The Children Of This World Are Wise
( Originally Published 1903 )
Do not question the truth of this text, but I cannot fail to observe in it the most familiar defence of worldly wisdom against the spirit of idealism. The objection to idealism which we most commonly hear is this, that it is well enough in theory, but that it does not work in practice; and if it be really true that worldly wisdom and idealism are irreconcilable, then most people must hold to the first. They have to live on this earth, and to deal with life as it is; they must accept the inevitable, even though it costs them a moment of deep regret to abandon their idealism. This world calls for worldly wisdom; another world may be blessed with light—on this stone of stumbling many a life which has already overcome the common temptation of selfishness is still wrecked and lost.
The first thing that strikes us, then, in this dangerous text is its high appreciation of what it calls the children of this world. Indeed, these people are never so severely handled by Christ as are the priests and the devout Pharisees of his time. Such sayings as: "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you," are not uttered against the children of this world. The children of this world know what they want and pursue the end they set before themselves with energy and persistence, putting away all that stands between them and it; and this the children of light, at least in their earlier stages of development, seldom do. Still further, the children of this world are not wholly impervious to the higher motives of life. Their hearts are not the rock where the good seed falls in vain. They are merely the soil which is choked by other growth, where the seed takes root but cannot prosper. The children of this world may at any rate claim that it is not they who have built the crosses and scaffolds for the servants of the truth.
We must not then think of the children of this world as absolutely bad or as unappreciative of the excellent. On the contrary, they are generally better than they pretend to be, and among them are many persons who are, as it were, hypocrites reversed; who conceal, that is to say, their best thoughts. What they lack is commonly the courage to be good. They do not have a sufficiently substantial confidence in the moral order of the world to guide them in the struggle for existence. And, in fact, this assurance of the moral order does not at first sight appear to be justified. On the contrary, one who deserts the wisdom of the world must anticipate, first of all, that he will be deserted by the world and that he will not improbably pass the greater part of his life in uncertainty whether he has chosen the better path. Such is the testimony of all who have practically followed this path and have not merely heard of it or preached about it. Thus, the children of this world are simply the people who prefer to travel the common and well-known road. The unfamiliar path may appear to them in theory very beautiful and sublime, but they do not find it a practicable path to follow.
1t is still more difficult to say who are the children of light. It is true that the Gospels sometimes mention them, but what is the meaning of the light of which the Gospels speak? Whence comes it, and how does it shine into the life of men? Here we touch 'at once the greatest of human problems. Whence come we? Whither do we go? What is our destiny? All that can be said in plain words of the children of light is this: that they are seeking that which is beyond reality, and are receptive to the suggestions of the ideal world. The children of light are those who supremely desire something bet-ter than to eat and drink and tomorrow die.
This is the motive which most stirs their hearts and wills, and out of this desire comes to them by degrees, first, faith, and then conviction.
This way to the light is in a certain degree indicated in the Gospel of Matthew: " Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God"; and it is more precisely described in the Gospel of Luke:". if thy whole body be full of light, the whole shall be full of light"—a passage whose exact meaning no one has clearly determined. Beyond such evidence as this one can hardly go; for, if we do, the children of this world, who know nothing of such experiences and regard them as extravagances or worse, will at the best turn away like Felix and the Athenians, saying: "We will hear thee again of this mat-ter"; having no more inclination than Felix :o be further drawn into such disturbing and unprofitable discussions. The dreams of the children of light, they will say, lead to nothing and had better be forgotten.
1t must be sadly confessed that a great part of religious instruction has been singularly unfruitful. Indeed, religion cannot be imparted by instruction. It assumes not only a faith in that which is beyond the world of knowledge, but also a faith in the teachers of religion. The teachers of religion, therefore, can, at the best, only produce in one a kind of mental disposition. They can free the mind from disinclination to their view or from positive incapacity to share it, and they can fortify conviction by their teaching. This limitation in religious instru ction has more than one cause. 1t sometimes happens; because the hearer's way of life is in-consistent with idealism. It is. also, and quite as often, caused by a false definition of religion—the notion that religion is a matter of doctrine, a kind of science which can be taught and learned.
Wherein, then, it will be asked, lies the ad-vantage of the wisdom of the light over the wisdom of this world? Surely, the wisdom of the world is a more obvious possession, and guarantees to us more of the good things of life than the children of light can secure. The advantage of the children of light, I answer, is threefold. It is to be found, first, in the assurance that they are the possessors of truth and are made thereby inwardly and wholly at peace. Lessing, in his well-known words, announced that truth was not a thing which men should desire to possess. Happiness, he conceived, was to be found in the search for truth, not in its possession. But the possession of the truth brings with it the only true happiness—a happiness which is abundant and unspeakable, and which no man who has in any degree obtained it would exchange for all the other good things of earth. For the fundamental question is not of possessing any definite outward thing, but of the inward happiness attained through that possession. Even the selfish, the envious, and the self-indulgent do not regard that which they want to possess as their real aim. 1t is only in their eyes the essential means to the real end, and that end is their own inward happiness. And this is precisely where they are self-deceived. For there is this solemn fad about the order of the world, which reveals itself to every candid observer, --that such people may attain all that they earnestly desire, yet not attain with it their own peace. Their attainment itself, their very success, becomes their punishment. All this may be perhaps somewhat hard to under-stand, but for the moment it may be accepted merely as a working hypothesis, and one may later observe in life whether it is not true. It is by using thus a working hypothesis that even natural science most easily reaches the truth.
The second advantage which the spirit of the truth, as we may paraphrase it, has over the wisdom of this world is this: that when brought to the test it is in reality much wiser than worldly wisdom. Nothing but the wisdom of the children of light is in harmony with the real laws of the universe. That is the reason why these seemingly unwise persons still for the most part pass through the experiences of life with less trouble and harm than the wise of this world. The con-sciences of the children of light are undisturbed, and a troubled 'conscience embitters the best joys. They pass through life also with much less hurry, worry, and fear, both of people and of events. None of these distresses of life is to be escaped except through this frame of mind. Finally, they live more peacefully—not only in their own hearts, but also with other people—because they live without the passions, hatreds, and jealousies which make life hard to endure. Even those who do not desire for themselves this habit of mind, and are not indeed capable of it, as soon as they are convinced that the children of light mean what they seem, that their attitude is not merely a cloak to cover the wisdom of the world, and that they are not vain and supercilious, grow more attached to these Idealists" than to people like themselves. The affection which goes out toward such per-sons is quite beyond parallel. It is the reverence, for instance, felt toward characters like Nicolaus von Flue, or Francis of Assisi, or Catherine of Siena, or in our own time Gordon Pasha. Thousands, for example, in all lands deeply lamented General Gordon's death and felt it to be a national disaster, although they had not the least notion of following his life. It is a form of sentiment which the most distinguished and most successful political ruler of our own time does not inspire. Persons like these, just because they have denied themselves what seem to others the good things of life and have abanoned the competition for them, have be-come the true rulers of their people and the heroes of humanity. Truth, happiness, freedom from fear and care, peace with oneself and with all men, the sincere respect and affection of all,—one would think that these might be recognized as beyond a doubt the good things of life, compared with which the accumulation of wealth, the increase of honor, and the resources of luxury have no weight or significance. Indeed, the blessings of the children of light would outweigh the rewards of worldly wisdom, even if these re-wards could be attained with certainty and without the bitterness, anxiety, and rivalry which inevitably accompany them.
Lastly, these ideal possessions have this further advantage, that when attained, they are secure; and that they are within any one's power to attain. One need only desire them seriously and wholly, and cease from a hesitating dependence on the wisdom and the successes of this world, and then, as many witnesses will testify from their own experience, the blessings of the children of light are surely attained. It may not be through one effort. Indeed, in most cases, it only happens after one or more crises in one's life —crises which are in fact not unlike death itself, and in which a man renounces all his early hopes. 1n such a crisis, however, the worst of the way of light is passed. 1n every-thing else it is a much easier and more agree-able way than the worldly way, and one is sure to meet much better' company.
Christ has compared his way of life to the bearing of a yoke, and indeed it always is a yoke; but compared with other ways of life, it is a much easier and lighter yoke. That is the testimony of all, without exception, who have ever borne that yoke, and not one single person has ever been found who, at the end of such a life, whatever may have been its outward circumstances, has looked back upon it with regret, or has confessed that the way of the world was better and happier. On the other hand, how many there have been since the days of King Solomon who have come to the end of a life which, to the wisdom of this world, seemed successful and free, and have found it only "vanity of vanities."
One would think that this single fa& of human experience would be decisive. It fails of its effect only, as we know, because the lower wisdom withholds one from that higher wisdom which ventures the larger gain for the higher stake. Yet, I will not reproach those who follow the lower wisdom. I simply leave it to the reader's own reflect-on to decide whether, on weighing the case as he best can, and considering the conditions in which human life is ordinarily placed, he will do better to choose the lower or the higher way. For, after all, the most foolish people are beyond question those who follow this pilgrimage of life for seventy or eighty years, without ever clearly deciding whether to choose the wisdom of this world or the wisdom of light; and to this class of foolish persons, who, for the most part, accomplish nothing in the world, belong, curiously enough, a very considerable number of what we call the cultivated people of our day.