Saints and Revolutionaries, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 2

Saints, and Pacifism

IN this chapter I shall consider the behaviour and beliefs of those exceptional people whom I call saints. I had better begin by saying that, though some of them are consciously religious, others are not. Indeed many who are at least potential saints are men and women who for one reason or another have been violently repelled by the insincerity of conventional religion, and have come to affect a "worldly" attitude. They cannot, however, go far in self-knowledge without recognizing that their concern is not with worldly ends but with a form of relationship between individuals, namely that of mutual respect and mutual responsibility. This relationship they strongly feel to be right and beautiful; even though they may never formulate the conviction to themselves. If they do become clearly conscious of it, and if they earnestly strive to live according to its dictates, they are true saints, whatever their doctrines.

For one of the saint's essential characters, from which many of his other characters arise, is the constant attempt to behave with friendliness toward all men. Of course many who have the reputation of saintliness are not really saints at all, but plausible sham saints. By "sham saint" I mean not one who aspires and fails to be a real saint, but one who consciously or unconsciously imitates the appearance of saintliness without seriously trying to conform to the saintly pattern of conduct.

There seem to be three kinds of sham saint: those in whom the ruling passion is not love but hate, masquerading as righteous indignation against the wicked; those in whom not hate is dominant but cold self-regard, seeking to profit by the trappings of saintliness; and those would-be-saintly self-deceivers who are incapable of attending to the fact that their conduct gives the lie to their protestations. The three classes overlap. Some people are at once vindictive, coldly self-seeking and self-deceiving.

Of true saints there are many kinds. Some are intellectually simple, some subtle. Some are frail and inconstant in their saintliness, some constant and heroic. Some remain unknown save to a few friends; some have momentous effect as moral leaders of mankind. The great saints, naturally, are very rare, and one does not come across them. But saints of less exalted order are to be found in every social class and in most occupations; though I should be surprised and interested to find one who was an armament manufacturer.

Genuine saints, I suspect, tend not to rise very far in their trades or professions. They often lack the self-regarding drive, the pushfulness, which is needed if one is to pass beyond mere efficiency to spectacular success. Not that saints are necessarily self-effacing, or necessarily mediocre in their professional attainments. Indeed some of them, when they secure work which they know to be in accord with their ideal, pursue it with outstanding vigour and brilliance. But in general saints tend to be hampered professionally both by lack of self-regard and by absorption in what they sometimes call the life of the spirit.

On the whole saints tend to choose work which affords them opportunity for direct personal service of their fellow human beings. Many of them live in a continuous rush of personal contacts. But this is a strain on them, for they are so constituted that they need a certain amount of solitude in which to digest their experience, and (as they express it) to keep in touch with the inner source of their strength.

It is difficult to say how one knows a saint when one meets him. There is something distinctive in the quality of his whole behaviour, a certain quietness and simplicity. True saints are always at once practical and contemplative. Though they are contemplative they are not necessarily thinkers. They do not as a rule contemplate by means of discursive thought, analysing and classifying in terms of well-established concepts. They contemplate rather, I believe, by attending minutely to their concrete experience, by seeking to get the true "feel" of it. In this sense they may be called scientific, since they practise accurate observation. But their interest is different from the scientist's interest. And the phenomena which they observe are not the same as those studied by the scientists. Though sometimes they do zestfully contemplate the flux of sensory objects, they have little interest in discovering physical laws. Their aim in contemplation is to get the true "feel" of being a self in relation to the universe, and particularly of being a self in a world along with other selves. This is a dangerous occupation, since it may lead men to waste their lives in the pursuit of phantoms. But though dangerous, the saint's venture is, I believe, of great importance to his fellow men. Some Marxists may smile at this view. I shall argue, however, that their philosophy is not fundamentally opposed to it.

It is important to insist that the contemplative disposition of saints does not prevent them from, being mostly very practical people. I do not mean that they are addicted to manual activities, but that they are concerned more with practice than with theory. At any rate their essential friendliness takes practical forms. And because they are earnestly and sometimes impatiently practical, their friendliness expresses itself more readily in personal contacts than in relation to groups and organizations. This is to be expected, since all saints are deeply concerned with individuality and the quality of personal relationships. They are sometimes unimaginative about institutions and about political and social movements which treat individuals merely as members of a group or class. They are apt to believe too readily that even great public wrongs can be righted merely by the effect of kindly personal contacts.

Because saints are by nature unpolitical, they are often bitterly condemned by the less understanding kind of earnest revolutionary, who cannot realize that there is a special function for saints even in times of revolution. All the same, the saints are partly to blame. They are citizens like the rest of us; and they are sometimes ineffective in relation to large-scale economic and political forces which in our day are destructive both of individual freedom and of social harmony. Certainly we should recognize that saints have their own appropriate task, and one that is no less important than that of the revolutionaries; but when the house is on fire all hands must carry buckets. The true saint will not shun this humble labour. Instead, he will turn bucket-carrying into a medium for expressing his faith. In revolutionary times the genuine saint will contrive to fulfil his special work through his practical support of the revolution. But what am I saying? Who am I that I should tell the saint what he should do?

I do not suggest that all saints who have ever chosen to withdraw from the world were necessarily sham saints. There may be periods in history when what is most needed is that some men should seek complete seclusion in order to cultivate their "spiritual sensibility," their power of regarding their whole experience at once with insight and detachment. But this course is not justified when terrible wrongs need to be righted. And I doubt whether even in a healthy society it is justified unless .here is some channel by which the illumination of the recluse may be in some measure passed on to the world.

The defenders of the monastic way of life assert that the individual's first concern should be not with the ordinary world but with the perfecting of his individual spirit, or, metaphorically, with another world, for which this world is only a preparation. Of this theory I will at the moment say only that, although it contains an important truth, it is also easily misunderstood and terribly dangerous. Paradoxically we may affirm that, though in a sense a man's first concern must be his own moral integrity, he cannot preserve this unless his attention is given mainly to service of his fellows. "He who would save his life shall lose it." Of course it is theoretically possible that the meditation and prayers of the spiritually mature recluse may in some telepathic manner strengthen the weaker brethren throughout the world; but, in default of cogent evidence, this possibility ought not to be taken as a reason for retirement from practical service.

The saint, however, has certainly a very different practical function from that of the politician. No doubt some saints may happen to have political genius, but these are rare. Most ordinary saints are quite equipped for politics. And I doubt whether even with good equipment the ordinary saint who is not exceptionally shrewd can ever be a whole-hearted and effective revolutionary. Vivid consciousness of the fundamental humanity of all men, even of the enemies of the revolution, is apt to snare him into being tolerant and conciliatory when he should be firm. On the other hand a revolution in which the saints exercise no influence is sure to degenerate sooner or later into a ruthless tyranny.

Perhaps it is not quite fair to say that the saints are likely to be too tolerant towards the enemies of the revolution. For, although saints are concerned primarily with individual relationships, and are therefore predisposed to be friendly toward all kinds of people, and often strangely tolerant toward particular individuals who sin rather through weakness than through wickedness, they are not at all tolerant of hatred and cruelty and callous self-seeking.

Sham saints, on the other hand, often indulge in a certain kind of tolerance, either through canting adulation of impartiality, or because they have no real convictions, or are morally lazy, or out of sheer stupidity. Moreover they tend to use toleration as a convenient excuse for taking no action against powerful malefactors. They reserve their righteous indignation for the sins of those who are not able to retaliate; and for those who, in our day, begin to grow restive and vengeful on account of flagrant social injustice. They wish to believe that all revolutionaries are inspired by envy and hate and the desire to produce chaos. They dare not open their eyes to the generous kind of revolutionary ardour, the burning compassion for frustrated lives, the impatience to act devotedly that others may have the chance of happiness. I would add that, even when revolutionaries do succumb to hate and the sheer lust of destruction, they are far better men than the sham saints who censure them.

The men and women whom I regard as true saints have all, I believe, a strong sense of the individuality of other people; and this in spite of the fact that they may be sometimes lacking in perception of the particular character or idiosyncrasies of others. Because of this lack, some of them are easily deceived by knaves, who trade upon their readiness to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I had better say, not that saints have a strong sense of the individuality of others, but that they have a strong disposition to treat others as real individuals, and to respect them, even if they appear inscrutable, or alien.

The saint shows his interest in individuals not merely by talking to them and drawing them out, but more particularly in imaginatively living their lives with them, and unostentatiously helping them. This he does spontaneously, not merely because he has an established principle of kindliness (though he has such a principle), nor yet simply through warm impulses of affection (though these also he may have), but chiefly because he is interested in the lives of others as the rest of us are interested in our own lives. Although in his own way the saint is very self-conscious, the distinction between "myself" and another self is not for him a very important distinction.

Here I must be careful. There are many consistently kind-hearted people who might well be called saints in a loose sense, but in the sense in which the word is used in this book they are not really saints. They conform more to the old idea of the "angelic" than to the saintly. Because they are unconsciously and without effort virtuous, they have never had to pass through the saint's agony of heart-searching and self-discipline. Nor have they known the desperately concentrated meditation which, seemingly, is the source of the saint's ultimate gentleness and strength. In the old mythology angels did not sin, save fallen angels. Saints, on the other hand, were sinners or potential sinners who by self-discipline and contemplation had been born again, had won for themselves a new nature. And because they knew so well what it was to sin, they were peculiarly charitable to sinners, and peculiarly gifted for helping sinners.

The account that saints give of their struggle with sin is something like this. There was a time, a saint may say, when he cared mainly for bodily or personal advancement. On the whole he lived by rote, without clear direction, or at least without any deep satisfaction in the aims that he pursued. His life was automatic, and a vague disgust haunted him. At last, suddenly or gradually, he began to be seriously troubled. He began to realize emotionally the difference between right living and wrong. Through the declarations of people whom he trusted, or the reports of famous saints or great men, but also through the quickening of his own sensibility, his perfunctory lip-service to morality was transformed into a vivid, overmastering sense of the triviality and baseness of his own style of life. The right way of living, he now discovered, was twofold. It involved unfailing practical friendliness toward his fellows, and it involved absolute submission to something "in the depth of" his own being, which apparently could increase his moral strength. He may say that the right way of living begins with "discovering God" in others and in himself.

According to the saint the vivid realization of the intrinsic beauty of right living, with its consequent sense of one's own sinfulness, is the first step toward being "born again," toward being psychologically remade on a new and better pattern. But though in this early stage the future saint sees or feels the beauty of right living and the foulness of sin, he cannot yet bring himself to live rightly. When he tries to do so, he fails to break the old habits. He cannot resist the temptation to continue pursuing the old seductive aims, which in his heart he has already rejected for the sake of better aims.

The saint's disposition to feel other people's interest as his own is not, then, an inborn or an easily acquired disposition. Unlike the "angelic" people, he attains it after a struggle to throw off the blinkers of the self-centred outlook. The struggle is generally long and severe, but little by little he develops a spontaneous and happy inclination to respect the individuality of others. Thus it comes that the true saint can be relied on never to let you down. Though in the political sphere he may sometimes seem unresponsive and unreliable, he is absolutely reliable as between man and man. To avoid hurting anyone he will sacrifice almost everything. He loathes to give hurt even in a good cause. And he loathes to deceive. For to deceive is to violate mutual trust, which to the saint is sacred. In his view the right relation between individuals is mutual awareness, mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual enrichment.

Because of their disposition to respect human individuality and the community-relationship of individuals, all true saints are strongly inclined toward pacifism. Many of them condemn the use of violence absolutely, as morally wrong, and as spiritually damaging to the individual who uses violence. These absolutists affirm that violence can never produce good effects. In its place they advocate persuasion and passive resistance, between individuals, between peoples, between social classes. This view is open to question; but one need not oneself be an absolute pacifist to feel convinced that when Marxists of the harsher kind ridicule or revile absolute pacifism, they miss the point of it. These harsh revolutionaries bring revolution into discredit. They give some excuse for the fear that if they were in power they would prove as insensitive and ruthless as their opponents.

All saints realize passionately the rightness of mutual kindliness and trust. They also see that these qualities are essential to any decent social life. They are convinced that people who do not feel pacifist, people who have not a strong and almost over-powering revulsion against the use of violence, are either mentally immature or mentally perverted. They recognize also that in most people, though this feeling does occur, it is easily submerged by hate and fear. They insist that the main way to increase the pacific feeling in the world is by the example of kindliness and trust, carried if necessary to heroic lengths in the face of danger.

All saints, and many of us who are by no means saints, heartily agree with this view. But some saints, and many of the rest of us, cannot persuade themselves that this principle alone is enough. This party take what they regard as a realistic view of human nature and of human society. The disposition toward evil, they say, is so deeply ingrained in human nature that in some situations men must be restrained by violence from doing irreparable harm to their fellows.

For my part I am with bitter regret convinced that absolute pacifism springs from an obsession with one good principle at the expense of all others. In our tortured world many individuals have been so perverted by psychologically unfavourable conditions that they are impervious to the appeal of non-violence. Or, if they are not strictly impervious, there is at any rate not the slightest prospect of touching their hearts in time to prevent them from doing frightful hurt to others. The absolute pacifist is so dazzled by the light of his passion for non-violence that he sometimes fails to recognize the limitations of its power over these unfortunate and dangerous persons. Nor does he fully recognize the consequences of the fact that some individuals of this type, individuals who have since youth hardened their hearts with inveterate habits of hate or fear or lust for power, to-day wield prodigious weapons of coercion and propaganda.

Some absolute pacifists, no doubt, do recognize this tragic fact. But they deny that it should persuade us to countenance violence, which, they insist, is so completely debasing that it is bound to do more harm than good. In the present state of the world this view involves deep pessimism; for there is no prospect that violence will be speedily eliminated. But it may be doubted whether violence can never produce good effects. Civilization, such as it is, could never have survived without it in the past; and it will almost certainly be necessary in one form or another for a long period to come.

Certainly, violence is always damaging to the individual who uses it, or countenances it. And it always breeds fear and hate and callousness. Certainly, nothing but the courageous will for peace, nothing but the spirit of friendliness and understanding, can do away with war. The tradition of pacific behaviour must somehow be firmly established. But in the present condition of the world it is also extremely important to establish and enforce a tradition of just dealing toward all, and of mercy toward the weak. And, if necessary, violence and the threat of violence, so long as the means for it are retained, must be used in support of this principle, even though its, use may also do great mental harm.

Horrible and "soul-destroying" as violence is, the principle of non-violence must not be set up as an absolute. The possession of power brings with it a responsibility. To refrain from succouring those who are being ill-treated is to support tyranny. To retain power, and yet not use it to prevent brutality, is base. You cannot be a pacifist with a gun in your hand. And in an armed State you cannot rightly be a pure pacifist unless you disown your citizenship and your share in the collective responsibility; and unless you stop paying your taxes.

But when I try to apply this force-countenancing principle to the actual plight of civilization to-day, I find myself faced with a grave practical doubt. Is there any serious hope that in the present international conflict and the underlying class conflict the threat or use of violence can restrain brigands and establish justice? Is it not by now obvious that in every land those who are in a position to use violence effectively are themselves to a greater or less degree tainted with brigandism? Are they to be trusted to use their power solely in support of justice and mercy?

There was a time, just after the war of 1914-18, when the pacifist spirit, if it had been conscientiously applied by Governments and the employing class, might have changed the whole course of history. The opportunity was missed. Subsequently the principle of armed Collective Security, if it had been conscientiously applied, might have established the authority of international law. That opportunity also was missed. Consequently the moral authority of Governments and of employing classes throughout the world was destroyed. Not only so, but the prestige of justice and mercy and freedom is everywhere declining. Brutality is increasingly triumphant, not only in politics but in men's hearts.

In these circumstances, even if we reject pacifism as an absolute principle, should We perhaps argue as follows? The rot in civilization, we may say, has gone so far that any use of violence is suspect. Almost certainly its real motive will be base. Consequently it is hopeless to expect violence to establish trust in the principle of justice and mercy. Consequently all those who care for this principle should dissociate themselves from all attempts to persuade existing authorities to use violence in defence of justice, and should instead concentrate on propagating the feeling for justice and mercy, and for integrity and freedom.

Perhaps this is the right course. But let us realize what it involves in the way of sacrifice. In the present state of the world its first effect would certainly be to increase the scope of tyranny, and to harm still further the very values that it was meant to defend. This may be necessary. It may be that only by passing through a terrible purgatory can we generate the moral strength to establish the spirit of peace. But let us not forgot that tyrant oligarchies to-day control not only unprecedented force but also unprecedented means of propaganda for the poisoning of men’s wills. The spirit of civilization is being steadily destroyed. It may be that unless the peoples can contrive to wrest power from tyrants to-day their minds to-morrow will be as servile as the minds of cattle.

For me personally, the upshot is this. My first duty is to keep the pacific spirit alive in myself and to spread it. by any means in my power. But since I am a member of a community which has not discarded the use of violence, I must not withdraw myself from all responsibility for its direction. Instead I must face the fact that, in the world as it is to-day, violence must sometimes be used; and that to abjure it is sometimes to betray the very cause that pacifists have at heart. Recognizing this, I must also do my utmost to ensure that violence is used as little as is possible without sacrificing the security and freedom and well-being of the majority.

After this long digression we can return to the saints. So far as they are concerned, it is clear that they all earnestly preach the will for peace, even though some of them sometimes countenance the use of violence.

This will for peace, this deep conviction of the rightness of kindliness and reasonableness, springs from their intense self-consciousness and other-consciousness. A true saint is thoroughly aware of himself. He knows himself. He knows the best in himself, and the worst in himself. He abhors self-deception as he abhors deceiving other people. He is free from "self-consciousness" in the colloquial sense just because in the literal sense his self-consciousness is so clear and penetrating. Just because he is confident that he sees through himself and beyond himself to something which he may call his God or his ideal, he is not worried about the kind of impression that he makes on other people. And so his behaviour is natural and "unself-conscious." There was a time, no doubt, when he was worried very much, not about appearances, but about his actual state. But having passed through his phase of self-searching and self-discipline, and having surrendered himself (as he might put it) into the keeping of his: God, he no longer troubles about himself. Not that he is self-satisfied. He is essentially modest,; aware of the gap between his attainments and his ideal. He knows his own weakness when faced with grave temptation. But by now he has almost completely conquered his evil will, and largely overcome his frailty. Such sins as he commits are sins rather of weakness than of wickedness. For this reason, though he may often blame himself, he is fundamentally at peace. His behaviour shows all the characteristics of the man who is at heart unperturbed, unanxious.

This inner calm seems to be maintained by the saint not only when he himself is in danger or distress but even when he is confronted by the suffering of others. In minds that are sensitive and compassionate, and more apt than most of us to sacrifice their own comfort, and even their lives, in service of others, this is surprising. Often the saint's behaviour betrays that there is a conflict in his mind between compassion and peace. But if he is a true saint compassion fulfils itself wholly in compassionate action, not in hate against individual malefactors, nor in indignation against the universe; and his inner peace expresses itself not in carelessness of the suffering of others but in the temper of his whole behaviour. Even in the fervour of compassion and devoted service he maintains his glad acceptance of the universe. This is odd, perhaps illogical; but by the test of action it is right. Historically this twofold temper has been a great civilizing influence.

The saint's emotional acceptance of the suffering and evil in the universe is of course connected with his discovery that in his own life suffering has been the means to the attainment of mental or (as he would say) spiritual maturity. So deeply impressed is he with this fact about his own life that he cannot but feel it as a universal truth. Indeed he clings to the faith that in the universe as a whole all suffering and all evil contribute to the development of mind, or the awakening of spirit.

In the long run, the longest of all possible runs, this intuitive conviction may be justified. But as an intellectual statement about the universe, as a metaphysical proposition, it is in our epoch without adequate support. The valuable core of the saint's conviction is his own experience about suffering, not the generalization that he derives from it. Suffering certainly can in some circumstances be a means of spiritual growth; but to infer that a universe in which suffering plays a large part is therefore planned for spiritual growth is illogical.

The saint's unshakable peace expresses itself all too readily in optimistic doctrines about the nature of the universe. But the fact that many of these doctrines are conceived in terms of an outworn mythology, that some are to-day quite incredible to the typical modern mind, and that all are at least doubtful, should not make us forget that in the true saint these metaphysical "rationalizations" spring from a special and I believe a very important emotional experience, an emotional acceptance of life with all its distress and horror, an acceptance which may rise to ecstatic joy, and is reported by the saint himself to be his great source of moral strength.

That this should be so must seem to some incredible. For how can the mood which accepts evil be a source of strength to the moral will which is absolutely opposed to evil? I shall not yet discuss this problem. Perhaps it is intellectually insoluble in terms of our present culture. Perhaps it is wrongly stated, and there is really no problem at all. Here I wish merely to emphasize that in practice these two emotional activities are often found to support one another. And I implore the Marxist reader, if he has not already thrown this book away in disgust, to entertain the possibility that this strange peace and joy in relation to the universe may after all have an important part to play in the founding of the new world society, and in maintaining it in a wholesome condition.

In describing his experience the saint may say that he came to be aware of "spiritual" values. What does he mean essentially by this word "spiritual", which in our day has become so lamentably debased? We must beware of condemning him merely because some of his favourite words now "date" so badly. He contrasts the "spiritual" life with the "worldly" life, which is centred wholly on, and enslaved to, everyday mundane interests. The spiritual life, he claims, is fundamentally detached from everyday interests. This does not mean that it is opposed to those interests, but that it is not obsessed by them. Nor does it mean that to live the spiritual life is to withdraw from the world. On the contrary it involves generally that one should playa vigorous part in the world; but always without enslavement, and always, so to speak, with an ear for an ulterior significance in every event. For the spiritual life, we are told, is based on deeper insight into one's own nature, the nature of others, and the nature of the universe. This insight, it is claimed, is not an intellectual understanding; it is a direct perception. So we are told. Round about this experience the saint may weave special doctrines, such as that the individual is an "eternal spirit", or that "reality is spiritual", or that "God" is love, and so on. These are intellectual interpretations, couched in language which, as he himself recognizes, is inadequate.

Modern psychology can give a very plausible account of the saint's fundamental experience in terms of established psychological principles. It is said to be at bottom a sense of ecstatic personal' well-being or euphoria, unwittingly "projected" upon the external world. Its cause may either purely physiological and "all an affair of glands", or it may be psycho-analytical and a case of morbid self-magnification, or again it may be due (we are told) to the mind's wistful creation of fantasies to appease its craving for safety.

Along with the psychologist, the philosopher may throw doubt upon the saint's contentions. .Philosophical analysis can easily make the intellectual interpretations offered by the saints appear incredible or even meaningless. The statement that a way of living is objectively "right" or "beautiful" can easily be made to look intellectually disreputable; for no logically satisfactory meaning can be given to it. Even more easily one can show the intellectual meaninglessness of the saint's contention that by concentrating on something "in the depths of our own being" we can make contact with "God". But such philosophical analysis, though it is valuable, and though it convicts the saint of a failure to express himself satisfactorily, does not disprove the worth for human beings of the experience which he is trying to describe. It proves merely that his intellectual interpretation of his experience is faulty.

We cannot blame him for this. Human language and ideas have developed under the stimulus of practical economic needs. They are ill-adapted to express experience of a very different order.

But what of the psychological criticism of the actual emotional experience on which the intellectual constructions are based? I can well believe that very much of what passes for "religious experience" should be dismissed in the manner suggested by the psychologists. But we must distinguish between experience in which one factor in the personality morbidly blots out all other capacities and, on the other hand, experience which is an expression of the fully integrated personality, in fact between sane and insane experience. Consideration of the lives of the best type of saints suggests that in them integration is not less but more complete than in most men, and that the main integrating factor is this very experience. Further, anyone who in his own life has known anything at all like the experience described by the saints cannot but recognize that it occurs only at times when he is more than normally integrated, when he is more comprehensively and more lucidly aware than usual. Moreover, he will observe that it, in turn, becomes the supreme integrating experience of his life. Thus both objectively and subjectively the genuine religious feeling, far from being a symptom of insanity, is rather an expression of abnormal sanity. For my part I am prepared to say, if psychology denies this, so much the worse for psychology. If I must choose between this infant science and this most integrating, most lucid, and most energizing experience, I must reject psychology, or at least demand that it should be modified.

What of the methods by which saints have at one time or another disciplined themselves so as to attain the spiritual point of view'? Ritual, self-denial, mortification of the flesh, "good works" (including practical undertakings both of kindliness and of piety), self-scrutiny, and contemplation of experience as a whole, are all regarded as means of purifying and strengthening the spirit. The saint himself admits that each of these methods has its special dangers. Anyone of them or all of them may become obsessive, may cease to be a means, and instead become an end, distracting the mind from the true end. The most striking and the most important part of the testimony of the saints, both great and humble, is the claim that in the struggle for self-mastery they have little success so long as they depend only on efforts of the unaided individual will. So long as the saint's attitude is simply "I will not succumb" to these temptations, he fails. Victory, we are told, is to be gained rather by surrender of the will to the control of that "something" which is felt to reside deep within the self, and yet to be infinitely greater than the individual self. Contemplation of this "something" is at once the most effective means and the supreme goal of the saint's whole adventure.

The saints insist that it is by learning to direct attention toward this inner "something", which is at first unobservable, that they begin to win mastery over the unruly impulses. It is by concentrating attention on this thing, by persistently contemplating it, or rather by passively laying themselves open to its influence, that they become in time possessed by it. Then at last the battle is won. Henceforth they have a constant light and a constant source of strength.

What is this "something" discovered in the depth of the saint's own being, and also in the world?

To this question the saints give answers which to those whose ideas are mainly derived from modern science are very unconvincing. What they believe themselves to discover is "God", or the "universal spirit". And God they conceive, if they are Christians, as in some sense an eternal but personal or "supra-personal" mind; and as the divine principle of love, which they affirm is the governing principle of the universe. They declare that the individual spirit finds union with this universal spirit, or (according to Indian saints) that it advances toward annihilation, as an individual, and absorption in the universal. They claim, too, that this discovery of God gives a man assurance that he is not ephemeral but eternal.

If the effects of the experience called "discovering God" are what the saints say they are, we had better not simply reject it out of hand as sheer delusion. And it certainly does seem to have remarkable effects in the saint's life. Nevertheless it does not follow that his description of it, and the inferences that he draws from it, are necessarily true. Some of his statements, no doubt, may have important symbolical or metaphorical truth which cannot be otherwise expressed. But to those who have not first-hand acquaintance with the saint's experience the symbolization of it is misleading. For instance, logically I cannot conceive of a personal spirit that is also "eternal", or "outside time", for passage seems essential to personality. I cannot logically conceive how the finite individual can discover in his own depth that the universe is governed according to the principle of love. I cannot conceive how in his fleeting experience he can find valid evidence about the state of the universe as a whole, or. assurance of his own immortality.

One possible consequence of the belief in personal immortality seems to me extremely obnoxious. I shall call it the attitude of "other-worldliness". Or, since that name may signify to some a very different and wholly admirable attitude, I had better call the reprehensible attitude "self-regarding other-worldliness." According to some religious people this life is of no importance save in its bearing upon individual life "in the other world". Worldly joy is simply a snare, and worldly pain a heaven-sent means to salvation in the other world. I reject this doctrine not because I can refute it, which I cannot do, but because I find no reason to believe it; and also because, quite irrationally perhaps, I feel that to dismiss all the intricacy and delicacy, all the splendour and horror, the delight and agony and infinite tedium of this world as mere probationary exercises is a. kind of sacrilege.

Nevertheless "other-worldliness", in the metaphorical sense, is a very desirable attitude of mind. Though the first task for all of us is to play an effective and right part in "this world", we cannot properly do so unless we strive to hold this world at arm's length, so to speak, and to see it and ourselves, as it were, "through the eyes of God", in detachment from all special human desires. In some moods one cannot help feeling, irrationally but not perhaps unreasonably, that in seeing the world and ourselves in this detached way we do, in some sense and to a minute extent, participate in the universal spirit. But this is an unreliable speculation on which no faith should be built.

Leaving aside this speculation, what are we to conclude about the doctrines of the saints? The difficulties in them incline one to dismiss the whole matter as sheer verbiage. But for my part, when I remember the anti-religious people and their glib arguments, I realize that these obscure phrases of the saints do refer, however misleadingly, to something which I myself in a halting way have known.

For sometimes, when I am more than usually awake, I do have a deeply moving experience. There is nothing mysterious, or in any way magical, about it. It is just ordinary experience of the world and oneself, only much more lucid and comprehensive. I cannot but regard it as the rightful compass-needle of my whole life. It may happen unexpectedly, in response to some particular and even insignificant event, which now suddenly opens up vistas of significance; or it may come when I try persistently to "get the feel of" being a self in relation to other selves and the rest of the universe. In either case it brings an unusually precise and poignant awareness both of my present surroundings and of things remote in space and in time. It seems to be simply a very comprehensive act of attention, an attending to everything at once, or to the wholeness of everything at once. And in response to all that this act of attention reveals I feel a very special emotion, which I can describe only as a tension of fervour and peace.

The experience is one which, if I were less sceptical, I might easily regard as some sort of contact with "God". But being sceptical I refrain from this interpretation. There may be a sense in which the old religious language is true, but in our day it is far less true than misleading. I am content, therefore, with the bald statement that in contemplation I sometimes have an intense exaltation about being a self in relation to other selves and the world at large. I am immensely. thankful that I and we and it exist. In spite of all the frustration and horror of the human world, I am at these times perfectly sure that all our suffering and all our baseness is somehow needed, not for our personal salvation, for of this I know nothing, but for the rightness of the universe as a whole. Though of course I know only a minute fraction of the universe, and though doubtless my knowledge of this is in many ways wildly false, yet in this state of peaceful exaltation I perceive that even in my superficial and false view there is somehow assurance of the rightness of the whole. I have at the same time a strong conviction that if I, the particular little finite timorous mind, could see the whole as it really is, I should not, after all, be able to recognize its rightness, but should probably be overwhelmed with horror, so alien would it be even to the most clear-sighted of my actual desires. Nevertheless, because of the tenor of my own immature experience, I am sure that the whole is right, with its own dread rightness. In saying this I mean that if I could both see the whole as it really is and also steel myself to feel it with appropriate courage and sensitivity, I should then recognize its rightness.

But what about this "something discovered in, the depth of one's own being"? This I interpret as a metaphorical way of saying that in persistent contemplation of myself and the world I discover, beneath all the personal desires which make up the everyday "I", another desire or will, so alien from the everyday "I" as to seem indeed another being. It is a detached will for the good, not for my good nor even for mankind’s good, but for the good of the universe, whatever that may turn out to involve. I recognize that this will ought to be the supreme determinant of my conduct, and in a fickle sort of way I strive to submit my normal self to it. I recognize also that in some sense this will is a potentiality of all minds. Inevitably the awakening of a mind must lead it to this desire, this will. Evidently, then, this will is a very important factor in the universe. But what its metaphysical status is, I do not pretend to know.

To say all this is to suggest merely my own reaction to an experience which I cannot at all clearly grasp, let alone describe. All that I can say of it is that it gives meaning to life, that it is the supreme consolation, the supreme inspiration, and yet also, strangely, a most urgent spur to action.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30