Saturday, March 01, 2014

“he can shuffle off his present”

The narrator of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a good Christian who discovers a hidden but European-like country where no one knows his religion. His efforts to evangelize are met more with bemusement than interest. In one argument the narrator quotes from Shakespeare to bolster his faith in an afterlife: “[I]t is the fear lest worse evils may befall us after death which alone prevents us from rushing into death’s arms.” As suicide is a terrible sin for Christians, when you kill yourself you condemn your soul to eternal torment in hell. Thus you might as well suffer a little longer in your mortal existence to save yourself from greater pain later. The Erewhonian scoffs:

If a man cuts his throat he is at bay, and thinks of nothing but escape, no matter whither, provided he can shuffle off his present. … Men are kept at their posts, not by the fear that if they quit them they may quit a frying-pan for a fire, but by the hope that if they hold on, the fire may burn less fiercely. [One hangs on with the hope] that though calamity may live long, the sufferer may live longer still.

Erewhon is often a sort of mirror-version of England and I suppose Samuel Butler is critiquing the conventions of England via his creation. I’m afraid I don’t always get it. In this instance I do think the Erewhonian gets the better part of the argument. Have many suicides been stopped out of fear of hell? Doesn’t seem likely to me. Christian opprobrium, rather, just comes across as mean-spirited, like beating a horse with a broken leg to make it pull an overloaded cart. The cart isn’t going anywhere and the beating isn’t doing anybody any good.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

I was at a wedding once and had a conversation with a man who claimed that the fear of hell and damnation in the afterlife kept people behaving decently in this one. Having a complete unbelief in hell, and thinking that I behave decently most of the time, I had to disagree with him. We didn't get very far in the conversation. It was at a wedding and I didn't want to start an argument and we probably got interrupted by a need to toast someone.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Toast someone because you were at a demon wedding in hell?