12 AUGUST 1882, Page 11


AMONG the characteristics of our own time which we are inclined to regard with hopefulness, we should reckon the fact that the word we have chosen for our title is exclusively modern. As long as men and women have existed, they must have been tempted to give their own interests too large a propor- tion of their attention,—to " pass by on the other side," when the wounded fellow-traveller suggested an inconvenient claim ; to look at their own needs through a magnifying glass, and at their neighbours' with half-shut eye ; to fail, in short, in whatever demands the sacrifice of self. We do not suppose that the temptation varies from age to age ; men were more cruel than they are, perhaps they were also more brave than they are, but it is not likely that they were either more or less selfish than they are. Yet the word which stamps this dispro- portion in the comparative estimate of each one of us with dis- approval, is barely two centuries old. Three hundred years ago a great thinker, usually associated with the world of Nature, rather than of man, described that common element in all that divides us from our kind, but could not give it a name. " It is the nature of extreme self-lovers," says Bacon, " as they will sot a house on fire and it were but to roast their eggs.

It is a poor centre to a man's actions, himself. It is right earth" (let us become Ptolemaists for the nonce, to appreciate a metaphor which thus serves as a landmark of chronology, and also brings in a touch of really noble poetry), "for that only stands fast upon his own centre, whereas all things that have affinity with the heavens move upon the centre of another which they benefit." Bacon, who knew well, alas ! what he spoke of, from his own inward experience, had no single word. to describe the temptation he here characterises with the vivid- ness of an initial perception. The idea came in with that strong wave of interest in individual life which has left its high-water mark in the fame of Shakespeare, and of which these con- temporary " Essays " are another, and if we aro prepared to overlook the enormous difference of scale, a somewhat similar memorial. It belongs to that new secular interest in humanity which heralds the " Rights of Man," the dream of a universal brotherhood, and the triumphs of modern democracy,—an in- terest distinct from the theologic side of our nature, on the one hand, and on the other, from that national, or, to give it a more accurate name, that civil aspect under which the old world, and the modern world, so far as it was influenced by the old world, alone regarded it. Hidden beneath that which specially opposes itself to the religious life, and that which specially opposes itself to the civil life, this common opponent to all that elevates and binds our race was only named a century after the birth of Shakespeare and Bacon, and fur all that nomenclature —no insignificant index to thought—can tell us, it was accepted till then as a natural, inevitable factor in our common humanity.

This inference, from the history of a word, is confirmed by every historic indication of ethical feeling available to WI Where is the circle of the selfish, in the " Purgatorio P" Where is the mean between Selfishness, and its opposite excess, whatever that may be, in the " Nicomachean Ethics P" As the attraction of the magnet was known in early times, while that of gravita- tion, being unremittingly present to observation, was impene- trably hid from thought, so has it been with the constant ele- ment in all that divides us from our kind, Alike in the theo- logical and the classic standard, it was absolutely ignored. There was not, in either, any background against which it could. become visible. The classic and the theological standard alike fence off a narrow region from the broad domain of humanity, and establish within it a bond which, borrowing something of its strength from the selfish interests of mankind, in part over- comes, and in part undermines, them. Beyond this favoured. region, on the other hand, no bond exists which selfishness can outrage. " We saw one casting out devils in thy name, and forbad him, because he followeth not us." "Poem foedifragi, crudelis Hannibal I" The narrowness of the great Christian apostle and the great Roman moralist have been in our day too often united, and though their sources are distinct, their result is always identical. The more human, the more catholic the thinker, the more striking is this rigidness of limit. Hardly any one so little needs historic feeling for appreciation as does Aristotle. His pages teem with observations which meet our ear with a ring almost as familiar as our own tongue in a

foreign land. To the solitary, life is arduous." How many a life has found its inward experience summed up in those few, simple words Yet it is not enough to say that Aristotle fails to discern that human duty which would remove the solitude of the solitary, he even leaves no place for it. His scheme of virtue as a mean between two extremes excludes the idea of that root of all that is highest in Virtue,—readiness for self- sacrifice. Let us once more return to Bacon. "The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall," he says, in a passage which recalls at once the words of Shakespeare and of St. Paul ; " the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall ; but in charity there is no excess, neither can angel nor man come in danger by it." It is strange that the echo of St. Paul should come from a cold and worldly man, but not stranger than that it should have been so little enforced by saintly men. For eighteen hundred years the denunciations on which Christ- ians have founded their belief of an endless Hell, have reminded them that the awful command, " Depart from me," is addressed to those who, for all that appears, were guilty of no sin but selfishness. No crime is alleged against them, no denial of their Master and Judge,—nothing but that they have witnessed need, and left it unrelieved.

It is only in our own age that men have awakened to the distortion in that character which finds its centre in self. The eighteenth century was in truth a most important stage in the movement we speak of, but, nevertheless, there is, in its most characteristic writers, what we may call a certain patronage of all self-centred feeling. It was wearied with the struggles of its predecessor, and anxious, above all things, to withdraw within the entrenchments of the indisputable. Whatever else was to be questioned, there was no doubt at all that every one was strongly interested in his own welfare, and none but an enthu- siast would imperil this certainty by any admission of a natwral rival to the self. Listen, for instance, to the thinker of that day oftenest quoted in our own. " In general," says Hume, " we may observe that whatever we call heroic virtue, and admire under the character of greatness and elevation of mind, is either nothing but a steady and well established pride and self•esteem, or par- takes largely of that passion." The extract seems to us the expression of a low moral nature, but it is also the characteristic utterance of an age which yet, as far as the tendency of literature goes, may be called more moral than -our own. We may trace the influence of this feeling in the -words of those whose actions it least influenced. It is very evident in the life of that time best known to us, and known as one of the most unselfish lives that ever were spent in sadness and discomfort. While Johnson fills his house with those of whom it might truly be said, " they cannot recompense thee," he grows very contempt- uous if he is asked to make room for disinterested kindness in his theory of the universe. There are no more people, we fear, who would exhibit his disinterested kindness now than there were then, but there are so many more whose theory of life now demands it, that we might almost say there are none beside. With us, every department of life, even politics, -which it has least influenced, is coloured by the conviction that the selfish life is not only the lower life, but the wrong life. Perhaps, indeed, we may trace the last relics of the old feeling in a lingering reluctance to admit that whatever else Patriotism may be, it must, if it is to have any value at all, be something .different from corporate selfishness. The change thus measured is an enormous step onward in the moral life of our race. May we say that the progress is unmixed gain P Or must we once again repeat the melancholy lesson of experience, that what has been gained in one direction is lost in another P Certainly not, if this confession is to imply, as in the physical world, that the loss and gain are equal. There is no possible loss which does not leave us richer if, as we incur it, we are taught that life for the self alone is not life. But, perhaps, we have not made so great an advance towards this goal without

some receding from what may be termed its polar virtue. It may be that we have not been able to see the full claims of all to love that is not preference (to describe unselfishness in cum- brous words, which yet express it more truly than a mere nega- tive word), without some loss of distinctness in our recognition of the claims of truth. What we mean by calling them polar virtues may best be recognised, perhaps, by a different approach.

In comparing one race with another, we all feel that Selfish- ness is not a characteristic of race. But this observation suggests one striking exception to its general drift, You may say one person is more selfish than another, but you may not say this of any group of persons till you come to the very largest into which you can divide the personal world. It is not easy to make any generalisation about men and women, for every one is either a man or a woman, and knows his or her own sex in a different manner and a different degree from what he does the opposite ; but we think the general opinion may, in this case, be taken as its own justifica- tion ; and it appears to us that in some respects this great distinction exhibits what we mean by the antithesis of truth and of charity, or of what we have called the non•prefereutial element in love. Men are about as much more true than women, as women are more unselfish than men. We do not mean that if you could reckon up all the lies that are told iu year, you would find that the greater number had a female origin. When it comes to conscious deceit, we should suppose that men and women were pretty much alike. We mean that a, man's words and thoughts ordinarily stand in a much closer re- lation to life than a woman's do, and that to some extent this ex- plains his being much less ready to make sacrifices than a woman, is. For the habit of assuming any excellence has opposite effects,. according to the gap between our moral position and that excel- lence. We actually widen the chasm, if it be already so wide that the profession must be called false. But sincere words are actions ; and in professing a readiness for self-denial, even with- out knowing fully what it is, we may, to some extent, approach. it. It is not impossible to imagine a person bound over to a self-sacrificing life by professions that might be called un- real. Every human being must discover, when it comes to the point, that the expectation of surrendering the pleasant things of life, without reluctance or difficulty, is mere ignorance of what sacrifice means ; but an engagement to betray no reluctance or difficulty may possibly tend to diminish these feelings, unless they be very great. And, in fact, there is a good deal of this kind of un- selfishness among women,—faithfulness, we mean, to an ideal that is to some extent illusory. "In a matter so utterly insignificant as anything personal to oneself," as we once heard said, by a bril- liant and cultivated woman, " one would not, of course, think it worth while to hesitate." The life, long since concluded, was not by any means in such glaring contradiction with that piece of fantastic morality as we should be apt to imagine. And perhaps many of the inconsistencies we find in complex human nature may be explained by remembering that it is not impossible that both -these effects should be found in the same person, so that at one moment a woman should be more unselfish because she has put herself in a position in which self-sacrifice is a necessity, and that the next moment her natural impulses should yet rush back upon her with a rebound, and her professed readiness to share a crust with her husband should no more suggest any sacrifice of her wishes to his, than the sight of "your obedient servant" at the end of a letter suggests the discharge of some menial office. In that fluctuating ebb and flow which we know as character, the influence of exaggerated professions may tend both to weaken and to strengthen our moral life, and none but the eye that reads all hearts can discern which influence is to give the ultimate bias to the spirit which feels both.

Now, it appears to us that, to some extent, the elevation of unselfishness to the position which it occupies in the assump- tions of the day has had this double effect on our theories of morality. On its elevating power we need not dwell. In discarding the opinion of a former time that, after all, every one had a right to be selfish, our age has made an ethical gain as great as the intellectual gain which Newton brought his age by the discovery of gravitation. But it is vain to deny that the shadow follows the substance. We will point out two directions in which we consider that the moral theory of the day is hurt by the assumption that selfishness is un- natural. The first is the theory of Utilitarianism, as modified by J. S. Mill. He had, of course, no difficulty in proving that virtue in this man and that woman was part of a process which was necessary for the happiness of the human race, but he only makes out his theory by taking it for granted that the further question,—' What is to make this man and that woman sacrifice his or her happiness for the sake of other people P' hardly needs any answer at all. They could have no object but happiness, according to his view, only it might be some one else's happiness, and not their own. To prefer the happiness of others to one's own appears to us to involve the secret of goodness, and a theory which pro- fesses to analyse goodness into something else, if you will only grant this, recalls the trick of the Alchemists, who hid a lump of gold in the compound from which they professed to extract it. Mr. Mill denied emphatically that goodness could be an end in itself; nothing but pleasure, he says, can be an aim to such beings as we are, but that kind of goodness which is necessary in order to make any other possible, may be acquired and trans- mitted, simply by reflecting for ourselves, and teaching our children, that the human race is a unity. The belief seems to us a curious reproduction in the world of thought of what we would call the woman's mistake,—the idea that that sacrifice of the lower nature to the higher which scorns self-denial may become a welcome opportunity for the ex- pression of the superior strength of the higher nature. Human experience is a melancholy confutation of such expecta- tions. " Remember," a husband might often say, "the day when you told me that to share a crust with me was enough for your happiness. I do not go within a hundred miles of asking you to share a crust with me,—I want you simply not to keep a carriage. Surely, the greater sacrifice includes the less." The wife who made these ardent professions, if years have taught her self-knowledge and sincerity, might answer, " What I then said was true. I was ready to share a crust with you. 1 should have liked rushing into a new kind of life, with you as my grateful adorer. I do not like bringing these entangling limitations into the common-place life, with you as at best no more than my satisfied critic, and in fact I discover that I was not ready to sacrifice my likings at all. When I renounced my old life for you, I did not contem- plate the possibility that I should ever wish one thing, and you another."

Our failure to acknowledge that although the true life is unselfish, the natural life is not, has another aspect, which we can only point out in the briefest allusion. It may be expressed in the moral formula of a sect which finds nothing divine above humanity,—" Live for others." The error was long since touched on by the wise thinker and unwise actor from whom we have already borrowed so much wisdom. " Beware," says Bacon, in a different essay from that we have already cited, but on the same subject—a strong proof of the large space it occupied in his mind —" beware how in making the portraiture, thou breakest the pat- tern, for divinity raaketh the love of ourselves the pattern, the love of others but the portraiture." The danger is not, as it may seem, an imaginary one. The husband who wishes for himself a life of disinterested speculation, while he desires for his wife merely one of elegant luxury, the mother who wishes for herself a life of quiet duty, and for her daughter a brilliant position in the world of fashion, may both persuade themselves that they are living for another; but none who choose the high life for themselves, and the low for their neighbour, have any claim to fulfil the command to love the neighbour as the self. This readiness to share all of life but what is best in it is the danger of the strong. The temptation of the love that looks downward is always to divorce its love and its aspiration, to find some lower platform on which it may meet the object of care, while the arduous effort to draw this one upwards and share the higher life is thus avoided. And whether it be more dangerous for the strong to abdicate the responsibilities of strength, or the weak to forget the dangers _of weakness, we need not endeavour to decide, for both will happen at the same time.

The remedy for these dangers is to be found in a deeper self- knowledge. Let it not be thought that we are prescribing a trivial remedy for a serious disease. Self-knowledge means the power of self-surrender, for none can give up what he does not possess ; and even to seek to lose our self, we must have known it. If it seem a Poor thing to know our selves, it is because we have forgotten that none can know himself who knows not another than himself. Our own nature can be revealed to us only when we are trans- planted beyond it. The depths within are always made clear by some light reflected from another soul, and can be fully illu- minated only by that light which is not reflected, and which shines from the other of every human soul, the true complement of our common humanity.