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The Connection between Self-denial
THE ABUSE OF THE WORLD.
“ Man shall not live by bread alone.”—MATTHEW iv. 4.
THERE are two opposite mistakes, as it seems
1 to me, regarding pleasure, into which men frequently fall. Some look upon it as ignoble and degrading, and believe that the invariable rejection of it is the only proof of wisdom. Others think that it is the sole end of life, and that there is nothing which can ever be legitimately valued higher. In the previous sermon we noticed the first of these views, and we saw, I think, that it was not the doctrine of Christ. “The Son of man came eating and drinking.” We saw that our great Exemplar never avoided what was agreeable, merely because it was pleasant, and that He did not require His disciples to eradicate the sensuous elements of their being. In the present discourse I want to direct your attention to the other side of the subject,—to the fact that “man shall not live by bread alone.” Our sensuous nature is not the whole of our being; it is but a part, but the lowest part. Pleasure is but one element, and that a comparatively unimportant element, in our complex human life. For complete self-development it is necessary that we regard our nature as a whole, and estimate its various elements at their proper worth.
“What is a man,
Be but to sleep and feed ? A beast, no more.” A beast can be satisfied with a succession of momentary pleasures. Its life is identical with, and lost in, its passing experiences. It has no selfconsciousness which survives them, and which can think of itself apart from them. Hence for the animal rest and peace are within easy reach. A man, on the other hand, knows that he is more than his desires and passions, that there is something in him which underlies and remains beyond all isolated enjoyments, — something which no amount of sensuous gratification can ever satisfy or fulfil. He is “a being of a large discourse, looking before and after.” He is obliged to bring his varied experiences together, and regard them as making up a continuous history; and this history he is constrained to compare with an ideal history, presented to him by reason and conscience,—an ideal history of what he ought to be. Hence rest and peace seem for ever to eludè man's grasp. “Our very wishes,” we are constantly compelled to say, “ give us not our wish.” But this wretchedness is a most striking proof of greatness. The higher elements in our nature are the cause of a divine discontent. There is a contradiction, a rivalry, an antagonism, between the nobler and the less noble elements of our being; and unless this contradiction be satisfactorily solved, unless this rivalry and antagonism be put an end to, we shall be harassed by the painful consciousness that our life is a deplorable failure.
Some have tried, as we have already seen, to bring the conflict to a conclusion by getting rid altogether of the lower elements: they have attempted to eradicate desire, to extinguish instinct, to suppress and annihilate the bodily nature. This mistake, as Principal Caird says, is not unnatural. “If the spiritual self is essentially greater than the lower tendencies, why should it not exist without them? If desire and passion drag me down from my ideal life, why should I not escape from their thraldom,” and live as if I were a disembodied spirit ? “Snap the ties that bind me to the satisfactions of the moment, that absorb me in the transient and perishable, and will not my spirit gain at a bound its proper sphere? But the ties cannot be snapped, and even if they could, the end proposed would not be gained. The violent selfdiremption at which the ascetic aims can never be effected; and if it could, it would be, not the fulfilment, but the extinction of a moral life. In our self-development the lower natural tendencies have an indispensable part to play. Apart from them, the realisation of our ideal nature would be utterly impossible.” To live the best human life is to live, not without desires and enjoyments, but with duly regulated desires and enjoyments; it is to live, not out of the world, away from all temptations, but in the world, with its snares and pitfalls, avoiding its evil and choosing its good. Even if it were possible for a man to escape temptation by living the life of a hermit, he would not in that way achieve self-conquest, any more than a soldier could vanquish the enemy by flight. Even if it were possible for a man to eliminate the lower elements of his nature, he would not in that way make the other elements more perfect, any more than he could improve one-half of his body by cutting off the other half.
Some, however, with whom we are at present more specially concerned, have attempted to eliminate, not the lower elements of their being, but the higher. The sensualist tries to live in forgetfulness of the fact that he is a rational, moral, and spiritual being. Now, manifestly, it must lead to the most disastrous results, when the lower elements of a man's nature are treated as if they were the only, or at any rate the most important, elements. The soul of the sensualist is like a State in which the ignorant, vulgar and stupid mob has usurped the reins of government, and is proceeding to destroy everything better than itself. Enjoyment, which is the proper satisfaction for the sensuous part of our being, is no satisfaction at all for the mind and heart and spirit. The unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted to pleasure may be proved not only by abstract considerations, but by the fact that those who have lived in this fashion