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THE MYSTERY OF JUSTICE
I SPEAK for those who do not believe in the existence of a unique, all-powerful, infallible Judge, for ever intent on our thoughts, our feelings and actions, maintaining justice in this world, and completing it in the next. And if there be no Judge, what justice is there? None other than that which men have made for themselves by their laws and tribunals, as also in the social relations that no definite judgment governs? Is there nothing above this human justice, whose sanction is rarely other than the opinion, the confidence or mistrust, the approval or disapproval, of our fellows? Is this capable of explaining or accounting for all that seems so inexplicable to us in the morality of the Universe, that we at times feel almost compelled to believe an intelligent Judge must exist? When we deceive or overcome our neighbour, have we deceived or overcome all the forces of justice? Are all things definitely settled then, and may we go boldly on; or is there a graver, deeper justice, one less visible perhaps, but less subject to error; one that is more universal, and mightier?
That such a justice exists we all of us know, for we all have felt its irresistible power. We are well aware that it covers the whole of our life, and that at its centre there reigns an intelligence which never deceives itself, and which none can deceive. But where shall we place it, now that we have torn it down from the skies?
Where does it weigh good and evil, happiness and disaster? Whence does it issue to deal out reward and punishment? These are questions we do not often ask ourselves, but they have their importance. The nature of justice, and all our morality, depend on the answer; and it cannot be fruitless, therefore, to inquire how that great idea of mystic and sovereign justice, which has undergone more than one transformation since history began, is being received to-day in the heart and mind of man. And is this mystery not the loftiest, the most passionately interesting, of all that remain to us; does it not intertwine with most of the others? Do its vacillations not stir us to the very depths of our soul? The great bulk of mankind perhaps know nothing of these vacillations and changes, but for the evolution of thought it suffices that the eyes of the few should see; and when the clear consciousness of these has become aware of the transformation, its influence will gradually attain the general morality of men.
In these pages we shall naturally have much to say of social justice; in other words, of the justice that we mutually extend to each other through life; but we shall leave on one side legal or positive justice, which is merely the organisation of one side of social justice. We shall occupy ourselves above all with that vague but inevitable justice, intangible, and yet so effective, which accompanies and sets its seal upon every action of our life; which approves or disapproves, rewards or punishes. Does this come from without? Does an inflexible, undeceivable moral principle exist, independent of man, in the universe and in things? Is there, in a word, a justice that might be called mystic? Or does it issue wholly from man; is it inward even though it act from without; and is the only justice therefore psychologic? These two terms, mystic and psychologic justice, comprehend, more or less, all the different forms of justice, superior to the social, that would appear to exist to-day.
It is scarcely conceivable that any one who has forsaken the easy, but artificially illumined, paths of positive religion, can still believe in the existence of a physical justice arising from moral causes, whether its manifestations assume the form of heredity or disease, of geologic, atmospheric, or other phenomena. However eager his desire for illusion or mystery, this is a truth he is bound to recognise from the moment he begins earnestly and sincerely to study his own personal experience, or to observe the external ills which, in this world of ours, fall indiscriminately on good and wicked alike. Neither the earth nor the sky, neither nature nor matter, neither air nor any force known to man (save only those that are in him), betrays the slightest regard for justice, or the remotest connection with our morality, thoughts, or intentions. Between the external world and our actions there exist only the simple and essentially non-moral relations of cause and effect. If I am guilty of a certain excess or imprudence, I incur a certain danger, and have to pay a corresponding debt to nature. And as this imprudence or excess will generally have had an immoral cause — or a cause that we call immoral because we have been compelled to regulate our life according to the requirements of our health and tranquillity — we cannot refrain from establishing a connection between this immoral cause and the danger to which we have been exposed, or the debt we have had to pay; and we are led once more to believe in the justice of the universe, the prejudice which, of all those that we cling to, has its root deepest in our heart. And in our eagerness to restore this confidence, we are content deliberately to ignore the fact that the result would have been exactly the same had the cause of our excess or imprudence been — to use the terms of our infantine vocabulary — heroic or innocent. If on an intensely cold day I throw myself into the water to save a fellow-creature from drowning, or if, seeking to drown him, I chance to fall in, the consequences of the chill will be absolutely the same, and nothing on this earth or beneath the sky — save only myself, or man if he be able — will enhance my suffering because I have committed a crime, or relieve my pain because my action was virtuous.
Let us consider another form of physical justice, — heredity. There again we find the same indifference to moral causes. And truly it were a strange justice indeed that would throw upon the son, and even the remote descendant, the burden of a fault committed by his father or his ancestor. But human morality would raise no objection; man would not protest. To him it would seem natural, magnificent, even fascinating. It would indefinitely prolong his individuality, his consciousness and existence, and from this point of view would accord with a number of indisputable facts which prove that we are not wholly self-contained, but connect, in more than one subtle, mysterious fashion, with all that surrounds us in life, with all that precedes us, or follows.
And yet, true as this may be in certain cases, it is not true as regards the justice of physical heredity, which is absolutely indifferent to the moral causes of the deed whose consequences the descendants have to bear. There is physical relation between the act of the father, whereby he has undermined his health, and the consequent suffering of the son; but the son’s suffering will be the same whatever the intentions or motives of the father, be these heroic or shameful. And, further, the area of what we call the justice of physical heredity would appear to be very restricted. A father may have been guilty of a hundred abominable crimes; he may have been a murderer, a traitor, a persecutor of the innocent, or a despoiler of the wretched, without these crimes leaving the slightest trace upon the organism of his children. It is enough that he should have been careful to do nothing that might injure his health.
So much for the justice of nature, as shown in physical heredity. Moral heredity would appear to be governed by similar principles, but, as it deals with modifications of the mind and character infinitely more complex and elusive, its manifestations are less striking, and its results less certain. Pathology is the only region which permits of its definite observation and study; and there we observe it to be merely the spiritual form of physical heredity, which is its essential principle; moral heredity being only a sequel, and revealing in its elementary stage the same indifference to real justice, and the same blindness. Whatever the moral cause of the ancestor’s drunkenness or debauch, the same punishment may be meted out in mind and body to the descendants of the drunkard and the debauchee. Intellectual blemish will almost always accompany material blemish. The soul will be attacked simultaneously with the body: and it matters but little whether the victim be imbecile, mad, epileptic, possessed of criminal instincts, or only vaguely threatened with slight mental derangement: the most frightful moral penalty that a supreme justice could invent has followed actions which, as a rule, cause less harm and are less perverse than hundreds of other offences that nature never dreams of punishing. And this penalty, moreover is inflicted blindly, not the slightest heed being paid to the motives underlying the actions, motives that may have been excusable perhaps, or indifferent, or possibly even admirable.
It would be absurd, however, to imagine that drunkenness and debauchery are the only agents in moral heredity. There are a thousand others, all more or less unknown. Certain moral qualities appear to be transmitted as readily as though they were physical. In one race, for instance, we shall almost constantly discover certain virtues which have probably been acquired. But who shall say how much is due to heredity and how much to environment and example? The problem becomes so complicated, the facts so contradictory, that it is impossible, amidst the mass of innumerable causes, to follow the track of one particular cause to the end. Let it suffice to say that, in the only clear, striking definitive cases where an intentional justice could have revealed itself in physical or moral heredity, no trace of justice is found. And if we do not find it in these, we are surely far less likely to find it in others.
We may affirm, therefore, that not above us, around us, or beneath us; neither in this life nor in our other life which is that of our children, is the least trace to be found of an intentional justice. But in the course of adapting ourselves to the laws of life, we have naturally been led to credit with our own moral ideas those principles of causality that we encounter most frequently; and we have in this fashion created a very plausible semblance of effective justice, which rewards or punishes most of our actions in the degree that they approach, or deviate from, certain laws that are essential for the preservations of the race. It is evident that if I sow my field I shall have an infinitely better prospect of reaping a harvest the following summer than my neighbour, who has neglected to sow his, preferring a life of dissipation and idleness. In this case, therefore, work obtains its admirable and certain reward; and as work is essential for the preservation of our existence, we have declared it to be the moral act of all acts, the first of all our duties. Such instances might be indefinitely multiplied. If I bring up my children well, if I am good and just to those round about me, if I am honest, active, prudent, wise, and sincere in all my dealings, I shall have a better chance of meeting with filial piety, with respect and affection, a better chance of knowing moments of happiness, than the man whose actions and conduct have been the very reverse of mine. Let us not, however, lose sight of the fact that my neighbour, who is, let us say, a most diligent and thrifty man, might be prevented by the most admirable of reasons, such as an illness caught while nursing his wife or his friend, from sowing his ground at the proper time, and that he also would reap no harvest. Mutatis mutandis, similar results would follow in the other instances I have mentioned. The cases, however, are exceptional where a worthy or respectable reason will hinder the accomplishment of a duty; and we shall find, as a rule, that sufficient harmony exists between cause and effect, between the exaction of the necessary law and the result of the complying effort, to enable our casuistry to keep alive within us the idea of the justice of things.
This idea, however, deeply ingrained though it be in the hearts and minds of the least credulous and least mystic of men, can surely not be beneficial. It reduces our morality to the level of the insect, which, perched on a falling rock, imagines that the rock has been set in motion on its own special behalf. Can there be certain errors and falsehoods that we do well to keep alive? There may have been some in the past which, for a moment, were helpful; but, this moment over, men found themselves once again face to face with the truth, and the sacrifice had only been delayed. Why wait till the illusion or falsehood which appeared to do good begins to do actual harm, or, if it do no harm, at least retards the perfect understanding that should obtain between the deeply felt reality and our manner of interpreting and accepting it? What were the divine right of kings, the infallibility of the Church, the belief in rewards beyond the grave, but illusions whose sacrifice reason deferred too long? Nor was anything gained by this dilatoriness beyond a few sterile hopes, a little deceptive peace, a few consolations that at times were disastrous. But many days had been lost; and we cannot afford to lose many days, we who at last are seeking the truth, and find in its search an all-sufficient reason for existence. Nor does anything retard us more than the illusion which, though torn from its roots, we still permit to linger among us; for this will display the most extraordinary activity, and be constantly changing its form.
But what does it matter, some will ask, whether man do the thing that is just because he thinks God is watching — because he believes in a kind of justice that pervades the universe — or for the simple reason that to his conscience this thing seems just? It matters above all. We have there three different men. The first, whom God is watching, will do much that is not just, for every God whom man has hitherto worshipped has decreed many unjust things. And the second will not always act in the same way as the third, who is, indeed, the true man to whom the moralist will turn, for he will survive both the others; and to foretell how man will conduct himself in truth, which is his natural element, is more interesting to the moralist than to watch his behaviour when enmeshed in falsehood.
It may seem idle to those who do not believe in the existence of a sovereign Judge to discuss so seriously this inadmissible idea of the justice of things. And inadmissible it does, indeed, seem when presented thus, in its true colours, pinned to the wall as it were. This, however, is not our way of regarding it in every-day life. When we observe how disaster follows crime, how ruin at last overtakes ill-gotten prosperity — when we witness the miserable end of the debauchee, the short-lived triumph of iniquity, it is our constant habit to confuse the physical effect with the moral cause; and however little we may believe in the existence of a Judge, we nearly all of us end by a more or less complete submission to a strange, vague faith in the justice of things. And though our reason, our calm observation, prove to us that this justice cannot exist, it is enough that an event should take place which touches us somewhat more nearly, or that there should be two or three curious coincidences, for conviction to fade in our heart, if not in our mind. Notwithstanding all our reason and all our experience, the merest trifle recalls to life within us the ancestor who was convinced that the stars shone in their eternal places for no other purpose than to predict or approve a wound he was to inflict on his enemy upon the field of battle, a word he should speak in the assembly of the chiefs, or an intrigue he should bring to a successful issue in the women’s quarters. We of to-day are no less inclined to divinise our feelings to serve our interests; the only difference being that, the gods having no longer a name, our methods have become less sincere and less precise. When the Greeks, powerless before Troy, felt the need of supernatural signal and support, they went to Philoctetes, deprived him of Hercules’ bow and arrows, and abandoned him ill, naked, and defenceless on a desert island. This was the mysterious Justice, loftier than that of man: this was the command of the gods. And similarly do we, when some iniquity seems expedient to us, cry loudly that we do it for the sake of posterity, of humanity, of the fatherland. On the other hand, should a great misfortune befall us we protest that there is no justice, that there are no gods; but let the misfortune befall our enemy, and the universe is at once re-peopled with invisible Judges. If, however, some unexpected, disproportionate stroke of good fortune come to us, we are quickly convinced that we must possess merits so carefully hidden as to have escaped our own observation; and we are happier in their discovery than at the windfall they have procured us.
“One has to pay for all things,” we say. Yes, in the depth of our heart, in all that pertains to man, justice exacts payment in the coin of our personal happiness or sorrow. And without, in the universe that enfolds us, there is also a reckoning; but here it is a different paymaster who measures out happiness or sorrow. Other laws obtain, there are other motives, other methods. It is no longer the justice of the conscience that presides, but the logic of nature, which cares nothing for our morality. Within us is a spirit that weighs only intentions, without us a power that only balances deeds. We try to persuade ourselves that these two work hand in hand. But in reality, though the spirit will often glance towards the power, this last is as completely ignorant of the other’s existence as is the man weighing coals in Northern Europe of the existence of his fellow weighing diamonds in South Africa. We are constantly intruding our sense of justice into this non-moral logic; and herein lies the source of most of our errors.
And further, what right have we to complain of the indifference of the universe, what right to declare it incomprehensible and monstrous? Why this surprise at an injustice in which we ourselves have taken so active a part? It is true that no trace of justice can be found in disease, accident, or most of the hazards of external life, which fall indiscriminately on the good and the wicked, the hero and the traitor, the poisoner and the sister of charity. But we are far too eager to include under the title “Justice of the Universe" many a flagrant act that is exclusively human, and infinitely more common and more destructive than disease, the hurricane, or fire. I do not allude to war; it might be urged that we attribute this rather to the will of the peoples or kings than to nature. But poverty, for instance, which we still rank with irremediable ills, such as shipwreck or plague; poverty, with all its crushing sorrows and transmitted degeneration — how often may this be ascribed to the injustice of the elements, and how often to the injustice of our social condition, which is the crowning injustice of men? Need we, at the sight of unmerited wretchedness, look to the skies for a reason, as though a flash of lightning had caused it? Need we seek an impenetrable, unfathomable Judge? Is this region not our own; are we not here in the best explored, best known portion of our dominion; and is it not we who organise misery, we who spread it abroad, as arbitrarily, from the moral point of view, as fire and disease scatter destruction or suffering? Is it reasonable that we should wonder at the sea’s indifference to the soul-state of its victims, when we who have a soul, the pre-eminent organ of justice, pay no heed whatever to the innocence of the countless thousands whom we ourselves sacrifice, who are our own wretched victims? We choose to regard as beyond our control, as a force of fatality, a force that rests entirely within our own hands. But does this excuse us? Truly we are strange lovers of an ideal justice, we are strange judges! A judicial error sends a thrill of horror from one end of the world to another; but the error which condemns three-fourths of mankind to misery, an error as purely human as that of any tribunal, is attributed by us to some inaccessible, implacable Power. If the child of some honest man we know be born blind, imbecile, or deformed, we will seek everywhere, even in the darkness of a religion we have ceased to practise, for some God whose intention to question; but if the child be born poor — a calamity as a rule no less capable than the gravest infirmity of degrading a creature’s destiny — we do not dream of interrogating the God who is wherever we are, since he is made of our own desires. Before we demand an ideal Judge we shall do well to purify our ideas, for whatever blemish there is in these will surely be found in the Judge. Before we complain of Nature’s indifference, or ask at her hand an equity she does not possess, let us attack the iniquity that dwells in the homes of men; and when this has been swept away we shall find that the part we assign to the injustice of fate will be less by fully two-thirds. And the benefit to mankind would be far more considerable than if it lay in our power to guide the storm or govern the heat and the cold, to direct the course of disease or the avalanche, or contrive that the sea should display an intelligent regard to our virtues and secret intentions. For, indeed, the poor far exceed in number those who fall victims to shipwreck or material accident, just as far more disease is due to material wretchedness than to the caprice of our organism, or the hostility of the elements.
And for all that, we love justice. We live, it is true, in the midst of a great injustice; but we have only recently acquired this knowledge, and we still grope for a remedy. Injustice dates such a long way back; the idea of God, of destiny, of nature’s mysterious decrees, had been so closely and intimately associated with it, and is still so deeply entangled with most of the unjust forces of the universe, that it was but yesterday that we commenced the endeavour to isolate such elements contained within it as are purely human. And if we succeed; if we can distinguish them, and separate them for all time from those upon which we are powerless, justice will gain more than by all that man has discovered hitherto in his search for justice. For indeed in this social injustice of ours it is not the human part that is capable of checking our passion for equity; it is the part that a great number of men still attribute to a god, to a kind of fatality, or to imaginary laws of nature.
This last, inactive part shrinks every day. Nor is this because the mystery of justice is about to disappear. A mystery rarely disappears — as a rule, it only shifts its ground. But it is often most important and most desirable that we should bring about this change of abode. It may be said that two or three such changes almost stand for the whole progress of human thought: the dislodgment of two or three mysteries from a place where they did harm, and their transference to a place where they become inoffensive and capable of doing good. Sometimes even, there is no need for the mystery to change its place; we have only to identify it under another name. What was once called “the gods,” we now term “life.” And if life be as inexplicable as were the gods, we are at least the gainers to the extent that no one has the right to speak or do wrong in its name. The aim of human thought can scarcely be to destroy mystery, or lessen it, for that seems impossible. We may be sure that the same quantity of mystery will ever enwrap the world, since it is the quality of the world, as of mystery, to be infinite. But honest human thought will seek above all to determine what are the veritable irreducible mysteries. It will endeavour to strip them of all that does not belong to them, that is not truly theirs, of the additions made by our errors, our fears, and our falsehoods. And as the artificial mysteries vanish, so will the ocean of veritable mystery stretch further and further: the mystery of life, its aim and its origin; the mystery of thought; the mystery that has been called “the primitive accident" or the “perhaps unknowable essence of reality.”
Where had men conceived the mystery of justice to lodge? It pervaded the world. At one moment it was supposed to rest in the hands of the gods, at another it engulfed and mastered’ the gods themselves. It had been imagined everywhere except in man. It had dwelt in the sky, it had lurked behind rocks, it had governed the air and the sea, it had peopled an inaccessible universe. Then at last we peered into its imaginary retreats, we pressed close and examined; its throne of clouds tottered, it faded away; but, at the very moment we believed it had ceased to be, behold it reappeared, and raised its head once more in the very depths of our heart; and yet another mystery had sought refuge in man; and embodied itself in him. For it is in ourselves that the mysteries we seek to destroy almost invariably find their last shelter and their most fitting abode, the home which they had forsaken, in the wildness of youth, to voyage through space; and it is in ourselves that we must learn to meet and to question them. And truly it is no less wonderful, no less inexplicable, that man should have in his heart an unchanging instinct of justice, than it was wonderful and inexplicable that the gods should be just, or the forces of the universe. It is as difficult to account for the essence of our memory, our will, or intelligence, as it was to account for the memory, will, or intelligence, of the invisible powers or laws of nature; and if, in order to enhance our curiosity, we have need of the unknown or unknowable; if, in order to maintain our ardour, we require mystery or the infinite, we shall not lose a single tributary of the unknown and unknowable by at last restoring the great river to its primitive bed; nor shall we have closed a single road that leads to the infinite, or lessened by the minutest fraction the most contested of veritable mysteries. Whatever we take from the skies we find again in the heart of man. But, mystery for mystery, let us prefer the one that is certain to the one that is doubtful, the one that is near to the one that is far, the one that is in us and of us to the harmful one from without. Mystery for mystery, let us no longer parley with the messengers, but with the sovereign who sent them; no longer question those feeble ones who silently vanish at our first inquiry, but rather look into our heart, where are both question and answer — the answer which it has forgotten, but some day, perhaps, shall remember.
Then we shall be able to solve more than one disconcerting problem as to the distribution, often very equitable, of reward and punishment among men. And by this we do not mean only the inward, moral reward and punishment, but also the reward and punishment that are visible and wholly material. There was some measure of reason in the belief, held by mankind from its very origin, that justice penetrates, animates as it were, every object of this world in which we live. This belief has not been explained away by the fact that our great moral laws have been forcibly adapted to the great laws of life and matter. There is more beyond. We cannot refer all things, in all circumstances, to a simple relation of cause and effect between crime and punishment. There is often a moral element also; and, though events have not placed it there, though it is we alone who have created it, it is not the less powerful and real. Of a physical justice, properly so-called, we deny the existence; but besides the wholly inward psychologic justice, to which we shall soon refer, there is also a psychologic justice which is in constant communication with the physical world; and it is this justice that we attribute to we know not what invisible and universal principle. And while it is wrong to credit nature with moral intentions, and to allow our actions to be governed by fear of punishment or hope of reward that she may reserve for us, this does not imply that, even materially, there is no reward for good, or punishment for evil. Such reward and punishment undoubtedly exist, but they issue not from whence we imagine; and in believing that they come from an inaccessible spot, that they master us, judge us, and consequently dispense us from judging ourselves, we commit the most dangerous of errors; for none has a greater influence upon our manner of defending ourselves against misfortune, or of setting forth to attempt the legitimate conquest of happiness.
Such justice as we actually discover in nature does not issue from her, but from ourselves, who have unconsciously placed it there by becoming one with events, by animating them, and adapting them to our uses. Accident, disease, lightning, which strike to right or to left, without apparent reason or warning, are not the only elements in our life. There are other, and far more frequent, cases when we have direct influence on the things and the persons around us, and invest these with our own personality; cases where the forces of nature become instruments for our thoughts, which, when unjust, will make improper use of them, thereby calling forth retaliation and inviting punishment and disaster. But in nature there is no moral reaction; for this emanates from our own thoughts, or the thoughts of other men. It is not in things, but in us, that the justice of things resides. It is our moral condition that modifies our conduct towards the external world; and if we find this antagonistic, it is because we are at war with ourselves, at war with the essential laws of our mind and our heart. The attitude of nature towards us is uninfluenced by the justice or injustice of our intentions; and yet these will almost invariably govern our attitude towards nature. Here once more, as in the case of social justice, we ascribe to the universe, to an unintelligible, eternal, fatal principle, a part that we play ourselves; and when we say that justice, Heaven, nature, or events are rising in revolt against us to punish or revenge, it is in reality man who is using events to punish man; it is human nature that rises in revolt, and human justice that avenges.
In a former essay I referred to Napoleon’s three crowning acts of injustice: the three celebrated crimes that were so fatally unjust to his own fortune. The first was the murder of the Duc d’Enghien, condemned by order, without trial or proof, and executed in the trenches of Vincennes, — an assassination that sowed insatiable hatred and vengeance in the path of the guilty dictator. Then the detestable intrigues whereby he lured the too trustful, easy-going Bourbons to Bayonne, that he might rob them of their hereditary crown; and the horrible war that ensued, a war that cost the lives of three hundred thousand men, swallowed up all the morality and energy of the empire, most of its prestige, almost all its convictions, almost all the devotion it inspired, and engulfed its prosperous destiny. And finally the frightful, unpardonable Russian campaign, wherein his fortune came at last to utter shipwreck amid the ice of the Berezina and the snowbound Polish steppes.
“These prodigious catastrophes,” I said, “had numberless causes; but when we have slowly traced our way through all the more or less unforeseen circumstances, have marked the gradual change in Napoleon’s character, and noted the acts of imprudence, folly, and violence which this genius committed; when we have seen how deliberately he brought disaster to his smiling fortune, may we not almost believe that what we behold, standing erect at the very fountain-head of calamity, is no other than the silent shadow of misunderstood human justice? Human justice, possessing nothing supernatural, nothing very mysterious; built up of many thousand very real little incidents, many thousand falsehoods, many thousand little offences, of which each one gave rise to a corresponding act of retaliation — human justice, and not a power that suddenly, at some tragic moment, leaps forth like Minerva of old, fully armed, from the formidable, despotic brow of destiny. In all this there is only one thing of mystery, and that is the eternal presence of human justice; but we are aware that the nature of man is very mysterious. Let us in the meanwhile ponder this mystery. It is the most certain of all, it is the profoundest, it is the most helpful, it is the only one that will never paralyse our energy for good. And though this patient, vigilant shadow be not as clearly defined in every life as it was in Napoleon’s, though justice be not always as active or as undeniable, we shall none the less do wisely to study a case like this whenever opportunity offers. It will at least give rise to doubt within us, it will stimulate inquiry; and these things are worth far more than the idle, short-sighted affirmation or denial that we so often permit ourselves; for in all questions of this kind our endeavour should not be to prove, but rather to arouse attention, to create a certain grave, courageous respect for all that yet remains unexplained in the actions of men, in their subjection to what appear to be general laws, and in the results that ensue.”
Let us now try to discover in what way this great mystery of justice does truly and inevitably work itself out within us. The heart of him who has committed an unjust act becomes the scene of ineffaceable drama, the paramount drama of human nature, which becomes the more dangerous, and deadlier, in the degree of the man’s greatness and knowledge.
A Napoleon will say to himself, at such troubled moments, that the morality of a great life cannot be as simple as that of an ordinary one, and that an active, powerful will has rights which the feeble and inert will cannot claim. He will hold that he may the more legitimately sweep aside certain conscientious scruples, inasmuch as it is not ignorance or weakness that causes him to disregard these, but the fact that he views them from a standpoint higher than that of most men; and further, that, his aim being great and glorious, this passing deliberate callousness of his is therefore truly a victory won by his strength and his intellect, since there can be no danger in doing wrong when it is done by one who does it knowingly, and has his very good reason. All this, however, does not for a moment delude that which lies deepest within us. An act of injustice must always shake the confidence a man had in himself and his destiny; at a given moment, and that generally of the gravest, he has ceased to rely upon himself alone; and this will not be forgotten, nor will he ever again be wholly himself. He has confused and probably corrupted his fortune by the introduction of strange powers. He has lost the exact sense of his personality and of the force that is in him. He can no longer clearly distinguish between what is his own and comes from himself, and what he is constantly borrowing from the pernicious collaborators whom his weakness has summoned. He has ceased to be the general who has none but disciplined soldiers in the army of his thoughts; he becomes the usurping chief around whom are only accomplices. He has forsworn the dignity of the man who will have none of the glory at which his heart can only smile as sadly as an ardent, unhappy lover would smile at a faithless mistress.
He who is truly strong will examine with eager care the praise and advantages that his actions have won for him; and will silently reject whatever oversteps a certain line that he has drawn in his consciousness. And the stronger he is, the more nearly will this line approach the one that has already been drawn by the secret truth that lies at the bottom of all things. An act of injustice is almost always a confession of weakness; and very few such confessions are needed to reveal to the enemy the most vulnerable spot of the soul. He who commits an unjust deed that he may gain some measure of glory, or preserve the little glory he has, does but admit that what he desires or what he possesses is beyond his deserving, and that the part he has sought to play exceeds his powers of loyal fulfilment. And if, notwithstanding all, he persists in his endeavour, his life will be soon beset by falsehoods, errors, and phantoms.
And at last, after a few acts of weakness, of treachery, of culpable self-indulgence, the survey of our past life can bring discouragement only, whereas we have great need that our past should inspire and sustain us. For therein alone do we truly know what we are; it is only our past that can come to us, in our moments of doubt, and say: “Since you were able to do that thing, it shall lie in your power to do this thing also. When that danger confronted you, when that terrible grief laid you prostrate, you had faith in yourself and you conquered. The conditions to-day are the same; do you but preserve your faith in yourself, and your star will be constant.” But what reply shall we make if our past can only whisper: “Your success has been solely due to injustice and falsehood, wherefore it behoves you once more to deceive and to lie.” No man cares to let his eyes rest on his acts of disloyalty, weakness, or treachery; and all the events of bygone days which we cannot contemplate calmly and peacefully, with satisfaction and confidence, trouble and restrict the horizon which the days that are not yet are forming far away. It is only a prolonged survey of the past that can give to the eye the strength that it needs in order to sound the future.
No, it was not the inherent justice of things that punished Napoleon for his three great acts of injustice, or that will punish us for our own, in a less startling, but not less painful, fashion. Nor was it an unyielding, incorruptible, irresistible justice, “attaining the very vault of heaven.” We are punished because our entire moral being, our mind no less than our character, is incapable of living and acting except in justice. Leaving that, we leave our natural element; we are carried, as it were, into a planet of which we know nothing, where the ground slips from under our feet and all things disconcert us; for while the humblest intellect feels itself at home in justice, and can readily foretell the consequences of every just act, the most profound and penetrating mind loses its way hopelessly in the injustice itself has created, and can form no conception of the results that shall ensue. The man of genius who forsakes the equity that the humblest peasant has at heart will find all paths strange to him; and these will be stranger still should he overstep the limit his own sense of justice imposes; for the justice that soars aloft, keeping pace with the intellect, creates new boundaries around all it throws open, while at the same time strengthening and rendering more insurmountable still the ancient barriers of instinct. The moment we cross the primitive frontier of equity all things seem to fail us; one falsehood gives birth to a hundred, and treachery returns to us through a thousand channels. If justice be in us we may march along boldly, for there are certain things to which the basest cannot be false; but if injustice possess us we must beware of the justest of men, for there are things to which even these cannot remain faithful. As our physical organism was devised for existence in the atmosphere of our globe, so is our moral organism devised for existence in justice. Every faculty craves for it, is more intimately bound up with it than with the laws of gravitation, of light or heat; and to throw ourselves into injustice is to plunge headlong into the hostile and the unknown. All that is in us has been placed there with a view to justice; all things tend thither and urge us towards it; whereas when we harbour injustice we battle against our own strength; and at last, at the hour of inevitable punishment, when, prostrate, weeping, and penitent, we recognise that events, the sky, the universe, the invisible, are all in rebellion, all justly in league against us, then may we truly say, not that these are, or ever have been, just, but that we, notwithstanding ourselves, have contrived to remain just even in injustice.
We affirm that nature is absolutely indifferent to our morality, and that were this morality to command us to kill our neighbour, or to do him the utmost possible harm, nature would aid us in this no less than in our endeavour to comfort or serve him. She would as often seem to reward us for having made him suffer as for our kindness towards him. Are we entitled to conclude from this that nature has no morality — using the word in its most limited sense as meaning the logical, inevitable subordination of the means to the accomplishment of a general mission? That is a question to which we must not too hastily reply. We know nothing of nature’s aim, or whether she have an aim.
We know nothing of her consciousness, or whether she have a consciousness; of her thoughts, or whether she think at all. It is with her deeds and her manner of doing that we are solely concerned. And in these we find the same contradiction between our morality and nature’s mode of action as exists between our consciousness and the instincts that nature has planted within us. For this consciousness, though in ultimate analysis due to her also, has nevertheless been formed by ourselves, and basing itself upon the loftiest human morality, offers an ever stronger opposition to the desires of instinct. Were we to listen only to these last, we should act in all things like nature, which would always seem to justify the triumph of the stronger, the victory of the least scrupulous and best equipped, and this in the midst of the most inexcusable wars, the most flagrant acts of injustice or cruelty. Our one object would be our own personal triumph; nor should we pay the least heed to the rights or sufferings of our victims, to their innocence or beauty, moral or intellectual superiority. But, in that case, why has nature placed within us a consciousness and a sense of justice that have prevented us from desiring the things that she desires? Or is it we ourselves who have placed them there? Are we capable of deriving from within us something that is not in nature; are we capable of giving abnormal development to a force that opposes her force; and if we possess this power, must she not have reasons of her own for permitting us to possess it? Why should there be only in us, and nowhere else in the world, these two irreconcilable tendencies that in every man are incessantly at strife, and victorious in turn? Would one have been dangerous without the other? Would it have overstepped its goal, perhaps; would the desire for conquest, unchecked by the sense of justice, have led us to annihilation, as the sense of justice without the desire for conquest might have induced inertia? But which of these two tendencies is the more natural and necessary, which is the narrower and which the vaster, which is provisional and which eternal? Where shall we learn which one we should combat and which one encourage? Ought we to conform to the law that is incontestably the more general, or should we cherish in our heart a law that is evidently exceptional? Are there circumstances under which we have the right to go forth in search of the apparent ideal of life? Is it our duty to follow the morality of the species or race, which seems irresistible to us, being one of the visible sides of nature’s obscure and unknown intentions; or is it essential that the individual should maintain and develop within him a morality entirely opposed to that of the race or species whereof he forms part?
The truth is that the question which confronts us here is only another form of the one which lies at the root of evolutionary morality, and is probably scientifically unsolvable. Evolutionary morality bases itself on the justice of nature — though it dare not speak out the word; on the justice of nature, which imposes upon each individual the good or evil consequences of his own character and his own actions. But when, on the other hand, it is necessary for evolutionary morality to justify actions which, although intrinsically unjust, are necessary for the prosperity of the species, it falls back upon what it reluctantly terms nature’s indifference or injustice. Here we have two unknown aims, that of humanity and that of mankind; and these, wrapped as they are in a mystery that may some day perhaps pass away, would seem to be irreconcilable in our mind. Essentially, all these questions resolve themselves into one, which is of the utmost importance to our contemporary morality. The race would appear to be becoming conscious, prematurely it may be, and perhaps disastrously, not, we will say, of its rights, for that problem is still in suspense, but of the fact that morality does not enter into certain actions that go to make history.
This disquieting consciousness would seem to be slowly invading our individual life. Thrice, and more or less in the course of one year, has this question confronted us, and assumed vast proportions: in the matter of America’s crushing defeat of Spain (although here the issues are confused, for the Spaniards had been guilty of so many acts of injustice in the past, besides their present blunders, that the problem becomes very involved); in the case of an innocent man sacrificed to the preponderating interest of his country; and in the iniquitous war of the Transvaal. It is true that the phenomenon is not altogether without precedent. Man has always endeavoured to justify his injustice; and when human justice offered him no excuse or pretext, he found in the will of the gods a law superior to the justice of man. But our excuse or pretext of to-day is fraught with the more peril to our morality inasmuch as it reposes on a law, or at least a habit, of nature, that is far more real, more incontestable and universal than the will of an ephemeral and local god.
Which shall prevail in the end, justice or force? Does force contain an unknown justice that will absorb our human justice, or is the impulse of justice within us, that would seem to resist blind force, actually no more than a devious emanation from that force, tending to the same end; and is it only the point of deviation that escapes us? This is not a question that we can answer, we who ourselves form part of the mystery we seek to solve; the reply could come only from one who might be gazing upon us from the heights of another world: one who should have learned the aim of the universe and the destiny of man. In the meanwhile, if we say that nature is right, we say that the instinct of justice, which she has placed in us, and which therefore also is nature, is wrong; whereas if we approve this instinct, our approval is necessarily derived from the exercise of the very faculty that is called in question.
That is true; but it is no less true that the endeavour to sum up the world in a syllogism is one of the oldest and vainest habits of man. In the region of the unknown and unknowable, logic-chopping has its perils; and here all our doubts would seem to arise from another hazardous syllogism. We tell ourselves — boldly at times, but more often in a whisper — that we are nature’s children, and bound therefore in all things to conform to her laws and copy her example. And since nature regards justice with indifference, since she has another aim, which is the sustaining, the renewing, the incessant development, of life, it follows . . . So far we have not formulated the conclusion, or, at least, this conclusion has not yet dared openly to force its way into our morality; but, although its influence has hitherto only been remotely felt in that familiar sphere which includes our relations, our friends, and our immediate surroundings, it is slowly penetrating into the vast and desolate region whither we relegate all those whom we know not and see not, who for us have no name. It is already to be found at the root of many of our actions; it has entered our politics, our industry, our commerce; indeed it affects almost all we do from the moment we emerge from the narrow circle of our domestic hearth, the only place for the majority of men where a little veritable justice is still to be found, a little benevolence, a little love. It will call itself economic or social law, evolution, competition, struggle for life; it will masquerade under a thousand names, forever perpetrating the selfsame wrong. And yet nothing can be less legitimate than such a conclusion. Apart from the fact that we might with equal justification reverse the syllogism, and cause it to declare that there must be a certain justice in nature, since we, her children, are just, we need only consider it as it stands to realise how doubtful and contestable is at least one of its two premisses.
We have seen in the preceding chapters that nature does not appear to be just from our point of view; but we have absolutely no means of judging whether she be not just from her own. The fact that she pays no heed to the morality of our actions does not warrant the inference that she has no morality, or that ours is the only one there can be. We are entitled to say that she cares not whether our intentions be good or evil, but we have not the right to conclude that she has therefore no morality and no equity; for that would be tantamount to affirming that there are no more mysteries or secrets, and that we know all the laws of the universe, its origin and its end. Her mode of action is different from our own, but, I say it once more, we know not what her reason may be for acting in this different fashion; and we have no right to imitate what seems iniquitous and cruel to us so long as we have no precise knowledge of the profound and salutary reasons that may underlie such action. What is the aim of nature? Whither do the worlds tend that stretch across eternity? Where does consciousness begin, and is its only form that which it assumes in ourselves? At what point do physical laws become moral laws? Is life unintelligent? Have we sounded all the depths of nature, and is it only in our cerebro-spinal system that she becomes mind? And finally, what is justice when viewed from other heights? Is the intention necessarily at its centre; and can no regions exist where intentions no
longer shall count? We should have to answer these questions, and many others, before we should be able to tell whether nature be just or unjust from the point of view of masses whose vastness corresponds to her own. She disposes of a future, a space, of which we can form no conception; and in these there exists, it may be, a justice proportioned to her duration, her extent and her aim, even as our own instinct of justice is proportioned to the duration and narrow circle of our own life. The wrong that she may for centuries commit she has centuries in which to repair; but we who have only a few days before us, what right have we to imitate what our eye cannot see, understand or follow? By what standard are we to judge her, if we look away from the passing hour? For instance, considering only the imperceptible speck that we form in the worlds, and disregarding the immensity that surrounds us, we are wholly ignorant of all that concerns our possible life beyond the tomb; and we forget that, in the present state of our knowledge, nothing authorises us to affirm that there may not be a kind of more or less conscious, more or less responsible, after-life, that shall in no way depend on the decisions of an external will. He would indeed be rash who should venture to affirm that nothing survives, either in us or in others, of the efforts of our good intentions and the acquirements of our mind. It may be — and serious experiments, though they do not seem to prove the phenomenon, may still allow us to class it among scientific possibilities — it may be that a part of our personality, of our nervous force, may escape dissolution. How vast a future would then be thrown open to the laws that unite cause to effect, and that always end by creating justice when they come into contact with the human soul, and have centuries before them! Let us not forget that nature at least is logical, even though we call her unjust; and were we to resolve on injustice, our difficulty would be that we must also be logical; and when logic comes into touch with our thoughts and our feelings, our intentions and passions, what is there that differentiates it from justice?
Let us form no too hasty conclusion; too many points are still uncertain. Should we seek to imitate what we term the injustice of nature, we would run the risk of imitating and fostering only the injustice that is in ourselves. When we say that nature is unjust, we are in effect complaining of her indifference to our own little virtues, our own little intentions, our own little deeds of heroism; and it is our vanity far more than our sense of equity that considers itself aggrieved. Our morality is proportionate to our stature and our restricted destiny; nor have we the right to forsake it because it is not on the scale of the immensity and infinite destiny of the universe.
And further, should it even be proved that nature is unjust at all points, the other question remains intact: whether the command be laid upon man to follow nature in her injustice. Here we shall do well to let our own consciousness speak, rather than listen to a voice so formidable that we hear not a word it utters, and know not even whether words there be. Reason and instinct tell us that it is right to follow the counsels of nature; but they tell us also that we should not follow those counsels when they clash with another instinct within us, one that is no less profound: the instinct of the just and the unjust. And if instincts do indeed draw very near to the truth of nature, and must be respected by us in the degree of the force that is in them, this one is perhaps the strongest of all, for it has struggled alone against all the others combined, and still persists within us. Nor is this the hour to reject it. Until other certitudes reach us, it behoves us, who are men, to continue, just in the human way and the human sphere. We do not see far enough, or clearly enough, to be just in another sphere. Let us not venture into a kind of abyss, out of which races and peoples to come may perhaps find a passage; but whereinto man, in so far as he is man, must not seek to penetrate. The injustice of nature ends by becoming justice for the race; she has time before her, she can wait, her injustice is of her girth. But for us it is too overwhelming, and our days are too few. Let us be satisfied that force should reign in the universe, but equity in our heart. Though the race be irresistibly, and perhaps justly, unjust, though even the crowd appear possessed of rights denied to the isolated man, and commit on occasions great, inevitable, and salutary crimes, it is still the duty of each individual of the race, of every member of the crowd, to remain just, while ever adding to, and sustaining, the consciousness within him. Nor shall we be entitled to abandon this duty till all the reasons of the great apparent injustice be known to us; and those that are given us now, preservation of the species, reproduction, and selection of the strongest, ablest, “fittest,” are not sufficient to warrant so frightful a change. Let each one try by all means to become the strongest, most skilful, the best adapted to the necessities of the life that he cannot transform; but, so far, the qualities that shall enable him to conquer, that shall give the fullest play to his moral power and his intelligence, and shall truly make him the happiest, most skilful, the strongest and “fittest" — these qualities are precisely the ones that are the most human, the most honourable and the most just.
“Within me there is more,” runs the fine device inscribed on the beams and pediment of an old patrician mansion at Bruges, which every traveller visits; filling a corner of one of those tender and melancholy quays, that are as forlorn and lifeless as though they existed only on canvas. And so too might man exclaim, “Within me there is more;” every law of morality, every intelligible mystery. There may be many others, above and below us; but if these are to remain forever unknown, they become for us as though they existed not; and should their existence one day be revealed to us, it can only be because they already are in us, already are ours. “Within me there is more;" and we are entitled to add, perhaps: "I have nothing to fear from that which is in me.”
This much at least is certain: that the one active, inhabited region of the mystery of justice is to be found within ourselves. Other regions lack consistency; they are probably imaginary, and must inevitably be deserted and sterile. They may have furnished mankind with illusions that served some purpose, but not always without doing harm; and though we may scarcely be entitled to demand that all illusions should be destroyed, they should at least not be too manifestly opposed to our conception of the universe. To-day we seek in all things the illusion of truth.
It is not the last, perhaps, or the best, or the only one possible; but it is the one which we at present regard as the most honourable and the most necessary. Let us limit ourselves therefore to recognising the admirable love of justice and truth that exists in the heart of man. Proceeding thus, yielding admiration only where it is incontestably due, we shall gradually acquire some knowledge of this passion, which is the distinguishing mark of man; and one thing, most important of all, we shall most undoubtedly learn — the means whereby we can purify it, and still further increase it. As we observe its incessant activity in the depths of our heart, the only temple where it can truly be active; as we watch it blending with all that we think, and feel, and do, we shall quickly discover which are the things that throw light upon it, and which those that plunge it in darkness, which are the things that guide it and which those that lead it astray; we shall learn what nourishes and what atrophies, what attacks and what defends.
Is justice no more than the human instinct of preservation and defence? Is it the purest product of our reason; or rather to be regarded as composed of a number of those sentimental forces which so often are right, though directly opposed to our reason — forces that in themselves are a kind of unconscious, vaster reason, to which our conscious reason invariably accords its startled approval when it has reached the heights whence those kindly feelings long had beheld what itself was unable to see? Is justice dependent on intellect, or rather on character? Questions these that are perhaps not idle if we indeed would seek to know what steps we must take to invest with all its radiance and all its power the love of justice that is the central jewel of the human soul. All men love justice, but not with the same ardent, fierce, exclusive love; nor have they all the same scruples, the same sensitiveness, or the same deep conviction. We meet people of highly developed intellect, in whom the sense of what is just and unjust is yet infinitely less delicate, less clearly marked, than in others whose intellect would seem to be mediocre; for here a great part is played by that little known, ill-defined side of ourselves that we term the character. And yet it is difficult to tell how much more or less unconscious intellect must of necessity go with the character that is unaffectedly honest. The point before us, however, is to learn how best to illumine, and increase within us, our desire for justice; and it is certain that, at the start, our character is less directly influenced by our desire for justice than is our intellect, the development of which this desire in a large measure controls; and the cooperation of the intellect, which recognises and encourages our good intention, is necessary for this to penetrate into, and mould, our character. That portion of our love of justice, therefore, which depends on our character, will benefit by its passage through the intellect; for in proportion as the intellect rises, and acquires enlightenment, will it succeed in mastering, enlightening, and transforming our instincts and our feelings.
But let us no longer believe that this love must be sought in a kind of superhuman, and often inhuman, infinite. None of the grandeur and beauty that this infinite may possess would fall to its portion; it would only be incoherent, inactive, and vague. Whereas by seeking it in ourselves, where it truly is; by observing it there, listening to it, marking how it profits by every acquirement of our mind, every joy and sorrow of our heart, we soon shall learn what we best had do to purify and increase it.
Our task within these limits will be sufficiently long and mysterious. To increase and purify within us the desire for justice: how shall this thing be done? We have some vague conception of the ideal that we would approach; but how changeable still, and illusory, is this ideal! It is lessened by all that is still unknown to us in the universe, by all that we do not perceive, or perceive incompletely, by all that we question too superficially. It is hedged round by the most insidious dangers; it falls victim to the strangest oblivion, the most inconceivable blunders. Of all our ideals it is the one that we should watch with the greatest care and anxiety, with the most passionate, pious eagerness and solicitude. What seems irreproachably just to us at the moment is probably the merest fraction of what would seem just, could we regard it from another place. We need only compare what we were doing yesterday with what we do to-day; and what we do to-day would appear full of faults against equity were it granted to us to rise still higher and compare it with what we shall do tomorrow. There needs but a passing event, a thought that rises, a duty to ourselves that takes definite form, an unexpected responsibility that is suddenly made clear, for the whole organisation of our inward justice to totter and be transformed. Slow as our advance may have been, we still should find it impossible to begin life again in the midst of many a sorrow whereof we were the involuntary cause, many a discouragement to which we unconsciously gave rise; and yet, when these things came into being around us, we appeared to be in the right, and did not consider ourselves unjust. And even so are we convinced to-day of our excellent intentions; even so do we tell ourselves that we are the cause of no suffering and no tears, that we stay not a murmur of happiness, shorten no moment of peace or of love; and it may be that there passes, unperceived of us, to our right or our left, an illimitable injustice that spreads over three fourths of our life.
I chanced to-day to take up a copy of the “Arabian Nights" in the very remarkable translation recently published by Dr. Mardrus; and I marvelled at the extraordinary picture it gives of the ancient, long-vanished civilisations. Not in the Odyssey or the Bible, in Xenophon or Plutarch, could their teaching be more clearly set forth. There is one story that the Sultana Schahrazade tells — it is one of the very finest the volume contains — that reveals a life as pure and admirable as mankind has ever known; a life replete with beauty, happiness, and love; spontaneous and vivid, intelligent, flourishing, and refined; an abundant life that, to a certain point, comes as near truth as a life well can. It is, in many respects, almost as perfect in its moral as in its material civilisation. And the pillars on which this incomparable structure of happiness rests — like pillars of light supporting the light — are formed of ideas of justice so delicate, counsels of wisdom so deeply penetrating, that we of to-day, who are less fine in grain, less eager and buoyant, have lost the power to formulate or to discern them. And for all that, this abode of felicity, that harbours a moral life so active and vigorous, so noble, so graciously grave, — this palace, wherein the purest and holiest wisdom governs the pleasures of rejoicing mankind — is in its entirety based on so great an injustice, is enclosed by so vast, so profound, so frightful an iniquity, that the wretchedest man of us all would shrink in dismay from its glittering, gem-bestrewn threshold. But of this iniquity they who linger in that marvellous dwelling have not the remotest suspicion. It would seem that they never draw near to a window; or that, should one by some chance fly open and reveal to their sorrowful gaze the misery strewn in the midst of the revels and feasting, they still would be blind to the crime which was infinitely more revolting, infinitely more monstrous, than the most appalling poverty: the crime of the slavery, and the even more terrible degradation, of their women. For these, however exalted their position, and at the moment even when they are speaking to the men round about them of goodness and justice; when they are reminding them of their most touching and generous duties — these women never are more than mere objects of pleasure, to be bought, or sold, or given away, in a moment of gratitude, ostentation or drunkenness, to any barbarous or hideous master.
“They tell us,” says the beautiful slave Nozhatan, as, concealed behind a curtain of silk and of pearls, she speaks to Prince Sharkan and the wise men of the kingdom, — “they tell us that the Khalif Omar set forth one night, in the company of the venerable Aslam Abou-Zeid, and that he beheld, far away from his palace, a fire that was burning; and drew near, as he thought that his presence might perhaps be of service. And he saw a poor woman who was kindling wood underneath a caldron, and by her side were two little wretched children, groaning most piteously. And Omar said, 'Peace unto thee, O woman! What dost thou here, alone in the night and the cold?' And she answered, ‘Lord, I am making this water to boil, that my children may drink, who perish of hunger and cold; but for the misery we have to bear, Allah will surely one day ask reckoning of Omar the Khalif.’ And the Khalif, who was in disguise, was much moved, and he said to her, 'But dost thou think, O woman, that Omar can know of thy wretchedness, seeing that he does not relieve it?' And she answered, 'Wherefore, then, is Omar the Khalif if he be unaware of the misery of his people and of each one of his subjects?' Then the Khalif was silent and he said to Aslam Abou-Zeid, 'Let us go quickly from hence.’ And he hastened until he had reached the storehouse of his kitchens, and he entered therein and drew forth a sack of flour from the midst of the other sacks, and also a jar that was filled to the brim with sheep fat, and he said to Abou-Zeid, 'O Abou-Zeid, help thou me to charge these on my back.’ But Abou-Zeid refused, and he cried, 'Suffer that I carry them upon my back O Commander of the Faithful.’ And Omar said calmly to him, 'Wilt thou also, O Abou-Zeid, bear the weight of my sins on the Day of Resurrection?’ And Abou-Zeid was obliged to lay the jar filled with fat and the sack of flour on the Khalif’s back. And Omar hastened, thus laden, until he had once again reached the poor woman; and he took of the flour, and he took of the fat, and placed these in the caldron over the fire; and with his own hands did he then get ready the food, and he quickened the fire with his breath; and as he bent over, his beard being long, the smoke from the wood forced its way through the beard of the Khalif. And at last, when the food was prepared, Omar offered it unto the woman and the two little children; and with his breath did he cool the food while these ate their fill. Then he left them the sack of flour and the jar of fat; and he went on his way and said unto Aslam Abou-Zeid, 'O Abou-Zeid, the light from this fire that I have beheld to-day has enlightened me also.’ "
And it is thus that, a little further on, there speaks to a very wise king one of five pensive maidens whom this king is invited to buy. “Know thou, O King,” she says; “that the most beautiful deed one can do is the deed that is disinterested. And so do they tell us that in Israel once were two brothers, and that one asked the other, ‘Of all the deeds thou hast done, which was the most wicked?' And his brother replied, ‘This: as I passed by a hen-roost one day I stretched out my arm and I seized a chicken and strangled it, and then flung it back into the roost. That is the wickedest deed of my life. And thou, O my brother, what is thy wickedest action?' And he answered, ‘That I prayed to Allah one day to demand a favour of him. For it is only when the soul is simply uplifted on high that prayer can be beautiful.’ "
And one of her companions, captive and slave like herself, also speaks to the king. “Learn to know thyself!" she says. “Learn to know thyself! And do thou not act till then. And do thou then only act in accordance with all thy desires, but having great care always that thou do not injure thy neighbour.”
To this last formula our morality of to-day has nothing to add; nor can we conceive a precept that shall be more complete. At most we could widen the meaning of the word “neighbour,” and expand, extend, and raise, render somewhat more subtle and more elastic, that of the word “injure.” And the book in which these words are found is a monument of horror, notwithstanding all its flowers and all its wisdom; a monument of horror and blood and tears, of despotism and slavery. And they are all slaves, those who pronounce these words. A merchant buys them, I know not where, and sells them to some old hag who teaches them, or causes them to be taught, philosophy, poetry, all Eastern sciences, in order that one day they may become gifts worthy of a king. And when their education is finished, and their beauty and wisdom call forth the admiration of all who approach them, the industrious, prudent old woman does indeed offer them to a very wise, very just king. And when this very wise, very just king has taken their virginity from them and seeks other loves, he will probably bestow them (I have forgotten the end of this particular story, but it is the invariable destiny of all the heroines of these marvellous legends) on his viziers. And these viziers will give them away in exchange for a vase of perfume, for a belt that is studded with jewels, or perhaps despatch to a distant country, to conciliate a powerful protector, or a hideous, but dreaded, rival. And these women, so fully conscious of themselves, whose gaze can penetrate so deeply into the consciousness of others; these women who forever are pondering the loftiest, grandest problems of justice, of the morality of men and of nations, never throw one questioning glance on their fate, or for an instant suspect the abominable injustice whereof they are the victims. Nor do those suspect it either who listen to them, and love and admire and understand them. And we who marvel at this — we who also reflect on justice and virtue, on pity and love — are we so sure that they who come after us shall not some day find, in our present social condition, a spectacle no less disconcerting?
It is difficult for us to imagine what the ideal justice will be, for every thought of ours that tends towards it is clogged by the injustice wherein we still live. Who shall say what new laws and relations will stand revealed when the misfortunes and inequalities due to the action of man shall have been swept away; when, in accordance with the principles of evolutionary morality, each individual shall “reap the results, good or bad, of his own nature, and of the consequences that ensue from that nature?" At present things happen otherwise; and we may unhesitatingly declare that, as far as the material condition of the vast bulk of mankind is concerned, the connection between conduct and consequences — to use Spencer’s formula — exists only in the most ludicrous, arbitrary, and iniquitous fashion. Is there not something of audacity in our imagining that our thoughts can possibly be just when the body of each one of us is steeped to the neck in injustice? And from this injustice no man is free, be it to his loss or his gain; there is not one whose efforts are not disproportionately rewarded, receiving either too much or too little; not one who is not either advantaged or handicapped. And endeavour as we may to detach our mind from this inveterate injustice, this lingering trace of the sub-human morality needful for primitive races, it is idle to think that our thoughts can be as strenuous, as independent or clear, as they might have been had the last vestige of this injustice disappeared; it is idle to think that they can achieve the same result. The side of the human mind that can attain a region loftier than reality is necessarily timid and hesitating. Human thought is capable of many things; it has, in the course of time, brought startling improvement to bear upon what seemed immutable in the species or the race. But even at the moment when it is pondering the transformation of which it has caught a distant glimpse, the improvement that it so eagerly desires, even then it is still thinking, feeling, seeing, like the thing that it seeks to alter; even then it lies captive beneath the yoke. All its efforts notwithstanding, it is practically that which it would change. For the mind of man lacks the power to forecast the future; it has been formed rather to explain, judge, and co-ordinate that which was; to help, foster, and make known what already exists but so far cannot be seen; and when it ventures into what is not yet it will rarely produce anything very salutary or very enduring. And the influence of the social condition in which we exist lies heavy upon it. How can we frame a satisfactory idea of justice, and ponder it loyally, and with the needful tranquillity, when injustice surrounds us on every side? Before we can study justice, or speak of it with advantage, it must become what it is capable of being: a social force, irreproachable and actual. At present all we can do is to invoke its unconscious, secret, and, as it were, almost imperceptible effects. We contemplate it from the shores of human injustice; never yet has it been granted us to gaze on the open sea beneath the illimitable, inviolate sky of a conscience without reproach. If men had at least done all that it was possible for them to do in their own domain, they would then have the right to go further, and question elsewhere; and their thoughts would probably be clearer, were their consciences more at ease.
And further, a heavy reproach lies on us, and chills our ardour, whenever we try to grow better, to increase our knowledge, our love, our forgiveness. Though we purify our consciousness and ennoble our thoughts, though we strive to render life softer and sweeter for those who are near us, all our efforts halt at our threshold, and have no influence on what lies outside our door; and the moment we leave our home we feel that we have done nothing, that there is nothing for us to do, and that we are taking part, ourselves notwithstanding, in the great anonymous injustice. Is it not almost ludicrous that we, who within our four walls strive to be noble and faithful, pitiful, simple, and loyal; we whose consciousness balances the nicest, most delicate problems, and rejects even the suspicion of a bitter thought, have no sooner gone into the street, and met faces that are unfamiliar, than, at that very instant, and without the least possibility of our having it otherwise, all pity, equity, love should be completely ignored by us? What dignity, what loyalty, can there be in this double life, so wise and humane, uplifted and thoughtful, this side the threshold, and beyond it so callous, so instinctive and pitiless? For it is enough that we should feel the cold a little less than the labourer who passes by, that we should be better fed or clad than he, that we should buy any object that is not strictly indispensable, and we have unconsciously returned, through a thousand byways, to the ruthless act of primitive man despoiling his weaker brother. There is no single privilege we enjoy but close investigation will prove it to be the result of a perhaps very remote abuse of power, an unknown violence or ruse of long ago; and all these we set in motion again as we sit at our table, stroll idly through the town, or lie at night in a bed that our own hands have not made. Nay, what is even the leisure that enables us to improve, to grow more compassionate and gentler, to think more fraternally of the injustice others endure — what is this, in truth, but the ripest fruit of the great injustice?
These scruples, I know, must not be carried too far; they would either induce a spirit of useless revolt, possibly disastrous to the species whose mild and mighty sluggishness we are bound to respect; or they would lead us back to I know not what mystic, inert renouncement, directly opposed to the most evident and unchanging desires of life. Life has laws that we call inevitable; but we are already becoming more sparing in our use of the word. And here especially do we note the change that has come over the attitude of the wise and upright man. Marcus Aurelius — than whom perhaps none ever craved more earnestly for justice, or possessed a soul more wisely impressionable, more nobly sensitive — Marcus Aurelius never asked himself what might be happening outside that admirable little circle of light wherein his virtue and consciousness, his divine meekness and piety, had gathered those who were near him, his friends and his servants. Infinite iniquity, he knew full well, stretched around him on every side; but with this he had no concern. To him it seemed a thing that must be, mysterious and sacred as the mighty ocean; the boundless domain of the gods, of fatality, of laws unknown and superior, irresistible, irresponsible, and eternal. It did not lessen his courage; on the contrary, it enhanced his confidence, his concentration, and spurred him upwards, like the flame that, confined to a narrow area, rises higher and higher, alone in the night, urged on by the darkness. He accepted the decree of fate, that allotted slavery to the bulk of mankind. Sorrowfully, but with full conviction, did he submit to the irrevocable law; wherein he once again gave proof of his piety and his virtue. He retired into himself; and there, in a kind of sunless, motionless void, became still more just, still more humane. And in each succeeding century do we find a similar ardour, self-centred and solitary, among those who were wise and good. The name of more than one immovable law might change, but its infinite part remained ever the same; and each one regarded it with the like resigned and chastened melancholy. But we of to-day — what course are we to pursue? We know that iniquity is no longer necessary. We have invaded the region of the gods, of destiny and unknown laws. These may still control disease and accident, perhaps, no less than the tempest, the lightning-flash, and most of the mysteries of death; we have not yet penetrated to them; but we are well aware that poverty, wretchedness, hopeless toil, slavery, famine, are completely outside their domain. It is we who organise these, we who maintain and distribute them. These frightful scourges, that have grown so familiar, are wielded by us alone; and belief in their superhuman origin is becoming rarer and rarer. The religious, impassable ocean that excused and protected the retreat into himself of the sage and the man of good, now only exists as a vague recollection. To-day Marcus Aurelius could no longer say with the same serenity: “They go in search of refuges, of rural cottages, of mountains, of the sea-shore; thou too art wont to cherish an eager desire for these things. But is this not the act of an ignorant, unskilled man, seeing that it is granted thee at whatever hour thou pleasest to retire within thyself? It is not possible for man to discover a retreat more tranquil, less disturbed by affairs, than that which he finds in his soul; especially if he have within him those things the contemplation of which suffices to procure immediate enjoyment of the perfect calm, which is no other, to my mind, than the perfect agreement of soul.”
Other matters concern us to-day than this agreement of soul; or let us rather say that what we have to do is to bring into agreement there that from which the soul of Marcus Aurelius was free, — three-fourths of the sorrows of mankind, in a word, which have become real to us, intelligible, human, urgent, and are no longer regarded as the inexplicable, immutable, intangible decrees of fate.
This does not imply, however, that we should abandon the old sage’s desire for “agreement;” and even though we may not be entitled to expect such perfect “agreement" as they derived from their pardonable egoism, we may still look for agreement of a provisional, conditional kind. And although such “agreement" be not the last word of morality, it is none the less indispensable that we should begin by being as just as we possibly can within ourselves and to those round about us, our neighbours, our friends, and our servants. It is at the moment when we have become absolutely just to these, and within our own consciousness, that we realise our great injustice to all the others. The method of being more practically just towards these last is not yet known to us; to return to great, heroic renouncements would effect but little, for these are incapable of unanimous action, and would probably run counter to the profoundest laws of nature, which rejects renouncement in every form save that of maternal love.
This practical justice, therefore, remains the secret of the race. Of such secrets it has many, which it reveals one by one, at such moments of history as become truly critical; and the solutions it offers to insuperable difficulties are almost always unexpected, and of curious simplicity. The hour approaches perhaps when it will speak once more. Let us hope, without being too sanguine; for we must bear in mind that humanity has yet by no means emerged from the period of “sacrificed generations.” History has known no others; and it is possible that, to the end of time, all generations may call themselves sacrificed. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the sacrifices, however unjust and useless they still may be, are growing ever less inhuman and less inevitable; and that the laws which govern them are becoming better and better known, and would seem to draw nearer and nearer to those that a lofty mind might accept without being pitiless.
It must be admitted, however, that a majestic, redoubtable slowness attends the movements of these “ideas of the species.” Centuries had to pass by before it dawned upon primitive men, who fled from each other, or fought when they met at the mouth of their caverns, that they would do well to form into groups, and unite in defence against the mighty enemies threatening them from without. And besides, these “ideas" of the species will often be widely different from those that the wisest man might hold. They would seem to be independent, spontaneous, often based on facts of which no trace is shown by the human reason of the epoch that witnessed their birth; and indeed there is no graver or more disturbing problem before the moralist or sociologist than that of determining whether all his efforts can hasten by one hour or divert by one hair’s-breadth the decisions of the great, anonymous mass which proceeds, step by step, towards its indiscernible goal.
Long ago — so long indeed that this is one of the first affirmations of science, when, quitting the bowels of the earth, the glaciers and grottoes, it ceased to call itself geology and palæontology and became the history of man — humanity passed through a crisis not wholly unlike that which now lies ahead of it, or is actually menacing it at the moment; the difference being only that in those days the dilemma seemed vastly more tragic and more unsolvable. It may truly be said that mankind never has known a more perilous or more decisive hour, or a period when it drew nearer its ruin; and the fact that we exist to-day would appear to be due to the unexpected expedient which saved the race at the moment when the scourge that fed on man’s very reason, on all that was best and most irresistible in his instinct of justice and injustice, was actually on the point of destroying the heroic equilibrium between the desire to live and the possibility of living.
I refer to the acts of violence, rapine, outrage, murder, which were of natural occurrence among the earliest human groups. These crimes, which will probably have been of the most frightful description, must have very seriously endangered the existence of the race; for vengeance is the terrible, and, as it were, the epidemic form which the craving for justice at first assumes. Now this spirit of vengeance, abandoned to itself and forever multiplying, — revenge followed by the revenge of revenge, — would finally have engulfed, if not the whole of mankind, at least all those of the earliest men who were possessed of energy or pride. We find, however, that among these barbarous races, as among most of the existing savage tribes whose habits are known to us, there comes a time, usually at the period when their weapons are growing too deadly, when this vengeance suddenly halts before a singular custom known as the “blood-tribute,” or the “composition for murder,” which allows the homicide to escape the reprisals of the victim’s friends and relations by payment to them of an indemnity, that, from being arbitrary at the start, soon becomes strictly graduated.
In the whole history of these infant races, in whom impulse and heroism were the predominant factors, there is nothing stranger, nothing more astounding, than this almost universal custom, which for all its ingenuity would appear almost too long-suffering and mercantile. May we attribute it to the foresight of the chiefs? We find it in races among whom authority might almost be said to be entirely lacking. Did it originate among the old men, the thinkers, the sages, of the primitive groups? That is not more probable. For underlying this custom there is a thought which is at the same time higher and lower than could be the thought of an isolated prophet or genius of those barbarous days. The sage, the prophet, the genius — above all, the untrained genius — is rather inclined to carry to extremes the generous and heroic tendencies of the clan or epoch to which he belongs. He would have recoiled in disgust from this timid, cunning evasion of a natural and sacred revenge, from this odious traffic in friendship, fidelity, and love. Nor is it conceivable, on the other hand, that he should have attained sufficient loftiness of spirit to be able to let his gaze travel beyond the noblest and most incontestable duties of the moment, and to behold only the superior interest of the tribe or the race: that mysterious desire for life which the wisest of the wise among us to-day are generally unable to perceive or to justify until they have wrought grave and painful conquest over their isolated reason and their heart.
No, it was not the thought of man which found the solution. On the contrary, it was the unconsciousness of the mass, compelled to act in self-defence against thoughts too intrinsically, individually human to satisfy the irreducible exigencies of life on this earth. The species is extremely patient, extremely long-suffering. It will bear as long as it can and carry as far as it can the burden which reason, the desire for improvement, the imagination, the passions, vices, virtues, and feelings natural to man, may combine to impose upon it. But at the moment when this burden becomes too overwhelming, and disaster threatens, the species will, instantaneously and with the utmost indifference, fling it aside. It is careless as to the means; it will adopt the one that is nearest, the simplest, most practical, being doubtless perfectly satisfied that its own idea is the justest and best. And of ideas it has only one, which is that it wishes to live; and truly this idea surpasses all the heroism, all the generous dreams, that may have reposed in the burden which it has discarded.
And indeed, in the history of human reason, the greatest and the justest thoughts are not always those which attain the loftiest heights. It happens somewhat with the thoughts of men as with a fountain; for it is only because the water has been imprisoned and escapes through a narrow opening that it soars so proudly into the air. As it issues from this opening and hurls itself towards the sky, it would seem to despise the great, illimitable, motionless lake that stretches out far beneath it. And yet, say what one will, it is the lake that is right. For all its apparent motionlessness, for all its silence, it is tranquilly accomplishing the immense and normal task of the most important element of our globe; and the jet of water is merely a curious incident, which soon returns into the universal scheme. To us, the species is the great, unerring lake; and this even from the point of view of the superior human reason that it would seem at times to offend. Its idea is the vastest of all, and contains every other; it embraces limitless time and space. And does not each day that goes by reveal more and more clearly to us that the vastest idea, no matter where it reside, always ends by becoming the most just and most reasonable, the wisest, and the most beautiful?
There are times when we ask ourselves whether it might not be well for humanity that its destinies should be governed by the superior men among us, the great sages, rather than by the instincts of the species, that are always so slow, and often so cruel.
It is doubtful whether this question could be answered to-day in quite the same fashion as formerly. It would surely have been highly dangerous to confide the destinies of the species to Plato or Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, or Montesquieu. At the very worst moments of the French Revolution, the fate of the people was in the hands of philosophers of none too mean an order. It cannot be denied, however, that in our time the habits of the thinker have undergone a great change. He has ceased to be speculative or utopian: he is no longer exclusively intuitive. In politics as in literature, in philosophy as in all the sciences, he displays less imagination, but his powers as an observer have grown. He inclines rather to concentrate his attention on the thing that is, to study it and strive at its organisation, than to precede it, or endeavour to create what is not yet, or never shall be. And therefore he may possibly have some claim to more authoritative utterance; nor would so much danger attend his more direct intervention. It must be admitted, however, that there is no greater likelihood now than in former times of such intervention being permitted him. Nay, there is less, perhaps; for having become more circumspect and less blinded by narrow convictions, he will be less audacious, less imperious, and less impatient. And yet it is possible that, finding himself in natural sympathy with the species which he is content merely to observe, he will by slow degrees acquire more and more influence; so that here again, in ultimate analysis, it is the species that will be right, the species that will decide; for it will have guided him who observes it, and therefore, in following him whom it has guided, it will truly only be following its own unconscious, formless desires, which will have been expressed by him, and by him brought into light.
Until such time as the species shall discover the new and needful experiment — and this it will quickly do when the danger becomes more acute; nay, for all we know, the expedient may have already been found, and, entirely unsuspected of us, be already transforming part of our destinies — until such time, while bound to act in external matters as though our brothers’ salvation depended entirely on our exertions, it is open to us, no less than to the sages of old, to retire occasionally within ourselves. We in our turn shall perhaps find there “one of those things" of which the contemplation shall suffice to bring us instantaneous enjoyment, if not of the perfect calm, at least of an indestructible hope. Though nature appear unjust, though nothing authorise us to declare that a superior power, or the intellect of the universe, rewards or punishes, here below or elsewhere, in accordance with the laws of our consciousness or with other laws that we shall some day admit; and finally, though between man and man, in other words, in our relations with our fellows, our admirable desire for equity translate itself into a justice that is always incomplete, at the mercy of every error of reason, of every ambush laid by personal interest, and of all the evil habits of a social condition that still is sub-human, — it is none the less certain that an image of that invisible and incorruptible justice, which we have vainly sought in the sky or the universe, reposes in the depths of the moral life of every man. And though its method of action be such as to cause it to pass unperceived of most of our fellows, often indeed of our own consciousness, though all that it does be hidden and intangible, it is none the less profoundly human and profoundly real. It would seem to hear, to examine, all that we say, and think, and strive for, in our exterior life; and if it find a little sincerity beneath, a little earnest desire for good, it will transform these into moral forces that shall extend and illumine our inner life, and help us to better thoughts, to better speech and endeavour, in the time to come. It will not add to, or take from, our wealth, it will bring no immunity from disease or from lightning, it will not prolong by one hour the life of the being we cherish; but if we have learned to reflect and to love: if, in other words, heart and brain have both done their duty, it will establish in heart and brain a contentment that, though perhaps stripped of illusion, shall still be inexhaustible and noble; it will confer a dignity of existence, an intelligence, that shall suffice to sustain our life after the loss of our wealth, after the stroke of disease or lightning has fallen, after the loved one has forever quitted our arms. A good thought or deed brings a reward to our heart that it cannot, in the absence of a universal judge of nature, extend to the things around. It endeavours to create within us the happiness it is unable to produce in our material life. Denied all external outlet, it fills our soul the more. It prepares the space that soon shall be required by our developing intellect, our expanding peace and love. Helpless against the laws of nature, it is all-powerful over those that govern the happy equilibrium of human consciousness. And this is true of every stage of thought, of every class of action. A vast distance might seem to divide the labourer, who brings up his children honourably, lives his humble life and honourably does the work that falls to his lot, from the man who steadfastly perseveres in moral heroism; but each of these is acting and living, on the same plane as the other, and the same loyal, consoling region receives them both. And though it be certain that what we say and do must largely influence our material happiness, yet, in ultimate analysis, it is only by means of the spiritual organs that even material happiness can be fully and permanently enjoyed. Hence the preponderating importance of thought. But of supreme importance, from the point of view of the reception we shall offer to the joys and sorrows of life, is the character, the frame of mind, the moral condition, that the things we have said, and done, and thought, will have created within us. Here there is evidence of admirable justice; and the intimate happiness that our moral being derives from the constant striving of the mind and heart for good becomes the more comprehensible when we realise that this happiness is only the surface of the goodly thought, or feeling, that is shining within our heart. Here may we indeed find that intelligent, moral bond between cause and effect that we have vainly sought in the external world; here, in moral matters, reigning over the good and evil that are warring in the depths of our consciousness, may we in truth discover a justice exactly similar to the one which we could desire to recognise in physical matters. But whence do we derive this desire if not from the justice within us; and is it not because this justice is so mighty and active in our heart that we are reluctant to believe in its non-existence in the universe?
We have spoken at great length of justice; but is it not the great mystery of man, the one that tends to take the place of most of the spiritual mysteries that govern his destiny? It has dethroned more than one god, more than one nameless power. It is the star evolved from the nebulous mass of our instincts and our incomprehensible life. It is not the solution of the enigma; and when, in the fulness of time, it shall become clearer to us, and shall truly reign all over the earth, there will come to us no greater knowledge of what we are, or why we are, whence we come or whither we go; but we shall at least have obeyed the first word of the enigma, and shall proceed, with a freer spirit and a more tranquil heart, to the search for its last secret.
Finally, it comprises all the human virtues; and none but itself can offer the welcoming smile whereby these are ennobled and purified, none but itself can accord them the right to penetrate deep into our moral life. For every virtue must be maleficent and steeped in artifice that cannot support the fixed and eager regard of justice. And so do we find it at the heart of every ideal. It is at the centre of our love of truth, at the centre of our love of beauty. It is kindness and pity, it is generosity, heroism, love; for all these are the acts of justice of one who has risen sufficiently high to perceive that justice and injustice are not exclusively confined to what lies before him, to the narrow circle of obligations chance may have imposed, but that they stretch far beyond years, beyond neighbouring destinies, beyond what he regards as his duty, beyond what he loves; beyond what he seeks and encounters, beyond what he approves or respects, beyond his doubts and his fears, beyond the wrong-doing and even the crimes of the men, his brothers.