Corporateness and Individualism

By Robert Hugh Benson.

He that shall lose his life for My sake shall find it. For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?
--MATT. XVI. 25, 26.


No recorded word of our Lord better illustrates than does this the startling and paradoxical manner of His teaching. For He Who knew what was in man, Who spoke always down to man’s deepest interests, dwelt and spoke therefore in that realm of truth where man’s own paradoxical nature is most manifest; where his interests appear to flourish only by being ruthlessly pruned; where he rises to the highest development of self only by self-mortification. This is, in fact, the very lesson Christ teaches in these words. To find the life is the highest object of every man and the end for which he was created; yet this can be attained only by the losing of it for Christ’s sake. Individuality can be preserved only by the sacrifice of Individualism. Let us break up this thought and consider it more in detail.

I.    (i) Catholics, it is said, are the most fundamentally selfish people in the whole world, since all that they do and say and think is directed and calculated, so far as they are “good Catholics,” to the salvation of their own souls. It is this that continually crops up in their conversation, and this that presumably is their chief preoccupation. Yet surely this, above all methods, is the very worst for achieving such an end. One does not pull up flowers to see how they are growing. The very secret of health is to be unconscious of it.  Catholics, on the other hand, scarcely ever do anything else; they are for ever examining themselves, for ever going to confession, for ever developing and cultivating the narrowest virtues. The whole science of Casuistry, for example, is directed to nothing else but this—the exact definition of those limits within which the salvation of the soul is secure and beyond which it is imperilled; and Casuistry, as we all know, has a stifling and deadening influence upon all who study it.


Again, see how the true development and expansion of the soul must necessarily be hindered by such an ideal. “I must not read this book, however brilliant, since it might be dangerous to my faith. I must not mix in this company, however charming, since evil communications corrupt good manners.” What kind of life is that which must always be checked and stunted in this fashion? What kind of salvation can there be that can only be purchased by the sacrifice of so much that is noble and inspiring? True life consists in experience, not in introspection; in going out from self into the world, not in retiring from the world inwards. Let us therefore live our life without fear, lose ourselves in humanity, forget self in experience, and leave the rest to God!

(ii)  So much for the one side, while from the other comes almost precisely the opposite criticism. Catholics, it is said, are not nearly individualistic enough; on the contrary they are for ever sinking themselves and their personalities in the corporate life of the Church.  Not only are their outward actions checked and their words guarded, but even their very consciences and thoughts are informed and made by the collective conscience and mind of others. It is the highest ambition of every good Catholic sentire cum ecclesia; not merely to act and speak but even to think in obedience to others. Now a man’s true life, we are told, consists in an assertion of his own individuality. God has made no two men the same; the mould was made and broken in each several case.  If, therefore, we are to be what He meant us to be, we must make the most of our own personalities; we must think our own thoughts, not other people’s, direct our own lives, speak our own minds—so far, of course, as we can do so without interfering with our neighbour’s equal liberty.  Once more, therefore, we are bidden to live our life to the full; not in this case, however, because we all share in a common humanity, but because we do not!


We Catholics are wrong, therefore, for both reasons and in both directions. We are wrong when we put self first and we are wrong when we do not. We are wrong when we launch out into the current of life, and wrong when we withdraw ourselves from its waters. We are wrong when we insist upon our personal responsibility, and wrong when we look to the Church to undertake it.

II.   (i) Here then, indeed, is a Paradox; but it is one which our Lord Himself expressly emphasizes. For, first, there is nothing on which He so repeatedly insists as the supreme and singular value of every soul’s salvation. If this is not attained, all is lost. What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? All else, then, must be sacrificed if this is in peril. No human possession, however great, can be weighed against this. No human tie, however sacred, can hold against its claim. Not only must houses and lands, but father and mother and wives and children must take second place, so soon as eternal life is at stake. And yet, somehow or another, this salvation can only be attained by loss; self can only live if it be mortified, can only be saved by its own denial. Individuality, as has been said, can only be preserved by the loss of Individualism.


(ii)  But this is not peculiar to the spiritual sphere; it is a paradox that is true, in some sense, of life on every plane—civic, intellectual, artistic, human. The man that desires to bring his intellectual and personal powers to their highest pitch must continually be sinking them, so to speak, in the current of his fellows, continually exhausting, using, and wearing them out. He must risk, and indeed inevitably lose, in a very real sense, his personal point of view, if he is to have a point of view that is worth possessing; he must be content to see his theories and his thoughts modified, merged, changed, and destroyed, if his thought is to be of value. For, so far as he withdraws himself from his fellows into a physical or mental isolation, so far he approaches egotistic madness. He cannot grow unless he decreases; he cannot remain himself unless he ceases to be himself.


So, too, is it in civic and artistic life. The citizen who truly lives to the State of which he is a member—the man to whom his country raises a monument, for example—is one, always, who has lost himself for his nation, whether he has died in battle or sacrificed himself in politics or philanthropy. And the citizen who has merely hugged his citizenship to himself, who has enjoyed all the privileges he can get and paid nothing for them,--least of all himself—who has, so to say, gained the whole world, has simultaneously lost himself indeed and is forgotten within a year of his death. So with the artist. The man who has made his art serve him, who has employed it, let us say, purely for the sake of the money he could get out of it, who has kept it within severe limits, who has been merely prudent and orderly and restrained, this man has, in a sense, saved his own life; yet simultaneously he has lost it. But the man to whom art is a passion, to whom nothing else is comparatively of any value, who has plunged himself in his art, has dedicated to it his days and his nights, has sacrificed to it every power of his being and every energy of his mind and body, this man has indeed lost himself. Yet he lives in his art as the other has not, he has saved himself in a sense of which the other knows nothing; and exactly in proportion as he has succeeded in his self-abnegation, so far has he attained, as we say, immortality. There is not, then, one sphere of life in which the paradox is not true. The great historical lovers in romance, the pioneers of science, the immortals in every plane, are precisely those that have fulfilled on lower levels the spiritual aphorism of Jesus Christ.

(iii) Turn, then, once more to the Catholic Church and see how in the Life which she offers, as in none other, there is presented to us a means of fulfilling our end.


For it is she alone who even demands in the spiritual sphere a complete and entire abnegation of self. From every other Christian body comes the cry, Save your soul, assert your individuality, follow your conscience, form your opinions; while she, and she alone, demands from her children the sacrifice of their intellect, the submitting of their judgment, the informing of their conscience by hers, and the obedience of their will to her lightest command. For she, and she alone, is conscious of possessing that Divinity, in complete submission to which lies the salvation of Humanity. For she, as the coherent and organic mystical Body of Christ, calls upon those who look to her to become, not merely her children, but her very members; not to obey her as soldiers obey a leader or citizens a Government, but as the hands and eyes and feet obey a brain. Once, therefore, I understand this, I understand too how it is that by being lost in her I save myself; that I lose only that which hinders my activity, not that which fosters it. For when is my hand most itself? When separated from the body, by paralysis or amputation? Or when, in vital union with the brain, with every fibre alert and every nerve alive, it obeys in every gesture and receives in every sensation a life infinitely vaster and higher than any which it might, temporarily, enjoy in independence? It is true that its capacity for pain is the greater when it is so united, and that it would cease to suffer if once its separation were accomplished; yet, simultaneously, it would lose all that for which God made it and, saving itself, would be lost indeed.

I live, then, the perfect Catholic may say, as none other can say, when I have ceased to be myself. And yet not I, since I have lost my Individualism. No longer do I claim any activity at all on my own behalf; no longer do I demand to form my opinions, to follow my own conscience apart from that informing of it that comes from God, or to live my own life. Yet in losing my Individualism I have won my Individuality, for I have found my true place at last. I have lost the whole world? Yes, so far as that world is separate from or antagonistic to God’s will; but I have gained my own soul and attained immortality.  For it is not I that live, but Christ that liveth in me.





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