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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 40/63 -

There is an interesting introduction, which gradually prepares us for the announcement of the startling fact, that all men hitherto have been entirely mistaken in their belief both as to themselves and the universe which surrounds them. It is first impressed upon us that things may be in themselves very different indeed from that which they appear to us: that phenomenon may be something far apart from actual being. Yet though our conceptions, whether given by sense or intellect, do not correspond with the truth of things, still they are the elements from which truth is to be gathered. The following passage, which occurs near the beginning of the introduction, is the sharp end of the wedge:--

All advance in knowledge is a deliverance of man from himself. Slowly and painfully we learn that he is not the measure of truth, that the fact may be very different from the appearance to him. The lesson is hard, but the reward is great. So he escapes from illusion and error, from ignorance and failure. Directing his thoughts and energies no longer according to his own impressions, but according to the truth of things, he finds himself in possession of an unimaginable power alike of understanding and of acting. To a truly marvellous extent he is the lord of nature.

But the conditions of this lordship are inexorable. They are the surrender of prepossessions, the abandonment of assumption, the confession of ignorance: the open eye and the humble heart. Hence in all passing from error to truth we learn something respecting ourselves, as well as something respecting the object of our study. Simultaneously with our better knowledge we recognize the reason of our ignorance, and perceive what defect on our part has caused us to think wrongly.

Either the world is such as it appears to us, or it is not. If it be not, there must be some condition affecting ourselves which modifies the impression we receive ffom it. And this condition must be operative upon all mankind: it must relate to man as a whole rather than to individual men.

Thus does the author lay down the simple, general principle from which he is speedily to draw conclusions so startling. Nothing can be more innocuous than all this. Every one must agree in it. Now come the further steps.

The study of nature leads to the conclusion that there is a defectiveness in man which modifies his perception of all external things; and that thus in so far as the actual fact of the universe differs from our impression of it, the actual fact is better, higher, more complete, than our impression of it. There are qualities, there is a glory about the universe, which our defective condition prevents our seeing or discerning. The universe, or nature, is not in itself such as it is to man's feeling; and man's feeling of it differs from the fact liy defect. All that we discern in the universe is there: and a great deal besides.

Now, we think of nature as existing in a certain way which we call physical. We call the world the physical world. This mode of existence involves inertness. That which is physical does not act, except passively, as it is acted upon. Inertness is inaction. That which is inert, therefore, differs from that which is not inert by defect. The inert wants something of being active.

Next, we have a conception of another mode of being besides the inert. We conceive of being which possesses a spontaneous and primary activity. This kind of being is called spiritual. This kind of being has shaken off the reproach of inertness. It can act, and originate action. The physical thus differs from the spiritual (as regards inertness) by defect. The physical wants something of being spiritual.

So far, my reader, we do not of necessity start back from anything our author teaches us. Quite true, we think of matter, a kind of being which can do nothing of itself. Quite true, we think of spirit, a kind of being which can do. And no doubt that which is able to do is (quoad hoc) a higher and more noble kind of being than that which cannot do, but only be done to. But remember here, I do not admit that in this point lies the differentia between matter and spirit. I do not grant that by taking from matter the reproach of inertness, you would make it spirit. The essential difference seems to me not to lie there. We could conceive of matter as capable of originating action, and yet as material. This is by the bye--but now be on your guard. Here is our author's great discovery--

It is man's defectiveness which makes him feel the world as thus defective. Nature is really not inert, though it appears so to man. We have been wont to think that nature, the universe, is inert or physical; that man is not-inert, or spiritual. Now, there is no doubt at all that there is inertness somewhere. Here are the two things, Man and Nature; with which thing does the inertness lie? Our author maintains that it lies with man, not with nature. Science has proved to us that nature is not-inert. As there is inertness somewhere, and as it is not in nature, of course the conclusion is that it is in man. Inertness is in the phenomenon; that is, in nature as it. appears to us. There cannot be any question that nature seems to us to be inert. But the author of this book declares that this inertness, though in the phenomenon, is not in the fact. Nature LOOKS inert; it is not-inert. How does the notion of inertness come at all, then? Now comes the very essence of the new theory; I give it in its author's words:--

The inertness is introduced by man. He perceives defect without him, only because there is defect within him.

To be inert has the same meaning as to be dead. So we speak of nature, thinking it to be inert, as 'dead matter.' To say that man introduces inertness into nature implies a deadness in him: it is to say that he wants life. This is the proposition which is affirmed. This condition which we call our life, is not the true life of man.

The Book that has had greater influence upon the world than all others, differs from all others, in affirming that man wants life, and in making that statement the basis of all that it contains respecting the past and present and future of mankind.

Science thus pays homage to the Bible. What that book has declared as if with authority, so long ago, she has at last decyphered on the page of nature. This is not man's true life.

And who is there who can doubt, looking at man as lie is now, and then thinking of what he is to be in another world, that there is about him, now, great defect? There is truly much wanting which it is hoped will one day be supplied. What shall we call this lacking thing--this one thing lacking whose absence is felt in every fibre of our being? Our author chooses to call it life; I am doubtful with how much felicity or naturalness of expression. Of course we all know that in the New Testament life does not mean merely existence continued; eternal life does not mean merely existence continued for ever: it means the highest and purest form of our being continued for ever;--happiness and holiness continued for ever. We know, too, that holy Scripture describes the step taken by any man in becoming an earnest believer in Christ, as 'passing from death to life;' we remember such a text as 'This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and-Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.' We know that a general name for the Gospel, which grasps its grand characteristics, is 'The Word of Life;' and that, in religious phrase, Christianity is concerned with the revealing, the implanting, the sustaining, the crowning, of a certain better life. Nor is it difficult to trace out such analogies between natural and spiritual death, between natural and spiritual life, as tend to prove that spiritual life and death are not spoken of in Scripture merely as the strongest words which could be employed, but that there is a further and deeper meaning in their constant use. But I do not see any gain in forcing figurative language into a literal use. Everybody knows what life and death, in ordinary language, imply. Life means sensibility, consciousness, capacity of acting, union with the living. Death means senselessness, helplessness, separation. No doubt we may trace analogies, very close and real, between the natural and the spiritual life and death. But still they are no more than analogies. You do not identify the physical with the spiritual. And it is felt by all that the use of the words in a spiritual sense is a figurative use. To the common understanding, a man is living, when he breathes and feels and moves. He is dead when he ceases to do all that. And it is a mere twisting of words from their understood sense to say that in reality, and without a figure, a breathing, feeling, moving man is dead, because he lacks some spiritual quality, however great its value may be. It may be a very valuable quality; it may be worth more than life; but it is not life, as men understand it; and as words have no meaning at all except that which men agree to give these arbitrary sounds, it matters not at all that this higher quality is what you may call true life, better life, real life. If you enlarge the meaning of the word life to include, in addition to what is generally understood by it, a higher power of spiritual action and discernment, why, all that can be said is, that you understand by life something quite different from men in general. If I choose to enlarge the meaning of the word black to include white, of course I might say with truth (relatively to myself) that white forms the usual clothing of clergymen. If I extend the meaning of the word fast to include slow, I might boldly declare that the Great Northern express is a slow train. And the entire result of such use of language would be, that no mortal would understand what I meant.

Thus it is that I demur to any author's right to tell me that such and such a thing is, or is not, 'the true life of man.' And when he says 'that man wants life, means that the true life of man is of another kind from this,' I reply to him, Tell me what is the blessing man needs; Tell me, above all, where and how he is to get it: but as to its name, I really do not care what you call it, so you call it by some name that people will understand. Call it so that people will know what you mean--Salvation, Glory, Happiness, Holiness, Redemption, or what else you please. Do not mystify us by saying we want life, and then, when we are startled by the perfectly intelligible assertion, edge off by explaining that by life you mean something quite different from what we do. There is no good in that. If I were to declare that this evening, before I sleep, I shall cross the Atlantic and go to America, my readers would think the statement a sufficiently extraordinary one; but if, after thus surprising them, I went on to explain that by the Atlantic I did not mean the ocean, nor by America the western continent, but that the Atlantic meant the village green, and America the squire's house on the other side of it, I should justly gain credit for a very silly mystification. As Nicholas Nickleby very justly remarked, If Dotheboy's Hall is not a hall, why call it one? Mr. Squeers, in his reply, no doubt stated the law of the case: If a man chooses to call his house an island, what is to hinder him? If the author of Man and his Dwelling-Place means to tell us only that we want some spiritual capacity, which it pleases him to call life, but which not one man in a million understands by that word, is he not amusing himself at our expense by telling us we want life? We know what we mean by being dead: our author means something quite different. Let him speak for himself:

The Recreations of A Country Parson - 40/63

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