Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


I read the other day a very downright book, with a kind of dry insolence about it, by a man who was concerned with stating what he called the mechanistic theory of the universe. The worlds, it seemed, were like a sandy desert, with a wind that whirled the sands about; and indeed I seemed, as I looked out on the world through the writer’s eyes, to see nothing but wind and sand! One of his points was that every thought that passed through the mind was preceded by a change in the particles of the brain; so that philosophy, and religion, and life itself were nothing but a shifting of the sand by the impalpable wind-matter and motion, that was all! Again and again he said, in his dry way, that no theory was of any use that was not supported by facts; and that though there was left a little corner of thought, which was still unexplained, we should soon have some more facts, and the last mystery would be hunted down.

But it seemed to me, as I read it, that the thoughts of man were just as much facts as any other facts, and that when a man had a vision of beauty, or when a hope came to him in a bitter sorrow, it was just as real a thing as the little particle of the brain which stirred and crept nearer to another particle.I do not say that all theories of religion and philosophy are necessarily true, but they are real enough; they have existed, they exist, they cannot die. Of course, in making out a theory, we must not neglect one set of facts and depend wholly on another set of facts; but I believe that the intense and pathetic desire of humanity to know why they are here, why they feel as they do, why they suffer and rejoice, what awaits them, are facts just as significant as the blood that drips from the wound, or the leaf that unfolds in the sun. The comforting and uplifting conclusion which the writer came to was that we were just a set of animated puppets, spun out of the drift of sand and dew by the thing that he called force. But if that is so, why are we not all perfectly complacent and contented, why do we love and grieve and wish to be different? I do still believe that there is a spirit that mingles with our hopes and dreams, something personal, beautiful, fatherly, pure, something which is unwillingly tied to earth and would be free if it could. The sense that we are ourselves wholly separate and distinct, with experience behind us and experience before us, seems to me a fact beside which all other facts pale into insignificance. And next in strength to that seems the fact that we can recognise, and draw near to, and be amazingly desirous of, as well as no less strangely hostile to, other similar selves; that our thought can mingle with theirs, pass into theirs, as theirs into ours, forging a bond which no accident of matter can dissolve.

Does it really satisfy the lover, when he knows that his love is answered, to realise that it is all the result of some preceding molecular action of the brain? That does not seem to me so much a truculent statement as a foolish statement, shirking, like a glib and silly child, the most significant of data. And I think we shall do well to say to our scientist, as courteously as Sir Launcelot said to the officious knight, who proffered unnecessary service, that we have no need for him at this time.

Now, I am not saying, in all this, that the investigation of science is wrong or futile. It is exactly the reverse; the message of God is hidden in all the minutest material things that lie about us; and it is a very natural and even noble work to explore it; but it is wrong if it leads us to draw any conclusions at present beyond what we can reasonably and justly draw. It is the inference that what explains the visible scheme of things can also explain the invisible. That is wrong!

Let me here quote a noble sentence, which has often given me much-needed help, and served to remind me that thought is after all as real a thing as matter, when I have been tempted to feel otherwise. It was written by a very wise and tender philosopher, William James, who was never betrayed by his own severe standard of truth and reality into despising the common dreams and aspirations of simpler men. He wrote:

I find it preposterous to suppose that if there be a feeling of unseen reality, shared by numbers of the best men in their best moments, responded to by other men in their deep moments, good to live by, strength-giving-I find it preposterous, I say, to suppose that the goodness of that feeling for living purposes should be held to carry no objective significance, and especially preposterous if it combines harmoniously with an otherwise grounded philosophy of objective truth.”

That is a very large and tolerant utterance, both in its suspension of impatient certainties and in its beautiful sympathy with all ardent visions that cannot clearly and convincingly find logical utterance.

What I am trying to say in this little book is not addressed to professional philosophers or men of science, who are concerned with intellectual investigation, but to those who have to live life as it is, as the vast majority of men must always be. What I rather beg of them is not to be alarmed and bewildered by the statements either of scientific or religious dogmatists. No doubt we should like to know everything, to have all our perplexities resolved; but we have reached that point neither in religion nor in philosophy, nor even in science. We must be content not to know. But because we do not know, we need not therefore refuse to feel;there is no excuse for us to thrust the whole tangle away and out of sight, and just to do as far as possible what we like. We may admire and hope and love, and it is our business to do all three. The thing that seems to me-and I am here only stating a personal view-both possible and desirable, is to live as far as we can by the law of beauty, not to submit to anything by which our soul is shamed and insulted, not to be drawn into strife, not to fall into miserable fault-finding, not to allow ourselves to be fretted and fussed and agitated by the cares of life; but to say clearly to ourselves, “that is a petty, base, mean thought, and I will not entertain it; this is a generous and kind and gracious thought, and I will welcome it and obey it.”

One of the clearly discernible laws of life is that we can both check and contract habits; and when we begin our day, we can begin it if we will by prayer and aspiration and resolution, as much as we can begin it with bath and toilet. We can say, “I will live resolutely to-day in joy and good-humour and energy and kindliness.” Those powers and possibilities are all there; and even if we are overshadowed by disappointment and anxiety and pain, we can say to ourselves that we will behave as if it were not so; because there is undoubtedly a very real and noble pleasure in putting off shadows and troubles, and not letting them fall in showers on those about us. We need not be stoical or affectedly bright; we often cannot give those who love us greater joy than to tell them of our troubles and let them comfort us. And we can be practical too in our outlook, because much of the grittiest irritation of life is caused by indulging indolence when we ought not, and being hurried when we might be leisurely. It is astonishing how a little planning will help us in all this, and how soon a habit is set up. We do not, it is true, know the limits of our power of choice. But the illusion, if it be an illusion, that we have a power of choice, is an infinitely more real fact to most of us than the molecular motion of the brain particles.

And then too there is another fact, which is becoming more and more clear, namely, what is called the power of suggestion. That if we can put a thought into our mind, not into our reason, but into our inner mind of instinct and force, whether it be a base thought or a noble thought, it seems to soak unconsciously into the very stuff of the mind, and keep reproducing itself even when we seem to have forgotten all about it. And this is, I believe, one of the uses of prayer, that we put a thought into the mind, which can abide withus, secretly it may be, all the day; and that thus it is not a mere pious habit or tradition to have a quiet period at the beginning of the day, in which we can nurture some joyful and generous hope, but as real a source of strength to the spirit as the morning meal is to the body. I have myself found that it is well, if one can, to read a fragment of some fine, generous, beautiful, or noble-minded book at such an hour.

There is in many people who work hard with their brains a curious and unreal mood of sadness which hangs about the waking hour, which I have thought to be a sort of hunger of the mind, craving to be fed; and this is accompanied, at least in me, by a very swift, clear, and hopeful apprehension, so that a beautiful thought comes to me as a draught of water to a thirsty man. So I make haste, as often as may be, just to drop such a thought at those times into the mind; it falls to the depths, as one may see a bright coin go gleaming and shifting down to the depths of a pool; or to use a homelier similitude, like sugar that drops to the bottom of a cup, sweetening the draught.

These are little homely things; but it is through simple use and not through large theory that one can best practise joy.

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