The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949
Prometheus, it is said, brought fire in a fennel stalk. There is always in legend something of prophecy, and our age is, in a way, Promethean, though this time it is man who has stolen fire from heaven. As Thornton Wilder showed in the story of Chrysis, the Andrian (a forerunner of the Magdalen), this legend with its tale of penance and vicarious renunciation seemed to foreshadow a greater sacrifice than Chiron's and a greater hope than remained in Pandora's box.
If a man were asked what was the effect of a University education upon his own individual self it would be impossible to answer; for it would assume an isolation of instruction; and no-one is isolated from his fellows, from his city, from his country, from his world. To eat in accordance with even the simplest standards, he is dependent on the efforts of earth and its creatures; the same is more true of his mental fare. Some answer may be found in the life he leads.
Ruskin held that "Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave." To some ears that may seem priggish, but a few more such prigs might have saved Europe. Dorothy Thompson, in its rubble to-day, sought what was lacking in those who caused its ruin. She found that it was not wits but, to use an old word, in-wit, conscience. When conscience goes only utility remains—a selfish mint without cosmic currency.
Jacques Maritain, discussing the rights of man, recently wrote that, in his opinion, to justify those rights we should re-discover the natural law. "We are then able to understand how a certain ideal, rooted in the nature of man and of human society, can impose moral demands valid throughout the world of experience, history, and fact, and can establish, for the conscience, as for the written law, the permanent principle and the elementary and universal criteria of rights and duties."*
In his address to Unesco on December 4th, 1947, he said that if a durable peace should one day be established it would not solely be through political, economic, and financial arrangements concluded by diplomats and statesmen. It would also depend on a change in the conscience of men.
Customs have influenced common law, but of the natural law Aquinas could say that it was a share of the external: "Lex naturalis nihil aliudest quam participatio legisæternæ in rationali creatura." Before Aquinas, Jeremiah had written: "Saith the Lord: I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts."
Dr Mortimer J. Adler of the University of Chicago has given it as his solution also. "More people in the world must start thinking about the natural law as opposed to the positive law, if world peace is to result and endure."
Stevenson called for a 'piercing pain, a killing sin' to be run into his heart if it yielded to apathy and despair. The world has had both, and there are signs that they have re-animated conscience. Who is the favourite model of the moderns? Donne, whose poems alternate between a desperate faith and a grave-sweat of remorse! It is odd that he and Dunbar, who was pursued also by death 'gaipand,' should have been resurrected in an age with the same anguish but without the same vision or hope. Carlyle wrote once of eternity 'glaring.' To-day no-one denies that the minds of men are preoccupied with a doom that seems too terrible to bear, and that, as time passes, they smell death from his heels. They call this a dreadful age, but it may be our most glorious, for words like 'charity' and 'contrition,' which have been, to so many, letter-patterns conveying abstractions, may become flesh as in the old morality plays; and the world finds the pleasant working cynicism, which once was its defence-mechanism, as inadequate as cardboard shelters against atomic fire.
A while ago I came one these lines by Pere Teilhard de Chardin, one of the scientists who discovered the Pekin Man. Each word falls heavy. "For twenty years we tried to defend the hope that our troubles were only the last manifestation of a tornado that has passed . . . We must now apply ourselves to the evidence that humanity is about to enter what is probably the greatest period of transformation it has ever known. The seat of the evil from which we are suffering is located in the very foundation of human thought. Something is happening in the general structure of the human consciousness. Another form of life is beginning." These are strange and awful words. If we see human phases in terms of stone age, iron age, atomic age, if he is right that man will be made over, we are still not helpless, for we, unworthy though we are, can carry over into this horrific hour the natural law, faith, and conscience, as once a donkey bore Deity into Egypt.
* United Nations Weekly Bulletin, Vol. III, No. 21, November 18th, 1947.
Thinking men, sensing ruin behind and before, are beginning to see that false values have been spread, and with the realization has arisen a desire to find out the cause. If medicine has suffered as much as education from the doctrinaire experimentalists, there would have been revolt long ago; yet to tinker with minds is even more dangerous. There are reams of theories on education, natural ideas by good, intelligent, utterly well-meaning people whose tragedy is that they lack the touchstone. Many a man who struts in pomp of state or pride of mind might be astonished to know how accurately he is assessed and how small is his stature in the eyes of those who, by his shallow soundings, are unlearned.
If this is an age of transition we, the most adaptable of creatures, can accommodate the present to the future. Our own culture was a combination of Hebrew and Greek, of Messianic and Humanist. If this surmise is true, we may be the link between two civilizations, as the Book of Cenn Faelad and the Annals of Tigernach combined the culture of Latin and Celt; but the change will be gradual. In any mountain stream it takes time for rocks to become boulders, and even man, more impatient than nature, does not eat his wheat in the ear.
As to the new threat, it may, during wars, drive us underground; but we, who were born in a volcanic country with atomic fire under our feet, know how man builds again on the cindered plains; and a Polynesian, transplanted, begs to return to an island gaping with craters. That is economic hope; but for some there is a greater. In the last analysis, if it means annihilation, this life is not all.
It would have been easier to write in reminiscence of a College in which may days were pure happiness, but my theme was chosen for me by the dead. I found a letter, written shortly before he died, by that great classical scholar, Professor John Rankine Brown, who so loved this University. Writing of "the Sahara of unintelligibility into which our poetry appears to have fallen," he said, "I have always been an admirer of that great poet and saintly woman, Christina Rossetti, one of whose pieces appears to me to be among the most immaculate things we have, and well responds to what I have come to regard as the real test of great writing, which is that as often as you read the passage you get the same thrill as you felt when you read it first. There are passages, for instance, in the greatest of all poets, Homer, which—though I have read them repeatedly to my class at Victoria College—I almost break down in reading through stress of emotion. If I have found pleasure in teaching Latin and Greek it is mainly because the poetry of these languages has been a sort of life to my soul." In that last sentence he has given the reason why, though they are to-day both flouted and clouted, the world will return to them. What our age has bemeaned was kept by others in hedge-schools, so that peasants called their children Aeneas. There is a passage in Corneille's Medee reminiscent of to-day:Nerine—"Votre pays vous hait, votre epoux est sans foi: Dans un si grand revers que vous restet-il?" Medee—"Moi, Moi, dis-je, et c'est assez."*
Man has, in greater disasters, tried the same refuge. He has either run into himself or attempted a corporate mind against fate. Neither shelter has availed him. This age is signal for the bewilderment of its intellectuals. Too far east is west. In a horror of sentimentality they have fled from faith, from nature, and from beauty.
Someone told me a story of a young airman who, on returning home, went away from his fellows and took up a handful of earth and grass. A friend who had followed him unobserved made a laughing comment and was amazed at his curtness . . . "I don't care! It's New Zealand!" It was in every respect the right rejoinder, bare of human respect and informed with natural love.
It has, in a corporal sense, been called the hour of the common man, though an adjective capable of more than one meaning is not a happy choice; but, waiving that point, it is even more his hour in a spiritual sense. For what has been sought, by Sartre so starkly and by Kafka so poignantly, many of his kind have found and kept. They know why they were born.
H. G. Wells was by some regarded as a prophet in the realm of reason, but he chose as title for the book which appeared just before his death Mind At the End of Its Tether, and he appeared to have despaired of being able to trace a pattern or to give a compelling argument on conduct. At bay against the future, he seems to have put his hands up, owning no weapon to make it an equal encounter. From that agony of impotence he wrung humility.
Auden, on the other hand, says that all man's actions and diversions are but "the pitiful, maimed expression" of that passion, the "tropism of the soul of God." And Victor Gollancz points out that war's greatest damage is not to possessions, but to the moral sense; and that the value which includes all our other values is respect for personality. It is Gollancz, too, who felt that the presence of suffering in our enemies calls out love. These are heartening signs.
An honest bewilderment in the face of crucial questions none should condemn, but it is not a quality for leadership. It looks as though the world may have to turn to those who have kept the old homespun trinity of virtues, and ordered beneficence enforced by commonsense and conscience. It would not profit us to gain knowledge and lose wisdom.
* Medee I, v.