Anent The Decalogue by Dora Marsden

1845-1945, Dora Marsden, The Egoist 1914 / Wednesday, February 21st, 2018
Originally published in The Egoist: No. 5, Vol. 1, on March 2nd 1914.

Anent The Decalogue
by Dora Marsden

PERHAPS the most striking illustration of the unquestioning habit of mind common to us all is the tone in which we use the word “immoral.” Actions may be all things else and be tolerated, but if they are voted “immoral” their case is closed: they are damned, though most of us would need to be hard-pressed before we were able to say why. For obviously all that is said when one says “immoral” is “not-customary.” It is informing to note moreover that while not-customary conduct is to be damned, it in nowise follows that its positive opposite is to be blessed. People are not prepared to admire enthusiastically “customary conduct”: they have in fact no very high opinion of it: why then the working up of fierce indignation at the prospect of its contrary? That the “faithful” have been aware of the difficulty is shown by the extensive searches they have made to find the justification of “moral” conduct both as to foundations and superstructure: what inquiry into the Fundamentals of Ethics has shown to be missing the Metaphysics of Morals has attempted to make good. Indeed to enjoy the spectacle of human beings indulging in the full tide of talk in their least graceful moments one must turn to them when they are presenting the “philosophy” of morals. On no other occasions do they twist, shift and cant with so little effect of grace. And they are still hard at it and still stick at nothing. If moral conduct does not suit men, then change the men. The latest Defender of the Sacred, Eucken, unconsciously puts their case neatly. He says:

Before all else the natural world keeps man bound down to the mere ego; it becomes clearly visible that, as compared with the strength of the mere man, something impossible is being demanded. Therefore man must become something more than mere man. The original affirmation has become intolerable, but out of the negation has arisen a new affirmation. Here are great demands and great upheavels, gigantic tides of life sweeping men along and transforming them . . . . an inner infinitude becomes increasingly manifest. If anything can show us that our life is not a matter of indifference, that in it something significant takes place, it is morality that can do it.

“Moral” conduct is, as its name implies, “customary” conduct. Its advantages are the advantages of all repetitive action which is facile and foreseeable because habituated. Moral conduct is mechanised conduct and possesses all the advantages of mechanical reliability. It fits almost perfectly on to the routineer. Its disadvantages are the same: it plays havoc when it comes into contact with the new and unexpected: meets the unobserved factor which was not taken account of in blocking out the moral plan. To fit properly, moral conduct would need to be the activity of a “living automaton”-of a combination of forces which are denials of each other. It is the conjoining of these two contradictions which enables men to construct “tragedy.” The recipe for the production of a Tragedy, i.e. a play upon a simulated Terror, is as follows: A collection of living beings with an appetite for experience, adventurous therefore; a recognition of a species of conduct customary to the people to which the special collection belongs (what species of course being quite immaterial); lastly a “respect” for the second in the “intellect” of the first. These three ingredients mixed well together will account for any of the “great tragedies” known to men. Every “tragedy” has a “problem”: playwrights spin their brains to shreds to concoct one: a new “problem” will win fame for any playwright: so anxious are men to enjoy the sensation of mock Terror: the so-called purgation through pity and horror. To understand the fascination of “Tragedy” it is necessary to realise that all Tragedy is melodrama, that is: actual living judged by a “concept” of living. It is worked by dint of an acceptance of the hoisting of a sky-scape, a canvas stretched across the mental heavens whereon is painted the moral scheme to which the herd below make effort to comport themselves. The “tragedy” is achieved by concentrating attention on the movements of those who being the least herdlike venture to ignore the sky-scape in order to follow their own bent for experience, thereby inviting the onslaughts of the terror-stricken herd. If the playwright can make it look feasible for the “hero” himself to participate in the herd’s horror at his “sacrilege” the chances of success are heightened, the “heinous” effect of the situation upon which the “Terror” of the tragedy depends thereby having been increased.

The effect of tragedy on an appreciative audience appears to be a subconscious one. Of a certainty its effect is not what Aristotle said was the function of these representations of woes of heroes-“to purge the mind by pity and terror of these and similar emotions.” The unconscious effect of tragedy is to reveal as the slang phrase has it “the greatness of man” as against the cobweb-like mesh of “thoughts” to which men lend the moulding of their actions as an affair of sport and make believe. Melodrama purges terror of its basis of terror: as the turning up of a light in a dark room at once makes an object which in the half-light looked fearsome and strange, obvious and harmless. Those most swayed by concepts relish “tragedy” most. They enjoy it because subconsciously they are ceasing to respect the reality of the concepts which are the making of it. Melodrama because it displays in so garish a light the nature of “morals” is the subtlest sapping of the framework it is built on: which accounts for the unfriendliness of advocates of the sacred for this attractive but too destructively bright exhibition of their holy ghosts-the moral concepts. The churches for instance cannot be friendly towards drama: half-tones are among the foremost of the churches’ exigences. So too, it is obvious that the arch-conceptualist, Plato, must demand the rigorous suppression of tragedy in his model republic.

It is clear that the one emotion which the moralists cannot afford to permit to weaken is: Fear. (They would call it reverence, but no matter.) Whatever strengthens human fear is to them the basis of “good”: because “Fear” is disintegrating, and throws its owner in submission on to the breast of any and every concept which is thrust forward and called “salvation.” The moralists exploit and play upon the feeling of smallness and loneliness which is the first outcome of that sense of isolation and separateness which is called self-consciousness. It is because men are in the first place lonely and afraid, that the feebler sort move in herds and act alike: hence the growth of “customary” action: moral action. The outcry against the “immoral,” i.e. the unusual, is the expression of distress of the timid in the presence of the innovation. It is the instinct which feels there is safety with the crowd and danger as well as loneliness in adventuring individually which puts the poignant note into the epithet “immoral.” To be “immoral” is to be on precisely the same level as the unconventional and the unfashionable: that and no more.

Although “morals,” i.e. the collective term applied to automatised action, are based on the all too-commonly observable phenomenon that the actions of herds at a given time run to one pattern, in the course of time it is a patent fact that certain influences acting on the herds tend to change the pattern. “Fashions” give the best illustration of how “morals” change. When crinolines for instance are “in,” all women wear crinolines; when they are “out,” to wear a crinoline would be a mild scandal, but something else is “in,” and all women like sheep are approximating to that. So with “morals.” They change but when they do the herd changes with them as by a common impulse. It is therefore only on account of the little extravagances of the rhetoricians-who will do many things to come by a good sounding mouthful-that we hear talk of “the changeless law of morality.” Morals are fashions in conduct that are constantly changing: but change as they will they will find their faithful attendant crowd of timorous and ineffectuals. The strong and alert are never moral: when they appear upon occasion to be so, it is by mere coincidence. It is the realisation of this fact that they are catering only for the needs of the feeble which puts zest into the ambitions of great “founders,” “leaders,” “teachers.” They can lay down precepts fit for followers with easy minds because it is only the born followers that will follow. So each new “leader” has his “precept” for the guidance of the faithful: the “pattern” according to which they must work. Each “New Dispensation” has its “law,” and it would be a pity to leave the precepts of the decalogue without turning over the commandment of the newest dispensation which in a curiously odd way has worked itself haphazard in and among the pattern of the older which still verbally holds good.

The commandment “Love one another” is an advance in subtlety as compared with the injunctions it was intended to supersede. It is an attempt to establish an intra-conscious police in the shape of Conscience. It is what the Webbs for instance would call a move in the direction of “efficiency in administration,” as the spy-system is more “efficient” than an ordinary police-system. More efficient because more intimate, and more effective because it is easy to control actions once feeling has been surrendered under control. The favour with which the command to “Love one another” was received is evidence of the strength of the desire for neighbourly espionage and democratic control of “each by all” of which all modern legislation is but the grotesque parody in action. (Now with democracy merely an infant, “loving one another” only mildly, we control each other in the realms of marrying, being born, housed, clothed, educated, fed and similar minor matters only. When all “Love one another” with zeal our inter-neighbourly control will begin to show something of what it can be.)

It is therefore quite clear what motives of economy would operate in the point of view of “Authority” in substituting “compulsory love” for “compulsory circumspect behaviour” such as the decalogue enjoins. If only universal “loving” could be made the fashionable habit, the supreme “moral,” how easy the work of “leaders” would be. When individuals love one another how easily they work together: how they appear successful in overcoming the otherwise unmanageable ego. Then why not make love among the herd compulsory: and hey presto: the New Dispensation: the Christian era.

How grotesque a failure and how offensive, the pose of “love according to conscience” has been no one need pause to state with the history of two thousand years written before them. Of all the attitudes which men have struck in emulation of painted canvases which have been stretched across the heavens for their guidance, none has given such good cause for individualist contempt as this. As long as conceptualists in the interest of their large concepts press only thouggts into service, the strain is little felt. But “love” is not a thought. It is worthwhile, in face of revivalist efforts in the cult of love such as, for instance, in the “gospel” of Tolstoy, to consider what people seek in those aspects of love which are not “sex”: in the passionate friendships and tenderness of love: the wider emotional needs which have made their appearance with the intensification of “culture.” The irony of the efforts of the advocates of the new dispensation to press “love” into the service of the “moral concepts” is not immediately apparent. It is customary to regard “love” as the outcome of “culture” and therefore in some special way amenable to the service of culture. It has become too much a habit of speech with the “civilised” world, i.e. the moralised idea-ised world, to look on “love” as in some sort a means of “salvation,” to expect it to analyse why it does so. If it did men would realise that the explanation is the reverse of the current one, i.e. that love is the consummation of moralisatiom. It is in fact an effort to escape from it. The heavy incrustation of habitualised actions, i.e. morals, increases in tenacity as life goes on, forming a sort of hutch which is half shelter and half tomb. The taking on of its earlier incrustations is called “growing-up”: as they grow more obviously oppressive it is called “growing old.” To be “morally-minded” is to have lost the instinct which revolts against this walling-up of the changing spirit: revolts that is against either growing up or growing old. As most people are morally-minded the world is left with a tiny remnant of individuals of whom if we spoke of them in terms of time-measurement we should say ranged in age from two years to five: the people of genius and charm. The age of maturity, if we may put it like that, when all that we mean is the age at which the soul has made itself familiar with its new dwelling-place and is at its best, brightest, most inquiring and “true,” is from two years to five: not twenty-five or fifty-five as the moralist would like to pretend. From five onwards the browbeating process which is called moral education begins, and as we have said only spirits which are bigger and more resistant than their would-be instructors resist it and sand firm at their height of growth. The rest are slowly driven back by “culture” to the state of automatic living which was their pre-natal existence. The irony therefore of the moralists’ efforts to capture “love” in the interest of their already too successful canvases lies in this: that in seeking after the “tendencies” of love and the “understanding” of friendship the morally-bound indiviuals are seeking a refuge free from the attitudes which make them grown-up. Because they cannot appear what but for fear and a brow-beating education they would be: i.e. unashamedly children, they have tried to build a refuge in “love.” The tenderness of love or friendship (they are in fact the same thing) are the instinctive means which we seek for ourselves and offer to others, to enable us, in one relation at least to be unashamedly ourselves, very little removed from new born children. This is the reason why the efforts of those of the “love-cult” to “ennoble” love appear -and appear so particularly to the quite ordinary conventional person-so irredeemably damned. To introduce an attitude into a relation whose very existence is a revolt against attitudes is to snatch from the conventional what is literally his one means of salvation, and that none too certain. It is a sufficiently rare thing for one individual to meet another with enough native sympathy with him to encourage him to show “himself,” with all his weakness. It is inevitable that what we feel to be ourselves should in comparison with the harsh-set incrustations of our normal “moral” attitudes, appear “weak.” The fact is overlooked that as long as the “weak” thing is there, we are still alive: and that only when the genius in us has flickered out: when we have become one with the herd, do we feel strong in our moral worth.

It is natural that “love” should have attracted the attention of the most thoroughgoing types of moralists, the churchmen or such moralists as the feminine theorisers who call themselves oddly the Woman Movement. The more powerful the agent, the more admirable if pressed into their service. It is unfortunate-for them-that in all cases where “love” has been utilised to further a “system” it has turned and gnawed a yawning gap in the system. But that is part of another story. The fact remains that the chief value of the law of the New Dispensation “Love one another” has been to make evident to men that they will have to, willy nilly, dispense with all dispensations: that there exists for them no “grace” to be “dispensed” which they have not first called up from within themselves. And with the passing of the set manner of “dealing in grace” which is “dispensation,” there passes the ghostly basis of mechanised action: “duty” and “morality”; and men begin unashamedly to judge the quality of life by its flavour in actual living: by their own “taste” in regard to it, forming thereby their principle as to what they accept and what they reject in it, which is living by a “principle of taste”-a principle which is no principle. It is living according to personal desire: life according to whim: life without principle: the essentially immoral life.