Thought

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XV: THOUGHT

A friend of mine had once a strange dream; he seemed to himself to be walking in a day of high summer on a grassy moorland leading up to some fantastically piled granite crags. He made his way slowly thither; it was terribly hot there among the sun-warmed rocks, and he found a little natural cave, among the great boulders, fringed with fern. There he sate for a long time while the sun passed over, and a little breeze came wandering up the moor. Opposite him as he sate was the face of a great pile of rocks, and while his eye dwelt upon it it suddenly began to wink and glisten with little moving points, dots so minute that he could hardly distinguish them. Suddenly, as if at a signal, the little points dropped from the rock, and the whole surface seemed alive with gossamer threads,as if a silken, silvery curtain had been let down; presently the little dots reached the grass and began to crawl over it; and then he saw that each of them was attached to one of the fine threads; and he thought that they were a colony of minute spiders, living on the face of the rocks. He got up to see this wonder close at hand, but the moment he moved, the whole curtain was drawn up with incredible swiftness, as if the threads were highly elastic; and when he reached the rock, it was as hard and solid as before, nor could he discover any sign of the little creatures. “Ah,” he said to himself in the dream, “that is the meaning of the living rock!” and he became aware, he thought, that all rocks and stones on the surface of the earth must be thus endowed with life, and that the rocks were, so to speak, but the shell that contained these innumerable little creatures, incredibly minute, living, silken threads, with a small head, like boring worms, inhabiting burrows which went far into the heart of the granite, and each with a strong retractile power.

I told this dream to a geologist the other day, who laughed, “An ingenious idea,” he said, “and there may even be something init! It is not by any means certain that stones do not have a certain obscure life of their own; I have sometimes thought that their marvellous cohesion may be a sign of life, and that if life were withdrawn, a mountain might in a moment become a heap of sliding sand.”

My friend said that the dream made such an impression upon him that for a time he found it hard to believe that stones and rocks had not this strange and secret life lurking in their recesses; and indeed it has since stood to me as a symbol of life, haunting and penetrating all the very hardest and driest things. It seems to me that just as there are almost certainly more colours than our eyes can perceive, and sounds either too acute or too deliberate for our ears to hear, so the domain of life may be much further extended in the earth, the air, the waters, than we can tangibly detect.

It seems too to show me that it is our business to try ceaselessly to discover the secret life of thought in the world; not to conclude that there is no vitality in thought unless we can ourselves at once perceive it.This is particularly the case with books. Sometimes, in our College Library, I take down an old folio from the shelves, and as I turn the crackling, stained, irregular pages-it may be a volume of controversial divinity or outworn philosophy-it seems impossible to imagine that it can ever have been woven out of the live brain of man, or that any one can ever have been found to follow those old, vehement, insecure arguments, starting from unproved data, and leading to erroneous and fanciful conclusions. The whole thing seems so faded, so dreary, so remote from reality, that one cannot even dimly imagine the frame of mind which originated it, and still less the mood which fed upon such things.

Yet I very much doubt if the aims, ideas, hopes of man, have altered very much since the time of the earliest records. When one comes to realise that geologists reckon a period of thirty million years at least, while the Triassic rocks, that is the lowest stratum that shows signs of life, were being laid down; and that all recorded history is but an infinitesimal drop in the ocean of unrecorded time, one sees at least that the force behind the world, by whatever name we call it, is a force that cannot by any means be hurried, but that it works with a leisureliness which we with our brief and hasty span of life cannot really in any sense conceive. Still it seems to have a plan! Those strange horned, humped, armoured beasts of prehistoric rocks are all bewilderingly like ourselves so far as physical construction goes; they had heart, brain, eyes, lungs, legs, a similarly planned skeleton; it seems as if the creative spirit was working by a well-conceived pattern, was trying to make a very definite kind of thing; there is not by any means an infinite variety, when one considers the sort of creatures that even a man could devise and invent, if he tried.

There is the same sort of continuity and unity in thought. The preoccupations of man are the same in all ages-to provide for his material needs, and to speculate what can possibly happen to his spirit, when the body, broken by accident or disease or decay, can no longer contain his soul. The best thought of man has always been centred on trying to devise some sort of future hope which could encourage him to live eagerly, to endure patiently, to act rightly.As science opens her vast volume before us, we naturally become more and more impatient of the hasty guesses of man, in religion and philosophy, to define what we cannot yet know; but we ought to be very tender of the old passionate beliefs, the intense desire to credit noble and lofty spirits, such as Buddha and Mahomet, with some source of divinely given knowledge. Yet of course there is an inevitable sadness when we find the old certainties dissolving in mist; and we must be very careful to substitute for them, if they slip from our grasp, some sort of principle which will give us freshness and courage. To me, I confess, the tiny certainties of science are far more inspiring than the most ardent reveries of imaginative men. The knowledge that there is in the world an inflexible order, and that we shall see what we shall see, and not what we would like to believe, is infinitely refreshing and sustaining. I feel that I am journeying onwards into what is unknown to me, but into something which is inevitably there, and not to be altered by my own hopes and fancies. It is like taking a voyage, the pleasure of which is that the sights in store are unexpected and novel; for a voyage would be a very poor thing if we knew exactly what lay ahead, and poorer still if we could determine beforehand what we meant to see, and could only behold the pictures of our own imaginations. That is the charm and the use of experience, that it is not at all what we expect or hope. It is in some ways sadder and darker; but it is in most ways far more rich and wonderful and radiant than we had dreamed.

What I grow impatient of are the censures of rigid people, who desire to limit the hopes and possibilities of others by the little foot-rule which they have made for themselves. That is a very petty and even a very wicked thing to do, that old persecuting instinct which says, “I will make it as unpleasant for you as I can, if you will not consent at all events to pretend to believe what I think it right to believe.” A man of science does not want to persecute a child who says petulantly that he will not believe the law of gravity. He merely smiles and goes on his way. The law of gravity can look after itself! Persecution is as often as not an attempt to reassure oneself about one’s own beliefs; it is not a sign of an untroubled faith.

We must not allow ourselves to be shaken by any attempt to dictate to us what we should believe. We need not always protest against it, unless we feel it a duty to do so; we may simply regard another’s certainties as things which are not and cannot be proved. Argument on such subjects is merely a waste of time; but at the same time we ought to recognise the vitality which lies behind such tenacious beliefs, and be glad that it is there, even if we think it to be mistaken.

And this brings me back to my first point, which is that it is good for us to try to realise the hidden life of the world, and to rejoice in it even though it has no truth for us. We must never disbelieve in life, even though in sickness and sorrow and age it may seem to ebb from us; and we must try at all costs to recognise it, to sympathise with it, to put ourselves in touch with it, even though it takes forms unintelligible and even repugnant to ourselves.

Let me try to translate this into very practical matters. We many of us find ourselves in a fixed relation to a certain circle of people. We cannot break with them or abandon them. Perhaps our livelihood depends upon them, or theirs upon us. Yet we may find them harsh, unsympathetic, unkind, objectionable. What are we to do? Many people let the whole tangle go, and just creep along, doing what they do not like, feeling unappreciated and misunderstood, just hoping to avoid active collisions and unpleasant scenes. That is a very spiritless business! What we ought to do is to find points of contact, even at the cost of some repression of our own views and aims. And we ought too to nourish a fine life of our own, to look into the lives of other people, which can be done perhaps best in large books, fine biographies, great works of imagination and fiction. We must not drowse and brood in our own sombre corner, when life is flowing free and full outside, as in some flashing river. However little chance we may seem to have of doing anything, we can at least determine to be something; not to let our life be filled, like some base vessel, with the offscourings and rinsings of other spirits, but to remember that the water of life is given freely to all who come. That is the worst of our dull view of the great Gospel of Christ. We think-I do not say this profanely but seriously-of that water of life as a series of propositions like the Athanasian Creed!

Christ meant something very different by the water of life. He meant that the soul that was athirst could receive a draught of a spring of cool refreshment and living joy. He did not mean a set of doctrines; doctrines are to life what parchments and title-deeds are to an estate with woods and waters, fields and gardens, houses and cottages, and live people moving to and fro. It is of no use to possess the title-deed if one does not visit one’s estate. Doctrines are an attempt to state, in bare and precise language, ideas and thoughts dear and fresh to the heart. It is in qualities, hopes, and affections that we live; and if our eyes are opened, we can see, as my friend dreamed he saw, the surface of the hard rock full of moving points, and shimmering with threads of swift life, when the sun has fallen from the height, and the wind comes cool across the moor from the open gates of the evening.

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