A foolish stump-orator, perorating on his platform mere benevolences, seems a pleasant object to many persons; a harmless or insignificant one to almost all. Look at him, however; scan him till you discern the nature of him, he is not pleasant, but ugly and perilous. That beautiful speech of his takes captive every long ear, and kindles into quasi-sacred enthusiasm the minds of not a few; but it is quite in the teeth of the everlasting facts of this Universe, and will come only to mischief for every party concerned. Consider that little spouting wretch. Within the paltry skin of him, it is too probable, he holds few human virtues, beyond those essential for digesting victual: envious, cowardly, vain, splenetic hungry soul; what heroism, in word or thought or action, will you ever get from the like of him? He, in his necessity, has taken into the benevolent line; warms the cold vacuity of his inner man to some extent, in a comfortable manner, not by silently doing some virtue of his own, but by fiercely recommending hearsay pseudo-virtues and respectable benevolences to other people. Do you call that a good trade? Long-eared fellow-creatures, more or less resembling himself, answer, "Hear, hear! Live Fiddlestring forever!" Wherefrom follow Abolition Congresses, Odes to the Gallows;--perhaps some dirty little Bill, getting itself debated next Session in Parliament, to waste certain
nights of our legislative Year, and cause skipping in our Morning Newspaper, till the abortion can be emptied out again and sent fairly floating down the gutters.
Not with entire approbation do I, for one, look on that eloquent individual. Wise benevolence, if it had authority, would order that individual, I believe, to find some other trade: "Eloquent individual, pleading here against the Laws of Nature,--for many reasons, I bid thee close that mouth of thine. Enough of balderdash these long-eared have now drunk. Depart thou; _do_ some benevolent work; at lowest, be silent. Disappear, I say; away, and jargon no more in that manner, lest a worst thing befall thee." _Exeat_ Fiddlestring!--Beneficent men are not they who appear on platforms, pleading against the Almighty Maker's Laws; these are the maleficent men, whose lips it is pity that some authority cannot straightway shut. Pandora's Box is not more baleful than the gifts these eloquent benefactors are pressing on us. Close your pedler's pack, my friend; swift, away with it! Pernicious, fraught with mere woe and sugary poison is that kind of benevolence and beneficence.
Truly, one of the saddest sights in these times is that of poor creatures, on platforms, in parliaments and other situations, making and unmaking "Laws;" in whose soul, full of mere vacant hearsay and windy babble, is and was no image of Heaven's Law; whom it never struck that Heaven had a Law, or that the Earth--could not have what kind of Law you pleased! Human Statute-books, accordingly, are growing horrible to think of. An impiety and poisonous futility every Law of them that is so made; all Nature is against it; it will and can do nothing but mischief wheresoever it shows itself in Nature: and such Laws lie now like an incubus over this Earth, so innumerable are they. How long, O Lord, how long!--O ye Eternities, Divine Silences, do you dwell no more, then, in the hearts of the noble and the true; and is there no inspiration of the Almighty any more vouchsafed us? The inspiration of the Morning Newspapers--alas, we have had enough of that, and are arrived at the gates of death by means of that!
"Really, one of the most difficult questions this we have in these times, What to do with our criminals?" blandly observed a certain Law-dignitary, in my hearing once, taking the cigar from his mouth, and pensively smiling over a group of us under the summer beech-tree, as Favonius carried off the tobacco-smoke; and the group said nothing, only smiled and nodded, answering by new tobacco-clouds. "What to do with our criminals?" asked the official Law-dignitary again, as if entirely at a loss.--"I suppose," said one ancient figure not engaged in smoking, "the plan would be to treat them according to the real law of the case; to make the Law of England, in respect of them, correspond to the Law of the Universe. Criminals, I suppose, would prove manageable in that way: if we could do approximately as God Almighty does towards them; in a word, if we could try to do Justice towards them."--"I'll thank you for a definition of Justice?" sneered the official person in a cheerily scornful and triumphant manner, backed by a slight laugh from the honorable company; which irritated the other speaker.--"Well, I have no pocket definition of Justice," said he, "to give your Lordship. It has not quite been my trade to look for such a definition; I could rather fancy it had been your Lordship's trade, sitting on your high place this long while. But one thing I can tell you: Justice always is, whether we define it or not. Everything done, suffered or proposed, in Parliament or out of it, is either just or else unjust; either is accepted by the gods and eternal facts, or is rejected by them. Your Lordship and I, with or without definition, do a little know Justice, I will hope; if we don't both know it and do it, we are hourly travelling down towards--Heavens, must I name such a place! That is the place we are bound to, with all our trading-pack, and the small or extensive budgets of human business laid on us; and there, if we _don't know_ Justice, we, and all our budgets and Acts of Parliament, shall find lodging when the day is done!"--The official person, a polite man otherwise, grinned as he best could some semblance of a laugh, mirthful as that of the ass eating thistles, and ended in "Hah, oh, ah!"--
Indeed, it is wonderful to hear what account we at present give ourselves of the punishment of criminals. No "revenge"--O Heavens, no; all preachers on Sunday strictly forbid that; and even (at least on Sundays) prescribe the contrary of that. It is for the sake of "example," that you punish; to "protect society" and its purse and skin; to deter the innocent from falling into crime; and especially withal, for the purpose of improving the poor criminal himself,--or at lowest, of hanging and ending him, that he may not grow worse. For the poor criminal is, to be "improved" if possible: against him no "revenge" even on week-days; nothing but love for him, and pity and help; poor fellow, is he not miserable enough? Very miserable,--though much less so than the Master of him, called Satan, is understood (on Sundays) to have long deservedly been!
My friends, will you permit me to say that all this, to one poor judgment among your number, is the mournfulest twaddle that human tongues could shake from them; that it has no solid foundation in the nature of things; and to a healthy human heart no credibility whatever. Permit me to say, only to hearts long drowned in dead Tradition, and for themselves neither believing nor disbelieving, could this seem credible. Think, and ask yourselves, in spite of all this preaching and perorating from the teeth outward! Hearts that are quite strangers to eternal Fact, and acquainted only at all hours with temporary Semblances parading about in a prosperous and persuasive condition; hearts that from their first appearance in this world have breathed since birth, in all spiritual matters, which means in all matters not pecuniary, the poisonous atmosphere of universal Cant, could believe such a thing. Cant moral, Cant religious, Cant political; an atmosphere which envelops all things for us unfortunates, and has long done; which goes beyond the Zenith and below the Nadir for us, and has as good as choked the spiritual life out of all of us,--God pity such wretches, with little or nothing _real_ about them but their purse and their abdominal department! Hearts, alas, which everywhere except in the metallurgic and cotton-spinning provinces, have communed with no Reality, or awful Presence of a Fact, godlike or diabolic, in this Universe or this unfathomable Life at all. Hunger-stricken asphyxied hearts, which have nourished themselves on what they call religions, Christian religions. Good Heaven, once more fancy the Christian religion of Oliver Cromwell; or of some noble Christian man, whom you yourself may have been blessed enough, once, long since, in your life, to know! These are not _untrue_ religions; they are the putrescences and foul residues of religions that are extinct, that have plainly to every honest nostril been dead some time, and the remains of which--O ye eternal Heavens, will the nostril never be delivered from them!--Such hearts, when they get upon platforms, and into questions not involving money, can "believe" many things!--
I take the liberty of asserting that there is one valid reason, and only one, for either punishing a man or rewarding him in this world; one reason, which ancient piety could well define: That you may do the will and commandment of God with regard to him; that you may do justice to him. This is your one true aim in respect of him; aim thitherward, with all your heart and all your strength and all your soul, thitherward, and not elsewhither at all! This aim is true, and will carry you to all earthly heights and benefits, and beyond the stars and Heavens. All other aims are purblind, illegitimate, untrue; and will never carry you beyond the shop-counter, nay very soon will prove themselves incapable of maintaining you even there. Find out what the Law of God is with regard to a man; make that your human law, or I say it will be ill with you, and not well! If you love your thief or murderer, if Nature and eternal Fact love him, then do as you are now doing. But if Nature and Fact do _not_ love him? If they have set inexorable penalties upon him, and planted natural wrath against him in every god-created human heart,--then I advise you, cease, and change your hand.