Letters To The Future
By Olaf Stapledon
It will be all over when you get this. This war will be over, & you and I will be over. What we two shall be then, I don’t know. But if we do live in some way or other, and can remember and feel, then we will be lovers still. Perhaps you smile at this letter, & perhaps I also must smile at it in 1999. But I in 1917, in the middle of all these wars and wonders, set down as a certain thing that for you & for me both then & now the main thing in all the world is that we love one another.
To Robert, Christopher, Emma, Adorn, and Matthew
Stapledon, LETTER ONE LETTER TWO LETTER THREE LETTER FOUR . LETTER I A letter of
Great-grandchildren of Olaf Stapledon
To Robert, Christopher, Emma, Adorn, and Matthew
A letter of introduction.
To my Great Grandson in early manhood.
If ever you come upon this letter, forgive its preglacial dialect, and have patience to spell out its meaning. How gladly would I address you in whatever speech lives in your ears! The thoughts which follow must, I know, reach you only as dead and fragile specimens; but today they live. They flit among us dazzlingly and elusively, and we fight about them; for some of us fear them as the plague and would exterminate them, while others prize them as the light of our world.
I will not forget that I can give you only a few dead butterflies of thought, and that perhaps you will be interested in them only because they will have become extinct. Nor will I forget that I have no personal claim on your respect. Far from it; I fear you will have to suffer for my follies, even as your world must suffer for the immense follies of mine. Our misconduct must remain inexcusable in your eyes, for it has been disreputable; and you are young. But I must also bear in mind the possibility that you may censure not only our admitted errors but even the most admired achievements of our time, and that you may dismiss as worthless our most cherished dogmas. I will try not to forget this possibility even on the wave-crest of confidence.
But in the trough I must be allowed to remind myself that we stand to be judged finally not by your age but by that fully informed mind (if ever there be such) which alone can have reason to claim certainty for its verdicts. Even you have authority only in so far as you approximate to that ideal.
If I do not propose to apologize for my own errors or the barbarism of an era, what purpose, you wonder, have I in burrowing up from oblivion into your day. It is inconceivable that a voice out of this grave of lost causes should offer you advice.
I might of course plead that I am writing not strictly for you but for myself; for it is salutary to judge ourselves through the eyes of the future. Or again, I might, and indeed I must, plead an innocuous kind of family affection which prompts me to interest myself in your affairs. But I have already learnt enough from one of your grandparents to know that this sentiment must be firmly controlled, lest it should develop into a passion for meddling in matters which a parent necessarily cannot understand. I promise you, then, I will be on my guard in this respect. I will frequently remind myself that a parent, and still more a great grandparent, is, in the nature of the case, out of date and naively ignorant; and that your wisdom loses mine in its pocket like a threepenny bit. Alas! You have doubtless long ago abolished that exasperating coin, and our petty wisdom also. Well, threepence has a certain potency whatever its form; and so I insist on slipping this right into your pocket.
I have more serious reasons for seeking contact with you. How should I know that your world will be more enlightened than mine? Today we find little reason to prophesy a millennium for you. Our own blunders seem to forbid it. Moreover even if, as we cannot but hope, you have somehow won through in spite of us, and can afford to smile at our little wisdom, it is well that I should speak to you. For this age, in spite of its bewilderment and disillusionment and obvious failure, has not been wholly without vision. In our darkness we begin to glimpse something whose nature (if it is as we suppose) demands that we record our view of it even at the risk of earning ridicule from a shrewder generation. This dawning apprehension, I venture to think, is more characteristic of our age than the disillusionment which we consciously affect. True we are but rarely and vaguely aware of this thing. Many of us never glimpse it at all. Not one among us has a clear view of it. But more and more of us, I believe, begin to turn toward it; and already for many it is the undiscovered goal toward which their best thought leads.
Do not fear that I shall urge you to seek God and save your soul, or preach a crusade against contraception or false teeth. Probably in your enlightenment you are as happily ignorant of these two latter clumsy but merciful dodges as you are emancipated from soul-saving and from the obsession with God. If not, for God’s sake, sir, damn your soul and have done with it,—if you suppose yourself to have one; and so see the world more clearly, and enjoy it more shrewdly, and be more inclined to save it. For it is the world, and not his soul, that claims a man’s attention and his care. It is this world of lands and seas, cornfields and cities, of jelly-fish and flies and chickweed, of pigs in their sties and roving gulls, of miners and profiteers and thinkers and screaming babies, of armies, trade unions, colleges, prisons, and panic-stricken nations, of electrons and multitudinous streams of suns, of applied maths and aesthetic and moral experience. What need to seek heaven for the ghost that a man supposes himself to be, when all these vivid and needy realities clamour around him?
Did I so far lack humour as to preach to you, I think I should exhort you to a radical Worldliness. I should urge, not pietism, but a whole-hearted devotion to the world, yes and to the flesh and the devil; but especially to the flesh, which bears all our spiritual sky-scrapers on its back as a soldier bears lice, but also to the devil since he is in reality.
But (thus I would preach if I dared) you must more than daily with this great trinity. You must be intimate with flesh till you know its very essence. And its very essence is after all a spirit, an attitude, an adventurousness toward it knows not what, and a delighted discovery of the world, and a tireless creativeness. This (I would affirm) is its essence, and not that mechanical and tyrannous routine of pleasure and pain in which it has become entangled, that vast back-water in which so much of life’s torrent is forever trapped. Your worldliness, too, must exclude nothing. It must be at home not only in the West End but the East End, not only there but behind the Pole Star. And the devil you must know intimately before you claim to understand him. Then (as one of the prophets has shown) you will find him to be that bold and insolent spirit who has crept into this clod, our Earth, to quicken it into intelligent revolt against the Ancient of Days and his trivial round.
Of course if you are thorough with this religion of worldliness you will find yourself worshipping at the very same shrine as all honest men have ever frequented. But you will have stripped it of all vulgar tinsel, revealing the grey stone. And therefore many will have a secret grudge against you. For many are comforted by a painted surface even while they know it covers carved granite.
If you should fail to be thorough in your Worldliness, damned you will certainly be; and the pure in face will hound you. What is worse you will leave a mess behind you. But those who are half-hearted even in a more respectable faith leave filthy traces, traces the more poisonous for being tolerated and never mopped up.
In some such vein as this might I preach you as good a half-truth as ever became a slogan. But it is only half the truth. And moreover preaching won’t go down with one’s relatives. So I will make a plain tale of my faith, and temper it with many queries. For obviously we who believe may be mistaken. You perhaps will have already exposed our error and set our altar in your museum. Indeed even today certain clever young persons are trying to budge it. They think, I suppose, that because so many goods have gone bad on our hands goodness itself must be illusory. Well, they may prove right in the end; but meanwhile we find some amusement in watching them apparently tugging in vain at the rock face. Whether they are right or wrong they have not yet convinced us. We still believe, and must act on our belief. Folly is less shameful than disloyalty.
But it may well seem inappropriate that I, whose career has been a texture of good luck and bad management, should undertake to be the spokesman of an age which, whatever its failings, has not been inarticulate. I speak, however, as kinsman to kinsman, hoping that something of the family mannerism may render me intelligible to you when our more public voices have already become archaic. Further it is just possible that my very obscurity may fit me to speak more faithfully for my period than any of its great unique personalities.
But how can I write cogently to one with whom I am not even acquainted? Are you rich with the culture of your age, or are you a boor or a philistine? Are you curious about the nature of things, or content to see no further than your own food and the curves of woman? I cannot know; but I shall presume that you have the broad interests that are not uncommon in our family, and (like the rest of us) a certain capacity of reasoning. If you have not, it is to be hoped that you will at least have the sense to hand this letter, and those which follow, to someone of intelligence,—if there be any such alive in your day.
For in ours it is impossible to be sure that the human mind is not destroying itself. We seem to ourselves to be in a unique crisis of this planet’s history,— a crisis which may soon end, or may, we suspect, drag on even far beyond the lives of your remote descendants. We are accustomed to describe man’s present plight thus. His knowledge and power have lately increased extravagantly. His mind is embracing regions hitherto unguessed; and he can give effect to his will as never before. But these wide and deep discoveries, which should enlighten him as to what is truly desirable, do not in general have any influence on his choice of ends. He is ruled almost entirely by his animal and ancestral nature. He behaves very seldom in the manner that is uniquely human. Quite rightly he seeks the fulfillment of bodily and personal needs; and he even knows how to subordinate these to ends deemed more important; but his remoter ends are not as a rule chosen rationally, and are seldom objectively valid. He can transcend his private needs only for outworn or mistaken ideals imposed by ancestral taboos. For these alone are backed up by the forces of habit and public opinion.
Few of us today have seen what man is and what he might become. And of these, fewer see the starry universe as anything more than the stage of man’s drama. Even when we glimpse the things that are better than food and sex and applause, and better than all the virtues, we cannot long act in conformity with our vision. Very soon we succumb to the old cravings or the old sightless conscience. And so the great power that we are acquiring issues in disaster. And no one knows what will become of his own children in the stupid riot.
There seem to us three possibilities with regard to the world in your time. Either the interest of the mass of men and women will have definitely passed beyond the puerile ends which infect us, and a new epoch will be dawning in the life of this planet; or, like us, you will continue to be at heart no more than anthropoid. The latter is the more probable alternative. And if this is the case, either civilization will still be hanging by a thread, or it will be already shattered.
I may then be addressing one whose society will have crashed into a second barbarism before ever it has achieved true civilization, one who may perhaps regard us (if he knows of us at all) with the misunderstanding adulation so often lavished on a more intelligent past. Or I may be exposing myself to one who will really be of a finer mentality than has yet been achieved on this planet, and to an age that has at last won through to some agreed certainty of belief and some unquestionable judgment as to the good, and to full sanity of will. Or again you, like us, may be more than animal yet not fully human, seeing fitfully the good, but unable to serve it with any constancy. Such I expect will be your state; though if you have not actually crashed you must surely have outgrown some of our follies. Sanity of thought and sanity of will may not be quite so rare with you as with us. Persons of common intelligence will perhaps be less entangled in the maze of superstitions from which none of us today can entirely escape.
If you have outstripped us even thus far you will scarcely be able to conceive our mental confusion. For today every hoax finds some believer, and every truth is obscured by a fog of argument. While some pathetically dress up old idols in modern clothes, others are naively disillusioned because they have ransacked the universe in vain for a trace of God. Yet all the while (if I mistake not) in the streets and the farms, and indeed in every span of every man’s experience, something cries out for our admiration and our help, something better than any idol, something lovelier than the God of our fathers.
It is about this something that I must speak to you, lest your apprehension of it should through some misfortune happen to be more uncertain even than my own. But if when you read these letters you find that you have already passed beyond their range of thought, perhaps they will at least interest you historically; and perhaps you will forgive my importunity. However remote we may be from each other in time and in mentality, we are kin, and our two worlds are one. We, and all men, however gravely we conflict, are engaged on the same enterprise. In my language the goal of that enterprise may be called the fulfillment of the world’s capacity; but if this sounds barbarous to you, call it what you will, so long as you recognize in me a fellow-worker, though far-removed.
. LETTER II A historical letter
A historical letter
If ever you wade through my first letter, will you, I wonder, take the plunge into my second? One thing, I fancy, will have amused you and may entice you further. I claimed in effect that an ethical conflict was the peculiarity of this age. But after all it is characteristic of every age; and if in your time some of our discords are resolved, others inconceivable to us must surely have arisen. In every age man has been discovering new ends that were intrinsically better than his accustomed ends, and has always been failing to wean his heart from the familiar and lesser good for the sake of the newly discovered better. Never before today, perhaps, has the process been so dramatic; for the customary habit of man’s will has never before been so completely stultified by his increasing knowledge yet so reluctant to be transformed.
And because of the complexity and harshness of our conflicts we, perhaps more clearly than other ages, see the full irony of man’s fate. For he does in the end succeed in disciplining himself to the new-found value and reshaping his whole manner of life,—but only to find that the precious thing is itself eclipsed by some yet higher excellence. Or in other cases the world is so changed that the hard-won value is revealed as but a means to an end, and no longer serviceable. And so he must either wrench the whole current of his life into a new channel, or, accepting means for end, pursue a phantom. How often in the career of each one of us has enthusiasm been followed by cold enlightenment or by reluctant recognition of some higher and almost repellent goal! How often in man’s history has a new habit of will or a new ideal been painfully acquired by one generation only to be reviled and combatted by the next!
At this point a mockingly unctuous voice within me, (perhaps it is the voice that will be yours) sings from a song that will never be heard in your day, "Excelsior!" But do not deride me! I am not lapsing into moralism. I am not preaching a moral duty of climbing for climbing’s sake, or for the sake of a heaven at the top. Let us be clear on this point. I refer only to the dire fact that familiar goods ever tend to reveal, as implicated in their own goodness, unfamiliar and better goods. Climb we must; but not merely to exercise our moral limbs; rather, (to pursue the image) because our presence is imperiously demanded on the summit; or because on the cliff face there is no rest, and to descend were treason, not to ourselves but to the spirit of the crags, the spirit to whom we pledged ourselves in our earliest act of admiration. We all admire something or other, whether a punch from the shoulder or the precise dancing of electrons. And whatever our admiration begins upon, it is led on, or should be led on, willy nilly to other things; and perhaps (as many philosophers have declared) it should logically advance to admiration of the Whole.
Perhaps the supreme instance of this advance to new values is the revolution which must have occurred when the race first gained self-consciousness, and is repeated in each child. Today it is so easy for us to value the "self" that no one takes credit for it. On the contrary, selfishness is on all hands condemned. But care for an enduring individuality rather than for the fleeting pleasures that it tastes were not always familiar. In that forgotten era when our animal ancestors first glimpsed themselves as "selves" how stubbornly must the old automatic self-less behaviour have resisted control by self-consciousness! Yet now, though we all have lapses even from this lowly plane, only infants and idiots live constantly the life of uncontrolled impulse, and have no habit whatever of self-value.
If you should ask what I mean by "self’ I should have to remain silent, or embark on a course of inconclusive lectures. Suffice it that I mean that which experiences, endures through its experiences, and is distinct from others of its kind. But what that is, God knows. Perhaps it is the body "in its psychological aspect." Or perhaps, on the contrary, the body is but the physical aspect of self. What matter,—so long as we realise that each is nothing without the other.
Let me return to my theme. Even in the very age when ego was first discovered and valued and painfully preserved, our ancestors must have been apprehending not only themselves but their fellows as good. Long before self-respect was established, selfishness must have become a reproach. Irony! Love was impossible till there was knowledge of personality; but this no man could know till he was aware on the one hand of the distinction between himself and others, and on the other of the enduring unity of all his experiences; and affection for his own individuality, through which alone he could know others as persons, has itself been the great cause of his failure to embrace his neighbours also within the bright circle of his interest. Yet long before the dawn of self-consciousness man’s behavior was already crowded with other-regarding impulses which pointed the way to conscious love, but which the blinkered devotee of ego must reject as irrelevant to his abstract and impossible ideal.
Man’s career has indeed been a fugue whose theme, (the birth, struggle, triumph and eclipse of successive ideals), has been repeated in endless variety. While our ancestors were discovering themselves and their neighbours they began to notice also the unity of the social group, and to take society itself as an end. And in addition, even in that early time, they began to have glimpses, (many would say illusions), of value altogether extrahuman, superhuman, cosmical. And from the conflict of these diverse kinds of excellence sprang many ideals, all justified as instrumental to one or other of the prime goods, but each apt to be mistaken as an end and pursued to the exclusion of all else.
Forgive me if I weary you with matter already familiar. I must review my foundations before declaring my faith. Besides,—how can I know that you have ever thought at all about this progressive discovery of values, or that you see its tragic but glorious significance? (For it suggests, does it not?, that all that we deem most precious may, in the universal view, be utterly negligible.)
Consider the fate of the moralistic ideals. From the clash of the social and the private values, and not wholly from egoistic fear of governors, arose the concept of a law which must be obeyed. For when the group came to be regarded as itself a good thing it was obvious that, for the cohesion of the group, individuals must conform to certain principles of conduct whatever the consequences to themselves. This in fact is clearly the rational basis and the actual strength of law, whether it is recognized or not. And because of its social utility law became an established institution. But no sooner was law-abidingness recognized as a "virtue" than it began to be actually a vice. For law was mistaken as an end in itself. Outworn commandments, once perhaps of use, crystallized into a rigid and irrational taboo; and men imposed on themselves and on each other a thousand ludicrous disabilities, such as sabbatarianism and the ritual of prudery.
Thus arose the notion of the "virtues," the depressing view that the greatest good in the universe is willing conduct in accordance with certain rules. I shall not forget the joy with which my slow mind first discovered that the human race and the stars are not a poultry farm for the production of moral foie gras for a gluttonous God. Truthfulness and chastity and the like were revealed as only more sacred than a good style in tennis because they served a greater end. So it seemed at least to my youthful confidence. But what is the end? Is it perhaps, as in tennis, an action, but an act of the whole real?
We of today, even we, have outgrown the "virtues"; but there is a kindred illusion which has some power over us. All external rules stand to be criticized and often condemned by the private conscience, which claims to be superior to foreign authority. And obviously it is So; each man must judge right and wrong for himself and choose his own moral authorities. But conscience itself is but a blind groping after the desirable end; and the dictates of conscience, when they are but vague feelings of right and wrong, must be criticized. Conscientiousness, the following of our established conscience, cannot itself be the end, for conscience presupposes an objective distinction between good and bad. A man may conscientiously do great hurt to that which alone is the ground of there being conscience at all.
But what is this moral end, this principle to which all consciences ought to conform? What is it, when all things are taken into account, that is most desirable, most worthy to exist, or that has the chief claim upon our allegiance? Today, when we look back on the fundamentally different answers to these questions, and when we realize our own confusion about them, we wonder if there is any final answer to them at all, or whether they are childish and meaningless. Yet we must continue to ask them. And we cannot but hope that soon, even perhaps in your time, they may be finally answered in principle, though never in detail.
In Greece and Palestine two answers were made, and each a great one.
The Greeks, I suppose, may be said to have conceived the ideal of "the just man." They saw the difference between the private and the universal view, and they felt that to take account only of the needs of one’s own body and oneself as a person against other persons was petty, arbitrary, incomplete, mean. The just man, they said in effect, is one who cares indeed for his own soul or personality, rather than for fleeting pleasures; but he cares most, not for himself, but for his city, for the community in which he is a member. And for his city he should care not merely as for a crowd of persons demanding pleasure, but as for an organized system in which each member has an allotted function and justification. And the supreme function, of which only the greatest individuals were capable, was said to be the pursuit of wisdom, the attempt to take all things into account at their true value, and so discover the good, and conduct oneself and rule others in accordance with that supreme knowledge.
Here indeed was a great answer to the question, and one which many have thought sufficient. But it was not final. It did not stress all that needed to be stressed even within the experience of that age. It was based on justice rather than on love. It began with the cultured individual’s demand for self-increase and for harmony of mental content; and it passed on to the universal view only because this alone was found to afford personal fulfillment. The social life was to be pursued just because the citizen can find richer experience and activity than the man apart.
But with the coming of Christianity men found, not merely that justice was the way to self-fulfillment, but that their fellows were lovable. The extant form of society did not allow the fulfillment of every person; and it was obvious that many who were socially cramped were intrinsically no less worthy than many others who were favoured. Thus it was, perhaps, that the value of the individual experient became the basis of Christianity. And Christianity was also a revolt against an earlier moralism. It was recognized that each individual must seek, not merely to obey wise laws, but to embrace within the circle of his own felt needs the needs of his neighbours. This would seem to be the essence of the Christian ideal of the loving community. It was found to be involved in human nature itself that each man should "self-forgetfully" love others. Adapting an expression used in other connections by one of our philosophers I would say that the essence of Christianity is to have the needs of all other persons "ingredient" in oneself.
Why does the true Christian serve others? Not (I hope) just because to desert them would give him a pang. On the contrary the pang that he would have in deserting them springs from the prior fact that he recognizes their needs as indeed their needs. I would put it thus. Their needs are not motives of his conduct because he has taken possession of them or conceived them on his own account within the womb of his own egoism. No, they are objectively needs whether he discovers them or not; and in his discovery of them they invade and possess him. His demand for their fulfillment is their demand through him. He is in part constituted by them.
But the Christian ideal, like those that preceded it, stressed certain values at the expense of others. Seeing the intrinsic good of every individual experient, it went on to assume that each individual must be eternal. For Christians have exaggerated the value of the individual experient "soul" even though their approach to such a view was not through self-love but love of others. They have insisted on the potential equality of individuals "in God’s eyes," simply as being one and all centres of experience and will. They ignore all differences but differences in the capacity to love other experients, human and divine. They fixed man’s attention on himself and the God which he made in his own likeness. They conceived a heaven in which individuals were to be fulfilled simply in an emotional attitude toward each other and their creator. The starry spheres were regarded but as a potter’s wheel for the making of affectionate human beings, who in an after life should be perfected and compensated for their sufferings in this world.
You, looking back on my time with a certain aloofness, may smile when you learn that very many even of us are still enthralled so securely to the value of the experient ego, and so dismayed at the "injustice" of its fate on earth, that they cling to the belief in its immortality, claiming that if souls die the universe must be evil. And though even in your day you may not be entirely free from the primitive wish that your beloveds might live for ever you must I think see with a clearness impossible to us that such cravings are foolish, if not immoral. For even I, blindly groping toward that wider view of existence which I trust you have attained, begin to understand that the experient soul, though indeed it is a great intrinsic good, is also but a tone in a more excellent music, which would be marred were its individual sounds not to follow one another into silence.
A good thing, indeed, is good eternally, however brief its existence. But continuance does not necessarily enhance its value. When we consider our dear ones in abstraction from the rest of the world, we cannot but desire immortality for them. But in those clear moments when we see the whole and are in love with it, we discover with sudden shame that to have demanded perpetuity even for the finest of human persons is as though a lover were to have gloated upon one gesture of the beloved, forgetting the swift soul. For in those clear moments persons are seen to be but gestures of the world, or foci kindled for a while with light from the stars.
But these moments perhaps lie.
. LETTER III Of worldliness and otherworldliness
Of worldliness and otherworldliness
My third letter must, like my second, temper the extravagance of my first. I spoke of a religion of worldliness; what, I wonder, did I really mean by that self-righteous devildom? You, who will perhaps never have suffered from that curious malady which has been called the non-conformist conscience, will easily detect in me an exaggerated dislike of piety, oddly mated with an itch to preach supreme values. This I suppose is the normal fate of the nonconformist mind when at last it has smelt the corruption of its own purity. It cannot break the habit of preaching and of pietism, so it merely orientates its pietism towards ends which formerly it would have condemned as wicked.
Help me with your imagined presence to think out this question of worldliness and unworldliness dispassionately.
The root of Christianity, I should say, was the apprehension of the beauty and loveableness of one’s neighbours, and of their need. From love, more than from egoistic dread of extinction, sprang the doctrine of the immortal soul. But if all souls are precious, so is my own. And so a doctrine that began in love was often tripped into selfishness. Now the way to save the souls of others was to help them to transcend their petty selves and be absorbed emotionally into the life of the loving community whose true home was said to be eternity. To brood beyond the limits of petty interests, this was the way of salvation for one’s neighbours, and for oneself Thus a religion whose root was active love for men and women developed the ideal of otherworldliness, the aim of deserting all the misery and meanness of this planet by imaginative brooding on eternal verities. Love was first praised because it was the attitude appropriate to the objective loveliness of one’s neighbours; but it came to be valued for its own sake, and to be the goal of all existence and the supreme excellence of God was even said to lie in his loving men in spite of their unworthiness to be loved. Love itself was the end, no matter what its object. This divorce of love from the loveliness of its object led easily to a subtle emotionalism according to which the effects of a man’s conduct mattered less than "the state of his soul." Thus in a back-handed manner egotism of the subtlest kind received divine honours.
There is indeed an attitude sometimes confused with otherworldliness which is not egoistical. The truly religious consciousness might be described as a vague surmise that beyond the world of common sense, beyond the needs of our neighbours and the needs of the awakening social whole of mankind, lie higher cosmical needs which man cannot yet clearly apprehend though he must keep his heart open to feel them. And to this account of the religious spirit we should perhaps add the even vaguer sense that behind the apparent distinction of good and evil lies the truth that reality, just as it is, is perfect. Whether or not these obscure cognitions be true, this attitude of mind is a response as it were to a half-heard, half imagined knocking at the outer doors of the personality; it is an enthusiastic readiness to adopt whatever in fact is the appropriate attitude to the real as a whole, but this should not be called otherworldliness, for it does not, like otherworldliness, despise and fear the world of everyday. It seeks only to know more of it and admire it more justly, and serve it more shrewdly.
Otherworldliness is quite different. It is a shameful desertion of the real, a willful deafness to all the urgent needs cognized in the world, and an attempt to satisfy one’s own desire for pleasure and dread of pain by a system of fantasy. This treason has I think been fostered by an over-valuation of the mere processes of consciousness. For thus men came easily to think more of the good will than of the goodness of its goal, more of the artistic emotion than of the work of art, more of their consciences than of their neighbours, more of faith than of works.
But stay! The opposition of the ideals of faith and of works must not be so carelessly dismissed. Behind that bitter old controversy lie, I think, two truths that are simple and easily accepted, though their logical support is a complicated affair. It is true in the first place that the individual attains highest intrinsic excellence by opening his heart to those obscure intimations of cosmic value which are the essential religious experience. For in a sense the individual is greater and more self-complete the more the content of his experience approximates to the whole real. If then we are considering the individual alone, the external results of his conduct are irrelevant. He must be judged in terms of his own experience and will, not in terms of his external effects. And this is to judge him in terms of his "faith"; for we must certainly interpret "faith" to mean something more austere than a kind of blinkered and phthisic confidence.
But if we are considering the world at large, we must judge individuals in terms of their effect on the world. Even so, however, the last word is perhaps for faith rather than works. For the world on which the individual acts is, after all, other individuals; and the excellence of individuals, we have said, is in the breadth and truth of their mentality. Thus the goal of works is after all faith, broadly interpreted, but it is the faith of others. And it is faith, I should say, not as a mere emotional state to be enjoyed by a "soul," but in a sense very difficult to describe. The state of "faith" which each must seek to approach is, so to speak, the awakening of the universe to self-consciousness through the focalization of his percipient body. This state is excellent (if indeed it is excellent at all) because it is the world’s fulfillment, not because it is the greatest joy a soul can have.
The ideal of good works began as a new sensitivity to the concrete needs of one’s neighbours and a surmise as to cosmic needs; but subsequently it has often been adopted merely as a mechanical means toward private salvation. Thus once more was an outward-regarding precept adapted by egotism to its own uses. And in this service it was often turned from a concern for the effects of one’s conduct to a mere thoughtless itch for activity, any activity socially approved, without serious criticism of the values served. Activity itself tended to seem its own justification.
Now the ideal of good works, when it is not merely a secret egoism, is essentially worldly, not otherworldly. It springs from admiration, love, and pity for members of this world for their own sake. It may be complicated by a surmise that each member is in some mysterious way the whole, and to be saved "for eternity," or for "another world." But primarily it is care for the member himself as he is seen to be in fact, here and now. It does not despise this world and shun it for another; it wants to make the best of this world, just because it is after all experienced as a world lovely though imperfect.
The attitude which is more conventionally called "worldliness" is a care for certain things in this world at the expense of others. It is a care for sensory pleasures and personal triumph, and when it loves, it admires in the beloved, and seeks to enhance in the beloved, only these minor goods. "Otherworldliness" is an excessive revulsion from these goods called worldly and a yearning for a world utterly different in which they have no part whatever. It is a kind of nausea brought on by an over-indulgence in things good in themselves but not the only good. Gorged to the point of vomiting we may long for a world in which food has no part whatever. Nauseated with the cruder values, we long for a sphere of "pure spirit," and seek to withdraw ourselves from this foundering world as rats from a sinking ship. This surely is the great treason. The advance from worldliness (in the conventional sense) is not to unworldliness but to a more thorough worldliness, a care not only for the cruder values revealed in this world but also for all its finer excellences which we foolishly supposed could constitute a world apart.
The "religion of worldliness" then is the will to know deeply the nature of this world, to understand good and evil, and to work for the fulfillment of this world’s best capacities.
. LETTER IV
I have introduced myself with a grand flourish, but what next? A second and a third letter I have already written and discarded, for they were still-born. I caught myself yawning when I read them over, yawning and hoping for the dinner bell. Clearly that is not the kind of letter I meant to write. I meant to make a direct and vivid confession of faith. I meant to distill the very essence of my life for you, the few drops of spirit that have flavoured my whole watery existence. It was to be caught in a little phial of crystal language and preserved for you (and then, I thought, I should be able to comfort myself even in my ceaseless futility with the certainty that one thing at least had been done well and serviceably). But all that came was second-hand truth in text-book jargon!
Is it all a delusion, then? Have I nothing to tell you? No, no, there is something that must be said; and if I don’t say it, another will, damn him,— I mean thank God. But if there really is something to say, why don’t I say it, and have done? I can’t. And yet there the thing is; it won’t leave me alone. It keeps nudging me at every turn, and looking me full in the face with the painful brightness of the sun, while seeming to say ironically, "Well, what about me? It’s time you told them. I insist that everyone who has the pleasure of my acquaintance shall advertise me. Others are busy for me; but you?" In that bright moment it is all clear; but as soon as I get down to work there is nothing left but a sort of dazzlement and bewilderment, and an inarticulate echo of that gleam of the truth.
Such, you will say, is the fate of all mediocre minds when they over-reach their stature. It is as though there were some certain clear and exquisite percept which one were to encounter often but never remember, save as the hidden goal of a thousand "association paths" in the mind. If only one could be quit of the thing, or grasp it for ever!
There! I have it! There’s a sparrow on the washhouse roof, and he’s an angel of the Lord if ever there was one. He’s sick, poor little devil. He’s hunched in a tousled ball. He keeps blinking. Every now and then he pecks at his tummy. Now he has dropped a greenish-white mess behind him. That seems to have relieved him, for he is perking up somewhat. Now he’s gone. Farewell, Sir! Good hunting! And good mating!
Well, and what of the sparrow? How, precisely, did he manage to illumine the situation? I do not claim to have seen in him mystically the very spirit of the Whole, or to have pierced intuitively beyond his shabby appearance to the perfect real of which he is an aspect. Such experiences are not for me, and therefore I suspect them. No, the little guttersnipe of the roof was a clear symbol of the Whole; but he no more is the Whole than "c a t" s pussy herself. He is far more than a symbol, and yet not the Whole. He is just himself, a very odd thing, which no one can intelligibly describe, though everyone (unsophisticated by theory) respects it as a bit of reality,—whatever that may mean.
Yes, he is a bit of reality, though not a very important bit. But stay! He is very important, for without him there would be a queer hole in the universe, and all things would be subtly disturbed. "Not a sparrow shall fall to the ground—." Moreover he is vastly important to himself; and what is the universal view but to take into account every private view? Not one of these curious self-importances (his and yours and mine and the rest) can be left out; but unfortunately they furiously conflict, and have somehow to be reconciled. And alas many of them are, in their very nature, irreconcilable. To embrace, they must first be dissolved and refashioned. Sparrow and cat, German and Frenchman! (But in your time surely this last antithesis will have lost its point. Or is your Europe still mad with multiple personality?)
To return to the sparrow, what is he? A bundle of instincts and reflexes? What, I wonder, is that, unless it is a bundle of ways of behaving? And somehow what one means by "that sparrow" is not ways of behaving but something, however obscure, that does the behaving. Then is he perhaps a very complicated dance of electrons? Well, if that is what the little fellow is, electrons are very much more than the physicists mean by "electrons." Instincts may claim at least to be ways of psychical behaving, ways of knowing and striving and feeling; but electrons are but ways of physical behaving, ways of moving, in fact. Somehow or other, it seems, when the dance becomes sufficiently involved these ways of moving, which we call electrons, miraculously give birth to ways of knowing, striving and feeling. In the jargon of philosophers, the psychical "emerges" in a certain complexity of integration or organization of that which, in simpler patterns, is only physical.
But what is it that, organised in different patterns, behaves in different manners? Electrons, if they are more than ways of behaving, are clearly not little self-complete things. For some electrons somewhere in that sparrow are apparently much finer fellows than they could possibly be were they cast adrift. They are mysteriously given a richer nature by the form of their organization. They assume new ways of behaving. And further they as a whole are aware, they as a whole feel, they as a whole strive. They and their passerine pattern are, so to speak, mutually creative of each other. Each electron, we are told by one of our philosophers, "prehends" within itself all others, and is in turn itself "ingredient" in every other. Each one of them, without the society of the others organised in this passerine manner, would be something different through and through from what it is.
But the passerine form itself, which in a manner (we know not how) controls the sparrow’s electrons, is in turn an expression of a certain environment, past and present. Ingredient in this sparrow are many features of my garden and all the careers of his ancestors. This little ball of flesh and feather is moulded from without just as each electron within it is moulded by the others.
Now there is one very striking respect in which the system of electrons in the sparrow differs from the system of the sparrow and its environment. In the system of the sparrow’s electrons the passerine form itself seems to bring into being new kinds of activity biological and psychological. But the system of the sparrow and its environment is not itself a biological or psychological unit, behaving as a single whole. Always it is the sparrow that behaves biologically and psychologically, not the stone on which it perches.
In a stone there are electrons, and each prehends all the others, and the rest of the universe; but the stone is no biological unity.
In a society of human persons (as I see it) there is no biological unity, though it is composed of biological individuals, and each individual is what he is by virtue of his social environment. Society itself does not behave; its members do.
The stone is a crowd of very simple beings, each of which is indeed an expression of the others and of all else in the world, but is not dominated by any unity of the stone. The sparrow is multitudinous "clay" organised into one life. A man is another such but far richer and more unitary; for he acts in relation to things inconceivable to a sparrow, and he brings to bear upon each situation far wider regions of the past. A society of men is, like a stone, a crowd of beings, but of biological beings.
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