How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!

From Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (ch 14), a weightier passage than camel medication and an indication of the depth of reading and thinking that lies behind the novel’s surface lightness:

It took me some time to make out the Greek inscription, which was about saving me from my sins, and I hesitated to say this prayer, as I did not really want to be saved from my sins, not for the time being, it would make things too difficult and too sad. I was getting into a stage when I was not quite sure what sin was, I was in a kind of fog, drifting about without clues, and this is liable to happen when you go on and on doing something, it makes a confused sort of twilight in which everything is blurred, and the next thing you know you might be stealing or anything, because right and wrong have become things you do not look at, you are afraid to, and it seems better to live in a blur. Then come the times when you wake suddenly up, and the fog breaks, and right and wrong loom through it, sharp and clear like peaks of rock, and you are on the wrong peak and know that, unless you can manage to leave it now, you may be marooned there for life and ever after. Then, as you don’t leave it, the mist swirls round again, and hides the other peak, and you turn your back on it and try to forget it and succeed.

Another thing you learn about sin, it is not one deed more than another, though the Church may call some of them mortal and others not, but even the worst ones are only the result of one choice after another and part of a chain, not things by themselves, and adultery, say, is chained with stealing sweets when you are a child, or taking another child’s toys, or the largest piece of cake, or letting someone else be thought to have broken something you have broken yourself, or breaking promises and telling secrets, it is all one thing and you are tied up with that chain till you break it, and the Church calls it not being in a state of grace, which means that you can get no help, so it is a vicious circle, and the odds are that you never get free. And, while I am on sin, I have often thought that it is a most strange thing that this important part of human life, the struggle that almost every one has about good and evil, cannot now be talked of without embarrassment, unless of course one is in church. It goes on just the same as it always has, for as T. S. Eliot points out,

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change,
The perpetual struggle of good and evil.

But now you cannot talk about it when it is your own struggle, you cannot say to your friends that you would like to be good, they would think you were going Buchmanite, or Grahamite, or something else that you would not at all care to be thought. Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, and this led to a lot of conversation about it all, and it was extremely interesting and exciting. And they went on talking about their conflicts all through the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and James Boswell, who of course was even more interested in his own character and behaviour than most people are, wrote to his friends, “My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!” and the baronet he wrote this to did not probably think it peculiar, and Dr. Johnson thought it very right and proper, though some people like Horace Walpole naturally found Boswell a strange being, and when he had to meet him Horace “made as dry answers as an unbribed oracle.” But they went on like this through most of the nineteenth century, even when they were not evangelicals or tractarians or anything like that, and nineteenth century novels are full of such interesting conversations, and the Victorian agnostics wrote to one another about it continually, it was one of their favourite topics, for the weaker they got on religion the stronger they got on morals, which used to be the case more then than now.

I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead. I do not remember that when I was at Cambridge we talked much about such things, they were thought rather CICCU, and shunned, though we talked about everything else, such as religion, love, people, psycho-analysis, books, art, places, cooking, cars, food, sex, and all that. And still we talk about all these other things, but not about being good or bad. You can say you would like to be a good writer, or painter, or architect, or swimmer, or carpenter, or cook, or actor, or climber, or talker, or even, I suppose, a good husband or wife, but not that you would like to be a good person, which is a desire you can only mention to a clergyman, whose shop it is, and who must not object or make dry answers like an unbribed oracle, but must listen and try to assist you in your vain ambition.

The Eliot quote is from his play The Rock and reprinted in Choruses from The Rock in Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (pg. 148) – also with some commentary in the newer The Poems of T.S. Eliot (v.1, pg 154). Below is the full speech in which this section occurs:

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring Ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say. take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches;
The men you are in these times deride
‘What has been done of good, you find explanations
To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.
Second, you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the comer,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart. Make perfect your Will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

And no less significant – the Boswell quote from an early letter (1763, when Boswell was 23) to an older friend, Sir David Dalrymple:

My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be, if I turn no better than I am; I have much vitality, which leads me to dissipation and folly. This, I think, I can restrain. But I will be moderate, and not aim at a stiff sageness and buckram correctness. I must, however, own to you, that I have at bottom a melancholy cast; which dissipation relieves by making me thoughtless, and therefore, an easier, tho’ a more contemptible, animal. I dread a return of this malady. I am always apprehensive of it. . . . Tell me . . . if years do not strengthen the mind, and make it less susceptible of being hurt? and if having a rational object will not keep up my spirits?

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