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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Truths That Men Forget:
II. "Freedom Lies in Obedience."

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P., L.R.C.S., I.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 381


Freedom as a state of the soul is emancipation from evil freedom not to sin. The good man only is free.

"And the just man does on himself affirm
God's limits, and is conscious of delight,
Freedom and right."

The universe is too strong for us, we must always obey before we can obtain and use; and we are rightly called free when we obey, if in what we obey we find ourselves, our own will, expressed. "Deo parere libertas est" is seen to be true in every relation of life when we trace out that relation to its ultimate ground; but it is a truth that men forget.

The primary meaning of the word freedom--the superficial but conditionally true meaningis the possession of power to do what one likes best; its primary use is in reference to political relations: but whatever it may refer to we may fairly say that it exists when the conditions of a man's relation to this or that are not felt by him as coercive, when, in fact, they are directly or indirectly expressive of his will and wish.

The nineteenth century is, we are told, an age of enlightenment, of prosperity, and, above all, of liberty; but we may well doubt whether in the centuries to come any one of these points will stand out as its characteristic marks. The craving for knowledge and wealth and freedom has been strong; the search has been untiring; the results are to some eyes dazzling enough. The question remains whether these eyes are penetrating, and whether what we call our knowledge and wealth have brought us the good we hoped; above all, whether our freedom is the freedom of the good man, freedom of the soul, freedom won by obedience, the only freedom in which man is "conscious of delight."

To say that our age has been an age of superstition may sound absurd; but if it is an age in which power and efficacy have been commonly attributed to something which does not possess it; if, let us say, in the search for freedom, means have been used which have no causal link with its attainment; if short cuts, intellectual or moral tricks, have been expected to bring it about, then, in this matter at least, our age has been superstitious. It is no more superstitious to throw salt over one's shoulder to avert the shedding of tears than it is to try to regenerate men by moral schemes or abstract doctrines or to make them free by any means whatever except those that belong to obedience.

Our century seems to have tried almost every way except the right one: it began by idealising the natural man, it went on to idealise 'Humanity,' it has culminated in the idealising of Self, as means by which freedom may be won.

There was bequeathed to our time, as a damnosa hereditas from the previous age, belief in the power of so-called Philosophic Reason. Its worship took outward and unblushing form in the first French Revolution, when, as Pearson says, "men were dreaming that all which philosophy recommended could be inaugurated without bloodshed, by decrees and mutual embraces and the planting of trees of liberty." The natural man was born goodall men were naturally equal, and would remain in the enjoyment of liberty if they were not hindered by artificial restriction and the tyranny of the few; therefore the Revolution and the worship of Reason must bring in the Golden Age. If we are inclined to wonder at the stupidity which could see hope for the world in such poor stuff as this, let us remind ourselves that even Hegel had to work himself out of the delusions of the Aufklaerung before he could gather up the universal principle of right living and right thinking in his "Die to Live."

The superstitions of the enlightenment are doubtless at an end, but they coloured the early years of our century too deeply not to have left a stain upon ita stain not yet washed out; and the freedom many of us are seeking is still the freedom of 'the natural man'--that abstract man who never existed except in the speculative philosophy which gave intellectual respectability to the schemes we have outworn.

The close of the eighteenth century saw the birth of a man who was to play his part in the reaction against its individualism--a part conditioned by an overweening confidence in positive science as the crown of intellectual growth. The Positive Philosophy of Comte was being published from 1830 to 1842; and, as Martineau says, "the scornful materialist [was] converted in its process into the 'High Priest of the Religion of Humanity,' the Chief of the 'Occidental Republic,' ....sending missionary despatches to Russian emperors and Turkish viziers," and speaking of himself as "the founder of a new, final, and beginning history with 1788, putting thirteen months into the year, with an odd day for observances after the pattern of All Souls'; years, months, weeks and days all having new names in honour of this or that item in Humanity's Pantheon. That there remain now Mr. Frederic Harrison and the little congregation, sad in aspect, sadly impotent in its high mission and pretence, even the probability that the little congregation will hold together into the twentieth century, cannot hinder us from thinking that to seek the good of man through a religion "for which the individual man is a mere abstraction and there is nothing real but Humanity," will also be reckoned to the superstition of our time.

Side by side with the Religion of Humanity grew a superstition hardly less pretentious but far less picturesque--a superstition destined to have great and more disastrous influence upon men. The god of this superstition was not Philosophic Reason, it was not Humanity, it was mere Knowledge. Knowledge was now to bring in the Golden Age of Man. Like all other superstitions when they are found out, this, looked at from a distance, seems almost too foolish to have been entertained in good earnest by any large number of intelligent beings. Yet its devotees were a multitude: Knowledge would cover the earth with riches; wisdom, happiness, freedom and peace would be the harvest following its advance. Knowledge we have won indeed, knowledge beyond the guesses of the early days of our century; we are masters, as we were never masters before, over the powers of nature; year by year our dominion grows; we describe, we map out, we use: we amass wealth, we have even lengthened our days: but where are the world's happiness and peace, where is its freedom of the soul? Michelet passed judgment on our time when he said--"One fact is incontestable. In the midst of so much material and intellectual progress the moral sense has been lowered. Everything is advancing and developing: one thing alone grows less--the Soul."

The devotees of Knowledge, when they turned their powers upon Man, took the watch of human life to pieces; they sorts its wheels and pinions into neat little heaps, they put it together again after a pattern of their own; and it would do everything but go. They knew all about the construction of life's watch, but it never told them what men most desire and most need.

The expectation of a Golden Age to come from knowledge and what it brings, is hardly even now abandoned, but it has changed its face. Barely a dozen years ago Cotter Morison pressed a coercive application of naturalistic methods derived from the teaching of biological science. "The sooner it is perceived," he said, "that bad men will be bad, do what we will . . . . the sooner shall we come to the conclusion that the welfare of society demands the suppression or elimination of bad men, and the careful cultivation of the good only. This is what we do in every other department. We do not cultivate curs and screws and low breeds of cattle.... Nothing is gained by disguising the fact that there is no remedy for a bad heart, and no substitute for a good one." The aspect of the matter has completely changed: no longer is it held possible to make bad men good by giving them scientific knowledge and presenting them with a latch-key to the treasure-house of nature; the task is frankly declared hopeless, the belief superstitious, and a new plan is proposed. Bad will be bad and good will be good; therefore let the good--as gracefully as may be--devour the bad; and all will thenceforth be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Fortunately this trick will not have a chance at being tried, the bad being pretty numerous and having as many arms and legs as the good, as much money, if not more, and as much wit--of the sort that comes out useful in a war of beasts. What kind of goodness and freedom would survive a victory if it could be won, we have happily no means and no prospect of knowing; we can only be sure that neither would bear much resemblance to the things that in this chequered world we venture to call by those names.

One superstition has been followed by another; we hear that all men are born free, equal, and good, and would be happy if something or other did not get in the way. They become bad, enslaved, and unhappy because their condition makes them so. Give them knowledge for ignorance, wealth for poverty, health for disease, and they will have happiness and freedom too, because they will keep the goodness that is so obviously to their best interests in life. If a man knows that it is profitable to be good, and you do not make goodness impossible, good he certainly will be. No, say Cotter Morison and his like, men are born good or bad; environment is all very fine, but it does not change the Ethiopian's skin nor rub out the leopard's spots: heredity has to be met, and met as nature meets it, with tooth and claw.

Trick follows trick; it is all superstition, for the causal nexus is wanting. Nevertheless, says this nineteenth century, if turning my coat inside out does not bring me success in the game, I will call for a new pack of cards and deal myself a whole hand of trumps.

Need we wonder that over all these futilities the Pessimistic wave has swept? "Our science," says Mr. Schiller, in his Riddles of the Sphinx, "has turned out a patchwork raft, compiled out of the battered fragments of ancient superstitions that float idly on a sea of doubt, unable to attain to the lerra firma of certainty, and still more incapable of wafting the ark of life to the distant islands of the blest." The diatribe is, of course, hard on science, for it was never meant to be a raft, and if it had been left on dry land nobody would have found it wanting in regard to powers it never claimed and an office it was in no way qualified to fill; but, when one cockle-shell after another tips the superstitious optimist into the cold waters of fact, it is not his superstition that in this century he lays aside, it is his optimism: if he can no longer believe in naturalistic progress and naturalistic goodness and naturalistic bliss and freedom without submission to the will of God, he denounces the universe and turns to practical and emotional pessimism. Schopenhauer contemned the sovereign people--the hope of the optimistic democrat--as "a collection of bears and swine"; pleadings for their freedom and happiness he held to be mockery and twaddle, patriotism he called "the most foolish of passions an the passion of fools." The world, says the Pessimist, is not worse only because if it were it could not exist at all. The neglect of reason for rationalism is avenged when superstition drops away and discloses the blankness of a life that would be merely valueless if it were not full of pain.

What is the strong man to do in such a vision of his life? Pessimism, in the nature of things, accords but ill with vigour; the strong man is drawn towards optimism as the oak is towards the sky: where must he seek it, this thing which is to him as light and air? We are tracking now the latest of our modern superstitions--the superstition of the strong man's self, the superstition of Nietzsche. "Whosoever will be free," he says, "must make himself free: freedom is no fairy's gift to fall into any man's lap." Life is the highest art, and every man is the artist of his own life. "I understood the philosophic pessimism of the nineteenth century," he says elsewhere, "as the symptom of a finer strength of thought, a more victorious fulness of life": but victorious fulness came to mean for Nietzsche and his followers emancipation, says an admirer, "from every law save that of sincerity." His "master morality" became the duty to be strong, to have a stoic self-reliance, to take a stand, not on distinctions of right and wrong and vain seeking after a vain good, but on the 'immoralism' of the man who is strong enough to make life sincerely from within himself according to his own will. The religion of love is built, he holds, upon the fear of pain--sweep this away and failure and pessimism will go with it. Your tricks have failed, he cries in so many words, because you have been aiming at the wrong mark; true progress is emancipation from the moral values of the crowd, which arise only from the search for prey and the avoidance of pursuit and pain; life and happiness lie in self-mastery over self. "Do what you will," says his Zarathustra, "but first be one of those who are able to will." "Man unites in himself the creature and the creator: there is in him the stuff of things, the fragmentary and the superfluous, clay, mud, madness, chaos; but there is also in him the creator, the sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divine blessedness of the spectator on the seventh day." First, the pre-moral period of the world, then the moral; now the extra-moral, and man, the self-creator, takes the full breath of freedom and finds himself at last,--but finds himself through pain. The "hammer-man" stands up defiantly alone to forge for himself freedom and right life, in obedience to no will beyond his own.

It is the last word of our century: the man who spoke it has found a life which men dread worse than death, and he will speak no more. Not rebellion but an obedience to which Nietzsche had no clue, is the road to freedom; not in exaltation of the self in self-will, but in a strong submission of the self do we reach victory over wrong. Deo parere libertas est; it is of our superstition, if of nothing worse, when we forget.