Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Scribes and Pharisees*


 

There is a very interesting, though little known, work, by Count Tolstoi, which he calls True Life. An English adaptation of it was issued some time ago by Mr. Bolton Hall, in a volume with some of his own admirable revolutionary fables. In this book Tolstoi discriminates two sorts of false teachers among the men of thought, whom he calls Scribes and Pharisees.

"You and I live for our own good, each of us seeks for the conditions which will makes us happy, for we cannot imagine life without the desire for happiness. We find, however, that all persons also live for their own particular good, which they, too, think will bring happiness to themselves, and they believe that this good of theirs requires the sacrifice of your desires and mine. For the sake of such good and for their own petty happiness, living beings are willing to deprive other beings of greater happiness and even of life itself so that every one is always contending against hosts of others."

We learn, however, that this struggle for material and present welfare is never crowned with happiness; that happiness itself never comes to those who strive for it. It is not that which can be owned or bought. In this dilemma, there are and always have been some teachers who persuade man that happiness and prosperity are synonymous; that an apparent life is the only one; and that the insane and beautiful doctrines of the saints are false. Science, they say, is the only wisdom. There is no other life than this, here and now. Struggle is man's province; and what he can win by war is his only possible gain or good. These are the Scribes.

There are others, on the contrary, the Christian pessimists. Tolstoi calls them, who differ from the scientists only in removing the end of man's struggle to a future life; they make the pursuit of happiness, however, just as selfish as the Scribes. They are the formalist, the blind who think the truth resides with them; they console themselves for the loss of the good things of this world by promise of infinite happiness in a world to come. These are the Pharisees.

The truth, and therefore the secret, of happiness is possessed by neither of these sects. It is only the great religious teachers, says Tolstoi, who have seen how happiness lies in renunciation, and is a present immediate result of that act. "True happiness cannot consist in seeking our own good, nor, even unconsciously in trading off our work intended by us to do good to others for their work designed by them to do good to us. Nor is such selfishness as this really natural at all. In truth, to sacrifice the happiness of others and to sacrifice our own desires for the good of others is as natural to uncorrupted men as it is for an animal to sacrifice its life in defending its young. Such is the gospel of all great religious teachers."

In the elaboration of this theme Tolstoi has many wise and suggestive things to say, driving his argument home. "To those who do not understand life the chief cause of this fear lies in the fact that what they regard as pleasures (all gratifications of a rich life) are of such a nature that they cannot be shared equally by all men; they must, therefore, be taken from others; must be obtained by force, by evil, by destroying the possibility of that kindly inclination toward people which is the root of love. That kind of pleasure is always directly opposed to love, and the more intense it is, the more it is opposed to love. So that the more intense the activity for the attainment of pleasure, the more impossible becomes the only happiness accessible to men, which is love."

I think it is not true, at least it is not self evident, that "the gratifications of a rich life are of such a nature that they cannot be shared equally by all men;" but it is certainly true that our pursuit of them is death to the finest instincts and emotions of which we are capable. And many of the direst enemies of this finest life are the Scribes of Commercialism and the Pharisees of instituted religions. We have more than once heard of chairs of political science being inspired by the millionaire who founded them-and once were too often in a country professing to be free. And as for the churches anything seldom that one of them teaches anything better than a convenient compromise between God and Mamman,-a comfortable easychair Christianity, the veriest travesty of its Founder's teachings. And yet it is undoubtedly a part of a true life to preserve a measure of toleration even for the charlatan and the bigot. They can at least furnish us with food for merriment, in their incongruous consequential figures, professing such humility, exhibiting such arrogance. Opposed to the Scribes and Pharisees, you may have not only the great and faithful few, the masters and sustainers of the spiritual life, the seers and prophets, but the loving skeptics as well. There is more virtue in a devout agnosticism than in most of our smug professional churchianity (as it has been well named). And if we cannot be intense and fiery upholders of righteousness, let us be gentle free believers. The large, slow smiling certitude of indifference,-I fancy there may be much salvation there, particularly for our for our feverish modern mercurial selves.


"Scribes and Pharisees," Commercial Advertiser, Apr. 22, 1899 [back]