The meaning of “the razor’s edge”

A correspondent writes:

Do you understand this, the source of Maugham’s title The Razor’s Edge?

The Razor’s Edge is a book by W. Somerset Maugham published in 1944. Its epigraph reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” taken from a verse in the Katha-Upanishad.[1][2]

LA replies:

I agree, I also had trouble understanding that line from Upanishads and the title of Maugham’s novel when I read it in my early twenties, because the first thing you think about a razor’s edge is that it is very sharp and will cut you. The image it brought to mind was someone trying to walk on a razor’s edge and having his feet cut. Which made no sense to me in the context.

But just now, I realized that that’s not the meaning. It’s not the cutting sharpness of the razor’s edge that is the idea, but its extreme narrowness, the idea that the spiritual path is very narrow, very hard to stay on, extremely easy to fall off of.

Forty years after first encountering that idea, I finally understand it.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24.)

LA replies:

Yes, but along with that verse, we should quote the two subsequent verses which show that Jesus was not speaking literally:

When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:25-26.)

Which I interpret as meaning, it’s not the mere material fact of being rich or having possessions that blocks men from the kingdom of God, but a psychological factor, their inordinate attachment to their possessions. They are “psychologically” rich, full of themselves and their wealth, which makes it impossible for them to follow God. A man who was materially rich but “poor in spirit” would not be so limited.

Which further implies that when, in the verses just before the ones we’ve quoted, Jesus told the rich young man that he had to give away all his wealth in order to be perfect and to follow him (Matt. 19:20-21), he didn’t mean it literally. He was testing him. If the young man had not “walked away sorrowfully” (19:22), but had remained open to Jesus notwithstanding his outrageous demand that he give away everything he owned, he would have passed the test and Jesus would not have expected him to give away all his possessions. Just as Abraham, by remaining faithfully open and obedient to God’s instruction to give everything to God, even to sacrifice his son, was not required to sacrifice his son.

Yet at the same time, Kristor’s point remains valid. For the young man to have grasped all this and been able to stay with it, would have been, figuratively, as difficult as walking on a razor’s edge.

Kristor replies:

Your connection of this verse to the binding of Isaac is apt. When we surrender everything to God, much more than we had surrendered is given back to us; not just the Kingdom of Heaven, but also much of what we had sacrificed—i.e., the bits we ought properly to have had—is returned to us sanctified.

St. Clement of Alexandria expatiated on these points with profound insight in his The Rich Man’s Salvation.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 18, 2011 09:42 AM | Send

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