Lay Morals HTML version

Chapter 1. The Satirist
My companion enjoyed a cheap reputation for wit and insight. He was by habit
and repute a satirist. If he did occasionally condemn anything or anybody who
richly deserved it, and whose demerits had hitherto escaped, it was simply
because he condemned everything and everybody. While I was with him he
disposed of St. Paul with an epigram, shook my reverence for Shakespeare in a
neat antithesis, and fell foul of the Almighty Himself, on the score of one or two
out of the ten commandments. Nothing escaped his blighting censure. At every
sentence he overthrew an idol, or lowered my estimation of a friend. I saw
everything with new eyes, and could only marvel at my former blindness. How
was it possible that I had not before observed A's false hair, B's selfishness, or
C's boorish manners? I and my companion, methought, walked the streets like a
couple of gods among a swarm of vermin; for every one we saw seemed to bear
openly upon his brow the mark of the apocalyptic beast. I half expected that
these miserable beings, like the people of Lystra, would recognise their betters
and force us to the altar; in which case, warned by the late of Paul and Barnabas,
I do not know that my modesty would have prevailed upon me to decline. But
there was no need for such churlish virtue. More blinded than the Lycaonians,
the people saw no divinity in our gait; and as our temporary godhead lay more in
the way of observing than healing their infirmities, we were content to pass them
by in scorn.
I could not leave my companion, not from regard or even from interest, but from a
very natural feeling, inseparable from the case. To understand it, let us take a
simile. Suppose yourself walking down the street with a man who continues to
sprinkle the crowd out of a flask of vitriol. You would be much diverted with the
grimaces and contortions of his victims; and at the same time you would fear to
leave his arm until his bottle was empty, knowing that, when once among the
crowd, you would run a good chance yourself of baptism with his biting liquor.
Now my companion's vitriol was inexhaustible.
It was perhaps the consciousness of this, the knowledge that I was being
anointed already out of the vials of his wrath, that made me fall to criticising the
critic, whenever we had parted.
After all, I thought, our satirist has just gone far enough into his neighbours to find
that the outside is false, without caring to go farther and discover what is really
true. He is content to find that things are not what they seem, and broadly
generalises from it that they do not exist at all. He sees our virtues are not what
they pretend they are; and, on the strength of that, he denies us the possession
of virtue altogether. He has learnt the first lesson, that no man is wholly good; but