The Perfect Law of Liberty is the ultimate attainment of Ideal Manhood—the establishment of the Divine Order in Man. To the select few it comes comparatively early in life as a special gift of Heaven, and manifests itself as one of the forms of genius—an intuitive inclination of the soul towards its Divine Source. To many it comes more or less late in life as the reward of conscious strenuous effort and cooperation with the Divine laws of our being. And in the large majority of cases it is, alas! conspicuous by its absence—deferred, perchance, to some future state of existence as a sequel to this present life.
By the Perfect Law of Liberty is meant that Divine Law, by the operation of which man's will becomes, through the instrumentality of his own conscious effort, so completely assimilated to the Divine Will, that, after having learnt to obey God from a sense of duty more or less painful, he is enabled to fulfill the laws of his higher being by a kind of acquired instinct. It is the law, by virtue of which the natural man ceases to be his old self and becomes a New Creature—by which his body becomes subordinated to his intellect, his intellect to his spiritual nature, and his spiritual nature to the Divine Love and Wisdom, so that as between himself and God there shall subsist a perfect harmony. This harmony, or atonement, is called Regeneration or the New Birth.
In arriving at this consummation of human existence three consecutive stages have to be gone through:—
The first stage is Ignorance of the Law
The second stage is Obedience of the Law
The third stage is Fulfillment of the Law
These three stages may be briefly summarized as follows:—(1) The animal and purely instinctive following of others without thought or question; and this is Ignorance of Law. (2) The adoption, either voluntary or enforced, of discipline imposed upon us by the authority of others, and therefore more or less painful and unsatisfying because at variance with our own reason; and this is Obedience of Law. (3) The deliberate and voluntary adoption of certain principles and the rejection of others, the choice being determined by convictions founded apparently on personal experience and judgment, but really the result of our human nature having become more or less conformed to those higher Laws of the indwelling Spirit of God—the result being that perfect peace of mind which constitutes true Blessedness; and this is Fulfillment of Law.
And as these three stages of progress are of universal application in all branches of human knowledge, we may take as a simple illustration thereof the manner in which most people have learnt to write. The child begins by doing everything wrong. He does not know even how to hold his pen until he is taught the way. For a long time his mind is a complete blank, for he is in total ignorance of the laws of writing. First he is taught to trace the simplest penciled forms with his pen. Then he is set to copy the component parts of letters, beginning with the most elementary forms—"strokes," "pot-hooks," "hangers." After that he is taught to combine these several elements into separate letters and these into words. All this comprises the stage of Ignorance from more to less. He tries to do all these things, but for a long time he goes on blundering and failing to do anything properly. However, after many attempts and failures, and after long and diligent practice, he at length becomes an accomplished scribe, and his master pronounces the writing to be perfect. In fact, he writes "like copperplate." This is the end of the second stage, and so well pleased is he with himself and the progress he has made, that he can think of nothing else but the regularity and perfection of his writing, and even regards his absolute obedience to the laws of writing as the highest attainable good. So much so that, not only while still at school, but even after leaving school, he goes on writing "copperplate."
But in the course of time, as he comes in contact with people whose business it is to write all day long, a new light dawns upon him, and new doubts and questionings come to him with the experience of each succeeding day. After all, is this beautiful writing of his—his master called it "Calligraphy," so it must be beautiful—is it really good writing? And even if it be so, how about all this diligent, painful, slavish labor expended on the making of faultlessly-formed letters, is it labor well spent? What is the use or end if of writing? Is it an end in itself, or only a means to some other end? And as he goes on conscientiously obedient to this slow painstaking process of making faultless letters, which after all can be better done by mechanical means, the fact gradually dawns upon him that the end and aim of writing is to express thoughts, and a companion of his own faultless writing with the almost illegible scrawl of a Shakespeare or a Milton forces him to the conviction that the quality of a thought bears no relation to the quality of the writing, and that often the wisest thoughts are embodied in the worst writing, and the most foolish thoughts in the best writing. He also finds that what highly cultured people admire most is a handwriting which, without sacrificing any of the legibility of the school copy-book, shows also the individual character of the writer. And so, influenced by these and such-like considerations, which gradually gain strength as time goes on, our writer finds his handwriting undergoing, almost unconsciously to himself, a mysterious change. It becomes less mechanical, more free, more individually characteristic, and therefore more vitally beautiful, because more like himself until, freed from the old conventions, and thinking less about the writing and more about the thought, he finds himself unconsciously producing a handwriting which; is as different from his old copperplate as it is from the writing of other people—a writing peculiarly his own; a writing from which an expert can determine the writer's character; a writing which, without violating the old laws or slavishly obeying them, yet follows the spirit of them almost without effort and as a matter of habit. In fact, he has attained the third stage of progress, namely, fulfillment of the law. Custom has become in him a second nature. He follows the law without either ignoring or slavishly obeying it, that is to say, he fulfills the law which has become ingrained in his character, and thus forms a part of himself, and that law is the Perfect Law of Liberty.
Now, if the reader has grasped the idea embodied in the foregoing illustration and will apply it to any subject whatever, other than that of writing, he will find that it holds good universally, that is, in every branch of human knowledge without exception. In all the arts and crafts he will find in the works of every true master clear signs of his having passed severally through these three stages of progress; first the stage of Pupilage, then the stage of Copying the "style" of some favorite master or school, and lastly—if, indeed, he ever attains it at all—the stage of Originality.
Let us now see how this universal law of growth applies to the great problem of Human Life. During infancy we are unconscious of the existence of laws as such. We pass through a stage of innocence and ignorance, having no thought as to what we are, or where, or why. We are each of us simply the unconscious, or at least unreasoning, center of that little sphere in which we happen to have been born. We imbibe our first ideas of life with our mother's milk. Our parents and their ways constitute our universe—our be-all and end-all. We are ignorant that we are ignorant, and so to us ignorance is bliss. That is the first stage— the stage of pure unsophisticated Ignorance.
But, as we advance in years and the light of Reason gradually dawns upon us, we find that there are others in the world besides ourselves; we compare notes with some of them; we begin to ask questions as to the why and the wherefore of our existence and modes of living; we soon find that there are laws and rules of conduct which we must obey. And when we venture to ask "Why?" we are told: "Because everybody else does it." This curious answer burns itself into our minds. And as our minds grow the answer burns deeper, and we become uneasy, restless, distrustful, skeptical. Why should we do what everybody else does? Such doubts and questionings increase with ever-growing persistency, and, after parrying and evading our questions all they can, our parents and guardians have to admit that their allegiance is divided between the laws of God and, in so far as they are consistent with these, the laws of man; and that as it is highly inconvenient to oppose the laws of Conventionality, Public Opinion, Habit, Authority of Church and State, and many other time-honored ordinances of man, notwithstanding their inconsistency with the professed laws of God, the law of Expediency suggests as a compromise an oblique life-orbit between God's laws and man's laws, and, to reduce the obliquity to a minimum, all sorts of meanings are read into the former which rest entirely on human Authority. Hence, as a matter of policy and expediency, for the sake of peace and quiet, and in consideration of the reputation we enjoy of being good and virtuous members of Society, we do everything that the world thinks right and proper, and we are looked up to as models of perfection. And then we reach the end of the second stage—Obedience to the Law.
But anon there comes to pass a wonderful thing. Whisperings are heard from within such as "Can these dry bones live?—What shall it profit a man?—Ye cannot serve God and mammon.—Come unto Me, all ye that are heavy laden." These and a thousand other voices disturb our peace of mind. It is clear that man's ways and God's ways are at variance with each other. They cannot both be right. One must yield to the other. Which shall it be? And so, little by little and after many a struggle, we at last resolve to renounce the world and self and get closer and closer to God, determined to follow Him alone whithersoever He will lead. No longer trusting the guidance of man, we commit ourselves as willing instruments into the all—capable Hands of Divine Providence. No longer anxious and fearful of making mistakes, we simply follow His Lead, casting all our care upon Him, for He careth for us. And thus, having passed through the "wicket-gate" of this the third stage of our Pilgrims Progress, we begin to experience that Higher Life of the Spirit, which, in spite of all its trials and difficulties, is the only Life worth living, for the Law of that Life is The Perfect Law of Liberty.