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Friday, April 3, 2015

A False Antithesis
The Speaker, December 28, 1901

CULTURE AND RESTRAINT. By Hugh Black. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 6s.

Mr. Hugh Black, in his work on Culture and Restraint, raises again the question of that great struggle between the ideal of self-development and the ideal of self-restraint which has been so much discussed and which may even at some time or other have existed. But philosophers have talked a great deal too much as if there were some kind of fundamental opposition between pleasing others and pleasing oneself, as if they were not both, under any tolerably suitable circumstances, exceedingly natural things to do. A man who really set before himself a purely egotistic ideal would have to lacerate himself like a monk. As other men crush down vices he would have to crush down the ancient and rebellious virtues. In order to love himself only, he would have to seek some darker and more illimitable deserts than the hermits sought, that they might love God only. He would have to turn his face from a man as St. Anthony turned his face from a woman.

This is the first and most elementary of the modifications which may be suggested in the idea of Mr. Hugh Black's book, the idea of an inevitable and fundamental struggle between culture and restraint. For if culture be, as its name implies, the making possible of the greatest fruitfulness of this human spirit, it cannot be opposed to religion or to altruism, or to anything under the sun. The truth is that the word culture is used with an even more grotesque narrowness than the word religion. A cultured person in ordinary modern language means a person who is cultured in three or four of the most trivial and uninteresting of the externals of life. But it is quite clear that if the current exponent of culture despises the religious instinct, sneers at popular sentiment, shrinks from the rude contact of humanity, he does all this, not because he is irreligious or immoral or egotistical, but simply because he is uncultured. If a man cannot enjoy a crowd eating oranges outside the gallery of a Surrey theatre, he is not a cultured man. If a poet living in the country saw no charms in the pig-sty, the farmer would be fully justified in lamenting his lack of culture. For if culture be self-development it must include the simpler as well as the subtler appetites and faculties, physical courage, family affection, political excitement, a capacity for romping, and a sympathy with the Salvation Army. We do not speak of the perfect culture of a piece of ground when it could not possibly grow corn, but could only grow chrysanthemums.

To begin with, therefore, it must be denied that culture excludes religion; if it does it is not insufficient as religion, it is insufficient as culture. The man who has learnt the beauty of Maeterlinck's poetry and Morris's wall-papers still requires, that he may complete his culture, to be taught the beauty of a brass band and the poetry of Evangelical hymns. But, on the other side, the case is quite equally strong in regard to religion. Religion is, like culture, a universal thing; it sums up the world, and, under whatever temporary clouds of ethical error, it sums it up as a good thing. Mr. Black adopts the generally-admitted classification, and pits Hellenism, as the representative of the idea of enjoyment, against Hebraism as the representative of the idea of repression. But whence did this wild distinction come? Whence did the modern aesthetes get the astonishing idea that the Greeks were opposed to morality and restraint? Were there ever people who moralised so much as the Greek poets and philosophers? The neo-Pagan may be a very brilliant and happy person, with his theories of complete self-assertion and the law of the joy of life, and there is nothing, in this connection, to be said about him, except that almost any actual Pagan would have kicked him out of his house. The aesthete who combines aesthetic culture and moral lawlessness may be a very good neo-Pagan, but he would have been an exceedingly bad Pagan. There was no world which held more stringently the idea of civic responsibility than the ancient world, the world of Hellenism.

Again, one may ask, why should Hebraism be regarded as the expression of a dark self-effacement; why should the Hebrews be regarded as a gloomy people? They danced openly with delight in the goodness of God; the key-word of the Old Testament from beginning to end is the word "joy." Their sacred books blaze with gold and jewels just as they blaze with elemental gratitude and pleasure. They believe, more openly and professedly than any people has believed, in the primal fertilities, in the fact that the corn and the orchard are the signals of the ultimate beneficence, in the fact that children and the fruit of the womb are a heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord. They declared that God called all things good, the most stupendously daring thing that any people has ever said. Yet they said one thing more daring still; they said that all things called God good, that the blessing of the Seventh Day was hurled back again upon the Giver, that all created things praised the Lord. If this be the situation, it is at least striking. God declares that the leper is good, and the leper praises God in reply. It would cause no astonishment if such a people was accused of extravagant optimism, of grotesque exuberance, of hysterical hilarity. But that they should be accused of being sombre, and allowing no place for exhilaration, is perhaps one of the darkest and most ancient riddles of human stupidity. It is absolutely and genuinely, for all intellectual purposes, like accusing the French of a slow and heavy materialism, or the Vikings of an over-subtle aestheticism.

Upon the whole, it would seriously appear that in setting the Jew to fight the Greek in the lists of philosophy we have created a brutal and unmeaning conflict. We have made a war out of nothing as coolly and as cruelly as if we had set one cock to fight another cock in an ordinary cock-pit. There is no conflict between the culture of the Greeks and the religion of the Jews, when each is carried to its own natural and necessary culmination. The Greeks were a great deal too cultured to disapprove of religion. The Jews were a great deal too religious to be ignorant of pleasure. The real difference between them was not anything so futile as the distinction involved in the common use of the words Hellenism and Hebraism. The difference between them was not that the Greeks had a culture so limited that it never looked to the needs of the spirit, or that the Jews had a religion so self-contradictory that it never praised God for corn or wine or children. The real difference was in what may be called the pulse or pace of belief. The Greek polytheism exhibited in an admirable symbolic form a sense of the doubt and vagueness of existence, the sense that one thing calls us one way and one another, that one God bids us go on and another God bids us turn back. The Jewish monotheism expressed the idea of the passionate unity and impetus of all things, that one God calls us, by one trumpet-call, to the observance of one law. The gods of the Greeks are alien even when they are benevolent: they are often, in Greek poetry, the enemies of their best adorers. The God of the Jews is a party leader, who never fails his friends, because he and they have one great cosmic triumph to achieve. The life of man, according to the Greeks, is a manly and steadfast march in a wilderness. According to the Jews, it is a cavalry charge of tree, brute, beast, and man, and it matters nothing if a thousand fail, if the charge carries the walls of Chaos.

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