He demanded admittance.
"Fool, do you not know that the law says these doors shall admit no one except at sunrise?"
"I only know that I was told to be here at midnight and I would be admitted."
"All that may be true, but you were not told when you would be admitted—wait, it is the will of the gods." So Pythagoras waited, numbed and nearly dead.
The dogs which he had heard had, in some way, gotten out, and came tearing around the corner of the great stone building. He fought them with desperate strength. The effort seemed to warm his blood, and whereas before he was about to retreat to his lodgings he now remained.
The day broke in the east, and gangs of slaves went by to work. They jeered at him and pelted him with pebbles.
Suddenly across the desert sands he saw the faint pink rim of the rising sun. On the instant the big bronze doors against which he was leaning swung suddenly in. He fell with them, and coarse, rough hands seized his hair and pulled him into the hall.
The doors swung to and closed with a clang. Pythagoras was in dense darkness, lying on the stone floor.
A voice, seemingly coming from afar, demanded, "Do you still wish to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
A black-robed figure, wearing a mask, then appeared with a flickering light, and Pythagoras was led into a stone cell.
His head was shaved, and he was given a coarse robe and then left alone. Toward the end of the day he was given a piece of black bread and a bowl of water. This he was told was to fortify him for the ordeal to come.
What that ordeal was we can only guess, save that it consisted partially in running over hot sands where he sank to his waist. At a point where he seemed about to perish a voice called loudly, "Do you yet desire to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
Returning to the inmost temple he was told to enter a certain door and wait therein. He was then blindfolded and when he opened the door to enter, he walked off into space and fell into a pool of ice-cold water.
While floundering there the voice again called, "Do you yet desire to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
At another time he was tied upon the back of a donkey and the donkey was led along a rocky precipice, where lights danced and flickered a thousand feet below.
"Do you yet want to go on?" called the voice.
And Pythagoras answered, "I desire to go on."
The priests here pushed the donkey off the precipice, which proved to be only about two feet high, the gulf below being an illusion arranged with the aid of lights that shone through apertures in the wall.
These pleasing little diversions Pythagoras afterward introduced into the college which he founded, so to teach the merry freshmen that nothing, at the last, was as bad as it seemed, and that most dangers are simply illusions.
The Egyptians grew to have such regard for Pythagoras that he was given every opportunity to know the inmost secrets of the mysteries. He said he encompassed them all, save those alone which were incomprehensible.
This was probably true.
The years spent in Egypt were not wasted—he learned astronomy, mathematics, and psychology, a thing then not named, but pretty well understood—the management of men.
It was twenty years before Pythagoras returned to Samos. His mother was dead, so she passed away in ignorance of the secrets of the gods—which perhaps was just as well.
Samos now treated Pythagoras with great honor.
Crowds flocked to his lectures, presents were given him, royalty paid him profound obeisance.
But Samos soon tired of Pythagoras. He was too austere, too severe; and when he began to rebuke the officials for their sloth and indifference, he was invited to go elsewhere and teach his science of life. And so he journeyed into Southern Italy, and at Crotona built his Temple to the Muses and founded the Pythagorean School. He was the wisest as well as the most learned man of his time.
* * * * *
Some unkind person has said that Pythagoras was the original charter member of the Jesuits Society. The maxim that the end justifies the means was the cornerstone of Egyptian theology. When Pythagoras left Egypt he took with him this cornerstone as a souvenir. That the priests could hold their power over the masses only through magic and miracle was fully believed, and as a good police system the value of organized religion was highly appreciated. In fact, no ruler could hold his place, unsupported by the priest. Both were divine propositions. One searches in vain for simple truth among the sages, solons, philosophers, poets and prophets that existed down to the time of Socrates. Truth for truth's sake was absolutely unimagined; freethought was unguessed.
Expediency was always placed before truth.
Truth was furnished with frills—the people otherwise would not be impressed. Chants, robes, ritual, processions, banging of bells, burning of incense, strange sounds, sights and smells: these were considered necessary factors in teaching divine truth.
To worship with a noise seems to us a little like making love with a brass band.
Pythagoras was a very great man, but for him to eliminate theological chaff entirely was impossible. So we find that when he was about to speak, red fire filled the building as soon as he arose. It was all a little like the alleged plan of the late Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, who used to have an Irishman let loose a white pigeon from the organ-loft at an opportune time.
When Pythagoras burned the red fire, of course the audience thought a miracle was taking place, unable to understand a simple stage-trick which all the boys in the gallery who delight in "Faust" now understand.
However, the Pythagorean School had much virtue on its side, and made a sincere and earnest effort to solve certain problems that yet are vexing us.
The Temple of the Muses, built by Pythagoras at Crotona, is described by Iamblichus as a stone structure with walls twenty feet thick, the light being admitted only from the top. It was evidently constructed after the Egyptian pattern, and the intent was to teach there the esoteric doctrine. But Pythagoras improved upon the Egyptian methods and opened his temple on certain days to all and any who desired to come. Then at times he gave lectures to women only, and then to men only, and also to children, thus showing that modern revival methods are not wholly modern.
These lectures contain the very essence of Pythagorean philosophy, and include so much practical commonsense that they are still quoted. These are some of the sayings that impressed Socrates, Pericles, Aristotle and Pliny. What the Egyptians actually taught we really do not know—it was too gaseous to last. Only the good endures. Says Pythagoras:
Cut not into the grape. Exaltation coming from wine is not good. You hope too much in this condition, so are afterwards depressed. Wise men are neither cast down in defeat nor exalted by success. Eat moderately, bathe plentifully, exercise much in the open air, walk far, and climb the hills alone.
Above all things, learn to keep silence—hear all and speak little. If you are defamed, answer not back. Talk convinces no one. Your life and character proclaim you more than any argument you can put forth. Lies return to plague those who repeat them.
The secret of power is to keep an even temper, and remember that no one thing that can happen is of much moment. The course of justice, industry, courage, moderation, silence, means that you shall receive your due of every good thing. The gods may be slow, but they never forget.
It is not for us to punish men nor avenge ourselves for slights, wrongs and insults—wait, and you will see that Nemesis unhorses the man intent on calumny.
A woman's ornaments should be modesty, simplicity, truth, obedience. If a woman would hold a man captive she can only do it by obeying him. Violent women are even more displeasing to the gods than violent men—both are destroying themselves. Strife is always defeat.
Debauchery, riot, splendor, luxury, are attempts to get a pleasure out of life that is not our due, and so Nemesis provides her penalty for the idle and gluttonous.
Fear and honor the gods. They guide our ways and watch over us in our sleep. After the gods, a man's first thought should be of his father and mother. Next to these his wife, then his children.
So great was this power of Pythagoras over the people that many of the women who came, hearing his discourse on the folly of pride and splendor, threw off their cloaks, and left them with their rings, anklets and necklaces on the altar.
With these and other offerings Pythagoras built another temple, this time to Apollo, and the Temple to the Muses was left open all the time for the people.
His power over the multitude alarmed the magistrates, so they sent for him to examine him as to his influence and intents. He explained to them that as the Muses were never at variance among themselves, always living in subjection to Apollo, so should magistrates agree among themselves and think only of being loyal to the king. All royal edicts and laws are reflections of divine law, and therefore must be obeyed without question. And as the Muses never interrupt the harmony of Heaven, but in fact add to it, so should men ever keep harmony among themselves.
All officers of the government should consider themselves as runners in the Olympian games, and never seek to trip, jostle, harass or annoy a rival, but run the race squarely and fairly, satisfied to be beaten if the other is the stronger and better man. An unfair victory gains only the anger of the gods.
All disorders in the State come from ill education of the young. Children not brought up to be patient, to endure, to work, to be considerate of their elders and respectful to all, grow diseased minds that find relief at last in anarchy and rebellion. So to take great care of children in their infancy, and then leave them at puberty to follow their own inclinations, is to sow disorder. Children well loved and kept close to their parents grow up into men and women who are an ornament to the State and a joy to the gods. Lawless, complaining, restless, idle children grieve the gods and bring trouble upon their parents and society.
The magistrates were here so pleased, and satisfied in their own minds that Pythagoras meant the State no harm, that they issued an order that all citizens should attend upon his lectures at least once a week, and take their wives and children with them.
They also offered to pay Pythagoras—that is, put him on the payroll as a public teacher—but he declined to accept money for his services. In this, Iamblichus says, he was very wise, since by declining a fixed fee, ten times as much was laid upon the altar of the Temple of the Muses, and not knowing to whom to return it, Pythagoras was obliged to keep it for himself and the poor.
* * * * *
Churchmen of the Middle Ages worked the memory of Pythagoras great injustice by quoting him literally in order to prove how much they were beyond him. Symbols and epigrams require a sympathetic hearer, otherwise they are as naught.
For instance, Pythagoras remarks, "Sit thou not down upon a bushel measure." What he probably meant was, get busy and fill the measure with grain rather than use it for a seat.
"Eat not the heart"—do not act so as to harrow the feelings of your friends, and do not be morbid.
"Never stir the fire with a sword"—do not inflame people who are wrathful.
"Wear not the image of God upon your jewelry"—do not make religion a proud or boastful thing.
"Help men to a burden, but never unburden them." This saying was used by Saint Francis to prove that the pagan philosophers had no tenderness, and that the humanities came at a later date. We can now easily understand that to relieve men of responsibilities is no help; rather do we grow strong by carrying burdens.
"Leave not the mark of the pot upon the ashes"—wipe out the past, forget it, look to the future.
"Feed no animal that has crooked claws"—do not encourage rogues by supplying them a living.
"Eat no fish whose fins are black"—have nothing to do with men whose deeds are dark.
"Always have salt upon your table"—this seems the original of "cum grano salis" of the Romans.
"Leave the vinegar at a distance"—keep sweet.
"Speak not in the face of the sun"—even Erasmus thought this referred to magic. To us it is quite reasonable to suppose that it meant, "do not talk too much in public places."
"Pick not up what falls from the table"—Plutarch calls this superstition, but we can just as easily suppose it was out of consideration for cats, dogs or hungry men. The Bible has a command against gleaning too closely, and leaving nothing for the traveler.
"When making sacrifice, never pare your nails"—that is to say, do one thing at a time: wind not the clock at an inopportune time.
"Eat not in the chariot"—when you travel, travel.
"Feed not yourself with your left hand"—get your living openly and avoid all left-handed dealings.
And so there are hundreds of these Pythagorean sayings that have vexed our classic friends for over two thousand years. All Greek scholars who really pride themselves on their scholarship have taken a hand at them, and agitated the ether just as the members of the Kokomo Woman's Club discuss obscure passages in Bliss Carman or Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Learned people are apt to comprehend anything but the obvious.
* * * * *
The School of Pythagoras grew until it became the chief attraction of Crotona. The size of the town was doubled through the pilgrims who came to study music, mathematics, medicine, ethics and the science of government.
The Pythagorean plan of treating the sick by music was long considered as mere incantation, but there is a suspicion now that it was actual science. Once there was a man who rode a hobby all his life; and long after he was dead, folks discovered it was a real live horse and had carried the man long miles.
Pythagoras reduced the musical scale to a mathematical science. In astronomy he anticipated Copernicus, and indeed, it was cited as the chief offense of Copernicus that he had borrowed from a pagan. Copernicus, it seems, set the merry churchmen digging into Greek literature to find out just how bad Pythagoras was. This did the churchmen good, but did not help the cause of Copernicus.
Pythagoras for a time sought to popularize his work, but he soon found to his dismay that he was attracting cheap and unworthy people, who came not so much out of a love of learning as to satisfy a morbid curiosity and gain a short cut to wisdom. They wanted secrets, and knowing that Pythagoras had spent twenty years in Egypt, they came to him, hoping to get them.
Said Pythagoras, "He who digs, always finds." At another time, he put the same idea reversely, thus, "He who digs not, never finds."
Pythagoras was well past forty when he married a daughter of one of the chief citizens of Crotona. It seems that, inspired by his wife, who was first one of his pupils and then a disciple, he conceived a new mode of life, which he thought would soon overthrow the old manner of living.
Pythagoras himself wrote nothing, but all his pupils kept tablets, and Athens in the century following Pythagoras was full of these Pythagorean notebooks, and these supply us the scattered data from which his life was written.
Pythagoras, like so many other great men, had his dream of Utopia: it was a college or, literally, "a collection of people," where all were on an equality. Everybody worked, everybody studied, everybody helped everybody, and all refrained from disturbing or distressing any one. It was the Oneida Community taken over by Brook Farm and fused into a religious and scientific New Harmony by the Shakers.
One smiles to see the minute rules that were made for the guidance of the members. They look like a transcript from a sermon by John Alexander Dowie, revised by the shade of Robert Owen.
This Pythagorean Community was organized out of a necessity in order to escape the blow-ins who sailed across from Greece intent on some new thing, but principally to get knowledge and a living without work.
And so Pythagoras and his wife formed a close corporation. For each member there was an initiation, strict and severe, the intent of which was absolutely to bar the transient triflers. Each member was to turn over to the Common Treasury all the money and goods he had of every kind and quality. They started naked, just as did Pythagoras when he stood at the door of the temple in Egypt.
Simplicity, truth, honesty and mutual service were to govern. It was an outcrop of the monastic impulse, save that women were admitted, also. Unlike the Egyptians, Pythagoras believed now in the equality of the sexes, and his wife daily led the women's chorus, and she also gave lectures. The children were especially cared for by women set apart as nurses and teachers. By rearing perfect children, it was hoped and expected to produce in turn a perfect race.
The whole idea was a phase of totemism and tabu.
That it flourished for about thirty years is very certain. Two sons and a daughter of Pythagoras grew to maturity in the college, and this daughter was tried by the Order on the criminal charge of selling the secret doctrines of her father to outsiders.
One of the sons it seems made trouble, also, in an attempt to usurp his father's place and take charge of affairs, as "next friend." One generation is about the limit of a Utopian Community. When those who have organized the community weaken and one by one pass away, and the young assume authority, the old ideas of austerity are forgotten and dissipation and disintegration enter. So do we move in circles.
The final blow to the Pythagorean College came through jealousy and misunderstanding of the citizens outside. It was the old question of Town versus Gown. The Pythagoreans numbered nearly three hundred people. They held themselves aloof, and no doubt had an exasperating pride. No strangers were ever allowed inside the walls—they were a law unto themselves.
Internal strife and tales told by dissenters excited the curiosity, and then the prejudice, of the townspeople.
Then the report got abroad that the Pythagoreans were collecting arms and were about to overthrow the local government and enslave the officials.
On a certain night, led by a band of drunken soldiers, a mob made an assault upon the college. The buildings were fired, and the members were either destroyed in the flames or killed as they rushed forth to escape. Tradition has it that Pythagoras was later seen by a shepherd on the mountains, but the probabilities are that he perished with his people. But you can not dispose of a great man by killing him. Here we are reading, writing and talking yet of Pythagoras.
How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, "How does love suit with age, Sophocles—are you still the man you were?"
"Peace," he replied; "most gladly have I escaped that, and I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master."
That saying of his has often come into my mind since, and seems to me still as good as at the time when I heard him. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, you have escaped from the control not of one master only, but of many. And of these regrets, as well as of the complaint about relations, Socrates, the cause is to be sought, not in men's ages, but in their characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but he who is of an opposite disposition will find youth and age equally a burden.
A thinking man is one of the most recent productions evolved from Nature's laboratory. The first man of brains to express himself about the world in an honest, simple and natural way, just as if nothing had been said about it before, was Socrates.
Twenty-four centuries have passed since Socrates was put to death on the charge of speaking disrespectfully of the gods and polluting the minds of the youths of Athens. During ten of these centuries that have passed since then, the race lost the capacity to think, through the successful combination of the priest and the soldier. These men blocked human evolution. The penalty for making slaves is that you become one.
To suppress humanity is to suppress yourself.
The race is one. So the priests and the soldiers who in the Third Century had a modicum of worth themselves, sank and were submerged in the general slough of superstition and ignorance. It was a panic that continued for a thousand years, all through the endeavor of faulty men to make people good by force. At all times, up to within our own decade, frank expression on religious, economic and social topics has been fraught with great peril. Even yet any man who hopes for popularity as a writer, orator, merchant or politician, would do well to conceal studiously his inmost beliefs. On such simple themes as the taxation of real estate, regardless of the business of the owner, and a payment of a like wage for a like service without consideration of sex, the statesman who has the temerity to speak out will be quickly relegated to private life. Successful merchants depending on a local constituency find it expedient to cater to popular superstitions by heading subscription-lists for the support of things in which they do not believe. No avowed independent thinker would be tolerated as chief ruler of any of the so-called civilized countries.
The fact, however, that the penalty for frank expression is limited now to social and commercial ostracism is very hopeful—a few years ago it meant the scaffold.
We have been heirs to a leaden legacy of fear that has well-nigh banished joy and made of life a long nightmare.
In very truth, the race has been insane.
Hallucinations, fallacies, fears, have gnawed at our hearts, and men have fought men with deadly frenzy. The people who interfered, trying to save us, we have killed. Truly did we say, "There is no health in us," which repetition did not tend to mend the malady.
We are now getting convalescent. We are hobbling out into the sunshine on crutches. We have discharged most of our old advisers, heaved the dulling and deadly bottles out of the windows, and are intent on studying and understanding our own case. Our motto is twenty-four centuries old—it is simply this: KNOW THYSELF.
* * * * *
Socrates was a street preacher, with a beautiful indifference as to whether people liked him or not. To most Athenians he was the town fool. Athens was a little city (only about one hundred fifty thousand), and everybody knew Socrates. The popular plays caricatured him; the topical songs misquoted him; the funny artists on the street-corners who modeled things in clay, while you waited, made figures of him.
Everybody knew Socrates—I guess so!
Plato, the handsome youth of nineteen, wearing a purple robe, which marked him as one of the nobility, paused to listen to this uncouth man who gave everything and wanted nothing.
Ye gods! But it is no wonder they caricatured him—he was a temptation too great to resist.
Plato smiled—he never laughed, being too well-bred for that. Then he sighed, and moved a little nearer in.
"Individuals are nothing. The State is all. To offend the State is to die. The State is an organization and we are members of it. The State is only as rich as its poorest citizen. We are all given a little sample of divinity to study, model and marvel at. To understand the State you must KNOW THYSELF."
Plato lingered until the little crowd had dispersed, and when the old man with the goggle-eyes and full-moon face went shuffling slowly down the street, he approached and asked him a question.
This man Socrates was no fool—the populace was wrong—he was a man so natural and free from cant that he appeared to the triflers and pretenders like a pretender, and they asked, "Is he sincere?"
What Plato was by birth, breeding and inheritance, Socrates was by nature—a noble man.
Up to this time the ambition of Plato had been for place and power—to make the right impression on the people in order to gain political preferment. He had been educated in the school of the Sophists, and his principal studies were poetry, rhetoric and deportment.
And now straightway he destroyed the manuscript of his poems, for in their writing he had suddenly discovered that he had not written what he inwardly believed was true, but simply that which he thought was proper and nice to say. In other words, his literature had been a form of pretense.
Daily thereafter, where went Socrates there went Plato. Side by side they sat on the curb—Socrates talking, questioning the bystanders, accosting the passers-by; Plato talking little, but listening much.
Socrates was short, stout and miles around. Plato was tall, athletic and broad-shouldered. In fact, the word, "plato," or "platon," means broad, and it was given him as a nickname by his comrades. His correct name was Aristocles, but "Plato" suited him better, since it symbols that he was not only broad of shoulder, but likewise in mind. He was not only noble by birth, but noble in appearance.
Emerson calls him the universal man. He absorbed all the science, all the art, all the philosophy of his day. He was handsome, kindly, graceful, gracious, generous, and lived and died a bachelor. He never collided with either poverty or matrimony.
* * * * *
Plato was twenty-eight years old when Socrates died. For eight years they had been together daily. After the death of Socrates, Plato lived for forty-six years, just to keep alive the name and fame of the great philosopher.
Socrates comes to us through Plato. Various other contemporaries mention Socrates and quote him, some to his disadvantage, but it was left for Plato to give us the heart of his philosophy, and limn his character for all time in unforgetable outline.
Plato is called the "Pride of Greece." His contribution to the wealth of the world consists in the fact that he taught the joys of the intellect—the supreme satisfaction that comes through thinking. This is the pure Platonic philosophy: to find our gratifications in exalted thought and not in bodily indulgence. Plato's theory that five years should be given in early manhood to abstract thought, abstaining from all practical affairs, so as to acquire a love for learning, has been grafted upon a theological stalk and comes down to our present time. It has, however, now been discarded by the world's best thinkers as a fallacy. The unit of man's life is the day, not the month or year, much less a period of five years. Each day we must exercise the mind, just as each day we must exercise the body. We can not store up health and draw upon it at will over long-deferred periods. The account must be kept active. To keep physical energy we must expend physical energy every day. The opinion of Herbert Spencer that thought is a physical function—a vibration set up in a certain area of brain-cells—is an idea never preached by Plato. The brain, being an organ, must be used, not merely in one part for five years to the exclusion of all other parts, but all parts should be used daily. To this end the practical things of life should daily engage our attention, no less than the contemplation of beauty as manifest in music, poetry, art or dialectics. The thought that every day we should look upon a beautiful picture, read a beautiful poem, or listen for a little while to beautiful music, is highly scientific, for this contemplation and appreciation of harmony is a physical exercise as well as a spiritual one, and through it we grow, develop, evolve.
That we could not devote five years of our time to purely esthetic exercises, to the exclusion of practical things, without very great risk, is now well known. And when I refer to practical affairs, I mean the effort which Nature demands we should put forth to get a living. Every man should live like a poor man, regardless of the fact that he may have money. Nature knows nothing of bank-balances. In order to have an appetite for dinner, you must first earn your dinner. If you would sleep at night, you must first pay for sweet sleep by physical labor.
* * * * *
Plato was born on the Island of AEgina, where his father owned an estate. His mother was a direct descendant of Solon, and his father, not to be outdone, traced to Codrus.
The father of Socrates was a stonecutter and his mother a midwife, so very naturally the son had a beautiful contempt for pedigree. Socrates once said to Plato, "Anybody can trace to Codrus—by paying enough to the man who makes the family-tree." This seems to show that genealogy was a matter of business then as now, and that nothing is new under the sun. Yet with all his contempt for heredity, we find Socrates often expressing pride in the fact that he was a "native son," whereas Plato, Aspasia, the mother of Themistocles, and various other fairly good people, were Athenian importations.
Socrates belonged to the leisure class and had plenty of time for extended conversazione, so just how much seriousness we should mix in his dialogues is still a problem. Each palate has to season to suit. Also, we can never know how much is Socrates and how much essence of Plato. Socrates wrote nothing, and Plato ascribes all of his wisdom to his master. Whether this was simple prudence or magnanimity is still a question.
The death of Socrates must have been a severe blow to Plato. He at once left Athens. It was his first intention never to return. He traveled through the cities of Greece, Southern Italy and down to Egypt, and everywhere was treated with royal courtesies.
After many solicitations from Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse, he went to visit that worthy, who had a case of philosophic and literary scabies. Dionysius prided himself on being a Beneficent Autocrat, with a literary and artistic attachment. He ruled his people, educated them, cared for them, disciplined them.
Some people call this slavery; others term it applied socialism. Dionysius wanted Syracuse to be the philosophic center of the world, and to this end Plato was importuned to make Syracuse his home and dispense his specialty—truth.
This he consented to do.
It was all very much like the arrangement between Maecenas and Horace, or Voltaire and Frederick the Great. The patron is a man who patronizes—he wants something, and the particular thing that Dionysius wanted was to have Plato hold a colored light upon the performances of His Altruistic, Beneficent, Royal Jackanapes. But Plato was a simple, honest and direct man: he had caught the habit from Socrates.
Charles Ferguson says that the simple life does not consist in living in the woods and wearing overalls and sandals, but in getting the cant out of one's cosmos and eliminating the hypocrisy from one's soul.
Plato lived the simple life. When he spoke he stated what he thought. He discussed exploitation, war, taxation, and the Divine Right of Kings. Kings are very unfortunate—they are shut off and shielded from truth on every side. They get their facts at second hand and are lied to all day long. Consequently they become in time incapable of digesting truth. A court, being an artificial fabric, requires constant bracing. Next to capital, nothing is so timid as a king. Heine says that kings have to draw their nightcaps on over their crowns when they go to bed, in order to keep them from being stolen, and that they are subject to insomnia.
Walt Whitman, with nothing to lose—not even a reputation or a hat—was much more kingly walking bareheaded past the White House than Nicholas of Russia or Alfonso of Spain can ever possibly be.
Dionysius thought that he wanted a philosophic court, but all he wanted was to make folks think he had a philosophic court. Plato supplied him the genuine article, and very naturally Plato was soon invited to vacate.
After he had gone, Dionysius, fearful that Plato would give him a bad reputation in Athens—somewhat after the manner and habit of the "escaped nun"—sent a fast-rowing galley after him. Plato was arrested and sold into slavery on his own isle of AEgina.
This all sounds very tragic, but the real fact is it was a sort of comedy of errors—as a king's doings are when viewed from a safe and convenient distance. De Wolf Hopper's kings are the real thing. Dionysius claimed that Plato owed him money, and so he got out a body-attachment, and sold the philosopher to the highest bidder.
This was a perfectly legal proceeding, being simply peonage, a thing which exists in some parts of the United States today. I state the fact without prejudice, merely to show how hard custom dies.
Plato was too big a man conveniently either to secrete or kill. Certain people in Athens plagiarized Doctor Johnson who, on hearing that Goldsmith had debts of several thousand pounds, in admiration exclaimed, "Was ever poet so trusted before!" Other good friends ascertained the amount of the claim and paid it, just as Colonel H. H. Rogers graciously cleared up the liabilities of Mark Twain, after the author of "Huckleberry Finn" had landed his business craft on a sandbar.
And so Plato went free, arriving back in Athens, aged forty, a wiser and a better man than when he left.
* * * * *
Nothing absolves a reputation like silence and absence, or what the village editors call "the grim reaper." To live is always more or less of an offense, especially if you have thoughts and express them. Athens exists, in degree, because she killed Socrates, just as Jerusalem is unforgetable for a similar reason. The South did not realize that Lincoln was her best friend until the assassin's bullet had found his brain. Many good men in Chicago did not cease to revile their chiefest citizen, until the ears of Altgeld were stopped and his hands stiffened by death. The lips of the dead are eloquent.
Plato's ten years of absence had given him prestige. He was honored because he had been the near and dear friend of Socrates, a great and good man who was killed through mistake.
Most murders and killings of men, judicial and otherwise, are matters of misunderstandings.
Plato had been driven out of Syracuse for the very reasons that Socrates had been killed at Athens. And now behold, when Dionysius saw how Athens was honoring Plato, he discovered that it was all a mistake of his bookkeeper, so he wrote to Plato to come back and all would be forgiven.
* * * * *
Those who set out to live the Ideal Life have a hard trail to travel. The road to Jericho is a rocky one—especially if we are a little in doubt as to whether it really is the road to Jericho or not. Perhaps if we ever find the man who lives the Ideal Life he will be quite unaware of it, so occupied will he be in his work—so forgetful of self.
Time had taught Plato diplomacy. He now saw that to teach people who did not want to be taught was an error in judgment for which one might forfeit his head.
Socrates was the first Democrat: he stood for the demos—the people. Plato would have done the same, but he saw that the business was extra hazardous, to use the phrase of our insurance friends. He who works for the people will be destroyed by the people. Hemlock is such a rare and precious commodity that few can afford it; the cross is a privilege so costly that few care to pay the price.
The genius is a man who first states truths; and all truths are unpleasant on their first presentation. That which is uncommon is offensive. "Who ever heard anything like that before?" ask the literary and philosophic hill tribes in fierce indignation. Says James Russell Lowell, "I blab unpleasant truths, you see, that none may need to state them after me."
Plato was a teacher by nature: this was his business, his pastime, and the only thing in life that gave him joy. But he dropped back to the good old ways of making truth esoteric as did the priests of Egypt, instead of exoteric as did Socrates. He founded his college in the grove of his old friend Academus, a mile out of Athens on the road to Eleusis. In honor of Academus the school was called "The Academy." It was secluded, safe, beautiful for situation. In time Plato bought a tract of land adjoining that of Academus, and this was set apart as the permanent school. All the teaching was done out of doors, master and pupils seated on the marble benches, by the fountain-side, or strolling through the grounds, rich with shrubs and flowers and enlivened by the song of birds. The climate of Athens was about like that of Southern California, where the sun shines three hundred days in the year.
Plato emphasized the value of the spoken word over the written, a thing he could well afford to do, since he was a remarkably good writer. This for the same reason that the only man who can afford to go ragged is the man with a goodly bank-balance. The shibboleth of the modern schools of oratory is, "We grow through expression." And Plato was the man who first said it. Plato's teaching was all in the form of the "quiz," because he believed that truth was not a thing to be acquired from another—it is self-discovery.
Indeed, we can imagine it was very delightful—this walking, strolling, lying on the grass, or seated in semicircles, indulging in endless talk, easy banter, with now and then a formal essay read to start the vibrations.
Here it was that Aristotle came from his wild home in the mountains of Macedonia, to remain for twenty years and to evolve into a rival of the master.
We can well imagine how Aristotle, the mountain-climber and horseman, at times grew heartily tired of the faultily faultless garden with its high wall and graveled walks and delicate shrubbery, and shouted aloud in protest, "The whole world of mountain, valley and plain should be our Academy, not this pent-up Utica that contracts our powers."
Then followed an argument as to the relative value of talking about things or doing them, or Poetry versus Science.
Poetry, philosophy and religion are very old themes, and they were old even in Plato's day; but natural science came in with Aristotle. And science is only the classification of the common knowledge of the common people. It was Aristotle who named things, not Adam. He contended that the classification and naming of plants, rocks and animals was quite as important as to classify ideas about human happiness and make guesses at the state of the soul after death.
Of course he got himself beautifully misunderstood, because he was advocating something which had never been advocated before. In this lay his virtue, that he outran human sympathy, even the sympathy of the great Plato.
Yet for a while the unfolding genius of this young barbarian was a great joy to Plato, as the earnest, eager intellect of an ambitious pupil always is to his teacher. Plato was great in speculation; Aristotle was great in observation. Well has it been said that it was Aristotle who discovered the world. And Aristotle in his old age said, "My attempts to classify the objects of Nature all came through Plato's teaching me first how to classify ideas." And forty years before this Plato had said, "It was Socrates who taught me this game of the correlation and classification of thoughts."
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The writings of Plato consist of thirty-five dialogues, and one essay which is not cast in the dramatic form—"The Apology." These dialogues vary in length from twenty pages, of, say, four hundred words each, to three hundred pages. In addition to these books are many quotations from Plato and references to him by contemporary writers. Plato's work is as impersonal as that of Shakespeare. All human ideas, shades of belief, emotions and desires pass through the colander of his mind. He allows everybody to have his say.
What Plato himself thought can only be inferred, and this each reader does for himself. We construct our man Plato in our own image. A critic's highest conception of Plato's philosophy is the highest conception of the critic's own. We, however, are reasonably safe in assuming that Plato's own ideas were put into the mouth of Socrates, for the one intent of Plato's life was to redeem Socrates from the charges that had been made against him. The characters Shakespeare loved are the ones that represent the master, not the hated and handmade rogues.
Plato's position in life was that of a spectator rather than that of an actor. He stood and saw the procession pass by, and as it passed, commented on it. He charged his pupils no tuition and accepted no fees, claiming that to sell one's influence or ideas was immoral.
It will be remembered that Byron held a similar position at the beginning of his literary career, and declared i' faith, he "would not prostitute his genius for hire." He gave his poems to the world. Later, when his income was pinched, he began to make bargains with Barabbas and became an artist in per centum, collecting close, refusing to rhyme without collateral.
Byron's humanity is not seriously disputed. Plato also was human. He had a fixed income and so knew the worthlessness of riches. He issued no tariff, but the goodly honorarium left mysteriously on a marble bench by a rich pupil he accepted, and for it gave thanks to the gods. He said many great things, but he never said this: "I would have every man poor that he might know the value of money."
"The Republic" is the best known and best read of any of Plato's dialogues. It outlines an ideal form of government where everybody would be healthy, happy and prosperous. It has served as inspiration to Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Morris, Edward Bellamy, Brigham Young, John Humphrey Noyes and Eugene Debs. The sub-division of labor, by setting apart certain persons to do certain things—for instance, to care for the children—has made its appeal to Upton Sinclair, who jumped from his Utopian woodshed into a rubber-plant and bounced off into oblivion.
Plato's plan was intended to relieve marriage from the danger of becoming a form of slavery. The rulers, teachers and artists especially were to be free, and the State was to assume all responsibilities. The reason is plain: he wanted them to reproduce themselves. But whether genius is an acquirement or a natural endowment he touches on but lightly. Also, he seemingly did not realize "that no hovel is safe from it."
If all marriage-laws were done away with, Plato thought that the men and women who were mated would still be true to each other, and that the less the police interfered in love-relations, the better.
In one respect at least, Plato was certainly right: he advocated the equality of the sexes, and declared that no woman should be owned by a man nor forced into a mode of life, either by economic exigency or marriage, that was repulsive to her. Also, that her right to bear children or not should be strictly her own affair, and to dictate to a mother as to who should father her children tended to the production of a slavish race.
The eugenics of "The Republic" were tried for thirty years by the Oneida Community with really good results, but one generation of communal marriages was proved to be the limit, a thing Plato now knows from his heights in Elysium, but which he in his bachelor dreams on earth did not realize.
In his division of labor each was to do the thing he was best fitted to do, and which he liked to do. It was assumed that each person had a gift, and that to use this gift all that was necessary was to give him an opportunity. That very modern cry of "equality of opportunity" harks back to Plato.
The monastic impulse was a very old thing, even in the time of Plato. The monastic impulse is simply cutting for sanctuary when the pressure of society gets intense—a getting rid of the world by running away from it. This usually occurs when the novitiate has exhausted his capacity for sin, and so tries saintship in the hope of getting a new thrill.
Plato had been much impressed by the experiments of Pythagoras, who had actually done the thing of which Plato only talked. Plato now picked the weak points in the Pythagorean philosophy and sought, in imagination, to construct a fabric that would stand the test of time.
However, all Utopias, like all monasteries and penitentiaries, are made up of picked people. The Oneida Community was not composed of average individuals, but of people who were selected with great care, and only admitted after severe tests. And great as was Plato, he could not outline an ideal plan of life except for an ideal people.
To remain in the world of work and share the burdens of all—to ask for nothing which other people can not have on like terms—not to consider yourself peculiar, unique and therefore immune and exempt—is now the ideal of the best minds. We have small faith in monasticism or monotheism, but we do have great faith in monism. We believe in the Solidarity of the Race. We must all progress together. Whether Pythagoras, John Humphrey Noyes and Brigham Young were ahead of the world or behind it is really not to the point—the many would not tolerate them. So their idealism was diluted with danger until it became as somber, sober and slaty-gray as the average existence, and fades as well as shrinks in the wash.
A private good is no more possible for a community than it is for an individual. We help ourselves only as we advance the race—we are happy only as we minister to the whole. The race is one, and this is monism.
And here Socrates and Plato seemingly separate, for Socrates in his life wanted nothing, not even joy, and Plato's desire was for peace and happiness. Yet the ideal of justice in Plato's philosophy is very exalted.
No writer in that flowering time of beauty and reason which we call "The Age of Pericles" exerted so profound an influence as Plato. All the philosophers that follow him were largely inspired by him. Those who berated him most were, very naturally, the ones he had most benefited. Teach a boy to write, and the probabilities are that his first essay, when he has cut loose from his teacher's apron-strings and starts a brownie bibliomag, will be in denunciation of the man who taught him to push the pen and wield the Faber.
Xenophon was more indebted, intellectually, to Plato than to any other living man, yet he speaks scathingly of his master. Plutarch, Cicero, Iamblichus, Pliny, Horace and all the other Roman writers read Plato religiously. The Christian Fathers kept his work alive, and passed it on to Dante, Petrarch and the early writers of the Renaissance, so all of their thought is well flavored with essence of Plato. Well does Addison put into the mouth of Cato those well-known words:
It must be so—Plato, thou reasonest well!— Else whence this pleasing hope, this fond desire, This longing after immortality? Or whence this secret dread, and inward horror, Of falling into nought? Why shrinks the soul Back on herself, and startles at destruction? 'T is the divinity that stirs within us; 'T is heaven itself, that points out an hereafter, And intimates eternity to man.
All of that English group of writers in Addison's day knew their Plato, exactly as did Cato and the other great Romans of near two thousand years before. From Plato you can prove that there is a life after this for each individual soul, as Francis of Assisi proved, or you can take your Plato, as did Hume, and show that man lives only in his influence, his individual life returning to the mass and becoming a part of all the great pulsing existence that ebbs and flows through plant and tree and flower and flying bird. And today we turn to Plato and find the corroboration of our thought that to live now and here, up to our highest and best, is the acme of wisdom. We prepare to live by living. If there is another world we better be getting ready for it. If heaven is an Ideal Republic it is founded on unselfishness, truth, reciprocity, equanimity and co-operation, and only those will be at home there who have practised these virtues here. Man was made for mutual service. This way lies Elysium.
Plato was a teacher of teachers, and like every other great teacher who has ever lived, his soul goes marching on, for to teach is to influence, and influence never dies. Hail, Plato!
A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior who fought only in defense of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained with cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, nor lifted up to insolence in the hour of triumph—there is no other name in English history to compare with his.
Julius Caesar, the greatest man of initiative the world has ever seen, had a nephew known as Caesar Augustus.
The grandeur that was Rome occurred in the reign of Augustus. It was Augustus who said, "I found your city mud and I left it marble!" The impetus given to the times by Julius Caesar was conserved by Augustus. He continued the work his uncle had planned, but before he had completed it, he grew very weary, and the weariness he expressed was also the old age of the nation. There was lime in the bones of the boss.
When Caesar Augustus said, "Rome is great enough—here we rest," he merely meant that he had reached his limit, and had had enough of road-building. At the boundaries of the Empire and the end of each Roman road he set up a statue of the god Terminus. This god gave his blessing to those going beyond, and a welcome to those returning, just as the Stars and Stripes welcome the traveler coming to America from across the sea. This god Terminus also supplied the world, especially the railroad world, a word.
Julius Caesar reached his terminus and died, aged fifty-six, from compulsory vaccination. Augustus, aged seventy-seven, died peacefully in bed.
The reign of Augustus marks the crest of the power of Rome, and a crest is a place where no man nor nation stays—when you reach it, you go over and down on the other side.
When Augustus set up his Termini, announcing to all mankind that this was the limit, the enemies of Rome took courage and became active. The Goths and Vandals, hanging on the skirts of Rome, had learned many things, and one of the things was that, for getting rich quick, conquest is better than production. The barbarians, some of whom evidently had a sense of humor, had a way of picking up the Termini and carrying them inward, and finally they smashed them entirely, somewhat as country boys, out hunting, shoot railroad-signs full of holes.
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In the Middle Ages the soldier was supreme, and in the name of protecting the people he robbed the people, a tradition much respected, but not in the breach.
To escape the scourge of war, certain families and tribes moved northward. It was fight and turmoil in Southern Europe that settled Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and produced the Norsemen. And in making for themselves a home in the wilderness, battling with the climate and unkind conditions, there was evolved a very strong and sturdy type of man.
On the north shore of the Baltic dwelt the Norsemen. Along the southern shore were scattered several small tribes or families who were not strong enough in numbers to fight the Goths, and so sought peace with them, and were taxed—or pillaged—often to the point of starvation. They were so poor and insignificant that the Romans really never heard of them, and they never heard of the Romans, save in myth and legend. They lived in caves and rude stone huts. They fished, hunted, raised goats and farmed, and finally, about the year Three Hundred, they secured horses, which they bought from the Goths, who stole them from the Romans.
Their Government was the Folkmoot, the germ of the New England Town Meeting. All the laws were passed by all the people, and in the making of these laws, the women had an equal voice with the men.
When important steps were to be taken where the interests of the whole tribe were at stake, great deference was paid to the opinions of the mothers. For the mother spoke not only for herself, but for her children. The mother was the home-maker. The word "wife" means weaver; and this deference to the one member of the family who invented, created, preparing both the food and the clothing, is a marked Teutonic instinct. Its survival is seen yet in the sturdy German of the middle class, who takes his wife and children with him when he goes to the concert or to the beer-garden. So has he always taken his family with him on his migrations; whereas the Greeks and the Romans left their women behind.
South America was colonized by Spanish men. And the Indians and the Negroes absorbed the haughty grandee, yet preserved the faults and failings of both.
The German who moves to America comes to stay—his family is a part of himself. The Italian comes alone, and his intent is to make what he can and return. This is a modified form of conquest.
The Romans who came to Brittany in Caesar's time were men. Those who remained "took to themselves wives among the daughters of Philistia," as strong men ever are wont to do when they seek to govern savage tribes. And note this—instead of raising the savages or barbarians to their level, they sink to theirs. The child takes the status of the mother. The white man who marries an Indian woman becomes an Indian and their children are Indians. With the Negro race the same law holds.
The Teutonic races have conquered the world because they took their women with them on their migrations, mental and physical. And the moral seems to be this, that the men who progress financially, morally and spiritually are those who do not leave their women-folk behind.
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When we think of the English, we usually have in mind the British Isles. But the original England was situated along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. This was the true Eng-Land, the land of the Engles or Angles. To one side lay Jute-Land, the home of the Jutes. On the other was Saxony, where dwelt the Saxons.
Jute-Land still lives in Jutland; the land of the Saxons is yet so indicated on the map; but Eng-Land was transported bodily a thousand miles, and her original territory became an abandoned farm where barbarians battled.
And now behold how England has diffused herself all over the world, with the British Isles as a base of supplies, or a radiating center. Behind this twenty miles of water that separates Calais and Dover she found safety and security, and there her brain and brawn evolved and expanded. So there are now Anglo-Americans, Anglo-Africans, Anglo-Indians, Anglo-Australians, and Anglo-New-Zealanders. As the native Indians of America and the Maoris of New Zealand have given way before the onward push and persistence of the English, so likewise did the ancient Britons give way and were absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons; and then the Saxons, being a little too fine for the stern competitor, allowed the Engles to take charge. And as Dutch, Germans, Slavs and Swedes are transformed with the second generation into English-Americans when they come to America, so did the people from Eng-Land fuse Saxons, Norsemen, Jutes, Celts and Britons into one people and fix upon them the indelible stamp of Eng-Land.
Yet it is obvious that the characters of the people of England have been strengthened, modified and refined by contact with the various races she has met, mixed with and absorbed. To influence others is to grow. Had England been satisfied to people and hold the British Isles, she would ere this have been outrun and absorbed by Spain or France. To stand still is to retreat. It is the same with men as it is with races. England's Colonies have been her strength. They have given her poise, reserve, ballast—and enough trouble to prevent either revolution, stagnation or introspection.
Nations have their periods of youth, manhood and old age. Whether England is now passing into decline, living her life in her children, the Colonies, might be indelicate to ask. Perhaps as Briton, Celt, Jute and Saxon were fused to make that hardy, courageous, restless and sinewy man known as the Englishman, so are the English, the Dutch, the Swede, the German, the Slav, transplanted into America, being fused into a composite man who shall surpass any type that the world has ever seen. In the British Isles, just as in the great cities, mankind gets pot-bound. In the newer lands, the roots strike deep into the soil, and find the sustenance the human plant requires.
Walls keep folks in as well as shut other folks out. The British Isles, rock-faced and sea-girted, shut out the enemies of England without shutting the English in. A country surrounded by the sea produces sailors, and England's position bred a type of man that made her mistress of the seas. As her drum-taps, greeting the rising sun, girdle the world, so do her lighthouses flash protection to the mariner wherever the hungry sea lies in wait along rocky coasts, the round world over. England has sounded the shallows, marked the rocks and reefs, and mapped the coasts.
The first settlement of Saxons in Britain occurred in the year Four Hundred Forty-nine. They did not come as invaders, as did the Romans five hundred years before; their numbers were too few, and their arms too crude to mean menace to the swarthy, black-haired Britons. These fair stranger-folk were welcomed as curiosities and were allowed to settle and make themselves homes. Word was sent back to Saxony and Jute-Land and more settlers came. In a few years came a shipload of Engles, with their women and children, red-haired, freckled, tawny. They tilled the soil with a faith and an intelligence such as the Britons never brought to bear: very much as the German settlers follow the pioneers and grow rich where the Mudsock fails. Naturally the fair-haired girls found favor in the sight of the swarthy Britons. Marriages occurred, and a new type of man-child appeared as the months went by. More Engles came. A century passed, and the coast, from Kent to the Firth of Forth, was dotted with the farms and homes of the people from the Baltic. There were now occasional protests from the original holders, and fights followed, when the Britons retreated before the strangers, or else were very glad to make terms. Victory is a matter of staying-power. The Engles had come to stay.
But a new enemy had appeared—the Norsemen or Danes. These were sea-nomads who acknowledged no man as master. Rough, bold, laughing at disaster, with no patience to build or dig or plow, they landed but to ravish, steal and lay waste, and then boarded their craft, sailing away, joying in the ruin they had wrought.
The next year they came back. The industry and the thrift of the Engles made Britain a land of promise, a storehouse where the good things of life could be secured much more easily than by creating or producing them. And so now, before this common foe, the Britons, Jutes, Celts, Saxons and Engles united to punish and expel the invaders.
The calamity was a blessing—as most calamities are. From being a dozen little kingdoms, Britain now became one. A "Cyng," or captain, was chosen—an Engle, strong of arm, clear of brain, blue of eye, with long yellow hair. He was a man who commanded respect by his person and by his deeds. His name was Egbert.
King Alfred, or Elfred, was born at Wantage, Berkshire, in the year Eight Hundred Forty-nine. He was the grandson of Egbert, a great man, and the son of Ethelwulf, a man of mediocre qualities. Alfred was shrewd enough to inherit the courage and persistence of his grandfather. Our D. A. R. friends are right and Mark Twain is wrong—it is really more necessary to have a grandfather than a father.
English civilization begins with Alfred. If you will refer to the dictionary you will find that the word "civilization" simply means to be civil. That is, if you are civilized you are gentle instead of violent—gaining your ends by kindly and persuasive means, instead of through coercion, intimidation and force.
Alfred was the first English gentleman, and let no joker add "and the last." Yet it is needless and quite irrelevant to say that civilized people are not always civil; nor are gentlemen always gentle—so little do words count. Many gentlemen are only gents.
Alfred was civil and gentle. He had been sent to Rome in his boyhood, and this transplantation had done him a world of good. Superior men are always transplanted men: people who do not travel have no perspective. To stay at home means getting pot-bound. You neither search down in the soil for color and perfume nor reach out strong toward the sunshine.
It was only a few years before the time of Alfred that a Christian monk appeared at Edin-Borough, and told the astonished Engles and Saxons of the gentle Jesus, who had been sent to earth by the All-Father to tell men they should love their enemies and be gentle and civil and not violent, and should do unto others as they would be done by. The natural religion of the Great Spirit which the ancient Teutonic people held had much in it that was good, but now they were prepared for something better—they had the hope of a heaven of rest and happiness after death.
Christianity flourishes best among a downtrodden, poor, subdued and persecuted people. Renan says it is a religion of sorrow. And primitive Christianity—the religion of conduct—is a beautiful and pure doctrine that no sane person ever flouted or scoffed.
The parents of Alfred, filled with holy zeal, allowed one of the missionary monks to take the boy to Rome. The idea was that he should become a bishop in the Church.
Ethelred, the elder brother of Alfred, had succeeded Ethelwulf, his father, as King. The Danes had overrun and ravished the country. For many years these marauding usurpers had fed their armies on the products of the land. And now they had more than two-thirds of the country under their control, and the fear that they would absolutely subjugate the Anglo-Saxons was imminent. Ethelwulf gave up the struggle in despair and died. Ethelred fell in battle. And as the Greeks of old in their terror cast around for the strongest man they could find to repel the Persian invaders, and picked on the boy Alexander, so did the Anglo-Saxons turn to Alfred, the gentle and silent. He was only twenty-three years old. In build he was slight and slender, but he had given token of his courage for four years, fighting with his brother. He had qualities that were closely akin to those of both Alexander and Caesar. He had a cool, clear and vivid intellect and he had invincible courage. But he surpassed both of the men just named in that he had a tender, sympathetic heart.
The Danes were overconfident, and had allowed their discipline to relax. Alfred had at first evidently encouraged them in their idea that they had won, for he struck feebly and then withdrew his army to the marshes, where the Danish horsemen could not follow.
The Danes went into winter quarters, fat and feasting. Alfred made a definite plan for a campaign, drilled his men, prayed with them, and filled their hearts with the one idea that they were going forth to certain victory. And to victory they went. They fell upon the Danes with an impetuosity as unexpected as it was invincible, and before they could get into their armor, or secure their horses, they were in a rout. Every timid Engle and Saxon now took heart—it was the Lord's victory—they were fighting for home—the Danes gave way. This was not all accomplished quite as easily as I am writing it, but difficulties, deprivations and disaster only brought out new resources in Alfred. He was as serenely hopeful as was Washington at Valley Forge, and his soldiers were just as ragged. He, too, like Thomas Paine, cried, "These are the times that try men's souls—be grateful for this crisis, for it will give us opportunity to show that we are men." He had aroused his people to a pitch where the Danes would have had to kill them all, or else give way. As they could not kill them they gave way. Napoleon at twenty-six was master of France and had Italy under his heel, and so was Alfred at the same age supreme in Southern Britain—including Wessex and Mercia. He rounded up the enemy, took away their weapons, and then held a revival-meeting, asking everybody to come forward to the mourners'-bench. There is no proof that he coerced them into Christianity. They were glad to accept it. Alfred seemed to have the persuasive power of the Reverend Doctor Torrey. Guthrum, the Danish King, who had come over to take a personal hand in the looting, was captured, baptized, and then Alfred stood sponsor for him and gave him the name of Ethelstan. He was made a bishop.
This acceptance of Christianity by the leaders of the Danes broke their fierce spirit, and peace followed. Alfred told the soldiers to use their horses to plow the fields. The two armies that had fought each other now worked together at road-making and draining the marshes. Some of the Danes fled in their ships, but very many remained and became citizens of the country. The Danish names are still recognizable. Names beginning with the aspirate, say Herbert, Hulett, Hubbard, Hubbs, Harold, Hancock, are Danish, and are the cause of that beautiful muddling of the "H" that still perplexes the British tongue, the rule governing which is to put it on where it is not needed and leave it off where it is. The Danes called the Engles, "Hengles," and the Engles called a man by the name of Henry, "Enry."
In saving Wessex, Alfred saved England for the English people; for it was from Wessex, as a center, that his successors began the task of reconquering England from the Danes.
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With the rule of Alfred begins the England that we know. As we call Herodotus the father of history, so could we, with equal propriety, call Asser, who wrote in the time of Alfred, the father of English history. The oldest English book is the "Life of Alfred" by Asser the monk.
That Asser was a dependent on his subject and very much in love with him, doubtless gave a very strong bias to the book. That it is right in the main, although occasionally wrong as to details, is proved by various corroborating records.
The king's word in Alfred's time was law, and Alfred proved his modesty by publicly proclaiming that a king was not divine, but only a man, and therefore a king's edicts should be endorsed by the people in Folkmoot. Here we get the genesis of popular government, and about the only instance that I can recall where a very strong man acting as chief ruler renounced a part of his power to the people, of his own accord. Kings usually have to be trimmed, and it is revolution that does the shearing. It is the rule that men do not relinquish power of their own accord—they have to be disannexed from it.
Alfred, however, knew the popular heart—he was very close to the common people. He had slept on the ground with his soldiers, fared at table with the swineherd's family, tilled the soil with the farmer folk. His heart went out to humanity. He did not overrate the average mind, nor did he underrate it. He had faith in mankind, and knew that at the last power was with the people. He did not say, "Vox populi, vox Dei," but he thought it. Therefore he set himself to educating the plain people. He prophesied a day when all grown men would be able to read and write, and when all would have an intelligent, personal interest in the government.
There have been periods in English history when Britain lagged woefully behind, for England has had kings who forgot the rights of mankind, and instead of seeking to serve their people, have battened and fattened upon them. They governed. George the Third thought that Alfred was a barbarian, and spoke of him with patronizing pity.
Alfred introduced the system of trial by jury, although the fact has been pointed out that he did not originate it. It goes back to the hardy Norseman who acknowledged no man as master, harking back to a time when there was no law, and to a people whose collective desire was supreme. In fact, it has its origin in "Lynch Law," or the rule of the Vigilantes. From a village turning loose on an offender and pulling him limb from limb, a degree of deliberation comes in and a committee of twelve are selected to investigate the deed and report their verdict.
The jury system began with pirates and robbers, but it is no less excellent on that account, and we might add that freedom also began with pirates and robbers, for they were the people who cried, "We acknowledge no man as master."
The early Greeks had trials by jury—Socrates was tried by a jury of five hundred citizens.
But let the fact stand that Alfred was the man who first introduced the jury system into England. He had absolute power. He was the sole judge and ruler, but on various occasions he abdicated the throne and said: "I do not feel able to try this man, for as I look into my heart I see that I am prejudiced. Neither will I name men to try him, for in their selection I might also be prejudiced. Therefore let one hundred men be called, and from these let twelve be selected by lot, and they shall listen to the charges and weigh the defense, and their verdict shall be mine."
We sometimes say that English Common Law is built on the Roman Law, but I can not find that Alfred ever studied the Roman Law, or ever heard of the Justinian Code, or thought it worth while to establish a system of jurisprudence. His government was of the simplest sort. He respected the habits, ways and customs of the common people, and these were the Common Law. If the people had a footpath that was used by their children and their parents and their grandparents, then this path belonged to the people, and Alfred said that even the King could not take it from them.
This deference to the innocent ways, habits and natural rights of the people mark Alfred as supremely great, because a great man is one great in his sympathies. Alfred had the imagination to put himself in the place of the lowly and obscure.
The English love of law, system and order dates from Alfred. The patience, kindliness, good-cheer and desire for fair play were his, plus. He had poise, equanimity, unfaltering faith and a courage that never grew faint. He was as religious as Cromwell, as firm as Washington, as stubborn as Gladstone. In him were combined the virtues of the scholar and patriot, the efficiency of the man of affairs with the wisdom of the philosopher. His character, both public and private, is stainless, and his whole life was one of enlightened and magnanimous service to his country.
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In the age of Augustus there was one study that was regarded as more important than all others, and this was rhetoric, or the art of the rhetor. The rhetor was a man whose business it was to persuade or convince.
The public forum has its use in the very natural town-meeting, or the powwow of savages. But in Rome it had developed and been refined to a point where the public had no voice, although the boasted forum still existed. The forum was monopolized by the professional orators hired by this political clique or that.
It was about like the political "forum" in America today.
The greatest man in Rome was the man who could put up the greatest talk. So all Roman mammas and matrons had their boys study rhetoric. The father of Seneca had a school of oratory where rich Roman youths were taught to mouth in orotund and gesticulate in curves. He must have been a pretty good teacher, for he had two extraordinary sons, one of whom is mentioned in the Bible, and a most exemplary daughter.
Oratory as an end we now regard as an unworthy art. The first requisite is to feel deeply—to have a message—and then if you are a person of fair intelligence and in good health, you'll impress your hearers. But to hire out to impress people with another's theme is to be a pettifogger, and the genus pettifogger has nearly had his day.
History moves in circles. The Chicago Common Council, weary of rhetoric, has recently declined to listen to paid attorneys; but any citizen who speaks for himself and his neighbors can come before the Council and state his case.
Chief Justice Fuller has given it as his opinion that there will come a day in America when damage-cases will be taken care of by an automatic tribunal, without the help of lawyers. And as a man fills out a request for a money-order at the Post-Office, so will he file his claim for damages, and it will have attention. The contingent fee will yet be a misdemeanor. Also, it will be possible for plain citizens to be able to go before a Court of Equity and be heard without regard to law and precedent and attorney's quillets and quibbles, which so often hamper justice. Justice should be cheap and easy, instead of costly and complex.
Evidently the Chief Justice had in mind the usages in the time of King Alfred, when the barrister was an employee of the court, and his business was to get the facts and then explain them to the King in the fewest possible words.
Alfred considered a paid advocate, or even a counselor, as without the pale, and such men were never allowed at court. If the barrister accepted a fee from a man suing for justice, he was disbarred.
Finally, however, the practise of feeing in order to renew the zeal of a barrister grew so that it had to be tolerated, because things we can't suppress we license, and a pocket was placed on each barrister's back between his shoulders where he could not reach it without taking off his gown, and into this pocket clients were allowed slyly to slip such gratuities as they could afford.
But the general practise of the client paying the barrister, instead of the court, was not adopted for several hundred years later, and then it was regarded as an expeditious move to keep down litigation and punish the client for being fool enough not to settle his own troubles.
In England the rudimentary pocket still survives, like the buttons on the back of a coat, which were once used to support the sword-belt.
In America we have done away with wigs and gowns for attorneys, but attorneys are still regarded as attaches of the court, even though one-half of them, according to Judge DeCourcy of Boston, are engaged most of the time in attempts to bamboozle and befog the judge and jury and defeat the ends of justice. Likewise, we still use the word "Court," signifying the place where lives royalty, even for the dingy office of a country J. P., where sawdust spittoons are the bric-a-brac and patent-office reports loom large, and justice is dispensed with. We now also commonly call the man "the Court."
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Alfred was filled with a desire to educate, and to this end organized a school at the Ox Ford, where his friend Asser taught. This school was the germ of the University of Oxford. Attached to this school was a farm, where the boys were taught how to sow and plant and reap to the best advantage. Here they also bred and raised horses and cattle, and the care of livestock was a part of the curriculum. It was the first College of Agriculture.
It comes to us as somewhat of a surprise to see how we are now going back to simplicity, and the agricultural college is being given the due and thoughtful consideration which it deserves. Twenty years ago our agricultural college was considered more or less of a joke, but now that which adds greatly to the wealth of the nation, and the happiness and well-being of the people, is looked upon as worthy of our support and highest respect.
Up to the time of Alfred, England had no navy. For the government to own ships seemed quite preposterous, since the people had come to England to stay, and were not marauders intent on exploitation and conquest, like the Norsemen.
But after Alfred had vanquished the Danes and they had settled down as citizens, he took their ships, refitted them, built more and said: "No more marauders shall land on these shores. If we are threatened we will meet the enemy on the sea."
In a few years along came a fleet of marauding Norse. The English ships on the lookout gave the alarm, and England's navy put out to meet them. The enemy were taken by surprise, and the fate that five hundred years later was to overtake the Spanish Armada, was theirs.
From that time to this, England has had a navy that has gradually grown in power.
Let no one imagine that peace and rest came to Alfred. His life was a battle, for not only did he have to fight the Danes, but he had to struggle with ignorance, stupidity and superstition at home. To lead men out of captivity is a thankless task. They always ask when you take away their superstition, "What are you going to give us in return?" They do not realize that superstition is a disease, and that to give another disease in return is not nice, necessary or polite.
Alfred died, at the age of fifty-two, worn out with his ceaseless labors of teaching, building, planning, inventing and devising methods and means for the betterment and benefit of his people.
After his death, the Danes were successful, and Canute became King of England. But he was proud to be called an Englishman, and declared he was no longer a Dane.
And so England captured him.
Then came the Norman William, claiming the throne by right of succession, and successfully battling for it; but the English people reckoned the Conqueror as of their own blood—their kith and kin—and so he was. He issued an edict forbidding any one to call him or his followers "Norman," "Norse" or "Norsemen," and declared there was a United England. And so he lived and died an Englishman; and after him no ruler, these nine hundred years, has ever sat on the throne of the Engles by right of conquest.
Both Canute and William recognized and prized the worth of Alfred's rule. The virtues of Alfred are the virtues that have made it possible for the Teutonic tribes to girdle the globe. It was Alfred who taught the nobility of industry, service, education, patience, loyalty, persistence, and the faith and hope that abide. By pen, tongue, and best of all by his life, Alfred taught the truths which we yet hold dear. And by this sign shall ye conquer!
We see not a few mortals who, striving to emulate this divine virtue with more zeal than success, fall into a feeble and disjointed loquacity, obscuring the subject and burdening the wretched ears of their hearers with a vacant mass of words and sentences crowded together beyond all possibility of enjoyment. And writers who have tried to lay down the principles of this art have gained no other result than to display their own poverty while expounding abundance.
—Erasmus on "Preaching"
Erasmus was born in Fourteen Hundred Sixty-six, and died in Fifteen Hundred Thirty-six. No thinker of his time influenced the world more. He stood at a pivotal point, and some say he himself was the intellectual pivot of the Renaissance.
The critics of the times were unanimous in denouncing him—which fact recommends him to us.
Several Churchmen, high in power, live in letters for no other reason than because they coupled their names with that of Erasmus by reviling him. Let the critics take courage—they may outwit oblivion yet, even though they do nothing but carp. Only let them be wise, and carp, croak, cough, cat-call and sneeze at some one who is hitching his wagon to a star. This way immortality lies. Erasmus was a monk who flocked by himself, and found diversion in ridiculing monkery. Also, he was the wisest man of his day. Wisdom is the distilled essence of intuition, corroborated by experience. Learning is something else. Usually, the learned man is he who has delved deep and soared high. But few there be who dive, that fish the murex up. Among those who soar, the ones who come back and tell us of what they have seen, are few. Like Lazarus, they say nothing.
Erasmus had a sense of humor. Humor is a life-preserver and saves you from drowning when you jump off into a sea of sermons. A theologian who can not laugh is apt to explode—he is very dangerous. Erasmus, Luther, Beecher, Theodore Parker, Roger Williams, Joseph Parker—all could laugh. Calvin, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards never gurgled in glee, nor chortled softly at their own witticisms—or those of others.
Erasmus smiled. He has been called the Voltaire of his day. What Rousseau was to Voltaire, Luther was to Erasmus. Well did Diderot say that Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched. Erasmus wrote for the educated, the refined, the learned—Luther made his appeal to the plain and common mind.
Luther split the power of the Pope. Erasmus thought it a calamity to do so, because he believed that strife of sects tended to make men lose sight of the one essential in religion—harmony—and cause them simply to struggle for victory. Erasmus wanted to trim the wings of the papal office and file its claws—Luther would have destroyed it. Erasmus considered the Church a very useful and needful organization—for social reasons. It tended to regulate life and conduct and made men "decentable." It should be a school of ethics, and take a leading part in every human betterment. Man being a gregarious animal, the congregation is in the line of natural desire. The excuse for gathering together is religion—let them gather. The Catholic Church is not two thousand years old—it is ten thousand years old and goes back to Egypt. The birth of Jesus formed merely a psychosis in the Church's existence.
Here he parted company with Luther, who was a dogmatist and wanted to debate his ninety-five theses. Erasmus laughed at all religious disputations and called them mazes that led to cloudland. Very naturally, people said he was not sincere, since the mediocre mind never knows that only the paradox is true. Hence Erasmus was hated by Catholics and denounced by Protestants.
The marvel is that the men with fetters and fagots did not follow him with a purpose. Fifty years later he would have been snuffed out. But at that time Rome was so astonished to think that any one should criticize her that she lost breath. Besides, it was an age of laughter, of revolt, of contests of wit, of love-bouts and love-scrapes, and the monks who lapsed were too many to discipline. Everybody was busy with his own affairs. Happy time!
Erasmus was part and parcel of the Italian Renaissance. Over his head blazes, in letters that burn, the unforgetable date, Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two. He was a part of the great unrest, and he helped cause the great unrest. Every great awakening, every renaissance, is an age of doubt. An age of conservatism is an age of moss, of lichen, of rest, rust and ruin. We grow only as we question. As long as we are sure that the present order is perfect, we button our collars behind, a thing which Columbus, Luther, Melanchthon, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Gutenberg, who all lived at this one time, never did. The year of Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two, like the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six, was essentially "infidelic," just as the present age is constructively iconoclastic. We are tearing down our barns to build greater. The railroadman who said, "I throw an engine on the scrap-heap every morning before breakfast," expressed a great truth. We are discarding bad things for good ones, and good things for better ones.
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Rotterdam has the honor of being the birthplace of Erasmus. A storm of calumny was directed at him during his life concerning the irregularity of his birth. "He had no business to be born at all," said a proud prelate, as he gathered his robes close around his prebendal form. But souls knock at the gates of life for admittance, and the fact that a man exists is proof of his right to live. The word "illegitimate" is not in the vocabulary of God. If you do not know that, you have not read His instructive and amusing works.
The critics variously declared the mother of Erasmus was a royal lady, a physician's only daughter, a kitchen-wench, a Mother Superior—all according to the prejudices preconceived. In one sense she was surely a Mother Superior—let the lies neutralize one another.
The fact is, we do not know who the mother of Erasmus was. All we know is that she was the mother of Erasmus. Here history halts. Her son once told Sir Thomas More that she was married to a luckless nobody a few months after the birth of her first baby, and amid the cares of raising a goodly brood of nobodies on a scant allowance of love and rye-bread, she was glad to forget her early indiscretions. Not so the father. The debated question of whether a man really has any parental love is answered here.
The father of Erasmus was Gerhard von Praet, and the child was called Gerhard Gerhards—or the son of Gerhard. The father was a man of property and held office under the State. At the time of the birth of the illustrious baby, Gerhard von Praet was not married, and it is reasonable to suppose that the reason he did not wed the mother of his child was because she belonged to a different social station. In any event the baby was given the father's name, and every care and attention was paid the tiny voyager. This father was as foolish as most fond mothers, for he dreamed out a great career for the motherless one, and made sundry prophecies.
At six years of age the child was studying Latin, when he should have been digging in a sand-pile. At eight he spoke Dutch and French, and argued with his nurse in Greek as to the value of buttermilk.
In the meantime the father had married and settled down in honorable obscurity as a respectable squire. Another account has it that he became a priest. Anyway, the little maverick was now making head alone in a private school.
When the lad was thirteen the father died, leaving a will in which he provided well for the child. The amount of property which by this will would have belonged to our hero when he became of age would have approximated forty thousand dollars.
Happily, the trustees of the fund were law-wolves. They managed to break the will, and then they showed the court that the child was a waif, and absolutely devoid of legal rights of any and every kind. He was then committed to an orphan asylum to be given "a right religious education." It's a queer old world, Terese, and what would have become of Gerhard Gerhards had he fallen heir to his father's titles and estate, no man can say. He might have accumulated girth and become an honored burgomaster. As it was he became powder-monkey to a monk, and scrubbed stone floors and rushed the growler for cowled and pious prelates.
Then he did copying for the Abbe, and proved himself a boy from Missouri Valley.
He was small, blue-eyed, fair-haired, slender, slight, with a long nose and sharp features. "With this nose," said Albrecht Durer, many years later, "he successfully hunted down everything but heresy."
At eighteen he became a monk and proudly had his flaxen poll tonsured. His superior was fond of him, and prophesied that he would become a bishop or something.
Children do not suffer much, nor long. God is good to them. They slide into an environment and accept it. This child learned to dodge the big bare feet of the monks—got his lessons, played a little, worked his wit against their stupidity, and actually won their admiration—or as much of it as men who are alternately ascetics and libertines can give.
It was about this time that the lad was taunted with having no name. "Then I'll make one for myself," was his proud answer.
Having entered now upon his novitiate, he was allowed to take a new name, and being dead to the world, the old one was forgotten.
They called him Brother Desiderius, or the Desired One. He then amended this Latin name with its Greek equivalent, Erasmus, which means literally the Well-Beloved. As to his pedigree, or lack of it, he was needlessly proud. It set him apart as different. He had half-brothers and half-sisters, and these he looked upon as strangers. When they came to see him, he said, "There is no relationship between souls save that of the spirit."
His sense of wit came in when he writes to a friend: "Two parents are the rule; no parents the exception; a mother but no father is not uncommon; but I had a father and never had a mother. I was nursed by a man, and educated by monks, all of which shows that women are more or less of a superfluity in creation. God Himself is a man. He had one son, but no daughters. The cherubim are boys. All of the angels are masculine, and so far as Holy Writ informs us, there are no women in heaven."
That it was a woman, however, to whom Erasmus wrote this, lets him out on the severity of the argument. He was a joker. And while women did not absorb much of his time, we find that on his travels he often turned aside to visit with intellectual women—no other kind interested him, at all.
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To belong to a religious order is to be owned by it. You trade freedom for protection. The soul of Erasmus revolted at life in a monastery. He hated the typical monks—their food, their ways of life, their sophistry, their stupidity. To turn glutton and welcome folly as a relief from religion, he said, was the most natural thing in the world, when men had once started in to lead an unnatural life. Good food, daintily served, only goes with a co-ed mental regimen. Men eat with their hands, out of a pot, unless women are present to enforce the decencies. Women alone are a little more to be pitied than men alone, if 't were possible.
Through emulation does the race grow. Sex puts men and women on their good behavior.
Man's desire for power has caused him to enslave himself. Writes Erasmus, "In a monastery, no one is on his good behavior, except when there are visitors, but I am told that this is so in families."
The greasy, coarse cooking brought on a nice case of dyspepsia for poor Erasmus—a complaint from which he was never free as long as he lived. His system was too fine for any monastic general trough, but he found a compensation in having his say at odd times and sundry. At one time we hear of his printing on a card this legend, "If I owned hell and a monastery, I would sell the monastery and reside in hell." Thereby did Erasmus supply General Tecumseh Sherman the germ of a famous orphic. Sherman was a professor in a college at Baton Rouge before the War, and evidently had moused in the Latin classics to a purpose.
Connected with the monastery where Erasmus lived was a printing-outfit. Our versatile young monk learned the case, worked the ink-balls, manipulated the lever, and evidently dispelled, in degree, the monotony of the place by his ready pen and eloquent tongue. When he wrote, he wrote for his ear. All was tested by reading the matter aloud. At that time great authors were not so wise or so clever as printers, and it fell to the lot of Erasmus to improve upon the text of much of the copy that was presented.
Erasmus learned to write by writing; and among modern prose-writers he is the very first who had a distinct literary style. His language is easy, fluid, suggestive. His paragraphs throw a shadow, and are pregnant with meaning beyond what the lexicon supplies. This is genius—to be bigger than your words.
If Erasmus had been possessed of a bit more patience and a jigger of diplomacy, he would have been in line for a bishopric. That thing which he praised so lavishly, Folly, was his cause of failure and also his friend.
At twenty-six he was the best teacher and the most clever scholar in the place. Also, he was regarded as a thorn in the side of the monkery, since he refused to take it seriously. He protested that no man ever became a monk of his own accord—he was either thrust into a religious order by unkind kinsmen or kicked into it by Fate.
And then comes the Bishop of Cambray, with an attack of literary scabies, looking for a young religieux who could correct his manuscript. The Bishop was going to Paris after important historical facts, and must have a competent secretary. Only a proficient Latin and Greek scholar would do. The head of the monastery recommended Erasmus, very much as Artemus Ward volunteered all of his wife's relatives for purposes of war.
Andrew Carnegie once, when about to start for Europe, said to his ironmaster, Bill Jones, "I am never so happy or care-free, Bill, as when on board ship, headed for Europe, and the shores of Sandy Hook fade from sight."
And Bill solemnly replied, "Mr. Carnegie, I can truthfully say for myself and fellow-workers, that we are never so happy and care-free as when you are on board ship, headed for Europe."
Very properly Mr. Carnegie at once raised Bill's salary five thousand a year.
The Carthusian Brothers parted with Erasmus in pretended tears, but the fact was they were more relieved than bereaved.
And then began the travels of Erasmus.
The Bishop was of middle age, with a dash of the cavalier in his blood, which made him prefer a saddle to the cushions of a carriage. And so they started away on horseback, the Bishop ahead, followed at a discreet distance by Erasmus, his secretary; and ten paces behind with well-loaded panniers, rode a servant as rearguard.
To be free and face the world and on a horse! Erasmus lifted up his heart in a prayer of gratitude. He said that it was the first feeling of thankfulness he had ever experienced, and it was the first thing which had ever come to him worth gratitude.
And so they started for Paris.
Erasmus looked back and saw the monastery, where he had spent ten arduous years, fade from view.
It was the happiest moment he had ever known. The world lay beyond.
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The Bishop of Cambray introduced Erasmus to a mode of life for which he was eminently fitted. It consisted in traveling, receiving honors, hospitality and all good things in a material way, and giving his gracious society in return. Doors flew open on the approach of the good Bishop. Everywhere he went a greeting was assured. He was a Churchman—that was enough. Erasmus shared in the welcomes, for he was handsome in face and figure, had a ready tongue, and could hold his own with the best.
Europe was then dotted with monasteries, nunneries and other church institutions. Their remains are seen there yet—one is really never out of sight of a steeple. But the exclusive power of the Church is gone, and in many places there are only ruins where once were cloisters, corridors, chapels, halls and gardens teeming with life and industry.
The "missions" of California were founded on the general plan of the monasteries of Europe. They afforded a lodging for the night—a resting-place for travelers—and were a radiatory center of education—at least all of the education that then existed.