the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations
of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are
the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above
the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers
are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants
unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination,
which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom
entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything—
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place.
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled
upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about
the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part
of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not
to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he
ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility
content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble
that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we
had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time.
The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time;
but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility
than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was
a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot
that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man
doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder.
But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make
him stop working altogether.
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic
and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one
comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not
be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one,
or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race
of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity
as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too
proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.
The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek
even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual
helplessness which is our second problem.
The last chapter has been concerned only with a fact of observation:
that what peril of morbidity there is for man comes rather from
his reason than his imagination. It was not meant to attack the
authority of reason; rather it is the ultimate purpose to defend it.
For it needs defence. The whole modern world is at war with reason;
and the tower already reels.
The sages, it is often said, can see no answer to the riddle
of religion. But the trouble with our sages is not that they
cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle.
They are like children so stupid as to notice nothing paradoxical
in the playful assertion that a door is not a door. The modern
latitudinarians speak, for instance, about authority in religion
not only as if there were no reason in it, but as if there had never
been any reason for it. Apart from seeing its philosophical basis,
they cannot even see its historical cause. Religious authority
has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as
every legal system (and especially our present one) has been
callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack
the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of religious
authority are like men who should attack the police without ever
having heard of burglars. For there is a great and possible peril
to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it
religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier.
And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier,
if our race is to avoid ruin.
That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.
Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next
generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one
set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching
the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith.
Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert
that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are
merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question,
"Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction?
Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic?
They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?"
The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself."
But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right
to think for myself. I have no right to think at all."
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought
that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which
all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of
decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H.G.Wells has raised its
ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of scepticism called
"Doubts of the Instrument." In this he questions the brain itself,
and endeavours to remove all reality from all his own assertions,
past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin
that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked
and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the
horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said,
for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult
defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once
things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.
The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define
the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark
defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable,
more supernatural than all—the authority of a man to think.
We know now that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it.
For we can hear scepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities,
and at the same moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne.
In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both
of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods
of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of
destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed
the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum.
With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre
off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.
Lest this should be called loose assertion, it is perhaps
desirable, though dull, to run rapidly through the chief modern
fashions of thought which have this effect of stopping thought itself.
Materialism and the view of everything as a personal illusion have
some such effect; for if the mind is mechanical, thought cannot be
very exciting, and if the cosmos is unreal, there is nothing to think
about. But in these cases the effect is indirect and doubtful. In
some cases it is direct and clear; notably in the case of what is
generally called evolution.
Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which,
if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either
an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things
came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack
upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not
destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that
a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive
thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox;
for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly,
especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.
But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such
thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him
to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing.
At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything
and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon
the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.
You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought.
Descartes said, "I think; therefore I am." The philosophic evolutionist
reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, "I am not; therefore I
Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged by
Mr. H.G.Wells when he insists that every separate thing is "unique,"
and there are no categories at all. This also is merely destructive.
Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.
It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought
necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without
contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere),
"All chairs are quite different," he utters not merely a misstatement,
but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different,
you could not call them "all chairs."
Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains
that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test.
We often hear it said, for instance, "What is right in one age
is wrong in another." This is quite reasonable, if it means that
there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain
times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant,
it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and
at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they
are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish
to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement,
which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that
men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so,
we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them.
How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction?
You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being
miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be
like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig
It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his
object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable.
If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must
be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt
gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress.
It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather
weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society,
he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium.
"Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves
He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is.
Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can
The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental
alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought
about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a
complete change of standards in human history does not merely
deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives
us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.
This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our
time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism;
for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the
pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme
application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever.
My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists
that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there
is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary
to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities
precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells
a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute.
But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute.
This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is
a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs
is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism
is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks.
The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be
a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice.
The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense
of the human sense of actual fact.
To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most
characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania,
but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked
his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it.
This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the
boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought.
What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is
the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain
for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will
happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course.
It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that
will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen
it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.
You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men
ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more
sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world.
It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly
and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application
of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence
that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the
bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted;
but rather because they are an old minority than because they
are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom.
It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails
philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark
Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was
just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says
that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread,
we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc,
"Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces
already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night:
it is already morning." We have no more questions left to ask.
We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the
wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found.
It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking
But one more word must be added. At the beginning of this
preliminary negative sketch I said that our mental ruin has
been wrought by wild reason, not by wild imagination. A man
does not go mad because he makes a statue a mile high, but he
may go mad by thinking it out in square inches. Now, one school
of thinkers has seen this and jumped at it as a way of renewing
the pagan health of the world. They see that reason destroys;
but Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say,
is in will, not in reason. The supreme point is not why
a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it.
I have no space to trace or expound this philosophy of Will.
It came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something
that is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough;
for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach
anything is to give it away. First, the egoist calls life a war
without mercy, and then he takes the greatest possible trouble to
drill his enemies in war. To preach egoism is to practise altruism.
But however it began, the view is common enough in current literature.
The main defence of these thinkers is that they are not thinkers;
they are makers. They say that choice is itself the divine thing.
Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw has attacked the old idea that men's acts
are to be judged by the standard of the desire of happiness.
He says that a man does not act for his happiness, but from his will.
He does not say, "Jam will make me happy," but "I want jam."
And in all this others follow him with yet greater enthusiasm.
Mr. John Davidson, a remarkable poet, is so passionately excited
about it that he is obliged to write prose. He publishes a short
play with several long prefaces. This is natural enough in Mr. Shaw,
for all his plays are prefaces: Mr. Shaw is (I suspect) the only man
on earth who has never written any poetry. But that Mr. Davidson (who
can write excellent poetry) should write instead laborious metaphysics
in defence of this doctrine of will, does show that the doctrine
of will has taken hold of men. Even Mr. H.G.Wells has half spoken
in its language; saying that one should test acts not like a thinker,
but like an artist, saying, "I FEEL this curve is right," or "that
line SHALL go thus." They are all excited; and well they may be.
For by this doctrine of the divine authority of will, they think they
can break out of the doomed fortress of rationalism. They think they
But they cannot escape. This pure praise of volition ends
in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic.
Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of thought itself,
so the acceptation of mere "willing" really paralyzes the will.
Mr. Bernard Shaw has not perceived the real difference between the old
utilitarian test of pleasure (clumsy, of course, and easily misstated)
and that which he propounds. The real difference between the test
of happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of
happiness is a test and the other isn't. You can discuss whether
a man's act in jumping over a cliff was directed towards happiness;
you cannot discuss whether it was derived from will. Of course
it was. You can praise an action by saying that it is calculated
to bring pleasure or pain to discover truth or to save the soul.
But you cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say
that is merely to say that it is an action. By this praise of will
you cannot really choose one course as better than another. And yet
choosing one course as better than another is the very definition
of the will you are praising.
The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere
choice is to refuse to choose. If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes up to me and
says, "Will something," that is tantamount to saying, "I do not mind
what you will," and that is tantamount to saying, "I have no will in
the matter." You cannot admire will in general, because the essence
of will is that it is particular. A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John
Davidson feels an irritation against ordinary morality, and therefore
he invokes will—will to anything. He only wants humanity to want
something. But humanity does want something. It wants ordinary
morality. He rebels against the law and tells us to will something or
anything. But we have willed something. We have willed the law
against which he rebels.
All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson,
are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can
hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found
quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk
of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite
the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To
desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act
is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject
everything else. That objection, which men of this school used
to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.
Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when
you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take
one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you
become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton.
If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon.
It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that
makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little
better than nonsense. For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us
to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious
that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries
of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt
not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists,
and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be
an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation;
the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe,
you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way,
you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck,
you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.
The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world
of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws,
but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like,
free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes.
Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him
from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles
to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle
breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.
Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles";
I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved,
they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case
with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most
decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations:
they constitute the THING he is doing. The painter is glad
that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay
In case the point is not clear, an historic example may illustrate
it. The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing,
because the Jacobins willed something definite and limited.
They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also all the vetoes
of democracy. They wished to have votes and NOT to have titles.
Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin or Robespierre
as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore they
have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square
social equality and peasant wealth of France. But since then the
revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by
shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal.
Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried
to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb.
The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against,
but (what was more important) the system he would NOT rebel against,
the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a Sceptic,
and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he
can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts
everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything.
For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the
modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces,
but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book
complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women,
and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he
insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose
their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.
As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life,
and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant,
and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the
peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage
as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating
it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the
oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.
The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he
complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he
takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting,
where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short,
the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always
engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he
attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he
attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man
in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt.
By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel
It may be added that the same blank and bankruptcy can be observed
in all fierce and terrible types of literature, especially in satire.
Satire may be mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted
superiority in certain things over others; it presupposes a standard.
When little boys in the street laugh at the fatness of some
distinguished journalist, they are unconsciously assuming a standard
of Greek sculpture. They are appealing to the marble Apollo.
And the curious disappearance of satire from our literature is
an instance of the fierce things fading for want of any principle
to be fierce about. Nietzsche had some natural talent for sarcasm:
he could sneer, though he could not laugh; but there is always something
bodiless and without weight in his satire, simply because it has not
any mass of common morality behind it. He is himself more preposterous
than anything he denounces. But, indeed, Nietzsche will stand very
well as the type of the whole of this failure of abstract violence.
The softening of the brain which ultimately overtook him was not
a physical accident. If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility,
Nietzscheism would end in imbecility. Thinking in isolation
and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will
not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism,
and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of
lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void.
Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately
in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing
and Nirvana. They are both helpless—one because he must not
grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything.
The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all
special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite
equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good;
for if all special actions are good, none of them are special.
They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and
the other likes all the roads. The result is—well, some things
are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business
of this book—the rough review of recent thought. After this I
begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader,
but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close
this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning
over for the purpose—a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility.
By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash
of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw,
as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from
a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum.
For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach
mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who
thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought;
for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing,
wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice
of something, but the rejection of almost everything. And as I
turn and tumble over the clever, wonderful, tiresome, and useless
modern books, the title of one of them rivets my eye. It is called
"Jeanne d'Arc," by Anatole France. I have only glanced at it,
but a glance was enough to remind me of Renan's "Vie de Jesus."
It has the same strange method of the reverent sceptic. It discredits
supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling
natural stories that have no foundation. Because we cannot believe
in what a saint did, we are to pretend that we know exactly what
he felt. But I do not mention either book in order to criticise it,
but because the accidental combination of the names called up two
startling images of Sanity which blasted all the books before me.
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting
all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche.
She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan,
when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in
Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.
I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain
things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth,
the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back.
Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she
endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a
typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought
of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche,
and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time.
I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger
for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc
had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not
praise fighting, but fought. We KNOW that she was not afraid
of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.
Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only
praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at
their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one,
more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person
who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.
It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she
and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility
that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one,
and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre
of my thoughts. The same modern difficulty which darkened the
subject-matter of Anatole France also darkened that of Ernest Renan.
Renan also divided his hero's pity from his hero's pugnacity.
Renan even represented the righteous anger at Jerusalem as a mere
nervous breakdown after the idyllic expectations of Galilee.
As if there were any inconsistency between having a love for
humanity and having a hatred for inhumanity! Altruists, with thin,
weak voices, denounce Christ as an egoist. Egoists (with
even thinner and weaker voices) denounce Him as an altruist.
In our present atmosphere such cavils are comprehensible enough.
The love of a hero is more terrible than the hatred of a tyrant.
The hatred of a hero is more generous than the love of a philanthropist.
There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect
the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped
arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ
into silly strips, labelled egoism and altruism, and they are
equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.
They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they
have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top
IV THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND
When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it
is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young,
one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air;
but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down
to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has
and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and
philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me
when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered
that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really
happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen.
They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the
methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals
in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was.
What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.
I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon;
but I am not so much concerned about the General Election.
As a babe I leapt up on my mother's knee at the mere mention
of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision
is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud.
As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism.
But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.
I take this instance of one of the enduring faiths because,
having now to trace the roots of my personal speculation,
this may be counted, I think, as the only positive bias.
I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy,
in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity.
If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause
for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I
mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this:
that the things common to all men are more important than the
things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable
than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.
Man is something more awful than men; something more strange.
The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid
to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization.
The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more
heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.
Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose
is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential
things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things
they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this:
that the political instinct or desire is one of these things
which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than
dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government
(helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love,
and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something
analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum,
discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop,
being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish
a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary,
a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing
one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself,
even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any
of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have
their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking,
for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely
say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions,
and that democracy classes government among them. In short,
the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things
must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes,
the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy;
and in this I have always believed.
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been
able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people
got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.
It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.
It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to
some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German
historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance,
is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the
superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob.
It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated,
more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally
made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane.
The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.
Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant
may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement
that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us.
If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great
unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason
why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable.
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise.
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes,
our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses
to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely
happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being
disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their
being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us
not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom;
tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is
our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy
and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.
We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted
by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular
and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked
with a cross.
I have first to say, therefore, that if I have had a bias, it was
always a bias in favour of democracy, and therefore of tradition.
Before we come to any theoretic or logical beginnings I am content
to allow for that personal equation; I have always been more
inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe
that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong.
I prefer even the fancies and prejudices of the people who see
life from the inside to the clearest demonstrations of the people
who see life from the outside. I would always trust the old wives'
fables against the old maids' facts. As long as wit is mother wit it
can be as wild as it pleases.
Now, I have to put together a general position, and I pretend
to no training in such things. I propose to do it, therefore,
by writing down one after another the three or four fundamental
ideas which I have found for myself, pretty much in the way
that I found them. Then I shall roughly synthesise them,
summing up my personal philosophy or natural religion; then I
shall describe my startling discovery that the whole thing had
been discovered before. It had been discovered by Christianity.
But of these profound persuasions which I have to recount in order,
the earliest was concerned with this element of popular tradition.
And without the foregoing explanation touching tradition and
democracy I could hardly make my mental experience clear. As it is,
I do not know whether I can make it clear, but I now propose to try.
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with
unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it
from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess
at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then,
the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.
They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are
not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic.
Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal,
though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong.
Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.
It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth;
so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland,
but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk
before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I
was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition.
Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook;
but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists,
and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns
mean when they say that the ancients did not "appreciate Nature,"
because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not
tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance
on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being
fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could
note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them.
There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants
should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny
against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms,
and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the
lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat—
EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast";
that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the
terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human
creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death;
and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am
not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with
the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak,
and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain
way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales,
but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.
It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences
or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are,
in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true
sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely
logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable
of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity.
For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella,
it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is
younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it.
Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases:
it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is
the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne:
and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses,
there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true
rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over
the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world,
I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men
in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—
dawn and death and so on—as if THEY were rational and inevitable.
They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY
as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.
There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is
the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not
making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit;
you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging
on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man
named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law.
But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law,
a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit
Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity:
because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other.
But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose;
we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose,
of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy
tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations,
in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts,
in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe
in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe
that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all
confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the
nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple
will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up
to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn,
and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it
were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause.
Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many
castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason.
She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental
connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific
men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental
connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching
the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only
a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts.
They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically
connected them philosophically. They feel that because one
incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible
thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.
Two black riddles make a white answer.
In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science
they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting
conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet,
Grimm's Law. But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than
Grimm's Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales;
while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature
of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed
some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go
to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection
between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets.
And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty
from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can
turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn
into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further
off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in
itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.
Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential
that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales,
not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature."
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn,
we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer
if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes
fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC.
It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula.
It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening
practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.
It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we
count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it;
we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we
do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.
We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore
an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore
an exception. All the terms used in the science books, "law,"
"necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual,
because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess.
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the
terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment."
They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.
A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill
because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical.
We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language
about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way
I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one
thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical
connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who
talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic.
Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist.
He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked
and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds
fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy,
tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none.
A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love;
so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide.
In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen
them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell
of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own,
it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though
he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark
association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the
cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract,
the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in
This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived
from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy
tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because
there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because
they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.
This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children
we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is
interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that
Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited
by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales;
but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.
In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom
a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.
This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal
leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were
golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they
were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this
is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point
I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance.
We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances,
the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks
about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he
cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story.
Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos,
but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself.
We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten
our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we
call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism
only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget
that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and
ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that
But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the
streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration.
It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin.
The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next
milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland.
I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists
in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only
trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described.
And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it
was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure;
it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness
of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be
more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale.
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful,
though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa
Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I
not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift
of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents
of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present
There were, then, these two first feelings, indefensible and
indisputable. The world was a shock, but it was not merely shocking;
existence was a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. In fact,
all my first views were exactly uttered in a riddle that stuck
in my brain from boyhood. The question was, "What did the first
frog say?" And the answer was, "Lord, how you made me jump!"
That says succinctly all that I am saying. God made the frog jump;
but the frog prefers jumping. But when these things are settled
there enters the second great principle of the fairy philosophy.
Any one can see it who will simply read "Grimm's Fairy Tales"
or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang. For the pleasure
of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics
all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is,
"You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say
the word `cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter,
if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto.
All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small
thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let
loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. Mr. W.B.Yeats,
in his exquisite and piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves
as lawless; they plunge in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses
of the air—
"Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide, And dance
upon the mountains like a flame."
It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W.B.Yeats does not
understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman,
full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to
understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type
like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told.
Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his
own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness,
founded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against
something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of
fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all.
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an
incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out.
A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love
flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.
An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not
lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny
may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland
Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove
that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.
Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers.
Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out
of nowhere, but she received a command—which might have come out
of Brixton—that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a
glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common
a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle,
that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror;
they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones.
For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact
that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most
easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment
also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world.
I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond,
but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were
compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder.
I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.
Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to
be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant;
simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.
Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth;
the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any
moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should
not do. Now, the point here is that to ME this did not seem unjust.
If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I
must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might
fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace."
If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?"
her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are going there
till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants
and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions
partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look
a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence
was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain
of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did
not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger
than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision;
it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters,
as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.
For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy)
I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they
called the general sentiment of REVOLT. I should have resisted,
let us hope, any rules that were evil, and with these and their
definition I shall deal in another chapter. But I did not feel
disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.
Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a stick
or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the huge
estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy. It could not
well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to hold it at all.
At this stage I give only one ethical instance to show my meaning.
I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation
against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and
unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make
love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own
moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion's)
a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for
so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be
married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.
It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one
was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex,
but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains
that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack
of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears
in mere absence of mind. The aesthetes touched the last insane
limits of language in their eulogy on lovely things. The thistledown
made them weep; a burnished beetle brought them to their knees.
Yet their emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason,
that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any
sort of symbolic sacrifice. Men (I felt) might fast forty days
for the sake of hearing a blackbird sing. Men might go through fire
to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep
sober for the blackbird. They would not go through common Christian
marriage by way of recompense to the cowslip. Surely one might
pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said
that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets.
But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them
by not being Oscar Wilde.
Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery,
and I have not found any books so sensible since. I left the
nurse guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found
any modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative.
But the matter for important comment was here: that when I
first went out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world,
I found that the modern world was positively opposed on two points
to my nurse and to the nursery tales. It has taken me a long time
to find out that the modern world is wrong and my nurse was right.
The really curious thing was this: that modern thought contradicted
this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most essential doctrines.
I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions;
first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might
have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second,
that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and
submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I
found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both
my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created two sudden
and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which,
crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.
First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism;
saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded
without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green
because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale
philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it
might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an
instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white
on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black.
Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden
roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood.
He feels that something has been DONE. But the great determinists
of the nineteenth century were strongly against this native
feeling that something had happened an instant before. In fact,
according to them, nothing ever really had happened since the beginning
of the world. Nothing ever had happened since existence had happened;
and even about the date of that they were not very sure.
The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism,
for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came
to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable
repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated.
Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird
than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped
nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then
seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have
fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society.
So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having
trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion,
and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition
in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of
an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again.
The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once;
the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would
make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the
universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began
to see an idea.
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind
rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is
supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead;
a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal
it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a
fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human
affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death;
by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire.
A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure
or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking;
or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life
and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington,
he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.
The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness
of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning;
but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction.
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that
the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.
His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush
of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children,
when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child
kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit
fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it
again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong
enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough
to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning,
"Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired
of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be
a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg.
If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead
of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not
be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose.
It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they
admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every
human drama man is called again and again before the curtain.
Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at
any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation
after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish
emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely
felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful:
now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they
were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises
of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world
involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious;
that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose,
there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story:
and if there is a story there is a story-teller.
But modern thought also hit my second human tradition.
It went against the fairy feeling about strict limits and conditions.
The one thing it loved to talk about was expansion and largeness.
Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had
called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable
that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type.
He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar
system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should
a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to
a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God,
then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image;
what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile
to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was
always small compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer,
in his headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some
way been conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe.
He spoke about men and their ideals exactly as the most insolent
Unionist talks about the Irish and their ideals. He turned mankind
into a small nationality. And his evil influence can be seen even
in the most spirited and honourable of later scientific authors;
notably in the early romances of Mr. H.G.Wells. Many moralists
have in an exaggerated way represented the earth as wicked.
But Mr. Wells and his school made the heavens wicked. We should lift
up our eyes to the stars from whence would come our ruin.
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this.
I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison;
in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it
singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large.
The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief.
The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation
could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance,
such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity
of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like
telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear
that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would
have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors
of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human.
So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except
more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns
and empty of all that is divine.
In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken,
for the definition of a law is something that can be broken.
But the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could
not be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery.
We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them.
The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither
have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.
The largeness of this universe had nothing of that freshness and
airy outbreak which we have praised in the universe of the poet.
This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast,
but it is not free. One went into larger and larger windowless rooms,
rooms big with Babylonian perspective; but one never found the smallest
window or a whisper of outer air.
Their infernal parallels seemed to expand with distance;
but for me all good things come to a point, swords for instance.
So finding the boast of the big cosmos so unsatisfactory to my
emotions I began to argue about it a little; and I soon found that
the whole attitude was even shallower than could have been expected.
According to these people the cosmos was one thing since it had
one unbroken rule. Only (they would say) while it is one thing,
it is also the only thing there is. Why, then, should one worry
particularly to call it large? There is nothing to compare it with.
It would be just as sensible to call it small. A man may say,
"I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd
of varied creatures." But if it comes to that why should not a
man say, "I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number
of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see"?
One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
It is mere sentiment to rejoice that the sun is larger than the earth;
it is quite as sane a sentiment to rejoice that the sun is no larger
than it is. A man chooses to have an emotion about the largeness
of the world; why should he not choose to have an emotion about
It happened that I had that emotion. When one is fond of
anything one addresses it by diminutives, even if it is an elephant
or a life-guardsman. The reason is, that anything, however huge,
that can be conceived of as complete, can be conceived of as small.
If military moustaches did not suggest a sword or tusks a tail,
then the object would be vast because it would be immeasurable. But the
moment you can imagine a guardsman you can imagine a small guardsman.
The moment you really see an elephant you can call it "Tiny."
If you can make a statue of a thing you can make a statuette of it.
These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing;
but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond
of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often
did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel
that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling
the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there
was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious
care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life.
They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift.
For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars
were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun
and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and
These subconscious convictions are best hit off by the colour
and tone of certain tales. Thus I have said that stories of magic
alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a
kind of eccentric privilege. I may express this other feeling of
cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood,
"Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which owes
its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry
of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man
on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea:
the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from
the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen
tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea.
It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day,
to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think
how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship
on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still
to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape:
everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one
horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been,
as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood
of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say
that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more
solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great
But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order
and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's ship.
That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there
were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should
be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added.
The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck:
and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked
in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were
sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills.
For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant
to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is
literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price:
for there cannot be another one.
Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the
unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life;
the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I
thought before I could write, and felt before I could think:
that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly recapitulate
them now. I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not
explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation;
it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation.
But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me,
will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard.
The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic
must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.
There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art;
whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this
purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects,
such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it
is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God
for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed,
also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest,
there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some
way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some
primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods:
he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me
no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought
of Christian theology.
V THE FLAG OF THE WORLD
When I was a boy there were two curious men running about
who were called the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly used
the words myself, but I cheerfully confess that I never had any
very special idea of what they meant. The only thing which might
be considered evident was that they could not mean what they said;
for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought
this world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought
it as bad as it could be. Both these statements being obviously
raving nonsense, one had to cast about for other explanations.
An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and
nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything
right and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion
that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist,
and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.
It would be unfair to omit altogether from the list the mysterious
but suggestive definition said to have been given by a little girl,
"An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist
is a man who looks after your feet." I am not sure that this is not
the best definition of all. There is even a sort of allegorical truth
in it. For there might, perhaps, be a profitable distinction drawn
between that more dreary thinker who thinks merely of our contact
with the earth from moment to moment, and that happier thinker
who considers rather our primary power of vision and of choice
But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist
and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises
this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown
over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from
some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss
whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage
of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance
the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view.
But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before
he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for
the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he
has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter,
he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling
that this world is strange and yet attractive is best expressed
in fairy tales. The reader may, if he likes, put down the next
stage to that bellicose and even jingo literature which commonly
comes next in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality
to the penny dreadfuls. Whatever the reason, it seemed and still
seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed
in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism
and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism,
it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.
The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to
leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family,
with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it
is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world
is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that
when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it,
and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts
about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike
reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism
are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say
Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find
the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the
arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in
that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor,
certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then
it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of
it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a
transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a
man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and
golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when
she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things:
but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her
child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not
give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as
mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a
year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that
this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of
mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to
the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round
some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid
honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love
Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have
been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far
as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government
an idea of content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right.
But they really were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men
had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange
of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another,
"I will not hit you if you do not hit me"; there is no trace
of such a transaction. There IS a trace of both men having said,
"We must not hit each other in the holy place." They gained their
morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage.
They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous.
They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for
the altar, and found that they were clean. The history of the Jews
is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can
be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been
found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands;
a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across
a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it endangered the sanctity.
And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made
a holiday for men.
If it be granted that this primary devotion to a place or thing
is a source of creative energy, we can pass on to a very peculiar fact.
Let us reiterate for an instant that the only right optimism is a sort
of universal patriotism. What is the matter with the pessimist?
I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot.
And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated,
without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend.
And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike
the rock of real life and immutable human nature.
I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend
is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back—
his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has
a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. This is certainly,
I think, what makes a certain sort of anti-patriot irritating to
healthy citizens. I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism
which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses;
that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that
no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not
worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son
should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.
But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men,
and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested:
he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, "I am sorry
to say we are ruined," and is not sorry at all. And he may be said,
without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge
which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people
from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a
military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant.
Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot)
uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away
the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is
still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive.
It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox;
but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher
who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants
to help the men.
The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods
and men, but that he does not love what he chastises—he has not
this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil
of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt
that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world,
will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe;
he will say, "My cosmos, right or wrong." He will be less inclined
to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench
official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances.
He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world. All this
(which is true of a type of optimist) leads us to the one really
interesting point of psychology, which could not be explained
We say there must be a primal loyalty to life: the only
question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty?
If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an
unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the
bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything)
comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads
to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform.
Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism.
The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly
the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve
the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves
some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself
defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves
Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem.
I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the
mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest
among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism.
The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England.
If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success
with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being
a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even
if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their
patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.
A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose.
But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against
all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman)
by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest.
He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason. A man who
loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870.
But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army
of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is
a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism
more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more
drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism,
the more practical are your politics.
Perhaps the most everyday instance of this point is in the case
of women; and their strange and strong loyalty. Some stupid people
started the idea that because women obviously back up their own
people through everything, therefore women are blind and do not
see anything. They can hardly have known any women. The same women
who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin are (in
their personal intercourse with the man) almost morbidly lucid
about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head.
A man's friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him
and is always trying to turn him into somebody else. Women who are
utter mystics in their creed are utter cynics in their criticism.
Thackeray expressed this well when he made Pendennis' mother,
who worshipped her son as a god, yet assume that he would go wrong
as a man. She underrated his virtue, though she overrated his value.
The devotee is entirely free to criticise; the fanatic can safely
be a sceptic. Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.
Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.
This at least had come to be my position about all that
was called optimism, pessimism, and improvement. Before any
cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance.
A man must be interested in life, then he could be disinterested
in his views of it. "My son give me thy heart"; the heart must
be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we
have a free hand. I must pause to anticipate an obvious criticism.
It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed
of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance.
But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective.
It is, I know, very common in this age; it was perfectly put in those
quiet lines of Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous
than the shrieks of Schopenhauer—
"Enough we live:—and if a life, With large results so little rife,
Though bearable, seem hardly worth This pomp of worlds, this pain
I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes
our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution,
what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise,
but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it.
We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a
surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.
We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle,
to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world:
but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength
enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it,
and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look
up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence?
Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair?
Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist,
but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a
pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?
In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails,
the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole
universe for the sake of itself.
I put these things not in their mature logical sequence, but as
they came: and this view was cleared and sharpened by an accident
of the time. Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument
arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one's self.
Grave moderns told us that we must not even say "poor fellow,"
of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person,
and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence.
Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there
would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill
himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile
to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is
suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil,
the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take
the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man.
The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned
he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered)
than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings:
it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds;
but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed,
even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief
compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them.
But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it.
He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake.
There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death
is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves
might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury:
for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be
pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape,
and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear
ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much
more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads
and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal
automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart.
The man's crime is different from other crimes—for it makes even
About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker:
he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open
fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide
is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much
for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.
A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him,
that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something
to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words,
the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world
or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life;
he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.
The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being:
he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.
And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer
fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide.
For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr.
Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason,
of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate
and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death
with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties
of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers.
All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there
is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of
This was the first of the long train of enigmas with which
Christianity entered the discussion. And there went with it a
peculiarity of which I shall have to speak more markedly, as a note
of all Christian notions, but which distinctly began in this one.
The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is
so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree.
It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the
self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer
in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently
was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far.
The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against
the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at
opposite ends of heaven and hell. One man flung away his life;
he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence.
Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would
pollute his brethren's. I am not saying this fierceness was right;
but why was it so fierce?
Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were
in some beaten track. Christianity had also felt this opposition
of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the
same reason? Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not
(and cannot) express—this need for a first loyalty to things,
and then for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered
that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it
combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine.
Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being
too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic
about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying
that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot
be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible
in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth.
You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed
on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well
say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three,
but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe
depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.
If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe
in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law,
he can believe in any miracle in any age. Suppose, for the sake
of argument, we are concerned with a case of thaumaturgic healing.
A materialist of the twelfth century could not believe it any more
than a materialist of the twentieth century. But a Christian
Scientist of the twentieth century can believe it as much as a
Christian of the twelfth century. It is simply a matter of a man's
theory of things. Therefore in dealing with any historical answer,
the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it
was given in answer to our question. And the more I thought about
when and how Christianity had come into the world, the more I felt
that it had actually come to answer this question.
It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay
quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if
there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came,
a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them.
They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it
was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness
and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means)
if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it
was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it
was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar,
but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer
to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk.
Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone
this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma
(as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones),
turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light.
Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would
be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth.
The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people
who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness,
their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care
for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only
by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists,
as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done
or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make
a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our
own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning;
because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games
of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land.
Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an
unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without
the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment
the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible
religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.
Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows
any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work.
That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately
to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun
or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship
cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not
the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order
to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm
a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being
a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light,
but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as
the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun
and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them;
to say, that because the sun burns insects alive, he may burn
insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people sun-stroke,
he may give his neighbour measles. He thinks that because the moon
is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad. This ugly side
of mere external optimism had also shown itself in the ancient world.
About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun to show the
weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the ancients had
begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism. Nature worship
is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words,
Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan.
But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow
in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he
soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion
is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature
in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall,
if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty.
He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics,
yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot
bull's blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of
health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must
not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed,
not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously.
If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended.
Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties.
Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality.
Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination.
The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything
that was bad.
On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented
by the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends
had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked
only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature,
and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough
interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it.
They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the
ancient world was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only
people who really enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up;
and the virtuous people did not care enough about them to knock
them down. In this dilemma (the same as ours) Christianity suddenly
stepped in and offered a singular answer, which the world eventually
accepted as THE answer. It was the answer then, and I think it is
the answer now.
This answer was like the slash of a sword; it sundered;
it did not in any sense sentimentally unite. Briefly, it divided
God from the cosmos. That transcendence and distinctness of the
deity which some Christians now want to remove from Christianity,
was really the only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian.
It was the whole point of the Christian answer to the unhappy pessimist
and the still more unhappy optimist. As I am here only concerned
with their particular problem, I shall indicate only briefly this
great metaphysical suggestion. All descriptions of the creating
or sustaining principle in things must be metaphorical, because they
must be verbal. Thus the pantheist is forced to speak of God
in all things as if he were in a box. Thus the evolutionist has,
in his very name, the idea of being unrolled like a carpet.
All terms, religious and irreligious, are open to this charge.
The only question is whether all terms are useless, or whether one can,
with such a phrase, cover a distinct IDEA about the origin of things.
I think one can, and so evidently does the evolutionist, or he would
not talk about evolution. And the root phrase for all Christian
theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist is a creator.
A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself speaks of it
as a little thing he has "thrown off." Even in giving it forth he
has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation
is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as the
evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out. A woman
loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation.
Birth is as solemn a parting as death.
It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that
this divorce in the divine act of making (such as severs the poet
from the poem or the mother from the new-born child) was the true
description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world.
According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it.
According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free.
God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he
had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human
actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.
I will discuss the truth of this theorem later. Here I have only
to point out with what a startling smoothness it passed the dilemma
we have discussed in this chapter. In this way at least one could
be both happy and indignant without degrading one's self to be either
a pessimist or an optimist. On this system one could fight all
the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence.
One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with
the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big
the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the
mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills. If he were as
big as the world he could yet be killed in the name of the world.
St. George had not to consider any obvious odds or proportions in
the scale of things, but only the original secret of their design.
He can shake his sword at the dragon, even if it is everything;
even if the empty heavens over his head are only the huge arch of its
And then followed an experience impossible to describe.
It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two
huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without
apparent connection—the world and the Christian tradition.
I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must
somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it;
somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this
projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike,
the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world
separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into
the hole in the world—it had evidently been meant to go there—
and then the strange thing began to happen. When once these two
parts of the two machines had come together, one after another,
all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude.
I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling
into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one
part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude,
as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was
answered by doctrine after doctrine. Or, to vary the metaphor,
I was like one who had advanced into a hostile country to take
one high fortress. And when that fort had fallen the whole country
surrendered and turned solid behind me. The whole land was lit up,
as it were, back to the first fields of my childhood. All those blind
fancies of boyhood which in the fourth chapter I have tried in vain
to trace on the darkness, became suddenly transparent and sane.
I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice:
it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would
almost rather say that grass was the wrong colour than say it must
by necessity have been that colour: it might verily have been
any other. My sense that happiness hung on the crazy thread of a
condition did mean something when all was said: it meant the whole
doctrine of the Fall. Even those dim and shapeless monsters of
notions which I have not been able to describe, much less defend,
stepped quietly into their places like colossal caryatides
of the creed. The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void,
but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything
that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist;
to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds.
And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to
be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe's ship—
even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise, for,
according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck,
the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of
But the important matter was this, that it entirely reversed
the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it
felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket.
I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident
blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been
false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been
trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian
optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world.
I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal,
like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really
was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been
right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse
and better than all things. The optimist's pleasure was prosaic,
for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian
pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything
in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told
me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still
felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in
the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.
The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark
house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me
as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick
VI THE PARADOXES OF CHRISTIANITY
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an
unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest
kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.
Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.
It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is;
its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden;
its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean.
Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon
up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing
about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the
right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there
was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right
and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side
the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes,
twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.
At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart
on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other.
And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.
It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is
the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret
treason in the universe. An apple or an orange is round enough
to get itself called round, and yet is not round after all.
The earth itself is shaped like an orange in order to lure some
simple astronomer into calling it a globe. A blade of grass is
called after the blade of a sword, because it comes to a point;
but it doesn't. Everywhere in things there is this element of the
quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never
escapes till the last moment. From the grand curve of our earth it
could easily be inferred that every inch of it was thus curved.
It would seem rational that as a man has a brain on both sides,
he should have a heart on both sides. Yet scientific men are still
organizing expeditions to find the North Pole, because they are
so fond of flat country. Scientific men are also still organizing
expeditions to find a man's heart; and when they try to find it,
they generally get on the wrong side of him.
Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it
guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician
from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce
the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he
guessed that the man's heart was in the right place, then I should
call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly
the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.
Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly
becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth.
It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one
may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits
the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple
about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth.
It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all
the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts.
It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show
that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology,
we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.
I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that
such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age. Of course,
anything can be believed in any age. But, oddly enough, there really
is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be
believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one.
If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer
reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia. For the more
complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence.
If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian,
it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape
of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle.
It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel
of the philosophy of Christianity. The complication of our modern
world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of
the plain problems of the ages of faith. It was in Notting Hill
and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true.
This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details
which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without
believing in it. When once one believes in a creed, one is proud
of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity
of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right
at all, it is a compliment to say that it's elaborately right.
A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident.
But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock,
you know it is the right key.
But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult
to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth.
It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is
entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only
partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has
found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it.
But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he
finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he
finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he
finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked
suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man,
on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?"
he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be
able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the
coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen."
The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.
It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof
which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind
of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long
time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises,
oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin.
All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never
get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction
I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing
as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab.
But if I am to be at all careful about making my meaning clear,
it will, I think, be wiser to continue the current arguments
of the last chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of
these mystical coincidences, or rather ratifications. All I had
hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it.
I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the
age of sixteen; and I cannot understand any one passing the age
of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.
I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity
and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity.
But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that,
even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics.
I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time—all of it,
at least, that I could find written in English and lying about;
and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other
note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read
were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity;
but I did not know this at the time. I never read a line of
Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now.
It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me
back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild
doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said
that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do.
They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question
whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished
Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time)
whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of
Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke
across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I was
in a desperate way.
This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts
deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways.
I take only one. As I read and re-read all the non-Christian
or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh,
a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically
upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most
extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity
the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent
for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other.
It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.
No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far
to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it
was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died
down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up
again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give
such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction
in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are
Thus, for instance, I was much moved by the eloquent attack
on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought
(and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin.
Insincere pessimism is a social accomplishment, rather agreeable
than otherwise; and fortunately nearly all pessimism is insincere.
But if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely
pessimistic and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow
up St. Paul's Cathedral. But the extraordinary thing is this.
They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction)
that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II.,
they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.
One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men,
by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom
of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a
fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.
One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough,
and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected
that Christian optimism, "the garment of make-believe woven by
pious hands," hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that
it was impossible to be free. One rationalist had hardly done
calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it
a fool's paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent.
Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world,
and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian
could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling
to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it.
If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another;
it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles.
I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men
of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of
"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has grown
gray with Thy breath."
But when I read the same poet's accounts of paganism (as
in "Atalanta"), I gathered that the world was, if possible,
more gray before the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards.
The poet maintained, indeed, in the abstract, that life itself
was pitch dark. And yet, somehow, Christianity had darkened it.
The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism was himself
a pessimist. I thought there must be something wrong. And it did
for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be
the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who,
by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the
accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced
that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder
than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices;
but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat
in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape.
At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian
religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.
Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong
case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something
timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian,"
especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.
The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile.
Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way,
were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there
was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels.
The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests
never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation
that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.
I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different,
I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different.
I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned
up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for
fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed,
was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood.
I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never
was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his
anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history;
because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun.
The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and
non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached
it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the
fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward
the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did.
The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians;
and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic
Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity
which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could
be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it
would not fight, and second because it was always fighting?
In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this
monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape
I take a third case; the strangest of all, because it involves
the one real objection to the faith. The one real objection to the
Christian religion is simply that it is one religion. The world is
a big place, full of very different kinds of people. Christianity (it
may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people;
it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped with Europe.
I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth, and I was much
drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies—
I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of
all humanity founded on the omnipresence of the human conscience.
Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them.
The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages
and still find essential ethical common sense. It might find
Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing "Thou
shalt not steal." It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic on
the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would
be "Little boys should tell the truth." I believed this doctrine
of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense,
and I believe it still—with other things. And I was thoroughly
annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed)
that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light
of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing.
I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church
from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality
had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong
in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we
needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed
in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed
out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar,
then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men
had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages.
I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was
the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark.
But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves
that science and progress were the discovery of one people,
and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult
to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves,
and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative
insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic,
we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering
some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd
religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus,
because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics
of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two
hundred years, but not in two thousand.
This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if
Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather
as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.
What again could this astonishing thing be like which people
were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind
contradicting themselves? I saw the same thing on every side.
I can give no further space to this discussion of it in detail;
but lest any one supposes that I have unfairly selected three
accidental cases I will run briefly through a few others.
Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity
had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the
loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes
and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced)
said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family
and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their
homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.
The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the
Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians
to show contempt for woman's intellect. But I found that the
anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman's intellect;
for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that
"only women" went to it. Or again, Christianity was reproached
with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas.
But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp
and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.
It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.
Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality
too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained
it too little. It is often accused in the same breath of prim
respectability and of religious extravagance. Between the covers
of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the faith rebuked
for its disunion, "One thinks one thing, and one another,"
and rebuked also for its union, "It is difference of opinion
that prevents the world from going to the dogs." In the same
conversation a free-thinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity
for despising Jews, and then despised it himself for being Jewish.
I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now;
and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong.
I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very
wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing,
but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men
who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are
men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass
of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty,
too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously
to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge,
a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed,
then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique.
For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such
exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking)
was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals.
THEY gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness.
Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural.
It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope.
An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite
as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.
The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that
Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus
of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still
thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation.
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we
were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some
too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness;
some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as
has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape.
But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.
Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men
might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might
consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing
thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance.
Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man,
while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short)
this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least
the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity
that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.
I tested this idea by asking myself whether there was about any
of the accusers anything morbid that might explain the accusation.
I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock. For instance,
it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity
at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then
it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined
extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp.
The modern man thought Becket's robes too rich and his meals too poor.
But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before
ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes. The modern man
found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex;
he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy.
The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrees.
The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers.
And surely if there was any insanity involved in the matter at all it
was in the trousers, not in the simply falling robe. If there was any
insanity at all, it was in the extravagant entrees, not in the bread
I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far.
The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians
and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained.
It was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity,
but a complication of diseases in Swinburne. The restraints
of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist
than a healthy man should be. The faith of Christians angered
him because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be.
In the same way the Malthusians by instinct attacked Christianity;
not because there is anything especially anti-Malthusian about
Christianity, but because there is something a little anti-human
Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity
was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really
an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified
the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise,
I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not
merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable.
Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other;
still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek,
meek beyond all decency. Now, it was just at this point of the
speculation that I remembered my thoughts about the martyr and
the suicide. In that matter there had been this combination between
two almost insane positions which yet somehow amounted to sanity.
This was just such another contradiction; and this I had already
found to be true. This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which
sceptics found the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right.
Madly as Christians might love the martyr or hate the suicide,
they never felt these passions more madly than I had felt them long
before I dreamed of Christianity. Then the most difficult and
interesting part of the mental process opened, and I began to trace
this idea darkly through all the enormous thoughts of our theology.
The idea was that which I had outlined touching the optimist and
the pessimist; that we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both
things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.
Here I shall only trace it in relation to ethics. But I need not
remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central
in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted
that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf,
nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both
things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.
Now let me trace this notion as I found it.
All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium;
that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little.
Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress and
evolution which seeks to destroy the MESON or balance of Aristotle.
They seem to suggest that we are meant to starve progressively,
or to go on eating larger and larger breakfasts every morning for ever.
But the great truism of the MESON remains for all thinking men,
and these people have not upset any balance except their own.
But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest
comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept.
That was the problem which Paganism tried to solve: that was
the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity
declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions
apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent;
but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.
Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide;
and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled
the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages.
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire
to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose
his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism
for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for
sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide
or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage;
even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by
the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within
an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut
his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a
strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life,
for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely
wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.
He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it;
he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle
with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.
But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it
in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance
between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the
sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European
lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage,
which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a
disdain of life.
And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian
key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation
out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance,
the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and
mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic,
would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently
self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse,
that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them.
In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily
with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position,
but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise
between optimism and pessimism—the "resignation" of Matthew Arnold.
Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things;
neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour.
This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets;
you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand,
this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire
and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and
searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at
the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels;
for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it
loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.
Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both
It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both.
In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before;
in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before.
In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far
as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had
meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view
of his whole destiny—all that was to go. We were to hear no more
the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over
the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest
of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking
about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes;
man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.
The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging
to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it.
Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only
be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.
Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness
of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission,
in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.
When one came to think of ONE'S SELF, there was vista and void enough
for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the
realistic gentleman could let himself go—as long as he let himself go
at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist.
Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original
aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned
fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools
are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, QUA man,
can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the
difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both,
and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.
One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think
too much of one's soul.
Take another case: the complicated question of charity,
which some highly uncharitable idealists seem to think quite easy.
Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly,
charity certainly means one of two things—pardoning unpardonable acts,
or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did
in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such
a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it.
A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive,
and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at;
a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed
even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable,
the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing;
but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice,
such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves
no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole
fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before.
It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another.
It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive
unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all.
It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger
and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before,
and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath
and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity,
the more I found that while it had established a rule and order,
the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run
Mental and emotional liberty are not so simple as they look.
Really they require almost as careful a balance of laws and conditions
as do social and political liberty. The ordinary aesthetic anarchist
who sets out to feel everything freely gets knotted at last in a
paradox that prevents him feeling at all. He breaks away from home
limits to follow poetry. But in ceasing to feel home limits he has
ceased to feel the "Odyssey." He is free from national prejudices
and outside patriotism. But being outside patriotism he is outside
"Henry V." Such a literary man is simply outside all literature:
he is more of a prisoner than any bigot. For if there is a wall
between you and the world, it makes little difference whether you
describe yourself as locked in or as locked out. What we want
is not the universality that is outside all normal sentiments;
we want the universality that is inside all normal sentiments.
It is all the difference between being free from them, as a man
is free from a prison, and being free of them as a man is free of
a city. I am free from Windsor Castle (that is, I am not forcibly
detained there), but I am by no means free of that building.
How can man be approximately free of fine emotions, able to swing
them in a clear space without breakage or wrong? THIS was the
achievement of this Christian paradox of the parallel passions.
Granted the primary dogma of the war between divine and diabolic,
the revolt and ruin of the world, their optimism and pessimism,
as pure poetry, could be loosened like cataracts.
St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting
optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil,
could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions
were free because both were kept in their place. The optimist could
pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march,
the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle.
But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw
as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds.
But he must not call the fight hopeless. So it was with all the
other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion.
By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly
inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them
to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible
only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness.
Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange COUP DE THEATRE
of morality—things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are
to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible
and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that
scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets,
to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles,
kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as
well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has
entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble,
could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent.
Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we
are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist,
go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it
is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly
against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see
Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster
Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing
nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on
the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised
celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so)
been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.
It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white,
like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has
always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination
of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers.
It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to
a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity
might be symbolized in the statement that white is a colour:
not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am urging here can
be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these
cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture
like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot
silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges
of the anti-Christians about submission and slaughter. It IS true
that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight;
and it IS true that those who fought were like thunderbolts
and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply
means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use
its Tolstoyans. There must be SOME good in the life of battle,
for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be
SOME good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem
to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes)
was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other.
They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples
of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead
of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured
out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity
of revenge. But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run
the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed
to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James
Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure
gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture;
the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul
of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that
this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured,
especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies
down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal
annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply
the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.
The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still
retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted;
THAT is the miracle she achieved.
This is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities
of life. This is knowing that a man's heart is to the left and not
in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round,
but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected
the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it
foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that
it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every
one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe—
THAT was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one
wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.
Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor
quite happy. But to find out how far one MAY be quite miserable
without making it impossible to be quite happy—that was a discovery
in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel";
and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger
and there you can grovel"—that was an emancipation.
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery
of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble,
upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like
a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its
pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences
exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were
all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support;
every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent
accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold
and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination;
for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in
the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least
better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black
and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
But the balance was not always in one man's body as in Becket's;
the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom.
Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could
be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics
drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the
orchards of England. This is what makes Christendom at once so much
more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire;
just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than
the Parthenon. If any one wants a modern proof of all this,
let him consider the curious fact that, under Christianity,
Europe (while remaining a unity) has broken up into individual nations.
Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing
of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the
Pagan empire would have said, "You shall all be Roman citizens,
and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent;
the Frenchmen less experimental and swift." But the instinct
of Christian Europe says, "Let the German remain slow and reverent,
that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental.
We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity
called Germany shall correct the insanity called France."
Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains
what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history
of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points
of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word.
It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you
are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth
on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment
of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful
and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep
the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers,
of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong
enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.
Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas;
she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit,
of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins,
or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see,
need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.
The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean,
and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten
forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have
to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some
small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made
in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature
of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.
A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither
all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had
to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might
enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful,
if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen
into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy,
humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting
as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to
be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses,
seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude
having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse;
yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along
one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right,
so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand
the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers
to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving
to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted
the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would
have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.
It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century,
to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be
a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let
the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own.
It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.
To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration
which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the
historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple.
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at
which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into
any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed
have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been
one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies
thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate,
the wild truth reeling but erect.
VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION
The following propositions have been urged: First, that some
faith in our life is required even to improve it; second, that some
dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary even in order
to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary content
and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have the obvious
equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither the
gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain.
There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it.
The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin.
Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do—because they are Christian.
And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense)
frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied
the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and
respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs)
objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem.
He said, "If these were silent, the very stones would cry out."
Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the
facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces
and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones
If these things be conceded, though only for argument,
we may take up where we left it the thread of the thought of the
natural man, called by the Scotch (with regrettable familiarity),
"The Old Man." We can ask the next question so obviously in front
of us. Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better.
But what do we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on
this matter is a mere argument in a circle—that circle which we
have already made the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism.
Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it
helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise
on the elephant.
Obviously, it will not do to take our ideal from the principle
in nature; for the simple reason that (except for some human
or divine theory), there is no principle in nature. For instance,
the cheap anti-democrat of to-day will tell you solemnly that
there is no equality in nature. He is right, but he does not see
the logical addendum. There is no equality in nature; also there
is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality,
implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy
of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it.
Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying
that all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable.
But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice;
nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say
that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat
superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy
to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse
were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat
had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by
getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually
inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive.
Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence,
so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing
in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends
on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there
is victory or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine
about what things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat
scores unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say
that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to
We cannot, then, get the ideal itself from nature,
and as we follow here the first and natural speculation, we will
leave out (for the present) the idea of getting it from God.
We must have our own vision. But the attempts of most moderns
to express it are highly vague.
Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere
passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man
of the first mental calibre carelessly uses the phrase that human
morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date?—
a date has no character. How can one say that Christmas
celebrations are not suitable to the twenty-fifth of a month?
What the writer meant, of course, was that the majority is behind
his favourite minority—or in front of it. Other vague modern
people take refuge in material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief
mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine
of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint
or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap
analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality.
Thus they think it intellectual to talk about things being "high."
It is at least the reverse of intellectual; it is a mere phrase
from a steeple or a weathercock. "Tommy was a good boy" is a pure
philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas. "Tommy lived
the higher life" is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.
This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche,
whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker.
No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker;
but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold.
He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words:
as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard,
fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question
by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said,
"beyond good and evil," because he had not the courage to say,
"more good than good and evil," or, "more evil than good and evil."
Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it
was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say,
"the purer man," or "the happier man," or "the sadder man," for all
these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says "the upper man,"
or "over man," a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers.
Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know
in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce.
And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists,
who talk about things being "higher," do not know either.
Then again, some people fall back on sheer submission
and sitting still. Nature is going to do something some day;
nobody knows what, and nobody knows when. We have no reason for acting,
and no reason for not acting. If anything happens it is right:
if anything is prevented it was wrong. Again, some people try
to anticipate nature by doing something, by doing anything.
Because we may possibly grow wings they cut off their legs.
Yet nature may be trying to make them centipedes for all they know.
Lastly, there is a fourth class of people who take whatever
it is that they happen to want, and say that that is the ultimate
aim of evolution. And these are the only sensible people.
This is the only really healthy way with the word evolution,
to work for what you want, and to call THAT evolution. The only
intelligible sense that progress or advance can have among men,
is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make
the whole world like that vision. If you like to put it so,
the essence of the doctrine is that what we have around us is the
mere method and preparation for something that we have to create.
This is not a world, but rather the material for a world.
God has given us not so much the colours of a picture as the colours
of a palette. But he has also given us a subject, a model,
a fixed vision. We must be clear about what we want to paint.
This adds a further principle to our previous list of principles.
We have said we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it.
We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary)
in order to have something to change it to.
We need not debate about the mere words evolution or progress:
personally I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form.
It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image;
to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is
a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from
merely walking along a road—very likely the wrong road. But reform
is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we
see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape.
And we know what shape.
Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age.
We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things.
Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit
the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing
the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing
justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift
in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page
from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean
that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean
that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not
altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal:
it is easier.
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted
a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no
cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task;
he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could
work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have
heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger.
He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he
worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own
point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it.
If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day,
he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour
every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a
fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow,
his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except
a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner.
This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker.
It will be said that this is avowedly a preposterous example.
But it is literally the fact of recent history. The great and grave
changes in our political civilization all belonged to the early
nineteenth century, not to the later. They belonged to the black
and white epoch when men believed fixedly in Toryism, in Protestantism,
in Calvinism, in Reform, and not unfrequently in Revolution.
And whatever each man believed in he hammered at steadily,
without scepticism: and there was a time when the Established
Church might have fallen, and the House of Lords nearly fell.
It was because Radicals were wise enough to be constant and consistent;
it was because Radicals were wise enough to be Conservative.
But in the existing atmosphere there is not enough time and tradition
in Radicalism to pull anything down. There is a great deal of truth
in Lord Hugh Cecil's suggestion (made in a fine speech) that the era
of change is over, and that ours is an era of conservation and repose.
But probably it would pain Lord Hugh Cecil if he realized (what
is certainly the case) that ours is only an age of conservation
because it is an age of complete unbelief. Let beliefs fade fast
and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same.
The more the life of the mind is unhinged, the more the machinery
of matter will be left to itself. The net result of all our
political suggestions, Collectivism, Tolstoyanism, Neo-Feudalism,
Communism, Anarchy, Scientific Bureaucracy—the plain fruit of all
of them is that the Monarchy and the House of Lords will remain.
The net result of all the new religions will be that the Church
of England will not (for heaven knows how long) be disestablished.
It was Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Cunninghame Grahame, Bernard Shaw
and Auberon Herbert, who between them, with bowed gigantic backs,
bore up the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the
safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation
of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation
of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free,
and he will not free himself. Again, it may be said that this
instance is remote or extreme. But, again, it is exactly true of
the men in the streets around us. It is true that the negro slave,
being a debased barbarian, will probably have either a human affection
of loyalty, or a human affection for liberty. But the man we see
every day—the worker in Mr. Gradgrind's factory, the little clerk
in Mr. Gradgrind's office—he is too mentally worried to believe
in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature.
He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of
wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the
next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day.
The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory.
The only man who gains by all the philosophies is Gradgrind.
It would be worth his while to keep his commercial helotry supplied
with sceptical literature. And now I come to think of it, of course,
Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries. He shows his sense.
All modern books are on his side. As long as the vision of heaven
is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same.
No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized.
The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will
always change his mind.
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards
which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make
many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up
twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times,
and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait.
So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails
to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.
But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal;
for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore
becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures
while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art?
How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always
satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait
painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking
the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out
A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary
for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any
sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly upon new ideas;
but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am merely
to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic;
but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is
the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution.
They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality,
with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant.
There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a slow
movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement.
A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things
to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better
to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians,
such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat;
by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat,
and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day
it may be wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the
question of what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever
is justice ought, under given conditions, to be prompt justice.
If an animal is wronged, we ought to be able to rush to his rescue.
But how can we rush if we are, perhaps, in advance of our time? How can
we rush to catch a train which may not arrive for a few centuries?
How can I denounce a man for skinning cats, if he is only now what I
may possibly become in drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane
Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts.
How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab,
when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little
fast or the cabman's a little slow? Suppose I say to a sweater,
"Slavery suited one stage of evolution." And suppose he answers,
"And sweating suits this stage of evolution." How can I answer if there
is no eternal test? If sweaters can be behind the current morality,
why should not philanthropists be in front of it? What on earth
is the current morality, except in its literal sense—the morality
that is always running away?
Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the
innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish
the king's orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish
the king to be promptly executed. The guillotine has many sins,
but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it.
The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in
the axe. The Evolutionist says, "Where do you draw the line?"
the Revolutionist answers, "I draw it HERE: exactly between your
head and body." There must at any given moment be an abstract
right and wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something
eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all
intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping
things as they are, for founding a system for ever, as in China,
or for altering it every month as in the early French Revolution,
it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision.
This is our first requirement.
When I had written this down, I felt once again the presence
of something else in the discussion: as a man hears a church bell
above the sound of the street. Something seemed to be saying,
"My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations
of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered;
for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you
are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come.
To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution;
for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan.
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this
world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there
can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.
At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which
no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing
evolution can make the original good any thing but good.
Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns:
still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may
have been under oppression ever since fish were under water;
still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may
seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does
the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not,
if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all
your history. Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact."
I paused to note the new coincidence of Christianity: but I
I passed on to the next necessity of any ideal of progress.
Some people (as we have said) seem to believe in an automatic
and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear
that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress
is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active,
but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve,
we need not trouble to improve. The pure doctrine of progress
is the best of all reasons for not being a progressive. But it
is to none of these obvious comments that I wish primarily to
The only arresting point is this: that if we suppose
improvement to be natural, it must be fairly simple. The world
might conceivably be working towards one consummation, but hardly
towards any particular arrangement of many qualities. To take
our original simile: Nature by herself may be growing more blue;
that is, a process so simple that it might be impersonal. But Nature
cannot be making a careful picture made of many picked colours,
unless Nature is personal. If the end of the world were mere
darkness or mere light it might come as slowly and inevitably
as dusk or dawn. But if the end of the world is to be a piece
of elaborate and artistic chiaroscuro, then there must be design
in it, either human or divine. The world, through mere time,
might grow black like an old picture, or white like an old coat;
but if it is turned into a particular piece of black and white art—
then there is an artist.
If the distinction be not evident, I give an ordinary instance. We
constantly hear a particularly cosmic creed from the modern humanitarians;
I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one
who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity.
They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and
more humane, that is to say, that one after another, groups or
sections of beings, slaves, children, women, cows, or what not,
have been gradually admitted to mercy or to justice. They say
that we once thought it right to eat men (we didn't); but I am not
here concerned with their history, which is highly unhistorical.
As a fact, anthropophagy is certainly a decadent thing, not a
primitive one. It is much more likely that modern men will eat
human flesh out of affectation than that primitive man ever ate
it out of ignorance. I am here only following the outlines of
their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been
progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves,
then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants. I think it wrong
to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to sit on a horse.
Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit on a chair.
That is the drive of the argument. And for this argument it can
be said that it is possible to talk of it in terms of evolution or
inevitable progress. A perpetual tendency to touch fewer and fewer
things might—one feels, be a mere brute unconscious tendency,
like that of a species to produce fewer and fewer children.
This drift may be really evolutionary, because it is stupid.
Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities,
but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship
and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for
being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy
love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane,
or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you
and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger.
Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way
to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate
the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat
a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding
If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to
the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur:
only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence
of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really
in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you
regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The
main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother:
Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have
the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire,
but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure
in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity.
Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele.
Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson.
But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert.
To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister:
a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
This, however, is hardly our main point at present; I have admitted
it only in order to show how constantly, and as it were accidentally,
the key would fit the smallest doors. Our main point is here,
that if there be a mere trend of impersonal improvement in Nature,
it must presumably be a simple trend towards some simple triumph.
One can imagine that some automatic tendency in biology might work
for giving us longer and longer noses. But the question is,
do we want to have longer and longer noses? I fancy not;
I believe that we most of us want to say to our noses, "thus far,
and no farther; and here shall thy proud point be stayed:"
we require a nose of such length as may ensure an interesting face.
But we cannot imagine a mere biological trend towards producing
interesting faces; because an interesting face is one particular
arrangement of eyes, nose, and mouth, in a most complex relation
to each other. Proportion cannot be a drift: it is either
an accident or a design. So with the ideal of human morality
and its relation to the humanitarians and the anti-humanitarians.
It is conceivable that we are going more and more to keep our hands
off things: not to drive horses; not to pick flowers. We may
eventually be bound not to disturb a man's mind even by argument;
not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing. The ultimate
apotheosis would appear to be that of a man sitting quite still,
nor daring to stir for fear of disturbing a fly, nor to eat for fear
of incommoding a microbe. To so crude a consummation as that we
might perhaps unconsciously drift. But do we want so crude
a consummation? Similarly, we might unconsciously evolve along
the opposite or Nietzschian line of development—superman crushing
superman in one tower of tyrants until the universe is smashed
up for fun. But do we want the universe smashed up for fun?
Is it not quite clear that what we really hope for is one particular
management and proposition of these two things; a certain amount
of restraint and respect, a certain amount of energy and mastery?
If our life is ever really as beautiful as a fairy-tale, we shall
have to remember that all the beauty of a fairy-tale lies in this:
that the prince has a wonder which just stops short of being fear.
If he is afraid of the giant, there is an end of him; but also if he
is not astonished at the giant, there is an end of the fairy-tale. The
whole point depends upon his being at once humble enough to wonder,
and haughty enough to defy. So our attitude to the giant of the world
must not merely be increasing delicacy or increasing contempt:
it must be one particular proportion of the two—which is exactly right.
We must have in us enough reverence for all things outside us
to make us tread fearfully on the grass. We must also have enough
disdain for all things outside us, to make us, on due occasion,
spit at the stars. Yet these two things (if we are to be good
or happy) must be combined, not in any combination, but in one
particular combination. The perfect happiness of men on the earth
(if it ever comes) will not be a flat and solid thing, like the
satisfaction of animals. It will be an exact and perilous balance;
like that of a desperate romance. Man must have just enough faith
in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to
This, then, is our second requirement for the ideal of progress.
First, it must be fixed; second, it must be composite. It must not
(if it is to satisfy our souls) be the mere victory of some one thing
swallowing up everything else, love or pride or peace or adventure;
it must be a definite picture composed of these elements in their best
proportion and relation. I am not concerned at this moment to deny
that some such good culmination may be, by the constitution of things,
reserved for the human race. I only point out that if this composite
happiness is fixed for us it must be fixed by some mind; for only
a mind can place the exact proportions of a composite happiness.
If the beatification of the world is a mere work of nature, then it
must be as simple as the freezing of the world, or the burning
up of the world. But if the beatification of the world is not
a work of nature but a work of art, then it involves an artist.
And here again my contemplation was cloven by the ancient voice
which said, "I could have told you all this a long time ago.
If there is any certain progress it can only be my kind of progress,
the progress towards a complete city of virtues and dominations
where righteousness and peace contrive to kiss each other.
An impersonal force might be leading you to a wilderness of perfect
flatness or a peak of perfect height. But only a personal God can
possibly be leading you (if, indeed, you are being led) to a city
with just streets and architectural proportions, a city in which each
of you can contribute exactly the right amount of your own colour
to the many coloured coat of Joseph."
Twice again, therefore, Christianity had come in with the exact
answer that I required. I had said, "The ideal must be fixed,"
and the Church had answered, "Mine is literally fixed, for it
existed before anything else." I said secondly, "It must be
artistically combined, like a picture"; and the Church answered,
"Mine is quite literally a picture, for I know who painted it."
Then I went on to the third thing, which, as it seemed to me,
was needed for an Utopia or goal of progress. And of all the three it
is infinitely the hardest to express. Perhaps it might be put thus:
that we need watchfulness even in Utopia, lest we fall from Utopia
as we fell from Eden.
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive
is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real
reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend
to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best
argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument
against being conservative. The conservative theory would really
be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact.
But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave
things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not.
If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change.
If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you
particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again;
that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you
want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this
which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and
terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance
is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity
with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing
romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies.
But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies;
under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty
years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the patriotic
monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards)
went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First.
So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just
after it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored.
The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined.
So in the same way in England in the nineteenth century the Radical
manufacturer was entirely trusted as a mere tribune of the people,
until suddenly we heard the cry of the Socialist that he was a tyrant
eating the people like bread. So again, we have almost up to the
last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion.
Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start)
that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature
of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. We have not any need
to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel against novelty.
It is the new rulers, the capitalist or the editor, who really hold
up the modern world. There is no fear that a modern king will
attempt to override the constitution; it is more likely that he
will ignore the constitution and work behind its back; he will take
no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that he will
take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that he
is free from criticism and publicity. For the king is the most
private person of our time. It will not be necessary for any one
to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press.
We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by
This startling swiftness with which popular systems turn
oppressive is the third fact for which we shall ask our perfect theory
of progress to allow. It must always be on the look out for every
privilege being abused, for every working right becoming a wrong.
In this matter I am entirely on the side of the revolutionists.
They are really right to be always suspecting human institutions;
they are right not to put their trust in princes nor in any child
of man. The chieftain chosen to be the friend of the people
becomes the enemy of the people; the newspaper started to tell
the truth now exists to prevent the truth being told. Here, I say,
I felt that I was really at last on the side of the revolutionary.
And then I caught my breath again: for I remembered that I was once
again on the side of the orthodox.
Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained
that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its
own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings
as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud
and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion
sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the
doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it,
as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic
advance as much as you like; I call it what it is—the Fall."
I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I
confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to
think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real
right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred.
I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats,
saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make
them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific
men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy)
saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong
will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention,
with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man
energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on.
If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike
democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may
or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite
practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot
give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he
shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say:
"It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the
brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country.
Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance."
It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the
earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy,
expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule.
It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising
for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had
recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off
his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed
from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say
that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all.
So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face,
proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be
really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, "Very well,
then, we won't trust them," and bang the door in his face.
On the basis of Mr. Blatchford's view of heredity and environment,
the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes
and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the
present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air?
If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves,
why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit
to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is
fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard
Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have
had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides?
Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed
clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul?
As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer
is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational
objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained
from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment,
but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a
dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the
commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has
been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle.
I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious
to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel
to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if,
in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least
that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this—
that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.
Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern
society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly
ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely
based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is
tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian)
is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions
about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics,
this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is,
of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already.
That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that
a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man,
spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.
There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints
have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply
that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.
It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators
of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown
the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly
un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich.
But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard
the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may
consistently say, "I respect that man's rank, although he takes bribes."
But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch
and breakfast, "a man of that rank would not take bribes."
For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may
take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by
a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history.
When people say that a man "in that position" would be incorruptible,
there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord
Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper?
In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man
in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position
at this moment.
Much vague and sentimental journalism has been poured out
to the effect that Christianity is akin to democracy, and most
of it is scarcely strong or clear enough to refute the fact that
the two things have often quarrelled. The real ground upon which
Christianity and democracy are one is very much deeper. The one
specially and peculiarly un-Christian idea is the idea of Carlyle—
the idea that the man should rule who feels that he can rule.
Whatever else is Christian, this is heathen. If our faith comments
on government at all, its comment must be this—that the man should
rule who does NOT think that he can rule. Carlyle's hero may say,
"I will be king"; but the Christian saint must say "Nolo episcopari."
If the great paradox of Christianity means anything, it means this—
that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry
places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man
who feels himself unfit to wear it. Carlyle was quite wrong;
we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule.
Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he
Now, this is one of the two or three vital defences of
working democracy. The mere machinery of voting is not democracy,
though at present it is not easy to effect any simpler democratic method.
But even the machinery of voting is profoundly Christian in this
practical sense—that it is an attempt to get at the opinion of those
who would be too modest to offer it. It is a mystical adventure;
it is specially trusting those who do not trust themselves.
That enigma is strictly peculiar to Christendom. There is nothing
really humble about the abnegation of the Buddhist; the mild Hindoo
is mild, but he is not meek. But there is something psychologically
Christian about the idea of seeking for the opinion of the obscure
rather than taking the obvious course of accepting the opinion
of the prominent. To say that voting is particularly Christian may
seem somewhat curious. To say that canvassing is Christian may seem
quite crazy. But canvassing is very Christian in its primary idea.
It is encouraging the humble; it is saying to the modest man,
"Friend, go up higher." Or if there is some slight defect
in canvassing, that is in its perfect and rounded piety, it is only
because it may possibly neglect to encourage the modesty of the canvasser.
Aristocracy is not an institution: aristocracy is a sin;
generally a very venial one. It is merely the drift or slide
of men into a sort of natural pomposity and praise of the powerful,
which is the most easy and obvious affair in the world.
It is one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion
of modern "force" that the promptest and boldest agencies are
also the most fragile or full of sensibility. The swiftest things
are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft.
A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must
by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness.
The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force.
In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can
maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous
history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great
saints is their power of "levitation." They might go further;
a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity.
Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially
the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented
all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies.
Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light
and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was
the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate
in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover
the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures
the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute.
Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens.
The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed
plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud
in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards,
for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward
drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down"
into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay
self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up
at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy,
but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice.
It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely,
because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to
write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH.
For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap.
It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of
Now, it is the peculiar honour of Europe since it has been Christian
that while it has had aristocracy it has always at the back of its heart
treated aristocracy as a weakness—generally as a weakness that must
be allowed for. If any one wishes to appreciate this point, let him
go outside Christianity into some other philosophical atmosphere.
Let him, for instance, compare the classes of Europe with the castes
of India. There aristocracy is far more awful, because it is far
more intellectual. It is seriously felt that the scale of classes
is a scale of spiritual values; that the baker is better than the
butcher in an invisible and sacred sense. But no Christianity,
not even the most ignorant or perverse, ever suggested that a baronet
was better than a butcher in that sacred sense. No Christianity,
however ignorant or extravagant, ever suggested that a duke would
not be damned. In pagan society there may have been (I do not know)
some such serious division between the free man and the slave.
But in Christian society we have always thought the gentleman
a sort of joke, though I admit that in some great crusades
and councils he earned the right to be called a practical joke.
But we in Europe never really and at the root of our souls took
aristocracy seriously. It is only an occasional non-European
alien (such as Dr. Oscar Levy, the only intelligent Nietzscheite)
who can even manage for a moment to take aristocracy seriously.
It may be a mere patriotic bias, though I do not think so, but it
seems to me that the English aristocracy is not only the type,
but is the crown and flower of all actual aristocracies; it has all
the oligarchical virtues as well as all the defects. It is casual,
it is kind, it is courageous in obvious matters; but it has one
great merit that overlaps even these. The great and very obvious
merit of the English aristocracy is that nobody could possibly take
In short, I had spelled out slowly, as usual, the need for
an equal law in Utopia; and, as usual, I found that Christianity
had been there before me. The whole history of my Utopia has the
same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of my architectural
study with plans for a new turret only to find it sitting up there
in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old. For me, in the
ancient and partly in the modern sense, God answered the prayer,
"Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings." Without vanity, I really
think there was a moment when I could have invented the marriage
vow (as an institution) out of my own head; but I discovered,
with a sigh, that it had been invented already. But, since it would
be too long a business to show how, fact by fact and inch by inch,
my own conception of Utopia was only answered in the New Jerusalem,
I will take this one case of the matter of marriage as indicating
the converging drift, I may say the converging crash of all the rest.
When the ordinary opponents of Socialism talk about
impossibilities and alterations in human nature they always miss
an important distinction. In modern ideal conceptions of society
there are some desires that are possibly not attainable: but there
are some desires that are not desirable. That all men should live
in equally beautiful houses is a dream that may or may not be attained.
But that all men should live in the same beautiful house is not
a dream at all; it is a nightmare. That a man should love all old
women is an ideal that may not be attainable. But that a man should
regard all old women exactly as he regards his mother is not only
an unattainable ideal, but an ideal which ought not to be attained.
I do not know if the reader agrees with me in these examples;
but I will add the example which has always affected me most.
I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me
the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.
Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have
any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible
to have any fun. To take an obvious instance, it would not be
worth while to bet if a bet were not binding. The dissolution
of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport.
Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted
shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance,
of which much has been said in these pages. And the perils, rewards,
punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or
the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet
I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge
I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging.
If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful,
or there is no fun in vowing. You could not even make a fairy tale
from the experiences of a man who, when he was swallowed by a whale,
might find himself at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or when he
was turned into a frog might begin to behave like a flamingo.
For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real;
results must be irrevocable. Christian marriage is the great
example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it
is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing.
And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask,
and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept
to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously;
I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.
All my modern Utopian friends look at each other rather doubtfully,
for their ultimate hope is the dissolution of all special ties.
But again I seem to hear, like a kind of echo, an answer from beyond
the world. "You will have real obligations, and therefore real
adventures when you get to my Utopia. But the hardest obligation
and the steepest adventure is to get there."
VIII THE ROMANCE OF ORTHODOXY
It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness
of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is
a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real
laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite
external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars;
but this is not due to human activity but to human repose.
There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people
were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it
were more strenuous. And this which is true of the apparent physical
bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect.
Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery;
and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought.
Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods
to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable.
Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they
are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk
and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once
in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable.
If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is
recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological
evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,"
you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement
of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish
Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,"
you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged
to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short
words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the
word "damn" than in the word "degeneration."
But these long comfortable words that save modern people the toil
of reasoning have one particular aspect in which they are especially
ruinous and confusing. This difficulty occurs when the same long word
is used in different connections to mean quite different things.
Thus, to take a well-known instance, the word "idealist" has
one meaning as a piece of philosophy and quite another as a piece
of moral rhetoric. In the same way the scientific materialists
have had just reason to complain of people mixing up "materialist"
as a term of cosmology with "materialist" as a moral taunt.
So, to take a cheaper instance, the man who hates "progressives"
in London always calls himself a "progressive" in South Africa.
A confusion quite as unmeaning as this has arisen in connection
with the word "liberal" as applied to religion and as applied
to politics and society. It is often suggested that all Liberals
ought to be freethinkers, because they ought to love everything that
is free. You might just as well say that all idealists ought to be
High Churchmen, because they ought to love everything that is high.
You might as well say that Low Churchmen ought to like Low Mass,
or that Broad Churchmen ought to like broad jokes. The thing is
a mere accident of words. In actual modern Europe a freethinker
does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who,
having thought for himself, has come to one particular class
of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility
of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on.
And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost
all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose
of this chapter to show.
In the few following pages I propose to point out as rapidly
as possible that on every single one of the matters most strongly
insisted on by liberalisers of theology their effect upon social
practice would be definitely illiberal. Almost every contemporary
proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal
to bring tyranny into the world. For freeing the church now
does not even mean freeing it in all directions. It means
freeing that peculiar set of dogmas loosely called scientific,
dogmas of monism, of pantheism, or of Arianism, or of necessity.
And every one of these (and we will take them one by one)
can be shown to be the natural ally of oppression. In fact, it is
a remarkable circumstance (indeed not so very remarkable when one
comes to think of it) that most things are the allies of oppression.
There is only one thing that can never go past a certain point
in its alliance with oppression—and that is orthodoxy. I may,
it is true, twist orthodoxy so as partly to justify a tyrant.
But I can easily make up a German philosophy to justify him entirely.
Now let us take in order the innovations that are the notes
of the new theology or the modernist church. We concluded the last
chapter with the discovery of one of them. The very doctrine which
is called the most old-fashioned was found to be the only safeguard
of the new democracies of the earth. The doctrine seemingly
most unpopular was found to be the only strength of the people.
In short, we found that the only logical negation of oligarchy
was in the affirmation of original sin. So it is, I maintain,
in all the other cases.
I take the most obvious instance first, the case of miracles.
For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it
is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe
in them. Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me.
For some inconceivable cause a "broad" or "liberal" clergyman always
means a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles;
it never means a man who wishes to increase that number. It always
means a man who is free to disbelieve that Christ came out of His grave;
it never means a man who is free to believe that his own aunt came
out of her grave. It is common to find trouble in a parish because
the parish priest cannot admit that St. Peter walked on water;
yet how rarely do we find trouble in a parish because the clergyman
says that his father walked on the Serpentine? And this is not
because (as the swift secularist debater would immediately retort)
miracles cannot be believed in our experience. It is not because
"miracles do not happen," as in the dogma which Matthew Arnold recited
with simple faith. More supernatural things are ALLEGED to have
happened in our time than would have been possible eighty years ago.
Men of science believe in such marvels much more than they did:
the most perplexing, and even horrible, prodigies of mind and spirit
are always being unveiled in modern psychology. Things that the old
science at least would frankly have rejected as miracles are hourly
being asserted by the new science. The only thing which is still
old-fashioned enough to reject miracles is the New Theology.
But in truth this notion that it is "free" to deny miracles has
nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless
verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not
in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism.
The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the
Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it.
He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow
him to believe it. Tennyson, a very typical nineteenth century man,
uttered one of the instinctive truisms of his contemporaries when he
said that there was faith in their honest doubt. There was indeed.
Those words have a profound and even a horrible truth. In their
doubt of miracles there was a faith in a fixed and godless fate;
a deep and sincere faith in the incurable routine of the cosmos.
The doubts of the agnostic were only the dogmas of the monist.
Of the fact and evidence of the supernatural I will
speak afterwards. Here we are only concerned with this clear point;
that in so far as the liberal idea of freedom can be said to be
on either side in the discussion about miracles, it is obviously
on the side of miracles. Reform or (in the only tolerable sense)
progress means simply the gradual control of matter by mind.
A miracle simply means the swift control of matter by mind. If you
wish to feed the people, you may think that feeding them miraculously
in the wilderness is impossible—but you cannot think it illiberal.
If you really want poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot
think it illiberal that they should go there on flying dragons;
you can only think it unlikely. A holiday, like Liberalism, only means
the liberty of man. A miracle only means the liberty of God.
You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call
your denial a triumph of the liberal idea. The Catholic Church
believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom.
Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God.
Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up
God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free
in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the
This, as I say, is the lightest and most evident case.
The assumption that there is something in the doubt of miracles akin
to liberality or reform is literally the opposite of the truth.
If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter;
he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable
and logical, which are much better things. But if he can believe
in miracles, he is certainly the more liberal for doing so;
because they mean first, the freedom of the soul, and secondly,
its control over the tyranny of circumstance. Sometimes this truth
is ignored in a singularly naive way, even by the ablest men.
For instance, Mr. Bernard Shaw speaks with hearty old-fashioned
contempt for the idea of miracles, as if they were a sort of breach
of faith on the part of nature: he seems strangely unconscious
that miracles are only the final flowers of his own favourite tree,
the doctrine of the omnipotence of will. Just in the same way he calls
the desire for immortality a paltry selfishness, forgetting that he
has just called the desire for life a healthy and heroic selfishness.
How can it be noble to wish to make one's life infinite and yet
mean to wish to make it immortal? No, if it is desirable that man
should triumph over the cruelty of nature or custom, then miracles
are certainly desirable; we will discuss afterwards whether they
But I must pass on to the larger cases of this curious error;
the notion that the "liberalising" of religion in some way helps
the liberation of the world. The second example of it can be found
in the question of pantheism—or rather of a certain modern attitude
which is often called immanentism, and which often is Buddhism.
But this is so much more difficult a matter that I must approach it
with rather more preparation.
The things said most confidently by advanced persons to
crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact;
it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case.
There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again
at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: "the religions
of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in
what they teach." It is false; it is the opposite of the fact.
The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms;
they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man
were to say, "Do not be misled by the fact that the CHURCH TIMES
and the FREETHINKER look utterly different, that one is painted
on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular
and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say
the same thing." The truth is, of course, that they are alike in
everything except in the fact that they don't say the same thing.
An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian
stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them
and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without
seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly
godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they
are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds
of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree
in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite.
They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works
with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars,
sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode
of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught.
Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples,
just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that
exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies
that exist to destroy each other both have guns.
The great example of this alleged identity of all human religions
is the alleged spiritual identity of Buddhism and Christianity.
Those who adopt this theory generally avoid the ethics of most
other creeds, except, indeed, Confucianism, which they like
because it is not a creed. But they are cautious in their praises
of Mahommedanism, generally confining themselves to imposing
its morality only upon the refreshment of the lower classes.
They seldom suggest the Mahommedan view of marriage (for which
there is a great deal to be said), and towards Thugs and fetish
worshippers their attitude may even be called cold. But in the
case of the great religion of Gautama they feel sincerely a similarity.
Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always
insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike,
especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed
it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it.
The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing
because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which
were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that
the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike,
or else he described them as alike in some point in which they
are quite obviously different. Thus, as a case of the first class,
he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice
coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice
to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged
that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had
to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was
a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the
other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar.
Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention
to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama
is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued.
But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ
were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision;
and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would
fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious
connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps
a man's shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all
similar for the man. These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed
matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical
resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much
or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of
self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity;
it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence.
Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all
sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess.
But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy
of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are
in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out.
But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two
institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly
as Buddhism and Christianity.
Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though
unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike,
there was one thing about them that always perplexed me;
I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art.
I do not mean in its technical style of representation,
but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent.
No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint
in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple.
The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest
statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut,
while the Christian saint always has them very wide open.
The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes
are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is
wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive.
There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that
produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images
are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be
a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances.
The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards.
The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we
follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.
A short time ago Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay,
announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all
faiths were only versions or perversions of it, and that she was
quite prepared to say what it was. According to Mrs. Besant this
universal Church is simply the universal self. It is the doctrine
that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of
individuality between man and man. If I may put it so, she does not
tell us to love our neighbours; she tells us to be our neighbours.
That is Mrs. Besant's thoughtful and suggestive description of
the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement.
And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more
violently disagree. I want to love my neighbour not because he is I,
but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world,
not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one's self,
but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.
If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love
is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself,
but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must
be a monotonous courtship. If the world is full of real selves,
they can be really unselfish selves. But upon Mrs. Besant's principle
the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person.
It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism
and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the
side of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality;
therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity
to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces,
because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say "little
children love one another" rather than to tell one large person
to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism
and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality
is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God,
the whole point of his cosmic idea. The world-soul of the Theosophists
asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it.
But the divine centre of Christianity actually threw man out of it
in order that he might love it. The oriental deity is like a giant
who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it;
but the Christian power is like some giant who in a strange
generosity should cut off his right hand, so that it might of its
own accord shake hands with him. We come back to the same tireless
note touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies
are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which
separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually
rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls.
But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God
and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God
it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved,
but a man to love him. All those vague theosophical minds for whom
the universe is an immense melting-pot are exactly the minds which
shrink instinctively from that earthquake saying of our Gospels,
which declare that the Son of God came not with peace but with a
sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered
as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real
love is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity
as a divine love; sham love ends in compromise and common philosophy;
but real love has always ended in bloodshed. Yet there is another
and yet more awful truth behind the obvious meaning of this utterance
of our Lord. According to Himself the Son was a sword separating
brother and brother that they should for an aeon hate each other.
But the Father also was a sword, which in the black beginning
separated brother and brother, so that they should love each other
This is the meaning of that almost insane happiness in the
eyes of the mediaeval saint in the picture. This is the meaning
of the sealed eyes of the superb Buddhist image. The Christian
saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world;
he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment.
But why should the Buddhist saint be astonished at things?—
since there is really only one thing, and that being impersonal can
hardly be astonished at itself. There have been many pantheist poems
suggesting wonder, but no really successful ones. The pantheist
cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as really
distinct from himself. Our immediate business here, however, is with
the effect of this Christian admiration (which strikes outwards,
towards a deity distinct from the worshipper) upon the general
need for ethical activity and social reform. And surely its
effect is sufficiently obvious. There is no real possibility
of getting out of pantheism, any special impulse to moral action.
For pantheism implies in its nature that one thing is as good
as another; whereas action implies in its nature that one thing
is greatly preferable to another. Swinburne in the high summer
of his scepticism tried in vain to wrestle with this difficulty.
In "Songs before Sunrise," written under the inspiration of Garibaldi
and the revolt of Italy he proclaimed the newer religion and the
purer God which should wither up all the priests of the world:
"What doest thou now Looking Godward to cry I am I,
thou art thou, I am low, thou art high, I am thou that thou
seekest to find him, find thou but thyself, thou art I."
Of which the immediate and evident deduction is that tyrants
are as much the sons of God as Garibaldis; and that King Bomba
of Naples having, with the utmost success, "found himself"
is identical with the ultimate good in all things. The truth is
that the western energy that dethrones tyrants has been directly
due to the western theology that says "I am I, thou art thou."
The same spiritual separation which looked up and saw a good king in
the universe looked up and saw a bad king in Naples. The worshippers
of Bomba's god dethroned Bomba. The worshippers of Swinburne's god
have covered Asia for centuries and have never dethroned a tyrant.
The Indian saint may reasonably shut his eyes because he is
looking at that which is I and Thou and We and They and It.
It is a rational occupation: but it is not true in theory and not
true in fact that it helps the Indian to keep an eye on Lord Curzon.
That external vigilance which has always been the mark of Christianity
(the command that we should WATCH and pray) has expressed itself
both in typical western orthodoxy and in typical western politics:
but both depend on the idea of a divinity transcendent, different
from ourselves, a deity that disappears. Certainly the most sagacious
creeds may suggest that we should pursue God into deeper and deeper
rings of the labyrinth of our own ego. But only we of Christendom
have said that we should hunt God like an eagle upon the mountains:
and we have killed all monsters in the chase.
Here again, therefore, we find that in so far as we value
democracy and the self-renewing energies of the west, we are much
more likely to find them in the old theology than the new.
If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this
matter (so much disputed in the counsels of Mr. R.J.Campbell),
the matter of insisting on the immanent or the transcendent deity.
By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection,
self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting
specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity,
moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom.
Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself.
By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.
If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned
we shall find the case the same. It is the same, for instance,
in the deep matter of the Trinity. Unitarians (a sect never to be
mentioned without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual
dignity and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the
accident that throws so many small sects into such an attitude.
But there is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in
the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex
God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect;
but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty
of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god
who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king.
The HEART of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly
much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather
round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy
pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty
and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world.
For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not
well for man to be alone." The social instinct asserted itself
everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled
by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly;
and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent.
If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly
healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian.
For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)—to us God
Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology,
and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would
not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple
enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside;
that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart:
but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns,
come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who
with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well
for God to be alone.
Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of the danger
of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds. To hope
for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their
salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially
favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society
ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact
that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice.
To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark:
but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet. Europe ought rather
to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe always has emphasized it.
Here its highest religion is at one with all its cheapest romances.
To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science
or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian
existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling
novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten
by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill
that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak)
be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man,
not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he
didn't. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man
"damned": but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads.
The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug,
all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments.
The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man
take this road or that?—that is the only thing to think about,
if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about,
any one can think about them. The instant is really awful:
and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant,
that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology
dealt much with hell. It is full of DANGER, like a boy's book:
it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity
between popular fiction and the religion of the western people.
If you say that popular fiction is vulgar and tawdry, you only say
what the dreary and well-informed say also about the images in the
Catholic churches. Life (according to the faith) is very like a
serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace)
"to be continued in our next." Also, with a noble vulgarity,
life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment.
For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
But the point is that a story is exciting because it has in it
so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free-will.
You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story
how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus
there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover.
But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to
Juliet's old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has
excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted
on the theological free-will. It is a large matter and too much
to one side of the road to be discussed adequately here; but this
is the real objection to that torrent of modern talk about treating
crime as disease, about making a prison merely a hygienic environment
like a hospital, of healing sin by slow scientific methods.
The fallacy of the whole thing is that evil is a matter of active
choice whereas disease is not. If you say that you are going to cure
a profligate as you cure an asthmatic, my cheap and obvious answer is,
"Produce the people who want to be asthmatics as many people want
to be profligates." A man may lie still and be cured of a malady.
But he must not lie still if he wants to be cured of a sin;
on the contrary, he must get up and jump about violently.
The whole point indeed is perfectly expressed in the very word
which we use for a man in hospital; "patient" is in the passive mood;
"sinner" is in the active. If a man is to be saved from influenza,
he may be a patient. But if he is to be saved from forging,
he must be not a patient but an IMPATIENT. He must be personally
impatient with forgery. All moral reform must start in the active
not the passive will.
Here again we reach the same substantial conclusion. In so far
as we desire the definite reconstructions and the dangerous revolutions
which have distinguished European civilization, we shall not discourage
the thought of possible ruin; we shall rather encourage it.
If we want, like the Eastern saints, merely to contemplate how right
things are, of course we shall only say that they must go right.
But if we particularly want to MAKE them go right, we must insist
that they may go wrong.
Lastly, this truth is yet again true in the case of the common
modern attempts to diminish or to explain away the divinity of Christ.
The thing may be true or not; that I shall deal with before I end.
But if the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary.
That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we
knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast
for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion
on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete.
Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God,
must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds,
Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator.
For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean
that the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break.
In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it
is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my
phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the
greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach.
But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional
suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way)
went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written,
"Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may
tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane.
In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God.
He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror
of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven,
it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross:
the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let
the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all
the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable
recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god
who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult
for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god.
They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation;
only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be
These can be called the essentials of the old orthodoxy,
of which the chief merit is that it is the natural fountain of
revolution and reform; and of which the chief defect is that it
is obviously only an abstract assertion. Its main advantage
is that it is the most adventurous and manly of all theologies.
Its chief disadvantage is simply that it is a theology. It can always
be urged against it that it is in its nature arbitrary and in the air.
But it is not so high in the air but that great archers spend their
whole lives in shooting arrows at it—yes, and their last arrows;
there are men who will ruin themselves and ruin their civilization
if they may ruin also this old fantastic tale. This is the last
and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will
use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers,
and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight
the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging
away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.
This is no exaggeration; I could fill a book with the instances of it.
Mr. Blatchford set out, as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove
that Adam was guiltless of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to
maintain this he admitted, as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants,
from Nero to King Leopold, were guiltless of any sin against humanity.
I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no
personal existence after death that he falls back on the position
that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says
that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he
cannot go to heaven he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool.
I have known people who protested against religious education with
arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must
grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known
people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing
that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes.
They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed
their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with,
though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture.
We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this
world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic
who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices
the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God.
He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert
the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne.
He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live,
for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived
And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents
only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear.
They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political
and common courage sense. They do not prove that Adam was not
responsible to God; how could they prove it? They only prove
(from their premises) that the Czar is not responsible to Russia.
They do not prove that Adam should not have been punished by God;
they only prove that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men.
With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain
that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make
certain that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here.
With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong
they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make
it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove.
Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes
are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not
wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things,
if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven;
but they laid waste the world.
IX AUTHORITY AND THE ADVENTURER
The last chapter has been concerned with the contention that
orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian of
morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty,
innovation and advance. If we wish to pull down the prosperous
oppressor we cannot do it with the new doctrine of human perfectibility;
we can do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin. If we want
to uproot inherent cruelties or lift up lost populations we cannot
do it with the scientific theory that matter precedes mind; we can
do it with the supernatural theory that mind precedes matter.
If we wish specially to awaken people to social vigilance and
tireless pursuit of practise, we cannot help it much by insisting
on the Immanent God and the Inner Light: for these are at best
reasons for contentment; we can help it much by insisting on the
transcendent God and the flying and escaping gleam; for that means
divine discontent. If we wish particularly to assert the idea
of a generous balance against that of a dreadful autocracy we
shall instinctively be Trinitarian rather than Unitarian. If we
desire European civilization to be a raid and a rescue, we shall
insist rather that souls are in real peril than that their peril is
ultimately unreal. And if we wish to exalt the outcast and the crucified,
we shall rather wish to think that a veritable God was crucified,
rather than a mere sage or hero. Above all, if we wish to protect
the poor we shall be in favour of fixed rules and clear dogmas.
The RULES of a club are occasionally in favour of the poor member.
The drift of a club is always in favour of the rich one.
And now we come to the crucial question which truly concludes
the whole matter. A reasonable agnostic, if he has happened to agree
with me so far, may justly turn round and say, "You have found
a practical philosophy in the doctrine of the Fall; very well.
You have found a side of democracy now dangerously neglected wisely
asserted in Original Sin; all right. You have found a truth in
the doctrine of hell; I congratulate you. You are convinced that
worshippers of a personal God look outwards and are progressive;
I congratulate them. But even supposing that those doctrines
do include those truths, why cannot you take the truths and leave
the doctrines? Granted that all modern society is trusting
the rich too much because it does not allow for human weakness;
granted that orthodox ages have had a great advantage because
(believing in the Fall) they did allow for human weakness, why cannot
you simply allow for human weakness without believing in the Fall?
If you have discovered that the idea of damnation represents
a healthy idea of danger, why can you not simply take the idea
of danger and leave the idea of damnation? If you see clearly
the kernel of common-sense in the nut of Christian orthodoxy,
why cannot you simply take the kernel and leave the nut?
Why cannot you (to use that cant phrase of the newspapers which I,
as a highly scholarly agnostic, am a little ashamed of using)
why cannot you simply take what is good in Christianity, what you can
define as valuable, what you can comprehend, and leave all the rest,
all the absolute dogmas that are in their nature incomprehensible?"
This is the real question; this is the last question; and it is a
pleasure to try to answer it.
The first answer is simply to say that I am a rationalist.
I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions.
If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual
convenience to me to believe that he fell; and I find, for some odd
psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man's exercise
of freewill if I believe that he has got it. But I am in this matter
yet more definitely a rationalist. I do not propose to turn this
book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad
to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more
obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth
in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark that the more I
saw of the merely abstract arguments against the Christian cosmology
the less I thought of them. I mean that having found the moral
atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense, I then looked
at the established intellectual arguments against the Incarnation
and found them to be common nonsense. In case the argument should
be thought to suffer from the absence of the ordinary apologetic I
will here very briefly summarise my own arguments and conclusions
on the purely objective or scientific truth of the matter.
If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe
in Christianity, I can only answer, "For the same reason that an
intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity." I believe in it
quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case,
as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that
alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small
but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because
his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy;
it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind.
I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy
from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape,
and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different
kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point
to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average
educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up
of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my
evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind
as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various
anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true.
I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows
the other way. Let us take cases. Many a sensible modern man
must have abandoned Christianity under the pressure of three such
converging convictions as these: first, that men, with their shape,
structure, and sexuality, are, after all, very much like beasts,
a mere variety of the animal kingdom; second, that primeval religion
arose in ignorance and fear; third, that priests have blighted societies
with bitterness and gloom. Those three anti-Christian arguments
are very different; but they are all quite logical and legitimate;
and they all converge. The only objection to them (I discover)
is that they are all untrue. If you leave off looking at books
about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then
(if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic
or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not
how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the
monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation.
That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being
so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock
and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the
philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing
with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve
marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and
debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory
even in a roccoco style; camels do not paint even bad pictures,
though equipped with the material of many camel's-hair brushes.
Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior
to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth
only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever
found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants?
Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens
of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have
a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals;
but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out.
All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability
of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals;
man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk.
So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything,
a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that
all religion begins.
It would be the same if I examined the second of the three chance
rationalist arguments; the argument that all that we call divine
began in some darkness and terror. When I did attempt to examine
the foundations of this modern idea I simply found that there
were none. Science knows nothing whatever about pre-historic man;
for the excellent reason that he is pre-historic. A few professors
choose to conjecture that such things as human sacrifice were once
innocent and general and that they gradually dwindled; but there is
no direct evidence of it, and the small amount of indirect evidence
is very much the other way. In the earliest legends we have,
such as the tales of Isaac and of Iphigenia, human sacrifice
is not introduced as something old, but rather as something new;
as a strange and frightful exception darkly demanded by the gods.
History says nothing; and legends all say that the earth was kinder
in its earliest time. There is no tradition of progress; but the whole
human race has a tradition of the Fall. Amusingly enough, indeed,
the very dissemination of this idea is used against its authenticity.
Learned men literally say that this pre-historic calamity cannot
be true because every race of mankind remembers it. I cannot keep
pace with these paradoxes.
And if we took the third chance instance, it would be the same;
the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the
world and simply discover that they don't. Those countries in Europe
which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries
where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art
in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls;
but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only
frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy
some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island
in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge
they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the
place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down,
leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over;
but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in
terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
Thus these three facts of experience, such facts as go to make
an agnostic, are, in this view, turned totally round. I am left saying,
"Give me an explanation, first, of the towering eccentricity of man
among the brutes; second, of the vast human tradition of some
ancient happiness; third, of the partial perpetuation of such pagan
joy in the countries of the Catholic Church." One explanation,
at any rate, covers all three: the theory that twice was the natural
order interrupted by some explosion or revelation such as people
now call "psychic." Once Heaven came upon the earth with a power
or seal called the image of God, whereby man took command of Nature;
and once again (when in empire after empire men had been found wanting)
Heaven came to save mankind in the awful shape of a man.
This would explain why the mass of men always look backwards;
and why the only corner where they in any sense look forwards is
the little continent where Christ has His Church. I know it will
be said that Japan has become progressive. But how can this be an
answer when even in saying "Japan has become progressive," we really
only mean, "Japan has become European"? But I wish here not so much
to insist on my own explanation as to insist on my original remark.
I agree with the ordinary unbelieving man in the street in being
guided by three or four odd facts all pointing to something;
only when I came to look at the facts I always found they pointed
to something else.
I have given an imaginary triad of such ordinary anti-Christian
arguments; if that be too narrow a basis I will give on the spur
of the moment another. These are the kind of thoughts which in
combination create the impression that Christianity is something weak
and diseased. First, for instance, that Jesus was a gentle creature,
sheepish and unworldly, a mere ineffectual appeal to the world; second,
that Christianity arose and flourished in the dark ages of ignorance,
and that to these the Church would drag us back; third, that the people
still strongly religious or (if you will) superstitious—such people
as the Irish—are weak, unpractical, and behind the times.
I only mention these ideas to affirm the same thing: that when I
looked into them independently I found, not that the conclusions
were unphilosophical, but simply that the facts were not facts.
Instead of looking at books and pictures about the New Testament I
looked at the New Testament. There I found an account, not in the
least of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands
clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder
and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils,
passing with the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a
sort of dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god—
and always like a god. Christ had even a literary style of his own,
not to be found, I think, elsewhere; it consists of an almost furious
use of the A FORTIORI. His "how much more" is piled one upon
another like castle upon castle in the clouds. The diction used
ABOUT Christ has been, and perhaps wisely, sweet and submissive.
But the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque;
it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled
into the sea. Morally it is equally terrific; he called himself
a sword of slaughter, and told men to buy swords if they sold their
coats for them. That he used other even wilder words on the side
of non-resistance greatly increases the mystery; but it also,
if anything, rather increases the violence. We cannot even explain
it by calling such a being insane; for insanity is usually along one
consistent channel. The maniac is generally a monomaniac. Here we
must remember the difficult definition of Christianity already given;
Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions
may blaze beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel
language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one
who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that
Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself
with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history.
And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the
Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark.
It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.
If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery
the answer is simple: it didn't. It arose in the Mediterranean
civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world
was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun,
when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true
that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that
the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross
still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did:
it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load
of waters; after being buried under the debris of dynasties and clans,
we arose and remembered Rome. If our faith had been a mere fad
of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight,
and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have
never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag.
But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and
was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were
forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the
Gothic arch. In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said
of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can
we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages?
The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.
I added in this second trinity of objections an idle instance
taken from those who feel such people as the Irish to be weakened
or made stagnant by superstition. I only added it because this
is a peculiar case of a statement of fact that turns out to be
a statement of falsehood. It is constantly said of the Irish that
they are impractical. But if we refrain for a moment from looking
at what is said about them and look at what is DONE about them,
we shall see that the Irish are not only practical, but quite
painfully successful. The poverty of their country, the minority
of their members are simply the conditions under which they were asked
to work; but no other group in the British Empire has done so much
with such conditions. The Nationalists were the only minority
that ever succeeded in twisting the whole British Parliament sharply
out of its path. The Irish peasants are the only poor men in these
islands who have forced their masters to disgorge. These people,
whom we call priest-ridden, are the only Britons who will not be
squire-ridden. And when I came to look at the actual Irish character,
the case was the same. Irishmen are best at the specially
HARD professions—the trades of iron, the lawyer, and the soldier.
In all these cases, therefore, I came back to the same conclusion:
the sceptic was quite right to go by the facts, only he had not
looked at the facts. The sceptic is too credulous; he believes
in newspapers or even in encyclopedias. Again the three questions
left me with three very antagonistic questions. The average sceptic
wanted to know how I explained the namby-pamby note in the Gospel,
the connection of the creed with mediaeval darkness and the political
impracticability of the Celtic Christians. But I wanted to ask,
and to ask with an earnestness amounting to urgency, "What is this
incomparable energy which appears first in one walking the earth
like a living judgment and this energy which can die with a dying
civilization and yet force it to a resurrection from the dead;
this energy which last of all can inflame a bankrupt peasantry
with so fixed a faith in justice that they get what they ask,
while others go empty away; so that the most helpless island
of the Empire can actually help itself?"
There is an answer: it is an answer to say that the energy
is truly from outside the world; that it is psychic, or at least
one of the results of a real psychical disturbance. The highest
gratitude and respect are due to the great human civilizations such
as the old Egyptian or the existing Chinese. Nevertheless it is
no injustice for them to say that only modern Europe has exhibited
incessantly a power of self-renewal recurring often at the shortest
intervals and descending to the smallest facts of building or costume.
All other societies die finally and with dignity. We die daily.
We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that there is in historic
Christendom a sort of unnatural life: it could be explained as a
supernatural life. It could be explained as an awful galvanic life
working in what would have been a corpse. For our civilization OUGHT
to have died, by all parallels, by all sociological probability,
in the Ragnorak of the end of Rome. That is the weird inspiration
of our estate: you and I have no business to be here at all. We are
all REVENANTS; all living Christians are dead pagans walking about.
Just as Europe was about to be gathered in silence to Assyria
and Babylon, something entered into its body. And Europe has had
a strange life—it is not too much to say that it has had the JUMPS—
I have dealt at length with such typical triads of doubt in order
to convey the main contention—that my own case for Christianity is
rational; but it is not simple. It is an accumulation of varied
facts, like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic. But the ordinary
agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a
multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because
the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren't; because Darwinism is
demonstrated, but it isn't; because miracles do not happen, but they
do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because
nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because
Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly
bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving
away from the supernatural, but it isn't, it is moving towards the
supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.
But among these million facts all flowing one way there is,
of course, one question sufficiently solid and separate to be
treated briefly, but by itself; I mean the objective occurrence
of the supernatural. In another chapter I have indicated the fallacy
of the ordinary supposition that the world must be impersonal because it
is orderly. A person is just as likely to desire an orderly thing
as a disorderly thing. But my own positive conviction that personal
creation is more conceivable than material fate, is, I admit,
in a sense, undiscussable. I will not call it a faith or an intuition,
for those words are mixed up with mere emotion, it is strictly
an intellectual conviction; but it is a PRIMARY intellectual
conviction like the certainty of self of the good of living.
Any one who likes, therefore, may call my belief in God merely mystical;
the phrase is not worth fighting about. But my belief that miracles
have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe
in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America.
Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires
to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary
idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them
coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only
in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way.
The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they
have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them
(rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.
The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman
when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old
apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain,
popular course is to trust the peasant's word about the ghost
exactly as far as you trust the peasant's word about the landlord.
Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy
agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with
evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.
If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human
testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can
only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about
the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story
is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle
of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—
the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right
to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we
Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists
who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed.
But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking
impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times,
I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument
against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say,
"Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest
certain battles," they answer, "But mediaevals were superstitious";
if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only
ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say "a
peasant saw a ghost," I am told, "But peasants are so credulous."
If I ask, "Why credulous?" the only answer is—that they see ghosts.
Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it;
and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.
It is only fair to add that there is another argument that the
unbeliever may rationally use against miracles, though he himself
generally forgets to use it.
He may say that there has been in many miraculous stories
a notion of spiritual preparation and acceptance: in short,
that the miracle could only come to him who believed in it.
It may be so, and if it is so how are we to test it? If we are
inquiring whether certain results follow faith, it is useless
to repeat wearily that (if they happen) they do follow faith.
If faith is one of the conditions, those without faith have a
most healthy right to laugh. But they have no right to judge.
Being a believer may be, if you like, as bad as being drunk;
still if we were extracting psychological facts from drunkards,
it would be absurd to be always taunting them with having been drunk.
Suppose we were investigating whether angry men really saw a red
mist before their eyes. Suppose sixty excellent householders swore
that when angry they had seen this crimson cloud: surely it would
be absurd to answer "Oh, but you admit you were angry at the time."
They might reasonably rejoin (in a stentorian chorus), "How the blazes
could we discover, without being angry, whether angry people see red?"
So the saints and ascetics might rationally reply, "Suppose that the
question is whether believers can see visions—even then, if you
are interested in visions it is no point to object to believers."
You are still arguing in a circle—in that old mad circle with which this
The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of
common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final
physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless
piece of pedantry which talks about the need for "scientific conditions"
in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking
whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous
to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living
souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other.
The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence
of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the
existence of love. If you choose to say, "I will believe that Miss
Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or, any other endearing term,
if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists,"
then I shall reply, "Very well, if those are your conditions,
you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it."
It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised
that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies
do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there
was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted
on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.
As a common-sense conclusion, such as those to which we come
about sex or about midnight (well knowing that many details must
in their own nature be concealed) I conclude that miracles do happen.
I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who
encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers,
but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious;
the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents
but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits
such things more and more every day. Science will even admit
the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit
the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it.
I suggest the Regalvanisation. But the strongest of all is
the dilemma above mentioned, that these supernatural things are
never denied except on the basis either of anti-democracy or of
materialist dogmatism—I may say materialist mysticism. The sceptic
always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need
not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.
For I hope we may dismiss the argument against wonders attempted
in the mere recapitulation of frauds, of swindling mediums or
trick miracles. That is not an argument at all, good or bad.
A false ghost disproves the reality of ghosts exactly as much as
a forged banknote disproves the existence of the Bank of England—
if anything, it proves its existence.
Given this conviction that the spiritual phenomena do occur
(my evidence for which is complex but rational), we then collide
with one of the worst mental evils of the age. The greatest
disaster of the nineteenth century was this: that men began
to use the word "spiritual" as the same as the word "good."
They thought that to grow in refinement and uncorporeality was
to grow in virtue. When scientific evolution was announced,
some feared that it would encourage mere animality. It did worse:
it encouraged mere spirituality. It taught men to think that so long
as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel.
But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil. A man of genius,
very typical of that time of bewilderment, expressed it perfectly.
Benjamin Disraeli was right when he said he was on the side of
the angels. He was indeed; he was on the side of the fallen angels.
He was not on the side of any mere appetite or animal brutality;
but he was on the side of all the imperialism of the princes
of the abyss; he was on the side of arrogance and mystery,
and contempt of all obvious good. Between this sunken pride
and the towering humilities of heaven there are, one must suppose,
spirits of shapes and sizes. Man, in encountering them,
must make much the same mistakes that he makes in encountering
any other varied types in any other distant continent. It must
be hard at first to know who is supreme and who is subordinate.
If a shade arose from the under world, and stared at Piccadilly,
that shade would not quite understand the idea of an ordinary
closed carriage. He would suppose that the coachman on the box
was a triumphant conqueror, dragging behind him a kicking and
imprisoned captive. So, if we see spiritual facts for the first time,
we may mistake who is uppermost. It is not enough to find the gods;
they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods.
We must have a long historic experience in supernatural phenomena—
in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I
find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins,
quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told
that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any
research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important,
just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only
slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master,
and the small moon only our satellite. Believing that there
is a world of spirits, I shall walk in it as I do in the world
of men, looking for the thing that I like and think good.
Just as I should seek in a desert for clean water, or toil at
the North Pole to make a comfortable fire, so I shall search the
land of void and vision until I find something fresh like water,
and comforting like fire; until I find some place in eternity,
where I am literally at home. And there is only one such place to
I have now said enough to show (to any one to whom such
an explanation is essential) that I have in the ordinary arena
of apologetics, a ground of belief. In pure records of experiment (if
these be taken democratically without contempt or favour) there is
evidence first, that miracles happen, and second that the nobler
miracles belong to our tradition. But I will not pretend that this curt
discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity instead of taking
the moral good of Christianity as I should take it out of Confucianism.
I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting
to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it
as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its
practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one.
It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly
teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape
of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape
of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed;
some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has
told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you
with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more.
But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living,
to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow,
or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a
single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes
to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato
and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting
to see some truth that he has never seen before. There is one
only other parallel to this position; and that is the parallel
of the life in which we all began. When your father told you,
walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet,
you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the
bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence.
When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude,
barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep
delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father,
because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing
that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth
to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father,
it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine,
to whom this book is dedicated. Now, when society is in a rather
futile fuss about the subjection of women, will no one say how much
every man owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact
that they alone rule education until education becomes futile:
for a boy is only sent to be taught at school when it is too late
to teach him anything. The real thing has been done already,
and thank God it is nearly always done by women. Every man
is womanised, merely by being born. They talk of the masculine woman;
but every man is a feminised man. And if ever men walk to Westminster
to protest against this female privilege, I shall not join
For I remember with certainty this fixed psychological fact;
that the very time when I was most under a woman's authority,
I was most full of flame and adventure. Exactly because when my
mother said that ants bit they did bite, and because snow did
come in winter (as she said); therefore the whole world was to me
a fairyland of wonderful fulfilments, and it was like living in
some Hebraic age, when prophecy after prophecy came true. I went
out as a child into the garden, and it was a terrible place to me,
precisely because I had a clue to it: if I had held no clue it would
not have been terrible, but tame. A mere unmeaning wilderness is
not even impressive. But the garden of childhood was fascinating,
exactly because everything had a fixed meaning which could be found
out in its turn. Inch by inch I might discover what was the object
of the ugly shape called a rake; or form some shadowy conjecture
as to why my parents kept a cat.
So, since I have accepted Christendom as a mother and not
merely as a chance example, I have found Europe and the world
once more like the little garden where I stared at the symbolic
shapes of cat and rake; I look at everything with the old elvish
ignorance and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look
as ugly and extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience
that such things end somehow in grass and flowers. A clergyman may
be apparently as useless as a cat, but he is also as fascinating,
for there must be some strange reason for his existence. I give
one instance out of a hundred; I have not myself any instinctive
kinship with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has
certainly been a note of historic Christianity. But when I look
not at myself but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm
is not only a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note
of high human nature in many spheres. The Greeks felt virginity
when they carved Artemis, the Romans when they robed the vestals,
the worst and wildest of the great Elizabethan playwrights clung to
the literal purity of a woman as to the central pillar of the world.
Above all, the modern world (even while mocking sexual innocence)
has flung itself into a generous idolatry of sexual innocence—
the great modern worship of children. For any man who loves children
will agree that their peculiar beauty is hurt by a hint of physical sex.
With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority,
I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather
that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes
all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate.
But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates,
I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best
human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach.
Celibacy is one flower in my father's garden, of which I have
not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it
This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting
the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out
of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this
truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.
All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true;
only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does
not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is
convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right,
like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach
an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait
for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the
cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins,
people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches
an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we
wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder
of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity
the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health,
an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover
that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium.
Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only
afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise
highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we
realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance.
The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness.
The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be
the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity
is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests;
but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life
dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity
is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy
the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously
artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.
And its despair is this, that it does not really believe
that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot
hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man
cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can
expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land
of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism;
but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through
a forest of doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied
to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father's house;
for it is my father's house. I end where I began—at the right end.
I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy. I have come
into my second childhood.
But this larger and more adventurous Christian universe has
one final mark difficult to express; yet as a conclusion of the whole
matter I will attempt to express it. All the real argument about
religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside
down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of
Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane
or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality.
That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall. In Sir Oliver Lodge's
interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were:
"What are you?" and "What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?"
I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions;
but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers.
To the question, "What are you?" I could only answer, "God knows."
And to the question, "What is meant by the Fall?" I could answer
with complete sincerity, "That whatever I am, I am not myself."
This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have
never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves,
but even more natural to us than ourselves. And there is really
no test of this except the merely experimental one with which these
pages began, the test of the padded cell and the open door. It is only
since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation.
But, in conclusion, it has one special application to the ultimate idea
It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity
of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure
sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and
lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow;
the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things
are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this,
that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached
the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens.
The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus
or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten
by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life,
not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet
as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things
are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the
cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic,
sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly;
they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world
was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view
they are right. For when they say "enlightened" they mean darkened
with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world
was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact
that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence,
about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least.
I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable
about everything—they were quite jolly about everything else.
I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at
peace about everything—they were at war about everything else.
But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos,
then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody
streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden
of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides,
but he lived in a gayer universe.
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things,
but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma
defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself,
man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him,
and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude,
a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent
pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday;
joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to
the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic,
this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled.
Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted,
it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be
a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread
through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born
upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy;
for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain
is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below
the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head;
which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found
his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly
and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up;
satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes
something gigantic and sadness something special and small.
The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot;
the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world.
Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like
the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy
as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine
things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our
own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities
of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence,
while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic
secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open
again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I
am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure
which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other,
above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos
was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern,
were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears;
He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as
the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something.
Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining
their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture
down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected
to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something.
I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality
a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid
from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something
that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.
There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when
He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was