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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER LVIII. A SOUL DISEASED.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald


|PAPA is very ill to-day, Simmons tells me,| said Davie, as Donal entered the schoolroom. |He says he has never seen him so ill. Oh, Mr. Grant, I hope he is not going to die!|

|I hope not,| returned Donal -- not very sure, he saw when he thought about it, what he meant; for if there was so little hope of his becoming a true man on this side of some awful doom, why should he hope for his life here?

|I wish you would talk to him as you do to me, Mr. Grant!| resumed Davie, who thought what had been good for himself must be good for everybody.

Of late the boy had been more than usual with his father, and he may have dropped some word that turned his father's thoughts toward Donal and his ways of thinking: however weak the earl's will, and however dull his conscience, his mind was far from being inactive. In the afternoon the butler brought a message that his lordship would be glad to see Mr. Grant when school was over.

Donal found the earl very weak, but more like a live man, he thought, than he had yet seen him. He pointed to a seat, and began to talk in a way that considerably astonished the tutor.

|Mr. Grant,| he began, with not a little formality, |I have known you long enough to believe I know you really. Now I find myself, partly from the peculiarity of my constitution, partly from the state of my health, partly from the fact that my views do not coincide with those of the church of Scotland, and there is no episcopal clergyman within reach of the castle -- I find myself, I say, for these reasons, desirous of some conversation with you, more for the sake of identifying my own opinions, than in the hope of receiving from you what it would be unreasonable to expect from one of your years.|

Donal held his peace; the very power of speech seemed taken from him: he had no confidence in the man, and nothing so quenches speech as lack of faith. But the earl had no idea of this distrust, never a doubt of his listener's readiness to take any position he required him to take. Experience had taught him as little about Donal as about his own real self.

|I have long been troubled,| continued his lordship after a momentary pause, |with a question of which one might think the world must by this time be weary -- which yet has, and always will have, extraordinary fascination for minds of a certain sort -- of which my own is one: it is the question of the freedom of the will: -- how far is the will free? or how far can it be called free, consistently with the notion of a God over all?|

He paused, and Donal sat silent -- so long that his lordship opened the eyes which, the better to enjoy the process of sentence-making, he had kept shut, and half turned his head towards him: he had begun to doubt whether he was really by his bedside, or but one of his many visions undistinguishable by him from realities. Re-assured by the glance, he resumed.

|I cannot, of course, expect from you such an exhaustive and formed opinion as from an older man who had made metaphysics his business, and acquainted himself with all that had been said upon the subject; at the same time you must have expended a considerable amount of thought on these matters!|

He talked in a quiet, level manner, almost without inflection, and with his eyes again closed -- very much as if he were reading a book inside him.

|I have had a good deal,| he went on, |to shake my belief in the common ideas on such points. -- Do you believe there is such a thing as free will?|

He ceased, awaiting the answer which Donal felt far from prepared to give him.

|My lord,| he said at length, |what I believe, I do not feel capable, at a moment's notice, of setting forth; neither do I think, however unavoidable such discussions may be in the forum of one's own thoughts, that they are profitable between men. I think such questions, if they are to be treated at all between man and man, and not between God and man only, had better be discussed in print, where what is said is in some measure fixed, and can with a glance be considered afresh. But not so either do I think they can be discussed to any profit.|

|What do you mean? Surely this question is of the first importance to humanity!|

|I grant it, my lord, if by humanity you mean the human individual. But my meaning is, that there are many questions, and this one, that can be tested better than argued.|

|You seem fond of paradox!|

|I will speak as directly as I can: such questions are to be answered only by the moral nature, which first and almost only they concern; and the moral nature operates in action, not discussion.|

|Do I not then,| said his lordship, the faintest shadow of indignation in his tone, |bring my moral nature to bear on a question which I consider from the ground of duty?|

|No, my lord,| answered Donal, with decision; |you bring nothing but your intellectual nature to bear on it so; the moral nature, I repeat, operates only in action. To come to the point in hand: the sole way for a man to know he has freedom is to do something he ought to do, which he would rather not do. He may strive to acquaint himself with the facts concerning will, and spend himself imagining its mode of working, yet all the time not know whether he has any will.|

|But how am I to put a force in operation, while I do not know whether I possess it or not?|

|By putting it in operation -- that alone; by being alive; by doing the next thing you ought to do, or abstaining from the next thing you are tempted to, knowing you ought not to do it. It sounds childish; and most people set action aside as what will do any time, and try first to settle questions which never can be settled but in just this divinely childish way. For not merely is it the only way in which a man can know whether he has a free will, but the man has in fact no will at all unless it comes into being in such action.|

|Suppose he found he had no will, for he could not do what he wished?|

|What he ought, I said, my lord.|

|Well, what he ought,| yielded the earl almost angrily.

|He could not find it proved that he had no faculty for generating a free will. He might indeed doubt it the more; but the positive only, not the negative, can be proved.|

|Where would be the satisfaction if he could only prove the one thing and not the other.|

|The truth alone can be proved, my lord; how should a lie be proved? The man that wanted to prove he had no freedom of will, would find no satisfaction from his test -- and the less the more honest he was; but the man anxious about the dignity of the nature given him, would find every needful satisfaction in the progress of his obedience.|

|How can there be free will where the first thing demanded for its existence or knowledge of itself is obedience?|

|There is no free will save in resisting what one would like, and doing what the Truth would have him do. It is true the man's liking and the truth may coincide, but therein he will not learn his freedom, though in such coincidence he will always thereafter find it, and in such coincidence alone, for freedom is harmony with the originating law of one's existence.|

|That's dreary doctrine.|

|My lord, I have spent no little time and thought on the subject, and the result is some sort of practical clearness to myself; but, were it possible, I should not care to make it clear to another save by persuading him to arrive at the same conviction by the same path -- that, namely, of doing the thing required of him.|

|Required of him by what?|

|By any one, any thing, any thought, with which can go the word required by -- anything that carries right in its demand. If a man does not do the thing which the very notion of a free will requires, what in earth, heaven, or hell, would be the use of his knowing all about the will? But it is impossible he should know anything.|

|You are a bold preacher!| said the earl. | -- Suppose now a man was unconscious of any ability to do the thing required of him?|

|I should say there was the more need he should do the thing.|

|That is nonsense.|

|If it be nonsense, the nonsense lies in the supposition that a man can be conscious of not possessing a power; he can only be not conscious of possessing it, and that is a very different thing. How is a power to be known but by being a power, and how is it to be a power but in its own exercise of itself? There is more in man than he can at any given moment be conscious of; there is life, the power of the eternal behind his consciousness, which only in action can he make his own; of which, therefore, only in action, that is obedience, can he become conscious, for then only is it his.|

|You are splitting a hair!|

|If the only way to life lay through a hair, what must you do but split it? The fact, however, is, that he who takes the live sphere of truth for a flat intellectual disc, may well take the disc's edge for a hair.|

|Come, come! how does all this apply to me -- a man who would really like to make up his mind about the thing, and is not at the moment aware of any very pressing duty that he is neglecting to do?|

|Is your lordship not aware of some not very pressing duty that you are neglecting to do? Some duties need but to be acknowledged by the smallest amount of action, to become paramount in their demands upon us.|

|That is the worst of it!| murmured the earl. |I refuse, I avoid such acknowledgment! Who knows whither it might carry me, or what it might not go on to demand of me!|

He spoke like one unaware that he spoke.

|Yes, my lord,| said Donal, |that is how most men treat the greatest things! The devil blinds us that he may guide us!|

|The devil! -- bah!| cried his lordship, glad to turn at right angles from the path of the conversation; |you don't surely believe in that legendary personage?|

|He who does what the devil would have him do, is the man who believes in him, not he who does not care whether he is or not, so long as he avoids doing his works. If there be such a one, his last thought must be to persuade men of his existence! He is a subject I do not care to discuss; he is not very interesting to me. But if your lordship now would but overcome the habit of depending on medicine, you would soon find out that you had a free will.|

His lordship scowled like a thunder-cloud.

|I am certain, my lord,| added Donal, |that the least question asked by the will itself, will bring an answer; a thousand asked by the intellect, will bring nothing.|

|I did not send for you to act the part of father confessor, Mr. Grant,| said his lordship, in a tone which rather perplexed Donal; |but as you have taken upon you the office, I may as well allow you keep it; the matter to which you refer, that of my medical treatment of myself, is precisely what has brought me into my present difficulty. It would be too long a story to tell you how, like poor Coleridge, I was first decoyed, then enticed from one stage to another; the desire to escape from pain is a natural instinct; and that, and the necessity also for escaping my past self, especially in its relations to certain others, have brought me by degrees into far too great a dependence on the use of drugs. And now that, from certain symptoms, I have ground to fear a change of some kind not so far off -- I do not of course mean to-morrow, or next year, but somewhere nearer than it was this time, I won't say last year, but say ten years ago -- why, then, one begins to think about things one has been too ready to forget. I suppose, however, if the will be a natural possession of the human being, and if a man should, through actions on the tissue of his brain, have ceased to be conscious of any will, it must return to him the moment he is free from the body, that is from the dilapidated brain!|

|My lord, I would not have you count too much upon that. We know very little about these things; but what if the brain give the opportunity for the action which is to result in freedom? What if there should, without the brain, be no means of working our liberty? What if we are here like birds in a cage, with wings, able to fly but not flying about the cage; and what if, when we are dead, we shall indeed be out of the cage, but without wings, having never made use of such as we had while we had them? Think for a moment what we should be without the senses!|

|We shall be able at least to see and hear, else where were the use of believing in another world?|

|I suspect, my lord, the other world does not need our believing in it to make a fact of it. But if a man were never to teach his soul to see, if he were obstinately to close his eyes upon this world, and look at nothing all the time he was in it, I should be very doubtful whether the mere fact of going a little more dead, would make him see. The soul never having learned to see, its sense of seeing, correspondent to and higher than that of the body, never having been developed, how should it expand and impower itself by mere deliverance from the one best schoolmaster to whom it would give no heed? The senses are, I suspect, only the husks under which are ripening the deeper, keener, better senses belonging to the next stage of our life; and so, my lord, I cannot think that, if the will has not been developed through the means and occasions given in, the mere passing into another condition will set it free. For freedom is the unclosing of the idea which lies at our root, and is the vital power of our existence. The rose is the freedom of the rose tree. I should think, having lost his brain, and got nothing instead, a man would find himself a mere centre of unanswerable questions.|

|You go too far for me,| said his lordship, looking a little uncomfortable, |but I think it is time to try and break myself a little of the habit -- or almost time. By degrees one might, you know, -- eh?|

|I have little faith in doing things by degrees, my lord -- except such indeed as by their very nature cannot be done at once. It is true a bad habit can only be contracted by degrees; and I will not say, because I do not know, whether anyone has ever cured himself of one by degrees; but it cannot be the best way. What is bad ought to be got rid of at once.|

|Ah, but, don't you know? that might cost you your life!|

|What of that, my lord! Life, the life you mean, is not the first thing.|

|Not the first thing! Why, the Bible says, 'All that a man hath will he give for his life'!|

|That is in the Bible; but whether the Bible says it, is another thing.|

|I do not understand silly distinctions.|

|Why, my lord, who said that?|

|What does it matter who said it?|

|Much always; everything sometimes.|

|Who said it then?|

|The devil.|

|The devil he did! And who ought to know better, I should like to ask!|

|Every man ought to know better. And besides, it is not what a man will or will not do, but what a man ought or ought not to do!|

|Ah, there you have me, I suppose! But there are some things so damned difficult, that a man must be very sure of his danger before he can bring himself to do them!|

|That may be, my lord: in the present case, however, you must be aware that the danger is not to the bodily health alone; these drugs undermine the moral nature as well!|

|I know it: I cannot be counted guilty of many things; they were done under the influence of hellish concoctions. It was not I, but these things working in me -- on my brain, making me see things in a false light! This will be taken into account when I come to be judged -- if there be such a thing as a day of judgment.|

|One thing I am sure of,| said Donal, |that your lordship will have fair play. At first, not quite knowing what you were about, you may not have been much to blame; but afterwards, when you knew that you were putting yourself in danger of doing you did not know what, you were as much to blame as if you made a Frankenstein-demon, and turned him loose on the earth, knowing yourself utterly unable to control him.|

|And is not that what the God you believe in does every day?|

|My lord, the God I believe in has not lost his control over either of us.|

|Then let him set the thing right! Why should we draw his plough?|

|He will set it right, my lord, -- but probably in a way your lordship will not like. He is compelled to do terrible things sometimes.|

|Compelled! -- what should compel him?|

|The love that is in him, the love that he is. He cannot let us have our own way to the ruin of everything in us he cares for!|

Then the spirit awoke in Donal -- or came upon him -- and he spoke.

|My lord,| he said, |if you would ever again be able to thank God; if there be one in the other world to whom you would go; if you would make up for any wrong you have ever done; if you would ever feel in your soul once more the innocence of a child; if you care to call God your father; if you would fall asleep in peace and wake to a new life; I conjure you to resist the devil, to give up the evil habit that is dragging you lower and lower every hour. It will be very hard, I know! Anything I can do, watching with you night and day, giving myself to help you, I am ready for. I will do all that lies in me to deliver you from the weariness and sickness of the endeavour. I will give my life to strengthen yours, and count it well spent and myself honoured: I shall then have lived a life worth living! Resolve, my lord -- in God's name resolve at once to be free. Then you shall know you have a free will, for your will will have made itself free by doing the will of God against all disinclination of your own. It will be a glorious victory, and will set you high on the hill whose peak is the throne of God.|

|I will begin to-morrow,| said the earl feebly, and with a strange look in his eyes. | -- But now you must leave me. I need solitude to strengthen my resolve. Come to me again to-morrow. I am weary, and must rest awhile. Send Simmons.|

Donal was nowise misled by the easy, postponed consent, but he could not prolong the interview. He rose and went. In the act of shutting the door behind him, something, he did not know what, made him turn his head: the earl was leaning over the little table by his bedside, and pouring something from a bottle into a glass. Donal stood transfixed. The earl turned and saw him, cast on him a look of almost demoniacal hate, put the glass to his lips and drank off its contents, then threw himself back on his pillows. Donal shut the door -- not so softly as he intended, for he was agitated; a loud curse at the noise came after him. He went down the stair not only with a sense of failure, but with an exhaustion such as he had never before felt.

There are men of natures so inactive that they cannot even enjoy the sight of activity around them: men with schemes and desires are in their presence intrusive. Their existence is a sleepy lake, which would not be troubled even with the wind of far-off labour. Such lord Morven was not by nature; up to manhood he had led even a stormy life. But when his passions began to yield, his self-indulgence began to take the form of laziness; and it was not many years before he lay with never a struggle in the chains of the evil power which had now reduced him to moral poltroonery. The tyranny of this last wickedness grew worse after the death of his wife. The one object of his life, if life it could be called, was only and ever to make it a life of his own, not the life which God had meant it to be, and had made possible to him. On first acquaintance with the moral phenomenon, it had seemed to Donal an inhuman and strangely exceptional one; but reflecting, he came presently to see that it was only a more pronounced form of the universal human disease -- a disease so deep-seated that he who has it worst, least knows or can believe that he has any disease, attributing all his discomfort to the condition of things outside him; whereas his refusal to accept them as they are, is one most prominent symptom of the disease. Whether by stimulants or narcotics, whether by company or ambition, whether by grasping or study, whether by self-indulgence, by art, by books, by religion, by love, by benevolence, we endeavour after another life than that which God means for us -- a life of truth, namely, of obedience, humility, and self-forgetfulness, we walk equally in a vain show. For God alone is, and without him we are not. This is not the mere clang of a tinkling metaphysical cymbal; he that endeavours to live apart from God must at length find -- not merely that he has been walking in a vain show, but that he has been himself but the phantom of a dream. But for the life of the living God, making him be, and keeping him being, he must fade even out of the limbo of vanities!

He more and more seldom went out of the house, more and more seldom left his apartment. At times he would read a great deal, then for days would not open a book, but seem absorbed in meditation -- a meditation which had nothing in it worthy of the name. In his communications with Donal, he did not seem in the least aware that he had made him the holder of a secret by which he could frustrate his plans for his family. These plans he clung to, partly from paternity, partly from contempt for society, and partly in the fancy of repairing the wrong he had done his children's mother. The morally diseased will atone for wrong by fresh wrong -- in its turn to demand like reparation! He would do anything now to secure his sons in the position of which in law he had deprived them by the wrong he had done the woman whom all had believed his wife. Through the marriage of the eldest with the heiress, he would make him the head of the house in power as in dignity, and this was now almost the only tie that bound him to the reality of things. He cared little enough about Forgue, but his conscience was haunted with his cruelties to the youth's mother. These were often such as I dare not put on record: they came all of the pride of self-love and self-worship -- as evil demons as ever raged in the fiercest fire of Moloch. In the madness with which they possessed him, he had inflicted upon her not only sorest humiliations, but bodily tortures: he would see, he said, what she would bear for his sake! In the horrible presentments of his drug-procured dreams they returned upon him in terrible forms of righteous retaliation. And now, though to himself he was constantly denying a life beyond, the conviction had begun to visit and overwhelm him that he must one day meet her again: fain then would he be armed with something which for her sake he had done for her children! One of the horrible laws of the false existence he led was that, for the deadening of the mind to any evil, there was no necessity it should be done and done again; it had but to be presented in the form of a thing done, or a thing going to be done, to seem a thing reasonable and doable. In his being, a world of false appearances had taken the place of reality; a creation of his own had displaced the creation of the essential Life, by whose power alone he himself falsely created; and in this world he was the dupe of his own home-born phantoms. Out of this conspiracy of marsh and mirage, what vile things might not issue! Over such a chaos the devil has power all but creative. He cannot in truth create, but he can with the degenerate created work moral horrors too hideous to be analogized by any of the horrors of the unperfected animal world. Such are being constantly produced in human society; many of them die in the darkness in which they are generated; now and then one issues, blasting the public day with its hideous glare. Because they are seldom seen, many deny they exist, or need be spoken of if they do. But to terrify a man at the possibilities of his neglected nature, is to do something towards the redemption of that nature.

School-hours were over, but Davie was seated where he had left him, still working. At sight of him Donal, feeling as if he had just come from the presence of the damned, almost burst into tears. A moment more and Arctura entered: it was as if the roof of hell gave way, and the blue sky of the eternal came pouring in heavenly deluge through the ruined vault.

|I have been to call upon Sophia,| she said.

|I am glad to hear it,| answered Donal: any news from an outer world of yet salvable humanity was welcome as summer to a land of ice.

|Yes,| she said; |I am able to go and see her now, because I am no longer afraid of her -- partly, I think, because I no longer care what she thinks of me. Her power over me is gone.|

|And will never return,| said Donal, |while you keep close to the master. With him you need no human being to set you right, and will allow no human being to set you wrong; you will need neither friend nor minister nor church, though all will help you. I am very glad, for something seems to tell me I shall not be long here.|

Arctura dropped on a chair -- pale as rosy before.

|Has anything fresh happened?| she asked, in a low voice that did not sound like hers. |Surely you will not leave me while -- . -- I thought -- I thought -- . -- What is it?|

|It is only a feeling I have,| he answered. |I believe I am out of spirits.|

|I never saw you so before!| said Arctura. |I hope you are not going to be ill.|

|Oh, no; it is not that! I will tell you some day, but I cannot now. All is in God's hands!|

She looked anxiously at him, but did not ask him any question more. She proposed they should take a turn in the park, and his gloom wore gradually off.

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