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Our Moral Variability

ONE of the supreme questions concerning a man's character is that of the range of its variation. We want to know about him not simply what he is to-day, but what he may be to-morrow. He is never in one stay, but is perpetually passing from one moral grade to another. This movement will be within certain limits. A. correct estimate of him will require that we know these limits, and that we are able to strike the middle point between his best and his worst. But a closer observation will reveal a movement not only of the man within the limits, but also of the limits themselves. And here a curious thing is to be noted. In the order of human development extremes meet. For the two points of least variation are at the bottom and the top. The rudest savage and the most perfect character agree in presenting the minimum of moral variability. It is on the way from the one to the other that we find the maximum of oscillation. The brute and the saint san each be reckoned on for what they will do under certain conditions. The man and the woman between these points, that is, shall we say, our noble selves, are the puzzling, if not the unknown, quantity.

It is difficult to say anything about a character, even our own, until it has been put through certain tests. Our progress through life is a progress from one astonishment to another at the vagaries of our own particular ego under the continually varying conditions which time and the world bring. The craft which behaved so beautifully when sailing down stream reveals quite new features when the swell of ocean smites it and a sou'-wester is on the beam. To take, for instance, what is now almost a universal experience, the test of travel. The old reproach that the Anglo-Indian dropped his Christianity at the Cape on the voyage out, and picked it up again there on his return home, is to some extent rolled away; but are we quite sure how our staid village church warden is going to behave during his fortnight in Paris ? The Parisian himself will tell you that the reproach of debauchery brought against his city arises from the conduct, not of its regular inhabitants, but of the strangers who rush through its dissipations and then go home to gravely denounce Continental immorality. Certain it Is that a change of sky and the absence of home cynosure and restraint is a test that will surely find a man's rotten spot, if there is one.

But enormous moral variations may come without our stirring a step. There is that arising from the mere movement of time. In the course of a couple of years a growing lad or girl will often slough off their earlier likeness and take on something quite new. Robert Louis Stevenson tells how, by a process he could not explain, he found himself at that period changed from an inveterate shirker of hard work into a patient toiler, wrestling with all his force to get the best out of himself. He came about like a good ship. There must have been, he concludes, a Pilot at the helm. Every-one agrees, also, that advancing age is a great modifier of the morale, though in what way and to what degree are matters on which observers are widely at issue. A medical author declared some time ago that the moral sentiments distinctly declined with the advance of years. Montaigne, too, avers that " old age sets more wrinkles on the spirit than on the face," and that there belongs to it " à ridiculous care for riches after the use of them is forfeited, besides more envy, injustice and malignity." Fonte.. nelle, on the other hand, finds there the period in which " our passions are calmed, our duties fulfilled and our ambition satisfied." As a matter of fact, old age is the day of judgment on youth and manhood. It is the hell or the heaven which these have made it.

Perhaps the most momentous possibilities of moral variation, both for good or ill, lie along the line of our human fellowships. The impact on us of another soul is potent, not only in revealing ourselves, but in creating, as it were, a new self. There seems to be a kind of spiritual chemistry here, which from two combining elements produces a fresh something, a moral condition which was not there before. This power of the character to blend and almost to lose itself in that of another is wonderfully illustrated in what Montaigne, to quote him again, says of his friendship with La Boëtie, a friendship which, he avers, " having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and lose itself in his ; which likewise having seized all his will, induced it to plunge and lose itself in mine, with a mutual greed and with a like concurrence." The sublimest examples are those where neglected and demoralised natures are brought into contact with a high spiritual character, and, yielding to its mysterious force, begin straightway to form after that likeness. This, with what is implied in it, and with what lies back of it, is our divinest guarantee of human improvability.

But the variation through companionship has also its sinister side. The meeting of the strong with the weak is too often the wreck of the latter's moral equilibrium. Arthur Clough has given us on this point one of his subtlest studies where, in that fine poem, " The Bothie," he delineates the special danger of a girl of the humbler class when solicited by " a gentleman." The peril is that the sense of class helps to confuse the moral standard.

To the prestige of the richer the lowly are prone to be yielding ;
Think that in dealing with them they are raised to a different region,
Where old laws and morals are modified, lost, exist not ;
Ignorant they as they are, they have but to conform and be yielding.

Certain temperaments have more to struggle against than others in the matter of moral oscillation ; and of these most of all, it would seem, the artistic and the poetic. We are not in a position to properly adjudicate upon the aberrations of genius. We cannot compare the immense swing backwards at times of a Burns or a Heine with the moral equanimity of the placid burgher who stumps with undeviating pace along his turnpike. It is the climbers who are in danger of the abyss. Must we not, for instance, forgive something, perhaps a good deal, on this account, to that most dazzling of artists and of rascals, Benvenuto Cellini ? It was surely not hypocrisy, but partly the madness of his time and partly the madness of his artist blood, which made him capable now of quoting St. Paul and discoursing eloquently of heaven, and anon of plunging his dagger into a rival and boasting of the deed! The extraordinary thing, indeed, about those times, and of some later ones, is that men were capable of what seem to us the most monstrous inconsistencies without apparently themselves discerning in them any moral incongruity. What a picture is this, km instance, which Horace Walpole gives us of what he saw in the Chapel Royal at Versailles :

" There was Mme. du Barry, the King's reigning mistress, close to the altar ; her husband's sister was with her. In the tribune above, surrounded by prelates, was the amorous and still handsome King." The piety, the pomp, and the carnality seemed to everybody apparently to go perfectly well together. We are by no means all we should be to-day, but we have, at any rate, progressed to the point of being able to see some difference between these things.

But with the best of us, with those who have been diligently using every means, human and superhuman, for inward advance, there remains a disheartening consciousness of moral variability. A sleepless night, an excess of mental exertion, will make us uncertain in temper. The strangest reactions come. We have heard a preacher say that he felt himself a mere Pagan on Monday morning. Amiel notes, as Browning has done, the advent of spring as waking up every kind of desire. "Il fait tressaillir le moine dans l'ombre de son couvent, la vierge derrière les rideaux de sa chambrette." Worthy people on whose general charity and probity we can always count, seem as to their tempers to be possessed at times by two totally different spirits, whose successive entrance or exit changes the whole set and shape of the features, the light in the eye, the quality of the voice.

It will be the mark of a growing inward life that with an ever-widening range of knowledge, feeling, and capacity, our area of moral variation steadily diminishes. More and more the central governing force of our life will hold us to itself. Outward circumstance of every kind will lose power to confuse and to upset. People will know with an increasing certainty where to look for us in the spiritual realm. The only movement they will learn to anticipate will be a movement upwards. What is possible in this sphere is expressed for us in a way that can hardly be surpassed in the eulogium which the sceptic Gibbon passed on the mystic William Law, who spent some years as tutor in his father's house at Putney

In our family William Law left the reputation of a man who believed all that he professed, and practised all that he enjoined."

( Originally Published 1903 )

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