‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘you interest me immensely? You think, then, that we do not understand the real nature of evil?’
‘No, I don’t think we do. We over-estimate it and we under-estimate it. We take the very numerous infractions of our social “bye-laws” — the very necessary and very proper regulations which keep the human company together — and we get frightened at the prevalence of “sin” and “evil.” But this is really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters of our day?
‘Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the “sin” of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.’
‘And what is sin?’ said Cotgrave.
‘I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
‘Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.’
‘Look here,’ said the third man, hitherto placid, ‘you two seem pretty well wound up. But I’m going home. I’ve missed my tram, and I shall have to walk.’
Ambrose and Cotgrave seemed to settle down more profoundly when the other had gone out into the early misty morning and the pale light of the lamps.
‘You astonish me,’ said Cotgrave. ‘I had never thought of that. If that is really so, one must turn everything upside down. Then the essence of sin really is —— ’
‘In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me,’ said Ambrose. ‘It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and a higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. They are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint.’
‘Your psychology is very strange to me,’ said Cotgrave, ‘but I confess I like it, and I suppose that one might fairly deduce from your premisses the conclusion that the real sinner might very possibly strike the observer as a harmless personage enough?’
‘Certainly; because the true evil has nothing to do with social life or social laws, or if it has, only incidentally and accidentally. It is a lonely passion of the soul — or a passion of the lonely soul — whichever you like. If, by chance, we understand it, and grasp its full significance, then, indeed, it will fill us with horror and with awe. But this emotion is widely distinguished from the fear and the disgust with which we regard the ordinary criminal, since this latter is largely or entirely founded on the regard which we have for our own skins or purses. We hate a murderer, because we know that we should hate to be murdered, or to have any one that we like murdered. So, on the “other side,” we venerate the saints, but we don’t “like” them as we like our friends. Can you persuade yourself that you would have “enjoyed” St Paul’s company? Do you think that you and I would have “got on” with Sir Galahad?
‘So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should “dislike” him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror. Still, how awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant’s tale!’