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Sir Walter Raleigh and His Time

’Truth is stranger than fiction.’ A trite remark. We all say it
again and again: but how few of us believe it! How few of us, when
we read the history of heroical times and heroical men, take the
story simply as it stands! On the contrary, we try to explain it
away; to prove it all not to have been so very wonderful; to impute
accident, circumstance, mean and commonplace motives; to lower every
story down to the level of our own littleness, or what we (unjustly
to ourselves and to the God who is near us all) choose to consider
our level; to rationalise away all the wonders, till we make them at
last impossible, and give up caring to believe them; and prove to our
own melancholy satisfaction that Alexander conquered the world with a
pin, in his sleep, by accident.
And yet in this mood, as in most, there is a sort of left -handed
truth involved. These heroes are not so far removed from us after
all. They were men of like passions with ourselves, with the same
flesh about them, the same spirit within them, the same world
outside, the same devil beneath, the same God above. They and their
deeds were not so very wonderful. Every child who is born into the
world is just as wonderful, and, for aught we know, might, ’mutatis
mutandis, do just as wonderful deeds. If accident and circumstance
helped them, the same may help us: have helped us, if we will look
back down our years, far more than we have made us e of.
They were men, certainly, very much of our own level: but may we not
put that level somewhat too low? They were certainly not what we
are; for if they had been, they would have done no more than we: but
is not a man’s real level not what he is, but what he can be, and
therefore ought to be? No doubt they were compact of good and evil,
just as we: but so was David, no man more; though a more heroical
personage (save One) appears not in all human records but may not the
secret of their success have been that, on the whole (though they
found it a sore battle), they refused the evil and chose the good?
It is true, again, that their great deeds may be more or less
explained, attributed to laws, rationalised: but is explaining
always explaining away? Is it to degrade a thing to attribute it to
a law? And do you do anything more by ’rationalising’ men’s deeds
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than prove that they were rational men; men who saw certain fixed
laws, and obeyed them, and succeeded thereby, according to the
Baconian apopht hegm, that nature is conquered by obeying her?
But what laws?
To that question, perhaps, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the
Hebrews will give the best answer, where it says, that by faith were
done all the truly great deeds, and by faith lived all the truly
great men who have ever appeared on earth.
There are, of course, higher and lower degrees of this faith; its
ob ject is one more or less worthy: but it is in all cases the belief
in certain unseen eternal facts, by keeping true to which a man must
in the long run succeed. Must; because he is more or less in harmony
with heaven, and earth, and the Maker thereof, and has therefore
fighting on his side a great portion of the universe; perhaps the