I recently re-read the 1935 autobiography of Cicely Hamilton (Life Errant). Hamilton (1872-1952) was a suffragist, actress and writer, and she served as a nurse in France during World War I. Her novel, William, An Englishman (1919), was the first of the lovely Persephone Books to appear, and is still available through them (click on the link for more info). It is the story of what happens when fervent idealism meets the hideous reality of war.
I’d remembered enjoying reading her autobiography because of her very independent views on life, and in particular on how people behave in groups. Her social observations are keen and often ascerbic. Although she fought for what she believed in, she was never a party-faithful type of person. I also remembered some terrific ghost stories – she said she never sought out paranormal experiences, but she had some interesting ones nonetheless.
What I hadn’t remembered, and what I particularly enjoyed on this reading, were her thoughts on the importance of faith in God. She opens her chapter on religion with an anecdote: she was at a social gathering where people were launched into a discussion of the dangers of religion. Cecily Hamilton had no argument with this, as she could see very well that religion has done harm as well as good. But when her companions realised that she wasn’t an atheist, their horror was extreme!
She wrote, about faith:
For those who accept the idea of a God who is righteousness itself, the standard of duty will always be twofold, and one of the unending difficulties of life will consist in the reconciliation of an inward duty towards God, the highest, with an outward duty to the neighbour who is like unto ourselves. With unbelief, and the passing of God as a factor in our lives, the need for such reconciliation disappears, and there remains only the clash between our instinct for personal advantage and the duty we owe to our neighbour. At first sight this substitution of a single for a double standard of service would appear to simplify the moral law, and therefore to simplify life; actually, by the process, we lose more than we gain – our contact with absolute truth . . .
If God be indeed an invention of the human mind, we may surmise that humanity invented and adored him because it had need of an uprightness of truth that was not to be found amongst the pliable virtues of men. Whatever else the acceptance of God may mean in our lives, this is must mean without a doubt: there is a Being – a Something – call It what you will – to whom it is impossible to lie. Of none among men can that magnificent ‘impossible’ be said! Which among us, however desirous of honesty, does not practise petty subterfuge even to his friends? And – what matters more – does not practise it in flattery to himself? But to lift up your heart to God, even for a moment, is to place yourself, for that moment, in a Presence that annihilates deceit. Thou, God, seest me as in very truth I am, as no man on earth has ever seen me.
(Cicely Hamilton, Life Errant, p. 258)
It’s funny to me that her companions were so aghast at her being a believer. I have friends who are confirmed athiests, and I respect them, just as they respect me. What horrifies me is the idea that anyone would presume to tell someone what to believe about such mysteries. I agree with what Cecily Hamilton wrote – but I think the big question, in a world with so much pain and suffering, is her starting assumption: that God is righteousness, and absolute truth, itself.
And here endeth the (inconclusive) lesson!
(Maybe we’ll have more about the ghost stories later?)