« PreviousContinue »
An Englishman has his place in family life, in a locality, in a political system. When he speculates, he never suffers himself to leave the limits of the social sphere. He is content to accept the results of experience, by the acceptance of which practical statesmanship is made possible in a free country. He refers all propositions to the standard of what English institutions will admit. His notions of love and marriage are subordinated to his conception of the exigencies of family life. He wants a religion that will practically work, which real bishops can expound to real public meetings, which will suit the man who desires to be left alone in the bosom of his family, and yet join with his neighbours in occasions of sacred solemnity. But on the Continent there is a large number of persons, especially among those eminent in literature, of whom we may say that each individual seems left to himself. The first principles of every thing are debatable ground to him. He receives aid neither from State nor Church. All that he has to do is to shape his own particular career by reason, by sympathies, by submitting to the teaching of events, by trusting to the protection of that vaguest of deities, le bon Dieu. We cannot abandon our own position, or admit for an instant that things which we fully believe are morally wrong in themselves cease to be wrong because foreigners choose to make light of them. But if we wish to comprehend rather than to condemn, our best road is, by the exercise of what imagination we possess, to throw ourselves into the position assumed by those whom we are criticising, and divesting ourselves of every thing in society and established institutions which shackles or assists us, look on human life with the eyes of a man who has nothing to trust to but the play of his own feelings, the whispers of his own conscience, and the dictates of his own reason.
It is not easy to do this; and after our most honest efforts to understand them, French novels, the most characteristic expression of what we refer to, will remain very different compositions from any that we can fancy ourselves or any of our countrymen to have written. And no writer is at once more typical and more incomprehensible than George Sand. To all the difficulties implied in the fact that she is a French writer of the nineteenth century, we must add those implied in the fact that she is a woman, and what is more, a woman with a philosophical turn of mind. We have no English writer at all resembling her; but we know enough of philosophical ladies generally, to be aware that it requires considerable nicety of perception to distinguish the exact point on which they are speaking, and the precise object which they have in view. Sometimes, in reading George Sand, we might fancy that she had shaped
out a definite system of life and morals for herself, sufficiently ascertained to command her own belief and to become the topic of persuasion to others. Sometimes it seems as if she must be writing for mere writing's sake, meaning nothing, believing nothing, wishing nothing. As a general result, we see that she is possessed with one or two leading ideas. She thinks the world of modern society decidedly wrong on at least two distinct points. Her opinion is clear against the conventional system of marriages, and the established relations of the rich and poor. But when we ask with what she wishes to replace them, we are at sea; we are lost in the beautiful but obscure language of feminine philosophy.
But a person may be vague in thought and language, and yet have a great deal to say, and exercise a great influence by saying it. Every century has stirring within its breast a number of feelings dimly felt, of aspirations imperfectly understood, of desires faintly expressed. It is possible that a writer may acquire a great power by giving utterance to these first flutterings of thought and hope, and may be all the more successful because the utterance has an appropriate feebleness and indistinctness. There is a wide and very vague feeling afloat in the present day that some classes, though it is not known exactly which, have not the fair chance in the world that they ought to have. There is a sort of readiness to take up the cause of sinners, a distrust of respectability, a recoil from the worship of success. Something large and noble seems within the grasp of mortals, if their fellow-men did not step in the way. It is difficult to say that either women or the poor find this the best of all possible worlds. In England, when such a thought arises, we test it by the standard of social institutions. We think whether society does not demand a subordination of sex and rank, and strive to hit on the principles by which this subordination should be regulated and modified. But in a country where problems of thought and morals exist for the individual rather than for society, it is natural to give vent to the sense of injustice without any calculations of expediency, and to believe that there is in man at large that power of quick and radical change which the individual fancies he can recognise in himself. George Sand is one of the prophets who take up this parable, and she has a large number of votaries to sympathise with her.
To this, her primary attraction, she adds others of a secondary but powerful nature. She has a true and a wide appreciation of beauty, a constant command of rich and glowing language, and a considerable faculty of self-analysis and self-reflection. And no one could possess more completely the charm of unreserve. What she thinks she says, without
cloaks or commands crime, or outrages fundamental morality, or offers an insuperable obstacle to the progress of necessary civilisation. We cannot suffer infanticide to be practised, or human sacrifices to be offered, or electric telegraphs to be forbidden or destroyed, in the name of any god, or in deference to the prejudices of any sect; but apart from such matters, we are bound to let every religion have perfect freedom of worship and of action. As to questions of decency, we must bear in mind that these are to a great extent conventional; and that the ideas of purity and impurity are very different in the European and the Asiatic mind. As to questions of proselytism, our course seems very clear. We should allow full liberty of preaching to Brahmin, Mussulman, or Christian missionary; but sternly refuse to employ or to permit the slightest exercise of influence, whether by favour or disfavour.
And first, let us do full justice to the tenacious grasp which religious feelings, such as they are, hold over the native mind. Their faith shames ours. The creed of the Hindoos is a filthy and degrading superstition, indicating a low intelligence, breathing a low morality; but such as it is, they believe it, cling to it, and obey its ordinances, with an undoubting conviction and a simple devotion, which we, the pupils of a better teaching and the votaries of a nobler creed, may indeed envy, and should do well to imitate. If there had been any reason for questioning this, the whole details of the mutiny would suffice to prove it. Of all the thousands of natives who have been shot, hung, or blown from guns, for their share in the revolt and its attendant crimes, not one has entertained the faintest shadow of a doubt that he was dying for (deen) his religion, and would go straight to paradise: scarcely one has flinched, or prayed for mercy; all have believed that they were martyrs and certain of the martyr's crown. For fanaticism so genuine and so deep as theirs death has no terrors. Such fanaticism it is at once unsafe and foolish to provoke. It can be conquered by no violence, and can be undermined only by the slow process of indirect enlightenment. People in England find it hard to believe that the greased cartridge was really the immediate cause of the revolt. People in India know better. They are well aware that while ambition and intrigue are ever at work to arouse and turn to use the religious excitability of the Hindoo, that excitability is a permanent and a most formidable reality. How such a wide-spread and sudden panic should have arisen from so slight a cause, the following remarks by "Indophilus" may serve to explain:
"Hindooism and Mahometanism, especially the former, are religions not of rational conviction, but of meats and drinks and outward observances. The religion of a Hindoo may therefore be taken away'
from him by force or craft, without any voluntary action on his part. There are large communities of Mahometans in India whose ancestors were Hindoos; and if you inquire into their religious history, they tell you that Aurungzebe, or some other potentate, made them' Mahometans. The process was a very simple one. Their Hindooism was put off by Mahometans eating with them; their Mahometanism was put on by the symbol of admission to the faith which the Mahometans have in common with the Jews. Pouring cow's blood down the throat was reserved for special cases of recusancy. On the other hand, the unclean beast is the abomination of the Mahometans as of the Jews; and the feeling is heightened by the associations of caste which the Mahometan minority in India have contracted from the Hindoo majority. To bite a cartridge greased with cow's or pig's fat was, therefore, more to Hindoos and Mahometans than eating pork to a Jew, spitting on the Host to a Roman Catholic, or trampling on the Cross to a Protestant."
In saying that we must scrupulously abstain from outraging the religious or caste notions of the natives, when not compelled to do so by paramount considerations of public morality or public safety, we by no means wish to insinuate that we have been in the habit of offending in this manner. On the contrary, in former times we have erred in the opposite extreme. We have deferred too much and too degradingly to native superstitions. We have done dishonour to our own faith; and, as might be anticipated, have gained no credit by so doing. Europeans very generally give to Asiatics the impression that they are an irreligious race; and, compared with themselves, there is some truth in the belief. It is true that our religion, like our nature, is less demonstrative and more retiring-more sacred, and therefore more bidden-than that of Orientals, and that we have a great deal more faith and feeling on these subjects than we care to show; but it must be admitted that, as a rule, our religion is both less pervading, less intense, less firmly held, less proudly and openly avowed, than that of Eastern nations. Now to an ordinary Asiatic, the apparent want of religion in his European masters excites both amazement and disgust. Of real liberality in such matters they have little comprehension; and the deference which of yore we paid to their idolatry they interpreted into indifference to our own creed. It is important that in future our conduct should be such as systematically to correct this delusion. All unworthy compliances, all countenance to idolatrous ceremonies, should be (as, indeed, we believe they are) consistently avoided and forbidden. We should act as men who, while willing to respect and tolerate the religious convictions of a "weaker brother" and a fellow-citizen of equal rights, yet feel the immeasurable superiority of our own assured belief. Thus only shall
we secure their respect to our character and our faith:-grave deference to their childish etiquettes, offerings and concessions to their nasty shrines, excite only contempt; they see through the hollow sham, and despise the unmanly nonsense.
Then as to missionary efforts: it is a great mistake to fancy that the natives of Hindostan, especially the more intelligent among them, look with any dread or dislike upon our well-meant attempts at their conversion-using that word, in its proper and European sense, to signify change of conviction by argument and persuasion. What they fear is, not preaching, but government influence and force. Religious controversy they rather enjoy; they have a decided pleasure in gravelling the holy men who come out to instruct and convince them; they are amused at their impotent benevolence, and feel, or fancy, that they are more than a match for nine-tenths of the missionary body. If there were any doubt on this head, it would be removed by a very remarkable speech delivered by a cultivated Hindoo at a meeting of a native association at Calcutta, who, in commenting on Lord Ellenborough's attack upon the governor-general for having subscribed to missionary efforts, declared that, while they respected the missionaries much, they had not the slightest fear of them, nor objection to the utmost latitude of speech which could be given them, so long as Lord Canning in his official capacity lent them no sinister aid. It would be monstrous indeed, if, while we allowed the Mussulman and the Hindoo priest to preach, and convert, and proselytise at pleasure, we were to deny a similar right to the priest of our own religion. It could not be done; it ought not to be done; it need not be done. We have no idea that missionaries will do any harm in India; neither have we any idea that they will do much good. By exhibiting examples of a pure life, and by disseminating useful information around them, they may, indeed, be indirectly serviceable to the cause of morality and truth. But in the matter of conversion-i. e. of inducing the natives to abandon Hindooism and embrace Christianity-we do not anticipate, nor, to say the truth, do we much desire, any very rapid result from their exertions. It is time to speak plainly on this subject. Nations may be spiritually and intellectually elevated out of heathenism and savage ignorant atheism; but in general only by the slowest and most circuitous process can one elaborate form of religion be substituted for another long established and rooted in all the popular feelings and traditions. Among a civilised people, those who are willing to exchange the faith of their forefathers for that of strangers are usually the very dregs of the population. This is notoriously the case in Hindostan. Those who by moral or intellectual reasoning and research become convinced of the error