The shores of Styx are lone for evermore,
And not one shadowy form upon the steep
Looms through the dusk, far as the eye can sweep,
To call the ferry over as of yore;
But tintless rushes all about the shore
Have hemmed the old boat in, where, locked in sleep,
Hoar-bearded Charon lies; while pale weeds creep
With tightening grasp all round the unused oar.
For in the world of Life strange rumours run
That now the soul departs not with the breath,
But that the Body and the Soul are one;
And in the loved one’s mouth now, after death,
The widow puts no obol, nor the son,
To pay the ferry in the world beneath.
Eugene Lee Hamilton
Before going forward let us look back. It almost seems, I have said, as if our earth had during the last fifty years passed through a zone of cosmic disturbance. A somewhat similar disturbance took place four centuries ago, of which the convulsion we have ourselves experienced may be regarded as a continuation, a second shock of the same earthquake, or a second rising of the tide, such as takes place at certain points on our southern coast, more especially marked during the season of ‘Springs.’ The sea rises upon the land, retires, and before ebbing rises once again.
Four centuries ago, at the Renaissance, a change swept over European thought, the first great lift of the flood, whose second rising our own times have witnessed. Out of the great deeps emerged powerful forces transforming and revitalising human life. As it were upon bridges of unparalleled discoveries and inventions associated with the names of men like Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo, our ancestors crossed from the medieval to the modern world. The dawn, of which signs had already appeared in the eastern sky, brightened into daylight, and a fresh enthusiasm for life took possession of the hearts of men. The Renaissance ushered in a new day, the birthday of the modern world. Europe stood ‘on the top of golden hours’ and human nature seemed born again.
The poet Keats, in one of his letters, uses an arresting phrase, in respect of sixteenth-century literature: he speaks of ‘the indescribable gusto of the Elizabethan voice’, and quotes the Shake-sperian line,
Be stirring with the morrow, gentle Norfolk.
That indescribable gusto, detected by the poet’s ear, that buoyancy of language reflects the spirit of the early Renaissance, the spirit that was abroad in Western Europe. Day had come again after the long medieval night. The sun had risen, the windows of the darkened house were thrown open, and emancipated human nature walked out into the broad, fragrant daylight of an April morning. This buoyancy and gusto meet you everywhere in the national achievements. You see it in the canvases of the Italian painters, you hear it in the drama of Shakespere and his fellow playwrights; each nation, after the fashion of its peculiar genius, reflects the light from its own mirror.
To accomplish anything you need an interest, a motive, a centre for your thought. You need a star to steer by, a cause, a creed, an idea, a passionate attachment. Men have followed many guiding lights. They have been inspired by love of fame and love of country. They have pursued power, wealth, holiness. They have followed Christ, Mahomet, Napoleon. Something must beckon you or nothing is done, something about which you ask no questions. Thought needs a fulcrum for its lever, effort demands an incentive or an aim.
No one, I fancy, will deny that knowledge has been the aim of our day and generation, the pursuit of knowledge and the increase of knowledge. Never has it been sought with greater determination and perseverance, and never with greater success. We cannot sufficiently admire the scientific achievements of our time. Our admiration, though we are prone to overlook it, is an admiration for man and his native power, his audacity and fearlessness, his imagination and industry, his ingenuity and understanding. Yet how great is the irony of things. How often our efforts lead to what we least expect. These notable victories of the mind, from which so much was hoped, have had for result not so much increased happiness as disquiet, have made for dejection rather than rejoicing. We know more than ever was known, and are convinced that we know nothing of what we most wish to know. We distrust more utterly than has ever been mistrusted the very intellect which has achieved so many and so signal triumphs. While our control over nature’s energies approaches the miraculous, anarchy reigns in the moral and aesthetic, as well as in the intellectual sphere. One opinion is as good as another opinion. God and the soul are set aside as outworn superstitions, and the denial of any future life rings the passing bell of Christianity. Even the believers in unlimited human progress, that child-like and charming nineteenth-century creed, are beginning to have their doubts. Christianity, or what remains of it, has suffered a sea-change, and is fast melting, if it has not already wholly evaporated, into humanitarianism. What is now left of the old theology in the circles of the educated and intelligent? What do we now hear of the Fall of man, the plan of salvation, the sacrifice of Christ, the redemption of the world through the shedding of blood, of predestination, of the blessings in store for the believer, the torments that await the infidel? Who now believes, as did St. Augustine, in the damnation of unbaptised infants, or that a man’s actions in time determine his destiny throughout eternity? The old order is dissolving before our eyes, and the times ahead do not promise to be very settled and comfortable. ‘The sea of faith’ was ‘once at the full’,
and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d,
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
How is this situation to be accounted for? In respect of religion, we need not travel far to obtain the answer.
The decay of religious faith is due to the increase of our positive knowledge. It cannot be ascribed to any degeneration in human nature, or to any change in human hearts. Men’s hearts are where they have always been, nor are they now more inclined than formerly to vice rather than virtue. But in respect of the world in which we live we are vastly better informed than our predecessors. The new wine has burst the old bottles, and we no longer ask ‘What does God think of me?’ but ‘What do I think of God?’ ‘I desire’, said St. Augustine, ‘to know nothing but God and the soul. Did I say nothing else? Nothing whatsoever.’ (Deum et animam scire capio. Nihil ne plus? Nihil omnino.) But if God and the soul are extinct conceptions, as extinct as the Ptolemaic astronomy, or Strabo’s geography, if they have no more than an antiquarian interest, if by the words ‘God’ and ‘Heaven’ we but ‘give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’, of what then are we to think? During the past century the rising tide of knowledge carried away all the old landmarks, the guiding lights by which Christian Europe had steered its course, and the ship of religion is now labouring in a heavy sea.
Lord Melbourne thought it undesirable to mix up religion with private life. Few, I fancy, would agree with him. A religion which is to live, most would say, must be fitted into the whole system of the believer’s thought, directing as well as inspiring his every decision, both public and private. It should provide him with a touchstone, a way of looking at nature, the world and himself, which harmonises his ideas and meets his daily requirements. The principles of a man’s religion should be in the most intimate relation with his secular occupations and undertakings, and these principles so clearly defined as to assist and support all his judgments. A consummation devoutly to be wished, but no easy matter to-day.
The failure of science, as anyone can see, is its failure to minister to the needs of the soul. The soul lies outside its orbit, its purview, its range of interests. The failure of religion in our time lies, on the other hand, in its inability to meet the needs of the intellect, to answer the innumerable and pressing questions we daily ask and must ask ourselves. Poetry is in like case, it offers no assistance to the perplexed intelligence. But that assistance is not asked of poetry. No one goes to Chaucer or to Keats for moral directions. Men, however, ask much more of religion than of poetry. They may be mistaken in respect of its function in their lives, but they ask for its guidance in human affairs. And the genius even of Christianity, the genius even of that world-inspiring poem, fails to solve the intellectual perplexities, and often the moral perplexities by which they are beset amid the infinite complexity of the modern world. Can anyone tell us whether Christ would have approved of the pattern of our present civilisation at all, and if not, how are we to escape from it? Would He have approved of costly and magnificent churches, of gorgeous ritual and music, of the theatre and the picture house, of all the ordered scientific and social activities amid which we spend our days? Can anyone tell us unequivocally what would have been His attitude to our systems of education, our horse-racing, commerce and athletics, the possession of property, to wealth, the lending of money at interest, to birth control, to the sterilisation of criminals or the unfit, to our legal system, to capital punishment? Is it possible with the help of Christian principles to disentangle the moral issues involved and to say what should be done in respect of these and a thousand other such things? Is it possible to apply Christian principles to taxation, to systems of government, to international finance, to the adjustment of tariffs and bank rates? What do they dictate to a great nation in respect of its dealings with others? Should it seek or sacrifice its advantages in trade, encourage the presence of foreign blood, the admixture of white and black, give or refuse its blessing upon mixed marriages? Should it abandon or maintain its advantages in geographical position, in wealth of coal and metals? Neither a man nor a nation can preserve its own gains and interests without loss to others. Should America or England dilute their currency or go off the gold standard when it suits them, irrespective of the effects upon their neighbours? These are matters of life and death to their populations. It is not war only which is a matter of life and death, as the simple suppose. Economic sanctions, of which we have heard so much, make war by starvation instead of bullets. Trade and commerce are matters of life and death to millions.
These and similar questions are not in our times to be evaded, and generalisations in the manner of the Beatitudes do not answer them. You are, moreover, not in a Christian world. Has Christianity any firm and workable proposals to make in dealing, let us say, with Japanese competition, or Russian state atheism and its propaganda, upon diplomatic and international exchanges with races which have no regard for its ethics or ideals? And if no clear direction in their difficulties is given by Christianity, is it any wonder men say it has shot its bolt, that it has ceased to be the pole-star, as its adherents hoped, by which the ship of humanity would for all time steer its course?
You will say Christianity was never meant by its Founder to solve our intellectual problems, but to be a refuge from the distresses to which mankind is exposed, and you are, no doubt, right. Yet when men are continually assailed by such problems in the struggle for existence, is it surprising that a religion which fails to answer their questions loses its hold upon them? The truth is that Christianity did not, as is commonly supposed, convert Europe. On the contrary, Europe transformed Christianity. It was an Eastern and ascetic creed, a creed of withdrawal from life rather than of participation in its fierce conflicts and competitions, and was so understood in the early centuries. But the Western races were not prepared to abandon the world. Their energies were too great, the natural man in them unsubduable. So it came about that Christianity came to terms with the West, and the accommodation resulted in an ill-defined compromise. The world, indeed, is not our home, which is God, they said, but we are here by His will and inscrutable purpose. Let us meanwhile apply Christian principles to its amelioration. Thus it was that Europe translated Christianity into a world-reforming faith, which, losing its original character, and becoming entangled in the multifarious interests of mankind, evaporated into humani-tarianism, and took upon itself an intellectual burden never contemplated by its Founder, a burden it was unfitted to bear. For the souls afraid, mortally afraid of life—and how many they be, and have reason to be—Christianity came with healing in its wings. But to the lovers of life and the world, fascinated by the wide range of its vital and vivid interests, its sunlit landscape, the brave show of its human figures and enterprises, Christianity had no clear message. ‘One world at a time,’ men said, ‘and the present is the present.’
Take a single illustration. Let us ask, ‘What has Christianity to say of love between the sexes?’—surely a subject of central importance. Apparently not a word, or a derogatory word. The Fathers have little pleasant to say on women or love-making. They commend and exalt celibacy. Chrysostom spoke of women as a ‘desirable calamity’, and we are all familiar with St. Paul’s remarks on marriage. Yet here you have a subject which more than any other has occupied the attention of the poets and artists, indeed all mankind, a passion which is at the root of life itself, which exceeds all others in strength, of which, as Stendhal said, ‘all the sincere manifestations have a character of beauty,’ which has provided the kernel for all the great stories of the world, with which every literature teems, which gives rise to half, and more than half, of all the pains and pleasures of life, plays a leading part in every activity, creates family relationships, running through human existence like the veins through the body, omnipresent, entering into association with every side of our conduct and on every day we live, leading to crimes, treacheries, self-sacrifice, heroism, eternally occupying the thoughts of society, and present in all its conversations. Upon this transcendent theme with its endless ethical ramifications, a strange silence reigns in the Christian documents.
And there is a similar silence in respect of the animal world. Their status in God’s creation is overlooked. They are not thought of as concerned in the Fall, as sinful, as in need of grace or redemption, or as having any share in a future life. Presumably in heaven we shall never meet with them, and some of us will miss our favourites, birds, or dogs or horses. If animals were not, like ourselves, sufferers, condemned like us to death, that silence might somehow be explained. But death, we are told, entered the world through sin, and though not partakers in sin they partake of death, its consequence. Nor does it appear that they have rights of any kind, nor we any duties in respect of them. We may, it seems, treat them according to our good pleasure.
It must, indeed, be allowed that for the most part the philosophers regard them with a like indifference. Kant could find no better reason for the kind treatment of animals than the fear that lack of sympathy with them might blunt our human sympathies. How much nobler were Plutarch’s sentiments! See the admirable passage in his Life of Marcus Cato. The poets without exception stand by them.
If aught of blameless life on earth may claim
Life higher than death, though death’s dark wave rise high,
Such life as this among us never came, To die.1
For a time, following upon the Renaissance, all went very well. So brightly shone the star of the new knowledge that an astonishing optimism prevailed. The thrill of the new discoveries and the mental activities they engendered roused expectation of noble days to come. Equipped with the new-found instruments men determined to build a stately fabric of enduring civilisation. Presently everything would be explained and the forces of nature mastered. Mankind was on the eve of surprising the last secrets of the universe. A new highway offered itself for the fulfilment of human aspirations. The world was rapidly advancing towards a state of greater prosperity and universal contentment. ‘Hunger and thirst will be unknown,’ cried Winwood Reade, exultingly, ‘population will mightily increase, and the earth will be a garden.’
The dear child! So simple was the faith of the rationalist, as simple as that of the medieval Christian. As simple? No, much simpler. The early Christians had never been hypnotised by such nursery dreams. With far less knowledge, by comparison, indeed, with none, theirs was a far deeper comprehension of the malady that afflicts the human race, a far deeper insight into the true nature of existence. They perceived that from its ephemeral character alone life upon earth, however ameliorated, however adorned, was utterly insufficient to satisfy that incomprehensible entity, the human soul. By the side of the nineteenth-century rationalists the early Christians were in knowledge, indeed, children, yet in wisdom, in their intuitive understanding immeasurably superior. The early Christians had abandoned hope in the present dispensation, and turned their thoughts to another and a better world. We have abandoned hope of any other, and perforce must make the best of the present—no very agreeable prospect. The kind-hearted humanitarians of the nineteenth century decided to improve upon Christianity. The thought of Hell offended their susceptibilities. They closed it, and, to their surprise, the gates of Heaven closed also with a melancholy clang. The malignant countenance of Satan distressed them. They dispensed with him, and at the same time God took His departure. A vexatious result, but you cannot play fast and loose with logic. We shall never understand the Middle Ages until we realise how profoundly they strove to find a deeper meaning, a sacred significance in all things. ‘They never forgot’, as has been said, ‘that all things would be absurd if their meaning were exhausted in their function and place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this.’
Medieval man was intensely conscious of the surrounding mystery, a consciousness overpowered in our time by the scientific spirit of curiosity. Everything, all that meets the eye in the external world, the whole of nature and of human life, seemed to him unintelligible, senseless and void unless it could be interpreted in some transcendental sense, unless it were informed by some deeper meaning than the bodily senses revealed. This is, of course, the essence of religion. If things can be interpreted without remainder in terms of material particles and forces, their mystery and meaning vanish, and with them go most human values, religion with the rest. The Middle Ages trusted the inward vision, which discerned behind nature a certain something more divine than nature, in recessu divinius aliquid.
Ours is by contrast an age of reason, which deals only, as is the ambition of modern physics, in ‘observables’, the positive knowledge of the senses. And with what astonishing success! Within fifty years, within the life of a single generation, thoughts never before harboured in a human brain have flooded in from every quarter of the heavens. A legion of enquirers, roused to feverish activity, hurried to amaze us. Geologists told us the story of the earth in the making in far distant aeons. They spoke with decision of events upon which no eye had ever rested. The spade, that commonplace, unromantic instrument, became an open-sesame, a magic power, placing upon the map of the past regions not less marvellous than those discovered by the galleys of Columbus, buried cities and civilisations older far than the pyramids or the Pharaohs, remains of prehistoric man, and skeletons of ungainly monsters which roamed the earth before a human foot had trod the stage. The arrival of man upon the scene became an affair of yesterday. The mathematicians began to calculate the starry distances in light years, and the new clocks, radium, thorium, uranium, imperturbable, unimpeachably accurate, ticking through the centuries, provide for us a cosmic calendar, which dates the laying of the earth’s foundations. Pasteur revealed the undreamt of universe of micro-organisms, revolutionising the whole art of medicine. Three hundred million malaria parasites can exist in a single drop of water. Mendel, a simple parish priest, whose name does not even appear in a cyclopaedia of 1891, threw open the gates to the study of heredity, setting forth the laws which govern its mysterious configurations. We heard for the first time of the wonders of the blood. Did you know that every corpuscle it contains passes every minute through the heart, that after three or four weeks the red corpuscles pass through the veins into the spleen, and die there? It is their cemetery. Did you know there was such a thing as ‘heavy water’, and of various kinds, deadly to some forms of life, but in which certain bacteria flourish? Have you heard that the earth is enclosed in a ceiled vault, or several vaults, on whose outer side rages a tempest of cosmic rays? What marvels have we not seen with our own eyes, which have already ceased to be marvels. The conquest of the air by daring pilots, of the stratosphere, of the submarine depths. Musicians in Paris or Berlin sing and play to us in our own homes, and the ‘I will’ of a royal bride in Westminster Abbey is heard, at the moment it is uttered, round the circumference of the globe. Electricity, a power hardly known to exist a hundred years ago, save as the dreaded lightning, is already so tamed and harnessed as to be little more than a poor beast of burden, a domestic slave, that sweeps our rooms, runs our errands, and does the meanest chares.
If anyone pictures ideas as shadowy, innocent harmless things, mere epiphenomena, let him look around. All these perturbations are due to their disruptive power. These disturbances cannot be traced to the action of material forces, to earthquakes or the shifting of climatic zones. They are the result of thinking. It is thought which has turned the world upside down, shy, retiring, invisible, unobtrusive thought, that insubstantial, airy nothing. And of all its doings none is perhaps more far-reaching, more disruptive than its most recent. The mind, turning its remorseless searchlight upon the whole scene of existence, proceeded to a scrutiny, an inspection of itself.
The new psychology is a stripling, hardly of age, yet it has penetrated to a region, a basement below the level of conscious thought, a region which can never again, as it had previously been, be overlooked. This hidden portion of ourselves, as complete a secret from each of us as the emotions and motives of our neighbours, this irrational area is now known to be, if not, indeed, the whole of us, yet so large a part that we shrink back in alarm. The action behind the scenes of thought is now declared to be of greater importance than that enacted upon the intellectual and conscious stage. In the murky basement is to be found the entity, whatever it be, which determines our preferences, our likes and dislikes, and in large measure dictates our behaviour. Imagining ourselves reasoning beings, supposing ourselves to weigh this or that argument or consideration, in the mental balance, we are in reality, it seems, swayed by instincts and impulses of which we know nothing. We drag after us the whole history of our family and race, of our animal inheritance. Primitive impulses, loves, hates, fears, jealousies are the coiled springs that move us. The human puppets dance to ancestral tunes. The old simple account of a man’s character as governed by his conscious thought, by the association of ideas, and a preference of pleasure over pain, that old simple story is clean gone. It has been superseded by a new conception of the conscious mind as the waving sunlit surface of a tropical forest, beneath which lie the unseen depths of twisted roots and tangled undergrowth. It is a haunted darkness. There dwells an obscure brood of obsessions, repressions, conflicts, phobias. Our flitting dreams, once a subject for idle gossip, we now read as indicative of impulses and tensions in this half-discovered country. The Tavistock clinic, founded in 1920, for the treatment of mental disorders, morbid fears and anxieties, social delinquencies, neurasthenia and similar maladies, has had, within a few years, astonishing success. It is estimated that from such afflictions there are in England alone three million sufferers, and that the cost to the country may be reckoned at forty millions annually. Pursue these enquiries, and the endless ramifications of sex energy, in regions seemingly remote from its influence, emerge to disconcert and humiliate us. To avert our eyes is in vain. It lurks, this ghost, this sheeted spectre, in every corridor; it participates in every human undertaking. Repressed or denied, it takes instant revenge, and gives rise to a legion of miseries and disorders, mental and physical. We can no longer refuse to recognise its pervading presence and ceaseless activities. Sex affairs, free-love, birth control, sterilisation, are in consequence the talk of debating societies, of salons and tea-tables, in a fashion that would have scandalised our parents.
Do not imagine that you have here mere superstition or charlatanism. ‘This is the greatest error in the treatment of sickness,’ wrote Plato, two thousand years ago, ‘that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, and yet the two are one and indivisible.’ We are only in the vestibule of this enquiry, which will carry us far. The exploration of these uncharted depths, these psychic gulfs and currents, will occupy generations long after we are gone. The repercussions of the knowledge already gained of this underworld are only beginning to be felt in medicine. It will not end there; they will be felt much further afield, in our legal system, in our treatment of social offenders, in our estimates of human conduct. It has only lately dawned upon us that transgressors of the social code are as often sufferers as malefactors. How many twisted minds there are, how many sick souls in the world, bitter, disappointed, irascible, nervously miserable, a scourge to themselves and their neighbours, to whom, not knowing what ails them, the struggle for life, the competitions, the anxieties are a horror which they can neither face nor avoid.
And when all this is realised, as clear as the sun at noonday, what changes in our notions of moral responsibility, in our ethical demands, in our religious views will necessarily follow? Had Dante known that disorders of the pituitary gland may lead to crime, that iodine supplied to the thyroid would transform a cretinous idiot into a healthy child, had he known that the genes in the chromosomes supplied by one or other parent gave an ineradicable bias to a child’s nature and character, would he have assigned human creatures to heaven or hell for their behaviour in this life with the same solid and unhesitating conviction? Eternal damnation following upon deficiency in phosphorus or iodine, upon some hereditary twist!
How profoundly such knowledge as we have already gained must modify our views upon human life, how profoundly affect the foundations of religion and morals, and the whole structure of society! A revolution is at hand, or rather we are in the midst of it, beside which the revolutions of history, of wars and worldwide conflagrations will in times to come be seen as ephemeral incidents in the Odyssey of the human spirit. Has anyone yet studied the infective power of ideas, their modes of transmission or magnetic fields? Does anyone understand the psychology of religious revivals, of mass suggestion, of tidal waves of emotion? Yet these have sent armies of crusaders to Jerusalem, built and destroyed cities, made and unmade great kingdoms. We are still children, gazing through penny telescopes at the majestic heavens. Under the new lights, penetrating the interior of the mind, the whole history of religious experience will be rewritten, the mystic visions, the conversions. The biographies of remarkable men, of geniuses and leaders and saints, will be studied anew. The secret motives, the springs of action, will be laid bare, the part played in the great drama of the world by inspirations and oracular dreams, by prophets and visionaries.
In the light of this accumulated knowledge from a hundred regions the old view of the world has fallen into ruins. That old view had no eye for the picture, now drawn for us with such terrible distinctness, of a nature without interest in man, in whose heart or purpose he had no privileged place, since it possessed neither heart nor purpose; a picture of air, earth and sea spawning millions of living things, like a maniac spinning frantically a gigantic wheel, scattering sparks of momentary life, senselessly and for ever. There are not less than two million species of animals now existing, and if extinct species could be added the number would rise to I know not how many more. We are, it seems, merely creatures among innumerable other creatures, tribes beyond enumeration, from bacilli to elephants, inhabiting for a moment the wrinkled surface of a burnt-out star. Upon this orgy of mad fecundity the heavens, which no longer declare the glory of God but the curvature of space, look impassively down, fortunate in that they are insensitive and have no share in earth’s misery. They look down upon the interminable procession of the living to join the countless hosts of the dead, forty millions of human beings laid yearly in their graves.
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Nature, we are told, had no more thought of us than of the sands upon the sea-shore, but turning in her eternal circles, age after age, produced all manner of combinations and complexities, from stars and suns to organic compounds and living creatures, a riot of things, no one of which had priority in her mind, for mind she had none, only the power of producing it, a singular paradox. We are parts of the pattern, if pattern it can be called, animals like other animals, and condemned like them to perish, no more likely to live again than the shark or the cobra, animals shorter lived than some, more brutal than many, sustaining our existence for the most part on the flesh of others, neither a pleasant nor a poetic subject for meditation.
Few have the courage to proclaim the conclusions they have reached. They bear their knowledge with ‘quiet desperation’, or with the reflection that the burden will presently fall from their shoulders.
If here to-day the cloud of thunder lours,
To-morrow it will hie on far behests;
The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours
Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.
‘Man is the product of causes’, asserts Lord Russell, ‘which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.’ Wherever he got his information, he seems to know much more about it than I do, or than any other man has ever known. To abandon religion for science is merely to fly from one region of faith to another, from one field of ignorance and conjecture to another. None the less many share his opinion. Unemotional, passionless necessity, nature, has given birth to passionate emotional man. All that we love, prize, admire is nothing. The soulless and inanimate has produced the living and loving soul. This unfeeling machine has somehow, we are assured, brought into existence the sensitive, trembling creature whose whole existence swings between misery and happiness, desiring one, hating the other. Man desires a parent but is parentless, desires God and is God-forsaken. So there is nothing for it but ‘to gird on for fighting the sword that will not save’, to substitute morality, its commands and restrictions, for the hopes and consolations of religion, to make the best of a bad business, to say ‘Let us be humanitarians, let us hurt each other as little as possible, for to-morrow we die’.
And yet what a polished structure is this built for us by science, how admirably designed, how perfectly proportioned, the pride of its builders, and of all mankind. How admirable—and terrible. The worst is that the world, life, all things should be wholly senseless, without meaning, and the worst has happened. For if you ask, ‘What is this power everywhere at work throughout the universe doing, this stupendous energy?’ the answer is, ‘It is doing nothing; it is a lunatic energy, making and breaking, building up and knocking down, endlessly and aimlessly.’ What wonder, if this be all of which it is capable, we judge it a crazy performance, and snap our fingers at it? The universe has, by modern thought, been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Modern thought declares that we are but parts of a stupendous mechanism, a theatre of marionettes, in which all men speak their previously allotted parts, that every movement of our bodies and our minds is as strictly controlled as the wheeling of the planets and the swinging of the tides; that every hope springing up in the breast, every tear that falls from the eye, is a result not less rigidly determined than the tick of the clock, or the movement of its hands upon the dial. We puppets within the gigantic grasp of necessity emit sighs like the doll pressed by the fingers of the child, the beats of our hearts were numbered from the beginning, and the pulses of our emotions already counted a million million years ago.
As regards ourselves, then, the teaching of modern knowledge is easily summarised. It proclaims our complete unimportance. And strangely enough the individual person, from his own point of view the most valuable of nature’s achievements, has the shortest life. The law appears to be—the more worthless the object the more enduring, the more precious the more ephemeral. The stone outlives the flower, the oak of the forest the man. And the mind which observes and studies all the world contains, which makes the discoveries, which penetrates to nature’s secret places, is the most transient entity in the whirling flux of things. It vanishes while the senseless objects of its study endure. The pavement on which we walk has a longer life than we, the buildings outlast their architects, the artist’s brush the genius who used it. We perform miracles, but no room is left for the miracle worker. ‘For myself everything, for the universe nothing.’ Streamers of idly swaying sea-weed in the drift of its ocean tides, that is what we are, or the breathing of a melancholy tune, its notes in a falling fountain.
There is something peculiar in this self-depreciation, in the unanimity with which science and philosophy in our time combine to humiliate us. There is here, one thinks, more than is easily accounted for by the evidence for the thesis. We must remind ourselves that the concentration of modern enquiry into the nature of physical things inevitably exalts their interest and importance. ‘A man may dwell so long upon a thought’, said Halifax, ‘that it may take him prisoner.’ Do not forget that this priority is of our conferring, that it is we ourselves who have thus plaeed things upon the throne, we who have clothed the material world in the imperial purple of its present rank and dignity. The material universe, such is the modish view, has given rise to an infinitude of things, to all of which it is totally and equally indifferent, stars and systems, men and animals, morals, religions, philosophies, hopes, aspirations, ideals, aims, purposes, joys, sorrows, affections. The universe produces all these, and yet has no thought of any kind, no will, intention, design or interest. It has no nobility in its own eyes, this wonder-working nature, no opinion of itself at all. It produces everything in utter absence of mind, and is wholly unaware that it has in fact produced anything. It does not even attain the dignity of feeble-mindedness. It is deaf, dumb, inane. Nor does it care whether it exists or ceases to exist. It is certainly remarkable, this cosmos, as described by modern science. Its indifference to itself and all its works and ways is amazing.
Or, shall we say that, perceiving—if nature may be supposed capable of perception—after the lapse of half an eternity, the futility of proceedings, however grandiose, without an audience, she decided to put some kind of sense into the proceedings? Man is a brilliant—or unfortunate—afterthought! Nature built the theatre and the stage for no particular purpose, and for inconceivable ages they were empty and worthless. Then came an inspiration—‘A play’s the thing!’ In the opinion of some members of the cast a pretty dismal performance.
Be that as it may, in and for itself nature is manifestly nothing. Only in our eyes has it any significance. For us only does it contain any value; other valuators, apparently, there are none. The singularity lies here that man, the most trifling and ephemeral being, small dust in the scale, does what nature herself cannot do. He thinks. He admires, examines, reflects, and has even the audacity to criticise and disapprove. Nature, it seems, neither thinks nor aspires. Her activities are confined to everlasting, idiotic gyrations. Eliminate human history, the arts, sciences, civilisations, and what have you left? Remove man from the scene, and the vast machinery has no further point, the pageant is without spectators, and touches the zenith of magnificent absurdity. Man perishes while the ridiculous performance continues. It is exceedingly curious.
Agree or disagree as we may with these opinions, as King Canute could not by command restrain the rising sea, so no man can hold back the tide of knowledge. We must endure our destiny and accommodate our minds as best we can to a scale of things never dreamt of by our ancestors. If we desire to be, in Plato’s phrase, ‘spectators of all time and all being,’ if we are to take measurements of the universe, we must endeavour to think in cosmic distances, in centuries and millenniums rather than in hours and months. Time was when our earth was not, though it may be three thousand million years of age. We must think of it not merely as it is to-day, but as it was in past ages, as it will be in ages to come. You cannot measure the universe with a yard of tape. Men desire things to remain as they know them, to be familiar and friendly. Nature will not have it so. She is implacable and restless, and countenances no calm, no stagnation throughout her whole vast estate. If we are to understand matters aright we must think in terms of convulsions which have made oceans where there were continents, and Himalayan ranges where there were seas, in terms of cyclical changes, of buried cities and forgotten civilisations, of races and peoples as they were in the Stone and Bronze Ages, yes, and far earlier. To get the scale of cosmic things we must perceive nature for what she is, as everlastingly and furiously dynamic, permitting nothing throughout her whole circumference to be at rest, not for so much as a moment.
Fate is a sea without shore, and the soul is a rock that abides,
But her ears are vexed with the roar, and her face with the foam of the tides.
That all these upheavals and perturbations, of which science tells us, belong to the past and are at an end, or that they will be limited to the physical world, and need not be expected in human history, that the era of storms and revolutions is over, that nature and society have entered upon a static stage, that the peoples of to-day will remain the peoples of to-morrow, each inhabiting in peace its present territory, that we are about to leave the ocean for quiet river navigation, that our notions of the best life will remain those of all ages to come, is, I confess, a picture that refuses to form itself before my mind. ‘A high-flown journalist named Rousseau’, said Friedell, ‘writes a couple of bizarre pamphlets, and for six years a highly gifted people tears itself to pieces. A stay-at-home scholar, named Marx, indifferent to and ignored by society, writes a few fat volumes of unintel-ligible philosophy, and a gigantic empire alters its whole condition of life from the base upward.’ The disturbances of which I have spoken, in our outlook upon nature and human nature, have been matched by disturbances equally violent in the political arena. We have seen kingdoms ‘moulting, sick, in the dreadful wind of change’, three great empires dismembered and destroyed. We have seen the collapse of ancient monarchies, the flight of kings. New Caesars have arisen. Democracy, everywhere praised in Europe fifty years ago, appears everywhere on the way to be abandoned. Parliamentary institutions in which we placed our trust seem to have no very brilliant future before them. Decaying in the West, by some strange paradox they raise their banner in the East; India places its hopes in the devices Europe has surrendered.
I am not prepared to believe that nature will never produce another Napoleon, who, like a whirlwind, indifferent to all moral judgments, will scatter peoples like chaff, or a Lenin, who will deal with our ethical codes as with the scythe of a reaper. In the heyday of the Roman empire its civilisation seemed founded upon a rock. It fell, and for five centuries Europe weltered in a sea of violence.
It may be that I am wrong. It may be that the world is on the way to become what it has never been, a home of rest for the gentle and the timid, a sequestered garden for those who hate the turmoil of the sea. I can well understand the religious fear, the humanitarian horror of its sullen skies, its mounting waves, and devouring storms, the disrelish for battle, murder and sudden death, the war in nature and the war in man. Life, as Christianity has always taught, as all clear-eyed observers have known, is a perilous adventure, and a perilous adventure for men and nations it will, I fear and believe, remain.
- 1. A. C. Swinburne, At a Dog’s Grave.