y children,” said Dr. Johnson, “clear your minds of cant.” If professional politicians should follow this advice, many of them would be likely to find their occupation clean gone. At elections they are so wont to simulate the sentiments and language of patriotism,—to pretend a zeal for this, an indignation for that, and a horror for another thing, about which they are known to be comparatively indifferent, as if any flummery might be crammed down the throats of the people,—that the voters, whom the old party hacks fancy they are gulling, are simply laughing in their sleeves at their transparent attempts at deception. Daniel O’Connell, the popular Irish orator, is said to have had a large vocabulary of stock political phrases, upon which he rang the changes with magical effect. He could whine, and wheedle, and wink with one eye, while he wept with the other; and if his flow of oratory was ever in danger of halting, he had always at hand certain stereotyped catch-words, such as his “own green isle,” his “Irish heart,” his “head upon the block,” his “hereditary bondsmen, know ye not,” etc., which never failed him in any emergency.
Common, however, as are meaningless phrases on the stump and platform, it is to be feared that they are hardly less so in the meeting-house, and there they are doubly offensive, if not unpardonable. It is a striking remark of Coleridge, that truths, of all others the most awful and interesting, are too often considered so true that they lose all the power of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors. Continual handling wears off the beauty and significance of words, and it is only by a distinct effort of the mind that we can restore their full meaning. Hence it is that “the traditional maxims of old experience, though seldom questioned, have often so little effect on the conduct of life, because their meaning is never, by most persons, really felt, until personal experience has brought it home. And thus, also, it is that so many doctrines of religion, ethics, and even politics, so full of meaning and reality to first converts, have manifested a tendency to degenerate rapidly into lifeless dogmas, which tendency all the efforts of an education expressly and skilfully directed to keeping the meaning alive are barely found sufficient to counteract.”1
There can be little doubt that many a man whose life is thoroughly selfish cheats himself into the belief that he is pious, because he parrots with ease the phrases of piety and orthodoxy. Who is not familiar with scores of such pet phrases and cant terms, which are repeated at this day apparently without a thought of their meaning? Who ever attended a missionary meeting without hearing “the Macedonian cry,” and an account of some “little interest,” and “fields white for the harvest”? Who is not weary of the ding-dong of “our Zion” and the solecism of “in our midst”; and who does not long for a verbal millennium when Christians shall no longer “feel to take” and “grant to give”? “How much I regret,” says Coleridge, “that so many religious persons of the present day think it necessary to adopt a certain cant of manner and phraseology as a token to each other! They must improve this and that text, and they must do so and so in a prayerful way; and so on. A young lady urged upon me, the other day, that such and such feelings were the marrow of all religion; upon which I recommended her to try to walk to London on her marrow-bones only.” Mr. Spurgeon, in his “Lectures to Students,” remarks that “‘the poor unworthy dust’ is an epithet generally applied to themselves by the proudest men in the congregation, and not seldom by the most moneyed and groveling; in which case the last words are not so very inappropriate. We have heard of a good man who, in pleading for his children and grandchildren, was so completely beclouded in the blinding influence of this expression, that he exclaimed, ‘O Lord, save thy dust, and thy dust’s dust, and thy dust’s dust’s dust.’ When Abraham said, ‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes,’ the utterance was forcible and expressive; but in its misquoted, perverted, and abused form, the sooner it is consigned to its own element the better.” Many persons have very erroneous ideas of what constitutes religious conversation. That is not necessarily religious talk which is interlarded with religious phrases, or which is solely about divine things; but that which is permeated with religious feeling, which is full of truth, reverence, and love, whatever the theme may be. Who has not heard some men talk of the most worldly things in a way that made the hearer feel the electric current of spirituality playing through their words, and uplifting his whole spiritual being? And who has not heard other persons talk about the divinest things in so dry, formal, and soulless a way that their words seemed a profanation, and chilled him to the core? It is almost a justification of slang that it is generally an effort to obtain relief from words worn bare by the use of persons who put neither knowledge nor feeling into them, and which seem incapable of expressing anything real.
When Lady Townsend was asked if Whitefield had recanted, she replied, “No; he has only canted.” Often, when there is no deliberate hypocrisy, good men use language so exaggerated and unreal as to do more harm than the grossest worldliness. We have often, in thinking upon this subject, called to mind a saying of Dr. Sharp, of Boston, a Baptist preacher, who was a hater of all cant and shams. “There’s Dr. ——— ,” said he, about the time of the first meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, “who went all the way to Europe to talk up brotherly love. If he should meet a poor Baptist minister in the street, he wouldn’t speak to him.” Nothing is cheaper than pious or benevolent talk. A great many men would be positive forces of goodness in the world, if they did not let all their principles and enthusiasm escape in words. They are like locomotives which let off so much steam through the escape valves, that, though they fill the air with noise, they have not power enough left to move the train. There is hardly anything which so fritters spiritual energy as talk without deeds. “The fluent boaster is not the man who is steadiest before the enemy; it is well said to him that his courage is better kept till it is wanted. Loud utterances of virtuous indignation against evil from the platform, or in the drawing-room, do not characterize the spiritual giant; so much indignation as is expressed has found vent; it is wasted; is taken away from the work of coping with evil; the man has so much less left. And hence he who restrains that love of talk lays up a fund of spiritual strength.”2
It is said that Pambos, an illiterate saint of the middle ages, being unable to read, came to some one to be taught a psalm. Having learned the simple verse, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not with my tongue,” he went away, saying that was enough if it was practically acquired. When asked six months, and again many years after, why he did not come to learn another verse, he answered that he had never been able truly to master this. A man may have a heart overflowing with love and sympathy, even though he is not in the habit of exhibiting on his cards “J. Good Soul, Philanthropist,” and was never known to unfold his cambric handkerchief, with the words, “Let us weep.” On the other hand, nothing is easier than to use a set phraseology without attaching to it any clear and definite meaning,—to cheat one’s self with the semblance of thought or feeling, when no thought or feeling exists. It has been truly said that when good men who have no deep religious fervor use fervent language, which they have caught from others, or which was the natural expression of what they felt in other and better years,—above all, when they employ on mean and trivial occasions expressions which have been forged in the fires of affliction and hammered out in the shock of conflict,—they cannot easily imagine what a disastrous impression they produce on keen and discriminating minds. The cheat is at once detected, and the hasty inference is drawn that all expressions of religious earnestness are affected and artificial. The honest and irrepressible utterance of strong conviction and deep emotion commands respect; but intense words should never be used when the religious life is not intense. “Costing little, words are given prodigally, and sacrificial acts must toil for years to cover the space which a single fervid promise has stretched itself over. No wonder that the slow acts are superseded by the available words, the weighty bullion by the current paper money. If I have conveyed all I feel by language, I am tempted to fancy, by the relief experienced, that feeling has attained its end and realized itself. Farewell, then, to the toil of the ‘daily sacrifice!’ Devotion has found for itself a vent in words.”3
Art, as well as literature, politics, and religion, has its cant, which is as offensive as any of its other forms. When Rossini was asked why he had ceased attending the opera in Paris, he replied, “I am embarrassed at listening to music with Frenchmen. In Italy or Germany, I am sitting quietly in the pit, and on each side of me is a man shabbily dressed, but who feels the music as I do; in Paris I have on each side of me a fine gentleman in straw-colored gloves, who explains to me all I feel, but who feels nothing. All he says is very clever, indeed, and it is often very true; but it takes the gloss off my own impression,—if I have any.” ■
1. Mill’s “Logic.”
2. Sermons, by Rev. F. W. Robertson.
3. “Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson.”