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Lecture 8: The Power Working in Humanity


MY purpose in this second part is not, as the title might suggest, to sketch the historic careers of the five peoples whose dawns have been described in the first part. I thought it well to take a hasty glance at these dawns, as an aid to due appreciation of the significance, in the providential order, of the pre-historic life of mankind, without meaning to commit myself to speak further of all the peoples then alluded to. At the present time, only one of these will specially engage our attention, along with two other peoples not hitherto named, save in a merely incidental manner. Israel, Greece, Rome—names recalling momentous memories—are to be our main theme, and that with the view of indicating briefly their respective services to the higher interests of mankind. It may indeed seem futile to try to say anything instructive on so great a subject, within the available space. But the task on hand is to point the moral of a tale which does not need to be told, because its general outline may be assumed to be known. Of the three peoples I shall treat in this order: Greece, Rome, Israel.

1. The bright dawn of Greece came with Homer and his immortal Epics. In the Iliad and the Odyssey we are introduced to a wonderland, among whose surprises are a highly-evolved musical language, an inimitable poetic skill in the use of it for the realistic description of stirring events, a war-like people, heroic in temper, versatile in genius, and rich in strongly contrasted individualities; and a pantheon of humanised divinities, presumably transformed from physical deities of an earlier time, but now become very like their worshippers—magnified Greek men and women. Here, we think as we read, is a wholly new type of people, as remarkable as its tongue, a people whose future is sure to be brilliant if not lasting, likely to distinguish itself in many ways—in thought and in art not less than in war; a race of boundless, unique possibilities.

In the light of its subsequent history we see that this people touched the highest watermark of intellectual endowment. One might say that its vocation was to show what human reason is capable of in all departments of intellectual activity. In poetry of all kinds, in architecture, in sculpture, in philosophic thought, in oratory, in historical writing, even in science as represented by Aristotle, the Greeks are still the masters of the world. It is on their achievements in purely intellectual and artistic regions that their fame chiefly rests, but not on these alone. They did epoch-making service also in ethics and in politics. How fruitful in results the moral intensity of Socrates and his memorable counsel to his fellow-countrymen, ‘Know thyself,’ summoning them to realise the contents and significance of personality! Then what a really great matter it was that, in the person of the Greek, men became imbued with the passion for freedom, and had their minds opened to the idea of a State in which a body of free citizens should exercise themselves in self-government! Till the Hellenic race arrived on the historic stage, the world had groaned under Eastern despotisms, in which only one man, the king, was free, all others being his abject slaves. Perhaps the despotic monarchies were natural in their place and time. That they may not bring a reproach on Providence we must try to look at them, not from our modern view-point, but as they appeared to those who lived under them. For the Oriental peoples of antiquity, the absolute rule of one man was a law of nature, and they accepted any evil consequences it entailed with the same patience with which they would endure disasters brought upon them by the elements. What we call a despotism was for them a reign of God, a theocracy. The monarch was God's representative and vicegerent, a god on earth: his will was divine; and if it sometimes showed itself as an evil will, the fact was a mystery to be borne with resignation, not to be complained of. Well for those who had to suffer that they were able to meet their fate in this way! It is, as Herder remarks, consoling to reflect, that for every evil that afflicts humanity there is a balsam that at least soothes the wound.1 The balsam for the wounds inflicted by despotic arbitrariness was patience. But it was not desirable for the good of the world that that patience should be too long-suffering or long-lasting. Devoutly to be wished was the advent of a temper for which despotism should be intolerable. That temper came in an emphatic degree with the Greeks, making one free European man worth many Asiatic slaves, as was proved on the day when ten thousand Athenians defeated sixty times their number of Persians on the plain of Marathon. What a difference it would have made to the fortunes of humanity if victory had inclined to the other side!

That the Greeks did good service by defeating the Persians all will admit. There may be less complete agreement as to the intrinsic, permanent value of their more distinctive contribution for the benefit of humanity within the intellectual sphere. One meets occasionally with depreciatory estimates in unexpected quarters. In the case of a professional theologian, an inappreciative attitude might not greatly surprise us. His point of view is the supreme importance of religion and a true knowledge of God. Bringing to all things the standard of the sanctuary as his guide in judgment, he is prone to ask, What is art but time elegantly wasted? nay, what is philosophy but a vain quest after ultimate truth? He may thus see in Greek philosophy, with all its fascination, as set forth in the Dialogues of Plato, only an unsuccessful attempt to find God, one of many similar attempts made by heathen peoples, serving, indirectly, one useful purpose, that of preparing these peoples for welcoming the true light from heaven when it came. He may assign to the Greek experiment the distinction of being one of the most brilliant and the most thorough-going, and acknowledge that in this point of view it possessed high utility. Such is the gist of the following words in the excellent Essay on the ‘Preparation in History for Christ’ in the well-known work, Lux Mundi. ‘If man the race, like man the individual, was finally to find salvation by dying to himself, to his own natural man, he could only do this when it had been adequately and magnificently proved, both that he could not save himself, and how splendidly worth saving he was. He must do his best, that he may despair of his best. Do we not feel that this is just what was worked out by the histories of Greece and Rome? They are splendid experiments of human power. Diverse in their method they combine in this result.’2 There is doubtless relative truth in this view, yet it is by no means the whole truth. Relatively to Christianity Greek genius, in its varied manifestations, full of grace and beauty, was, if you will, an abortive experiment. But relatively to the general providential order, it possessed positive substantive value. This may be said of the Greeks just as it may be said of the Jews. For they also, according to St; Paul, made their unsuccessful experiment, the legal covenant being, in his view, as in that of Jeremiah before him, a failure; the law a mere pædagogue (παιδαγωγὸς) conducting to Christ. But Israel did more than that. She lived, through all the centuries, in her best sons, a true life of fellowship with God; she gave to the world the prophets, and out of her midst came forth the Christ who spoke the satisfying word about God. The Greeks also did more than make a vain experiment. If there be any reality in the idea of a providential order, a people so gifted as the Greeks, and using their gifts so well, could not appear without rendering an important service to the higher interests of humanity. The service rendered was twofold. First, the Greek genius, by the bare fact of its appearing, legitimised the pursuits to which it was devoted, established their title to have a place assigned to them in human life; next, by the splendid manner in which that genius was displayed, it supplied a model and communicated an inspiration. As to the former point: there may be difference of opinion as to the just proportion between what we may call culture and conduct in a well-ordered human life. Mr. Arnold, as is well known, assigned to them very unequal measures: to conduct, three-fourths; and to all that the word ‘Greek’ represents—poetry, art, philosophy—only one-fourth. This is somewhat oracular, but let it pass, the main point is that an appreciable fraction of value is assigned to these interests. Surely with good reason! What are the psychological roots of poetry, art, and philosophy? The keen sense of beauty in the outer world, and in the human form; and the ardent love of truth—the desire to understand the world, to know the causes of things. Good things both, and leading to good; neither without a bearing on conduct; for the broad line of division between the æsthetic and the ethical is to a large extent artificial and abstract. The feeling for nature, so conspicuous in Greek poetry, as in the descriptive epithets of Homer, and in many a felicitous allusion in the tragic poets, has a higher sanction, even in the words of Him who said, ‘Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ An open eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature is one of man's most precious endowments. It yields a pure, exquisite delight which never palls; it qualifies for appreciating the immortal productions of poetic and artistic genius, if it do not make all poets and artists; it brings the soul near to the Divine Source of all beauty and goodness. How unforgetable the song of the lark on a dewy summer morning! As you listen your first thought is: It is the happy bird's gladsome song of praise; your second: Let it be my own! How unforgetable even a realistic description of some natural scene read long years ago in a book! I recall one from a lyric strain in the Rhesus of Euripides. The chorus consists of a band of Trojan soldiers doing sentinel duty by night. It is drawing towards dawn, and they are retiring to their tents to sleep. But their ear is quick to catch the welcome sounds of daybreak: the nightingale singing on the banks of the Simois, the sheep bleating on the top of Mount Ida, the simple music of the shepherd's pipe. Καὶ μὴν ἀΐω it begins: ‘Hark! I hear.’ There is little in it; yet if you read it once in sympathetic mood, it will haunt you while you live; for the poet felt a thrill when he wrote it.3

It is not an accident that the gifted men who had this tremulous sensitiveness to the charms of the physical world were also the men who proclaimed to their countrymen with unwearying emphasis the solemn doctrine of Nemesis. The moral order of the world revealed itself to them almost as clearly as the æsthetic order, and they preached both alike with equal earnestness and persuasiveness. We see here how artificial is the cleavage between art and conduct. Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are poetic artists, doubtless, but they are also preachers of righteousness, not unworthy to be named along with the Hebrew prophets. They, too, were artists. Nothing more truly poetic, more rich in imagination, more felicitous in expression, more indicative of an open eye for the sublime and the beautiful, than many of their oracles. But they were preachers above all, using their poetic gifts for the more impressive delivery of their message. In their case poetry and prophecy were intimately interblended. So in the case of the Greek tragedians, so in the case of all first-class poets. The æsthetic sense and the moral sense appear as kindred, and art helps conduct.

And what of philosophy? It too at its best is allied to the good. It is not a mere idle play of intellect, a vain hunting after solutions of insoluble problems in the mere wantonness of an undisciplined reason. It is the fruit of a serious desire to penetrate the mystery of the universe and to find God. The desire is instinctive, irrepressible, human. It revealed its presence in man's soul at a very early stage. Animism was the philosophy of primitive man, and, as even Mr. Herbert Spencer acknowledges in his lately published concluding volume on the Principles of Sociology, there was ‘a germ of truth’ in that crude philosophy. There is a germ of truth in all the philosophies. There is profit even in their failures. The desire to know the ultimate truth is always good. It is characteristic and worthy of man as a spiritual being. The effort it originates brings into play man's highest powers—his reason, his imagination, his religious nature. All true philosophers are poets, theologians, and philosophers all in one. This is pre-eminently true of Plato, the greatest, loftiest, and most inspiring of Greek philosophers. Not in vain did he live and write those inimitable dialogues on knowledge, righteousness, temperance, love, law, immortality, etc. They are a κτη̑μα ϵἰς ἀϵιߣ. They vindicate once for all the need and use of philosophy, and they set the pattern; which is the second service claimed for Greek genius in all its manifestations.

The Greek set the pattern not only in philosophy, but in other matters, very specially in the sphere of art. And this, one would say, was a service of permanent value. Not so, however, thinks M. Renan, if we may take in earnest what he says in those charming but whimsical pieces entitled Dialogues Philosophiques. ‘High art,’ he makes one of his interlocutors say: ‘high art will disappear. The time will come when art will be a thing of the past, a creation produced once for all, which men will continue to admire, while conscious that they have nothing more to do with it. The sculpture, the architecture and the poetry of the Greeks are already in that position. These marvels arc in our day absolute impossibilities. Admirable imitations of them may be produced, but they are mere imitations, without raison d'être, and without life…The reign of sculpture terminated when people ceased to go half naked, and beauty of form became a secondary thing; the epic disappeared with the age of individual heroism.’4 This is a depressing prospect for those who live in the advanced epochs of the world's history. It raises a wide question: this, viz., Is it possible for us who live so late in the day to be anything but imitators and echoes in any department of thought or action? Has not everything been said that can be said in religion, philosophy, poetry; about God, the world, and man; have not all the possibilities of art, in painting, poetry, sculpture, music, been long ago exhausted? If the fact be so, why, we are ready to exclaim, did the best come so soon? Why not reserve the contributions of the ancients in religion, art, philosophy, and politics for a far distant future, that it might remain for long ages possible to be original, and that men might not too soon be crushed by despair of excelling? To all this let two things be said in reply. First, It was well that the perfect came soon, because human progress is promoted by the influence of ideals; second, The proper function of ideals is not to crush but to inspire. They may crush, but that is the abuse of them. As long as they are used as an outward law, in a servile spirit, the result must be soulless mediocrity. But let them become inward laws of the spirit, working by inspiration and aspiration; then room is left for originality and life, and the products have real value, even though they fall short of the excellence of the model. So it is still possible to be something better than spiritless imitators and echoes in religion, in poetry, in painting, in music, in philosophy, and to do better in all lines of activity than if we had no models to inspire us. No need to swear slavishly by any master in philosophy, however great; no need to load our verses with stock phrases culled from the poets of the past; no need to repeat mechanically worn-out formulæ concerning God. To escape the last-named doom two things only are requisite: an eye to see for yourself, and the power to say simply and sincerely what you see.

2. In passing from the Greeks to the Romans, one is conscious of a certain feeling of aversion. In all that relates to temper, spirit, endowment, the two peoples are widely different; surprisingly so when it is considered that they were not only near neighbours, but belonged to the same family of nations and spoke kindred languages. The transition we make is from sunny geniality, intellectual brightness, and intense individuality, to a character marked by a total lack of brilliancy, prosaic, monotonous, intellectually commonplace. But such has been the character of many worthy persons who have done good service to the world, and we cannot afford to cherish dislike to the instruments of Providence on merely sentimental grounds. Esau was a much more interesting and likeable man than Jacob, nevertheless it was Jacob that gained the blessing. Wellington was an object of intense dislike to the poet Heine, yet it was to the prosaic ‘Iron Duke’ that England owed her victory over Heine's idol, the brilliant Napoleon. Doubts as to the possibilities of such a people as the Romans having a vocation to promote the ends of a beneficent providential order must rest on more substantial grounds. But such it does not appear, on first sight, difficult to discover.

We have looked at certain historic dawns, and found them very bright and full of promise. The dawn of Rome was not auspicious. It was shrouded in the dense clouds of a legend which, if it possess any historic value, discloses the unwelcome secret that the primitive Alban Rome was a robber-city, a place of refuge for outlaws and runaways and adventurers from beyond seas, objects of suspicion and fear to their neighbours, and unable to get wives except by theft. And the subsequent career of this strange people may not unnaturally seem worthy of such a beginning: centuries of constant fighting; first with neighbouring tribes—Latins, Volscians, Samnites, Etruscans,—ending with the conquest of Italy; then with outside nations bordering on the Mediterranean, and with the barbarians of Northern Europe; the process of conquest ceasing only when there were no more peoples to subdue. The result was a huge empire built up by brute force, as unlike, one would say, as possible to the benign kingdom of the human, which it is the supposed aim of Providence to bring in.

Turning from the external history of Rome to cast a hasty glance on its internal social condition, we easily find here also features that may well appear to justify doubt. The very religion of this people is, like itself, prosaic. The religion of Greece is the religion of beauty, the religion of Rome is the religion of utility. The Romans value their gods solely for the benefits they can procure from them for the State or for private individuals. In Greece divination was free, every man might practise the art who had a mind or a talent that way, and his oracles were taken for what they were worth. In Rome divination was under State control. Care was taken that no prophecies should be uttered in the name of the gods contrary to the public interest, and laws were passed against private diviners, Chaldeans, astrologers, mathematicians, as dangerous to the State. And provided the will of the gods was known, and that it was favourable, it did not matter to the utilitarian Romans whether the revelation came through a man or through a beast. If they had a preference, it was for the latter medium. They would rather hear the Deity speak through an ox than through a man. We seem in all this to be on the low level of primitive man rather than, as we should expect in the case of an elect people, on the march towards the religion of the spirit. Gross utilitarianism in religion is the mark either of a crude and undeveloped, or of a degenerate condition. ‘After all these things do the Gentiles seek.’ The prayers of the Vedic Indians, mostly for material good, illustrate the statement, and alongside of them may be placed as equally illustrative, the religious rites of their late-born kinsmen, the Romans.

In family life, as in religion, Roman custom seems a survival from primitive humanity rather than the way of a people destined to make a new departure in the direction of an elevated or advanced social ideal. I refer here to the absolute power of the father, patria potestas, manifestly a relic of the patriarchal state of society. Concerning this, Sir Henry Maine in his work on Ancient Law thus writes: ‘So far as regards the person, the parent, when our information commences, has over his children the jus vitae necisque, the power of life and death, and a fortiori of uncontrolled corporal chastisement; he can modify their personal condition at pleasure; he can give a wife to his son; he can give his daughter in marriage; he can divorce his children of either sex; he can transfer them to another family by adoption; and he can sell them.’5 He further states that it was not till late in the Imperial period that these powers were reduced within narrow limits, and that they remained substantially unrestricted till the whole civilised world was brought within their sphere.6 The conservatism herein revealed seems more in keeping with the spirit of a stereotyped custom-ridden Oriental race, like the Chinese, than with that of a Western European people destined to exercise a vital influence upon modern civilisation. The particular custom referred to is thoroughly Eastern in character. It is irresponsible despotism within the family sphere, analogous to that of an Eastern monarch within the larger sphere of an empire. And the one form of despotism was apt to lead to the other. Abject obedience to fathers was a training for a not less abject obedience to the state.

This survival of family despotism, besides disqualifying, to all appearance, the Romans from themselves promoting social evolution, tended further to neutralise a benefit coming to the world from another quarter. Christ, as we all know, gave to God the name ‘Father.’ In so doing, He made, in a very simple way, a most important contribution to theology, the full significance of which has not yet been realised. Who can tell how much that may be due to the Roman patria potestas? The world living under Roman rule, and familiar with that custom, could hardly think it much of a Gospel that God was to be regarded as a Father. If they accepted the conception, with its established associations, so much the worse for them. Practically it would mean thinking of God as an irresponsible Despot who might do as He pleased with His children. True, some fathers might be benevolent despots, dealing wisely, justly, and even benignantly, with their children; and it was always possible for those that had known such to take them as human models of the Divine Father. Still the fact remained that, in the eye of the law, fatherhood was an irresponsible relation, giving absolute power over person and property. And as the power over property was usually exercised without scruple to the full extent, men living under this system would have difficulty in thinking of God as a Being whose nature and delight it was to give good gifts. They would be more ready to think of Him as One whose inclination and habit it was to appropriate everything to Himself.

In view of all these considerations, one is tempted to ask, What good could come to the world through Rome? The answer must be, that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, good did come from that quarter. And the good that came was kindred to the evil. Rome's faults were the faults of qualities that made her a benefactor. She had boundless ambition, and a stern will that demanded absolute obedience from all over whom successful ambition gave her jurisdiction. But the obedience exacted was not servile subjection to despotic caprice, but intelligent compliance with general laws impartially enforced. Her authority was the authority of reason inspired by the love of justice. In the best days of Rome, the reins of government were in the hands, not of kings or emperors, but of a senate, composed of a body of men trained to judicial habits of mind by grave responsibility, and by having to deal with internal problems of vital interest to the republic, created by the conflicting claims of classes patricians and plebeians, rich and poor. The very name for the body politic, Res publica, brings out the difference between Eastern despotism and Roman sovereignty. Not the irresponsible will of an autocratic individual, but the public interest was the august power before which all had to bow. Yet this impersonal abstraction spoke with an authority greater than that of any Oriental potentate. To its claims all others must yield, even those of the Patria Potestas. A son, as general, might command a father, or as magistrate try him for offences. All accepted this subordination of private to public authority as reasonable and right. And the result was a pervading spirit of self-surrender to the commonwealth, than which nothing more complete or whole-hearted can be conceived. It speaks well for the justice and wisdom of Roman rule that it could inspire such a spirit of prompt, unhesitating obedience among citizens. It is true that patriotism is a common virtue in all countries, even in those which are but indifferently governed; but Roman history abounds in instances of pure, disinterested devotion, exceptional in degree and touching the sublime. Readiness to serve the public interest at all hazards was the commanding passion of the Roman.

That a people characterised by this heroic virtue should be victorious in war is almost a matter of course. And it is equally a matter of course that its victory should be a benefit not merely to itself but to the conquered. Apart from the rights and wrongs of particular contests, taking a broad providential view of Rome's conquering career, it may be affirmed that she brought substantial benefits to all the peoples subject to her sway, uniting them in one great political body, under a rule the same for all, and comparatively just and equitable, and in many cases introducing elements of civilisation previously unknown. The last-named benefit she conferred especially on the Northern barbarians out of whom the modern European nations have sprung. The service rendered was effective because Rome moved slowly towards universal empire, and because, wherever she gained a footing, she retained her position with tenacity. Her career was as unlike as possible to that of Alexander of Macedon, who with his victorious army overran the world in a few years, leaving in many places no permanent trace behind him. Roman slowness compares unfavourably, from the dramatic point of view, with Greek rapidity and brilliancy. But the slow movement was sure. The Roman Empire was built up stone by stone, not inflated. The Roman power came to stay, and its stay was long enough to give time for the laws, the social customs, the language of the conqueror taking permanent root among the conquered peoples. The influence of the Romans lives still, among ourselves, and it is for our advantage that they were long enough in our land to leave behind them as a legacy, the ruins of Roman military walls and of Roman baths.

3. We have now to speak briefly of Israel and her service to humanity. The difficulty here is not, as in the case of Rome, to see that Israel had a place and function under a beneficent providential order, but rather to form an adequate conception of the largeness of that place and the importance of that function. The service rendered was in the sphere of religion. The Semitic genius had no talent for philosophy or art, and little capacity for sympathetic appreciation of such talent in other peoples. Neither was it in the line of Hebrew endowment or opportunity to do much for the world in the way of legislation and government. Israel's own national law was in many respects excellent, but it was in some points too peculiar to become a law for mankind. Her attempts at establishing wide empire were not successful. Her strength and wisdom were to sit still and dwell alone. But in religion she was peerless. Her God was her glory; One, and worthy to be the sole Divine Ruler in heaven and on earth, in the majesty of His righteousness and the condescension of His grace. Her distinctive contribution to the religious education of mankind was her doctrine of ethical Monotheism. And, just because the Hebrew conception of God was ethical, this contribution had a vital bearing on the moral, not less than on the religious education of the world. It established an indissoluble connection between religion and morality. In Israel, as among all peoples, in all ages, the tendency to divorce these was active, but it found no countenance from the best interpreters of Hebrew faith. The prophets unweariedly denounced religious zeal severed from right conduct. ‘In vain,’ said they to their countrymen, ‘do ye offer sacrifice while ye neglect justice and mercy.’ The tone of the whole sacred literature of Israel on this subject is emphatic, and clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding, except on the part of such as do not want to understand.

Israel communicated her message through Moses and the prophets, but above all through Jesus Christ. I can here speak only of the final weightiest word, spoken by One who was greater than Moses and all the prophets. This is not the place for a full statement of the faith of the Church concerning Jesus and His teaching. The least that can be said of Himself is that in Him was realised the moral and religious ideal of man, a perennial object of admiration and source of inspiration for all who bear His name. For the catholic faith He is not merely the great Master in morals and religion, but a divine Redeemer; one in whom the Eternal Spirit dwelt in pleromatic fulness, as the spirit of love, and who in His death became the power of God in sacrifice. This faith is consonant with the general view of man's place in the universe, and of God's relation to man set forth at an earlier stage. It enforces the lesson taught by ordinary providence, that God cares for man, and exemplifies the Divine care in an august manner, and in a unique degree. But we can speak here only of that which brings Christ into comparison with other religious teachers, and gives Him a place in the general scheme of providence for the good of mankind. In this connection a prominent position is due to his epoch-making thoughts concerning God and man and their relations. He called God Father, indicating, not by abstract definition, but by discriminating use of the title, what He meant thereby; viz., that God is a holy, loving, gracious Being who does good to all, just and unjust alike, pities the most depraved, and regards with intense approval the heroic behaviour of the morally noble, and with equally intense contempt the self-complacency of counterfeit sanctity. He taught by word, and still more by His bearing towards the fallen, that man at the worst has value for God, is indeed a son of God, if only a prodigal son; and that as such he ought to be respected by others; and also that as such he ought to respect himself, and seriously endeavour to realise and fulfil his moral obligations. This doctrine of man has immense religious value as opening a door of hope even for those who, to a charity less than Christ's, may appear beyond redemption. It has also great ethical value as insisting upon that which is common to all men as more important than anything that divides men into classes and castes. It has social value as a virtual protest against all institutions which dehumanise sections of society, such as slavery, or marriage laws and customs which reduce wives to the category of property to be disposed of at will by husbands. Christ's doctrine of man says in effect, if not in so many words, All men ought to be free, and women have equal rights with men; the human is the supreme category, and the human, when it comes to its kingdom, knows no insurmountable distinctions of bond and free, male and female.

This is manifestly the message of a universal religion which has burst the bonds of Jewish particularism, and which cannot rest till it has subdued the world. In presence of this inspiring faith, all other religions lose their raison raison d'être, and any good that is in them can be only relative and temporary. All peoples, nations, and languages should serve the ‘Son of Man’ and his beneficent aim. Greece and Rome did unwittingly recognise their obligations. The one provided a universal language, and the other a universal government to facilitate the diffusion of Christianity. But it is an easier thing to render external aid to a new religion, than to imbibe and propagate its spirit, when that spirit is far in advance of the time. Greece and Rome did the one thing, they failed to do the other. The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of full unrestricted fellowship between man and God, of filial trust and glad devoted service. That spirit the ancient world neither shared nor understood. Above all the Roman world was disqualified for understanding it. It might be predicted that if it accepted Christianity, it would turn what was, to begin with, the religion of the spirit into a law, or an institution, to be submitted to in the way in which its conquered subjects submitted to its own iron rule. This is what actually happened. The Roman world adopted Christianity, and Christianity became Roman. The religion of faith and filial freedom became a religion of legalism, with its law of belief and its law of ritual; the former framed in categories supplied by Greek philosophy, the latter reviving an antiquated Leviticalism with its accompaniments of priesthood and sacrifice.

For the old world this neo-legalism was natural, one might say inevitable. Christ inaugurated a new era, but the peoples to whom His gospel first carne belonged in spirit to an old era, and they could hardly be expected to understand and appreciate fully the genius of the new time. But what of the peoples of Northern Europe to whom the future belonged, and out of whom has sprung the modern world? Were they likely to comprehend at once the mind of the Lord Jesus and of St. Paul; or was it necessary that to them also Christianity should first come as law, before it came in the fulness of the blessing of the Gospel? As a matter of fact, it did come to them also as law, and on reflection we see that it could hardly fail to do so. The Germanic races, with all their promising qualities, could not enter into the glorious liberty of Christian sonship all at once. Preparation was needed for that, as, in the case of the Jews, preparation was needed for the advent of Christ. According to St. Paul, indeed, the world entered on its spiritual majority when Christ came. That was without doubt the objective significance of the new era. But objective significance is one thing, subjective realisation is another. A great part of the world over which Christianity was destined to spread, was as unprepared for it as were the people of Israel in the centuries before Christ was born. Therefore it had to become afterhand a legal discipline analogous to that to which the Jews had been subjected beforehand. The cycle—promise, law, promise fulfilled—had to repeat itself. And as the period of legal discipline in the pre-Christian era had lasted long, some fifteen hundred years, it should not surprise us if it turned out that the analogous period in the history of Christianity was likewise of long duration. That it was we know. It covered a thousand years, that long dreary space of time which we are accustomed to call the Middle Ages. That millennium was the winter night which followed the historic day of the ancient world, and preceded the bright dawn of the modern world.

A beneficent Providence was at work in those dark ages, with all their rudeness, as it has been at work in all periods preceding historic dawns. The best proof of the statement is the brightness of the dawn which eventually came. But even in the night there were signs of the Divine Presence as, e.g., the Crusades, which shone like an Aurora Borealis in the spiritual sky. These movements, in which all Europe took part, revealed, at least at first, till crusading became a trade, a sincere enthusiasm for a cause at least conventionally holy. One may say indeed: How much better had that enthusiasm been expended in discovering the true nature of the Christian faith, instead of in rescuing the Holy Sepulchre from the profane hands of Saracens! But the time for that higher work had not yet come, and it was well, meanwhile, that the Christian peoples were capable of generous devotion to any cause in which the honour of the Christian name was supposed to be involved. Zeal at least was there if not according to knowledge, revealing vast stores of spiritual energy to be brought into play when the time of enlightenment arrived.

The time of enlightenment came in the sixteenth century of the Christian era, bringing reformation in the sphere of religion, significantly heralded by the Revival of Learning, the flourishing of the Fine Arts, and the enlargement of man's ideas as to the extent of the world by the discovery of America. No one who has any real faith in a beneficent providential order can fail to recognise the immense significance of this new time. Hegel did full justice to its importance when he compared the three heralding events to the morning dawn which, after protracted storms, announces the advent of a bright clay, and the Reformation itself to the all-illumining sun.7 The latter comparison will not commend itself to every one. The Christian world was divided into two by the reforming movement, the larger portion maintaining solidarity with the past; and there are still not a few even in Protestant communities, whose sympathies are with the pre-Reformation type of Christian faith and life. Such division of opinion on so vital a matter, in past and present times, is greatly to be deplored, but it ought not to create a prejudice against the Reformers. It must be remembered that a similar cleavage took place at the beginning of the Christian era. The majority of the Jews rejected Christ. The legal discipline had shut their eyes and hardened their hearts, instead of preparing them to give Jesus a welcome. It is ever the way at times of change. Many do not know when the old order has lasted long enough, and, grown hoary and decadent, ought to vanish away. That is the tragic side of progress.

We live in the new time, in the historic clay auspiciously ushered in by the dawn of the sixteenth century. Where are we, whither do we tend, how long is the impulse communicated at that crisis to last? These are questions that readily suggest themselves, but which it is not easy to answer. One thing is certain: the rate of progress, in all that relates to the higher interests of humanity, is slow. Fifteen hundred years from Moses to Christ; sixteen hundred years from the beginning of the Christian era to the Reformation; above three hundred years from the Reformation till now. Centuries may elapse before a crisis equally momentous occur. Within that time how much there may be to do! There is the battle to be fought out between competing, incompatible conceptions of Christianity. The social applications of Christ's doctrine of God and man have to be worked out. War has to be made amenable to the Christian conscience. Philosophy may make fresh attempts to find out the true theory of the universe. Science may go on its triumphant path, making new discoveries that may be turned to account for the benefit of mankind. The world is not worn out. We are not doomed henceforth to a dull, monotonous existence. The wisdom, power, and grace of the Almighty are not exhausted. Providence does not need to repeat itself, or to live on a past reputation. It can and will do new great things. Years of the right hand of the Most High are still before us. And it is our part to be fellow-workers with God, not passively trusting to His immediate action, or to the evolutionary forces at work in society. Some seem to imagine that these forces will do everything for us in a spontaneous way, and that our part will be simply to look on. As Mr. Huxley has reminded us, the fact is not so. We must exert ourselves, play the man, be heroes in the strife, dismissing the dream that ‘humanity is to be automatically conveyed to the gates of universal peace.’8 Let us serve ourselves heir to the rich inheritance bequeathed by Greece, Rome, and Israel, and make it our aim to add to the treasure, or at least to estimate duly its value.

  • 1.

    Ideen, vol. iii. p. 55.

  • 2.

    Lux Mundi, p. 146.

  • 3.

    Rhesus, verses 542-552.

  • 4.

    Dialogues Philosophiques: Probabilités, p. 83.

  • 5.

    Ancient Law, p. 138.

  • 6.

    Ancient Law, p. 142.

  • 7.

    Philosophy of History, Bohn's translation, pp. 428, 429.

  • 8.

    Vide Kelly, Evolution and Effort, p. 98, where this dream is ascribed to Mr. Spencer.