The Basis of Morality/Chapter I

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The Basis of Morality by Annie Wood Besant
Chapter I: Revelation

I: REVELATION

Must religion and morals go together? Can one be taught without the other? It is a practical question for educationists, and France tried to answer it in the dreariest little cut and dry kind of catechism ever given to boys to make them long to be wicked. But apart from education, the question of the bedrock on which morals rest, the foundation on which a moral edifice can be built that will stand secure against the storms of life—that is a question of perennial interest, and it must be answered by each of us, if we would have a test of Right and Wrong, would know why Right is Right, why Wrong is Wrong.

Religions based on Revelation find in Revelation their basis for morality, and for them that is Right which the Giver of the Revelation commands, and that is Wrong which He forbids. Right is Right because God, or a Ṛṣhi or a Prophet, commands it, and Right rests on the Will of a Lawgiver, authoritatively revealed in a Scripture.

Now all Revelation has two great disadvantages as a basis for morality. It is fixed, and therefore unprogressive; while man evolves, and at a later stage of his growth, the morality taught in the Revelation becomes archaic and unsuitable. A written book cannot change, and many things in the Bibles of Religion come to be out of date, inappropriate to new circumstances, and even shocking to an age in which conscience has become more enlightened than it was of old.

The fact that in the same Revelation as that in which palpably immoral commands appear, there occur also jewels of fairest radiance, gems of poetry, pearls of truth, helps us not at all. If moral teachings worthy only of savages occur in Scriptures containing also rare and precious precepts of purest sweetness, the juxtaposition of light and darkness only produces moral chaos. We cannot here appeal to reason or judgment for both must be silent before authority; both rest on the same ground. "Thus saith the Lord" precludes all argument.

Let us take two widely accepted Scriptures, both regarded as authoritative by the respective religions which accept them as coming from a Divine Preceptor or through a human but illuminated being, Moses in the one case, Manu in the other. I am, of course, well aware that in both cases we have to do with books which may contain traditions of their great authors, even sentences transmitted down the centuries. The unravelling of the tangled threads woven into such books is a work needing the highest scholarship and an infinite patience; few of us are equipped for such labour. But let us ignore the work of the Higher Criticism, and take the books as they stand, and the objection raised to them as a basis for morality will at once appear.

Thus we read in the same book: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." "The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." "Sanctify yourselves therefore and be ye holy." Scores of noble passages, inculcating high morality, might be quoted. But we have also: "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly saying, let us go and serve other Gods ... thou shalt not consent unto him nor hearken unto him; neither shalt thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him, but thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death." "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." A man is told, that he may seize a fair woman in war, and "be her husband and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be that if thou hast no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will." These teachings and many others like them have drenched Europe with blood and scorched it with fire. Men have grown out of them; they no longer heed nor obey them, for man's reason performs its eclectic work on Revelation, chooses the good, rejects the evil. This is very good, but it destroys Revelation as a basis. Christians have outgrown the lower part of their Revelation, and do not realise that in striving to explain it away they put the axe to the root of its authority.

So also is it with the Institutes of Manu, to take but one example from the great sacred literature of India. There are precepts of the noblest order, and the essence and relative nature of morality is philosophically set out; "the sacred law is thus grounded on the rule of conduct," and He declares that good conduct is the root of further growth in spirituality. Apart from questions of general morality, to which we shall need to refer hereafter, let us take the varying views of women as laid down in the present Smṛṭi as accepted. On many points there is no wiser guide than parts of this Smṛṭi, as will be seen in Chapter IV. With regard to the marriage law, Manu says: "Let mutual fidelity continue unto death." Of a father He declares: "No father who knows must take even the smallest gratuity for his daughter; for a man, who through avarice takes a gratuity, is a seller of his offspring." Of the home, He says: "Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, husbands, brothers and brothers-in-law who desire happiness. Where women are honoured, there the Ḍevas are pleased; but where they are not honoured, any sacred rite is fruitless." "In that family where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband [note the equality], happiness will assuredly be lasting." Food is to be given first in a house to "newly-married women, to infants, to the sick, and to pregnant women". Yet the same Manu is supposed to have taken the lowest and coarsest view of women: "It is the nature of women to seduce men; for that reason the wise are never unguarded with females ... One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man." A woman must never act "independently, even in her own house," she must be subject to father, husband or (on her husband's death) sons. Women have allotted to them as qualities, "impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice and bad conduct". The Shūḍra servant is to be "regarded as a younger son"; a slave is to be looked on "as one's shadow," and if a man is offended by him he "must bear it without resentment"; yet the most ghastly punishments are ordered to be inflicted on Shūḍras for intruding on certain sacred rites.

The net result is that ancient Revelations, being given for a certain age and certain social conditions, often cannot and ought not to be carried out in the present state of Society; that ancient documents are difficult to verify—often impossible—as coming from those whose names they bear; that there is no guarantee against forgeries, interpolations, glosses, becoming part of the text, with a score of other imperfections; that they contain contradictions, and often absurdities, to say nothing of immoralities. Ultimately every Revelation must be brought to the bar of reason, and as a matter of fact, is so brought in practice, even the most "orthodox" Brāhmaṇa in Hinḍūism, disregarding all the Shāsṭraic injunctions which he finds to be impracticable or even inconvenient, while he uses those which suit him to condemn his "unorthodox" neighbours.

No Revelation is accepted as fully binding in any ancient religion, but by common consent the inconvenient parts are quietly dropped, and the evil parts repudiated. Revelation as a basis for morality is impossible. But all sacred books contain much that is pure, lofty, inspiring, belonging to the highest morality, the true utterances of the Sages and Saints of mankind. These precepts will be regarded with reverence by the wise, and should be used as authoritative teaching for the young and the uninstructed as moral textbooks, like—textbooks in other sciences—and as containing moral truths, some of which can be verified by all morally advanced persons, and others verifiable only by those who reach the level of the original teachers.