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Life's Exchange System

THE world has abundance of written creeds, but it is the unwritten ones that really count. Each man carries his own. After a certain number of years on this planet we most of us gain a conception of life which becomes hence-forth our working belief. Part of it inherited, and part of it home made, the whole gets shape and colour from our special experience. This private creed of the modern man differs often from the Catechism as much in what it contains as in what it leaves out. It is strange that theology should have failed so signally in furnishing the really vital formulas. The man in the street if asked for his idea of life, instead of quoting the Thirty-nine Articles, is more likely to turn to the utterance of some rank outsider. How immense, for instance, the vogue of Huxley's famous simile of a game of chess, where man is pitted against an unseen player, inexorably just, demanding strict adherence to the rules, allowing no move back, awarding full recognition to skill and care, but meeting ignorance and negligence with certain overthrow !

And yet the illustration was a poor one. It is not true. At least not true enough, not la Verité vraie. In chess the win of the one party is the loss of the other, unless the gaine is drawn, when neither has any advantage. We refuse to accept any such result as the summing-up of life. Far nearer to the fact, surely, is the conception of it as a commerce, a system of exchanges. In a true commerce both sides win. Buyer and seller, the one who delivers and the one who receives, are alike benefited, and the series of transactions works for the individual and the general enrichment. The facts are certainly more solidly behind this view than that of the chess game. There are enough of them to permit us to say that, in the long process of the years, life's exchange system has wrought, not for a win at the price of an equivalent loss, but for a steady gain all round.

But we are anticipating. Our formula has not yet justified itself. Is it allowable to speak of the universe as summed up in an exchange system? It would be presumption, indeed, to use the phrase as a complete explanation of the Whole to which we belong. But it may fairly be said to contain a great deal of it. For one thing, inanimate nature is, as we see, a perpetual commercé. Everything changes into everything else. Force is Protean. The same energy becomes in turn heat, light, electricity, motion. The chemical elements rush into continual new combinations. There is no such thing in this sphere as the solid and the immutable. The " everlasting hills" are none of them everlasting. The Matterhorn, as Tyndall said, is in ruins. Snowdon was once probably twenty thousand feet high. Its débris is scattered today over a dozen counties. The history of a planet is of an unceasing transformation, from moment to moment, and from on to won, until the fire mist from which it sprang resolves itself once more into the central heat.

It is, however, when we come to the plane of human affairs that our formula reveals its chief contents. And here it is not so much the mere process of change, though that bulks largely enough, as the give and take in it, the sheer barter element, that most strikes us.

Nature sits at her seat of custom and drives her bargains with an unfailing zest, Her weights and scales, her currency and values vary immensely as we mount to life's higher spheres, taking on, as we near the summits, a fineness, a quality of the ethereal, which baffle our own calculations. But from bottom to top there seems ever the rule of a quid pro quo, of a something for something, and never of a something for nothing.

So strict is her rule of payment here that it obtains rigidly in directions where Optimism would have asked for relaxation. She allows no advance without a seeming loss. The step forward must pay toll. Civilisation gives us watches and roads, but robs us of the savage's intuition of the time, and his unerring trail through the forest. We build towns and forfeit the countryman's virility. We reach our era of peace and lose the heroic virtues of the old war time. One revolts against Mark Pattison's dictum that " a time of peace and security inevitably tends to foster an umbratile and academic science; curiosity is withdrawn from the momentous questions which have interest only for noble souls," but one is unable to contradict it. Men win what seems mental freedom, and often enough pay for it in moral energy. " Only think," says Vinet, "of France ! So much liberty and no beliefs !" What a price for a. supposed intellectual enlargement that which Clough expresses in his agnostic days:

We are most hopeless who had once most hope
And most beliefless that had most believed!

England could not get her Reformation even without paying over what seemed a large part of her moral assets. Froude's picture of the position under the Somerset protectorate is terrible, yet hardly exaggerated, "Hospitals were gone, schools broken up almshouses swept away . and the poor, smarting with rage and suffering, and seeing piety, honesty, duty trampled under foot by their superiors, were sinking into savages."

This particular ledger of nature offers material that, it must be confessed, is sufficiently confusing to the moral sense. We have to leave it with the feeling that our knowledge of the accounts here is not suffcient to permit of our striking a balance. There are other volumes in which we can see our way better. Weighted with immeasurable significance are, for instance, the facts we come across relating to the exchanges between man's visibles and invisibles. The world's history is largely one of this incessantly trans-acted human barter of the seen for the unseen, or of the unseen for the seen. We get glimpses also of the results, though they are but glimpses. From the beginning men have revolted against the system which demands that we should give up one thing to get another, and have asked why we cannot have both. How true to the heart of all time is this lament of an old thirteenth-century writer : "But no advice was I able to obtain how one should appropriate to himself three things in order to possess the fulness of his powers. Two of these things are honour and wealth. . . . The third is God's grace, worth more than the other two." He wants all three, but goes on to complain that he cannot find out how they can be all combined in a single life.

Pathetic bewilderment of each human soul, that from the beginning it is besieged by the rival claimants, with their cry of "Choose! " No line can we conceivably follow but it involves the giving up of others that seem, as we leave them, so desirable. To energise is to for quietude; in society we lose contemplation in the city's gaiety we have missed the country's charm. At every step we pay. Nothing is given ; all is bought. The Great Temptation is strictly on these lines. "All the kingdoms of this world will I give thee if ......" and the price is named. A man gains a million and finds himself, inwardly beggared. The mischief here is that men can reckon and put into exact figures the coarse visibles that entice them, while for the final treasures they give in exchange they have no calculus. There is no harm in a man's desire to be rich if only he will define properly. To be rich is ultimately a consciousness. One man is ten times more alive than another, at a height ten times the height of another. That is being rich. "Give me health and a day," says Emerson, " and I will laugh to scorn the pomp of emperors." Pagan Horace approaches the truth in his

Cur valle permutem Sabina
Divitias operosiores ?

To exchange the quiet of his Sabine valley, with its life of poetic contemplation, for the fevered rush for gold was to exact too hard a bargain. How much of life's highest range had been forfeited to make possible that inscription on. the monument of Sardanapalus: " Eat, drink and (sexually) love, for all else is but little worth ! "

The bartering of invisible for lower values, and its inevitable life impoverishment, which makes up so much of the human story, serves, however, to set off the more vividly the peculiar and supernatural splendour which attaches to the opposite form of commerce. " Something divine," to use the words of Aristides, is surely mingled with a humanity that has made such ventures of faith, such offerings of visibles for invisibles as are on record. What was the inward reckoning, what the uncountable coin paid over to the man's spirit which made a Tyndale satisfied to devote his splendid abilities to a task which he was beforehand convinced was to bring him, not riches nor honours, but torture and the stake ! What motive, what inner force is this that sets a man on a work by which we, without paying him a penny, obtain our English Bible, while he for reward gets long lodging in that dismal Belgian dungeon where he sits through the cold winter nights shivering in the dark, until its door opens to his executioners ! Who shall say that a race whose annals contain such stories is born to commonplace destinies P The prophets and martyrs know better. The path they tread, and the goods they offer and receive hint at transactions of the soul, in its commerce with the Infinite, which make the bargains of Wall Street or our Capel Court the mere hucksterings of the gutter.

And this leads us to a question in which all that has gone before is summed up. What is the ultimate nature of life's exchange system We have insisted that Nature keeps tally and demands payment for everything she offers us. But is that the final word on the subject ? No. When we get to the matter's deepest heart we find the word there is not debt but grace. Nature's business habits, her exactions, her demand always of a something for something, are only a modus operandi which veils a deep mystery of Good that lies behind. The payment got out of us is really a gift to us, and one of the most precious. Listen here to the confession of a modern spirit, one of our most gifted and representative. Robert Louis Stevenson has laid bare the innermost of the thing in this marvellous utterance of his own experience : "But indeed with the passing of the years, the decay of strength, the loss of all my old, active and personal habits, there grows more and more upon me that belief in the kindness of the scheme of things, and the goodness of our veiled God, which is an excellent and pacifying compensation." Nature's hard bargaining with her suffering son had let him, the one-time sceptic, into the secret of a boundless Love !

And must we not include death itself, that ultima linea rerum of the ancients, as only a part of " Life's Exchange System " P Science joins religion in ignoring the old "ultimate boundaries." Seeming destructions are in its view only new beginnings. It was both science and Christianity which mingled in the sentiment of Wordsworth when, as Aubrey de Vere records, he "frequently spoke of death as if it were the taking of a degree in the university of life." We shall have come well out of our life commerce if, as the account draws near its close, the give and take, the gain and loss, have left for final result the full assurance of this great Christian hope; if we are in the company of those to whom apply the noble words of our Edmund Waller

The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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