Art and Morality

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


There is a perpetual debate going on-one of those moulting shuttlecocks that serve to make one’s battledore give out a merry sound -about the relation of art to morals, and whether the artist or the poet ought to attempt to teach anything. It makes a good kind of debate, because it is conducted in large terms, to which the disputants attach private meanings. The answer is a very simple one. It is that art and morality are only beauty realised in different regions; and as to whether the artist ought to attempt to teach anything, that may be summarily answered by the simple dictum that no artist ought ever to attempt to teach anything, with which must be combined the fact that no one who is serious about anything can possibly help teaching, whether he wishes or no!

High art and high morality are closely akin, because they are both but an eager following of the law of beauty; but the artist follows it in visible and tangible things, and the moralist follows it in the conduct and relations of life. Artists and moralists must be for ever condemned to misunderstand each other, because the votary of any art cannot help feeling that it is the one thing worth doing in the world; and the artist whose soul is set upon fine hues and forms thinks that conduct must take care of itself, and that it is a tiresome business to analyse and formulate it; while the moralist who loves the beauty of virtue passionately, will think of the artist as a child who plays with his toys, and lets the real emotions of life go streaming past

This is a subject upon which it is as well to hear the Greeks, because the Greeks were of all people who ever lived the most absorbingly interested in the problems of life, and judged everything by a standard of beauty. The Jews, of course, at least in their early history, had the same fiery interest in questions of conduct; but it would be as absurd to deny to Plato an interest in morals as to withhold the title of artist from Isaiah and the author of the Book of Job!

Plato, as is well known, took a somewhat whimsical view of the work of the poet. He said that he must exclude the poets from his ideal State, because they were the prophets of unreality. But he was thinking of a kind of man very different from the men whom we call poets. He thought of the poet as a man who served a patron, and tried to gloze over his patron’s tyranny and baseness, under false terms of glory and majesty; or else he thought of dramatists, and considered them to be men who for the sake of credit and money played skilfully upon the sentimental emotions of ordinary people; and he fought shy of the writers who used tragic passions for the amusement of a theatre. Aristotle disagreed with Plato about this, and held that poetry was not exactly moral teaching, but that it disposed the mind to consider moral problems as interesting. He said that in looking on at a play, a spectator suffered, so to speak, by deputy, but all the same learned directly, if unconsciously, the beauty of virtue. When we come to our own Elizabethans, there is no evidence that in their plays and poetry they thought about morals at all No one has any idea whether Shakespeare had any religion, or what it was; and he above all great writers that ever lived seems to have taken an absolutely impersonal view of the sins and affections of men and women. No one is scouted or censured or condemned in Shakespeare; one sees and feels the point of view of his villains and rogues; one feels with them that they somehow could hardly have done otherwise than they did; and to effect that is perhaps the crown of art.

But nowadays the poet, with whom one may include some few novelists, is really a very independent person. I am not now speaking of those who write basely and crudely, to please a popular taste. They have their reward; and after all they are little more than mountebanks, the end of whose show is to gather up pence in the ring.

But the poet in verse is listened to by few people, unless he is very great indeed; and even so his reward is apt to be intangible and scanty; while to be deliberately a lesser poet is perhaps the most unworldly thing that a man can do, because he thus courts derision; indeed, if there is a bad sign of the world’s temper just now, it is that men will listen to politicians, scientists, men of commerce, and journalists, because these can arouse a sensation, or even confer material benefits; but men will not listen to poets, because they have so little use for the small and joyful thoughts that make up some of the best pleasures of life.

It is quite true, as I have said, that no artist ought ever deliberately to try to teach people, because that is not his business, and one can only be a good artist by minding one’s business, which is to produce beautiful things; and the moment one begins to try to produce improving things, one goes off the line. But in England there has been of late a remarkable fusion of morality and art. Ruskin and Browning are clear enough proof that it is possible to be passionately interested in moral problems in an artistic way; while at the same time it is true, as I have said, that if any man cares eagerly for beauty, and does his best to present it, he cannot help teaching all those who are searching for beauty, and only require to be shown the way.

The work of all real teachers is to make great and arduous things seem simple and desirable and beautiful. A teacher is not a person who provides short-cuts to knowledge, or who only drills a character out of slovenly intellectual faults. The essence of all real teaching is a sort of inspiration. Take the case of a great teacher, like Arnold or Jowett; Arnold lit in his pupils’ minds a kind of fire, which was moral rather than intellectual; Jowett had a power of putting a suggestive brilliancy into dull words and stale phrases, showing that they were but the crystallised formulas of ideas, which men had found wonderful or beautiful. The secret of such teaching is quite incommunicable, but it is a very high sort of art. There are many men who feel the inspiration of knowledge very deeply, and follow it passionately, who yet cannot in the least communicate the glow to others. But just as the great artist can paint a homely scene, such as we have seen a hundred times, and throw into it something mysterious, which reaches out hands of desire far beyond the visible horizon, so can a great teacher show that ideas are living things all bound up with the high emotions of men.

And thus the true poet, whether he writes verses or novels, is the greatest of teachers, not because he trains and drills the mind, but because he makes the thing he speaks of appear so beautiful and desirable that we are willing to undergo the training and drilling that are necessary to be made free of the secret. He brings out, as Plato beautifully said, “the beauty which meets the spirit like a breeze, and imperceptibly draws the soul, even in childhood, into harmony with the beauty of reason.” The work of the poet then is “to elicit the simplest principles of life, to clear away complexity, by giving a glowing and flashing motive to live nobly and generously, to renew the unspoiled growth of the world, to reveal the secret hope silently hidden in the heart of man.”

Renovabitur ut aquila juventus tua-thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle-that is what we all desire! Indeed it would seem at first sight that, to gain happiness, the best way would be, if one could, to prolong the untroubled zest of childhood, when everything was interesting and exciting, full of novelty and delight. Some few people by their vitality can retain that freshness of spirit all their life long. I remember how a friend of R. L. Stevenson told me, that Stevenson, when alone in London, desperately ill, and on the eve of a solitary voyage, came to see him; he himself was going to start on a journey the following day, and had to visit the lumber-room to get out his trunks; Stevenson begged to be allowed to accompany him, and, sitting on a broken chair, evolved out of the drifted accumulations of the place a wonderful romance. But that sort of eager freshness we most of us find to be impossible as we grow older; and we are confronted with the problem of how to keep care and dreariness away, how to avoid becoming mere trudging wayfarers, dully obsessed by all we have to do and bear. Can we not find some medicine to revive the fading emotion, to renew the same sort of delight in new thoughts and problems which we found in childhood in all unfamiliar things, to battle with the dreariness, the daily use, the staleness of life?

The answer is that it is possible, but only possible if we take the same pains about it that we take to provide ourselves with comforts, to save money, to guard ourselves from poverty. Emotional poverty is what we most of us have to dread, and we must make investments if we wish for revenues. We are many of us hampered, as I have said, by the dreariness and dullness of the education we receive. But even that is no excuse for sinking into melancholy bankruptcy, and going about the world full of the earnest capacity for woe, disheartened and disheartening.

A great teacher has the extraordinary power, not only of evoking the finest capacities from the finest minds, but of actually giving to second-rate minds a belief that knowledge is interesting and worth attention. What we have to do, if we have missed coming under the influence of a great teacher, is resolutely to put ourselves in touch with great minds. We shall not burst into flame at once perhaps, and the process may seem but the rubbing of one dry stick against another; one cannot prescribe a path, because we must advance upon the slender line of our own interests; but we can surely find some one writer who revives us and inspires us; and if we persevere, we find the path slowly broadening into a road, while the landscape takes shape and design around us. The one thing fortunately of which there is enough and to spare in the world is good advice, and if we find ourselves helpless, we can consult some one who seems to have a view of finer things, whose delight is fresh and eager, whose handling of life seems gracious and generous. It is as possible to do this, as to consult a doctor if we find ourselves out of health; and here we stiff and solitary Anglo-Saxons are often to blame, because we cannot bring ourselves to speak freely of these things, to be importunate, to ask for help; it seems to us at once impertinent and undignified; but it is this sort of dreary consideration, which is nothing but distorted vanity, and this still drearier dignity, which withholds from us so much that is beautiful.

The one thing then that I wish to urge is that we should take up the pursuit in an entirely practical way; as Emerson said, with a splendid mixture of common sense and idealism, “hitch our waggon to a star.” It is easy enough to lose ourselves in a vague sentimentalism, and to believe that only our cramped conditions have hindered us from developing into something very wonderful. It is easy too to drift into helpless materialism, and to believe that dulness is the natural lot of man. But the realm of thought is a very free citizenship, and a hundred doors will open to us if we only knock at them. Moreover, that realm is not like an over-populated country; it is infinitely large, and virgin soil; and we have only to stake out our claim; and then, if we persevere, we shall find that our Joyous Gard is really rising into the air about us-where else should we build our castles?-with all the glory of tower and gable, of curtain-wall and battlement, terrace and pleasaunce, hall and corridor; our own self-built paradise; and then perhaps the knight, riding lonely from the sunset woods, will turn in to keep us company, and the wandering minstrel will bring his harp; and we may even receive other visitors, like the three that stood beside the tent of Abraham in the evening, in the plain of Mamre, of whom no one asked the name or lineage, because the answer was too great for mortal ears to hear.

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