The Character Spook

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Dyer D. Lum

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An oldtime heathen, Plato, said: "We ought to esteem it of the greatest importance that the fictions which children first hear should be adapted in the most perfect manner to the promotion of virtue." With this thought in mind I would speak to Christian children of larger growth of character. Great is the character spook and many are its prophets! In every age, in every land, under every religious formula, whatever the God adored, over all One claims universal homage. The god of the commonplace is international. Religious sects may wage war, but all unite in worship at its shrine. The native New Zealander, who gives full license to girls and selects the most frail for private property in marital relations, worships thereat. The African chieftain who deems sexual hospitality the ne plus ultra of gentility toward strangers, like the Christian who avails himself of it, both acknowledge this god who "moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform." Even in infanticide we see it; for while Abipones spare girl babies because they can be sold in after vears, and the Knisteneaux adopt the reverse practice to utilize male vigor, both bow at the common shrine together with the Kafirs who carefully rear girls for their exchangeable value in cows! The Yezadee who gives a religious sanction to theft, the Thug who sees a moral obligation in assassination, as do the inhabitants of the Neilgherry Hills in polyandry and the Orientals in polygamy, all unite it equal obeisance to the shrine of the commonplace.

Great is the glory of Christendom! Such vulgar practices are universally condemned here; but has not the same God still a shrine among us? Did Cant die with Moloch? I remember when anti-slavery opinions were tabooed in Christian pulpits, and slave-holders fellowshiped with the same easy complacency as today the landlord and merchant, who rob their fellow worshipers between prayers. Of course it is easy to select "respectable" instances of the worship of the commonplace, wherein "character" becomes the cardinal virtue. The modern Golden Rule: "Do as the respectable do and thou wilt be respected" lacks no end of illustration.

Even the reformer, though he live in the "wild, wooly West" instead of the classic shades of Boston culture, bows before the omnipresent power of its influence. The radical, while fully appreciating the humor of the Pharisee's prayer, publicly announces his thanks that no word can be said against his "character"; and his dissident fellow adorers regret the fact. The exponent of a new idea which shocks his whilom associates feels the cold air of disapproval, and turns from his purpose to devote half his time in earnest effort to convince his fellows that he has not yet—thank God—abjured the universal shrine of the commonplace!

Even if we descend to the lower strata of reform thought, to men and women who are honestly, though I believe mistakenly, devoting their time and modicum of talent to what is euphoniously termed "sex-slavery," but who are profanely called" sex-cranks," the cry still arises: "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" In this side-lane of the reform highway in which so many are now wandering in search of fungi, utterly oblivious that it does not lead to the main goal of the ages—industrial emancipation—shrill shrieks of hysterical adorers still awaken the unfortunate soul who prefers Anglo-Saxon to euphonical terms. They, too, have "character"—in daylight! ,And they, too, raise their prophetic warning voices against the sacrilegious iconoclast who smiles profanely at the common shrine.

Is character, then, a spook? Is there, then, no such thing as ethics in social relation? Yea, verily, though I seriously doubt whether it is found at the foot of the common shrine. While recognizing fully that men are cells in the social organism, inheriting the moral wealth of the ages, breathing in the social air, thinking largely what others have thought, even that today's paradox becomes tomorrow's commonplace, conditioned and modified by it; holding as firmly that only as individual freedom has advanced has the higher moral qualities of the individual cells, or social units, resulted; till I dissent from the common ethical superstition at our observance of formulae aids ethical growth. In this, as Clifford well said: "The process is not a conscious one."

They most truly subserve the end of all ethical conduct who rest their actions on being rather than doing, the development of personality rather than conformity, on being thyself rather than thy neighbor's spectrum. The Chinese gives us an example of the logical result of commonplace worship; the other has yet to be realized. Under the sole check of equal freedom, leaving the social result to the general mind, the individual in following out the instinctive tendencies of his nature, more widely as well as most wisely affects the general end, and thus determines true character unconsciously, neither warped nor stunted by overzealous efforts of ephemeral cells. Though the shrine of the commonplace still claims international adoration, I still have faith in the continual evolution of Humanity, and see the wisest contribution thereto in effort to assert individuality, even though the worshipers of the Great Diana of the Ephesians fill the air with treble shrieks, and the unsolicited adorers of Ashtarte faint in horror at such sacrilege.

"Honi soit qui mal y pense!"

Brooklyn, N. Y.

  • Dyer D. Lum, “The Character Spook,” The Twentieth Century ??, no. ?? (May 14, 1891): 7-8.