Of Moral Stimulants
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AT certain seasons of the year London exhibits on a great scale the phenomenon of gregarious religion. Its public halls are in requisition day by day for crowded assemblies, met there to be played upon by orators. There is an orgy of speech, of song, of excited feeling. People come up to the gatherings from town and country to be " stimulated." Where the rhetoric is unusually fervid the stimulus becomes an intoxication, which is felt to be better still. After a sufficiently long course of these exercises, mind and body have a sensation resembling that of waking after a debauch. But people recover easily—their constitutions are well seasoned—and the world goes on as before.
These gatherings are, we say, an excellent illustration of the action of moral stimulants, a subject about which neither the Church nor society in general has as yet thought sufficiently. And there is no topic about which there is greater need of clear thinking, because, both by its uses and its abuses, the moral stimulant is at every moment acting on the community's most vital parts. We need to have first a proper idea of what a stimulant is. In relation to the body we are using the term continually in a restricted and somewhat sinister application. In this department of things the " stimulant " is getting a bad name. We think naturally of alcohol, of drugs, of the spur, of some-thing which makes a man feel stronger at the moment than he really is, and which results as surely in a corresponding diminution of vital power. If this were the sole range of action of the stimulant, and if the parallel held strictly in the sphere of morals and religion, we should indeed have here an indictment of some gravity against certain areas of religious activity.
But such a conception of the stimulant would be an entirely erroneous one. There is, of course, an unhealthy action, physical and moral, of which we shall have more to say ; but what is first to be considered is the fact that in the overwhelming majority of instances the action of the stimulus is natural and wholesome. Our entire constitution, physical and moral, is constructed with a view to the stimulant. The whole muscular system, backed by the subtler one of the nerves, is worked in this way. We see, hear, think, feel, move by means of the stimulus. At every second our nerve system is in a state of new excitation, received from within or from without, and is sending its shock to the appropriate muscles. These in their turn contract with an energy proportionate to the spur received. At each moment those telegraph messengers, the afferent nerves, flash their messages to the consciousness behind, messages which in their joy or pain are at times the most tremendous of stimulants ; at each moment that mysterious force, the will, sets its current moving outward, thrills the efferent nerves with its power and purpose, and bids them with their flash of energy stir the obedient muscles into play. We have only to think of this machinery to realise how infinitesimal really—for all its seeming formidable proportions—is the abuse of the stimulant in the physical organism, as compared with its wholesome and necessary use.
Carrying all this in our minds, we can now, with less likelihood of going astray, discuss the action of the stimulant in the moral and religious sphere. Nothing is more interesting or instructive than to watch, over the vast area of human living which history opens to us, the methods employed in this business and their results. It has always been realised that if man needed a spur anywhere it was in the region of character, of the higher part of him. His animal appetites needed no help from the philosopher or moralist. They were always ready, too ready, for their part. They needed the curb more than the spur. They are the oldest in him and the most securely planted. On the other hand, the moral and spiritual are the latest features of his development. They are new born in him. The whole future is theirs, but at present they are infantile and feeble. And so at every point their force has needed to be nursed and stimulated. To guard this precious dower the religions have arisen ; in its interest philosophers have erected their systems. To enhance its authority theology has called in the tremendous conception of rewards and punishments in a world to come.
It is true that both in ancient and modern times the idea has possessed men of a time coming when character and virtue would require no stimulants of this kind ; when men would do right for right's sake alone. Thus Diderot, in his essay " Sur les Femmes," speaks of a woman who promenaded in the streets of Alexandria, her feet bare, her hair disordered, a torch in one hand, a ewer in the other, and who cried, " I would burn heaven with this torch, and extinguish hell with this water, in order that man might love God for Himself alone." And Cicero, in the De Officiis, nobly pleads for a virtue sufficient to itself without aid from gods or men. " We ought," says he, " to be convinced that though we could conceal any transaction from all gods and men, yet that nothing avaricious should be done, nothing unjust, nothing licentious, nothing incontinent." We remember how Lessing, too, in his Education of the Human Race," predicts the time when men will have no need to borrow motives from the future—" but will do what is right because it is right."
As, upon a question of this kind, we study the non-Christian nations, while we find much that is repugnant, it is not this which most strikes us. Far more impressive is the spectacle they present of an inspired movement of the human spirit. He were blind indeed who failed to see in this the working of the Power that makes for righteousness. We have here an education of the race in which at every point one recognises a Divine Preceptor every-where. We find a straining for the highest, and every known stimulus applied to the dormant faculties of the soul. Under a Plato, a Seneca, an Epictetus, philosophy becomes a theology. Epictetus might be a Methodist preacher. He is ardent for conversions. Following his system, he says, " from a shameless man you will become a modest man, from a disorderly an orderly man, from a faithless a faithful man, from a man of unbridled habits a sober man." Plato calls in the aid of external stimulants. He realises, as the modern Church realises, the power of music, properly applied, as a soul's excitant. He would agree with Luther that " music is the finest thing in the world after theology." The Greek philosopher, indeed, saw deeper into this than the moderns. In the " Re-public " he argues that rhythm and harmony enter into the deepest parts of the soul, and that by the educated sense of harmony we may discern between the good and the base, the ugly and the beautiful, in all things.
And nowhere than among those ancient peoples has there been more vividly realised, as a stimulus of the soul, the power of great dominant ideas. The Roman's patriotism may have had a lower significance than our own, but have we any such sense of what we owe to our country as that which made a Regulus go back to Carthage, to deliver himself there to torture and death, because he deemed that course necessary to the honour and welfare of Rome ? Who can read his Plutarch without realising the majesty of the ideas which stir his heroes, and the strength of the characters these ideas helped to form ! Plutarch to-day even is a great school of morals. His draught is an invigorating one. We do not wonder when we read that at the French Revolution it was on him a Carnot, a Vergniaud, a Madame Roland formed themselves.
And yet the ancient philosophy, considered as a universal moral stimulant, was a failure. Aristotle himself confesses as much. Speaking of treatises on morals, he declares that while they seem to have power to move generous and liberal minds, they have none to persuade the multitude to what is virtuous and honourable. Nor was there much moral stimulus in the classic religions. Their ceremonies were esthetic and spectacular rather than moral. In fact, as to morals, their influence, on the whole, was the other way. How get moral inspiration from the worship of gods that were themselves grossly immoral ?
It is when we take all this into review that we are able the better to estimate the new stimulus introduced into the world by Christianity. As against all that had gone before, or was outside, we have here a religion that was, for one thing, through and through ethical ; that for another possessed, apart from its precepts, a unique source of stimulus ; and that, for a third thing, set its inspired ethic working not amongst the philosophers, amongst the élite, but amongst the obscurest and most neglected portions of humanity. To the virtues of the Greek and Roman schools it brought, as Schopenhauer himself acknowledged, a new passion, the passion of love, of tenderness, the passion for helping and saving men. Personality, as the world is now beginning to recognise, is the foundation of everything, and the new Gospel won its fight in the old world, as it does in the new, for the reason that its doctrine of love centred in a Personality with an absolutely unique example of love in Himself and in the power to create it in others. We have spoken before of the moral stimulant of great ruling ideas. There has been no idea so potent in stimulus of character as the faith and trust that have anchored themselves on Christ. What a testimony to this is Renan, where, as an avowed outsider, speaking of the Port Royalists, he says, " Sister Marie-Claire exclaiming ` Victory ! Victory ! ' with her last breath, may have been sustained by a faith no longer our own, but she proved that man by his will creates a force the law of which is not the law of the flesh. She set forth the nature of the spirit by an argument superior to all those of Descartes and in showing us the soul quitting the body as a ripe fruit drops from its stalk, she taught us not to pronounce too lightly on the limits of its destiny."
With this unequalled stimulant in its keeping the problem of the modern Church is how to apply it. We are here immediately on the question of uses and abuses. As a matter of fact, and dealing with the broad masses of the people, there is at present no great danger of producing too much moral intoxication. The spiritual sense of the British public is not at all overcharged. It can stand a large amount of prodding. The man who can gather together the multitude from its ordinary occupations and dissipations and pour on them the stores of purifying emotion that are hid in the Gospel ; who can in this way create a contagion of love, an enthusiasm for righteousness, is doing the best possible service to Society and the State. The point here is that the exaltation must be a normal and not an abnormal one. The process should, in fact, be like that of kindling a fire. We set light to the paper and the wood in order that, when their crackle is over, there may be the stead-fast heat of the coal.
There should, in these matters, be no emotion which stops with emotion. Few addresses, we suppose, have been more immediately powerful than those of Napoleon to his troops. But they were always an incitement to action. Their effect did not rest in feeling. It showed in the battle that followed. We have no business to stir men, unless it is to fight or to work. The mischief of much of our religionising today is that its heady draught is for intoxication rather than for business. A revival that simply burns up the emotional fuel of a neighbourhood ; that is an affair of singings and shoutings rather than of ethical renewal ; that puts lyric exaltation and fevered imaginings in the place of a changed character—is a species of mental dram drinking, which people were better without. As Mrs. Poyser, in an immortal pronouncement, has made plain to us, the stimulus should be that of food rather than of medicine.
A final word. No one can study such a theme as this, on any broad scale, without realising the high destiny of the human spirit. The movement it discloses has been so uniform, so universal, towards so evident an end. The spiritual faculty in man is here today. It is only beginning to show its infinite capacity. All things conspire for its development. The story of the world is the history of its incessant stimulation. And the process will go on for ever, because as surely as our planet is stirred through spring and summer through the light and warmth the sun pours on it, so surely are we wrought on for ever by a Sun behind the sun, whose light and heat are the forces by which our soul grows, and by which the Eternal Kingdom eternally comes.