The Three Gods of Man
Irish Theosophist, July, 1897
Who could live, who could breath, if the heart of Being were not Joy.
It is a shallow age, this century of ours: a bushel of words to a grain of thought, and that no such deep one, after all, How well we know how to look down on other times, and point to our own superiorities, as the living dog to the lion dead.
Hear us talk of how other men worshipped God, dissecting their souls to adorn our pages; making the ignominy of some old divinity our academic ornament. These and those savage, we say, bowed down to sticks and stones; while those others were deluded into reverencing some sacred hill, and one pitiable tribe thought there was something divine in storm and sunshine, or even in the earth’s green mantle and the forest trees. And so we, who have never known an hour of honest reverence in our lives, make a mock of these dead men, who must have been low indeed were they not better than ourselves; and so we find in faded faiths, as in all things else, a confirmation for our favourite mood of smug self-gratulation. We are the people, and wisdom will die with us—it is to be hoped, at least, that that kind of wisdom will.
If we were just a little less self-satisfied, and were disposed to see a little deeper into these things, we might come to learn that there have been many faiths upon the earth, though but one Faith; and that among them all, the lowest, basest, and least honourable to our humanity is the faith we ourselves practically hold, whatever we may say of our great ideals, we talk of savages and their beliefs, and say: This and this were the errors of primitive man, what the first shining races of our kind did worship, would probably fail to find room within our narrow minds and limp imaginations at all; and even the thought of the worshipping savage often eludes us—and not always because that thought is too low.
We are always ready to take forms and outward masks for realities; to lose sight of thoughts in their expressions, were it not so, we should have sooner seen that the one thing all of us sincerely worship, whether savage or civilized, is power; whatever outward appearance that power may take. I find it hard to believe that there were any such savages as our books of science tell us, who worshipped the weather; who really adored rain-clouds and wreaths of mist, the grey of the dawning, and the purple dome over all; they may have delighted in these things, with a sincere gaiety which would be riches to us; but what they worshipped was not that beautiful face of things, smiling or stern, but power, the power of the world underneath it. And their practical aim in life was to keep on the sheltered side of that power; to be where broken rocks fell not, and floods broke not; but, above all, their worship was winged exultation in it all, such as we ourselves felt in those young years when we lived over again our own days of long ago.
And when, by what we call a progress, though we might well call it a fall, men came to dwell in cities, and no more in the wide, free air; when they learnt the arts of putting into other things the powers they should have kept within themselves, they still worshipped power, but no longer in the same exultant and clear-eyed way. All their arts and dwellings were so many contrivances to keep away and outwit the power of the world; they built walls between them and the sun and wind; they shut out nature, in order to discover man.
Then they began to worship their second god; and the reality of it, whatever its name, was the power of man. For the earlier stages of these worshippers the tribe or race or clan was the whole of man; all, at least, that they could get within their sympathies, And everyone outside the tribe was the enemy; something to be guarded against, as they had guarded formerly against flood and storm, falling rocks and inundations. Each man no longer lived for himself in nature, but for the tribe, the race, the whole of mankind whom he could understand and feel for; so much of universal brotherhood as his imagination could permit. And, had the world run smoothly, we should have come, along that path, to a true universal brotherhood; a happy family of man upon this earth. But things did not run smoothly, and there is little prospect that they will for some time yet, For mankind, that is to say, we ourselves, fell from that not ungracious social religion to one of individualism, where each man worships his amiable self, That god of self-complacency I will not include among the three divinities, though he has, indeed, received more genuine service and more rapt devotion than any other in these latter days, and especially in this century of ours; and I suspect that he has still a considerable lease of popularity to run.
Our own self-complacency is the true god of our lives, whether we call our pursuit commerce, or politics, or whatever it be; and the same cynical divinity is not quite unwont to wear such revered masks as science or art. There are men, in these latter days, who love truth and beauty for love of beauty and truth: there are also some who love these things for the sake of names on title-pages, and for a place in the catalogues of the devotees of the pure sublime. And the follower of wealth may exist, though we have not so far found great reason to believe it, who prosecutes his task from a sheer and disinterested love of the precious metals and their admired molecular structure, capacity of reflecting light, hardness, brittleness, and so on. But, on the other hand, we do know, and sincerely believe in, the seeker for wealth who lays himself out from the beginning to capture his own genuine admiration—and finds the task a harder one than he imagined. He gathers stocks and shares not for love of them; he builds him houses, not as an offering to the arts of form; he founds a family, not from sheer affection for young human animals; but indeed does all these things that he may say: I am Somewhat! I indeed am a Man!
The poets have given up the theme of love-making, in these our self-conscious days, so I may say, without fear of incurring their displeasure, that even love-making itself is not so free from that god, self-complacency, and his worship, as one might wish to believe. It is sardonic to say: but two young people, gazing into each other’s eyes, see the image there, not of the beloved, but of themselves. It is so nice to feel that one is nice enough to be the chosen of so nice a person. There is wisdom in the saying that such and such a maiden has won an admirer, rather than a lover. And I do not believe that the use of the looking-glass is confined to one sex; in this, at least, the gods are good.
Well, after a while people grow weary of this, and cry themselves out of it, saying they are very miserable. They are, in many senses, still one would rather see them laugh themselves into wisdom. It would be more likely to last. Then they may come, in a happy mood, to worship the last and highest of the powers: the power of life, of the eternal.
That august divinity it was that stood behind the first of our three gods, the power of the world; and it was the joy, lying at the heart of that, that kindled delight in the rainbow’s jewels, the shining feathers of the sun, as he scatters the soft clouds; it was that joy that made our life in nature glad and strong, and death even an exultant thing, with a heart of joy. And in our stiffer and more stilted city life there was a gladness too; the honour of the tribe, the service of our land, were good and pleasant things: though never, I think, full of such self-abandonment of bliss as the naked savage could draw from the cool wave breaking over him, or the keen wind around his body. These earliest days were the days of our delight.
We, who have made all things sentimental, are en r ready to sympathize with the hardships of the wild, open-air dweller, the fighting patriot, the servant of his land; I think it is safer for us, the sympathizers, that these robust folk are dead, else, I suspect, they might resent our tears. We are so certain that we ourselves are miserable—and this, as I have said, with justest cause—that we cannot believe but that others were poor apologetic people too, sad while they lived, and sorry when they died.
The end comes, even of our misery, and we pass under the third and greatest of the gods—the power of the eternal. Of the passing to that new allegiance, and the new things that come to us under it, we shall speak another time.