The Role of the Prophet

Grant Allen

[Chapter VIII from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy, published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

One great English thinker and artist once tried the rash experiment of being true to himself—of saying out boldly, without fear or reserve, the highest and noblest and best that was in him. He gave us the most exquisite lyrics in the English language; he moulded the thought of our first youth as no other poet has ever yet moulded it; he became the spiritual father of the richest souls in two succeeding generations of Englishmen. And what reward did he get for it? He was expelled from his university. He was hounded out of his country. He was deprived of his own children. He was denied the common appeal to the law and courts of justice. He was drowned, an exile, in a distant sea, and burned in solitude on a foreign shore. And after his death he was vilified and calumniated by wretched penny-a-liners, or (worse insult still) apologised for, with half-hearted shrugs, by lukewarm advocates. The purest in life and the most unselfish in purpose of all mankind, he was persecuted alive with the utmost rancour of hate, and pursued when dead with the vilest shafts of malignity. He never even knew in his scattered grave the good he was to do to later groups of thinkers. It was a noble example, of course; but not, you will admit, an alluring one for others to follow.

"Be true to yourself," say the copy-book moralists, "and you may be sure the result will at last be justified." No doubt; but in how many centuries? And what sort of life will you lead yourself, meanwhile, for your allotted space of threescore years and ten, unless haply hanged, or burned, or imprisoned before it? What the copy-book moralists mean is merely this—that sooner or later your principles will triumph, which may or may not be the case according to the nature of the principles. But even suppose they do, are you to ignore yourself in the interim—you, a human being with emotions, sensations, domestic affections, and, in the majority of instances, wife and children on whom to expend them? Why should it be calmly taken for granted by the world that if you have some new and true thing to tell humanity (which humanity, of course, will toss back in your face with contumely and violence) you are bound to blurt it out, with childish unreserve, regardless of consequences to yourself and to those who depend upon you? Why demand of genius or exceptional ability a gratuitous sacrifice which you would deprecate as wrong and unjust to others in the ordinary citizen? For the genius, too, is a man, and has his feelings. The fact is, society considers that in certain instances it has a right to expect the thinker will martyrise himself on its account, while it stands serenely by and heaps faggots on the pile, with every mark of contempt and loathing. But society is mistaken. No man is bound to martyrise himself; in a great many cases a man is bound to do the exact opposite. He has given hostages to Fortune, and his first duty is to the hostages. "We ask you for bread," his children may well say, "and you give us a noble moral lesson. We ask you for clothing, and you supply us with a beautiful poetical fancy." This is not according to bargain. Wife and children have a first mortgage on a man's activities; society has only a right to contingent remainders.

A great many sensible men who had truths of deep import to deliver to the world must have recognised these facts in all times and places, and must have held their tongues accordingly. Instead of speaking out the truths that were in them, they must have kept their peace, or have confined themselves severely to the ordinary platitudes of their age and nation. Why ruin yourself by announcing what you feel and believe, when all the reward you will get for it in the end will be social ostracism, if not even the rack, the stake, or the pillory? The Shelleys and Rousseaus there's no holding, of course; they will run right into it; but the Goethes—oh, no, they keep their secret. Indeed, I hold it as probable that the vast majority of men far in advance of their times have always held their tongues consistently, save for mere common babble, on Lord Chesterfield's principle that "Wise men never say."

The rôle of prophet is thus a thankless and difficult one. Nor is it quite certainly of real use to the community. For the prophet is generally too much ahead of his times. He discounts the future at a ruinous rate, and he takes the consequences. If you happen ever to have read the Old Testament you must have noticed that the prophets had generally a hard time of it.

The leader is a very different stamp of person. He stands well abreast of his contemporaries, and just half a pace in front of them; and he has power to persuade even the inertia of humanity into taking that one half-step in advance he himself has already made bold to adventure. His post is honoured, respected, remunerated. But the prophet gets no thanks, and perhaps does mankind no benefit. He sees too quick. And there can be very little good indeed in so seeing. If one of us had been an astronomer, and had discovered the laws of Kepler, Newton, and Laplace in the thirteenth century, I think he would have been wise to keep the discovery to himself for a few hundred years or so. Otherwise, he would have been burned for his trouble. Galileo, long after, tried part of the experiment a decade or so too soon, and got no good by it. But in moral and social matters the danger is far graver. I would say to every aspiring youth who sees some political or economical or ethical truth quite clearly: "Keep it dark! Don't mention it! Nobody will listen to you; and you, who are probably a person of superior insight and higher moral aims than the mass, will only destroy your own influence for good by premature declarations. The world will very likely come round of itself to your views in the end; but if you tell them too soon, you will suffer for it in person, and will very likely do nothing to help on the revolution in thought that you contemplate. For thought that is too abruptly ahead of the mass never influences humanity."

"But sometimes the truth will out in spite of one!" Ah, yes, that's the worst of it. Do as I say, not as I do. If possible, repress it.

It is a noble and beautiful thing to be a martyr, especially if you are a martyr in the cause of truth, and not, as is often the case, of some debasing and degrading superstition. But nobody has a right to demand of you that you should be a martyr. And some people have often a right to demand that you should resolutely refuse the martyr's crown on the ground that you have contracted prior obligations, inconsistent with the purely personal luxury of martyrdom. 'Tis a luxury for a few. It befits only the bachelor, the unattached, and the economically spareworthy.

"These be pessimistic pronouncements," you say. Well, no, not exactly. For, after all, we must never shut our eyes to the actual; and in the world as it is, meliorism, not optimism, is the true opposite of pessimism. Optimist and pessimist are both alike in a sense, seeing they are both conservative; they sit down contented—the first with the smug contentment that says "All's well; I have enough; why this fuss about others?" the second with the contentment of blank despair that says, "All's hopeless; all's wrong; why try uselessly to mend it?" The meliorist attitude, on the contrary, is rather to say, "Much is wrong; much painful; what can we do to improve it?" And from this point of view there is something we can all do to make martyrdom less inevitable in the end, for the man who has a thought, a discovery, an idea, to tell us. Such men are rare, and their thought, when they produce it, is sure to be unpalatable. For, if it were otherwise, it would be thought of our own type—familiar, banal, commonplace, unoriginal. It would encounter no resistance, as it thrilled on its way through our brain, from established errors. What the genius and the prophet are there for is just that—to make us listen to unwelcome truths, to compel us to hear, to drive awkward facts straight home with sledge-hammer force to the unwilling hearts and brains of us. Not what you want to hear, or what I want to hear, is good and useful for us; but what we don't want to hear, what we can't bear to think, what we hate to believe, what we fight tooth and nail against. The man who makes us listen to that is the seer and the prophet; he comes upon us like Shelley, or Whitman, or Ibsen, and plumps down horrid truths that half surprise, half disgust us. He shakes us out of our lethargy. To such give ear, though they say what shocks you. Weigh well their hateful ideas. Avoid the vulgar vice of sneering and carping at them. Learn to examine their nude thought without shrinking, and examine it all the more carefully when it most repels you. Naked verity is an acquired taste; it is never beautiful at first sight to the unaccustomed vision. Remember that no question is finally settled; that no question is wholly above consideration; that what you cherish as holiest is most probably wrong; and that in social and moral matters especially (where men have been longest ruled by pure superstitions) new and startling forms of thought have the highest a priori probability in their favour. Dismiss your idols. Give every opinion its fair chance of success—especially when it seems to you both wicked and ridiculous, recollecting that it is better to let five hundred crude guesses run loose about the world unclad, than to crush one fledgling truth in its callow condition. To the Greeks, foolishness: to the Jews, a stumbling-block. If you can't be one of the prophets yourself, you can at least abstain from helping to stone them.

Dear me! These reflections to-day are anything but post-prandial. The gnocchi and the olives must certainly have disagreed with me. But perhaps it may some of it be "wrote sarcastic." I have heard tell there is a thing called irony.