The Irrepressible Conflict
( Originally Published 1912 )
The flesh lusteth against the spirit.—Paul.
Alas! while the body stands so broad and brawny, must the soul lie blinded and dwarfed ? —Carlyle.
Each reader of ancient and middle-age and modern literature is impressed by the continuity and similarity of human thought and expression. Given the same kind of facts and the same kind of mind to contemplate them and the results will be similar. This is equally true of the facts of external nature and those of the soul.
In 1679 Hennepin visited Niagara and wrote a description of the cataract. Nearly one hundred years later Charlevoix visited and described it. Still later Chateaubriand and, in our own century, Tyndall was drawn thither to behold its grandeur and each re-corded his impressions concerning it. All do not de-scribe it in the same terms, but all mean the same thing. Hennepin calls it "a prodigious fall of water to which the world does not offer a parallel." Charlevoix calls it "a mighty cataract surpassing in grandeur anything his mind could conceive." Chateaubriand said he felt while viewing it as if he were standing in the presence of the Almighty. Tyndall speaks in more exact and scientific terms than his predecessors, but all were equally impressed by its sublimity. Mean-while, whatever the description may be and long before there was any attempt to describe it, the great cataract kept up its constant thundering.
In human life similar unceasing phenomena seems to exist. They wait for each generation to come and report them. By whomesoever observed and in what-ever terms they may he described, they are present from generation to generation and from age to age.
Such is that of the warfare between sense and soul or between the lower and higher parts of. life. In every age there have been those who saw and deplored the necessity for this unceasing battle. The earliest Hindoo books contain many allusions to it. Many of Plato's sentences show how the spirit of man is entangled with base desires and passions. Not long before Paul wrote that the flesh often gains a victory over the soul Virgil uttered this lament:
"In woeful guise at Pleasure's gate
Living in a similar splendid, but corrupt age Angelo made eternal sleep a cure for all the woes of the spirit overborne by base passion. The statue symbolizing Night is represented as speaking thus: "Sleep is sweet; and yet more sweet it is to be of stone while shame and dishonor last. Fortunate am I not to see, not to hear. Forbear to arouse me. Ah! speak low."
Impossible to relate when man became conscious of the conflict going on in his own being, it is very certain that its beginning antedates written history. Those strange creations of imagination representing creatures, partly human, partly animal, are perhaps the attempt to suggest the union of intelligence and passion. The word "sphinx" is made from a Greek verb which means to join or bind together. Thus a Sphinx is often a creature in which the animal and the human nature are united in one form. That in which the body is human and the head animal symbolizes a life wholly mastered by sense. The higher nature has become the slave of the lower. Such was the horrible form that Dante calls "the infamy of Crete,"—the Minotaur dwelling in darkness, to which Athens was compelled to offer an annual sacrifice of youths and maiden. Those forms in which the body was animal and the head human represented a union of the two natures, but mind was the master. The appetites and passions were under full control of the intellect. Such were the fabulous centaurs. The brute is subordinate; the man rules. Such, too, is the famous image near the pyramids of Egypt. Every line of the body suggests strength and animal ferocity, but, surmounted by the human head, all strength is controlled, all savagery subdued. The victory of the higher over the lower is complete. Calm, passionless, with no hint of struggle, the great face looks over the Nile, over the plains beyond the Nile, and onward into space beyond the plains. Secure in its triumph, it seems to be waiting through all the ages for man to pass from his struggles to a similar victory. No one knows definitely how long a time it has thus crouched in the sand and gazed at the great East. It was there twenty-three hundred years ago when Herodotus visited Egypt. No one knows how much longer it will remain there. But let us trust that before the blazing sun and the driving sands have worn away its granite form, that which it symbolizes may have become a reality.
The method of life called monasticism was another sign of the irrepressible conflict. It was a formal protest of the soul against the invasions of its ancient enemies. Christianity has had its share of this kind of life. Historians devote some chapters explaining its movements in the development of that religion. But monasticism is much older than Christianity. Not only did John the Baptist live much in the wilderness subsisting on plain food and clad in 'coarse raiment, but the prophets of the older religions dwelt for much of the time apart from the cities that had become the homes of luxury and vice. So great seemed the odds against them they deemed it better to retreat from the crowd and renew the conflict where the enemy was not so strongly intrenched. Socrates walked through the streets of Athens in coarse dress and bare-foot reproving the luxury of his fellow-citizens. Zeno taught that virtue came by the way of self-denial. Diogenes, by his indifference to all acquired habits, rebuked his companions. When Christianity came, many went apart and lived in caves and tombs and on high pillars that they might diminish temptation and the more easily gain a victory over sense. But long before that time there were many who had struggled against the enslavement of the soul. Christianity did not begin the battle between the lower and higher powers of life. It only renewed the conflict. It did not discover the sovereignty of the soul. It only sent some new troops to march under its flag.
It is probable that consciousness came gradually to the race, as thus it comes to each individual. Some-times, indeed, it seems to come suddenly, like a flash from heaven; but that which seems to come instantly is more probably only a realization of consciousness. A flower may open suddenly on some morning, but it passed through many stages of growth before that result was reached. It is thus with spiritual consciousness. It must have been a slow growth. There must have been a time when only such instincts as are common to all material life were present. Man was "a creature moving about in worlds not realized.". Then there was a slow emerging from the darkness out into the twilight. There were hints that life has something more enfolded within it than mere physical wants. A faint flush was seen on the horizon of existence. There was a hope, a half expectation as banners of light were unfurled in the spirit's orient. Then, as the new day poured its splendors down into the valleys of life, there came the thrill of perfect consciousness. The soul was born. When this was accomplished the struggle between the different powers of life began.
Each type of nature has a character peculiar to itself. This determines its place in the order of things. So long as all the laws of its being are obeyed there is no warfare waged within itself. There may be a struggle with its surroundings, but while the plant or animal follows its instincts it is at peace. It is not so with man when he begins to reflect. Then he realizes the contradictions within himself. If one would have peace he must avoid introspection. When Paul said that wishing to do good, evil was present with him and Horace said, "I see the good and approve, but follow the evil," they were reporting a common experience. They spoke for us. Every man finds his inclination confronted by his conscience,—as when the prophet, bent on an evil errand, was opposed in the way by a reproving angel. Like the young Hercules, every youth comes to a point where his path divides, and, while desire would constrain him to go in one, duty beckons him to go in another direction. Our earth nature is hindered in its low content by our celestial nature.
"A spark disturbs our clod."
This unrest is a part of the price paid by man for his high place in nature's order. That it is worth all it costs seems undoubted. It is better to be a soul than to be a stone though carved into a perfect statue; better to be a soul than a tree however well planted and nourished by generous soil and sun; better be a soul than an animal however free to obey its instincts, but devoid of aspiration and possessing no consciousness of alliance with the august Power that made and maintains the world.
There may be transient moments in which life is counted as not worth its cost. Submerged by sorrow, racked by pain, smarting under defeat, tortured by the sense of failure, or burning with remorse there may be times when non-existence might seem desirable. When hungry and faint, one sold his birth-right for a meal. So there are times when the soul would trade itself for something worth much less than it, but with capacity to furnish present pleasure and means of supplying immediate wants. One of the verse-makers, striking a balance between its cost and its value, decided that human life is a poor investment. He states the cause in this way.
"Enough of good to kindle strong desire,
But nature is corrective and self-righting and such moods are transient. The prevailing sentiment is that life is valuable enough to fully justify its expense. It is better to have lived and struggled and suffered than not to have lived at all. The luxury is worth all it costs.
The philosophers tell us that the Persian doctrine of Dualism should have no place in modern thought. They say that the world is not the product of two spirits, one good and one evil, but of one force acting in different ways. That which shows itself externally as body and internally as spirit comes from the same source. The name given to this way of thinking is Monism.
As a philosophy, perhaps this is more correct; and yet it does not remove all difficulties. There is still a certain dualism in human experience. Zoroaster and some of the early Christian teachers thought that matter is demonic and spirit divine. We need not agree with them; and yet we may see that there is often lack of harmony between the powers of nature. It is sometimes very difficult to maintain the right balance between the claims of the body and the claims of the mind. But this balance is what is needed. It is the only way to end the struggle.
There is no use in framing an indictment against material wants and bodily pleasures. It would be thrown out of court if reason were on the bench. As a piece of mechanism the body is wonderful. Torrents of energy sweep through it as regular as the tides. There is a net work of muscle and nerve more cunningly woven than Penelope's web. Animated by a self -replenishing, self-regulating fire, the same heat is maintained for the blood among the snow plains of Siberia and the orange groves of Florida. What concentration of power on a given point; what suppleness and swiftness of action when fully informed by will; what poise and symmetry! Miracle of use and beauty, it is no wonder the Greeks loved the human body and were constantly painting and chiseling its ideal form. Nature did not blunder when she made it and ordained all its senses as ministers of pleasure. The eye shall not be censured because it loves to linger among beautiful forms and colors. The nerves of sensation have a divine right to tingle with delight. The ear is not sinful because it prefers harmony to discord and is ravished with joy when the air is all trembling with sweet sounds.
Thus the case may be strongly stated on the side of sense. It is unwise to under-estimate its claims. Nature does not ask her children to become anchorites and turn their backs upon all the delights she has so lavishly provided for them. She asks them to hear and see; to eat and love; to keep healthy blood in their veins; to be hospitable to pleasure; to be real men and women and not affect the manners of angels.
Wisdom consists in avoiding extremes. The coarse sensualists of history made the mistake of wandering from the middle path. The air-fed, attenuated ascetics made the same mistake, only wandering in the opposite direction. Nature punished both classes. The former sank and perished in their own corruption. The latter became the victims of hallucinations and the prey of their own introverted passions. Their piety was a disease. It was spiritual insanity. Both classes merit contempt or pity. The lesson of these historic examples is that nature gives the greatest usefulness and greatest happiness to those who best guard the rights of man as a being both material and spiritual.
Once a queen sailed up the river Cydnus to meet her lover in a barge which poetry, copying history, says:
"Like a burnished throne
Not very far away from that scene of sensual luxury, either in time or distance, there was a man living in the desert, clothed in coarse raiment, subsisting on scanty food and despising even the comforts of life. In his attitude toward pleasure he was as far away from Egypt's queen as the north pole is from the equator. But neither of these types of humanity furnishes the true philosophy of life. Too much self-indulgence is bad, but so is too much self-denial.
"For earthly needs
It is a happy day for a human being when he has learned how to use the world without abusing it. Moderation is that virtue by which the mind knows when to stop. Many questions of right and wrong are merely questions of more or less. Moderation means that there is neither too much nor too little. It is reason applied to food, to pleasure, to work. The life, thus guided, will escape many a defeat for it will escape many a battle. Life should not be a barren desert without a single oasis to rest and cheer the traveler. Neither should it be an overgrown garden where, by their own rankness, flowers smother them-selves, turning their petals into mould and their fragrance into malaria. It should be a great open field of use and beauty. The only way to stop the war between sense and soul is by framing a treaty in which each agrees to respect all the natural rights of the other.
That provision be made for amusement is not only wise, but it is necessary. That man can laugh is a suggestion that he ought to laugh. Play is as necessary as work. Society needs rational work and rational religion, but it also needs rational amusement. The theater, the games, the dance, the pleasures of field and forest and stream, the light book may all be accepted by society. It is only when they become excessive that they become dangerous. It is only when they invade territory that does not belong to them that they are to be resisted. The war against them need not be one of extermination, but one of regulation. It is only to define and establish boundary lines.
One of the most pathetic scenes is that of men and women who are overloaded with duties. Each year, each month, they seem to bend lower beneath them. What a gift to them would be a few months of idleness! But onward they go without sufficient rest or amusement until they sink beneath their load.
Society furnishes another picture almost as sad. It is the sight of those who are carrying no burden. They resemble the lilies of the Testament. They toil not neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory fell below them in food and drink and raiment and means of pleasure. The only thing weighing heavily upon them is time. If they are weary it is only of them-selves. They are often bored, but never serious. If they shed tears it is over some small disappointment instead of some great human sorrow or misery.
It is a pity that society furnishes these two 'extremes: one class, from too much work, destroying their bodies; the other, from too little work, destroying their souls. It would be a good thing if some means could be devised for changing these conditions. The multiplication of tasks in our complex civilization may increase the number of those who die too soon from overwork; while the vast accumulations of private wealth may increase the number of those who die too soon from over-rest and luxury. The world's necessary work should be more evenly distributed. Those who have no duties might lift a part of the burden from the shoulders of those who have too many duties. If this were done, no needed task would remain un–performed and no heart would be deprived of its rightful share of rest and amusement. It surely was not intended that any one should deny himself all pleasure and work himself into an early grave. Neither was it intended that any one should turn away from all duties and make sensual pleasure his only aim. Stoic-ism and Epicureanism are equally unable to perfect life. Happiness is composed of self denial and self enjoyment commingled in right proportion. Life should be a temperate zone where wheat and flowers grow in equal profusion. In music there is a blending of notes, low and high. So our sensuous delights and spiritual duties should be in perfect accord. The base notes, moving along close to the ground, should be in full sympathy with those more spiritual tones which move forward in the upper air.
It is well to know the two-fold nature of life. It is well also to know that while these qualities are different, they need not be forever antagonistic. When life is fully possessed with wisdom the conflict ceases. It is out of sense and soul, not battling as enemies, but working together as friends, that happiness comes. It is a happiness so inwoven with all external beauty and the mind's thought that it seems almost perfect. No adverse fortune can take it away nor can the shadow of the tomb becloud its brightness. Gathering earth's joys as freely and as innocently as a child might gather flowers in the May woods, but not failing to fill the mind with noble thoughts of God and the heart with pure friendships for man, may we all find such happiness.