Sunday, April 22, 2018

On Nature

She eludes us on every side; she repudiates most of our rules, and breaks our standards to pieces. On our right she sinks far beneath the level of our thoughts, on our left she towers mountain-high above them. She appears to be constantly blundering, no less in the world of her first experiments than in that of her last, of man. There she invests with her sanction the instincts of the obscure mass, the unconscious injustice of the multitude, the defeat of intelligence and virtue, the uninspired morality which urges on the great wave of the race, though manifestly inferior to the morality that could be conceived or desired by the minds composing the small and clearer wave that ascends the other. And yet, can such a mind be wrong if it ask itself the whole truth - moral truths, therefore, as well as non-moral - had not better be sought in this chaos than in itself, where these truths would seem comparatively clear and precise?

The man who feels thus will never attempt to deny the reason or virtue of his ideal, hallowed by so many heroes and sages; but there are times when he will whisper to himself that this ideal, perhaps, has been formed at too great a distance from the enormous mass whose diverse beauty it would fain represent. He has hitherto legitimately feared that the attempt to adapt his morality to that of Nature would risk the destruction of what was her masterpiece. But today he understands her a little better; and from some of her replies, which, though still vague, reveal an unexpected breadth, he has been enabled to seize a glimpse of a plan and an intellect vaster than could be conceived by his unaided imagination; wherefore he has grown less afraid, nor feels any longer the same imperious need of the refuge his own special virtue and reason afford him. He concludes that what is so great could surely teach nothing that would tend to lessen itself. He wonders whether the moment may not have arrived for submitting to a more judicious examination of his convictions, his principles, and his dreams.

Once more, he has not the slightest desire to abandon his human ideal. That even which at first diverts him from this ideal teaches him to return to it. It were impossible for Nature to give ill advice to a man who declines to include, in the great scheme he is endeavoring to grasp, and declines to regard as sufficiently lofty to be definitive, any truth that is not at least as lofty as the truth he himself desires. Nothing shifts its place in his life save only to rise with him; and he knows he is rising when he finds himself drawing near to his ancient image of good. But all things transform themselves more freely in his thoughts; and, in his passionate contemplation, he may with impunity probe so far as to value the most cruel, most immoral contradictions of life as highly as its virtues; for he has the presentiment that valley after valley will lead him to the tableland of his dreams. Nor will this love, this contemplation, hinder him, while seeking conviction, from directing his conduct by the most humanly beautiful truth, and clinging to the one that provisionally seems to be highest, even though his researches lead him to the very reverse of what he loves. All that may add to beneficent virtue enters his heart at once; all that would tend to lessen it remaining there in suspense, like insoluble salts that change not till the hour for decisive experiment. He may accept an inferior truth, but before he will act in accordance therewith he will wait, if need be for centuries, until he perceive the connection this truth must possess with truths so infinite as to include and surpass all others.

In a word, he divides the moral from the intellectual order, admitting in the former that only which is greater and more beautiful than was there before. And blameworthy as it may be to separate the two orders in cases, only too frequent in life, where we suffer our conduct to be inferior to our thoughts, where, seeing the good, we follow the worse; to see the worse and follow the better, to raise our actions high over our idea, must ever be reasonable and salutary; for human experience renders it daily more clear that the highest thought we can attain will long be inferior still to the mysterious truth we seek. Moreover, should nothing of what goes before be true, a reason more simple and more familiar would counsel him not yet to abandon his human ideal. For the more strength he accords to the laws which would seem to set egoism, injustice, and cruelty as examples for men to follow, the more strength does he at the same time confer on the others that ordain generosity, justice, and pity; and these last laws are found to contain something as profoundly natural as the first the moment he begins to equalise, or allot more methodically, the share he attributes to the universe and to himself.

Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, Part 5, Chapter 5

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