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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Cruelty in Belief and Cruelty in Practice

Cruelty in Belief and Cruelty in Practice.

"There are many marvellous things," said the Athenian poet, "and none more marvellous than man;" and in nothing is the marvel of man's nature more potently displayed than in his capability of development into the extremes of high and low, downwards below the level of the beast, upwards to something a little lower than the angels. Could we but see disclosed before us the secrets of the different houses in the quietest streets of our quietest towns, what a revelation would be made! Here we should see order and decency, harmony and love; while a few yards off we should behold strife and selfishness, sensuality and filth. And yet there may have been a time when these men and women, now so different, were all apparently innocent, unsophisticated children, playing in happy homes; and no one can say how far a change of circumstances, in respect of early training and associations, might have kept the wretched grovelling sot a decorous citizen, and, vice versa, have plunged the now respectable husband and father into the gulf of misery and degradation. What man of culture in this our century, whose nature has been elevated by a large infusion of that "sweetness and light" on which Mr. Matthew Arnold so eloquently enlarges, can fail to look back with wonder and disgust upon the amusements which were in vogue two or three centuries ago. Imagine decent Christian men—noblemen, gentlemen and clowns alike—watching with keenest interest the struggles of two game cocks, armed with artificial spurs to make their attacks more sanguinary and destructive; and this so-called sport being regarded, not as the disgusting peculiarity of some eccentric human monster, but as a national institution! Fancy, moreover, decent men, fathers of families, taking a horrid pleasure in the savage encounters of dogs and bears, or dogs and bulls. We seem, when reading of such things, to be contemplating the actions of heathen savages, of men a long way removed from ourselves in thought and feeling. Yet Macaulay (if we recollect aright) states with bitter irony that bear-baiting, even when abolished by the Puritans, was so abolished, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.

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If men in past times were brutal in their amusements, we may reasonably expect to find that they were brutal in their punishment of crime. Small demand was there then for Refuges and Reformatories. We extract from an old number of the Revue des Deux Mondes the following account of the execution of one of a set of ruffians (called assommeurs), who, in 1742, spread terror throughout Paris: "Would you know how France was trained to tolerate the horrible sights of the Place de la Revolution? The culprit, named Desinoulins, aged 17, had been condemned to be broken on the wheel alive. Accordingly on Tuesday, December 18, he was brought at midday to the Place do la Grève, and the executioner, after having broken with an iron bar his arms, his fore-arms, his thighs, his legs and his chest, fastened him upon a small carriage wheel, with the broken limbs brought round behind his back and with his face toward the sky." He was, says Barbier (the author from whom the Reviewer derives his information), "so stalwart a youth and so resolute withal, that he remained twenty-two hours alive. And the aforesaid Desmoulins took several draughts of water and suffered much. Finally, seeing that he would not die and that the process was tedious, the officer in charge sent and asked permission of the authorities to have him strangled, which was done this morning, Wednesday the 19th, at 10 o'clock, otherwise perhaps he would be there still. His comrades and others of the same stamp will take notice that we are not disposed to jest with them." Shades of Bentham and Romilly! this thing was done in open day in a public square of the most tragical of European cities, and honest citizens, we suppose, witnessed it, and went home to eat and drink, and slept placidly through the night whilst this poor wretch was groaning in his agony! We spare to recount the horrible details of the fate of Damieus, who, for attempting to assassinate that "most religious and gracious king" Louis XV. was torn in pieces by horses, a mode of punishment which even Livy, the Roman historian, writing before the advent of Christianity, characterises as monstrous and inhuman, and alien to the nature of the Romans. Nor will we do more than allude to the revolting particulars of the English punishment of high treason, the hanging, cutting down alive, disembowelling, quartering, etc.—details which defiled the pages of the Statute Book long after the penalties had dropped out of use; besides which we may mention the minor punishments of cutting off the right hand and searing the mutilated stump with a redhot iron, the slitting of noses and cropping of ears, the pillory and other barbarous inventions of refined cruelty.

Now, it would be a mere waste of time to revive the recollections of these sickening brutalities, were it not that these practices tend to cast a light upon what would otherwise seem most portentous and unnatural—viz., the prevalence in those days of very gloomy views of man's nature and destiny. We page 297 are not about to quote from any creed or formula of religious belief. We prefer to take, as an example, the notion of the state of the world and of its future prospects which is tacitly assumed in, and which forms in fact the basis of, John Bunyan's world-famous allegory. Be it understood that we do not mean to disparage the story itself, viewed merely as a story; all that we have to do with on the present occasion is the truthfulness of the allegorical representation of the world in which we live. Christian, be it observed, leaves his wife and children and starts on a pilgrimage. Now, in a case of shipwreck, there are few of us who would not think better of the man who, realising the extent of the peril, should resolutely persist in remaining to share the fate of his wife and family, than of one who seeks his own individual safety by running away. This point, however, we will not press. But it ought to be noticed that, whereas our pilgrim leaves a whole city of Destruction behind him, all whom he encounters in his Progress may easily be counted on the fingers. One companion only, Faithful, joins him in the early part of his career, and when he has suffered death in Vanity Fair, only one other friend, Hopeful, accompanies Christian to the Celestial Gate. Nay, counting even Christian's wife and children and all their friends, Messrs. Valiant, Honest, Feeble-mind, etc., whose adventures form the second part of the allegory, we have but a very small band of successful candidates for the Celestial City, whilst the multitudinous denizens of the City of Destruction, of Vanity Fair, and of other places lying off the road, are abandoned to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, good old John Bunyan plainly implies that the righteous are a very small minority, but that the majority of mankind deserve to be damned and are damned accordingly. Now, we doubt whether amongst civilised men the most fertile imagination ever invented anything so horrible before or since. Of the two great nations whose influence has told so largely upon European intellect and morals, we may safely say that they conceived nothing of the kind. They had indeed their Elysium for the good and their Tartarus for the bad; but they did not consign an overwhelming majority of mankind to the latter; and their classical Tartarus, with its Sisyphus heaving with much toil and sweat a large rock up a hill down which it continually rebounds, and its daughters of Danaus vainly attempting to fill a sieve with water, was but a meagre and spiritless conception compared to the abyss of flame in which that eminent father of the early Church, the pious Tertullian, exultantly expected to see writhing the princes, philosophers and poets of the ancient world. We do not pretend to say how far these cruel notions of man's destiny gave a sanction to cruel practice, or vice versa. Such a point is as hard to determine as the oft-mooted question whether representative men, such as Voltaire, may be considered as forming the age in which they live, or as being themselves the page 298 out-come of that age. But it may safely be predicted that there is a kind of mutual relation between cruelty in belief and cruelty in practice; and that men who honestly and thoroughly accept a great degree of vindictive anger as an attribute of the Deity whom they profess to worship, will not hesitate to use much hardness and harshness in their dealings with one another. And why should they not? What is such a small matter as poverty, or stripes, or imprisonment,. or the pillory, or even an auto-da-feè, compared with the infinite destiny of a man for weal or woe. And thus dogmatism, pushed to its logical conclusion, makes persecution a duty.

We, however, in this year 1871, have changed all this. We have abolished cock-fighting and bear-baiting, and fire ashamed of prize-fighting; we have reserved the punishment of the lash, in a very slight form comparatively, for a few of the lowest criminals; many able and well-meaning people have entered upon a crusade against the gallows; and even the guillotine, despite the dreadful associations attached, to its indiscriminate use in Revolutinary France, was originally invented in order to shorten the pangs of condemned culprits. Further, we are gradually coming to look upon war, not as a grand historical game of chess to be played for the amusement and vain-glory of a few ambitious princes and politicians, but in its bearings upon the fortunes of the peoples who invariably pay the heaviest part of the cost. We are learning to appreciate the value of men as men, not in proportion to rank; to bring education down to the lowest, and to prevent as far as possible the continual growth of a dangerous class of professional criminals; and finally, our great novelist, lately deceased, has earned a wide-spread and well-merited popularity chiefly by bringing all the light of his genius to bear upon the fortunes and misfortunes, the sorrows and joys, of grooms, coachmen, fishermen, pedlers, etc.—a set of people heretofore reckoned beneath the dignity of literature, yet, strange to say, no one dare venture to tamper with the Athanasian Creed.

Jesus taught men to say, "Our Father;" and, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has left behind a most touching picture of the feelings of a father towards an erring son.* And yet, in their Confessions of Faith, men go on persistently imputing to the Infinite Father of all a never-ending thirst for vengeance, page 299 which assuredly could never be found rankling in the heart of any humane father towards the most abandoned and depraved of sons. To inferences drawn, however, from the conduct of a human father towards his offspring, a very ingenious reply has been made, for which orthodox theologians are indebted (if we mistake not) to the late Dr. Mansel, Dean of St. Pauls.

It amounts to this—that man, as a finite being, cannot be a judge of an infinite being, and, as a consequence, although the finite goodness of a human father may not be consistent with a particular line of conduct (e.g. the everlasting punishment of a rebellious son), yet infinite goodness may be consistent therewith. To this the best rejoinder has been made by John Stuart Mill: "We cannot conceive infinite space; but does anyone ever suppose that it does not possess all the properties by which space is characterized. Does anyone imagine that in ranging through it we might arrive at some region, where, though no body intervened, motion was impossible, or where the sum of two sides of a triangle was less than the third side. If in ascribing goodness to God, I do not mean the goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of some incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and venerate [and even must, if Mr. Mansel is to be believed, be in some important particulars opposed to this], what do I mean by calling it goodness, and what reason have I for venerating it?" We may add that Dr. Mansel proves, if anything, too much, by his ingenious theory; for if we may not reason by analogy from the finite father to the infinite, what meaning is there in the words "Our Father," and what comfort are men to derive from that cherished appellation?

Of a truth we live in strange times. We have one set of accredited public instructors telling us one set of things on Sundays in spoken words, and another set of public instructors telling us quite a different set of things in printed words at other times. We are supposed to believe the statements of the one under heaviest penalties, and we really believe what the others inform us, under no compulsion whatever. What patent absurdity is here! How absurd is it for intelligent men to read with interest, to weigh and to criticise the speculations of Huxley, Darwin, or Lubbock, upon the origin of the forms of animal life now existing on this globe of ours, if the key to the mystery lies in the sonorous deliverance of any parson who has been enlarging as usual upon the fall of man, discoursing about Adam and Eve and the serpent, as if these were as well-known historical personages as Napoleon and Bismarck. Moreover this kind of organised hypocrisy which people practice on Sundays is not, as some may fancy, a mere harmless conventionality. Religion should be practical. But being thus bound up with much that men no longer believe it cannot become page 300 practical. This is the nineteenth century of Christianity. Yet within twenty years we have had five wars in Europe and a great war in America. Of all vices cruelty, one would suppose, must be especially alien to Christianity. Did not Jesus say, "Love your enemies, bless those that curse you?" Yet recent events have shown us that, in one of the most civilised countries in Christendom, men, even in the hour of triumph, have not learnt to carry out in practice such a modified form of Christ's teaching as is comprised in the following: "Do not shoot prisoners in cold blood; do not kill your enemies first and tell lies against them afterwards to justify your barbarity; give them the benefit of a fair trial; and in the torrent of your rage, remember that they are men, not wild beasts or venomous reptiles."


* Orthodox theology, finding the Parable of the Prodigal Son too benign for its taste, will probably quote as a set-off that of Dives and Lazarus in the very next chapter of the same Gospel. It is, however, not our business, as rational Theists, to find the means of reconciling apparent discrepancies between different parts of the Scriptures. The tenour of the former Parable seems to us as genial and benignant as that, of the latter seems gloomy and despondent. Put we no more undertake to harmonise the two, than we can pretend to explain how the same being who blessed little children, wept over Jerusalem, and prayed for his murderers, could have withered a fig-tree with his curse, because it did not bear fruit out of season.