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CHAPTER XV
WHY THE PROPHET SHOULD BE LONELY

"It is good that one man should die for the People."

We have been hitherto tracing the evils caused by the inability or unwillingness of the masses to enter into the thoughts of the Seers. We must now look at the other side, and try to see how dangerous to society is overwillingness to listen to the utterances of inspired Seers. Loneliness tends to save the Seer from becoming a charlatan, and to make of him a true Reformer. It is, in fact, one of the most essential aids to true Reform and true Progress; for this reason:—Suppose that a reform is urgently needed in some particular. It is usually impossible to say beforehand in what exact mode it can best be made. Some man of genius tries experiments in his own little corner of the church or of society. If he is left alone to observe in peace the results of his attempts, then, after many years, he and those who have watched his career can say with authority which of his experiments were in the right direction, and which have been proved useless and need not be tried again. But if persons in official positions show favour to him at the beginning, it becomes the fashion to imitate him. Numbers do so who have no reason for it except that it is the fashion. The whole thing is made a party-question; and the thinker and those who are working under him become confused by counter-currents of senseless clamour. No chemist could, under similar conditions, conduct experiments in such simple matters as the purification of water or the improvement of cast-iron; far less can reforms in religion, in society, in thought, be organized thus. Moses, the great Reformer, after he had conceived his reform, is said to have retired into almost loneliness for forty years, and got no following till he had had time to mature his plans. And, in order that the people of Israel might be the true leaders in all Reform, he made rules which secure to each new Reformer something of the same isolation and silence; so that his crude attempts and immature conceptions may never be taken up as a mere fashion. Some people think these rules harsh; but they serve very good ends. They secure that showy, ambitious, self-seeking men[1] (if Jews) shall court advancement, either by deserting their church to get on in the Gentile world, or by an affectation of over-strict orthodoxy, by which they hope to win the favour of their own people. Either proceeding is contemptible in itself, but does the church little harm compared to what is done in other churches by showy, vain men playing at Reform. A Jew does not try experiments in Reform unless he is really devoted. The stern Jewish discipline secures for those who are trying social experiments something of the same isolation and quietness as those who are trying experiments in physical science secure for themselves by locking the laboratory door till they have found out what they want to know.

The scientific experiment lasts a few hours; the moral experiment the best part of a lifetime; and it seems hard to be ignored and unnoticed till old age. But no man should expect to sacrifice to the Lord that which costs him nothing. God accepts no sacrifice except that of our best. Whoever aspires to the honour of righting what has got wrong in the ways of a whole people must be content to be that of which the scape-goat was a sign; he must "bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited," and think and search in solitude as Moses himself did. The true Reformer must always be a man despised and rejected, in whom men see no wisdom; he must be shipwrecked, like Prospero, on a desert island, till he has perfected his methods. Then he can return, to rule the kingdom which is lawfully his own, the thought-realm of the ideal; and the experiments of his ignorant days will not have disturbed the practical work of the Church among the masses who have no means of recreating the past from books in the domain of ideas; and for whom therefore the destruction of consecrated habits means too often spiritual death.

The sentence which condemns Reformers to comparative isolation acts like Gideon's test, in securing that the work of Reform shall be left in the right hands. He who has seen the Law of reaction vibrating down the ages, lives henceforth under a spell; for him, fate has no terrors, solitude no loneliness, and curses no meaning; he can go on his way notwithstanding any antagonism; he knows that, whatever may happen during his life, he will rule posterity from his grave. Those who can be stopped had better be stopped; they have not seen God. One who knows so little about the ways of the Creator that he cares what contemporaries think, had better work on lines laid down beforehand; he should not go wandering off into the Infinite to seek new Truth.

Tegner[2] (whose conception of the value of ecclesiastical outlawry I am here following) represents the young champion of Reform and of Liberty outlawed, not because of any of the things which he wished or intended to do, but for accidentally setting fire to an old temple. He is then subjected to a variety of tests, and gives such proofs of fidelity under difficult circumstances that at last he is elected king of a country adjoining the one from which he was banished. But the spirit of his father reveals to him in a dream that he must not venture to exercise even the function for which he has been chosen till he has made Atonement for his involuntary crime by rebuilding the Temple to which, in his rash young days, he set fire; and the Heathen priest who has heard of the lore of Judæa further instructs him that, if such reparation is to be accepted as true Atonement, the Temple must be dedicated, not to any partial Deity, but to the Unity who speaks through many messengers.

  1. This was written 20 years ago.
  2. Frithiof's Saga.