Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/The New Asceticism


[To The Editor of the " Spectator."]

Miss Martineau's autobigraphy is the first book that has given the inward experience of a positivist with the same vividness and unction with which the "experience "of Evangelicals used to be given forty years ago. Such pictures are always powerful and have a strong effect upon immature minds, and in this instance the effect is likely to be so hurtful on one point that I should like to see it noticed by some one more capable than I am of showing where the mistake lies. Miss Martineau is always praising the virtue of that sort of obliteration of self which is shown in the utter absence of all wish for life, present or future. We have heard this virtue preached by many prophets, from George Eliot to Schopenhauer, but in Miss Martineau we see it in actual (though partial) operation. Is it truly a virtue, and ought we to strive to possess it?

At first sight it appeals to a high instinct, — we are weary of our selfish hopes and fears, and it looks like an escape from them. The old asceticism appealed to the same instinct, — men were weary of the fightings of passion, and the convent promised them peace. But it was at the price of half their nature; all their human affections and their health of body and mind had to be given up. This new asceticism strikes deeper still; it attacks our whole nature, for it requires us to care nothing for the existence of that individual self which is the root of all our affections and the key to the worth of the universe. Of course, this true self must not be confounded with the mass of egoistic and unjust desires which we are bound to renounce, — with them we have no concern here. Our present question is, — Can it be wrong to care for that self which is our only means of knowing God, loving man, and doing right? Miss Martineau asks what it can signify whether we, with our individual consciousness, live again; and says that "the real and justifiable subject of interest to human beings is the welfare of their fellows," and "the important thing is that the universe should be full of life." But if my own existence is valueless, how do I know that my fellows have any value? If I, who am a part of the universe (and seem to myself to be worth something, though very little) am really worth nothing at all, how do I know that the other parts — animals, rocks, seas, Professor Tyndall's fiery cloud itself — are worth anything?

Such questions sound futile, but they have a serious bearing, though their chief interest, as yet, relates to the future life, not to the present one. Suicide may possibly some day come to be the fashion, at least among the disciples of Schopenhauer, but as yet it is chiefly the heavenly life that we are taught to despise. We are continually told that our longing for it is "selfish." To this our first reply is, that we who believe it long for it quite as much for others as we do for ourselves; it is a desire that unites us with our fellows, instead of dividing us from them. Miss Martineau consoled herself in the prospect of death with the thought that she had "had a noble share of life." She had, but what of the dim multitudes who have had a very poor share of it, who have been born in crime, dirt, and misery, and many of whom die before they have tasted even the common joys of life? What comfort has she for them? The truth is, her philosophical creed is an essentially aristocratic one; it has something to offer the few who already possess high advantages of intellect and education, it has little to offer the masses. Religion speaks straight to these; however low they may be sunk, it has hope, impulse, life to give them at once. Beliefs which put us in close, hopeful, and helpful communion with our kind can hardly be called selfish.

But our second reply goes deeper, and denies that it is "egoistic" to long for a future life for ourselves. For each of us our true self is that little bit of the universal life which is given into our own keeping, and for which we are responsible. We have no right to think lightly of this. It is only by first feeling for it, and working for it, that we learn to understand other beings, to feel for and work for them. It is only from feeling that it is precious, that we can know the preciousness of other men and women. Carelessness about it is not virtuous and heroic, but morbid and degrading. Many of the old ascetics did despise half their nature — the human half — and it grew degraded and deadened in consequence, but the divine half they always cherished. Their heart and will were free to go out towards God, and so they kept their souls alive. But the new asceticism preaches mortification of the higher self, as-well as of the lower; its teaching tends gradually to dull the whole emotional nature. It takes the color out of life, and destroys half its motive-power. Hope, sorrow, and longing are to be repressed; we are "not to wish anything to be otherwise than as it is;" sympathy is the one emotion we are to be allowed still to cherish. But we can never sympathize strongly unless we have had a vivid personal life of our own, so this, too, would soon dwindle. It is true that the greatest genius of this school is also the greatest teacher of sympathy now living; we readers of George Eliot can never thank her enough for the quickening and deepening of the heart that has come to us through her books, but it is herself we thank, and not her creed. And in Miss Martineau we think we see the faint beginnings of the chilling influence of her belief, in spite of her warm and noble nature and her intense vitality. The ease with which she dropped her friendships on any difference of opinion, the cool, hard way in which she catalogues her friend's faults and weaknesses, and the fact that on the very threshold (as she believed) of her own death she could care to busy herself with writing harsh things of her survivors, all point to a certain dulling of the affections which could not be natural to her. The stoical indifference with which she regarded the close of life has greatly impressed many with its "grandeur," but here, too, the loss seems more than the gain. Who that has stood face to face with death, and has felt the solemn wonder, the deep hope, the unspeakable trusts that thrill and widen the whole being with the sense of new-coming life, — who that has felt this in ever so small a measure would exchange it for the hard satisfaction she expresses? Yet she was too true-hearted not to soften sometimes at the thought of those she was leaving; there are some touching words in her last letter to Mrs. Chapman, — "To be unconsciously apart is an easy matter, quite different from living and yearning apart." She thought she preferred the unconsciousness, but the "living and yearning" was surely better, and as we trust, the better has been given to her now.

There may be selfishness in longing to escape the pain of existence, as well as in longing for more life. The true deliverance from egoism lies in the belief that we are "not our own," that our very being is the gift of one who loves us and, is owed back to him. This faith shuts out both self-contempt and self-love. It sets free all our affections to go forth towards God and our fellow-men; it stunts and chills none of them, but quickens, strengthens, and sweetens them all, and lifts up our whole nature into a higher, healthier, more self-forgetting, and more joyful life. — I am, Sir, etc.,
E. W. S.