« PreviousContinue »
ottage, once its reality has stilled the cravings of Esau’s elly, will not longer be an integral and dominating portion of Esau’s soul as when he merely smelt its tempting fumes; while, very probably, that birthright with which he parted so readily during hunger, may, once he realizes that it now belongs to Jacob, suddenly grow into the most painful fibres of his being. This is not merely metaphor ; since what we call the “ external world ” which is the object of our feelings, of our desires, fears and preferences, is our idea of it, and therefore a part of our mind. Indeed it is this neighbourhood to our innermost self, this contact with our deepest s iritual (and perhaps material!) organs of pain and pleasure, w ich gives that counterfeit, that thought of, external world its paramount power over the self of which it is a part. Since, whatever else our self may be defined as being, it is first and foremost our capacity for feeling. Once this fact is grasped, I mean the muchneglected though obvious fact that we are all woven-round by ever-changing outer sensitive selves, much of the now derided hedonism of our grandfathers must be reinstated, safe from the modern philosophical heckler who points out that men are by no means always swayed by “ self-interest,” still less consistently pursuing “pleasure.” For what such moralists call “ self-interest ” is rarely more than their own view of what ought to sway their neighbours’ choice ; while the “pleasure” they speak of becomes a mere empty word whenever the relation between the su posed pleasure-giving object and the pleasure-feeling soul appens to be such that, as the phrase goes, the pleasure has been spoilt. Indeed the hollowness of so much fulfilled ambition, covetousness or love, is merely the symbolic expression of the fact that, instead of clutching a satisfaction, we often find ourselves possessors of some thing, or some power, the idea of which was once associated with pleasure, ut whose reality is now a matter of indifference. Now this view, which is the pyschologically correct one, has an immediate bearing upon the question of Selfishness and Unselfishness, and hence on the question—Satan’s uestion— as to what constitutes bona fide self-sacrifice. Lodlxing from outside and in the perspective of the majority’s practical inter
ests, moralists have alwa s told us (I seem to remember something to the effect alrea y in Xenophon) that altruism begins with maternal instincts and proceeds, leaving the self ever further behind, to the family, tribe, country, and finally to mankind at large. It would be more correct to say that love of child, family, tribe, country, and mankind at large, are successive expansions of Egoism; the idea of these various creatures and abstractions being gathered, one after the other, into the warm depths of the self, growing into the fibres of the individual brain and nerves, until that lump of otherness, that alien, even abstract, something, has become so integral a part of ourself that the mere name of the child or family, the mere colours of the national flag, na the mere words “ humanity,” “ justice,” or “ liberty ” will kindle the eye, send the blood throbbing to the tem les, brace the muscles and subvert the whole habitual flow ofP our life till we exclaim, like the inspired prophet or the enamoured poet, “ Ecce Dominus meus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.” But that over-powering thought is our thought : Like the message of the God into the mind of the pythoness, like the bleeding heart of Jesus into the bleeding bosom of the ecstatic nun, it hasdescended into us only because we have stretched forth, poured our hot living substance into those chill unsubstantial images ; or, like Odysseus with the ghosts of his summoning, endowed them with the flesh and blood of feeling. What has really taken place 2 Has the ego swooned away and the alter been absorbed into the ego ? Either or both, or perhaps neither. For the distinction between selfishness and unselfishness is merely the practical moralist’s, the schoolmaster’s or preacher’s, movable barrier between conduct which mankind needs to encourage and conduct mankind needs to reprobate; a useful, nay, indispensable distinction, so long as we remember that it is but a conventional one, and requires perpetual adjusting and shifting. But except by the use of this convenient moralist’s partition, it is impossible to say where love of self ends and love of others begins, including under “ others ” standards, ideals, duties. And that is surely a hopeful aspect of reality; and by no means discreditable to our much-abused human nature. A fact which is moreover recognized as to his own eternal detri
ment by my fphilosophical Satan, who says he has no personal experience o (let alone use for) such perpetual intermeshing (metabolism as biologists would say) of self and not self; such baffling protean metamorphose of altruism into egoism and egp‘ism into altruism, which Satan, rightly or wrongly, calls “ ove.”
All very fine, I hear my Reader objecting ; but since what is cared for less is sacrificed to what is cared for more, the entire problem of self-sacrifice is simplified away by self-sacrifice really never taking place. In that case, pray when does your Satan come in and where are the thorough-paced sacrifices of which you make him boast ?
I have put the answer to this objection into Satan’s own mouth. Satan comes in whenever sacrifice is not such barter of less desired for more ; whenever, as his definition of himself implies, virtue is wasted. As often as not, moreover, Satan comes in leaning (as the antique Bacchus leans on attendant Satyrs) upon one or both of those ministering minions of his, Delusion and Confusion.
In other words : although the sacrifice when it is self-sacrifice must be preferred, at the moment of making, by him or her who makes it ; yet that moment is not the only one. We must enquire into the moments which follow and the moments which have preceded; asking first, for the uestion is the easier: what results from this preference, this s f-sacrifice ? And then what has caused its author and victim thus to prefer it? The example of Esau’s subsequent regret for his birthright, and disgust at the bare thought of that pottage, serves as reminder that the liking of one hour may turn into the loathing of the next, nay, of every subsequent hour till the end of one’s chapter.
The cruellest sacrifices take a few minutes for their decision, and a lifetime for their endurance; since self-sacrifice is oftenest the work of a dominating emotion, and emotions neither dominate for ever, nor do they while dominant allow the realization that they are subject to change. So that the full price of that self-sacrificing preference is rarely paid off at the time; and rarer still foreseen in its full arithmetical reality: so much subtracted, so much added, so much multiplied, besides the original sum we thought of.
Thus, utting aside all frenzied mutilations of body or soul, all sacri ces of Atys and his more spiritual hierophants, let us take the instance of Satan’s recent Ballet. The lad enlisting in the first months of this War, could not foresee four years of such existence among corpses, ordure and slaughter as is described in Barbusse’s unflinching novel; any more than the girl who marries in compliance with her parents’ wish can always realize the facts of marriage which she does not understand, with a man whom she does not love ; whence the situation of, say, the virtuous wife in Ibsen’s Ghosts. When a man enlists or a woman marries, the convenience and security, the orderly functioning of society, exact that promises should be carried out, decisions abided by, quite irrespective of the promise having been given, the decision taken, in ignorant or passionate haste, and carried out in years of disillusion and regret. Again, despite the Church’s abundant worldly wisdom and fear of responsibility, there has never been a noviciate at all proportioned to the lifetime which the nun, once professed, passes in celibacy and abstinence, in hair-shirts not merely material, and in fasting of the soul erhaps as well as of the body. S eaking of noviciates and oipnuns reminds me of that order of t e Perpetual Adoration, where one member of every convent used always to lie prostrate and motionless, face downwards, on the altar flags in atonement of the world’s blasphemies. That nun outstretched corpse-like in the winter dawn-—there is a wonderful description of what Victor Hugo’s hero sees after climbing to the chapel-window of the Petit Picpusthat nun has freely given herself for the vastest redem tion from evil since that of her adored Master Jesus, and to e e out his sacrifice with the mite of her own. While she lies there, or when she rises again numb and staggering after those twelve hours of “ Re aration,” or prepared to stretch herself out again for anot er twelve, that nun may be perfectly happy, for she believes her sacrifice is acceptable and well worth making. But sup ose she have doubts? Suppose—and all of us who disbe ieve in Redemption through Perpetual Adoration must suppose this—suppose all this nun’s sacrifice is founded upon a misconception, on stupid rites of primitive magic misinterpreted by later though scarcely less ignorant ages; suppose there is no eternal punishment whence to release souls, no original or mortal sin calling for vicarious redemption, no life save the earthly one which this woman might have spent bringing up children, doing useful work, or merely moving freely and happily, erect, warm, clean, and without sores ? In that case, in all similar cases (and while I write these words men by the thousand are lying outstretched in filth and wounds and horror compared with which that nun’s penance would be bodily rapture), in all such cases the selfsacrifice has been of that genuine kind which is the oblation most grateful to the waster of Human Virtue.
And the case of the nun martyrizing herself for the sake of a non-existent Heaven and Hell, leads me back to the other question : Granted that the sacrifice was freely preferred, what has brought about that preference? My answer is: Before it can be made, self'sacrifice has always, and in direct or subtler manner, been suggested, asked for, claimed. We will leave out of account, as being too obvious, the querulous or shamefaced claiming wherewith, for instance, an invalid parent vetoes or enforces a daughter’s marriage, while seeming to allow her all liberty of choice. Also the brow-beating insistence .wherewith the social and religious code, embodied in some self-righteous Pastor Manders, drives ‘Mrs. Alving back into the legitimate embraces of a profligate. “Non ragioniam di lor,” as Virgil says to Dante about the less interesting denizens of Hell. Let us rather lift scrutinizing, though not irreverent or unsympathizing, eyes to those other kinds of sacrifice, which we place, framed in gold, upon our altars, versify and set to music; and contemplate with a sense of spiritual elevation very largely aesthetic and not entirely unlike the pleasure in virtue for Virtue’s sake of a certain connoisseur in moral beauty. Since there are sacrifices of self seemingly clean of all human claiming or accepting, inasmuch as they are sacrifices to what transcends humanity, to something impersonal, nay abstract, and therefore deemed unselfish,_unsullied, unquestionable: a standard of conduct,