Still more ridiculous, if possible, is the Christian cry, "Where are your Freethought hospitals, almshouses, and orphanages?" Freethought is a poor, struggling cause; its adherents are comparatively few and scattered; it has no endowments to lessen the current cost of its propaganda; and it is unable to exact subscriptions by the orthodox method of boycotting, or to acquire them in return for a good advertisement. Still, the Freethought party does manage to relieve its necessitous members; and the Freethinkers' Benevolent Fund is not only well supported, in excess of all demands, but is probably the only Fund which is administered without a single farthing of expense. Besides this, Freethinkers support ordinary local charities, when deserving, just like other people; although frequently, as in the case of almost every hospital, religion is forced on the recipients of such charity, whether they wish it or not, and religious tests are maintained in the administration.
As a rule, however, Freethinkers are not inclined to attach so much importance as Christians to organised almsgiving. At the best it is but a clumsy way of alleviating the worst effects of social disease. The Freethinker attaches more importance to the study of causes. He is like the true health reformer who believes a great deal more in exercise, fresh air, and wholesome diet, than in physic. For this reason Freethinkers are generally students of social and political questions. They are Radicals in the philosophical sense of the word; that is, they recognise that real, lasting improvement can only be achieved by dealing with the causes of poverty and degradation. Many Christians, on the other hand, thoroughly believe that the poor will never cease out of the land; and they seem to regard these unfortunates as whetstones, provided by a beneficent providence, on which the wealthy may sharpen their benevolence.
Christian charity, even in its highest form, is infinitely less merciful than science; a truth which Mr. Cotter Morison enforces in the seventh chapter of his Service of Man. Sanitation, medical science, free trade, popular education, co-operation, and such agencies, have done tremendously more than religion to diminish evil and mitigate suffering. On the other hand, it is indisputable that much of our boasted charity is worse than wasted, as it tends to produce the very helplessness and pauperism that furnish it with objects of compassion.
Charity is very good in its way, but what we really want is justice. Let us go in for justice first, and when we have got that we shall see what remains for charity to do. Probably it will be found that unjust laws inflict a hundred times more misery than charity could ever alleviate. If that be the case, the most charitable man, after all, is he who devotes some of his time, thought, and energy to political and social reform. Good health for the next generation is more valuable than medicine for the diseases of the present generation.
Charity, also, in its largest sense, is far wider than almsgiving. It is a questionable charity which gives you a shilling if you are hard-up, and persecutes you if you think for yourself. Most of us do not require soup-tickets, but we do require civil treatment, respect for our independence, and smiling rather than frowning faces. The man who lifts me up from the road when I stumble, deserves my thanks; but I doubt the sincerity of his kindness if, when he learns that I honestly differ from him on the Atonement, he knocks me down again. Assisting people who agree with you, and wilfully injuring those who differ, savors less of charity than of zeal. You may be a very good Christian, but I venture to say you are a very bad man.
When Saladin died he ordered charities to be distributed to the poor, without distinction of Jew, Christian, or Mohammedan. Yet this brilliant ruler had to repel Christian attacks on his dominions, and to witness the most abominable cruelty wrought by the soldiers of the Cross. Where, in the annals of Christendom, shall we find such a noble example of true charity; of charity which overflows the petty barriers of creeds, and loses itself in the great ocean of humanity?
RELIGION AND MONEY.
"Every religion is a getting religion; for though I myself get nothing, I am subordinate to those that do. So you may find a lawyer in the Temple that gets little for the present; but he is fitting himself to be in time one of those great ones that do get."—Selden's Table Talk.
"The Divine stands wrapt up in his cloud of mysteries, and the amused Laity must pay Tithes and Veneration to be kept in obscurity, grounding their hope of future knowledge on a competent stock of present ignorance."—George Farquhar.
Religion and priestcraft may not be the same thing in essence. That is a point on which we do not intend to dogmatise, and this is not the opportunity to argue it. But practically religion and priestcraft are the same thing. They are inextricably bound up together,. and they will suffer a common fate. In saying this, however, we must be understood to use the word "religion" in its ordinary sense, as synonymous with theology. Religion as non-supernatural, as the idealism of morality, the sovereign bond of collective society, is a matter with which we are not at present concerned.
Priestcraft did not invent religion. To believe that it did is the error of an impulsive and uninformed scepticism. But priestcraft developed it, systematised it, enforced it, and perpetuated it. This could not be effected, however, except in alliance with the temporal power; and accordingly, in every country—savage, barbaric, or civilised—the priests and the privileged classes are found in harmony. They have occasional differences, but these are ultimately adjusted. Sometimes the priesthood overrules the temporal power, but more frequently the former gives way to the latter; indeed, it is instructive to watch how the course of religion has been so largely determined by political influences. The development of Judaism was almost entirely controlled by the political vicissitudes of the Hebrews. The political power really decided the great controversy between Arianism and Athanasianism. Politics again, twelve hundred years later, settled the bounds of the Reformation, not only for the moment, but for subsequent centuries. Where the prince's sword was thrown into the scale, it determined the balance. England, for instance, was non-papal Catholic under Henry VIII., Protestant under Edward VI., papal-Catholic under Mary, and Protestant again under Elizabeth; although every one of these changes, according to the clergy, was dictated by the Holy Ghost.
Priests and the privileged classes must settle their differences in some way, otherwise the people would become too knowing, and too independent. The co-operation of impostor and robber is necessary to the bamboozlement and exploitation of the masses. This co-operation, indeed, is the great secret of the permanence of religion; and its policy is twofold—education and the power of money.
The value of education may be inferred from the frantic efforts of the clergy to build and maintain schools of their own, and to force their doctrines into the schools built and maintained by the State. In this respect there is nothing to choose between Church and Dissent. The reading of the Bible in Board schools is a compromise between themselves, lest a worse thing should befall them both. If one section were strong enough to upset the compromise it would do so; in fact, the Church party is now attempting this stroke of policy on the London School Board, with the avowed object of giving a Church color to-the religious teaching of the children. The very same principle was at work in former days, when none but Churchmen were admitted to the universities or public positions. It was a splendid means of maintaining the form of religion which was bound up with the monarchy and the aristocracy. Learning and influence were, as far as possible, kept on the side of the established faith, which thus became the master of the masters of the people. This is perfectly obvious to the student of history, and Freethinkers should lay its lesson to heart. It is only by driving religion entirely out of education, from the humblest school to the proudest college, that we shall ever succeed in breaking the power of priestcraft and freeing the people from the bondage of superstition.
We could write a volume on this theme—the power of education in maintaining religion; but we must be satisfied with the foregoing at present, and turn our attention to the power of money. It is a wise adage that money is the sinews of war. Fighting is very largely, often wholly, a question of resources. Troops may be ever so brave, generals ever so skilful, but they will be beaten unless they have good rifles and artillery, plenty of ammunition, and an ample commissariat. Now the same thing obtains in all warfare. It would be foolish, no less than base, to deny the inspiring efficacy of ideas, the electric force of enthusiasm; but, however highly men may be energised, they cannot act without instruments; and money buys them, whether the instruments be rifles and artillery, or schools, or churches, or any kind of organisation.
Given churches with great wealth, as well as control over public education, and it is easy to see that they will be able to perpetuate themselves. Endowments are specially valuable. They are rooted, so to speak, in the past, and hold firm. They bear golden fruit to be plucked by the skilful and adventurous. Besides, the very age of an endowed institution gives it a venerable ora; and its freedom from the full necessity of "cadging" lends it a certain "respectability"—like that of a man who lives on his means, instead of earning his living.
It is not an extravagant calculation that, in England alone, twenty millions a year are spent on religion. The figures fall glibly from the tongue, but just try to realise them! Think first of a thousand, then of a thousand thousand, then of twenty times that. Take a single million, and think what its expenditure might do in the shaping of public opinion. A practical friend of ours, a good Radical and Freethinker, said that he would undertake to create a majority for Home Rule in England with a million of money; and if he spent it judiciously, we think he might succeed. Well then, just imagine, not one million, but twenty millions, spent every year in maintaining and propagating a certain religion. Is it not enough, and more than enough, to perpetuate a system which is firmly founded, to begin with, on the education of little children?
Here lies the strength of Christianity. It is not true, it is not useful. Its teachings and pretensions are both seen through by tens of thousands, but the wealth supports it. "Without money and without price," is the fraudulent language of the pious prospectus. It would never last on those terms. The money keeps it up. Withdraw the money, and the Black Army would disband, leaving the people free to work out their secular salvation, without the fear and trembling of a foolish faith.
"A heterogeneous mass of clotted bosh." —Thomas Carlyle.
The death of Tennyson has called forth a vast deal of nonsense. Much of it is even insincere. The pulpits have spouted cataracts of sentimentality. Some of them have emitted quantities of sheer drivel. A stranger would think we had lost our only poet, and well-nigh our only teacher; whereas, if the truth must be told, we have lost one who was occasionally a great poet, but for the most part a miraculous artist in words. No man in his senses—certainly no man with a spark of judgment—could call Tennyson a profound thinker. Mainly he gave exquisite expression to ideas that floated around him. Nor did he possess a high degree of the creative faculty, such as Shakespeare possessed in inexhaustible abundance. Surely it is possible to admire our dead poet's genius without telling lies over his grave.
Among the pulpit utterances on Tennyson we note the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes's as perhaps the very perfection of slobbery incapacity. He appears to be delivering a course of addresses on the poet. The first of these escaped our attention; the second is before us in the supplement to last week's Methodist Times. We have read it with great attention and without the slightest profit. Not a sentence or a phrase in it rises above commonplace. That a crowd of people should listen to such stuff on a Sunday afternoon, when they might be taking a walk or enjoying a snooze, is a striking evidence of the degeneration of the human mind, at least in the circles of Methodism.
Mr. Hughes praises Tennyson for "conscientiousness in the use and choice of words." He should have said "the choice and use of words," for choice must precede use to be of any service. Mr. Hughes says it is of great importance that we should all be as conscientious as Tennyson. He might as well say it is of great importance that we should all be as strong as Sandow.
Let us take a few examples of Mr. Hughes's "conscientiousness." He talks of "shining features" which "lie upon the very surface" of Tennyson's poems. Now features seldom shine, they do not lie, and they must be (not upon, but) at the surface. Six lines further the shining features change into "shining qualities," as though features and qualities were synonyms. Mr. Hughes speaks, in the style of a penny-a-liner, of Tennyson's "amazing and unparalleled popular influence." Will he tell us if anything could amaze us without being unparalleled? He remarks that Tennyson was "not merely and mainly a poet of the educated classes." He should have said "merely or mainly." He enjoins upon us to "define our terms" and "know the exact meanings of the terms we use"—which is absolute tautology. He says of flirtation—on which he seems an authority—that "I greatly fear, and am morally certain" it is as much perpetrated by men as by women. But if he fears he cannot be certain, and if he is certain he cannot fear. He calls duelling a form of "insanity and barbarism." But while it may be one or the other, it cannot be both at once. The disjunctive, therefore, not the copulative, is the proper conjunction. Mr. Hughes misspells the name of Spenser, translates mariage de convenance as a marriage of convenience, and inserts one of his own inventions in a line of Locksley Hall, which runs thus in the Hughes edition of Tennyson—
Puppet to a father's threat and servile to a mother's shrewish tongue.
"Mother's" spoils the line. It is not Tennyson's. Mr. Hughes may claim it—"an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own." It does equal credit to his "conscientiousness" and his ears.
Mr. Hughes's style as a critic does not rise to the level of an active contempt. Let us look at his matter and see if it shows any superiority.
"Yet although," Mr. Hughes says, with characteristic elegance—"yet although he wrote so much, Tennyson never wrote a single line that would bring a painful or anxious blush to the cheek of the most innocent or sensitive maiden." What a curious antithesis! Why should a man write impurely for writing much? And is this the supreme virtue of a great poet? It might be predicated of Martin Tupper. Milton, on the other hand, must have made many a maiden rosy by his description of Eve's naked loveliness—to say nothing of the scene after the Fall; while Shakespeare must have turned many a maiden cheek scarlet, though we do not believe he ever did the maiden any harm. Tennyson was not as free-spoken as some poets—greater poets than himself. But what does Mr. Hughes mean by his "Christ-like purity"? Is there a reference here to the twelfth verse of the nineteenth chapter of Matthew?
Purity, if properly understood, is undoubtedly a virtue. Mr. Hughes forgets, however, that his eulogy on Tennyson in this respect is a slur upon the Bible. There are things in the Old Testament—not to mention the New Testament—calculated to make "the most innocent or sensitive maiden" vomit; things that might abash a prostitute and make a satyr squeamish. We suggest, therefore, that Mr. Hughes should cease canting about "purity" while he helps to thrust the Bible into the hands of little children.
The reward of Tennyson's purity, according to Mr. Hughes, was that "he was able to understand women." "The English race," exclaims the eulogist, "has never contemplated a nobler or more inspiring womanhood than that which glows on every page of Tennyson." This is the hectic exaggeration in which Mr. Hughes habitually indulges. Tennyson never drew a live woman. Maud is a lay figure, and the heroine of "The Princess" is purely fantastic. George Meredith beats the late Laureate hollow in this respect. He is second only to Shakespeare, who here, as elsewhere, maintains his supremacy.
Mr. Hughes's remarks on Locksley Hall are, to use his own expression, amazing. "How terribly," he says, "does he [Tennyson] paint the swift degeneration of the faithless Amy." Mr. Hughes forgets—or does he forget?—that in the sequel to this poem, entitled Sixty Years After, Tennyson unsays all the high-pitched dispraise of Amy and her squire. Locksley Hall is a piece of splendid versification, but the hero is a prig, which is a shade worse than a Philistine. Young fellows mouth the poem rapturously; their elders smile at the disguises of egotism.
Loveless marriage was reprobated by Tennyson, and Mr. Hughes goes into ecstacies over the tremendous fact. Like the Psalmist, he is in haste; he cannot point to a poet who ever hinted the dethronement of love.
A choice Hughesean sentence occurs in this connexion. "I very much regret," the preacher says, "that Maud's lover was such a conventional idiot that he should have been guilty of the supreme folly of challenging her brother to a duel." Shade of Lindley Murrey, what a sentence! A boy who wrote thus would deserve whipping. And what right, we ask, has a Christian minister to rail at duelling? It was unknown to Greek or Roman society. Indeed, it is merely a form of the Ordeal, which was upheld by Christianity. The duel was originally a direct and solemn appeal to Providence. Only a sceptic has the right to call it a folly.
Enough of Mr. Hughes as a stylist, a critic, and teacher. What he really shines in is invention.
His story of the converted Atheist shoemaker displays a faculty which has no scope in a sermon on Tennyson.
LORD BACON ON ATHEISM.
The pedants will be down upon us for speaking of Lord Bacon. It is true there never was such a personage. Francis Bacon was Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England. But this is a case in which it is impossible to resist the popular usage. After all, we write to be understood. The pedants, the heralds, and all the rest of the tribe of technical fanatics, rejoice to mouth "Lord Verulam." But the ordinary man of letters, like the common run of readers, will continue to speak of Lord Bacon; for Bacon was his name, and the "Lord" was but a pretty feather in his hat. And when his lordship took that splendid pen of his, to jot down some of his profoundest thoughts for posterity, did he not say in his grand style, "I, Francis Bacon, thought on this wise"? You cannot get the "Bacon" out of it, and as the "Lord" will slip in, we must let it stand as Lord Bacon.
Lord Bacon was was a very great man. Who does not remember Pope's lines?—
If parts allure thee, think how Bacon shined, The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.
But his hardship was fond of wielding the satiric lash, and that spirit leads to exaggeration. Bacon was not the meanest of mankind, Pope himself did things that Bacon would never have stooped to. Nor was Bacon the wisest and brightest of mankind. A wiser and brighter spirit was contemporary with him in the person of "a poor player." The dullards who fancy that Lord Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare have no discrimination. His lordship's mind might have been cut out of the poet's without leaving an incurable wound. Some will dissent from this, but be it as it may, the styles of the two men are vastly different, like their ways of thinking. Bacon's essay on Love is cynical. The man of the world, the well-bred statesman, looked on Love as "the child of folly," a necessary nuisance, a tragi-comical perturbation. Shakespeare saw in Love the mainspring of life. Love speaks "in a perpetual hyperbole," said Bacon. Shakespeare also said that the lover "sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt," The poet knew all the philosopher knew, and more. What Bacon laughed or sneered at, Shakespeare recognised as the magic of the great enchanter, who touches our imaginations and kindles in us the power of the ideal. Exaggeration there must be in passion and imagination; it is the defect of their quality; but what are we without them? Dead driftwood on the tide; dismantled hulls rotting in harbor; anything that awaits destruction, to give its imprisoned forces a chance of asserting themselves in new forms of being.
Bacon was not a Shakespeare; still, he was a very great man. His writings are a text-book of worldly wisdom. His philosophical force is almost proverbial. Nor was he wanting in a certain "dry" poetry. No philosophical writer, not even Plato, equals him in the command of illuminative metaphors; and the fine dignity of his style is beyond all praise. The words drop from his pen with exquisite ease and felicity. He is never in a hurry, never ruffled. He writes like a Lord Chancellor, though with something in him above the office; and if he is now and then familiar, it is only a slight condescension, like the joke of a judge, which does not bring him down to the level of the litigants.
The opinions of such a man are worth studying; and as Lord Bacon is often quoted in condemnation of Atheism, we propose to see what he actually says about it, what his judgment on this particular theme is really worth, and what allowance, if any, should be made for the conditions in which he expressed himself. This last point, indeed, is one of considerable importance. Lord Bacon lived at a time when downright heresy, such as Raleigh and other great men of that age were accused of, could only be ventilated in private conversation. In writing it could only be hinted or suggested; and, in this respect, a writer's silence is to be taken into account; that is, we must judge by what he does not say, as well as by what he does say.
Some writers, like Letourneau, the French ethnologist, have gone to the length of arguing that Lord Bacon was a Materialist, and that his Theistic utterances were all perfunctory: as it were, the pinch of incense which the philosopher was obliged to burn on the altars of the gods. This much at least is certain—Lord Bacon rarely speaks of religion except as a philosopher or a statesman. He is apt to sneer at the "high speculations" of "theologues." There is no piety, no unction, in his allusions to theology. He looks upon religion as a social bond, an agency of good government. It is impossible to say that he took a Christian view of things when he wrote, "I have often thought upon Death, and I find it the least of all evils"; or when he wrote, "Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other."
Lord Bacon has an essay on Atheism, which is significantly followed by another on Superstition. The latter is seldom referred to by religious apologists, but we shall deal with it first.
"In all superstition," he says, "wise men follow fools." This is a bold, significant utterance. Fools are always in the majority, wise men are few, and they are obliged to bow to the power of the multitude. Kings respect, and priests organise, the popular folly; and the wise men have to sit aloft and nod to each other across the centuries. There is a freemasonry amongst them, and they have their shibboleths and dark sayings, to protect them against priests and mobs.
Perhaps the story of Balaam is a subtle anticipation of Lord Bacon's dictum. It was the ass that first saw the angel. Baalam only saw it afterwards, when his wits were disordered by the wonder of a talking donkey. Thus the prophet followed the ass, as wise men follow fools.
Superstition is worse than Atheism, in Lord Bacon's judgment; the one is unbelief, he says, but the other is contumely; and "it were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him." He approves the saying of Plutarch, that he "had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man as Plutarch, than that they should say there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born"—which, on the part of Lord Bacon, looks like a thrust at the doctrine of original sin and infant damnation.
With his keen eye for "the good of man's estate," Lord Bacon remarks of superstition, that "as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men."
"Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men; therefore Atheism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no farther, and we see the times inclined to Atheism (as the time of Augustus Caesar) were civil times; but superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile that ravisheth all the spheres of government."
By "civil times" Lord Bacon means settled, quiet, orderly, progressive times—times of civilisation. And it is rather singular that he should pick out the age immediately preceding the advent of Christianity. Whatever fault is in Atheism, it is no danger to human society. This is Lord Bacon's judgment, and we commend it to the attention of the fanatics of faith, who point to Atheism as a horrid monster, fraught with cruelty, bloodshed, and social disruption.
Coming now to Lord Bacon's essay on Atheism itself, we find him opening it with a very pointed utterance of Theism. "I had rather," he says, "believe all the fables in the legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind." The expression is admirable, but the philosophy is doubtful. When a man says he would rather believe one thing than another, he is merely exhibiting a personal preference. Real belief is not a matter of taste; it is determined by evidence—if not absolutely, at least as far as our power of judgment carries us.
"A little philosophy," his lordship says, "inclineth man's mind to Atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." The reason he assigns is, that when we no longer rest in second causes, but behold "the chain of them confederate, and linked together," we must needs "fly to providence and Deity." The necessity, however, is far from obvious. All the laws, as we call them, of all the sciences together, do not contain any new principle in their addition. Universal order is as consistent with Materialism as with Theism. It is easy to say that "God never wrought miracles to convince Atheism, because his ordinary works convince it"; but, as a matter of fact, it is the God of Miracles in whom the multitude have always believed. A special providence, rather than a study of the universe, has been the secret of their devotion to "the unseen."
Lord Bacon drops below the proper level of his genius in affirming that "none deny there is a God, but those for whom it maketh that there were no God." This is but a milder expression of the incivility of the Psalmist. It is finely rebuked by the atheist Monk in the play of "Sir William Crichton," the work of a man of great though little recognised genius—William Smith.
For ye who deem that one who lacks of faith Is therefore conscience-free, ye little know How doubt and sad denial may enthral him To the most timid sanctity of life.
Lord Bacon, indeed, rather doubts the existence of the positive Atheist.
"It appeareth in nothing more, that Atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man, than by this, that Atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened by the opinion of others: nay more, you shall have Atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects; and, which is most of all, you shall have of them that will suffer for Atheism, and not recant; whereas, if they truly think that there is no such thing as God, Why should they trouble themselves?"
Although Lord Bacon was not the "meanest of mankind," there was certainly a lack of the heroic in his disposition; and this passage emanated from the most prosaic part of his mind and character. "Great thoughts," said Vauvenargues, "spring from the heart." Now the heart of Lord Bacon was not as high as his intellect; no one could for a moment imagine his facing martyrdom. He had none of the splendid audacity, the undaunted courage, the unshakable fortitude, of his loftier contemporary, Giordano Bruno. So much truth is there in Pope's epigram, that his lordship was capable at times of grovelling; witness his fulsome, though magnificent, dedication of the Advancement of Learning to King James—the British Solomon, as his flatterers called him, to the amusement of the great Henry of France, who sneered, "Yes, Solomon the son of David," in allusion to his mother's familiarity with David Rizzio. And in this very passage of the essay on Atheism we also see the grovelling side of Lord Bacon, with a corresponding perversion of intelligence. Being incapable of understanding martyrdom, except under the expectation of a reward in heaven, his lordship cannot appreciate the act of an Atheist in suffering for his convictions. His concluding words are positively mean. Surely the Atheist might trouble himself about truth, justice, and dignity; all of which are involved in the maintenance and propagation of his principles. But, if the closing observation is mean, the opening observation is fatuous. This is a strong word to use of any sentence of Lord Bacon's, but in this instance it is justifiable. If an Atheist mistrusts his own opinion, because he talks about it, what is to be said of the Christians, who pay thousands of ministers to talk about their opinions, and even subscribe for Missionary Societies to talk about them to the "heathen"? Are we to conclude that an Atheist's talking shows mistrust, and a Christian's talking shows confidence? What real weakness is there in the Atheist's seeking for sympathy and concurrence? It is hard for any man to stand alone; certainly it was not in Lord Bacon's line to do so; and why should not the Atheist be "glad to be strengthened by the opinion of others"! Novalis said that his opinion gained infinitely when it was shared by another. The participation does not prove the truth of the opinion, but redeems it from the suspicion of being a mere maggot of an individual brain.
Lord Bacon then turns to the barbaric races, who worship particular gods, though they have not the general name; a fact which he did not understand. More than two hundred years later it was explained by David Hume. It is simply a proof that monotheism grows out of polytheism; or, if you like, that Theism is a development of Idolatry. This is a truth that takes all the sting out of Lord Bacon's observation that "against Atheists the very savages take part with the very subtilest philosophers." We may just remark that the philosophers must be very hard pressed when they call up their savage allies.
Contemplative Atheists are rare, says Lord Bacon—"a Diagoras, a Bion, a Lucian perhaps, and some others." They seem more than they are, for all sorts of heretics are branded as Atheists; which leads his lordship to the declaration that "the great Atheists indeed are hypocrites, which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterised in the end." This is a pungent observation, and it springs from the better side of his lordship's nature. We also have no respect for hypocrites, and for that very reason we object to them as a present to Atheism. Religion must consume in its own smoke, and dispose of its own refuse.
The causes of Atheism next occupy Lord Bacon's attention. He finds they are four; divisions in religion, the scandal of priests, profane scoffing in holy matters, and "learned times, especially with peace and prosperity." "Troubles and adversities," his lordship says, "do more bow men's minds to religion." Which is true enough, though it only illustrates the line of the Roman poet that religion always has its root in fear.
It will be observed that, up to the present, Lord Bacon has not considered one of the reasons for Atheism. What he calls "causes" are only occasions. He does not discuss, or even refer to, the objections to Theism that are derived from the tentative operations of nature, so different from what might be expected from a settled plan; from ugly, venomous and monstrous things; from the great imperfection of nature's very highest productions; from the ignorance, misery, and degradation of such a vast part of mankind; from the utter absence of anything like a moral government of the universe. Only towards the end of his essay does Lord Bacon begin business with the Atheists. "They that deny a God," he says, "destroy a man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature." This is pointed and vigorous, but after all it is a matter of sentiment. Some prefer the fallen angel, others the risen ape.
Lord Bacon, like Earl Beaconsfield, is on the side of the angels. We are on the other side. A being who has done something, and will do more, however humble his origin, is preferable to one who can only boast of his fine descent.
Finally, his lordship takes the illustration of the dog, to whom man is "instead of a God." What generosity and courage he will put on, in the "confidence of a better nature than his own." So man gathereth force and faith from divine protection and favor. Atheism therefore "depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty." But this is to forget that there may be more than one means to the same end. Human nature may be exalted above its frailty without becoming the dog of a superior intelligence. Science, self-examination, culture, public opinion, and the growth of humanity, are more than substitutes for devotion to a deity. They are capable of exalting man continuously and indefinitely. They do not appeal to the spaniel element in his nature; they make him free, erect, noble, and self-dependent.
On the whole we are bound to say that Lord Bacon's essay on Atheism is unworthy of his genius. If it were the only piece of his writing extant, we should say it was the work of one who had great powers of expression but no remarkable powers of thought. He writes very finely as a strong advocate, putting a case in a way that commands attention, and perhaps admiration for its force and skill. But something more than this is to be expected when a really great man addresses himself to a question of such depth and importance. What then are we to conclude? Why this, that Lord Bacon dared not give the rein to his mind in an essay on Atheism. He was bound to be circumspect in a composition level to the intelligence of every educated reader. We prefer to take him where he enjoys greater freedom. Under the veil of a story, for instance, he aims a dart at the superstition of a special providence, which is an ineradicable part of the Christian faith.
Bion, the Atheist, being shown the votive tablets in the temple of Neptune, presented by those who prayed to the god in a storm and were saved, asked where were the tablets of those who were drowned. Bacon tells the story with evident gusto, and it is in such things that we seem to get at his real thoughts. In a set essay on Atheism, a man of his worldly wisdom, and un-heroic temper, was sure to kneel at the regular altars. The single query "Why should they trouble themselves?" explains it all.
CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY. *
* Christianity and Slavery. No. 18 of Oxford House Papers. By H. Henley Henson, B.A., Head of the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. London: Rivingtons.
Some time ago I delivered a lecture in the London Hall of Science on "Christianity and Slavery." Among my critics there was one gentleman, and the circumstance was so noteworthy that my friend the chairman expressed a wish, which I cordially echoed, that we might have the pleasure of hearing him again. A few days ago a pamphlet reached me on the subject of that lecture, written by my friendly opponent, who turns out to be the head of the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. Mr. Henson sends me the pamphlet himself "with his compliments," and I have read it carefully. Indeed, I have marked it in dozens of places where his statements strike me as inaccurate and his arguments as fallacious; and, on the whole, I think it best to give him a set answer in this journal. Mr. Henson's paper is not, in my opinion, a very forcible one on the intellectual side. But perhaps that is, in a certain sense, one of its merits; for the Christian case in this dispute is so bad that sentiment does it more service than logic. I must, however, allow that Mr. Henson is a courteous disputant, and I hope I shall reciprocate his good feeling. When he opposed me at the Hall of Science, he admits that I treated him "with a courtesy which relieves controversy of its worst aspects." I trust he will be equally satisfied with my rejoinder. Whenever I may have occasion to express myself strongly, I shall simply be in earnest about the theme, without the least intention of being discourteous. I mean no offence, and I hope I shall give none.
Mr. Henson says he is dealing in a brief compass with a big subject, but "the outlines are clear, and may be perceived very readily by any honest man of moderate intelligence." Well, whether it is that I am not an honest man, or that I possess immoderate intelligence, I certainly do not see the outlines of the subject as Mr. Henson sees them. The relation of Christianity to slavery is an historical question, and Mr. Henson treats it as though it were one of dialectics. However, I suppose I had better follow him, and show that he is wrong even on his own ground.
Mr. Henson undertakes to prove three things. (1) That slavery is flatly opposed to the teaching of the New Testament. (2) That the abolition of slavery in Europe was mainly owing to Christianity. (3) That at this present time Christianity is steadily working against slavery all over the world.
Before I discuss the first proposition I must ask why the Old Testament is left out of account. Mr. Henson relegates it to a footnote, and there he declares "once for all, that the Mosaic Law has nothing to do with the question." But Mr. Henson's "once for all" has not the force of a Papal decree. It is simply a bit of rhetorical emphasis, like a flourish to a signature. Does he mean to say that the author of the Mosaic Law was not the same God who speaks to us in the New Testament? If it was the same God, "the same, yesterday, to-day, and for ever," the Mosaic Law has very much to do with the question; unless—and this is a vital point—Jesus distinctly abrogates it in any respect. He did distinctly abrogate the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but he left the laws of slavery exactly as he found them, and in this he was followed by Peter and Paul, and by all the Fathers of the Church.
Mr. Henson tells us that "the Jews were a barbarous race, and slavery was necessary to that stage of development," and that "the Law of Moses moderated the worst features of slavery." The second statement cannot be discussed, for we do not know what was the condition of slavery among the Jews before the so-called Mosaic Law (centuries after Moses) came into vogue. The first statement, however, is perfectly true; the Jews were barbarous, and slavery among them was inevitable. But that is speaking humanly. What is the use of God's interference if he does not make people wiser and better? Why did he lay down slavery laws without hinting that they were provisional? Why did he so express himself as to enable Christian divines and whole Churches to justify slavery from the Bible long after it had died out of the internal polity of civilised states? Surely God might have given less time to Aaron's vestments and the paraphernalia of his own Tabernacle, and devoted some of his infinite leisure to teaching the Jews that property in human flesh and blood is immoral. Instead of that he actually told them, not only how to buy foreigners (Leviticus xxv. 45, 46), but how to enslave their own brethren (Exodus xxi. 2-11).
When Jesus Christ came from heaven to give mankind a new revelation he had a fine opportunity to correct the brutalities of the Mosaic Law. Yet Mr. Henson allows that he "did not actually forbid Slavery in express terms," and that he "never said in so many words, Slavery is wrong." But why not? It will not do to say the time was not ripe, for Mr. Henson admits that in Rome "the fashionable philosophies, especially that of the Stoics, branded Slavery as an outrage against the natural Equality of Men." Surely Jesus Christ might have kept abreast of the Stoics. Surely, too, as he did not mean to say anything more for at least two thousand years, he might have gone in advance of the best teaching of the age, so as to provide for the progress of future generations.
But, says Mr. Henson, Jesus Christ "laid down broad principles which took from Slavery its bad features, and tended, by an unerring law to its abolition." Well, the tendency was a remarkably slow one. Men still living can remember when Slavery was abolished in the British dominions. I can remember when it was abolished in the United States. Eighteen centuries of Christian tendency were necessary to kill Slavery! Surely the natural growth of civilisation might have done as much in that time, though Jesus Christ had never lived and taught. How civilisation did mitigate the horrors of Slavery, and was gradually but surely working towards its abolition, may be seen in Gibbon's second chapter. This was under the great Pagan emperors, some of whom knew Christianity and despised it.
"Slavery is cruel," says Mr. Henson, while "Christianity teaches men to be kind and to love one another." But teaching men to love one another, even if Christianity taught nothing else—which is far from the truth—is a very questionable expenditure of time and energy; for how is love to be taught? Besides, a master and a slave might be attached to each other—as was often the case—without either seeing that Slavery was a violation of the law of love. What was needed was the sentiment of Justice. That has broken the chains of the slave. The Stoics were on the right track after all, while Christianity lost itself in idle sentimentalism.
"Slavery denies the Equality of Men," says Mr. Henson, while "Christianity asserts it strongly." I regret I cannot agree with him. Certain amiable texts which he cites might easily be confronted with others of a very different character. What did Christ mean by promising that when he came into his kingdom his disciples should sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel? How is this consistent with his saying, "call no man master"? What did Paul mean by ordering unlimited obedience to "the powers that be"? What did he and Peter mean by telling slaves to obey their owners? Is all this consistent with the doctrine of human equality? Mr. Henson simply reads into certain New Testament utterances what was never in the speakers' minds. His abstract argument is indeed perilous in regard to such composite writings as the Gospels and the Epistles. Let it be assumed, for argument's sake, that Christianity does somewhere assert the Equality of Men. Then it condemns Royalty as well as Slavery; yet Peter says, "Fear God and honor the King." I leave Mr. Henson to extricate himself from this dilemma.
I repeat that all this dialectic is a kind of subterfuge; at least it is an evasion. The great fact remains that Jesus Christ never breathed a whisper against slavery when he had the opportunity. Yet he could denounce what he disapproved in the most vigorous fashion. His objurgation of the Scribes and Pharisees is almost without a parallel. Surely he might have reserved a little of his boisterous abuse for an institution which was infinitely more harmful than the whole crowd of his rivals. Those who opposed him were overwhelmed with vituperation, but not once did he censure those who held millions in cruel bondage, turning men into mere beasts of burden, and women, if they happened to be beautiful, into the most wretched victims of lust.
Let us now turn to Paul, the great apostle whose teaching has had more influence on the faith and practice of Christendom than that of Jesus himself. Mr. Henson says that "the Apostle does not say one word for or against slavery as such." Again I regret to differ. Paul never said a word against slavery, but he said many words that sanctioned it by implication. He tells slaves (servants in the Authorised Version) to count their owners worthy of all honor (1 Tim. vi. 1); to be obedient unto them, with fear and trembling, as unto Christ (Ephesians vi. 5); and to please them in all things (Titus ii. 9). I need not discuss whether servants means slaves and masters owners, for Mr. Henson admits that such is their meaning. Here then Paul is, if Jesus was not, brought face to face with slavery, and he does not even suggest that the institution is wrong. He tells slaves to obey their owners as they obey Christ; and, on the other hand, he bids owners to "forbear threatening" their slaves. But so much might have been said by Cicero and Pliny; the former of whom, as Lecky says, wrote many letters to his slave Tiro "in terms of sincere and delicate friendship"; while the latter "poured out his deep sorrow for the death of some of his slaves, and endeavored to console himself with the thought that as he had emancipated them before their death, they had at least died free men."
Paul does indeed say that both bond and free are "all one in Christ." But Louis the Fourteenth would have admitted that kinship between himself and the meanest serf in France, "One in Christ" is a spiritual idea, and has relation to a future life, in which earthly distinctions would naturally cease.
Mr. Henson is obliged to face the story of Onesimus, the runaway slave, whom Paul deliberately sent back to his master, Philemon. "The Apostle's position," he says, "is practically this"; whereupon he puts into Paul's mouth words of his own invention. I do not deny his right to use this literary artifice, but I decline to let it impose on my own understanding. There is a certain pathetic tenderness in Paul's letter to Philemon if we suppose that he took the institution of Slavery for granted, but it vanishes if we suppose that he felt the institution to be wrong. Professor Newman justly remarks that "Onesimus, in the very act of taking to flight, showed that he had been submitting to servitude against his will, and that the house of his owner had previously been a prison to him." Nor do I see any escape from the same writer's conclusion that, although Paul besought Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, "this very recommendation, full of affection as it is, virtually recognises the moral rights of Philemon to the services of his slave." Mr. Benson apparently feels this himself. "Christian tradition," he says, "declares that Philemon at once set Onesimus free." But "tradition" can hardly be cited as a fact. Mr. Henson says "it is more than probable," or, in other words, certain; yet he cannot expect me to follow him in his illogical leap. Nor, indeed, is the "traditional" liberation of Onesimus of much importance to the argument. Not Philemon's but Paul's views are in dispute; and if Philemon did liberate Onesimus—which is a pure assumption—Paul certainly did not advise him to do anything of the kind.
Paul's epistle to Philemon does not, from its very-nature, seem intended for publication. Why then, in the ease of private correspondence, did he not hint that Slavery was only tolerated for the time and would eventually cease? Instead of that he sent back Onesimus to a servitude from which he had fled. How unlike Theodore Parker writing his discourse, with a runaway slave in the back room, and a revolver on his desk! How unlike Walt Whitman watching the slumber of another fugitive, with one hand on his trusty rifle!
Mr. Henson lives after the abolition of Slavery, and as he clings to his Bible as God's Word he reads into it the morality of a later age. Let him consult the writings of Christian divines on the subject, and he will see that they have almost invariably justified Slavery from scripture. Ignatius (who is said to have seen Jesus), St. Cyprian, Pope Gregory the Great, St. Basil, Tertullian, St. Isidore, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Bossuet, all taught that Slavery is a divine institution. During all the centuries from Ignatius to Bossuet, what eminent Christian ever denounced Slavery as wicked? Even the Christian jurisprudists of the eighteenth century defended negro slavery, which it was reserved for the sceptical Montesquieu and the arch-heretic Voltaire to condemn. Montesquieu's ironical chapter on the subject is worthy of Molliere, and Voltaire's is an honor to humanity. He called Slavery "the degrada of the species"; and, in answer to Puffendorff, who claimed that slavery had been established by the free consent of the opposing parties, he exclaimed, "I will believe Puffendorff, when he shows me the original contract."
Negro slavery was defended in America by direct appeal to the Bible. Mr. Henson seeks to lessen the force of this damning fact by referring to these defenders of slavery as "certain clergymen and other Christians," and as "ignorant and unworthy members of the Church." Certain clergymen! Why, the clergy defended slavery almost to a man, and in the Northern States they were even more bigoted than in the South. Mrs. Beecher Stowe said that the Church was so familiarly quoted as being on the side of Slavery, that "Statesmen on both sides of the question have laid that down as a settled fact." Theodore Parker said that if the whole American Church had "dropped through the continent and disappeared altogether, the anti-Slavery cause would have been further on." He pointed out that no Church ever issued a single tract, among all its thousands, against property in human flesh and blood; and that 80,000 slaves were owned by Presbyterians, 225,000 by Baptists, and 250,000 by Methodists. Wilberforce himself declared that the American Episcopal Church "raises no voice against the predominant evil; she palliates it in theory, and in practice she shares in it. The mildest and most conscientious of the bishops of the South are slaveholders themselves." The Harmony Presbytery of South Carolina deliberately resolved that Slavery was justified by Holy Writ. The Methodist Episcopal Church decided in 1840 against allowing any "colored persons" to give testimony against "white persons." The College Church of the Union Theological Seminary, Prince Edward County, was endowed with slaves, who were hired out to the highest bidder for the pastor's salary. Lastly, Professor Moses Stuart, of Andover, who is accounted the greatest American theologian since Jonathan Edwards, declared that "The precepts of the New Testament respecting the demeanor of slaves and their masters beyond all question recognise the existence of Slavery." So much for Mr. Henson's "certain clergymen."
Mr. Henson also argues that the Northern States were "the most distinctly Christian," and that they were opposed to Slavery. History belies this statement Harriet Martineau, when she visited America and stood on the anti-slavery platform, says she was in danger of her life in the North while scarcely molested in the South. When William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first anti-slavery lecture in Boston, the classic home of American orthodoxy, every Catholic and Protestant church was closed against him, and he was obliged to accept the use of Julian Hall from Abner Kneeland, an infidel who had been prosecuted for blasphemy. It was not "the true spirit of Christianity" which abolished Slavery in the United States, but "the true spirit of Humanity," which inspired some Christians and more Freethinkers to vindicate the natural rights of men of all colors. Even in the end, Slavery was not terminated by the vote of the Churches; it was abolished by Lincoln as a strategic act in the midst of a civil war, precisely as was predicted by Thomas Paine, who not only hated Slavery while his Christian defamers lived by it, but was more sagacious in his political forecast than all the orthodox statesmen of his age.
"A movement headed by Clarkson and Wilberforce," says Mr. Henson, "could be no other than Christian," But why? Were not the slave-owners also Christians? Was not the strength of Freethinkers, from Jeremy Bentham downwards, given to the abolition movement? Were not the Freethinkers all on one side, while the Christians were divided? And why did the abolition movement in England wait until new ideas had leavened the public mind? Had it been purely Christian, would it not have triumphed long before? The fact is there was plenty of Christianity during the preceding thousand years, but the sceptical and humanitarian work of the eighteenth century was necessary before there could be any general revolt against injustice and oppression. No perversion of history can alter the fact that, in the words of Professor Newman, "the first public act against Slavery came from republican France, in the madness of atheistic enthusiasm." Mr. Henson sees this clearly himself, and therefore he pretends that all the best ideas of the French Revolution were borrowed from Christianity. Shades of Voltaire and Diderot, of Mirabeau and Danton, listen to this apologist of the faith you despised! Voltaire's face is wreathed with ineffable irony, Diderot contemplates the speaker as a new species for a psychological monograph, Mirabeau flings back his leonine head with a swirl of the black mane and a glare of the great eyes, and Danton roars a titanic laugh that shakes the very roof of Hades.
Now let us turn to the old indigenous Slavery of Europe. Mr. Henson appeals to "the witness of history," and he shall have it. He undertakes to prove "That among the various causes which tended to assuage the hardship and threaten the permanence of Slavery, the most powerful, the most active, and most successful was Christianity"; also "That when the barbarian conquests re-established slavery in a new form, the Church exerted all her energies on the side of freedom."
That Christianity "threatened" the permanence of Slavery is, of course, purely a matter of opinion. Mr. Henson takes one view, I have given reasons for another, and the reader must judge between us. That it softened the rigors of Slavery is a very questionable statement. When Mr. Henson says that "Roman Slavery was, perhaps, the most cruel and revolting kind of Slavery," he is guilty of historical confusion. Roman Slavery lasted for very many centuries. In the early ages it was brutal enough, but under the great emperors, and especially the Antonines, it was far more merciful than negro Slavery was in Christian America. Slaves were protected by law; the power of putting them to death was taken from the masters and entrusted to the magistrates; and, as Gibbon says, "Upon a just complaint of intolerable treatment, the injured slave either obtained his deliverance or a less cruel master." Compare this with the condition of serfs under the Christian feudal system, when, in Mr. Henson's own language, "the serf was tied to the soil, bought and sold with it, the chattel of his master, who could overwork, beat, and even kill him at will."
The phrase "re-established Slavery in a new form," seems to imply that Christianity had abolished Slavery before the barbaric conquests. But it had done nothing of the kind. Nay, as a matter of fact, Constantine and his successors drew a sharper line than ever between slaves and freemen. Constantine (the first Christian emperor) actually decreed death against any freewoman who should marry a slave, while the slave himself was to be burnt alive!
Much of what Mr. Henson says about the manumission of slaves by some of the mediaeval clergy is unquestionably true. But who doubts that, during a thousand years, a humane and even a noble heart often beat under a priest's cassock? These manumissions, however, were of Christian slaves. The Pagan slaves—such as the Sclavonians, from whom the word slave is derived—were considered to have no claims at all. Surely the liberation of fellow Christians might spring from proselyte zeal. "Mohammedans also," as Professor Newman says, "have a conscience against enslaving Mohammedans, and generally bestow freedom on a slave as soon as he adopts their religion." Manumission of slaves was common among humane owners under the Roman Empire; indeed Gibbon observes that the law had to guard against the swamping of free citizens by the sudden inrush of "a mean and promiscuous multitude." Clerical manumission of slaves in mediaeval times was therefore no novelty. On the other hand, bishops held slaves like kings and nobles. The Abbey of St. Germain de Pres, for instance, owned 80,000 slaves, and the Abbey of St. Martin de Tours 20,000. The monks, who according to Mr. Henson, did so much to extinguish slavery, owned multitudes of these servile creatures.
The acts of a few humane and noble spirits are no test of the effects of a system. The decisions of Church Councils are a much better criterion. They show the influence of principles, when personal equation is eliminated. Turning to these Councils, then, what do we find? Why that from the Council of Laodicea to the Lateran Council (1215)—that is, for eight hundred years—the Church sanctioned Slavery again and again. Slaves and their owners might be "one in Christ," but the Church taught them to keep their distance on earth.
Civilisation, not Christianity, gradually extinguished Slavery in Europe. Foreign slavery, such as that in our West Indian possessions, is an artificial thing, and may be abolished by the stroke of a pen. But domestic slavery has to die a natural death. The progress of education and refinement, and the growth of the sentiment of justice, help to extinguish it; but behind these there is an economical law which is no less potent. Slave labor is only consistent with a low industrial life; and thus, as civilisation expands, slavery fades into serfdom, and serfdom into wage-service, as naturally as the darkness of night melts into the morning twilight, and the twilight into day.
Mr. Henson throws in some not ineloquent remarks about the abolition by Christianity of the gladiatorial shows at Rome. He himself has stood within the ruined Colosseum and re-echoed Byron's heroics. Mr. Henson even outdid Byron, for he looked up to the dome of St. Peter's, where gleamed the Cross of Christ, and rejoiced that "He had triumphed at last." "If only Mr. Foote had been there!" Mr. Henson exclaims. Well, Gibbon was there before Mr. Henson and before Byron. What he thought in the Colosseum I know not, but I know that the great project of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took shape in his mind one eventful evening as he "sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter." Yet I suppose Gibbon's fifteenth chapter is scarcely to Mr. Henson's taste. Had I "been there" with Mr. Henson, I too might have had my reflections, and I might have thrown this Freethought douche on his Christian ardor. "Yes, the Cross has triumphed. There it gleams over the dome of St. Peter's, the mightiest church in the world. Below it, until the recent subversion of the Pope's temporal power, walked the most ignorant, beggarly and criminal population in Europe. What are these to the men who built up the glory of ancient Rome? What is their city to the magnificent city of old, among whose ruins they walk like pigmies amid the relics of giants? This time-eaten, weather-beaten Colosseum saw many a gladiator 'butchered to make a Roman holiday.' But has not Christian Rome witnessed many a viler spectacle? Has it not seen hundreds of noble men burnt alive in the name of Christ? When Rome was Pagan, thought was free. Gladiatorial shows satisfied the bestial craving in vulgar breasts, but the philosophers and poets were unfettered, and the intellect of the few was gradually achieving the redemption of the many. When Rome was Christian, she introduced a new slavery. Thought was scourged and chained, while the cruel instincts of the multitude were gratified with exhibitions of suffering, compared with which the bloodiest arena was tame and insipid. Your Christian Rome, in the superb metaphor of Hobbes, was but the ghost of Pagan Rome, sitting throned and crowned on the grave thereof; nay, a ghoul, feeding not on the dead limbs of men, but on their living hearts and brains. Look at your Cross! Before Christ appeared it was the symbol of life; since it has been the symbol of misery and humiliation; and in the name of your Crucified One the people have been crucified between the spiritual and temporal thieves. But happily your Cross has had its day. St. Peter's may yet crumble before the Colosseum, and the statue of a Bruno may outlast the walls of the Vatican."
CHRIST UP TO DATE.
This is an age of weak conviction and strong pretence. Christianity is perishing of intellectual atrophy. Its scriptures and its dogmas are falling into more and more discredit. Mr. Gladstone may defend the Bible with passionate devotion and lofty ignorance, but better informed Christians see that the Old Testament is doomed. They say it must be read in a new light. Its science and history must be regarded as merely human; nay, its very morality savors of the barbarism of the Jews. Only its best ethical teaching, and its upward aspirations, are to be regarded as the workings or God in the Jewish mind. Nor is this all. There is a revolt against the supernaturalism of the New Testament. Christians like Dr. Abbott explain away the Resurrection as no physical fact, but a spiritual conception. The creed of Christendom is gradually melting away like a northern iceberg floating into southern seas. Pinnacle after pinnacle of glittering dogma, loosens, falls, and sinks for ever. Only the central block remains intact, and we are assured it will never change. The storms of controversy will never rend it; the rays of the sun of science will never make an impression on its marble firmness. But Freethinkers smile at this cheap boast. They know the thaw will continue until the last fragment has melted into the infinite ocean.
The central, indissoluble part of Christianity is Jesus Christ. He will never fade, we are told. He is not for an age, but for all time. When all the dogmas of the Churches have perished, the divine figure of Christ will survive, and flourish in immortal beauty. All the world will yet worship him. "Christ" will be the universal passport in the depths of China, in the wilds of Africa, on the Tartar steppes, and among the haunted ruins of old Asia, as well as in the present Christendom of Europe and America.
This prophecy is very pretty, but it lacks precision. The prophets forget to tell us whether the divine figure of Christ is to be human or supernatural; the grandest of men or the smallest of gods. If he be indeed a god, they are playing strange tricks with his works and sayings; while, if he be indeed a mere man, they forget to explain how it is likely that the human race will ever look back to a single dead Jew as the moral microcosm, the consummate spiritual flower of humanity, the beacon of ideal life to every generation of voyagers on the sea of time.
Logic, however, must not be expected of Christians, at least in an age of dissolving views like the present. They will go on quoting Kenan's prize-essay panegyric on Christ, without any reference to the rest of his Vie de Jesus. They will persist in quoting Mill's farfetched eulogy, without referring to other passages in the essay On Liberty. But this is not all, nor even the worst. The sentimentalism of "popular" and "advanced" Christianity is turning Jesus Christ into a hero of romance. He is taking the place of King Arthur, of blameless memory; and we shall soon see the Apostles take the place of the Knights of the Round Table. Rancid orators and flatulent poets are gathering to the festival Jesus Christ will make a fine speech for the one set, and fine copy for the other. The professional biographers will cut in for a share in the spoil, and the brains of impudence will be ransacked to eke out the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Lives of Christ are becoming quite fashionable. Fleetwood's honest but prosaic book had fallen into-neglect. The very maulers of old bookstalls thrust out their tongues at at. The still older book of Jeremy Taylor—a work of real genius and golden eloquence—was too stiff reading for an idle generation. Just in the nick of time the English translation of Kenan appeared. The first edition was less scientific than the thirteenth. Kenan had only just broken away from the Catholic Church; he was also under the influence of his visit to Palestine; his Vie de Jesus was therefore a sentimental Parisian romance; the smell of patchouli was on every page. Yet here and there the quick reader caught the laugh of Voltaire.
Kenan's book set a new vogue. The severe, critical Strauss was laid aside in England, and "the Savior's" life was "cultivated on new principles." By and bye the writers and publishers found there was "money in it." Jesus Christ could be made to pay. Dr. Farrar made thousands out of his trashy volumes, and his publishers netted a fortune. Mr. Haweis has done the same trick with four volumes. Ward Beecher spent his last days on a Life of Christ. Talmage is occupied on the same labor of love—and profit. Even the Catholic Church is not behindhand. Pere Didon has put forth his Life of Christ in two fat volumes as an antidote to the poison of Kenan. And the end is not yet. Nevertheless we see the beginning of the end. It was bound to come. After the prose writers prance the versifiers, and Sir Edward Arnold is first in the motley procession.
Sir Edward Arnold's Light of Asia was a fairly good piece of work. He had caught the trick of Tennysonian blank-verse, and he put some of the best features of Buddhism before the English public in a manner that commanded attention. Standing aloof from Buddhism himself, though sympathising with it, he was able to keep an impartial attitude. Further, he stuck to the Buddhist stories as he found them. All the license he took was that of selection and versification. But his recent Light of the World is another matter. He dishes up Jesus Christ in it, and Pontius Pilate and Mary Magdalene and the Wise Men of the East, as freely as Tennyson dishes up Arthur and Launcelot and Guinevere and the rest of that famous company. His style, too, is Tennysonian, to a certain degree. It is something like the Master's on its general level, but we miss the flashing felicities, the exquisite sentence or image that makes us breathless with sudden pleasure. Sir Edward's style has always a smack of the Daily Telegraph. He is high-flown in expressing even small ideas, or in describing trivialities.
Like a true Christian and courtier, Sir Edwin Arnold dedicates his book to "the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty." Those who fear God must also honor the king; and did not Jesus himself tell us to render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar's, as well as unto God the things that be God's? We presume Sir Edwin's dedication is "with permission." We also presume it will help the sale and promote his chance of the poet-laureateship.
After the dedication comes the "Proeme" of eight couplets, occupying a separate page, faced and backed with virgin paper.
The sovereign voice spake, once more, in mine ear: "Write, now, a song unstained by any tear!"
"What shall I write?" I said: the voice replied: "Write what we tell thee of the crucified!"
"How shall I write," I said, "who am not meet One word of that sweet speaking to repeat?"
"It shall be given unto thee! Do this thing!" Answered the voice: "Wash thy lips clean, and sing!"
This "proeme" is, to say the least of it, peculiar. The "sovereign voice" can hardly be the Queen's. It must be God Almighty's. Sir Edwin Arnold is therefore inspired. He writes as it is "given unto" him. And before he begins, by divine direction, he washes his lips clean; though he omits to tell us how he did it, whether with a flannel or a pocket-handkerchief.
It is well to know that Sir Edwin is inspired. Carnal criticism is thus disarmed and questions become blasphemous. But if Sir Edwin had not been inspired we should have offered certain remarks and put certain queries. For instance, how does he know that the star of the Nativity was "a strange white star"? May it not have been red, yellow, blue, or green—especially green? How did he discover that the Magi, or priests of the Zoroastrian religion, were really Buddhists and came from India? Had Sir Edwin less communication with the "sovereign voice," we should have imagined that the Magi were transformed into Buddhists for the sake of convenience; Sir Edwin knowing comparatively little of the Persic faith, but a good deal of the Indian, and possessing a natural itch to display his own learning. Further we should have asked him how he discovered that by three years after the Crucifixion the Christian faith had spread to Athens and Rome. According to all previous records the statement is simply preposterous. But the "sovereign voice" has spoken through Sir Edwin Arnold, and thrown quite a fresh light on the earliest history of Christianity. Then, again, we should have been curious to know why Sir Edwin accepted the legend of Mary Magdalene being the tenant of Magdal Tower, a place that never existed (as we thought) but in the geography of faith. Humanly speaking, it seemed probable that the lady's name had relation to head-dressing. But we live and learn, and in the course of time the "sovereign voice" settles all these things.
There is no clear record in the gospels of Jesus Christ's visit to Tyre, but Sir Edwin assures us he spent a few hours there—perhaps on an excursion—and we bow to the "sovereign voice." Nor is there a scholar in Christendom who regards the pretended letter from Publius Lentulus to the Roman Senate as anything but a puerile forgery. Yet Sir Edwin mentions it in a footnote, apparently with respect; indeed, he founds upon it his personal description of Jesus. Once again, scholarship must bow to the "sovereign voice." By the way, however, the Lentulus epistle describes the hair of Jesus as "wine-color." This is adopted by Sir Edwin, who construes is as "hazel," though—barring inspiration and the "sovereign voice"—it might have meant the color which is sometimes politely, if not accurately, called auburn. Anyhow, the ancients were acquainted with various colored wines, and it is satisfactory to know the precise hue intended by the gentleman who wrote the epistle of Lentulus.
Sir Edwin represents Jesus as a Nazarite. Now, the Nazarites eschewed scissors and razors, but Sir Edwin says they parted their hair in the middle, which is another tip from the "sovereign voice." Sir Edwin flashes his inspiration on another point. Critics are satisfied that the Emperor Julian, the last of the Pagans, did not cry, Vicisti Galilae! Mr. Swinburne, however, as a merely carnal poet, employed the legend in his splendid "Proserpina," using it with superb effect in the young Pagan's retort, "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean!—thy dead shall go down to thee dead." But now the "sovereign voice" speaks through Sir Edwin Arnold, and the legend must stand as history.
Under the guidance of the "sovereign voice" Sir Edwin is able to enlighten us on the physiology of angels. These creatures are usually painted with wings. But this is a mistake. They are wingless; for where these live there blows no wind, Nor aught spreads, gross as air, nor any kind Of substance, whereby spirits' march is stopped.
Sir Edwin knows all about them. Angels do not need wings, and have none, moving apparently in vacuo. But what havoc this truth would make in the picture galleries of Europe. Raphael himself was mistaken. He took angels to be a species of fowl, whereas they are—well, Sir Edwin does not tell us. He tells us what they are not. What they are is, as usual, left to the fancy of the reader, who pays his money and takes his choice. Only he must beware of wings.
Positively the most gratifying thing in Sir Edwin's book is this. Under the influence of the "sovereign voice" he is able to tell us how God Almighty likes to be designated. Perhaps it is better not to name him at all, but if we must name him—and it seems hard to refrain from some term or other—we should call him Eloi. That is what Jesus called him, and we see no reason why it should not become fashionable.
Sir Edwin Arnold's method of dishing up Jesus Christ is certainly artful. It does credit to his Daily Telegraph training. Everybody knows that one of the chief difficulties of novelists is to make their wonderful heroes act and talk. Sir Edwin does not jump this difficulty. He shirks it. He takes up the story of Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Three years are allowed to elapse, to give the risen Nazarene time to get clean away, and then Sir Edwin begins business. After a preliminary section, in, which the three Magi are brought upon the scene, the body of the poem opens with Mary Magdalene, who does nearly all the talking to the very end. Indeed the poem should have been called after her, for it is really "Mary Magdalene on Jesus Christ." The lady gives her reminiscences—that is, Sir Edwin gives them for her. By this method he is able to omit all mention of the cruder features of the Gospel story. When Jesus played the devil with the pigs, for instance, Mary Magdalene was absent, and the incident forms no part of her narrative. Apparently, too, she was absent, or deaf, or thinking of something else, when he preached hell-fire and "believe or be damned." And as this pretty method of Mary-Arnold selection is pursued throughout, it will easily be seen that the poem is an arbitrary piece of highly-colored fiction, in which Jesus Christ is made to serve the author's purposes. In short it is "Christ Up to Date."
Sir Edwin's second piece of strategy is still more transparent. Mary Magdalene is represented as several ladies rolled into one, and her house is a perfect museum of relics. She is Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, the woman who anointed Christ's feet, and the Mary who helped to embalm him. She keeps the famous alabaster box in her cabinet; she boards and lodges the young woman that Jesus raised from the dead; and her brother Lazarus is also on show when required. Lazarus, too, is many single gentlemen rolled into one. He is the resurrected man, the young man who was told to sell his property and give the proceeds to the poor, and the young man who fled stark naked at the arrest of Jesus, leaving his clothes in the hands of his pursuers. This is a very convenient plan. It is history made easy, or the art of poetical bam-boozling.
Mary Magdalene has a long talk with Pontius Pilate, who is haunted by the memory of the pale Galilean. Afterwards she has several days' talk with an old Indian, who turns out to be the sole survivor of those three wise men from the East, come to find out all about the King of the Jews. His two colleagues had died without satisfying their curiosity. He himself did without news for thirty-six years, and only went back to Palestine after the King of the Jews had ended his career; the visit, of course, being timed to suit Sir Edwin Arnold's convenience.
Throughout the poem Mary Magdalene talks. Arnoldese. Here is a typical passage.
"It may be there shall come in after days—When this Good Spell is spread—some later scribes, Some far-off Pharisees, will take His law,—Written with Love's light fingers on the heart, Not stamped on stone 'mid glare of lightning-fork—Will take, and make its code incorporate; And from its grace write grim phylacteries To deck the head of dressed Authority; And from its golden mysteries forge keys To jingle in the belt of pious pride."
Can anyone imagine the seven-devilled Mary Magdalene conversing in this way?
Considered in the light of its title this poem is a mistake and a monstrous failure. It is also labored and full of "fine writing." Not only are the Gospel story and the teachings of Jesus played fast and loose with, but the simplest things are narrated in grandiose language, with a perfect glut of fanciful imagery, fetched in not to illustrate but to adorn. Here and there, however, the language of Jesus is paraphrased and damnably spoiled. What reader of the Gospes does not remember the exquisite English in which our translators have rendered the lament over Jerusalem? Sir Edwin parodies it as follows:—
How oft I would have gathered all thy children in As a hen clucks her chickens to her wings.
Surely this is perfectly ridiculous. The collecting and sheltering are put into the background by that dreadful "cluck," and the reader is forced to imagine Jesus as a clucking hen. On the whole, the Gospel writers were better artists than Sir Edwin Arnold.
To conclude. The poem contains plenty of "fine writing" and some good lines. But as a whole it is "neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring." As a picture of Jesus Christ it is a laborious absurdity; as a marketable volume it may be successful; and as a sample of Sir Edwin Arnold's powers and accomplishments it will perhaps impose on half-educated sentimentalists.
SECULARISM AND CHRISTIANITY.
A Letter to the "Suffolk Chronicle," January 8, 1893.
Sir,—A friend has favored me with a copy of your last issue, containing a long report of the Rev. W. E. Blomfield's sermon at Turret Green Chapel, apparently in reply to my lecture on "Secularism superior to Christianity." Mr. Blomfield declines to meet me in set debate, on the ground that I am not "a reverent Freethinker," which is indeed true; but I observe that he does not really mind arguing with me, only he prefers to do it where I cannot answer him.
Mr. Blomfield finds the pulpit a safe place for what can hardly be called the courtesies of discussion. He refers to certain remarks of mine (I presume) as "petty jokes and witticisms fit only for the tap-room of a fourth-rate tavern." I will not dispute the description. I defer to Mr. Blomfield's superior knowledge of taverns and tap-rooms.
I notice Mr. Blomfield's great parade of "reverence." I notice also that he speaks of Freethought arguments or objections as "short-sighted folly" and "sheer nonsense." I judge, therefore, that "reverence" is not intended by Mr. Blomfield to be reciprocal. He claims a monopoly of it for his own opinions.
If he would only take the trouble to think about the matter, it might occur to him that "reverence" is not, properly speaking, a preliminary but a result. Let us have inquiry and discussion first and "reverence" afterwards. If I find anything to revere I shall not need Mr. Blomfield's admonitions. I revere truth, goodness, and heroism, though I cannot revere what I regard as false or absurd. "Reverence" is often the demand that imposture makes on honesty and superstition on intelligence. Long faces are highly valued by the professors of mystery.
Mr. Blomfield did not hear my lecture. Had he done so he would have found an answer to many of his questions. It is all very well to bid the Ipswich people to "Beware of false prophets," but it is better to hear before condemning.
How much attention, Mr. Blomfield asks, am I to give to this world and how much to another? Just as much as they deserve. We know a great deal about this world, and may learn more. There are plenty of guesses about another world, but no knowledge. It is easy to ask "Is there a future life?" but we must die to find out. Meanwhile this life confronts us, with its hard duties and legitimate pleasures. It is our wisdom to make the best of it, on the rational belief that, if there should be a future life—which no one is in a position to affirm or deny—this must be the best preparation for it, whether our future be decided by evolution or divine justice.
Mr. Blomfield's arguments against Utility as the test of conduct were answered in my lecture. He says the principle is of difficult application. So are all principles in intricate cases; why else have Christian divines written so many tons of casuistry? In any case the Utilitarian principle is the only one which is honored in practice. Other principles do very well on Sunday, but they are cast aside on Monday. The only question asked by statesmen, county councillors, School Board members, or other public representatives, is "Will the proposal tend to benefit the people?" This can be debated and settled. "Is it according to the will of God?" is a question to set people by the ears and raise an endless quarrel.
Mr. Blomfield says the fear of God saved poor Joseph, yet I dare say Potiphar's wife was a religious woman. The will of God sanctions many crimes. It tells the Thug to kill travellers; it told the Inquisition to torture and burn heretics; it told the Catholics and Protestants to rack and slaughter witches; it told Christians and Mohammedans to fight each other on hundreds of bloody battle-fields; it tells Christians now to keep up laws against liberty of thought. There never was a time when these things would not have been denounced by Secularism as crimes against humanity.
Motives to morality do not come from religion. They come from our social sympathies. Preach to a tiger and he will eat you. Differ from a Torquemada and he will burn you. When one man wants another to help him, he does not judge by the name of his sect, but by the glance of his eye and the lines of his mouth. Some men are born philanthropists, others are born criminals; between these are multitudes in whom good and bad tendencies are variously mixed, and who may be made better or worse by education and environment. The late Professor Clifford was an Atheist, and one of the gentlest, kindest, and tenderest men that ever lived. Jay Gould was a member of a Christian church and sometimes went round with the plate. He left twenty millions of money, and not a penny to any charity or good cause. Lick, the Freethinker, built and endowed the great observatory which is one of the glories of America.
I do not propose to follow Mr. Blomfield in his excursion into ancient history. I will only remark that if he thinks there was any lack of "religion" in the worst days of the Pagan world he is very much mistaken. Coming to more modern times, I decline to accept his present of priests and popes who were "atheistic." Whatever they were is a domestic question for the Christian Church. Nor need I discuss Luther's "fresh vision of God." He was a great man, but a savage controversialist, who called his opponents asses, swine, foxes, geese, and fools; which, I suppose, is worthy of the tap-room of a first-rate tavern. As to the "awful collapse" of "unbelieving France" I do not know when it occurred. It was certainly not France that collapsed in the Revolution. The monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church collapsed; but France inaugurated a new epoch of modern history.
With respect to prayer, on which Mr. Blomfield is very hazy, I would like to discriminate between its "objective value" and its "subjective benefits." Prayer as a means of inducing patience when you do not get what you ask for, is outside my province. I leave it to the clergy. Prayer as a means of obtaining what you require is my concern, and I defy Mr. Blomfield to prove a single case. Yet if prayer is not answered objectively, the Secular principle holds the field that science is man's only providence. I am aware that Christians employ doctors, insure their houses, and put lightning-conductors over their church steeples. They leave as little to God as possible. Mr. Blomfield says this is quite right, and I agree with him; but I will give him, if he cannot find them, twenty texts in support of the honest old doctrine of prayer from the New Testament.
Mr. Blomfield tells me I do not understand the Bible. Well, as I am not exactly a fool, the fault may be in the book. Why was it not made plainer? Why did God write it so that thousands of gentlemen get a fine living by explaining it—in all sorts of different ways? I am reminded that the Bible is not a handbook of physical science. But did the Church think so when it imprisoned Galileo and made him swear that the earth did not go round the sun? Mr. Blomfield says that "Genesis gives an account of the origin of matter, and of life, and, finally, of man, which science has not disproved, on the admission of her most eminent sons." The Bible is a handbook of science after all then! But what has science to do with the origin of matter? The origin of life is still an open question. The origin of man is not an open question. Genesis gives us a piece of mythology; Darwin gave us the truth. Among the eminent sons of science who is greater than he? Yet he has utterly exploded the Adam and Eve story. Darwin has left it on record that he rejected all revelation, and that for nearly forty years of his life he was a disbeliever in Christianity. He did subscribe to a Missionary Society that was attempting to reform South American savages, but he never subscribed a penny for the propagation of Christianity in England. I myself might think Christianity good for savages.
If I understand Mr. Blomfield rightly, God was unable to teach the Jews any faster than he did, although he is both omnipotent and omniscient. Were I to imitate Mr. Blomfield I should call this "sheer nonsense."
In my lecture I stated that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery, and that there was not a word against it in the New Testament. Mr. Blomfield replies that "the principles of the New Testament sapped the foundations of that system." But let us deal with one question at a time. Let the reverend gentleman indicate the text which I say does not exist. As for the "generous spirit" of the Old Testament laws about slavery, am I to find it in the texts allowing the Jews to buy and sell the heathen, to enslave their own countrymen, to appropriate their children born in slavery, and to beat them to death providing they did not expire within forty-eight hours?
My point is not that the Jews held slaves. That was common in ancient times. I merely take objection to the doctrine that God laid down the slavery laws of the Old Testament.
With regard to Jesus Christ, I am not aware that I have spoken of him as a "trickster." Kenan, however, whom Mr. Blomfield appears to admire, suggests that the raising of Lazarus was a performance arranged between him and Jesus. This is a line of criticism I have never attempted. I do not regard the New Testament miracles as actual occurrences, but as the products of Christian imagination.
Mr. Blomfield is angry with me for saying that the books of the Bible are mostly anonymous, yet he declares that "their anonymity is little against them." I leave Mr. Blomfield to settle the point of fact with Christian writers like Canon Driver and Professor Bruce. With respect to the New Testament, I am told that my statement is "palpably incorrect." But what are the facts? With the exception of four of Paul's epistles, and perhaps the first of Peter, the whole of the New Testament books are anonymous, in the sense that they were not written—as we have them—by the men whose names they bear, and that no one knows who did write them. This is practically admitted by Christian scholars, and I am ready to maintain it in discussion with Mr. Blomfield.
Mr. Blomfield talks very freely, in conclusion, about the "fruits" of Christianity and Secularism. He even condescends to personal comparisons, which I warn him are dangerous. He compares Spurgeon with Bradlaugh. Well, the one swam with the stream, and the other against it; the one lived in the world's smile, the other in the world's frown; the one enjoyed every comfort and many luxuries, the other was poor, worried, and harassed into his grave. Spurgeon was no doubt a good man, but Bradlaugh was the more heroic figure.
Jesus Christ said some good things. Among them was the injunction not to let one hand know the other's charity. Mr. Blomfield disregards this. He challenges Secularists to a comparison. He asks where are our Secularist hospitals. We do not believe in such things. Sectarianism in charity is a Christian vice. On the other hand, our party is comparatively small and poor, and Christian laws prevent our holding any trusts for Secularism. Still, we do attend to our own poor as well as we can. Our Benevolent Fund is sufficient for the relief of those who apply in distress. We cannot build "almshouses," but "Atheist widows" are not neglected. On the whole, however, we are not so loud as the Christians in praise of "charity," Much of it is very degrading. If we had justice in society there would be less for "charity" to do.
It is obvious that Mr. Blomfield picks his fruits of Christianity with great discrimination. Is it logical to select all you admire in Christian countries and attribute it to Christianity? The same process would prove the excellence of Buddhism, Brahminism, and Mohammedanism. There are almshouses and hospitals in Chrisendom, but there are also workhouses, gin-palaces, brothels, and prisons. Drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling, are the special vices of Christian nations. It is Christian countries that build ironclads and make cannon, gatling guns, deadly rifles, and terrible explosives. It is Christians who do most of the fighting on this planet.
Mr. Blomfield may or may not consider these things. I scarcely expect him to reply. He prefers the "humble, obedient heart" to the "curious intellect." At any rate he preaches the preference to the young men of Ipswich. For my part, I hope they will reject the counsel. I trust they will read, inquire, and think for themselves. Their "intellect" should have enough "curiosity" to be satisfied as to the truth of what they are asked to believe.