In our third chapter we passed in brief review the teaching of Jesus, But there the objection met us, that what attested Jesus Christ was miracles, and the preternatural fulfilment in him of certain detailed predictions made about him long before. We had to pause and deal with this objection. And now, as it disperses, we come in full view of our old point again:—that what did attest Jesus Christ, was his restoration of the intuition. Jesus Christ found Israel all astray, with an endless talk about God, the law, righteousness, the kingdom, everlasting life, and no real hold upon any one of them. Israel's old, sure proof of being in the right way, his test which anybody could at once apply,—the sanction of joy and peace,—was plainly wanting. 'O Eternal, blessed is the man that putteth his trust in thee,' was a corner-stone of Israel's religion. Now, the Jewish people, however they might talk about putting their trust in the Eternal, were evidently, as they stood there before Jesus, not blessed at all; and they knew it themselves as well as he did. 'Great peace have they who love thy law,' was another corner-stone. But the Jewish people had at that time in its soul as little peace as it had joy and blessedness; it was seething with inward unrest, irritation, and trouble. Yet the way of the Eternal was most indubitably a way of peace and joy; so, if Israel felt no peace and no joy, Israel could not be walking in the way of the Eternal. Here we have the firm, unchanging ground, on which the operations of Jesus both began and always proceeded.
And it is to be observed that Jesus by no means gave a new, more precise, scientific definition of God, but took up this term just as Israel used it, to stand for the Eternal that loveth righteousness. If therefore this term was, in Israel's use of it, not a term of science, but, as we say, a term of common speech, of poetry and eloquence, thrown out at a vast object of consciousness not fully covered by it, so it was in Jesus Christ's use of it also. And if the substratum of real affirmation in the term was, with Israel, not the affirmation of 'a great Personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' but the affirmation of 'an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' so it remained with Jesus Christ likewise. He set going a great process of searching and sifting; but this process had for its direct object the idea of righteousness, and only touched the idea of God through this, and not independently of this and immediately. If the idea of righteousness was changed, this implied, undoubtedly, a corresponding change in the idea of the Power that makes for righteousness; but in this manner only, and to this extent, does the teaching of Jesus re-define the idea of God.
But search and sift and renew the idea of righteousness Jesus did. And though the work of Jesus, like the name of God, calls up in the believer a multitude of emotions and associations far more than any brief definition can cover, yet, remembering Jeremy Taylor's advice to avoid exhortations to get Christ, to be in Christ, and to seek some more distinct and practical way of speaking of him, we shall not do ill, perhaps, if we summarize to our own minds his work by saying, that he restored the intuition of God through transforming the idea of righteousness; and that, to do this, he brought a method, and he brought a secret. And of those two great words which fill such a place in his gospel, repentance and peace,—as we see that his Apostles, when they preached his gospel, preached 'Repentance unto life' and 'Peace through Jesus Christ,'—of these two great words, one, repentance, attaches itself, we shall find, to his method, and the other, peace, to his secret.
There was no question between Jesus Christ and the Jews as to the object to aim at. 'If thou wouldst enter into life, keep the commandments,' said Jesus. And Israel, too, on his part, said: 'He that keepeth the commandments keepeth his own soul.' But what commandments? The commandments of God; about this, too, there was no question. But: 'Leaving the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men; ye make the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition;' said Jesus. Therefore the commandments which Israel followed were not those commandments of God by which a man keeps his own soul, enters into life. And the practical proof of this was, that Israel stood before the eyes of the world manifestly neither blessed nor at peace; yet these characters of bliss and peace the following of the real commandments of God was confessed to give. So a rule, or method, was wanted, by which to determine on what the keeping of the real commandments of God depended.
And Jesus gave one: 'The things that come from within a man's heart, they it is which defile him!'
We have seen what an immense matter conduct is;—that it is three-fourths of life. We have seen how plain and simple a matter it is, so far as knowledge is concerned. We have seen how, moreover, philosophers are for referring all conduct to one or other of man's two elementary instincts,—the instinct of self-preservation and the reproductive instinct. It is the suggestions of one or other of these instincts, philosophers say, which call forth all cases in which there is scope for exercising morality, or conduct. And this does, we saw, cover the facts well enough. For we can run up nearly all faults of conduct into two classes,—faults of temper and faults of sensuality; to be referred, all of them, to one or other of these two instincts. Now, Jesus not only says that things coming from within a man's heart defile him, he adds expressly what these things that, coming from within a man, defile him, are. And what he enumerates are the following: 'Evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, stealings, greeds, viciousnesses, fraud, dissoluteness, envy, evil-speaking, pride, folly.' These fall into two groups: one, of faults of self-assertion, graspingness and violence, all of which we may call faults of temper; and the other, of faults of sensuality. And the two groups, between them, do for practical purposes cover all the range of faults proceeding from these two sources, and therefore all the range of conduct. So the motions or impulses to faults of conduct were what Jesus said the real commandments of God are concerned with. And it was plain what such faults are; but, to make assurance more sure, he went farther and said what they are. But no outward observances were conduct, were that keeping of the commandments of God which was the keeping of a man's own soul and made him enter into life. To have the heart and thoughts in order as to certain matters, was conduct.
This was the 'method' of Jesus: the setting up a great unceasing inward movement of attention and verification in matters which are three-fourths of human life, where to see true and to verify is not difficult, the difficult thing is to care and to attend. And the inducement to attend was because joy and peace, missed on every other line, were to be reached on this.
But for this world of busy inward movement created by the method of Jesus, a rule of action was wanted; and this rule was found in his secret. It was this of which the Apostle Paul afterwards possessed himself with such energy, and called it 'the word of the cross,' or, necrosis, 'dying.' The rule of action St. Paul gave was: 'Always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our body!' In the popular theurgy, these words are commonly referred to what is called 'pleading the blood of the covenant,'—relying on the death and merits of Christ (in pursuance of the contract originally passed in the Council of the Trinity) to satisfy God's wrath against sinners and to redeem us. But they do really refer to words of Jesus, often and often repeated, and of which the following may very well stand as pre-eminently representative: 'He that will save his life shall lose it; he that will lose his life shall save it. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. Whosoever will come after me, let him renounce himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.'
These words, or words like them, were repeated again and again, so that no reporter could miss them. No reporter did miss them. We find them, as we find the method of conscience, in all the four Gospels. Perhaps there is no other maxim of Jesus which has such a combined stress of evidence for it, and may be taken as so eminently his. And no wonder. For the maxim contains his secret, the secret by which, emphatically, his gospel 'brought life and immortality to light.' Christ's method directed the disciple's eye inward, and set his consciousness to work; and the first thing his consciousness told him was, that he had two selves pulling him different ways. Till we attend, till the method is set at work, it seems as if 'the wishes of the flesh and of the current thoughts' were to be followed as a matter of course; as if an impulse to do a thing must mean that we should do it. But when we attend, we find that an impulse to do a thing is really in itself no reason at all why we should do it; because impulses proceed from two sources, quite different, and of quite different degrees of authority. St. Paul contrasts them as the inward man, and the man in our members; the mind of the flesh, and the spiritual mind. Jesus contrasts them as life, properly so named, and life in this world. And the moment we seriously attend to conscience, to the suggestions which concern practice and conduct, we can see plainly enough from which source a suggestion comes, and that the suggestions from one source are to overrule those from the other.
But this is a negative state of things, a reign of check and constraint, a reign, merely, of morality. Jesus changed it into what was positive and attractive, lighted it up, made it religion, by the idea of two lives. One of them life properly so called, full of light, endurance, felicity, in connection with the higher and permanent self; and the other of them life improperly so called, in connection with the lower and transient self. The first kind of life was already a cherished ideal with Israel ('Thou wilt show me the path of life!'); and a man might be placed in it, Jesus said, by dying to the second. For it is to be noted that our common expression, 'deny himself,' is an inadequate and misleading version of the words used by Jesus. To deny one's self is commonly understood to mean that one refuses one's self something. But what Jesus says is: 'Let a man disown himself, renounce himself, die as regards his old self, and so live.' Himself, the old man, the life in this world, meant following those wishes of the flesh and of the current thoughts which Jesus had, by his method, already put his disciples in the way of sifting and scrutinizing, and of trying by the standard of conformity to conscience.
Thus, after putting him by his method in the way to find what doing righteousness was, by his secret Jesus put the disciple in the way of doing it. For the breaking the sway of what is commonly called one's self, ceasing our concern with it and leaving it to perish, is not, Jesus said, being thwarted or crossed, but living. And the proof of this is that it has the characters of life in the highest degree,—the sense of going right, hitting the mark, succeeding. That is, it has the characters of happiness; and happiness is, for Israel, the same thing as having the Eternal with us, seeing the salvation of God. 'The tree,' as Jesus said, and as men's common sense and proverbial speech say with him, 'is known by its fruits;' and Jesus, then, was to be received by Israel as sent from God, because the secret of Jesus leads to the salvation of God, which is what Israel most desired. The word of the cross, in short, turned out to be at the same time the word of the kingdom. And to this experimental sanction of his secret, this sense it gives of having the Eternal on our side and approving us, Jesus appealed when he said of himself: 'Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.' This, again, in our popular theurgy, is materialized into the First person of the Trinity approving the Second, because he stands to the contract already in the Council of the Trinity passed. But what it really means is, that the joy of Jesus, of this 'Son of Peace,' the 'joy' he was so desirous that his disciples should find 'fulfilled in themselves,' was due to his having himself followed his own secret. And the great counterpart to: 'A life-giving change of the inner man,—the promise: Peace through Jesus Christ!—is peace through this secret of his.
Now, the value of this rule that one should die to one's apparent self, live to one's real self, depends upon whether it is true. And true it certainly is;—a profound truth of what our scientific friends, who have a systematic philosophy and a nomenclature to match, and who talk of Egoism and Altruism, would call, perhaps, psycho-physiology. And we may trace men's experience affirming and confirming it, from a very plain and level account of it to an account almost as high and solemn as that of Jesus. That an opposition there is, in all matter of what we call conduct, between a man's first impulses and what he ultimately finds to be the real law of his being; that a man accomplishes his right function as a man, fulfils his end, hits the mark, in giving effect to the real law of his being; and that happiness attends his thus hitting the mark,—all good observers report. No statement of this general experience can be simpler or more faithful than one given us by that great naturalist, Aristotle. 'In all wholes made up of parts,' says he, 'there is a ruler and a ruled; throughout nature this is so; we see it even in things without life, they have their harmony or law. The living being is composed of soul and body, whereof the one is naturally ruler and the other ruled. Now what is natural we are to learn from what fulfils the law of its nature most, and not from what is depraved. So we ought to take the man who has the best disposition of body and soul; and in him we shall find that this is so; for in people that are grievous both to others and to themselves the body may often appear ruling the soul, because such people are poor creatures and false to nature,' And Aristotle goes on to distinguish between the body, over which, he says, the rule of the soul is absolute, and the movement of thought and desire, over which reason has, says he, 'a constitutional rule,' in words which exactly recall St. Paul's phrase for our double enemy: 'the flesh and the current thoughts.' So entirely are we here on ground of general experience. And if we go on and take this maxim from Stobæus: 'All fine acquirement implies a foregoing effort of self-control;' or this from Horace: 'Rule your current self or it will rule you! bridle it in and chain it down!' or this from Goethe's autobiography: 'Everything cries out to us that we must renounce;' or still more this from his Faust: 'Thou must go without, go without! that is the everlasting song which every hour, all our life through, hoarsely sings to us!'—then we have testimony not only to the necessity of this natural law of rule and suppression, but also to the strain and labor and suffering which attend it. But when we come a little further and take a sentence like this of Plato: 'Of sufferings and pains cometh help, for it is not possible by any other way to be ridded of our iniquity;' then we get a higher strain, a strain like St. Peter's: 'He that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;' and we are brought to see, not only the necessity of the law of rule and suppression, not only the pain and suffering in it, but also its beneficence. And this positive sense of beneficence, salutariness, and hope, come out yet more strongly when Wordsworth says to Duty: 'Nor know we anything so fair as is the smile upon thy face;' or when Bishop Wilson says: 'They that deny themselves will be sure to find their strength increased, their affections raised, and their inward peace continually augmented;' and most of all, perhaps, when we hear from Goethe: 'Die and come to life! for so long as this is not accomplished thou art but a troubled guest upon an earth of gloom!' But this is evidently borrowed from Jesus, and by one whose testimony is of all the more weight, because he certainly would not have become thus a borrower from Jesus, unless the truth had compelled him.
And never certainly was the joy, which in self-renouncement underlies the pain, so brought out as when Jesus boldly called the suppression of our first impulses and current thoughts: life, real life, eternal life. So that Jesus not only saw this great necessary truth of there being, as Aristotle says, in human nature a part to rule and a part to be ruled; he saw it so thoroughly, that he saw through the suffering at its surface to the joy at its center, filled it with promise and hope, and made it infinitely attractive. As Israel, therefore, is 'the people of righteousness,' because, though others have perceived the importance of righteousness, Israel, above everyone, perceived the happiness of it; so self-renouncement, the main factor in conduct or righteousness, is 'the secret of Jesus,' because, although others have seen that it was necessary, Jesus, above everyone, saw that it was peace, joy, life.
Now, we may observe, that even Aristotle (and it is a mark of his greatness) does not, in the passage we have quoted from him, begin with a complete system of psycho-physiology, and show us where and how and why in this system the rule of renouncement comes in, and draw out for us definitively the law of our being towards which this rule leads up. He says that the rule exists, that it is ancillary to the law of our being, and that we are to study the best men, in whom it most exists, to make us see that it is thus ancillary. He here appeals throughout to a verifying sense, such as we have said that everyone in this great but plain matter of conduct really has; he does not appeal to a speculative theory of the system of things, and deduce conclusions from it. And he shows his greatness in this, because the law of our being is not something which is already definitively known and can be exhibited as part of a speculative theory of the system of things; it is something which discovers itself and becomes, as we follow (among other things) the rule of renouncement. What we can say with most certainty about the law of our being is, that we find the rule of renouncement practically lead up to it. In matters of practice and conduct, therefore, an experience like this is really a far safer ground to insist on than any speculative theory of the system of things. And to a theory of such sort Jesus never appeals. Here is what characterizes his teaching, and distinguishes him, for instance, from the author of the Fourth Gospel. This author handles what we may call theosophical speculation in a beautiful and impressive manner; the introduction to his Gospel is undoubtedly in a very noble and profound strain. But it is theory; externally it seems, at any rate, to deliver, with the forms of science, a theosophy not controllable by experience. And therefore it is impossible even to conceive Jesus himself uttering the introduction to the Fourth Gospel; because theory Jesus never touches, but bases himself invariably on experience. True, the experience must, for philosophy, have its place in a theory of the system of human nature, when the theory is at last ready and perfect; but the point is, that the experience is ripe and solid, and fit to be used safely, long before the theory. And it was the experience which Jesus always used.
Undoubtedly, however, attempts may not improperly be made, even now,—by those, at least, who have a talent for these matters,—to exhibit the experience, with what leads to it and what derives from it, in a system of psycho-physiology. And then, perhaps, it will be found to be connected with other truths of psycho-physiology, such as the unity of life, as it is called, and the impersonality of reason. Only, thus exhibited, it will be philosophy, mental exercitation, and will concern us as a matter of science, not of conduct. And, as the discipline of conduct is three-fourths of life, for our æsthetic and intellectual disciplines, real as these are, there is but one-fourth of life left; and if we let art and science divide this one-fourth fairly between them, they will have just one-eighth of life each.
So the exhibition of the truth: 'He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal,' in its order and place as a truth of psycho-physiology, concerns one-eighth of our life and no more. But Jesus, we say, exhibited nothing for the benefit of this one-eighth of us; this is what distinguishes him from all moralists and philosophers, and even from the greatest of his own disciples. How he reached a doctrine we cannot say; but he always exhibited it as an intuition and practical rule, and a practical rule which, if adopted, would have the force of an intuition for its adopter also. This is why none of his doctrines are of the character of that favorite doctrine of our theologians, 'the blessed truth that the God of the universe is a Person;' because this doctrine is incapable of application as a practical rule, and can never come to have the force of an intuition. But what we call the secret of Jesus: 'He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal,' was a truth of which he could say: 'It is so; try it yourself and you will see it is so, by the sense of going right, hitting the mark, succeeding, living, which you will get.'
And the same with the commandment, 'Love one another,' which is the positive side of the commandment, 'Renounce thyself,' and, like this, can be drawn out as a truth of psycho-physiology. Jesus exhibited it as an intuition and a practical rule; and as what, by being practised, would, through giving happiness, prove its own truth as a rule of life. This, we say, is of the very essence of his secret of self-renouncement, as of his method of inwardness;—that its truth will be found to commend itself by happiness, to prove itself by happiness. And of the secret more especially is this true. And as we have said, that though there gathers round the word 'God' very much besides, yet we shall in general, in reading the Bible, get the surest hold on the word 'God' by giving it the sense of the Eternal Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness, so we shall get the best hold on many expressions of Jesus by referring them, though they include more, yet primarily and pointedly to his secret and to the happiness which this contained. Bread of life, living water, these are, in general, Jesus, Jesus in his whole being and in his total effect; but in especial they are Jesus as offering his secret. And when Jesus says: 'He that eateth me shall live by me!' we shall understand the words best if we think of his secret.
And so again with the famous words to the woman by the well in Samaria: 'Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a spring of water welling up unto everlasting life.' These words, how are we to take them, so as to reach their meaning best? What distinctly is this 'water that I shall give him'? Jesus himself and his word, no doubt; yet so we come but to that very notion, which Jeremy Taylor warns us against as vague, of getting Christ. The Bishop of Gloucester will tell us, perhaps, that it is 'the blessed truth that the Creator of the universe is a Person,' or the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Eternal Son. But surely it would be a strong figure of speech to say of these doctrines, that a man, after receiving them, could never again feel thirsty? See, on the contrary, how the words suit the secret: 'He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.' This 'secret of Jesus,' as we call it, will be found applicable to all the thousand problems which the exercise of conduct daily offers; it alone can solve them all happily, and may indeed be called 'a spring of water welling up unto everlasting life.' And, in general, wherever the words life and death are used by Jesus, we shall do well to have his 'secret' at hand for in his thoughts, on these occasions, it is never far off.
And now, too, we can see why it is a mistake, and may lead to much error, to exhibit any series of maxims, like those of the Sermon on the Mount, as the ultimate sum and formula into which Christianity may be run up. Maxims of this kind are but applications of the method and the secret of Jesus and the method and secret are capable of yet an infinite number more of such applications. Christianity is a source; no one supply of water and refreshment that comes from it can be called the sum of Christianity.
A method of inwardness, a secret of self-renouncement;—but can any statement of what Jesus brought be complete, which does not include that temper of mildness and sweetness in which both of these worked? To the representative texts already given there is certainly to be added this other: 'Learn of me that I am mild and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls!' Shall we attach mildness to the method, because, without it, a clear and limpid view inwards is impossible? Or shall we attach it to the secret?—the dying to faults of temper is a part, certainly, of dying to one's ordinary self, one's life in this world. Mildness, however, is rather an element in which, in Jesus, both method and secret worked; the medium through which both the method and the secret were exhibited. We may think of it as perfectly illustrated and exemplified in his answer to the foolish question, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?—when, taking a little child and setting him in the midst, he said: 'Whosoever receives the kingdom of God as a little child, the same is the greatest in it.' Here are both inward appraisal and self-renouncement; but what is most admirable is the sweet reasonableness, the exquisite, mild, winning felicity, with which the renouncement and the inward appraisal are applied and conveyed. And the conjunction of the three in Jesus,—the method of inwardness, and the secret of self-renouncement, working in and through this element of mildness,—produced the total impression of his 'epieikeia', or sweet reasonableness; a total impression ineffable and indescribable for the disciples, as also it was irresistible for them, but at which their descriptive words, words like this 'sweet reasonableness,' and like 'full of grace and truth,' are thrown out and aimed.
And this total stamp of 'grace and truth,' this exquisite conjunction and balance, in an element of mildness, of a method of inwardness perfectly handled and a self-renouncement perfectly kept, was found in Jesus alone. What are the method of inwardness and the secret of self-renouncement without the sure balance of Jesus, without his epieikeia? Much, but very far indeed from what he showed or what he meant; they come to be used blindly, used mechanically, used amiss, and lead to the strangest aberrations. St. Simeon Stylites on his column, Pascal girdled with spikes, Lacordaire flogging himself on his death-bed, are what the secret by itself produces. The method by itself gives us our political Dissenter, pluming himself on some irrational 'conscientious objections,' and not knowing, that with conscience he has done nothing until he has got to the bottom of conscience, and made it tell him right. Therefore the disciples of Jesus were not told to believe in his method, or to believe in his secret, but to believe in him; they were not told to follow the method or to follow the secret, but they were told: 'Follow me!' For it was only by fixing their heart and mind on Jesus that they could learn to use the method and secret right; 'by feeding on him,' by, as he often said, ''remaining in him.'
But this is just what Israel had been told to do as regards the Eternal himself. 'I have set the Eternal always before me;' 'Mine eyes are ever toward the Eternal;' 'The Eternal is the strength of my life;' 'Wait, I say, on the Eternal!' Now, then, let us go back again for a little to Israel, and to Israel's belief.
More Articles by This Author Matthew Arnold
- English poet and cultural critic
- Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888