Progress

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XXIII: PROGRESS

We must always hopefully and gladly remember that the great movements, doctrines, thoughts, which have affected the life of the world most deeply, are those which are most truly based upon the best and truest needs of humanity. We need never be afraid of a new theory or a new doctrine, because such things are never imposed upon an unwilling world, but owe their strength to the closeness with which they interpret the aims and wants of human beings. Still more hopeful is the knowledge which one gains from looking back at the history of the world, that no selfish, cruel, sensual, or wicked interpretation of life has ever established a vital hold upon men. The selfish and the cruel elements of humanity have never been able to band themselves together against the power of good for verylong, for the simple reason that those who are selfish and evil have a natural suspicion of other selfish and evil people; and no combination of men can ever be based upon anything but mutualtrust and affection. And thus good has always a power of combination, while evil is naturally solitary and disjunctive.

Take such an attempt as that of Nietzsche to establish a new theory of life. His theory of the superman is simply this, that the future of the world was in the hands of strong, combative, powerful, predatory people. Those are the supermen, a natural aristocracy of force and unscrupulousness and vigour. But such individuals carry with them the seed of their own failure, because even if Nietzsche’s view that the weak and broken elements of humanity were doomed to perish, and ought even to be helped to perish, were a true view, even if his supermen at last survived, they must ultimately be matched one against another in some monstrous and unflinching combat.

Nietzsche held that the Christian doctrine of renunciation was but a translating into terms of a theory the discontent, the disappointment, the failure of the weak and diseased element of humanity, the slavish herd. He thought that Christianity was a glorification, a consecration of man’s weakness and not of his strength. But he misjudged it wholly. It is based in reality upon the noble element in humanity, the power of love and trust and unselfishness which rises superior to the ills of life; and the force of Christianity lies in the fact that it reveals to men the greatness of which they are capable, and the fact that no squalor or wretchedness of circumstances can bind the thought of man, if it is set upon what is high and pure. The man or woman who sees the beauty of inner purity cannot ever be very deeply tainted by corruption either of body or of soul.

Renunciation is not a wholly passive thing; it is not a mere suspicion of all that is joyful, a dull abnegation of happiness. It is not that self-sacrifice means a frame of mind too despondent to enjoy, so fearful of every kind of pleasure that it has not the heart to take part in it. It is rather a vigorous discrimination between pleasure and joy, an austerity which is not deceived by selfish, obvious, apparent pleasure, but sees what sort of pleasure is innocent, natural, social, and what sort of pleasure is corroding, barren, and unreal.

In the Christianity of the Gospel there is very little trace of asceticism. The delight in life is clearly indicated, and the only sort of self-denial that is taught is the self-denial that ends in simplicity of life, and in the joyful and courageous shouldering of inevitable burdens. Self-denial was not to be practised in a spiritless and timid way, but rather as a man accepts the fatigues and dangers of an expedition, in a vigorous and adventurous mood. One does not think of the men who go on some Arctic exploration, with all the restrictions of diet that they have to practise, all the uncomfortable rules of life they have to obey, as renouncing the joys of life; they do so naturally, in order that they may follow a livelier inspiration. It is clear from the accounts of primitive Christians that they impressed their heathen neighbours not as timid, anxious, and despondent people, but as men and women with some secret overflowing sense of joy and energy, and with a curious radiance and brightness about them which was not an affected pose, but the redundant happiness of those who have some glad knowledge in heart and mind which they cannot repress.

Let us suppose the case of a man gifted by nature with a great vitality, with a keen perception of all that is beautiful in life, all that is humorous, all that is delightful. Imagine him extremely sensitive to nature, art, human charm, human pleasure, doing everything with zest, interest, amusement, excitement. Imagine him, too, deeply sensitive to affection, loving to be loved, grateful, kindly, fond of children and animals, a fervent lover, a romantic friend, alive to all fine human qualities. Suppose, too, that he is ambitious, desirous of fame, liking to play an active part in life, fond of work, wishing to sway opinion, eager that others should care for the things for which he cares.Well, he must make a certain choice, no doubt; he cannot gratify all these things; his ambition may get in the way of his pleasure, his affections may interrupt his ambitions. What is his renunciation to be? It obviously will not be an abnegation of everything. He will not feel himself bound to crush all enjoyment, to refuse to love and be loved, to enter tamely and passively into life. He will inevitably choose what is dearest to his heart, whatever that may be, and he will no doubt instinctively eliminate from his life the joys which are most clouded by dissatisfaction. If he sets affection aside for the sake of ambition, and then finds that the thought of the love he has slighted or disregarded wounds and pains him, he will retrace his steps; if he sees that his ambitions leave him no time for his enjoyment of art or nature, and finds his success embittered by the loss of those other enjoyments, he will curb his ambition; but in all this he will not act anxiously and wretchedly. He will be rather like a man who has two simultaneous pleasures offered him, one of which must exclude the other. He will not spoil both, but take what he desires most, and think no more of what he rejects.

The more that such a man loves life, the less is he likely to be deceived by the shows of life; the more wisely will he judge what part of it is worth keeping, and the less will he be tempted by anything which distracts him from life itself. It is fulness of life, after all, that he is aiming at, and not vacuity; and thus renunciation becomes not a feeble withdrawal from life, but a vigorous affirmation of the worth of it.

But of course we cannot all expect to deal with life on this high-handed scale. The question is what most of us, who feel ourselves sadly limited, incomplete, fractious, discontented, fitful, unequal to the claims upon us, should do. If we have no sense of eager adventure, but are afraid of life, overshadowed by doubts and anxieties, with no great spring of pleasure, no passionate emotions, no very definite ambitions, what are we then to do?

Or perhaps our case is even worse than that; we are meanly desirous of comfort, of untroubled ease, we have a secret love of low pleasures, a desire to gain rather than to deserve admiration and respect, a temptation to fortify ourselves against life by accumulating all sorts of resources, with no particular wish to share anything, but aiming to be left alone in a circle which we can bend to our will and make useful to us; that is the hard case of many men and women; and even if by glimpses we see that there is a finer and a freer life outside, we may not be conscious of any real desire to issue from our stuffy parlour.

In either case our duty and our one hope is clear; that we have got somehow, at all costs and hazards, to find our way into the light of day. It is such as these, the anxious and the fearful on the one hand, the gross and sensual on the other, who need most of all a Joyous Gard of their own. Because we are coming to the light, as Walt Whitman so splendidly says;-“The Lord advances and yet advances . . . always the shadow in front, always the reached hand bringing up the laggards.”

Our business, if we know that we are laggards, if we only dimly suspect it, is not to fear the shadow, but to seize the outstretched hands.We must grasp the smallest clue that leads out of the dark, the resolute fight with some slovenly and ugly habit, the telling of our mean troubles to some one whose energy we admire and whose disapproval we dread; we must try the experiment, make the plunge; all at once we realise that the foundations are laid, that the wall is beginning to rise above the rubbish and the debris; we must build a home for the new-found joy, even if as yet it only sings drowsily and faintly within our hearts, like the awaking bird in the dewy thicket, when the fingers of the dawn begin to raise the curtain of the night.

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