Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Moral Swindlers

It is a familiar example of irony in the degradation of words that "what
a man is worth" has come to mean how much money he possesses; but there
seems a deeper and more melancholy irony in the shrunken meaning that
popular or polite speech assigns to "morality" and "morals." The poor
part these words are made to play recalls the fate of those pagan
divinities who, after being understood to rule the powers of the air and
the destinies of men, came down to the level of insignificant demons, or
were even made a farcical show for the amusement of the multitude.

Talking to Melissa in a time of commercial trouble, I found her disposed
to speak pathetically of the disgrace which had fallen on Sir Gavial
Mantrap, because of his conduct in relation to the Eocene Mines, and to
other companies ingeniously devised by him for the punishment of
ignorance in people of small means: a disgrace by which the poor titled
gentleman was actually reduced to live in comparative obscurity on his
wife's settlement of one or two hundred thousand in the consols.

"Surely your pity is misapplied," said I, rather dubiously, for I like
the comfort of trusting that a correct moral judgment is the strong
point in woman (seeing that she has a majority of about a million in our
islands), and I imagined that Melissa might have some unexpressed
grounds for her opinion. "I should have thought you would rather be
sorry for Mantrap's victims--the widows, spinsters, and hard-working
fathers whom his unscrupulous haste to make himself rich has cheated of
all their savings, while he is eating well, lying softly, and after
impudently justifying himself before the public, is perhaps joining in
the General Confession with a sense that he is an acceptable object in
the sight of God, though decent men refuse to meet him."

"Oh, all that about the Companies, I know, was most unfortunate. In
commerce people are led to do so many things, and he might not know
exactly how everything would turn out. But Sir Gavial made a good use of
his money, and he is a thoroughly _moral_ man."

"What do you mean by a thoroughly moral man?" said I.

"Oh, I suppose every one means the same by that," said Melissa, with a
slight air of rebuke. "Sir Gavial is an excellent family man--quite
blameless there; and so charitable round his place at Tiptop. Very
different from Mr Barabbas, whose life, my husband tells me, is most
objectionable, with actresses and that sort of thing. I think a man's
morals should make a difference to us. I'm not sorry for Mr Barabbas,
but _I am_ sorry for Sir Gavial Mantrap."

I will not repeat my answer to Melissa, for I fear it was offensively
brusque, my opinion being that Sir Gavial was the more pernicious
scoundrel of the two, since his name for virtue served as an effective
part of a swindling apparatus; and perhaps I hinted that to call such a
man moral showed rather a silly notion of human affairs. In fact, I had
an angry wish to be instructive, and Melissa, as will sometimes happen,
noticed my anger without appropriating my instruction, for I have since
heard that she speaks of me as rather violent-tempered, and not over
strict in my views of morality.

I wish that this narrow use of words which are wanted in their full
meaning were confined to women like Melissa. Seeing that Morality and
Morals under their _alias_ of Ethics are the subject of voluminous
discussion, and their true basis a pressing matter of dispute--seeing
that the most famous book ever written on Ethics, and forming a chief
study in our colleges, allies ethical with political science or that
which treats of the constitution and prosperity of States, one might
expect that educated men would find reason to avoid a perversion of
language which lends itself to no wider view of life than that of
village gossips. Yet I find even respectable historians of our own and
of foreign countries, after showing that a king was treacherous,
rapacious, and ready to sanction gross breaches in the administration of
justice, end by praising him for his pure moral character, by which one
must suppose them to mean that he was not lewd nor debauched, not the
European twin of the typical Indian potentate whom Macaulay describes as
passing his life in chewing bang and fondling dancing-girls. And since
we are sometimes told of such maleficent kings that they were religious,
we arrive at the curious result that the most serious wide-reaching
duties of man lie quite outside both Morality and Religion--the one of
these consisting in not keeping mistresses (and perhaps not drinking too
much), and the other in certain ritual and spiritual transactions with
God which can be carried on equally well side by side with the basest
conduct towards men. With such a classification as this it is no wonder,
considering the strong reaction of language on thought, that many minds,
dizzy with indigestion of recent science and philosophy, are far to seek
for the grounds of social duty, and without entertaining any private
intention of committing a perjury which would ruin an innocent man, or
seeking gain by supplying bad preserved meats to our navy, feel
themselves speculatively obliged to inquire why they should not do so,
and are inclined to measure their intellectual subtlety by their
dissatisfaction with all answers to this "Why?" It is of little use to
theorise in ethics while our habitual phraseology stamps the larger part
of our social duties as something that lies aloof from the deepest needs
and affections of our nature. The informal definitions of popular
language are the only medium through which theory really affects the
mass of minds even among the nominally educated; and when a man whose
business hours, the solid part of every day, are spent in an
unscrupulous course of public or private action which has every
calculable chance of causing widespread injury and misery, can be called
moral because he comes home to dine with his wife and children and
cherishes the happiness of his own hearth, the augury is not good for
the use of high ethical and theological disputation.

Not for one moment would one willingly lose sight of the truth that the
relation of the sexes and the primary ties of kinship are the deepest
roots of human wellbeing, but to make them by themselves the equivalent
of morality is verbally to cut off the channels of feeling through
which they are the feeders of that wellbeing. They are the original
fountains of a sensibility to the claims of others, which is the bond of
societies; but being necessarily in the first instance a private good,
there is always the danger that individual selfishness will see in them
only the best part of its own gain; just as knowledge, navigation,
commerce, and all the conditions which are of a nature to awaken men's
consciousness of their mutual dependence and to make the world one great
society, are the occasions of selfish, unfair action, of war and
oppression, so long as the public conscience or chief force of feeling
and opinion is not uniform and strong enough in its insistance on what
is demanded by the general welfare. And among the influences that must
retard a right public judgment, the degradation of words which involve
praise and blame will be reckoned worth protesting against by every
mature observer. To rob words of half their meaning, while they retain
their dignity as qualifications, is like allowing to men who have lost
half their faculties the same high and perilous command which they won
in their time of vigour; or like selling food and seeds after
fraudulently abstracting their best virtues: in each case what ought to
be beneficently strong is fatally enfeebled, if not empoisoned. Until we
have altered our dictionaries and have found some other word than
_morality_ to stand in popular use for the duties of man to man, let us
refuse to accept as moral the contractor who enriches himself by using
large machinery to make pasteboard soles pass as leather for the feet of
unhappy conscripts fighting at miserable odds against invaders: let us
rather call him a miscreant, though he were the tenderest, most faithful
of husbands, and contend that his own experience of home happiness makes
his reckless infliction of suffering on others all the more atrocious.
Let us refuse to accept as moral any political leader who should allow
his conduct in relation to great issues to be determined by egoistic
passion, and boldly say that he would be less immoral even though he
were as lax in his personal habits as Sir Robert Walpole, if at the same
time his sense of the public welfare were supreme in his mind, quelling
all pettier impulses beneath a magnanimous impartiality. And though we
were to find among that class of journalists who live by recklessly
reporting injurious rumours, insinuating the blackest motives in
opponents, descanting at large and with an air of infallibility on
dreams which they both find and interpret, and stimulating bad feeling
between nations by abusive writing which is as empty of real conviction
as the rage of a pantomime king, and would be ludicrous if its effects
did not make it appear diabolical--though we were to find among these a
man who was benignancy itself in his own circle, a healer of private
differences, a soother in private calamities, let us pronounce him
nevertheless flagrantly immoral, a root of hideous cancer in the
commonwealth, turning the channels of instruction into feeders of social
and political disease.

In opposite ways one sees bad effects likely to be encouraged by this
narrow use of the word _morals_, shutting out from its meaning half
those actions of a man's life which tell momentously on the wellbeing of
his fellow-citizens, and on the preparation of a future for the children
growing up around him. Thoroughness of workmanship, care in the
execution of every task undertaken, as if it were the acceptance of a
trust which it would be a breach of faith not to discharge well, is a
form of duty so momentous that if it were to die out from the feeling
and practice of a people, all reforms of institutions would be helpless
to create national prosperity and national happiness. Do we desire to
see public spirit penetrating all classes of the community and affecting
every man's conduct, so that he shall make neither the saving of his
soul nor any other private saving an excuse for indifference to the
general welfare? Well and good. But the sort of public spirit that
scamps its bread-winning work, whether with the trowel, the pen, or the
overseeing brain, that it may hurry to scenes of political or social
agitation, would be as baleful a gift to our people as any malignant
demon could devise. One best part of educational training is that which
comes through special knowledge and manipulative or other skill, with
its usual accompaniment of delight, in relation to work which is the
daily bread-winning occupation--which is a man's contribution to the
effective wealth of society in return for what he takes as his own
share. But this duty of doing one's proper work well, and taking care
that every product of one's labour shall be genuinely what it pretends
to be, is not only left out of morals in popular speech, it is very
little insisted on by public teachers, at least in the only effective
way--by tracing the continuous effects of ill-done work. Some of them
seem to be still hopeful that it will follow as a necessary consequence
from week-day services, ecclesiastical decoration, and improved
hymn-books; others apparently trust to descanting on self-culture in
general, or to raising a general sense of faulty circumstances; and
meanwhile lax, make-shift work, from the high conspicuous kind to the
average and obscure, is allowed to pass unstamped with the disgrace of
immorality, though there is not a member of society who is not daily
suffering from it materially and spiritually, and though it is the fatal
cause that must degrade our national rank and our commerce in spite of
all open markets and discovery of available coal-seams.

I suppose one may take the popular misuse of the words Morality and
Morals as some excuse for certain absurdities which are occasional
fashions in speech and writing--certain old lay-figures, as ugly as the
queerest Asiatic idol, which at different periods get propped into
loftiness, and attired in magnificent Venetian drapery, so that whether
they have a human face or not is of little consequence. One is, the
notion that there is a radical, irreconcilable opposition between
intellect and morality. I do not mean the simple statement of fact,
which everybody knows, that remarkably able men have had very faulty
morals, and have outraged public feeling even at its ordinary standard;
but the supposition that the ablest intellect, the highest genius, will
see through morality as a sort of twaddle for bibs and tuckers, a
doctrine of dulness, a mere incident in human stupidity. We begin to
understand the acceptance of this foolishness by considering that we
live in a society where we may hear a treacherous monarch, or a
malignant and lying politician, or a man who uses either official or
literary power as an instrument of his private partiality or hatred, or
a manufacturer who devises the falsification of wares, or a trader who
deals in virtueless seed-grains, praised or compassionated because of
his excellent morals.

Clearly if morality meant no more than such decencies as are practised
by these poisonous members of society, it would be possible to say,
without suspicion of light-headedness, that morality lay aloof from the
grand stream of human affairs, as a small channel fed by the stream and
not missed from it. While this form of nonsense is conveyed in the
popular use of words, there must be plenty of well-dressed ignorance at
leisure to run through a box of books, which will feel itself initiated
in the freemasonry of intellect by a view of life which might take for a
Shaksperian motto--

"Fair is foul and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air"--

and will find itself easily provided with striking conversation by the
rule of reversing all the judgments on good and evil which have come to
be the calendar and clock-work of society. But let our habitual talk
give morals their full meaning as the conduct which, in every human
relation, would follow from the fullest knowledge and the fullest
sympathy--a meaning perpetually corrected and enriched by a more
thorough appreciation of dependence in things, and a finer sensibility
to both physical and spiritual fact--and this ridiculous ascription of
superlative power to minds which have no effective awe-inspiring vision
of the human lot, no response of understanding to the connection between
duty and the material processes by which the world is kept habitable for
cultivated man, will be tacitly discredited without any need to cite the
immortal names that all are obliged to take as the measure of
intellectual rank and highly-charged genius.

Suppose a Frenchman--I mean no disrespect to the great French nation,
for all nations are afflicted with their peculiar parasitic growths,
which are lazy, hungry forms, usually characterised by a
disproportionate swallowing apparatus: suppose a Parisian who should
shuffle down the Boulevard with a soul ignorant of the gravest cares and
the deepest tenderness of manhood, and a frame more or less fevered by
debauchery, mentally polishing into utmost refinement of phrase and
rhythm verses which were an enlargement on that Shaksperian motto, and
worthy of the most expensive title to be furnished by the vendors of
such antithetic ware as _Les_ _marguerites de l'Enfer_, or _Les délices
de Béelzébuth_. This supposed personage might probably enough regard his
negation of those moral sensibilities which make half the warp and woof
of human history, his indifference to the hard thinking and hard
handiwork of life, to which he owed even his own gauzy mental garments
with their spangles of poor paradox, as the royalty of genius, for we
are used to witness such self-crowning in many forms of mental
alienation; but he would not, I think, be taken, even by his own
generation, as a living proof that there can exist such a combination as
that of moral stupidity and trivial emphasis of personal indulgence with
the large yet finely discriminating vision which marks the intellectual
masters of our kind. Doubtless there are many sorts of transfiguration,
and a man who has come to be worthy of all gratitude and reverence may
have had his swinish period, wallowing in ugly places; but suppose it
had been handed down to us that Sophocles or Virgil had at one time made
himself scandalous in this way: the works which have consecrated their
memory for our admiration and gratitude are not a glorifying of
swinishness, but an artistic incorporation of the highest sentiment
known to their age.

All these may seem to be wide reasons for objecting to Melissa's pity
for Sir Gavial Mantrap on the ground of his good morals; but their
connection will not be obscure to any one who has taken pains to observe
the links uniting the scattered signs of our social development.

George Eliot