The Demon of the Absolute

by Paul Elmer More

[The following are selections]

From I. Standards

Luther once likened our human nature to a drunkard on horseback: prop him up on one side, and over he topples on the other. The simile is apt, and applies to taste as well as to morals. As soon as we are convinced that no absolute standard exists, forthwith we flop to the other extreme and swear that there are absolutely no standards at all; so hard is it to keep the middle path of common sense. And so behind the light-armed skirmishers of the press whom, to say the truth, no one takes very seriously, we have scholars like Mr. Spingarn, who, with the inverted sort of pedantry common today, teach a ready public that art is only expression and criticism only impression, and that no one need bother to hunt for standards of taste, which are not and never were. And worse than that, we have sober philosophers like Lord Balfour, arguing for pure relativity of taste on metaphysical grounds:
That is for every man most lovable which he most dearly loves. That is for every man most beautiful which he most deeply admires. Nor is this merely a reiteration of the old adage that there is no disputing about tastes. It goes far deeper; for it implies that, in the most important cases of all, a dispute about either love or beauty would not merely be useless: it would be wholly unmeaning.
These men, I assert, and not the champions of reasonable standards of taste, are the veritable addicts of the Absolute and slaves of the Demon. They theorize very persuasively, but have their conclusions any relation to fact? Is it true that admiration so varies with time and place, and from individual to individual, that no common sense of beauty is discoverable which can be used as a basis of conversation and to which appeal can be made in argument? If my theme were the plastic arts, it would be sufficient to adduce the indisputable truth that the forms and pictures prized as lovely by the Orient do sooner or later obtain due recognition in the West, and vice versa. However it be with minor eccentricities, the supremely beautiful things in Greece and Italy and India and China are beautiful for all the world. But for our convenience we may look rather to the extraordinary absence of local and temporal barriers in lyrical poetry. When Simonides composed his epitaph for the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae:
O passer by, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here obeying their orders--
he used words that would carry the same poetic thrill to all men of all lands. Perhaps you will say that the emotion expressed by Simonides is so simple, the language so devoid of ornament or metaphor or fancy, that the couplet is scarcely to be reckoned as poetry. I think no one acquainted with the Greek would raise such an objection; but let it pass. Let us take one of the epigrams of the Anthology, written by a poet of no particular reputation and replete with the imagery of pagan superstition:
Do thou, who rowest the boat of the dead in the water of this reedy lake, for Hades, stretch out thy hand, dark Charon, to the son of Cinyras, as he mounts the ladder by the gangway, and receive him. For his sandals will cause the lad to slip, and he fears to set his feet naked on the sand of the shore.
That is one of the trifles of art, yet its pathetic beauty could touch the heart of an American, Lafcadio Hearn, who had made his home in the far Orient, and who set by its side for comparison a tanka (a lyric confined to thirty-one syllables) of a Japanese governor on the death of his son:
As he is so young, he cannot know the way .... To the messenger of the Underworld I will give a bribe, and entreat him, saying: "Do thou kindly take the little one upon thy back along the road."
Surely there is a common ground of feeling and taste even in these minor things, something that overleaps all estrangement of land and race and age. So, to come nearer home, Ben Jonson, "Saint Ben," as Herrick called him, Briton to the core of him, could cull a few phrases scattered through the very prosaic letters of Philostratus, and weave them into a song which, given the knowledge of the English tongue, will find an echo in the heart of any lover of beauty the world over:
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
And Goethe, alone amidst the trees and the mountains, in the wide silence of a summer night, once wrote in German what a Chinese, centuries ago and far away by the shores of the Yangtse River, might have expressed in his own metrical form:
Ueber allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh.
But we have no need to multiply examples. It is a simple fact, not a theory, that in the matter of taste there is still that which is not confined by the boundaries of space or nullified by the process of time, and which makes the whole world kin. This is not to say that we can lay down any absolute law of agreement; but it does mean, emphatically, that certain standards of taste exist which approximate, more or less, to universality. It is a direct challenge to the veracity of those who would stop our mouths with the dictum that a debate about either love or beauty is not merely useless, but wholly unmeaning. If only the henchmen of the press, who have been seduced by the prophets of the flux, would act consistently on the principle that there is no disputing about tastes! But this is the curious fact--just so surely as you meet with one of these relativistic critics, you will find him pretty soon uttering the most savage and exemplary judgements against those who disagree with him. This Mr. Powys, for instance, who is regarded as a model of adventurous and irresponsible sympathy, can slash about when he pleases with a cutting assurance which hints at a bowie-knife in his pocket, however he may eschew cosmic footrules. But the really test ease is the great Anatole France, the flowing philosopher par excellence, from whom so many of our late-emancipated youth have borrowed their literary creed, to the effect that criticism is a continual adventure of the soul, a kind of freebooting romance for the curious and enlightened. Well, one day, in the course of his Vie Litteraire, Anatole France felt obliged to write about a certain novel, La Terre, which no amount of adventurous sympathy could make him like, which, in fact, he heartily disliked; and this is how he sums up his condemnation of the author: "He [M. Zola] has no taste, and I have come to believe that the want of taste is that mysterious sin spoken of by the Scripture, the greatest of sins, which alone will never be pardoned." In other words, when Anatole France laid aside theory and spoke his real mind, he would judge as incisively as M. Brunetiere or any other avowed doctrinaire; and admittedly he judges from a central principle of his nature, which he calls taste. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Every man likes certain things and dislikes certain other things; more than that, every man likes a certain class of things and dislikes a certain other class of things, and praises or dispraises by a standard, whether he names it taste or refuses to acknowledge that it has a name. The simple truth is that every man, unless he be a dumb idiot, has a standard, more or less consciously chosen, by which he judges, and when the "irresponsibles" exhibit such fury at the sound of the word, they are merely throwing dust in our eyes to confuse the issue. The real question is not whether there are standards, but whether they shall be based on tradition or shall be struck out brand new by each successive generation or by each individual critic. And first of all is there in fact any discoverable tradition of taste, or do we deceive ourselves in imagining its existence? The relativists, like Lord Balfour, point to the mistakes of criticism in the past, and particularly to its failure to recognize great works of original genius on their first appearance. They take a ghoulish glee in quoting the sentences of Jeffrey and Gilford and the other anti-romanticists of the early nineteenth century. And what, they ask, shall we expect of "official" criticism which says that The Excursion will never do, tells a certain young surgeon's apprentice named Keats to go back to his gallipots, and has no better description of Shelley's poems than "convulsive caperings of Pegasus labouring under colic pains"? Well, those much-maligned maligners are like the devil in one respect at least: they are not so black as they are painted. There were fools among them, no doubt; and our own feeble-minded are not all in asylums. But if those who take most delight in decrying Jeffrey, for instance, would condescend to read what they abuse, they would find that his taste was generally good, and that most, not all, of the things he condemned were worthy of condemnation. They might learn, too, that the despised Gifford's chief work, in The Baviad and The Maeviad, was to bring contempt upon the "namby-pamby madrigals" and "splay-foot doggrel," the "motley fustian, neither verse nor prose," of a horde of much-lauded poets now well forgotten. As Scott said, he "squabashed the Della Cruscans at one blow." I suspect that one of the things we most need in our own day is just a Baviad to pillory some of the lawless men who are trampling down the wild thyme of Parnassus. I am far from saying that Gifford and his tribe were always judicious or generous. I do say, however, that where they failed it was precisely because they were not in the tradition, but pronounced sentence from the narrow and ephemeral point of view of the pseudo-classic, not the classic, school. Those who scold these errant critics as an illustration of the complete relativity of taste, forget that they do so by virtue of the validity of a larger tradition. It is with tradition as it is with standards: because tradition is not absolute and infallible, men are prone to cry out that there is no tradition. That is a habit deep-rooted in human nature, hard to eradicate. No intelligent man supposes that tradition is a scale fixed once and forever in all its nuances of valuation; but it is a simple matter of history, nevertheless, that a long tradition of taste does exist, wavering and obscure on its outskirts, growing steadier and more immutable as we approach its centre. Let us take a poet who stands in this central tradition and follow his fortunes, briefly by necessity, in general estimation. We shall see, I think, that the law of taste is the least changeable fact of human nature, less changeable than religious creeds, far less changeable than scientific theories. The advent of Christianity has left it untouched, and the waning of faith does not trouble it. The hypotheses of science--elemental spirits, antiphlogiston, corpuscular and undulatory explanations of light, atoms and ions and the continuum, catastrophism and natural selection--come and pass and come again, while the central tradition of taste is still the same. Wars and revolutions alter everything, but not this. It is like the sea:
Man marks the earth with ruin, his control
Stops with the shore.
If anything in history seems to be settled it is the position of Homer among the Greeks. To him they turned for the source of literature, the mirror of conduct, the fountain-head of all right thinking and all right speaking. He was the guide of the young, the philosopher of the middle-aged, the friend of the old. Not that his acceptance was absolute. Plato, though he could write of Homer in terms of adoration, also censured him harshly for his familiar treatment of the gods; and there was a crabbed grammarian named Zoilus, who won the epithet Homeromastix, scourge of Homer, for his systematic abuse of the poet. But these exceptions only prove that a solid fact need not be an absolute fact. And what Homer was to the Greeks, he continued to be to the Romans until the old civilization passed away. With the coming of the Dark Ages--significant name--there is a change. The Greek language was almost forgotten in the West, and as a consequence the Iliad and Odyssey were little read. Nevertheless, the tradition was not lost, nor even totally eclipsed, and with the revival of learning it emerges once more, never again, let us hope, to be darkened. There were, however, several curious and, in part, contradictory currents in Renaissance criticism which for a while prevented the complete acknowledgement of Homer's literary supremacy. For one thing, owing to the language of the Aeneid and to the ease with which Christian ideas could be read into various passages, Virgil had supplanted Homer through the Middle Ages as the master poet; and the scholars of the Renaissance, despite their pose of general rebellion, were too deeply involved in the spirit of the immediate past to escape its aesthetical restrictions without a long struggle. And the theory of the new criticism, with its insistence on the authority of reason and on the authority of age, tended to uphold the superiority of the Latin epic. These two principles of authority were clearly and definitely formulated by Scaliger in his Poetice, published in 1561, and were applied to the tradition of taste with childlike confidence. "Homer's genius," he says (Poetice, v, 2), "was the greatest; his art was of such a character that he seems rather to have happened on it than to have cultivated it. Wherefore there is no reason for surprise if I find in him a certain Idea of nature, but not art .... Then Virgil, having received art from Homer in this rude state, raised it by his selective study of nature and his judgement to the highest point of perfection .... As in the very circle of our life there are many things, yet few give pleasure, and still fewer raise admiration; so many things would insinuate themselves into the breast of the poet, but not all are to be admitted. He who follows the example of Virgil prefers therefore to exclude an occasional good thing which might give pleasure, rather than admit anything which can offer even the suspicion of offence." Here you will see how Scaliger applies to Homer and Virgil the false notion of reason as a faculty superior to, and in a sense hostile to, the creative imagination--the notion underlying pseudo-classic art and pseudo-classic criticism, which, strange as it may sound, is still confused with the true classic by some of our belated scholars. It is easy to understand how such a theory worked against the full and frank recognition of Homer as an artist. The other principle formulated by Scaliger was oddly inconsistent in its operation. Like the Renaissance scholars in general he was imbued with respect for authority as a power synonymous with age. Now, in accordance with this law the Iliad as the older poem ought to be the better, and this undoubtedly would have been Scaliger's avowed opinion were it not that he stood committed to the greater regularity and art of Virgil. Instead, therefore, of comparing Homer with Virgil on the basis of authority by virtue of age, he switches aside and makes his comparison between the Iliad and the Hero and Leander of Musaeus, really a late production of the sixth century after Christ, but by a confusion of its author with the mythical Musaeus held to be a work of the remote pre-Homeric age. Scaliger was too sound a critic at heart not to see that the actual matter of the Hero and Leander was relatively slight and insignificant; but he had his hypothesis ready, like a true philologian. He imagined that this poem was a mere parergon of the mighty bard of antiquity and that the serious works of Musaeus and Orpheus and their coevals had been lost. "If Musaeus," he says, "had written those things which Homer wrote, we may suppose that he would have written them far better." And as it is, "the style," if not the substance, "of Musaeus is far more polished and elegant than Homer's." Now this triple judgement of Scaliger on Homer and Virgil and Musaeus bears closely on the true nature of tradition. It shows, I think, that in his heart of hearts Scaliger was quite awake to the surpassing genius and art of Homer, but was seduced by current theories to express opinions not entirely in accord with his actual taste as determined by the criterion of pleasure. And one can follow this deflexion of expressed opinion right through the reign of pseudo-classicism. Let me illustrate what I mean by two familiar examples taken from English literature. One cannot read Pope's Preface to the Iliad without feeling his preference of the poet he was translating; yet so deeply ingrained in his mind was the Renaissance notion of the opposition between reason and inventive genius that he could not omit a formal comparison of the two ancient epics on the basis of this contrast. "No author or man," he says, "ever excelled all the world in more than one faculty; and as Homer has done this in invention, Virgil has in judgement. Not that we think that Homer wanted judgement, because Virgil had it in a more eminent degree; or that Virgil wanted invention, because Homer possessed a larger share of it; each of these authors had more of both than perhaps any man besides, and are only said to have less in comparison with one another. Homer was the greater genius, Virgil the better artist. In one we most admire the man, in the other the work." And so on. For our other illustration we may take the absurd wrangle that was the occasion of Swift's Battle of the Books. Does any one suppose that Sir William Temple and Boyle or any other champion of the Epistles of Phalaris got more satisfaction out of reading those frigid exercises in rhetoric than from the genuine masterpieces of Greek prose? Certainly they did not; yet because they believed these Epistles to be from the hand of the Sicilian tyrant and so endowed with the authority of primitive age, they did not hesitate to cross swords for them with the terrible Bentley himself. At least one of the false theories of pseudo-classicism, the sheer authority of age, was so damaged in that battle that it has had little force since then to deflect the straight line of tradition. Homer was to come to his own with the revival of Romanticism, though here again the mischievous inheritance of the Renaissance can be seen at work. The romanticists were, and are, quite as convinced as any pseudo-classicist of the inherent hostility between reason and imagination, between judgement and genius; only they take the opposite side and bestow all their praises on imagination, as they understand it, and genius. Hence you will find a succession of scholars in the nineteenth century, particularly in Germany, who made much of the spontaneity and naivetee of the Iliad, likening it to the untutored ballads of the people, and comparing it in this respect favourably with the Aeneid, which they were wont to belittle as a product of reflective judgement and conscious art. On the whole I am inclined to believe that the justice of tradition has come nearer to suffering a real perversion from these romantic sentimentalists than from the rationalists of the pseudo-classical school. But withal the tradition still abides, and promises to abide. There are, of course, men today, like our late professional endower of libraries, who affect to look down on the Iliad as the work of a barbarous age. But if you investigate their opinion, you will find that it is warped by some extraneous theory, such as a crude pacifism which thinks it uncivic to enjoy a tale of fighting, or an equally crude evolutionism which measures excellence unflinchingly by the criterion of newness. And you will commonly find, moreover, that these faddists have not read the poem in the original, that is, properly speaking, have not read it at all, and so ought to be put out of court. The verdict of those who have a right to judge is almost without exception that in Homer we have the nearest approach to pure poetry, and that everything since is in a way derivative and secondary. At any rate, I do not see how one can study the history of taste honestly without acknowledging this fact of the enduring permanence of the Homeric tradition. His place, you will observe, has not been absolutely fixed; it has deflected a little to this side and to that in accordance with the changing theories of criticism, but it has always moved close to a central point--like the North Star, which moves about at a slight distance from the axis of the sky. As we depart further and further from this core of tradition, our literary judgements become less certain and the probability of variation grows greater; but the central truth is not affected. Those who deny the validity of tradition are like watchers of the heavens who should set their eyes on the wandering planets of the ecliptic and from these alone should infer that there was no possibility of a Polar Star.

III. The Criterion

At this point a wary antagonist might break in with a seasonable objection. All this, he will say, is very well, but it scarcely touches the real issue. I will grant that standards do exist, in the sense that for all men certain works of art possess qualities which they instinctively or consciously use as a criterion of taste. I will even grant the existence in the past of those traditional standards on which you lay so much stress. But what is it to me though a hundred generations of mankind have united in acclaiming the merits of this or that poem; is that any reason why I should admire the same thing? The truth is that our relativists, who dwell with such satisfaction on the errors of authoritative criticism, are not so much concerned with disproving the existence of traditional standards as they are with establishing their own right to independence of taste. Well, tradition does not create standards; to suppose that it did would be to fall into the pseudo-classical error of regarding age as a criterion of excellence. But tradition may be evidence that certain works of art embody qualities which it is very much our concern to appreciate, and which we have every reason to use as a criterion. To understand why this is so we must look a little into the nature of these criteria on which standards are formed. And here, luckily, we have the help of one who, as the first of romantic critics in English, ought to possess, and does possess, high credit among the relativists of today. "As it was my constant reply," Coleridge says in his Biographia Literaria, "to authorities brought against me from later poets of great name, that no authority could avail in opposition to TRUTH, NATURE, LOGIC, and the LAWS OF UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR; actuated too by my former passion for metaphysical investigations; I laboured at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself, and their comparative dignity and importance. According to the faculty or source, from which the pleasure given by any poem or passage was derived, I estimated the merit of such poem or passage. As the result of all my reading and meditation, I abstracted two critical aphorisms;... first, that not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry .... Be it however observed, that I excluded from the list of worthy feelings, the pleasure derived from mere novelty in the reader, and the desire of exciting wonderment at his powers in the author." Coleridge is verbose and wanders as usual, but his "solid foundation" resolves itself dearly enough into these four rules: First: That the value of a work of art is not determined primarily by authority, but is a question of truth and nature. Secondly: That our sense of truth and nature in a work of art is the pleasure we derive from it. To this notion, that the aim of art is to give pleasure, Coleridge returns frequently in the course of his rambling treatise. Thirdly: Coleridge asserts that pleasures vary in value and importance by a criterion of permanence. For instance, other things being equal, we place a higher value on a poem which continues to interest us on a second or third perusal than on one which interested us a first time, but bores us a second time. Fourthly: He asserts that pleasures vary also in value and importance by a criterion of quality, that is, in accordance with the faculty of the mind which is concerned. Now to the first and second of these principles I do not see how the most truculent individualist can object; taken alone they might even appear to support the position for which he is contending. And the same thing, I suppose, might be said of the third and fourth principles, were it not for certain inferences which too patently can be drawn from them. In these inferences lies the very crux of the question at issue. To take the third proposition: if it be true that pleasure is a criterion of value in a work of art, and if one element of comparison between two pleasures be their relative degree of permanence, if, that is to say, other things being equal, we instinctively prefer the pleasure that endures the longer, then is there not, on the face of it, a strong probability that the book which has been read with interest by a hundred generations of men, while other books have been read and forgotten, is the one which will maintain its interest for the individual reader, if he will give it a fair chance? At least the burden of proof rests upon those who would deny such an analogy. Let me ask for indulgence if I speak from my personal experience. It was my custom for a number of years, while I enjoyed the schoolman's privilege of leisurely vacations, to pass my summers on the coast of Maine, and there each season, within sight and sound of Homer's eternal sea, to read through the Iliad and Odyssey alternatively, not indeed shedding tears like the captive of Calypso, who
Day after day, from beach and rocky eaves,
Looked out upon the waste of untamed waves--
but filled with "the sober certainty of waking bliss," such as no other reading has ever afforded me. I do not give this experience as in any way peculiar to myself. On the contrary, Homer has kept his place in tradition just because he has offered this uncloying pleasure to all who are prepared to take it. Possibly some book written today might have the same power, but, considering the actual destinies of literature past and present, the chances are a million to one against it--habent sua rata libelli. Tradition, it is well to repeat, is not in itself a quality of excellence, but merely evidence of such qualities; and the question is still to be answered, why these poets--Homer and Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and the other genuine classics--have attained their preeminence, and why they are able to afford us a permanence of delight such as we cannot get from ephemeral productions. First of all they have this power, I think, because they appeal to what is universal in human nature, rather than to what is temporary and accidental. But this quality of universality needs to be defined, since it is of a double source, and in one of its aspects is the aim of a sort of art which can be called anything but classical. Men lose their differences and show the common ground of humanity when they rise to the height of their being and when they sink to its lowest substratum. There is a striking passage at the opening of the ninth book of the Republic in which Plato tells of the lawless desires that lurk in the breast of every man, even the most virtuous, silent by day when the man's will is awake, but sometimes in his sleep going forth to accomplish their filthy ends.[1] Yes, the beast is in all of us, and it is possible to attain a kind of universality by rousing it, and feeding it with suggestions, until it dominates the soul. This is the truth that the naturalists have learned. There is in fact a whole school of writers in Russia and Austria and Germany and Scandinavia who are trading on it systematically; and recently the same theory of art has begun to hold up its head in England and America. We have among us a growing number of pithecoid creatures, who know enough of art to understand that its appeal should be to the universal in human nature, but are not sufficiently educated to perceive that the true universal of art is of quite another order than the bestial. These naturalists forget that permanence of pleasure is a prime requisite of good art, or, remembering it, are blind to the fact that the pleasure derived from the inverted order of universality is of all kinds the quickest to cloy. This is not a matter of theory but of experience. Take Zola's La Terre, or any other of his novels in which the principle of naturalism was first worked out systematically, is it possible to imagine any normal man returning to such a book year after year, with ever-heightened enjoyment? Naturalism may conceivably fascinate by the shock of surprise, or may conceivably interest for a while by the intensity of the emotions it excites, but surprise and intensity are the least stable factors of pleasure, and, if they appeal to the animal within us, they pass quickly to satiety and from satiety to disgust. As Shakespeare's Friar Laurence said, in words that might be applied to naturalism long before Anatole France reviewed La Terre, it is but "the unreasonable fury of a beast":
These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die.
The universality of true art is of quite another order than this, and leads to the fourth of our criteria. It will be remembered that Coleridge, besides grading pleasures by the standard of permanence, distinguished them "according to the faculty or source" from which they were derived. Man, he would say, is not simple in his being, but dual; there is in all men the lurking beast, but there is also in all men a faculty of control whether you call this higher element reason or the divine or the supernatural. The error of the naturalist is to regard men as simple, or as natural in the sense of having no other nature than animal instincts. He seeks the universal there where, according to his imperfect psychology, it can alone be found, and the puppet world of his vision is like Cassio's: "I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." The true artist, on the contrary, is aware indeed of the bestial in man, but sees also something else, and in that something else looks for the meaning of life. I do not say that the artist, by this law of our double being, is restricted in his representation of nature to what is pure and innocent; very far from that. Homer and Shakespeare and Turgeniev, all the poets and dramatists and novelists in the great tradition, have not blenched before a world shaken, as the world we know is shaken, by passionate ambition and furious desire. Nor is the true artist one who takes upon himself the office of preacher, to rail unseasonably against the shortcomings and vices of the life he is portraying; very far from that. Rather he is one who, by the subtle, insinuating power of the imagination, by just appreciation of the higher emotions as well as the lower, by the revelation of a sad sincerity, shall I call it, in his own soul, gives us always to feel that the true universal in human nature, the faculty by which man resembles man as a being different from the beast, is that part of him that is "noble in reason," the master and not the slave of passion. True art is thus humanistic rather than naturalistic; and its gift of high and permanent pleasure is the response of our own breast to the artist's delicately revealed sense of that divine control, moving like the spirit of God upon the face of the waters. So far I seem to see my way clear. If you should ask me by what rhetorical devices or by what instrument of representation one poem or one work of art appeals more successfully than another to the higher faculty within us, how, for instance, Milton's Paradise Lost accomplishes this end better than Blackmore's King Arthur, though both poems were written with equally good intentions, I would reply frankly that the solution of this problem of the imagination may be beyond my powers of critical analysis. And, fortunately, I am not here concerned with artistic means but with artistic results. I could at least say to the questioner, with a good deal of assurance, that, if he would read honestly both Paradise Lost and King Arthur, however he might feel towards Milton's epic he would find his pleasure in Blackmore's epic less in kind and quality. No power on earth, not even the desire to rout an adversary, could make him read Blackmore a second time. But there is still a difficulty. Why, if these criteria are inherent in human nature, are not they themselves universally acknowledged? Whence the obvious fact that the tradition of taste is so widely rejected today by those who make a boast of modernism? "I know," we can hear one of these gentlemen say, "that past generations of men pretended to find their fullest artistic satisfaction in Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and others of the illustrious dead; but I do not. I won't say much about Homer, since he is Greek to me; but Bernard Shaw gets more pleasure from his own plays than from Sophocles and Shakespeare and Racine rolled together, and so do I. And as for your Milton, I have heard college professors declare that no one now reads Paradise Lost except under compulsion, and I know that I and my friends are vastly more entertained by the meandering prose of Mr. Joyce's Ulysses than by all the formal epics ever composed. The past was in leading-strings, but we have suddenly grown alive and, I may add, honest." Well, our sceptical friend is certainly honest, and he seems to be pretty wide awake; but is he educated? Now education embraces many things: it does not despise the most humble and utilitarian pursuits; it is largely occupied with the bare acquisition of knowledge; it aims to strengthen the muscles of the body and to tighten the fibres of the brain; but, above all, it is, or should be, a discipline of the soul in the appreciation of pleasure and pain. Do not suppose that such a discipline is a light or unimportant matter. If you will read the ninth book of Plato's Republic and the introductory books of the Laws, you will see how, to the eye of that keenly observant philosopher, the whole of human conduct, whether for good or for evil, is dependent on the right appreciation of pleasure and pain, and how deeply the welfare of the State is concerned with the education of youth in just this field. Teach a boy to take pleasure in things that are fine and pure and strong and of good repute, and you have prepared him for a life wholesome and happy in itself and useful to the community. Certainly, at least, the standards of taste are involved in this discipline. That faculty of the soul which responds to the higher and more permanent pleasures of art is, no doubt, present in all men, and is thus potentially universal; but it may be, and commonly is, dormant until awakened by external stimulus. For the reason that its activity means a steady choice among our natural inclinations and impulses, demanding self-control and, in a way, self-abnegation, it comes to full fruition only by exercise that at first may be painful and repellent to the natural man. By nature men are prone to grasp at the nearest and easiest pleasure, and to shirk the labour necessary for the higher and more permanent pleasure. They are even inclined to question the reality of the higher and more permanent pleasure, until it has been forced upon their recognition by the experience of others. And just here is the function of tradition. The very essence of education is not to confirm the young mind in its natural temperament, in its tendency to pursue the present and easier pleasure, but to set before it the stirring example of those who have found their joy and consolation in the higher things, forcing it by a tender compulsion, painful perhaps at the moment, but leading gradually to the liberty of endless delight, to taste of these things for itself and to acquire the right to judge of them whether they be indeed full of pleasantness for the awakened soul. Education is the ability to judge. The educated man is he who has the right to pronounce on the standards of taste, because he has had experience of both the higher and the lower pleasures. I am not upholding any priggish or superhuman ideal. The educated man will not have lost his appreciation of the commoner things at their time and in their degree. He will enjoy the wholesome books that are of the moment and make no pretension to permanence or elevation; you will remember that our relativistic friends have even charged Mr. Root and Mr. Hughes, whether for honour or for dishonour, with finding a secret satisfaction in detective stories and penny-dreadfuls. But the educated man is one who has also been trained to know that highest and most enduring pleasure which is derived from the few great books selected and approved by the verdict of tradition. And in that power of enjoyment he will feel himself set free from his own petty limitations, and made a humble companion of those who share the heritage of time. I suspect that these sticklers for the liberty of taste against the judgments of mankind are in the main simply uneducated; being untrained to feel the higher and more permanent pleasures of art, they grasp at any ephemeral work that offers an easy flattery of the lower elements of their nature, and swear there is nothing else. It may sound a bit paradoxical to reduce the rebellion against standards to so simple a matter as imperfect education, and indeed, that phrase does not tell the whole story. The merely uneducated man is likely to be indifferent to standards rather than actively hostile, or he may be a modest fellow who knows what he has missed, and would never think of raising his ignorance into a "cosmic footrule." There is a cause, a trait of character, behind the belligerence of ignorance. The belligerents themselves call it "irresponsibility of temperament" or the "spirit of romantic adventure," or may dignify it as a "philosophy of relativism"; but it has another name, which I rather hesitate to mention. In fact, I should not have courage to pronounce the invidious phrase at all, had it not been spoken long ago by those whose insight into human nature gave them the right to speak. Even Matthew Arnold, when he came to explain the common hostility to academic standards, thought it safer to take refuge behind a venerated authority, and quoted Spinoza's maxim that "the two great bans of humanity are self-conceit and the laziness coming from self-conceit"; and he might have appealed to a more ancient philosopher than Spinoza--to none other than Buddha, who also traced the origin of all evil, ethical and aesthetic, to this source. That, then, the spirit of indolence and conceit, is the animating cause behind the bitterness of those who proclaim against standards. It is the indolence, moral in some, intellectual in others, that revolts from such discipline as would enable a man to judge between the higher and the lower pleasure; it is the conceit that makes him cling tenaciously to his naked temperament as a better guide than the voice of tradition.[2] Standards there are, and all men judge by them; but there is a vast difference between the standards of education and those of a self-satisfied ignorance. Unfortunately, there is a theory abroad today, formulated and preached by a preposterous body of pedagogues, which professes to have found in this indolence and conceit the corner-stone of education. That is the new thing, so far as there is anything new, in the world today; not indolence and conceit, which are as ancient as humanity, but the philosophy which justifies them under the title of absolute relativism. That is the present disguise of the Demon as he stalks abroad, instilling his venom into the innocent critics of the press.
[1] Pretty much all the truth of Freudianism call be found in the Platonic and Stoic theory of dreams.

[2] Anatole France, for example, was highly educated intellectually, and as a matter of fact his critical judgments are generally sound and in conformity with the great tradition. But his philosophy of life was tainted with moral indolence; which betrays itself in his literary productions and to some extent in his critical standards.

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