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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Fair Haven By Samuel Butler Characters: 17400

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


On my brother's death I came into possession of several of his early commonplace books filled with sketches for articles; some of these are more developed than others, but they are all of them fragmentary. I do not think that the reader will fail to be interested with the insight into my brother's spiritual and intellectual progress which a few extracts from these writings will afford, and have therefore, after some hesitation, decided in favour of making them public, though well aware that my brother would never have done so. They are too exaggerated to be dangerous, being so obviously unfair as to carry their own antidote. The reader will not fail to notice the growth not only in thought but also in literary style which is displayed by my brother's later writings.

In reference to the very subject of the parables above alluded to, he had written during his time of unbelief:-"Why are we to interpret so literally all passages about the guilt of unbelief, and insist upon the historical character of every miraculous account, while we are indignant if any one demands an equally literal rendering of the precepts concerning human conduct? He that hath two coats is not to give to him that hath none: this would be 'visionary,' 'utopian,' 'wholly unpractical,' and so forth. Or, again, he that is smitten on the one cheek is not to turn the other to the smiter, but to hand the offender over to the law; nor are the commands relative to indifference as to the morrow and a neglect of ordinary prudence to be taken as they stand; nor yet the warnings against praying in public; nor can the parables, any one of them, be interpreted strictly with advantage to human welfare, except perhaps that of the Good Samaritan; nor the Sermon on the Mount, save in such passages as were already the common property of mankind before the coming of Christ. The parables which every one praises are in reality very bad: the Unjust Steward, the Labourers in the Vineyard, the Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus, the Sower and the Seed, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Marriage Garment, the Man who planted a Vineyard, are all either grossly immoral, or tend to engender a very low estimate of the character of God-an estimate far below the standard of the best earthly kings; where they are not immoral, or do not tend to degrade the character of God, they are the merest commonplaces imaginable, such as one is astonished to see people accept as having been first taught by Christ. Such maxims as those which inculcate conciliation and a forgiveness of injuries (wherever practicable) are certainly good, but the world does not owe their discovery to Christ, and they have had little place in the practice of his followers.

"It is impossible to say that as a matter of fact the English people forgive their enemies more freely now than the Romans did, we will say in the time of Augustus. The value of generosity and magnanimity was perfectly well known among the ancients, nor do these qualities assume any nobler guise in the teaching of Christ than they did in that of the ancient heathen philosophers. On the contrary, they have no direct equivalent in Christian thought or phraseology. They are heathen words drawn from a heathen language, and instinct with the same heathen ideas of high spirit and good birth as belonged to them in the Latin language; they are no part or parcel of Christianity, and are not only independent of it, but savour distinctly of the flesh as opposed to the spirit, and are hence more or less antagonistic to it, until they have undergone a certain modification and transformation-until, that is to say, they have been mulcted of their more frank and genial elements. The nearest approach to them in Christian phrase is 'self-denial,' but the sound of this word kindles no smile of pleasure like that kindled by the ideas of generosity and nobility of conduct. At the thought of self-denial we feel good, but uncomfortable, and as though on the point of performing some disagreeable duty which we think we ought to pretend to like, but which we do not like. At the thought of generosity, we feel as one who is going to share in a delightfully exhilarating but arduous pastime-full of the most pleasurable excitement. On the mention of the word generosity we feel as if we were going out hunting; at the word 'self-denial,' as if we were getting ready to go to church. Generosity turns well-doing into a pleasure, self-denial into a duty, as of a servant under compulsion.

"There are people who will deny this, but there are people who will deny anything. There are some who will say that St. Paul would not have condemned the Falstaff plays, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and almost everything that Shakspeare ever wrote; but there is no arguing against this. 'Every man,' said Dr. Johnson, 'has a right to his own opinion, and every one else has a right to knock him down for it.' But even granting that generosity and high spirit have made some progress since the days of Christ, allowance must be made for the lapse of two thousand years, during which time it is only reasonable to suppose that an advance would have been made in civilisation-and hence in the direction of clemency and forbearance-whether Christianity had been preached or not, but no one can show that the modern English, if superior to the ancients in these respects, show any greater superiority than may be ascribed justly to centuries of established order and good government."

* * * * *

"Again, as to the ideal presented by the character of Christ, about which so much has been written; is it one which would meet with all this admiration if it were presented to us now for the first time? Surely it offers but a peevish view of life and things in comparison with that offered by other highest ideals-the old Roman and Greek ideals, the Italian ideal, and the Shakespearian ideal."

* * * * *

"As with the parables so with the Sermon on the Mount-where it is not commonplace it is immoral, and vice versa; the admiration which is so freely lavished upon the teachings of Jesus Christ turns out to be but of the same kind as that bestowed upon certain modern writers, who have made great reputations by telling people what they perfectly well knew; and were in no particular danger of forgetting. There is, however, this excuse for those who have been carried away with such musical but untruthful sentences as 'Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,' namely, that they have not come to the subject with unbiassed minds. It is one thing to see no merit in a picture, and another to see no merit in a picture when one is told that it is by Raphael; we are few of us able to stand against the prestige of a great name; our self-love is alarmed lest we should be deficient in taste, or, worse still, lest we should be considered to be so; as if it could matter to any right-minded person whether the world considered him to be of good taste or not, in comparison with the keeping of his own soul truthful to itself.

"But if this holds good about things which are purely matters of taste, how much more does it do so concerning those who make a distinct claim upon us for moral approbation or the reverse? Such a claim is most imperatively made by the teaching of Jesus Christ: are we then content to answer in the words of others-words to which we have no title of our own-or shall we strip ourselves of preconceived opinion, and come to the question with minds that are truly candid? Whoever shrinks from this is a liar to his own self, and as such, the worst and most dangerous of liars. He is as one who sits in an impregnable citadel and trembles in a time of peace-so great a coward as not even to feel safe when he is in his own keeping. How loose of soul if he knows that his own keeping is worthless, how aspen-hearted if he fears lest others should find him out and hurt him for communing truthfully with himself!

* * * * *

"That a man should lie to others if he hopes to gain something considerable-this is reckoned cheating, robbing, fraudulent dealing, or whatever it may be; but it is an intelligible offence in comparison with the allowing oneself to be deceived. So in like manner with being bored. The man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore. He who puts up with shoddy pictures, shoddy music, shoddy morality, shoddy society, is more despicable than he who is the prime agent in any of these things. He has less to gain, and probably deceives himself more; so that he commits the greater crime for the less reward. And I say emphatically that the morality which most men profess

to hold as a Divine revelation was a shoddy morality, which would neither wash nor wear, but was woven together from a tissue of dreams and blunders, and steeped in blood more virulent than the blood of Nessus.

"Oh! if men would but leave off lying to themselves! If they would but learn the sacredness of their own likes and dislikes, and exercise their moral discrimination, making it clear to themselves what it is that they really love and venerate. There is no such enemy to mankind as moral cowardice. A downright vulgar self-interested and unblushing liar is a higher being than the moral cur whose likes and dislikes are at the beck and call of bullies that stand between him and his own soul; such a creature gives up the most sacred of all his rights for something more unsubstantial than a mess of pottage-a mental serf too abject even to know that he is being wronged. Wretched emasculator of his own reason, whose jejune timidity and want of vitality are thus omnipresent in the most secret chambers of his heart!

"We can forgive a man for almost any falsehood provided we feel that he was under strong temptation and well knew that he was deceiving. He has done wrong-still we can understand it, and he may yet have some useful stuff about him-but what can we feel towards one who for a small motive tells lies even to himself, and does not know that he is lying? What useless rotten fig-wood lumber must not such a thing be made of, and what lies will there not come out of it, falling in every direction upon all who come within its reach. The common self-deceiver of modern society is a more dangerous and contemptible object than almost any ordinary felon, a matter upon which those who do not deceive themselves need no enlightenment."

* * * * *

"But why insist so strongly on the literal interpretation of one part of the sayings of Christ, and be so elastic about that of the passages which inculcate more than those ordinary precepts which all had agreed upon as early as the days of Solomon and probably earlier? We have cut down Christianity so as to make it appear to sanction our own conventions; but we have not altered our conventions so as to bring them into harmony with Christianity. We do not give to him that asketh; we take good care to avoid him; yet if the precept meant only that we should be liberal in assisting others-it wanted no enforcing: the probability is that it had been enforced too much rather than too little already; the more literally it has been followed the more terrible has the mischief been; the saying only becomes harmless when regarded as a mere convention. So with most parts of Christ's teaching. It is only conventional Christianity which will stand a man in good stead to live by; true Christianity will never do so. Men have tried it and found it fail; or, rather, its inevitable failure was so obvious that no age or country has ever been mad enough to carry it out in such a manner as would have satisfied its founders. So said Dean Swift in his Argument against abolishing Christianity. 'I hope,' he writes, 'no reader imagines me so weak as to stand up in defence of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times' (if we may believe the authors of those ages) 'to have an influence upon men's beliefs and actions. To offer at the restoring of that would be, indeed, a wild project; it would be to dig up foundations, to destroy at one blow all the wit and half the learning of the kingdom, to break the entire frame and constitution of things, to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences, with the professors of them; in short, to turn our courts of exchange and shops into deserts; and would be full as absurd as the proposal of Horace where he advises the Romans all in a body to leave their city, and to seek a new seat in some remote part of the world by way of cure for the corruption of their manners.

"'Therefore, I think this caution was in itself altogether unnecessary (which I have inserted only to prevent all possibility of cavilling), since every candid reader will easily understand my discourse to be intended only in defence of nominal Christianity, the other having been for some time wholly laid aside by general consent as utterly inconsistent with our present schemes of wealth and power.'

"Yet but for these schemes of wealth and power the world would relapse into barbarianism; it is they and not Christianity which have created and preserved civilisation. And what if some unhappy wretch, with a serious turn of mind and no sense of the ridiculous, takes all this talk about Christianity in sober earnest, and tries to act upon it? Into what misery may he not easily fall, and with what life-long errors may he not embitter the lives of his children!

* * * * *

"Again, we do not cut off our right hand nor pluck out our eyes if they offend us; we conventionalise our interpretations of these sayings at our will and pleasure; we do take heed for the morrow, and should be inconceivably wicked and foolish were we not to do so; we do gather up riches, and indeed we do most things which the experience of mankind has taught us to be to our advantage, quite irrespectively of any precept of Christianity for or against. But why say that it is Christianity which is our chief guide, when the words of Christ point in such a very different direction from that which we have seen fit to take? Perhaps it is in order to compensate for our laxity of interpretation upon these points that we are so rigid in stickling for accuracy upon those which make no demand upon our comfort or convenience? Thus, though we conventionalise practice, we never conventionalise dogma. Here, indeed, we stickle for the letter most inflexibly; yet one would have thought that we might have had greater licence to modify the latter than the former. If we say that the teaching of Christ is not to be taken according to its import-why give it so much importance? Teaching by exaggeration is not a satisfactory method, nor one worthy of a being higher than man; it might have been well once, and in the East, but it is not well now. It induces more and more of that jarring and straining of our moral faculties, of which much is unavoidable in the existing complex condition of affairs, but of which the less the better. At present the tug of professed principles in one direction, and of necessary practice in the other, causes the same sort of wear and tear in our moral gear as is caused to a steam-engine by continually reversing it when it is going it at full speed. No mechanism can stand it."

The above extracts (written when he was about twenty-three years old) may serve to show how utter was the subversion of his faith. His mind was indeed in darkness! Who could have hoped that so brilliant a day should have succeeded to the gloom of such mistrust? Yet as upon a winter's morning in November when the sun rises red through the smoke, and presently the fog spreads its curtain of thick darkness over the city, and then there comes a single breath of wind from some more generous quarter, whereupon the blessed sun shines again, and the gloom is gone; or, again, as when the warm south-west wind comes up breathing kindness from the sea, unheralded, suspected, when the earth is in her saddest frost, and on the instant all the lands are thawed and opened to the genial influences of a sweet springful whisper-so thawed his heart, and the seed which had lain dormant in its fertile soil sprang up, grew, ripened, and brought forth an abundant harvest.

Indeed now that the result has been made plain we can perhaps feel that his scepticism was precisely of that nature which should have given the greatest ground for hope. He was a genuine lover of truth in so far as he could see it.

His lights were dim, but such as they were he walked according to them, and hence they burnt ever more and more clearly, till in later life they served to show him what is vouchsafed to such men and to such only-the enormity of his own mistakes. Better that a man should feel the divergence between Christian theory and Christian practice, that he should be shocked at it-even to the breaking away utterly from the theory until he has arrived at a wider comprehension of its scope-than that he should be indifferent to the divergence and make no effort to bring his principles and practice into harmony with one another. A true lover of consistency, it was intolerable to him to say one thing with his lips and another with his actions. As long as this is true concerning any man, his friends may feel sure that the hand of the Lord is with him, though the signs thereof be hidden from mortal eyesight.

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