Essays and phantasies/Sayings of Sigvat

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These sayings I heard from the mouth of Sigvat Bragason, who thought after this manner, and thus was he wont to express himself when he took the trouble to speak.

He once said: If the religious had strong faith, I might respect them for their religion; if the infidels had strong disbelief, I might respect them for their infidelity. But the religious do not believe in God the Father, for they never keep his commandments; they do not believe in the Holy Ghost, for they fear and detest all living inspiration, and worship the lifeless letters of a book; they do not believe in Christ the Lord, else would they love one another; they do not believe in Heaven and eternal life, for they cling desperately to this earth and life; they do not believe in Hell, for if they really did they would all go mad. On the other hand, infidels superabound with belief: they believe that empiricism can discover all the world's veiled mysteries, that logic can resolve all the world's problems; they believe that human nature can be improved out of man, and that every one can lift himself some fine day higher than heaven, sitting in his own basket; they believe that many an existence depends absolutely upon man's belief in its existence; and they all, above all, believe in themselves—which is the very anti-climax of credulity.

He also said: I do not see that mankind in general can ever manage to exist without a religion of some kind; and I do not see that it matters much what kind of religion they have. For dogmas are but empty bottles and barrels into which each believer pours as much spirit as he has, and of such kind and quality as he has; so that you shall find two bottles of exactly the same pattern, the one full of vitriol-gin and the other full of purest nectar. Very few men have enough spirit to overfill or even to half-fill the holy vessels; and these very few men usually keep on pouring contentedly, though their bottles have been long overflowing.

He also said: The discipline and rites of a religion are far more important and influential than the dogmas.

It was he who asked: Can you convert another man to your own height, figure, complexion, constitution, temperament?—if you can, you may also convert him really and truly to your own faith. No one sentence ever means exactly the same from any two mouths or in any two pairs of ears; nor even from any one mouth or in any one pair of ears at different times. And when it was inquired of him: Wherefore, since you are persuaded of the vanity of all attempts at proselytising, do you now and then write and talk as if to teach and persuade? he answered: First and foremost, because "it is my nature to." But also, though no word of mine will ever convert any one from being himself into being another Me, my word may bring cheer and comfort and self-knowledge to others who are more or less like myself, and who may have thought themselves peculiar and outcast; it may be to them a friendly voice revealing that they have a brother in the world, and may thus hearten them to put trust in themselves and keep true to themselves, nor succumb to the amiable cowardice of seeking to pretend to believe otherwise than they really do believe, for the sake of fellowship and communion. For the real brothers on this earth are seldom gathered around one family hearth, but are in general widely scattered throughout the kingdoms and nations, and yet more widely scattered throughout the centuries.

He went on: That man was but too correct who exclaimed, "In this wide world of ours there is no creature who has either the will or the power to help another." And it being objected to him: Why then do you, having no faith in the improvability of man by man, sometimes work hard as if to help and improve your fellows? he answered equally: First and foremost, because "it is my nature to." And he added: One works, one cannot but work, as his being ordains, exercising the faculties and attempting to gratify the desires thereof, whether he thinks that such exercise will produce what other people call good or ill, that such gratification implies what other people call happiness or misery. If one is a musket, he will shoot, and is right to shoot; if one is a dirk, he will stab, and is right to stab. When the antelope complained against the tiger's ferocity, the tiger answered: Why have I claws but to seize and rend? why have I teeth but to bite? why have I hunger but to eat? why do you suit me and why do I meet you but that I should eat you? You are right to complain, my poor swift-footed dinner, for the case is very hard for you; I am equally right to devour, else the case would be very hard for me.—So much for Bentham and Mill, for the greatest happiness theory, for universal philanthropy and sublime utilitarianism, added Sigvat cheerfully.

I remember that it was once asked of him: If you saw one drowning whom you knew to be a rogue, a fool, a pest, would you risk your own life in the attempt to save him? And he answered: If not, the refraining would be through lack of nerve or courage, never through any thought that my life was more valuable than his. My life could be by no means valuable if it would not attempt this very thing, if it had not the courage to risk itself whenever destiny offered a fair stake against it. The issues of all action are quite beyond human calculation; the instincts prompting to action each one can judge for himself. The doctor who has prolonged the lives of many patients would be very hard bestead to prove that it would not have been quite as well, or even better, for the world in general and the patients themselves had their lives not been prolonged. No worker of what are called good works can be sure that in the long run he does more good than harm. He fulfils his own nature, as it is right for him he should.

He also said: The sage hath it somewhat thus, "The people are many millions, and the most of them are fools." But were the most foolish as wise as the most wise are now, and were the wisest proportionately wiser, the saying would be none the less stinging. Some men stand but five feet, others stand six and even seven feet, and the difference is large in ratio to the average height of the race: but what is the height of seven feet to the diameter of the earth, to the distance of the moon, of the sun, of the nearest star? Supposing we stood from fifty to seventy feet, would any of us be absolutely great? Therefore, he added, let my son be a commonplace wight, and not a genius or a sage; for the little wisdom he will thus have less is so incalculably small in comparison with any really great standard, that the lack thereof will be compensated a thousandfold by the social comfort of always living among creatures whose thoughts and feelings are very similar to his own.

He once remarked: Certain so-called Spiritualists and Materialists, usually accounted most opposite in their opinions, appear to me like persons working out the same algebraic puzzle in the same manner, but using different symbols for the unknown quantity. The process of the one bristles with X's (say spirit), that of the other bristles with Y's (say matter); yet their solutions in the end are identical. It was a saying of his: Absolute life is indefinitely superior to the highest art; yet life as we see it in the men living actively around us is so poor and mean, that he who takes refuge in art must be impuissant indeed if he cannot amply vindicate his choice.

Once when it was told him that a certain sage had written to the effect that "perchance man, when he hath tamed all the other inferior animals, may begin to tame and civilise woman," Sigvat said: This I am happy to believe quite impossible. Women are tamest where the men are most savage, and show wilder and wilder as the men grow less rude: the squaw is the slave of Indian and Kaffir; John Bull, rich, respectable and educated, is the very humble and obedient servant of his wife. As for the civilisation of women, I ardently love and admire the sex, but I am bound to say that I never yet knew a woman with even the most elementary idea of truth and justice. They are all born deceivers; the only difference being that the good ones are always deceiving us for what they think our good, while the bad ones are always deceiving us for what they think their own good. The best woman would overthrow the equilibrium of the universe for the sake of her lover, her child, or her husband. And as for the taming of civilisation in general, I want to know how long we could exist on the earth were we all thoroughly tame and good. Very well-meaning and stupid people nowo'days are doing their best (a poor little ludicrous best it is) to get us civilised off the face of the earth; they don't see that we need some very tough and rough savagery to keep a firm hold upon it. Nature is savage enough, and is likely to continue so; I don't think that she has made her arrangements specially for our placid and inane comfort, nor do I find that the saints and the goody philosophers are her darlings. We must have teeth, and strong and sharp ones, to crack the hard nuts she throws to us. To think that there are grown men always talking treacle and pap! men who have seen and heard a thunderstorm, and are not ignorant of the existence of shark and crocodile and tiger!

Very often to the optimist philosophers or sophs who pestered him, he would give no other answer than that sentence of the great sage which he hugely relished: "Man is not what one calls a happy animal; his appetite for sweet victual is so enormous."

To some of the sect of the Christians he once remarked: In the old Jewish book of your idolatry I find one very good text, though read as I read it in English, it means not quite the same it meant in the original. Perchance because it is so excellent, I do not remember to have heard or seen a sermon upon it. "Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart-rope" The iniquity which a man draws and tugs painfully to him, that is the abomination; not the iniquity which itself draws him. The so-called sin which glows with hot fire of passion, one does not detest even when it is such sin as one's self is not inclined to. But they who violate their own nature, who force themselves to sin for which they have no liking but which happens to be fashionable, who sacrifice themselves to show and tickling vanity, these are the poor dupes and fools one finds it hard to keep temper with. Yet what an immense portion of the world's iniquity is drawn with cords of vanity! what a great share of the world's sin is dragged onerously as it were with a cart-rope! How many men take more trouble against their own inclinations to be reputed fashionable sinners, than the stiffest of respectable people take to be reputed religious! Pagan as I am, said Sigvat, I think I could preach you a rousing sermon on this text of the prophet.

Being once questioned with a certain whining solemnity as to his immortal soul, he laughed long in uncontrollable laughter:—A very sublime being truly is this Sigvat, to expect and claim immortality! But I fear that the universe can do without me, as me, though my being is part of its being. When I die, Nature seizes on my effects, administers my estate, duly distributing the property. I who am dead as this Sigvat still continue my interest in the general life by every particle of my being thus distributed, and by the enduring existence of all that I have ever rayed forth—from attraction of gravity, attraction and repulsion electrical, to thought and emotion of humanity. Nothing is lost, though the walls of the Ego have given way and let in the floods of the universe. It is quite right to call death dissolution; it may be also solution, resolution, evolution. Immortality! why the most of us don't know what to do with this one little personal life, and might well wonder how we came to be promoted to the dignity thereof: the claim to immortality is the claim to be trusted with millions of pounds because one has shown himself unfit to be trusted with sixpence. Leave me, O comical little men, with your talk about eternity; go and try to live a single happy and rational day!