The Mind's Hospitality
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
OF the hospitality in which both mind and body are partakers there surely is no more delightful picture than that with which Plato opens the " Symposium." Here are meats and drinks for the appetite, but so much more ! Observe the courtesy, the good-fellowship, the wit and wisdom of the company. Uninvited guests in the person of Socrates and his friend suddenly appear. How cordially they are welcomed ! The treatment of the servants, too, by their master Agathon is so noteworthy. He will not give them orders. He says, " Imagine that you are our hosts, and that I and the company are guests." Has our civilisation produced anything finer than that, in its gracious delicacy of feeling ? And then the banquet, instead of degenerating into an orgy, as was the beautiful way for so many generations in Christendom, be-comes the scene of a discussion which reaches the highest realms of thought. That, surely, is the ideal hospitality—a banquet of the soul. But the minds that enjoy such feasts must first themselves have had a long training in the functions of host and guest. Let us look into this a little.
The mind of an educated man is the most generous host in the world. The gates of the house are open night and day, and the stream of visitors is incessant. They come from far and near, and are of every kind and quality, and they find permanent lodging. Recent investigation has deepened the conviction, early entertained by philosophy, that in its back chambers the soul retains every impression that has been made upon it, and can reproduce it under certain conditions. What our immediate consciousness seems to have forgotten, a deeper part of us has not forgotten. We may quote here the French psychologist, M. Maxwell : " The personal consciousness is only a facet of that more general consciousness existing in us, a consciousness where all antecedent experiences are piled up, where all our sensations are registered, be our personal consciousness aware or unaware of them." The mind staggers at the thought of this countless array of its guests, to whose number fresh myriads are added each day, all permanent forces, all active within us, shaping our personality and our destiny !
There are some special aspects of our mind's hospitality which need, above all things, to be understood in our day, so vital is their bearing upon character and life. Every man of us, for instance, has to deal with mental guests of the most opposite character, and the question is, What shall be our reception of them ? As illustration of what we mean, here are some of the books which the present writer in the course of his ordinary studies has just gone through. The experience is the more suggestive as it is entirely ordinary. The list we find includes : " The Autobiography of George Müller, of Bristol," the Address to the Congregational Union of Dr. Forsyth, the two volumes of Dr. Russel Wallace's " Life," and a re-study of Plato's " Republic." The complete list would be much longer, but let us stop at these. In George Müller we have a saintly man, of extraordinary depth of religious experience, the outcome of which was a public work of incomparable usefulness. Mixed with the faith which wrought these wonders there was, we read, with George Müller a profound belief in the full inspiration and inerrancy of every word of the Bible, the book which he studied to the exclusion, in later years, of almost every other. Dr. Forsyth, in a deliverance of remarkable depth and power, advocates a doctrine of Atonement and of grace which Müller would have been delighted to recognise, but combines with it a view of the Scriptures which the Bristol saint would have rejected with horror. In Wallace's life we have the story of a man of genius and of intense sincerity, the intimate of Darwin, of Lyell and of Huxley, who is won from a position of scientific agnosticism to one of religious belief by his investigations in spiritualism. And, finally, Plato offered us for the twentieth time his conception of the perfect life, individual and communal, a conception which knows nothing of the Scriptures, of the Atonement, of the doctrine of grace.
What is to be the attitude of the earnest mind, in its contact with these other minds, all equally in earnest ? How shall we save ourselves from utter confusion amid the Babel of opposing authorities ? Of course, there is one way which many excellent people have followed and do follow—that of simple exclusion. They read and hear nothing from the contrary side. There are religionists who know nothing of science, and scientific men who know nothing of theology. And it will not do to be too impatient with this attitude. A wide and sympathetic study of human nature forces more and more upon us the conviction that the power which is moving humanity to its high destinies has deliberately, in many instances, formed and used the closed mind for some of the best work. We shall never understand history without recognising the mission of illusion. There are men set to see one side of truth, a side big enough in itself to fill their soul, and to produce in them precisely the force requisite to the doing of their own work in the world. It is when we have properly understood this that we shall avoid the narrowness of calling other men narrow.
But all have not this mission, nor this class of mind. The highest and most difficult task in the education of our race falls to those who see not one side, but all sides ; who welcome every guest who brings what he holds to be a truth ; who weigh dispassionately each claim, and give it its due place, and who, in their doctrine of life show how these differing voices in their combination make a vaster and deeper harmony. To reach that standpoint is no easy task. It has meant for some of us to journey through a great and terrible wilderness, where at times the fainting soul loses- all expectation of reaching the promised land. He who has known what it is to find his inherited faith shattered by what seemed an irrefutable opposing argument, will understand what we mean. He knows that inward desolation when the heavenly lights which guided him have gone out, and there is without and within a darkness which may be felt. That staggering experience came to the present writer when, as a raw student, he first read Comte. But these mental phases, we find after-wards, are amongst the best features of our training. They are like the recruit's first battle. He knows now the smell of powder. When the guns go off later on he feels none of the first tremors. We can read a dozen Comtes to-day without turning a hair. We learn by this discipline the true function of the negative. It comes not to destroy, but to widen and purify our positive. The " no " of our opponent makes our " yes " fuller than it used to be, and better worth believing. We discover, in fact, that the " no " is not only in our opponent ; it is in us, and there always to help the inner building, to clear the ground of rubbish. Knowing all this we join heartily with Kipling in those rollicking but deep lines of his :
Something I owe to the soil that grew,
In those of us who have reached this point, one irrevocable determination has emerged. It is that of being hospitable to all great thinking and all great living, but to be enslaved by none of it. We are determined on never being tyrannised over by goodness, any more than by badness. To weak minds the reading of religious biography is, in some of its effects, almost as disastrous as dram drinking. The poor souls think they must straightway model their whole selves on this man they read about. They must adopt all his opinions, all his narrowness. It is so utterly wrong. The great fact, the great life are there to instruct, to inspire, but never to dominate us. God has made you and me to be a separate thought of His own, not to be a pale reflection of someone else. We welcome our mind's guests, and all they offer us. There shall be a free exchange of courtesies and good offices. The interview leaves us, let us hope, helped and stirred. But heaven help us if it has robbed us of ourselves !
This openness of the mind will not be an in-difference to the character of the guests. Far otherwise. To freedom of access will be joined the most rigid discrimination. Into such a soul a truth, though clad in humblest guise, unpopular, scorned and hated, issuing from the most ill-reputed Nazareth, if it prove its claim, will be admitted. On the other hand the fraud, the unfounded assumption, though splendidly apparelled and heralded with utmost pomp, will be quietly but decisively put to the door.
Finally, the mind's hospitality will have its most gracious exercise in the preparation for and reception of the highest guests. And here we are thinking not of the great minds that teach us from all the centuries. For these indeed there is proparation needed. The mind must be perpetually enlarged to give them houseroom. But there are greater even than these that come to us. Man is a haunted being. His soul is the playground of spiritual forces beyond his knowing. Behind all our conceptions, our imaginings, is a something unexpressed, deeper than all expression or even comprehension. It is when we turn to this region we understand that " the final mystery is oneself." It is out of its dim shadow-land that all the deepest, newest truth emerges. And it is here, down at the centre, we learn that the secret of life is a spiritual one. Says Emerson, " the foundation of culture as of character is at last moral. If we live truly we shall see truly." It can be put in higher terms than these. The capacity of becoming conscious of the Infinite, which Lotze declares to be the speciality of the human mind, is another way of describing the highest of the mind's hospitalities. For the soul can receive this Infinite. But only in one way. The August Visitant comes to the pure in heart. The blessed are those whose daily vision and whose daily guest is God.