Today, the day before we set off on this walk, we visited William Wordsworth’s beautiful home in Ambleside. The poet’s letters with his crabbed writing are on display; he wrote much about walks, nature and country living. Life seemed more innocent then, with far less clutter and noise.
After experiencing the turbulence of France during the revolution, Wordsworth devoted his time to reading, tending his beautiful garden, talking and corresponding with his friends, and of course writing his immortal poems. There were no newspapers, emails, mobiles, television or radio; no cars or planes; and no advertising industry to persuade him to buy things he didn’t want with money he didn’t have to impress people he didn’t like. A trip to the local village was an adventure in itself. Wordsworth was absorbed in nature and he seemed content. Although he wasn’t a traditional Christian but a pantheist, everyone in those days had the basics of our Judeo/Christian inheritance settled deep in their DNA.
Are we happier now we have swept moral teaching away from children as prejudiced rubbish? I doubt it. A couple of weeks ago, old friends told us at supper that their daughter was mother to three boys from two different fathers and married to neither.
My friend – Winchester, Trinity, Oxford and a retired banker – grunted darkly, “I really don’t like it, I have no idea what to say to her. But that’s the way it is these days. Of course times have changed, and I don’t want to be judgemental.”
Being judgemental is of course the great sin of our times. I made sympathetic noises, for what’s there to say? The implication is that living without rules is better than suffering the stuffy inhibitions that constrained the lives of previous generations. It’s a given today that people will be happier without moral teaching so we can invent our own rules as we go along. My friend’s story has become commonplace, but what’s to be done? And does it matter anyway?
How we have changed. We visited a church earlier today – an inscription on the memorial read, “They paid the ultimate sacrifice”. Sacrifice – that seems a rare word these days. There are a great many such words that would have been daily currency to the likes of Wordsworth or those who fought during the First World War that now seem quaint and old-fashioned. They are the words that crop up in satirical TV shows like Blackadder – how about service, courage, selflessness, nobility, duty, virtue, chastity and modesty. If people didn’t always live up to these values, then at least everyone understood their importance as part of the very fabric of society. And when people sinned, at least they knew they were sinning.
A Game With No Rules
Is our ancient moral code nothing but a series of tedious rules promoted by old killjoys, designed to stamp on the fun and pleasure of being young? Can we live happily whilst abandoning the precious wisdom handed down from generation to generation? Can we live without these age-old teachings and not suffer dire consequences? What are we putting in their place? I’m not convinced that you can play football without rules for it sounds like total chaos to me, but what do I know?
So “moral teaching” does not seem to be taught much either in schools or at home. One consequence of this is the dismay and contempt of our neighbours from different cultures. Who can blame them for wanting to protect their young from some of the grosser manifestations of our permissive society? I recall Ghandi who, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, retorted, “It would be nice.”
Veins Running Fire
I have been re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre. Parts of it have leapt out at me. As is well known, Jane falls passionately in love with Mr Rochester. Then she learns he is married and that his mentally ill wife is living in the attic of his manor house. Mr Rochester urges Jane to become his mistress. She is poor and lonely while he is rich and attractive. His offer sets off a storm of passion and conflict in her heart. She desperately wants to comply:
“…soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?”
Then she identifies different rooms or faculties in her soul. There is reason and conscience, and there is feeling, and they all argue that she should do what Rochester asks. He is lonely and miserable and she could comfort him. He is rich and adores her. After a life of misery and hardship, surely this is her due?
But still she resists. “The more solitary, the more friendless… the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.”
Then this is the bit that gets to me and it’s never detailed in the TV dramas or films. Jane ruminates thus:
“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be… they have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
Wow! Come on, silly old Jane Eyre! We’ve all been mad in our time, with our veins on fire… so why doesn’t she just give in to her feelings, hop into bed with Rochester and bam! We only live once, so why on earth not? Who would be harmed, or even know?
Today, in our “enlightened” times, Jane Eyre’s reasoning seems incomprehensible, a load of moralistic, ancient tosh! But is it? At least Jane Eyre had a choice. Christian teaching was part of her make-up. Charlotte Bronte’s father was a vicar, so Charlotte gave her heroine options: reasons to give in to Rochester and crystal-clear reasons why she should not. Jane made her choice.
Today’s young appear to know nothing of “preconceived opinions” or “foregone determinations” – it’s all about pleasing oneself. However, it seems to me that this so-called freedom limits choice. I reckon the young are far less free today than they were in Charlotte Bronte’s time.