True Greatness Of The Old Testament - Part 5
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
And if Assyria and Babylon seem too remote, let us look nearer home for testimonies to the inexhaustible grandeur and significance of the Old Testament revelation, according to that construction which we here put upon it. Every educated man loves Greece, owes gratitude to Greece. Greece was the lifter-up to the nations of the banner of art and science, as Israel was the lifter-up of the banner of righteousness. Now, the world cannot do without art and science. And the lifter-up of the banner of art and science was naturally much occupied with them, and conduct was a homely plain matter. Not enough heed, therefore, was given by him to conduct. But conduct, plain matter as it is, is six-eighths of life, while art and science are only two-eighths. And this brilliant Greece perished for lack of attention enough to conduct; for want of conduct, steadiness, character. And there is this difference between Greece and Judea : both were custodians of a revelation, and both perished ; but Greece perished of over-fidelity to her revelation, and Judea perished of under-fidelity to hers. Nay, and the victorious revelation now, even now,—in this age when more of beauty and more of knowledge are so much needed, and knowledge, at any rate, is so highly esteemed, the revelation which rules the world even now, is not Greece's revelation, but Judæa's; not the pre-eminence of art and science, but the pre-eminence of righteousness.
It reminds one of what is recorded of Abraham, before the true inheritor of the promises, the humble and homely Isaac, was born. Abraham looked upon the vigorous, bold, brilliant young Ishmael, and said appealingly to God ' Oh that Ishmael might live before thee !' But it cannot be; the promises are to conduct, conduct only. And so, again, we in like manner behold, long after Greece has perished, a brilliant successor of Greece, the Renascence, present herself with high hopes. The preachers of righteousness, blunderers as they often were, had for centuries had it all their own way. Art and science had been forgotten, men's minds had been enslaved, their bodies macerated. But the gloomy, oppressive dream is now over. ' Let us return to Nature!' And all the world salutes with pride and joy the Renascence; and prays to Heaven : ' Oh that Ishmael might live before thee !' Surely the future belongs to this brilliant new-comer, with his animating maxim : Let us return to Nature! Ah, what pitfalls are in that word Nature! Let us return to art and science, which are a part of Nature ; yes. Let us return to a proper conception of righteousness, to a true use of the method and secret of Jesus, which have been all denaturalised; yes. But, ' Let us return to Nature ; '—do you mean that we are to give full swing to our inclinations, to throw thé reins on the neck of our senses, of those sirens whom Paul the Israelite called ' the deceiving lusts,' 2 and of following whom he said, 'Let no man beguile you with vain words, for because of these things cometh 'the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience ' ? Do you mean that conduct is not three-fourths of life, and that the secret of Jesus has no use ? And the Renascence did mean this, or half meant this ; so disgusted was it with the cowled and tonsured Middle Age. And it died of it, this brilliant Ishmael died of it ! it died of provoking a conflict with the homely Isaac, righteousness. On the Continent came the Catholic reaction; in England, as we have said elsewhere, `the great middle class, the kernel of the nation, entered the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon its spirit there for two hundred years! After too much glorification of art, science, and culture, too little ; after Rabelais, George Fox.
France, again, how often and how impetuously for France has the prayer gone up to Heaven : ` Oh that Ishmael might live before thee !' It is not enough perceived what it is which gives to France her attractiveness for everybody, and her success, and her repeated disasters. France is l'homme sensuel moyen, the average sensual man ; Paris is the city of l'homme sensuel moyen. This has an attraction for all of us. We all have in us this homme sensuel, the man of the `wishes of the flesh and of the current thoughts;' but we develop him under checks and doubts, and unsystematically and often grossly. France, on the other hand, develops him confidently and harmoniously. She makes the most of him, because she knows what she is about and keeps in a mean, as her climate is in a mean, and her situation. She does not develop him with madness, into a monstrosity, as the Italy of the Renascence did ; she develops him equably and systematically. And hence she does not shock people with him but attracts them ; she names herself the France of tact and measure, good sense, logic. In a way, this is true. As she develops the senses, the apparent self, all round, in good faith, without misgivings, without violence, she has much reasonableness and clearness in all her notions and arrangements; a sort cf balance even in conduct ; as much art and science, and it is not a little, as goes with the ideal of l'homme sensuel moyen. And from her ideal of the average sensual man France has deduced her famous gospel of the Rights of Man, which she preaches with such an infinite crowing and self-admiration. France takes `the wishes of the flesh and of the current thoughts' for a man's rights; and human happiness, and the perfection of society, she places in everybody's being enabled to gratify these wishes, to get these rights, as equally as possible and as much as possible. In Italy, as in ancient Greece, the satisfying development of this ideal of the average sensual man is broken by the imperious ideal of art and science disparaging it ; in the Germanic nations, by the ideal of morality disparaging it. Still, whenever, as often happens, the pursuers of these higher ideals. are a little weary of them or unsuccessful with them, they turn with a sort of envy and admiration to the ideal set up by France,—so positive, intelligible, and, up to a certain point, satisfying. They are inclined to try it instead of their own, although they can never bring themselves to try it thoroughly, and therefore well. But this explains the great attraction France exercises upon the world. All of us feel, at some time or other in our lives, a hankering after the French ideal, a disposition to try it. More particularly is this true of the Latin nations ; and therefore everywhere, among these nations, you see the old indigenous type of city disappearing, and the type of modern Paris, the city of l'homme sensuel moyen, replacing it. La Bohême, the ideal, free, pleasurable life of Paris, is a kind of Paradise of Ishmaels. And all this assent from every quarter, and the clearness and apparent reasonableness of their ideal besides, fill the French with a kind of ecstatic faith in it, a zeal almost fanatical for propagating what they call French civilisation everywhere, for establishing its predominance, and their own predominance along with it, as of the people entrusted with an oracle so showy and taking. Oh that Ishmael might live before thee! Since everybody has some thing which conspires with this Ishmael, his success, again and again, seems to be certain. And again and again he seems drawing near to a worldwide success, nay, to have succeeded ;—but always, at this point, disaster overtakes him, he signally breaks down. At this crowning moment, when all seems triumphant with him, comes what the Bible calls a crisis or judgment. Now is the judgment of this world ! now shall the prince of this world be cast out! Cast out he is, and always must be, because his ideal, which is also that of France in general, however she may have noble spirits who contend against it and seek a better, is after all a false one. Plausible and attractive as it may be, the constitution of things turns out to be somehow or other against it. And why ? Because the free development of our senses all round, of our apparent self, has to undergo a profound modification from the law of our higher real self, the law of righteousness ; because he, whose ideal is the free development of the senses all round, serves the senses, is a servant. But the servant abideth not in the house for ever; The son abideth for ever.
Is it possible to imagine a grander testimony to the truth of the revelation committed to Israel? What miracle of making an iron axe-head float on water, what successful prediction that a thing should happen just so many years and months and days hence, could be really half so impressive?