One reformer always honors another, one prophet always feels that he belongs to a succession. Each knows well that it is not this or that particular cause, as such, he is serving, but these as forms of one cause, —demands of one principle, — which is itself absolute though they all be relative, limitless though they all be finite. Ever is it the triumph of the ideal good, the victory of the just in the world. Only he is a genuine reformer or prophet who serves his cause solely because of its rightness, and gives to his special task the form of this absolute consecration. It by no means follows, however, that each prophet honors the disciples of another prophet, who perhaps cherish his words without being aware of the animus and reach of thought that lay behind them. Circumstances and conditions change, and the eternal motive must prompt to new words and new actions. As he would be no prophet to us to-day who should merely repeat with skilful commentary the message of eighteen hundred years ago, so Jesus, had he but strikingly recast the words of Moses or Isaiah, would have been a Scribe along with the rest. One with them in fundamental thought he was ; but he spoke from his own consciousness and not from theirs. He vindicated the ideal to a generation in which idealism had become chiefly a tradition, and convinced the most scrupulous followers of the old law of sin, of righteousness, and of a judgment that, to his rapt vision, hung over their nation.
Speaking more particularly, he gave the moral law a more distinct inward application, saying that our thoughts and words have a moral significance like that of our actions. That we are not to act from wrong motives is indeed a commonplace of morals; but Jesus virtually teaches that we are not to have the wrong motives. Repression has been the rule ordinarily laid down. Jesus implies an exalted state of mind, in which there shall be no call for repression. Is it said that this is impossible,—that our inward feelings are beyond our control, and that in any case we cannot be held responsible for them, but only for the harm they may lead us to do others ? Jesus will allow none of these things. Nothing in the line of what is good is impossible. If our inward feelings are wrong, we are responsible for allowing them to exist, and can change them ; and there is such a thing as harming ourselves in a more serious sense than we can ever harm others. Life is to become serious, to be held to a purpose, to involve discipline, and the ideal on which we set our hearts is not to be abandoned for numberless failures to win it. What a profound — yes, I may say awful — moral seriousness does Jesus reveal in his commands: "If thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. ... If thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee." Yet the truth may be all with him, and none whatever on the side of the easy conscientiousness that makes the moral outfit of most of us. It may be that there is no injury in life really to fear but a moral injury ; that there is no comfort nor pleasure, no grace of body or of mind, that can make up for the stains on the moral nature that come from any species of actual or imagined sensuality. It may be that it would be actually better to lose the eye or the hand than to allow either to become an instrument of degradation to the spiritual nature. Is this asceticism ? No; but verily better, nobler, would be asceticism of the severest type than the torpor of conscience which allows us to feel only passing reproaches, and no stings and smarts, when unworthy acts or unworthy thoughts are indulged in. There is no relaxing, to my mind, of the command of absolute purity. Are we thereby straining the possibilities of human nature ? Lecky tells us that when the Roman consul "Marius had vanquished an army of the Teutons, their wives besought the conqueror to permit them to become the servants of the vestal virgins, in order that their honor, at least, might be secure in slavery. Their request was refused, and that night they all perished by their own hands."1 No; if honor be a dream to many, in others the fine impalpable thing is their very life.
Further, Jesus removes all barriers to the love we owe our fellow-men. Brotherly and neighborly kindness had indeed been granted before, and doubtless the prophetic mind now and then caught glimpses of a time of universal love and brotherhood. With Jesus, however, this love was to become the present and abiding rule of life. Even our enemies are to be loved ; no kind of malice or wish to injure is to be tolerated. We are to forgive, not merely seven times, but seventy times seven ; that is, forgiveness is an unlimited obligation. These are, it is true, commonplaces to-day, though it be commonplaces of thought or speech rather than of actual sentiment. But when Jesus uttered them they were not even commonplaces of thought. The humanity of the ancient world was, at best, a tribal or a national rather than a universal humanity. It may seem strange, and yet it is strictly true, that the natural condition of mankind is one of mutual enmity rather than affection, save in limited circles of relationship : nay, with all our professions, and with all our real advances in feeling, this is probably to a great extent true to-day. It is true frequently of nations, true of classes, true of corporations, true of private individuals who are seeking the same prizes in life. The reason is obvious : it is the instinct of self-preservation, the desire to maintain ourselves and to get the best places in life. Those, it is often said, can love most who have least to do with the actual struggle of life. They who are in the battle must assert themselves ; they can have no fine scruples, but must take advantage where they can, and may even injure where they must. The battle, it is said, that science has recently revealed to us as going on in the lower world is going on equally in human society. Love and brotherhood are hence for the idealist to talk of, possibly for the kingdom of heaven to realize somewhere; but in this world victory is for the strong. And perhaps it is childish and sentimental, even if it is Christian, to care for so many weak and unprofitable members of our species. Why not follow Nature, or rather simply let Nature have her own way, and then only the strong and the fit would survive ?
1 History of Morals, ii. 361. 13.