Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Morality and Fear
By Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)
From ‘Bishop Butler’

THE MORAL principle (whatever may be said to the contrary by complacent thinkers) is really and to most men a principle of fear. The delights of a good conscience may be reserved for better things, but few men who know themselves will say that they have often felt them by vivid and actual experience; a sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin (to use the word we instinctively shrink from because it expresses the meaning), is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves; we expect a penalty. As the Greek proverb teaches, “where there is shame there is fear”; where there is the deep and intimate anxiety of guilt,—the feeling which has driven murderers and other than murderers forth to wastes and rocks and stones and tempests,—we see, as it were, in a single complex and indivisible sensation, the pain and sense of guilt and the painful anticipation of its punishment. How to be free from this, is the question; how to get loose from this; how to be rid of the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe,—which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased, if he do but set forth his own dignity he will offend ONE who will deprive him of it. This, as has often been pointed out, is the source of the bloody rites of heathendom. You are going to battle, you are going out in the bright sun with dancing plumes and glittering spear; your shield shines, and your feathers wave, and your limbs are glad with the consciousness of strength, and your mind is warm with glory and renown; with coming glory and unobtained renown: for who are you to hope for these; who are you to go forth proudly against the pride of the sun, with your secret sin and your haunting shame and your real fear? First lie down and abase yourself; strike your back with hard stripes; cut deep with a sharp knife, as if you would eradicate the consciousness; cry aloud; put ashes on your head; bruise yourself with stones,—then perhaps God may pardon you. Or, better still (so runs the incoherent feeling), give him something—your ox, your ass, whole hecatombs if you are rich enough; anything, it is but a chance,—you do not know what will please him; at any rate, what you love best yourself,—that is, most likely, your first-born son. Then, after such gifts and such humiliation, he may be appeased, he may let you off; he may without anger let you go forth, Achilles-like, in the glory of your shield; he may not send you home as he would else, the victim of rout and treachery, with broken arms and foul limbs, in weariness and humiliation. Of course, it is not this kind of fanaticism that we impute to a prelate of the English Church; human sacrifices are not respectable, and Achilles was not rector of Stanhope. But though the costume and circumstances of life change, the human heart does not; its feelings remain. The same anxiety, the same consciousness of personal sin which led in barbarous times to what has been described, show themselves in civilized life as well. In this quieter period, their great manifestation is scrupulosity: a care about the ritual of life; an attention to meats and drinks, and “cups and washings.” Being so unworthy as we are, feeling what we feel, abased as we are abased, who shall say that those are beneath us? In ardent, imaginative youth they may seem so; but let a few years come, let them dull the will or contract the heart or stain the mind; then the consequent feeling will be, as all experience shows, not that a ritual is too mean, too low, too degrading for human nature, but that it is a mercy we have to do no more,—that we have only to wash in Jordan, that we have not even to go out into the unknown distance to seek for Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus. We have no right to judge; we cannot decide; we must do what is laid down for us,—we fail daily even in this; we must never cease for a moment in our scrupulous anxiety to omit by no tittle and to exceed by no iota.  1

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.