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On Being Inferior

One of the greatest disciplines of the inner life lies in the choice that is offered us as to the treatment of our own inferiority. It is a discipline which none of us is allowed to escape. Some of us are very low down. There are ranges and ranges of visible human life that are far above us. But the sense of inferiority is by no means confined to the poor or the meagrely gifted. The highest amongst men are really in the same position, and are often made to feel it the most acutely. Illustrations of this will come presently, but meanwhile the point is as to how we regard the fact in itself. That its true lesson is difficult to learn is evident from the stumbles over it that are everywhere made. There are, for instance, the meaner souls who seek to balance matters by an inane and spiteful process of levelling down; whose

...low desire
Not to feel lowest makes them level all.

A variety of the same species is the man whose morbid self-conceit leads him to fix on some chance feature of his individuality in which he surpasses his neighbours as a reason for ignoring the thousand points in which he is beneath them. Often enough the feature itself is of ludicrously small importance. Our great man is some " Thrasybulus of the ward of Stira, who had the strongest voice of any man among the Athenians." On the other hand, there are men who allow their sense of defect to crush out all manly self-confidence. It was the reverse of the true way of taking his own inferiority which led poor Benedict XII., on hearing of his election as Pope, to say to the conclave, " Brethren, you have chosen an ass." Yet, again, there are in our day not a small number who gird at their limitation of position and gifts as part of that great system of inequality which, in their eyes, is the most flagrant instance of the injustice of life, and consequently of the immorality of the universe.

It is surely not for such results that life brings us under the discipline of being inferior. In searching for the true ends of it let us try first to get at the facts of the case. What meets us at the outset is the circumstance that our inferiority one to another is mixed up in a most complicated way. There is no absolute superiority. We are all at once superior and inferior. The mixing process commences with an initial difference of rank. Mr. Gladstone was fond of saying that English society was immutably based on its finely-graded and clearly-recognised system of classes, of which the throne was the apex. The New World is spoken of sometimes as having abolished this system and founded another on the basis of human equality. It is hardly so. Names have been changed, but not things. There is no more equality in America than there is in England ; nor can be, for the thing is not in human nature. And it is amusing to think that the stoutest Republican recognises to the full the doctrine of inequality, of absolute monarchy even, in his religion, where he worships one supreme Ruler, and speaks of a hierarchy of saints and angels. No true man, in fact, girds at rank. He knows that it represents something worthy, if not in its actual possessor, yet assuredly in the force that created it. It is there, the evidence of a primal life-power that once lifted itself amongst men and made itself respected.

But the man high in social position is full, in his turn, of inferiorities. When Charles V. picked up Titian's fallen brush and handed it to the painter with the remark that he was proud to wait on so supreme a genius, the master of half the world spoke here with a full sense of an inferior towards a superior. In the artist's great realm of life he knew himself to occupy the lower place. In the yet higher sphere of the moral and spiritual this interplay of values is even more striking. The Stoic Epictetus, who had emperors afterwards for disciples, was a Greek slave. The Galilean peasant whom Pilate condemned did not dispute for a moment the higher social rank of the judge. But today the judges and great ones of the earth name the Galilean's name with religious devotion, and have no words which adequately express their sense of His rank in the world. Throughout history, in fact, the moral and spiritual superiorities seem by a kind of law to have been wedded with lowliness of outward position. Libanius made fun of the early Christians as a set of tinkers and cobblers who had left their mallets and awls to preach the kingdom of heaven. Spinoza ground lenses for a livelihood. George Fox and Jacob Böhme got theirs by cutting leather. Literature tells the same story. From Homer downwards the kings of ideas have been, as often as not, bankrupt of pocket. Yet always the wealthy and the great have felt their own smallness beside these beggars. Pauperemque dives me petit. " The rich man seeks me, the poor man," has been the poet's boast in every age.

But this, it may be said, is only a partial and specious view. To pit intellectual and moral values against material and social ones is, we shall be told, only to trifle with the subject. For when the superiorities both of money and rank and of brain and heart have been accounted for, the real question remains. These rich dowers, inward and outward, belong after all to the exceptional. What of the vast average of men, the dim multitudes, who have no special gift, either of property, rank or mind P There surely is a " being inferior " with no romance in it ; in which one fails utterly to find the ideal ! No one with open eyes will think so. The higher up a man is the more profound will be his respect for the average humanity, the more humble will he be in its presence. For it is here in the midst of the common and the normal, in life's mid-stream rather than amongst the exceptions, that he will recognise with awe the existence of a Power in humanity mightier than its own, a Power that is working out ideas infinitely greater than those of the ablest individual man.

This study of the superiority that lurks in and beneath the life of the common man is, in fact, the one thing needful and grievously lacking among the present-day accredited purveyors of our moral ideas. It would do some of our armchair theologians, who judge man-kind by their prim lists of ecclesiastical " virtues and their contrary vices," a world of good if they could spend some months amongst, say, the common sailors on board an ocean tramp. On Sundays, while the tramp's owners and the pious British public generally are at church, they would find these men at some foreign port loading grain or coal. Their language will not be ecclesiastical, and when they get a day ashore their procedures are not such as are provided for in the Assembly's Catechism. This, without doubt, is very shocking. But by-and-by it will dawn upon our theologian, if he have grace, that the moral and spiritual lack of these men is the sacrifice they are offering to the interests of the religious British public; that their Sunday and week-day labour, their exposure to the tempests of ocean, and to the thieves and harlots of the foreign port, are the price at which this stay-at-home public gets its corn and wine, its comforts and luxuries, three-parts, in fact, of all it eats, drinks and wears. It dawns upon him that if vicarious sacrifice is the highest height and deepest heart of morals, then these men, who have sacrificed the interests of their bodies and their souls for the rest of us, are in their unchurched paganism actually a great deal higher up than we. When besides he has touched hands with these men, and known their childlike simplicity, their quick response to what is higher when it is offered, their splendid courage, their noble devotion, he will be more than ever inclined when he comes back to revise his theology. He will search for some new definitions as to who is high and who is low in the kingdom of heaven.

The superior and the inferior are then, we find, lying everywhere side by side, and we are now, perhaps, furnished with an answer to the question we asked at the beginning, as to what this feature in our life is meant to accomplish in us. The true man is simply amazed at the notion that there can be any injustice in inferiority. The sense of it, rightly taken, is, he realises, one of our greatest inward helps. It is a miserable business to be perpetually looking down. What we want is something to look up to. It is the altitudes that make us climbers. An awakened nature is positively greedy after occasions for respect and veneration. And he finds them every where, and most of all amongst the commonest people. His attitude to a nature manifestly better than his own is that of a man who has come on a new treasure. A great soul is a banquet to which we are all invited. Shall we be envious that this feast of which we are partaking is so rich ? "Against the superiority of another," said Goethe, "there is no remedy but love." A deep saying, but expressing only half the truth; for where love is the light of our seeing there will be no question of "remedies against superiority. The question will be how most fully to open ourselves to its strength, and how to be lifted highest on the wings of its inspiration.

( Originally Published 1903 )

Ourselves And The Universe:
The Soul's Voice

Of Sex In Religion

Of False Conscience

Religion And Medicine

Spiritual Undercurrents

On Being Inferior

Our Contribution To Life

The Gospel Of Law

Of Fear In Religion

Life's Healing Forces

Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe



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