The Body Politic - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Body Politic - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Body Politic

The art of hurling texts dies out of fashion, is almost dead, perhaps because it yielded the delight of victory so seldom, but for deeper reasons also. It was ever a game at which two could play; the Scriptures proving so rich a quarry that your skilled antagonist would quote you text for text. Both Socialist and Individualist have found therein ammunition in plenty for their long quarrel, by reason of the disconcerting manner in which the Bible preaches both doctrines and gives its sanction to neither. Thus it never so much as questions the propriety of individual ownership, yet on the other hand continually and with awe-inspiring vehemence it is found denouncing the wickedness of individual owners and the wrongs arising from their sins and negligences.

So for the unreflecting text-hunter confusion was apt to grow worse confounded. The existence of this impasse, which in reality pointed only to an error in method, has helped to create the notion, characteristic of the present time, that the Bible having failed to settle the difficulty, we ought to consider our problems entirely without its aid. So completely are we now supposed to be the sole arbiters of our conduct that, even if the Bible had been found to enjoin (or forbid) explicitly and beyond all possibility of doubt certain socialistic measures, it would in no way follow that what may have been right in Jerusalem long ago is right now, or what was wrong then wrong now. Up to a point this attitude is sound: not to consider our duties for ourselves, as if our ancestors or any external authority could rightly determine them for us without our active consent, is to fall into a sin that, however innocently committed, sooner or later benumbs the conscience and, if historical experience has any lesson whatsoever to teach, paralyses social progress.

But the legitimate distrust which the modernist feels for mere text-hunting can be, and often is, pushed too far. To construe it as a mandate contemptuously to ignore the thinking and ideals of the past is to be guilty of as foolish a blunder as ever was involved in the old method of determining an issue by proof-texts; for the relation between even the Old Testament and the social affairs of any modern community is far too valuable to be disregarded with impunity; and on these three grounds at least. First, the experiences of the Israelitish people constitute incomparably the most amazing national career the world has witnessed; and the story of their fortunes testifies for all time that one nation, situated in no secluded and sheltered corner of the globe, but occupying a little land encircled by vast and jealous Empires and covered time and again by the surge of successive civilisations, prolonged its life and in all essential respects maintained its identity, not by bread alone, but by words that proceeded out of the mouth of God.

For, undeniably, Israel has preserved its continuity not merely through the stormy fourteen hundred years of which the Biblical records tell, but subsequently throughout the Christian era, in virtue of distinctive moral and religious qualities; and whatever view a man may hold regarding the truth of religion and the validity of morals, no serious student of human affairs can afford to overlook their practical effect in the history of the Jews. Secondly, in the course of that history (limiting our attention to the Old Testament literature) there appeared certain great personalities, in particular the true prophets, whose insight into the problems of society, whose enthusiasm for the welfare of men, and whose burning invective against all forms of injustice and oppression, ought to be familiar to every man who feels within him the sense of social obligation.

The example of the Prophets of Israel and also, though less brilliantly, of her Psalmists, her Law-makers and her Wise-men, is a magnificent incentive to duty, quickening the conscience, stimulating one’s resolution under difficulties, and encouraging to good hope. In the third place, the record of these men’s thoughts frequently deserves our intellectual consideration.

Modern industrialism has created unsolved problems of organisation and production, upon which it would be idle to contend that the conditions of life in the Judæan highlands offer valuable comment; but since modern commerce, for all its marvellous development of wealth and resources, has signally failed to remove the vast inequalities between man and man, indeed has only accentuated them and made the contrast still more bitter for the unskilled, the weakly, and the unfortunate, it follows that from the standpoint of human happiness the social problem is in its essence unchanged: the poor, in fact, are still with us, with their great virtues and also their shortcomings, their pathetic lack of opportunity, and often their failure to profit when they might, and above all, with their capacity for joy and sorrow and aspiration, which things they share with the richest in the land.

No wonder that he who reads the Old Testament with intelligence and sympathy will constantly feel its words on the social needs of men not merely pricking his conscience but holding and challenging the intellect—how wealth is made, how rightly used, how kept, how lost; what it feels like to be poor; of the duties of him that hath to him that hath not; by what things a city is preserved, and of the power we each possess to make or unmake one another’s joy in life.

On these and kindred subjects the Jewish proverbs have a vast deal to say that is worthy of attention, but an outline of their comments and pleadings has been given in the description of the Wise-men’s ideals (Chap. VIII.). It may be hoped that the foregoing remarks will help to make more clear the bearing on present social duty of the teaching there related in reference to a distant past. Here then follow only a few considerations which will suggest how the subject might be developed, and will at the same time give opportunity for the quotation of some fine proverbs not mentioned in Chapter VIII.

I. In dealing with the perplexities of organised society, we moderns possess the advantage of high and increasing skill in the use of classification, so that we are able to envisage our problems in abstract terms, analysing the population into reasonably exact groups, and considering the inter-relations of “classes” and the reconciliation of class interests one with another. This attempt, crude though it still may be, to employ scientific method in the treatment of humanity is all to the good; but if one thing more is forgotten, our best-laid schemes somehow refuse to work or are apt to work amiss. For—“the ‘masses’ and ‘the poor’ whom it is ‘our’ duty to keep are neither sycophants nor toadies nor sponges nor are all of them at the last gasp.

They resent the control of their destinies by classes or persons who profess to know what is good for them. They will never become the passive instruments of anybody’s social theory. They will trust themselves only to those who love them. Individualists and socialists take note! Experts and doctrinaires, be warned in time!” Now the Jewish proverbs, not of set purpose but by sound instinct, subtly and insistently remind us how personal all social questions ultimately prove to be. They think and speak with the individual in the foreground of the mind. They prefer the concrete to the abstract, with how great advantage!

Contrast the effect of these two passages; the occasional, abstract type, Water will quench a flaming fire, and almsgiving will make atonement for sin (E. 330), with the much more frequent personal presentation: Incline thine ear to a poor man and answer him with peaceable words gently. Deliver him that is wronged from the hand of him that wronged him (E. 48, 9). We discuss “Capital and Labour”; but the Jewish proverb says (Pr. 222; cp. 2913)

The rich and the poor dwell together,

The Lord God made them both;

and how deep the proverb goes, how swiftly it strikes home and excites the imagination. Rich and poor together, yes, in a sense—united within one city’s bounds; and yet how far apart they dwell from one another. How tragically far apart! But are they so greatly sundered as at first thought one imagines? In the things that matter ultimately—their manhood, womanhood; their tears and laughter; their loves; their sinning and repenting; their strength and health; their death and immortality? Perhaps there is just one meeting-place where rich and poor unite and stand absolutely equal; but it is there where earth and heaven fade away—the great white throne of God.

Mark how the sense of the individual man, with whom eventually all our plans to remedy the mischiefs in the body politic must come to terms, permeates the following proverbs:—

A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children;

But the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the righteous (Pr. 1322).

(No pious platitude this, but a keen-sighted observation of fact. It is seldom indeed that wealth is handed down through many generations, except in a morally “good” family; and on the other hand the sinner’s undisciplined children can usually be depended on to make ducks and drakes of their inheritance).

Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor,

He also shall cry, and shall not be heard (Pr. 2113).

There is that scattereth and increaseth yet more;

And there is that withholdeth that which is meet, and it tendeth only to want (Pr. 1124).

Hast given the poor to eat and drink, accompany them on their way (C. 208).

In the recognition of personal faults as the bane of society:

He that covereth a transgression seeketh love,

But he that harpeth on a matter separateth chief friends. (Pr. 179).

For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty,

And drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags (Pr. 2321).

These few maxims might be multiplied with ease, but they are sufficient for our purpose. Is it not clear how profoundly humanistic are these Jewish proverbs in their outlook on social affairs? Except our science be tempered by the same redeeming grace, we shall succeed on paper but fail in fact.

2. The Jewish proverbs throw out a challenge to the present age in the demand they make for commercial honesty and consideration of the general welfare of the community. This claim is put forward in a variety of ways, and there is no mistaking its earnestness; as in the famous saying, A false balance is an abomination unto the Lord, and a just weight is His delight (Pr. 111), a maxim reiterated in similar language in Pr. 2010, 23. Again it is said, The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vapour driven to and fro: they that seek them seek death (Pr. 216)—Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity than he that is crooked in his ways though he be rich (Pr. 286); and memorably—Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice (Pr. 168); to which add this startlingly modern protest against the food-profiteer, He that withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him; but blessing shall be upon the head of him that selleth it (Pr. 1126).

“Ah! but the times have changed, and the complications and stringency of modern business often render the employment of perfectly honest methods impractical. In those byegone days a man of industry and ability had perhaps little temptation to double-dealing, or at least was not compelled to follow the tricks of the trade in order to squeeze out a livelihood.” But no! that shortcut out of the difficulty is barred. Ben Sirach puts the matter bluntly: A merchant, says he, shall hardly keep himself from wrong-doing, and a huckster shall not be acquitted of sin (E. 2629). “Well, then, have the proverbs any remedy to suggest?

It is easy for the purist to talk. No one wishes to deny the courage of him who maintains a life-long protest against sharp practice, and we grant you the desirability of the protest; we can even admit the success of one here and there who has undertaken it. But it may seem doubtful if such unbending rectitude could be carried out generally; and at any rate, as matters stand, there must be thousands of well-meaning men who to keep themselves and their families from want and hunger must bow themselves slightly in the modern house of Rimmon”—so may a plea for a reasonable latitude be advanced.

What solution do the proverbs offer for the stern facts of present-day commerce? None; but that is no reason why we, following the spirit of their teaching, should not strive to find a remedy for our more complex problems, especially since the line along which progress can be made is surely not difficult to discover. The root of the matter is in the fact that whilst commercial dishonesty may benefit (in a material sense only) certain persons, it can only do so at the expense of the many, so that its elimination would necessarily conduce to the general welfare of organised society. Meantime it is hard for the individual to kick against the pricks of a system far greater than he, but it does not follow that the community of individuals is unable to fight the giant and slay him.

Though the present situation is such that the guilt of the individual is lessened (it is of course still real), the guilt of the community in tolerating such a condition of affairs is the more increased. For union is immense strength. It is the imperative duty of modern man by collective action (which may require eventually to become world-wide) to check, diminish and abolish those evil and improvident conditions which now impose such pressure upon the integrity of individuals. A herculean task! What then? The resources of civilised man are already vast, and they increase with marvellous rapidity, We stand at the beginnings of organised achievement; yet already magnificent opportunities for the betterment of human life lie within our reach, and wait only the consent of mind and conscience for their realisation. False weights have continued, despite the Jewish proverb, these twenty centuries and more; it does not follow that they need continue to the twenty-first.

3. Much of the injustice and degradation still prevalent in our civilised society would be brought to an end by the force of public opinion, were it not for wide-spread ignorance of the facts. Sometimes the ignorance is wilful blindness and no true ignorance; men refuse to look or listen; but as a rule it is due to mere lack of interest and unimaginative carelessness. No decent man or woman could desire the appalling facts of child-labour in the mines and factories of this country during the first half of the last century, or, for the matter of that, the facts of sweated industries at the present day; but many respectable people wished not to know and vastly many more troubled not themselves to know, and so the horrible and disastrous iniquities went on year by year.

Time and again the frank uncompromising proverbs of the Jews set us an example by their bold recognition of evil. They proclaim it for what it is, not mincing words but denouncing wickedness outspokenly and vehemently. A hundred illustrations could be taken from the maxims already quoted. Here, from sayings not yet mentioned, are three vigorous assaults on the hypocrite, the oppressor, and the morally perverted.

There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness.... There is a generation whose teeth are swords and their mouths armed with knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men (Pr. 3012, 14).

As one that killeth a son before his father’s eyes,

So is he that bringeth a sacrifice from the goods of the poor.

The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;

He that depriveth him thereof is a man of blood.

As one that slayeth his neighbour is he that taketh away his living;

And as a shedder of blood is he that depriveth a hireling of his hire (E. 3420-22).

He that saith unto the wicked “Thou art righteous,” peoples shall curse him and nations shall abhor him (Pr. 2424).

4. Of Riches and the deceitfulness thereof

Weary not thyself to be rich.... For riches certainly make themselves wings, like an eagle that flieth toward heaven (Pr. 234, 5).

“Believe not much them that seem to despise riches; for they despise them that despair of them.... Be not penny-wise; riches have wings, and sometimes they fly away of themselves, sometimes they must be set flying to bring in more.”

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches (Pr. 221).

“I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue. The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea and the care of it sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great riches there is no real use except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit.”

His riches are the ransom of a man’s life, but the poor heareth no threatenings (Pr. 138).

“But then you will say, they may be of use to buy men out of dangers or troubles. As Solomon saith, ‘Riches are as a stronghold, in the imagination of the rich man.’ But this is excellently expressed, that it is in imagination, and not always in fact. For certainly great riches have sold more men than they have bought out.”

Wealth gotten in haste shall be diminished, but he that gathereth slowly shall have increase (Pr. 1311).

“Seek not proud riches, but such as thou mayest get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly.”

Health and a good constitution are better than all gold, and a good spirit than wealth without measure (E. 3015).

Riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death (Pr. 114)—

whereat the shallow-minded may smile if it please them.

5. “Most gracious God, we humbly beseech Thee, as for this Kingdom in general, so especially for the High Court of

Parliament: that Thou wouldest be pleased to direct and prosper all their consultations to the advancement of Thy glory, the good of Thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of our Sovereign and his Dominions; that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be established among us for all generations.”

How the Jewish proverbs would endeavour to give effect to the prayer for good government has been told already , and it may be remembered that their teaching was described as a demand for a reign of justice extending from the highest to the lowest in the land. But that was an inadequate description. Examine more carefully what they say, and it will appear that the Jewish proverbs ask for more than bare justice; they enjoin mercy, they plead for honour, kindness, generosity, and affection between man and man; in a word they plead for humanity as the supreme solvent of human need. And are they not profoundly and rebukingly right therein? Justice may be the stones of the great building, but Love is the cement without which the fabric will not cohere. The stability of society depends on the good-will of well-intentioned men—By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted, and it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked (Pr. 1111).

6. One other arresting feature concerning the relations of rich and poor. The poorer classes of Jerusalem must have had many faults, but the Wise were very gentle towards them; scarcely ever do they reproach the poor directly for their shortcomings. On the other hand they have no mercy for the sins of those in high places, their instinct seeming to be that the root of evil in the State is in the neglect of opportunity on the part of those who possess the means for well-doing: and this is the more significant and conscience-searching in that the speakers of these proverbs were themselves, as a rule, members of the “fortunate” classes. “The poor, forsooth, are thieves!” Are they? Then, why? If a ruler hearkeneth to falsehood, all his servants are wicked (Pr. 2912). “The poor are disloyal and jealous of their betters!” Are they? The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established for ever (Pr. 2914).

7. In conclusion, a few memorable proverbs that will repay consideration. Here is an ambiguous maxim—from one point of view a platitude, from another a deep saying:

Sovereignty is transferred from nation to nation Because of iniquity, violence and greed of gold (E. 108).

Does it mean that greed and evil ambitions incite nations to war, to conquest, and so to the acquisition of new territories? If so, we are none the better for the information. Yes, but sometimes the “transference” takes place the other way, and not as the covetous folk desire it should. There have been peoples whose blind lust for power overreached itself, to meet with disaster and condign punishment. Concerning them too might it be said, though with a different accent to our words, “Sovereignty is transferred from nation to nation, because of iniquities, violence and greed of gold.”

There is no ambiguity, and no indecision, in these fine sentiments, which are none the less admirable, because they do not tell us how to reach the Golden Age:

When the righteous prosper the city rejoices;

And when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy (Pr. 1110).

Righteousness exalteth a nation,

Whereas sin is a shame to any people (Pr. 1434).

But of all that the Jewish proverbs have to say on the duties of our interrelated lives, this is the best in that it does show the gateway to the Golden Age, and allows no man to pass by unchallenged,

If thou wilt lift the load I will lift it too;

But if thou wilt not lift it, I will not (C. 257).

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie