Trill CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN ETHICS.
THE accomplished editor of Dr. Duncan's " Colloquia Peri- patetica " (the Rev. William Knight), has recently preached before the University of Glasgow a thoughtful and profound sermon on the essential features of the Christian Ethics, of which our only complaint is that he hardly deals at all with the common modern charge against the Christian Ethics, that Christianity neglects the characteristic virtues founded on what may be called the inner, and also the more inward of the outer, folds of self- respect,—honourable pride, manliness, courage and constancy in re- sisting oppression, public spirit, patriotism, national self-devotion; —that, in short, its source in the sublime principle of the love of God has necessarily tended to dissolve away the tenacity of those valuable qualities which take their rise in the limitation of local spheres and the appropriate subdivision of social and political responsibilities. It is often said of Christianity,—and Mr. Knight in the opening passages of his sermon seems to admit the truth, if not of this, of some such criticism,—that it quite ignores the pagan virtue of readiness to resist oppression, and, if necessary, to punish tyranny ; that its conception of perfection involves a self- abnegation so high that it leaves no room for self-esteem, nor for any chivalry or gallantry on behalf of individuals or collective bodies of men such as municipalities or States, short of that which is implied in promoting directly the spiritual welfare of our fellow- men. Christianity, it is said, makes bad citizens, partly because it is too cosmopolitan, partly because it is too contemptuous of worldly advantages. It will not realize sufficiently the prior claims on men of their own neighbourhood, county, or country over other neighbourhoods, counties, or countries ; further, it will not attach half value enough to privileges whose sole object is to make men more comfortable and happy, and which do not pre- tend to go beyond into the sphere of spiritual purification. The principle of unresisting self-denial, " Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain," and "If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also," is subversive of all political order and moral self-assertion. You cannot found even a municipality without being prepared to stand on your rights ; you cannot make a nation great, and nourish that enthusiasm of freedom and patriotic pride without which the laws and literatures and societies of the world would be all monotonous and insipid, without justifying a certain glow of resentment at any claim of disorderly ambition, and a disposition to sacrifice even life, not so much for the good of those who most need the sacrifice as for the triumph of those to whom you are more closely related and the defeat of those comparatively alien to your interests and heart. Christianity, by the very splendour of its con- ception of a spiritual tie by which all men are bound together, tended towards the obliteration of those smaller links and distinc- tions which are of the very essence of local progress and secular civilization, and even casts a certain stigma of selfishness on emotions and tendencies without the careful fostering of which history would have been more barren of interest than an Ecclesiastical record or the chronicle of a Mission.
Nobody can deny that there is truth in this charge against Christianity,—truth of precisely an analogous kind to that which there is in saying that literary and intellectual culture relaxes the stringency of men's dogmatic faiths by enabling them to see and enter into the case of their opponents. It is matter of course that a spiritual faith which ascends to the Divine Creator of all things as the spring of every virtue should soften the excessive cogency of those claims which are urged upon us by the inner circles of hu- manity, at the expense of the outer world beyond them. No morality can impress a new sphere of duty upon us without a temporary and relative depreciation of those spheres of duty with which it comes immediately into competition. When our Lord dwelt on the fact that the man who needed help was one whose claims were paramount, even though he belonged to a hostile and rival people, he necessarily struck at the fiercely exclusive spirit of patriotism, and yet what would patriotism mean without anything exclusive in it, without any disposition to prefer one cause to another, and that, too, solely on the ground that it is more closely bound up with all your personal associations and most cherished memories?
And of course, when our Lord made such unmeasured demands on human self-denial, when he told his disciples that unless they left father and mother and houses and lands to follow him, unless they would go and sell all that they had to follow him, unless they would omit even the taking leave of their friends and the last rites to a father to follow him, they could not truly be his disciples, a blow was necessarily struck at the heart of the honourable self-esteem and personal pride and dignity which fill so high a position in the Pagan ethics,—for Christ asked what was virtually equivalent to the absorption of the outward individual lot, with all its duties and incidents, into a class of demands upon it which emptied it of its individual colour and all personal significance. Mr. Knight, in his estimate of the Christian ethics, says, we think with great truth, though it is a truth now not often recalled, that " the sins of hatred, malice, vindictiveness, and perfidy are branded with a far deeper stigma than those due to the frailty of the flesh or the impulse of sud- den passion." And why is it so ? Evidently because these sins of " hatred, malice, vindictiveness, and perfidy" imply not merely a wandering from God, but a fixed attitude of heart hostile to the divine love for man, while sins which come of the frailty of the flesh, or the impulse to sudden passion, ouly imply absence of mind from God, not hostility of heart towards him. Indeed, the latter may come of mere flexibility to human influence, while the former imply a positive struggle against divine influence,—the latter are due to a deficiency of religious spirit, the former to an actively irreligious spirit. But here, again, the tendency of the Christian ethics is the same,—to break down the strong and very convenient partitions between the different spheres of human duty ; to make more of sins which imply inaccessibility to the secret divine influence than of sins which throw human relations into confusion ; —to make many sins which before were called by such titles as justifiable party-spirit, honourable ani- mosity engendered of esprit de corps, ' disinterested' sectarian zeal, turn, under the light of Christian teaching, black with diabolical wrath ; while many sins which really humiliate the sinner far more, and make him feel more utterly worth- less and evil in his own eyes, because they obliterate for him the definite limits of his own duty and responsi- bility, and degrade him in the sight even of his friends, appear, under the same light, comparatively pardonable and redeemable. The Christian ethics necessarily make lighter of those sins which do not absolutely set the heart against God, even though they seem to make much more havoc of the order of human society, than of those which fortify the soul in its own petty egotism, vanity, and self-importance. And naturally enough, therefore, Christianity has been pronounced relatively un- favourable to individual pride and self-respect and social order and convenience, and relatively favourable to those subduing and overpowering sins of impulse and passion which leave the heart and will prostrate, and ready to welcome heartily the free grace of God. We should hold, therefore, that the statement is undoubt- edly true that Christianity does relatively undervalue the kind of virtues on which Pagan ethics insisted most strongly,—those which assume the complete limitations of certain human spheres of duty, and insist on a somewhat exclusive fidelity to personal claims, family claims, party claims, patriotic claims, at the cost of those wider and usually fainter demands on our charity which only the spirit of the divine love can make real to us. Undoubt- edly, Charity, as St. Paul, for instance, delineates it, is more or less dangerous to that narrower, stronger, and, in a limited sense, manlier conception of human duty, which the highest Pagan moralists, Aristotle, for instance, regarded as the noblest attainable.
But we should altogether deny that Christianity is destructive of the characteristic Pagan virtues, though it relegates them to their proper place, and indicates the limits beyond which they ought not to bind the soul. Nothing is more remarkable in our Lord's teaching than the emphasis with which he insists on a wise calculation of spiritual opportunity, and the clearness with which he defines his own highest lessons as intended for the cases where the deeper moral and spiritual relations between man and man are either in existence or, at all events, likely to be called into existence by the insight and enterprise of spiritual magnanimity. Such teaching as " Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine," and the express command to "count the cost" before action, seem anxiously intended to limit the higher exercises of spiritual self- denial and self-oblivion to those relations of life in which there are at least openings for a perfect mutual understanding. ' Resist not evil,' If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy duke also,' are clearly in- tended only for those cases in which the readiness to suffer rather than defend yourself may be seen to proceed out of a genuine love for the author of the injury. If such readiness could only be inter- preted as due to mere cowardice, or a distrust of the right of your own case, or to anything but the highest affection, it would be worse than useless, mischievous. Now we think it would be very easy to show that in the case of ordinary men there are but few per- sons towards whom these highest spiritual relations are possible. And we know that these higher teachings of Christianity apply most perfectly, at all events, to the most intimate relations of life. We admire the wife who can endure everything from the husband, the husband, if it be not from any want of manly qualities, but from pure devotion,—who can endure anything from the wife ; and we all admit that the highest order of characters is able to take up these intimate relations towards a much larger social circle than char- acters of lower calibre, and therefore is justified in assuming, as our Lord did, a tenderer tone towards comparative strangers. But we maintain that the obligatory character of this class of the Christian virtues is entirely conditional on the power to feel, and make others feel, the kind of affection which altogether over-rides what is termed our duty to ourselves, and that it does not apply at all where this is obviously impossible. In fact,Chrietianity rather softens the edges of the Pagan virtues, by suggesting a number of cases in which some higher relation intervenes and overpasses their limits, than undermines their importance within their own proper sphere. Take the principle of Christian non-resistance as applied to the condemnation of even purely defensive war. We should be far from saying that an ideal nation was not conceivable in which absolute non-resistance of the Christian kind was perfectly possible, and, if possible, a spiritual duty of the highest kind, because it would result in subduing the very spirit of the invader. No one, we sup- pose, doubts but that if a nation ever existed in which the spirit of Christ had really entered into almost every member of the community, such a nation might practise non-resistance to a vain-glorious invader, and reap the highest fruits of Christian promise. But no one in his senses doubts that the non- resistance of any existing nation could not be of that sort, but must be an infinitely lower thing than manly resistance, and cer- tain to issue in an infinitely worse result for both invader and invaded. The reason simply is that such non-resistance could not proceed out of the highest spirit ; and as a policy it would be due, if it could be carried out at all, to some vulgar calculation of selfish expediency or still vulgarer cowardice, and would result in brutality on one side, and craven craft and treachery on the other. The Christian ethics are the highest ethics, but they rest confessedly, as we believe, on the opportunity for the higher spiritual relations.