Chapter IX Opinions 'In The Air'

Everybody knows that the affairs of his body and those of his heart should be ordered by his conscience. Our acts and feelings towards other people, and our management of our own bodies, fall, we believe, properly under the judgment of Conscience; but we have a notion that thought is free; that, in the domain of intellect, every man is his own master, and that the opinions we form, the mental work we choose to do or to leave undone, are beyond the pale of duty. Thought is free, is our unconscious watchword.

Casual Opinions.––Now, of all the errors that have hindered men and nations, this is perhaps the most unfortunate. A man picks up a notion, calls it his opinion, spreads it here and there, until in the end that foolish notion becomes a danger to society and a bondage to the individual. "These be thy gods, O Israel!" is a cry that is constantly rising in our camp. We do not know in whose tent it began, but opinion flashed a lightning message over all the camp of Israel, and every man brought his precious things for the making of the golden calf. Why? Their leader was out of sight for the moment––with God, it is true, but, still, out of sight, and the tribes made haste to worship at a shrine of their own invention. This story typifies the sudden inroad of opinion by which nations and persons are apt to be carried away. The lawgiver fails to direct, and clamorous opinion fills the ear.

In the summer holidays, when people have not much to think about, the newspapers lend themselves to the discussion of such idle questions as, 'Is life worth living?' 'Is marriage a failure?'––the underlying opinion being that life is not worth living, and marriage is a failure. Sensible people laugh at these letters; but there are many who lie in wait for any chance notion that comes floating their way, take it up zealously, and make it their business in life to spread it.

When such minds get hold of the idea that marriage is a failure, for example, much immorality is the result. The notion has become the molten calf; the lawgiver, Conscience, is away or silenced; and people think it rather a fine thing to make sacrifices for the idea they cherish at the moment. Or, again, they go about asking, 'Is life worth living?' and though the results may seem less grave because less criminal, they are really as serious. That people should be sullen and ungrateful for rain and sunshine, food and raiment, the beauty of the world and the kindness of friends, is not a crime, because it is not one of the offences against society punishable by law; but it is a black sin, as catching as the plague, and he has caught it who allows himself to ask, 'Is life worth living?'

How Fallacies work.––We know, by hearsay, how the 'killing-no-murder' fallacy works; how apparently good men, who let in the notion, are convinced by their own Reason that the death of an offender against the liberties of the people is the only safety for the rest; that providence has called them to the great task, that they will be regarded thenceforth as the deliverers of their people. They kill the man, and are abhorred by all thinking persons as assassins. How has it come about?

Conscience, which thunders, 'THOU SHALT DO NO MURDER,' had been silenced; Opinion played the part of director, Reason supported Opinion, and the shameful deed was done. The slightest waft of opinion is enough to mislead the open, or rather the empty, mind. The newspaper headings displayed day by day are enough. 'The Unreality of Sin,' figured in a local newspaper the other day (anent certain American teaching). Anyone who is aware of the hunger of the unoccupied mind for any chance deposit of ideas will realise how such a heading would be accepted by many minds, and cherished as a sanction for sin.

When I was a girl the darning of stockings was considered a great piece of domestic virtue; and, one day, I heard a Welsh lady of staidness and moral correctness say that she did not believe in darning stockings! I found out afterwards that the darning she meant was running the heels of new stockings; but I seized on the doctrine as applying to all manner of holes, with a great sense of emancipation. It is just so that chance sayings about more important matters are caught up and acted upon. There is ever some new fallacy in the air which allures its thousands, and no one is safe who is not cognisant of danger, and who does not know how to safeguard himself. Perhaps no rules for the right conduct of life are more important than the following: (a) that we may not play with chance opinions; (b) that our own Reason affords an insufficient test of the value of an opinion (because Reason, as we have seen, argues in behalf of Inclination); (c) that we must labour to get knowledge as the foundation of opinions; (d) that we must also labour to arrive at principles whereby to try our opinions.